Open main menu

The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 18/Number 109/Five Hundred Years Ago

< The Atlantic Monthly‎ | Volume 18‎ | Number 109
 

FIVE HUNDRED YEARS AGO.


We who enjoy the fruits of civil and religious liberty as our daily food, reaping the harvest we did not sow, seldom give a thought to those who in the dim past prepared the ground and scattered the seed that has yielded such plenteous return. If occasionally we peer into the gloom of by-gone centuries, some stalwart form, like that of Luther, arrests our backward glance, and all beyond is dark and void. But generations before Martin Luther the work for the harvest of coming ages was begun. Humble but earnest men, with such rude aids as they possessed, were toiling to clear away the dense underbrush of ignorance and superstition, and let the light of the sun in on the stagnant swamp; struggling to plough up the stony soil that centuries of oppression had made hard and barren; scattering seed that the sun would scorch and the birds of the air devour; and dying without seeing a green blade to reward them with the hope that their toils were not in vain.

But their labors were not lost. The soil thus prepared by the painful and unrequited toil of those who had gone down to obscure graves, sorrowing and hopeless, offered less obstruction to the strong arms and better appliances of the reformers of a later day. Of the seed scattered by the early sowers, a grain found here and there a sheltering crevice, and struggled into life, bearing fruit that in the succession of years increased and multiplied until thousands were fed and strengthened by its harvest.

The military history of the reign of the third Edward of England is illuminated with such a blaze of glory, that the dazzled eye can with difficulty distinguish the dark background of its domestic life. Cressy and Poitiers carried the military fame of England throughout the world, and struck terror into her enemies; but at home dwelt turbulence, corruption, rapine, and misery. The barons quarrelled and fought among themselves. The clergy wallowed in a sty of corruption and debauchery. The laboring classes were sunk in ignorance and hopeless misery. It was the dark hour that precedes the first glimmer of dawn.

Poitiers was won in 1356. Four years the French king remained in honorable captivity in England. Then came the treaty of Bretigny, which released King John and terminated the war. The great nobles, with their armies of lesser knights and swarms of men-at-arms, returned to England, viewed with secret and well-founded distrust by the industrious and laboring classes along their homeward route. The nobles established themselves in their castles, immediately surrounded by swarms of reckless men, habituated by years of war to deeds of lawlessness and violence, and having subject to their summons feudatory knights, each of whom had his own band of turbulent retainers. With such elements of discord, it was impossible for good order long to be maintained. The nobles quarrelled, and their retainers were not backward in taking up the quarrel. The feudatory knights had disagreements among themselves, and carried on petty war against each other. Confederated bands of lawless men traversed the country, seizing property wherever it could be found, outraging women, taking prisoners and ransoming them, and making war against all who opposed their progress or were personally obnoxious to them. Castles and estates were seized and held on some imaginary claim. It was in vain to appeal to the laws. Justice was powerless to correct abuses or aid the oppressed. Powerful barons gave countenance to the marauders, that their services might be secured in the event of a quarrel with their neighbors; nor did they hesitate to share in the booty. Might everywhere triumphed over right, and the "law of the strong arm" superseded the ordinances of the civil power.

The condition of the Church was no better than that of the State. Fraud, corruption, and oppression sat in high places in both. The prelates had their swarms of armed retainers, and ruled their flocks with the sword as well as the crosier. The monasteries, with but few exceptions, were the haunts of extravagance and sensuality, instead of the abodes of self-denying virtue and learning. The portly abbot, his black robe edged with costly fur and clasped with a silver girdle, his peaked shoes in the height of the fashion, and wearing a handsomely ornamented dagger or hunting-knife, rode out accompanied by a pack of trained hunting-dogs, the golden bells on his bridle

"Gingeling in the whistling wind as clear
And eke as loud as doth the chapel bell."

The monks who were unable to indulge their taste for the chase sought recompense in unrestrained indulgence at the table. The land was overspread with an innumerable swarm of begging friars, who fawned on the great, flattered the wealthy, and despoiled the poor. Another class traversed the country, selling pardons "come from Rome all hot," and extolling the virtues of their relics and the power of their indulgences with the eloquence of a quack vending his nostrums. Bishops held civil offices under the king, and priests acted as stewards in great men's houses. Simony possessed the Church, and the ministers of religion again sold their Master for silver.

The domestic and social life of the higher classes of society in the last half of the fourteenth century can be delineated, with a fair approach to exactness, from the detached hints scattered through such old romances and poems of that period as the diligent labors of zealous antiquaries have brought to light.

The residences of all the great and wealthy possessed one general character. The central point and most important feature was the great hall, adjoining which in most houses a "parlour," or talking-room, had recently been built. A principal chamber for the ladies of the household was generally placed on the ground-floor, with an upper chamber, or "soler," over it. In the larger establishments additional chambers had been clustered around the main building, increasing in number with the wants of the household. The castles and fortified buildings varied a little in outward construction from the ordinary manorial residences, but the same general arrangement of the interior existed. A few of the stronger and more important buildings were of stone; but the larger proportion were of timber, or timber and stone combined.

The great hall was the most important part of the establishment. Here the general business of the household was transacted, the meals served, strangers received, audiences granted, and what may be termed the public life of the family carried on. It was also the general rendezvous of the servants and retainers, who lounged about it when duty or pleasure did not call them to the other offices or to the field. In the evening they gathered around the fire, built in an iron grate standing in the middle of the room; for as yet chimneys were a luxury confined to the principal chamber. The few remaining halls of this period that have not been remodelled in succeeding ages present no trace of a fireplace or chimney. At night the male servants and men-at-arms stretched themselves to sleep on the benches along its sides, or on the rush-covered floor.

