I will lament in the manner of tragedy the suffering of those who once enjoyed a high status in this world and then fell from grace in such a dreadful way that there was no hope of them ever recovering from it. Certainly, when fortune flies from us, no one has the power to alter her course. So let no man feel secure in his prosperity. Draw caution from these old and true stories.
Let me begin with Lucifer. Although he was an angel and not a man, and although fortune has no power over the angels, still, he fell from heaven down to hell, where he lies even now, through his own sin. Oh Lucifer, brightest of all the angels! Now you are Satan, and cannot break free from the misery into which you have fallen!
Lo! Adam was formed by the finger of God in the Garden of Eden and not by some dirty sperm in a woman's private parts. He ruled over all of Paradise, except for one single tree in it. Only this one tree was he forbidden to touch. No one was ever as highly placed as Adam. But through his own foolishness he was driven from this prosperity into hard labour, sorrow and hell.
Samson’s coming arrival was announced by an angel long before he was born. He was dedicated to God Almighty, lived as one of the nobility and there has never been another man like him in terms of strength and endurance; but he told his secret to one of his wives and killed himself in the end, for very wretchedness.
On the way to his own wedding, without any weapon and with his bare hands, Samson killed a lion as he was making his way to the temple. His unfaithful wife was very kind and concerned until she had learnt his business, then she told it to his enemies, betrayed him and took another man. In revenge, Samson took three hundred foxes, bound their tails into a bundle and set light to them, then he let them run through the cornfields, burning them and all the olive groves and the vineyards as well. He killed a thousand men and his only weapon was an ass’s jawbone. When he had finished all this slaughter, he was so thirsty that he prayed to God to have pity on him and send him some water, or he would die. At once, one of the tooth holes in the dry jawbone began to pour out water as though from a spring. In this way, God saved him, as you can read in the Book of Judges.
One night, in Gaza, despite attempts by the Philistines to stop him, he tore down the gates of that city through his immense strength and carried them on his back to the top of a high hill where they could be seen for miles around. Oh noble Samson, dear fellow, if you hadn’t revealed your secret to a woman, you would be renowned now as the greatest man who had ever lived!
Samson never drank wine or beer and never let a razor or a pair of scissors touch his head; in this he was following the instructions of a divine messenger, for all his strength lay in his hair. He ruled over Israel for twenty years. But he was to weep many a tear, for a woman was his downfall. He let his wife Dalila know his secret that all his strength lay in his hair, and she faithlessly betrayed him to his enemies. Sleeping with his head on her bosom one day, she got the shears and cut all his hair off. Then she showed his enemies and when they saw him like that, they tied him up and put out his eyes.
Before his hair was cut off, there was no rope or shackle that could have held him. But now he sits in prison, in a cave. They set him grinding at a quern. Oh noble Samson, the strongest man ever to live, once a glorious and wealthy judge, now you have cause to weep from your useless eyes! Fallen from prosperity into wretchedness!
Samson’s end arrived when his enemies arranged a banquet one day. They brought the blinded Samson out to be their fool and their entertainment. It was in a great temple, but Samson found a way of getting even with them. He shook two columns and made them fall and the whole temple came crashing down, killing Samson and all his enemies as well, every one of them. Three thousand dead bodies lay there, shattered by the falling stones.
That’s all I’ll say about Samson. Learn from his example, all you married men. Don't tell any secrets to your wife, especially those that might one day prove to be a matter of life and death to you.
Hercules’ fame spread far and wide. In his day he was the strongest and mightiest conqueror that has ever lived. He slew the Nemean lion and skinned it, made all the boasts of the Centaurs look empty, killed some dreadful birds known as the Harpies, stole golden apples from a dragon, removed the dog Cerberus from the gates of hell and slew the cruel tyrant Busiris and made the tyrant's own horses eat him up, flesh and bone. Hercules destroyed a fiery, venomous serpent, broke one of Achelous’s two horns off, killed the huge three-headed shepherd Cacus in a cave, slew another giant called Antaeus, killed a grisly boar and held up the sky on his back for a while, to relieve Atlas of the task.
