Chaucer, Parody, and the Myth of Eden. (08/24/2001)

When Geoffrey Chaucer conceived the plan for the Merchant's Tale and placed it in his Canterbury sequence, he drew his inspiration, and parts of the story itself, from several different sources. This was a common practice for writers in the Middle Ages. Stories were almost never invented by medieval authors because novelty and invention were considered to be sure signs of heretical thinking on the part of anyone who engaged in them. While the creation of heresy might not be the worst thing a "secular" literary artist could accomplish with his work, the preservation of truth in writing, which was necessarily defined as being always consistent with orthodoxy in the Middle Ages, could only come into being out of the context of whether or not any particular story or tale had a prior existence in an ancient text. This literary tradition, so unlike the Romantic notion that creative writing must necessarily be original in order to have value as artistic expression, grew out of the definition of heresy expressed by the early church Father, Tertullian, in the middle of the 3rd Century. In a treatise he wrote exposing the heresy of Hermogenes, who was his contemporary, Tertullian argued that the mere existence of novelty in any form branded the work as heretical and its author as a heretic. In the opening sentences of his treatise, Against Hermogenes, Tertullian says that

"We are accustomed, for the purpose of shortening argument, to lay down the rule against heretics of the lateness of their date. For in as far as by our rule, priority is given to the truth, which also foretold that there would be heresies, in so far must all later opinions be prejudged as heresies, being such as were, by the more ancient rule of truth, predicted as one day to happen. Now, the doctrine of Hermogenes has this taint of novelty." (Chapter 1)

More specifically, what Tertullian refers to here as the "more ancient rule of truth" is confined almost exclusively to the ideas and ideology expressed in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. In some rare, limited, and pre-approved instances, a writer could also refer to ideas in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and literature, if those concepts did not contradict basic tenets of faith, without fear of censure from church authorities. And one should keep in mind here the fact that censure for heresy in the Middle Ages was nothing to be taken lightly, since the crime was capital and carried a sentence of death.

With respect to the Merchant's Tale, no clear, single source for Chaucer's story of the ill-advised marriage of January and May has ever been discovered. The marriage was "ill-advised" because the husband was both old and senile (foolish), while his bride was too young and beautiful to resist the attentions of a younger and more sexually potent suitor, who appears as the husband's squire in the story (Damyan). As one should expect from even this brief account of Chaucer's elements for the tale, January, a knight of the realm of Lombard in Italy, is betrayed by his wife's sexual dalliance with Damyan, which occurs in a garden January builds for his sensual delight. January even sees the sexual encounter with his own eyes, after becoming blind through the intervention of the Roman gods of the underworld, Pluto and Proserpina, when he (Pluto) restores January's vision just as May and Damyan embrace in a pear tree above his head. May, however, convinces the old foolish knight that the sudden restoration of his vision caused him to misconceive the events played out in the tree and January accepts the false version his wife feeds into his hope to achieve a perfect marriage with his young bride.

Chaucer's introduction of Pluto and Proserpina as active participants in the action of the story is a first indication that his intent might be something other than to draw from established and accepted ancient pagan texts or concepts, thus avoiding charges of heterodoxy, because there are no grounds in prior Christian theology for them to appear in a story about a violation of the sacrament of marriage. In fact, the two Roman gods actually create the superficial circumstances under which it becomes possible for May to betray her husband in his Eden-like garden of sensual pleasure. Chaucer carefully describes the garden in terms that make it an obvious parallel to the biblical paradise. Proserpina, who is aware of May's desire for Damyan, and being herself a goddess of fertility, strikes January blind so that May can couple with the squire in the pear tree. January's blindness is a necessary element of the plot because he refuses to be separated from May by any distance greater than the reach of his arm and insists on keeping one of his hands on her body at all times. Pluto objects to his wife's interference in the affair, taking January's part to prevent a fellow male from becoming a cuckold, and promises, or threatens, to restore his sight at the most inopportune moment of the event. Proserpina counters his threat by promising, if he restores January's vision, to give May whatever words are necessary to convince her husband that he did not see what he saw. Both gods, of course, make good their promises. January sees; May convinces him he did not.

A point one can make here is that language, especially when its source is pagan, not only fails to preserve truth, but can actually be used to distort it into falsehood, even one that threatens to destroy a sacrament of holy church. In this somewhat limited way, then, it is possible to say that Chaucer provides a graphic, even pornographic, illustration of Tertullian's point that novelty (where Pluto and Proserpina have nothing to do with temptation in the actual Eden myth) is the same as heresy (no one is punished overtly for the "original sin" of May's sexual betrayal) where language is used in the pursuit of a Christian theology.

