THE WICKED AGE
MIDDLE ENGLISH COMPLAINT LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION
As mentioned in the Introduction to the Literature of Complaint section, social commentary was expressed in literary forms other than those grouped in the complaint genres. Romances frequently contain moral didacticism as well as criticism of society and contemporary conditions. In fact, few offer pure entertainment without an edifying element, in response to audience demand and authorial agenda. Some address moral failings, ethical issues, and, often savagely, the broad spectrum of social disintegration observed in complaint literature.
The romance presented here, Sir Cleges, dated to the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century, deals with corrupt court officials who harass and exploit the poor. Despite the folk motifs of the miraculous cherries, the shared strokes, and the biter bit, the poem is infused with cultural representation. The “spendthrift knight” topos of an aristocrat who overspends his wealth to the point of poverty, usually on charity, suffers enlightening hardships and regains his former status, generally with supernatural aid, is common.1 Though usually used didactically, the image resonates with socioeconomic reality, as aristocratic fortune was adversely impacted post-Plague for many, though usually not so dramatically as in the literature.2 And the extortion of the peasantry by royal and manorial officials is documented well enough to argue against literary convention or stereotype, regardless of frequent poetic appearance.
Listen, lords, and you will hear of ancestors who were before us, both hardy and strong, in the time of King Arthur’s father, the handsome Uther Pendragon. He had a knight named Sir Cleges; none at the Round Table was so doughty at need. He was a man of high stature, fair of all features, and great might. There was no more courteous, noble and generous a knight in the world. He gave gold to squires who had fought in wars and had fallen into poverty. He treated his tenants well, never quarreling or punishing them; he was as mild as a maid. His stores were plentiful, and food was given to every man who came to him.
The knight had a noble wife named Dame Clarys; a better or more beautiful lady might not be alive, full of all goodness and of glad cheer day and night. They were both great almsfolk to both poor men and friars. They cheered many a person, and because of them no man, rich or poor, suffered loss; they always made it right.
Every year Sir Cleges held a feast, as royal as though he were a king, in honor of Christmas. Rich and poor were invited, and no one refused to come. There was much mirth, and when the feast was over the minstrels received gifts of horses, robes, rich rings, gold and silver and other things. The feasts in worship of Him who rules all and died on the Cross for us were held for ten or twelve years, and though his fortunes began to slacken off, noble Sir Cleges continued to hold the feasts. He mortgaged his manors to defray his debt, and in this way held feasts for many years, for both nobles and commoners in the name of God almighty.
Truth to tell, at the last all his wealth was spent, but though his goods were nearly gone he still made a feast and hoped to be requited by God. His manors were all sold except one, which was of such little value that he and his wife could barely live. His men, so full of pride, all left him, so to that only he, his wife and two children remained, and he moaned greatly.
One Christmas eve, Sir Cleges and Dame Clarys dwelt near Cardiff. As it drew near noon, he suddenly fell into a swoon, woefully remembering the mirth he used to bring. Now he had sold his manors with their tenancies and wide lands, and sorrowfully wrung his hands and sorely wept over his failed pride. As he walked up and down sighing, he heard a sound of diverse minstrelsy: trumpeters, pipers, drummers, harpers and others. There were many carols and great dancing, and he heard singing everywhere. He wrung his hands, weeping and moaning, and sighed piteously.
“Jesus, Heaven’s King who made all things out of nothing, I thank You for Your grace. I was able to make mirth in this time for Your sake; I fed rich food and good drink to all who came in Your name, free and bondsmen. They lacked neither wild nor domestic game, and I spared no expense.”
As he stood there mourning, his wife came and embraced him. She kissed him with glad cheer and said, “My true wedded companion, I hear well what you mean, but you can see it doesn’t help to have such sorrowful thoughts. I advise you to stop, let go of your sadness, and thank God for His loan of all He has sent.3 For Christ’s sake, I counsel you to cease your sorrow in honor of this holy day. Now every man should be merry and glad with such goods as they have, and I pray you do so. Let us go to our dinner and be as joyful as we can. It is for the best; I have made our meal truly, I hope, to your liking.”
Sir Cleges assented and went with her, in a somewhat better mood. When he fell into thought and sorrow, she comforted him all the more, and he began to grow happy and quickly wiped the tears from his cheeks. Then they washed and went to dinner with such as they could get and made merry. When they had eaten, they spent the day in mirth as best they could. They played with their children, and went to bed after evensong. They slept until the church bell rang, then arose, got ready, and went to service with their children. Cleges knelt and prayed to Jesus Christ on his wife’s account: “Gracious Lord, for my wife and my two children, keep us out of trouble!” The lady prayed to Him, “God, keep my lord from pain into everlasting life!” After service they thanked God omnipotent and went home quickly.
