|AUTHOR:||PETER G. BEIDLER|
|TITLE:||Medieval Children Witness their Mothers' Indiscretions: The Maid Child in Chaucer's Shipman's Tale|
|SOURCE:||The Chaucer Review 44 no2 186-204 2009|
In this paper I discuss three medieval fabliaux in which young children witness their mothers' infidelities: a thirteenth-century French story in which a boy watches his mother make love to a priest; a mid-fourteenth-century Italian one in which a boy is taken into the bedroom where his mother makes love to a friar; and, at greater length, a late-fourteenth-century English one in which a maid child witnesses her mother's offering sexual pleasure to a monk in exchange for a loan of one hundred francs. Although the first two are in no sense sources for or even analogues to the Chaucerian third, the three tales share some features: an innocent child, a lecherous man of the church, a cuckolded husband/father, a clever wife/mother. Because each is written for a different set of literary purposes, the first two help us see what is distinctive in Chaucer's treatment of the situation in which a child is witness to her mother's indiscretion.
"THE MAN WHO KICKED THE STONE"
We have two extant versions of the very short thirteenth-century anonymous French fabliau called "The Man Who Kicked the Stone," in which a boy watches his mother make love to a priest. In the shorter version, which runs to sixty-two lines of octosyllabic couplets, a certain priest comes to the house of one of his parishioners. He is welcomed by the wife, whose husband is out working, and who has a young son at home with her. In the yard is a stone that they intend to make into a mortar. When the wife kicks the stone, the priest tells her to let it be:
"Se la botez ne qa ne la,
je cuit que je vos foutré ja."
"Kick it a little or a lot
and I will fluck you on the spot!"(FN1)
The wife is pleased with that prospect and again kicks the stone. With her consent, the priest picks her up and carries her to the bed, where they make love. The little boy sitting near the fire sees them and speaks quietly:
"En moie foi," dist l'enfançon,
"je cuit bien que issi fout l'on!"
"I think," muttered the innocent,
"when they say fluck, that that's what's meant."
Not long afterwards the priest gets up and leaves, just before the boy's father, who has been out tilling the fields, comes home. The boy's father starts to move the stone, but his son stops him:
Venfens li dist: "Pere, ne faire!
Se la boutez ne sa ne la,
nostre prestres vos foutra ja
sicom il fist ore ma mere."
His son said, "Da, leave it alone!
Move it a little or a lot,
our priest will fuck you on the spot
just like he did to Ma just now."
The boy's father understands what his wife has been doing and takes his revenge later on -- the timing and the method of the revenge are not specified. The story ends with a specific moral:
Se l'enfaçon neüst veü
lo prestre jöer a sa mere,
il nel de"ist pas a son pere.
If the kid hadn't seen the priest
and his mother having a lark,
his dad would still be in the dark.
The other version of "The Man Who Kicked the Stone," also in octosyllabic couplets, is almost twice as long (114 lines). The chief differences are in the characterization of the mother and the father. In the longer version, the mother, particularly, comes across as a coquette who is enamored of the priest and who makes the first moves to get him to make love to her, while the father comes across as a loving man who cares about his child and, instead of postponing his revenge, punishes his wife straightaway by dragging her by the hair, rolling her around, and stomping on her. The stated moral, however, is similar: Beware of little children because, like insane people, they hide nothing that they see.
A fundamental narrative illogicality mars "The Man Who Kicked the Stone" Why, for example, would the mother select a stone to kick in the first place, why is a stone in the house at all, and why would a priest seize on that particular action in his threat to have sex with her? In the short version, the stone is said to be a potential mortar-stone, which may let us imagine a pre-Freudian hint of a phallic pestle grinding in it, but nothing is made of that hint. The child is an attentive little rascal who hears the priest's threat to make love to his mother if she moves the stone. It is not clear whether he understands the nature or purpose of the activity that takes place in the bed, but he has somehow -- we are not told how -- learned the term for it and is later able to warn his father not to move the stone or he will be treated in a similar way.
While there may be a certain humor in all this illogicality, can we help but wonder at the mother's caring so little about the moral development of her son that she would so carelessly engage in sexual infidelities in his presence? In the medieval world of small houses and thin walls, of course, there would have been little of the privacy in sexual matters that we have grown accustomed to in a later age, but even so, the fornicating mother who is about to have illicit sex with a supposed pillar of the church could have asked the boy to go out to play in the yard. Then, however, he would not have seen what the plot requires him to see, and he could have given no warning when his father tries to move the stone.
Clearly, the point of the French fabliau is not really to condemn mothers for engaging in illicit sex with priests, nor really to condemn them for engaging in primal-scene activities in front of their young children. Rather, the point seems to be a merely practical warning to mothers: you may be caught and punished if you engage in sexual infidelities in the presence of your young children.
BOCCACCIO'S DECAMERON, 7-3
In the third tale of the seventh day of Boccaccio's Decameron, a man named Rinaldo lusts for Agnesa, the lovely wife of a rich but gullible husband. To gain easier access to Agnesa, Rinaldo persuades the husband to name him the godfather of the couple's soon-to-be-born child. When Agnesa resists his advances, Rinaldo decides to become a friar. At first Friar Rinaldo gives up some of his vices, but he soon returns to them and pays regular visits to Agnesa and her son. As both godfather and friar, Rinaldo easily persuades Agnesa to become his lover. On one of their trysts, the mother takes her son by the hand and leads him and Friar Rinaldo into her bedroom: "he and the lady, who was holding her little boy by the hand, made their way into her bedroom, locking the door behind them. And having settled down on a sofa, they began to have a merry time of it together."(FN2)
When they have twice made love, the husband comes home unexpectedly and knocks on the bedroom door. Agnesa leaps up and quickly gets dressed. She tells Friar Rinaldo to get dressed, listen to what she tells her husband, and act accordingly. Agnesa then, in feigned innocence, greets her husband. She tells him that their son had been stricken nearly to death by a terrible disease, but that Friar Rinaldo had come, had properly diagnosed the disease as an advanced case of worms in the boy's body that were about to attack his heart, and had cast a spell on the worms and killed them all. Friar Rinaldo hears all this as he dresses, He picks up the boy, cradles him in his arms, and comes forward to corroborate the story by claiming to have with his special prayers cured the boy's disease and saved his life. The gullible husband is delighted to have his son alive and well, embraces the boy, repeatedly kisses him, and gratefully rewards Friar Rinaldo with a meal of fine wine and food.
