Sunday, September 19, 2010

An Introduction to the Canterbury Tales

(a) The Canterbury Tales
From the most ancient times, observes R.D. French, the stories that men have told have had a way of drifting together into collections; and when such a series has been the work of a conscious artist, an attempt has usually been made to weave the diverse elements into some unified pattern. In the later Middle Ages, many such collections of tales were produced, and many different sorts of unifying devices were invested to hold them together.
It seems to have been Chaucer's ambition, for several years, to use his talents for story-telling in this way. In 1385 or 1386, he had projected one such series of tales, in the Legend of Good Women; and there are some who believe that he had previously completed a large part of another, in the collection of tragedies later presented as the Monkes Tale. Neither was likely to hold the attention of a poet whose genius was certainly characterised by a love of variety, which made it easier for him to project long work than to bring them to completion ; and it is not surprising that he laid the Legends aside when a more compelling artistic device took possession of his mind.
It was probably in 1387 that Chaucer began the Canterbury Tales Material for a collection of stories, which would afford more variety than the monotonous tales of Cupid's saints, was in his possession. It is certain that he had written the story of Palamon and Arcite and the Life of St. Cecilia before 1385 or 1386, and other material later incorporated in the Canterbury Tales, was probably taking definite shape in his mind, if it was not already in its final form. The new scheme for a collection of tales, which were to be told by pilgrims chosen from many walks of life, offered the fullest possible opportu­nity for the use of all sorts of material, and was not likely to threat­en either the author or the reader with monotony.
It is hardly necessary to search for the "source" of the pilgrimage to Canterbury. Actual observation, coupled with the poet's ready imagination, was sufficient to have furnished Chaucer with the device by which he sought to give unity to his great work. We may be certain, at any rate, that no work which has yet been brought to light could have given him more than a bare suggestion for the framework of the Canterbury Tales. The Decameron, the most brilliant similar collection of stories, was unknown to Chaucer. Another Italian's work of far less brilliance, the Novelle of Giovanni Sercambi, owes a greater similarity to the Canterbury Tales. It tells of a journey taken by a rather large company, who have fled from their native city to escape the Black Death. On their journeying, they are entertained by tales told by the author, who represents him­self as a member of the company, and various forms of entertain­ment are furnished by other pilgrims during the evenings. One of their number, chosen at the outset, acts as leader ("prepesto") of the company. Although all the tales of the collection are told by a single narrator, he varies the tone of his novelle by addressing some of them particularly to various classes among his fellow pilgrims.
The general resemblance between Sercambi's work and the Canterbury Tales, first pointed out by Mr. Hinckley, in his valuable Notes on Chaucer (1907), has not been generally considered convincing evidence that Chaucer was familiar with this collection of stories, and a full study, by Professor Young, fails to reveal any very close similarity in matters of detail. Since the Novelle were writers of a later date than 1374, Chaucer could not have encountered the work on his first Italian journey ; but it is possible that he saw it, or heard of it, when he was in Italy in 1378. It is to be noted that he makes no use of any of the Novelle themselves, and if he owes anything at all to Sercambi, it is merely a suggestion for a collection of tales told upon a journey and bound together by some account of the journey itself.
The framework of the Canterbury Tales, whether original or borrowed, seems to have been adopted because it promised the fullest opportunity for a large and varied collection of stories. When the Host of the Tabard (here all the twentynine pilgrims including Chaucer had assembled) lays his proposal before his guests (The Prologue 77-809), he outlines a scheme calling for a hundred and twenty tales (the thirtieth pilgrim, the Canon's Yeoman, joins the company later at Boghton-under-Blee, 5 miles from Canterbury). Each of the pilgrims is to tell two stories on the journey to Canterbury and two more on the road back to Southwark. Needless to say, Chaucer did not complete the ambitious task which he laid upon himself through the mouth of Harry Bailly 'the Host'. In the Parson's Prologue, toward the very end of the journey, we learn that the poet had modified his own plan very considerably, by the time he had brought his pilgrims within sight of Canterbury. We part with the pilgrim; before they reach the goal of their pilgrimage, and we hear nothing at all about their return journey. On the way to Canter­bury, moreover, no pilgrim except the poet himself, tells more than one story ; and seven of the company [Haberdasher, Carpenter, Webbe (weaver), Dyer, Tapycer (tapestry-maker) and Plowman] tell no tale at all. The Monk's Tale and the Rime of Sir Thopas are interrupted by the pilgrims, and the Cook's Tale and Sguire's Tale were left unfinished. Of the hundred and twenty tales which Chaucer seems to promise us in the Prologue, only twenty were completed.
