'Loo, lordes myne, heere is a fit!': The structure of Chaucer's Sir Thopas

E A JonesThe Review of English Studies. Oxford: May 2000.Vol. 51, Iss. 202;  pg. 248, 5 pgs







Abstract (Document Summary)

The manner in which Geoffrey Chaucer stumbles across a fit-division in the "rym [he] lerned longe agoon"(709) and the "wide-eyed wonder" with which he greets it, is, though it has no shortage of rivals, one of the best jokes in "Sir Thopas." Jones discusses the joke, the full extent of which has remained unrecognized.

Full Text (2442   words)

Copyright Oxford University Press(England) May 2000






The manner in which Chaucer stumbles across a fit-division in the `rym [he] lerned longe agoon' (709), and the `wide-eyed wonder' with which he greets it, is, though it has no shortage of rivals, one of the best jokes in Sir Thopas.2 The full extent of the joke has, however, remained unrecognized.

In a note published in 1971, J. A. Burrow demonstrated conclusively that the apparent division of the tale into two fits in fact masks a three-fit structure.3 He argued that `Yet listeth, lordes, to my tale' (833) was, like the tale's first line, `Listeth, lordes, in good entent' (712), and the beginning of the final fit, `Now holde youre mouth, Par charitee' (891), the opening line of a new section. With support from the ordinatio of a number of good manuscripts, including Ellesmere and Hengwrt, he entered a plea that `The poem should be divided . . . into three fits: 712-832, 833-90, 891-918',4 and the editors of the Riverside Chaucer have obliged.

One could make the case that it is a better joke to have the same raconteur who so ostentatiously observes a fit-division at 887-91 pass in blissful ignorance by another equally obvious break at 832-3, although it is not immediately apparent how an editor would both recognize that there should be a fit-division and register the fact that the narrator has totally missed it. The chief purpose of the present note is, however, to develop the latter part of Burrow's argument. He observed that his three fits contain, in order, 18, 9, and 4 1/2 stanzas, the progressive halving in the form reflecting the dwindling away of narrative content. He went on to point out, following Macrobius (though the observation goes back to Plato and the Pythagoreans) that the ratio 2:1 is that which in music produces an octave or diapason, and is therefore productive of harmony. Thus, he concludes:

Even the fragmentary Third Fit of 'Sir Thopas' is concordant in so far as it stands an 'octave above' the Second, just as the Second stands an octave above the First. Harry Bailey unwittingly interrupts Chaucer at a point, almost exactly halfway through the fifth stanza of his Third Fit, which allows the Tale, despite its apparent raggedness, to achieve a harmonious resolution.5 Burrow conceded that this harmony applied only to stanza- and not to linetotals; the present note discerns a complementary harmony in the number of lines in the tale.6

First it may be observed that the final fit numbers twenty-eight lines, and that 28 is one of the Perfect numbers. A Perfect number was defined in the Neoplatonic arithmetical tradition, mediated to the Middle Ages by such ubiquitous school-texts as Boethius's De Arithmetica and Isidore's Etymologiae, as a number whose value was equal to the sum of its proper divisors (thus 28 = 1 + 2 + 4 + 7 + 14); the others known to the Middle Ages were 6, 496, and 8,128.(7) Most commentators draw the inevitable parallel between arithmetical and ethical perfection. Augustine treats the theory of Perfect numbers in his comments on Genesis 2: 1-3, giving the examples of 28 and 6, and makes a further connection with the divine creation. Creation took six days: `Perfecte ergo numero dierum . . . perfecit dens opera sua, quae fecit' (`In a perfect number of days, therefore, God perfected/brought to completion the works he had made').8


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My second observation depends on dividing the tale as the pilgrim Chaucer so intrusively divides it (and as Robinson divided it in his edition), into two sections separated by the interjection

Such a division requires little justification, and is not significantly at odds with the Burrow/Riverside arrangement, from which it differs in leaving the first fit-division unnoticed and in setting lines 888-90 outside the scheme of fits.10 This accords well with the internal logic of the tale: Chaucer recites what he thinks is one fit (but which should really be two); surprised by a fit-division he turns aside from his `mateere' for the interjection of lines 888-90, before resuming with what is to be the final fit. Burrow/Riverside represent the `deep structure' of the tale, Robinson the `surface structure'. The first section contains 176 lines, the second twenty-eight. The ratio of longer to shorter is (to three decimal places) 6.286, which approximates very closely 27pi, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its radius.11 Chaucer could have derived the ratio 176: 28 geometrically with little difficulty; probably, however, he used the approximation of pi as 22/7 to calculate it arithmetically. The method is described by Macrobius, though whether Chaucer would have needed recourse to his `olde boke totorn' (Parliament of Fowls, 110) for such an elementary calculation must be extremely doubtful:

The diameter of every circle, when tripled with the addition of a seventh part, gives the measurement of the circumference in which it is inclosed; for example, if a diameter is seven inches long and you desire to know the length of the circumference, you triple seven, making twenty-one, and add a seventh part or one, and the circumference of a circle whose diameter is seven inches is twenty-two inches.12

Thus 28 x 2 x 22/7 = 176.

