Saturday, July 14, 2018

It's a Joke -- Really!

More than one hundred years ago, a scholar involved in the renewed interest in Chaucer, read a little story told by the Cook as being vulgar. ‘Tain’t so! The surface impression of a "licentious…apprentice" is only a humorous façade.

The Cook, an ordinary guy, states he will tell a “litel jape”—a little joke. His hero is an apprentice, but not an apprentice cook. He’s a victualler, a gatherer of foodstuffs.  That’s significant!
     He’s brown as a berry, a proper short fellow, like a hive full of honey and merry as a bird in the woods. His name is Perkyn Revelour which leads us to believe he enjoyed reveling with his kin. Aside from his color, we’re given only one other physical detail: he has neatly combed black hair. The picture I get from Chaucer’s details is a medieval English brown bee. And, as one beekeeper charmingly put it, he wears a "round velvet cap."

So how is his apprenticeship going? Perkyn hopped and sang at weddings, played stringed instruments, and preferred the tavern to the shop. If he saw a group riding out, he'd be sure to join them to play at "dys," implying dice! But these “dyes” refer to the great attraction of colorful flowers! The "riding" he joined mentions no horses. Bees would have no need. The omitted details are part of the jape.

That group (swarm) could engulf a blossomy bough or a new gate. Chaucer teases with a “Newgate” because it’s the name of a building in London.

It’s obvious that Perkyn is not a worker bee but a good-for-nothing drone. He guzzles honey stored in the hive and invites another drone to join him. Chaucer records the beekeeper’s lament: oft times he found his box full bare. Chaucer uses straightforward bee vocabulary to say the two rascals, Perkyn and his accomplice (lowke) would suck (sowke) what they could steal or borrow.

 At the end of the honey-making season (which parallels the end of apprenticeship), misfits are actually driven from the hive and perish. Some drones may find temporary shelter in another hive; that is a fact. When Perkyn is put out, his accomplice offers hospitality for a time.
      Chaucer’s last lines tell us his rascal friend has a wife. She ran “a shoppe, and swyved for hir sustenance." "Swyving" (“copulating”) is the word that offended the 19th-century scholar. But the word is a clue to the joke! It identifies her as a prostitute—in 14th-century terms, a quene —which is a very strong clue for a "queen" bee. Though the 14th century did not understand life in a hive the way we do, they assumed a hive had a queen bee.
         The story seems to “end” abruptly, but with the identification of a quean/quene, no more need be said! The Cook’s Pilgrim companions would have caught on and had a good laugh.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Return to the Garden

While in college, I did a fascinating research project that has never been published.  It’s A Reading of the Parlement of Foules—one of Chaucer’s early dream poems (The Parliament of the Fowls). It taught me many things. I introduced you to Augustine of Hippo from that poem, a few entries back. He “shoved” the dreaming Chaucer into “the Garden.” We planned to return to the Garden, and here we are.

Chaucer says he can see birds and rabbits and squirrels and other animals. There are trees of various kinds with leaves always fresh and green. The air is never too hot or too cold and no one there grows sick or old. What a fabulous changeless scene! One might visualize the “vitality of a garden captured in stone.”
      We would not be the first to have such a vision. Emile Mâle, an art historian of the Middle Ages, said “the medieval artist wove a garland of all living things -- plants, animals, beautiful creatures grew under his fingers. . . .Through them the cathedral became a living thing, a gigantic tree full of birds and flowers, less like a work of man than of nature.”
     And Goethe, in 1775, said medieval craftsmen captured “vitality in stone and glass and iron in constructing a cathedral—a most sublime wide-arching Tree of God, with a thousand boughs, a million twigs.” If you can picture the cathedral this way, you are in good company.

Where would we find such a garden with an abiding presence of Augustine—in a medieval cathedral? The most prominent cathedral in Chaucer’s day was Notre Dame of Paris, not only because of the magnificence of its structure, but, what is more important, because of its authority.  The school of Notre Dame de Paris was the second oldest University in Europe. Vast numbers of popes, intellectuals and royalty were educated there. It was particularly recognized for theology and philosophy. Notre Dame was the most authoritative voice in Paris. And Paris was the most authoritative voice in the Church. Augustine would feel quite at home there, I’m sure.

As I read Chaucer’s lines, he seemed to say that “the Garden”  (the cathedral) was on an island!  “Odd,” I thought.

A gardyn saw I, ful of blosmy bowes,
Upon a river, in a grene mede,

Not until some time later, when I found an extended view of Notre Dame in Paris, did I see that it is, indeed, on an island in the Seine!

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Just for fun

OK  Here’s just some fun.  The text is all Middle English, but I’m betting you can read it with no problem.  There is nothing to be afraid of.   Go ahead.  Try it.

