Tag Archives: Chaucer

Chaucer, CT, Man of Law’s Tale

Index to this series

The tale of Chaucer’s Man of Law is a strange fantasy, taking place in the Mediterranean and England, at a time when there are

  • a Muslim sultan in Syria,
  • pagan rulers in England,
  • both an emperor and a pope in Rome.

There does not seem to have been such a time historically. The pope crowned emperors such as Charlemagne, but they didn’t sit in Rome.

The Man of Law names only one male historical figure, who is King Ælla of Northumbria, who died in 867. Several women are named, particularly Constance, who is apparently to be taken as the type of a virtuous Christian woman.

While telling his tale, the Serjeant asserts that our fates are written in the stars, if only we could read them. He also says he learned his tale from a merchant, years ago, and Chaucer will have to versify it. But then Chaucer the poet is having his character called the Serjeant or Man of Law say this in the first place.

The reading has three parts.

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Chaucer, CT, Miller’s and Reeve’s Tales

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When I read the Miller’s Tale for high school, I thought it was supposed to show how titillation was possible through learning (in this case, learning Middle English). We didn’t read the Reeve’s ensuing tale (it was not in the selection that we had).

The two tales are comedies. Chaucer bases them on existing plots, as far as I know, but tries to make them fit his pilgrims. Though the Reeve may derive the lesson, “A gylour shal him-self bigyled be” (line 4321), I see no reason to think Chaucer is trying to teach this or any other lesson. He portrays corruption in the Church, but does not seem to be a Luther in the making.

There are many more tales to come. Meanwhile, I wonder how Chaucer came to describe the mote and beam of Matthew 7:3 as a stalk and a balk; see lines 3919–20.

Before passing to the text itself, I try to summarize, highlighting the comedy.

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Chaucer, CT, Knight’s Tale

Index to this series

I had read the Knight’s Tale in college and written an essay about it, but I could remember little of the Tale itself or the essay.

After obtaining and annotating the text of the Tale as below, I went back to reread my old essay after thirty-six years. It’s better than I feared, and it drew my attention to points that I had missed in the latest reading of the Knight’s Tale itself. But my concerns are somehow different now.

This is what I say now about the Knight’s Tale. It is about the resolution of a love triangle. Palamon and Arcite both love Emily. Arcite wins her, but Palamon ends up with her.

By the anachronistic conceit of the teller of the tale (be he Chaucer or Chaucer’s Knight), Palamon and Arcite are knights in ancient Greece. Theseus arranges for them to fight one another for the hand of Emily. Palamon prays Venus to win Emily or die. Arcite prays Mars to give him victory. Emily prays Diana to leave her single, if possible.

Maidenhead is not allowed. However, Arcite will go to the man who loves her most. Victory is Arcite’s, but then accident takes his life, and Theseus gives Emily to Palamon.

I could keep adding details until I had repeated the whole story told in Chaucer’s verses; but I am not going to do that.

A question raised in our seminar is, What does it mean that Chaucer has a Christian knight tell a story about knights who worship pagan gods?

Palamon and Arcite get what they say they want, literally. Oracles work that way:

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Chaucer, CT, Prologue

Below is a text (in black) of the Prologue of the Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer, with

  • my comments in blue (as now),
  • my highlighting in yellow.

The Prologue tells the frame story of a pilgrimage from London to the shrine of the “holy blissful martyr” at Canterbury; along the way, the pilgrims will tell the tales that make up the rest of the collection.

Chaucer was born around 1340; the dramatic date of his Prologue may be 1387. The martyr in Canterbury is Thomas Becket, assassinated in the cathedral there in 1170 by agents of King Henry II of England.

The Black Death was 1346–53.

Reasons to read Chaucer include testing Collingwood’s assertion in the Prologue of Speculum Mentis (1924),

Chaucer and Dante are no shallow optimists, but their tragedies are discords perpetually resolved in the harmony of a celestial music. The fundamental thing in Chaucer is the ‘mery tale’ of human life as a heartening and lovely pageant … The medieval mind feels itself surrounded, beyond the sphere of trial and danger, by a great peace, an infinite happiness.

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Mood

Executive summary. The English grammatical moods—indicative, imperative, subjunctive—were not understood till the nineteenth century, according to an 1882 doctoral dissertation, On the Use of the Subjunctive Mood in Anglo-Saxon. Considering illustrative passages that happen to be from Plato, Alfred Douglas, Evelyn Waugh, and especially John Donne; looking ultimately at John McWhorter’s 2015 essay, “English is not normal”; I review the subjunctive mood, grammar in general, and my own lack of understanding till I was in college.

Copyright page and table of contents, side by side, of Concise Oxford Dictionary Continue reading

NL XXXVI: The Essence of Civilization

Index to this series

After thirty-five earlier chapters, we reach the point of the New Leviathan. The essence of civilization is being civil to one another (36. 5).

Henri Rousseau (French, 1844 – 1910), The Equatorial Jungle, 1909, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, National Gallery of Art

That may sound trivial or tautologous. It’s not. We are talking about being civil, in the ancient sense discussed in the previous chapter:

35. 41. Behaving ‘civilly’ to a man means respecting his feelings: abstaining from shocking him, annoying him, frightening him, or (briefly) arousing in him any passion or desire which might diminish his self-respect (13. 31); that is, threaten his consciousness of freedom by making him feel that his power of choice is in danger of breaking down and the passion or desire likely to take charge (13. 67).

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