Towneley Cycle

June 12, 2018

I was reading a book of The Towneley Cycle of mediaeval dramas, and I was struck, as I have been in the past when reading middle English texts, how it is that certain words as used by the writers of those plays betray their connections with other words; connections which we in our times have lost touch with, so that these connections between words are now generally lost to us, and many of them we still use today.

You will think – huh, so what, what does it matter, just a dry academic exercise, and so pretty much a waste of time.

Well I don’t think so. I believe there is enough evidence in words I am going to use as examples, to show you that what we have lost by having lost touch with these connections between words, is a way of thinking, a way of life, and one which was very much more so in-touch with feelings working within us, and with the relations these feelings have with one another, and which are indicators that once we understood better than we now do how our feelings connect up so as to make us persons in touch with our own selves.

I will go on from this claim I make which says that presently our selves are dissociated from engagement with, and understanding of, our feelings; and I will say further that we are in this condition as a result of the way we live right now; and that this way in which we live right now is moreover a reflection of this our loss of engagement. We suffer such a loss because our individual lives right now are subsisting more removed, further detached, from a sound grasp of the conditions of being by which we wondrous sentient creatures live.

These claims of mine as I have expressed them might sound to you a bit abstract, a bit pompous, a bit old fashioned, even pretentious; so let’s get on with the show and see whether I can, firstly, communicate better to you what I am meaning, and secondly, maybe convince you there might be something worth hearing in my contentions?

The initial word I want to make use of is the word ‘first’. In The Towneley plays the word ‘first’ is spelt ‘fairest’, and I think this fact is no accident or slip of the pen.  I think the words ‘first’ and ‘fairest’ are relatives, and at the time of the writing of these mediaeval dramas the words could be used interchangeably, were more or less considered to be synonymous.

I would claim that ‘the fairest’ – that is the most equitable and the most well-groomed person – was also the ‘first’ person in the land, or the shire, or the house, or the family, and so on.  And denominated so not merely by way of flattery, in that no-one would say anything less of the person in charge, than that s/he is ‘fair’; but also because the person in charge was the person upon whom justice within her/his demesne fell to be weighed and dispensed, and who was also the person whose pocket could best afford fine attire and a careful personal attention to looks and appearance.

Thus the ‘fairest’ was indeed also the ‘first’; and the word ‘first’ possibly is a contraction of the word ‘fairest’; and a contraction which has come to have a life of its own in our own times, and considerably more separately from the idea of ‘fairest’.

Thus in the times of the Towneley plays being performed, there was less conceptual room in society and in minds whereby differences of nuance between ‘looks’ and ‘discretion’ and ‘place or status’ might be dissected and opposed one against another as qualities in a person as we tend to do in our own times.  And further, a person was not so greatly differentiated from her/his position, role, standing, office, status in those days, unlike we today who in our society have room to separate off aspects of a person’s character from her/his social self and office.

This difference of course is the case because in the middle ages the individuation of people into ‘personalities’ and into each of them being seen as ‘autonomous agencies of will and desire”; none of this was available in such full measure as we are treated to today.

Hence in those days it was pretty much plainer and simpler than those minute dissections and interrogations and intifadas and inquisitions which drive and obsess our press and media today.

Whether this difference overall represents loss or gain to us is another matter. Gain, no doubt, to many people’s minds; but we should not ignore the losses. There is very seldom gain without loss; and especially in social, economic, and political terms.

The establishment of obeisance to authority (sufferance); to unquestioning obedience (leal fealty); of a firm knowledge understanding and acceptance of one’s described scope of activity (order of rank); of a contentedness to accept the first as being the fairest (due respect), and all this without rankle; this in total adds up to a life lived much less oppressedly, and with fewer dissatisfactions, or with few disaffections; without hankerings and ambitions, desires engendered and nursed in so many lives today, and which so often are complaints and desires not able to be realised or allayed and are too often only pipe dreams.

These acceptances of one’s condition and place, which we today would label craven and low, unworthy and risible, and to which we would oppose maybe to violence any attempts to impose them on us; they are by all types of people in The West considered a form of slavery of their wills.

