Monday, 29 June 2015

'Each man ought himself to know'

Some life advice from the late fourteenth century.

1. In a pistel þat Poul wrouȝt,
I fond hit writen, & seide riht þis:
Vche cristne creature knowen himself ouȝt
His oune vessel, and soþ hit is.
Nere help of him þat vs deore bouȝt,
We weoren bore to luytel blis;
Whon al þi gode dedes beþ þorw-souȝt,
Seche, and þou schalt fynden amis.
Eueri mon scholde iknowen his,
And þat is luitel, as I trowe;
To teche vs self, crist vs wis;
For vche mon ouȝte him-self to knowe.

2. Knowe þi-self what þou ware,
Whon þou were of þi moder born,
Ho was þi moder þat þe bare,
And ho was þi fader þer-bi-foren;
Knowe hou þei beþ forþ fare;
So schaltou þeiȝ þou hed sworen.
Knowe þou come hider wiþ care;
Þou nost neuer ȝif þou byde til morn;
Hou lihtly þou maiȝt be forlorn,
But þou þi sinne schriue & schowe;
ffor lond or kiþ, catel or corn,
Vche mon oute him-self to knowe.

3. Knowe þi lyf; hit may not last,
But as a blast blouh out þi breth;
Tote, and bi a noþer mon tast;
Riht as a glentand glem hit geth.
What is al þat forþ is past?
Hit fareþ as a fuir of heth.
Þis worldes good awey wol wast,
For synnes seeknesse þi soule sleþ.
And þat is a ful delful deþ,
To saue þi soule and þou be slowe,
Wiþ þi Maystrie medel þi meþ,
For vche mon ouȝte him-self to knowe.

4. Ȝif þou þi-self knowe con,
Sit doun, and tac countures rounde,
Seþþe furst þou monnes wit bi-gon
Hou ofte sunne þe haþ ibounde.
And for vch a synne lei þou doun on,
Til þou þi synnes haue isouȝt vp sounde;
Counte þi goode dedes euerichon,
Abyd þer a while and stunte a stounde;
And ȝif þou fele þe siker and sounde,
Þonk þou þi god, as þou wel owe;
And ȝif þou art in sunne ibounde
Amende þe, and þi-self knowe.

5. Knowe what god haþ for þe do:
Made þe after his oune liknes;
Seþþe, he com from heuene also,
And diȝede for þe wiþ gret distres.
For þe he soffrede boþe pyne and wo;
Knowe þou him and alle his:
Who-so greueþ him is worþi to go
To helle-fuir, but he hit redres,
And he be demed bi rihtfulnes;
But his grace is so wyde isowe,
From his wraþþe I rede vs bles,
For vche mon ouȝte him-self to knowe.

6. Knowe þi-self þat þou schalt dye,
But what tyme, þou nost neuer whenne;
Wiþ a twynklyng of an eiȝe,
Eueri day þou hiȝest þe henne;
Þi fleschly foode þe wermes wol fye:
Vche cristen mon ouȝte þis to kenne.
Loke aboute and wel a-spye,
Þis world doþ bote bi-traye menne;
And beo war of þe fuir þat euer schal brenne,
And þenk þou regnest her but a þrowe;
Heuene-blisse þou schal haue þenne,
For vche mon ouȝte him self to knowe.

7. Knowe þi flesch, þat wol rote;
ffor certes, þou maiȝt not longe endure;
And nedes dye, hennes þou mote,
Þei þou haue kyngdam and empyre.
And sone þou schalt beo forgote;
So schal souereyn, so schal syre.
Hose leeueþ not þis, I trouwe he dote,
For eueri mok most in-to myre.
Preye we to god vr soules enspire,
Or we ben logged in erþe lowe,
Heuene to haue to vr huire;
For vche mon ouȝte him-self to knowe.

