Archives for category: Canterbury Tales

chaunges one chaucer

Languages have a way of changing. Certain words and expressions adapt – sticking with us for centuries – while others disappear entirely. Here are five Middle English expressions we no longer use:

1.       Drunken as a Mouse

This expression is probably best known from its appearance in Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale[1] – the first Canterbury Tale. There’s no doubt this expression comes from the peculiar state cellar mice were found in after gnawing on wooden casks of wine or ale. Though aging ale in wooden casks is starting to make a comeback in home and craft brewing, mice haven’t been associated with beer in popular culture since Bob and Doug McKenzie used one in a bottle to try to get a free case of Elsinore beer.

bob and doug mckenzie try to get free beer using a mouse in a bottle

Bob and Doug McKenzie (played by Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas) try to get a free case of beer using a mouse in a bottle in the film Strange Brew (copyright 1983 MGM).

The expression later became “Drunk as a skunk” – probably only because it rhymes. When’s the last time you’ve heard anyone say, “Drunk as a skunk” anyway?

2.       Breme as bore

Brave (or fierce) as a boar. It appears in The Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur[2] where it is used several times to describe how awesome certain knights of King Arthur’s court are at jousting. I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of a lance driven by a knight who was as “breme as a boar.”

This expression is one of my personal favorites and I’d love to bring it back. Problem is, “breme” didn’t make it to our Modern English. I suppose we could use “brave as a boar” but it just doesn’t have the same ferocious ring to it. Plus, how often does a wild boar come up in conversation anymore? Though they seem to always be around in Middle English and Middle High German texts, we rarely hear of run-in’s with wild boars these days – unless, of course, they are Sylvester Stallone legends from Bulgaria.

3.       They walwe as doon two pigges in a poke

They wrestled like two pigs in a poke. Chaucer used this expression to animate the cartoonish climax of his Reeve’s Tale. Symkyn the Miller and Alalyn are in a fight cloud like pigs in a poke until Symkyn slips on a stone, falling backward onto his wife in bed giving Alayn and John the chance to get out of Dodge.

Growing up in the American South, I occasionally heard the expression “like two pigs in a poke” but, famously getting expressions wrong and not knowing that a “poke” was a sack – I thought it meant something along the lines of two pigs trying to pass a threshold at the same time – not wriggling around in a sack.

The closest I’ve ever come to seeing this expression acted out was in West Africa. Once, when my wife and I were en route from either Grand Popo or Porto Novo to Cotonou, the taxi driver stopped at a roadside stand to load some pigs in the trunk. We could hear – and sometimes feel – their wrestling behind us for the entire journey.

When we finally reached Cotonou, the driver stopped at a Barbeque stand where the pigs were unloaded for a big lady who oversaw the removal of the beasts from the back of our vehicle looking stern and unimpressed. We were surprised to see that there were actually three pigs in the trunk instead of two. Though it greatly annoyed the other two ladies who were stuffed like sardines in the backseat with us – we were lucky we kept our backpacks on us instead of storing them in the trunk.

4.       Not worth a leek

Chaucer used this expression in his Wife of Bath’s lecture on marriage. The entire line is:

I holde a mouses herte nat worth a leek
That hath but oon hole for to sterte to
And if that faille, thane is al ydo. (D ll. 572-74)

This basically means marriage is like a mouse who only has one hole. If the mouse loses his hole, he has nothing. It’s a long way of a saying, “Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket” – which we could use on one level to sum up the entire Wife of Bath’s Prologue. I’m not talking about the entire sense of these compound expressions though. Instead, I’m looking specifically at the expression “not worth a leek.” I’ve only seen that expression in Middle English texts. We don’t use “not worth an onion” (another one Chaucer often uses) and “not worth a leek” anymore. We’ve replaced them, at least in America, with “not worth a dime.” Why is that so?

5.       Whoso that first to mille comth, first grynt

I wasn’t intending to give Wife of Bath two spots on this list, but her work is chock full of witty expressions. We know what “First to the mill, first to grind” means, but we never hear it used today. Since everyone in a 14th century village needed their grain ground (whether they farmed it or not) on a regular basis, people spent a lot of time waiting their turn to get this done. We no longer rely on the miller to save us from grinding grain by hand all day.

We’ve since replaced this expression with “the early bird gets the worm” or “first come, first serve.” Many Americans will be thinking about this expression come Black Friday and as Christmas shopping season ramps up even more – I doubt they’ll use the words “first to the mill is first to grind”, but they will be thinking the same thing.


[1] References to Chaucer in Middle English are taken from Chaucer’s Major Poetry, Ed. Albert C. Baugh (New York, 1963).

[2] The Stanzaic Morte Arthur from King Arthur’s Death: The Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur and Alliterative Morte Arthure, ed. Larry D. Benson, (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merril, 1974).

Ok, I’m going to try to make it through this post about descriptions of eunuchs in medieval poetry without consulting Chaucer. He’s dying to share his freshest double-entendres with us about these gentle natured folk, but we should let some other poets have their turn at first crack for this cliché.

In the 14th century dream vision poem Pearl, the poet has the dreamer use the words “meek and mild” to describe the Pearl maiden:

Moteles may, so meke and mylde[1] Moteless maiden so meek and mild[2]

nightingale

Medieval poets often used the words “meek and mild” to describe the Virgin Mary and pious women in general in religious poems to the point of cliché. Here’s an example from The Thrush and the Nightingale, a late 13th century debate poem where two birds argue over the reputation of women. The thrush attacks women while the nightingale defends them:

O fowel, thi mouth the haueth ishend

Thour wam wel at this world iwend,

Of a maide meke and milde

Of hire sprong that holi bern

That boren wes in Bedlehem[3]

Your words have now confounded you!

Through whom was all this world made new?

A maiden meek and mild

Who bore in Bethlehem a Son.

I was amused the other day to see the words “meek and mild” used for comedic purpose to describe eunuchs in The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament. The Metrical Paraphrase is an entertaining 14th century text that has all sorts of amusing asides that we associate with good medieval storytelling. I like imagining English court audiences feasting on encores of these lively versions of classic Bible Stories. Was it the only version of the Bible available in the vernacular? If it was, they sure were lucky!

We tend to think that the dark ages were darker than they actually were and that everyone – save those at the top of the church and select nobles – knew next to nothing about the Bible besides, say, bits of the nativity, Noah’s Flood, and the crucifixion before the Wycliffe Bible went into circulation. Well, they did have The Metrical Paraphrase. Now, I wouldn’t call The Metrical Paraphrase a scholarly translation of the Old Testament, but it is certainly a translation in the sense that most medieval “translations” are more akin to what we would call a retelling. The Metrical Paraphrase is just that – a retelling. The poet’s retelling is surprisingly faithful to Scripture and embellished with amusing asides[4]  and the occasional description of things in the story that would be foreign to his medieval audience.

Esther and Ahasuerus

One example of an amusing aside in the Metrical Paraphrase occurs in the poet’s description of Queen Vashti’s chamber in The Book of Esther. The poet makes sure to point out that the eunuchs – the only men allowed to be in the room with her – are “meek and mild”:

 and thei were ordand in ther yowth
that hei myght do no manly dede,
Bot ever more meke and myld of mouth
servandes als maydyns for ther mede[5]

Poor guys. They were “ordained” in their youth that they might “do no manly deed.” Instead, they act as servants for the maidens, their voices “meek and mild” just like those of the angels in heaven or the Vienna Choir Boys.

After all, it’s their spiritual example-setting and deep scriptural knowledge that puts these eunuchs in the unique position of being the only men besides King Ahasuerus[6] who are allowed inside the king’s harem, right? The cliché of the eunuch being the only male permitted in the chamber with a lord’s object of desire is one that is often used to describe villains in medieval poetry. In Marie de France’s lai Guigemar, for example, the only person permitted to see the maiden who is kept as a prisoner by her jealous husband besides the husband is a eunuch.

Marie de France initially introduces the eunuch without pointing out what distinguishes him physically from other men:

Uns vielz prestre blans e floritz

Guardout la clef de cel postiz[7]

An old priest with hoary-white hair

guarded the key to the gate…[8]

guigemar l255

Lines 255-56 transcribed above as they appear in MS Abbeville Anc. 7989. fol.53 Image: gallica

But before moving on with the story, she can’t help but add:

Les plus bas members out perduz:

Altrement ne fust pas creüz

…he had lost his lowest members,

otherwise he would not have been trusted.

guigemar l257

Lines 257-58 transcribed above as they appear in MS Abbeville Anc. 7989. fol.53 Image: gallica

This is typical Marie de France embellishment. We can hear her delivering the line out of the side of her mouth. The line about how the old priest had lost his “lowest members” is presented so matter-of-factly that if she were called out for obscenity, I can just hear her indignant reply, “Well that’s how he WAS.”

In both The Middle English Metrical Esther and Guigemar, the eunuch is described in places where women live a life in confinement and in both stories these women become liberated. In the book of Esther, Vashti is powerless. She is confined to a room with her maids and the eunuchs and the moment she refuses one of the king’s biddings, she loses her title as queen. This role is replaced by Esther, a woman who empowers herself. Not only do we see Esther enjoying the freedom of being able to talk in private with Mordecai, but she deposes a political enemy in the king’s court and also manages to convince the king to change one of his decrees which, in turn, saves the lives of her people. In Guigemar, the maiden is released from her prison by Guigemar and the magic boat. In both stories the eunuch appears in scenes that describe a woman being ruled by her husband and in both of these situations there is the image of a castrated man – the very absence of sexuality! Are both of these poets trying to say that wherever we find an oppressed woman we will also find a castrated man?


[1] Pearl in Middle English from Pearl, ed. Sarah Stanbury (Kalamazoo, 2001) v.961. available online: http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/text/stanbury-pearl

[2] References to Pearl and The Thrush and the Nightingale in Modern English translation are taken from Medieval English Verse, trans. Brian Stone (Harmondsworth, 1964).

[3] The Thrush and the Nightingale in Middle English from Bodleian MS Digby 86 (Wessex Parallel Web Texts) l.169-73. available online: http://www.southampton.ac.uk/~wpwt/digby86/thrushtxt.htm

[4] So I couldn’t resist. Here’s something from Chaucer: Compare this to the Host Harry Bailey’s winning criteria for the tale-telling competition in The Canterbury Tales – “Tales of best sentence and moost solaas / Shal have a soper at oure aller cost.” Is Chaucer suggesting that secular tales could provide moral substance as well as entertainment value by presenting them in a way that was already popular in his day for religious works such as the Metrical Paraphrase, Patience (Story of Jonah told by the Pearl Poet in contemporary 14th century setting) and the Mystery Plays even if the moral substance piece isn’t always from the Christian tradition?

