Archives for posts with tag: medieval storytelling

A week or so ago a reporter on a radio show mentioned that in Homer’s Odyssey Penelope agreed to marry whoever could string Odysseus’ bow and shoot it through a dozen iron axe heads. In Homer’s epic, Odysseus leaves his kingdom in Ithaca to fight in the Trojan War. His people wait for him to return, but as years pass with no word from their king, many of his subjects become gluttons. They spend their time and energy consuming royal resources and having incessant orgies. As the reserves of royal wine start to run dry, they bicker among themselves and plot not only to take the throne from their king Odysseus, but his wife Penelope as well.

Odysseus hears of the rampant corruption in his court and returns to Ithaca disguised as an old man. He watches and waits for the right time to reclaim his rightful seat on the throne. Finally, a perfect time to reveal his identity and crush his opposition arises: Penelope announces that whoever can string Odysseus’ bow and shoot through 12 iron axe heads may have her hand in marriage.

archer

Detail of Archer from 22v of Manuscript Codex Schürstab (Zürich, Zentralbibliothek, Ms. C 54) (Nürnberg, about 1472) image: e-codices

There is initial suspense when Telenachus, the son of Odysseus and Penelope, tries to win the competition. Though he has a hereditary claim to the throne and is worthy in a way, his winning the competition would create a tragically Oedipal scene. After Telenachus’ unsuccessful attempt, one of the lusty suitors, Leiodes son of Oinops, tries his hand at stringing Odysseus’ bow but “his hands were weak and unused to hard work, they therefore soon grew tired.”[1] Antinoos suggests warming the bow and greasing it up with lard to make is easier to bend. The audience holds their breath with squinted eyes, wrestling to find a comfortable spot on their seat as they worry that the villains may win by cheating.

At last, as the story goes, no one could do it except Odysseus. He strings the bow like an old bard automatically replaces a broken string on his lyre without skipping a beat. Odysseus then loads an arrow, draws back the string, and releases his missile like a bored teenager would pull and release the plunger of a pinball machine. Our hero shoots through all twelve axe heads with his first shot and boy does the king make heads roll after that!

kevin shoots up his school

Kevin (played by Ezra Miller) shoots up his school in Lynne Ramsay’s film We Need to Talk About Kevin (image copyright: 2011 BBC Films)

The next day, as I continued my way through Das Nibelungenlied on the bus, I ran across a passage that made me recall Odysseus’ bow and how he was the only one who could string it. Just before the scene where the hero Sifried is murdered in Das Nibelungenlied, the poet takes the time to describe the exceptional quality of Sifried’s hunting gear. The poet mentions that no man could bend Sifried’s bow but him:

“… And the huge bow he used
could not be bent by hand, except by him. Winding it
slowly back with a winch   was all that anyone else could do.”
[2]

Homer and the Nibelungenlied poet use the motif of the bow that could not be bent by anyone but the hero for different effect in their epic tales. Homer uses it to show the audience that his hero has no peer in strength and strategy and that his sovereignty should have never been a contest. Everyone in the audience knows that Odysseus is still awesome and that he is the rightful ruler of Ithaca. The Nibelungenlied poet uses the bow in the opposite way. He uses it to take his hero, who is already at the at the pinnacle of greatness, to an even higher point to make his fall all the more tragic. It’s like he rubs salt in a wound before it is even cut. Despite the fact that Sifried is so uniquely powerful that no one in the world but him is strong enough to use his bow, his greatest friends and allies will still betray him.

The bow in Homer’s Odyssey gives us a reason to cheer for his hero Odysseus, but Sifried’s bow gives us a reason to cry for the fallen hero of Das Nibelungenlied – just as a skald wants us to cry for Baldur when he tells us Norse Myth. While Odysseus’ bow allows the hero to bring justice back to Ithaca, Sifried’s bow reminds us that justice must be served. With Sifried gone and an audience hungry for justice, Sifried’s widow Krimhild seeks revenge…


[2] Das Nibelungenlied, Trans. Burton Raffel (New Haven, 2006), verse 953, p.133

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.

