Tuesday, 8 January 2008

This one damn near killed me

1. Compare the use of at least two of the following sources on at least two texts studied on this course: Boethius; Celtic and French source material; the gospel of Nicodemus; the influence of pagan gods and ideas.

The texts I have chosen to examine for this essay are The Knight’s Tale, Piers Plowman Passus XVIII and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight Fitt IV, and the sources are Boethius and The Gospel of Nicodemus. Broadly speaking, Boethius influenced The Knight’s Tale, The Gospel of Nicodemus influenced Piers Plowman and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, to a lesser extent, was influenced by both sources. I would argue that Chaucer, Langland and the Gawain-poet used sources from antiquity to engage with ideas as a means of social commentary. Citing such sources, or “auctoritees,” was common practice in medieval debate. Indeed, we are reminded of Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale, in which the merchant cites Seneca and Theofrastus as evidence for the misery of married life. The three aspects of life in the late fourteenth century on which I will base my comparisons of the use of Boethius and The Gospel of Nicodemus on these texts are death, kingship and chivalry, thus proving that the use of these sources was a means of engaging with contemporary issues.

Before comparing the use of these sources on these texts in terms of social commentary, it would be helpful to look briefly at the sources themselves and also to compare their use on the texts more generally.[1] It is unsurprising that Langland chose The Gospel of Nicodemus as a source, since, as Kim writes, it was “one of the most popular and influential of the New Testament apocrypha,”[2] and so would have been widely known. Furthermore, the Gospel was “widely held to be a sacred document, almost equal in authority to the canonical Gospels,”[3] and so would have given greater weight to Langland’s points of view.

Langland’s retelling of the Harrowing of Hell is fairly faithful to the Gospel, but he does make a few alterations. He omits the characters of Karinus and Leucius, two men risen from the dead who narrate the story, presumably because he wishes Piers to see the events in his dream first-hand. He does still use the idea of a resurrected body speaking, though, as immediately after Jesus’ death, Langland provides a brief word of explanation from one of the bodies come out of the graves. Langland also omits the focus on the souls in Hell and their experience: “the golden heat of the sun and a purple and royal light;”[4] the description of Hell itself: “the obscurity of darkness;”[5] and the speech from individual souls in Hell.

In contrast, while many of the ideas within The Knight’s Tale are from Boethius, the story is not. Instead it is based on another source altogether, Boccaccio’s Il Teseida. Plot-wise, it would be Piers Plowman, if anything, which resembles Boethius’ De Consolatione Philosophiae. As Burrow has observed, the Holy Church’s instructing Will through a dream is rather like Philosophia’s instructing Boethius, a style called the “magister and discuplus convention.”[6] In De Consolatione Philosophiae, it is the philosophy rather than the story which is important. The dialogue between the prisoner Boethius and Philosophia, who comforts him with the order of universe and the importance of virtue, is merely a vehicle for Boethius’ assertions of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God who created the world and knows the future. Like The Gospel of Nicodemus, De Consolatione Philosophiae would be a natural choice of source for a medieval writer, as it was one of the principal classics of the Middle Ages. Minnis demonstrates how popular it was: Chaucer translated it into English around 1380, then de Meun translated it into French, and Walton produced a metrical version in 1410. [7]

The influence of De Consolatione Philosophiae on The Knight’s Tale is primarily in the form of ideas. Inspired by Boethius, Chaucer is preoccupied with the concept of fate: Theseus is told that “Fortune” has granted him victory (line 915) and Arcite tells Palamon, “Fortune hath yeven us this adversitee.” (1086) Such personification, indeed deification, of Fate seems strangely at odds with Boethius’ and Chaucer’s Christianity. Boethius’ philosophy also asserts that God knows the future and therefore the future is fixed. Palamon echoes this in lines 1305-6 of The Knight’s Tale: “And writen in the table of atthamaunt / Youre parlement and youre eterne graunte.”[8]

The Gawain-poet also seems to have been familiar with this philosophy, and he comes at it from a new perspective: that our choices affect the workings of fate. The beheading game can be as an extended metaphor for this, since Gawain realises afterwards that Bercilak’s actions were dependent upon his behaviour. For keeping his word, he has been let off the beheading, and he receives the cut in the neck for flinching and not living up to knightly ideal: “At the third thou fayled thore, / And therefore – that tappet a the!” (Fitt IV, line 2355-6).[9] The internal rhyme and abundance of dental sounds beyond the requirements for alliterative verse provide emphasise the aural nature of the text itself and so that, unlike Boethius’ philosophical work, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is plot-focussed, and the poet was as much aiming to entertain as to teach.