8. Knowe þi kuynde creatoure,
Knowe what he for þe dide;
Knowe þis worldly honoure,
Hou sone þat hit is forþ islyde.
Ende of ioye is her doloure;
Strengþe stont vs in no stide,
But longyng & beoing in laboure;
Vr bost, vr brag is sone ouerbide.
Arthur and Ector þat we dredde,
Deth haþ leid hem wonderly lowe.
Amende þe, mon, euene forþ mide,
For vche mon ouȝte him-self to knowe.

9. Þi concience schal þe saue and deme
Wheþer þat þou beo ille or good;
Grope aboute, and tak good ȝeme,
Þer maiȝt þou wite, but þou beo wood,
Þer schalt þou þe same seone.
Aske merci wiþ mylde mood,
Amende þe, þou wot what I mene.
Vche creatur þat beres bon and blood,
Preye we to god þat dyed on rode,
Ar vre breþ beo out iblowe,
Þat cristes face mai ben vr foode,
For vche mon ouȝte him self to knowe.

This poem survives in two manuscripts, two important collections of Middle English verse: the Vernon manuscript and the Simeon manuscript. Here's an image of part of it in the latter (BL Add. MS 22283, f.129v):

A translation (N.B. the epistle quoted at the beginning is 1 Thessalonians 4):

1. In an epistle which Paul made,
I found it written, and it said just this:
'Each Christian creature ought to know
His own vessel' - and true it is.
If not for help from him who us dearly bought,
We were born to little bliss;
When your good deeds are looked all through,
Seek, and you shall find amiss.
Every man should know what is his,
And that is little, as I believe;
To teach ourselves, Christ us guide;
For each man ought himself to know.

2. Know yourself, what you were
When you were of your mother born,
Who was your mother who you bore,
And who your father was before;
Know how they have departed;
So shall you, though you've sworn you won't.
Know that you came here with sorrow;
You never know if you will stay till morrow.
How easily you may be lost,
Unless your sins you confess and show!
Despite land or lineage, chattels or corn,
Each man ought himself to know.

3. Know your life; it cannot last,
But as a blast blows out your breath.
Look, but another man will taste;
Like a glancing gleam it is gone.
What is all that forth has passed?
It fares like a fire on the heath.
This world's goods away will waste,
For sin's sickness your soul slays.
And that is a very doleful death,
To save your soul if you are slain.
Temper your strength with moderation;
For each man ought himself to know.

4. If you would learn to know yourself,
Sit down, and take some counters round:
Since first you possessed human sense,
Count how often sin has you bound,
And for each sin lay a counter down,
Until all your sins have been reckoned up.
Count your good deeds, one by one,
Stay there a while, and take your time.
And if you feel healthy and sound,
Thank your God, as you ought to do;
And if you are in sin bound,
Make amends, and know yourself.

5. Know what God has done for you:
He made you after his own likeness;
Then he came himself from heaven,
And died for you, in great distress.
For you he suffered both pain and woe;
Know him, and all that is his:
Whoever angers him deserves to go
To hell-fire, unless he make amends,
If he is judged by right justice.
But his grace is so widely sown,
I say it will protect us from his wrath;
For each man ought himself to know.

6. Know yourself, that you shall die,
But at what time, you never can know when;
With a twinkling of an eye,
Every day you are hastening from hence;
The worms will make food of your flesh.
Each Christian man ought to know this.
Look about and consider well:
This world does but men betray;
And beware of the fire that shall burn for ever,
And think that you reign here but a short while.
Heaven's bliss you shall have then,
For each man ought himself to know.

7. Know your flesh, which will decay;
For certainly, you cannot long endure;
And must needs die, and go from here,
Though you have kingdoms and empires.
And soon you shall be all forgotten -
So shall sovereign, so shall sire.
Who believes this not, he is a fool:
All muck goes back into the mire.
Pray we to God our souls to inspire,
Lest we be stuck on earth so low,
Heaven to have as our reward,
For each man ought himself to know.