There is further evidence of the incomplete condition in which Chaucer left his last great work. The most tantalising problem of Chaucerian scholarship is the question of the order of the Canterbury Tales. It may be said at ones that no entirely satisfactory solution of this problem is ever likely to be offered. Scholars are still taxing their ingenuity to supply what Chaucer might or should have written, to make his story of the pilgrimage to Canterbury complete and consistent ; but the lamentable fact remains that he never did finish the story, and no amount of juggling the fragments of his unfinished work will ever bring them into a completed pattern. In all probability, he had not himself determined the precise order in which the tales in his collection should stand. He had certainly not written all that he originally intended to write, either to supply the number of tales which the Host's proposal calls for, or to fill the gaps between the stories with a consistent narrative of the journey to Canterbury. From the condition of the manuscripts, it may be inferred that he had experimented with various arrangements of his completed material, and that he had cancelled certain passages, as new ideas for the interplay of character, along the Canterbury road, suggested themselves to his mind. It is evident that some of the tales were thrust into the collection with very little consideration of their fitness for the narrators to whom they are assigned ; and one of them appears to have been transferred, as an afterthought, from one of the pilgrims to another. In short, there is every indication that Chaucer had not settled in his own mind the problem of the precise order of the tales and their assignment among the pilgrims.
French observes that it is futile to attempt to arrive at definite conclusions with regard to the arrangements which Chaucer intended to give the Tales, it is even more futile to search for a unifying motif in a work which the author left in so fragmentary a condition. It is true that the presentation of diverse views on marriage gives a certain unity to that portion of the poem which begins with the Wife of Bath's Prologue and ends with the Franklin's Tale ; and the fact that the stories which belong to the so-called "Marriage Group" appear in close proximity, though not always in the same order, in all the existing manuscripts, lends support to the theory that Chaucer intended to build this part of the Canterbury Tales upon the same underlying theme. Attempts to push the matter farther, however, and to find the same unifying idea running through the entire collection, or through any other considerable part of it, are hardly advisable. Others of the Tales, to be sure, are concerned with love or marriage; but nine-tenths of the stories of the world are built upon such themes, and it seems quite unnecessary to conjecture that Chaucer's pilgrims told so many tales of love and lust because the poet had determined to utilise this motif to unify his collection of stories.
A similar attempt to discover an architectonic unity in the Canterbury Tales is that of Professor Tupper, who has developed a theory that Chaucer intended to bind his stories together by utilising the familiar schematism of the Seven Deadly Sins, and that the Parson's Tale was to be an epilogue to a collection which the medieval reader would recognise as a series of practical application of the ethical ideas universally inculcated by the Church. Professor Tupper's theory has not gained acceptance, partly because of aesthetic considerations, and partly because the schematism which attributes to the poet does not appear altogether consistent with itself.
(b) The Prologue
It has generally been assumed, says French, that the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales was written when the idea of the pilgrimage was first conceived. The vivacity with which the work has been done suggests the zeal of fresh inspiration. The fact that the poet includes description of several persons who do not contribute stories makes it appear all the more likely that the Prologue was written before he had made such progress with his work upon the individual tales. Miss Hammond has put forth an interesting theory, however, that the portraits of the Reeve, Miller, Maniciple, Summoner, and Pardoner—the members of the company who furnish most of the dramatic incident upon the journey—were added after the poet had made some progress with his work and had begun to realise the advantages of introducing more dynamic personlities into the group. The theory is decidedly alluring, but it is only a conjecture. The generally accepted belief is that the Prologue was begun more than two or three of the stories had been written, and that it was completed before Chaucer proceeded further with his collection of tales.
For many years, the composition of the Prologue was assigned definitely to the year 1387, largely on the evidence of the reference (1.277.) to "keeping" the sea "bitwixe Middelburgh and Orewelle." The continental port most used by the Merchants of the Staple during the life-time of Chaucer was Calais ; but for a brief period, between 1384 and 1388, the Staple was removed from Calais and established at Middelburgh. Professor Hales, in a paper in the Athenaeum for 1893 (1.443, 444), first pointed out these facts and drew the conclusion that Chaucer's Merchant could hardly have been intrested in keeping the sea-lanes to Middleburgh free from pirates at any other time. Professor Knott, however, has recently shown that other ports than the legal Staple were frequently used, under special privilege, by English exporters, and that it is not so certain as had been supposed that the reference to Middelburgh belongs to the period between 1384 and 1388. Nevertheless, the traditional date of 1387 is still accepted for the Prologue, although, robbed of this supporting evidence. Skeat's argument for dating the fictitious pilgrimage in 1387 may certainly be accepted, but it does not necessarily follow that the Prologue was written in that year.
