Archives for posts with tag: 14th century

It happened again. The Tuesday before last was a cold winter day and as the bus started moving I heard a familiar rolling sound. It stopped between my feet: the pearl.

pearl 2

It’s become a little running joke with myself that whenever I see a lost fake pearl earring I think of the poem Pearl. It’s like it’s telling me it’s time to read Pearl again – one part serendipity, one part superstition.

Pearl is a medieval narrative poem thought to be written by the same unknown poet who wrote Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Patience, and Cleanness. For this reason scholars often call this poet the “Pearl poet” or the “Gawain poet.” All four of the poems attributed to the Pearl poet are written in the same Northern dialect of Middle English, so you get some interesting Old Norse-sounding words like burne and tulk[1] which may at first seem foreign to Chaucer readers.

It’s a dream vision poem – a popular genre, particularly in 13th and 14th century England and France. Other examples of the dream vision poem are Roman de la Rose (a sort of medieval version of A Christmas Carol except with sex), Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess, and, of course, Piers Plowman.

Pearl deals with the grief we suffer from personal loss. The troubled narrator (described as a joyless jeweler) doesn’t say specifically what kind of loss he’s suffered – but it seems to point to the loss of a child. In any case, he’s very distraught. He compares his loss to a pearl, one that – literally, figuratively, or both – slipped from his hand[2] and rolled into a garden. The narrator has no hope of ever recovering his precious pearl in the physical world.

A “Pearl maiden” character appears and guides the narrator through the dream vision and “treats” him in a way very similar to that of Lady Philosophy from Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy, however, the “treatment” administered by the Pearl maiden is that of Christian doctrine.

Aside from the rhyme scheme, the frequent use of alliterative verse, and stanza linking, an aspect of the poem I most appreciate is how the Pearl poet contrasts material objects and worldly desires with higher thoughts and places and uses imagery of cleanness, perfection, and roundness in every stanza in a natural way that never seems tedious or forced.

You’d think that after the 25th “spotless” or “round” we’d want to pull our hair out, but he – and I’m really sorry to do this to you – keeps the ball rolling – especially by using alliteration. Check out most especially 945-948 (just read it, even if you’re not used to Middle English – there’s a verse translation in Modern English below to help you get the gist of it):

“The Lompe ther wythouten spottes blake / Has feryed thyder Hys fayre flote / And as Hys flok is wythouten flake / So is Hys mote wythouten moote.” It’s a beautiful poem and even if it doesn’t touch you spiritually in any way, its masterful constructed and flows like water. I leave you with a passage[3] from Pearl and a detail of the passage on its manuscript.

Here’s where the dreamer “sees” Jerusalem:

“Thys moteles meyny thou cones of mele,
Of thousandes thryght, so gret a route –
A gret ceté, for ye arn fele,
Yow byhod have wythouten doute.
So cumly a pakke of joly juele
Wer evel don schulde lyy theroute;
And by thyse bonkes ther I con gele
I se no bygyng nawhere aboute.
I trowe alone ye lenge and loute
To loke on the glory of thys gracious gote.
If thou has other bygynges stoute,
Now tech me to that myry mote.””That mote thou menes in Judy londe,”
That specyal spyce then to me spakk.
“That is the cyté that the Lombe con fonde
To soffer inne sor for manes sake.
The olde Jerusalem, to understonde,
For there the olde gulte was don to slake.
Bot the nwe that lyght, of Godes sonde,
The apostel in Apocalyppce in theme con take.
The Lompe ther wythouten spottes blake
Has feryed thyder Hys fayre flote,
And as Hys flok is wythouten flake,
So is Hys mote wythouten moote.” (ll. 925-48)[4]
“These holy virgins in radiant guise,
By thousands thronged in processional –
That city must be of uncommon size
That keeps you together, one and all.
It were not fit such jewels of price
Should lie unsheltered by roof or wall,
Yet where these river-banks arise
I see no building large or small.
Beside this stream celestial
You linger alone, none else in sight;
If you have another house or hall,
Show me that dwelling wholly bright”That wholly blissful, that spice heaven-sent,
Declared, “In Judea’s fair demesne
The city lies, where the Lamb once went
To suffer for man death’s anguish keen.
The old Jerusalem by that is meant,
For there the old guilt was canceled clean,
But the new, in vision prescient,
John saw sent down from God pristine.
The spotless Lamb of gracious mien
Has carried us all to that fair site,
And as in his flock no fleck is seen,
His hallowed halls are wholly bright.” (ll.925-48)[5]

Here’s how the passage appears in the Manuscript Cotton Nero A.x. (art.3)[6]:

pearl 925-936 cotton nero

Lines 925-936 of Pearl from British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x. (art. 3) folio 051 verso (image source)

pearl 937-948 cotton nero

Lines 937-948 of Pearl from British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x. (art. 3) folio 052 recto (image source)

[1] Burne and tulk (man/knight) appear in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, ed. James Winny (Ontario, 1992).

[2] Reminds me of that last verse from the Cure song “A Letter to Elise” where the narrator says, “And every time I try to pick it up like falling sand / As fast as I pick it up it runs away through my clutching hands / But there’s nothing else I can really do / There’s nothing else I can really do at all.” The character in this song may need consolation from the Pearl poet after he posts his letter – unless, of course, he and Elise do this all the time.

[3] The Middle English version presented here has modernized spelling so you won’t find any thorns and yoghs. I’m looking forward to the forthcoming “diplomatic” transcription of Pearl edited by Murray McGillivray and Jenna Stook from The Cotton Nero A.x. Project (currently under scholarly review for publication). They are also working on a version of Cleanness (edited by Kenna L. Olsen) as well as Patience and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (Murray McGillivray). For more information, check out: http://people.ucalgary.ca/~scriptor/cotton/publications.html

[4] Pearl in Middle English from Pearl, ed. Sarah Stanbury (Kalamazoo, 2001) available online

[5] Pearl in Modern English translation from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Patience, and Pearl: verse translations, trans. Marie Borroff (New York, 2001).