And this contrast between us today as against those people of centuries ago, this issue of personal will and freedom, liberty and, within the law, an almost absolute right to judge for ourselves and to act as we please on any matter; is now pointed up very clearly to be the worm in the flowering bud of our 21th century societies and psyches.

This canker arises because there are the same desires and expectations of freedom and personal liberties, and further, the heights of desire for ambition; all of which are being held out like fresh fish before dolphins to us, but there are only two or three real fish for every ten-thousand held out.  And so all this is our burden, our frustration and our despair. In the final instance it is our despair, because even were we to ‘reach the top’ as we are disingenuously invited to daily, then like Abrahams the Olympic athlete in the movie “Chariots of Fire” who devoted years of his life wholly to winning Olympic Gold (and he did so); who slaved to become top dog, top of the tree, ours like his is a realisation that everything in this world in the final instance is vexatious and hollow, even the being ‘first’ or ‘fairest’.

Once at the top of the tree a person still has to sleep, to wash, dress, do ablutions, feed, exercise, see the dentist, trim her nails, brush his teeth, and so on. So many of us tend to think that getting to pole position in whatever we do in life is going to be able to take us away from our scrawny human selves and its daily chores, like the Roman Emperors we will feel we can proclaim ourselves gods, and us being gods we will dispense with, be absolved from, all our silly trivial daily paraphernalia.  Just like many people think life in California is as close to heaven on earth as one can get. Yet how many stories of sad and sorrowful disaster come out of the place?  All from those people who have top of the tree, dreamed-of lives: Robin Williams; Shia Labeouf; Tony Scott; Mel Gibson; Heath Ledger; River Phoenix; Kirsten Dunst; Martin Sheen; Rock Hudson; Marilyn Monroe; Liberace; Christopher Reeve; Brian Wilson; I can go on but time is getting on.

The next word I want to look at is the word in The Towneley Cycle used for ‘sovereign’, which is ‘sufferan’. The likeness between this word ‘sufferan’ and the word we use today, ‘suffering’, is pretty obvious and pretty remarkable. Perhaps then the word ‘sufferan’ represents a sovereign because those over whom s/he is sovereign have to suffer his/her judgements and desires regardless and without appeal?

Certainly there is and olden usage in which ‘to offer sufferance to’ another, is an old form of words meaning that a person offering sufferance is putting him/herself into the service of another, who is then sovereign above them.  Thus the near equation of service with suffering is made here; a near equation which we in our day and in our societies perceive as being close to appalling, and we rebel heartily against any idea of such a thing afflicting our lives.

Yet ‘to suffer’ is a phrase also used in old books to mean ‘to allow’ or ‘to step away from’ so as ‘to pass up’ something voluntarily, thus making room for someone else to enjoy the thing one has voluntarily passed up. A very lovely idea; even though it being not a popular idea to our current ways of thinking. But thus, in this construction of the meaning of ‘doing’ or ‘offering sufferance’ its meaning may well have included in olden times a person ‘passing up’ his/her own wants and desires for the sake of ‘doing service’ to another, usually to another who is considered greater, or else in greater need, than is oneself.

But still there is another construction, interpretation, of this near equality of the words ‘sufferan’ and ‘sovereign’.  The weight of high office may be being recognised here; that a sovereign may expect to and is very likely to suffer greatly in her/his role as head of a society, a house, a company, a group?

The sovereign suffers. It is a fact that to be at the top of any organisation requires a person to be contented with his/her own companionship and so able to live without the sympathy and confidence of good and close friends - as Harry Truman said of his office: “The buck stops here”. S/he who is in charge is responsible for everything, and like politicians take credit for good happenings  and blame others for bad occurrences; persons below the top person blame everything bad that happens on the top person; and will rarely give credit to the top person when something good occurs.  That is us. Randy Newman has the song: ‘It’s Lonely at the Top’.

For the person at the top there is no higher secular court of appeal at which to contest, to question, to demand accountability for, the consequences of ‘events’.  All is on her/his shoulders. Thus in these senses of loneliness, and of shouldering all of responsibility, and without having recourse to any mitigation or appeal; in these things being the top dog is a form of suffering; and so it is fitting that a “sovereign” should also be called a ‘sufferan’.

