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Mesure is Tresour


ABBREVIATIONS: CT: Chaucer, Canterbury Tales; MP: Minor Poems of John Lydgate, ed. MacCracken.

These verses elaborate on the proverbial saying that “measure is treasure” and argue that moderation should be the guiding principle for all estates, both high and low. Mesure is seen as the “roote of al good policye” (line 9) that should shape the actions of every social group from popes and prelates to emperors, kings, and knights, and on to judges, mayors, merchants, ploughmen, and other commoners that are “alle set here in portrature” (line 108). Examples from ancient myth and history (Alexander, Cambises, Hercules) underscore the dangers of overreaching. The poem expresses a number of Lydgate’s typical concerns: defense of the Church against heretics, the dangers of division, and the virtues of hierarchy for common profit (see Schirmer’s discussion of Mesure alongside Lydgate’s other moral and didactic poems, John Lydgate, pp. 198–205). The last two stanzas are explicitly in the voice of a shepherd, who is compared to the biblical examples of Isaac and Jacob and is described as being “set here to stondyn at dyfence” (line 138) to “kepe in sekirnesse / This hows in sewyrté” (lines 149–50), that is, to guard the household.

Lines 108, 134, and 142 indicate that the various estates described in the poem were present in some visual form; Pearsall (John Lydgate, p. 181) believes that the verses were intended to be read aloud alongside a painting. The use of the first-person pro­noun by the shepherd in the last two stanzas may possibly have provided an opportunity for mimicry or impersonation, although that is by no means certain. In any event, the shepherd appears as some sort of visual representation.

The unique copy of the poem is in MS Harley 2255 (1448?–49?), the base text for this edition; Harley 2255 is an anthology of some forty-five lyrics, most or all of which appear to be by Lydgate. The manuscript belonged to Lydgate’s abbot at Bury, William Curteys (see Pearsall, Bio-Bibliography, p. 82) and was perhaps assembled at Bury St. Edmunds, possibly under the supervision of Lydgate himself. The poem has been edited by Halliwell and by MacCracken, in MP, 2:776–80.

1 mesour is tresour. A proverbial saying; see Whiting, Proverbs, M461 and Duschl, Sprichwort, p. 20, on its classification. Compare Lydgate’s “Song of Just Mesure” (MP 2:772–75).

33–40 The story of the victory of Alexander the Great (356–323 B.C.) over Porrus and his search for the Earthly Paradise were well known from various French and Middle English Alexander romances (see Bunt, Alexander the Great).

43–44 The Roman Scipio defeated the Carthaginian force led by Hannibal in a decisive battle during the Second Punic War in 202 B.C.

52 comoun profight. See note to Disguising at London, line 251.

67 The story of Cambises, king of Persia (529–522 B.C.), derives from Herodotus. He was commonly taken as an example of an unjust tyrant and an admonitory figure against anger and pride, whose death in a hunting accident was seen as fitting punishment for his crimes. Compare Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale (CT III[D]2043–78).

81 Among yoursilf suffre noon extorcioun. Compare the envoy to Chaucer’s “Lak of Stedfastnesse,” where Richard himself is exhorted to “hate extorcioun” (line 23).

110 ff. Compare Mumming at Bishopswood, lines 50 ff.

118–21 The plowman was a traditional symbol of the ideal Christian (see Barney, “Plowshare of the Tongue”).

131–32 The biblical patriarchs Isaac and Jacob were shepherds (see Genesis 22:27 and 24:28).


ABBREVIATIONS: Hb: Harley 2255; M: MacCracken’s 1934 edition.

3 lyfe. M’s emendation. Hb reads lyf.

6 hyh. M reads hyll.

21 with cost. Hb reads with with cost.

24 there. M reads ther.

25 emperours. M’s emendation; Hb reads empours.

45 devisioun. M reads divisioun.

50 folk. M reads folke.

55 bryngen. M’s emendation; Hb reads brynge.

91 hom. M’s emendation; Hb reads hem.

131 Isaak. M reads Isaac.

132 shepperdys. M reads shepperdws.