Siegfried and Kriemhild in Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen (1924)

Siegfried meets Kriemhild in Fritz Lang’s 1924 film Die Nibelungen (image: cineoutsider)

What is it about family visits that make them unnecessarily complicated? Is it the distance that we need to travel? The hassle of taking time off from work? Or is it the meal planning and that special trip to the grocery store? How about the housework?

Somehow family visits require more preparation than any other type of visit. There’s more stress, situations have the tendency to become more emotional than usual, and there is often at least one elephant in every room.

It isn’t always like that – but it happens often enough in our minds that we brace ourselves to deal with it. When family visits go well, there are tremendous sighs of relief. Everyone is overjoyed and we promise in all sincerity to stay in better touch as we say our good-byes.

So, since the drama of the gods mirrors our own drama – and vice versa – it should be of no surprise to us that family visits have the tendency to turn the lives of epic heroes upside down as well. This happens to Sifried in Das Nibelungenlied, a 13th century epic poem in Middle High German.

In the story, Sifried (Sigurd from Norse Myth) marries Krimhild and brings her back with him to his castle in the Netherlands.[1]

Though Krimhild misses her homeland of Burgundy on the Rhine, she is very happy to be Sifried’s queen in the Netherlands. After several months pass, Sifried and Krimhild receive a message from Krimhild’s parents: they want the newlyweds to come home for the holidays this year.

Sifried initially reacts to this perfectly reasonable and normal request in the exact same way we might find ourselves reacting – albeit in epic proportions:

Sifried summoned his friends     to help him decide what he ought to do.

He asked for their advice:        should he go to the Rhine?
“My good friend Gunter, and all    his family too, would like me
to attend a celebration.    And I would be eager to go
if only Burgundy     were closer, and not so long a ride.

“And if they ask that Krimhild also     come as their welcome guest.
Counsel me, my dearest      friends. How will she get there?
If they asked me to fight a war,     battling in thirty lands,
they’d find Sifried ready    and willing to help them with eager hands.”[2]

In Sifried’s mind, it would be logistically easier to wage war in thirty lands! He’s a seasoned warrior who can win any dispute on the battlefield, so it’s only natural that preparations for a family visit begin with a strategic planning session. Sifried’s friends suggest a way for him to visit his Burgundian in-laws in style:

The bold warriors answered:    “we think you ought to attend.
Take this journey. That        is our best advice. Ride
with a thousand knights and let them     escort you down the Rhine.
That will ensure your honor    from the very moment you arrive.”[3]

There are many complicated things at play here: awkwardness in dealing with family, Sifried’s need to keep up his regal appearance, uncertainty in customs – but what I find the most amusing is his initial reaction.

He moans about the distance to travel as we might do when we know full well that we’d gladly take a 20-hour flight to a destination for a vacation on our own – or in Sifried’s case, wage a war across thirty lands. What is it about family – the people we love more and share more memories with than anyone else – that complicates visits?

I wonder if the 13th century audience laughed during this part of the poem, “Even Sifried the dragon slayer freaks out at the thought of a family visit!” But, fortunately for us, this is where our similarities with Sifried end. The visit is an especially bad one for poor Sifried: it ruins his marriage and he tragically dies.

We’re lucky that we don’t have too many things in common with this epic hero…


[1] We last saw Sifried in an earlier post courting Krimhild in Burgundy. There, he earned the respect of Krimhild’s father with his talent for winning wars.

