Robin Hamilton robin.hamilton3 at VIRGINMEDIA.COM
Mon Oct 14 20:39:40 UTC 2013

Is it possible to link the term Ruffler, usually taken to emerge in the early sixteenth century, with the earlier term Rifler, meaning a robber, first found in English at the beginning of the fourteenth century?

The Ruffler (along with the Upright Man and the Rogue) is an important figure in the hierarchy of outliers as presented by Awdely and Harman in the 1560s

The OED recognises this meaning in RUFFLER n1: “ 1. Esp. in the 16th and 17th centuries: a member of a class of vagabonds and rogues said to operate in the guise of maimed soldiers and sailors; a vagabond, a beggar; (also) a con man. In later use hist. or regional (Austral.).”, with a first citation from a 1535 statute.

There are cross-references to the entries on RUFFLE v2 and RAFFLER n2, but not to RIFLER.

OED under RIFLER n1, has: “ 1. A robber, a plunderer, a looter,” with the suggested derivation from various (related) terms in Anglo-Norman and Middle French.

The earliest citation in the OED is from 1350, while the third citation given is as follows:

        c1400  (1387)    Langland Piers Plowman (Huntington HM 137) (1873) C. vii. 316 (MED),   Roberd the ryfeler [v.r. riflere] on reddite lokede.

The line from Langland as cited by the OED is a C-text revision of an earlier B-text line.  (Derek Pearsall dates the B-text from the 1370s, and assigns the writing of the C-text to the years between 1381 and 1388.)

In the B-text, the line reads as follows:

        Roberd the robbere on Reddite loked ...

(Schmidt’s edition, based on Trinity College Cambridge MS B.15.17)

The line as cited in the OED is taken from Huntington Library, MS Hm 137;  the spelling as found in Huntington Library, MS Hm 143 (usually used as the basis for modern editions of the C-text) is significantly different, giving us “ruyflare” rather than “ryfeler”:

        Robert the ruyflare / on reddite lokede

Langland introduces Rufflers once more into the C-text, where in Passus IV, l.. 125, he talks about, “alle Rome rennares / for ruyflares in Fraunce” 

(Hm 143 – interestingly Hm 137 reads, in contrast, “And alle rome renners · for robbers [sic] in fraunce”.)

In total, Huntington Library, MS Hm 143 contains five lines where the term is used, twice in the form of a noun and three times in the form of a verb:

    X.19.92    RK.19.92     For wente neuere man this way / þat he ne was here yruyfled
    X.10.197    RK.10.195     Therof was he robbed / and ruyfled or he on rode deyede
    X.4.55    RK.4.54     To robbe me or to ruyfle me / yf y ryde softe
    X.4.125    RK.4.125     And alle Rome rennares / for ruyflares in Fraunce
    X.6.323    RK.6.315     Robert the ruyflare / on reddite lokede

When a comparable term appears in the earlier B-text, it occurs only as a verb, and is invariably spelled either with “i” or “y”, never including the “u” grapheme -- 

        17.102     Þat he ne was robbed ne rifled/ryfled 
        5.232     I ros whan þei were arest · and riflede/ryflede hir males

(To summarise, “rifle” as a verb appears, thus spelled, in the B-text of Piers Plowman, but is found more prominently in the C-text, where the noun form is introduced twice, and where the spelling in at least two major manuscripts, as “ruyflar”, closely approximates to the later “ruffler”.)

My question:  Is it possible/plausible (especially in the context of the phonology of Anglo-Norman and fourteenth century English) to draw a connection between Langland’s “ruyflar”, and the term found in the 1535 statute, afterwards forming part of outlier cant?

I’m especially curious about this as it could be part of a whole series of possible connections, not as far as I’m aware explored in any detail, between Langland’s poem, especially the C-text, and the presentation of outliers and vagabonds in Copeland, Awdely, Harman, and other sixteenth century English writers.  Barclay’s translation of  Brandt’s _The Ship of Fools_, printed in 1509, is generally seen as the major precursor of this form of writing, but scholars and critics are curiously silent when it comes to Langland.

Robin Hamilton

(The comments on the manuscripts above were greatly facilitated by the material contained in the Piers Plowman Electronic Archive -- http://piers.iath.virginia.edu/index.html – which provides searchable transcriptions of 10 B-text MSS and 4 C-texts MSS – RH.)

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