Entertainment versus education: “The NUn’s PRIEST’S TALE”
ESSAY CHAPTER FOR THE OPEN ACCESS COMPANION TO THE CANTERBURY TALES, DRAFT POSTED FOR OPEN REVIEW AUGUST 2016
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 5 The tension between entertainment and education is established from the outset of the Canterbury Tales in the terms of the storytelling contest, which awards the prize to the teller of tales of “best sentence and moost solaas” (1.798). Yet, this seems like an impossible task when we are warned not to “maken ernest of game” (1.3186), or not to take seriously the saucy tale the drunken Miller is about to tell. Instead, Chaucer challenges us to choose our tales wisely, selecting those that address “gentilesse,” “moralitee” and “hoolynesse” (1.3179-80) if we want to learn something valuable. Within these guidelines, entertainment and education seem to be irreconcilable, suggesting that learning cannot be playful. Later in the pilgrimage, however, the Knight and the Host put a stop to the Monk’s tale because it is too serious – it contains “no desport ne game” (7.2791). The Host therefore challenges the Nun’s Priest to tell a story that makes “oure hertes glade” (7.2811), a tale that might strike some balance between the Monk’s earnestness and the Miller’s frivolousness.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 5 The Nun’s Priest responds appropriately with an animal fable, a genre designed both to entertain and to educate. Attributed to the Greek poet Aesop, these clever tales of speaking animals are accompanied by simple, moralistic lessons. For example, the well known fable, “The City Mouse and the Country Mouse,” – in which a rural, self-sufficient mouse nearly perishes in his attempt to acquire the tasty, urban fare of the city mouse – ends with an uncomplicated moral: it is better to live in the security of poverty than in the worries of wealth. In contrast to the Monk’s long-windedness, we might also assume that a fable would satisfy an appetite for brevity, providing a concise moral that readers can readily devour. Within the schools of Chaucer’s day, Aesop was a canonical classroom author, whose fables were put to a number of uses, from grammatical analysis to writing instruction to allegorical interpretation. As the Greek Aesop was largely unknown to medieval schoolmasters, a twelfth-century Latin fable series known as the elegiac Romulus became the Aesop that students and their teachers paraphrased and expanded through extensive glosses that accumulated in manuscripts and early printed books. In contrast to its more recent legacy as a short and digestible tale, the medieval fable was often associated with elaborate and complicated interpretation. Nevertheless, the power of the fable has always been its capacity to entertain, a characteristic highlighted in the opening lines of the prologue to the elegiac Romulus: “This present work ventures to be pleasurable and useful; serious things are more alluring when they are embellished with sport” [Ut iuvet et prosit conatur pagina presens: / dulcius arrident seria picta iocis (Busdraghi 1-2)]. Yet, when we mix this sentiment with the Host’s pressure to present a “myrie” tale (7.2817) and the expandable possibilities of the classroom Aesop, we encounter a Chaucerian fable full of playful embellishments that do not seem to address any serious thing at all.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 1 The absence of a clear moral or educational thrust has led generations of readers to place this tale squarely within the “entertainment” category, even inspiring Derek Pearsall to declare, “the fact that the tale has no point is the point of the tale” (12). While we might be attracted to such an easy way out, we should remember that the Nun’s Priest does indeed provide a moral at the end of the tale, which states quite simply that we should not trust flatterers (7.3436-7). Anticipating skeptical readers like Pearsall, the Nun’s Priest offers the following suggestion for interpretation:
But ye that holden this tale a folye,
As of a fox, or of a cok and hen,
Taketh the moralite, goode men.
For Seint Paul seith that al that writen is,
To oure doctrine it is ywrite, ywis;
Taketh the fruyt, and lat the chaf be stille. (1.3438-43)
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 3 By invoking the agricultural process of separating the grain or seed (“fruyt”) from their husks or hulls (“chaf”), the Nun’s Priest offers what an Aesopic reader might expect: an identifiable and digestible moral. Yet, when we consider the fact that the tale itself, what we might call the “fruit,” takes up only 175 lines (7.2882-907, 7.3157-86, 7.3252-324, 7.3331-7, 7.3375-402, 7.3405-35), and the accompanying dream debate and rhetorical digressions, what we might call the “chaff,” take up 521 lines (7.2821-81, 7.2908-3156, 7.3187-251, 7.3325-30, 7.3338-74, 7.3403-4, 7.3436-46) we should question the Nun’s Priest’s emphasis on the importance of the “fruit.” This lopsided ratio between the tale and its commentary might even lead us to Talbot Donaldson’s conclusion: “the fruit of the Nun’s Priest’s Tale is its chaff” (150). To interrogate the fruitfulness of the chaff and its entertainment and educational value, I offer the following three contexts as potential tools for analysis: “Thinking with Animals,” “Farmyard Violence,” and “Disputing Women.”
