Signs and Symbols in Chaucer's Poetry
By John P. Hermann, John J. Burke Jr.
The University of Alabama Press Copyright © 1981 University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
SIMPLE SIGNS FROM EVERYDAY LIFE IN CHAUCER
D. W. ROBERTSON, JR.
Perhaps it would be helpful at the outset if I explained my title or "theme," somewhat in the fashion of a good medieval preacher, although I have never, in spite of my reputation, sought to rival a good preacher. The title, "Simple Signs from Everyday Life in Chaucer," falls into three parts: "Signs," "Everyday Life," and "Chaucer," which I shall discuss in that order, including under "Chaucer" some brief observations about the poet, his audience, and his work. I regret that I do not have time for more exempla, since these, as any good preacher knows, are more entertaining than anything else. But to begin with the word sign, I should like to say at the outset that I do not care much for disputes about terminology, which strike me as being pedantic. However, I think that Chaucerians should use as much medieval terminology as possible, recognizing the fact that medieval authors except for scholastic theologians tended to use terms rather loosely. But modern terms tend to carry with them connotations in a universe of discourse alien to that of the Middle Ages. The term sign has the advantage of being current in the Middle Ages and being very loose at the same time, allowing me considerable freedom, since a sign is simply something that signifies something else. Signs, as Saint Augustine tells us, may be either words or things, or even actions, some of which are literal and some of which are figurative. The word iconography, borrowed from art history, implies the identification of objects represented, or the study of literal signs, whereas iconology, borrowed from the same discipline, is concerned with meanings. Many persons, myself included, use iconography to mean both, a simple and convenient stratagem. The word symbol has the disadvantage of bearing connotations in modern art and literature consistent with an expressionistic style, so that it can sometimes be misleading when used in connection with styles different from expressionism, and I think that C. S. Lewis was wrong in adducing such symbols in the Middle Ages. Finally, although medieval writers used the terms types and antitypes, the word typology is late and not generally current in the Middle Ages. As I have sought to show elsewhere, the juxtaposition of types and antitypes in accordance with what was called allegoria in scriptural exposition usually implied a moral or "tropological" meaning, so that the mere juxtaposition of Old and New Testament events or even fictional or current events with scriptural events carried out for its own sake, without further implication, was not a common medieval practice, in spite of some observations in a recent book. Altogether the word sign thus has distinct advantages, although I have no wish to be pedantic about this, nor to condemn anyone for using the other terms mentioned, especially since I have used all of them myself.
A sign, like a word, may mean one thing to one individual and something else to another, for no two of us have exactly the same experience. But members of a given culture often employ figurative signs that mean roughly the same things to many other individuals in that culture, although a sign may have a more profound or more emotionally charged meaning to some than to others, depending on differences in experience, education, and intelligence; and there may be some who fail to perceive some figurative signs, or who take them literally. "Meanings" do not exist in words, events, or things, but in the individuals who perceive them, where they have a certain regularity because of custom. Since people are constantly changing, both within generations and from one generation to the next, "meanings" change constantly. It is also true that the meaning of a sign may be very different from that of its referent. For example, the printed word tiger, even burning brightly in the forests of the night, does not alarm me, but an actual untethered tiger in my vicinity would suggest immediate evasive action. Similarly, a broiled lobster on a plate before me might produce one kind of meaning if I were hungry and quite another meaning if I had just eaten three of them. To put this in another way, the universe of discourse is made up of arbitrary signs, and these are not identical with the universe itself. Both shift with time and circumstance. The study of signs is thus difficult and poses many problems.
In recent years many scholars have become occupied with the study of figurative signs. Not all of them, incidentally, are "Robertsonians," since such studies, especially in the visual arts, long antedate my own efforts, and students of Renaissance literature, some of whom have never heard of me, now sometimes pursue the subject with avidity. Signs from scriptural texts and their commentaries, from classical texts and their commentaries, or from mythographic writers, from astrology, from music, from early medieval texts, like the Psychomachia of Prudentius, from texts widely used in schools, like the De nuptiis of Martianus Capella, or the De planctu Naturae of Alanus, from popular vernacular texts like the Roman de la Rose, and from representational conventions in the visual arts, including the drama, have all been studied, and their presence traced in Chaucer's poetry. There is still a great deal of this sort of thing to be done. In many instances we do not understand earlier texts very well, and in others we lack readily available primary sources since many commentaries both on the Scriptures and on the classics remain unpublished, and others, especially from the late Middle Ages, have been lost. Moreover, much evidence from the visual arts has been destroyed by religious or rationalist zeal, or simply by the ravages of time. We are thus often forced to adduce traditions rather than sources, but in any event it is necessary to exercise extreme care to become familiar with available primary sources and to avoid speculation as much as possible. Rosalie Green of the Index of Christian Art has recently issued a very stern warning concerning undisciplined iconological studies, and it would not be difficult to compile a long list of highly dubious interpretations of figurative signs in Chaucer studies, some of them ostensibly relying on primary materials.
