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The Sinner's Lament


1 I spared neither maiden nor wife (a reference to his sexual rapaciousness)

2 we will never separate (i.e., the toads and snakes will always be with him)

3 Let them not condemn the poor for their faults (due to poverty)

4 And [may God give such grace to] every man of whatever rank


CCC Oxford, Corpus Christi College MS 237. [Base text.]
Adv MS Advocates 19.3.1.
L Lambeth Palace Library MS 560.
A MS Ashmole 61.
W Welles Anthology (MS Rawlinson C.813).
T Thornton MS (Lincoln Cathedral MS 91).

Among the MSS there is a great deal of variation. The following notes cite all variants except those of minor significance (such as orthographical or dialectal variation). The following table exhibits the number and order of the stanzas in each of the six extant MSS (a and b indicate halves of stanzas; * marks a variant stanza):

A-Text: CCC 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13

B-Text: A 1* 2 3 4* 9 [ ] 5 10 7 8 11 12 13
W 1 2 3 4* 9 [ ] 5 10 [7b] 8 11 12 13
T 1 [2a3a2b] 4* [9b] [ ] 5ba 10 7 8 [ ] 12* 13*
Adv 1 2 3 4* 9 [ ] 5 10 7 [ ] [ ] [ ] [ ]

Fragment: L 1 2 3a [ ] [ ] [ ] [ ] [ ] [ ] [ ] [ ] [ ] [ ]

1 Based on Lamentations 1.12, "O all ye that pass by the way, attend, and see if there be any sorrow like to my sorrow," which is used as part of the liturgy for Good Friday. The O vos omnes opening is conventional in medieval literature. See, for example, the Latin hymn Speculum peccatorum, and the epitaph stanza All Ye That Passe be Thys Holy Place (ed. Theodore Silverstein, Medieval English Lyrics [London, 1971], p. 123).

walkys. LAW: walke.

me by. A: by me.

3 Hit happith me noght. Adv: Hyt helpes me noder; L: It helpeth me not; A: It helpys not; W: Ytt bootes me nott; T: I beyd nother. On the impersonal usage of happen, the verb unique to CCC, see MED happen v.(1), sense 2.(c).

and. AdvLW: nor; A: ne; T: nor to. The CCC reading is possibly a
scribal error for nor or ne.

4 am. T: am so.

woofull. A: dollfole.

wight. In CCC the scribe wrote si and deleted it before this word.

After this line A inserts three spurious verses that identify by name and place the lamenting sinner:
Sometyme in Inglond duellyng
Thys was trew withouten lesyng
I was callyd Sir William Basterdfeld knyght.
The name appears to be allegorical: "the lord who, following his lecherous will, creates a field of bastards." The attribution helps to link Lament to The Adulterous Falmouth Squire, the next piece in A (fols. 107a-10a).

5 Beware by. W: Take hede to; T: Tayk heyd of.

both. Omitted in LT.

6 amend you. AdvT: mend yow; L: amend; W: mend yourselfe.

here. Omitted in AdvLAW. Here refers to the the world of the living, which the dead sinner is merely visiting. Space indicates time and physical dimension, parameters in which the living may act.

ye. Adv: that he.

7 For I have. W: Thys have I; T: Fore qwen ye. This line refers to "the recurrent verse and response in the burial liturgy, 'V: Requiem aeternum dona es Domine; R: Et lux perpetua luceat eis"' (Jansen and Jordan, p. 100).

8 Mercy is goon! I. A: And thus of mercy can I; T: Fro mercy be gone ye.

no. L: never.

9 yong, as nowe be ye. A: now as ye be; T: yowyng es now er ye. An instance of the ancient warning phrase Quod tu es, ego fui ("such as I am shall you be") common in funerary verse inscriptions; see Gray, pp. 200-20, and Woolf, pp. 401-04.

10 I kepyd. T: Than beyd I.

to have. Omitted in AdvLAWT.

oder. L: none other; W: better; T: a fayrer.

11 I. L: But.

spendid. AdvLW: spende; T: spent.

12 debate, and. A: bate and; T: and in. T (copied in quatrains) places lines 17-20 after this line.

