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The Lufaris Complaynt: Introduction


1 The Floure and the Leafe and The Assembly of Ladies, ed. D. A. Pearsall (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1962), pp. 161-62, note to line 325.
"The Lufaris Complaynt" (IMEV 564) differs from the other poetry in this book in that the word "prison" does not appear in it. What makes it appropriate as a companion piece to the other poems in this anthology is that it shares richly in their themes, images, and topoi. It provides evidence, if evidence were needed, that "prison poetry," in the sense in which these works fit the label, is not simply fictional autobiography, but a mode of expression, a literary topos for the expression of ideas about loneliness and abandonment, as well as feelings of frustration and helplessness. In this case, the poet employs many of the ideas and expressions of prison poetry to frame a complaint against Love (with a capital L). His complaint thus parallels the love complaints of those who were prisoners in more than one sense of the word, like Palamon and Arcite in Chaucer's Knight's Tale and James I in The Kingis Quair. Like the other authors in this collection, this poet must express his grief (and his humility), explain the reality of his suffering, profess some worthwhile goal (in this case to help other lovers), identify his enemy, complain about Fortune, cite his masters (Chaucer, Boethius), plead for mercy, and so on. What this tells us is not that all late medieval poetry is alike, but that the same devices can be used by different poets, with different levels of skills, for very different ends. It also tells us that "prison" is a poetic concept, even when it is a physical reality.

The poetic complaint had its origins in imitation of legal complaints, otherwise known as petitions or bills of complaint. Some medieval poems described a Court of Love presided over by Venus or Cupid to which distressed lovers brought complaints and petitions in the form of bills. In The Kingis Quair, James I describes in the Palace of Venus
A warld of folk, and by their contenance
Thair hertis semyt full of displesance,
With billis in thair handis, of one assent,
Unto the juge thair playntis to present. (lines 571-74)
In the anonymous Assembly of Ladies, written in the late fifteenth century (and said by Derek Pearsall to owe something to the work of Charles d'Orléans), women present bills in the court of Lady Loyalty to complain of mistreatment in love. In his edition of The Assembly of Ladies, Pearsall quotes from A Treatise of Equitie (printed 1594) to explain the function of a legal bill of complaint before the King's Council: "'A Bill of complaint is a declaration in writing, shewing the plaintifes griefe, and the wrong which he supposeth to be done unto him by the defendaunt, and what damages he susteineth by occasion thereof, praying processe [legal action] against him [the defendant] for redresse of the same.'" Such a bill was, he explains, "the initiatory action and distinguishing feature of all procedure in equity." Pearsall points out some similarities between such legal forms and the bills the ladies present to Lady Loyalty, which could all apply to this complaint poem as well: "it tends to be vague in point of fact but vehement in presenting the enormity of the offence" and in style it also mimics legal documents in use of "the same semi-legal parlance, with its profusion of loosely related participles . . . [and] the same choked and circuitous movement and convoluted syntax."1 In our poem, some wording reminiscent of legal claims includes "compleyne" (lines 64 and 71), "distresse / Without comfort, or punysing giltles" (lines 90-91), "no remede nor reskewe to me brocht" (line 105), "to serve thee myn entent was trewe" (line 111), "to long I all this wrong sustene / Agains rycht" (lines 124-25), "I cry on every . . . / Me to restore unto" (lines 139-40), "non that may will remede to me bring" (line 158), and "I sall endure / And hald forth aye in treuth contynuaunce" (lines 161-62).

The prologue sets forth the reasons for writing, and the complaint proper calls on various gods and lovers from literature and classical myth to redress the wrongs done to the writer, ending in the final stanza with a declaration of the writer's suit, that is, that he be granted death as a release from suffering. It is meant to be read by "every noble, stedfast hert and trew / That has ressavit [received] of Fortune the disdeyne" (lines 15-16), but the poet seems at a loss to whom to deliver his complaint: "Quham sall I wyte of all this fremmyt chance" (line 81)? Its content is similar to James' Kingis Quair when James complains of the torments of unrequited love, but it derives rather from Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy and Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde. There are no echos of James' Quair and it would seem very unlikely that the poet had had access to that poem.

