From Piers Plowman. Composed in Middle English with unrhymed alliterative lines, Piers Plowman exists in three different versions. It is narrated in the first person as a series of dream visions resulting from the plowman’s question of how he could save his own soul. Around the same time that the manuscripts were written, John Ball, a leader of the Peasants’ Revolt, urged in a letter to the men of Essex, “Stand together in God’s name, and bid Piers Plowman go to his work, and chastise well Hob the robber.”
Little mice, no less than a thousand,
Came to a council for their common profit;
For a cat of court came when he pleased
And leapt lightly over them and when he liked seized them,
And played with them perilously, and pushed them about.
“For dread of various deeds we hardly dare move,
And if we grumble at his games he will grieve us all,
Scratch us or claw us or catch us in his clutches.
So that we’ll loathe life before he lets us go.
If by any wit we might withstand his will
We could be lofty as lords and live at our ease.”
A rat of renown, most ready of tongue,
Said as a sovereign salve for them all:
“I’ve seen creatures,” he said, “in the city of London
Bear chains full bright about their necks,
And collars of fine craftsmanship; they come and go without leashes
Both in warren and in wasteland, wherever they please;
And at other times they are in other places, as I hear tell.
If there were a bell to clink on their collars, by Christ, I think
We could tell where they went and keep well out of their way.
And right so,” said the rat, “reason tells me
To buy a bell of brass or of bright silver
And clip it on a collar for our common profit
And hang it over the cat’s head; then we’d be able to hear
Whether he’s riding or resting or roving out to play.
And if he desires sport we can step out
And appear in his presence while he’s pleased to play.
And if he’s angry we’ll take heed and stay out of his way.”
This whole convention of vermin was convinced by this advice,
But when the bell was brought and bound to the collar
There was no rat in the rabble, for all the realm of France,
That dared bind the bell about the cat’s neck
Or hang it over his head to win all England;
But they held themselves faint-hearted and their whole plan foolish,
And allowed all their labor lost, and all their long scheming.
A mouse that knew much good, as it seemed to me then,
Strode forth sternly and stood before them all,
And to the rats arrayed there recited these words:
“Though we killed the cat, yet there would come another
To scratch us and all our kind though we crept under benches.
Therefore I counsel all the commons to let the cat alone,
And let’s never be so bold as to show the bell to him.
While he’s catching coneys he doesn’t crave our flesh,
But feeds himself on rich food—let’s not defame him.
For a little loss is better than a long sorrow:
We’d all be muddling through a maze though we’d removed one foe.
For I heard my sire say, seven years ago,
Where the cat is a kitten, the court is wholly wretched.
That’s how Holy Writ reads, whoever wants to look:
Woe to the land where the king is a child!
For no creature may rest quiet because of rats at night,
And many a man’s malt we mice would destroy,
And also you rabble of rats would ruin men’s clothing
If it weren’t for the court cat that can outleap you.
For if you rats held the reins, you couldn’t rule yourselves.
I speak for myself,” said the mouse, “I foresee such trouble later,
That by my counsel neither cat nor kitten shall be grieved—
And let’s have no carping of this collar, that cost me nothing.
And though it had cost me money, I’d not admit it had—
But suffer as himself wishes to slay what he pleases,
Coupled and uncoupled let them catch what they will.
Therefore I warn every wise creature to stick to what’s his own.”