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  • 1909
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If you will look back you will see that this poetry is very much more like Layamon’s than like the poetry of Havelok the Dane. Although people had, for many years, been writing rhyming verse, Langland has, you see, gone back to the old alliterative poetry. Perhaps it was that, living far away in the country, Langland had written his poem before he had heard of the new kind of rhyming verses, for news traveled slowly in those days.

Two hundred years later, when The Vision of Piers the Ploughman was first printed, the printer in his preface explained alliterative verse very well. “Langland wrote altogether in metre,” he says, “but not after the manner of our rimers that write nowadays (for his verses end not alike), but the nature of his metre is to have three words, at the least, in every verse which begin with some one letter. As for example the first two verses of the book run upon ‘s,’ as thus:

‘In a somer season whan sette was the sunne I shope me into shrobbes as I a shepe were.’

The next runneth upon ‘h,’ as thus:

‘In habite as an Hermite unholy of workes.’

This thing being noted, the metre shall be very pleasant to read. The English is according to the time it was written in, and the sense somewhat dark, but not so hard but that it may be understood of such as will not stick to break the shell of the nut for the kernel’s sake.”

This printer also says in his preface that the book was first written in the time of King Edward III, “In whose time it pleased God to open the eyes of many to see his truth, giving them boldness of heart to open their mouths and cry out against the works of darkness. . . . There is no manner of vice that reigneth in any estate of man which this writer hath not godly, learnedly, and wittily rebuked.”*

*R. Crowley is his preface to Piers Ploughman, printed in 1550.

I hope that you will be among those who will not “stick to break the shell of the nut for the kernel’s sake,” and that although the “sense be somewhat dark” you will some day read the book for yourselves. Meantime in the next chapter I will tell you a little more about it.

Chapter XX “PIERS THE PLOUGHMAN” — continued

WHEN Langland fell asleep upon the Malvern Hills he dreamed a wondrous dream. He thought that he saw a “fair field full of folk,” where was gathered “all the wealth of the world and the woe both.”

“Working and wondering as the world asketh, Some put them to the plough and played them full seldom, In eareing and sowing laboured full hard.”

But some are gluttons and others think only of fine clothes. Some pray and others jest. There are rogues and knaves here, friars and priests, barons and burgesses, bakers and butchers, tailors and tanners, masons and miners, and folk of many other crafts. Indeed, the field is the world. It lies between a tower and a dungeon. The tower is God, the dungeon is the dwelling of the Evil One.

Then, as Langland looked on all this, he saw

“A lady lovely in face, in linnen i-clothed, Come adown from the cliff and spake me fair, And said, ‘Son, sleepest thou? Seest thou this people All how busy they be about the maze?'”

Langland was “afeard of her face though she was fair.” But the lovely lady, who is Holy Church, speaks gently to the dreamer. She tells him that the tower is the dwelling of Truth, who is the lord of all and who gives to each as he hath need. The dungeon is the castle of Care.

“Therein liveth a wight that Wrong is called, The Father of Falseness.”

Love alone, said the lady, leads to Heaven,

“Therefore I warn ye, the rich, have ruth on the poor. Though ye be mighty in councils, be meek in your works, For the same measure ye meet, amiss or otherwise, Ye shall be weighed therewith when ye wend hence.”

“Truth is best in all things,” she said at length. “I have told thee now what Truth is, and may no longer linger.” And so she made ready to go. But the dreamer kneeled on his knees and prayed her stay yet a while to teach him to know Falsehood also, as well as Truth.

And the lady answered:–

“‘Look on thy left hand and see where he standeth, Both False and Flattery and all his train.’ I looked on the left hand as the Lady me taught. Then was I ware of a woman wondrously clothéd, Purfled with fur, the richest on earth. Crowned with a crown. The King hath no better. All her five fingers were fretted with rings Of the most precious stones that a prince ever wore; In red scarlet she rode, beribboned with gold, There is no queen alive that is more adorned.”

This was Lady Meed or Bribery. “To-morrow,” said Holy Church, “she shall wed with False.” And so the lovely Lady departed.

Left alone the dreamer watched the preparations for the wedding. The Earldom of Envy, the Kingdom of Covetousness, the Isle of Usury were granted as marriage gifts to the pair. But Theology was angry. He would not permit the wedding to take place. “Ere this wedding be wrought, woe betide thee,” he cried. “Meed is wealthy; I know it. God grant us to give her unto whom Truth wills. But thou hast bound her fast to Falseness. Meed is gently born. Lead her therefore to London, and there see if the law allows this wedding.”

So, listening to the advice of Theology, all the company rode off to London, Guile leading the way.

But Soothness pricked on his palfrey and passed them all and came to the King’s court, where he told Conscience all about the matter, and Conscience told the King.

Then quoth the King, “If I might catch False and Flattery or any of their masters, I would avenge me on the wretches that work so ill, and would hang them by the neck and all that them abet.”

So he told the Constable to seize False and to cut off Guile’s head, “and let not Liar escape.” But Dread was at the door and heard the doom. He warned the others, so that they all fled away save Meed the maiden.

“Save Meed the maiden no man durst abide, And truly to tell she trembled for fear, And she wept and wrung her hands when she was taken.”

But the King called a Clerk and told him to comfort Meed. So Justice soon hurried to her bower to comfort her kindly, and many others followed him. Meed thanked them all and “gave them cups of clean gold and pieces of silver, rings with rubies and riches enough.” And pretending to be sorry for all that she had done amiss, Meed confessed her sins and was forgiven.

The King then, believing that she was really sorry, wished to marry her to Conscience. But Conscience would not have her, for he knew that she was wicked. He tells of all the evil things she does, by which Langland means to show what wicked things men will do if tempted by bribery and the hope of gain.

“Then mourned Meed and plained her to the King.” If men did great and noble deeds, she said, they deserved praise and thanks and rewards.
“‘Nay,’ quoth Conscience to the King, and kneeled to the ground,
‘There be two manner of Meeds, my Lord, by thy life, That one the good God giveth by His grace, giveth in His bliss
To them that will work while that they are here.'”

What a laborer received, he said, was not Meed but just Wages. Bribery, on the other hand, was ever wicked, and he would have none of her.

In spite of all the talk, however, no one could settle the question. So at length Conscience set forth to bring Reason to decide.

When Reason heard that he was wanted, he saddled his horse Suffer-till-I-see-my-time and came to court with Wit and Wisdom in his train.

The King received him kindly, and they talked together. But while they talked Peace came complaining that Wrong had stolen his goods and ill-treated him in many ways.

Wrong well knew that the complaint was just, but with the help of Meed he won Wit and Wisdom to his side. But Reason stood out against him.

“‘Counsel me not,’ quoth Reason, ‘ruth to have Till lords and ladies all love truth
And their sumptuous garments be put into chests, Till spoiled children be chastened with rods, Till clerks and knights be courteous with their tongues, Till priests themselves practise their preaching And their deeds be such as may draw us to goodness.'”

The King acknowledged that Reason was right, and begged him to stay with him always and help him to rule. “I am ready,” quoth Reason, “to rest with thee ever so that Conscience be our counsellor.”

To that the King agreed, and he and his courtiers all went to church. Here suddenly the dream ends. Langland cries:–

“Then waked I of my sleep. I was woe withal That I had not slept more soundly and seen much more.”

The dreamer arose and continued his wandering. But he had only gone a few steps when once again he sank upon the grass and fell asleep and dreamed. Again he saw the field full of folk , and to them now Conscience was preaching, and at his words many began to repent them of their evil deeds. Pride, Envy, Sloth and others confessed their sins and received forgiveness.

Then all these penitent folk set forth in search of Saint Truth, some riding, some walking. “But there were few there so wise as to know the way thither, and they went all amiss.” No man could tell them where Saint Truth lived. And now appears at last Piers Ploughman, who gives his name to the whole poem.

“Quoth a ploughman and put forth his head, ‘I know him as well as a clerk know his books. Clear Conscience and Wit showed me his place And did engage me since to serve him ever. Both in sowing and setting, which I labour, I have been his man this fifteen winters.'”

Piers described to the pilgrims all the long way that they must go in order to find Truth. He told them that they must go through Meekness; that they must cross the ford Honor-your-father and turn aside from the brook Bear-no-false-witness, and so on and on until they come at last to Saint Truth.

“It were a hard road unless we had a guide that might go with us afoot until we got there,” said the pilgrims. So Piers offered, if they would wait until he had plowed his field, to go with them and show them the way.

“That would be a long time to wait,” said a lady. “What could we women do meantime?”

And Piers answered:–

“Some should sew sacks to hold wheat. And you who have wool weave it fast,
Spin it speedily, spare not your fingers Unless it be a holy day or holy eve.
Look out your linen and work on it quickly, The needy and the naked take care how they live, And cast on them clothes for the cold, for so Truth desires.”

Then many of the pilgrims began to help Piers with his work. Each man did what he could, “and some to please Piers picked up the weeds.”

