THE WICKED AGE
MIDDLE ENGLISH COMPLAINT LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION
Christ save us
From all mischiefs
From those men’s griefs
That oft are against us. (50-54)
Whoso do complain
Were better be slain
Both plow and wain
Will not make amends. (60-63)
First Shepherds’ Play (Prima Pastorum)
Exploitation, the act of taking advantage of a subject for one’s self-interest, is hardly unique to fourteenth-century England, but it is seen by moralists of the period as one of the most egregious manifestations of the general corruption of the culture. Exploitation can occur at any social level, but the focus in complaint literature is on the lower classes, especially agricultural workers, who were vulnerable to a host of royal and manorial officials and agents against whom they had no power or representative voice. (The parliamentary commons did not represent the commoner, but the lower aristocracy, gentry and urban leaders.)
The king is seldom held responsible for the misconduct of his officials. The “ignorant king” topos shifts blame to his “evil counselors,” advisors who shield him from knowledge of the condition of his people. The related “disguised king” topos that depicts the monarch going into the country incognito to see the folk presupposes his awareness of his “ignorance,” the machinations of his counselors, and/or the exploitation of the people by his officials. These perceptions are partly fictive, wish fulfillment for a wise, protective ruler, and partly realistic, since “evil counselors,” particularly the king’s favorites, did exist, and documents attest to the king’s knowledge of exploitation. Edward III was known to have made such trips in disguise, and had also been informed of his officials’ misconduct in correspondence dated about 1333 that his men were taking goods from the peasantry by violence.1
Common sense would suggest that the king choose better counselors, a repeated theme in “Mirror of Prince” literature. And the hope was that once aware of his people’s plight, the king would remedy it. But there are hints that he was equally or more concerned over his reputation. Hoccleve advises Henry V to go “alone into the country to hear what is said about him,” dressed simply as did “worthy King Edward” (2556) to find “in what fame his poor people hold him” (2545) and to “inquire of wrong and redress it” (2550). If he allows his men to oppress his people, he is a “destroyer” not a “governor” (2552-5).
This is enacted in King Edward and the Shepherd, in which a king, presumably Edward III, meets a shepherd in the countryside who tells the disguised monarch of the exploitation by royal officials. The king expresses concern but again, it is over his reputation and wants to know “what do men say of your king? Little good, I’ll wager!” (51-52). He continues, “Often you curse the king, and you are not to blame. Those who do those deeds, I swear, are worthy of shame. If I knew who they were, I would tell the king, for he bears all the infamy” (134-44). While he helps the shepherd, he also proves to be of ambiguous character.2
Complaints about exploitation of rural workers were seldom written by the peasantry, which was generally illiterate, though the poetry has the feeling of personal experience or observation, such as the Song of the Husbandman, which is related by a narrator who has “heard men upon earth moaning” (1) about the loss of the “good years,” and their life of hard toil (3-5). The husbandmen in God Speed the Plow are similarly seen through the narrator’s eyes as he “walked over the wild fields” (1) and watches them labor to plow the rough earth. One of them tells the narrator of his need to pay his servants in order to produce crops from which to pay his tithes. And there are the clerk and sexton who come along for a sheaf of gain, followed by the king’s purveyors to take wheat and oats for the king’s use, as well as beef, mutton, butter and poultry.3 The plowman lists other demands, including the levy of a fifteenth to the king,4 and rent to the lord.
The bailiffs and beadles also appear and, though not directly stated, they were known to demand bribes for avoidance of summons to court duty. The Simonie-poet is not reluctant to expose the corruption of beadles and bailiffs, who call poor men to serve in courts, sometimes as far as London, while “the rich sit at home for the payment of silver” (C 391-94). Lawyers are no better; they ask money from a poor man and speak a word for him “that does him little good” (C 397-400) and mock him behind his back.
The plowman of God Speed the Plow is also approached by prisoners,5 friars of all orders who want handouts, summoners, priests, constables, and minstrels among others. There are quarterly payments to lawyers for pleadings to the court, though again, the subtext tells us that such endeavors are seldom successful.6 The narrator, aware of all these demands on the men who work the land, leaves with the wish for a better life for all plowmen, and the prayer that “heaven’s bliss will be their reward and that God will speed the plow” (95-96).
