Tag Archives: Chaucer

Things I’ve Learned From The Canterbury Tales Part One

Canterbury Tales

When I started reading The Canterbury Tales I guessed that I would come across a few things I didn’t already know about the fourteenth century. This has proven to be the case,  even within the first few pages, but some of the things I’ve learned aren’t really enough to sustain a whole post. I thought, therefore, that I would do a series of ‘pick and mix’ posts as things arise. There is nothing to link the things I’m writing about, other than that I came across them in The Canterbury Tales and found them interesting

One of the pilgrims going to Canterbury is a friar. In his description in the General Prologue, Chaucer tells us that the friar keeps knives and pins in his long sleeves to give to women. This came as a bit of a shock to me. Aside from sounding rather dangerous, why was the friar giving things to women? The notes came to my aid here and it turns out that friars, who travelled from place to place preaching and begging for alms, were ideally placed to be pedlars. The friar carried his wares in his sleeves and was always ready to make a sale. Chaucer tells his readers that he made a fair amount of money in this trade. He gives the impression that he doesn’t think this is a good thing.

The friar also participated in ‘love days’. They’re not what you’re thinking. Instead, they were meetings between the parties to a dispute who wanted to reach a settlement out of court. Sometimes this was with the aim of avoiding going to court at all, and sometimes the love day took place after those involved had appeared in court but before a judgement had been made. The friar was an arbiter, putting him in a position where he could receive bribes if he wished, and we assume that he did so wish. Chaucer doesn’t have a very high opinion of his friar. Perhaps he had suffered at the hands of friars at love days. Chaucer made a bit of a habit of being in debt in later life and there are records of cases against him seeking repayment. Some of those cases would have been settled at a love day and not always in his favour.

Sources:
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer edited by Jill Mann
The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer by Derek Pearsall

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Troilus and Criseyde

Troilus and Criseyde

Following last week’s post about The Decameron, I thought I’d write about an English work from the fourteenth century. It’s a story from the Trojan War that’s been used by many writers over the centuries. Criseyde is the daughter of a Greek who fled Troy at the beginning of the war, leaving her behind. She has been an exemplary citizen and is highly regarded, for her virtue and quiet lifestyle as much as for her beauty. Troilus is the son of King Priam, the king of Troy. He’s handsome, brave and a great soldier. One day he sees Criseyde in the temple and it’s love at first sight. He declares that he’ll die if he doesn’t meet her, worrying a friend of his, who happens to be Criseyde’s uncle. The uncle engineers a meeting between the two of them, but that’s not enough for Troilus. He and the uncle trick Criseyde into spending the night with him and they become lovers. They declare their undying love and continue to see one another in secret. Meanwhile, Criseyde’s father decides that he wants his daughter back. He suspects that Troy won’t be a safe place for her for much longer, so he gets a message to her telling her to leave the city. Criseyde doesn’t want to go and Troilus doesn’t want her to go, but he has to escort her out of the city and hand her over to her father. She says that she’ll find a way to run away from the Greeks and rejoin Troilus. He says she’d better not fall in love with the sturdy-looking knight who’s with her father. Diomede, the knight, sees a woman without friends and decides to seduce her. After a few days, Criseyde realises that escaping from the Greek camp is going to be more difficult than she thought and allows herself to be seduced. Troilus eventually admits to himself that she’s not coming back and goes out to die in battle.

It’s a sorry tale, in which no one mentions marriage, which would have allowed Criseyde to stay in Troy, although, given what happens later when the city falls, that probably isn’t a bad thing. You can probably tell that I’m overly taken with the story itself. Troilus wasn’t a hit with me either. He spends a lot of time weeping, which wouldn’t have bothered fourteenth-century readers at all, but annoyed me. It didn’t annoy me because I think men shouldn’t cry, but because Troilus is entirely without agency. He does nothing for himself, but his tears cause his friend to act on his behalf. In many ways, that shows how requirements for a good story have changed over the centuries.

In the elements and structure of the story, Chaucer follows Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato quite closely, although there are whole sections which are Chaucer’s own creations. Boccaccio didn’t invent the story, but took it from a twelfth-century poem, the Roman de Troie by Benoît de Sainte-Maure. It was a popular tale in the Middle Ages and the best-known retelling was by Shakespeare. Chaucer finished writing his poem around 1381.

