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Complaint of a Prisoner in the Fleet 1463: Introduction


1 Meyer-Lee summarizes Ashby's career and the probable circumstances of his imprisonment, pp. 699- 700.

2 Meyer-Lee defines only three parts: Prohemium, Ad sustinendum pacienciam in adversis, and Envoy (p. 701).

3 From Active Policy of a Prince, lines 2-7, ed. Bateson.

4 See Meyer-Lee, pp. 702-05.

5 For the "Hammond Scribe," see most recently (summarizing earlier scholarship) Linne R. Mooney, "A New Manuscript by the Hammond Scribe Discovered by Jeremy Griffiths," in The English Medieval Book: Studies in Memory of Jeremy Griffiths, ed. A. S. G. Edwards, Vincent Gillespie, and Ralph Hanna (London: British Library, 2000), pp. 113-23. Michael Livingston has noted that fol. 42, comprising lines 71-140 of the present poem, is written in a different, previously unnoted hand; see "A Sixth Hand in Cambridge, Trinity College MS R.3.19."
To anyone who has read the poetry of Chaucer, or indeed of any number of other late-medieval English poets, George Ashby's poem will provide the repeated delight of recognition of images and topoi that were the common property of all poets: the opening seasonal description, the Boethian prison, his former good fortune, the usefulness of adversity, the transitoriness of this world, the pilgrimage of life, Fortune's wheel, and so on. Modern readers may object to reading the same idea twice, but medieval writers gloried in their borrowings, or, more accurately, their new presentations of old material. Each new piece was appreciated as a new setting. The stones were of great value; the ring the jeweler made showed them off to best advantage. So it was with concepts, images, verse forms, and all kinds of rhetorical modes and techniques. Ashby (who names Chaucer, Gower, and Lydgate as his models, the "primier poetes of this nacion," see below) is a good example of this approach to reading and writing medieval poetry because, half a century after his poetic mentors, he is still in possession of the same hoard of poetic jewels they set in their own works.

George Ashby (c. 1390-1475) is commonly thought of as a writer of political verse, or at least as a writer involved in the politics of his day, an involvement that shows through the ostensible purpose of his work (lament on being imprisoned, general advice to accept such vicissitudes with patience). He tells us pointedly of his long tenure as clerk of the Signet Office under Henry VI and his queen, Margaret of Anjou (lines 64-65). Ashby seems to have been Lancastrian enough in his sympathies to arouse the concern of the Yorkists under Edward IV, who had him imprisoned. 1 But, in fact, in spite of its apparent historical circumstance, Ashby's poem is more thoroughly "literary," in the sense of calling up literary models and tropes, than it is political.

The poem is divided into five parts: 2
1. The Prohemium Unius Prisonarij, or Introduction (lines 1-35): A seasonal scene-setting followed by a short statement of the poet's predicament: he, George Ashby, has been thrown into prison and deprived of his goods and estates, which misery he will endure with patience, God willing.

2. The Lamentacio prisonarij and spoliacio, or Complaint (lines 36-119): Here he expands on his sufferings, including his abandonment by his friends and his utter impoverishment. He enlarges on his only hope, God Himself. He is not yet reconciled to his fate, however, and starts over, recounting the events that led up to his predicament from his early youth, protesting repeatedly his innocence of any wrongdoing. His interim conclusion is that he will learn to suffer patiently in order to profit his soul. He determines to write about this, in spite of his lack of rhetorical skills.

3. The Body, or Lesson (lines 120-308): He begins with an apostrophe to mankind, evoking the opening of Boethius' Consolation in the first stanza. His primary lesson, that suffering purifies the soul and makes it more pleasing to God, is more Christian than Boethian, as is evidenced by his calling up the names of Jesus, Mary, John the disciple, John the Baptist, and finally Job (this last, the only Old Testament figure, is by implication the present model of his own suffering). He concludes this section (lines 281-308) by "proving" that riches come, "nat by labour / Oonly, but to hym that God lyst shew [decides to show] favour" (lines 293-94), and he ends with a prayer.

4. L'envoy, or Leave-taking (lines 309-43): The end is not the end, however, as Ashby adds an envoy (literally a "sending off"), which, as is usual, begins with an address to the work ("Go . . . ," as in the ending to Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde). This provides the opportunity for the author to display once again his humility ("I am no clerk" [i.e., not educated, line 316]) and to request correction by future readers, and their prayers. The fact that this section closes with the sort of valediction common to medieval letters (a kind of literary "signature"), including the date, suggests that the poem was written as a supplication for mercy from the powerful lord (or king?) who had imprisoned him.

5. The Explicit, or Closing (lines 344-50): The explicit is a tacked-on proverbial coda from which his lesson of patience is surprisingly absent.
Other works Ashby is known to have composed include Active Policy of a Prince and Dicta et opiniones diversorum philosophorum (Dicts and Sayings of Various Philosophers), which may be two parts of one work. The former (918 lines written in rhyme royal stanzas) offers advice intended, according to the Latin preface to the poem, for the eldest son of Henry VI (Edward, prince of Wales). Though not a great one, Ashby clearly considered himself a poet of some talent. In the prologue to Policy, he names John Gower, Geoffrey Chaucer, and John Lydgate as the
   Primier poetes of this nacion,
Embelysshing oure englisshe tendure algate,
   Firste finders to our consolacion
   Off Fresshe, douce englisshe and formacion
      Of newe balades, not vsed before
      By whome we all may haue lernyng and lore.3

[sweet; composition]
He laments their deaths and prays for their souls. All this is a way of introducing himself, aged eighty, and repeating the topos of the unworthy poetic follower of former greatness. (He does not mention the poet Thomas Hoccleve, though he may well have known his poetry.) 4 However, when he claims that his English is poor ("thaugh all thynges be nat made perfyte / Nor swetely englisshed to youre pleasance, / I byseche you hertely to excuse it," Policy, lines 36-38), that he is not much of a poet ("I have no termes of eloquence," Complaint, line 116), that he has no experience in writing poetry ("I haue of makynge [composing] none assurance, / Nor of balades haue experience," Policy, lines 40-41), and that he has not read much ("I haue not seien scripture [writing] / Of many bookes right sentenciall [serious], / In especial of the gloses [commentaries] sure," Policy, lines 50-52), we can be quite sure that he is showing off his skills at these topoi, not expressing his humility.

