Image credit: Sufyan Jalal, from Withering Exhibition

View Artwork Credits
View full size

Against the Clerics

after “Clergue si fan pastor” by Peire Cardenal (1180-1278)


The priests who claim they shepherd us

are cut-throat killers. When I see

them draped in habit-holiness

I see the old wolf Ysengri

who feared the mastiffs, so he threw

a tricky sheepskin over his head,

and once inside the sheepfold fed

on every lamb he wanted to.


All those who used to rule the world—

emperors, kings, and counts and dukes

and knights and every sort of lord—

have lost their grip, since now it looks

like power is in the grasp of clerks

who lie, betray, and thieve and seize,

and rage at men who will not brook

their doing exactly what they please.


They’ve less worth and more foolishness

the higher up in rank they rise:

more treachery, less love and peace,

less honesty, more blatant lies.

The things I say of wicked priests

were never spoken, never heard

of anyone, since ancient days,

except the enemies of God.


A table in refectory

to me is not a place of honor,

because the greedy friars I see

grab double helpings first at supper.

Boot them! They never serve the poor.

But then, when has a poor rogue sat

next to a rich rogue anywhere?

So I’ll excuse these rogues for that.


No chiefs or sultans rattle them.

Abbots and priors never ride

to war to take the Holy Lands—

that would be work! They strain their pride

to grab at lands right here, and toss

Lord Frederic out of Sicily.

He’ll never again enjoy the place,

they harry him so viciously.


Clerics! Whoever thinks you have

kind hearts has totted up your sum

all wrong and has deceived himself:

I’ve never looked on nastier scum.






















A Sirventes Against the Sumptuary Laws

attributed to P. Basc, 13th c.


In heavy grief, in deep and grave dismay,
in mourning and in pain, I weep and sigh,
glare at myself and fear my heart will tear.
I'm blinded, seeing what I may not wear:
     my rich and royal clothing
     worked with the rarest trimming,
     my crown with silver chasing,
     gold openwork and tracing.
     May flames consume their flesh!
     The pope blast them to ash,
all those who take our finery away.


I will not keep these laws! Newfangled rules
we're saddled with by lackeys and by fools.
Jacme the king was absent when they made them,
nor was the pope nearby: Let him abate them.
     Whoever damned as sin
     the robes we're richest in,
     now let him groan to hear
     each woman vow to wear
     no veil at all or wimple
     but flowers, pure and simple,
her lover's garland and the summer's jewels.


So when our lord the king shall come again
(from him is all the worth we may attain)
let our sad story bring him to his senses.
Let him revoke the onerous offenses
     of stewards who have ripped
     buttons from clothes, and stripped
     the chains and jewels that dripped
     from them. Remove these shames
     from persons, bodies, names.
     Honor our human frames,
I pray you, glorious king of Aragon.


You gentle goldsmiths—girls and women too—
and jewelers, this is what you need to do:
beseech the pope to excommunicate
the council leaders and the heads of state,
     as well as friars minor,
     since they propound this error,
     and every penance preacher
     whose teaching by its nature
     shows us his evil will,
     all men of every rule
who preach this wretched doctrine till they're blue.


Go now, my song, to Aragon's good king
and to the pope, and tell them everything
that needs to change, since, as I trust God's will,
this law our villain husbands made is vile!.…
     If king and pope concur,
     I’ll soon be happier.
     The girdle I used to tie
     can only make me sigh.
I dare not even cinch its bodice-string,


and my camize is heartsore grief to me—
stitched with fine threads of silk embroidery,
jonquil, vermilion, sable, worked together
with strands of white and blue, and gold and silver.
     I'd fear to wear it now.
     My heart feels split in two.…
     I’ll have to drape my back
     with ragged burlap sack
if laws must strip us of our luxury.

Clergue si fan pastor


Clergue si fan pastor

E son aucizedor

E par de gran sanctor

Qui los vei revestir

E-m pren a sovenir

Que nEzengris, un dia
Volc ad un parc venir

Mas peis cans que temia

Pel de mouton vestic

Ab que los escarnic

Pouis manget e traic

Tot so que li-abelic.


II. Rei e emperador,

Duc, comte e comtor

E cavalier ab lor

Solon lo mon regir;

Ara vel possezir

A clers la senhoria

ab toire e ab trair

E ab ypocrezia

Ab forsa e ab prezic;

E tenon s’a fastic

Qui tot non lor o gic

E sera, quan que tric.


