Archive for February, 2009
1. How does the Wife of Bath defend her many marriages and her philandering in the first 60 or so lines of her Prologue?
2. The Wife of Bath invokes “Experience” at the very opening of her Prologue, and refers to the valors of her “experience” throughout the Prologue. Why might such an invocation of Experience as the test of human nature come across suspicious to a fourteenth century audience? Why do you think we should question her absolute reliability upon “experience” as her foundation?
3. What are the characteristics of most of her marriages? What are her husbands like? How does she wear all of her husbands out?
4. What is different about her last husband (now suspiciously dead, too) than her previous four (lines 510 – 550)? What makes him far more challenging for the Wife of Bath?
5. How does the Wife of Bath finally win sovereignty over her final husband (lines 795 – 817)? What does her unequivocal desire for sovereignty in marriage mean (lines 817 – 830)? How do you think we should read it?
6. How is the Wife of Bath’s Tale ironic, considering her character as she presents it in her Prologue?
7. The Wife of Bath’s Tale is in the tradition of an “Arthuriad,” which essentially means a fairytale / romance in the vein of King Arthur, Camelot, and the Knights of the Round Table. How does her Tale, despite the fact that it is ironic, relate pretty perfectly to the Wife of Bath, her experience, and in particular, her notions of female “sovereignty?”
8. What might the Wife of Bath’s Tale (particularly its ending) say about her psychologically? How might she be feeling now in life, particularly since she claims in the Prologue that she has had “world enough and time,” and now only has “chaff” to give when she once had “wheat?”
Other than the Wife of Bath, the Pardoner is perhaps Chaucer’s greatest creation. We do not know exactly who he may have based his characters on, but the Pardoner was a well-known figure in fourteenth century Europe.
What Was a Pardoner?
The Pardoner was preceeded by a Summoner, who would inform an individual that they have been excommunicated from the Church, convicted of heresy, or whatever infraction that would mean your soul would burn in hell for eternity. The Pardoner would follow, and contact the individual, offering him a monetary deal (indulgences) for special prayers and consideration on the part of the Pope.
The Indulgence Scam
Of course, now we know the practice of Indulgence money was the biggest scam in the history of the world, making Bernie Madoff look like a petty theif. In the fourteenth century, most people were vulnerable as God fearing citizens, and did not know any truth other than the Indulgence system. Tens of thousands emptied their life savings.
The Ironic Voice of the Pardoner.
What makes Chaucer’s Pardoner so interesting is that he knows that he is a charlatan. He knows that he is running a scam. In fact, it appears that he does not really have any Papal dispensation whatsoever, and runs a prayer for money operation like a travelling medicine man, a sideshow character.
It is how upfront the Pardoner is about the workings of his business that throws many people. Why is he being so honest and detailed about what a good theif he is? Of course, in an ultimate act of audacity, after telling the pilgrims about his quackery, and delivering a sermon about it, he tries to sell pardons to all the pilgrims!
Is It Satire?
I have often been asked by you all the question as to whether the depiction of the Padoner is Chaucer’s scathing satire against the Roman Catholic Church. There are better minds for whom this area is a specialty, but I would say probably not. It is more than likely that the charcter of the Pardoner is a satire of this particular type of Pardoner who pretends at his job and gets a lot of money, hence, screwing the Church of their cut.
The Pardoner’s Tale: An Exemplum, and an Ironic One.
The Pardoner’s Tale is what is known as an exemplum. These are sermons that convey a moral message by telling a story. The story becomes an example. So the Pardoner’s Tale uses the story of the three friends who find the pot of gold as an example of cupidity, or “greed is the root of all evil.”
You probably notice right off the bat the irony of the Pardoner’s Tale. He tells it as a sermon about how greed is the root of all evil, and yet, he is the most greedy and direputable of all characters.
For this week, please read The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and The Wife of Bath’s Tale. Also read The Pardoner’s Prologue and the Pardoner’s Tale.
Here is the link to the translation once again. http://www.ronaldecker.com/ct.htm
The Wife of Bath and the Pardoner.
The Wife of Bath and the Pardoner are perhaps the most famous and brilliantly executed characters/tales in The Canterbury Tales. Both of them have had a great influence on literature in that Shakespeare was evidently influenced by them. In his creation of both the life bearing / colorful characters, like Falstaff and Rosalind, he was certainly drawing upon the Wife of Bath. In his creation of nihilistic, dark characters, such as Iago and Edmund, he was certainly influenced by the Pardoner.
