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Poems Against Simony and the Abuse of Money: Introduction


1 Text, translation, and commentary in Jill Mann, "Satiric Subject and Satiric Object in Goliardic Literature," Mittellateinisches Jahrbuch 15 (1980), 63-86 at 75-77.

2 In an Appendix to The Latin Poems of Walter Mapes, Wright includes a medley of poems on Sir Penny: Versus de Nummo (pp. 355-56); De dan Denier (French, thirteenth century: pp. 357-59); In erth it es a litill thing (pp. 359-61); Peny is an hardy knyght (p. 361); and Rycht fane wald I my quentans mak (Scottish, sixteenth century, p. 362).

3 For a summary of The Simonie's contents, see Robbins, "Poems," p. 1437. For the most useful discussion of medieval estates satire, see Jill Mann, Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), especially pp. 205-06.

4 Old English and Middle English Poetry (London: Routledge, 1977), pp. 151, 152.

5 See the Latin poems on nummus and the German lyrics on pfennig discussed by John A. Yunck, The Lineage of Lady Meed: The Development of Mediaeval Venality Satire (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1963). The medieval penny was a valuable silver coin worth one-twelfth of a shilling. In the time of Edward III the penny contained eighteen grains of silver.

6 For a summary of the poem's contents, see Robbins, "Poems," p. 1467.
Poems and documents attacking simony and the abuse of money constitute a significant aspect of medieval anticlerical, political complaint. Simony -- from Simon Magus, who offered the disciples money to acquire the power of the Holy Ghost (Acts 8) -- is the buying and selling of ecclesiastical preferment. Anticlerical writers censured simony and avarice in general as part of the ecclesiastical reform movement after the Investiture Controversy; and Latin diatribes against Rome continued and extended the antisimoniac tradition.

In the twelfth century poets writing in goliardic meters (trochaic or dactylic tetrameter) attacked, often in parody, the increasing importance of money in Church affairs. Many venality satires may be found in Thomas Wright's still valuable collection for the Camden Society entitled The Latin Poems Commonly Attributed to Walter Mapes (1841). The author of the famous Apocalypse of Bishop Golias, for example, denounces the archdeacon's selling of the Church (with considerable paranomasia on venal, vend and venia [=pardon]):
Ecclesiastica jura venalia
 facit propatulo; sed venalia
 cum venum dederit, vocat a venia,
 quam non inveniens venit ecclesia.
           (169-72, ed. Wright)
(He openly sells rights of the Church; but when he calls this a
"venial" sin, as in "pardon," and finds none, he sells the Church.)
Other goliardic poems against ecclesiastical greed in Wright's volume include Golias in Romanum Curiam ("Utar contra vitia carmine rebelli," also entitled Invectio contra avaritiam), which satirizes the substitution of "money" for "spirit" (nummus est pro numine), the silver mark for the Gospel writer (pro Marco marca), and the money chest (arca) for the altar (ara); De mundi miseria ("Ecce mundus moritur vitio sepultus"), which ironically speaks of money's restorative properties (lines 29-32); Contra avaritiam ("Captivata largitas longe relegatur"); De cruce denarii ("Crux est denarii potens in saeculo"). The Benedictbeuern MS (thirteenth century) associated with the Carmina Burana provides the well-known Gospel according to the silver mark, a scriptural parody which begins, "Initium sancti evangelii secundum Marcas argenti." 1 Wright also prints a poem on Nummus, coin, which will result later on in the English "Sir Penny" verses. This begins: "Manus ferens munera pium facit impium." 2

In this section I include an example of this Latin verse, which begins Beati qui esuriunt / Et sitiunt (from British Library MS Harley 913 fol. 59r-59v), as edited and translated in Wr PSE pp. 224-30. This poem, written in the manuscript as prose but with alternating four- and three-beat lines and intricate rhyme schemes characteristic of goliardic lyrics, dates from the beginning of the fourteenth century (reign of Edward I) and is entitled by Wright "Song on the Venality of the Judges." I have checked Wright's edition against a photostat of the manuscript. I include but slightly modernize Wright's translation.

