Saturday, July 31, 2010

Such a mom

I am such a mom.  I had just typed this sentence as the opening to this post when one of my Chaucerians texted me the exact same phrase.  Let me explain.

It's our final weekend here at Yale.  We have three class meetings (and movie night) next week, but then we disperse back to North Carolina and California (times 2) and Tennessee and Missouri.  (It seems so weird to type that and not Georgia.)  So this weekend is crammed full of traveling.  Yesterday was NYC for marathon museums; today is Waterford, CT for beach bumming; tomorrow is Boston for Freedom Trail and a game at Fenway Park.  Because I like to organize, I have helped plan the transportation elements of these trips.  (Not only does this indicate that I'm domestic, it also identifies that I'm finally a local.  I can read the timetables!)  This organization element is highly characteristic of who I am, ingrained in me like a pace-maker.  I embrace it because it brings me comfort.  This quirk has been good for me and my son, even if it irritates others, because it enhances my single-mommy gig down to a well-oiled machine.  What unnerves me a bit is that in absence of my son, I have taken to being a mom with my Chaucerians.

I've been concerned about packing since Monday.  I took inventory to make sure everyone had a bag that would easily hold their beach stuff without taking up too much room on the train.  (And I even suggested that, if needed, we could put all of our stuff in one of my suitcases.)  I fussed over how we transport beer to the beach and even considered buying a cooler that we could pull like luggage for the trip.  (How in the hell would I get a cooler back to Missouri?  But that wasn't the concern.  Immediate ease of my local family was the concern.)

In addition to checking on buses and food for the weekend jaunts, I have also provided weekend weather updates.  I just texted my Chaucerians that "it will be jacket worthy tonight."  Seriously, these people are grown men and women.  They do not need me telling them to bring a jacket to the beach.  But I suggested it anyway because this is what moms do.

The phrase "such a mom" is as vague in its definition as is "motherhood," yet we say it to people, usually out of fondness and appreciation, who behave like moms.  I wonder if Melibee ever thought to say this to Prudence?  Because, in my opinion, Prudence is the only character from the tales thus far that I would describe as "such a mom."  Her daughter is wounded by her husband's enemies.  The husband, Melibee, wants to exact gruesome revenge and wage wars over the act.  Prudence, although distraught over her daughter's attack, just wants it all to end.  Why wage wars indefinitely when we can work on acceptance and healing instead?  (I am not saying I would be this strong or logical if something happened to my son; I merely see the wisdom in handling crisis the way Prudence encourages Melibee to handle it.  Life is, after all, about trying to make each day better than the last.  You can't do that if you're blinded by grief and anger and waging wars like a mad man.)  Prudence is such a mom.

And so am I.  I hope my Chaucerians don't mind.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Martha who?

I am not very domestic.  It's not that I'm incapable or opposed or feminist or any of the like; it's that the art of domesticity is lost on an 8 year old boy.  If I ever have the pleasure of being a wife, I will be happily domestic (understanding full well that the art of domesticity may also be lost on an adult boy), but until that point, I see no need to prepare a Martha Stewart inspired meal for an 8 year old boy with the pallet of an 8 year old boy or to scour the surfaces of my home to a shine in which June Cleaver can see her reflection.  I cook and clean as dictated by the needs of my small family and to this date we have survived just fine.  (After all, my son has reached the age of 8, a ripe age for Medieval times, so I must be doing something right.  Though my mom would contend that I need to clean my bathrooms more frequently.  I guess she's more domestic than I.)

Although domesticity strays a little from my investigation into Medieval motherhood, especially since in my mind it emphasizes the role of the wife in relationship to the family as a whole not just a woman's responsibility as a mother,  I encountered some interesting facets of Medieval domesticity that I would like to share with you.
  • The architecture of the early Medieval home (twelfth and thirteenth centuries) was strongly influenced by religious and secular views of the Eucharist, placing the usage of the buttery (a room for storing wine and liquor) and the pantry (a room whose usage is so elevated that its name is changed to a spence to reflect the importance of bread) parallel to that of the grand hall.  The grand hall, aptly named, was arranged in such symmetry that it could be folded along its longest wall and form a perfect mirror image of itself.  The bread and wine held such honor that each room (buttery and spence) had its own overseer, positions of reverence within the domestic structure.  These architectural and social indulgences indicated more than just your wealth; they indicated the order and behavior of your domicile.
    • If you have seen Macbeth or The Tudors or The Lion in Winter, to name a few, you have seen an image of a grand hall similar to those found in Medieval homes.  The hall itself is not the element of the architecture that interests me.  I am intrigued by the emphasis placed on the buttery and the spence.  When shopping for a home today, many people notice the structure of the kitchen, and with that consider storage for all their kitchen items, but I think it is safe to say that most people do not place as much emphasis on pantry spaces as our Medieval counterparts.  And the idea that the bread and the wine were to be stored in separate areas, each with a separate person to oversee its contents, is enthralling.  (A side note, the 'snack bar' located in the basement of each residential college here at Yale is called 'the buttery.')  I understand the sacred association of them, but I do not think Jesus intended for building plans to be drawn around The Last Supper.  (And I wonder if Hogwarts stores these items in separate rooms.  Blasphemous thought, I know.)  Based upon these practices of organization and management of the buttery and spence, I am much more domestic than I think.  My spence is rigidly organized; my spence organizing skills are so honed that I organize my mom's spence every time I get a chance.  Yep, I'm a real Harriet Beecher Stowe.  (I bet you didn't know that Beecher Stowe was America's original Martha Stewart.  She published The American Woman's Home:  Principal's of Domestic Science in 1869.)
  • The Virgin Mary, who was pregnant at the time, traveled to see her cousin Elizabeth, who was also pregnant.  The reunion of these women and the events of their visit establish a precedence of sorts for every family visit since that time.  The Visitation, as it is fondly called, supposedly influences women like Margery Kempe and Birgitta of Sweden (among countless others) to make frequent visits to family, primarily based upon religious duty and devotion, in which fellowship (much like communion) is highly regarded.
    • While I find it a bit of a stretch to accredit Mary with establishing the idea of family gatherings, it does make her more approachable and real.  (I've always found her a little intimidating because of the whole "I gave birth to Christ" thing.)  Her concern for her cousin led her to travel at a time when she probably should have just remained at home, relaxing in the recliner (its BC equivalent anyway).  But family is about sacrifice and Mary demonstrates this during the Visitation.  I'm not sure if I buy it completely, but it at least gives purpose to the hours of therapy that follow a long weekend with the family.  (Hours is a bit of an exaggeration, but you know what I mean.)

Above is an image of The Visitation from Bean Book of Hours, Manuscript 2, Folio 521.