The floor at the upper end was raised, forming the dais, or place of honor. On this, stretching nearly from side to side, was the "table dormant," or fixed table, with a "settle," or bench with a back, between it and the wall. On the lower floor, and extending lengthwise on each side down the hall, stood long benches for the use of the servants and retainers. At meal-times, in front of these were placed the temporary tables of loose boards supported on trestles. At the upper end was the cupboard, or "dresser," for the plate and furniture of the table. In the halls of the greater nobles, on important occasions, tapestry or curtains were hung on the walls, or at least on that portion of the wall next the dais, and still more rarely a carpet was used for that part of the floor,—rushes or bare tiles being more general. A perch for hawks, and the grate of burning wood, sending its smoke up to the blackened open roof, completed the picture of the hall of a large establishment in the fourteenth century.

The "parlour," or talking-room, as its name imports, was used chiefly for conferences, and for such business as required more privacy than was attainable in the hall, but was unsuited to the domestic character of the chamber.

After the hall, the most important feature of the building was the principal chamber. Here the domestic life of the family was carried on. Here the ladies of the household spent their time when not at meals or engaged in out-door sports and pastimes. The furniture of this room was more complete than that of the other parts of the building, but was still rude and scanty when judged by modern wants. The bed was of massive proportions and frequently of ornamental character. A truckle-bed for the children or chamber servants was pushed under the principal bed by day. At the foot of the latter stood the huge "hutch," or chest, in which were deposited for safety the family plate and valuables. Two or three stools and large chairs, with a perch or bar on which to hang garments, completed the usual furniture of the chamber.

In this room was one important feature not found in the others, and which accounted for the increasing attachment manifested towards it. The fire, instead of being placed in an iron grate or brazier in the middle of the room, burned merrily on the hearth; and the smoke, instead of seeking its exit by the window, was carried up a chimney of generous proportions.

The household day commenced early. The members of the family arose from the beds where they had slept in the garments worn by our first parents before the fall; for the effeminacy of sleeping in night-dresses had not yet been introduced, and it was only the excessively poor that made the clothes worn during the day serve in lieu of blankets and coverlets.

" 'I have but one whole hater,'[1] quoth Haukyn;
'I am the less to blame,
Though it be soiled and seldom clean:
I sleep therein of nights.'"

Breakfast was served about six o'clock. It is difficult to get an exact description of the customs of the breakfast-table, or the nature of the meal, as the contemporary writers make little allusion to it. Probably it was but a slight repast, to allay the cravings of appetite until the great meal of the day was served. Until within a few years of the period of which we write, the dinner-hour was so early that but little food was taken before that time.

Dinner was then, as now, the principal meal of the English day. In the houses of the great it was conducted with much ceremony; and among the richer classes certain well-established rules of courtesy in relation to the meal were observed. The family and their guests entered the great hall about ten o'clock. They were met by a domestic, bearing a pitcher and basin, and his assistant, with a towel. Water was poured on the hands of each person, and the ablutions carefully performed; scrupulous cleanliness in this respect being required, from the fact that forks were as yet things undreamed of. The principal guests took their seats at the "table dormant," on the dais, the person of highest rank having the middle seat,—which was consequently at the head of the hall,—and the others being arranged according to their respective rank.

At the side-tables, below the dais, sat the inferior members of the household, with the guests of lesser note,—these also arranged with careful regard to rank and position. The beggar or poor wayfarer who was admitted to a humble share of the feast crouched on the rushes among the dogs who lay awaiting the bones and relics of the repast, and thankfully fed, like Lazarus, on "the crumbs that fell from the rich man's table."

The guests being seated, the busy servitors hastened to cover the table with a "fair white linen cloth," of unsullied purity; and on it were placed the salt-cellars of massive silver, the spoons and knives; next the bread, and then the wine, poured with great ceremony into the drinking-cups by the cupbearer. The silver vessels were brought from the "dresser," and arranged on the table, the display being proportioned to the wealth and condition of the host and the consideration to be paid to the guests. The head cook and his assistants entered in procession, bearing the dishes in regular order, and deposited them on the table with due solemnity. The pottage was first served, and when this course was eaten, the vessels and spoons were removed. The carver performed his office on the meats, holding the joint, according to the traditions of his order, carefully with the thumb and first two fingers of his left hand, whilst he carved. The pieces were placed on "trenchers" or slices of bread, and handed to the guests, who made no scruple of freely using their fingers. The bones and refuse of the food were placed on the table, or thrown to the dogs.

The people of that day were not insensible to the pleasures of the table; and, unless urgent matters called them to the field or the council, dinner was enjoyed with leisurely deliberation. In great houses of hospitable reputation, the great hall at the hour of meals was open to all comers. The traveller who found himself at its door was admitted, and received position and food according to his condition. The minstrels that wandered over the country in great numbers were always welcome, and were well supplied with food and drink, and received liberal gifts for their songs and the long romances of love and chivalry which they recited to music. Not unfrequently satirical songs were sung, or the minstrel narrated stories in which the humor was of a coarser nature than would now be tolerated in the presence of ladies, but which in that day were listened to without a blush.

