Chapter 6: Chaucer's Clerk of Oxenford and Other Rime Royal Interludes.
Chaucer's use of marriage, as a representative sacrament of "hooly chirche," is widely distributed through the progress of his pilgrims' journey to Canterbury. As noted earlier, however, one is forced by Chaucer's poetic methodology, and by the nature of the body of his mature work, to draw a fine distinction between two poles of poetic perception and activity available to him as a creative artist. The fact that he is interested in, and makes use of, the theme of marriage, not simply as a means of describing or evaluating secular relationships between men and women, but as a sacrament of the church, does not make Chaucer a religious poet. Instead, one is drawn to the possibility that his interest in religious concepts and activities occurs for the sake of generating a heteroglossic discourse which cuts against the grain of the dominant, official voice of his sociohistorical milieu, against the orthodox, authoritative voice of the church. Hence, one can reach the conclusion that Chaucer always refers to marriage within the context of its sacramental reality without ever being forced, at the same time, to argue that he means to reinforce its necessary religiosity. The significance marriage embodies in his work in Canterbury depends on the fact that it is a sacramental ritual capable of being conflicted by systemic abuses among the religious who administer it to members of "hooly chirche," indeed to every member of the laity, and that fact gives impetus to his parodic intent.
In the context of the Great Schism, Howard Kaminsky notes that a most significant question of the time was one of
how Europe had come to the point of allowing immediate political interests to determine allegiance and in many cases conviction in so crucial a matter as papal legitimacy, which involved not only the sacredness of the church but also, in the minds of some, the validity of sacraments, the legitimacy of titles to benefices, and the chance of salvation. (4)
Another way of looking at this same issue is to recognize the fact that Chaucer chose marriage as a type of sacramental activity in the Tales precisely because it provided him with a wider range of story opportunities (seventeen) than any other single sacrament could have done. With the "validity of sacraments" in question generally, it was also never necessary for him to sacrifice any of the conflicts created by schismatic heresy when he wrote about marriage instead of one of the other church rituals, since marriage can be depicted in a wider range of fictional contexts.
On another level, and in a different way, marriage also provides Chaucer with a means of pursuing a wide range of sociohistorical and political issues in his work that would not have been available to him in any of the other sacramental contexts associated with normal church activity. Baptism rarely becomes a sociohistorical or political issue. Chaucer, of course, manages to turn even that sacrament into one when he arranges to have the Sowdan of Surrye's entire baronage "ycristned be" (II.240) prior to his marriage to Custance in the Man of Law's Tale. Marriage, on the other hand, with its binding public oaths of fidelity and obedience, can so easily be taken to represent the very heart of a feudal society's dependence upon obligations of "trouthe," of the swearing and keeping of oaths, that link and bind the class stratification of such societies together into rational, coherent, and functional systems of interreactive relationships among the diverse degrees of status and power that comprised medieval social structures in Chaucer's day. In that context, it becomes a natural means of expressing precisely those relationships. The Clerk's Tale, with its theme of sovereignty engaged in showing the power of masculine authority in the fourteenth century, is ideally suited to Chaucer's concerns with the essential problems generated by the Great Schism in the male-dominated structure of the Roman church and in society at large. Chaucer, by giving a clerk of Oxenford the task of articulating an anti-absolutist position with regard to the Schism, and with regard to Richard II's tendencies toward the same thing in secular governance, creates a strategy which is perfectly appropriate and even preeminently suitable for accomplishing his aim.
Before turning directly to this issue, however, it seems appropriate to evaluate Chaucer's use of rime royal stanzas both in general because it points us to the other instances in the Canterbury Tales where he also employed the same poetic form in a material context meant to examine a consistent thematic concern. To argue that the rime royal tales, told by the Man of Law, the Clerk, the Prioress, and the Second Nun, create a group of stories may be to stretch the reality of their interconnectedness, but it is nonetheless true that isolated elements in them do create an interrelationship Chaucer obviously meant to exploit. It might even be appropriate to argue that Chaucer's decision to redact the Man of Law's Tale from an early English prose translation of Nicholas Trivet's Anglo-Norman Chronicle into rime royal stanzas, a progression in form that would explain the narrator's statement--"I speke in prose, and lat him rymes make" (II.96)--, may have been occasioned by Chaucer's design to connect these four speech performances in a formal shape that also expresses their interreactive thematic unity.
With regard to the connection between the Clerk's Tale and the Second Nun's Tale, for instance, the patience of Grisilda in dealing with the outrageous demands of Walter's testing draw her into a realm of being that is not unlike what one would expect from a saint. Like Job, she endures her suffering with an obedience and humility that has given some critics cause to describe her patience more as a fault than as a virtue but the fact remains that her attitude does express the highest quality of behavior to which a Christian can aspire. The fact that Chaucer exaggerates Grisilda's passivity, masking it under the name of patience, may also call her response to Walter's cruelty into serious question. That she allows her two children to be murdered, as far as she knows, by what clearly appear to be her husband's senseless whims, implies that she is not vigilant enough in protecting them from a cruel, needless, and haphazard fate. Patience, even in a Christian context, cannot be stretched to the point where one allows a child to be murdered for the sake of a wife's obedience to a husband's brutal jest without that virtue becoming a travesty of what it actually embodies.