Source:  Kowaleski, M. and Goldberg, P.  Medieval Domesticity.  Cambridge University Press.  New York, 2008.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Must love dogs

Since class doesn't formally meet on Wednesday nights, Dr. Patterson suggested (and we agreed) a Wednesday evening movie night.  Attendance is optional, but those who venture out dine on pizza from Yorkside while drinking beer and watching a movie inspired by Medieval history and culture.

Our first viewing was The Name of the Rose starring a young Sean Connery and a pre-pubescent Christian Slater.  The following two weeks we endured a Peter O'Toole double-header with Becket and The Lion in Winter.  (O'Toole is brilliant in both, but Katherine Hepburn stole the show in TLiW, no surprise.  And talk about a star-studded cast, Timothy Dalton and Anthony Hopkins are both in that flick.)  This week we watched a movie entitled Sorceress.  (Despite minor issues with dubbing and Medieval quality acting, Sorceress is a must-see.)

Sorceress shares the account of a monk who goes to a small town to investigate heresy only to learn that the town's inhabitants are not committing heresy but instead worship a legitimate (loose interpretation of the word legitimate) saint.  St. Guinefort, the greyhound, protector of infants.  Yep, that's right.  A saintly dog.

Based upon a true account by the monk, the movie illuminates the philosophy that faith is more than what you can see with your eyes.  It also showed a mother's willingness to go to great lengths for her child, something I haven't seen much from the mothers in Chaucer's tales (with the exception of Constance and Prudence), but speaks to my philosophy of motherhood.  Despite persecution of the church, the women in the village believed in the power of St. Guinefort to protect their children and cure their illnesses.  So what if the ritual in the forest verges on heresy?  It's done for the wellness of the child.

These mothers had faith; although the practice was questioned by others, I admire them for that...even if it was in a dog...

Defining motherhood

motherhood: (n.) derivative of the word mother 

mother:  (n.)  a woman in relation to a child(ren) to whom she has given birth; a person who provides the care and affection normally associated with a female parent

mothering: (v trans.)  to bring up (a child) with care and affection; (adj.) the state of being a mother

Could the definitions on which my research is founded be anymore vague?  Seriously.  There is no definitive manner in which to define what makes one a mother.  Yes, the definition indicates a birth right, but does giving birth truly equate to being a mother?  Also, what level of "care and affection" constitutes a mother?  As a teacher, I have encountered many mothers lacking the level of care and affection I believe mothers should exhibit; my son's teachers would attest that I demonstrate too much care and affection.  (Hell, some of my own family members disagree with my mothering of my son.) And so, as with most everything of importance in the world, motherhood is difficult to put into words.  But I'm going to try.

I start with a book I came across in my research entitled:  The Oldest Vocation:  Christian Motherhood in the Middle Ages.  Written by Clarissa Atkinson, the text illuminates history of Medieval motherhood in Europe, "where it's roots are inextricably entangled with the history of Christianity" (ix).  Atkinson clearly connects the ambiguous subjects of motherhood and Christianity in a manner that is thoughtful without being pious, making the reading easier to digest, especially for someone like me whose personal relationship with Christianity is ever-changing.

Because I don't want this blog to take a sermonizing turn (and because the entire text is worth reading), I encourage you to find the book and read it if you like.  (You can get it used at for $3.99.)  Some of the highlights for me are included here:
  • Medieval motherhood was constructed by persons whose primary ideology was Christianity:  Christian stories and moral teaching shaped their imaginative boundaries, their sense of self and world and their social, legal, and domestic arrangement.  This was the case even for those who were illiterate and relatively "unchurched."
    • The concepts of Christian motherhood are paralleled in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.  Many of the mothers (mentioned in a previous blog) found their strength and identity in Christianity, especially the Virgin Mary.  Those familiar with the Bible read time and time again of mothers who suffer great loss with unexplainable grace and dignity, just as the mothers in the tales.  Again, I just can't conceive that I would handle harm upon or loss of my son with Christian decorum.  I am, however, subconsciously aware of the Christian stories and teachings I learned as a child, and I use them in mothering situations, either with students or my son, everyday.  This is not to say that I gather them around and tell them the story of Sarah, but I know that she was a hospitable woman who welcomed strangers into her home and shared her heart with them despite their hostilities toward her.  Those Christian tales guide more of my mommy-behavior than I imagined.
  • Until quite recently, motherhood had no history; it was identified with the private sphere of the biological aspects human condition.  Women's lives were organized and their capacities defined by their status as mothers, potential mothers, and non-mothers, but motherhood itself was not perceive as an institution shaped by culture and subject to history.  Styles of child rearing and other elements of family life in nonindustrial societies were accessible to cultural analysis, thanks to anthropologists. [But] most anthropologists regarded fatherhood as a social construction, motherhood as a natural or biological construction.  Not even practitioners of the twentieth century thought to study motherhood as a specific institution.
    • This explains why this research topic was so difficult.  I struggled to find valuable sources that could be feasibly read, analyzed, and applied in a little over three weeks.  The subjectivity connected to motherhood is not a modern, we have too many words in our vocabulary, problem.  As indicated by Atkinson, motherhood has been viewed for many years as little more than a natural behavior in the world.  And while much about mothering is arguably inherent (or natural), it is strongly shaped by the constructs of the outside world, making it social as well as natural.  The social influence of Christianity on motherhood creates the foundation of Atkinson's research.  For my research, I over-excitedly wanted to analyze everything about Medieval motherhood.  Over-zealous?  Absolutely.  But I'm okay with that!
  • Physiological assumptions are building blocks that define the moral, social, and emotional characteristics of motherhood.  What is known and believed about conception, pregnancy, and birth not only describes what mothers are, but colors expectations of what they should be.  Profound and powerful presuppositions about gender, sexuality, and parenthood color observations of maternity in its physiological as well as its psychological and social aspects.  This is not to suggest that motherhood or reproductive physiology was a primary focus of Christian thought and activity.  However, the absence of a Christian biology does not imply an absences of biological assumptions.
    • This chapter was the most difficult one for me to dissect as Atkinson seems to assert that the relationship between the physiology of motherhood and the social importance of motherhood are very symbiotic.  In other words, the cultural understanding of what makes a mother a "good" or "bad" mother is founded on that culture's knowledge of the biology of being a mother in conjunction with the knowledge of and participation of faith.  She addresses major physiological understandings about motherhood and all its facets--conception, menstruation (an astounding seven pages of the chapter are devoted to this topic), nursing, delivery, etc--as studied by Hippocrates, Aristotle, Plato, (and the like) and then contrasts them with the Church's moral and theological perspectives on the same topics.  Who even knew that the Church had a position on menstruation and nursing?
  • The idea of spiritual motherhood takes shape in the late fourth/early fifth century as Christianity is the established religion of the Roman world.  By the sixth century, the only people in Medieval Europe who can read are monks and nuns.  Nuns built new families to replace the families they left behind, bringing to the cloisters (and eventually to the world) a concept of motherhood based solely on spiritual genetics.  Women who aspired to holiness were restricted to forms of religious life in which physical motherhood was incompatible with devotion to God.  Holy women were the brides of Christ and mothers of holy communities, so they were not prohibited from the role of motherhood.  Spiritual motherhood was the only religious leadership permitted to women.
    • It's interesting to me that physical motherhood interferes with devotion to God, especially considering the fact that Mary, the physical mother of Christ, embodies Christian devotion and mothering.  However, I completely respect the concept of spiritual motherhood.  Religious conviction of such magnitude is not easy and I admire anyone that can manage it.  In reading this chapter, however, I was a little vexed by Medieval practice of valuing spiritual mothers more than physical ones.  The concept, as I understand it, indicates that the sacrifice of the spiritual mother is greater than that of the physical, thus she sits closer to God.  Seeing as how Jesus called the children to him because "the Kingdom of God belongs to these," I think the physical mother trumps the spiritual mother.  I'm just saying...
The rest of the text continues on to recount endless stories of miracles and motherhood, specifically the influence of Mary--not as a Virginal sacred vessel whose powers were meant only for the saints, but as a passionate mother of all children who shapes the hearts of mothers--that support the idea that motherhood is the oldest vocation and that it is founded on Christian ideology.  (Prior to this reading, I considered Mary peculiar and her status of motherhood unattainable by humans because of the whole immaculate conception thing.  But now I am intrigued by her genuine spirit and motherly devotion.)  Even if you are not a Believer, the text provides a thought provoking look at the ways in which all mothers are Christians.

