Thursday, December 19, 2013

The efficient Manciple

If you assumed every zodiac image came from a myth, it's not true. Libra, the Scales, became the twelfth zodiac character by Julius Caesar's declaration. Sometimes called the Balance, Libra appears at the autumnal equinox in September when night and day are equal.
     The Pilgrim Manciple, Libra, has no personality. Chaucer side-steps describing a weighing scale in terms of a human being. He illustrates the Manciple's capabilities, instead.
     Scales were essential to medieval business, but searching narratives of transactions with scales provided few facts. When I pursued the word Libra, instead, Chaucer's scheme proved simple. The Latin word libra means pound; that's why the British pound is symbolized as a fancy "L"--£, which stands for libra. (Our lb for a pound of sugar also comes from libra.) This Manciple, as Libra , is money, the agent of business transactions. We learn he is an exemplary purchaser and a help to many people under many circumstances. Of course!
     Chaucer says, "He always wayted so in his buying," where "wayted" (as in lady-in-waiting) is a play on watched and on weighted. "He was always beforehand in good staat." Good state refers to being in an unchanging position, like a scale that is balanced before money changes hands. Good state can also refer to an aspect of heavenly bodies, such as planets in a favorable position.
     A question follows. "Isn't it a gift of God when an uneducated man's wit surpasses the wisdom of learned men?" Chaucer's questions are devious. The words are purposeful, but don't affirm what they say. Mention of an uneducated man just maintains the human pretense. Learned men could be at a disadvantage when tradesmen use dishonest scales.
     "Masters" were in charge of the Manciple's activities--"more than thrice ten," a number akin to days in a zodiac sign. His masters "were of the law expert and skillful." Experts in law come in many varieties. England's commerce had laws, and masters of those laws. Early in the fourteenth century, London installed an official weighing machine overseen by a weighmaster. A corps of eight "master measurers," had twenty-four assistants. That also totals "more than thrice ten."
     Of a master Chaucer says, "There were a dozen in that house." Again the number attracts attention. By law, every twelve months weights were inspected and duly registered. The twelve zodiac signs could be masters over transactions, as well, because celestial calculations often preceded business dealings. The poet recommends that the twelve are worthy to be in charge of "revenue," where both money and zodiac influence can be intended.
     The Manciple's tale includes fun with images of scales and money. Another question: Do you know the town called "Bobbe-up-and-doun"? Our mind's eye sees the bobbing of a scale, the question's only purpose. Money is the subject of a man for hire, reckonings, and his willingness to pay.
     With minimal challenge, the Manciple, Libra, represents Money, as the first influence in Chaucer's clique. The poet said his purse is his life, comfort and the source of good company. If "it" is in need, he laments, "I may die!"
     Next we'll ponder the role of Taurus, the most recognizable sign of the zodiac.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Pilgrim Chaucer's Clique

At the close of the previous entry, I said we would face challenges with this new topic. If you're familiar with the General Prologue, you know that acquainting us with the pilgrims goes on for many pages--the Knight, the Wife, the Friar, the Monk, the Physician, Sir Thopas and more. Then, an apparently random cluster, like five left-overs, are presented all at once, as if Chaucer is in a rush to have done with the introductions. But that's not it at all. Immediately after citing the five, the individuals are singled out and given as detailed and unique a description as all those who came before. Finding a reason for this tactic is the first challenge.
     Here is how Chaucer begins:
           There was also a Reeve, and a Miller,
           A Summoner, and a Pardoner also,
           A Manciple, and myself--there were no more.
This is what their occupations amounted to: A reeve kept the records of what was produced on a manor, and the work done. A miller needs no special explanation. A summoner was a petty clerical officer who cited people to appear before the ecclesiastical court. A pardoner was a minor churchman, who had the reputation of selling "little pardons" in lieu of other penances. A manciple was an employee of an institution and functioned mainly in the purchasing of provisions.
     Because I understood that the pilgrims were signs of the zodiac, my first thought had to do with astrology. Were these signs significant to Chaucer's birth date? That may be true, but it is well nigh impossible to discover facts to support this notion because birth dates of commoners--such as Chaucer--were rarely recorded.
      So why set them in a group? At first glance it might seem pointless, but Pilgrim Chaucer is made a member of this clique. That is surely a signal to gain our attention. These characters must have some sort of affinity with one another and some sort of relationship with the author/pilgrim.
      I'd worked with the five for quite a while, first this one, then that one, when a recognizable traditional influence came into focus for each! The five did portray pilgrims and signs of the zodiac--but now, clearly, each had a third role to play. These were not incidental associates. The poet had reserved this handful to construct the ultimate image of his own pilgrimage. That answers the first challenge.
     We will deal separately with the members of his clique, to illustrate what it is that connects each one to the others and to Chaucer's pilgrimage--his life. Our search will acquaint us with Scorpio, Taurus, Aquarius, Pisces, and Libra.
     We'll begin next time with Libra, the Manciple because its significance will be obvious after very little evidence.

Monday, December 9, 2013


I'll be giving a talk about Chaucer's scheme hidden in the Canterbury Tales.
It's this coming Saturday!

WHERE-- La Verne Public Library
                  3640 D Street  (at Foothill Blvd.)
                  La Verne, CA  91750

DATE--Saturday, December 14, 2013
TIME--2 p.m.

MORE INFO--909--596-1934

Hope to see you there.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Two for one: Gemini

Let's return to seeing how Chaucer demonstrates the celestial identity of each pilgrim. Evidence for the Parson and Plowman is fool-proof. They are the only pair of brothers; they must be Gemini. Chaucer sets up situations to draw images from their myth, and their constellations.
     Gemini, the two mythical brothers--Castor and Pollux--were sons of Leda. Leda's husband, Tyndareous, was the father of Castor. Zeus, in one of his numerous seductions, fathered Pollux. Having a god as his father meant immortality for Pollux, while Castor was a mere mortal. Chaucer indicates the difference between godly and human status by naming them a parson (a man of God) and  a plowman (assuredly a man of the earth).  
     Human Castor trained horses. When Chaucer introduces the Plowman, he associates him with horses. The pilgrim transports manure.
     Godly Pollux became a boxer. The poet tells of Pollux sowing seed, as in the gospel. Sowing of the seed, however, comes not from his hand, but from the pugilist Pollux's fist!
     The Gemini were usually illustrated seated on horseback, spear in hand, wearing short, sleeveless garments. Chaucer's brief glimpse of the pilgrim brothers has the Parson holding a (spear-like) staff, while the Plowman's garb, a simple tabard, is noted as he sits astride a horse. So much for the myth.
      Now for what the constellation contributes to their identification. Castor and Pollux are two rows of stars, which are almost straight parallel lines. Single stars--"Castor" and "Pollux"--indicate the head of each figure. The star Alhena marks the feet of Pollux and is golden. The ancient astronomer Ptolemy, however, called Alhena "red." To convey the oddity of something being golden and red, the poet observes
          If gold rusts, what shall iron do?
      As the constellations rise, Castor is seen first; Pollux is four degrees southeast of Castor and ascends ten minutes later. Chaucer refers to Castor's later rising when the Parson (Castor) says,
          Trust well, I am a Southern man
His stars are south of his brother's.
     In the Prologue to the Parson's Tale, the very last Tale, the sun is almost down, yet the Host takes time for one-sided chatter about the Parson. In quick succession he asks,
          Art thou a vicar? Or a parson (person)?
Then the Parson is asked to open what he carries with him. The Host coaxes,
          Unbokele, and shewe us what is in thy male.
"Male" can indicate a pouch, but it also means a man, or masculinity. The Parson is asked to reveal what he contains; what he is made of. Though the chatter seems pointless, it directs attention to the substance of the Parson. It is the poet's way of indicating that both Gemini are bound up in the Parson.
     From the two pilgrim brothers comes only one story. The Plowman (like the Cook's Guildsmen) is never spoken to or about. He never utters a word, nor does he participate in any of the activities of the journey. His presence only completes the dual image for Gemini.
       Our next topic will be Chaucer's clique. It will cover several entries and provide a number of challenges.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

I've been busy

Took some time out to write a proposal for a conference. Sent it off a couple of days ago. Here's hoping it's chosen.
     Next let's talk about the Parson and his brother the Plowman. If you've looked at the entries called "Written in the Stars" (April 2012), you know these two pilgrims are the zodiac sign of Gemini. Now we'll see how Chaucer's details in the descriptions of the pair indicate their individual mythological identities and how the stars in the constellation provide the confirmation.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Thopas--Melibee 1-2-3

We are at the windup of Chaucer's personal centerpiece--Thopas and Melibee--the presentation of the poet's alter ego, Pilgrim Chaucer. Because the journeyers are asked to "tell of adventures that had happened," I take the events to be patterned after Chaucer's life. Thopas recounts sprinting as a young man engaged in sexual conquests surviving an ordeal resulting from his pursuits; recovering--and returning to "life as usual." His "return" finds him among royal society, living the courtly life. Then it happens. A spiritual confrontation causes him an about-face, a determination to lead a moral life. That's where we are now.

