Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The repulsive Summoner

Our next topic, Aquarius, provides an example of the challenge of allegory. A cardinal rule is that when you recognize the pattern being used (for example, the zodiac), all the parts must be there.

Mythology for Aquarius, the Water Bearer, is vague. The constellation has no special visual display. Chaucer provides only a one-word clue. The narrator says,
          He knows how to call for "Watte" as well as does the pope.
Notes explain that "Watte" intends "Walter." Why change the spelling? Word-play. "Watte" functions on two levels, both as Walter and water. There must be an Aquarius, and minimal evidence identifies him.
     His occupation guides our search for the Summoner's identity within the clique. The task-name--summoner--reverberates. The most profound, most dreaded summons is Death. Death personified was a common medieval device. And why not? The population of Europe in 1400 was only half the number of those alive in 1300, mainly due to the plague. Plays dramatized the spectre summoning pope, emperor, merchant and peasant alike. Preachers, too, spoke of death as a summoner.
     But what does this have to do with Aquarius? Chauliac, physician to the pope, attributed the cause of the epidemic to the celestial conjunction of Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars, which occurred in the 19ยบ of Aquarius. This zodiac figure, and its association with human devastation, brings us back to Chaucer's Pilgrim Summoner.
     Now let's view Chaucer's portrait of the pilgrim.
          A Summoner was there with us in that place,
          That had a fire-red cherub's face.
Medieval cherubs were often illustrated with faces painted red. Cherubim can be messengers of God. This cherubic Summoner does function as a messenger of a higher power. Figuratively, the title related to sickness, old age and death.
     No other pilgrim description is exclusively facial features; his other physical attributes are never mentioned. His face must tell all.
          Afflicted with "saucefleem" he was, with eyes narrow.
          As hot he was and lecherous as a sparrow, 
          With scaly black brows and thin beard.
          Of his visage children were afeared.
          There was no quicksilver, litharge, nor brimstone, 
          Borax, ceruse, nor cream of tartar none,
          Nor ointment that would cleanse and bite,
          That might help him with his whelks white (pustules),
           Nor with the knobs sitting on his cheeks.
His red (inflamed) face and swollen eyelids are, to put it mildly, an unsightly condition. "Saucefleem" meant a form of leprosy. Red and black discolorations were part of the affliction as well as loss of hair. Such a face would naturally be feared by children. He resembles a body dead of the plague or any corpse undiscovered for several days.
     The next line,
         Well loved he garlic, onions, and also leeks
is so specific, there must  be a connection to death or plague. In the Bible, Numbers 11 says, the children of Israel complained about the manna provided by God; they longed for "leeks, onions and garlic" they'd eaten while in captivity. The Lord sends them an overabundance of quail, and then--"the Lord being provoked against the people, struck them with an exceeding great plague." These onions and leeks remind us that an angry God has been known to send a " great plague."
     A grim association follows--wine the color of blood.
          And [he loved] to drink strong wine, red as blood;
          Then would he speak and cry as if we were mad.
          And when he had drunk enough wine, 
          Then would he speak no words but Latin.
When the Summoner has drained the barrel (indicating the end of a life), words in Latin would naturally follow as part of a ceremony for the dead, the Last Rites or the funeral.
          A few [Latin] terms had he, two or three,
          That he had learned out of some decree;
          It's no wonder--he heard it all the day.
Again there is a projection of the dead, with numbers so large that the Latin terms (ceremonies) were heard all day long. The number that perished seemed to indicate that Death had gone mad: the more of the wine of life he consumed, the more he craved.
     We'll take this up next time as we're told what a good fellow he is!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The dreadful Reeve

The third member of  Pilgrim Chaucer's clique is the Reeve. The poet gives us clues to the Reeve's hidden identity as Scorpio. The animal figure and its temperament, both living and celestial, play a part.

A reeve is a keeper of accounts.
          The Reeve was a slender choleric man.
          He shaved his beard as close as ever he can;
          His hair was by his ears completely shorn around;
          . . .
          Very long were his legs and very lean,

          Like a staff; there was no calf seen.
He is slender and bad-tempered. His face has no evidence of a beard. Lack of hair is emphasized. Of his slender body, we learn that his legs are long and lean with no hint of muscle development. As scholar Harold Brooks remarks, this "thinness is positively abnormal . . . his legs, mere sticks."
     Ptolemy declared Scorpio a calamitous influence. And twelfth-century Michael Scot likens it to"a live scorpion in its effect on men."
          Well could he keep [protect] a garner and a bin.
He keeps watch over the storehouse and other storage areas. This is the scorpion's habit to lie in wait, keeping watch for prey.
          No auditor could get the better of him.
To compare the Reeve to an auditor only appears to say that both he and the auditor are of the same species. A human challenged by a scorpion, as he goes about examining stored goods, would be wise to make a strategic withdrawal and allow the feared "overseer" to continue guarding the stores.
          Well he knew by the drought and by the rain
           The yield of his seed and of his grain.
Attention is called to drought and rain, changes of environment. Actually, adaptable to weather, scorpions hide in the ground during dry spells, and surface again with the rain.
          His lord's sheep, his cattle, his milk cows,
          His swine, his horses, his livestock, and his poultry
          Was wholly in this Reeve's governing.
Observation from the first century calls a scorpion a "predator of the fields." Later, Michael Scot observes that it "gladly dwells in dirt and in obscure, filthy places such as the vicinity of latrines." Chaucer's contemporaries warn of venom most deadly, and advise caution in idyllic scenes for "under flowers rests the scorpion." The creatures thrive under stones, in crevices, under dead leaves and rubbish, in barns and deserted buildings, and thatched roofs.
     With their pincers and long, upturned tail, caution should be used in handling any of the species. Death, under some circumstances, can come as quickly as forty-five minutes.
          The Reeve prefers dwelling on uncultivated land;
          With green trees was his place shadowed.
An untilled area shadowed by trees is also a perfect scorpion habitat.
     The Reeve has a "coat and hood" as did the Miller. The coat is predictably blue, but a carefully chosen shade. More a bit later.
          In his youth the Reeve learned a good craft;
          He was a very good craftsman, a carpenter.
Recall that one of the craftsmen in the sign of Cancer was also a  carpenter. We see the skill as a creature's ability to construct an exoskeleton in order to grow.
          A long surcoat of pers [blue] he had,
          And by his side he bore a rusty blade.
A long coat is a proper garment for the extended figure of Scorpio. The shade of blue expressed as "pers" contains a play on the scorpion's ability to pierce.
     The constellation contains many blue-white stars. But red Antares is the brightest star and centrally located. The poet expresses this as the Reeve's necessarily rusty blade!
          He was tucked about as is a friar,
          And ever he rode the hindermost of our group.
Tucked like a friar, as with cinctures about a robe, tells of well-defined segments of the scorpion's body. And to ride the most toward the rear (hindermost) alludes to the scorpion's physical structure that extends behind him.