In my Middle English edition, the poem is 347 pages long. That makes it too long to be read to an audience over the course of an evening,  the way in which most people would have experienced it in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. It’s divided into five books, though, each of which would probably make an evening’s entertainment.

Troilus and Criseyde is set during the Trojan War, but the world its characters inhabit is very much fourteenth-century England. As well as it being an example of something written in the fourteenth century, the poem can teach us a lot about the world in which Chaucer lived. The garden where Criseyde walks with her ladies is set out like an English garden and the house in which she lives was of a type that would have been familiar to Chaucer and his original audience. The furnishings in her house would have been found in houses of the well-to-do at the time. Chaucer refers to chess and tennis and other games played by fourteenth-century people in their free time. Like Boccaccio’s The Decameron, Troilus and Criseyde is worth reading for its own sake, but it’s also a good source of information about life in the fourteenth century.

You can read about Chaucer’s life in this post.

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:

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Boccaccio and Chaucer

Decameron

Those of you who have been reading this blog for a while will know that I’m fascinated by the Black Death. I want to know what people thought about it, how they coped while it was at its height and what life was like after it. One day, when I’m a much better writer than I am now, I hope to write a novel about it.

Last year, partly in the hope of getting a bit more insight into how people coped during the Black Death, I read Boccaccio’s The Decameron. It’s a collection of 100 stories told by ten refugees from the plague in Florence to while away the time until they can return to the city. It’s a fantasy, of course. They retreat to a lovely, secluded villa, where there are beatific grounds in which they wander until the evening, when they gather together to tell their tales, none of which has anything to do with the Black Death.

The main reason why I read The Decameron was because it’s one of the major literary works of the fourteenth century. Boccaccio had probably been collecting the stories for years and the conceit of ten young people entertaining one another gave him a structure for putting them together. Every evening (except Sundays and the day on which they move to another, even nicer villa) each of the ten has to tell one story. Apart from the first, each evening has a theme for the stories. There are stories about fidelity and infidelity. There are stories against the church and stories against ‘clever’ men. There are stories about revenge and about wives who know more than their husbands. Some of the stories are amusing and some of them are very dark indeed.

Some of the tales found their way into The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer visited Italy at least twice and he probably read some of Boccaccio’s works, as well as those of Petrarch, Boccaccio’s friend, while he was there. His Troilus and Criseyde is a retelling of Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato. The structure itself of The Canterbury Tales might be borrowed from The Decameron.

The stories weren’t, for the most part, created by Boccaccio. Some of them aren’t even Italian in origin. His genius lay, as did Chaucer’s, in the way he told them and in the way he put them together.

Although Boccaccio lived through the Black Death, it’s unlikely he was in Florence all the time. Apparently, he hated the city of his birth and preferred Naples, where he spent his early adulthood. He was born in 1313 and, while he was in Naples, he was apprenticed to a banker. Banking was very advanced in Italy and the rest of Europe borrowed from Italian bankers. Boccaccio wanted to write, though, and went back to Florence in 1341. The Black Death arrived in Italy in 1347 and had receded by 1349. Boccaccio probably started work on The Decameron around then. In later life, he travelled on behalf of the Florentine state, visiting Avignon, where the papal court was based, and Rome. He died in 1375.

As it turned out, reading The Decameron did give me some insight into life during the Black Death. In his introduction to the stories, Boccaccio describes what Florence was like in 1348. He describes the symptoms of the plague and what happened when people grew ill and died. It’s the horrors of this nightmare world that his storytellers want to escape and they do so by telling stories of life before the plague arrived.

In case you’re wondering, I enjoyed reading The Decameron. Some of the stories are very dark, but most of them are entertaining.

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:

TheHeirsTale-WEB

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amazon

 

 

 

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The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – Reliquary Casket of St Thomas Becket

Reliquary Casket of St Thomas Becket

Reliquary Casket of St Thomas Becket, British Museum

This is the final object of those I photographed in the British Museum and it’s my favourite. It’s a tiny reliquary, about 6¼” tall, 6″ wide and 2¾” deep. I like it for several reasons. Firstly, because it’s just beautiful. Despite its age the colours shine and sparkle. Secondly, because it’s enamelware from Limoges, which I don’t come across very often. Thirdly, because it’s about Thomas Becket, who was an important English saint in the Middle Ages.

