Sunday, March 18, 2018

Two-faced Words

Chaucer was the first to bring the word ambages (ambiguities) out of French into English. He used it to refer to his two-faced words, his words “with two visages.”  Probably the first time he ever played a trick with two-faced words was in The Book of the Duchess. For 500 years the lines

A long castel with walles whyte,
Be seynt Johan! on a riche hil,

seemed to have no reason for existing.
     Then a 19th century English clergyman understood them to contain references to Lancaster, Blaunche, John of Gaunt and the Earl of Richmond!  When Walter W. Skeat, an early Chaucer scholar, saw this interpretation he said “It is easy—when you know it.” And, because he knew the poem so well, went on to apologize, “I certainly ought not to have missed this."
      Blaunche, of the House of Lancaster, is the “Duchess” of the poem. John of Gaunt, who was the Earl of Richmond, had been her husband. By their marriage he became Duke of Lancaster. Upon the death of his beloved Blaunche, he commissioned Chaucer to write the poem. Skeat’s analysis concludes, “We now have a reason for introducing the above lines, which have hitherto seemed rather pointless.”

We’ll allow this early word-trickery to guide our thinking: if a line in Chaucer appears “pointless,” that’s when extra scrutiny needs to be applied!

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Wide Black Nostrils?

Getting acquainted with the Canterbury Pilgrims bothered me. Why were they such a distinctive and assorted group? Certainly they were not random folks the author casually gathered together. 
     So many details were odd, unexpected. For example, a pilgrim has broad shoulders, and can knock a door off its hinges by running into it with his head. He also has a hairy wart on his nose and wide, black nostrils. Are you having difficulty picturing this as the description of a man? One scholar sees it as “a brute of vast strength.” Another refers to the head butt calling it “the grotesque feat of breaking down doors by charging them with his head like a great bull.” 
     That’s the picture Chaucer’s words creates. We just need the courage to admit what we see. The bull is concealed in pilgrim garb as part of Chaucer’s brilliant allegory. Identification of the entire cast of characters wearing pilgrim disguises can be found in Chaucer’s Pilgrims: the Allegory.  See for articles and background that make the pilgrims even more challenging. 

The Miller vs Thopas

 We all know the Miller’s Tale is naughty, but. Chaucer tells the  naughtiest tale himself.  You didn’t know that?  Right. Because notes tell us the story is dull with a monotonous rhythm. And we’ve been told that when the hero of the story—Thopas—pricks, it means he gallops.
      Prick does mean gallop but it also refers to copulation as when a student (in the Reeve’s Tale) creeps into a hausfrau’s bed and pleases her as he ”pricks hard and deep as a madman.” And the “monotonous rhythm” is a 4-beat couplet followed by a 3-beat line which produces “a pattern of climax” over and over. Exactly!
     The horse exemplified man’s unruly passion as far back as Aristotle and the Bible. Then how could Thopas “pricking on the soft grass” be understood only as riding a horse, ignoring the risqué ambiguity? After many coital escapades, Thopas is confronted by an enemy who, continuing the equestrian portrayal, threatens “to slay thy steed.”   

     A lot more creative two-faced language startles and surprises. You’ll find all the details in Pilgrim Chaucer: Center Stage. Find many more Chaucer activities at