Several years ago my grandson Andy and Judy Hernandez' son Chris--both young men with talent and know-how--made a video of a talk I gave about what Chaucer has hidden in the Canterbury Tales. Later Bill, my webmaster, put the video on YouTube.
In the entries called "Written in the Stars" (April 2012), I gave the cosmic clues for Leo. Now let's take a more detailed look. Chaucer's allegory provides a variety of information beneath the surface image of the Monk, that is, Leo.
Chaucer's depiction of a lion as a man participates in the witticism among manuscript illustrators of the Middle Ages. Various animal could be seen walking erect in grand procession while wearing liturgical vestment.
These examples are not perfect, but they are the best I found online.
Lions, well known from early times, were admired for fierceness and bravery. The Monk is portrayed as no poor cloisterer or novice, but masterful of muscles and bones. The Host questions why the Monk's cope is so wide, which draws attention to the lion's splendid mane. Then, an odd remark about the elegance of the Monk's skin sets the pattern. Isn't his attractive skin what we notice first about a lion? A succession of body parts are admired: sleeves "trimmed" with the finest fur; boots that are supple; his head smooth, bright and shining.
Called a "prikasour," he is someone who pierces, punctures. When the Host is at a loss as to how to address the Monk, he settles on "daun Piers" as the Monk's name--a play on pierce.
Recalling that a pilgrim's mode of transport (horse) discloses facts about the pilgrim himself, the Monk's horse is appropriately brown as a berry.
Twice his voice is said to be loud as a church bell. Such intensity of sound compares to the mighty roar of a lion.
The Monk's eyes are "stepe," that's elevated or wide-open: "elevated" in the constellation; "wide-open" as an allusion to the medieval belief that a lion never closed its eyes, not even to sleep. When we are told that his eyes glow--hardly a human trait--it indicates the star Algieba.
It's no surprise that the Monk is a master at hunting. His celestial dogs, generally associated with Orion, are "as swift as fowl in flight." For all his expertise, he aims not for big game, but for lowly hares--the constellation Lepus. Swan, his favorite roast, is Cygnus.
Leo's figure has three prominent stars. The curious gold pin below the Monk's chin denotes brilliant Regulus, often called "the Lion's Heart." Next is the "love-knot in the greater end." What is a Monk's greater end? There is no confusion in the constellation; Denebola (Arabic, "the Lion's Tail) marks the end of Leo's tail. A third star, Algieba, above Regulus, is called "Brow of the Lion."
Leo had strong astrological significance. Fierceness of the lion caused the unrelenting heat of midsummer. Ancient astrologer Manilius claimed the sign was "a predator" intending unmitigated disaster. The individual stars have their own influences. Regulus, according to early English astrologers, brought glory, riches and power to those born under the sign. Note that there is no promise of happiness. Denebola held portents of misfortune and disgrace. And medieval doctors, who were guided by the stars, blamed Leo if potentially curative baths and properly prescribed medicines resulted in a relapse rather that a cure!
The mythical explanation of the celestial lion says that Hercules, in the first of his twelve tasks, kills a lion with his bare hands. In commemoration, the lion became a zodiac sign. Later biblical conversions identified Leo as the Lion of Judah, or one of the lions that did no harm to Daniel while he was in the lion's den.
Chaucer uses several of the preceding identities in the Tale the Monk/Leo tells. These are stories of the lives (and deaths) of prominent figures demonstrating the power and riches of those born in Leo--and the misfortune and distress. His seventeen little stories each reveal how the featured person falls into unspeakable misery. There is no relief to the misfortunes--being crushed, poisoned, starved to death or hanged, along with assorted suicides and murders.
We've saved the most spectacular celestial feature for last. In mid-November, there is a meteor shower, the Leonids, that issues from the constellation. Records of the Leonids go back almost to the birth of Christ. At the peak of a thirty-year cycle (Nov. 12, 1833), hundreds of thousands of shooting stars were observed in one night. In 1966, Arizona saw another peak display when over 100,000 meteors per hour were seen.
And how are the Leonids portrayed by Chaucer? He translates this visual phenomenon to an audible one. The Monk rode "in a whistling wind" (to indicate November) and, "men might hear his bridle jingling." The poet refers a second time to the splendid show as the "clinking of your bells, / That on your bridle hang on every side."
Such a rich portrait and how entertaining! Chaucer delights in drawing from many possible aspects.