The time has come to introduce Geoffrey Chaucer. He is widely, and for good reason, acknowledged as one of the greatest poets in the English language, albeit now in a form of English known as Middle English. For a reader who is unfamiliar with this early English 'dialect' of the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, reading can be slow work without quite a lot of practice. Part of the problem is spelling, but grammar has altered over the centuries, word order has changed and many old words have gone out of use completely or undergone subtle changes of meaning during the intervening span of over six hundred years. However, the reason why Chaucer's poetry is still admired and studied and published and translated is not only because it is of exceptionally high quality; it is considered to stand above other, very high quality and sometimes anonymous verse literature of this period in England because it is truly poetic.
But it rests upon a tradition. No poet writes in a vacuum, and England in the late-Medieval period was tri-lingual. Middle English, Old French and Latin were all spoken extensively.† English and French literature of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries can legitimately be classed as a single stream;† Marie de France probably wrote in England, the Old French and Anglo-Norman authors Hue de Roteland and Thomas of Britain (who set down the story of Tristan) certainly did. Chaucer had this legacy to draw upon. He may have owned the Auchinleck Manuscript, now National Library of Scotland MS Advocates 19.2.1, a wonderful volume of romance, classical legend and even a Breton tale of Orpheus. He certainly knew and admired the Latin works of pagan classical authors like Virgil and Ovid.† And Chaucer's own inclinations are clear. He wrote a treatise on the Astrolabe for his young son. He travelled to Italy and afterwards wrote Troilus and Criseyde, a romance of the Trojan War based upon a work by one of three great Florentine writers, Giovanni Boccaccio. He may even have chosen the theme for his final great work, the Canterbury Tales, unlike the theme chosen by Boccaccio for his own otherwise similar Decameron, because of the freedom it afforded him to explore many different styles and subjects, from the mouths of characters from many different walks of life.† And again and again in his poetry, he seems to drop hints of something underlying it all, some concern that he can only allude to.
Take the following line addressed to the Virgin Mary in Chaucer's 'The Prioresses Tale', one of his Canterbury Tales.† 'O moder mayde! O mayde moder free!' It could be translated as 'Oh virgin and mother! Oh liberal virgin and mother!' But it could equally be rendered, perhaps, by something like – 'Oh maid, Oh mother made! Oh may you be released!' Chaucer was not exactly averse to praising and promoting a nature goddess, as we will see shortly and he does this more often in his poetry than extolling the virtues of the Virgin Mary. The prologue to his work The Legend of Good Women, for example, begins, characteristically, with an opening that may be taken two ways. With spelling modernised, it begins: 'A thousand times have I heard men tell, that there is joy in heaven and pain in hell; and I accord well that it is so; but nonetheless...', nonetheless, he cautions – nonetheless – there is no one alive today who can testify to the existence of these places by ever having been to them. But the remedy is at hand. We must believe what we read in old books. But which old books? Pagan or Christian?
Only the month of May will force Geoffrey Chaucer away from his books; and the nature of these books will become evident as we progress. When the daisy blooms, Geoffrey tells us, he goes out at dawn to worship this flower as her petals open, and at night he retires to a garden, where a couch of turves is his bed, strewn with flowers. Notwithstanding the image thus conjured, purposely or otherwise, of a grave, he rises again at dawn in order to be 'at the resurrection of this flower, when it opens its petals again to the warmth of the sun.' He loves this flower so much that it is 'the mistress of my wit, and nothing I.' The daisy is his Muse, from which all his creative energy flows.
Whilst lying outside on his mound of turves one night, Geoffrey dreams that he rises and goes to the meadow to kneel at the daisy, when he sees the old Roman goddess Flora and her consort Zephyrus approaching, with a multitude of young ladies. Flora is clothed like a daisy. Zephyrus is clothed in silk embroidered with green leaves. But he is also the god of love, Cupid, and might also, at another poetic level still, be the God of Love, God. He chastises Chaucer, who admits to a 'dread of Loves words and of his temper.' Geoffrey has a dread of this god! Love says that Chaucer is his foe, and 'of my old servants you slander and frustrate them with your translations, and obstruct folk in their devotion to me and hold it folly to serve Love.' You slander the Bible, cause trouble through your heretical translations and hold it folly to serve me. Could this be the meaning? You have translated the Romance of the Rose, - 'that is an heresye ageyns my lawe.' More of the Romance of the Rose later, and more of the multitude of ladies also, but we can see how important it may have been for Geoffrey to write on different poetic levels at once. No one would mind a slander against Cupid.
