Boy and the Mantle, The [Child 29]
DESCRIPTION: A boy enters King Arthur's court wearing a rich mantle. He offers the mantle to whichever woman proves virtuous (the appearance of the mantle will show who is chaste and who is not). Only one woman in the court proves virtuous.
EARLIEST DATE: 1765 (Percy)
KEYWORDS: clothes infidelity magic
REFERENCES (8 citations):
Child 29, "The Boy and the Mantle" (1 text)
Percy/Wheatley III, pp. 3-12, "The Boy and the Mantle" (1 text); cf. pp. 315-323, "The Boy and the Mantle" (a rewritten version)
Flanders-Ancient1, pp. 257-264, "The Boy and the Mantle" (1 text, from "The Charms of Melody" rather than tradition)
Leach, pp. 113-118, "The Boy and the Mantle" (1 text)
OBB 17, "The Boy and the Mantle (A Ballad of King Arthur's Court)" (1 text)
Morgan-Medieval, pp. 89-95, "The Boy and the Mantle" (1 text)
DT 29, BOYMANT1
ADDITIONAL: DIgital Index of Middle English Verse #2627
cf. "The Twa Knights" [Child 268] (theme)
NOTES [847 words]: The custom in Arthur's court of always having an entertainment before dinner (at least on a high day) occurs also in the (somewhat earlier) "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight," Stanza 4 (lines 85-106) -- a story in which, interestingly, it is the *man's* fidelity which comes under attack. We also find a variant on it in "A Gest of Robyn Hode" [Child 117], where Robin and his men ask their involuntary guests for tales.
The contest over women's fidelity is common in folklore; in the Child canon, cf. e.g. "The Twa Knights" [Child 268]. Flanders-Ancient mentions the French fabliau Le Mantel Mautaillie (which is also the first analog mentioned in Child's notes) and von Zatzikhoven's Lanzelet. Garnett/Gosse, volume I, p. 300, also believe this ballad derived from a French fabliau, though they do not specify the particular tale. Lacy, p. 155, notes thematic parallels to The Romance of Sir Corneus of c. 1450.
In Chaucer, we find in the ending of the misogynist Clerk's Tale mention (p. 152, line 1188 in Chaucer/Benson) of the Chichevache, a creature which supposedly ate only virtuous women and hence was always close to starvation (Barbes/Riches, p. 41); the creature was also mentioned by Lydgate.
Lupack, p. 121, notes that Le Mantel has the ladies of Arthur's court try the mantle, "and it fits all of them poorly though in different ways -- ways which are sometimes related, in fairly crude jokes, to the manner of the woman's infidelity."
Child gives extensive Arthurian parallels to what happens in this ballad, but these are so exhaustingly long that he perhaps gives too little attention to other tests of fidelity. The Bible, for instance, offers a rather dreadful example, in which a man who suspected his wife of infidelity (but not a wife who suspected her husband) could haul her before a priest, force her to drink the "water of bitterness" (which was carefully prepared to have a high probability of being full of dangerous bacteria), and wait to see if she got sick. If she did, she was guilty of adultery; if she didn't, she was clear (Numbers 5:11-31). So, apparently, you could fool around all you wanted as long as you had a strong immune system.
And it is true that Arthurian versions are common; Ernest Hoepffner wrote (reprinted on p. 356 of Brengle), "Though stories of chastity tests are spread far and wide, and though the Lay du Cor was not derived directly from the Welsh, it may be significant that all medieval versions of the horn test are set in Arthur's banquet hall, and that the hero bears a name renowed in Wales and Brittany."
A possible source for the early Welsh versions of this tale is found in the Mabinogion, in the tale of Math son of Mathonwy. In the middle of the tale, for complicated reasons, Math and his colleagues need to find a virgin. Gwydion suggests Arianrhod daughter of Don, Math's niece. Math asks if she is a virgin, and she answers "I do not know but that I am" (in the translation of Mabinogion/Gantz, p. 106. The incident is a little less than half way through the story). Math sets his wand on the ground and orders her to step over it to test her. In doing so, she "drops" a child, whom Math arranges to be baptized under the name Dylan; he would later be killed by one of his uncles. Curiously, the rest of the story never seems to come out, but the parallel to the tests of fidelity is clear.
For other examples of a magic device to test fidelity, see the notes to "Bonny Bee Hom" [Child 92].
The theme of the "wise child," who speaks up and challenges authority, is very old. Moore, p. 88, notes a version in the Thousand and One Nights, as well as a Mongolian analog. And the reason that Moore brings it up is that these tales are similar to the story of Susanna in the deuterocanonical/apocryphal addition to the book of Daniel. In that tale, the wise child is Daniel, and he is actually a young man, but it has been speculated that the tale of Daniel's intervention might be based on a "wise child" story. Since the tale of Susanna is known to have been in existence in the second century C.E., and probably was in existence in the first century B.C.E., and the folktale on which it is based is presumably even older, the "wide child" motif must be very ancient indeed -- although it is not absolutely clear that this ballad is derived from any of those other versions.
Incidentally, the Sir Craddoccke (Caradoc) of this song makes a brief appearance in Gilbert and Sullivan: In The Pirates of Penzance, the Modern Major General tells us that "I know our mythic history, King Arthur's and Sir Caradoc's"; one suspects Gilbert got it from Percy (the notes in Gilbert/Sullivan/Bradley, p. 118, appear to contain a reference to this song). Nor is this the only use of the idea in more modern writings; Lupack, pp. 123-124, mentions several retellings of the tale, including an 1844 anonymous American text, "A Romaunt of the Tyme of Gud Kynge Arthur Done Into English from an Authentic Version" which claimed no author except "a Daughter of Eve," plus Stephen Jackson's 1903 "The Magic Mantle." - RBW
Last updated in version 4.2
- Barber/Riches: Richard Barber and Anne Riches, A Dictionary of Fabulous Beasts, Macmillan London, 1971
- Brengle: Richard L. Brengle, Arthur King of Britain: History, Chronicle, Romance & Criticism, Prentice-Hall, 1964
- Chaucer/Benson: Larry D. Benson, general editor, The Riverside Chaucer, third edition, Houghton Mifflin, 1987 (based on F. N. Robinson, The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, which is considered to be the first and second editions of this work)
- Garnett/Gosse: Richard Garnett and Edmund Gosse, English Literature: An Illustrated Record four volumes, MacMillan, 1903-1904 (I used the 1935 edition published in two volumes)
- Gilbert/Sullivan/Bradley: Ian Bradley, editor, The Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan 1, Penguin, 1982 (I use the slightly revised 1985 edition)
- Lacy: Norris J. Lacy, Editor, The Arthurian Encyclopedia, 1986 (I use the 1987 Peter Bedrick paperback edition)
- Lupack: Alan Lupack, The Oxford Guide to Arthurian Literature and Legend, Oxford University Press, 2005 (I use the 2007 paperback edition)
- Mabinogion/Gantz: The Mabionogion, translated [from Welsh] by Jeffrey Gantz, Penguin, 1976
- Moore: Carey A. Moore, Daniel, Esther, and Jeremiah: The Additions, being volume 44 of the Anchor Bible, Doubleday, 1977
Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List
Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography
The Ballad Index Copyright 2018 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.