Mostly romance and dream visions
The Gast of Gy describes a haunting that allegedly took place from Christmas 1323 to Easter 1324 in the southern French town of Alés. The ghost of a recently deceased townsman haunts the house where he died, terrifying his grieving wife and attracting the attention of a local prior, whose close questioning of the spirit leads to a fascinating account of Purgatory and the fate of the Christian soul after death.
The Revelation of the Monk of Eynsham describes a near-death experience that reputedly took place in the closing decade of the twelfth century, in a monastery at Eynsham, near Oxford. A young monk has been very ill in the infirmary for many months, then at Easter, he begins to experience what many might consider to be hallucinations. He collapses and lies unconscious for three days. When he awakes, he tells of being escorted around Purgatory by Saint Nicholas, and recounts his experience of the Earthly Paradise. The Middle English version of this account was translated from the original Latin at about the time that Geoffrey Chaucer was composing his Canterbury Tales.
Sir Launfal is a Middle English retelling of one of Marie de France's Breton lais, Lanval, composed, possibly by a poet named Thomas Chestre, in the second half of the fourteenth century. It is set in an Arthurian world in which the principal hero, Sir Launfal, is cast from wealth and success as King Arthur's steward into destitution, by the malice of Queen Guinevere. In this impoverished state, he is taken by the daughter of the King of Faerie and made wealthy once more. But events conspire and in the end, his life once more in danger through the malice of Guinevere, he is rescued and taken to Avalon by his Otherworldly mistress.
Sir Cleges is written in the style of a Middle English Breton lai, although it is not based on any tale recorded by Marie de France. Like many fourteenth century works it is first found in manuscripts dating to the fifteenth century and follows a broadly similar theme to Sir Launfal. Sir Cleges is a generous knight at the court of King Uther Pendragon, Arthur's father. But many years of extravagant living and unrivalled hospitality have dwindled his resources so greatly that he faces loneliness and hunger in his one remaining manor. One Christmas, however, he encounters a magic cherry tree whose fruit promises to reverse his fortunes.
Sir Isumbras is a Middle English tail-rhyme romance composed sometime before 1320. It is a story that was very popular in Medieval Europe, that of a knight put on trial by destiny. Young Sir Isumbras is addressed one morning in a forest by a bird who gives him the choice of poverty now and wealth later, or the other way around. Choosing the former, Sir Isumbras's world collapses in spectacular style. He loses his possessions, his children, his wife and finally even his own identity, as he labours for many years as a blacksmith's apprentice. In the end, like many romances, he is reunited with those he loves and his former status is restored and even bettered. This tale is very similar to the legend of Saint Eustace, and which one copies from which is a very interesting question.
The Legend of Saint Eustace tells an almost identical story to that of Sir Isumbras. A knight, in this case a Roman knight, is given the choice, by an Image of Jesus Christ in the form of a deer, of accepting poverty and anguish now, or later. Chosing to have it now, Eustace's world collapses; his wife and possessions are taken, his sons are carried off by wild animals and he wanders destitute, just like Sir Isumbras. Like Sir Isumbras, he is reunited with his wife and sons in the end. But whereas the question of poverty now or later seems meaningful in the story of Sir Isumbras, dealing as it does with the Wheel of Fortune, in this story the question seems almost surperfluous, since the trials are a test that, once completed, lead Eustace only to a quick martyrdom. He might have been better off delaying them. Perhaps this is a small clue as to which of the versions is derivative. One can see why the Christian hagiographer might have wanted to retain the question, if he wanted Eustace to demonstrate his eagerness for an eternity in heaven.
Cheuelere Assigne is a Middle English version of an Old French romance called Chevalier au Signe, or the Knight of the Swan. Elements of this story are also found in a fairy tale called the Six Swans, recorded by the Brothers Grimm. The Middle English story of Cheuelere Assigne tells of a lady who gives birth to seven babies with silver chains around their necks. As soon as these chains are taken away, six of them turn into swans. But the one remaining child is able to fight for the life of his wrongly-accused mother, to right a grievous wrong and to restore all but one of his siblings back into human form again.
Generydes is the name of the hero of a long verse romance which could be considered a fictional biography and perhaps the earliest novel in the English language. One can say this because the supernatural events and strange happenings that seem obligatory in this genre are all dutifully present, but few, if any, seem at all necessary to the plot. If they were removed, the story would retain its integrity and internal cohesion. For example, Generydes' mother has given his father a shirt that only she can wash the tear-stains from. When she arrives in Thrace searching for him, she encounters washerwomen with this shirt and cleans it for them. But there is no need: she is travelling with an old retainer of Generydes' father who can easilty arrange a meeting with him, and they will both recognise each other when they do, which is what happens. We are, after all, in the real world now.
Although, it must be said, Generydes' father, the king of India, has now become an earl in Thrace, so perhaps some sort of transportation has been involved like the one that carried Guigemar away from the lady he loved. Which might explain, incidentally, why this man Auferius, Generydes' father, having later become the king of Thrace on the death of the old king, appears to acquire an alter-ego on the battlefield: 'The king of Thrace was in command of the fourth battalion, a young and energetic man named Madan, and my author is very clear about this.' What! Has the author or the copiest gone mad? We all know who the king of Thrace is! So maybe Generydes' mother and father did need a magic shirt in order to recognise one another, in an earlier version of the story.
