Chapter 8: Increase
and Multiply in the Speech Acts of Chaucer's Nun's Priest, Second
Nun, and Canon's Yeoman.
The concept of increase and multiply alluded to when Harry Bailly calls upon the Monk to tell his Tale, and again in the Epilogue to the Nun's Priest's Tale, but by virtue of its absence, is one that plays a major role in the two stories bound together in Fragment VIII of the Ellesmere sequence. St. Cecile "multiplies" the number of true believers in the milieu of the hostility of the pagan court of Almachius, paying for that increase with the earthly or "seculer" loss of her husband (Valerian), his brother (Tiburce), and the Roman soldier (Maximus), and then finally, with the loss of her own life as well. All of them become martyrs to the faith and achieve their compensation and just reward in heaven's bliss. The exemplum of St. Cecile, in the material context of Chaucer's frame structure, plays itself out against the notion of a purely sexual increase, like the one attributed to the Monk--"To parfourne al thy lust in engendrure,/ Thou haddest bigeten ful many a creature" (VII.1947-1948). This same notion appears in the fact that Chauntecleer has seven wives. We see it repeated again in the Canon's Yeoman's Prologue and Tale, where we are told by the Yeoman that he "swynke soore [to] lerne multiplie" (VIII.669). The increase to which the Yeoman refers concerns the alchemical hope that one pound of gold can be multiplied into two pounds of the precious metal through the work ("swynke") of the adept: "That of a pound we koude make tweye" (VIII.677).
The lengthy discussion of dreams between Chauntecleer and Pertelote, which occupies nearly 300 lines of the Tale (VII.2887-3171), can, in several different ways, be said to anchor Fragment VII in its Ellesmere position prior to Fragment VIII. A significant aspect of the Second Nun's Tale concerns the fact that St. Cecile claims to have a guardian angel that no one else can see. She explains to Valerian, on their wedding night, that the angel means to protect her from Valerian's "touche" if he should attempt to love her "in vileynye," that the angel "right anon wol sle yow with the dede" if Valerian violates her chastity (VIII.156-157). One hesitates to laugh at such serious and high-minded admonitions, and no one ever does, but the threat of death brought to bear by an angel to preserve a married woman's virginity against her husband's natural rights and expectations does seem to be somewhat an extreme response to a situation of this kind. St. Jerome might approve, one supposes, but Valerian, who is not a saint yet, guesses that Cecile means she has a secret, mortal lover and vows to kill them both if that proves to be the case (VIII.167-168).
The scene between husband and wife never quite breaks down into parodic laughter, though one can perhaps assume that the Wife of Bath would find it an amusing concept, and perhaps it should not become an object of laughter either because in one way it seems to be a direct, even insidious, contradiction of Christian belief to posit the existence of an angel who will kill "with the dede" anyone who violates Cecile's chastity and, in the process, commits a deadly sin. If one were to take the Second Nun's account of the angel seriously, he or she would be faced with the incredibly difficult task of explaining precisely what has happened to the heart and soul of Christian doctrine, since the angel would be standing in the way of the sinner's access to God's grace and mercy. To accept the Second Nun's version of things is the same as denying every sinful person an opportunity to repent and seek absolution for having committed a deadly sin. This circumstance contradicts the reason and purpose behind Christ's sacrifice, since Christ died on the Cross to give every man and woman a fair opportunity to repent and be saved from eternal damnation. In that context, to place a single person's virginity above the gift of God's grace and mercy seems to be as much a denial of Christian truth as it is an affirmation of it. That Valerian's conversion to the faith is stimulated by a contradiction of its most compelling feature, salvation through God's grace, stands the Second Nun's Tale on its head. To put this in its simplest terms, the concept of the angel of death is heresy, one which probably belongs to the Second Nun, not to St. Cecile, and one which probably has its origin in the schismatic heresy of the latter half of the fourteenth century. Cecile then sends Valerian to "Pope Urban" (VIII.185), a designation repeated several times (VIII.217, 305, 350), in the catacombs under Rome where he is converted and baptized. When he returns, he is able to see the angel, as Cecile promises, and the angel gives each of them a flowery crown from "paradys" to wear (VIII.218-231).
The flowers then play a role in the recruitment of Tiburce, who can smell their fragrance but cannot see their form before the enactment of his own conversion (VIII.246-259). Valerian explains the origin of the fragrance and its significance, to which Tiburce responds:
"Seistow this to me
In soothnesse, or in dreem I herkne this?"
"In dremes," quod Valerian, "han we be
Unto this tyme, brother myn, ywis.
But now at erst in trouthe oure dwellyng is." (VIII.260-264)
Not to make more of this than the passage can sustain, but it is clear enough that the issue of dreams, even when extended to religious visions, brought to the foreground of our attention by the Nun's Priest, is resolved in the notion that "seculer" life, especially the kind lived by pagans, is nothing but a dream itself when compared to the "trouthe" one finds in a Christian "dwellyng." A problem with the passage, which is fully articulated by Sherry L. Reames, concerns the fact that Chaucer has laid no foundation in his redaction of the legend to explain how Valerian comes by the knowledge he imparts to Tiburce in this statement. Reames notes in Chaucer's version of the legend that "there is no trace . . . of the way Urban carefully instructed [Valerian] in the faith" and that such omissions create the impression that he only needs to submit to conversion and baptism but does not "need to understand" them (43). Chaucer's decision to exclude any visible sign that Valerian has been instructed in the faith points toward what Reames characterizes as a tendency to emphasize "supernatural power at the expense of human understanding and choice" in the Tale (39). Augustine also emphasizes the notion that converts to the faith must be instructed in its beliefs before they can be baptized.
This problem, then, when looking back in the other direction, toward the Nun's Priest's speech performance, draws attention to the fact that Pertelote cannot anymore envision Chauntecleer's dream-beast, the fox, than Valerian can Cecile's angel. Both fox and angel dwell, or have their existence in, the mind and the experience of the Other initially and cannot be perceived on the outside of that limitation. The essential contrast here is particularly forceful and interactive in light of what Pertelote says to Chauntecleer after he complains of his dream of the fox:
Have ye no mannes herte, and han a berd?
Allas! And konne ye been agast of swevenys?