The  Pilgrim's second offering translates a popular French tale about Melibee, that is, "a man who drinks honey." The poet says he may change some of the words, but that will only serve to reinforce his subject matter.
     French Melibee has a wife, Prudence, and a nameless daughter. He leaves his wife and daughter at home and goes into the world looking for entertainment. In his absence, enemies beat Prudence and wound the daughter. The remainder of the plot deals with Melibee's deciding what vengeful action to take. Prudence counsels him at length!
     Now to Chaucer's translation. The first thing the poet adds is a pastoral setting. Melibee goes "into the fields." Prudence confirms his intent as sexual. Echoes of Thopas!
     Next, Chaucer gives the anonymous daughter a significant name--Sophie, which means wisdom. The plot gains a dual message. Now, besides learning of domestic events, we know Melibee failed to have the virtues of Prudence and Wisdom accompany him!
     In his absence, enemies beat his wife and wound his daughter, leaving her for dead. Chaucer's scenario deals with Melibee's reaction to the attack, and--of added urgency--finding the means for Sophie's recovery. Her recovery represents the restoration of Melibee's wisdom.
     Prudence tells Melibee that if he will trust her advice, she will restore Sophie's well-being. After much debate, Melibee decides in favor of Prudence. When he says, "I will do your will and put myself completely under your guidance," we know Sophie--his wisdom--will be restored.
     Chaucer also enhances the spiritual content. Where the French simply repeats Dieu, Chaucer diversifies with "Almighty God," "Jesus Christ," or "Lord God of heaven." And when the French merely alludes to "Second Corinthians," Chaucer quotes the verse: The joye of God is perdurable, that is to seyn everlastynge.
     When the French text comes to an end, Chaucer adds one more conviction.
               Doubtless, if we are sorry and repent of the sins 
              which we committed in the sight of our Lord God, 
              he is so generous and merciful that he will forgive our guilts 
              and bring us to the bliss that never ends. Amen.
This is the pilgrim poet's ultimate "reinforcement."
     Though Thopas' wrong-doing is obvious--his account more outspoken than Melibee's--both characters had sinful beginnings. Thopas endures bodily anguish for physical transgressions. In contrast, Melibee is afflicted with mental anguish over the damage to his Prudence and Wisdom.
     Eventually Meibee prudently, wiselcounsels:
               He is truly worthy to have pardon and forgiveness of his sin, 
              who does not excuse his sin, but acknowledges it and repents.
Thopas is on the right track. His tale is a straightforward acknowledgment of misdeeds without excuses. Melibee's guilt, on the other hand, is more subtle. But he too acknowledges his sinfulness (prompted by Prudence). Mercy is anticipated for both.

Pilgrim Chaucer's performance becomes a physical-spiritual dichotomy. Recall the little grotesque figures identified with Thopas as the personality "below the waist," the genital area with a mind of its own. Then Melibee is the upper or elevated portion--the portion dominated by the mind or soul--that has the mouth filled with honey. Together they are the dual nature of one man.
     Melibee who knew the honey of "temporal riches and delights, and honors" seems a proper image of the poet--trusted international servant, and entertaining performer to English kings and court. This upper honey-filled portion could portray the public life of our poet; Thopas, the lower prickster component, his private life. Together they are a personal centerpiece dramatizing Geoffrey Chaucer's transgressions, conversion, and confidence in God's mercy.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Host's patience runs out

Following the first part of his story, Pilgrim Chaucer continues to lead his audience into sin and try the patience of God.

The mood changes in part two. Gone are the youthful adventures of Thopas. Now he is a "man" of the world, with visions of chivalry. The Pilgrim is very sure of  himself. We hear him address
           Both knight and lady free,
                    Harken to my report:
          Of battle and of chivalry,
          And of ladies' flirtations.
Such boldness! Disadvantaged "Janes" are history. Now he dallies with women of nobility, who are lovers, not just "love" objects. Thoughts of chivalry show advance in prestige. Similar words (chevalier, cavalier, cavalry) give mental pictures of mounted horsemen. That action will not change.
     Thopas gives a brilliant performance in the saddle.
          His good steed he was astride,
          And forth upon his way he glided (or glowed)
                    As sparks out of the torch.
A man on a horse does not function like sparks released from a torch--but a phallus does. "Glided" in the previous line has no relation to hoofs beating the earth.
     And we learn
          Because he was a knight adventurous, 
          He would sleep in no house,
                    But lie in his hood.
Eager for exploits, he seeks not the comfort of a house. Instead he lies in his hood. It's hardly sufficient protection for a grown man. But if the image is, instead, an uncircumcised instrument, this is precisely where "he" would spend "his" reinvigorating down-time. This hood indicates the prepuce, the foreskin. A naughty fifteenth-century poem calls a virile member that is not covered by the foreskin a "rascal standing hoodless."
     The poet inserts a momentary concern--a prayer for Thopas' protection.
          God shield his body from shame!
The prayer is a surprise, but better late than never. Christ, as the Host, also hears the prayer.
     As the story nears its end, legendary Sir Percival, of the Grail Quest, is mentioned. Christ's patience reaches its limit. The storyteller, oblivious to what is about to occur, continues,
                    Until one day--
but the Host will not even allow him to finish the thought.
     [Note: A great deal of double entendre had to be ignored for Thopas' story to be dull, as its reputation says it is.]
     Pilgrim Chaucer had just come into his stride for part two, when the Host--in the middle of a line--cries halt.
                    "No more of this, by God's dignity,"
          Said our Host, "for you make me
          So weary of your very lewdness
          That, as certainly as God may bless my soul,
          My ears ache from your drasty speech."
He can bear no more.
     The story is lewd and filthy. The drast--scum or fecal matter--causes the Host's/Christ's pain. Stressing His revulsion, He says
                    ". . . plainly, in a word,
          Your drasty rhyming is not worth a turd!"
Could He make it clearer? His final decree is
          "Sir, at a word, you shall no longer rhyme."
Thopas is harshly, but firmly being saved from ruin in response to that brief prayer. His life and his destiny will change--by the grace of God.
     Then, asked by the Host/Christ for prose, Pilgrim Chaucer immediately complies.
          "Gladly, by God's sweet pain!"
He refers directly to the Crucifixion, and then alludes to the Gospels centered on Christ's Passion and Death. The poet notes that though each Evangelist had his own way of telling the story, "doubtless the sentence is all one." "Sentence," here, is understood as the true meaning.  
      In closing his comments, he reminds his audience that variations are capable of producing the same Truth (sentence). The story of Melibee and Prudence, which will be his second offering, was popular among readers of French. He explains that his translation may add more proverbs and change some of the words, but these changes will only "reinforce the effect of [his] subject matter." The sentence will not change.
     Now, his transitional declaration complete, Pilgrim Chaucer is eager to prove his new righteousness.        

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Thopas' comeuppance and victory