The Isle of Ladies is a dream vision in which the dreamer is wafted to an island where there are only ladies, no men. If this sounds like an island across the sea in an Irish mythological tale, this impression is reinforced by walls of glass, magic apples that confer invulnerability to death, a mysterious boat that is steered by thought and a climax that recalls a story told of one of the daughters of the Irish god Manannan, who once brought to life a dead warrior when he was in the shape of a bird, with a leaf from a special tree she found on an island. In fact, one of Marie de France's Breton lais includes a scene similar to this, in which a weasel carries a red flower to the body of its dead companion and brings it back to life again, whereupon onlookers seize the flower, place it in the mouth of a dead maiden and bring her back to life as well. In The Isle of Ladies, dozens of dead maidens are brought back to life again in a very similar way, after having been taken from the island in a magic boat across the sea to an abbey in the real world.
The Assembly of Ladies is found in manuscripts dating to the latter half of the fifteenth century and tells what might be quite a clever little story: a lady is challenged in a medieval garden by a knight and asked to tell him what she and her friends are doing there. She proceeds to tell him how she was exploring the maze one day when she came to a little walled garden with a water wheel in it, and a bench, and she fell asleep, then dreamed that she was summoned to a place where only women live and where their complaints can be heard. She travelled to this beautiful Otherworld, obtained an audience before the queen and judge there, presented her petition, and just before she woke up, she and her friends learned that they were to be summoned again, to attend a parliament of ladies. She has made this dream into a little book which the knight congratulates her on, not realising, perhaps – because we are not told – that she is probably on her way to this very parliament now, and so may not have been dreaming at all.
The Legend of Good Women was written by Geoffrey Chaucer following a number of his other dream poems, including The House of Fame and the Book of the Duchess. Once again, he falls asleep and dreams a marvellous dream. In imitation of his day spent watching daisies in the meadow near his home, he dreams that he encounters the God of Love in a flowery meadow with his consort, Alcestis, the Ancient Greek heroine who was rescued from Hades by Heracles. She is dressed like a daisy, a flower, Geoffrey tells us, which opens its petals at the start of each day and closes them again before nightfall, so frightened is it of the night.
But what is there to fear, if both night and Hades lead back into the light?
The God of Love castigates Chaucer for writing against him and hands him over to Alcestis for punishment. She instructs him to compose histories of all the good women who have suffered at the hands of men by having their love rejected or taken advantage of. He is to do this for the rest of his life, since there are so many instances to choose from. There follow nine tales and legends, all taken from ancient Greek and Roman literature. This is all Geoffrey could manage, it seems, as though nine was a suitable, perhaps even a significant, number.
The Parliament of Fowls was written in 1381 or 1382 by Geoffrey Chaucer, and at 699 lines is one of Chaucer's shorter verse narratives. Having spent the day reading an old Roman account of a man who dreams that he is taken into the heavens by a long-dead ancestor, Geoffrey goes to sleep and dreams that this same figure guides him high into the heavens to see the tiny Earth from a distance. Paradise is nearby, and after being in two minds about entering or not, since bliss and torment seem to be ambiguously signposted, Geoffrey is shoved through the entrance by his guide anyway and finds himself in a lovely location where a temple of Venus stands, with all its erotic connotations. Having explored this temple, he discovers the goddess Nature presiding over all the birds, who have come to seek their mate for the year, and the poem becomes a burlesque as the birds impatiently wait for three eagles to ingraciate themselves with a female eagle who is perched upon Nature's hand. At the end, all the birds fly off with their mates, to breed. Except for the female eagle, who decides not to.
The Book of the Duchess reads as a conciliatory poem for John of Gaunt, following the death of his young wife Blanche. But if Chaucer is dropping hints about the afterlife in order to console a grieving husband, it is curious that there is no mention of Jesus. Instead, Chaucer tells Ovid's tale of Alcyone who lost her husband king Ceyx, not in order to explain that she turned into a bird after taking her own life, but to introduce Morpheus, the god of sleep. Having prayed to this pagan god, the poet dreams that he meets a knight in a forest who has lost his wife, Blanche. Pythagoras – who lived in the sixth century BC and believed in reincarnation – is mentioned twice, once for his skill at chess and once for his musical prowess. The Pheonix is mentioned, not because it returns to Earth to live once again following its own death, but because there is only ever one of them, and Blanche was unique. Pan is referred to, the Ancient Greek god of nature, and the possibility that he might be angry at the knight's grief. Fortune's wheel is described. Sisyphus is invoked – who was condemned to roll a stone up a hill forever, in the ancient Greek hell, only for it to always come rolling back down again – and this allusion follows the knight's complaint that: 'Death is so much my enemy that, although I want to die, it will not let me do so... This is my agony, my dire agony, to be always dying and not be dead!'
‘If all those who have ever lived were still alive...' says the knight, at one point. 'I was as delighted as if I’d been raised from the dead back into life...' he says at another.
Hints? Or is this all just coincidence?