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Prik of Conscience: Part One: Of Man and of his Wretchedness


1 Lines 27–28: Unless you be converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 18:3

2 Lines 43–44: Remember, I beseech thee, that thou hast made me as the clay, and thou wilt bring me into dust again. Job 10:9

3 For dust thou art, and into dust thou shalt return. Genesis 3:19. See note.

4 Lines 78–79: For behold I was conceived in iniquities, and in sins did my mother conceive me. Psalm 50:7. See note.

5 Lines 118–19: All those who are born of Eve say E or A; Adam the procreator gives A, Eve the mother gives E

6 Lines 140–41: Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither. Job 1:21

7 Lines 160–61: Man born of a woman, living for a short time, is filled with many miseries. Job 14:1

8 Man is born to labour and the bird to fly. Job 5:7

9 Lines 229–30: And man when he was in honour did not understand; he is compared to senseless beasts, and is become like to them. Psalm 48:13

10 Lines 247–48: If you consider carefully what comes out from the mouth, nose, and other passages of your body, you will never have seen a more vile dunghill

11 Lines 333–34: Who cometh forth like a flower, and is destroyed, and fleeth as a shadow, and never continueth in the same state. Job 14:2

12 Lines 341–42: In the morning man shall grow up like grass; in the morning he shall flourish and pass away: in the evening he shall fall, grow dry, and wither. Psalm 89:6

13 Lines 355–56: My spirit shall not remain in man for ever, because he is flesh, and his days shall be a hundred and twenty years. Genesis 6:3

14 Lines 371–72: But if in the strong they be fourscore years: and what is more of them is labour and sorrow. Psalm 89:10

15 Shall not the fewness of my days be ended shortly? Job 10:20

16 Lines 484–85: Compare Ecclesiasticus 19:3 [And he that joineth himself to harlots, will be wicked. Rottenness and worms shall inherit him, and he shall be lifted up for a greater example, and his soul shall be taken away out of the number.]

17 Lines 494–95: And yet they shall sleep together in the dust, and worms shall cover them. Job 21:26


Abbreviations: CT: Chaucer, Canterbury Tales; MED: Middle English Dictionary; OED: Oxford English Dictionary; PL: Patrologia Latina, ed. Migne.

1–12 A recollection of the second creation story from Genesis 2:7, where Adam is created “de limo terrae” (“from the slime of the earth”; the Wycliffite Bible [c. 1384] reads “The Lord God thanne fourmede man of the slyme of the erthe”). Apocryphal traditions associated with Irenaeus, Cyprian, and the Life of Adam and Eve construe this as a calculated insult to Lucifer, in that creatures of such a low order replace the fallen angels, or that Lucifer was required to worship such creatures and thus became envious of them (Kelly, Satan, pp. 180–84). The use of the words “earth,” “clay,” “ashes,” and “powder” in the following lines give a somewhat more flattering picture and anticipate the “dust” of the Great Bible (1540), the Bishops’ Bible (1568), the Geneva Bible (1587), and the King James version (1611). William Tyndale (1530) and Miles Coverdale (1535) read “moulde.” The Douay-Rheims Bible (1610) returns to the more literal “slime.” See Genesis 3:19 and line 51 below.

51 Genesis 3:19, with “pulvis” for “cinis.” Compare Job 34:15, Psalm 102:14–15, Ecclesiasticus 17:31. The idea appears more familiarly in the order for the burial of the dead as it became known in the Book of Common Prayer, 1559 (ed. Booty, p. 310): “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

63 Bygynnyng, mydelage, and endyng. The three ages of man is another common organizing principle, as old as the riddle of the Sphinx. “Mydel age” is spaced in the manuscript.

64–178 These lines appear on leaves 276v–277r of the Thornton Manuscript (Lincoln Cathedral Library 91; Horstmann edits the lines in >i, 1:372–73).

78–79 Psalm 50:7, and a statement of the doctrine known as Original Sin whereby sin entered the world by means of Adam and Eve and has since been passed to succeeding generations (compare Romans 5:12–21, 1 Corinthians 15:22).

