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Song of the Husbandman


1 They neither preserve their [old] sayings nor sing songs

2 Yet is there a more bitter command into the bargain

3 It is grievous to lose when [you have] little

4 harms us by requiring use of

5 The bailiff summons up misery for us and thinks he does well

6 Thus they rob from the poor, who are worth little (see note)

7 Need must waste away in sweat and toil

8 That he has no hood to hide his head in

9 And the proud riders steal everything from the poor

10 Through the commands of the bailiffs such injury has befallen them

11 You are written down in my book, that you know well

12 "Yet I shall be a foul churl, though they have the whole" (Wr)

13 That which I save up all year I must then spend

14 "I must thus take care against the time these catchpoles come" (Wr)

15 "Since I took to the land such hurt was given me" (Wr)

16 Since I possessed a (tax) account and a cottage

17 "Since they fetched my fair cattle in my fold" (Wr)

18 And our rye is rotten and is spoiled before we reap

19 "It is as good to perish right away as to labor so" (RHR)


1 Ich . . . mon. Wr translates this: "I heard men on the earth make much lamentation"; but Brown and Robbins, Index (§ 696), place the lyric in the category of poems beginning "Each": "Ich herdemen vpo mold make muche mon," or "Each herdman on the earth makes much lamentation." The manuscript reads, however, "Ich herde men."

4 synge. So MS, Sampson, and RHR; Wr syng.

5 Wr, Brandl, and Sampson begin the "song" -- with quotation marks -- with this line; quotation marks conclude with the end of line 20.

6 mi. So MS and RHR; Wr and Sampson my.

7 bid. So MS, Wr, and RHR; Brandl emends to bit.

12-13 the levest we leoseth . . . ther-ase lutel ys. These lines, and the two stanzas, are linked according to the prosodic convention of chain verse or concatenation. Stanza linking by concatenation occurs also in lines 20-21, 24-25, 48-49, 56-57, 60-61, 68-69.

15 The hayward. RHR comments: "The husbandman lists the officials who extort money from him: the hayward, a local official responsible for maintaining fences separating the common from enclosed lands; the bailiff, who enforced the law; the woodward, in charge of the forest timber; and the beadle (line 37), a warrant officer working under the bailiff" (p. 250). John Alford cites the following lines from Piers Plowman (C.13.45-47): "If þe marchaunt make his way ouer menne corne / And þe hayward happe with hym for to mete, / Oþer his hatt or his hoed or elles his gloues / The marchaunt mote forgo or moneye of his porse." See Robbins' Glossary, s.v. Haiward. For the tyranny of such local officials, see The Simonie, note to line 195.

17 Brandl punctuates: Þe wodeward waiteþ us, wo, þat lokeþ . . . . This passage about the lurking woodward anticipates Chaucer's watchful pilgrim Reeve, of whom the narrator says:
Ther nas baillif, ne hierde, nor oother hyne,
That he ne knew his sleighte and his covyne;
They were adrad of hym as of the deeth. (I[A]603-05)
19 me pileth. Ethical dative: "they rob."

22 en. Brandl emends to an.

24 is. Brandl emends to haþ.

25 See note to line 19.

26 me. So MS and RHR, in which case the sense is "steal from me." Brandl me[n], the sense being parallel to the ethical datives of lines 19 and 25, i.e., "they (men) steal." Wr and Sampson omit.

28 Thorh biddyng. MS bddyng; Wr, Sampson, Brandl, and RHR biddyng. Wr translates: "through asking of bailifs such harm has befallen them."

29 Meni. So Wr. Brandl interprets MS as Mem and emends to Men; Sampson Men.

33 Stont . . . stude. So MS and RHR; Wr and Sampson Stont fulle ythe stude. Wr translates: "He stands full in the place." This should be instead: "He stands quietly in the place."

35 hale. Brandl hal[l]e.