Men wryte of oold how mesour is tresour,
And of al grace ground moost principall,
Of vertuous lyfe suppoort and eek favour,
Mesour conveyeth and governyth all, —
Trewe examplayr and orygynall,
To estaatys of hyh and lowe degree,
In ther dewe ordre, for, in especiall,
Alle thyng is weel so it in mesure be.

Mesure is roote of al good policye,
Sustir-germayn unto discrecioun,
Of poopys, prelatys, it beryth up the partye,
Them to conduce in hyh perfeccioun,
To leve in preyour and in devocioun,
Yeve good exaunple of pees and unité,
That al ther werkys, for shoort conclusioun,
With trewe mesure may commendid be.

Al theyre doctryne, nor all ther hoolynesse,
Kunnyng, language, wisdam, nor science,
Studye on bookys, in prechyng besynesse,
Almesse-dede, fastyng, nor abstinence,
Clothe the nakyd with cost and dispence,
Rekne alle these vertues, compassioun, and pité,
Avayllith nought, pleynly in sentence
But there be mesure and parfight charyté.

Myghty emperours, noble wourthy kynges,
Pryncis, dukys, erlys, and barounnys,
Ther greete conquestys, ther surquedous rydynges,
But ther be mesure in ther condicyounnys,
That attemperaunce conveye ther renownys,
Rekne up the noblesse of every conquerour,
What availlith al ther pocessiounnyns,
But ther ende conclude in just mesure?

Kyng Alisaundre, that gat al myddyl-erthe,
Affryk, Ayse, Ewrope, and eek Ynde,
And slowh Porrus with his dreedful swerde,
Yit in his conquest mesure was set behynde;
For which, ye lordys, left up your eyen blynde!
The stoon of paradys was fyn of his labour,
In al his conquest, have ye wel in mynde,
Was sett ferre bak for lak of just mesure.

Knyghthood in Grece and Troye the cité
Took hys principlys, and next in Rome toun,
And in Cartage, a famous gret cuntré,
Recoord of Hanybal and wourthy Scipioun;
The greete debaatys and the devisioun
Among these kyngdammys by marcial labour,
Fynal cause of ther destruccioun,
Was fawte of vertu and lakkyng of mesure.

To knyghthood longith the Chirche to supporte,
Wydewys, and maydenys, and poore folk to diffende,
Men in ther ryght knyghtly to recoumfoorte,
To comoun profight nyght and day entende,
Ther lyf, ther good manly to dispende,
To punysshe extorcioun, raveyne, and ech robbour,
And bryngen alle unto correccioun,
That be froward unto the just mesour.

Trewe juges and sergeauntis of the lawe,
For hate or frenshippe they shal ther doomys dresse,
Withoute excepcioun, and ther hand withdrawe,
Fro meede and yiftes alle surfetys to represse;
Holde trouthe and sustene rightwisnesse,
Mercy preferre alwey tofor rigour,
That fals for-sweryng have there noon interesse,
For lak of trouthe and lak of just mesour.

So egally ther doomys to avaunce,
Of God and trouthe alwey to takyn hede,
And Cambises to have in remembraunce,
That was slayn because that he took meede
Of poore folk, the causys they shall speede,
To moordre nor thefte they shal doo no favour,
In al ther doomys of conscience to dreede,
That ryght goo not bak, equité, nor mesour.

Meyris, sherevys, aldirmen, cunstablys,
Which that governe bourghes and citees,
Kepith your fraunchise and statutys profitablys,
That moost avayalle may to the comountees;
In no wise lese nought your libertees;
Accorde ech man with his trewe neyhbour,
As ye ar bounde to hih and lowh degrees,
That peys and wheyghte be kept, and just mesour.

Among yoursilf suffre noon extorcioun,
Let no wrong be doo unto the poraylle,
On thefte and manslaughte doo execucioun,
Beth weel providid for stuff and for vitaylle;
Let no devisioun, Salamon doth counsaylle,
Withinne yoursilf holde no socour;
And for a tresour which greetly may avaylle,
Among alle thyng kepe peys and just mesour.

