History as biography

The following thoughts were prompted by a reading of Shakespeare’s plays, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. The point is that, apart from all other considerations of literature and so on, both plays demonstrate the enduring human tendency to attribute all social change, all meaning in the flow of historical events, to Great and Eminent Personages. To humanise the flow of events and to attribute praise and blame for everything to a handful of Top Dogs.

The confusing world

It’s difficult for any of us to understand what is happening, what is going on in our own lives, let alone in the wider world. There is a natural tendency to humanise everything, to reduce everything to the behaviour of named individuals in order to make our lives manageable, graspable, bearable. If we can attribute everything to individuals then we can relapse into the standard human response of naming and shaming and blaming them. We can blame America’s ills on Donald Trump and Britain’s ills on Boris Johnson.

But on numerous levels, I think this is wrong, not morally wrong, just factually inaccurate. Even in my little family I can see how individuals are swayed by social trends and pressures. I can see how the economic outlook for my children’s generation shapes their attitudes. Multiply this by millions and you, fairly obviously, have a host of broad social, economic, technological and cultural trends which affect everything we hear, and so repeat, discuss, believe, argue about.

At the ‘highest’ level (if you want to visualise it as a hierarchy) are the cultural and ideological trends – the changing things people believe in, think about, argue about.

Beneath them you have economic trends – in our day and age drastic rises in oil and gas prices which affect the cost of fertiliser and transport which threaten severe food shortages this autumn and winter. In my country and time another huge factor is the failure of successive governments to build enough accommodation for the spiralling population, leading to the never-ending rises in house prices, and the dispirited resignation of both my kids that they will never own a home like their parents did.

Economic trends are strongly influenced by technological developments – the most obvious one in my lifetime being the enormous increase in the computerisation of all aspects of life, from high finance to finding a partner, almost everything seems to done via the internet, smart phones and social media, with all kinds of consequences, the most obvious being that people spend a huge amount of time on their phones and are immensely influenced by what they read coming through their social media feeds.

And at a deeper level there are the basic facts of geography and biology – the most important single one being the rapid heating up of the planet which is making severe drought more common, accompanied by the manmade destruction of all manner of ecosystems which we rely on for food and water, which will  greatly exacerbate the situation.

At a more individual level we are subject to our genetic inheritances which program whether we are tall or short, fat or thin, male or female, predisposed to heart disease, cancer, dementia and a host of bodily infirmities.

And then, of course, there is the constant threat of infections from outside, something most people are much more aware of since COVID-19 brought the world to a halt.

All this is hard enough to take in, and it’s only a superficial sketch of the multi-layered ‘reality’ we inhabit, or more accurately, the overlapping realities. Our minds inhabit a complex matrix of biochemistry, ever-changing sensory perceptions, the permanent wash of emotions and an endless tide of discourse and words which have no boundaries because all of these issues are, in effect, endless: discourses about the importance of oil prices on civilisation, assessing the impact of global warming, considering the effect of infectious disease on societies, explaining the importance of genetics in human behaviour, these are just a handful out of thousands of serious topics and no-one fully understands them. Vast subjects, impenetrably complex – and, when you start to begin to combine them, impossible for any individual to fully grasp.

The Great Man theory

And so it is much, much easier to think of society and what is happening in terms of a handful of powerful individuals. And this explains why most cultures, for most of human history, have done just that – attributed everything that happens to the eternal gods or, on the human plane, to Eminent Men and Women, to kings and queens and emperors and empresses and the like.

As far back as we have written records, they record the wars and acts of Great Men, emperors of China or India or Assyria or Egypt and the earliest histories which emerge from simple annals or chronologies likewise focused entirely on the doings of great men (and occasional empresses or queens).

The earliest histories had just two explanations for everything: 1. the wise or foolish behaviour of great leaders, and sitting above them, 2. the capricious interventions of the gods. 3. any unexpected turn of events could be attributed to the vague catch-all category, ‘Fortune’.