The plot of this story is unlikely enough. Why, after all, would the wife this one time lead her son into the bedroom of her infidelity? That plot element seems designed only to fulfill the requirements of the theme for the seventh day. As king for day seven, Dioneo has called for stories about wives who -- either to advance their love affairs or to preserve their own lives -- play tricks on their husbands. This story, though not realistic, does fit the theme.
The story is unrealistic in other ways, as well. Is it really likely, after all, that a man who is frustrated in his desire to have sex with a pretty wife would become a friar just to improve his chances? That plot element serves mostly to give the teller the chance to complain at length about the evil corruption of worldly friars. As for the boy himself in Decameron, 7.3, he is scarcely characterized. We do not know how old he is, though we might guess from the fact that he can walk and even run, and from the fact that he is easily cradled in the arms both of the friar and the husband, that he may be between two and five. If he watches his mother in her act of infidelity, we are not told that fact, nor are we told whether he understands what he has seen. The lad never speaks in the story, and he does not tell his father what his mother has been up to with his godfather. He is, in other words, scarcely a character at all. Rather, he serves a function in a story designed to show just how clever unfaithful wives can be in making excuses to explain to their gullible husbands why they are in the bedroom with men to whom they are not married. The reader's attention is focused not on the immorality of the boy's being present during one of his mother's sexual trysts, but on the pawn's role he plays in a tale that reveals his mother's cleverness at concealing her guilt, his father's foolishness in believing her absurd story, and his friar-godfather's inappropriate worldliness.
CHAUCER'S SHIPMAN'S TALE
In the Shipman's Tale, we recall, a Parisian monk named John comes to Saint Denis to visit his old friend, a merchant, and the merchant's lovely wife, both unnamed. Near the start of the tale the wife goes to the garden where daun John is saying his morning prayers and propositions him. It is easy to forget that present during that scene of sleazy seduction is a "mayde child" who comes into the garden with the wife of Saint Denis. The maid child is, so far as we can tell, a Chaucerian addition to this story of the lover's gift regained. In the first tale of the eighth day of Boccaccio's Decameron, the closest analogue we have to Chaucer's story and its most likely source, there is no garden scene at all and no child.(FN3) The three lines in which the maid child's presence is described, then, are original with Chaucer:
A mayde child cam in hire compaignye,
Which as hir list she may governe and gye,
For yet under the yerde was the mayde.
Those three lines are all we know of the maid child. She is presumably there through the whole garden scene, though she is never mentioned again. Since we are not told that she leaves, we are apparently to assume that this child witnesses the encounter between the wife and the monk -- including the wife's seductive proposition to daun John and his grabbing the wife by the "flankes" his embracing her "harde," and his kissing her "ofte" (VII 202-3).
Chaucer's treatment of a small child witnessing its mother's infidelity is different from that of both the French and the Italian authors. Chaucer's plot, for one thing, is more logical and realistic in that the actions of the various people arise from their characters, not merely from the needs of the plot or the need to work toward a moral. Chaucer builds on the people he creates, not merely on the events he wants to tie up in a certain way. The child in Chaucer's tale is a girl, not a boy. The story is more discreet in that the child does not witness her mother engaged in actual coitus with her lover, but merely observes her making arrangements for that coitus. In addition, the connection of Chaucer's tale with a fully characterized teller introduces a theme of the education of young children that does not appear in the earlier versions. To explore these and other issues, I take up four related questions: (1) what is a "mayde child"?; (2) how old is the "mayde child" in the Shipman's Tale?; (3) why does Chaucer put the maid child in the garden scene?; and (4) why does it matter that Chaucer originally wrote the Shipman's Tale for the Wife of Bath? Because Chaucer tells us so little about the maid child, our answers must be somewhat speculative, but in fact by adding the little girl in the garden, he invites such speculation about her role there.
WHAT IS A "MAYDE CHILD"?
Some scholars have suggested that this maid child may be a female servant to the wife of Saint Denis.(FN5) The only evidence they usually offer involves quoting, out of context, lines that Sylvia L. Thrupp quotes from a fifteenth-century document about an arrangement that a merchant tailor made when he turned his business over to his son. The retiring tailor asks his son to provide, if requested, "an honest mayde chyld to wait upon my wife" We must, however, consider the quotation in the context that Thrupp provides. First, we should notice that Thrupp's quotation appears in the section of a chapter on the various "symbolic elements" by which medieval men and women demonstrated their prosperity -- fancy clothes and furs, expensive jewelry, fine houses, and so on, including the ostentatious attendance of servants:
Like a gentleman or a nobleman, a merchant considered it essential to his dignity and that of his wife be waited on. In order to demonstrate that they were in this happy position, the older people were accustomed to have a servant in attendance whenever they chose to go out. Among the demands made by a retired tailor on his son was that "... at all due tymes whan that I or my wyf walketh oute that my said sone shall late me have an honest man chyld to wayte upon me & an honest mayde chyld to wayte upon my wyf at his own propre coste yef we desire it." The mercers, when they appeared on horseback at one of Edward IV's entries into the city, were each attended by "a clenly man or Childe," also mounted but dressed in black and russet instead of in red. Aldermen competed with each other in the number of attendants they brought to hold their gowns at civic ceremonies.(FN6)
In context, the "man chyld" the "maid chyld" and the "clenly... Childe" refer not to children at all but to adult servants who would in public appearances lend ostentatious dignity to someone who wanted to demonstrate his or her status. But that context does not fit the situation in the Shipman's Tale. We should remember that the wife of Saint Denis is not "walking out:" as the bragging merchant wives in Thrupp's citation do. Rather, she is strolling in her own private garden, where she needs no one to "wayte upon" her. Nor would she have any need to demonstrate her status to daun John, a repeated visitor to his friend's household who would have known pretty well how many servants there were, since he brought them gifts whenever he came:
He noght forgat to yeve the leeste page
In al that hous; but after hir degree,
He yaf the lord, and sitthe al his meynee,
Whan that he cam, som manere honest thyng.