Dinner ended, the vessels and unconsumed meats were removed, the tablecloths gathered up, and the relics of the feast thrown on the floor for the dogs to devour. The side-tables were removed from their trestles and piled in a corner, and the hall cleared for the entertainments that frequently followed the dinner. These consisted of feats of conjuring by the "joculators," balancing and tumbling by the women who wandered about seeking a livelihood by such means, or dancing by the ladies of the household and their guests.

The feast and its succeeding amusements disposed of, the ladies either shared in the out-door sports and games, of which there were many in which women could take part, or they retired to the chamber, where, seated in low chairs or in the recessed windows, they engaged in making the needle-work pictures that adorned the tapestry, listening the while to the love-romances narrated by the minstrel who had been invited for the purpose, or gave willing ear to the flattery of some "virelay" or love-song, sung by gay canon, gentle page, or courtly knight.

About six o'clock, the household once more assembled in the hall for supper; and then the orders for the ensuing day were given to the servants and retainers. Soon after dark the members of the family and their guests sought their respective sleeping-places, as contrivances for lighting were rude, and had to be economized. Such of the servants as had special chambers or sleeping-places retired to them, whilst a large proportion of the male servants and such of the retainers as belonged immediately to the household stretched themselves on the benches or floor of the hall, and were soon fast asleep. Such is a sketch of the ordinary course of domestic life among the higher classes of English society in the fourteenth century.

Among the greater nobles, the details of the daily life were sometimes on a more magnificent scale; but the leading features were as we have described them. Rude pomp and barbaric splendor marked the establishments of some of the powerful barons and ecclesiastical dignitaries. At tilt and tournament, the contending knights strove to outshine each other in gorgeousness of equipment, as well as in deeds of arms. Nor were the ladies averse to richness of attire in their own persons. Costly robes and dainty furs were worn, and jewels and gems of price sparkled when the dames and demoiselles appeared at great gatherings, or on occasions of state and ceremony. The extravagance of dress in both sexes had grown to be so great an evil, that stringent sumptuary laws were passed, but without producing any effect.

The moral state of even the highest classes of society was not of a flattering character. Europe was one huge camp and battle-field, in which all the chivalry of the day had been educated,—no good school for purity of life and delicacy of language. The literature of the time, at least that portion of it which penetrated to ladies' chambers, was of an amorous, and too frequently of an indelicate character. A debased and sensual clergy swarmed over the land, finding their way into every household, and gradually corrupting those with whom their sacred office brought them into contact. The manners and habits of the time afforded every facility for the gratification of debased passions and indulgence in immoral practices.

Whilst the barons feasted and fought, the ladies intrigued, and the clergy violated every principle of the religion they professed, the great mass of the population lived on, with scarcely a thought bestowed on them by their social superiors. Between the Anglo-Norman baron and the Anglo-Saxon laborer, or "villain," there was a great gulf fixed. The antipathy of an antagonistic and conquered race to its conquerors was intensified by years of oppression and wrong, and the laborer cherished a burning desire to break the bonds of thraldom in which most of the poor were held.

By the laws of the feudal system, the tenants and laborers on the property of a baron were his "villains," or slaves. They were divided into two classes;—the "villains regardant," who were permitted to occupy and cultivate small portions of land, on condition of rendering certain stipulated services to their lord, and were therefore considered in the light of slaves to the land; and the "villains in gross," who were the personal slaves of the landowner, and were compelled to do the work they were set to perform in consideration of their food and clothing. Besides these two classes a third had recently come into existence, and, owing to various causes, was fast increasing in extent and importance,—that of free laborers, who worked for hire. This class was recruited in various ways from the ranks of the "villains in gross." Some were manumitted by their dying masters, as an act of piety in atonement for the deeds of violence done during life; but by far the greater number effected their freedom by escaping to distant parts of the country, where but little search would be made for them, or by seeking the refuge of the walled towns and cities, where a residence of a year and a day would give them freedom by law. The citizens were always ready to give asylum to those fugitives, for they supplied the growing need for laborers, and enabled the cities, by the increase of population, to maintain their independence against the pretensions of the barons.

The condition of the "villain" was bad at the best; and numerous petty acts of oppression in most instances increased the bitterness of his lot. Himself the property of another, he could not legally hold possessions of any kind. Not only the land he tilled, and the rude implements of husbandry with which he painfully cultivated the soil, but the cattle with which he worked, the house in which he lived, the few chattels he gathered around him, and the scanty store of money earned by hard labor, all belonged to his master, who could at any time dispossess him of them. The "villain" who obtained a livelihood by working the few acres of land which had been held from father to son, on condition of performing personal labor or other services on the estate of the landowner, was subject not only to the demands of his master, but to the tithing of the Church; to the doles exacted by the swarms of begging friars, who, like Irish beggars of the present day, invoked cheap blessings on the cheerful giver, and launched bitter curses at the heads of those who refused alms; to the impositions of the wandering "pardoners," with their charms and relics; and to the tyrannical exactions of the "summoners," who, under pretence of writs from ecclesiastical courts, robbed all who were not in position to resist their fraudulent demands. What these spared was frequently swept away by the visits of the king's purveyors and the officers of others in power, who, not content with robbing the poor husbandman of the proceeds of his toil, treated the men with violence and the women with outrage. Complaint was useless. The "churl" had no rights which those in office were bound to respect.

