Front Page Titles (by Subject) Prologue to the Man of Lawes Tale. - Notes to the Canterbury Tales (Works vol. 5)
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Prologue to the Man of Lawes Tale. - Geoffrey Chaucer, Notes to the Canterbury Tales (Works vol. 5) 
The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, edited from numerous manuscripts by the Rev. Walter W. Skeat (2nd ed.) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1899). 7 vols. Vol. 5.
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Prologue to the Man of Lawes Tale.
99–121. It is important to observe that more than three stanzas of this Prologue are little else than a translation from the treatise by Pope Innocent III. entitled De Contemptu Mundi, sive de Miseria Conditionis Humanae. This was first pointed out by Prof. Lounsbury, of Yale, Newhaven, U. S. A., in the Nation, July 4, 1889. He shewed that the lost work by Chaucer (viz. his translation of ‘the Wreched Engendring of Mankinde As man may in Pope Innocent y-finde,’ mentioned in the Legend of Good Women, Prologue A, l. 414) is not lost altogether, since we find traces of it in the first four stanzas of the present Prologue; in the stanzas of the Man of Lawes Tale which begin, respectively, with lines 421, 771, 925, and 1135; and in some passages in the Pardoner’s Prologue; as will be pointed out.
It will be observed that if Chaucer, as is probable, has preserved extracts from this juvenile work of his without much alteration, it must have been originally composed in seven-line stanzas, like his Second Nonnes Tale and Man of Lawes Tale.
I here transcribe the original of the present passage from Innocent’s above-named treatise, lib. i. c. 16, marking the places where the stanzas begin.
De miseria divitis et pauperis. (99) Pauperes enim premuntur inedia, cruciantur aerumna, fame, siti, frigore, nuditate; vilescunt, tabescunt, spernuntur, et confunduntur. O miserabilis mendicantis conditio; et si petit, pudore confunditur, et si non petit, egestate consumitur, sed ut mendicet, necessitate compellitur. (106) Deum causatur iniquum, quod non recte dividat; proximum criminatur malignum, quod non plene subveniat. Indignatur, murmurat, imprecatur. (113) Adverte super hoc sententiam Sapientis, ‘Melius est,’ inquit, ‘mori quam indigere’: ‘Etiam proximo suo pauper odiosus erit.’ ‘Omnes dies pauperis mali’; (120) ‘fratres hominis pauperis oderunt eum; insuper et amici procul recesserunt ab eo.’
For further references to the quotations occurring in the above passage, see the notes below, to ll. 114, 118, 120.
99.poverte=povértë, with the accent on the second syllable, as it rimes with herte; in the Wyf of Bathes Tale, it rimes with sherte. Poverty is here personified, and addressed by the Man of Lawe. The whole passage is illustrated by a similar long passage near the end of the Wyf of Bathes Tale, in which the opposite side of the question is considered, and the poet shews what can be said in Poverty’s praise. See D. 1177–1206.
101.Thee is a dative, like me in l. 91.—M. See Gen. ii. 15 (A. S. version), where him þæs ne sceamode=they were not ashamed of it; lit. it shamed them not of it.
102.artow, art thou; the words being run together: so also seistow=sayest thou, in l. 110.
104.Maugree thyn heed, in spite of all you can do; lit. despite thy head; see Knightes Tale, A. 1169, 2618, D. 887.
105.Or . . . or=either . . . or; an early example of this construction.—M.
108.neighebour is a trisyllable; observe that e in the middle of a word is frequently sounded; cf. l. 115. wytest, blamest.
110. ‘By my faith, sayest thou, he will have to account for it hereafter, when his tail shall burn in the fire (lit. glowing coal), because he helps not the needy in their necessity.’
114. ‘It is better (for thee) to die than be in need.’ Tyrwhitt says—‘This saying of Solomon is quoted in the Romaunt of the Rose, l. 8573—Mieux vault mourir que pauvres estre’; [l. 8216, ed. Méon.] The quotation is not from Solomon, but from Jesus, son of Sirach; see Ecclus. xl. 28, where the Vulgate has—‘Melius est enim mori quam indigere.’ Cf. B. 2761.
