He [Charels Dickens] describes London like a special correspondent for posterity.
-- Walter Baghot 1858
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London Lyckpeny is a fifteenth century anonymous satirical poem. The author has come to London to seek Justice but finds that it is impossible to do anything or get anything without spending large amounts of money. It is a wonderfully spare and colourful pre-figuring of Dickens' Jarndyce vs Jarndyce case inBleak House. This is the earliest known version of the poem.
A lickpenny (or lyckpeny) is someone who, or something that, soaks up the pennies i.e. is inordinately expensive. The author of this satirical poem came to London in the fifteenth century to seek restoration, in the courts, of the goods of which he had been defrauded. However, he found that, without a small fortune, it was impossible to get justice, or anything else, in London. He was beset, at all points, by people whose sole purpose was to relieve him of any money he might have in his possession. He even suffered the indignity of having his hood stolen in Westminster and then seeing it for sale on a stall at Eastcheap. He had, as a result of the original fraud, nothing to his name and, as a result, got nowhere in London. He finally gets out of the place and vows to return to his old employment and meddle no more with the law. In a sense, it wonderfully prefigures the ironic treatment of the English legal system by Dickens in his description of the Jarndyce vs Jarndyce case inBleak House.
The poem is generally attributed to Dan John Lydgate, a monk at Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. However, this has been the subject of debate. Two versions of the poem exist in the Harleian collection in the British Library, manuscripts 367 and 542. Both are in sixteenth century handwriting, 542 being that of John Stow who published his famous survey of London in 1598. Manuscript 367 appears to be a little earlier and is in an unknown hand. There are apparent substantial differences between the two but these are mainly due to the fact that the later version has been modified to employ a different rhyming scheme. MS 367 is in what is known as Rhyme Royal. This has seven lines in iambic pentameter with the rhyming scheme ABABBCC. It was used by Chaucer in hisTroilus and Cressidaand by Shakespeare in hisRape of Lucrece. The version in Stow's hand is a variant of the Spenserian Stanza. Normally, this has eight lines in iambic pentameter followed by an Alexandrine, with the rhyming scheme ABABBCBCC, but in MS 542 the Alexandrine has not been used and we have just eight lines with the rhyming scheme ABABBCBC. The change in the rhyming scheme naturally necessitated the insertion of an additional line and it is this which accounts for the apparent major differences between the two versions. The text of MS 542 is already on-line with copious notes.
Here I give the earlier version from MS 367. In order to make it an easier, and therefore more enjoyable, read and to keep the footnotes to a minimum I have modernised the spelling where this does not interfere with the rhyming scheme. The footnotes are mainly concerned with the definition of obsolete or dialectical words or with the explanation of topographical features. Our Author, who, from the dialect used here, may have been from the north Midlands, arrived at Westminster (where the Courts were situated). He made his way to the City (which he entered at Ludgate) and progressed eastwards through the great market streets of Cheapside and Eastcheap to the watergate at Billinsgate from which he made his escape to Kent - a sorry and disillusioned man.
|To London once my steps I bent|
Where truth in no wise should be faint
To Westminster Ward I forthwith went
To a man of law to make complaint
I said, For Mary's love, that holy saint,
Pity the poor, that would proceed.
But for lack of money, I could not speed.
And as I thrust the press among,
By forward chance, my hood was gone.
Yet for all that I stayed not long
Till at the King's Bench I was come.[Note 1]
Before the judge I kneeled anon,
And prayed him for God's sake to take heed,
but for lack of money I could not speed.
Beneath them sat clerks, a great rout,
Which fast did write by one assent.
There stood up one and cried about,
"Richard, Robert, and John of Kent"
I wist not well what this man meant, [Note 2]
He cried so thick there indeed,
But he that lacked money might not speed.
Unto the Common Pleas I yode too [Note 3]
Where sat one with a silken hood. [Note 4]
I did him reverence for I ought to do;
and told him my case, as well as I could,
how my goods were defrauded me by flasehood
I got not a mum of his mouth for my meed. [Note 5]
And for lack of money, I might not speed.
Unto the Rolls I got me from thence
before the clerks of the Chancery
were many I found earning of pence,
but none at all once regarded me.
I gave them my pliant upon my knee
They liked it well, when they had it read
but lacking money I could not be sped.
In Westminster Hall I found out one
which went in a long gown of ray [Note 6]
I crouched and kneeled before him anon
for Mary's love, of help I him pray.
I wot not what thou meanest, gan he to say [Note 7]
To get me thence he did me bede [Note 8]
For lack of money I could not speed.
Within this hall neither rich nor yet poor
Would do for me ought though I should die.
Which seeing, I got me out of the door
Were Flemings began upon me for to cry [Note 9]
"Master, what will you copen or buy [Note 10]
Fine felt hats, spectacles for to read?"
For lack of money I might not speed.
