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Chaucer:
A European Life

marion turner
princeton, 624 pages, $39.95

Chaucer has not lacked for biographies, but Marion Turner’s is of a rare ambition and competence. Its method is geographical, even topographical, approaching the poet’s life by way of the extraordinarily disparate places he spent his time, both in body and in his literary imagination. The effect is to place the greatest of our medieval English poets in his proper context, that of the great medieval European poets. There is hardly a word in Chaucer’s poetry that would be different had no poet before him ever written a line in English; but he is saturated in Latin, French, and Italian writers whose intellectual and lexical inspiration is manifest in his every page.

Turner has discovered new ­mater­ials—not easy to do in a burnt-over scholarly terrain like Chaucer ­studies—and she has deployed other materials long known about for original and illuminating purpose. She does full justice to the whole life, only a part of which—and quite possibly for Chaucer not the most important part—was his life in poetry. This very substantial book is sustained by a confident erudition and a powerful and controlled narrative flow. The reader is helped along by useful maps and charts, and cheered by beautiful photographs. The bibliography is copious, certainly, but possibly eccentric and tending to the trendy. One almost gets the impression that nothing of interest was written about Chaucer before the year 2000—a suggestion I would challenge. A novice might gather that Gaston Bachelard had been a more important contributor to modern Chaucer studies than D. W. Robertson Jr., whose name appears nowhere. But all that falls within the redoubt of authorial prerogative.

How useful is the idea of “Europe” in a study of the fourteenth century? Not very, actually. In all his writings, Chaucer used the word “Europe” only twice. In both instances he was evoking the legendary geography of the world as ­illustrated in the ­medieval “T-O maps,” in which Europe is the third of the world repopulated by Noah’s son Japheth.

For Chaucer, the defining element of larger human community was not geographical proximity but religious faith. His ideal knight had travelled and fought everywhere, “as well in Christendom as in Hethenesse”—the latter referring to areas now a part of geographical Europe but then outside Christendom. Chaucer’s continental literary connections demonstrate his enrollment in the traditions of a Christian humanistic poetic enterprise that began well before the monastic schools of the Carolingians and the Ottonians and continued with the epic writers of the Renaissance and beyond.

Latin was the catholic ­European language, and many humanists wrote in it exclusively. But in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Latin was forced to yield its monopoly. Vernacularization was to poetry what Thomism had been to theology: an adventurous attempt to reconcile the wisdom of the Ancients to the revelation of the Incarnation, to adapt the classical inheritance to the needs of a Christian society. Virgil and Ovid, the principal poets of ancient Rome, were naturally the principal inspirations for medieval humanist poets. The medieval poets’ literary techniques included translation and imitation—the literary techniques of a culture keen to adapt the past to current realities. Among the vernacular masterworks are the romans d’antiquité, in which the stories of Thebes, Troy, and Rome were rendered in French.

Chaucer stood in this line of Catholic humanistic poetry. ­Troilus and Criseyde, his most perfect poem, is an actual “translation” of an antique romance by ­Boccaccio, the great student of Dante. The Canterbury Tales, meanwhile, are ­obviously inspired by Boccaccio’s own great frame story, The Decameron. Chaucer was a poet of tradition. He worked in rich fields that had already been plowed by artists he regarded as greater than he.

Calling Chaucer a European poet can help mitigate the insults done him by the insularity of much earlier Anglo-American literary scholarship. Nonetheless, language counts. Chaucer, who did have options, elected to write in English. Unfortunately for us, his English is now quite difficult to access, harder than the French of Jean de Meun is for contemporary Parisians, and much harder than Dante’s Inferno is for contemporary Florentines. And though our youth live in a virtual riot of cosmopolitan “multiculturalism,” they are absolute hicks when it comes to the mother tongue. An under­graduate student of Shakespeare once told me that he found the “ghost scene” in Hamlet particularly “awesome,” despite the difficulties presented by “the Old English.” What may this mean, that thou, dead corse, again in ­complete steel revisit’st thus the glimpses of the moon, making night hideous . . . ? I explained to him that though poetic language is often demanding, the Bard did not write in Old English, which barely made it into the twelfth century, nor even in Middle English, which was becoming seriously quaint by about 1450, but in early Modern English, that is, our language. This doesn’t hold for ­Chaucer, who did write in Middle English—who is, indeed, Middle English’s greatest poet. A serious reader must spend a little time in preparatory language study.

I say “a little” in sincerity. Only an Olympian pretentiousness would move a teacher casually to advise an adult student to go out and master enough Latin to read the Aeneid. But a motivated and reasonably ­experienced educated Anglophone lover of poetry can grasp the most salient features of Middle English grammar and syntax in a few hours. The more intimidating part is the pronunciation, and there are now numerous recordings and videos that will empower you with a sense of the pronunciation. But it is all guesswork, of howsoever a scientific nature, and there are no native speakers to rise up and rebuke you. The idea is to prepare yourself for a playful author who is a great master of versification, wordplay, and tonal shift. Most medieval poetry is determinedly oral; Chaucer’s verse cries out to be read aloud. Make the iambic pentameter scan and rhyme, and you can’t go all that far wrong. The problem is much less with the mots than with the ­choses, that is, with the things referenced than with their verbal referents. One of the best clues to Chaucer’s attitude toward his pilgrim narrators is signaled by what they love. Chaucer’s first portrait, that of an ideal knight, tells us the knight loves five things: chivalrie, trouthe, honour, fredom, and curteisie. All these words exist in contemporary English with only slight orthographic variation; but not a single one of them means what you probably think it does. It is, of course, possible to read Chaucer in a “modern version,” but rather in the same manner that you can take a shower while wearing a Carhartt jacket—that is, with but modified success or pleasure.