Flora speaks up on Geoffrey's behalf and he thanks her, imploring her to 'give me grace to live long enough to understand truly what you are.'
Chaucer learns who the goddess Flora is, in fact, very shortly. She is Alcestis, 'who was turned into a daisy: she who choose to die for love, and go to hell in the place of her husband; but Hercules rescued her and brought her out of hell and took her into heaven.' And so the matter is settled. Geoffrey will write a 'Legend of Good Women'. The daisy will remain in the meadow outside his new home in Greenwich.
Alcestis in fact was not taken to heaven by Hercules, or as the Greeks pronounced his name, Heracles. According to the Athenian dramatist Euripides, writing in the fifth century BC, she chose to die in place of her husband but was rescued by Heracles from the realm of Hades and returned to her former husband in the shape of a young woman, here on Earth.†
Love 'must go home, for the sun is sinking in the west. Home to Paradise, with all this company.' Home to Paradise.
And so we come again to the cry, 'O moder mayde! O mayde moder free!'
The Prioress's Tale itself tells the story of a small child who becomes enraptured by a Latin hymn sung to the Virgin Mary by the older children at school. He persuades an older child to teach him the hymn and then sings it every day as he walks to and from his lessons. Unfortunately, his route takes him through a Jewish quarter of the town and, incensed by his 'blasphemy', the rougher elements of this otherwise noble community seize him and dispose of his body in a cesspool. His mother, after much searching, finds him, the authorities are summoned, the culprits captured and his body taken to a nearby abbey where, although his throat has been cut, he perplexingly continues to sing the Virgin Mother's praises. 'This well of mercy, Christ's dear mother, I loved as fully as I was able,' he explains, 'and when the time came for me to abandon life, she came to me and bade me sing as I lay dying, as you have heard; and when I had sung, I felt her lay a grain of wheat upon my tongue. And this is why I am compelled to sing in honour of that blissful maiden, until the grain is taken from my mouth.'
The grain is duly removed and the child is allowed to die.
Although at first sight there might seem to be hope of finding some clue to the significance of this grain in the Greek Eleusinian mysteries of the corn goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone,† references which the widely-read Geoffrey Chaucer might have known, or perhaps in the European folk customs connected with the corn such as those described by J G Frazer in his book The Golden Bough,† such references are not easy to come by. A grain of wheat features in a Romance of Taliesin, some of whose incidental verses are found in a late-fourteenth century Middle Welsh manuscript known as the Red Book of Hergest; the manuscript from which Robert Graves took the two rearranged and disguised poems that contain, he believed, a scrambled description of an ancient religious dispute and which form the axle around which his argument in The White Goddess revolves.† In another copy of this Romance of Taliesin, a fragment preserved in the late-sixteenth century Peniardd Manuscript, the beginning of the story is recorded in prose. Young Gwion is set by Cerridwen to stir a cauldron whose broth will endow her son with universal wisdom. By accident, however, young Gwion receives this wisdom himself and, by so doing, knows that when she finds out, Cerridwen will kill him! So he flees, and Cerridwen pursues him like a mad witch! By the wisdom he has gained, Gwion knows that he can exist in any form that he wishes, so he turns himself into a hare. Cerridwen turns herself into a hunting dog and the chase continues furiously. He plunges into a river and becomes a fish. She becomes an otter and the pursuit goes on. He changes himself into a bird and she becomes a hawk. And at last, he turns himself into a grain of wheat and tries to conceal himself on a threashing floor. But Cerridwen turns herself into a hen and, pecking about amongst the grains, she finds him and eats him. But when she resumes her own shape again, she finds herself to be pregnant, and when her time comes, she gives birth to Gwion, who grows up to become the poet Taliesin.
Have we ourselves scratched hen-like through a Christian surface to reveal heretical thoughts in the late Middle Ages when Arthurian romances were so popular? We may discover the true significance of this grain of wheat in the next chapter.
