Tag Archives: medieval

Lydgate’s Complaynt, Continued, Still


Per usual, I am going to start where I left off with Lydgate’s “A Complaynt of a Loveres Lyfe,” and hopefully at some point this summer the entirety of the poem will have been looked at.

I left off with the lover experiencing bouts of cold, shivering and behaving as if in a fever. His turmoil continues…

“For evere the better that in trouthe I ment
With al my myght feythfully to serve,
With hert and al to be dilygent,
The lesse thanke, alas, I can deserve.
Thus for my trouthe Daunger doth me sterve,
For oon that shuld my deth of mercie let
Hath made Dispite now his suerde to whet

There is a clear parallel here with the Romaunt not only in the language (in which the lover will “serve his love with herte and alle” line 1883), but also in theme. Once again we are reminded of Daunger who will thwart the lover from reaching the rose every chance he gets, for no reason other than that he can.

Further, through a series of personifications a catalog of allegories is created that adhere to typical medieval concerns and retain structures that would be familiar to an audience who had  most likely read the likes of Chaucer or Gower, among others. The scope of this catalog is to enact the relations between the knight and his lover while likening it to other forms of interpersonal contact.

The language used for Daunger is that of war, portraying it as militaristic, much like it is described in the Romaunt (line 3435).
“Agens me and his arowes to file
To take vengeaunce of wilful cruelté;
And tonges fals throgh her sleghtly wile
Han gonne a werre that wol not stynted be;
And fals Envye of wrathe, and Enemyté
Have conspired agens al ryght and lawe,
Of her malis, that Trouthe shal be slawe.

The imagery shifts at the end of this stanza to that of law, and justice, (not unlike Chaucer’s Complaint unto Pity, line 53). Envye and Trouthe are both derived from the aforementioned sources, the Romaunt and Pity, respecitively. Also, Gower in Confessio, discusses Envy in Book 2, and Wrath in Book 3. Envy also makes an appearance in Part I of Pilgrim’s Progress (among numerous other medieval texts).

“And Male-Bouche gan first the tale telle
To sclaundre Trouthe of indignacion,
And Fals-Report so loude ronge the belle
That Mysbeleve and Fals-Suspecion
Have Trouthe brought to hys damnacion,
So that, alas, wrongfully he dyeth,
And Falsnes now his place occupieth

The personification of character traits continues, and Male-Bouche, or Foul Mouth comes from the Romaunt (line 3024), but the rest of them are originally Lydgatean, such as Fals-Report, and Mysbeleve. The last one, Fals-Suspecion comes from the Romaunt (line 2507), but the personification is Lydgate’s product. The grouping of four villains found in the Romaunt (Foul Mouth, Shame, Fear, and Danger)  is here recreated, acting to prevent the lover from reaching his interest, the lady.

“And entred ys into Trouthes londe
And hath therof the ful possessyon.
O ryghtful God, that first the trouthe fonde,
How may Thou suffre such oppressyon,
That Falshed shuld have jurysdixion
In Trouthes ryght, to sle him giltles?
In his fraunchise he may not lyve in pes.

There is an interesting play on words in this stanza. Falsnes from the previous paragraph is usurping Trouth’s “londe,” with an echo of the Romaunt (line 2783) where hope resides, or holds land, within the knight. Here though, Falsnes falsely resides in the knight. In other words, the lady perceives Falsnes in the knight, and wrongly attributes it to him, but in reality he is Trouth’s property. He bemoans that he cannot make his lady see this truth.

“Falsly accused and of his foon forjuged,
Without unsuer while he was absent
He damned was and may not ben excused,
For Cruelté satte in jugement
Of hastynesse, without avisement,
And bad Disdeyn do execute anon
His jugement in presence of hys fon.

“Atturney non ne may admytted ben
To excuse Trouthe, ne a worde to speke;
To feyth or othe the juge list not sen;
Ther ys no geyn, but he wil be wreke.
O Lorde of Trouthe, to Thee I calle and cleke:
How may Thou se thus in Thy presence
Without mercy mordred Innocence?

