Tag Archives: CHAUCER

Medieval Revolt and the Dialectic of the Icon

5 Dec

Instruments of Devotion and the

 Demise of the Icon with the Advent of Lollardry



            The idea that an image can convey a message is nothing new; in fact, the genre that society has become so familiar with through the medium of film and graphic novel can probably trace its roots back to the cave paintings in Lascaux in France. Although early man was illiterate, he was able to convey that which was important to him through imagery. In Lascaux we see images of what appear to be hunters chasing wild animals, many of which are now extinct. The only surviving record of them apart from their inanimate presence in the fossil records is the extraordinary animation they retain, despite the millennia they have endured, on the lime stone walls of the French caves. Just as primitive man wished to convey a message, so did those living in the Church-centric world of the Middle Ages. Despite the fact that literacy as a medium was not as prominent in the laity of the period, there existed a strong alternative through which “necessary” information could be conveyed. In exploring the significance of the medieval icon one can begin to understand the willingness with which it was accepted and the utility it supplied in supporting the hegemony of the Catholic Church. Not only did icons help to maintain the defacto power of the institution through their spiritual and financial exploitation, they also gave rise to a Reformist voice in the form of Lollardry. By comparing and contrasting both the importance and the controversy that surrounded reliquary and iconography and the reformist teachings and movements of the period, it is possible to identify some of the many reasons that led to the eventual collapse of the spiritual monopoly enjoyed by the Catholic Church.

            The medieval period bore witness to the sacerdotium, the earthly priestly hierarchy responsible for the salvation of souls. This meant that not only was the heavenly salvation of the public, via their earthly wealth, up for grabs, but so was their usefulness via their tacit acquiescence. In order to achieve these ends there had to be a means by which the people of the period, either through cognitive dissonance or religious indoctrination, would allow themselves to be manipulated. Through the coercion of Biblical readings, textual exploitation and most importantly iconography, the church was able to maintain its position of dominance and remain at the center of medieval life for many centuries. It’s the importance of iconography both literal and physical that is significant.

            According to Yale professor Keith Wrightson, who lectures on early medieval Catholicism in England, there were “myriad examples of functional iconography to be found within the churches and cathedrals of the period, where beautiful examples of medieval art were available to a God fearing public.” (115)  In particular the cathedrals of Ely, York and Durham offered the illiterate laity a visually rich religion. Access to God for the common man was through the Church and its sacraments and in particular through partionary prayer. By offering gifts or by venerating icons the supplicant was able to ask the painted, plaster saints to intercede with God on their behalf. Given that there was widespread illiteracy amongst the contemporary public and that the Bible was only available in Latin, the conveyance of the Biblical narrative was most successfully achieved through visual representation. “Rood screens, paintings, statues and religious relics were all stock-in-trade pedagogic ephemera to the Catholic Church.” (122)  The Stained glass windows, for example, in Exeter Cathedral depict in seven glass panels the wounds of Christ interconnected to images of the seven sacraments and served as a focus for congregational education and veneration. “The contrived link,” writes Wrightson, “between Christ and the Church precipitated community participation and a general understanding of what it was the Catholic Church was trying to convey.”(137) Similarly the devotion to the shrines of particular saints is well documented and those of Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral and the great shrine of Saint Cuthbert in Durham were both important destinations of medieval pilgrimage. “Pilgrims would decorate icons with rosary beads and offer gifts for the dressing of statues… in the account books of contemporary church wardens the wills and generous donations of prominent parishioners can be found for the beautification and restoration of alters and chapels dedicated to favorite saints.” (136) The Christian religion of the medieval period lent itself to the aphorism that an image was representative of a thousand words and therefore, was nothing if not opulent.

            Although the word of God in the form of the Bible was of primary importance in proliferating Christianity, it was the instruments of devotion that helped to spread and sustain the faith. Concrete, albeit painted, evidence of a divinity that existed beyond the constraints of an earthly realm was necessary in order to excite the imaginations of the faithful and ensure sustained obedience to the teachings of the Church. This was demonstrated in ways which are still accessible to contemporary scholars. The iconography of the period hangs in museums and galleries, the tales of pilgrims on the road to Canterbury can be found in our libraries and the objects of medieval adoration can still be seen to this day in many European cathedrals.  Instruments of Devotion deals with the subject of iconography, its effect and its social, religious and political importance. The book edited by Henning Laugerud and Laura Katrine Skinnebach delves into the practices and objects of religious piety from the period of the Late Middle Ages onwards. This collection of lectures and essays, through which the editors offer well-researched historicism, documents the importance of religious imagery to both the Church and those who viewed it. The book describes in detail, what to contemporary society may appear as simply pictographs, the complex, instructional medium that helped to bind the common man to the Church and helped maintain it in its position of preeminence during a historical period when Christianity was at the center of public life. People lived in a God-centric universe defined by preordained estates and owed their allegiance and prayers to those who existed beyond the mortal plain. According to Laugerud, “… life on earth was simply the interim of hardship before the reward of eternal bliss.” (6) This being so, it was the duty of the Church to inform those of their congregation who were inevitably destined for heaven or hell of their options and what could be done on earth to assuage the demons of mortality and insure the angels of grace. By means of “visual theory,” (7) pictographs and artistic impression developed into a viable means of medieval pictorial technology. Successful information dissemination was therefore established via the medium of art.

