A complaint is a genre of lyric poem in which a speaker bemoans his own lot or the general condition of society. The late Middle Ages saw four different varieties of complaint: In one type the speaker lamented the depravity of the world or of his current political situation, as ALANUS DE INSULIS does in his De planctu naturae (The complaint of nature). A second type of complaint involves cautionary tales about the fickleness of Fortune, involving the downfall of eminent persons, as BOCCACCIO writes in his De casibus virorum illustrium (The fall of illustrious men.) Third, some complaints deal with the cruel tricks that Fortune may have played on the speaker himself, such as penury or exile. The bestknown poem in this category is certainly CHAUCER’s COMPLAINT TO HIS EMPTY PURSE, in which the poet parodies the conventions of the amatory complaint by applying them to his empty purse.
   The amatory complaint was the most common type. In this kind of lyric, the speaker decries his cruel treatment at the hands of his beloved: She may be unfaithful to him, or unreasonable with him, or most typically will not “pity” him or accept his love. In the amatory complaint, the speaker most often describes his sorry state, explains the causes of it, and appeals to the lady to remedy the situation. Such poems were especially popular in late medieval France. MACHAUT had written complaints in the mid-14th century, often using them within narrative poems or dits, in order to heighten the emotional impact of the scene. Poets after Machaut, such as CHRISTINE DE PIZAN and later François VILLON, wrote numerous complaints. Chaucer was the first to use the French term complainte in English, and wrote a number of complaints himself.
   Taking his cue from Machaut, Chaucer sometimes created narrative frames for lyric complaints as a way of contextualizing them, as he does in The Complaint ofMars and in ANELIDA AND ARCITE (the latter from a woman’s point of view). But Chaucer also wrote conventional complaints such as The Complaint unto Pity and (again with a woman speaker) The Complaint of Venus. Unlike the so-called fixed forms of the ballade, rondeau, and virelai, the complaint was characterized by its subject matter rather than its form. Thus it was a much more flexible type of lyric that might be written in a rather loose form (as Chaucer does in his Complaint to his Lady) or might even be written in one of the fixed forms (as Chaucer does in The Complaint to His Purse, which takes the form of a ballade). The complaint remained a popular lyric genre well into the Renaissance.
   ■ Davenport, W. A. Chaucer: Complaint and Narrative. Woodbridge, Suffolk, U.K.: Brewer, 1988.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.


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