And 4. hovering behind all accounts was the primitive assumption that the present age is uniquely corrupt and degraded, a sad falling-away from some unspecified previous times when men were all upright, pure and noble.

Boris Johnson and the wheel of fortune

Armed with these four concepts you can, at a pinch, explain everything, right up to the present day. Using this template, Boris Johnson is a Great Man who Got Brexit Done, oversaw the fastest vaccine rollout of any western nation, and was leading this great country of ours onwards to greater things, when his treacherous colleagues, jealous of his achievements, conspired to stab him in the back and bring him down. To quote a Latin tag attributed to Cicero, ‘O tempora, O mores!’ meaning: ‘Oh the times! Oh the customs!’ But then again – a medieval commentator would say – no-one, even of Boris’s majesty and stature, can defy the turn of Fortune’s wheel, which is destined to bring even the highest and mightiest low.

One of the thousands and thousands of medieval depictions of the wheel of fortune bring the mighty low (Illustration by Jean Miélot to Christine de Pizan’s Epitre d’Othéa: Les Sept Sacrements de l’Eglise, about 1455)

See? Anything can be explained using these primitive concepts. Maybe more accurate to say, these concepts can be attributed to almost any events and the impression given that they’ve been explained, a completely spurious impression.

The Great Men theory in ancient authors

So it comes as no surprise when we get to the histories of the ancient (western) world, to discover that Plutarch or Sallust or Suetonius take a moralising approach to history, focusing on the character of the great men of the times they describe, and interpreting their behaviour in terms of the strengths and weaknesses. If this doesn’t completely explain the events they are chronicling, they could always add a knowing reference to Fortune which inscrutably intervenes to wreck the affairs of men.

I sometimes find it odd that the editors and translators of the editions of these ancient authors feel the need to explain the Great Men ideology of their authors, since it has been the default setting of most of mankind for most of history.

As John Wilders writes in his introduction to the Arden edition of Antony and Cleopatra, Plutarch was a very congenial source for Shakespeare’s dramas about the ancient world because, although living 1,500 years apart:

both men wrote on the assumption that the course of history was shaped by the actions of men in power and, for that reason, both were curious to penetrate into the subtleties of human character… (Antony and Cleopatra, Arden edition, 1995, page 57)

QED. It is only very recently that more objective, non-Great Men theories – broadly speaking, concepts to do with economics and sociology – have been developed. We can date this new development in human thought to the period vaguely referred to as the Enlightenment of the 18th century. Maybe we can pick an arbitrary date of 1776, the year Adam Smith published ‘An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations’, which introduced readers to the notion that we are all members of a globalised system of trade and production, and that our lives – whether we have jobs, what we can afford to buy, eat or wear – subject to events in faraway countries and forces beyond our control. Just as everyone in this country is going to suffer because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A revolutionary new way of thinking about societies and human existence.

This new, economics-based and sociological way of looking at society definitely accompanied the development of the industrial revolution as all manner of authors tried to understand the sweeping changes transforming society without anybody explicitly planning or wanting them.

We find Dickens objecting to the dominance of the new breed of ‘economists’ who want to reduce all human life to economic statistics (Hard Times, 1854), and Karl Marx, obviously, was writing works which engaged with the earlier sociological theories of Hegel, in Germany, and the post-French Revolution school of theorists in France. The revolution crystallised, accelerated and disseminated all manner of new political and social theories, kick-starting the feverish debates of the nineteenth century, Hegel, Marx, Bakunin, Comte and so on.

In the more pragmatic mercantile Anglosphere the industrial revolution prompted an explosion of social and economic theorists following Smith’s lead, Malthus, Bentham, John-Stuart Mill and so on. We still, to a large extent, live in this world, a world awash with ideologies and theories, none of which completely work or explain everything and so are subject to the endless updating, revising, revisiting and rethinking etc which fill so many books and political journals.

I’m not trying to recapitulate the history of modern political and economic theory, I’m interested in the way that, despite the jungle of modern social theorisation, the Great Man / Fortune’s Wheel theory of history persists and flourishes.

Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra

And so to what prompted these thoughts, Shakespeare’s plays Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra  which I read after reading about 30 texts from ancient Rome about history (Plutarch, Suetonius, Sallust, Cicero). When characters in these plays describe the lead figures, or the lead figures describe themselves, as world-bestriding colossi, they are doing two things.

First of all, they are reinforcing the Great Man theory of history, stymying any attempt to think beyond it and countenance less simplistic explanations. Again and again, reading ancient literature, you come up across this brick wall, this closed door. Nobody could think beyond it. it makes you realise how immensely intellectually free and liberated we are, in our age. Even if we don’t have all the answers, the answers we do have are infinitely more sophisticated, responsive than anything the ancients had.

But secondly, these old tropes continue to thrill us. The rhetoric surrounding great men in Shakespeare’s plays is wonderfully vivid and exciting:

CASSIUS: Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves…
(Julius Caesar, Act 1, scene 2)

This is my final point: that the vicarious thrill to be experienced in the vivid rhetoric of power deployed throughout Shakespeare’s political plays is not necessarily a good thing. Food manufacturers add salt and sugar to processed food because the human palate is designed to respond favourably to their taste. The touch of salt or sugar on the palate fires basic, primitive nerves which release endorphins in the brain. because, during the course of human evolution, edible sources of salt or sugar were so extremely rare that our palates had to be sensitive enough to detect them. In our hyper-industrialised societies, manufacturers now exploit this basic human functionality and stuff so much salt and sugar in their products that the taste pleasure can become addictive. Hence the epidemic of obesity in the western world, due to the addiction of large number of consumers to products packed with unhealthy levels of salt and sugar.

Same with the Great Man Theory. It is the default setting of the human mind, it is the crudest possible way of thinking about politics and history and social change. Listen to vox pops of supporters of either Donald Trump or Boris Johnson and you realise that most people still cleave to a theory of society which predates the ancient Egyptians. “Don-ald! Don-ald! Don-ald!” Chimpanzees picking each others’ fleas are more sophisticated.

I’m exaggerating for effect, but the conclusion I’m leading up to is that a good deal of the pleasure derived from watching plays like Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra is comparable to the guilty pleasure of pigging out on junk food.

The author invites us to thrill to the rhetoric of power embodied in the many descriptions of ‘the triple pillar of the world’ (Philo on Antony 1.1) and ‘the greatest soldier of the world’ (Cleopatra describing Antony 1.3) or great men each owning ‘a third of the world’ (Antony of Caesar 2.2), becoming ‘lord of all the world’ (Menas to Pompey 2.7), to great men playing with half of the world as they pleased (Antony 3.11) or quartering the whole world with his sword (Antony 4.14) or deserving ‘the worship of the whole world’ (Eros of Antony 4.14), being ‘the greatest prince o’ the world’ (Antony on himself 4.15), and ‘his legs bestrid the ocean: his rear’d arm crested the world’ (Cleopatra on Antony 5.2).

My point is that to thrill to this kind of rhetoric, to enjoy it, to be excited by it, is, intellectually speaking, the equivalent of wolfing down a Big Mac with large fries and a king-sized Coke. It is the basic, primitive , lowest-level human response to the society around us and abrogates the difficult but complex knowledge of the world we know we possess and know we ought to be employing if we’re ever to escape the mess we’ve got ourselves into.


Related reviews

Medieval English lyrics 1200 to 1400 edited by Thomas G. Duncan (1995) Notes on the Introduction

This handy Penguin paperback contains 132 medieval lyrics selected by medieval scholar Thomas G. Duncan. He converted each of them into the south-east England dialect of Chaucer (in my opinion, a highly questionable thing to do), printing them in a format designed to help the reader with pronunciation, giving line-by-line glosses to the meaning of tough words or phrases, with extensive notes on the meaning and imagery of each poem at the back of the book.

Duncan makes a number of interesting points in the introduction, which I wanted to note and remember:

The twelfth century

The twelfth century was the watershed between the heroic warrior code of the Anglo-Saxon world and the chivalrous knightly code of the later Middle Ages

The twelfth century saw the rise of pilgrimages and crusades (First Crusade 1095-99), commercial expansion, ecclesiastical change and revival of the church, flourishing of cathedral schools and the emergence of universities (Bologna 1088, Oxford 1096, Salamanca 1134, Cambridge 1209, Padua 1222, Naples 1224, Toulouse 1229, Siena 1240) Gothic architecture (pioneered at the Basilica of Saint-Denis, near Paris, whose choir was reconstructed with Gothic rib vaults and large stained glass windows between 1140 and 1144).

1. Courtly love and love lyrics

The twelfth century also saw the flourishing and spread of the poetry of courtly love pioneered by the troubadours in the south of France in the period from about 1100 to 1150. The feudal concept of service to a male lord was converted into the idea of service to a lady in the name of love. The troubadours took the idea to extremes, claiming in their poems that service to the Lady was the only thing that made life worth living, while her disdain and scorn made a man want to die.

Most of the love lyrics before Chaucer (active 1360-1400) survive in just one manuscript – MS. Harley 2253 in the British Library. Duncan repeats this fact in another form at the end of the introduction, namely, that if this one manuscript had not survived, then we would have lost half the lyrics – and often the best ones – from the entire Middle Ages before Chaucer. The contingency, the slenderness of fate by which these beautiful things happen to have survived… we live in a world of accidental survivals, chance remnants…

The thirty-five love lyrics in his selection use many of the tropes of courtly love but are distinct from real troubadour poetry for the following reason: troubadour poetry was often intensely intellectual, its poets developing highly sophisticated philosophical concepts of different types of ‘love’. The English lyrics Duncan includes are much less demanding, much more formulaic, because made for public declamation or performance.

They make use of stock ideas: the lover sighs, lies awake at night, feels condemned to death, and pleads for mercy. The lady shines, her hair is golden, her neck is long, her waist slender.

These ideas are expressed in standard phrases, often alliterative indicating their deepness in the language and tradition: the lady is a ‘byrde in a bower’, ‘brightest under bis’, ‘geynest under gore’ and ‘beste among the bolde’. Ladies are sometimes described through elaborate comparisons, often with flowers or precious stones.

Heo is coral of godnesse;
Heo is rubie of ryhtfulnesse;
Heo is cristal of clannesse;
Ant baner of bealte.
Heo is lilie of largesse;
Heo is paruenke of prouesse;
Heo is solsecle of suetnesse,
Ant ledy of lealte.

She is coral of goodness;
She is ruby of uprightness;
She is crystal of chastity;
And banner of beauty.
She is lily of generosity;
She is periwinkle of excellence;
She is marigold of sweetness,
And lady of loyalty.

They do not philosophise or argue. Because they are songs meant to be sung to an audience, the pleasure derives not from the novelty of the thought, but from the familiarity of the tropes and similes.

Some of the love poems are in a genre pioneered by trouvère poets of northern France, the chanson d’aventure which opens with the narrator out riding when he comes across… something or more usually someone, most often a pretty young maiden.

Als I me rode this endre dai
O my pleyinge,
Seih icche hwar a littel mai
Bigan to singe

As I went riding the other day
for my pleasure
I saw where a little maiden
Began to sing.

Or:

Ase y me rod this ender day
By grene wod to seche play
mid herte y thoghte al on a may
surest of all thinge…

As I rode out the other day
By a green wood to seek pleasure
with my heart I was thinking about a  maid
sweetest of all things…

The pastourelle is sub-set of the chanson d’aventure in which the poet encounters a maiden who is sad or pining for love or loss, and proceeds to offer her ‘comfort’. Duncan points out that, in all forms of the chanson d’aventure, the fact that the poet is riding a horse emphasises his knightly or noble status, and also confers a social – and physical – advantage over the poor helpless maiden that he meets.

The reverdie is an old French poetic genre, which celebrates the arrival of spring. Literally, it means ‘re-greening’. Often the poet will encounter Spring, symbolized by a beautiful woman. Originating in the troubadour ballads of the early Middle Ages, reverdies were very popular during the time of Chaucer. They occur in numerous poems, both as a central conceit or metaphor or as preparatory description leading into the main poem. For example, the extended description of the joys of spring in ‘Lenten is come with love to toun’.

Lenten ys come with loue to toune,
With blosmen ant with briddes roune,
That al this blisse bryngeth.
Dayeseyes in this dales,
Notes suete of nyhtegales,
Vch foul song singeth.
The threstelcoc him threteth oo;
Away is huere wynter wo
When woderoue springeth.
This foules singeth ferly fele
Ant wlyteth on huere [wynne] wele
That al the wode ryngeth.

Translation

Spring has arrived, with love,
With flowers, and with birdsong,
Bringing all this joy.
Daisies in the valleys,
The sweet notes of nightingales,
Every bird sings a song.
The thrush is constantly wrangling;
Their winter misery is gone
When the woodruff flowers.
These birds sing in great numbers,
And chirp about their wealth of joys,
So that all the wood rings.

In fact it’s important to realise that the poets of the day intensively categorised and formalised all the types and subject matters of their poems, gave them names, and then did their best to excel each other at a particular type, or to ring changes on it. Duncan mentions other genres such as:

  • the chanson de mal-mariée, a song expressing the grievances of an unhappy wife, traditional in northern and southern France and Italy, reflecting the social reality of customary male dominance
  • the song of the betrayed maiden, who has been made pregnant and abandoned
  • the chanson des transformations in which the wooed lady imagines transforming into all sort of animals and birds to escape her lover (who often imagines changing into the predator of each of her imagined animals, in order to capture her)

Duncan’s selection of love lyrics ends with half a dozen poems by Chaucer or in his style. There is an immediate change in tone, style and form from what went before. Chaucer was a highly sophisticated poet, attendant on the court of Richard II, who had travelled to Italy and knew the leading poets of Italy and France.

Instead of anonymous and stock situations, Chaucer names specific individuals. Whereas the earlier lyrics were made to be sung and so use standardised phrases and familiar ideas, Chaucer’s poems were meant to be recited to a courtly audience which delighted in picking up personal and learned references. Whereas the earlier lyrics are often simple in form, Chaucer’s tend to be far more wordy, and composed in complex rhyme schemes copied from his French contemporaries e.g. so-called rhyme royal in which each stanza consists of seven lines rhyming ababbcc. Chaucer’s poetry is far more wordy, learned and urbane than anything which went before.

2. Penitential and moral lyrics

Duncan contrasts lines from the Anglo-Saxon poem The Wanderer with some of the medieval penitential poems. In the former the sense of desolation is complete. The great hall, the brave warriors, the fire and the feasting have all completely disappeared and the poet is left embattled and alone in a friendless world.

Gemon he selesecgas ond sincþege,
hu hine on geoguðe his goldwine
wenede to wiste wyn eal gedreas!

He remembers hall-warriors and the giving of treasure
How in youth his lord (gold-friend) accustomed him
to the feasting – All the joy has died!

Later the Wanderer speaks a famous lament which gave its name to the whole genre, ‘Where are…?’ he asks about the trappings of lordship and power, which came to be known as the ‘ubi sunt?’ the Latin phrase for ‘where are the…?’

Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu? Hwær sindon seledreamas?
Eala beorht bune! Eala byrnwiga! Eala þeodnes þrym!
Hu seo þrag gewat, genap under nihthelm,
swa heo no wære…

Where is the horse gone? Where the rider? Where the giver of treasure?
Where are the seats at the feast? Where are the revels in the hall?
Alas for the bright cup! Alas for the mailed warrior! Alas for the splendour of the prince!
How that time has passed away, dark under the cover of night,
as if it had never been…

As you can see, it is an apocalyptic vision of the complete destruction of a society.