Kenneth Wilson comments on this poem's conventional treatment of the theme of unrequited love, saying that not only its theme but its diction, figures, and apostrophes are typical of conventional fifteenth-century poetry. But, as he concludes, it differs from ordinary or conventional poems of this genre in two respects: "First, it is far more allusive than most. The lover is distinctly conscious - and keeps the reader conscious of it too - that he is writing a poem"; the second difference lies in the poet's "attempts at realistic description of emotional upheaval" (p. 713). The anonymous poet's attempts to achieve realism in the description of human emotion, while also foregrounding the allusive and literary quality of his work, make this an apt poem for comparison with James I's Kingis Quair, which probably preceded it in composition, was probably not known to this anonymous author, and was more successful at both incorporating allusions to other writings and portraying emotions realistically.


"The Lufaris Complaynt" is a complaint in the tradition of such poems, whose matter originated in the forms of legal complaint. These poems became so common that the term "Complaint" came to be used for a lyric or verse form practiced in both France and England in the Middle Ages; the term, however, applied more to the content, vocabulary, and overall structure rather than to verse form, which in the complaint was always somewhat flexible. This one is composed of a prologue of nine stanzas of rhyme royal and a main text of twelve or thirteen stanzas, generally 9-lined (an unusual form in this period), rhyming generally aabaabbab. It contains what may be one 16-line stanza (lines 108-23), rhyming aaabaaab bbbabbba, but it may rather be two 8-line stanzas with "mirrored" rhymes, as edited below. This group of lines is also marked by having octosyllabic rather than decasyllabic meter. If the final stanza (lines 169-77) is taken as an envoy, these lines would also stand at the very center of the main text of the poem, five stanzas preceding and five stanzas following it. The poem's title comes from the colophon on fol. 221v, "Here Endis the lufaris complaynt."

Manuscript Context

"The Lufaris Complaint" survives in only one copy, in the same manuscript as James I's Kingis Quair and in the same portion of the manuscript, written by the second scribe of The Kingis Quair. The theme running through this portion of the manuscript is, in fact, lovers' complaints, possibly including The Kingis Quair in this general category. The contents of this portion of Bodleian Library, MS Arch. Selden. B.24 are as follows:
Fols. 192r-211r
Fols. 211v-217r
Fols. 217r-219r
Fols. 219r-221v
Fols. 221v-224r
James I, The Kingis Quair
Thomas Hoccleve, The Letter of Cupid (IMEV 666)
Anonymous, "The Lay of Sorrow" (IMEV 482)
Anonymous, "The Lufaris Complaynt" (IMEV 564)
Anonymous, "The Quare of Jealousy" (IMEV 3627.5)
These poems fill three quires of the manuscript, 15 to 17, fols. 190-224, with The Kingis Quair taking up most of the first two. As Kenneth Wilson points out in his edition of two of the poems, "The Lay of Sorrow" and "The Lufaris Complaynt," their collocation with The Kingis Quair "afford[s] no basis for new conjecture about the origins of either The Kingis Quair or The Quare of Jelusy" since they simply appear together in this manuscript, which is "obviously a fairly heterogeneous secular collection" (p. 709). As he also points out, however, there may be a closer relationship between "The Lufaris Complaynt" and the poem that precedes it, "The Lay of Sorrow," since both employ similar 9- and 8-line stanzas.

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Select Bibliography

Previous Editions

Wilson, Kenneth George. "The Lay of Sorrow and The Lufaris Complaynt: An Edition." Speculum 29 (1954), 708-26. [The edition of "The Lufaris Complaynt" is on pp. 719-23; the notes on pp. 723-26.]

Literary Influences

Ovid (P. Ovidius Naso). Ovid. Vol. 3: Metamorphoses, Books 1-8. Ed. and trans. Frank Justus Miller. Third ed., rev. G. P. Goold. Loeb Classical Library 42. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977; rpt. 1984, 1994. [Latin text with facing-page English translation.]

---. Ovid. Vol. 4: Metamorphoses, Books 9-15. Ed. and trans. Frank Justus Miller. Third ed., rev. G. P. Goold. Loeb Classical Library 43. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984; rpt. 1994. [Latin text with facing-page English translation.]