[2] Das Nibelungenlied, Trans. Burton Raffel (New Haven, 2006), verses 757-759, p.106

[3] Das Nibelungenlied, verse 760, p.107

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.

robin hood and little john disney

Robin Hood and Little John in Disney’s Robin Hood (image: copyright 1973 Walt Disney Company)

Between the publication of Philip Pullman’s Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version and Maria Tartar’s The Annotated Brothers Grimm, there is some new discussion on the darker materials (sorry, couldn’t resist that one!) found in these classic tales, so I thought I’d take a look at some Child Ballads from England to hear some of the stories English kids were being told and compare them to their German counterparts and wouldn’t you know it – I found an especially violent scene from a Robin Hood story. Well, December escaped an installment of Today’s Medieval Bloodfest – I only wish I could say the same for Guy of Gisborne…

This installment of Today’s Medieval Bloodfest comes from a child ballad about Robin Hood called, “Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne.” It survives as a mid 17th century manuscript (Thomas Percy Collection, British Library, Additional Manuscript 27879) but a similar plot survives from a play dated 1475.[1] Since we can’t say for certain how long this particular version of the song has been around, let’s just say the scene is 15th century…

The language looks almost like it’s deliberately trying to look old fashioned and still be clearly understood. Twinn for twain, for example – and the extra e’s on so, go, and he to make them soe, goe, and hee give it a “Jolly Ole English” look and sound. I could be wrong – anyone out there with experience in 15-17th century colloquial English can tell if this poem is trying to emulate Middle English?

In any case, let’s get on with the gore!

So, Robin Hood and Little John are hanging around drinking Thunderbird and shooting craps when, would you know it, Guy of Gisborne comes along. This tasty fellow’s looking for none other than Robin Hood, that famous outlaw the peasants and guttersnipes “phone up” whenever they need some “wealth distribution.”[2] The irony of it is Guy’s found the guy he was looking for. The boys all have a short archery competition which Guy loses terribly. To save face with these expert woodsmen, he pokes fun at his uselessness with the bow by saying things like, “Whoa, I’ll bet you’re a better shot than Robin Hood!”

This corrupt cop, Guy of Gisborne, probably thinks he can make friends with these woodsmen and have some new marksmen – or at least forest informants – on Prince John’s payroll. He’s wrong. Dead wrong.

earl of huntington defeats guy of gisbourne in jousting

Earl of Huntington (Robin Hood – played by Douglas Fairbanks) helps Guy of Gisbourne up after defeating him in a joust in Robin Hood (1922) – this courtesy is a far cry from the Robin Hood of Child Ballad 118 “Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne”

So he asks Robin and Little John to tell him about themselves – you know, who they are. Robin tells Guy that they’ll tell him who they are after they learn who he is. Since Guy’s sort of on their turf, he obliges them and introduces himself first – and boy was he sorry he did, because, with a sadistic smile:

Robin pulled forth an Irish kniffe,
And nicked Sir Guy in the face,
That hee was never on a woman borne
Cold tell who Sir Guye was. (verse 42)[3]

Robin chopped Guy’s face up so bad that no one – not even his own mother – would recognize him. The language downplays the violence by using the word “nicked” like it was a slight slip of the razor during a shave. The English are masters of understatement.

Poor Guy basically begs Robin to accept a ransom – any amount – in return for his release, but that’s not Robin’s style. Guy doesn’t understand why Robin wouldn’t want to become rich. In addition to not being able to understand Robin’s motive, imagine his horror while he tries to reason with his captor:

“Thou art a madman,” said the shiriffe,
“Thou sholdest have had a knights fee;
Seeing thy asking [hath] beene soe bad,
Well granted it shall be.” (verse 51)[4]

They turn their captive loose and as he’s running for his life, if only just to prove that Guy’s bow isn’t defective, Robin hands it to Little John so he won’t miss out on a little target practice with their new acquaintance:

But he cold neither soe fast goe,
Nor away soe fast runn,
But Litle John, with an arrow broade,
Did cleave his heart in twinn. (verse 58)[5]

Little John’s swift shot is so precise and powerful that it slices Guy of Gisborne’s heart in two!

I wonder how Robin Hood and Little John spent the rest of their day…

For another installment of Today’s Medieval Bloodfest, click here.