There are worse things a mother can be...

Source:  Atkinson, Clarissa.  The Oldest Vocation:  Christian Motherhood in the Middle Ages.  Cornell University Press.  Ithaca, New York.  1991.

        Monday, July 26, 2010

        Oh mother, where art thou?

        None of the Pilgrims traveling to Canterbury are mothers.  In fact, of the 29 Pilgrims, the nun, Prioress, and Wife of Bath are the only women.  (Given that current population estimates places men as 51% of the population and women at 49%, women are gravely misrepresented by the Pilgrims, even by medieval standards.)  When you remove the nun and the Prioress from the equation, which you must do because they would have been spiritual mothers but not natural, physical mothers, the sole remaining Pilgrim to undertake the role of mother is the Wife of Bath.  In his defense, Chaucer never indicates that the Wife is not a mother; however, lack of dialogue about children leads readers to presume that she in fact has none.

        The representations of motherhood within the tales themselves don't exactly paint favorable pictures of Medieval mothers:
        • In "The Reeve's Tale," the mother is so oblivious to her daughter that she does not hear her struggling against the advances of a young clerk even though they are in the bed next to her.  Although this oblivion carries over from her role earlier in the tale, it seems very unnatural for this to go unnoticed by her, even if she is a sound sleeper.
        • In "The Man of Law's Tale," the mother of the Sultan of Syria murders everyone at her son's wedding feast, including her son, for converting to Christianity upon his marriage to Constance, taking the image of the mother-in-law to a reprehensible level.
        • According to the Wife of Bath, her mother taught her how to "lay upright" (on her back), among other sexual adages.  This is not the kind of talk my mother and I had about the birds and the bees, but I guess some families handle sex differently than ours.
        • Griselda, the mother in "The Clerk's Tale" promises her husband Walter, Marquis of Italy, that she will accept any joy or pain he deems fit to bring upon her without complaining and with a good heart.  He abuses this vow, testing her will, by taking her children from her and murdering them for no reason more than whim.  On both occasions, she sits "as a lamb" and aside from requesting that the bodies be handle respectfully in their burial, does not shed a tear or raise an objection or attack the sergeant who takes them from her.  When she discovers years later that her children are still alive, her emotional break-down is glossed by many readers as a sign of weakness rather than motherly joy.  Maybe it's because I am a mother and have never been a wife that this behavior is repugnant to me, but I do not know a mother who would sacrifice her children in this manner.  In the words of Dave Barry:  "If a woman has to choose between catching a fly ball and saving an infant's life, she will choose to save the infant's life without even considering if there are men on base."
        • At the end of "The Merchant's Tale" it is implied that May is pregnant, but readers are left to wonder which man--her husband, January or her lover, Damian--is the father.
        • My reaction to the mother in "The Prioress's Tale" is one of quandary.  When her son is murdered by a "gun for hire" while walking home from school one day, her despair is ardent and much more fathomable than Griselda's.  However, the school her son attends is located far from home and the only route to it leads him through an area described as a ghetto of highly unfavorable inhabitants.  ("The Prioress's Tale" is strongly anti-Semitic; the murderer and the residents of the ghetto are Jewish.)  The son walks to school alone each day which is not something I would allow my own son to do if I felt his life might be in danger which leads me to wonder what is wrong with this mother.
        For my final project for this course, I did some research about motherhood in Medieval England.  The next several entries will focus on various aspects of the culture of motherhood in the Middle Ages.  I do not know if I have come any closer to understanding why Chaucer presents mothers in these colorings, but I do know more about the cultural implications of mothers and I can't wait to share them with you. 

        Saturday, July 24, 2010

        Play on words

        Old English, spoken 450-1100, was influenced by the Anglo-Saxon invasion.  The Saxons, Germanic in their roots, brought to England a rich vernacular.  Aside for alliterative poetry, however, there is little similarity between Old English and Middle English.

        Middle English begins to take shape around 1100 and holds the "title" as official language of England until approximately 1500.  Though changes in language fall parallel to the Norman Invasion, the invasion did not lead to the change of language.  Instead, it simply reflects the natural progression of language.  There is a shift toward more Latin influence in Middle English vernacular.

        Modern English--Britian's Modern English, which is not to be confused with today's Americanized English--evolves because of vowels.  Oh yes, those 5 (sometimes 6) letters are powerful little gals.  (Watch "The Letter People"; all the vowels are girls.)  Around 1485, culture enters something known as "The Great Vowel Shift".  This shift takes awhile, and most linguists and historians indicate that major vowel changes have settled themselves by 1800.  Seeing as how Shakespeare's writing falls in the very early years of this movement, it could be argued he writes in Middle English, not Modern.  By 1500, English is the language of high culture.  Latin and French are still learned in school, but English is spoken and written by the elite.

        The Canterbury Tales were written in Middle English which is so very cool to read.  Yes, it's arduous and requires, at least for me, several readings to achieve fluidity, but the words are just crazy fun.  (Or maybe I'm just crazy.)  When reading, I easily see in some words the Germanic influence of the Anglo-Saxon invasion ('ich', meaning 'I') and Latin roots that should be familiar to all readers.  My favorite thing about Chaucer's writing:  the way he plays with language.  I'm going to provide you with some of my favorite words.  Some definitions/uses will be obvious; easy.  Others will not.  Don't take that as indication of your intellectual capacity, please.  I will warn you that some of them are associated with sex; they're the most fun!

