Lak of Stedfastnesse

Thoughts on Chaucer

The Canon’s Yeoman and the Philosopher’s Stone

Owing to my severe life backlog, I want to briefly discuss the aside in the beginning of the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale about the philosophres stoon / Elixir clept (ll.862-863).

Firstly, I enjoy the account of the Yeoman about his wasted seven years. But I can’t help notice that he recounts these life events with equal parts frustration and excitement. After his catalog of alchemical knowledge, he launches into an aside that, at the end of the thought, he tells the pilgrims to Passe over this (l. 898). Yet this brief narrative jaunt about elixir seems central to the Yeoman’s tale.

Chaucer's Canon's Yeoman

The Canon’s Yeoman begins by describing that he and the Canon searched faste for his philosophres stoon, but for all their ingenuity were unable to acquire it. The process of searching made the pair spend muchel good (l. 868), and almost made them wexen wood (l. 869). They attached so much hope to finding the stoon that through acquiring the elixir the Canon and the Canon’s Yeoman would be releved by him afterward (l. 872). The Canon’s Yeoman warns the listeners that a constant search for this stoon is sharp and hard. And his take-away here is that once should not place too much hope into finding something that was unattainable. Or, believing that something exists which cannot be found. He tells us that …futur temps hath maad men to dissevere, / In trust therof, from al that evere they hadde, / Yet of that art they kan nat wexen sadde, / For unto hem it is a bittre swete. (ll. 875-878). This begins to separate the Canon’s Yeoman from the larger craft/elixir searching brigade. He suggests that other men go off the deep end trying to obtain this stoon, and they will do anything in their power to achieve these ends, as long as they have the bare minimum to live. The idea here is that some men take to their craft too strongly and give up everything for their craft.

And they smell of brimstoon… And have scrappy clothing, so they are easily identified. Those searching for elixir seem to me to be part of the 14th century drug market:

And if a man wol aske hem prively / Why they been clothed so unthriftily, / They right anon wol rownen in his ere, / And seyn that if that they espied were / Men wolde hem slee, bicause of hir science. / Lo, thus this folk bitrayen innocence! (ll. 892-897).

The Canon’s Yeoman’s incidental remark here is curious since he has already complained about wasted time-spent. Elixir in basic alchemical lore is associated with youth and immortality, and the Canon’s Yeoman’s caveat to steer clear from this endeavor, because it is unattainable, may have some bearing on the remainder of his tale.

Theories of Evil in the Physician-Pardoner Dialogues

I want to discuss the following passage from the Physician’s Tale, first in isolation, and then against the Pardoner’s PrologueTale:

A theef of venisoun that hath forlaft / His likerousnesse and al his olde crafte / Kan kepe a forest best of any man. / Now kepeth wel, for if ye wole ye kan. / Looke wel that ye unto no vice assente, / Lest ye be dampned for youre wikke entente; / For whoso dooth, a traitour is, certein. / And taketh kepe of that that I shal seyn: / Of alle tresoun, soverein pestilence / Is whan a wight bitrayseth innocence. (ll. 83-92)

Chaucer's Physician

I am immediately drawn to the fact that the Physician is prefacing his tale about a hinky judge and a histrionic father with this proverbial take-away that someone who acts illicitly in some way and then renounces their lifestyle, ultimately becomes the authority on that way of life. He goes on to urge his audience to stray from wikke entente, or else one runs the risk of becoming a traitour. Ending with the most important bit, the Physician claims that of all tresoun the worst evil is when a person bitrayseth (betray, commit treason against, deceive – all bad things)  innocence (sinlessness, guiltlessness, purity).

So a traitour  is one who commits tresoun, and according to the Physician the absolute worst kind of tresoun is betraying innocence. Fair enough.

I want to contrast this with the statement that the Pardoner makes: Radix malorum est cupiditas “Avarice is the root of all evil.” (l. 334, 426).Chaucer's Pardoner

Both the Physician and the Pardoner have a theory on what is the worst kind of evil. While the Physician makes the claim that it is treason against the innocent (perhaps, those who are guiltless or cannot protect themselves), the Pardoner states that he repeats this to his listeners – in Latin so they think he is smart – and that he himself is greedy too, but he might as well tell folks so at least they can try to change their ways. 

(Side Note: I enjoy that when the Host calls upon the Pardoner to tell a merrier tale than the Physician’s previous dialogue, the Pardoner is like ‘Yeah no problem, but first I need to drink and eat something at this very convenient ale-stake that we just happened upon…’ And the whole group cries: ‘Nay, lat him telle us of no ribaudye!Tel us som moral thing, that we may leere / Som wit, and thanne wol we gladly heere.’ And the Pardoner’s answer: ‘I graunte, iwys,’ quod he, ‘but I moot thinke / Upon som honeste thing whil that I drinke.’ This is so great because the unidentified folks in the fellowship have identified [finally?] that alcohol consumption = ribaudye, so they really don’t want the Pardoner to do this, but in fact – he drinks and thinks about some proper ideas while doing so. And at the end of his prologue, the Pardoner reminds the group that he has been drinking a draghte of corny ale, so he hopes that they like what he has to say.)

Clearly both the Physician and the Pardoner use their theories of evil to set up their respective tales, and it seems that in both of their tales – all parties are transgressing their rules. 

