Iconic books

The Lamenting Lady


… my bigg sweld wombe

     delivered forth in feare

As many children at one time

     as daies were in the yeare:

In bignesse all like new bred mice,

     yet each one shap'd aright,

And every male from female knowne,

     by Gods great power and might.


My husband hereat grieved much,

     with inward cares and woe,

And knew not in what place he should

     these pretty ympes bestowe:

The strange report of this rare birth

     made people much admire,

And of the truth thereof to know

     the neighbours did desire.


Which caus'd my sorrowes still increase

     being made my Countryes scorne,

I wish'd I had in child-bed dyed

     before they had beene borne:

Then had this shame unto my friends

     beene never seene nor knowne,

Nor I in Countries farre and neere

     a wonder thus be showne.


The Lamenting Lady’, Cambridge, Magdalene College, Pepys Library, Pepys Ballads 1.44-45, EBBA 20210. http://ebba.english.ucsb.edu/ballad/20210/

Thus the voice of the daughter of a medieval count of Holland could be heard to sing in the streets of Jacobean London. On Good Friday in the year 1276, Margaret, Countess of Hennenberg, gave birth to 364 (some versions have 365) children. The countess died soon after, as did all her offspring once they had been baptized. A commemorative plaque, telling the story in Dutch and in Latin, together with the two basins in which the children had been baptized, can still be seen on one of the walls of the abbey church of the South Holland town of Loosduinen, near The Hague, where the countess and her children had been laid to rest. From soon after the countess’s death, the story of the marvellous birth, baptism and death of her children was recounted in many chronicles, differing in detail, but agreeing on the broad outline. It became popular in England, too: already in 1523, Erasmus referred to it in a work dedicated to his friend Thomas More; the Italian traveller Ludovico Guicciardini, whose description of the Netherlands was published in English in 1593, referred to it; the broadside ballad, sold c.1620 at London Bridge, stated that ‘in remembrance’ of the marvellous occurrence, ‘there is now a monument built in the city of Loosduinen, as many Englishmen now living in Loosduinen, can truly testify’.


Object: The opening page of Anthony Munday’s ‘A Briefe Chronologicall Survay, concerning the Netherlands’, part of his A Briefe Chronicle (London, 1611). The story of the Countess of Hennenberg is included in this work, which is, in effect, a short chronicle of the medieval County of Holland. Oxford, Bodleian Library, Douce MM 214.

In 1611, Anthony Munday, playwright, translator, and sometime chronicler, recorded a version of the story in his Briefe Chronicle of the Successe of Times, from the Creation of the World, to This Instant. Rather than a single chronicle, this work is, in fact, a series of short chronicles, gathered from various sources, moving from the universal to the specific. It commences with Biblical, and concludes with English, and more specifically London civic history, which it reaches via a succession of chronicles, thematically increasingly more limited, and geographically moving towards the British isles. Thus, after Biblical history, there are chronicles of classical Persian, Greek and Roman history as well as Syriac and Egyptian; then follow the Eastern and Western Roman empires, the Ottoman empire, followed by the Papacy, the crusader Orders; then Ethiopia, Persia, Tunis, Moscovia, Poland, Portugal, Italy, Venice, Spain, Germany, France. Before the leap across the North Sea is made, and the work is concluded with chronicles of Ireland, Scotland, England and London, the final chronicle concerning an area of continental Europe is devoted to the Netherlands. While presented as a history of the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands, i.e., the Imperial States of the Habsburg Netherlands, the focus is clearly on the United Provinces; and up to the most recent century, encompassing the lion’s share of the text of the chronicle, its subject matter is even much more restricted than that: in fact, Munday’s ‘Briefe Chronologicall Survay, concerning the Netherlands’ is a chronicle of the medieval County of Holland. Munday summarized this short chronicle from a recently published English translation of a late 16th-century French translation of an early-sixteenth century Dutch chronicle – while the Netherlands and the South of England were closely connected via the North Sea, the Countess of Hennenberg had indeed made some detours before finding herself in Munday’s work. And in 2010, she journeyed back across the North Sea from England to the Netherlands once more, when the Amsterdam ensemble Hexnut performed a modern arrangement of The Lamenting Lady, which can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Bg_LNht93I