Nothyng, God woot, but vanitee in sweven is.
Swevenes engendren of replecciouns,
And ofte of fume and of complecciouns,
Whan humours been to habundant in a wight. (VII.2920-2925)
Valerian could just as easily have said this same thing to Cecile when she announces her guardian angel. After his conversion, however, and in response to his brother's question, he expresses the concept that all non-Christian life is little more than a dream, a notion which corresponds quite well to Pertelote's claim that dreams are nothing more than expressions of vanity. What distinguishes dream in a secular sense from religious perception (vision) is drawn from the difference between worldly concerns, Chauntecleer's fear of losing his earthly life, which is all any chicken has anyway, and a Christian's focus on other-worldly reality, the existence of guardian angels and the promise of eternal bliss in heaven, for instance. All worldly concerns in fourteenth century Christianity were considered to be expressions of vanity. Pertelote's argument, of course, is not meant to be taken as a statement of church doctrine because her remedy for Chauntecleer's "disese" is presented as a regimen of herbs, mostly fatal if ingested, which are supposed to cure the physical causes of her husband's bad dreams. Her cure is not directed toward any spiritual problem he might be suffering. One should note in passing that this issue is governed by the chronotopic distinction between "real-time," as chickens perceive it, recalling to mind that the narrator gives Chauntecleer an astronomical figure to explain how he tells time, and the fact that people in the Middle Ages were inclined to perceived time in its vertical motion toward salvation history and otherworldly concerns.
One way of looking at the juxtaposition here between two contrasting perceptions of dream, since both stories deal with the existence of things seen and not seen, where the invisible inevitably becomes manifest to everyone in time, a contrast, as it were, between a fox and an angel, on the one hand, and between a beast's fable and a saint's life, on the other, might be to assert that Chaucer's motive in connecting these two tales to each other, and, of course, it is apparent that the narrators are also joined by holy office through the Nun's Priest's role as confessor to the Second Nun, concerns his intent to use one story to question the validity of the other. If all dreams are vanity, then St. Cecile's vision of the guardian angel, who protects her body against the villainy of sexual union, might also be the vainglorious delusion of a person whose pride makes her believe that she is more important to God than she actually is. Such an interpretation of the poem's meaning, of course, might not stand every test as a reflection of Chaucer's ultimate intent since it would imply that the deaths of the four Christian martyrs, even all martyrs in general, occur not for any noble or religiously compelling reason but only out of a human pride that convinces the martyred saint that he or she deserves more honor and glory than any human being is ever actually capable of achieving. To repeat: Chaucer is probably not making that view the primary argument of his juxtaposition but the linking of the two tales through the connection between the Nun's Priest as confessor to the Second Nun and the juxtaposition of the stories in sequence does allow him to raise that very significant question.
The rhetorical absurdity that so colors the Nun's Priest's speech act, and by extension Chauntecleer's personal history, especially if it is given some of the religious motivation critics suggest, contrasts well enough to the serious nature of a saint's life to suggest that Chaucer's intent is to parody one with the other. The role played by flattery in the fox's speech to Chauntecleer appeals to his vainglory in exactly the same way that the guardian angel's presence plays to St. Cecile's sense of her own special state of grace in God's plan. The first is clearly secular, fox to chicken, so to speak, and cannot be said to carry any but the most tragic possibilities, as it moves toward it denouement, even if Chauntecleer ultimately escapes from what could be his tragic fate. The second is purely religious, angel to saint, and results in an increase of Christian belief and practice in the pagan world. That is certainly a positive result and the martyrs are rewarded with heavenly bliss, even if it might be more appropriate to say they are converted not to a Christian life but only to a Christian martyrdom. Both, however, can be said to rest on the foundation of essentially the same appeal of flattery to the tendency or existence of vainglory in human consciousness. Saints, unlike chickens, are also subject to human frailties. They are saints because they overcome them.
Before moving ahead to other relevant matters, there is reason to examine one of the dream examples Chauntecleer uses to justify his concern over the fear his own dream has engendered. That dream is the one about the murdered man who is dispatched by a thief and then concealed in a cart of dung. Before he is robbed of his gold, then murdered and concealed, he appears to his friend three times during the night in dreams to seek help in preventing his own ill-fate from overtaking him, but his friend believes, like Pertelote, that his dream is "nas but a vanitee" (VII.3011). The dreamer then does nothing to assist his friend. In the morning when he attempts to rejoin the murdered man, the innkeeper tells him he has already departed from the town. The man then remembers his dream and recalls how he was told to search the cart of dung at the town's western gate for his friend's body. The villains are captured and punished when the murdered man is discovered in the cart.
Robert A. Pratt has identified Chaucer's Latin sources for the dream material in the Nun's Priest's Tale from the works of Cicero, Valerius, and Albertus Magnus and notes that "from the opening dream Chaucer intensifies the horror which he found in his models." One problem with pursuing source material in any poet's work is that the source, once it is discovered and evaluated, then becomes the predominant justification for explaining why the poet included that material in his poem in the first place. Cicero says it, Valerius says it, Albertus says it; therefore, Chaucer repeats what he finds in his source without giving any thought whatsoever to the implications of including a dream-story (exemplum) about a man who is robbed of his gold, murdered by a thief, and then concealed in a cart of dung while telling a barnyard-story about a chicken who is threatened by a fox. The source explains and justifies that artistic decision and makes further inquiry into the circumstance of its inclusion unnecessary. That approach fails for several reasons to explain the relationship between source and story and the question then becomes, or should become, whether or not Chaucer had a separate justification for including a particular piece of source material in the Nun's Priest's Tale as a means of pointing beyond the isolated concerns he meant to express within the strict limits of the narrator's speech performance. In other words, does the story of the murdered man have or suggest a correlative response from any other story in the Canterbury sequence?
In answering that question affirmatively, one can point to several statements in the Canon's Yeoman's Tale which seem to suggest that Chaucer was busily engaged in creating a rather elaborate parody out of the horrific material he borrowed from his Latin sources. One reason he may have intensified the horror was to make the dream stand out even more vividly in the audience's memory. The structure of his japery depends upon the statement made by the newly murdered man to his dreaming friend:
"I am now slawe.
