The life of books is a mysterious thing. If an author is still read fifty years after his death there is a strong likelihood that he will be read five centuries from then. Chaucer, at any rate, has never been far from the consciousness of readers of English, and if the last twenty years have seen an amazing upsurge of interest in him in academic circles, this has fortunately not been balanced by his disappearance from the consciousness of the wider public.
Here, as if to prove the point, is a study of Chaucer’s Knight, the first of the Canterbury Pilgrims to be described, by a member of the Monty Python team, Terry Jones. Jones obviously enjoys reading Chaucer and his book conveys a personal excitement usually missing from academic studies. From the time he first came across the description of the Knight, he tells us, he was struck by the oddity of it. Why does Chaucer take 36 lines to describe the Knight when he could have made his point in eight? Jones began to read what historians had to say about the various battles in which the knight is supposed to have fought, and he gradually became convinced that the conventional account of him as one of the few pilgrims to be presented non-ironically, the perfect representative of one of the three great orders (commons, clergy, knights) into which medieval theorists divided society, was simply wrong. The Knight was, in fact, one of the new breed of ruthless mercenaries emerging in the later 14th century, men like Sir John Hawkwood, the leader of the legendary White Company, whose monument can still be seen in the Duomo in Florence next to Dante’s, who hired themselves out to petty tyrants and brought terror and destruction wherever they went. Moreover, Jones argues, Chaucer’s audience would have recognised this right away: it is only we who have lost the ability to read the clues Chaucer lays before us.
Jones brings an avalanche of facts to the defence of his thesis. He has made himself master of Middle English syntax, of the modes of construction of medieval castles, the kinds of armour worn by knights, and of the entire military history of the epoch. With the gusto of a 19th-century autodidact he builds up a powerful picture of the new breed of fighters who were gradually supplanting the old feudal knights with their oaths of allegiance to their lords and their complex chivalric lore. How much this portrait fits Chaucer’s Knight, though, is another matter. Because every detail is turned by Jones into evidence in favour of his thesis, one gradually loses faith in him: he could just as easily, one feels, have argued in the same way even if Chaucer’s description had been quite different. To take just one example, Jones makes the point again and again that men like Sir John Hawkwood infested Europe in the wake of the Hundred Years’ War. Whenever England and France patched up a peace, the mercenaries suddenly found themselves without pay and with nothing to do. No wonder everyone, from the Pope down, breathed a sigh of relief when they were invited to go off and deploy their skills in North Africa or Eastern Europe. But Jones also argues that Chaucer deliberately did not make his Knight fight in France, in order to show that he would not even defend his country in time of need. But surely Jones has given us a very good reason for Chaucer doing that: it was precisely to preserve the Knight from any suspicion of being one of the veteran mercenaries of the Hundred Years’ War. In reading this book, I was reminded of those scholarly and passionate studies of the Gospels, which are enormously convincing for the first fifty pages, about which one starts to have doubts by page 100, and which one throws away in disgust by page 150, since there is clearly no evidence which the author would not be able to turn to his advantage.
Like such books, this one has no sense of tone. Despite the wealth of information, I cannot reconcile Jones’s picture with my reading of Chaucer. Now it may be, as Jones would certainly argue, that this is just prejudice on my part: this is how I have always seen the Knight, and I’m unwilling to change my mind. Tone is always a difficult thing to discuss and an impossible thing to prove. Yet it is not wholly subjective either. The Knight, for example, is at once described as ‘a worthy man’. Jones points out that the word is used to describe a number of other pilgrims, some of whom, like the Friar, Chaucer clearly disapproves of. But one cannot fail to be struck by the difference in tone. First, the Knight:
A Knyght ther was, and that a worthy man,
That fro the tyme that he first bigan
To riden out, he loved chivalrie,
Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie.
Then, the Friar:
He knew the taverns wel in every toun
And everich hostiler and tappestere
Bet than a lazar or a beggestere;
For unto swich a worthy man as he
Accorded nat, as by his facultee,
To have with sike lazars aqueyntance.
It is nat honest, it may nat avaunce.
For to deelen with no swich poraille,
But al with riche and selleres of vitaille.
There is an impersonal authority in the description of the Knight, which is maintained throughout. But there is something funny about the description of the Friar. The twists and turns of the language suggest someone speaking, and we sense without needing to be told that that someone is none other than the Friar himself. It is he who describes himself as ‘worthy’, just as it is he who argues to the naively attentive Chaucer that ‘it is nat honest’ to have dealings with the poor, for the simple reason that ‘it may nat avaunce.’ Nor are we unduly surprised at the change, for the naive pilgrim Chaucer, who generates the irony, emerges gradually in the course of the General Prologue. He is not there when the poem opens, he is definitely there when he reports in connection with one of the Monk’s most outrageous remarks: ‘And I seyde his opinion was good.’ But is he already there in the description of the Prioress?