83 caytifte. Perhaps “captivity” would be the best gloss (see line 91 on the “doungeoun [of] his modur wombe”), though “slime,” “wretchedness,” and “iniquity” are all connotations of the term. MED cites “wretchedness” as the appropriate gloss for the term in this line. See also line 178.

118–19 From ancient through medieval times many significances were attached to initial letters and to orthographical sequences in general. These correspondences can be found in Innocent III’s De miseria 1.6 (ed. Lewis, p. 103; PL 217:705b), in the Genesis portion of Peter Comestor’s Historia scholastica (ed. Sylwan, p. 38; PL 198:1071b; compare his twelfth sermon [PL 198:1757b]) and in one of Odo of Cheriton’s sermons (Hervieux, Les fabulistes latins, 4:351).

128–29 Innocent III, De miseria (ed. Lewis, p. 103; PL 217:705b). This work was widely known in the Middle Ages (in the Legend of Good Women Chaucer claims to have translated “Of the Wreched Engendrynge of Mankynde, / As man may in Pope Innocent yfynde” [G.414–15]). See also the Prologue to the Man of Law’s Tale, CT II(B1)99–121. Innocent III convened the Fourth Lateran Council (see the Introduction, pp. 4–5) and was one of the most influential medieval popes.

187–88 From Bernard of Clairvaux’s Meditationes Piissimae de Cognitione humanae conditionis (PL 184:490a–b; authorship disputed). The association of worms with mortality is very common: see Acts 12:23 and the selection of Middle English Lyrics, “When the turuf is thy tour” (ed. Luria and Hoffman, 223–45). See also Shakespeare’s 1 Henry IV, 5.iv.86–87; Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” line 27; and the numerous medieval debates of the body and soul.

201–04 The powers of sight attributed to the lynx can be found in bestiaries. It is not the animal known by that name today but a fabulous beast, half wolf and half panther. Bestiaries were known in England from the twelfth century. They were often illustrated, and they derive ultimately from the Greek Physiologus (fourth century). Wirtjes edits the Middle English version, but it does not include the lynx. Moralizing Christian glosses are added to the observations made on the characteristics of each beast; the lynx, like Christ, is all-seeing (Hebrews 4:13 and Charbonneau-Lassay, Le Bestiaire du Christ, pp. 298–301). The Ayenbite of Inwyt uses the same image of the lynx seeing through surfaces to the foul body beneath (ed. Morris, p. 81) as does Roman de la Rose citing Boethius and Aristotle (line 8901), and Chaucer in his Boece,, 41–43. In the corresponding discussion of how the body is to be despised, Boethius cites the powers of the sharp-eyed Lynceus, one of the Argonauts (Consolation III pr. 8). See Halna-Klein, “Sur les Traces,” and Whiting, Proverbs L596, for other appearances of the lynx in medieval literature. Bartholomaeus Anglicus (see below, 2.36 note) reports the other principal characteristic of the lynx, that its urine turns to precious stones that it buries lest humans make use of them.

247–48 Bernard’s Meditationes Piissimae (PL 184:489d).

261–66 Innocent III, De miseria 1.8 (ed. Lewis, pp. 105–07; PL 217:705). See Matthew 7:18.

283 Matthew 12:33. An unusual instance of a biblical verse in English with no Latin lemma.

289–94 Innocent III, De miseria (ed. Lewis, p. 107; PL 217:706a), which echoes Job 13:25. C. S. Lewis uses the image in The Magician’s Nephew, chapter 11. See below, 6.709–10.

350 Nyne hundred wynter. Adam lived to be 930 years old (Genesis 5:5). Ages in that range are the norm for the earliest patriarchs, with Methuselah living to a record 969 years (Genesis 5:27).

401 Speaking touches is an interesting example of synesthesia.

421–23 The allegorical tradition of “Elde,” old age, also appears in Langland’s Piers Plowman C.23.95 and C.23.166 ff, and in The Parlement of the Thre Ages.

