Estates Satire

[Click on image to enlarge] Fourteenth-century literature is much concerned with the different estates and orders, often satirically with a sense that society as a whole has gotten out of hand. Such treatments include a great variety of works in different languages, in different genres — from very short poems dealing with only one estate to very long ones dealing systematically and comprehensively with each estate and its many subdivisions. The Field of Folk, the Confessions of the Seven Deadly Sins, the Search for St. Truth, and the Plowing of Piers's Half-Acre in Piers Plowman (NAEL 8, 1.333-54) draw vivid pictures of a whole society on the move and losing its way. John Gower's Mirour de l'Omme and Vox Clamantis systematically indict every estate, order, and profession. They set forth the functions and duties of each estate and castigate the failure of the estates in the present world to live up to their divinely assigned social roles. Unlike their virtuous predecessors in the past, the estates were pursuing wealth, power, and luxury. Although Gower says that his condemnations are aimed only at vicious and not at virtuous persons — and they will know who they are — his presentation of present-day estates is almost uniformly negative. In that respect, Book 1 of the Vox Clamantis, which expresses his revulsion at the peasants and sides completely with the upper classes, is inconsistent with the content, form, and tone of all that follows. In Book 1, Simon Sudbury, the murdered archbishop, is a martyr like Becket, Christlike in his suffering. But in the third book of the Vox, Becket's office "still exists, but his deeds no longer do." Gower's overriding purpose in both the Mirour and the Vox is to sound the alarm. Anti-Christ is at hand.

Chaucer's General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales has many of the elements of estates satire. But one should not read Gower's crystal-clear meaning into Chaucer's portraits. Indeed, one should not expect to find a clear-cut "meaning" in Chaucer's treatment of the estates. The subtlety, ambiguity, and elusiveness of his portraits bring out how difficult it is to form moral and social judgments inasmuch as the moral depends so much on the social and vice versa. To appreciate that subtlety is one reason to read Gower's earnest and passionate appeals to the times, which bring us closer to the common reader of Gower's and Chaucer's age.

In both the Vox Clamantis and the Mirour de l'Omme, Gower runs through the three estates in the order clergy, nobility, and commons. Among the commons, he includes, like Chaucer, a variety of trades and professions and reveals a bustling market economy at work in the late fourteenth century.

 

John Gower, from Vox Clamantis, Book 3

From the Prologue

[Click on image to enlarge] We recognize that there are three estates. In his own way, everyone in the world lives under them and serves them. No estate is accused as being at fault, but when estates transgress against virtue, their fault declares against them. I shall write what others say, for I do not wish anyone to assume that this is a work of my own originality. He who arraigns vices is praising virtues, in order that the good man may thereby stand out all the more in his goodness. Just as white is more plainly evident when placed next to black, so good things are made more readily apparent when they are placed by evil ones. Therefore, if a writer should touch upon evil men, this should not vex the good. Let the heart's balance weigh its burden patiently: truth does not refuse to be depicted, for it is the true account that ought to be written up, not the false talk of flattering guile. If I have any glimmer of sense, I pray that God increase it to the highest fruitfulness. If a piece of writing contains something good, may the fountain goodness distil it and may God grant that a man write good things. May God make fruitful in his servant those writings which will be of use. Let man provide the proper seeds and God the grain. I confess that I am overcome by the magnitude of the undertaking, but hope offers promise to me of bringing it to a good conclusion. Because hope offers promise, love embraces the task, and faith lends aid and counsel to them both. It suggests, incites, persuades, and vouches for the fruit of my labor. It cries out, "Begin, the task will be done."

* * *

Prelates

There are the cleric, the knight, and the peasant, three carrying on three different things. But I intend to write about the prelates first. The schism >> note 1 evident today shows that there are two popes, one a schismatic and the other the proper one. France favors the schismatic and declares that he ought to be revered, but England everywhere preserves the right faith. I accordingly bequeath the good things said by my writings about this matter to good readers wherever they may be, and I bequeath the bad things to the bad.

