Feminism, History, Literature, Medieval

A Lapse in Deed, if not in Thought: Celebrating Geoffrey Chaucer

Yes, I thought about Geoffrey Chaucer one week ago today, on October 25, 2023.  I know perfectly well that that was the 623rd anniversary of his death, which occurred on October 25, 1400.  But I was otherwise occupied at the time, and I didn’t get around to commemorating it.

Herewith, an echo from well over four years ago:

Reality TV, 1387 Edition:

Imagine yourself, if you will, as an inhabitant of late 14th-century England. You sit somewhere at the lower end of the hierarchy with the king at the top and the villeins and serfs at the bottom. If you’re a man, you’re very likely a farmer, and you and your family live in a two-room (if you’re lucky) house, close by the small patch of land you’re allowed to pretend “belongs” to you. When you’re not tilling and plowing and sowing and reaping there, you’re working just as hard, or even harder, on your Lord’s estate. Or perhaps you work in support of agriculture–perhaps you’re a blacksmith, or a wheelwright, or a cooper.

If you’re a woman, you keep house, you raise your children, and you provide all domestic necessities for your family. If you’re lucky enough that your parents survive to old age, you bring them into your house and care for them, too. If you’re a child, and you live in a village where the Lord of the Manor supports a small school, you attend, and you learn to read and count, and perhaps even to write. If you’re a little higher-class than your neighbors, perhaps you’ll escape a life of quite such grinding labor, and enter the Church, eventually becoming a Brother or a Nun.

And, in the very great majority of cases, you’ll live your entire life within a three-to-five mile radius of the place where you were born. So your circle of acquaintance is pretty much set from the start. It’s very likely that your “lady-love” will be a girl you’ve known all your life. Your community is small, and your interdependence on each other is high; therefore, friendships are important and carefully tended, and enmities are avoided whenever possible, in the interests of community safety and peace.

Your entertainments are simple. Women find pleasure and fun in group activities–brewing, cooking, spinning, weaving, child-rearing. Men enjoy card games (introduced to England in the mid-14th Century). Everyone enjoys festivals and fairs, some at the behest of the Church, others sponsored by the Lord of the Manor. Families, in their very limited spare time, play board games and dice, and children frolic on the village green. Traveling musicians, mendicant priests, festival performers, and occasionally, troupes of actors visit, and perform plays, spread the Gospel, and sing or read to attentive audiences thirsty for news and knowledge of lands beyond their own. Many of the performances are in Latin, though, and little understood; many of them are Church related with clear moral lessons, without much room for humor or comic situations. Memorized songs of magical realms, and of heroes, are sung with more or less expertise by wandering minstrels, usually until the gentleman passes out in a mead, or ale-induced fog, probably after garbling the plot in unrecoverable ways.

And nowhere, if you’re prone to wonder about such things, can you discover for yourself what life is like for other people in other parts of your country. Who are all these people living in this place called “London?” What do men and women do, if they don’t live on the land, or farm for a living? Can a women have her own life and be independent of a man? What are rich people like? Can a man get rich, through his own efforts, if he wasn’t born that way? How do rich people live?

One day, a traveling entertainer sets himself up on the village green and invites you to come listen to his stories. So you go. And your mouth drops open! He’s carrying a manuscript, or at least a part of a manuscript, and he’s reading from it–in English! They are stories like none you’ve ever heard before, describing people and a world close by, but so far out of your reach it might as well be on the dark side of the moon.

Here are some men and women of London, with lives you couldn’t possibly imagine. The Merchant. The Clerk. The Manciple. The Wife of Bath. Here are some men and women of the Church, described in ways (largely uncomplimentary) you’ve never heard before: The Friar. The Summoner. The Pardoner. The Parson. The fastidious Prioress and the Second Nun. Here are tradespeople and town dwellers like The Miller. The Physician. The Man of Law.

And many more. Each of them described in detail, in a portrait in the “General Prologue,” and then each of them telling a tale that 1) gives their author a chance to vary the pace and subject matter, and 2) reveals something more about the character of the person telling it.

Suddenly, the panorama of life in Medieval England is laid bare before you. And you start to question your place in it.

OK, the above might be slightly fanciful. But not all that much. Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is generally considered to be the first major work of English literature written in the vernacular, and it is certainly the most wide-ranging work of its time, providing an affectionate and occasionally ironic, perspective on the lives of many men, and a few women, of the period. It must have been eye-opening to those who heard it for the first time, in the closing decade of the fourteenth century.

Of course, there weren’t all that many people who did hear it then. Wider distribution had to wait for almost 100 years, until William Caxton published the first printed edition of the Tales in 1476, followed, because of its popularity, by a second edition in 1483. It’s never been out of print since.

The Canterbury Tales is the story of twenty-nine men and women, pilgrims all, and a narrator (generally held to be Chaucer himself), setting out from the Tabard Inn in London, on their way to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Thomas á Becket. The “General Prologue,” told in the voice of the narrator, provides a short sketch of each pilgrim, and is the most oft-quoted portion of the poem. Thus, we have The Knyght–

He was a verray parfit gentil knight.
But for to tellen yow of his array,
His hors were gode, but he was nat gay.
Of fustian he wered a gipoun
Al bismotered with his habergeoun;
For he was late y-come from his viage,
And wente for to doon his pilgrimage.