That is all I have today. 

“Lat him seye to me whatso him list”

I may lose friends by saying this, but I totally identify with the Summoner.[1] I won’t make this a post about why I identify with the Summoner, but at the very least, I want to talk about him and the Friar.

Since I am doing my book review this week (Richard Firth Green’s A Crisis of Truth: Literature and Law in Ricardian England), I am going to organize this in a way that I can think clearly and quickly.

The Friar’s PrologueChaucer_Ellesmere Friar

1. This is humor: This worthy limitour, this noble Frere / He made alwey a maner louring cheere / Upon the Somnour, but for honestee / No vileins word as yet to him spak he. (ll. 1265-1268). Just think about the Friar leering at the Summoner throughout the pilgrimage.

The Friar loathes the Summoner, and their relationship is founded on the Friar’s hostility (similar to the Reeve/Miller, but I really do not think the Miller cares). I imagine the Summoner not really troubled by this until the Friar provokes him, but the Summoner is not going to have any of it. And the way they deal with each other’s enmity in their tales speaks perhaps to their level of insult they feel toward the other (i.e. the Summoner tells a tale to invalidate and embarrass the Friar, while the Friar draws a parallel between the Summoner and a demon – he is clearly upset).

2. The Friar is so brazenly outspoken with his hatred:

But if it like to this compaignye / I wol yow of a somnour telle a game. / Pardee, ye may wel knowe by the name / That of a somnour may no good be said / I praye that noon of yow be ivel apaid. (ll. 1278-1282).

The Friar addresses the entire company, asks if it is okay with them that he tells this joke about a summoner, which may no good be said, and hopes that no one will be displeased by that. He excises the Summoner entirely from the fellowship, and I can just imagine the Summoner sitting there in the company hearing this slander and rolling his eyes, just smirking and getting ready for what comes next. And the first to speak out is the Host, urging the Friar to be polite (hende) for a man of his estaat and to lat the Somnour be! (ll. 1286-1289). So the Summoner (oh my Oðin this is the BEST), effectively interrupts ‘Nay’, quod the Somnour, ‘lat him seye to me / Whatso him list; whan it comth to my lot, / By God, I shal him quiten every grot!’ (ll. 1290-1292). This is the Summoner’s “bring it on Friar” passage – and I enjoy it because it stands in such sharp contrast to the Reeve/Miller debacle. Whereas the Miller does not seem to care what the Reeve says, and the Reeve cares so very much what the Miller speaks about – the Friar and the Summoner are mutually annoyed with the other, so much so that they interrupt each other in both tales.

The Friar’s Tale

1. The “jurisdiction” of the Summoner. I like Jill Mann’s note on the relationship between summoners and archdeacons and their role in local courts.[2] It is after the Friar expounds the unfavorable nature of a summoner’s role in society that the Summoner interrupts:

Peter! so been women of the stives,’ / Quod the Somnour, ‘yput out of oure cure!’ / ‘Pees, with mischaunce and with misaventure!  / – Thus seide oure Hoost – ‘ and lat him telle his tale. / Now telleth forth, thogh that the Somnour gale; / Ne spareth nat, min owene maister deere.’ (ll. 1332-1337).

The Summoner is claiming that there are things that are beyond his control, like the brothels in London (see Mann’s n. on 905). But the Host curses the Summoner and tells the Friar to continue, even though the Summoner protests it. I like how the Friar gets back into the story though: ‘This false theef, this somnour, – quod the Frere -’ (l. 1338), he is unapologetically indignant.

2. The Summoner is worse than a demon because even the a demon recognizes the entente of others.

The summoner makes a pact of brotherhood with a Yeoman, who later reveals that he is actually a feend who dwells in helle (l. 1448). The summoner seems surprised, but not in any way terrified. He asks him about his home, work, and generalities of life. ‘A,’ quod this somnour, ‘Benedicite! What sey ye? / I wende ye were a yeman, trewely; / Ye han a mannes shape as wel as I. / Han ye a figure thanne determinat / In helle, ther ye been in youre estat?’ (ll. 1456-1460). The Friar insinuates that you cannot tell a summoner from a demon, since the summoner here validates that this demon can take the form of a man, as wel as I.

The Summoner’s Prologue

Chaucer_Ellesmere-Summoner1. This prologue is as filthy as the Summoner is described. He is clearly ire about the Friar’s tell, and calls him a liar – which interestingly figures into his discussion of what anger does to a person in his tale. Yet, the Summoner’s point seems to transform anger into laughter (vengeance into jest). I will not refrain from saying that the Summoner is being totally rude here, but he is the second of the two to tell his tale, so it must be understood as a response. It is productive that the Summoner tells a micro-tale in his prologue, as it sets up the ers imagery for the end (pun-somewhat-intentional-kind of unavoidable?) of his tale.