Bihoold my bloody woundes depe and wyde!
Arys up erly in the morwe tyde,
And at the west gate of the toun," quod he,
"A carte ful of dong ther shaltow se,
In whiche my body is hid ful prively;
Do thilke carte arresten boldely.
My gold caused my mordre, sooth to sayn,"
And tolde hym every point how he was slayn,
With a ful pitous face, pale of hewe. (VII.3014-3023)
The points of reference in the passage that are brought to fruition in the Canon's Yeoman's Tale are the facts that the murdered man's body has been concealed "ful prively" in the "carte ful of dong," that the cause of his death is his possession of gold, which the murderer has stolen from him, and that his face is "pale of hewe" as he speaks. All these elements, of course, are perfectly consistent with the context in which they occur, both in Chaucer's sources and in his redaction of them, and need no additional elaboration to explain why they are present in the dream sequence recounted by Chauntecleer.
These same elements, for completely different reasons, however, become significant in the Canon's Yeoman's speech performance. In the course of questioning the circumstances that have unexpectedly brought the Canon and his Yeoman into the company of the pilgrims, Harry Bailly asks the Yeoman: "Why artow so discoloured of thy face?" (VIII.664). The Yeoman replies: "I am so used in the fyr to blowe/ That it has chaunged my colour, I trowe" (VIII.666-667), as a way of explaining that his duties as an apprentice to the Canon, who is an alchemist, are centered upon blowing the fire up to the proper temperature to heat the material in the alchemist's alembic. One "purpose" of alchemical activity is to transmute base material into gold. The Yeoman complains, after finishing the Prologue, where Harry questions him, about the change in his complexion, and about several other things as well:
And wher my colour was both fressh and reed,
Now is it wan and of a leden hewe--
Whoso it useth, soore shal he rewe!--
And of my swynk yet blered is myn ye.
Lo, which avantage is to multiplie!
That slidynge science hath me maad so bare
That I have no good, wher that evere I fare;
And yet I am endetted so therby
Of gold that I have borwed, trewely,
That whil I lyve I shal it quite nevere.
Lat every man be war by me for evere! (VIII.727-737)
The blear-eyed Yeoman, whose face was once a healthy red but now is wan and pale, of "leden hewe," stands before the company, not in a dream told by a chicken, but in all too compelling reality, not just bereft of his gold, but so deeply in debt that he will not be able to pay back what he has borrowed in his lifetime, consumed, and all but dead, in the fruitless pursuit of that "slidynge science" otherwise known as alchemy. Not exactly the same thing, of course, but Chaucer links the murdered man to the Yeoman by presenting both as being "pale of hewe" and gold-less.
That the murdered man's body is concealed "ful pryvely" in the cart of dung in the Nun's Priest's Tale is brought to play in a corollary of concepts that are much more intensively and elaborately expressed in the verbal constructs that formulate the Canon's Yeoman's Tale. The Yeoman's body is also concealed, as it were, because he and the Canon are forced to live "In the suburbs of a toun" (VIII.657), not in the full light of day, but
"Lurkynge in hernes and in lanes blynde,
Whereas thise robbours and thise theves by kynde
Holden hir pryvee fereful residence,
As they that dar nat shewen hir presence;
So faren we, if I shal seye the sothe." (VIII.658-662)
Chaucer inverts the association he has created in the dream sequence in the Nun's Priest's Tale between the murderer and his victim. He does this by showing us that the Yeoman, who started out connected to the victim by virtue of his pale "hewe," has been transformed by his hidden state in the "lanes blynde" into a man now more like the robber and the thief, "by kynde," who has murdered the man in Chauntecleer's dream example, than he is like the victim of the crime itself. We have seen Chaucer's tendency to invert conditions and associations between one thing and another in our examination of his rime royal tales earlier. A similar impulse is at work here and the purpose of the inversion will become clear as we work through the material Chaucer has incorporated into the Tale. The concept of concealment, of "pryvetee," in the Yeoman's Tale, seen here in the idea that a "pryvee fereful residence" is necessary to contain certain kinds of people because they "dar nat shewen hir presence," is perhaps the most obvious and dominant linguistic feature of the story, a feature which comes back again and again.
At the end of Harry Bailly's examination of the Yeoman, we are given another curious piece of information about the relationship between the two travelers as they suddenly overtake the pilgrimage, information which speaks directly to their connection to the rest of society. The Canon warns his Yeoman as he speaks to Harry that he should
"Hold thou thy pees and spek no wordes mo,
For if thou do, thou shal it deere abye.
Thou sclaundrest me heere in this compaignye,
And eek discoverest that thou sholdest hyde." (VIII693-696)
Apart from the connection that holding "thou thy pees" has to the Manciple's Tale, the idea that the Yeoman is revealing things that should be kept hidden plays directly against the reason the murderer in the dream example finds it necessary to conceal the body of his victim in the cart of dung--to prevent his crime from being discovered. At first glance, the motive of the Canon to silence his Yeoman seems to run in the same direction; he does so to conceal a criminal activity. When the Canon sees he cannot abate his Yeoman's speech, and that "his Yeman wolde telle his pryvetee,/ He fledde awey for verray sorwe and shame" (VIII.701-702). While Chaucer never makes it unambiguously clear why the Canon flees the company of pilgrims, he does make it obvious that the Canon cannot abide having his private affairs revealed in a public forum filled with strangers.
In what can be taken as a clarifying statement later in prima pars of the story, the Yeoman says:
And if a man wole aske hem pryvely
Why they been clothed so unthriftily,
They right anon wol rownen in his ere,
And seyn that if that they espied were,
Men wolde hem slee by cause of hir science. (VIII.892-896)
This statement both magnifies and elevates the concept of concealment in the Yeoman's speech performance, almost beyond reason, as it were, because a seemingly innocuous question about clothes, one which Harry Bailly has already asked in the Prologue ("Why is thy lord so sluttissh, I the preye, /And is of power bettre clooth to beye"--VIII.636-637), is put "pryvely," answered by a whisper ("rownen in his ere"), where that answer expresses a concern about being spied upon ("espied"), and concludes with an expression of fear over being murdered, or otherwise dispatched, perhaps legally executed (?), "by cause of hir science." The concern expressed here is not further clarified in the text but the tendency of the alchemist and his Yeoman to conceal themselves from public view must be linked to a fear that they will be killed if their connection to the "slidynge science" becomes widely known in the public realm. That fear of discovery, contrasted to the murdered man's hope of the opposite, that his body will be discovered in the cart of dung making it possible for his murderers to be punished for their crime, is nevertheless connected to an identical concern over the possibility of suffering an untimely death at the hands of other people who may be seeking to steal their gold.
