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WHITECROW BORDERLAND

Chapter 11: Pilgrimage in the Age of Schism.

 

The question of how soon Chaucer engages the issues of the Great Schism in the text of the Canterbury Tales is one that ought to be addressed in the context of how pervasive his concern for abuses in the church generated by schismatic heresy became during the time he planned and executed his work. Since most scholars agree he started his Canterbury project in 1387, one can assume he had watched the evolution of the controversy from its inception in 1378 for at least nine years before he composed its first elements. It seems significant, as D. W. Robertson, Jr . has noted, that Chaucer, returning from Milan when the Schism broke out, may have been the first person to report the fact of its existence to Richard's court. His reference to John of Legnano in the Clerk's Prologue generally supports the same time frame because Legnano died in 1384 and Chaucer refers to his death in the text (IV.34-38). If Chaucer based his characterization of the Pardoner on the condemnation of specific abusive practices evident in English society at the time of Boniface IX's encyclical of 1390, then that Tale could not have been composed before that date. It is also clear in the General Prologue that Chaucer intends his Pardoner to be perceived as a schismatic heretic because he carries indulgences from both rival obediences.

 

While some may wonder how significant it was for a churchman, if the Pardoner is o ne in holy orders, to express obedience to both popes during the Schism, one must take note of the fact that political divisions between the rival camps were very often expressed in open warfare between the opposing sides. J. Leslie Hotson , writing early in the century, has argued that the Tale of Melibee was originally composed, or translated from Latin and French sources, to dissuade John of Gaunt from taking an English army into battle in Castile in 1385. Gaunt's pursuit of the Castilian throne, to which he had a legitimate claim by virtue of his marriage to Constance (the daughter and heir of Pedro the Cruel who had been deposed from the throne and murdered by his brother in 1369), was declared a crusade by Urban VI. Crusade designation for the conflict, while it pitted Christian against Christian in a holy war, allowed Gaunt to use alms collections, gathered by pardoners, to finance his army. Urban declared Gaunt's "aventure" in Castile a crusade because Enrique of Trastamare , who had murdered Pedro when he seized the throne in 1369, attached Castile's obedience to Clement VII in Avignon. Gaunt's loyalty to Rome and to Urban insured the reversal of that obedience if his war efforts in Castile proved to be successful.

 

Whether one accepts Hotson's arguments or not, it is clear that the Tale of Melibee is connected to problems generated by schismatic heresy because most of the warfare after 1378 on the Continent, including the final battles of the Hundred Years' War , which may be a more likely target of Chaucer's message of peace in the Melibee, were directly involved with, and derived from, the conflict between the contending parties in the Schism. The Norwich crusade , discussed earlier, falls into this general category and is mentioned by Chaucer in his portrait of the Squire in the General Prologue (I.85-88), since the Squire partipated in that disastrous misadventure i n 1383. One can take the position, virtually without fear of contradiction, that this reference to what amounts to England's pursuit of the via facti against Avignon and Clement VII is Chaucer's earliest allusion to the problems of schismatic heresy in the Canterbury Tales. That position will not be argued here, however, because it seems more reasonable instead to suggest that Chaucer engages his concern for the abuses associated with t he Great Schism from the very beginning of his work; indeed, when he says, "Whan that Aprill . . .," Chaucer draws us, whether we realize it or not, into the very heart of the controversy that determined the most significant social and political issues at the end of the fourteenth century and created the intellectual horizon which fashioned Geoffrey Chaucer's poetic vision during the final twenty-two years of his life.

 

Donald R. Howard , in his study of the literary traditions associated with pilgrimage, notes that only one feature of Chaucer's work "has no precedent" when it is compared to other "frame" narratives of the Middle Ages: "that the setting is a pilgrimage" (77). He goes on to suggest that the relative absence of "circumstantial detail" connected to the activity of actual travel changes Chaucer's work from an expression of "local color" to one of pilgrimage "in its full cultural context--in its historical, ideol ogical, and spiritual dimensions" (78-79). Howard's argument rests on the notion that Chaucer never meant to create a temporal journey of realistic pilgrims to a particular shrine, though that aspect of the work cannot be completely denied or ignored either, so much as he intended for us to recognize the fact that life itself from birth to death is also a journey that has its own "historical, ideological, and spiritual dimensions." That idea is a commonplace in medieval thought and enters Chaucer's story-telling contest as early as the Knight's Tale when old Egeus remarks, after Arcite's death, that


This world nys but a thurghfare ful of wo,

And we been pilgrymes, passynge to and fro.