With just the hint of a problem last time, here comes the real thing.
          There came a great giant,
          His name was Sir Elephant.
Aside from noting the mammoth size of Sir Elephant, the poet declines to give any physical details. The simpler the description, the easier it functions on more than one level.
     The giant's first action, as he swears by a pagan god, is to threaten Thopas.
          "By Termagant!
          If you prick out of my haunt,
               Immediately I'll slay your steed."
"Termagant," may be foreign to us, but Crusaders had returned home with stories of the Arabian god. The giant is prepared to eliminate Thopas' horsemanship.
     Thopas is quick to challenge.
          "Tomorrow will I meet with thee
               When I have my armor;
          . . . 
         With my lance thou shalt
               Buy it bitterly.
                         Thy belly
          I shall pierce . . . 
          Before it is nine in the morning,
               For here thou shalt be slain."
Thopas makes the foolish-sounding promise that a lance will end the giant's life.
     The challenge given,
          Sir Thopas drew back very quickly. 
          This giant cast stones at him.
               . . . 
          But Thopas fortunately escaped.
Sir Elephant continues to menace our hero with stones, but Thopas retreats unharmed.
     In a plot of sexual activity, our instinctive answer as to what would prevent such escapades is venereal disease. Crusaders not only brought back stories, but some brought back afflictions. "Termagant," the Arabian god plus "Sir Elephant" adds up to a well-known "venereal" disease--Elephantiasis Arabum. (In the Middle Ages, any genital distress would be considered a venereal disease, just as any serious skin condition would mean being cast out as a leper.)
     Crusaders learned about elephantiasis, enlargements which can attack the genitals. A grossly exaggerated scrotum can weigh one-hundred pounds or more. Sir Elephant, as the personification of Venereal Disease, appropriately heaves stones.
      Now, oddly, we gain an astonishing fact about the enemy. Thopas must fight
          A giant with three heads.
Another of Chaucer's brilliant ambiguities: there are three heads. Why didn't Chaucer mention this at Sir Elephant's entrance? His generic identification as Venereal Disease came first. And now we zero in on the specific complaint. The phallus is threatened by three heads, that is three inflamed boils. What does a fourteenth-century man do to rid himself of three infected heads? He accepts a physical ordeal. The "battle" to be waged against the "opponent" is staged in a doctor's quarters. As he says, the three heads will be done away with--with a lance--by 9 A.M. tomorrow morning.
     The surgeon's procedures are conveyed in terms of a medieval knight preparing for combat. The surface details, however, are not consistent with real knightly garb. Medical requirements masquerade as inventive approximations of clothing and armor.   
     Thopas dons
          A breech and also a shirt.
A padded cotton garment (breech) worn over a shirt is absurd. But cotton and linen cloths were a doctor's standard supplies. After preliminaries--cleansing, absorbent padding, etc.--the "battle" begins.
     (The surface plot contains a deception. Though this supposed preparation continues, the giant never returns. The talked-about battle never takes place.)
     Back to Chaucer's arming charade as we're told
          A fine piece of armor 
          Was wrought of Jew's work,
               Very strong it was of plate.
The "plate" and "Jew's work" are clues. Jews were prominent medical men of the time. And a metal plate served as protective guide for cauterizing.
     When the surgery is completed, having used a lance to remove the infected portions of the phallus, the bleeding must be stopped. Cautery irons, "as many as shall be needful," are heated until they glow red. Each is applied until the iron loses its redness; the application is repeated as often as necessary.
     At this point, Thopas
          Swore . . .
          That the giant shall be dead.
Though the battle we expected didn't take place, still Thopas was victorious.
     Soon a positive prognosis is made. Recovery is nearly complete, indicated by the condition of Thopas' "spear."
          The head was well sharpened.
The "well sharpened" head has recovered the ability to pierce.
     Will this revitalized "warrior" be prudent in his actions? Apparently not. No sooner is his "spear" in good condition than his gray steed is cautiously on the move.
          His steed was all dapple gray,
          It went at an amble in the way
               Full soft and round
                         In land.
          Lo, my lords, here is a fit!
It's an easy-going first venture. Chaucer the storyteller even exclaims about the fit!
     Now, addressing his listeners directly, Pilgrim Chaucer proposes
           If you will [have] any more of it,
                To tell it will I fonde (strive).
Though notes usually say "fonde" means strive, that's the seventh definition of this multipurpose word. The presence of Christ creates a profound additional level of relevance because the second definition of fonde is "to tempt to evil," and the very first, "to try the patience of God."
     Christ allows Chaucer to go on. The poet assumes his listeners want more, and so will continue. He will tempt his audience to evil and, above all, he WILL try the patience of God.


Thursday, September 12, 2013

The naughty Tale of Sir Thopas

Forget the inadequate modern definitions of galloping and spurring--Chaucer said pricking!
     The Tale of Sir Thopas is fairly bursting with suggestive imagery and vocabulary. We'll limit our overview to details of the image of "our hero." Thopas
          was born in Flanders, at Poperyng, in the place.
Flanders is where teenaged Chaucer served with King Edward's army. Poperyng (poperen) means "to ride a horse." In one fourteenth-century manuscript of Piers Plowman, a rider "poperith on a palfrey (fine horse) from town to town." The same phrase, in another manuscript of Piers, says "pricketh on a palfrey from town to town." So poperen and pricken are interchangeable. Wordplay is one of the best Chaucerian reasons for Thopas to come to life at Poperyng, at pricking.
     (Interestingly, Shakespeare alluded to a "Poperine pear" in a quarto edition of Romeo and Juliet, but the words have since been "suppressed." A Poperine pear is a penis.)
     With double meanings noted, the phrase that follows Poperyng--"in the place"--gains a unique intention. Thopas came into existence in Flanders, while popering (pricking) in the place necessary for such activity.
     About his name, the explanation that best fits the plot comes from thirteenth-century scientific genius Michael Scot. Scot advises the gem "topaz" be carried to guard against harm from sexual activity. Thopas does carry "topaz"--as his name!
     A noteworthy detail in his limited physical description is that
          His rode is like scarlet.
"Rode" can mean complexion, but "scarlet" is too intense for the face. "Rode," however, also means rod. A rode/rod can be "a stick having a particular purpose," a useful enough phallic image. Now a rod that is scarlet stands out. This is the first of three instances where the color red is associated with Thopas.
     The second instance involves two perplexing terms.
          His robe of sykaltoun, cost many a jane.
"Syklatoun" is expensive scarlet cloth. A "jane" is a small Genoese coin worth half an English penny. Why would Chaucer choose a coin from Genoa? Because it makes the double entendre work. In England a traditional "Jane" was the easy woman, or the misused woman in plays and poetry.
     Along the same thought: "cost" may be an outlay of money, but it also refers to a personal loss. The boast in the line becomes "many a Jane sustained a loss to pay for his red robe." Janes paid with their maidenheads.
     We'll interrupt the trail of red to note athletic skills. Scenes of activity begin with the hunter, who is a "a good archer." He chases many a deer. Pursuing a "deer" and using his arrow is transparently suggestive.
     There follow numerous references to pricking and to the condition of his "horse." Sex presented as horse-riding is a tradition of both moral instruction and of humor. 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 medieval Romance of the Rose credits the "horsemanship" of our parents for the fact that each or us is alive today.
     Now back to the scarlet trail.
          Sir Thopas pricked as if he were mad.
With the madness upon him, we're told the condition of Thopas' trusty steed:
          His fair steed in his pricking
          So sweat that . . .
          His sides were all bloody.
His steed--the instrument of unbridled passion--is bloody. This is the third time we associate red with Thopas. This time, however, it is unpoetically direct--not scarlet, not a robe of syklatoun--specifically blood. Deflowering continues.
     In the next example the words are troublesome.
          Sir Thopas would ride out.
          He worth upon his gray steed.
Worthen means "to become." How odd to say that a rider became on his horse. Piers Plowman again assists by using "worth" in just such an action.
          Many of you wed not the woman you share with
          But as wild beasts . . . worthen up and work
          So as to bring forth bairns that men call bastards.
"Worthen" not only indicates mounting, but unmistakably begetting.
     For equestrian Thopas, the color of "his steed" as "gray" is a suitable hue to express the phenomenon of engorgement, the remarkable capability of becoming able to function sexually. And, in the light of that process, Thopas riding out in the previous line communicates the essential emergence of the glans of an uncircumcised instrument.
     Ah, but there is a sudden, though brief, mood change.
          A distressing misfortune almost happened.
As Thopas is pricking here and there, he experiences some distress. There is no elaboration of the problem. Only the word "almost" diminishes the anxiety. The gravest tragedy for Thopas, of course, would be to lose the ability to ride. This the first inkling of a hard lesson soon to be learned.
     Enter the enemy.

(PS I'd be happy to send you--at no expense to you--a copy  of my book that tells the whole story of Chaucer the man and Chaucer the Canterbury Pilgrim. US residents only-- just email your address  to me at )


Thursday, September 5, 2013

The "battle" betwixt Thopas and Melibee

As we prepare to meet self-willed Thopas let's repeat the cover statement for all my proposals: I have no argument with other interpretations put forth for Thopas or any of Chaucer's presentations. My purpose is to show that Chaucer intends a second level of meaning.
     An essential detail, as we construct the overall plan for the poet/narrator's "centerpiece," is to see that the Host in his covert identity is Christ, the guide of pilgrims. So, when the Host calls upon Pilgrim Chaucer, the poet reacts as he would toward God. Chaucer had been in charge of customs, and therefore a tax collector. The Prologue to Thopas echoes the situation of the biblical publican (tax collector) in the temple. Chaucer hangs back and stares at the ground, just as the publican had. (Luke 18:9-14) Christ urges him to approach and look up. The Host then goes on to compare Chaucer's appearance to His own figure, indicating that the poet is made in the image of God. When the Host refers to him as a "popet," we take him to be a small likeness of Christ.
     The Pilgrim is now prepared to present his story "learned long ago." The stories requested from each pilgrim are adventures (experiences) that had befallen them (aventures that whilom han befalle). As said in the previous entry, what follows is a dual offering patterned after the medieval battle betwixt body and soul, a genre popular in the second half of the fourteenth century. Perhaps, in this case, "body and mind" comes closer.
     Thopas, with his pricking, is the personality "below the waist," the genital area with a mind of its own. This idea, as shown here, was often illustrated in illuminated manuscripts:

The fourteenth-century preacher Holcot, for example, complained that men have two heads. They have "a body of sin joined to the natural body."
     Christ's interrupting the poet's catalogue of "accomplishments" portrays God's intervention in Chaucer's life. The little drama that connects Thopas to Melibee is an account of Chaucer's conversion, his turning from vice to virtue. Conversion was believed to happen suddenly--in the blink of an eye. The pilgrim's response immediately becomes centered on biblical versions of Christ's passion and death. This is particularly appropriate because devotion to Christ's Passion was the recommended "antidote" for the temptation of lust. Melibee, the intellectual or spiritual aspect of the body, now gains control.
     The Tale of Melibee is translated from a popular French story. Chaucer personalizes it with additions, deletions, and modifications. The changes, the poet explains, are intended to "reinforce the effect" of the original. What he chose as a model, he makes even more so.
     Now you have the overall plan. Next time we join Thopas who "was born at Popering." (Popering, BTW, also means pricking.)