Turning now to my second topic, "Everyday Life," I should like to assert first of all that this was Chaucer's primary concern and that he hoped that his work would be beneficial in a practical way. But this hope was probably tempered somewhat by a realization that passionate zeal is not productive and involves an undesirable submission to Fortune. That is, for the most part he seems to have taken his own advice in "Truth":
Tempest thee noght al croked to redresse,
In trust of hir that turneth as a bal.
He did not usually employ figurative signs and other forms of indirect language for merely decorative or what we might call "literary" purposes, but to comment, frequently in a humorous way, on the mores of his own time. Throughout the Middle Ages, but especially after the middle of the twelfth century, figurative devices of all kinds, combined with other devices like specious argument and irony, were often used for humorous moral comment. Since we cannot hear Chaucer reading, we probably miss a great deal of his humor, especially various kinds of ironic intonation. However, we can probably rely on the advice of Boncompagno of Signa quoted by John F. Benton: "Irony is the unadorned and gentle use of words to convey disdain and ridicule. If he who expresses irony may be seen, the intention of the speaker may be understood through his gestures. In the absence of the speaker, manifest evil and impure belief indict the subject. ... It is nothing but vituperation to commend the evil deeds of someone through their opposite, or to relate them wittily." To the modern mind a basic moral stance and humor, like Ovid's majesty and love, do not readily go together; but in the Middle Ages even scriptural materials could be used humorously since they afforded a background of rationality or "pure belief" that could be used to comment on ludicrous speech or behavior, a fact that has misled certain staid and serious readers of more recent times to invent such things as "the religion of courtly love," or to find "pagan values" (whatever they are) in medieval texts presented before reasonably orthodox audiences. Where Chaucer is concerned, the monitory raised finger and the prayer beads in the Hoccleve portrait, combined with his early reputation as a "philosopher," are probably sufficient indications of the basic attitude we should expect from him.
Chaucer's moral comment, although based on certain Christian principles that are not difficult to recover, even though literary scholars are sometimes reluctant to pursue their implications, was directed toward specific fourteenth-century English problems, and I think that it is time we paid more attention to these problems. Chaucer did not write "for all humanity," or "for all time," but for a specific audience that had immediate everyday concerns. The indirection he employed lent his comments a certain incisiveness, making them more entertaining and hence more effective than the more direct criticisms of his friend Gower. The evidence of the visual arts, music, and literature itself, not to mention overt statements by writers like Boccaccio and Petrarch, suggest strongly that sophisticated medieval audiences were not, like modern audiences, passive, awaiting technical operations on their feelings and vicarious thrills, but active and alert, perceiving the activities of the poet before them (who was often beneath them in rank) with a certain detachment, and demanding that he supply substantial food for thought in a diverting manner. I think that we often fail to realize the rather curious effects of mass culture in modern times and to discount those effects when we study earlier literature. The earlier attitude is well described by Erasmus, who wrote in a letter to a friend, "Horace thought that advice given jocularly had no less effect than that given seriously. 'What forbids,' he exclaims, 'that anyone speak the truth with a smile?' This fact has not been overlooked by the wisest men of antiquity who have preferred to express the most salutary principles of conduct in the form of laughable and childish fables, because the truth, a little austere in itself, adorned with the attraction of pleasure penetrates more easily into the minds of mortals." Erasmus goes on to cite Saint Augustine's De doctrina Christiana for the appearance of similar principles in the Scriptures. Chaucer was thus fulfilling an ancient tradition when he read his Tales with a certain subtle indirection. But he also had in mind the immediate interests of his audience.
Much of Chaucer's figurative language was readily available, however, in "everyday" sources and was not in itself very obscure. The visual arts offer some fairly simple examples. Thus the significance of the Marriage at Cana, the implications of which are so blatantly disregarded by the Wife of Bath, were explained in part in an inscription on a stained glass window at Canterbury, a "gat-tothed" wife appears in an illustration for the Roman de la Rose, cloistered monks leaving their cloisters to signify inconstancy appear in Gothic statuary, wrestlers were used in marginalia to signify discord, and so on. Since Chaucer was once appointed Clerk of the King's Works, an office that involved the maintenance of royal buildings and their decorations as well as the arrangement of pageantry, we can assume that he was familiar with a wide variety of representations in the visual arts. But it is also possible to find figurative signs in everyday sources that are neither "literary," exegetical, nor visually representative. For example, the pilgrimage of the spirit, now often adduced in connection with the larger thematic structure of The Canterbury Tales, appears vividly represented in an early fourteenth-century legal document, a charter written for the foundation of a chapel, which begins as follows: "How many and how great are the tempests of the inner man, the foes of peace, wherein the exile of this world abounds, experience, the effective revealer of doubts, daily makes manifest. I, therefore, Roger de Martivallis, archdeacon of Leycestre, and lord of Nouesle, wishing, with the Lord's consent, to make ready for myself in the desert of this world, a straight path, whereby under the guidance of divine grace, amid the powers of darkness, I may more easily be able to come to that place where I may deserve after toil to receive the wages of true recompense ..." and so on concerning the chapel first planned by Roger's father, Sir Anketin de Martivallis, knight.
