Tag Archives: MEDIEVAL


9 Dec

Medieval Morality Inversion


             Nothing is more mercurial than a liberal society and the attitudes and morals of those citizens who live within it. What’s acceptable today is unacceptable tomorrow, the waxing and waning of human values seemingly as ephemeral as the moon. That being said, the sins as described by Evagrius, have not always been regarded, even during the medieval period, with the same, strict uniformity or enjoyed the same level of adherence. In fact, contemporary society would no doubt disagree with his compilation upon principal and unashamedly cite political correctness as its raison d’etre. Consequently the measure with which we weigh the sins can be reduced to their quotidian import with regard to what is expedient, how they affect society and will their abuses be tolerated? One only has to observe the imperialistic ambitions of American geo-political maneuverings in the Middle East, in what are clearly self-aggrandizing nation building endeavors, to understand this.

            The taxonomy of the sins as originally proposed by Evagrius and proliferated by Cassian were in essence, not just a tool to bring the supplicant closer to God, but to engender a lifestyle that would be convivial to all. A fail safe control mechanism that would draw the boundaries of societal acceptance, coerce appropriate behavior and allow trespassers of etiquette to be duly punished. The idea was simple enough, but actually adhering to them as the centuries have revealed, has been fraught with difficulties and excess. This is not a modern issue by any notion and one can trace the paradox of doing wrong in order to do right throughout the annals of history. This becomes clear when one probes the original meaning of some of the sins and explores how they mutated through time. The changing attitudes towards sin, especially Avarice and Wrath, are particularly conspicuous during the Peasants Revolt of 1381 and the Black Death which swept through Europe during the fourteenth century. By examining these deadly sins and their subsequent metamorphosis from their original intent it is possible to analyze the degree to which their meanings have changed, even to the point where instead of being considered sinful some of the tenets are now considered virtues. 

            The Seven Deadly Sins were instrumental in the medieval period to illustrate the dangers of human frailty. Not only where they a guide to life but also a means of control by which the Roman Church could exercise its power and ensure the subservience of its congregations. The priests, through the ever present threat of sinning, could literally damn a man into hell or praise him into heaven. The Church-centric world of the medieval period was the norm and church going an expectation and therefore, there would have been a familiarity by both the clergy and the lay population with the taxonomy. Imagery of the Seven Deadly Sins would have been emblazoned in the painted murals of the religious buildings they attended or they would have been a gentle reminder on the cleric’s lips as to their relevance to daily life. The sins were taught in a simplified, easy to understand format (given the dearth of literacy during the period) to the people either visually or preached from the pulpit. Despite their lack of formal education the message was abundantly clear and congregations were put in mortal fear of their souls. The Seven Deadly Sins were beyond reproach and an empirical devise with which a man could recognize his own failings and in doing so attempt to correct his human weaknesses by treading the path of the righteous. Although this was true of the period, it would appear that there was also ample wriggle-room.

            Life in medieval times was seen as an interim to heavenly reward, the afterlife being far more important than the temporal sufferings of the great unwashed. Therefore, in order to ensure one’s place on the path of righteousness, one had to abide by clerical law and pray fervently in the hope of divine intervention or suffer eternal damnation. Needless to say the system was based upon human frailty and inevitably therefore, doomed to failure. In a society that was established on the estates of being and where feudalism was the accepted hierarchy, the differences between those who had and those who had not must have been abyssal. Little wonder then that the boundaries of sin where blurred to account for these differences and manipulated according to the crisis of the moment. The fourteenth century witnessed everything from abundance to plague and starvation to war as well as religious and political upheaval. Not so different from the great state of being that shapes our own modern twenty-first century lives.

