Thursday, February 27, 2014

The Pardoner and point of view

We'll get to the Pardoner in a bit, but first let's revisit the purpose of this blog. The name "Chaucer ain't like gospel!" tells you that it's OK to question the opinions of other scholars. As additional information comes to light, or circumstances change, or someone offers a different point of view, we should be comfortable in examining new ideas, not holding on to previous opinions as if they are unalterable.
     In the previous entry, for example, notes generally explain the name Rouncivale to be that of a  hospital in the London area. But if Chaucer sets up the role of this pilgrim--the Pardoner--as having come "straight from the court of Rome," isn't this a rather prestigious introduction? Would he come straight from Rome just to visit a local hospital? The name of the 14th-century hospital, of course, held an allusion to the event in the Song of Roland that celebrated the collaboration of pardon and death. It's high time to acknowledge that potent covert intention connecting the Pardoner with the Summoner.
     In addition, earlier blog entries about the Host detailed his alternate identity as Christ, the guide of pilgrims. (See 2012-2013) Chaucer, a man of courage and faith, risked his life to inform his audience about matters of consequence he had experienced. Let's give this creative genius his due.

Now let's get to know the Pardoner. As I sorted out who was who among celestial images of the pilgrims, the one male figure left had to be Pisces. The test, then, is does "the sign of the fish" fit Chaucer's description? Close association with Aquarius, the adjoining zodiac sign, is a good start. They both lie in a region of the sky often called the Sea because of its many water-related star groups.
     Significantly, the poet devotes five lines just to describe the Pardoner's hair. It becomes his dominant feature.
          This Pardoner had hair as yellow as wax,
          And smooth it hung as does a bunch of flax;
          By "ounces" hung his locks that he had,
          And therewith his shoulders were overspread;
          But thin it lay, by "colpons" one and one [or on and on].
We learn nothing of other body parts--no hands, no legs, etc. (Physical properties that don't approximate the body of a man are avoided.) His wax-like yellow "hair" spreads very smoothly over his shoulders and appears remarkably "thin." It hangs "by ounces" (in very small quantities)), by "colpons" (pieces or slices). What an imaginative analogy for the scales of a fish! The "one and one" (or "on and on") gives a distinct impression of the continuing, orderly pattern of the surface of a fish. "Hair" spreading out over the shoulders gives the proper fish contour with no mention of a neck.
     To the color and orderliness, Chaucer adds another visual characteristic.
          No beard had he, nor ever should have;
          As smooth it was as if it were lately shaved. 
As a fish, absence of a beard is a foregone conclusion. The poet, however, emphasizes ultrasmooth sleekness.
     Along with the bright color, orderly surface arrangement, and exceptional smoothness, there is one last physical detail. As fishes go, an outstanding feature would he his "fish eyes." That's precisely what we get--sort of.
          Such glaring eyes had he as does a hare.
How grotesque! Our vision is binocular, but the eyes of hares--and fish--look to the sides. Several lines interrupt depicting the sleek surface and describing these eyes. This keeps the covert image from becoming obvious.
     Next time we'll take up the Pardoner's personality and his professional practices.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Summoner/Pardoner: death and pardon