The same pattern of "pryvetee" continues into pars secunda of the Canon's Yeoman's Tale, although reasons for its presence there seem to be more accessible, more rationally expressed, and therefore, perhaps more comprehensible. A secondary connection to the Nun's Priest's Tale also surfaces in the second part of the Tale, one which does, however, pose a curious sort of problem for reading the two tales as interactive commentaries on similar themes when the narrations are strictly confined to the Nun's Priest and the Canon's Yeoman as narrators. The Yeoman cannot be said to comment or respond directly to anything the Nun's Priest has said in his Tale because the Yeoman was not present in the company of pilgrims until after the Second Nun concludes her performance. The passage in question here is the apostrophe the Yeoman inserts as a mock warning to the "annueleer," who is about to be gulled by the "false chanoun" of pars secunda:
O sely preest! O sely innocent!
Which coveitise anon thou shalt be blent!
O gracelees, ful blynde is thy conceite,
No thyng ne artow war of the deceite
Which that this fox yshapen hath to thee!
His wily wrenches thou ne mayest nat flee. (VIII.1076-1081)
For those critics who see Chauntecleer as a "blynde" and foolish priest, these lines can be said to reinforce that association, since the alchemist is referred to as a fox. That the priest "ne mayest nat flee" from the tricks of the "false chanoun" inverts the fact that Chauntecleer was able to accomplish that feat and escape from the real-time jaws of the fox that had him by the neck. While any direct connection here between the two stories is conflicted by the Yeoman's ignorance of the Nun's Priest's Tale, one can still maintain that Chaucer himself meant the narrative link to stand where it falls.
As the "false chanoun" moves to perform his first demonstration of transmuting base material into gold, using quicksilver purchased by the priest's servant, he draws his victim into isolation:
Voyde youre man, and lat hym be theroute,
And shette the dore, whils we been aboute
Oure pryvetee, that no man us espie,
Whils that we werke in this philosophie. (VIII.1136-1139)
Parallels, like the one seen here in linking "pryvetee" to a fear of being spied upon, between prima pars and pars secunda of the story have led to the impression that the two canons must be the same man. That assumption, however, seems to rest on a superficial reading of the material Chaucer has incorporated into the Tale to distinguish the two men. The reason for the privacy in pars secunda is transparent. Having only two eyes watching as he performs his sleight-of-hand tricks over the alembic where the quicksilver is being "transmuted" into a more precious and valuable substance reduces the possibility that the trick will be discovered. The priest, because of his greed, will be focused only on the end result of the process, the recovery of silver from the prima materia in the alembic, and will not notice any of the substitutions the alchemist makes to bring about the false transformation. The servant, since he is not pursuing any reward himself and expects no gain, may be more observant and less gullible than his master, a risk the "false chanoun" removes from the arena of his performance. The blind-eye of the greed-driven priest is the only eye the alchemist in pars secunda allows as a witness to his manipulations of the materials with which he works. The "pryvetee" and secrecy also make the process seem more valuable and important than it actually is.
In a wider context, the issue of "pryvetee" in the practice of alchemy depends upon the nature of the pursuit itself and not at all upon the need of the "false chanoun" to conceal his tricks from a suspicious audience. Given the fact that the Yeoman carefully distinguishes his own Canon from the man in pars secunda (VIII.1088-1101), one can assume that he at least perceives a sharp distinction between what his Canon does and what the other one pursues. As the Yeoman tells us in his conclusion to the two parts of his Tale, specifically when he quotes from "Arnold of the Newe Toun" (Arnaldus de Villanova), the pursuit of alchemy is not an occupation for the weak-willed and cannot be successfully accomplished by anyone who does not understand "th'entencioun and speche" (VIII.1442) of the philosophers, "For the science and this konnyng," quod he,/ "Is of the secree of the secretes, pardee" (VIII.1446-1447). In quoting Senior Zadith next, the Yeoman notes that the philosopher's stone is referred to as the "privee stoon" (VIII.1452), whose secret composition is guarded and protected from discovery by the fact that
"The philosophres sworn were everychoon
That they sholden discovere it unto noon,
Ne in no book it write in no manere.
For unto Crist it is so lief and deere
That he wol nat that it discovered bee,
But wher it liketh so his deitee
Man for t'enspire, and eek for to deffende
Whan that hym liketh, lo, this is the ende." (VIII.1464-1471)
Whatever else might be said about this passage, it is clear the Yeoman is not taking about sleight-of-hand trickery. Critics are divided on the issue of how to read this statement. In general, those who argue that alchemy is everywhere and in every case an act of charlatanism because we now recognize it as a false "science," read the passage as an ironic condemnation of alchemy and alchemists. Those who grant alchemy a serious, even a religious, intent, albeit one that was misguided because its practitioners were not aware of chemical processes, take it as an expression of the Yeoman's belief that alchemy was pursuing a legitimate attempt to understand and control natural reality, which in itself may have been considered sinful as an expression of man's pride. The fact expressed here that God reserves the right to reveal the secret of the stone to individuals of his own choosing clearly suggests that the knowledge of the stone is somehow connected specifically to religious pursuits, that the work of alchemy, at some level, and probably in its attempt to produce the stone, was perceived by Chaucer and his audience to be concerned with the attempt to recreate in a secular context (through "magyk natureel") the redemptive power of Christ ("For unto Crist it is so lief and deere"). That the attempt was doomed to fail goes without saying since chemistry and chemical processes do not produce deity in a jar; but, to assume, at the same time, that Chaucer knew alchemy could not succeed is the same as granting him a de facto, as opposed to just an honorary, degree in chemical engineering from MIT. In short, Chaucer did not know, anymore than his contemporaries did, precisely what might happen when materials of various kinds were mixed and heated in an alembic. In the absence of scientific understanding of chemical processes, virtually any result could have been anticipated. There were reports as well from credible authorities that such attempts had been successful in the past.
