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© Julia Bolton Holloway, Sweet New Style: Brunetto Latino, Dante Alighieri, Geoffrey Chaucer, Essays, 1981-2009
 

GEOFFREY CHAUCER

CONVENTS, COURTS AND COLLEGES:

THE PRIORESS AND THE SECOND NUN
 

Julian of Norwich was likely associated with Benedictine Carrow Priory, while the Benedictine Prioress' Tale tells an analogue of William of Norwich. Geoffrey Chaucer and his wife Philippa received customs from the citizens of Norwich. Julian's likely spiritual director Adam Easton, O.S.B., of Norwich, became Cardinal of England, having as his Roman church, Santa Cecilia in Trastevere.

{Sculpture becomes most interesting when showing two or more figures in tension against each other, rather than only one; as in the Alexandrian clustering of the Three Graces, one of whom gives, one who takes and one who both gives and takes, peaceably reconciling their warring opposites.1 It is wise to tell students not to write on only one Shakespearian dramatis persona, as their artistic existence is only achieved through their co-existence with the other characters in their play. Chaucer similarly compares and contrasts characters, in words in a book rather than with actors upon a stage or as forms and shapes in sculpture, in the Canterbury Tales. Literature is not reality, though it plays games with codes of representation. We have, amongst that diverse pilgrimage cavalcade, the lusty Wife and the celibate Clerk, the Benedictine Monk and the Franciscan Friar, the young and jovial Kentish Miller and the elderly and choleric Norfolk Reeve, and a host of others. Some personify occupations in competition with each other,2 others represent the tension of worldly hierarchies, the experienced Knight accompanied by the apprentice Squire, the Prioress, taking first place, prior, with the Second Nun, taking second. Chaucer's Prioress is simperingly Gothic, his Second Nun, forthrightly Romanesque

On a pilgrimage, ideally, all were to be equal, kings with beggars, women with men, which was a major reason for the pilgrimages performed by such women as Saint Birgitta of Sweden, a member of that country's royal household, and Margery Kempe, the wife of a Norwich burgess.3 But, from the Council of Whitby until Vatican II, cloistered clergy were not to go on pilgrimage. Theirs was the interior pilgrimage, their cloister with its well at the center a paradigm of paradise amidst the wilderness of the world and its sinfulness.4 Chaucer's cavalcade is satiric and comic. Pilgrims ideally were to walk, and preferably, barefoot, on pilgrimages. We hear of Henry II doing so after his murder of the Archbishop, Thomas Becket. Even Henry VIII, before his murder of Thomas More, went so on pilgrimage to Walsingham.5 The Parson's Tale states: "Commune penaunce is that preestes enjoynen men communly in certeyn cas, for to goon peradventure naked in pilgrimage or barfot" (X.104) and "This folk taken litel reward of the ridynge of Goddes sone of hevene and of his harneys whan he rood upon the asse, and ne hadde noon oother harneys but the povre clothes of his disciples; ne we ne rede nat that evere he rood on oother beest" (X.434).6 Chaucer, placing his pilgrims all on horseback, is joking, a joke his medieval readers would have relished for its code-switching and breaking but to which we are not privileged, having lost that canonical lore.

Pilgrimage, after Whitby, and before Vatican II, was a secular activity, a performance of piety by the laity, not by the clergy; although there were a few exceptions.7 Chaucer's Monk, Friar, Prioress, Nun, Priest, Summoner, Pardoner and Parson ought not to be here. Their presence is outrageous comedy. Inns were forbidden to the cloistered clergy who, if they had to travel, were enjoined to stay in other monastic establishments along their route. The Tabard, so close to the Bell, was situated outside the city limits of London, in its redlight district, as was later to be also Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, giving rise to those references within his plays to venereal diseases, brothels and whores. Similarly were the theatres of ancient Rome in the unincorporated areas and Renaissance woodblocks for Terence's Comedies therefore show us the Boethian "whores of the theatre" plying their oldest profession amidst the theatre goers.8 The Cook's Prologue and his Tale give us that cityscape. What is the Prioress doing in such an unsavoury context?

Victor Turner has shown us how pilgrimage and its piety inevitably gives way to its opposite, to Vanity Fair, to St. Denis' Lendit, to commerce and license, great fairs rising up next door to sacred shrines.9 Maria Corti has spoken of "Models and Anti-Models."10 The sign demands its anti-sign, its undoing, its deconstruction. Pilgrimage texts, especially those in the vernacular, appear to require such a dynamic play of opposites on many levels and planes. Dante noted that he wrote his pilgrimage work in the language of "women and children," the vernacular.11 Mikhail Bakhtin has observed how the two worlds, of official Latin, and of the folk, and defiant, vernacular, played against each other, the unofficial world of the proletariat mocking, parodying and profaning the sacredness of Latin. Bakhtin has also noted how these Two Worlds' juxtaposition give us Carnival/Lent.12 In such a dialectic we can expect Lent to turn back into Carnival, sacrament to become excrement, eschatology to be scatological.

