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The Yellow Book of Calbourne


The Yellow Book of Calbourne is a collection of sixteen medieval tales, legends and imaginative excursions, including dream visions, romances, two supposedly factual accounts and a hagiography.

Dream visions were popular in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and there are five of them here, including three from the pen of Geoffrey Chaucer. There are also two supposedly factual accounts concerning purgatory: one dating from the late-twelfth century in which a monk is given a guided tour of that hateful place by Saint Nicholas, and another from the early-fourteenth century in which a ghost is able to give a first hand account of the suffering he has experienced so far. But the difference in tone between the Revelation of the Monk of Eynsham, on the one hand, and the Isle of Ladies, for example, or Chaucer's Legend of Good Women, on the other, is very marked: these later poets seem far more interested in old pagan symbolism, far less so in Christian orthodoxy. The Legend of Good Women, for example, sees Geoffrey Chaucer encounter a goddess who turns out to be the Ancient Greek heroine Alcestis, who went to the Greek Underworld in the place of her husband and returned again. The fifteenth century verse narrative The Isle of Ladies finds an island of women who are nourished by magic apples, in a situation that owes a great deal to Irish mythology.

Similarly ancient themes and motifs are found in the romances, as well. The Knight of the Swan features a brood of human siblings wearing silver chains around their necks who are turned into swans: an unlikely fashion accessory for babies or swans but one that copies from an old Irish mythological tale. In the romance of Generydes, the opening scene involves a knight who is led through the forest by a deer to an enchanted location, like an ancient Irish warrior led to a hill of the Sidhe by a deer who then turns into one of the fairyfolk. Sir Launfal encounters an Otherworldly goddess in a forest. Sir Cleges finds cherries ripening in his garden in midwinter, while the king thinks he is dead.

These poems and tales are all translated from the original Middle English and retold in Modern prose English, in free translation.

Yellow Book of Calbourne

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 even 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, though: to demonstrate Eustace's 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. The very presence of motifs such as this, when not strictly necessary, shows their significance to the genre.

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 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 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 number of the classical Muses.

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 believed in reincarnation and lived in the sixth century BC – 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, in an allusion perhaps to endless reincarnation – 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...' muses the knight, and at another point in the story he declares: 'I was as delighted as if I’d been raised from the dead back into life...'.

Hints? Or is this all just coincidence?

An ABC is a translation that Chaucer made, possibly in the 1360s, of a French Marian poem written in about 1330 by Guillaume de Deguilleville. An early edition of Chaucer's collected works suggested that it had been commissioned by Blaunche, the wife of John of Gaunt, but whether or not this is true, Chaucer certainly warms to his theme. It is interesting to look at this poem's celebration of a female deity, the Virgin Mary, and in particular the emphasis on her mercy, in concert with another short poem of Chaucer's, the triple roundel lyric Merciles Beaute, or Merciless Beauty.

Merciless Beauty can probably be read on different levels, which would not be unusual for a poem. On the face of it, the three parts, like the panels of a triptych, describe the intense love of the poet for a woman, his coming to terms with her lack of mercy, and finally his repudiation of love itself. Because of this seemingly irrevocable repudiation of Love – note the capitalisation – it has been assumed to be a late work, composed when Chaucer was about fifty years old. But if Chaucer had transferred his religious allegiance to a goddess at some point in his life, one whose feet stand on the Earth and whose head touches the heavens, as in the House of Fame, and one who, like the goddess in the House of Fame, has no sense of justice or mercy, just like nature, but only an intense beauty, just like nature, and who has control over his life and death, just like nature, then perhaps Love, the God of Love, is at this level of the poem the god of the Bible, the God who loves us, and it is he who has been repudiated by Chaucer, not love with a small l. If so, the 'high tower of heaven' that Chaucer finds himself hoping that the Virgin Mary will lead him towards in An ABC, coupled with a merciless female whose beauty transcends everything, in Merciles Beaute, may have worked to have inspired the goddess that Chaucer found when he was taken in the claws of an eagle to the House of Fame. Perhaps it all begins to make sense.

The Complaint of Mars may be an occasional poem that Chaucer wrote for a Saint Valentine's Day celebration in 1385. We can surmise this precise year because a drama between the goddess Venus and the god Mars is played out against the background of the conjunction of the planets Venus and Mars in the constellation of Taurus in close proximity to the sun, which best fits April of that year. Venus seems to be passing in front of the sun, hence she fades to nothing, much as the moon does when it is new. Mars, on the opposite side of the sun, seems to slow and fade as Venus soon races towards Mercury and disappears from view entirely, as though in death. Mars fears that she is dying, and can do nothing to help. This is the cause for his complaint.

Classical ideas seem to be interesting Chaucer must more than Christian orthodoxy, as usual. In fact, could the God who loves us and requires us to love him be the object of Chaucer's criticism? The high god above, Plato's creator god, is berated by Mars for making love the focus of human life, when the inevitable pain of separation causes so much, well, pain. What is the point of it? he asks. What's the meaning of this mystery?

The bird who is telling this story, as dawn breaks on Saint Valentine's Day - yes, a bird is telling us this story - is talking about the sun disturbing lovers and forcing them to separate as dawn approaches. But never mind, he says, 'the time will soon arrive when your happiness will return.' And the tale he then narrates has Mars lamenting the death of Venus, or at least complaining of her imminent death, when both the nature of the astronomical drama, that of planets in orbits that will go round and round, and the overarching drama, that of a bird celebrating, if not lamenting, the coming of a new dawn, has cyclicity at its core.

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