Chapter 1: The Chronotope of Real-Time and Real-Space in Chaucer's Canterbury Pilgrimage

The ratio between the things that have been said about Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and the ideas and concepts that have never been expressed, given the length of time people have had to discuss his poetry, probably seems heavily weighted on the side of what we already know and expect to hear about his work. My first serious encounter with Chaucer was conducted by Haldeen Braddy in 1966 at the University of Texas at El Paso. Dr. Braddy was a "character," a man who could quote The Canterbury Tales and most of Shakespeare from memory, and who took on the identity of the poet, or character, he was teaching as he performed their work, and speeches, for the class. He told stories about his adventures in Mexico that exactly paralleled, or might have done, events that could have happened to Geoffrey Chaucer during his travels on the Continent. He never mentioned the connection between the stories he told and the Life Records of Geoffrey Chaucer. Some of us found out later that he had always pretended to be Chaucer in front of a real "courtly" audience made up of his students.

Some of Dr. Braddy's stories were outrageous. Once, after missing his Monday morning class, he told us a wild tale on Wednesday about being incarcerated in a Mexican jail over the weekend because someone had accused him of being an agent for a foreign government. His accuser claimed that Braddy had been sent to negotiate a secret treaty with elements of Mexico's elitist class. He gave us names of people he had visited before his arrest. The treaty was said to be one that was unfavorable to the interests of the peasants who were represented by the ruling socialist party, by the PRI, which was the only political party in Mexico at the time. His purpose in traveling to Mexico, his "cover" as it were, was to find the perfect beer. He visited Mexican breweries to sample their products. He was a kind of 1960's wine merchant, following along in a path that Chaucer might have walked himself in the fourteenth century when he traveled to France and Italy.

In retrospect, one can argue that Haldeen Braddy's "image of the author" was both over- and under-developed in terms of possessing elements that could become useful from a scholarly point of view. His stories were too inflated with dramatic pretense to stand as metaphors for Chaucer's identity, too conflated with contemporary references (1960) to be taken seriously as valid perceptions of fourteenth century life or history. They were not meant to be taken that way. Mikhail Bakhtin, on the other hand, has argued that, if an "image of the author" turns out to be both "deep and truthful, it can help the listener or reader more correctly and profoundly to understand the work of the given author." Bakhtin qualifies this concept by noting that every listener or reader of an author's work "pictures the author to himself" and this "enables him to make use of autobiographical and biographical material, to study the appropriate era in which the author lived and worked"; but insists that such constructs are merely "artistic or historical images" that cannot be treated as if they belonged to the represented world of the text itself (The Dialogic Imagination, 257).

The problem of the "image of the author" in The Canterbury Tales is compounded by the fact that Chaucer projects himself into the represented world of the pilgrimage itself and does not maintain a strict separation between his identity as the "author-creator" of the work and as one of the story-tellers traveling to Canterbury to venerate St. Thomas. He is in the work, as a represented narrator who remembers what happened during the journey, and who retells each pilgrim's story as he recalls it, even going so far as to remember two of his own stories. At the same time, he stands outside of the represented world he describes, as the "author-creator" of the work as a whole. Maintaining a proper distance and distinction among the various "images" of himself that Chaucer presents to us as listeners or readers of his work becomes a task of singular importance as we work our way through his text. One must also consider the problem of how much or how little attention needs to be paid to the pilgrim narrators of the stories. Should we take their existence as speaking subjects seriously? Or should we reduce the level and number of voices in the discourse to the single, flat surface of Chaucer's point of view alone? Is there one voice; or are there many voices in the work as a whole?