Elsewhere I have written of the vernacularization in Dante, Langland and Chaucer of Luke's Gospel, where the first people who meet the risen Christ at Easter and then tell others, Mary Magdalen, Luke and Cleophas, are accounted to be telling lying fables, not truthful sermons. I noted there that the account of the Emmaus Pilgrims allowed for the use of inns, pilgrims and fables, the world of Carnival, to be followed by that of the sermon of bread and wine as the sun set, the world of Lent and Resurrection.13 In that study I stated that theology was the critical theory of medieval pilgimage poetry. In the Pauline structure women were forbidden to preach sermons and the old wives' tales they told were not to be listened to.14 In the opposing Christian anti-structure women and beggars, whores and lepers, were on top, in which the first shall be last, in a world upside down.15 In Chaucer's Canterbury Tales women can preach, as does the Wife of Bath, and the pilgrims are not deaf to her words, even if she herself is. The Gospels, revolutionary texts that they are, broke paternalistic codes in having, as Jerome is careful to say to Marcella, Paula and Eustochium and then Abelard to Heloise,16 Mary Magdalen the whore be the first to see the risen Christ. The Gospels themselves allowed the up-so-doun Carnival of the Canterbury Tales in this game of texts and codes. Then they were followed by the Pauline Epistles and the Parson's Sermon, order restored.17

Mikhail Bakhtin also wrote on the Problems of Dostoevski's Poetics, seeing there the use of many voices, each with its own part of the code of the whole, as dialectic and dialogical.18 Similarly, the Russian Formalists have discussed Pushkin's Tales of Belkin in which Pushkin creates an author who collects stories from his acquaintances, two of these stories being supposedly by a novel-reading woman and in all of which are characters who are influenced by written or spoken stories.19 Authors can create authors of tales within tales. And sometimes these personae can even carry out sex changes, authorial transvestism and cross dressing, such as Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders, Gustave Flaubert's Emma Bovary ("Madame Bovary, c'est moi!"), Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and James Joyce's Mo[l]ly Bloom and Anna Livia Plurabelle. In Chaucer's Canterbury Tales we have a Geoffrey Chaucer who creates a plurality of characters, who in turn often create a plurality of characters, reminding one of those racks of masks in classical and medieval Terence manuscripts.20 Among these masks Chaucer assumes are those in transvestite drag of scarlet-clad, Mary Magdalen-like Alisoun of Bath (following upon his mask of the Miller assuming the mask of black-and-white-clad Alisoun), and of the black and white clad Prioress (though she has a touch of gold and like her literary ancestress, the Roman de la Rose's Constreyned Abstinence, a touch as well of scarlet coral) and the Second Nun.21

This triad of "women," the elderly Wife/Widow of Bath, the mature and "courtly" Prioress and the humble, virginal and young Second Nun, confront us in the text as part of its Sphinx riddle. I have argued elsewhere that the three forms of the Wife of Bath fragmented in her Prologue/Tale are manifestations of the Great Mother who customarily took the forms of Crone, Wife and Maiden at well heads and who was particularly worshiped at Bath.22 The Wife boasts that she has had the world in her time ("That I have had my world as in my tyme," III.473) and sighs, "Allas, allas! That evere love was synne!" (III.614), while her Prologue portrait states, "Of remedies of love she knew per chaunce,/ For she koude of that art the olde daunce" (I.475-6). The Prioress, who should never have been traveling with the Monk, and certainly not staying at an inn with him, bears a brooch that reminds us of his with the love knot ("He hadde of gold ywroght a ful curious pyn;/ A love-knotte in the gretter ende ther was," I.196-7), hers stating "Love conquers all" ("And theron heng a brooch of gold ful sheene,/ On which there was first write a crowned A,/ And after Amor vincit omnia," I.160-62). Love lust has conquered the Wife and the Prioress, but not the Second Nun.

The Wife and the Prioress, in scarlet and in black, are both stitched together out of the intertextuality/ intersexuality of Ovid and the Roman de la Rose. The Second Nun comes from the pages of the Golden Legend. The Wife is the secular pilgrim par excellence, traveling to Rome, Jerusalem (three times emphatically), Compostela and Cologne, except that, unlike Saint Birgitta of Sweden and Margery Kempe, she is interested in sex, not in vows of chastity. Thus she with her peripatetic, far-flung journeys in the world contrasts strongly with what the Prioress and the Second Nun should exemplify, the cloistered life within convent walls. Her story, despite her pilgrimages, is pagan, about magic and marriage. At least the other two women tell Christian tales. But the scarlet 'A' of Hester (Esther of the Bible) Prynne is not too secretly borne by the Prioress as well as boldly by the Wife. Only the Second Nun is free from its taint. Let us now turn to their two tales and see how in them, "Mordre wil out" (VII.576; VII.3052, in the latter instance this being stated to have been caused because of gold, mostly associated in the Canterbury Tales with sin and death).

I

In this discussion we will give the Prioress that precedence that, in the world's eyes, she deserves. Her Prologue portrait pairs her with the Monk, both of them having dogs, which were forbidden in monastic rules and communities. Her table manners come straight out the Roman de la Rose,23 and were there taught by the ancestress of the Wife of Bath, La Vieille. She swears, or does not swear, by St. Loy, St. Eligius, the patron saint of goldsmiths and hay and dung carters.24 Her name comes out of courtly romance, such as from the Lais of Marie de France, not the Golden Legend. She is Lady Sweetbriar, "madame Eglentyne" (I.121). She counterfeits, imitates, the behavior of court. And indeed her convent, Stratford atte Bowe, had once a royal member, Elizabeth of Hainault, sister of Queen Philippa, who died there in 1375.25 The absurd rosary "brooch of gold ful sheene" she carries with its "crowned A" (I.160-1), is typical of the adulation for Richard II's Queen Anne who died at Sheen in 1394.26 In all, despite the goodness of Queen Anne, neither the portrait limned by Chaucer of the Prioress nor her tale are positive.

D.H. Lawrence said "Trust not the teller, trust the tale." In the Prioress' Tale, "Mordre wil out." Her Prologue portrait stressed her sentimentality:

But, for to speken of hire conscience,
She was so charitable and so pitous
She wolde wepe, if that she saugh a mous
Kaught in a trappe, if it were deed or bledde.
Of smale houndes hadde she that she fedde
With rosted flessh, or milk and wastel-breed.
But soore wepte she if oon of hem were deed,
Or if men smoot it with a yerde smerte;
And al was conscience and tendre herte. (I.142-150)
The Tale instead is of a vicious pogrom, a program of vengeance gone out of bounds without any statute of limitations, the Jewish lex talionis being no more than an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life. But here an entire community is wiped out to avenge the death of one child. We meet the merciful Prioress' vengeful shadow.27 In England we would say that she would be the sort who would contribute to the Royal Society of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and not to the Royal Society of Prevention of Cruelty to Children. In America she would likely be a dues-paying, card-carrying member of Animal Rights groups.