This sense of suffering at the top of the tree our 21th century world has not recognised and has let largely go to the wall. The reasons being that the sense of duty which went together with being sovereign, as was so in the times that The Towneley plays were written, this sense of obligation to those over whom one is sovereign has been severely curtailed by our present day ethos in our societies; and again a chief reason for this curtailment has been that the ethos we espouse instead is one of acute and even perverse individualism.  This individualism is perverse because it is considered by us to be our personal right, (as we say it ‘who(m) we are’) and so it throws us straight into conflicts and contentions with other individuals to whom their own rights of individualism and autonomy are likewise considered by them to be personal ‘inalienable’ rights.

Thus the weight of duty once associated with holding sovereignty is nowadays delimited severely by our ethos because we, as being super-acute individuals, now consider we owe our deepest loyalties only, at best, to our families and close friends, much more so to ourselves.  And so not much at all to those, whom we are sovereign over, people such as our employees or clients or customers.  Ours is a world of de facto nil accountability for many who pride themselves on their success as free and untrammelled individuals in their own right

Ours then, as a result, is a fragmented society by comparison with mediaeval feudal societies; fragmented along the lines of the self as individual, and along the lines of what is due to others halting in its extent very locally, if at all, rather than it being distributed adequately across the extent of our fields of effect, to all our collective charges, and honoured in the consequences of our actions and deeds.  One result of this localisation and curtailment of any sense of duty (the word ‘duty’ is a word out of tune with our times, and many of us would be puzzled at it being asked for of them) – this lack of a sense of duty is one of the great roots which cause our global problems with pollution and with our degradation of our environment: no-one is “in-charge” no-one wants to bear the cost and trouble of us as a species, as a planet, cleaning up our act.  Thus the pollution and degradation problems are being disowned by us, even though it is our duty to clean these things up, and even though they are a direct consequence of our actions and our denials of our duties, and so are thus part of our remit of duty to deal with.

Our top people then who are in positions of ‘sovereignty’ are to a much lesser degree in positions of ‘suffering’ than were those ‘sovereign’ in mediaeval days; and this shift has occurred because the scope of one’s duty to others as being a ‘sovereign’ leader is today more emphatically seen as being a badge of prowess, by their subordinates and by the leaders themselves, rather than it being considered a position of duty and service to one’s subordinates. (Of course these statements of mine are generalities, and represent emphases rather than global facts; but they are being put forward by me as being general truths and broad comparisons; and nonetheless their general tenors I feel are correct).

This slackening off of the pressures of duties of service for present day leaders has occurred in our times because the mediaeval order and hierarchy of olden society was then much more clearly defined and much less fluid and much slower-changing than are our societies of today; thus these relative stabilities fixed themselves more assuredly in the minds of the olden peoples, the rulers and subjects alike, as being distinctively the conditions for a two way contract, offering one way obedience, obeisance and service, and the other way providing protection and an even-handedness in administration (according to their ancient rules).

Whereas our society changes rapidly and in many directions, and our contracts with one other come and go as frequently and often as cavalierly we please, for the most part; less loyalty is felt owed by us; less deference to an agreement or to an authority is established or wanted even, a ‘sovereign’ is a high figure potentially open to rotten eggs from us.  In this way we do not trust, we do not feel a need to trust others to supply their ends of contracts to us, because our consumer choice means that there is always an alternative vendor or service for us to threaten our supplier of choice with, or else to move over to.

We see this loss of loyalty and so of trust most abjectly when sport players for teams in professional sport move clubs for huge fees in club transfers. For money a player does, and is expected to, change his/her loyalties 1000% overnight when s/he joins his/her new team; and miraculously so.  Thus there can be no deep emotional bond of loyalty, here in the world of high-earning professional team sports, when at the flick of a money transfer allegiances can switch so rapidly and so completely. And with loyalty, wherever it truly appears, must always follow, when it arises, in the wake of trust.

Trust is not trust when trust can be bought for money. Thus that trust which, say, a high-stakes professional sports team player pledges and assumes upon her/his joining a new club, is not in fact trust, since a higher bidder is able to intervene, and buy that player and his/her trust and loyalty for money, and higher bidders do so in the normal course and by the nature of the professional game; this being a business primarily and beforehand to it being a recreation or an entertainment.

