Thursday, October 13, 2011

Are you near LA, CA?

I apologize. I really intended to make entries more regularly, but I've been busy.

I'm making plans for two Chaucer celebrations here in town this month. If you are in the Los Angeles area, there is an annual event called the Village Venture here in Claremont--about 30 miles from LA. I'll be part of it at the city library--handing out slices of homemade poundcake and giving away prizes.

I'll also have a supply of my Chaucer books and T-shirts. The shirts are exclusive--designed them myself.

The whole downtown area will be filled with booths--food, crafts, music, Hallowe'en parade for kids and lots of other stuff. It's a big deal. That's all day Saturday, October 22, 2011.

You'll find me set up at Second and Harvard at the back door of the library from 11 am until 3 pm. Come. It'll be fun.

The second celebration comes one week later--Saturday, October 29, 2011. We start with a Mass to pray for Chaucer as he requested. That's at Our Lady of the Assumption Church, Bonita and Berkeley at 5:30 pm. After the Mass--which incorporates medieval music and Gregorian Chant--there is a reception in the hall next door. We serve medieval libations and foods reminiscent of the Middle Ages, including mushroom-cheese pasties from a 14th-century recipe.

Plan to be part of the celebration. See you there. You'll be glad you came.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Prepared for the challenge

We know now that Chaucer's daily life dealt with sudden death (natural or inflicted), and persecution of dissidents (whether at odds with the Church or the monarchy).
     He lived surrounded by challenges at a time ripe for hidden protests, such as allegory. All forms of literature--poetry, drama, sermons, or prose--were steeped in the form, and his English contemporaries took him to be the finest author of his age. Therefore, he had to be the greatest creator of allegory.
      Using the form, a writer would say one thing, but mean another: sowing seeds meant developing faith; choosing between two mares could refer to having two mistresses; journeying to "celestial Jerusalem" corresponded to one's life. Saying one thing and meaning another still functions today in cultural codes understood only by a particular group. Codes during wartime also serve the same purpose: speaking of puppies or cigarettes or weather forecasts but meaning something entirely different. Hidden messages are not at all strange or a new idea.
     Getting back to Chaucer, he portrayed all aspects of human nature with astonishing tolerance, not condemning even the most publicly sinful individuals. Knowing what he had experienced, I find it impossible to see the poet without compassion for the oppressed. I also find it impossible to think he was unaffected by the tragic loss of one after the other of his friends to sudden cruel ends.
     I believe he could not help but register a sense of horror and injustice toward authority. If horrors have not been understood from his words, it is because the aim of allegory is to be obscure. Fletcher's book on the subject, mentioned earlier, emphasizes that intention. Allegory had served as a veiled protest for centuries before Chaucer, and can be found today where dictators rule with iron fists, or where corruption runs rampant.
      Chaucer's translating of the most famous French allegory of his day--The Romance of the Rose--gave him good practice. But it took great determination, besides, for his message to be preserved. If the wrong people had recognized the hidden meaning, he would have been at personal hazard, and his works would have been destroyed. (Book burning had already been resorted to, if content offended authority.) His no-less-than-heroic dedication, in that case, would have been futile.
     So what would he hide so cleverly? We've already mentioned the bawdy Sir Thopas and his enemy--an Arab named "Elephant." What is being described is what was perceived as "venereal disease." My friend, Virginia Adair, caught on to that.
     She also foresaw another of the poet's intentions. This time it was essential that his secret message be concealed with the utmost skill; Chaucer would not have survived discovery by hostile opposition. The plan is remarkable and courageous. It has to do with the Host--and still makes me shudder.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Merrie olde Engelonde ?