            Ownership of property and land was based ultimately on position and therefore on God’s grace. If God had deigned that one was to fulfill one’s mortal role in a particular category of the estates then one should of course accept one’s lot in life and make of it what one could. This gift from God it would appear was not enough and often those with temporal position felt that despite being divinely rewarded it was their duty in life to acquire as much as they possibly could during their lifetime. The sin of Greed being a venial sin could easily be dismissed, as power and position trumped any notion that the holding and acquisition of wealth was bad. So long as one was contrite in prayer and contributed to the Church and gave alms for the poor then the pursuit of earthly delight was reasonable if not forgivable. According to Goddard, “Research on late medieval and rural economic social history reveals that the privilege of land and money was without doubt controlled by the manorial Lords” (89) Huge tracts of land in England known as the wastes, which then constituted much of the barren moorland to be found throughout the British Isles, were jealously possessed by its then owners. Rather than wasteland, manorial lords saw the means for profit in a land which until the Norman Conquest had been in the hands of the commoners. The waste lands were part of the common heritage and were used to graze animals and to supply sundry basics such as wood. That was of course until greed reared its ugly head and the inevitable realization by the already wealthy of the immense profits to be made from them. There are countless accounts of commoners being prosecuted for using the lands without permission or utilizing the raw materials found upon it. The quarrying of material to manufacture mills stones, despite the economic boon they would provide to the local community and the tithes paid by the miller to the incumbent Lord, was punishable by death in the county of Devon. “All the furzes, heath moors, marshes, commons, ways and waste grounds,” (33) land which had been communal, now constituted pure profit to those granted tenancy by the crown. This acrimonious business was not confined between the lords and the peasants but also between the king and his barons: the question of greed eventually coming to a head at Runnymede in 1215. King John, writes McKechnie, God’s representative on earth and answerable to none other than the almighty, was malicious in both reign and taxation. (12) “ Renowned for his jealousies, wrath and avarice, he was eventually forced by those able to wield a sword against his dictatorship to sign the Magna Carta diminishing some of the powers of the crown and forever setting in motion the rights of free men.” (3) Greed and acquisition of wealth by any means was, in the opinion of the crown, a God given right despite the tenets of the Seven Deadly Sins. The king’s attitude towards them was not dissimilar to the manorial lords who regarded their gargantuan estates as theirs alone. Clearly the idea of sinning was arbitrary when it came to collecting what was “rightfully” one’s due, no matter the consequence to those affected. The acquisition of land by the crown by usurpation wasn’t halted, writes Goddard, until 1359 under the council of the Black Prince who “ensured that land given could not be retaken through right of writ.”(33) No matter the pedantic nature of the King the tenant Lords could be sure that unless forfeited by an act of treason, the land would be theirs in perpetuity. Not so the experience of the serf who had no rights under English law and therefore remained subject to the whims of the manorial lords. Clearly the distinction between sin and sinning was based on ones proximity to those “of the manor born,” and therefore the ability to eke out a life at the expense of the lord’s profits was clearly not recommended if one wanted to enjoy a full and rewarding life. Despite the veniality of the lordship’s sin and the opportunity for the serf to enjoy the eventual treasures of heaven, this would have been poor reward after suffering prosecution and even death at the hands of a land grabbing tyrant. Clearly God was on the side of the rich and the sin of greed merely a question of semantics providing that manorial justice and not heavenly truth was being applied.

            Just as with any paradoxical situation the observance of the Seven Deadly Sins lends itself to interpretation and therefore their relevance is a product of contemporary attitudes. The accidental execution of venial sins and the misappropriation of vice instead of virtue is fundamentally a narrow path to walk and one which even we, living in a supposed modern progressive society, have difficulty in avoiding. Although in retrospect we clearly see the misappropriations of the common land as theft and the punishment of the serfs as unjust, this would have been viewed quite differently by those guilty of the exploitation.  Although one could suggest, in mitigating the gross injustices visited upon the poor, that they were simply the victims of moral hypocrisy. That is to suggest that despite the manorial lords best intent to preserve what was rightly theirs, or the King his, there would still exist a conscious awareness that one was doing wrong even when acting within the law or through the supposed grace of God. This hypocrisy is apparent in the actions of the barons towards their King who held him accountable for what they themselves were committing on their own lands and to their own people. Clearly sin, at least in this instance, was in the eyes of the beholder – the peasants – rather than the perpetrators. Many of the virtues themselves could be perceived as sins and therefore digression from the higher and narrow path to Truth is understandable thanks to their ambiguity and therefore perhaps excusable under the auspices of medieval canonical law. In Prudentius’ Psychomachia he describes a battle between the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Virtues. All individual combat is easily won by the Virtues except in the instance of one. Avarice initially takes the upper hand when his character is mistaken for Frugality rather than Avarice. It is only when the vice is discovered to be appropriating the virtue that Avarice can be defeated.