“But some of them sat and sang at ale And helped him to plough with ‘Hy-trolly-lolly.'”

To these idle ones Piers went in anger. “If ye do not run quickly to your work,” he cried, “you will receive no wage; and if ye die of hunger, who will care.”

Then these idle ones began to pretend that they were blind or lame and could not work. They made great moan, but Piers took no heed and called for Hunger. Then Hunger seized the idle ones and beat and buffeted them until they were glad to work.

At last Truth heard of Piers and of all the good that he was doing among the pilgrims, and sent him a pardon for all his sins. In those days people who had done wrong used to pay money to a priest and think that they were forgiven by God. Against that belief Langland preaches, and his pardon is something different. It is only

“Do well and have well, and God shall have thy soul. And do evil and have evil, hope none other That after thy death day thou shalt turn to the Evil One.”

And over this pardon a priest and Piers began so loudly to dispute that the dreamer awoke,

“And saw the sun that time towards the south, And I meatless and moneyless upon the Malvern Hills.”

That is a little of the story of the first part of Piers Ploughman. It is an allegory, and in writing it Langland wished to hold up to scorn all the wickedness that he saw around him, and sharply to point out many causes of misery. There is laughter in his poem, but it is the terrible and harsh laughter of contempt. His most bitter words, perhaps, are for the idle rich, but the idle poor do not escape. Those who beg without shame, who cheat and steal, who are greedy and drunken have a share of his wrath. Yet Langland is not all harshness. His great word is Duty, but he speaks of Love too. “Learn to love, quoth King, and leave off all other.” The poem is rambling and disconnected. Characters come on the scene and vanish again without cause. Stories begin and do not end. It is all wild and improbable like a dream, yet it is full of interest.

But perhaps the chief interest and value of Piers Ploughman is that it is history. It tells us much of what the people thought and of how they lived in those days. It shows us the first mutterings of the storm that was to rend the world. This was the storm of the Reformation which was to divide the world into Protestant and Catholic. But Langland himself was not a Protestant. Although he speaks bitter words against the evil deeds of priest and monk, he does not attack the Church. To him she is still Holy Church, a radiant and lovely lady.


The Vision of Piers Ploughman, by W. Langland


IN all the land there is perhaps no book so common as the Bible. In homes where there are no other books we find at least a Bible, and the Bible stories are almost the first that we learn to know.

But in the fourteenth century there were no English Bibles. The priests and clergy and a few great people perhaps had Latin Bibles. And although Caedmon’s songs had long been forgotten, at different times some parts of the Bible had been translated into English, so that the common people sometimes heard a Bible story. But an English Bible as a whole did not exist; and if to-day it is the commonest and cheapest book in all the land, it is to John Wyclif in the first place that we owe it.

John Wyclif was born, it is thought, about 1324 in a little Yorkshire village. Not much is known of his early days except that he went to school and to Oxford University. In time he became one of the most learned men of his day, and was made Head, or Master, of Balliol College.

This is the first time in this book that we have heard of a university. The monasteries had, until now, been the centers of learning. But now the two great universities of Oxford and Cambridge were taking their place. Men no longer went to the monasteries to learn, but to the universities; and this was one reason, perhaps, why the land had become filled with so many idle monks. Their profession of teaching had been taken from them, and they had found nothing else with which to fill their time.

But at first the universities were very like monasteries. The clerks, as the students were called, often took some kind of vow,–they wore a gown and shaved their heads in some fashion or other. The colleges, too, were built very much after the style of monasteries, as may be seen in some of the old college buildings of Oxford or Cambridge to this day. The life in every way was like the life in a monastery. It was only by slow degrees that the life and the teaching grew away from the old model.

While Wyclif grew to be a man, England had fallen on troublous times. Edward III, worn out by his French wars, had become old and feeble, and the power was in the hands of his son, John of Gaunt. The French wars and the Black Death had slain many of the people, and those who remained were miserably poor. Yet poor though they were, much money was gathered from them every year and sent to the Pope, who at that time still ruled the Church in England as elsewhere.

But now the people of England became very unwilling to pay so much money to the Pope, especially as at this time he was a Frenchman ruling, not from Rome, but from Avignon. It was folly, Englishmen said, to pay money into the hands of a Frenchman, the enemy of their country, who would use it against their country. And while many people were feeling like this, the Pope claimed still more. He now claimed a tribute which King John had promised long before, but which had not for more than thirty years been paid.

John of Gaunt made up his mind to resist this claim, and John Wyclif, who had already begun to preach against the power of the Pope, helped him. They were strange companions, and while John of Gaunt fought only for more power, Wyclif fought for freedom both in religion and in life. God alone was lord of all the world, he said, and to God alone each man must answer for his soul, and to no man beside. The money belonging to the Church of England belonged to God and to the people of England, and ought to be used for the good of the people, and not be sent abroad to the Pope. In those days it needed a bold man to use such words, and Wyclif was soon called upon to answer for his boldness before the Archbishop of Canterbury and all his bishops.

The council was held in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Wyclif was fearless, and he obeyed the Archbishop’s command. But as he walked up the long aisle to the chapel where the bishops were gathered, John of Gaunt marched by his side, and Lord Percy, Earl Marshal of England, cleared a way for him through the throng of people that filled the church. The press was great, and Earl Percy drove a way through the crowd with so much haughtiness and violence that the Bishop of London cried out at him in wrath.

“Had I known what masteries you would use in my church,” he said, “I had kept you from coming there.”

“At which words the Duke, disdaining not a little, answered the Bishop and said that he would keep such mastery there though he said ‘Nay.'”* Thus, after much struggling, Wyclif and his companions arrived at the chapel. There Wyclif stood humbly enough before his Bishop. But Earl Percy bade him be seated, for as he had much to answer he had need of a soft seat.

*Foxe, Acts and Monuments.

Thereat the Bishop of London was angry again, and cried out saying that it was not the custom for those who had come to answer for their misdeeds to sit.

“Upon these words a fire began to heat and kindle between them; insomuch that they began to rate and revile one the other, that the whole multitude therewith disquieted began to be set on a hurry.”*

*Foxe, Acts and Monuments.

The Duke, too, joined in, threatening at last to drag the Bishop out of the church by the hair of his head. But the Londoners, when they heard that, were very wrathful, for they hated the Duke. They cried out they would not suffer their Bishop to be ill-used, and the uproar became so great that the council broke up without there being any trial at all.

But soon after this no fewer than five Bulls, or letters from the Pope, were sent against Wyclif. In one the University of Oxford was ordered to imprison him; in others Wyclif was ordered to appear before the Pope; in still another the English bishops were ordered to arrest him and try him themselves. But little was done, for the English would not imprison an English subject at the bidding of a French Pope, lest they should seem to give him royal power in England.

At length, however, Wyclif was once more brought before a court of bishops in London. By this time Edward III had died, and Richard, the young son of the Black Prince, had come to the throne. His mother, the Princess of Wales, was Wyclif’s friend, and she now sent a message to the bishops bidding them let him alone. This time, too, the people of London were on his side; they had learned to understand that he was their friend. So they burst into the council-room eager to defend the man whose only crime was that of trying to protect England from being robbed. And thus the second trial came to an end as the first had done.

Wyclif now began to preach more boldly than before. He preached many things that were very different from the teaching of the Church of Rome, and as he was one of the most learned men of his time, people crowded to Oxford to hear him. John of Gaunt, now no longer his friend, ordered him to be silent. But Wyclif still spoke. The University was ordered to crush the heretic. But the University stood by him until the King added his orders to those of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Then Wyclif was expelled from the University, but still not silenced, for he went into the country and there wrote and taught.

Soon his followers grew in numbers. They were called Poor Priests, and clad in long brown robes they wandered on foot through the towns and villages teaching and preaching. Wyclif trusted that they would do all the good that the old friars had done, and that they would be kept from falling into the evil ways of the later friars. But Churchmen were angry, and called his followers Lollards or idle babblers.

Wyclif, however, cared no longer for the great, he trusted no more in them. It was to the people now that he appealed. He wrote many books, and at first he wrote in Latin. But by degrees he saw that if he wanted to reach the hearts of the people, he must preach and teach in English. And so he began to write English books. But above all the things that he wrote we remember him chiefly for his translation of the Bible. He himself translated the New Testament, and others helped him with the Old Testament, and so for the first time the people of England had the whole Bible in their own tongue. They had it, too, in fine scholarly language, and this was a great service to our literature. For naturally the Bible was a book which every one wished to know, and the people of England, through it, became accustomed to use fine stately language.

To his life’s end Wyclif went on teaching and writing, although many attempts were made to silence him. At last in 1384 the Pope summoned him to Rome. Wyclif did not obey, for he answered another call. One day, as he heard mass in his own church, he fell forward speechless. He never spoke again, but died three days later.