These anti-Semitic tales spread across Europe, particularly taking hold in times of stress, such as the Black Death. The scrupulous hygiene exercised by Jewish communities and individuals created anxiety and hostility amongst the less careful Christians. An early version, told in Byzantium, became embedded in the text Arculf dictated to Adamnan on the island of Iona. In it an iconoclastic Jew throws an icon of the Virgin into a privy.28 Later versions of these tales are frequently coupled with the (non-existent) figure of St. Nicholas, patron of school children and thieves, patron of mischievousness and naughtiness, and as such occur, for instance, in the monastic dramas for schoolboys and oblates of the Orléans 201 manuscript.29 In Spain, during the time of tension connected with the Reconquista, King Alfonso the Learned composed and had illuminated many Cantigas de Santa Maria with such tales against Jews amongst them.30 The tales, psychiatrically, are sick, often about defecation, with much projecting and inappropriate scapegoating; but generally in the genre the Jew is not put to death, only forced to convert, a fate worse than death, and be forgiven.

Perhaps what we have is uncontrollable internalized hostility unleashed by one oppressed, powerless group, women, against another mirroring group, Jews, cathecting intolerance. (Later, in the South, similar patterns of internalized/projected hostility amongst share-croppers living on the margins of poverty would result in the scapegoating lynching of African Americans.) In Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice we see side by side on the stage Portia as Mercy, Shylock as Justice, debating and enacting their crucial and cruel dialectic. In Langland's Piers Plowman we witness the Four Daughters of God embrace harmoniously on Easter morn following an initial discord. But in the telling of the Prioress's Tale it is the Marian ultra-feminine Prioress who should be ultra-merciful who becomes instead ultra-judgemental, demanding far more than a pound of flesh, demanding the shedding of blood.

The lady-like Prioress, so careful not to leave a "ferthyng" of grease in her cup, with her impeccable table manners (I.130-141), tells a tale of a child of seven (following upon her likening herself to a child of one), who obnoxiously sang a hymn to the Virgin through the length and breadth of the Jewish Ghetto31 and who was slain, his body cast into the privy. The mother, a grieving Rachel, in this photographic negative of the Slaughter of the Jewish Innocents by Herod seeking to murder the Messiah,32 finds the schoolchild still singing, despite his throat cut to the neck bone. The body of the boy is taken to the convent in a procession still singing all the while, with his mother swooning over him (he is presumably still covered with latrine filth), and then he is finally cleansed with holy water (VII.639).33 Later, the Abbot will weep salt tears upon him, reminiscent of the scene in Saint Erkenwald where the Bishop, weeping, baptizes the dead Judge.34 The boy meanwhile has told of the grain laid by Mary upon his tongue, reminiscent of the Croxton Play of the Sacrament where a Christian in collusion with Jews retained the sacrament in order for it to be used in a Black Mass.35 In this version so much that is relevant to the Jewish community becomes here carried out by the Christian child in odd distortions. Much else is strange, including the link's words concerning Saint Augustine (VII.441), followed by the Prologue's reference to the holiness of a babe at the breast (VII.453-457), when we recall that Saint Augustine spoke of a child being green with jealousy at his sibling's nursing at the mother's breast, and not being sweetly innocent.36 Another odd reference, in this anti-Semitic tale, is the figural likeness drawn between the Virgin and "O bussh unbrent, brennynge in Moyses sighte" (VII.468-9). We have already noted the reference to "Thise new Rachel" (VII.627), Jacob's bride mourning her lost sons. Is the Prioress, in her much protested "innocence," ignorant, or knowledgeable, of the illogical arabesques she appropriates from the Hebrew Scriptures?

Just as Jews, the physicians of kings in the Middle Ages, could be resented for their careful hygiene, so also were they envied for their great access to learning, to the Book at its source and origin which next shaped Christendom and Islam. The technology of the alphabet was a brilliant Semitic invention, to be appropriated by the Greeks (alpha, beta are not Greek words but derive from aleph, beth), Etruscans (their alphabet became the Germanic runes), and Romans. After the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70 by Titus and Vespasian, Judaism, in mourning, gave up its magnificent heritage of music, including the singing of David's Psalms. Christian monks kept alive that tradition not only of those written words, now translated into Syrian, Coptic, Greek and Latin, but also of that music. In time secular songs were harnessed to that music, giving us both Ambrosian hymns and Gregorian chant. Women in convents in the earlier Middle Ages had had access to Latin learning but, with the coming of the universities (a largely Arabic and Jewish institution in its origins) from which they were excluded, women were further separated off from power structures. We know from Eileen Power's work that the ability for nuns in convents to learn grammar, Latin, had greatly decreased in this period.37 (Yet we will find the Prioress' apprentice, the Second Nun, proficient in English, Italian and Latin, and finding it best to study books rather than to court idleness. Similarly the Canon's Yeoman, the Sorcerer's Apprentice, surpasses his master, the Canon, in virtuousness and repents and reforms.) Barred from preaching sermons, women could still sing hymns (we find Abelard composing such for Heloise and her convent of the Paraclete based upon stories of women and men in the Hebrew Scriptures) as an outlet for their emotions, if not their intellect. The Prioress creates a persona for herself, a Jungian animus of herself, in the illiterate hymn-chanting school boy who is terrifyingly and tauntingly caught, trapped and victimized in mirroring ghettoized worlds. She is unforgiveably both victim and victimizer.

