The Lay of the Bird

(From, Tales from the Old French)

Once upon a time, a hundred years and more agone, there lived a rich villein; his name I know not for certain, but he was rich as beseemeth a great lord in woodland, stream and meadow, and in whatsoever else longeth to a puissant man. And to tell you the sum thereof, his manor was so goodly no town, or burg, or castle hath its like, for to tell you true, in all the world is none other so fair and delectable; and if any were to show you its form and fashion, the tale would seem to you but fable, for none, methinketh, could ever make such a keep, or so mighty a tower. Round about it ran a river, encircling all the close, that the orchard, which was of great price, was all walled in by wood and water. Wise was the gentle knight who contrived it, but from him it went to his son, who sold it to this villein; so passed it from hand to hand: and wit ye well, an ill heir ofttimes bringeth thorpe and manor into dishonour.

Fair as man can desire was that orchard, and therein grew many an herb whose name I know not; yet may I tell you of a truth there were roses and flowers that gave forth a strong and pleasant fragrance; and such manner of spices grew there that if any creature, suffering from sickness and infirmity, were brought thither in a litter, and lay in that orchard but for the space of a single night, he would go forth healed and strong; so rich it was in goodly herbs. And the meadow was so level even that in it was neither hill nor hollow, and all the tree-tops were of one height; no other orchard close so fair was there in all the world. Ask ye not of its fruit, for none such shall ye find; but in the garden they ripened in every season. Wise was he who contrived it, and by enchantment he wrought it, whereof within was many a proof.

Full great was the orchard and wide, like a round ring in its form; and in its midst was a fountain whose waters were clear and fresh, and ran so swiftly they seemed to boil in fury, yet was it colder than marble. A goodly tree gave shade there,  wide reaching were the branches and cunningly trained; good store of leaves there were, for in the longest day of summer, when came the month of May, ye could not see a ray of the sun, so leafy was it. Full dear should that tree be held, for its kind was such that it kept its leaves in all seasons, and neither wind nor storm had might to strip its bark or its branches.

Pleasant and delectable was that green tree; and to it twice each day, and no more, came a bird to sing, in the morning namely, and again at eventide. So wondrous fair was the bird it were over long to tell you all its fashion. More small it was than the sparrow, yet somewhat greater than the wren, and it sang so sweetly and fairly that know ye of a sooth, not nightingale, nor merle, nor mavis, nor starling, methinketh, nor voice of lark or calender, were so good to hear as was its song. And it was so ready with refrains and lays and songs and new tunes, that harp, or viol, or rebec were as nought beside it. So wondrous was its song that never before was its like heard of living man, for such was its virtue that no man  might be so sorrowful, but if he heard it sing, he must straightway rejoice, and forget all heaviness and grief; and though he had never before spoken of love, now was he kindled by it, and deemed himself worshipful as king or emperor, though he were but villein or burgess; and even had he passed his hundredth year, if, as he yet lingered in the world, he heard the song of the bird, he deemed himself then but as a youth and a stripling, and so comely, he must be loved of ladies and maids and damsels. But yet another wondrous virtue had it; for that orchard might not endure, if the bird came not thither to sing its sweet refrain; for out of song issueth love, which giveth their virtue to flower and tree and coppice; whereas, if the bird were gone, the orchard would straightway wither, and the fountain run dry, for that they kept their virtue only by reason of the song.

