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8 - Complaint Literature

from Part II - Literary Texts

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 July 2019

Candace Barrington
Central Connecticut State University
Sebastian Sobecki
Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, The Netherlands
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To the right sage and full wise Comunes of this present parlement

Besecheth mekely your right sage and wyse discrecions Isabell that was the wife of Iohn Boteler of Beausey in the Shire of Lancaster Knight to consider that where one william Pulle … the seid Isabell beyng atte Beausey … with force and armes … felonousely and most horribely rauysshed … her naked except hir kirtyll and hir smokke ledde with hym into the wilde and desolate places of wales … if he appier not … that than he stand atteint of high Tresoun … consideryng that the seid rauysshyng is done in more horrible wise and with more heynouse violence than any hath be sene or knawen before this tyme.

(Petition of Isabel Boteler to Parliament, 1437)
Isabel Boteler’s petition to parliament that her rapist, William Pulle, be brought to justice, exemplifies the form of complaint used in the law courts and other kinds of audience empowered to give judgements. A petition customarily begins with a courteous and flattering formal address, in the example, ‘To the right sage and full wise Comunes.’ The address is designed not merely to make sure that it reaches the right recipients but also to indicate humble respect for their authority. A petition identifies itself as such with a suitable formal verb phrase in the third person: here ‘beseketh mekely’; sheueth (show) is a regular alternative (sheuen being the English equivalent of moustre, or se pleyn in French petitions, French being the more usual language of complaint until the fifteenth century). It identifies the complainant and their legal status (often more indications of humility are included here, such as 3oure pore bedeman, and 3oure pore prest). Here, the information that Isabel is a widow explains why she, and not her husband, is presenting the petition. In the exposition section, a petition lists the sufferings for which remedy is sought: as well as stating that she has been raped and abducted, Isabel complains that Pulle broke into her house along with many other ‘misdoers’ and has now gone into hiding. The main purpose of a legal petition is to establish the legal basis for the request for remedy; formulaic legal phrases and adverbs here serve – ‘force and armes’ ‘felonousely’ and ‘horribely’. As form dictated, the petition ends with a statement of the remedy sought (Isabel wants Pulle to be brought before a court or, if he refuses to appear, to be outlawed) and a conventional closing formula; here, ‘And that for the love of god and in werk of charitee’.

Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2019

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Further Reading

Boffey, Julia, ‘“Forto Compleyne She Had Gret Desire”: The Grievances Expressed in Two Fifteenth-Century Dream-Visions’, in Nation, Court and Culture: New Essays on Fifteenth-Century English Poetry, ed. Cooney, Helen, Dublin: Four Courts, 2001, 116–28.
Dodd, Gwilym, Justice and Grace: Private Petitioning and the English Parliament in the Late Middle Ages, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Dodd, Gwilym and McHardy, Alison K., eds., Petitions to the Crown from English Religious Houses, c. 1272–1485, Woodbridge: Boydell, 2010.
Giancarlo, Matthew, Parliament and Literature in Late Medieval England, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Oliver, Clementine, Parliament and Political Pamphleteering in Fourteenth-Century England, Woodbridge: York Medieval Press, 2010.
Ormrod, W. Mark, Dodd, Gwilym and Musson, Anthony, eds., Medieval Petitions: Grace and Grievance, Woodbridge: York Medieval Press, 2009.
Patterson, Lee, ‘Writing Amorous Wrongs: Chaucer and the Order of Complaint’, in The Idea of Medieval Literature, ed. Dean, J. M. and Zacher, C. K., Newark, NJ: University of Delaware Press, 1992, 5571.
Scase, Wendy, Literature and Complaint in England, 1272–1553, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

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