Monday, February 14, 2005

Week 03 Chaucer and Marie de France

General Prologue Notes (A mix of lectures by my former professors and my own ideas)

The Canterbury Tales is a collection of short tales of various genres. The tales were extremely popular throughout the medieval age. See also Boccaccio’s Decameron, which was written in light of the plague in Florence, a different and more static motive for the participants’ trip than we see in Chaucer. His pilgrims are on their way to pay their respects at the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury whose refusal to go along with Henry II's plan to limit the Catholic Church's judicial authority cost him his life. Chaucer’s narrative frame allows for a dynamic portrayal of classes and stations. The pilgrims, ostensibly brought together for a common religious purpose, come from all three estates--the knighthood, the clergy, and the commons (working people of all types). We see not only a knights and prioresses but millers, reeves, ploughmen, parsons, friars, summoners, pardoners, cooks, and so on. Diversity is Chaucer’s watchword. The pilgrimage brings them all together.

The literary fiction--namely, that everyone will arrive at the Canterbury shrine--is disrupted by the Host, Harry Bailey, who says that the trip should end at a pub, with dinner promised to the pilgrim who tells the best tale. The businessman Harry’s competitiveness undermines the purely spiritual basis we had thought would animate the pilgrimage. In terms of class relations, the lower orders upset the narrative order of the text; they change the itinerary. We end up with two contrasting frames: life as a pilgrimage and life as a contest. The ancient Pauline Christian idea that fallen humans are aliens upon the earth, passing as pilgrimagers through this “vale of tears” on their way to salvation or damnation, meets up with the multifarious motives of the Canterbury pilgrims, from the worldly to the pious. So much for the misconception that the middle ages were a time of somber reflection and spiritual unity—the era's literature is as vivid and contradictory as Chaucer's pilgrims.

The idea of the “pilgrimage,” of course, had been muddied by the fourteenth century. At bottom, pilgrimages were religious ceremonies; after having acknowledged one’s sins during the sacrament of Confession and having admitted one’s sinfulness and dependence on God, one could go on a pilgrimage for health cures and for relatives’ souls. The greatest pilgrimage of all would be to Jerusalem—i.e. one could participate in one of the Holy Crusades to retake the Holy Land from the Arabs. By Chaucer’s time, pilgrimages had come to be seen as holidays somewhat in the modern sense. This literary trip takes place in spring, a time of rebirth for the spirit and for the natural world. Since the weather was warmer, pilgrims felt wanderlust and curiosity, too. Often, while travelers were on their way to Rome or to the monastery of Saint James of Compostella, they lost sight of the spiritual goal and never made it to the shrine. Chaucer’s pilgrims never make it to Becket’s shrine, either--even though they can see Canterbury.

The Prologue's opening eighteen lines comprise a single sentence in which we can examine all of Chaucer’s methods. We are treated to a precis: it is spring, people want to go on pilgrimages, especially to Canterbury. The center of the unit lies in line twelve. The “when”/“then” structure is ambiguous in its figuration of motive. The “sick”/“seek” rhyming pun binds sickness of all kinds to seeking of all kinds. Strong verbs like “holpen” (help) are prominent. What kind of help for what kind of illness? one wants to know. Notice the description of spring from lines one to eleven--here Chaucer brings out anything but spiritual motivations for the pilgrimage: physical renewal, sexual terms (piercing, bathing in licour), high-style romantic terms like Zephirus, “tender crops,” “young sun,” and so on. Then Chaucer moves to a lower style--birds (“corages” can refer both to spiritual hearts and to physical, or sexual, hearts), for example. Birds are hardly spiritual figures; they are amorous. Folks longen to seek rebirth. Do they seek spiritual rebirth? We know it is more complicated than that. Sometimes, too, pilgrimages were undertaken to strange lands for the purpose of sightseeing. “Palmers” were professional pilgrims. In sum, the spiritual motives for pilgrimages were often at war with the lower, “realizing” ones; both motives might coexist among different pilgrims, and even within the very same pilgrim. Throughout the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer shows the complexity of human beings--their sexuality, competitiveness, passions, and so on all run into one another. It is hard to separate these realms from "spirituality," and the fact that various feelings and motivations run together need not invalidate the spiritual dimension of Chaucer's pilgrimage—since when were fallen human beings pure either in action or in motive?

At line nineteen, we find the narrator’s stance. He seems wide-eyed, eager to tell us of his experience. This ruse of naiveté is the way in which Chaucer will explore the psychology of others. He is non-judgmental, and he also wants readers to be non-judgmental, too. He draws out even his own language. The narrator disclaims responsibility for his plan of relating both high and low, but he also broaches the issue of what constitutes literary truth. What should we say of a narrator who proclaims his need to relate everything he sees and hears like a cub reporter? Chaucer is suggesting that in fiction, imaginative truth is larger than reportorial truth.

