A Chaucerian Year
By Professor Helen Cooper, University College, Oxford
April was the opening month of God's year: the first full month after the Creation of the world, which, as everybody knew, happened late in March. April is likewise the month when the earth recovers from the barrenness of winter, and when the flowers and grass and birds set about the business of regeneration. It is also, famously, the month when the pilgrims to the shrine of St Thomas à Becket set out on their journey to Canterbury:
Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
That magnificent opening sentence runs for a full eighteen lines, and it is the month itself rather than the pilgrims that takes centre stage. The pilgrims' motives for setting out look suspiciously like tourism rather than piety; but they too are celebrating their own new life, by giving thanks to the saint who "hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke", preserving them through the diseases of winter.
May was everybody's favourite month in the Middle Ages: the month when the natural world is at its freshest and sweetest. Odd things happen to the hormones in May; and although people did not know about hormones, they were entirely familiar with their symptoms. The most famous love poem of the Middle Ages, the Romance of the Rose, describes a dream that explores the psychology of falling in love, all set in May. So it is no surprise when one of the most desirable of all Chaucer's heroines, Emily of the Knight's Tale, is described in a long passage in which the lady and the month share the honours, as if both were equally symbolic of love. It is a magical description; but May was not entirely good. Some days in the medieval calendar were believed to bring bad luck, and early May is recurrently dangerous. So it is perhaps not altogether surprising that the character who is named after the month, "fresshe May" of the Merchant's Tale, is very different from her avatar Emily....
June ... so that early in June, when the sun is in Gemini, and everything is hotting up, May arranges a tryst with an amorous squire in the walled love-garden that her blind husband has made. The garden brings with it resonances from the biblical Song of Songs, that book of the Bible that contains such intensive erotic poetry that a couple of centuries later the ecclesiastical authorities in Venice were driven to ban the use of its text for sacred music. It certainly hasn't occurred to May's husband that the text was supposed to be about the sacred love of Christ for his Church when he uses its words to summon her for some open-air sex:
Com forth now, with thyn eyen columbyn!
But he has not built into his calculations that his wife has duplicated the key for her lover. The archetypal garden contained not only a man and a woman, but a serpent and a tree; and here, the insinuating squire has already lodged himself up in a pear-tree ready for this new Eve to climb up to him out of her jealous husband's arms.
July and August, as Chaucer notes in his Treatise on the Astrolabe, were given their names by certain "lordes of Rome", Julius Caesar and Augustus, who also messed around with the number of days in each month to give themselves a few more. Julius Caesar stole a couple from February to give to himself – "yit truste wel that the sonne dwelleth therfore nevere the more ne lasse in oon signe than in another": fiddling the numbers doesn't have any effect on the heavens. Chaucer returns to the subject of the vanity of human wishes on Caesar's part in the Monk's Tale, where he is allowed more credit for his achievements, but those don't stop him from getting it in the end – he may have become emperor, but when "Fortune weex his adversarie", his time was up.
August was the month of the harvest, "when corn is corven with crokes kene" (sharp sickles), as a contemporary of Chaucer's described it. Chaucer himself was a townsman, spending his whole life, apart from a few trips abroad on diplomatic missions, in London or within easy reach of the city, and he shows very little interest in agricultural labour. When he talks about harvest, he is most interested in its metaphorical possibilities: the reaping of new corn, new learning, from old fields, the books of earlier authors. Originality of interpretation was prized in the Middle Ages above originality of invention: making things up was dangerously close to lying. Narratives of the kind that Chaucer wrote were largely constructed by taking old stories and giving them new treatments and new meanings, bringing forth new crops. It wasn't until the eighteenth century that originality began to be prized for itself.
September of 1368 was the month that set Chaucer on his poetic career. Blanche, the young and beloved wife of John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, fell victim to one of the epidemics that recurrently swept fourteenth-century Europe. Her widower commemorated the anniversary of her death for the rest of his life, and was buried alongside her on his own death thirty years later. The bereavement became the occasion for Chaucer's earliest known poem, The Book of the Duchess. It is a remarkable work, not least because it never takes the easy path conventional to poems of lament or comfort, of reminding the living that the deceased is in Heaven. Instead, Chaucer uses the dream form to sidestep the requirement for Christian consolation, to recall instead how much is lost in the death of a beautiful and happy young woman, and to give an unflinching look at the grief of the bereaved lover.
October 25, 1400, was the date of Chaucer's own death, according to the epitaph inscribed on his sixteenth-century tomb. Shortly before, he had moved into a house in the grounds of Westminster Abbey, alongside the Lady Chapel: an appropriate location for a man who wrote two fine poems in honour of the Virgin, the "almighty and all-merciable queen". As a tenant of the Abbey, he had the right to be buried there; and his tomb became the focus for the memorials that now constitute Poets' Corner.