No one in the history of the world has ever killed so many monsters as Hercules. He was known everywhere for his strength and his goodness. He travelled to every country and no one could stop him. He was so strong he set pillars up to mark the furthest ends of the Earth.
He had a lover, however, a woman named Deianeira, who was as fresh as May. Learned men tell us that she sent him a shirt. Alas, that shirt! Alas! It was so subtly impregnated with poison that before Hercules had worn it for half a day, it made all the flesh fall from his bones. Some learned scholars excuse her and say that a woman called Nessus made it, but be that as it may, I’ll stick with Deianeira. Anyway, he wore this shirt against his bare flesh until it had gone black, and when he saw that there was nothing he could do, he had red-hot coals raked over him, for he didn’t want to succumb to the poison alone; and so ended the mighty Hercules.
Lo! Who can trust Fortune an inch? Any man who conducts himself busily in this world can at any moment, without warning, be brought to grief. It’s a wise man who knows his own fate. Beware, for when Fortune smiles at you, she’s often holding a knife behind her back!
No tongue can come close to describing the immense treasure that King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon possessed, nor the splendour of his mighty throne, his glorious sceptre and the royal majesty that he enjoyed. Twice he overran Jerusalem and took away its sacred objects. He had all the princes of Israel castrated and made into slaves; one of these was a man called Daniel, who was the wisest amongst them. Daniel interpreted the king’s dreams for him, when there was no one else in the whole of Chaldea who could do it.
This proud king had a statue of gold, sixty cubits high and seven broad, which he ordered everybody to bow before and to fear, both young and old. If anybody disobeyed this order, he instructed that they should be burnt to death in a furnace. Daniel, however, refused to do it, and so did two of his friends. But this high king was so proud and full of himself that he thought God, who sits in majesty, had no power to deprive him of his exulted status. All of a sudden, however, he lost his dignity and became like an animal, ate hay like an ox and slept out in the open at night. He went around in the rain with the wild beasts, until a certain moment approached when all his hairs changed into feathers, and his nails into the claws of an eagle. He stayed like this until God judged that enough years had passed. Then he gave Nebuchadnezzar back his wits.
With many a tear, this king thanked God and spent the rest of his life in fear of doing anything that God didn’t approve of. He acknowledged God’s might and grace right up until the very day that he was laid on his funeral pyre.
Nebuchadnezzar had a son called Belshazzar who ruled after him. Belshazzar, however, took no heed of his father’s experience. He was vain, ostentatious and an idolater and his supreme worldly authority couldn’t help but make him feel invincible. Fortune cast him down in the end, though. He arranged for a banquet at which all his noblemen should be present; urged them to be merry and instructed his officials: ‘Go fetch the vessels that my father captured from the Temple of Jerusalem and let us honour our high gods with them, the ones that our ancestors have honoured for generations.'
His wife, his noblemen and all his concubines drank various wines from these holy vessels until their appetites were sated. Then this king glanced at a wall and saw a disembodied hand scratching words into the plaster. He gasped and shook with fear. This hand had written Mene tekel peres and nothing more.
In all the land there was no Chaldean or Babylonian who could explain to the king what these words meant. Daniel, however, was able to explain: 'King,' he said, 'your father was granted glory and honour by God, land, wealth and tribute, but he became so proud that he lost his fear of God. So God took his revenge. He took away all the land that he ruled over, cast him out from the company of men and made him live with the asses and eat hay like an animal, until he knew for himself, as God intended, that the King of Heaven rules over every land and every creature. God took pity on him then, gave his kingdom back to him and restored him to his proper shape. You, his son, have become every bit as proud as he was. You knowingly rebel against God and set yourself up as his enemy. You drink casually from his holy vessels and praise cursed gods. For this, an ignominious end awaits you.
'Believe me, the hand which wrote Mene tekel peres on this wall was sent from God. Your reign is over. Now you are nothing. Your kingdom will be broken apart and given to the Persians and the Medes.'
That very night Belshazzar was slain and Darius of Persia took over his rule, although he had no right to it. So, lords and ladies, learn from this example that no lord should feel secure. When fortune decides to abandon a man, she takes with her his wealth, his lands and all his friends; for the friends that a man makes because he is lucky vanish away when that luck deserts him. This proverb is well-known, and very true.