[6] British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x. (art. 3) is the only known manuscript of Pearl – it also contains Cleanness, Patience (or Job), and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. All four poems are thought to have been written by the same unknown poet.

14th century illustration of Moses being found from Golden Haggadah (image source: http://www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/ttp/hagadah/accessible/images/page8full.jpg)

14th century illustration from Golden Haggadah of Moses being found (image source)

In Exodus, the narrator uses only three verses[1] to take the baby Moses from being handed to a Hebrew wet nurse to becoming a young adult. The story moves very quickly. After Moses is saved from the river by Pharoah’s daughter, we fast-forward to him as a young adult just in time for the scene where he kills the Egyptian. This period of baby Moses’ life is given much more attention in a 14th century version from The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament than it is in Exodus.

First there’s this whole scene about how Moses refused to drink milk from any woman but his own mother and then there’s this interesting scene where Moses as a small child is brought into the royal chamber to see Pharoah. Moses’ foster-grandfather is delighted to see the bouncing boy and like every proud relative wanting to put on a show of the little guy’s brightness and good manners, he puts his crown on the young lad’s head for a Kodak moment. But little Moses, instead of sitting on Pharoah’s lap adorably modeling the big crown on his tiny head, puts the crown beneath his feet and tramples it:

“Betwyx hys schankes he sett hym right
and lappyd hym to hym for grett lufe.
And for he was so worthy a wyght,
Hys pertenes he toght forto prove.
His crown of gold, full fayr and bryght,
that barne hed sett he above.
And sone was schewyd in ther syght
a wonder case forto controve:
That child full lyghtlt lete,
the crown kast he downe,
And fylyd yt with his fete
forto breke yt full bowne.”
(ll. 1549-1560)[2]

Pharaoh’s advisors are appalled by this blatant scene of Jewish insubordination. They warn Pharaoh of the danger of allowing the Hebrew boy to grow to a man and they scoff at Pharaoh’s allowing him to live so close to the royal family. Pharoah hears nothing of their nonsense though – Moses is a clever little boy but he cannot possibly understand the implication of his action in light of current Egyptian-Jewish political tensions much less the prophecy that a Hebrew man will end Pharoah’s rule. It’s just a cute scene and besides – kids do the darndest things! Another advisor – who the text describes as “a wys man of ther law” – chimes in to defend the little child suggesting they conduct an experiment to test his cleverness. Some hot coals are brought in and presented to the little boy and sure enough Moses tries to put them in his mouth. So there you have it, he’s only a cute little boy who doesn’t yet know to be careful around burning objects.

At this moment Pharoah’s daughter (called Tremouth in The Paraphrase) rushes into the scene and takes the poor child in her arms back to her chamber to comfort him. The narrator reminds us that God always comes to those in need for he who saves shall be saved:

“Loe how sone God hath socur sent;
That He wyll save, be savyd thei sall.”

Why this scene? Was it for comedic purpose? Was it an original embellishment?

Turns out, it’s adapted from a 1st century text by Josephus called Antiquities of the Jews. Here’s the scene as it appears in Antiquities:

Thermuthis therefore perceiving him to be so remarkable a child, adopted him for her son, having no child of her own. And when one time had carried Moses to her father, she showed him to him, and said she thought to make him her successor, if it should please God she should have no legitimate child of her own; and to him, “I have brought up a child who is of a divine form, and of a generous mind; and as I have received him from the bounty of the river, in , I thought proper to adopt him my son, and the heir of thy kingdom.” And she had said this, she put the infant into her father’s hands: so he took him, and hugged him to his breast; and on his daughter’s account, in a pleasant way, put his diadem upon his head; but Moses threw it down to the ground, and, in a puerile mood, he wreathed it round, and trod upon his feet, which seemed to bring along with evil presage concerning the kingdom of Egypt. But when the sacred scribe saw this, (he was the person who foretold that his nativity would the dominion of that kingdom low,) he made a violent attempt to kill him; and crying out in a frightful manner, he said, “This, O king! this child is he of whom God foretold, that if we kill him we shall be in no danger; he himself affords an attestation to the prediction of the same thing, by his trampling upon thy government, and treading upon thy diadem. Take him, therefore, out of the way, and deliver the Egyptians from the fear they are in about him; and deprive the Hebrews of the hope they have of being encouraged by him.” But Thermuthis prevented him, and snatched the child away. And the king was not hasty to slay him, God himself, whose providence protected Moses, inclining the king to spare him.[3]

Besides adding the bit about the hot coal test, the scene was not an embellishment at all by the Paraphrase poet. In fact, it’s a surprisingly accurate translation given his version was put into Middle English verse with a slightly comedic mood. Makes me wonder what other texts the Paraphrase poet used to prepare his version of the Old Testament.

[1] Exodus 2:8-10: Douay-Rheims: http://www.drbo.org/chapter/02002.htm ; KJV: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?version=KJV&search=Exodus%202

[2] References to Exodus from the Metrical Paraphrase are taken from The Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament, ed. Michael Livingston (Kalamazoo, 2011).

