Editors: George W. Tuma, Professor Emeritus of English, and Dinah Hazell, Independent Scholar
Hosted by the English Department, San Francisco State University



The Song of the Husbandman

The Song of the Husbandman is an early fourteenth-century complaint about the burdens placed on the agricultural producer, particularly taxation, and the disastrous results.

It is a difficult poem, an early example of the alliterative form that would be “revived” later in the century in masterworks such as Piers Plowman and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  In addition to the repetition of sound within the line typical to alliteration, this poet links some of his stanzas with concatenation, words repeated in the first line of a stanza from the last line of the preceding stanza.  The meter, syntax and vocabulary are specialized, making translation challenging and while true to the spirit of the work, not always successful at capturing the prosodic quality.  Nevertheless, it conveys the palpable feeling of exploitation and hopelessness felt by many husbandmen, voiced on their behalf by the poet.

The Song of the Husbandman

I heard men upon earth moaning greatly about being vexed in their husbandry.  Good years and grain are both gone, and no sayings are kept or songs sung.  Now we must work; there is no other way, but I can no longer live on my gleanings.  Yet there is a more bitter demand, for the fourth penny must go to the king.  We complain bitterly to the king and hope to recover but are always cast down.  Those who have any goods have no hope of holding them; we always lose the dearest at the last.

It is evil to lose what little there is to the many who expect it.  The hayward threatens harm to get his share; the bailiff causes us grief and thinks he does well; the woodward waits to give woe to those who look under branches.  Neither wealth nor rest come to us or stay; thus they plunder the poor man who is of little value and must waste away in sweat and toil.

So he must waste away though he has made his pledge,1 he who hasn’t a hood to cover his head.  Thus will walks in the land and law is lost, and the poor are picked clean by the proud riders. The rich rob without any right, and their lands and people lie lean, harmed through the bidding of bailiffs.  Many men of religion hold baron and bondman, clerk and knight in contempt.  Thus will walks in the land and the mind is amazed that falsity grows fat and strong, causing much harm.

I stood quite still in that place and studied severely who makes beggars go with burdens and bags. We are hunted from hall to corner, and those who once wore robes now wear rags.  Still yet come the boastful beadles: “Give me silver for the green wax; you know well that you are in my writ!”2  I have paid my tax more than ten times; then I must have roasted hen, and lamprey and salmon on fish-day.  Going to the market brings no profit, even if I sell my spear and my axe.

I must place my pledge well, or sell my grain while it is still green.  Yet even if he has all, I will still be thought a foul churl and must spend whatever I have saved all year as the others come again.  The master beadle, bristled like a boar, says he will strip my dwelling bare unless I bribe him with a mark or more, though I sell my mare on the set day.  Thus the green wax grieves us to the bone, and they hunt us as the hound does the hare on the hill.  Since I took to the land, I have learned of such pain.  He who commands the beadles escapes, and we are always caught.

Thus I am caught and seized with cares, since I have accounts and a cottage to keep.  I sold my seed in order to seek silver for the king, so my land lies fallow and sleeps.  They fetched the fair cattle from my fold, and when I think of my welfare I nearly weep!  Thus many bold beggars are born.

Our rye lies rotted in the straw from wicked weather, by brook and by bank.  Worry and woe are awakened in the world, and it is as good to perish soon as to labor so.


1  This line in the original is difficult:  “Nede he mot swynde, thah he hade swore” (21).  The definition of “swore” in the context is unclear, but it may relate to tallage, a fixed amount due the lord in addition to other fees.

2  Official documents were sealed with green wax.

Return to Exploitation Table of Contents

Return to Main Table of Contents