"Carnival and Pilgrimage"

Donald C. Howard

 

Chaucer introduced in the General Prologue and in some of the tales a side of medieval culture now unfamiliar, the carnival world of medieval popular life, which the Soviet scholar Mikhail Bakhtin discerned as the true context of Rabelais. The tradition is still known to us in certain survivals of celebrations and images--carnivals and circuses, clown faces and such. Carnival imagery is first placed before us in the General Prologue to prepare us for what follows in the tales. How different this is from the Decameron: Boccaccio in his prologue and frame made his ten young ladies and gentlemen examples of perfect decorum, and permitted the carnival world of buffoonery and grotesquerie to appear only in the stories, where we get wild images of an abbess throwing her lover's trousers over her head thinking they're her wimple, or of a lecherous monk led into the public square on a chain disguised as a wild man and there recognized and apprehended, images of popular medieval folk comedy, mocking and overblown. In Chaucer such images, though they appear in the stories too, are associated with the pilgrims themselves, whose behavior on the pilgrimage is itself carnivalesque.

 

This medieval idiom belonged to fold culture; it was not "theater." In the modern world clowns and fools and jesters are played by actors, but in medieval life they were real crackbrains. "(They) remained," writes Bakhtin, "fools and clowns always and wherever they made their appearance"; by the same token madmen, dwarfs, and blind men were objects of fascination and mirth. There was a whole world of carnival with its own activities and tastes, its own sensibility and imagery, that survived in some places many centuries after the Middle Ages. In 1788 the poet Goethe described in his Italienishe Reise the carnival in Rome, preceding Ash Wednesday, no doubt an actual survival of medieval traditions though changed in many ways. The last vestiges survive still, fragmented in grotesque art, circuses with their "freaks" and spectacles, "amusement parks," and in such festivals as Halloween or, closer to the medieval tradition, Mardi Gras. In medieval times carnival was, according to Bakhtin's analysis, "the people's second like, "festive, parodic, egalitarian. The carnival spirit, in such medieval traditions as the Feast of Fools, mocked and degraded official life: it put laughter temporarily in place of official seriousness. To medieval people official life meant fear, humiliation, submission to the whims of those in power; the carnival spirit, in reaction, cultivated the misshapen and incongruous, combining images of birth and life with images of death, disfigurement or dismemberment.

It is not accurate to think of carnival only as a temporary and permitted reaction of the underprivileged/ Bakhtin, as a Marxist, over-emphasizes this side, but he recognizes the positive side that celebrated human life per se. The best description of carnival from this

viewpoint was made by a Christian writer, W.H. Auden, who was it in juxtaposition against the transcendent and eschatological aspects of Christianity:

 

 

Carnival celebrates the unity of our human race as mortal creatures, who come into this world and depart from it without our consent, who must eat, drink, defecate, belch and break with in order to live, and procreate if our species is to survive. Our feelings about this are ambiguous. To us as individuals, it is a cause for rejoicing to know that we are not alone, that all of us, irrespective of age or sex or rank or talent, are in the same boat. As unique persons, on the other hand, all of us are resentful that an exception cannot be made in our own case. We oscillate between wishing we were unreflective animals and wishing we were disembodied spirits, for in either case we should not be problematic to ourselves. The Carnival solution of this ambiguity is to laugh, for laughter is simultaneously a protest and an acceptance. During Carnival, all social distinctions are suspended, even that of sex. Young men dress up as girls, young girls as boys. The escape from social personality is symbolized by the wearing of masks. The oddity of the human animal expresses itself through the grotesque--false noses, huge bellies and buttocks, farcical imitations of childbirth and copulation. The protest element in laughter takes the form of mock aggression....In medieval carnivals, parodies of the rituals of the Church were common, but what Lewis Carroll said of literary parody-- "One can only parody a poem one admires" --is true of all parody. One can only blaspheme if one believes. The world of Laughter is much more closely related to world of Worship and Prayer than either is to the everyday, secular world of Work, for both are worlds in which we all are equal....