Ignorant, superstitious, and condemned to a life of unrequited toil and unredressed wrongs, the mental and moral condition of the agricultural poor was wretchedly low. Huddled together in mud cottages, through the rotten thatches of which the rain penetrated; clothed with rough garments that were seldom changed night or day; feeding on coarse food, and that in insufficient quantities,—their physical condition was one of extreme misery. The usual daily allowance of food to the bond laborer of either class, when working for the owner of the land, was two herrings, milk for cheese, and a loaf of bread, with the addition in harvest of a small allowance of beer. Occasionally, salted meats or stockfish were substituted for the herrings.

The condition of the free laborer was measurably better; but even he was condemned to a life of privation and wretchedness, relieved only by the knowledge that his scanty earnings were his own, and that he could change the scene of his labors if he saw fit. The ordinary agricultural laborer, at the wages usually given, would have to work more than a week for a bushel of wheat. At harvest-time and other periods when the demand for labor was unusually great, as it was after the pestilences that swept the land about the time of which we write, the free laborers demanded higher wages; and although laws were passed to prevent their obtaining more than the usual rates, necessity frequently compelled their employment at the advanced prices. The receipt of higher wages only temporarily bettered their condition. Accustomed to griping hunger and short allowances of food, when better days came, they thought only of enjoying the present, and took no heed of the future. After harvest, with its high wages and cheapness of provision, the laborer frequently became wasteful and improvident. Instead of the stinted allowance of salted meat or fish, with the pinched loaf of bean-flour, and an occasional draught of weak beer, his fastidious appetite demanded fresh meat or fish, white bread, vegetables freshly gathered, and ale of the best. As long as his store lasted, he worked as little as possible, and grumbled at the fortune that made him a laborer. But these halcyon days were few, and soon passed away, to be followed by decreasing allowances of the commonest food, fierce pangs of hunger, and miserable destitution. A bad harvest inflicted untold wretchedness on the poor. Ill lodged, ill fed, and scantily clothed, disease cut them down like grass before the scythe. A deadly pestilence swept over the land in 1348, carrying off about two thirds of the people; and nearly all the victims were from among the poorest classes. In 1361, another pestilence carried off thousands, again spreading terror and dismay through the country. Seven years later a third visitation desolated England. Here and there one of the better class fell a victim to the destroyer; but the great mass were from the ranks of the half-starved and poorly lodged laborers.

The morality of the poor was, as might be expected, at a low ebb. Modesty, chastity, and temperance could scarcely be looked for in wretched mud huts, where all ages and sexes herded together like swine. Men and women alike fled from their miserable homes to the ale-house, where they drank long draughts of cheap ale, and, in imitation of their superiors in station, listened to a low class of "japers" who recited "rhymes of Robin Hood," or told coarse and obscene stories for the sake of a share of the ale, or such few small coins as could be drawn from the ragged pouches of the bacchanals.

Between proud wealth and abject poverty there can be no friendly feeling. Stolid, brutish ignorance can alone render the bonds of the slave endurable. As his eyes are slowly opened by increasing knowledge, and he can compare his condition with that of the freeman, his fetters gall him, he becomes restive in his bonds, and at length turns in blind fury on his oppressors, striking mad blows with his manacled hands. Trodden into the dust by the iron heel of a tyrannical feudal power, the peasantry of France had turned on their oppressors, and wreaked a brief but savage vengeance for ages of wrong. The atrocious cruelties and mad excesses of the revolted Jacquerie could only have been committed by those who had been so long treated as brutes that they had acquired brutish passions and instincts. The English peasantry had not yet followed the example of their French compeers; but the gathering storm already darkened the sky, and the mutterings of the thunder were heard. Superstitiously religious, they hated the ministers of religion who violated its principles. Born slaves and hopelessly debased and ignorant, they began to ask the question,—

"When Adam delved and Eve span,
Who then was the gentleman?"

Occasionally a rude ballad found its way among the people fiercely expressive of their scorn of the clergy and their hatred of the rich. One that was very popular, and has been transmitted to our day, asked,—

"While God was on earth
And wandered wide,
What was the reason
Why he would not ride?
Because he would have no groom
To go by his side,
Nor grudging of no gadeling[2]
To scold nor to chide.

*****

"Hearken hitherward, horsemen,
A tiding I you tell,
That ye shall hang
And harbor in hell!"

But no leader had as yet arisen to give proper voice to the desire for reformation that burned in the hearts of the common people. The writers of that age were breathing the intoxicating air of court favor, and heeded not the sufferings of the common rabble. Froissart, the courtly canon and chronicler of deeds of chivalry, was writing French madrigals and amorous ditties for the ear of Queen Philippa, and loved too well gay society, luxurious feasts, and dainty attire, not to shrink with disgust from thought of the dirty, uncouth, and miserable herd of "greasy caps." Gower was inditing fashionable love-songs. Chaucer, who years after was to direct such telling blows in his Canterbury Tales at the vices and corruptness of the clergy, was a favorite member of the retinue of the powerful "John of Gaunt, time-honored Lancaster," and had as yet only written long and stately poems on the history of Troilus and Cressida, the of Birds, and the Court of Love. Wycliffe, the great English reformer of the Church, was quietly living at his rectory of Fylingham, and preparing his first essays against the mendicant orders. John Ball, the "crazy priest of Kent," as Froissart calls him, was brooding over the miseries of his poor parishioners, and nursing in his mind that enmity to all social distinctions with which he afterwards inflamed the minds of the peasantry, and incited them to open rebellion.