            The idea that man is beyond helping himself despite the taxonomy of the Sins is never clearer than in Langland’s parable told by the Friars when confronted by the dreamer in Piers Ploughman. When seeking the home of Do-Well the dreamer questions the notion of virtue when, “…even as the Bible says, even the just man falls into sin seven times a day.”(82) The Friars concede that mankind is afloat on an ocean that tosses and turns and though the dreamer may fall and flounder, as long as he stays within the boat, he will be saved.(83) The boat of course is an allusion to the Church and the sea, the troubles and vices of the world. Consequently admit the Friars, even the most conscientious person succumbs to sin. Newhauser writes that it only through the painstaking analysis of sin that there can be any possible recognition of guilt.(5) “Theologians were aware of the ambiguity,”(5) and despite their attempts to resolve it, moral hypocrisy remained, as Langland observes, a very real medieval concept.

            The relevance of ambiguity with regards to sinning is founded during the medieval period in political and social upheaval and the necessitating of centralized policy. Emphasis and even mutability can be found in the medieval texts and one perceives that although retribution is set in stone, the hell fire to be endured wasn’t always as hot as the priests declared. This isn’t untrue of religion itself which, insidious in nature, tends to adopt that with which a society is familiar with and usurps it for its own ends. Evidence can be found of local saints being beatified into the Catholic pantheon and even traditions and customs being adopted on a regional basis in order to make the “new” religion more appealing. Just as local customs became Christian doctrine so too the Deadly Sins were applied with an uneven hand. The perception that sin is mutable is not a recent one and is an idea that is recurrent throughout history. One often hears of Victorian values and yet we know that they were not the same as either those of the Georgians or the Edwardians. Sin is culturally relevant and therefore, is based on the period in which it is experienced or dependent upon a quotidian political climate. Often in contemporary culture, in order to accomplish certain goals, pride and greed are interchangeable as well as absolutely necessary.  Norman Cantor writes, “Through economic necessity or, as in the context of extraordinary situations such as the plagues of the fourteenth century, people are often empowered to take advantage of that which ordinarily would be beyond their scope. (12) In his book, In the Wake of the Plague, he explores the devastating effect the epidemic had on Europe and what affect the near extinction of the entire population had on the socio-political and religious way of life, as well as the prevailing attitudes towards the Seven Deadly Sins. The upheaval of contemporary living and the ensuing social chaos it created meant that nothing, as he describes, would ever be the same again; including the values of those who survived. Suddenly the boot was on the other foot and those who previously had little or no power found themselves in positions of influence. Labor was suddenly valued, food was at an optimum and the fact that the plague could kill a king as easily as it could kill a peasant leant itself to a new psychological paradigm. The serf suddenly had an opportunity to exact some kind of retribution and enact those lessons which they’d been taught so painfully well.

