The canterbury tales, p.99
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       The Canterbury Tales, p.99

           Geoffrey Chaucer

  200 The strif of Thebes: The sons of Oedipus, Eteocles and Polynices, were supposed to rule Thebes in alternation, but war broke out between them, and they eventually killed each other in single combat. The story of their strife is related in Statius’s Thebaid, a work which Chaucer knew well; see n. to Rubric of KnT, and Wise, Influence of Statius. For the death of the hero Hercules, see n. to Kn 1942–6.

  201 The biblical hero Samson, although blind, killed both himself and his enemies the Philistines by pulling down the pillars supporting a house in which they were making merry (Judges 16:23–31). The death of Turnus at the hands of Aeneas, his rival for the hand of Lavinia, is related at the end of Vergil’s Aeneid. Socrates, the Greek philosopher (5th c. BC), was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens, and sentenced to die by drinking hemlock.

  224 The prophet Mohammed (ad 570?–632), founder of the Islamic religion. At the time most of this story supposedly takes place (see n. to ML 1121–2), he was either not yet born or still a child.

  286–7 Submission to her husband was one of the punishments imposed on Eve, and thus on all womankind, after the Fall: ‘thou shalt be under thy husband’s power, and he shall have dominion over thee’ (Genesis 3:16).

  288 Pirrus: Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, was among the Greek warriors smuggled into Troy in the Wooden Horse; the Aeneid (II.469–88) describes how he broke through the doors of Priam’s palace, and the shrieks and wails of those within. Cf. NP 3355–9, where the same comparison is used of the hens bewailing Chauntecleer’s capture by the fox.

  289 Or Ilion brende, at Thebes*] Or Ilion brende Thebes El; Or Ylion brent hadde Thebes Hg. Confusion seems to have been caused by the assumption that ‘Ilion’ is a personal name and the subject of ‘brende’ (‘brent hadde’ takes this assumption one stage further). Only two manuscripts read ‘at’ before ‘Thebes’ but the parallel constructions in lines 288 and 290 suggest that this is the correct reading.

  Ilion: Ilium was the Greek name of Troy; like other medieval writers, Chaucer used it to designate the inner citadel of Troy. The burning of Troy is mentioned numerous times in Aeneas’s account of the fall of the city (Aeneid II.309 ff.).

  Thebes: The grief of the survivors over the dead at the end of the war of the Seven Against Thebes is described in Book XII of Statius’s Thebaid; cf. n. to Kn 932.

  290–91 The great Carthaginian general Hannibal (c. 247–183 BC) was an implacable enemy of Rome; his three great victories against the Roman army were at the river Trebbia, at Lake Trasimeno and at Cannae.

  295–301 A marginal Latin gloss in Hg, El, and many other MSS quotes the Latin translation of Ptolemy’s Almagest (I.8; see n. to Mil 3208):

  there are two different primary motions in the heavens. One is that by which everything moves uniformly from east to west, above the spheres, et cetera. There is a second motion which moves the sphere of the moving stars [i.e., the planets] in opposition to the first motion – that is, from west to east around two other poles, et cetera.

  Cf. E. Flügel, Anglia, 18 (1896), 133–40. Medieval cosmology, following Ptolemy, pictured the universe with the Earth at the centre, surrounded by the seven spheres of the planets, an eighth sphere carrying the fixed stars, and an outer sphere known as the Primum Mobile or ‘First Moving’ sphere. The existence of the Primum Mobile was hypothesized as a way of accounting for the observed phenomenon known as the precession of the equinoxes; that is, the minute annual shift eastward (1º in 100 years, by medieval calculations) of the stellar constellations in relation to the point where the sun’s annual path (the ecliptic) crosses the celestial equator at the spring equinox. It was supposed that the natural movement of the first eight spheres (travelling at different speeds) was from west to east around the poles of the ecliptic, but that the Primum Mobile travelled from east to west around the equatorial poles, and its greater size and power carried the inner spheres with it; the apparent motions of the heavenly bodies as seen from the earth are a product of the two motions combined. For a helpfully clear and concise explanation of the medieval cosmological scheme, and its relation to the motions of the heavenly bodies as we now understand them, see Boyde, Dante Philomythes, pp. 143–56.