One of the chief documents in the Middle English Abuse of Money tradition is The Simonie, also known as "On the Evil Times of Edward II" and "Symonie and Couetise" (Index § 4165; Supplement § 1992). The anonymous author of The Simonie, which Wright dates to about 1321, complains that those who govern abuse their power egregiously -- so much so that God has sent famines and plagues as punishments for wrongdoing. A dominant motif of the poem is that the poor man -- "Godes man" -- stands outside the doors of court while the rich man, bearing gifts, is welcomed inside (lines 9-30, 55-66, 121-44, 169-80). It offers traditional estates satire that begins with the court of Rome and high prelates and proceeds through the clerical ranks (including monks, parsons, and friars) to knights, squires, justices, bailiffs, sheriffs, beadles, and merchants.3 The linking of anticlerical satire and the abuse of money anticipates Piers Plowman. Like Piers Plowman, The Simonie is lively and vivid, with touches of arch wit. A newly-installed parson will spend money so quickly that the corn in his barn will not be eaten by mice (lines 69-70). What kind of "penance" do monks perform? "Hii weren sockes in here shon [shoes], and felted botes above" (line 146). Those who live according to a monastic rule live a life of ease rather than easing the lives of others (lines 151-56). A false physician will "wagge his urine in a vessel of glaz," swear that the patient is sicker than he really is, and comfort the anxious wife. The author adds that such a doctor may know "no more than a gos [goose] wheither he wole live or die" (lines 211-21). On a few occasions the author includes something like dialogue, as when the false physician says to the housewife, "Dame, for faute [lack] of helpe, thin housebonde is neih [almost] slain" (line 216), or when the beggar in the street cries out, "Allas, for hungger I die / Up rihte!" (lines 400-01). There are several apocalyptic passages in the poem. The author points to recent natural disasters as evidence of divine disfavor; and in a memorable sequence he alludes to an English gamen, game, in which people begin cursing one another on Monday. And now, he says, God has abandoned the land, sending a great "derthe" that has caused a bushel of wheat to soar to "foure shillinges or more" (line 393). Wr regards this as a reference to the great famine of 1315 and its consequences. The poem contains colorful language, snatches of song, and proverbs. The new parson, rather than reading the Bible, "rat on the rouwe-bible" ("reads" the fiddle [line 88]); he will discharge "a prest of clene lyf" and then replace him with "a daffe" (lines 97, 99). A wanton priest will provide himself with "a gay wench of the newe jet" and, "when the candel is oute," "clateren cumpelin" ("recite compline" [lines 118-20]).

Pearsall argues that the form of The Simonie derives from "the loose septenary/ alexandrine long line of the thirteenth century, of mixed Anglo-Norman descent," a verse line that was "invaded," he says, "by the cadences of the native four-stress line, with or without alliteration." This poem "uses the septenary/alexandrine monorhymed quatrain with a bob and sixth line rhyming together, but is deeply infiltrated by the rhythms of the native four-stress line, with sporadic alliteration."4 The combination of the Anglo-Norman line with the four-stress cadence makes for animated, convincing verse.

The Simonie exists in three manuscripts: National Library of Scotland, Advocates Library MS 19. 2. 1, fols. 328r-334v (the Auchinleck MS, about 1330); Cambridge University Library MS Peterhouse 104, fols. 210r-212r, of the late fourteenth century; and Oxford University, Bodleian Library MS 48 fols. 325v-331r of about 1425 (MED). Ross tentatively identifies the dialects of the three versions as East Midland (Auchinleck), Kentish (Peterhouse), and East Midland (Bodley). The three MS versions are quite different from one another; Embree and Urquhart have argued that the extant versions derive from a lost original but that the Auchinleck text probably preserves more authentic readings than the other two. They have urged that the three versions be printed in a parallel-text edition. Embree is completing such an edition, which will be especially welcome because the three versions of The Simonie anticipate and invite comparison with the three states of PP. The text of The Simonie in this edition is based on the facsimile edition of the Auchinleck MS and is completed by a photostatic copy of the Bodley MS (lines 477-end). These versions are checked against Wright's edition of 1839 (Wr) and the text in Brandl and Zippel's 2nd ed. of Middle English Literature (Br), and compared with both the Peterhouse (C) version (as printed by Brandl and Zippel) and the Bodley (B) version (as printed by Ross). Ross rearranges the MS stanzas according to his theories about the poem's logic of composition. I have not followed his rearrangements.