Now it was the wont of the villein, who was master there, to come twice each day to hear this sweetness. So on a morning, he came to the fountain beneath the tree to wash his face in the waters; and  from the branches the bird sang to him loud and clear a song of most delectable cadence; good was the lay to hear, and ensample might one draw therefrom whereby one were bettered at the last. For in his language the bird said: "Listen ye to my song, both knight and clerk and layman, all ye who have to do with love, and suffer his torments; and to ye likewise I speak, ye maids fair and sweet, who would have the world for your own. And I tell you of a sooth, ye should love God before all things, and hold his law and his commandments; go ye with good heart to the minster, and give heed to the holy office, for to hear God's service cometh not amiss to any man; and to tell you true, God and love are of one accord. For God loveth honour and courtesy, and true Love despiseth them not; God hateth pride and treachery, and Love likewise holdeth them in despite; God giveth ear to sweet prayer, and from it Love turneth not away; and above all else God desireth largesse, for in him is nought of ill, but good only. The misers are the envious hearted, and it is the jealous who  are the covetous; the churlish are the wicked, and the traitors are the vile; but wisdom and courtesy, honour and loyalty uphold Love; and if ye hold to this ye may have both God and the world." So sang the bird his lay.

But when he saw the churl, who was cruel and envious, sit listening beneath the tree, then sang he in another manner: "Flow ye no more, O river; waste to ruin, ye donjons; and towers, fall ye down; fade, ye flowers; dry and wither, ye herbs; bear no more fruit, ye trees; for here, of old, clerks and knights and ladies were wont to give ear to me, who held the fountain full dear, and drew delight from my song, and loved the better par amors; and by reason of it they did much largess, and practised courtesy and prowess, and upheld chivalry; but now am I heard only by a churl, who is full of envy, and to whom silver and gold are more dear than the service of Love; the knights and ladies came to hear me for delight, and for Love's sake, and to lighten their hearts, but this man cometh only that he may eat the better and drink the better."

And when the bird had so sung it flew away; and the churl, who yet lingered there, bethought him if he might not take it; easily might he sell it full dear, or, if he could not sell it, he would shut it up in a cage that it might sing to him early and late. So he contrived a device, and arranged it; he sought and looked and spied until he made sure of the branches whereon the bird sat oftenest; then he maketh a snare and spread it,—well hath he contrived the thing. And when eventide came, the bird returned again to the orchard, and so soon as it lighted on the tree was straightway taken in the net. Thereupon the villein, the caitiff, the felon, climbeth up and taketh the bird. "Such reward hath he ever that serveth a churl, methinketh," saith the bird. "Now ill hast thou done in that thou hast taken me, for of me shalt thou get small ransom." "Yet shall I have many a song of this capture," quoth the villein; "before, ye served according to your own will, but now shall ye serve after mine."

"This throw is evilly divided, and the  worser half falleth to me," saith the bird. "Of old, I had field and wood and river and meadow, according to my desire, but now shall I be prisoned in a cage; never again shall I know joy and solace. Of old, I was wont to live by prey, now must I, like any prisoner, have my meat doled out to me. Prithee, fair, sweet friend, let me go; for be ye sage and certain never will I sing as prisoner." "By my faith, then I will eat you up; on no other terms shall ye escape." "Poor victual shall ye find in me, so small and slight am I; and if ye kill so frail a thing, in no wise shall your worship be increased. To slay me were very sin, but it were a good deed to set me free." "By my faith, ye speak idly, for the more you beseech me the less will I do." "Certes," saith the bird, "ye say well, for so runneth the law; and often have we heard it said that fair reasoning angers the churl. But a proverb teacheth and showeth us that necessity is a hard master; here my strength may not avail me, but if you will set me free, I will make you wise with three wisdoms that were never yet known to any man of your  lineage, and which would much avail you." "If I may have surety thereof, I will do it straightway," saith the villein. "Thereto I pledge you all my faith," the bird made answer; and forthright the villein let him go.

So the bird that had won his freedom by ready speech, taketh flight to the tree; all spent he was, and ruffled, for he had been rudely handled, and all his plumage turned awry. With his beak as best he might, he smoothed and ordered his feathers; but the churl, who was fain of the three wisdoms, admonished him to speak. Full of craft was that bird, and he saith: "If thou givest good heed, great lore shalt thou learn: Set not thy trust in all thou hearest." But the villein frowned in anger: "That knew I already," quoth he. "Fair friend, henceforth hold it well in mind, and forget it not." Quoth the churl: "Now in sooth may I look to learn wisdom! He who biddeth me bear this in mind, doth but jibe; but certes, when you escape me again, no man else shall you mock:—but I brag over late. Wherefore, now tell me the next wisdom, for this one I know well."

