I’ve been enjoying a browse through The Canterbury Tales, where Geoffrey Chaucer tells of a motley group who, finding that each is on his way to Canterbury, decide to travel and entertain each other by telling stories. It’s interesting to see the personalities and professions as of about 1400. This week we’ll enjoy his descriptions of folks in professions that are less familiar today.
summoner – a petty officer who cites persons to appear in court
Can’t you just see this fellow, from Chaucer’s description?
Who had a fiery-red, cherubic face,
For eczema he had; his eyes were narrow
As hot he was, and lecherous, as a sparrow;
With black and scabby brows and scanty beard;
He had a face that little children feared.
Well loved he garlic, onions, aye and leeks,
And drinking of strong wine as red as blood.
Then would he talk and shout as madman would.
And when a deal of wine he'd poured within,
Then would he utter no word save Latin.
No wonder, for he'd heard it all the day;
And all you know right well that even a jay
Can call out Wat as well as can the pope.
But when, for aught else, into him you'd grope,
'Twas found he'd spent his whole philosophy;
He was a noble rascal, and a kind;
A better comrade 'twould be hard to find.
Why, he would suffer, for a quart of wine,
Some good fellow to have his concubine …
The summoner was a petty government officer. A reeve was originally a high government officer – the chief magistrate of a town or district – but by Chaucer’s time had become sort of the “business manager” for a private person. Chaucer shows the reeve as a respected and well-rewarded professional.
We can practically see Chaucer's reeve: his physique, grooming, work, character and clothing. There are even homely details: his name, his horse, and his habit of riding at the back of the group.
reeve – a steward appointed by a landowner to superintend his estates, tenants, or workmen
His beard was shaved as close as ever can.
His hair was closely cropped around his ears;
His top was tonsured like a pulpiteer's.
Long were his legs, and they were very lean,
And like a staff, with no calf to be seen.
Well could he manage granary and bin;
No auditor could ever on him win.
He could foretell, by drought and by the rain,
The yielding of his seed and of his grain.
His lord's sheep and his oxen and his dairy,
His swine and horses, all his stores, his poultry,
Were wholly in this steward's managing;
Yet no man ever found him in arrears.
There was no agent, hind, or herd who'd cheat;
He knew too well their cunning and deceit;
They were afraid of him as of the death.
His cottage was a good one, on a heath;
By green trees shaded was his dwelling-place.
Much better than his lord could he purchase. …
In youth he'd learned a good trade, and had been
A carpenter, as fine as could be seen.
This steward sat a horse that well could trot,
And was all dapple-grey, and was named Scot.
A long surcoat of blue did he parade,
And at his side he bore a rusty blade.
Of Norfolk was this reeve of whom I tell,
From near a town that men call Badeswell.
Bundled he was like friar from chin to croup,
And ever he rode hindmost of our troop.
It's still in common use.
Reeve: Cdn (in Ontario and the Western provinces) the elected leader of the council of a town or other rural municipality. The Oxford Canadian Dictionary
We have another word that was originally a compound of shire and reeve: sheriff. (There's also hogreeve and woodreeve and possibly some others.)
—Ceci n'est pas un seing.
This reminds me that at my school, Reeve was the slang for a prefect , a senior boy, who was privileged with certain managerial responsibilities and minor disciplinary duties over the junior boys. This was but one of many examples of a 'language' peculiar to many British public schools. Words were applied to many items of the horrendous school food we were compelled to eat, other words to sports, punishments and so forth. School slang words were different at each school, a sort of private lexicon, quite unintelligible to outsiders! I dare say it probably still exists, in a system of education which is (sadly ?) on the decline.
canon – a clergyman living with others in a clergy-house, living per church rules
yeoman (older meaning:) – an attendant/assistant to an official, etc. (and more specifically: a servant in a royal or noble household (usually above the lowest level, a groom or page)
(current meaning: 1. a diligent, dependable worker 2. a farmer who cultivates his own land)
Along the way the travelers meet a canon and his talkative yeoman. The latter (regular type below), under the host’s artful questions (blue italics), reveals that his master is an alchemist seeking to create gold – and is a miserable failure. This indiscreet chatter of course infuriates the canon (“… suspicion always woke / In him, indeed, when anybody spoke. / For Cato says suspicion's ever fed / In any guilty man when aught is said.”). He leaves in a huff, and the yeoman then speaks even more bitterly.
Well, said our host, then pray tell, if you can,
Is he a clerk, or not? Tell what he is.
Nay, he is greater than a clerk, ywis, …
From here right into Canterbury town,
Why, he could turn it all clean upside-down
And pave it all with silver and with gold. …
Since your lord is a man of such science,
For which men should hold him in reverence,
That of his dignity his care's so slight;
His over-garment is not worth a mite
For such a man as he, so may I go!
