The Cantebury Tales ~ The General Prologue

I’ve decided to join O at Behold the Stars in her reading of The Canterbury Tales.  Yes, it’s one of my projects for the year, my The Canterbury Tales/The Brubury Tales Project, but I’ve been really terrible at keeping up on my projects so I’m hoping someone else will give me that kick where I so desperately need it, or at the very least, drag me along.

I’m starting off reading from The Portable Chaucer with a translation by Theodore Morrison, but I suspect that it doesn’t include all the tales, so once the library book comes in, I’ll be reading The Penguin edition translated by Nevill Coghill.  O, the clever person that she is, is reading it in Middle English. Something to aspire to but not now. :-Z

Portrait of Chaucer – 17th century
source Wikipedia

It is surmised that Chaucer met Bocaccio, who perhaps influenced this work, as it begins in a similar way to Bocaccio’s The Decameron.  In The Decameron, a number of lords and ladies escape the Black Death of Florence and begin a story-telling marathon in their exile, whereas in The Canterbury Tales, a group of pilgrims are on their way to Canterbury and on their journey, each tells a tale.  Originally Chaucer meant each pilgrim to tell four tales, two on the way there and two on the way back, but the manuscript breaks off with them still on their travels, so the final intent of Chaucer remains unknown.  The original order of the tales is also unclear, but going with O’s the Riverside Chaucer, we’ll be breaking the tales down as follows:

Week 1: General Prologue
Week 2: The Knight’s Tale
Week 3: The Miller’s Prologue and Tale, The Reeve’s Prologue and Tale, The Cook’s Prologue and Tale
Week 4: The Man Of Law’s Introduction, Prologue, Tale, and Epilogue
Week 5: The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale
Week 6: The Friar’s Prologue and Tale, The Summoner’s Prologue and Tale
Week 7: The Clerk’s Prologue and Tale
Week 8: The Merchant’s Prologue, Tale, and Epilogue
Week 9: The Squire’s Introduction and Tale, The Franklin’s Prologue and Tale
Week 10: The Physician’s Tale, The Pardoner’s Introduction, Prologue, and Tale, The Shipman’s Tale
Week 11: The Prioress’s Prologue and Tale, The Prologue and Tale of Sir Thopas
Week 12: The Tale of Melibee
Week 13: The Monk’s Prologue and Tale, The Nun Priest’s Prologue, Tale, and Epilogue
Week 14: The Second Nun’s Prologue and Tale, The Canon’s Yeoman’s Prologue and Tale
Week 15: The Manciple’s Prologue and Tale, The Parson’s Prologue and Tale
Week 16: Chaucer’s Retraction. Conclusion.

If I haven’t finished by the beginning of November, you can all throw rotten tomatoes at me.

So let’s start off with The General Prologue.

Initially Chaucer describes the setting of the pilgrims’ starting point, in a beautiful poetic manner that establishes the ambiance of a lovely spring day.

“As soon as April pierces to the root
The drought of March, and bathes each bud and shoot
Through every vein of sap with gentle showers
From whose engendering liquor spring the flowers;
When zephyrs have breathed softly all about
Inspiring every wood and field to sprout,
And in the zodiac the youthful sun
His journey halfway through the Ram has run;
When little birds are busy with their song
Who sleep with open eyes the whole night long
Life stirs their hearts and tingles in them so,

Then people long on pilgrimage to go, …..”

Chaucer, himself one of the pilgrims, arrives at Southwark at the Tabard, and meets with twenty-nine other pilgrims, all ready to set out for Canterbury.  He introduces each, starting with The Knight, who is is honoured and respected and who has fought many battles in the name of Christ.  Yet in spite of his skill with a sword, he is deferential and temperate, embracing his code of chivalry.  His son, a Squire, is with him, a lad who is determined to have exploits to honour his lady.  He also has a Yeoman traveling with him, tidy and trim with a doughty demeanour, a strong bow and a St. Christopher’s medal.

A Nun, known as Madame Eglantine, carries the dignity of religion with her, showing a love and empathy for animals and a tidiness that becomes her. Nevertheless, this Prioress is attached to courtly ways and displays a pride in her accomplishments.  She is escorted by a Priest and an Attendant Nun who acts as her secretary.