In the case of the Second Nun's legend of St. Cecile, a similar, negative evaluation of an otherwise acceptable Christian virtue is presented. St. Cecile, of course, embodies a virtue nearly opposite to the one exhibited by Grisilda in the Clerk's Tale. Chaucer's narrative strategy in drawing out his intended parallels in the rime royal tales is generally one which exploits contrasts between one element and another. The Second Nun, after referring to her "translacioun" of St. Cecile's legend as her "feithful bisynesse" (VIII.24-25), tells us that the saint herself is known for, and even named after, her "lastynge bisynesse" (VIII.98) because she is "Ful swift and bisy evere in good werkynge" (VIII.116). Cecile's primary business is the conversion of pagans to Christianity and in the course of her story she manages a number of significant achievements in that swift, if not actually frantic, effort. Her husband, Valerian, is converted almost immediately. Valerian and Cecile then turn his brother, Tiburce, to the right and proper path of Christian faith. Almost before anyone can take a deep breath, both converts are converted into martyrs. Their dual demise converts a Roman soldier, Maximus, who is then beaten to death with a "whippe of leed" (VIII.406). Cecile's "bisynesse," then, causes her own martyrdom well before anyone can fully assimilate as much sacrifice and death as the Second Nun packs into her account of St. Cecile's life.
To say that Cecile herself tends to linger over her own demise, for a "longe nyght, and eek a day also" (VIII.519) in a flaming bathtub, and then for an additional three days "half deed, with her nekke ycorven there" (VIII.533), before finally ending her busy labors (she teaches the faith for the duration of her torture), is simply to acknowledge the fact that even saints need an extra day or two to set their affairs in order. The Second Nun, apparently with a straight face, tells us that the martyr in her severely damaged physical state, explaining herself to Pope Urban
"axed this of hevene kyng,
To han respit thre dayes and namo
To recomende to yow, er that I go,
Thise soules, lo, and that I myghte do werche
Heere of myn hous perpetuelly a cherche." (VIII.542-546)
Pope Urban, of course, is only too pleased to accept Cecile's house as a gift to help insure the future conversion of numberless pagans to Christian piety and martyrdom, even if he must bear the loss of his best agent in the field to that purpose. Cecile's "bisynesse," after four-and-one-half days of virtual death, finally comes to its rather impatient end.
While it might be unseemly to mock a saint's legend in this way, there is ample justification in the text for taking a less than serious, less than earnestly reverential view, of Chaucer's saintly game. Paul C. Breichner, in his study of Chaucer's use of source material in the Second Nun's Tale, takes note of the fact that Chaucer altered the personality of Cecile and her judge, Almachius, by intensifying the clash between them, "creating for each a personality more Chaucerian than traditional; Cecilia had never before been quite so contentious or belligerent, nor had Almachius been so obtuse or stupid" (204). One effect of the alteration in the traditional telling of the tale is to create the impression that the converts to Christianity are rushed to, and into, martyrdom by the anti-Christian forces in their social milieu. Sherry L. Reames argues that "Chaucer so speeds up . . . events (404-406) as to have Maximus himself beaten to death before the sentence relating his vision [which converts him to the faith] has come to an end" (53). She goes on to observe that "[e]ven in martyrdom, the converts in the tale look more like victims than heroes" (53). The contrast here between patience (Grisilda) and "lastynge bisynesse" (Cecile) provides one way to account for the sense that the action has been so speeded up that martyrs take on the appearance of victims. Any rush to judgment tends to produce that effect. The actual point of Chaucer's technique, however, may reflect the fact that saints and martyrs are supposed to await their fate in patience and humility before the will of God and are not supposed to pursue actively, as Cecile seems to do, their own martyrdom by being "contentious and belligerent" in the face of their judges. A St. Cecile with a little more patience and a little less "bisynesse" might not have provoked Almachius to martyr her for her faith, a fact which Chaucer's contrast between Grisilda and Cecile tends to bring forward when the tales are compared to each other, since each character functions as an opposite principle of valorized behavior in a Christian context. While Chaucer does not condemn either of his heroines, it seems obvious he has created reasons to question the validity of their responses to the social forces that shape their respective identities.
A further oddity in the Second Nun's account of the life of St. Cecile concerns the fact that she asks God to delay her ultimate demise for a period of four-and-one-half days so that she can "recomende" to Pope Urban the souls of the people she has converted to the faith, which is a perfectly legitimate expectation for saintly behavior, of course, but also delays her death so that she can tell him personally how she "myght do werche/ Heere of myn hous perpetuelly a cherche" (VIII.545-546). It seems a complete incongruity that Cecile, martyr and saint, is so concerned over the disposition of her material property that she delays her death for four days to tell Urban she wants her house converted into a church. J. Huizinga, in his study of decline in the Middle Ages, notes that the tendency in the period to make everything in life an aspect of religion created a "dangerous state of tension" in which it became possible to reduce even true religious sentiments to "appalling commonplace profanity, to a startling worldliness in other-worldly guise" (136). He then argues that "[o]nly saints are capable of an attitude of mind in which transcendental faculties are never in abeyance" (136).
