THE WICKED AGE
MIDDLE ENGLISH COMPLAINT LITERATURE IN TRANSLATION
London Lickpenny1 is the tale of a poor Kentish husbandman’s trip to the courts at Westminster to present his case. Though his claim apparently has merit, he cannot obtain action or justice without bribing the various lawyers, judges and clerks. A mixture of complaint, parody and pathos, the poem also takes the reader on a lively tour of Westminster and London. It is an engaging piece written in a relatively easy dialect and published often in anthologies, so it might be a good starting point for those tempted to read some Middle English texts in the original.
I once turned my steps to London, where truth should surely be found, and immediately went to a lawyer at Westminster to make my complaint. I said, “For Mary’s love, that holy saint, pity the poor man who would proceed.” But for lack of money, I could not succeed.
As I thrust through the crowd, by misfortune my hood was gone, but I did not stay long until I reached the King’s Bench. I quickly knelt before the judge and asked him for God’s sake to take heed. But for lack of money I might not succeed.
Beneath the judges sat a great company of clerks writing rapidly in unison. One stood up and cried “Richard, Robert, and John of Kent!” He spoke so quickly that I didn’t know what he meant, but he who lacked money might not succeed.
Then I went to the Court of Common Pleas, where one sat with a silk hood. I paid him respect, as I should, and told him my case as well as I could, how I had been defrauded of my goods by falsehood. I got not a “mum” of his mouth for my reward! For lack of money, I might not succeed.
From there I went to the Rolls before the clerks of the Chancery,2 where I found many earning pence but none of them once regarded me. Kneeling, I gave them my complaint, which they liked well, but without money I could not succeed.
In Westminster Hall I found one, dressed in a long gown of ray.3 I quickly crouched and knelt before him and prayed for his help for Mary’s love. He said “I don’t know what you mean” and told me to leave. For lack of money I could not succeed.
Within this hall neither rich nor poor would help me, even if I were dying. Seeing this, I went out the door, where Flemings began to cry at me: “Master, what will you barter or buy? Fine felt hats, or spectacles for reading? Lay down your silver, and here you may succeed.”
Soon I went to Westminster gate when the morning sun was high. Cooks paid me great attention and proffered me bread with ale and wine, and fine fat beef ribs. They began to spread a fair cloth but, wanting money, I might not succeed.
I hurried into London, the prize of the land. One began to cry “hot pescods,4 ripe strawberries and cherries on the bough!” Another called me to come near, and buy some spice: pepper and saffron. But for lack of money, I might not succeed.
Then I drew towards Cheapside, where I saw many people standing. One offered me velvet, silk and linen, and another took me by the hand and said, “Here is Parisian thread, the finest in the land.” I was never used to such things and, wanting money, I might not succeed.
I then went forth to London Stone, throughout all Candlewick Street, where drapers offered me much cloth. Then one came crying “Hot sheep’s feet!” Another cried “Mackerel, green rushes,” while a third bade me to buy a hood to cover my head. But for want of money, I might not succeed.
Next I hurried to Eastcheap and heard a cry, “Beef ribs and many pies!” Pewter pots clattered in a heap, and there were harps, pipes, and minstrelsy. Some began to cry “Yea, by cock!” and “Nay, by cock!”5 Some sang of “Jenkin and Julian” for their reward. But for lack of money, I might not succeed.
Cornhill was my next stop, where there was much stolen gear. I saw where my hood hung, that had been lost among the crowd. I thought it wrong to buy my own hood—I knew it as well as I did my Creed. But for lack of money, I could not succeed.
The tavernkeeper took me by the sleeve and said, “Sir, will you try our wine?” I answered, “A pennys-worth can do me little harm” and drank a pint, for which I paid. I left there very hungry, and wanting money, I could not succeed.
I rushed to Billingsgate, and one cried, “Ho! We are leaving!” I prayed a barge-man, for God’s sake, to let me ride free. “You can’t leave here for under twopence,” he said; “I don’t care to make my alms-deed now.” So, lacking money, I could not succeed.
Then I returned to Kent, for I would meddle no more with the law since no man gave me attention, and I prepared myself to do as I had done before. Now, Jesus who was born in Bethlehem, save London and send true lawyers their reward! For whoever lacks money, with them they will not succeed.
1 Skeat cites the explanation that “Lickpenny” is an epithet for London, since it “licks up the pence that comes near it.” Walter W. Skeat, ed., Specimens of English Literature from the ‘Ploughmans Crede’ to the ‘Shepheardes Calendar’ A.D. 1394-A.D. 1579 (London: Clarendon Press, 1892) 373.
2 The King’s Bench handled cases that pertained to the king’s concerns and peace; the Court of Common Pleas heard civil suits not involving the crown; and the Court of Chancery, the records of which were recorded on rolls, heard complaints not dealt with in the other courts, such as claims against the king’s officers.
3 Ray was a striped cloth asssociated with lawyers’ garb, though in The Simony the squier’s outlandish dress includes “ray” turned sideways.
4 “Pescodes” have not been firmly identified. Guesses include fruit, though “hot” makes that questionable. The OED records the word as a variant of “peasecods” or “peascods,” defined as pea pods.