115.Thy selve neighebor, thy very neighbour, even thy next neighbour. See note to l. 108.
118. In Prov. xv. 15, the Vulgate version has—‘Omnes dies pauperis mali’; where the A. V. has ‘the afflicted.’
119. The reading to makes the line harsh, as the final e in come should be sounded, and therefore needs elision. in that prikke, into that point, into that condition; cf. l. 1028.
120. Cf. Prov. xiv. 20—‘the poor is hated even of his neighbour’; or, in the Vulgate, ‘Etiam proximo suo pauper odiosus erit.’ Also Prov. xix. 7—‘all the brethren of the poor do hate him; how much more do his friends go far from him’; or, in the Vulgate, ‘Fratres hominis pauperis oderunt eum; insuper et amici procul recesserunt ab eo.’ So too Ovid, Trist. i. 9. 5:—
Chaucer has the same thought again in his Tale of Melibeus (p. 227, B. 2749)—‘and if thy fortune change, that thou wexe povre, farewel freendshipe and felaweshipe!’ See also note to B. 3436.
123.as in this cas, as relates to this condition or lot in life. In Chaucer, cas often means chance, hap.
124.ambes as, double aces, two aces, in throwing dice. Ambes is Old French for both, from Lat. ambo. The line in the Monkes Tale—‘Thy sys fortune hath turned into as’ (B. 3851)—helps us out here in some measure, as it proves that a six was reckoned as a good throw, but an ace as a bad one. So in Shakespeare, Mids. Nt. Dream, v. 1. 314, we find less than an ace explained as equivalent to nothing. In the next line, sis cink means a six and a five, which was often a winning throw. The allusion is probably, however, not to the mere attempt as to which of two players could throw the highest, but to the particular game called hazard, in which the word chance (here used) has a special sense. There is a good description of it in the Supplemental volume to the English Cyclopaedia, div. Arts and Sciences. The whole description has to be read, but it may suffice to say here that, when the caster is going to throw, he calls a main, or names one of the numbers five, six, seven, eight, or nine; most often, he calls seven. If he then throws either seven or eleven (Chaucer’s sis cink), he wins; if he throws aces (Chaucer’s ambes as) or deuce-ace (two and one), or double sixes, he loses. If he throws some other number, that number is called the caster’s chance, and he goes on playing till either the main or the chance turns up. In the first case he loses, in the second, he wins. If he calls some other number, the winning and losing throws are somewhat varied; but in all cases, the double ace is a losing throw.
Similarly, in The Pardoneres Tale, where hazard is mentioned by name (C. 591), we find, at l. 653—‘Seven is my chaunce, and thyn is cinq and treye,’ i.e. eight.
In Lydgate’s Order of Fools, printed in Queen Elizabeth’s Academy, ed. Furnivall, p. 81, one fool is described—
And in a ballad printed in Chaucer’s Works, ed. 1561, folio 340, back, we have—
The phrase was already used proverbially before Chaucer’s time. In the metrical Life of St. Brandan, ed. T. Wright, p. 23, we find, ‘hi caste an ambes as,’ they cast double aces, i. e. they wholly failed. See Ambsace in the New E. Dict. Dr. Morris notes that the phrase ‘aums ace’ occurs in Hazlitt’s O. E. Plays, ii. 35, with the editorial remark—‘not mentioned elsewhere’ (!).
126.At Cristemasse, even at Christmas, when the severest weather comes. In olden times, severe cold must have tried the poor even more than it does now.
127.seken, search through; much like the word compass in the phrase ‘ye compass sea and land’ in Matth. xxiii. 15.
128.thestaat, for the estaat, i. e. the estate. This coalescence of the article and substantive is common in Chaucer, when the substantive begins with a vowel; cf. thoccident, B. 3864; thorient, B. 3871.
129.fadres, fathers, originators; by bringing tidings from afar.
130.debat, strife. Merchants, being great travellers, were expected to pick up good stories.
131.were, should be. desolat, destitute. ‘The E. E. word is westi’; ‘westi of alle gode theawes,’ destitute of all good virtues; O. Eng. Homilies, i. 285.’—M.
132.Nere, for ne were, were it not. goon is, &c., many a year ago, long since.