13 they wer with me. AdvAW: with me wer; T: to me tha war. Compare the syntax of line 28. L omits this line.

14 grace. The word here has the sense of "self-knowledge, especially of one's sinfulness, as obtainable through God," a meaning defined at the end of the poem (line 101). The lamenting sinner could have availed himself of this grace (a knowledge of God and goodness that rested within him), but he neglected it — and thereby refused it — in his lifetime. Analogous definitions appear in an English prose treatise entitled De gracia dei, associated with Richard Rolle, which appears in the Thornton MS (fols. 240a-43a; ed. Horstmann, Yorkshire Writers, vol. 1 [London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1895], pp. 305-10).

for. L: me for; AW: me.

15 neyther. AdvW: noder; LA: nother; T: never noder.

ne. AdvLW: nor.

16 L substitutes a new line to complete the rhyme disrupted by the omission of line 13: The whiche hath broughte me to this lyfe.

hath. AdvT: hase (both T and Adv are in a northern dialect).

17 grace when. LAWT: hap(e) whyle; Adv: hape when.

18 For to arise. AdvW: For to ryse; T: To ryes. This is the last line that appears in L (where the text fills one folio side).

19 One of many lines that vary from MS to MS. The variant lines read:
Adv: Tull I was broght in a bere;
W: Tyll I was dede and leyd on beyre;
A: Tyll that I was brought on bere;
T: Now am I broght apon a beyre.
20 Then was. T: Itt ys.

I was. Adv: was I; W: sore was I; T: I am.

21 this. Adv: Yesd. The scribe of CCC often writes this for "thus." The spelling recurs at lines 30, 38, 61 (also in W), and 65. The form is well attested; see OED this adv.

21-24 T lacks these lines. A omits line 21 (disrupting the rhyme) and substitutes a new concluding line:
All wey with them I ame aweyde (= 22)
In fyre of hell I schall ever be brent (= 23)
Alas this werld hath me deseyvede (= 24)
Fore I had no grace me to amende.
22 I am conveyed. Adv: I ham avemede; W: thys am I wayvyde.

23 Two MSS have variant lines:
Adv: In halle ever my be brentt;
W: In hell evermore to be brente.

24 This. W: the.

disseyvid. Adv: defend.

25-32 Stanza 4 differs in B-Text, where the sinner's lechery receives prominence. A colorful last line, ending on had-I-wyst ("if only I had known") appears in this version, too, and in T an echoing link to the next line is created upon this word. Here is the variant stanza as it appears in Adv:
In lechere I lad my lyfe, (= 27/26)
For I hade gold and gud att wyll. (compare 40)
I schlue myselfe withowtyn a knyfe. (= 29)
Of glotene I had my fyll. (= 25)
In scloth I lye and sclepyd full styll. (compare 26)
I was desevud in a tryst,
Delfull deth dyd me kyll — (= 30)
Theyn was to late yf "I-had-wyst!" (AW: of had I wyst)
One may note the interesting verbal enactments of the sins evident in the two versions, taken together: the sinner "had his fill" of gluttony (A- and B-Texts), "lay and slept" in sloth (B-Text), and "loved to play" in lechery (A-Text). The original stanza may well have been some blend of these two versions. Compare a similar description of the vices in Harley Lyric 13, An Old Man's Prayer: Lechery was his mistress, Liar his interpreter, Sloth and Sleep his bedfellows, and so on (ed. G. L. Brook, The Harley Lyrics fourth ed. [Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1968], p. 47). The quatrain link in T is effective:
And all ys tornyd to adywyst
Add-Y-wyst yt wyll not bee. (substitutes for line 69)
27 Lechery. This word appears as an adjective elsewhere in ME. The MED cites Piers Plowman C. 7.194 (Huntington MS): "lecherye tales."

29 knyf. In CCC the scribe wrote ky and deleted it before this word.

30 deth. Here and at line 78 the word refers to spiritual death and damnation, a more frightening prospect than mere bodily death.

31 both man and wif. This address to an audience of both men and women does not appear anywhere in the other MSS (see note to lines 25-32).

