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Winner and Waster
London, British Library, Additional MS 31042


Winner and Waster is an allegorical debate poem, in alliterative verse, which survives (in a textually corrupt form, and incomplete) in one fifteenth-century manuscript, London, British Library, Additional MS 31042, written by an amateur scribe, the Yorkshire country gentleman Robert Thornton. It is immediately preceded in the MS by another allegorical debate poem, The Parliament of the Three Ages (the two poems are edited together in the TEAMS series by Warren Ginsberg, Wynnere and Wastoure and the Parlement of the Thre Ages (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 1992). This translation is based on the text in the edition by Stephanie Trigg, Wynnere and Wastoure, EETS 297 (London: Oxford University Press, 1990); it offers an approximation to the alliterative verse of the original rather than an exact reproduction of its techniques. The notes provided here are fairly basic, and should be supplemented by the much fuller annotation in Trigg's edition.

Date and origin
Little is known about either. The most likely place of origin is the West Midlands, but the poet was also clearly familiar with London. The use of the Garter motto places the poem after 1348 (when the Order of the Garter was founded by Edward III); and the reference in 317-8 to Sir William Shareshull, who was Chief Justice 1350-61, and died in 1370, suggests that it was written at some point in the period 1352-70, after the passing of the Statute of Labourers (1351) and the Treasons Statute (1352), both designed to reduce civil disorder.

Form and content
The poem is one of the products of what is sometimes called the 'Alliterative Revival', a group of works drawing on a native tradition of alliterative verse, produced mainly in the North and West of England  between the mid-fourteenth century and the early sixteenth century. Its structure reflects two main formal conventions:
1. The tournament, which by this period was not simply a military training exercise, but could also be a form of theatre, drawing on literary narrative (e.g. the stories of Arthur) or enacting allegorical oppositions, whether theological, political, or social (e.g., teams of knights costumed as the Seven Deadly Sins, the Mayor and Aldermen of London, the Pope and his cardinals...)
2. The debate-poem, in which characters representing opposite principles or complexes of qualities (Summer and Winter, Owl and Nightingale, Wine and Water, etc.) argue for their superiority over their opponents.
Many of the details of both the text and the broader narrative have not been satisfactorily explained (or explanations exist, but are mutually exclusive). However, you will find it easier to make sense of the poem if you relate it to the social and economic developments of its time, and in particular the changes that were taking place in the relationship between the knightly class and the rising bourgeoisie; a good starting-point is Christopher Dyer's Standards of Living in the later Middle Ages: Social change in England c. 1200-1520, Cambridge Medieval Textbooks (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

Set up by Bella Millett, enm@soton.ac.uk. Last updated 01 August 2003 .