438 His nese cop is sharpe with alle. See Mistress Quickly’s account of the death of Sir John Falstaff: “I knew that there was but one way; for his nose was as sharp as a pen” (Henry V, 2.iii.16).

474–75 Innocent III, De miseria 3.1 (ed. Lewis, p. 207; PL 217:737b).

499 “Wit” is hard to construe here as an adjective, and it creates a tautology with the previous line. Cotton Galba E.ix reads “Swa fair, swa strang, ne swa myghty” (line 881).

516–17 See Walther, Proverbia Sententiaeque 29074 (in Harley 3362, fol. 5; Camb. Hh.III.15, 54v; Rylands 394, 23v).

532–33 Bernard, Meditationes Piissimae (PL 184:490b).

536–37 Compare the fate of the deputy director in C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, chapter 12, section 2.


Abbreviations: see Explanatory Notes

90 forth. The manuscript reads for.

194 grave. The “a” is written above the line.

227 nought. The “t” is written above the line.

231 brought. The “o” is written above the line.

235 he is inserted by a caret.

331 be is inserted by a caret.

355 spiritus is omitted in the manuscript.

378 and is an ampersand written above the line.

548 In. The manuscript reads I.









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The fyrst part of this book that es
Of mon and of his wrechednes

Mon of foulest matere God wrought
When he maad alle thing of nought
Of erthe for to skilles to holde:
That oon is for that God so wolde
Of fulthe hym maken in despyte
Of Lucyfer whiche that fel so tyte
To helle for his syn of pryde
And of alle tho that fellen by syde,
For they shulde have more shenship
And the more sorowe when they toke kep
That mon of suche matere shuld dwel
In that place that they from felle.
¶That othur skil is to see
For mon shulde here the meker be
Ay when he thinketh in his thought
Of howe foule matere he is wrought.
God of his goodnes and his myght
Say that place in heven bryght
Voyde was maad by syn of pryde
And wolde hit fylle on every syde
Thorowe the vertue of mekenes
That even contrarye to pryde es.
Then may no mon thidur coom
Bot he that meke is and buxom.
As the gospelle us telleth ful ryght
How to the aposteles seyde God almyght:
Nisi efficiamini sicut parvulus iste
non intrabitis regnum celorum.1
He seyth, “bot if yee be meke and mylde,
That is to say as is this childe
Ye shul not entre by no way
To heven blys that lasteth ay.”
Then byhoveth a mon to seke
What may sounest make hym mek.
Bot no thyng may meke hym more
Then ofte to thinke as I sayde ore
Howe he is maad of foule matere
And is nought ellus bot erthe here.
Thus seyth a clerke as I now sey,
“What is mon bot erthe and cley
And poudur that with wynde brekes?”
Therfore Job thus to God spekes:
Memento queso quod sicut lutum feceris
me et in puluerem reduces me.2
“Lorde thinke,” he seyth, “thou madest me
Foule erthe and clay here for to be,
So shalt thou turne me ageyn
To erthe and poudur incerteyn.”
Then seyth oure Lorde God almyghty
Ageyn to mon ryght skilfully:
Memento homo quod cinis es et in cinerem reuerteris.3
“Think mon thou art askes nowe
And into askes turne shalt thowe.”
Then is mon no more to say
Bot askes poudur erthe and clay.
Of this shul uche mon ever ha mynde
And knowe his wrechednes of kynde,
That may be seen as I shew con
In alle partyes of lyvyng moon.
¶The lyf of mon casten may be
Sovereynly in tymes thre
That ben to oure undurstondyng
Bygynnyng, mydelage, and endyng.
Thus moun thre spaces be toolde
Of monnes lyvyng both yong and olde.
The fyrste bygynnyng of monnes lyfe
Is wrechednesse and wo and stryfe.
Therfore wole I nowe er I cees
Shewe yow what a mon fyrst es.