But in the quarter least expected the oppressed people found an advocate. An unobtrusive monk, whose name is almost a doubtful tradition, stole out from his quiet cell in Malvern Abbey, and, whilst his brethren feasted, climbed the gentle slope of the Worcestershire hills, and drank in the beauties of the varied landscape at his feet. There, on a May morning, as he rested under a bank by the side of a brooklet, and was lulled to sleep by the murmuring of the water, he dreamed those dreams that set waking people to thinking, and gave a powerful impetus to the moral and social revolution that was just commencing.

The "Vision of Piers Plowman" is every way a singular production. Clothed in the then almost obsolete verse of a past age, it breathes wholly the spirit of the time in which it was written. The work of a monk, it is unsparing in its attacks on the monastic orders. Intended for the reading or hearing of the middle and lower classes, it gives more frequent glimpses of the social condition of all ranks of people than any other work of that age. As a philological monument, it is of great value; as a poem, it contains many passages of merit; and as a storehouse of allusions to the social life of the people in the fourteenth century, it is invaluable.

The poem consists of a series of visions or dreams, of an allegorical character, in which the dreamer seeks to find Truth and Righteousness on earth, meeting with but little success. The allegorical idea cannot be followed without weariness, and, in fact, the intentions of the writer are by no means clear, the allegory being frequently involved and contradictory. The beauty of the poem lies in its detached passages, its occasional poetic touches, its graphic pictures, biting satire, and withering denunciation of fraud, corruption, and tyranny. The measure adopted is the unrhymed alliterative, characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon literature, and which had long been disused, but which retained its hold on the affections of the common people, who were of Anglo-Saxon stock. In the extracts we give from the poem, the measure is retained, but the words modernized, so far as can be done without injuring the sense or metre.

The opening passage of the "Vision" has been so frequently reproduced, as a specimen of the poet's style, that it is probably familiar to many readers, but its exquisite naturalness and simplicity tempt us to quote it here.

"In a summer season,
When soft was the sun,
I shaped me into shrouds[3]
As I a shep[4] were;
In habit as an hermit
Unholy of works
Went wide in this world
Wonders to hear:
And on a May morwening
On Malvern hills
Me befell a ferly,[5]
Of fairy methought.
I was weary for-wandered,
And went me to rest
Under a broad bank
By a bourne's[6] side;
And as I lay and leaned,
And looked on the waters,
I slumbered into a sleeping
It swayed so merry."

The first scene in the visions that visited the sleep of the dreaming monk gives a view of the social classes of that time, beginning with the humblest, whose condition was uppermost in his mind. The picture is not only painted with vigorous touches, but affords a better idea of society in the fourteenth century than can be elsewhere obtained. There is the toiling ploughman, who "plays full seldom," winning by hard labor what wasteful men destroy; the mediæval dandy, whose only employment is to exhibit his attire; the hermit, who seeks by solitude and penitential life to win "heaven's rich bliss"; the merchant, who has wisely chosen his trade,—

"As it seemeth in our sight
That such men thriveth."

There are minstrels, who earn rich rewards by their singing; jesters and idle gossips; "sturdy beggars," wandering with full bags; pilgrims and palmers, who

"Went forth in their way
With many wise tales,
And had leave to lie
All their lives after";

counterfeit hermits, who assumed the cloak and hooked staff in order to live in idleness and sensuality; avaricious friars, selling their religion for money; cheating pardoners; covetous priests; ambitious bishops; lawyers who loved gain better than justice; "barons and burgesses, and bondmen also," with

"Bakers and brewers,
And butchers many;
Woollen websters,
And weavers of linen;
Tailors and tinkers,
And toilers in markets;
Masons and miners,
And many other crafts.
Of all kind living laborers
Leaped forth some;
As ditchers and delvers,
That do their deeds ill,
And driveth forth the long day
With Dieu save dame Emme.
Cooks and their knaves
Cried, 'Hot pies, hot!
Good geese and grys,[7]
Go dine, go!'"

To plead the cause of the poor and weak against their powerful oppressors, and to protest in the name of religion against the pride and corrupt life of its ministers, was the object of the monk of Malvern Abbey; and he did his work well. The blows he dealt were fierce and strong, and told home. Burgher and baron, monk and cardinal, alike felt the fury of his attacks. He was no respecter of persons. A monk himself, he had no scruples in tearing off the priestly robe that covered lust and rapine. Wrong in high places gained no respect from him. His invectives against a haughty and oppressive nobility and a corrupt and arrogant clergy are unsurpassed in power, and it is easy to understand the hold the poem at once acquired on the attention of the lower classes, and its influence in directing and hastening the attempt of the oppressed people to break their galling bonds.

What we have before said in reference to the wretched condition of the peasantry, as shown by contemporary evidence, is confirmed by the writer of the "Vision." The peasant was a born thrall to the owner of the land, and could

"no charter make,
Nor his cattle sell,
Without leave of his lord."

Misery and he were lifelong companions, and pinching want his daily portion. The wretched poor

"much care suffren
Through dearth, through drought,
All their days here:
Woe in winter times
For wanting of clothing
And in summer time seldom
Soupen to the full."

A graphic picture of a poor ploughman and his family is given in the "Creed" of Piers Plowman, supposed to have been written by the author of the "Vision," but a few years later.

