THE WICKED AGE
MIDDLE ENGLISH COMPLAINT LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION
You who will stay, listen, and you will hear why war and destruction are in the land and manslaughter has come, why hunger and dearth on earth have seized the poor, why beasts are starving and wheat is so dear. Listen, whoever will, for I will not lie. Heaven-blessed may be he who listens here for a while, how plenty and mirth are downtrodden by pride, how it has turned steadfastness and truth to treachery, and how all poor men sing “Alas, I am dying from hunger!” Praised be the King of Heaven, for such is his might.1
God greets all the people and has them understand that there is but Falseness and Treachery in the land. At the court of Rome, where Truth should begin, he is forbidden from the palace and dares not enter for fear. Even if the pope called him in, he would stay outside. All the pope’s clerks have agreed that should Truth come among them, he shall be slain. If he should encounter Simony, he will lose his head.
The voice of the clerk is ignored at the court of Rome, unless he brings gold or silver, even if he were the holiest man ever born. Alas, why do they love something so much that is worthless? But if a fornicator or scoundrel comes to court with gold and silver, his needs are speedily met. Thus Greed and Simony have the world at their will.
Archbishops and bishops should examine the state of all men of religion, but some are fools themselves, leading a feeble life. So they dare not speak, lest a strife among the clergy arise and each reveal others’ weak ways. The church has been much degraded since St Thomas of Canterbury, a just bishop who governed the church properly, was struck down. Now many are ignorant and work poorly so that all is amiss. Though everyone knows no one can serve two masters, too many are in office with the king and gather heaps of gold while they ignore the state of the church, against God’s will.
Archdeacons who are sworn to make visitations to their churches soon begin to work wickedly. They take bribes and with their mouths shut by Greed, let their parson and priest have wives as they like. When an old parson dies, the young clerks start to woo the patron and bishop with gifts. Upon his horse, Greed soon delivers silver to the bishop and whispers in his ear. All the poor clerks have no chance, for whoever brings the most will have the church. Thus all goes amiss.
As soon as the young parson is installed in his church, he begins to scheme. The mice can’t eat the grain in his barn, for he spends it at a cursed house, and it is all used up by Christmas Day. When he has gathered together marks and pounds, he rides out into a strange country with hawks and hounds, and holds a wench in a hut; she who catches such a parson first will do well. This is how they serve the chapels and the church. He takes all he can from the church and leaves nothing for the poor, and leaves there behind him a thief and a whore—a servant and a milkmaid who lead a sad life as they openly go to bed as a good man and his wife, with sorrow. No poor man shall have their alms at evening or on the morrow.2
When he has sold wool and sheep for silver, he packs his purse with a kerchief, comb and mirror, a cap to bind his hair, and a fiddle for playing.3 The bishop who allows him to do so bears the blame, but although he knows about it, he can be silenced with a little silver. He takes meed from clerks and supports wenches, and lets the parish be destroyed. The devil drown him for his works! Sorry may the father be who ever made him a clerk!
If the parson has a clean-living priest who is a good minister to maiden and to wife, then another will put him out by working for a little less, but his knowledge is not worth a farthing and he hardly knows his mass. Thus the parson’s sheep go astray for lack of guidance. An ignorant priest is no better than a jay; he speaks good English but does not know what he says, nor does he understand the gospels he reads. Everyone knows, by the cross, that there are many priests; but not all are good, and they ruin the reputation of those who are by playing foolish games at night, going about with sword and buckler as if they would fight.
Abbots and priors go against right, riding with hawks and hounds as though they were knights. They should shun such pride and practice religion, but now Pride is lord and master in each order’s house. Religion is not tended and goes all wrong. As surely as I will die one day, wherever there is religion, there is envy. Men of religion have been so changed by Pride and Envy that there is no longer unity among them; love and charity are turned to woe and ruin.
If six or seven men come to any abbey and one asks for alms in God’s name, he will stand outside hungry and cold. No man, young or old, will help him out of love for the king of all kings who sits above us all. But if a boy comes with a letter for the abbot from a lord who could do him harm, the porter leads him into the hall and makes him warm, while God’s man stands outside. That is a sorry law! Thus God almighty is driven out of religion. He may not come among them in field or in town; his men are unwelcome, both early and late. The porter is ordered to keep them outside the gate in the fen. How well can they love the lord, who treat his men so?
Those in orders suffer great sorrow for our Lord’s love; they wear socks in their shoes and furred boots; they are well fed with good flesh and fish, and if the meat is good, little is left in the dish. Thus they torture their bodies to keep Christ’s commandment. Religion was founded for endurance of penance; now it is greatly turned to pride and gluttony. Where will you find rosier, fairer or fatter men than monks, canons or friars in town? Truthfully, there is no easier life than religion. The man of religion knows what he will do every day. He cares about nothing but his noon meal; he doesn’t worry about clothing or rent; but when he comes to eat, he fills his stomach with the best food, then goes to rest. If he has a stomach ache after his meal, he draws a good quart or more of strong ale, the best brewed, and soon goes to rest. This is the bodily penance paid, night and day.