Of monnes fyrst bygynnyng

Som tyme was when mon was nought
Er he were geten and forthe ibrought,
Then was he geten as hit is knowen
Of monnes seed with syn sowen.
He is conceyved ryght synfully
Within his own modur body;
His herborow therin was dyght
As David seyth thes wordus ryght:
Ecce enim in iniquitatibus conceptus sum,
et in peccatis concepit me mater mea.4
“Lo,” he seyth, “as monkynde es
I am conceyved in wickednes,
My modur hath conceyved me
In mychel synne and caytifte.”
There dwelled mon in a dongyon
In stede of foule fylth and corrupcyoun,
Where he had noon othur foode
Bot foule glet and lipered bloode
And stynke and fylthe as I seyde ore
Therwith was he norysshed thore.
Aftur that when he forth coom
A doungeoun his modur wombe from
And was forthe borne to worldes lyght
Had he nouther strength ny myght
Nouthur to goo ny for to stonde
Ny for to crepe with foot ny honde.
¶Thus hath mon las myght then beeste
When he is boren so unhoneste,
For beest when hit is boren may go
And sone remeweth too and froo
Bot man hath no myght ther too
When he is boren so forto do;
He may nouther gong ny crepe
But lye and crye, crule and wepe.
Unnethe is childe boren fully
When he bygynneth to rore and crye.
By that crye mon may knowe thon
Whether hit be monn or wemon
When hit is borne hit cryeth wa.
Yif hit be mon hit cryeth “a,”
That is the fyrst letter of the name
Of oure formoure fadur Adame;
And if the childe a woman be
When hit is borne then seyth hit “e,”
The fyrste lettre that is of Eve
That bygon us fyrst to greve.
Therfore were maad on this maner
Thes versus that ben writen here:
Dicentes E vel A quotquot nascuntur ab Eva;
A dat Adam genitor E dedit Eua mater.5
“Al tho,” he seyth, “that comen of Eve
That ben alle men as we byleve,
When they be borne what so they be
Thei shul seyn outher ‘a’ or ‘e.’”
Then is this our bygynnyng
Of oure lyf sorowe and wepyng.
Oure wrechednes therto us styrus,
Wherfore Innocent seyth ryght thus:
Omnes nascimur eiulantes vt
nature nostre miseriam exprimamus.
He seyth, “we alle are bore wepand
And makyng sorowful semblande
To shewe the grete wrechednes
Of oure kynde that in us es.”
Thus atte the tyme of oure byrth
We make alle sorowe and no myrth.
Hidur we comen nakud and bare
And pore so shul we hethen fare;
On thes two shulde we thinke thonne
For thus seyth Job the holy monne:
Nudus egressus sum de utero
matris mee: nudus revertar illuc.6
“Nakud,” he seyth, “fyrst oute I com
Hidur my modur wombe from
And nakud so shal I turne away.”
So shal we alle at oure last day.
Thus is mon at his fyrst comyng
Nakud and bringeth with hym no thyng
Bot a slow that is wlatsome
Is his clothing at his first come.
Hit is nought bot a blody skynne
That he byfore was lapped inne
While he in his modur wombe lay;
That is foule thing for to say,
And fouler to here seyth the bok
And alther foulest on too look.
Thus is mon borne as ye moun se
In wrechednesse and caytyfté,
Yitte to lyven here bot fewe dayes
As Job here on this wyse sayes:
Homo natus de muliere breui viuens
tempore, repletur multis miseriis.7
He seyth, “mon borne of womanne
Lyvyng shorte tyme fulfild is than
Of many manere of wrechednesse.”
As Job seyth and ful sothe hitte esse,
For mon is borne to nought elles
Bot to travayle as Job telles:
Homo nascitur ad laborem sicut auis ad volatum.8
“Mon is borne to travayle ryght
As the foule is maad to flyght.”
Ful litul rest in this lyf es
Bot greet travayle and bysynes;
Also mon when he is borne
Is fendes sone and fro God lorne
Ay til he by grace may come
To bapteme and to Cristendome.
Thus moun men her bygynnynge se
Of wrechednes and caytyftee.