If we believe that little Lewis inherited his `abilite to lerne sciences touching nombres and proporciouns' (Astrolabe, Prol. 2-3) from his father, we should not be surprised that such ratios as the diapason or octave (2: 1) and pi feature in the architectonics of some of Chaucer's works.13 J. D. North has discerned the importance of pi in another of his apparently more haphazard creations, the House of Fame, describing a dream which occurred on the night of 910 December:

Assuming . . . that we are to begin with 1 January, and taking twenty-two couplets as corresponding to a week, then in an ordinary year we should expect 9 December to end after exactly 2156 lines . . . This is just two lines short of the actual length of the work as we have it. The result is a rather pleasing one, in view of the subject-matter of the poem, namely the celestial spheres; for what is the ratio of 22 to 7, if it is not that of the circumference of a circle to its diameter? We might look at the question in reverse. If we consider the poem to have begun at noon of 1 January and to have ended at midnight beginning 10 December in an ordinary year, that is, 343.5 days later, then the 2158 lines of the poem, understood in this way, give a very plausible value for this mathematical ratio (pi) of 3.14111.14

If the twenty-eight lines of the final fit were significant for their numerological resonances, the presence of pi, like that of the ratio 2 : 1, in Sir Thopas would appear to be further evidence of the arithmetical component Derek Brewer has perceived as dominant in Chaucer's mentality.15 Both, however, have significances beyond those recognized by the pragmatic numeracy of the arithmetical mentality. The combination of pi and the harmonic ratios including 2 : 1 is fundamental in the medieval cosmology. Plato's world-soul is created by a process of division by arithmetic ratios, split in two and then twisted to form two circles.16 In the words of Boethius's creation hymn to a God who governs the world by ratio as well as by reason (ratione), O qui perpetua:

Thow knyttest togidere the mene soule of treble kynde moevynge all thingis, and divydest it by membrys accordynge; and whan it es thus divyded and hath assembled a moevynge into two rowndes, it gooth to torne ayen to hymself, and envyrouneth a ful deep thought and turneth the hevene by semblable ymage.17

In the 'semblable ymage' of the macrocosm, therefore, as Calcidius and Macrobius make explicit, the harmonic ratios provide the distances between the planets, and the circle describes their motion.18 Both ratios combine to produce the 'melodye'

That cometh of thilke speres thryes thre,

That welle is of musik and melodye

In this world here, and cause of armonye.

(Parliament of Fowls, 61-3)

Symbolic ratios, like the symbolic numbers of Brewer's `numerological mentality', `create aesthetic patterns and have non-numerical implications beyond themselves' (p. 162) and, like symbolic numbers, they have a long and distinguished history of use in literary composition.19

Thus in his use of the Perfect number 28, and more especially in his reliance on the ratios 2 : 1 and pi, in what is on the face of it his most chaotic work Chaucer, more completely than in any of his other compositions, mimics the divinely ordered act of creation `by measure, number and weight' (Wisdom 11: 21).20


1 Canterbury Tales, VII. 888, in The Riverside Chaucer, ed. L. D. Benson et al. (Boston, Mass., 1987). All quotations from Chaucer's works are taken from this edition. For orientation in Sir Thopas criticism, see H. Cooper, Oxford Guides to Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales, corr. pbk. edn. (Oxford, 1991), 299-309.

2 I borrow the phrase `wide-eyed wonder' from E. T. Donaldson's characterization of `Chaucer the Pilgrim', in his Speaking of Chaucer (London, 1973), 1-12: 4.

3 "`Sir Thopas": An Agony in Three Fits', Review of English Studies, 22 (1971), 54-8, repr. in his Essays on Medieval Literature (Oxford, 1984), 61-5.


Ibid. 56.