III. Aissi can  son major

Son ab mens de valor

Et ab mais de follor,

Et ab meins de ver dir

Et ab mais de mentir

Et ab merins de paria

Et ab mais de faillir

Et ab meins de clerzia

Dels fals clergues o dic

Que anc hom non auzic

De sai lo tems antic


IV. Can son en refreitor

No m’o tenc ad honor,

C’a la taula aussor

Vei los cussons assir

E premiers s’escaussir

Aujas gran vilania:

Car i auzon venir

Et hom no los en tria.

Pero anc non lai vic

Paubre cusson mendic

Sezen las cusson ric:

D’aitan los vos esdic.


V. Ja non alon paor

Alcais ne Almanzor

Que abat ni prior

Los anon envazir

Ni lor terras sazir,

Que afans lor seria;

Mas sai son en cossir

Del mon consi lor sia

E com en Frederic

Gitesson de l’abric

Pero tais l’aramic

Qui fort no s’en jauzic.


VI. Clergues, qui vos chauzic

Ses fellon cor enic

En son comte faillic,

C’anc peior gent non vic.




 Ab greu cossire et ab greu marrimen


Ab greu cossire et ab greu marrimen

planh e sospire et ab perilhos turmen,

can me remire ab pane lo cor no.m fen,

ni mos huelhs vire que gart mos vestimens

que son rics e onratz

e ab aur fi frezatz

e d'argen mealhatz

ni regart ma corona

l'apostoli de Roma

volgra fezes cremar

qui nos fay desfrezar.


Sesta costuma ni sest establimen

non tenra gaire, c'an fag novelamen,

car lo rey Iacme no foron a prezen

ni l'apostoli, c'absolva.l sagramen,

car nostres vestirs rics

an nafratz e aunitz;

qi o tractet sia marritz

per que cascuna entenda

que non port vel ni benda

mais garlandas de flors

en estien per amors.


Coras que vegua lo rey nostre senhor

que es semensa de pretz e de valor

per merce.l orebda c'auia nostra clamor

de la offensa que fan sieu rendador verstirs an naffratz

e desencadenzatz

e desenbotenatz

per que nostras personas

ne van pur vergonhozas

prec que sian tornatz

per vos, franc rey onratz.


Snhors dauraires e los dauriveliers

donas e donzelas que es de lur mestier,

a l'apostoli mandem un messatgier

que escumenie cosselhs e cosselhiers

e los fraires menors

en son e grans blasmors,

e los prezicadors

e selh de penedensa

ne son en malevolensa

e li autre reglar

c'o solon prezicar.


Vai, sirventesca, al bon rey d'Arago

e a la papa que'l sagramen perdo

car vilanesca an fag, di Dieus be.m do,

e ribaudesca, nostre marir felo...

quar yeu n'era pur gaia,

le sentura m'esclaia

que yeu solia senchar,

lassa! no l'aus portar.


De ma camiza blanc'ai tal pessamen,

que era enzida de seda ricamen,

groga e vermelha e negra eyssamen,

blanca e blava, ab aur et ab argen,

Lassa, no l'aus vestir!

Lo cor me vel partir...

e noe es maravilha,

Senhor, faitz me esclavina

que aitan l'am portar

can vestir ses frezar.

Translator's Note

The sirventes is one of the standard lyric modes used by the troubadours of 12th and 13th century Occitania, the Langedoc of present-day France, parts of Spain, and Italy. The term sirventes is variously translated “servant’s song,” “serviceman’s song,” and “soldier’s song,” and the sirventes generally expresses the point of view of an underdog, someone who has complaints about the policies of those in power. It is often a direct parody, based on the tune of a more serious popular song, like much of the political satire we still enjoy.

“Against the Clerics” is a song in three-beat lines and twelve-line stanzas, with a complex rhyme scheme; Old Occitan is rich in rhymes. I have rendered it in four-beat lines and eight-line stanzas to make it more like contemporary song, with the aim of fitting it to English, maintaining a songlike bounce and flow, and keeping it angry. Like any political song, Peire Cardenal’s poem needs social context to be understood, and I have taken a free approach to the text so as to provide some of that context. I’ve also occasionally chosen terms with a deeper contemporary bite: the original refers to clerics in general and members of the monastic and mendicant orders in particular, but I’ve used “priests”—and “lambs”— to hint at modern scandals. A rendition of the original  in twelfth-century musical performance style, by La Capella Reial de Catalunya, can be found on the recording Le Royaume Oublié: La Croisade contre les Albigeois / La Tragédie Cathare (Hesperion).

I have aimed to preserve the syllable counts of “A Sirventes Against Sumptuary Laws” since a clear and singable rhythm is important to the poem’s mocking sadness. I have also preserved a rhyme scheme, though not an exact match with the original. This translation might be sung to the tune found on the recording La Domna Ditz: Songs of the Trobairitz, by Rossignol (Magnatune).



Maryann Corbett


In the Classroom