There are some indications that Chaucer was drawing from previous sources in the use of Roman gods in this context. In some pear-tree folk tales, of which there are several examples, pagan gods do intervene to craft various kinds of betrayals. Demonstrating that Chaucer was aware of this tradition, however, is impossible. The novelty here, that can be said to turn Chaucer's story toward heresy, falls out in the juxtaposition between the folk tale tradition, even with its pagan gods as actors, and the language Chaucer uses to depict the betrayal scene itself. Damyan has already entered the garden, climbed into the tree, and is waiting for May to join him, when the old senile knight and his bride appear in the garden. May tells January that she wants to climb into the tree, using his back as a stepping-stone to gain purchase into it, because the sight of the pears in the tree has so stimulated her desire to taste them that she will die if that desire is not satisfied. In her own words, May says to January, even as she is looking at Damyan above her head in the tree:

"I moste han of the peres that I see,

Or I moot dye, so soore longeth me

To eten of the smale peres grene.

Help, for hir love that is of hevene queene!

I telle yow wel, a womman in my plit

May han to fruyt so greet an appetit

That she may dyen but she of it have." (IV: 2331-2337)

There are two different impulses working in these lines. The appeal for satisfaction of an overwhelming desire, with Damyan already in the tree, where the audience knows May's intent while January does not, constitutes a parody of the courtly love tradition. It is parodic because men in "love" with a lady often complain, even as Damyan has done earlier, about the pain and suffering they must endure when their lady refuses to ease their desire. Women, however, in courtly romance, are never allowed to experience, much less express, such suffering. May's appeal to "hevene queene," while not beyond the realm of possibility in courtly love contexts, nevertheless drives this passage toward a completely different target for its parody. In Genesis (Chapter 2), when Adam and Eve were still immortal and incapable of dying, they lived under a single prohibition that they never taste the fruit of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. If they fail to keep that single commandment, God has promised to expel them from the garden and deprive them of their immortality. Hence, if they eat the fruit, they will die. May, of course, turns that biblical injunction upside down and inside out when she claims that if she does not eat the fruit she will die. Chaucer, therefore, has turned the biblical injunction, which led to humanity's original sin and its expulsion from the garden of Eden, into a parodic version of the same thing.

Another element of Chaucer's borrowing from a pre-existing text, and one which adds a significant authority to his own story, even if in a rather oddly curious fashion, can be seen in a letter written by Pope Gregory I to the Bishop of Cagliari in Sardinia during the early days of his reign as Supreme Pontiff (590-604 AD). Gregory begins his letter by referring the Bishop of Cagliari to Paul's admonition against showing disrespect for one's elders. He then says: "so great [a] wickedness has been reported to us of thy old age that, unless we were humanely disposed, we should smite thee with a definitive curse." Gregory means that he is inclined to excommunicate the Bishop for his shameful behavior and, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the Bishop had reduced the church in Sardinia to a state of near chaos during his tenure there. Gregory extends the warning by saying that

"seeing that we still spare thy gray hairs, bethink thee at length, old man, and restrain thyself from such levity of behavior, and perversity of deeds. The nearer thou art approaching death, the more careful and fearful oughtest thou to become."

What is clear, of course, is that the Bishop is suffering from senility, has made a series of unfortunate decisions adversely affecting the authority of the church, and Gregory, in an effort to amend the situation, informs the Bishop of his decision to excommunicate several of the Bishop's advisors and intends to extend that same curse to him if things in Sardinia do not improve. There are several reasons why any of this might matter to Chaucer's Merchant's Tale. The Bishop of Cagliari was named Januarius and, while there is no definitive proof that Chaucer modeled his character of the old senile knight after the Bishop, the parallels are striking enough to strongly suggest such a connection. That Chaucer's January seeks advice from counselors, prior to his marriage, and is swayed by Placebo, but unmoved by Justinus, to commit the folly of marriage to May certainly adds to the sense that Gregory's letter has given his Merchant's Tale some of its flesh.

A second connection to Gregory that surfaces in the story is the setting in the Lombard region of Italy. In 592 AD, the Lombard Duke of Turin, Agilulf, laid seige to Rome with a considerable army and would have surely conquered it and Gregory had the Pope not met with him on the steps of St. Peters and persuaded him to withdraw. No record of the meeting exists and legend has always attributed Gregory's success in overcoming Agilulf's threat to the Pope's singular strength of personality and to the impressive depth of his piety. In a letter written after the incident, however, Gregory refers to himself as the "paymaster of the Lombards," which has led some scholars to suppose that Gregory paid a considerable bribe to the Duke of Turin in exchange for his agreeing to withdraw the seige. Certainly Gregory saved Rome, and the church, from Lombard domination and Chaucer's point in telling the story of January and May might have been to suggest how the two would have evolved had Gregory failed to protect them from that fate. In Chaucer's day, Lombard was perceived by the rest of Europe as a region where the church's influence had never completely taken hold. One characterization held that the people of the area were much more given to sensuous pursuits than they were to piety. Chaucer's depiction of January as a "worthy knyght" in Lombardy is fully consistent with that general perception.