5 Ibid. 57-8.

6 1 count lines as they are defined metrically, and as they are printed in modem editions of the tale. For the eccentric arrangement of lines in the best manuscripts, see J. Tschann, 'The Layout of Sir Thopas in the Ellesmere, Hengwrt, Cambridge Dd. 4. 24, and Cambridge Gg. 4. 27 Manuscripts', Chaucer Review, 20 (1985), 1-13. Manly and Rickert identify 'a great deal of editing and individual wildness' in the manuscript tradition of the tale, which occasionally extends to variation in the number of lines it contains. The four manuscripts which reproduce the layout described by Tschann and considered by Cooper to be 'almost certainly Chaucer's own' (Canterbury Tales, 300) also agree in line-totals (Dd at least after the opening stanzas, which it has lost). See J. M. Manly and E. Rickert (edd.), The Text of the Canterbury Tales, 8 vols. (Chicago, 1940), ii. 361; variant readings are listed at vii. 184-99. Early manuscripts do not have line 805, although several scribes indicate by a blank that they are aware of an omission; the Riverside editors are persuaded, by yet another reminiscence of the Auchinleck Guy of Warwick, that the line is more likely authorial than scribal (pp. 920, 1131). That the proportionality of the tale described below is more exact with line 805 than without it may, if circular reasoning be admitted (and in the present context it seems peculiarly appropriate), be a further argument for the line's authenticity.

7 For a discussion with bibliography, see J. Gilligan, 'Numerical Composition in the Middle English Patience', Studia Neophilologica, 61 (1989), 7-11. She observes that the number of lines in Patience, 531, represents the sum of the first four Perfect numbers (if I is included, as by most authors it is).

8 De Genesi ad Litteram, 4. 2, ed. J. Zycha, Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiorum Latinorum 28 (Prague, 1894), 97-8. Noted in Gilligan, 'Numerical Composition', 8. Isidore makes the same association, as noted by P. Acker, 'The Emergence of an Arithmetical Mentality in Middle English Literature', Chaucer Review, 28 (1994), 293-302: 294.





9 The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. F. N. Robinson, 2nd edn. (Oxford, 1957), 166.

10 In their note to these lines, the Riverside editors observe: `Such minstrelish indications of the ending of a fit . . . occasionally appear in the text of romances and ballads . . . In Sir Eglamour they form a three-line supplement to the regular tail-rhyme stanza on three occasions, rather as here' (p. 922).

11 28 x 27 = 175.929 (three d.p.).

12 Commentary on the Dream of Scipio, trans. W. H. Stahl (New York, 1952), 171.

13 Evidence of Chaucer's mathematical expertise may be found in his familiarity-shared by few of his contemporaries-with arabic numerals, including zero. See Acker, `Emergence of an Arithmetical Mentality'.





14 Chaucer's Universe (Oxford, 1988), 350. North's index, though not his text, suggests two other places in Chaucer's works where rr may be relevant. At p. 304 n. 1 he notes (without comment) that the Proem and Story which precede the Complaint of Mars proper consist of twenty-two seven-line stanzas, and in a note to his discussion of version F of the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women he comments enigmatically: `The day of St Valentine is here named at line 145, and I will not stretch credulity any further by introducing circular measure to explain the fact' (p. 471 n. 2). (14 February is the forty-fifth day of the year, and 45 x Tr = 141.372 (three d.p.) ).

15 `Arithmetic and the Mentality of Chaucer', in P. Boitani and A. Torti (edd.), Literature in Fourteenth-Century England (Tibingen, 1983), 155-64. Sir Thopas could thus be set beside the Book of the Duchess as a further example of Chaucer's status as `at once numerologist and arithmetician'. See T. A. Shippey, `Chaucer's Arithmetical Mentality and the Book of the Duchess', Chaucer Review, 31 (1996), 184-200; the quotation is from p. 198.

16 Timaeus, 35e-36s; ed. and trans. R. G. Bury, Loeb Classical Library (London, 1929), 64-73. See also F. M. Cornford, Plato's Cosmology: The Timaeus of Plato Translated with a Running Commentary (London, 1937), 66-93.

17 Boece, III m. 9, 24-32. For the Latin text, see Boethius, The Theological Tractates and the Consolation of Philosophy, Loeb Classical Library (London, 1918), 264-5.

18 Timaeus a Calcidio translatus commentarioque instructus, ed. J. H. Waszink, Corpus Platonicum Medii Aevi (London, 1962), c. 96 (p. 148); Macrobius, Commentary, II. i-iv (pp. 185-200).





19 The most tireless worker in this field has been D. R. Howlett. For his dazzling exposition of Boethius's 0 qui perpetua as a tour de force of composition according to the same ratios as the act of creation it celebrates, see The Celtic Latin Tradition of Biblical Style (Dublin, 1995), 49-53. He does not note that the ratio of the metre's 179 words to its twenty-eight lines is a close approximation to 2n. Could it be more than the coincidence of shared reliance on 27r that these numbers are exactly the line-totals of the two sections of Sir Thopas?

20 On the importance of this verse see the excursus `Numerical Composition' in E. R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, traps. W. R. Trask (London, 1953), 501-9. Augustine quotes it at the culmination of his discussion of the importance of the Perfect number 6 in creation (above n. 8).




[Author Affiliation]

E. A. Jones King's College, London