There are other men of religion: Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites and Augustinians, who will preach more for a bushel of wheat than to bring a soul to rest out of Hell’s heat. Greed is lord, east and west. If I go to a friar and ask for absolution, and you go to another and bring him a gift, you will be taken into the refectory and welcomed, while I stand outside like a man mad with sorrow, and my errand will not be fulfilled until the morrow.
If a rich man is overtaken by illness, the friars go to him all day, but if a poor man lies in great suffering, they loathe the one friar who goes to him. Now you know how the game goes. If a rich, powerful man dies, the friars will fight for his body all day. The cow does not low for the calf, but for the good grass that grows in the meadow, I swear. All good men know what I mean. As sure as I must cover my head with my hat, the friar will attend to the dead man if the body is fat, but by the faith I have in God, if the body is lean the friar will walk about the cloister and keep his feet clean in his house.4 How can they deny that they are greedy?
There is another religious order, the Hospitallers, who are lords and sires over the country. They should all be afraid when they think of how the Templars5 have succeeded on account of pride. In truth, property comes and goes as does the weather in March.
Officials and deans who hold court should chastise men who sin and embolden them. But give a gift to the official where you plan to live, and you will have a year’s leave to serve the devil. If they have the silver, they take no notice of sin. If a man has a wife he doesn’t love, he brings her to the consistory court, where truth should be wrought. If he brings two false witnesses with him and he testifies as the third, he shall be separated from his wife, and will be supported in leading a wicked life.6 When he has left his true spouse and takes his neighbor’s wife into his house, if he has enough silver to send among the clerks, he may have her to his life’s end. God curse those who deal with such deceit!
But there is another craft related to clerical learning: the physicians, who help men die.7 He wags his patient’s urine in a glass vessel and swears by St John that the man is sicker than he is and tells the wife: “Dame, for lack of help, the good man is slain.” Thus he frightens everyone there and makes up lies to win silver. Then he begins to comfort the wife; “Dame, if you lay out the cost, we shall save his life,” though he has no idea whether the man will live or die.
First he begins to blear the wife’s eye and asks for half a pound to buy spices; eight shillings goes for wine and ale, and he brings them roots and rinds, a bagful worth nothing. It will be an expensive brew when it is done. He praises the remedy and swears as though mad: “By the King of England, the drink is sweet and good!” and gives the man a large drink, which makes him worse than he was. The clerk who takes silver and works falsely must be evil! He tells the wife to boil a capon and a piece of beef, but the patient never gets a morsel, no matter how much he wants it. The physician stuffs himself and gives the man lean broth that is not good for the sick. God curse him for deceiving the good man so! He makes himself as comfortable as he can at night and looks after his horse and servant. The next day he takes the urine and shakes it in the sun and lies to the wife, “Dame, blessed be God, the master is saved.” Thus he takes the silver and deceives the good wife.
By my soul, this world is cursed. Both ignorant and learned men have many dealings with Falseness, who comes to each fair and pitches his booth first. The unlearned are the concern of the pope, who greets them well—William, Richard and John—and has them understand that truth is gone. He says that whoever drove Truth out of the land without process of law deserves to be hanged and drawn. When Truth was in the land, he was a good friend, always ready to speak for poor men, who now go down; may God avenge them! Pride and Greed judge overall and turn the laws upside down; thus are poor men destroyed, while rich men don’t have the slightest fear of God.
Earls, barons and knights who are powerful in town and field are sworn to uphold the church; knighthood was created to fight for the church, without fail. But they are the first to assail it. They make war and cause destruction in the land, where there should be peace. They should prove their might by going to the Holy Land and help avenge Jesus Christ. Then they would be true knights, but they are lions in the hall and hares in the field instead.8
Knights should wear clothing according to their order, just as a friar should. But now they are disguised in such diverse array that no one can tell a knight from a minstrel. So Meekness has fallen low, and Pride risen high, and the order of knighthood turned upside down. They should be as courteous as any lady in the land, but they chide like any scold in town; for a knight to speak all manner of filth is shameful. Thus chivalry is corrupted and grown lame.
Chivalry is now crippled and wickedly ordered. If a boy can bear a spear, he shall be made a knight. Thus knights of unnatural blood are gathered and taint the order that should be gentle, good and noble. One shrew in a court may disgrace a whole company.9 To serve God, knights shall swear each limb: his eyes, his feet, his nails; his soul is not spared. Now they are the gentry in the chamber and hall, but on doomsday no man can hide his oaths.