The story of the Countess of Hennenberg exemplifies the way in which historical narratives of the Middle Ages could be told and retold far into the Early Modern period, and shared between Britain and the Dutch Low Countries. It also shows how preoccupations in one could influence perceptions in the other: Munday’s exclusive focus on the County of Holland as a stand-in for the medieval history of the Dutch Low Countries at large was suggested to him by his sources, and stemmed from late sixteenth-century Dutch approaches to regional history. The narrative of the Countess of Hennenberg, meanwhile, had such an appeal that it was retold, as well as sung, in English on several occasions independent from each other (sometimes even several times in the same year: the same year that Munday published his version, Thomas Coryat also included it in his Curiosities). An old abbey church in Holland could thus become a destination for English travellers – not quite of pilgrimage, for travellers from one to another Protestant country, but at least of curious tourism. The links forged by such tourism further strengthened those already existing through migrant communities: the broadside ballad mentions Englishmen living in Loosduinen itself, while just north of London Bridge, where the ballad was sold, was Austin Friars, the Dutch church around which a large community of Netherlanders congregated. 


Text: The wonderful birth of 365. Children – this History is avouched for a truth by divers good Authors 

From: Anthony Munday, A Briefe Chronicle, of the Successe of Times (London, 1611), pp. 394–6.

Floris the fourth, succéeded his Father Count William in his Earledomes. … This Count Floris hadde a Daughter, named Mathilde, or Margaret, as some call her, who was married to Count Herman of Henneberg; She despising a poore Widdow, that desired her almes upon urgent necessity, holding in either arme a swéete young childe, both which, God hath sent her at one birth, gave her very reproachfull words beside, as, that shee could not be honest of her bodie, and (by her husband) have two children lawfully begotten. The poore Woman, grieving to be rejected in such extreame want and néede, but much more, to heare her reputation so néerely touched, knowing her soule cleare from all dishonest detection, made no further suite to the Lady, but (falling uppon her knées) appealed to God for defence of her Innocency, and earnestly desired, that as shee had conceived, & borne those two infants lawfully by her husband, even so, if ever that Lady should be subject to the custom of women, that it would please him, to send hir as many children at one birth, as there were dayes in the years. Not long after, the Lady conceived with child by her husband, & (for hir deliverance) went into Holland, to visit the earl hir brother, taking up lodging in the Abbey of religious women at Losdunen, and grew so excéeding great, as the like had never before bin séene. When her time came, on the Friday before Palm-sunday, in the yeare 1276. shee was delivered of 365. children, the one halfe being sons, and the other daughters: but the odde child was an Hermaphrodite, and they were all wel shaped & proportioned in their little members. These children were laid in two Basins, and were all baptized by Guydon, Suffragan to the Bish. of Utrecht, who named al the sonnes John, and the Daughters Elizabeth, but what name he gave the Hermaphrodite, is not recorded. They were no sooner baptized, but they all died, and the Mother also. The two Basins are yet to be séene in the saide Church of Losdunen, and a memory of them, both in Latine & Dutch. The Latine beginning thus. Margareta, Comitis Hennebergiæ vxor, & Florentij Hollandiæ & Zelandiæ filia, &c.

Vnderneath are these verses:

  En tibi monstrosum & memorabile factum,

  Quale nec à mundi conditione datum.


See further:

Bondeson, J., ‘The Countess Margaret of Hennenberg and her 365 Children’, Journal of the Royal Historical Society 89 (1996), pp. 711-16.

Levelt, S., ‘Anthony Munday’s “Briefe Chronologicall Suruay Concerning the Netherlands” and the Medieval Chronicle Tradition of Holland in the Early Modern Period: Introduction and Edition’, in E. Kooper and S. Levelt (eds.), The Medieval Chronicle XI (Leiden: Brill, 2017), pp. 258–96.

Levelt, S., Jan van Naaldwijk’s Chronicles of Holland: Continuity and Transformation in the Historical Tradition of Holland during the Early Sixteenth Century (Hilversum: Verloren, 2011), pp. 118–20.