I first became aware of the enamelware produced in Limoges when I was doing research for my novel Beloved Besieged, part of which is set in the town. My Pinterest board for the novel is full of pictures of enamelled objects made there and it’s beautiful stuff.

Enamel is a type of glass fused onto metal. The metal was usually copper, but it could be silver or gold. The metal between the pieces of enamel was gilded. This type of object was produced mainly in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. About forty similar caskets made to contain relics of Thomas Becket still survive.

Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, was killed on 29th December 1170 in his own cathedral by four knights who had been sent, or believed they had been sent, by Henry II to strike him down. Having risen from fairly humble beginnings to become Chancellor, Becket was made archbishop of Canterbury. Since it was Henry II who had raised Becket to prominence, he naturally assumed Becket would side with him in the constant struggle between medieval kings and the pope about the authority each had over the king’s subjects.

The archbishop did not support the king and was exiled. They were reconciled and the trouble began again. Hearing the king utter the infamous words, ‘Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?’ (possibly in medieval French, Norman French or even Latin, but definitely not English) the four knights rushed off to Canterbury and did their king’s bidding.

Becket was canonised in 1173. Henry II made a very public penance, and he and his descendants were very energetic in promoting the murdered archbishop as a saint. His relics were sent to churches and monasteries all over Europe in reliquaries like this one. The shrine at Canterbury drew pilgrims from many countries, becoming the fourth most visited shrine in the Middle Ages, after Jerusalem, Rome and Compostela.

Pilgrims didn’t just visit the shrine, they also bought ‘Canterbury water’. It was holy water mixed with a drop of Becket’s blood and was said to cure many illnesses and disabilities. Sold in ampoules it could be taken back home if the sick person was too ill to make the pilgrimage on their own behalf.  The monks also sold badges to pilgrims as reminders (souvenirs) of their pilgrimage.

Becket was an important saint for English pilgrims, as demonstrated by Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. His pilgrims were on their way to Becket’s shrine. Many pilgrimages ended at Canterbury, but others continued on to Dover, with pilgrims crossing the English Channel in the next stage of their journey to Rome, Compostela or Jerusalem. It was not always safe enough to travel further afield, though, and many had to be satisfied with Canterbury.

The saint’s murder was a popular motif in medieval art and the British Museum also has an alabaster panel depicting it. The image on the reliquary is of two of the knights attacking Becket in front of the altar. It dates from the early thirteenth century, about 40 years after the event. At this time Limoges was part of the duchy of Aquitaine, whose dukes were the Plantagenets, which explains why so many Becket reliquaries were made there.

Henry II’s descendants took their devotion to St Thomas seriously.  They were always stopping off at Canterbury to visit his shrine. Edward III once walked from London to Canterbury as a pilgrim. In 1343 he gave a golden ship to the shrine after he had been saved from a storm. Edward of Woodstock, his eldest son, is interred there.

All my photograph does really well is show you how tiny the reliquary is. Here’s a better photograph of its front.

Sources:

Masterpieces of Medieval Art – James Robinson

The Perfect King – Ian Mortimer

 

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The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – The Chaucer Astrolabe

The Chaucer Astrolabe

The Chaucer Astrolabe, British Museum

The astrolabe was a multi-purpose scientific instrument in the Middle Ages. When the illegitimate child of Abelard and Héloise was born in the early twelfth century, he was named Astrolabe in its honour.

An astrolabe, according to James Robinson in Masterpieces of Medieval Art, is a two-dimensional map of the three-dimensional celestial sphere. In much the same way that an Ordnance Survey map can help you find your way through a wood, up hills and over streams you’ve never seen before, so an astrolabe can you to find your way through the heavens. It was, as you can see, a sophisticated instrument.

600px-Chaucer_Astrolabe_BM_1909.6-17.1

The Chaucer astrolabe is dated 1326, 16 years before Chaucer was born, and is the earliest dated European astrolabe. Although it didn’t belong to Chaucer, the poet wrote a treatise on the astrolabe, the first in English, and described an instrument very like this. Dedicated to his son Lewis, it was written by 1391. There are more than thirty surviving manuscript copies of the treatise.