32 Compare line 80 and its variants.

33 For when that. AdvA: For when; W: When. The variant line in T reads: Qwen I was yown and in my flowres. The B-Text follows a variant order from this point on. See the chart that appears at the beginning of these notes. In T lines 33-36 and lines 37-40 are reversed.

34 light. AdvWT: blythe. The bird-on-briar simile for carefree youth might be compared to The Bird with Four Feathers (line 9; see note), where such a bird has come to lament his losses much in the manner of this sinner.

on brere. Adv: ? in on bres.

35 Therfor I suffer. T: That garrys me.

here. W: mony; T: thes; omitted in A.

35-36 CCC reverses these two lines, causing a disruption in sense and rhyme; they appear in correct order in the other MSS.

36 bye. From AdvAWT; CCC: byes.

that. Adv: ? theth or thep; WT: thys.

wunder. From AdvAWT; CCC: under.

37 I abyde in. A: And byde in; W: I suffer. The variant line in T reads: Qwen I was lapyd in synnys seyre.

sere. Adv: fre.

38 Therfor this. AdvA: Therefor thus; W: Wherfore thys; T: Sore to yow.

39 For. Omitted in AdvAWT. The variant line in T reads: Ther meght me help no gud prayer.

help me. Adv: help; WT: me help(e).

40 For. Omitted in AdvAT.

gold. AdvAWT: go(o)d, gode, gud, a variant that verbally plays upon the idea of material goods becoming one's god. An echo of this line occurs in B-Text, stanza 4, second line (cited above, note to lines 25-32). There, the same variant appears in T: god and gude.

41-48 This stanza appears only in CCC. It completes the list of seven deadly sins begun in stanza 4.

48 This line, appearing only in the A-Text, repeats line 52.

49 had delite. A: sette my delyte; T: had gret delytt.

49-52 W lacks these lines.

50 And myghty. T: So had I.

wynes. Adv: wynn; T: wyne.

51 makes the. Adv: makes there; A: make this; T: garres thes.

52 Therfor my. Adv: An therffor my ; T: And ever ther.

53 fast. T: fast nor.

54 to amendyd me. Adv: I woll amend me; AW: to amend me; T: to amendyd.

55 I. Adv: And; W: Soo I.

drowe on forth. Adv: drof an furght; A: droffe ever forth; W: drove off; T: drave ever of.

56 abide. AdvAW: byd(e). Compare T: And now am I lokyk in a kage. The text in Adv, following B-Text order, ends on this line, the sinner immobile in his "cage."

57 Thys cage is. W: Thys cage ytt ys of; T: The kage yt be on.

everlastyng. T: byrnyng.

58 That I am ordeynd in. A: I ame ordeynd therin.

59 Hit is me gevyn. W: Ytt ys gevyn me; T: Thys have tha gyvyn me.

unto. A: fore; T: to.

60 bren. T: last.

fyre. AW: pytte; T: panes.

61 This am I. A: I ame.

fendes. A: the fendes; T: fendys so.

62 to. A: I. The other two MSS have variant lines:
W: And as a beest bounden in a stalle;
T: As qwo bynd besse into a stall.
63 care. T: woo. The visual image is of a gruesome, decomposing corpse, for the toads and snakes "lap" him both inside and outside his body, which is losing its former physical boundaries.

64 T seems to direct the admonition at gentlemen: Bywar, gud serys, of syche a fall.

65 am I. Adv: I ham.

65-68 T lacks these lines.

66 may. Adv: wyll.

67 gnawe. Adv: hnafe.

in and oute. AdvW: thoroowt. Compare A: I ame gnawyne my body aboute.

69 For the line substituted in T, see the note to lines 25-32.

70 I knowe that we will nevyr twyn. The variants read:
Adv: I know wele me ne mon ous tweyn;
A: I knaw welle women mour and mynne;
T: I wot I mune never more thweyn.
This line seems to have confused the scribes, who construed it several ways, but the reading in CCC and W makes the best sense. The body of the wretched sinner is now eternally intertwined with snakes, worms, and toads — and the corruption they symbolize. Adv is similar in meaning, and T is garbled. A substitutes a new line that stresses adultery (entirely out of context here, but appropriate, perhaps, when the poem is used as a prologue to Adulterous Falmouth Squire).