November 22 is St Cecilia's Day, the patron saint of music, and Chaucer has his Second Nun tell the story of her life. Cecilia is very far from being the humble, obedient and silent woman such as supposedly constituted the medieval female ideal. She tells her newly-married husband on their wedding night that her chastity is guarded by an angel, whom he cannot see because he has not yet been baptised. He, his brother, and numerous others are converted through her preaching. She faces up to the pagan Roman prefect Almachius, telling him that his methods of argument are wrong as well as their substance, and is finally beheaded after every attempt to boil her to death has failed. As Chaucer notes, her house became the church of Santa Cecilia Trastevere in Rome; he may possibly have visited it on one of his journeys to Italy.
December, despite the bad weather, had its consolations.
And this was, as thise bookes me remembre,
The barren frost outdoors makes the fire more cosy and the Christmas celebrations more cheerful. Janus is the Classical god of the New Year, who was often represented as looking both ways, forwards and backwards; Chaucer gives him instead a fashionable divided beard. The "tusked swine" was the medieval equivalent of the Christmas turkey. Ideally it would be not brawn but a boar's head, served with an apple in its mouth. By preference it would be a wild boar, but they became extinct in England in Chaucer's lifetime. According to legend, the last one was killed on Wild Boar Fell in 1396, by Sir Richard de Musgrave – a legend given some credibility by the fact that when his tomb in Kirkby Stephen church was opened in the nineteenth century, a large boar's tusk was found with the skeleton.
January is the name of the old husband who is rash enough to marry "fresshe May", the wife who finishes up in the pear-tree in the Merchant's Tale. As their names suggest, he is the opposite of his wife in every way: on the edge of the rave, in need of aphrodisiacs or other stimulants to arouse his corage", and willfully blind to common sense and self-knowledge even before he loses his physical sight. They are paired in the tale with the Classical gods of winter and spring, Pluto and Proserpina, who are here downgraded to being the fairy king and queen. Pluto restores January's sight at the crucial moment, when May has got well settled into the tree and the treacherous squire has got well settled into her; but Proserpina gives her a quick reply to January's accusations, that he is misperceiving and misconceiving everything. It is broadly hinted that misconception may be happening in another sense too – a winter husband is not going to propagate his own line. But at least everyone finishes up living happily ever after, in a manner of speaking.
February is the month of St Valentine's Day, when every bird chooses its mate. Chaucer is the first person to mention the idea, and he may have made it up himself. He devotes an entire poem to the subject, The Parliament of Fowls, in which all the birds gather under the aegis of Nature, with their ornithological or legendary associations quickly sketched in: the "eels' foe", the heron; the "frosty" fieldfare, a winter visitor; the swan, that sings at its death; the cock, the nearest equivalent to the newly-invented clock that a small village is likely to get; the owl of ill omen; the turtle-dove, faithful until death to its first mate (fact, not legend); and the cuckoo, with its less than admirable ways of raising its young. There are also a number of birds of prey, three of whom are all after a single female, so providing an impasse that supplies the poem with its story line. As Februaries go, this is an exceptionally balmy one – but then it does all happen in a dream.
March is the time of year when the Wife of Bath dusts down her best clothes – or, for preference, buys new ones – and goes around to show herself off, to see and be seen. It is also the month in which most of Lent falls, the six penitential weeks preceding Easter; but Alison of Bath is not one to be discouraged by a little penance. It was one Lent when her fourth husband was away in London that she went for a tête-à-tête walk in the fields with the "joly clerk" Jankyn, and assured him that if she found herself a widow for a fourth time, he would be her choice as husband number five. She may seem to be jumping the gun, but she has little patience for the mouse that has only a single mousehole: she likes to be prepared for all contingencies. By the time she joins the pilgrimage, she is on the lookout for number six. Perhaps April will be her lucky month.
Question and Answer session with Martin Starkie, the actor, playwright, producer, and director. He made his name in the BBC's The Third Programme and on television in the 1950s. He went on to write with Nevill Coghill and composers Richard Hill and John Hawkins, and to produce and direct Canterbury Tales, based on Nevill Coghill's translation, first in Oxford, then in the West End, on Broadway and in Australia. The Broadway musical won a Tony Award for best costume and received four other Tony nominations, the Variety Critics Award for Best British Musical, and for a time it became the longest running musical in the West end.
What gave you the original idea for the musical of Canterbury Tales?
In 1964, I was asked by the dramatic society at Exeter College Oxford to do a production as part of the celebrations for the 650th anniversary of the founding of the college. Exeter was the first of Oxford's fourteenth-century colleges and so would have been known to Chaucer. So I hit upon the idea of dramatising The Canterbury Tales. Nevill Coghill had been my tutor at Exeter and, by this time, his translation of The Canterbury Tales had already become famous through being broadcast on the BBC's Third Programme and published by Penguin in 1951. Nevill Coghill gave me permission to use his translation and I wrote and directed the first ever extensive dramatisation of The Canterbury Tales at the Oxford Playhouse. Allen Lane, the publisher of Penguin, came to see the show on the first night.
