The canterbury tales, p.121
The Canterbury Tales,
2375–90 Petro… of Spaine: Pedro I, king of Castile and León (known as Peter the Cruel), was murdered on 23 March 1369, by his illegitimate half-brother, Don Enrique of Trastamare, with the assistance of Bertrand du Guesclin, Oliver de Mauny and others (see Pearsall, Life, pp. 51–3, and Russell, Intervention, pp. 147–8). Chaucer’s account does not follow any written source, and he probably learned of the murder by word of mouth, since there were close links between Pedro’s family and the English court. The Black Prince fought on Pedro’s behalf against Enrique in 1367, and it is likely that Pedro attended Richard II’s baptism in Bordeaux in the same year (Saul, Richard II, pp. 10, 12). In 1371 John of Gaunt married Pedro’s daughter Constance (Costanza), assuming the title of king of Castile and León through her claim (Saul, Richard II, p. 96). Chaucer’s wife Philippa apparently served in Constance’s household from 1372 onwards (Pearsall, Life, pp. 97, 141–2). Chaucer himself travelled to Spain in 1366 (the year that Enrique laid claim to Pedro’s throne), and may have been on an unofficial diplomatic mission connected with the threat to Pedro (Life-Records, pp. 64–5; for further bibliography see p. 65, n. 2). H. Savage suggested that the details of Pedro’s betrayal and death were given to Chaucer either by his wife (who would have got them from Constance of Castile), or by Don Fernando de Castro, one of Pedro’s followers, who was with him on the fatal night, and who came to England in 1375 (Speculum, 24 (1949), 357–75, at pp. 372–3).
2378 Many manuscripts have an alternative version of this line: ‘Thy bastard brother made the to flee’ (Manly and Rickert II, 406–7). Manly and Rickert (IV, 511) suggest that the change was made when Enrique’s grandson married Catalina, daughter of Constance of Castile and John of Gaunt, in 1388 (see Russell, Intervention, pp. 506, 508–10).
2383–4 These are the arms of Bertrand du Guesclin (a silver shield with a black two-headed eagle, and a red stick); see A. Brusendorff, The Chaucer Tradition (Oxford, 1925), p. 489. Savage speculates that Chaucer may have seen them with his own eyes since Bertrand visited England in 1354 and again in 1361 (Speculum, 24 (1949), 373–5). Bertrand (c. 1320–80), a Breton by birth, was one of the most famous knights of the fourteenth century. He distinguished himself in the Hundred Years War, and in 1370 was made constable of France. For an account of his colourful career, see F. Gies, The Knight in History (London, 1986), ch. 7. After his death, his exploits were celebrated in a long verse chronicle (Chronique de Bertrand du Guesclin par Cuvelier, ed. E. Charrière, 2 vols. (Paris, 1839)). His role in bringing about Pedro’s death, as related by the fourteenth-century Spanish historian Pero Lopez de Ayala, shows a distinctly unchivalric side of his character (see Savage, pp. 365–7).
2386 wikked nest: Chaucer is punning on Oliver de Mauny’s name (Mauny = OF mau nid, ‘evil nest’).
2387–90 Oliver was one of Charlemagne’s Twelve Peers, and the faithful friend of Charlemagne’s nephew Roland; their heroic death in battle at Roncesvalles is narrated in the Song of Roland. For Roland’s betrayal by his stepfather Ganelon, see n. to Sh 194. Chaucer’s point is that despite his name, Oliver de Mauny behaved more like Ganelon than like Roland’s friend Oliver.
2388 Armorike: Brittany (the home of Oliver de Mauny).
2391–3 Petro… Cipre… Alisaundre: Peter of Lusignan, king of Cyprus, won international renown for his crusading campaigns, the most spectacular of which was the capture of Alexandria in 1365. Chaucer’s Knight is said to have participated in this and other military exploits led by Peter (see nn. to GP 51, 58, 65). In 1363, Peter visited England in an attempt to persuade King Edward III to join his crusading endeavours, but Edward offered only financial support. Whether or not Chaucer was present at any of the lavish entertainments provided for the royal visitor, he would surely have heard of them (see the translation of Froissart’s account of the visit in Bowden, pp. 59–60).
