THE WICKED AGE
MIDDLE ENGLISH COMPLAINT LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION
Truth, Rest, and Peace
Insurrections didn’t cease after the Rising of 1381; though they were on a smaller, local scale, the threat and fear of another mass revolt persisted. In 1392 the poet of the popular song The Yorkshire Partisans expresses a vow of solidarity against any “scoundrels’ scorn” (21):
And yet will everyone hold up the other
and maintain him as his brother.
both in wrong and right;
and also in resistance and battle
maintain our neighbor
with all our might. (7-12)
And on that purpose yet we stand:
whoever does us any wrong
wherever it may fall,
yet he might as well,
as I have luck and health,
do against us all. (25-30)
Twenty years after the Rising, the author of Truth, Rest and Peace (1401) counsels on the avoidance of another uprising. Robbins suggests that the poem may be associated with grievances against governmental administration. As recorded in the English Chronicle, the people complained that Henry IV “took their goods and did not pay for them,” and they wished for the return of King Richard. Letters from the late king were received by some of his friends, giving the impression that he was still alive (Robbins 268). Rumors of Richard’s return persisted for years, and there was much resistance to the usurpation of the throne by Henry in 1399, who was the subject of numerous plots.1
Whether or not this was the poet’s motivation, his message to the new king clearly warns of another revolt if the kingdom is not governed with justice, wisdom and unity, and concern for the people.
Truth, Rest, and Peace
I often seal my lips because of false reporters who defame truth. But Charity commands me to speak. Though truth is overawed, it is not ashamed. Truth does not seek out corners where reputation is crippled; truth is worshipped at every dais. In that kingdom where truth is blamed, God will send vengeance to make truth have peace.
Truth is messenger to right, and right is counselor to justice. Justice is appointed in God’s stead. Apply the law equally both to fools and wise men. Use moderation in even judgement, the right way as law goes. If the law is kept, the folk will not rise. That kingdom will have rest and peace.
If a talebearer should injure a man’s name to a king, the king should hear both parties, and punish the false talebeaer for slander. Then false men would cease to defame others, since falsehood slays body and soul. Falsehood always ends in shame, and truth in honor and peace.
When the law is bereft of true justice, and judgments are made by bribes, the common people will rise up due to a lack of law. Then a kingdom is most in dread. For when vengeance leads the people, they will do great harm before they cease. Where no man injures another, that kingdom shall have rest and peace.
When craft rises against craft in borough, town or city, they go to the lords when the law is neglected, whichever party may be the stronger. But wise men quickly see that they witlessly gather a crowd. Before lords meddle in a foolish manner, let the law follow its course in rest and peace.2
Yet there is a third discord that brings much trouble to a kingdom: frequently changing the governance of all degrees, high and low. A king may not see everything. Some tell him truth, some tell him lies. You must separate the wheat from the chaf so you may live in rest and peace.
I speak here not especially about a single kingdom with respect to the law; rather, I speak in general about each kingdom. It is also written in the gospel words that God himself chose: rather than fight, a man should sell some of his clothes, and buy himself peace.3
A worthy knight will always win honor and will not yield though men threaten him. Rather, when Malice begins, he will quench it at its first occurrence. For if you permit it to grow great, it will burn as fiercely as fire in grease. See that you hinder lawless novelties so that you may live in rest and peace.
An old saying asks: what is the kingdom’s treasury? Cattle, grain in storage, rich commons, wise clergy, merchants, squires, knights that will be ready for an attack, and a chivalrous king with keen wits who can lead in war and govern in peace.
Among the books of wise philosophers, men find written that sin is the cause of cowardice. The man who lives virtuously is naturally courageous. And he who lives wickedly is blind to grace. He dreads death, and the last rites. But the virtuous man keeps God in mind, and his counsel makes peace.
The king who wishes to have a good name will be led by wise counselors who love honor and dread shame, and boldly dare and assail the fiend. Where there is wit, courage will not fail, for with wisdom, honor is never lost. Courage should do battle in a quarrel, and with the end of the battle comes peace.
Absence of wisdom causes lengthy counsel; foolish words idly spoken cost more and avail less. And due to a lack of wit, the purpose is broken. In an evil soul no grace is established, for the wicked soul lacks grace. But in a good person God’s will is locked, and that man’s counsel makes peace.
To know whether the parliament is wise is proven well by the common profit. A kingdom lies in the commons, all its profits, and all its misfortunes. Lords never know what grieves the commons until their rents begin to cease. This the lords hear, relieve the poor commons, and maintain them in war and peace.
Make God your true friend, and do the commandments that he has bidden. Though all the world turns against you, if God is your friend, you need not fear. For when God leads his friends, he saves them on both land and sea. Whoever so fights, God does the deed, for God is victory and peace.
Whatever kingdom wars within itself destroys itself and no other. Their enemies outside will begin to assail them on every side. They will rob and slay the commons, set fires, and kindle straws.4 When riches and manhood are wasted and gone, then fear forces entreaties for peace.
The world is like a false lover, with fair appearance and much guile. No man dies without an heir. God is chief lord of town and strongholds. God makes many heirs over time, for he receives each release.5 God can break hedge and stile, and make a highway to peace.
God made lords governors to rule people in unity. Neither the people nor the riches are yours. All are God’s, and so are you. Each day you can see this in your mirror. Each man dies as do others; your ancestors have gone, whom you shall follow, to endless war or endless peace.
Each king is sworn to govern God’s people justly. Each king bears a sword of God’s vengeance to fell God’s foes in battle. And so does every honest knight who upholds the order as it was; to maintain right for the plowman and the Church, they are God’s champions to keep the peace.
The world is like a cherry fair, wherein everything often changes. The rich, the poor, the foul and the fair, popes, prelates and lords—all are mortal, and so are kings. Before death takes you into his power, quickly settle your accounts and treat with God to give you peace.
What brings a kingdom all the above? Wise counsel and good governance. Each lord should love the other, and rule well the sustenance of laborers. God creates no discord for his friends, for he can scatter the great crowds. God makes laws for his friends, and governs them in war and peace.
A good life results in a good name; and a good name is worthy of reverence. [line missing] Sin is the cause of grief. Each kingdom hangs in God’s balance, with him that stays firm and with him that flees. You have free will; choose your fate—to have with God war or peace.
2 Disputes between craft guilds were common and were under the jurisdiction of the mayor and aldermen, the oligarchic ruling body of the city. However, some of the greater crafts held royal charters and were self-governing, and disputes between them could lead to civil disturbance. There was strong antipathy between nonvictualers and victualers and, in particular, against the fishmongers due to their control over the dietary staple. The issue was entangled in London mayoral politics and went as far as to the king and parliament. Some of the guild’s adversaries were imprisoned for civil agitation and eventually pardoned, but exiled from the city.
4 An example of the devastation of the countryside by burning crops and homesteads and looting occurred in raids and counter-raids along the northern border during the ongoing Anglo-Scottish war.
5 The term “reles” (“release”) may be a double entendre. In a legal sense it means a transfer of property, here, the soul; in a religious sense it means forgiveness or remission of sins.
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