            The chapter  Piety, Practice and Process which references an excerpt written by Henrik Von Achen, deals with the phenomenon of a rewarded life, where Henrik proposes that human redemption is not encapsulated within the limits of the soul but rather, that salvation was accessible through “books, pictures, music, and liturgical practices.” (24) Von Achen suggests that piety can be studied through the instruments of devotion that were utilized during the period. This being “true,” the religious ephemera which we still see in our modern society takes on a whole new meaning. Rather than gaudy, expensive and over expressive, the icons that have survived can be seen at their most basic as instructional and at their most sinister as religious propaganda. The traditions of “spiritual deference” (13) embodied within medieval art are an “important ingredient” (13) in understanding the medieval psyche. Von Achen suggests that “the instrument, or image, played a constitutional role in creating that special, intense, and existential meeting between God and the individual believer,”(14) and so rather than just color on canvas or paint on brick, iconography was fundamental  in what we today recognize as faith. Modern Christians may also speak of faith whereas the medieval characterization of the same religious emotion would be devotion or objectified fetishism; something which is still very apparent in the contemporary Roman Catholic Church.

            Given the position of the Church and its rivalry with monarchy in the temporal hierarchy of the estates, their ability to communicate and show the message of God would have been akin to being the owner of the only newspaper in town. Equally able to repress and promote the pertinent message of the hour, the Church was the sole source of doctrinal dissemination and the Rupert Murdoch of its day. In order to popularize their ideas, themes were a very important part of illumination. Recognizable Biblical characters and religious tracts were incorporated into art with the addition of recognizable human emotion. For instance, the image of the heart which we see time and again in clerical imagery is one that has been coopted to represent so many different things. In particular, in the iconography of the period, man’s immediate access to God through means of either Grace or heartfelt prayer. In ancient cultures the heart had consistently been seen as the source of reason but instead rose to prominence in the late medieval period as the center of human emotion, something with which our own society is still familiar.  Iconography created a common ground that reflected on the relationship between the art and the supplicant instead of the dogmatic teachings that had been common in earlier religious education. (27)

            The Medieval citizen, according to the essays edited by Flemming in the work Medieval Iconography and Narrative, “had a more inclusive concept of reality [and] … saw much more than we do.”(187) Knud Banning, one of the collected essayists, proposes that a modern day visionary is understood to see beyond what is the norm and in this sense can be applied to medieval supplicants of religious art. His essay, The Book and Church Wall, goes even further and boldly states that during the period, visions defined reality and that religious art was a means of “giving their own mysticism [substance and even] credibility. (187) Banning points out that although the experience of God is not within the art, it is the art that provoked the sense of Christ that was used as an aid to visualization during private moments of devotion and prayer. The evocation of Christ through familiar religious symbolism would probably have stayed with the devotee for the rest of their life. Hence, the importance of icons in rural churches, as well as those to be found in major centers of population. No matter the location and despite the fact that most congregations wouldn’t have been able understand the Latin used during the sermon, there would have existed a religious affinity, albeit with an individual image emblazoned upon their memory.

            “The importance of images had to do with the importance of sight and vision and their connection with knowledge and understanding.” (173) Fleming focuses particular attention in several of the collected essays to impress the idea of a story-board iconography that could impart this idea. The concept, for instance, of the painted Triptych which can be found in so many of our Cathedrals and galleries today is not an artefact of artistic whim, but rather a means of apportioned learning. The book delves into the process of conquering souls through intense focus, where the Triptych could be separated and used, much as a teacher uses a black-board, to educate congregations. Not only was it utilitarian in its pedagogical sense, but it was also a point of focus for prayer and supplication. Rather than an ephemeral, stylistic image of God in his heaven, a universal icon was available that could create a sense of unity and community. It wasn’t for nothing that pilgrims would progress to distant destinations to view a remarkable mural or observe a particular relic. It was precisely the visual that was their reward for their ardors and a moral boost to their already keen sense of what they believed: the imagery confirming their own “true” paths and ultimate destinations. According to the essay The Role of the Frontispiece or Prefatory Picture by Elizabeth Salter and Derek Pearsall, medieval scholars understood that “the theory of visual cognition became the common ground for all theories of vision in the Middle Ages.”(175) Saint Augustine writes in The Confessions, as they remark, “that sight is the chief of our senses in the acquisition of knowledge and is… the divine language”(175) and the modern aphorism of “a lust for the eyes” can be found in Augustine’s fifth century writings, although this was first emphasized in the Gospel of Saint John, which helped develop Augustine’s later comments on the importance of sight, when John writes, “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world.” “The act of seeing was both a sacramental aspect and an aspect of identification.”(180) By persevering with the idea that religious devotion as well as religious hegemony  were of major importance to the Church, the book continues to define the icon as not simply  a work of art but as an “instrument of piety”(180) utilized as a medium for the “transference of grace.”(180) But this is perhaps a one sided view.

            The medieval period is renowned for the ecclesiastical iconography that framed both the ambition of the Catholic Church and its ability to maintain control over a servile population. Given that the tools of the trade were in the hands of Mother Church, one can easily envision how the ignorant masses were psychologically coerced: a classic example of knowledge being the key to power and the mysterious revelations of all things Biblical existing as the only moral route to heaven. In a society that was both controlled and ruled by the Church, an illiterate lay population would have been relatively easy to manipulate through the power of iconography and strict adherence to Church doctrine. The perception that clerical truth was the only tolerated truth was implemented via the teachings of the Church and through the iconic representation of religious lore. Professor Wrightson describes the resentment felt by those eager for the reform of an institution “that failed to castigate pride and worldliness, especially within its own organization.” (142) The use of religious icons to generate clerical wealth went far beyond scripture and consequently was unrepresentative of the teachings of God.