The Wife of Bath.
The Wife of Bath has generated tremendous debate in literary and cultural studies. Chaucer depicts her as someone who invites scandal, who seems to live and thrive upon being infamous. In both the General Prologue, and in her own individual Prologue, Chaucer challenges the reader toward how we feel about her, understand her and judge her. She has married five times, has affairs in between marriages, and prides herself on maintaining the driver’s seat with all of her husbands, which she calls sovereignty. She also has views towards marriage and woman’s role in marriage and the world. In many ways, she comes across very much like a proto-feminist.
The Argument for and Against a Feminist Reading.
Reading the Wife of Bath as an early feminist, however, must be balanced alongside of Chaucer’s cultural limitations. Just as thirty people from every single walk of life would not gather together for a pilgrimage in the 1300s, neither would a woman ever have as much liberty in her life as the Wife of Bath. And if she did, she would never turn it into public discourse with such impunity.
Remember that the audience reading The Canterbury Tales would have been white, male nobleman and aristocrats. It is highly unlikely that a woman ever read Chaucer’s works. With this in mind, it is helpful to assess how such an audience would respond to her. It seems highly likely that they would have found her Prologue and Tale hilarious. The audience would probably not consider her to be a realistic depiction. And it might be helpful to consider that Chaucer, aware of his potential audience, would have written her that way.
Judging a Literary Work from our own Contemporary Standpoint.
However, at the same time, the fact that feminism simply did not exist in the 1300s, it does not stop us from seeing the Wife of Bath from a different perspective than that of a white, male, British nobleman.
Part of the wonder of literature is the ability to close the gap between a past and our present. There are different, as they are called,, horizons of experience between out current time and the time when a piece of literature was written. No matter how formal and objective one might be, one can only read literature through the eyes of one’s time. We are always trying to discover things in literature that we can identify with our own experience.
Immoral? Or Wonderfully Colorful?
Over the centuries, the Wife of Bath has created great debate. We are faced with an ambivalent situation. The questions posed to us are: Is the Wife of Bath a loathsome, sinful woman who should be morally judged and perhaps condemned to hell? Or is the Wife of Bath an incredible, vivacious creation who we are meant to enjoy and appreciate aesthetically, beyond morality?
Both questions provoke very different interpretations of the Wife of Bath. Like the narrator of the poem who seems to stand aside from the rest of the pilgrims in an ironic pose of moral disinterestedness, Chaucer allows us to respond to and interpret her character.
The Canterbury Tales marks a “paradigm shift” in literature. What I mean be paradigm shift is those moments, events or creations in history that mark a development and / or turning point in the way in which we literally see the world. There have been many different paradigm shifts in literature in the past 2,500 years.
Paradigm Shifts and the Course of History
In the general course of history, many thinkers believe there have been three or four major paradigm shifts that have altered the way in which we see and understand the world.
1) Monotheism: the Judaic concept of a single God. Some argue that this begins the birth of individuality.
2) The Copernican Revolution: the joint effort by Copernicus and Galileo that eventually proved, by the seventeenth century, that the Earth was not the center of the universe.
3) Darwinism: the Theory of Evolution that partly proved that humans were not singular creations, but evolved from lower life forms. In other words, just as the Earth is no longer the center of the universe, the human is not the center of existence.
4) Freudianism and the psychoanalytic revolution: The Theory of the Unconcsious partly proved that we are divided within and at odds with ourselves. In other words, just as we are no longer the center of existence, we are also not in control of our own selves.
5) Atomic Age. In the early 1950s, for the first time in human existence, we have the ability to destroy the earth.
Paradigm Shifts and the Course of Literary History
Literature has its own history that is partly self-contained, and partly engaged in the shifts in world history.
Critics tend to veer between two extremes: 1) Literature has its own self-contained history and paradigm shifts. 2) Literature is inextricably bound to history. Usually, like me, one believes that literature has a combination of #1 and #2.
One thing that the Pardigm Shifts in world history shows is that, over the past several thousand years, humanity moves further away from mythological or monolithic beliefs, “world-visions” that see things in terms of the human in relationship to a cosmos.
Literature, too, has developed up until today in this direction. Northrop Frye, a marvelous literary critic, famously claimed that the history of literature reflects “the dying of the gods.”
Major Stages in Literature.