In the descriptions of the various pilgrims, we see both an impulse to idealize and the strain placed upon this impulse by human frailties. The Knight, for example, is idealized, and the terms that apply to him are straightforwardly chivalric. His son gets a more mixed treatment, while the Prioresse is described in great detail, not all of it flattering. She is not really irreligious, but neither is religion the center of her life as it should be. It seems that fine manners and courtly behavior are her central concerns. She is a courtly lady who has become a nun—a change in office that was rather common in the middle ages. When Chaucer describes a character in detail as he does the Prioresse, that is generally a sign that the character is more flawed than usual.

This is a key point: strong individuation isn't a mark of approval in Chaucer's Christian context—it just means that you're probably up to some things you shouldn't be, given your station and responsibilities in life. Chaucer, that is, identifies characters by their position in the order of nature and by their roles in the community. He is inclined to individuate a character only when that character fails in his or her office and thereby lacks the wholeness and integrity demanded by the office. As so often in moral literature, the "good guys" are precisely the ones you don't notice because they're just conforming to the just demands of their "office," their station in life. Chaucer's society is strongly divided into three estates and various religious and secular functions amongst them; not to uphold your office is to lose your title to respect and, at worst, even your title to humanity itself. A ruler who mistreats his people, a priest who ignores his flock, a pardoner who offers false promises of salvation for ready money, is scarcely worthy of the term "human." The "self" for a medieval person was defined in terms of communal responsibilities and social relations, not in terms of the individual's desires or goals for worldly advancement. The medieval self is a nexus of social obligations, not (as in our post-romantic notion) the result of a process of self-conscious individuation. In a long narrative such as Chaucer's, which aims to describe the whole panoply of medieval life, this way of defining the individual structures the entire fiction, determining what we see and hear, and when we see and hear it.

But Chaucer's communalism doesn't mean that the individual has nothing vital to do. On the contrary, his characters behave in accordance with the moral choices they have made and are making. Why, Chaucer wants to know, do people go on pilgrimages? There are various motives: tourism, piety, curiosity for the things of this world, and so on. The key choice is rather an Augustinian one: are you headed towards the City of God, or on your way towards the City of Cain? You really can't end up in both, so you have to choose—or more accurately, you are constantly choosing your destination by the actions you take. Christian life should follow the path of legitimate desire, or charitas (charity, an outflowing desire to help one's fellow human beings and to join with them in serving God), but as everyone knows, cupiditas is always the dark shadow on human purpose and behavior. Cupiditas is the selfish, acquisitive, sensuous kind of desire that entangles one in the world's snares. Each earthly pilgrim or Christian soul must choose where to fix attention, and so whether to end up in the City of God or in Hell. The beauty of Chaucer's treatment of the pilgrimage motif, I think, is that it shows the complexity of human efforts to make this seemingly simple choice—we spend our whole lives doing it. We shouldn't expect from Chaucer modern "character development" of the sort to be had from, say, a novel, but neither do we find two-dimensional "stick figures" in his characterizations. Even villains like the Pardoner or deeply flawed characters like the Prioresse and the Wife of Bath do not entirely forfeit our interest or empathy. In thinking of them Chaucer would probably have borne in mind the Vulgate Bible's sentence "qui autem dixerit fatue reus erit gehennae ignis," or as the King James Bible puts Jesus' words in Matthew 5:22, " whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire."

The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale Notes

The Wife of Bath asserts her own experience against verbal patristic authority, opposing an alien male verbal culture. In her prologue, she makes three arguments:

lines 1-192: marriage is permissible, even though married love is generally considered sinful.
lines 193-450: she has had three good husbands.
lines 451-end: she has had three bad husbands.

The Wife of Bath points out that the Bible says Solomon had many wives. But Solomon’s marriages were disastrous; the man was an idolater who wasted his gifts on women. The Wife, like her male opponents, is a partial reader of the Scriptures. Alice refers us also to Saint Paul's epistle 1 Corinthians: 7. She says that Paul stressed mutuality between marriage partners. This claim is plain misrepresentation. Alice always uses authorities rather than the personal experience she keeps bringing up. As for her argument about “nature,” she can't have children anyway because she is sterile. The Wife of Bath does not realize that chastity is a spiritual virtue.

Her arguments early on are that her “good” marriages have allowed her to act out her philosophy. Yet, her bad husbands are the ones she loves most. Her marriages are all non-productive.

According to Alice the generic wife, the following three things constitute a marriage:

(a) Unification of the heart; a corporate community.
(b) Husband and wife peacefully serving God together. Desire will no longer get in the way.
(c) The engendering of children.

The Wife of Bath fails to fulfill any of these three conditions. Her dominance almost amounts to prostitution in her first three marriages. They are not, then, genuine Christian marriages.

As for the Wife’s Tale, the question is, “what do women want?” That is a rather "Freudian" question. Alice’s Tale is a "fairy tale" by genre—it is pure wish-fulfillment. Even in her prologue, the Wife of Bath has been telling the pilgrims a fairy tale about her life. She gives them a history of her life as it ought to have been, not as it really has been.


Blogger Suzy Sanders said...

this really is helpfull. I can tell you really enjoy what you teach.
S. Sanders

1:34 AM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home