THE WICKED AGE
MIDDLE ENGLISH COMPLAINT LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION
The Insurrection and Earthquake
On the twelfth of the Kalends of June [21 May 1382] there was an earthquake which did widespread damage in the kingdom, around the first hour after noon, on Wednesday. Then on the following Friday [23 May 1382] there was a shock around sunrise, which did no great harm, and on Saturday [24 May 1382] a disturbance in the sea, about three o’clock in the morning, and ships in harbour were tossed by the shock. Knighton’s Chronicle (243)
Knighton reports the earthquake without comment, but natural disasters such as earthquakes, famine, adverse weather and disease were seen both as signs of divine disturbance of the natural order, and as God’s warning to man to correct his sinful ways or worse would come. Such events are reported in the literature, and poets are often pessimistic about man’s ability to heed the warnings or to achieve permanent reform.
In Piers Plowman, when work ceases on the plowing of Piers’ spiritually metaphoric half-acre of land because laborers become slothful and deceitful, Piers calls on Hunger to motivate the “wasters” who live off others’ toil. Though Piers takes pity on the poor people, Hunger is insatiable and all give what they have and go hungry to feed him. But when harvest time comes and Hunger is abated, the false beggars and wasters, who had been happy to work for rough, brown bread, demand the best ale, meat, fish and fine bread. The passage ends with a prophecy of the return of Hunger and famine within five years to chastise wasters, along with floods and bad weather that will cause crops to fail.
Dearth and famine were greatly feared, especially during the first half of the fourteenth century with occurrences such as the Great Famine of 1315-22. The Simonie opens with a promise to explain why there is dearth, hunger, starving beasts and expensive grain. In addition to these afflictions, there is war, destruction and manslaughter, and the poem ends with the warning that God will visit the land with starving beasts, high-priced corn, hunger, pestilence, and worse if man does not amend his actions.
As in Piers Plowman, laborers become dissatisfied and demand the best food, and God punishes greed in the world with dearth, expensive grain, and starvation. Then God sends a time of plenty, but men become “worse scoundrels” (B 520) than before and forget God’s lesson, slipping into pride, lechery, gluttony, falseness and treachery. So God sends a dearth over the land so severe it horrifies men, yet few fear God. Then comes another shame sent by the Fiend of Hell: a civil war in which “cousins murder each other with will” (B 561-3), and the land is nearly destroyed.1 But man still does not learn; he blames others rather than seeing his own guilt.
The Insurrection and Earthquake was written in 1382, the year of the earthquake and the year after the Rising, so the audience’s fear of both would still have been fresh. Like The Simonie, this poem adds social upheavals to natural disasters as warnings from God. The poems differ in that The Simonie, as estates literature, examines all social classes and critiques their sins, while The Insurrection and Earthquake concentrates on a single subject which applies to all society. Both, however, view natural disaster and social and political conflict as divine admonishment, though the latter could have been prevented: the civil war by the prelates and the Rising by the lords, if they had been governing justly and diligently. And both poems express pessimistic expectations of individuals’ reformation.
The Insurrection and Earthquake
Yet God is a courteous lord and can mercifully show his might; he would gladly bring mankind into accord to live righteously in truth.
Alas! Why do we treat that lord so lightly and fare with him all too foully? In the world there are none so wise or virtuous that they do not have warning to beware.
We may not say, unless we lie, that God will bring vengeance on us by surprise, for we see openly with our eyes these many wondrous warnings. But now this wretched world’s wealth makes us live in sin and care. I may tell of many marvels, and all as a warning to beware.
When the commons began to rise, there was no lord so great, as I guess, who they did not begin to terrorize and cause to lay pleasure aside. Where was their worthiness when they made lords dismal and dejected? Of all wise men I take witness that this was a warning to beware.
Had they had grace, lords might very well have prevented the Rising, but God thought that he should make lords feel his lordship, and strip them of theirs. As true as steel, trust that this was a warning to beware.
And also, when the earth quaked no one was so proud that he was not aghast and forsook all his revelry, and thought of God while it lasted. But as soon as it passed, men were as evil as they had been before. Each man may cast in his heart, this was a warning to beware.
Truly, this was a lord to dread, who terrified men so suddenly; they paid no attention to gold or silver but ran out of their houses full fast. Chambers and chimneys were all broken, churches and castles suffered badly, towers and steeples fell to the ground, and all was a warning to beware.
The moving of this earth that should by nature be firm and stable is a true token that men’s hearts are changeable, and that they are most capable of falsehood, for we will not act in good faith. Believe it well and truly, this was a warning to beware.
The rising of the commons in the land, the pestilence, and the earthquake; these three things, I understand, betoken the great vengeance that should befall on account of sin, as declared by the clerks and which we may now choose to leave or take, for we have been warned to beware.
I swear, I am always in dread that no warning will be of help; we are so full of sin and sloth that we are over our heads in shame and we lie as heavy as lead, encumbered by the fiend’s snare. I believe this is our best advice: think on this warning and beware.
Truly, I dare well say, this world is in such a plight that many would betray their father, mother and all their kin for gain. It is now high time to begin to amend our misdeeds and to do well; our bag hangs on a slippery pin unless we beware this warning.
Beware, for I can say no more, beware of vengeance for sin, beware and think upon this teaching! Beware of this sudden event, and beware while we have time. Thank that child that Mary bore for his great goodness and grace in sending us such warning to beware.
1 The civil war refers to the conflict between Edward II and the steward of England, Thomas of Lancaster, in 1322. The king’s first cousin, Lancaster was originally a royalist but turned oppositional and although politically ambitious, he fought to enforce Ordinances that had been issued early in Edward’s reign to control his use of power. After his execution in 1322, Lancaster was seen by the populace as a champion against oppression and tyranny.
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