Deeth is an ende of every worldly soore. (I.2847-2849)


Chaucer clearly means for us to see his work not as a simple material journey of people along a pilgrim's route from London to Canterbury but in a context with a much wider historical and philoso phical frame. His poem is not just a fictionalized account of fourteenth century travel; it is also meant to be taken in a profoundly metaphorical sense, as a journey to or toward a celestial heaven. One hesitates to call his method allegorical, however, because it lacks the certitude of didactic assertion one usually encounters in works that are profoundly touched by allegorical intent. Chaucer also avoids, or does not possess, the religious point of view so often associated with medieval allegorical wri ti ng and/or exegesis. While he deals with a religious subject, or with one that is derived from the historical life of the church, he does not directly preach a Christian faith. He does not preach at all. He chooses instead to show us life as he experienced it in the context of a social milieu profoundly marked by the disunity of a church suffering from schismatic heresy.

 

Chauncey Wood, in his evaluation of astrological figures in Chaucer's poetry, takes on the issue of explaining, on the basis of the astronomy in the opening passage of the General Prologue, precisely when Chaucer's fictional pilgrimage took place and what exactly that time-frame of reference might mean (161-172). In the course of his evaluation, for instance, Wood notes that "there is no historical evidence to show that a majority of pilgrims went on their journeys in the spring ; indeed, the major pilgrimages to Canterbury were undertaken in July and December" (166). When Chaucer says that "And specially from every shires ende/ Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende" (I.15-16), he suggests that a considerable number of English people took to the road in April to make the pilgrimage. If nothing else, the historical fact reported by Wood suggests that Chaucer's original audience, and we can assume most such people were aware of major traditions associated with Becket's shrine, may ha ve wondered why Chaucer asserts that a significant number of people longed to go on pilgrimages in April, when more likely months for the journey were July and December. Wood takes note of the fact that it rains heavily in the spring and, "although April is a nice time of year for a trip, who wants to go riding in all that rain?" (166). He answers this question by suggesting that the traditional, biblical date for the beginning of Noah's "journey on the ark" was April 17, which is the same day he determin es from Chaucer's astronomy for the beginning of the Canterbury pilgrimage (162-163). Wood also acknowledges the fact that Chaucer's reference to the sun's position in the constellation of Aries is ambiguous and not nearly precise enough to fix a date with total confidence. The issue may be moot, since the Man of Law's Prologue contains a specific reference to April 18 (II.5).

 

Bringing up Noah and the flood in the context of Chaucer's pilgrimage does not seem to be particularly relevant in terms of the vast majority of critical studies of the work that have appeared over the years. Almost no one has ever found reason to assume that the failure of the pilgrims in reaching Canterbury proper represents anything more than the fact that Chaucer died before he was able to finish his work on the project. Death, then, not in any abstract sense, but of the poet himself, becomes the final and most significant "maker" of Chaucer's art. Setting his pilgrimage in motion on the anniversary of the destruction of a sinful world by flood, however, coupled with the fact that the journey never reaches its celesti al destination, not only deserves, but also demands, a better explanation than that. The point being taken here, of course, is that nothing seems more appropriate than beginning the pilgrimage on April 17 precisely because Chaucer's journey to Canterbury is undertaken in an age of Schism. That a sense of profound doom hangs over his Tales of Canterbury can be read in the fact that the church has abandoned its concern for the cure of souls and has taken up instead the art of protecting the property and revenue rights of its vast material holdings. That single schismatic issue has become so intensely con tested by the end of the century that one pope raises an army of Christian soldiers to fight a real war against the other pope's army of Christian soldiers. One point that can be drawn from this observation is that Chaucer may have perceived the Schism itself as God's second judgment against sinful man, a judgment he ties to Noah's flood through association with the traditional first day of its beginning.