Irony is a tricky subject to deal with. To argue that the Knight is not presented ironically we may need more evidence than the mere juxtaposition of two uses of a single word. Such evidence, however, is there in abundance, though Jones chooses to ignore it. The Knight is the first of the pilgrims to be described; he is the first to be offered the ‘cut’ by the Host to see who will start the stories off; and, whether by chance, Chaucer says, or by destiny, it is he who picks the shortest ‘cut’ and so is asked to begin, whereupon the assembled pilgrims were all, we are told, ‘ful blithe and glad’. The only other characters in the General Prologue who appear to be presented unironically are the Parson and his brother the Plowman, and the book ends with the Parson agreeing to give the last tale, and
Upon this word we han assented soone.
For, as it seemed, it was for to doone,
To enden in som vertuous sentence.
One further bit of evidence: when the Host, who is supposed to be the arbiter of the game of tales, falls into a bitter quarrel with the Pardoner, it is the Knight who steps forward and reconciles them, reminding them that ‘as we diden, let us laugh and pleye.’
The Canterbury Tales is a notoriously problematic work. It is obviously unfinished; the pilgrims are occasionally given the wrong tales to tell; the MSS cannot agree on the right order of the tales; and some of them, like Chaucer’s own tale of Melibee or the Parson’s concluding treatise on sin and repentance, are so hard for us to take that, even with the greatest effort of the historical imagination, it is difficult to reconcile their presence with what else we know of Chaucer. But even so, it is less like Edwin Drood or Nietzsche’s Will to Power than like one of those great medieval churches whose main outlines can still be seen, though portions have crumbled here and there and whole sections may never have been started. Can it really be a coincidence that the three apparently unironic descriptions in the General Prologue are those of the representatives of the three great orders or estates? Can it be a coincidence that the Knight and the Parson begin and end the work, the latter explicitly linking the pilgrimage to St Thomas’s shrine with that other pilgrimage we all have to make to the heavenly Jerusalem? The critic who wants to cast doubt on such points needs to do more than amass facts: he needs to provide us with an alternative theory of the general ‘idea’ of the work.
David Aers is altogether more ambitious and more theoretically self-aware than Terry Jones, but he too rides a hobby-horse too hard, and in the process grows deaf to tone. Aers’s central argument is that great poets often speak truer than they know. Langland, and, to some extent, Chaucer, accepted the dominant views of their age, but their curiosity and honesty led them to describe a world far more complex, shifting and dynamic than the simple received models would allow. Aers contrasts what he calls reflexive and non-reflexive characters in Chaucer. The Wife of Bath and, especially, the Pardoner are examples of the former: they question, either through what they say or what they do, the assumptions of the time, and the Pardoner for one is well aware of the limitations of his own views. The Knight and the Parson are examples of the latter: wooden characters whom Chaucer explicitly criticises for failing to see that their utterances are the products of a specific class and institution, and in no way the natural or universal truths they imagine them to be. His view of the end of the Pardoner’s Tale, to which I referred above, when the Knight reconciles Host and Pardoner, is that the Knight ‘is as resistant to critical reflection as the Host, content with conventional assumptions and the established religious institutions’.
In the same way, he asks of the Parson: ‘Why should this man feel entitled to make dogmatic utterances about “soothfastnesse”, morality and the sinfulness of other people when he himself must be immersed in the corrupt prison, his vision correspondingly distorted and unreliable? The answer is that he should not. Lacking all self-reflexivity he totally fails to bring the grounds of his discourse, and his own fallen state, into consideration.’ I have already suggested that it is hard for us to take the Parson’s Tale today. But Aers’s argument convinces me no more than does Jones’s, What it seems to me we get in those moments when the pilgrims assent to the Knight or Parson telling his tale is a merging of individuals into a corporate identity, and what I suspect the Parson’s Tale is trying to achieve is the presentation of that authoritative voice which is not the voice of Jack or Jill but of an entire community. It is probably true that Chaucer was, like Mozart and unlike Bach or Stravinsky, better at representing the dramatic clash of individual voices than the merging of all into the corporate voice of prayer, but it would be wrong to deny that this is what he was up to.
Aers, of course, would deny it strenuously, because for him the Church, like the State, is an institution, and one so deeply embroiled in the saeculum that all pretence to authority is both bogus and oppressive. He sees the medieval ideals of marriage or of the Three Estates as instruments of control by the parties in power, the Church and State, all the more anxious to preserve their privileges as they note the rumblings from below. At one point he quotes Leszek Kolakowski on the difference between the priest and the jester: ‘The priest is the guardian of the absolute; he sustains the cult of the final and the obvious as acknowledged by and contained in tradition. The jester is he who moves in good society without belonging to it, and treats it with impertinence; he who doubts all that appears self-evident...to unveil the nonobvious behind the obvious, the nonfinal behind the final.’ Chaucer, of course, is the jester, and Aers warns of ‘the disturbing implications of being a jester in a culture where priests and intellectual policemen play a major role’. But Kolakowski’s is a deceptive model. England in the Middle Ages was not like Kolakowski’s image of Communist Russia, and though such remarks have a hard-headed radical ring to them they do nothing to help us understand Chaucer or Langland or their age.
