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.

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