The canterbury tales, p.4
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       The Canterbury Tales, p.4

           Geoffrey Chaucer

  While the Clerk’s Tale claims for women pre-eminence in patience, medieval antifeminist literature associated them with anger. The friar of the Summoner’s Tale, despite his fondness for female company, assures Thomas that no serpent is so cruel when one treads on his tail as a woman is ‘whan she hath caught an ire’ (2003). The portrait of the Wife of Bath in the General Prologue accords with this stereotype, representing her as ‘so wrooth’ if anyone usurps her social rank in the church procession at the Offertory that she is ‘out of alle charitee’ (451–2). Her Prologue enlarges this detail, showing the Wife shrilly scolding her first three old husbands, and finally, in a paroxysm of fury, tearing three leaves out of her fifth husband Jankin’s book, just after he has quoted Solomon’s proverb about the torments of life with an ‘angry wif’ (775–81). But in this instance, Chaucer gives the old stereotype a new twist, by showing that antifeminist literature (implicit in the list of accusations that the Wife claims her old husbands made against her, and explicit in the contents of Jankin’s book) produces the angry woman that it purports only to describe.

  The Wife’s quarrel with Jankin also indicates the opposition between patience and ‘maistrye’ (dominance/mastery), particularly when the relations between the sexes are in question. The Wife’s tale goes on to show male ‘maistrye’ in extreme and ugly form in the knight’s rape of a young girl; fittingly, the Loathly Lady’s lecture stresses the benefits of poverty ‘To him that taketh it in pacience’, and leads into the voluntary surrender of ‘maistrye’ by the newly submissive knight (1198, 1236–8). The Franklin’s Tale too links the masculine renunciation of ‘maistrye’ with the exercise of patience in marriage (747, 764–75), and shows how rape is, this time, averted by Aurelius’s pity. In the Manciple’s Tale, however, we see the dark obverse of this happy resolution. Beginning with an idyllic picture of the god Phoebus, handsome, brave and supremely gifted in music, the tale then surprises us with the information that he was, like any aged husband in a medieval fabliau, 28 jealous of his wife (144) – jealousy being, as the Franklin’s Tale makes clear, the manifestation of a desire for ‘maistrye’ (747–8). The changeability that the eulogy of patience in the Franklin’s Tale teaches us to recognize as an indelible part of human nature here manifests itself as the wife’s ‘newfangelnesse’ (193; cf. Sq 610, 618) – the ineradicable appetite for something or someone new. Told of his wife’s infidelity by his talking crow, Phoebus is overwhelmed by anger, ‘And in his ire his wif thanne hath he slain’ (265). The destruction of the idyll is symbolized in his breaking of his musical instruments and the irrational vengeance that he takes on the crow, turning his colour from white to black and depriving him of his song. Anger represents Phoebus’s refusal to accept the ‘aventure’ of his wife’s infidelity; he eradicates it by eradicating her. Yet this is not the only way that the infidelity is eradicated. Having killed his wife, Phoebus resurrects her in transformed image, lamenting her as ‘to me so sad [constant] and eek so trewe’, and ‘Ful giltelees – that dorste I swere, iwys [for sure]’ (275–7).

  Melodramatically, he launches into a rhetorical denunciation of his own ‘ire recchelees’, underscoring the thematic prominence of anger in the tale (278–90). Renouncing ‘ire’, he substitutes rhetoric, which here becomes simply an alternative way of refusing to accept reality. Earlier in the tale, the Manciple had insisted on the virtues of plain unadorned language: ‘The word moot nede acorde with the dede’ (208). Camouflaging lust by describing it as romantic passion is, he suggests, to use language to obscure an underlying reality. But it is the bluntness with which the crow announces to Phoebus that he has been cuckolded – ‘Cokkow! Cokkow! Cokkow!’ (243) – that the god is unable to bear; having obliterated the adultery by killing his wife, he then obliterates it a second time by rendering the truth-telling crow speechless and re-creating his illusions in his own cocoon of words.