While it might be inappropriate to reduce all such questions to the level of a concern for a precise definition of those elements that make up an individual critic's "image of the author," that seems to be a necessary first step in deciding how to approach any literary production. This is not a simple matter, of course. The image anyone has of Chaucer is constituted by every exposure that person has had to his work, both directly through Chaucer's texts, and indirectly through every word he or she has heard or read about the nature of those texts. I have heard, for instance, that Chaucer almost never refers to contemporary events in his mature poetry. That view of Chaucer's practice is widely accepted and might even be an unassailable part of conventional critical wisdom. That statement is, however, nothing more than an expression of the "image of the author" that a majority of critics, for one reason or another, have chosen to follow as they work toward a comprehensive evaluation of Chaucer's literary production. That is not to say, or imply, of course, that the statement has no foundation in fact, no reasonable grounds for having muscled its way into the image we all have and share about the nature of Chaucer's work.

There are sound reasons to assume the absence of concern for contemporary reality and events in the poetry of any fourteenth century artist. There were two kinds of history, so to speak, in the Middle Ages. Ordinary, everyday events were perceived by the vast majority of thinking people to be insignificant, if not completely irrelevant. Any event, however, that could be taken as a symbol of the other kind of history, as a symbol of salvation history, was anything but insignificant and irrelevant. Bakhtin expresses this concept by arguing that the "'entire world'" as it was perceived in the Middle Ages was "a small and detached patch of terrestrial space and an equally small and severed segment of real time." He goes on to assert that "[e]verything else vanished in the fog, became mixed up and interwoven with other worlds--separate, ideal, fantastic, and utopian worlds" (Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, 43). At a significant level, of course, and as a way to confirm Chaucer's experience of this concept, we can refer to the Squire's Tale as an example of a "contemporary" world caught up in elements of the otherworldly and fantastic depictions to which Bakhtin refers. The Squire's story is a "secular" example of this phenomenon.

Bakhtin's point in bringing this issue into the foreground of his discussion, as he discusses Goethe's incorporation of images of real time and real history into his artistic production, is to explain why this practice did not exist in previous historical periods. He notes that "the otherworldly and fantastic not only filled in the gaps of that impoverished reality, and conjoined and rounded out that patch of reality into a mythological whole; the otherworldly also disorganized and bled this present reality" (43). He concludes by noting that

"The otherworldly future, severed from the horizontal of terrestrial space and time, rose as an otherworldly vertical to the real flow of time, bleeding the real future and terrestrial space as an arena for this real future, ascribing symbolic significance to everything, and devaluing and discarding everything that did not yield to symbolic interpretation." (Speech Genres, 43)

In Chaucer's world and work, of course, the "otherworldly future" was contained in and wholly expressed by salvation history.

As a consequence of this view, since ordinary history does not matter, and since it is devalued and discarded, one can argue with some assurance that Chaucer almost never refers to contemporary events in his poetry. At the same time, however, a clear exception to this general rule can, and probably should be, acknowledged. If a contemporary event takes on a symbolic character related to salvation history, then one can only expect to find it articulated in the literary production of a poet who set out to define the nature of pilgrimage at the end of the fourteenth century.

Two obvious examples spring to mind. The Pardoner's Tale foregrounds the issue of the Black Death, which was certainly a contemporary "event" in Chaucer's social milieu. Many people at the time believed that the plague was a sign and a symbol of the apocalypse. The Pardoner's story then becomes a fertile ground for the pursuit of issues relating, not to ordinary history, but to salvation history. In the portrait of the Squire, in the General Prologue, Chaucer refers to the fact that he participated in the Norwich Crusade in 1382 (I.85-88). By all credible accounts that military adventure was an attempt by Urbanist England, which remained loyal to Urban VI during the Great Schism (1378-1417), to depose the Avignon pope, Clement VII, who was supported by the French. Many people at the time, as we shall see, believed that the Schism was a sign and a symbol of the apocalypse. The Squire, in his turn, becomes a focal point, and a very fertile ground as well, for the pursuit of issues relating to salvation history.