Why did you think that a musical was a suitable dramatic genre for the performance of Canterbury Tales?
When the play was first performed in Oxford the only music was incidental. A few years later Penguin wrote to Nevill Coghill to let him know that two composers at Polydor, Richard Hill and John Hawkins, had written some music for brass to accompany a reading of some of the Tales based on his translation. Since Nevill Coghill had kindly assigned all dramatic, broadcasting and recording rights in his translation to me, I went to meet the composers. I loved the music and, somewhat to my surprise, so did Nevill Coghill, and I eventually ended up doing the recording for Polydor. The recording was released in 1968 and became a best-seller and I received a Grammy nomination for Best Spoken Word. I then started thinking that more music and songs could be added to my play of the Tales and, after consulting with Nevill Coghill, I commissioned the composers to write a score. Nevill Coghill and I then rewrote parts of my play and we based the framework around the themes of love, lust and marriage. The musical version opened at the Phoenix Theatre in 1968, with Wilfrid Brambell, who was then at the height of his fame as Steptoe in ‘Steptoe & Son', playing the Reeve and other parts. As old January in ‘The Merchant's Tale' he achieved the first show-stopper in the West End for many years.
What attracted you to the Nevill Coghill translation?
I had been taught by Nevill Coghill when I was an undergraduate at Oxford. In fact I had written to Nevill Coghill, on the recommendation of F R Leavis of Cambridge whom I had asked for advice on where I should apply. I decided upon Exeter College because that's where Nevill Coghill was a tutor at the time and he was famous for his outdoor productions of Shakespeare. Nevill Coghill's The Canterbury Tales was a superb translation because it was so close to the original but also, as and other actors found, it was supremely speakable and flowing.
Which was the most difficult tale to adapt/direct?
It was the ‘Wife of Bath's Tale', but this is also one of the most rewarding tales to present to a theatre audience. It presents the more serious, religious side of Chaucer coupled with his usual great humour which works so well on the stage. What on the page raises a smile, in the theatre we found it caused the entire audience to rock with laughter. For example, when the Wife declared her readiness for her next husband, saying "Welcome the sixth, whenever he appears./ I can't keep continent for years and years… And certainly if seed were never sown,/ How ever could virginity be grown?".
Who is your favourite character in Canterbury Tales and which character would you play or have you played?
My favourite character is probably the Wife of Bath, but it is not an easy part to play. Prunella Scales and Fenella Fielding both play the part superbly on recordings I have made with them for EMI. I have read all the characters for an EMI recording in the ‘Listen For Pleasure' series and I have played Chaucer in the past on television and on stage. On the EMI recording, my favourite part is the Miller.
Do you think Chaucer would have enjoyed Canterbury Tales, the musical?
I'm sure he would, after all, he himself read The Canterbury Tales aloud before the Royal court. This would have been a form of performance and dramatisation and hearing it read aloud by Chaucer and others would have been the only way most people would have known The Canterbury Tales.
Why do you think the musical enjoyed such success?
Initially, both Nevill Coghill and I thought that it was the bawdy aspect of Chaucer that would appeal to modern audiences, but I am sure that it was actually the way in which Chaucer's down-to-earth, open attitude to matters sexual, in which there is no beating about the bush, is mixed with seriousness about morality, passion, and love. The Times Education Supplement said "a large charge of Chaucer's amazing magic – funny and holy, beautiful and bawdy, and peculiarly English – is projected across the footlights". Another critic wrote that the show "gave one the feeling that its good to be alive" – and that's a wonderful tribute to its lasting appeal!
Do you have any interesting anecdotes about the musical?
When I wrote to the Lord Chamberlain's office in order to obtain the license to stage Canterbury Tales, someone from his office called to say that the license had been granted on several conditions: one was that the fart must not sound throughout the theatre, and another was that the copulation in the pear tree must be decent. Of course I agreed and the sound of fart was actually reproduced by the bassoonist in the orchestra.Do you think that any other works by Chaucer would be suitable for a similar treatment?
I think that Troilus and Criseyde would work on the stage, but I also think that one of the tales would make a wonderful opera. One would also make a full-length ballet. Actually, the Rambert Dance Company has used some of the tales and Nevill Coghill's translation for Christopher Bruce's recent and highly successful ballet ‘God's Plenty'.
The show was a huge commercial success – I understand that the money you have made from Canterbury Tales has been put to good use.
Yes, it enabled me to found the first Chaucer Festival in Canterbury in 1985, and the London pilgrimage which goes from the Bear Garden in Southwark to Canterbury in 1987. I also set up the Chaucer Heritage Centre in Canterbury (for further information, please write to 22 St Peter's Street, Canterbury, or telephone 01227 470379).
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