37 bost. This word has at least two possible significations for this poem: "boast," "arrogance," on the one hand (MED bost senses 1 and 2), and "noise," "clamor," "outcry," on the other (sense 4[a]). For the latter signification, see Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. Tolkien and Gordon, 2nd ed., line 1448: "Þat buskkez after þis bor with bost and wyth noyse," and PP C 16.89-90, ed. Pearsall: "And where be bettere to breke? lasse boest hit maketh / To breke a beggares bagge then an yren-bounden coffres." Pearsall glosses boest at 21.251 as "self-vaunting" (and see MED sense 1[c]). The MED traces this word to "AF bost boasting, ostentation (prob. from Gmc.: cp. MHG b_s swelling, Norw. baus haughty." See also MED boistous adj. senses 1 and 2.

38 grene wax. A seal of green wax was affixed to documents delivered by the Exchequer to sheriffs (OED). See note to line 55. Like Chaucer's Pardoner, who carries "our lige lordes seel on my patente . . . that no man be so boold . . . me to destourbe of Cristes hooly werk" (VI[C]337-40), the beadle carries this greenwax document as a sign of authority as he extracts taxes from the husbandman. Line 39 reminds one of the friar in Chaucer's Summoner's Tale, who announces names on the ledger as he tries to "collect" from his congregation + "lo! Heere I write youre name" (III[D]1752).

42 fyhsh. So MS and RHR; Wr and Sampson fyhshe. Brandl emends to fyshday.

and. MS and RHR &; Wr and Sampson ant. Also in line 44 and passim.

55 Thus. So the MS and RHR; Wr Ther (misreading the abbreviation).

the grene wax. Documents from sheriffs sealed with green wax struck fear and grief into those who received them ("us greveth under gore"). See also God Speed the Plough: "Then commeth the grenewex which greveth us sore, / With ronnyng in reragis [arrears] it doth us sorowe inough" (lines 69-70).

56 doth. Emendation of Wr, Sampson, and RHR; MS and Brandl deþ.

57 doth. MS and Wr doh; Sampson doht; Brandl doh[t]; RHR emends to doþ. The concatenated phrase in line 56 reads, in the MS, ase hound deþ [for doþ] þe hare.

58 tek. Brandl emends to tok.

59 Nabbeth . . . sulle. RHR comments: "Difficult: tr. The beadles have never told their giver (i.e., have never said who he was). Brandl reads fulle (possible in MS.), and so Sampson, who tr. have never suffered" (p. 250). Wr translates the line: "the beadles have never asked their . . ."

70 broke. So MS. Wr, Sampson, and Brandl brok; RHR brokes.

72 is. So MS, Wr, Sampson, and Brandl; RHR in (an error in transcription for is).

(British Library MS Harley 2253 fol. 64r)