  The double motion of the cosmic framework was often given a moral or intellectual interpretation by medieval writers, but it was usually seen in positive terms: Alan of Lille, for example, saw it as an analogue to the necessary domination of reason over the senses (De Planctu Naturae pr. 3.52–65 (ed. Häring, pp. 826–7; tr. Sheridan, pp. 119–20). Although even so prosaic a work as Sacrobosco’s treatise ‘On the Sphere’ uses terms such as ‘rapit’ (‘hurls’) of the Primum Mobile and ‘nitentibus’ (‘striving against’) of the other spheres, which might have yielded the sense of violence implicit in Chaucer’s ‘crowdest’ and ‘hurlest’ (J. C. Eade, SAC, 4 (1982), 53–85, at pp. 78–9), his stanza is still highly unusual in seeing the operation of the Primum Mobile as ‘cruel’. It is also strictly speaking inaccurate, in that the Primum Mobile’s motion does not affect the positions of the planets in relation to each other. The passage is best interpreted as poetic imagery rather than as scientific explanation; see Mann, ‘Parents and Children’, pp. 169–71.

  302–8 Despite the technical terminology of this stanza, its account of the position of the heavens at Constance’s departure, and the reasons why it blighted her marriage, is highly unspecific (Eade, as cited in previous note, pp. 76–82). The ‘ascendant’ is the sign of the zodiac appearing on the eastern horizon (at the point where it intersects the ecliptic) at any given moment; the ‘lord of the ascendant’ is the planet whose power was thought to be increased by that sign (see Astrol II.4). The sign referred to here is ‘tortuous’ – that is, it is one of the six that rise obliquely to the horizon (see Astrol II.28). Astrologers divided the celestial sphere into twelve segments known as ‘houses’ (to be distinguished from the houses of the planets, which are signs of the zodiac that increase the power of the particular planet to which they are assigned). The houses were numbered counterclockwise from the eastern horizon, and were of three types: angles (houses 1, 4, 7 and 10), succedents (2, 5, 8 and 11) and cadents (3, 6, 9 and 12; see Wood, pp. 221–2,304–5). The last of these houses, which lay immediately above the eastern horizon, was called carcer or ‘prison’, and this is probably what is meant by the ‘derkest hous’. The planet who is lord of the ascendant has fallen from one of the ‘angles’ into the twelfth house, carcer, with disastrous effects. As Eade points out (p. 80), this means that the lord of the ascendant cannot be identified with Mars, invoked in line 305, since he is a maleficent planet, and his loss of influence would therefore have beneficial results (cf. Astrol II.4.30–40); all that can be said is that Mars is somehow exerting baneful influence. The word ‘atazir’ is a technical term referring to a procedure for checking the directions in which good and evil influences fell (North, Chaucer’s Universe, pp. 225–8).

  For an interpretation of this scientific terminology in terms of its function in relation to the narrative motifs of the Man of Law’s Tale, see Mann, ‘Parents and Children’, pp. 171–3.

  309–14 A Latin gloss in the margin of many manuscripts (including Hg and El) at this point reads: ‘All are agreed that elections are weak unless in the case of the rich, for they (although their elections are weakened) have a root (that is, their nativity) which strengthens every weak planet in its course, et cetera.’ This is the opening of a Latin translation of the treatise On Elections by the ninth century Jewish writer Zahel Benbriz (on whose works see F. J. Carmody, Arabic Astronomical and Astrological Sciences in Latin Translation: A Critical Bibliography (Berkeley, CA, 1956), pp. 40–41). An ‘election’ is the choice of a favourable time for undertaking an enterprise; the ‘roote … of a burthe’ is the position of the heavenly bodies at the time of one’s birth, which would exercise influence one way or another over later astrological configurations. Only the rich would be able to afford to pay experts to make the calculations necessary to determine their ‘root’,
and so to make reasonably reliable elections.

  In his Treatise on the Astrolabe (II.4), Chaucer mentions nativities and elections as part of judicial astrology (the attempt to determine planetary influence on human affairs), which he rejects as pagan rites, in which ‘my spirit hath no feith’; in MLT, however, as elsewhere in his work, he makes poetic use of the concept of astrological influence as appropriate to the pagan world of his narrative.

  325 The reference to ‘sacrifices’ shows Chaucer’s vagueness about Islamic practices, which do not include anything of the sort. Medieval writers in general tended to collapse Islam and classical paganism into one (heathen figures swear indiscriminately by Mohammed, Jupiter and Apollo), and it is probably the religious rites of ancient Rome that Chaucer has in mind here.

