Item 40, Vanity


1 Lines 31–32: Kings and popes who were so rich [i.e., you were as rich as kings and popes], in the end / You dared to oppose them

2 To cruelly assault all their own royal family


Abbreviations: MED: Middle English Diction­ary

Title Vanyté. The title is written in a slightly larger version of Rate’s regular hand. C. Brown titles the poem Vanitas vanitatum on the basis of Ecclesiastes 1:2 (see note to line 1 below), but as the scribal title fits the poem well, it has been adopted here.

1 O vanyté off vanytés, and all is vanité. See Ecclesiastes 1:2: “vanity of vanities, and all is vanity.”

11 arras. The name for fine tapestries produced in Arras (in modern Belgium) became synonymous with elegant tapestry of any origin.

13 Ennewyd. “To color, to make radiant, to adorn.” See MED, “ennuen” (v.).

22 plesance. The usual meaning is “satisfaction, delight, pleasure,” but the phrase here likely includes the sense defined in MED, “plesaunce” (n. 2): “costly fabric from Piacenza” in Italy, used by ladies as a head covering.

24 And many low labours doth your observans. Though labours is an attested plural form of the noun “laborer,” this term usually designates agricultural workers and seems out of place here. It is very likely a misreading, perhaps for “servitours” (“ser­vants”).

31 Kyngys and popys so rych were, at the laste. The sense of lines 31–32 is unclear, and the lines are almost certainly defective. It is not clear how the addressee is compared to kings and popes, and at the laste may refer to the kings and popes (i.e., at the end of their lives) or the addressee. Additionally, the MED records no instances of the phrase “do debate” (as opposed to the usual “maken debate”). In the absence of a single obvious error, the lines have not been emended.

33 chekemate. Checkmate appears frequently in Middle English verse as a figurative expression for defeat or complete submission; see Lydgate’s Troy Book, book 4, lines 2494–95: “The Grekis wern at meschef desolat / Troilus so narwe brought hem to chekmaat.” See also Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, lines 618–64, when the Black Knight describes losing his queen (i.e., his wife) at a game of chess with Fortune.

47 passyd many a wynter. As C. Brown suggests, this might be emended to “passyd many a aventour,” which would make more sense (since the emphasis in this passage is on experience, not merely age), and offer a better rhyme for lines 46 and 44 (Religious Lyrics of the XVth Century).

51 so slyper a pyn. To hang on a sliper or joly pin was a common idiom roughly equivalent to the modern “hang by a thread”; see MED, “pin,” 9b.

54 Onon be unforton the state that thei wer in. I.e., “soon their noble rank turns out to be a misfortune, because it put them in a position to destroy themselves.”

74 We geder the corn hom for other mens ryches. See Ecclesiastes 2:21: “For when a man laboureth in wisdom, and knowledge, and carefulness, he leaveth what he has gotten to an idle man: so this also is vanity, and a great evil.”

77a AMEN QUOD RATE. Approximately two blank lines separate this colophon from the following text, King Edward and the Hermit.


Abbreviations: see Explanatory Notes

23 you. MS: yo.

49 schall all pass and end. MS: schall and end. C. Brown’s emendation.

50 The well. MS: well is added above the line.

60 How. MS: Ho.

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Item 40, Vanity

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fol. 157r     





O vanyté of vanytés, and all is vanité.
Lo, how this werld is turnyd up and downe:
Now wele, now wo, now tranquilyté,
Now werre, now pese and now rebilyon.
If thou wold daly labour for renowne,
For profete, plesur, astate or grete degré,
The best therof schall ende in vanyté.

Yit beldys thou castellus, haulys, townys, and towerys,
Sytys and bourghes with wallys stout and strong,
With plesand herbours of chambours and bourys,
Hangyd with arras stoutly, depe and long,
With rych presyus stones sete among,
Ennewyd with gold rych as it may be,
Yit schall all waste and turne to vanyté.

If thou seke worschipe all the werld aboute,
For dede of armys to avaunse thi name
So that there is not non fond so stoute;
Of yong ne olde thou toke never schame;
In every place thou berys awey the fame;
At every justys thou berys awey the gré,
Yit schall thi werke all end in vanyté.

Ye feyre ladys apereld with plesance,
To you both youth and bewty ben appendyng.
And many low labours doth your observans
And in your courte deyly ben atendyng;
They spare nother for labour ne for spendyng
To do your plesur weresoever ye be,
Yit schall that myrthe all end in vanyté.

Yiff thou of byrth her was the worthyest
And onne the erth was gretyst of astate,
Kyngys and popys so rych were, at the laste
Of them agen thou durst do debate.1
Yit in a whyle thou schall be chekemate,
When deth wyll com and take hys propour fe.
Than schall thou knaw thi pride was vanyté.

Yiff thou be wedyd to thyn intent
And have a wyff full plesant and feyre,
Well born and also obedyent,
And also have chylder for to be thin eyer,
Yet in a whyle this plesans schall apare,
When age schall com croke both hand and kne.
Than schall thou knaw that was bot vanyté.

Yiff thou be strong and yong and fayre of face,
Als sembly of schap as any creatour,
Lovyd of pepull and governyd be grace,
Lernyd in wysdom be wyse scryptour,
Prevyd in manhed, passyd many a wynter,
And ever in worschype both be lond and se,
Yit schall all pass and end in vanyté.

The well of forten is so changeabull
And deyly tournys upon so slyper a pyn,
And yit som tyme it makys men abull
To cruell to ryn agen all ther ryall kyne;2
Onon be unforton the state that thei wer in.
Other men happis, and thus ye may well se
That state ne reule is not bot vanyté.

In youth now styres mekyll wantonys
And oft intendyth to lustys and pley,
And lytell remembrys his awne febulnys,
How youth schall pas and deperte awey,
And deth schall com — that is non ney.
Thou blynd youth, loke up and se:
Thy pride, thi pley, all is bot vanyté.

Lo, here comys youth with myrth and plays joly,
Withouten thought or care, fader and moderles.
Bot medyll age thinkys that it was foly,
And peynes hymselve with werldly besynes,
Bot all his labour is to grete ryches.
Than comys age and seys that he must dyghe;
Than he knaw yought and all was vanyté.

We tyll the erth, we tourne it to and fro.
We labour ryght deuly with gret besynes,
We dyge, we delve, we saw, we scher also,
We geder the corn hom for other mens ryches.
We have full seldom any restfull gladnes,
Bot labour in poverté to the tyme that we dyghe.
Yit is our labour not bot vanyté.
(see note)
(see note)

estate (rank)
best of that

build; halls
Cities and towns
lodgings; chambers; bowers
tapestry splendidly; (see note)
Colored; (see note)

seek renown
deeds; advance
none found so bold

joust; carry away the prize

dressed with pleasure (see note); (see note)
beauty belong; (t-note)
humble laborers take care of you; (see note)

was the worthiest here
(see note)

i.e., defeated; (see note)
proper fee (rightful claim)


children; heir

handsome of appearance; creature
Beloved; by grace (good fortune)
Proved [worthy] in manhood; (see note)


wheel of fortune; (t-note)
daily turns; an unstable axle (see note); (see note)

Anon (soon); misfortune; (see note)
It befalls other men
nor rule (governance)

inclines to desires
there is no denying

jolly games


duly; activity
sow; shear
gather grain home; (see note)

until the time

(see note)

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