The canterbury tales, p.111
Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font       Night Mode Off   Night Mode

       The Canterbury Tales, p.111

           Geoffrey Chaucer

  Among the Usiarchs and geniiofthe heavens, whom eternal wisdom has appointed to adorn and govern the universe, the sun is preeminent in brilliance, foremost in power, supreme in majesty; it is the mind of the universe, the spark of perception in creatures, source of the power of the heavenly bodies and eye of the universe, and interpenetrates all creation with an immensity of both radiance and warmth.

  1045–6 Lucina is an alternative name for Diana, goddess of the moon, and sister of Apollo, god of the sun. She is here called goddess of the sea because of the moon’s effect on the tides.

  1057–64 opposicioun: A term used to denote an angular relation of 180° to the sun; when the moon is in opposition to the sun, it is full, and at this time particularly high tides were thought to occur (North, Chaucer’s Universe, pp. 425–6). Aurelius prays that when the sun and moon are next in opposition, while the sun is in the zodiacal sign of Leo, the moon should slow her course so that for two whole years it matches the sun’s; she will thus remain full and the tides will remain high and cover the rocks during the whole period. The reason why Aurelius specifies Leo is probably

  that this is the ‘house’ of the sun – that is, the sign in which the sun’s influence is at its strongest (Grimm, Astronomical Lore, p. 42, n. 1).

  1070 spring flood: Tides are especially high at the spring equinox.

  1074–5 Aurelius is here referring to Diana’s role as Proserpina, wife of Pluto, king of the classical Underworld (see n. to Kn 2297–9).

  1077 Delphos: Delphi, a small town on the side of Mount Parnassus, was the site of a famous oracle of Apollo. Cf. TC IV.1411.

  1082 The brother, who is later to play an important role in alleviating Aurelius’s predicament, is Chaucer’s own addition to the story.

  1110–12 Pamphilus is the hero of a twelfth-century Latin verse drama, which relates his wooing of the beautiful Galathea; his opening words are ‘I am wounded’, and he goes on to describe the sufferings he endures from the hidden wound of love (Seven Medieval Latin Comedies, tr. A. G. Elliott (New York, 1984), pp. 1–25). This text was extremely well known in the Middle Ages, since it was used as a school-text for young boys learning to read Latin.

  1118–28 at Orliens in Fraunce: The university of Orleans had an international reputation as a law-school from the thirteenth century on (H. Rashdall, The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages, 2nd edn rev. by F. M. Powicke and A. B. Emden, vol. II (Oxford, 1936), pp. 139–51). For evidence that it also had a reputation for astrological and magical studies, see J. F. Royster, SP, 23 (1926), 380–84.

  1130 mansiouns: Astrologers divided the moon’s course during the lunar month into twenty-eight parts, known as the mansions or stations of the moon; they were used to forecast natural phenomena and to determine favourable or unfavourable times for specific types of human activity (cf. J. C. Eade, SAC, 4 (1982), 53–85, at pp. 66–7).

  1131–4 This jocular dismissal of heathen practices may be compared with Chaucer’s rejection of astrology in the Treatise on the Astrolabe (II.4.57–9): ‘these ben observaunces of judicial matere and rytes of payens, in whiche my spirit [ne] hath no feith’ (the comment is not in Chaucer’s source). Though Chaucer may not have believed in astrology, he found its narrative possibilities useful.

  1142–51 The entertainments at medieval feasts often included dramatic effects of the kind described here, with wooden castles or ships, large enough to hold numbers of men, brought into the hall and moved around by means of concealed wheels. See L. H. Loomis, in Medieval English Drama: Essays Critical and Contextual, ed. J. Taylor and A. H. Nelson (Chicago, 1972), pp. 98–115, repr. from Speculum, 33 (1958), 242–55; G. Wickham, Early English Stages 1300 to 1660, vol. I (London, 1959), pp. 212–25; M. F. Braswell, Mosaic, 18 (1985), 101–10. The flowers and grape-vine were presumably made to ‘grow’ by some mechanical device.

  1174 in Latin: Latin was the common language of the educated class in the Middle Ages, and was used in speech as well as writing.

  1189–1201 The magician here produces even more elaborate versions of the theatrical illusions created by medieval ‘tregetoures’ (1141); see n. to Fkl 1142–51.

  1222 from Gerounde to the mouth of Saine: That is, from the Gironde, an estuary at the juncture of the Garonne and the Dordogne rivers in south-west France, to the Seine estuary in northern France. The meaning of the phrase is thus ‘along the whole French coast, from the south to the north’.