One of the first narrative poems that Geoffrey Chaucer composed was the Book of the Duchesse.† It was written for one of Edward III's sons, John of Gaunt, who was grieving over the death of his wife, Blanche. She died in 1369 at the young age of 29 and it is important that the consolatory nature of the Book of the Duchesse is recognised. It was written to comfort a grieving husband. Chaucer begins by putting himself in the place of a man who cannot sleep. This was presumably one of the symptoms of John of Gaunt's extended grief.
One sleepless night, the poet takes up a book to read. It is not a Christian religious work, perhaps surprisingly for the times, and for this situation, but Ovid's Metamorphoses. The pagan Roman author Ovid. From this book, Chaucer recounts to John of Gaunt the story of Ceyx and Alcyone – remember, the grieving wife who was sent a vision of her dead husband in a dream and rose in the morning to find his body washing ashore; she took her own life and became a bird, and joined him in the sky above the vast ocean. Curiously, Chaucer omits this ending: Alcyone's dream image of her dead husband fades and: 'With that she cast up her eyes and saw nothing more of him. "Ah," she cried, "for sorrow!" and died within three days.' As to the rest of the story, says Geoffrey, there is no time to tell it. No time to tell it! Something is obviously going on here. Was Geoffrey concealing it on purpose, truncating the tale to amuse himself, deliberately omitting the very point of Ovid's tale, that Ceyx and Alcyone died and became birds, or did John of Gaunt know the ending already and needed simply to be reminded of it?
As a young prince expected to take a full part in the affairs of his father's country, as undeniably he later did, John of Gaunt would have received a thorough education, and a study of Latin is not unlikely to have introduced him to the works of Ovid. He was distrusted by the majority of the people of England, so much so that on one occasion, while rescuing the heretical Lollard cleric John Wycliffe from the clutches of the Bishop of London, even entering the old Saint Paul's Cathedral itself to seize him personally from the Bishop's grasp in 1377, John of Gaunt was pursued by an angry mob of Londoners and had to seek refuge in Kennington.† Whatever the full story surrounding this incident, and the subsequent cooling of John of Gaunt to the Lollard cause, this was the man to whom Chaucer addressed his poem. And it was John of Gaunt who, shortly after the death of his wife Blanche, introduced the 'collar of esses' into English fashion almost as a badge of recognition, worn by himself and by his circle of associates at a time when collars were not fashionable at all.† The collar itself is curious. It was worn in the manner of a priest's cloth- or chain-held crucifix hung around the neck, but in the place of a cross there was a circle. A ring. Perhaps the same ring upon which oaths had once been sworn in pagan Scandinavia.
The poet, the tale continues, was surprised to read of a 'god of sleep' whom a goddess, Juno, could instruct to send a dream to Alcyone. 'When I had read the story of Ceyx and Alcyone thoroughly,' says Chaucer, 'every bit of it – whan I had red this tale well, and over-loked hit everydel – I thought it a wonder if it was true, for I had never heard of any gods who could make men sleep and wake. I knew only one God.' So he prays to the god of sleep and to Juno, promising them rich gifts if they will give him the ability to sleep. Immediately, he tells us, a profound tiredness came over him and he fell asleep and dreamed a wonderful dream. The old gods have power yet! John of Gaunt has been reminded by Chaucer about Ovid's story of reincarnation, urged to read every bit of it, including therefore, one must assume, the vital ending, and that turning to the old gods might be his cure. What of the dream itself?
The poet wakes into a space filled with birdsong. There is stained glass in the windows which, curiously, depict not Bible stories but ancient pagan myths. Hearing the sounds of a hunt leaving for the forest, the poet jumps out of bed, onto a horse, and overtakes a man with a hound on a leash. 'Who is hunting here?' the poet asks. 'The Roman Emperor Augustus,' comes the reply. Chaucer has transported us back to pre-Christian times.