We're going to do a quick pass through the everyday conditions when Chaucer lived. He is so often seen as merely a "jolly storyteller." But an idea of the milieu in which he lived, the experiences put upon him, will allow for deeper, broader possibilities.
     His travels took him all across Europe. He knew a great deal about the Black Plague, for starters. It often ravaged Europe, and it struck England five times during his lifetime. Most deaths were in rural areas among peasants and farmers. Whole villages might be wiped out.
     Royalty and other landowners expected to receive fruits, vegetables, meats, cheese and other supplies as usual from those who worked their lands, in spite of the depletion in number of able-bodied workers. These expectations led to the "Peasant Revolt." When a multitude of peasants marched on London in 1381, King Richard II agreed to some of their demands. But, even as the leader of the march spoke to the king, the Mayor of London struck the peasant dead. That ended the revolt and the king's agreements. (Peasant uprisings were not tolerated. In France such protestors were massacred.)
     The actions of the Inquisition, though not yet come to England, were familiar to Chaucer from the Continent. Its proceedings were an attempt by the Church to eliminate medieval heresy. Torture and burning at the stake were used to encourage conversion.
     It is thought that Chaucer may have participated in the Lollard movement in England, which sought church reform. Although "reformers" were greeted with hostility, people of many ranks--merchants, townsfolk, clerics, lords--were attracted to the Lollard effort. Four noble friends of Chaucer's were among them. By 1399, however, after royal and ecclesiastical pressure, the movement had been silenced.
     In 1378, the Great Schism rocked the Church. Two rival popes existed--one in Avignon, the other in Rome--each denouncing the other. That rift was never resolved while Chaucer lived. This and other signs were interpreted by a faction in England to show that the time of the Anti-Christ and the end of the world were at hand.
     If all that were not enough to endure, political tensions in England were inevitable. The reigning king would be at odds with the lords; the lords at odds with each other; and, with a king's successor, all circumstances had to be reevaluated. Chaucer's peace and prosperity depended on his ability to maintain a favorable relationship with the royal court. If one fell out of favor, as happened to the poet's friend, Thomas Usk in 1385, one could be hanged and beheaded.
     In 1388 "The Merciless Parliament" tested all the poet's skill at "diplomacy." This parliament condemned the advisers of the adolescent Richard II. Without formal trials, those accused were drawn and hanged. All had been friends of Chaucer. The parliament also dealt harshly with Richard's lesser supporters. Many were executed or exiled and their property seized. Heads, and other body parts of those executed, impaled on spikes at the city gate, were intended as a silent deterrent.
     Those who dealt so dreadfully with the people were figures of authority. It was believed at that time that those in positions of power had been chosen by God. Therefore, to oppose them equaled high treason. How could one handle being immersed in such unrelieved stress? It's just human nature to find some way to vent frustrations.
     All the factors we've looked at would make the fourteenth century fertile soil for hidden protests such as allegory, where, if cleverly done, those in authority wouldn't see the second meaning. I found a wealth of necessary information on the subject in Angus Fletcher's Allegory: the Theory of a Symbolic Mode. I have no doubt Chaucer, a writer admired by his contemporaries, a man steeped in the conditions of his times, would be capable of expressing heartfelt protests with well-chosen words.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

"Harrow, by nails and by blood!"

My dear friend Rose was only one of many who readily see the image of Christ in Chaucer's Host. John, my publisher, recognized what Chaucer was doing and so did Eric, book designer extraordinaire.
     Preparation of my first book (Chaucer's Host) for publication was lengthy and complicated, but exciting. Galleys to proof. Deadlines to meet. I loved the cover design. When I received a copy of the material for the back cover, the synopsis of the book meant to be a hook to catch a reader, I called John immediately, but it was Eric who answered the phone.
     "Eric, who chose the quote to head the back cover?"
     "I did. Why? Is something wrong?"
     "No. Nothing's wrong. It's perfect!"
     When Eric read the book to get a feel for the image he wanted to create, he singled out that phrase: "Harrow, by nails and by blood!" It is the most powerful "clue" the Host speaks--that is, as words spoken by Christ. "By nails and by blood" is easy to grasp as a reference to crucifixion, but what is "harrow"?
     Typical guidance from footnotes in the Tales will explain the word to be "a common ejaculation of obscure origin." That's one way to look at it. But what is in tune with the presence of Christ is the religious drama popular in Chaucer's day: The Harrowing of Hell. It is the portrayal of the crucified Christ, during the three days before his resurrection, descending to the gates of hell to burst them and release the righteous souls who had been waiting to be delivered by Him. The phrase--Chaucer's line--then, is a recollection of the harrowing of hell, as a consequence of being crucified. Harrow is not "obscure" at all; it is the object of Christ's sacrifice. He came to die and harrow hell.
     Eric saw the words he chose as the core of the book's message.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Reasonable, even self-evident