No source for this, the most distinctive of Chaucer's works, has ever been discovered. No such series of descriptions is to be found in any work of ancient or medieval literature which could have come to Chaucer's attention. The Canterbury Pilgrims are described so realistically, indeed, that scholarship is at present searching fourteenth-century England, rather than the books which the poet is known to have read, for the originals of the portraits in the Prologue. Harry Bailly the host of the Tabard, is known to have been actual person, who sat in Parliament, as representative of the borough of Southwark, in 1376 and 1378 ; and "Roger Ware of London" and "Roger Knight of Ware" appear documents of 1377 and 1384-85 in each case identified as "Cook".
Professsor Manly's Lowell Lectures, published in 1926 under the title, Some New Light on Chaucer, "exhibit the results of treating Chaucer as one would a modern writer, of believing that behind his most vital and successful sketches lay the observation of living men and women, of assuming that some at least of the definite statements made about them might be true, and then searching the record of his time to discover if by chance one could find persons answering accurately or nearly so the descriptions he gave of them." Professor Manly's researches have certainly discovered much material which illuminates the descriptions of the pilgrims and adds greatly to one's enjoyment in the reading of the Prologue. That his results are highly speculative, he is the first to recognise, and he declares that he is "far from believing that Chaucer merely photographed his friends and acquaintances." His arguments, nevertheless, leave one almost convinced that for a few of the Canterbury Pilgrims something like originals have been found. The Reeve, to whom Chaucer gives a local habitation, if not a name, Professor Manly has traced to the Pembroke estates in Norfolk ; the Prioress, who speaks French "after the scole of Stratford atte Bowe", he has found faintly foreshadowed in Madame Argentyn, who was apparently nun, if not prioress, at the Benedictine nunnery of St. Leonard's Bromley, adjoining Stratford-Bow ; and he has shown that the title of the Sergeant of the Lawe, together with certain of the facts of his career, must have caused the fourteenth-century reader of the Prologue to scrutinise Chaucer's lawyer very sharply, in the expectation of finding traits that would suggest one man or another among the very limited group of sergeants at law.
Though occasional details in the descriptions may have been drawn from actual persons, it is extremely unlikely, as Professor Manly says, that Chaucer drew his portraits in any large measure, from people whom he knew. Imagination, working upon contemporary life, was the principal source of his descriptions ; and to seek a complete original, either in books or in life, for any one of the Canterbury Pilgrims, is no more profitable than to search for Sir John Falstaff in Elizabethan libraries or taverns. The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, considered as a whole, is an entirely original work.
On the other hand, as it has been observed by French, several details in Chaucer's descriptions of his pilgrims have been definitely traced to other authors. The prioress's table-manners, for example, are derived from the Roman de la Rose. From the same source come a few lines in the description of Alice of Bath, who, like La Vieille of Jean de meun "scet toute la vielle dance". Faux-semblant, the hypocrite whose cynical confession is to be found in Jean's portion of the Roman undoubtedly contributed something to Chaucer's sati­rical portrait of the Friar. Like Faux-Semblant Frere Hubert pre­fers to carry spiritual consolation to the wealthy rather than to the poor. His vices on the impropriety of associating with "seke lazars" seem to be derived from a confessional passage of Faux-Semblant. Again, Both of these scoundrels use the garb of the mendicant order for mercenary purposes.
French, however, makes it clear that Chaucer's debt to the Roman insofar as the portraits of the Prologue are concerned, is not so much a matter of verbal borrowings as of the spirit which inspired the work. Though Chaucer's satire is more subtle and, perhaps, more genial, it was from Jean de Meun that he first learned to use his pen for the unsparing exposure of hypocrisy. Another possible source for the satirical spirit, which animates so much of the Prologue, is Langland's Piers the Plowman. The two works, to be sure, differ from one another in many ways, but they are certainly much alike in their common purpose of illuminating the darker corners of fourteenth-century English life. Chaucer's recreant churchmen, in particular, are close akin to Langland's. His parish priest is the converse of those whom Langland described as forsaking their parishes to go up to London, 'to sing there for simony, for silver is sweet'.
Professor Curry, in his Chaucer and the Mediaeval Sciences, discusses the share which the poet's scientific interests may have had in the creation of some of the characters among the Canterbury Pilgrims. Much of his argument rests upon the incidents of the journey, as well as upon the brief descriptions in the Prologue, but his starting point is usually in those descriptions. He has shown that the portraits of the Miller and Reeve include physical details which the popular science of physiognomy attributed to men of just the traits of character which these two men exhibit ; he has brought the portrait of the Pardoner into comparison with other descriptions of the eunachus ex nativitate; and he has explored the medical lore of the Middle Ages to identify the skin-disease of the Summoner and the Cook's "mormal". His analysis of the character of Alice of Bath, in the light of her horoscope, depends, more upon the material presented later in the Canterbury Tales than upon the description of the lady in the Prologue.

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