Another word of olden times, then, is this word ‘trow’; for which we today would use the word ‘believe’; and this word ‘trow’ is also a relative, I believe, of the words ‘true’ and ‘troth’ and ‘trust’.  We still use the word ‘trust’ in some constructions of sentence we make today and so as to mean ‘believe’.  For instance we might say a thing like ‘I trust that the engine works well?’; yet even here there is often a question at stake in this usage by us, and by using the word ‘trust’ in this way we are really in fact putting pressure on the person being asked, that s/he should answer us truthfully and not lie, and so sell us a pup.

Thus there is a relationship in language between all of the words: ‘trust’, ‘believe’, ‘troth’ and ‘truth’ and/or ‘true’. The word ‘trust’ itself may well be a variant word based on the words ‘true’ or ‘truth’? The connection between the variants is helped by me showing to you, and by us looking at the word ‘troth’, a word hardly used today except in a few marriage ceremonies.

‘Trow’ is a verb form of the noun ‘troth’; a word not just spelt like, and sounding like, it sits halfway between the words ‘truth’ and ‘trust’ (the old usage of the word ‘trow’ meant ‘trust’ or sometimes it could mean ‘believe’; indeed all these words I dare say, and especially in that period when all of them were in use in current English, merge into one another in their usages and in their meanings within that usage).

Thus there was during the middle ages a situation in English language which allowed the following words to be used as being a group of near synonyms, and so to be used very often one in place of another. These words then are:






‘Believe’ or also spelt sometimes

‘Byleve’ – (perhaps again close to our almost in-use expression ‘by your leave’?)

Again perhaps nowhere more strongly shows up the differences in the culture and ethos between olden feudal times and post-modern times than in the fact of this example of a group of words whose declination from having been near synonymous in usage, and into a fragmented, and even very often considered a suspect, set of individual and unrelated words, as-used and understood generally nowadays,.  We have lost utterly that simple faith in this clutch of words; a faith which acted in minds so as to meld the words into close relations with one another; and which enabled those olden people to claim and to see ‘belief’ as ‘truth’; and ‘trust’ as ‘belief’, and as ‘troth’ also (i.e. ‘placing a trust in something’).

Our pundits in the past few years have used a buzzword to describe our situation, saying we are living in a ‘post-truth’ society; an ironic form of words, since even unaligned philosophers will often admit that ‘truth’ as an entity which of its nature is unable to become outdated, is truth of necessity, and truth for all time.

And of course there is a loss and a gain to be had by the people and societies of the middle ages as well as to ourselves in our days in these regards.  The late modern and postmodern liberation of the mind to think and to explore further and deeper than beforehand, has been the fruit of our own current dissociations from one another of this clutch of words and their meanings and their usages.

Yet, whenever, wherever, territory is increased (for a mind to forage and to hunt within) then that additional territory needs eventually some administration and formalisation into shape and order; a new set of rules and government (i.e. within our thoughts.) Otherwise it is, and remains for us, what the olden times called a ‘wilderness’, a place untamed, unsubdued, to any beneficial uses by and for its occupants, and so such territories remain a mere fraction of their potential worth to their occupants.

Our legislators today will complain bitterly but ineffectually about the Internet and about the pace of technology outstripping, and so running out of the control of, their laws and regulations. I put forward that this has been the case since The Enlightenment and remains so today the very same. The Enlightenment was a movement of intellectuals of the late 17th and 18th centuries, and it ushered into being our present age of the primacy in intellectual value of science, and with this primacy came a pretty much triumphant logical-positivist philosophy (although this is a system of interpretation of the world which has been unsalvageably discredited emphatically by philosophy).  My contention is that the ants’ nests and the bee swarms disturbed by this movement we call The Enlightenment, have never been properly nor adequately quelled; and so the full baggage of what these new outlooks have presented to us have never been fully assimilated and digested by us to a good advantage.

The Enlightenment having occurred had let out of the bag a host of claims to human freedoms and rights and to individual self-direction for men and women - and suchlike. The restraints on common persons as they were applied in feudal societies, like this one which produced The Towneley Cycle of plays, were very much done away with by the advent and progression to fruition of the movement known as The Enlightenment. I think perhaps that too much liberty was assumed and ushered in; so much so that there was and there remains spare capacity of existential virtual space which has never been taken up adequately because in general the common education of citizens in the West since has never provided Western peoples with sufficient learning and understanding by which they might have been able to make a good use of this spare capacity.

