In about 1450, Richard Holland composed The Buke of the Howlet and dedicated it to Elizabeth Dunbar, wife of Archibald Douglas, earl of Moray. Part chanson d'aventure, part complaint, part beast fable, The Howlet is a mixed-genre narrative in which the first-person narrator recounts an event when, wandering in May-time delight, he overheard and observed an owl. Dissatisfied with his appearance, the owl complained against the goddess Nature for making him monstrous and appealed for redress to the peacock, the pope of birds. Sympathetic but unwilling to act unilaterally, the peacock called a gathering of ecclesiastical and secular fowl in a parliament of birds reminiscent of Geoffrey Chaucer's dream vision. The birds heard the owl's case and appealed to Nature herself, who appeared and adjudicated in the owl's favor, calling forth each bird to offer the owl a feather. Newly molted in borrowed plumage, the owl soon swelled with self-importance and proceeded to denigrate his fellow birds, who then lodged their own complaint. Hearing this second avian outcry, Nature returned, chided the owl for his Lucifer-like pride, and restored the bird to his former less glorious state. Having the last avian word in the poem, the owl drew out a moral--a reminder of life's transience and the need for self control--saying: "We cum pure; we gang pure, baith king and commoun. / Bot þow reule þe richtuis, þi rovme sall orere" [we come poor; we leave poor, both king and commoner. Unless you rule yourself justly, your place shall pass away] (983-4).
The Buke of the Howlet is an important Scots poem on many levels. A satire of courtly life in its beast-fable elements, it is at its center a panegyric praising the Douglas family and its long-standing support of the Scottish kings: it opens a window ever-so-slightly into the world of a powerful Scottish magnate just prior, as it turned out, to that magnate's fall from Royal grace. Noted for being the oldest extant Scots poem in alliterative verse, The Howlet also offers the earliest known instance of the 13-line end-rhyme stanza form Holland employed (and perhaps developed), a form that gained traction among Scots poets in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Further, it exemplifies Scots poetic diction, providing a valuable record of linguistic features from the mid-fifteenth century. And the poem's subsequent book history offers evidence for sixteenth-century reading habits. For these and other reasons, Ralph Hanna's edition of the poem under review here is a welcome addition to The Scottish Text Society's fifth series.
In his introduction to the text, Hanna offers an overview of the current scholarly understanding of the poem, its author, and its place in Scots literary history. Beginning with the sources of the text, Hanna unpacks the poem's three extant witnesses—two full copies and a fragment--all dating from the sixteenth century: a singleton containing some 60 lines from Walter Chepman and Andro Myllar's 1508 printed copy (Cambridge, U.L., Sel. 1.19); "The Asloan Manuscript" copy (Edinburgh, Nat. Lib. of Scot. Ms 16500, fols. 213v-28v); and "The Bannatyne Manuscript" copy (Edinburgh, Nat. Lib. of Scot. Ms Advocates 1.1.6, fols. 302r-10v). As the fragmentary state of the printed text implies (i.e., the printed copies were evidently read to pieces), each of these witnesses point to continuing, even broad, interest in the poem two or more generations after Holland composed it as a member of and for the Douglas household. It is this point in time and place--the Douglas household ca. 1450--to which Hanna next turns in an effort to understand the poem's composition and initial reception. Drawing on linguistic work he developed for his earlier STS edition of The Knightly Tale of Golagros and Gawane, Hanna then focuses on Holland's language--the poet's mid-century use of and even contribution to Scots--before he moves deeper into questions of origin by exploring the poet's literary sources (Odo of Cheriton, Alan of Lille, Chaucer, among others). Discussing Holland's use of alliteration and the seventy-seven 13-line end-rhyme stanzas that constitute the verse, Hanna then reviews the poem's place among Scots alliterative poetry before drawing the introduction to a close by discussing, as he labels it, "Editing the Text (and deciphering Asloan)."
Establishing the edition's text, Hanna uses Asloan as a base and notes variants from the Chepman and Myllar fragment and the Bannatyne copy. Though favoring an almost diplomatic approach to Asloan, he also emends on occasion, and his discussion of handling Asloan (50-7) is in itself instructive in how one might approach a series of sticky editorial problems. The detailed collation of the witnesses following the text provides apparatus for understanding editorial decisions and assessing evidence for oneself. Working through the variants, I find the evidence demonstrates again the sharp focus and judicious approach we have grown accustomed to receive from Hanna's attentive paleographer's eye and careful editing pencil. Fifty-seven pages of useful textual commentary, a full general glossary keyed to line and commentary, a glossary of proper names, and a bibliography supporting the introduction and commentary round out the book's apparatus.
From introduction to bibliography, each section of the book of course serves to support the text itself, which is the project's centerpiece literally and figuratively. Hanna presents the poem in a clear printed text based on a transcription of Asloan using modern word-division, punctuation, and line numbering. As he notes, he silently regularizes a few letter forms (e.g., the double Ff) and marks editorial insertions with brackets and omissions with a '+' sign. In marginal brackets, he also includes folio numbers from the Asloan manuscript. A black-and-white reduced (74%) photographic facsimile of folio 213r, serving as frontispiece to the book, offers a glance at the Asloan manuscript, reminding users of this modern edition of what the text looks like in situ.
This STS book--like all the books in the series--is well made and portable, matching the quality of the editorial work its boards contain. As he has with previous editions of medieval texts, Hanna offers here an edition of Holland's The Buke of the Howlet that promises to serve scholars' and readers' needs for years to come.