Epic / Myth. The earliest literature — Homer, Gilgamesh, The Bible — is “epic” literature. Ancient literature tends to be concerned with depicting and explaining the birth / creation of the entire world, and the sweeping events that lead to the present condition. It is a literature that attempts to explain the existence and the reason for everything.
In epic and mythological literature, the human and God / gods is direct. God or the gods have a “character” role in the action. In many ways, the plot of epic literature depends upon and is controlled by the forces of God or gods. Epic literature, therefore, leans toward the providential, the fated, the fixed, the predestined. Epic literature is also always concerned with origins. Where did we come from? How? Where are we going?
High Mimetic. Ancient Greek drama in particular represents a shift away from the Epic / Mythological stage in literature. The “high mimetic,” or high representation, begins to draw its focus to the human more than the epic. The human becomes more of a character and less of a god or a supernatural presence. There is still a direct relationship between human and God or gods, but the relationship become more severed, distorted. The protagonist of high mimetic literature tends to be a powerful person, someone who is fairly close to having supernatural power, a dominant personage. The protagonists of high mimetic drama are not yet characters who exist on a “normal” level of human existence.
Romance. The medieval development of the Romance begins to mingle the high mimetic with a more “low” mimetic literature. The protagonists (usually a figure like a Knight, a leader, a nobleman) is still the larger than life character, not quite a god, but not quite human either. But the fallibility of the protagonists becomes more prominent. Too, the world of the Romance is interfused with the supernatural. There remains a connection between God, gods or supernatural elements and humans. The world-vision of the Romance remains one in which the world is charged with the presence of God.
Low Mimetic. As the Renaissance (1400 – 1660) progresses, literature becomes represented by the “low mimetic.” In low mimetic literature, there no (or very little) direct connection between the human and God / gods. Usually if there is a supernatural element, it comes in the form of convention or hallucination. The low mimetic represents protagonists as human beings, on a level that most humans can identify. The protagonist might be a powerful, larger than life, heroic character, but he / she is not so in a godly or supernatural sense. As low mimetic develops, in fact, we become much more aware of protagonists whose actions fall beneath our own.
Ironic Mode / Modern Literature. In roughly the past few centuries, literature falls into the “ironic mode.” Generally, the worldview represents a complete divorce between human and God/gods/cosmos. Or, in many cases, literature emphasizes the absence of any cosmic force, such as God. In ironic literature, protagonists are frequently personages beneath us. Often times protagonists and action in the ironic mode is absurd, meaningless or chaotic. The vision of the world is now completely removed from the cohesive, epic / mythological vision of a complete world.
What is pronounced about the development of literature over the course of history is what Frye calls the “dying of the gods.” Or the gradual distance that grows between human and God, or the human and a cosmic or supernatural world. In fact, the birth and development of literary realism, upon which the novel grew as a genre, develops from this divorce and distance between a concrete and supernatural world, the emphasis upon what we can understand.
Some thinkers, like Frye and Joseph Campbell, believe that this few thousand year development is a “cycle” which will repeat again. In other words, ironic literature will tranisition back into epic literature, and the cycle will begin once again. There is some credence, I believe, to this theory. Since the Atomic age in the past fifty or so years, there is a genre growing of apocalyptic literature. There is literature and movies fascinated with the end of the world or the end of an age in which civilization must begin anew. We see this in many forms: as a nuclear holocaust, and the post holocaust world that must rebuilt; a world in which the machine takes over the human, and the human must begin again; a world destroyed by nature because of our harm, and we must adapt to nature and begin again; a world in which technology and a virtual world consumes us, and we must adapt or rebel, ie, begin again.
Where does The Canterbury Tales Fit In to All of This?
I claimed that one should not confuse Chaucer’s narrative poem for realism. The notion of literary realism is the product of an eighteenth century publishing industry and the advance in science that caused people to see the world beyond supernaturalism or superstition.
But, we see a very significant shift in both how the world is seen socially, and how an author / storyteller presents that world.
The Significance of the Narrative Voice and the Presentation and Depiction of Character
Notice first in the General Prologue how there is a distinct narrative voice, bluntly represented by an “I.”
Notice how that “I” makes a self-conscious effort to inform us that he wants to tell us the story, and he wants to tell it straight, with no unnecessary embellishments.
Notice that the “I” emphasizes that he is going to tell us the story in the common vernacular of the English language, not in the formal language of Latin or French.
