Medieval Complaint

Literary/ Cultural Context Essay

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The complaint, in its broadest terms, refers to an expression of grievance against public or private injustices in literature. In the medieval period, there was a strong tradition of complaint derived from classical and Biblical texts. Complaints could be found across a variety of genres and in different forms, and spanning from Early English laments to later medieval protests. The tradition of the complaint did not end with the Middle Ages, but rather it flourished during the Early Modern period and has continued to the present day. This article focuses on complaints written between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries, when the idea of the complaint became more distinguished from other expressions. Complaints are here divided into three main categories: love complaints, social complaints, and devotional complaints. These divisions were not clearly set in the Middle Ages, and there was much overlap between their style and content.

Across the Middle Ages, complaints were found both within larger narratives, known as intercalated complaints (see Hatfield, 1975), and also as distinct lyric set-pieces. Examples of both forms can be found in the works of Geoffrey Chaucer: for instance, The Complaint of Mars stands on its own, while the characters of Troilus and Criseyde often make complaints within the larger narrative of the poem. While they are typically not formally defined, by the fourteenth century some forms were being used specifically for complaints. Guillaume de Machaut used a sixteen-line strophic form in Remede de Fortune and the Fonteinne amoreuse for the complaint sections, and this form was also used by Jean Froissart in his Paradys d’Amours and Espinette amoreuse (see Wimsatt, 1968, p. 58). Some complaints have a precise addressee, while in others the addressee is generalised.

Scholarship on complaint in the medieval period has largely focused on each of these areas––love, social, and devotional complaints––separately, although there have been some broader studies across the three (such as Peter, 1956; Davenport, 1988). Wendy Scase provides the most recent overview of the entire complaint tradition, with focus also on legal complaints (Scase, 2007). On amatory complaints, the works of James Wimsatt (especially Wimsatt, 1968; Wimsatt, 1978) and Charles Muscatine (Muscatine, 1957) have been most influential, all of which take Chaucer as their starting point. On social complaints, there is an important brief discussion by Janet Coleman (Coleman, 1981, pp. 60–62), with more recent studies by Mark W. Ormrod (Ormrod, 2009) and Scase (Scase, 2019). Devotional complaints have a longer scholarly tradition: in 1907 George C. Taylor wrote on the English tradition of the Planctus Mariae (Taylor, 1907), with further additions by Rosemary Woolf (Woolf, 1968) and Sandro Sticca (Sticca, 1988).

Sources and Influences

There are several sources for the medieval complaint. In classical literature, Juvenal and Horace wrote in the tradition of complaint as a satirical form, attacking “man and his perennial frailties” (Peter, 1956, p. 59) and lamenting the loss of a Golden Age. Ovid’s Heroides was highly influential on the medieval amatory complaint (see Dean, 1967): in these epistolary poems, famous women (such as Dido and Helen) complain in the first person about their lover abandoning them. Ovid similarly laments his fate in his own letters of complaint from exile, the Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto. In addition, there is a strong Scriptural tradition of complaint, notably in the Old Testament (see, for example, KJV Jer. 9:1; Job 3; Ps. 137:1). In the Middle Ages, these diffuse classical and Biblical sources commingled, as Davenport notes, “to produce a homiletic tradition of castigation of the vanity and the transitoriness of man’s life presided over by Dame Fortune” (Davenport, 1988, p. 4).

Boethius’ De consolatione philosophiae [On the Consolation of Philosophy], written in the sixth century CE, was widely influential on medieval literature. Written while Boethius was imprisoned at Pavia, the Consolation laments against Fortune and against the author’s personal situation. Its language and style look back to classical complaints such as in Ovid’s exile poetry, as well as Platonic, Ciceronian, and Augustinian developments in the use of a dialogue as a way of externalising debate. The Consolation’s use of dialogue is found in later medieval works such as Thomas Hoccleve’s Series, especially his Complaint and Dialogue. Boethius’ text also includes a structure of complaint and consolation, in which a character or narrator complains, and this complaint prompts an authoritative figure––often Love or Philosophy––to console the narrator. This structure was important for French love complaints, especially those by Guillaume de Machaut (see “Love complaints”, below). Finally, medieval prison-literature often drew on the Consolation in their use of narratorial complaints, including those by Thomas Usk, James I of Scotland, and Sir Thomas Malory.