Now there is not a vain squire on this earth who does not wear a bauble and a long beard, and swears often by God’s soul and often vows to God: “I curse him for that, by God, both hosed and shod, for his works!” God is wroth with both unlearned men and clerks for such oaths.10 God’s soul is sworn, and the squire’s knife sticks out. Though his boots are all torn, he still swaggers about. His hood hangs on his breast, like a slobbering lout’s. Alas, the soul deserves to be lost for such pride of the body. Truthfully, he is deceived when he thinks he is doing well. They have found a new fashion that is now seen in every town. Stripes are turned sideways that used to go up and down. They are costumed as tormentors in a clerk’s play, and are so disguised that they are no longer like men.11 They are all caught up with pride and have cast dignity into a ditch.
Officials under the king12 who should maintain right make a fair, clear day into dark night. They go their own way and won’t stop on account of scandal, and their chamber at home is their courtroom. It is the poor man who suffers continually. 13 When the king needs strong men from each town to help him with his war—fourteen or ten—for ten or twelve shillings the strong men stay at home and send wretches who can’t help themselves at need.14 Thus the king is deceived and poor men harmed for meed.
When the king has a taxation to fund his war, a portion is gathered from each town. It is torn and twisted so that half goes in the devil’s flight of Hell. There are more partners than a poor man can tell. A man who has a hundred pounds shall pay twelve pence, and so shall a poor man who has fallen into poverty and has a houseful of children sitting about on the floor. Thus the poor are plundered and the rich spared; such a system has Christ’s curse.
The king of England would be wroth if he knew how his poor men are robbed and how the silver goes;15 the taxes are so pulled apart, hither and thither, that half is stolen before it is collected and counted. If a poor man speaks a word, he will be foully affronted. If the king would follow my advice, I would teach him that he has no need to plunder the poor.16 He should not seek his treasure so far away, but find it closer from justices, sheriffs, coroners and chancellors. There he might find enough and leave the poor in peace.17 Those in such offices, no matter how poor they begin, in a while fare as though they have a hoard of silver, buying land and properties, and horses as fair as the king’s except great steeds.18 and cannot be resisted With so many such men in the land, why should the poor be robbed? They play with the king’s silver and breed madness for wealth. They take from a poor man who has but half a plowland, or a wretched laborer who lives by his hands, I swear. These officials do the king’s bidding; when each takes his part, the king has the less. Each wants to fill his own purse at the king’s expense, who wrongly bears the blame.19 God send Truth into England; treachery lasts too long.20
Bailiffs under the sheriff are always finding ways to cause poor men grief. They summon poor men to London to serve at court sessions, while the rich stay at home collecting silver. Christ’s curse on them, unless they change their ways! Sergeants-at-law at the bench, who stand at the bar, will beguile you if you are not wary. He will take half a mark and put down his hood, and speak a word for a poor man that does him little good, and makes a grimace as he leaves.21
Attorneys in the country earn silver for doing nothing. They invent cases that have no basis, and make whatever they win with falseness seem honestly earned. Don’t trust too much to them, for they are false by skill.22 Such are the men of this world: deceitful. If any man wants to live in truth and reason and not join the crowd of false neighbors, he may live every day in fear. Why? He shall be indicted for manslaughter and robbery. The truest man in the land shall be found guilty of a crime never committed, taken and bound as though he were a strong thief, and led to the king’s prison where he will lie and rot. Or after a false inquest, he will be hung by the neck.
Many jurors and witnesses at courts of assize in the shire or hundred23 hang men for silver. And it is no wonder, for when they see a rich justice do wrong for meed, they think they may do better since they have greater need. Thus has Greed led them away from Truth for the love of deadly sin.
By St James in Gale, who many have sought,24 the pillory and the cucking stool are made for naught. For in the end, when all is reckoned, bread and ale are more expensive and never a better bargain for all that.25 Tradesmen used to buy and sell honestly but now the regulations are broken. Treachery is maintained and Truth put down, which is a great pity. There is barely any man who knows a craft who can be trusted. Falseness is covering the world, and there is hardly any truth in hand, tongue, or heart, and it will not stop unless God brings them grief.26
There was a game in England that lasted a year and another: every Monday each man cursed the other.27 The game lasted so long among the learned and the unlearned that they did not stop until the world was accursed. All that could ever help man is going amiss.
Because of all the Falseness in the land, God Almighty of Heaven has bound us with his bond and sent cold, cruel weather, yet no one pays attention; we have no fear of his great might. But it is well seen that God is angry with the world; all that was play and game is turned to sorrow and pain. He gave us plentiful fruits of all kinds, yet we ever act with wickedness against God. When he sees the world is so perverse, he sends his visitation onto the earth and gives us grief, when beasts are starving and grain is dear, and there is hunger and pestilence in each land, as you may hear everywhere. Unless we amend our ways, worse will come.
