What I shall choose,
I know not

I have been chasing up various references to poetic terminology in a little anthology from 1953 called Cambridge Middle English Lyrics, edited by Henry A Person.   One of the poems is not very well known, because (as far as I can tell) it has only been printed once in this rather obscure little book.  But it deserves to be a little better known, because it is a very entertaining account of the difficulty of choosing a career in the fifteenth century, and of the sort of mind who is better at seeing difficulties than seeing possibilities.

Detail of a tomb relief depicting students at the University of Bologna, 14thC

The poem begins with a speaker saying that there are so many different callings in the church that he doesn’t know which vocation to choose.  Then he tells us about his own life, stage by stage.  He was sent to school to learn grammar, but dithered about whether he could live up to his friends’ expectations:

Thus toward and froward I had persuasion
Utterly unknowyng the best for me to do
Wherefore thus I said havyng noo consolacion
Alas quid eligam ignoro!

[thus I deliberated to and fro, utterly unsure what was best for me to do, wherefore I said this, having nothing to console me: alas what I shall choose, I know not!]

The Latin refrain is a quotation from Philippians 1.22.  He goes to school, but isn’t sure whether he should go on to university.  His friends advise him to learn the seven sciences (i.e. the seven liberal arts) so that he can become a ‘civilistre’ (a practitioner of civil law), but this is a difficult career path and books are expensive, you know.  After getting his degree and doing his teaching practice, he isn’t sure whether to choose ‘ffysyk or… civille’ (medicine or civil law) as he doesn’t know which of them suits him better.

He’s not certain about spiritual law in case he gets it wrong and worried about theology and canon law: ‘My fraylte me commandyd not for clymme so hye / Lest I beyng there sodaynly fall hem fro’ (my mental weakness told me not to be so ambitious, in case I, being there [i.e. having climbed up to the heights of theological study], might suddenly fall away from them).  If he becomes a priest, people might say he’s chosen this for the money (this shows the underlying satirical purpose in the poem).  If he becomes a friar he will have to beg, if he becomes a monk he will have to remain in a cloister.  Nothing seems like the right choice, and so he can do nothing but utter his lament.

Then he meets a young man who is having equal trouble choosing a secular profession.  Being a merchant is too dangerous, labouring for a living is too hard, being a legal clerk might get him in trouble.  There are too many choices: the chancery, the exchequer, a seargent in a law court.  You have to work really hard to be an artisan and you might get tricked.  They are a pretty feeble pair, and agree to ask God to help them, just as God helped the Book of Daniel’s Susannah or Chaucer’s patient Griselda or Custance.  And that’s it: we don’t find out what either of them chose as a job or how it works out in the end.  It’s an odd little piece, but the personality of the young person who worries so much that he or she cannot choose a career rings true to me.  Even in the fifteenth century,  there were too many choices for some!

2 thoughts on “What I shall choose,
I know not

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