Ysengrimus and Reynard the Fox: Anglo-Dutch Relations as Context for the Reynard Tradition: Part One


Part 1: Ysengrimus 

Written by Sjoerd Levelt

[Deze blogpost is gebaseerd op een recent in het Nederlands gepubliceerd artikel van Ad Putter, Elisabeth van Houts, Sjoerd Levelt en Moreed Arbabzadah, that hier te lezen is.]

                                 The dokes cryden as men wolde hem quelle;

                                 The gees for feere flowen over the trees;

                                 Out of the hyve cam the swarm of bees.

                                 So hydous was the noyse – a, benedicitee! –

                                 Certes, he Jakke Straw and his meynee

                                 Ne made nevere shoutes half so shrille,

                                 Whan that they wolden any Flemyng kille,

                                 As thilke day was maad upon the fox.

                                                            Geoffrey Chaucer, The Nun’s Priest’s Tale

In his only reference to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, Chaucer mentions specifically the targeted killing of Flemings. Such killings indeed took place, and Chaucer is not the only one to mention them; a contemporary chronicler, mentioning in particular the linguistic difference between the English rebels and their Dutch-speaking victims, describes how ‘many fflemmynges loste here heedes at that tyme, and namely they that koude nat say breede and chese, but case and brode’.


– John Stow, The Chronicles of England from Brute vnto this Present Yeare of Christ (London, 1580), p. 482 (copy at the Folger Shakespeare Library, from Early English Books Online)

The reference to Flemings by Chaucer in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, however, was especially appropriate in another way: the tale is a retelling of elements from the rich medieval narrative tradition about the sly fox Reynard – and this tradition itself was repeatedly marked by contacts between Dutch and English speakers.

While the late sixteenth and the seventeenth century are justly recognized as an era of intense cooperation and rivalry between England and the Low Countries, the ‘Glorious Revolution’ that put a Dutchman on the English throne in 1689 was actually a ‘Glorious Evolution’, with deep roots in earlier exchanges between English and Dutch speakers. Our project, The Literary Heritage of Anglo-Dutch Relations, c.1050–1600, supported by a Project Grant from the Leverhulme Trust, is the first to study the impact of those relations on English and Dutch literature of the period. There is therefore special reason for us to pay attention to Reynard the Fox: Reynard is one of the literary characters whose world stretched across two sides of the North Sea – every time the fox shows its snout, Anglo-Dutch contacts follow in its tail. And conversely, our approach, revisiting English and Dutch literary texts with attention to their context of Anglo-Dutch relations, can lead to new insights for the study of the Reynard tradition. In the first published output of our project, an article in Tiecelijn, the journal of the Reynaertgenootschap (Reynard Society), we focus on two texts from this tradition: the Latin Ysengrimus and the Middle English Reynard the Fox by William Caxton. The full article, by Ad Putter, Elisabeth van Houts, Sjoerd Levelt and Moreed Arbabzadah, can be read here, in Dutch. Pending an expanded English version of the article which we plan to publish elsewhere, I will give a brief overview here. Caxton’s Reynard the Fox, the first printed English Reynard text, was a direct translation from Dutch, and it is therefore no surprise that taking into account its Anglo-Dutch context can lead to a better understanding of the work – as we will propose in part 2 of this post. But also for Ysengrimus, the oldest surviving Reynard text from Flanders, eye for its Anglo-Dutch context can lead to new insights.

Ysengrimus (c.1148-1150)

Ysengrimus, a Latin poem written in Flanders circa 1148-50, is a satirical epic about the wolf Ysengrimus and his nemesis Reinardus, the fox. Its author brought together elements from Classical literature, folk traditions, and recent events. The name ‘Isengrim’ had been used for wolves before the text: Guibert of Nogent (c.1114) tells that bishop Waldrik of Laon, who himself had lived in England, used it as a nickname for one of his eventual murderers. One way in which Ysengrimus is relevant to the impact of Anglo-Dutch relations on literature is that the work may have served as inspiration for another animal epic, the Speculum stultorum by Nigel de Longchamp of Canterbury (c.1170-80).

