Friday, January 25, 2013

Food for pilgrims

The Host provides the best food for the pilgrims. Do you see a broad interpretation in that statement? We are all called "pilgrims" at times. And the Eucharist--the Host--strengthens us for our pilgrimage--our journey through life. Such a thought would be understood poetically by Catholics today. But what about Chaucer's contemporaries? Did they see the Eucharist as food for a journey?
     The 14th century poem quoted in the previous entry continues the thought: A better food may no man find/ For to everlasting life it will lead us. (Carleton Brown, Religious Lyrics of the 14th Century)
     It is even more clearly stated by John Lydgate in the medieval work called The Pilgrimage of the Life of Man. Christ is quoted as saying he leaves his body (Corpus Christi) to "true pilgrims" as the thing that may most avail them to relieve their travail/ travel as chief repast to sustain them.
     While the surface story in this scene tells of an obliging innkeeper catering to his guests, Chaucer's underlying message is the acting out of the prevalent religious thought of his day. We will find that Chaucer often portrays a well known expression as an action.
     The purpose of this blog is to ask questions and to recognize clues Chaucer gives to a second and deeper meaning. What we are confirming now is that there is a concealed image within the Canterbury Host. He is actually--he is also--Christ himself. Numerous factors point to this identity. Several are found in this scene between the Host and the pilgrims:
he settles accounts
he states he will be their judge
he demands immediate acceptance of his plan
     Let's look at just the first item for now: settling accounts. We're told the pilgrims made their "reckonings." This can be read on one level as an innkeeper concerned about his profits, but there is no elaboration. Here again, Chaucer refrains from giving specific details. Though the action could be seen as dealing with money, coins are not mentioned. Why is that significant? Because lack of limiting details allows both the surface and underlying intention to be valid. Lack of specifics encourages ambiguity.
     In the mind-set of Chaucer's day, terms which appeared to allude to money and bookkeeping transactions were the usual terminology for God's dealings with individuals at Judgment. For instance, in staging a Judgment scene in a Morality Play, each soul carries a personal balance sheet as he approaches Death's door. And Confessio Amantis, by John Gower (ca. 1386) uses different but similar language. At the soul's las Day of Account man will come before "Christ the Auditor."
     We need to be aware that once the Host sets himself up as their ever-present judge, the atmosphere of judgment subtly permeates the whole journey. And does this please the journeyers? Next time we shall see.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Meet the Canterbury pilgrims and the Host

What I knew about Chaucer,  when I signed up for the required course, would not have filled a thimble. I'd heard his name, knew the title Canterbury Tales. That's all. Wasn't sure when he lived, except it was before Shakespeare. But my introduction to the Tales was the start of a stimulating intellectual adventure.
     The beginning, called the General Prologue, describes the extensive cast of pilgrims. Each character is outstandingly unique. Learning about their physical attributes and life-styles brings them to life. You not only see the individual, you know how he or she gets along in the world. Chaucer, strangely enough, scatters some preposterous details through the portraits. For example: a virile knight in his 50s has a military career that spans 45 years; a woman wears a kerchief that weighs 10 pounds; a burly fellow is inclined to knock doors off their hinges by running into them with his head!
     Somehow the oddities make the pilgrims more than the surface of the words describing them. An alternate image of each seemed to hover just out of focus. I figured it must be connected to the technique called "allegory," telling a story on two (or more) levels at the same time. Bringing a second storyline into focus was an entertaining challenge to readers of the Middle Ages. Fascinating!
     Numerous specific details hold true for everyone until we meet the Host. He provides a night's lodging for the entire group, in anticipation of setting out on their pilgrimage. Chaucer uses a different tactic with him. Of his appearance, we are told only "a large man he was with eyen stepe." His eyes are "stepe"--they are high or wide-open. Again, I felt there was more to understand than merely the words.
     The pilgrim introductions take 710 lines before the Host comes on the scene. Ralph Baldwin (in The Unity of the Canterbury Tales) hands us a surprising fact: of all the activities attributed and the travels recorded, we have seen only a "pretense of actions," spoken of, not performed.
     It is the Host who performs the first action. After a warm welcome, he provides sustenance for these travelers in the form of the best food and strong wine. No particulars of the meal are given: no specific foods served, nothing of the manner of serving.
     Again, I felt I was to understand more than the words were saying. My Catholic background brought automatic echoes for this Host. To associate the word Host with the best food and wine is the poetic equivalent of referring to the Eucharist. There are many medieval examples. A question posed in the Church's designated prayers for the Feast of Corpus Christi (Body of Christ) written by Thomas Aquinas, refers to the Sacrament of the Altar with: Can anything be more excellent than this repast?  And a religious poem of the 14th century states: A better food may no man find.
     We'll go on with this next week. Meanwhile Celebrate Chaucer!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A New Year

A new year. A new beginning. Happy 2013 to everyone. Life is always in a state of flux, so I'll set the stage by incorporating what has happened in my life with Chaucer since my initial posting.
     First, let's look at the name of this blog. Chaucer ain't like gospel  means  that whatever has been said, in the last 200 years or so of literary criticism regarding the poet and his works, is all subject to question.  After all, we are dealing with human opinions, not with religious inspiration. That shakes out the dust from Chaucer studies. It encourages us to explore new possibilities--but always with a solid foundation. We don't have to express our thoughts in academic jargon, but we must build fact upon fact.
     Why should you value my new opinions? Well, partly because I've enjoyed promoting Chaucer and researching and writing about Chaucer for 30 years. There were many exciting moments, surprising discoveries I'll tell you about. Sometimes a sudden insight was so amazing, I thought I'd burst!
     My intention here is to add a post once a week. In the meantime you can check out the website for pictures of our festivities over the years, and see a variety of articles I've written--from spicy to serious to just plain astonishing. In addition, on YouTube you can see an uploaded presentation called Chaucer: what is hidden in the Canterbury Tales.
It is a taste of the engaging ideas that lie ahead.
     That's it for now. Until next time, Celebrate Chaucer!