THE WICKED AGE
MIDDLE ENGLISH COMPLAINT LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION
Address to Sir John Oldcastle
Sir John Oldcastle (1378?-1417) came from a knightly family and served as a “knight of the shire” representing Herefordshire in the parliament of 1404, and was later a justice of the peace and sheriff. He had an outstanding military career, serving Henry V in campaigns against the Welsh.
When Oldcastle’s long-time adherence to Lollard beliefs was discovered, the king did all he could to delay action against him, but Oldcastle was eventually prosecuted by the ecclesiastical court in 1413, before which he refused to recant. Henry granted a forty-day respite before Oldcastle was to suffer the consequences of his conviction as a heretic, during which time he escaped and started a conspiracy to raise a rebellion against the king and government.
The rising was poorly organized and soon quashed, and Oldcastle went into hiding, continuing to incite Lollard plots. He was captured in 1417 in the family region of Herefordshire and condemned and executed by hanging and possibly burned alive. Since Oldcastle’s revolt involved a plan to capture and possibly kill the king, Lollardy became politicized and lost influential supporters and much of its force, though the movement persisted and Wycliffite ideas remained alive and helped pave the way for Luther and reformation.
The author of Address to Sir John Oldcastle, Thomas Hoccleve (c. 1387-1426), was a civil servant like Chaucer, whom he greatly admired and studied. Hoccleve’s major works are The Regiment of Princes1 and his Complaint and Dialogue, which are largely autobiographical, relating his wayward youth, bouts with mental illness, and other hardships and fears. He originally intended to be a priest, but when he failed to attain a benefice, he entered public service and worked at the Privy Seal for most of his life.
Meanwhile, like Chaucer, he wrote poetry, some of which was motivated by efforts to collect overdue annuities, but many reflect his concern over political, social and religious matters, as evidenced in the following anti-Lollard work. In his remonstrance of Oldcastle, possibly a former patron, he defends many of the orthodox doctrines and practices attacked by the Lollards, such a as transubstantiation, papal authority and the priesthood, confession, church temporalities, religious images and pilgrimages.
Hoccleve’s works received scant critical attention, obscured as “part of the large body of undistinguished English poetry written in the shadow of Chaucer” until recent scholarly interest in the literary, cultural and historical elements has emerged (Blyth 1). Critical assessment aside, while Hoccleve’s didacticism can be heavy at times, it is filled with lively flourishes and delightfully surprising expressions that ring with the voice of the poet.
Address to Sir John Oldcastle
The ladder of heaven, I mean charity, commands us if our brother has fallen into error, to have pity of him and seek ways, with all our wits, how we may recall him back to virtue; and I know no one who is in greater error than you, who has drunk heresy’s gall and are separated and gone from Christ’s faith.
Alas! That you who were a manly knight and shone clean in famous worthiness and stood in the favor of everyone, has lost the manner of Christian prowess among all who stand in the purity of good faith and that no man will hold with you except cursed wretches, heirs of darkness: my heart is overcome with pity for you.
You have made a fine change from Christ’s teaching to fiendish doctrine; from honor and domination to reproof and mischievous ruin; from Christian folk to heathen carrion; from surety to insecurity; from joy and ease to war and pain; from the light of truth to dark falseness.
Oh, Oldcastle, alas, what ailed you to slip into the snare of heresy through which you are a foe to the Trinity and the blessed virgin Mary, and to the countless holy company of heaven and all holy church? Alas! Too long you have bathed in that folly! Rise up and purge yourself of your trespass.
St Augustine said: “While a man lives in heresy and schism and does not wish to flee therefrom, his soul is separated from God, and he may not be saved in any way. For a man who does not uphold the unity of holy church, neither baptism nor alms, however large, will bring him to heaven or please God.
And moreover he also said: “Though a heretic sheds his blood for Christ’s name and gives his life for Christ, he shall not be saved.” Alas, the harm and shame! May your pain not tame your rebellious heart? Obey, obey in the name of Jesus! You are lame of merit and honor; conquer them and arm yourself in virtue!