Complaint is considered the descendent of the Latin planctus, a medieval Latin genre which flourished between the ninth and fifteenth centuries. They were usually composed upon the death of an important figure, and were often set to music. Notable examples include the six planctus written by the twelfth-century philosopher Peter Abelard. The form resembles the complaint particularly in its concentration on expressing emotions, which distinguishes both from the similar form of the epitaph. The planctus directly influenced the Old Occitan planh: a funeral lament for an important person. The most famous planh is Gaucelm Faidit’s lament on the death of Richard the Lionheart in 1199.

As well as planctus and planh, there are several intersecting terms surrounding the idea of complaint. Laments, elegies, and complaints are extremely similar, and important examples include those found in Early English literature, such as The Wanderer. Peter explicitly sets complaint against satire (Peter, 1956). Lai can include complaints, such as Machaut’s Lai de Plour, and Machaut then cites complaintes alongside rondeaux, virelais, and ballades as different categories of lyrics (Machaut in Palmer, 1993, pp. 8–11, ll. 127–30). Muscatine also points towards the apostrophe and invocation as companion types of the complaint (Muscatine, 1957, p. 26).

The Love Complaint

Across vernacular languages, complaints about love were widespread (for one example outside of French or English, see Vaquero, 2010, on medieval Spanish love complaints). In verse alone, The Digital Index of Middle English Verse lists fifty-four separate amatory complaints, although it is difficult to quantify the number since complaints appear under diffuse terms. Complaints on the topic of love also often include complaints against Fortune and death, especially if the complaint is on the occasion of the death of a lover.

By the fourteenth century, love complaints in Middle English and French flourished, although differences emerged between English and French styles. Mary Moore Hatfield argues that in fourteenth-century France, the love complaint had become impersonal and abstract (Hatfield, 1975, p. 12). Conversely, Arthur K. Moore notes that in English, “the more liberal English social mode permitted... frankness of expression and intimacy of style as lending conviction to the poet’s exclamations” (Moore, 1951, p. 62).

Perhaps the most notable of medieval French complaints are those found in the twelfth-century poet Chrétien de Troyes, in the thirteenth-century Roman de la Rose, and in the fourteenth-century poets Guillaume de Machaut and Jean Froissart (on Machaut and Froissart’s poems of complaint, see Wimsatt, 1968, pp. 103–33). In Chrétien de Troyes’ Yvain, Laudine narrates a heartfelt complaint which laments the murder of her husband, and demands that the perpetrator be found (Chrétien in Kibler, 2004, pp. 309–10). The thirteenth-century Roman de la Rose, by Guillaume de Lorris and later added to by Jean de Meun, includes several important complaints in both authors’ sections of the poem. For instance, in de Lorris’ section, the lover explains to Amant the physical and mental torture endured by a lover (Rose in Langlois vol. 2, pp. 125–28, ll. 2449–504), in the form of a hypothetical complaint provided to the lover by the God of Love. As in several examples of complaint, the process of complaining is crucial in prompting a change or an event: in de Meun’s section of the Rose, a complaint prompts the figure of Reason to answer (Rose in Langlois vol. 2, pp. 203–9, ll. 4059–220). Moreover, as well as complaints on the central topic of love, there are complaints on more general subjects, such as on the Wheel of Fortune (Rose in Langlois vol. 2, p. 199, ll. 3981–91; p. 215, ll. 4353–66). Often, as in Boethius and other examples of French poetry, complaints in the Rose engender consolation or comfort (see Muscatine, 1957, pp. 27–28).