One aspect of life in the second half of the fourteenth century which relates to the use of sources on these texts is the outbursts of plague. By 1380, between a third and half of the population had died of the plague. Add to this the numbers killed in the peasants’ revolt of 1381, and it is a wonder that anyone at all survived the fourteenth century! Both Langland and Chaucer used their sources to address theological issues arising from this, but they chose different issues to address.

Langland saw that, as death was ubiquitous at that time, people were obsessive about the afterlife, about salvation and how to achieve it. Within the Christian Church, baptism was the key, but what happened to those who were excluded because of chronology or geography? The “virtuous pagans” of most interest to medieval thinkers were the patriarchs of the Old Testament and the writers of Classical Greece and Rome.[10] One suggestion which was widely accepted was that Jesus went down to Hell to convert all the souls there.

Langland made this, the Harrowing of Hell, the climax of Piers Plowman. There is still confusion within the text, however, as to exactly who is saved. In The Gospel of Nicodemus, the angel says that in Heaven will be Adam and “all his children that are holy and righteous.”[11] This suggests that “virtuous pagans,” who live their lives as best they can without knowing Christ, will be saved. Langland omits this, but he may only be doing so because it is part of Karinus’ and Leucius’ trip to Heaven rather than the Harrowing of Hell. Langland has Jesus say something similar to the Gospel’s angel: “Lo! Here my soule to amendes / For alle synfulle soules, to save tho that ben worthi” (Passus XVIII, lines 328-9).[12] However, Langland’s Jesus does seem to directly contradict himself: on the one hand, He says He will lead out of Hell “Tho [leodes] that I lovede and leved in my comynge,” (Passus XVIII, 403), on the other hand, He says He will have “out of helle alle mennes soules” (Passus XVIII, 373). The issue, then, seems to be unresolved.

Chaucer’s use of Boethius’ De Consolatione Philosophiae in The Knight’s Tale as a means of exploring issues arising from the omnipresence of death in his time is very different. For him, it raises the age-old philosophical question of the problem of evil: why does an omnipotent, omnibenevolent God allow bad things to happen? Instead of using his source to explore opposing possibilities as Langland does, Chaucer takes Boethius’ philosophy and puts it in the mouth of his characters. In fact, in some instances it correlates directly. Palamon, like Boethius in De Consolatione Philosophia 1.m5[13], cries out against cruel gods who allow suffering and injustice: “O crueel goddes that governe…What is mankynde moore unto you holde / Than is the sheep that rouketh in the folde?” (1303-8). It is Arcite who provides the answer: evil comes of pursuing happiness through other means than God. In his words, “We seken faste after felicitee, / But we goon wrong ful often, trewely,” (1266-7). Likewise, part of Gawain’s sin in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is that he wears the girdle “to saven himself,” Fitt IV, 2040) instead of relying on God. Theseus provides the rest of the answer in his speech about “The First Moevere of the cause above” (2987) who made the world in harmony: as it says in De Consolatione Philosophiae 4.p6, m6, men must submit to the divine plan for higher good.[14] Chaucer, using a philosophical work as a source, appears much more certain of the answers than Langland.

Another aspect of current affairs in the latter half of the fourteenth century to which the poets used their sources to respond was the monarchy. Richard II reigned from 1367 until 1400, and was deeply unpopular. Brewer writes that he was incapable and capricious,[15] held a “loose and amorous” court[16] and, during the peasants’ revolt, met the peasants, promised a general pardon and then had them all punished.[17] Langland and Chaucer both respond to this and explore the theme of kingship but they do so very differently, and while Langland sticks closely to The Gospel of Nicodemus, Chaucer and the Gawain-poet are independent of Boethius in this respect.