[5] The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament, ed. Michael Livingston (Kalamazoo, 2011), l.16529-32. Available online: http://d.lib.rochester.edu/teams/publication/livingston-middle-english-metrical-paraphrase-of-the-old-testament

[6] It’s interesting to note that the religion of King Ahasuerus (“Assuere” in Middle English) is ambiguous in The Metrical Paraphrase‘s Esther (“Hester” in Middle English). He’s a Persian king who – we assume – does not worship the Hebrew God, however, since the story takes place in what appears to be a contemporary English court setting complete with nobles and knights, the king is described more like a misguided Christian king than an infidel. Also, though the heroine Esther is Jewish, she is presented sympathetically as a character in the Christian tradition despite the prevalence of anti-Jewish sentiment in medieval England.

[7] References to Marie de France in Old French are taken from Lais de Marie de France, Ed. Karl Warnke (Paris, 1990).

[8] References to Marie de France in Modern English translation are taken from The Lais of Marie de France, trans. Glyn S. Burgess and Keith Busby (London, 1999).

Spring is not quite in full swing, but some of its signs are here. We haven’t had below-freezing temperatures in Philadelphia for nearly a week and the wind is becoming a little less harsh. The daffodils have come up and are just about to bloom.

daffodils

So, now that the Sun has entered Aries (the zodiac constellation of the Ram), let’s take a look at what time it is. According to the Secreta Secretorum:

“Ver bigynneth whan þe soone entrith into the signe of þe Ram, and dewrith foure skore dayes and xiij, and xviij hours, and the fourthe part of an houre, that is, from the xiij day of marche vnto the xiij daye of Iune. In veer the tyme is so hote, þe wyndis risen, the snowe meltith. Ryvers aforsen hem to renne and waxen hoote, the humydite of the erthe mountith into the croppe of alle growing thingis, and makith trees and herbes to leve and flowre, þe medis waxen grene, the sedis risen, and cornes waxen, and flouris taken coloure; fowlis clothen them alle newe and bigynne to synge, trees are fulle of leves and floures, and the erthe alle grene; bestis engender, and all thingis take might, the lond is in beute clad with flouris of diuerse cloures, and alle growing thingis are than her bewte.” [1]

The sun warms the wind and the snow melts. Rivers and streams that were dry and stagnant for months loosen up and bend and flow. Moisture in the ground rises up and nourishes the roots. Seeds sprout, dead grass is replaced with green grass. Birds get new colorful feathers and sing as the trees adorn themselves with fresh leaves.

Doesn’t this description remind you of the lines Chaucer used to open The Canterbury Tales?

“Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote.
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendered is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale fowles maken meloldye,
That sleepen al the nyght with open yë…” (v.1-10)[2]

Chaucer tells us that it is spring by using the same method of astrological calculation as Secreta Secretorum. The Secreta Secretorum tells us that spring is the time that the sun is in Aries. Chaucer mentions that the sun’s position is in Aries the Ram, “the yonge sonne / Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne.” The Canterbury Tales starts in the middle of spring, when the sun has ran half its course through Aries the Ram.

Chaucer mentions the same natural signs of spring: birds chirping and seeds sprouting but instead of using a literal and scientific description of the wind like we have in Secreta Secretorum, “þe wyndis risen, the snowe meltith,” Chaucer personifies the wind by using Zephyrus, the west wind. Chaucer then tells us that it’s the perfect time for people to get outdoors and go on walking pilgrimages: “(So priketh them nature in hir corages) / Thanne longen folk to goon pilgrimages.”

It’s sunny outside and all the birds are trying to find mates so they can have sex. Now, aren’t you in the mood to go on a religious pilgrimage?

well, now that Chaucer’s got us on the subject of active and healthy lifestyles, let’s turn back to Secreta Secretorum to see what this medieval mirror for princes says about good things to do during spring to keep fit:

“Prime temps, that is, veer, is hoot and moyste; in this time sterith mannys blood and spredith into alle the membris of þe body, and the body makith it intemperate complexioun. In this tyme shulde chykenys be ete, and kyndes and eggis, soure letuse þat men call carlokis, and gettis mylke. In this tyme is best to lete blood, for onys than is bettir than thre tymes an other tyme; and it is good to travayle and to haue thi wombe soluble, and than it is good to swete, to bathe, and to goo, and to ete thinges that are laxatijf, for alle thing that amendith bi digestioun or by blood letyng it shalle sone retorne and amend in this prime temps .i. veer.”[3]

So, as the cows and chickens eat fresh green grass, it’s a good time to have eggs, chicken, and milk. Bitter greens, like dandelion these days, grow first, so we should eat them. It’s a time to flush the body of toxins by sweat-inducing physical activity, bloodletting, and eating food with laxative properties. The idea here is that while nature flushes itself out with warm wind and rain, it renews and repairs itself with new growth. So too do our bodies during this time.

This concept of spring as a period of flushing toxins was not limited to esoteric thought in the medieval west. In Chinese medicine, the liver, which is an organ that plays an important role in digestion and detoxification, has been associated with spring for over one thousand years.[4] In a Kung Fu manual that incorporates Taoist alchemy, the liver’s association with spring is mentioned: “The liver is the viscus which stands at the head of the three months of spring…The form of the liver is that of a dragon; it stores up the soul; it resembles a banging bottle-gourd of a whitish brown colour; it is placed below the heart, a little nearer the back; the right has four lobes, the left three lobes; its pulse emerges from the end of the thumb. The liver is the mother of the heart and the son of the kidneys.” [5] The old manual continues with an exercise that should be performed during spring to assist the liver with its natural function: “To repair and nourish it, during the first half of the three months, one must sit facing the east, knock the teeth 3 times, shut the breath and inspire 9 times; breathe the south air,—take in 9 mouthfuls and swallow 9 times…This will cure obstruction of the liver from vicious wind and poisonous air, and prevent disease from developing. These exercises must be incessantly attended to morning and evening in the spring, without intermitting even one day; and, with the heart set upon it, the cure is complete.”

Well, what are you waiting for? Let’s hail the coming of spring and get brand new attitudes! Up for a walk?


[1] The Secrete of Secretes. Translated from the French (MS. Reg. 18 A. vij. B.M.) from Three Prose Versions of the Secreta Secretorum. Vol I Ed. Robert Steel (London, 1898), 27.

[2] The General Prologue from The Canterbury Tales in Middle English from Chaucer’s Major Poetry, Ed. Albert C. Baugh (New York, 1963).

[3] The Secrete of Secretes, 27.

[4] Five Animal Sports Qigong: Medical Qigong Exercises for Health, Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming, YMAA, 2008.

[5] Kung-Fu, or Tauist Medical Gymnastics, John Dudgeon, 1895. Available online: http://www.sacred-texts.com/tao/kfu/index.htm

osewold_the_reve_satisfaction_uk

Though all of the pilgrims from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales agreed that the Knight’s Tale (the first tale told in the tale-telling game) was of good moral substance – “In al the route nas ther yong ne oold / That he ne seyde it was a noble storie” (MiP l. 3110)[1] and they thought it was worth the while hearing it, “And worthy for to drawen to memorie” (MiP l. 3112)– we have to admit that it was a quite a long tale for one sitting. It had three intermissions! 

So, to spice things up a bit and get the blood flowing in everyone’s limbs again, the Miller tells a dirty joke.

The party enjoyed his dirty little fabliau for the most part, “for the moore part they loughe and pleyde.” (ReP l. 3858) While everyone deserves to have a bit of fun on vacation, the fun on this vacation really should be of a wholesome nature – they were on a religious pilgrimage, after all. So it’s no surprise that a member of this party was offended. 

There is plenty in the Miller’s tale for a devout Christian on religious pilgrimage to find offensive between making fun of a carpenter who is too easily convinced by a poor scholar to prepare for the end the world by “Second Flooding”, and, of course, the famously vulgar scene with a guy kissing a woman’s “nether yë.”

Surprisingly, Oswald the Reeve was the only member of the party offended by the Miller’s Tale, “Ne at this tale I saugh no man hym greve / But it were oonly Osewold the Reve.” (ReP ll. 3859-60) But, contrary to what we’d expect, it wasn’t satire on “rapture-fever” or even the lewd act in the story that offended the Reeve – no, it was all because John, the character who was duped in the tale, was a carpenter. And since Oswald the Reeve was a carpenter by trade, he saw the insult directed at someone of his profession to be an insult directed at him.

In retaliation, the Reeve tells a tale about a shifty Miller who is beat by two young scholars at his own game –stealing grain. That’s not all – the students cuckold the Miller and further humiliate him by deflowering his daughter.

This insult is just as revealing of Oswald the Reeve’s own personality as it is indicative of guild (or union) rivalries in 14th century England. 

The Reeve taking insult and impulsively choosing to use his first tale in the tale telling competition to settle a score, as petty and counterproductive as it is, provides us a window into behavior that contributed to economic and social problems in Chaucer’s day.

It was also just some lighthearted competition between two tricksters for the amusement of everyone.

In the Miller’s Tale, Nicholas the clerk convinces John the carpenter that a great flood of Biblical proportions is coming. John imagines himself Noah and prepares for the deluge. 

Chaucer references the tale of Noah’s Flood from the Biblical book of Exodus in his own comedy by way of its comedic Mystery Play. One of the most well-known Mystery (or Miracle) Plays is Noah’s Flood from the Chester cycle. 

The Mystery Plays, just like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, were meant to entertain as well as morally instruct. 

Chaucer introduces this method of storytelling when the host, Harry Bailey, announces the rules of the tale-telling game in The Canterbury Tales. In order to win a free supper paid at the expense of all of the other pilgrims, the pilgrim must tell the best tale that entertains as well as morally instructs:

And which of yow that bereth hym best of alle,
That is to seyn, that telleth in this caas
Tales of the best sentence and moost solaas,
Shal have a soper at oure aller cost. ” (GP ll. 795-99)

Though Noah’s Flood carries a comedic tone throughout the entire play, the most familiar moments of comedy are the interactions between Noah and his wife. 

