The TPP’s Modern English Performance Text

Gentylnes and Nobylyte:

The Modern English Performance Text


of a Tudor humanist debate comedy

by John Rastell or John Heywood

— or perhaps both (c1525)

John Heywood, c 1525


Adapted into Modern English

by the Tudor Plays Project team:


Jude Caywood, Lead Dramaturg and TPP Associate Director

Emily Bezold, Assistant Dramaturg

Yasmine Hachimi, Teaching Assistant and Bibliographer

Amanda Pendleton, Assistant Dramaturg

Maura Giles-Watson, Director


The Tudor Plays Project is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Based on a work at Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at October 15, 2016




Merchant 1, Merchant 2, Knight 1, Knight 2, Plowman, Philosopher.


ACT I, Scene 1

[Plowman onstage]

[Enter Merchants 1 and 2]

Merchant 1:

Oh, what great wealth and prosperity

Comes to any realm where there are merchants like me,

Who have free liberty and intercourse so

As to convey merchandise to and fro;

This freedom I have used and by this trick I found

How to amass through trade many a thousand pound.

Therefore now because of my great riches,

Throughout this land in every place it is doubtless

That I am magnified and greatly regarded,

And for a wise and noble man esteemed.

[Enter Knights 1 and 2]

Knight 1:

Master merchant, I hear you very well.

But now in presumption I think you excel

To call yourself noble in this presence here.

For surely men know who your ancestors were

And from what great stock you are descended:

You father was but a blacksmith – how splendid!

Merchant 2:

Why sir, what then? What are you, I pray you?

Knight 1:

Mary, I am a gentleman, I would you knew,

And have an income of 500 a year from my land;

And I am sure that all that you have in hand

Of your yearly rent is not worth five marks.

Merchant 2:

But I would have you know, for all your boastful remarks,

That I am now able to buy all the land

That you have, and pay for it all out of hand;

And I have won it by my own labor and wit,

And that which you have, your ancestors left it.

Knight 1:

Yet you are nothing but a churl, and I feel scorn

That you should compare yourself with me, a gentleman born.

Merchant 1:

Why, what do you call a gentleman? Tell me, sir.

Knight 2:

Mary, I call them gentlemen that are

Born to great lands by inheritance,

As my ancestors by continuance

Have had for five hundred years, from whose lineage

I am descended and hold now this great peerage,

Bearing the same name and arms also

That they have had for 500 years, as you should know.

Knight 1:

My ancestors have also always been

Lords, knights, and with great discipline,

Captains in the war and governors

And also in time of peace great rulers,

And yours were never anything but artificers,

Working as smiths, masons, carpenters or weavers.

Merchant 1:

All that is truth I will not deny now,

Yet I am more of a gentleman than you,

For I call him a gentleman that readily

Gives to other men most generously

Those things of which he is the owner.

But the man that takes anything from another,

And gives him nothing back again therefore,

Ought to be called a churl evermore.

But my ancestors have always provided

To your ancestors those things that they could

By their hard work truly get and win;

For instance, my ancestors built houses wherein

Your ancestors live and from there still rule.

Merchant 2:

My ancestors have also provided many a tool

Belonging to all manner of craftsmen,

From which cloth and other things are made then.

And when your ancestors have had need of aid,

With the same tools these things have been made.

So my ancestors have always given their labor

In order to comfort and help your progenitor.

Knight 2:

I deny that your ancestors have ever

Given any help to even one ancestor

Of mine at any time. The only thing, I suppose, maybe

That they provided were some wares or money.

Merchant 1:

Mary, God of mercy, by St John! —  now you’re caught.

Ha ha! Your very own foot you’ve shot!

How can lords and the aristocracy have anything

But for what the artisans and working class can bring?

For all metals are dug first by miners

And afterwards wrought by artisans.

Merchant 2:

Wool, leather, and every other thing

That we use for our warmth and clothing

And all other things that people use and wear

Are always made by some artisan.

Knight :

I grant you that the artificers make it,

But because they commonly have little wit,

Gentlemen that have lands and no dearth

Of cash, most naturally, have the most worth.

For this reason it always will and should be

That wise men keep such fools in captivity.

Merchant 2:

Mary, as for wit and subtle deception,

My ancestors with yours may make comparison.

For although my father was a smith, what then?

He was still a marvelously quick-witted man,

And could work as well, for his part,

As any in this land using that art,

And he could spark, with his work, new fashions

That among others, his work was most often chosen;

And he could carve and engrave in iron and steel

Both images and letters most marvelously well,

And he could inlay in gold and gilt things also,

As fine and pure as any goldsmith could do.

Merchant 1:

Well, my grandfather was a mason

Of as great a wit as any in this region.

And he could build a castle and tower right well,

In which some of your kinsmen now dwell,

Wherein you can find strong and good masonry

With elaborate images and the arms of your family.

Merchant 2:

And my great grandfather was a weaver

Of wool and yarn and other kinds of gear

And made marvelously pleasant works to behold:

Linen, velvet, silk and cloth of gold;

All these intricate things as I have laid out for you,

My ancestors could, by their wits, create and do.

Merchant 1:

And as for your ancestors, I know of no thing

That they could do by their wits worth praising.

They could only use, occupy, and waste evermore

Those things which my ancestors made before.

Merchant 2:

And you and your ancestors, who, you agree,

Used things that were wrought by the ability

Of other men, ought not to be praised therefore;

But the praise ought to be given ever more

To the artisan, who, by his wit,

Devised the thing and so skillfully built it.

Merchant 1:

So then, if you say that wit and policy

Are the things belonging to the gentry,

Your ancestors may never compare with my forebears,

For their acts prove them many times wiser than yours.

For yours never did anything in their day,

Which required cleverness, that was worthy of praise.

Knight 1:

Yes, for sure, lewd lout, now listen to this!

My ancestors have had more wisdom and wit

Than yours ever had and could do also

Many things that yours could never do.

