Archives for posts with tag: Christianity

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.

boethius alfred the great self help bookI love reading medieval self-help books (or “mirrors for princes” – as scholars call them) like Secreta Secratorum and The Consolation of Philosophy. Both are great, but the one I spend the most time with is Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy. My interest in Chaucer led me to Boethius since Consolation is one of Chaucer’s favorite touchstones. Once you read Boethius (or Boece, as he is called in Middle English texts) you’ll forever see flashes of his guiding philosophy in Chaucer’s poetry.  In any case, Boethius quickly became a friend in my own spiritual journey. My wife Jessica and I even used a passage from The Consolation of Philosophy in our wedding ceremony. And no, it wasn’t a “medieval-themed” wedding THANK YOU VERY MUCH!

Reading Boethius in modern English translation alone, however, does not satisfy the medievalist. We look to “the versions they used” and while we might not always find them, there are other versions that give us ideas of how Boethius was appreciated in the medieval world. Chaucer translated a version himself into English but he was not the first to do so. An Old English version[1] is attributed to Alfred the Great, the 9th century Saxon king of England. How involved Alfred actually was in its composition will likely never be known, but we know that he placed great value on the text and at least commissioned its production.

Reading Alfred the Great’s version, you’re instantly struck by its heroic language. The quick prologue Alfred provides smacks of the opening lines of Beowulf and Sir Gawain and Green Knight. In Alfred’s version Boethius is a Christian man who fights for justice to save his people from the evil tyrant Theodoric.

After the spirited prologue, however, the narrative becomes – more or less – the one we recognize from Consolation.

Something interesting about the Saxon version of Boethius attributed to Alfred the Great, though, is that the character Lady Philosophy is called Wisdom (and sometimes Reason). Her character is also masculine rather than feminine, but aside from that we are not given any other physical characteristics.

Boethius isn’t “visited” by Lady Philosophy in reality or dream vision in the Saxon version. It is as if the “Wisdom” and “Reason” dialogue with the “mind” occurs in the character’s head whereas in Consolation Lady Philosophy (also referred to as a physician) appears and “treats” Boethius.

Also, the “muses” Lady Philosophy chases away are simply referred to as “worldly pursuits” in the Saxon version as opposed to a greater pursuit: striving to know – but not being arrogant enough to think one can “possess entirely” – wisdom.

Consolation presents a philosophy that is somewhat universal, but the Saxon version manages to be even more universal in a way. It isn’t watered down to the extent of a message from Joel Olsteen, for example, but the concepts are presented in a disarming way that complements Christian thought and could help a medieval reader in much the same way a Joel Olsteen book would help someone today.

Comparing Boethius to Joel Olsteen may seem inappropriate to some medievalists, but I’ll bet Boethius was more accessible than Aquinas (or even Dante) among contemporary medieval readers. The method is also surprisingly similar to modern psychoanalysis and behavior change through self-awareness.

In addition to the text’s teaching and guiding philosophy that is meant to complement Christian thought, something makes the king who promoted the text seem revolutionary for his time. In Alfred’s version, the hero Boethius is a senator who feels his leader is not morally fit to govern his people so he seeks to remove him from power. A king who promotes this kind of hero is telling his subjects that rulers are to be held at the highest moral standard and are obligated to share wisdom and book-learning with their people. And if they don’t – any one of their subjects should remove them from positions of power. That sounds a lot more like democracy than feudalism!

[1] King Alfred’s Anglo Saxon Version of Boethius De Consolatione Philosophiae, trans. Samuel Fox (London, 1864) available online

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

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).

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.

A Tunanina...

Just another WordPress.com weblog

Wyrdwend

The Filidhic Literary Blog of Jack Günter

actantedourada.wordpress.com/

Io Morales Sánchez - arte en fío

Dave's Corner of the Universe

Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide

Record Shop Shots

What I think about when I'm in one

Eric Weiskott

Assistant Professor of English at Boston College

opusanglicanum

one Englishwoman's work

mediaevalmusings

1,000 years of history in blog-sized bites.

The Baker

Scraps and Glimpses...

Lak of Stedfastnesse

Thoughts on Chaucer

Momentum - A Travel Blog

Stories and thoughts from a life in motion

A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

Early medievalist's thoughts and ponderings, by Jonathan Jarrett

Things Medieval

Shedding light on the Dark Ages one post at a time.

In Thirteenth Century England

Thinking, writing, and teaching high medieval history, by Kathleen Neal

Medieval History Geek

An amateur's blog about Medieval history, books, etc.

leaf and twig

where observation and imagination meet nature in poetry

A Pilgrim in Narnia

a journey through the imaginative worlds of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Inklings

These Vagabond Shoes.

Adventure Travel on a Shoestring

Blueagain: Film and Lit.

Movies, Books, Flix, and Pulps

My Aleph

Thoughts from an Arabic & IR student about literature and history

FortLeft

observations on politics, sports and life in general

E. C. Ambrose

dark historical fiction, because "pseudo" isn't medieval enough

%d bloggers like this: