Art. 114, Dieu, roy de magesté: Introduction

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Art. 114, Dieu, roy de magesté: Introduction

Abbreviations: AND: Anglo-Norman Dictionary; ANL: Anglo-Norman Literature: A Guide to Texts and Manuscripts (R. Dean and Boulton); BL: British Library (London); Bodl.: Bodleian Library (Oxford); CT: Chaucer, Canterbury Tales; CUL: Cambridge University Library (Cambridge); DOML: Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library; FDT: French Devotional Texts of the Middle Ages (Sinclair 1979); FDT-1French Devotional Texts of the Middle Ages, . . . First Supplement (Sinclair 1982); IMEV: The Index of Middle English Verse (Brown and Robbins); MED: Middle English Dictionary; MWME: A Manual of the Writings in Middle English, 1050–1500 (Severs et al.); NIMEV: A New Index of Middle English Verse (Boffey and Edwards); NLS: National Library of Scotland (Edinburgh).

To judge by its clever macaronics and moral intensity, Against the King’s Taxes was likely authored by a learned churchman. Its verses skillfully blend Latin and Anglo-Norman to produce a hybrid “variation of the goliardic stanza ‘cum auctoritas,’” even as this “deliberate attempt to imitate a favourite medieval Latin stanza form . . . frequently does violence to the normal accentuations of French words” (Aspin, p. 108). Editors have printed the stanza as five lines — four of French and Latin, the last in Latin hexameter — but here it is presented as a ten-line stanza to display the poem’s basic rhyme scheme (ababcbcbdd) and linguistic structure. Every stanza closes with a Latin couplet that makes an authoritative moral statement, much like the vernacular proverb sealing each stanza of the English poem Hending (art. 89).

In seventeen stanzas the poet of Against the King’s Taxes voices precise objections to a grievous system of taxation and levies on wool, set in place to support royal adventures abroad. For these policies the poet blames not so much the king, whom he calls a jeovene bachiler, as he chastises the king’s unnamed maveis consiler and the corrupt lesser officials who take more than they ought. Wright 1839 proposes that the complaint underlying the poem refers to events during the reign of Edward I (pp. 182-87), but modern scholarly consensus has settled on a later date of composition: the period of controversy and discontent, ca. 1337–1340, when King Edward III sought means to finance his war in France. In 1337 Edward III was twenty-five years old. The probable identity of the “evil counselor” is John Stratford, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Edward’s Chancellor. William Kilsby, Keeper of the Privy Seal, has also been proposed.

The circumstances for the poet’s complaint seem thus to be contemporary with the scribe’s making of the Harley manuscript. In dating the hand, Revard sets the copying of Against the King’s Taxes at about 1339–1340 and no later than 1342 (2000b, pp. 62–64). Another item localized to the politics of 1340–1341 is Trailbaston (art. 80) (Revard 2000b, p. 75). Taxation of the wool trade, so vital to the Ludlow economy, was a burning local issue; another item that concerns the politics of wool is The Flemish Insurrection (art. 48) (Revard 2000b, pp. 28–29, 78–79). As for the subject of oppressive taxation viewed as a moral issue, one may compare this poem to another work in quire 15, All the World’s a Chess Board (art. 109), and also to the English Song of the Husbandman (art. 31). By these selections, the scribe displays a persistent interest in how national policies and local corruption inflict hardship on the common people — and on clergy — who are forced to pay unfair taxes, levies, and what the poet of Against the King’s Taxes even calls “tribute” (line 82).

For good commentary and historical background on this poem, see Aspin, pp. 105–15; Harriss, pp. 250–52; Coleman, pp. 79–81; Scattergood 2000a, pp. 163–67; and Scase 2007, pp. 29–33. Scase points out how the complaint, seemingly a plea for humble commoners, is really a grievance lodged on behalf of churchmen also affected and deeply offended. Opposition to abridgments of clerical privilege is an opinion implicitly espoused by the Ludlow scribe in the prose Old Testament Stories (art. 71) (Thompson 2000, pp. 284–87). A second copy of Against the King’s Taxes supports the notion that the poem voices ecclesiastical protest. London, BL Addit. MS 10374 is a cartulary from Whalley Abbey that preserves the poem among the abbey’s legal instruments, contracts, and documents. As a player in the wool trade, Whalley was subject to the levies addressed by the poet. The Whalley version is shorter, leaving out “those stanzas which contain criticism of the rich, and . . . those involved in military activities in France — perhaps because there was a desire not to upset the monastery’s patrons” (Scattergood 2000a, pp. 166–67). The poet ultimately reminds readers that wicked tax-collectors and thievish policy-makers will get their due on Judgment Day (lines 101–20), and thus limns political complaint with the time-honored rhetoric of preaching.

[Fols. 137v–138v. ANL 95. Långfors, p. 96. Scribe: B (Ludlow scribe). Quire: 15. Meter: Seventeen 10–lines stanzas in Latin and French (Ker, p. xvi; Aspin, p. 108). Layout: No columns; lines 1–8 of each stanza written on four MS lines, lines 9–10 written to the right. Editions: Wright 1839, pp. 182–87; Aspin, pp. 105–15 (no. 10). Other MS: London, BL Addit. MS 10374, fols. 145v–147r. Translations: Wright 1839, pp. 182–87; Aspin, pp. 111–14; Scattergood 2000a, pp. 163–66 (lines 21–60, 131–40 only); Scase 2007, pp. 30–32 (lines 11–50, 105–10 only).]

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