Merriam-Webster (on line) offers no help with the meaning of "rage" (verb) in this context; "swage" is presumably 'assuage' (fade).

Youthe speke to his selfe & sayd:
With women me lyst both play & rage.
Angel: To þi saule it is gret damage.
þe fende: Jf þou be holy in þi yong age,
Þi sorose sal incres & þi myght swage.

The conversation is between a Youth, the Guardian Angel, and the Devil (the Fiend).Br Lib Additional 37049 with added emphasis and modernised punctuation] Carthusian miscellany in Northern English 1460 -1500. ff.28v {Copyright remains with the British Library, who allow study. Verse and picture from the original page

'Violence' and 'madness' don't seem to fit in the phrase 'both play & rage.'

Update: "play and rage" occur together twice in Canterbury Tales "A"
Update .2. Fixed links to the BL pages time out and freeze to protect the site. But it should still be possible to find the Digitised page as " Additional_MS_37049 " If not, find it in Elizabeth Sears: The Ages of Man plate 21.

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  • @Jim this is just a 'typical' youth (third of seven ages)who says he enjoys (lysts (sic)) to play and rage. Someone who sets out to go mad or get in a rage with the women he goes out with is unusual, yes? – Hugh Jun 20 '16 at 1:19
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    Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light. - Dylan Thomas – Hot Licks Jun 20 '16 at 3:13
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    @HotLicks: while Dylan Thomas came to my mind and, I gather, did not want the meaning of that poem too literally analysed, I think it has very little bearing on this text. – PJTraill Jun 20 '16 at 9:45
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    Could you give us more details about the text, including a date (range)? A link for ”Br Lib Additional” would also clarify things. – PJTraill Jun 20 '16 at 9:51
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    @Mari-LouA it says 1460 - 1500 – Hugh Jun 20 '16 at 19:45

I'm not sure, but I think the relevant sense is probably this noun sense (from the Middle English Dictionary):

6. Amorous longing or desire, lovesickness; also, a fit of carnal lust or sexual desire; a feeling of passion or love; ~ of love, an ardent passion; loves ~, the fervor of love.


So I think the verse means something like, "I like both sex and desire" (plei meaning, among other things, "sex").

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  • This sounds close, but I am a little surprised at the order of plei and rage, as it seems anticlimactic — perhaps just for the rhyme, but that seems weak. – PJTraill Jun 20 '16 at 9:48
  • Do you think "lyst" is a late or Northern spelling; or is it a pun on 'lyst' / 'list' ? Does the construction "lyst_play" tell us which? – Hugh Jun 20 '16 at 13:38
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    @Hugh: Although the MED doesn't include lysten in the headword for the list entry, quite a few of its citations spell it that way. (See quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/m/mec/…) So I don't think we need to invoke any pun explanation. As for the construction "[IO] lyst [S]" . . . that's not the most common construction I see in the quotations for list, but I don't think it's so exceptional as to warrant special explanation. Dunno. (Disclaimer: I'm really not knowledgeable about ME; I'm just going based on what I see in MED.) – ruakh Jun 20 '16 at 20:10

Online Etymology has some interesting background for rage; until the mid-13c., it meant

"to play, romp," from rage (n.) [After that a new meaning was acquired:] Meanings "be furious; speak passionately; go mad" first recorded c. 1300.

So, it may be a repetition of play (as in "romp and play"), or it may be fight/go mad/whatever. I'm not sure the Angel's advice is helpful in deciphering its meaning (To þi saule it is gret damage.)

Interestingly (again) is swage:

"to shape or bend by use of a tool"

but that was later than your poem.

By the time of Milton's writing, swage did mean assuage.

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Google's definition includes:

  • continue with great force or intensity.
    "the argument raged for days"
    synonyms: be violent, be at its height, be turbulent, be tempestuous, be uncontrollable, thunder, rampage "a tropical storm was raging"
  • (of an illness or fire) spread very rapidly or uncontrollably.
    "the great cholera epidemic which raged across Europe in 1831"
  • (of an emotion) have or reach a high degree of intensity.
    "she couldn't hide the fear that raged within her"

I think it means, like, "be intense" or "burn intensely like a fire".

