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



Historical Overview

Readers of Chaucer may be only vaguely aware, if at all, of the body of complaint literature that stands beside and behind his works, some of which critique society in a tone less jovial than the satiric portraits in the General Prologue.  Many authors of complaint literature are more acrimonious in their expression of outrage over what they perceived as a corrupt culture.  This is not a unique phenomenon but hardly surprising during the fourteenth century, which was beset by famine, livestock disease, bad weather and other natural disasters, plague, political instability so severe that two kings were deposed, civil war and uprisings, war with France, Scotland and Wales, religious schism, the rise of a money economy, and shifting class structures.  The picture painted by moralists is full of gloom and bereft of glory.

Yet it was a time of literary flourishing, especially during the Ricardian age, though criticism crept into every genre.  Because of the diversity of forms in which complaint is voiced, this collection is divided into two sections; though the literature of both is covered under the umbrella of complaint literature, it is distinctive enough to warrant separate study.  The first, Literature of the Estates, probably the most well known primarily because of The Canterbury Tales, presents a broad view of society and its many ills.  The second section, Literature of Complaint, includes works commonly categorized as complaint or “Abuses of the Age” literature, such as political and protest poems and songs, which tend to be shorter than estates literature and focus on single issues.  Also included in this section are other forms in which social criticism is expressed, such as sermons, narratives, treatises, poems, lyrics, ballads, drama, letters, and even romances.

The poems speak for themselves, and themes are common to many.  Authors use conventional motifs, forms and phrases, which was de rigeur (plagiarism was an unknown concept), but as will be seen, convention does not stifle distinct authorial voice.  While the poems follow tradition, their specificity is unique in the fourteenth century compared to earlier periods, which argues against simple universality.  References to historical events and persons are verified in other literature and official documents, so that the works reflect reality rather than rhetorical commonplace.  Since the literature is often historically and culturally specific, following is a brief overview of the world in which it was created, with a concentration on events, conditions and structures relevant to the literature in the collection; the individual sections and works are prefaced with more detailed background material and commentary.

The Rural Environment

The majority of fourteenth-century England was under agricultural or livestock production.  Aside from isolated farmsteads and hamlets, the nucleus of rural life was the manor. The common conception, perhaps due partly to the literature, is of a secular lord of the manor, though lands were also held by the church; however, there was little difference between the two types of landholdings in practice.

The manor was supported by villeins, whose status varied from free to unfree, the former having fewer obligations to the lord than the latter. Some of the manor lands were kept by the lord (the demesne) and worked by those owing servile labor as part of their landholding status (serfs), although this shifted during the later part of the century when lords leased out their lands for income to meet changing post-Plague economic demands.  The villeins also had land of their own, some very little (smallholders or cottars) and some large, so that there was economic diversity between tenants.

Unfree tenants owed servile labor to the lord, as well as fees for many activities and situations, and fines for violation of manorial rules and domestic customs, and there were a number of officials who oversaw various manorial operations.  The manor had its own court for internal affairs. It was usually overseen by the lord or a high-ranking official like the steward, who oversaw the administration of the manor.  Villeins acted as jurors, guarantors, and witnesses, and had some other opportunities to participate in their community, such as having input on the bylaws that regulated village life.  They were represented by the reeve, whom they chose from their midst to act on their behalf.

Not all villeins were agricultural workers.  There were craftsmen of many kinds who served village needs, particularly building specialties.  Some smallholders hired out to richer peasants to augment their income, while those with larger landholdings could sell surplus produce at market.  One popular village supplier was the alewife, as the beverage was a dietary staple; peasant fare consisted mainly of grains, dairy and produce but was light on meat, while the menu was reversed for the aristocracy.

The Urban Environment

Manors dotted the landscape, which had nonarable regions, woodlands, rivers and streams in addition to agricultural areas.  Villagers who went to a town or city in search of work often didn’t have far to go; urban and rural areas were frequently separated from each other only by the city walls, outside of which were clustered cottages of the poor.  Cities depended on agricultural production for food, raw manufacturing and trading materials, and crafted goods.  Urban centers and rural communities were also connected through property ownership.  Wealthy town dwellers might hold rural property, and country gentry might own town houses.

Urban populations ranged from approximately under 2,000 to over 10,000, and living standards varied greatly.  The majority of the population consisted of a wage-earning workforce of craftsmen, laborers and tradespeople, and servants.  Housing was often crowded, particularly in lower class areas; the more spacious homes of the wealthy tended to be located in the center of town.  Most residences, rich or poor, had some sort of garden and yard, perhaps with livestock.  Urban centers were frequently divided into districts by craft and trades, and streets were lined with workshops which often had living quarters above, shops, taverns, and sellers of foodstuffs by both suppliers and street vendors.  There would also be churches, abbeys, hospitals,1 and alehouses, public buildings, guild halls, and open spaces for fairs, civic games and entertainment.