Here are the storms of the inner man that Chaucer urges us to calm in "Truth" by avoiding trust in Fortune, the "exile" of Boethius at the beginning of the Consolation, the desert or "wilderness" of this world in Chaucer's House of Fame, elaborately and competently explained by B. G. Koonce, and reflected in other ways as the realm of the Fox in the Nun's Priest's Tale or as the "wilderness" that is no home in "Truth," the straight path that is the alternative of the "croked wey" recommended by the Old Man in the Pardoner's Tale, and, finally, the movement toward the Celestial Jerusalem that the Parson urges us to follow through penance at the close of The Canterbury Tales. I call attention to these things simply to indicate that a great deal of material we so laboriously seek out in learned and literary sources is actually a part of the everyday language of the time, at least among the literate. Chaucer was not always obscure to his contemporaries when he is obscure to us. Meanwhile, I think we should also notice that the archdeacon refers to experience as the revealer of those tempests that disturb the inner man and destroy his peace. Within the terms of their own means of describing human nature medieval people were very practical, and we do them a disservice when we substitute our own "psychological" terminology for theirs. Not only is the practicality of that terminology rather dubious, but it is out of context in their very different society.
Turning now to the third division of my theme I should like to discuss Chaucer, his audience, and his work, and, finally, to illustrate the importance of simple signs from everyday life to our understanding of what he wrote. First of all, it is now clear that Chaucer was a gentleman and, as the positions he held reveal, something of a clerk, and not, as is frequently said, a "bourgeois," except in the sense that he lived for a long period in London, which might be called a "bourg." He was also a "court man" who served the king and certain members of the royal family in a variety of ways. He was a royal squire and not a knight, probably because he was insufficiently wealthy or unwilling, for many persons sought to avoid knighthood and its obligations. He was thought sufficiently distinguished to be named on peace commissions, but this fact does not indicate that he ever actually sat as a Justice, and there is no record that he ever received any pay for that office, although it is true that Justices of the Peace often served without payment. He served once in Parliament, although this was not a great distinction, and frequently on government commissions, often for the Chamber, with which he seems to have been closely associated. He was Controller of the Customs in London, an office that brought him in close contact with the Exchequer, and he held the important office of Clerk of the King's Works for a reasonable period. His son, Thomas, also a squire, received numerous grants from John of Gaunt and the king, and in the year of his father's death became sheriff of Oxfordshire and Berkshire. He married the daughter of a knight, and his daughter, Alice, was married in succession to two earls.
Chaucer's audience, as Derek Pearsall has recently suggested, probably consisted of "household knights and officials, career diplomats and civil servants," men like "Clifford, Clanvowe, Scogan, Hoccleve, Usk, Gower, Strode." This rather miscellaneous list could easily be expanded to include chamber knights like William Neville, who was Clanvowe's close friend, Peter Courtenay, Richard Stury, Philip la Vache, William Beauchamp, and John Montagu, who became Earl of Salisbury in 1397. We know something about some of these men, and since, as I suggested earlier, meanings exist in people rather than in words, it should be helpful to Chaucerians to learn all they can about them. For Chaucer was a successful poet whose skills as an entertainer probably account for the respect paid him by both supporters of Richard II and supporters of Henry IV. It would be absurd to attribute attitudes to Chaucer that would have been either offensive or incomprehensible to his audience. In the first place, a number of these men were lords of manors, thoroughly familiar both with problems of manorial administration and with the rapid changes in manorial economy and society inmany areas after the first outbreak of the Black Death. They had considerable experience with yeomen, reeves, millers, plowmen, dairy maids, franklins, and poor cottagers like the widow in the Friar's Tale or Griselda before her marriage. They knew knights and merchants in variety, sergeants at law, both royal and ordinary, physicians, clothiers like the Wife of Bath, clerks, and a wide variety of ecclesiastics. Some had seen extensive military service, and a number had obvious literary or cultural interests. Gower was a successful poet in three languages; Clanvowe was the author of a graceful Chaucerian poem and of a stern moral treatise; Usk, secretary to London's controversial reforming mayor, John of Northampton, wrote a Boethian treatise on love; and Montagu was praised for his verse (which does not survive) by Christine de Pisan. Strode was not only a distinguished Oxford logician but probably also the author of a poem, now lost. He undoubtedly appreciated keenly the amusingly specious arguments advanced by some of Chaucer's characters. Stury owned a copy of the Roman de la Rose; Beauchamp had a university education; and there were probably a number of well-educated clerks and ecclesiastics in the audience. (Continues...)
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