In his study of Goethe, Bakhtin argues that the "entire world" had begun to "condense into a real and compact whole," stimulated by the discovery of the true nature of reality as it had been described by Galileo and Newton in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He states that by Goethe's time, the "earth's position in the solar system and its relation to other worlds of this system were determined; it became subject to interpretation and, in a real-life sense, historical" (44). Since time is a function of celestial motion (a day is the length of time required for the celestial sphere to revolve once around the earth, in the Ptolemaic view, and the time required for the earth to complete one revolution on its axis in the Copernican paradigm), astronomy, in both its Ptolemaic and Copernican forms, has always stood as a force and a discipline which draws people into contact with real, everyday, time and history. While it would be inappropriate to state that Chaucer was exactly like Goethe in his perception of the reality of time, it would also be inappropriate to ignore the fact that Chaucer was a knowledgeable Ptolemaic astronomer in his own right who incorporated a number of astronomical figures in his literary production and used them to fix the temporal location of his pilgrimage relative to concrete moments of real time.

In the opening passage of the General Prologue, as everyone knows, Chaucer states that when "the yonge sonne/ Hath in the Ram his half cours yronne" (I.7-8), "Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages" (I.12). The reference here to the sun's location in the zodiac fixes the time of the year in the Spring ("yonge sonne") as the sun moves through the stars of Aries. The reference is too general ("his half cours yronne") to fix the precise day of departure of the pilgrims from London. The sense of the lines as well in the Prologue is clearly a general one since people "from every shires ende" (I.15) long to go on pilgrimages to "Caunterbury" (I.16) at this time of the year. In spite of the differences between Chaucer and Goethe, the use of astronomy to fix the temporal moment of pilgrimage grounds Chaucer's literary production in real time because the sun is stationed in Aries during March and April year after year (subject to changes caused by the precession of the equinoxes over long periods of time).

In the Introduction to the Man of Law's Tale, Chaucer transforms this general reference to time into a very specific acknowledgment of temporal reality when he deploys his second astronomical figure. The narrator (Chaucer) describes Harry Bailly's perception of temporal reality in these terms:

Oure Hooste saugh wel that the brighte sonne

The ark of his artificial day hath ronne

The ferthe part, and half an houre and moore,

And though he were not depe yserte in loore,

He wiste it was the eightetethe day

Of Aprill, that is messager to May;

And saugh wel that the shadwe of every tree

Was as in lengthe the same quantitee

That was the body erect that caused it.

And therfore by the shadwe he took his wit

That Phebus, which that shoon so clere and brighte,

Degrees was fyve and fourty clombe on heighte,

And for that day, as in that latitude,

It was ten of the clokke, he gan conclude,

And sodeynly he plighte his hors aboute. (II.1-15)

Chaucer's reference to the point in time (18 April at 10:00 AM) when the length of the shadow of an object cast by the sun is equal to the height of the object itself, establishing the sun's position at 45 above the horizon at the speaker's latitude, is so precise and exact that it can only be determined by use of astronomical tables of the kind developed by Nicholas of Lynn for John of Gaunt. The point to be taken here, of course, is that Chaucer's method of reckoning time (in Harry Bailly's mind) is bound literally to the actual moment when the sun reaches a precise elevation above the horizon on a specific day of the year as the pilgrims pass along the road to Canterbury. As Harry swings his horse about to address the pilgrims, real time in a real place, fictionally speaking, is on his mind when he reports the fact that "The fourth party of this day is gon" (II.17) and warns the company against "mowlen thus in ydelnesse" (II32), as he calls on the Man of Law for his tale.