            The great plagues that wiped out more than a third of the population after sweeping through Europe helped to assimilate the dilemma of sin. When work was plentiful peasants were more than happy to accept a reduced wage; however, due to the untimely death of the working population the power of the medieval proletariat, as opposed to the power of the medieval bourgeoisie, became the standard.(28) Workers fomenting their new found status and their own inherent appreciation of avarice could now withhold their labor and demand higher wages, much to the chagrin of the lords who’d regularly, thanks to their own tenuous relationship with avarice, abused and underpaid them. The lack of available labor was so prolific thanks to the horrific death toll extorted by the plagues that records reveal children, women and prisoners were set to work alongside the men in order to curtail the shortage of willing hands. The rise of avarice and even the recognition by women of their previously unattributed value, thanks to the economic prosperity generated by global catastrophe, changed by definition the sex of the working class and consequently a woman’s economic value. (29) This was something that had been unthinkable, writes Goddard,  prior to the pestilence, as evidenced by the diverse labor force used to complete “Royal Works” of the post-plague period (233) The plague didn’t only bring death and disease but also moral enlightenment. Thanks to the economic pressures and demographic inequality the accepted attitudes toward sin were suddenly liable to revision. A man who had been happy with his lot was now capable of doubling his earnings and even of owning land. The pressure of labor was such that some peasants ultimately became wealthy land owners themselves (yeomen) and challenged the natural order of things. (65) Just as wealthy industrialists in the nineteenth century had challenged the birth right of the gentry, money was the new key to influence. It was money rather than blood that was asserting political and social change on what had, up until the period, been accepted as self-evident and God ordained. Men weren’t just greedy for wealth, but for position and power as well.

            Avarice and pride weren’t the only acceptable faces of revisionary sin and in a post plague period gluttony also had its part to play. Diet was a matter of class and meat was primarily, especially the likes of game, consumed by the gentry. The serfs existed on a diet of cereal and occasional dairy but were forced to farm live stock for those who ate it. The problem with livestock farming was that it was inefficient, as the animals had to graze on land which could otherwise be used for cereal. Further, the animals had to be fed from the harvest that was supposed to feed the serfs. Despite the inconstancy of harvests due to the unusually wet summers of the period the meat dishes were still required by the gentry. Rather than acquiescing to Mother Nature and accepting to share the burden of meager harvests, the gentry insisted that the forfeiture of food and consequently the malnutrition and death that followed was borne by the serfs. Once again sin was obfuscated by rank, the restrictions of piety not pertaining to all estates. Newhauser relates the story of Augustine and the “rich and aristocratic Proba” who finding herself living in grandiose circumstances and unbelievable opulence garnered by what is related as “great cruelties” questioned whether she was succumbing to the sin of Avarice. Augustine responded that “so long as she lived in abundance but distanced herself from the “riches of the heart she did not have to reject the superfluously of her surroundings.”(6) Newhauser describes how the clergy of the day had difficulty in defining sufficiency and that the Church, given the acquisition of fantastic riches over the ensuing centuries, not unlike Proba, must have been asking themselves the same question? Similarly the survivors of the plague found themselves enjoying a disproportionate advantage as well as abundance and so it is hard to moralize on their greed and avarice considering the conspicuous wealth of the estates to whom they were subject. Therefore to strip off the mask of Avarice as in Prudentius Psychomachia would be to expose the post-plague acceptability of new found affluence as a possible sin. Fortunately for the sinners they didn’t have to wait for God’s wrath but instead could look forward to extra taxation and judicial decree by a King who needed their wealth more than they did. King Richard, writes Dean, installed legislation that limited the wages of the workers as well as imposing recurring poll taxes that would force the peasants to exchange their sin of avarice to that of wrath. (119)  

            Warfare, a constant drain on financial resources, was rife during the period. If it wasn’t the French, then it was the Scottish or the Irish: bloody murder decreed by imperial expansion and the divinely ordained birthright of being English. Although God was apparently on England’s side at Crecy and Poitiers under the generalship of Edward III, the warlike activities of the Peasants Revolt in 1381 was not seen in the same religious light. Their willingness to burn, murder and pillage cast the peasants as outlaws, despite the fact that once again it was the circumvention of the sins that had caused their grievances. Avarice, however, came at a price and those who survived the Black Death didn’t have it all their own way for long. The ensuing power struggle between the factions of the “estates” as they tried to hold onto what they’d gained thanks to the ravages of the plague, with those who’d previously been manorial lords. Sinning or rather hypocrisy had once again become necessary and this time by the hand of King Richard. If he was to fill his coffers, wage war and enrich both himself and his followers then the money had to come from somewhere. Naturally the burden fell to the poor who, with little or no means, were required to staunch a crumbling monarchy. Notwithstanding his years the King took it upon himself to ignore any religious instruction he’d ever received and instead, do what he felt was “best” for the country. The negation of the sins, for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many, hopefully struck him as ironic when surrounded by the angry mob at Smithfield.

