Geoffrey Chaucer:  "Gentilesse"1

The firste fader and findere* of gentilesse, * founder  

What* man desireth gentil for to be * whatever

Most folwe his traas,* and alle his wittes dresse2 * path

Vertu to sue,* and vices for to flee: * follow (pursue)
5 For unto vertu longeth* dignitee, * belongs

And nought the revers, saufly* dar I deeme, * safely

Al were he(3) mitre, crowne, or diademe.

This firste stok was ground of rightwisnesse,* * righteousness

Trewe of his word, sobre, pietous,(4) and free,

10 Clene of his gost,* and loved bisinesse * spirit

Against the vice of slouthe,* in honestee; * sloth

And but his heir love vertu as dide he,

He is nat gentil, though he riche* seeme, * noble

Al were he mitre, crowne, or diademe.

15 Vice may wel be heir to old richesse,

But ther may no man, as ye may wel see,

Bequethe his heir his vertuous noblesse:

That is appropred* unto no degree * exclusively assigned

But to the firste fader in majestee,

20 That maketh his heir him that wol him queme,* * please

Al were he mitre, crowne, or diademe.


(1) The virtue of "gentilesse" combined a courtesy of manner with a courtesy of mind.  That it is not the inevitable adjunct of aristocratic birth (though most appropriate to it) was a medieval commonplace, to which Chaucer here gives succinct--if conventional--expression.  It is important to observe, however, that the moral democracy implied by this doctrine was never transferred by the Middle Ages to the political or even the social realm.
(2) I.e., must follow his (the first father's) path and dispose all his (own) wits.
(3) Even if he wear.
(4) Merciful.   "Free": generous.

Poem by Geoffrey Chaucer.  The text and notes are those found in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, ed. M. H. Abrams, et al., 5th ed., vol. 1, pp.229-230.