Jenifer Sutherland



January 23

Pasolini's "The Creation of Eve"by Carley Sparks



At the beginning of class Professor Sutherland announced two schedule changes: the Tales of the Friar and the Summoner have been moved to March 13 instead of January 30, 2003, and the essay due date has been extended by one week to March 13, 2003.

We briefly discussed the life of Constance in the Man of Law’s tale as one dictated by a stifling world of socially determined rules, which was followed by a presentation on Lawyers in the fourteenth century.

Man of Law’s Tale
In the introduction to the Man of Law’s tale the narrator makes an apostrophe against poverty in the language of Innocent III’s treatise "On the Misery of the Human Condition," which depicts the human body as a vessel born of bile, sperm, worms and other grotesque features. However, rather than depicting humans as vile to turn their thoughts to God, he turns the mind to merchants and their prosperity.

The Host draws attention to the passing day and pulls the narrative back on track. He calls on the Man of Law, whose rightful place in the social order is third following the Knight and the Reeve. The Man of Law’s tale is a rendition of oral folklore based on incest. Chaucer’s version, however, is the G-rated one; he deliberately suppresses the incest motif (Constance is in love with her brother). Remnants of it appear in the figures of the jealous mothers, in the ending when Constance is reunited with her father after her husband’s death and lives out her life with him (daughter as lover), and in her tender and passionate return to Rome.

Constance is depicted as a holy creature. Unlike Criseyde, she is not a demure heroine but a wandering soul. On the ship she is shown in an iconic depiction of the Virgin Mary, an ancient motif. It is only in marriage that she is granted womanhood, albeit tongue-in-cheek; Constance must to put aside her holiness to be a wife. In Line 274 she compares herself to Christ in her marriage and makes a bitter accusation: women are born into thralldom and must do the penance of being under man’s guidance.

The two mother figures are doubles and represent the pagan female as the impossible woman—the serpent of Satan—compared with Constance, the Christian soul. (For more about attitudes towards Moslems and Islam in the Middle Ages see Mini Report below.)

In the epilogue the Host calls on the parish priest. The Parson objects to the Host’s swearing by God’s bones. This suggests that he may be a follower of Wyclif, or a Lollard. This group of religious reformists argued against Church property and wealth. They argued for the translation of the Bible into the vernacular and were against the idea of priests as a mediator between God and humankind. This was just beginning to be a sensitive topic during Chaucer’s time. John of Gaunt was a friend of Wyclif so Chaucer may well have been sympathetic to his ideas. In the decades after Chaucer's death you could be burned at the stake for the Lollard heresy. The tension in the story is where this pious creature will settle: England or Rome? Should the Church be an English vernacular institution or part of the Latin Catholic church?

Constance is subjected to Trial by Ordeal. Swearing on the Bible harks back to pre-Norman common law and is somewhat problematic: old Anglo-Saxon Bibles were not written in Latin, is it then a British book because written in English? When falsely accused of her friend’s murder before the King, a voice claims Constance as the daughter of the Holy Church in England. For the Man of Law it would have been a daily occurrence to see a person led to their death. However, rather than meeting death, her presence sets off a conversion and brings the Church to Rome where she starts an Empire and lives as a daughter.
Every time Constance is on a ship she loses her memory. She represents the silent female part of a male world and converts others through her silence. Maurice, her son, brings about both reunions and is a representation of his mother.

The Prioress’s Tale
The Prioress is a large yet dainty creature. Her brooch with the ambiguous "Love Conquers All" inscription and delicate nature finely tuned to the suffer of all creatures great and small suggests that she is better suited to be a figure in court than a religious disciple. To tell the tale of a child martyr, the Prioress begins with a prayer and invokes a modesty topos in which compares herself to an infant without speech. There is strong biblical support for being childlike but also a warning not to be naive: be babes in evil, be mature in thinking. Her representation points to the dichotomy between ignorance and innocence and raises the question of where does one end and the other begin?

Dr. Sutherland introduced the tale by telling us about Boccaccio’s story of Melchisedech, a Jew who avoids an impossible choice among the three religions of Judaism Christianity and Islam by himself recounting the Tale of three Rings to Saladine, the great sultan and warrior. The moral: final decisions about religion are in abeyance during life. Business and friendship are more important.

The main problem of the Prioress’s Tale is one of voice. Some critics argue that the Prioress in the tale is not the same as that in the General Prologue; we are meant to hear their estate not their particular psychology in the tale they tell. Thus, the entire tale cannot be read ironically, in the bad French of the courtly Prioress, because before the fourteenth century there would be no reason to doubt the intent of a story about a child martyr.

The setting adds to the tale's problematic antisemitism (see Mini Report below for more about this). The Jews were expelled from England in 1290 and the tale takes place in some Asian city where the sin of usury is still tolerated. And yet the story is about an event that happened in England in the 12th century, the supposed murder of Hugh of St Lincoln by the Jewish community at Easter--a blood ritual killing.

For medieval Christians the Hebrew scriptures prefigure the Virgin. The idea that the miraculous and mediating role of the Virgin is beyond human comprehension materializes in the child who sings in Latin. He repeats the words but does not comprehend their meaning.

In order to learn the psalm the clergian must make a sacrifice. He neglects his studies even though this may mean he will be beaten three times per hour (l.529-44). The clergian is educated in violence and experiences it from cradle to grave. The justice meted out to the Jewish community at the end of the tale is excessively violent. Ironically, the Prioress is squeamish about trapped mice but accepts this violence.

The Prioress’s tale is a retelling of Christ’s crucifixion; in her version Satan acts through the Jews to crucify the Savior. It was believed that bad people listened to Satan and did his bidding. Though the Jews in the story as responsible for the child’s death, it was Satan who put them up to it. The terms "Jew" and "Jews" are used interchangeably in the tale. One Jew killed the boy; the whole community of Jews is punished for the crime. Christian’s, in comparison, have good moral roles in the tale. The clergian’s mother, for example, becomes a Rachel figure, a representation of the suffering mother.

It is important that death comes before sex for the child martyr. He is depicted as a celestial virgin, raised from shit to heaven. His death is beautifully understated. The mother is lead to the pit and the miracle of her sons singing begins, we forget about the stench and grotesque state of the boy. The release of the song leads to the binding of the Jews. The Prioress gives elevated status to the celestial setting through language. Despite the Abbott’s attempts to lay the boy to rest, he continues to sing. A symbolic marker, a grain on his tongue, represents the imperishable seed of God’s word, a gift from the Virgin. In reaction the abbott swoons; it is beyond the limits of human reason. The boy’s body is enshrined in marble and we are left with an inclusive prayer.


Second Term Chaucer Essay: Due March 6, 2003

Choose a tale.
Choose a focus: character, genre, theme, narration (relation of teller to tale, for example), structure, language (imagery, rhetoric, style).
1. Discuss a problem that is revealed by your focus. Instead of resolving the problem, suggest ways in which keeping it unresolved add to the richness of the tale. (Examples of problems: the theme of astrological destiny in the Man of Law’s Tale seems to be in conflict with the Christian theme of Providence. The Wife of Bath has been claimed as a feminist and yet the narrator seems to use her as an example of disastrous femininity.)


2. Compare the way your focus is developed in two different tales. (For example, the relation of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale and the Man of Law’s Prologue and Tale, or the Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale, etc.)


3. Discuss the way your focus differs in one of the tale’s analogues or sources. (Example: the character of Custance in Trevet and Chaucer). Length: approximately 12 pages or 3000 words.

To Top