In his micro-tale the Summoner has an angel speak: ‘Hold up thy tail, thow Sathanas!’ quod he, / ‘Shewe forth thin ers, and lat the frere se / Where is the nest of freres in this place.’And er that half a furlong wey of space / Right so as bees out swarmen from an hive, / Out of the develes ers ther gonne drive / Twenty thousand freres on a route, / And thurghout helle swarmeden aboute, And comen again as faste as they may gon / And in his ers they crepten everychon, / He clapte his tail again and lay ful stille. (ll. 1692-1699). The spatial imagery of this seems to foreshadow the logic that the friar within the Summoner’s Tale is concerned – both the reaching for the gift from Thomas, and how to divide up a fart evenly. It is also worth mentioning that the Summoner was just formerly equated with demons/devil – and here is the devil himself, swallowing up friars into his asshole.

Summoner 1, Friar 0.

The Summoner’s Tale

1. The Host supports the Summoner. When the Friar interrupts in the beginning of the Summoner’s tale stating that he is a liar, Harry Bailley not only tells the Summoner to continue, but to not leave anything out: ‘Nay, ther thow lixt, thow Somnour!’ quod the Frere. / ‘Pees!’ quod oure Hoost, ‘for Cristes moder deere! / Tel forth thy tale, and spare it nat at al.’ / ‘So thrive I,’ quod this Somnour, ‘so I shal.’ (ll. 1761-1764).

The emphasis on lying/truth (which is apropos to my review this week), seems to concern the Friar/Summoner issue much more than strict vengeance from the Reeve to the Miller. This is perhaps because both the Summoner and the Friar are associated with the settlement of disputes and public offenses – Friar’s would be present on love-days (dispute settlement days), as well as holding responsibility for the spiritual outcome of folks, while the Summoner’s whole career path is associated with ‘justice’. The level of “truth” in the friar and summoner’s line of work was always in question – so these two question each other.

2. The entente thing again. Without going through the narrative of the Summoner’s Tale, I just want to highlight a moment where the friar (in the tale, not the company, so via the Summoner) expresses his entente. This plays nicely with the destruction of the summoner’s entente (to be worse than the devil) in the Friar’s Tale.

In shrift, in preching, is my diligence, / And studye in Petres words and in Poules. / I walke and fisshe Cristen mennes soules, / To yelden Jesu Crist his proper rente; / To sprede his word is set al min entente. (ll. 1818-1822). Here the friar tells Thomas what his job description is – which is intended to be reinterpreted by the audience by the end of the tale, whereby the friar’s main entente is to get money out of Thomas. In his tale the Summoner shows that the friar engages with most of the deadly sins (gluttony, anger, pride, lechery, avarice – to name a few).

In the Friar’s Tale, the entente of the summoner is suggested as the feend tells him what it is that he does, and his world-view: My purchas is th’effect of al my rente. / Looke how thow ridest for the same entente, / To winne good – thow rekkest nevere how – /Right so fare I, for ride I wolde right now / Unto the worldes ende for a preye.’  (ll. 1451-1455).

 I do not know how to end this, so my post wol I ende in this manere.

[1] This isn’t actually a great thing to say, I think. I mean, the Summoner is described in wicked gross terms, and is just a total jerk. Maybe this should go up in an “About Me” section of a dating profile: “Ask me over coffee why I identify with the Summoner from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.” … I regret nothing.

[2] Jill Mann, ed. The Canterbury Tales. (New York: Penguin, 2005), n. on 904.

A Brief Consideration of the Nature of Vengeance in Chaucer’s Reeve and his Tale

Drawing partially on the thirteenth century French fabliaux “The Miller and Two Clerks” (I found a Chaucer's Reevetranslation here), Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale departs from its source in intention. While the French source seems more directly to show the clerks as lustful and industrious, the Reeve’s Tale is about compensation of injury. The clerks remain lustful and industrious, but rather employ those qualities for a specific objective beyond sexual, bodily pleasure. Instead, the “pleasure” that the clerks obtain is contingent on revenge, entitlement, and violence.

Before discussing the tale, I want to talk about the Reeve himself, and his place in the pilgrimage. He is a bit of a kill-joy. In the General Prologue, Chaucer clusters the Reeve, Miller, Summoner, Pardoner, Manciple, and himself – the Chaucer pilgrim (which, if we muse on Cory’s point from last class, is perhaps more informative not to divorce Chaucer the author from this “Chaucer pilgrim”) as the last group of pilgrims before the Host. These are the folks in the General Prologue that have the “most unattractive physical” descriptions, as Robert Sturges has pointed out[1] (Sturges is most interested in the Pardoner, and excises the Manciple from his discussion entirely). The Reeve is described physically as a sclendre colerik man (l. 587), with legs Ful longe and ful lene / Ilik a staf – ther was no calf ysene. (ll. 591-592). The Reeve’s deportment, however, anticipates his tale and subsequent feud with the Miller, as he is stated to be in total control over his domain of governance, and Ther was noon auditour koude on him winne, (l. 594) and Ther koude no man bringe him in arrerage. (l. 602). But Chaucer moves back to describing the Reeve’s outward appearance: he wore a coote and hood (l. 612), sitting upon a ful good stot / That was al pomely grey and highte Scot. / A long surcote of pers upon he hade, / And by his side he baar a rusty blade. (ll. 615-618). [2] What identifies the Reeve most in his identification in the General Prologue is the fact that he rood the hindreste of oure route. (l. 622). Jill Mann points out that this is probably so the Reeve can stay as far away from his arch-nemesis, the Miller, as possible[3] – as we can recall is at the head of the pack, and jumpstarts the pilgrimage by blowing on a bagge-pipe, leading the crew out of towne (ll. 565-566). The feud between the Reeve and the Miller, although obviously understood through the tales that they tell, is strongly reinforced by the adaptation of vengeance in the Reeve’s Tale, and the Reeve’s debrief before he begins his tale.

