THE WICKED AGE
MIDDLE ENGLISH COMPLAINT LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION
A Song on the Times
The social criticism in this early fourteenth-century poem centers on the corrupt judicial system.i Instead of a realistic trial setting, the poet presents what he calls a parable, though it has a fable-like quality. If it ended with a moral as do fables, it might have had something like this passage from the Old French Roman de Renart (Reynard the Fox):
That is the way a kingdom goes
To ruin—when the king will treat
Without suspicion those who cheat,
And loyalty cannot prevail:
He throws out the head and keeps the tail.
Reynard the Fox (Branch I 1226-30)
But after the parable in A Song on the Times, the poem sinks into cynicism darker than that in Sir Launfal. While the lion king is the corrupt justiciar, he could represent any judge who succumbs to bribery, a byproduct of a society based on greed and pride.
A Song on the Times
Whoever reflects upon this life so full of care day and night sees there is so much sorrow and strife and so little joy; hate and wrath are rife and true love scarce. Men in the highest places are the most sinful. This land is false and evil, as we may see; there is both hate and envy, and I believe it will always be so. Greed has the law in hand so that truth cannot be seen; pride is now master. Alas, Lord, why is this suffered?
If holy church and the law of the land would enforce their strength, covetousness and injustice would be driven from the land. Holy church should not withhold its might out of fear or love, or the boasts of high lords. No matter who they are, those that rob lawful men should be interdicted and admonished, especially those hoblersii that take what the husbandman tills. Those men should not be buried in the church but thrown out like a hound.
The king’s ministers who should uphold justice and law and maintain right in the land are corrupt and take bribes from those thieves. If the man who lives lawfully is brought to death and his possessions taken away, they make no account of his death but take a share of their prey. When they have received the silver, bribes and property, they pay no heed to felony and all such crimes are allowed. I have heard a parable of this, so listen to my tale.
The lion, king of all beasts, had heard bad reports about the wolf, and the fox, that wicked fellow, was accused too. So the lion sent out a cry, as it was done, that both should come to their lord to amend their trespasses. The simple ass, who had done no wrong, was accused with the wolf and fox and indicted with them. The fox heard talk of this and told the wolf with the broad crown; one sent the king geese and hens, and the other sent kids and mutton.
The hapless ass thought he was safe, for he ate nothing but grass, so he sent no gifts and expected no harm. When the beasts came to their lord, he told them of law and reason, and they lay down and asked, “Lord, what is your will?”
The lion asked the fox, “Tell me, boy, what have you done? Men are about to cause your ruin.” The fox replied, “Lord, King, the men of the town accuse me and would gladly destroy me. In truth, I had no geese or hens so I bought them at a dear cost and carried them on my own back.” “May those who put you in this court have God’s anger!” declared the king. “I forgive you of this guilt.”
The false wolf stood behind; he was dogged and fierce. “I come from a great kind. Grant me peace, as you may well do.” “What have you done, good friend, that makes you ask for peace?” “Sir,” the wolf answered, “I will not lie if you will listen to me for a while. I hunted on the downs and slew a mutton and a few kids. I am accused, Sire, of that crime, but I shall clear myself, for I gave them no blow or hurt.” The king said, “I tell you truthfully, friend, that those who accused you to me had no good sense, as you only acted according to your nature.”
Next the king addressed the ass: “What have you done? I think you can do no good. Why have you not done as the others have? You come from bad stock.” “Sire, I don’t know; I ate sage and grass and did no other harm; for this I was accused.” “My friend, eating grass was against your nature and wrong.” The king directed: “Bind him hastily and draw his bones apart without delay. I give all for the law that his flesh be torn to pieces.”
And so it goes now in this land, whoever takes heed thereto. Those who have in hand take meed from thieves. The lawful man is bound and held in prison in great pain until he pays a fine, while the thief escapes. May God, full of might, take heed of this!
Thus fares the world as we may all see, east and west, north and south. May God and the Trinity help us! Truth is failed with stranger and kin, and no man can live in this land as wide as it is, what with greed and strife, which will soon surround the lawful man who would live in love, charity and peace. Pride is master, along with covetousness and their third brother, envy; they strive night and day to take honest men’s land.
When one has had enough of earth and when he is placed in it, woe to him who was evil! What goods shall that man have when he leaves this world? A sorry garment—why should I joke?—and nothing more. He shall leave as he came: in sorrow, pain and poverty. Pay good attention to your end, men, for as I tell you so it shall be. I don’t know of what men are so proud: of earth and ashes, skin and bone? Once the soul is out, there is no viler carcass. It is so loathsome to see that it must be hidden under the ground. Both wife and child run from it, and no friend will stay with it.iii
What would men offer for the soul? Neither grain nor meal, as you know well, and rarely at mealtime a rough bare trencher or a crust. The beggar who gets the crust looks at it with scorn and says, “The crust is both hard and tough. The wretch was hard who owned the goods; hard for hard is good enough.” May he who says a Pater Noster or the Creed for the dead man have misfortune; let the man have as he did, for the gift will bring no reward. I advise you to trust no one, neither sister nor brother.
Honour God and holy church and give to the poor who have need. You will work God’s will and be rewarded with the joy of heaven.
Bring us to that joy,
Jesus Christ, heavenly king!
i Criticism of the justice system and the king as judge is also expressed in the romance Sir Launfal, which is included in the romance collection of this special edition.
ii A “hobler” is a light-armed horseman.
iii In Sir Amadace, which is included in the romance section of this edition, a wife stays beside her husband’s corpse as it rots on the bier.
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