But we do have uses of yard referring to a length of roughly thirty-six inches. Lines 1449–50 of the poem Of Arthur and Merlin (written sometime before 1330) reads:
Coincidentally just now I’m slap-bang in the middle of Specimens of Early English Metrical Romances by George Ellis, published in 1805. I should be taking a stab at the originals (which I intend to do later) but Ellis is such a learned, convivial and amusing host that it’s fun to read his summaries, extracts and comments on the original works. (Bevis of Hamptoun is currently the young knight slaughtering Saracens with gusto and berating Mahound between strokes.)
I already knew Ellis was a very funny guy from his collaborations in The Anti-Jacobin with future PM George Canning and John Hookham-Frere. I can’t resist quoting a few lines from their parody of Southey’s tendentious poem on Henry Marten, one of the English regicides, who spent many years imprisoned in Chepstow Castle. Southey had written:
Dost thou ask his crime?
He had rebelled against a King, and sat
In judgment on him: for his ardent mind
Shap’d goodliest plans of happiness on earth,
And peace and liberty. Wild dreams! but such
As Plato lov’d; such as with holy zeal
Our Milton worshipp’d.
The Tory wits replied with a poem on the notorious apprentice-killer Mrs. Brownrigg. Relevant lines:
Dost thou ask her crime?
SHE WHIPP’D TWO FEMALE ‘PRENTICES TO DEATH,
AND HID THEM IN THE COAL-HOLE. For her mind
Shap’d strictest plans of discipline. Sage schemes!
Such as LYCURGUS taught, when at the shrine
Of the Orthyan Goddess he bade flog
The little Spartans; such as erst chastised
Our MILTON, when at College. For this act
Did BROWNRIGG swing. Harsh Laws! But time shall
When France shall reign, and Laws be all repealed!
I couldn’t stop laughing for an age the first time I read this.
Anyway, back to our Early English muttons and yerde. This brings to mind the young Alexander Pope’s tongue-in-cheek Imitation of Chaucer. I’m sure it’s not very accurate (for example I seem to recall that later centuries had become unaware that final vowel ‘e’ was sounded in Middle English, which is why the critics, while admiring Chaucer, regarded his verse as rough and unmetrical, this of a poet who is now regarded as the finest metrician of them all By Pope’s time however the correct pronunciation of ME may well have been rediscovered).
The imitation is short (and rather funny). It uses yerde in the sense penis and there are cites for this from Chaucer’s time in OED.
WOMEN ben full of ragerie,
Yet swinken not sans secresie.
Thilke Moral shall ye understond,
From schoole-boy’s Tale of fayre Irelond;
Which to the Fennes hath him betake, 5
To filche the grey Ducke fro the Lake.
Right then there passen by the way
His Aunt, and eke her Daughters tway.
Ducke in his trowses hath he hent,
Not to be spied of ladies gent. 10
‘But ho! our Nephew,’ crieth one;
‘Ho!’ quoth another, ‘Cozen John;’
And stoppen, and lough, and callen out—
This sely Clerke full low doth lout:
They asken that, and talken this, 15
‘Lo, here is Coz, and here is Miss.’
But, as he glozeth with speeches soote,
The Ducke sore tickleth his Erse-roote:
Fore-piece and buttons all-to-brest,
Forth thrust a white neck and red crest. 20
‘Te-hee,’ cried ladies; clerke nought spake;
Miss stared, and grey Ducke crieth ‘quaake.’
‘O Moder, Moder!’ quoth the Daughter,
‘Be thilke same thing Maids longen a’ter?
Bette is to pine on coals and chalke, 25
Then trust on Mon whose yerde can talke.’