“Mak steals one of their sheep and goes home to poach it.”

Mak is the main character in the sheep-stealing subplot of the “Second Shepherds’ Play” in the Wakefield Cycle, a group of medieval plays depicting the history of the universe from Creation to Last Judgment. The various cycle dramas, or Mystery Plays, that have come down to us, mostly as fragments, are lively biblical dramatizations that also provide a vivid picture of life in the Middle Ages; in my BritLit survey we have time for only this one piece, and we began discussing it yesterday.

This student statement comes from a previous class, and, alas, it gives us a vivid picture of life in the present day, when our vocabularies are limited and we aren’t even aware of it.

What the Wakefield Master meant by Mak’s poaching is, of course, the act of stealing the sheep from a fellow shepherd, and thus from the lord on whose land the shepherd grazes the lord’s sheep. We all know this meaning of “poaching,” don’t we? —well, except for this student. I’m not sure, actually, without going back to comb the text, that the Wakefield Master actually uses the term “poach.” I routinely use it when talking about the play and this subplot, though. And that means that the student would have had ample opportunity to raise her hand and ask me about the term. Evidently she didn’t feel the need.

Yes, Mak takes the sheep home to his wife Gill and says he can’t wait to cook and eat it. But he doesn’t say anything about putting some water on to boil. And I don’t know about my student, but I have never had, or heard of, poached lamb. It sounds like possibly the worst way of preparing lamb, actually. I’ve poached many an egg in my day, and a number of fish; but although I have stewed meats such as beef and lamb and chicken, I have never thought of that as poaching. Either my student defines “poach” as “cook somehow,” or her family serves up some odd cuisine.

A quick visit to the battered Webster’s Collegiate I keep under my desk reveals that these two meanings of “poach” don’t even have the same origin: the cooking term comes from the French poche, meaning pocket (with an Old English equivalent pocca, bag), hence to simmer in a container of simmering liquid; the illegal act comes from a Germanic term by way of Middle French and has a Middle English equivalent, poken, to poke, hence to trample with hooves, to trespass on, to trespass in order to steal. Now, this surprises me. I had assumed that the second sense, to trespass and steal, was related to the French poche, picturing some peasant sneaking onto the lord’s property, trapping a lordly rabbit, and putting it into the pouch he wore over his shoulder or had sewn into his jacket. And, whew, when I check my OED, I find there noted a possible etymological connection of the second sense with poche, after all.

“Poach” in the sense of “steal” is still active in our vocabulary, as most of us know, even though we don’t have lords with private herds of venison or landlords with tenant shepherds. I wonder what went through my student’s mind the first time she saw a No Trespassing sign that specified No Poaching, or when she heard that a phone company was poaching on Cablevision’s turf by adding cable service, or heard that some corporate headhunter was “poaching” executives from another firm. Now, there’s a dish even less appetizing than poached lamb.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

2 responses to ““Mak steals one of their sheep and goes home to poach it.”

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