C. G. Jung casts a necessary light on the issue as it has been presented in the foregoing discussion, including, but not limited to, Chaucer's decision to use the story of the murdered man concealed in the cart of dung in the Nun's Priest's Tale as a way of foregrounding the pursuit of the stone as a redemptive corollary of Christ in the Canon's Yeoman's Tale. Jung notes, for instance, in quoting Hippolytus, that the "extreme lowliness of the redeemer's origin is expressed even more strongly in alchemy: the stone is 'cast on the dunghill', 'found in filth'." In pursuing this subject more fully, Jung comments that
The prima materia is, as one can so aptly say in English "tantalizing": it is cheap as dirt and can be had everywhere, only nobody knows it; it is as vague and evasive as the lapis that is to be produced from it; it has a "thousand names." And the worst thing is that without it the work cannot even be begun. . . . The prima materia is "saturnine," and the malefic Saturn is the abode of the devil, or again it is the most despised and rejected thing, "thrown out into the street," "cast on the dunghill," "found in filth." (170)
Jung, following alchemical texts produced both before and after Chaucer's day, notes that Mercury (Mercurius), or quicksilver, is recognized as the prima materia (235) from which the lapis philosophorum "is to be produced." He also states that the lapis-Christus parallel was a significant component of the work produced by Arnaldus de Villanova (294), who is referred to by the Canon's Yeoman as we have already seen (VIII.1428). This fact demonstrates that Chaucer was aware of the alchemical tradition that associated Christ with the philosopher's stone, that saw the stone in its potential to confer a redemptive power.
Only a few points need to be emphasized here. The "false chanoun" instructs the priest before his first trick is performed to send his servant out to purchase "ounces two or three" (VIII.1104) of "quyksilver" (VIII.1103), "And when he cometh, as faste shal ye see/ A wonder thyng, which ye saugh nevere er this" (VIII.1105-1106). As Jung notes, the work cannot begin until the quicksilver has been introduced into the alembic. The association of the prima materia with the "malefic" Saturn is certainly a tradition with which Chaucer was at least partially familiar, since Saturn's "demonic" role surfaces so clearly in the Knight's Tale (I.2685), when he requests that Pluto send "a furie infernal" (I.2684) to frighten Arcite's horse after his tournament victory. In a more subtle reference to the same thing in the Second Nun's Tale, Maximus is beaten to death with a "whippe of leed" (VIII.406), where the Canon's Yeoman reports that lead is the metal associated with Saturn (VIII.828). The fact that the prima materia is a substance so despised that it is "thrown out into the street" casts a curious light on the subject of Phebus's crow in the Manciple's Tale, since Phebus "out at dore hym slong/ Unto the devel" (IX.306-307), when the crow reports, truthfully, how the god has become a cuckold. The transformation of the crow's color from white to black may also suggest Chaucer's ongoing concerns with alchemy in Fragment IX. It is also true, finally, that Python, who Phebus is credited with killing in the Manciple's report of the god's activities prior to the murder of his wife (IX.109-110), was considered by many alchemists to play a role in the transmutation of substances. Peter C. Herman notes that Chaucer adds the reference to Python to all the known analogues of the story (325) and this fact tends to support the notion of his intent to extend the issues of alchemy into the final fabula of his project.
Finally, of course, there is the matter of the murdered man concealed in the cart of dung. In the Canon's Yeoman's Tale itself, while rehearsing a long list of ingredients used in the operations that occur during the attempt to create the stone, the Yeoman says that among them are:
Unslekked lym, chalk, and gleyre of an ey,
Poudres diverse, asshes, donge, pisse, and cley,
Cered pokkets, sal peter, vitriole,
And diverse fires maad of wode and cole; (VIII.806-809)
Michael A. Calabrese has recently pointed out that the Yeoman's reference to "donge" and "pisse," as ingredients in the gold-producing alembic, may demonstrate Chaucer's perception that "at the root moral level" both he and the Yeoman "see the Canon's art . . . as a deceitful transformation of dung into gold, satanic work, the pollution of young minds, hateful to both God and humankind." Calabrese also notes that Senior Zadeth condemns "the treachery of false, base alchemists," who sometimes incorporate foul substances, like dung and urine, into their attempts to produce gold, and concludes that Chaucer, by quoting Zadeth, must also do the same (282).
This reading, however, is problematic. The Yeoman mentions the stercore and urina in relation to the experiments of his own Canon and not at all in relation to the "false chanoun" in pars secunda. He clearly, even insistently, differentiates the two canons, making it absolutely obvious that the "false chanoun" is not to be confused with his own master: "Sire hoost, in feith, and by the hevenes queene,/ It was another chanoun, and nat hee" (VIII.1089-1090). The "feendly" canon is condemned as "roote of al trecherie" (VIII.1069), who plans "How Cristes peple he may to meschief brynge" (VIII.1072); but, the Yeoman's Canon is, or may be, the one who attempts to produce the actual stone characterized by Zadeth as "so lief and deere" to Christ that only certain philosophers are chosen by God to discover it. The Yeoman's conclusion that the alchemists should abandon the search for the true stone--"I rede, as for the beste, lete it goon" (VIII.1475)--probably reflects his opinion, gleaned from seven years of failure, that his own canon is demonstrably not one of the philosophers chosen by God to pursue the quest and has become, by virtue of his foolish and prideful persistence, God's "adversarie" (VIII.1476). At the same time, however, it is difficult to argue that both canons are identical in their respective pursuits. Were that the case of Chaucer's intent, he would not have made so obvious an effort to distinguish one from the other.