 

 


[1] “Robin Hood and Guy of Gisborne: Introduction”, Robin Hood and Other Outlaw Tales, ed. Stephen Knight and Thomas H. Ohlgren (Kalamazoo, 1997). Available online: http://www.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/teams/guyint.htm

[2] The Clash, “White Man in Hammersmith Palais” (CBS, 1978).

[3] “Robin Hood and the Guy of Gisborne”, Tradtional British Ballads, ed. Bartlett Jere Whiting (New York, 1955), 98.

[4] Traditional British Ballads, 99.

[5] Traditional British Ballads, 100.

It amuses me how medieval storytellers find new and creative ways to use well-known clichés to make you believe that the maiden in the story you’re currently reading is the fairest of them all – ever.

In Chrétien de Troyes’ Arthurian Romance Erec et Enide, Erec follows an evil knight to challenge him publicly to a duel. Why? Why else? Because this evil knight just insulted a fair maiden. Don’t be silly.

Anyway, on a normal day, Erec would’ve rectified the situation right then and there. But… problem is, this insult occurred when Erec wasn’t wearing his knight costume. No fancy armor, no painted lance, no golden spurs – not even an undershirt embroidered with nightingales and posies. He left all that stuff back at the castle. The only thing he has with him is his sword.

Now, Erec is a knight of King Arthur’s court and he wouldn’t be caught dead challenging a knight from another castle to a duel unless he looked the part – especially if it is for a lady’s honor! And this fair lady isn’t just a regular fair lady. This fair lady happens to be Queen Guinevere.

Head of a Woman. Stained Glass. 14th century (Rouen, France) (image: Metropolitan Museum of Art – The Cloisters)

So Erec follows the evil knight to make sure he doesn’t get away all the while hoping to acquire some armor. When the evil knight reaches his castle, Erec finds lodging at an old guy’s house on the outskirts of town. This old guy just so happens to be a retired knight and he has some armor Erec can borrow for his upcoming duel. It also just so happens that this old retired knight’s daughter, Enide, is the fairest of them all.

So, without further ado, here is Chrétien de Troyes’ description of Enide when Erec first sets eyes upon her:

Mout estoit la pucele gente,Que tote i avoit mis s’entente

Nature qui faite l’avoit.

Ele meïsmes s’en estoit

Plus de .vᶜ. fois mervoillie

Comment une soule feïe

Tant bele chose faire sot;

Ne puis tant pener ne se pot

Qu’ele peüst son examplaire

En nule guise contrefaire

De ceste tesmoingne Nature

C’onques si bele creature

Ne fu veüe en tot le monde.

Por voir vos di qu’Isuez la blonde

N’ot tant les crins sors et luisanz

Que a cesti ne fust neanz.

Plus ot que n’est la flor de lis,

Cler et blanc le front et le vis.

Sor la blanchor, par grant merveille,

D’une color fresche et mermeille,

Que Nature li ot done,

Estoit sa face enluminee.

Li huil si grant clarté rendoient

Que deus estoiles resembloient.

Onques Dex ne sot faire miauz

Le nes, la boche, ne les iauz.

Que diroie de sa beauté?

Ce fu cele por verité

Qui fu faite por esgarder,

Qu’en li se peüst on mirer

Ausi con en un mireour. (v. 411-41)[1]

 

The maid was charming,in sooth, for Nature had used

all of her skill in forming her.

Nature herself had marveled

more than five hundred times

how upon this one occasion

she had succeeded in creating

such a perfect thing.

Never again could she so strive successfully to reproduce her pattern.

Nature bears witness

concerning her that never was

so fair a creature seen in all the world.

In truth I say that never did Iseult the Fair have such radiant golden tresses that she could be compared to this maiden.

The complexion of her forehead and face was clearer and more delicate than the lily.

But with wondrous art her face

with all its delicate pallor

was suffused with a fresh crimson

which Nature had bestowed upon her.

Her eyes were so bright

that they seemed like two stars.

God never formed better nose,

mouth and eyes.

What shall I say of her beauty?