Though Noah’s wife is more than willing to help her husband with the massive project of building the ark, even gathering an impressive group of animals:

And here are beares, wolves sett,
Apes, owles, maremussett,
Wesills, squerrells, and fyrrett…” (ll. 173-72)[2]

…when it comes time to actually board the vessel, she takes the opportunity to remind Noah that he’s not the boss and that this is the last thing she wants to do:

Yea, syr, sett up your seale
And rowe for the with eve!! hayle;
For withowten any fayle
I will not owt of this towne.” (ll. 197-200)[3]

 Gleason_honeymooners_1965

This isn’t the first time the two have had a scuffle. Earlier in the play, we have a scene that could fit comfortably in The Honeymooners:

In faith, Noe, I had as leeve thou slepte.
For all thy Frenyshe fare,
I will not doe after thy reade.” (ll. 99-101)[4]

Noah (Noe) responds to his wife’s disobedience by coolly asserting his authority:

Good wiffe, do nowe as I thee bydd.” (ll. 102)[5]

Noah’s wife, isn’t having that:

By Christe, not or I see more neede,
Though thou stand all daye and stare.” (ll. 103-4)

So Noah explodes into a rant about shrewish women:

Lord, that weomen bine crabbed aye,
and non are meeke, I dare well saye.
That is well seene by mee todaye
in witness of you eychone.
Good wiffe, lett be all this beare
that thou makest in this place here,
for all the weene that thou arte mastere-
and soe thou arte, by sayncte John.” (ll. 105-12)[6]

Back in Chaucer’s day, guilds would produce and perform Mystery Plays for the amusement and spiritual enlightenment of the public during festivals. There was also an element of competition in the productions as well – each guild wanted to be recognized for putting on the best performance. It was a popular venue for competition between rival guilds. 

So, by incorporating the Mystery Play, Chaucer is adding another layer to the rivalry between the Miller and Reeve pilgrims for the audience.

And, of course, since the Miller’s Tale is a tale within The Canterbury Tales – putting the carpenter in the tale of Noah’s Flood makes it a tale within a tale within a tale.

Beavis and Butt-head at the Grand Canyon

Beavis and Butt-head are amused to see poop coming from an ass of an ass in Beavis and Butt-head Do America. (image copyright 1996 MTV Productions/Paramount Pictures)

But let’s return to the Reeve’s comeback… 

Symkyn, the main character in the Reeve’s Tale is a Miller. But he’s not just any miller – the Reeve adds a detail to his description of Symkyn to personalize his jab on the Miller pilgrim, Robyn. 

The Reeve starts the description of the Miller character in his tale by pointing out that he can play the bagpipes, “Pipen he koude.” (ReT l. 3927) The Reeve’s “comeback” to the Miller pilgrim’s insult on carpenters is not only pointed at the Miller’s guild – but also directed personally at the Miller pilgrim because in the General Prologue, Chaucer mentions that the Miller pilgrim could blow and sound the bagpipes well, “A baggepipe wel koude he blowe and sowne.” (GP. l. 565)

Though the Reeve crafts his tale to get back at the Miller by repaying his insult to someone of his profession by mocking someone of the Miller’s profession – and points the jab at the Miller pilgrim himself, before he even starts telling the tale, he rambles on about what a drag it is getting old.

The Miller pilgrim is younger than the Reeve pilgrim because the Reeve pilgrim starts his comeback with something along the lines of, If I were a younger man, I’d teach you a real lesson:

“…ful wel koude I thee quite
with blerying of a proud milleres yë,
If that me liste speke of ribaudye.
But ik am oold, me list not pley for age…” (ReP ll. 3864-67)

But his rant isn’t exactly about that – he’s actually jealous of the Miller’s youth. The Reeve wants to be young again. He says that his body is old and that his grass time is done. The fresh, green grass of his youth is now dried forage and that the white hair on the top of his head shows everyone how old he is:

Gras tyme is doon, my fodder is now forage;
This white top writeth myne olde yeris;
Myn herte is also mowled as myne heris (RevP. ll.3868-70)

But he’s matured. He compares himself to “the medlar (tree), the fruit of which cannot be eaten until it has become mushy.”[7]

But if I fare as dooth an open-ers:
That ilke fruyt is ever lenger the wers,
Til it be roten in mullok or in stree.” (RevP. ll. 3868-73)

Now that he’s properly rotten, what is he ready for now? Has his wisdom ripened? 

No, he continues by telling us that the four vices of old age are, boasting, lying, anger, and covetousness: “Avauntyng, liyng, anger, coveitise.” (RevP. l. 3884) 

His talk isn’t about old and wise old men, but cranky old men who are sexually frustrated by being stuck in old bodies yet still having the desires of young men, or, as the Reeve puts it, a colt’s tooth, “yet ik have alwey a coltes tooth.” (RevP l. 3888) 

The Reeve can’t get no satisfaction! It’s a good thing the Host stopped our Reeve’s rant on the sexual frustrations of old men and made him get on with telling his tale because it was getting creepy.

 

 


[1] References to Chaucer in Middle English are taken from Chaucer’s Major Poetry, Ed. Albert C. Baugh (New York, 1963).

[2] NeCastro, Gerard,“The Chester Cycle PLAY III (3) – Noah’s Flood,” From Stage to Page – Medieval and Renaissance Drama. Available online: http://machias.edu/faculty/necastro/drama/chester/play_03.html Accessed 01/20/2013.

[3] “Noah’s Flood”

[4] “Noah’s Flood”

[5] “Noah’s Flood.”

[6] “Noah’s Flood.”

[7] Editor’s comment. Chaucer’s Major Poetry, Ed. Albert C. Baugh (New York, 1963), 302.

GIRLS ON PARCHMENT

Medieval poets love to describe the beauty of women in their stories. Their hyperbole has no limits – they claim left and right that the maiden in the story you’re hearing right now has the best nose, mouth and eyes ever formed by God! 

Wait a second, didn’t Enide possess those one-of-a-kind physical features? It’s beginning to look like there’s a Venus on the half shell in every town in Brittany!

This installment of Girls on Parchment comes from Chaucer’s Tale of Sir Thopas. It is one of the shortest Canterbury Tales – measuring at 241 and… err…1/2 lines. It could have been the longest Canterbury Tale ever – had the host Harry Bailey not made Chaucer stop telling it.

The Tale of Sir Thopas is about a knight who quests after the woman of his dreams, an elf-queen. To win her, he must run from an evil giant knight and make his way through the wild jungle of “the contree of Fairye” – while occasionally making pit stops at his castle to enjoy dainty cakes and model new designer sets of armor. After all, he must look his best on his quest! He’s undeniably the blueprint for Monty Python’s Sir Robin.

bravely bold sir robin

Sir Robin (played by Eric Idle) from Monty Python and the Holy Grail image copyright 1974 Python (Monty) Pictures / Sony Pictures

And now, “Liseth lordes, in good entent!”

– Oh, and make sure you always sing Chaucer’s Tale of Sir Thopas to the tune of Bob Dylan’s “The Times they are a-changin'” –

here is Chaucer’s description of our tale’s hero:

Sir Thopas wax a doghty swayn,
Whit was his face as payndemayn,
Hise lippes rede as rose;
His rode is lyk scarlet in grayn,
And I yow telle, in good certayn,
He hadde a semely nose.
His heer, his berd, was lyk saffroun (ll. 1914-20)[1]

saffron

Saffron for sale at Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market.

This brave knight has a beard like saffron – a soft, yet bristly beard with a complex red aroma. That’s certainly more intimate detail of a knight’s physical features than we usually get in medieval poetry – except for Chaucer’s Squire of course.[2]

Sure, we get endless descriptions of the quality of a knight’s gear, but as far as detailed descriptions of physical features go – the English medieval poet might give us, “he was passing fair” – if we’re lucky – as Malory did for Galahad:

… therin came twelue nonnes that broughte with hem Galahad the whiche was passynge fayre and wel made that vnneth in the world men myghte not fynde his matche…[3] … therin came twelve nuns that brought with them Galahad, the which was passing fair and well made, that unnethe in the world men might not find his match…[4]

But let’s return to Chaucer’s description of Sir Thopas. It continues to describe his outfit – how fashionable and expensive it is:

Hise shoon of Cordewane.
Of Brugges were his hosen broun,
His robe was of syklatoun,
That coste many a jane. (ll.1922-25)

Of clooth of lake, fyn and cleere,
A breech, and eek a sherte (ll.2048-49)

…a fyn hawberk,
Was al ywroght of Jewes werk (ll.2053-54)

His swerdes shethe of yvory (l.2066)

It really goes on and on… shoes made of Cordovan leather, brown socks imported from Belgium. If it was written today, we would need the September issue of Vogue just to follow it. 

Chaucer pays tribute to the masters of French Romance by emulating how they describe luxury clothing and character dwellings in such a way that they seem incredibly expensive, even to an audience of court nobility. 

He emulates the style of Chrétien de Troyes and Marie de France, but does it so well that he doesn’t realize he’s filling his fantasy balloon with so much air that it will burst.[5]

Enough about Thopas. What about the maiden? Our girl on parchment – how beautiful is she? Well, the only description we get of her is, “elf-queen.” That’s it. “Elf-queen.” Not even, “beautiful elf-queen with ears like sweet pointed peppers.”

We get a longer description of the gingerbread cake that was baking at the court of Sir Thopas:

And gyngebreed that was ful fyn,
And lycorys, and eek comyn,
With sugre that is so trye

The host makes Chaucer end this train wreck of a tale before the elf-queen actually appears in the story. Though we’ll never know how Chaucer’s pilgrim would have described the elf-queen’s supreme beauty, at least The Tale of Sir Thopas provides a different sort of girl on parchment.

“That’s enough music for now, lads!”

Click here for another installment of Girls on Parchment


[1] References to Chaucer in Middle English are taken from Chaucer’s Major Poetry, Ed. Albert C. Baugh (New York, 1963).

[2] Sir Thopas resembles the Squire more than the Knight in The Canterbury Tales. I wonder if Chaucer had originally intended the Squire to tell this tale. Also, I wonder how common stories and jokes about “Runway Knights” who could pass as Zoolander were in Chaucer’s day.

[3] Caxton’s Malory in Middle English from Middle English Compendium (Ch. 13, leaf 307r) available online: http://name.umdl.umich.edu/MaloryWks2

[4] Caxton’s Malory in modernized English spelling from Le Morte D’Arthur, Ed. Elizabeth J. Bryan (New York, 1999), p. 656

[5] Is it purely the English making fun of French style? As always, Chaucer gives his work plenty of layers of comedy. On the surface the poem seems simple enough, but it has an absurdly complex structure that is just waiting to topple over itself like a lost game of Jenga. Though the rhymes technically work, they keep surpassing themselves in their corniness. The cringing audience is forced to take action as a barkeeper would do to stop an absolutely terrible karaoke singer 3 minutes into Don McClean’s “American Pie.” For a few laughs from the scribes at Hengwrt and Ellesmere, see Maik Hildebrandt‘s The Layout of “Sir Thopas” http://maikhildebrandt.wordpress.com/2012/10/19/the-layout-of-sir-thopas/

Update July 28, 2013: Consider King Horn, Havelock the Dane, and other 13th century Middle English Romances in addition to or instead of the French Romances. Chaucer may be parodying English Romance specifically and contributing to its popularity by virtue of his parody. After all, it has been argued that “the spirit of English Romance became the spirit of English literature.” It’s also been argued that Chaucer’s parody of English Romance in Sir Thopas is not restricted to the romance lyric or the minstrel style, but “oral performances of all kinds.” Another good article to help us appreciate the reception and physical form of Sir Thopas is: Jessica Brantley, “Reading the Forms of Sir Thopas“, Chaucer Review 47 (2013): 416-38.