"As I went by the way
Weeping for sorrow,
I saw a simple man me by,
Upon the plow hanging.
His coat was of a clout
That cary[8] was called;
His hood was full of holes,
And his hair out;
With his knopped[9] shoon
Clouted full thick;
His toes totedun[10] out
As he the land treaded;
His hosen overhung his hockshins
On every side,
All beslomered in fen[11]
As he the plow followed.
Two mittens as meter
Made all of clouts,
The fingers were for-werd[12]
And full of fen hanged.
This wight wallowed in the fen
Almost to the ankle.
Four rotheren[13] him before
That feeble were worthy,
Men might reckon each rib
So rentful[14] they were.
His wife walked him with,
With a long goad,
In a cutted coat,
Cutted full high,
Wrapped in a winnow sheet
To weren her from weathers,
Barefoot on the bare ice
That the blood followed.
And at the land's end layeth
A little crumb-bowl,[15]
And thereon lay a little child
Lapped in clouts,
And twins of two years old
Upon another side.
And all they sungen one song,
That sorrow was to hear;
They crieden all one cry,
A careful note.
The simple man sighed sore,
And said, 'Children, be still!'"

The tenant of land, or small farmer, was in a better condition, and when not cozened of his stores by the monks, or robbed of them by the ruffians in office or out of office, managed to live with some kind of rude comfort. What the ordinary condition of his larder and the extent of his farming stock were, may be learned from a passage in the "Vision."

" 'I have no penny,' quoth Piers,
'Pullets to buy.
Nor neither geese nor grys;
But two green cheeses,
A few curds and cream,
And an haver cake,[16]
And two loaves of beans and bran,
Baked for my fauntes[17];
And yet I say, by my soul!
I have no salt bacon.
Nor no cokeney,[18] by Christ!
Collops for to maken.

"But I have perciles and porettes,[19]
And many cole plants,[20]
And eke a cow and calf.
And a cart-mare
To draw afield my dung,
The while the drought lasteth;
And by this livelihood we must live
Till Lammas time.
And by that I hope to have
Harvest in my croft,
And then may I dight thy dinner
As me dear liketh.'"

We have already described the tenure by which the tenant held his lands, and the protection the knightly landowner was bound to give his tenant. Thus Piers Plowman, when his honest labors are broken in upon by ruffians,

"Plained him to the knight
To help him, as covenant was,
From cursed shrews,
Aud from these wasters, wolves-kind,
That maketh the world dear."

At times this was but a wolf's protection, or a stronger power broke through all guards. The "king's purveyor," or some other licensed despoiler, came in, and the victim was left to make fruitless complaints of his injuries. The women were subjected to gross outrages, and the property stolen or destroyed.

"Both my geese and my grys
His gadelings[21] fetcheth,
I dare not, for fear of them,
Fight nor chide.
He borrowed of me Bayard
And brought him home never,
Nor no farthing therefore
For aught that I could plead.
He maintaineth his men
To murder my hewen,[22]
Forestalleth my fairs,
And fighteth in my chepying.[23]
And breaketh up my barn door,
And beareth away my wheat,
And taketh me but a tally
For ten quarters of oats;
And yet he beateth me thereto."

Then, as now, there were complaints that the privations of the poor were increased by the covetousness of the hucksters, and "regraters" (retailers), who came between the producer and the consumer, and grew rich on the profits made from both.

"Brewers and bakers,
Butchers and cooks,"

were charged with robbing

"the poor people
That parcel-meal[24] buy;
For they empoison the people
Privily and oft.
They grow rich through regratery,
And rents they buy
With what the poor people
Should put in their wamb.[25]
For, took they but truly,
They timbered[26] not so high,
Nor bought no burgages,[27]
Be ye fell certain."

Stringent laws were made against huckstering and regrating, and officers were appointed to punish offenders in this respect, "with pillories and pining-stools." But officers, then as now, were not proof against temptation, and were often disposed

"Of all such sellers
Silver for to take;
Or presents without pence,
As pieces of silver,
Rings, or other riches,
The regraters to maintain."

Nor had the rogues of the fourteenth century much to learn in the way of turning a dishonest penny. The merchant commended his bad wares for good, and knew how to adulterate and how to give short measure. The spinners of wool were paid by a heavy pound, and the article resold by a light pound. Laws were made against such frauds, but laws were little regarded when they conflicted with self-interest. The crime of clipping and "sweating" coin was frequently practised. Pawn-brokers, money-lenders, and sellers of exchange thrived and flourished.

The rich find but little consideration at the hands of the plain-spoken dreamer. Their extravagance is commented on; their growing pride, which prompted them to abandon the great hall and take their meals in a private room, and their uncharitableness to the poor. They practise the saying, that "to him that hath shall be given."

"Right so, ye rich,
Ye robeth them that be rich,
And helpeth them that helpen you,
And giveth where no need is.
Ye robeth and feedeth
Them that have as ye have
Them ye make at ease."

But when, hungered, athirst, and shivering with cold, the poor man comes to the rich man's gate, there is none to help, but he is

"hunted as a hound,
And bidden go thence."

Thus

"the rich is reverenced
By reason of his richness,
And the poor is put behind."

Truly, says the Monk of Malvern,

God is much in the gorge
Of these great masters;
But among mean men
His mercy and his works."

But it is on the vices and corruptions of the clergy that the monk pours the vials of his wrath. He cloaks nothing, and spares neither rank nor condition. The avarice of the clergy, their want of religion, and the prostitution of their sacred office for the sake of gain, are sternly denounced in frequently-recurring passages. The facility with which debaucheries and crimes of all kinds could be compounded for with the priests by presents of gold and silver, the neglect of their flocks whilst seeking gain in the service of the rich and powerful, their ignorance, pride, extravagance, and licentiousness, are painted in strong colors. The immense throng of friars and monks, who "waxen out of number," meet with small mercy from their fellow-monk. Falsehood and fraud are described as dwelling ever with them. Their unholy life and unseemly quarrels are held up for reprobation. Nor do the nuns escape the imputation of unchastity. The quackery of pardoners, with their pardons and indulgences from pope and bishop, is treated with contempt and scorn. Bishops are criticised for their undivided attention to worldly matters; and even the Pope himself does not escape censure.