[3] Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, trans. William Whiston. Available online: http://www.biblestudytools.com/history/flavius-josephus/antiquities-jews/book-2/chapter-9.html

marco polo

So you know Marco Polo the Venetian? The story goes Marco Polo told this French guy all about his travels while he was in prison in Genoa. The first manuscript of The Travels of Marco Polo is 13th century and was written in Old French. Anyway, one of the little stories[1] he heard was from his brothers Nicolas and Maffeo when they were in Jordan. They heard about these Christians who had a flame in their temple that was so popular people came from miles around to light their lamps with it because it was Holy light, etc. – sort of like a relic. When the Magi (or, the Three Kings) went to visit baby Jesus, they brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh. These gifts were to test the prophet. If the prophet chose the gold he was only an earthly king and if he chose the myrrh he was a physician – but if he chose the frankincense he was truly a prophet. Well, it turns out the baby Jesus accepted all three gifts and gave them a little box in return.

On their way home the Magi opened the little box to see what was inside. It was a little stone – meant to symbolize their faith in Christ – steadfast, like a rock, etc. Well, that symbolic meaning went straight over their heads and they thought it was a stupid gift so they threw the stone in a well. At that moment, a huge blast of fire came from the heavens, hitting the stone, and setting it alight. It has been burning ever since. So that’s why people come to visit the temple.

Now, I can’t tell whether this temple was a major pilgrimage spot in 13th century Jordan or if some rural village was just enjoying its fifteen minutes of fame while Nicolas and Maffeo Polo were passing through. It is interesting though, that in the Medieval World stories were written to embellish Biblical sources. A couple of interesting ones are the Middle English Metrical Paraphrase of the Old Testament and The Three Kings of Cologne. The latter is kind of like a “Further Adventures and exploits of the Three Kings.” It’s a text with a strong Christian message told in the style of a medieval travel narrative. The Three Kings’ characters are fleshed out in this text. We know their names, where they’re from, and what they do after visiting the baby Jesus besides not returning to King Herod and going home by another route – but more importantly, the text gives you an idea of how the author thought various Temples and newly formed sects responded to the news of the Christ’s birth.

Though the little box and fiery stone gift from baby Jesus is not mentioned in the The Three Kings of Cologne, the text mentions that their gifts were meant to test the baby Jesus.[2] The text does mention, however, another “relic” collected from the nativity, adding that cringe-worthy touch of anti-Jewish sentiment found in most Medieval Christian texts written for a popular audience.

After the Kings traveled around, relating their tale of having seen the Christ, Mary grew frightened that the Jews would come and get her, so she went underground (literally) into a dark cave and waited there until things calmed down a little:

“þer bygan to wex a grete fame of oure lady and of her childe and of þes .iij. kyngis alle aboute. wherfore oure lady for drede of þe Iwes fledde oute of þat litil hows þat crist was bore in, and went in to an oþir derke Cave vndir erþe: and þere sche abode with her childe til þe tyme of her Purificacioun.”[3]

madona de la late

Madonna Suckling the Child, in Venetian vernacular known as the Madona de la late, panel, 13th-14th century. Venice, Museo di S. Marco. Image: Venice: Art & Architecture, Könemann.

While Mary was in that cave she sat on a stone and nursed the baby Jesus. Some of her breast milk sprayed on that stone. Sometime later, the cave was turned into a chapel and became a pilgrimage spot. It still had that stone and it still had milk too. If the stone was scraped with a knife, it would spray some of Mary’s breast milk. Just imagine going to a pilgrimage spot and hearing the guide say, “And Behold the everlasting milk still flows! For a small donation you can take a few drops!” That’s not the only mention of stones and the baby Jesus in Three Kings. More detail is given about the star they saw that signified the Christ was born. Its edges resembled that of a cornerstone.

So, according to The Three Kings of Cologne, after they described the star to people, it was pretty fashionable to put it on all the temples that had decided to follow Jesus. So I guess they did get the metaphor after all – you know, Jesus being like a stone at a strong building’s foundation.

[1] My telling of this tale is loosely adapted from Yule-Cordier’s edition of The Travels of Marco Polo.

[2] Makes me think of the Dalai Lama choosing his glasses!

[3] John of Hildeshesheim, The Three Kings of Cologne: an early English translation of the “Historia Trium Regum”, ed. C. Horstmann. available online

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).

On a winter morning earlier this year, I was reading Pearl on the 27 bus. I was headed to the mall to make a connection with the 98 bus so I could get to work – my regular morning commute. On a good day, the connection isn’t too long, but it’s usually long enough to justify taking a little walk if the weather’s not too bad. So as I walked around the parking lot, passing time until the Norristown 98 bus arrived, I noticed a little pearl on the ground:

pearl

My secret pearl without a spot was sighted in the parking lot near the bus depot at the Plymouth Meeting Mall.

Some little pearl, from the earlobe of a joyless jeweler, “to ground away it shot.”[1] On the street the pearl “went tumbling wide,”[2] rolling through a few loose strands of tumbleweave and past a cigarette butt, stopping in a patch of weathered asphalt. I wondered if the owner of the cheap plastic pearl earring purchased from Forever 21 was in a marvelous dream vision at that very moment, having just reached “a cliff of crystal bright, With resplendent rays all aureoled.”[3] The person who lost this precious cheap plastic earring was either arguing the finer points of Fortune with the maiden child or already in fellowship with the Lamb of God. Perhaps they’d already learned to let go of their little pearl.

Well, I thought that that was a pretty interesting coincidence – but a few days later I spot the little pearl again. This time it’s on the 27 bus by the exit door:

pearl 27

What started as a rare coincidence, I’ve now encountered several times. Just yesterday the 9 bus was detoured because of some construction on Walnut Street, so my wife and I walked East along Latimer or Locust up to Broad to catch the 27 instead. On the sidewalk under one of those walkways they make under the scaffolding when they’re doing work on a building, what do I see but the little pearl again! Finding a pearl on the ground doesn’t seem like something that would happen as often as three times in the same year. Perhaps I need to read Pearl more often because it’s not a bad thing to be reminded of this line:

O may we serve him well, and shine
As precious pearls to his content!

What are some little things that remind you to return to medieval poems?