After Wyclif’s death his followers were gradually crushed out, and the Lollards disappear from our history. But his teaching never quite died, for by giving the English people the Bible Wyclif left a lasting mark on England; and although the Reformation did not come until two hundred years later, he may be looked upon as its forerunner.

It is hard to explain all that William Langland and John Wyclif stand for in English literature and in English history. It was the evil that they saw around them that made them write and speak as they did, and it was their speaking and writing, perhaps, that gave the people courage to rise against oppression. Thus their teaching and writing mark the beginning of new life to the great mass of the people of England. For in June, 1381, while John Wyclif still lived and wrote, Wat Tyler led his men to Blackheath in a rebellion which proved to be the beginning of freedom for the workers of England. And although at first sight there seems to be no connection between the two, it was the same spirit working in John Wyclif and Wat Tyler that made the one speak and the other fight as he did.


TO-DAY, as we walk about the streets and watch the people hurry to and fro, we cannot tell from the dress they wear to what class they belong. We cannot tell among the men who pass us, all clad alike in dull, sad-colored clothes, who is a knight and who is a merchant, who is a shoemaker and who is a baker. If we see them in their shops we can still tell, perhaps, for we know that a butcher always wears a blue apron, and a baker a white hat. These are but the remains of a time long ago when every one dressed according to his calling, whether at work or not. It was easy then to tell by the cut and texture of his clothes to what rank in life a man belonged, for each dressed accordingly, and only the great might wear silk and velvet and golden ornaments.

And in the time of which we have been reading, in the England where Edward III and Richard II ruled, where Langland sadly dreamed and Wyclif boldly wrote and preached, there lived a man who has left for us a clear and truthful picture of those times. He has left a picture so vivid that as we read his words the people of England of the fourteenth century still seem to us to live. This man was Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer was a poet, and is generally looked upon as the first great English poet. Like Caedmon he is called the “Father of English Poetry,” and each has a right to the name. For if Caedmon was the first great poet of the English people in their new home of England, the language he used was Anglo-Saxon. The language which Chaucer used was English, though still not quite the English which we use to-day.

But although Chaucer was a great poet, we know very little about his life. What we do know has nothing to do with his poems or of how he wrote them. For in those days, and for long after, a writer was not expected to live by his writing; but in return for giving to the world beautiful thoughts, beautiful songs, the King or some great noble would reward him by giving him a post at court. About this public life of Chaucer we have a few facts. But it is difficult at times to fit the man of camp, and court, and counting-house to the poet and story-teller who possessed a wealth of words and a knowledge of how to use them greater than any Englishman who had lived before him. And it is rather through his works than through the scanty facts of his life that we learn to know the real man, full of shrewd knowledge of the world, of humor, kindliness, and cheerful courage.

Chaucer was a man of the middle class. His father, John Chaucer, was a London wine merchant. The family very likely came at first from France, and the name may mean shoemaker, from an old Norman word chaucier or chaussier, a shoemaker. And although the French word for shoemaker is different now, there is still a slang word chausseur, meaning a cobbler.

We know nothing at all of Chaucer as a boy, nothing of where he went to school, nor do we know if he ever went to college. The first thing we hear of him is that he was a page in the house of the Princess Elizabeth, the wife of Prince Lionel, who was the third son of Edward III. So, although Chaucer belonged to the middle class, he must have had some powerful friend able to get him a place in a great household.

In those days a boy became a page in a great household very much as he might now become an office-boy in a large merchant’s office. A page had many duties. He had to wait at table, hold candles, go messages, and do many other little household services. Such a post seems strange to us now, yet it was perhaps quite as interesting as sitting all day long on an office stool. In time of war it was certainly more exciting, for a page had often to follow his master to the battlefield. And as a war with France was begun in 1359, Geoffrey went across the Channel with his prince.

Of what befell Chaucer in France we know nothing, except that he was taken prisoner, and that the King, Edward III, himself gave 16 pounds towards his ransom. That sounds a small sum, but it meant as much as 240 pounds would now. So it would seem that, boy though he was, Geoffrey Chaucer had already become important. Perhaps he was already known as a poet and a good story-teller whom the King was loath to lose. But again for seven years after this we hear nothing more about him. And when next we do hear of him, he is valet de chambre in the household of Edward III. Then a few years later he married one of Queen Philippa’s maids-in-waiting.

Of Chaucer’s life with his wife and family again we know nothing except that he had at least one son, named Lewis. We know this because he wrote a book, called A Treatise on the Astrolabe, for this little son. An astrolabe was an instrument used in astronomy to find out the distance of stars from the earth, the position of the sun and moon, the length of days, and many other things about the heavens and their bodies.

Chaucer calls his book A Treatise on the Astrolabe, Bread and Milk for Children. “Little Lewis, my son,” he says in the beginning, “I have perceived well by certain evidences thine ability to learn science touching numbers and proportions; and as well consider I thy busy prayer in special to learn the treatise of the astrolabe.” But although there were many books written on the subject, some were unknown in England, and some were not to be trusted. “And some of them be too hard to thy tender age of ten years. This treatise then will I show thee under few light rules and naked words in English; for Latin canst thou yet but small, my little son. . . .

“Now will I pray meekly every discreet person that readeth or heareth this little treatise, to have my rude inditing for excused, and my superfluity of words, for two causes. The first cause is for that curious inditing and hard sentence is full heavy at one and the same time for a child to learn. And the second cause is this, that soothly me seemeth better to write unto a child twice a good sentence than he forget it once. And Lewis, if so be I shew you in my easy English as true conclusions as be shewn in Latin, grant me the more thank, and pray God save the King, who is lord of this English.”

So we see from this that more than five hundred years ago a kindly father saw the need of making simple books on difficult subjects for children. You may never want to read this book itself, indeed few people read it now, but I think that we should all be sorry to lose the preface, although it has in it some long words which perhaps a boy of ten in our day would still find “full heavy.”

It is interesting, too, to notice in this preface that here Chaucer calls his King “Lord of this English.” We now often speak of the “King’s English,” so once again we see how an everyday phrase links us with the past.


CHAUCER rose in the King’s service. He became an esquire, and was sent on business for the King to France and to Italy. To Italy he went at least twice, and it is well to remember this, as it had an effect on his most famous poems. He must have done his business well, for we find him receiving now a pension for life worth about 200 pounds in our money, now a grant of a daily pitcher of wine besides a salary of “71/2d. a day and two robes yearly.”

Chaucer’s wife, too, had a pension, so the poet was well off. He had powerful friends also, among them John of Gaunt. And when the Duke’s wife died Chaucer wrote a lament which is called the Dethe of Blaunche the Duchess, or sometimes the Book of the Duchess. This is one of the earliest known poems of Chaucer, and although it is not so good as some which are later, there are many beautiful lines in it.

The poet led a busy life. He was a good business man, and soon we find him in the civil service, as we would call it now. He was made Comptroller of Customs, and in this post he had to work hard, for one of the conditions was that he must write out the accounts with his own hand, and always be in the office himself. If we may take some lines he wrote to be about himself, he was so busy all day long that he had not time to hear what was happening abroad, or even what was happening among his friends and neighbors.

“Not only from far countree,
That there no tidings cometh to thee; Not of thy very neighbours,
That dwellen almost at thy doors, Thou hearest neither that nor this.”

Yet after his hard office work was done he loved nothing better than to go back to his books, for he goes on to say:

“For when thy labour done all is
And hast y-made thy reckonings,
Instead of rest and newë things
Thou goest home to thy house anon, And all so dumb as any stone,
Thou sittest at another book,
Till fully dazéd is thy look,
And livest thus as a hermite
Although thine abstinence is light.”

But if Chaucer loved books he loved people too, and we may believe that he readily made friends, for there was a kingly humor about him that must have drawn people to him. And that he knew men and their ways we learn from his poetry, for it is full of knowledge of men and women.

For many years Chaucer was well off and comfortable. But he did not always remain so. There came a time when his friend and patron, John of Gaunt, fell from power, and Chaucer lost his appointments. Soon after that his wife died, and with her life her pension ceased. So for a year or two the poet knew something of poverty–poverty at least compared to what he had been used to. But if he lost his money he did not lose his sunny temper, and in all his writings we find little that is bitter.

After a time John of Gaunt returned to power, and again Chaucer had a post given to him, and so until he died he suffered ups and downs. Born when Edward III was in his highest glory, Chaucer lived to see him hated by his people. He lived through the reign of Edward’s grandson, Richard II, and knew him from the time when as a gallant yellow-haired boy he had faced Wat Tyler and his rioters, till as a worn and broken prisoner he yielded the crown to Henry of Lancaster, the son of John of Gaunt. But before the broken King died in his darksome prison Chaucer lay taking his last rest in St. Benet’s Chapel in Westminster. He was the first great poet to be laid there, but since then there have gathered round him so many bearing the greatest names in English literature that we call it now the “Poet’s Corner.”