Of monnes mydel lyvyng

The secounde part of lyf men calleth
The myddelward that next aftur falleth
And recheth from the bygynnyng
Of monnes lyf to the laste endyng.
His bygynnyng ryght as I toolde
Is vyle and wrecched to behoolde,
Bot how fule he is afturwarde
Telleth a party seynt Bernarde:
Homo nichil aliud est quam sperma feti-
dum saccus stercorum et esca vermium.
Seynt Bernarde in his book tellus
How that “a mon is no thing ellus
Bot a foule slyme wlathsome in tong
And a sak ful of stynkyng dong
And wormes foode that they wol have
When he is deed and leyd in grave.”
Som folke ther ben ful feyr to seme
In syght withouten as men deme
And that sheweth not bot a skyn,
Bot who so myght see hem within
Foulere careyne myght never be
Then men myght then on hem see.
¶For certus whoso myght have syght
Or had so clere yghen or bryght
As hath a beest that men lynx calles
That may se thorowe thicke ston walles,
Then myght he se withouten doute
As wel withinne men as withoute.
Lytul lykyng shulde mon have thon
To byholde aftur womonne.
Yif he withinn syghe hire ryght
Wlatsome were she to his syght.
Thus foule withinne uche mon es
As this boke here berith witnes.
Thus may mon se on this manere
How foule the kynde of hym is here.
Therfore a mon is more worthie
That here is proude of his bodye
While he may thus hymself se
What he is, was, and shal be.
Bot proude mon to this ne taketh hede
For skil hym fayleth that shuld hym lede.
Whon he is yonge and loveth pleying
And eke hath ese and his lykyng
Or yif he be atte greet worsshepe
What he is he taketh no kepe.
Hymself then he knoweth leeste
And fareth as an unskilful beest
That his wille foloweth and nought ellus
As David in the sauter thus tellus:
Homo cum in honore esset, non intellexit. Comparatus
est iumentis insipientibus et similis factus est illis.9
“Mon when he in honoure is brought,
Ryght undurstondyng hath he nought.
Wel may he be lykened thonne
To a beest that noo skille conne.”
Therfore he that have skil and mynde
The wrechednesse thinketh of oure kynde
That is foule and ful wlathsoome.
For mon seeth of his body come
Fro above and fro bynethe
Miche fylthe and stynkyng brethe.
More stynke is noon harde ny nessh
Then the filthe of monnes flesshe
That may a mon both se and fele
Yif he beholde hymselven wele.
How foule he is to monnes syght,
Therfore seyth seynt Bernard ryght:
Si consideres diligenter quid per os quid per nares ceterosque
meatus corporis tui egreditur, vilius sterquilinium nunquam vidisti.10
He seyth, “yif thou the bysyly by se
And undurstonde what cometh fro thee
Thorow nese and mouthe contynuelye
And other places of thi bodye,
Fouler doungehul thou see nevere noon
Then monnes bodye of flesshe and boon.”
Alle the tyme that mon here lyveth
Noon othur fruyt his body geveth,
Though he lyve long or short whyle,
Bot thing ful wlatsome and ful vyle
As stynk, fulthe and no thing ellus
As Innocent thus seyth and tellus:
Herbas et arbores inquit investiga: ille de se
producunt flores, frondes, et fructus, et tu de te lendes
pediculos et lumbricos. Ille defundunt oleum vinum,
et balsamum, et tu de te sputum, vrinam, et stercus.
Ille de se spirant suavitatem odoris, et tu de te ab
hominationem fetoris. Qualis arbor talis fructus eius.
This grete clerke seyth in his book
“Byholde,” he seyth, “and wisely looke
Tho trees and herbes that here spryng
And what fruyt they here forthe bryng:
Herbes bryng forthe floures and seed
And trees fruyt with braunches to spreed,
And thow bryngest for thee of thi self here
Nytes, fleen, lyus, and vermyn sere.
Of hem spryngeth baume ful good
And oyle and wyne for monnes food,
Of the cometh alle foule thyngge
As urine ordure and spyttyngge
Of hem comen ful swete floures,
Of the stynke and evel savoures.
Suche as the tree is with the bowes
Such ben alle the fruyt that on hem growes.”
Evel tree may no good fruyt bere
As God seyth the good gardinere.
¶Mon is tree that stondeth not harde
Of whom the crop is turned dounwarde,
The rote towarde the firmament
As seyth the greet clerk Innocent:
Quid est homo secundum formam, nisi quedam arbor
eversa? Cuius radices sunt crines, truncus est caput
cum collo, stirpes est pectus cum alvo, rami
sunt ulne cum tibiis, frondes sunt digiti cum
articulis. Hoc est lignum quod a vento ra-
pitur, et stipulaque a sole siccatur.
He seyth, “Monnes shap is bot a tre
Turned dounward that up shuld be,
Of whom the rote that oute springeth
