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Complaint of a Prisoner Against Fortune


1 When men believe [themselves] to be safe, you make them fall

2 Lines 15-16: I know full well that you have taken lords, princes, and kings in their good fortune and overthrown them more severely [than me]

3 Lines 20-21: But yet I pray to you, in some way, / So [that you might] turn your wheel that I might once arise

4 Saturn or Mars, I think I may know it [is one of them]

5 "For truly the greatest virtue of character is always patience"

6 Lines 38-39: It is necessary for him who would be saved / To suffer adversity in this world before he dies

7 "Be strong in spirit since you will be condemned unjustly"


11 In classical mythology, weather originated with the winds, principally Boreas and Zephirus, that came out of a cavern in Thrace (here called "the winds' mouth"). According to some authors these winds were ruled over or set loose by the god Aeolus.

36 God chastiseth whom He lovith. Hebrews 12:6.

44 thi sustres thre. The Fates or Parcae, the daughters of Night: Clotho spins the thread of life, Lachesis measures it out, and Atropos cuts it. (See individual notes at lines 47, 55, and 57 below). James I refers to the second, Lachesis, in The Kingis Quair, lines 170-73, perhaps drawing from the complaint of Chaucer's Troilus in a similar circumstance (TC 3.733-34). In Ballade 74 (Fortunes Stabilnes, lines 2534-39), Charles d'Orléans laments his fate thus:
. . . Antropos, <at> ones thy dewte fecche
And with the deth almes me, poor wrecche.

Thus ay diyng y lyue and neuyr deed -
O lacchesse, to longe thou makist thred!
Als flex to moche doth Cloto to <hir> recche.
O onys with deth almes me, poore wrecche!
once; do your duty
give me the gift

ever; dead

     you make the string too long
Charles ends there, but this poet uses his complaint against fate to express his desire to put his soul into the hands of God.

71-74 Compare Ashby's complaint at lines 78-84.

91 The story of Narcissus and Echo is told by the French poet Guillaume de Lorris in his extremely influential work, RR. In Chaucer's translation, it occupies lines 1469-1538 (A fragment). Narcissus was a beautiful youth who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool and pined away and died because his love could not be fulfilled (the flower, which often grows near water, is named after him). Echo loved him and was so stricken with grief at his rejection of her that she, too, pined away until there was nothing left of her but her voice, which always repeats the last words spoken by others. (In another version of the story, it was the god Pan who rejected her.) In BD, Chaucer writes that "Ecquo died for Narcisus / Nolde nat love hir" ("Echo died because Narcissus would not love her," lines 735-36), using this as a reply in an argument with Fortune, which involves an elaborate chess metaphor (see line 103, below). The speaker in this work says only that Echo knows of his sadness, can understand it, and can bear witness to it: that is, he complains alone so that only Echo hears (and responds).

92-98 The story of the woman taken in adultery is told in John 8:3-11. In an unusual rhetorical move, the prisoner claims to be as innocent as she, for the purpose of casting blame on his accusers before God.

103 Deth sayth "Chekmate!" Chess was popular among the wealthy and educated all over Europe in the late Middle Ages, perhaps another indication that the author traveled in fairly sophisticated circles. The image of playing a game of chess with Death was not uncommon, either in literature or in art. Charles d'Orléans' lover plays chess with both Death (Ballade 60) and Daunger [the lady's restraint] (Ballade 61).

114 feyned goddis and goddessis. Compare TC 5.1849-53.

115 The only way to "defy" fortune and fate (i.e., this "unstable" world) is to put your faith in God.

120 In interpreting Canticle of Canticles (Song of Songs), a biblical text that seems to tell an erotic love story, early medieval interpreters identified the "bride" (or spouse) of the text with the Church (i.e., the entire body of Christians) and the bridegroom or lover with Christ.

133 The Virgin Mary, who offers protection by covering the sinner with a loose fold of her clothing. The image frequently appears in medieval art, as if Mary's robe were a protective aegis for Christians who invoke her aid.