St. Cecile's concern for her material property seems to contradict expectations for a "transcendental" preoccupation at the moment of her death. One would expect a saint to have other things on her mind as she sits in the flame-encircled bathtub with her "nekke ycorven." Certainly it is a noble thing for a saint to dispose of her material possessions to the benefit of the church, as the Second Nun asserts:
Hir hous the chirche of St. Cecilie highte;
Seint Urban halwed it, as he wel myghte;
In which, into this day, in noble wyse,
Man doon to Crist and to his seint servyse. (VIII.550-553)
The problem with this particular conclusion to the tale, apart from the incongruity of a saint being so overly concerned with the material world at the moment of her death, is that it also encapsulates an important aspect of church policy that helped to define, if not to create, the foundations of the Great Schism in the fourteenth century. A significant problem for church administration both before and after the beginning of the Schism was the fact that the church had come into the possession of so much material property, and of the revenues it produced, that it could no longer function in a purely spiritual capacity for its members. When Cecile donates her property to the church, she initiates a tradition of Christians donating material possessions to church use that ultimate conflicted its role as spiritual protector of its believers. Chaucer's numerous references to Pope Urban in the tale, where he certainly means Urban I at the literal level, raises the issue of how difficult it would have been for anyone in his original audience to hear that name and not think of Urban VI, the first schismatic pope in the Roman obedience, especially in the context of seeing crown land converted wholly to the use of the church. Lynn Staley Johnson notes that Urban I "was credited with being the first pope to take rents and temporal possessions for the church" and Chaucer's late fourteenth century reference to that fact suggests his concern with the church's ever growing worldliness and temporal materialism. The unspoken, and essentially concealed, intent of the Subtraction of Obedience against the Avignon papacy in 1399 was to redirect the revenues of the church back to the Valois crown and court, even if its official purpose was to force the resignation of Benedict XIII. In the Second Nun's Tale, Chaucer epitomizes this struggle over material property by demonstrating how so much of it had fallen under church control.
Howard Kaminsky argues that the issue of the Subtraction of Obedience was generated by a sense of the "reification of 'obedience' as something to be 'subtracted' from a pope: it designated very concretely the objects of the particular powers and revenue rights that the pope possessed." He goes on to argue that certain legal concepts were employed after the beginning of the Schism, centering on issues of property rights, that made it possible to conceive of the struggle between Rome and Avignon in purely materialistic terms:
This legal style of thought made it possible to conceive of a divided papacy, for while there could not be two vicars of Christ, two heads of Christ's body, there could quite well be two or even more men who each possessed papal estate, in the sense of actually wielding papal powers, exacting revenues, and enjoying obedience. (10)
When Cecile donates her house to Urban (VI), she has created part of the revenue-producing property over which the schismatic heretics of the church were fighting during Chaucer's lifetime. The house where she died, even "into this day" (VIII.552), along with "hir moebles and hir thyng" (VIII.540), which she also gives to Urban, together are transformed into a shrine complete with the saint's relics that were used to draw pilgrims to its grounds, exactly like Canterbury itself, making the whole package a money-producing enterprise for the church. Chaucer's emphasis in the final two stanzas of the Second Nun's Tale on Cecile's personal property ("moebles") and the conversion of her house into a martyr's shrine makes it clear that his interest in the saint's legend and life at the beginning of Fragment VIII concerns the issues of the Great Schism.
We can also take note of the fact that Chaucer's concern over the way Cecile's material property becomes a revenue-producing asset of the church also recalls to mind mention of the fact that a "certein gold" becomes an issue in the effort to create a sacramental marriage between the Sowdan of Surrye and Custance in the Man of Law's Tale. That purchase of "suretee" for the success of a sacramental marriage points to the objectification of church rituals in the fourteenth century.
This same issue takes on a different shape in the balance Chaucer draws between the Man of Law's Tale and the anti-Semitic diatribe he puts in the mouth of the Prioress. Again, at issue is the fact that both tales exist in rime royal stanzas. In spite of the fact that some early critics have tended to forgive the Prioress her racism, or religious bias, against Jews, the church itself had long condemned both the bias and the stories and rumors, such as the one repeated by the Prioress, that fueled the anti-Semitic passions of fourteenth century society. R. J. Schoeck argues that the "ritual murder legend" told by the Prioress "is held up [by Chaucer] for implicit condemnation as vicious and hypocritical" (246). Schoeck does, however, stop short of arguing that Chaucer means to condemn the Prioress for her ignorance of church doctrine, or her willful violation of papal authority, and accepts instead the view that she is "one who succumbed too easily to the worldly concern with things and manners, and whose charity was too much of this world" (257). This same observation, as we have already seen, can also be applied to the Second Nun, which may only suggest that the mother superior (Prioress) has influenced overmuch the outlook of every member of her convent. Charles Muscatine assesses a recent trend in Chaucer studies which suggests he was more a religious poet than a secular voice in the fourteenth century. He expresses reservations about that point of view and argues that Chaucer's "pathetic religiosity, one that conveys powerful feelings of tenderness and pity, is to my mind at the highest level that Chaucer's sustained achievement as a religious poet ever reaches. Its masterpiece is the Prioress's Tale" (254, emphasis Muscatine's). Muscatine does not comment on the anti-Semitic character of the Prioress's story.