By contrast the medieval lyrics are much more sophisticated and often much more personal. The whole world hasn’t been destroyed, it lives on but – for the purposes of his lament – the poet may point to the fall of powerful kings, the downfall of the rich and mighty, or his own calamities, or just a general sense that, no matter how bright and shiny, all life ends with death. This is embodied in the ubiquitous image of Fortune’s Wheel, ever turning, ever raising up the hopeful and bringing down the mighty.

Duncan points to a poem from his period which literally uses the ubi sunt formula, but manages – paradoxically – to convey a sense of the wonderful wealth and courtliness of the world the poet is describing.

Where ben they bifore us were,
Houndës ladde and hawkës bere,
And haddë feld and wode?
The richë ladies in here bour
That wered gold in here tressour
With here brighte rode?

The second really big difference is that, although the Anglo-Saxon poems make reference to God and the Almighty, they don’t really give much sense of Christian theology, of a Christian worldview. By contrast the medieval poems have fully incorporated Christian theology and terminology and so the standard lament for falls, declines and ageing, are confidently and beautifully mingled with references to death, judgement, sin and punishment, hell and damnation and so on.

Once again, as in the love lyrics section, the final poems are by Chaucer and of an altogether different level of sophistication, as befits one writing for the court, for the most learned and sophisticated audience in the country. The poems themselves are much chunkier, fuller, the lines are longer and there are more of them. Here’s the opening stanza of The Balade de Bon Conseyl in rhyme royal (ababbcc).

Flee fro the prees, and dwelle with sothefastness;
Suffyse unto thy thing though it be smal,
For hord hath hate and clymbyng tykelness,
Prees hath envye and wele blent overal.
Savour no more thanne thee byhove shal,
Ruele wel thiself that other folk canst rede,
And trouth thee shall delyvere, it is no drede.

Once again, Chaucer’s tone is immensely urbane and worldly wise. He is never hectoring or angst-ridden as some of medieval penitential writing is.

3. Devotional lyrics

Duncan explains that the eleventh century saw a revolution in Christian theology and sensibility. Previous theories of the atonement focused on the notion that God and the Devil were like two feudal lords fighting over the world. Man had mistakenly given his allegiance to the Devil who therefore acquired the rights of a medieval lord over his vassal. God couldn’t abrogate those rights and so resorted to a cunning plan. He sent his son down to earth as a man. The agents of the Devil, denying his divinity, crucified him, but this was a mistake because based on a wrong conception of Christ’s nature and his legal rights. The Devil, in effect, got his law wrong, and this enabled God to reclaim man as his vassal.

You can see how extraordinarily legalistic this conception is. According to Duncan, during the 11th century the theologian Saint Anselm presented a completely new theology of the atonement. In this view Man, by disobeying God, incurred the penalty of Death. Christ volunteered to become a man and pay the penalty in Man’s place.

Thus the story changes from a rather dry and legalistic story to become one which emphasises the humanity of Christ, and which dwells not on legalistic terminology, but instead on the blood, sweat and tears, the suffering and agony of the man Jesus. It is this tremendous humanising of the Jesus story which comes to dominate later medieval sensibility. Duncan quotes the great medievalist R.W. Southern’s account of how the Cistercian monks spread what became a great flood of sensibility and tenderness.

The tenderness is reflected in a host of topoi or standard subjects, for example the sweetness of knowing Jesus and loving him, and the devotion and motherly love of Mary, a figure which also came to dominate later medieval religiosity. Many of the poems describe the sweetness of the love between mother and child, several of them in the form of lullabies, but lullabies touched with the infinite sadness that we know what the fate of the sweet little babe will be.