I don't understand the trouble you've had in getting your ideas about Chaucer accepted. Your thoughts seem reasonable and even self-evident. That's what my friend Rose said when my first book was published.
     And what did she see as "self-evident"? My demonstrating the concealed identity of the Canterbury Host. Many others have also recognized it as self-evident.
     As I read the description of the Host at the end of the General Prologue, what took shape in my mind's eye was the figure of Christ. His image became clearer with one detail after another.
     The name "Host" opens the mind to the possibilities. His first action--after a warm welcome to the pilgrims--is to serve them best food and strong wine. Such words were, and still are, often used poetically to describe the Eucharistic Host. He offers to guide the pilgrims at his own cost. The group must accept his terms without discussion. He promises a banquet at the end of their journey. His repetition of "the way" in speaking of the journey echoes the biblical declaration of Christ as "the way," (truth and life). And, as the travelers prepare to depart in the morning, he gathers them in a flock. Did you see a momentary shepherd image--the Good Shepherd? Each detail plays a part in creating the portrait.
      The Pilgrim Cook mentions the Host's actual name--Herry Bailly--but it is never used. If the pilgrims had addressed him as Herry, the image of Christ within the figure would not exist. Instead, the ongoing use of "Host" reinforces the Eucharistic potential.
      Critics have a habit of referring to the Host as "Herry." It's more comfortable, I'm sure, but it distorts Chaucer's intention; the guide of the pilgrim journey becomes just a guy named Herry. No wonder the "self-evident" identity of Christ has been overlooked.
      If a religious underpinning to Chaucer's masterpiece surprises, it shouldn't. The poet's chosen frame for the collection is "pilgrimage."

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

A Canterbury postscript

A friend prompted me to find the significance of the design of that gift from Virginia'a daughter. Doing general searches about CANTERBURY were too broad. Then I tried the Latin words: Ave Mater Anglia. That did it. It is the coat of arms of the City of Canterbury. Here is the description given of the images on the shield.
The full Coat of Arms of Canterbury carries a Golden Crown [of King Canute*] above the Shield. The "Golden Lion of England" is at the top of the Coat of Arms on a scarlet background. The three black birds are Cornish Choughs, who have red legs and red beaks. At the end of the 1800's, the City Council adopted the words "Ave, Mater Anglia"--"Hail, Mother of England"--and this is now on a scroll at the bottom of the official Coat of Arms.

*King Canute was an ancient Christian Danish ruler of Kent.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Virginia gets the picture