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The brilliant Thopas/Melibee centerpiece

We need to get into the right frame of mind, clear the air of modern prejudices to see what Chaucer actually incorporated in his "centerpiece." I'm talking about Pilgrim Chaucer's offering as one of the storytellers. Those familiar with the Tales know I mean the Thopas/Melibee duo. Those familiar are also probably thinking, "Why spend time on these? Our class skipped both. Our instructor said he was doing us a favor, because one is silly, and the other is boring."
     That's what I'm referring to. We have to clear the air of these long-held judgments.
     For instance, you may have been told that the idea of allegory was "almost universally regarded with suspicion, if not contempt" (A Preface to Chaucer). Our observations refute this. What we've looked at so far--
     the Host as surface innkeeper with Christ, as his counterpart
     the zodiac figures and planets disguised as pilgrims
should prove that allegories can be trusted and enjoyed. And we see that Chaucer meant to convey a double meaning.
     Or you may have been told that Chaucer freed himself from allegory, that "Chaucer is very modern" (Chaucer and His Poetry, Kittredge). Rather than insisting that Chaucer is "modern," I find him the epitome of medievalism. His use of medieval techniques surpasses any other author of his time. The Thopas/Melibee sequence will prove it.
     Perpetuating the Victorian insistence on defining "pricking" as "galloping" or "spurring" has kept us on the wrong track. The Thopas saga has been called "dull as a laundry list," yet the double entendre of his actions was not even considered! (See blog entries 7-15-11, 8-6-11)
     Over the years, other scenarios have been suggested. Historically the tale was said to make fun of the Flemish. Or, with current thinking, Thopas is presented as homosexual. However, if you accept the "pricking" of the hero as sexual activity, the account is about as naughty as you can get. It rivals the Miller's Tale!
     It's only fair to give Melibee at least a mention. It is ponderous compared to Thopas, but you'll see the reason for that when you understand the overall plan. Pilgrim Chaucer's dual narrative has a solid medieval frame: the batell betwyx body and soull.
Let's set the scene. V. A. Kolve (Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative) has pointed out that Pilgrim Chaucer's narrative comes when the Canterbury  pilgrimage is midway to its destination. That's what makes his contribution the "centerpiece." The Host--Christ--calls upon the poet to tell of experiences from the past (aventures that whilon han bifalle).
     Because it is Christ who calls on Pilgrim Chaucer, we will see a previously unrecognized undercurrent in the Prologue to Thopas and in Chaucer's reaction to being called upon.
     Then we'll sample enough of Thopas to acquaint you with the naughty escapades and their consequences.
     Christ eventually stops the story in mid-sentence; that's important. Surprisingly, this Pilgrim is given a second chance--he is encouraged to tell a second story. That situation is unique in the Tales. Our conclusion will prove how brilliantly medieval Chaucer's offering truly is.
     Now, get ready for the self-willed Thopas as he was meant to be.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Rewriting a 100-year-old "gospel"!

We said Praesepe, in the constellation of Cancer, meant Manger. It also means Beehive, and thereon hangs the Cook's Tale. Chaucer knew all about bees--everybody did.
     We are about to challenge the proclamation of famed Chaucer scholar Bernhard ten Brink, who said the poet left the Cook's Tale of 47 lines unfinished because three vulgar stories in a row would be "too much for the reader." (The Miller and Reeve precede the Cook.) But ten Brink, in 1893, didn't see beneath the façade of the "licentious apprentice."
     The Cook's "litel jape (joke)" plays with similarities between animal and human behavior. Significantly, he tells of a victualler, a gatherer of foodstuffs, not of an apprentice cook as we might expect. No facial features, clothing, feet or hands are indicated, but signals of a hidden identity abound. The apprentice is "brown as a berry," "a proper short fellow," "like a hive full of honey," and "merry as a bird in the woods." This is an introduction to an English brown bee!
     Old riddles, where a bee is a "short little gentleman," a hive is a "convent of nuns" or a "mistress in a barn," and a swarm is a "heap of people on London Bridge" may have provided inspiration.
     The little fellow is called Perkyn Revelour because he dances "so wel and jolily." Perkyn revels with his kin. And Revelour, with velour being medieval French for velvet, touches upon his neatly combed lack hair. (A 19th-century beekeeper sees, not hair, but a "round velvet cap.") Daily activities characterize Perkyn. He hopped and sang at weddings, and played stringed instruments. And he preferred the tavern, with its mead and sweet wines, to the shop.
     Although proverbially hard-working, not all bees are industrious. Lazy drones and robber-bees consume disproportionate amounts of honey, spending carefree days in thievery. That's Perkyn--a good-for-nothing drone.
     He'd be sure to join a group that went riding out. Notice that the "riding" mentions no horses. These revels sometimes led to Newegate, assumed to mean Newgate Prison. Chaucer's "new gate," however, is much like the riddler's London "bridge."
     The revelers play at "dys." The surface intends men who love dice, but for bees, they love dyes--colorful flowers. The Middle Ages derived dyes (colors) only from plants and other natural substances.
     How can we understand that a bee--like Perkyn--is proficient in casting "dys"? A cast, in bee-terminology, is a disruptive after-swarm. Bees sometimes leave an established hive, fly off to engulf a blossoming branch, and never return to produce honey in their abandoned hive.
     For those who have never seen bees swarming, here's an old beekeeper's account of their flight:

The order comes. The captains echo it. With a furious roar the hordes are released, and a living stream of bees pours forth. Like flood water they emerge in a brown mass. The air becomes misty, then clouded with bees. A booming, organ-like note rises and swells over the fields.
     You may witness now for anything from five minutes to a quarter of an hour the complete abandon of an insect holiday. You may watch forty thousand bees indulging in ærial gymnastics and singing as they perform, but [soon] there is hardly a bee in the air, while from [a] branch hangs a great pear-shaped cluster.

When their outing ends, drones return to the hive and "gorge themselves" on honey. Compare Perkyn's action: following his meeting to "cast dys," he freely dispenses his master's  property and often leaves the box "bare." Though money is the assumed loss, the poet mentions no coins. Loss of honey is the bee-level intention.
     At the end of the honey-making season, misfits are driven from the hive and perish. Perkyn's master, the beekeeper, tires of the detrimental influence, and tells him to go--and good riddance! Some drones find temporary shelter in another hive. Perkyn is fortunate to join his "lowke," his accomplice in thefts. The two rascals "sowke" (suck) what they can steal or borrow. "Suck" is questionable to use in regard to men, but faultless when applied to bees.
     The story ends abruptly with the introduction of the companion's wife who "swyved for hir sustenance." "Swyving" identifies her as a prostitute--alternate 14th-century word, quene. Enter the "queen" bee. Though Chaucer's contemporaries did not understand the workings of the hive as we do, they did believe that royalty ruled.
     Entrance of a queen exposes the point of the joke. All we lack is another Pilgrim saying, "I get it now! You sure had me fooled."


Thursday, August 15, 2013

Trickery and comedy

Chaucer's approach to the sign of Cancer is unique. He appears to be just having fun--teasing by adding more information than necessary and including distracting details that make the challenge of discernment greater. Even introducing the Guildsmen ahead of the Cook, in the General Prologue, is a trick. It's like re-naming Aesop's fable (The Belly and It's Members) "The Members and Their Belly."
     A serious distraction is talk of the Guildsmen's wives. Each has a cloak, which Chaucer depicts as "royally borne." Garments trailing behind is not the picture of a crab. It's a diverting dead end. My initial confusion was relieved by a picture of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Carved around a portal are the twelve signs of the zodiac illustrating the universe created by God. Here Cancer is not the image of a crab but of a lobster, definitely a figure with a part trailing behind. Strangely enough, crabs and lobsters were interchangeable in the medieval mind because "cancer" can express either word in Latin.
     Now let's examine the Guildsmen/Lobsters. During the pilgrimage, the five Guildsmen never utter a word. They are never spoken to or about. These characters serve only to add complexity to identifying the sign. The physical description of the "men" is undistinguished, generic. Each detail is said to apply to all. That's quite unlikely if we're viewing five men. Their skills, on the other hand, are individualized as the tradition of the fable requires. The variety distracts by needing interpretation of each corresponding second level "skill." Most readers, I'm sure, just skim over the carefully chosen specifics of:

A haberdasher and a carpenter,
A weaver, a dyer, and a tapestry maker,--

The medieval Haberdasher stocked various small articles: spurs, beads, etc. The function of this initial character indicates someone in charge of many parts. The second of the craftsmen is a Carpenter, conveying the ability to create new shells to house themselves as they grow. A "Webbe" is third and is defined as a weaver for the surface reading, but webbe also means a net which can be used to snare lobsters for the table. A Dyer follows, as an allusion to changing color as the lobster does when immersed in boiling water. Lastly, we have the "Tapycer," that is a tapestry maker. Here is a play on tapister, someone with the ability to pierce (tap a keg).
     The narrator turns his attention, now, to the excellence of lobster as food. They would be found at the head table in the guildhall--as part of the menu, of course.
     The poet's words seem odd at the surface, but made to order as terms of crab capabilities. For example, the Cook good-naturedly "claws" a fellow pilgrim on the back. And, when his innocent parsley (percely) is "cursed" by many pilgrims, it's because the Middle English spelling "percely" allows a play on pierce (percen).
     The Cook's cameo appearance in the Manciple's Prologue, is a triumph of poetic imagination. The Host becomes playful with the Cook/Crab who is in such poor condition that he "stinks." The comedy begins when the Cook is unhorsed. His fellow pilgrims, with "much care and woe,"  have the awkward job of righting the "unwieldy" Crab/Cook. The action provides the Host a hearty laugh. Scattered through the scene are references to "pinched," "bring to lure," and "in a snare" which encourage crab images in the reader's mind.
     In the wind-up next time, get ready to see the Cook's Tale in an entirely new light!

