Monday, May 28, 2012

Let Me Make This Perfectly Clear

What I'm saying about reading the Canterbury Tales, about recognizing the identity of the characters, is not contrary to what you already know or believe from standard interpretations. I have no argument with previous interpretations. Chaucer's poetry can be read from many points of view.
     What I am saying is that the work has an additional level of meaning. The Host is the innkeeper AND the Host is Christ. Chaucer's message is not one OR the other --it is both. That's what is so fascinating about allegory. The pictures in our mind's eye are not "one-dimensional," but can have two or even three layers of meaning.
     We need to adopt/develop the medieval mindset to accept these multiple realities. The planets, for example, were seen as objects in the sky and as the ancient gods simultaneously. A visible conjunction of Venus and Mars, then, was recognized as a clandestine tryst between the two deities. Another way to achieve ambiguity--more than one meaning--Chaucer tells us specifically, is by using words with "two faces." Let's look at a few zodiac portrayals to get a feel for this fourteenth-century double talk.

The Pilgrim Cook is Cancer, the crab. The Cook prepares dishes that incorporate sea food--and he is the seafood ingredient, as well. A star cluster in this constellation is called The Manger. Chaucer makes us aware of that feature by telling of the Cook's expertise at making a medieval favorite: Blankmanger (white manger). A typical recipe for the dish calls for perch or lobster, boiled with almonds, rice and sugar--a sort of fish pudding. That's what we understand in regards to the Pilgrim Cook. On another level, the blankmanger "made" by the Cook refers to the star cluster in the constellation. He makes The Manger because it is part of him! An alternate name for the cluster is The Beehive. Then it is no surprise when the main character in the story that the Cook tells is a bee! The tale is a little joke about a mischievous drone who ultimately is banished from the hive. (I've included a complete explanation of the tale following the text of Chaucer's Pilgrims: the Allegory.)

The Pilgrim Monk is Leo, the lion. Oddly for a monk--but not for a lion--he enjoys hunting. Chaucer uses an airborne image of the Monk's greyhounds saying they move as swiftly as "bird in flight." They pursue no large quarry but only their traditional objective--the hare. We also learn that the Monk's favorite meal is roast swan. Celestial counterparts exist for the dogs and their prey in Canis Major and Minor, Lepus and Cygnus.

Then there is the Pilgrim Shipman, Capricorn, the Seagoat. When we suspect the Shipman is tapping wine from the ship's cargo, the theft is expresses as "to draw draughts of wine." The phrase, however, can also mean to haul quantities (measures) of wine. Chaucer, who had been in charge of Customs in London, had seen many a goatskin filled with wine. Goat leather, not fragile and easily transportable, carried wine commercially from ancient times down to the eighteenth century. We see the Shipman, then as both thief and--in his goat persona--as the means of carrying the wine.

Are you catching on? Here is an example that amazed me with its clarity when I recognized how allegorical levels work. If the travelers each correspond to a celestial entity, what/who is the Host? Here are the clues Chaucer provides. The Host is the guide for the zodiac travelers, that is, he indicates the path these signs will follow. In astronomy, this is called the ecliptic: "the apparent path of the sun." And, in considering the Host as identified with Christ, He is often poetically referred to as the Sun (or Son) of Righteousness. So, the main and guiding character in the Canterbury Tales can be seen as an innkeeper, as Christ, and as the Sun. That's just a hint of Chaucer's genius.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Written in the Stars--Final entry Part 4

This post completes the identification of the signs of the zodiac concealed in the Canterbury Pilgrims.

Capricorn/ the Shipman  Capricorn is inconspicuous. Chaucer creates the connection to the Seagoat by choosing perfect seafaring references--an island off the coast of Sweden--Gotland--and a promontory along the coast of Spain--Cape of Finisterre. (Sterre is star in Chaucer's English.) That is, from goat-land to fin-star. Deneb Algedi (Arabic for Tail's End) is Capricorn's only important star and is properly located on the fin of the tail.