The idea of poetry in the fifteenth century was inseparable from that of translation. Chaucer was lauded as much for his reputation as a great translator as for that as a great poet. Ashby in his turn undertakes to translate a Latin text, the Dicta et opiniones diversorum philosophorum, a collection of versified proverbial material in Latin translated into 1263 lines of rhyme royal verse. (Short paragraphs of Latin prose alternate with single stanzas of English, yet another example of the medieval love of works in mixed forms, all, perhaps, intended to follow his Policy and be part of it.) Nor was he the only translator of this text, which, like Boethius' Consolation, was translated repeatedly. It is worth noting that in all his surviving work he wrote in the same form: rhyme royal.

Manuscript Context

The Complaint of a Prisoner in the Fleet 1463 (IMEV 437) survives in only one manuscript, Trinity College, Cambridge MS R.3.19, an anthology of vernacular poetry from the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, primarily written by a scribe who worked with the "Hammond Scribe" and thus datable approximately to the reign of Edward IV (1461-83).5 Ashby's poem (fols. 41r-45v) follows an English version in rhyme royal of the tale of Guiscardo and Ghismonda, taken from Boccaccio's Decameron (day 4, tale 1) and is followed by a series of blanks (46r-48v), suggesting that the copyist felt that these two items belonged together. The Boccaccio story involves the imprisonment and death of a lady's lover by a cruel father, her own ensuing suicide, and the father's death (presumably because of his evil actions). John Scattergood places the poem in the "Chaucerian and Lydgatian tradition of English high-style writing." He suggests that the "wrongful imprisonment" of Ashby fits well with this tale of innocence wronged and was placed next to it intentionally.

Our editorial procedure for Ashby's poem differs slightly from that used in the other poems in this volume (see General Introduction). While we transcribed on, with a macron over the n, as oun in other instances, here we have regarded this mark as otiose and ignored it on the basis of internal spelling practices and the very convincing final stanza where expansion of such marks would affect the rhyme (thereon in line 345 has no macron over the n, while the rhyme words castigacion and probacion in lines 347-48 do). More problematic has been the treatment of curled r, which we have expanded to re in all instances but two: modyr (line 14) and other (line 36).

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Select Bibliography

Previous Editions

Bateson, Mary, ed. George Ashby's Poems. EETS e.s. 76. Suffolk, UK: Richard Clay, 1899. Pp. 1-12.

Förster, Max. "George Ashby's Trost in Gefangenschaft." Anglia 20 (1898), 139-52.

Holthausen, Ferdinand. "Ashby-studien, II, III." Anglia 45 (1921), 77-104.


Dictionary of National Biography. S.v. Ashby, George (d. 1475).

Otway-Ruthven, Annette Jocelyn. The King's Secretary and the Signet Office in the XV Century. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1939. Pp. 76-77, 119-20, 132, 135, 139-42, 157-59, and 185.

Critical Studies

Boffey, Julia. "Chaucerian Prisoners: The Context of The Kingis Quair." In Boffey and Cowen, 1991. Pp. 84-102, especially 88-89.

Bühler, Curt. "The Liber de Dictis Philosophorum antiquorum and Common Proverbs in George Ashby's Poems." PMLA 65 (1950), 282-89.

Lawton, David. "Dullness and the Fifteenth Century." ELH 54 (1987), 761-99, especially 767, 772-75.

Meyer-Lee, Robert J. "Laureates and Beggars in Fifteenth-Century English Poetry: The Case of George Ashby." Speculum 79 (2004), 688-726.

Scattergood, V. J. Reading the Past: Essays on Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Ed. V. J. Scattergood. Blackrock: Four Courts Press, 1996.

---. "The Date and Composition of George Ashby's Poems." Leeds Studies in English 21 (1990), 167-76. Rpt. in Scattergood, 1996. Pp. 258-65.

---. "George Ashby's Prisoner's Reflections and the Virtue of Patience." Nottingham Medieval Studies 37 (1993), 102-09. Rpt. in Scattergood, 1996. Pp. 266-74.

---. Politics and Poetry in the Fifteenth Century, 1399-1485. London: Blandford Press, 1971.

Other Works Cited

Jeffrey, David Lyle. A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1992.

Livingston, Michael. "A Sixth Hand in Cambridge, Trinity College MS R.3.19." Journal of the Early Book Society 8 (2005). Forthcoming.

Mooney, Linne R. "Scribes and Booklets of Trinity College, Cambridge, MSS R.3.19 and R.3.21." In Middle English Poetry: Texts and Traditions: Essays in Honour of Derek Pearsall. Ed. Alistair Minnis. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell & Brewer, 2001. Pp. 241-66.

Sutton, Anne F., and Livia Visser-Fuchs. "The Provenance of the Manuscript: The Lives and Archive of Sir Thomas Cook and His Man of Affairs, John Vale." In Margaret Lucille Kekewich, et al. The Politics of Fifteenth-Century England: John Vale's Book. Stroud, UK: Alan Sutton, 1995. Pp. 73-123.