Most texts about the construction and use of astrolabes were written in Latin. They were used to tell the time in the many different time systems that existed in fourteenth-century England. It could be used to work out angles and the height of objects. It could also be used while casting horoscopes.

Saints’ days in English and the latitude for Oxford are written on the back, indicating that it was principally for use in England. There are also inscriptions relating to Jerusalem, Babylon, Montpellier and Paris.

It’s just over 5 inches in diameter and less than half an inch thick. The star pointers are shaped like birds.

On the left in my photograph is Richard II’s quadrant. The raised piece that you can see is his emblem: the white hart. It’s a timepiece, enabling its user to tell the time from the angle of the sun. It’s dated 1399, the year of the king’s death.

Sources:

Masterpieces of Medieval Art

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Fortune’s Wheel

carminaburana_wheel.jpg

If she were constant and behaved reasonably, so that she was just and true to everyone, she would not be Fortune. Machaut

In last week’s about gambling I used a picture of Fortune’s Wheel to illustrate the chancy nature of such activities. In one of the comments Fragglerocking said that it wasn’t clear what it was, so I thought I would crop the picture and enlarge it a bit.

Although it was a Christian society, some people held beliefs in the fourteenth century that we would struggle to reconcile to Christianity. Fortune’s Wheel is one of them.

The basic concept is that Fortune raises men up and can cast them down again when they least expect it. It’s almost a protection against pride. All men are on the wheel and the wheel turns all the time.

No one knew better than a fourteenth-century Englishman, or woman, how randomly the wheel was spinning. At either end of the century an anointed king was deposed and, probably, murdered. Men who had been a king’s favourite were executed. The ravages of the Black Death struck as if it were Fortune herself. Both high and low were taken, even the Archbishop of Canterbury and a daughter of the king. No one could predict who might be next.

In the image above you can see a man being raised up, a king, a king losing his crown and a man with nothing. Fortune sits in the middle spinning the wheel. There are many medieval pictures showing variations of this image.

The belief in Fortune’s Wheel dated at least from Roman times and the wheel itself was a popular literary figure in the fourteenth century.  It appears in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde.  Troilus complains that Fortune has treated him unfairly and his friend points out that Fortune can’t be expected to do otherwise. If she stopped turning her wheel which raises up men and casts them down, she would no longer be Fortune.

Boccaccio used similar imagery in The Decameron, a book of tales he put into the mouths of people who had fled from Florence to avoid the Black Death.

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The Games Medieval People Played

1300_1320ManesseCodex_hawking

Last week we were looking at medieval holidays. It was all very well having time off work, but what did people do with it? Fairly obviously, eating and drinking played a part, but there were other activities which varied according to the time of year.

Some of them were of a fairly martial nature. Archery practice was important all year round, and men practised at the butts and at something called shooting at cock, which involved a live cockerel. I assume that this has less to do with cruelty than with the benefit of shooting at a moving target.

Other martial activities included wrestling, javelin-throwing and throwing a knife at a peg. These were fun, but were also developing skills useful in warfare.

There were ball games: handball, football and bowling. Football was a vicious game and injuries, even deaths, were not uncommon. Teams varied in size: a tithing could take on another tithing or a village another village. The distance between the goals varied according to the number of players. Bowling was a bit more sedate and took place out of doors anywhere where there was enough flat ground. A round stone was used as the bowl.

On the side of pointless entertainments were quoits, blind man’s buff and skittles. Again, these were mostly outside activities. In the summer boating and swimming were popular, but led to many fatalities.

More sedentary occupations were dicing and board games, which were played by rich and poor alike. The most popular dice games were raffle, with three dice, and hazard, with two.

One of my favourite medieval board games is merrelles, or nine men’s morris. It’s for two players who each have nine pieces in two colours, e.g. player A has white and player B has black.  The aim is for a player to get three of the pieces in a line horizontally or vertically, removing the opponent’s pieces until they only have two pieces left and can no longer play.

Nine_Men's_Morris_board_with_coordinates.svg

The board is blank at the beginning and the players take it in turn to place their pieces. If one of them succeeds in making a line of three, they can remove one of the other’s pieces. Once all the pieces are on the board, the players take it in turns to move their pieces trying to join three in a row. The piece can only be moved to an adjacent space and cannot leap over any other pieces.