             One such dissenter to these contrived teachings, writes Christ Von-Wedel, was Erasmus of Rotterdam, “a seminal figure in the proto-protestant movement, whose ideas and dissatisfaction with the Catholic Church gave rise to the advent of other dissidents such as John Wycliffe and the Lollard movement.”(64) Erasmus, she states, was hostile to the privileges extolled by the Church and recognized the reverence to guilded saints as fraudulent and idolatrous, purgatory as a false doctrine and sermons for souls as a racket based on a misappropriation of  Biblical authority. As Erasmus was keenly aware, the worship of imagery was bound to induce clerical corruption given the esteem with which they were held by a supplicant laity. Erasmus of Rotterdam was a man more interested in a Bible centered faith than religious fetishism and famously remarked “that with all the true splinters of the cross to be found in the churches and cathedrals throughout Europe, there were probably enough to rebuild Noah’s Ark.” (66)

            This search for true faith, writes Dean, is evident in the anticlerical literature of the period and the denouncement of religious orders, such as the friars, in their ability to adhere to the pious lifestyles they proposed for others. William Langland’s Piers Ploughman is vociferous on this issue and can be read as a polemic in its clerical views and recognized as a piece of “early” propaganda for a religious alternative to the Catholic Church. “Langland’s narrator,” writes Dean, “consults friars – a Franciscan, a Dominican, an Augustinian and a Carmelite, respectively – hoping to learn what he calls the “graith,” the plain truth, but is dismayed that the friars instead denounce the rival fraternal orders or try to dun him for money.” (15) Langland writes of the familiarity the laity has with the clerical devices and the icons of the church, but of the inability of the individual to delve deeper into the true theology of the Bible.(15)  Langland’s dreamer remonstrates that many people know their prayers, their specific saints and canonical responses but little else. Dean points out that, “The implication is that the friars do not know the Creed, which was a charge often leveled against the fraternal orders.” (16) Awakening from the cognitive malaise in the belief of the power of the Church, Langland’s protagonist recognizes in himself that there is more to scripture than is being represented by the clergy and that the way to God is not through the veneration of reliquary and pilgrimage but through truth and personal spiritual supplication as witnessed by his quest for the characters of Lady Study, Clergy and Scripture.(90) The engagement with something deeper mirrors the concerns voiced by Erasmus and later by John Wycliffe and Martin Luther. There is an awareness, writes Langland, of  kynd  – “the father and maker of everything ever made” (87) – of something else, of an existential preexisting relationship between man and God that transcends parables, decorated alters and pilgrimages.

             The later emphasis given by the Church to the Ten Commandments instead of the Seven Deadly Sins, to the eventual detriment of the Church’s own hegemony, also reflected a conscious movement towards a tangible God, as evidenced by the first three of the commandments in the Decalogue that are all concerned with disavowing idolatry: a misstep perhaps of naïve, pious intent on the part of the Church? The earlier teachings of the Church, Bossy writes, as proposed by Augustine, were later accepted, along with the new moral code represented by the Ten Commandments, by both the Catholics and Lutherans, which included the prohibition of graven images (217) “As well as being a ritual and moral code … against the worshipping of strange gods… the rationale of the Decalogue was the prohibition of idolatry.”(217) It was thought that the movement away from the teachings of the Seven Deadly Sins in favor of the Decalogue presented a moral code that was more focused on one’s own obligations to God than it was to painted imagery and reliquary. Naturally this radical change in teaching met with opposition and support from both sides of the aisle and in particular Saint Antonio of Florence who decreed that equal time should be given to both the Sins and the Decalogue.(226)  Bossy suggests (226) that this schism was caused by business morality and not spirituality and may account for the climax of religious art in the mid sixteenth century by “artists who depicted the Seven Sins with more vigor than ever before” and who had never found true inspiration in the Ten Commandments. This historical switch between fundamental moral teachings can be seen in particular with the Church reformists such as the Lollards who in “an iconoclastic passion…destroyed a whole epoch of European visual culture.” (229) Thanks to the ethics of the newly revived Decalogue and the advent of religious reformism, idol worship became the fundamental enemy of all Christians.

            The Lollards, according to Rex were “a decentralized religious movement with no core belief system or doctrine…their ambition to remove the obstacle of the Church from a personal relationship with God was paramount in their aspirations.” (24) Rather than follow the obviously corrupt Catholic Church the Lollards used original scripture to further their religious goals. Recognizing, just as the dreamer had in Langland’s poem, that the Church had been corrupted by pride and self-aggrandizement in the pursuit of temporal wealth, it had metamorphosed into a misrepresentation of its own Christian heredity and therefore, Christianity as a whole. (27)  The Lollards insisted that chantries, dispensations and the idea of purgatory was anathema to the “true faith” and were merely instruments of clerical coercion in the control of the populous and the accumulation of wealth. The Lollards also expressed iconoclasm. The excesses of the Catholic faith were seen as wasteful and the money used to adorn churches and the like could better go to help the poor and the needy. The worship of idols and painted saints was perceived as derogatory to true faith, as it took away from that which was truly owed to God.

             This iconoclastic belief was inherent, according to Hudson, in what can be regarded as their spiritual manifesto, known as The Twelve Conclusions, which they posted in 1395 as testimony to their own beliefs.(71) Understanding the business like nature of the Catholic Church and its accumulation of wealth through reliquary and iconic representation as well as other insidious means, their first conclusion stated “forbid the acquisition of temporal wealth by any means as this was detriment to Christian values and led to greed.”(72) The eighth conclusion also attacked idolatry and directly referenced the worship of saints, the adoration of the image and the homage of the pilgrimage, all of which were central to the spiritual lives of medieval Christians. (72) The Conclusion points out the farcicality of reverence towards images and statues, “If the cross of Christ, the nails, the spear and crown and thorns are to be honored, then why not honor Judas’s lips, if only they could be found?”(59) This veniality towards idolatry and therefore by extension the religious icon  can be seen in later years with the advent of Protestantism and to a larger degree in Puritanism where everything representative of God and the scriptures was completely removed from the Church to the extreme that medieval images painted on church walls were white-washed over.