[1] Pearl, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Patience, and Pearl: Verse Translations, trans. Marie Borroff, (New York, 2001), 125.

[2] Pearl, 126.

[3] Pearl, 129.

I read this line in Chaucer the other day:

“For whoso list have helyng of his leche
To hym byhoveth first unwrye his wounde” (857-58)[1]

I could have sworn I’d heard it somewhere else before. I assumed it was attributed to Aristotle.

It appears in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde in the scene where Pandarus gets Troilus to reveal the name of the woman he loves. It all starts when Pandarus hears Troilus groaning and wailing all alone in his room. Troilus has all the symptoms of medieval lovesickness: pale complexion, weight loss, shedding uncontrollable tears when a single note of music is heard… you name it, he’s got it. To make matters worse, he’s mocked others for being in love. Now that he has finally been hit by cupid’s arrow, he’s paying dearly for his mockery of Love.

Troilus and Criseyde book 1 from Kelmscott Chaucer

An illustration of Troilus seeing Criseyde for the first time at the temple from the Kelmscott Chaucer

Pandarus asks Troilus why he is so upset. Well, it’s Chaucer, so it’s more like, “HEY! What’s all this racket in here for?!? Why the sad face, huh? Has the war got you down?” The story takes place during the Trojan War, so there’s a joke about Troilus getting too thin from worrying so much about the war with the Greeks. Pandarus quickly realizes that Troilus has fallen in love for the first time and that he is suffering from lovesickness. Pandarus tries to get Troilus to reveal the name of the woman he loves. The last point Pandarus makes in attempt to get Troilus to reveal the name of his sweetheart is, “Whoever wants to have his doctor’s help must first uncover his wound.”

Well, while reading it again and wondering where I’d heard it before, I had an epiphany. Not just any epiphany, but the kind of epiphany you get when you’re reading Boethius. How could I have forgotten?

Sure enough, it’s in Boethius:

Si operam medicantis exspectas, oportet vulnus detegas[2] “If you want a doctor’s help, you must uncover your wound.”[3]

Boethius

Pandarus giving Troilus philosophical “treatment” reminded me of Lady Philosophy consoling Boethius in The Consolation of Philosophy. It’s not a coincidence because Chaucer was not only familiar with Boethius, he was also familiar with that particular line. Here’s how the line appears In Boece, Chaucer’s translation (or version) of Consolation:

“If thou abidest after helpe of thy leche, the behoueth discouer thy wounde”[4]

It’s the very same line that Chaucer put in Troilus and Criseyde – it’s just in a different person.

Why did Chaucer use this line in Troilus and Criseyde? Chaucer wasn’t the first poet to tell the story of Troilus and Criseyde. Did he copy it from another version? Boccaccio’s version of the story (IL FILOSTRATO) is thought to be one of Chaucer’s sources. The language is similar and early in Boccaccio’s tale Troilus covers his “love wound” after seeing Criseyde for the first time at the temple:

“Imagining that neither travail nor sighing for such a lady could be ill spent and that his desire, were it ever known by any, would be greatly praised, and hence his suffering, if discovered, less blamed, the light-hearted youth debated with himself, all unaware of his coming woe. Wherefore, bent on pursuing his love, he took purpose to act discreetly, deciding first to hide the desire born in his amorous mind from every friend and servant, unless forced to reveal it.”[5]

Choosing not to reveal his desire for Criseyde to anyone turned out to later be the source of his woe and it would be the perfect thing to follow up later in the story with the need to “uncover the wound.”

The love consolation speech scene is set up for the line, but Pandarus doesn’t speak it in Boccacio’s version. It’s not in Benoît de Sainte-Maure’s French version either.[6] These two texts are thought to have been Chaucer’s sources for the tale. Since no evidence points to another borrowed source, this embellishment of adding a line from Boethius is one Chaucer made himself.

Now, Boethius’ source is said to be Homer’s Iliad[7]– which makes Chaucer’s use in Troilus and Criseyde a little more interesting because the story is set during the Trojan War. Adding elements of Homer helps the story emulate the Troy tales genre and gives it “classical authenticity.”

In Homer, it’s:
“What sorrow has come upon your heart? Speak out;
hide it not in your mind, that we both may know”
[8]

It appears in The Iliad shortly after an assembly called to end Apollo’s plague is broken up by heated disagreement between Achilles and Agamemnon. Achilles is upset – to put it lightly – so after storming out in tears, he walks down to the ocean to sort out his feelings. While he’s there he asks his mother Thetis, a sea nymph, for help:

“[Achilles] sat down on the shore of the grey sea, looking forth over the wine-dark deep.
Earnestly he prayed to his dear mother with hands outstretched: “Mother, since you bore me,
though to so brief a span of life, honour surely ought the Olympian to have given into my hands, Zeus who thunders on high; but now he has honoured me not a bit. Truly the son of Atreus, wide-ruling Agamemnon has dishonoured me: for he has taken and keeps my prize through his own arrogant act.” So he spoke, weeping, and his lady mother heard him, as she sat in the depths of the sea beside the old man, her father. And speedily she came forth from the grey sea like a mist, and sat down before him, as he wept, and she stroked him with her hand, and spoke to him, and called him by name: “My child, why do you weep? What sorrow has come upon your heart? Speak out; hide it not in your mind, that we both may know.”
[9]

thetis

Homer’s description of Thetis’ arrival has an ethereal quality to it. You can read the scene literally with Thetis materializing from the ocean mist and Achilles sitting there, but you could just as easily describe it as a dream vision.[10] Homer’s scene is interchangeable with Consolation. Achilles can be exchanged for Boethius as easily as Achilles’ predicament for Boethius’ prison, or Achilles’ mother Thetis as Lady Philosophy. Thetis’ first line, “Hide it not in your mind, that we both may know” appears in Consolation as “uncover the wound.”