After the Miller is finished telling his tale, the beginning of the Reeve’s prologue immediately announces that the Reeve, whom we now know is Osewold,[4] was the only one in the company who was wicked unhappy about the Miller’s story. Chaucer, the author/part of the company states, Ne at this tale I saugh no man him greve / But it were oonly Osewold the Reve. (ll.3859-3860). The Reeve was formerly indignant when the Miller announced that he would tell a tale about a carpenter and how he was fooled by a clerk (ll. 3144-3149) – who is seemingly concerned about the reputation of carpenters (the Reeve was a carpenter before he was a reve), and their wives. But Chaucer the author/pilgrim states that the Reeve was also a cherl like the Miller, and they both told tales of harlotrye – and not to get upset, as an audience, since these are just jokes. Yet the Miller seems to be the only one of the two of them who is okay with this. The Reeve takes himself, and the tales wicked seriously – and is thus an enormous kill-joy in his prologue.

The Reeve chastises the Miller, announcing that it pleases him to speke of ribaudye (l. 3866), but not so much for the Reeve who is oold and does not care to participate in the Miller’s game – but he clearly does. The Reeve drones on about how old he is and how much that sucks for him, until the Host, who had heard enough of the Reeve’s sermoning, interrupts him and tells him to hurry it up a bit. (Although this bit of preaching does dampen the former humor of the Miller which the Reeve is associated, and instead creates a tone going into his tale as quite serious.) So Oswold the Reeve gives one last precursor to his tale, I pray yow alle that ye noght yow greve/ Though I answere and somdel sette his howve, / For leveful is, with force force of-showve. (ll. 3910-3912). The Reeve does not intend to make anyone angry, even though he deliberately seeks to mock the Miller – yet his intention is For leveful is, with force force of-showve, which Jill Mann notes has a parallel in Gratian’s Decretum (canon law): ‘violentiae per vim repulsio’ (‘the repelling of violence by force’).[5] As the Reeve, old and choleric, desires retribution for the humiliation he felt from the Miller’s tale, he delivers a tale of equal weight back to the Miller in an attempt to equalize the shame. Yet the very act of revenge only begins with a level playing field, and usually suggests one party over-exerting themselves (usually violently) in an attempt to equalize the damage done by the first offending party, but pushing the acts of revenge further in order to get something in return, beyond the equalization.[6] The Reeve does just this.

Most everyone in the Reeve’s Tale consider themselves to be clever, yet their cleverness is at once undermined and enhanced by the nature of vengeance in the Reeve’s story. This mode of revenge is centered on John and Alein’s desire to take something tangible in return for ill-begotten guile. It is a back and forth ordeal where everyone involved thinks they are getting the better of the other party. John and Alein both want to catch the Miller so he cannot steal; meanwhile the Miller loosens their horse and sets it off into the fenland. While the reader’s first impression may be that the Miller is the villain of the tale, the clerks’ desire for vengeance becomes the central act of criminal behavior. Yet it is this criminal behavior that does not leave the reader feeling badly for the Miller, since the action is no longer “tit-for-tat” and includes other parties – the daughter and wife, in order to achieve full revenge.

Alein, taking up the leadership role, explicitly states their purpose for taking revenge on the Miller (through exploiting other individuals):

Wha herkned evere slik a ferly thing? / Ye, they sal have the flour of il ending! / This lang night their tides me na reste. / But yet na force; al sal be for the beste! / For, John’ seide he, ‘als evere moot I thrive, / If that I may, yon wenche wol I swive. / Som esement has lawe shapen us; / For, John, ther is a lawe that sayes thus: / That gif a man in a point be agreved, / That in another he sal be releved. / And we han had an il fit al this day; / And sin I sal have nan amendement / Again my los, I wil have esement. (ll. 4173-4186).

This is stated after John and Alein are already within the Miller’s home, suggesting that the need to take revenge was already formed in their minds (or probably just Alein’s mind), but the exact nature of that revenge was not fully realized until they (Alein really…) saw the Miller’s daughter. It is her corporeality that informs Alein’s revenge, since …gif a man in a point agreved, / That in another he sal be releved. (ll. 4181-4182).


I wanted to talk more about revenge/sex/bodies/intention… I’ll sleep on it.

In the MedStu: “I have a lot of other thoughts on this, but I need to stop writing now. Hope to share these thoughts in the future!” – Advice from Bre Leake

After writing this post and having a lot of “thinks” about this – I feel invested in writing twenty-or-so pages about Oswald the Reeve & his Tale. Maybe.

[1] Robert S. Sturges. Chaucer’s Pardoner and Gender Theory: Bodies of Discourse. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000): 123.

[2] If you want to know more about the Reeve’s rusty blade (and I know I did…), I direct you to Bruce Moore’s article, “The Reeve’s ‘Rusty Blade’,” Medium Ævum 58:2 (1989): 304-312.

[3] Jill Mann, ed. The Canterbury Tales. (New York: Penguin, 2005): n. on 820.