For example, in this county at our courts of law and justice

They have been elected judges, and served with great prowess.

And, because of their wits and great discretion,

They have judged and handed down correction

Upon your ancestors – the artificers

That have started false wars and been deceivers –

And helped to maintain every thing

That is to the commonwealth pertaining.

Knight 2:

They have also been in time of war

Both in this land and other countries, many very far,

Dukes and leaders of the whole army

And, by their wits and grasp of policy,

Intelligence, diligent work, and foresight

Have won many a great field and fight.

And your ancestors that were there

Were unable to carry either shield or spear,

And were never more than soldiers and infantry carpenters,

Nor did they ever have the wisdom to be rulers.

But because my ancestors have always been

Discreet and wise, authority’s in their ken.

Merchant 2:

No, no, your ancestors never came to be

In authority for their wisdom principally,

For though some were wise, some of them – and it’s a shame –

Had small discretion, and little wit or brains.

But because of the long continuance

Of their great possessions by inheritance,

By the foolish manner of the world, we see

For that reason they have had authority.

Knight 2:

And I say that good reason agrees with it,

For though a father may not have great wit,

The son that is wise should never, of this I’m sure,

Lose his land or authority therefore.

For he that by study, diligence, and pain,

Great lands or possessions does attain,

Has too short a life in which to enjoy it

And cannot reap the fruits of his merit.

Reason would suggest that after he has lived,

His heirs before strangers should have prerogative.

And the continuance of such possessions

Makes men noble and gentle Christians;

And those whose blood has long continued

Should as gentlemen be honored.

And so my ancestors have long been

Great landholders and ruled with discipline.

Therefore, considering my great lineage,

My blood, my noble birth and parentage,

You’re unable compare yourself with me

Neither in gentleness nor in nobility.

[Plowman approaches them]


Now here is some bibble-babble, clitter-clatter!

I’ve never heard of so foolish a matter.

But by God’s body, to speak the truth,

I am better than either of you both.

Knight 1:

Scram, cankered churl! Where did you come from?


Hail Mary! Foolish, peevish idiot, straight from my own plow.

Well, do you have anything to say besides that, now?

Merchant 1:

Yes, certainly, you crude villain and rude rascal!

It is most impertinent for you, a plowman,

To disturb any gentlemen’s conversation.


Gentlemen! You’re gentlemen? More like Jack Herring!

You’d put your shoes in your pocket to keep them from wearing!

I reckon myself by God’s body

Better than you both and more worthy.

Knight 1:

Get out, knave, take yourself out of the gate,

Or a cracked head will be your fate!


I shall prove my claim, I make God a vow,

Never in better time – I’ll beat you now!

[Plowman removes a shoe from his pocket and begins to beat Knight and Merchant]
*Note: shoe should either contain or produce fake blood

Merchant 2:

Now hold your hand, fellow, I pray,

And listen now to what I shall say.


Say, knave? What can you possibly say?

Merchant 1:

Hold your shoe, I beg you, and don’t come near –

I am a merchant, not a fighter, and hate the spear.

Knight 2:

You are not an honest man, I see clearly,

To make a quarrel here so suddenly

And to disturb our communication.


Here you may see, sirs, by God’s passion,

Two proud fools vainly boasting

And when it comes to a point, dare do nothing.

Merchant 2:

Our reason for coming here and our intent

Is not to fight except through argument,

For every man to show his opinion,

To see who can present the best reason

To prove himself noble and most a gentleman.


By God, all the reasons since you began

That you have put forward are not worth a fly.

Knight 2:

No, sir? I ask you then, tell me why?


First, regarding nobleness, I say

That neither of you was able to lay

Out any of your acts, whereby that you

Proved, within reason, that your boasts are true,

Or thereby worthy of praising.

But the effect of your arguing

To prove your own nobleness turned out only

To be a list of the deeds of your ancestry.

And of the acts that your ancestors did before.

So, you haven’t proved you’re as noble as you swore.

Knight 2:

Well, for myself, I can easily make comparison

With any noble deeds that he claims to have done.

For I am and have been one of the elite cavalry,

At the command of my prince have always been ready,

And been captain during every time of war,

And the leader of a thousand men or more,

And with horse and harness, spear and shield,

Have endangered my body in every field.

Knight 1:

And rents from my lands I have spent liberally,

And kept a great house continually,

And helped to punish thieves and bribers most reliably,

And so have brought great tranquility to my country.

And you, master Merchant, won’t work or strain

Unless it’s for your own profit and gain.


Well, look at that now, master Merchant,

His rude opinion of you seems quite blunt

I bet you can’t answer him back very well.

Merchant 2:

No indeed, peevish and rude imbecile,

I can make you an answer that is so sly

That neither of you will be able to reply.

Knight 1:

If you can answer my reason, do.

Merchant 1:

That I can well do.


Then get to it, fool, go to!

Merchant 1:

I say the common good of every land

In the business of merchandise principally stands,

For if our commodities are admitted for naught

Into strange lands, and no riches brought

To this land therefore, we should come to beggary,

And all men would be driven to a life of misery.

So we noble merchants that are in this realm,

Bring to this land such wealth that it quite overwhelms:

We sell our wares and buy theirs good and cheap,

And bring them here, so that all here reap

Profit and pleasure daily.  This service we give

To all manner of people that here do live.

Merchant 2:

Furthermore, you see well with your own eyes,

That from strange lands we bring things that all prize –

We have such need of these things that there is no doubt

That it impossible for us to go without –

Merchant 1: (interrupting)

We bring oil, silks, fruits, and spices also,

Gold, silver, iron and other metals. To us you owe

All potions and drugs belonging to physic —

Merchant 2: (interrupting)

Which people require when they are sick,

These goods from us nature does withhold –

Their lands are hot and ours is far too cold –

Without these things we would live in misery,

And oftentimes, if we lacked them, we would die.