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Cook? Fascinating!

The Cook, in previous entries called "Written in the Stars," has already been identified as the sign of Cancer. The last two lines of his introduction make this certain. His tale, which follows the raucous tales of the Miller and the Reeve, is hardly noticed. Chaucer, however, abounds in creativity with this Pilgrim and gives him a cameo appearance later in the Tales. He has no physical description but is recognized by attributes of the sign and his culinary accomplishments.
     The Cook can make a fish tart. He can roast, boil, broil, and fry, as well as make thick fish soup, and seafood pie--as preparer and ingredient! His acquaintance with London ale indicates the chosen brew to accompany tasty dishes. After the cooking capabilities, Chaucer inserts a single fact about the Cook's appearance: on his shin a mormal had he. This mormal is a stinking, incurable sore. That noted affliction is just shy of the word cancer.
     Only one line remains: Blankmanger he made with the best. Having been told about all the recipes he was familiar with, now, like an afterthought, we learn of the Cook's expertise at preparing Blankmanger, a popular fish pudding. (One typical recipe calls for perch or lobster, boiled with almonds, rice and sugar. Not quite your modern day blancmange!) The added recipe comes as a surprise--and supportive evidence for the constellation. How can this be? The name points to the formation's one noteworthy feature--a cluster of stars called the Manger. (Latin, Praesepe.) The white (blanc) manger "made" by the Cook clinches the sign.
     That could have been enough said, but Chaucer entertainingly adds five Guildsmen. Drawing upon the ancient tradition of Aesop's fable which the Middle Ages called "The Belly and Its Members," Chaucer brings the picture to life. The poet's contemporary, John Gower, calls the belly (stomach) the "cook" for the entire body--it boils meat for all. This whimsy shared by Chaucer, shows that, from the beginning of the Cook's description, the poet visualized a cook, a crab, and a belly.
     With the Cook as the belly, the five Guildsmen become the necessary number of members. And, as tradition dictates, these members have diversified tasks.

A haberdasher and a  carpenter, 
A weaver, a dyer, and a tapestry maker--
And they were clothed all in one livery.

Five clothed all in one livery is exactly what Chaucer means. A footnote to many editions of the Tales will explain that they all wear the same kind of suit, but that's hardly what we'd expect from five different guilds. The poet presents five inside one suit. What fun!
     You've seen two men costumed as a horse: one the front, the other the rear. Below the costume, we see only their legs. Chaucer's five members provide the ten necessary appendages for the crab/belly. It helps to know that in a grand 15th century procession costumes of symbolic beasts were worn by two men--front and rear--with only their legs showing. It was not said to be unusual. (Animal costuming is often illustrated in medieval books.) Chaucer's creation is just more fanciful.
     Though confident that I had found the proper clues for playing Chaucer's game, the Guildsmen's "wives" brought confusion. Why are they even mentioned? They're not on the pilgrimage!
      We'll deal with the wives next time.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Stories homeward?

We've established that  Time in the Middle Ages was thought of as a circle. It began with Creation (in March!) and would end when the circle closed at Judgment. We also know from Chaucer's details that Judgment is near. That means the circle will soon be complete. Storytelling will be over.
     To confurm that the end is near, the Host/Christ says:

Now lack we no tales more than one.
Fulfilled is my sentence (my meaning) and my decree;
I trust that we have heard from each degree.
Almost fulfilled is my ordinance (my plan).

Chaucer makes this clear and uses the ambiguous word degree which refers to both social status and the zodiac.
     But those acquainted with the General Prologue wonder if this storytelling claim is another "mistake." How could only one remain to be told, when, before the journey starts, the Host/Christ instructs:

Each of you . . .
On this journey shall tell tales two
To Canterbury-ward, . . .
And homeward he shall tell other two.

How can this early "plan" agree with the final statement?
     To begin with Chaucer envisioned the journey as a  circle, not linear Time as we would expect. On a circle the farther you travel outward--the closer you get to your staring point! So, stories going are the same as stories coming home.
     And, if there are to be two of them, think of the medieval prevalence of allegory. If each story has a double meaning (we'll take that up later), that's the same as telling two stories. Just as Chaucer's surface story of the Tales is an account of an innkeeper and travelers, a second level conveys Christ's concern with the progression of the zodiac. Angus Fletcher, the authority on the subject, explains that allegories are often valued for their "secondary meanings [which] are obscured, actually withheld from view." That's why discovering the second meaning is a reward.
     The poet's creative genius provided a perfect cover-story for his account of Time and the world's end. Doomsday was a topic of great interest in the late 1300s with the year 1400 predicted to be fulfillment of that prediction.
     The Canterbury stories, however, is a complicated subject. We need to deal with one aspect at a time. First, why do some pilgrims have no story? Here is an example not difficult to accept: when there is more than one character playing the part of a sign, as with Gemini, the brothers, only one offering is required from that sign. So, when the Parson tells a story, his brother, the Plowman, is mum. Cancer, as the Cook, has the same explanation, except that the Cook and his five guildsmen all make up the sign of Cancer. This whimsical medieval portrait will astonish and amuse you. It must have given Chaucer a chuckle.
     There is much more to say about required stories. Chaucer presents 29 characters and gives us 24 stories. That's more than necessary for 12 zodiac signs. So who are the other journeyers? With the guiding scenario in the cosmos, some are planets. In Chaucer's day, they counted the Sun and Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The Knight, for instance, who is dedicated to war, easily corresponds to Mars.
     That's enough for today. We'll grapple with the sign of Cancer next time.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Time's up!

The progress of time, for medieval man, was a grand circle called the Great Year. This concept of time begins with Creation and ends with Judgment. An assumption in the Middle Ages was that Creation happened in March. Chaucer alludes to this fact in one of the tales.

When the month in which the world began,
That was called March, God first made man.

Regarding the end of Time, two prophecies are incorporated into the Canterbury plan. Both associate with the zodiac--either directly or in a roundabout way.  One comes from Albumasar, an astrologer/philosopher whose works had been well known in Europe from the 12th century. The second is found in Sir John Mandeville's account of his travels, which had great popularity beginning in the mid-1300s.
     As an astrologer, Albumasar is best known for his theory (a contrast to Christian Creation) that the universe formed in the first degree of Aries (the first sign), and will end in the last degree of Pisces (the 12th sign). Chaucer, appropriately, begins the General Prologue in Aries when the young sun, Hath in the Ram his half course run.
     And at the end of the Tales, at the last of the Tales, where are we? The introduction to the last tale says:

The sun from the south line was descended
So low that he was not even, to my sight
Degrees nine and twenty in height.

Nine and twenty degrees is almost 30º; but thirty is neater, a simple round figure. As Rodney Delasanta expresses it, "Chaucer has written straight with crooked lines." There must be a significance to twenty-nine. There is. It takes 30º to pass through a zodiacal sign. It's not the twenty-nine degrees that are important--it's the one degree that remains!
     Chaucer declares we've heard from all the signs (Pilgrims) but one. That means we are almost at the beginning again, almost at Aries. And that puts us in the last degree of Pisces! According to Albumasar, Time is up! Judgment--the world's end--is imminent.
     But Chaucer unexpectedly adds Libra, the Scales, to the scene. Often used as an apocalyptic image, it reinforces that Judgment is at hand. Then he also makes an odd association: The moon's exaltation, I mean Libra, had begun ascending. That is taken to be a "mistake." Astrologically speaking, Libra is not the moon's exaltation. Chaucer knew that. So, what is he communicating? Scholar Dorothy Everett cautions, "However incongruous some things may appear to be, it would be dangerous to assume that Chaucer introduced them without good reason."
     The "good reason" here brings us to Mandeville's prophecy: "The doom (Judgment) shall be on Easter Day." When Chaucer speaks of the moon's exaltation, the time when it exerts its greatest astrological influence, it doesn't ring true. But, putting astrology aside, what if we picture the moon's visual exaltation--the full moon?
      Libra, then, takes on a second function. We have said it confirms Judgment. Now, in this setting, when we see the Scales as a Balance, it indicates equal day and night--the spring equinox. That is significant because to determine the date of Easter, it is the Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. And Easter brings Judgment. There is need to make haste.
     Then what happens to the return journey?