  The Summoner’s Tale about a friar shows us that Chaucer’s name for this kind of deceptive rhetoric is ‘glosinge’; in this tale too it is linked with anger. 29 Responding to the claim (which is, as far as we can see, unjustified) by Thomas’s wife that her husband is ‘as angry as a pissemire [ant]’ (1825), the visiting friar throws up an extempore sermon on anger which is a brilliant demonstration of his skill in ‘glosinge’. ‘Glosing’, he has earlier assured Thomas, ‘is a glorious thing, certein, | For lettre sleeth, so as we clerkes seyn’ (1793–4). The Pauline contrast between the letter that kills and the spirit that gives life (2 Corinthians 3:6) is co-opted to justify the friar’s abandonment of ‘the text of Holy Writ’ (1790) in favour of a ‘glose’ that will instruct people to give generously to friars (1795–6), or that proves that Christ was referring to friars when he said, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ (1919–23). The friar’s sermon links ‘glosinge’ and anger in that the first is its method and the second is its content. But the link between them is closer than that. The illustrative anecdotes in the friar’s sermon show that anger resembles ‘glosinge’ in that both are at bottom refusals to accept an external other – in the case of anger, an event or ‘aventure’; in the case of ‘glosinge’, the (literal meaning of the) text. In the first anecdote (2017–42), a judge who has sentenced a man to death for murder refuses to alter his judgement when the supposedly murdered man turns out to be alive. Instead of altering his verbal pronouncement to fit an external reality, he forces reality into the shape of his words. The original sentence must therefore hold good, and the supposed murderee must also be executed in order to justify it, while the executioner too must die as punishment for failing to carry out the original command. The second anecdote shows ‘irous’ Cambises reacting to the lord who reproves his drunkenness by shooting the lord’s son in order to prove that his hand and eye are unimpaired (2043–73). As in the Manciple’s Tale, plain speaking is shown to be perilous; truth must be well disguised (2074–8). Finally, the story of Cyrus ordering his soldiers to obliterate the river Gyndes by dispersing it into a multitude of channels, simply because one of his horses had accidentally drowned in it, again shows anger as the opposite of patience, a refusal to accept ‘aventure’ (2079–84).

  The friar’s sermon on anger paradoxically (like Jankin’s quotations about angry women) has the effect of producing violent anger in its listener, the sick man Thomas, who becomes ‘wel neigh wood for ire’ (2121). Thomas takes his revenge on the friar by pretending that he will give him a treasure hidden in the cleft of his buttocks, and when he feels the friar’s groping hand, letting fly an enormous fart. At this, the preacher of the sermon against anger himself becomes violently angry, leaping up like a raging lion (2152) and storming out ‘with a ful angry cheere’ (2158), grinding his teeth in fury (2161). The ineffectu-ality of mendicant ‘glosinge’, its lack of connection with reality at any point, could hardly be better demonstrated.

  Words, Deeds, ‘Entente’ and ‘Termes’

  The friar’s sermon is a superb example of free-floating rhetoric, a glorious verbal balloon whose main function is to demonstrate the ability of language to take on a life of its own. The fart with which Thomas answers it is not a randomly chosen insult, but a reminder that the basic physical definition of the word is ‘broken air’. 30 The fart, that is, represents the bodily aspect of language, without which it cannot exist. Thomas’s riposte empties the friar’s sermon of semantic content and implicitly reduces it to ‘hot air’, to be answered only with more hot air. The implicit parody of the ‘mighty wind’ that signals the coming of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost (Acts 2:2) reinforces this comic reduction; instead of the linguistic empowerment bestowed on the apostles (the gift of tongues), we have a linguistic emptying-out of the sign. 31 This reductive response to verbal elaboration is also evident, although in less extreme form, in the Manciple’s insistence that ‘the word moot cosin be to the werking [deed]’ (210); to call someone who plunders countries a conqueror rather than a thief is to use language to disguise reality (223–34). Yet in the Manciple’s Tale, delusive rhetoric a
nd blunt truth-telling are presented as equally dispiriting options, and the tale concludes with a lengthy series of admonitions to say as little as possible and keep one’s mouth shut whenever one can. Speech, in whatever form, is a snare and a delusion.

