THE WICKED AGE
MIDDLE ENGLISH COMPLAINT LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION
The Story of John of Canace
As seen in The Simonie and many other works, the pursuit of meed is the prime mover of social abuses. It drives dishonesty and immorality in politics, religion, trade, and personal relationships. In the following poem, it is shown at the deepest level of social cohesion: the family.
The author, Thomas Hoccleve, was haunted by the fear of poverty should he lose the annuity due him. Like Chaucer, he was a civil servant, and both men had difficulty collecting their income and addressed poetic pleas to the king for relief. It is within this context that Hoccleve prefaces the Governall of Princes (The Regiment of Princes), which is followed by advice on how to rule wisely. The Story of John of Canace1 is excerpted from the “De Virtute largitatis et de vitio prodigalitatis” section that counsels prudent largesse and charity and warns against immoderate giving, which causes poverty. Though the piece has the tone of a fabliau and is an exemplum on excessive generosity, it also shows the dark side of grasping for wealth.
The Story of John of Canace
I will talk a while of foolish largesse. I don’t know in what country it befell, but there was one named John of Canace, a rich man with two daughters, whom he allowed to marry worthy men of the city, and there was more joy and revelry than I can express.
The father loved his daughters and their husbands and held them dear. From time to time he gave surpassingly of his goods to them, and they were so pleasant and cheerful towards him that he didn’t know how he could be more at ease.
He spent as much time at their house as he did at his own. They flattered him so much that he was outrageous in his gifts, and they were always desirous of his goods. They received all that they asked for, and were always greedily upon him. This foolish man continued his extravagance until all his goods were spent and gone. And when they felt his gifts diminish, they were unkind to him, ceased to cherish him, and were weary of his company. But he was wise and devised a remedy.
He went to a merchant he knew who had been his trusted friend for a long time, and beseeched him to lend him ten thousand pounds for no longer than three days, after which he would return it. This was done, and he took the sum to his own house. The next day he invited his sons and daughters to supper, and they came without any hesitation. They fared well, but I will pass over that with no more words.
He entertained them to the best of his ability and did his best to make them cheerful and glad. After supper, they took their leave to go home, and he answered them confidently: “You shall not pass out of the gate tonight; your house is far and it is dark and late. Speak no more of it, for it will not happen.” And so he made them stay all night. For sly purpose the father lodged them in a chamber adjoining his, between which was only a partition of poor construction with many cracks through which those in each chamber might look and see what the others did if they wished.
I can’t say how they slept that night, and it doesn’t pertain to my matter. But the next morning at sunrise the father rose, and so that they should hear what he did, he boisterously went to his chest, which had three locks, and twisted them firmly. And when it was opened, he took out the bagged gold the merchant had lent him and went straight forth with it to the foot of his bed. What then does this crafty man do, but pour out the gold on a carpet so that not one bit was left in the bags.
He did all this as a trick, as you shall hear, to beguile his sons and daughters. His noise made them get up; they listened towards his chamber and heard the rushing and sound of gold as he rudely threw it down. They hurried to the partition to find out what their father was doing. They peeked in the cracks and saw, as they thought, how he searched through the gold coins to see if any were defective. He weighed them and bagged them, finally placed them in the coffer, and opened his door and went on his way downstairs. Right after that the sons and daughters rose out of bed and came down also. They thanked their father for his good hospitality in their best manner, and all was out of greed for the gold. They asked him for leave to go home, departed and left him there.
Walking homeward, they chattered fast and spoke of the gold they saw their father had. One said, “I wonder at this”; “So do I,” said another. “By God, yesterday, though I should have crept into my grave, I would have bet my life that he didn’t have so much gold.”
Now let them muse on whatever they please, and I will address myself to their father. He took all the gold out of his chest and returned it all to the merchant, thanking him often for his kindness. Then he went home to his meal and to his sons’ house when he had eaten. When he arrived they made more of him than they were accustomed to do, by many times over, and gave him greater pleasure than they had for a long time.
“Father,” they said, “this is your own household; in faith, there is nothing we own that shall not be at your command. We wish to God that you were of our assent; then we would always dwell together.”
He knew well enough what they meant. “Sons and daughters,” he said, “to tell the truth, my will is also to be with you—I don’t know how I should be merrier than to be with you continually. Your company pleases me full well.” They arranged it so that everyone, except the father, maintained the household. He had good food and drink and clothes to wear for which he paid nothing. As they laughed and played, both his daughters spoke to their father with smiling cheer and said, “Now, good father, pray tell us how much money is in your strongly bound chest.”
“Ten thousand pounds,” he answered and laughed loudly. “I counted them just recently, as accurately as I could. If you treat me after this as you have done before, then I shall dispose all that is in my testament for your profit—it all shall be yours.”
After this they were all in one house until the father’s dying day came. When he saw the time of his departure, he called his sons and daughters and spoke to them all: “And right now, before I am taken hence, take a hundred pounds of good, round nobles to the Preachers—don’t tarry a moment. Also take a hundred pounds to the grey friars, and fifty to the Carmes—don’t delay, I say.2 And when I am buried, take the keys to my chest from them, which they keep. The directions of my will are written by every key.”
This gold was not allowed to sleep but was soon distributed, for their hearts were deeply staked in his bound coffer, and all their hope was to grope into it for the good bags. He bade them to also give a quantity of gold to every church and recluse3 of the town. They were ready and prepared to do as he commanded, and did it quickly. But as I hope to thrive, he deceived this company quite slyly—both his sons and his daughters, I mean; he shaved their beards right smooth and clean.
When he was dead and his obsequies done, they solemnly went to the friars and bade them to deliver the keys to them, and the friars did as they were told. The joyful sons went to the place where the strongly bound chest stood, but before they left from there, they became enraged. They opened the chest and found nothing but a surpassingly great sergeant’s mace4 on which this scripture was gaily made and wrought: “I, John of Canace, make such testament here in this place: Whoever bears charge of other men and is despised by them, slain be he with this.”
1 The title is given by Skeat in his edition.
2 Preachers are Dominicans, grey friars are Franciscans, Carmes are Carmelites.
3 A reclus was a person living a solitary life for religious purposes, usually an anchoress (MED).
4 The mace was originally a battle weapon and eventually became the symbol of the authority of the parliamentary Speaker of the House. The royal Sergeant-at-Arms was the custodian of the Mace, and remains so today, along with other official duties in some places.