Merchant 1: (interrupting)

And I spend my goodwill and labor continually

To make it possible for these things to come here daily

For the comfort of this land and for the common wealth,

And to bring to all people great profit and good health.

And for such noble deeds, reason demands then

That I ought to be called a bleeding nobleman, [wipes blood from his head]

And neither of you here among us three

In nobleness may compare with me.


That was well hit! By God’s body, well hit

For one who has such little wit!

Now answer me one word first, I insist:

What is the noblest thing that does exist?

Knight 2:

Well, what can you come up with? Let’s see.


Is not the noblest thing indeed

That which of all things has least necessity,

Just as God who reigns in blissful eternity?

So, is not he the noblest thing that is?

Knight 2:

Yes, no one can reasonably deny it, I guess.


Well then, it seems there is no argument

Because he is truly omnipotent,

And is so sufficient in himself, like no earthly thing,

That he needs only the help of his glorious being.

But every other thing has need of his aid.

Merchant 2:

That’s very true and well-said, I’m afraid.


And likewise the thing that needs the most assistance

Is the thing that is most wretched, and a nuisance.

So, self-sufficiency is always nobleness,

And necessity is always wretchedness;

But he that has more need of something

For the preservation of his living

Than his neighbor has, then his neighbor must be,

By this same reasoning, nobler by far than he.

Knight 1:

What are you going on about?


By the same reason, it proves just so,

You’re nothing but scoundrels and wretches, the lot of you,

And by the same reason I shall

Prove that I am the noblest man among us all.

For I don’t have need of anything

That you can do to help me with my living;

For everything that you live by,

I nourish you all with and supply —

I plow, I till, and rake the ground,

And by this I make the corn abound,

From which is made both drink and bread,

And daily with these things you must be fed.

I nourish the cattle and fowls also,

Along with fish and herbs, and other things, you know.

Hides, hair, and wool, which the beasts bear,

I nourish and preserve, and which you later wear;

And if you didn’t have them, no doubt you would

Freeze for lack of clothes, as well you should.

So both of you would live or die in necessity,

If you didn’t have comfort and help from me.

And as for your fine cloth and costly array,

I cannot see why you ought to or may

Call yourself noble simply because you wear cloth

Which was made by others’ labor and brains, you sloths.

And also your delicate drinks and vintages so pleasant,

By other men’s labor are made for your enjoyment.

Therefore, Master Merchants, to you now I say,

I can see only that I am able to and may

Live without you or your supposed abilities,

For of food and clothes I have all that I need

From myself that for my life is necessary.

And now, Sir Knights, to you I say plainly,

I don’t see that you can actually do anything

For the common good, or at least to it pertaining.

But each man that sits in authority,

Having some wit, may do as well as you, it seems.

Therefore, to speak now of necessity,

I must say that both of you do seem

In more need than I; therefore I speak true,

When I say I am more noble than either of you.

Merchant 2:

Now that is a foolish reason, God save me,

For by the same reason, you would have, I see,

Every beast, fish, and other fowl then

To be more noble of birth than man.

For man has more need of bodily covering

Than they have, for they need nothing.

The beasts have hair and also a thick skin,

The fish, scales or shells to keep their bodies in;

The birds feathers, and so everything

By nature has its proper covering,

Except for humans, who are born all naked.

Therefore, we should then be the most wretched.


Mary, no man can make a better reason,

For that is a sure and true conclusion.

For if a child, when he is born, thereby

Is not helped and covered, he soon will die.

He has no strength to help himself, none at all,

Yet beasts have the power to help themselves when they’re small.

So, considering man’s body, indeed

A beast is more noble, and a man more wretched,

Because he has need of many more things

Than beasts do to help them with their living.

Also, man must daily labor and sweat,

To get him sustenance, as drink and meat;

The ground he must dig, and the beasts kill,

For bread and meat with which his body to fill,

Grapes, fruits, and herbs nourish diligently,

And make good drinks to refresh his body.

But all brute beasts have natural covering which is

Sufficient to cover their bodies in all cases,

And always find their food on the ground ready

To be eaten without any pain, labor or study.

So every man, by reason of his body,

Is more wretched and in more misery

Than beasts are. Yet, this notwithstanding,

Man is the most noble of creatures living,

Not by his body, for that is impotent,

But by his soul, which is so excellent.

For, by reason of his soul intellective,

He subdues all other beasts that live,

And compels all other beasts that exist,

To relieve his necessity, through means of his wit.

But beasts don’t  have wits with which themselves to defend,

Nor can they get themselves any more than what God did send.

For example, take any beast keeps warm with fur,

And shave it bare before the winter;

That beast has no manner of ability

To get some other covering for its body

Either of cloth or skins, nor has no wit

To put it on after someone’s made it,

Nor can it build a house or kindle a fire

To warm its body if need should require.

But a man has wit and understanding,

To help himself with every such thing.

So man for his soul intellectual

Is the most noble creature among beasts all.

Merchant 1:

That is a very good and weighty reason;

Yet I think you make a digression

From the argument that we first began,

Which was to prove who was most a gentleman,

Which we disputed. I wish you had heard it.


Tush, I heard what you said, every bit.

Knight 2:

Then show your reason therein or go.


No, by God, I have something else to do.

I must go buy myself a halfpenny’s worth of grease,

And the spokes of my cart with it dress.

Do you believe that I will leave my business

For your babbling pomp and foolishness?

No, no, by Saint Mary, I will not do so,

For I can now to the market go

And for a half-penny buy as much grease, you see,

As I could in our town for a full penny.

And I tell plainly without any boast

A half-penny is as well saved as lost.

Merchant 1:

A straw for a half-penny! That’s a thought that’s trite.

Stay here with us awhile, perhaps you might

Through our acquaintance now get more

Than you got with this cart the month before.


A straw for your counsel, turd — a fart!

Do you believe that I will give up my plow or cart

And follow your foolish appetite and mind?