Far greater than the linguistic challenge is the modern difficulty in grasping, let alone ­cooperating with, medieval aesthetic assumptions and expectations. The human mind, confronting the ­unfamiliar or the ­unexpected, attempts to impose upon it categories of the familiar. That is, it licenses anachronism. This is especially true as regards the distinction between “realism” and exemplary moral allegory, which is the mode of The Canterbury Tales. Poets were “makers” in etymology and artists admired for their high degree of technical skill in treating conventional subjects—not for their individual opinions or unique emotions. As Pope puts it, following Horace, the poet’s task is to articulate particularly well what oft was thought. Horace went so far as to say that the only subject for serious poetry was the Trojan War! Hence, the question of sincerity, always ­difficult to gauge even in modern poetry, is essentially irrelevant for the Middle Ages.

This fact complicates any discussion of Chaucer as a Christian poet. He was one, of course. Turner gives details of his baptism and his service as vestryman in his parish church. His early poetry includes verses of Marian piety that many find cloying in their conventionality. Among his lost translations were versions of rhetorically ambitious theological texts written in pretty difficult Latin. All of this, and much more, is consistent with the conservative nature of the aristocratic milieu in which he moved. That is to say, these works were culturally appropriate and socially unexceptional. So, though one should be cautious about attributing unique attitudes or emotions to him, it is obvious that Chaucer’s Catholic religious views are fundamental to his art, and that he was both learned and energetic in deploying them. But although Chaucer was a medieval poet, Chaucer Studies is a modern enterprise that was molded, in large measure, as a Protestant English one. A man as brilliant as Matthew Arnold could come up with the nonsense that Chaucer “lacked high seriousness” only by ignoring what it was he was serious about.

So Chaucer, linguistic midwife and father of English poetry, was reduced to Jolly Geoff, a poet whose work projected a personal charisma characterized by such adjectives as “ribald,” “earthy,” “jovial,” “generous,” and “human.” We heard less of Chaucer the learned poet, wide-ranging reader, and brilliantly original participant in the great Christian humanist tradition. Nothing is more “medieval” in The Canterbury Tales than its persistent satire of phony and abusive practitioners of religion. But this satire was seized on as evidence that he was a freethinker, or at least a Free Mason, avant la lettre. (There was some Catholic reaction to this among what is called the Mass-and-Maypole School, represented, for example, by Chesterton, who wrote his own engaging biography of Chaucer.)

One of the great debates in modern Chaucer Studies has centered on the question of allegory. Chaucer was manifestly an allegorist, but was he an allegorist in his best-known poem, The Canterbury Tales? Turner’s scattered remarks on the topic are rather conventional. She appears not to like allegory, and she cites with approval a scholar who says ­Chaucer doesn’t either. But it is ­possible to deny the allegorical nature of The Canterbury Tales only as far as its second line: “Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote/The droghte of March hath perced to the roote . . .” Just what March drought is that? Well might you ask. Chaucer is ­either an allegorist or a really lousy meteorologist. The latest statistics I have are from 2018. In April of that year, 86.3 millimeters of rain fell on London. For March, the figure was 104.4. The spiritual drought of March that is relieved by the moist refreshment of April is figurative, pointing specifically to the transition from the parched morbidity of Lent to the fruitful exuberance of Easter. It requires some sleuthing to determine that Dante’s time scheme of the Commedia is based in the triduum of Holy Week; but the Easterness of the Tales is obvious from the get-go. That doesn’t make Chaucer’s road to Canterbury any less dusty or “closely observed,” but it places the reading of his poem in a moral and religious context that does not come naturally to us in the twenty-first century.

Modernity has had some success in solving problems before which the European Middle Ages stood helpless: infant mortality, life expectancy, and epidemic morbidity. Death was never far away in the Middle Ages and was often personified, as in the wall paintings of the danse macabre or in the pages of the “Pardoner’s Tale.” But medieval people were not without resources. A good deal of what we think of as medieval political or social thought was really the application of certain widely accepted theological ideas. If you actually believe in sin, and in the depressing human tendency toward it, your social institutions are likely to be frankly coercive. Marriage was supposed to regulate those sexual passions that, as any reader of the old epics knew, threatened the Trojan founder of Rome even as they had destroyed the great city from which he fled. Chivalry might impose some degree of rational measure on the bloody business of war.

