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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume II. The End of the Middle Ages.

XVIII. Political and Religious Verse to the Close of the Fifteenth Century—Final Words

§ 4. The Lollards

The unquiet reign of Henry IV saw the miserable game of heresy-hunting at work under the statute De Heretico Comburendo, and political revolt after revolt in the north. Four years after the burning of William Sawtrey the Lollard, at Smithfield, a lay court condemned the saintly archbishop Richard le Scrope of York to death for high treason and provided that the sentence should be carried out as ignominiously as might be. The virtues of the archbishop are celebrated in Latin and in English verses; and the political and religious “crimes” of the Lollards are not forgotten by other literary clerks.

Both Latin and English poems against the Lollards and songs against friars, are of common occurrence. One poet sings

  • Thai dele with purses, pynnes and knyves,
  • With gyrdles, gloves, for wenches and wyves,
  • while another, in a fifteenth century MS., combines Latin and English, beginning
  • Freeres, freeres, wo [char]e be!
  • ministri malorum,
  • For many a manes soule bringe [char]e
  • ad poenas infernorum
  • and continuing, in violent lines which cannot be quoted, to set forth current crimes. In the Middle Ages, popular singers, “westours and rimers, minstrels or vagabonds,” who followed their calling along the king’s highway, helped, ofter enough, to fan the flames of rebellion, political and religious; it should be remembered to their credit that, consciously or unconsciously, their work was not without effect in the emancipation of the people.

    Ten years after the “Glory of York” had been executed, the victory of Agincourt gave further employment to song writers; but the specimen of their work preserved in the Pepysian MS. does not bear comparison with later poems on the same theme. Professional and laudatory verse on deaths and coronations we can leave aside; but the interest of its satire should preserve from forgetfulness a poem on the siege of Calais, 1436. “The duk of Burgayn,” with “grete prid” set forth “Calys to wyn,” and his preparations are told with a rare spirit of raillery. In Calais itself, even

  • The women, both yong and old,
  • Wyth stones stuffed every scaffold,
  • The spared not to swet ne swynk;
  • With boylyng cawdrens, both grett and smalle,
  • Yf they would assaute the walle,
  • All hote to get them drynk.