            Having compared and contrasted both the importance and controversy that surrounded reliquary, iconography and reformist teachings it is possible to identify some of the events and attitudes that led to the eventual collapse of the spiritual monopoly enjoyed by the Church. Although the Lollards were suppressed and some of their number burned at the stake, writes Rex, their ideas eventually succeeded to the point that the hegemony of the Catholic Church and the importance of iconology within the Christian tradition, especially in England, was eviscerated. (65) The relationship with God would become a personal one communicated by prayer and contrition rather than the adoration of ephemera. The relevance of iconography was that it established an important instrument of power wielded by the Church over its followers and the very real danger to the status quo of organized, centralized religion that the advent of the Lollards and their translation of the Bible as well as other reformists represented. Rome’s hegemonic power was experiencing a momentous destabilization that would eventually manifest itself as Protestantism, the rise of the Iconoclasts and eventual schism. The word would take the place of the symbolic which ironically, as we recognize from our own modern culture which thrives on advertising and product placement, would lead to the negation and demise of religion in Western society. No longer being able to experience theistic imagery would take away the personal experience of a painted God and instead resign human salvation to the black and white of Caxton’s press. The eventual preeminence, Bossy writes, of the Ten Commandments and the success of reformists such as the Lollards  meant that churches were stripped of their icons and religious murals and in their place, “above the denuded altars of English churches” (228) textual representations of the Decalogue were painted, replacing the Host, Lights, images and sacramental paraphernalia of the old regime (228) Illustrating this point, Thomas Hardy wrote in Jude the Obscure, “ The tables of Jewish Law towered sternly over the utensils of Christian grace.”(229) Therefore, the demise of reliquary and iconography was the consequence of the prohibition of worshipping false gods and a shift in religious teaching and reformist attitudes.




Ed. Flemming G. Andersen. Medieval Iconography and Narrative. Odense University Press.Odense.1980. Print.

Banning, Knud. The Book and the Church Wall. Ed. Flemming G. Andersen. Medieval Iconography and Narrative. Odense University Press.Odense.1980. Print. Ch 10.

Bossy, John. Moral Arithmetic: Seven Sins into Ten Commandments. In Conscience and Casuistry in Early Modern Europe. Ed.Edmund Leites.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Paris: Editions de la maison de sciences del’homme,1988. Pp 214-34

Christ Von-Wedel, Christine. Erasmus of Rotterdam. University of Toronto Press.Toronto, ON. 2013. Print.

Dean, James, M. Six Ecclesiastical Satires. Medieval Institute Publications. Kalamazoo, Michigan.1991. Print. 

Hudson Anne. Selections from English Wycliffite Writings. University of Toronto Press. Toronto.1997.Print.

Trans. A.V.C. Schmidt. Langland, William. Piers Ploughman. Oxford University Press. New York. 1992

Ed. Henning, Langerud and Laura Skinnebach. Instruments of Devotion.  Aarhus University Press. Gylling, Denmark.2007.Print.

Von Achen, Henrik. Piety, Practise and Process. Ed. Henning, Langerud and Laura Skinnebach. Instruments of Devotion.  Aarhus University Press. Gylling, Denmark.2007.Print. Ch 4.

Laugerud, Henning. Visuality and Devotion in the Middle Ages. Ed. Henning, Langerud and Laura Skinnebach. Instruments of Devotion.  Aarhus University Press. Gylling, Denmark.2007.Print.Ch 10.

Rex, Richard. The Lollards. Houndsmill, Basingstoke, Hampshire; New York: Palgrave 2002.Print

Ed. Keith, Wrightson and David, Levine. Poverty and Piety in an English Village.Terling. Oxford University Press, U.S.A. 1997.Print.



1 May



or in other words…  “WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT?”



  Ostensibly a love poem that depicts love both found and lost, Chaucer’s “Troilus and Cressida” contains a deeper undercurrent of complexity than is at first obvious. The encirclement of the Trojans by the Greeks and the shifting politics within the besieged city itself were reminiscent of the political maneuverings which at the time of writing were redolent of England. Political upheaval, regime change, power struggle, and both internal and foreign conflict would have been as apparent to Chaucer’s readers as they were to the poem’s characters themselves. Chaucer captures the political mood of the 14th century in his poetry and manages to incorporate the essence of those struggling for and those trying to maintain power. Included in his narrative are the machinations of the crown and government as well as the religious, social, and gender politics of the period. This contemporary narrative set in a prehistoric pagan period emulates in many aspects the medieval climate of the 1380’s.

               “Troilus and Cressida” is a macrocosm of British upheaval and unrest, the political climate of the day undoubtedly very much in the mind of the author whilst penning his poetry. An astute political awareness would have been vital in order to assuage criticism and at the same time promote his writing and entertain his readership. During his life time Chaucer was the subject of three different monarchs, a protagonist in war, an envoy, a civil servant and both a relation and benefactor of the monarchy. It was within his own interest to ensure that any political commentary in his writing favored those who favored him. Although the medieval spotlight is often focused on the alternative view, his characters tend to err on the side of righteousness or suffer the consequences. Chaucer was well-aware, that not only was he a writer, but also a courtier soliciting the favor of his King. To the readers of the period Chaucer’s inclusions would no doubt have been recognizable, the quotidian drama of political intrigue and social controls adding an element of familiarity.