In sooth, she was made

to be looked at;

for in her one could have seen himself

as in a mirror. (6)[2]

 


[1] Reference to Chrétien de Troyes in Old French from Erec et Enide, Ed. Jean-Marie Fritz (Paris, 1992).

[2] Reference to Chrétien de Troyes in Modern English from Chrétien de Troyes: Arthurian Romances, Trans. W.W. Comfort (London, 1963).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cosyn myn, what eyleth thee

That art so pale and deedly on to see?

Why cridestow? Who hath thee doon offense?

For Goddes love, taak al in pacience

Oure prisoun, for it may noon oother be.

Fortune hath yeven us this adversitee.

Som wikke aspect or disposicioun

Of Saturne, by sum constellacioun,

Hath yeven us this, although we hadde it sworn:

So stood the hevene whan that we were born.

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

 

Did you read your horoscope today?

 


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

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

Nothing quite gets the blood flowing, nay, gushing and splattering, like a medieval storyteller describing life (and especially death) on the battlefield. The best of them, so beautifully vivid and precise are always garnished with the right touch of hyperbole – were they wading in a river of blood up to their ankles or was it up to their knees?

Wink Barnes (played by Ned Eisenberg) is delighted by the gruesome traffic safety film “Blood Flows Red on the Highway” in the 1985 movie Moving Violations (image: copyright 1985 20th Century Fox / SLM Production Group)

Today’s medieval bloodfest comes from Burton Raffel’s translation/rendering of the Middle High German 13th century epic poem Das Nibelungenlied.

Sifried (or Sigurd from the Völsung Legends) left the Netherlands for Burgundy to court princess Krimhild. He hung around King Gunter’s hall for a while, spinning his wheels, when, sure enough, some excitement finally came along. The Danish king Ludegast, and the Saxon lord Ludiger joined forces and threatened to destroy the Burgundians unless they agreed to pay them an obscene amount of money. With everyone in the hall shaking in their boots, Sifried smiled at the chance to show his host (and his prospective bride-to-be – via accounts from messengers) his favorite hobby – hacking and slashing!

 

This passage describes Sifried meeting King Ludegast on the battlefield:

 

Sifried struck so hard     against his shining armor

that iron was broken through,      a blow that only brass

-if that-might have blocked,        and blood spattered the grass

and Ludegast was lost,     suffering sharp, deadly harm.[1]

 

This next one shows us exactly what frame of mind Sifried was in when he spotted the Saxon lord Ludiger:

 

None of the Rhineland men    were ever seen behind him.

rivers of red ran             from his blade in a bloody line,

for where his sword came down      helmets cracked with the blow.

And then he saw Ludiger,      marshaling men, row after row.[2]

 

And finally, here is a nice wide angle shot of Sifried convincing King Ludiger to surrender:

 

The two princes battled       on. Gashes sprung

on helmets everywhere,            shields showed gouges long

and wide, still held in heroes’          hands. And all along

the blood of many men’s bodies             came raining down on the thirsty ground.[3]

 


[1] Das Nibelungenlied, Trans. Burton Raffel (New Haven, 2006), verse 188, p.28

[2] Das Nibelungenlied, verse 205, p.31

[3] Das Nibelungenlied, verse 212, p.32

Sequitur pars quinta.

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

“Lord, as ye commanded me

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

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

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

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

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

“How may this wayke woman han this strengthe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nere that a marchant, goon is many a yeere

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

[5] “Chaucer’s Language Lessons,” 58.

[6] “Chaucer’s Language Lessons,” 40.

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

[8] Ackroyd, Chaucer, 15.

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

[10] “Translating Custance.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[22] Who Murdered Chaucer?, 36.

[23] Who Murdered Chaucer?, 45.

[24] Who Murdered Chaucer?, 86.

Sequitur pars quarta.

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

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

But who was woful, if I shal nat lye,

Of this weddyng but Donegild, and namo,

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

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

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

Hir thought a despit that he sholde take

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

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

(image: montalcino-tuscany.com)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Explicit quarta pars.


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

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