But the text itself also carries the traces of Anglo-Dutch relations, in the way it pokes fun at the English. It is worth taking into account that in the period immediately preceding the time Ysengrimus was written, significant numbers of Flemish mercenaries (of low social standing) had fought in England during the Anarchy. In fact, the text is a rich source for the investigation of mid-twelfth century Flemish attitudes toward the English, where the latter are presented as socially inferior to Flemings. The unflatteringly described pig Baltero, for example, is said to be an Anglicus ybris, ‘a hybrid Englishman’. The phrase points at an important dimension of Anglo-Dutch relations, namely sexual relations between Dutch and English speakers – an often neglected, yet unsurprising occurrence when, for example, considering the presence of Flemish immigrants and soldiers in England throughout the period.

Better known is the way in which the author, on several occasions, ridicules Englishmen as having tails; the most recent editor of the text, Jill Mann, has suggested that this running gag was inspired by the etymological link between cauda (‘tail’) and caudatus (‘cowardly’). Supporting this reading is that when Reynard and Isengrim meet, the wolf accuses the fox of being as wild as a Brabander, and as cowardly as an Englishman – the poem’s author indulging in a sense of Flemish superiority toward both England and Brabant. From the Norman Conquest, the English had been known on the Continent to wear their hair longer than their continental contemporaries – and an association with characteristics considered to be effeminate was made, further reinforcing the etymological link to cowardice. Ysengrimus shows that such associations had lost none of their original force a century later. It is noteworthy that the English and their supposed tails remained a trope in Dutch literature far into the early modern period. In the next part of this post, we will see how not only interpersonal relations, but also Anglo-Dutch bilingualism impacted on literature.

‘Britons are not valiant in fighting, nor faithful in peace talks; they can braid beautiful words but hold their tail in their sleeve.’ From: Nederlandtsche nyp-tang (1652) (copy at Universiteitsbibliotheek Groningen, from Google Books)


Ysengrimus and Reynard the Fox: Anglo-Dutch Relations as Context for the Reynard Tradition: Part Two


Part 2: William Caxton’s Reynard the Fox 

Written by Sjoerd Levelt

[Deze blogpost is gebaseerd op een recent in het Nederlands gepubliceerd artikel van Ad Putter, Elisabeth van Houts, Sjoerd Levelt en Moreed Arbabzadah, that hier te lezen is.]

The previous post described how relations between English and Dutch speakers impacted on the oldest surviving text about Reynard the Fox written in Flanders. Here, we will see how our understanding of the first printed English Reynard text is improved by reading it as a product of Anglo-Dutch contact. These posts are based on a recent publication from our project that can be read here, in Dutch.

Caxton’s History of Reynard the Fox (1481)

The History of Reynard the Fox was printed by William Caxton in 1481, in Westminster. While the character of the sly fox had been widespread in England – found in wood carving and illuminated manuscripts, and used in sermons – there are only two Reynard texts in English predating Caxton’s: The Fox and the Wolf (c.1220) and Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale (c.1390) from the Canterbury Tales. It is quite possible that French texts about Reynard satisfied the market for such animal epic in the thirteenth and fourteenth century; both Middle English texts are themselves based on French originals. It is worth noting, however, that The Fox and the Wolf shows dialectal signs of an origin in Kent – an area of England with particularly strong ties to the Dutch Low Countries.


Detail of a bas-de-page scene of a fox, with a mitre and a pastoral staff, preaching to several birds.

London, British Library, Royal 2 B VII (‘Queen Mary Psalter’), fol. 157v. [http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/record.asp?MSID=6467&CollID=16&NStart=20207]

With Caxton’s Reynard, things change: the edition itself was a commercial success, being reprinted and revised by Caxton himself, and remaining in circulation in new successive editions throughout the sixteenth century and later. And unlike the previous two texts, Caxton’s Reynard was not based on a French original, but translated from Dutch: its source was a Middle Dutch prose text, Reynaerts historie (‘Reynard’s History’), which had been printed only recently, in 1479, by Gerard Leeu of Gouda. To see how Caxton came to translate a Dutch text into English, how he came to be able to do so, we need to look at his biography – about which we are informed by his own comments, in his introduction to the first work he published in English, The Receuyell of the Historyes of Troye, itself a translation from French. Here, Caxton asks his readers to excuse him for his limited skill both in French and English, for the ‘symplenes and vnperfightnes that I had in bothe langages, that is to wete in frenshe and in englissh. For in france was I never and was born and lerned myn englissh in kent in the weeld where I doubt not is spoken as brode and rude englissh as in ony place of englond, & have contynued by the space of .XXX. yere for the most part in the contres of Braband, flandres, holand, and zeland’ (‘how simply and imperfectly I express myself in both languages, I mean French and English. For I have never been to France, and I was born and learned my English in Kent in the Weald where I have no doubt as broad and rude English is spoken as in any place in England, and I spent the most part of thirty years in the countries of Brabant, Flanders, Holland and Zeeland’).

The Weald, in Kent, was an area that saw significant immigration from Brabant and Flanders in the fourteenth century (and later), and as such, Caxton will have encountered Dutch speakers in his youth; in fact, due to similarities between the two, speakers of the local English dialect in Kent will have found it easier to understand and make themselves understood by speakers of Dutch than speakers of other English dialects would. Caxton himself, following an apprenticeship with a prominent London merchant, became engaged in trade with the Dutch Low Countries – from the 1440s being connected primarily to Bruges, where he settled and eventually became governor of the Company of Merchant Adventurers of London. He spent time in Antwerp, Middelburg and Utrecht, and briefly lived in Cologne, where he started his involvement in printing. In c.1473, probably in Ghent, he began his own press, publishing the first printed book in English, The Receuyell of the Historyes of Troye – which he dedicated to Margaret of Burgundy, wife of Duke Charles the Bold (also known as Margaret of York, sister to the English kings Edward IV and Richard III); he subsequently set up his press in Bruges (1474-1475), before returning to England to establish its first press, in 1476, at Westminster, after having spent three decades or more in the Low Countries.

The History of Reynard the Fox, published in 1481, and therefore in England, has received much negative critical attention focused on the quality of its translation, and Caxton’s regular use of Dutch words has led scholars to see the translation as rushed and careless. The language does raise eyebrows: ‘Yf the fox will telle how it byfel, I wyl gyve hym the fordele thereof, for I can not telle it so wel but he shal beryspe me’ – the words ‘fordele’ and ‘beryspe’ (‘chide’) here are easier to understand to modern speakers of Dutch than those of English; and the latter, indeed, reproduces the same word in the source text. The word ‘fordele’, as used here by Caxton to mean ‘privilege’, however, indicates that the situation is not one of mere sloppy translation: Caxton uses it to translate not the Dutch ‘vordele’, but its synonym ‘voorwaerde’ in his source. Caxton’s substitution of one Dutch loan for another in his English translation, is therefore indicative not of careless translation, but of bilingualism: Caxton was a Dutch speaker. This is further confirmed by the fact that other Dutch loans are found in works which Caxton translated from French, such as for example the word spyncop (from the Flemish spinnekop, ‘spider’), a word that occurs in three of Caxton’s works. Such interference between the two closely related languages in Caxton’s usage also provides a potential contributory explanation for peculiarities in Caxton’s orthography – peculiarities which coincide with characteristics found in the Kentish dialect, such as his use of <ie> or <ye> when <e> or <ee> are expected: dierehierhyer fore, etc., and his use of the suffix –nd for the present participle in the Receuyll. The latter peculiarity was archaic in Kentish by Caxton’s time; the principal influence will therefore have been his Flemish.

Anglo-Dutch Literature

The texts discussed in these two posts can justifiably be characterised as Anglo-Dutch literature. Each stems from a milieu coloured by contacts between Dutch and English speakers. In Ysengrimus, a Latin poem from 12th-century Flanders, such relations impress themselves on characterisations of protagonists in the text (a text which itself possibly crossed the North Sea to inspire further literary production). Caxton’s translation of Reynaerts historie, when seen from a perspective of bilingualism, shows itself to be a less slavish translation than has previously often been assumed. Both are products of a literary culture which shaped around the North Sea, in which both languages, Dutch and English, were in contact with each other continuously and responded to each other – and in which contacts between English and Dutch speakers repeatedly were made subject of literary texts.

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