–brave in battle, but gentle in demeanor, especially around the womenfolk, and not ostentatious in his personal attire. A thoroughly good man.

And we have the overly-fastidious Prioress–

Ful wel she song the service divyne,
Entuned in hir nose ful semely;
And Frensh she spak ful faire and fetisly,
After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe,
For Frensh of Paris was to hir unknowe.
At mete wel y-taught was she with-alle;
She leet no morsel from hir lippes falle,
Ne wette hir fingres in hir sauce depe.
Wel coude she carie a morsel, and wel kepe,
That no drope ne fille up-on hir brest.

–singing hymns through her nose, speaking French quite pretentiously, and with a heavy London accent. Never dipping her fingers in the sauce, and fussily making sure no morsel ever falls from her lips.

And the morally and physically repellent Summoner–

A Somnour was ther with us in that place,
That hadde a fyr-reed cherubinnes face,
For sawcefleem he was, with eyen narwe.
As hoot he was, and lecherous, as a sparwe;
With scalled browes blake, and piled berd;
Of his visage children were aferd.
Ther nas quik-silver, litarge, ne brimstoon,
Boras, ceruce, ne oille of tartre noon,
Ne oynement that wolde dense and byte,
That him mighte helpen of his whelkes whyte,
Nor of the knobbes sittinge on his chekes.

–frightening of visage, lecherous, with no ointments, unguents or elements that can cleanse him of his corruption, either inside or out.

The unblinking depictions of real-world men and women from the “General Prologue” must have been startling to readers and listeners of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. These are people who could be real. These are people we might actually know. Perhaps, if we’re honest, we can find some of ourselves in one or two of these people. And I expect that, five and six hundred years ago, people recognized themselves, and others in their lives, too.

Once the “General Prologue” is over, the meat of the Tales begins, as each pilgrim gets a chance to tell a story, and Chaucer delves into different subjects, different genres, and different styles. The fun begins as pilgrims start to jostle for pride of place for their efforts, interrupting and one-upping each other from story to story. Comedy and tragedy are applied in equal measure, as are heroism and cowardice, nobility and baseness, and high-mindedness and vulgarity. It’s a vast portrait of Medieval life, in terms of its breadth, and its accuracy, and I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to call it “reality TV” for those who were introduced to it in the fourteenth century. Before the Canterbury Tales, stories about ordinary people, living ordinary lives of one sort or another, and doing ordinary things, were almost unheard of. (There has been much study done, and much written about, what we can glean of Medieval life just by reading The Canterbury Tales. If you’re not familiar with them, please take a look. Harvard’s interlinear translation is here, a side-by-side translation is here, and there are several good modern editions of the Tales you can find on the web.)

I’ll close with a specific mention of two tales; one from a man, the other from a woman, hopefully without too many spoilers.

The Miller’s Tale, told by the very vulgar and uncouth Miller, starts out (but not for long) as a love story, and ends with an extended fart joke, an unfaithful wife, a cuckold suspending himself from the bedroom ceiling in a large bucket (so that he can survive the Flood when it arrives–he thinks), and absolute chaos when the final eruction is directed out the window. Along the way, there are many hysterical (if you’re a medievalist) word puns (yeah, you might have to look some of them up), and great hilarity.

The woman’s tale is told by (who else) the redoubtable Dame Alys, The Wife of Bath. The first notable thing about her tale is that her introduction to it, the prologue, is extraordinarily prolix, and is about twice as long as the tale itself. This should give you some insight into the prologue’s importance, as well as into Chaucer’s view of a woman’s ability to get to the point of a story (hello?). And it reveals Alys as a highly colorful and opinionated lady, five times married. (As she points out with irrefutable logic, the Bible told her to be fruitful and multiply, so how can God possibly object to this? She’s just doing her best to carry out His commandment.) She’s equally as definitive in her opinions about everything else, and her prologue is essentially a confession for, and justification of, her life, which would certainly have been problematic in terms of the traditional view of women at the time (perhaps at any time). Her tale, when she finally gets to it, is very traditional, drawing on Arthurian themes and the legend of the loathly lady. Redemption, in a sense.

I really like Dame Alys. I like the Miller, too. I find the Prioress tiresome. And the Summoner repulsive. The Knight? Too good to be true. The humble and godly Parson? Thank goodness for him; he redeems the higher-up Church figures, who are largely portrayed as greedy, grasping, lecherous, or all three at once. Some of the other tradespeople I haven’t mentioned–the haberdasher, the carpenter, the weaver–all help to round out the picture. Sure, I’d like there to have been more women in the pilgrim mix (there are plenty of women, good and evil, virtuous and loose, comely and ugly, smart and dumb, in the stories). But I feel confident in saying that, after reading The Canterbury Tales, you’ll know a great deal about the men and women of the Middle Ages. And about the author of the work–Geoffrey Chaucer himself. An extraordinary man, with an extraordinary mind, an extraordinary wit, and a fresh and unique talent. Who changed English Literature forever.


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