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.

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