A second point of interest in this context arises from the fact that the Man of Law tells a story which can be classified with other examples of "Greek Romance," as Bakhtin might have defined the lawyer's speech performance; that is, as one heavily conditioned by a perception of time's passing which "leaves no trace" on the character of the hero as she endures and escapes from a variety of harrowing ordeals. Constance, as her names states, is the same "person" at the end of her story as she was at the beginning. Bakhtin notes that

"This most abstract of all chronotopes [adventure-time] is also the most static. In such a chronotope the world and the individual are finished items, absolutely immobile. In it there is no potential for evolution, for growth, for change. As a result of the action described in the novel, nothing in its world is destroyed, remade, changed or created anew. What we get is a mere affirmation of the identity [of the character] between what had been at the beginning and what is at the end." (110)

Every element of Bakhtin's summary of the chronotope may not apply with equal force to the Man of Law's Tale; but the sense of time it conveys stands in sharp contrast to Harry Bailly's method of finding the hour and the day of the Man of Law's moment of speech performance in the course of the pilgrimage. The juxtaposition of real-time reckoning in the frame and "adventure-time" reckoning in the story makes it possible for Chaucer, as Harry Bailly's "author-creator," to incorporate different chronotopes into different speech performances as he moves his fictional pilgrimage along the road to Canterbury. There is, in other words, always a potential for sharply contrasted perceptions of time between the moment of speech performance in the frame and the chronotope employed by the story-teller in his or her tale.

As a function of genre, the chronotope becomes a distinctive aspect of the voice of the narrator (Man of Law) and cannot be equated with Harry Bailly's perception of time, on the one hand, nor with Chaucer's, as general narrator, on the other. Movement back and forth between the frame and the individual speech performance always establishes a distinction between the voice of the narrator (Chaucer) and the voice of the person telling the story. The distinction between frame and story, furthermore, since the pilgrimage functions in real-time, and every story has its own distinctive chronotope, suggests that individual tales can be appropriated by Chaucer to chronotopic uses meant to form blocks of time in their own right that are always held in contrast to the real-time sequence of the frame. Any story, therefore, can be used by Chaucer to support a thematic concern directed at, or derived from, an historical condition that exists outside of the represented world of the fiction he is working to create. To put this another way: since every story as speech act occurs in the real-time frame of the pilgrimage but does not share with it the same chronotopic perspective, Chaucer can incorporate stories into his frame as aspects of his thematic concern without breaking them down into mere historical references that take their life-force and meaning from outside the work as a whole. Every time Chaucer's pilgrimage reverts back to the frame from a story a contrast is created between real-time and the generic chronotope that a particular narrator employs in telling his or her tale. In this way, Chaucer's historical references become part of the interactive surface of the story he is telling and cease to be facts external to his artistic intent. Every shift back to the frame recontextualizes the story's chronotope back into the terms of Chaucer's real-time, but fictionalized, account of his pilgrim's progress toward Canterbury.

Chaucer's final use of an astronomical figure to ground his pilgrimage in real-time is located, with a most profound sense of decorum, in the Prologue to the Parson's Tale. In his voice as narrator of the pilgrimage, Chaucer says that:

The sonne fro the south lyne was descended

So lowe that he nas nat, to my sighte,

Degrees nyne and twenty as in highte.

Foure of the clokke it was tho, as I gesse.

For ellevene foot, or litel moore or lesse,

My shadwe was at thilke tyme, as there

Of swiche feet as my lengthe parted were

In sixe feet equal of proporcioun.

Therwith the moones exaltacioun--

I meene Libra--alwey gan ascend

As we were entryng at a thropes ende. (X.2-12)

As in the previous case, Harry Bailly takes the occasion of this position of the sun to encourage the final speaker, the Parson, to "hasteth yow; the sonne wole adoun;/ Beth fructuous, and that in litel space" (X.70-71). The Host's concern here seems to be directed at the fact that the pilgrimage, still some distance from Canterbury apparently, must reach the gates of the town before sundown in order to gain entry. In the allegorical context of pilgrimage, of course, one can argue that being denied entry into the holy city of Jerusalem because you do not reach the gates before the fall of darkness means that your own personal salvation history has reached the wrong "thropes ende." The Parson's sermon, long-winded and full of everything that everyone in the Middle Ages already knows about sins and their remedies, may not be enough, coming as late in the day as it does, to secure the company's entry into the holy city before the gates are closed.