               Chaucer astutely introduced the politics of the late 14th century into “Troilus and Cressida” in order to flesh his characters and color his writings, giving it an appeal that would foment both recognition and notoriety. The poem includes allusions to social, religious, and gender politics. By incorporating the events of the period and utilizing those ideals recognized as the social standard, he embellishes his characters with both vice and virtue whilst carefully crafting a 14th century story in a pagan setting. By analyzing the events of the period and comparing these to the narrative of the poem it’s possible to review the politics of a Chaucerian England.

               Troy is an embattled city, a nation state besieged by the Greeks. Whilst the Trojans languish behind high walls the enemy is encamped in the surrounding countryside. Conflict is a daily occurrence and the balance of power hangs precariously. One wrong move and the city will be besieged – its inhabitants murdered, its wealth plundered and its buildings destroyed. Although a story of antiquity, the plight of the Trojans is not dissimilar to medieval England. “The besieged monarchy of Richard II staggering under debt of war created from successive unsuccessful forays with France, forced the country into austerity and the English to relinquish their conquests on the continent.” (Dobson 124.) In order to recoup the losses created by perpetual war the young King – under the guidance of his uncle John of Gaunt – is craftily advised to illicit a pole tax from the people; a tax that demanded that every person in England pay an equal portion whether rich or poor. This meant that both the wealthy and the impoverished had to pay a fee to the crown. A system detested by the poor but lauded by the landed, as with tax evasion and the misappropriation of funds the wealthy paid nothing and consequently profited off the backs of the serfs who had little choice but to pay. Given that it was the poor who were doing the fighting and dying, the titled and positioned saw no reason why they shouldn’t also pay for the experience. For the first time in English History (1381) the people revolted, organized themselves into peasant armies and marched on London. A beggar’s army led by such inspirational figures as Watt Tyler and John Ball, ordinary men who dared to confront and bear arms against the representative of God on earth. In their attempts to pacify the so-called rebels the King met with them in the city, and after calculated deception and the murder of their leaders a militia loyal to the crown dispersed the rebels and the rebellion was quashed. Despite the outcome, the poll tax was abolished and the wars of expansion on the continent curtailed. One of the demands made by the mob, the practice and policy of serfdom, declined, and workers wages, also unfairly restricted by the crown, began once again to rise. At the same time the power of Parliament was in the ascension and political debate began to challenge the divine right of monarchy.

               Chaucer uses the idea of political rebellion to great effect within his poetry in several different instances. When we first encounter Cressida she’s the abandoned daughter of the considered traitor Calkas. Her father has foreseen the downfall of Troy and after weighing his options defects to the Greeks. This treachery is common knowledge among the Trojans who seek revenge upon his daughter Cressida, the sins of the father to be visited upon the daughter in appropriation for his treason and deceit. It’s whispered among the common people of Troy that upon sight Cressida will be burnt alive and killed as recompense for the danger in which her father has placed them.

“That Calkas fled was an allied./…And seyden al his kin at-ones ben worthi for to Brennen, fel and bones.” (1-87-91)

               Here we see a mirroring of the English peasants standing up against the King all be it reverse imagery. This may be precautionary on the part of Chaucer, who rather than displaying those who line their pockets as miscreants and thieves, instead are represented as charitable and benevolent. The revengeful Trojan public eager for the blood of Cressida is representative of the Peasants Revolt of 1381. It’s the ordinary citizens who would kill and depose the affluent, an allusion perhaps to King Richard and his meeting with Watt Tyler at Mile-End in London? There the King under the protection of the militia tricked Tyler, had him murdered, dispersed the mob, and enacted a state of exception, or rather they instituted martial law. The state of exception installed in England after the rebellion is representative of the besieged city of Troy, Cressida taking the place of the embattled King Richard. This shows Richard and Cressida in a favorable light as they are both portrayed as just, honest, and without sin, therefore worthy of saving.

               Royal politics are also portrayed in the poem. King Richard II was a very young King, not having achieved his majority at his coronation and therefore, as was the custom, appointed a Regent in the form of his uncle John of Gaunt. Cressida is saved by the grace of Prince Hector the son of King Priam, not by the King himself.

“On knees she fil biforn Ector adown…/ His mercy bad, hirselven excusyinge.” (1-110-112)

“Now was this Ector pitous of nature…/ And seyde”Lat youre fadres treson gon forth with meschaunce, and ye yourself in joie.” (1-112-116)


               An allusion to the power-struggle in England at that time, where John of Gaunt, a patron and a relation to Chaucer, was responsible for the political decisions of State and the Privy Purse. Priam, the King of Troy is replaced by his son Hector the great Trojan hero. Chaucer craftily embodies the King and his Gaunt in the characters of Priam and Hector ensuring that both are adequately accounted for and that both receive equal dedication.

               Shortly after the rebellion Parliament addressed the issues that had given rise to public instability and dealt with them accordingly. Known as the “Wonderful Parliament” they achieved greater power if not a parity with monarchy by pressing for royal reform. They asserted their position by prosecuting those who’d willfully stolen from the state and accused several of the King’s closest confidants of treason, removing them from the King’s inner circle, and in some instances executing them. “John of Gaunt was initially charged but later reprieved thanks to the influence of Richard himself.”(Collins 67) “The Wonderful Parliament” features in Chaucer’s writing and can be discerned in the figure of Pandarus, the advisor to Troilus, and also in the contrite Trojan council who later decrees that Cressida be given up to the Greeks as ransom for Antenor.

“Priam, the kyng, ful soone in general let her upon his palement to holde.”

The embassadours ben answere for final th’ exchaaunge of prisoners…/and forth in they procede( 4-144-47) 

               Pandarus, the uncle of Cressida, sees an opportunity to manipulate a love affair between Troilus and his niece. Promising the love-sick Prince that he can obtain his love for him, Pandarus demands that his actions aren’t forgotten and that ultimately he’ll be rewarded for his arbitration.