Thinking with Animals
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 2 Fables are about animals and not about animals. Since they are the protagonists and their amusing actions and cautionary consequences are central to the meaning, fables seem to be obsessed with animals. Yet, the fable animals often do not act like animals at all – they speak like humans, they help their predators, and they even deny themselves food. Most importantly, the ultimate payoff of the fable, the moral, is designed to improve the lives of humans, not animals.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 3 Yet, when the animals of the Nun’s Priest’s tale are introduced, we are given an extraordinary amount of detail about their appearance and behavior. Chauntecleer in particular receives extensive attention, especially his physical features, which are described at such length as to match the legs, nails, and plumage of a Golden Spangled Hamburg (Boone 78-81). We can even visualize his movement and behavior as he struts throughout the farmyard, calling his hens with a cluck, searching out corn, and even feathering and copulating with his prize hen Pertelote (7.3174-8). In contrast to their limited descriptions in most fables, the Nun’s Priest’s portraits of animals are charmingly complete.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 3 On the other hand, the relentless succession of examples of human error within the dream debates and rhetorical digressions make it easy to forget that we are in the animals’ habitat. Both Chauntecleer and Pertelote neglect their avian natures as they engage in academic argument, citing textual authorities such as Cato and Macrobius to persuade each other about the significance of dreams. This focus on cautionary dreams also indicates that one of Chaucer’s central sources was the twelfth-century French “beast epic” known as the Roman de Renart, which details the exploits of Reynard the fox and his attempts to outwit a wolf and other animals. In addition to including realistic descriptions of animals, the Roman also stages a vigorous dream debate, though the positions of the rooster and the hen are reversed (Mann 25-61). This promiscuous use of animals for human concerns should make us wonder whether they obtain value as animals within these literary traditions at all. Is their presence merely a captivating substitute for the conventional authorities who would regularly take sides in such debates?
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 2 As enthralling as such avian shenanigans are, most all fables end in violence, usually with a cautionary killing of an animal who makes a fatal mistake. While the interpretation of a fable’s moral relies on the reader’s ability to transfer a lesson of animal tragedy to human life, one moment in the Nun’s Priest’s tale asks us to transfer a lesson of human tragedy to animal life. In this case, the human tragedy was the killing of Flemish weavers during the 1381 Rising, a revolt led by John Ball, Wat Tyler, and Jack Straw in protest to King Richard II’s collection of unpaid poll taxes. This event is directly compared to the mayhem in the farmyard caused by Chauntecleer’s capture and seemingly imminent death, inciting the hens to shriek, the dogs to bark, and even the bees to swarm. In this unique instance of contemporary political reflection, the Nun’s Priest exclaims,
So hydous was the noyse – a, benedicitee! –
Certes, he Jakke Straw and his meynee
Ne made nevere shoutes half so shrille
Whan that they wolden any Flemyng kille,
As thilke day was maad upon the fox. (7.3393-7)
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 4 While this comparison accentuates the humorous melodrama of the scene, it also inserts a buzz-killing moment of seriousness, in which the apparent frivolousness of the fable is called into question. At least since 1331, when Edward III had supported efforts to improve the English cloth trade by importing Flemish weavers, immigrant Flemings had become an object of hatred and fear. Envied and resented for their financial success, the Flemings were often relegated to ghettos and subject to violence, especially in the aftermath of the 1381 revolts, in which they quickly became scapegoats. In addition to three Flemings murdered at Yarmouth, rebels demolished a Flemish brothel near London Bridge, killed seven Flemings at Clerkenwell, and beheaded thirty-five Flemings who had sought sanctuary in St. Martin Vintry (Barker 265-6). By comparing the farm animal chase of Russell the fox to the xenophobic hunting of Flemings, the Nun’s Priest reverses the direction of fable interpretation, obscuring clear distinctions between animal and human.