Aquarius/ the Summoner  This singular portrait tells only of his duties and the condition of his face. The zodiac identifier is minimal--a one-word clue. He knows how to call for "Watte" as well as does the pope. Watte is explained as "Walter," but, with this spelling, "Watte" can function as both Walter and water. The task-name of "summoner" is awesome--the ultimate summoner being Death. Chaucer, no doubt, was well-acquainted with the dead and dying. This Pilgrim's appearance has all the possibilities of a victim of the plague. His eyes are swollen almost shut. On his face, there are scabs, large and small pustules, and hair loss. Not surprising--Of his visage children were aferd. And yet, despite his hideous features, he had a way with The young girls of the diocese. As the image of Death personified, the claim is acceptable; death would be irresistible.

Pisces/ the Pardoner  A Christian legend commemorates Pisces as a fish caught be St. Peter; a coin was in its mouth when it was hauled into the boat. Fomalhaut, a star of the first magnitude, has long been called the Fish's Mouth. The Pardoner's fine performance in church, singing and preaching, assured him of a great amount of silver in the collection. That projects a glimpse of Pisces as the fish with the coin in its mouth. A fish portrayed as a human can be seen in details of his smooth hair, yellow as wax, as it spreads over his shoulders in very thin bits one upon another--as an approximation of fish scales. He would never have a beard and his eyes--oddly enough--look to the sides, as the eyes of a fish would, rather than straight ahead.

Each of the Pilgrims has many more details for identification. This just gives a way to begin, an introduction to Chaucer's amazing allegorical method. (The entire analysis with all the scholarly references and sources is the substance of Chaucer's Pilgrims: the Allegory, my third book about the Canterbury Tales.) The search for identifiers has been an exciting adventure.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Written in the Stars--Part 3

Libra/ the Manciple  Chaucer doesn't attempt to describe weighing scales in terms of a human being, but tells of the Manciple's business capabilities instead. A manciple is the servant who buys provisions. He's "a purchasing agent." Rather than scales used in transactions, the word Libra, itself means a purchasing agent. It signifies "pound," the British pound symbolized by £, which stands for libra. With no effort at all, this Manciple, as Libra, is money, the efficient agent of business transactions.

Scorpio/ the Reeve  Chaucer bypasses the many, bright stars of Scorpio. He concentrates on the scorpion image instead. Ancients described the living creature, with its claw-like pincers and a long, upturned tail, as a predator that haunts thicket and field. A scorpion's habit is to live most of its life alone in barns or deserted buildings. Death, from their venom, can come in less than an hour. Chaucer's Reeve--the overseer and accountant of a manor--is slender and bad-tempered. He is hairless and has legs like sticks. He keeps watch over storage areas. And is dreaded as if he were death itself. He prefers dwelling in the shadows on uncultivated land. The detail of being hindermost of the group points to the scorpion's extensive physical structure at the rear.

Sagittarius/ the Merchant  Sagittarius has no outstandingly bright stars. The image high on a horse he sat fits only one sign in the zodiac. Picture the torso of a man joined to the shoulder area of a horse, and always illustrated with a beard and tousled hair. Chaucer covers both details with a forked beard and a beaver hat. The creature's hooves are noted as boots neatly clasped. Because we are dealing with a man-beast the poet says men know not what to call him.

One more segment and all the Canterbury Pilgrims will have lifted their disguises.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Written in the Stars--Part 2

This is the second segment of the explication of the allegory presenting the signs of the zodiac disguised as Chaucer's Canterbury Pilgrims.

Cancer/ the Cook  Only one thing in the figure is noteworthy--a cluster of stars called the Manger. The Cook's appearance is not described. Chaucer tells only of his talent in "making" tasty dishes--until the last two lines. Attention, then, is drawn to the running sore on his shin--a sure indication of cancer. That unpleasant fact is immediately followed by telling of his reputation as an expert at making blankmanger. The white (blanc) manger "made" by the Cook refers to the star cluster of the sign of the Crab.

Leo/ the Monk  Three stars represent three oddities in the Monk. The first magnitude star, Regulus, is called "the Lion's Heart." Chaucer presents the brilliant Regulus as a golden ornament under the Monk's chin. A second prominent star, Denebola (Arabic, "the Lion's Tail"), is said to be the "love-knot in the greater end." A third star, Algieba (above Regulus) is named "Brow of the Lion." Chaucer indicated Algieba by describing the Monk's glowing eyes. The lion image is expressed with details of being a hunter after game and words like pricking, and being of good point.