It may also implies some uncontrollable insanity (from the Latin word for "rabies").

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    Those are all modern meanings, which do not help much with what is evidently a much older text; if before 1300, medica’s answer pretty much rules them out. – PJTraill Jun 20 '16 at 9:42

It appears that the words play and rage were often paired in Middle English, the one word complementing the other.

Middle English Dictionary By Hans Kurath
CT abbreviation for Canterbury Tales

pleien (V)
2. (a) to play amorously; make love, engage in sexual intercourse

(al393) Gower CA 1.1764:
Thei were wedded in the nyht.. And sche began to plei and rage.

c1250 Body & S.(4) 29:
Bodi, þu ne mait nout lepen to plaien [vr. leiken] ne to rage.

5. (a) to make light or frivolous talk, jest, joke; ~with wordes, boast; in pleiinge wise, jestingly: (b) to make sport, tease: ~of, make fun of (sth.); ~upon, ridicule (sb.).

(c1390) Chaucer CT.Rv.A.3958:
Was noon..That with hire orste rage or ones pleye.

A New English Dictionary On Historical Principles, volume VIII, page 107

rage NOUN

6. A violent feeling, passion, or appetite. Also, violence, severity, height (of a feeling, etc.).
[…] b. Violent desire; sexual passion; heat.

?a 1366 Chaucer Rom. Rose 1657
When I was with this rage hent That caught hath many a man and shent.
1390 Gower Conf. 111.271
That ilke fyri rage in which that thei the lawe [of marriage] excede.
1500-20 Dunbar Poems 1xxxiv.8
Quhone the biche is jolie and on rage.

rage VERB (emphasis mine)

†3. To behave wantonly or riotously; to take one's pleasure, to play. Const with (a person).

• a 1300 Body & Soul in Map's poems 347

Body, miht thou nought lepen to playen ant rage.

• 1303 R.Brunne Handl. Synne 7896

To pley wyþ wommen and to rage.

• 1390 Gower Conf. I. 101

Sehe began to plei and to rage.

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    Very nice! +1, and I admire your google-fu! – anongoodnurse Jun 21 '16 at 15:21

Is it not me lyste (that is, my lust) that both play and rage. With sense of rage as in a fire burning. An adolescent response to the sight of the attractive woman that the angel is urging to be controlled.

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    That is an interesting triple meaning then. 'List' - root which only survives in the antonym 'listless.' Lyst' which survives in lie, lay. And your suggestion, Lyste/ lust. They're all likely to be there as subtexts, I'd think. – Hugh Jun 20 '16 at 17:16

I used the above answers some and googled some, but my takeaway is:

Youth speaks to himself and says: With women I have sex with sometimes lightly and sometimes carnally
Angel: To your soul it is great damage
Devil: If you be holy in your young age Your offspring will increase an your character will be molded

swage = the shaping of metal (the gripping tool was called a swage)
sorose = the bearing of sori which are spores
play = casual sex for the fun of it
rage = serious sex either carnally or with heart and emotions (marriage intent?)

Comment: I really would have expected the devil's words to be more polar to the angel's. Perhaps they are in that the angel is concerned with the eternal soul and the devil is concerned with the temporal earthly results.


Thanks @Hugh. That makes more sense. So the devil's comment becomes:
If you be holy in your young age, your sorrows will increase and you will be teased (a piece of metal being swaged would be beaten flat by a hammer).

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    See also for rage jstor.org/stable/43345939 – Jammin4CO Jun 20 '16 at 18:15
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    I think "sorose" is Northern Middle English for 'Sorrows,' from the context. But thank you for your take, and the useful link to Douglas Moffat's paper. – Hugh Jun 21 '16 at 14:34

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