The complaint was most formally and generically defined in the French poetry of the fourteenth century. In the poetry of Guillaume de Machaut (fl. 1320–1377), complaints are often embedded into longer narrative poems. They each use the same sixteen-line stanza and rhyme scheme, crystallising the complaint into a form which was later used by Jean Froissart in many poems and by Chaucer in his Anelida and Arcite. Despite this attempt to fix the versification of the complaint, however, it did not become widespread.

Love complaints appear repeatedly in the works of Machaut, including in Le jugement dou Roy de Behaingne [The Judgement of the King of Bohemia], Remede de Fortune [The Remedy of Fortune], and Dit de la Fonteinne amoreuse [The Dit of the Fountain of Love]. Importantly, Machaut viewed complaint as a genre of its own, and in his Prologue he cites complaintes alongside lais, motes, virelais, and ballades as a type of lyric category (Machaut in Palmer, 1993, pp. 8–11, ll. 127–30; see Wimsatt, 1968, p. 104). A consequence of conventionalising the form is that Machaut’s complaint-poems have been characterised as “highly impersonal and artificial” (Clemen, 1963, p. 170).

Jean Froissart, active in France in the later fourteenth century (see Souleau, 2011), includes complaints in his Paradys d’Amours [The Paradise of Love], Espinette amoreuse [The Thorn of Love], and Dit dou bleu chevalier [The Dit of the Blue Knight]. In the dream-vision Paradys, for example, a lover visits the conventional location of a garden before making a formal complaint against Love (Froissart in Figg, 2001, ll. 75–202). The complaint is in the form of eight sixteen-line stanzas, the same form as used by Machaut. Like other complaint narratives, this complaint engenders the appearance of Esperance [Hope], who subsequently consoles the narrator. Many of the features in Froissart’s complaints are similar to Machaut’s, suggesting the formalisation of complaint as a genre.

In Middle English, the complaint is most prominently taken up by Geoffrey Chaucer (see Rudd, 2002). While there are other examples––John Lydgate, for instance, has Venus listening to the complaints of lovers in his fifteenth-century Temple of Glas––the persistence of the complaint throughout Chaucer’s oeuvre is notable. Complaints are sometimes intercalated into longer narratives, as in The Book of the Duchess or Troilus and Criseyde, but Chaucer also wrote shorter poems where the complaint stands alone, such as The Complaint of Chaucer to his Purse. Chaucer drew on several sources for his complaints, especially Machaut and Froissart (see Wimsatt, 1968), as well as Boethius’ Consolation and Ovid’s Heroides (on the latter, see Dean, 1967). For instance, the complaints of Dido in the House of Fame (House of Fame, ll. 300–600) and throughout The Legend of Good Women are modelled on the Heroides, and in Troilus and Criseyde Pandarus reads out a letter of “a compleynte” (Troilus, I. 655 [all references to Chaucerian texts are from The Riverside Chaucer: Chaucer, 2008]) to Troilus, which is Oënone’s letter to Paris in Heroides 5.

Like Machaut, Chaucer sometimes sees the complaint as a discrete lyric form, echoing Machaut’s list of lyric forms in “The Franklin’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales: “Of swich matere made he manye layes, / Songes, compleintes, roundels, virelayes” (Franklin’s Tale, ll. 947–48). However, elsewhere in Chaucer’s poetry the boundaries of form are not so clear-cut, as in “The Merchant’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales, when Damian writes a letter to his beloved “In manere of a compleynt or a lay” (Merchant’s Tale, l. 1881, emphasis added). In The Complaint of Venus, the narrator similarly declares that he will end “this compleynt or this lay” (Venus, l. 71, emphasis added). While the French tradition consolidated what a complaint might formally look like, the complaint was still not a set genre, with many overlaps with the lai especially. In The Complaint of Mars, Chaucer’s narrator explicitly reflects upon the difficulties of defining or forming a complaint (Mars, ll. 155–63).

