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.