Notice how the narrator begin his story about a religious event, a pilgrimage, in a “tavern.” Notice that everyone, all walks of life and social status gather in that one place, and join together on the pilgrimage.
Notice how the narrator does not treat any of his depictions of the pilgrims with any higher or lower value. Each one is presented on a level playing field, from the virtuous Knight down to the sinister Pardoner.
The Shift to a More Level Representational Playing Field.
All of these things reveal a significant shift in the presentation and representation of literature. The narrator of The Canterbury Tales brings himself down to the level of both the reader and the characters he represents. The narrator neither stands above the story with a godly “ominscience,” nor does he present the protagonists as “gods” or supernatural characters.
Final Warning Against Assuming that The Canterbury Tales is Like Modern Realism.
Although this is a marked development toward realism, again, it is not literary realism in the sense that it was developed in the eighteenth century. The Canterbury Tales still owes to the tradition of the Romance, like Sir Gawain, but Chaucer’s shift in narrative voice, and the presentation of an encyclopedia of all walks of life on a level playing field incepts the more “humanistic” literature that would become the hallmark of the Renaissance, particuarly with Shakespeare’s development of human character.
The General Prologue.
Below, I offer guiding questions for each section of the General Prologue. Again, use the questions as a guide for your reading, and things to think about. And you can respond to anything here you want for your weekly writing responses.
Lines 1 – 18
How does Chaucer describe the season and the setting for the narrative poem? How do you think that the season is significant? What is important about the fact that the poem is set in the month of April? How is nature described, and how does the description of nature connect then to the description of people gathering for a pilgrimage?
Lines 19 – 34
Why do you think that it is important that the poem makes an “I,” the first person pronoun, pronounced? What effect does it have on the poem that it is introduced by an “I?”
What is significant about the fact that the narrator and the other 29 pilgrims gather at a tavern? Why is it important that the narrator emphasizes the sense of “fellowship?”
Lines 35 – 42
Describe the narrator’s tone in the opening of the poem. What kind of narrative voice does he assume? What does his narrative voice suggest / foreshadow concerning the rest of the poem?
The Catalog of Pilgrims in the General Prologue, lines 43 – 717.
Do you think that there is any significance to the order in which Chaucer presents each pilgrim? If so, what is the logic behind the order?
Explore how Chaucer / the narrator develops his description of each pilgrim. What specifics does he emphasize? Why does he emphasize certain aspects of each pilgrim?
Which pilgrim and description of him / her do you like the most? Why? What is it about Chaucer’s description that interests you?
What social aspects to life and the world does Chaucer seem to emphasize in his descriptions of the pilgrims? What sorts of things does he seem to satirize?
The Narrative Voice
The voice of the narrator in The Canterbury Tales is very significant. The narrative poem is told from the specific, unnamed “I” who describes each pilgrim. How would you describe his voice? What is the narrator’s attitude toward everything and everyone? Does he seem to be a kind person? A reasoned person? A malicious person? A judgmental person? Is there any way in which you can “picture” the narrator in the same way that the narrator offers us “pictures” of each pilgrim?
The narrator describes each pilgrim sort-of “warts and all,” meaning he offers the good, the bad and the ugly. Some of the pilgrims are downright odious people. What sort of attitude does the narrator have toward each of them? Does he judge and / or condemn any of them? What do you make of his stance?
Lines 720 – 744
After offering a description of each pilgrim, the narrator digresses on the manner in which he plans to narrate the pilgrimage and all of the stories. What things about his storytelling technique does the narrator seem to defend? Why do you think he makes a big deal out of claiming he wishes to tell the stories straight and true? How does he use both Christ and Plato to defend his storytelling style?
The Host at the End of the General Prologue.
What function does the host of the Tavern play at the end of the Prologue? Why does it seem essential that Chaucer include the Host of the tavern in the scheme of The Canterbury Tales?
The Canterbury Tales and the Medieval Tradition of Encyclopedic Works.
The huge masterpiece by Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, comes from a tradition of long, encyclopedic style works in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Philosophers and theologians in the Middle Ages, particularly in the 12 and 1300s, wrote “sums” of all their knowledge concerning philosophy or theology. The most famous was Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, a work thousands of pages long, in many volumes, in which he professes an encyclopedia of Christian theology. Others, like Duns Scotus, did the same thing.
Chaucer, however, decided to write a fictional, poetic narrative to serve as an encyclopedia of human character. By having thirty pilgrims from many different walks of life tell a story on their way to the shrine, and a story back, Chaucer intended to cover the entire spectrum of character and humanity.
