Chaucer and the Country of the Stars: Poetic Uses of Astrological Imagery

Chaucer and the Country of the Stars: Poetic Uses of Astrological Imagery

by Chauncy Wood


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Professor Wood examines in detail the astrological references in The Canterbury Tales, Troilus and Criseyde, and The Complaint of Mars, using mediaeval source materials not only to elucidate the technicalities of the imagery but also to analyze its poetic function.

Originally published in 1970.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691621340
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 03/08/2015
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #1349
Pages: 374
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

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Chaucer and the Country of the Stars

Poetic Uses of Astrological Imagery

By Chauncey Wood


Copyright © 1970 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06172-6


Chaucer's Attitude Toward Astrology


To argue, as Professor Curry has done, that it is "both a futile and a useless procedure" to attempt to reconstruct Chaucer's personal attitude toward astrology is short-sighted. While this observation might hold true for some other artist in some other age, there are certain presuppositions made in connection with it that many Chaucerian scholars would be reluctant to accept. The heart of the matter is that this opinion presumes that the genius of Chaucer's art begins and ends with the creation of self-determining characters who are free to work out their own destinies. As Professor Curry puts it:

His primary purpose was evidently to create characters acting in stories before a specific audience whose beliefs and prejudices were known 5 and as artist, with his personal attitudes carefully concealed, he permitted his people to discuss whatever subjects they liked and to express whatever conclusions they pleased.

Such an approach denies the existence in the Middle Ages of any pattern of normative values against which literary characters were to be measured, a view more appropriate to modern than to mediaeval letters. Thus, when Professor Curry goes on to argue that the Franklin's "strictures on natural magic cannot be said to reflect Chaucer's opinion," we must perforce agree, but in fact the issue is not whether or not the characters speak for Chaucer but rather what it means when they speak for themselves. We do not expect that whatever one of Chaucer's characters says will automatically express Chaucer's personal view on the matter — although there was once a tendency to think this — so it is important that we attempt to determine the attitude of Chaucer and of his society toward these various matters by means of analysis of non-literary statements. When this is done we shall have a norm against which we can measure the characters as they are presented. For example, it makes a great deal of difference what Chaucer and his society thought of the "natural magic" that the Franklin said was "nat worth a flye" (FranklT, 1132), for if the subject was scorned by all, then the Franklin is wise, and if Chaucer and others prized astrological magic, then the Franklin is being satirized.

This is, of course, an oversimplification of the problems facing the critic of Chaucer, since our judgment of the Franklin and of the Franklin's Tale will depend not only on what is said, but how it is said, and in what intrinsic literary context as well as in what sort of extrinsic conceptual context it is said. The fact remains, however, that we cannot avoid coming to grips with the problem of Chaucer's personal attitude toward astrology and the attitude of those in his audience, for if we assume that Chaucer had goals in mind in his poetry other than the presentation of character for its own sake, then we must assume that all of his own attitudes are important. Once again if we make allowances for tone, the Wife of Bath's plangent cry, "Alias! alias! that evere love was synne!" (WB Prol, 614), which follows on the heels of her statement of her horoscope, produces one impression of her character if we assume that Chaucer believed that the configuration of stars at her birth inevitably and unalterably determined that she would be lustful beyond her control. Yet we should draw quite a different conclusion about her predicament if we were reasonably sure that Chaucer thought that horoscopes were nonsense. It is not easy to reduce a subject as complicated and as latitudinous as astrology to such pure blacks and whites of opinion, but it should be possible to obtain some idea of Chaucer's attitudes toward various facets of the science.

This fragmentation of astrology is of great importance, for one of the problems plaguing the study of mediaeval attitudes toward astrology has been a certain tendency toward monolithism: a tendency to survey a writer's remarks on the subject, made at various times and in various contexts, and then to conclude that the author in question was or was not a "believer" in astrology. The subject of the mediaeval attitude toward astrology demands and has received a book length treatment, as has the problem of the Renaissance attitude toward astrology; but although a thorough investigation of the problem is not possible here, some consideration of the nature of the problem and an analysis of the work done on the subject is better than no statement at all. Essentially the situation is that while a great many people believed in astrology in the Middle Ages, there were also many who did not believe at all, while among the "believers" only a very few believed in unalterable astral determinism. However, two issues have tended to cloud the discussions on the subject: how does one define astrology, and how does one define belief?

Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that the words astrology and astronomy were sometimes interchanged in the Middle Ages. This does not mean that the two subjects were necessarily "confused" or that people saw no significant differences between them, but it does mean that there exists an area in which mistakes can be made. Isidore of Seville gives a definition that is interesting because it both distinguishes between astronomy and astrology and shows what we would find to be a common ground between them. Astronomy, according to Isidore, deals only with the motion of the heavens and the causes thereof, while the motions of the sun, moon, and stars are a part of the science of astrology. The other part of astrology, concerning predictions, is merely a superstition. Thus, even when a distinction is drawn between astronomy and astrology there remains a part of astrology that does not concern divination, and this study of celestial motions is not something that requires or does not require "belief." It is rather something to be studied or ignored.

