The Complaint by Thomas Hoccleve

Manuscript Illumination of Thomas Hoccleve presenting his poem to Prince Henry

London, British Library MS Royal 17 D. VI, fol. 40r. Thomas Hoccleve presenting his poem The Regiment of Princes to Prince Henry (later King Henry V). This copy was made in the second quarter of the fifteenth century.

Image permissions: Heritage Image Partnership Ltd/Alamy.



Nicholas Perkins reads aloud this introduction. Listen below:

View the transcript

A man named Thomas makes a complaint. He has been unwell – he tells us that his memory ‘went to play’ for a while – but now he has recovered. He thanks God for this, but there’s still a problem: his friends don’t really believe that he is better. They avoid him, and he says that they’re whispering behind his back. What can he do? Thomas’s complaint is a poignant way of talking about his mental illness, but also of claiming back his own identity, health, voice – his own self – through writing. 

This poem is also a ‘complaint’: a genre well known to Hoccleve’s contemporaries. Complaints could air political grievances, lament the state of the world, or moan that the one you love is ghosting you. Hoccleve’s Complaint combines vocabulary from the political and moral complaint with the urgency of the personal. The ‘Thomas’ who speaks this poem is both Thomas Hoccleve, and also a lost soul, a repentant sinner, and someone let down by his friends. The Complaint reminds us that every autobiography is constructed: it's a series of rhetorical claims about the author. This applies all the way from St Augustine’s Confessions (c.400 CE) to Dickens’s Great Expectations (1860–61), to the latest ghost-written celeb memoir.  

Hoccleve was a younger contemporary of the most famous late-medieval English writer, Geoffrey Chaucer (d.1400). He knew Chaucer, praising him in other poems. At the start of this extract, Hoccleve nods to the springtime opening of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, but instead of Chaucer’s ‘Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote’ (When April with his sweet showers), here we have the autumnal ‘After that hervest inned had his sheves’ (After Harvest had gathered in his sheaves). The world, and with it Hoccleve’s heart and mind, is gloomy: ‘That chaunge sanke into min herte roote’.  

The Complaint describes Thomas’s ‘thoughtful maladie’ (anxious illness) in moving detail. His body and mind are hypersensitive to darkening days and hostile or uncaring crowds in London and Westminster, where Hoccleve worked as a clerk. He’s one of the first writers to document the anxiety of urban life, and its threat to your own sense of who you are. 

Hoccleve’s personal voice, his brilliant range of metaphor, and his ability to mingle the everyday with the ethical or spiritual all make him an exceptional writer. Later in the Complaint, he even goes to a mirror, to practise looking ‘normal’ so that people will believe he’s sane. In the next section of the Series, Hoccleve meets a friend and finally persuades him that he’s well enough to write again. 

It’s unusual to have such a personal text from the medieval period. Hoccleve gives us an insight into his own mental illness and recovery, but also opens this out onto big questions about the self and others. Alongside that, we’re always aware that he’s constructing an artful text that seeks to persuade us of its value, its truth. 

—Nicholas Perkins


Thomas Hoccleve, extract from the Complaint, from Hoccleve’s Series


After that hervest inned had his sheves, 

And that the broun sesoun of Mihelmesse 

Was come, and gan the trees robbe of her leves, 

That grene had bene and in lusty freisshenesse, 

And them into colour of yelownesse            5 

Had dyen and doun throwen undirfoote, 

That chaunge sanke into min herte roote. 


[Lines 1 to 7] After Harvest had gathered in his sheaves, and after the brown season of Michaelmas had arrived and begun to rob the trees of their leaves, which had once been green and of vivid brightness, and had dyed them the colour of yellowness and thrown them down under foot, that change sank down to the very bottom of my heart. 


For freshely brought it to my remembraunce 

That stablenes in this worlde is there none; 

Ther is nothing but chaunge and variaunce.        10 

Howe welthi a man be or wel begoon, 

Endure it shal not; he shal it forgoon. 

Deeth underfote shal him thrist adowne – 

That is every wightes conclucioun. 


[8-14] For it brought to my mind once more that there is no permanence in this world: here is nothing but mutability and changeableness. However wealthy or lucky in life someone is, it will not last — they will lose it. Death will trample them down under foot: that will be everyone’s ending, 


Wiche for to weyve is in no mannes might,        15 

How riche he be, stronge, lusty, freissh and gay. 

And in the ende of Novembar, upon a night, 

Sighinge sore, as I in my bed lay, 

For this and other thoughts wiche many a day 

Byforne I tooke, sleep cam noon in myn ye,        20 

So vexid me the thoughtfull maladye. 