Chaucer’s Original and Gigantic Plan for the Work.
Chaucer’s original plan for The Canterbury Tales was to have 120 stories, two for each pilgrim to tell on the way to Canterbury, and two to tell on the way back. He never realized the complete project, having written twenty two stories instead. In fact, they never reach Canterbury in The Canterbury Tales, so the gigantic work in of itself is incomplete. Many scholars like to call each section of the work a “fragment.” If Chaucer had completed his original plan, the work would have been massive, probably about the size and scope of Aquinas’s Summa.
Needless to say, what we have is large as it is, and has come down to us as one of the most central works in English literature. Each of the tales is unique, and represents both the character who tells it, and an aspect of the moral, social and economic world in which they live.
Chaucer’s Revolutionary Use of “Character” in Literature.
One of the major contributions Chaucer made to English literature is the development and depiction of human character. Before and during Chaucer’s time, character was never very developed in literature. Characters in any piece of fiction or religious presentation tended to be “types,” meaning abstract representations of concepts, like Vice, Virtue, Patience, Charity, etc. Authors were never particularly interested in character in the sense of psychology like we are today. In fact, our modern notion of character is pretty distant even from Chaucer. It was not until Shakespeare that character truly becomes central to the literary experience, and he owed a lot to Chaucer’s depiction of character. Chaucer’s characters of the Wife of Bath and the Pardoner greatly influenced Shakespeare, and you can see echoes of them in many of his plays.
Don’t Confuse The Canterbury Tales with Literary Realism.
The fact that Chaucer forefronts characters and places them in a leveled and social world should not make us confuse his The Canterbury Tales with realism, a confusion that is easy to make. Although it is a significant development in literature that Chaucer depicts all walks of life in a common social setting and told from a familiar point of view (something I will discuss separately), the situation of the pilgrimage as he presents it is far from realism. None of these characters would ever have mingled together and engaged in such a prolonged activity as they do in The Canterbury Tales in the 1300s.
The Convention of the Framed-Narrative, or the Framing-tale.
Pilgrimages were very common, and Chaucer uses one as a convention by which to gather many different personages together, and to create a situation by which they can deliver different stories. The convention of a group of people telling each other stories in order to kill time has a long tradition, and has appeared in many works of literature up until today. A work of fiction in which the plot involves a story or stories told by a character(s) within the narrative is known as a framing tale, or today a framed narrative. In his travels through Italy, it is highly likely that Chaucer had been influenced by Boccaccio’s Decameron. The narrative is about a group of people stuck together in a dwelling in quarantine because of the plague, and they decide to pass the time by telling each other stories.
The Legacy of Framed Narratives
One of the most famous modern framed narratives is Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness. The enigmatic seaman, Marlow, tells the crew of a ship docked in the Thames waiting for the tide to rise, his story of leading a crew on a ship traveling into the heart of the Congo to retrieve the mad engineer of an ivory outpost, Kurtz.
Of course, television sitcoms love to use the framing-tale technique when the characters are holed up somewhere, or need to pass the time, and each one tells a story from the past. Movies, too, like to use framed narratives. One that comes to mind at this moment is The Princess Bride.
Repeated Narrative and Plot Types.
In the last class we discussed how certain plots repeat throughout literature, and are common as a motif, even up until today. I discussed primarily the narrative of the journey and the quest. This is one of the most popular “masterplots” in literature. Particularly in a knight’s romance, like Sir Gawain, the journey and the quest is essential. Gawain journeys beyond Camelot in quest of the Green Knight. In most journey and quest narratives, the protagonist — after a series of encounters, trials, and hardships — returns home, having gained some sort of knowledge about his / her self and the world. It is important to note that as literature grows more modern, particular literature into the twentieth century, the journey and / or return home is usually negative, degenerate, pessimistic. For example, in most of the narratives in which a soldier leaves home for war in the 1900s (WWI, WWII, Viet Nam, etc.), his / her return is usually dark, as in Hemingway’s soldiers who feel a sense of hopelessness and betrayal.
Masterplot is a term used by literary studies to describe any deep, underlying narrative structure that has repeated over a long period of time and in many different literary pieces. Masterplots can be simple to complex. For instance, there are many stories with the masterplot of a young boy who experiences something that serves as an initiation into adulthood.