One thing that always makes me cringe is reading a medieval English poem with anti-Jewish[1] sentiment. I sink into my chair, hoping that no one can tell that I’m reading it. Anti-Jewish sentiment is uncomfortably common in medieval literature and it’s something you’ll encounter more often than you’d like if you read a lot of it and “to exclude these references would be desirable but… it would be unhistorical: for medieval Christian writers, Synagogue was the blindfold girl with the broken staff, prominently sculpted on their cathedrals.”[2]

We know that we should try to read medieval literature in as close as we can get to its historical and cultural context, but let’s be serious: If I organized a reading of medieval poetry at a local library or café and recited a tale of a little innocent boy, who, while whistling a tune of praise to the Virgin Mary through a Jewish neighborhood had his throat slit by Jews and dropped in a latrine to die – I’d feel compelled to explain the reasoning behind my selection unless I had the sweet and obnoxious naivety of Borat Sagdiyev.

Image

Borat Sagdiyev demonstrates the “Jew Claw” in his guide to “American Hobbies” from Da Ali G Show Season 2: Episode 9 “Politics” (Original airdate: March 7, 2003). Copyright 2003 Talkback, Freemantle Media, HBO, Channel 4.(image: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a_GOmXt-DKg)

Depending on how politically correct the audience was, I might even feel obligated to offer some sort of apology for the reading. But let’s get back to how I cringe when I see anti-Jewish material in medieval poetry. I read a lot of Chaucer. 

Most of the cringing I get from Chaucer comes from his corny jokes, but sadly, his works are not without its own anti-Jewish material – though to be fair this material says more about the charaters being portrayed and parodied in his work than his own personal views.

In his Canterbury Tales we have “The Prioress’s tale” which is about an innocent little boy being viciously murdered and cast into a latrine by some evil Jews. It could easily be interpreted on the surface level to both a 14th century audience and a modern one as nothing but a tirade against Jews.

So here we go. If you’ve read this far, you probably won’t be offended – and if you are, well, it’s your own damn fault.

Drama builds as the little boy doesn’t return home from school. His mother asks if anyone has seen her darling little boy. To her horror, she discovers that he was last seen in the Jewish ghetto. 

A searching party is gathered and the mangled, bloody body of the boy is found.

It’s every parent’s worst nightmare.

But wait! Something miraculous happens.

Though the boy’s throat is cut, he’s singing a song of praise to the Virgin Mary. When he’s asked by a priest how this could be, the boy tells him that the Virgin Mary herself came to him and put a grain under his tongue which brought him back to life. The priest removes the grain from the boy’s mouth, the boy’s body stops singing and his soul ascends to heaven. 

What a miraculous sight! 

The Jews are rounded up and executed without a trial. Everyone lives happily ever after!

Why would Chaucer write something like this? Chaucer wrote Canterbury Tales, but within the tales themselves, he is only the narrator and a quiet narrator at that. 

We should approach each pilgrim’s story as verbatim quotes from the pilgrims themselves into a reporter’s microphone. 

Since Chaucer is mostly a silent observer anyway, he’s more like a quiet documentary filmmaker than an eye-witness news reporter. 

Of course, there is the occasional aside, and the audience sees its fair share of boom mics, but with the exception of his commentary in the General Prologue, he resigns himself to the role of a quiet cameraman documenting the goings ons of an English pilgrimage to Canterbury. 

Actually, he’s more akin to a producer of a reality show. Well, not really… but let’s consider it. If the prioress character hates Jews, it doesn’t mean that Chaucer shares this sentiment. I mean, of course he kept the camera rolling and put it in the show – but people like trash TV. They seem to have watched it as much in the 14th century as we do today. 

So, if a character on Chaucer’s reality show spews anti-Jewish rhetoric, it’s their voice – not his. Right?

The Prioress tells us this tale of the Virgin Mary’s youngest holy martyr going against the big bad wolves of Jerusalem. The clouds part, the community comes together, kills the evil doers and praises their holy Mother. Problem is, the story isn’t very nice for today’s audience because its bloodthirsty villains are Jewish people.

A modern educated audience understands that these villains are distorted caricatures of Jewish people, but adding all of those disclaimers interferes with the flow of the narrative.

The Prioress starts her tale by describing the boy. He’s an adorable “litel book lernynge,” studying his “prymer” in school minding his own business when, suddenly, he hears a beautiful song. It’s not just any song, it is Alma Redemptoris.

 He absolutely loves it. It’s in Latin and he doesn’t know what it’s about, but he knows that it is something special so he tries to learn to sing it himself even though it’s a song intended for the older boys.

One day, he asks an older boy what the words mean and if he’d help him learn it.

The older boy tells him that it is about the glory of the Virgin Mary. He teaches him how to sing it in secret with the little boy knowing full well that if he studies the big boys’ “antiphoner” he may punished for falling behind in his own “prymer” studies.

Once the boy learns this beautiful song, he finds that it brings him such joy that he just can’t stop singing it!

This litel child, as he cam to and fro,

Ful murily than wolde he synge and crie

O Al redemptoris everemo.

The swetnesse hath his herte perced so

Of Cristes mooder that, to hire to preye,

He kan nat stynte of snyging by the weye. (1742-47)

The Prioress’s description of the joy in the boy’s heart is full of saccharine. Imagine this boy skipping for joy – or better yet, in the backseat of a car singing John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt for five hours straight. We can see how this could be a little irritating for people, but to the prioress this precious little boy could do no wrong. 

He wanders into a Jewish ghetto and the Jews who live there sure are evil. In fact, they are the limbs of Satan. Don’t believe me? The Prioress clearly considers the Jews in the story to be limbs of Satan because she has Satan himself appear in the story. It’s like saying that the Jews fail to consider Jesus Christ God not because they worship the God of the Old Testament or disagree that Jesus is the new prophet or Messiah, but because they worship Satan instead.

Well, as you probably guess, Satan appears and orders the Jews (Hebrayk peple) to kill the boy and they follow his orders.

Image

“for medieval Christian writers, Synagogue was the blindfold girl with the broken staff, prominently sculpted on their cathedrals” Synagogue (Old Law) 20th century copy on Strasbourg Cathedral. photo: Aidan McRae Thomson (detail) http://www.flickr.com/photos/amthomson/4996417314/in/photostream/ see also (New Law) http://www.flickr.com/photos/amthomson/4996417778/in/photostream/ and the originals in Musée de l’Oeuvre Notre Dame: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ecclesia_and_Synagoga

How can they find it in their hearts to kill a boy walking through their ghetto? Don’t be silly! Everyone, including the Prioress, knows that Jews have Satan’s wasp nest for a heart! 

As shocking as these anti-Jewish statements seem to us today, there is such hyperbole and ridiculousness to them that, knowing Chaucer’s wit and appreciation for secular classics, this passage should be read as satire of anti-Jewish sentiments held by the many so-called Christians of his day:

Oure firste foo, the serpent Sathanas,

That hath in Jues herte his waspes nest,

Up swal, and seide, “O Hebrayk peple,

allas!

Is this to yow a thing that is honest,

That swich a boy shal walken as hym lest

In youre despit, and synge of swich sentence,

Which is again youre laws of reverence?”

Fro thennes forth the Jues han conspired

This innocent out of this world to chace,

An homicide thereto han they hyred,

That in an aleye hadde a privee place;

And as the child gan forby for to pace,

This crused Jew hym hente, and heeld hym

faste,

And kitte his throte, and in a pit hym caste. (1748-1761)

Another thing, how did the boy get into this situation? Did he really just wander into the Jewish ghetto? Of course not! He went there. During the middle ages, the Jewish ghetto wasn’t just “the bad side of town” that a little Christian boy crossed through each day on his way to school. 

During the middle ages, the Jews of Western Europe lived in walled ghettos with strict curfews that required them to be locked-in during the night and on Sundays.[3] This little boy walking through the Jewish ghetto is like Jesus marching into the Temple of Jerusalem and knocking over the money changing tables and pigeon coops:

And Jhesus entride in to the temple of God, and castide out of the temple alle that bouƺten and solden; and he turned vpsedoun the bordis of chaungeris, and the chayeris of men that solden culueris. And he seith to hem, It is writun, myn hous schal be clepid an hous of preier; but ƺe han maad it a denne of theues. (Matthew 21:12-13)[4]

It’s a different sort of boldness. It’s a bold innocence. It’s an action that is difficult for people to criticize.

How can you hold a little boy responsible for his actions – especially when he’s singing praise for his Heavenly, matchless maiden mother? 

The boy confronts medieval Christian society’s perceived enemies of Christ with innocent sweetness. Well, isn’t that cute!

Either the boy doesn’t know what he’s doing because he’s just beaming with the joy of the Virgin Mary or he knows exactly what he’s doing: marching bravely into the Valley of Death as Christ’s newest and youngest soldier. 

Whichever one you choose, it’s still blind faith. 

So this leads us to Chaucer’s question: Well, if the Jew represents the blind girl with the broken staff, and this boy is blindly walking into a Jewish ghetto spreading his own recently acquired blind faith, well then, what is blind faith?

Don’t know how to respond? That’s ok, the audience in Canterbury Tales doesn’t know how to respond either. There’s a sobering silence over the entire party.

 


[1] This article follows Esther Zago’s example of using the term “anti-Jewish” instead of “anti-Semetic” to describe the attitudes toward Jews in “The Prioress’ Tale” because anti-Semetic is a “19th century term which shifted the focus of the entire Jewish question from religion to race.” A more detailed explanation of her purpose in using the term “anti-Jewish” and her succinct placement of the Jews in 14th century Britain into historical perspective can be found in her “Reflections on Chaucer’s ‘The Prioress’s Tale’” http://ir.uiowa.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1661&context=mff

[2] Brian Stone, Medieval English Verse (Middlesex, 1964), 35.

[3] George Robinson, Essential Judaism (New York, 2000), 468.

