Musings of a domesticated scholar

Category: Chaucer


Happy April, good readers!

Today is many things (April Fool’s among them, so be on your guard), but best of all, today is the day that begins Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. You can read –AND LISTEN TO– the beginning here:

a 'wel-faringe' knight and his 'lady bright'

a ‘wel-faringe’ knight and his ‘lady bright’

There’s plenty to say about why Chaucer matters– he was enormously prolific; the Canterbury Tales are the backbone of the English canon; he was the father of English (or is that Shakespeare? Or Milton? Or Mark Twain?); etc, etc, etc.

But for me, Chaucer is important in the same way that most authors are: he shows me that people are generally the same throughout time and across place. He teaches me that humor is the best instructor (and the most restorative salve); his words make me fidget, and struggle, and laugh, and google, and wonder, and write “WTF” in my margins.

And as a medievalist, I am drawn to Chaucer not just because he’s “part of the field,” but because his works transcend our field so well. We’ve all heard about Richard III’s reburial and the Anglo-Saxon cure for a modern-day superbug, but as I’ve written about already, Chaucer’s works recast our present-day scenarios in ways that allow us to reflect critically and meaningfully on our own lives.

With that in mind, I’d like to toast all the participants in #whanthataprilleday15 and encourage all of my friends to find out a little bit more about these important cultural legacies that dumb luck and genius librarians have bequeathed to us:

Chaucer’s Manuscripts and Books on the Web 

Medieval Manuscripts Blog

Best Blog: A Clerk of Oxford

And speaking of bequeathing, I thought I’d practice my own preaching and share – with you and my son – part of my favorite of Chaucer’s poems, The Book of the Duchess. I wrote about it in my master’s thesis a zillion years ago, and, even after doctoral exams, I still love it. The story is GOOOOOOOORGEOUS and sad, funny, complicated, dream-like, life-like, and – most important to my purposes here – it involves a puppy.

Our narrator (the dreamer) has fallen asleep reading a book, and wakes up to a new but eerily familiar world. He witnesses a great hunt, the escape of the hart, and the recall of the hunting party. He now finds that he is alone in the woods, but not for long:

Until next time, sweet dreams!

Holy Women, pt 1

Since my last post, I’ve passed all my PhD exams, taken a few several weeks to recover, and gone to England for a couple of weeks. After my extended break, health issues, and a family visit, I am happy to be back and researching for my dissertation prospectus.
But first, I owe you all an adventure. Three months ago you voted on which should be my next blog post, and the tallies are in: Holy Women it is! Sorry for the delay.
In order to make up for lost time, I’ll do this in two installments.
Holy Woman #1: Constance in Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale: “the mediator”


Chaucer’s story is a bit more elaborate and stylized than its Anglo-Norman source, a chronicle by Trivet. This blend of saint’s life and romance could also be called “Murderous Mothers-in-Law.”
Synopsis: A syrian sultan converts to Christianity in order to marry Constance, a merchant’s daughter. She’s not particularly keen on the idea, but unlike the Wife of Bath admits that women “are born to thralldom and penance, and to be under man’s governance.” The sultan’s mother resents that he converted for the pretty little thing; accordingly she fakes conversion, kills all the converts of her own land, and exiles Constance to Italy. Constance is shipwrecked in Northumbria, where she’s saved by the pagan but sympathetic King Alla. After he and his people are converted by her “mediation,” Alla and marries Constance and goes off to war, leaving her at the mercy HIS vengeful mother. In an intricate fake-letter plot, Constance’s new mother-in-law exiles her and her son. Eventually Alla catches on, returns home, kills his mother, and takes pilgrimage to Rome.
It’s been five years since Constance and her son have been lost at sea; she’s never given up hope, and although she pales three times in the story, her faith and prayers sustain them. At long last they wash ashore in Rome, where the family is reunited.  Alla and Constance return to England, living happily for one year before he dies. Constance leaves for Rome to live out her days with her son, now Emperor Maurice.
Themes: Constance is plotted against by older, pagan women; she accepts her fate without self-pity or despair; she leads by example, giving no grand speeches but converting others (especially powerful men) by “mediation.” She is always humble, quietly accepting her fate and seeking God’s protection.
Holy Woman #2: St Cecilia in Chaucer’s formerly-known-as-second-nun’s-tale: “the big reveal”


Influenced by Richard Love, Augustine, and the Franciscan Meditations on the Life of Christ, Chaucer’s S Cecilia is sometimes thought of as “the only good woman in the Canterbury Tales.” I take issue with that, but will let you make your own conclusions.
If Constance is patient and quietly brave, Cecilia is “busy” and urgently bold. We hear much more from Cecilia than we do from Custance, and I think part of that is due to genre: Man-of-Law’s Tale is hagio-romance, but Cecilia’s story is more strictly hagiographical. What fascinate me about Cecilia’s Tale (as I mentioned in my post on Values of the Hidden in 2011) are the visible elements of the story. There are secret angels, popes popping out of catacombs, magical golden books, covert meetings, clandestine conversions, but also spectacular confrontations and tortures.
Themes: Cecilia is nothing if not active; she engages in debates on logic and faith, and has strong ties to the secretive Christian community. She preaches for three days after being boiled and half-decapitated, emphasizing her role as one who reveals the truth of God as well as the “naked”ness of her fellow humans.

