Chaucer-Engsh-art - 6/29/13
"Chaucer - The Triumph of English" by Dafydd of the Glens OL.
This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.
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Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
Chaucer - The Triumph of English
by Dafydd of the Glens OL
The Hundred Years' War (1337 to 1453) was one of those spectacularly pointless episodes in European history which really beggar the imagination. Edward III of England (grandson of Longshanks) had decided that he was the rightful king of France. By the feudal laws of the time, he very probably was. Thanks to Henry of Anjou (his more illustrious ancestor) he already owned quite a lot of France. But he decided he wanted the rest as well.
It wasn't possible, with the technology of the day, to reduce castles except by siege and by laying waste to the entire countryside around them. It is true that Henry V managed to reduce Harfleur by bombardment in 1415, but mostly the cannon of the day simply weren't up to it. So yes, the English could beat the French in battle whenever they felt like it, and did. It didn't help all that much, in terms of conquest, but hey, what the hell? If we have to fight we may as well win. After the Battle of Poitiers, however, the French came temporarily to their senses and decided to stonewall. Eventually both sides signed the Treaty of Bretigny in 1360 and brought the war to an end. For the moment.
The really important part of this was that it meant that the Norman barons who held land in both France and England had to decide where they were going to live, and who they were going to be. Those who decided that their English lands were more important surrendered or exchanged their French lands, moved to England and became, for the first time, truly English. And began to speak English. Up until then, Norman-French was the official language of England. Within a decade, English was on the rise.
If you ever want to cheer yourself up about the utterly deplorable English poetry of the late 20th century, have a read of some Early Middle English. There isn't much in the way of translations around, for the simple reason that nobody has ever thought it was worth it. The glories of Anglo-Saxon poetry (what has been described as 30,000 lines of alliterative verse on four dragon-scorched manuscripts) gave way, after the Norman Conquest (1066), to the most turgid drivel it has ever been my misfortune to have to pass exams in. Pretty much the only one worth reading is The Owl and the Nightingale, which is a translation of a French original. And suddenly around 1360......
Piers Plowman appears. It was the Harry Potter of its day. Personally I find this one a bit of a trial (like HP), but it was certainly new, profoundly original and extremely controversial. It is an epic poem (book-length) and has in the starring role not a knight, king, princess, priest or noble, but a common ploughman. That was scary enough for the Church, but the biting social satire was even more frightening. And when Christ puts on Piers Plowman's armour, well....There are lots of copies of Piers Plowman around, so it would be fair to assume that this heady stuff was extremely popular.
What is really interesting about PP is that it is not only in English, it's written in what we now call Alliterative Revival. Rhyme was a French thing (probably stolen from the Arabs), but English poetry had matching consonants at the start of words. The most thrilling couplet in Anglo-Saxon goes:
"Hyge sceal the headra, heort the cenre/ mod sceal the mare þe uren maegen lytlaþ"
"Mind must be sharper, heart the keener/ spirit burn the brighter as our strength lessens" (translation mine). Rhyme, they must have thought, was for girlies and Frenchmen. If you're stuck in the Battle of Maldon with your commander dead and Vikings all around you, and you can't leave because you're the sworn liegemen of Duke Byrtnoth and it's your duty to say things like "I will not stir a foot's pace from here, now that my dear lord lies dead", then you really need alliteration to mark the fateful occasion.
So in PP we read of "heremites on a hepe with hoked staves". Suddenly England discovers its heroic past and decides to revive its poetic forms to give vent to the ur-Protestantism of the day. As in Yeah, the Church is corrupt and venal and we know that. We're going to have an ordinary English peasant put the Church to shame by showing true Christian virtues. And just to make sure that I don't get into real trouble with the authorities I will create an abstraction called Holy Church, which is always right. If ordinary clergy don't live up to the standards set by Holy Church, of course... well, that's their problem. But you can't understand the Lollard movement (proto-Protestantism in England) without knowing about PP.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight:
The greatest of the English poets for my money from that epoch is the anonymous author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He also wrote Pearl, which is indeed a pearl, but very orthodox in its theology. Gawain is altogether other: courtly, civilized, sophisticated, clever and humane. Nobody knows where the story came from. He may have made it up. (I say he, though we really don't know who wrote it. Robert Massy, a Cheshire squire, made the earliest surviving copy. Whether he was the author is another matter...) Anyway, here's what happens:
King Arthur and his knights and ladies are having a great time at a huge New Year's party, when a monstrous green knight enters the hall and challenges Arthur and his knights. You are to cut off my head, he says, then return to my castle in a year's time and endure a similar blow from my sword. There is a certain amount of shifting uncomfortably in chairs until Sir Gawain decides to accept the challenge. He swings his mighty sword, off goes the Green Knight's head, the Green Knight tucks his head under his arm and says thanks, see you in a year's time.