But although Chaucer lived in stirring times, although he was a soldier and a courtier, he does not, in the book by which we know him best, write of battles and of pomp, of kings and of princes. In this book we find plain, everyday people, people of the great middle class of merchants and tradesmen and others of like calling, to which Chaucer himself belonged. It was a class which year by year had been growing more and more strong in England, and which year by year had been making its strength more and more felt. But it was a class which no one had thought of writing about in plain fashion. And it is in the Canterbury Tales that we have, for the first time in the English language, pictures of real men, and what is more wonderful, of real women. They are not giants or dwarfs, they are not fairy princes or knights in shining armor. They do no wondrous deeds of strength or skill. They are not queens of marvelous beauty or enchanted princesses. They are simply plain, middle-class English people, and yet they are very interesting.

In Chaucer’s time, books, although still copied by hand, had become more plentiful than ever before. And as more and more people learned to read, the singing time began to draw to a close. Stories were now not all written in rhyme, and poetry was not all written to be sung. Yet the listening time was not quite over, for these were still the days of talk and story-telling. Life went at leisure pace. There was no hurry, there was no machinery. All sewing was done by hand, so when the ladies of a great household gathered to their handiwork, it was no unusual thing for one among them to lighten the long hours with tales read or told. Houses were badly lighted, and there was little to do indoors in the long winter evenings, so the men gathered together and listened while one among them told of love and battle. Indeed, through all the life of the Middle Ages there was room for story-telling.

So now, although Chaucer meant his tales to be read, he made believe that they were told by a company of people on a journey from London to Canterbury. He thus made a framework for them of the life he knew, and gave a reason for them all being told in one book.

But a reason had to be given for the journey, for in those days people did not travel about from place to place for the mere pleasure of seeing another town, as we do now. Few people thought of going for a change of air, nobody perhaps ever thought about going to the seaside for the summer. In short, people always had a special object in taking a journey.

One reason for this was that traveling was slow and often dangerous. The roads were bad, and people nearly all traveled on horseback and in company, for robbers lurked by the way ready to attack and kill, for the sake of their money, any who rode alone and unprotected. So when a man had to travel he tried to arrange to go in company with others.

In olden days the most usual reason for a journey, next to business, was a pilgrimage. Sometimes this was simply an act of religion or devotion. Clad in a simple gown, and perhaps with bare feet, the pilgrim set out. Carrying a staff in his hand, and begging for food and shelter by the road, he took his way to the shrine of some saint. There he knelt and prayed and felt himself blessed in the deed. Sometimes it was an act of penance for some great sin done; sometimes of thanksgiving for some great good received, some great danger passed.

But as time went on these pilgrimages lost their old meaning. People no longer trudged along barefoot, wearing a pilgrim’s garb. They began to look upon a pilgrimage more as a summer outing, and dressed in their best they rode comfortably on horseback. And it is a company of pilgrims such as this that Chaucer paints for us. He describes himself as being of the company, and it is quite likely that Chaucer really did at one time go upon this pilgrimage from London to Canterbury, for it was a very favorite one. Not only was the shrine of St. Thomas at Canterbury very beautiful in those days, but it was also within easy distance of London. Neither costing much nor lasting long, it was a journey which well-to-do merchantmen and others like them could well afford.

Chaucer tells us that it was when the first sunshiny days of April came that people began to think of such pilgrimages:–

“When that April with his showers sweet, The drought of March hath pierced to the root,”

when the soft wind “with his sweet breath inspired hath in every holt and heath the tender crops”; when the little birds make new songs, then “longen folk to go on pilgrimages, and palmers for to seeken strange lands, and especially from every shire’s end of England, to Canterbury they wend.”

So one day in April a company of pilgrims gathered at the Tabard Inn on the south side of the Thames, not far from London Bridge. A tabard, or coat without sleeves, was the sign of the inn; hence its name. In those days such a coat would often be worn by workmen for ease in working, but it has come down to us only as the gayly colored coat worn by heralds.

At the Tabard Inn twenty-nine “of sundry folk,” besides Chaucer himself, were gathered. They were all strangers to each other, but they were all bound on the same errand. Every one was willing to be friendly with his neighbor, and Chaucer in his cheery way had soon made friends with them all.

“And shortly when the sun was to rest, So had I spoke with them every one.”

And having made their acquaintance, Chaucer begins to describe them all so that we may know them too. He describes them so well that he makes them all living to us. Some we grow to love; some we smile upon and have a kindly feeling for, for although they are not fine folk, they are so very human we cannot help but like them; and some we do not like at all, for they are rude and rough, as the poet meant them to be.


CHAUCER begins his description of the people who were gathered at the Tabard Inn with the knight, who was the highest in rank among them.

“A knight there was, and that a worthy man, . . . . . .
And though he was worthy he was wise, And of his port as meek as any maid.
He never yet no villainy ne’er said In all his life unto no manner wight;
He was a very perfect, gentle knight.”

Yet he was no knight of romance or fairy tale, but a good honest English gentleman who had fought for his King. His coat was of fustian and was stained with rust from his armor, for he had just come back from fighting, and was still clad in his war-worn clothes. “His horse was good, but he ne was gay.”

With the knight was his son, a young squire of twenty years. He was gay and handsome, with curling hair and comely face. His clothes were in the latest fashion, gayly embroidered. He sat his horse well and guided it with ease. He was merry and careless and clever too, for he could joust and dance, sing and play, read and write, and indeed do everything as a young squire should. Yet with it all “courteous he was, lowly and serviceable.”

With these two came their servant, a yeoman, clad in hood of green, and carrying besides many other weapons a “mighty bow.”

As was natural in a gathering such as this, monks and friars and their like figured largely. There was a monk, a worldly man, fond of dress, fond of hunting, fond of a good dinner; and a friar even more worldly and pleasure-loving. There was a pardoner, a man who sold pardons to those who had done wrong, and a sumpnour or summoner, who was so ugly and vile that children were afraid of him. A summoner was a person who went to summon or call people to appear before the Church courts when they had done wrong. He was a much-hated person, and both he and the pardoner were great rogues and cheats and had no love for each other. There was also a poor parson.

All these, except the poor parson, Chaucer holds up to scorn because he had met many such in real life who, under the pretense of religion, lived bad lives. But that it was not the Church that he scorned or any who were truly good he shows by his picture of the poor parson. He was poor in worldly goods:–

“But rich he was in holy thought and work, He was also a learned man, a clerk
That Christ’s gospel truly would preach, His parishioners devoutly would he teach; Benign he was and wonder diligent,
And in adversity full patient.
. . . . .
Wide was his parish, and houses far asunder, But he left naught for rain nor thunder In sickness nor in mischief to visit
The farthest of his parish, great or lite* Upon his feet, and in his hand a staff. The noble ensample to his sheep he gave, That first he wrought, and afterward he taught.”


There was no better parson anywhere. He taught his people to walk in Christ’s way. But first he followed it himself.

Chaucer gives this good man a brother who is a plowman.

“A true worker and a good was he,
Living in peace and perfect charity.”

He could dig, and he could thresh, and everything to which he put his hand he did with a will.

Besides all the other religious folk there were a prioress and a nun. In those days the convents were the only schools for fine ladies, and the prioress perhaps spent her days teaching them. Chaucer makes her very prim and precise.

“At meat well taught was she withal, She let no morsel from her lips fall,
Nor wet her fingers in her sauce deep. Well could she carry a morsel, and well keep That no drop might fall upon her breast.*

In courtesy was set full mickle her lest.** Her over lip wiped she so clean,
That in her cup there was no morsel seen Of grease, when she drunken had her draught.”

*It should be remembered that in those days forks were unknown, and people used their fingers.

And she was so tender hearted! She would cry if she saw a mouse caught in a trap, and she fed her little dog on the best of everything. In her dress she was very dainty and particular. And yet with all her fine ways we feel that she was no true lady, and that ever so gently Chaucer is making fun of her.

Besides the prioress and the nun there was only one other woman in the company. This was the vulgar, bouncing Wife of Bath. She dressed in rich and gaudy clothes, she liked to go about to see and be seen and have a good time. She had been married five times, and though she was getting old and rather deaf, she was quite ready to marry again, if the husband she had should die before her.

Chaucer describes nearly every one in the company, and last of all he pictures for us the host of the Tabard Inn.

“A seemly man our host was withal
For to have been a marshal in a hall. A large man he was with eyen stepe,*
A fairer burgesse was there none in Chepe,** Bold was his speech, and wise and well y-taught, And of manhood him lacked right naught, Eke thereto he was right a merry man.”

**Cheapside, a street in London.

The host’s name was Harry Baily, a big man and jolly fellow who dearly loved a joke. After supper was over he spoke to all the company gathered there. He told them how glad he was to see them, and that he had not had so merry a company that year. Then he told them that he had thought of something to amuse them on the long way to Canterbury. It was this:–

“That each of you to shorten of your way In this voyage shall tell tales tway*– To Canterbury-ward I mean it so,
And homeward ye shall tellen other two;– Of adventures which whilom have befallen. And which of you the beareth you best of all, That is to say, that telleth in this case Tales of best sentence, and most solace, Shall have a supper at all our cost,
Here in this place, sitting at this post, When that we come again fro Canterbury. And for to make you the more merry
I will myself gladly with you ride, Right at mine own cost, and be your guide.”