[15-21] which it is in no one’s power to avoid, however rich they are now, strong, vibrant, fresh or lively. And so at the end of November, late one night, sighing sorrowfully as I lay in my bed because of this and because of other anxiety which I had endured for many a day beforehand, no sleep came to my eyes because the melancholic disease so troubled me. 


I see well, sythen I with sicknes last 

Was scourged, cloudy hath bene the favoure 

That shone on me full bright in times past; 

The sunne abated, and the derke showre            25 

Hilded doun right on me, and in languor 

Me made swime, so that my spirite 

To live no lust had, ne no delite. 


[22-28] I saw clearly, since I was last scourged with sickness, that the good fortune which shone on me very brightly in time’s past has become cloudy. The sun lost its strength and the dark shower poured right down on me and made me wallow in depression, so that my spirit had no desire to live, nor no delight. 


The greef aboute myn herte so sore swal 

And bolned evere to and to so sore            30 

That nedis oute I muste therwithal. 

I thoughte I nolde kepe it cloos no more, 

Ne lete it in me for to eelde and hore, 

And for to preve I cam of a womman, 

I braste oute on the morwe and thus bigan:        35 


[29-35] Grief so swelled around my heart and constantly bulged so painfully, more and more, that I absolutely had to come out with it. I thought I couldn’t keep it hidden any more nor block it up within me while I grow old and grey. And in order to prove that I was born of a woman, I burst out in the morning and thus began. 


Here endith my prolog and folwith my compleinte. 


Here my prologue ends and my complaint follows. 


Almighty God, as likethe his goodnes, 

Visitethe folke alday, as men may se, 

With lose of good and bodily sikenesse, 

And amonge othar, he forgat not me: 

Witnes uppon the wild infirmyte            40 

Wich that I had, as many a man well knewe, 

And whiche me owt of my silfe cast and threw. 


[36-42] As it pleases His goodness, Almighty God afflicts folks every day, as you can see, with loss of possessions and physical sickness, and He did not forget me among the others. Witness the violent disease which I once had, as lots of people knew well, and which threw and hurled me out of my own self. 


It was so knowen to the peple and kouthe 

That counsell was it none, ne not be might. 

How it with me stode was in every mannes mowthe,    45 

And that full sore my fryndis affright; 

They for myn helpe pilgrimages hight, 

And soughte hem, somme on hors and somme on foote, 

God yelde it hem, to gete me my bote. 


[43-49] It was so familiar and known by everyone that it was no private matter nor nothing about it could be. How things stood for me was in every mouth and that alarmed my friends very much. They promised pilgrimages for my health and undertook them themselves, some on horseback and some on foot — may God reward them for it — to get me my cure. 


But althoughe the substaunce of my memory        50 

Wente to pley as for a certayne space, 

Yet the Lorde of vertew, the Kinge of glory, 

Of his highe might and his benygne grace 

Made it to returne into the place 

Whennes it cam; wiche at all hallwemesse        55 

Was five yeere, neither more ne lesse. 


[50-56] But although the main part of my memory took a break for a while, yet the Lord of Virtue, the King of Glory, through His high power and merciful grace, made it return to the place from where it came, which happened exactly five years ago on All Saints’ Day, neither more nor less. 


And evere sithen, thanked be God oure Lord 

Of his good reconsiliacioun, 

My wit and I have bene of suche acord 

As we were or the alteracioun                60 

Of it was, but by my savacioun, 

Sith that time have I be sore sette on fire 

And lived in greet torment and martire. 


[57-63] And ever since — thanks be to God our Lord for His merciful restoration of me to His favour — my mind and I have been in such agreement as we were beforehand, before its deterioration, but, by my salvation, I have been sorely set on fire and lived in great torment and anguish during that time. 


For though that my wit were hoom come agayne, 

Men wolde it not so undirstond or take.            65 

With me to dele hadden they disdayne: 

A riotous persone I was and forsake. 

Min olde frindshipe was all overshake. 

No wight with me list make daliaunce. 

The worlde me made a straunge countinaunce,        70 


[64-70] For even though my mind had come home again, people would not understand or accept it. They disdained to deal with me: I was thought to be a disorderly person and thus ignored. All my old friendships were shaken off: no one wanted to make conversation with me. The world treated me like a stranger, 


Which that mine herte sore gan torment, 

For ofte whan I in Westminster Halle, 

And eke in London amonge the prees went, 

I sy the chere abaten and apalle 

Of hem that weren wonte me for to calle            75 

To companie: her heed they caste awry 

When I them mette, as they not me sy. 