[4] Wyclif, John. Matthew 21:12-13 in Forhsall and Madden, eds. The New Testament in English According to the version by John Wycliffe, about 1380, and revised by John Purvey about 1388. (London: Oxford, 1879).

Apollo XI and the Saturn V moon rocket (image: Bruce Weaver)

I was reading a particularly amusing post from Christopher Knowles today about why he Hates Saturn and this part especially reminded me once again that we still describe things in similar terms as medieval storytellers:

Either way, when Saturn was transiting through Cancer it was kind of like living with a physically-abusive alcoholic; you never knew what kind of nightmare was going to pop up next. I ended up in the hospital quite a few times and things just generally went to hell. This recent Saturn in Libra thing was more like walking around with fifty pound sacks of wet sand on my back. Everything just ground down, like driving a car with four flat tires. Of course, the daily burden of managing a severe chronic pain condition doesn’t make any of this any easier.[1]

Referencing Saturn’s position (or influence) among the planets is a cliché that medieval storytellers use to explain things going amiss.

Whenever a medieval storyteller needs to say that something went wrong, he can simply point to Saturn’s involvement in the situation. It often serves a comic purpose too (think narrator in an Ed wood movie: “all was pleasant until Saturn appeared …”).

It’s a little more complex than that of course, and life and death situations for man on earth mirror petty
disputes among the gods and vice versa.

A good example of Saturn being used this way in 14th century English literature is in part One of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale [Saturn is mentioned several times in this story following and affecting the action, but first when Palamoun is consoling his friend Arcite while he curses his imprisonment just after he casts his eyes on the beautiful Emelye who will become the cause of a great dispute with his friend which will tragically end in death]:

Cosyn myn, what eyleth thee

That art so pale and deedly on to see?

Why cridestow? Who hath thee doon offense?

For Goddes love, taak al in pacience

Oure prisoun, for it may noon oother be.

Fortune hath yeven us this adversitee.

Som wikke aspect or disposicioun

Of Saturne, by sum constellacioun,

Hath yeven us this, although we hadde it sworn:

So stood the hevene whan that we were born.

We moste endure it; this is the short and playn. (1081-91) [2]

 

Did you read your horoscope today?

 


[1] Christopher Knowles, The Secret Sun: Why I Hate Saturn http://www.secretsun.blogspot.com/2012/10/why-i-hate-saturn.html

[2] The Knight’s Tale in Middle English from Chaucer’s Major Poetry, Ed. Albert C. Baugh (New York, 1963).

There are many fantasy novels set in fictional medieval worlds that share very little of the medieval worldview with us. One barely needs to remove a single suit of shining armor to reveal that most fantasy stories have very little in common with the medieval world besides wardrobe. I’m not saying that people who write fantasy need to make it clear in their text that they can distinguish Thomas Malory from Chrétien de Troyes or Beowulf from Sigurd, but I love it when a fantasy author borrows a cliché, a custom, an object, a theme, or a philosophy from a medieval text and fits it snugly into his own story, effectively evoking medieval essence without disturbing the modern narrative. After all, that’s what medieval storytelling is all about and it’s a tradition that should continue to thrive. An example of such a borrowing that achieves this “medieval essence” can be found in Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. Alexander carried a symbol from a popular 14th century English poem, simplified it, yet kept the kernel of its strong positive moral message, and placed it in his own story for a modern popular audience

The Chronicles of Prydain is a children’s fantasy adventure series set in a medieval imaginary world. Its easy dialogue, storybook humor, caricatures of Tolkien characters, and often predictable story grant it entrance to the children’s fantasy genre, but Alexander added a special depth to his narrative with simple, yet rich glimpses into the wisdom of the medieval worldview.

One such example occurs In The Black Cauldron, the second book of Chronicles of Prydain. In the story, the young hero Taran is on a quest to rescue a magic cauldron from the clutches of an evil lord who uses the anciently powerful object as a sort of weapon of mass destruction involving zombies. During his quest, Adaon, the son of a chief bard, presents Taran with a brooch. Taran discovers that this brooch gives him dream visions with glimpses of future events. Piecing these glimpses of future events together aids him in his quest to save Prydain, the imaginary world where the story is set. In addition to this magical quality, the brooch is decorated with a symbol that represents a powerful system of virtues that is very similar both in concept and appearance to the Pentangle on Gawain’s shield in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Since Alexander’s readers are quite younger than the 14th century court audiences that enjoyed Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, he created a symbol that is less complex than Gawain’s Pentangle. Although the brooch’s symbol is less complex than the Pentangle in terms of the number of virtues it represents and it lacks Christian iconography, it retains and effectively communicates the same fundamental concept of its 14th century ancestor.

As Taran & company head for the Marshes of Morva, the bard Fflewddur takes a closer look at the brooch which is fastened to Taran’s neck. After examining it, he reveals to Taran that, “it bears the bardic symbol – those three lines there, like a sort of arrowhead.”[1] Fflewddur explains that the three lines symbolize respectively, “knowledge, truth, and love.”[2] Fflewddur then comments on the value and rarity of these virtues, “I sometimes think it’s hard enough to find any one of them, even separately. Put them all together and you have something very powerful indeed.”[3]

Portrait of Adaon. Notice how the artist depicts the bardic symbol “three lines there, like a sort of arrowhead” on Taran’s brooch. image: http://oboe-wan.deviantart.com/art/Adaon-109317843

The Pentangle painted in pure gold on Gawain’s shield represents “something very powerful” as well. The narrator (often referred to by medieval scholars as the Gawain poet or the Pearl poet) of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight uses forty two lines of his poem to provide his audience with a detailed description of the system of balanced virtues that the Pentangle symbolizes.

The Gawain poet narrator describes the Pentangle as a system of virtues organized by five sets of five. Each point of the star symbolizes five different things, and each of these five things corresponds symbiotically with the other sets of five. To briefly enumerate the five equal layers of the system, the five points represent the five wits, the five fingers of Gawain’s hand, the five wounds Christ suffered on the cross, the five joys that the Virgin Mary had in her child, and the five pure virtues: frankness, fellowship, cleanness, courtesy, and compassion.

The Gawain poet then tells the audience that these attributes are interconnected:

 Now alle these five sythez, for soothe, were fetled on this knyght,

And uchone halched in other, that non ende hade,

And fyched upon five poyntez, that fayld never,

Ne samned never in no side, ne sundred nouther,

Withouten ende at any noke I oquere fynde,

Whereever the gomen bygan, or glod to an ende. (Fitt 2, v. 656-61)[4]

 Now truly, all these five groups were embodied in that knight,

Each one linked to the others in an endless design,

Based upon five points that was never unfinished,

Not uniting in one line nor separating either;

Without ending anywhere at any point that I find,

No matter where the line began or ran to an end. (Part 2, v. 656-61)[5]

Detail of lines 656-61 of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight as they appear in MS Cotton Nero A.x. (art. 3). c. 1400 British Library / University of Calgary, Libraries and Cultural Resources. image: http://gawain.ucalgary.ca/

Now, keeping a modern audience’s attention while a five point system which is actually a twenty-five point system is explained in detail would be an incredible feat for today’s storyteller and would require a patient, polite, and engaged audience. A medieval court audience, however, would be quite familiar with the concept of this type of system of organization and would probably be receptive to an even more complex one.

An example of a work where the narrator shares a complex system through which man may achieve spiritual, dietary, moral, and physical balance among the elements (or in Gawain’s case, reaching and maintaining a state of purity) that a medieval court audience would be familiar with is the Secreta Secretorum. The Secreta Secretorum was one of the most widely read books in 14th century England and France. It “circulated freely in court circles”[6] and was, as Terry Jones puts it, “de rigueur on any [medieval] thinking person’s reading list.”[7] It was a type of advice text that scholars call “medieval Mirrors for Princes.”[8] Secreta Secretorum is presented as material gleaned from letters sent between Aristotle and his student Alexander the Great while Alexander campaigned in Persia. Aristotle organizes various disciplines of study and states of the body into systems of four and describes how these four components correspond both to each other and collectively.

He divides Astronomy, for example, into four components: the position of the stars among themselves, the constellations and their position as it relates to the sun, the quality and the moving of the celestial dome, and the degrees of the rising of the constellations that reside in the moon’s celestial band (zodiac constellations).

Nowe to oure first mater and purpose, it is to wite, In the ordinaunce of the sterres; In disposicioun of ϸe signes and alyenyng and mevyng fro ϸe sonne; and this party is called Astronomye; that other part is of qualitees, and also for to knowe the mevyng of ϸe firmament, and the dgrees of ϸe risyng of ϸe signes that are vndir the firmament of ϸe mone, and this is the most worthi part of Astronomye, for ϸerin is the cheef knowyng of ϸat science. (Cap. 28 ll. 26-34)[9]

Image of an early 15th century English Medical Treatise HM 19079. Notice how the article has a heading and notes in the margin.  Huntington Library. image: http://sunsite3.berkeley.edu/hehweb/toc.html (Compare to image below of print transcription of Secreta Secretorum)

Detail of transcription of Cap. 28 from MS. Reg. 18 A. vij. B.M. from Three Prose Versions of the Secreta Secretorum. Vol I Ed. Robert Steel (London, 1898) Image: http://books.google.com/

To make an Astronomical conclusion one must consider all four of these factors, however, data from one category may be used with data from a category of another discipline when answering a question that crosses disciplines. Of course, according to that worldview, to answer any question effectively, it was necessary to cross disciplines – ideally several times. To make it possible to compare the data among the other disciplines, they too were organized into basic divisions of four. They were each thought to influence each other. Aristotle divides the human body into four basic parts: the head, the chest, the stomach, and the genitals. He also organizes humors (tempers or dispositions), elements,[10] and seasons[11] into four qualities. Not every system or exemplum in the text is exclusively organized in units of four, but so many of them are that it seems to be Aristotle’s favorite method of outlining complicated scientific ideas.

Since disease in the medieval world was seen as an imbalance in the way the body and mind interacted with the physical world, symbiotic relationships were considered among the body and the physical world for both the diagnosis and treatment of disease. For example, during spring, Aristotle recommends that one should eat chicken, goat, bitter greens, and milk. It is also the ideal time to “flush out” the toxins that accumulate in the body during winter by inducing sweat, bathing, bloodletting, and eating foods with laxative properties:

In this tyme shulde chykenys be ete, and kydes and eggis, soure letuse ϸat men calle carlokis, and getis mylke. In this tyme is best to lete blood, for onys than is bettir than thre tymes an other tyme ; and it is good to travayle and to haue thi wombe soluble, and than it is good to swete, to bathe, and to goo, and to ete things that are laxatijf, for alle thing that amendith bi digestioun or by blood letyng it shalle sone retorne and amend in this prime temps .i. veer. ” (Cap. 43 ll. 23-30)[12]

While, during winter he recommends one eat hot meats such as chicken and mutton, figs, nuts, and red wine. He also advises to refrain from laxative foods and bloodletting during winter unless it is absolutely necessary.[13]

The Gawain poet doesn’t provide a treatise on medieval medicine and he certainly doesn’t tell us how eating a certain type of food will affect Gawain’s stomach based on his complexion and temper, the constellations as they relate to the moon, and the season. He does, however, include a detailed description of a system (either historical, legendary, or by personal creation) by which one may achieve moral purity.