 

 

 

This explains what is, after all, the preponderant aspect of The Canterbury Tales until its end. The General Prologue from the start gives attention to almost microscopic details of physical life and the body. Springtime is represented with the microscopic image of sap flowing in twigs and leaves. We are drawn up close to people's faces; the Prioress, though in a nun's habit, displays a graceful nose, gray eves, a small mouth soft and red, a broad forehead. Noses and mouth, Bakhtin tells us, dominated the medieval popular image of the body, whereas in modern times expressive features like the eyes dominate; even with the Lady Prioress the nose is mentioned first. We are drawn up to their skin and facial hair--the white skin of the Friar's neck, the Merchant's forked beard, the Franklin's white beard and red complexion, the Shipman's browned skin. The Cook's physical appearance is represented with a single grotesque detail, and open sore on his knee. Some physical details, as we move down the social scale, have significance in the light of medieval science: the Wife's being "gat-toothed," it is said, signifies a lascivious character, the Miller's physical traits show him to be of sanguine complexion, the Reeve's of a choleric one. The dominant detail about the Monk as we encounter him is the jingling bells on his horses, for the image of bells always appears among what are termed "popular festive" images.

The Miller, the first of the "churls" introduced at the end of the General Prologue, is a generic image of carnival man, with gaping mouth and prominent nose. The Miller has on the tip or bridge of his nose a wart or mole, on which is a tuft of hairs, "Red as the bristles of a sowe's eares" (line 556), and his nose has black, wide nostrils. "his mouth," we learn, "as great was a great furnais" --the conventional carnival image of a hell-mouth. Of the last pilgrims described, the Summoner with his "fire-red" inflamed face has a form of acne possibly associated in the popular mind (as in medical authorities) with leprosy--"whelkes white" (great white pustules), and "knobbes" (boils or running sores) on his cheeks. Reeking of garlic, onions, and leeks, he incongruously wears a large garland of flowers on his head. And with him rides the Pardoner, not so much loathsome as sexually anomalous, spooky: his hair, "yellow as wax," hangs over his shoulders, thin and in strips, and he has glaring eyes like a hare's, conjectures that he is "a gelding or a mare," a castrated male or a hermaphrodite.

This grotesque element in the imagery of the General Prologue prepares us for the carnival spirit of the pilgrimage itself. The pilgrimage setsËm the tavern in Southwark, a festive banquet setting, and proceeds to Saint Thomas 'a Watering, a place of execution. Against this menacing background, the Knight is chosen by lot to tell the first tale; the Host then calls on the Monk as the person next highest in rank, but the Miller drunkenly cries out "in Pilate's voice," swearing "By armes and by blood and bones!": As carnival man the Miller behaves in the carnival idiom: his drunkenness, his boisterousness, his oaths by the parts of Christ's body are all characteristics. He swears he will tell his tale or go his way, and the Host in resignation says, "Tell on, a devil way! / Thou art a fool." Chaucer even takes occasion to make a brief, ironic apology (line 3167): he will, he regrets to say, have to tell the churl's tale or else falsify his "mattere." Addressing us directly, he assures us he does not speak with evil intent. If we don't care to hear it, "Turn over the leaf and chese another tale" --and don't blame me, he adds, if you choose amiss.

Some dozen of the tales are an extension of the carnival spirit introduced through particular pilgrims. There is parody of official culture in Sir Thopas, the Nun's Priest's Tale, and elsewhere. The carnival imagery in the tales goes beyond that of the General Prologue--we get gross images of excrement, fornication, and farting (in the Reeve's and Miller's tales and others), of great oaths especially by the parts of God's body (as in the Host's speeches or the Pardoner's sermon), of a comic devil (in the Friar's Tale), of dismemberment (in relics, the true ones of Saint Thomas 'a Becket or the Pardoner's false ones), of lechery (in the Merchant's Tale and elsewhere), drunkenness (in the Cook's fall from his horse in the Manciple's Prologue. And gluttony: the banquet image of popular-festive forms, where gluttony triumphs, notable in Rabelais, hovers over the whole of The Canterbury Tales: the prize supper at the Tabard Inn, planned at the beginning, is the pilgrims' ostensible goal. When the work actually ends just outside Canterbury, the last image in the last tale, the Manciple's, is the key carnival image of the gaping mouth--this one, very appropriate to the end of a tale-tell game, with a wagging tongue.