The wife of Saint Denis could scarcely have fooled daun John with any show of ostentation by showing up with a servant pretending to serve her. More importantly, she would not have wanted to in the first place. After all, the merchant's wife's whole purpose in going into the garden is to appear poverty-stricken so that the monk will give her the hundred francs for clothing. The very last thing she would have wanted was to look prosperous by showing up with a serving maid who would appear to serve her. Besides, given the nature of her sex-business with the monk, the wife would scarcely have wanted any servants around to carry tales back to other servants or to her husband.
We should also note that the references to "mayde chyld" in Thrupp's quotation appear almost a century after Chaucer wrote the Shipman's Tale. The merchant tailor document is dated 1467; and Edward IV was king from 1461 to 1483. The meaning of the term "mayde child" may well have shifted by then away from the meaning it almost always had for Chaucer -- a young person, not an adult servant.(FN7) The only other time he uses the term "a mayde child" is in the Clerk's Tale, in a context in which the term clearly refers to the young daughter of Griselda:
Nat longe tyme after that this Grisild
Was wedded, she a doghter hath ybore,
Al had hire levere have born a knave child;
Glad was this markys and the folk therfore,
For though a mayde child coome al bifore,
She may unto a knave child atteyne
By liklihede, syn she nys nat bareyne.
(IV 442-48; italics added)
Line IV 446, as well as the immediate context of the phrase in the Shipman's Tale, suggests that the "mayde child" in the merchant's garden is the biological daughter of the wife of Saint Denis. In that context, the wife is said to have the power to "governe" and "gye" her and to keep her "under the yerde" A "yerde" was a whip that people used to discipline those in their care or under their authority. While a "yerde" was a physical rod or whip, the term seems to suggest in this context something more like "authority" or the right to correct with a view to improvement.(FN8) And while a wife might presumably have the power to whip a wayward servant, in this context the term seems more logically to refer to having the moral authority over her own child, whom she has the responsibility to "governe and gye." While it is possible that the woman in charge of a wealthy merchant household might have the power or the inclination to "guide" the maidservants in her house, would she be likely to use a whip or cudgel on them? On the other hand, she would surely have been expected to guide, and perhaps even hold the threat of a whip over, her own child. In any case, the notion of a mother's guiding her young is, as I will show below, important to the theme of the Shipman's Tale.
We should note that in these three lines we are considering, Chaucer uses the term "mayde" twice, once as an adjective and once as a noun. That is, he refers to the child not only as a "maid child" but also as "a maid." J. A. Burrow and V. J. Scattergood seem to assume that Chaucer in line 95 wrote "child maid" rather than "maid child," and that in line VII 97 the term maid refers to a "female servant" rather than to a "maiden." While the noun maid can refer to a servant girl, in Chaucer it almost never means that unless a pronoun of possession precedes it, as in "our maid" or "her maid".(FN9) The noun maid used by itself is almost always a one-syllable synonym for maiden and refers to a girl or young woman before she has had sexual experience.
HOW OLD IS THE "MAYDE CHILD" IN CHAUCER'S TALE?
We cannot be really precise about the age of the virginal maid child of Saint Denis, of course, because Chaucer is not more precise, but surely she is not a newborn. She is said, after all, to "come" into the garden with her mother, not be carried into it or pushed in a medieval pram of some sort. The fact that she is referred to as maid[en] suggests that Chaucer's audience may have thought of her as approaching the age of puberty and the possibility of sexual activity. She seems, then, to be not an infant but just what Chaucer calls her, a "child:" For most medieval analysts, the age of seven marked the end of infancy and the start of childhood. In his The Ages of Man, Burrow discusses a number of medieval methods of dividing the various ages of "man" (usually meant, at least by implication, to include women, as well) into four, seven, or a dozen distinct "ages" or "seasons." Burrow translates thus the categorization of Hippocrates, an authority often consulted in medieval times: "In man's life there are seven seasons, which they call ages, little boy, boy, lad, young man, man, elderly man, old man. He is a little boy until he reaches seven years, the time of the shedding of his teeth; a boy until he reaches puberty, i.e. up to twice seven years." Burrow also translates from the eleventh-century Elementarium Doctrinae Rudimentum: "The first age of man, called infancy, lasts for seven years. The second age, called boyhood, lasts for another seven up to fourteen. The third, extending two further sevens up to twenty-eight, is called adolescence."(FN10)
John McLaughlin has suggested, also, that seven is the age at which a young person ceases to be an infant and becomes a child, and twelve the age at which a female child becomes an adult.(FN11) If he is right, then our "mayde child" would be between seven and twelve. Splitting the difference, I am supposing -- on admittedly tenuous evidence -- that the maid child in the Shipman's Tale is perhaps around ten. She seems to me, in any event, younger than the age of Virginia, the more famous young maiden in the Canterbury Tales: "This mayde of age twelve yeer was and tweye" (VI 30). At fourteen, Virginia is the object of a man's lust. Because the monk in the Shipman's Tale lusts not for the maid child but for her mother, I am imagining the maid child in the garden as somewhat younger than that -- old enough to be thought of as a maiden but young enough to be thought of as still a child -- in short, a "mayde child."