71 and. From AdvAWT; omitted in CCC.

72 Ryse up. AdvT: Ryse; AW: Aryse. Compare line 18. This line is written twice in T, at the end of a column. The concept of "rising up" against vice, of actively combatting sloth and the other sins, is central to the poet's idea of sin as something one falls into by nature, if one remains unaware and unvigilant. The fall into bodily sin is natural prelude to the spirit's fall into hell's fire. Christ's active dying for mankind works as contrast to man's innate sloth, and as an example for willed virtue. On the sin of sloth, see Wenzel, pp. 88-96.

73 be1. Omitted in T.

theym, whatever they be. A: th[e]i whosoever th[e]i be; W: them whatsooever they be; T: thes werever tha bee. These words in all versions imply that the warning is aimed at persons of all ranks, but line 77 suggests that the poorest class (those who would need alms and are not to be oppressed) is somehow outside of the injunction.

74 wittes. T: inwyttes.

at. From AdvAW; CCC: and (an ampersand, easily confused with at); T: to. Compare the same phrase (a commonplace) in the B-Text, stanza 4, 2nd line (cited above, note to lines 25-32).

75 And. T: That.

75-79 The speaker lists four injunctions for his auditors: to take to heart his message as a potent warning, to distinguish good from evil, not to harm the poor, and not to follow one's fleshly desires.

example take by. AdvW: bewarre by; A: bewer be; T: now tayk tent to.

77 The pore for faute lat theym not spill. W and T have variant lines:
W: Lett never the pore for faute spyll;
T: Pure for fawt ye lat not spyll.
The provision for the poor is stated negatively: Do not condemn (or kill) them for their faults. For a similar sentiment about how the wealthy ought not to oppress the poor, who in turn should not rise up, see Lydgate's envoy to The Debate of the Horse, Goose, and Sheep, ed. Henry Noble MacCracken, The Minor Poems of John Lydgate, part 2, EETS o.s. 192 (1934; rpt. London: Oxford University Press, 1961), pp. 563-65.

78 The rhetorical shift from third-person (theym) to second-person (ye) is startling and effective.

79 Your fflesly lust you not fufill. The B-Text variants are:
AdvA: Yowr fals flese yow nott fullfyll;
W: Ye shal be jugged ageynst your wyll;
T: The lust of yowr fleych wyl never fulfylle.
80 For then with Lucyfer shall ye light. Compare line 32 (A-Text only). The B-Text variants are:
Adv: Leyst with Lucifere that ye lygth;
A: Lost with Lucyfere fro the lyght;
W: Frome the place of everlastyng lyght;
T: Bywar in Luscefer not at the lyght.
81 gotyn. A: borne. On the wish never to have been born, compare Pety Job, lines 625-28.

81-88 T lacks this stanza.

84 And ever to abide in endles woo. A and W have variant lines:
A: And abyde in everlastyng wo;
W: Soo shall I byde everlastyng woo.
85 frendes. A: frend.

86 Behold howe I am all totorne. A and W have variant lines:
A: Behold me how that I ame tourne;
W: Beholde and see howe I am lorne.
87 They rif me this ffrom. A: Fore I ame rente fro; W: They reve me from the.

89 Good brother. W: Good ffrendes; T: Gentyll brother. W changes the singular second-person pronouns in lines 91, 95, 97, 99, 100, and 101 to plurals. The first and last lines address a plural audience, but all texts except W particularize the admonition to one "brother" listener.

this eft. A: me; W: itt; omitted in T.

90 And thynk that. A: And thinke how; T: Hyen qwen.

die awey. AW: dye alwaye; T: weynd away.

91 Unto thy. A: And to; T: To thi.

thy soule. W: your sollys.

be not. WT: be never.

92 hit. W: thys; T: that.

93 And. Omitted in AW.

thou. W: you doo.

93-96 T has a different version:
Full derly to hym that ye pray
To hym that was don apon a tre
To safe yowr sallis on dowymysday
Qwen all salles savyd mon be.
94 Besechyng Hym that is. A: And beseke thou.

95 the1. W: you.

at. A: on.

the2. AW: that.

