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Chaucer's Plowman


1 With him (the Parson) there was a Plowman, his brother, / Who had hauled very many a cartload of dung

2 He would thresh, and also make ditches and dig


2 foother. So Hg (rhyming with broother); El, Manly-Rickert, Benson, Robinson brother / fother. Fother derives from OE foðer, fodder (related to food), food for cattle but also "that in which food is carried": "a cart or cart-load." See An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, ed. J. Bosworth and T. Northcote Toller (London: Oxford University Press, 1898), s.v. Fóðer.

3 trewe swynkere. The phrase could be charged, since the Lollards referred to themselves as "true preachers" or "true men," and plowmen (and workers generally) were sometimes associated with subversion of the commonwealth after the 1381 Rising. See Addresses of the Commons, lines 21-22 and note, and the Prologue to The Wycliffite Bible, lines 111-12 and note.

4 parfit charitee. For the tradition of sancta rusticitas before Langland and Chaucer, see Jill Mann, Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), pp. 68-69, and the references in endnotes 65 and 66.

6 hym. So Hg, Manly-Rickert, Benson (him), Robinson (him); El he. Robinson comments: "thogh him gamed or smerte, in pleasure or pain; one of a number of phrases current in early English to denote 'under all circumstances,' 'in all respects"' (p. 665).

8 dyke and delve. Benson (The Riverside Chaucer, p. 820) and Mann, citing the MED, emphasize the formulaic nature of this phrase, which means "to work hard." Mann also quotes from Piers Plowman: "I dyke and I delue    I do that treuthe hoteth; / Some tyme I sowe      and some tyme I thresche" (B passus 5; Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire, p. 70).

10 Withouten hyre. Working without payment, notes Helen Cooper, offers "a marked contrast to the ploughmen of Chaucer's England as represented in the landowners' complaints about relentless demands for high wages, or to the lazy labourers of estates satire or Piers's half-acre" (The Canterbury Tales, Oxford Guides to Chaucer [New York: Oxford University Press, 1989], p. 53). For another mention of labor shortages after the Great Plague of 1349, see Benson, The Riverside Chaucer, p. 820.

13 mere. The poorer classes rode mares. Other horses mentioned in the General Prologue include the Monk's palfrey (one of his deyntee saddle-horses), the Wife of Bath's amblere (a pacing horse with a comfortable riding gait), and the Reeve's stot, a sturdy farm horse. In addition, the Knight's horse is characterized as "goode" and the Clerk's, as "leene . . . as is a rake."

(Hengwrt MS fol. 6v; Canterbury Tales I[A]529-41)

With hym ther was a Plowman, was his broother,
That hadde ylad of donge ful many a foother. 1
A trewe swynkere and a good was he,
Lyvynge in pees and parfit charitee.
God loved he best with al his hoole herte
At alle tymes, thogh hym gamed or smerte,                              
And thanne his neighebore right as hymselve.
He wolde thresshe, and therto dyke and delve, 2
For Cristes sake, for every povre wight,
Withouten hyre, if it lay in his myght.
His tythes payde he ful faire and wel,
Both of his propre swynk and his catel.
In a tabard he rood upon a mere.
(see note)
worker; (see note)
peace; charity; (see note)
whether in joy or distress; (see note)
just as
(see note)
poor person
payment; (see note)
tithes he paid
own work; possessions
smock; rode; mare; (see note)

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