WHY DOES CHAUCER PUT THE MAID CHILD IN THE GARDEN SCENE?
Most scholars who write about the Shipman's Tale say nothing about the character or function of the maid child. Of those who do, there is little consistency of interpretation. Some, indeed, see her as a mistake, an unrevised Chaucerian or scribal flaw.(FN12) Others see her as a kind of chaperon to the wife,(FN13) or as a sign of the merchant's ostentatious opulence,(FN14) or as proof of the merchant's virility,(FN15) or as a way of emphasizing, by contrast with her young innocence, the corruption of the wife and the monk,(FN16) or as a morally endangered witness to Chaucer's reenactment of the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden.(FN17) Most recently, Karla Taylor sees the maid child as "presumably uncomprehending" of what really happens between the wife of Saint Denis and daun John in the garden: "she is present to stress the divide between a proper conversation, whose meaning is open to all, and the furtive exchange whose meaning is closed to her." Taylor sees her as "a child below the age of reason" and speaks of her "linguistic incomprehension." Taylor argues that the little girl may perhaps grasp in a general way "the sexual meaning of the exchange, although I think this is open to debate. What is not debatable is the incapacity of the 'mayde child' to comprehend its illicitness, which emerges only from a verbal texture designed to hide it behind a façade of propriety."(FN18)
I remain unconvinced by these views of the character and function of the maid child. I propose, on the contrary, that the wife of Saint Denis takes her daughter with her to educate her -- to teach her, to "guide" her -- about how to get along in a world in which all decks are stacked against women and wives. It is a world in which most women are dependent on their fathers or their husbands for their economic viability, not to mention for their sexual activity.
Surely it is not just by chance that the wife encounters the monk daun John in the garden. He is, after all, a frequent visitor to her house, and she must know that she will find him alone there in the early morning saying his devotions (his "thynges" VII 91). She knows, after all, that her husband is in his counting house, and she then goes "pryvely/Into the gardyn, there he walketh softe,/And hym saleweth, as she hath doon ofte" (VII 92-94). Surely she knows, since she has been there often, who she will find in the garden once again, and surely she knows before she goes this time the precise nature of her business with him.
Just as surely, she need not have taken her daughter with her. The plot requires no such daughter, and she plays no role as a witness. As for bringing her along because she has no daycare for her daughter, the merchant's household has a large retinue of hired staff. As we have seen, daun John is said to bring gifts to the merchant's large domestic staff ("al his meynee" [VII 48]). The wife in a wealthy merchant household with a large staff could surely have left her daughter with a servant during her short visit to the monk in the garden. But, no, she brings her maid child along with her.
And having brought her along, she is not said to send her daughter off to play alone while she conducts her illicit business with the monk. Nor is there any evidence that she whispers that business in her talk with the monk. On the contrary, and apparently with her daughter listening, the wife of Saint Denis gets down to business almost immediately by complaining of her husband's sexual neglect of her and of his general stinginess and inadequacy as a husband. Surely we are to think that she wants her daughter to observe her.
Why would the wife of Saint Denis want such a thing? I suggest that she wants to teach her daughter the ways a woman can get what she needs in the world. Scholars have focused on the immorality of the wife of Saint Denis, the fact that she sets such a negative example to her maid child by allowing her to witness her seductive ways. Those seductive ways include her overtly sexual deal-making, her allowing the monk to clutch her by the flanks, her hard embrace, and her kisses. If this young maiden needs a lesson in how to seduce a man, how to cheat on a husband, how to conceal and then pay off secret debts for fancy clothes, how to elicit sympathy by threatening suicide, surely she could have found no better teacher than her own mother. And her mother knows it. As her daughter approaches the age of sexual possibility and of marriage, the wife of Saint Denis apparently thinks -- and why should she not? -- that it is time to initiate her into the ways of a woman with a man.
I realize that my answer is somewhat speculative, and that the wife of Saint Denis never says to her maid child, "Watch me, my dear daughter, and you'll learn some valuable lessons that will help you when you get a little older." Indeed, we might wish that Chaucer had made dearer his reasons for inserting the three lines that are original in his version of the tale and for introducing into the garden a young girl who appears at first blush -- or failure to blush -- to play no function in the tale. I believe, however, that the motives of the wife in taking the child with her would have been dearer in the tale as it was originally presented and told by a different teller.
There is little reason why the Shipman would tell this tale of the lover's gift regained at all. The piratical sea-captain seems far removed from this domestic comedy of inland France. Why would this man, who presumably deals with merchants all the time in various seaports, care much about the illicit doings of merchants' wives in Saint Denis or the immorality of oversexed Parisian monks? Indeed, virtually all scholars agree that the tale of lechery in Saint Denis was not written for the Shipman at all, but rather almost certainly for the Wife of Bath.
Every reader of the Shipman's Tale has had to come to terms with the opening section in which the narrator of the tale uses personal pronouns that can refer only to a wife:
The sely housbonde, algate he moot paye,
He moot us clothe, and he moot us arraye,
Al for his owene worshipe richely,
In which array we daunce jolily.
Thanne moot another payen for oure cost,
Or lene us gold, and that is perilous.