Thursday, July 18, 2013

But first . . .

Soon after I began working on Chaucer's reference to the moon's exaltation, which appears to be an astrological "mistake," I realized how much background would be necessary to be able to accept my explanation. So, first I'll give you what I see as the basic structure of the plan for the Canterbury Tales.
     Here is the most important thing to keep in mind: The movement of the zodiac is the basis of the plan. That fact is not obvious on the surface because allegories were intended to be obscure. Searching for the inner meaning, in this most popular literary form in Chaucer's day, challenged and entertained. Discovering the covert message was looked upon as a reward.
     The General Prologue introduces the characters. We've dealt with that already in the entries called "Written in the Stars." That's where Chaucer delights in teasing as he says the Friar has eyes (2 major stars in the constellation) that twinkle in his head like stars on a frosty night; and the Cook "makes " blankmanger--white manger--because a star cluster in this zodiac sign is called The Manger.
     Movement begins after the introductions are complete. The poet uses ambiguous words--degree and array--to describe the Pilgrims. Both words can indicate a quality of human or celestial appearance. When the Host gathers the Pilgrims together, that is when they set out on their journey. Now, to talk about the succession of signs of the zodiac is the same as talking about Time. Time, in the Middle Ages, was pictured as a circle. When all of the stars returned to the place where they were when Time began, the circle would close. That would be the end of Time, the end of the world, the Day of Judgment. As Chaucer says:

. . . in certain years space
Every star should come into its place
Where it was first, and all should have in mind
That in this world done is all mankind.

Those lines express Chaucer's complete design. Before the journeyers (the celestial travelers) set out, the Host tells them they will all return to their point of departure at the end of their journey. At the conclusion, the position of all twenty-nine will be--Here in this place, sitting by this post, When we come again.   
     His whole intention is subtly disclosed. Time begins as they leave and is about to end as the Host calls on the last storyteller. He urges the Pilgrim to make haste; the day is at an end.
      Let's repeat--the movement of the zodiac is the basis of the plan. The disguised travelers are not earthbound! Chaucer demonstrates that by what he doesn't say. That is why no human or environmental limitations are presented. He says nothing of a pleasant countryside. There is no mention of weather or road conditions. They never pass through a town. They never stop to eat or rest. They interact with no one outside their group. Nothing invalidates their celestial existence. Though an actual journey from London to Canterbury would have taken several days, the poet portrays Time as one symbolic day.
     Action found in the Tales is not to be confused with activities of that day. The stories are not the journey. The function of each story, I'm sure, is to aid in confirming the hidden identity of the storyteller. We'll talk about that sometime.
     But next we'll look into what is predicted as Time ends.    

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Our journey so far

The blog name--Chaucer ain't like gospel--means that whatever has been said about Chaucer in the last 200 years is subject to question. We're dealing with human opinions, not with religious inspiration.  Let's shake the dust from Chaucer studies.
     Why should you value my opinions? Well, partly because I've enjoyed promoting Chaucer and researching and writing about him for 30 years. I've had sudden insights that were so amazing, I thought I'd burst! And what I say about the Canterbury Tales does not conflict with the usual interpretations. Chaucer's poetry can be read from many points of view. What I am saying, though, is that the Canterbury Tales has an additional level of meaning.
     It began for me when Chaucer associated the word Host with the best food and wine; my Catholic background brought echoes of poetic references to the Eucharist. What I saw was the figure of Christ. It surprised me to find that this identity was not considered "self-evident"! (We've covered the Christ-identifiers in blog entries already.) To see the guide of pilgrims as Christ Himself would be in complete harmony with the medieval mind-set. The Host is the innkeeper AND the Host is Christ. Chaucer's message is not one OR the other--it's both. That's what is so fascinating about allegory.
     Then, as I read the descriptions of the pilgrims, questions nagged me for days--a cook with a running sore? a man with wide, black nostrils? The Canterbury pilgrims passed in an unending review before my mind's eye until one evening, it happened. Without warning, a second set of images began running along with the pilgrims; in a few moments they matched. I sat there overwhelmed, contemplating the double identities. Chaucer presents one group described in terms of another group. That magical moment set me on a new path for the rest of my life! I wanted everyone to know.
     Consider Chaucer's account of the arrival at the Tabard, the hostelry where his pilgrims will spend the night. Twenty-nine travelers of different backgrounds all arrive at their destination just as the sun sets. We're told nothing of horses, belongings, physical necessities, selection of sleeping arrangements. Nothing complicates the smooth entry onto the scene of that cook with the running sore, the man with wide, black nostrils who, by the way, could knock a door off its hinges by running into it with his head, a pair of brothers and many others.
     The essential clue is--they all arrive at sunset to stay for the night. When I asked a high school class what images they saw, one of the boys said, "They're stars, of course." Then the whole class began to shout out the pilgrim identities. What a great time we had!
     Yes, they are stars--zodiac figures, and planets--all disguised as pilgrims. You can see why, when I suddenly understood, I wanted everyone to know about Chaucer's marvelous plan.
     Christ as the guide of pilgrims and celestial figures masquerading as those pilgrims--one or both ideas--will be involved in every entry that follows. Next time we'll deal with one of Chaucer's tantalizing astrological "mistakes."

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Item: Geoffrey and Cecilia

Circumstantial evidence concerning Chaucer and Cecilia, his accuser, appears to add up to his guilt and her benefiting from a substantial monetary settlement. We'll never have conclusive evidence so I, for one, go along with the guilt/settlement scenario.
     Then there is the matter of Chaucer addressing "little Lewis, my son." The boy is ten years old, ten years after the raptus case. Lewis could be Chaucer's son by Cecilia. And, recall that in fourteenth-century thinking, if pregnancy results from coitus, cooperation is assumed. So, if Cecilia finds herself pregnant, wouldn't she examine her participation? Wouldn't she conclude that she must have been willing to some degree?
     What I'm getting at is that a relationship between Cecilia and Chaucer could have existed. Because Chaucer's wife's pension ceased after June 1387, her death is assumed. That's four years before Lewis' tenth birthday. Circumstances make a Geoffrey/Cecilia relationship possible.
     A firm connection clearly exists between Chaucer and the name "Cecilia." One of the pilgrim stories--The Second Nun's Tale--recounts the life of St. Cecilia. Chaucer scholar, George Cowling, long ago, proposed that the "Life of St. Cecile" was meant to honor Cecilia Chaumpaigne. It may be more than honoring her; she may have required it from the poet. She may have wanted the assault upon her admitted, and Chaucer's repentance acknowledged. (Her patron, St. Cecilia, brought many men to conversion.) I believe Chaucer covertly confirms such requirements!
     This blog aims to question long-held assumptions. We'll look at Chaucer's words as if he really meant what others have taken to be errors.
     Speculation says that the Cecilia piece had been written for another occasion and the poet simply included it in the Tales. If he did so without adapting the original presentation, that explains a lot. For example, why the usual formula that introduces other tales is not used; why the narrator surprisingly addresses "you who read what I write"; why the speaker refers to being "an unworthy son of Eve"; and why the sinful "contagion of my body with earthly lust and false affection"--rather than spoken by a narrating nun--now becomes appropriate.
     There is no invitation from the Host, followed by a story and a conclusion linked to the next tale. Nevertheless, Cecilia's story was meant to be there, because the very next tale begins, "When the life of St. Cecilia was ended, Ere we'd ridden five miles . . ."
     The Second Nun's Tale begins with an exhortation against idleness, the devil's trap. A prayer to the Virgin, for her assistance, follows. Then the translation of the story of St. Cecilia, as found in The Golden Legend (a collection of saint's lives), begins.
     Though it's easy to overlook, Chaucer attaches an extra stanza to conclude the translated introduction. Why the added lines that only reiterate Cecilia's virtues? The answer is what makes research so exciting. The last line masks a hidden meaning! That Middle English line reads:
     Now have I yow declared what she highte.
"Highte" contains two different messages. The line can be read, "I have declared to you what she was named." That's just more repetition.
     But Chaucer uses an alternate definition of "highte" elsewhere to say "command." Here his added words announce, "I have declared to you what she commanded."  The preliminaries to the tale declare, I am the sinful one; she is persevering in good works. Thus, he has fulfilled her demand.
      Without doubt, Chaucer has immortalized  Cecilia. Her name will be remembered as long as the Canterbury Tales circulate.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Chaucer's determined accuser