Of course, the complaint in Middle English did not end with Chaucer. Thomas Hoccleve wrote a lengthy Complaint in his Series, and Lydgate composed complaints in his Temple of Glas and Compleint of the Black Knight (an imitation of Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess). The early sixteenth-century poet Thomas Wyatt also wrote complaint poems such as Complaint unto Love to Reason and Complaint of the Absence of his Love. Wyatt’s contemporary Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, wrote complaints such as Complaint of the Absence of her Love Being Upon the Sea and Complaint of a Dying Lover.

Social Complaints

In social complaints, sometimes called “abuses of the age” literature or political complaints, writers express their anger and contempt at the state of society, politics, or worldly life. The literary complaint tradition contemptus mundi [contempt of the world] and political complaints flourished in the fourteenth century, as did non-literary complaints in legal petitioning. There are crossovers between these categories and amatory complaints, since there are legal complaints found within poetry, and love complaints sometimes use the register of legal petitioning. There are also overlaps with religious complaints: social protests were often concerned with religious issues, such as corruption in the English Church (for instance, in John Gower’s Vox Clamantis) or surrounding Wycliffe and the Lollards. Indeed, Coleman argues that by the second half of the fourteenth century, social and spiritual complaints could not be disentangled (Coleman, 1981, pp. 60–62).

Contemptus mundi [contempt of the world] was a popular mode of writing, usually in Latin, which proliferated in the Middle Ages, especially from the twelfth century onwards. In these texts, the writer typically laments the excesses of material and worldly life, and details the evils of current society. The mode derives from ancient and Biblical traditions. Platonic ideas prioritised spirit and idea above flesh and matter, seen particularly in Boethius’ Consolation; and from Scriptural revelation bloomed a Christian ascetic theology in patristic writers. The convergence of these ideas gave way to contemptus mundi, most notably in the French monk Bernard of Cluny’s De contemptu mundi [On the Contempt of the World] from approximately 1145. De contemptu is based on the classical author Juvenal’s Satires, but is written from a Christian perspective. As well as complaining on the evils of contemporary society, it lambasts the wickedness of women (a common theme in social complaints) as well as the evils of wine and money. Another form of the contemptus mundi can be found in Alan of Lille’s De planctu naturae [The Complaint of Nature], also written in the twelfth century. In this work, the narrator complains that humans do not respect nature’s laws, to which Nature responds with a similar complaint: mankind, distracted by the irresponsible Venus, is contemptuous of her laws. Further, John of Salisbury’s twelfth-century Policraticus is a “mirrors for princes” work, a popular genre in which writers advised rulers on how to lead well. In the Policraticus, he laments that men in contemporary society were closer to animals and God since they had indulged in various vices.

The social and political upheavals of fourteenth-century England are reflected in the wealth of political complaints on “the abuses of the age” written at this time (many of which can be found in Dean, 1996). There were, for example, several literary responses to the Uprising of 1381 (sometimes called the Peasants’ Revolt), during which rebels marched into London, angered by rising taxes and perceived corruption in both the church and the monarch. A notable example is John Gower’s Vox Clamantis [The Voice of One Crying]: the first book in this poem, the Visio Anglie [A Vision of England], condemns the rebels and imagines them turning into beasts (see Menmuir, 2021). The remainder of the Vox is an estates satire (a genre criticising social groups) which complains about various groups, with typical targets such as the clergy and women.

Political complaints of the late fourteenth century often have the monarch Richard II as their target. While Gower is generally supportive of Richard II in the aforementioned Vox Clamantis, he wrote an addendum entitled Cronica tripertita [A Chronicle in Three Parts] which details the last years of Richard and his fall; they are highly critical of the deposed monarch. Another complaint which deals with these events is “There is a Busch that is Forgrowe”, otherwise known as “On King Richard’s Ministers”. This poem uses natural imagery to depict the corruption of Parliament:

The bag is ful of roton corne,
So long ykep, hit is forlorne;
Hit wille stonde no stalle.
The pecokes and the ges all so,
And odor fowles mony on mo,
Schuld be fed withalle. (Dean, 1996, p. 152, ll. 67–72)

The specific target of complaint here is Sir William Bagot, a politician during Richard II’s rule known for his lack of generosity and for withholding food from the people. A common theme which this poem demonstrates is the process of turning the focus of the complaint into an animal (as occurs in Gower’s Vox Clamantis).