Zenobia, the Queen of Palmyra, was so skilled at arms and so deadly, the Persians tell us, that nobody surpassed her in courage, in refinement nor in any other mark of an exalted lineage. She was descended from the kings of Persia. I’m not saying that she was the most beautiful woman who has ever lived, but neither, I think, was she particularly ugly.
I have read that she escaped the company of women when she was a child and fled into the forest, where she shed the blood of many a deer with her arrows. She was so swift on her feet that she could outrun any hind, and when she was older she killed lions, leopards and could wrestle with bears and overcome them. She would seek out the dens of wild animals, run all night in the mountains and sleep under a bush. She could wrestle with any young man and be more than a match for him, however strong he was. Nothing could withstand her. She kept her virginity safe from every young suitor’s advances, for she had no desire to be bound to any man.
At last, her friends arranged for her to marry Odenathus, a prince in that country. She managed to put the wedding off for a long time and he was not all that keen about it himself. But nonetheless, after they were married, they lived in happiness and contentment and loved each other dearly, except in one respect: she refused to let him sleep with her very often. She let him have sex with her only once, for she wanted to have a child, to contribute to the world’s increase, and when she saw that she was not pregnant through this one intercourse, then she let him do it again – but only once. If she found herself pregnant, he wasn’t allowed to play that game any more until forty days had passed, and then he was allowed to do it again, but only once. Whether he liked it or not, this was his life, for she said: ‘It’s a shameful thing for a wife if she allows her husband to play that lecherous game with her any more often than this.’
Zenobia had two sons by her husband, whom she educated well and brought up to be virtuous. There was no woman so commendable as she, nor so wise, nor so endowed with courtesy and generosity towards those who deserved it. There was no woman so assiduous in warfare either, nor so resolute and tireless in conflict than she, were you to scour the entire world to try to find one.
The value and beauty of her possessions were inestimable, both her vessels and her clothes. She was clad in gold and pearls and did not neglect, for all her hunting, to learn languages when she had the leisure to do so, nor study books in order to discover how best to live her life. And to get to the point quickly, she and her husband were so valiant that they conquered many great kingdoms in the east and many cities the equal of Rome itself, and retained them all with a powerful hold. And all the while that her husband Odenathus was alive, no enemy could drive them away. Their battles against King Shapur I, king of Persia, if it might please anyone to read about them – and many others, their conquests, the reasons for them and the royal titles she assumed because of them, and afterwards her suffering and misfortune and how she was besieged and captured – let him turn to Petrarch to learn all about it, for he has written extensively on the subject.
When Odenathus was dead, Queen Zenobia governed her lands with strength and wisdom and fought against her enemies so savagely that there was not one of them who was not mightily relieved if she chose not to send her armies against him. They all made alliances with her, vowing to leave her in peace and to let her ride and hunt as she wished. Even the Roman Emperor Claudius Gothicus didn’t dare be so courageous as to attack her, nor the emperor before him, Gallienus. No Armenian nor Egyptian, Syrian nor Arab dared to attack her either, lest she killed them with her own hands, or routed their armies and sent them fleeing. Her sons wore kingly robes, as their father’s heirs. Their names were Hermanno and Thymalao in the Persian language. But fortune mixes honey with gall, always. This mighty queen did not endure for long. Fortune brought her reign to an end and plunged her into wretchedness and misery.
The Emperor Aurelian, when the governance of Rome passed into his hands, decided to invade her land and sent his legions against this lady’s kingdom. And to cut a long story short, he made her flee and caught up with her, seized her, put her in shackles, she and her two sons, subdued her kingdom and returned to Rome in victory. He carried her throne back with him, which was adorned with gold and precious pearls, so that everyone could see that he, Aurelian, had subdued a mighty queen. She walked before him as he entered Rome in triumph, with golden chains hanging from her neck. She wore a crown and her clothes were covered in pearls.
Alas, fortune! She who has been the scourge of kings and emperors is now stared at and ridiculed by the common crowd. Alas, she who once wore a helmet in battle and captured some formidable towns and fortresses shall soon wear a plain headscarf on her head. She who once bore the royal sceptre will soon set a spindle of wool spinning to earn her keep.