The text has played with the use, and abuse, of words by children who do not understand them. The Marian Prioress has spoken of herself as an innocent infant of but twelve months old, "innocent" meaning not nocent, not harmful, infant, "infans," not yet speaking. She has likewise stressed the seven year old child as not learning to read his primer, not understanding and instead learning by rote the hymn he sings perpetually. The tale has the same effect upon many of us as the hymn within it upon the Jewish community. The Prioress with her cultivated and counterfeited appearance and falsely assumed stance of innocence and childishness reminds one of the whited sepulchre back in Belgium that is Kurtz' Intended in Heart of Darkness.38 She is kin to both the Monk and the Canon. She is kin, intertextually, as well to the Roman de la Rose's Faus Semblant's leman, Constreyned Abstinence, in appearance and in hypocrisy. Both she and her tale are negative and, I believe, neither should be trusted.

The tale has followed an account of a Monk, a Wife and a Merchant in which the Monk has broken so many of his vows, poverty, chastity and obedience, and so much of his Rule, against staying overnight, against eating when on a day's journey, against money-dealing and against sexuality. The Host censored that behavior ("Draweth no monkes moore unto youre in," VII, 442), but the Prioress, addressed twice by the Host as "My lady Prioresse" and "my lady deere," murmurs not at all against the Monk of the Shipman's Tale. Her rhyme royal tale is then followed by the rhyme doggerel of the mock-courteous Tale of Sir Thopas, as if Chaucer were ridiculing the Prioress and her "courtliness." And feigning himself to be as untaught as she. But the link between the Tales of the Prioress and the Author gives us an embarassed wordlessness. The pilgrims are at a loss as to how to respond to Eglentyne's tale-telling. They remind us of those awkward moments during Civil Rights when someone inadvertently made a racist remark, the rest of the company falling silent, hoping that the silence could register disapproval and discomfort.39

II

The Second Nun (the last shall be first) received, humbly, a mere line and a half, along with the half-line for the Nun's Priest, in the General Prologue. Similarly had Langland in Piers Plowman given Lady Mede a grandiose ten line catalogue and inventory of scarlet and golden ribbons, emerald and ruby jewelry, and then to Holichirche a mere half line of white linen garb, that garb of the saved in Apocalypse.40 The Second Nun's Tale, following upon the Nun's Priest's, and close to the end of this bawdy pilgrimage, turns excrement back into sacrament, scatology back to eschatology. She begins with again a reference to the Roman de la Rose, refering to the figure of Idleness, portress of the gate of the cupidinous garden of that poem.41 She recommends that we eschew that portress, putting her down by means of her opposite, business.42 The Monk may have kept himself occupied in his cell with tragedies. She has occupied herself in her cloister with mirroring Golden Legends and weaving literary garlands of roses and lilies, of saints and martyrs.43 I illustrate her with a 1500 woodblock of St Birgitta at work in a book-filled scriptorium writing her Revelationes.

St Birgitta, Revelationes, Nuremburg, Anthony Koberger

She next invokes the Virgin, echoing lines plagiarized by Chaucer from Dante said in the Commedia by St. Bernard,44 and the Virgin's mother, St. Anne,45 the follows those with the Golden Legend's etymologizing of the name of "Seint Cecilie," as containing the meanings of lily, light, heaven, Leah (again lifted from Dante, Purgatorio XXVII.97-108, to be echoed in XXVIII.40-XXXI.145), people, and so forth. The reference to Lia/Leah is interesting, for the Prioress had woven Rachel into her Tale. Another common figural parallel, implied here, is that of Mary Magdalen, the contemplative, and Martha, the vita activa. Wycliffite Chaucer appears here to be saying he prefers good works to the idleness (and sexuality) of the "contemplative" life. The Nun's Tale, rather than being set in both a distant city in Asia and in England's Lincoln,46 is a Roman drama.47 Though the Second Nun's own garb is of humble black and white, her heroine's is of cloth of gold, but under it is a hair shirt (VIII.132-3). She is married to Valerian, but refuses to consummate her vows, telling him of her guardian angel. Valerian, believing the angel could instead be a "hende Nicholas,"48 is sceptical, but goes according to her instructions to the Catacombs along the Appian Way to be baptized by the Pope, St. Urban. In a vision he there sees St. Paul holding out to him a book written with letters of gold. He is convinced and baptized into the faith, returning home to find the angel, now visible, holding out to both spouses crowns of lilies and roses. The domino effect next has Valerian bring his brother Tiburce into the fold, to be rewarded with the palm of martyrdom.49 All three have laid aside the required Roman idolatry, the mandatory sacrifice to idols of either naked pagan gods or of clothed deified emperors upon phallic pillars.50

For this Civil Disobedience, Almachius, the prefect of Rome, given in this tale a Saracen, Muslim name, insists that they sacrifice to the "ymage of Juppiter." The officer Maximus is their next convert, for he finds he cannot carry out the death sentence upon them. Cecilia preaches to them, telling them that by their coming martyrdoms they win the crown (stephanos) of life (VIII.388). Next, Almachius summons Cecilia to appear before his court. She argues her case with conviction, telling him she is of noble birth, telling him that he is a balloon/bladder filled with air, to be pricked with a pin/needle and burst, telling him that though he says he has the power of life and death, he is wrong as he only has the power of death, not life. She stands before her judge/accuser like an Antigone before a Creon, like an Iphigenia before an Agamemnon, like Socrates before the Athenian court, like Christ before Pilate in the Gospels or before the Grand Inquisitor in Dosteivsky's Brothers Karamazov, like Joan of Arc before the English "godams," as in Shaw's play, like the conscientious objector in Tolstoy's The Kingdom of God is Within You, like Gandhi on trial by the British Raj,51 or with the simplicity of Rosa Parks refusing to give up a bus seat because her feet were tired. Anthropologists, studying ceremonies of power, have noted that it takes only one dissident to call into question all that is illusion.52 What is also of interest that these incidents are embedded not only in history but also, powerfully, in literary texts using them, Sophocles and Euripides' plays, Plato's dialogues, the Gospels, Thoreau's essay, Dostoevsky's novel, Tolstoy's book, Shaw's play, and more. The early Christian martyrs, especially the women saints, in golden legends (acts which were read), were admired through time for this defiant disobedience to imperial authority. Chaucer externalized Bohemian Queen Anne, bride to his King Richard II, as the outward symbol, the "crowned A," worn by the Prioress; he may have also internalized her Wycliffite interests and support and up-so-doun humility into the figure of the Second Nun. Chaucer in giving the Second Nun this tale to tell is giving her a royal revolution.