 

The church, prior to the Great Schism, promoted itself as sinful man's only hope of salvation. People in the fourteenth century believed in the reality of eternal damnation. They believ ed in a material hell-fire that would burn and torture them forever. The Parson's sermon of contrition, penitence, and satisfaction, under normal circumstances and prior to the Great Schism, provided a reasonable means for escaping from the very real terror of eternal damnation. Be contrite, confess your sin, do penance to atone for i t, and the church will mediate God's grace and mercy to the cure of your soul. That was probably a comforting message prior to the Schism. By the time Chaucer died, however, it was obvious to him, as it must have been to his contemporaries, that the very sacraments of the church which foretold God's infinite mercy and grace, had become so conflicted and so discredited by schismatic heresy that there was little reason to believe the church could deliver on its promise of mediating God's grace to sinful man. Until the sacraments of "hooly chirche" were restored to their unconflicted status, until the Schism was healed and the church returned to unity, there was little hope, as Huizinga notes, that anyone, including Chaucer's pilgrims, would ever see Jerusalem celestial.

 

At the same time, to mistake Chaucer's humor for a naive optimism is a discredit to his genius as a poet. When Chaucer leaves his pilgrims outside the walls of Canterbury, enthralled, as it were, by the Parson's endless rehearsal of sins and their remedies, in the growing and ever-spreading darkness as the sun sets in the west, it is difficult to generate a strong sense of hope for the future of anyone's salvation. If Boniface IX cannot see through the outward signs of the Pardoner's cupidity and pride, it is hardly reasonable to suppose that Chaucer's country Parson , good man though he may be and even idealistically portrayed, will fare any better when confronted by a hypocrite of such monumental stature. It might be possible to argue that Chaucer means to say that even the least of these is well enough equipped to perform the necessary rituals of mediating God's grace and mercy to the entire sinful world, but that is not the way it is supposed to be. The pope, as supreme head of the church, as heir and successor to St. Peter, is the one who is expected to mediate God's grace and mercy to Christ's body of believers in the church. That we get left outside the gates while a country Parson recites his endless list of recipes for the cure of souls, left there in the darkness while the sun goes down on our only hope of salvation, hardly seems to be a happy sign, a joyful noise, but is, rather, exactly what one ought to expect from a pilgrimage undertaken in an age of Schism.

 

The point of connection between the General Prologue and the tale-structure of the work as a whole that makes this reading inescapable is Chaucer's reference to Zephirus, the west wind, and to the art and activity of the "puffers" in the Canon's Yeoman's Tale. Paul B. Taylor , in his study of the significance of the Canon's Yeoman's "office" among the company of alchemists, as the one who blows on the fire, notes that "[n]ot only is the Canon's Yeoman's occupation to breathe a wind of increase, or multiplication, but the term s of his failure to do so are particularly appropriate for the close of the pilgrimage" (381). Taylor argues that the Yeoman's function is essentially the same as Zephirus's in the General Prologue, since the west wind brings about the increase of nature that is, or can be, associated with the hope of multiplying silver and gold in the heating of the alchemical alembic in the Tale. Whether or not the Yeoman fails in that function remains ambiguous in the text itself, because the issue of the cause of the explosion is never precisely resolved:


Somme sayde it was long on the fir makyng;

Somme sayde nay, it was on the blowyng--

Thanne was I fered, for that was myn office. (VIII.922-924)


After this revelation the Yeoman notes that the Canon attributes the cause to a cracked alembic (VIII.934) and that becomes the "official" reason for the failure. No one is ever actually blamed for the explosion and no single reason is put forth to accoun t for it.

 