One need not belabor any of the points taken here except to suggest that we cannot really say with certainty what Chaucer himself might have thought about Jewish people, since the voice we have speaking the anti-Semitic diatribe is the Prioress's and not Chaucer's. The distinction here is not meant to excuse Chaucer's prejudice, if indeed he had any toward Jewish people in reality, but rather to speak to the issue of why he created a Prioress who is so clearly a bigot. That the head of a convent can be so woefully lacking in the very qualities, especially of Christian charity, one would expect to find in a person occupying the highest level of church hierarchy a woman can achieve, but is instead both worldly and viciously prejudiced, suggests that Chaucer is looking toward a general state of decline evident in the affairs of the fourteenth century church. If the pope, as the highest ranking member of the church's masculine hierarchy, is a schismatic heretic, why would anyone expect a Prioress to be different, to be better? Chaucer certainly did not find that difference in his depiction of Eglentyne and, if anyone is still seeking an explanation for why Chaucer did not describe the Second Nun in the General Prologue, we might be well served to recognize the fact that a mother superior does exert a considerable influence over the nuns who serve under her. In any hierarchical structure, especially like the one in the fourteenth century church, what we find at the top, at the head of the convent, of the abbey, or, for that matter, at the head of the church, determines what we should expect to see throughout its entire body. When Chaucer declines to describe the Second Nun, he forces us to evaluate her in light of how we perceive her mother superior. This is not to say they are the same person, of course, but the worldliness of the one extends full-blown into the worldliness of the other. Like mother, like daughter; both women are severely conflicted in their ability to comprehend and articulate church values and church doctrines when it comes to translating them into fabulous stories.
To leave the issue of the Prioress's speech performance here, without pursuing the question of why Chaucer decided to make her an anti-Semite, would cut the Tales of Canterbury once again into a series of unrelated, isolated and detached utterances that have no connections to each other on a broader plane of interreactive unity. One way to overcome that recent critical tendency is to evaluate a focal point in the Man of Law's Tale to which the Prioress's anti-Semitic diatribe leads us. That point is built up out of the reaction the Sowdanesse of Surrye has to the news that her son intends to marry a Christian. Her murderous rage bears examination as the opposite side to the coin we have already spent in looking at the Prioress's bigotry, since Chaucer deliberately turns the sides around when he depicts Christian victims being slaughtered by Islamic bigots. Chaucer narrows the actual point of conflict over the Sowdan's decision to marry Custance, as far as his mother is concerned, to the not so simple fact that he and "his baronage/ And alle his liges sholde ycristned be" (II.239-240) before the marriage takes place. This occurrence is arranged by "tretys and embassardrie,/ And by the popes mediacioun,/ And al the chirche, and al the chivalrie" (II.233-235) of Europe's Christian community. Chaucer politicizes the marriage to its maximum degree by connecting it to the pope's mediation and suggesting that all the civil and religious authority of Christian society was involved in the negotiations for making the marriage. The stake Chaucer invests in the marriage is virtually absolute from a political and religious point of view.
The Sowdanesse, however, is not having any of the party. Her reaction to the plan, and to the accomplished fact of the union, is related in the following terms, when she says to her assembled advisors and supporters:
"Lordes," quod she, "ye knowen everichon,
How that my sone in point is for to lete
The hooly lawes of our Alkaron,
Yeven by Goddes message Makomete.
But oon avow to grete God I heete,
The lyf shal rather out of my body sterte
Or Makometes lawe out of myn herte!
"What sholde us tyden of this newe lawe
But thraldom to oure bodies and penance,
And afterward in helle to be drawe,
For we reneyed Mahoun oure creance?
But, lordes, wol ye maken assurance,
As I shal seyn, assentynge to my loore,
And I shal make us sauf for everemoore?" (II.329-343)
Characterizing this speech as the bigotry of an Islamic Sowdanesse toward a Christian threat of conversion may be to commit a serious error of interpretation in evaluating Chaucer's actual intent. Looking at this speech from an isolated point of view, taking its meaning without considering its possible connection to the Prioress's anti-Semitic diatribe, as a formalist criticism is likely to do, turns these words around to reflect what every Christian already always knows--Islam is evil; Christianity is good. Hence, it is only reasonable to expect and demand that a Semitic people in Syria abandon their evil beliefs and convert to Christianity so that a single member of their tribe can be married to the Christian daughter of the emperor of Rome. Here, however, Chaucer turns that easy assumption and obvious reality completely on its head by suggesting that Islamic people also have a "biblical" tradition ("Alkaron") given to them by a God who guarantees that they have just as much right, and just as much compulsion, to adhere to the law of Mohammed as Christians have to adhere to the law of Christ--eternal damnation being the reward if either side gives up its belief and betrays the prophet of its creed. Aside from the fact that this may be an heretical statement on Chaucer's part, how reasonable is it to expect an entire race of people (Semites everyone) to give up their honestly and passionately held beliefs, risking as any Christian would an eternal damnation for doing the same thing, simply to accommodate the hegemonic demands of Christ's church? This view is clearly expressed in Chaucer's text.
The Sowdanesse fashions her answer to that demand in these uncompromising terms:
"We shal first feyne us cristendom to take--
Coold water shal nat greve us but a lite!--
And I shal swich a feeste and revel make
That, as I trowe, I shal the Sowdan quite.
For thogh his wyf be cristned never so white,
She shal have nede to wasshe awey the rede,
Thogh she a font-ful water with hire lede." (II.351-257)
The Sowdanesse's plan gives new meaning to the concept of being "washed in the blood of the lamb" and, of course, not a single Christian, except Custance, escapes alive from the slaughter she arranges as the final act of the marriage feast. The Man of Law, after revealing her plan to make her Muslim subjects "sauf for everemoore" from the threat of Christian conversion, launches into his apostrophe of denunciation against this "welle of vices" (II.323) and "roote of iniquitee" (II.358) in which he stereotypes the Sowdanesse as "O serpent under femynynytee" (II.360). His anti-feminist diatribe continues for two stanzas wherein he asserts that the Sowdanesse, like Eve, has been corrupted by Satan. The fact that Chaucer allows us to be guided in our response to the Sowdanesse's attempt to preserve and defend her own, and her people's, religious beliefs against the unreasonable demands of a Christian hegemony by the Man of Law's overt anti-feminist point of view, while it certainly anticipates the Wife of Bath, creates another set of problems which makes this section of the Tale so difficult to assess.