Many masterplots derive from sweeping social /political / religious world-views passed down through the centuries. American literature developed the fairly new masterplot in the 1800s of the individual who can accomplish anything. This has come in literature to be known as the “Horatio Alger” story: the idea that, even if you are dirt poor and have seemingly no hope of a better future, through hard work and luck you can become a millionaire, or a leader, or somehow famous and anointed. Barak Obama, in many ways, has stirred the imagination of America because of the masterplot that, in this country, anyone can become president.
In the Middle Ages up through the Renaissance, almost all of the masterplots have a Judeo-Christian context. Many of the Christian masterplots remain strong in literature today, although in more secularly disguised forms. The many narratives of the Old and New Testaments have inspired and perpetuated variations of their stories. For instance, notice in class how a student pointed out that Gawain’s encounter with the Green Knight in the beginning of the poem resembles the story of David and Goliath.
The Genesis Story of the Fall of Man and Original Sin
There is perhaps no masterplot more prevalent in literature of the Middle Ages than the Fall of Man. In fact, the Genesis stories all remain powerful masterplots for literature today.
One of the most common motifs that repeat in narratives of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance is the Genesis story of the Fall and Original Sin. Adam is the ultimate “archetypal” character in that he is the “first man,” and he gives into Eve’s temptation. Together, Adam and Eve break God’s one and only rule in the Garden, and as a result, they lost paradise and their consummate contact with God. Generally, narrative theology and literature interprets Adam and Eve’s fall resulting from their lack of trust in God. Instead of having trust and faith in God, they trusted only themselves.
Various Narrative-types that Reflect the Fall.
Literature has reworked the Fall as a masterplot repeatedly up until today. It can be seen in numerous contexts and themes in narratives:
- The protagonist tempted by some representation of “forbidden fruit,” giving into temptation, losing some form of a “paradise.”
- The notion of the temptress, or “evil woman” throughout literature, referring back to the archetype of Eve.
- The story of a protagonist who is a good person, has some position of authority, power or well-being, and through some flaw, trusts only him/herself, or has too much pride, or can’t see beyond a particular interest, and has a fall.
- Any narrative that shows a movement from an original situation that is pure, or good, or innocent, or has a sense of well-being, and then turns into something impure, adulterated, ,guilty or unsettling. The romantics loved poetry and narratives about how the growth from childhood to adulthood is like a fall, or losing paradise.
- Any narrative in which the protagonist diverts his / her faith in something other than God; or in which the protagonist does not fully or adequately have faith in God when he / she should.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight very much emphasizes the story of the Fall and Original Sin. The audience to the poem in the 1300s would have readily recognized all of the Biblical symbols and motifs in the poem, and they would have seen the narrative as a sort of illustration of the Genesis story of the Fall.
In college, I had to read the entire Canterbury Tales in the Middle English, untranslated. Despite the fact that Chaucer’s masterwork is one of the most enchanting pieces of literature, I had a miserable experience. Therefore, I am giving you here two links to online translations of the Canterbury Tales, which is much easier reading, and you lose only a small amount of the original meaning.
However, read some parts of the General Prologue in the untranslated version in your book to get a feel for the original language, its cadence, its sound, and oftentimes its own historical and cultural beauty. Try to read some of the original version out loud to hear what it sounds like.
Here is a link to translation.
On the above site, go to Fragment I, and read the section General Prologue, the first link.
Along with Dante and Shakespeare, Chaucer is one of the three or four most important figures in the history of literature. He is considered by many to be the father of English literature, particularly since he was the first major poet to use and to legitimate the vernacular English language in writing as opposed to Latin or French.
Chaucer’s Birth and Family
Chaucer was born in 1343 in London to a family of wine merchants. He began life, therefore, in a middle class background, which is a crucial aspect of his writing and the times he lived in. Unlike most authors and poets of his time –or any time up until the eighteenth century, for that matter — Chaucer’s life was well documented, mostly because he gained entrance to and traveled in illustrious and royal circles.
His big break came when he was a teenager. Since his father sold wine to members of nobility and royalty, he was able to get his son a job as a page to the court of the Countess of Ulster. This job essentially gave him a “foot in the door” to a career working with nobility and, eventually, royalty.
Chaucer’s Rise up the Aristocratic and Royal Ladder
After he was a page for the Countess, Chaucer worked for various members of nobility and for the state as a courier, a diplomat, a civil servant, and eventually for the king as a collector and surveyor of scrap metal (whatever that would have meant in the late 1300s).