Famous marchauntys, that ferre cuntrees ryde,
With al ther greete rychesse and wynnynges,
And artificerys, that at hom abyde,
So ferre castyng in many sundry thynges,
And been expert in wondirful konnyngges,
Of dyvers craftys t’avoyden al errour;
What may avaylle al your ymagynynges,
Withoute proporciouns of weyghte and just mesour?

Rekne up phesyk with all ther letuaryes,
Grocerys, mercerys, with ther greet habundaunce,
Expert surgeyns, prudent potecaryes,
And all ther weyghtes peysed in ballaunce,
Masouns, carpenterys, of Yngelond and of Fraunce,
Bakerys, browsterys, vyntenerys, with fressh lycour,
All set at nought to rekne in substaunce,
Yif peys or weyghte doo lake, or just mesour.

Ploughmen, carterys, with othir laborerys,
Dichers, delverys, that greet travaylle endure,
Which bern up all, and have doon many yeerys,
The staatis alle set here in portrature,
On Goddys wyll, and also by nature,
Alle oon ymage divers in ther degree,
Shulde be alle oon, by recoord of Scripture,
Be large mesour of parfight charyté.

Fro yeer to yeer th’experiencce is seyn,
Ne were the plough no staat myght endure;
The large feeldys shulde be bareyn,
No corn upgrowe nor greyn in his verdure,
Man to suppoorte, nor beeste in his nature,
For which we shulde of trouthe for our socour
Wourshippe the plough, sithe every creature
Hath of the ploughman his lyfoode be mesour.

So as the shepperde wacchith upon ther sheep,
The hoote somyr, the coolde wynterys nyght,
Spiritual heerdys shulde take keep
In Crystes foolde, with al ther fulle myght,
By vertuous doctryne as they ar holde of ryght,
To save ther sogettys fro wolvys fell rygour,
That heretikys quenche nat the lyght
Of Crystes feith nor of just mesour.

Heerdys with sheep shul walke in good pasture,
And toward nyght sewrly sette a foolde,
Of Isaak and Jacob a ful pleyn figure,
That wer shepperdys whyloom be dayes oolde;
Which lyk prelatys and bysshoppes as I toolde,
Th’estaatys here sett in charyté shal governe,
By good exaumple in heete and froostys coolde,
That ryght and mesure shal holde up the lanterne.

Strong as Herculees of manhood and of myght,
I am set here to stondyn at dyfence,
Wrong to represse, and to suppoorte ryght
With this burdoun of sturdy violence;
But unto alle that wyl doo reverence,
To alle the staatys sett here in portrature,
I shall to hem make no resistence,
That be governyd justly be mesure.

Among boorys, beerys, and leounnys,
Myn office is to walke in wyldirnesse,
Reste anyght in cavys and dongeounnys,
Tyl Phebus shewe a morwen his bryghtnesse
Now stonde I here to kepe in sekirnesse
This hows in sewyrté, with al my besy cure,
To letyn in folk, that of gentilnesse
Lyst hem governe justly be mesure.
(see note)


high; (t-note)

True sister
guide in high



an outlay of money; (t-note)
in plain truth
perfect; (t-note)

haughty cavalcades
moderation; renown
Reckon; nobility

conquered all the world; (see note)

killed; sword

stone; the goal of


Followed his example
country; (see note)


lack of virtue

belongs the duty
defend; (t-note)

common profit; (see note)
their wealth vigorously to use
hostile to

deliver their judgment

bribes; excess
instead of strict justice
perjury; no influence

impartially; judgments

(see note)


privileges; profitable statutes

balance; weight

(see note)

supplies; provisions

find refuge

craftsmen; (t-note)
So skillfully crafting
to avoid

physicians; potions

brewers, vintners

If scales; lack

hold up

(see note)

Without the plow; estate

grain in its greenness

(see note)

livelihood by


subjects from wolves’ fierce attack

(see note); (t-note)
in days of old; (t-note)

in defense

boars, bears; lions
My job
in the morning

Wish to govern themselves


Go To Mumming at Bishopswood