V. A. Kolve notes that the Reeve's prologue, which follows the ever-popular Miller's Tale, "forces us to reconsider everything the Miller has invited us to enjoy--animal liveliness, bawdy laughter, youthful energy, aged gullibility." The Reeve, instead, exhorts us to think on death. His chilling, oft quoted, vision of life describes Death opening the tap of life when we are born; the stream continues to pour out ineluctably until there is no more.
     The Reeve--the pilgrim labeled as the one who keeps the accounts--is a personification of the Last Judgment. That's another reason to say he is hindermost, as is Judgment. We now have three influences on Pilgrim Chaucer: Money, the Devil, and the Last Judgment.
     Prepare yourself for the repulsive Summoner.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The dynamic Miller

When Harold Brooks, a Chaucer scholar, likened the Miller's portrait to "a great bull," the dynamic depiction is stillborn. Though Chaucer's rendering is clear, no startling vitality emerges unless you know you're dealing with the zodiac.

Taurus' bodily characteristics fill fifteen of the twenty-two line introduction. The Pilgrim Miller
          Very big he was of muscles, and of bones.
          . . . 
          At wrestling he would always have the ram.
The ram he'd win as a wrestler is a prize. But the zodiac reading also sees Taurus always succeeding, overcoming the Ram--that is, Aries, the Ram.
      Chaucer supplies a simple picture-perfect portrait:
          He was short-shouldered, broad, thick as a knarre (gnarled tree).
     Then the poet astonishes us and adds vigor to the animal impression.
          There was no door that he could not heave off its hinge,
          Or break it by running at it with his head.
     A rarity follows. We learn details of the Miller's face.
          His beard was red as any sow or fox,
          And also broad, as though it were a spade.
The comparison is to rustic non-humans! And the grotesque association of a chin wide as a spade keeps us entertained.
      The Taurus constellation has two star-clusters: the Pleiades and the Hyades. Both become part of the continuing description of his face.
          On the very top of his nose he had
          A wart, and on it stood a tuft of hairs.
The Pleiades have inspired many poetic visions: a swarm of fireflies, a cluster of golden bees, or folds of silk decked with gems. I can't help but be amused at Chaucer picturing them as a hairy wart!
          His nostrils were black and wide.
These wide, black nostrils ought to be a giveaway. You have to skim past a lot of powerful beast-like features to remain oblivious to this prime bull-like attribute.
     The next line sounds strictly human--unless it is used figuratively.
          A sword and buckler (small shield) he bore by his side.
But in the Middle Ages beasts were said to use their horns as men use weapons! An MED entry confirms this: "Out . . . come four-and-twenty oxen playing at the sword and buckler." It's more of the poet's game.
     Because this is a horned animal, he corresponds the the traditional representation of the devil. The Hyades, Taurus' second star-cluster, appears here.
          His mouth was as great as a great furnace. 
Ovid sees the radiant Hyades as "seven flames." And a mouth like a furnace, again, indicates the devil. In medieval writings, one often encounters a furnace intending "fires of hell." Sermons refer to "the yawning chasm of hell-mouth." Chaucer's Parson, too, speaks of the devil's furnace.
     The Miller's devilish traits follow.
          He was a teller of dirty stories and a glutton of words.
Much of the Miller's Tale revels in sin, obscene behavior, and filth.
     As a miller, he was a furtive thief.
          Stealing corn and tax[ing] it thrice.
In Taurus' constellation, the star Aldebaran is yellow and brightest in the zodiac. This is featured as the Miller's "thumb of gold" that aids his thievery.
     As the portrait draws to a close, Taurus' mythology plays a small part.
          A white coat and blue hood he wore.
In Troilus, Chaucer alludes to Taurus "the white Bole," of the myth. The blue hood I take to mean the firmament.
     Finally, the devil returns.
          A bagpipe well could he blow and sound, 
          And therewith he brought us out of town.
A triptych by Hieronymus Bosch shows pipers playing flesh-colored bagpipes at a celebration. The pipes symbolize "perversions and snares of the flesh." More precisely, it is the performing piper who encourages "perversions and snares of the flesh."
     Ultimately, when the pilgrims actually begin their journey, there is no mention of the Miller or his bagpipes. Chaucer projects a momentary mental picture here, just for effect (as he did with Bobbe-up-and-doun and the Scales).
     Taurus, the second of Pilgrim Chaucer's clique, is the Devil--as in "the world, the flesh, and the devil." Our fourteenth-century poet surely acknowledgd the Devil as a force in life.
     Next time--dreadful Scorpio.