Is the heer that on hym hengeth,
The stok that nexte hym is growand
The heed with the necke to undurstand,
The goben of that tree sykurlye
Is the brest with the hoole bodye;
The bowes ben armes and hondes
With legges that on his feet stondes,
The braunches men may kyndly cal
The toos sothely with fyngres alle.
This is the tree that stondeth not fast
Blowen up with the wyndes blast,
And the body of this ilke tree
With the sonne may dryghed be.”
For mon that is both yong and lyght
Be he never so strong and wyght
And of face bryght and feyre,
Tene and sekenes may sone hym apeyre
His feyrnes and myght to abate
And make hym in ful symple staate
To chaunge alle fayre coloure
And make hym fade as doth the floure.
A floure that semeth feyre and bryght
With stormes fadeth and leseth myght,
Also eveles and greet mischeves
Comen to mon that here leves,
As dropesye, fever, and jaundyse,
Tysyke, goute, and sere maladyse
That doth hym myght and strengthe tyne
As stormes maken floures dwyne.
Wherfore a mon may lykened bee
To a fresshe floure on a tree,
That when hit is forthe ibrought
Weleweth and fadeth til hit be nought.
This shulde be then ensaumple to us
For Job in his book seyth thus:
Homo quasi flos egreditur et conteritur et fugit
velud vmbra, et nunquam in eodem statu permanet.11
“A mon,” he seyth, “as a floure bryght
Cometh forthe first unto oure syght
And fleeth sone passyng away,
As schadowe doth on someres day.”
Of this Davyd berith wittenes
In the sauter where writen es:
Mane sicut herba transeat, mane floreat
et transeat, vespere decidat indurat et arescat.12
The prophete seyth and soth hit es,
“Erly passeth mon as the gres,
Erly atte bygynnyng of the day
He florysshet and passeth away;
By hit be even hit is doune brought
Fadeth and falleth and turneth to nought.”
At the fyrste bygynnyng of mon
Nyne hundred wynter lyved he thon
As clerkes in her bokes beren wittenes,
Bot sythen wex monnes lyvyng lees.
God wolde that hit shulde so bee
For unto Noe thus seyde he:
Non permanebit spiritus meus in homine in eternum, quia caro
est, erunt que dies eius centum vigintorum annorum.13
“My gooste,” seyth he, “shal not ay dwel
In mone for he is flesshe and felle,
His dayes shul be to dwellen here
An hundred and twenty yeere.”
Bot so greet elde may noon now bere.
Monnes lyf may becomen shortere
For the complectioun of every mon
Is febeler now then hit was thon.
Bot for hit is nowe worse to se
Monnes lyvyng mot shortere be.
The lenger he lyveth thou trewly leve
The more his lyf shal here hym greve,
The lesse this lyf shal hym think swete
As in a psalme seyth the prophete:
Si autem in potentatibus octoginta anni,
amplius eorum labor et dolor.14
“Inne myghtes gyf fourescore yeer fal,
Her swynke is more and sorow with al.”
A mon ful ceeldom of that eelde
Hath hele or may hym selven welde.
Now bee mennes dayghes shortere
As Job telleth and wel smertere:
Nunquid paucitas dierum meorum finietur breui.15
He seyth, “my fewe dayes sere
Shul ende nowe in shorte tyme here.”
Fewe now fourty yeere con passe,
Fewer fiftye as som tyme was,
Bot sone when mon waxeth oolde
His kynde wexeth feble and coolde.
Then chaungeth his complectioun
His maneres and his condicioun
His herte is harde and eke hevy
His heede feble es and ful dusy
His goost then waxeth seke and sore
His face wrynkeleth more and more
His mynde is shorte when he thinketh
His nese droppeth his breth stynketh
His syght dymmeth he wexeth lothe
His backe croketh, stoupyng he goth;
Fyngres and toos of foot and hand
And alle his touches ben terembland.
Werke forfareth that he bygynnes,
His here mouten, his yghen rennes
His eres wex deef and hard to here
His touches fayleth to speke clere
His mouth draveleth his teeth roteth
His witte fayleth and ofte he doteth.
Lyght to greve and waxeth frowarde
Hym to turne fro wrath is ful harde.
He spieth and leveth sone a thing,
Looth to turne fro that trowyng,
Coveytouse and hard holdande.
His chere is dryghe and his semblande
Swyfte to speke on his manere
And loth and slow is for to here.
He preyseth oolde and haldeth hem wyse
And yong men hym lust wel despise.
He loueth oolde that er have bene
And lacketh tho that now are sene.
Seke he is and ofte gronyng
Oft grucchyng and ay pleynyng.
To oolde men thes kyndely fallen —
Propurtees of eelde clerkes hem callen —
Yute ben there moo then I have told
That fallen to men when thay are olde.
Thus may men se whoso con kenne
What maneres been of oolde menne.