The reference to Libra, as Chauncey Wood points out, may have been meant to refer the reader to the execution of divine justice which hangs every person's salvation in the balance of the scales as the pilgrims approach Canterbury. From a purely temporal and astronomical point of view, the figure creates a sharp dialogic tension between two dialectical poles of literary production that can fall under the cover of Bakhtin's view of heteroglossia in novelistic discourse. The pre-scientific jargon of the figure contrasts sharply with the religious intent of the Parson's sermon. Using one as the occasion for the other raises the issue of the horizontal flow of real-time in direct contact and confrontation with the vertical thrust of otherworldly, salvation history that initiated this discussion in the first place.

To emphasize this point in the strongest possible terms, one can analyze the real-time astronomy that underlies the figure's meaning. The moon's ascent in Libra ("exaltacioun") on April 18th or 19th occurred only twice in the period between the beginning of the Great Schism and Chaucer's death (1378-1400), when the sun was 29 above the western horizon at 16:00 PM as visible to an observer from the latitude of London (5131'00" N and 0006'00" W). What Chaucer says in this context is significant in its particularity; that is, "Therwith [the sun's position] the moones exaltacioun--/ I meene Libra--alwey gan ascend" (X.10-11). What this seems to suggest is that the moon's rise in Libra occurred in close temporal proximity to the sun's descent to 29 above the horizon at 16:00 PM. On April18, 1383, the sun reached 2844'16" of altitude above the western horizon at the designated hour of 16:00 PM. Near midnight (London time) on 18 April, prior to the actual time Chaucer specifies, the moon crossed the meridian ("south lyne") at 23:57 PM. Six minutes later (at 00:03 AM), Zubenelgenubi, the "first" star in Libra to cross the eastern horizon as the constellation rises, make its transit of the meridian. What this means, of course, is that the full moon (99.9% on April 18th) was "in conjunction with" Zubenelgenubi in Libra as they crossed the local meridian separated by only six minutes of real time. It is also true that the moon crossed the eastern horizon at approximately the same time that the sun set in the west 3 hours and 15 minutes after it reached 29 above the horizon at 16:00 PM. By midnight of the following day (19 April), the moon had completed its passage through the stars of Libra.

At this same time (18 April 1383), Venus, Mars, and Jupiter were clustered together near the sun. Venus and Jupiter were "in conjunction with" each other in the morning sky (Venus at 2.5 of elongation from the sun and Jupiter at 3.1 of elongation) and rose together at 4:45 AM. Mars reached 5.1 of elongation in the evening sky and rose at 4:55 AM. The planets were not visible to naked-eye observers because of their close proximity to the sun but Chaucer would have been able to estimate their relative locations in a general sense. This astronomy is mentioned here because of the prominent role played by Venus (Palamon), Mars (Arcite), Jupiter (Theseus's First Mover), and the moon (Emelye) in the Knight's Tale. This conflation of real-time and "adventure-time" chronotopes, where the real cluster of planetary positions in 1383 can be seen to interanimate the "adventure-time" temple structure of the list and the characterization of the players in the Knight's Tale, illustrates precisely how the frame and story-telling structure of Canterbury generates instances of heteroglossic interrelationships in Chaucer's literary production.

A second possibility that fits Chaucer's astronomical figure occurred on 19 April 1391. On that day at 16:00 PM, the sun had reached an altitude of 2858'45" above the western horizon. Venus was again in close proximity to the sun, at 1.6 of elongation in the morning sky, but the other planets were not in close contact with either object. The moon was full once again (99.9%) and had reached the lower third of its passage through Libra by the time it rose across the eastern horizon at 19:56 PM on April 19th. As it set in the west (at 4:30 AM) on the previous morning it was just reaching proximity to Zubenelgenubi and completed its passage through Libra by the end of the following day (19 April 1391).