2394–8 Peter of Lusignan was killed by three of his own knights on 17 January 1369. If Chaucer had a source other than oral report, it was probably the account in Machaut’s poem La Prise d’Alexandrie (lines 8631–8769), as H. Braddy suggested (Geoffrey Chaucer: Literary and Historical Studies (Port Washington, NY, 1971), p. 29). Cypriot chroniclers differ from Machaut in their identification of the guilty parties, and other details (see L. de Mas Latrie, Bibliothèque de l’école des chartes, 37 (1876), 445–70, at pp. 458–63); Chaucer’s account is, however, so abbreviated that its content can hardly be said to be ‘at variance with historical fact’ (SA, p. 637, citing Braddy), except in the reason given for the murder. Contemporary sources indicate that it was Peter’s arbitrary and high-handed rule, rather than envy of his chivalry, that led to his death (P. Edbury, Journal of Medieval History, 6 (1980), 219–33).
2397 On Fortune’s wheel, see n. to Kn 925.
2399–2406 Melan… Barnabo Viscounte… Lumbardye: The tyrannical cruelty of Bernabò Visconti, duke of Milan (in Lombardy), was a legend in his own lifetime (see D. Wallace, Chaucerian Polity, pp. 319–26). On 6 May 1385 he was seized and imprisoned by Gian Galeazzo Visconti, his nephew and son-in-law, and was dead by the end of the year. His fall from power was recorded ‘by almost every chronicler in Italy, by chroniclers in England and France, by canterini, sonneteers, novellatori, by Visconti and Florentine propagandists [and] religious moralists’ (ibid., p. 326). Bernabò had strong connections with the English court: his niece, Violanta, married Lionel, duke of Clarence (in whose household, as well as his wife’s, Chaucer served as a young man); in 1378–9, Bernabò’s daughter Caterina was considered as a possible bride for Richard II (Saul, Richard II, p. 84). Chaucer had also met him personally: in 1374, he was sent by Richard II on a diplomatic mission to Bernabò and the English condottiere Sir John Hawkwood, who had married another of Bernabò’s many daughters (Life-Records, p. 54; Pearsall, Life, pp. 107–9). Another daughter married Peter of Lusignan’s son and successor, also called Peter (G. L. Kittredge, The Date of Chaucer’s ‘Troilus’ and Other Chaucer Matters (London, 1909), p. 50).
2407 Hugelin of Pize: As Chaucer’s reference to Dante at Mk 2460–61 makes clear, his source for this story was Inferno XXXIII (text and Singleton’s translation repr. in SA2 I, 429–32), where Ugolino della Gherardesca, Count of Pisa, is discovered among the traitors in the ninth circle of Hell. Ugolino
was born ca. 1220 and belonged to a noble and traditionally Ghibelline family that controlled vast territories in the Pisan Maremma and in Sardinia. In 1275, he conspired with the Guelph leader Giovanni Visconti to seize control of Pisa, traditionally a Ghibelline city, but when the plot was discovered he was banished and his property was confiscated. He returned to Pisa the following year and in a short time again acquired great power and prestige. After the defeat of Pisa in the battle of Meloria (1284), a defeat which some accounts accuse him of contriving, he was made podestà [mayor] of Pisa, and the next year entered into the negotiations referred to by his opponents as the ‘tradimento de le castella’ (‘betrayal of the castles’…). For this supposed treachery he was put in prison, where he died of starvation in 1289.
(Singleton, Inferno, Commentary, p. 606)
The agent of Ugolino’s downfall was the archbishop of Pisa, Ruggieri degli Ubaldini (‘Roger… bisshop… of Pize’), who was of the Ghibelline party (supporters of the emperor), with whom Ugolino, despite having shifted his allegiance to the Guelphs (supporters of the pope), entered into a conspiracy aimed at destroying the political influence of Ugolino’s grandson, Nino Visconti. Once Nino was out of the way, the archbishop incited the people against Ugolino by accusing him of treachery in having ceded some Pisan castles to Lucca and to Florence. Together with two of his sons and two of his grandsons, Ugolino was shut up in a tower and starved to death (see Singleton, Inferno, Commentary, pp. 607–11, for further details). In Chaucer, Ugolino’s treachery exists only at the level of Ruggieri’s ‘fals suggestioun’, and he becomes as innocent a victim as his children.