Virgo/ the Wife  Virgo has many ancient associations with the thousand-name goddess--who spilled grain to form the Milky Way. There is only one outstanding feature in the figure--Spica, a blue star of the first magnitude. That name refers to an ear of corn, so Virgo is sometimes called "the corn maiden." Only one line about the Wife is needed to confirm her as Virgo--And on her feet a pair of spurs sharp. Chaucer, here, points to Spica. The Latin word, spica, means a spike, and it also means an ear of corn: spike for the star, ear of corn for the myth. As the Mother of the gods in the ancient Roman world, her statue received a ritual cleansing annually. And as the goddess Hera, a cleansing bath renewed her virginity each year. Of great significance, then, is the name the poet gave her--The Wife of Bath. The bath is essential to her identity.

Part 3 of this explanation we'll cover Libra, Scorpio and Sagittarius.

Written in the Stars--Part I

In the allegory of the Canterbury Tales, the introductions of zodiac constellations disguised as Chaucer's Pilgrims have identifiers all in clear view--if you look for them. They involve mythology and animal characteristics (where they apply) as well as stars that make up the figure. And one rule of allegory is--once you've recognized the guiding pattern, all the parts must be there. Once you know one of the signs, the challenge is to find all twelve.

Aries/ the Friar Hamal and Sheratan are a distinctive pair of stars in the head of Aries, who is the first of the zodiac ring. The sign appears in the chill of March, so Chaucer indicates these stars my saying the Friar's eyes twinkled in his head as do stars in the frosty night. Being the first is noted with the allusion to the Friar's pleasant "In principio." The wooly ram image is found in the Friar's short cloak of double worsted.

Taurus/ the Miller As a constellation, Taurus has been recognized since ancient times. The dominant star, Aldebaran, has the distinction of being yellow and the brightest star in the zodiac. The Miller's thumb of gold corresponds to brilliant Aldebaran. The animal image plays a large part. We see the Miller as stout, big of brawn and bones, short-shouldered, with a broad, thick, gnarled body. His nostrils are wide and black and he could heave a door off its hinges by running into it with his head.

Gemini/ the two brothers--the Parson and Plowman  The poet gives no physical description of these brothers. Single stars--Castor and Pollux--indicate the head of each. Alhena, the bright yellow star in Pollux, was also seen as "red." Chaucer captures the idea with --If gold rusts, what shall iron do? As Gemini rises, Castor (the Plowman) is seen first; Pollux (the Parson) comes into view later. The poet notes this when the Parson (Pollux) says--I am a Southern man. His is the "Southern man" because he is south of his brother.

Part 2 will tell about Cancer, Leo and Virgo.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Who's who?

Let's zero in on the Canterbury pilgrims mentioned last time. The essential clue to the whole plan is--they all arrive at sunset to stay for the night. One of the boys in my friend Judy's high school class said, "They're stars, of course." That opened up the whole scheme.
     Then who/what is the Miller--the brawny fellow with wide black nostrils who crashes his head into things? Do you see a bull? Right. And if we're dealing with stars, who is that bull? Taurus, right.
     The next question is about the two brothers. That's pretty obvious--Gemini. The identity of two other pilgrims who receive cordial treatment might trip you up, but rely on Chaucer's clues. A "star" associated with love--her motto is "Love conquers all"--would be Venus. Now we know we are dealing with the planets Chaucer knew as well as the zodiac. So what's your guess about a man dedicated to war? Mars? Right. These are simple introductions to the disguised pilgrims. More details come later.
     I want you to know that all the facts I present are not on the surface of Chaucer's poetry. I had to dig through a lot of information he could have known--information available in the 14th century--to understand what he says. It's been a fascinating search. For example, one fact I learned is that planets could be called pilgrims. What a happy surprise! A pilgrim was a wanderer--planets wander among the fixed stars, that is, among the constellations. The word planet could also be used in a general way to mean "heavenly bodies." So the night sky is truly a display of many pilgrims on a journey.
     Here's one more fact. Chaucer had expert knowledge about "stars." He gives a defining statement about each zodiac figure to clinch its identity. Taurus/the Miller's clue is presented as his "thumb of gold," a reference to Aldebaran, a yellow star and the brightest in all the zodiac. Next time we'll talk about the other defining indicators of the hidden identities.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Groundwork for the payoff

Here's the groundwork I promised so you may see what I see. It's sort of an introduction to the game that tells about Chaucer's clues, the bits of information he has hidden in his individual descriptions. These clues inform us about the identity of the characters that travel disguised as pilgrims.
     The first thing Chaucer does is emphasize that the whole group arrives at sunset to stay for the night. Ask yourself what "group" arrives when the sun sets. Chaucer saw them--and so have you.
     Here are Chaucer's hints that tell us about the pilgrim most often--and most easily--recognized. It's the Miller. Refined, he is not.

