Blancheflour, a pretty servant girl, finds a place sewing for a queen. The queen warns the girl away from her son Jellyflorice, but the two fall in love. The queen would kill the girl, but Jellyflorice rescues and marries her
Compare the "naive and quant" Middle English romance "Floris and Blancheflour," also known as "Floriz and Blauncheflur," etc.
That romance is not really the source of the plot of this piece, but probably the ultimate inpsiration. Bruce Dickens and R. M. Wilson, in _Early Middle English Texts_ (p. 43), report that there are two European versions of the story, one for aristocratic and one for popular audiences; both exist, e.g., in French.
The Middle English version seems to be derived from the aristocratic version.
A band of pilgrims is attacked by Saracens. A young pregnant widow is taken prisoner when her father is killed. Taken to Spain, she bears a daughter Blancheflur. On that day, the Saracen queen has a son Floris. Brought up together, they fall in love. The parents oppose the match, and sell Blancheflur into slavery. Floris attempts suicide; his parents relent and equip him for a journey to find her. He discovers her in an eastern harem and manages to rescue her.
(The popular version makes the ending simpler; Floris simply performs some of the tasks of a knight errant.)
The plot is common; Boccaccio used it in _Il Filocopo_, and the idea at least is found in Chaucer's "Franklin's Tale" and is said to go all the way back to India.
The Middle English "Floris and Blauncheflur" romance, according to Dickens and Wilson, has been "severely pruned... to such a degree that occasionally details vital to the plot have been omitted." This includes even the introductory material, about the capture of the Christian widow that motivates the plot -- though all the Middle English versions seem to have lost material at the beginning, so that may be accidental.
The history of this romance is curious. Donald B. Sands, in _Middle English Verse Romances_, p. 280, dates it c. 1250. Dickens and Wilson report four manuscripts, B.M. Cotton Vitellius D III (late XIII century), Cambridge Gg.4.27.2 (early XIV century), Edinburgh Auchinleck MS (XIV century), B. M. Egerton 2862 (early XV century). They make the odd claim that "All MSS. go back to a single lost original, but the wide discrepancies between them suggest that the intervening links were more probably oral than written."
Sands seems to offer a simpler explanation: The manuscripts have all been edited, with much material being omitted along the way. The result is erratic and the meter often defective, but Sands notes (p. 282) that it is a "well-structured story" and believes that this makes up for the "undistinguished verse."
Several other ballads also derive loosely or from Middle English romance, or from the legends that underly it, examples being:
* "Hind Horn" [Child 17], from "King Horn" (3 MSS., including Cambridge Gg.4.27.2, which also contains "Floris and Blancheflour")
* "King Orfeo" [Child 19], from "Sir Orfeo" (3 MSS., including the Auchinlek MS, which also contains "Floris and Blancheflour")
* "The Marriage of Sir Gawain" [Child 31], from "The Weddynge of Sir Gawe and Dame Ragnell" (1 defective MS, Bodleian MS Rawlinson C 86) - RBW