To this every one willingly agreed, and next morning they waked very early and set off. And having ridden a little way they cast lots as to who should tell the first tale. The lot fell upon the knight, who accordingly began.

All that I have told you so far forms the first part of the book and is called the prologue, which means really “before word” or explanation. It is perhaps the most interesting part of the book, for it is entirely Chaucer’s own and it is truly English.

It is said that Chaucer borrowed the form of his famous tales from a book called The Decameron, written by an Italian poet named Boccaccio. Decameron comes from two Greek words deka, ten, and hemera, a day, the book being so called because the stories in it were supposed to be told in ten days. During a time of plague in Florence seven ladies and three gentlemen fled and took refuge in a house surrounded by a garden far from the town. There they remained for ten days, and to amuse themselves each told a tale every day, so that there are a hundred tales in all in The Decameron.

It is very likely that in one of his journeys to Italy Chaucer saw this book. Perhaps he even met Boccaccio, and it is more than likely that he met Petrarch, another great Italian poet who also retold one of the tales of The Decameron. Several of the tales which Chaucer makes his people tell are founded on these tales. Indeed, nearly all his poems are founded on old French, Italian, or Latin tales. But although Chaucer takes his material from others, he tells the stories in his own way, and so makes them his own; and he never wrote anything more truly English in spirit than the prologue to the Canterbury Tales.

Some of these stories you will like to read, but others are too coarse and rude to give you any pleasure. Even the roughness of these tales, however, helps us to picture the England of those far-off days. We see from them how hard and rough the life must have been when people found humor and fun in jokes in which we can feel only disgust.

But even in Chaucer’s day there were those who found such stories coarse. “Precious fold,” Chaucer calls them. He himself perhaps did not care for them, indeed he explains in the tales why he tells them. Here is a company of common, everyday people, he said, and if I am to make you see these people, if they are to be living and real to you, I must make them act and speak as such common people would act and speak. They are churls, and they must speak like churls and not like fine folk, and if you don’t like the tale, turn over the leaf and choose another.

“What should I more say but this miller He would his words for no man forbear, But told his churls tale in his manner. Me thinketh that I shall rehearse it here; And therefore every gently wight I pray, For Goddes love deem not that I say
Of evil intent, but for I might rehearse Their tales all, be they better or worse, Or else falsen some of my matter:
And therefore, who so listeth it not to hear, Turn over the leaf and choose another tale; For he shall find enow, both great and small, In storial thing that toucheth gentlesse, And eke morality and holiness,–
Blame not me if that ye choose amiss. This miller is a churl ye know well,
So was the Reeve, and many more,
And wickedness they tolden both two. Advise you, put me out of blame;
And eke men shall not make earnest of game.”

If Chaucer had written all the tales that he meant to write, there would have been one hundred and twenty-four in all. But the poet died long before his work was done, and as it is there are only twenty-four. Two of these are not finished; one, indeed, is only begun. Thus, you see, many of the pilgrims tell no story at all, and we do not know who got the prize, nor do we hear anything of the grand supper at the end of the journey.

Chaucer is the first of our poets who had a perfect sense of sound. He delights us not only with his stories, but with the beauty of the words he uses. We lose a great deal of that beauty when his poetry is put into modern English, as are all the quotations which I have given you. It is only when we can read the poems in the quaint English of Chaucer’s time that we can see truly how fine it is. So, although you may begin to love Chaucer now, you must look forward to a time when you will be able to read his stories as he wrote them. Then you will love them much more.

Chaucer wrote many other books beside the Canterbury Tales, although not so many as was at one time thought. But the Canterbury Tales are the most famous, and I will not trouble you with the names even of the others. But when the grown-up time comes, I hope that you will want to read some of his other books as well as the Canterbury Tales.

And now, just to end this long chapter, I will give you a little poem by Chaucer, written as he wrote it, with modern English words underneath so that you may see the difference.

This poem was written when Chaucer was very poor. It was sent to King Henry IV, who had just taken the throne from Richard II. Henry’s answer was a pension of twenty marks, so that once more Chaucer lived in comfort. He died, however, a year later.


To yow my purse, and to noon other wight To you my purse, and to no other wight Complayne I, for ye by my lady dere;
Complain I, for ye be my lady dear; I am so sorry now that ye been lyght,
I am so sorry now that ye be light, For certes, but yf ye make me hevy chere For certainly, but if ye make me heavy cheer Me were as leef be layde upon my bere; I would as soon be laid upon my bier;
For which unto your mercy thus I crye, For which unto your mercy thus I cry,
Beeth hevy ageyne, or elles mote I dye. Be heavy again, or else must I die.

Now voucheth-sauf this day or hyt by nyght Now vouchsafe this day before it be night That I of you the blisful sovne may here, That I of you the blissful sound may hear, Or see your colour lyke the sonne bryght, Or see your colour like the sun bright, That of yelownesse hadde neuer pere.
That of yellowness had never peer. Ye be my lyfe, ye be myn hertys stere, Ye be my life, ye be my heart’s guide, Quene of comfort, and of good companye, Queen of comfort, and of good company, Beth heuy ageyne, or elles moote I dye. Be heavy again, or else must I die.

Now purse that ben to me my lyves lyght Now purse that art to me my life’s light And saveour as down in this worlde here, And saviour as down in this world here, Oute of this tovne helpe me thrugh your myght, Out of this town help me through your might, Syn that ye wole nat bene my tresorere, Since that ye will not be my treasurer, For I am shave as nye as is a ffrere;
For I am shaven as close as is a friar; But yet I pray vnto your curtesye,
But yet I pray unto your courtesy, Bethe hevy agen or elles moote I dye.
Be heavy again or else must I die.


O conquerour of Brutes albyon,
O conqueror of Brutus’ Albion
Whiche that by lygne and free leccion Who that by line and free election
Been verray kynge, this song to yow I sende; Art very king, this song to you I send; And ye that mowen alle myn harme amende, And ye that art able all my harm amend, Haue mynde vpon my supplicacion.
Have mind upon my supplication.

*This is from a French word, meaning “to send,” and is still often used for the last verse of a poem. It is, as it were, a “sending off.”

In reading this you must sound the final “e” in each word except when the next word begins with an “h” or with another vowel. You will then find it read easily and smoothly.


Stories from Chaucer (prose), by J. H. Kelman. Tales from Chaucer (prose), by C. L. Thomson. Prologue to the Canterbury Tales and Minor Poems (poetry), done into Modern English by W. W. Skeat. Canterbury Tales (poetry), edited by A. W. Pollard (in Chaucer’s English, suitable only for grown-up readers).

NOTE.– As there are so many books now published containing stories from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, I feel it unnecessary to give any here in outline.


AND now, lest you should say, “What, still more poetry!” I shall give you next a chapter about a great story-teller who wrote in prose. We use story-teller in two senses, and when we speak of Sir John Mandeville we use it in both. He was a great story- teller.

But before saying anything about his stories, I must first tell you that after having been believed in as a real person for five hundred years and more, Sir John has at last been found out. He never lived at all, and the travels about which he tells us so finely never took place.

“Sir John,” too, used to be called the “Father of English Prose,” but even that honor cannot be left to him, for his travels were not written first in English, but in French, and were afterwards translated into English.

But although we know Sir John Mandeville was not English, that he never saw the places he describes, that indeed he never lived at all, we will still call him by that name. For we must call him something, and as no one really knows who wrote the book which is known as The Voyages and Travels of Sir John Mandeville, we may as well call the author by the name he chose as by another.

Sir John, then, tells us that he was born in St. Albans, that he was a knight, and that in 1322 he set out on his travels. He traveled about for more than twenty years, but at last, although in the course of them he had drunk of the well of everlasting youth, he became so crippled with gout that he could travel no longer. He settled down, therefore, at Liege in Belgium. There he wrote his book, and there he died and was buried. At any rate, many years afterwards his tomb was shown there. It was also shown at St. Albans, where the people were very proud of it.

Sir John’s great book was a guide-book. In those days, as we know, it was a very common thing for people to go on pilgrimages. And among the long pilgrimages the one to the Holy Land was the most common. So Sir John wrote his book to help people on their way, just as Mr. Baedeker and Mr. Murray do now.

It is perhaps the earliest, and certainly one of the most delightful, guide-books ever written, although really it was chiefly made up of bits out of books by other people.

Sir John tells of many different ways of getting to Palestine, and relates wonderful stories about the places to be passed through. He wrote in French. “I know that I ought to write in Latin,” he says, “but because more people understand French I have written in French, so that every one may understand it.” Afterwards it was translated into Latin, later into English, and still later into almost every European language, so much did people like the stories.