During the early phase of the Hundred Year’s War, Chaucer went with the English army as part of King Edward III’s campaign against France, and was captured during the siege of Rheims in 1360. It is a testament to how valued Chaucer was that the King of England himself contributed the sum of money that released Chaucer from ransom, and returned him to England.
Chaucer’s Influential World Travelling
In his capacity as a diplomat and a envoy, Chaucer traveled all over Europe, a privilege only a small handful of people experienced. In his travels, he came into contact with a vast diversity of people from all social strata and cultures. In a diplomatic mission to Genoa and Florence in 1373, Chaucer came into contact with the burgeoning of the Renaissance, which had a giant influence on him and, as a result, the course of English literature. He came into contact with Italian poetry, narrative, painting and architecture. The writing, in particular, would influence The Canterbury Tales.
Chaucer Dies Having Known and Worked for Three English Kings
In the last fifteen or so years of his life, he ran Customs for the port of London for the King, a very executive job. During this time he started writing. In 1389, he was appointed to the important job of clerk of the King’s works, a sort of foreman job for planning and executing any of the kings building projects. One of his last jobs was as forester for King Richard II, who was overthrown by Henry IV. Despite the overthrow, Henry IV kept paying Chaucer’s pension until Chaucer died around 1400.
A middle class son of a wine dealer grew up to work in the service of three British kings, Edward III, Richard II and Henry IV, all who admired him, and he went on to write some of the most central pieces of English literature!
The Rise of a Middle (or Merchant) Class.
Chaucer’s incredible career reflects the changing social and economic structures of England in the late 1300s. Before the 1300s, as I discussed, there were basically two classes. There was the Nobility, the wealthiest one or two percent of England, and there were the Serfs, everyone else.
As centuries passed, families began to pass on skills at trades and crafts they would pass on. By the time of the 12th into the 13th century, the products that peasants or serfs were able to make became a commodity for exchange. Instead of importing goods, or having certain products costume made expensively, aristocrats and nobility began to buy from and realize the benefit of trading with domestic and local merchants. Instead of enslaving the masses to maintain agriculture, those with money began to cultivate certain populations for the products and services they could offer. Particularly as trade between nations began to grow, London evolved into a bustling port.
This collapse in the two class society created a more mobile middle class that broke from agricultural serfdom, and began to find economic autonomy servicing the rich and, as time goes on, each other. By the time of Shakespeare, the popularity of theater was the result of a rapidly grown middle class that has some disposable income and a desire for leisure earned after a work week.
Chaucer grew up and lived during this expansion of a merchant class. Because his father served an important recreational function for the wealthy — wine distribution — he had connections through clients that allowed Chaucer entrance into a noble and aristocratic world.
As he worked his way up the ladder in the aristocratic and royal world of London (much like a young person working his way up the corporate ladder), Chaucer had access to and enjoyed many of the privileges of nobility. Importantly, he was not aristocracy, nobility or royalty. Evidence shows that he knew and fraternized with all of them, including three kings, but there were certain realms in which he would not be included, such as a Grammar School or University education. But, because of Chaucer’s work and access, and because class barriers allowed him to associate with all walks of life, he had exposure to a vast variety of humanity and experience, which is reflected in his writing, particularly The Canterbury Tales.
In short, he was a true social and literary Renaissance man many decades before the Renaissance itself settled in England.
Even though Chaucer is one of the three or four most important figures in English literature, it is important to recognize that no one at the time, including himself, would have called him a “poet” or an “author.” Chaucer would have called designated himself at whatever job he worked, such as Comptroller, or Forester, never, “poet.”
Writing in the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, was not a career. There were no career writers in England until the eighteenth century, when the publishing industry made it possible for writing to become a commercial enterprise.
Poets or narrators, like Chaucer, created their work on the side. They usually distributed their work to other members of the court or nobility in limited circulation. Or, as in the case of Sir Gawain, a poem was written and used for an aristocratic or royal event, like a wedding, birthday or holiday. The Canterbury Tales was more than likely distributed for readership amongst Chaucer’s friends and colleagues in the various aristocratic spheres he traveled.
Depending upon how you choose to interpret a work, audience can be an important factor. It could be significant to know, for instance, when you read “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” that only rich and noble men would have read it.
Good Friday morning.