If your proud heart, swollen in error, cannot be obedient to holy church, observe Emperor Theodosius, how humble and obedient he was to God! He took no account of his high rank but, like a lamb, obeyed holy church. Men may read and see in the scriptures how meekly he prayed to the bishop for grace.
His offense against God was not as great as yours by far, and yet he was fully sorry and repented it, obeying as holy church wished. You who have sold your soul to the devil, buy it back again through obedience! Your heresy is all too hoary and old; correct yourself to Christ’s reverence!
Do so for your soul’s health! Quench your pride and presumption! Where you have been a foe to Christ’s faith, plant a deep contrition in you heart and henceforth be Christ’s champion! The well of mercy runs generously; drink thereof since there is such abundance; I advise you to fill your heart’s bottle.
You have offended God greatly, but nevertheless if you will amend yourself, though your guilt were a thousand times more, ask him for mercy and he will send it to you. You are unwise though you pretend wisdom, and so is all of your opinion. Bend to God and holy church! Cast out your venom through confession!
You say that confession is not necessary, but it is to the contrary; you look amiss and your sight is not clear! Holy writ is your adversary, and clerks who hold and maintain Christ’s side all vary from your conceit. Leave it lest you go astray! Beware the sword of God, for it is keen.
Here in this life cry to God for mercy, and with the axe or hammer of penance smite on the stone and slay your obstinacy. Have grave remembrance of your sins! Whisper in the priest’s ear and meekly confess to him the grievances of your soul; and without doubt, you will be a living stone in the wall of heaven for you goodness.
Oh, Oldcastle! How the devil has blinded you! Where is your knightly heart? Are you his slave? You also make a foul error in declaring that the sacrament of the altar is not needed at all; it is known in many regions. Now since the fiend has given you a fall, have revenge; rise up and sling him down!
Rise up a manly knight out of the slough of heresy. Where you have lurked and erred as a wretch, correct it now! You may reach for mercy through humility. Go to holy church and seek the wholesome oil of absolution. If you do not take heed of your soul’s damage or shame, you will lose heaven and all knightly renown.
Perhaps you consider it shameful to obey prelates of holy church; if so, your conceit is mistaken. What man can rightly weigh the truth of that in his heart? I say, that obedience is principally to Jesus Christ. God has ordained priests to provide the salve of penance for man’s offences.
God has lent his power to St Peter and his successors, and so forth on down. Go to the priest; correct your errors and bind unto God with a contrite heart! Dispute this sacrament no longer! As holy church commands, follow it! And henceforth, I advise that you do not presume so much of your wit!
I put forth a case: a prelate or a priest governs his life viciously. You ought to grieve when you see it and not follow him, but you should obey his teaching and you will be saved. And if he teaches amiss, he shall give a strict accounting before God; the great peril is his.
Let holy church be concerned with the doctrine of Christ’s laws and his faith, and let all other folk incline thereto and stir no arguments about our faith. For if we might prove our faith by reason, we should hold no merit in it. But nowadays a bailiff or craftsman will dote or rave in it.
Some women also, though their wits are thin, will argue about holy writ! Ignorant, foolish women! Sit down and spin and cackle about something else, for your intelligence is too feeble for disputation about it! That art belongs to great clerks and has been closed to you by God. Stop and leave off, for your side is right weak.
Our forefathers and mothers lived well, and taught their children as they were about holy church and didn’t ask “Why is this word here,” and “Why is this word there?” “Why did God say this, and say that elsewhere?” “Why did he do it this way when he might have done it thus?” Our forefathers cared nothing about such things; that ought to be a good mirror to us.
If you inherited land that your father held in rest and peace with a just and true title all his life, and his father before him, and his, and his and so forth, I am sure, without doubt, that you would defend it against whoever would take it from you. You would not give up your right.