Abbreviations: H: British Library MS Harley 2251 (fols. 271r-273r) [base text]; A: British Library MS Additional 34360 (fols. 19r-21v); R: British Library MS Harley 7333 (fols. 30va-31ra).

1 Allas, Fortune. R: FOrtune alas.

3 thus to have me spilt. R: to have thus yspylt.

5 This line missing in both H and A; supplied from R.

6 as the. R: as is the.

9 west. H, A omit; supplied from R.

10 in oone. R: now.

12 is. R: is sechen.

13 there. R: where.

14 to slyde. R: slide.

15 that. A, R: both.

princis. A, R: prince. R's reading"or this" requires the other meaning of wele as"well" to modify worse.

16 in his. R: or this.

18 laughest. H: l written over h.

20 I thee pray, in. R: I pray that in.

21 thy. A: the.

21-22 Between lines 21 and 22, R inserts another stanza, not found in the other two MSS:
Why nad I rather died an Innocent
Or seke in bed ful ofte whan I have layn
Than had my name be paired not ne shent
Better hit had be so . than thus to have me slayn
But what to stryve with thee it may not geyn
And yit thou wotest I suffre and shame [sic]
ffor that / that I god wote am not to blame
22 now. R omits.

24 Saturnus . . . Mars. These proper names are underscored in H, along with other"key" figures in the poem: Cloto (line 47), Lachesis (line 55), Antropos (line 57), and Ekko (line 91).

26 a. R omits.

29 Fortune. H, A omit; supplied from R.

31 in this wise. R: of this vyce.

32 afore wrought. R: forwrought.

34 Thee for to gladde. R: Therfore be glad for.

36 wele. R: wele eke.

37 He graunte thee to be. R: the graunt be.

38 Who. R: Eke who.

39 To suffre. R: Suffre.

43 Prisoner. Omitted in all MSS. Inserted to indicate change of speaker.

43 Fortune. R: fortune than.

44 now wil I as to. R: will I now to.

49 that I die. R: dey I.

53 som other. R: othir.

55, 57 Lachesis, Antropos. See note to line 24.

62 to yeve. R: yeve.

63 I hens passe. R: I pace.

65 eke. R: all my.

68 This line missing in both H and A; supplied from R.

70 goode. A omits.

and lith ful. R: full still &.

72 where that. R: where.

73 sayde that. R: seid than that.
hym. R: hem.

76 sayde he wold. R: seid wold.

77 chese to. R omits.

78 nat oones. R: onys not.

86 of my care. R: me of care.

87 of joye I have. R: I have of joy.

88 blisse, farewele. A: blisse farawel; R: blys & al.

91 me. So R. H, A: no. The variant no in H and A may reflect the sense that Echo cannot bear witness since it is only repeating a sound. See line 24 on underscoring of Echo in H.

103 al day. H omits.
Deth sayth. A: saith deth.

104 alwey here. R: here alway.

106 this. R: thus the.

108 that. R omits.

111 I wil. R: wille I.

112 wrongly. R: wrongfully.

116 wrought. A, R: bought.

117 hath. R: ever have.

118 wil reles. A: wil Releve Reles; R: wold relesse.

119 I pray. R: yit pray I.

120 His. R: thi.

122 for to be. A, R: to be.

123 of. A, R omit.

125 Lord. R: oo lord.

127 to. H omits.

131 whan. A: whan that.

132 that. H: than.

136 hath. R omits.

138 ay thow. R: at.





























Allas, Fortune, alas, what have I gilt
In prison thus to lye here desolate?
Artow the better thus to have me spilt?
Nay, nay, God wote, but for thow wilt debate
With every wight, either erly or late,
And art chaungeable eke as the mone:
From wele to woo thow bryngest a man ful soone.

