THE WICKED AGE
MIDDLE ENGLISH COMPLAINT LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION
Meed and Greed
Meed (mede) has many meanings and uses; positively, it can be a reward, and negatively a bribe. It is commonplace in the literature, almost always a pejorative despite its ambiguous potential, which is most famously and vividly presented in Langland’s Piers Plowman.
In Langland’s allegorical dream-vision poem, the marriage of Lady Meed to Falseness is proposed, and the case is brought to the king, who refuses permission and recommends Conscience as the husband instead. According to Yunck, the king recognizes the ambivalent nature of Lady Meed, which he attributes to positive and negative influences: “In the hands of evil men Lady Meed is barratry, simony, bribery, human venality; dispensed with conscience she becomes just rewards.” The king intends to solve this problem by joining Lady Meed with Conscience and rejecting Falseness so that good and honorable acts are rewarded and corruption deprived (Yunck 290).1
However, Conscience refuses violently and accuses Lady Meed of committing many wrongs and harmfully leading people into evil with her gifts that poison the church, including the pope, and the justice system and its officials. Lady Meed defends herself by presenting positive functions of her rewards. As largesse, it increases reputation and insures the service of retainers, and as payment it supplies messengers and servants for lords and masters. Popes and prelates depend on giving meed to their administrators to maintain laws, as does the king with his peacekeepers. Minstrels perform entertainment for meed, and it is requested by beggars for saying prayers; priests ask for a masspenny for preaching, and clerks earn fees for teaching. Craftsmen need meed for training their apprentices, and it is indispensable for trade and commerce (PP B III 198-226). But Conscience perceives the potential taint on the soul that can result from even honorable rewards given in high causes (Yunck 291), as well as the direct damage caused by the corrupt use of gifts. Supported by Reason, he stands firm and represents the negative cultural view of meed.
Meed is synonymous with greed and may take the form of power, status, and/or goods, and is frequently represented tangibly by money. In one of his sermons, John Bromyard describes how “Money and Meed corrupt the clergy and how it slays and makes alive, it leads forth to the infernal regions and brings back, it opens and shuts prisons, it slays the souls that are not dead, and gives life to those that are not burning” (qtd in Owst 248).