¶ 12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 2 The blurring of this boundary compels us to question the seriousness of this historical reference. It is, on the one hand, amusing to imagine farm animals as English rebels, attempting to reclaim their champion Chauntecleer, who seems to represent, illogically, their resistance against the crown’s heavy taxation of the people. Given the earlier lament of King Richard I’s untimely death (7.3347-52), however, the Nun’s Priest reflects little hostility towards monarchical power. Moreover, the reference to Jack Straw is far from sympathetic, even implying that the rebels acted like frenzied animals, which might suggest a critique of such fear mongering about the Flemish Other. On the other hand, we might consider David Wallace’s somber observation: “It is the naturalized complacency of these lines that makes them so disturbing; their accommodating of targeted homicide within the familiar confines of classroom exercise or barnyard fable” (117). The notion that such a lighthearted tale of a rooster, a hen, and a fox could play host to xenophobic violence might challenge our very assumptions of the tale’s capacity to entertain and to educate.
¶ 13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 1 If we restrict our focus to the tumultuous conflict between a fox and a rooster, we risk ignoring an earlier moral to the tale: “Mulier est hominis confusio” [“Woman is man’s ruin”] (7.3164). This message is easy to miss, not only because it is superseded by the flattery moral later in the fable, but also because it appears in Latin and is mistranslated by Chauntecleer as “Womman is mannes joye and al his blis” (7.3166). The apparent mismatch between the misogyny of the Latin and Chauntecleer’s praise of women reflects the mismatch that has just taken place: an academic debate between a man and a woman.
¶ 14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 1 Chauntecleer and Pertelote have just concluded an argument about the significance of dreams, using a particular form of debate called a “disputation” that was commonplace within medieval classrooms. After the twelfth century, disputation became the primary pedagogical strategy in the universities because of their emphasis on dialectic, the ancient method of establishing the “truth” through dialogue. This technique became an entertaining role-playing exercise, in which a schoolmaster would propose topics for debate, requiring one student to play the “opponent” and the other to play the “respondent.” The disputation became so popular in the thirteenth century that it burst out of the universities into many areas of public life, manifesting itself in debates performed openly in the square and in literary genres such as the debate poem and prose dialogue (Novikoff 133-71). Yet, it is in these same venues that we witness the masculinized heritage of medieval disputation, which largely excluded women, either through direct disenfranchisement or through silent indifference. Women were not simply denied education in the universities – their exclusion is also demonstrated through the topics that men would dispute, which ranged from the superiority of theologians over canon lawyers to the sin of assaulting a woman publicly, the lack of consent not being an issue (Karras 83-95). As Chauntecleer’s Latin conclusion confirms, the content of disputation was often hostile to women.
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 3 It is remarkable then that this disputation about the significance of dreams is performed between a man and a woman. Chauntecleer appears to win the debate, or at least he thinks so, refuting Pertelote’s arguments and refusing her herbal solutions (7.3151-6). Yet, he is persuaded by her “beautee” (7.3160) and her “softe syde” (7.3167) that he should ignore his fear about flying from the beams into the farmyard. Pertelote claims a short lived victory until the fearsome fox appears, just as the dream had warned, prompting the Nun’s Priest to insert his own antifeminist moral: “Wommanes conseil broghte us first to wo” (7.3257). This is a closer translation to Chauntecleer’s earlier Latin lesson, “Mulier est hominis confusio,” but the Nun’s Priest hastily qualifies his interjection in three ways: first, by suggesting that this comment was only said in “game” (7.3262); second, by urging his audience to consult written authorities (7.3263); and third, by claiming that “Thise been the cokes wordes, and nat myne; / I kan noon harm of no womman divyne” (7.3265-6). Despite the ambiguity of “womman divyne,” which can be read in a number of different ways, the Nun’s Priest attempts to distance himself from this critique of women, using tactics common in disputation, role-playing both sides of the issue and calling attention to its status as an academic “game.” We may wonder, then, if this is a progressive attempt to include women within such intellectual debates or if it is an instance of medieval “mansplaining,” male attempts to explain women to women. Nevertheless, the prominence of the disputational mode suggests that the educational import of the tale can only be accessed through dialogue, as playful, high-handed, or contentious as it may be.
¶ 16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 The three “tools” above – “Thinking with Animals,” “Farmyard Violence,” and “Disputing Women” – are merely three contexts for analysis of the tension between entertainment and education within the Nun’s Priest’s tale. They are starting points for more extended explorations of the tale, which should connect with ongoing scholarly conversations related to animal studies, histories of violence, or feminist theory.
¶ 17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 As a means to demonstrate an extended reading of the Nun’s Priest’s tale that incorporates elements of these “tools,” I turn to the role of rhetoric, which was less a mode of persuasion than a dynamic set of guiding principles for the production of spoken and written discourse during the later Middle Ages. Rhetoric accompanied grammar and dialectic in the medieval trivium, the foundational curriculum for the schools and the gateway to the mathematical arts known as the quadrivium – astronomy, arithmetic, music, and geometry. Within the field of rhetoric, schoolmasters largely focused on three genres: the art of poetry (ars poetica), the art of letter-writing (ars dictaminis), and the art of preaching (ars praedicandi).
