THE WICKED AGE
MIDDLE ENGLISH COMPLAINT LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION
Temper of the Times
Though we can never fully reconstruct the medieval mindset or zeitgeist, these poems help capture some of the spirit of authors concerned with the state of their culture. While diverse in form and expression, complaint literature voices the “temper of the times” in a society perceived as pervaded by corruption, oppression, exploitation, lawlessness, injustice and inequity. Reactions include outrage, resentment, confusion, fear, insecurity, distrust and, for some, a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness in an unstable world:
Now weal, now woe, now friend, now foe;
Now lief, now thief, now in, now out;
Now come, now go, now to, now fro—
Ah lord, how goes this world about!
How Goes This World About (17-20)
Abuses of the Age I
To many, the world feels out of balance, turned “up so doun.” Values and morality have been subverted from top to bottom:
King without counsel,
Young man reckless,
Old man witless,
I swear by heaven’s king
These are five evil things.
Abuses of the Age II
An anonymous poet urgently echoes the fear of God’s vengeance on a sinful world and the need for personal change expressed by other authors.
Virtue and good living is called hypocrisy; truth and God’s law is called heresy; poverty and humility are called profligacy; true preaching and penance are called folly.
Pride is called honesty, and greed wisdom. Wealth is called worthiness, and lechery natural. Robbery is good gain, and gluttony mirth. Envy and wrath men call rightful; sloth men call needful to nourish man’s nature.
And thus man’s life that should be holy is turned into cursedness. Righteousness is not feared and mercy is scorned; lies and fables are called good lore, and Christ’s gospel but a jest. And thus for lack of true teaching, men go to hell by many ways. Worldly pleasure is valued rather than the joy of heaven.
For this God will take vengeance on us unless we amend our ways and forsake our sin with sorrow before we go home. We know not when that will be! Therefore let us reform in good time, since if we wait for “had I known,” it is all too late!
Lack of Steadastness
Chaucer places the onus on the king, who must rule wisely and justly to restore social and moral stability.
Once the world was so steadfast and stable that man’s word was bond. But now it is so false and deceitful that word and deed are nothing alike, for the world is turned upside down by desire for meed, so that all is lost for lack of steadfastness.
What makes this world so unstable but the enjoyment people have in dissension? Now we hold a man feeble unless he can find a way to harm or oppress his neighbor. What causes this but willful wretchedness, so that all is lost for lack of steadfastness?
Truth is put down, reason is held false, virtue has no power, and pity and mercy are exiled. Discretion is blinded by greed. The world has turned from right to wrong, from truth to deceit, so that all is lost for lack of steadfastness.
Lenvoy to King Richard
Oh prince, desire to be honorable, cherish your folk and hate extortion. Tolerate nothing in your land that may bring reproach to your reputation. Show forth your sword of castigation, fear God, administer justice, love truth and worthiness, and wed your people again to steadfastness.
Truth Is Unpopular
Truth was the underpinning of social, political and moral equilibrium. Once lost, all goes awry, a condition bemoaned repeatedly in the literature.
God be with truth, wherever he may be.
I wish he were in this country!
Should a man tell the truth, he may not dwell with great lords. As clerks tell, truth is held in low esteem. He dare not set foot in ladies' chambers, and though he would, he may not come among the high men. Men of law have no time or place for truth, and it seems to me they make a sorry show by putting truth so low.
He may not sit in holy Church, for he is passed from man to man; in my mind is much sorrow, and I have great pity for truth. If truth came to a man of religion who would be good, I would consider him mad! They would tear his coat and hood and make him flee bare.
If one aspires to truth, he must be sought in the bosom of Mary, for truly there is where he is found.
Now Is England Perished
With the loss of stability, truth and morality, the world was perceived as filled with corruption at every level.
Now is England perished in fight,
With many people and conscience light,
Many knights and little might,
Many laws and little right;
Little charity and eager to please,
Many gallants and penniless,
Many courtiers and small wages,
Many gentlemen and few pages;
Short gowns and slit sleeves,
Well busy and strong thieves;
Great boasting and gay clothes,
Mark them well, they lack none other.
Many false slanders of riches,
Yet poverty appears nevertheless;
Many beads and few prayers,
Many debts and few good payers.
Small fasting and little penance,
Thus all is turned into mischance,
Extortion and much simony,
False greed and perjury;
With lechery and adultery,
Feigned friendship and hypocrisy;
Also guile on every side,
With murder and much pride;
Great envy and willfulness,
Without mercy or righteousness;
The cause is for lack of light,
That should be in the church of right.
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