        • compaignye:  Company or group
        • me thynketh:  I think.  (I just like the 'ynk' combination.)
        • armee:  army or expedition.  This is the only usage of the word in the entirety of Middle English.  Usually scribes use 'arivee' meaning 'amphibious landing'.  But when talking about a Knight, 'armee' makes better sense.
        • trouthe:  This word has four meanings:  fidelity to an oath;  truth (reality);  God;  personal integrity.  For gentilesse (the aristocracy), 'trouthe' is stationed as the most important thing of all.  And 'trouthe' is not to be confused with 'honour' which is your standing in the world based upon what others think of you.  Obviously, 'trouthe' and 'honour' can go hand-in-hand, but should a conflict between the two arise, as it does in the "Franklin's Tale," you should choose 'trouthe'.
        • lewd:  In Chaucer's day, this word meant low-class or common; it did not mean sexually offensive as it does today.  However, since the lower classes were seen as offensive, the progression of the meaning is natural.
        • estaat: Vocation, not your home.
        • array:  Clothing
        • lust:  Desire, but not sexual desire.  Lust during the Middle Ages was primarily a reference to greed, ambition, or wanting for things--not sex--that you didn't (and possibly couldn't) possess.
        • axe: Oh yes.  To the woe of English teachers everywhere, this is the correct spelling for the Middle English verb 'ask'.
        • quite:  This word means 'to pay back'.  Throughout the tales, Pilgrims 'quite' each other for their tales.  The Miller 'quites' the Knight, the Reeve 'quites' the Miller, and the Merchant 'quites' them all.  (To name a few.)
        • queynte:  Is very unpleasant given that it refers to a vagina.  Sorry, but the reason that I find this interesting is because it also means 'clever'.  Another reason it's interesting:  it's similar in spelling and pronunciation to 'quite' (see above).
        • likerous:  inviting or desirable.  When used in the noun form 'liker,' it replaces 'lust' in ME usage.
        • grucche:  If you think it looks a little like 'grouch,' you're on the right track.  It means complain.  Griselda vows to Walter that she will never 'grucche' in their marriage, regardless of what happens.  He pretends to kill their children to test her devotion.  When she passes those tests, he kicks her out of the house.  Only then does she 'grucche'. 
        • priketh, prikke, prikyng, etc:  These variations mean to incite or to move, as in the spirit priketh you; however, it's usually used in a subtext that implies a prikyng of a sexual nature. 
        • labour:  To the bedroom...  Remember, estaat refers to your 'work' or employment.  You also need to remember the idea that sex was a marriage debt, something the couple owed upon vow of marriage.  The concept of 'working off debt' takes on entirely new meaning when you consider all of this.
        • swonken:  To the bedroom...  (Chaucer has lots of words for this.)

        And my favorite of them all-----swynk:  Which also means to the bedroom, but when read in the phrase 'swynking in a pear tree,' it seems very innocent and fun.  Oh merchant, you tell the best tale!

          Friday, July 23, 2010

          Chaucer: The Medieval Tim Gunn

           Recall, if you will, the following lines from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar:
          Know you not, / being mechanical, you out not walk / Upon a labouring day without the  sign / Of your profession? (1.1.3-6)
           And consider it's similarities with Chaucer's lines from the "General Prologue" of The Canterbury Tales:
          Me thynketh it acordaunt to resoun / To tele yow al the condicioun / Of ech of hem, so as it semed me, / And whiche the weren, and of what degree / and eek in what array that they were inne, (GP, 37-41)
          [Translated:  I think it is important to tell you the condition of each of them [pilgrims], as it seemed to me, how they were, of what social rank, and how they were dressed.]
          Both texts, written 200 years apart, focus on the power of something called sumptuary laws.  Dating back to the Roman Empire (hence the association with Julius Caesar), sumptuary laws, simply put, regulate what people can and cannot wear (as well as other things like personal spending and food consumption.) [See for more information.  If you don't know much about the laws, I encourage you to take a look.  They're really interesting.]  A person's job (or status) dictated clothing style, making it easy to determine one's "worth" at first glance.  The laws--a sort of school dress code for the masses--were capriciously enforced--sometimes authorities cared; other times they didn't--however, you did not want to encounter the sergeant at law on a bad day, so adherence to the codes was the norm.

          Throughout the "General Prologue," Chaucer scrutinizes the clothing, noting: the Yeoman's coat and hood of green, as well as sword and small shield (standard to his status and trade); the Prioresse's elegant cloak and coral bracelet, string of pearls, and gold broach engraved with an A (seemingly showy at first glance, but once understanding that the pearls are actually a rosary, it is befitting of her rank); and the Clerk's threadbare overcoat (maybe a little shabby for a 'learned' man, yet his rank and pay would not afford finer attire.  Sounds a little like being a teacher.) 

          In addition to being driven by the sumptuary laws, people of the Middle Ages viewed clothing as an expression of a person's moralistic value:  Adam and Eve are dressed in animal skin to reflect the bestiality of sin, Baptism gowns are white to reflect the purity of salvation, and church clergy weary the effigy of Christ to reflect their desire to be like him.  Meaning, instead of wearing blue because of fondness of the color blue or 'cool' skin tone, one would wear blue as an indication of virginity and moral likeness to Mary.  (No, being Gothic or urban in dress does not indicate a fundamental problem with your moral core by today's standards, anyway, but in the Middle Ages you may have been considered a heretic!)

          Chaucer best depicts this ideal in the "Clerk's Tale", the story of Griselda, a woman born into a family that owns nothing more than an ox stall (symbolic religious significance, obviously) who lives a simplistic, devout life until the Marquis requests her hand in marriage.  The Marquis (Walter) selects her out of all of the women in the village because of her virtuous beauty, mature and steady spirit, and obedient devotion and diligence to her father; she has no lust (in the Middle Ages lust referred to desire for all things, not just sexual need) and accepts her lowly station in life with grace and compassion.  (If you read the tale in it's entirety, you will discover that Walter abuses Griselda's obedient devotion in a ghastly manner.  Upon acceptance of the marriage vow, Walter clothes Griselda in a glorious array and this lowly woman obtains a station (and a wardrobe) worthy of her moral essence.  When Walter's didactic tyranny reaches its pinnacle and he removes Griselda from his home, she leaves in a simple shroud equal the riches in which she was previously adorned.  (A little like another holy, moral person who was stripped of his title and clothing, and removed from his home.)

          Of course, when you consider the fact that many viewed placement within the feudal system as parallel to moral capability, the entire clothing situation creates a holy conundrum.  (ie.  Knights are by dictate of courtly ideals more honorable than millers and reeves.  This is like claiming that an Army General is more scrupulous than a Starbucks barista.  You know what they say about assumptions.)