"Give good heed," saith the bird, "fair and goodly is the second: Weep not for that thou hast never had." Then the churl could not hold his peace, but answered all in anger: "Thou hast belied thy pledge to me; three wisdoms thou wert to teach me—so thou didst promise me—that were never yet known to any of my kin; but every man knoweth this, for there is none so foolish, or ever was, that he would weep for what was never his. Sorely hast thou lied to me." Thereupon the bird made answer: "Wouldst thou that I say them over to thee lest thou forget them? Ye are so ready of speech I fear for thy memory; methinketh ye will not bear the wisdoms in mind." "I know them better than you yourself," quoth the churl, "and long ago knew them. Foul fall him who shall ever thank you for showing him that in which he was already wise. By my head, I am not so untaught as ye deem me, and it is but because ye have escaped me that ye now mock me. But if ye hold by your covenant with me, ye will tell me the third wisdom, for of these two I have full understanding.  Now speak out at your will, in that I have no power over you; tell me its substance, and I will give heed to it."

"Listen well, and I will tell you: the third is of such a nature that whosoever knoweth it will never be a poor man." Greatly the churl rejoiced when he heard the virtue of that wisdom, and saith: "This I needs must know, for riches I dearly desire." Lo, how he urgeth the bird, and saith: "It is time to eat, so tell me now speedily." And when the bird heard him, it maketh answer: "I warn thee, churl, that ye Let not fall to your feet that which you hold in your hand." All angry was the villein: for a long time he spoke not, and then he asketh: "And is there nought else? These are the sooth-sayings of children, for well I ween that many a man poor and in want knoweth this, even as thou knowest; ye have duped me and lied to me, for all that ye have shown me I was wise in before."

Then the bird maketh answer: "By my faith, and if thou hadst known this last wisdom, never wouldst thou have let me go, for if thou hadst killed me as thou  didst think to do, never, by my eyes, had there dawned a day ye had not been the better for it." "Ha, in God's name, what good had ye been?" "Ahi, foul churl, ill son of an ill race, thou knowest not what hath befallen thee; thou hast sorely miscarried. In my body is a gem of great worth and price, and of the weight of three ounces; its virtue is so great that whoso hath it in his possession may never wish for aught, but straightway he hath it at his hand."

Now when the churl heard this, he beat his breast, and tore his garments, and rent his face with his nails, and cried out woe and alas. But the bird, who watched him from the tree, had great joy thereof. It waited until he had torn all his raiment, and wounded himself in many a place; then it said to him: "Wretched churl, when thou didst hold me in thy hand I was smaller than sparrow, or tit, or finch, which weigheth not so much as half an ounce." And the villein who groaneth in anger, saith: "By my faith, ye say true." "Churl, now mayest thou see well I have lied to thee concerning the  gem." "Now I know it of a sooth, but certes, at first I believed thee." "Churl, now have I proved to thee on the spot thou knewest not the three wisdoms; and, for what thou didst say to me, that no man is, or ever was, so foolish he would weep for that he had never had, now, meseemeth, thou thyself makest lament for what was never thine and never will be. And when you had me in your snare, then did you cast down to your feet that which you held in your hand. So have you been brought to shame by the three wisdoms; henceforth, fair friend, hold them in mind. Good it is to learn goodly lore, for many a one heareth yet understandeth not, many a one speaketh of wisdom who is yet no whit wise in thought, many a one speaketh of courtesy who knoweth nought of the practice thereof, and many a man holdeth himself for wise who is given over to folly."

Now when the bird had so spoken, it took flight, and departed, never to return again to the garden. The leaves fell from the tree, the orchard failed and withered,  the fountain ran dry, whereby the churl lost all his delight. Now know ye one and all that the proverb showeth us clearly that he who covets all, loses all.

explicit li Lais de l'Oiselet.