A Short Analysis of the Medieval Poem ‘Man in the Moon’

A summary of an early English moon poem

‘Mon in the Mone’ (i.e. ‘Man in the Moon’) is a medieval poem dating from the early fourteenth century, a good half a century before Geoffrey Chaucer, the Pearl poet, John Gower, and the Gawain poet all arrived on the scene and English poetry really came into its own. ‘Man in the Moon’ is a baffling and mysterious little lyric, so a brief summary and analysis are provided below. First, though, the poem:

Mon in the mone stond and strit;
On his botforke his burthen he bereth.
It is muche wonder that he na doun slyt;
For doute leste he valle he shoddreth ant shereth.
When the forst freseth muche chele he byd.
The thornes beth kene, his hattren to tereth.
Nis no wyght in the world that wot wen he syt,
Ne bote it be the hegge, whet wedes he wereth.
Whider trowe this mon ha the wey take?
He hath set his o fot his other toforen,
For non highte that he hath ne syght me hym ner shake;
He is the sloweste mon that euer wes yboren.

This poem is an example of early fourteenth-century comedy: it is located in a manuscript, known as the Harley manuscript, alongside various satires and comic pieces from the Middle Ages. As the Rochester University site summarises it, ‘The language is learned in its verbal acrobatics, yet the speaker is ostensibly a member of the illiterate underclass who is suffering a lamentable crisis.’

A modern paraphrase of ‘Mon in the Mone’ might read as follows:

The Man in the Moon stands and strides. On his boatfork (i.e. pike pole) he bears his burden. It’s a wonder that he hasn’t slid down; in fear, lest he fall, he shudders and shakes. When the frost freezes, he has to abide a chill; the thorns are keen to tear his hat. No one in the world knows, when he sits, what he wears (unless it’s in the hedge). Where do you think this man has gone? He’s set one foot in front of another; for whatever height he reaches, I’ve not seen this man shaken; he is the slowest man that was ever born.

It doesn’t translate readily into sensible modern English, but the general gist is apparent. There are earlier examples of comedy in English – the long debate poem The Owl and the Nightingale, thought to date from the late twelfth or early thirteenth century, contains comic elements – but ‘Man in the Moon’ (or ‘Mon in the Mone’) is an often overlooked specimen of England’s native humour in literary form.

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