          Really all one can do in any fashion culture is "make it work."

          And that's just what Chaucer did.

          Sunday, July 18, 2010

          Take these chances

          There are ants in my apartment.  This is no surprise given the condition of the building and the apartment--I can't clean it enough to make up for days of college boy abandon--and the natural inclination of bugs to come inside--especially in this heat--but the ants in my apartment are perplexing and unlike other ants I've encountered.  First, I haven't seen many, just 10 or so--enough to make me question their origin and wonder if there's an infestation looming in my future, but not the normal infinite stream I've always assumed to be an ants preferred method of travel.  In addition to that, these ants travel alone, in seemingly random circular paths, like they aren't quite sure where they're going but they'll know it when they get there.  Obviously I have paid a lot of attention to these ants in the past several days.  During my observations, I have come to realize that I have a lot in common with them.  (Oh, don't be sad.  It's not as pathetic as it sounds.)

          My life is in the middle of a peculiar limbo--a vague greyness between where I was and where I am going.  It has been this way since April, a month of monumental change.  With the start of Spring came the acceptance to Yale and the acceptance of a job offer in Missouri--the acceptance of significant change in my life.  Rooted in Georgia, in a home and a community and a family of friends I thought we'd never leave, the decision to return to my beginnings to build a future for my son was overwhelmingly difficult.  Yet everything fell into place so effortlessly that I could not argue with the path laid out before me.

          I am half-way finished with my course at Yale and each day it becomes more and more difficult to articulate what I am experiencing here.  I simply say "I'm doing a lot of reading and a lot of research but I really enjoy it" because to most people it seems simply ludicrous to find this endeavor comparable to anything pleasurable.  This opportunity has alleviated any personal doubt I held about my capabilities and whether or not I belong here intellectually--I am smart enough to study at Yale.  I'm not quite ready to pursue a Doctorate, but this class will more than satisfy me for awhile.  Life is too unsettled, too uncertain to go back to school.  Instead, I need to find the simplicity of home again.

          Despite the learning and the research and the enjoyment I have doing them, I am ready to be back with my son and back at the beginning, taking chances for our future.

          Thursday, July 15, 2010

          Do you come here often?

          I do not understand those couples who claim to have met at the gym.  Think about it, with the exception of the increased endorphins and self-esteem upon completing a rigorous workout, the gym is one of the least attractive places on earth.  Yes, the blond with the surfer physique and rugged abs is attractive, and the chick in the Yoga pants has a bottom worthy of a T-Pain club anthem (and my envy), but sweat is not a way to entice the opposite sex, in my opinion.  The gym is home to sweat-drenched, odorous, breathless masses working relentlessly to stay one step ahead of the bulge.  (Stop fooling yourself; you do not "glisten".  No one in the gym glistens.  "Glistening" only happens in commercials for cruise lines.  If you go to the gym, and leave with only a glisten, you need to go back in and try again.)  In fact, I think there are only two places where your partner should see you as sweaty and as breathless as he/she will find you in the gym.  (I'll leave you to ponder what those may be.  My siblings would argue that a 311 concert is the third place.  I guess it's a matter of preference.)  The point being that it perplexes me that one could meet a date or a mate at the gym.

          But at least women today have avenues such as the gym (though I'd prefer a bookstore or a park or even trivia night) for meeting guys.  In the Middle Ages, chronic dating in search of "the one" was not an option.  Courtship may have happened, but only after an arrangement (fancy talk for financial backing) between the man and the potential in-laws.  In most cases, however, you would have been married off to some guy you barely knew, if you knew him at all, without all the hassle of dating. 

          The upsides to such an arrangement: no cheesy pick-up lines and no "dating stress".  The downsides:  too numerous to list.  (But the hassles of dating and the stupid pick-up lines seem quite positive in comparison to a life-long marriage to a person you didn't choose.)

          Monday, July 12, 2010

          Chaucer: The Medieval Dr. Ruth

          The Canterbury Tales are written in a dialect of Middle English closely associated with and understood by the "common people."  The social order (or estates) of the Pilgrims is clearly defined and readers, even those unfamiliar with the social hierarchy of the time, understand very quickly that the Knight resides above the Clerk in status.  Chaucer's use of Middle English as opposed to French or Latin (or even Italian) indicates his desire to move literature from the world of scholars and into the world of man.  Below are a few of my favorite passages from the tales we've read thus far.  Some of them are poetic and flowing while others are raunchy and common.  All of them show a glimpse of life in Medieval England.

          General Prologue, lines 1-18:

          Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote
          The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
          And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
          Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
          Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
          Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
          The tendre croppes, and the yong sonne
          Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
          And smale foweles maken melodye,
          That slepen al the nyght with open eye-
          So priketh hem nature in hir corages
          Thanne longen fold to goon on pilgrimages,
          And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
          To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes
          And specially from every shires ende
          Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende
          The hooly blisful martir for to seke
          That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

          Okay, so it seems predictable to start with the "General Prologue" but really, the opening indicates everything you'll find in one form or another from the rest of the text.  The images of birth and renewal suggested by the time of year (April) and a need for penitence (long to go on Pilgrimages).  A suggestion of sex (sleeping at night with an open eye and pricking of nature).  A need for adventure (seek strange lands).  An appreciation for "ancient" beliefs that seems to gesture to the learned folk that might not be so excited about this common tale (Zephirus and Ram).  And probably my favorite thing about the passage, a play the words seke (seek) and seeke (sick).

          The final couplet, loosely translated, reads "They seek the holy blissful martyr so he can heal what makes them sick."  The underlying context associates the word sick with sin, so it makes complete sense that the Pilgrims seek Thomas Becket's (the martyr) shrine to assuage the guilt of their sin.  The exact nature of the sin is never precisely detailed, but given the carnal undertone of many of the other tales we've read, I think the sin for which the Pilgrims seek forgiveness is the sin of the flesh.

          Some interesting things I've learned about sins of the flesh, according to the clergy and other religious definitions from the Middle Ages, during this class, in no particular order:
          • Saving yourself for marriage is more sinful than having premarital sex.  Virginity in the sense of chastity for religious devotion mattered more than being untouched prior to your wedding night. 
          • Clergy--monks, friars, nuns, etc.--took a vow of chastity and therefore were not supposed to have sex.  However, many reports indicate that they did.  Surprisingly, saving yourself for marriage is still more sinful than the vow broken by these members of the church.
          • Being married and having sex with your partner--and only your partner--doesn't win you more brownie points than the widow who never marries and never has sex after the death of his/her spouse.
          • Sex inside marriage is fully acceptable, especially if you get pregnant as a result, as long as you don't enjoy it.  This sex is marriage debt, and if it's too pleasurable and people find out, your purity status falls next to that of the "no sex before marriage" virgin.  (And this is why the Wife of Bath frightens people.  Her sermon boldly indicates her enjoyment of sex with her husbands.  It doesn't exactly help matters that she weds 5 times, making her a remarried widow who enjoys sex.  YIKES!)
          • Adultery is favored over having sex when you're not married.  Yep, it was less sinful to be Henry VIII than to be a swinging bachelor.  (Not that he's Medieval, but you understand my point.)
          • If you're a single women, give up now because none of these rules apply to you and you can't win for losing.
           While Chaucer didn't practice or support these doctrinal views, people of the time would have easily been surrounded by those who did prescribe to these Puritanical understandings.  It's no surprise that the Pilgrims seem to be in search of forgiveness for their carnal desires.  The tales serve as a sort of therapy, a verbal acknowledgment of bodily urges.  And the Pilgrimage is just what the doctor prescribed.