While this husbandman apparently has resources that enable him to meet his obligations and burdens, many did not, and the poor were not exempt from exploitation, some driven to poverty by various demands. This seems ironic, since the poor would have little to give, but they are nevertheless victimized, like the widow from whom Chaucer’s Friar extracts a farthing “though she hasn’t a shoe” (GP 253). In the First Shepherds’ Play (Prima Pastorum), the simple Second Shepherd, tending the flock at night, asks God for protection from proud, gaily dressed boasters and braggarts who cause much woe with their long daggers against whom he cannot complain and dares not refuse to give what is asked (55-69).
The husbandman in God Speed the Plow pays his servants, but in the Chester Cycle Paynters Play the shepherds’ servant, who calls himself a “poor page,” complains that he has no good clothing but wears ragged array because he has not been paid by his masters (218-25). Another example of peasants exploiting each other is the manorial reeve, who was responsible for the administration of the lord’s agricultural property, cultivation and income derived therefrom. He was from the peasantry, usually elected by the villagers. Chaucer tells of the Reeve’s pilfering from his lord (which was difficult to do since his accounts were rigorously audited). He was so well secretly provisioned that he could give and lend goods to the lord from whom he had stolen them, and then “receive thanks as well as a coat and hood” (GP 609-12).
But the poet does not mention the reeve’s exploitation of his fellow peasants. Though his opportunities were limited, he could arrange work details in favor of his friends, and Bennett cites cases brought against reeves by the villagers, one for discriminating between rich and poor and taking bribes, another for making a false accusation against a man for feigning illness and inability to work. In both cases, the reeve was found guilty of at least some of the charges, and was subject to fines (Bennett 174).
The miller, also from the peasantry, was frequently charged with extortion. Bennett explains that this may have been due in part due to the fluctuating value of grain which resulted in the lack of a fixed price for the peasantry, who paid more during times of shortage compared to good harvest years (133). Inequity between classes, the freeholder paying less than the serf led to friction, and there was resentment of the lord’s monopoly on the village mill, which was resisted, especially by the poor, through use of illegal personal handmills despite the threat of being fined if caught (Bennett 132).
Of all demands, taxation was one of the most grievously protested as both excessive and inequitable. The Simonie-poet objects to a poor man being taxed at the same rate as a wealthy man (B 409-14), and advises the king to stop stealing from the poor and let them have peace; rather he should collect from officials, who retain taxes they collect for their own high living and asks “Why should poor men be robbed while there are so many such men in the land?” (C 376-77) Some efforts to protect the poor were made by the royal government, such as exemption based on minimum levels of taxation but were ultimately unsuccessful due to unscrupulous manipulation at the local level, as well as the taxation of the entire village, in which the poor participated, no longer shielded by exemption (Maddicott 51).
Taxation and other demands by the crown are considered oppressive by Maddicott (43), and while exploitation and oppression are different strategies for abusing power, the effects can be the same. This is demonstrated in the post-Plague efforts of the government to prevent the lower classes from benefiting from potential economic betterment due to depopulation. Like exploitation, passing legislation that curbed mobility and wages took advantage of political power to serve the economic and social interests of the aristocracy. This time, however, the statutory oppression failed due to the economic pressure of supply and demand which, unlike exploitation, could not be controlled by those in power. Nevertheless, keeping someone from gaining goods is as exploitative as taking them away.
French and Hale 951.
3 Under the system of purveyance, royal officials could “purchase” goods from the peasantry for use by the king while traveling, but payment was seldom made.
4 Levies were based on the value of one’s property in percentages approved by parliament. At the time in which this poem is set, the levy was a fifteenth of property owned.
5 Prisoners were charged fees by the jailers for all their needs from bedding to lamps. Those with sufficient resources could live relatively comfortably, while the less fortunate did not. Some were allowed to beg alms outside the prison without bail to collect funds for their living expenses and perhaps for obtaining a release through a fine or the purchase of a king’s pardon (Bellamy 177).
6 For methods of resistance to exploitation and oppression, see the Rebellion section of this collection.
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