Of monnes lyvyng

The ende of monnes lyf is harde
When he draweth to dethwarde,
When he is seke and alle doun lyse
And so feble he may not ryse.
Thenne are men alle uncerteyne
Whether he shal dyghe or ryse ageyn.
Bot yitte knowen som that ben slyghe
Yif he shal of that yvel dyghe
By certeyn tokenes as ye shul here
That byfallen when deth is nere.
His fronnt bygynneth doun to falle
And his browes goon doune with alle;
His lyfte yghe semeth welle lesse
And narower then the ryght yghe esse.
His nese cop is sharpe with alle,
Then bygynneth his chin to falle,
His pouns ben stille with out styryng,
His feet gyn coolde his body gyn clyng,
And yif ny deth is a yong monne
He waketh and may nought slepe thon.
Bot an oolde mon to deth drawynge
May not wake bot is ay slepyng.
Men sayen that alle thes tokenes sere
Ben of a mon when deth is nere.
While mon lyveth he is lyke monne,
When he is deed what is he thonne?
Thenne moun men her lyckenes see
Chaunged as hit had never ben hee.
When monnes lyf is atte the ende
On this maner shal he weende:
As he com naked and ful porely
The fyrste day from his modur body,
Nought he brought with hym that day
Ny no thyng schalle he bere away
Bot a wyndyng cloth oonly
That shal be wrappe his body.
Wrecchedly endeth the lyf of mon
Yif he byholde what he is thon
When that his lyf is wente away
Then is he nought bot erthe and clay.
To more corrupcyoun turneth he ageyn
Then any othur stynkyng careyn.
The foule corrupcyoun of his body
Yif hit shulde longe on erthe lye
Hit myght the eyre so corupte make
That men therof her deth myght take,
So vile hit is and violent.
Therfore the greet clerke Innocent
Seyth in his booke thus openly
Of the wrechednes of monnes body,
Quid enim fetidius humano cadauere?
Quid enim horribilius homine mortuo?
He seyth, “What may stynkynger be
Thenne monnes careyn in onne to se?
No thyng here es more uggelye
Then is a monnes dede bodye.”
When he is leyde in erthe den
Hit alle to gnawe shul wormes then
Tyl flesshe be fro the bones byten
For thus fynde we in bokes wryten,
Cum autem morietur, homo here-
ditabunt vermes et serpentes terre.16
The book seyth that “when a mon
Dyeth ther shul come to hym thon
Wormes and neddres ugly in syght
That flesshe of mon shul ha by ryght.”
Therfore in erthe mon shul sleepe
Among wormes on hym to crepe
And gnawe on that stynkyng carcays
That wryten es in book that seys,
Omnes enim in pulvere dormient
et vermes operient eos.17
“In poudur shal slepe everyche mon
And mony wormes shulde cover hem thon.”
For here is no mon so wyttye
So wit so feyre ny so myghtye,
Emperoure, duk, kyng, ny caysere
Ny noon that berith so greet state here,
Lerid ny lewed bond ny free
Nor ryche nor pore what so they be
Bot he shal turne at his laste day
To erthe and poudur alle away.
Wormes shul ryve hym al to sondur
And therfore have I myche wondur
That any mon unnethe wol see
What he was is, and shal bee.
Whoso wole in herte caaste
What he was and shal be at laste
