Winner and Waster (extracts) | Pearl (summary) | Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (summary) | Piers Plowman (extracts) | The Book of Margery Kempe (extracts)

From Winner and Waster (modern English translation)

Winner begins: "I am called Winner, a being who helps all this world, for I can instruct lords by leading them with wit. Any who are prepared to economize profitably and not spend too much, living on little, I love them the better. Wit goes with me and guides me well; whenever my goods accumulate, then my heart is glad. But this wicked false thief that stands before you wants to strike me down and destroy me forever before he stops. All that I gain through wit, he wastes through pride; I gather, I glean, and he lets go soon! I sew and stitch shut the purse that he goes and opens!"

In reply, Waster shows that his way of life has its uses: "When you have tossed and turned and waked all night, and all the other people who live around you in this world, and have piled your wide house full of sacks of wool, while the beams bend in the roof, such sides of bacon hang on them, and silver coins are packed in steel boxes, what would become of that wealth if no waste happens? Some would rot, some rust, some feed the rats. Stop filling your chests, for Christ's love of heaven, let the people, the poor ones, have a share in your silver, for if you went round about and really looked, you would weep for pity, the poor are in such distress."

Winner sees the other side of spending, though: "You always want to be off to the tavern up in town, everyone there ready with a bowl to blur your eyesight; call for what you like, what your heart desires -- wife, widow, or young girl living thereabouts. Then there is only 'Fill up!' and 'Fetch out money to show!' 'Wee hee!' and 'Climb up!' Words enough! But when this fun is over, the wine must be paid for; then you limp off to pawn your clothing, or sell your land."

Pearl (a summary)

I. The narrator mourning his lost pearl falls asleep on a mound in the garden where he lost it.

II. He dreams that he is in a wonderful landscape, the trees have leaves of silver, the ground is pearls; he comes to a deep river.

III. He realizes this is Paradise, the river a boundary he cannot cross. As he follows it, he sees a cliff rising on the other side, with a young woman sitting there, and the sight of her fills him with sudden joy.

IV. He describes how she is dressed all in pearls, with one pure pearl of great price on her breast; she takes off her crown and greets him.

V. He asks if she is his lost pearl come back to him, contrasting his sorrow and her bliss. She scolds him for thinking she is in the earth when she is here, no longer caught in time and mortality. He thinks he has regained her for ever now, but this too she tells him is wrong thinking.

VI. She instructs him, explaining that God has ordained that the river may only be crossed at death; he is upset at the thought of loosing her again. She says that he must learn to accept God's will and not complain, but pray.

VII. He apologizes, explaining that he had been very sad. He asks her to explain her present high position. She tells how, though young when she first came here, she is now married to the Lord the Lamb, as queen.

VIII. The dreamer proves stupid, saying that he had thought Mary to be Queen of Heaven. The maiden kneels on hearing Mary's name, and then explains that everyone in heaven is king or queen, while Mary is 'Queen of Courtesy'. But the dreamer finds it hard to believe, because she had no time to do any good works in her life.

IX. He continues to object that she lived for less than two years, and died too young even to know the 'Our Father', so it's not right she should be so rewarded for so little. She replies by summarizing the Parable of the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) in which various workers are set to work at different times of the day.

X. (The parable continues) When evening comes the workers are paid, all get the same amount! Those who worked all day get angry. But Christ explains that 'the last (the least, the very small and weak) shall be first' in his Kingdom. She explains that all is mercy, not reward. The dreamer objects that the Bible promises rewards.

XI. She explains that the gifts of God are enough for all. She then argues that she was lucky, since she was spared all the possibilities of sin life offers. She was baptized, that is enough, because Christ died to redeem all.

XII. She explains the virtues of innocence, with many quotations from the Bible, ending with Jesus welcoming and blessing the little children.

XIII. She recalls the Parable of the Pearl (Matthew 13:45-6) and explains that it means the peace of the Lamb offered to all. She encourages him to purchase his own. He turns to her beauty and asks her functions. She replies that she is bride of the Lamb. Again he foolishly objects that there were many better women.