It is typical of a medieval poet to impart a moral message to a story and one of the methods the Gawain poet uses is describing the meaning of the Pentangle on Gawain’s shield.[14] Since Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a tale about a knight from King Arthur’s court who unknowingly agrees to have his virtue tested, the Pentangle’s description appears as Gawain is gearing up to leave King Arthur’s court to meet the Green Knight to receive his long-awaited return blow. The description of Gawain’s shield tells the medieval audience that Gawain will be tested.

Picture of Sir Gawain and the Pentangle from the video The Quest for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. image: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-nAd6fffVvs

The brooch in The Black Cauldron tells the audience, in the same way, that Taran will be tested. Though Gawain isn’t forced to wager with his shield in the same way Taran is with his brooch in the Marshas of Morva, the brooch, like Gawain’s shield, offers protection. Where a shield would protect someone from physical harm in a combat situation, the brooch protects Taran by giving him dream visions that arguably save both his life and his quest, but more importantly, they both serve as a reminder to rely on a system of virtue to guide them through life much the teachings of Secreta Secrtorum are meant to do for a king ruling a state. Simplifying the system by presenting fewer virtues and choosing not to give the three lines multiple layers like the Gawain poet did with the Pentangle, Alexander succeeded in using medieval literary devices to promote a positive moral message within a children’s fantasy story.

The narrator poet of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight describes the significance of the pentangle painted on Gawain’s shield directly to the audience as part of a character portrait. It is typical in medieval narrative poetry for the narrator to give a physical description of characters and to use their clothing and objects they carry with them to give the audience details about their estate (or social class) and personalities. Medieval scholars call this a character portrait. One of the most popular examples of a medieval style character portrait is when Chaucer describes each of the pilgrims during the General Prologue of his Canterbury Tales.

Character portraits can vary in length and they can sometimes give the audience an idea of the poet’s moral or political agenda. In the Gawain poet’s case, we see that he thinks it is very important for the audience to understand (or to know that he understands) the Pentangle’s system of virtues because it takes up half of Gawain’s character portrait. While Alexander used a symbol that evokes a similar values system as the Pentangle, the method he uses to introduce it to the story is different from the one used by the Gawain poet. Alexander describes its symbolism to the audience in a modern way rather than a medieval way.

While the Gawain poet used the narrator’s voice providing a medieval character portrait to describe the Pentangle, Alexander used dialogue by having a character with some knowledge of bardic lore describe the significance of the brooch’s symbol to Taran. Having Fflewddur explain the significance of the brooch to Taran is similar to Aristotle’s method of teaching in the Secreta Secretorum in that you have an older, wiser, and somewhat quirky character providing moral guidance to a young character in an important leadership position.

Though the focus of the Secreta Secretorum as an advice text is on physical, political, and economic survival, Aristotle imparts a system of virtue in his teaching. One gets the sense that “being good” is a fundamental ingredient in the system of good governance outlined in this treatise.

Occasionally, Aristole is very direct in passages like this one where he identifies envy as the mother of lying and hatred as the root of all vices, “enuye is neuyr without lesyngis, the which is roote and mater of alle vicis. Envye engedrith yville spekyng, and of yville speche cometh hatred.” (Cap. 8 ll. 6-9)[15] To balance his sermon on the root of vice, Aristotle later points out that truth brings good faith, justice, friendship, great renown for the leader both at home and abroad, promotes the creation of reasonable laws, and fosters a positive sense of community.[16] These are direct examples, but the tone and underlying philosophy of the text implies that virtue is a necessary component of success.

The teachings in the Secreta Secretorum vary in length. For example, instruction on the proper way to sleep[17] is 27 lines while advice on what sort of clothing a king should wear[18] is only 11 lines, but “each exemplum is short enough to be taken in all at once, aiming for a flash of insight or identification.”[19] Though Aristotle doesn’t use a symbol like Lloyd Alexander and the Gawain poet do, the answers to the great mysteries of life that are explained in the Secreta Secretorum can be summarized in these key points: man should seek harmony by guarding himself from impulsive behavior, stay connected with nature and use his resources in moderation according to its cycles, be kind to his fellow man, and value truth above all. Like Gawain’s Pentangle and Taran’s brooch, the teachings in the Secreta Secretorum also suggest that Alexander the Great will be tested as a ruler.

The physical symbols of Taran’s brooch and Gawain’s Pentangle appear different in many ways on the surface (one is “a sort of arrowhead” and the other is a five pointed star) and Aristotle’s method aims to achieve a “flash of insight” without the use of a physical symbol. Each author incorporates different imagery; the Gawain poet uses Christian imagery while Alexander does not. Alexander doesn’t mention a concept of God at all and while the medieval manuscript of Aristotle’s Secreta Secretorum referenced in this article often mentions God, the scribe who copied it did not include Christ’s name a single time in the text.

These three authors do not use the same number of virtues in their respective values systems, and these systems are introduced to the stories in different ways. The incorporation of a values system in these texts suggests that the Gawain poet, Lloyd Alexander, and Aristotle all agree that every hero or person in a position of power must have a code or values system to guide him. By looking at the different ways values systems appear in stories and comparing the core of the respective values systems they illustrate, we realize this: the symbol we carry with us on our quest is not as important as our will to practice it every step along the way.


[1] Lloyd Alexander, The Black Cauldron (Holt, Rine and Winston: New York, 1965), 117.

[2] Lloyd Alexander, 117.

[3]Lloyd Alexander, 117.

[4] Sir Gawain and The Green Knight: Middle English Text with facing Translation, Ed., Trans. James Winny (Peterborough, 1992).

[5] Sir Gawain and The Green Knight

[6] Katharine Breen, “A Different Kind of Book for Richard’s Sake: MS Bodley 581 as Ethical Handbook,” The Chaucer Review 45.2 (2010): 131.

[7] Terry Jones, Who Murdered Chaucer? (New York, 2004), 50.

[8] Katharine Breen, 120.

[9] The Secrete of Secretes. Translated from the French (MS. Reg. 18 A. vij. B.M.) from Three Prose Versions of the Secreta Secretorum. Vol I Ed. Robert Steel (London, 1898), 21.

[10] The Secrete of Secretes, 22.

[11] The Secrete of Secretes, 27-29.

[12] The Secrete of Secretes, 27.

[13] The Secrete of Secretes, 29.

[14] Though this article only describes the Pentangle that appears on the front of Gawain’s shield, the interior of the shield is painted with a portrait of the Virgin Mary.

[15] The Secrete of Secretes, 10.

[16] The Secrete of Secretes, (Cap. 8 ll. 16-27) 10.

[17] The Secrete of Secretes, (Cap. 39) 25.

[18] The Secrete of Secretes, (Cap. 13) 12.

[19] Katharine Breen, 132.

Sequitur pars quinta.

When King Alla returns to his castle he is surprised to see that his wife and child are nowhere to be found. He asks the constable where they are. The constable is confused and shows King Alla the letter he received with orders in his name:

“Lord, as ye commanded me

Up peyne of deeth, so I have done, certain.” (884-85)

With this, the messenger is tortured until he tells, “plat and pleyn, Fro nyght to nyght, in what place he had leyn” (886-887).

Chaucer’s Man of Law doesn’t tell us which form of torture King Alla used to get the messenger to talk, but the messenger may have been dunked in the ducking-stool. Pictured is Ollie Dee being dunked after being charged with burglary in Toyland (Babes in Toyland / March of the Wooden Soldiers) (image: copyright 1934 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer).

King Alla discovers the disturbing truth that his own mother forged the letters that called for Constance to be pushed out to sea in a boat without oars. He finds her guilty of treason and we can only guess that she is swiftly put to death, because all Chaucer’s Man of Law says about the matter is,“thus endeth olde Donegild, with mischance!”

Now, Constance, who is once again faring the sea in a rudderless vessel, finally reaches the safety of land. And just when you’d think she’d find repose, it turns out she’s landed just below “an hethen castel.” The steward of the castle comes down to see who has arrived and when he realizes it’s a woman, he tries to have her against her will right then and there. As baby Maurice cries, Constance struggles with the assailant until he is thrown overboard and drowns. The Virgin Mary somehow comes to Constance’s aid, “But blisful Marie heelp hire right anon” (920). We are not told precisely how the power of Mary is manifest through Constance except by Christian miracle. The Man of Law supports this argument with Old Testament Scripture by asking the audience how this weak woman had the strength to defend herself against this renegade:

“How may this wayke woman han this strengthe

Hire to defende again this renegat?” (932-33)

He reminds us that in the Bible, Goliath was a giant warrior, yet young David defeated him in battle. As if presenting evidence for a case in a court of law, his second piece of “evidence” is even stronger and more relevant because it deals specifically with a woman defeating a wicked and powerful man. He references Judith who slew the general Holefernes, ending the Assyrian occupation in her land.

Judith holds the head of Holofernes – 1493 illustration from Nuremberg Chronicle (Morse Library, Beloit College) (image: http://www.beloit.edu/nuremberg)

Remember that the Man of Law did this earlier in the tale when he told the audience how Constance survived the wedding massacre in Syria and was delivered safely to the Northumbrian shore. The miracles that deliver Constance from heathen treachery are comparable to other well-known saint characters in the Christian canon such as Jonah who survived the whale, Mary the Egyptian who survived alone in the desert wilderness, and, of course, Christ who fed the many with five loaves of bread and two fish. By doing this, The Man of Law provides evidence to prove that miracles occur because of Christ’s divine intervention and that, more importantly, the ones he cites are no different in significance to the miracles that save his story’s heroine. In a sense, he’s defending the legitimacy of Constance’s sainthood, however, Constance’s sainthood isn’t exactly on trial in this story.