That Chaucer comes very close to condoning the defense of Islamic law that the Sowdanesse pursues can be inferred from the fact that Christendom is so totally powerless to prevent the slaughter of the Christians at the marriage feast. The Man of Law, in response to her "treachery," lapses into commonplace, anti-feminist diatribe that never addresses the issues of religious fidelity that Chaucer puts into the Sowdanesse's argument. A lawyer ought to be able to speak to such issues. Like the Prioress, however, the champion of the Christian point of view is only able to marshal a string of bigoted invectives against women and infidels. In most ways the Man of Law is like the Prioress, since both depend upon prejudice and stereotypical diatribe to articulate their points of view. When comparing the Sowdanesse to the Prioress, however, something Chaucer certainly invites us to do because both women have reached the highest level of service to the community that they can achieve, we see a radical difference in their responses to social pressures. The Prioress, against no discernible threat whatsoever, engages in an anti-Semitic diatribe clearly derived from baseless rumor and false stories about the Jewish murder of Christian children which her own church has specifically condemned as such. Played off against that unprovoked impulse, the Sowdanesse employs reasonable, if heartfelt and emotional, argument to express her right to preserve her faith against the overt threat of having her entire culture condemned to a "thraldom to oure bodies and penance,/ And afterward in helle to be drawe" (II.338-339) if she does not resist the conversion of her son's "baronage" to Christianity.
The problems of interpretation here in seeking to comprehend Chaucer's motives is only exacerbated by the fact that something very like what he describes at the wedding feast in Syria actually occurred at the battle of Nicopolis in 1396. An entire European Christian army was virtually annihilated in the field when the inexperienced John de Nevers, the son of Philip the Bold, led his mounted knights in a cavalry charge against well-fortified Turkish archers. The lessons of Crécy, learned by the French fifty years earlier, were apparently lost on the army of Christian zealots at Nicopolis. The slaughter was so complete and so devastating that Europe never again managed to challenge the spread of Islam under the Ottoman Turks into its Christian realms. Whether or not Chaucer is referring to the conflict at Nicopolis in the Man of Law's Tale, of course, depends on when it was written. His knowledge of the events and negotiations in Europe leading up to the battle itself can be inferred from the participation of John of Gaunt in the planning stages of the crusade ending at Nicopolis which began as early as 1392 at the peace conference at Amiens in that year (Palmer, 199). There can be no doubt that Chaucer knew the outcome of the battle. Even if he is not referring directly to the slaughter of Christians by Muslims at the battle of Nicopolis under the guise of the carnage at the marriage feast, anyone reading the Tale after 1396 could not have avoided the horrific parallel that these passages create.
To say that Chaucer here critiques the unbridled spirit of crusade at the end of the fourteenth century may be to exaggerate the evidence of the text, but it is clear that by giving the Sowdanesse a credible defense against the spread of Christianity into Syria he does raise serious questions about the validity of reducing religious differences to the tests of war on the field of battle. This is a theme Chaucer himself revisits in his Tale of Melibee, which gives us yet another reason to doubt he ever intended it for the Man of Law. The Prioress's anti-Semitic diatribe clearly shows us that Christians are just as capable of committing atrocities against Islamic and Jewish people as Jews and Muslims are of doing so to Christians. On balance, the Sowdanesse has a better grasp of the problem than the Prioress does.
In light of the intricate connections Chaucer has troubled to create between and among his rime royal poems it seems a credible assumption to make that his intent is to draw all of them together under the shadow of a dominant aspect of his ideological horizon. The most obvious candidate for that dominant ideological concern is the Great Schism and the reason so little has been said about the Clerk's Tale to this point in the analysis concerns the fact that it contains the most explicit references to that sociohistorical problem than do any of the other rime royal tales. The clerk of Oxenford, in his Prologue, alludes to the origin of his tale in the work of Petrarch and compares the Italian poet's rhetoric to the philosophical and legal activity of "Lynyan" (IV.34). He says that Petrarch's poetry "Enlumyned al Ytaille" (IV.33),
As Lynyan dide of philosophie,
Or lawe, or oother art particuler;
But Deeth, that wol nat suffre us dwellen heer,
But as it were a twynklyng of an ye,
Hem both hath slayn, and alle shul we dye. (IV.34-38)
John of Legnano ("Lynyan"), as John P. McCall has pointed out, died in 1383 (487) and, as the Clerk suggests, had only the "twynklyng of an ye" to create any lasting impression on the issues surrounding the Schism in the final five years of his life. That he was successful in that effort, as McCall notes, can be seen in the fact that "Legnano defended the election of Urban VI and drew from that harried and irascible pontiff the offer of a red hat" (485). He declined to accept the position of cardinal, however, because his wife refused to enter holy orders, which she would have been required to do, if he had accepted Urban's offer (485 N6). Chaucer's point in mentioning Legnano in the Prologue may well be to draw our attention to the fact that his wife's disobedience prevented him from becoming a cardinal. Her refusal to accept holy orders contrasts sharply to Grisilda's virtually absolute willingness to do whatever Walter demands and Chaucer uses his reference to "Lynyan" to create an anti-type to Grisilda's behavior. The tension, here again, between the real-time chronotope of the frame and the chronotope of the story itself creates an opportunity for an act of subversive discourse. Legnano's position on the Schism, which was widely known throughout England and France, was quite simple, as McCall notes, he stated flatly that "Urban VI had been validly elected and was therefore pope" (487). Significant elements of English society were still following this essential position in 1396, exemplified best by the University of Oxford's refusal to support the via cessionis put forward by the University of Paris and the Valois court in France at the time.