It is all dirty and it's torn also.
Why is your lord so slovenly, pray I,
And yet has power better clothes to buy… ? …
Why? asked this yeoman, Why ask this of me?
God help me, wealthy he will never be! …
For when a man has overmuch of wit,
It often happens he misuses it;
No matter then, good yeoman, said our host;
Since of the learning of your lord you boast,
Tell how he works, I pray you heartily … …
We stir and mix and stare into the fire,
But for all that we fail of our desire, …
And never do we come to our conclusion.
To many folk we bring about illusion,
And make them think, aye, at the least, it's plain,
That from a pound of gold we can make twain! …
But that science is so far us before,
We never can, in spite of all we swore,
Come up with it, it slides away so fast;
And it will make us beggars at the last. ... [The canon leaves]
Seven years I've served this canon, but no more
I know about his science than before.
All that I had I have quite lost thereby;
And, God knows, so have many more than I.
Where I was wont to be right fresh and gay
Of clothing and of other good array,
Now may I wear my old hose on my head;
And where my colour was both fresh and red,
Now it is wan and of a leaden hue;
Whoso this science follows, he shall rue. …
And I am still indebted so thereby
For gold that I have borrowed, truthfully,
That while I live I shall repay it never.
Let every man be warned by me for ever!
Yeoman is mostly heard these days as "Yeoman's effort", a phrase I certainly have used without knowing the origin. Wikipedia has a reasonably good explanation.
manciple – a person responsible for provisioning a group of people (more specifically, one who purchases provisions for a college, monastery, Inn of Court, etc.)
To whom all buyers might quite well resort
To learn the art of buying food and drink;
For whether he paid cash or not, I think
That he so knew the markets, when to buy,
He never found himself left high and dry.
With wheat and malt from all the lands about;
Of which I'd specify among them all
A Cambridge college known as Soler Hall;
He ground their wheat and all their malt he ground.
And on a day it happened, as they found,
The manciple got such a malady
That all men surely thought that he should die.
Whereon this miller stole both flour and wheat
A hundredfold more than he used to cheat;
For theretofore he stole but cautiously,
But now he was a thief outrageously,
I too, was not familiar with Soler Hall, Cambridge.
'Soler Hall' was another name for King's Hall, which was amalgamated with Michaelhouse in 1546 to form Trinity College.
Chaucer did not complete his Canterbury Tales, and several of his pilgrims never tell a story and are barely described. Among them is a “haberdasher”. Today, this is one of those words that has different meanings “on opposite sides of the pond,” in the UK and the US.
haberdasher – (formerly, a dealer in odds and ends)
1. UK: a dealer in dressmaking and sewing goods 2. US: a dealer in men’s clothing
Since Chaucer gives only a passing mention of his haberdasher, we’ll turn elsewhere for illustrative quotes. Humorous ones!
– Telegraph, May 3, 2002
US [re a future use of computers]: … want some new threads? Your haberdasher will scan your body – and keep it confidential, we hope – then transmit the information to a factory. Your custom-made duds could then be delivered the next day.
– Business Week, Aug. 10, 2000
older sense of ‘odds and ends’:
In the film's funniest scene, Bond's gadget haberdasher, Q (John Cleese), outfits James with his requisite toys: a glass-shattering ring, a supercharged watch ("Your 20th, I believe") and a car whose dashboard includes buttons for grenade, mortar and adaptive camouflage.
– Washington Post, Nov. 22, 2002
Nice theme. I am surprised we haven't heard from our in-house Chaucer scholar, Arnie.
In "Anatomy of Criticism" Northop Frye proposed that literature moves in cycles, that it evolves (devolves?) from the mythic, to the heroic, the realistic and finally the ironic. But when at last irony devalues and debases the current reality, it tears asunder this world and reveals a higher reality beneath. That is, the ironic mode circles back to the mythic. The Deity is born, a helpless babe in His own creation, which teaches us of a better world.
Frye applied the cycle to the Canterbury Tales, which start with the (pagan) mythic tale of Theseus, get as earthy as the Wife of Bath, then become ironic with Chaunticleer, until...
franklin – a landowner of free but not noble birth (14th and 15th cent. England)
Chaucer’s franklin enjoys his eating and drinking.
White was his beard as is the white daisy. …
Delightful living was the goal he'd won,
For he was Epicurus' own son,
Who held the view that plain and pure delight
Was true felicity, perfect and right. …
His bread, his ale were always good and fine;
No man had cellars better stocked with wine.