XIV. She refers to the Apocalypse's 144,000 virgin brides and to Isaiah's mention of the Lamb slaughtered, identified with Jesus dying in Jerusalem, then with the royal Lamb of the Apocalypse.

XV. She quotes the Bible to show that all of them are equally his brides, united in endless praise. The dreamer apologizes, and asks a favour.

XVI. He wants to know where they live, he cannot see any houses. She explains that there is heavenly Jersualem, the city of God. He asks to enter it and see. She replies that he may see, but not enter.

XVII. He expounds what he saw, quoting the visions of John's Apocalypse, beginning with the walls of gemstone.

XVIII. (Paraphrasing the Apocalypse) Then he sees the gateways, the streets, the Lamb as the city's light, and the throne of God, he is filled with perfect bliss.

XIX. He sees the brides of the Lamb in procession, all with their pearls and sees the great worship of heaven, before the wounded Lamb. Suddenly he realizes that his 'little queen' is up there, making mirth among her friends. He longs to be there.

XX. As he moves towards the river, he wakes, back in the garden again. He regrets that he had been greedy, but realizes that he has learned a great lesson.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (summary)

The poem is divided into 4 Fitts or sections that correspond to the main divisions of the action.

Fitt 1. After these two introductory stanzas, the story begins in conventional romance style, with all the Round Table knights of Arthur's court gathered to celebrate Christmas. It is New Year's Day and everyone is ready for dinner, after celebrating Mass and exchanging gifts and kisses (which are also unexpectedly part of the theme). It is a scene full of light and joy, "For al watz this fayre folk in her first age" (all these beautiful people were young), which again invites ideas of human fragility. But Arthur stands waiting, because he would never eat on so high a holiday, till he had heard first Of sum aventurus thyng an uncouthe tale Of sum mayn mervayle that he myght trawe... or else until someone had arrived with a challenge.

Just as the food is brought in, they hear a noise, and a knight comes hurtling into the hall. He is unknown, of great size, but well-proportioned (so good-looking), and entirely green. His equipment (described in great detail) is green and gold, his horse too is green, even his very long hair is green, to say nothing of his enormous beard. The audience, like Arthur's knights, is bewildered. In the romances, if a knight comes riding in like this, he comes as a challenger; if he is an evil knight, his armour is red or black. The uncertainty is deliberate: this green knight is not armed to fight, and in one hand he carries a branch of holly, the medieval equivalent of a Christmas-tree; but in the other he has a huge and very sharp axe, it too with ribbons of green and gold. Is this a knight, a giant, or a spirit of nature?

The knight addresses the court defiantly, mocking their very high reputation for prowess in arms and peerlessness in courtesy. He explains he has come to play a game; not, as in the usual romances, to fight. He considers them as beardless children, only the game is not a common one. It involves an exchange of blows, he explains, with his axe. This year if one of the knights is bold enough to give him a blow, he must be ready to take a return blow from him this time next year. The response is silence! He begins to mock them: "Where is now your arrogance and your boasting?" Arthur grabs the axe, but Gawain his nephew insists that the king is too important to take such a risk, and asks to take his place.

The knight insists on his clearly stating the contract of their game, but when Gawain asks where he must go to meet him next year the Green Knight says that he will tell him after the blow. It is a "beheading game" as is found in Irish folklore, for example; and Sir Gawain duly cuts off the knight's head, which rolls around on the floor while the body bleeds but does not fall. Instead it goes and picks up its head, jumps onto the horse, and the head then opens its eyes and tells Sir Gawain to look for the Green Chapel, which he is sure to find if he looks for it. Then he gallops out. The party continues, as if nothing much had happened, but the atmosphere is strange.