The conflict between the Oxford position, that the Roman obedience was legitimate, and the position taken by John of Gaunt and Richard II, that neither pope was legitimate and both should resign under the via cessionis, sets a very complex stage upon which Chaucer addresses the central issue of the Great Schism in the Clerk's Tale. He begins by having the Clerk praise Legnano's strident pro-Urbanist position, by implication at least, but undercuts its validity by depicting Walter's extreme absolutism with regard to how he treats his wife and subjects. The essential point of contact Chaucer uses to link the Clerk's speech performance to the problems of schismatic heresy in the church is contained in a passage he added to his source material from Petrarch and the French version of Petrarch's story. The Clerk, in describing the method Walter uses to gain his bull of divorce from the pope, states that:
He to the court of Rome, in subtil wyse
Enformed of his wyf, sente his message,
Comaundynge hem swiche bulles to devyse
As to his crueel purpos to suffyse--
How that the pope, as for his peples reste,
Bad him to wedde another, if hym leste.
I seye, he bad they sholde countrefete
The popes bulls, makynge mencion
That he hath leve his firste wyf to lete,
As by the popes dispensacion,
To stynte rancour and dissencion
Bitwixe his peple and hym; thus seyde the bulle,
The which they han publiced atte fulle. (IV.736-749)
Before commenting directly on this remarkable statement, one should take notice of the way in which the circumstance described here contrasts to the situation in the Man of Law's Tale where the marriage of the Sowdan and Custance is arranged. In the previous case, the pope and all the religious and civil authority of Christendom came together to create the possibility of a sacramental marriage between a Christian and an infidel. In this case, a single individual's "crueel purpos" is brought to bear against the papal curia demanding the publication of a "countrefete" bull of divorce, based on false statements that the "peple" want Grisilda removed from Walter's house, a bull of divorce furthermore that uncreates and dissolves for no legitimate reason a sacramental marriage that was created in the traditional, eternally binding, manner of the church. Chaucer again follows the pattern of contrasts that informs the development of his thematically linked group of rime royal tales.
The most remarkable feature of this statement is its total absurdity. The idea that a marquis could send a messenger to the papal court and command ("comaundynge") the pope and his curia to produce a fake bull of divorce for a "crueel purpos" is totally without merit, totally unbelievable. The bull, as demanded, would express an overt lie; that is, that the pope himself, in order to quell a nonexistent dissension between Walter and his people, is the one who commanded Walter to divorce Grisilda in the first place. Under normal circumstances, Walter's demand would have been met with repudiation, incredulity, and outrage. Nevertheless, Chaucer wants us to believe that Walter's messenger returned with a false document that pretended to unravel and dissolve a sacrament of "hooly chirche." In the context of the Great Schism, however, what Chaucer has the Clerk tell us is not only credible; it may also be inescapable. This is true because the Roman court of Urban VI and Boniface IX depended absolutely on the heads of the Italian states, Saluzzo being one of them, for protection against the threat of invasion under the via facti (way of force) from the court of Avignon and its adherents. In 1391, in fact, as already noted, Charles VI raised a significant army to invade Italy and depose Boniface IX from the papal see at Rome. Walter would have been expected to defend Boniface from such an invasion and the implication in the Clerk's Tale is precisely that Walter gets his bull of divorce because the pope cannot refuse even the most despicable whims of the people upon whom he depends for his very life and title to the benefits of papal authority. A papal bull of divorce issued here or there is a small price to pay for the wealth and power of being able to command the Roman obedience as pope. By adding this passage to his sources, Chaucer makes it clear he had a specific reason for doing so.
The fact that Chaucer has the Clerk refer to John of Legnano in the Prologue, and then follows that reference with the fake bull of divorce in the Tale itself, a detail Chaucer adds to his redaction, clearly implies that his specific interest in retelling Petrarch's legend of Walter and Grisilda rests firmly on the issues raised by the Great Schism. The point of his focus, since Rome and Urban/Boniface are involved, concerns the problem of papal authority to command obedience from his subjects both in the church and in the secular realms of those areas of Europe that remained loyal to his election and rule. In specific terms the Roman obedience is the one he highlights but the fact of the matter is that his evaluation applies equally to both obediences in the Schism in its political context.