The Summoner and Pardoner are said to be companions but we will come to see them as collaborators.
          With him (the Summoner) ther rood a gentil Pardoner
          Of Rouncivale, his freend and his compeer.
The camaraderie acted out between the Summoner (Aquarius/Death) and this Pardoner, has no comparable elaboration anywhere else in the General Prologue. Where the rest of the group is concerned, a friend of one of the travelers is merely said to be "in the company" of the other. In cases of pilgrims who are blood relatives--brothers, father and son--the poet only says "with him" was his son or his brother. The Summoner/Pardoner alliance is unique. The first six lines of what we would expect to be exclusively the Pardoner's introduction are taken up, instead, with details of the interaction between there two characters.
          With (the Summoner) there rode a noble Pardoner
          Of Roncevalles, his friend and his intimate companion,
          That had come straight from the court of Rome.
          Full loud he sang "Come hither, love, to me!"
          The summoner bore him a stiff burden;
          Was never a trumpet half so great a sound.
A direct clue to the source of their closeness is the Pardoner's connection to Rouncivale (modern Roncesvalle, in northern Spain). Importance of the city's name goes back centuries to Charles the Great, Charlemagne, and to the battle memorialized in the Song of Roland. Chaucer refers to it in the Book of the Duchess.
     Written about the year 1100, Roland's epic is filled with crusading, although the action spoken of takes place in the 700s, predating the Crusades by centuries. Roland and the rear guard for Charlemagne were caught in an ambush. The hero's words, "We may be martyred" is terminology used in stories of saints who gave their lives for their faith. Archbishop Turpin, who is among the rear guard, encouraged the knights who were about to do battle against the "pagans":
          "Charles has left us here, lord barons.
          He is the king. It is our duty
          To die for him and Christianity.
          It's battle now for all you men;
          There they are, the Saracens!
          Confess your sins, and God's forgiveness
          Will be ensured for those I bless.
          If you die, you will be as martyrs, 
          High in Paradise hereafter."
Pardon is granted because of the circumstances of their death; they were designated as martyrs, pardoned of all sins, and destined for an immediate place in heaven. Roland's Song is a record of Pardon and Death collaborating at Rouncivale.
     This form of general absolution was also granted to the actual Crusades. Pope Eugene III (in 1145) declared, "Those who devoutly undertake and accomplish [a crusade], or who die by the way, shall obtain absolution for all their sins . . . and receive (from God) the reward of eternal life." It is a promise that a soul will forego the cleansing of purgatory, as well as be released from the threats of hell. Chaucer knew of the close ties between death and pardon. Crusades, and plans for crusade, though lesser efforts, were made while he lived.
     Now let's return to the two Canterbury pilgrims and Rouncivale. They perform a song together. The Summoner's voice, said to be more powerful than a trumpet blast, evokes heavenly trumpets proclaiming Judgment. It also serves as an allusion to Roland's trumpet call, a signal mystically heard miles away by Charlemagne.
     Their duet says more than the words admit on first reading. The Summoner, with his great voice, is carrying a "stif burdoun." Musically that is a strong bass vocal line. At a deeper level there is a grim vision--the carrying of a rigid corpse, the daily mission of this Summoner/Death. The lyric "Come hither, love, to me," when delivered in unison by Pardon and Death, gives rise to foreboding. The significance of the medieval religious perspective may be difficult to assimilate today. However, the  words "Come hither, love, to me" covertly convey "Become a Christian or die." The Song of Roland expresses this very sentiment, especially in the baptismal scene. It recounts the guiding principle of Charlemagne and his forces in avenging the fallen French martyrs. A throng of defeated Saracens are gathered together. Then, a simple ceremony of "conversion" begins.
          The bishops speak their holy words
          Over the water, and they lead
          The pagans to the baptistry:
          Any who opposes Charles's will
          Is hung or burnt or otherwise killed. 
          A hundred thousand are baptised.
If the "come hither" invitation is refused, there is only one alternative.
     A closer look at the Pardoner next time.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Summoner: frightening yet appealing?

The Summoner--frightening trickster, liar, and yet appealing? How can we accept all that Chaucer tells us about him? Only as Death personified is it possible.

Let's take up where we left off in the last entry. The Latin word in the next segment warns of what "he has signified."
          And also he [a man] should beware of Significavit.
The term about signifying was the first word of a legal summons. A man should beware of the summons; beware of the sign of Aquarius; and beware of illness, as a sign of approaching death.
     Next, Chaucer's expertise in creating the dual level of allegory provides a suggestive surface concealing grim reality.
          In "daunger" had he his own "gise" [way with]
          The young girls of the diocese, 
          And knew their secrets, and was their counsel.
The first line tells us that "In domination he had his own way--or did as he pleased"--with the girls of the diocese. Despite his loathsome appearance, we are to believe the young girls of the town interact with him. He becomes their devastating intimate, their ultimate confidante. When Death seeks them out, maidens find him irresistible. How could it be otherwise?
     Death as seducer has long had its own poetic genre. In languages where nouns have gender, masculine Death lends itself poetically to such scenes of seduction. More modern, yet an easy example to understand, is the German of Schubert's song, "Death and the Maiden." It ends where, after a maiden's protests, Death says:
          Be of good cheer! I am not fierce,
          Softly shall you sleep in my arms!
     Chaucer puts a finishing touch on the complex portrait of the Summoner with one more view. Be attentive. Let the details register in you mind's eye.
          A garland had he set upon his head
          As great as for an "alestake" [a post before a tavern].
          A buckler [a shield] had he made for himself of a cake.
Do you see the "garland"--and the bit of baked goods for protection? How preposterous, this frighteningly grotesque man with a wreath of flowers atop his swollen face! Descriptive details, however, are all covertly associated with death. First, "garland" begs investigation. A garland can be a wreath, but it is also a kerchief used as a bandage to bind the head of someone who is ill.
     And though protection from "cake" seems foolish, when associated with approaching death, it becomes spiritually significant. Figuratively, cake can refer to the Eucharist, the Sacramental Wafer. Reception of the consecrated wafer, when death is imminent, is called Viaticum. The sacramental "cake" provides a spiritual shield for the transition to eternity.
     Initially, the Summoner's image had been one of incurable illness. Such a condition should render him weak, lethargic. But his many activities within the community are acceptable when we recognize him as Death personified.
     Death, the summoner, has Aquarius as its zodiacal identity, because that sign marks the first of many attacks of the plague. Chauliac, physician to the pope, made that astrological declaration. The plague ravaged Europe five times while Chaucer lived. So, along with Money, the Devil, and Judgment, the fourth concern for Pilgrim Chaucer is Death.
     The next entry will look at the Pilgrim Summoner along with the Pilgrim Pardoner, the last member of Chaucer's clique, to see why their close relationship clicks.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Summoner, repulsive and . . .