The Miller is called a stout churl, big of brawn and bones.
He's short-shouldered, with a broad, thick, gnarled body.
His nostrils are wide and  black and
he could heave a door off its hinges by running into it with his head.

What picture does that put in your mind's eye? If it surprises you, that's OK. Let it.. If you're on the right track, you might even know the name of this traveler you can see at night.
     Let's assume you recognized "him." (If not yet, maybe a second pass will catch the trick.) Now, what is your guess as to who the two brothers are that journey together? And there are two other pilgrims who stay the night and are treated very cordially. One is a man dedicated to war. The other is a woman whose motto is "Love conquers all." Are you beginning to understand what "group" the poet has concealed in his pilgrims?
     The "puzzle" pieces are not all that obvious, but what you've seen is a good start. Chaucer's plan is a thrill to me every time I think about it. Next time I'll identify the pilgrims mentioned here and talk about a few more.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Sharing the jackpot

So, I'm holding the Canterbury jackpot. I know the hidden identity of the Pilgrims! Exciting? Can you imagine? I felt like I'd burst! I had to tell somebody. Fortunate, my husband was in the next room. He was a mathematician, a computer nerd who'd never read Chaucer. But he catered to my obvious excitement when I told him I had something I needed to share.
     With patience on his part and eagerness on mine, I made my first attempt to have someone else "see" what I see. After considerable explanation, when he finally reached the aha! moment, he responded to Chaucer's cunning with spontaneous joy for me. How wonderful!
     It was clear, from that first attempt, that I had to develop a much more concise explanation. I wanted to show the whole world Chaucer's amazing design. The literary world would be astonished, stimulated--as soon as I was able to have the design make sense to them.
      My explanation would have to be refined before I could publish it. I started by constructing a "game." I'd give Chaucer's clues--what he'd hidden in the descriptions of the pilgrims--to see if others recognized what was being disguised.
     I tried the game with my relatives at a family gathering. That version (plan A) was only adequate. After working it over, I presented plan B to a small group of friends from church. That went well. But the supreme test came when my friend Judy suggested I try it on her high school English class.
     What an afternoon that was! I don't know if it was more exhilarating for the students or me. That exhilaration, however, was not immediate. When I finished laying out the game plan, the room was utterly silent. After waiting a couple of moments, Judy prompted them--"Don't be shy. What do you think is the answer?" That's all the encouragement it took. The room erupted. A bit of insight, of recognition came first from one student, then another and another. They could "see" Chaucer's ingenious format.
     Next time, before I hand you the answer, I'll lay some groundwork. That way you might have the thrill of visualizing the pattern of Chaucer's scheme before I reveal it.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Pilgrims in disguise

You could content yourself with the surface story of the Canterbury Tales and let the idea of a hidden meaning just slide. Chaucer's surface story has been enjoyed for centuries--and will continue to be, but I couldn't do that. The poetry nagged me: "Why did he say that?" For example, only one of the pilgrims is said to wear spurs. No, not the Knight. It's one of the women. Why would Chaucer say that? I figured he must have had a reason.

While we're on the subject of pilgrims, in one of his earlier poems (Troilus and Criseyde), Chaucer says the hero "Like a pilgrim he disguised himself" so that he could make his way undetected into enemy territory to visit his ladylove. I didn't know about that disguise until after the episode I'm about to describe, but it shows that our poet already had that trick in mind.