Fitt 2 begins by describing the quick passing of the year. Time passes and Sir Gawain is faced with his own certain death, it seems, if he keeps truth with the Green Knight. When November comes, he duly arms, before setting out. His armour is described in detail, especially the shield on which is a pentangle, a five-pointed star drawn in a single unbroken line that symbolizes perfection. How Gawain is perfect is explained in five different aspects; on the inside of the shield is a painting of Mary, a sign of heaven's protection and of Christian Redemption. Gawain takes leave of the court, which is sorrowful but can hardly do anything to help, and sets out across the familiar romance landscape of the kingdom of Logres on his quest for the Green Knight of the Green Chapel. The narrative recalls that of Sir Orfeo, in its evocation of the solitude and hardship of the wasteland journey. Then suddenly place names from real geography appear, and Gawain passes from North Wales into Cheshire, the Wirral, which is probably the region in which the poem was written. On Christmas Eve, eager to find society and hear Christmas Mass, he prays and at once sees a fine castle appear, which is described in detail. He is courteously welcomed by the very large brown-haired lord of the castle; the people are most impressed when they learn that this is the famous Gawain. The beautiful lady of the castle comes to see him, accompanied by a hideous old woman who is not explained; the names of these people, and of the castle, are not given. On St John's Day Gawain explains his quest, and the lord tells him that it is close to the house, so that he has no need to go any farther. Instead Gawain should rest, while his host goes hunting. The host then proposes an exchange of winnings: he will give Gawain what he catches in the forest, while Gawain will give him everything he receives during each day.

Fitt 3 tells the events of the next three days. On the first day the lord goes out and finds many deer that they kill; meanwhile Gawain hears someone come into his bedroom, sees it is the lady of the castle, so pretends to be asleep. She sits on the bed and waits, so at last they talk. She stresses Gawain's fame, and offers herself as his servant; Gawain replies politely, but as they part she remarks that he is obviously not Sir Gawain, since he has not even asked for a kiss. They kiss once. In the forest, the hunters cut up the deer according to ancient custom, the meat is brought home, and given to Gawain, who give the lord a kiss. Asked where he got it, Gawain says that their contract did not require him to tell.

The next day the lord hunts a dangerous wild boar, while the bedroom scene is repeated, beginning and concluding in a kiss. The boar is cut up and brought home to Gawain, who give the lord two kisses.

On the third day the hounds go after a fox (wily, harmful to chickens, and no good as food) while the bedroom scene is repeated, the lady wearing a dress that reveals much of her body. She very clearly offers herself to him, and he very courteously refuses; as she goes, she asks for a gift, but he claims to have nothing worthy of her. She offers him a fine ring, he rejects it since he has nothing to offer in return. Then she removes a green and gold belt she is wearing, to give him, and explains that it is magic, that the man wearing it cannot be killed. Gawain thinks of the dangers of the next day, and accepts it. During the day he confesses his sins to a priest. In the evening Gawain gives the lord the day's three kisses, but not the belt, and gets the fox-skin in return.

Fitt 4 tells how Gawain sets out with a guide who urges him to run away, stressing the dangers awaiting him. He refuses, and goes on alone to the wild place called the Green Chapel. He hears, then sees the Green Knight, with a sharp axe. They prepare, but as the axe is dropping, he shrinks a little, the Green Knight stops, and says that this cannot be Sir Gawain, who was never afraid. The second time he does not move, but the Green Knight stops the blow, to speak. The third time the axe passes by, only lightly cutting the side of his neck.

Then the Green Knight begins to explain, that the first blow was for the first day, back in the castle, the second for the second, because then Gawain had kept his troth, but on the third day he failed, and therefore he was wounded:

For hit is my wede that thou werez, that ilke woven girdle.
Myn owen wyf hit the weved, I wot wel forsothe.

And he explains that he sent his wife to test him, found him quite faltless, except on the third day

Bot here yow lakked a lyttel, sir, and lewte yow wonted.
But that watz for no wylyde werke, ne wowyng nauther,
But for ye lufed your lyf, the lasse I you blame.

Sir Gawain is horrified and overwhelmed with shame. He confesses his fault, the Green Knight absolves him, and laughs, inviting him back to the castle, but Gawain blames women for tempting men, and prefers to leave, asking only for the girdle, and the Green Knight's name. He is Bercilak de Hautdesert, but explains that he owes everything to Morgan le Faye, the ugly old lady back in the castle (who in romances is Arthur's half-sister with magic powers, sometimes helping him, but the enemy of Guinevere). She sent him to frighten Guinevere.