Towns sometimes grew from villages or were established around centers such as cathedrals, monasteries or universities.  Towns, cities and boroughs could receive liberties such as fairs, local customs, tolls, land acquisition and, occasionally, incorporation and county status.  Independence and self-government were sought and more frequently achieved in centers under royal charter than those controlled by the church or manorial lords, where liberties were more restricted.

Self-government was headed by the elite, usually of the mercantile class, who served city administration in various capacities and bore a great share of responsibility for civic welfare. Wealthy guild members often entered city government through their guild office. Craft and trade guilds regulated prices and standards of production, working conditions and wages, and provided support and solidarity for its members.  They also contributed to a city’s social and religious life.  Apprenticeship was long and expensive but could lead to citizenship and the advantages of a town’s liberties.  Like guilds, fraternities were organized around a parish or church, and perhaps a craft, but were not involved in regulatory activities.


The country’s government was located at Westminster.  It adjoined London, which was larger and more crowded than other cities.  Visitors to the much smaller Westminster found lodging, food and entertainment in London, the skyscape of which was dominated by the Tower and cathedral spires.  Secular and ecclesiastical nobility owned great town houses in London, some of which lined the Thames, and the royal family had splendid residences in the city, like John of Gaunt’s Savoy Palace, which was destroyed during the Rising of 1381.

The king headed the government, along with parliament, which was comprised of representatives from the nobility, church, and, increasingly in the fourteenth century, the second estate.  The commons gained power, but the term must not be confused with the common people of the third estate.  Rather, its members were knights, gentry, and influential burgesses, usually merchants.  The royal courts were located at Westminster: The King’s Bench, Court of Common Pleas, the Chancery and the Exchequer. The king’s justice system, of which he was chief justiciar, extended throughout the country with traveling courts, and a network of judicial and peacekeeping officials, such as sheriffs, bailiffs, justices of the peace, and others. The judicial system was complex, with the addition of manorial courts that treated local matters, and ecclesiastical courts.

Social Structure

References to social strata and structure, lay and ecclesiastical, are assumed by the medieval author and audience but may need clarification for the modern reader, which can be offered only broadly here.  Conceptually, medieval society comprised three “estates,” or groups: the clergy, who prayed; the knights, who fought; and the laborers who supported all three, particularly the two above them.  There were levels within each estate, but by the fourteenth century it was apparent that the system, which in reality was never operative, could not accommodate the emerging classes, particularly the “middle class.”  Though the three-estate system remained the ideal regardless of its obvious flaws, the social structure was far more complex, which is reflected in the literature, particularly that of the estates. 

The lay hierarchy was, of course, headed by the king, followed by his magnates, or peers, of the nobility: duke, earl, baron.  In the aristocractic class, the knights were superior to the knights bachelor and squires.  Rural society ran from landed gentry and franklins and, late in the century, yeomen, to husbandmen and cottars, the manor’s workforce (the famuli), and the homeless.  In the cities, there were the mayor, aldermen, great and lesser merchants, craftsmen, apprentices, laborers and servants.

Ecclesiastical structure and terminology is somewhat more confusing, since there were three main types of religious organizations and identities, though some of their functions overlapped and sometimes competed.  The church in England was under the pope’s jurisdiction, though the crown and papacy had areas of conflict, particularly regarding taxation and preferment issues.  The country was organized by province, diocese, archdeaconry, deanery, and parish, which were correspondingly under the control of the archbishop, bishop, archdeacon, dean and parish clergy.  These were beneficed offices, which brought income through landholding and its produce; in this regard, the upper echelons were on a par with lay nobility and aristocracy.  In the parish, only the rector (parson) held a benefice, which ranged greatly in value, while vicars, curates or chaplains, who stood in for rectors in their absence or incapacity, might receive a portion of the benefice or more likely a fixed stipend, as did the parish priests, many of whom were likely to be from the peasantry.  Education of the clergy ranged from university learning at the high levels to tutelage under a village priest.  Pluralism was the practice whereby a cleric held more than one benefice, or other religious and/or administrative posts in addition to his benefice.  Some left parishes to serve in chantries, endowed chapels, which could be lucrative and created absenteeism in the parish churches.

In addition to the secular clergy were the regular, or cloistered, clergy.  There were a number of orders, chiefly the Benedictines and Cistercians, which were supported by endowments and had monastic communities that held estates, many on a par with lay nobility, which required extensive administration. The monastic orders peaked in power by the end of the twelfth century, and the mendicant orders rose soon thereafter: the Franciscans, Dominicans, Carmelites, and Augustinians.  The friars were not confined to monastic life but served the communities in which they settled, usually cities, and became active in education, as well as ministerial services. Although poverty was a basic principle associated with mendicancy, many houses became wealthy through endowments and benefactions.