“And whan that Pandare herde hire name nevene…/Lord he was glad”(1-876-78)

               It’s possible here to see allusions to the poor advice of “…King Richard’s inner circle of advisors, the advice of John of Gaunt, and also to the power of the “Wonderful Parliament” itself.”(Goodman p.56) A royal figure is being controlled and manipulated in each instance. It only remains for the reader to decide, which is which? Chaucer is very ambiguous in his casting and tends to use the ideas of the day rather than point fingers at definite personalities. The notion that the machinations of ancient Troy are on a par with those of modern England are extremely tantalizing.

               The “Wonderful Parliament” features for a second time in the poem when Troilus begs the Trojan council for the release of Cressida. Having lost prestige in battle, similar to the taint of scandal on King Richard, the council refuses his request and Cressida is handed over. Despite the fact that she initially had the patronage of Hector – John of Gaunt – she’s now nothing more than chattel and no longer worthy of consideration. The strength of Parliament at that particular period was clearly greater than that of the throne and although Chaucer may be playing both ends against the middle he’s careful not to point the finger adroitly, once again employing the politics of the day to enliven his story.

               Religious politics play a significant role in 14th century England and Chaucer is wise to ensure that his characters that resemble medieval Christians do in fact engender the psyche and religious morals of pagan Troy. As always Chaucer offers his epithet that his knowledge is based on the books of his predecessors and therefore cannot be faulted for any mistakes or misunderstandings invoking the one to true God to bless his enterprise. Although a tale of polytheism and righteous pagan attitudes there is an obvious sense of modernity within his verse.

“But ye lovers that bathen in gladnesse if any drope of pyte in yow be remember yow on passed hevynesse” (1-22-23) 

               Allusions to Boccaccio and his “Filostrato”, the original manuscript from which Chaucer drew some of his ideas, are not surprisingly amalgamated into the poetry given that Chaucer was translating the work at the time of writing. The principal point of the “Filostrato” is that earthly delights are nothing when compared with heavenly, and therefore one can better work towards the afterlife than pursue vanity and earthly desires in order to be assured of God’s grace. Troilus is therefore viewed in medieval terms but excused for his prehistoric manners. In the sense of universal power and the politics of a divine maneuvering supreme being, just as the King of England is all powerful, God observes everything and everyone. The idea of omnipotence poses the paradox of divine intervention and free will. If Boccaccio is to be understood then free will takes second place, and therefore those pursuing terrestrial pleasures are doomed to failure, hence Chaucer’s characters are doomed from the very outset. Much as the wheel-of-fortune turns, so does the unfolding of the divine plan therefore, as the characters climb we know that they will eventually be crushed under the same wheel that bought them to the pinnacle of happiness. Thus Hector will fail in his promise to keep Cressida safe. Boccaccio’s ideas of simple and conditional necessity ensure that no matter the decisions taken the outcome is already known, and free will, although allowing for perceived choice, is in fact already ordained. If God doesn’t create all, but knows all, then the outcome of any action is predetermined. One can only hope for the intervention of God and therefore prayer is never a wasted exercise, as Chaucer well-knows when dedicating his poems and hoping for heavenly intervention. Divine political hierarchy is therefore sacrosanct and the machinations of men are nothing but mere vanity.

               At the end of the poem the power of the medieval church is once again intoned in the fate of Troilus after his death. Unlike Cressida, Troilus has proven loyal and chaste and so Chaucer uses consideration in his placement in the afterlife. Rather than receiving entrance to a Christian heaven with God in his Imperium he is instead sent to the “eighth sphere” where with the stars he is fixed in the firmament for eternity.

“His lighte goost ful blissfully is went up to the holughnesse of the eighthe spere in convers leyting everich element.” (5-1808-10) 

               By reminding his readership that only Christians may enter the Kingdom of Heaven Chaucer fulfills his politically correct duty. Once again acquiescing to political pressure he ends his book with a prayer to the true God, despite having earlier prayed to pagan gods and invoked both furies and muses to help him with his text to admonish his characters. Bowing to tradition he asks for the protection of the Trinity to ensure not only the success of his “little book,” but to appease the religious authorities, and finally prays to be worthy of Christ’s mercy.

“Thow oon and two and thre, eterne on lyve that regnet ay in threand two and oon…/defende, and to thy mercy everichon.” (5-1864-1867) 

               Fourteenth-century gender politics are not least among Chaucer’s allusions and he uses these constantly to demonstrate the hierarchy that exists between the would-be lovers, those who put them together, and those who hope to profit by their union. The troubadour tradition of courtly love, or fin-amors, reverses the power positions within the relationship of Troilus and Cressida. Troilus is a son of Priam, the King of Troy, and therefore high on the social ladder. Cressida is the daughter of a traitor and a woman to boot, and so lower than he. The desire which he feels for her and the “hereos” he suffers because of his lust reverse their positions. The medieval document “Roman de la Rose,” of which Chaucer would’ve been aware, lays out the chivalric code for lovers, where the Knight must pay homage to his love, perform the actions of a Knight in both word and deed and endure any “love-service” his lady demands. In order to attract Cressida Troilus discards his petulant ways and undertakes to be the best man he can possibly be in the hopes that his chivalric deeds will be noticed. Despite their class differences, it’s the son of a King who is supplicant to the daughter of a perceived criminal. Bounded by chivalric politics Troilus unwittingly straps himself onto the wheel-of-fortune and prepares for a rough ride.