Chaucer set his tales in the context of a famous communal penitential endeavor—a pilgrimage to Canterbury. This was probably the largest single “national” event in the England of the fourteenth century. The pilgrims came, said Chaucer, from the remotest parts of every shire. His own imaginary group started out at the Tabard, a public house in Southwark next door to another called the Bell. This probably elicited a laugh from contemporary readers. In the sixteenth century, the Bell was a whorehouse, as it may well have been in Chaucer’s. But it hardly matters. The poet so deftly and economically conveys the flagrantly mixed motives of his pilgrims, the vast chasm between spiritual theory and carnal reality, that no one will expect some simple moral tract. That ought not, however, to keep us from seeing the complex moral tract.

The major religious theme of The Canterbury Tales is penitence. The social institutions of coercion—monarchy, marriage, the formal apparatus of law and order—could limit the social consequences of human sin; but no system of justice expressed in the whipping post, pillory, and gibbet could remedy sin itself. That required the channeling of divine mercy in the sacrament of penance. The themes of penance and confession, the conflicting demands of justice and mercy, and the relationship of surface to substance in the penitential economy—these are everywhere in the Tales, even in those (especially in those) at first sight least “religious.” Of the disproportionate number of Chaucer’s pilgrims living under religious vows or working under ecclesiastical authority, at least four—Friar, Summoner, Pardoner, Parson—are formally ­associated with the penitential economy. And Chaucer’s interest in penance created the unforgettable Pardoner. The matched tales of Friar and Summoner, who are bitter enemies, offer a particularly trenchant critique. Each tells a tale condemning the other’s profession. The abominable and corrupt Summoner, who arraigns delinquents in the ecclesiastical court, is in theory an agent of Justice. The Friar of the “Summoner’s Tale,” whose hypocrisy would embarrass Tartuffe, is an expert confessor, and thereby (also in theory) a conduit of divine mercy. At the sickbed of a ­geriatric lay member of the fraternity, he moves without missing a beat from a feigned solicitousness for the man’s spiritual condition to the unfeigned solicitation of his spondulicks, and thence to one of our literature’s most reverberating moments of theological flatulence. The “Friar’s Tale” ends with the apparent truism that ­wicked summoners, if they do not repent, are bound for hell. But the question Chaucer raises in his diptych is more profound. Suppose a summoner did want to repent, but had as his only recourse to grace a confessor like the friar in the “Summoner’s Tale”? These religious figures—along with worldly monastics like the Monk and the Prioress—also indict the ­decay of the ascetic communities that gave continuing institutional life to the penitential aspiration within the Church.

The life of the professional ascetic is, in theory, a permanent act of penance. Today’s undergraduates find asceticism nearly impossible to fathom, and no trend in contemporary Catholicism is more “modern” than the dramatic waning of ascetic institutions and practices. Pilgrimage, metaphoric no less than literal, was meant to be “hard travelling”—­always remembering the linguistic kinship of travel and travail. The verbs of motion most apt for Summoner and Pardoner are probably prowling or hunting; for the Wife of Bath it would be cruising.

The sight of the sacramental grid beneath the textual surface should alarm no one. Certainly, it should spoil no one’s fun. You still have Jolly Geoff in all his generosity and geniality. There’s plenty of crude caressing and plosive farting, swearing and swyving up a storm. But if you grasp the penitential plan, you also have some preparation for the downer at the end of the poem, when the narrator himself becomes very solemn and preachy. (The same thing happens in Troilus.) One can stay only so long at the fair. Eventually, dances end and dancers fail. Some medieval religious houses featured a ghoulish display on the exterior of buildings on the public road. It was an actual human skeleton, which with a written sign saluted passersby thus: “As you are now, I once was; as I am now, you will be.” That’s quite the cosmic spoiler, but the medicine of penance is still there. At the very end, Chaucer the translator returns with a “merry tale in prose” a three- or four-hour sermon on sin and confession adapted from a Dominican penitentiary. This is the “Parson’s Tale.”

The Canterbury Tales will remain unfinished through eternity. I myself doubt that Chaucer ever truly planned to accomplish the announced program of four tales per pilgrim, two each on the road to Canterbury and two on the road back, or actually to have a return trip at all. This unlikely plan allowed him to indicate in numerical terms his ambition to outdo The Decameron, with its mere hundred tales. A reader will see that the “Parson’s Tale” is the unifying text. From the very start, it was intended to tie the whole project together—to knytte up al this feeste and make an ende, as the Parson himself puts it. The Parson was a learned man, a clerk; he knew that text came from Latin texere, to weave. And the experienced reader will see that the tract’s threads of penitence reach back into every earlier part of the poem. But one’s first encounter with it can feel like another shower of cold water. It is hard, the stone that the builders of the Jolly Geoff School rejected. It seems unfair that this great poet, who remains amazingly accessible to us across such formidable barricades of time, at the very end, when the chips are down, has to be so medieval. But Augustine, speaking of the Scriptures, says that the sacred author never expresses anything figuratively that has not elsewhere been expressed literally. We can perhaps reverse that dictum with regard to the very human author of The ­Canterbury Tales.

John V. Fleming is Louis W. Fairchild Professor of English and Comparative Literature, emeritus, at Princeton University.

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