          My favorite (so far) is "The Merchant's Tale", a tale with an interesting take on the original sin.  Give it a read, and then let's talk.

          Sunday, July 11, 2010

          Planes, trains, and automobiles and buses, but not planes*

          *This blog has been recently edited to more clearly state the point of my rant.

          Owning a car has made me soft.  Oh, don't worry Ford, I won't be trading in the Fusion for my walking shoes.  After all, I'm moving to Ashland, Missouri, a small town stationed 15 miles from the middle of everything save a Breaktime (gas station) and a Mosher's (small grocery store), so the Fusion is a necessity.  But during my brief stay here in New Haven I have quickly discovered that my dependence on personal transportation is slightly crippling.

          Need blades for your razor?  Run to the store.  Craving popcorn?  Run to the store.  Bored and wanna browse somewhere other than the campus apparel shop?  Run to the store.  Oh wait; I don't have a car so I can't run to the store.  Of course, I am able to find razor blades and popcorn at various markets within walking distance to campus and my apartment, but the prices at those locations leave me cringing and so I use them sparingly.  And honestly, it's been good for my budget that I'm not able to hop over to Target or Gap to satiate boredom.  For the most part, I think I have surpassed the learning-curve as far as food and toiletries are concerned; plus, the walking (or lack of car) is not the over-whelming problem.  After a day in Hartford on Friday, I discovered that I have a lot to learn about public transportation, an mode much more important than the automobile in this neck of the woods.

          First of all, I find the timetables for the various modes of transportation very overwhelming.  I consider myself decent at understanding charts and graphs and maps, but these timetables are nearly as foreign to me as Chaucer's Middle English.  In addition to the timetables, you need to know what mode of transportation you want to take.  It's not enough to need the bus.  Do you want the commuter (express) bus or the CT bus or the shuttle bus?  And buses are easy in comparison to the train.  There are students in my class who commute from Rhode Island and New York by train each day.  I know those states are close--you can get to NYC in a little over an hour, Boston and Philly in three, and DC in five--but it still seems weird that they don't drive here.  However commuting by train is common and second nature for the locals.  (Please note that the term "locals" is loosely used to describe anyone I've met with a natural inclination for understanding public transportation better than I.  Based on that definition, everyone is a local!)  The train to the CT coast is different from the train to NYC which is different from the train to Boston (and so on) and then there's the distinction between the commuter train and Amtrak.  Add to that special trains for Mets, Yankees, and Red Sox game days, and it's a spinning mess.  (I should have paid better attention during my son's Thomas the Train obsession.  I might have been more culturally prepared for this if I had.)

          This transportation situation is something for which neither public education or two colleges prepared me.  Of course, geography plays a role in exposure to these monstrosities.  In Owensville, Missouri, the only buses I rode led to and from school.  It stopped at the top of the gravel drive on Bohemian Highway and I didn't ask questions or change buses at the red line.  I just sat near the back, annoyed that to be the first one on and elated to be the first one off each day.  At Mizzou, campus was small enough for foot or bike travel or I had a car (or friends with cars) to get me around.  And KSU is a commuter college, especially (obviously) for grad students, so again--car.  As for the year I spent living in Atlanta guessed it:  car.

          Friday's excursion to Hartford would have been a disaster if not for my classmate who seamlessly maneuvered us from express bus to CT bus to our tourist traps and back again.  We had a great day, but I was frustrated with myself for being so ignorant to the transportation situation.  The Wife of Bath went on three Pilgrimages to Jerusalem, without her husband at the time (she was married five times) to accompany her and carry the map; she made her way through the terrain without someone else controlling the journey for her.  Of course, there was a guide (or host as in The Canterbury Tales), but the Pilgrims would have journeyed quite independently despite being in a group.  Now, I don't embody all of the Wife's feminist ideals; in fact, after reading her prologue and tale again this weekend, I assimilate to fewer of her exemplars than I thought.  I am a creature of control and independence out of necessity, not as a venue of abuse and spite of others as was the case of the Wife and four of her five husbands--I wouldn't complain to someone else being my guide once in a while (or more than once in a while) whereas the Wife withholds the marriage debt (or temptation of the flesh--to use another Biblical phrase--or queynte--to use a Middle English term) from any husband that tries to control her.  What unsettles me most about Friday's trip to Hartford is that I didn't know enough about the area and the bus and like to feel adequately prepared for the journey.  I wouldn't have freaked out if separated from my classmates, mind you, but I had not prepared for the trip and I would have been unnerved.  And I don't like to be unnerved.

          (Honestly, this whole "no car, can't read the timetables, not an assimilated local" thing has me very unnerved.  And I think I finally discovered the lesson for today's stage of this Pilgrimage.)

          In the near future, my favorite Chaucerians and I are planning several other jaunts similar to the one to Hartford.  And so I have timetables and maps strewn about the floor of the apartment so I can be better prepared for the next adventure.  In control enough to get from the shuttle bus to the train to the subway without being unnerved, but relaxed enough to appreciate the expertise of our guide (if we have one.)

          Oh, I forgot about planes.  Seeing as how I've been traveling on planes alone (expect for my brother and an airline appointed babysitter that we often managed to outsmart) since I was 8 and accompanied by parents or the like since infancy, I have no qualms about air travel.  Arrival and departure signs are cake in comparison to subway timetables.

          Thursday, July 8, 2010

          See, what had happened was...

          My son, who celebrated his 8th birthday today, tells interesting stories.  In fact, today I heard some anecdotes about the events that passed during a birthday golf trip with his dad, uncle, and granddad.  To hear him tell it, the responsible adult males abandoned him in a Pizza Hut, refused to allow him to sleep at all, forced him to watch baseball on television, and permitted him to drive a golf cart which he subsequently drove into a bridge.  During this golf trip he also became an over-night legend, surpassing Tiger Woods in talent, which he demonstrated by winning seven holes, getting two hole-in-ones, and sending a ball sailing over a pond and across a sand-pit before it bounced off a tree and onto the green.  (Can you guess which one of these fables is true?)  While the above fabrications are impossible to believe, I appreciate that my son is attempting to develop his narrative voice.  Granted, he needs work with finesse and believability, but he is only 8, and even at this stage, he puts some of Chaucer's Pilgrims to shame.