Gawain returns to Camelot, wearing the girdle as a sign of repentance, deeply humiliated. The court hears his story, and takes the girdle as a general token of valour. The poem recalls the story of Troy, and ends with a prayer: "May he that bore the crown of thorns bring us all to his bliss".

Extracts from Piers Plowman (C Version) in modernized spelling


In a summer season when soft was the sun
I shop me into shrouds as I a sheep were,
In habit as an hermit, unholy of works,
Went forth in the world, wonders to hear,
And saw many sellies and selcouthe things. (marvels; strange)
Ac on a May morning on Malvern hills
Me befell for to sleep, for weariness off-walked
And in a land as I lay leaned and slept
And marvellously me met, as I may tell.
All the wealth of the world and the wo both
Winking as it were witterliche I saw it; (for sure)
Of truth and trickery, treason and guile,
All I saw sleeping, as I shall tell.
Eastward I beheld after the sun
And saw a tower, as I trowed Truth was therein;
Westward I waited in a while after (looked)
And saw a deep dale: Death, as I live,
Woned in that wones, and wicked spirits. (lived; dwelling)
A fair field of folk found I there between
Of all manner of men, the mean and the poor,
Working and wandering as this world asketh.
Some put them to plough, played full seldom,
In setting and in sowing swonked full hard (laboured)
And won that these wasters with gluttony destroyeth.
And some put them to pride and parailed them there-after
In countenance of clothing in many keen guise.
In prayers and penances putten them many
All for love of our Lord liveden swithe hard (very)
In hope to have a good end and Heavenriche bliss;
As anchorites and hermits that hold them in their cells,
Coveten not in countries to cayren about (wander)
For no lecherous liflode their lycame to please. (food; bodies)
And some chose chaffare, they cheveth the better (trade; do)
As it seemeth to our sight that such men thriveth;
And some mirths to make as minstrels conneth
Wollen neither swink ne sweat, but swear great oaths
Find out foul fantasies and fools them maketh
And hath wit at will to work if they would.

(The Confession of Glutony)

Now beginneth Glutton for to go to shrift (Confession)
And kayres him to church-ward, his coulpe to show. (guilt)
Fasting on a Friday forth gan he wende
By Betene's house the brewster, that bade him good morning,
And whither he would, the brew-wife him asked.
'To Holy Church,' quod he, 'for to hear Mass
And since sit and be shriven and sin no more.' (then; forgiven)
'I have good ale, gossip Glutton, wilt thou assaye?' (friend; try)
'Hast thou' quod he, 'any hot spices?' '
I have pepper and peony and a pound of garlic,
A farthings-worth fennel seeds, for fasting-days I bought it.'
Then goes Glutton in and greets others after.
Ciss the shoestress sat on the bench, (female shoemaker)
Watt the warrener and his wife drunk, (gamekeeper)
Tim the tinker and two of his knaves,
Hick the hackney-man and Hugh the needler, (horse-keeper)
Clarice of Cockes Lane and the clerk of the church,
Sir Pierce of Pridie, and Purnele of Flanders,
An hay-ward, an hermit, the hangman of Tyburn,
Daw the ditcher, with a dozen harlots,
Of porters and of pick-purses and of piled tooth-drawers (bald)
... There was laughing and glowering and 'Let go the cup!'
Bargains and beverages began then to awake,
And sat so till evensong, and sang umbywhile, (sometimes)
Till Glutton had yglobbed a gallon and a gill. (consumed)
His guts gan to gothly as two greedy sows (grumble)
He pissed a potel in a pater-noster while, (half-gallon)
He blew his round rout at his backbone's end,
That all that heard the horn held their noses after
And wished it had been washed with a wisp of briars.
He might neither step nor stand till he a staf had,
And then gan he go like a gleeman's bitch:
Sometime aside adn some time arear,
As who-so layeth lines for to catch fowls.
And when he drew to the door, then dimmed his eyes
And stumbled at the threshold and threw to the earth,
And Clement the cobbler caught him by the middle
And for to lift him aloft laid him on his knees.
Ac Glutton was a great churl and greved in the lifting
And coughed up a caudel in Clement's lap, (mess)
Is none so hungry hound in Hertfordshire
Durst lap of that leaving, so unlovely it smelt.
With all the wo of this world his wife and his wench
Baren him to his bed and brought him therein
And after all this excess he had an accidie after (faint)
He slept Saturday and Sunday till the sun yede to rest (went)
Than gan he wake well wan and would have drunk;
The first word that he spoke was 'Who hath the bowl?'