In a similar fashion, a distinction was sometimes drawn between astrology as it pertained to the study of the stars and planets and their motions, and judicial astrology, which had to do with the computation of horoscopes and so on. Chaucer commented on judicial astrology, and we shall investigate his remarks in due course. Professor D. C. Allen, writing on the Renaissance attitude toward astrology, points out that while there were many opponents of judicial astrology — that is, people who claimed that the nature or extent of astral influence could not be precisely calculated, much less predicted — still no one disputed astrologia naturalis, the concept that the stars did indeed influence at least some kinds of terrestrial phenomena. Thus, while today we can easily say that such-and-such a person believes in astrology and another does not believe in it, similar distinctions are much less valid in the discussion of earlier ages; there are some very real semantic problems to be faced.

If we conjure up a mental image of a present-day believer in astrology, we tend to think of someone mildly eccentric who frequents quacks and charlatans for advice on his or her business and personal life based on the presumed influence of planetary movements on terrestrial affairs. We hasten to add that we don't "believe" in "astrology," but in fact we do believe in some kinds of stellar influences on terrestrial events; the difference is that most of us would deny that there are any demonstrable celestial influences on people. No one would deny, of course, that the sun's varying altitude in the course of the year is the direct cause of the summer's heat and the winter's cold, and we could scarcely take exception if someone wanted to argue that the sun's presence in one sign or another of the zodiac caused cold or hot weather. So far we are only concerned with a difference of expression. If we move on to lunar periodicity the distinction becomes more subtle. We know today that some sea urchins, land crabs, and palolo worms display certain forms of behavior depending upon the phase of the moon. In fact, the palolo worm sends its tail section to the surface of the water on a given day, at a given hour, when the moon is in its last quarter. We have, then, situations where we can point to the influence of the moon in its monthly course of the zodiac, the sun in its yearly course of the zodiac, and the sun in its daily movement around the earth (which could be expressed as its passage through the twelve "houses" of the judicial astrologers).

In all of this we are still concerned with differences in kind rather than degree, for we would reject the influence of astral bodies other than the sun and the moon on terrestrial affairs, and we would also deny that human beings could be affected in the way that palolo worms are. Part of the difficulty in discussing mediaeval as opposed to modern ideas about astrology is that in the Middle Ages virtually everyone granted a little more celestial influence than would the great majority today: mediaeval people believed that all the "planets" (we shall, as they did, have to consider the sun a planet) had sublunar influences, and they believed that people as well as other animals were affected.

On the other hand, there is a further complication of the issue in the fact that while in the Middle Ages almost everyone believed in astrology to a greater extent than do people today, not only what one believed but how one believed was important. We have noted that there were areas of overlap between astronomy and astrology, and that once within the realm of astrology it makes a great deal of difference whether one believes that the stars compel or merely incline. Similarly, how one believed in stellar influence could vary considerably J for while astrology was often the instrument of profiteering charlatans, no less an event than the birth of Christ had been foretold if not foreordained by a star. At the same time that diviners were condemned, prophets were exalted. Thus, the wise man might use even judicial astrology well, even though the subject was widely abused. St. Augustine's distinction about use is therefore essential: "A wise man may use the most precious food without any vice. ... We are to be commended or reprimanded not because of the things we use, but because of the motive in using them." With this in mind we shall have to note that there are believers and believers, who may be distinguished both in kind and in degree.

Probably the most sobering way in which to approach the kind and degree of mediaeval belief in astrology is to examine the position of its very famous opponent, the French contemporary of Chaucer, Nicole Oresme. In the first two chapters of his Livre de divinacions, Oresme divides astrology into six parts and makes a judgment as to how much we can know about each. The first part, which we would call astronomy today, is concerned with "the movements, the signs, and the measurements of the heavenly bodies, so that by means of tables, constellations, eclipses and suchlike things in the future can be known." This part, Oresme assures us, is "speculative and mathematical, a very noble and excellent science," and it can be "adequately known but it cannot be known precisely." The second part is concerned with the "qualities, the influences, and physical powers of the stars, with the signs of the zodiac, with degrees, with the heavenly signs, and so on." Here there is a basic variance with what a modern man would believe, for Oresme accepts this study of general stellar influence as a legitimate area of inquiry practiced wrongly in his day. "The second part is a part of natural science and is a great science and it too can be known as far as its nature is concerned but we know too little about it." Furthermore, he says, "the rules in the books are false ... for the fixed stars ... are not now in the position they were in then."