  The delusive aspects of language, and the question of how it connects with reality, are subjects explored throughout the Canterbury Tales. Perhaps surprisingly, it is in Chaucer’s fabliau tales that elaborate verbal constructions of the type represented by the friar’s sermon predominate, while in his romances and other serious tales we find a strong pull towards literalism. In the Franklin’s Tale, Dorigen is held to the strict letter of her promise, and the meaning that it conveys, which is flatly contradictory to the literal sense of the words, is of no account in saving her from Aurelius’s claim. In the Knight’s Tale, Arcite and Palamon are each given exactly and literally what they asked for (victory in Arcite’s case, Emily in Palamon’s), even though they both clearly intend to ask for the same thing. The arbitrariness of cosmic ‘governaunce’ seems to be evident in this demonstration of the way a small difference in verbal formulation can so dramatically alter one’s fate. In the Clerk’s Tale, Griselda is bound to obedience, not by her duty as a wife, but by the words of her promise to Walter. In such cases, words exercise a quasi-magical power, binding those who utter them to suffer unimagined consequences. In the Friar’s Tale, in contrast, the devil refuses to take the literal form of words as decisive: when the summoner urges him to take the carter’s curses literally and seize the horses, cart and hay that he has consigned to the devil, the fiend declines, on the grounds that the carter’s ‘entente’ was not behind his words. ‘The carl spak o [one] thing, but he thoghte another’ (1568). In the world of the Friar’s Tale, Dorigen would have had no problems.

  In the fabliau tales, words and intentions have to be carefully discriminated. Only fools would dream of taking words at face-value; for the worldly-wise, they are a mask behind which one can work towards one’s own ends. So, in the Shipman’s Tale, the wife and the monk weave a complicated verbal dance, at the end of which she has agreed to have sex with him in reward for the sum of 100 francs, 32 although this has at no point been explicitly stated (98–203). In the Miller’s Tale, Nicholas’s fantastic story of Noah’s flood lures the carpenter into willing collaboration in his own cuckolding. Overwhelmed by ‘imaginacioun’, the power of words to conjure up pictures that work on the mind and so create their own reality, the carpenter thinks he sees Noah’s flood, billowing like the sea, coming to drown his wife (3611–17).

  Professional jargon, for which Chaucer uses the word ‘termes’, is another potential means of manipulating reality. Legal jargon, or ‘termes queinte of lawe’ (Man of Law’s Epilogue 1189), is used by both the Sergeant of Law and the Summoner as a way to impress (General Prologue 323, 639). Scientific jargon is the foundation of deception in the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale: the cascade of ‘termes’ deployed in the descriptions of the alchemist’s activities (752, 980, 1398) dazzles the mind, creating the illusion of a real command of natural processes (just as the magician’s removal of the rocks in the Franklin’s Tale uses ‘termes of astrologye’ (1266) to create in the reader’s mind the illusion that something real has been accomplished). As the concluding anecdote of Plato and his disciple shows, these words are locked in a hermeneutic circle that never connects with reality: asked what is ‘the stoon that Titanos men name’, Plato simply renames the stone as ‘Magnasia’, provoking the exasperated comment that he is explaining ‘ignotum per ignocius’ (the unknown by the more unknown). Further questioning leads only to a void: Plato asserts that at the centre of the alchemical art is a secret that can be known only by divine inspiration (1448–71). Yet if alchemy cannot make gold, words can; ‘termes’ are the true tools of the alchemist, possessing the fertile power of ‘multipli-cacioun’ that he claims to find in metals.