(VII 11-14, 18-19; italics added)
While a few scholars have attempted to make sense of such lines as suitable to a male teller, they have failed, and the mass of scholars now accept the obvious: that the lines are unrevised evidence that what was later assigned to the Shipman was originally written for the Wife of Bath,(FN19) the only Canterbury pilgrim in whose mouth they make any sense. Previous scholars, however, have not reflected on the meaning of Chaucer's having added the maid child to a tale told by the Wife of Bath.
WHY DOES IT MATTER THAT CHAUCER WROTE THE SHIPMAN'S TALE FOR THE WIFE OF BATH?
To the Wife of Bath, herself initiated at age twelve into the business of marriage, it could not have seemed too early for a medieval merchant's wife to begin training her own young virginal daughter into the ways of women with their men. The Wife of Bath is, after all, very much on record about matters of concern to young virgins entering puberty. One of those matters, of course, is the whole question of virginity, a condition Alisoun of Bath would much rather talk about than have.
Indeed, far from being troubled that her young maid child may, before long, find it necessary to give up her virginity, the Wife of Bath would almost surely approve of her discovering as early as possible how to use her sexuality to her own economic and emotional advantage. After all, the Wife of Bath speaks of envying not Jesus or Saint Paul, who were virgins, but Solomon, who was refreshed with seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. She speaks with envy not of being a virgin again but of being "refresshed half so ofte" (III 38) as Solomon.
We should remember that the Wife of Bath learned much practical wisdom from her own mother: "My dame taughte me that soutiltee" (III 576); "I folwed ay my dames loore" (III 583). Having learned so much about managing husbands and other men from her mother, how could she do anything but approve of the special training that the wife of Saint Denis was providing to her daughter during the garden scene? We have no evidence that Alisoun had any children of her own, but it is easy enough to imagine that if she had a daughter, she would want to teach her some of what her own mother had taught her. The Wife of Bath speaks often of how "wise" women behave: "A wys womman wol bisye hire evere in oon/To gete hire love" (III 209-10), "A wys wyf, if that she kan hir good,/Shal beren hym on honde the cow is wood" (III 231-32), and "This knoweth every womman that is wys" (III 524; see also III 224-30). How do women gain their wisdom? Certainly not by authority, for that comes entirely from clerks and other men who have no interest in letting women be wise. Rather, they gain wisdom through their own "experience" (III 1) and through instruction from other women of experience. Surely the Wife of Bath would have seen the presence of the maid child at the seduction scene in the garden not as a piece of immorality on the part of the girl's mother, but rather as among the most responsible lessons that a mother could give to a girl on the verge of, and perhaps already feeling the natural urges and curiosities of, puberty.
And what would those lessons have been? In the garden scene the maid child would have learned how to make a man take an interest in her; how to tread the delicate line between flirtation and serious seduction-planning; how to complain to a potential lover about her husband; how to pick up on signals of lecherous interest from a supposedly celibate cleric; how to gain a pledge of secrecy from a man; how to gain advantage by threatening suicide; how to get a man to risk for her a long friendship with his best friend; how to lead a man into giving her a hundred francs by offering him in exchange sexual "plesance and service" (VII 191). She would have learned about two kinds of kissing, at first in a cousinly manner (VII 141) and soon after in a lecherous (if not downright treacherous) manner (VII 203); she would have learned to recite a list of what she likes in a man -- particularly generosity, obedience, and freshness "abedde" (VII 176-77); she would have learned that most men are slaves to their sex drives and that a woman can harness those drives for her own benefit; she would have learned that sex can for women be a barter commodity. The maid child would have learned, in short, that a woman can use her beauty, her youth, her sexuality, her boldness, her cleverness, and her words -- particularly her bold and clever words -- to get a man to give her whatever she wants or thinks she deserves.
To be sure, these are all lessons that a misogynist male might list as the typical wiles of evil women. There are, after all, some fairly broad antifeminist strokes in the Shipman's Tale. It is relevant here to consider a scene in Boccaccio's Corbaccio, written in the mid-1350s. The Corbaccio (the word can be translated as "old crow" or "evil crow") is a dream-vision in which the narrator, spurned by the woman he thinks he loves, is visited by the ghost of that woman's former husband. This husband-spirit tells the narrator, in one of the most viciously and graphically misogynist treatises ever written, just how awful his former wife was, and that he is well shut of her. In one of his many antifeminist tirades, the spirit tells the narrator that, like his former wife, all women delight in jabbering on without any knowledge as if they know everything, and that they insist on teaching their nasty tricks to their own daughters. I give here a few sentences to suggest the tone of the passage before quoting the couple of sentences about what women teach their daughters:
Women, even if they remain in church one morning just long enough to hear Mass, know how the firmament turns; how many stars there are in the sky and how big they are; what the course of the sun and the planets is; how thunder, lightning, hail, rainbows, and other things are created in the air; how the sea ebbs and flows, and how the land produces fruit. They know what is going on in India and Spain; how the homes of the Ethiopians are made, and where the source of the Nile is found; and whether crystal is generated in the north from ice or from something else; with whom their neighbor slept; by whom that other woman is pregnant and in what month she is to give birth; and how many lovers that other has, and who sent her the ring and who the belt; and how many eggs the neighbor's hen lays a year; and how many spindles she uses to spin an ounce of linen; and, in brief, they return fully informed about all that the Trojans or the Greeks or the Romans ever did. If they cannot find anyone else to lend them an ear, they chatter incessantly with the maid, the baker's wife, the green-grocer's wife, or the washerwoman, and become greatly put out if they are reproved for talking to any of them.