Baked meat was never wanting in his house,
Of fish and flesh, and that so plenteous
It seemed to snow therein both food and drink,
Of all the dainties that a man could think.
After the sundry seasons of the year
He changed his diet and his means of cheer.
Full many a fattened partridge did he mew,
And many a bream and pike in fish-pond too.
Woe to his cook, except the sauces were
Poignant and sharp, and ready all his gear.
His table, waiting in his hall alway,
Stood ready covered through the livelong day.
Is Don Quixote then part of the "ironic"?
In Frye's scheme, mythic means god-like powers, the heroic has more control over the world than real life and so on. Don Quixote is less powerful than we'd expect, so yes he is ironic.
Yet in his oft-foiled adventures, he points to the higher, more noble world of chivalry.
In this season we’re reminded what a conflicted holiday Christmas has become. Sublime holiness mixes uneasily with frantic flamboyant commercialism. Prophet and profit, if you will!
Chaucer embodies that conflict in two characters, both men of religion, so it seems only appropriate to present each of them here (though only one gives us a typical, unfamiliar word). Today we display the pardoner, who sells religion for money. Tomorrow, as our Christmas present, we will present to you the honest country parson, “poor [in goods], but rich in holy thought and work.”
pardoner – one licensed to sell papal pardons (theoretically to raise funds for the church)
Of Rouncival, his friend and his compeer; …
This pardoner had hair as yellow as wax,
But lank it hung as does a strike of flax;
In wisps hung down such locks as he'd on head,
And with them he his shoulders overspread;
But thin they dropped, and stringy, one by one. …
It seemed to him he went in latest style,
Dishevelled, save for cap, his head all bare.
As shiny eyes he had as has a hare.
He had a fine veronica sewed to cap.
His wallet lay before him in his lap,
Stuffed full of pardons brought from Rome all hot.
A voice he had that bleated like a goat.
No beard had he, nor ever should he have,
For smooth his face as he'd just had a shave;
I think he was a gelding or a mare.
In his bag he had a pillowcase
The which, he said, was Our True Lady's veil:
He said he had a piece of the very sail
That good Saint Peter had, what time he went
Upon the sea, till Jesus changed his bent.
He had a latten cross set full of stones,
And in a bottle had he some pig's bones.
But with these relics, when he came upon
Some simple parson, then this paragon
In that one day more money stood to gain
Than the poor dupe in two months could attain.
And thus, with flattery and suchlike japes,
He made the parson and the rest his apes.
But Cristes loore, and Hise apostles twelve
He taughte, but first he folwed it hym-selve.
I can tell you that the word “shitty” below is in the original. Beyond that, nothing need be added to Chaucer’s portrait of the parson.
A country parson, poor, I warrant you; …
Who Christ's own gospel truly sought to preach;
Devoutly his parishioners would he teach.
Benign he was and wondrous diligent,
Patient in adverse times and well content,
As he was ofttimes proven; always blithe,
He was right loath to curse to get a tithe,
But rather would he give, in case of doubt,
Unto those poor parishioners about,
Part of his income, even of his goods.
Enough with little, coloured all his moods.
Wide was his parish, houses far asunder,
But never did he fail, for rain or thunder,
In sickness, or in sin, or any state,
To visit to the farthest, small and great,
Going afoot, and in his hand, a stave.
This fine example to his flock he gave,
That first he wrought and afterwards he taught;
Out of the gospel then that text he caught,
And this figure he added thereunto-
That, if gold rust, what shall poor iron do?
For if the priest be foul, in whom we trust,
What wonder if a layman yield to lust?
And shame it is, if priest take thought for keep,
A shitty shepherd, shepherding clean sheep.
Well ought a priest example good to give,
By his own cleanness, how his flock should live.
He never let his benefice for hire,
Leaving his flock to flounder in the mire, …
Nor in some brotherhood did he withhold;
But dwelt at home and kept so well the fold
That never wolf could make his plans miscarry;
He was a shepherd and not mercenary.
And holy though he was, and virtuous,
To sinners he was not impiteous,
Nor haughty in his speech, nor too divine,
But in all teaching prudent and benign.
To lead folk into Heaven but by stress
Of good example was his busyness.
But if some sinful one proved obstinate,
Be who it might, of high or low estate,
Him he reproved, and sharply, as I know.
There is nowhere a better priest, I trow.
He had no thirst for pomp or reverence,
Nor made himself a special, spiced conscience,
But Christ's own lore, and His apostles' twelve
He taught, but first he followed it himself.
"And shame it is, if a prest take keep,
A shiten shepherde and clene sheep."
In the sense of soiled.
(The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, Houghton Mifflin 1933)
Later, that same country parson asks "if gold rust, what shall poor iron do?"