Next, a Monk is introduced and while his description is an unexpectedly unusual description for a Monk, during Chaucer’s time the church was experiencing a degradation of religion and many of its adherents were infected with worldly desires.  This Monk much prefers fashion and hunting to the austerity of his order. It sounds like Chaucer, the narrator, approves of his designs and exploits.

The next in line is a Friar, who is gay and jolly. He is like a roving churchman who performs church services as he goes.  Yet, again, this Friar likes wealthy men, pretty women and money given as penance.  He prefers bars and barmaids to giving consolation and blessings to lepers.  Our rather unreligious Friar is christened Hubert.

The Merchant is very caught up in his business and enjoys the elevation of his station.  He knows his job well and is very full of himself, yet is he as rich as he seems?  Not only his financial acumen is highlighted, but his personal shrewdness, and the narrator confesses that he is never able to discover his name.

An Oxford Student shows his poverty by his shabby clothes, but exhibits a richness in learning and the value of philosophy.  He is willing to both learn and teach.

A crafty, yet diplomatic Lawyer or The Man of Law is one of the party.  He appears efficient and respected in his field.

The Franklin, or the “free man,” loves his food so much that there is always food at his table.

Five Guildsmen, a Weaver, a Dyer, a Carpenter, a Tapestry-maker and a Haberdasher are wealthy and respected in their crafts.  Their livery identifies their artistry. With them, they carry a Cook who ensures that they eat well.

The Skipper or Shipman is well-traveled and experienced at his job, but he is not shy about stealing from the wine casks.  He does not appear at home on a horse, riding it as if he were at sea.

The Physician

The Physician is particularly interesting.  I sense a sarcasm within Chaucer’s description and though he seems to know his profession and be able to deal with a number of maladies, he takes advantage of his patients for financial gain, and his spiritual life is less than ideal.

“Of nothing in excess would he admit.
He gave but little heed to Holy Writ.
His clothes were lined with taffeta; their hue
Was all of blood read and of Persian blue ..”

Next, The Woman or Wife of Bath is a rather large, broad-beamed woman, but she is dressed well and has a skill at weaving that is unsurpassed.  She’s had many husbands and lovers and is well-versed in the art of love.  She is also well-travelled.

The Parson is given a long description praising his integrity, his sacrifice and his faithful adherence to his faith.  He is patient, gives offerings to the poor, and tries to teach by being a good example to others.  He is a wonderful illustration of a man of virtue, and a credit to his church flock.

The Plowman  c. 1525
Hans Holbein the Younger

We meet the brother of The Parson, The Plowman.  He loves God with all his heart, and is in charity with everyone.  He tithes regularly and his clothes reflect his humble station.

A big beefy man is The Miller and his physicality is emphasized, along with his rather unpleasant countenance, and his proclivity for stealing corn and selling it at three times the price.  He leads the pilgrims out of town whilst blowing his bagpipes.

The Manciple, or officer who buys supplies for a college, monastery or other institution, is lacking a formal education but is, nevertheless, ingenious in his dealings and more adroit than his clients.  He is a master at deception.

Possessing a fiery disposition and a wiry frame, The Reeve, or steward of a manor, is of questionable character.  While he ensures that no one steals from his master, he himself avails himself of that which belongs to his employer.  He is so shrewd that no one can catch him in his dishonesty.

The Summoner, a man who brings those who are in violation of church law to ecclesiastical court, is a lecherous character with a fearsome leprous face.  He uses the little Latin he knows to cover his intellectual inadequacy.  He does not have a respect for his vocation.

The Pardoner, one who grants papal indulgences, is a waxy, greasy sort of fellow, who we are led to disbelieve.  He carries with him a number of fake relics, which he sells to unsuspecting, trusting people.  He is religious and respectable on the surface, but underneath, he is rotten.

The Host is a big, cheery man who appears to have control of the group.  He sets the rules out for the tales, four for each pilgrim, two going to Canterbury and two returning.  We will see that this plan does not pan out.