There was conflict at the parochial level between mendicant and secular clergy over spiritual ministrations and the fees, endowments and benefactions attached.  At the higher level, strain between the king and pope was often driven by economics.  For example, each frequently had candidates for ecclesiastical positions such as bishoprics and their attendant revenues.  Other issues such as both papal and state taxation of the clergy are less visible in the literature, but demonstrate that antagonism engendered by clerical competition ran the hierarchical gamut.

The Monarchy

The history of the fourteenth century is marked with conflict and disaster, social and natural.  Politically, there was imperfect judicial administration, conflict between king and parliament, clashing court politics and civil unrest, due in great part to monarchical instability.  Edward II (1307-27) took over a throne burdened with domestic difficulties, heavy debt and war with Scotland.  Magnates were concerned with controlling monarchical power and Ordinances were drawn to regulate administration, prevent oppression, and strengthen parliamentary participation. Ordainers were appointed to oversee the implementation of the regulations, particularly concerning taxation, royal expenditures and choice of councilors, but the Ordinances were not consistently followed or enforced and became a source of conflict.

Edward resisted counsel and displayed favoritism that was divisive and led to civil conflict, which undermined governmental administration.  His ineptitude extended to military leadership, and his losses in the war with Scotland caused further civil and economic instability.  Throughout his reign Edward was opposed by the peerage, and finally by his queen, Isabella, who led the action that resulted in Edward’s deposition.  She and her lover, Roger Mortimer, ruled during the regency of Edward’s son and successor, Edward III, but there was no improvement until the new king took the rule at age eighteen.

Edward III’s reign (1327-77) began and ended darkly, but overall the monarchy was somewhat stabilized and strengthened.  Edward created a new, supportive  peerage and tended toward conciliatory rather than coercive politics.  He redeemed some of his father’s losses in Scotland, though the conflict continued and victories ebbed and flowed.

The Hundred Years War with France (1337-1453) centered on lands held by England in fiefdom to the French king.  Edward made claim to the French throne in hope of gaining land and power.  Alliances shifted, treaties were made and broken, and the costs of funding the war were burdensome.  The issues of sovereignty were not resolved during Edward’s lifetime, and he withdrew from participation when hostilities were renewed in 1369.  In his elder years, he was surrounded by favorites, who were eventually impeached but later restored.

Internal conflicts and distrust were so strong when Richard II succeeded Edward that a council was appointed during his minority rather than an individual regent.  Richard did little to restore stability but, like Edward II, ruled with tyranny, favoritism and foreign failure.  Richard resisted parliamentary controls, the peerage was once again divided, and civil war loomed.  There were some periods of calm during his reign, but conflict always ruminated and eventually gave Henry Bolingbroke the opportunity to seize the throne.  Like Edward II, Richard’s rule ended in deposition.

Natural Disasters

Natural disasters, such as rains, floods, drought, earthquake and livestock disease, which were thought to be sent by God as punishment, appear chiefly in the literature as dearths and famine.  There were a number of bad harvests throughout the century with dearths in 1321-22, 1350-52, 1369-70 and 1390-91.  One of the most calamitous was the famine of 1315-17, brought on by years of excessive summer rainfall across northern Europe.  In England, severity depended on geographic locale, but generally harvests of all types of grain such as barley and rye, and chiefly wheat, were way below average, nearly half or less in some regions.

Scarcity brought inflated prices; a quarter wagon load of wheat rose from 8s in the autumn of 1315 to over 26s by summer 1316.  In some areas, prices exceeded 40s, and costs of other grains as well as salt and dairy products rose commensurately, and some large-scale landowners benefited from sales at the high prices.  Less fortunate lords laid off workers or reduced wages, and peasants abandoned, sold or encumbered their land, which allowed wealthier peasants to exploit their poorer neighbors in order to increase their own landholdings.  Almsgiving was reduced, and theft was common by the desperate poor, and the death rate from starvation and related illnesses such as typhus rose.

Livestock disease sometimes accompanied famine, as it did during 1315-17, and at other times as in 1325-26 during summer droughts. Flocks of sheep stricken with murrain were decreased by half in 1316-17, and again in 1321-22.  Shortages caused food scarcity, and reduction of wool supply had far-reaching economic effects on both textile production and raw material exports, as well as royal income from taxation.2  Similar losses of cattle and oxen from disease occurred between 1319-21, so that horses were used to plough, which affected the ability to work the land.  The combination of lost livestock and grains during the major agrarian crises was devastating, not only in mortality but in standards of living, which fell to poverty levels for many.

