THE WICKED AGE
MIDDLE ENGLISH COMPLAINT LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION
Unlike its companion works of estate literature, The Canterbury Tales and Piers Plowman, The Simonie has rarely been translated. This may be due in great part to its comparative obscurity, as well as the linguistic challenges it presents; both are excellent arguments for the need of a translation. It is also one of the best representations of estate literature, though it has been overshadowed by better known works. And The Simonie is too good a poem to remain obscure.
The Simonie (Simony) is extant in three manuscripts: The Advocates 19.2.1, better known as the Auchinleck (referred to as the A-text), the MS Bodley 48 (B-text), and the Peterhouse at Cambridge (C-text). The three versions are considered distinctly different from each other by scholars, though many of the differences are technical and not noticeable to the general reader, who might see more similarity than divergence. The relationship of the versions to each other is debated by some scholars, with no consensus as to whether they all derive from a common lost source or sources, one version copied from another, or from lost versions.
The poem is usually referred to in the singular despite the three versions, and the A-text is the most studied. Its prominence as “the” poem may be due in part to its presence in the Auchinleck manuscript, famous as one of the early professional “book store” productions in London. The manuscript is also theorized to have been known to Chaucer and Langland, possibly influencing Piers Plowman.1 The preference for the A-text can also be attributed to critical assessment of its artistry as superior to the other two, as well as its early date, which may place it closest to the theorized original.
However, no original source has been found for the poem (or, more properly, poems) though its existence has been postulated. Mohl suspects a French source (98), while Embree and Urquhart have dated a phantom original between 1322 and 1326-1330 and located its probable provenance in the Fens (25). The A-text is more easily dated than the others, since the Auchinleck is dated 1330-40. From internal historical references, the A-text may be placed late in the second quarter or early in the third quarter of the century. The B-text manuscript is fifteenth century, but again internal evidence suggests a date roughly concurrent with the A-text, albeit tentatively depending on varying scholarly estimates.
The C-text’s manuscript is dated in the last quarter of the fourteenth century to the second quarter of the fifteenth, which allows the possibility of a later date for the poem, perhaps post-Plague since the word “pestilence” appears, though it had usage other than “plague.” Other linguistic evidence suggests a late date, as does style (Finlayson 41-44). Historical references are one of the primary clues used to date works, and much emphasis is placed on the famine of 1315-17, which is appropriate to the A-text and probably the B-text. However, famine, cattle disease, and bad weather occurred throughout the century, especially in 1321-22, 1369-70 and again in 1400-01, which would have been timely to the audience of the C-text if written later in the century. Political events are also considered in dating, and Embree and Urquhart point to the omission of certain stanzas from the A- and B-texts as suggestive of a later date, since the events would have lost relevance by the time C was written (23).
The C-text is the most redactive of the three versions, and its artistic merit is assessed from clumsy and lacking in skill (Embree and Urquhart 54-55) to accomplished (Finlayson 41). It does provide concision and clarity compared to the A and B, and a strong, direct voice that places it in close proximity to Langland and Chaucer’s milieu, even if they were familiar with earlier versions. For these reasons, in addition to admittedly subjective aesthetic preference, the C-text is used as the base text for the translation in this collection. Minor variants between texts are footnoted, and major differences are presented in the “Variants” section that follows the translation.
Despite their differences, all three versions share common themes; though many are conventional and universal, they are marked with historical specificity, as is much complaint literature in general. Many themes emerge from cultural and socioeconomic conditions of the times. As the title indicates, the poem’s main focus is simony, which refers not only to the sale of ecclesiastical preferments, but to greed as well. Underlying this overall corruption of society is the loss of truth, a concern shared by many moralists and authors. Truth is an aspect of trouthe, an essential element of social stability that depended on fidelity to one’s word and feudal bonds. It was perceived as imperiled as lord/vassal relationships shifted from a service to a money base. The breadth of the belief in truth’s demise is evidenced by its appearance across the genres including romance, such as Ywain and Gawain, which opens with the theme:
Almighty God who made mankind, shield His servants from sin and maintain them with strength who hear Ywain and Gawain. They were knights of the Round Table, so listen a little while. Arthure, King of England, who won all of Wales and Scotland, as the book says, and many more if men will look, bore the prize of all knights. There was no one in the world so wise; he was true in all things, as befits such a king. Arthure held a feast on Whitsunday at Cardiff in Wales, and after dinner the assembly of lords and ladies, knights and maidens was gay, and they amused each other with the pleasure of their company. They spoke courteously of deeds of arms and hunting, and of good knights who lived before and how they might be known by the bravery of their deeds wherever they went, for they were unrelenting in battle and earned great honor. There was more truth between them than is now seen among men, for truth and love are lost, and men practice another craft. They use words to make things seem true and stable, but it is a fable; there is no truth in their tales (1-40).