As I seek for followers of Christ among the prelates I find that none of the rule >> note 2 remains which used to be in force. Christ was poor, but they are overloaded with gold. He used to make peace, but they now wage war. Christ was generous, but they are as close as a money-box. Work occupied Him, but plentiful rest pampers them. Christ was gentle, but they are violent. He suffered humbly, but they desire to be superior. Christ was compassionate, but they seek after vengeance. He endured torments, but fear of torments puts them to flight. Christ was a virgin; they are rarely chaste. He is a good shepherd, but they devour the flock of sheep.

* * *

Behold, Thomas' >> note 3 post still exists, but his deeds no longer do, and Martin's >> note 4 gentle rule has almost vanished. So the one who used to be a shepherd is now a hireling; because he has fled, the wolf >> note 5 is scattering the flock everywhere. The prelate does not strike off its head with his sword, and he is not hardy enough to subdue his delicate body with a close-fitting hair shirt. He now serves potted meats >> note 6 for his courses, and he prefers onions and leeks to manna. >> note 7 The potted meats represent their carnal actions, which sensual desire enkindles in the flesh of the clergy, so to speak. The blood-relations of the flesh are lust, boastfulness, arrogance, ambition, envy, drunkenness, contentiousness, and deceit. Once the belly has been sated, the harlot flesh longs to enjoy the lust of the flesh, and it seeks out chambers of lust. So long as a wrongful affection for the belly is dominant in these men, they are unable to reach the height of virtue.

* * *

[The rest of Book 3 (more than two thousand lines) attacks clergy of all ranks.]

From Book 4

Monks

* * *

There are certainly monks whom ownership of property has made a claim on, men whom no religious order can hold in check through moral precepts. For some men of property seek the leisure of an order so that they cannot suffer any hardships. They avoid being hungry, and slake their thirst with wine. They get rid of all cold with their warm furred cloaks. Faintness of the belly does not come upon them in the hours of night, and their raucous voice does not sing the heights of heaven in chorus with a drinking cup. A man of this kind will devour no less than several courses at table, and empties a good many beakers in his drinking. Then he believes he has grown sick and demands to be made well again; and in such fashion does he devote himself to his sports. Indeed, it is only with difficulty that this man of professed vows is to be worn out from drinking; thus, master monk is willing to appear before God while in his cups. And while you are bringing him wine, he allures women to himself; wanton monasteries now furnish these two things together.

* * *

Men's thinking frequently turns toward new fashions, and the altered rule for monks will be witness for me on this point. The original rule for monks has now become curtailed, for re has been subtracted from regula so that only gula is left. >> note 8

* * *

The sea is the proper habitat of a live fish, and the monastery is the right home for a monk. Just as the sea will not keep dead fish, so the monastery casts out evildoing monks. A fish ought not to be out of the water, nor ought a monk to be away from his cloisters, unless you return to them, O monk in holy orders. If there were a fish that forsook the waters of the sea to seek its food on land, it would be highly inappropriate to give it the name of fish; I should rather give it the name of monster.

* * *

The rule of St. Bernard or St. Maure is of no use to our modern fellow monks; on the contrary, it displeases them. A greedy fellow sets himself against St. Bernard and St. Maure, as does another, proud and envious; they now refuse to carry out the precept of their order. Thus Malediction has driven Benedict >> note 9 out of the monasteries.

* * *

Shun a woman's conversation, O holy man; beware lest you entrust yourself to a passion raging beyond control. For the mind which is allured and bound over by a woman's love can never reach the pinnacle of virtue. Of what use is their prattling to you? If you come in as a monk, you will go away a foul adulterer. Unless you turn aside from the venomous serpent, you will be poisoned by her when you least expect. Every woman enkindles a flame of passion; if one touches her, he is burned instantly. >> note 10 If you ponder the books of the ancients and the writings of the Church Fathers, you may grieve that even holy men have met with ruin in this way. Did not woman expel man from the seat of Paradise? And was she not the source of our death? The man who is a good shepherd should therefore be vigilant, and he should everywhere drive these rapacious she-wolves away from the monastery.

 

John Gower, from the Mirour de L'Omme >> note 11

Friars

[Click on image to enlarge] Looking now farther to the estate of the mendicant friars, I am telling not what I personally know but what people are saying. This order more than all the rest, is going from bad to worse. And yet they say that in their opinion they are, in their living, the real disciples of God the Son. >> note 12 But I have found out this much about the order: that friars seek after the world and are very attentive to it. But in one thing the friars indeed behave just as the disciples used to: there was not one indigent disciple; on the contrary, while having nothing, they had everything. The friars apply themselves to this example and multiply their wealth but in quite a different way. For the disciples shared what they had with the poor, but the friars keep it for themselves.