Lullay, lullay, little grom [lad, boy]
King of allë thingë,
When I think of thee mischief
Me list wel litel sing [I have very little wish to sing]

Another standard topos was to consider Mary standing at the foot of the cross looking up at her dying son. Sometime in the 13th century a Latin poem, the Stabat Mater, was written on this subject and would go on to be set to music by numerous composers. A number of poems in this selection depict this scene, but Duncan singles out the extraordinary ‘Why have ye no routhe’ because in it Mary appears to turn on her son’s persecutors with real anger.

Why have ye no routhe on my child? [pity]
Have routhe on me ful of mourning;
Tak doun o rode my derworth child [rode = cross]
Or prik me o rode with my derling! [nail me up]

More pine ne may me ben y-don [more hurt cannot be done me]
Than lete me live in sorwe and shame;
As love me bindëth to my sone,
So let us deyen bothe y-same. [both die together]

Many poems use sophisticated techniques to achieve deceptively simple effects and Duncan points to the common use of anaphora i.e. the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses. But in among the longer, more calculating poems, you keep coming across short ones which possess a proverbial, primeval power.

Now goth sonne under wode,
Me reweth, Marie, thi faire rode.
Now goth sonne under tre,
Me reweth, Marie, thi sone and thee.

Now goes the sun behind the wood
I grieve, Mary, for your fair face.
Now goes the sun behind the tree.
I grieve, Mary, thy son and thee.

4. Miscellaneous lyrics

These are the most ‘Chaucerian’ of the four categories because they have the least to do with elaborate courtliness or Christian worship, and instead describe more everyday subjects such as imprisonment, poverty, exploitation, bribery and corruption as well as wit and humour.

They also tend to be the longest and most rambling. Duncan singles out ‘Ich herde men upon mold’, a long lament by a farmer oppressed by the endless taxes of the mighty, and describes the harsh taxes, the cruel weather and the petty officials of the manor including the ‘hayward’ (who was responsible for maintaining the fences which separated the common land from enclosed land), the ’bailiff’ (who administered the lord’s land and upheld his rights in law), the ‘woodward’ (who was in charge of forests and forest timber) and the ‘beadle’ (who worked under the authority of the bailiff, here acting as a tax-collector.

The previous three sections – the love poetry and the devotional verse – tend to focus on the individual and his laments over Fortune’s Wheel or his emotional response to Jesus and Mary. In these longer ballads and poems we re-encounter the broader social world in which those feelings took place. Here are the first two stanzas:

Ich herde men upon mold
make muche mon
Hou he ben y-tened
of here tilyinge
Gode yeres and corn
bothe ben a-gon
Ne kepen here no sawe
ne no song singe.

Now we mote werche
nis ther non other won
May ich no lengere
live with my lesinge
Yet ther is a bitterer
bit to the bon
For ever the ferthe peni
mot to the kinge.

Translated:

I hear men upon earth
make much moan
how they are harassed
in their farming
good years and corn-crops
both have gone
they care to hear no tales
nor no song sing.

Now we must work
there is no other choice
may I no longer
live with my losses
Yet there is a bitterer
cut to the bone
for every fourth penny
must go to the king.

This is poignant to read in the context of Dan Jones’s history of the Plantagenet kings which I’ve just finished. Jones shows all the rulers of England, without exception, repeatedly, year after year, mulcting and taxing, fleecing and extorting money from their entire kingdoms, again and again imposing draconian taxes, to fund their violent and generally futile foreign wars.

It’s easy to get blasé about this history and to concentrate solely on the political consequences of monarchs overtaxing their realms. A poem like this redresses the balance and, in the absence of so much information about people’s ordinary lives and livelihoods, amounts to important – and baleful – social history.

Luminarium

If you want to browse further, check out the Luminarium website which has a selection of about 40 medieval poems, giving the original text alongside a translation, almost all of them accompanied by a snippet of the poem in a musical setting, some by modern composers, some reconstructions of medieval tunes.

There’s also a PDF of medieval lyrics, carols and ballads, which Duncan seems to have been involved in publishing and translating.


Related links

Other medieval reviews

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