The Plague that struck England in 1348-49, with subsequent outbreaks throughout the century, decimated the population, though to varying degrees depending on location; overall estimates range from thirty to fifty percent.  Although it accelerated trends already in motion, the effect of depopulation was tremendous on every aspect of life.  Socioeconomically, it shifted the distribution and management of landholdings and labor, impacted the value of rural properties and produce, and jostled the social balance.  Cultivation and crop production decreased, grain prices were depressed, prices for manufactured goods rose, rents fell and, most significantly, wages rose due to labor shortages.  Villeins’ demands led to a mobile work force, and lord/tenant relationships were altered as the trend for accepting monetary payment for rents and fees in lieu of service increased.  Many lords leased out their demesne lands to raise money necessitated by the rising cash economy, and overall the combined trends were not in their favor though, again, it varied regionally. 

The governing class wished to protect their economic interests in the villeinage system and the monetary benefits derived therefrom.  Attempts were made to stabilize the feudal system and the economic dynamism through legislation, such as wage freezes and prohibition against changing jobs. Lords continued trying to exert control and to literally keep villeins in their place.  Despite government regulation, the law of supply and demand presided and the economic transition continued.  Social relations shifted as peasants found more freedom of choice of occupation and manorial affiliation, the opportunity to increase landholdings and income, improved working conditions, and a measure of upward mobility, albeit restricted, that pressed on traditional stratification, both within the peasantry and upon upper levels.


One of the most signal events of Richard's reign was the Rising of 1381. Though other grievances were at issue, the catalyst was taxation.  Amid opposition to the king's spending, two poll taxes were approved in 1377, one in 1379 and another in 1380, of increasing amounts.  The taxes fell hardest on the poor, and the latest, due to be levied in 1381, was yet another exercise to raise funds for the war.  This time it proved intolerable and was met with resistance which turned to violence.

The Rising was not a singular phenomenon but rooted in tensions that had been growing for some time; as Hilton observes, "It is important to remember that the 'popular' movements . . . did not erupt in an otherwise tranquil society.  The social harmony, which ecclesiastical, political and social theorists constantly idealized in their writings and sermons, never in fact existed" (Hilton, Class Conflict 80).

Antagonism between the laboring classes and those in power were of long standing in both manor and town.  Although the Rising is also known as the "Peasants Revolt” because it was born in some, not all, English rural counties, it should be noted that the rebel forces were joined by urban sympathizers whose grievances differed but who reacted similarly to what they perceived as oppression.3

Despite the enhanced economic opportunities and potentially reduced servility of the period, discontent and rebellion increased, as witnessed by the Rising.  Scholars suggest that this discontent arose only not from poverty and oppression, but from the recognition of the possibility of an improved socioeconomic situation and the frustration of being hampered in the attainment of that advancement.  Patterson agrees that the Rising was more the "outraged reaction of independent peasant producers to the seigniorial attempt to contain their growth" than the outcry of an "unbearably downtrodden peasantry" (253).  This is borne out by the theory that although there were some poor participants, most were from the middling classes.

McKisack focuses on historical evidence which speaks of discontent due to economic factors.  She cites court and manorial records that reflect the peasants' reluctance and/or refusal to perform work based on their wish to escape villein tenure, obtain casual work and earn higher wages (339).  The issues, although they varied somewhat in specificity and intensity depending on the location, included the abolition of serfdom, free contract for labor services, low rents, freedom for peasant trade, repeal of oppressive legislation and the exploitation of landless and nearly landless laborers (McKisack 338).

But there were causes for the discontent to be found outside of the purely economic sphere.  The rebels’ desire for freedom from oppression and exploitation, though manifested materially, involved degradation.  Patterson suggests that it was the stigma of serfdom as a "permanent condition of sinfulness" and not simply the economic hardship of serfdom which fueled the Rising and all late medieval peasant revolts, but that the desire for human dignity was also at issue (264).  When the Rising had been quelled, the king retracted the placatory agreement he had made to grant the rebels’ demands and their freedom and is reported to have said, “Villeins ye are and villeins ye shall remain” (McKisack 418).


1  Medieval hospitals were generally almshourses rather than medical facilities, though some cared for the sick, especially lepers.

2  Although England exported a number of products and commodities, wool was by far the most important.  A long and complex trade network involved growers and producers, merchants, bankers and brokers, and the crown, and a system of cash and credit transactions.  The crown gained export taxes, customs, duties, fines and subsidies, and in order to control wool trade and profits, the crown established compulsory staples, towns through which the wool had to pass.  These towns, the domestic and foreign locations of which were changed repeatedly but finally settled at Calais, were under the control of merchants and a mayor, dominated by Londoners.  This monopoly benefited the staplers who, in return for their privileged trade position, were then expected to lend money to the crown, repayment of which was secured through exemption from staple regulations.

3  For a fuller discussion of resistance and revolt before, during and after the Rising by both rural and urban workers, see the Introduction to the Rebellion section of this collection.

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