It is true that from this so sudden and divinely inspired knowledge of theirs springs an excellent doctrine for their daughters. They teach them all how to rob their husbands, how to receive love letters and how to answer them, how to bring their lovers into the house, how to feign illness so that their husbands will leave the bed free for them, and many other evils. He who believes that any mother delights in having a daughter more honest or virtuous than herself is a fool.(FN20)
Whether or not Chaucer knew Boccaccio's Corbaccio, the two writers share an interest in the way mature women share the purposes and methods of sexual infidelities with their daughters. Chaucer's treatment of that theme in the Shipman's Tale is less openly satirical and critical of women than Boccaccio's, but that may be because the tale was originally written for a female teller who was less hostile to women than the deceased husband of the title character in the Corbaccio.
In the mouth of a medieval shipman, the merchant's wife's taking her young daughter with her into her garden of infidelity seems like the rankest irrelevance or irresponsibility. But from the mouth of the Wife of Bath, who is a professional at pleasing men and thus getting them to please her, lessons about how a woman can not only survive European patriarchy but also thrive in it were vital. And if a young daughter can learn those lessons at her mother's knee, so much the better. I do not insist that Chaucer wants us to approve of the pedagogical motives that must have led the wife of the merchant of Saint Denis to bring her maid child into the garden with her. But I do think that Chaucer wants us to think that the Wife of Bath would have lent her own tacit approval to those motives. A tale approving such motives is quite in character for such a woman. And if Alisoun would approve of the wife of Saint Denis' bringing her maid child into the garden of knowledge with her, perhaps some of her auditors would have seen in the tale reason to nod in approval of this clever wife who wants not only what is good for herself, but also what may be best for her daughter.
One final question: what are the implications of the word "governe" in VII 96: "Which as hir list she may governe and gye"? The word is usually taken to have something like its modern political meaning of govern: "to rule, to control, to manage" Sometimes governe does have such a meaning for Chaucer. Here, in conjunction with gye or guide, however, it may well mean something like "teach," as in the now almost-defunct term governess, "a teacher or tutor." We should notice that this meaning is suggested in the Physician's injunction to women who have the care of daughters of lords:
And ye maistresses, in youre olde lyf,
That lordes doghtres han in governaunce,
Ne taketh of my wordes no displesaunce.
Thenketh that ye been set in governynges
Of lordes doghtres...
... therfore, for Cristes sake,
To teche hem vertu looke that ye ne slake.
Ye fadres and ye moodres eek also,
Though ye han children, be it oon or mo,
Youre is the charge of al hir surveiaunce,
Whil that they been under youre governaunce.
(VI 72-76, 81-82, 93-96; italics added)
Of course, the Physician's ideas of what principles ought to be taught to the young maiden-daughters of lords are different from those that the wives of Saint Denis and of Bath would teach to the maiden-daughters of the merchant class, but it seems clear that for all three the meaning of governing in the context of raising young maidens was very close to "teaching."
Neither the Wife of Bath nor the wife of Saint Denis created the world in which they and other middle-class women had to function. But for both women, for a mother to teach her young daughter how to maneuver in that world is less base immorality than base necessity. The wife of Saint Denis is not corrupting her child but educating her, acting as her governess and guide. Unlike the unfaithful mothers of "The Man Who Kicked the Stone" and Decameron, 7.3, who show no interest in giving moral or practical education to their sons, the wife of Saint Denis takes seriously her responsibility as a mother who needs to teach, by her own example, her vulnerable young daughter.
PETER G. BEIDLER
Lehigh University Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (firstname.lastname@example.org)
1. "De Celui qui bota la pierre" is preserved in three manuscripts: B (Berne, Bibl. de la Bourgeoisie 354), K (Paris, Bibl. nationale fonds fr. 2173) and 1 (i.e., a lowercase "L," Cologny, Bodmer 113). I am grateful to N. E. Dubin for allowing me to use his prepublication edition and translation of the B version. The lines quoted here are 23-24. Subsequent references to the lines in the poem, included in parentheses, are to this version.
2. Trans. G. H. McWilliam, in Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron, 2nd edn. (London, 1995), 498.
3. In Decameron, 8.1, the German soldier Gulfardo falls in love with a merchant's wife, sends her a message that he loves her, and asks her to be kind to him. She considers his message and, after thinking it over, sends a message back that she will be kind to him if he will give her a large sum of money. Chaucer handles the seduction sequence quite differently. He makes the lover not a foreign soldier but a monk who is a close friend of the family. Because daun John visits the merchant's home socially with considerable frequency, he knows his friend's wife and can without suspicion have a face-to-face meeting with her.
4. This and other quotations from CT are taken from The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd edn. (Boston, 1987).
5. See, for example, the widely referenced explanatory note to lines VII 95-97 by J. A. Burrow and V. J. Scattergood in The Riverside Chaucer, 9u: "Like other gentlewomen, merchants' wives sometimes had a girl to wait on them." The use of "other" seems to assume that the wife of the merchant of Saint Denis is a "gentlewoman," but she is not. She is of the merchant or middle class. See next note.
6. Sylvia L. Thrupp, The Merchant Class of Medieval London (Chicago, 1948), 151 (ellipsis in original). Thrupp's notes, 149-51, give references to the documents she quotes. Note that the actual phrasing that Thrupp uses is "Like a gentleman or a nobleman, a merchant...." Thrupp does not use the adjective "other." That adjective is mistakenly added by Burrow and Scattergood (see previous note).