Love is often found punishing Trouthe and siding with Falsity. Chaucer and Langland make use of the trope – think of the extended trial scene in Piers Plowman, Passus 3, in which Trouth is placed on trial and actually condemned. Cruelte is first personified by Chaucer in Part II of Pity. Also, think of the contradiction between this trial scene and the one that figures in Chaucer’s Parliment. When Nature is the judge, justice and truth stand to win, perhaps implying Love exists in an unnatural state, and by virtue of its unnatural existence it is flawed and unable to deliver justice.

There is also a disparity between manuscripts on the word “cleke,” with the possibility that, according to the OED and MED, it implies foolishness, but depending on which manuscript you reference, Lydgate may have used it prior to the first instances of it in either of the reference sources. If this is the case, then it would simply  mean the knight is calling out, or crying, but not necessarily in vain.

“Now God that art of Trouthe sovereyn
And seest how I lye for trouthe bounde,
So sore knytte in Loves firy cheyn,
Even at the deth, thro-girt wyth mony a wounde
That lykly ar never for to sounde,
And for my trouthe am damned to the dethe,
And noght abide but drawe alonge the brethe,

The knight appeals to the sovereign of Trouth, similar to the plea in Chaucer’s Anelida. Love as the source of imprisonment, binding its followers with chains is also not a new concept. It appears in the Romaunt, in the Knight’s Tale, and Love’s “firy” chain is a reminder of Cupid’s “fyry dart” in Chaucer’s “A Complaint to his Lady.” Lydgate also uses these terms in Temple of Glas (line 574) and the Troy Book (Part IV, line 1550).

Nevertheless, even as the lover is condemned to death in lines reminiscent of the Knight’s Tale (lines 1010), he will tarry as long as he can in Chaucerian terms once used to translate Boethius  (to drawe along, prolong from Latin “protrahit”).

“Consider and se in Thyn eternal sight
How that myn hert professed whilom was
For to be trwe with al my ful myght
Oonly to oon, the which now, alas,
Of volunté, withoute more trespas,
Myn accusurs hath taken unto grace
And cherissheth hem my deth for to purchace.

He ends his plight by reiterating his faithfulness and loyalty to the one he loves, only to lament that his love has been turned against him by false “accursurs.” However, he does not acquiesce, and will continue questioning the rationality and/or justice behind such an ending. Next time I shall discuss his argument.



Krausser, E. “The Complaint of the Black Knight.”

Leach, Elizabeth Eva. Sung Birds: Music, Nature, and Poetry in the Later Middle Ages.

MacCracken, Henry Noble, ed. The Complaint of the Black Knight. In The Minor Poems of John Lydgate.

Norton-Smith, John, ed. A Complaynt of a Loveres Lyfe. In John Lydgate, Poems.

Lydgate’s Complaynt


At this point it has become quite clear I will not be using Lydgate’s “A Complaynt of a Loveres Lyfe,” for my Kalamazoo paper, but nevertheless I’m enjoying going through the poem, stanza by stanza. I will be continuing forth from where I left off last time. Per usual, my sources listed at the bottom offer far more information should you be interested in reading more than the glimpse I offer here.

But I, alas, that am of wytte but dulle
And have no knowyng of suche mater
For to discryve and wryte at the fulle
The wofull compleynt which that ye shul here,
But even like as doth a skryvener
That can no more what that he shal write
But as his maister beside dothe endyte,

Modesty was most certainly a virtue in the medieval period, and a trope many writers made use of when beginning their works. While we are indeed 200 lines into the poem, here the narrator is only just beginning to relate his story. Until recently it was the frame narrator speaking, and not the poet within the tale persona who is voyeuristically spying on the knight. Another famous example of negations of talent can be found in the General Prologue and Legend of Good Women.

Interestingly he attributes the tale to a master of various natures and considers himself no more than a mere scribe transcribing what was given. Of course, with recent scribal scholarship there is a great deal more we have learned about scribal culture and its function, making it hard to believe that they did little more than copy texts like xerox machines. More often than not they interjected themselves into the text by making corrections or emendations well out of line with what was being asked. Their motives were usually to improve the text, and even on occasion make it more aesthetically pleasing as they re-envisioned the mise en page, sometimes at the actual expense of the text. Nevertheless, here Lydgate relies on the very conventional understanding of a scrivner.

Ryght so fare I, that of no sentement
Sey ryght noght, as in conclusion,
But as I herde when I was present
This man compleyn wyth a pytouse son;
For even lych, wythout addissyon
Or disencrese, outher mor or lesse,
For to reherse anon I wol me dresse.