When he came to his palace, Cleges thought his sorrow was gone, and he sent his wife and children ahead and went alone into a nearby private garden. He knelt in prayer and thanked God with all his heart for all those who suffered poverty that He had sent to him. He reached for a bough of the cherry tree under which he was kneeling to help himself stand, and when he caught it he found green leaves and many berries. “Dear God in Trinity,” he exclaimed, “what kind of berries can these be, growing at this time of year? I have never seen a tree bear fruit in this season, anywhere I have been.” He tasted one, and it was the best cherry he had ever seen. He cut off a small branch and brought it to his wife.
“Look, here is a novelty I found on a tree in our garden. I fear it is a token of more grief to come because of our great complaining.” But his wife said, “It is a sign of more goodness and plenty to come. Whether we have more or less, it is always truly best that we thank God.” The lady said cheerfully, “Let’s fill a basket with the fruit that God has sent, and tomorrow at daybreak you shall go to Cardiff and present it to the king. For such a gift we may fare better, I tell you truly.”
Sir Cleges agreed with her plan immediately. At daylight, Dame Clarys prepared the basket and told her eldest son: “Gladly take up this basket and bear it on your back easily after your noble father.” Cleges had no horse for his journey, so says the book,4 so he took a staff for his hackney as do the poor. He and his noble son went right to Cardiff on Christmas day and went straight to the castle gate as though they were preparing for the noon meal. But Cleges was dressed in poor, simple clothing, and the porter scornfully told him to leave at once. “Otherwise, by God and St Mary, I will break your head. Go stand with the beggars. If you come in any farther, you’ll regret it after I’ve beaten you.”
“Good sir,” replied Sir Cleges, “I pray you to let me in, for I have brought the king a gift from Him who made all things out of nothing. Look!” The porter went to the basket and quickly lifted up the lid and saw the cherries. He knew well that the king would give great gifts for this present. He said, “By Him who bought me dearly, you shall not come in at this gate, by Him who made this world, unless you grant me a third part of what the king will give you, be it silver or gold.”
Sir Cleges agreed and entered without any more resistance at a rapid pace. The officer at the door was standing with a staff, and when he saw Sir Cleges come in so boldly, he said, “Get out of my sight, churl, without delay, or I shall beat your every limb, head and body without mercy if you advance farther.”
“Good sir,” said Sir Cleges, “for His love who made man, cease your angry manner, for I have brought a present from Him that made all things out of nothing and died upon the Cross. Last night this fruit grew, which is noble and good; look to see if I am false or true.” The usher lifted up the lid quickly and marveled at the fairest cherries he had ever seen.
The usher said, “By sweet Mary, I tell you surely that you will not step into this hall unless you give me, without refusal, the third part of your winnings when you return to me.” Sir Cleges said no more but immediately agreed; it could be no other way. Then Sir Cleges, with a heavy expression, took his son and basket into the hall.
The steward started forth quickly among the richly dressed lords in the hall and went boldly to Sir Cleges and said, “Who made you so hardy to come here before you were bidden? Churl, you are too bold. I advise you to withdraw immediately, in your old clothing. Cleges told him, “Sir, I have brought a present from that Lord who bought us dearly and bled on the Cross.”
The steward came forth immediately and plucked up the lid as fast as he could, and said, “By dear Mary, I have never seen this at this time of year since I was born. You shall not come near the king unless you grant my demand, by Him that bought me dearly. By my fortune, I will have the third part of the king’s gift, or else go throw yourself out!”
Sir Cleges stood and thought to himself, “If I should share between three men, I will have nothing for all my work, unless it is a meal.” As he thought and sighed greatly, the steward said to him, “Harlot, have you no tongue? Speak to me and don’t wait long to grant what I ask, or I will beat your rags into your back with a staff and shove you out headlong!”
Sir Cleges saw no other remedy than to grant the steward’s demand and said with a sigh, “Whatever the king gives in reward, you shall have the third part, be it less or more.” With that word, the steward and Sir Cleges were in accord and nothing more was said. Cleges went up to the king quickly and he proffered his present full fairly, kneeling before him. He uncovered the basket and kneeling upon the ground showed the bright cherries to the king and said, “Jesus our Saviour sent you this fruit with great honor, growing this day on earth.”
The king saw the fresh, new cherries and said, “I thank you, sweet Jesus; here is a fair novelty.” He commanded Sir Cleges to eat dinner and to have a word with him afterward, without fail. The king made a present and sent it to a noble lady who was born in Cornwall. She was bright and beautiful, and afterwards was his own queen. The cherries were served throughout the hall, and the most royal king said, “I counsel you to be merry! And I shall make him who brought me this present so content that it shall avail him well.”
When all the men were merry and glad, the king told a squire, “Bring before me the poor man who brought the cherries.” The squire went immediately and didn’t tarry, without scorn; he brought Cleges before the king. Cleges fell on his knees and knew his reward had been lost. He asked the king, “Lord, what is your will? I am your freeborn man.”
The king responded, “I thank you heartily for the great present you have given me. You have honored all my feast, most and least, with your dainties, and honored me also. By God, I will grant you whatever you will have, whether your heart desires landholdings, or other goods, however it goes."5
“Have mercy, liege king!” Cleges exclaimed. “This is a high thing for someone like me. To grant me landholdings or any goods, by God, is too much for me. But if I shall choose for myself, I ask for nothing but twelve strokes; generously grant me now that I may pay them all with my staff to my adversaries in this hall, for St Charity.”
Uther the king answered, “I regret granting the covenant that I made. By Him that made you and me, you would be better taking gold or goods, for which you have greater need. Cleges said without rancor, “It is your own granting; I may not be denied.” The king was angry and sorely grieved, but nevertheless he granted that the blows should be paid.
Sir Cleges went into the hall among all the great lords and sought the steward to pay him his reward, for he had angered him greatly. He gave the steward such a stroke that he fell down like a block in front of everyone. Then he gave him three strokes and the steward said, “Sir, for your courtesy, strike me no more!”
Then Sir Cleges went out of the hall, intent on paying more stokes without delay. He went to the usher, and when they met Cleges gave him such fierce, painful strokes that for many days afterward he would not hinder any man’s way. Cleges said, “By my fortune, you have the third part of my gift, just as I promised you.”
He eagerly came to the porter and paid him his four stokes. For many days afterward he would hinder no man’s way, neither to ride nor to go. The first stroke Sir Cleges laid on him broke his shoulder bone in two, and his right arm also. Sir Cleges said, “By my fortune, you have the third part of my gift according to the covenant we made.”
The king was sitting in his chamber to hear mirth and revelry, and Sir Cleges went there. A harper had told a tale that pleased the king well and fulfilled his desire. The king asked this harper, “You may often hear much, since you have traveled afar. Tell me truly, if you can, do you know this poor man who gave me the present today?”
The harper answered, “My liege, in truth men used to call him Cleges; he was a knight of yours, I think, when he was full of fortune and grace, a man of high stature.”
“This is indeed not him,” said the king, “he has been believed dead a long time, whom I loved very much. I wish to God that he was with me; I would rather have him than three knights, he was so brave in battle.”
Sir Cleges knelt before the king and thanked him courteously for granting his request. The king asked him especially why he had given the three men strokes. Cleges explained, “I could not come inside unless I granted each of them the third part of what you would give me. By that I would have nothing myself; truly, I thought it best to divide among them twelve stokes.”
The lords, both young and old, and all who were with the king had great pleasure and laughed so hard that they couldn’t sit. They said, “It was a noble joke, we vow by Christ.” The king sent for his steward and said, “If he grants you any reward, ask for it according to the law.” Looking grim, the steward said, “I don’t intend to have anything to do with him; I wish I had never known him.”
The king said, “Without blame, tell me now, good man, what is your name?” “My liege,” he said, “as this man tells you, I was once called Sir Cleges; I was your own true knight.” “Are you my knight who served me, so noble and so gracious, both strong, hardy and manly?” “Yes, lord,” Cleges said, “as I might thrive,6 until God almighty afflicted me; thus poverty has been my destiny.”
The king immediately gave him all that belongs to a knight for arraying his body. He also gave him the castle of Cardiff, with all its appurtenances, to hold with peace and security. Then he made him his steward of all his lands, of water, land and forest. He happily gave him a gold cup to take to Dame Clarys as a token of joy and mirth. The king made Cleges’ son a squire and gave him a collar to wear, along with a hundredworth pounds of rent. When they came home in this manner, the bright Dame Cleges thanked God truly in every way, for she had both knight and squire according to their intent. They paid their debts as fast as they could until every man was satisfied.
Sir Cleges was held to be a noble steward by all men, young and old, who knew him, wherever he went in the land. The courteous and gracious knight became so wealthy that he assisted all his kin, close and distant. His lady and he lived many years with joy and cheer until God sent for them. For the goodness they did here their souls went to shining Heaven, where there is joy without end.
2 However, some fell into poverty and indigence, as evidenced, for example, by almshouses such as St George’s Chapel, Windsor, founded by Edward III, that cared for poor and infirm knights. David Knowles and R. Neville Hadcock, Medieval Religious Houses: England and Wales. Introd. David Knowles (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1971).
3 All that man has belongs to God and is only on loan is a recurrent theme in medieval literature.
4 Filler lines such as “so seyth the boke” are often also used to validate the origin of a tale. At the same time, it suggests the narrator’s literacy and his oral transmission of the material.
5 The “rash promise” which is made before the conditions of the request are known or the promise is carelessly made is a common topos. It always must be honored, despite possible negative or immoral consequences. Chaucer’s Franklin’s Tale contains one of the best-known examples.
6 “So mote I the” (as I may hope to thrive) is a common tag line used for rhyming purposes, and carries the casual meaning “I swear.”
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