The Dialogue of Solomon and Marcolphus was first published in English in Antwerp in 1492 as an anonymous translation of an anonymous Latin jestbook, the origins of which go back at least to the twelfth century. As literature it is by no means of the noblest order, but it is entertaining in the extreme, and it is this feature which no doubt accounted for its long success through several centuries of manuscript transmission. In the first part a crafty peasant named Marcolphus defeats the wisest king in history in a proverbs contest, and in the second part goes on to play a dozen knavish tricks on the ever-gullible sovereign, forming what is arguably the earliest jest cycle in western literature. Such was the book chosen for presentation to the early book-buying English public, presumably in anticipation of meeting their tastes in reading. Just what this book is and where it came from is the subject of a long critical and historical introduction; a proverb collection from the dawn of western literature, a trickster book written before Tyl Eulenspiegel, vestiges of an ancient Solomonic wisdom contest tradition, a carnivalesque production of the ecclesiastical schools, a series of enacted riddles, a study in parody? Who indeed was Marcolphus, and what is his destiny generally in European literature and iconography? Not all of the answers are in, but those that are raise many surprises.
Donald Beecher is Professor of English at Carleton University. Among his other
publications are The Farewell to Military Profession of Barabe Riche
(in this series), translations of several Renaissance plays, a critical edition
of Ferrand’s Treatise on Lovesickness, and some 30 editions
of early music. He is currently editing Lodge’s Rosalind for
the Riche Society.