The poet follows the hunt, but the chase is abandoned. The deer has escaped. A dog leads Chaucer into a strange part of the forest and passing through a meadow filled with flowers, the domain of the goddess Flora and her consort Zephyrus, he enters a dark wood where all the animals are hiding. Here, propped against a tree, he finds a man lamenting the loss of his wife, Blanche, the name of John of Gaunt's deceased wife. Long soliloquies follow. The man at first is unaware of the poet, 'for he had well nigh lost his mind, although Pan, whom men call the god of Nature, was angry that he grieved so much.' Hints are dropped. He wants to die for grief: 'I would have it, but it will not take me. This is my pain without remedy; always dying, and never to be dead.' Just like the fate of Aesacus in the story that follows that of Ceyx and Alcyone in Ovid's Metamorphoses; Aesacus, who threw himself from a cliff only to turn into a diving bird, plunging himself repeatedly into the ocean in a vain attempt to die. Sisyphus is mentioned – Sisyphus of Greek mythology, who was fated by the gods to roll a stone from the bottom of a hill to the top, only for it to come crashing eternally back down again and for the labour to have to begin again anew. What better way of describing endless reincarnation into the world of animals and men? Pythagoras is invoked, and we have already encountered Ovid's description of this ancient philosopher's view on reincarnation. The Phoenix is summoned, to describe not rebirth but Blanche's perfection: 'Truly, she was to my eye the solitary Phoenix of Arabia, for there only ever lived one, and Blanche too was unique.'
The Phoenix, as everybody knows, is the legendary bird that rises from its own ashes. Ovid describes it in his Metamorphoses, in words attributed to Pythagoras, who noticed that everything in this world changes and grows from one thing into another. The only exception, he said, is a bird the Assyrians call the Phoenix; a living thing that reproduces itself without any outside help. It feeds on sap and, when five hundred years have passed, builds a nest of exotic bark at the top of a palm tree and there dies. Out of its body a new Phoenix is born, and when it is strong enough, the little one carries the nest up to the city of the sun before returning to the Earth. Thus its tomb is its cradle.†
Geoffrey Chaucer ends the Book of the Duchesse by requiring the bereaved knight simply to face up to the truth. In a forest of animals, where 'many a hart and many a hind were all around me,' where there are fawns, deer, 'and many squirrels that sit high up in the trees... it was so full of animals'; in this forest, with Ovid's Metamorphoses to the fore, the poet makes the Roman knight face up to the fact that his lady Blanche is dead, and that, like the deer, he must let her go.
There is another poem by Geoffrey Chaucer in which the poet, that is himself, dreams that he is taken up into the air in the claws of an eagle and deposited in a place where there lives a goddess whose feet are on Earth and whose head is in the heavens. He is plucked up by this bird of prey outside a Temple of Venus that is made of glass and on whose walls are depicted Virgil's story of Aeneas; and therefore, one assumes, the episode of Aeneas's descent into the underworld and his sight of all the Trojan souls waiting to be reborn in the shortly-to-be-founded city of Rome. The imagery behind The House of Fame will be discussed later, in Chapter 15, when we take a closer look at the Isle of Avalon and what it may signify. And in a story told by the Franklin in the Canterbury Tales, a world of 'Briton clerks', or druids, is conjured; a pagan world in which powerful things are achieved and where everybody displays, in the end, the highest morality. The Old French tradition of the Matter of Britain, of tales set in an Arthurian world, did not escape Geoffrey's pen either, when he came to select a suitable story for the Wife of Bath to tell. It is a story, as Roger Sherman Loomis has shown, that is steeped in Irish mythology† and it is not a long one. Here it is in full, retold in modern prose English:
Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tale from the Wife of Bath
In the days of King Arthur, whose memory is held in such high esteem, Britain was filled with the magic of an Otherworld. The Queen of elves, with her jolly company, could often be seen dancing in the meadows, or so people thought; I speak of many hundreds of years ago, for there are no elves to be found anywhere now. Friars and churchmen have seen to that, spreading across the land as thickly as flecks of dust in a sunbeam, blessing everything in sight – halls and chambers, kitchens, bedrooms, towns and cities, castles, towers, woods and streams, ships, even dairies – so that now the Otherworld has vanished away entirely. Where once there was an elf, now there is a friar, chanting his matins; ladies in orchards have only him to fear now!