Both Boccaccio and Chaucer parody the classical reference in their Troilus stories in a way that pokes fun at the dream vision cliché while providing the audience with a crash-course in classical wit and wisdom.

It is clear to the audience that the visitors are not celestial in both Chaucer’s and Boccaccio’s stories, but the visitors may very well seem that way to Troilus, who is in a tormented, almost delusional state of mind when his guests visit him. Boccaccio uses a boy as the “doctor” while Chaucer makes his character older to balance the humor he injects with sober wisdom.

Chaucer adds this classical reference from Boethius to make his medieval story seem like it’s actually set during the Trojan War. This subtle detail is meant to invoke the classical genre but it also gives Chaucer an opportunity to give a nod to and further develop the style of one of his favorite poets of all time – Boethius.

That’s enough about Chaucer for now. I’m off to finish reading Richard Hell’s I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp.


[1] Troilus and Criseyde in Middle English from Chaucer’s Major Poetry, Ed. Albert C. Baugh (New York, 1963), verses 857-58.

[2] Boethius in Latin from De Consolatione Philosophiae, ed. Claudio Moreschini (2005).

[3] Boethius in English from The Consolation of Philosophy, trans. Richard Green (Englewood Cliffs, 1962), book one, prose 4.

[4] Chaucer, Boece, Chaucer According to William Caxton: Minor poems and Boece 1478, (Lawrence, 1978), 47.

[5] Boccacio, Il Filostrato, The Story of Troilus, trans. R.K. Gordon, (Toronto, 1978), 35.

[6] Benoît de Sainte-Maure, Le Roman de Troie, The Story of Troilus, trans. R.K. Gordon, (Toronto, 1978).

[7] Consolation of Philosophy, ed. Richard Green; La Consolation de Philosophie, ed. Éric Vanpeteghem.

[8] Homer, Iliad, trans. A.T. Murray (Cambridge, 1924), Book one, line 363. Available online: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0134%3Abook%3D1%3Acard%3D345

[9] Iliad, Book one, lines 349-63.

[10] Piers Plowman – one of the most famous medieval works in the dream vision genre occurs by a body of water. It all starts when the dreamer gazes into a brook: “Me byfel a ferly, of fairy me thought: / I was weary forwabdred and went me to reste / Under a brode bank bi a bornes side, / And as I lay and lened and loked in the waters / I slombred in a slepyng, it sweyved so merye. / Thanne ganne I to meten a merveilouse swevene / That I was in a wildernesse, wist I never were…” Piers Plowman, ed. Elizabeth Robertson and Stephen H.A. Shepherd, (New York, 2006), lines 6-12.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur was released last month.  I had no idea Christopher Tolkien was even working on this project. It was a surprise because I thought Sigurd and Gudrun was the last we’d see of resurrected Tolkien poetry composed in the Alliterative style.

tolkien reading some old poetry

But I guess there’s plenty more in the vaults. The recent release of a Tolkien telling of Morte D’Arthur reminded me that I had yet to read the Middle English Stanzaic and Alliterative Arthurs – so I decided that now’s as good a time as any.

The first thing that struck me (besides lamenting that “breme as a bore”[1] – one of the Stanzaic Arthur poet’s favorite clichés – will never be a popular expression in my lifetime) was how Lancelot comes to wear the lady’s sleeve at the tournament in Winchester.

Lancelot announces that he will not attend Arthur’s tournament in Winchester because he’s feeling sick. Ever since Lancelot returned from the Quest for the Holy Grail, Agravain’s been trying to catch Lancelot in bed with Guinevere. Agravain, of course, thinks Lancelot is feigning sickness simply to stay behind and get physical with Guinevere. It turns out that Lancelot doesn’t hang around Castle Camelot as long as Agravain thought he would. Instead, our knight du lac travels by night and attends the tournament in disguise and fights so valiantly there that he almost dies in combat but that’s another story.

On the way to the tournament Lancelot stays with some guy who has armor he can borrow, allowing him to appear anonymously in the tournament. The guy has a daughter who complicates the situation of Lancelot’s love interest.

Now here’s where the French and the English versions differ. Lancelot’s interaction with the daughter is a little different in the Middle English Stanzaic than it appears in the French Vulgate cycle.[2] Here’s how the scene plays out in the French version:

That day Lancelot remained there and was served and provided with everything that nobleman could desire. The people in his lodging kept asking him who he was, but they were unable to find out anything. However, his squire spoke to the vavasour’s daughter, who was very beautiful and pressed him hard to reveal who his lord was; and when he saw her great beauty, he did not wish to refuse utterly, because that would have seemed an unmannerly thing to do, but said: “I cannot reveal everything to you, because I should probably incur my master’s anger, but I will certainly tell you all I can without harming myself. In fact he is the finest knight in the world…” (verse 13)[3]

Everyone, especially this girl, knows that that means, “Lancelot – that’s right – Lancelot is staying in your house!”

Then the girl went straight to Lancelot, knelt before him, and said:

“Noble knight, grant me a gift by the faith you owe to whatever you love most in the world.”

When Lancelot saw such a beautiful and charming girl on her knees before him, he was embarrassed and said:

“Please get up. Be sure there is nothing in the world within my power that I should not do in answer to your request, because you have asked me in such solemn terms.”

She got up and said, “My Lord, I thank you. Do you know what you have granted me? You have promised to wear my right sleeve on your helmet at the tournament instead of a plume, and to bear arms through love for me.”