Just so, as our forefathers peaceably possessed the Christian faith and no man would impugn their right, it rests on us to comply thereto. Let us imagine no further! Possess our right, and fully determine in our hearts that our title is good and keep it with all our might.
Whoever has a right and will not defend it is not a man but a coward. And in this case, he shall offend God so grievously that he shall not be able to bear the reproach in any way from Christ, who first grew that right. And if we shall not sustain it, we are fully unwise; Christ himself is faith, right, truth, and bounty.
The Christian Emperor Justinian, as it is written for whoever wishes to see, made a law forbidding every man, whatever his condition or degree,2 that he should not boldly dispute about the faith openly, and he set many diverse punishments by which peril should be eschewed.
Beware, Oldcastle, and for Christ’s sake, stop climbing so high in holy writ! Read the story of Lancelot of the Lake, or Vegece3 of the Art of Chivalry, or the Siege of Troy or Thebes. Apply yourself to things that may belong to the order of knighthood! Hurry now to your correction, for you have been out of joint too long!
If you wish to read things of authority,4 go to these stories: to Judges, Kings and Joshua, to Judith and Philippians and Maccabees, and as sure as stone, if you feast your eye on them, you will find none so authentic or pertinent to chivalry.
Knights did so in times past, when they had concern for their office. They stood steadfast in Christ’s faith, and the priest, their soul’s nurse, fed them spiritually and gave them notice of Christ’s teaching, which they took with obedience. But now such malice reigns that obedience is set aside.
Oh Constantine, prince of high nobility, Christian emperor who did not disdain obeying holy church but did all your penance and observances with a well disposed meek spirit to honor the ministers of God. How you wrought is so strongly witnessed that it shall live as long as this world endures!
You made no judgment on their corrections. Your good affection to God was such that you said: “They are gods sent to us, and it is not proper for a man to judge gods.” You were a worthy and noble regent! Your crown was well set on you!
Blessed be God, from whom all grace is derived. Our liege lord, who is now our faithful Christian prince and king, follow in those steps. Oh, for shame, Oldcastle; you have followed the fiend for too long. If you stop, as I advise, it shall be for your good. Flee from the fiend! Follow the two princes!
Reward and consideration are had according to the dignity of persons; you have a scarce reputation. You have a contrary heart at the moment! Bow and correct yourself at once! You have wasted your time foully for many days! Men make many moans over your faithlessness; return to God and dwell with his faith always!
Though you have endured God’s reign for a while, do not be too bold; beware of his vengeance! He waits for you to reconcile yourself to him and to abandon your misbelief. It would be wholesome for you to make a change now from the fiend to our lord God, and from vice to virtue, which is his main satisfaction and his mother’s, mankind’s mediatrix.
Some of your feathers were plucked lately, and more shall be; you shall not escape it; you are unwise to debate against God! Cast the flood of pride out of your heart! Grace is alive; convert to God! You may be his if you will obey him; if not you will smart more sorely than the heart of man can imagine, or tongue say!
Almighty God, lord of all and sire, without whom no goodness is wrought, inspire this knight with your abundant grace! Remember how dearly you bought him; he is your handiwork, lord! Do not refuse him though he has offended you outrageously. You who died for mercy, change his thought! Kind lord, enable him for mercy!
You damnable folks that perverted him! You heretics who betrayed him, who was manly, worthy and honorable before he had tried your venom, I don’t doubt that your wages shall be paid sharply unless you correct your trespass. In your false error you shall be cast out and live with Satan.
You, with your sly arguments that contain nothing but falsehoods, have put such fiendish intents in this knight that he is overcome with the load you have laid on his good former knighthood, so that men may now call him a “wretched knight.” The lack of faith has quenched his manhood; his strength against God is nothing when tested.
You call our liege lord “prince of priests” in scorn, but it is a title of honor. The authority of priests exceeds all earthly powers, though it seems sour to the taste of your detestable error. Those who are constant in the faith have good grace in St Peter’s words and are eager to fulfill his bidding.