The whole scheme of the Canterbury pilgrims distracted me. Chaucer's reputation was too well known, his skills too well recognized by his contemporaries for me to think that the group was a haphazard collection. So what was it that made this precise combination necessary? Why was there one pair of brothers, not from a religious order, but two men related by birth? Why not three brothers or no brothers? Why was there a wife--but no husband and wife? Why no children? Why so few women?
     When I raised the question of the make-up of this assortment of travelers, I was told, "That's just the way it was in the Middle Ages." End of discussion. But that never satisfied me. And it didn't stop the tape loop that had begun playing in my head. No matter what I was doing, in some little compartment of my brain, a never-ending succession of the images of the pilgrims was always on screen. I knew there had to be an answer to the selection of exactly this group. My need for the answer was obsessive, unrelenting. That ever-present pilgrim tape streamed past my mind's eye for more than a week--and then it happened.
     Picture this. What's going on in your mind is projected on a TV screen, and at the bottom of the screen there is a narrow tape running--rather like news headlines are displayed. That tape at the bottom ran on and on with the pictures of the pilgrims. And then--without any warning--my memory dredged up a second tape of images that began running just above the pilgrim tape, and in a few moments they meshed. They matched. The pilgrims were identified. The tapes stopped running, and I sat there overwhelmed, contemplating the matched identities. It was like checking your lottery ticket against the winning numbers printed in the newspaper-- and realizing you've won the jackpot. Eureka! I suddenly knew that Chaucer presents one group of characters described in terms of another group. The pilgrims are all disguised!

Monday, March 5, 2012

What time is it?

The basis of the Canterbury Tales, as you may know, is the journey of a fascinating group of pilgrims who travel from London to Canterbury. The travelers are given a night's bed and board in "the Tabard" before they set out. Chaucer puts himself into the story as one of the pilgrims. He is alone in the Tabard and anticipating his journey to Canterbury when, as if by coincidence, a large group arrives.

At night was come into that hostelry
Well nine-and-twenty in a company,
Of sundry folk, by chance come together
In fellowship, and pilgrims were they all,
That toward Canterbury would ride.   (A 23-27)

In lines of the General Prologue, Chaucer gives an account of the arrival. He tells us it was late when the nine-and-twenty companions appeared. He takes immediate interest in these folks. By sunset, he has spoken with every one of them. He says this with one information-packed sentence:

Shortly, when the sun had gone to rest
I had spoken with everyone of them
So that I was of their fellowship immediately    (A 30-32)

This is followed directly by a plan for the morning.

And we agreed early to rise
To make our way, as I will describe to you.    (A 33-34)

What seems a heading-for-sleep is not. Instead, Chaucer tells us that he will take this opportunity--as if time stands still--to describe each member of the company, and proceeds to set forth an entertaining cast of characters the like of which had never been seen (or heard) in English literature before. With many intimate details, we will come to know these pilgrims. More about that later.

But before thinking of the pilgrims, I am confused and flip the page back and then forward again to make sure that line A 23 says they arrived at night, and seven lines later it says that when the sun had gone to rest (that is, by the time the sun had set), Chaucer had spoken to each of the travelers. If we agree that "night" means night, the indications of time are backwards. On the other hand, if we explain that "night," in this case, really means evening, we have the amazing accomplishment of the poet speaking to, and becoming acquainted with, each of the twenty-nine individuals within minutes. The time elapsed would be the brief period between evening and the moment when the sun disappears below the horizon.
     My feeling is that "night" means night, and the references to time are actually given in reverse order--night and then sunset. We will find that Time, in this adventure, will never be what we expect. Chaucer will soon see to it that the whole idea of time will be a blur.

The efficiency with which the poet gets to the heart of his subject, the economy of words used to reach their time of departure, is remarkable--but misleading.
     Chaucer makes the acquaintance of each traveler and all agree to rise early next morning. We would expect that the venture would begin immediately following "we agreed early to rise to make our way, as I will describe to you." But our expectation of the progress of linear time is side-stepped once again. In spite of this quickly-to-bed-and-early-to-rise impression, what was originally said in two lines (A 31-32) will now be expanded to six hundred seventy-one lines. Chaucer, while he has "time and space" (A 35), is ready to tell us all about his new-found friends.
     The narrator's extended monologue is some of the most entertaining reading in the English language. But while we are being entertained, a problem is developing: We have been cut adrift. Is this the same night? Or is Chaucer speaking from a time in the future looking back? Is he talking to us from the Tabard, or telling us recollections of bygone days? It's no longer clear. We are losing touch with when or where we are.
     And, his ultimate time trick, when the 600 some lines telling what he knows of the travelers is finished, the Host enters to serve their meal. We are once more at the arrival scene. The owner of the Tabard has just made his initial appearance!
     The poet makes time expand, contract, invert, or even stand still. He surrounds us with the conviviality of the Tabard, or immerses us in the adventures of the road. Within a few lines, we are no longer functioning in any specific time or space. And we accept the fantasy--the uncertainty--without objection.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Grand Procession

Now let's return to considerations of the importance of the Host as the Eucharist. While Chaucer lived, more and more splendid features were incorporated into the feast celebrating the gift of the Eucharist. Specially composed liturgies, elaborate processions and dramatized presentations were added.