12 months later, Gawain sets out in his best armour, and gets lost in the mountains and is put up for three days by Sir Bertilak Hautdesert and his incredibly sexy wife. Let's play a game, says Bertilak. I'm going hunting and I will let my wife entertain you. The deal is: anything she gives you, you have to give to me. After day 1, Gawain gives Bertilak a big kiss, having received same from Mrs B. Sir B laughs and compliments Gawain on his courtly virtues. Day 2: 2 kisses. On the last day, Mrs B dresses up in a revealingly low-cut bodice and really has a go at seducing Gawain. He accepts three kisses, but manages to keep his virtue. Mrs B also offers him a magic locket thing which will ward off any blow from a weapon. Gawain doesn't want to die, so he accepts the locket. Later, he gives the three kisses to Bertilak, but keeps the locket.
Next day, Gawain goes to the appointed place to face the Green Knight, who, you have probably guessed by now, is none other than Sir Bertilak himself. Sir B makes a couple of practice swings and the axe comes whirling down. It nicks Gawain's skin, but, miraculously, his head still seems to be on, so he says right, I've endured your blow. If you want another shot, then arm and stand ready! No, no, no, says Sir B. I arranged all of this to test your knightly virtue. I gave you the nick because you fell a little short. By the terms of our agreement, you should have returned the locket to me. But on the whole, I'd have to say you did extremely well and I am very proud of you. Well done, Gawain! Go back to Camelot in all honour. And all ends happily.
(NOTE: JRR Tolkien, better known as a fantasy writer, has done superb translations of both Pearl and Gawain. His translations excel not least because he and EV Gordon did the definitive edition of Gawain, which is a masterpiece in itself.)
Ricardian Poetry and Chaucer:
The age of Chaucer is, we should remember, also the age of the Gawain-poet, and for that matter Gower and Lydgate, though their repute is in eclipse these days. The late 14th century in so many ways resembles the late 20th century. Most intelligent people thought that war is stupid, mercy is preferable to revenge, you shouldn't try people too high in their search for a Christian life and tolerance is preferable to bigotry. This was also the reign of Richard II, who despite being the son of the dreaded Black Prince also thought these things, most of the time. He lost his throne and his life because he didn't understand how to be a king, but he certainly shared these values. The trouble was that the 14th century was an age where frightful things happened on a daily basis, and you could no longer pretend that all was well when it clearly wasn't. Europe was never the same after the Black Death, and those who refused to adapt to a changing world got stung badly.
Geoffrey Chaucer really founded modern English. Given what I have said about Piers Plowman and Gawain, this was something of an achievement. Of course, Chaucer was fortunate. The Middle English which was his native tongue turned out to be more user-friendly for future generations than the West Midland dialects (just to give you an idea, the first line of Gawain runs: "Sithan the sege and the assaut watz sesed at Troie"). In any event, he belonged to the cosmopolitan South-East/London area, which was pretty much the culturally dominant centre of power. And he was a class act.
Who was he? Well, he wasn't a humble poet, by any means. He was a senior public servant and his wife's brother-in-law was the Duke of Lancaster (John of Gaunt). This certainly helped. He knew his world better than most. And the amazing thing about his breezy, urbane, civilized world picture is that the Arcadian delights mentioned in the General Prologue disguise, without denying, the fact that his world was a terribly fragile place. A third of Europe had been wiped out by the Black Death when he was a child. It kept coming back, just when you thought it was safe to ride happily out through the idyllic countryside. Britain and France were still enemies and a kind of guerilla combat in the southern reaches of the Angevin Empire was more or less a constant reminder of the horrors of total war. The kingdom was under constant threat of aristocratic intrigue, which eventually boiled over with the Lancastrian usurpation of 1399 and the establishment of a brutal and cruel police state. No-one knew better than Chaucer how fragile the England he loved really was.