“For he bicome the frendlieste wight, the gentilest, and ek the mooste fre, the thriftiest and oon the beste knyght.” (1-179-181) 

               By incorporating the quotidian climate of 14th century England into his poetry Chaucer created verse that was current, topical, and amusing. The poem is embellished by its duality, the double lives of Troilus and Cressida as both ancient pagans and alternatively pseudo medieval-Christians making his characters more accessible to his contemporary audience. Constrained by royal patronage and dependent on their benefaction, Chaucer walked a fine line when attempting to equate his modernity with the ancient world. An adherence to medieval politics was necessary and so the allusions to social, religious, and gender issues had to be tempered with accepted doctrine and political savvy. Despite the difference of centuries it is possible to view medieval Britain through the eyes of Chaucer, and equate his thinking to the events that shaped his world. By analyzing and comparing the events of the period to the narrative in the poem it’s feasible to review the politics of a Chaucerian England.



19 Mar


Smarter than the average medieval bloke… possibly!

An investigation into the intentions of the narrator in Chaucer’s  “Book of the Duchess


  In “The Book of the Duchess” the reader is presented with a duality of dream vision and cathartic intervention; a poetic, psychological discourse between the bumbling narrator of the poem and a strange, anomalous black knight. Of course the dream is dialogued and staged managed by its author and what at first appears to be merely an analogous tale of circumstance and coincidence contains instead a depth of meaning that would’ve undoubtedly been perceptible to John of Lancaster, for whom the poem was intended upon the anniversary of the death of his wife. The interactions between the dream figures are clinically developed to the point where the imagination and sympathies of the reader are juxtaposed by the alter-egos of the protagonists. Is it the narrator who’s being assisted by the lovelorn knight, or is the knight an allegory for the narrator’s own problems? Perhaps it goes even deeper and is instead an intimation of concern by its author for its recipient? The concept of dream reality is that anything is possible and all interpretations are valid. In this particular dream the subjectivity of the dreamer is secondary to the revealed truths. Although all the clues have been provided it’s for the reader to decide whose giving advice to whom, and for what reason; in short “cui bono?”  By analyzing the conversation of the dream figures we can justly surmise that the narrator is both the recipient of innate wisdom and a well-intentioned pretender with regard to the amorous dilemma of the knight. 

            The nature of dreams is such, that what’s impossible in the quotidian can easily occur within the construct of a dream reality. A nightly purgative where one is offered visions to help one tackle the difficulties of life; where the subconscious administers somnial wisdom to ease the cares and worries of the dreamer. The figure of the black knight within the somnium is an allegoric persona for the narrator’s own mortal concerns. It’s through the sadness of the knight that the narrator, upon awakening, is able to translate the experience and resolve his own issues via the medium of poetry. The encounter in the forest doesn’t appear to be pure chance and lends itself to the mediation of Lady Fortuna; her intervention allowing the dreamer to once again mount an ascending cycle. From the inept and troubled chronicler we meet at the beginning of the poem to the dexterous and adept interviewer who’s able to draw the knight from his reverie and illicit reasons for his melancholia, we discover a man capable of dexterous psychological machinations even if his apparent brilliance is the result of a dream. Although we’re led to believe that he doesn’t comprehend the knight’s sorrow, despite his heart wrenching confession of lost love, he manages to resolve the knight’s dilemma by coercing him into conversation with a play on stupidity and in so doing reveals to himself the nature of his own malaise. 

            The dream vision was a popular vehicle in medieval literature whereby the fantastic could be committed to paper without fear of accusations of heresy, treason or perhaps misinterpretation. After all, what was being realized was a dream that occurred not at the will of the dreamer but instead was the result of some mysterious sub-conscious revelation; therefore, the retelling of it could cause no offence. Popularized by the writings of authors such as Macrobius , dreams could be categorized into five distinct topics. The most important of the five were the oraculum, a dream containing a message, the visio, the prophetic dream and the somnium which was of psychological importance. The regimented characterization of dreams allowed one to translate their meanings and offer some pseudo-scientific commentary in order to explain them. “The Book of the Duchess” is a somnium where the narrator, our dreamer, falls into a deep sleep and is led through fantastic vistas of imaginative landscapes and ultimately to a man dressed in black armor; a knight sitting alone in a forest contemplating suicide. The somnium therefore offers insight to the dreamers mind, allowing him to draw the necessary conclusions and correct accordingly. 

            The medieval idea of fortune’s wheel also plays a significant role in the dream and is significant for both the knight and the narrator. When we first encounter the narrator he’s sick and unable to sleep, believing himself close to death. Clearly he’s reached his human limit and without some form of divine intervention sees little hope in extended life; a direct allusion to the complaint of the knight. Through the retelling of the story the narrator is able to regain his vitality and his ability to sleep, as evidenced by the poem itself. Having fallen asleep and dreamt, he awakes to complete the manuscript. Clearly Fortuna has cast a glad-eye and he’s once again in the ascendency, although the troubles of the knight, except in verse, are conveniently forgotten.  

            The persona or mask that Chaucer paints of his main character is of a bumbling, inefficient, rather naïve individual. A comic comparison to himself may be drawn via the insomniac reading in bed who, despite his questionable intellect, does seem to have more than a passing understanding of the classics and is able to draw on these throughout the narrative. Thus the conclusion can be made that the narrator is Chaucer. It’s is from this point of intellectual redemption that he adds an element of humor to his enduring tales. His foolishness is displayed when after retelling the story of Alcyone and Ceyx, where Alcyone offers a pious life to Juno in return for details of her missing husband, the narrator instead offers a bed so that the god of sleep, Morpheus, may rest comfortably. The offering of a comfortable bed is clearly more in line with the narrator’s needs than the gods. 