  330–40 The Sultaness’s stirring affirmation of her faith has no parallel in Trevet or in Gower.

  359 Semirame: Semiramis, legendary queen of the Assyrians, assumed rule over the empire after her husband’s death. Since her son was only a boy, she disguised herself in masculine clothes and took on his identity, leading the armies in his place and extending the empire through conquest. A famous anecdote relates that when news was brought to her, as her maids were plaiting her hair, that Babylon had rebelled against her, she straightway sallied forth with one side of her hair still unplaited, and brought the city under her subjection. Her manly vigour is emphasized by Boccaccio, De mulieribus claris (Concerning Famous Women, tr. Guarino), ch. 2; Chaucer thus compares her to the Sultaness, in whom feminine qualities are likewise suppressed.

  360 Chaucer may have had in mind the medieval tradition that the serpent who brought about the Fall of Eve had a woman’s face (cf. PPl XVIII.336–9). He may also have been thinking of the enmity between the serpent and the woman decreed by God as a result of the Fall (Genesis 3:15; cf. Revelation 12:4–17), an allusion which would give this line a paradoxical character.

  361 ‘And I saw an angel come down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit, and a great chain in his hand. And he laid hold on the dragon the old serpent, which is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years’ (Revelation 20:1–2). See also 2 Peter 2:4, Jude 1:6, and the gospel of Nicodemus (Apocryphal NT, pp. 134–5).

  365–6 envious: According to St Augustine (Enchiridion IX.29, CCSL 46, p. 65), God created mankind to replace the tenth order of angels who fell from heaven with Satan (cf. South English Legendary II, ‘St Michael’, lines 210–14; Dante, Convivio II.5.12; and Gower, CA VIII.21–36); Satan’s implacable hatred for mankind was thus motivated by envy for man, who was destined to inherit the glory he had lost. This idea is commonplace in patristic thought; in addition to the references given by T. Fry, SP, 48 (1951), 527–70, at p. 540, n. 43, see Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos CXXXIX.8 (CCSL 40, p. 2017), and Cassian, Collationes VIII.9–10 (CSEL 13, pp. 225–7). For occurrences of the idea in ME, see The N-Town Plays, ed. S. Spector, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1991), Play 2, 235–42, and Wisdom 325–8, in The Macro Plays, ed. M. Eccles (Oxford, 1969).

  400–401 The Pharsalia of Lucan (ad 39–65), which recounts the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey, refers only briefly to Caesar’s triumph as something that might have been glorious had he not fought against a fellow Roman (III.73–9). J. L. Lowes (see Robinson’s note to ML 400) suggested that Chaucer might have been thinking of the French prose version of Lucan by Jehan de Tuim (13th c.); the general form of a Roman triumph is described early in this work, and it concludes with a brief account of Caesar’s triumph after the death of Pompey and his election as emperor of Rome (Li Hystore de Julius Cesar, ed. F. Settegast (Halle, 1881), pp. 8–10, 244–5). An even more likely possibility is that Chaucer was thinking of the French prose history Li Fet des Romains (c. 1213–14), a compilation of Lucan, Suetonius and Sallust, which survives in around 50 manuscripts (as opposed to only four for Jehan de Tuim’s work). This work too gives a brief general account of a triumph (I.9[2]), but more relevant is that it reproduces Suetonius’s account of the five triumphs, four of them in the space of a single month, that Caesar held on his return to Rome at the end of the civil war (IV.1[1]). Cf. n. to Mk 2671–2726. The compiler, who frequently names his sources, does not, however, make clear that Lucan’s narrative had ended shortly before this point and he is now relying on Suetonius; Chaucer might therefore have gained the impression that the source was still Lucan.

  421–7 As a Latin gloss in El and Hg (and other MSS) makes clear, this rhetorical interpolation is based on a section (I.21) of the De Miseria Condicionis Humane of Pope Innocent III (see n. to ML 99–121). Innocent’s section incorporates a number of biblical quotations, which are also identifiable in Chaucer; thus line 424 echoes Proverbs 14:13 (cf. NP 3205), and lines 426–7 echo Ecclesiasticus 11:27. Line 422 echoes the wording of Chaucer’s Boece II pr.4.118–19.

