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
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."
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.
>> note 3 post
still exists, but his deeds no longer do,
>> 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
[The rest of Book 3 (more than two thousand
lines) attacks clergy of all ranks.]
From Book 4
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
>> 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
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
Knights and Men-at-Arms
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.
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
Merchants and Tradespeople
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
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
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.