1 “This ought to make men afraid of God’s great might” (A 402, B 516).
2 These lines are ambiguous and, as the editors offer, can mean that the parson either has a thief and a whore for his servants, or has turned his servants into a thief and a whore (Embree and Urquhart 117). In context, the latter seems more likely, good folk turned into sinners due to poverty and the corrupt parson’s influence.
3 The original text reads:
and patyl on the rowbyble and in non other bokes (C 94)
(and rattles on his fiddle and on no other books)
The word rowbyble (rouwe bible A 88) (rübibe, ribibe, rebibe), “violin,” is a pun on “bible” that drives the full line, which obviously cannot be captured in modern English. The grooming aids and headdresses reflect not only his vanity but his desire to conceal his tonsure and thus clerical identity. The musical instrument suggests ribaldry.
4 Theoretically all Christians were due a proper burial, but by this time fees were frequently required. In the romance Sir Amadace, the hero spends his last money to pay for the burial of an impoverished merchant. In Piers Plowman, Piers expects, or hopes, to have a church burial and mass, since he had paid the parish priest his tithes promptly “for peril of my soule” (B VI 93).
5 The Knights Templar, a military and religious order, was suppressed in 1312 by the papacy and their property transferred to the Hospitallers. In England, much of their seized wealth went to the crown (McKisack 292).
6 Dissolution of marriage was within the purview of the ecclesiastical (consistory) courts. There was no “divorce,” only annulment or separation. Brundage (510) finds little evidence of corruption in those actions, but his study is based on official records, which would not be likely to include corrupt dealings and do not always accord with the representations in literature.
7 Most physicians were technically secular clergy.
8 The phrase may be conventional. It also appears in the Summa Predicantium of John Bromyard: “Hi sunt in pretoriis leones, in preliis lepores” and describes knights as fierce in the hall, where they should be courteous, and timid on the fighting field, where they should be fierce (Owst 331).
10 The C-version is somewhat confused here, probably due to scribal error. The A- and B- texts read: “And now there is no squier on this earth who does not bear a bauble [knife] and a long beard, and all day swears by God’s soul and vows to God. But if he should lose tunic or coat for each vow, I believe he would stand stark naked, twice a day or evening” (A 271-76, B 343-48).
11 Extravagance in both men’s and women’s clothing was frequently criticized.
12 “Justices, sheriffs, mayors, bailiffs” (A 289); “Justices, sheriffs, stewards” (B 392).
13 “If the hand is crossed with silver, it will go well enough” (A 294, B 396).
14 Soldiers were conscripted through commissions of array, which were delegated to local officials, who had opportunity for profit. They could take bribes ranging from 12d to 10s from the strong or wealthy, which usually resulted in poorer men being selected. The costs of outfitting men for battle were provided by each vill, and the commissioners of array could siphon off the levies collected. (Maddicott 42-43). Maddicott cites the impressment of an “old and weak” man by a commissioner until he paid 2s (42), and another who extorted 2s from a “simple-minded villein” by promising to get him off (38). Records suggest that the illicit income of one arrayer, Sir John Savage, totaled nearly as much as that of a middling knight in the fourteenth century (42).
15 There was a belief that the king was unaware of the corruption and exploitation in his kingdom, as he was shielded by his advisors who kept the truth from him, and that if he knew he would make things right. It was a naïve hope, as records show of his having been informed. See Dan Embree, “’The King’s Ignorance’ : A Topos for Evil Times,” Medium Ævum 54 (1985).
16 “If the king were well advised and would work by reason, he would have little need to plunder the poor” (A 319-20). This is one of the several instances of the C-author speaking in a personal voice.
18 There were horses for different uses, such as “palfreys” for riding; “steeds” were for combat.
19 In the romance/ballad King Edward and the Shepherd, the king acknowledges the corruption of his officials but claims ignorance of their identity. If he knew, he would take action against those who act with villainy, “for the king bears all the infamy” (144).
20 Two stanzas (lines C 379-390) have been compressed to avoid repetition and to improve readability.
21 “And when the man turns his back, the lawyer makes a grimace” (A 348, B 378).
“And when the good man goes away, the lawyer makes a grimace” (C 402).
23 The courts of assize handled civil actions and were held periodically in each county by the High Court of Justice. A “hundred” was a territorial division based on one hundred homesteads, and had its own court (MED).
24 The shrine of St James at Compostella in northern Spain was a famous pilgrimage site.
25 Prices for bread and ale were regulated by ordinance (assize), which also governed weights and measures. Penalties for failure to observe the statute ranged from fines to corporal punishment.
26 “Therefore it is no wonder that all the world is in pain” (A 366, B 480).
27 Embree and Urquhart cite lamentations in Piers Plowman and the Vita Edwardi Secundi that cursing has become a game (142).
Return to The Simonie Table of Contents
Return to Main Table of Contents