Unlike the child with his throat cut who could not die but was left amidst the ordure of a latrine, St. Cecilie lies in a cleansing bath of purifying flame. Then, her head three times smitten with a sword, her throat likewise cut, she continues defiantly to live and preach for three further days to the Roman people.53 The Prioress, obedient to and manipulative of male hierarchy, carried out revenge, in fantasy, against both a male child and a religious, racial minority in her tale, strangely identifying herself with both and displacing her internalized/projected anger upon them most unjustly and with the greatest sadism.54 The Second Nun, her subordinate, her subaltern,55 chose a different answer, that of non-violent Holy Disobedience, the only effective way there is to rectify inequities of power. Chaucer, what is more, departs from the Golden Legend in having Cecilie preach, which patriarchal Paul forbade to women.

This tale and others like it were in the feminine domain, and used by them as peaceable weapons. Already Hrotswitha had written Comedies in the manner of Terence about Christian woman martyrs, celebrating their defiance of authority, yet submitting and presenting these plays to her Abbess.56 Already Christina of Markyate had read to her husband on their wedding night the tale of St. Cecilia, then jumped out the window, ran away and become an anchoress.57 Women chose virginity in order not to submit to male power, in order to be free, in order to be like men.58 Christianity had been the liberating religion of women and slaves, though men could impose Pauline doctrine upon it. The Second Nun chose liberation theology, the Prioress complied to the Establishment. Wycliffite Chaucer appears to be on the side of the Second Nun.59

III

How did the tellers of these two Tales manage to live together in the same convent? The answer can best be found in the work by Christine de Pizan, The Treasure of the City of Ladies. This is a treatise written a generation after Chaucer by an Italian woman at the court of the King of France whose son was page to the Earl of Salisbury. Chaucer's son and granddaughter likewise had connections with that household, Alice Chaucer becoming Countess of Salisbury.60 In this text Christine gives us sensible advice on how women can co-exist, despite jealousy, at court, in a convent, and even (though this was impossible from the founding of the universities in the Gothic era to our own twentieth century as these institutions excluded us), in a college. At the beginning of its text the three allegorical ladies of Reason, Rectitude and Justice appear to Christine, telling her to eschew idleness and to write to teach women:
May all the feminine college and their devout community be apprised of the sermons and lessons of wisdom, First of all to the queens, princesses and great ladies, and then on down the social scale we will chant our doctrines to the other ladies and maidens and all classes of women, so that the syllabus of our school may be valuable to all.61
When it comes to dealing with a difficult princess, a prima donna, Christine counsels patience and service, laying down clear and excellent guidelines concerning what to do in the face of envy and pride. She discusses first how a princess should behave, next how a lady serving her should do so, even if she has a bad mistress. And finally Christine addresses women of all ranks, wives, widows, whores and much more, giving them wisdom. She especially discusses the problems of jealousy and envy, which the Russian Formalists would later relate to Pushkin's Mozart and Saleri.62 Christine's de Pizan's Book of the Treasure could be read today with profit by women on the corporate ladder as well as by women members of university faculties.

In all these tales within tales are texts within texts. The Wife is in lusty rebellion against her clerkly husband's Book of Wikked Wives, and manages besides to quote intertextually from the Bible and from pilgrimage books, from Jerome, and even to bring in a reference to Chaucer's now lost Book of the Leoun.63 The Prioress gives us a boy eschewing his primer in order to sing a hymn he does not understand from the antiphoner. Her Tale is set in the era when women came to be increasingly denied literacy and education as the Aristotelian influence from Greco-Arabic Spain took hold, establishing universities with their scholasticism and which excluded women, imposing an apartheid of gender.64 The Second Nun is well read in the Golden Legend and in secular Dante's Commedia's use of monastic St. Bernard. The period of her tale looks back to the comparatively Golden Age of Roman culture, which can show us the iconography of women with styli held to their lips, wax tablets clutched in their hands,65 and also it looks to such monastic women as Hilda presiding over the Council of Whitby, as Lioba writing letters quoting Virgil to Boniface, as Hildegard of Bingen presenting herself as writing the book of her visions which she contemplates and likewise illuminates, and to Saints Birgitta and Catherine ordering Popes to return to Rome. Christine de Pizan, who had had the run of the King of France's library, reworks all the tales of the Book, the Bible, and of the Greek and Latin authors into her visions, and makes her books in turn be royal libraries for her readers. She opens to women the doors of the men's textual communities of power. Similarly had Pushkin's Tales of Belkin, with its masks within masks, had some of its tales within a tale be provided by a woman and have within them women who read texts, including one where she pretends to be unlettered and needing to be taught by her literacy-enamoured lover how to write love letters.66 Both Chaucer and Pushkin lived in ages where there were newly flourishing textual communities overthrowing ancient, masculine thraldoms, replacing these, the Hebrew, Greek and Roman, with vernacular literatures in which, as Dante said, women and children could share along with men. Dante and Chaucer were writing literature that complied with the newly-stirring Feminism of their day. In these three women personae of the Canterbury Tales Chaucer may be making a statement concerning forms of Feminism, and siding not with continued bondage and displaced revenge through the imitation by women of men's mistakes, but with open rebellion to the male establishment in order to gain equal access to power and justice.

