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.