King Peter of Spain
Oh worthy Pedro, the glory of Spain, whom fortune held in such high majesty! Well might men lament your piteous death. Your brother made you flee from your land, then you were betrayed during a siege and led into his tent where he killed you and seized all your lands and taxes. A rogue tricked you, as a hunter sets a branch that is coated with lime.
King Peter of Cyprus
Oh worthy Pedro, king of Cyprus, you brought grief to many a heathen, which caused your own noblemen to grow so envious of you that, for no other reason than jealousy, they killed you in your bed. In this way does Fortune spin her wheel and bring men from joy into sorrow.
Bernabò Visconti of Lombardy
Oh Bernabò of Milan, scourge of all Lombardy, why should I not tell the world of your misfortune? Your nephew, who was both your brother’s son and your son-in-law and so might have been counted a double ally, caused you to die in his prison; although how and for what reason I cannot quite remember.
Count Ugolino of Pisa
The fate of Count Ugolino of Pisa is a harrowing one to have to tell. A small distance away from Pisa there stands a tower where he was thrown into prison, along with his three young children. The eldest was only five years old. Alas, cruel fortune! To cage up such little birds! He had been sentenced to die in this prison, for Roger, the Bishop of Pisa, had made a false accusation against him and the people had risen up and cast him into this tower, with so little food and water that he and his children had scarcely enough to live on. Their situation was dire.
It happened one day that, when his food was due to arrive, he heard only the sound of his jailor slamming the door to the tower. He said nothing, but guessed that the intention was now that he should starve to death. ‘Alas, alas that I was born!’ he cried, and wept.
His young son, who was only three years old, asked: ‘Father, why are you crying? When will the jailor bring our soup? Is there any left-over bread that I can have? I’m so hungry I can’t sleep. I wish to God I could go to sleep and never wake up, for then I wouldn’t feel hungry any more.’
It went on like this for several days until the child lay down in his father’s bosom and said: ‘Father, goodbye. I must die.’ He kissed his father and died the same day. When his sorrowful father saw that he was dead, he began to bite his arms in anguish and cried: ‘Alas, Fortune, a curse on your unfaithful wheel!’ His children thought he was biting his arms through hunger and not through sorrow, and said: ‘Father, don’t do that! Eat us instead. You gave this flesh to us, so eat as much of it as you want.’
They said this to him, and a day or two later they lay down in their father’s arms and died. In utter despair, he soon also died through hunger; and that was the end of this mighty Earl of Pisa. Fortune had thrown him down from his honoured status. That's all that needs to be said. If anyone wishes to hear a longer version, they should read that great Italian poet Dante, who tells this story elegantly, and in full.
The Roman Emperor Nero was as cruel as any fiend in hell, and Suetonius tells us how he held the whole world in subjugation, and how his clothes were embroidered with rubies, sapphires and pearls, for he was very fond of gemstones. No emperor was ever more proud and ostentatious. When Nero wore something, this was the only time he ever saw it, for his clothes would all be new again the next morning. And he had no shortage of nets made from gold thread to fish with in the river Tiber when he desired some amusement. His word was law and his desires were all fulfilled. Fortune truly smiled upon him.
Nero burned Rome for his amusement and murdered all of his senators because he wanted to know what their screams would sound like. He killed his brother and had sex with his sister. He treated his mother abominably; he cut open her belly because he was curious to see the place where he had been conceived. Oh God above, that he should care so little for his own mother! He shed no tears for her when he did this and afterwards said only: 'She was a handsome woman.' Oh that the lips of one’s murderer should provide one’s only epitaph! He commanded that wine be brought to him and he drank. He made no other lamentation. When power is allied to cruelty, alas, the venom is deep enough to wade through!
In his youth, Nero had a tutor whose job it was to teach him courtesy and to read and write. The man was a very paragon of virtue, if books are to be believed. While Nero was under the governance of this tutor, he became so understanding and amenable that it was a long time before he took to tyranny or any other vice. Seneca was this tutor’s name and Nero was afraid of him because he wouldn’t let him get away with any misdeed, but would shout at him: ‘Sir, an emperor must be virtuous and hate tyranny!’ Seneca’s reward for this in the end was to be put into a bath of water where he cut his wrists, so that he bled to death.