  The suspicion that ‘termes’ may be merely a cover for deception accounts for their rejection, not only by the virtuous Virginia in the Physician’s Tale, whose speech is said to be devoid of ‘countrefeted termes’ which might give her a specious appearance of wisdom (51), but also by the Host, who has the plain man’s distrust of language that is anything other than basic. Fearing that the Clerk might speak over his head, he urges him to forget his ‘termes’, the ‘colours’ and ‘figures’ of rhetoric, and to speak plainly enough to be understood (Clerk’s Prologue 16–20). Both the Miller’s Tale and the Reeve’s Tale pit university clerks against practical labouring men, and both the carpenter in the former tale and the miller in the latter ridicule the insubstantial world of the intellectual and pride themselves on their own down-to-earth sense of reality (Miller’s Tale 3457–61, Reeve’s Tale 4049–56). The miller sarcastically pretends that the sophisticated verbal logic of the clerks can prove his house to be many times bigger than it is (4123–6). Yet it is a trust in the world of solid objects that leads to his own downfall. In the Reeve’s Tale, the simple shifting of the cradle has its own devastating semantic charge: if this is the cradle, then this is my bed. Objects can be as deceptive as words. It is Alein who first falls victim to this semantic illusion, showing that the clerkly manipulation of reality has its limits. So too in the Miller’s Tale, Nicholas overreaches himself and loses control of the plot that he has initiated when he attempts to repeat Alison’s trick and is branded by Absalon. As in the Summoner’s Tale, a fart (released by Nicholas as a derisive response to Absalon’s request that he should speak: 3805) seems to mark the lowest common denominator of the verbal, a retreat from the elaborations of clerical rhetoric. But in this tale as in the Summoner’s, this retreat is the prelude only to a triumphant reascendancy of the verbal/intellectual. The squire’s ingenious application of the techniques of university logic to solve the ‘inpossible’ question of how to divide a fart into thirteen brings the bodily back under the control of the intellect (2243–86). And Nicholas’s cry of ‘Water, water’, so far from being a retreat to linguistic basics, shows the power and complexity of meaning in a single word: paradoxically underwriting his own (by now forgotten) story of the Flood, it leaps from one linguistic context to another where it is instantly charged with a whole new world of significance, translating itself into action and sending the carpenter hurtling to the ground. In the Shipman’s Tale, multiple meaning in the form of a pun provides a comic solution to the wife’s predicament, as she wriggles out of the trap sprung on her by the monk by asking her husband to score the debt of 100 francs ‘upon my taille’ (416). The pun on ‘tail’ and ‘tally’ suggests that language, like sex, has a miraculous and beneficent fecundity; this is a bank that will never run out of funds.

  The Pardoner’s Prologue also quasi-miraculously turns words into money. In a dazzling deployment of clerical rhetoric (his own version of ‘glosinge’), the Pardoner transforms his collection of rags and bones into a collection of holy relics, imbued with magical powers, and persuades his hearers to give him money and goods in return for their illusory benefits. The Prologue also shows a particularly complicated relationship between the verbal construct, the ‘entente’ that motivates it, and its effect on those who hear it: the Pardoner’s sermon warns against avarice, but avarice is his motivation in preaching it (400–404, 423–8, 432–3). Yet whereas the sermon against anger in the Summoner’s Tale paradoxically produces anger in its listener, by an equal but opposite paradox this avariciously motivated sermon actually makes people repent of avarice (429–31) – and the more they do so, the more the Pardoner’s avarice is satisfied. The power of words is quasi-autonomous, not dependent on the honest ‘entente’ of the speaker. This notion is extended in the Pardoner’s Tale. Blind to the semantic content of the word ‘death’, the three revellers seek death and, by a strange inevitability of narrative logic, find it. Even stranger is the way that their nonsensical oath, ‘Deeth shal be deed [dead]’ (710), evokes a biblical text in which the paradox is a sign of religious mystery rather than illogical nonsense. ‘O death, I will
be thy death’ (Hosea 13:14) is a prophetic text that was held to find its fulfilment in Christ’s Crucifixion and Redemption. Prophecy implies that linguistic constructs, so far from attaining the highest level of truth when they slavishly follow reality, can make their own reality, in advance of the events that will validate it. The Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale explore the complex relations between language and the sacred: at one extreme, language is a tool for religious trickery, at the other, an opening into another dimension of truth.

  Words are, however, the stock-in-trade of the poet as well as of the cleric. If Nicholas in the Miller’s Tale achieves his ends by virtue of his gifts as a master-narrator, an even greater master-narrator is Chaucer himself, whose picture-making words conjure up Nicholas, Alison and the whole world of fourteenth-century Oxford. So the question of whether to give credence to verbal fictions applies not just to the gullible dupes of the fabliau, but also to the reader of the Canterbury Tales. How can we be sure that the poet’s words are cousin to the deed? In the Manciple’s Tale, as suggested earlier, Chaucer creates a kind of double vision, in which rhetoric offers us romantic passion, a lady, a conqueror and an innocent wife wrongfully slain, while reality offers us lust, a wench, a thief and a self-deluded husband (205–34). The Merchant’s Tale similarly offers a double vision of the affair between May and Damian, oscillating between the language of romantic love and the bald physical reality of sexual appetite (‘in he throng [thrust]’: 2353). It is, we realize, the words in which the tale is told that define the way we interpret reality. January’s blindness, which at the end of the tale is voluntarily continued even when his sight is restored, becomes the symbol of a larger human blindness, which hides the simple workings of human appetite under the cloak of grandiose conceptions.

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