[4] I think the name Oswald could be evoking St. Oswald of Northumbria, a wicked neat Anglo-Saxon martyr-king, who is noted as having relied on Scottish military aid against Cadwalla. There is no basis for this really, with the exception of all the “Northernisms” in the Reeve’s Tale – but probably not as far North as Northumbria.

[5] Jill Mann, ed. The Canterbury Tales. n. on 849.

[6] The majority of my ideas about vengeance are filtered through William Ian Miller’s approach, most digestible in Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Everyone is Almost Fainting

Okay, so Book IV.

1. All the furies & Mars.

2. Has anyone else realized that everyone is almost fainting?

3. Everyone is drowning in their salty tears and seeing everything with their two eyes.

Pandarus is a LIAR, True?

Firstly, I happened upon this treasure earlier today, and I would be remiss to conceal it from everyone. 

(The point of that video is the mere fact that Chaucer’s “face” is animated. It is kind of scary)

Nextly, what I want to focus on (briefly) here is Pandarus’ discussion with Criseyde in Book II (beginning at l. 309, when Criseyde pleads with Pandarus to tell her what he is talking about). The withholding of information and the elongation of time in the conversation between Pandarus and Criseyde is even more striking than that of Pandarus and Troilus from the first section (in Book I, Pandarus is the quintessential nosy friend that wants in on all your information and then stores it somewhere to be used later) if not entirely because Pandarus goes on to LIE to Criseyde about the sequence of events. Of course, since Pandarus gets more air-time than anyone in this text, and the nature of his character is well known, I do not want to dwell on him too much here. Yet the overarching anxiety surrounding this text so far centers around what is true and untrue – all characters require validation and testament when making inquiries, and Pandarus above all else (since he is a deceitful little devil) consistently, and especially in his dialogue with Criseyde, promotes his trustworthiness.

While Pandarus announces to Criseyde that Troilus loves her, and they will both die if she does not return the favor (I am still actually very unclear what Pandarus’ stake in this is …), he discusses his own trouthe three times (between ll. 309-462). The first, he states, “Have here my trouthe, nece, I nyl nat lyen” (l. 324), the second, “Than is it harm ye lyven, by my trout he!” (l. 350), and lastly “And God toforn, that am mystrusted thus!” (l. 431). Interspersed between Pandarus’ need to ensure Criseyde’s confidence in his tale, Criseyde asks her uncle for advice, which is entirely based on good, sound counsel and the need for truthfulness. Criseyde states at ll. 388-389, ” ‘Now em,’ quod she, ‘what wolde ye devise? / What is youre reed I sholde don of this?’ ” Criseyde’s reliance on Pandarus’ advice stands in contrast with Pandarus’ bit o’ advice to her earlier, “Avysement is good byfore the nede.” (l. 343). I do not have any conclusive statements about this, but as I read I want to track this notion of trouthe and trustworthiness / knowledge that the reader has about the happenings between Trolius/Criseyde/Pandarus, and the anxiety of spoken word. Also thinking about the difference between trouthe/sooth to sayne (statements of trustworthiness) and things described as trewely (things which are inherently true/honest/unwavering).

Disparate Thoughts Below:

I  wanted to mention a line that I really enjoyed.

‘What, who wol demen, though he se a man / To temple go, that he th’ymages eteth?’ (ll. 372-3)

Also, the image in the beginning of Book I when Trolius is described that he in salte teres dreynte (l. 543). HE IS SO UPSET.

I also really like the initial invocation of Thesiphone.

Additionally, I was looking up images for “Troilus and Criseyde” and I came across this:


On Nations & Emasculation

Early in the prologue, the dreamer recounts that it is May, “And this was now the firste morwe of May – / With dredful hert and glad devocioun, / For to been at the resureccioun / Of this flour whan that it shuld unclose / Agayn the sonne, that roos as rede as rose, / That in the brest was of the beste that day / That Agenores doughter ladde away.” (ll. 108-114). By evoking Agenor’s daughter, Europa, and her abduction by Zeus disguised as a bull (the symbol for May, i.e. Taurus), Chaucer already sets a precedent for forced, disruptive heterosexual relations. Zeus carries Europa to Crete, where he reveals his identity, and Europa becomes the first queen of the island.

I am curious about the relationship between forced or failed love and the rise and fall of nations. It seems that many of the legends selected here showcase the loss of land/dominion/military enterprise because the bond of love was greater. In fact, the advice given to the God of Love (a mature Cupid) from Alceste, in how to manage the tresoun of the dreamer is filled with language about tyranny and proper lordship (starting around l. 373).

(This is for my own documentation really:)

1. Cleopatra: Octavian/Antony/Battle of Actium

2. Thisbe: Politics of Households

3. Dido: Hatred between Carthage and Troy/Punic Wars

4. Hypsipyle and Medea: Jason/Inheritance

5. Lucretia: Raped by Tarquinius/Suicide

6. Ariadne: Aids Theseus on Minos/Abandonment

7. Philomela: Athens to Thrace/No Protection/Tereus rapes Philomela

8. Phyllis: Demophon/No Return/Tree

9. Hypermnestra: Ordered to Kill Husband/Nope, Not Gonna Do It.


Another thought.