It happened that King Arthur had in his household a young knight who, while he was riding one day beside a river, came upon a maiden who was walking all alone. Taking advantage of the situation, this young bachelor made love to the damsel against her will. The crime caused such an outcry among King Arthur's retinue that the wretch was soon caught and sentenced to death, as the law required. But Queen Guinevere requested that he be handed over to her for punishment, and King Arthur gave her the knight, to do with as she wished. The Queen thanked him.
"But do not imagine that your life is now safe," she told her prisoner. "I grant it to you only if you can answer the following question – tell me what it is that we women most desire. Think carefully, or your neck bone will feel the cutting power of iron! And if you cannot give me an answer immediately, I give you leave to search for a year and a day, wherever you please, and to return at the appointed time with your reply."
This young knight was distraught, but what other choice did he have? So he set off, agreeing to return within a year and a day with his answer. He went everywhere he could think of, asking for advice and trying to discover what women love the most; but he could find no two answers the same. Some told him that women love jewels and wealth, others that it is honour they prize most highly. Some said jollity was most important, others clothes, or a good lover, or a frequent change of partner. Some said flattery, and certainly this must rank high on the list, I should expect, for with the net of flattery, we women are all caught. Some advised him that we best like to be free and to do as we please, and not to have our shortcomings pointed out, but to be thought wise. For there is no woman who will not kick a man where it hurts for exposing her weaknesses; let a man try, and he will find the truth of this! For however guilty we are, we like to be thought blameless. And some said that women like to be considered discrete, and steadfast. Ha! What a joke!
This knight, when he saw how hopeless things had become, began to get very depressed. The end of the year was approaching and it was time to return to King Arthur's court. So off he set, despondently. And as he rode through a forest, he came upon twenty-four ladies or more, dancing in a circle. He rode towards the dancers eagerly, hoping to speak with them, but as he approached, they vanished, and in their place sat a filthy old crone. She arose and said: "Sir knight, you have strayed from your path and have no business to be in this ancient place. What is it that you seek?"
"My dear lady," said the knight, "Unless I can discover what women most desire, I am a dead man. If you can tell me, I will reward you handsomely."
"Give me your word, upon my hand, here, that you will do what I ask of you, if it lies in your power, and I will tell you what you wish to know."
"I give you my word," replied the knight.
"Then I guarantee that your life will be safe, for I pledge my own life that Queen Guinevere will say as I do. Let us see if anyone dares to refute what I shall teach you! Let us go at once." Then she whispered something in his ear, and told him not to be fearful.
When they arrived at King Arthur's court, the knight announced that he had kept his pledge to return and to answer the question. All the women assembled, with Queen Guinevere sitting in judgement, to hear his answer. The knight was commanded to approach. The court fell silent, and he was formally required to tell the Queen what women desire the most. The knight did not stand silently but answered at once, in a manly voice, so that all could hear: "My liege lady," he said, "women desire to have power over the men in their lives; and though you may kill me, you may do as you please, for I am here at your command."
'Nobody in the court, neither widow, wife nor maiden, could find any reason to argue against this reply, and all said that the knight deserved to keep his life. At this, the old crone stood quickly and said: "Mercy, my sovereign lady Queen! Give me justice before the court departs. I instructed this knight to give the answer he did on the condition that he would do something for me, if it lay in his power. Before this court, therefore, I require, Sir knight, that you take me as your wife. For be in no doubt that I have saved your life. If you dispute this, then refuse me."
"You speak the truth, alas!" he replied. "But release me from this bond! Take all my wealth, but leave me my body!"
"No!" she cried. "For though I am old, and filthy, and poor, not for all the gold and wealth that lies in the Earth shall I release you. You shall be my husband and my love."
"My love?" said the knight. "My damnation! Alas, that I should be so humiliated!"
But it was all to no avail, for the knight had to marry her, and take her to his bed. Now some will say that I am at fault for neglecting to describe the clothes and the jollity and the dishes served at their wedding. But I would reply that there is no joy at all to describe, only sorrow and lamentation, and there was no feasting. The couple were married privately the very next day, and the knight hid himself for shame.
His woes only increased when it was time to go to bed. He tossed and turned. His wife lay smiling and said: "Does every knight behave as you do in bed? Is this King Arthur's rule? I have saved your life, so why do you act like this on our first night together? You are behaving like an imbecile. Tell me what is the matter, and I will remedy it, if I can."