Since it is also apparent that the Yeoman's arrival among the pilgrims is the result of his longing "to goon on pilgrimages," as noted earlier, which is a circumstance that can be said to fulfill dramatically and ma terially the assertion made in the opening passage of the General Prologue, and since it is also apparent that the Yeoman can be said to personify the west wind's function of creating spring's increase, albeit in an ironic, alchemically conflicted, way, it becomes a relatively simplistic and straightforward matter to connect the Canon's Yeoman's Tale directly to the opening passage of the General Prologue. It is also true, of course, that the Yeoman, like the other pilgrims, is also in need of the healing grace of the "hooly blisful martir" who awaits them at Canterbury. The parallels and connections here strongly suggest that Chaucer always intended to end Canterbury with the Yeoman's performance, which is not to say that he meant it to be the last Tale in the sequence. Since the Yeoman's performance can be read as an expression of the via cessionis, as the best and most likely solution to the Great Schism, the opening passage of the Canterbury Tales must also be considered in the light of that same issue. "Whan that Aprill," therefore, can be taken as a reference to the beginning of Noah's flood, on the one hand, which initiated God's first punishment of a sinful world, and to April 8, 1378, on the other, as a point in time when God might consider a second destruction of the world because of the sin that was ushered into His creation by the beginning of the Great Schism, since April 8 was the day Gregory XI's college of cardinals elected Bartolomeo Prignano as the pope who took the name Urban VI. In answer, then, to the question of how soon Chaucer engages the issues of the Great Schism in the Canterbury Tales, one can a rgue that he does so from the very first words of his literary production.

 

Jane Chance, in her recent study of Chaucer's use of mythographic figures, argues that "Chaucer's deployment of Zephirus in the General Prologue also warns against heresy and tyranny, through a series of mythological and literary associations chiefly drawn from Dante's Paradiso but similarly linked with the rebellious Titans" (173). Pursuing Chance's argument beyond this point would draw us far beyond the central focus of our concerns here and the only point we need to take from her perception is that heresy and tyranny, both of which are connected to the problems generated by the existence of the schismatic popes at the end of the century, become central issues in Chaucer's theme in the tale-structure of the Canterbury project as a whole. A major significance of Chance's observation is that it demonstrates how tightly wound Chaucer's work actually is. Canterbury is not a loose collection of miscellaneous stories he failed to complete because he died before it became whole. Canterbury is not a fragmentary literary production at all; rather, it is a fully realized articulation, not of general heresies and tyrannies, but of the very specific, historically grounded, heresy and tyranny associated with the Great Schism . The two contending popes, by refusing to resign, even when they swore conclave oaths to do so when called upon, as Kaminsky points out, became tyrants who refused to put the best interests of the church ahead of their own determination to preserve the power and wealth their position as pope guaranteed.

 

The four men who occupied the papal sees during Chaucer's lifetime, Clement and Benedict in Avignon--Urban and Boniface in Rome, certainly may have been genuinely concerned with the necessity of preserving the validity of the apostolic succession of the true pope, but that determination placed every Christian at risk of eternal damnation for as long as the Schism lasted. The fact that most people perceived the popes and their supporters as being concerned only with the preservation of their property and revenue rights, at the expense of the true mission of the church, as the only collective entity capable of medi ating God's grace to a sinful world, drew every Christian to the dock of God's judgment without benefit of any true sense of absolution. Placing the pilgrimage at the gates of Canterbury, as the moon reaches its "exaltacioun" in Libra in Chaucer's real-time chronotope, simply reinforces the sense of impending judgment that the Schism seems to signal at the end of the century. As a form of tyranny, the one Chaucer faced on his death-bed was truly unprecedented, cruel, and unforgivable. When the women of Thebes complain to Theseus about the tyranny of Creon refusing to allow the burial of their husbands, an act which prevents their spirits from finding rest, Chaucer clearly takes a different approach to the meaning of that issue than the one articulated by the narrator of the Knight's Tale. More war, via facti, as a solution to the problem, had already prolonged the Schism by nearly twenty years. War was never Chaucer's answer to Schism. Via cessionis was his answer: not the Squire, who participated in the Norwich crusade, but the Canon's Yeoman , who blew on the fire of increase until his heart was faint. The increase he articulates first demands that the two popes, referred to as canons in the Tale, be removed from the positions of power they have come to abuse by pursuing only material gain, so that a new, single pope can be elevated to replace them. The new pope, because he is untainted by schismatic heresy, will be able to increase and multiply the availability of God's grace and mercy, which the false popes have squandered, to the body of believers in Christ's church.