Howard Kaminsky argues that the reason the college of cardinals deposed Urban and elected Clement VII to take his place was that Urban's election had been forced on them by a Roman mob threatening to kill them all in conclave if they failed to elect an Italian to the papacy. In actual fact, however, even if such threats actually occurred, Urban proved to be essentially intractable in his intent to reform abuses in the church, to fulfill Gregory XI's intention to move the papal see permanently from Avignon back to Rome, which the predominantly French college of cardinals opposed, and clearly demonstrated his intention to reverse the drift of power from pope to cardinals that had gone on at Avignon for the duration of time the papal see had been located there. Kaminsky notes that Urban
made his points in coarsely abusive language, frequently losing his temper and meeting oppositions by flat assertions of his papal omnipotence, [and] the cardinals could only conclude that Urban intended to liquidate the whole structure of papal governance in its Avignon form. There would be no more mutual respect, no more co-governance of pope and college; the new papacy, fixed in Rome, would be absolutist and Italian, while they would figure only as anachronisms to be first repressed, then gradually replaced. (22-23)
The Clerk's point, then, in depicting Walter as a person who demands absolute power over his wife, and his subjects, speaks eloquently to the issue of Urban's behavior and philosophy of rule toward the college of French cardinals who voted on August 9, 1378, to depose him and put Robert of Geneva (Clement VII) in his place. Their action to protect their own interests was meant to counteract Urban's obvious bent toward papal absolutism and his intent to reform the abuses that had arisen in the church during the Avignon papacy.
Most critical evaluations over the last several decades, without intending to do so, nevertheless support this reading of the Clerk's Tale. Elizabeth Salter's view of the Tale has long held up before us a sense that Chaucer may have created a tale operating on two distinct levels simultaneously, one secular and one religious, without ever realizing the extent of "the problem he sets himself and his readers by attempting to juxtapose, rather than to relate, both perspectives upon the narrative" (62). In spite of the difficulty Salter alludes to, there are two reasons for Chaucer's decision to do as he has done, especially in terms of juxtaposing the two sides rather than trying to relate them to each other where no compromise exists. On one level, he wants to address the tendency on the part of Richard II toward a kingly hegemony and absolutism in secular governance. This aspect of Chaucer's strategy also reflects the historical fact that the ecclesiastical authorities sought out and accepted the intervention of the aristocracies of both England and France in creating a solution to the Schism. Walter's act of commanding the pope to grant his "countrefete" bull of divorce from Grisilda shows a worst case scenario for the abuse of that regal and secular power over the church. On another level, of course, Walter's behavior toward Grisilda and his subjects represents what we know of Urban's relationship to the French college of cardinals prior to the election of Clement VII and by extension from that to the general refusal of both popes afterwards to cooperate in helping to bring about the end of the Schism. Both sides ultimately came to be seen as absolutist in their attitudes toward via cessionis, since both popes, whoever happened to occupy the position at any given time, always refused to resign the papacy. It is also true, as we have seen, that the papacy itself over many years had accumulated so much material property that its involvement in material or secular affairs had become both inevitable and inescapable. In discussing the schismatic papacy, Chaucer would have found it impossible not to emphasize the connection between the material and spiritual aspects of its ideological horizon. Since both aspects of the problem existed simultaneously, Chaucer simply remains true to that inescapable fact when he mixes religious and secular concerns in the story.
The central value in Salter's observations about Chaucer's approach to Petrarch's story resides in her perceptive statement that the "use of a human relationship to illuminate a spiritual relationship was well established in purely devotional treatises by Chaucer's time" (39), a notion which carries with it the implication that the Clerk's Tale, while perhaps not literally "devotional," contains and exploits precisely the same strategy. Hence, when she observes later that Chaucer's difficulty with the Tale stems from his ambiguous treatment of Walter as "this 'cruel' lord, whose actions are not sufficiently mysterious and inexplicable to avoid the ordinary human accusation of malice indulged to the point of luxury" (60), Walter's character, as a figure of God, becomes too conflicted to make that reading credible without serious qualification. She goes on to make this point even more emphatic when she says that
In a world of actuality, however, Griselda's sufferings become pitiable, and Walter's machinations abominable. Viewed as a human document, the Tale is cruel, unnatural and unconvincing, and it is just this 'human view' which is irresistible to Chaucer, and which urges him to dramatise and then criticise what he has created. (62, emphasis Salter's)
Pulling Walter down a notch from a heightened spiritual level, as God perhaps, to what Chaucer actually intended, that we see him as a figure of king and schismatic pope, an all too human reality, as it were, makes Chaucer's treatment of both Walter and Grisilda perfectly reasonable. It is also reasonable to assume that the Clerk's insistence that Walter is wrong to test Grisilda "whan that it is no nede" (IV.461) tends to contradict the notion that the narrator means for us to see Walter as a figure of God. Losing the necessity to make Walter out to be a figure of God, and seeing him instead as a marquis with power over papal authority, and as a figural representation of the schismatic heretic occupying the throne of St. Peter in Rome, at the same time, by inference at least, subsumes the critical contradictions under a rational explanation for the textual evidence at hand. This mixing of intent, seeing Walter as a secular power (marquis) and as a symbol of the same kind of power exercised by a pope, is consistent with Chaucer's use of double-voiced discourse in his story-telling. It is also true that Chaucer does not "criticise what he has created." That "Griselda's sufferings become pitiable, and Walter's machinations abominable" is precisely Chaucer's intent because it so clearly reflects the state of the church (Grisilda) under the rulership of the schismatic popes and their colleges of cardinals (Walter), especially when the popes are absolutist, take no heed of their advisors, and show essentially no concern at all for ordinary Christians. The aristocracy also consistently takes advantage of the church's weakened position during the entire course of the Schism.