"Remedy it!" exclaimed the knight. "How can you remedy it that you are so ugly, and old, and lowborn. I wish I could die!"
"Is this the cause of your unrest?" she replied.
"Do you doubt it?"
"I could remedy it, if I chose to. You call me poor, and of low estate. But gentility comes not through birth but through one's own virtue. A Lord's son may do shameful and villainous things. A man born into poverty may rise to great estate, as has been seen in ancient Rome. And therefore, though my ancestors were lowborn, may God give me the grace to live virtuously. And as to poverty, our Lord Jesus Christ chose this way of life, for it holds no dishonour. He who is satisfied at his poverty, I hold him rich, though he lacks even a shirt. He who covets others' wealth is poor, for he cannot find contentment. But a poor man who desires nothing more is rich. Juvenal said that a poor man, when he travels, may sing and dance before the thieves! Poverty is a bringer of wisdom, and through it a man may find not only himself and his true friends, but God. So do not reproach me for my poverty.
"And as to age, do you noblemen not teach that respect and honour should be shown to the elderly? You say that I am foul and old, so you need have no fear that I will dishonour you by being unfaithful. For filth and age are great keepers of chastity! But nonetheless, since I know your desires, I shall bring satisfaction to all your appetites.
"Choose now," she said, "one of these two alternatives. To have me foul and old until I die, and be a true wife to you, and never displease you, or else have me young and fair and take your chances that I may bring dishonour to your house and to your reputation. Choose whichever you like."
This knight pondered, and sighed, and at last said: "My lady and my love, and wife so dear, I put myself in your wise governance; choose yourself what will be best for us both. I will do whatever you wish."
"Then I am in charge," she said, "and may choose and dictate as I like?"
"Yes," replied the knight. "I think that that is best."
"Kiss me, then," she said. "And unless I am as attractive as the most beautiful lady in all this world, you can do what you like with me. Lift up the curtain, and look!"
And when the knight saw how beautiful she was, and how young, he took her up in his arms, his heart bathed in bliss, and kissed her a thousand times. And all that night she pandered to his every wish and desire. And thus they lived, for the rest of their lives, in perfect joy and happiness.
Geoffrey Chaucer hints that there is something important afoot in a strange verse that he wrote to a 'Master Bukton', possibly a Peter Bukton. 'The counceil of Chaucer touching Mariage, which was sent to Bukton. My maister Bukton, whan of Christe our kinge was axed... When my master Bukton was asked, regarding Christ, what is the truth, not a word did he answer in reply; like someone who might have wished to say, "No man is all true," I guess. And therefore, though I promise to express the sorrow and woe that is in marriage, I dare not write wickedly of it, lest I myself soon fall into such foolishness. I will not liken it to the chain with which Satan was bound, and on which he gnawed unendingly, but I dare say, were he released from this torture, he would never freely be bound again. But the weak-headed fool who would rather be chained in prison than escape from it, let God never release him from his woe, nor any one cry in sympathy for him.
'But yet, lest you do worse, take a wife. Better it is to wed than to burn at the stake. But you shall have sorrow all your life and be your wife's anxious servant, as has been seen. And if Holy Scripture does nothing for you, experience may teach you, perhaps, that it would be better to go to Frisia – that thee were lever to be take in Fryse – than to fall into the trap of marriage.
'This little guiding metaphor I send you – this litel writ, proverbes or figure I sende you – and I advise you to keep it safe. Unwise is he who can suffer no happiness. If you are sure and steady, then there is no need to fear. Read in my Wife of Bath of this matter that we have in hand. God grant you your life to live freely, for it is unpleasant to suffer imprisonment.'
Imprisonment was the penalty for heresy in England in Chaucer's time, although the burning of heretics on the continent was hardly unknown, and a generation or so after Chaucer's death, an unrecanting heretic was publically burned at the stake in London, an execution witnessed by the young William Caxton. Frisia (East Frisia in Lower Saxony, North Frisia in Schledwig-Holstein and Friesland in Holland) was the home of the 'free Frisians' in the fourteenth century.
