Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, October 09, 2017

CHAUCER: Canterbury Tales (The Lawyer’s Tale)

In the Miller’s Tale and the Reeve’s Tale we saw human vices on display; especially deceit, greed and lust.  In this story we see some human vices too but also some of the human virtues; especially meekness, courtesy, holiness and generosity.  These virtues describe a beautiful Roman emperor’s daughter named Constance.  Modern readers may feel right at home in the Miller’s Tale and the Reeve’s Tale.  In today’s terms they’re the equivalent of watching an R-rated movie.  But the Lawyer’s Tale takes us into the alien territory of the concept of medieval virtue.  Courtesy and generosity would be recognized as modern virtues.  Meekness and holiness, not so much.  Constance is not a modern woman.  A Syrian sultan likes to talk to merchants about their travels in foreign lands.  When “these merchants told him tales of fair Constance, from such nobility” the sultan was smitten, without ever having seen her.  “This sultan caught a dream of great pleasance… to love that fair lady.”  What he loved in her was her “nobility” or the medieval virtues of meekness, courtesy, holiness and generosity.  He was so much in love that he agreed to convert from Islam to Christianity in order to marry her.  No one asked Constance what she wanted.  But she went along, even though “Constance was overcome with sorrow” to be sent into “a strange country, far from friends” to marry a man she’d never met.  However, she didn’t complain.  She told her father that “women are born to slave and to repent and to be subject to man’s government.”  This is the kind of meekness that is rejected by most of the modern world.  And Constance’s problems were just beginning.

Many of Chaucer’s stories make perfect sense to modern readers.  The Miller’s Tale, the Reeve’s Tale and the Wife of Bath’s Prologue revolve around getting along in a grimy world with grimy people.  Constance is not a grimy person.  In fact, she’s so clean that she comes off like some kind of cartoon character; too good to be living in this world.  For one thing, she stoically accepts her suffering as a normal part of life.  But just because she doesn’t complain that doesn’t mean she’s a weak woman.  She comes across as a holy woman, made holy by the suffering she patiently endures.  It’s ironic that her suffering is caused precisely because she is such a virtuous woman.  The sultan was impressed with her virtue, not her beauty.  The irony of this story is that her virtue is not rewarded, at least not until the very end, and then her “reward” is dubious.  And this brings up the question of the role of religion in the medieval mind.  We’re left wondering if Christian faith helped people better cope with suffering; or if their faith helped cause their suffering.  The problem is further complicated by the failure of the sultan to convert his countrymen from Islam to Christianity.  His own mother led a revolt which led to the death not only of the sultan but of all the others he had persuaded to convert to Christianity.  What is the message of that failure of Christian conversion?  Was it due to the strong faith of the Muslim population?  Or was it due to their moral failure to accept love and make peace with their Christian neighbors?  This leads into the deeper question of how much control these characters have over their own lives.  Constance doesn’t seem to have much choice what happens in her life, and she’s an emperor’s daughter.  How much less choice do all the daughters of the lower classes have?  The Roman emperor seems hemmed in.  A match between his daughter and the sultan would cement relations between two whole kingdoms.  That marriage would benefit thousands of people and his own wishes or those of his daughter would pale in comparison.  Also, the sultan doesn’t seem to have much control over his heart.  He can’t help falling in love with Constance.  The sultan’s mother can’t control her own son.  How free are these people?  It’s as if the ancient Greek battle between Fate and Free Will has resurfaced in the Middle Ages.  Or maybe it never went away.  Human vice and human virtue seems to thrive in every age.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

CHAUCER: Canterbury Tales (Reeve’s Tale)

In the Prologue to the Miller’s Tale Chaucer gives fair warning that not all of the Canterbury Tales will make for wholesome reading.  He writes “gentle soul, I pray that for God’s love you’ll hold not what I say evilly meant, but that I must rehearse all of their tales, the better and the worse, or else prove false to some of my design.”  This is clever.  Chaucer is writing a story about some folks taking a pilgrimage to Canterbury.  These folks decide to each tell a story along the way to make the journey more pleasant.  This story-within-a-story format allows Chaucer to claim that he “must rehearse all of their tales” for better or for worse.  In other words, he’s not taking any responsibility for the content of the stories because they’re being told by the pilgrims.  Chaucer claims he’s just retelling what the travelers had to say on the road to Canterbury.  It’s a neat literary trick.  It allows him to go on and say “therefore, who likes not this story, let him turn the page and choose another tale… stories touching on gentility, and holiness, and on morality.”  What follows then is the very bawdy Miller’s Tale.  Chaucer gave us fair warning.

The Miller’s Tale is in fact very bawdy.  It’s also very entertaining.  But not to everyone.  In the Miller’s Tale a reeve (or carpenter) ends up looking like a fool.  So when the reeve’s turn comes to tell a story he says “it’s lawful to meet force with force.  This drunken miller has related here how a carpenter was beguiled and fooled; perchance in scorn of me, for I’m a carpenter.  So, by your leave, I’ll requite him anon.”  The miller told a bawdy story about a carpenter, so I’m going to even the score and tell a bawdy story about a miller.  And he does.  In the Reeve’s Tale a miller has been cheating Cambridge College for a long time.  They come to him to have their wheat ground and he puts a lot of husks back in the sack and siphons off a lot of the wheat for himself.  Two novices (John and Alain) come to the miller to have the wheat ground.  They’re on to his tricks and devise a plan to make sure the miller doesn’t cheat: one will stand at the top and the other will stand at the bottom to make sure all the wheat gets in the sack.  But the miller has devised a better plan.  He unlooses their horse so John and Alain have to leave their posts and chase after the horse.  By the time two college students come back all sweaty and weary, the miller has already cheated them out of some wheat.  The boys have to spend the night and during the night they get even with the miller by having sex with the miller’s wife and daughter.  Chaucer tries to put a happy face on this story by tacking on a moral proverb at the end: “an evil end will come to an evil man.  The cheater shall himself be cheated.” 

This is a good proverb but doesn’t quite fit the case.  What are we supposed to make of this story?  The miller cheated, so it’s ok to get even?  Does having sex with his wife and daughter count as getting even?  Socrates says we should never repay evil for evil.  We might respond that this is literature, not philosophy.  It’s not the job of literature to uphold moral truths.  So what is the job of literature, or we might add, what is the job of the arts in general?  Just to entertain?  Does art have no moral function?  Does the artist (in this case Chaucer) have no obligation whatsoever to show us “the good, the true and the beautiful” things in life?  Is that duty left only to philosophers?  What about historians?  We just read Herodotus.  Does Herodotus make moral judgments about the war between the Greeks and the Persians?  Should modern historians suspend moral judgments about imperialism or slavery?  What about the Bible?  In 2 Samuel we just read about David getting Bathsheba pregnant and sending her husband Uriah to the front lines to be killed.  Are we supposed to suspend moral judgment about that too?  Does Chaucer tell good stories?  If by “good” we mean entertaining then Chaucer tells good stories.  But if we mean “good” in the sense that Socrates meant it, then Chaucer falls short.  Socrates thought the purpose of art was to make us better people.  He would have banished Chaucer from his Republic.  Chaucer avoids the moral problem altogether and says: You don’t like this story?  Pick another one.