The Narrator:  is it Chaucer, or is it Chaucer but not really Chaucer?  We will see, as we go.

The portraits of these pilgrims show the social organization of Chaucer’s England.  First comes the Knight, the Squire and the Yeoman, which represent the nobility or the upper class.  Next comes the Clergy: a prioress with her attendent priest and helper, a Monk and a Friar.  After the clergy comes the pilgrims who represent the merchantiles and professions of the cities and towns of Chaucer’s England.  Finally we are introduced to a number of figures who perhaps don’t represent a particular group, but nevertheless have a firm identity in Chaucer’s time.

Chaucer’s depiction of the pilgrims follows the Medieval literary technique of description in that description can be accomplished in two ways: using both internal qualities and external attributes.  We can ask ourselves as we read, how these two means of description affect the reader; which might elicit a stronger response and how does one influence the other to create tension within a story.  Chaucer uses each to make a social commentary and his means of using this technique is quite fascinating.  You get a sense with Chaucer’s descriptions, that while he can appear to be praising and giving his characters good qualities, at times he is, in fact, doing quite the opposite.

The Canterbury Tales/The Brubury Tales Project
The General Prologue
The Knight’s Tale

Richard II by William Shakespeare

” For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings ….”

Why do they call this play a “history”?  It was an absolutely tragedy …. gut-wrenchingly tragic, and I still feel depressed about the outcome.  Dare I say this is my favourite Shakespearean play so far?  Isn’t that weird?  An historical play about a king of whom I knew little about ……..  Yet Shakespeare’s verse is astonishingly beautiful.  The words flow around you like a bubbling river, conveying the anguish, terror, loss, loyalty, courage, deception, abandonment and hopelessness.  Not only is the play alive, but the story is alive and the words have a life of their own.

Richard II, King of England
portrait at Westminster Abbey (mid-1390s)
source Wikipedia

The play begins with a dispute between Henry Bullingbrook (Bolingbroke), cousin to King Richard, and Thomas Mowbray, Bullingbrook accusing Mowbray of misappropriating money and claiming that he was part of the murder of the Duke of Gloucester (which was probably orchestrated by Richard), yet before either can accomplish a duel, King Richard decides to banish both, Bullingbrook for 6 years and Mowbray for the term of his life.  John of Gaunt, is broken hearted at the exile of his son, Bullingbrook, and soon becomes sick with grief.  Upon Gaunt’s death, Richard decides to expropriate his estates and money, thereby defrauding Bullingbrook of his inheritance.  As Richard leaves to deal with the wars in Ireland, Bullingbrook gathers supporters and lands in England for the purpose, it appears, of regaining what is rightfully his.  Because Richard has taxed his subjects without remiss, and has fined the nobility for errors of their ancestors, most of the nobles rise up against him.

John of Gaunt
father of Henry IV
source Wikipedia

When Richard returns to England he is left with a small contingent of supporters including his cousin Aumerle, the Duke of York’s son, and lords Salisbury and Berkeley and other retainers.  Upon meeting with Bullingbrook, Richard relinquishes the throne to him, and Bullingbrook wastes no time in appointing himself King Henry IV.  Immediately, Richard is placed in prison.  When an uprising by Aumerle is discovered by his father and vehemently exposed, Aumerle is graciously pardoned by Henry IV, yet with dire threats towards the other conspirators.  In prison, Richard attacks his warden in frustration and is killed by Exton; when Henry hears about the murder, he is distressed and the play ends with his sad lament.

When I finished this play, I was so anguished by Richard’s sad end and how he’d been treated, yet reading some pre-history would have perhaps measured my emotions, as the good king was not entirely as innocent as he is made out.  Richard inherited the title of king when he was 10 years old and spent many years of his reign under the control of counsellors and advisors.  It wasn’t until later on, that he appeared to throw off their power and come into his own.  However, the fact that he taxed the populous to such extreme extents to finance his wars and royal coffers, contributed to the fact that he was not well loved or respected.  He was a king who ruled by impulse and without a justness that would have connected him to the people.  In fact, in the play, when he is walked through the streets, people dump garbage on his head, not a very fitting display for a monarch who truly believed that he was anointed by God.