The next two poems of this section concern the venality satire theme of Sir Penny (a.k.a. Dan Denarius). This theme occurs in fifteenth-century English lyrics with some frequency, but these have precursors in continental literature.5 These poems depict Sir Penny as all powerful in the earthly realm: he is like a king to whom all must bow; and all human "joy" -- so these lyrics allege -- depends on money. Poems on Sir Penny are related to lyrics on the power of the purse (such as those with the refrain "Gramersy myn owyn purs"). Of this latter kind the wittiest is by Geoffrey Chaucer, The Complaint of Chaucer to His Purse. The first poem on Sir Penny printed in this collection is "Above all thing thow arte a kyng" (Index § 113). This is a carol, a unique fifteenth-century text in 80 lines and in quatrains rhyming abcb (with internal rhyme in the a and c lines) from British Library MS Royal 17. B. xlvii fols. 160v-162r. The manuscript bears the title money, money; and the lyric emphasizes the importance of money in all spheres of human activity. The present text is based on an excellent electrostatic print from microfilm of the Royal MS and is checked against the editions of Greene and RHR. The second Sir Penny lyric printed here begins "In erth it es a litill thing" (Index § 1480), a Scots poem in 123 lines from British Library MS Cotton Galba E. ix fols. 50v-51r, which bears the heading Incipit narracio de domino denario (Here begins the statement of Dan Denarius).6 There is an abbreviated version of this poem from Caius College Cambridge MS 174, which Wright and Halliwell printed in Reliquiae Antiquae (2:108-10). The present text is based on a fine electrostatic print from microfilm of the Cotton Galba MS and is checked against the editions of Wr (Walter Mapes) and of Robbins (Secular Lyrics of the XIVth and XVth Centuries, who titles the poem Sir Penny, II).

The final poem -- "In London There I Was Bent," or London Lickpenny (Index § 3759) -- offers both a venality satire against the legal system and a lively social picture, including street cries of various sections in and around London. The story concerns a Kentish countryman who visits London seeking justice in the law courts. He enters crowded Westminster Hall, where his hood is stolen, and then he tries the King's Bench, which concerned itself chiefly with criminal law. The law clerks show no interest in the poor Kentishman. Next he moves to the Court of Common Pleas, also in Westminster, but the sergeant of the law with his silk hood will not even say "mum" to him; so he proceeds to the Chancery and the clerks of the Rolls. Although the Kentishman shows considerable deference to these clerks, and though they agree that he has a good legal case, it does not go forward because he lacks money. Deciding he can find no justice in Westminster Hall, he encounters a crowd of Flemish merchants just outside the doors, but he cannot purchase any of their wares, nor can he buy an early meal from cooks at Westminster gate. He wanders to the city of London and hears the street-cries of fruit-sellers and vendors of herbs. He walks through Cheapside, Candlewick street, Eastcheap, and Cornhill, where he discovers his own hood for sale -- the one stolen from him in Westminster Hall. Trying to escape from his nightmare visit to London, the plowman goes to Billingsgate but cannot afford to hire a barge man to ferry him over the Thames; eventually he makes his way to Kent, vowing to "meddle" in the law no more. London is called "a lick-penny (as Paris is called by some, a pick-purse) because of feastings" (Skeat). This often-printed poem exists in two manuscript versions from the Harley Collection in the British Library: MS 367, in 112 lines and in rime royal stanzas, and MS 542, in 128 lines and in eight-line stanzas rhyming ababbcbc, the so-called Monk's Tale stanza, a common ballade form. Both versions are in four-stress lines. The original poem dates from the early fifteenth century and was formerly attributed to John Lydgate, who composed in both rhyme royal and in the Monk's Tale stanza. A headnote to the version in Harley 367 reads: "London Lyckpenny A Ballade compyled by Dan John Lydgate monke of Bery about [space in the manuscript for number] yeres agoo, and now newly ou'sene and amended." The manuscript version of Harley 367, which RHR prints, was executed by John Stow (died 1605), author of The Survey of London and Annales, and it evidences considerable emendation to avoid archaic or unknown words and phrases, including qui tollis, woon, and umple. Both recensions of the poem contain editorial intervention, but the 542 version seems earlier and less redacted than Harley 367; but neither can be said to witness the original poem. The present edition is based on a paper print from the manuscript and is checked against a paper print of Harley 367 and against the editions of Hammond (Anglia 20 [1898], 542) reprinted in English Verse between Chaucer and Surrey, pp. 237-39, 476-78; Holthausen's composite text (Anglia 43); Skeat's print of Harley 367 in Specimens of English Literature 1394-1579 (with valuable notes); and RHR's version of Harley 367.