How could a woman in fourteenth-century England make an accusation? Appeals (accusations) covered only three crimes against a woman: the death of her husband, the death of her child in utero, and rape.
     In the case of rape, she must travel to the next town immediately and inform a trustworthy person. Next she must notify an official of the law. Then she had forty days to make her formal accusation. It took a woman of determination to accomplish all the law required. And if a pregnancy resulted from the rape, the man would be exonerated. Why? Because they believed conception occurred only with mutual cooperation.
     The record of Chaucer's release makes it a logical assumption that he had earlier been accused. Watts, a lawyer/researcher of the 1940s, states that both Chaucer and his accuser had to have agreed on the term raptus, in full knowledge of the word's primary meaning. Two things are certain: first, Chaucer had been threatened with prosecution for rape; second, the woman--Cecilia--had released him from further demands on her part. (We will say more about "Cecilia" after a bit.)
     The matter is significant. Cecilia executed "a formal release under seal duly enrolled in the Chancery," with five prominent friends of the poet as witnesses. Among them were the King's Chamberlain, Sir William Beauchamp and John Phillipott, who became Mayor of London.
     After finding the first legal record, two more pertinent entries came to light. A John Grove and Richard Goodchild transacted a general deed of release to Geoffrey Chaucer eight weeks later. A second release--by Cecilia--was given to Grove and Goodchild, which establishes a connection between the three men--Chaucer, Grove, and Goodchild. A subsequent document indicates that John Grove is to pay the sum of £10 to Cecilia. On July 2 the money is noted as paid. These entries indicate, to Watts, that the two men were uninformed agents on Chaucer's behalf, assisting without full knowledge.
     The lawyer reasons that Cecilia, having successfully obtained a settlement from Chaucer, in an afterthought, also made demands on Grove and Goodchild.
     If Chaucer conspired with the two men to trick or force Cecilia into a rendezvous, it looks bad. Chaucer did not have the option of marrying the lady. But a sufficient sum of money might resolve the situation. One more discovery by Watts demontrates this as possible when Cecilia dropped her appeal.
     Knowing the hazards of being accused, one can see how even an innocent man might make a settlement rather than risk a judgment. (See previous entry!) Settling out of court, as Chaucer did, though not actual proof, as the lawyer notes, it still provides "a strong presumption of guilt." Finding the additional transaction causes Watts to speculate: Chaucer relinquished the rights to his father's London house (June 19, 1380). This could be directly related to raising a generous settlement. The amount of cash involved is not known, but we can reasonably assume it to be substantial.
     (Want more details? See my Pilgrim Chaucer: Center Stage, pp. 36-42.)
Next time, we'll consider Geoffrey and Cecilia's relationship.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Chaucer's day in court

A document dated May 1, 1380 states that a woman had named Geoffrey Chaucer regarding raptus. That discovery has caused speculation for over 100 years. The subject is not often spoken of, but it still surprised me that the Chaucer entry for the 1968 Britannica refrained from a hint of it. The 1996 Britannica edition devotes two sentences to the topic and suggests Chaucer was not guilty.
     Chaucer scholars hesitate to admit that this brilliant poet could have had dark moments. Many have gone to great lengths to sidestep reality. A "vicious imagination," for example, is claimed necessary to see Chaucer causing a lady's ruination. A biographer declares our poet a "hero" of the affair. Some portray him merely as an accessory, or actually doing the lady a favor because her guardian mismanaged her affairs, or a friend of Chaucer wanted to marry her and couldn't get her guardian's permission.
     These scenarios are, according to P. R. Watts a lawyer/researcher in 1947, "entirely unsupported by evidence." To the contrary, he finds that none could be true because the lady was an adult, not someone's young ward. And, to have finances to mismanage would be unlikely because her brother was in prison for debt.
     Watts informs us about the medieval use of raptus, and the intention and substance of an appeal, along with how the fourteenth century dealt with felonious rape. Before a statute of 1285, raptus could mean either the abduction or deflowering of a woman. But afterward, raptus is always to be interpreted as rape (forced coitus), unless circumstances disallow it.
     The second term, appeal, is a problem because the meaning is at odds with what generally comes to our mind. Back then, to appeal meant to accuse, to bring a criminal charge against another person. It was an appeal for justice, for a wrongdoer to be punished.
     And did the punishment fit the crime? If unmarried, the man might take the lady as his spouse to satisfy the charges. Watts, however, cites a case from Chaucer's era to illustrate another possibility: A woman named Alice accused a man named John of having ravished her virginity. Although John claimed innocence, he was found guilty. John had a wife, so marriage could not resolve the problem. Fortunately for John, Alice withdrew her appeal, because, by the judgment handed down, Alice was to "tear out John's eyes and cut off his testicles."
     Chaucer's position at court (his favor with the king) would not protect him, because the king had no jurisdiction in cases between two citizens, rather than against the crown.
     Before DNA, many a man learned that defense against the charge of rape is difficult. As an additional difficulty, medieval law did not allow the accused to give evidence on his own behalf.
     It may look like the man is given a hard time in such a case. But wait. You haven't heard what's demanded of the woman to get recognition in a court of law.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Chaucer--Wedded bliss?

Let's look in on Mr. and Mrs. Chaucer--Geoffrey and Philippa.
     Derek Brewer, the Chaucer expert, wrote the Chaucer entry in the Britannica. He gives facts without speculation.

     By 1366 Chaucer had married Philippa, a lady-in-waiting to the queen. When the queen died, Philippa became lady-in-waiting to the second wife of John of Gaunt. Her sister, Katherine Swynford, was a mistress of John of Gaunt.
     Chaucer probably had two sons, and that is all that is known of his family.

Later sleuthing and comparisons add considerable interest.
     The biographer Peter Ackroyd, for example, takes the limited number of statements in official records and augments them with the circumstances of the times. The Chaucer union, he says, is a "career marriage" like that of many young folks in royal service. They are a "professional couple"; as their first duty, they did what the job called for. If Geoffrey traveled to Italy for six months, his wife accepted it. If the queen sojourned in Ireland, Philippa abided there and Geoffrey understood. Peasants might have had a cozy little cottage, but not those serving royalty. Other benefits, however, like being supplied with expensive garments for all occasions, a lifetime annuity, gifts of various sorts, and prestige, were balanced against a life of one's own.

Young Chaucer spent time in the military and rose to the diplomatic corps, associating with the world of wealth and power. No doubt he would have been treated well by hosts who desired a favorable outcome. Do you get a picture of Chaucer the youthful soldier and then the envoy surrounded by those eager to please? Hold on to that picture. We'll examine it with a different point of view later.

And what of Philippa, Mrs. Chaucer, serving the queen and later in service to John of Gaunt's household? Philippa, most likely, had two children. An Elizabeth Chaucy entered a local convent. We know this from a record telling that John of Gaunt covered the expenses of her admission to the nunnery; no more is known about her. And a Thomas Chaucer, who served the household of John of Gaunt from an early age, went on to become rich and successful. John repeatedly assisted Thomas' advancement in his career and marriage arrangement.
     Over the years, John had many mistresses. (As a matter of fact, Philippa's sister, Katherine, upon the death of John's second wife, advanced in position from his mistress to his wife.) Speculation says that Elizabeth and Thomas were two of John of Gaunt's many illegitimate children--made legitimate because Philippa was married to Geoffrey.
     I'll interject a twentieth-century comparison to illustrate the royal perspective. Edward VII of Britain, in the early 1900s, had numerous mistresses, but they say he was "discreet." They were attractive married women, a practical plan. Edward never acknowledged any illegitimate children.

     One more son is mentioned by the poet himself--little Lewis. Some scholars barely speak of his existence, but . . . The boy was probably born in 1381, because in 1391 Chaucer refers to the boy's tenth birthday. Ten years before, as a persistent lawyer and researcher concluded, "Chaucer and his wife were not living together during this legal action." Geoffrey kept house in London, while his wife served John of Gaunt's needs elsewhere. And what kind of legal action are we referring to? Stay tuned.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Chaucer--"Mr. Know-it-all"

Chaucer traveled England and the Continent for decades as a trusted ambassador. What did he see? What did he learn?
     He saw grand churches. The Cathedral of Rheims associated with his first venture into war. Notre Dame de Paris, completed when he was a boy, had been Parisian background.
     In Florence, Chaucer would see the Basilica di Santa Maria rising on the site of the ruins of the old Santa Reparata. And, while in Milan, he would have seen the Archbishop's Palace later to be demolished to prepare for the famed Duomo.
     He knew beauty, but he also knew the grim features of the dead and dying, in war and in the plague. When he was nine, the Black Plague swept the Continent in what has been called the "greatest disaster in western European history." For example, 50,000 died in London within four months. There was no safe refuge. Along with common folk, notable persons were also struck down: kings, queens, archbishops--even a princess traveling to her wedding--succumbed.
     All in all, Chaucer survived six onslaughts. The result of these pandemics brought the population of Europe in 1400 to only half the number of those alive in 1300.