Richard being taken into custody
by the Earl of Northumberland
source Wikipedia

Another consideration is that Shakespeare is writing drama.  He is known for taking the framework of history and then chopping and changing and perhaps, speculating for dramatic and political effect.   It is interesting that at the end of the play, Richard is seen as a pitiful figure who has voluntarily given up his kingship, and Bullingbrook condemns his murder, leaving the new king innocent of the crime and helpless to stop its culmination.  A very safe and uncontroversial tact on both sides for our playwright!

My favourite speech of Richard’s pulses with foresight, nostalgia and lament:

“For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground 
And tell sad stories of the death of kings:
How some have been deposed, some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed,
Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping killed.
All murdered.  For within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there the antic sits,
Scoffing his state and grinning at his pomp,
Allowing him a breath, a little scene,
To monarchize, be feared and kill with looks,
Infusing him with self and vain conceit,
As if this flesh which walls about our life,
Were brass impregnible.  And humoured thus,
Comes at the last and with a little pin
Bores through his castle walls, and farewell king!”

As Richard begins to realize the possible outcome of the circumstances and tries to reconcile them with his belief that a king is sanctioned by God, we see his syntax begin to break down, with his pronouns of “we”, being reduced to “I”.  It is truly pitiful.

Richard II
Anonymous impress from the 16th century
source Wikipedia

On a political note, this play was used to stir up populous support for Robert, earl of Essex, Queen Elizabeth I’s one-time favourite, during his rebellion against her.  On the eve of the uprising, his supporters paid for the play, Richard II, to be performed at the Globe Theatre, but Essex’s attempt to raise a coup against her failed. Retaliation was swift, however.  On February 25, 1601, Essex faced his execution and was beheaded on the Tower Green.  His was the last beheading at the Tower of London.

This was another wonderful experience with one of Shakespeare’s historical plays.  I had expected to like them least in the canon, but they are certainly quickly becoming by far my favourites!

Watched:  The Hollow Crown:  Richard II

Othello by William Shakespeare

“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.”

Othello the Moor is lauded over Venice for his help in attempts to rid them of the pesky Turks in their battle over Cyprus.  Yet when Othello weds the beautiful Venetian Desdemona in secret, some opinions of his prowess change, notably those of Desdemona’s father.  And unbeknownst to Othello, Iago, his third-in-command, is plotting a dastardly revenge for being passed over for promotion, the position being given to Othello’s loyal lieutenant, Cassio.  Hence proceeds perhaps the most shocking example of manipulation in literature, as Iago takes possession of Othello’s mind and emotions, like a beast taking possession of its prey, transforming our noble Moor from a honest, straightforward, respected man into an enraged, vengeful monster who believes every evil of his innocent wife, including her unfaithfulness with his second-in-command, Cassio.  Othello’s jealousy manages to eclipse anything within our understanding.

Abd el-Ouahed ben Messaoud
ben Mohammed Anoun,
Moorish ambassador to Elizabeth I
suggest inspiration for Othello
source Wikipedia

Iago reveals that, as well as the injury of being passed over for promotion, he also harbours a suspicion that Othello has been sleeping with his wife, Emilia, who is Desdemona’s lady-in-waiting.  There is no proof of this accusation in the play, and it is likely that Iago is expecting people to act with the same lack of integrity and base bestial urges, that he himself would, in the same circumstances.

How does a gentle and admired military leader allow himself to be reduced to a maddened beast, his fury leading him to commit the worst atrocity against a perfectly innocent human being, and one who has loved and supported him through their short marriage?  What hidden button inside Othello’s psyche has Iago discovered and pushed, knowing that it will make him snap?