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Select Bibliography


British Library MS Harley 913 fols. 59r-59v (c. 1330).

National Library of Scotland, Advocates Library MS 19. 2. 1 (Auchinleck MS), fols. 328r-334v (1330-40) [476 lines in 79 six-line stanzas].

Cambridge University Library, MS Peterhouse 104, fols. 210r-212r (1350) [468 lines].

Oxford University MS Bodley 48 fols. 325v-331r (c. 1425) [414 lines, including 114 lines not found in other versions].

British Library MS Royal 17.B.xlvii fols. 160v-162r (fifteenth century).

British Library MS Cotton Galba E. ix fols. 50v-51r (1440-50).

British Library MS Harley 367 fols. 127r-126v (c. 1600-25).

British Library MS Harley 542 fols. 102r-104r (c. 1600).

Previous Editions

Beati qui esuriunt

Wright, Thomas, ed. The Political Songs of England from the Reign of John to that of Edward II. London: Printed for the Camden Society by J. B. Nichols and Son, 1839. Pp. 224-30.

The Simonie

The Auchinleck Manuscript. National Library of Scotland, Advocates' MS. 19.2.1. With an Introduction by Derek Pearsall and I. C. Cunningham. London: The Scolar Press; New York: The British Book Centre, 1977. [A folio-sized facsimile edition.]

Hardwick, Charles, ed. A Poem on the Times of Edward II. Percy Society 28, no. 2. London, 1849. [Peterhouse MS. Printed in seventy-eight eleven-line stanzas.]

Brandl, A., and O. Zippel, eds. Mittelenglische Sprach- und Literaturproben. Berlin, 1915; second ed. 1927. Rpt. under title Middle English Literature, New York: Chelsea,
1947, 1949, 1965. [Prints the Edinburgh Auchinleck MS and the Cambridge Peterhouse MS side by side For comparison.]

Wright, Thomas, ed. The Political Songs of England from the Reign of John to that of Edward II. London: Printed for the Camden Society by J. B. Nichol and Son, 1839. Pp. 323-45. [From the Auchinleck MS, Glossary at bottom of pages, and Notes at the back of the volume.]

Ross, Thomas W. "On the Evil Times of Edward II." Anglia 75 (1957), 173-93. [Prints the Bodley MS with considerable editorial intervention.]

Above All Thing Thow Arte a Kyng (Royal MS)

Greene, R. L., ed. Early English Carols. 2nd ed. rev. Oxford: Clarendon, 1977. [§ 393, pp. 231-32. Notes p. 449. Good edition, normalized (with some errors in transcription corrected by RHR). Excellent notes.]

RHR, pp. 134-37.

In Erth It Es a Litill Thing (Sir Penny)

Wright, Thomas, ed. The Latin Poems Commonly Attributed to Walter Mapes. Camden Society 16. London: Camden Society, 1841. [Prints the Cotton Galba version in the "Appendix of Translations and Imitations," pp. 359-61.]

Wright, Thomas, and J. O. Halliwell, eds. Reliquiae Antiquae. 2 vols. London: Pickering, 1841, 1843. [Volume 2, pp. 108-10. Prints version in Caius College, Cambridge.]

RHR, pp. 51-55.

London Lickpenny

Hammond, Eleanor, ed. English Verse between Chaucer and Surrey. Durham: Duke University Press, 1927. [Prints Harley 542 on pp. 238-39; notes on pp. 476-78.]

------. "London Lickpenny." Anglia 20 (1898), 404-20. [Prints Harley 542 and 367 parallel.]

Holthausen, F. "London Lickpenny." Anglia 43 (1919), 61-68. [Composite text of both Harley 367 and 542, in the eight-line stanza; attempts to reconstruct the poem's metre as five rather than four stress.]