That’s all for now, but if you’re interested in reading more (and differently) about Chaucer, check out the mind-blowing Dark Chaucer: An Assortment.

Look out for my next post on holy women later this week:
Holy Woman #3: Julian of Norwich: “the visionary”
Holy Woman # 4: Margery Kempe: “the housewife”

Until then, here are some other sources of medieval holy women:

The Early South English Legendary
Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women
Bokenham’s Legends of Holy Women

Values of the Hidden

You might have heard about the Carrier IQ app that “logs text messages, dialed calls, URL searches and more — all without the user’s knowledge” (Gilbert).  If you haven’t, you can read about the online exposure and the response in this article.  In strikingly similar news, Ally Bank is tracking users’ locations as well, because “[i]n these economic times, financial institutions like banks are looking for extra revenue sources” (Yoo, in Kavoussi of HuffingtonPost).  Both phone carriers and the bank, though, failed to tell clients that they were being tracked.  I know, I know. We’re all appalled.  But are we surprised?
There’s been a lot of political talk about the rights of corporations lately, and given what we know about Google and Facebook privacy, we might not be as shocked as we’d wish.  
“Outrageous!” I find myself thinking.  “They’ve got no business tracking my whereabouts, purchases, texts, and searches.”  And yet, it is just that– business. So what does this mean for the — dare I use scare quotes– “individual”?  
It means that we’ve become commodities; it means our secrets have become commodities.  What we do with our time, in our homes, on our phones and computers, has become valuable to others, to strangers, to anonymous and autonomous corporations.  How did this happen?  Whose fault is this? What can we do?  And importantly, on what do we base our assumption that we can, and indeed should, hide what we’ve been doing from these faceless, nameless, number-crunchers?  What is the value of a secret?

Lelio Orsi, 1555

I recently turned in a paper about what I call the “Economy of Secrets” in two of the Canterbury Tales.  I spent most of my time on what editors usually call “The Second Nun’s Tale,” which is based on the legend of Saint Cecilia, who seems to come from the 5th or 6th century.  Like so many saints’ legends, hers is the story of her virgin martyrdom at the hands of persecuting Romans.  
On her wedding night, she tells her husband that she has a secret.  He’s fine with that, and promises his discretion in exchange for her revelation.  “I have an angel who protects me from anyone who would love me uncleanly (physically),” she responds.  Rightfully skeptical, her husband Valerian tells her that he can’t see an angel, but if she will show him the creature, he will do as she wishes.   Cecilia replies that he must be confessed and baptised in order to see the angel, and his conversion sparks a series of events that allows her to convert the hearts of countless others until her martyrdom.
Although I began my research looking for ways in which the body was valued, and how that value might have related to the narrative strategy of the original legend and Chaucer, I ended up discovering something else: the secret has extraordinary purchasing power.  In a way, the whole story is set in motion when she trades her secret for his confidence.  After converting her husband and his brother (who are martyred for their belief in the middle of the story), she is also brought into the authorities for practicing Christianity. Although her faith has been revealed, the public interrogation provides her with a last (and her largest) audience to convert.  Ultimately she gives her life– her bodily life, anyway– to turn pagans  into Christians, and Pope Urban takes her body away in the night to bury it in secret.  On the hallowed ground of her hidden body he builds a church, which according to the legend still inspires worshipers.  
Her body becomes the secret– the object valued as something once hidden, now revealed.
It seems, then, that we’ve had a preoccupation with the powers of secrets for quite some time.  Although the situations are quite different, both my newsfeed and this saint’s life demonstrate the inherent value of secrets to outsiders and the power of disclosure.  And yet, when Cecilia’s story narrates a series of exchanging secrets, our current story tells a far different tale.  What do we receive in exchange for our browser history, or GPS use, or MMS? Is ours the narrative of a zero-sum game rather than trade? Whether for profit, salvation, or persecution, we endow great value in secrets.  But given the current stakes, will we ever see a return on this investment?