When these stories appeared it was something quite new in Literature, for until this time stories were always written in poetry. It was only great and learned books, or books that were meant to teach something, that were written in prose.

Here is one of Sir John Mandeville’s tales.

After telling about the tomb of St. John at Ephesus, Sir John goes on: “And then men pass through the isles of Cophos and Lango, of the which isles Ipocras was lord. And some say that in the isle of Lango is Ipocras’s daughter in form of a Dragon. It is a hundred foot long, so men say. But I have not seen it. And they say the people of the isles call her the lady of the country, and she lieth in an old castle and sheweth herself thrice a year. And she doeth no man harm. And she is thus changed from a lady to a Dragon through a goddess whom men call Diana.

“And men say that she shall dwell so until the time that a knight come that is so hardy as to go to her and kiss her mouth. And then shall she turn again to her own kind and be a woman. And after that she shall not live long.

“And it is not long since a knight of the island of Rhodes that was hardy and valiant said that he would kiss her. But when the Dragon began to lift up her head, and he saw it was so hideous, he fled away. Then the Dragon in her anger bare the knight to a rock and cast him into the sea, and so he was lost.

“Also a young man that wist not of the Dragon went out of a ship and went through the isle till he came to a castle. Then came he into the cave and went on till he found a chamber. And there he saw a lady combing her hair, and looking in a mirror. And she had much treasure about her. He bowed to the lady, and the lady saw the shadow of him in the mirror. Then she turned towards him and asked him what he would. And he answered he would be her lover.

“Then she asked him if he were a knight, and he said ‘Nay.’ She said then he might not be her lover. But she bade him go again to his fellows and make him knight, and come again on the morrow. Then she would come out of the cave and he should kiss her on the mouth. And she bade him have no dread, for she would do him no harm. Although she seemed hideous to him she said it was done by enchantment, for, she said, she was really such as he saw her then. She said, too, that if he kissed her he should have all the treasure, and be her lord, and lord of all these isles.

“Then he departed from her and went to his fellows in the ship, and made him knight, and came again on the morrow for to kiss the damsel. But when he saw her come out of the cave in the form of a Dragon, he had so great dread that he fled to the ship. She followed him, and when she saw that he turned not again she began to cry as a thing that had much sorrow, and turned back again.

“Soon after the knight died, and since, hitherto, might no knight see her but he died anon. But when a knight cometh that is so hardy to kiss her, he shall not die, but he shall turn that damsel into her right shape and shall be lord of the country aforesaid.”

When Sir John reaches Palestine he has very much to say of the wonders to be seen there. At Bethlehem he tells a story of how roses first came into the world. Here it is:

“Bethlehem is but a little city, long and narrow, and well walled and enclosed with a great ditch, and it was wont to be called Ephrata, as Holy Writ sayeth, ‘Lo, we heard it at Ephrata.’ And toward the end of the city toward the East, is a right fair church and a gracious. And it hath many towers, pinnacles and turrets full strongly made. And within that church are forty- four great pillars of marble, and between the church the Field Flowered as ye shall hear.

“The cause is, for as much as a fair maiden was blamed with wrong, for the which cause she was deemed to die, and to be burnt in that place, to the which she was led.

“And as the wood began to burn about her, she made her prayer to our Lord as she was not guilty of that thing, that He would help her that her innocence might be known to all men.

“And when she had this said she entered the fire. And anon the fire went out, and those branches that were burning became red roses, and those branches that were not kindled became white roses. And those were the first roses and rose-trees that any man saw. And so was the maiden saved through the grace of God, and therefore is that field called the Field of God Flowered, for it was full of roses.”

Although Sir John begins his book as a guide to Palestine, he tells of many other lands also, and of the wonder there. Of Ethiopia, he tells us: “On the other side of Chaldea toward the South is Ethiopia, a great land. In this land in the South are the people right black. In that side is a well that in the day the water is so cold that no man may drink thereof, and in the night it is so hot that no man may suffer to put his hand in it. In this land the rivers and all the waters are troublous, and some deal salt, for the great heat. And men of that land are easily made drunken and have little appetite for meat. They have commonly great illness of body and live not long. In Ethiopia are such men as have one foot, and they walk so fast that it is a great marvel. And that is a large foot that the shadow thereof covereth the body from sun and rain when they lie upon their backs.”

Sir John tells us, too, of a wonderful group of islands, “and in one of these isles are men that have one eye, and that in the midst of their forehead. And they eat not flesh or fish all raw.

“And in another isle dwell men that have no heads, and their eyes are in their shoulders and their mouth is in their breast. . . .

“And in another isle are men that have flat faces without nose and without eyes, but they have two small round holes instead of eyes and they have a flat mouth without lips. . . .

“And in another isle are men that have the lips about their mouth so great that when they sleep in the sun they cover all their face with the lip.”

But I must not tell all the “lying wonders of our English knight.”* for you must read the book for yourselves. And when you do you will find that it is written with such an easy air of truth that you will half believe in Sir John’s marvels. Every now and again, too, he puts in a bit of real information which helps to make his marvels seem true, so that sometimes we cannot be sure what is truth and what is fable.

*Colonel Sir Henry Yule, The Book of Sir Marco Polo.

Sir John wandered far and long, but at last his journeyings ended. “I have passed through many lands and isles and countries,” he says, “and now am come to rest against my will.” And so to find comfort in his “wretched rest” he wrote his book. “But,” he says, “there are many other divers countries, and many other marvels beyond that I have not seen. Also in countries where I have been there are many marvels that I speak not of, for it were too long a tale.” And also, he thought, it was as well to leave something untold “so that other men that go thither may find enough for to say that I have not told,” which was very kind of him.

Sir John tells us then how he took his book to the holy father the Pope, and how he caused it to be read, and “the Pope hath ratified and affirmed my book in all points. And I pray to all those that read this book, that they will pray for me, and I shall pray for them.”


The Voyages and Travels of Sir John Mandeville, edited


WHILE Chaucer was making for us pictures of English life, in the sister kingdom across the rugged Cheviots another poet was singing to a ruder people. This poet was John Barbour, Archdeacon of Aberdeen. An older man than Chaucer, born perhaps twenty years before the English poet, he died only five years earlier. So that for many years these two lived and wrote at the same time.

But the book by which Barbour is remembered best is very different from that by which we remember Chaucer. Barbour’s best-known book is called The Bruce, and in it, instead of the quiet tales of middle-class people, we hear throughout the clash and clang of battle. Here once again we have the hero of romance. Here once again history and story are mingled, and Robert the Bruce swings his battle-ax and wings his faultless arrow, saving his people from the English yoke.

The music of The Bruce cannot compare with the music of the Tales, but the spirit throughout is one of manliness, of delight in noble deeds and noble thoughts. Barbour’s way of telling his stories is simple and straightforward. It is full of stern battle, yet there are lines of tender beauty, but nowhere do we find anything like the quiet laughter and humor of Chaucer. And that is not wonderful, for those were stern times in Scotland, and The Bruce is as much an outcome of those times as were the Tales or Piers Ploughman an outcome of the times in England.

But if to Chaucer belongs the title of “Father of English Poetry,” to Barbour belongs that of “Father of Scottish Poetry and Scottish History.” He, indeed, calls the language he wrote in “Inglis,” but it is a different English from that of Chaucer. They were both founded on Anglo-Saxon, but instead of growing into modern English, Barbour’s tongue grew into what was known later as “braid Scots.” All the quotations that I am going to give you from the poem I have turned into modern English, for, although they lose a great deal in beauty, it makes them easier for every one to understand. For even to the Scots boys and girls who read this book there are many words in the original that would need translating, although they are words still used by every one who speaks Scots to this day. In one page of twenty-seven lines taken at random we find sixteen such words. They are, micht, nicht, lickt, weel, gane, ane, nane, stane, rowit, mirk, nocht, brocht, mair, sperit at, sair, hert. For those who are Scots it is interesting to know how little the language of the people has changed in five hundred years.

As of many another of our early poets, we know little of Barbour’s life. He was Archdeacon of Aberdeen, as already said, and in 1357 he received a safe-conduct from Edward III to allow him to travel to Oxford with three companions. In those days there was not as yet any university in Scotland. The monasteries still held their place as centers of learning. But already the fame of Oxford had reached the northern kingdom, and Barbour was anxious to share in the treasures of learning to be found there. At the moment there was peace between the two countries, but hate was not dead, it only slumbered. So a safe-conduct or passport was necessary for any Scotsman who would travel through England in safety. “Edward the King unto his lieges greeting,” it ran. “Know ye that we have taken under our protection (at the request of David de Bruce) John Barbour, Archdeacon of Aberdeen, with the scholars in his company, in coming into our kingdom of England, in order to study in the university of Oxford, and perform his scholastic exercises, and in remaining there and in returning to his own country of Scotland. And we hereby grant him our safe- conduct, which is to continue in force for one year.”

