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.