The past few weeks I have been reading some scholarship by Elaine Tuttle Hansen, a Chaucer scholar who focuses predominately on gender. I thought I would include in this post some reactions to her article “The Feminization of Men in The Legend of Good Women,” in our edition.

1. That the Legend of Good Women is about men, actually.

Response: I like where Hansen is going with this, I think it is quite smart. Yet Chaucer does still seem to demonize many of the male characters in these texts far more than perhaps necessary (Theseus?). I suppose Chaucer is working through many different issues with these bonds of love that assume specific gendered roles that are seemingly in isolation from other roles in life. That a warrior, for example, cannot be both a successful and engaged military participant and a lover at the same time.

2. That a heterosexual bond poses a threat to masculine identity.

Response: According to Hansen, the heterosexual bond poses this threat because it distracts from the development of appropriate, useful, and important bonds between men. In Hansen’s reading, bonds between men have more at stake, such as political alliances.

3. That heterosexual desire (and suffering on account of that desire) feminizes men.

Response: I think this is perhaps the most useful point in Hansen’s discussion. Chaucer seems to be emphasizing that when men fully invest themselves in a heterosexual bond, they must (following Hansen) assume “feminine” qualities in order to make the bond work. This ultimately results in the destruction of the bond in some way, since the adaptation of “feminine” qualities by men, especially warriors or political leaders, signifies weakness and loss of reason that is inconsistent with “masculine” identities, so the male lover must enact violence against the woman, withdraw from her presence, or find a new lover in order to sever the bond in some way. And, as Hansen says, the men who commit suicide, such as Antony or Pyramus, have fully assumed “feminine” qualities based on their overwhelming desire in their heterosexual bond, which allows them to perform the traditional “female” act of suicide.

The ‘Parlement’ of the “Parlement of Foules”

I am interested in the “parliament” aspect of the Parlement of Foules. This is certainly one of my favorite Chaucer poems, if not my favorite. I was immediately drawn to the comune profit (first stated l. 47), and the emphasis of the community which a parlement seeks to aid/control/govern/represent. There is not a lack of scholarship dealing with this issue, in fact, it seems that the majority of work done on the Parlement of Foules attempts to see the poem as cohesive, and the comune profit is one way of identifying the cohesiveness in PoF. I have thumbed through a few articles on this topic, but one that I particularly appreciate is Bruce Cowgill’s “The Parlement of Foules and the Body Politic.”[1] Cowgill is arguing that the unifying theme of PoF is the contrast between the ‘ordered state’ (as shown by natural law/Nature) and the ‘chaotic state’ (represented by selfish leadership). Cowgill gives attention to Chaucer’s reason for using Scipio in the opening of PoF, identifying him as a proper statesman, one who held the Roman Republic together against Hannibal in the Second Punic War. Because the ‘Dream of Scipio’ is part of the De re publica, it sets up the vision of the parlement particularly well.

Scipio leads the dreamer into the garden, a space that seems to mimic the cooperative social community. Cowgill notes that as the PoF progresses, the repetition of specific words (“tre,” “streme,” “fish”) are later placed in the plural (“trees clad with leves,” “colde welle-stremes,” and “smale fishes”) – which he suggests emphasizes the moving toward social unity and the comune profit. Thats a neat thought. I am unsure if I think unity really matters in this poem (or any, really).

If Chaucer wanted the comune profit to unify the poem then it does seem to work (following Cowgill and others), but I think he is having more fun with the ridiculousness of the parlement itself. The representative birds in the parelement are all arguing for something which never actually comes to a resolution. Each is working for their own gain really, and none consider what is best for the formel egle. The lack of rationality of the parlement comes through in the Falcon’s speech (which, if no one else has claimed this – I totally want this part):

The tercelet seyde than in this manere: / `Ful hard were it to preve hit by resound / Who loveth best this gentil formel here; / For everich hath swich replicacioun, / That noon by skilles may be broght a-doun; / I can not seen that argumentes avayle; / Than semeth hit ther moste be batayle.’ (ll. 533-539).

Not only does the Falcon suggest that no one is working for the comune profit here, since there can be no resolution (each is working for their own desire), then they ought to just duke it out…the complete showing of social degradation and chaos.

I am going to end the post here, but this is good stuff and I want/need to think more about this.

[1] Bruce Cowgill. “The Parlement of Foules and the Body Politic,” JEGP 74 (1975): 315-335.

Companye in the “House of Fame”

I am interested in the narrator’s perspective of how Fame unjustly grants favors. Before the first set of companye comes, he states of Fame’s judgment(s): And som of hem she graunted sone / And some she werned wel and faire / And somme she graunted the contrarire / Of her axing utterly / But this I seye yow trewely / What hir cause was, I niste / For of this folk, fulwel I wiste / They had good fame ech deserved / Although they were diversly served / Right as hir suster, Dame Fortune / Is wont to serven in comune. (ll. 1538-1548). Fame, related to Fortune makes decisions in a similarly haphazard way. At this point the narrator walks us through the eight separate groups of people who ask Fame for favors, which I organize below:

1. The first company that the narrator sees all fall to the ground on their knees bifore this ilke noble quene. They ask Fame to grant them a favor. Some she grants immediately, others she kindly refuses, while some still she does the opposite. This sets the stage up to discuss what Fame is granting to each group that approaches her.