* * *

They preach poverty to us, but they always have their hand stretched out to receive riches. They have hidden Covetousness within them, whereby the order is perverted to entrap and deceive. They like very much to have their comforts, but under no conditions do they seek work. Rather they go idly around, like vagrants. Nowhere do they do their duty. So it is my opinion, to tell the truth, that they seek reward without deserving it.

* * *

Friars go in pairs, and they stay together without separating. They go about the countryside, and both of them bend their efforts to multiplying their worldly goods. They lie in order to blandish and to flatter and to encourage sins. One is called Friar Hypocrisy, who is to confess my lady; and the other is called Friar Flattery, and he is to absolve her.

Hypocrisy comes to her bed and is chosen as confessor because he seems to be kindly. And when the lady has told everything, Flattery blandishes her, and says nothing of transgressions (for that is not his business). He does not seek to get anyone's contrition but gives absolution for profit without imposing any penance; and thus he earns the endowment of his food and clothing. The friar who goes after his lucre tells the lady that a woman's youth excuses much of the frailty of her intent. Thus he often induces her to sin more rather than to give up sinning, since he is willing to give her such easy absolution. If a person would like to cease sinning, then the friar knows and feels that the services of his order would no longer be necessary to us; therefore, he puts sin on sale.

Hypocrisy wants to get the confessions of both lord and lady; but Flattery (by command of the order) will give them absolution, for he has the dispensation in accordance with the compensation that comes from the purse of rich people, so that he can give remission without pain and without punishment, in order to earn more of their money.

* * *

Oh, how the friar conducts himself when he comes to a poor house! Oh, how he knows how to give a sermon! Even if the lady has little or nothing, nevertheless he does not abstain from crying out, imploring, and entreating. He takes a halfpenny if she does not have penny — or even a single egg for supper. He has to get something. God said: "Woe unto the vagabond who thus comes visiting the house of a poor woman!"

* * *

Against the curates of Holy Church, the friar claims confession and burial of rich people as his right. But this undertaking is not done in charity, for he cares not for the poor, living or dead, and he never takes over any care from which no gain comes. This is evident because none of the friars will baptize us under any condition. Thus we see open Covetousness under tarnished Simplicity.

* * *

Knights and Men-at-Arms

* * *

[Click on image to enlarge] Whether in time of peace or war, he who must make someone a knight gives him a blow on the neck at the end of the ceremony and tells him, "Without drawing back, be a brave man in your deeds." With this he is dubbed a knight, so that he is obliged to be worthy. Therefore he may not afterwards in any way be mixed up in misdeeds; on the contrary, he must seek prowess of arms in pure honor. But according to what people say nowadays, there are many who observe poorly that which they have covenanted. They often forget that which pertains to a brave man; they seek not their honor in France but rather stay at home and make war on their neighbors. They are unworthy of shield and lance, even though they boast that they are entirely the safeguard of their country. Such is the man who has himself knighted not to advance prowess but so that people in his country may honor him, so that he holds the people for ransom after reducing them to submission to him.

* * *

He is not interested in any other war, but when among the poor people who are his neighbors in his country one strikes or hurts another, then in his prowess he throws himself into the quarrel and takes it on until the end. From this he expects to gain money and presents of bread and wine, for he will leave them neither grain of wheat nor drop of wine; he lives off his prey like a raven.

* * *

Lawyers

There is another set of people of whom one can hear quiet murmuring. Throughout the country everyone is complaining about them. They are the people called men of law, but the name they bear is an empty one, for law includes justice but none of them pay any attention to that; they have, rather, the pretense without any good faith. I bear witness to these people that right gets but little if wrong pays generously.

* * *

When the poor people come to the lawyer to get what is theirs by law and ask him to plead their case, he remembers nothing about charity; for of the rights of the poor (who give nothing) he will not hear, no matter how loud they clamor; but the wrongs of the rich (who speak softly) he draws quickly to himself, he listens, and takes sides with them.