          After the "General Prologue" of The Canterbury Tales in which Chaucer introduces the Pilgrims to the reader, each Pilgrim tells a story.  The first four tales are told in succession by the Knight, the Miller, the Reeve, and the Cook.  Each of these narrators shares a story that reflects not only their view of social order, education, and governance, but also indicates Chaucer's view of fictional story-telling.

          The Knight's Tale:  A story of two Theben princes who are imprisoned in Athens by Theseus after a war.  While in prison, both princes fall in love with Emily, whom they only know from afar (and behind bars.)  One gets out of prison on good behavior and the promise never to return to Athens; the other escapes like a felon.  Oddly, they run into each other in a field and start fighting over the girl to whom neither has ever spoken (and who doesn't return their affection).  Theseus comes upon the fight and demands that they settle their dispute in a civilized manner with a tournament in which the winner will get the girl.  In light of the battle, one man prays to Mars and one man prays to Venus; the woman prays to Diana.  As with any tragedy, someone dies; and as with any romance, someone gets the girl.  But none of that really matters.  (But if you really must know, renting the Heath Ledger phenomena of the same title should satisfy your curiosity.  Though, the book is much better than the movie.)  The point:  The Knight is a good story-teller.  In fact, he's a little winded.  30 pages winded.  But his tale possess many of the elements Chaucer indicates are needed in good fiction:  believability (the chivalric ideals that were core to the culture), adventure (love and war; does it get any more adventurous than that?) and character (while the princes are a little shallow, the Greek gods and Theseus are well detailed. Plus, most readers find themselves rooting for one prince over the other, which wouldn't happen if the characters weren't endearing.)

          The Miller's Tale:  Alisoun, a beautiful 18year-old, is married to John, a much, much older carpenter.  Nicholas, a student who rents a room in their home, aggressively pursues Alisoun who eagerly concedes to the pursuit.  Absolon, an effeminate parish clerk, also falls for Alisoun, an affection which is not mutual.  Seeing as how the tale is a bawdy fabliau, I won't go into too much detail, but the love triangles get quite complicated following the prediction of a flood and the kissing of an ass.  (Nope, not a donkey.)  (This is a tale you really must read.  Let me know if you want me to email it to you.)  The point:  The Miller, despite his drunkenness, is a better story-teller than the Knight.  In addition to the crude, common simplicity of it that would have pleased his audience, he slights the aristocracy by judging the need for order and control and non-learned people by slighting the ignorant carpenter, showing that members of the working class are much more clever than they've been credited.  The Miller, unlike the Knight and the Reeve, removes himself from the story and just creates without fear.  And in the end, readers want him to tell another story.

          The Reeve's Tale:  Is just terrible and therefore not worthy of a plot summary.  The Reeve's biggest problem: he tries too hard.  Frequently throughout the narrative he asserts that "this is true,"  "this really happened", and the like.  The Reeve's perpetual insistence of his credibility makes him unreliable.  (If you think about it, you know a Reeve.  We all do.  And usually, we don't want to hear him/her talk.)

          The Cook's Tale:  Isn't really a tale.  It's a page long joke that starts and ends similar to all of those "So a guy walks into a bar" jokes that we love to hate.  But even with that, in some ways the Cook is better at stories than the Reeve.  Why?  Because it's just so stupid it's funny.  My son is like the Cook with his tales.  They're usually mostly goofy, but I listen with pride and am completely entertained.  He may not be a reliable narrator, but he's good at spinning a yarn.

          Doesn't seem like anything new, does it?  And that's because it's not new to readers and writers of modern society.  But in the Middle Ages, when readers were trained to read with the purpose of identifying "The Double Law of Charity" (love God and love thy neighbor) within every text, reading wasn't this easy and therefore, neither were narration and fiction.  Chaucer was among the first to institute the idea that fiction should be read to be read, not to be analyzed, and that it should be read with "the spirit" (pleasure and emotion), not with "the letter" (mind).  Now students, this does not mean literature is not intended to be analyzed.  It is.  But Chaucer identifies a need for less regulated interpretation.

          So in "the spirit" of reading with "the spirit", I hope that "the spirit" moves you to continue reading my blog.....

          Oh, and the true story from my son:  golf-cart wreck.  Luckily, everyone made it out alive!

          Wednesday, July 7, 2010

          Weather the weather

          Evidently New Haven is experiencing one of the hottest summers on record.  With temperatures pushing 95 for the past three days, and more of similar severity to follow to close out the week, the sun is reveling in the dampened spirits, and brows, of these usually placid folks.  While I do sympathize with the locals, I chuckle a little when they complain about the heat.  Don't get me wrong--it's sweltering and my "new" air conditioner (a $10.00 rummage sale steal that I could probably set outside and sell for $100.00) is working overtime--but I am pretty sure my family and friends in Georgia and Missouri would appreciate a string of days with a heat index of only 100 in comparison to tipping that scale closer to 105.  One considerable difference between Connecticut and those states, however, is that most people in Georgia and Missouri are prepared for such heat.  Here it has been unexpected.  College students clamor into bookstores and bars because they have no air-conditioning at home.  While reading a little Chaucer at a coffee shop yesterday afternoon, I listened as patron after patron lamented how the sultry conditions have impacted their sleep, their exercise, and even their libido.  Last night the air conditioner at Anna Liffley's, a local pub where my favorite Chaucerians and I dominated bar trivia, broke, bringing tension to the festive crowd of Jeopardy contestant wanna-bes.  (Did I mention that I dominated the 6th round of trivia, the one in which the trivia guru played a song and we had to identify the artist? My siblings can attest to the fact that I SUCK at this game.  Yet last night, I knew the Charlie Daniels Band, pulling in major points for my team.  I will attribute my success to the heat and many Saturdays as a young girl cleaning house while jamming to Dad's records.)

          To add injury to insult, the rising temperatures has led to a contamination of the local water supply.
          Okay, so maybe that's a bit of a Canterbury tale*, but despite the reassurance of the Regional Water Authority (RWA), I am not comfortable drinking the water with "stuff floating around in it."  Thankfully, I filled my water bottles yesterday morning, before the impurities stirred through the pipes, but if the soot doesn't clear out soon, I'll have to break down and buy more bottles.  I hate buying bottled water.

          *The phrase "a Canterbury tale" refers to the stories (usually lies) real pilgrims (as opposed to Chaucer's fictionalized versions and not to be confused with those of Plymouth Rock) would have told after returning from a real pilgrimage to Canterbury.  (Yes, Canterbury is a real place.  Archbishop Thomas Becket was wrongfully murdered there in 1170.  For more information see   Chaucer used the common phrase as the title for his work.