J. Huizinga expresses the situation aptly when he notes that "[a]ccording to a popular belief, current toward the end of the fourteenth century, no one, since the beginning of the great Western schism, had entered Paradise" (21). The materialistic self-interests of the schismatic popes, reflected clearly enough in Walter's "crueel purpos" and "machinations" against Grisilda, effectively blocked and abrogated every Christian's hope for salvation and instead damned them, each and everyone, to eternal hell. Chaucer does not fail to communicate that horrible prospect in the Clerk's Tale; in fact, he manages it with a deep and profound efficacy. The fact that criticism has failed to comprehend Chaucer's hero (message) in the Clerk's speech performance only tells us things about critical approaches to literature; it tells us nothing about Chaucer or his artistic brilliance in giving this revelation of papal absolutism to a Clerk of Oxenford.
Taking Elizabeth Salter's observation that Chaucer has used a human relationship to talk about the spiritual aspects of life, but resisting the impulse to allegory inherent in that idea, one can argue that many relationships in medieval society were based on the model of a Christian marriage. Husbands were married to wives, kings were married to their kingdoms and subjects, bishops were married to the diocese, popes were married to the obedience, Christ was married to the church, and finally, God was married to his creation. All these relationships are implicated in the Clerk's discourse and each of them in turn is perceived as being literally true and literally real with respect to taking their force from the terms of sacramental marriage. In terms of human relationships, then, but not necessarily the Godly ones, when Walter violates every sense of decency we can bring to bear in describing how a husband should treat his wife and, by implication, when Grisilda's passivity, and promises of obedience, prevent her from responding properly to the machinations of an abusive husband, the Clerk is telling us that the standards of behavior affecting kings and subjects, bishops and diocese, popes and obedience are, and have been, conflicted by the absolutist tendencies of rulership that infect society from the top down to the lowest levels of human interaction. The Clerk covers this range of human interaction by having the marquis choose the lowest socially fixed woman in his realm for his wife. The force that motivates the decline can thus be seen in the fact that "hooly chirche" has fallen into what appears to be an irrevocable Schism placing two schismatic heretics in position to rule over every aspect of human society.
The point the Clerk makes is multifaceted and dialogic, since his admonition against absolutism applies equally to all levels of the literal hierarchy of marriage, and marriage relationships, from pope to king to husband. Since God is all-powerful, but restricted in his actions by man's free will and his own potentia ordinata, as the kings of England are restricted by the Magna Carta, neither Walter nor the pope is free from obligations to behave properly toward his subjects. Valerie Edden notes that "Griselda and Walter operate in a world which, if it is ruled by God, is ruled by a God who does not intervene in the affairs of men, a world which seems to be largely in the control of flawed humans and of chance" (371). To the objection that the world also has access to God's providence and grace, one need only recall that with the church in profound and apparently terminal Schism, which is all Chaucer ever saw of the history itself, Edden's qualification--"if it is ruled by God"--may be strictly appropriate to the Clerk's vision. With no remedy in sight, and the church's mediation in man's hope for salvation gone, Walter's senseless abuse of Grisilda, his own subjects, and by extension, the very papal obedience of Rome itself, seems logically enough to be the object of the Clerk's discourse. The fact that he undercuts the validity of the pope's absolutist tendencies suggests he is a dissident voice in the University of Oxford's response to the via cessionis held out by Paris and the Valois court. That would put him in the same camp with John of Gaunt and Richard II in 1396 and finding Chaucer supporting that position through the Clerk's subversive discourse is nothing short of obvious. In other words, he appeals to John of Legnano's memory only to undercut Legnano's rigid pro-Urbanist position against the one favored by Richard's court at the end of the century, since Walter becomes, and even enacts, the Clerk's reflection of the absolute pro-Urbanist position favored by Legnano. The fact that Legnano's wife disobeyed her husband's wishes that she enter a convent, thus preventing him from becoming one of Urban's cardinals, where Grisilda's obedience to Walter is taken to potentially destructive limits, makes it clear which position Chaucer and his Clerk of Oxenford favor. The discourse is subversive because Oxford itself favored the opposite view.
In terms of Chaucer's rime royal project inside Canterbury's thematic development, one can say he gives us two children of the Great Schism and of schismatic heresy, the Prioress and the Second Nun, both of whom generate speech acts that severely conflict the official word of a unified, monologic, and hegemonically dominant church. But the church has fallen into profound Schism and what adversely affects the top of the hierarchy certainly filters down to the lower levels of its authority. Chaucer's nuns, under the circumstances, cannot be expected to do better (Dobet as Langland has it). The Man of Law does no more than one would expect, descending, as he does, when confronted with an argument in support of Islamic law, to a stereotypical anti-feminist diatribe that never reaches the level of answering the Sowdanesse's claim to a religious hegemony of her own. His performance makes it appear as if the Christian world has no response at all to a legitimate claim contrary to its own position.
With a final look back, it is important to note that Chaucer places his reference to John of Legnano in the Clerk's Tale, which is partially defined by it, prior to the Squire-Franklin fragment (V), precisely because Legnano's position of absolute support for Urban VI fuels the passion for, and creates justification of, a holy crusade of via facti against the Avignon obedience. That is the point of the Norwich crusade and Chaucer's evaluation of the effects such projects have on the possibility of maintaining sacramental marriages in the context of a man like Arveragus answering the call to service in defense of Avignon against the English obedience to Rome. The via facti itself, which is exemplified in the Franklin's Tale as part of his answer to the Squire's performance, has not helped to end the Schism but has made its terms only more intractable. Dorigen's promise to commit adultery and destroy the sacrament of her marriage makes it clear what Chaucer thought of such crusades--and explains precisely why the Tale of Melibee, with its insistence on good council seeking peace, not war, was always his to tell.