Hence this spare capacity is an amorphous and protean cloud and historically has not been allocated or fixed into a framework whereby productive engagement with and use of it may be had.  As a result, most of us have far more liberty than we can use well and can well manage with adequacy.  Even many persons whose status is pretty high up or even top of the tree, remain quite often in some part bewildered by (i.e. in that “wilderness” I spoke about earlier) their situation in a place whereabouts rules and good government have yet to venture and establish themselves with their norms.

And so as a result, and in general, our compass is broken; and we have no adequate idea of where we are heading.  We have no actual aims; we have only the use of means (of production, of economic growth, of exploitation of resources, of increase in personal and communal sway and influence) as our aims, and instead of us having ends of mission or of vision for ourselves, for others, we have only a kiss-chase around a maypole named ‘material prosperity’.

Indeed it is very much for us all a mantra now that we should do our best to live our lives so as to “Eat drink and be merry; for tomorrow we die”.  For too many of us there is nothing more perceived by us to be promised or possible than this ultimately dismal ethos. And where we are reaching out, we seek in all the wrong places for succour, for stability, and security, sanity and authenticity in our lives, for purpose and meaning, for a grasp of some bunch of ideas which can make sense of our lives for us; and we find nothing, nothing that satisfies, nor answers the problem posed to our existence.

What we have are ‘truth’ separated from ‘troth’; and trust’ separated from ‘trow’ and “belief “ in general (and I do not mean only “belief” in religious figures for instance, but across the board and in most of our social economic and political activities) ‘belief’ is shattered and fragmented so that no-one knows what is true and what is untrue, whom to listen to and whom to ignore; where to go to find a foundation, a ground, upon which a basis for such truth and belief might be attempted re-established.

There is of great benefit to us in the present day our calling to mind and retaining an understanding that some of our most crucial and vital concepts concerning our ways of living right now, concepts which lie presently languishing in fragments and dislocations; that once these concepts were subsisting in societies of the past whole and complete and making consciously alive most of the people.

The general claim of thinkers these days is that such naïve and simple days are irretrievable, and are not desirable anyway anymore; that we have ‘grown-up’ as a race of beings, and that there is no return for us to a land of relative innocence.  I believe this contrasting of either/or here is wholly misguided; it posits either a postmodern high sophistication and sophistical society; or else a cloistered penury of closed and cabined minds unable to range – again those mighty trophies of words – freely and liberally.

I have said that our freedom is in fact for the most part no freedom for us at all; because we have no aims, all our yester-aims have been jettisoned along with our jetsam being our connections to words which once spoke to us of our rounded integrity, spiritual first, but also secularly.  Our freedom, as we would call it today, is actual bondage to a wheel which turns its round, turning us with it, and is rotating us on the spot, and never taking us any place. This then, unless things pick-up for the better is our future, our children’s, and their children’s too.

Instead; what alternative?

I say that as a start for a remedy we should pass up our looking at everything as consisting of minute and detailed causes and effects; this particularism has been the poisoned apple on the plate which science and technology have served and are continuing to serve to us. Pass them up, but not in their practical useful appliance to everyday life, and to our convenience; but pass them up in gauging our widest overviews of our lives, of our beings, and of our considerations of the cosmos. To particularise everything is to despair, because the framework of the Cosmos then appears to us under such an aegis to be a confused confusing patchwork of bits and pieces; a thousand billion, zillion puzzle bits.

Our view, our overall prospects and gaze, should dare us to look for, look at, primary causes; causes for overall being and existence. Thus wise bypassing the dispiriting minutiae of us having to detail every last iota which goes into a thing and working it in the way it does.  Clearing away such clutter of detail – the views of the trees, then the wood is revealed, and the very great marvel of life and existence and being begins to astonish us once again, refreshingly so; and just as it did to peoples historically who were by chance living lives uncluttered with sophistical calculations nor else plagued by a ‘fake news’ of scientific logical positivism; by its erroneous erosive corrosion of our mental grasp on, and rest within the wholeness of things.  Such wholeness rests assuredly secure beneath and within all creation as its inmost foundation.