8. Know your loving Creator,
Know what he did for you;
Know this worldly honour,
How quickly it slides away.
The end of joy is sorrow here;
Strength will stay us in no stead,
For all our longing and our labour,
Our pomp and power all pass by.
Arthur and Hector whom we feared,
Death has laid them wondrous low.
Make amends, man, and right now,
For each man ought himself to know.

9. Your conscience shall you save and judge
Whether you be evil or good;
Consider it well, and take good care,
Wherever you may look, unless you're mad,
There you will see.
Ask mercy with a mild spirit.
Amend yourself; you know my meaning.
Each creature who bears bone and blood,
Pray we to God who died on the rood,
Before our breath is all blown out,
That Christ's face may be our support,
For each man ought himself to know.

Although this poem is perhaps not Middle English verse at its most sophisticated, it has some things to recommend it. There are several neat phrases made memorable by alliteration: we are told that life is like a 'glancing gleam', consisting of 'longing and being in labour' - while 'all muck goes back into the mire' is a particularly strongly-worded version of 'you are dust, and to dust you shall return'! The poem has a distinctive form and subject-matter which it shares with a number of poems in the same two manuscripts - I've posted several examples before, including 'In a church where I did kneel', 'Think on yesterday' and 'In summer before the Ascension'. They're poems of counsel and advice, urging the reader to consider the brevity of life and the ubiquity of human failings, and suggesting possibilities for amendment.

I'm sure there are some modern readers who find this form of moralising off-putting, very medieval-in-the-bad-sense, but I'll admit that I find this poem strangely reassuring. Of course 'know yourself' is excellent counsel, at all times and in all places - more prevalent perhaps even than the English poet knew. It is so old-fashioned as to be utterly timeless, and if you think the medieval poet is a little prolix in making his point, he is at least more concise and memorable than some modern counsellors giving the same advice. (Can you believe there's a Wikihow for 'How to Know Thyself'? It should just suggest reading this poem instead...)

The strategy for learning to know yourself here is, of course, overtly Christian, advising you to think about your good and bad deeds, but its approach to life is refreshingly straightforward and generally applicable: be glad if things are good, amend what you have done amiss, and everything will be fine. You might not much like the idea of tallying up sins with 'counters round', but it does offer an optimistic take on the human possibility for improvement and the chances of forgiveness and a fresh start - more perhaps than we allow ourselves today. The poem's suggestion of round 'counters' as a way of gaining self-knowledge reminded me with amusement of this self-assessment tool for researchers, which is designed to show you all the things you're supposed to be and do in order to become a successful academic. Although it's intended to be helpful, and many people doubtless find it so, as a form of self-reflection it utterly defeats me - it just makes me want to cry. I don't necessarily doubt my ability to acquire any or all of the skills listed, but I despair at being able to prove that fact to someone else's satisfaction. Is everything one does in life to be evaluated solely as evidence of skills to be demonstrated to a potential employer (even, absurdly, 'self-reflection' itself)? That Wheel of Inhuman Perfection is of a piece with all the formal education I've ever had - as a child of the 1990s, education was nothing but mark-schemes, and 'don't learn that, it won't be on the exam', and 'make sure you use the exact keywords or you won't get the points'. I went along with all that, dutifully ticked all the boxes - and all I ever really learned (by accident) is that no success will ever be enough to earn you approval or happiness or peace of mind. One of the most insidious effects of my current job situation is that the more I worry about my career, the more difficult it becomes to remember that my career is not my self, and to try and believe there's more to the value of my life than can ever be put on my CV. A career-focused view of life, especially in academia, insists that everything you do must be constantly up for evaluation, by people who don't really value you (or anyone) at all; I've learned, and wish I had realised sooner, how much this daily erodes my own sense of what's important and what I'm allowed to value about myself. It actively works against true self-knowledge by teaching you that you are only worthwhile in as far as you meet someone else's impossible standards.

