Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Now wherewith should he ever make payment, except he used his blessed instrument?

I've been reading Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Some of the tales are familiar to me from the bits and bobs I read in school lo those many years ago, but I've never read the complete tales so there are some surprising aspects to Mr Chaucer's work. For example, I had read The Wife of Bath's Tale but not The Wife of Bath's Prologue. The tale is a short moral fable about a knight who learns--more or less--that the quality of a person is based on the life they live and not on their ancestry and inherited property. The prologue, on the other hand, is a long declaration by the Wife in which she defends her many marriages (five at this point) and her philosophy that a woman must rule her husband by whatever means necessary, including dishonesty.
Now hearken how I bore me properly,
All you wise wives that well can understand.
Thus shall you speak and wrongfully demand;
For half so brazenfacedly can no man
Swear to his lying as a woman can.
I say not this to wives who may be wise,
Except when they themselves do misadvise.
A wise wife, if she knows what's for her good,
Will swear the crow is mad, and in this mood
Call up for witness to it her own maid;
Because I was only given selected excerpts from the Tales to read as a wee sprat, I've been carrying around in my head the idea that Chaucer had left us a collection of 14th-century character sketches rooted in a strict medieval Christian morality. I was not, that is to say, prepared for the outright bawdiness of many of the tales. Chaucer's stories have more in common with Gargantua and Pantagruel than they have with Pilgrim's Progress. There are jokes about drinking, about sex, about adultery, about flatulence, about the corruption of the clergy, about the corruption of secular government, about sex, about sex, about drinking, and about flatulence. Toward the end of his life, Chaucer wrote an apology for having penned the Tales. "God forgive me, but at the time I thought they were funny." Words to that effect. Good stuff, well worth reading.


  1. " I've been carrying around in my head the idea that Chaucer had left us a collection of 14th-century character sketches rooted in a strict medieval Christian morality."

    *Imagines Scott reading Miller's and Summoner's Tales...* bahahaha

    1. Exactly. Especially the Summoner regarding the fate of priests in Hell, though the extended joke about, let's call it division, was pretty good.

  2. Yes, I remember sampling Chaucer in high school, taking a deeper sip in college, and drinking more deeply in grad school. But -- I have to admit -- I hated the Middle English challenge and preferred "translations." Harold Bloom -- not one of your favorite critics if I correctly recall -- argues (well, I'm paraphrasing here) that Chaucer is surprisingly modern, especially in his creation of characters. I would add that Chaucer now has too few readers; even English majors in universities rarely read and study Chaucer. (BTW, which "translation" are you reading? There is also a plain-prose "translation" by Peter Ackroyd that is worth a look.)

    1. I'm reading Nevill Coghill's translation (the Penguin Classic edition). It's good if a little clunky here or there.

      I would argue that Chaucer is no more modern than we are medieval; which is to say, people haven't changed much after all. Though if Chaucer were alive today, some people would probably lump him with artists like Andres Serrano.

  3. I'm genuinely fascinated to hear that the excerpts you read as a youngster led you to assume that Chaucer was a moralistic scold. Overwhelmingly, when I taught the Canterbury Tales, students who had any impression of Chaucer at all were well aware of his bawdy tales but had little other sense of him otherwise! (In my experience, modern students are most pleasantly surprised by his generosity and his eye for human quirkiness—and genuinely confused to learn that "bawdy" and "medieval" aren't necessarily antonyms—but they're most put off by the religious tales, including one particularly sour and unmodern one that I won't spoil in case you've not yet come to it.)

    1. I think that when I was a kid I was given things like "The Knight's Tale" and "The Clerk's Tale" to read, and I also remember "The Priest's Tale" (if that's the one with all the historical figures whose fates go awry; I don't have the book to hand just this second). So I've always thought of Chaucer as primarily a religious author. After reading the bawdy Tales, a lot of other things I've read suddenly make a lot more sense (Rabelais, and Cabell's The Silver Stallion, for example).

  4. Meta-fiction is not exactly a modern invention either, as "Chaucer's Tale" or "Sir Thopas" or whatever it is called shows.

    If you like these well enough, there are 92 more like them in the Decameron.

    Personally, I love the Middle English and thought the time spent learning it - only about forty words, really - was time well spent.

    1. Metafiction goes back at least as far as Homer! The Decameron has long been on my "some day" list, though I've had only the faintest inkling as to what it was. I'm sure a copy can find its way to me at some point before I die.

      I read the "Prologue" in ME in college. As you say, the vocabulary to be learned isn't that much, and a lot of the possible difficulties of the prose resolve themselves when read aloud. I picked the Coghill edition because it's an attractive volume, in a good trim size with a nice cover and notes.