  1244 Decembre: In the Filocolo story which was Chaucer’s source (see Headnote), the winter season is essential to the plot, since the lover’s ‘impossible task’ is to create a spring garden in winter. Chaucer retains the wintry setting even though narrative logic no longer requires it, thus giving a bleak, sterile feel to the proposed adulterous liaison (whereas in the spring-time setting mentioned in Fkl 906–17 it might have seemed a more romantic prospect).

  1245 Phebus: See n. to Mch 2220.

  1246–9 hote declinacioun: The highest point of the sun’s annual path through the heavens, which it reaches at the summer solstice (see nn. to Mch 2222–4 and Fkl 1031–5); it reaches its lowest point in the skies around 21 December, while in the zodiacal sign of Capricorn (Grimm, Astronomical Lore, p. 35).

  1252–4 The two-faced (and hence ‘double-bearded’) Janus was the Roman god of beginnings and endings, and thus presided over the turn of the year, lending his name to the month of January. Medieval representations of the months of the year in carvings and manuscript illuminations often represent January as a two-faced man sitting feasting (R. Tuve, Seasons and Months: Studies in a Tradition of Middle English Poetry (Paris, 1933; repr. Cambridge, 1974), pp. 123–4).

  1273–9 The technical language in these lines relates to methods by which planetary positions can be determined. The clerk makes his calculations by using a set of astronomical tables drawn up in Toledo – either those produced around 1272 under the direction of Alfonso X, king of Castile (for translated extracts, see Grant, Source Book, pp. 465–87), or the earlier Toledan tables drawn up by the astronomer Arzachel. In either case, these tables, having been calculated for the latitude of Toledo, would have been ‘Ful wel corrected’ to fit the location in which they were to be used. Copies of the Alfonsine Tables corrected to the meridian of Oxford were produced by astronomers at Merton College, Oxford, and were in general use in the second half of the fourteenth century (R. T. Gunther, Early Science in Oxford, vol. II (Oxford, 1923), pp. 44–7). The tables give figures for rates of planetary motion for larger blocks of years (e.g., thousands, hundreds and twenties), and also for individual years below the smallest unit of the block groupings (in the above case, one to nineteen); the block groupings are known as ‘collect years’ and the individual years as ‘expanse years’ (cf. Astrol II.44). Figures would also be given for the ‘root’, the year chosen as the startingpoint for the calculations (often the Incarnation). Starting from this root, the astronomer would add on the figures supplied by the tables for the number of years necessary to bring him to the date he was interested in, and thus fix a planet’s position at that date.

  The tables are, however, based on the fiction that the heavenly bodies move at even rates, and thus yield a ‘mean’ rather than a true position for a planet (similar to the modern convention of Mean Time); cf. Astrol II.44–5. In order to determine the true position, the astronomer must perform further calculations, involving the planet’s ‘equation of centre’, its ‘equation of argument’ and the ‘proportionals’ needed to convert the equation of argument from mean to true (Eade, SAC, 4 (1982), 60–62; E. S. Laird, ELN, 25.3 (1988), 23–6).

  1280–90 These lines describe calculations by which the clerk determines which of the moon’s twenty-eight ‘mansions’ she is currently occupying (see n. to Fkl 1130). The starting-point is what is known as ‘the first point of Aries’ (‘thilke fixe Aries’), which is the place where the ecliptic (the sun’s annual path through the skies as it rises and falls from the Tropic of Cancer to the Tropic of Capricorn) crosses the celestial equat
or at the spring equinox. This point is a basis from which the positions of heavenly bodies are measured (the measurement being known as their ‘celestial longitude’). It was conceived as located in the ninth of the heavenly spheres, the Primum Mobile (see n. to ML 295–301). A gloss in El makes clear that Alnath is a name given to the first mansion of the moon (and not, as commentators since Skeat have supposed, a star). The clerk fixes the position of this mansion by calculating the amount of precession (see n. to ML 295–301) undergone by the eighth sphere (the sphere of the fixed stars), which will have had the effect of increasing the mansion’s celestial longitude. When the clerk has fixed the position of the first mansion, he can determine the other twenty-seven ‘by proporcioun’. He then determines the sign of the zodiac in which the moon is currently rising, and in which of the subdivisions of the sign known as ‘faces’ and ‘terms’ it is situated. Once the position of the moon is thus fixed, he knows in which of its ‘mansions’ it is located, and can calculate the date at which it will reach a mansion appropriate to his enterprise (Eade, SAC, 4 (1982), 63–7). Eade comments that ‘what we are told of the clerk’s efforts is enough for us to reconstruct what he was doing, enough to show that the procedures were grindingly laborious, but such, too, as had no power whatever to effect the magical results he obtained’ (p. 67). Aside from the simple fact that the moon has a general effect on the tides, it is not possible to see how the processes described have anything to do with the removal of the rocks, which is vaguely ascribed to ‘othere observaunces’ (1291); rather, the spate of technical terminology operates its own ‘illusioun’ on the reader and gives the impression that a process of ‘natural magic’ has indeed been carrried out.