A single circumstance that grounds Gregory's influence in Chaucer's Merchant's Tale is the fact that he sent a monk named Augustine to England in 595 AD. Gregory's hope was that Augustine would be able to convert the East Anglians to Christianity. Soon after his arrival in 596 AD, Augustine was able to convince the Anglo-Saxon king, whose capital was located in Canterbury, to travel freely through his realm and proselytize his subjects. His efforts were successful and Gregory elevated Augustine to the position of Archbishop of Canterbury. Hence, when Chaucer draws elements of his story from possible sources in Gregory's history as Pope, elements that were known widely throughout Europe at the time, and in England especially, he is simply linking his contemporary pilgrimage back to the first and original Archbishop of the cathedral where Thomas Becket was assassinated by Henry I in 1170 AD. Traveling, as his pilgrims do to Canterbury to honor the martyred saint, Chaucer's people also venerate the 6th Century one who established the cathedral in the first place.

The problem any of this raises is how to account for the fact that Chaucer's homage to Becket, Augustine, and Gregory turns fully around on itself by virtue of the inescapable reality that the Merchant's Tale is a full-blown and incredibly dark parody of the most significant aspect of the Christian myth that underlies the sacramental heritage of England and Europe at the time. Ordinarily when someone sets out to venerate a saint, and in this case not just one but three of them by singling out the most renowned shrine in England, he/she tends to do so in a way that re-enforces the piety and veracity of the individuals targeted for that honor. Chaucer does the opposite. By drawing them into the Merchant's vision of the senile Adam (January) and his overly sexualized Eve (May), who claims she will die is she cannot taste the fruit of her lover's desire, Chaucer suggests that the ideology they represent, as saints of the Christian faith, especially the notion of original sin and humanity's expulsion from the garden and its consequent fall into mortality and degradation, is somehow torturously flawed, that it ought to be replaced by the more obvious reality that most people are never punished for the wrong they commit and the evil they do. While Chaucer cannot be accused of taking his parody beyond that level, another reader of his text can certainly question the myth it retells in a much deeper and broader scope than the one available to a 14th Century English poet.

In fact, when Chaucer's parody struck the horizon of my own native American spirit, since I already possessed a fairly well-developed sense of the way Europeans perceive the rest of the world, as land and as people put there for the sake of their own exploitation, as objects meant by God to satisfy their most material desires, even as Chaucer himself puts it in May's voice, a fruit to be plucked for her consumption without regard to consequences, mostly because she knows there will not be any, the material essence of that long-standing Eurocentric myth resonated, like a finely tuned, if not overwrought, string against every instinct I had developed to protect myself from the dangers inherent in an ideology that always privileges an imaginary garden of pure sensual delight, as January sees it, over the real world where people actually live and suffer and die. The falsehood at the heart of the myth that Chaucer's parody exposes is exactly the same one that the myth conceals. People who believe in a Creator that fashioned a world split between the binary opposites of good and evil, symbolized by the tree that bears the fruit of that knowledge, which is forbidden to mere human beings, a circumstance that enshrines hierarchical structures and always makes it necessary to deny freedom and equality to those who measure up short of an imaginary height, people who believe in that imaginary Being are granted a status above and beyond everyone who does not. That is how a saint is made. When the myth of good/ evil strikes a "virgin" ground in the real geopolitical world, as it did when Europeans reached the Western hemisphere, when it reaches a place where no one believes in it, the Good (those who believe) necessarily begin to annihilate the Evil (those who do not). This is only what God demands of his chosen, true believers. The Reverend Solomon Stoddard, in 1703, proposed to the Governor of Massachusetts that the colony set aside enough money to purchase and train large packs of dogs "to hunt Indians as they do bears." He based his proposal on the fact that Indians were not like other people; whereas, if they were, then "it might be looked upon as inhumane to pursue them in such a manner." Stoddard saw them as wolves and thought the best way to rid New England of their number was to treat them like dangerous animals (see David E. Stannard, American Holocaust, Oxford UP, 1992, 241). Stoddard's view of course was only too typical of European opinion in the 18th Century. Chaucer's parody of the ideology that inflamed such Christian passions against the indigenous peoples of the Americas is what led me to examine its progress in the world. That ongoing project is what follows here.

Welcome to the Myth of Eden.