[At this point Fame requires that her messenger go get Eolus and tell him to bring both of his instruments: Clere Laude and Sclaundre.]

2. The next huge companye did not fall to their knees, but instead cried out to Fame, asking her to grant them that their works have the same renown as their names. They claim that they deserve it, so they should be justly rewarded accordingly. She does not grant their request, stating that they will have shrewed fame / And wikked loos and worse name, / Though ye good loos have wel deserved (ll. 1619-1621).

3. The thridde companye and fall to their knees in front of Fame and exclaim that their group deserved fame rightfully. Fame grants their request, and says that their fame, in fact, will be even greater so that they may spite those who are less worthy than they. (Their particular moment of fame spreads and smells like balsam…)

4. They do not want fame, wishing to hide their works and names. They do not bow to Fame, but instead stand in a row. This group labored for bounteeAnd for no maner other thing (ll. 1695-1699). Fame grants their request and their works were no longer known to the world.

5. The fifte route bow on their knees to Fame, and said that they yeven nought a leke for fame or renoun, and labored for their own contemplation. Fame is offended and asks if they are dispyte to have her name. She declines their request, and instead lets their names survive in renown. 

6. The sixth company honestly tells Fame that they have been idle and lazy for most of their lives, and have failed to win the hearts of women. They ask that Fame grant them greet renown and knowen name anyway, so that they may seme to the world a certain way. This group believes that labor must be balanced with comfort.  Fame grants their request.

7. The seventh group, likes many before them, fall to their knees as well, and asks Fame to grant them the exact same favor as she did for the sixth company. Fame is not happy with these folks, and tells them that they should instead go to the gallows. Fame describes this group as lazy, idle, and those desiring honor and praise but never labor.

8. Yet, group eight is the absolute worst. It is described that they committed the greatest traiterye, harm, and wikkednesse. This group wants to be remembered for their bad deeds, and physically beat the leke (I am importing Chaucer’s yeven nought a leke here) out of each other in front of Fame. Effectively, Fame can be won through treachery and depravity equally as it can through good works and labor.

At this point the narrator is asked by someone behind his back if he is there to chat with Fame too. Answering unfavorably, he says he is not, and that he does not need his name in honde when he is dead. He then goes on to state that Sith that first I had wit / That som folk han desyred fame / Dyversly, and loos and name / But certeynly I nist how / Ne wher that Fame dwelte er now / Ne eek of hir description / Ne also hir condicioun / Ne the ordre of her dome / Unto the tyme I hider come. (ll. 1898 – 1906). Clearly the narrator now understands the ordre of her dome since he has hider come and watched Fame grant judgment to these groups, but he never actually states how Fame’s judgment works. Instead the narrator goes to the Domus Dedaly, contrasting with the Hous of Fame, the Domus Dedaly instead seems to ground the narrator in a world that he is more familiar with and understands more clearly. It takes less time to explain how Dedaly functions, as it is more accessible to the narrator.

So I guess the Hous of Fame leaves me questioning the way Fame judges individuals, and how Chaucer is portraying this information to the audience. Are we supposed to have an answer? Probably not. Although I will consider this before class tomorrow, and see if I come up with anything cool.

Chaucer and the Eagle / Kelmscott

Chaucer and the Eagle / Kelmscott

Enclosure, BDSM, and Homoeroticism!

This is a post about Chaucer’s Roman de la Rose. The Lover comes upon a wall decorated with portraits of women such as Cruelty, Baseness, Covetousness, and Old Age, all of whom effectively guard whatever is within the enclosure – information the Lover does not have but is interested to happen upon. The wall was square and high, and served to enclose a garden, com nevere shepherde theryn (where no shepherd had ever been). It is the sound of the birds within the wall that provokes the Lover to find a way to enter the garden. Tormented with anguish and alone, the Lover finds a small door and knocks desperately to enter. Who else but Idleness greets him there and lets him inside the enclosure.

The Lover learns that Myrthe is the lord of the garden. The Middle English Dictionary does state that mirthe is difficult to distinguish between its two meanings of general happiness, and someone’s pleasure. And, in fact, the Lover is quite fascinated by Myrthe, and desires to know the type of person he is: Sir Myrthe, for my desiryng / Was hym to seen, over alle thyng / His countenaunce and his manere / That sighte was to me ful dere. (ll. 725-8). When the Lover walks down a path he comes upon Myrthe and his folk who he watches from a distance (the Lover seems to enjoy voyeurism). Courtesy catches the Lover glancing at them and encourages him to join in, or at least come closer. The Lover then goes on to describe Myrthe as ful fair…ful long and high…fetys…wel besye (good to look at). He describes Myrthe three times as fetys (shapely, or handsome), and that he has never quite seen another man like Myrthe – who to him semed lyk a portreiture (standing in sharp contrast with the unfavorable descriptions of the lady-portraits who guard the homoerotic garden). The Lover’s obvious attraction to Myrthe is compounded by the fact that Myrthe’s companion is Joy. Which suggests to me that for the Lover, at least within this enclosure, is able to derive joy (not guilt) from pleasure.