  451–62 The wording of this prayer echoes the last verse of a famous Latin hymn (‘Pange, lingua, gloriosi proelium certaminis’) of Venantius Fortunatus (6th c.), which was sung during the last two weeks of Lent, on Good Friday, and at the feast of the Invention of the Cross: ‘You alone [i.e., the Cross] were worthy to bear the treasure of the world, and, like a sailor, to provide a harbour for the shipwrecked world, you who were anointed with the holy blood of the Lamb, poured from his body’ (Opera Poetica, ed. F. Leo (Berlin, 1881), II.ii). The nautical metaphor in these lines harmonizes with the narrative imagery of MLT.

  464–5 See of Grece: The eastern Mediterranean. Constance’s boat takes her westward from Syria all the way across the Mediterranean and through the straits of Gibraltar (‘the Straite of Marrok’). She must then sail up the west coast of Spain and France, eastward through the Channel, and up the east coast of England, to arrive, finally, in Northumberland (508).

  473 –5 For the biblical story of Daniel in the lions’ den, see Daniel 6:16–24.

  477–83 Cf. Romans 11:33, also echoed at Mel 1406–7.

  486–7 Chaucer is slightly misremembering the biblical story of Jonah: the whale did not cast Jonah up at Nineveh, but simply ‘upon the dry land’ (Jonah 2:11). God then commanded him for the second time to go to Nineveh and denounce the wickedness of its people, which he did.

  489–90 When Moses was leading the Israelites out of Egypt, the waters of the Red Sea parted to allow them to pass through, but returned to drown the pursuing Egyptians (Exodus 14:21–31).

  491–4 The command to the four angels holding the four winds of the earth to ‘Hurt not the earth, nor the sea, nor the trees’ is given by a fifth angel in Revelation 7:1–3; Chaucer may also have had in mind Christ’s stilling of the tempest in Mark 4:39.

  500–501 St Mary of Egypt (?5th c.) was a penitent prostitute who lived a hermit’s life in the desert for 37 years, eating only weeds (Golden Legend, I, 227–9). Her legend was very popular in the Middle Ages.

  502–3 Christ’s miraculous feeding of 5,000 people with five loaves and two fishes is described in all four Gospels (Matthew 14:14–21, Mark 6:34–44, Luke 9:13–17, John 6:1–14).

  519 Trevet’s Constance is proficient in languages, and she therefore speaks to the constable in ‘Saxon’. In changing his source and having Constance speak ‘a kind of corrupt Latin’, Chaucer is perhaps aiming at historical authenticity, but he may also have wished to emphasize the isolation which is characteristic of his heroine’s situation throughout the tale.

  534–46 payens: Chaucer’s account of Britain is a more accurate representation of the situation in the sixth century than his account of Syria. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Britain was invaded by heathen Saxons, who drove the Christian Britains westwards into Wales.

  578 Alla: Trevet here incorporates into his fictional narrative a historical king, Aelle of Deira (roughly equivalent to modern Yorkshire, not Northumberland), who reigned 560–88.

  617 Cf. Cl 537–8 and n.

  634 Christ’s binding of Satan is the conclusion of his Harrowing of Hell, as described in the apocryphal gospel of Nicodemus (Apocryphal NT, pp. 185

  639–40 Susanne: The story of Susanna, who was falsely accused of adultery by two elders when she refused their sexual advances, and was saved from death by the prophet Daniel, is told in an appendix to Daniel (ch. 13) included in the Vulgate version of the Bible.

  641 Mary’s mother is named as Anna in the apocryphal gospel known as the Book of James (Apocryphal NT, pp. 38–49).

  659 In both Trevet and Gower, Alla is not present when Constance is accused; he arrives only after she has been miraculously exculpated and so has no role in her preservation.

  666 A Briton book … Evangiles: Chaucer’s narrative does not make clear why a copy of the Gospels was so readily to hand in a pagan country, nor why a pagan knight should be required to swear on this Christian book. Trevet, who generally tries to disguise the overall implausibility of the narrative with circumstantial detail, explains that the book was present in the bedroom because Constance and Hermengild had been using it in their devotions; he had earlier related that the knight who accuses Constance had been baptized along with the rest of the constable’s household, thus making it natural for him to swear on the Gospels.

  701–2 The wheat/chaff metaphor is conventional; see Whiting C428, and cf. NP 3443 and n., Pars 35–6 and LGW G 312, 529.

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