When Lancelot heard this request he was annoyed; nevertheless he did not  dare to refuse it because he had already promised. However, he was very regretful about having granted what she asked, because he realized that if the queen found out about it, she would be angry with him that, as far as he could see, he would never find his peace with her. (verse 14)[4]

 

Here’s how the scene appears in the Middle English Stanzaic Morte Arthur:

Th’erl had a doughter that was him dere;
Mikel Laucelot she beheld;
Her rode was red as blossom on brere
Or flowr that springeth in the feld;
Glad she was to sit him ner,
The noble knight under sheld;
Weeping was her moste cheer,
So mikel on him her herte gan helde. (Verses  177-84)[5]

The maiden with cheeks as red as a rose is so taken by Lancelot’s sight that she cannot look upon him without weeping. It of course incorporates soft and delicate flower imagery that penetrates with a painful prick like the point of cupid’s bow or a thorn on a rose or a… you get it.

He sat him down for the maiden’s sake
Upon her bedde there she lay
Courtaisly to her he spake
For to comfort that faire may.
In her armes she gan him take
And these words gan she say:
“Sir, but yif that ye it make,
Save my life no leche may.”(Verses 192-200)[6]

Reading this today summons images of girls screaming louder than the Beatles’ amplifiers in the 1960s or fans passing out at Michael Jackson concerts in the 1980s. One could almost imagine the wall of this maiden’s room covered with pictures of the Knights of the Round Table clipped from issues of Tiger beat magazine. There is little doubt that this maiden is as much a fan of Lancelot as these girls were of The Beatles.

girls screaming at a beatles concert

Girls screaming at a Beatles performance in the Richard Lester film A Hard Day’s Night. Image copyright 1964 United Artists/MGM Holdings

Her blushing and swooning is a typical medieval description of love sickness. “Save my life no leche may” basically means that even a doctor cannot cure her of her love sickness. For its effect on men, see Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale when Arcite and Palamoun fall deeply in love with Emelye from simply seeing her gather flowers in the garden during the month of May from their prison window. Yes, it was that easy to get lovesickness in a Chaucer story. Arcite’s lovesickness caused by Emelye is so severe that it dramatically changes him when he is banished from Athens and forced to live with Perotheus in Thebes:

…lene he wex and drye as is a shaft;
His eyen holwe, and grisly to biholde,
His hewe fallow and pale as asshen colde,
And solitaire he was and evere alone,
And waillynge al the nyght, making his mone;
And if he herde song or instrument,
Thanne we wolde wepe, he myghte nat be stent.
So feble eek were his spiritz, and so lowe,
And chaunged so, that no man koude knowe
His speche nor his voys, though men it herde.
And in his geere for al the world he ferde,
Nat oonly lik the loveris maladye
Of Hereos, but rather lyk manye,
Engendered of humour malencolik,
Biforen, in his celle fantastik. (ll. 1362-76)[7]

Yes, he grew as thin and dry as a dried stalk. His face changed so much that no one he knew could recognize him anymore. He moaned and wailed all night and whenever he heard the sound of someone playing a musical instrument, he would cry so hard that no one could stop his tears. Chaucer ties his exaggerated description of lovesickness as it often appears in Heroic poetry together with some medical terminology suggesting that it could actually be a passage from a medical treatise. Everything can be said in the same breath by Chaucer…

Perhaps knowing she will suffer the same fate as Arcite for her love of a knight, the maiden in the Arthurian story asks Lancelot to at least display a token of her love when he fights in the tournament:

“Sithe I of thee ne may have more,
As thou art hardy knight and free,
In the tournament that thou wolde bere
Some sign of mine that men might see.”
“Lady, thy sleeve thou shalt of-shere;
I will it take for the love of thee;
So did I never no ladies ere,
But one that most hath loved me.”(Verses 201-08)[8]
 

The Stanzaic Arthur omits the scene with the maiden asking the squire Lancelot’s identity. Also, in the French version, the maiden specifically asks Lancelot to wear her sleeve, not just “some sign.”

In the French version, the maiden uses the manners of courtly love to her advantage by making Lancelot promise to grant her wish knowing that his code forbids him from rejecting her request – even if he doesn’t know what it is. This differs from the English version, where Lancelot offers to wear her sleeve.

The whole part about Lancelot’s annoyance with the matter and worrying about it complicating his relationship with Guinevere is omitted from the English version. It’s not a question of trimming down the length of the scene, because the English poet embellishes the scene in his own way to give a description of love sickness. Instead, deciding not to point out to the audience that Lancelot’s wearing the sleeve may create a problem with Guinevere, the English poet tells us something interesting about his audience. It suggests that the audience is well-versed in literature and intelligent enough to draw that conclusion on their own. It also allows for surprise which may mean that there was an audience growing tired of the storytelling styles that prevented the audience from experiencing surprises for themselves.

While it often serves the purpose of bringing a circular balance to their work, medieval poets are notorious for using foreshadowing to such an extent that the stories seems to contain no surprises for the audience whatsoever. The English version, at least in this scene, allows an engaged audience to formulate their own questions and see for themselves how the drama unfolds.

I prefer to have some of both. Medieval court audiences may have as well. There’s something to be said for the poet who holds the audience’s hand, giving clues, and sharing observations. The audience shares the experience with the poet – they are going on the journey together and seeing the same sights at the same time. It takes a tremendous amount of faith in the audience for the poet to allow them to draw their own conclusions about the drama and the meaning of the work. It may also suggest that the public recitation of poetry was meant to be interactive rather than just silently absorbed – or simply a new way for a dining court audience to enjoy a telling of an old poem.


[1] Fierce (or wild) as a boar. (O.E. valiant). Another cliché the poet uses every chance he gets is “withouten lees” – which passed the gulf to Modern English literally as, “Without lies.” It doesn’t have the same the ring to it, but it’s understood. What are some of the expressions storytellers use in place of “breme as bore” or “withouten lees” today?