Compare this with this stanza from the Canterbury Tales (lines 715-746):

Now have I toold you soothly, in a clause,
Th’ estaat, th’ array, the nombre, and eek the cause
Why that assembled was this compaignye
In southwerk at this gentil hostelrye
That highte the tabard, faste by the belle.
But now is tyme to yow for to telle
How that we baren us that ilke nyght,
Whan we were in that hostelrie alyght;
And after wol I telle of our viage
And al the remenaunt of oure pilgrimage.
But first I pray yow, of youre curteisye,
That ye n’ arette it nat my vileynye,
Thogh that I pleynly speke in this mateere,
To telle yow hir wordes and hir cheere,
Ne thogh I speke hir wordes proprely.
For this ye knowen al so wel as I,
Whoso shal telle a tale after a man,
He moot reherce as ny as evere he kan
Everich a word, if it be in his charge,
Al speke he never so rudeliche and large,
Or ellis he moot telle his tale untrewe,
Or feyne thyng, or fynde wordes newe.
He may nat spare, althogh he were his brother;
He moot as wel seye o word as another.
Crist spak hymself ful brode in hooly writ,
And wel ye woot no vileynye is it.
Eek plato seith, whoso that kan hym rede,
The wordes moote be cosyn to the dede.
Also I prey yow to foryeve it me,
Al have I nat set folk in hir degree
Heere in this tale, as that they sholde stonde.
My wit is short, ye may wel understonde.

This is not to argue that the Lydgatean narrator is necessarily mimicking Chaucer’s since again, this was a common trope. However, I wanted to use one of the best known examples as evidence for the different ways in which the meek narrator can exist. He asserts his deep rooted desire to relate the events as closely as possible with little regard for his own opinions and sentiments, followed by an apology for his own shortcomings and ineptitude to do justice to the piece.

Returning to the narrator in the Complaynt

And yf that eny now be in this place
That fele in love brennyng or fervence,
Or hyndered were to his lady grace
With false tonges that with pestilence
Sle trwe men that never did offence
In worde ne dede, ne in their entent –
Yf eny such be here now present,

The narrator bids any men who have been either in love or a hindrance to love to show themselves. There is a intonation that one or both types of men will be the main topic of his forthcoming telling, and thus they would have the most to gain from hearing him.

Let hym of routhe ley to audyence
With deleful chere and sobre contenaunce
To here this man, be ful high sentence,
His mortal wo and his perturbaunce,
Compleynyng, now lying in a traunce
With loke upcast and reuful chere,
Th’effect of which was as ye shal here.

Again, these men, who have known love from one side or another, are best suited to hear the complaint of the knight as the narrator will here tell us. The lover’s complaint was another often used trope that entailed the lover bemoaning the effects of his lovesickness. He is on the brink of death and only his love’s attention could resurrect him enough to continue living. While Troilus is first to come to mind, Aurthuriana is rich with such examples of men swooning and lamenting their fate as lovers.


And thus the complaint commences.

“The thoght oppressed with inward sighes sore,
The peynful lyve, the body langwysshing,
The woful gost, the hert rent and tore,
The petouse chere pale in compleynyng,
The dedely face lyke asshes in shynyng,
The salt teres that fro myn yen falle,
Parcel declare grounde of my peynes alle.

Interestingly, the actual complaint, while describing emotion, relies purely on logic and reason through a series of complicated rhetorical exercises. It has been noted that much like Chaucer in the Parlement, Lydgate uses anaphor (look for this as one of the words in the last line of each stanza is repeated in the first line of the following stanza), and parison, but turns these concepts into a catalogue meant to emphasize the key elements of love. Over the next few stanzas certain words are indeed underlined in MS Fairfax 16, suggesting they are the keys to understanding love, and the lover.

“Whos hert ys grounde to blede on hevynesse,
The thoght resseyt of woo and of compleynt,
The brest is chest of dule and drerynesse,
The body eke so feble and so feynt.
With hote and colde my acces ys so meynt
That now I shyver for defaute of hete,
And hote as glede now sodenly I suete:

Once again lovesickness becomes an actual physical ailment where the lover experiences bouts of hot and cold, much like a fever peaking, breaking, and returning full force. Similarly like strong fevers, lovesickness was serious enough to believe it could kill a person. The direct comparisons to the knight can be found in the Troilus, but also in Lydgate’s own Temple of Glas.