"What pope or prelate now
Performeth what Christ hight[28]?"

The cardinals come in for a share of the censure, and here occurs a passage, curiously suggestive of the celebrated line,—

"Never yet did cardinal bring good to England."


"The commons clamat cotidie
Each man to the other,
The country is the curseder
That cardinals come in;
And where they lie and lenge[29] most,
Lechery there reigneth."

Years afterwards, Wycliffe dealt mighty blows at the corrupt and debased clergy, and Chaucer pierced them with his sharp satire, but neither surpassed their predecessor in the vigor and spirit of his onslaughts. One passage, which we quote, had evidently been acted on by Chaucer's "poor parson," and can be studied even at this late day.

"Friars and many other masters,
That to lewed[30] men preachen,
Ye moven matters unmeasurable
To tellen of the Trinity,
That oft times the lewed people
Of their belief doubt.
Better it were to many doctors
To leave such teaching,
And tell men of the ten commandments,
And touching the seven sins,
And of the branches that bourgeoneth of them,
And bringeth men to hell,
And how that folk in follies
Misspenden their five wits,
As well friars as other folks,
Foolishly spending,
In housing, in hatering,[31]
And in to high clergy showing
More for pomp than for pure charity.
The people wot the sooth
That I lie not, lo!
For lords ye pleasen,
And reverence the rich
The rather for their silver."

It would be hardly proper to leave this portion of the subject without alluding to the remarkable passage which has been held by many as a prophecy of the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII., nearly two centuries later. After denouncing the corruptions of the clergy, he says:—

"But there shall come a king
And confess you religiouses,
And beat you as the Bible telleth
For breaking of your rule;
And amend monials,
Monks and canons,
And put them to their penance.

****

And then shall the Abbot of Abingdon,
And all his issue forever,
Have a knock of a king,
And incurable the wound."

A distinctive and charming feature of the English landscape is the hedgerow that divides the fields and marks the course of the roadways. Nowhere but in England does the landscape present such a charming picture of "meadows trim with daisies pied," "russet lawns and fallows gray," spread out like a map, divided with irregular lines of green. Nowhere else is the traveller's path guarded on either hand with a rampart of delicate primroses, sweet-breathed violets, golden buttercups fit for fairy revels, honeysuckles in whose bells the bee rings a delighted peal, and luscious-fruited blackberry-bushes. Nowhere else is such a rampart crowned with the sweet-scented hawthorn, robed in snowy blossoms, or beaded over with scarlet berries, and with the hazel, with its gracefully pendent catkins, or nuts dear to the school-boy. It scarcely seems possible to imagine an English landscape without its flower-scented hedge-rows, and yet, when the armed knights of Edward the Third's reign rode abroad from their castles, few lofty hedges barred their progress across the country; no hazel-crowned rampart stopped the way of the Malvern monk as he took his way to the "bourne's side"; and when the ploughman "whistled o'er the furrowed land," the line of division at which he turned his back on his neighbor's acres was generally but a narrow trench instead of a ditch and hedge. Thus the covetous man confesses,

"If I yede[32] to the plow,
I pinched so narrow
That a foot land or a furrow
Fetchen I would
Of my next neighbor,
And nymen[33] of his earth.
And if I reap, overreach."

As might have been expected, the monkish dreamer, unusually liberal as he was in his views, had but a slighting opinion of women. Rarely does he refer to them except to rate them for their extravagance in dress and love of finery. The humbler class of women, he shrewdly insinuates, were fond of drink, and the husbands of such were advised to cudgel them home to their domestic duties. He credited the long-standing slander about woman's inability to keep a secret:—

"For that that women wotteth
May not well be concealed."

His opinion of the proper sphere of women in that time, and some knowledge of their ordinary feminine occupations, can be acquired from the answer made to the question of a lady as to what her sex should do:—

"Some should sew the sack, quoth Piers,
For shedding of the wheat;
And ye, lovely ladies,
With your long fingers,
That ye have silk and sendal
To sew, when time is,
Chasubles for chaplains,
Churches to honor.
Wives and widows
Wool and flax spinneth;
Make cloth, I counsel you,
And kenneth[34] so your daughters;
The needy and the naked,
Nymeth[35] heed how they lieth,
And casteth them clothes,
For so commanded Truth."

Marriage is an honorable estate, and should be entered into with proper motives, and in a decent and regular manner. It is desirable that most men should marry, for

"The wife was made the way
For to help work;
And thus was wedlock wrought
With a mean person,
First by the father's will
And the friends counsel;
And sithens[36] by assent of themselves,
As they two might accord."

This is the essentially worldly way of making marriage arrangements yet practised in some aristocratic circles, but the more democratic and natural way is to reverse the process, and commence with the agreement between the two persons most concerned. Such unequal matches as age and wealth on one side, and youth and desire of wealth on the other, bring about, are sternly reprobated.

"It is an uncomely couple,
By Christ! as me thinketh,
To give a young wench
To an old feeble,
Or wedden any widow
For wealth of her goods,
That never shall bairn bear
But if it be in her arms."