Langland picks up on the Gospel’s portrayal of Christ as the perfect ruler and makes this theme his own. Christ is portrayed as an ideal ruler because, firstly, He is feared by disobedient subjects. The Gospel stages a conversation between Hell and Satan, with the former questioning and the latter acknowledging Christ’s position, as device to explain the situation. Langland makes this livelier and injects the devils’ fear into it. Satan says, “Care and combraunce is comen to us alle!” (Passus XVIII, 267) and “I me soore drede,” (Passus XVIII, 265), while Gobelyn suggests that they flee (Passus XVIII, 300). Like Nicodemus, Langland balances out Jesus’ being feared by the devils with His being loved by people. This is demonstrated with the character of Longeus, or Longinus in the Gospel, the blind man who is forced to wound Jesus on the cross with a spear, and whose name, incidentally, comes from the Greek longkhÄ“, meaning “spear.”[18] Longeus is broken-hearted at wounding Jesus; weeping, he says, “Soore it me athinketh!” (Passus XVIII, 89-91). Langland also develops Jesus’ kingliness by making Him give commands, such as “Dukes of this dymme place, anoon undo thise yates, / That Crist may come in, the Kynges sone of Hevene!” (Passus XVIII, 320-1). Finally, Jesus is the perfect king because He saves His people and is merciful, as He says, “Ac to be merciable to man thane, my kynde it asketh,” (Passus XVIII, 376). This seems somehow less intimate than in the Gospel, where instead Jesus says, “Come unto me, all ye my saints which bear my image,”[19] and seems almost to embrace them. Therefore I would argue that Langland believed that a king, in his superiority, should keep a certain distance from his subjects.

Chaucer examines the idea of kingship without referring back to Boethius, and his portrayal of a king, Theseus, is much more ambiguous and complex than Langland’s portrayal of the ruler Christ. Theseus appears to be the “virtuous pagan” described earlier. He is described as “worthy” Theseus, but I detect a touch of irony there. While has pity on the widows of his enemies in Thebes, the reader cannot help but consider that he is indirectly the cause of their grief. The knight is keen to stress that Creon was a “tirant” (961) and deserved his fate (964), but Chaucer seems more reluctant to endorse him. Chaucer adds the telling detail of Palemon’s and Arcite’s being discovered by pillagers, not by the Greeks looking for their dead, as in Boccaccio’s version. Likewise, the portrayal of King Arthur in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as Gawain returns to court, seems positive: Arthur “kisses” (2492) Gawain on his arrival and “comfortes” him (2513) in his mortification at his own behaviour. Yet as he “laghen loude” (2514) at Gawain’s wearing the girdle as a sign of penance, one cannot help but feel that he fails to empathise. The rulers in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and in The Knight’s Tale, being human, seem more realistic as models. No human ruler could live up to Christ and so using a gospel as a source for an example of ideal kingship, as Langland did, seems to be expecting rather a lot.

One aspect of life in the late fourteenth century which all three poets have used the sources alike to engage with is the notion of chivalry. Chivalry is a specifically Medieval concept and so does not appear in either The Gospel of Nicodemus or De Consolatione Philosophiae explicitly. Chaucer and the Gawain-poet both take the ideas from their sources and update them by placing them in a modern, chivalric setting, and Langland uses chivalric language to describe theological concepts. The verb to “juste” is used four times within eleven lines (Passus XVIII, 16-27); God is described as having “auntrede hymself” (Passus XVIII, 221) and Satan calls Jesus the “champion chivaler, chief knight” (Passus XVIII, 99). Chaucer, the Gawain-poet and Langland also update their sources with the inclusion of notions of chivalry in their work because the chivalric code redefined what it was to be virtuous.