 

Jane Chance's observation that Zephirus warns one against both tyranny and heresy can be said to play itself out in Chaucer's tale-structure in relatively equal halves between the first and second parts of his Canterbury project. In the first five Fragments of the Ellesmere order, the theme of marriage is a predominant concern, since nearly every tale in the first half touches that subject in one way or another. The issue of sovereignty in marriage, especially in the Clerk's Tale, demonstrates how Chaucer linked the sacrament to the issue of tyranny. Walter, as king (marquis), husband, and even as a symbol of the pope, lives out his life as if he enjoys absolute and tyrannical power over the life and fate of Grisilda, who can be said to represent Walter's kingdom, who actually is his wife, at least until he pretends to divorce her, and who can be compared to the church suffering under the rule of a tyrannical pope. Any, or all, of these readings of the story are possible. In the Franklin's Tale, after the clerk of Orleans (Simon de Cramaud ?) makes the black rocks disappear, Arveragus, in order to preserve his honor, forces Dorigen into a position where she must commit adultery, essentially against her will even though she made a foolish promise to do so, and escapes that sinful fate only because the squire, Aurelius, forgives her the rash promise. Arveragus's action violates the terms of their marriage agreement and places him in the role of tyrant. In short, then, one can argue that the issue of tyranny is investigated under the fictional guise of sovereignty in marriage as it plays itself out across the landscape of Chaucer's first twelve Canterbury Tales.

 

At the same time, it is also important to note that the first part of Canterbury ends in much the sa me way that it begins: with the discussion of an aristocratic marriage that is conflicted by the problems generated in a warrior-class mentality. Arveragus and Dorigen fall into their conflict precisely because he has been called away to perform his milit ary duties as a man-at-arms for his king, duke, or liege-lord. The same potential for a disruption of civil or domestic tranquillity also surfaces in the Knight's Tale, in the s truggle between Palamon and Arcite for Emelye's love, and can be seen as looming on the horizon of the marriage in the future, in spite of the fact that the Knight declares otherwise at the conclusion of his story. His assertion that their love will never be touched by discord, "That never was ther no word hem bitwene/ Of jalousie or any oother teene" (I.3105-3106), seems impossibly idealistic in view of every other story Chaucer tells in the first half of his project. The Knight is probably free to belie ve what he wants but the Miller, Reeve, Cook, Wife of Bath, Clerk, Merchant, and Franklin see a different reality. That the Franklin, especially, who directly engages the more realistic discord that afflicts marriages between warrior-husbands and their wive s, as a direct response to the Squire's overly romanticized view of life, where the Squire is the Knight's son, turns his story back upon the Knight's version of reality in more ways than one. A point one can take away from this structural feature is that the first half of Chaucer's project can be said to resemble a wheel, since he ends it with precisely the same terms he used when he began. The turn around the twelve-spoked wheel places the Franklin's Tale in direct juxtaposition with the Knight's Tale because the first spoke stands next to the last as one moves around the hub ("nave" in the Summoner's Tale--III.2266).

 

Chaucer repeats essentially the same structural technique when he turns to the issue of heresy in the second part of his Canterbury project. He makes one very significant alteration in the structure in order to link the two parts together. In the Manciple's Tale, which is the final fabulous story in the work as a whole, Chaucer revisits the issue of tyranny in marriage when he has Phebus murder his wife because she has committed adultery with a man of "litel reputacioun" (IX.199). His act of homicide is the ulti mate expression of sovereignty, mastery, and tyranny in a human relationship. That Phebus is a "flour of bachilrie" (IX.125), a perfect knight, rewards our expectation that members of the aristocracy, because they wield all the power in the fourteenth century, are capable of committing the most notorious, most highly visible, most reprehensible acts of tyranny. Chaucer re-emphasizes this fact by having Phebus punish the white crow by turning him black because he tells the truth of what he has seen. At the same time, because Chaucer drops all reference to t he child who was born after Coronis dies, to the child called Esculapius, he turns us back again to the point from which we set out--back to the Physician's Tale, which is the first tale in the second half of Canterbury. This is true, of course, because Esculapius is the "great physician" of the ancient world and is a natural forerunner of the man Chaucer depicts both in the General Prologue and in the story he tells of Virginia. The circular motion here clearly resembles another wheel. Ending the second turn with the Parson's endless series of recipes for the cure of souls stands Physician and Parson in direct juxtaposition as well. Both ca n be said to fail to deliver on their respective promises as figures of the Great Physician.