RHR, pp. 130-34. [Prints Harley 367.]

Skeat, W. W., ed. Specimens of English Literature from the Ploughmans Crede to the Shepheardes Calendar. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1879. [Prints Harley 367 on pp. 24-27. Important notes on pp. 373-76.]

General Studies

Kaeuper, Richard W. War, Justice, and Public Order: England and France in the Later Middle Ages. Oxford: Clarendon, 1988. [See especially chapter 4, "Vox Populi," for historically-informed analyses of satires and complaints.]

Kinney, Thomas L. "The Temper of Fourteenth-Century English Verse of Complaint." Annuale Mediaevale 7 (1966), 74-89. [Places The Simonie in context of complaint and satire.]

Little, Lester K. Religious Poverty and the Profit Economy in Medieval Europe. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978. [An excellent study of changing views of the apostolic life in the later Middle Ages.]

Maddicott, J. R. "Poems of Social Protest in Early Fourteenth-Century England." England in the Fourteenth Century: Proceedings of the 1985 Harlaxton Symposium. Ed. W. M. Ormrod. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 1986. Pp. 130-44. [Contrasts the specificity of later verses of complaint -- specifically, the literature of 1381 -- with earlier fourteenth-century complaints and satires, which Maddicott regards as closer to traditional laments and venality satire. Includes discussion of The Simonie and The Song of the Husbandman.]

Scattergood, V. J. Politics and Poetry in the Fifteenth Century. London: Blandford, 1971. [See chapter 9: "English Society II: Some Aspects of Social Change." VJS discusses "Above All Thing" on pp. 332-33 and 339, and "In Erth It Es a Litill Thing" on p. 338.]

Yunck, John A. "Dan Denarius: the Almighty Penny and the Fifteenth Century Poets." American Journal of Economics and Sociology 20 (1961), 207-22. Reprinted in Die englische Satire. Ed. Wolfgang Weiss. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1982. Pp. 69-88. [Examples of poems on Sir Penny, with bibliography.]

------. The Lineage of Lady Meed: The Development of Mediaeval Venality Satire. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1963. [A valuable study of Latin, French, and English venality satires with special emphasis on Piers Plowman and the English fourteenth century.]

------. "Satire." A Companion to Piers Plowman. Ed. John A. Alford. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988. Pp. 135-54. [Keyed to PP but wide-ranging and valuable.]

Studies of The Simonie

Embree, Dan, and Elizabeth Urquhart. "The Simonie: The Case for a Parallel-Text Edition." Manuscripts and Texts: Editorial Problems in Later Middle English Literature. Ed. Derek Pearsall. Cambridge: Brewer, 1985. Pp. 49-59. [Pertinent information about the MSS and their production, with plausible conjecture about authorship and scribal transmission. Three extant MSS derive from a lost original.]

Finlayson, John. "The Simonie: Two Authors?" Archiv für das Studium der neueren Sprachen und Literaturen 226 (1989), 39-51. [Argues that the Peterhouse MS is "a deliberate and accomplished rewriting of the original poem represented by A (Auchinleck) and B (the Bodley text)."]

Pearsall, Derek. Old English and Middle English Poetry. London: Routledge, 1977. [Excellent discussion of The Simonie in the context of Alliterative Poetry in chapter 6.]

Salter, Elizabeth. "Piers Plowman and The Simonie." Archiv für das Studium der neueren Sprachen und Literaturen 203 (1967), 241-54. [Argues that The Simonie was a source for PP.]


Robbins, Rossell Hope. "XIII. Poems Dealing with Contemporary Conditions." A Manual of the Writings in Middle English 1050-1300. Vol. 5. Gen. ed. Albert E. Hartung. New Haven: The Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1975. Pp. 1385-1536; 1631-1725. [Discusses The Simonie (§ 82) on p. 1437; bibliography on p. 1669; In Erth It Es a Litill Thing (§ 154) on p. 1467; bibliography on pp. 1684-85; Above All Thing Thow Arte a Kyng (see § 158, under London Lickpenny) on p. 1468; London Lickpenny (§ 158) on p. 1468, bibliography on pp. 1685-86.]