For like a whele that tournyth ay aboute
Now up, now downe, now est, west, north, and sowth,
So farestow in oone; thow dryvest in and oute
As don these weders out of the wyndes mowth!
In thee no trust is, thow art so selcowth
And canst never stille there abide.
Whan men wene siker to be, thow makest hem to slyde.1

I wote ful wele that lordis, princis, and kyng
Thow hast in his weele worse i-overthrowe.2
Thy condicioun is ever so varyeng
That now thow laughest and now thow makest a mowe.
Allas, Fortune, who may thee trust and trowe?
But yit I thee pray, in som maner wise,
So torne thy whele that I may ones arise.3

But whom along it wore, now wolde I wite,
That wrongfully I ly thus in prisoun:
Saturnus or Mars, I trowe I may it wite,4
Or som infortunate constellacioun.
But this I wote, as for a conclusioun,
Be it by destyné or fortunate chaunce,
In prison here I suffre moche myschaunce.

Peas of thy wordis, that are both lewde and nyce!
Wenistow that God chastisith thee for nought?
Though thow be giltles, I graunt wele, in this wise,
It is for synnes that thow hast afore wrought,
That now perauntre ful litel are in thi thought.
Thee for to gladde it is iwreten thus:
Maxima etenim morum semper paciencia virtus.5

Thow wotist wele God chastiseth whom He lovith,
That of His grace He graunte thee to be oon of tho
Who that wilbe saved, hym behovith
To suffre in this world adversité or he go:6
Thus fortune grace wynne for present woo.
The best conceyt that I can gyve thee,
Esto forti animo cum sis dampnatus inique.7

Farwele, Fortune, and do right as thee list!
Compleyne now wil I as to thi sustres thre
That whan I crept out of my moders chist,
Forthwith anon they shoope my destyné.
Cloto, com forth; what seystow? Late se.
Wiltow no lenger the state of my lif holde
Or be my yeeris comen up that I die shuld?

If it be so the nombre of my dayes
Be comen up, that I may nat hem passe,
Why ne had I than by other maner wayes
Ordeyned me to dye in som other place,
And nat in prison? Is there non other grace?
Wil Lachesis my threde no lengger twyne?
Bestire thee, than, and al my sorwis fyne.

And Antropos, that makith an end of al,
Cutte of the threde - wherto wiltow tarye? -
And help me hens, sith I nedis shal,
That men to chirche my corps myght carye;
And my soule to God and Seynt Marie
I now betake, and pray hem to yeve me space
My rightes al to receyve or I hens passe.

The worst of al, that grevith me so sore,
Is that my fame is lost, and eke goode loos,
And spredith wide, ever lenger the more,
As wele among my friendis as my foos;
For wykked sclaundre will in no wise be close,
But with the wynges of envy fleeth aloft
Thereas goode loos slepith and lith ful soft.

Whan I was fre and in bounchief at ease,
In company over al where that I went,
No man sayde that I did hym displease,
Ne worthy was nothyng to be shent;
And thus with faire wordes was I blent;
And he that sayde he wold me never faile,
I myght for hym chese to synke or saile.

They wold me nat oones yeve a draught of drynk,
Ne say, "Friend, wiltow ought with me?"
The soth is saide, suche frendship soone doth synk
That from his friend fleeth in adversité
And wil nat abide but in prosperité.
Suche feyned friendis, Lord, ther be ful many.
Fy on theyr flateryng! They are nat worth a peny!

I have no friende that wil me now visite
In prison here, to comfort of my care.
Of sorow inowgh, of joye I have but lite.
Farewele my blisse, farewele my welfare!
To telle my sorwe my wittes bien al bare.
There is no man can telle myn hevynesse
Save only Ekko, that can bere me witnesse.

Now and oure Lord, the kyng of blisse, Jhesus,
Shuld with His fynger here on erth write
Amonges hem that me accusen thus,
I trowe they wold on me have litel dispite,
And with theyr mowthis say right lite;
No more than diden the men that soughten wreche
Upon the womman that taken was in spouse-breche.

