Medieval English Poetry
The Isle of Ladies
15th century, Middle English: 16th century manuscript copies at the British Library and Longleat House, Wiltshire, England.
Apples that grow on a rock in an enchanted sea prevent all illness and death for seven years to those who possess them.
A late-fifteenth century poem The Isle of Ladies, of over two thousand lines in length, was originally attributed to Geoffrey Chaucer and once called Chaucer’s Dream. But in the nineteenth century it was recognised that Geoffrey Chaucer was not its author and it is now considered to have been composed by an anonymous poet nearer to the time that Sir Thomas Malory was writing his famous Le Morte d’Arthur.
The central character of this story falls asleep near a spring and dreams that he has been taken to an Otherworldly island, an Isle of ladies, where all the buildings are made of glass; as the crystal spheres of the heavens were once believed to be, and some of the enchanted islands in mythical Irish stories. This marvellous place is inhabited solely by women, like the island that the Irish voyager Bran was guided to, when a mysterious woman holding an apple bough entered his fortress.
On this Isle of Ladies, our hero soon encounters his lady-love. She, also, is newly-arrived, having first been to an Island of Apples – we are told – another island which the queen of this Isle of Ladies frequents and whose apples sustain her. The Island of Apples is a rocky island in a remote sea –
on a roche so highe stondes, in strange se, out from all londes... oppon whiche roche growethe a tree that certayne yeres bares apples three. The apples that grow on this tree have the property that they prevent all illness and death for seven years to those who possess them. But his lady-love soon expresses a wish to return to her own land again – and, so it seems, without him – where she will be received with joy, as a happy new arrival, pleasing to everybody.
Forthe goethe the shipe; owt goethe the sonde; and I, as wood man unbownde... Out went the ship, down went the sounding-line, and like an unbound madman I ran fearlessly into the water after her until a wave threw me over and swept me backwards and forwards ‘til both mind and breath were all but gone. Sailors with two large hooks grappled me aboard and lay me by the mast, convinced that I would die very shortly; and agreeing, I confessed to the mast, said goodbye to everybody and closed my eyes. My lady, though, thought it a pity that I should die and so she came to me, bade me rise and said: ‘Stop this nonsense and come with me. I will always be friendly. Rise up, look!’
and of her apples in my sleve one she put, and toke her leve – she put into my sleeve one of the apples that she had collected from the Island of Apples and left me with it. With that, all my pain went and I felt like dancing; I jumped up with a joyous heart, alive and well.’
Story fragment recounted from: Pearsall, Derek (Ed), 1990. The Floure and the Leafe, The Assembly of Ladies, The Isle of Ladies, Kalamazoo, Michigan: Western Michigan University for TEAMS. Medieval Institute Publications. The Middle English text of THE ISLE OF LADIES from Longleat House MS 256.