In an earlier and much better book, Piers Plowman and Christian Allegory (1975), Aers has argued that the debate among medievalists over whether poets wrote what Erich Auerbach called figural allegory – allegory somehow involved with history and change – or whether they wrote what Aers terms picture allegory – the mere mechanical substitution of one element for another – is not one which can be solved by a simple yes or no. Most medieval theology and literature, he argued, is picture allegory: ‘The images are removed from their controlling contexts and attached to certain terms of a different order, pell-mell. Again the time-dimension, so vital to the notion of progressive revelation, is destroyed.’ By contrast, Langland is deeply concerned with process, change, the complexities of life. His work is probing and exploratory where that of most poets is static and wooden. ‘Once again,’ he says, ‘the critic must stay alert to the process of Langland’s figurative modes, and responsive to the particular religious intelligence they manifest.’
I wonder, though, whether the high value we place on terms like ‘exploratory’, ‘probing’ and ‘process’ is not itself historically conditioned. Both Jones and Aers would have us see irony where I suspect there is none. Neither is willing to take something like the description of the Knight or the tale of the Parson ‘straight’: for Aers, to be content, as we are told the Knight and Host are, with ‘conventional assumptions and the established religious institutions’ is to be not only naive but party to a monstrous fraud. There is a mighty gap between medieval society as it sees itself and as it ‘really’ is, and Chaucer and Langland are clear-sighted enough to see through the web of ideology to the reality behind it, while the rest of the literature of the time is content merely to repeat and reinforce it. But this seems to me to be a naive notion of ideology, and Chaucer and Langland, I suspect, have more in common with their contemporaries than with a poet like Milton, of whom Aers seems (not surprisingly, given the Protestant bent of his mind) to be particularly fond. What, for example, would Aers do with a poem like ‘I sing of a maiden’, which seems content to reiterate the commonplaces of the day, yet which is a moving and powerful work of art?
It may be that Aers has not grasped the importance of the lines from Psalm 36 which he quotes from Langland: ‘When the just man shall fall, he shall not be bruised: for the Lord putteth his hand under him.’ There is a confidence about medieval art which suggests that it all springs from a common ground. This is not easy to analyse, for it is not something to be found ‘in’ this or that work, but, as I have said, is the common ground from which all spring. That is the significance of figura: it is not a technical or poetic device, but an expression of the sense of the meaningfulness of history. And it is out of such a sense that Chaucer and Langland question the complex and shifting values of their day.
Scholars bending over individual works are more responsive to the new, the surprising, the individuating, than to the common. Criticism, too, is better-equipped for dealing with surface change than with underground continuity. The new volume in Chatto’s marvellous series of manuscript illustrations is a case in point. The plates, beautifully reproduced, show how close England was to the Continent in the High Middle Ages, and how different the art of the time was from what was to come in the Renaissance. The cover shows what is perhaps the most beautiful painting in the greatest book of the period, the Très Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry: Adam and Eve in a circular walled paradise with a high fountain of life, elaborately wrought, springing up in the centre. The pleasure of the painting, as of all medieval illustration, comes primarily from the assurance with which the design is imposed on the surface of the page. Within the circle of Paradise we are shown four episodes: the temptation, Eve giving Adam the apple, God accusing them, and the angel sending them out of a magnificent gate which echoes the fountain. The painting is thus a combination of the centred and the decentred. The individual elements, we feel, could not so confidently escape the boundaries of the frame, and move out into the page, were there not a very strong sense of the rightness and necessity of what is being represented. This is a highly sophisticated art, but it partakes of the elements of the most naive. Indeed, what we term naivety in medieval art springs from that confidence in a world upheld by God, and it is this which vanishes when the Renaissance encloses paintings firmly within their single frames and single viewpoints – no longer the viewpoint of God but that of the painter or the viewer.
Yet our art history has for a century or more been dominated by a German, Renaissance-based tradition. Reading Panofsky or Millard Meiss (who has done more than anyone else to make accessible to us the world of art with which this book is concerned), one is easily browbeaten into accepting that Whig view of the history of art which in other fields these brilliantly intelligent scholars would surely be the first to resist. What they focus on is how far such art approximates to the antique and heralds the Renaissance. All that Marcel Thomas can say about the painting of the Garden of Eden, for example, is that Adam in the second episode is clearly modelled on a Roman statue of a wounded Persian. But an unbiased look at the pages reproduced in this volume surely reveals that the whole attitude to the picture is quite different from that of the Italian Renaissance or of Dürer. What we could say of even the most humble medieval manuscript illumination is that its very shortcomings as an aesthetic object are the source of its power, for it conveys, across the centuries, a potent sense of its ground in faith. It is this which led Proust to talk of a little figure almost hidden on a portal of Amiens as striking us with the power, ‘not of mere art, but of our deepest memories’.
Proust reminds us that there is an alternative to the German art-historical tradition. It is the tradition of Ruskin, of Proust himself, of Benjamin on aura, of Adrian Stokes, of Lawrence Gowing on Vermeer. Its patient exploration of the phenomenology of perception, rather than the brilliant and erudite iconographic work of Panofsky and his disciples, can best help us to understand that it is what Chaucer and Langland have in common with the anonymous art of the Middle Ages, not what sets them apart, that is the source of their greatness.
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