Entire communities became involved in these activities (at Chester, York, etc.). Each year, E. K. Chambers (The Mediaeval Stage) tells us, "the leading ceremony was a great procession in which the host (the consecrated bread of the Mass), escorted by local dignitaries, religious bodies and guilds, was borne through the streets and displayed successively at out-of-door stations." The feast "provided new contexts of meaning for the [E]ucharist in the feast's evolving iconography."

In the early morning of the feast day the Eucharist (the Host), reverently displayed, was raise up for all to see. (The priest's elevating of the Host during the Mass became identified with the Consecration, the moment when the bread became Christ.) The procession then formed as they left the church to travel through the streets of the city. (This tradition still lives today in many  places.) Worshipers--traditionally dignitaries, clergy, religious, guildsmen and others--followed in procession. These fourteenth-century attendees would naturally move at a walking pace.

Miri Rubin, in her comprehensive study of the history of the Eucharist in the medieval world, tells of a mid-fourteenth-century sermon that holds an interesting relationship to the scene we are reviewing. The sermon was composed for Corpus Christi and contains "vibrant references to tale and allegory." It depicts Christ on His journey to heaven.

Christ is portrayed as an honored man who mounts a horse; this is understood as the action of the priest at Consecration when he "raises[s] Christ aloft in his hands." The equestrian ride which follows is then compared to the exposition of the Eucharistic Host as it is carried through the streets. As we have noted before, the underlying images of Christ to be seen in Chaucer's words are often the expression of a medieval thought pattern; they are not the poet's individual creativity for the Canterbury Tales, but adaptations of imagery from his day-to-day world.
     Picture the poet as one of the spectators at this grand display; see his fertile imagination scanning the scene before him as he transposes it into his final masterpiece--the Canterbury Tales.

What we are told as Chaucer's pilgrims prepare to set out hardly reflects real preparations for a trip. This is, in fact, one of the first indications that the poet is constructing a fantasy. And his fantasy parallels the elements of a Corpus Christi procession.

Here is Chaucer's description of the Canterbury pilgrims setting forth. First, notice what is not said. We hear (see) nothing of preparations--no breakfast, no transport of possessions, no saddling of horses, no sounds or movements, no mention of weather, nor attitudes of the pilgrims. Who was the first one ready? Who caused a delay? Instead, here is the entire departure sequence. At the break of day up rose the Host and gathered us together in a flock and forth we rode. That's all. And the journey has begun.
     We are given no pertinent information as they proceed through the city. Do they ride two by two, or single file, or as a close group through the streets?
     There is another similarity between the flock of pilgrims that accompanies the Canterbury Host and worshipers who make up a Corpus Christi procession. In both cases the group includes dignitaries, religious and guild members.
     And finally, although we assume they are on horses, they move slowly--so slowly that Chaucer says they go at little more than a walking pace! As was pointed out earlier, that's the expected pace of the Corpus Christi procession.
     Chaucer has set us up. We're about to be taken for a ride--and we're hardly aware of it.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Host's Lament

A comic image could provide a distracting surface characterization--that of an apparently henpecked husband. Many decades of laughter have concentrated on comedy in the Host's commentary and in so doing have perpetuated the impression of a single meaning. Let's look further.

The Host has a wife but she has not been mentioned before, because she is not part of the pilgrim company. She is never seen but merely commented upon in two brief snatches of the Host's conversation. And who would we recognize as the Host's/Christ's wife--the Church. She is the traditional Bride of Christ. The Host's reactions hold a dual intent, as an unhappy husband and as Christ expressing covert distress about his self-righteous wife. As a beleaguered husband, he reports his wife's faults, but breaks off, hesitant to say too much. The concern is the same for Chaucer. He dare not have his dissent regarding the Church become obvious.
     These are the Host's laments:

"When I punish my servants, my wife brings me weapons and cries, 'Slay the dogs everyone. And break them, both back and every bone!' If a neighbor will not bow to my wife in church, or is so fearless as to offend her, she attacks me to my face when she comes home. She feels I'm a milksop, a cowardly fool, who would not stand by her authority.
     "Someday she'll make me slay a neighbor, for she is strong in her arms, by my faith. That's what he will find, who offends her by his deeds or words."