Maria Malibran as Rossini’s
Desdemona
Françoise Bouchot
source Wikipedia

Certainly there are various issues that come into play and work against Othello.  He is used to being a commander, yet is unused to being a husband and obviously, when in love, is out of his depth.  Perhaps he sees Desdemona as a possession that he has conquered and, instead of being able to relax in his marriage, he, like a military leader, feels that he must wage battle to keep her.  And when difficulties do arise, instead of trying to search out the truth, he acts like a military leader and attempts to “conquer the enemy”.  He has insecurities that lead to him being a willing pawn of Iago’s machinations. The jealousy that Iago is able to set aflame within him, corrupts his normal good sense and his actions become intemperate.  I certainly have compassion for his state, as I believe these aspects have severely affected his decison-making and emotional state, but, that said, he is still human and he still has the option of choice.  He knows right from wrong, yet he decides to allow his emotions to rule and himself to be led down the tragic path of mindless jealousy.  In reality, he allows himself to turn into a beast.

Othello & Desdemona
Antonio Muñoz Degrain
source Wikipedia

Shakespeare’s exhibits an uncanny ability to weave endless possibilities into a Gordian knot of drama and draw the reader into his poetic spell.  Will we ever know exactly what motivated Othello and his spiral from an honourable man to a madly jealous murderer.  Will we ever understand why he believed Iago without any “ocular proof”?  What happened to the military commander that must have been used to exhibiting self-control?  Do intense emotions subvert our ability to act as a human beings?  There are so many avenues to explore and no obvious or set answers.

Of all the characters in the play, my favourite character was Emilia.  While she remains surprisingly unaware of the plotting and intrigues of her husband, upon realizing the truth, she becomes the voice of the audience, who has until this point been mute in horror, and satisfyingly spews vile recriminations on the head of Othello.

T.S. Eliot had a different view of the last actions of Othello than many older critics:

“I have always felt that I have never read a more terrible exposure of human weakness — of universal human weakness — than the last great speech of Othello.  I am ignorant whether any one else has ever adopted this view, and it may appear subjective and fantastic in the extreme.  It is usually taken on its face value, as expressing the greatness in defeat of a noble but erring nature. What Othello seems to me to be doing in making this speech is cheering himself up. He is endeavouring to escape reality, he has ceased to think about Desdemona, and is thinking about himself. Humility is the most difficult of all virtues to achieve; nothing dies harder than the desire to think well of oneself. Othello succeeds in turning himself into a pathetic figure, by adopting an aesthetic rather than a moral attitude, dramatising himself against his environment. He takes in the spectator, but the human motive is primarily to take in himself. I do not believe that any writer has ever exposed this bovarysme, the human will to see things as they are not, more clearly than Shakespeare.”

I read this play as part of a Shakespeare: From the Page to the Stage course that I’m taking online, and it’s definitely moved in among my favourites!

Laurence Fishburne & Kenneth Branaugh
Othello 1995
source Wikipedia

Vita Nuova by Dante Alighieri

“In my Book of Memory, in the early part where there is little to be read, there comes a chapter with the rubric: Incipit vita nova.  It is my intention to copy into this little book the words I find written under that heading —- if not all of them, at least the essence of their meaning.”

Beatrice was eight years old and Dante, nine, the first time they set eyes on each other. Instantly, he felt an abiding connection with her, even though it was nine years after that before he finally saw her again, and she greeted him, her words entwining through his heart.  Lovely Beatrice, who became Dante’s love, his obsession and his Muse.   Never a conversation was had between them, only greetings, yet his life was filled with her presence, her goodness and grace, her being so angelic that she filled his heart until he wondered if it could contain her.  All thoughts revolved around his beautiful Beatrice; she was his life and through her, his poetry gained a new vitality.

Dante’s three meetings with Beatrice
Elisabeth Sonrel
source Wikipedia 

Vita Nuova, or new life, chronicles Dante’s first sight of Beatrice, his occasional casual meetings with her, his attempt to deflect his interest in her by pretending his poetry was for another woman, her disgust at his perceived behaviour, the death of her father, Dante’s own illness and then, tragically, the death of the woman who had become the centre of his world ….. his lovely Beatrice ……

The book’s structure is unique in itself, as it is organized into chapters (probably by later translators/scribes), but nearly every chapter follows an easily recognizable pattern:  first he gives an account of his life circumstances and events, almost like a journal; second he shares a poem where he again relates those circumstances, usually in the form of a sonnet or canzone; and third, an analysis of the poetry, describing his intent and the divisions of thought in each poem.