No, I am not yet so mad nor so blind.

For when I am at my cart or plow

I am far merrier than either of you.

I would not change my life nor my living

Even to be made a great lord or king.

There is no joy nor pleasure in this world here

But to have a full belly, and make good cheer!

Be it prince, lord, gentleman, or knave,

That’s all the joy that he can have.

But these covetous and ambitious wretches,

They set their minds to honor and riches

So much, that they are never content;

So they live always in pain and torment.

But a man who can the means find,

To have food and clothes and a merry mind,

And to desire no more than is needful –

That is the thing in this world most joyful;

But this life no man on earth will acquire

Till he subdues his insatiable desire.

Merchant 2:

I see well you have a wicked and impish wit.

But I ask that if you are this place to quit,

Come back again when your business is through.


For what reason should I so do?

Merchant 1:

Because we will in our old argument proceed:

Who should be called a gentleman indeed,

And we would be glad to hear your reason.


I will come again upon a condition:

That you will wait upon me both you twain,

And won’t be somewhere else when I come again.

Knight 1:

We will not be far away.


Then I will not fail.

Merchant 1:

Then I hope you won’t let your promise grow stale.


Look, here is my hand, your doubts dispel,

I will come again if my health stays well.

For, by God, I promise you all one thing:

I am as true to my word as is the king.

But if I don’t find you here, then, hear my oath,

I shall openly call you false knaves, by my troth.

Merchant 2:

You shall find us true in everything.


I think so, except for the lying and stealing.

Knight 2:

Then farewell for a season, adieu!


Then fare you well both – (aside) I mean to say, I hope you do

As well as those in the stocks in the public square.    [Exit Plowman]

Merchant 2:

Well, now he is gone, God speed well his travels there!

But what shall we do now for the rest of the season?

Knight 1:

Let us take now some recreation,

And come again here and keep our appointment.

Merchant 1:

Alright, with that idea I am right well content;

And in the meanwhile, good Lord, with your grace,

Preserve all the people here in this place.

Amen.             [Exit Merchants and Knights]

[Here they sing]



ACT II, Scene 1

[Enter Plowman]


I have been walking here, wandering to and fro,

But I don’t see those whom I would speak to.

[Enter Merchants and Knights]

Merchant 2:

Yes, by the cross, here are we both

To meet with you, as you did promise by oath,

To dispute the question that we began:

Which of us could prove himself most a gentleman.

Knight 1:

You said you had heard our arguments all.


So I did, neither good nor substantial,

For your foolish and peevish opinion

Was, because of the great dominion

Of the lands and rents to which you were born,

Which your ancestors had held long before;

You think yourselves to be gentlemen;

And to me that seems a foolish reason.

For when Adam was digging and Eve did spin,

Who then was a gentleman?

But then came that serpent and took away good,

And from there began the notion of gentle blood.

And I think truthfully that you believe

That we all came from Adam and from Eve.

Then, to speak by reason, great possessions

Don’t make gentlemen, but merely gentle conditions.

That is the cause and best reason why

One should be called a gentleman truly.

And furthermore, pay attention to this reason then:

Even if a man’s ancestors have been gentlemen,

Virtuous and loyal to the common good

That shouldn’t at all be considered

And used to praise the child who does refuse

Such good conditions and won’t put them to good use.

He ought to be criticized all the more

Because his ancestors had shown him before

A precedent of gentleness and virtue,

But on this good example he doesn’t follow through.

And so the gentleness of his blood clearly

Decays and dies in him completely.

But the child who uses conditions which are virtuous,

Even though his ancestors might have been vicious,

Ought not to be criticized therefore,

But should be honored and praised even more.

Knight 2:

Yet I think more honor should be given

To him who is of noble blood and kin.


Then if you will look to be honored only

Because of your blood, then mark well and see

The vilest beggar that sleeps underneath the tree –

Don’t you both have but one God and the same body?

You both came from one original stock and are the progeny

Of both Adam and Eve, which you won’t deny.

The beggar and you were both, doubtless,

Conceived and born in filth and uncleanness.

Your blood and the beggar’s are of one color;

You are as likely to fall ill as is the beggar.

If you are wounded in your body by something

Your flesh is just as damaged as his and needs healing

Sadly, I have known many like this,

So proud of their birth that all their lives,

They would never commit themselves to labor nor learning,

Which brought them to a miserable ending,

And in poverty they wretchedly did die

Or fell into theft and were then hanged up high.

So I say virtue and good conditions then

Are what makes the true gentleman.

And though the father may bequeath to his son

His riches, his lands and his possession,

He may neither give nor bequeath

Unto his son in no way after his death

His virtue nor his gentle conditions:

They cannot descend like other possessions.

And if you will be a gentleman, you need

And must use only virtue and gentle deeds.

Knight 1:

Why do men desire, then, praise evermore

For the acts which their ancestors did before?


One cause for that is lack of learning;

They do not perceive the reason of the thing.

Another is because there are many

Who call themselves gentlemen but are unworthy,

Who live voluptuously and in a way quite bestial

And do no good in the world at all,

But live in pride, sloth, and carelessness.

And because they have no manner of goodness

Nor property nor virtue in them whereby

Any man should think any of them praiseworthy,

And so they seek out commendation

For the acts that their ancestors have done.

Merchant 1:

Then I marvel that men desire to be called

Of the blood of those who excelled

In worldly honor, like kings and emperors,

When some were tyrants and some were conquerors;

And few desire to be called of their blood,

Who have been called just men, virtuous and good,

And used impartial justice and equity,

Meekness, abstinence or willful poverty.


If I might tell the real cause to you,

It is because they do not love virtue;

These virtues and gentle conditions should, I believe,

Belong to any gentlemen of property.

Knight 2:

If gentle conditions are the cause, so

Then I can compare myself with both of you.

For I have used every gentle manner,

And so did my ancestors who came before.