Whatever view one wishes to take regarding Chaucer's attitude toward alchemy, and his view seems to be at least as complex as alchemy was itself in the fourteenth century, it is clearly a possibility that part of his intent in introducing the story of the murdered man in the cart of dung in the Nun's Priest's Tale was directed at making him stand as a symbol of the redemptive power many alchemists pursued in the quest for the lapis philosophorum. Robert A. Pratt, as noted earlier, argues that Chaucer drew some of his inspiration for the story from the work of Albertus Magnus, a man C. G. Jung characterizes as "an authority on alchemy" in the fourteenth century who was fully aware of, and who fully expressed, the alchemical idea that the highest and purest form of the elements, gold as the lapis-Christus, had its origin in the prima materia, the lowest and most debased element in the alchemist's hierarchy of substances. The concept of turning dung into gold, while a Satanic process in the eyes of some, can still be said to reflect the process of transmutation that is symbolized in the Mass by Christ taking on the sins of the entire world, obliterating that baseness in his suffering and death on the Cross, and then returning after three days as the risen redeemer of humankind. The fact that the murdered man shows his wounds to his dreaming friend also makes his essential identity as a redeemer apparent. In this context, the word of spiritual alchemy can be said to accord "perfectly" with the deed of salvation history.
With respect to the Great Schism, of course, it is obvious that the Yeoman's characterization of the second Canon, that he plans "How Cristes peple he may to meschief brynge," can be taken as a reference to Clement VII or Benedict XIII in the Avignon obedience because both of them were always considered by the people loyal to Urban VI and Boniface IX to be false popes who brought Christians everywhere into confusion and sin. That the Yeoman's Canon fares no better in the Tale's assessment of his ability to find the stone is not surprising either since the popes of the Roman obedience were also generally perceived as schismatic heretics during the final years of Chaucer's life. The point here, which will be developed more fully later, is that neither Canon has the authority of God's sanction to stand as mediators of his grace and mercy to sinful man. This is true for different reasons. The false Canon of pars secunda is interested only in gulling avaricious priests and is not engaged in the quest for the philosopher's stone, for what might be called God's material grace and redemptive power. The Yeoman's Canon is looking for the stone but cannot find it because he is not one of the philosophers chosen by God to recover it. Both Canons, therefore, are false.
Chaucer's parody in the context of the Nun's Priest's Tale hangs on the fact that the murdered man, who appears to his friend in the dream to display his "bloody woundes depe and wyde" (VIII.3115), like any good and true redeemer of mankind in a Christian context would be expected to do, has been deprived of his gold by the robbers and the thieves who have concealed his corpse in the cart of dung. The very thing that gives him value, the gold sought by the alchemists, is no longer present with his body in the dung. Chaucer's japery here concerns his decision to have a cocky, pride-ridden rooster, who is all too susceptible to the flattery of a fox, be the one who tells us about the murdered man in the cart of dung. That decision undercuts whatever redemptive power the symbolism might otherwise convey. Chauntecleer's "word" does not accord very well with his "deed," and, like the gulled priest in the Canon's Yeoman's Tale, who is also victimized by a fox, Chauntecleer's word has no viable moral authority. In other words, by redacting the story of the man in a cart of dung from Albertus Magnus into the mouth of a nobly ridiculous chicken, Chaucer parodies the sentence of the dream out of any serious consideration that might otherwise be given to it. The ultimate implication here is that God's grace and mercy have been stolen away from the Christian community by the greed and avarice of the ecclesiastical estate in its pursuit of the property rights and revenues of the schismatic benefices controlled by both Avignon and Rome. The image of the gold-less redeemer in the cart of dung symbolizes precisely how the church has wasted the value of its hegemonic power in pursuit of purely materialistic gain.
A final passage in the Nun's Priest's Tale that establishes its link to the Second Nun and the Canon's Yeoman occurs in his apostrophe to Venus. In it the Nun's Priest draws together the theme of St. Cecile's marriage to Valerian, the issue of "multiplie" in both its sacred and its profane conceptions as saintly martyrdom and alchemical practice, and casts a rather pointed reference toward the Parson's discourse on sexuality in marriage. He says:
O Venus, that art goddesse of plesaunce,
Syn that thy servant was this Chauntecleer,
And in thy servyce dide al his poweer,
Moore for delit than world to multiplie,
Why woldestow suffre hym on thy day to dye?" (VII.3342-3346)
Do chickens serve gods? Do roosters pursue sexual gratification without giving any thought this "world to multiplie?" Chickens do, without reason, what men are expected to avoid because they have some. Chauntecleer's sexual "delit" in Pertelote, at one level, is purely instinctual and occurs only in order this "world to multiplie." Every reader knows that. When the Nun's Priest connects Chauntecleer's role as "trede-foul" to his impending death, which does not occur, at the hands of the fox because he has pursued Pertelote only for the sake of his "delit" in sexual gratification, he anticipates the Parson's injunction against such practice in Christian marriages: "The fourthe manere is for to understonde, as if they assemble oonly for amorous love . . . for to accomplice thilke brennynge of delit, they rekke nevere how ofte. Soothly it is deedly synne" (X.942). The Parson's comments about other kinds of sexual activity, for procreation, for the discharge of marital debt, and for avoiding lechery, suggest that they are, or can be, seen as venial sin (X.938-941). In one sense of expectation, then, the Parson's prescription against sexual delight seems to make it inescapable that Chauntecleer will die, since he has committed "deedly synne," but surprisingly he escapes his just fate, his just punishment.
The outcome of Chauntecleer's struggle with the fox in its specific context makes light of the Parson's absolute commitment to the idea of sex as deadly sin. That parody, however, is deferred in its fullest articulation until after one enters the rather strange world of St. Cecile in the Second Nun's Tale. The point of the Nun's Priest's reference to Venus, goddess of pleasure and sexual delight, is played out against the fact that St. Cecile, in the most absolute terms imaginable, denies the very existence of Venus when she informs her husband on their wedding night that her guardian angel will kill him if he touches her "in vileynye" (VIII.155-156) and that their marriage must always remain chaste and sexless. Chaucer, in the voice of the Nun's Priest, who is confessor to the Second Nun, invites us to compare the hero Chauntecleer, who "fethered Pertelote twenty tyme,/ And trad hire eke as ofte, er it was pryme" (VII.3177-3178), to St. Cecile, who tells her husband an angel will "sle [him] with the dede" (VIII.157) if he so much as touches her a single time.