It’s a very ancient game, dating back at least to Roman times. It needs no complicated equipment. The lines can be scratched on the ground and small pebbles used as the pieces.

Dancing was an activity in which everyone could take part. At certain holidays this was done round a bonfire.

The aristocracy hunted, feasted and jousted. Although these were entertaining, they also had serious uses, in that hunting provided food for the household, feasting ensured that the aristocracy were healthy and in good condition for war and jousting meant that they were well-practised when it came time to fight in a battle or skirmish. They could also play tennis. Tennis is mentioned in Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, dating from 1385, which shows that it was already fairly well-known in England. Tennis was the same game as handball, but was played with racquets.

Chess is another game mentioned in Troilus and Criseyde, as Criseyde reflects on how pleasant her life is without a jealous and controlling husband to shout ‘Checkmate!’, or ‘Chek mat!’ as Chaucer has it.

Aristocratic women probably had more leisure time than anyone else. They sewed, chatted to one another, listened to books being read aloud, or read books themselves.

 

Sources:

Life in a Medieval Village – Frances and Joseph Gies

A Social History of England 1200 – 1500 – ed Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod

The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England – Ian Mortimer

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And So To Bed

Lancelot and Guinevere

I recently read Lucy Worsley’s If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home and one bit of information in it made me sit up and pay attention because of its dramatic possibilities. She said that people used to experience what was known as the first sleep and the second sleep during the night, punctuated by one or two hours of wakefulness. This suggested all kinds of things to me, but also raised some questions. Further research was required.

It turns out that this was a fairly well-known phenomenon and was recorded in diaries and court papers. Each sleep would last about four hours and could be preceded and succeeded by an indefinite time of wakefulness. The intensity of the waking period in the middle could vary. For some it would be a period of dozing: of not being quite awake, but not fully asleep. For some it was a period of contemplation or prayer. Some chatted to one another and some ate. Others, and I find this quite bizarre, got up and went to visit their neighbours. A common and unsurprising activity was sex. In some periods couples were encouraged to have sex between the two sleeps, because they would be fresher than they would have been when they first went to bed after the working day and it would be more enjoyable and therefore more fruitful. There was a medieval belief that women could only conceive if they enjoyed the sexual act.

People would go to bed just after dusk. Lighting was expensive and there was no reason to stay up after dark. No work could be done in the fields and anything that could be done in the house required a light. This is where my first question arises. Some of the activities mentioned above would have needed light, unless you imagine people leaving their houses to go and sit with their neighbours in darkness. Why didn’t they just stay up later and do those things by candlelight anyway? A possible answer was that they just knew that sleep was better when it was made up of two short chunks of time.

Once in bed they might doze for a bit and then sleep for three or four hours. Then they would wake up, do whatever they did for a couple of hours, doze a bit more, then sleep until dawn. This is where my second question arises. Did they all wake up at the same time? If not, how could you know your neighbours would be awake when you visited them?

 Chaucer mentions this pattern in The Squire’s Tale. The men have drunk themselves into a stupor after a late night party, but Canacee has gone to bed at dusk. She “slepte hire firste sleep, and thanne awook”. Having woken, she wants to go for a walk with the women of the house while the men are still asleep. Admittedly, her governess does say that this is an unusual thing to do, but that might be because Canacee has no intention of going back to bed.

To me, the idea of a split sleep works well in winter when the longest night is almost seventeen hours long in northern Europe, but what happened at midsummer when there were fewer than seven hours of darkness? Did they still have a first and second sleep? Did they have to have a nap during the daytime?

Since the story in which I thought this could be used takes place at the end of winter, I don’t need to worry too much about these questions and can usefully have the lovers meet during the gap between the two sleeps, while those charged with guarding the heroine are continuing to doze, but I shall continue to search for the answers to the questions.

An experiment in the 1990s showed that, left to their own devices, people will fall back into the old pattern of sleep if they experience fourteen hours of darkness each day. The subjects reported that when they were awake they felt more awake than they had before the experiment.

Not surprisingly, the idea for this post came to me while I was lying away in bed.

 

The modern experiment that I’m aware of was carried out by Thomas Wehr, but there have been others.

The collator of diary and court material is Roger Ekirch

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