He commanded that all earthly princes and other men obey bishops. You have no grounds for argument: spiritual things surpass all temporal in dignity, as much as the soul does the body. Search in the scriptures and you will see that it is true.
God made two lights in the firmament of heaven: a more and a less. He lent the greater light to the day, to serve in his clear brightness, and he lent the smaller to the night to help it with his light. They betoken in likeness two dignities: papal authority and king’s might.
Look at the great diversity between the sun and the moon: how much a pope’s authority is above a king’s might. Arise out of your error soon in which you have wallowed for a long time now. Unless you do, I beseech by God that you may feel the pain of the fire!
You who do not respect priests’ power may be called “Christ’s rebels and foes” by men. You wade too far in presumption! Send your souls to the fiend, you foul slaves! You say, “If a priest who has fallen into deadly sin goes to mass, he may not make Christ’s body”; you all falsely err to believe so. You delve too deeply!
A priest that is vicious may make that precious body, day by day, as well as a fully virtuous priest. But the priest should beware; his soul may be harmed, and without doubt it shall unless he is pure. Be what he may, the priest is the instrument of God, through whose words, trust this always, the priest makes the blessed sacrament.
When you meddle in these things, you shoe the goose.5 How do you know what state a man is in? Your false conceits run about loose! If a priest is sinful and separated from God, he may regain God though penitence. No man may clearly know or guess whether any priest, being in deadly sin, for fear of God would dare to perform the mass.
You also say “There should be no pope unless he is the best priest alive.” Oh! You grasp and grope so far after such a thing when you will never derive its knowledge; do not strive! Do not meddle therewith; let all such things pass! Unless you do, you shall never thrive; you are as ignorant as an ass!
Many a man seems wondrously good outwardly and is far from it inwardly, which no man judges unless he is mad; that knowledge belongs to God and to no one else. Though the pope is sinful, it is also true that the high power committed to him is as great as Peter’s, which is admitted among faithful folk.
What good is the law if a judge does not use it properly? God knows, nothing avails him who takes of that cure. Watch that he does only right; beware that he does not stand in his own light! He who keeps and saves his soul is good. I advise you to put your false conceits to flight and ask for and have God’s mercy!
You who pretend to be followers of Christ’s disciples should not live for lust, as you don’t care whose wife you take and hold. The disciples would not live that way, for the sin of adultery is cursed; but you are so bold that you hold it as no sin or folly.
If you are as holy as you present yourself, then live in Christ’s faith! His disciples had the courage to be seen; they would not hide for fear of death, but died in his cause. They didn’t flee to corners as you have done, who stand on the side of the fiends, which are the lanterns of darkness.
They never rose forcibly with weapons to slay and assail folk as you did lately in this country to raise strife and battle against the king. Blessed be to God that your purpose failed, and shall fail. Your broken company, your wretched rascals are too weak; you have no strength!
Also, you oppose pilgrimages, which are fully good if folks practice them well; and also against the making of images, all of which is not worth your chattering and musing. How can you reasonably excuse yourself as not erring when you excite folk to vice and stir them to refuse virtue? Beware of God’s stroke; it weighs heavily.
Visiting saints is virtuous if it is done for devotion; otherwise, it is good to eschew it. Merit is wrought in good intention; live in righteousness and prayer. Talk not of sin on your journey! Let virtue guide you from town to town! And so pilgrimage profits man.
And to disapprove of making images (whether in sculpture or painting) is a great error, for they stir good thoughts and cause men to honor the saint after whom the figure is made and not worship it, however gaily it is wrought. Every creature with reason knows well that it is not a saint.
Just as spectacles help feeble sight when a man reads a book or writes and causes him to see better than he might, his sight does not abide in the spectacles but goes through them and rests on the book! Men may say the same of images; though the image is not the saint, yet the sight is reminded to pray to the saint.