Then to Westminster gate I presently went
When the sun was at high prime.
Cooks to me, they took good intent,
And proffered me bread with ale and wine
Ribs of beef, both fat and full fine
A fair cloth they began for me to sprede,
But wanting money I might not then speed.
Then unto London I did me hie
Of all the land it beareth the prize.
"Hot peascods!" one began to cry,
"strawberry ripe, and cherry in the rise!" [Note 11]
One bade me come nere and buy some spice;
Pepper and saffron they gan me bede,
But for lack of money I might not speed.
Then to the Chepe I began me drawn [Note 12]
Where much people I saw for to stand
One offerd me velvet, silk and lawn [Note 13]
Another he taketh me by the hand
Here is Paris thread, the finest in the land.
I never was used to such things indeed,
And wanting money I might not speed.
Then went I forth by London Stone [Note 14]
Throughout all Candlewick Street
Drapers much cloth me offered anon
Then comes me one cried "hot sheep's feet"
One cried "mackeral, oyster green" another gan to greet
And bade me buy a hood to cover my head
But for want of money I might not be sped.
Then I hied me into Eastchepe;
One cries "ribs of beef, and many a pie".
Pewter pots they clattered on a heap
There was harp, pipe and minstrelsy
"Yea by *****!" "Nay by *****" some began cry [Note 15]
Some song of Jenken and Julian for then meed
but for want of money I might not speed.
Then into Cornhill anon I yode
Where was much stolen gear among.
I saw where hung mine own hood
That I had lost among the throng.
To buy my own hood I thought it wrong
I knew it as well as I did my Creed,
But for lack of money I could not speed.
The taverner took me by the sleeve
"Sir", said he "will you our wine assay?"
I answered, that can not much me grieve
A penny may do no more then it may
I drank a pint, and for it did pay
Yet soon a-hungered, from thence I yede
And wanting money I could not speed.
Then hied me to Billingsgate,
And one cried how go we hence
I prayed a barge man, for God's sake,
That he would spare me my expense.
"Thou scapest not here", quoth he, "under 2 pence.
I list not yet bestow any alms indeed."
Thus lacking money I could not speed.
Then I conveyed me into Kent;
For of the law would I meddle no more
Because no man to me took intent,
I dight me to do as I did before. [Note 16]
Now Jesus that in Bethelem was bore,
Save London and send true lawers their meed
For who so wants money, with them shall not speed.
1 King's Bench: One of the three superior courts of common law. The other two were the Court of the Exchequer and the Court of Common Pleas. The King's Bench was concerned primarily with criminal law. The Court of Common Pleas dealt with civil actions between subjects. The Court of the Exchequer dealt with all cases relating to revenue. The Court of Chancery functioned as a court of appeals, moderating the rigour of the common law, and giving relief in cases where there was no remedy in the common-law courts.
2 wist not well = did not fully understand.
3 yode, yede: Obsolete Middle English dialect for the past tense of "to go". Common in the north midlands, which suggests that the author mat have come from there. Note that both forms are used in order to fit the rhyming scheme.
4 silken hood: This was the distinctive garment which was worn by sergeants at law.
5 Not a mum = not a murmur. Meed = reward.
6 gown of ray: Ray was a striped cloth whisc was much worn by lawyers.
7 Wot: Northern England dialect equivalent to wit = understand. Gan: abbreviation for began to fit the metre.
8. bede: dialectical form of bid (offer).
9. The Flemmings were Flemish-speaking merchants from the Low Countries who came to London as a result the wool trade. The Wool and cloth trade accounted for more than 90% of England's exports at this time. The exported goods went first to Antwerp where English merchants and their continental buyers did business.
10. copen: Middle English meaning to desire eagerly or long for.
11. cherries in the rise. Cherries still on the branch, i.e. still growing.
12. Chepe. Modern Cheapside, known as Westcheap to distinguish it from Eastcheap. Chepe is the Saxon word for market. The area from St Paul's to Tower Hill was the main market area of mediaeval London. The modern City retains the memory of this with the tributaries of Milk Street, Bread Street, Honey Lane and Poultry off Cheapside.
13. lawn: a fine linen named after the French town of Laune.
14 London Stone: The so-called London Stone, or part of it, was built into the wall of St. Swithin's church in the mediaeval period but now stands behind a grate on the north side of Cannon Street. (Candelwick Street became Cannon Street.) Excavations in the 1960s and 1990s uncovered the remains of a substantial Roman building beneath the modern railway station. It was dubbed the "Governor's Palace" but that identification has been questioned. It is possible that the stone was part of an obelisk that marked the point of the Roman city from which all distances were measured.
15 "Ye by *****!" "Nay by *****!'' "Yes, by God!" "No, by God!" ***** was euphemism for God - whose name could not be "taken in vain".
16 dight: To ordain something or direct oneself to do something.
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