* * *

Merchants and Tradespeople

* * *

[Click on image to enlarge] Everyone nowadays talks a great deal about one merchant, called Fraud, full of guile. From the Orient to the end of the Occident there is no city or town where Fraud does not amass his wealth. Fraud buys and sells in Bordeaux, Seville, and Paris. Fraud has his ships, his family relations; in noble fortune Fraud has ten times more than other people. In Florence and in Venice Fraud has his fortress and his license, and at Bruges and Ghent likewise. Under his care also is placed the noble city on the Thames, >> note 13 which Brutus founded; but Fraud is bringing it to ruin; he is clipping away the possessions of his neighbors, for he cares not in what guise (whether behind or before) he seeks his own lucre, disdaining the profit of the community.

When he deals wholesale, Fraud may handle large transactions, but he has small honesty in weights; for he sells goods by a shorter weight than he used for buying. So he retains as profit the excess weight obtained by deceit, and his customer suffers the short-weight. But what is more important, Fraud has concentrated his love on the cross of sterling; consequently he always seeks the best bargain. Fraud with his fraudulence often practices deceit in different ways in the mercer's trade, for he has plenty of cunning, jokes, and tricks to make vain people foolish, so that he can get their money. And he talks so well and politely and entertains them well with his mouth; but in his thought he seeks his lucre subtly under the shadow of courtesy.

When he comes out of his shop he is not silent; on the contrary, he shrieks more than a sparrowhawk. When he sees unknown folk, he pushes and pulls, calls and cries out, saying: "Step up and come in, I will show them to you, and if you want to buy, you need go no farther. Here are the best in the street." * * * On oath he darkly quotes you double the price for the cloth, and he talks so obscurely in order to ensnare you more subtly. And he makes you truly believe he has treated you as a friend when, in reality, he has cheated you all the more; for he will say he has given you the cloth in measure and the price will tell quite a different story.

* * *

O Wool, noble lady, you who are the goddess of the merchants. All of them bow down to serve you. In your fortune and your riches, you cause some to mount on high, and others you cast down to the depths. The warehouse in which you are lodged is not without fraud and trickery, from which men's consciences are hurt. O Wool, Christians, pagans, and Saracens seek to have you and pay their vows to you. * * * O beautiful, white, delicate Wool, love of you pierces and binds the hearts of those who trade in you so that they cannot unbind themselves. On the contrary they contrive all kinds of trickery and conspiracy in order to collect great quantities of you. And then they take you overseas as if you were the mistress of their ships. And in order to get you, the people come to bargain in covetousness and envy. Foreign exchange, usury, and bargaining go under your rule to serve in your noble court, O Wool; and Fraud is their supplier there. And Fraud becomes acquainted with Avarice, and he engages agents in order to get profits.

* * *

Fraud is also a rich apothecary in our city. He very often degrades his conscience, for he has cunningly arranged his scales with two sets of weights, with which he cleverly commits fraud when he starts his transaction. There is no spice nor seed from which he does not pile up his illegal profit. * * * Fraud the apothecary deceives people in his shop more than I can explain; but when he conspires with the physician as his companion, he deceives people a hundred times more. The physician writes out the prescription, and the apothecary compounds it. But he sells for a florin that which is not worth a button. Thus the apothecary whispers his guile into our physician's hood.

* * *

Ah, World, why do you go astray? For this the poor lesser folk (who should stick to their work) demand to be better fed than the one who has hired them. Moreover, they clothe themselves in fine colors and handsome attire, whereas they were formerly clothed (without pride and without conspiracy) in sackcloth. Ah, World, I will not lie to you; if you cause these evils to come, I complain about your power. Ah, World! I know not what to say, but all the estates that I look at — from the first to the last — are getting worse, every one of them; the poor as well as the lordly are all full of vanity. The poor people are more haughty than their sovereign; everyone is pulling against the others.

* * *

But the world, which fights against all good things, contends still more with itself. As people say nowadays, no one is content with his estate — neither the lords, nor the prelates, nor the common people. On the contrary, each one complains about the wrongs of the other. The common people blame the lords, and the burghers blame their rule, and those who are on top put the blame on the lesser folk. And so everybody is fighting.

* * *


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