¶ 18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 The primary author for teaching the art of poetry was Geoffrey of Vinsauf, whose Poetria Nova (The New Poetics) practiced what it preached, explaining poetic techniques through verse. It should be no surprise, then, that a common classroom genre, the fable, should play host to a common classroom author, Geoffrey of Vinsauf, who is invoked directly by the Nun’s Priest after Russell the fox snatches Chauntecleer and attempts to flee from the yard (7.3347-54). The calling out to “O Gaufred” (7.3347) is a poetic imitation of Geoffrey’s Apostrophe to Eleustria (England), which appears in the Poetria Nova as a model of the rhetorical technique of apostrophe, an imaginary address to an absent figure, often preceded by “O.” Embedded within a series of apostrophes to destiny, Venus, and Chauntecleer’s hens, the Nun’s Priest apostrophizes the great apostrophizer “Gaufred,” and once again calls attention to the educational import of his tale. This time, however, the learning to be had is not just moral. It is rhetorical.
¶ 19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 1 I want to suggest that this tale – what Rita Copeland aptly calls “an almost impossible experiment in amplification” (138) – produces an open-ended commentary, composed of various rhetorical practices, that ultimately displaces the fable itself. Fables, after all, were primarily utilized in medieval classrooms for reading and writing instruction. Students and teachers would insert interlinear glosses, usually Latin synonyms, to challenge their expanding vocabulary and then rewrite these fables, both in abbreviated and elaborated forms. Most crucially, though, students and teachers appended extensive commentaries to fables in their manuscripts, which regularly occupied more space on the page then the fables themselves. Such an emphasis on textual amplification was exemplified by the well known “Crow and the Water Jar” fable, in which a crow would drop pebbles in a jar to make the water rise and enable the crow to drink. In teaching amplification as a rhetorical technique for expanding a short passage, Geoffrey of Vinsauf even encourages his students to pile up words and phrases like this crow: “And so, from a little water, much water arises” [“sic ex modica maxima crescit aqua” (283)]. By dropping numerous literary genres – from romance to exemplum to proverb – like pebbles into the tale, the Nun’s Priest saturates the fable with commentary that bears the fruit of more commentary. According to Peter Travis, this rhetorical amplification “raises the genre of the Aesopic beast fable to the nth power” (52), parodies classroom exercises (54-74), and ultimately becomes Chaucer’s “personal ars poetica” (117). The generative power of the fable is so great that it endangers the centrality of the fable itself.
¶ 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 1 This displacement of the fable also shifts attention to the practice of interpretation, typically understood to be “allegoresis” or the decryption of a fable’s message by identifying what the animals’ actions represent, which range from simple moral lessons to revelations about human nature to biblical characters and events. We witness the Nun’s Priest struggling with the allegorical meaning of the fox’s arrival, which seems to point to the conflict between divine foreknowledge and human freewill, a complicated theological issue that he finally admits he “ne kan nat bulte it to the bren” (7.3240) or cannot separate the kernels from the bran, a variation of the fruit and chaff motif. While this admission of failure immediately leads to his contradictory statements about the advice of women (7.3256-66), it subsequently opens up the field of interpretation and the possibilities for further amplification, which imitates the classroom practices of Aesopic interpretation. As Edward Wheatley points out, “any fable could be interpreted according to any allegorical form, at the whim of the reader, or perhaps at the behest of the teacher” (91). The interpretive flexibility of the fable led to classroom manuscripts with overwhelming amounts of commentary – the only limit was the room on the page.
¶ 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 1 When the Nun’s Priest encourages his audience to “Taketh the moralitee, good men” (7.3440), we may now ask: is this is an attempt to simplify or amplify the moral? On the one hand, taking the “fruit” may limit our attention to the warning against flattery. On the other, “taking the moral” may be a transfer of interpretive power to his audience, encouraging them to amplify it further. If it is the latter, then Saint Paul’s claim, that “al that writen is, / To oure doctrine it is ywrite” (7.3441-2), assumes rhetorical power – all writing, not just that of classroom authors, is potentially educational. While such a reading seems to flatten interpretive authority, it also highlights the error-ridden and perplexing process of writing and knowledge acquisition. Even Chauntecleer’s mistranslation of “confusio” (7.3164) leads to amplification by the Nun’s Priest, as confused as his elaboration turns out to be. According to Christopher Cannon, “If the tale’s largest point is that words are just as capable of resolving confusion as of producing it . . . error is the inevitable and necessary predicate to accuracy since success in the employment of language often involves an all-too-deep exploration of confusion” (359). The Nun’s Priest’s tale then obtains an almost endless educational value that will be continually determined by its readers, who are encouraged to embrace confusion, engage in rhetorical play, and amplify the “moralitee” at will.