Barbour was given two other safe-conducts, one to allow him again to visit Oxford, and another to allow him to pass through England on his way to France. Besides this, we know that Barbour received a pension from the King of Scotland, and that he held his archdeaconry until his death; and that is almost all that we know certainly of his life.

The Bruce is the great national poem, Robert the Bruce the great national hero of Scotland. But although The Bruce concerns Scotland in the first place, it is of interest to every one, for it is full of thrilling stories of knightly deeds, many of which are true. “The fine poem deserves to be better known,” says one of its editors.* “It is a proud thing for a country to have given a subject for such an Odyssey, and to have had so early in its literature a poet worthy to celebrate it.” And it is little wonder that Barbour wrote so stirringly of his hero, for he lived not many years after the events took place, and when he was a schoolboy Robert the Bruce was still reigning over Scotland.

*Cosmo Innes.

In the beginning of his book Barbour says:–

“Stories to read are delightful,
Supposing even they be naught but fable; Then should stories that true were,
And that were said in good manner, Have double pleasantness in hearing.
The first pleasantness is the telling And the other is the truthfulness
That shows the thing right as it was. And such things that are likand
To man’s hearing are pleasant;
Therefore I would fain set my will, If my wit may suffice thereto,
To put in writ a truthful story,
That it last aye forth in memory, So that no time of length it let,
Nor gar it wholly be forgot.”

So he will, he says, tell the tale of “stalwart folk that lived erst while,” of “King Robert of Scotland that hardy was of heart and hand,” and of “Sir James of Douglas that in his time so worthy was,” that his fame reached into far lands. Then he ends this preface with a prayer that God will give him grace, “so that I say naught but soothfast thing.”

The story begins with describing the state of Scotland after the death of Alexander III, when Edward I ruled in England. Alexander had been a good king, but at his death the heir to the throne was a little girl, the Maid of Norway. She was not even in Scotland, but was far across the sea. And as this child-queen came sailing to her kingdom she died on board ship, and so never saw the land over which she ruled.

Then came a sad time for Scotland. “The land six year and more i-faith lay desolate,” for there was no other near heir to the throne, and thirteen nobles claimed it. At last, as they could not agree which had the best right, they asked King Edward of England to decide for them.

As you know, it had been the dream of every King of England to be King of Scotland too. And now Edward I saw his chance to make that dream come true. He chose as King the man who had, perhaps, the greatest right to the throne, John Balliol. But he made him promise to hold the crown as a vassal to the King of England.

This, however, the Scots would not suffer. Freedom they had ever loved, and freedom they would have. No man, they said, whether he were chosen King or no, had power to make them thralls of England.

“Oh! Freedom is a noble thing!
Freedom makes a man to have liking, Freedom all solace to man gives,
He lives at ease that freely lives. A noble heart may have no ease,
Nor nothing else that may him please, If freedom faileth; for free delight
Is desired before all other thing. Nor he that aye has livéd free
May not know well the quality,
The anger, nor the wretched doom
That joinéd is to foul thraldom.”

So sang Barbour, and so the passionate hearts of the Scots cried through all the wretched years that followed the crowning of John Balliol. And when at last they had greatest need, a leader arose to show them the way to freedom. Robert the Bruce, throwing off his sloth and forgetfulness of his country, became their King and hero. He was crowned and received the homage of his barons, but well he knew that was but the beginning.

“To maintain what he had begun
He wist, ere all the land was won, He should find full hard bargaining
With him that was of England King, For there was none in life so fell,
So stubborn, nor so cruel.”

Then began a long struggle between two gallant men, Robert of Scotland and Edward of England. At first things went ill with the Bruce. He lost many men in battle, others forsook him, and for a time he lived a hunted outlaw among the hills.

“He durst not to the plains y-go
For all the commons went him fro, That for their lives were full fain
To pass to the English peace again.”

But in all his struggles Bruce kept a good heart and comforted his men.

“‘For discomfort,’ as then said he, ‘Is the worst thing that may be;
For through mickle discomforting
Men fall oft into despairing.
And if a man despairing be,
Then truly vanquished is he.'”

Yet even while Bruce comforted his men he bade them be brave, and said:–

“And if that them were set a choice, To die, or to live cowardly,
They should ever die chivalrously.”

He told them stories, too, of the heroes of olden times who, after much suffering, had in the end won the victory over their enemies. Thus the days passed, and winter settled down on the bleak mountains. Then the case of Robert and his men grew worse and worse, and they almost lost hope. But at length, with many adventures, the winter came to an end. Spring returned again, and with spring hope.


“‘Twas in spring, when winter tide
With his blasts, terrible to bide Was overcome; and birdies small,
As throstle and the nightingale,
Began right merrily to sing,
And to make in their singing
Sundrie notes, and varied sounds, And melody pleasant to hear,
And the trees began to blow
With buds, and bright blossom also, To win the covering of their heads
Which wicked winter had them riven, And every grove began to spring.”

It was in spring that Bruce and his men gathered to the island of Arran, off the west coast of Scotland, and there Bruce made up his mind to make another fight for the crown. A messenger was therefore sent over to the mainland, and it was arranged that if he found friends there, if he thought it was safe for the King to come, he should, at a certain place, light a great fire as a signal. Anxiously Bruce watched for the light, and at last he saw it. Then joyfully the men launched their boat, and the King and his few faithful followers set out.

“They rowéd fast with all their might, Till that upon them fell the night,
That it wox mirk* in great manner So that they wist not where they were, For they no needle had, nor stone,
But rowéd always in one way,
Steering always upon the fire
That they saw burning bright and clear. It was but adventure that them led,
And they in short time so them sped That at the fire arrived they,
And went to land but** mair delay.”


On shore the messenger was eagerly and anxiously awaiting them, and with a “sare hert” he told the King that the fire was none of his. Far from there being friends around, the English, he said, swarmed in all the land.

“Were in the castle there beside,
Full filléd of despite and pride.”

There was no hope of success.

“Then said the King in full great ire, ‘Traitor, why made thou on the fire?’
‘Ah sire,’ he said, ‘so God me see That fire was never made on for me.
No ere this night I wist it not
But when I wist it weel* I thoecht That you and all your company
In haste would put you to the sea. For this I come to meet you here,
To tell the perils that may appear.'”


The King, vexed and disappointed, turned to his followers for advice. What was best to do, he asked. Edward Bruce, the King’s brave brother, was the first to answer.

“And said, ‘I say you sickerly,
There shall no perils that may be Drive me eftsoons into the sea;
Mine adventure here take will I
Whether it be easeful or angry.’
‘Brother,’ he said, ‘since you will so It is good that we together take
Disease and ease, or pain or play After as God will us purvey.'”

And so, taking courage, they set out in the darkness, and attacked the town, and took it with great slaughter.

“In such afray they bode that night Till in the morn, that day was bright, And then ceaséd partly
The noise, the slaughter, and the cry.”

Thus once again the fierce struggle was begun. But this time the Bruce was successful. From town after town, from castle after castle the enemy was driven out, till only Stirling was left to the English. It was near this town, on the field of Bannockburn, that the last great struggle took place. Brave King Edward I was dead by this time, but his son, Edward II, led the army. It was the greatest army that had ever entered Scotland, but the Scots won the day and won freedom at the same time. I cannot tell you of this great battle, nor of all the adventures which led up to it. These you must read in other books, one day, I hope, in Barbour’s Bruce itself.

From the day of Bannockburn, Barbour tells us, Robert the Bruce grew great.

“His men were rich, and his country Abounded well with corn and cattle,
And of all kind other richness;
Mirth, solace, and eke blithness
Was in the land all commonly,
For ilk man blith was and jolly.”

And here Barbour ends the first part of his poem. In the second part he goes on to tell us of how the Bruces carried war into Ireland, of how they overran Northumberland, and of how at length true peace was made. Then King Robert’s little son David, who was but five, was married to Joan, the seven-year-old sister of King Edward III. Thus, after war, came rest and ease to both countries.

But King Robert did not live long to enjoy his well-earned rest. He died, and all the land was filled with mourning and sorrow.

“‘All our defense,’ they said, ‘alas! And he that all our comfort was,
Our wit and all our governing,
Is brought, alas, here to ending; . . . . .
Alas! what shall we do or say?
For in life while he lasted, aye
By all our foes dred were we,
And in many a far country
Of our worship ran the renown,
And that was all for his person.'”

Barbour ends his book by telling of how the Douglas set out to carry the heart of the Bruce to Palestine, and of how he fell fighting in Spain, and of how his dead body and the King’s heart were brought back to Scotland.

