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."