For first of all when this world began,

Long ago when there were few people, then

Men had enough of everything

And without great labor got their food and clothing.

All things were in common among them, doubtless,

But afterward, when people did increase,

Each man to increase his pleasure and glee

In goods and lands desired property,

From which great strife and debate did arise.

Then those of my ancestors who were wise

Studied to make laws about how the people might be

Peaceful and live together in unity,

And ensure that the people who tilled the ground and labored

Would always against enemies be defended.

The people perceiving then their goodness,

Their great wit, prudence and gentleness,

Were content to give them part of the profit

Coming of their lands which they did get,

Such as corn, cattle, and other things they won.

But after, when the minting of coins was begun,

They changed those revenues and were content

To give them in money an annual rent.

So for their good and virtuous dispositions

They were the first to get lands and possessions.

So possession began and was founded

Upon a good and reasonable ground.


By God’s sweet body, you lie falsely;

All possessions began with tyranny.

For when people first began to increase,

Some gave themselves to total idleness

And would not work, but took by violence

That which other men got by labor and diligence,

Then those who labored were glad to give

Them part of their earnings so they could in peace live,

Or else, for their lands, money a portion.

So possessions began by extortion.

And when such extortioners had oppressed

The laboring people, then they ordained

And made laws remarkably straight and hard,

So that their heirs might enjoy it afterward.

So the law of inheritance was first begun,

Which is a thing against all good reason

As any inheritance in the world should be.

Knight 2:

That is a shameful opinion, it seems to me,

For when I have labored and by great study

Got and purchased lands truly,

It’s only fair that I have the liberty

To give those lands to whomsoever it pleases me,

Or else to let them descend lineally father to son

To my child or blood cousin, the closest one,

For inheritance has to be a good thing,

Because so much good from it does spring,

Every man to his own blood great love does bear.

Because the land will descend to his heir,

He will build upon it and improve the land,

Make corn and grass increase and grow, and

Graft fruit, plant trees, and nourish timber

And to increase the fish make ponds with water,

Remove bushes and weeds which destroy herbage,

And all barren ground bring to tillage,

And amend the roads that are thereabouts,

And do many other good deeds, without a doubt,

For the profit of his heirs that will one day be,

And for the common wealth of all the country.

To these things surely he would never attend,

If the land should not to his heir descend.


By your reason no other thing is meant

But a good deed based on an evil intent.

When men do “good deeds” for pride or pretense

The devil does them recompense.

Knight 1:

Whether they’re paid by the devil or by God

Is not relevant to our purpose, you clod.

For what their minds and intents are no one can tell.

But about inheritance, this I know well,

Much good comes from it and does daily grow.


No indeed, much evil comes from it and I shall prove how:

For these men who have great possessions

Carry for their own blood such affection,

So that if any land lying near them strikes their fancy

Belonging to their poor neighbors, they will destroy them swiftly,

Or else they will compel them by extortion

To sell the land at half its worth, that’s the bargain.

And when they lack money they will always

Borrow and then are never willing to repay.

And when they do die you see the experience:

Few of them have a remorseful conscience

And do not make any manner of restitution

For any of the lands so wrongfully gotten.

Knight 1:

You have spoken badly against gentlemen,

But what do you have to say about merchants then?


Many are good and worshipful also,

And many charitable deeds they do –

Build churches and amend the highways,

Make almshouses and help those who cannot pay

Their rents. But some are covetous, and full falsely

Get their goods by deceit and usury,

And when they have a thousand pounds in their coffers,

They would rather suffer their neighbors

To starve from hunger and cold and to die,

Before they will give to help them even a penny.

And yet, moreover, when any of them are

Promoted to rule or hold authority in law,

They disdain all learning, law and reason,

And judge all by will and personal opinion.

Merchant 2:

You’re nothing but an abusive ranter, to speak so nastily

Against gentlemen and merchants such as we.

Are not plowman and others who drive the cart

And such common fellows as you are

Wicked liars, who live as viciously also

As gentlemen of lands and merchants do?

Knight 1:

Yes, these villainous carters almost every one

Have neither conscience nor devotion,

For bribe and steal everything they will

If they can do it all in secrecy, with skill.

And as for prayer and divine service,

They love them in no manner wise,

For they would never labor or any work do

If need of living drove them not thereto.


Yet gentlemen and the rich merchants it seems

Are guilty of much more vice and inequity.

Merchant 1:

Why! Do you think all merchants and gentlemen are despicable?


No, I didn’t say that; that’s not my thought at all.

I am not yet so foolish nor so mad,

For I know many who are good, though some are bad.

Yet some will allow his debts to be unpaid

And die and endanger his soul, rather than

Diminish any of his lands, or otherwise impair

Them, as after his death they will go to his heir.

And some of them are so proud of their blood

And rarely use virtue and do little good,

But devote their minds and all their study

To oppress the poor people with tyranny.

And some of them think this for a surety,

The most honor comes to them that can

And are able to carry out extortion

And to maintain it without retribution.

Knight 1:

By God’s sweet body, you are a complete knave,

Noblemen and gentlemen so to deprave.


What, you proud whoreson fool, who are you calling knave?

I think a good blow or two with a whip’s handle would have

A good effect and teach you some courtesy.

Knight 1:

Go on, beggarly knave, I dare you to try!


Oh, are you ready to wage battle again here and now?

I’ll take up that challenge, by God I vow.

[He beats them, after pulling out his shoe again and discarding it for the whip]

Merchant 1:

Keep the peace, masters, hold your hands, for shame!

For the cause of this business you are greatly to blame.

You will disturb this whole company.


No, by St. Mary, it’s a cause to make them merry,

To beat such a proud fool is great sport and game.

Knight 2:

By God’s body, were it not for worldly shame,

I should cut your flesh or else see your heart’s blood.

Merchant 2:

Sir, hold your tongue, your words carry nothing good.