Nero had harboured thoughts of vengeance against his tutor when he was young, which was the reason for Seneca’s ignominious demise; nonetheless, the wise Seneca chose to die in this way rather than in any other. But this is how Nero killed him.
At last Fortune decided to tolerate Nero’s insatiable pride no longer. Although he was strong, she was stronger, and she thought to herself: ‘By God, I’m foolish to allow a man so filled with evil to hold such high office and to be called emperor. By God, I’ll kick him off his throne! When he least expects it, that’s when I’ll strike.’
One night, the people rose up against him and when he saw this, he escaped alone out into the city and tried to find friends. He knocked at doors, but the louder he shouted the more firmly they were bolted against him. Then he went on his way, knowing what a grave mistake he had made and shouting no more for refuge. He could hear them shouting: ‘Where is that faithless tyrant, Nero?’
Near his wit’s end, he fled and prayed to his gods for relief, but to no avail. Fearing for his life, he ran into a garden, thinking to find somewhere to hide. In this garden he came upon two menials sitting beside a great fire, and he implored them to kill him and to cut off his head when he was dead, so that his body wouldn’t be desecrated. Then he killed himself – he could think of no other course of action – at which Fortune smiled and had a good laugh.
Never has such a captain been stronger on the battlefield or conquered so many kingdoms for his monarch, nor in his time been more renowned nor more flamboyant, than Holofernes. Not only did he inspire awe amongst those who feared losing their property and their freedom, but he made every man deny his beliefs. ‘Nebuchadnezzar is god’ he said, and he persuaded men to agree with him. ‘No other god should be adored,’ he insisted. No one dared to defy him, except in a city called Bethulia.
Fortune kissed Holofernes indulgently, and then campaigned with him before removing his head without warning. Learn from the death of Holofernes! Drunk one night amongst his army, he lay in his tent, which was as spacious as a barn. Yet for all his ostentation and all his strength, a woman called Judith cut off his head as he lay sleeping. She stole away with it unseen and carried the head into Bethulia.
King Antiochus the Illustrious
What need is there to describe the royal majesty and the conceited pride of King Antiochus? There has never been anybody else like him. You can read all about his venomous deeds in the Book of Maccabees – read about all the proud things he said and why he fell from great prosperity and how he died wretchedly in a hill. Fortune made him so confident that he imagined he could fly to every star, weigh a mountain, prevent the tide from falling even. Most of all he hated God’s people and liked to torture them to death, thinking little about any retribution their God might be able to exact.
Because Nicanor and Timotheus had been vanquished by the Jews, such a hatred for them grew in his heart that he ordered that his chariot be prepared. He swore that he would conquer Jerusalem and take a savage revenge. But this ambition was thwarted. God sent him an invisible wound that gnawed away at his insides with a pain that was insufferable and which proved to be incurable. Certainly, it was a fitting punishment for a man who had inflicted pain on many another man’s insides! But despite his agony, he wouldn't waver from his intent to destroy Jerusalem. He ordered that his army be equipped and made ready. But God suddenly put a stop to it all, despite all King Antiochus’s pride and boasting, for he was hurled out of his chariot and dragged along so that all his skin was torn and his limbs bruised. He was so completely incapacitated afterwards that men had to carry him around in a chair.
The vengeance of God was visited upon him so cruelly that worms began to crawl through his body and he started to stink so horribly that none of his men would come near him, whether he was awake or asleep. He wept and wailed in anguish and at last acknowledged God to be the lord of every creature.
The stink of his rotting flesh was so disgusting that no one carried him about any more, and he couldn’t stand it himself. In this stink and this horrible pain, he died wretchedly in a mountain. And so this thief and murderer, who had given many a man cause to weep and to complain, received a fitting reward for his pride.
Alexander the Great
The story of Alexander the Great is so well-known that everybody with intelligence knows at least some, if not all, of it. In a nutshell, he conquered the whole world by strength and by reputation, since many sued for peace without a struggle, knowing what he had done to others. He subdued the pride of man and beast wherever he went, to the world’s end.