Notes

1 Raymond Pucinelli, Mills College; Edgar Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1968); Piers Plowman makes use of these triads, where the third combines and reconciles the two opposites. This paper was forged in the crucible of two Chaucer conferences, 'Tales of Passion and Piety: Women and Religion in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales' and 'Tales within Tales: Apuleius and Chaucer', University of Colorado, Boulder, 1989, the latter funded by the Colorado Endowment for the Humanities.
2 Jill Mann, Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), pp. 1-16, 128-137.
3 Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Chicago: Aldine, 1969); The Liber Celestis of St. Bridget of Sweden, ed. Roger Ellis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), EETS 291; The Book of Margery Kempe, ed. Sanford Brown Meech and Hope Emily Allen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961), EETS OS 212.
4 George Williams, Wilderness and Paradise in Christian Thought: The Biblical Experience of the Desert in the History of Christianity and the Paradise Theme in the Theological Idea of the University (New York, 1962).
5 Edmond-René Labande, "Recherches sur les pélerins dans l'Europe des VIe et XIIe siécles," Spiritualité et vie littéraire de l'Occident, Xe-XIVe siécles (London: Variorum, 1974), pp. 339-349; Jonathan Sumption, Pilgrimage: An Image of Medieval Religion (Totowa: Rowman and Littlefield, 1976), pp. 127-128; Durandus, pp. 135-136; Joinville, Memoirs of the Crusades, trans. Sir Frank T. Marzials (New York: Dutton, 1958), p. 166.
6 Text from The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987).
7 H.F.M. Prescott, Friar Felix At Large: A Fifteenth-Century Pilgrim to the Holy Land (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1950). Pilgrims were to grow beards, not so friars. Friar Felix delights in his, confounding the medieval hair code.
8 Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, trans. V.E. Watts (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969), I. i, p. 36; Arthur M. Hind, An Introduction to the History of Woodcut (New York: Dover, 1963), II. 610, fig. 358, from Terence, Comoediae, Lyon, 1493.
9 Victor Turner, "The Center Out There: Pilgrim's Goal," History of Religions, 12 (1973), 191-203.
10 Maria Corti, "Models and Anti-Models in Medieval Culture," New Literary History, 10 (1979), 339-366.
11 Dante Alighieri, De eloquentia, I.i, in Le Opere di Dante, ed. M. Barbi, E.G. Parodi, F. Pellegrini, E. Pistelli, P. Rajna, E. Rostagno, G. Vandelli (Florence: Società Dantesca Italiana, 1960), p. 297.
12 Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and his World, trans. Hélène Iswolsky (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1968), pp. 1-58, 437-474.
13The Pilgrim and the Book: A Study of Dante, Langland and Chaucer (Berne: Peter Lang, 1987, 1989, 1993).
14 I Corinthians 14.34; I Timothy 4.7.
15The Reversible World, ed. Barbara Babcock (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978).
16 Jerome, Epistola CXXVII, in Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne (Paris, 1854), XXII, 1090; Abelard to Heloise, Letter 6, The Letters of Abelard and Heloise, ed. and trans. Betty Radice (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974), p. 180.
17 Augustine provides this patterning of the pilgrimage, through lust, to God, in the Confessions; see also the Santa Maria Novella Spanish Chapel fresco, the Via Veritatis, the Pisan Campo Santo fresco, in both of which a procession of travelers and revelers meet up with a confessor: Millard Meiss, Painting in Florence and Siena After the Black Death (New York: Harper, 1964).
18 (Ann Arbor, 1973), pp. 150-69.
19 P.N.Medvedev/M.M. Bakhtin, The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship: A Critical Introduction to Sociological Poetics, trans. Albert J. Wehrle (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), p. x, discussing Viktor Vinogradov and Valentin N. Voloshinov, of the Bakhtin school, on Puskin's Tales.
20 Leslie Webber Jones and C.R. Morey, Miniatures of the Manuscripts of Terence Prior to the Thirteenth Century (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1931). It is not without interest that the Laurentian Library holds a manuscript of the Comedies in Boccaccio's autograph hand.
21 Turner, Ritual Process, passim, notes the sacred importance of red, white and black in Ndembu ritual; Victor Masayesva observed that Chaucer's use of these colours is similar to the ritual structuring amongst the Hopi.
22 John Sharkey, Celtic Mysteries: The Ancient Religion (London: thames and Hudson, 1976), p. 7, plates 14, 23-25; John Adair, The Pilgrim's Way: Shrines and Saints in Britain and Ireland (London: Thames and Hudson, 1978), p. 95; Roger Sherman Loomis, Arthurian Literature in the Middle Ages: A Collaborative History (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959), p. 43 and passim; Julia Bolton Holloway, The Pilgrim and the Book: A Study of Dante, Langland and Chaucer (Berne: Peter Lang, 1987); this account also relates the Wife's pilgrimages to pilgrimage texts, juxtaposing her and the Pardoner, pp. 179-195.
23 Le Roman de la Rose, ed. Félix Lecoy (Paris: Honoré Champion, 1976), II, lines 13355-13411.
24 Anne S. Haskell, Chaucer's Saints (The Hague: Mouton, 1976), 1-2, 32-37. Medieval agriculture required the use of dunging to restore nitrogen to the soil. For this reason Lancelot momentarily hesitates before entering the cart to carry out the rescue of his Guinevere. See Friar's Tale, III.1564, Nun's Priest's Tale, VII.3018.
25The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. F.N. Robinson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957), p. 654. Chaucer's own daughter was a nun at Barking, whose foundress was sister to Bede's St. Eorconwald, the Middle English poem's St. Erkenwald.