7. The only possible exception is in PardT, where one of the tavern rioters refers to the servant-lad as a child: "The child seith sooth" (VI 686). Even there, however, the meaning is ambiguous, since he is referred to earlier as a "knave" (VI 666) and a "boy" (VI 670). He is apparently quite young, in any case, and the word child is used in a context that suggests "offspring" at least as much as "servant." Just before the taverner calls him a "child," the boy refers to having learned something from his mother, "my dame" (VI 684), and immediately after that the taverner -- perhaps the boy's father? -- reports that death has carried off "Bothe man and womman, child, and hyne, and page" (VI 688). In that line, the word "child" almost certainly refers to a young person in contrast to the immediately previous adult "man and womman." Susanna Fein helpfully suggests that the boy, as one of three truth-tellers in the tale, serves as an emblematic representative of youth: "The boy, taverner and old man derive from a familiar scheme for depicting man's times of life as three ages -- Youth, Middle Age, and Age" ("Other Thought-Worlds," in Peter Brown, ed., A Companion to Chaucer [Oxford, 2000], 332-48, at 344). In other cases, at any rate, Chaucer usually uses the term child to refer to "offspring." I exclude, of course, the meaning of child as a noble young knight, as in Thop, VII 810, 817, etc. I should note, also, that the only meaning assigned to the term maide child in the MED is "female child" (s.v. child, item 13). The first meaning for maid in the MED is "an unmarried woman, usually young... a girl, a young girl." The third is "a maidservant, female attendant, lady in waiting," I am suggesting that the first meaning is appropriate in the context of ShipT.
8. The MED, s.v. yerd n.(2) gives as meaning la "a stick, pole, rod... a branch on a tree" and 1b "an instrument for inflicting pain or punishment; a club, cudgel.., a flail or whip" There is no reason to think that the wife of Saint Denis beats her daughter. By contrast, the Parson tells an anecdote about an impatient philosopher who brought a whip to punish a "child," his disciple. When the child saw the "yerde" he asked the philosopher what he was going to do with it. The philosopher said that he was going to "bete thee... for thy correccioun." The child then castigates the philosopher and says that "ye oghten first correcte youreself, that han lost al youre pacience for the gilt of a child." Realizing that the child is right about his impatience, the philosopher weeps, then gives the whip to the child and asks the child to correct him for that impatience (X 670-73). Several scholars see a bawdy pun in the reference in ShipT to the "yerde," which can also mean "penis." Murray Copland, for example, says that the maid child "is governable ('under the yerde') only because she has not yet tasted the 'yerde' in the other sense" ("The Shipman's Tale: Chaucer and Boccaccio," Medium Aevum 35 : 11-28, at 22). Thomas W Ross picks up on the idea by suggesting that perhaps "under the yerde" may mean that she is "too small for the 'yerde' (penis)" -- a possibility that even he tells us is unlikely: "I doubt it" (Chaucer's Bawdy [New York, 1972], 240). Lee Patterson carries the pun even further by suggesting that there is double-punning, since "yerde" can refer both to "virgin" and to "penis," so that "the maid child thus invokes both an original innocence and the fact of its loss" (Chaucer and the Subject of History [Madison, 1991], 364-65). The so-called pun works here, however, only with unusual, and quite unnecessary, wrenching. The MED gives only as meaning 5 the possibility that yerde could mean "a penis... also, a foreskin, prepuce."
9. See, for example, the maid Gille in MitT: "hir mayde" (I 3417) and "thy mayde" (I 3556). See also the maids referred to in WBPro: "hir owene mayde" (III 233) and "oure mayde" (III 241). The only exception I am aware of is in FranT, where Arveragus tells Dorigen to take "a squier and a mayde" with her to meet Aurelius (V 1487). The context makes clear that the maid is an adult servant. In none of these is the maid said to be a child.
10. J. A. Burrow, The Ages of Man: A Study in Medieval Writing and Thought (Oxford, 1988), 38 and 85.
11. I am in possession of a copy of a paper that Professor John McLaughlin, then of East Stroudsburg State University, gave orally at the Medieval Forum in Plymouth, New Hampshire, in April of 1997. The unpublished paper is entitled "Medieval Child Marriage: Abuse of Wardship?" The relevant quotation is: "By 'child' in this context is meant a male or female human being above the age of seven -- for either gender -- and below the age of fourteen for males, and twelve for females. This follows medieval canon law, in recognizing these as the limits of infancy and puberty, below which the infant could not give meaningful consent, and above which the person was no longer a child" (quoted with his kind permission). McLaughlin cites several authorities, of which these three are most relevant: Frances and Joseph Gies, Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages (New York, 1987), 139-40; Christopher N. L. Brooke, The Medieval Idea of Marriage (Oxford, 1991), 137-38; and James A. Brundage, Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe (Chicago, 1987), 238.
12. Hazel Sullivan refers to the maid child as "useless cast" and sees her as evidence that a tampering scribe carelessly "patched" the three lines on the maid child in from a totally different story ("A Chaucerian Puzzle," in Natalie Grimes Lawrence and Jack A. Reynolds, eds., A Chaucerian Puzzle and Other Medieval Essays [Coral Gables, Fla., 1961], 9). T. W Craik thinks that the maid child, though she adds "piquancy to a situation which she is too young to understand... seems superfluous, for the mood of the meeting is clear without her, and at its end she has simply vanished" (The Comic Tales of Chaucer [New York, 1964], 56). Nevill Coghill calls her "a distracting irrelevance" ("Chaucer's Narrative Art in the Canterbury Tales" in Derek Brewer, ed., Chaucer and Chaucerians: Critical Studies in Middle English Literature [University. Ala., 1966], 114-27, at 126). Trevor Whittock finds that the three lines on the maid child may provide "the occasion for [the Physician's] outburst on the upbringing of children" near the start of PhysT: "The Physician would be offended by the notion of such a scheming woman as this being a guide and model to an innocent child" (A Reading of the Canterbury Tales [Cambridge, U.K., 1968], 195). Carol F. Heffernan, taking the child to be a "young maid servant," speculates that she is a non-functional "vestigial remnant of the extra character that Boccaccio includes in his plot: the witness present when the financial arrangements are concluded" ("Chaucer's Shipman's Tale and Boccaccio's Decameron 8, I: Retelling a Story" in Keith Busby and Erik Kooper, eds., Courtly Literature: Culture and Context [Amsterdam, 1990], 261-70, at 262).