Ich herde men upo mold make muche mon,
   Hou he beth itened of here tilyynge:
Gode yeres and corn bothe beth agon;
   Ne kepeth here no sawe ne no song synge. 1
Nou we mote worche, nis ther non other won,
   Mai ich no lengore lyve with mi lesinge;   
Yet ther is a bitterore bid to the bon: 2
   For ever the furthe peni mot to the kynge.
Thus we carpeth for the kyng, and carieth ful colde,
   And weneth forte kevere, and ever buth a-cast.
Whose hath eny god, hopeth he nouht to holde,
   Bote ever the levest we leoseth alast.
Luther is to leosen ther-ase lutel ys, 3
   And haveth monie hynen that hopieth ther-to.
The hayward heteth us harm to habben of his; 4
   The bailif bockneth us bale and weneth wel do; 5
The wodeward waiteth us wo, that loketh under rys;
   Ne mai us ryse no rest, rycheis, ne ro.
Thus me pileth the pore, that is of lute pris. 6
   Nede in swot and in swynk swynde mot swo. 7
Nede he mot swynde, thah he hade swore
   That nath nout en hod his hed forte hude. 8
Thus wil walketh in lond, and lawe is forlore,
   And al is piked of the pore, the prikyares prude. 9
Thus me pileth the pore and pyketh ful clene,
   The ryche me raymeth withouten eny ryht;
Ar londes and ar leodes liggeth fol lene,
   Thorh biddyng of baylyfs such harm hem hath hiht. 10
Meni of religioun me halt hem ful hene,
   Baroun and bonde, the clerc and the knyht.
Thus wil walketh in lond, and wondred ys wene,
   Falsshipe fatteth and marreth wyth myht.
Stont stille y the stude, and halt him ful sturne,
   That maketh beggares go with bordon and bagges.
Thus we beth honted from hale to hurne;
   That er werede robes, nou wereth ragges.
Yet cometh budeles with ful muche bost:
   "Greythe me selver to the grene wax.
Thou art writen y my writ, that thou wel wost!" 11
   Mo then ten sithen told I my tax.
Thenne mot ich habbe hennen arost,
   Feyr on fyhsh day launprey and lax.
Forth to the chepyn geyneth ne chost,
   Thah I sulle mi bil and my borstax.
Ich mot legge my wed wel yef I wolle,
   Other sulle mi corn on gras that is grene.
Yet I shal be foul cherl, thah he han the fulle; 12
   That ich alle yer spare, thenne I mot spene. 13
Nede I mot spene that I spared yore,
   Ageyn this cachereles cometh thus I mot care; 14
Cometh the maister budle, brust ase a bore,
   Seith he wole mi bugging bringe ful bare.
Mede I mot munten, a mark other more,
   Thah ich at the set dey sulle mi mare.
Thus the grene wax us greveth under gore,
   That me us honteth ase hound doth the hare.
He us hontethe ase hound hare doth on hulle;
   Seththe I tek to the lond such tene me wes taht. 15
Nabbeth ner budeles boded ar sulle,
   For he may scape and we aren ever caht.
Thus I kippe and cacche cares ful colde,
   Seththe I counte and cot hade to kepe. 16
To seche selver to the kyng I mi seed solde;
   Forthi mi lond leye lith and leorneth to slepe.
Seththe he mi feire feh fatte I my folde, 17
   When I thenk o mi weole wel neh I wepe.
Thus bredeth monie beggares bolde,
   And ure ruye ys roted and ruls er we repe. 18
Ruls ys oure ruye and roted in the stre,
   For wickede wederes by broke and by brynke.
Thus wakeneth in the world wondred and wee
   Ase god is swynden anon as so forte swynke. 19
upon earth; lamentation; (see note)
they are weary; their plowing
Good years; have gone away
(see note)
must work, there is no other way; (see note)
longer; my falsehoods; (see note)
(see note)
fourth penny; must go
complain to
hope to recover; are cast down
Whoso; doesn't expect
dearest [thing]; lose at last; (see note)
seized; [you] counted upon
(see note)
woodkeeper; branch; (see note)
wealth; repose
(see note)
He must needs waste away
(see note)
(see note)
they rob; (see note)
steal; (see note)
Their; people lie; lean (poor)
(see note)
Many; they bear themselves odiously; (see note)
credulity is taxed
falsehood fattens
quietly in; pace; sternly; (see note)
hunted; hall; corner; (see note)
Those who before wore
beadles; arrogance; (see note)
Prepare; (see note)
More; times; paid
roasted hens
lamprey; salmon; (see note)
"Forth to the market gains not cost" (Wr)
Though I should sell my halberd and my axe
must place my pledge well if
Or sell
Needs must I spend what I saved earlier
bristled as a boar
my dwelling strip
Bribery; offer; or
appointed day sell
coat (i.e., to the core); (see note)
They hunt us as; (see note)
hunts us as; hill; (see note)
(see note)
(see note)
escape but; caught
To obtain
think of my weal I nearly
breed many
Spoiled; rye; straw
bank; (see note)
dismay and woe
(see note)

Go To God Spede the Plough

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