          The temperature in London today is 71--a far cry cooler than in New Haven.  If the Pilgrims were gathering in Southwerk today, they would be pleasantly comfortable starting the journey.  As it was, however, they started their travels in April circa 1380ish.  The dampness of the season, coupled with the horse travel over mud-covered land, would have made the journey tedious.  Most likely it would have rained on the Pilgrims who would have had no escape from the elements, save holding up under a tree.  Each day of this heat-wave I have had the luxury of coming home and changing into non-perspiration drenched attire.  However, the Pilgrims would have had no change of clothes to put on when the torrent passed; they would have sat in their musty wetness, surrounded by other reeking masses. And even with all of this, the journey would have been a great escape for the Pilgrims because it gets them out of the house where they have been cooped up all winter with nothing but their libidos to keep them warm.  It also would have been a sacred experience, not counting the raunchy story telling, for them.  They believed in the journey and the penitence and the tribute and thus they would have done it despite the weather.

          And so I weather the weather in search of higher learning just as the Pilgrims did in honor of Thomas Becket. 

          ***I dedicate this blog to Susie Gauzy, my mom and fan of weather everywhere.***

          Sunday, July 4, 2010

          The road less traveled*

          Seeing as how class does not meet on Friday, our schedule is conducive to a weekend get-away. Having never traveled north of Washington D.C, I intend to see as much of northeast America as I can during these 6 weeks. I imagine most of my adventures to be short, day jaunts via train to Boston or NYC or Martha's Vineyard, but this weekend I braved the world of the rental car and went to see my sister in a small town slightly west of the Catskills.

          The majority of the drive--nearly 3 hours of the 4--is spent traversing through the mountains. Surrounded on both sides by peaceful, flowing water and crisp vistas, I should have found serenity and comfort in my mini-vacation. But no. Much to my chagrin, the speed limit through much of the pass is 55 mph, a number to which local drivers adhere to the point of frustration. Having traveled more times than imaginable through the Tennessee mountains, I know personally that it is safe to travel over 55 in such terrain, especially on an idyllically clear day. This notion did not seem to enter the minds of the other drivers on the road, however. In addition to the slow-going, radio signals seem incapable of penetrating the mountainous blockade, and seeing as how the rental was without satellite and I was without my car adapter for Pandora or my iPod, the three hours passed in near silence--not something I do well, I might add.

          Needless to say, I arrived at my destination a little annoyed--no one's fault but my own--which was not the attitude I wanted during this rare visit with my sister. After a short nap, and dinner at Moe's, I regrouped and vowed to enjoy the remainder of the weekend without stress. (Seeing as how I did little more than enjoy traditional 4th holiday activities--BBQ, beer, and bands--I think I accomplished my goal.)

          On the return back to my New Haven apartment today, I decided to beat the Catskills at their own game. I returned home in a much more leisurely state and as a result, I resent the speed limit and music-less automobile much less than I did on the first leg of the journey. I stopped in a little town called Fishs Eddy (that's the correct spelling) and captured the simplicity of the Catskills for my memory. (And for the blog.)
          I programmed the speedometer to 60 mph. I tossed a penny out of the window as I crossed the Hudson River. (I'm not sure why I did this. Maybe in tribute to the toll-road?)
          And instead of taking I-91 all the way into the city, I took smaller, more scenic highways 67 and 63. And even though the return trip took me nearly five hours, I still arrived in New Haven in plenty of time to join my favorite Chaucerians at East Rock for 4th of July fireworks.

          I admire the actual pilgrims (not to be confused with Chaucer's fictional interpretations) of Medieval England--and even the expanse of Europe for that matter--who traveled under harsh conditions to pay homage to something in which they believed. I became more than a little cranky over radio and speed limits in my air-conditioned rental; goodness knows you wouldn't have wanted to share a trussell bed with me after a day of pilgrimage!

          *Yes, this is a reference to Frost. Gotta love an American poet, especially on Independence Day.

          Saturday, July 3, 2010

          You and the horse you rode in on

          Dr. Patterson told us on the first day of class that The Canterbury Tales, as with most texts, would read us as opposed to us reading them. Meaning, each of us brings our perspectives, beliefs, morals, fears, interests, experiences, etc. to the text and use them to aide in our interpretation. Sometimes when the text reads us, it is beneficial to identifying purpose, theme, and the like; others, it clouds our understanding, causing us to read too much into something that is truly insignificant. Prior to this course, I considered myself good at reading text without jumbling it up with my personal mess; this week I discovered that text reads me much more than I care to admit.

          I have an irrational fear of horses. No, a horse didn't buck me or bite me as a child. I've never been saddled atop a rogue horse like Billy Crystal in City Slickers. (In fact, when I was less than 6 months-old, my Uncle Sammy held me in his lap and trotted around the ring of a horse show. I wowed the judges and won a blue ribbon. That, however, was the height of my horse-loving.) Aside from being named after Darcy Farrow, a beautiful maiden in a John Denver song who met her demise when "her pony did stumble and she did fall," I have no reason to be afraid of horses. But I am. And as a result, I was very aware of the attention Chaucer gives to the horses the Pilgrims ride on their Pilgrimage to Canterbury.

          Of course, the journey to Canterbury is long; the roughly 60 miles would take three to five days on horseback. (In my opinion, willingness to travel on steed for this long indicates true devotion.) The Monk, who should be a man of simplicity without worldly possessions, has a stable full of excellent horses, of which he chooses the best for his bridle. The Shipman (aka the Pirate) is not an equestrian and Chaucer describes him as riding "upon a rouncy, as he kouthe," [upon a workhorse as best he could]. Preferring sea travel, horses and land are not really his thing, but pirates need penitence as much as other pilgrims, so he journeys to clear his conscience. The horse, accustomed to working the field, seems as out of place as his rider. The Wife of Bath, for whom this blog is named, sits upon an easy-gaited saddle horse. This horse, the epitome of daintiness and grace, greatly contrasts the Wife, a curvy woman whom Chaucer describes as being dressed in such abundance that readers--I--easily imagine that the horse must labor under the weight. The Wife seemingly anticipates that the horse might struggle for she wears "on her feet a pair of spores sharpe" [a pair of sharp spurs]. (And here, even though I fear them, I find sympathy for horses.) The Plowman, assumed by many to be the best of all the Pilgrims because "God loved he best with al his hoole herte/ At alle tymes, thogh him gamed or smerte" [he loved God above all else with his whole heart whether is pleased or hurt him], rides a simple mare. A simple horse for a simple man.

          And so I could continue with all 29 Pilgrims, but I think you get the point. While Dr. Patterson indicates that Chaucer had no underlying purpose in detailing the horses as he did, I find it very interesting how each horse teaches readers--okay, me--a little about the pilgrim who rides it.

          I am excited to see what else I discover as I let the text read me.