Beata Beatrix (1864-70)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti
source Wikipedia

The poetry is in the courtly love tradition, a form borrowed from French poets which emphasized chivalry, bravery and nobility.  It is important to keep this in mind while reading this story, as the intensity of Dante’s emotions, the near idolization of Beatrice, the groans and sighs, the personification of Love and the professions of near despair can be somewhat hard to relate to in our unromantic day and age.

I found myself vacillating between two different emotions.  One one hand I wanted to say, “oh, you poor love-sick man”, and on the other, “what a fool!”  Why would you have your entire life be built around the gaze and approval of one person?  Why would you wrap your whole soul around a being who was as transient as the wind?  As for Beatrice, would it be tragically romantic to be loved this much by someone, or would it be just downright annoying?  But then Dante’s poetry began to speak through my cynical view, as his love and devotion to her was so apparent.  His descriptions and poetry to her rang with a tender regard, high terms of respect and an abiding love.  The vibrancy of his conflicting emotions, which were often buffeted by circumstances, won my heart.

Dante and Beatrice (1883)
Henry Holiday
source Wikipedia
Time and Again
Time and again the thought comes to my mind
Of the dark condition Love imparts to me;
Then the pity of it strikes me, and I ask:
“Could ever anyone have felt the same?”
For Love’s attack is so precipitous
That life itself all but abandons me:
Nothing survives except one lonely spirit,
Allowed to live because it speaks of you.
With hope of help to come I gather courage,
And deathly languid, drained of all defenses,
I come to you expecting to be healed;
And if I raise my eyes to look at you,
Within my heart a tremor starts to spread,
Driving out life, stopping my pulses’ beat.
Dante Alighieri
source Wikipedia

I was also struck my another aspect of the book, something perhaps Dante never meant to emphasis.  So many people go through life feeling small and insignificant, wondering how their everyday actions could possibly matter.  Well, they do matter and Dante illustrates quite marvellously how.  Just Beatrice’s looks affect him for days afterwards.  He recounts how her gaze not only brings out his imperfections but challenges him to be a better person.  And it’s not just his character that her actions work on; Dante emphasizes that her manner and virtue have an illuminating affect on the ladies who are in her company, and instead of being envious, they appreciate her qualities and feel joyful to be around her.  What a testimony to the importance of our every day actions.

Six Tuscan Poets
(Dante Alighieri, Guido Cavalcanti, Francesco Petrarch,
Giovanni Boccaccio, Marsilio Ficino & Cristoforo Landino)

After the death of his love, Beatrice, Dante made a promise, to himself, and by writing the Vita Nuova, to the world.  He was going to write about Beatrice, not like he had been writing, following the pattern of a courtly love, but that he would write of her as no other woman had ever been written of before.  And twelve years later, the Divina Commedia, or the Divine Comedy was born, immortalizing Beatrice, not only in verse, but in the thrones of Heaven.  The Vita Nuova was certainly a new beginning …… a new life ……..

translated by Mark Musa

The Book of Margery Kempe

“When this creature was twenty years of age, or somewhat more, she was married to a worshipful burgess [of Lynn] and was with child within a short time, as nature would have it.”

The second book of my Well-Educated Mind Biographies Project took me to the turn of the fifteenth century when the Late Middle Ages was morphing into the Early Renaissance.  Margery Kempe, a married women with 14 children decides that her devotion to God eclipses everything else in her life, and embarks on a mystical journey to get as close as she can to His Love and Grace, and to conform her life to His will.  While the narrative is somewhat disjointed, springing back and forth between different episodes in Margery’s life, the reader must decide:  does Margery have a special relationship with God and are her actions spiritually beneficial, or is she somewhat unbalanced emotionally and do her actions have a negative impact on those around her?

While Margery speaks of her devotion to God and of the special protection and attention he sends her way, a repeated theme runs through this book of her unusually shocking weeping and crying, and how her behaviour alienates the people around her.  In story after story, Margery weeps and wails in loud outbursts, a person or the people get irritated with her and, at the least, want her to stop and, at the most, want her imprisoned.  Margery does show a comprehension that her behaviour sows discord with those around her, and does try to moderate her reactions, but is unable to because of the force of feeling for God in her heart; she simply cannot control her response.