Another cornerstone of The Simonie is concern for the poor. In all three versions, the authors stress the effect of the vices and corruption they criticize on the poor. References to the poor are plentiful in complaint literature but lengthy descriptions are rare. A notable exception is found in Piers Plowman:
No man knows, I believe, who is worthy of charity;
But if we take good heed, we will see our neighbors' need,
As prisoners in pits and poor folks in hovels,
Burdened with children and lord's rent;
What they may earn by spinning is spent on the household,
Both on milk and meal to make porridge
To fill the stomachs of their children who cry out for food.
And they also suffer much hunger,
And woe in winter, and waking in the night
Rising to rock the cradle,
To card and comb, to mend and to wash,
To scrape and to reel, rushes to peel.
It is pitiful to read or tell in rhyme
The woe of these women who dwell in cottages;
And of many other men who suffer much woe,
Both cold and hungry, and keep a fair face
Out of shame, and who will not beg or reveal
To their neighbors their need at every meal.
This I know surely as the world teaches.
Those who are needy with many children
And have no wealth but their work to clothe and feed them,
Need many pence and earn few.
Bread and penny-ale is a special treat
And cold meat and fish roasted like venison.
Fridays and fast-days a farthing-worth of mussels
Or so many cockles are a feast to such folk.
These are alms to help those with burdens
And to comfort such cottagers, crippled, and blind folk.
Piers Plowman (C IX, 69-97)
And again in Pierce the Plowman’s Creed:
As I went on my way, weeping for sorrow, I saw a simple man hanging on a plow. His ragged coat was made of coarse material and his hood was full of holes so that his hair stuck out. His lumpy[?] shoes were thickly patched and his toes stuck out as he worked. His stockings hung over the back of his shoes on all sides, and he was spattered with mud as he followed the plow. His mittens were made of rags and the fingers were worn out and covered with mud. He sank in the fen almost to his ankles as he drove four feeble oxen that were so pitiful their ribs could be counted.
His wife walked with him, carrying a long goad. Her short coat was torn, and she was wrapped in a winding sheet for protection from the weather. Blood flowed on the ice from her bare feet. At the end of the strip a little child wrapped in rags lay in a scrapbowl; two twelve-year old children stood on either side, and they all sang a sorrowful song. The poor man sighed sorely and said, “Children, be still!
Pierce the Plowman’s Creed (420-42)
In The Simonie the poor are seen in brief but memorable snapshots rather than portraits. The B-author added several stanzas concerning poverty in which the victims are glimpsed. For example: “A simple workman in a town who leads an honest life, and has a wife or children, perhaps two or three, sweats many a drop and works hard all day for a penny, perhaps two. At the end of the day when he counts up, half has been stolen!” (439-44). Inequitable taxation forces those “who have fallen into poverty and have a houseful of children sitting about on the floor” to pay the same rate as a prosperous landowner (409-11). Brewers and bakers who bribe the court to circumvent fixed prices cause the poor “to have all the pain at mealtime” since they cannot pay the inflated costs (445-49). Lords, who should protect the poor, don’t discuss their plight, and “these bondmen and widows weep and cry to God for revenge” (452-55). But while “the poor have their purgatory here, the rich will have their day in hell” (460-61).
The C-poet’s “bias in favour of the virtuous poor” (Embree and Urquhart 129) is evidenced by comparison to the A and B texts. For example, in a stanza regarding the skimming of the king’s taxes by his officials:
There are so many partners, no tongue can tell. (A 306)
There are so many gatherers, no tongue can tell. (B 408)
There are so many partners, no poor man dare tell. (C 353)
And regarding attorneys:
He will take a hundred pounds to put down his hood
And speak a word or two for you and do little good. (A 345-46)
One will ask a hundred pounds to put on his hood
And speak a word or two for you that do little good. (B 375-76)
He will take half a mark and put down his hood
And speak a word for a poor man and do him little good. (C 399-400)
If the C-text was, as theorized, written in the last half of the fourteenth century, a greater emphasis on poverty resonates with the changing attitudes towards the poor, who needed a stronger voice. The author’s omission of stanzas in the A and B texts (see “Variants”) that criticize beggars and laborers may reflect his sympathy for those groups, who were already under legislative and social attack.