Below are a series of questions for thinking and responding. I have offered some key quotes from the poem as a way to explore specific places in order to understand the whole of the poem. For your weekly writing, you may choose one or two questions I post, or anything else that interests you, and write a page or so response. This is a space for your to write freely, creatively, and unedited. I am not grading your weekly writing on content, but just that you do it. Consider this writing an opportunity to brainstorm ideas for a possible paper, and as an opportunity to explore interpretive approaches to the readings by writing down your thoughts. You are welcome to put your weekly writing in the Journals Section on Campus Cruiser, or on a Word document you attach in an e-mail. Most importantly, this shouldn’t be high pressure, but a relaxing and free way to explore on ideas, confusions, questions, thoughts, etc.
Even if you don’t choose to respond to one of these below, it is helpful to read the passages and the questions anyhow, for it will help you to piece the poem together and to interpret it.
Lines 85 – 94.
But Arthur would not eat till all were served;
So light was his lordly heart, and a little boyish;
His life he liked lively–the less he cared
To be lying for long, or long to sit,
So busy his young blood, his brain so wild.
What does the description of King Arthur say about him as a king? What does it say about Camelot? Why is this description important in the context of the poem, particularly in the beginning in which Camelot is depicted in full party mode?
Lines 309 – 315.
“What, is this Arthur’s house,” said the horseman then,
“Whose fame is so fair in far realms and wide?
Where is now your arrogance and your awesome deeds,
Your valor and your victories and your vaunting words?
Now are the revel and renown of the Round Table
Overwhelmed with a word of one man’s speech,
For all cower and quake, and no cut felt!”
Why are the words of the Green Knight to Camelot important? What does it say about that which he challenges them in his test, the Beheading Game? What is he testing?
Lines 763 – 768.
No sooner had Gawain signed himself thrice
Than he was ware, in the wood, of a wondrous dwelling,
With a moat, on a mound, bright amid boughs
Of many a tree great of girth that grew by the water–
A castle as comely as a knight could own,
On grounds fair and green, in a goodly park . . .
What is important about this vision of the Baron’s Castle, popping up out of thin air after Gawain prays to God and Mary that he won’t freeze to death? What about the manifestation of the castle should make Gawain suspicious? Why doesn’t he seem to notice anything symbolic about it? What do you think the poet intends the reader / audience to know about the Baron’s castle?
Lines 1770 – 1776
For that high-born beauty so hemmed him about,
Made so plain her meaning, the man must needs,
Either take her tendered love or distastefully refuse.
His courtesy concerned him, less crass he appear,
But more his soul’s mischief, should he commit sin
And belie his loyal oath to the lord of the house.
“God forbid!” said the bold knight. “That shall not befall!”
In this moment with Gawain on the third night of his “test” at the Baron’s castle, he attempts to resist the scantily dressed Lady once again. How does this passage reflect the codes and paradoxes of Courtly Love? What is Gawain’s excruciating position? How are the last three lines in particular a foreshadowing and an irony, knowing what Gawain does shortly?
Lines 1851 – 1858.
“For the man that possesses this piece of silk,
If he bore it on his body, belted about,
There is no hand under heaven that could hew him down,
For he could not be killed by any craft on earth.” [The Lady to Gawain]
Then the man began to muse, and mainly he thought
It was a pearl for his plight, the peril to come
When he gains the Green Chapel to get his reward:
Could he escape unscathed, the scheme were noble!
Gawain accepts the Lady’s offer of the magical Green Girdle. This is the crucial moment of the poem. On what levels does Gawain greatly fail (fall) here? In a Christian context, what does his action (accepting the green girdle) represent? What does it say about him as a human being and as a knight? How harshly do you think we should or are meant to judge him?
Lines 2357 – 2368.
For that is my belt about you, that same braided girdle,
My wife is was that wore it; I know well the tale,
And the count of your kisses and your conduct too,
And the wooing of my wife–it was all my scheme!
She made trial of a man most faultless by far
Of all that ever walked over the wide earth;
So it is Gawain, in good faith, to other gay knights.
Yet you lacked, sir, a little in loyalty there,
But the cause was not cunning, nor courtship either,
But that you loved your own life; the less, then, to blame.”
The Green Knight reveals himself to be the Baron of the Castle. He does so jovially, all in good humor. How does he address Gawain here, and how does he judge him? He claims that Gawain’s only two faults were lacking a little loyalty with his wife, and loving his own life. How do you think the poet wants us to judge Gawain based upon this, particuarly in a Christian context?