Given the fact that these two instances are nearly identical with respect to the locations of the sun and moon, albeit with the exception of the planetary cluster in 1383 and its possible relationship to the structural features of the Knight's Tale, it seems virtually impossible to chose one over the other as a means of identifying the year in which Chaucer positioned his fictional journey to Canterbury. The point in describing the astronomy, however, was not directed at proving one or the other of the two dates as the most likely day the pilgrims reached the "thropes ende"; rather, the object was to illustrate the way in which different kinds of jargon can be seen to interanimate one another in Bakhtin's heteroglossic perceptions of literary production. The act of placing pre-scientific discourse next to a penitential sermon, as Chaucer did at the end of The Canterbury Tales, creates precisely the kind of tension between horizontal real-time and vertical otherworldly-time perceptions that make Chaucer's work a fertile ground for Bakhtinian analysis.

This study, as it unfolds, and in a gesture meant to accentuate Chaucer's ambiguous, double-voiced discourse, will support both 1383 and 1391 as possible years for the pilgrimage. This evasion in making a choice rests on the ground that events connected to the history of the Great Schism, which Chaucer specifically mentions in the portraits of the Squire and the Pardoner in the General Prologue, occurred during those years and exerted a considerable influence on both the structural integrity and the thematic unity of the work as a whole.

While it is always difficult to single out events in the flow of time, and even more difficult to assign them to a single, monologic cause, the Norwich crusade, in the Squire's case, because it was a military debacle in England's attempt to end the Schism through force of arms (via facti), has often been seen as a turning point in England's foreign policy toward the issues connected to the Hundred Years' War and its escalation into schismatic conflict after 1378. 1383 is appropriate for issues connected to the crusade and its considerable aftermath.

With respect to the Pardoner, two issues, or events connected to them, came to the forefront of the problem of schismatic heresy in 1391. After the death of Urban VI in 1389, Boniface IX became pope in his place in 1390. His first papal letter specifically condemned Pardoners who converted their alms collections to personal use. Chaucer tells us that his Pardoner did that. He also says that the Pardoner got his indulgence from the pope in Rome (I.671). At the same time (1391), Charles VI in France raised an army to invade Italy and depose the false pope (Boniface IX) because his election by Urban's cardinals invalidated his legitimacy. Richard II prevented the execution of Charles's plan by threatening to invade France if Charles did not stand his army down. 1391 marks another turning point in schismatic issues because, after an exchange of threats and counter-threats, the crowns of England and France began a long series of negotiations in a mutual effort to end the Hundred Years' War and restore unity to the church. Only the first of these efforts proved moderately successful with Richard's marriage to Charles's daughter in 1396. The Schism persisted until 1417.

In brief, then, this study is focused on Chaucer's use of historical references in developing his thematic concerns in The Canterbury Tales. Those references are not connected to ordinary contemporary events but instead always speak to the issues of salvation history, to the only significant issue that shaped the otherworldly preoccupations of medieval people at the end of the fourteenth century. Evidence meant to show that Chaucer's awareness of schismatic issues and events is everywhere apparent in his fictional pilgrimage to Canterbury will be presented in what follows.


M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: U of Texas P, 1987).

---, Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, trans. Vern W. McGee (Austin: U of Texas P, 1986).

Larry D. Benson, The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd Edition (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1987). All references to Chaucer's work are to this edition.

Lynn Staley Johnson, "Inverse Counsel: Contexts for the Melibee," Studies in Philology 87 (1990): 137-155.

Stephen Michael Schimpf, Cybersky for Windows 95, v2.0b (Ventura: http://cybersky.simplenet.com, 1997).

Hamilton M. Smyser, "A View of Chaucer's Astronomy," Speculum 45 (1970): 359-373.

Chauncey Wood, Chaucer and the Country of the Stars: Poetic Use of Astrological Imagery (Princeton: Princeton U P, 1970).