Virginia Adair lost her sight late in life. She could, however, draw upon a wealth of memories and a lively imagination. We'll return to Thopas for a final look at his pricking activities and adventures in the saddle. But this time we'll feature Virginia's instant recognition of Chaucer's intent.
     A sudden problem confronts our hero. Enter the enemy, another participant in the double entendre. The enemy--Sir Olifaunt--is the only other named character in the plot. If you figure his name means Elephant, you're right. That's fitting because he is a giant--and heaves stones at Thopas. But, strange to tell, Sir Elephant means Thopas no bodily harm. "I'll slay thy steed," he says.
     If Thopas had no horse, there would be no saddle and no pricking. "Something" that aims to prevent pricking ought to be a physical affliction. Here is where Virginia got ahead of my explanation. When Sir Elephant threatened the horse she said, "Don't tell me he is Elephantiasis!" and burst out laughing. After we enjoyed the laugh, I did get to fill in Chaucer's details.
     The poet gives only two clues to identify the adversary; he knew they'd be enough. The name Elephant is one. The other comes from an exclamation the enemy uses: "By Termagant!" Crusaders brought back stories of Arabic culture; Termagant was said to be a god of the Arabs. Using the word, then, identifies Sir Elephant as an Arab. With these two ideas--Elephant and Arab--I set about scrutinizing Ackerknecht's book about the history of diseases. When I found the right "diagnosis" it was obvious. The heading read Elephantiasis Arabum. The malady, or tales of it, were well known in the Middle Ages in England and on the Continent.
     Another book (by Drs. George Gould and Walter Pyle) contained illustrations of "anomalies and curiosities" in medicine. It had a photograph of an Elephantiasis victim afflicted with large "stones." His grotesque scrotal enlargement had long ago prevented copulation.
     Virginia couldn't see the picture in my book, but she told me she had once seen a case of Elephantiasis. Her imagination did the rest.

Friday, July 29, 2011

An unexpected treasure

Something completely unanticipated happened today. I received a note from Virginia Hamilton Adair's daughter, Kappa Waugh. I hadn't heard from Kappa for 5 years or more. With the note came an added surprise.
     You may know that Virginia--poet and professor--was important in my Chaucer process. Actually, Virginia was essential; without her I would never have written a word. When some considered my ideas foolish, she found them "fascinating." A new viewpoint adds life. When my senior project, an effort of considerable research, was perceived as "seeing things that aren't there," she found it enthralling. The freshest idea she'd seen in years. When a paper I'd written was accepted to be read at a literary conference, it was she who arranged a practice run-through in front of a group of her friends at her home. When I finished they asked questions! I hadn't expected that.
     Her interest never flagged. When I reported that Chaucer's 600th anniversary in the year 2000 had stirred up little excitement in the literary world, she said, "We need to have a Chaucer contest." And we did, indeed, under the auspices of The Chaucer Society. The question to be answered in 500 words or less was "Why, after 600 years, are we still studying the works of Chaucer?" (The winning essay is on my website Click "About Celebrations.")
     Even after Virginia lost her sight, she continued to write poetry every day on her portable typewriter. She was "discovered" in her 80s and produced 3 books of poems.
      When my Chaucer books were published I read them to her--a chapter or two each week. Twice she astonished me by anticipating the message Chaucer had hidden. Once her insight proved hilarious; and once she sensed the horror he had concealed.
     Virginia departed this life a few years ago. Not since that time had I heard from her daughter, until today. Folded with her note was a little lapel pin decorated with heraldic images and the words Ave Mater Anglia--Canterbury. It had belonged to Virginia. Kappa's note closed with: It seems right you should have it. What a kind thought! What an unexpected treasure!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

A matter of life--and Death

Because life happens while you're making other plans, I'm going to interrupt the Thopas thoughts to reflect upon and honor a dear friend--Rose Maiorca. Last Saturday I talked with Rose for about half an hour--she in Chicago, me in California. We'd been chatting regularly once a week, or more often, for the last couple of months. As we were about to hang up she said, "We'll talk again soon." But the Lord had a different plan.

We first met in high school and soon found we had many interests in common. Conversation was always easy, open, pleasant; that never changed. She started college about the time I got married. My children called her "Aunt" Rose. She was godmother to my youngest daughter. When we moved to Arizona, she visited us there.
     Part of her working life was spent at the Chicago Sun-Times, often assisting Irv Kupcinet. A second career found her teaching in the Chicago Public School System.
     Although she was an only child, she was part of a large family of Italian heritage. As a sometime traveler, she took a trip to Italy and received a warm reception from people in the town her relatives came from. Another destination several times was New Orleans. She loved the jazz.
     My pursuit of Chaucer, after I'd finished college, brought enthusiasm and encouragement. When my first book (about Chaucer's Host) was accepted for publication her note congratulating me said:

I don't understand the trouble you've had in getting your ideas about Chaucer accepted--except that academics often get lost in details and don't see, or even look at, the main themes of the works they deal with. From the perspective of an ordinary reader, your thoughts have never seemed far-fetched at all, but rather reasonable and even self-evident.