Geoffrey's Canterbury tale from the Wife of Bath is a retelling of a story whose key elements are also found in an Irish tale of Diarmuid and Fionn mac Cumhaill,† who are legendary figures whose antiquity reaches back into pagan Ireland. The hag's transformation is also found in another tale from pagan Ireland, where the goddess who changes from a hag into a beautiful woman is the sovereignty of Ireland.† Is this being used by Geoffrey as a metaphor for something else? Or is it marriage that is the metephor?
For the Canterbury Tale of the Wife of Bath, which Chaucer says is a proverb, or a metaphor, is really two separate pieces of work. A long prologue, which is a soliloquy by Alison, the Wife of Bath, on the subject of her many husbands and many marital infidelities, and then the tale itself. The prologue concerns Alison's relationship with her five husbands. Although they appear to have been wedded in succession; three old and wealthy men married for their money followed by a younger man and finally one half her age, there is more than a hint of something perhaps less morally acceptable in what she is saying. Particularly near the beginning of the prologue.
Ambiguity – 'How many mighte she have in marriage? Yet herde I never tellen in myn age upon this nombre diffinicioun,' – How many might [a Samaritan woman whom Jesus rebuked] have in marriage? I have never yet encountered a definitive answer to this – soon loses much of its ambiguity: 'Eek wel I woot [also I know that] he sayde, myn housbonde sholde lete fader and moder, and take me. But of no nombre mencioun made he, of bigamye or of octogamye; why sholde men speke of it vileinye?' – Also I know that [God] instructed my husband to leave his father and mother and take me, but he made no mention of number, and two or even eight husbands at once, why should men speak ill of this? – And again, speaking of Solomon: 'I trow he hadde wyves mo than oon; as, wold god, it leveful were to me to be refresshed half so oft as he! – I am sure he had more than one wife, and would to God that I was able to be refreshed with sex half as often as he!'
The rest of the prologue continues in this vein, celebrating the numerous instances of infidelity and promiscuousness that Alison, over the years, has indulged in; and equally as importantly, it celebrates her lordship over her husbands, a theme which leads directly into the subject matter of the tale itself. But in the context of this advice to Bukton, the opening lines of the prologue are worth a close examination. If no authority existed in this world, says Alison, experience would be enough for her to speak of 'the wo that is in mariage'. Marriage, therefore, must be taken to mean the exclusive marital relationship sanctioned by the Church, since the life that Alison has led seems to have been far from woeful! She has worn out four husbands and seems well on the way to wearing out a fifth. The woe in marriage that Alison refers to must therefore mean the woe in submitting to the authority of the Church. It is in this sense, perhaps, that Chaucer speaks of marriage in his message to Bukton as a 'litel writ, proverbes , or figure'; a figure of speech to signify submission to the doctrinal authority of the Church.
There were dangers not only in writing heretical material but in reading it as well. Perhaps it was the Catholic orthodoxy of King Richard II late in the fourteenth century that prompted Geoffrey Chaucer to tell a cautionary tale against careless talk, from the mouth of one of his Canterbury pilgrims. From 1388 onwards, the religious attitude of Richard II made it dangerous to be found in possession of heretical writings.† The Maunciple in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales tells the story of a crow that finds only grief for informing a man about his wife's sexual indiscretion. 'The primary virtue,' the poet cautions, 'if you will learn, is – to restreyne and kepe wel thy tonge.†
But how discrete was Geoffrey Chaucer himself in the following story from the Canterbury Tales, told by the Pardoner? Three drunks set off to a village decimated by the Black Death (bubonic plague, or perhaps a strain of ebola virus causing Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever, which arrived with devastating force in England in 1349 and was an unwelcome and recurring guest in towns and villages for many years thereafter). They are in search of the monster 'Death', whom they intend to slay, but meet instead with a very old man at the edge of the village. They greet him roughly – Churl, they ask, why is every part of you except your face wrapped up in clothes and why have you lived for so long?
'On the ground,' he replies, 'which is my mother's gate, I knock with my staff, both early and late, and say, "dear mother, let me in!"
'But I can find no man, although I might walk as far as India, neither in a city nor in any village, who will exchange his youth for my age, and therefore I must keep my years, for as long as God wishes.'