The Lover admires the range of folk which dance with Myrthe, and hangs onto the fact that Youth is perhaps the most lustful of all, who with her lover they make no force of pryvete – they do not need to worry or care about concealment. It is after the Lover’s observation of Youth that we learn that the God of Love together with Swete-Lokyng effectively stalk the Lover as he wanders throughout the enclosure – he does not rest until he walks throughout the entire garden: But nowhere wold I reste me, Till I hadde in all the gardyn be. (ll. 1347-8). It is at this point that the Lover finds a nice place to sit and launches into a discussion about Narcissus, since he was at that very spring apparently. [And maybe my favorite line in Chaucer’s Roman de la RoseNarcisus was a bacheler (l. 1469). I know bacheler in Middle English really just means a young bloke, but it is funny]. Why is the story of Narcissus important to this discussion of homoeroticism? He rejects a lady who prays to God that something terrible will happen to Narcissus, so when he looks into the spring he sees His nose, his mouth, his yen sheene / And he therof was all abasshed. / His owne shadowe had hym bytrasshed / For well wende he the forme see / Of a child of gret beaute. / Well kouth. (1518-23). So transgressive, right? I guess. His own shadow had bytrasshed him (I really enjoy that word – deceived him, but I like the first definition of committing treason), to see another male youth in the water which he then falls in love with and dies because he cannot have him. So really this entire enclosure is built around the spring of Narcissus who fell in love with someone entirely unattainable and unnatural. The Lover explains that the mirror (spring of Narcissus) has destroyed (blent) many men. It brings men to newe rage, and changes their wight corage. And somewhere along the line Cupid sowed the seed of love in that spring and now it is the Spring of Love, so the Lover is not really weary any longer about taking a peak. He looks, and is then deceived by seeing in the enclosure, through his own reflection in the spring roses-bushes enclosed by a hedge. (So much enclosure, must be dangerous). So the Lover is infatuated with this rose, and it is difficult to tell if the reader is to understand the story as now told through the Lover’s reflection or not (?) And just as a caveat I do not think this particular Rose is a lady.

I want to talk about the fantastic BDSM elements in the Roman de la Rose though, so I am going to switch gears a bit. So I want to discuss in a sort of haphazard state three separate elements which I think are at play here:

Voyeurism, Enclosure, and Control

As was previously mentioned, the Lover looks onto Myrthe and his followers watching from afar. Later the God of Love explains to the Lover that the third gift comyth of sight and of biholdyng (l. 2895). The instructions throughout the Roman de la Rose are structured around a heternormative concept of “love” or “desire”, but in reality, the Lover is experimenting with both love and desire in non-normative gender variants. Once the God of Love delivers his message to the Lover and leaves, the Lover states that it is the rose-bud that was his heart’s sole desire, and that although the rose-bud is within an enclosed hedge, the Lover wolde fayn / Have passed the hay, if I myghte / Have geten ynne by ony slighte / Unto the botoun so faire to see. / But evere I dradde blamed to be, / If men wolde have suspeccioun (ll. 2970-2975). The Lover desires to trespass the enclosure, but will not because he will be blamed for it, but also because men would be suspicious of him. Then he meets Fair Welcome (Bialacoil), his beau. (I totally ship the Lover and Fair Welcome).

It is Fair Welcome who allows the Lover entry into the hedge to access his desired object, the “Rose”. (Later after everything goes down with Rebuff & Co., Pity states that it is actually Fair Welcome that Lover desires most, Of Bialacoil, his moste joye [l. 3563). The Lover discusses the sundry folk who inhabit the rose-bush enclosure, Rebuff (the guardian), Shame, Reason, and Jealousy. Fair Welcome encourages the Lover to touch the rose-bush, but not pluck it from its natural place. Fair Welcome saw it liked (l. 3075) the Lover to prese in, to touche the roser (l. 3072), so he pulls a green leaf off of the rose-bush for the Lover, which indubitably makes him feel aqueynt / With Bialacoil, and so pryve, I wende all at my will hadde be. (ll. 3081-3083). It is the privacy of the enclosure, Fair Welcome’s supremacy in the enclosure, as well as his control over what the Lover can and cannot touch that creates and strengthens the intimacy and desire of both the object (“Rose”) and the object’s distributor who is Fair Welcome. It is also important to note that the Lover and Fair Welcome are effectively being watched by Rebuff & Co.

This post is getting unwieldily, and I have too many thoughts about this, and I have an ungodly amount of student papers to grade. However, I would like to leave everyone with a little saucy-bit:

A, Bialacoil, myn owne deer! / Though thou be now a prisoner, / Kep atte leste thyn herts to me / And suffre not that it daunted be; / Ne lat not Jelousie, in his rage / Putten thin herte in no selvage. / Although he chastice thee withoute / And make thy body unto hym loute, / Have herte as hard as dyamaunt, / Stedefast and nought pliaunt. / In prisoun though thi body be, / At large kep then herte free; / A trewe herte wole not plie / For no manace that it may drye. / If Jelousie doth thee payn, / Quyte hym his while thus agayn, / To venge thee, atte leest in thought….I drede thou canst me gret maugre / That thou enprisoned art for me, / But that is not for my trespass, / For thurgh me never discovred was / Yit thyng that oughte be secree. (ll. 4377 – 4403).


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