We lose here with this base altercation

Much good pastime and recreation.


Why, what better pastime here can you have,

Then to hear someone call another a knave

And then see such proud folk beaten with a whip.

Merchant 2:

But I don’t like it; therefore, for fellowship,

Leave this brawling and with good argument

Try the matter that is most convenient.

No, I will try it whatever way he wills,

Whether it’s with words or deeds I will answer him still.

For, by God, if he won’t be content

To finish this with good argument,

I will finish him one way, before I go,

Or I shall prove it on his head, with a sounding blow.

Knight 1:

You speak like a clergyman who has little wit.

When a case is put before him, if he can’t solve it

By some manner of reason that he can defend,

He will answer them in this way and reprehend,

“Beware what you say, sir, I advise you how

This is treason or heresy that you speak now,”

With the intent to rebuke him openly

In front of the unlearned people who stand and watch closely.

Then will he worry and chafe in his mind

And cast out some coarse words of quarreling,

To turn the whole matter to chiding and fighting,

Just as you’re doing now, like one who’s mad.


No, I would you know, you foolish lad,

I am neither mad nor drunken yet.

As for my opinion, I have well proved it

By substantial reason and argument,

That inheritance is not convenient,

And I have shown better reasons than you can do.

Knight 2:

No, your reasons may soon be answered unto.

For heaven forbid that estates of inheritance

Should ever be destroyed, for by that good ordinance

Gentlemen of lands undoubtedly

Bring up their children full honorably:

Some are sent to school for the purpose of learning

In order to instruct the people in virtuous living,

Some are trained to be active in martial deeds,

Able to defend the land when there is need;

And the rustical people who have no land

Are unable to take such things in hand.

Wherefore if we should destroy inheritance forever,

We should destroy all good rule and order.


But those men who have great incomes and lands

And have nothing but what they’ve earned during their lives — with their own hands — [gesture with hands]

And everything thereon will nourish and save,

For the great zeal and love that they only have

To the common wealth of their country

And for God’s sake – look, these people, they

Are as worthy of such great possessions.

And such people of virtuous conditions

And no others should be chosen as governors,

And they should have lands to maintain their honors

For the duration of their lives as long as they take pain

For the common wealth; this is good reason, it’s very plain.

So that no man ought to have any land

Unless he is apt and takes responsibility in hand

For the common wealth, as princes, and rulers,

Bishops, curates, preachers, and teachers,

Judges, ministers, and other officers,

That of the common wealth are executors

And valiant men of the chivalry,

Who are bound to defend the people daily.

Such men who are apt to all these things

Should have lands to maintain their living.

So inheritance is not beseeming

Because it lets those have lands who cannot do such things.

And so I do not think it is reasonable either,

For one man to live by the labor of another,

For each man is born to labor truly,

Just as a bird is to fly naturally.

Nor should a man have the liberty

To leave lands to his child, whereby that he

Shall lust after a life of sloth and gluttony,

Compelled to do nothing but live voluptuously.

Merchant 2:

There is always a good remedy for this shortcoming:

Which is to compel them to do something,

So that each man having an inheritance

Has some authority and governance,

Wherein he should take pains and busyness

To force himself to avoid idleness.


Then this great misfortune would follow it:

Oftentimes they might rule who have little wit

Or would be disposed to be proud and covetous

Or would live after their lusts voluptuous.

And if such men had authority,

Many things would, no doubt, misordered be:

Where justice should be, there would be tyranny,

Where peace should be, war, debate and envy.

So there is no good reason that I can see

To prove that any form of inheritance should there be.

Knight 1:

Here’s a reason which I can prove by good authority,

For read in the Bible and therein you shall see,

God said to Abraham, ‘tibi dabo

Terram hanc et semine tuo.’         [Knight mangles Latin]

Which is as much to say, to expound it true,

‘I shall give this land to you and your issue.’

Here is good proof that it was God’s will

That Abraham and his blood should continue still

As landholders and have the governance

Of that land as their proper inheritance.


You answer me even now like a fool,

As some of these foolish philosophers who go to school.

When one puts to them an abstruse question

Of philosophy to be proved by reason,

When they have all their wits and reason spent

And cannot defend their argument,

Then they will allege some authority

Of the laws or else of divinity,

Which in no way men may deny.

And yet you know well that in philosophy

The principles are often contrary

To the very grounds of divinity.

For the philosophers agree on this credo:

Quod mundus fuit semper ab eterno,

And the clergy: quod in principio omnium

Creavit Deus terram et celum.        [Plowman pronounces it correctly and elegantly]

But you did promise openly, even now,

Only by natural reason to prove how

Inheritance ought to be had.

Merchant 1:

By God’s body, sirs, I hold you all mad.

You are like some women that I know well,

Who, when they wish to a man any matter to tell,

Will tell twenty tales along the way

That have nothing to do with the matter that they

Did first intend to tell and declare.

And in a like manner now you all do fare,

For you dispute now whether inheritance

Is a reasonable thing or a good ordinance,

Which is a matter not at all pertaining

To the question put forward at the beginning.

For the question was which of us all three

Could prove himself most gentleman to be.

Knight 2:

With regards to that, we have all said and spoke

Each man his part as much as he can invoke.


No, I still have reasons left whereby I can

Prove myself of us all to be most gentleman,

That none of you can disprove by reason.

Merchant 2:

If you have anything else to say, now speak on.


Then to you both, answer me this short proposition:

Is it not true that gentle conditions

Are the principal cause that makes one a gentleman?


Perhaps it may be so, what then?


‘Perhaps,’ says he!

No, I shall prove it by examples, of which I’ve plenty:

For music makes one a musician,

Grammar, a good grammarian,

And also geometry a good geometrician,

And for a churl, churlish conditions must there be,

And so of every other state and degree.

And where gentle conditions are, doubtless,

In any person there is gentleness.

So, as virtue makes a good man,

So gentle conditions, a gentleman.