He could not have been unaware of crises within the Church. A gray atmosphere enveloped the late 1300s. When Chaucer arrived in Italy in 1378, a new pope--Urban VI--had just been elected. Urban immediately began preaching changes to traditional practices. His actions caused the Cardinals, who elected him, to flee to Naples and elect another pope, Clement VII. The Great Schism of the Church resulted. Chaucer would not live to see it resolved.
     The Inquisition also colored daily life. It operated ubiquitously on the Continent. Informers were nowhere yet everywhere. When it reached England, religious dissenters met harsh treatment.

What did he learn from his observations? As Controller of Customs he knew imported goods. His duties entailed collecting taxes on the commodities.
     He had skill with languages. Italy enriched him. Dante, who greatly influenced Italian literature had already died, but had written forcefully about using the vernacular. Because Barnabo, tyrant of Milan, had the greatest library in Europe, it is speculated that the successful outcome of Chaucer's dealings with him brought a gift of the Divine Comedy from this wealthy Italian. In any event, after the Milan sojourn, Chaucer's works reflected the Italian style.
     Latin, too, served him well. He tells of considerable Latin literature he translated: saint's legends, homilies, and devotions. They have not survived. But we do have his rendering of Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy.
     Chaucer had access to books, his own and others. He refers to numerous classic works: the Bible, mythology, Augustine, Ptolemy, Seneca, Ovid, and more.
     His mastery of things celestial is well known. He produced instructions for the astrolabe, an instrument for calculations. Written for "little Lewis," that's another story (with interesting possibilities) we'll get to later.

When Chaucer entered royal service, Edward III's court was French in language and custom. The poet's wife came from a French family. And, not surprisingly, he translated the most famous medieval allegory--Roman de la Rose--from French to English.
     Change came to the court in 1377, when Edward's grandson Richard II ascended the throne at age eleven. The prevalent language became English. Chaucer's many works in the vernacular were right in step.
     Next we'll add domestic interest, concerned with marital relations, to this portrait.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Chaucer: Man of the world

During peace negotiations in 1360, a twenty-year-old Chaucer carried official letters from England to Calais. He would continue with a career of representing the English crown all across Europe. A close relationship existed between the wealthy mercantile class and royalty. It is not difficult to imagine that an energetic, young emissary would be well-treated, catered to, in luxurious households and foreign courts wishing to gain favor with the English. And consider that there would be an advantage for Chaucer in not being of noble birth: He could comfortably mingle with foreign servants and tradesmen. He'd get the whole picture.

We first see an entry denoting "safe conduct." Chaucer made an official visit in 1366 to the King of Navarre, probably regarding the threat of an invasion by his neighbor, Pedro of Castile.
     A few years later, in the on-again-off-again Hundred Years War, he served with John of Gaunt's forces in France.
     In 1371, he set out for the coastal town of Dartmouth to settle a touchy matter involving a ship owned by a Genoese. Subsequently, he had a "warrant to negotiate" with merchants of Genoa to construct a dedicated seaport for them in England.
     Soon after, he made a winter journey with two high-ranking Genoese, their servants and bodyguards. It makes me shudder to picture the hazards from both weather and terrain in crossing the Alps in December. His many dealings with Italians make it a safe assumption that he had a fluent acquaintance with their language.
     His competence as a diplomat is attested to when given the delicate mission to Florence of facilitating a loan. The delicacy had to do with Edward's having defaulted on the banker's previous loan.
     In 1377, within the space of a few months, he completed four missions to France. One led to  Paris. The other destinations are unknown. Following that, he traveled to Lombardy on a long assignment about the ever present topic of "war" and a search for reliable allies.
     In what must have been an especially demanding undertaking, he accompanied six officials with bodyguards to talk business with Barnabo Visconti, known as the "cruel tyrant of Milan." Barnabo possessed massive wealth; and his son-in-law could muster countless mercenaries. Barnabo also had a daughter, Caterina, he hoped to align with the English crown.

Chaucer had been valued as a diplomat and government official, not as a poet. Even his very responsible position as Controller of Customs in London did not rank in importance with his diplomatic reputation. A "deputy" served in his place when he traveled for the king.
     An entry recorded in 1387 shows an apparently small assignment for him to Calais. That destination brings Chaucer full circle, concluding his service as ambassador (for both Edward III and Richard II) of more than twenty years, where it had begun.
     He had been trusted to negotiate in matters of war, money, marriage, and commerce. Next, we will add more details to our image of Chaucer the poet.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

In the beginning, Chaucer . . .

The year 1340 generally serves as the agreed-upon year of Chaucer's birth, though it may have been two or three years later. The family background is the wine trade and serving in the king's household. As a boy, Chaucer would have been schooled in Latin and Latin authors. In 1357, an entry in the household accounts of Lionel, Duke of Ulster, indicates that Chaucer is a page there. Youngsters in such an environment learned grammar, reading and writing, languages (the royal family was as much French as English), matters of diplomacy, and how to serve their betters. With an eye to the future, these young men would be instructed in music, dancing, singing and conversing in Latin and French. Adolescent Chaucer and his fellow pages were well prepared.
     The family name, Chaucer, has been said to be a form of the French chaucier, which means shoemaker. The final  r,  however, would not be pronounced! I take the poet's name, instead, to be a form of chasseur, meaning hunter. That will be a fun factor after a bit.
     Young Geoffrey spent Christmastide of 1357 with Lionel's family. John of Gaunt, the Duke's younger brother, nearly Chaucer's age, joined them. (John would become a political power and the poet's patron in years to come.)
     In 1359, Chaucer served in the army of King Edward III as Edward renewed his effort to rule both England and France. Geoffrey's probable rank would be a man-at-arms; his primary weapon a simple spear wielded from horseback or on foot.
     Edward planned to cross the English Channel to Calais, an English possession on the coast of the County of Flanders, and march into France with his army--only fighting if attacked. (Remember Flanders!) The campaign, however, did not develop as planned. Instead of landing in the spring--the beginning of good weather--they actually arrived in Calais October 28! Edward's army faced steady rain followed by bitter cold.
     Weeks went by; the English army waited and endured. Knowing how spirit and discipline decline in a do-nothing army, Edward allowed (or ordered) raiding parties to keep up his army's morale. French forces slew, or captured stragglers and foragers from these small groups. Chaucer was among those captured. He was held prisoner until March 1360, when King Edward ransomed his valued servant.
     Shortly after Chaucer's release, the still hopeful king-to-be turned to a policy of devastation. The countryside was ravaged at will. The brutal onslaught proved effective. During peace negotiations a few months later, Chaucer received his first recorded assignment as an envoy of the English crown, carrying official letters from England to Calais.
     Several years follow where there is no record of Chaucer's whereabouts, but in 1363 a Philippa Chaucer became servant to the queen. When or where Philippa and Geoffrey were married is not recorded, but we know that our poet had taken a wife. He would soon become a man of the world.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Now to look at Chaucer himself

Here I am, back on the job. Took a brief hiatus for cataract surgery. What a wonder the result is! It's time, now, to begin our next topic--Geoffrey Chaucer, the man and also the character who is on pilgrimage in the Canterbury Tales. So let's return to expanding our point of view regarding Chaucer and his words.

Most fourteenth-century commoners, as Chaucer was, lived and died without a recorded trace. Fortunately, diligent researchers have gathered together an assortment of entries from which we know, or can make solid assumptions, about Chaucer's fortunes and how he spent his days.
     We'll consider ideas in the Tales that provide personal information about Chaucer-the-man by way of remarks about his pilgrim image. But first we'll look at the factual entries.
     During work being done at Westminster Abbey in the late 1800s, Chaucer's bones (which rest in the Poet's Corner in the Abbey) were exposed, and we learned that he was about five-foot-six.
     At nineteen he joined the army during what we now call the Hundred Years War. As a young soldier, Chaucer was captured, and held prisoner in Flanders, but eventually ransomed by his king.
     In the subsequent peace negotiations in the summer of 1360, Chaucer received his first recorded assignment as an envoy of the English crown, carrying official letters from England to Calais. From that small beginning as messenger just across the channel, he went on to serve in  positions of increasing trust. Diplomatic missions--some of them secret--took him to Spain, Italy, Flanders, and other areas of France.
     At thirty-four he became Controller of Customs, and later Controller of Petty Customs, as well. His duties entailed collecting taxes on wool, hides, and other commodities.
     No life is all roses. When he was forty, a charge of "raptus" was brought against the poet, a charge often optimistically explained as "abduction." It seems almost impossible for Chaucer-lovers to admit that this poet, with his head among the stars, could have had moments when his feet were in the mire. Raptus also means rape, plain and simple. A helpful and dedicated twentieth-century lawyer gave us an accurate analysis of the intent of fourteenth-century legal terms and procedures. We'll get into that after a bit.
     John Lydgate, the poet's contemporary, says Chaucer "made many a fresh ditty" that "excelled all other in our English tongue." Before you get too eager to read them, sad to say, they have not been preserved.
     We know that Chaucer's last residence was on the grounds of Westminster Abbey. It has been provokingly speculated that Chaucer's motive for living on the grounds of the Abbey could have been to gain the protection of sanctuary. And there is the "mystery" of his original manuscripts . . . Ah, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.