While the Man of Law’s references may be meant to demonstrate his bookishness and familiarity with “Christian” law, their inclusion may not only call for lay people to read Scripture, but assume that the layperson appreciates these stories as much as he does. His delivery of the “evidence” to support his argument is entertaining. They are presented in a tone that may be perfectly read on both serious and lighthearted levels, providing the perfect balance of “sentence” (moral insight) and “solace” (pleasure).[1]

Though the references are traditionally accepted Christian miracles, they also provide us an interesting glimpse into 14th century English religious worldview. The Man of Law’s evocation of miracles from the Christian tradition in this tale is very similar to what folklorists call “sympathetic magic.” The concept behind sympathetic magic is based on “like influences like” and the notion “that the image of Christ or [another saint] overcoming [an] affliction [helps] the afflicted person overcome it as well.”[2] By using the images of David defeating Goliath and Judith slaying Holofernes, the audience understands how Constance would have the power through sympathetic magic to overcome her assailant in the boat just as an image of Jonah surviving the whale would help her survive the sea in a rudderless boat.

So back in the water Constance goes, floating every which way, “dryvynge ay / Somtyme west, and sometime north and south / And somtyme est, ful many a wery day.” (948-49)

Leaving Constance in the water again with the protective images of Christian heroes, the narrator turns back to the Roman Emperor. Once The Emperor hears of the wedding massacre that occurred at the Sultan’s palace, he sends his senator with ships over to Syria to pay them vengeance for their evil acts. The Sultan’s palace is burned to the ground and everyone is slain. On their way back to Rome, the senator’s fleet runs into Constance. They don’t know that the woman with the child is the Emperor’s daughter and either does she, as she still suffers from amnesia. When they return to Rome she lives with the senator and his wife just like she lived with the constable and his wife in Northumberland. The senator’s wife is actually Constance’s aunt, but none of them recognize each other.

Back the story goes to King Alla who feels compelled to go to Rome and give the Emperor his allegiance and to request forgiveness for his wicked works. Off he goes to Rome where he receives a welcome fit for a Christian king.

King Alla traveling to Rome and being able to communicate with everyone there reminds me to return to the question from the first post on Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale about how medieval storytellers deal with language barriers. Remember how Chaucer’s Man of Law has Constance speak a “Latyn corrupt” to communicate with the characters in Northumberland? Though the story is set in the 6th century, Chaucer may have used the linguistic landscape of 14th century Western Europe. Susan E. Phillips points out in “Chaucer’s Language Lessons” that a colloquial Latin was used as a lingua franca among merchants in late medieval Europe and that Chaucer’s characters’ use of this language in his Man of Law’s Tale suggests that multilingualism was not limited to the aristocratic class and that his use of this colloquial Latin in the story shows some of the linguistic changes that were occurring in late 14th century England.[3] Morris Bishop, as well, noted that during the High Middle Ages as the new culture in Western Europe became more cosmopolitan, “its common language [was] the easy, unpretentious Latin of the time.”[4]

Phillips also reminds us that in the 14th century the vulgar or common Latin was becoming vernacular Italian.[5] It would make sense for members of the royal court to understand colloquial Latin/Italian for the purpose of negotiating trades with merchants. The Man of Law, for example, learned the tale of Constance from a merchant and he shares this with the audience before beginning the story:

Nere that a marchant, goon is many a yeere

Me taught a tale, which that ye shal here (132-33)

The Man of Law, however, does not restrict this ability to communicate in Latin to characters in direct contact with members of the royal court. As we recall when Constance, the Constable, and Hermengyld were walking along beach, they came upon the “blinde Britoun.” Up until this point in the story, all characters in contact with Constance had been either members of the court or characters whose profession or post required frequent interaction with members of the court. Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrim characters (the “audience” of the tale within the tale) don’t need to suspend their disbelief to accept that even characters from outside of the court can communicate using this colloquial Latin because the “pilgrims and their characters pick up foreign languages from their professional and personal lives rather than through formal education.”[6]

Chaucer may have “picked up” bits of foreign languages in this way as well. Peter Ackroyd, in his Chaucer biography, points out that Chaucer’s childhood home in London was several hundred yards from an area by the riverside where a community of Genoese merchants lived.[7] Though Chaucer may have studied Latin grammar of Donatus formally, Ackroyd notes that “it has been suggested that Chaucer’s knowledge of Italian sprang from such early contacts” with the merchant colonies in London.[8] Chaucer shows us that the merchants spread their linguistic currency with the noble class, but he is also interested in the parts tradesmen and the common man play in developing national language.

“The Man of Lawe – Of Dame Custance” – from added table of contents to a 15th century English manuscript of Canterbury Tales EL 26 C 09 commonly known as “Ellesmere Chaucer” (Huntington Library, San Marino) (image: http://www.scriptorium.columbia.edu)

Though most Chaucer tales blur the lines of contemporary storytelling styles, the Man of Law’s Tale is usually categorized as a secular saint’s life.[9] By choosing the style of a secular saint’s life, Chaucer could have employed xenoglossia both to deal with a possible language barrier issue and to demonstrate to the audience that Constance fits the description of a saint according to the literary styles of his day. Xenoglossia, the “sudden, miraculous ability to speak, understand, or be understood in… a foreign language previously unknown to the recipient… is described in a number of late medieval vitae and visionary texts.”[10] If Chaucer used xenoglossia to have Constance communicate with characters from other countries, he did it in a subtle manner because he doesn’t point it out. He could have said, “Lo and behold, by some great miracle, our Saint Constance could be understood!” Instead, he says something along of the lines of, “she spoke using a bit of pidgin Latin, but nevertheless, she was understood.” Christine Cooper argues that Chaucer puts Constance is an ambiguous xenoglossic situation[11].

If Chaucer used xenglossia in Man of Law’s Tale, it was likely to make his opinion on the position of the Latin language in 14th century English society ambiguous to protect him from making a divisive political statement. Chaucer mentions the Lollard movement[12] several times in the Canterbury Tales. If Chaucer is using language to provide commentary on either the common Englishman’s proficiency in Latin, the degree to which Latin is a common tongue among all Christian nations, or, if it isn’t whether or not Scripture should be translated into the emerging common tongue of England, English, then he is doing so with great subtlety and ambiguity. If the use of Latin in the story provides us Chaucer’s position on the state of the Catholic church’s role in England, he recapitulates at the end of the story with the most popular reference to Lollardy in the Canterbury Tales. Right after the tale ends, Jankin the Parson admonishes the Host for profanity in his exclamatory use of “Goddes bones” to which the Host replies, “O Jankin, be ye there? / I smelle a Lollere in the wynd.” (1172-73). The Host is the forum moderator of the Canterbury Tales, if you will, and his response to the Parson taking offense to his language suggests that Lollards can be staunch conservatives, and not necessarily liberators for the liberally leaning Englishman who feels persecuted in some way by Catholic Rome. Perhaps Chaucer’s joke about “those crazy conservative Lollards” was inserted as a way of protecting himself from making a statement about a saint coming to town and speaking a language that everyone understood. How shall we take the humor of that outburst?

Illustration of the Man of Law from the beginning of the Man of Law’s Tale in the “Ellesmere Chaucer” (Huntington Library, San Marino) (image: http://www.scriptorium.columbia.edu)

Now, something important to consider is when Chaucer was writing. “Latin is the dominant language in literature surviving from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries”[13] and Chaucer wrote during the end of the 14th century. By linguistic landscape, I’m not suggesting that everyone in 14th century England was conversationally proficient in Latin. I mean that the political and cultural landscape of the story has a 14th century flavor to it and the way language is used is part of the dynamics of the setting. Chaucer changes the political geography in his telling of Trevet’s story. Chaucer “makes the Imperial family Roman, whereas Trevet began his account by describing them specifically as Byzantine (“Capadoce”) – Tiberius Constanitus.”[14]

To be historically accurate, Rome was under Byzantine rule during the 6th century, yet, Chaucer uses 14th century geography. Taking a story that occurred in the past and putting it in a modern and contemporary setting was common practice in medieval literature. The geography isn’t the only detail, it’s also the culture, the language. Chaucer points out that Latin is being spoken, yet the Scripture that appears in the story is written in a local language. Chaucer is very specific that it is not a Latin Scripture but a version in the Welsh language – “A Britoun book, written with Evanguiles” (666) – which suddenly looks like the Welsh biblical translation cited in the Prologue of the Wycliffe Bible.” (124)[15] Could this be a way of Chaucer implying that Scripture should be translated into English – the emerging common language of 14th century England?

There is also a proto-Protestant tone to the story. The Man of Law, though not a church official is, in a sense, delivering a sermon. In fact, the entire Canterbury Tales shows a cross-section of 14th century English society demonstrating diverse Christian faith as one collaborative movement, warts and all. Is Chaucer calling for political religious reforms in 14th century England? Chaucer suggests that a land can become Christian on its own terms by retaining its own language, because throughout the subsequent process of Christianization, Constance’s offer of the true faith does not require the imposition of the Latin language upon the newly converted English.[16] Northumberland in the Man of Law’s Tale is an “early English kingdom [that] manages to become Christian while remaining – in Chaucer’s account – resolutely independent as an English homeland free of any foreign military, political, or linguistic domination.”[17]

Constance converts England to Christianity using a back to basics evangelical style that smacks of Jesus “prechynge the gospel of the kingdom” in Judea.[18] Both Constance and Jesus have Church authority in their respective stories by virtue of their lineage: Jesus from Abraham and King David and Constance from her father, the Roman Emperor. As Jesus comes “not to vndo the lawe, but to fulfille”[19], Constance brings Christianity to Northumberland “without submission to the authority of Rome and imposition of the Latin language.”[20] This idea of the diffusion of Christianity without clerical control was not a new idea in England at the time Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale was written.

The English crown along with some radicals like John Wycliffe didn’t see eye to eye with the Pope on the issue of taxation and there was a growing sentiment in England that The Bible should be taught in the vernacular. A proto-Protestant movement called Lollardy was so popular in England at the time that “you might hardly see two people in the street, but one of them would be a follower of Wyclif.”[21] Let’s not forget that Chaucer’s Man of Law’s tale was written and probably first performed in England during the reign of Richard II. He was “the first king since the Norman Conquest of wholly English parentage” and “the language generally spoken at Richard’s court was English.”[22] It was also a “breakthrough in the writing of English”[23] that saw the translation into the English vernacular of “highly learned argumentative Latin material”[24] and the sudden flourishing of national literature in the English vernacular. If “highly argumentative Latin material” was being translated into English, why couldn’t the Latin Vulgate Bible be translated as well? More importantly, if Latin was so widely spoken in England in Chaucer’s time as the story implies, why would translating The Bible into English make a difference anyway? Though the setting is 6th century England, Chaucer wants his audience to compare this fantasy revisionist story of England’s conversion to Christianity with the moral and political issues of their own 14th century contemporary society.