In tangling the idea of "deedly synne" up with a circumstance where the punishment for it is administered "with the dede," the legend of St. Cecile, as Chaucer's Second Nun has retold it, creates a complex set of theological and doctrinal problems associated with the very heart of the Christian gospel. If, for the sake of argument, Valerian were to touch Cecile "in vileynye" after he returns from his baptism, a possibility not altogether beyond question since he has not been instructed in any Christian doctrine, then, as the Parson asserts, he would commit "deedly synne" in a normal context and, as Cecile informs him, her guardian angel would then "sle [him] with the dede." The problem this circumstance creates, as already noted, is that Valerian would not be accorded the privilege his baptism has conferred upon him of having the opportunity to repent, perform penance, and seek absolution for the sin he has committed. The very purpose in spreading the "gospel," through proselytization and conversion, which constitute the essence of St. Cecile's "bisynesse," especially in the pagan world where the story is set, is to bring non-believers into the fold of Christ's sacrifice and under the dispensation of God's grace which extends to every believer in his or her right to seek absolution. The existence of Cecile's guardian angel completely and absolutely abolishes the very reason anyone would have for converting to Christianity, if he, or it, were to kill the sinner "with the dede" of his sin and thereby prevent a convert from seeking absolution and divine forgiveness.
When Chauntecleer pronounces his Latin proverb at the conclusion of his dream examples, "Mulier est hominis confusio" (VII.3164), which some critics take as a possible "sermon" text to the Nun's Priest's Tale, his words may actually be meant to anticipate the Second Nun, since her sentence is as much a confusion of Christian morality as it is an illumination of it. Chauntecleer's redaction of the Latin to "Womman is mannes joye and al his blis" (VII.3166), which several critics see as a mistranslation of the Latin text, might more properly be read as his unwitting interpretation of the way Pertelote, and many other women presumably, detract men away from a higher calling to God's service because of their beauty and sexual allure. That is, after all, what happens to Chauntecleer, since, after flying down from the beam as he swears to "diffye both sweven and dreem" (VII.3171), he "fethered Pertelote twenty tyme/ And trad hire eke as ofte, er it was pryme" (VII.3177-3178). Being distracted by Pertelote's appeal, Chauntecleer becomes susceptible to the threat represented by the fox, even though he was forewarned by his dream.
The absence of all influence from Venus in the Second Nun's Tale, exemplified by the caste marriage between St. Cecile and Valerian, where the angel protects her from such "vileynye," and where the purpose of that chastity is to increase her ability to convert non-believers to the faith, plays back against the idea that women are men's confusion precisely because the Second Nun's legend of St. Cecile, as she tells it, contradicts in various ways too many of the most basic and fundamental doctrines of a true Christian faith. The angel usurps the role of God's grace and obscures the sacrifice of His Son, or at least threatens to do so, if, or when, he, or it, kills "with the dede" anyone who violates Cecile's virginity. The simple extremism of that potential act, especially when it is used as a means to convert someone to a faith which promises every believer the opportunity to repent of and be forgiven for his or her sin, removes us, and the Second Nun's Tale, from the kind of clear exemplification of morality that one must expect from legends meant to illustrate the truth of the Christian faith. Here, we are simply confused over the meaning of St. Cecile's life and work because it so clearly conflicts with the basic tenets of the faith it is supposed to illustrate.
Charles Dahlberg has demonstrated convincingly that Chauntecleer is a victim of his own propensity for sloth. He notes that the "vice of Sloth, or idleness, is a key concept in the tale" and says that a corollary rests on the notion "that Chauntecleer becomes Venus' servant" (288). In drawing attention to the fact that Chauntecleer is a servant of Venus, which distinguishes him as clearly as possible from St. Cecile, who rejects all passionate love as "vileynye," and then by linking that servitude to slothfulness, Chaucer creates a powerful and informative contrast between Chauntecleer and Cecile, since the saint is characterized as one who is "Ful swift and bisy evere in good werkynge" (VIII.116). The Second Nun also stresses in her Prologue the dangers of idleness and makes it a defining concern of the story she intends to tell:
ydelnesse is roten slogardye,
Of which ther nevere cometh no good n'encrees;
And syn that slouthe hire holdeth in a lees
Oonly to slepe, and for to ete and drynke,
And to devouren al that othere swynke,
And for to putte us fro swich ydelnesse,
That cause is of so greet confusioun,
I have heer doon my feithful bisynesse
After the legende in translacioun
Right of thy glorious lif and passioun, (VIII.17-26)
The link to the Nun's Priest's Tale that is most obvious here has been placed in view by her assertion that sloth holds one in a leash "Oonly to slepe, and for to ete and drynke" (VIII.20). The Parson, using exactly these same terms, notes that "Another remedie agayns Lecherie is specially to withdrawen swiche thynges as yeve occasion to thilke vileynye, as ese, etynge, and drynkynge" (X.951). He then adds, "Slepynge longe in greet quiete is eek a greet norice to Lecherie" (X.951-952). Sleeping, eating, and drinking are terms clearly associated with sloth in the Second Nun's Prologue but her story has nothing to do with lechery; in fact, St. Cecile's life pointedly excludes that issue altogether. The Parson just as pointedly links these terms to lechery (Luxurie) and not to sloth and idleness (Accidia). Medieval theology did bind these concepts together but in this passage the Second Nun is making a concerted effort to respond directly to the Nun's Priest's story of Chauntecleer, since he is so definitively connected to "lechery" by virtue of being a "trede-foul aright" (VII.3451). By casting herself as translator of St. Cecile's legend and defining that act as "feithful bisynesse," the Second Nun binds herself to the saint she "endites" and announces, as it were, that whatever confusion the story might engender is wholly her responsibility. This passage also helps to define the major issues of concern in Chaucer's juxtaposition of these three related stories. Idleness, as the Second Nun asserts here, never produces any form of increase (VIII.18); rather, it consumes everything that others work to create (VIII.21). She then makes it clear she has done her own "feithful bisynesse" to put all of us out of the reach of the "confusioun" (VIII.23) that is created by idleness.