13. Craik calls her "a sort of innocent chaperon" (The Comic Tales, 56), a notion that Ross apparently picks up on by calling her a "little chaperon" (Chaucer's Bawdy, 240). It is difficult to see how the term applies in ShipT, however, since a chaperon is usually an older person who supervises the behavior of younger people. It may be that the wife and monk need a chaperon, but the young girl does not act as one since the monk and wife behave in her presence with considerable freedom. If by "chaperon" we mean that her presence in the garden lends a measure of credibility or legitimacy to the wife's being there, I would find less objection. I can imagine the wife's replying, if questioned by the monk about what she is doing in the garden, something like, "Who, me? Oh, nothing. I just thought I'd take little Nellie for a stroll to look at the lovely flowers. We had no idea we'd find anyone else out so early. And what brings you here, cousin John?"
14. V. J. Scattergood, taking the maid child to be the "personal servant" of the merchant's wife, finds that she appears in the story "simply as another dimension of the opulence of this particular merchant household" ("The Originality of the Shipman's Tale," Chaucer Review is : 210-31, at 213). I argue above that the wife of Saint Denis would absolutely not want at this point to appear opulent. On the contrary, she would want to appear to be the poverty-stricken victim of a niggardly husband, and thus in need of money from the monk.
15. For a discussion of other evidence of the husband's virility than the mere fact that he has fathered a child, see my "Contrasting Masculinities in the Shipman's Tale: Monk, Merchant, Wife," in Peter G. Beidler, ed., Masculinities in Chaucer: Approaches to Maleness in the Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde (Cambridge, U.K., 1998), 131-42, especially 135-41.
16. Gall McMurray Gibson finds that the maid child "emphasizes the defiled innocence of the meeting and of its garden setting" ("Resurrection as Dramatic Icon in the Shipman's Tale," in John P Hermann and John J. Burke Jr., eds., Signs and Symbols in Chaucer's Poetry [University, Ala., 1981], 102-12, at 109). In Gibson's exegetical reading, the child suggests the "Resurrection pattern as well, an allusion to 'the other Mary', who in the Gospel and in the liturgical Easter dramas accompanied Mary Magdalen to Christ's sepulcher" (109). Surely, however, this last is too much freight of meaning for the young maiden, in this context, to bear. Patterson finds the maid child to be "an innocent foil to the sordid transactions to which she is a witness" (Chaucer and the Subject of History, 363). Copland suggests that "merely by reason of her sex, the girl is bound to follow in her mother's footsteps sooner or later" ("The Shipman's Tale," 21).
17. Lorraine Kochanske Stock sees in the garden scene an iconographic replay of the temptation scene in the Garden of Eden, with "the monk as tempter, the wife as Eve, and the merchant as a hapless medieval Adam" ("The Reenacted Fall in Chaucer's Shipman's Tale," Studies in Iconography 7-8 [1981-82]: 135-45, at 143). I am skeptical of Stock's reading of the garden scene. The very presence of a child in the garden is strong evidence against it, since there was no such child in Eden. I am more impressed with Stock's notion that the Roman de la rose, in which la Vieille serves as a guide to younger women, may have provided Chaucer with at least a rough parallel to "a young, innocent girl, who learns from the older woman -- through lectures or through direct example -- a variety of the tricks of the trade of love" ("La Vieile and the Merchant's Wife in Chaucer's Shipman's Tale," Southern Humanities Review 16 : 333-39, at 335). I should note, however, C. David Benson's suggestion that the language of the wife and the monk is sufficiently ambiguous that "the 'mayde child,' who apparently is a witness to the entire exchange... would have no reasons for suspicion" (Chaucer's Drama of Style [Chapel Hill, N.C., 1986], 109). I am less interested in the maid child's suspicion of her mother than in her gaining worldly knowledge from her mother.
18. Karla Taylor, "Social Aesthetics and the Emergence of Civic Discourse from the Shipman's Tale to Melibee," Chaucer Review 39 (2005): 298-322, at 305. I have no objection to Taylor's doubting that the maid child would have missed the subtle French-English sexual wordplay she finds in the garden scene (I missed it myself!). But the maid child could scarcely have missed the main thrust of the garden exchange, including her mother's complaints about her husband, her profession of love for the monk following his for her, her request for money in exchange for "pleasance and service" (VII 191), the agreement to meet again when the husband is out of town, the kisses, and the flanks-grab. The maid child's understanding of all that is the heart of the matter: she needs to be able to comprehend and learn from what she is observing.
19. See, for example, Frederick Tupper, "The Bearings of the Shipman's Prologue," Journal of English and Germanic Philology 33 (1934): 352-72; and Robert L. Chapman, "The Shipman's Tale Was Meant for the Shipman," Modern Language Notes 71 (1965): 4-5. William W Lawrence's rejoinder to Chapman is still worth reading ("The Wife of Bath and the Shipman" Modern Language Notes 71 : 87-88). This is not the place for a thoroughgoing stylistic comparison of the language, theme, and tone of ShipT with the prologue and tale of the Wife of Bath, but my own preliminary comparisons suggest that the manner in which the wife of Saint Denis tricks her husband and her husband's best friend into letting her have her way and her fine clothes sounds downright Alisounian.
20. Trans. Anthony K. Cassell, in Giovanni Boccaccio, The Corbaccio or The Labyrinth of Love, 2nd edn. (Binghamton, N.Y., 1993), 30-31.