From The Book of Margery Kempe (Chapter 11) (modernized spelling)

It befell upon a Friday, on Midsummer Eve, in right hot weather, as this creature (Margery Kempe) was coming from York bearing a bottle with beer in her hand, and her husband a cake in his bosom, he asked his wife this question,
"Margery, if there came a man with a sword and would smite off my head unless I should come kindly (made love) with you as I have done before, sayeth me truth of your conscience - for you say you will not lie - whether would you suffer my head to be smote off, or else suffer me to meddle with you again, as I did before?"
"Alas, sir," she said, "why move you this matter, when we have been chaste these eight weeks?"
"Because I will know the truth of your heart."
And then she said with great sorrow, "Forsooth, I had rather see you be slain than we should turn again to our uncleanness."
And he said again, "You are no good wife." (...)
Then went they forth towards Bridlington in right hot weather, the aforesaid creature having great sorrow and great dread for her chastity. And as they came by a cross her husband sat him down under the cross, calling his wife to him and saying these words to her:
"Margery, grant me my desire, and I shall grant you your desire. My first desire is that we shall lie still together in one bed as we have done before; the second, that you shall pay my debts before you go to Jerusalem; and the third that you shall eat and drink with me on Fridays as you were wont to do."
"Nay, sir," she said, "to break the Friday (fast) I will never grant you while I live."
"Well," he said, "then shall I meddle you again."
She prayed him that he would give her leave to make her prayers and he granted it goodly. Then she kneeled down beside the cross in the field and prayed wit great abundance of tears. (...) And then our Lord Jesus Christ with great sweetness spoke to this creature, commanding her to go again to her husband and pray him to grant her what she desired:
"And he shall have what he desires. For, my dearworthy daughter, this was the cause that I bade thee fast, so thou shouldst the sooner obtain and get thy desire, and now it is granted thee. I will no longer thou fast, therefore I bind thee in the name of Jesus eat and drink as thine husband doth."

(Chapters 37-39)

As this creature was in Rome, our Lord bade her give away all her goods and make herself bare for his love. And anon she with a fervent desire to please God, gave away such goods as she had. (...) After that this creature had thus given away her goods and had neither penny nor halfpenny to help herself with, as she lay in St Marcellus Church in Rome, thinking and studying where she should have her living, inasmuch as she had no silver to keep herself withal, our Lord answered to her mind and said,
"Daughter, thou art not yet as poor as I was when I hung naked on the cross for thy love, for thou hast clothes on thy body and I had none. And thou hast councilled other men to be poor for my sake, and therefore thou must follow thy own council.
"But dread thee not, daughter, for there is gold to thee- wards and I have promised thee before that I would never fail you.... I have friends in every country, and shall make my friends to comfort you." (...)

Another time, right as she came by a poor woman's house, the poor woman called her into her house and made her sit by her little fire, giving her wine to drink in a cup of stone. And she had a little man-child sucking on her breast; after a while it ran to this creature, the mother sitting full of sorrow and sadness. Then this creature burst all into weeping as though she had seen our Lady and her Son in time of his Passion, and had so many holy thoughts that she might never tell the halfdeal, but ever sat and wept plentifully a long time, that the poor woman, having compassion of her weeping, prayed her to cease, not knowing why she wept. Then our Lord Jesus Christ said to this creature, "This place is holy". And then she rose up and went forth in Rome and saw much poverty among the people; and then she thanked God highly of the poverty that she was in, trusting therethrough to be a partner with them in merit.