[2] Mort du Roi Artu – the early 13th century French version. In this post I’m using the edition: The Death of King Arthur, Trans. James Cable, (London: Penguin, 1971).

[3] The Death of King Arthur, 29.

[4] The Death of King Arthur, 30.

[5] 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), 8.

[6] The Stanzaic Morte Arthur, 8.

[7] Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale in Middle English from Chaucer’s Major Poetry, Ed. Albert C. Baugh (New York, 1963), 264.

[8] The Stanzaic Morte Arthur, 9.

Westvleteren XII

Westvleteren XII – a Trappist beer that scored a perfect 100 on Beer Advocate last year. Six-packs sold for as much as $85 US (image: www.beercrank.ca)

Cardinal André Vingt-Trois has been making headlines during the last few months for sharing his predictable stance on the issue of gay marriage. He has an interesting surname. I was hoping that Vingt-Trois (twenty-three in English) was descended from a long line of Trappist monks, his ancestor named after a famous batch of beer that fetched such a nice price at market that they were able to buy back their monastery from the bank – but it’s actually a little more interesting than that: One of the Cardinal’s ancestors was, as the story goes, left on a doorstep on the 23rd day of the month.

A baby being named after how, where, or when it is found is a Christian tradition dating back to a story from the Old Testament when the children of Israel lived in Egypt as Pharaoh’s slaves:

Slaves
Hebrews born to serve, to the pharaoh
Heed
To his every word, live in fear[1]

Each time some invaders showed up to conquer Egypt, the children of Israel fought against Pharaoh. So, in an attempt to assimilate them, he offered them the hardest and most important jobs in the service of the Sun God: farming and brick and mortar. They helped Egypt exceed its luxurious food security goals and even solved Pharaoh’s treasure storage problems. The children of Israel planned and dug an irrigation system so that when the Nile flooded according to the stars, they made efficient use of its water and grew healthy crops in great abundance. Pharaoh used the ingenuity of the children of Israel to devise ways to haul massive, good quality stones from remote quarries. They built structures so large and sturdy that they can still be seen today from space. In fact, there are still some people around who believe the work was done by aliens!

When the treasure cities of Pithom and Ramsees were finally built for Pharaoh, he was very pleased, but the children of Israel did not take pride and glory in their work or embrace the Egyptian way of life. They wouldn’t walk like an Egyptian, talk like an Egyptian, or even wear Egyptian clothing. They wouldn’t pray to cats and jackals or even people with crocodile heads. They didn’t even eat Egyptian food even though they helped grow it. Well, since they weren’t interested in becoming Egyptian, Pharaoh tried oppressing them in hopes that they would leave, but the more he oppressed them, the more their numbers grew. In a final attempt to rid Egypt of the children of Israel once and for all, Pharaoh made a new law for the Hebrews:  “Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river, and every daughter ye shall save alive.”[2]

Shortly after this unusually cruel and utterly uncivilized law came into effect, a Hebrew woman from the house of Levi gave birth to a son. Now, it doesn’t take an alchemist to know that if a baby is thrown into a river it will drown. This woman didn’t want her neighbors to think she was stupid – or worse, a bad mother – so, to avoid bringing shame to the house of Levi, she cast him into the river her own way: “she got a rush basket for him, made it watertight with pitch and tar, laid him in it, and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. The child’s sister stood some distance away to see what would happen to him.”[3]

Moses Breviary of Chertsey Abbey

14th century illustration in an illuminated ‘S’ from Breviary of Chertsey Abbey (Bodlein MS. Lat. Liturgy. d. 42, fol. 006r) (image: LUNA)

Well, as it turned out, Pharaoh’s daughter was taking a walk with her maids that day and she noticed the basket by the riverbank. She ordered one of her maids to go down and get the baby and bring it back to her. When it was opened, Pharaoh’s daughter saw the baby crying and “she was moved with pity for it.”[4] She realized it was a Hebrew baby. At this moment, the baby’s sister stepped up and asked Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and fetch you one of the Hebrew women to act as a wet-nurse for the child?”[5] Pharaoh’s daughter told her to do so and she brought the baby’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter agreed to pay the woman to nurse the baby for her as long as she brought the child to her when the nursing was done. Now, it was against the law to let a Hebrew baby boy live, but we all know that a father (even if he is Pharaoh) can never tell his daughter no. When the baby was brought to Pharaoh’s daughter, she decided to raise the child as her own. Pharaoh’s daughter called the baby Moses[6] because she “drew him out of the river.”[7]

In Marie de France’s Breton lay Le Fraisne (Le Frêne), the heroine received her name in a very similar way as Moses. She was called Fraisne because she was found as a baby in an ash tree outside an abbey.

Though Marie de France’s Lays were written in the 12th century, they may have been quite popular for a couple hundred years, because a 14th century version in Middle English survives in the Aunchinleck Manuscript.[8]  Here is the scene from this Middle English telling where Le Fraisne is named:

And for it was in an asche yfounde,
Sche cleped it Frain in that stounde.
(The Freyns of the “asche” is a freyn   
After the language of Breteyn;
Forthe Le Frein men clepeth this lay   
More than Asche in ich cuntray). (v.229-234)[9]

The reasons why these babies were left out and found are a little different in these two stories but also strikingly similar. In Le Fraisne’s case, it all starts with two rich, noble, and courteous knights who were neighbors. They married around the same time and when the first knight’s wife gave birth to twins, he sent a messenger to tell his friend the good news. Now, the knight who received the message had a wife who was envious, arrogant, and prone to lying. When she heard the news she laughed out loud in a mocking tone and said, “I can’t believe your friend would announce embarrassing news in such a proud way! You know what they say about twins, right? It means two men were involved! Your friend is announcing to the entire land that he is a cuckold!”

Needless to say, the knight was embarrassed and instantly rebuked his wife, “I can’t believe you would say such a thing about my fellow knight and his wife. They are the most respectable people we know!”