Merchant 1:

All those points, I think, must granted be.

What other points can you argue now, let’s see.


What do you say then about pride, wrath and envy?

Knight 2:

They are worthless and evil, I think truly.


What about meekness, patience, and charity?

Knight 2:

Every one a gentle and good property.


What about covetousness and liberality?

Knight 1:

The first one’s good, the other useless, surely. (misunderstands and is nudged by Knight 2)


What about gluttony, sloth, and lechery?

Knight 1:

They all are nothing, who can that deny?


What about abstinence, busyness, and chastity?

Knight 2:

Virtuous and gentle properties, all three. (interrupts)


Since you have granted this, I shall prove plainly

That I am a gentleman, and none of you are, by any degree.

First, for pride, what you are, your clothing shows,

For you will never be content unless your egos

Have the finest cloth and silk to wear

Of orient colors, and all your gear

Is costly; your houses gilt gloriously,

As though with it you would yourself deify.

You covet more and more goods, lands, and rent;

Whatsoever you get, you’re never content.

Wrathful, you are quickly moved to anger,

And envious, disdaining every man. What a shocker!

And as for me, I am content always

With a poor cottage and simple array.

I disdain no man and can patiently

Suffer to be called ‘knave’ and not become angry;

Sometimes I call him knave again in haste,

But as soon as I’ve said it, my anger’s erased.

You have your beds so pleasant and soft,

In which you ease yourselves too long and too oft,

Which makes your bodies so tender and doughy

So that you cannot endure hard labor like me.

With no type of coarse food will you be fed,

But only with pleasant wines and the whitest bread,

With only the most fat and delicate fish and flesh,

And all manner of fruits and spices, always fresh.

And when you have had such pleasant refections,

To assuage your carnal insurrections,

Whatsoever she is – wife, widow or maid –

If she comes your way, she most certainly will be assayed.

Merchant 1:

You lie, slanderous churl, for I truly think thus:

You use such vice more than any of us.


No, by God’s body, I use no such life,

For I am content with that old boot, my wife.

Do you think I care for these spoiled, pretty girls

Painted poppinjays, chins in the air, flouncing their curls

Who look so flirtatiously as if they were told

That every man would woo them that does them behold?

Tut, man, for all such amorous work, now mark

That the foul is as good as the fair in the dark.

Knight 1:

You speak truly – swill is good enough for swine.


Yet you answer to no reason of mine.

Knight 2:

All your reasons, right well answer I can;

For I say it becomes a noble man

To have rich apparel and clothing

And goodly houses of costly building,

And that each man according to his station

Can be distinguished from others of lower positions.

For if such costly things were not made,

There wouldn’t be work for poor people; they wouldn’t be paid.

And many folks would then fall into idleness,

Which is the mother of vice and wretchedness.


Yes, but I take no delight in such worldly vanities.

I delight neither in sloth nor gluttony.

I dig and delve and labor for my living,

Never idle but always doing something.

Daily I toil and sweat in simple clothing,

I eat brown bread, drink weak beer, never complaining,

Content with coarse meat, whatsoever it be,

As long as it sates hunger, it suffices me.

These points of mine which I have rehearsed hereto –

Are not these gentle conditions, I ask you?

Merchant 2:

If you use them, need compels you to do so,

For if you could, certainly you would otherwise do.

What I would do then you cannot tell.

It is not to the point, but this I know well:

Since I use my life in such a good manner

With such gentle conditions as I have expressed here,

More than you all do, still continuing,

And since gentle conditions are the thing

That makes a gentleman, and are the cause principal,

And which I use my in life most of us all,

Who can by any reason deny then

That I am, of us all, most the gentleman?

Knight 1:

In faith, if you are a gentleman therefore,

You are a gentleman against your will full sore.

Merchant 1:

Since I see he stands in his own notions so well,

That opinion we shall never expel

From him by no argument nor reason.

Therefore now for a little season

Let us depart from him, I hold it best;

Then we shall have from him some rest.

Knight 2:

I agree thereto, for Cato says this:

Contra verbosos noli contendere verbis.’

Contend nor argue never in no matter

With him who is full of words and chatter.

Merchant 2:

Wherefore for a season let us all depart.


Knight 1:

I am agreed thereto with all my heart.


Why, sirs, then will you depart and be gone?

Merchant 1:

Yes, that we will; farewell for une saison.

For to tarry here longer we see no great cause.

[Exit Knights and Merchants]


Then fare you well – as wise as two jackdaws!

And I pray that God sends such grace to all you men

That you will be stark cuckolds before you come again.

Now masters, they are all gone away.

Therefore, a word now: listen to what I say.

We see well now by plain experience

That when a man is set in a willful credence

All to fortify his own opinion,

If God himself were to with him reason,

In effect it shall have no more avail

Than if one used a whip to drive forth a snail.

Therefore there is no remedy that I can see,

For evil men who are in authority.

Just leave them alone till God will send

A time when our governors may intend

To begin of all enormities the reformation,

And bring into their hands the rod of correction,

And the reforming of injuries themselves will see,

And will say precisely, ‘thus it shall be.’

For exhortations, teaching, and preaching,

Jesting, and complaining, they mend nothing.

For the amendment of the world is not in me.

Nor do all the great arguments that we

Have made since we reasoned here together

Have any more strength than the weight of a feather

For the helping of anything that is amiss.

We cannot help it, then since it so is,

I will let the world wag and home will I go

And drive the plough as I am used to do

And pray that God sends us peace. I will meddle no further.

Therefore, I now fare you well, my good masters.

[Exit Plowman]

[Enter Knights and Merchants, singing]


Scene 2

Knight 1:

Now, by my word, I’m glad that he is gone.

Merchant 1:

And so am I, by sweet Saint John.

I haven’t heard a churl these past seven years

Show such cursed reasons as he’s done here

In order to bolster his opinion.