Epitomising political complaints of this age is “On the Times”, a poem in macaronic verse which begins “Syng I wolde, butt, alas! / decendunt prospera grata [good times are fading away]” (Dean, 1996, p. 140, ll. 1–2). While these complaints are often very specific in the person or topic being targeted (see the poem “Tax has tenet [ruined] us alle”, in Dean, 1996, pp. 147–49), Chaucer is well-known for being equivocal. He seldom references political events specifically, but he does write complaints from a more general perspective. His Lak of Stedfastnesse bewails that:

for turned-up-so-doun
Is al this world for mede and wilfulnesse,
That al is lost for lak of stedfastnesse. (Stedfastnesse, ll. 5–7)

Other Chaucerian poems, such as Truth, The Former Age, and Complaint to his Purse, also complain from a social standpoint, contrasting with his love complaints.

Other social complaints of this period were documentary, in the form of legal complaints. Until the fifteenth century, the usual language of legal complaint was French, and the technical term for these complaints is pleinte, which is “the expression of a grievance as a means of initiating litigation... related procedurally and conceptually to the querela, the libellus, the bill, and clamour” (Scase, 2007, p. 1). Scase (2007) argues that from 1225 (the reign of Edward I) onwards, English law imposes a structure on the form of the complaint to  define it from amatory or devotional forms. The pleinte is also related to a type of complaint called the petition (see Dodd, 2007).

Legal complaints are sometimes found in medieval poetry. In Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes, for instance, the narrator Thomas complains that his work copying out legal petitions often goes unpaid because of his unscrupulous clients (Hoccleve in Blyth, 1999, pp. 82–83, ll. 1499–533). The register of legal complaints is also found in love complaints, demonstrating the overlap between different topics of complaints. In the fifteenth-century Assemblie of Ladies, the complaints of women betrayed by their lovers are presented as legal bills. Furthermore, in the early fourteenth-century lyric Blow Northerne Wind, the lover’s complaint is described in the language of a legal bill (see Scase, 2019, pp. 170–71).

Devotional Complaints

The medieval complaint tradition as a whole grew partly from Biblical laments, particularly in the Old Testament (see “Sources and Influences”, above), and there are also religious themes running through other forms of complaints: during love complaints, for instance, the wounded lover will often invoke the Christian God or the God of Love. Devotional complaints, however, mainly refer to complaints made by Christian figures, or relating to a particular moment in Christian history. Most are embedded into the medieval dramatic context, but are also found as free-standing complaints, primarily as lyrics. They include: the Planctus Mariae [Complaint of Mary], other Marian complaints, complaints of Christ on the Cross, and complaints of Christ to Man.

The Planctus Mariae [Complaint of Mary] (often referred to by its German name, Marienklagen) was a devotional tradition popular from the thirteenth century onwards, which imagined the laments of the Virgin Mary for the deceased Christ. The medieval tradition is rooted in the Bible, particularly when John describes Mary standing outside the empty tomb of Christ and wailing (KJV John 20:11–18). It is also linked to the Deposition, in which Mary takes the body of Jesus onto her lap––in iconography, this is referred to as the pietà, and is the fifth Sorrow of Mary. A key aspect of the Planctus Mariae is the image of Mary weeping as she mourns for Christ. This follows the teaching of Bernard of Clairvaux, in which Mary mourned copiously under the cross. While some patristic sources dispute this––Saint Ambrose argues that “I read that she stood, but I do not read that she wept” (see Goodland, 2005, p. 32)––most medieval Planctus Mariae include tears. Katherine Goodland asserts that “in the High Middle Ages the Virgin Mary stood at the center of a spiritual pedagogy of tears” (Goodland, 2005, p. 32), and contrasts this celebration of female tears with tears in secular narratives such as medieval romances, in which weeping is often portrayed as sinister and manipulative.