Such imagery stands out more in Chaucer's work than in the Decameron. While Boccaccio did of course include tales of official culture, of pathos and heroism and patient suffering, Chaucer included a broader spectrum: from him we have a romance of aristocratic idealism, a tale of allegory, even a prose "meditation" on penance--he shows more of official life. And while Boccaccio altogether excluded the carnivalesque from the refined company of his prologue, Chaucer lets it emerge by stages or degrees among the pilgrims until it becomes preponderant.

But in the end Chaucer turned the carnival tradition on its head. There was a whole side of it that he pointedly mitigated, what Bakhtin calls the "material bodily lower stratum." Such imagery descended from head to bowels or genitals, from earth to hell; it involved fights and beatings, swabbings of the body, debasement. "Carnival celebrates the destruction of the old and the birth of the new world--the new year, the new spring, the new kingdom," Bakhtin observed. The material world was always the focus: the future lay in the next generation, not the other world, and death was viewed as the other side of birth. Carnival showed the defeat of fear by laughter: its images of hell--as in Bosch and the elder Breughel--were grotesque, absurd, and extreme. The idiom produced gross contradictions--mixtures of praise and abuse, the praise of folly, images of things upside down, inside out, bottoms up. In The Canterbury Tales the material world is the focus and the lower stratum is by no means ignored. We have the "mooning" or "bum-baring" in the Miller's Tale, elsewhere the upside-down abuse of official life and religious custom, a comic devil and comic hell in the Friar's Tale, excremental imagery in the Summoner's Prologue (the friars' place in hell is in the devil's ass), possibly a scatological satire of Pentecost at its close, where a fart is to be divided in twelve, and the Host's praise of Bacchus at the end of the Manciple's Tale. The last tales before the Parson's meditation may present images of this kind: The Canon's Yeoman's Tale, about false and swindling alchemy and the impossibility of turning base metals into gold is and upside-down image of transcendental and eschatological ideas, and the Manciple's Tale is about the debasement of language, the very stuff of which the work is made.

But The Canterbury Tales ends with the image of the cathedral on the horizon, symbol of the Heavenly Jerusalem. It is the reverse of the banquet image of carnival tradition, the prize supper at the Tabard that has until now been the presumed destination. Carnival mocks official culture on certain licensed occasions; but pilgrimage reverses forever the pilgrim's sense of his true destination and ultimate home.

The material world is the focus and the lower stratum is by no means ignored. We have the "mooning" or "bum-baring" in the Miller's Tale, elsewhere the upside-down abuse of official life and religious custom, a comic devil and comic hell in the Friar's Tale, excremental imagery in the Summoner's Prologue (the friars' place in hell is in the devil's ass), possibly a scatological satire of Pentecost at its close, where a fart is to be divided in twelve, and the Host's praise of Bacchus at the end of the Manciple's Tale. The last tales before the Parson's meditation may present images of this kind: The Canon's Yeoman's Tale, about false and swindling alchemy and the impossibility of turning base metals into gold is and upside-down image of transcendental and eschatological ideas, and the Manciple's Tale is about the debasement of language, the very stuff of which the work is made.

But The Canterbury Tales ends with the image of the cathedral on the horizon, symbol of the Heavenly Jerusalem. It is the reverse of the banquet image of carnival tradition, the prize supper at the Tabard that has until now been the presumed destination. Carnival mocks official culture on certain licensed occasions; but pilgrimage reverses forever the pilgrim's sense of his true destination and ultimate home.