Pity for the poor became mingled with distrust and fear in the fourteenth century, particularly post-Plague. Socioeconomic changes created demands for higher wages from laborers, and “false beggars” who feigned poverty to avoid work. The truly needy were caught in the net of suspicion and lost aid. From this social perspective, Embree and Urquhart’s commentary on poverty in The Simonie is rather puzzling. They envision a composite author of the three versions and are apparently cynical about ”his” sympathy for the poor, which they suggest is rhetorical and patronizing. They claim that the “entirely conventional themes” of the “virtue and victimization of the poor” in moral literature provided a “safe, traditional and highly sentimental object” to help authors make their mark (38-39).
This assumes an audience which could be impressed with sympathy for the poor. Embree and Urquhart envision the audience for complaint literature as primarily urban middle class, which they see as “still narrow but diverse” (35) while Coleman sees it as “wide-ranging” (64), but that amorphous group’s attitudes may have been ambivalent. Towns and cities were crowded with the poor, who are rarely represented in the literature (The Simonie is an exception), and sensitivity may have been dulled by inurement. Charity (frequently self-serving) did not cease, but poverty, ever present, continued to be widespread.
Thus the intention of impressing an audience with sympathy for the poor to “establish credentials” (Embree and Urquhart 39) is out of touch with social reality, particularly post-Plague. More likely, authors sincerely attempted to evoke concern and charity for the poor in response to “the sudden worsening of the lot of the poor, which followed royal wars, royal taxation and royal crisis” (Maddicott, Poems 144). The effect of institutional and personal corruption on the poor fueled authors’ agendas. For example, Pierce the Plowman’s Creed,2 part of the Piers Plowman tradition, is a Lollard antifraternal attack, and its depiction of the poor plowman quoted earlier is among the most graphic in literature. The fact that the author evokes exaggerated pathos to highlight the harm done to the poor by ecclesiastical greed and to compare the misery of one to the opulence of the other does not nullify, but strengthens, his critical intentions.
We therefore have no reason to suspect the Simonie-poet’s motives, though they were naturally based to some degree on cultural influences and personal biases. But profiling the author(s) is problematic, hampered by the existence of three versions, probably written by different poets.3 Two can be dated in close proximity to each other, while the C-text may be separated from them by years and significant events. Each version was copied by a different scribe, which muddies dialectical evidence.
Scholars seem more interested in the audience than author, and generally base theories on the A-text. In his study of what he terms “verse of complaint,” Kinney focuses on the relationship between poet and audience, which was either communal, in which shared attitudes were expressed, or noncommunal, in which disinterested poets spoke to, not for, the audience (83).
The verse of complaint has a “temper,” a range of emotions aroused in the audience by, and sometimes with, the poet. Kinney places The Simonie in the communal category and paints a lively scene of the poet’s effect on the audience: “The tough fearlessness of the poet is contagious and the audience begins to share his anger and revel in his sarcasm” (81), and the “contempt, disgust and exasperation” with which the poem “growls” (82). Kinney’s “verse of complaint,” including The Simonie, is a popular expression against the two upper estates, and he reckons the poem’s appeal is to the poor who are oppressed by the rich and mighty.
While the poor might be among the audience, particularly if the poem is presented in public, this vision is at odds with that of other scholars who see the audience as primarily middle class (Embree and Urquhart 35), which might include merchants, gentry, clerics, craftsmen and others, urban and rural, of diverse economic levels, some moving from the third to the second estate, and some caught in between. It is doubtful that many would be worked into a frenzy; some might be offended and engage in finger-pointing, while others might share recognition of the society’s corruption and insecurity. We are now the audience, and as we react we may find the poet’s world no so different from ours, which helps explain the enduring interest in medieval literature.
The Simonie is a rather difficult poem, and in a few instances some lines and/or phrases resist translation due to idiomatic, dialectic, syntactic and other challenges. A few have been omitted when the sense of the poem was not disturbed, rather than retained with complicated critical footnotes inappropriate to an introductory translation. Repetitive passages have occasionally been compressed to improve readability.
1 The seminal article on that relationship is Elizabeth Salter, “Piers Plowman and The Simonie,” Archiv für das Studium der Neueren Sprachen und Literaturen 203 (1966). She finds it difficult to determine whether Langland was more influenced by the A- or C-text (253). Finlayson suggests that the A-text or exemplar influenced Langland, and that the C-text of The Simonie was influenced by Langland (50).
3 Finlayson suggests the B-text is a copy of the A-text (50).
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