"Whan that Aprille with his shoures sote/the droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote" is the idyllic start to this great work. Everybody is setting out to go off on holidays, or pilgrimage as it was then called. And they meet in the Tabard Inn to tell stories to each other. The important bit about this is that he out-Boccaccios Boccaccio. The latter's Decameron was a series of tall tales and rude ones (or fabliaux, as rude stories were called then). Chaucer is miles better, because his stories, and in particular how they are told, tell us a great deal about the person telling them.
Thus the Knight's Tale is based on a French courtly romance about two lovers (Arcite and Palamoun) who are wooing the same damsel, but he butchers the story. The lovers are not courtly men but arrogant, self-seeking brigands. Emily, the object of their affection, is a cipher who is comically tacked onto the end of rhyming couplets just to remind us that she's what it's all supposed to be about. Why does the Knight mess it up? Terry Jones (better known as a TV comedian) would have us believe that this reflects the decline of knighthood and its replacement by bands of brutal mercenaries. Most scholars agree that Jones greatly overstates his case; but yes, he has a point. It's true that Chaucer's Knight has fought for pretty much everyone EXCEPT King and Country, so as a repository of knightly virtues this bloke is a bit of a dud.
The Pardoner's Tale is one of the most famous, because it's the old tale of how a hoard of gold manages to kill everyone who wants it. "Radix Malorum est Cupiditas" he warns his listeners (Greed is the root of evil); and he makes out a convincing case with his spine-chilling story. And what does this man of God do for a living? Why, he sells forgiveness of sins for money. Look who's talking? This sort of thing is very typical of Chaucer. The Prioress tells a lovely tale about a little saint allegedly martyred by the Jews. Very nice. And what does this lady wear? Gorgeous clothes, jewels, a gold brooch with "Amor Vincit Omnia" on it (Love conquers all). She's educated, too.
"And Frensh she spak ful fair and fetisly/ after the scole of Stratford atte Bowe/ for Frensh of Paris was to hir unknowe."
Do please note that Chaucer has little time for savage satire. This isn't his way. He just asks us to admire this worldly, pleasure-seeking woman of God, listen to her nauseating story, and think Yep. That's the sort of person who gets to run our monastic institutions. Hey, that's life. Gentle mockery is his métier.
He can do fabliaux just like Boccaccio. The Miller's Tale is a good one, involving the immortal line - a man thinking aloud when kissing what he imagines to be his lover through her window on a dark night - "Maydes have no berd??!" Indeed. But his preference is elsewhere. His ostensible self-portrait is the tale of Sir Thopas, which is so appallingly dull and clanking that it breaks off abruptly with the words: "Here the host stinteth Chaucer of his tale." Enough, already! But we think that this is just Chaucer being modest. For a more convincing picture.....
The Franklin is often taken to be a self-portrait. This Franklin is a man of note (he has sat in Parliament): warm-hearted, generous, pleasure-loving but kind and conscientious. And his tale is a beauty. Sir Arveragus goes off to the wars, leaving his lovely wife Dorigene home in Brittany. She walks on the seashore and deplores the "grisly, feendly rokkes blakke" which may endanger her husband's ship. She would do anything to make them disappear. She is loved by a young squire called Aurelius, who overhears her and thinks of a plan. He hires an expensive wizard who makes the rocks disappear. She has incautiously promised to do anything for this service and is distraught with grief.
Sir A returns. Hi darling I'm home. Good grief what's wrong dear? She confesses all. Sir A says well your word must be honoured. If you have promised your body to this Aurelius then so it must be. Still sobbing, Dorigene meets the joyfully expectant Aurelius. He can't break her heart like this, and sends her back to her husband unravished. He meets the wizard, who asks have you enjoyed your lady? "No I haven't!" he sobs and confesses his act of generosity. The wizard takes pity on him and returns the fee. Now which of these, asks the Franklin, was the most honourable? You can make out a good case for everybody here, unlike in the thuggish Knight's Tale. And in my contention, this is what Chaucer wanted the world to be like. A world where sins are forgiven, everybody acts with courage and generosity and all ends happily.
What a lovely man!
Copyright 2010 by David Greagg. <dafydd at netspace.net.au>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited. Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.