And what he is while he is here
He shulde have ful lytul matere
Joy to make while he here dwelleth,
As a verfioure in metre telleth:
Si quis centiret quo tendit et unde veniret
nunquam gauderet set in omni tempore fleret.
“Whoso wole undurstonde and se
Whethen he coom and whidur shuld he,
He shulde not joy bot hit forsaake
And ever wepe and sorowe make.”
Whi is mon here then so myrye
And so tendre of his foule body
That shal be gnawen with wormes kene
And is so uglye then to be seen?
Whoso of hym thenne had a syght
When that wormes han hym dyght
And he alle bare is to the boon
So grisly syght say he never noon
As he myght seen on that careyn.
Wherof Seynt Bernard here wol seyn:
Post hominem vermis, post vermem fetor et horror,
sic in non hominem vertitur omnis homo.
“Aftur mon,” seyth he, “wormes he es,
Aftur wormes stynk and oglynes,
So shal uche mon turned be thon
Fro mon as nought unto un mon.”
Thus may uche mon thus wel se
What he is, was, and shal be,
What he is while [he] here lyveth
And what fruyt his kynde gyveth
Here may men see as wryten es
Mychel of monnes wrechednes,
And myche more yit myght men telle
Bot heron wole I no lenger dwel,
For forthermore nowe wole I loke
To the secounde part of this booke
In whiche there is undurstondynge
Of the worlde and worldly thinge.

Humankind; (see note)

two reasons



second reason


Unless; obedient

[it] requires


(see note)


may be cast

(see note)
(see note)

Before (Ere)

dwelling; shaped

(see note)

great (mickle); wretchedness; (see note)

[a] place

slime; clotted



than beast


grumble and weep



(see note)

All those


(see note)




caul; disgusting


foulest of all to look on


fiend’s son; lost


in part
(see note)

disgusting in tongue (“so to say”)

who seem very fair
In outward appearance as men judge


(see note)



reason; should him lead


nothing else; (t-note)






(see note)


(see note)

from you
Nits, fleas, lice, and various vermin


(see note)


(see note)


piece (gobbet); assuredly




Vexation; afflict

dropsy, fever, and jaundice
Phthisic, gout; various maladies



By the time it is evening

(see note)

since waxed



constitution (mixture of humors)

you truly believe

In [the] mighty if
seldom; age
health; wield



spirit; sick

goes to ruin
hair molts, his eyes run
grow deaf; (see note)

grows deranged
Easy to grieve; petulant

sees and believes at once
(i.e., reluctant to give up)
expression is dry; semblance

loath; hear
old men
likes well to despise
praises; formerly
criticizes; seen

these [things] naturally happen

Yet; more than; (see note)

observe (understand)

falls completely down



left eye; smaller
eye is
nose tip; (see note)

shrivel (waste away)


must; their likeness

go (wend)
with nothing (full poorly)


(see note)

Than; to look upon




(see note)


tear; all asunder


(see note)

Whence; whither


taken control


(see note)

(see note)




Go To Part 2 Of the World's Unstableness