I had planned to finish talking about the Summoner in one more entry (2 parts in all). But my good friends who critique these entries felt the need for more information, clarification. So I abandoned the streamlined version and have done a rewrite with additional history and vocabulary.

A particular challenge lies in Aquarius, the sign we're dealing with. The constellation has no outstanding stars; the myth has no outstanding action. So Chaucer provides only the one-word clue "Watte" as identification. The word functions as both Walter and water. This brings the image of the Aquarius, Water Bearer to us. And the sign relates to death because the first attack of the Black Plague occurred in the 19ยบ of Aquarius.
     Chaucer is participating in an artistic genre found all over Europe--allegory on the universality of death. It appears in illustrations and in dramatic works, as well as sermons. And the action performed by a personification of death was to summon individuals. Hence, Chaucer's label for the Summoner is the perfect choice. The poet foregoes the celestial and mythological; he limits the Summoner's portrait to details associated with a personification of death.
     This repulsive Summoner we left, at the close of the last entry, now becomes a dear fellow.
          He was a noble harlot and "a kynde";
          A better fellow should men not find.
With or without irony, "noble" indicates he is skilled at what he does. And "harlot" saw him as an idler, a rogue, not a craftsman. Though "kynde" can mean benevolent, it also means natural, the essential character, as in,"What kind of a person is he?" There are circumstances where death's arrival would actually be welcomed. Chaucer records this thought in the Knight's Tale.
          We be pilgrims, passing to and fro. 
          Death is an end to every worldly suffering.
Therefore repulsive Death can also be kind.
     Strangely enough, we have no more than adjusted to seeing Death as kindly to those who are burdened, than another aspect of the Summoner's personality emerges.
          For a quart of wine he would allow
          A good fellow to have his (the man's) concubine
          For twelve months, and excuse him completely.
The Summoner's duties, in the surface story, involve summoning those accused of moral offenses such as adultery and fornication, to the ecclesiastical court. Yet, here we seen him apparently overlook such wrongdoing! But don't assume he is being tolerant or understanding; the sinner's cask has not yet run dry. The adulterer has false confidence. Death is a trickster!
     Trickery is assumed of Death as an adversary in the Pardoner's Tale. To anticipate "his" coming:
          Ere ye come into his presence 
          Methinks that it is necessary
          To beware of such an adversary.
          Be ready to meet him at every moment.
How does one get ready? The genre originally included a didactic reminder of the inevitability of death. Sinners were strongly advised to be prepared morally at all times to be summoned. For example, Death addresses an Emperor with, "Your sword won't help you. Sceptre and crown are worthless here."
     The Summoner,
          Very "prively" he could "pull a finch."
The line is generally seen with sexual intent, though the phrase begs actual interpretation. The covert sense conveys "cunning," "to pull a clever trick." He moves very stealthily, furtively.
     Chaucer's humble Parson warns, "Death, cometh oft suddenly, with no certainty as to what time it shall be, nor in what place." He too exhorts being prepared at every moment. Today we still accuse Death of presenting his summons at little anticipated, disruptive moments--a life cut short on the brink of success, for example.
     The Summoner's encouraging of false confidence continues.
          If he found a good fellow anywhere,
          He would teach him to have no fear.
Then several lines seem to say a bribe is all that is necessary to remove a curse. That, however, is followed by:
          But well I know he lied in deed.
The Summoner's apparent geniality and reassurance are false! Here is the truth:
          Of cursing ought each guilty man be fearful,
          For the curse will slay right as absolving saves.
A guilty man will be slain (implying spiritual death), while absolution will save his soul (give him eternal life).
     The Pardoner says death is a "privee" thief, that is, one who works treacherously imperceptibly. Besides his kindliness, death is a thief and a liar.

Next time we'll take up the Summoner's language skills and personal appeal.