The form of the Planctus Mariae is immensely varied, albeit always centred on the sorrow of Mary towards Christ. They were often performed dramatically, particularly in the Towneley cycle of plays, or as dramatic set-pieces. At Cividale in the fourteenth century, there was a liturgical performance of a Planctus Mariae with the title “Hic incipit planctus Marie et aliorum in die Parasceven [Here begins the lament of Mary and others on Good Friday]”, and Lynette R. Muir has suggested that this was sung during or after the ceremony of the Adoration of the Cross (Muir, 1995, pp. 19, 185 n. 22). At the Italian monastery of Perugia in 1448, laypeople performed the Way of the Cross using the Virgin Mary, “weeping and speaking sorrowfully as was done in the similar play of the Passion” (quoted in Muir, 1995, p. 20). Non-dramatic Planctus Mariae also flourished (a list can be found throughout Taylor, 1907). A popular example is the long poem with the lyric refrain “who cannot weep come learn of me” (see Taylor, 1907, p. 612). Possibly the oldest extant non-dramatic English Planctus Mariae is in a brief portion of The Assumption of Our Lady, in a manuscript dated to no later than 1250. In this extract, Mary laments in a typical manner: “ ‘Alas my sone’ seide heo / ‘Hu may ihc liue? hu may [th]is beo?’ ” (quoted in Taylor, 1907, p. 606). There are also variations in content concerning the reasons for the complaints and actions within these laments (for a full list, see Taylor, 1907).

As well as Marian complaints, devotional complaints took the form of Christ complaining. Of these, a large number are composed from the perspective of Christ on the Cross, and were found in dramatic and non-dramatic forms. One example of a complaint by Christ on the Cross is the poem “The Dollorus complant of our lorde / Apoune þe croce Crucifyit”. In one stanza, Christ describes in detail how his body has been torn apart:

Thow synfull man þat by me gais
Ane quhyle to me þou turne þi face!
Behalf my body, in euerylk place,
How it is dicht,
All to-rent,
And all to-schent,
Man, for thy plycht. (Brown, 1939, p. 151)

Christ further laments the nails driven into him and his wounds, and his crown of thorns. The complaint is intended to prompt something, whether pathos in the audience or a call to the audience to lead more holy lives, therefore not allowing Jesus to die in vain.

There are further complaints from Christ which are not fixed to the Cross, mainly characterised by their address to all humans. The Digital Index of Middle English Verse lists eight such poems of the Complaint of Christ to Man. These poems often lament the unkindness and unfaithfulness of man. One example, “I have a love untrue”, emphasises this quality of mankind:

Ich ave a loue untrewe
Þat myn herte wo,
Þat makes me of reufol hewe
Late to bedde go.
Sore me may rewe
Þat evere hi louede hire so. (Woolf, 1968, p. 47)

It is notable that this lament is in the language of the love-complaint: the false lover is all of mankind, and Christ is the betrayed beloved. Christ is often depicted as a lover-knight, an image linked to the classical miles amoris [soldier of love] trope and deployed by poets such as Ovid. Woolf further explains that in patristic times, a common metaphor for the Passion was that of a battle, and Christ is imagined as a husband (Woolf, 1968, p. 45).

Beyond Medieval

The complaint tradition continued in the early modern period and beyond. George Gascoigne, for instance, wrote The Complaint of Philomene and The Complaint of the Green Knight in the later sixteenth century. Other examples include Samuel Daniel’s The Complaint of Rosamond (1592) and William Shakespeare’s A Lover’s Complaint (1609). Complaint in the early modern period and in Shakespeare’s works have received particular critical attention (and were anthologised in Kerrigan, 1991).


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Works Cited

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Citation: Menmuir, Rebecca. "Medieval Complaint". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 30 July 2022 [, accessed 29 March 2023.]

209 Medieval Complaint 2 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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