Fy on this world; it is but fantasie!
Swerte is none, in no degré ne state:
As wele a kyng as a knave shal dye,
Nat witeng where nor whan, erly nor late!
Whan men beth myrriest, al day Deth sayth, "Chekmate!"
There is no man shal alwey here abide:
The richest man eke from his goode shal slyde.

Than best is this world to sette at nought
And mekely suffre al adversité
That may us availe of synnes that we have wrought,
In mede encresyng or relesyng, pardé,
Of peynes whiche in Purgatory be.
And so I wil be glad, so God me save,
To soeffre men me wrongly to deprave.

There is no more, I se now at ie;
These feyned goddis and goddessis availe right nought.
Fortune and eke thi sustres I defye,
For I wil go to Hym that me hath wrought,
To whom I pray and hath besowght
My synnes al that he wil reles;
And furthermore I pray or I cease

Al Holy Chirche, that is His verray spowse,
Benyngne Lord, kepe from al damage;
And make thy people for to be vertuous
Thee for to serve in every maner of age
With fervent love and hertis hole corage;
And al that erre, Lord, in any side,
Or Thow do right, late mercy be theyr guyde.

And stidefastly Thow make us to persevere
In verray feyth, and Holi Chirche beleve,
And us to blisse brynge that lasstyth evere,
And Marie us helpe, both morwe and eve,
And of this world whan we take oure leve,
Or that the Fiende oure soulis than be-trappe,
Help, blisful qwene, and kovere us with thy lappe.

Late nat be spilt that thy Sone dere hath bought
Upon the Crosse with deth and woundes smert;
And namly hym that his synnes hath forthought
Here in this lif with meke and contrite hert,
And thee of grace to aske, ay thow up-stert.
Now, lady swete, I can no more now sey,
But rewe on me and help me whan I dey. Amen.
done wrong; (t-note)

Are you; killed; (t-note)
knows, except
person; (t-note)
also; moon; (t-note)
good fortune; in short time

wheel; turns always
So do you all at once; (t-note)
weathers; (see note)
uncanny (various); (t-note)
unmoving; (t-note)


grimace; (t-note)
believe in

whose fault it is; I wish I knew; (t-note)

know; (t-note)
misfortune (affliction)

Cease; ignorant and foolish; (t-note)
Do you think; nothing
guiltless; well, in this matter; (t-note)
done before; (t-note)
cheer; written; (t-note)

You know well; (see note); (t-note)
those; (t-note)
may earn grace

just as you wish; (t-note)
three sisters; (see note); (t-note)
chest (womb)
Immediately; shaped
do you say? Let's see
Will you

then by any other ways
Brought it about that I should die; (t-note)
unwind; (t-note)
Stir yourself; sorrows end

off; why will you tarry
hence, since I must [apparently die here]

hand over; enough time; (t-note)
[Last] rights; before I hence; (t-note)

good name; good reputation; (t-note)
more and more with time
well; foes
slander; no way be kept secret; (t-note)
[slander] flies on high
Whereas; lies quiet; (t-note)

free and in prosperity; (see note)
wherever I went; (t-note)
Nor was at all worthy; punished
for all he cared choose; (t-note)

once give; (t-note)
do you wish anything from me


enough; little; (t-note)

count (measure)
Echo; (see note); (t-note)

Now if our Lord; (see note)


Surety (security)

always; (see note); (t-note)
always; (t-note)
goods shall fall

Then [it] is best; (t-note)

committed; (t-note)
As a reward; truly
Of [the] pains
suffer; condemn; (t-note)

nothing else; now clearly
feigned; (see note)
thy sisters (Parcae) ; (see note)
created; (t-note)
besought; (t-note)
will release (forgive) ; (t-note)
ere (before) ; (t-note)

true spouse; (see note); (t-note)
Benign; harm
heart's whole desire
err, Lord, anywhere; (t-note)
Ere; let


Ere; then entrap; (t-note)
cover us with your skirt; (see note)

killed those whom
especially; repented; (t-note)

move quickly [to help] ; (t-note)

have pity on me; die

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