96 soule. The CCC scribe wrote and deleted bod before this word. A maintains male gender: That every man shall gyffe rekenyng. The usage agrees with the last stanza.

geve. W: make.

97 Ther is no man for the shall pray. The variants read:
A: Fore ther no lordes schall fore the praye;
W: Ther shall noo lordes ffor you praye;
T: Than may ther na luyd men for yow mute.
Only CCC uses the classless term man. A and W state the uselessness of having noblemen of worldly wealth and power pray for a lost sinner, and T dismisses the petitions of "lewd" (ignorant) men. On the uselessness of earthly judicial power before the Supreme Judge, compare The Four Leaves of the Truelove, stanza 35.

97-104 The last stanza returns to three themes introduced in the second stanza: (1) "debate," or legal quarreling; (2) accepting God's grace to amend oneself spiritually; and (3) coming to an end (previously, it was the sinner's fate in hell; now, it is the end of the sinner's speech — and, with it, a warning about the reader's imminent end).

98 Nother . . . ne. A: Ne . . . nother; WT: Noo . . . nor noo.

99 Thy charter helpith the not. A: Ther charter helpys the not; W: Your charter shall nott helpe.

that day. So all MSS except T; the CCC scribe wrote and deleted an hawe and interlined that day.

99-101 T reads:
Fore and tha tha be no buyt
Ther charter wyll not preyf worthe a hawe
Thus every man ye tayk gud tent.
100 Thy. A: There; W: Your.

an. W: a.

101 the . . . thyself. W: you . . . yourselffe.

grace. See note to line 14.

knowe. Original of this word and blowe (line 103) may have been Northern forms knawe and blawe to rhyme with lawe and hawe. These forms do not appear in any of the MSS.

102 And. Omitted in T.

103 Farewell. W: Adewe; T: Me thynk. The sounding horn is a spectral call to the dead or dying. Compare the end of The Parlement of the Thre Ages, lines 654-56 (ed. M. Y. Offord, EETS o.s. 246 [London: Oxford University Press, 1959]); the words of Tutivillus in the Wakefield play The Judgement, "My horne is blawen" (The Towneley Plays, ed. Martin Stevens and A. C. Cawley, EETS s.s. 13, vol. 1 [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994], p. 410); and the warning from a dying man, "I sey no more but beware of ane horne!" in Farewell, This World, line 21 (ed. Carleton Brown, Religious Lyrics of the XVth Century [Oxford: Clarendon, 1939], p. 237). Woolf believes that a larger narrative may once have enclosed Sinner's Lament: "the speaker bids farewell on the blowing of a horn, as though this were a return from the dead made to a specific person as in so many exempla" (p. 319).

an. WT: a.