You also hold against possessions of holy church, and that is also an error; your inner eye is full of smoke and mist! While on earth, our Saviour, whom angels served and honored, had purses. Why? So that his church should increase after; so says my authority. You have gone all amiss; all you believe is wrong!
Emperor Justinian was so charitable to holy church, as the scriptures tell, that it had gifts of goods larger and more plentiful than any creature! He thought to give in the best measure possible, he loved holy church so in his heart. You have never given any goods; what right do you have to take any from them?
And if you have not given before this time, standing in the faith as you ought to, should those of holy church now on account of your charge and crime, be despoiled of what they have in hand?6 No, that is not reasonable, as you should understand. Should they who labor day and night praying for those who have so given stop and not strive to do so?
Presumptuous wit, idleness and greed for goods are the three vices that have caused all your empty activities. You also say, “Goods ought to be held in common,” meaning in time of necessity, but to take my goods from me or I of yours by violence or force is very wrong and is robbery.
If a man shall tell the truth about how your hearts are set, plundering is your final intent. You have long been busy making a net, and would be pleased to have it wet in the water to catch the fish you have purposed. But God and our liege lord have stopped you! It is not, nor ever shall be, as you have supposed.
Men say, “You plan to hastily appear, to slay the worm in the peapod.” Come on when you like; you shall regret it dearly! The fiend is your chief, and our head is God! Though we had in our hands only a clod of earth to throw or sling at your heads, that would be weapon enough, or a small twig or reed. The faith of Christ is deeply rooted within us!
We are not afraid, for we have a great advantage: whether we live or are slain in Christ’s faith, if we so die our souls will be lifted up to heaven. On the other side, you fiends shall descend into the dark corners of hell! And yet, this charity lives within us: our desire that you will reform.
You believe many more errors than can be written in a little space, and lack of leisure commands me to stop. I beseech Almighty God’s grace to enable you to see his blessed face, who is one God and three persons. Remember that heaven is a merry place, and hell is full of sharp adversity.
Yet, Oldcastle, for him who shed his blood upon the cross, turn again to his faith! Do not forget the love he had for us, that blissful lord who was slain for us all! Henceforth, do not trouble your brain sorely against the faith as you have done! Christ would be glad for your soul: return knightly to his teaching!
Repent and make peace with him! Look how our Christian prince, our liege lord, labors in arms with many a lord and knight beyond the sea, while you hide and dare not come and show your face! Fie, for shame! How can a knight be out of the honor of this royal voyage?7
There was a time that wherever or whenever there was a knightly fray, Oldcastle would be there. How the cursed fiend has changed you! Flee from him and despise all his works! That done, hurry to our Christian king as fast as you can and humble yourself to him for anything!
2 “Condition and degree” is a common phrase meaning “social status.” Chaucer describes the diverse company of pilgrims going to Canterbury, from knight to plowman, cleric to merchant, and others by their “degree.”
3 Vegece: Flavius Vegetius Renatus (known as Vegece), author of De re militari, which was translated into French in the fourteenth century as De la chose de la chevalerie by Jean de Vignay.
4 Though English was becoming ascendant at the end of the fourteenth century, during the century and earlier England was tri-lingual, with Latin and French (Anglo-Norman and Continental) used by the educated, such as clergy, lawyers, scribes, clerks and the aristocracy. Some complaint literature was written with lines alternating in two languages, such as Anglo-Norman and Latin.
6 The Lollard Disendowment Bill, presented to parliament probably in 1407 or 1410 (Hudson 204) requested seizure by the king of wealth from “worldly clerks, bishops, abbots and priors” who do not perform their offices, help the poor, live in penance or bodily toil as they should. Rather, they live in ease and “take profits that should come to true men” (Hudson 137).
7 At the date of the composition of the poem, Oldcastle is still a fugitive two years after his conviction, and Hoccleve urges him to join Henry V’s forces in France.
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