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Piers Plowman.

(a line-by-line translation by Sujaan Mukherjee)

Thus I awoke, God knows, when I lived (wonede: pret. OE wunian) in Cornhill,
Kytte (Katherine) and I in a cottage (OE cote), clothed as a idler,
And little by esteem (OE lætan); leave (imp. pl) me for sooth,
Among idlers of London and lewd hermits (OF ermite),
For I composed verses about those men, as reason had taught me. 5
For as I came by Conscience, with Reason I met,
In a hot autumn (OE hærfest) when I had mine health
And limbs to labour with, and loved prosperity (wele – wealth, faran)
And to do no deed but to drink and to sleep.
In health and in mind one (Conscience; on – singular pronoun) questioned (OF aposer) me; 10
(While I was) Roaming in remembrance, Reason thus approached me:
“Can thou (familiar singular) serve”, he said, “or sing in church,
Or put hay in my haycocks1 for my haymakers or to the cart pitch (hay)? (OE *piccan)
Mow or stack (OE mewa) or make binding to sheaves,
Reap (OE reopen) or be a reap-reeve and arise early, 15
Or have a horn and be a hayward2 and lie out of doors at night
And keep my corn in my field from pilferers and thieves,
Or shap shoes (OE scō) or cloth, or she(e?)p and keep cattle (OE cy + pl. n)
Hedge or harrow, or drive pigs or geese,
Or craft of any other kind that to the commune is needful, 20
That you may thereby benefit those who provide you with food?”

“Assuredly”, I said, “and as God may help me,

I am to wake to work with sickle or with scythe,
And too tall, believe (lef imp. sing. OE gelefan) me, to stoop low,
To work as a workman, to last for any duration.” 25
“The have you lands to live by”, said Reason, “Or ancestral property
That finds you your food? For you seem [like] an idle man,

(ON, cf Norw. kok „heap‟)
(protector of enclosed land)

A spender that spends compulsively or wastes time,

Or beg your livelihood (OE bīleofa) from men‟s half-doors,
Or beg3 upon Fridays or feast-days in Churches, 30
The which is an idler‟s life , that little is praised
Their rightfulness rewards rightly as men deserves –
He will render to everyman according to his works –
Or you are broke, that may be, in body or in member
Or maimed through some mishap, whereby you might be excused?”
“When I was young, many years ago, 35
My father and my relatives provided (funded?) for my schooling,
Till I learn for certain (witterly: ON vitr) what the holy writ meant
And what is best for the body, as the book says,
And most certain (OE sicor) for the soul, provided that I am willing to perservere;
And I find never, in faith, since my friends (ON frændis) died (ON deyja), 40
A life that I liked but in these long clothes.
And if I should live by labour and livelihood deserve,
That labour that I learned best therewith I should live:
Be in the same calling to which you are called.
And so I live in London and country-side (OE uppe + londe) both;
The tools (OE lōma) that I labour with, and livelihood deserve, 45
Is pater-noster and my Primer, placebo and dirige,
And my Psalter sometime, and my seven Psalms.
This I say for these help souls such as me,
And though that find me my food vouch-safe (OF voucher), I believe,
To be welcome when I come, once in a month; 50
Now with him, now with her, in this way I beg
Without bag or bottle, but my stomach alone.
And also moreover I think, sir Reason,
One should constrain no clerk to knave‟s work
For by the law of Levytici that our Lord ordained 55

Faytours: beg on false pretences, out of idleness, not true need.
-ne genitive goes back OE –ena in weak nouns
Lord‟s Prayer, his Primer or book of devotions, the Office for the Dead, the Psalter, and the Seven Penitential Psalms.
Placebo and dirige are the opening words of two services for the dead, Vespers and Martins respectively.

Clerks tonsured, by common understanding,

Should neither labour (OE swincan), nor sweat, nor testify on oath in lay courts of law,
Nor fight in no vanguard (OF avangard) nor grieve for his foe:
Do not repay evil with evil.
For it be heirs of heaven, all that is tonsured,
And in choir (OF quer) and in Churches Christ‟s ministers: 60
The Lord is the portion of my inheritance, etc, and elsewhere: Mercy does not constrain.
It befits clerks to serve Christ,
And knaves untonsured to cart and to work.
For no clerk should be tonsured except if he were come
Of gentlemen holding freehold lands and free men and of folk married.
Bondmen6 and bastards and beggar‟s children, 65
These belong to labour, and service to lord‟s kind
God and good men, as their status (OF degre) demands
Some to sing masses, or sit and writ,
Read and keeping account that which reason ought to spend.
But since bondmen‟s children have been made bishops, 70
And bastard‟s sons have been archdeacon,
And shoemakers (OE sūtares) and their sons for silver have been knights,
And lords‟ sons their labourers and their incomes to mortgage
For the right of this realm ride again our enemies
In confort of the commune and the king‟s worship 75
And monks and nuns (moniales<Lat monialis), who should be providing for beggars
Have made their kind knights, and knight‟s fees purchased,
Popes and patrons poor gentle blood refused
And taken Simon‟s (Magnus) sons shrines (OF saintuarie) to keep,
Life-holiness and love have been long ago (are matters of the past?) 80
And will, till it be (wered pp, OE werian) worn out or otherwise changed.
For that it is not right to rebuke me, Reason, I pray you,
For in my consience I know what Christ would wish I do:
Prayers of a perfect man, and penance discreet

„villeins‟: unfree tenants, subject, unlike free men, to the will of the lord of their manor is such matters as the service
they owed him for the use of his land.

In the most precious (OE leof) labour that our Lord pleases. 85
“Not from the soil (abl. Latin solum) [alone] does man live, nor in bread and food”;
The Pater-noster witnesses,
“May God‟s will be done”, that provides us all things.”

Conscience said, “By Christ, I can see how this is appropriate;

But it seems no kind of regular perfection to beg in cities, 90
Except he be your officer under obedience to prior or to minister.”
“That is true”, I said, “and so I know
That I have lost time and misspent time;
But yet I hope, as he that oft has traded (ceap + faru: bargain + journey)
And has lost and lost, and at the last had good fortune 95
He bought such a bargain he was the better of ever
And set all his loss at a thing of no value at the final end,
Such a winning befell (OE weorpan) him through fortunate chances (word: OE wyrd „fate‟)
„The kingdom of heaven is like unto a treasure hidden in a field;
The woman who found a groat‟ –
So I have hope of him who is Almighty
A portion (OF gobet) of his grace, and beginning of a chapter 100
That all occasions of my time to profit shall turn.”
“I follow thee”, said Reason then, “hurry (imp. refl. ON hrapa) to begin,
The life that is laudable (OF louable) and service to thy soul.”
“Yes, and continue”, said Conscience; and to the Church I went. 104

Translated from the passage given in A Book of Middle English, 3rd edition, ed. J.A. Burrow and Thorlac
Turville-Petre (UK: Blackwell Publishing, 2005).

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