            Upon falling asleep whilst reading a book the narrator, despite earlier protests that he’s unable to do so, awakens within the somnium in a fabulous room decorated with the story of the “Roman de la Rose,” which describes an allegorical dream vision of courtly love; foreshadowing of what the narrator is yet to encounter. An environment where the sounds of a royal hunt can be heard and where the narrator, with youthful vigor springs naked from his bed to his horse, before being led by a puppy into an exquisite forest! Here the reader is made comically privy to the inconsistency of dreams; how they skip from one scenario to the next without apparent reason. It’s in the forest where we encounter the knight, and the sympathetic meeting takes place between the two. 

            From the outset there’s intent on the narrator’s mind. Although he’s unaware of the reasons for his arrival in the dream-scape he’s already met and been cordial with members of a hunting party heading to the forest, and spoken with one of the young boys to ascertain the nature of their business and company. Upon seeing the knight sitting in the wood he makes a decision to creep up on him. Why would he do this if there wasn’t some kind of forethought in his mind to possibly take advantage of the information divulged during the knight’s complaint? The knight is unaware of any other presence and upon being disturbed may react in any number of ways. Safe and secure in the blanket of the somnium the narrator makes his way towards him.

“I stalked directly behind him and I stood there as still as possible, so that, to tell the truth, he didn’t see me; so he hung his head down, and with a deadly sorrowful sound he made a complaint of ten or twelve rhymed verses to himself, the most pitiful, the most doleful, I ever heard.”

            At this point it’s fair to assume that the knight is unknown to him, however, it may also be construed as a meeting of self. The knight is forlorn and hopeless just as the narrator is sick and dying, a mirroring of the “real” world with the dream. Therefore the narrator by confronting the self is able to comprehend what it is that ails him. Rather than the simplistic we’re offered a complex dream vision where it appears that a fool is engaged in a conversation with no comprehension or understanding of what is being addressed to him. A self-help allegory intended perhaps for the alluded to John of Lancaster on the anniversary of the death of his wife? 

            The knight is discovered mumbling a complaint of lost love and is left, strategically, undisturbed by the dreamer who, not wishing to interrupt, stands back and listens. He then confronts the knight who after some encouragement from the narrator describes an allegorical game of chess between himself and Lady Fortuna who’s apparently taken his queen during the game but who in reality has stolen the love of his life. The game of chess is a metaphor within the metaphor of the dream vision to describe the great sadness induced by lost love – courtly love – and although having heard every word of the knight’s complaint, the narrator pretends not to have been listening, presenting himself as one who’d rather help than pry. This is both a sympathetic and a cunning action which will gain him the knight’s respect and a chance to hear the remainder of his story. 

“Straightaway I began to search, to look where I might, for a worthy subject for discussion, so that I could get to know him better.”

            In order to placate, the narrator describes a list of classical figures that’ve suffered equal loss and who despite their circumstances overcame hardship and apparent hopelessness. After offering his naive understanding of the knight’s feelings he is rebuked, the knight claiming he can never understand what he’s lost, as his loss is far greater than all of classic tragedy. Through this act of pretended idiocy the knight is drawn into conversation. From not wishing to divulge anything at all the knight frustratingly insists that the narrator listens “with all his wit to his lamentable tale,” which our seemingly inept narrator promises to do. The knight proceeds to describe the beauty of his love the “good fair white” and lists the blazon of her physical attributes from lip to foot in which he describes an image of female perfection. After this heart felt outpouring the narrator cunningly pretends to understand her beauty, but to add insult to injury, suggests that it was without doubt, that in the eyes of the knight the woman was the most beautiful that ever lived. The exasperated knight is once again drawn in by the machinations of the narrator who then has to redouble his efforts to the apparent fool beside him, just how much she meant to him; a classic psychological move, where a patient is pushed to reveal the depths of distress through personal catharsis rather than forced intimation. The knight cannot help himself and at such a seeming affront is forced to divulge the very depths of his heart to explain the beauty he’s lost.

            To the narrator the death of the “fair white” is obvious or rather implicit in the knight’s telling long before the conclusion.

“What loss is that?” I said then; “Will she not love you? Is it so? Or have you done something wrong, that she has left you? Is it this? For God’s love, tell me everything.”

            The knight’s anguish is palpable, and there can be no other conclusion. The narrator who’s listened patiently to the complete tale and who through naïve commentary has drawn the knight out further and further to the point of complete emotional confession, continues with his inane questioning. 

“And tell me also what you have lost, as I heard you mention earlier.” 

“Yes!” he said, “you know not what you mean by your words; I have lost more than you think.”

“What loss is that?” I said then; “Will she not love you? Is it so? Or have you done something wrong, that she has left you? Is it this? For God’s love, tell me everything.” 

            The narrator still pretends to misunderstand and forces, rather like Lady Fortuna, the knight into a position of check. The knight has no choice and is compelled to respond to the narrator’s questions and through a moment of self-realization admits to both himself and to the narrator what has actually occurred. A moment of release and healing that’d been coerced from the initial moment when the narrator first pretended not to hear the knight’s complaint, to the moment he forced him into admitting the worst.

“She is dead!”


“Yes, by my word!”

“Is that your loss? By God, that is such a pity!”

            By drawing the Knight out and discovering the truth regarding “the fair white” the author has achieved three things; absolution for the knight, enlightenment to the narrator and sympathy for John of Lancaster. The purpose of the somnium with regard to its characters has been to rescue the knight from his grief and imbue the narrator with renewed drive and a will to live. Both characters have been saved by the Machiavellian machinations of the narrator. Clearly the narrator was endowed by some form of wisdom discovered within the dream that allowed him to play the part he did. The fact that he first awoke in a room decorated with images from the “Roman del la Rose” points to foreshadowing and a learned affinity with courtly love. With an intuitive understanding of the rules of love, the narrator is successful in both his contrived deceit of the knight and his necessary achievement of innate wisdom with which to recover his own self-worth.