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.