Well, there is more to the tale of Constance, “But of my tale make an ende I shal / The day goth faste, I wol no lenger lette” (1116-17)[25]. So let me summarize: Alla sees young Maurice as a page in the Roman Emperor’s court and is instantly reminded of Constance. He asks the Senator who the child is and the Senator tells him how he found him and his mother alone in a small boat in the middle of the sea. King Alla visits the Senator at his house and is reunited with Constance. King Alla and Constance return to Northumberland to rule King Alla’s land. Maurice later becomes the Roman Emperor. After King Alla dies, Constance returns to Rome. More details and a better telling in the old Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale, you’ll find because “I bere it noght in mynde.” (11127)

Heere endeth the tale of the Man of Lawe tolde by the weye.


[1] Kate Narveson’s translation of Chaucer’s “best sentence and moost solaas” – the judging criteria for the Canterbury Tale-telling competition. http://reason.luther.edu/english/faculty/narveson_kate/ Accessed 06/10/2012

[2] Kathleen Stokker. Foreword. The Black Books of Elverum (Lakeville: Galde, 2010), xiv.

[3] Susan E. Phillips, “Chaucer’s Language Lessons,” The Chaucer Review 46.1&2 (2011): 52,59.

[4] Morris Bishop, The Middle Ages (Boston, 1987), 257.

[5] “Chaucer’s Language Lessons,” 58.

[6] “Chaucer’s Language Lessons,” 40.

[7] Peter Ackroyd, Chaucer (New York, 2005), 4.

[8] Ackroyd, Chaucer, 15.

[9] Arnold Sanders,Chaucer Seminar: Chaucer: Canterbury Tales, “Man of Law’s Introduction, Tale, and Epilogue” http://faculty.goucher.edu/eng330/chaucerman_of_laws_tale.htm accessed 6/24/2012

[10] “Translating Custance.”

[11] Christine Cooper, “’But algates therby she was understone’: Translating Custance in Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Talehttp://www.thefreelibrary.com/%27But+algates+therby+was+she+understonde%27%3a+translating+Custance+in…-a0142923837 accessed 5/6/2012.

[13] Brian Stone, Medieval English Verse (Harmondsworth, 1964), 13.

[14] John M. Bowers, “Colonialsim, Latinity, and Resistance,” in Fein and Raybin, eds., Chaucer: Contemporary Approaches 46 (University Park, 2011), 126.

[15] “Colonialism, Latinity, and Resistance,” 124.

[16] “Colonialism, Latinity, and Resistance,” 124.

[17] “Colonialism, Latinity, and Resistance,” 127.

[18] John Wycliffe. Matthew 4:23 in Forhsall and Madden, eds. The New Testament in English According to the version by John Wycliffe, about 1380, and revised by John Purvey about 1388. (London: Oxford, 1879).

[19] John Wycliffe, trans. Matthew 4:18.

[20] “Colonialism, Latinity, and Resistance,” 122.

[21] Terry Jones, Who Murdered Chaucer? (New York, 2004), 67.

[22] Who Murdered Chaucer?, 36.

[23] Who Murdered Chaucer?, 45.

[24] Who Murdered Chaucer?, 86.

Sequitur pars quarta.

People celebrating St. Patrick’s Day today in Philadelphia (image: instagram.com)

Since today is Saint Patrick’s today, I was reminded of the Celtic Tale The Children of Lir.[1] I thought of this story because the enchantment that turned Lir’s four children into swans ended soon after Saint Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland. Thinking of this story then turned my attention (I’ll explain how later) to Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale – which, of course, reminded me that I have really neglected tolde by the weye in recent months… So, remember we left Constance in a newly Christian Northumbria? King Alla took her as his queen. It seemed like happily ever didn’t it? But it was not – at least not yet. Everyone in King Alla’s land was overjoyed that Constance was their new queen and they were having a grand old time at the wedding feast. Well, everyone, that is, except one person – King Alla’s mother Donegild:

But who was woful, if I shal nat lye,

Of this weddyng but Donegild, and namo,

The kynges mooder, ful of tirannye? (II 694-96)

Queen Grimhilde, stepmother of Snow White from Walt Disney’s Snow White (image: pentopaper.wordpress.com, copyright 1937 Walt Disney Pictures)

King Alla’s mother was not happy about her son’s marriage to Constance. This was no ordinary case of the mother who needed a little time to warm up to her new daughter-in-law. Her despiteful disapproval of their union is strikingly similar to the Sultan’s mother’s hatred of Constance earlier in the tale. In the way the Sultan’s mother knew that Constance was the reason the Sultan was giving up Islam to take her as his bride, King Alla’s mother saw Constance as a foreign threat to their way of life as well:

Hir thought a despit that he sholde take

So strange a creature unto his make (II 699-700)

She bided her time, though, waiting for the perfect moment to take her vengeance upon Constance. Time passed and a war started with the Scots. King Alla entrusted Constance in the care of the Constable and a bishop and he left to fight the Scots. Constance soon gave birth to their little prince. The infant was christened Maurice and the Constable wrote a letter to the King announcing the birth. He chose a messenger and sent him off to deliver the joyous news. The messenger first passed by the Queen mother Donegild’s house to share the exciting news with her. She suggested to the messenger that he rest for the night at her house and deliver the letter to the King the next day. The messenger, knowing there would be fine food and drink at Donegild’s house, stayed for the evening. He drunk himself silly with ale and wine and soon passed out. As he slept like a swine Donegild exchanged his letter for a forged one.

(image: montalcino-tuscany.com)

The messenger left the next morning to deliver the letter to the King. The counterfeit letter told of a horrible demon child born out of the depths of hell. It also informed the king that Constance was really an elf and that the only reason why everyone loved her in the first place is because she was an evil sorceress who had everyone under her spell. Now that everyone in the castle knows the truth about the wicked Constance, they shun her and her savage spawn.

King Alla was terribly grieved by the letter but replied requesting that everyone show Christian charity to Constance and the child. He made it clear that no action should be taken against them until his return to the castle. As he sealed the letter tears burst from his eyes. He returned to battle and those Scots really took a beating that day.

The messenger sped off for the castle but instead of delivering the letter directly to the Constable, he went first again to the Queen Mother’s court. Just where does this messenger’s allegiance lie – in his King or the drink? She again entertained him with food and wine and exchanged his letter once more for a forged one.

When the Constable received the letter he was horrified by its contents. It told him that under penalty of death by hanging he must not let Constance and the demon child stay in the castle. He was ordered to put her and the infant back in the very boat from which Constance washed ashore and push them out to tide. The Constable couldn’t believe that God could let such horrible things happen in the world to pious people, but he followed the King’s orders.

The Irish folktale The Children of Lir shares a few elements with Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale. The protagonists are loved by everyone except an evil mother figure who is bent on their destruction, these same protagonists must face dangerous waters on their own, and, finally, the events of the tale occur at the time the country is converting to Christianity. There are plenty more similarities but this post is too long already and I need to make it to market and back by sunset.

Children of Lir is set at the Hill of the White field, which today the Irish call County Armagh. There once were four kings, Bov the Red, Midir the Proud, Angus of the Bird, and Lir, father of the sea-god Manannan. They were all descendents of the goddess Dana. One day everyone in the land decided that among these great kings, one must be chosen to rule over everyone. Bov the Red was chosen. Lir was not pleased with this decision because he felt that he should be the king. Bov the Red allowed Lir to rule his own land and there was no ill will between them. One day, Lir’s wife died. Bov sent Lir his condolences and words of friendship. He also offered him the choice of his three foster daughters for a new wife. Lir accepted Bov’s offer and went to his hall to choose his new bride. The names of Bov’s foster daughters were Aev, Eva, and Alva. They were all beautiful and Lir decided upon Aev who, being the eldest, he thought would be the most wise.

Lir and Aev lived happily together and had twins, a girl named Finola and a boy named Aed. A couple of years passed and Aev once again gave birth to twins – this time to two boys, Fiachra and Conn. Each year the children visited King Bov’s Hall. Everyone at both King Bov’s Hall and King Lir’s Hall loved the four children and wherever they were, everyone was joyous.

One day, Queen Aev passed away. King Lir was devasted. King Bov heard of the tragedy and offered his foster-daughter Eva as King Lir’s new wife. King Lir accepted Eva as his new wife. Eva was initially happy in King Lir’s hall, however, after about a year she grew very jealous of the children. It seemed to her that everyone, including her own husband, loved them much more dearly than they did her. She feigned a terrible sickness and stayed in her chamber for several weeks. She thought the solitude would help, but the time spent alone obsessing over the problem only worsened her jealousy of the children of Lir. One day, she found a solution to the problem. She emerged from the her room and suggested to King Lir that she take the children to visit King Bov.

Along the way she stopped by Lake Darva. She ordered her servants to murder the four children and though this order came from the Queen they could not obey it.  Queen Eva took matters into her own hands and made to kill the children herself, but she could not bring herself to murder them either. The Queen, instead, gathered the children and brought them down to the lake. She bade them remove their clothes and bathe in the lake. As they swam in the lake she pulled a wooden wand from her robe. The wand was inscribed with runes she had carved into it while she was going mad in her room. She muttered an incantation and suddenly the four children were magically transformed into white swans.

She left the children as swans in the lake and made for King Bov’s hall. King Bov was happy to see that his daughter and glad to see she had recovered from his illness but he was surprised to see her arrive without the children. Queen Eva told King Bov that King Lir no longer trusted him and that he could never see the children again. King Bov was upset by this news and sent King Lir a letter requesting an explanation. King Lir, upon receiving the message and, learning that the children did not make it to Lough Derg to visit King Bov, he feared for their lives.

King Lir discovers the fate of his children at Lake Darva (image: wikipedia)

He immediately made his way to Lough Derg and as he passed by Lake Darva the four swans called out to him. Though they were swans, they could still be heard and understood by the people of Dana. He discovered the fate of his children. Now, I’m not going to talk of the chaff or stalk that makes tales so long as corn, but the children remained in swan form until someone from the North married someone from the South – which in itself could be another Irish fairy tale! But I can tell you this: before they changed back into their human forms, they spent three hundred years in Lake Darva, another three hundred years in the dangerous and stormy sea of Moyle, and yet another three hundred years on the Isle of Glora. Now, while they were on the Isle of Glora, Saint Patrick came and brought the Christian faith to Ireland. Well, since the Children of Lir survived as swans for three hundred years on the stormy sea of Moyle, something tells me that Constance and Maurice will not be swallowed up by the sea…

Explicit quarta pars.


[1] My telling of The Children of Lir is adapted and embellished from Barbara Leonie Picard’s version which can be found in Celtic Tales (New York: Criterion, 1964).

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