In conclusion, then, I would determine that the Gawain-poet, Chaucer and Langland all combine being educated with being socially and politically aware, which enabled them to apply old texts to modern situations in innovative ways. These innovative ways were all very different, however. Langland retells an apocryphal gospel, unpacking contemporary theological issues within it, bringing out the relevant issues of kingship and colouring the whole thing with the courtly chivalric language of the day. Chaucer retells a story from another source altogether but interweaves the philosophy of Boethius, particularly in how it was relevant to contemporary circumstances, discusses kingship separately and places the whole thing in a courtly, chivalric setting. The Gawain-poet provides another chivalric setting, Arthurian this time, and subtly brings in philosophical ideas from these sources, almost as if trying to escape notice. All three texts, then, are aiming to teach their audience and to encourage them to view their own life circumstances in a more enlightened manner.


Anderson, J. J. (ed.) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, (London: Everyman, 1996).
Benson, L. D. (ed.) The Riverside Chaucer, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).
Brewer, D. S. Chaucer, (London: Longmans, 1953).
Burrow, J. A. Medieval Writers and their Work, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).
Burrow, J. A. Ricardian Poetry: Chaucer, Gower, Langland and the Gawain-Poet, (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971).
Cooper, H. Oxford Guides to Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).
James, M. R. The Apocryphal New Testament – Translation and Notes, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924).
Jefferson, B. L. Chaucer and the Consolation of Philosophy of Boethius, (New York: Haskell House, 1965).
Kim, H. C. (ed.) The Gospel of Nicodemus, (Toronto: The Hunter Rose Company, 1973).
Langland, W. The Vision of Piers Plowman, ed. A. V. C. Schmidt (London: Everyman, 1995).
Minnis, A. ‘Aspects of the Medieval French and English Traditions of the De Consolatione Philosophiae’ in Boethius: His Life, Thought and Influence, ed. Margaret Gibson, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1981), pp.333-49.
Spearing, A. C. The Gawain-Poet: A Critical Study, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976).
Vitto, C. L. The Virtuous Pagan in Middle English Literature (http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0065-9746%281989%292%3A79%3A5%3C1%3ATVPIME%3E2.0.CO%3B2-V).

[1] H. C. Kim, (ed.) The Gospel of Nicodemus (Toronto: The Hunter Rose Company, 1973), p. 1-2.
[2] Ibid., p. 1.
[3] Ibid., p. 2.
[4] M. R. James, The Apocryphal New Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1924), from worksheet.
[5] Ibid.
[6] J. Burrow, Ricardian Poetry (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971), p.38.
[7] A. Minnis, “Aspects of the Medieval French and English Traditions of the De Consolatione Philosophiae” in Boethius: His Life, Thought and Influence, ed. Margaret Gibson (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1981), p313.
[8] L. D. Benson, (ed.) The Riverside Chaucer, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987). Subsequent references are to this edition.
[9] J. J. Anderson, (ed.) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, (London: Everyman, 1996). Subsequent references are to this edition.

[10] C. L. Vitto The Virtuous Pagan in Middle English Literature (http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0065-9746%281989%292%3A79%3A5%3C1%3ATVPIME%3E2.0.CO%3B2-V), p. 1.
[11] James, The Apocryphal New Testament, from worksheet.
[12] Langland, W. The Vision of Piers Plowman, ed. A. V. C. Schmidt (London: Everyman, 1995). Subsequent references are to this edition.
[13] B. L. Jefferson, Chaucer and the Consolation of Philosophy of Boethius, (New York: Haskell House, 1965), p. 131.
[14] Ibid.
[15] J. A. Burrow, Medieval Writers and their Work, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 186.
[16] Ibid., p. 176.
[17] Ibid., p. 58-9.
[18] Kim, (ed.) The Gospel of Nicodemus, p. 4.
[19] James, The Apocryphal New Testament, from worksheet.


Harry said...

John Burrow was one of my tutors at university. Nice bloke; he got me started on reading the Patrick O'Brian novels.

Decidedly Bookish said...

Really? That's awesome. He taught my lecturer too. She goes on about him all the time. Do you know a Ruth Kennedy? Probably not, I imagine she's quite a bit older than you are.

Matt Merritt said...

Really interesting stuff, and beautifully written. I bought Ricardian Poetry in a secondhand bookshop just before Christmas, so look forward to reading around the subject a bit.

Liam Mars said...

Less impressive perhaps, but AVC Schmidt is my tutor. Piers Plowman tutorial with him damn nearly killed me.