A significant purpose of Chaucer's juxtaposition of the Nun's Priest, the Second Nun, and the Canon's Yeoman as story-tellers at the end of Fragment VII and through the entire duration of Fragment VIII has been to examine the very issues, assumptions and assertions made by the Second Nun in her "translacioun" of the life and passion of St. Cecile. Chauntecleer is slothful and falls temporarily a victim to the deadly nature of his sin. He escapes by an assertion of his alertness, and lives to pursue his "trede-foul" existence for another day. While it might be true that he works very busily to pursue his animal nature with Pertelote, he does not avoid confusion and apparently does not give up his predilection for "delit" as opposed to "multiplie," or "encrees." St. Cecile, on the other hand, will have nothing to do with "delit" and pursues her "feithful bisynesse" with so much ardor and passionate intensity that she is able to produce three named and identifiable converts to the Christian faith in almost less time than it takes to tell. The only problem with her ability to increase the flock is that the Second Nun's "translacioun" leaves out a number of significant details, emphasizes aspects of her marriage relationship to Valerian that probably contradict basic premises of Christian theology, and produce an end result which leads to a curious "encrees" in the number of deaths by martyrdom one can count in the early history of the church. St. Cecile's "bisynesse" produces death, her own and everyone else's, and precious little work in the lives of her converts.
After everyone goes to heaven, which they do, of course, Chaucer brings us face to face with a man who has labored "soore" for seven years to "lerne multiplie," which may, or may not, be a legitimate Christian occupation, depending upon which critical tradition one chooses to follow, a man, furthermore, who is at least as busy as St. Cecile and no less "feithful" to his calling than she has been to hers; but a man, nevertheless, who has managed to produce absolutely nothing at all. He has, in fact, fallen so deeply in debt that he will not be able to "quite" his obligations in his entire remaining lifetime. In short, then, in terms of St. Cecile's "bisynesse," Chaucer has first created a parody of it in the Nun's Priest's account of Chauntecleer and Pertelote, who are chickens but act and talk like people, but never stop being birds; and second, has totally conflicted the validity of the assertion that "feithful bisynesse" produces "encrees" while avoiding "confusioun" in the Canon's Yeoman's account of his seven year quest for the lapis-Christus, which has turned out to be completely fruitless and largely self-destructive.
A final compelling difference, which functions to heighten the absurdity of the juxtaposition, concerns what the Second Nun says about Valerian and Tiburce as the brother is engaged in the process of being converted to Christianity by Valerian and Cecile:
This mayde hath broght thise men to blisse above;
The world hath wist what it is worth, certeyn,
Devocioun of chastitee to love. (VIII.281-283)
If Valerian and Tiburce (who might be expected to refrain from sexual villainy with Cecile anyway for reasons of incest) are going to be rewarded with heavenly bliss for their devotion of chastity to love, where if they fail that constraint they can be expected to die at the hands of the angel, not later on, but "with the dede," and where Chauntecleer, who is already in the jaws of death for seeking his "delit" over "multiplie" with Pertelote, ultimately escapes that punishment to "delit" himself another day, would he, Chauntecleer that is, be expected to go to heaven if he refrained from being Pertelote's "trede-foul?" Do chickens go to heaven? The terms are essentially the same from story to story: the question has to be put. Asking the question, however, does not imply the answer, or state explicitly that Chaucer even gives us one. In fact, there is no evidence in the text at all to suggest that he thought a saint's life was ever necessarily ridiculous, that the terms of St. Cecile's choices were absurd; but what he does suggest, through his juxtaposition, is that taken together a beast's fable and a saint's life, as generic forms, can be used to conflict moral truth, that when they are taken together, as he forces us to do in the Ellesmere order, one throws doubt and "disese" on the face of the other and we are left holding a rather confused meditation with ourselves over what is true and what is false, over what is truly Christian and what is not.
Before we have much time to pursue that speculation, however, two men appear, who have ridden "lyk as [they] were wood" (VIII.576), to overtake the pilgrimage. They, and their sudden unexpected appearance, cast us all into another world completely unlike the one we have been contemplating. The new world is decorated with two canons. One is true but inept; the other is dishonest and false. One slinks away from the light of social interaction when his "pryvetee" is threatened by revelation. The other is so mercurial, "so variaunt, he abit nowhere" (VIII. 1175), and is clearly a felon in the pursuit of his confidence games. The two canons, however, are so much alike, somehow, that we have difficulty saying how, or why, Chaucer bothers to distinguish them. The world they inhabit is filled beyond measure with exploding alembics, with volatile metals that cannot be contained in any recognizable form when they are brought too close to the fire. It is a world dominated, if not literally created, by a man who tells us all the while how he has "swynke soore [to] lerne multiplie" (VIII.669), which only serves to draw us back again to the Nun's Priest's assertion that Chauntecleer has pursued his own "delit" over this "world to multiplie," and we are left essentially where we began. The only thing truly certain in all this remains the fact Chaucer has tied it up into a very hard knot--and, to disturb that unity, by moving Fragment VII off to a kind of literary and artistic limbo between Fragments II and III, serves only to obscure completely the issues Chaucer meant to examine as he came to the conclusion of his fictive journey down the road from an earthly Tabard Inn to the holy city of a Jerusalem celestial.
The most significant reality underlying all the passionate
intensity at the end of Fragment VII, and in the whole of
Fragment VIII, nowhere better exemplified than in the chaos of
the fox chase in the barnyard conclusion of the Nun's Priest's
Tale, is the fact that everything here can be put in perspective
with reference to the Great Schism in the western church. The
Nun's Priest and the Second Nun fail to tell anything like
religious tales because they are caught up in an ecclesiastical
estate totally conflicted by its own self-generating schismatic
heresy. The church, as exemplified in the figure of its popes,
since there are two vicars of Christ, is headless. The underlings
in that divided and contentious duality, in the absence of all
authority, cannot articulate, maintain, or master a doctrine so
divisive and so conflicted. The Canon's Yeoman, also caught up in
that same ecclesiastical "disese," tells us what he
knows and points us, haphazardly, desperately, toward a solution
to the problem, toward a via cessionis, a solution, however,
conflicted itself by too much dependence on the goodwill and
charity of a fourteenth century aristocracy as interested in
pursuing and increasing its own power and wealth as any
schismatic pope or pardoner ever was. Chaucer takes the pains
necessary to give us that entire range of systemic abuse in his
Canterbury pilgrimage. We need to respond as carefully to the
orderliness of his vision as he did when he created it. To do
otherwise is the same as obscuring his artistic intent.