According to contemporary legend, Ugolino’s hunger drove him to eat the flesh of his dead chil
For a detailed comparison of Inferno XXXIII with Chaucer’s version of the Ugolino story, see P. Boitani, The Tragic and the Sublime in Medieval Literature (Cambridge, 1989), pp. 20–55.
2411 In Dante’s version of the story, there are four children, not three. Chaucer was perhaps influenced by Inferno XXXIII.71: ‘I saw the three fall, one by one’ (‘vid’io cascar li tre ad uno ad uno’), which follows on from an account of the first death.
2412 Dante does not give the ages of the children, although like Chaucer, he represents them as infants (in real life they were considerably older; see Singleton, Inferno, Commentary, nn. to XXXIII.38, 50, 68, 89). Chaucer’s stress on their extreme youth (see also Mk 2431) increases the pathos of his narrative (cf. Pri 503 and n.).
2416–18 Dante does not give any details of the manner in which Ruggieri betrayed Ugolino, and it has been suggested that Chaucer derived this information from the chronicle of Giovanni Villani or other Italian chronicles (see P. Toynbee, NQ, 8th series, 11 (1897), 205–6, and St C. Baddeley, NQ, 8th series, 11 (1897), 369–70; the relevant section of Villani’s chronicle is printed and translated in Singleton, Inferno, Commentary, pp. 607–9). It is also possible that Chaucer might have acquired his knowledge from oral sources during his time in Italy. Significantly, Chaucer represents Ruggieri’s accusation as ‘fals’; his Hugelin is not, like Dante’s, a traitor, but a victim of Fortune.
2430 Dante’s Ugolino specifically says that he did not weep when he heard the door being nailed up, because he ‘turned to stone within’ (Inferno XXXIII.49).
2434 The child’s request for bread recalls the Lord’s Prayer (‘Our Father… give us this day our daily bread’, Matthew 6:11), and the Sermon on the Mount (‘Or what man is there among you, of whom if his son shall ask bread, will he give him a stone?’, Matthew 7:9). Hugelin’s torture is that he is unable to respond to this elemental appeal to a father’s obligation to his child.
2451–2 The children’s words echo Job 1:21: ‘the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away’. Ironically, this is Job’s response to news of the death of his children (see Mann, ‘Parents and Children’, pp. 166–7). Cf. Mel 999–1000. Griselda also echoes Job’s patient response; see Cl 871–2 and n.
2463–2550 The story of Nero is included in Boccaccio’s De casibus, but Chaucer’s account is almost entirely derived from the Romance of the Rose (6153–6220, 6383–6458, tr. Horgan, pp. 94–5, 98–9), where it forms part of Reason’s warnings to the Lover against the fickleness of Fortune. As Jean de Meun himself makes clear, his account derives (whether directly or indirectly) from the Lives of the Caesars by Suetonius (see next n.), but it also includes details drawn from medieval legends about Nero. For a discussion of Jean’s sources, see E. Langlois, Origines et sources du Roman de la Rose (Paris, 1891), pp. 127–31. As Chaucer would have recognized, Jean de Meun was also influenced by Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy, where Nero is presented as a victim of Fortune:
We han wel knowen how many grete harmes and destrucciouns weren idoon by the emperour Nero. He leet brennen the cite of Rome, and made sleen the senatours; and he cruel whilom sloughe his brothir, and he was maked moyst with the blood of his modir (that is to seyn, he leet sleen and slitten the body of his modir to seen wher he was conceyved); and he lookede on every halve uppon hir cold deed body, ne no teer ne wette his face, but he was so hardherted that he myghte ben domesman or juge of hir dede beaute. And natheles yit governed this Nero by septre alle the peples that Phebus, the sonne, may seen, comynge fro his uttreste arysynge til he hide his bemes undir the wawes. (That is to seyn he governede al the peples by ceptre imperial that the sonne goth aboute from est to west.) And eek this Nero governyde by ceptre alle the peples that ben undir the colde sterres that highten the septemtryones. (This is to seyn he governede alle the peples that ben under the partye of the north.) And eek Nero governede alle the peples that the vyolent wynd Nothus scorklith, and baketh the brennynge sandes by his drye heete (that is to seyn, al the peples in the south). But yit ne myghte nat al his heie power torne the woodnesse of this wikkid Nero? Allas! It is grevous fortune as ofte as wikkid sweerd is joyned to cruel venym (that is to seyn, venymows cruelte to lordschipe).
