THE WICKED AGE
MIDDLE ENGLISH COMPLAINT LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION
Go Better Penny
The children’s lust for their father’s gold coins in The Story of John of Canace illustrates the imagery of money as object of greed and locus of power. For some, only money will do: “Other god will thai none have / Bot that litil round knave / Thaire bales forto blin” (“They will have no other goods than that little round knave [penny] to relieve their woes”; Sir Penny 64-66). Money is frequently personified and satirized, as in the following poems.1
Go Better Penny
Go better, penny, go better go! So that you might make both friend and foe.
Penny is a hardy knight,
Penny is great of might;
Penny makes wrong into right
in every country where he goes.
Though I have slain a man,
and forfeited the king’s law,
I shall find a man of law
who will take my penny and let me go.
And if I have business far or near
and Penny is my messenger,
then I have nothing to fear
for my cause will be well done.
If I have pence both good and fine,
men will invite me to wine;
what I have shall be thine—
certainly they will say so.
And when I have none in my purse,
penny better nor penny worse,
they hold me of but little force—
he was a man, let him go.
Money, money, now have a good day!
Money, where have you been?
Money, money, you go away
And will not stay with me.
Above all things you are a king,
and rule the world overall;
whoever lacks you, by God,
will soon then lose all joy.
In every place you bring solace,
great joy, sport and welfare;
when money is gone there is no comfort,
but worry, sorrow and care.
In king’s court, where money gathers,
it makes the gallants swagger
and wear their gorgeous clothing,
with their caps set awry.2
It makes their jolly horses
leap and prance on highways;
it makes jousts, plays and masquerades,
and ladies to sing and dance.
He who always lacks money
has a dreary look;
he can never sing well, dance long or spring,
nor make some lusty cheer.
At cards and dice it bears the prize
at king and emperor;
at backgammon, tennis and other games
money always has the flower.
With squire and knight and every person
money makes men glad,
and causes many in some company
their fellows to disdain.
In merchandise who can devise
so good a way, I say?
At all times the best ware
is ever ready money.
To increase money, merchandise never ceases
with many a subtle wile;
men say that for silver and gold
they would their own fathers beguile.
Women, I swear, love money also
to buy their jolly clothes,
for that helps and often causes
women to look full fair.
In Westminster Hall the criers call
and the sergeants plead apace; 3
attorneys appear, now here, now there
running in every place.
Whoever it be, he who lacks money
to plead his case to the law,
whatever he does in his matter
shall not prove worth a straw.
I know it not, but I know well
that I have often heard tell;
Priests use this practice
their benefice to buy and sell.4
Craftsmen in every city
work and never stop;
some carve, some scrape, some hammer, some engrave
only money to win.
The plowman digs and delves
in storm, snow, frost and rain
to get money with his labor and sweat—
yet earns small gain and much pain.
And some for money lie by the wayside
to steal another man’s purse,
but those who do so for long
are hanged by the neck.
Beggars on every street
lie wallowing by the way.
They beg, they cry to those who come by,
and all is just for money.
On every coast men love it most,
in England, Spain and France,
for every man who lacks it then
is clean out of countenance.
Whatever degree he may be,
or worthwhile knowledge he may have,
if he lacks money, yet men will say
that he is nothing but a knave.
Where indeed, I swear by God,
say all men what they can;
it is seen always nowadays
that money makes the man.
1 As mentioned in the Translators’ Notes, some poems cannot be translated into prose without sacrificing their spirit. In such cases, the stanzaic form has been retained, admittedly imperfectly, as with the following lyrics.
2 Extravagant clothing and ostentatious fashions were disdained by moralists and the subjects of satirical and critical poems like “Huff! A Gallant,” in which the author describes a young swain’s tight red hose, short pleated gown, pointed shoes, and “hair cast back four inches beneath his ear,” and wishes the gallant’s head were “off at the neck” (25-28). The points (pikes) of shoes became so long that they were reportedly tied to the knees with laces. In 1465 a statute ordered that the length of pikes be kept under two inches, subject to a fine of 20 shillings (Robbins 323). Other attempts to curb extravagant fashion generally failed, as did sumptuary laws that dictated dress by social class. (See note 10 to King Edward and the Shepherd in the romance collection of this Special Edition.)
3 The sergeant-at-law is perhaps most familiar from Chaucer’s portrait in the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, though the poet is kinder than some others who associate the profession with greed due to its members’ wealth from fees. The sergeant-at-law belonged to the highest rank of law practitioners, a small and powerful elite group. They were extensively educated and trained and had exclusive rights to plead cases in the Court of Common Pleas (Benson 811).
4 The priest (parson or rector) in charge of a parish received an annual income, while those under him received stipends. The buying and selling by patrons and bishops of benefices, which could be substantial, is a common complaint (see The Simonie). Rectors often held more than one benefice (“pluralism”), or left theirs to serve rich patrons or work as administrators, thus becoming an “absentee” rector, neglecting their parish.