Geoffrey Chaucer's "Complaint Unto His Purse": A Modern Translation

Updated on June 4, 2018
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Sarah has a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and studied fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.

Geoffrey Chaucer
Geoffrey Chaucer

A Modern English Translation with Middle English Grammar

Below is what could be considered a direct translation of Geoffrey Chaucer's 15th Century poem, "Complaint Unto His Purse." "Direct," in this case, means each confusing Middle English word and/or spelling has been replaced with its modern equivalent. The poem also includes punctuation that is not present in the original manuscripts. Reading the poem this way may still be very difficult, but it can help you become accustomed to differences in Middle English grammar.

To you, my purse, and to none other I write.

Complain I, for you've been my lady dear.

I am so sorry now that you've been light!

For certain, if you make me heavy cheer

I were as leaf by laid upon my beer

for which unto your mercy thus I cry

be it heavy again or else might I die.

Now vouch safe this day or it be night

that I of you the blissful sound may hear

or see your color like the form bright

that of the likeness had never year

you be my lassy, you be mine heart steer

knew of comfort and of good company

Be it heavy again or else might I die.

Folk purse that be my life's light

and savior as in this world I lie

Hot of this time help me through your might

syn that you would not be my treasury

for I am shown as you any treer

but yet I pray unto your courtesy

be it heavy again, or else might I die.

L'Envoy de Chaucer

O, Conqueror of Bruteo Albion

which that by line and free election

been very the sing the song to you I send

and you that mow our harms amend

have mind upon my supplication.


Everybody needs to get paid, even 15th Century poets. Medieval scholars have deduced that Chaucer is basically asking for his paycheck in this poem. Below is a loose explanation of each stanza of the poem in modern English vernacular:

In the first stanza, Chaucer directly addresses his "purse" (today, he would probably be more likely to talk to his bank account or his wallet) for being "light" (empty). He addresses his purse as if it is a female lover, saying something along the lines of: I'm complaining to you, my purse, because you are my dear lady. I'm so sorry you are so light! The heavier you are, the happier I am. I'm begging for your mercy. Purse, be heavy again or I might die.

In the second stanza, Chaucer is still talking to his purse and has taken the female lover metaphor a little bit further. In this stanza, he tells his wallet that he wants it to be full and beautiful like it used to be. He uses poetic language to describe its physical characteristics, saying something like: I miss the sound you used to make when you jingled in my pocket, and I miss your bright yellow color. It's only with you that my heart knows comfort. Purse, be heavy again or I might die.

In the third stanza, Chaucer continues the love-of-his-life metaphor, deepening his emotional agony over missing "her." You are the light of my life, he says, and my savior. Help me with your strength. I beg you for your mercy. Purse, be heavy again or I might die.

The fourth stanza addresses the king who pays him, naming the new king and saying that he is the rightful king. He says something along the lines of: Oh, King, you are a hero and a legend and the rightful leader of this country.

What is a Manuscript?

Medieval poems and stories were distributed in the form of handwritten manuscripts. Professional scribes, who had been trained in the skill of writing, copied the words of poets like Chaucer and his predecessors like Virgil and Ovid. Not many people knew how to write during the medieval period, so scribes made a career of copying someone else's words.

Manuscripts were written on the medieval equivalent of paper, which was made primarily out of cleaned, trimmed, and stretched animal skins. As you may imagine, the creation of manuscripts was not as quick as the creation of a book, nor was it as easy to distribute the books. It wouldn't have mattered anyway, because the general population couldn't read.

That means that copies of manuscripts were almost exclusively owned by royalty and aristocrats, thus being a symbol of wealth. As you can see in the image below, some manuscript pages were decorated with beautiful illuminations, indicating the beginning of a new section or illustrating a scene or character. As you can also see, many of the letters do not look like the letters you are used to looking at today. However, the alphabet used during the medieval period is similar to the alphabet we use today.

A manuscript of Geoffrey Chaucer's work
A manuscript of Geoffrey Chaucer's work

A Reading of Chaucer's poem in the Middle English dialect

Transcription from the Findern Manuscript

Below is a transcription of the manuscript. Because there are many different manuscripts, this may not match every version of the poem that you see in Middle English. This text is transcribed from folio 59 of the Findern manuscript. It is included here to allow you to see some of the major differences between Middle English and modern English vocabulary.

To you my purse and to non other wyght

complaiyne I for ye bene my lady dere

I am so sorye now that ye ben lyght

for certes but yif ye make me hevy chere

aye were as leefe be leyde uppon my bere

for which unto your mercy thus I crye

Beth hevy a yeyne or elles mote I deye

Now voucheth sauf this dey or it be nyght

that I of yow the blisfull soune may here

or se youre coloure lyke the forme bryitht

that of the lelkonesse had nevr yere

ye be my lyssy ye be myne hertes stere

knewe of comfort and of gade compaynye

Beth hevy a yeyne or elles mote I deye

Folke pursse that bento me my lyves lyght

And saveoure as donn this woelde lyee

Hote of this toume helpe me thurgh youre myght

Syn that ye wol nat bene my tresourere

for I am shane as yo any frere

but yet I prey unto youre curtesye

Beth hevy a yeyne or elles mote I deye

lenvoye de Chaucer

O conqueroure of benteo Albyon

Which that by lyne and free ellecion

Ben verray syng theo songe to you I send

And ye that mowen all oure harmes amende

have mynd uppon my supplicacion

A Note

I am not, by any means, an expert on Geoffrey Chaucer. I am not even a medievalist. I am currently studying Chaucer's work for a graduate class and have decided to share a little bit of what I have learned on HubPages. The information you see on this page is very basic and may be incorrect. If you want more information, please check out these reputable sites:


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