THE WICKED AGE
MIDDLE ENGLISH COMPLAINT LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION
The Parliament of the Rats and Mice
Allegory was a way to voice commentary from a safe distance to avoid reprisals, as was the dream-vision form such as Langland’s Piers Plowman, which employs both. Not all allegory was as topical as On the King’s Ministers but more veiled, as in the fable of the mice and rats that appears in the Prologue to Piers Plowman and a sermon by Thomas Brinton, preached in 1376, contemporary with Langland’s B-text (dated c. 1377-79).1
The fable of the parliament of the rats and mice is as old as Aesop, and has often been adapted to express social commentary. Critics generally see it as an observation on the problem of controlling central power and authority, which resonates with the political turmoil during the reign of Richard II (1377-99). Schmidt suggests that Langland's version of the tale has "general validity" but that its "topical application should not be overdone” (306n). However, despite his caveat to avoid overemphasizing a historical reading of the passage, he also points to allusions to the Good Parliament in his dating of the B-text (xvi).
Parliament was called in late April 1376 in an atmosphere of discontent over royal administration, diplomatic tensions and military failures. The commons presented 146 petitions that complained about disorder and abuse at every level of government. Three main speakers called for relieving taxation on the commons, much of which had been improperly used, and having the king bear the expense of war. They also requested support of the commons by the lords through a council of four each of bishops, earls and barons; the king consented, expecting the facilitation of his request for a grant of supplies. In May, the commons reappeared with the accusation against certain royal councilors and advisers for the burden of taxation, two of whom were named. Weeks later the commons demanded the removal of the king’s mistress, Alice Perrers, from court, and reform of the king’s council, to which the king agreed. There was then a long trial during which officials accused of corruption were eventually impeached (the first instance of the not yet established procedure), and the king was granted only a small portion of his financial request.
The action taken against presumably corrupt officials and the seeming victory of the commons gave the proceedings the name “Good Parliament.” It had been led by the very powerful and equally unpopular John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster and son of Edward III, and thus Richard II’s uncle. The actions of the Good Parliament were perceived by the royal family as a threat to the power of the crown, so later that year the great council met and the proceedings of the Good Parliament were reversed, its main supporters penalized by various means from arrest to loss of office, title, and property, and Alice Perrers was returned to court.
Critics generally interpret Langland’s allegorical figures of the rats and mice as the houses of parliament, the cat as John of Gaunt, the kitten as the young Richard, and the “rat of renown” as possibly Peter de la Mare, Speaker of the House of Commons during the Good Parliament.2 The fable begins after the Dreamer in the poem has surveyed a “fair field full of folk” (Prol. 17) and seen the corruption of society, learned how the social structure had been created, and heard a debate on the manner in which the king should administer law and justice.
The Parliament of the Rats and Mice
With that there ran a company of rats at once, with small mice among them, more than a thousand. They were coming to have a council for the common good, for a cat of the court came whenever he liked and leapt on them easily and seized them at his will, and played with them perilously and batted them about.
They said, “We are so full of fear that we dare not speak out! And if we complain about his game he will give us all grief; he will scratch or claw us and hold us in his clutches, and make our life hateful before he lets us pass. If we had the wit to withstand his will, we could be lofty lords and live at our ease.”
A rat of renown, most eloquent of speech, presented an excellent remedy to them all. “I have seen men in the city of London wearing bright necklaces around their necks, and some craftily worked collars. They go about unleashed both in warren and wasteland wherever they like, and elsewhere at other times, as I hear tell. Were there a bell on their necklace, by Jesus, it seems to me that men might know where they were and run away.
“And so,” said the rat, “reason tells me to buy a bell of brass or bright silver and fasten it on a collar for our common good and hang it on the cat’s neck; then we can hear whether he rides, rests, or roams about to play. If he wishes to amuse himself, then we can appear in his presence, and if he is angry, we can be wary and shun his way.”
All the rats agreed with this reasoning, but although the bell was brought and hung on the necklace, there wasn’t a rat in the company, for all the realm of France or England, that dared to bind the bell about the cat’s neck, but they held themselves to be weak and their council feeble, and let their labors and long study be lost.