¶ 22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 2 If we place rhetoric at the center of this tale, we are compelled to reexamine the role and significance of animals, violence, and women, discussed in the “Tools” section. On the one hand, we could consider their presence as rhetorical devices in the service of some larger argument, perhaps to emphasize distinctions between humans and animals, natives and foreigners, or men and women. On the other hand, we could see rhetoric as an available means of power for any commentator, who could be Chaucer, Pertelote, Jack Straw, or future readers. As a mode of entertainment and education, rhetoric can be understood either as the chaff that contains, decorates, and protects the fruit or as the endless producer of chaff, which has the reproductive potential to obtain the same value as the fruit itself. We are left, then, with the following questions: does this tale challenge us to remove the chaff and get past the rhetoric? Or should we embrace the chaff and consider its presence as accumulative and beneficial to the tale’s meaning? Is it even possible to separate the fruit from the chaff at all?
- ¶ 24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 2
- What is the moral of the tale? Is it about the dangers of flattery? Or is it a misogynistic warning against women’s advice? Is it both? Or is it something else?
- What is the genre of the tale? Is it an animal fable? A beast epic? A disputation? All of these? Or something else?
- Does this tale succeed in being both entertaining and educational? Or is it one more than the other? How does it compare in entertainment and educational value to other tales, especially those of the Miller and the Monk?
- What is the role of animals in the tale? Are they valued as animals? Or are they merely “used” as allegorical figures for human concerns? What do they reveal about the boundaries between humans and animals?
- How should we interpret the historical reference (7.3393-7) to the 1381 Rising and the killing of the Flemings? Is this a serious political statement? If so, how is it directed? If not, how does it function in the tale?
- How does the dream debate affect our understanding of the tale? Who wins the disputation? What is the relationship between the debate and the fable?
- What is the role of rhetoric in this tale? If the tale is what Copeland calls an “experiment in amplification,” what are the results?
- ¶ 25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 1
- Aesop in the Medieval Classroom. Select one of the fables listed on Laura Gibbs’ Aesopica site (http://www.mythfolklore.net/aesopica/oxford/) and try out one of the following medieval classroom practices:
- ¶ 25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 1
- Amplification: Amplify the fable or the fable’s moral, introducing additional plot elements or elaborations on the moral.
- Abbreviation: Abbreviate the fable, eliminating any elements unnecessary for the plot or moral.
- Allegoresis: Expand/Revise the moral, suggesting possible allegorical meanings for the fable, which could range from representations of human nature to political commentary.
- Create Your Own Commentary. Select passages from the tale that interest you and upload them to an online annotation platform (e.g. Genius [http://genius.com]). Add comments to your passage, selecting particular words and phrases that provoke you in some way. Share your commentary with your classmates and invite them to add their own comments, creating a collaborative and expandable commentary on your text.
- Entertainment versus Education Visualization. Create a visualization (e.g. graph) that illustrates the entertainment and educational value of (at least three of) the tales. After creating your visualization, compare it with a visualization of one of your classmates and discuss the similarities and differences between your evaluations of the tales. Based on these visualizations and the discussion, who would win the tale-telling contest?
- Chaucerian Animals. Develop a chart that compares the representations of animals in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale with other Canterbury Tales (e.g. The Manciple’s Tale) and/or other Chaucerian works (e.g. The Parliament of Fowls). How might we characterize the literary significance of Chaucer’s animals?
- Research the Rising. Conduct a web search on the 1381 Rising (also known as the Peasants’ Revolt). Identify historical accounts/details that provide additional insight for Chaucer’s allusion to the event. Next, identify recent events on news sites that address similar issues (e.g. taxation, protest, xenophobia). Which connections do you see between these moments in history? Prepare a presentation that shares this historical perspective with your classmates.
¶ 43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 Geoffrey of Vinsauf. Documentum de modo et arte dictandi et versificandi. Edited by Edmond Faral. Les artes poétiques du xiie et xiiie siècle. Bibliothèque de l’école des hautes éstudes, 238, Champion, 1924; Slatkine, 1982, pp. 265-320.