“Now hote as fire, now colde as asshes dede,
Now hote for colde, now cold for hete ageyn,
Now colde as ise, now as coles rede
For hete I bren; and thus betwext tweyn
I possed am, and al forcast in peyn,
So that my hete pleynly, as I fele,
Of grevouse colde ys cause everydele.

Recall Troilus who “For hete of cold, for cold of hete I dye” (1.420), and the process of hot and cold representing the various forms of anguish that are there referred to as an “axcess,” much like the “acces” here.

“This ys the colde of ynwarde high dysdeyn,
Colde of dyspite, and colde of cruel hate;
This is the colde that evere doth besy peyn
Agens trouthe to fight and debate;
This ys the colde that wolde the fire abate
Of trwe menyng, alas, the harde while;
This ys the colde that will me begile.

The coldness felt by the lover can be interpreted in several ways. His heart may be hardening to the indifference of his loved one. He is slowly feeling the progressive cold of death. The rest of his lament will help us glean his inner most thoughts and understand the situation he faces. In the next installment we will see the causes and results of this cold he feels.


Krausser, E. “The Complaint of the Black Knight.”

Leach, Elizabeth Eva. Sung Birds: Music, Nature, and Poetry in the Later Middle Ages.

MacCracken, Henry Noble, ed. The Complaint of the Black Knight. In The Minor Poems of John Lydgate.

Norton-Smith, John, ed. A Complaynt of a Loveres Lyfe. In John Lydgate, Poems.

Lydgate’s Lover, Continued


Yes, I’m still here plowing along at Lydgate’s  “A Complaynt of a Loveres Lyfe,” and here is where I left off last time. Let’s resume getting to know the mystery knight…

Wherof astonied, my fote I gan withdrawe,
Gretly wondring what hit myght be
That he so lay and had no felowe,
Ne that I coude no wyght with him se,
Wherof I had routhe and eke pité;
I gan anon, so softly as I coude,
Amonge the busshes me prively to shroude;

We return to the image of the poet as voyeur who divulges his findings to the general populace. The narrator is perplexed by the knight’s state of being, and by the fact that he appears to be travelling alone. Those familiar with romance will immediately assume some form of quest, personal or otherwise. However, here no more is said except that the narrator will use his concealment to the advantage of his story. Interestingly, according to the OED, this is the first recorded version of the verb “shroude” in this sense, and Lydgate goes to use it in similarly innovative ways in later works, such as the first instance of “shroud” as a means of taking shelter in Life of Our Lady.

If that I myght in eny wise espye
What was the cause of his dedely woo,
Or why that he so pitously gan crie
On hys fortune and on his eure also,
With al my myght I leyde an ere to
Every worde to marke what he sayed
Out of his swogh among as he abreyde.

This is a pretty straightforward stanza in which the narrator situates himself as the curious party in hopes of deciphering the ailment of the injured knight who has recently swooned. Further, as he awaits the knight’s recovery he professes to make note of what he observes, intoning his role as recorder, with an implication towards his impartiality. In short, he is interested in the knight, but uninterested enough to simply observe and record.

But first, yf I shal make mensyon
Of hys persone and pleynly him discrive,
He was in sothe, without excepcion,
To speke of manhod, oon the best on lyve –
Ther may no man agein trouthe stryve –
For of hys tyme, and of his age also,
He proved was ther men shuld have ado.

Yet, before delving into the knight’s reasons for his injury and woeful demeanor, the narrator pauses to detail his person and countenance, which both appear well above average – even rendering him perhaps the best specimen of man to have ever lived. However, it must be noted that at this point these determinations prove to be premature, and either reliant upon hindsight where the narrator infuses the poem with characteristics learned later, or the narrator is making impartial value judgments that would necessarily negate his earlier stance towards objective observation from his shrouded spot. Regardless of which perspective the reader wishes to support, the narrator’s reputation becomes murky.