            John Ball one of the leaders of the rebellion understood that in times of struggle it was men who would stand and fight who were required, not those who would quibble and quake. In order to supplant the idea of rebellion in the minds of God fearing citizens it was necessary for him to equivocate with the sins and, rather than perpetrate them, he bent them to his will and in so doing turned vice to virtue. Ball would have been aware of the ambiguity of sin just as, according to Newhauser,(5) Pope Gregory had been. Gregory noted that prodigality, avarice and inconstancy could all be juxtaposed with mercy, parsimony and flexibility (10) and likewise, Ball understood that the vice of wrath was the antithetical virtue of valor and justice. He proposed in a letter, writes Dean, that it was necessary “to stand manly together to help truth, in order that truth will help them.”(136) In short they were tired of paying taxes for foreign wars, of bearing witness to the nobles enriching themselves in spite of the peasantry and seeing their only asset, their labor, financially restricted. John Ball and his followers wished to instill the revolutionary idea that a man should be paid an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s labor; a principle that socialists throughout the twentieth century have fought and died to uphold. Thinking only to lose his chains and not his head by uniting the workers of medieval England he lists the Seven Deadly Sins in his letter and appropriates each to the royal aberration of power. In his list of seven he actually only names six. The seventh, wrath, he saved as the virtue he hoped to inspire in his followers in order to carry the day. Unluckily for John Ball the rebellion failed and the wrath he hoped to serve on the king was revisited disproportionately upon him with capital justice and royal revenge.

            Having analyzed The Seven Deadly Sins and Evagrius’ original intent to create a platform from which one could lead a principled and God-fearing life, it is possible to perceive the morality shift that has been their constant companion. The hypocrisy of which Gregory the Great wrote in defining the virtues that closely resembled the Sins was not only a medieval conundrum but also a contemporary paradox with quotidian relevance. Many of the tenets of medieval vice, just as they were then, are now seen as modern virtues.  Despite the dichotomy of immoral war we honor our warriors, applaud our self-aggrandizing governments and continue to vote for those charlatans we think will do us the most good in order to selfishly improve our own social and financial standing. Capitalism by default demands this and so we endeavor to better our international neighbors whilst scaling the dizzying heights of corporate ladders.  Brimming with self-righteousness and driven by self-obsession, we ignorantly shun those with diverse beliefs, avoid those with alien ethnicity and minimal wealth and enact just laws to ensure that the tired, poor and impoverished masses don’t sully our neighborhoods and impact our property values whilst infringing upon housing association regulations. In short, as with all compartmentalized human society, there is more than a tang of hypocrisy wrapped in faux piety and the outward sheen of virtuosity camouflages those characteristics we would rather not display. The perversion of the original taxonomy of the Sins is clearly not a modern dilemma by any notion and one can trace the ambiguity of committing sin in order to appear virtuous throughout the annals of history.




Cantor. Norman F. University Press. In the Wake of the Plague.  NY. 2001. Print.

Dean, James M. Medieval English Political Writings. Medieval Institute. Michigan. 1996. Print.

Goddard. Langdon.Muller .Survival and Discord in Medieval Society. Brepols Publishers N.v.

Turnhout, Belgium.2010. Print.

Langland, William. Piers Plowman. Trans. A. V. C. Schmidt. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1992.

McKechnie, William Sharp. Magna Carta: a commentary on the great carter of King John. Glasgow. J.Maclehose and Sons, 1905. Print.

Newhauser, Richard. “On Ambiguity in Moral Theology: When the Vices Masquerade as Virtues.” Trans. Andrea Nemeth-Newhauser. In R. Newhauser. Sin: Essays on the Moral Tradition in the Western Middle Ages. Variorum Collected Studies Series, CS869. Aldershot, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2007. Essay I.Print.

Prudentius. Psychomachia. Trans. H. J. Thomson. In Prudentius, vol. 1. Loeb Classical Library, 387. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1949, reprint 1969



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.