She was a standby, a friend always to be counted on.

About a year ago Rose was diagnosed with cancer. Our phone conversations became more frequent. We'd talk about anything, everything. I asked if she had done everything she had wanted to with her life. She said yes, but confided that she thought about the two proposals of marriage she'd had and rejected. How different life might have been. Whether it was a news item--like the birth of the 16 pound baby!--or hashing over the changes soon to come in the Catholic liturgy, we just enjoyed our time together.
     So, after the Saturday phone call, I planned to call again on Tuesday. When I did, her cousin answered. "May I speak to Rose?" There was a pause and then, "Didn't you get the email? Rose passed away last evening."
     Even when it's expected, death still comes as a surprise. I would dearly have wanted to talk with her one more time. But I wouldn't have had her linger a moment longer.  Peace be with your spirit, Rose.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Prodding the pryking

There are a couple more things to prod about the pryking. A "tradition" sees Thopas, only as a peculiar fellow who gallops about the countryside and wears himself out with spurring his horse. Double entendre is not acknowledged. If it were, Thopas would rival the Miller's Tale--not in provoking belly laughs, but certainly in bawdy content.
     The single-level interpretation is solidly ingrained. A little story will demonstrate how solidly. I once had the opportunity at a Chaucer conference to ask a group of academics about a possible double meaning. Forty or more professors and grad students filled the room. I suddenly realize what a golden opportunity I had. Raising my hand, I inquired, if the dominant activity in the Tale of Thopas was pricking, then why is the story not considered risqué? The room was silent. Several seconds passed before an older man at the back volunteered, "I don't believe pricking had a sexual connotation at that time." No more was forthcoming. Another topic was taken up.
     Evidence, however, says otherwise. Beryl Rowland, in her extensive work on animal symbolism finds horse-riding and equine images expressing sexual activity as far back as Aristotle and the Bible. The Middle English Dictionary, in one of its many definitions of priken (to prick) specifies "to have sexual intercourse." That foregoing information is merely a segue to Chaucer's own portrayal in the Reeve's Tale. A student schemes to share a bed with the wife of his host. Before the night is over, they have a merry time, and, in Chaucer's own words, "He priketh hard and depe." Is interpretation necessary?

OPINIONS continued--

Because I was  reading Middle English for the first time the footnotes and glossary were often essential--like when a buxom wife means she is obedient, or where there is a gold ring in a sow's groin you need to know it really means the ring in in her snout.
     There were other times, however, when the footnote was no help at all--perhaps even a hindrance to understanding. But someone a long time ago had determined the meaning of a line. That someone knew a lot about Chaucer. The meaning that had come down to us had authority. How could we doubt what was said?

     That's where I was--wondering how I could doubt an age-old authority--when I came upon a treasure of a book: The Art of Literary Research by Richard D. Altick. Such fascinating reading about perpetuated misprints, anachronistic "evidence," or "facts" presented exactly the opposite from what was true. Altick refers to:

. . . an assumption of critics or literary historians which has gone unchallenged so long that it now seems as impregnable as an old-fashioned Gospel truth . . .

After reading that, I felt justified in questioning authorities of 100 and more years ago. Actually, I felt encouraged to do so. An easily understood place to begin is in The Tale of Sir Thopas, a story told by Chaucer himself in his pilgrim guise. In today's English the line we'll question says our hero was weary "from galloping (or spurring his horse) over the tender grass." But Chaucer says he was weary from "prikyng on the softe gras." Somehow I get a different picture from the original prikyng on soft grass!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Critics give OPINIONS--not DOGMA

At my first encounter with Chaucer, what I read caused questions. Sometimes it would happen because of a word, sometimes because of a mental image the words inspired. And sometimes what I "saw" was different from what critics said.