[71-77] which tormented my heart bitterly, because often when I was in Westminster Hall and also when I went among the crowds in London, I saw the faces of those who used to invite me into their company fall and grow pale. They turned their heads away when I met them, as if they did not see me. 


As seide is in the sauter, might I sey: 

‘They that me sy, fledden awey fro me’. 

Forgeten I was al oute of minde away,            80 

As he that dede was from hertis cherte. 

To a lost vessell lickened might I be, 

For many a wight aboute me dwellinge 

Herd I me blame and putte in dispreisinge. 


[78-84] Just as it’s said in the Psalms, so I can say ‘Those that saw me fled away from me’. I was out of mind, forgotten altogether, like he that was dead to the heart’s kindness. I might be compared to a lost vessel, for I heard many a person living near me blame me and find fault with me. 


Thus spake manie oone and seide by me:        85 

‘Although from him his siknesse savage 

Withdrawne and passed as for a time be, 

Resorte it wole, namely in suche age 

As he is of.’ – and thanne my visage 

Bigan to glowe for the woo and fere;            90 

Tho wordis, hem unwar, cam to min ere. 


[85-91] Lots of people spoke like this and said about me, ‘Although his violent sickness has receded and passed from him for the time being, it will return, especially at the age he is now’ and then my face began to burn for hurt and fear. Those words reached my ear without them realising. 



Middle English text adapted by Nicholas Perkins from Hoccleve’s Works: The Minor Poems, ed. Frederick J. Furnivall, Early English Text Society, extra series 61 (1892).

Translation by Jenni Nuttall, reproduced with permission (see ‘Learn more’ page for link to the whole translation).


Nicholas Perkins reads aloud the text in original Middle English. Listen below:


View the transcript



Some themes and questions to consider 

  • Hoccleve starts with the turning of the seasons, and tells us that this change has deeply affected him too. How does he describe the relationship between the natural world and his body and self in this extract? Are the references to nature metaphorical, literal, or a mixture? 

  • This is a written text, but it’s also imagined as being spoken aloud. How does Hoccleve emphasise the ‘spokenness’ of the poem? Can you read it aloud to reproduce this effect? 

  • One of the most striking things about Hoccleve’s Complaint is the mismatch between what the speaker thinks about himself (that he has recovered from his illness) and what he experiences from others, who shun him or whisper about him. Can you think of other texts you’ve read where the narrator’s health or sanity is at stake, and how do they compare with Hoccleve’s poem?

  • Is the Thomas who speaks this poem the same as Thomas Hoccleve? How do we think about the relationship between an author and their autobiographical persona, their alter ego


A prose translation of the full text of the Complaint by Jenni Nuttall is available via the Hoccleve Society.


Francis J. Furnivall’s 1892 edition of the Complaint

Available here from p. 95, along with the other texts that make up his Series, though the layout and spelling is not all that user-friendly! 

The Bad Governance of Thomas Hoccleve

Another very striking poem by Hoccleve, La Male Regle de T. Hoccleve (The Bad Governance of Thomas Hoccleve), is translated by Jenni Nuttall into verse 

Brendan O’Connell, ‘ “Communing is the best assay”: Teaching Hoccleve’s Complaint Remotely’ 

Dr. Brendan O’Connell, Assistant Professor of English at Trinity College Dublin, reflects on teaching Hoccleve’s “Complaint” during the Covid-19 pandemic. Accompanying the article are  sample teaching materials, a sample study guide and a PowerPoint lesson on the “Complaint”.

‘Image and Text Meet in a Royal Regiment’

A British Library blogpost about Hoccleve’s major poem The Regiment of Princes, and the illustrations in its manuscripts.


About the Contributor

Nicholas Perkins is Professor of Medieval Literature at Oxford University, and Tutor in English at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. He was brought up in Essex, and studied at Cambridge University before coming to Oxford to teach and research medieval literature. He has written or edited a number of books, including The Gift of Narrative in Medieval England (2021; paperback 2023), Medieval Romance and Material Culture (2015), and Anglo-Saxon Culture and the Modern Imagination (2010, ed. with David Clark). He has also curated two major exhibitions in the Bodleian Library in Oxford: The Romance of the Middle Ages (2012), and Gifts and Books (2023), along with an accompanying book of essays: Gifts and Books: From Early Myth to the Present. Philip Pullman commented: ‘As every reader knows, books are the best gifts by far, and this exhibition and its lovely accompanying book will give great pleasure to very many visitors and readers.’