 

In that second series of tales, Chaucer deals directly with the issues and problems of schismatic heresy. In the Physician's Tale itself, Chaucer uses the story of Virginia's beheading, drawn partly from Livy and partly from Jean de Meun , to demonstrate how the church entered the condition of Schism. The obedience at Avignon (Clement VII) always argued that the Roman papacy (Urban VI ) was illegitimate because a Roman mob threatened to murder the cardinals in conclave if they failed to elect a Roman or Italian to replace Gregory XI. Bartolomeo Prignano (Urban VI) satisfied that demand enabling the cardinals to escape back to France where they deposed Urban and elected Clement to take his place. The Roman mob in the Physician's Tale, which causes the death of Apius and all his co-conspirators, represents the threat in the Avignon argument that justified Urban's removal and Virginia, as a symbol connected to the idea that the virginal bride of Christ is the church, then loses her hea d as the institution she represents enters schismatic heresy. Chaucer's technique of intensifying the pathos in the sacrifice of Virginia is meant to dramatize the terrible state in which the church has fallen. The Pardoner then appears on Chaucer's stage as the epitome of the condition of the church, since he carries documents of indulgence issued simultaneously by both papal sees. His preaching text, "Radix malorum est cupiditas," which he embodies and exemplifies, stresses the fact that the Schism is primarily the result of material concerns taking precedent over spiritual value at the end of the fourteenth century.

 

In the Shipman's Tale, Chaucer draws our attention more forcefully to the way in which schismatic heresy has infected the church with an overriding spiritual " disese" that threatens to destroy it. He creates a definitive link across the gap between Fragment VI and VII by calling to mind the twelfth century monk of St. Denis, Peter Abelard, who was castrated, as Harry threatens to do to the Pardoner, just prior to the time he entered holy orders at the abbey in the town where the story is set. Daun John and the merchant's wife, who buy and sell their sexuality for one hundred francs of the cuckolded husband's money, represent a parodic version of Abelard and Heloise , or may reflect the notion that Heloise is Abelard's whore, as some of his enemies claimed, whose chaste marriage after Abelard's castration is mocked by the ease with which the two "lovers" engage in, and consummate, their sexual negotiations. They do so without any apparent consequences. Chaucer anticipates, at the same time, the chaste marriage of St. Cecile and Valerian in the Second Nun's Tale at the beginning of Fragment VIII with his allusion to Abelard and Heloise. In terms of the driving force behind the "chastitee in mariage" between the tale and the allusion, one must equate St. Cecile's angel of death with Abelard's castration.

 

The Prioress, the Monk, the Nun's Priest, and the Second Nun , are all shown to be lacking in a fundamental knowledge of Christian doctrine, which can be attributed to the profound absence of leadership at the head of the church's hierarchy during the Schism , as each of them tells a tale that violates, ignores, or contradicts basic Christian beliefs any member of the ecclesiastical estate can be expected to know. The Prioress is an anti-Semite who seems to be unaware of the fact that the hierarchy of the chu rch condemned the very story she tells in the middle of the thirteenth century. The Monk does not recognize the power of God's mercy and grace as a means of overcoming the "tragedies" of mere fortune and cha nce. Another way of putting this is to argue that the Monk has simply acknowledged the fact that God's grace and mercy are absent from the schismatic church. The Nun's Priest tells a beast fable which may be completely inappropriate for a man in holy orde rs. The Second Nun seems to be ignorant of Augustinian ideals, especially those relating to the instruction of converts to the faith, in her story of St. Cecile's conversion of pagans to Christianity. Her donation of property to Urban clearly reflects the very problem of the church's accumulation of material goods, a controversy that came to be the most significant issue dividing the church during the Great Schism.

 