  1367–1456 Dorigen’s long list of examples of women who preferred death to sexual defilement is taken from Jerome, Against Jov. I.41–6; quotations below are taken from Fremantle’s translation (see Abbreviated References). For a text and translation of this portion of Jerome, see Hanna and Lawler, Jankyn’s Book, I, 160–75; for comparison with Dorigen’s lament, see I, 75–80. Hanna and Lawler’s text is reproduced, with facing English translation by R. R. Edwards, in SA2 I, 256–65. Jerome is thus, paradoxically, the source both of the antifeminist material incorporated into WBPr (see Headnote), and of these examples of heroic female virtue (cf. LGW G 281–304). Dorigen’s long soliloquy establishes beyond doubt that she sees the fulfilment of her promise to Aurelius as equivalent to rape, and thus demonstrates that it did not indicate any secret inclinations in his favour. For other narrative functions of the soliloquy, see Mann, Feminizing Chaucer, pp. 91–2.

  Not all of what Jerome says about these women agrees with other sources, and in a number of cases nothing more is known of them; see Hanna and Lawler’s notes, I, 231–44. Jerome presents his examples in two groups:

  1. Virgins (I.41). This group includes (in the order in which they appear in FklT) the anecdotes concerning the thirty tyrants and Phidon’s daughters (Fkl 1368–78); the attempted rape of fifty Lacedaemonian virgins by the men of Messene (Fkl 1379–85); Aristoclides, tyrant of Orchomenos, and the virgin of Stymphalus (Fkl 1387–94); the seven virgins of Miletus who killed themselves to avoid being raped by marauding Gauls (Fkl 1409–11); the daughter of Demotion, chief of the Areopagites, who killed herself on hearing of the death of her betrothed, Leosthenes (Fkl 1426–7); the daughters of Scedasus, who killed each other after they had been raped by two strangers to whom they had given hospitality (Fkl 1428–30); Nicanor, conqueror of Thebes, and the Theban maiden who committed suicide rather than yield herself to him (Fkl 1431–3); a second Theban maiden, ‘deflowered by a Macedonian foe’, who killed both her ravisher and herself (Fkl 1434–6).

  2. Wives and widows (I.43–6). This group includes the wife of the Carthaginian leader Hasdrubal (Fkl 1399–1404; cf. NP 3363–8 and n.); Lucretia (Fkl 1405–8); the wife of Abradatas (Fkl 1414–18), a Persian king of Susa, who committed suicide on her husband’s body when he was killed fighting against the Egyptians (Xenophon, Cyropaedia VII.iii.14); the wife of Niceratus, who killed herself ‘rather than subject herself to the lust of the thirty tyrants whom Lysander had set over conquered Athens’ (Fkl 1437–8); the concubine of the Athenian Alcibiades, friend of Socrates, who disobeyed the command that his body should be left unburied after he had been killed by the Spartan conquerors of Athens (Fkl 1439–41); Alcestis (Fkl 1442); Penelope (Fkl 1443); Laodamia, wife of Protesilaus (Fkl 1445–7); Portia, wife of Brutus, one of the assassins of Julius Caesar (Fkl 1448–50); Artemisia, queen of Caria (352–350 BC) and wife of Mausolus, who built for her husband ‘a tomb so great that even to the present day all costly sepulchres are called after his name, mausoleums’ (Fkl 1451–2); Teuta, who became queen of the Illyrians on the death of her husband Agron (231 bc), and ‘owed her long sway over brave warriors, and her frequent victories over Rome, to her marvellous chastity’ (Fkl 1453–4); Bilia, wife of the Roman Duilius, who when reproached by her husband with failing to tell him that his breath smelled, replied that she had thought all men had foul breath (Fkl 1455); Rhodogue, daughter of Darius, king of Persia, who ‘after the death of her husband, put to death the nurse who was trying to persuade her to marry again’ (Fkl 1456); Valeria, a Roman of the Messala family, who refused to marry again after her husband’s death (Fkl 1456).