Once it might have been the job of educators to challenge that limited view of human life, to insist on exploring the consequences of the obvious truth that 'this world does but men betray' - to teach that rather than striving for money, success, or power, you might be happier if you try to know yourself and focus on what's really important. But that's not what schools and universities do any more. The goal of all my school's fussy box-ticking was not really to teach us anything, just to prepare us to get a job - but even with the best career in the world, still 'this world's goods away will waste'. Medieval schools might have been pretty tough, but at least they didn't teach children that the value of their life lay in how many exams they could pass. The reason this poem reads a bit like a list of cliches is that the ideas it promotes were ubiquitous in medieval literature, as a glance at just a few examples will demonstrate; medieval 'clerks' brought up on The Consolation of Philosophy and similar texts had such messages inculcated in them from their earliest schooldays. 'Know this worldly honour, how quickly it slides away...' By comparison with their modern equivalent, such doom-laden lessons seem (perhaps paradoxically) tremendously humane, generous, and wise. Sit down with your little counters, 'stay there a while and take your time', and learn to understand the true value of your actions - learn how to be a good person, not just a successful one. It encourages reflection, patience, and compassion towards yourself and others, and the insistent focus on the idea that 'you reign here but a short while' is a reminder to focus on what's important, to consider what really matters in the end - which is not, for most of us, going to be any great achievement or worldly success, but our relationships with others, and the good we manage to do in the little time we have. Primary school children in this country now have lessons in mindfulness, to help them cope with the stress of constant assessment; perhaps we should do the medieval thing, and teach them Boethius instead.

Know where you came from, what you really are, and where you are eventually going. What more do you need? This triad is more pithily expressed in the wonderful Lollai, lollai, litil child, whi wepistou so sore?:

Child, if betidith that thou ssalt thriue and the,
Thench thou were ifostred vp thi moder kne.
Euer hab mund in thi hert of thos thinges thre:
Whan thou commist, what thou art and what ssal com of the.

Child, if it should happen that thou shalt thrive and thee [flourish]
Think how thou wert fostered at thy mother's knee.
Ever have mind in thy heart of these things three:
Whence thou comest, what thou art, and what shall become of thee.

'Whence, what, whither': the best advice you'll ever get.


sensibilia said...

I do not find any of this a cliché, and I thank you for the wonderful link to the BL manuscripts. Actually, I also want to cry reading this wonderful poet's advice. For different reasons than you.
And I will return to it.

Now, Clerk, I feel for you having been a product of the school system of the tick-box era. You have been thoroughly through the mill, and are still going though it, as you describe.

As an older woman, I struggled with the 1950's and 60's education system (there were three options open to girls - you could be a teacher, a secretary, or a nurse). And it didn't really matter what you did, either at school or in the career department, because all you would end up doing would be having children and giving up work anyway.

I fought against this, and after choosing to do an English degree, which was largely useless in the job market at that time, I started again and trained to be a Chartered Accountant. This was right out of my comfort zone, but earned me a living for 34 years, and enabled me to retire in some security. What I would advise you to do is step outside the margins of what you currently perceive to be the parameters of your career. And don't look too negatively on being judged by other people's standards, it's part of working life.

The trick is to stay afloat, not let it all drag you under. Best wishes.

Clerk of Oxford said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
sensibilia said...

Oh dear, I think I have upset you. I didn't mean to. Actually, I was trying to say the opposite, you SHOULDN'T take whatever job you can get. I did that when I first graduated. I started off by being a teacher, as the culture dictated, and took whatever job I could get. Which was an absolutely horrible job in a horrible school, with a horrible, useless head of department, and a really evil deputy head. I stuck this out for four years, thinking I shouldn't give in, but ultimately realised, like you say, that if this was all there was to life it was totally pointless. So I looked for something completely different, and it worked out well for me. I do apologise if I have upset you.