104 A: I may no lenger byde with the.

All Cristen men that walkys me by,
Behold and see this dolefull sight!
Hit happith me noght to call and crye,
For I am dampned a woofull wight.
Beware by me, both kyng and knyght,
And amend you here while ye have space,
For I have lost everlastyng light —
Mercy is goon! I gete no grace.
When I was yong, as nowe be ye,
I kepyd never to have oder lif;
I spendid my yeres in vanité,
In veynglory, debate, and strif.
Gret othis they wer with me full rif;
I had no grace for to amend;
I sparid neyther maydyn ne wif; 1
And that hath brought me to this end.
I had no grace when I was here
For to arise and me repent
Unto the tyme that I lay on bere —
Then was to late, for I was shent!
This ffendes ffell they have me hent,
Awey with them I am conveyed —
In balefull fire I shal be brent!
Alas! This world hath me disseyvid!
Of gloteny I had my ffyll;
In slewith alwey I led my lif;
Lechery pley I lovid full well;
All synnes in me they war full rif!
I slewe myself withoutyn knyf!
Dolefull deth this hath me dight.
Beware by me, both man and wif,
Lest that ye with Lucifer light.
For when that I was in my fflouris,
Then was I light as bird on brere!
Therfor I suffer here sharp showris,
And bye that bargeyn wunder dere —
I abyde in paynes many and sere!
Therfor this I make my mone,
For nowe may help me no prayer,
For I had no god but gold alone.
Example take ye all at me
Of your mysdedes for to amend!
Ther was no vice that ever myght be
But part of theym I had an ende -
My pride and wreth myght ever be kend;
Envy and covetise lovyd I ay!
Nowe it is wors than I wend!
Therfor my song is "Well-a-wey!"
In delicat metes I had delite,
And myghty wynes unto my pay;
That makes the wormys on me to bite —
Therfor my song is "Well-a-wey!"
I myght not fast. I wold not pray.
I thought to amendyd me in myn age.
I drowe on forth from day to day.
Therfor I abide here in this cage!
This cage is everlastyng fire
That I am ordeynid in to dwell.
Hit is me gevyn unto my hire,
Evyr to bren in the fyre of hell.
This am I feterd with fendes fell,
And ther to abide as best in stall.
Ther is no tonge my care can tell —
Beware ye have not such a fall!
This am I lappid all aboute
With todys and snakes, as ye may see;
They gnawe my body in and oute —
Alas! Alas! Full woo is me!
Hit is to late! It will not be!
I knowe that we will nevyr twyn! 2
For Hym that died for you and me,
Ryse up and rest not in your synne!
Woo be to theym, whatever they be,
That hath ther five wittes at will,
And will not example take by me,
And knowe the good from the ill.
The pore for faute lat theym not spill - 3
For and ye do, your deth is dight;
Your fflesly lust you not fulfill,
For then with Lucyfer shall ye light!
Alas, that ever I gotyn was,
Or modyr me bare! Whi did she soo?
For I am lost for my trespas,
And ever to abide in endles woo!
I have no frendes, but many a foo!
Behold howe I am all totorne —
They rif me this ffrom toppe to too!
Alas, that ever was I borne!
Good brother, have this eft in mynd,
And thynk that thou shall die awey:
Unto thy soule be not unkynd.
Remembyr hit both nyght and day.
And besely loke that thou praye,
Besechyng Hym that is Hevyn Kyng
To save the at the dredefull day,
When every soule shall geve rekenyng.
Ther is no man for the shall pray,
Nother justice ne man of lawe.
Thy charter helpith the not that day.
Thy pletyng is not worth an hawe.
God geve the grace thyself to knowe,
And every man in his degré. 4
Farewell! I here an horne blowe.
All Cristyn men, beware by me!
walk by me; (see note)
It is no use to me; (see note)
damned; creature; (see note)
(see note)
opportunity; (see note)
(see note)
(see note)
(see note)
imagined; a different; (see note)
spent; (see note)
quarrel; (see note)
oaths; numerous; (see note)
(see note)
(see note)
(see note)
fair occasion; (see note)
(see note)
Until; bier; (see note)
too; ruined; (see note)
Thus; wicked fiends; taken; (see note)
(see note)
painful; shall be burnt; (see note)
deceived; (see note)
gluttony; (see note)
Lecherous; (see note)
(see note)
Grief-inflicting; assailed; (see note)
(see note)
alight (i.e., end up); (see note)
youthful prime; (see note)
briar; (see note)
afflictions; (see note)
pay dearly for that bargain; (see note)
various; (see note)
thus; complaint; (see note)
(see note)
(see note)
from; (see note)
I made my goal
wrath; known
cupidity; always
(see note)
foods; (see note)
strong; pleasure; (see note)
(see note)
(see note)
(see note)
to [have] amended; old age; (see note)
carried on; (see note)
(see note)
(see note)
destined; (see note)
given to me as my reward; (see note)
burn; (see note)
Thus; fettered by; (see note)
beast; (see note)
(see note)
(see note)
Thus; (see note)
toads; (see note)
(see note)
(see note)
(see note)
(see note)
(see note)
whatever rank; (see note)
senses; (see note)
(see note)
And will not know
(see note)
For if; appointed; (see note)
(see note)
(see note)
begotten; (see note)
mother bore me
will forever abide; (see note)
completely torn; (see note)
rip me thus; toe; (see note)
hereafter; (see note)
(see note)
(see note)
(see note)
actively; (see note)
(see note)
you; (see note)
give an account [of its sins]; (see note)
(see note)
Neither; (see note)
(see note)
Thy legal pleading is worthless; (see note)
(see note)
(see note)
(see note)
(see note)