A mouse that showed much good sense, as it seemed to me, strode forth sternly and stood before them all and said these words to the company of rats: “Though we had killed the cat, another would come to catch us and all our kind, although we creep under benches. Therefore I advise all the commons to let the cat alone, and that we never be so bold as to show him the bell. While he catches conies or feeds on venison, he doesn’t covet our carcasses. We should never defame him, for a little loss is better than a long sorrow of confusion among us all though we are rid of an evil one! I heard my father say seven years ago, ‘Where the cat is a kitten, the court is wretched.’ That is witnessed in Holy Writ, to whoever will read it: ‘Woe to thee, O land, when thy king is a child.’ 3 No man there would rest at night because of rodents, for we mice would destroy many men’s malt, and you rats would tear men’s clothes were it not for the cat of the court who can pounce on you. If you rats had your way, you could not rule yourselves.
“For myself,” said the mouse, “I foresee such consequences that I will never offend the cat or kitten with my counsel, or carp of this collar. Though it cost me my goods, I would not make it known but allow him to do as he likes—leashed or unleashed to catch what he may. Therefore, I warn each wise man to keep to his own!”
Piers Plowman (B Prol. 146-208)
Langland’s retelling of the traditional tale expands and politicizes Aesop’s brief fable, in which the mice wish to bell the cat so they can hide when they hear him coming, but no one is willing to do the task. Fables usually end with an epimythium, or moral, and one translation of Aesop’s fable closes with, “It is easy to propose impossible remedies.” The Franciscan friar Nicolas Bozon included the fable in his collection, Les contes moralisées, written in Anglo-Norman around 1320 and originally applied to prelates and their parishioners (Krochalis and Peters 164). The moral is a proverb given in French as well as English: “Clym, clam, cat lep over dam” (“Climb, climb, the cat leaps over the fence”) or “Hush, hush, if you want to live in peace” (Krochalis 166).
Fables were used as exempla, including in sermons for instruction as well as entertainment to keep the congregants’ attention. Thomas Brinton, Bishop of Rochester, used the fable in his Sermon 69, which was probably preached on 18 May 1376 to a clerical convocation during the Good Parliament. As a bishop, he was a member of the House of Lords, and in his sermon he attacks the people who administer the government “viciously and scandalously,” but he charges that despite the universal protesting, “we dare not speak the unmitigated truth about the appropriate remedy” (486).4
In his version of the fable, the inability to find someone in parliament to bell the cat is dismissed as not being resolvable in that body, and presentation of the matter is therefore “unfounded and vain.” However, Brinton refuses to pass the problem of governmental mismanagement onto the commons. He uses the fable as a warning not to follow the example of the rats and mice, but to take action, to be doers not talkers. According to James 1:25: “The doer of the work, this man shall be blessed,” which is the theme of his sermon.
This moral and solution certainly contrast with the inaction that ends the fable in both Aesop’s and Langland’s versions. One reason for the difference may be timing. The delivery of Brinton’s speech, which was concurrent with the parliamentary session, left room for the hope of making an impact on the members. But Piers Plowman was presumably written after the reversal of the Good Parliament, perhaps no more than a year or two later. Parliament had been unable to stand against John of Gaunt in the event, which would make efforts to control him and royal power seem futile. Thus Langland’s mice and rats resign themselves to the status quo of vulnerability and oppression.
1 Langland revised the text of Piers Plowman several times. The main versions studied are the A (unfinished), B, and C, dated approximately 1367-70, 1377-9, 1385-7 respectively. Piers Plowman is written in the complex alliterative verse form, one of the characteristics of which is sound repetition, and the present translation is somewhat more literal than others in the collection to convey a sense of the prosody. See the Commentary on The Adventures of Arthur in the romance collection of this Special Edition for a detailed description of alliterative verse. For a lively free translation, see Piers Plowman, A New Translation of the B-text, trans. A.V.C. Schmidt (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1992).
2 When the actions of the Good Parliament were reversed, de la Mare was arrested and jailed, and later pardoned and released.