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.

[This supplemental text is for the use of students enrolled in Medieval Literature classes taught by Dr. Debora B. Schwartz in the English Department of Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.]