Such marriages lead to jealousy, bickerings, and open rupture, disgraceful to husband and wife, and annoying to others. Therefore Piers counsels

"all Christians,
Covet not to be wedded
For covetise of chattels.
Not of kindred rich;
But maidens and maidens
Make you together;
Widows and widowers
Worketh the same;
For no lands, but for love,
Look you be wedded";—

adding the sound bit of spiritual and worldly advice,

"And then get ye the grace of God;
And goods enough, to live with."

The touch of shrewd humor in the last line finds its counterpart in many other passages. Thus, when the dreamer sits down to rest by the wayside, his iteration of the prescribed prayers makes him drowsy:—

"So I babbled on my beads;
They brought me asleep."

The Franciscan friars, his especial aversion, get a sly thrust when he says of Charity that

"in a friar's frock
He was founden once;
But it is far ago,
In Saint Francis's time:
In that sect since
Too seldom hath he been found."

When Covetousness has confessed his numerous misdeeds, and is asked if he ever repented and made restitution, he replies,

"Yes, once I was harbored
With a heap of chapmen.[37]
I rose when they were at rest
And rifled their males[38]";—

and on being told that this was no restitution, but another robbery, he replies, with assumed innocence of manner,

"I wened[39] rifling were restitution, quoth he,
For I learned never to read on book;
And I ken no French, in faith,
But of the farthest end of Norfolk."

Even the Pope is not exempt from a touch of satire:—

"He prayed the Pope
Have pity on holy Church,
And ere he gave any grace,
Govern first himself."

The prejudice against doctors and lawyers was as strong five hundred years ago as now, judging from Piers Plowman, who says, that

"Murderers are many leeches,
Lord them amend!
They do men die through their drinks
Ere destiny it would."

Of lawyers he says they pleaded

"for pennies
And pounds, the law;
And not for the love of our Lord
Unclose their lips once.
Thou mightest better meet mist
On Malvern hills
Than get a mum of their mouth
Till money be showed."

No class of people suffered more in the Middle Ages than the Jews. They were abhorred by the poor, despised by the wealthy, and cruelly oppressed by the powerful. But through all their sufferings and trials they were true to each other; and the monk holds up their fraternal charity as an example to shame Christians into similar virtues. He says:—

"A Jew would not see a Jew
Go jangling[40] for default.
For all the mebles[41] on this mould[42]
And he amend it might.
Alas! that a Christian creature
Shall be unkind to another;
Since Jews, that we judge
Judas's fellows,
Either of them helpeth other
Of that that him needeth.
Why not will we Christians
Of Christ's good be as kind
As Jews, that be our lores-men[43]?
Shame to us all!"

With one more curious passage, giving a glimpse of the belief of that age concerning the future state, we will close our extracts from "Piers Plowman." Discussing the condition of the thief upon the cross who was promised a seat in heaven, the dreamer says:—

"Right as some man gave me meat,
And amid the floor set me,
And had meat more than enough,
But not so much worship
As those that sitten at the side-table,
Or with the sovereigns of the hall;
But set as a beggar boardless,
By myself on the ground.
So it fareth by that felon
That on Good Friday was saved,
He sits neither with Saint John,
Simon, nor Jude,
Nor with maidens nor with martyrs,
Confessors nor widows;
But by himself as a sullen,[44]
And served on earth.
For he that is once a thief
Is evermore in danger,
And, as law him liketh,
To live or to die.
And for to serven a saint
And such a thief together,
It were neither reason nor right
To reward them both alike."

"Piers Plowman" is supposed to have been written in 1362. It became instantly popular, and manuscript copies were rapidly distributed over England. Imitations preserving the peculiar form, and aiming at the same objects as the "Vision," though without the genius exhibited in that work, appeared in quick succession. The hatred of the oppressed people for their oppressors was intensified by the inflammatory harangues of John Ball, the deposed priest. The preaching of Wycliffe probed still deeper the festering corruption of the dominant Church. At last, in 1381, a popular rising, under Wat Tyler, attempted to right the wrongs of generations at the sword's point. The result of that attempt is well known,—its temporary success, sudden overthrow, and the terrible revenge taken by the ruling power in the enactment of laws that made the burden of the people still more intolerable.

But the seed of political and religious freedom had been sown. It had been watered with the blood of martyrs; and, although the tender shoots had been trodden down with an iron heel as soon as they appeared, they gathered additional strength and vigor from the repression, and soon sprang up with a vitality that defied all efforts to crush them.


  1. Garment.
  2. Vagabond.
  3. Clothes.
  4. Shepherd.
  5. Vision.
  6. Brook.
  7. Pigs.
  8. A kind of very coarse cloth.
  9. Buttoned.
  10. Pushed.
  11. Mud.
  12. Worn out.
  13. Oxen.
  14. Meagre.
  15. Kneading-trough
  16. Oat cake.
  17. Children.
  18. A lean hen.
  19. Parsley and leeks.
  20. Cabbages.
  21. Vagabonds.
  22. Workingmen.
  23. Market.
  24. Piecemeal.
  25. Belly.
  26. Built.
  27. Lands or tenements in towns.
  28. Commanded.
  29. Remain.
  30. Unlearned.
  31. Dressing.
  32. Went.
  33. Rob him.
  34. Teach.
  35. Take.
  36. Afterwards.
  37. Pedlers.
  38. Boxes.
  39. Thought.
  40. Complaining.
  41. Goods.
  42. Earth.
  43. Teachers.
  44. One left alone.

This work was published before January 1, 1924, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.