The messenger and the servants heard what the knight’s wife said and told everyone they knew what happened. The story spread like wildfire through the entire Breton countryside and before a week had even passed, she was the most hated and despised noble in Brittany.

Well, the same year, the knight’s wife got pregnant and wouldn’t you know it, she gave birth to twins. Now the knight’s neighbor gets his revenge! As you can imagine, the knight’s wife is devastated. She resolves to kill one of the babies. She would prefer to ask for God’s forgiveness than to suffer the humiliation of everyone hearing that poetic justice had been served. The lady’s maid begs not to kill the baby. She promises her lady that she will take the baby to a monastery, leave it anonymously, and never speak of it again to anyone for as long as she lives. The lady agrees and wraps the baby in fine linen and drapes a fine piece of brocaded fabric her husband brought back from Constantinople over the baby. She also ties a golden ring that held a large precious stone to the baby’s arm with a piece of ribbon:

Le Fraisne v121-134 from Harley 978

Detail of Le Fraisne lines 121-134 (transcribed below) from Harley 978 (13th century) f. 128v (image: British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts)

En un chief de mult bon cheinsilenvolupent l’enfant gentil

e desus un paile roe

sis sire li ot aporté

de Constentinoble u il fu

unques si bon n’orent veü

a une piece d’un suen laz

un gros anel li lie al braz

de fin or I aveit une unce

el chasten out une jagunce

la verge en tur esteit letree

la u la meschine iert trovee

bien sacent tuit veraiement

qu’ele est nee de bone gent. (v.121-134)[10]

Elles enveloppent l’enfant de noble naissance dans une fine toile de linet la recouvrent d’une soierie ornée de rosacesque le seigneur avait rapportée à sa femme d’un séjour de Constantinople:on n’avait jamais vu si belle étoffe!La mere attaché au bras de l’enfant,avec un de ses lacets, un gros anneaud’or pur d’une once:Le chaton portrait une hyacintheet une inscription courait autour de l’anneau.Ainsi quand on trouvera la petite fille,Tout le monde pourra être sure

qu’elle est de bonne famille.[11] (v.121-134)

They wrapped the noble child in a cloth of fine linen and then placed over her the finest piece of striped brocade which her husband brought from Constantinople, where he had been. With a piece of her ribbon, the lady attached to the child’s arm a large ring made from an ounce of pure gold, with a ruby set in it and lettering on the band. Wherever she was found, people would then truly know that she was of noble birth.[12]

I love that, a minute ago she was prepared to kill the baby but now she wants whoever finds the baby to know that she comes from a rich and noble family and should be treated with the respect and given the resources rich and noble people are accustomed to receiving.

Anyway, the maid rides out into the night, finds a monastery and places the baby in the branches of an ash tree. When the porter wakes up early the next morning, he sees the brocaded fabric dangling from the tree and when he goes to investigate it, he finds the baby. It’s a baby girl. He brings it to his wife and she nurses the baby. When the baby is done nursing, the porter brings her to the Prioress and tells her all about how he came to find the baby. The Prioress decides to adopt the girl as her niece and she names her Le Fraisne (the ash tree).

Moses and Fraisne are similar in that their births were kept secret, they were found by someone, nursed, adopted by a strong woman (in Moses’ case, Pharaoh’s daughter and in Fraisne’s case, the Prioress), and named based on how they were found.

Moses was in danger of being killed because of Pharaoh’s law and Fraisne was in danger of being killed because her mother was afraid of being humiliated – which is ironic because she’d probably already endured the worst of the public’s ridicule by insulting the knight whose wife had twins.

Elora Danan's birthmark

Elora Danan’s mark from Willow (copyright 1988 Lucasfilm, Imagine Entertainment, MGM. image: rottentomatoes.com)

In George Lucas’ Willow, the evil queen Bavmorda imprisons all of the pregnant women in her realm so she can find and kill a baby girl who is prophesied to end her rule. When the newborn is found with the mark (curiously on the arm which is the same place the ring was fastened to Fraisne), a woman escapes with the baby before the evil queen can kill the her. The woman sends the baby down a river in an ark of rushes. The baby is found by an unlikely hero and the evil queen’s dominion falls. Lucas uses the famous ark of rushes from the Moses story for his tale of a female savior. Now, Fraisne didn’t turn out to be a savior or a great prophetess in Marie de France’s lay, but she does get the chance to be reunited with her mother and she marries the best knight in the land. Marie, though, may have been the first poet to give a girl the chance to play the part of the foundling.


[1] Metallica, “Creeping Death,” Ride the Lightning (Elektra, 1984).

[2] Exodus 1:22, KJV

[3] The Oxford Study Bible Revised English Bible with the Apocrypha, Ed. M. Jack Suggs. Katharine Doob Sakenfield, James R. Mueller (New York, 1992), Exodus 2:3-4.

[4] Exodus 2:6

[5] Exodus 2:7

[6] Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of The Bible, James Strong, Hebrew word 4872   מֹשֶׁה Môsheh drawing out (of the water), i.e. rescued. (KJV Exodus 2:10, “And she called his name Moses: and she said, Because I drew him out of the water.”)

[7] Exodus 2:10

[8] “Lay Le Freine: Introduction”, The Middle English Breton Lays, ed. Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury (Kalamazoo, 1995). Available online: http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/freiint.htm

[9] “Lay Le Freine”, The Middle English Breton Lays, ed. Anne Laskaya and Eve Salisbury (Kalamazoo, 1995). Available online: http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/freine.htm

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

[11] References to Marie de France in Modern French translation are taken from Lais de Marie de France, trans. Laurence Harf-Lancner (Paris, 1990).

[12] 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), p.62.

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.

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