Chaucer's Tale of Melibee reflects the idea that peace between England and France was a necessary pre-condition to finding, or even looking for, a solution to the Schism. This point of view was consistently expressed from the English-Urbanist side of the controversy during Chaucer's lifetime. It was articulated by John of Gaunt, for instance, at the peace conference at Amiens in 1393--a position recorded and preserved by the quick pen of the monk of St. Denis in his chronicle recounting the discussions about the Schism which occurred at the court of Charles VI. Chaucer may even allude to the chronicler in the Shipman's Tale. In the Tale of Sir Thopas, Chaucer clearly ridicules a knight whose actions devalue the problems of church disunity by demanding tales of "popes and cardinales" while he arms himself for combat against a three-headed giant obstructing his path to sexual union with the Queen of Fairy. In the Canon's Yeoman's Tale, Chaucer completes his discussion of schismatic heresy by advocating the via cessionis which was also explicitly articulated by Gaunt in his comments to Pedro de Luna at Amiens. One year later, of course, the man Gaunt had threatened with extermination, if he did not force the resignation of the schismatic pope, through his position as a cardinal in Clement's college, was himself elected to replace Clement and became the last schismatic pope of the Avignon obedience as Benedict XIII. When Chaucer turns the second half of Canterbury back upon itself with his Manciple's Tale, and connects it to the Physician by virtue of not mentioning Esculapius , the child of Phebus and Coronis, he deprives the pilgrims, and us too, of a primary progression from ancient to contemporary world views. He finishes his wheel, his second wheel, but takes leave of his fabulous world witho ut a finalizing symbol of reference to the one thing every pilgrim desperately needs--to the Great Physician--to Christ-Becket--the one who "hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke." That child, Esculapius, the bridge between ancient knowledge and Chris tian faith is left unborn in Chaucer's poetry precisely because the "flour of bachilrie," the perfect knight, murders the child's mother with his trusty bow before he can come into existence, into history. As a consequence, we are left outside the walls o f Canterbury with only the Parson's endless list of sins and their remedies. That is certainly not nothing but it hardly lives up to the status of a cure for the desperate needs Chaucer's pilgrims are suffering. In short, without the mediation of the church in securing God's mercy and grace, there can be no true hope of salvation, even if we all know and can recite the Parson's recipes for the cure of souls by heart.

 

Seeing Chaucer's work on the Canterbury Tales in the context of his real sociohistorical milieu, in the context of the Black Death, the Hundred Years' War, and the Great Schism , makes it impossible, on the one hand, to mistake his genius for humor as a sign of his simpleminded optimism and, on the other, opens his poetry to questions that have never been asked. The ones that have been discussed in the past have often been answered in ways that fail to tell us what we most need to know about his poetry. Did he refer to contemporary events in his Canterbury project? It would be much easier to make a list of passages where he did not do so than it would be to put down all the ones where he did. He never stops referring to contemporary events. Is Canterbury a fragmentary literary production? One can only wonder what else anyone would have Geoffrey Chaucer say about the problems of war and schismatic heresy that overwhelmed the church and its appended society at the end of the fourteenth century. What more could he possibly say about a t yranny in the church and in the world that may have forced him to die without any hope whatsoever of salvation? He said everything he could say about that in his Retractions. The idea that Chaucer should have defended his art, his fiction, in the face of his eternal damnation to a real and living hell fails to understand how desperate life in the fourteenth century church had become for its believers in the profound and intractable disunity of Schism. Chaucer, like his Canon's Yeoman, speaks until his heart is faint about those issues in his Tales of Canterbury. The fact that we have generally failed to hear the emanations of that breath speaks more to the profound differences between our age and his than it might about the methodologies we choose when we attempt to follow along in his well-fabricated path. Listening to the wind of a poet's breath has never been a simple task. It takes almost as much heart to hear that voice in its re al social and historical context as it does to speak truthfully of such profound calamities in the first place. All the credit for any of that goes to the poet, to Geoffrey Chaucer, who did not cease speaking until death itself took his breath away.


References:

Morton W. Bloomfield, "Authenticating Realism and the Realism of Chaucer," Thought 39 (1969): 335-349.

J. A. Burrow, "Words, Works and Will: Theme and Structure in Piers Plowman," in Piers Plowman: Critical Approaches, ed. S. S. Hussey (London: Metheun, 1969): 111-124.

Jane Chance, The Mythographic Chaucer: The Fabulation of Sexual Politics (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1995).

J. Leslie Hotson, "The Tale of Melibee and John of Gaunt," Studies in Philology 18 (1921): 429-452.

Donald R. Howard, Writers and Pilgrims: Medieval Pilgrimage Narratives and Their Posterity (Berkeley: U of California P, 1980).

J. Huizinga, The Wanning of the Middle Ages (London: Edward Arnold, 1924).

Howard Kaminsky, Simon de Cramaud and the Great Schism (New Brunswick: Rutgers U P, 1983).

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