These are chilling comments about a spouse. How could the poet fail to ask himself, "Would Christ use these methods if He walked the earth today?" Chaucer says enough for us to understand, but breaks off--before the intention becomes transparent.
     Evasions are contained in "Let's pass away from this matter" and "It doesn't matter! let it go." To criticize would be perilous, the Host tells us, because "It would be reported back to her." These comments taken seriously--rather than as comic exaggerations--portray a harridan, a tyrant.

H. C. Lea, in his The Inquisition of the Middle Ages, seems to be describing precisely what the Host refers to. Lea tells that torture had long been recognized as an effective tool and in the early 1300s Inquisitors were given permission to apply it without limitations to heretics. Thus, he states, "the Church grew harder and crueller and more unchristian." Paralleling the Host's caution about his wife's strong arms and being reported, Lea declares, "to human apprehension the papal Inquisition was wellnigh ubiquitous, omniscient, and omnipotent." The harsh, letter-of-the-law procedures of the fourteenth-century Church hardly reflect Christ's Gospel message of love and justice.
     The Host's fear, that he would "slay a neighbor," was well-founded. Just months after Chaucer's death the Inquisition sentenced an Englishman to be burned at the stake.

Suddenly, at a point in my research, this terrifying image of the Host's wife clearly became a portrait of the Church. The realization devastated me. As a Catholic, my feeling about my relationship to the Church had always been that of a loving child. She was my mother! The terror of this fourteenth -century portrayal brought anguish to my mind and heart.

Virginia had seen that image before I'd said a word about it. When I reached the final chapter of the book, her face grew serious, almost grim, as she said "You haven't mentioned the Host's wife," and added, "I recall Chaucer's description of her as a hard, cruel person." After a pause she said, "She must be the Church!"

The Host laments that his wife is cruel, demanding, quarrelsome, and unfeeling. If his words are those of an innkeeper, we see a dreadful married relationship. But, if uttered by Christ accusing the Church as cruel, demanding, quarrelsome, unfeeling, these traits are an apt description of the medieval Church's power and widespread action of the Inquisition. We may ask, "Where is the love and justice of Christ's teachings?" But such a question could not be spoken aloud in the fourteenth century without severe consequences. It took a courageous poet under cover of allegory to express such fears and frustrations.
     The facts of this dreadful image of the Church cannot be denied. I shuddered when it leapt out at me. I still shudder.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Getting back to business--finally

Well, that "maybe even tomorrow" was certainly wishful thinking. We last spoke about the Canterbury Tales on September 26. Good grief! That's four months that I've left you anticipating the cause that made me "shudder." With all that's gone on in my life and yours, it's best that we refresh the ideas we were considering and work up to the shudder.
     You may recall that the first time 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 the best food and strong wine. Such words were, and still are, often used poetically to describe the Eucharistic Host (the Bread of the Catholic Mass). Chaucer's Host offers to guide the pilgrims at his own cost. He declares that 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, John 14:6). And, as the travelers prepare to depart in the morning, Chaucer says the Host gathered them in a flock. Did you see a shepherd image momentarily--the Good Shepherd? Each attribute plays a part in creating the portrait.

The Pilgrim Cook mentions the Host's actual name--Herry Bailly--but it is never used. I bypassed the significance hidden in the name Herry Bailly in an earlier entry. But now let's see what Chaucer's imagination has hidden in these two words. Both the first and last name have another life as ordinary fourteenth-century Middle English words. Though herry is not a word in our modern vocabulary, it speaks of giving praise to God. Chaucer uses the word elsewhere. For example, "God they thank and herie (praise)" and "[He] herieth (praises) Christ, who is King of Heaven." As the Host's name, its ambiguity covertly praises God.
     And, bailly, the second name, is defined as a figure of authority, an administrator. Together the words identify the Host as a praiseworthy leader. It is another link in a chain of clues.
     Non-use of this given name demonstrates that the repetition of Host (sixty-six times) was the poet's aim, making its significance hard to ignore or dismiss. If the Host had been referred to as Herry, even now and then, Eucharistic possibilities--the Christic identity--would not exist.
     The word/name directs our attention to the most renowned Host in the fourteenth century--the Eucharist. The presence of Christ within the Eucharistic Host had been proclaimed as dogma in 1215. The annual Feast of Corpus Christi (Body of Christ) was instituted and became mandatory in the Roman Church Calendar in 1312. Popularity of this feast grew as time went on. In Chaucer's lifetime, the celebration surpassed both Christmas and Easter in its resplendence. A grand procession became the traditional central element of the festivities. [We will speak of the procession another time.]

