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.)