Barbour was born about six years after the battle of Bannockburn. As a boy he must have heard many stories of these stirring times from those who had taken part in them. He must have known many a woman who had lost husband or father in the great struggle. He may even have met King Robert himself. And as a boy he must have shared in the sorrow that fell upon the land when its hero died. He must have remembered, when he grew up, how the people mourned when the dead body of the Douglas and the heart of the gallant Bruce were brought home from Spain. But in spite of Barbour’s prayer to be kept from saying “ought but soothfast thing,” we must not take The Bruce too seriously. If King Robert was a true King he was also a true hero of romance. We must not take all The Bruce as serious history, but while allowing for the truth of much, we must also allow something for the poet’s worship of his hero, a hero, too, who lived so near the time in which he wrote. We must allow something for the feelings of a poet who so passionately loved the freedom for which that hero fought.


There is, so far as I know, no modernized version of The Bruce, but there are many books illustrative of the text. In this connection may be read Robert the Bruce (Children’s heroes Series), by Jeannie Lang; Chapters XXIV to XLIV. Scotland’s Story, by H. E. Marshall; The Lord of the Isles, by Sir Walter Scott; Castle Dangerous, by Sir Walter Scott; “The Heart of the Bruce” in Lays of the Scottish Cavaliers, by Aytoun. The most available version of The Bruce in old “Inglis,” edited by W. M. Mackenzie.


The Bruce is a book which is the outcome of the history of the times. It is the outcome of the quarrels between England and Scotland, and of Scotland’s struggle for freedom. Now we come to another poet, and another poem which was the outcome of the quarrels between England and Scotland. For although Scotland’s freedom was never again in danger, the quarrels between the two countries were, unhappily, not over.

In 1399, as we know, Henry IV wrested the crown of England from Richard II. The new King proved no friend to Scotland, for he desired, as those before him had desired, to rule both countries. Henry lost no chance, therefore, by which he might gain his end. So when in 1405 the King of Scotland sent his little son James to be educated in France, the English attacked the ship in which he sailed and took him prisoner. Instead, then, of going as a guest to the court of France, the Prince was carried as a prisoner to the court of England. When the old King heard the sad news he died, and James, captive though he was, became King of Scotland.

Those were again troublous times in Scotland. The captive King’s uncle was chosen as Regent to rule in his absence. But he, wishing to rule himself, had no desire that his nephew should be set free. So through the reigns of Henry IV and of Henry V James remained a prisoner. But although a prisoner he was not harshly treated, and the Kings of England took care that he should receive an education worthy of a prince. James was taught to read and write English, French, and Latin. He was taught to fence and wrestle, and indeed to do everything as a knight should. Prince James was a willing pupil; he loved his books, and looked forward to the coming of his teachers, who lightened the loneliness of his prison.

“But,” says a Frenchman who has written a beautiful little book about this captive King, “‘stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage’: the soul of the child, who grew to be a youth, was never a prisoner. Behind the thick walls of the Tower, built long ago by the Conqueror, he studied. Guards watched over him, but his spirit was far away voyaging in the realms of poetry. And in these thought journeys, sitting at his little window, with a big book upon his knee, he visited the famous places which the Gesta Romanorum unrolled before him. . . . The ‘noble senator’ Boece taught him resignation. William de Lorris took him by the hand and led him to the garden of the Rose. The illustrious Chaucer invited him to follow the gay troop of pilgrims along the highroad to Canterbury. The grave Gower, announcing in advance a sermon of several hours, begged him to be seated, and to the murmur of his wise talk, his head leaning on the window frame, the child slept peacefully.

“Thus passed the years, and the chief change that they brought was a change of prison. After the Tower it was the Castle of Nottingham, another citadel of the Norman time, then Evesham, then again the Tower when Henry V came to the throne; and at last, and this was by contrast almost liberty, the Castle of Windsor.”*

*J. J. Jusserand, Le Roman d’un Roi d’Ecosse And thus for eighteen years the Prince lived a life half-real, half-dream. The gray days followed each other without change, without adventure. But the brilliant throng of kings and queens, of knights and ladies, of pilgrims and lovers, and all the make- believe people of storyland stood out all the brighter for the grayness of the background. And perhaps to the Prince in his quiet tower the storied people were more real than the living, who only now and again came to visit him. For the storied people were with him always, while the living came and went again and were lost to him in the great world without, of which he knew scarce anything. But at last across this twilight life, which was more than half a dream, there struck one day a flash of sunshine. Then to the patient, studious prisoner all was changed. Life was no longer a twilight dream, but real. He knew how deep joy might be, how sharp sorrow. Life was worth living, he learned, freedom worth having, and at length freedom came, and the Prince returned to his country a free King and a happy lover.

How all this happened King James has told us himself in a book called The King’s Quair, which means the King’s little book, which he wrote while he was still a prisoner in England.

King James tells us how one night he could not sleep, try as he might. He lay tossing and tumbling, “but sleep for craft on earth might I no more.” So at last, “knowing no better wile,” he took a book hoping “to borrow a sleep” by reading. But instead of bringing sleep, the book only made him more and more wide awake. At length he says:–

“Mine eyen gan to smart for studying, My book I shut, and at my head it laid, And down I lay but* any tarrying.”


Again he lay thinking and tossing upon his bed until he was weary.

“Then I listened suddenly,
And soon I heard the bell to matins ring, And up I rose, no longer would I lie.
But now, how trow ye? such a fantasy Fell me to mind, that aye methought the bell Said to me, ‘Tell on man what thee befell.’

Thought I tho’ to myself, ‘What may this be? This is mine own imagining,
It is no life* that speaketh unto me; It is a bell, or that impression
Of my thought causeth this illusion, That maketh me think so nicely in this wise’; And so befell as I shall you devise.”

*Living person.

Prince James says he had already wasted much ink and paper on writing, yet at the bidding of the bell he decided to write some new thing. So up he rose,

“And forth-with-all my pen in hand I took, And made a + and thus began my book.”

Prince James then tells of his past life, of how, when he was a lad, his father sent him across the sea in a ship, and of how he was taken prisoner and found himself in “Straight ward and strong prison” “without comfort in sorrow.” And there full often he bemoaned his fate, asking what crime was his that he should be shut up within four walls when other men were free.

“Bewailing in my chamber thus alone, Despairing of all joy and remedy,
Out wearied with my thought and woe begone, Unto the window gan I walk in haste,
To see the world and folk that went forbye, As for the time though I of mirths food Might have no more, to look it did me good.”

Beneath the tower in which the Prince was imprisoned lay a beautiful garden. It was set about with hawthorn hedges and juniper bushes, and on the small, green branches sat a little nightingale, which sang so loud and clear “that all the garden and the walls rang right with the song.” Prince James leaned from his window listening to the song of the birds, and watching them as they hopped from branch to branch, preening themselves in the early sunshine and twittering to their mates. And as he watched he envied the birds, and wondered why he should be a thrall while they were free.

“And therewith cast I down mine eyes again, Whereas I saw, walking under the tower Full secretly, new coming her to play, The fairest and the freshest young flower That ever I saw methought, before that hour, For which sudden abate, anon astart,
The blood of all my body to my heart.”

A lovely lady was walking in the garden, a lady more lovely than he had dreamed any one might be. Her hair was golden, and wreathed with flowers. Her dress was rich, and jewels sparkled on her white throat. Spellbound, he stood a while watching the lovely lady. He could do nothing but gaze.

“No wonder was; for why my wits all Were so overcome with pleasance and delight, Only through letting of mine eyes down fall, That suddenly my heart became her thrall, For ever of free will.”

Thus, from the first moment in which he saw her, James loved the beautiful lady. After a few minutes he drew in his head lest she might see him and be angry with him for watching her. But soon he leaned out again, for while she was in the garden he felt he must watch and see her walk “so womanly.”

So he stood still at the window, and although the lady was far off in the garden, and could not hear him, he whispered to her, telling of his love. “O sweet,” he said, “are you an earthly creature, or are you a goddess? How shall I do reverence to you enough, for I love you? And you, if you will not love me too, why, then have you come? Have you but come to add to the misery of a poor prisoner?”

Prince James looked, and longed, and sighed, and envied the little dog with which the lovely lady played. Then he scolded the little birds because they sang no more. “Where are the songs you chanted this morning?” he asked. “Why do you not sing now? Do you not see that the most beautiful lady in all the world is come into your garden?” Then to the nightingale he cried, “Lift up thine heart and sing with good intent. If thou would sing well ever in thy life, here is i-faith the time–here is the time or else never.”

Then it seemed to the Prince as if, in answer to his words, all the birds sang more sweetly than ever before. And what they sang was a love-song to his lady. And she, walking under the tender green of the May trees, looked upward, and listened to their sweet songs, while James watched her and loved her more and more.

“And when she walkéd had a little while Under the sweet green boughs bent,
Her fair fresh face as white as any snow, She turnéd has, and forth her ways went; But then began my sickness and torment To see her go, and follow I not might, Methought the day was turnéd into night.”

Then, indeed, the day was dark for the Prince. The beautiful lady in going had left him more lonely than before. Now he truly knew what it was to be a prisoner. All day long he knelt at the window, watching, and longing, and not knowing by what means he