  1379–85 The context for this attempted rape, Jerome explains, was that so ‘close a friendship long existed between Sparta [Lacedaemonia] and Messene that for the furtherance of certain religious rites they even exchanged virgins’ (Against Jov. I.41).

  1405–8 Lucresse: For the story of Lucretia, see n. to ML 62–3.

  1442 For the story of Alcestis, who offered to die in place of her husband, see n. to ML 75.

  1443 Penolopee: For Penelope’s faithfulness to her husband Ulysses, see n. to ML 75.

  Omer: Chaucer will have known Homeric stories such as this one only through Latin intermediaries; see n. to ML 198.

  1445–7 Laodomia … Protheselaus: For the story of Laodamia and her husband Protesilaus, see n. to ML 71.

  1472 A variant of the proverb ‘let sleeping dogs lie’; see Whiting H569 and Singer, I, 54, and cf. TC III.764.

  1501 In the Filocolo story, the wife, accompanied by attendants, goes to the lover’s house to fulfil her promise. Chaucer, in contrast, stresses the role of ‘aventure’ in their meeting (cf. line 1508), in accordance with his interest in the role of chance in human affairs (see nn. to GP 844 and Kn 1663–9, and, for a fuller discussion, Mann, ‘Chance and Destiny’).

  1533–6 R. Blanner-Hassett (Speculum, 28 (1953), 791–800) points out that the legalistic language here used by Aurelius echoes that used by Cecily Champain in relation to her ‘raptus’ (Life-Records, p. 343).

  1541–4 The punctuation in Riverside, in line with the demarcations suggested by the paraphs in El and Hg, places the end of Aurelius’s speech at line 1544, but it does not seem plausible that he would be guilty either of boasting of his own ‘gentil dede’ or of delivering the finger-wagging admonition to wives.

  1614 crope out of the ground: Compare the parallel expressions, all meaning ‘as if he had just arrived on earth’, cited by A. Putter, MÆ, 70 (2001), 191–203, at nn. 35–6.

  1621–2 In Boccaccio’s Filocolo (see Headnote), posing this question is the main point of the story, since it appears in a collection of tales designed to serve as a basis of courtly debate among the listeners (see SA2 I, 213–14). Such ‘demandes d’amour’ were popular in medieval literature; see Kn 1347–8 (and n.), WB 904–5. In Filocolo, the question is finally answered by the conclusion that the husband is the most generous, since the sacrifice of honour is greater than the sacrifice of money (by the magician) or of sexual pleasure (by the lover).


  The original source for the story of Virginia is, as Chaucer indicates in the first line of the tale, Livy’s history of Rome (Ab urbe condita III.44–58). Although some details suggest that Chaucer may have consulted Livy directly (SA, pp. 398
–407), the narrative outline of the Physician’s Tale is closer to the much briefer version of the story in the Romance of the Rose (5559–5628, tr. Horgan, pp. 86–7). The story was also told by Gower (CA VII.5131–5306) and Boccaccio (De mulieribus claris, Opere, ed. Branca, vol. X, ch. 56), but the Physician’s Tale appears to be quite independent of these versions. For Livy, the story illustrates the defence of Roman liberty against the tyrannical decemviri, who were overthrown as a result of Apius’s attempted violation of Virginia, just as the rape of Lucretia had led to the expulsion of the Roman king Tarquin and the extirpation of the monarchy. Boccaccio and Gower are likewise interested in the political and social implications of the tale and its moral lessons for judges, rulers and people. In RR, the specific historical and local setting of the story is discarded, and it becomes a brief exemplum illustrating the abuse of power by wicked judges. Chaucer similarly discards reference to Rome and its history, and shows little interest in the specific political or social implications of the tale (see S. Delany, SAC, 3 (1981), 47–60). For him, this is primarily a tale of pathos, with its emotional centre in the ‘piteous’ exchange between father and daughter before he kills her (213–50), which is his own addition to the story (see also n. to Phys 226). Another addition is the long introductory passage on Virginia’s physical and moral perfections (5–117), which likewise gives the tale an exemplary rather than a historical character. Finally, Chaucer gives the tale a religious dimension by adding Virginia’s reference to the biblical story of Jephthah’s daughter, which was interpreted as a prefiguration of Christ’s sacrifice of his own flesh for mankind (see n. to Phys 240). The story resembles the Man of Law’s Tale in expressing human subjection to greater powers in terms of the contrasting images of thrall and child (see Mann, Feminizing Chaucer, p. 113; ‘Parents and Children’, p. 176).

Turn Navi Off
Turn Navi On
Scroll Up
  • 11 867
  • 0