Returning to Chaucer's clues, the following lines have been difficult to decipher. The Host states:

And well I know the substance is in me,
If anything shall well-reported be.

Substance, here, has been interpreted as being able to understand, but that sense is not readily apparent. Instead, let's pursue substance in association with theology.
     The primary definition of substance in the Oxford English Dictionary says: "Essential nature, essence; esp. Theol., with regard to the being of God, the divine nature or essence." That entry quotes the Athanasian Creed (1325) regarding Christ: "He is God of the substance of the Father." In addition, the first entry in the Middle English Dictionary says substance is "used of the incarnate Christ."
     When the poet declares substance to be "in" the Host, this echoes Transubstantiation. Scholastic Theology, in describing transubstantiation, says the "accidents" (the attributes or qualities) of bread can be seen, while the "substance" (or essence) mystically becomes the body of Christ.

And what of the "oaths" (curses) the Host utters? In the General Prologue the poet inserted a disclaimer about Christ's words; though they may be strong, they are not meant to offend. When this character says, "for God's worshipful passion," and, "by the cross," if he is an ordinary man, we would take such phrases as blasphemy. But if spoken by Christ, rather than curses, they are allusions to his personal experience--to crucifixion!
     One such oath--"Harrow!" said he, "by nails and by blood!"--we have already dealt with. Its significance could not be more powerful.

Our last consideration will be the Host/Pardoner confrontation which is ordinarily read with emphasis on humor. In a moment of apparent comedy, the Pilgrim Pardoner seems to reveal embarrassing information about the Host. Offering to absolve (pardon) each pilgrim of his or her sins, the Pardoner says first of the Host:

I advise that our Host here shall begin
For he is most enveloped in sin.

"Enveloped" is hand-picked by Chaucer; sins are  external to the Host; sin surrounds, envelops him. Christ is often said to take all our sins upon Himself. Thus, sinfulness closely associated with Christ is external to His being; it envelops Him--as it does our Host. Here again, we find a comic surface that, when penetrated, reveals the presence of Christ. It takes only careful reading with an open mind to see the image.

Once we acknowledge that the figure of the Host contains both an innkeeper and Christ Himself, the question is: Why did the poet devise this covert plan? Why such an elaborate effort to disguise Christ? In the Canterbury Tales Chaucer creatively sets forth an affirmation and a dissension.
     First is the affirming of Christ within the Host. Numerous depictions confirm His presence. With this identity established, recognition of the dissension is simple.
     Recall that in England, the poet had lived through the violent end of The Peasant Revolt and the loss of many friends to sudden cruel ends. And, regarding the Church, he was well aware of the terror of the Inquisition and the anguish of the Great Schism.
     Figures of authority, who ruled kingdoms or the Church, at that time, were believed to be chosen by God. Therefore, to oppose pronouncement of royalty or the hierarchy equaled high treason or heresy.
     Chaucer's plan to record what he knew, to be guided by his conscience, in spite of possible dire consequences, is remarkable and courageous. With Christ's presence accepted, we are about to learn the dreadful situation that Virginia Adair recognized as concealed in the Host's personal disclosures.


Monday, January 2, 2012

Did you miss me?

Here it is the first day of a new year. (It's past midnight, but I still consider this the same day.) Time to make a new resolve. I've been away. Wow!  It's been a long time. Missed November and December completely.
Things were happening at home. Lots to think about and keep track of. Just couldn't stretch my attention any further.

So now it is time to get back to Chaucer. I'll be back soon, maybe even tomorrow.
My very best wishes to everyone for a peaceful and fulfilling 2012.