There has never been another conqueror to compare with him. Everybody shook with fear at the mention of his name, although he was a paragon of knighthood and largesse. Nothing could draw his mind away from conquest, unless it was wine and women. His courage was that of a lion. He conquered the Persian Darius and a hundred thousand other kings, dukes, earls and princes. The entire world was his. What more can I say? However much I might tell you about his achievements and his chivalry, it would not be enough.
Alexander the Great was the son of King Phillip of Macedonia, who ruled over Greece, and he reigned for twelve years. Oh worthy, gentle Alexander, alas! That such a thing should happen to you! You were poisoned by your own people. Your luck failed and Fortune didn’t shed a tear about it.
Who will weep for the death of gentility and largesse, for one who governed the whole world and thought this not enough? Alas, who will help me to record the faithlessness of Fortune and the disgrace of poison?
Julius Caesar rose from humble beginnings to royal majesty through wisdom, bravery and great effort. He conquered all the west, both land and sea, by strength of arms and by treaty, and made them tributaries to Rome. Then he was made Emperor of Rome, until Fortune decided to bring about his downfall. Oh mighty Caesar, in Thessaly, against your father-in-law Pompey who held the reins of the east as far as the sun rises, you vanquished your enemies through strength and courage, except for the few who escaped with Pompey. You caused all the east to be in awe of you, thanks to Fortune who guided your hand.
But I must pause to lament Pompey, that noble governor of Rome, who fled from this battle. One of his men, a faithless traitor, later sliced off his head in order to ingratiate himself with Caesar and brought him the head. Alas, Pompey, conqueror of the Orient, that fortune should bring you to such an end!
Julius Caesar returned to Rome in triumph, bearing the victor’s laurel. But Brutus, who had long envied Caesar his high position, secretly put into effect a conspiracy, a plot, a time and a place where Caesar was to be murdered. Julius Caesar went to the Capitol one day, as was his custom, and once inside, this faithless Brutus and his co-conspirators seized him, stabbed him many times and left him lying there for dead. Caesar made no sound of anguish at any of these blows except for one, or perhaps two, if his story is to be believed. He was so cultured, and loved honest decency so much, that, although his mortal wounds were agonising, he was able to draw his cloak over himself so that he would die in modesty and decorum. He did not forget about honest virtue, even in death.
Lucan tells this story in its entirety, and Suetonius and Valerius Maximus as well; they describe how these two great conquerors first found Fortune to be a friend, but later an enemy. No man should trust her favours for long, but should keep a close eye on her and gauge her changeability. Take a lesson from these mighty conquerors.
Croesus was once the king of Lydia and very wealthy, but when he made war upon Cyrus of Persia, he was captured along with all his riches and led to a fire to be burnt alive. But suddenly, such a torrential downpour of rain fell from the sky that it put out the fire and let him escape. Yet this made him not the slightest bit more cautious, until Fortune had him choking on the gallows.
When he had escaped from this fire, he couldn’t stop himself from continuing the war. He believed that, because Fortune had sent the rain and delivered him out of peril once, she would do so again. He also dreamed a marvellous dream which made him so confident and conceited that he set his heart upon vengeance. He dreamed that he was in a tree, and Jupiter was washing his back and his sides, and Phoebus Apollo brought a towel to dry him with. This made him very proud. He described this dream to his daughter, who was well-versed in science and learning, and asked her to tell him what it meant. She interpreted it to him in this way: ‘The tree signifies the gallows,’ she said, ‘and Jupiter stands for snow and rain. Phoebus Apollo, with his clean towel, signifies the sun. Father, you are going to be hanged. The rain will wash you in the tree, and the sun will dry you.’
Her name was Phanya and she gave him this stark warning.
Croesus was hanged. His pride and his throne didn’t help him. This is the very nature of tragedy. The only song it knows is the one that laments how Fortune will always cast down these proud rulers without warning; for when they put their greatest trust in her, she will fail them and her bright face will be overshadowed by a cloud ...
Translation and retelling of Chaucer's Monk's Tale copyright © Richard Scott-Robinson, 2017