(Boece II m.6; the passages in brackets are not part of Boethius’s text but translations of medieval glosses.)
The explanation that Nero killed his mother because he wanted to see where he was conceived (Mk 2484–5) was probably derived from Jean de Meun’s translation of Boethius (Chaucer’s Boece and the Medieval Tradition of Boethius, ed. Minnis, pp. 118–19).
2465 Swetonius: Suetonius’s Lives of the Caesars were known to Petrarch and Boccaccio, and enjoyed great popularity among Italian humanists from the late fourteenth century onwards. They were also popular in northern Europe, and were translated into French in 1381 (Texts and Transmission, ed. L. D. Reynolds (Oxford, 1983), pp. 403–4). Since, however, there is no hard evidence elsewhere in Chaucer’s works that he had direct knowedge of Suetonius, it is likely that he is simply echoing the reference to Suetonius at the corresponding point in RR (6425–9): ‘And according to the old book entitled The Twelve Caesars, where we find the account of his [Nero’s] death as Suetonius wrote it down…’ (tr. Horgan, p. 98).
2467 South] North El Hg. Since ‘Septemtrioun’ means ‘North’ the El/Hg reading makes no sense. ‘South’ is obviously required (cf. RR 6218–19, tr. Horgan, p. 95, and the quotation from Boethius in n. to Mk 2463–2550), although no manuscript has it; they either read ‘North’ or omit the word altogether. Manly and Rickert (IV, 512) plausibly suggest that ‘North’ was a marginal gloss for ‘Septemtrioun’ and may have been misinterpreted as a marginal correction of ‘South’.
2473–6 These details of Nero’s extravagance are to be found in Suetonius (VI.30) but not in RR. Since Chaucer is unlikely to have used Suetonius directly (see n. to Mk 2465), he probably took them from some intermediate source, such as Boccaccio’s De casibus (VII.3; see SA, p. 640), or Vincent of Beauvais’s Speculum historiale (VIII.7; see Aiken, Speculum, 17 (1942), 60–61).
2482 The Romance of the Rose says that Nero lay with his mother as well as his sister, and also with men (6177–9, tr. Horgan, p. 95); Chaucer omits these details.
2495–2502 Both Suetonius (Lives of the Caesars VI.10) and Jean de Meun (RR 6437–48, tr. Horgan, p. 99) stress that Nero began his reign well, but neither of them attributes this to Seneca’s influence.
2503–14 Jean de Meun’s account of Nero’s motives for putting Seneca to death corresponds to the second of these two stanzas (RR 6199–6215, tr. Horgan, p. 95); he seems to have invented this reason himself (Langlois, Origines et sources, p. 130). Aiken has suggested that the first stanza is based on Vincent of Beauvais’s Speculum historiale (VIII.9; see Speculum, 17 (1942), 62), which says of Nero ‘sometimes, on seeing Seneca and calling to mind the blows which he had given him from boyhood, he shuddered’; this is not, however,
2509–10 Suetonius makes only the briefest reference to Seneca’s suicide (Lives of the Caesars VI.35), as does Boethius (Boece III pr.5). Jean de Meun, however, devotes more attention to it than to any of Nero’s other crimes (see RR 6181–6215, tr. Horgan, p. 95), and Chaucer gives it even greater prominence.
2527–50 Chaucer’s account of Nero’s death follows Jean de Meun’s fairly closely (see RR 6389–6424, tr. Horgan, p. 98), but the ‘fir, greet and reed’ (2544) and the two churls sitting by it seem to be his own addition; in RR, two of Nero’s servants enter the garden with him.
2551–74 Oloferno: The source for the story of Holofernes is the biblical book of Judith, which is included in the Latin Vulgate (but not in the Authorized Version). Holofernes, chief captain of the Assyrian army, led it against the Israelites at a place called Bethulia, and besieged the inhabitants with the aim of starving them into surrender. Judith, an Israelite widow, went out at night with her maid to the Assyrian camp, won her way into Holofernes’s good favour, and cut off his head as he lay in a drunken sleep after a feast (Judith chs. 7–13). Cf. ML 939–42 and n., and Mch 1366–8.
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