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



Literature of Complaint


Literature of complaint is an essential component of the fourteenth-century literary canon, but one of the least read.  Complaint is voiced in many forms, such as the protest poem, political song, satire, and sermon, as well as other modes such as narrative, lyric, ballad, drama, treatise, letters, and even romance.  Unlike estates literature, most complaint forms target specific vices, types of corruption and injustices. Some are lengthy but many are brief, some riddled with obscurity (at least to the modern reader) and others savagely to the point.  Though diverse in form and expression, complaint literature presents one aspect of the “temper of the times,” which included outrage, resentment, confusion, fear, insecurity, distrust and, for some, helplessness.

As outlined in the Historical Overview, the fourteenth century was a tumultuous time of both natural and social upheavals. It is easy to view a century in retrospect and see the trends and movements that cumulatively describe the era.  But the individuals who lived through the events and conditions reacted existentially, able to see the past but not the future and caught in the present, faced with sudden catastrophic events such as famine, plague, livestock disease and adverse weather.  They felt the ramifications of political turmoil through taxation to fund wars, internal civil conflicts and insecurity under unstable rulers, all of which were out of their control.  So too was exploitation by corrupt royal and manorial officials whose greed could cause loss of livelihood with the seizure of a plowman’s oxen or seed grain.  Remedy was seldom found through the justice system or the church, which were perceived as corrupt, as was the entire society.  So, with these and other pressures there was much to complain about, and there were many who did, for themselves and the people.

Janet Coleman identifies seven categories of complaint: anti-French war propaganda; complaints about corrupt royal advisors and immoral knighthood, and urban officials; advice to the king and his advisors; complaints against corrupt lawyers and manorial officials, combined with complaints over taxation; attacks on mendicancy; attacks on the church’s wealth and anticlerical abuse; and attacks and counter-attacks surrounding Lollardy. These are standard subjects that comprise complaint literature, some or all collectively in literature of the estates and individually in complaint and protest verse, as will be seen in this collection.

Within, and in addition to these broad categories, social concerns are prominent, particularly oppression, exploitation and poverty.  The physical, economic and spiritual well-being and the individual’s place in the shifting culture were all impacted by political and religious institutions which, in turn, were responsible for and vulnerable to the upheavals and transitory nature of the century.

Due to the rise in literacy, authorship and audience were diverse.  Several authors are known to us, like Chaucer, Gower, Langland and Hoccleve, but most were anonymous.   Works were written in Latin, French, and English, some in a combination of two or all three, which suggests an educated audience and author, probably a cleric or a clerk.  Many were in vernacular English and could have been composed by literate laymen for a like audience, often theorized to be the emergent “middle class,” though that was a fluid and diverse group.  For the illiterate, there was oral transmission, including from the pulpit, for preachers were among some of the most strident critics.

Regardless of their level of education or social status, moralists in the fourteenth century felt compelled to voice their complaints about the corruption they perceived as permeating all elements of society, in accusatory and often corrective modes.  Many addressed specific events and identified persons, a trend that increased during the century, while others were more general, and some complaints became commonplaces in the poetry, though convention does not negate validity.  And although authors might have been working from a personal bias or agenda, the abundance and variety of complaints on specific subjects, such as inequitable, burdensome taxation, corrupt clergy and abuse of power attests to widespread common impression and experience. The poems in this collection were chosen to represent that commonality in diversity.

For example, anticlerical sentiments were among the most frequently expressed, and many of the charges appear so often that they seem conventional, which could argue for the use of formulaic topoi rather than personal knowledge or opinion. It is true that many authors spoke of conditions with which they were familiar only through observation or reports, such as poverty, but the repetition of common complaints across generic, authorial, regional and temporal ranges speaks for shared, realistic perceptions, which are amply supported by historical documentation.

Despite seemingly ubiquitous litanies of clerical corruption, there was no lack of literary approach, as seen in this collection; monks are satirized in the ribald Land of Cokagyne; the failings of nuns are seen in the melancholy dream-vision poem, Why I Can’t Be a Nun; priests are the subject of the humorous but pathetic The Fox and the Wolf; and friars are taken to task in Pierce the Plowman’s Creed, based on a clever premise that distinguishes it from the plethora of antifraternal writings.

While other forms such as fable, allegory, narrative verse, drama and homily are used by authors, many poems follow traditional patterns, and some may sound alike and seem to run together.  But the attentive reader will detect nuances of expression, tone and mood that join to form the chorus of complaint.

A comprehensive overview of such a broad and diverse genre is best not attempted here and would not do justice to the literature.  Rather, each section and work is prefaced with relevant background material and commentary to provide the reader with a context for understanding and appreciating the authors’ times, concerns and works.

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