THE WICKED AGE
MIDDLE ENGLISH COMPLAINT LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION
The Simonie Variants
A number of variations where meaning was substantially different between the three versions have been noted in the translation. On the larger scale, there are many variations between the versions: vocabulary, syntax and line order within stanzas; added and/or omitted stanzas; and order of stanzas. The A-text (476 lines) breaks off in mid-stanza and has no added stanzas; the B-text (413 lines) adds around 20 stanzas and is missing 216 lines containing the anticlerical passages that have been cut from the manuscript; the C-text (468 lines) is complete and has at least four added stanzas.1
The Simonie B-text
Unlike the A- or C-text, the B-text ends with a plea for Christ’s guidance and mercy. The opening stanzas (B 1-18), translated below, contain similar invocations to heavenly figures for grace and to the audience, which are conventional but more often found in romances. They may be his additions, but once again the problem of source arises: did he add them to a lost original or to the A-version, or copy a lost version that contained the stanzas? These questions caution us again about considering the three extant versions as authoritative and leave us with the possibility of other poets’ versions and visions.
Dear lords, listen to me for a while about a new menace that has begun: how the world is turned upside down with falseness by Simony and Covetousness, famous masters of wrong. Jesus, if this is by your will, their power is lasting too long.
May the grace of sweet Jesus Christ, who died on the cross, and that of his Mother, Mary, be among us today and grant us the strength and grace to know the ways by which we may have the everlasting joy of being with him in heaven who is called father and son.
Listen, lords—the day is somewhat long—and you will hear of both joy and mourning. First of plenty and mirth, then of hunger and severe dearth. Those who wish to know themselves, listen and you may learn.2
The A- and B-texts continue after the C-text concludes (A 397-467, B 511-29). The following translation is based on the B-text, which ends with a closing and is included to give full representation of the poems. The translation begins with the corresponding penultimate stanza (B 487-98) of the C-text for continuity.
Because of the wickedness that reigns in this land, I am afraid that God has left us out of his hand through the cold and cruel weathers he has sent. Yet no man gives him any mind; hardly anyone fears God’s great might. God is angry with the people, which is well seen; once all was mirth, but now it is turned to sorrow. He sent us plentiful sustenance of all kinds growing on earth, and we repaid his goodness with wickedness.
At one time a man could not find a boy to bear a letter unless he was given the best food, whether beef, bacon, or the stores of the house. They were so haughty, hardly any would do chores, but now they who were so proud sit pitifully. For when God saw that the world was so arrogant, he sent dearth on earth and made it smart. A bushel of wheat was at four shillings and more, so men who might have had a quarter previously now could not.3 Thus God can turn plenty into scarcity. Then he caused those who had boasted so loudly to grow pale, and those who were so proud to grow humble. A man’s heart might weep to hear poor men cry “Alas, I am dying from hunger!” This ought to make men afraid of God’s great might.
But after that great scarcity God’s plenty returned, growing on every bough. And when the good year came with plentiful grain, we turned into worse shrews than before, so swiftly we forgot God’s punishment and lesson. Then beggars, once humble, became bold, and ate and drank all they could get. There are some, no matter what, to whom no prosperity clings. While there is good ale in the land, they will never thrive. And though men threaten them with the dearth that had slain so many and tell them to reflect upon it, it is futile. Whatever they get goes quickly on checkers and games in the town tavern and filling their bellies, and there is nothing left. Thus Pride rose again in Whoredom and Gluttony, who brought in two others: Falseness and Treachery. The son beguiles the father, and the daughter the mother. So there is no truth; no man loves another in the end, and in this way we are worse than the Jew or Saracen.
Then God became angry with us again, more so than any living man could remember, and brought those merry men into care and mourning. Death was everywhere and the land completely bare, and all were aghast. When the cattle disease passed, God sent another dearth of grain over the land, north and south, and made many a good wife’s child sorely hungry. Yet hardly any man dreaded God the more.
But with the last famine came yet another shame that ought to make us all humble. The Fiend of Hell raised such a strife that every man struggled to save his own life and goods. God, send us peace in England by his holy blood! There was great need to pray for an end to the war wrought by the Fiend that caused one cousin to kill the other and to murder with will, so that England was near destruction.4 Pride drove them on so that there could be no peace, and the most noble blood of this land was brought to the ground. Alas, that such a time should come when great earls and barons should die and be laid so low; now it is as if they were never born. May God care for their souls so that they are not lost.
But while the lords clashed, the prelates of the church slept long and awoke too late, which was a great pity. They were so blinded by greed that they could not see the truth. They had more fear of being mocked than they had love of Jesus Christ. Had they held together and looked for truth rather than flitting about hither and thither, then the baronage that is now divided would be whole. But England is destroyed through Greed and Pride.
But the crafty King of Nature who oversees all saw how things had misfired and how the king had been led. He sent comfort and avenged the dead. Thus men could see Falseness go down and that wrong will always come back home. But Greed overcomes, so that whoever was rich enough and had goods to give could have the ignorant man and the clerk subject to his will, make a false foundation, and destroy all the work at once. May the bones of such stirrers of strife be burned!
For all the hard times God sends to earth, almost no one is the more aware that they are scoundrels, flatterers, and false men, wicked and weak. We are not afraid after all the wretchedness that has been, so this shame came to wake us up.
But suffering fell first on the poor wretches who lay down in the streets, stretched out dead from hunger; such was their fate. Then it came sorely upon the rich. Yet we may dread that still more will come. For Pride has snared both high and low in his net so that hardly any man can know God. Pride rides about with Envy and Malice, while Peace, Love and Charity run out of the land. We may be terrified that God will ruin the world.
We all know it is our guilt that brings us this woe. But no man sees it is for his own sin, but for that of others; if each man knew himself things would go well, but they can only judge others. Lord, for the blessed blood that ran out your side, grant that we lead a righteous life while we are here so that we may know and confess our sins with sorrow and serve God ever the better, for the reasons I have told you, and come to Him who was sold to the Jews for us.
Explicit Symonye and Couetise
The Simonie C-text
The reason for the C-redactor’s omission of the final A- and B-text stanzas translated above is unknown and cannot be determined due to the lack of a theoretical original poem, unclear relationships between the extant texts, and possible lost versions. Embree and Urquhart theorize that the historical events mentioned in A and B had lost relevance by the time C was written, presumably later, and that the poet thereby reduces a “historical account to a generalized moral” (143). But as proven by other literature that refers to past events, medievals had long memories, especially for calamities both natural and social. As mentioned earlier, part of the omission may have been motivated by the desire not to denigrate laborers and beggars, and the redactor may have found some of the material redundant and strove for conciseness, as he did clarity.
1 For a detailed analysis of the difference between the versions, see Embree and Urquhart 42-56.
2 Cf. B 622 “If each man knew himself.”
3 A quarter wagon load was a measure of grain equaling eight bushels. At 4s a bushel a quarter would cost 32s, which accords with historical data.
4 The reference is to the civil war of 1321 and 1322. Edward II and his chief opponent, Henry of Lancaster, were cousins, and many family members fought on opposite sides.
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