26 Chaucer had played similar games at the conclusion of the Book of the Duchess with Richmond and Lancaster, the long castle on a rich hill (1318-19).
27 Carl G. Jung, "The Shadow," and "Christ, A Symbol of the Self," in Aion: Researches into the Phenomenology of the Self, trans. R. F. C. Hull (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968), Bollingen Series XX, pp. 8-10, 36-71.
28 Adamanan/Arculfus, De locis sanctis, ed. Denis Meehan (Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies, 1958), Scriptores Latini Hiberniae, 3, p. 119; this tale repeated in Alfonso el Sabio, Cantiga 34.
29 Edmond de Coussemaker, Drames liturgiques du Moyen Age (Rennes: Vatar, 1860); Sacre rappresentazione nel manoscritto 201 della Bibliothèque municipale di Orléans, ed. Giampiero Tintori and Raffaello Monterosso (Cremona: Athenaeum Cremonense, 1958); Charles W. Jones, St. Nicholas of Myra, Bari and Manhattan: Biography of a Legend (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1978).
30 Las Cantigas de Santa Maria, ed. Walter Mettmann (Coimbra: Universidad, 1959-1972), I-IV, Cantigas 4, 6 (of English child singing "Gaude Virgo Maria" with refrain to King David), 12, 25, 27, 34, 108, 286; Carleton Brown, "The Prioress's Tale," in Sources and Analogues of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, ed. W. F. Bryan and Germaine Dempster (New York: Humanities Press, 1958), pp. 447-485.
31 Interestingly, it has been argued that there was transmission of Hebrew music from the Jewish communities of the Sephardim in Spain to those of the Ashkenazim in Germany by way of Christian pilgrims, Abraham Z. Idelsohn, Jewish Music (New York: Tudor, 1929), p. 143; see also Eric Werner, The Sacred Bridge: The Interdependence of Liturgy and Music in Synagogue and Church During the First Millenium (London: Dobson, 1959), who argues for the retention of the psalms' music from the Hebraic tradition into Gregorian chant.
32 Liturgically, and in the drama, the passage concerning Rachel mourning her lost children by Jacob was repeated on the Feast Day of the Slaughter of the Innocents, as it had been repeated in Matthew 2.8, and as it was to be repeated in Melville's Moby Dick, whose captain is kin to our prioress.
33 Barbara Hanawalt, The Ties that Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 173, tells us that baptismal water was recycled if the child pissed, only replaced if the baby defecated into it.
34 St. Erkenwald, ed. Ruth Morse (Cambridge: Brewer, 1975), p. 64.
35 Medieval Drama, ed. David Bevington (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975), pp. 754-788.
36 Augustine, Confessions, trans. W. Watts (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1977), I.vii, pp. 20-21.
37 Eileen Power, Medieval English Nunneries (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1922), pp. 246-255. See also Brian Stock, The Implications of Literacy: Written Language and Models of Interpretation in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983).
38 William J. Brandt, The Shape of Medieval History: A Study in Modes of Perception (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), on stance amongst the aristocracy; Joan Ferrante, "Public Postures and Private Maneuvers: Roles Medieval Women Play," Women and Power in the Middle Ages, ed. Mary Erler and Maryanne Kowaleski (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988), pp. 213-229. Gothic Criseyde amidst her Romanesque cityscape is another example of such behavioral double standards between outward appearance and inward reality.
39 I recognize that Chaucerians are of two camps, some defending the Prioress, others loathing her. See Richard J. Schoeck, "Chaucer's Prioress: Mercy and Tender Heart," Chaucer Criticism, ed. Richard J. Schoeck and Jerome Taylor (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1960), I. 245-258; Florence H. Ridley, The Prioress and the Critics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965); Graciela S. Daichman, Wayward Nuns in Medieval Literature (Ithaca: Syracuse University Press, 1986); while Sister Mary Madeleva, A Lost Language (New York: Russell and Russell, 1967), defended her.
40 William Langland, Piers Plowman: The B Version, ed. George Kane and E. Talbot Donaldson (London: Athlone, 1975), II.8-17, I.3.
41Roman de la Rose, 495-698; D.W. Robertson, Jr., "The Doctrine of Charity in Medieval Literary Gardens: A Topical Approach through Symbolism and Allegory," in Essays in Medieval Culture (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), 21-50.
42 The shadow tale to the Second Nun's Paradiso, is the Canon's Yeoman's Inferno, of a different kind of business, Satanic rather than Godly, of magic rather than theology.
43 Reflected in the May garlands Emily wove in the Knight's Tale ("This maked Emelye to have remembraunce/To doon honour to May, and for to ryse . . . And in the gardyn, at the sonne upriste . . . /She gadereth floures, party white and rede, To make a subtil gerlend for hire hede; And as an aungel hevenysshly she soong," I.1046-1055); parodied in the ale stake garland of the Summoner, I.666-667; echoed in the lilies and roses (the brains and blood upon Canterbury's Cathedral floor) of St. Thomas Becket's martyrdom, "E sur le pavement l'un od l'autre gesir, /De roses e de lilies li péust sovenir: Car dunc veîst le sanc el blanc cervel rovir, /Le cervel ensement el vermeil sanc blanchir," 5637-5640, in Guernes de Pont-Sainte-Maxence, La vie de Saint Thomas Becket, ed. Emmanuel Walberg (Paris: Honoré Champion, 1964), pp. 173-4.
44 Howard Schless, Chaucer and Dante: A Revaluation (Norman: Pilgrim Books, 1984), notes that both Prioress and Second Nun use Dante's invocatio, pp. 206-208, giving parallel passages, but does not observe borrowing of tale of Rachel and Lia, Magdalen and Martha, Beatrice and Matilda.
45 Medieval Books of Hours delighted in showing St. Anne teaching the Virgin to read. St. Birgitta had St. Agnes, in visions, teach her Latin. Thus women created a subversive textual community against that of the male universities. St. Anne also echoes Richard II's Queen Anne, who sided with the Wycliffites and their literacy campaign.