For oon the best ther of brede and lengthe,
So wel ymade by good proporsion
Yf he had be in his delyver strengthe;
But thoght and sekenesse wer occasion
That he thus lay in lamentacion,
Gruffe on the grounde in place desolate,
Sole by himself, awaped and amate.

The knight, here described as a highly attractive man is marred by his lovesickness. This is a recurring theme throughout such poetry as can be recalled from the knight in the Duchess and, perhaps more notably, Troilus. And further borrowing from Chaucer, with a hint towards the wondrous, Lydgate echoes the monk from the Prioresses’s Tale who “gruf he fil al plat upon the grounde” (line 1865). Then the last line will be used in proximity in the House of Glas where “that they with derknes were waped and amate” (line 401). Considering the kinds of love that will be at the forefront of both poems, their shared words can often be used to draw further parallels.

And for me semeth that hit ys syttyng
His wordes al to put in remembraunce,
To me that herde al his compleynyng
And al the grounde of his woful chaunce,
Yf therwithal I may yow do plesaunce,
I wol to yow, so as I can, anone
Lych as he seyde reherse everychone.

The narrator continues to affirm his decision to spy on the knight, stating that he believes it to be the most fitting option, and thus will attempt to record every word spoken as faithfully as possible.

But who shal helpe me now to compleyn?
Or who shal now my stile guy or lede?
O Nyobe! Let now thi teres reyn
Into my penne and eke helpe in this nede,
Thou woful mirre that felist my hert blede
Of pitouse wo, and my honde eke quake,
When that I write for this mannys sake.

It has been suggested the first two lines of this stanza are derived from the Monk’s Tale, lines 3853-3854, but the  most interesting aspects are the rhetorical strategies employed. Lydgate begins with invocatio, imploring a being larger than himself for guidance and inspiration. However, as his invocation is underway he also makes use of aporia in which he feigns ignorance as to whom he will address his invocation, before proceeding with it and directing his apostrophe to Nyobe.

Lydgate relies on the image of Nyobe weeping to forge a connection between her and the lamenting knight. In the original story, Nyobe boasts to Leto about her fourteen children. Leto, having only given birth to two, Apollo and Artemis, commissions them to destroy Nyobe’s chilren. Apollo, with his bow and arrows, slays all seven of Nyobe’s sons, and Artemis uses her bow and arrows to slay all seven of her daughters. Nyobe escapes Leto’s wrath, but turns to stone. Despite being petrified, she never ceases her weeping, and that precise image of a weeping woman is here given to us by Lydgate.

While Nyobe’s love was not a romantic one like we shall find with the knight, both of these figures were nevertheless greatly consumed by the loss of loved ones, so it seems appropriate that Lydgate would chose Nyobe as his muse.

The last two lines of the stanza parallel similar lines in Troilus:  “For which myn herte right now gynneth blede, / And now my penne, allas, with which I write, / Quaketh for drede of that I moste endite” (lines 4.12-14). The same sentiment can be found in different words earlier in the story, in Book II, as Criseyde writes her first letter to Troilus, shaking and panicking all the while, protesting to Pandarus that she “never dide thing with more peyne / Than writen this to which ye me constreyne” (lines 2.1231-1232). It appears the act of writing emotional matters (one’s own or another’s) is physically painful, and in a sense enacts the initial pain that prompted the act of writing.

For unto wo acordeth compleynyng,
And delful chere unto hevynesse;
To sorow also, sighing and wepyng
And pitouse morenyng unto drerynesse;
And who that shal write of distresse
In partye nedeth to know felyngly
Cause and rote of al such malady.

The narrator continues in the same vein, preferring to display the emotions he describes as vividly if he felt them himself. In fact, to best convey to the audience the reality of the situation, he will suffer the emotions himself. His ultimate goal is to present to us the condition of his characters as true in nature as possible.

With this, in my next segment of the poem we will see if Lydgate is up to the task, and how he sets out to achieve it.


Krausser, E. “The Complaint of the Black Knight.”

Leach, Elizabeth Eva. Sung Birds: Music, Nature, and Poetry in the Later Middle Ages.

MacCracken, Henry Noble, ed. The Complaint of the Black Knight. In The Minor Poems of John Lydgate.

Norton-Smith, John, ed. A Complaynt of a Loveres Lyfe. In John Lydgate, Poems.

Spearing, A. C. The Medieval Poet as Voyeur.