Three litel pigges eche hadde a hous—oon was straw, a-nothir was woode, the thridde brikkes.  A bigge, badde wolf desired pigges to ete. He puffed att the hous of strawe; it felle adoun.  The pygge escaped to the hous of woode.  The two pygges thoughte the hous of woode was stronge.  The wolfe puffed harder; the hous of woode corrumped.  The two pigges dashed to the hous of brikkes.  The wolf koude nat damage the brikkes.  When the pygges herde hym clymbyng the chimeney, they remoeved the lidde fro the soupe seethinge in the harthe.  The bigge, badde wolfe plunged in-to the pot.  They hadde wolf soupe for soper & lived happi ever afftir.
--from the back cover of Who’s Afraid of Middle English?

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Cecilia’s side of the story

We’re here to string together bits of evidence of Cecilia. The raptus episode (see previous entry), in which Cecilia accused Chaucer, occurred when he was forty. Philippa, his wife, was elsewhere at the time.
     Concerning Cecilia’s legal status, a woman in 14th-century England, could make appeals (formal accusations) for only three crimes: the death of her husband, the death of her child in utero, and rape. In the case of rape, the woman was required to travel to the next town immediately and inform a trustworthy person about the offense. Then she must notify an official of the law. She had forty days, following the offense, to make her appeal. But, if a woman was found pregnant as the result of rape, the man would not be held guilty of a crime. Why? Because conception was believed possible only with mutual cooperation.
         With so many requirements, it would take a woman of determination to accomplish the law's demands. Cecilia obviously was determined. The time element raises a question. What if, after forty days elapsed and Chaucer had made a financial settlement out of court, pregnancy became evident? I have no answer, except that the poet was no longer a felon.
     Fast forward 10 years. Chaucer's salutation, that begins his Treatise on the Astrolabe, addresses "little Lewis, my son," who was ten years old in 1391. Comparing the dates, the boy could be the product of the ravishment which took place sometime in the spring of 1380. "Little Lewis" could very well be Chaucer's son—by the strong-willed Cecilia.

Now let’s turn to the Canterbury Tales. Chaucer inserts a “Life of St Cecilia” from a medieval collection of saint’s lives. As a poet to royalty, why not  choose Catherine, or Elizabeth—saint’s names of women in the royal family at that time? One reason could be an ongoing relationship with Cecilia. He could have included The Life of St. Cecilia  as one of the Canterbury Tales just for her. In the Chaucer Concordance, a cluster of “Cecilia” is found in the Second Nun's narration. Chaucer translates the Latin legend for St. Cecilia's Day into English as the Second Nun’s offering.
         Who is the Second Nun? She is a woman of mystery. In the General Prologue portraits, she is merely “another nun” travelling with the Pilgrim Prioress. She speaks to no one; no one speaks to her. She is not called on by the Host, in his usual fashion, to tell her story nor is there a reaction to her Tale.
    A lengthy preface precedes the introduction to her story. It begins with an exhortation against idleness and a prayer to the Virgin Mary; both would be fitting for a nun. However, the personal remarks that follow speak of “the contagion of my body” and address an audience as “you who read what I write.” The entire preface sounds like a paranthetic expression of regret from Chaucer himself as a contrite penitent. After the personal remarks, the long-awaited introductory homage to Cecilia begins.
     Chaucer "expounds" upon the name Cecilia. Typical medieval regard for the name as a word shows harmony between the name and the bearer of the name: echoes of chastity, honesty, good conscience and reputation. She is holy and industrious; wise and virtuous. To the several verses of expounding, Chaucer closes with an additional stanza of his own--a summary of Cecilia's attributes.

Right so was fair Cecilia the white [honest, chaste],
Full swift and busy ever in good works,
And perfect at persevering in good,
And ever burning with charity bright.
Now have I declared to you what she was called.

Perseverance in good works is redundant. But his final declaration holds a significant alternate reading—a double meaning.
         The line in Middle English reads:
Now have I yow declared what she highte.
Reading the line, “Now I have declared to you," holds no challenge until the final word: "she highte." "She highte" can say "she was called," "she was named," but "highte" also says ordered or commanded.       
 Chaucer inobtrusively has recorded:
Now I have declared to you what she [Cecilia] ordered.

The story of St Cecilia follows. There are no reactions when her Tale is finished, not from the Host nor the Nun's companions. The mystery woman was included with the travelers to Canterbury only to tell the story of St. Cecilia, only to glorify Cecilia.
     Had Cecilia required a boon from the poet who misused her? If she actually bore his child (little Lewis) and he came to love the child, a relationship between Geoffrey and Cecilia is possible. The poet could have meant this literary expression of admiration as a testimony about a woman of excellent reputation whom he had wronged. Surely, Chaucer has immortalized the name Cecilia. If being memorable is what she wanted, Cecilia will be remembered as long as the Canterbury Tales circulate.