On Chaucer’s Pardoner and Joe Paterno

In The Canterbury Tales, our dear friend Geoff Chaucer tells the story of others telling stories (about others).  It’s a text rich in material for study, especially on narration and authority.  One of the most memorable characters/narrators is the Pardoner, a man whose job is collecting extorting money from penitents.  The Pardoner introduces his tale with a confession, admitting that he is a phony driven by avarice and listing some of his most egregious misdeeds, including peddling false relics.  His actual tale is a story that illustrates how destructive avarice can be, so this confession ultimately builds his credibility as its teller, establishing him as an expert on the issue.  But the sticking point for so many readers (and scholars) is the claim that links his confessional prologue to his tale about three greedy thieves seeking Death:
“For though myself be a ful vicious man,
A moral tale yet I yow telle kan” (460, 461 in Bevington).
He knows that he is a “vicious man” yet maintains that he can tell “a moral tale.”  He’s been perfectly up-front about his cheating, stealing, and ostensibly unrepentant self, so it seems unlikely that he’d lie in this instance.

I find myself trying to redeem the Pardoner here.  “He’s at least honest; that’s a start,” I say.  But is it?  What happens when someone who does bad things does something good? Do we always see these notions as either withdrawals or deposits into our human-ness account, looking for good deeds to undue past cruelties, and expecting all our meannesses to undo that volunteer work we did in high school?

Regardless of the speaker, what’s at stake here is really the difference between being a good person and doing good things.  We all think, say to ourselves, say to our loved ones, “good people can do bad things, and bad people can do good things.”  This is certainly convenient.  But what this assumes is that what a person is, fundamentally, is static.  To assume that a good person can do bad things doesn’t seem to account for the possibility of transition from “bad person” to “good person”– or any mutability or boundary-blurring between.  One simply is good or bad, and is allowed (even expected?) to deviate from time to time.

How easily we as students, teachers, parents (of pets or people) hear and say that we meant better, that we’re really not like that, that our actions this one time define or express us less than better moments.  Are we so involved in a culture of disclaimer that we can’t even fathom being a bad person, if only for a moment?  And is it so impossible for someone to be bad one day and good the next?  Why must we couch all devious actions in the context of our personhood?  When do actions speak for themselves?

I saw the resurgence of a Taylor Mali poem about conviction on Twitter last night.  The youtube clip is here, and I encourage all to check this, and his other work, out frequently and thoughtfully.  Here is an excerpt from the poem that examines a trend of decreasing responsibility in writing and speech (my favorite bits are in bold):

What has happened to our conviction?
Where are the limbs out on which we once walked?
Have they been, like, chopped down
with the rest of the rain forest?
Or do we have, like, nothing to say?
Has society become so, like, totally . . .
I mean absolutely . . . You know?
That we’ve just gotten to the point where it’s just, like . . .
And so actually our disarticulation . . . ness
is just a clever sort of . . . thing
to disguise the fact that we’ve become
the most aggressively inarticulate generation
to come along since . . .
you know, a long, long time ago!
I entreat you, I implore you, I exhort you,
I challenge you: To speak with conviction.
To say what you believe in a manner that bespeaks
the determination with which you believe it.
Because contrary to the wisdom of the bumper sticker,
it is not enough these days to simply QUESTION AUTHORITY.
You have to speak with it, too.

During a week that’s been particularly hard for me as a teacher (and therefore also as a student, wife, sister, and everything else), I’m thinking a lot about personal responsibility and open-mindedness.  But I’m not thinking about open-mindedness in terms of throwing the first stone, or living in a glass house.  I’m thinking about what it means to turn the gaze inward and see something ugly, or scary, or cruel, or BAD.  Are we, as Americans, less likely to do that than to excuse, or sugar-coat, or justify?  And if this is the case, what might be the cause of such resistance?  Is the internet world of celebrity divorce, rehab, madness, fetishes, and scandal somehow also one enmeshed in dissolving culpability?
Certainly,  the Penn State rape cover-up has been horrifying, disheartening, and strange.  Please notice that I used the word “rape” instead of sex scandal.  As Tommy Christopher points out in his awesome article for Mediaite found here, “Sandusky is not accused of ‘having sex’ with little boys, he is accused of raping them. In our civilization, ‘sex’ with a child is not possible, since a child cannot consent to sex” (Dear Media, It’s not a ‘Sex Scandal’…).  Watching ESPN and reading other news coverage of what was disclosed to a grand jury has shown me that perfectly articulate, professional men and women, working with the same knowledge-base about the accusations, are still not decrying Paterno outright.  There is a lot of “great coach, but this is horrible” and “he admits he should have done more, which tells us something” floating around.  I would like to think that I wait to hear all the facts before making a judgment, but the media seems to be suspiciously cautious about this case.  This unusual delicacy leads me to a question that renders Paterno a contemporary Pardoner:
over half a millennium after Chaucer, why is it still so difficult  to reconcile a horrible deed with an old man committed to promoting a cult of false relics and superstition, even after he admits to exploiting the ignorance of others?
Until next week, my fellow authorities. 

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