Literature and Complaint in England, 1272-1553

Literature and Complaint in England, 1272-1553

Literature and Complaint in England, 1272-1553

Literature and Complaint in England, 1272-1553


Literature and Complaint in England 1272-1553 gives an entirely new and original perspective on the relations between early judicial process and the development of literature in England. Wendy Scase argues that texts ranging from political libels and pamphlets to laments of the unrequited lover constitute a literature shaped by the new and crucial role of complaint in the law courts. She describes how complaint took on central importance in the development of institutions such as Parliament and the common law in later medieval England, and argues that these developments shaped a literature of complaint within and beyond the judicial process. She traces the story of the literature of complaint from the earliest written bills and their links with early complaint poems in English, French, and Latin, through writings associated with political crises of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, to the libels and petitionary pamphlets of Reformation England. A final chapter, which includes analyses of works by Chaucer, Hoccleve, and related writers, proposes far-reaching revisions to current histories of the arts of composition in medieval England. Throughout, close attention is paid to the forms and language of complaint writing and to the emergence of an infrastructure for the production of plaint texts, and many images of plaints and petitions are included. The texts discussed include works by well-known authors as well as little-known libels and pamphlets from across the period.


'Ad regem vadam', dixit miserabilis Adam;
'Coram rege cadam, causam scriptam sibi tradam'.
Ibant psallentes, magnum risum facientes,
Sed redeunt flentes, fiunt sine fine dolentes.

Poem on Disputed Villein Services

['To the king I shall go', said Adam the wretch;
'Before the king I shall fall, I'll deliver him a bill'.
They went off singing, making much mirth,
But they come back weeping, lamenting without end.]

From near the beginning of the reign of Edward I comes one of the earliest, fullest, and most intriguing descriptions of complaint in the medieval English courts. The passage quoted above is from the Poem on Disputed Villein Services, an eighty-three-line macaronic poem which recounts how some tenants of Leicester Abbey brought, and lost, a case against their lord in the king's court. Motivated by 'a thousand oppressions', the villagers of Stoughton confidently take their plaint to the king's court. Once they are at the court, the sergeant warns them that a jury will dispute their claim, while the cost of paying a pleader proves prohibitive. Fearful of worse penury, the peasants decide not to pursue their case, and return to the abbey lamenting that they will be villeins for ever.

We can, of course, relate the poem to a long literary tradition of complaint against servitude. John Ball's famous sermon, which, Walsingham alleges, rallied

Ed. Hilton, 'Poem on Disputed Villein Services', 95–7, 95.

In its scant critical notices it has been seen in this way. Hilton sees the case to which the poem alludes as one example of many instances of peasant resistance to lords in the courts before the 1381 rising, and views the poem as typifying the 'emotional reaction' of lords to such resistance (Hilton, 'Peasant Movements', 81; Hilton, 'Poem on Disputed Villein Services', 94). Richard Firth Green sees the case as an example of a conflict between folklaw and the king's law, and the poem as monastic 'memorialization' of this conflict in verse (Green, Crisis of Truth, 168).

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