46 For a brilliant account of the Jewry of York, see Joanne Greenberg, The King's Persons (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963). It has been suggested the Prioress' Tale was composed for the occasion of the visit of Richard II and his consort, Anne, to Lincoln, 26 March, 1387.
47 G.H. Gerould, "The Second Nun's Prologue and Tale," in Sources and Analogues, pp. 664-684; Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend, trans. Granger Ryan and Helmut Ripperger (New York: Longman's, Green, 1941), pp. 689-695.
48 "Angelus ad Virginem" is sung by Nicholas to Alisoun, I.3216.
49 Revelation 7.9; "Pèlerinage à Rome," Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie, ed. Fernand Cabrol and Henri Leclercq (Paris, 1939), XIV, 45 and passim, gives engravings of palms sculpted on Roman Christian tombs; mosaics at Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, show white-clad, palm-holding martyrs. These had also appeared on Jewish tombs.
50 William S. Hecksher, Sixtus IIII aeneas insignes statuas romano populo restituendas censuit (The Hague: Utrecht University, 1955); Erwin Panofsky, Renaissance and Renascences in Western Art (New York: Harper, 1972), pp. 88-90, 112, 151, 155; Meiss, p. 157.
51 Julia Bolton Holloway, "Feminist Gandhi," Gandhi in the Postmodern Age: Issues in War and Peace, ed. Sanford Krolick and Betty Cannon (Golden: Colorado School of Mines, 1984), pp. 61-64.
52 Rites of Power: Symbolism, Ritual and Politics since the Middle Ages, Collection Drawn from the Essays Presented and Discussed by the Shelby Colum Davis Center Seminar from 1980 to 1982, ed. Sean Willentz (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985; Clifford Geertz, Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretative Anthropology (New York: Basic Books, 1983).
53 Paul, I Corinthians 14.34; the Master of the Magdalene gives a splendid scene of the Magdalene preaching in a fifteenth-century painting whose Brussels donor family consists of a husband, wife and one child, a daughter: Jeanne Tombu, "Un Triptyche du Maître de la Légende de Marie-Madeleine,"Gazette des Beaux-Arts, Series 5, 15 (1927), 299-310. I owe my knowledge of this painting to Liesel Nolan.
54 A similar binary polarity, even to the sense of smell, is conveyed in the Fleury liturgical dramas where, in the Resuscitatio Lazari, the actors must hold their noses because of the living/dead Lazarus' stench, here the living/dead child covered with latrine filth, then in the Visitatio Sepulchri Mary Magdalen wafts incense and the three Maries bring precious ointments to the resurrected Christ, in the Cecilie story being the perfume of the crowns of lilies and roses. The two versions of the story were related as, for instance, on an early Christian ivory box in the British Museum, showing the "Resuscitatio" sculpted on the doors of the tomb of the "Visitatio," the stories presented in Chinese boxes, Russian dolls style. Interestingly, nuns as well as monks wrote and performed in these plays and Hrotswitha concocts such a play about a prostitute turned hermit.
55 I here borrow a term from Gayatri Spivak's account of Bengali Feminist-Marxists, Boulder, 1986.
56 Hrotsvithae Opera (Leipzig: Teubner, 1930); The Plays of Hrotswitha of Gandersheim, trans. Larissa Bonfante (New York: New York University Press, 1979).
57 The Life of Christina of Markyate: A Twelfth-Century Recluse, ed. C. W. Talbot (Oxford: Clarendon, 1959), pp. 50-51.
58 Jerome, Adversus Jovinianum, Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne (Paris, 1883), XXXIII, 215-352, is not a diatribe against women but a treatise on virginity.
59 On Wycliffism, Lollardism, see, for instance, G. M. Trevelyan, England in the Age of Wycliffe, 1368-1520 (New York: Harper, 1963).
60 Martin B. Rudd, Thomas Chaucer (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1926), p. 87.
61 Christine de Pisan, The Treasure of the City of Ladies, or The Book of the Three Virtues, trans. Sarah Lawson (Harmondworth: Penguin, 1985), p. 32.
62 Bakhtin/Medvedev, Formal Method, p. xix. One suspects that the Nun's Priest's Tale is likewise a comment about the problems in this convent, where hen-pecked Chauntecleer's rebellion against Pertelote is the Nuns' Priest's rebellion against the Prioress, just as is the Second Nun's Cecilie likewise a rebellion against authority, shadowing the Second Nun's rebellion against her Prioress. Similarly we will see the Yeoman's rebellion against the Canon. In all these instances the rebellion is positive, though it was not in the case of Perkyn Revelour the apprentice against his master in the Cook's Tale.
63 Mary Carruthers, "The Wife of Bath and the Painting of Lions," PMLA, 94 (1979), 209-222.
64 Prudence Allen, R.S.M., The Concept of Woman: The Aristotelian Revolution, 750 BC-AD 1250 (Montréal: Eden Press, 1985).
65Roman Art, ed. Patricia Corbett (New York: Avenel, 1980), plates XXIV-XXV.
66 "The Squire's Daughter," The Tales of Belkin, in The Complete Prose Tales of Alexandr Sergeyevitch Pushkin, trans. Gillon R. Aitken (London: Barrie and Rockliff, 1966), pp. 119-140.
 


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Brunetto Latino and Dante Alighieri
I Bankers and Their Books: Italian Manuscripts in French Exile
II Brown Ink, Red Blood: Brunetto Latino and the Sicilian Vespers
III The Vita Nuova's Pilgrimage Paradigms
IV Stealing Hercules' Club: Inferno XXV's Metamorphoses  

Geoffrey Chaucer
V Black and Red Letter Chaucer
VI Fact and Fiction: Women in Love
VII Convents, Courts and Colleges
VIII The Tomb of the Duchess Alice

Terence, Dante, Boccaccio and Chaucer
IX God's Plenty: Terence in Dante, Boccaccio, Chaucer and Shakespeare Newest

Epilogue: Attica State Prison, Boethius the Exile, Dante the Pilgrim


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