But he is deceived for all his reason,

For it is necessary that rulers have possessions

In order to maintain their higher stations;

And those few rulers must drive the multitude of all

The other people to work, to whom the labor falls.

For if the rulers drove them not thereto

The people would be idle and nothing do.

Knight 2:

And reason tells us that that governance

Should come to such rulers by inheritance,

Rather than to have them chosen by election,

Which is often won by fear, bribery, and favoritism,

By men of evil conscience who become great tyrants.

The proof you’ll find in the chronicles of the ancients.

And even though they have great wit and learning,

They are so proud of these, they fear nothing,

Neither God nor man, and they evermore still,

Without counsel or advice, follow their own will.

But those who become rulers by inheritance,

Even if they don’t have great learning, have prudence,

Which makes them more fearful and better content

To follow wise men’s counsel and advisement.

And since it has been so long continued

That inheritors rule, and so long used,

And because they have ruled by as good discretion

As the others who have been chosen by election,

If the order of rule by blood’s succession

Should be destroyed, it would only hurt and help none.

Merchant 1:

That reason is so great that no man can it question.

Nevertheless that churlish knave, that plowman,

With his foolish opinion thinks thus,

That he is more gentleman than any of us.

Knight 1:

And therein he lies, for by experience we see

That gentle conditions appear most commonly

In those who are born of noble blood.

For example, take twenty carters who aren’t acquainted

Nor ever met before and let them be together;

Then take twenty strange gentlemen in a like manner;

These churlish carters, I dare well say,

Will not get along together even a day

Without chiding, quarreling or fighting.

Each one will steal from the other and be thieving.

And about who will pay least at reckoning will quarrel and contest

And endeavor to see who can play the knave best.

But the gentlemen, I warrant you, will strive to see

Who can show to the others the most courtesy.

And because of their gentleness will proffer to pay

For the others and show them what pleasures they may.

So, concerning gentleness¸ I say assuredly

That men of great birth use it most naturally.

Merchant 2:

There can be no truer saying nor sentence

And the cause thereof we see by experience;

For these poor wretches who have nothing

Must be stingy, churlish and sparing.

But gentlemen are taught to be liberal,

And so they may be, for they have the wherewithal.

Knight 2:

And as for nobleness, that argument

Which the Plowman made recently proves evident

That gentlemen who are born to land must be

Of great nobility for their self-sufficiency.

For besides God’s gifts of grace and nature,

Along with wit and bodily strength, they are sure

Of other riches, such as land and rent,

To avoid need; so they are more sufficient

In themselves than other poor people, it’s doubtless.

Then if need of another’s help causes wretchedness,

And self-sufficiency is the cause of nobility,

Men born to great lands must needs most noble be,

For it is impossible that nobleness

Could be in those who live in need and wretchedness.

Merchant 2:

A better reason no man can devise.

And yet, furthermore, I think likewise

That he who has riches in great abundancy

May use gentleness and liberality.

And also it is always necessary

That some live in wealth and some in misery.

And let churls babble and say what they will,

It has always been so and will be so still,

For it is almighty God’s providence

That wise men over fools have governance.

And those who rule well, I beseech Jesus to

Send them good life and to long continue.    Amen.


[Enter the Philosopher]


You gentry all, judicious and excellent,

Who have been shown this colloquy,

Have heard three points by way of argument –

First what is gentleness and what nobility,

And who should be placed in high authority –

These questions they are so high and so perplexing,

Few dare presume to define them, they’re so vexing.


Yet I think now, under your corrections,

The things that make a gentleman, we agree,

Are simply virtue and gentle conditions,

Which oftentimes as equally in poor men we see

As in men of great birth or high degree.

And likewise, vicious and churlish conditions

May be in men born to great possessions.


And furthermore, regarding nobility,

Which stands much apart I think doubtless

From abundant wealth, reason does agree;

But that wealth which distinguishes nobleness

Must needs be yoked unto goodness,

For the principle reason for God’s nobility

Is his goodness, not his wealth and plenty.


So virtue is always the thing principal

That gentleness and nobleness do ensue.

So these heads, rulers, and governors all

Should come to power because of their virtue,

And in authority they ought not to continue

Unless they are wise, distinct and good men,

And have for justice a love and devotion.


Wherefore, sovereigns, all those present here,

Now mark well these reasons they’ve brought in

Against all stations, working men and peers,

For this intent only – to rebuke sin.

For the best way that exists for one to begin

To convert the people by exhortation

Is to persuade them by natural reason.


For when a man by his own reason

Judges himself as one who did offend,

It grudges his conscience and puts contrition

Into his heart, which causes him to amend.

But those blind beasts who do not intend

To hear good council or reason

Ought by the law to have sharp correction.


But then if the laws are not sufficient,

Those which have been made and ordained before,

To give out appropriate punishment,

The princes and governors are bound evermore

To cause new laws to be made therefore,

And to put such men in authority

Who are good and just and rule impartially.


But because men by nature evermore

Are frail and follow sensuality,

It is impossible in reality therefore

That any governors who are in authority

Are at all times just or act with impartiality,

Unless they are compelled by some stratagem

Of binding, good laws devised for them.


As such, no man should this office occupy

More than a few years and then should be removed;

And while there, he is bound to diligently comply

To his duties. And if he offends and it is proved,

Without any favor he must be punished and removed.

For the punishment of a judge or officer

Does more good than of a thousand others.


And until such orders are devised

Substantially, and put into execution,

Look never to see the world revised

Nor of any great mischiefs a reformation.

But those who are bound to see these things done,

I pray that God in his grace puts it in their minds

To reform shortly such things that are out of line.


And even though that I now percase

Have thus my opinion published and diffused,

And if any of us in this place

Have offended, and by our words you’ve felt abused,

We beseech you all to hold us excused.

And so the author hereof entreats you all,

And thus I commit you to God eternal.         Amen. (sung in harmony by all)