The definition of the second part of astrology is rather precise. When Oresme speaks well of the general stellar influences of this part, he is concerned with influences on things terrestrial that are physical and very general, as we may see by his example. "As, for instance, that a star in one quarter of the sky signifies or has power to cause heat or cold, dryness or moisture, and similarly with other physical effects." It is not clear in whom or in what the stars will cause dryness or cold, but it is important to note that these are physical changes of the same kind as those produced by the sun's and the moon's revolutions. Another important distinction of Oresme's is that the stars either signify or cause events. This is a common statement and one that makes it very difficult to determine who believed what about astrology. There is all the difference in the world between causing and signifying events, yet one commonly encounters statements about signification being accepted as evidence of belief in astrology. It is belief, to be sure, but belief of a very different order from the belief in the deterministic power of the stars.

For his third category of astrology Oresme is once again concerned with physical influences of the planets and stars, but here with their predictive possibilities. He subdivides his category into three kinds of predictions. "The third part deals with the revolutions of the stars and with the conjunctions of the planets, and is applied to three kinds of predictions; first, that we may know from the major conjunctions the great events of the world, as plagues, mortalities, famine, floods, great wars, the rise and fall of kingdoms, the appearance of prophets, new religions, and similar changes; next, that we may know the state of the atmosphere, the changes in the weather, from hot to cold, from dry to wet, winds, storms, and such movements in nature; third, that we may judge as to the humours of the body and as to taking medicine and so on." Of course, Oresme's second subdivision is of great interest, because we ourselves ascribe certain macrophenomena of the weather to the sun, and we should expect that Oresme would assent to this branch of the science. However, he once again argues that while the field is a legitimate branch of inquiry, present study is misdirected. "Secondly, as regards change in the weather, this part by its nature permits of knowledge being acquired therein but it is very difficult and is not now, nor has it ever been to any one who has studied it, more than worthless, for the rules of the second part are mostly false, as I have said, and are assumed in this branch." By this Oresme refers to the influences of the fixed stars on terrestrial things, which he regarded as existent but as wrongly understood, because, as he correctly observed, the fixed stars have shifted their positions with regard to the zodiac since the time of the ancient writings on the subject. Insofar as any detailed knowledge is concerned, Oresme had nothing but scorn for astrologers, for, he says, "we see every day that sailors and husbandmen can prophesy changes in the weather better than the astronomers."

Even more surprising than Oresme's disbelief in the ability of astrologers to know anything about the weather is his admission that the relationship of astrology to great events of the world not only is a legitimate area of inquiry, but also is better known than the relationship between the stars and the weather. Of the predictions of great events, he says that the subject "can be and is sufficiently well known but only in general terms. Especially we cannot know in what country, in what month, through what persons, or under what conditions, such things will happen." As for the last part of the third category, that concerning the prediction of proper times for taking medicine and the like, Oresme says "we can know a certain amount as regards the effects which ensue from the course of the sun and moon but beyond this little or nothing." Here again, while Oresme indicates much less belief in astrological medicine than is usually ascribed to the men of the Middle Ages, he does not dismiss the subject out of hand.

Oresme distinguishes the next three categories as having to do with fortune, whereas the first three were concerned with physical influence. While it is hard to see how the appearance of a new religion constitutes a physical phenomenon, the distinction is in general between influences on natural phenomena, mass human phenomena, or on the physical bodies of individual people, and influences on intangible events in the lives of individual persons. At all events, Oresme promptly throws out the arts of "interrogations" and "elections" as totally false, as we should expect from an opponent of astrology. The practices of electing favorable times to get married, declare war, and the like, and inquiring of the stars about the advisability of business transactions or the moral probity of one's neighbor were among those most abused by astrologers. However, the subject of nativities, which is nowadays thought of as the whole science of astrology, is not completely condemned by Oresme. Rather, he says that the fourth part of astrology, concerning nativities, is not in itself beyond knowledge so far as the complexion and inclination of the person born at a given time are concerned, but this part "cannot be known when it comes to fortune and things which can be hindered by the human will, and this section has to do with those things rather than with physical effects." Thus, while Oresme would deny that the stars could predetermine that a man would be rich or that he would choose one career rather than another, he would not deny that the stars might influence someone to have an imbalance of humours or to be wrathful or lecherous.


Excerpted from Chaucer and the Country of the Stars by Chauncey Wood. Copyright © 1970 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • Frontmatter, pg. i
  • Preface, pg. ix
  • Contents, pg. xv
  • List of Illustrations, pg. xvii
  • CHAPTER I. Chaucer's Attitude Toward Astrology, pg. 1
  • CHAPTER II. The Conventions and Possibilities of Astrology, pg. 51
  • CHAPTER III. The Complaint of Mars, pg. 103
  • CHAPTER IV. Three Astrological Cruxes, pg. 161
  • CHAPTER V. Astrology in the Man of Law1S Tale, pg. 192
  • CHAPTER VI. Time and Tide in the Franklin s Tale, pg. 245
  • CHAPTER VII. The Parson's Prologue, pg. 272
  • APPENDIX. The Workings of Astrology "Brede and Milke for Childeren", pg. 298
  • Index, pg. 307

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