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Item 40, Vanity: Introduction


1 For a useful discussion of De miseria humane conditionis and the development of contemptus mundi writing, see Howard’s introduction to Lothario dei Segni, On the Misery of the Human Condition.

2 On The Prick of Conscience, see the introduction to the Stimulus Consciencie Minor (item 33).

3 See Öberg, Versus Maximiani: Der Elegienzyklus.

4 For examples, see the poems printed by H. MacCracken and Scammell and Rogers, cited below.

5 For a history of the rhyme royal stanza, see Stevens, “Royal Stanza in Early English Literature.”

Origin, Genre, and Themes

This meditation on the world’s transience, written in eleven rhyme royal stanzas, survives in no other manuscript. The language, dialect, and manner suggest that it was composed in the North or northern Midlands of England during the fifteenth century. The poem’s primary source is Ecclesiastes, the Old Testament book quoted in the poem’s first line and paraphrased throughout. Ecclesiastes, believed to have been written by Solo­mon, counterpoises fierce cynicism about the folly of human behavior with some of the Bible’s most beautiful (and mem­orable) lyrical language. When the vogue for contemptus mundi (contempt of the world) literature developed in the twelfth century, Ecclesiastes pro­vided much of the inspiration and many of the images used by the writers who took up this theme. Foremost among these was Lothario dei Segni, the future Pope Innocent III, whose De miseria humane conditionis survives in over five hundred manuscripts throughout Europe, and was read throughout the later Middle Ages and into the Renaissance.1 The work was translated by Chaucer (though his translation does not survive) and supplied the major source for the enormously popular Middle English penitential handbook, The Prick of Con­science.2 This work may also lie behind Vanity, though perhaps exerting only indirect influence.

Along with Ecclesiastes, Vanity draws on a variety of commonplaces about the inevita­bility of death, the world’s transience, the folly of human vanity, and the unpre­dictability of Fortune. The Ages of Man, alluded to in lines 64–70, were known to medieval writers through the Elegies of Maximianus (a late classical text often used in medieval textbooks).3 The Wheel of Fortune, the subject of lines 50–56, was very com­monly illustrated, and Boc­caccio, Chaucer, and Lydgate describe the dangers of Fortune in the learned tradition of writing de casibus virorum illustrium (on the fall of mighty men). Vanity also resembles several elegies for kings and nobles, whose deaths provided an occasion for reflections on human limitation.4

With its mixture of bitter satire, grotesque detail, and sober morality, Innocent III’s De miseria humane conditionis illustrates the delicate balance every work of contemptus mundi must manage. On the one hand, the rhetoric must be effective and compelling, without suggesting an entirely inappropriate delight in rhetoric for its own sake. In the hands of Chaucer’s Pardoner (whose depiction of the foul depths of sin and its putre­faction of the human body owes much to De miseria humane conditionis), contemptus mundi simply becomes contempt for everything other than his own artistry. At the same time, the writer who wishes to stay true to the original purpose of contempus mundi writing must avoid the kind of elegiac tone that often characterizes writing on the theme Ubi sunt. This writing elegizes the lost heroes or brilliant artifacts of yesteryear, and despite its moral purpose often produces longing for the past rather than a fixed gaze on the next life.

Vanity negotiates this balance by adopting the stately measure of the rhyme royal stanza, used for public occasions and moral tales after Chaucer and Gower popularized it in the fourteenth century.5 It manages to be vivid — old age will “croke both hand and kne” — without the prurient fascination with the grotesque shown by some medieval mortality poems. Though the stanzas meander through various subjects without a clear controlling scheme (and may be disordered through corruption of the text), the poem preserves something of the majesty of its biblical model. That the text has never received any sig­nificant scholarly attention is likely due to the fact that there are so many works like it, and not due to any faults of its own craftsmanship.

Manuscript Context

Vanity can be read as a coda to Sir Orfeo (item 39), another work that muses on the fragil­ity of human life. Orfeo displays what might be viewed as a very proper contemptus mundi in his ten-year exile in the wilderness, though this seems prompted by grief and not the expectation of heaven. Sir Orfeo also ends with a strong affirmation of human love, something absent in Vanity, but the juxtaposition of these two poems may hint at a possible fifteenth-century interpretation of the enigmatic romance. Vanity also carries out ideas suggested by some of the other narratives in Ashmole 61; in Sir Isumbras (item 5), the title character is forced to aban­don his own misplaced pride in his station, his family, and his wealth.

Vanity shares its closest connections with other contemplations of mortality in the second half of Ashmole 61, namely Maidstone’s Seven Penitential Psalms, Stimulus Con­sciencie Minor, and The Sinner’s Lament (items 32, 33, and 35a). Taken as a whole these texts suggest both a considerable interest in this theme and the remarkable range of genres that were created to meet that interest.


In the absence of any other surviving text, the poem has been very sparsely emended, though several readings appear defective. But Rate has preserved the ababbcc rhyme scheme in all but one stanza (see note to line 47), a rare consistency that suggests he has not engaged in substantial revision of his copy-text.

Printed Editions

Brown, Carleton, ed. Religious Lyrics of the XVth Century. Pp. 238–40. [See also the many similar lyrics pp. 222–66.]

Reference Works

NIMEV 2576
MWME, 3390
Greentree, Rosemary. The Middle English Lyric and Short Poem.

See also Barclay, Bowers (1952), C. Brown (1924), Girvan, Lothario dei Segni, Lumby, H. Mac­Cracken (1911), Scammell and Rogers, and Sitwell in the bibliography.

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