At first, like many people Margery met, her weeping and sobbing drove me crazy.  I think in this book she described every incident that she wailed and moaned, and I was soon in complete sympathy with the people who wanted her either run out of town or put in prison.  Yet about mid-way through the book I began to think ………..  How did Margery conduct herself as a person?  What were her traits and how did she interact with other people whom she met in life?  Yes, her life was completely given to God and he was her primary source of love and care and motivation, but the result of that love was her willingness to help and care for people, her desire to see people saved and experience God’s grace like she had, and, surprisingly, her meek yet powerful words that she used against her accusers. Rarely did she respond in kind to their recriminations, intimidation or threats, but with an honest and sincere demeanour, that often would disarm them.  Did she ever hurt anyone with her behaviour?  No, she was simply annoying and, therefore, was it right to ostracize her, berate her and throw her in prison for being bothersome?

Ultimately I felt that this book said as much about the society around Margery, as Margery herself.  Their intolerance for anyone different than themselves, their impatience at her benign behaviour and their lust for vengeance was quite startling, yet when I compared it to our society today, how different was it really?  Don’t we display the same intolerance, the same prejudice and the same narrow-mindedness as the people of Margery’s time?   Are we exasperated or offended by people with different ideas or bothered when people behave differently than we expect?  I think, if we’re honest, we’d be compelled to answer “yes”.

The book also gives fascinating details of medieval life.  While we, as moderns, always tend to think women were oppressed and had no say in how they lived their lives, Margery chose to live apart from her husband, traveled around Europe often in the company of men, and quite forcefully made her own choices about the path her life would take.  Certainly she was occasionally reprimanded by priests or given advice by townspeople that she should behave like a “normal” woman, but the vast majority of people appeared to accept her lifestyle without comment and are much more concerned or annoyed with the quantity of her weeping and emotional distress.

Margery’s amazing perseverance in her beliefs, and her ability to remaining faithful when she is imprisoned, ostracized, mocked and threatened, are what impacted me while reading this biography.  Her lack of anger and her tolerance towards her persecutors is truly heroic.  While I wouldn’t want to be Margery Kempe, and I didn’t agree with all her decisions, I can certainly see traits within her that would be beneficial in my own life, and for that, I have a reluctant admiration for her single-minded faithfulness and unquenchable spirit.

The Arthurian Literature Reading Challenge 2014

Jean over at Howling Frog Books has put together this great challenge for 2014:  The Arthurian Literature Reading Challenge.

The rules are as follows:

1.  The challenge runs from January 1, 2014 – December 31, 2014

2.  Sign-ups are open until November 30, 2014.

3.  To sign up, grab the button, write a post, and comment ON THE PAGE.
     Include the link to your sign-up post for it to count.  Keep track of your 
     reading and write a wrap-up post when you’re done, which you will submit
     at the end of the year.  She will follow your blog, and you follow hers, and
     you can discuss as you read.

4.  Books chosen for this challenge can overlap with other challenges.

5.  Book can be translated into the language of your choice, though if you are
     game for trying out some Middle English or Old French, go for it!

6.  Arthurian “cousins” count.  If you wish to read up on Tristan and Iseult or
     Parzival, or go haring off after the Fisher King, feel free.

7.  It is OK to read something pretty tangential that still deals with the
    Arthurian tradition, such as Charles Williams’ War In Heaven.  If you can
    make a reasonable case for it, go ahead.  Still, she’d like to keep the main 
    focus on the medieval works.

8.  She has categorized works by date into Old (pre-1800), Modern (1800-
     1950), and Recent (1950+).  If you wish to read Recent works, that’s fine,
     but you must read more Old and Modern works than Recent.  No reading
     all of Mary Stewart (great as she is) and nothing else!  Don’t worry, quite
     a few works are short and/or not difficult to read.

9.  Levels will consist of:

     Page:  read 2 works, one of which may be Recent
     Squire:  read 3 – 4 works, one of which may be Recent and one must be
                   Old
     Knight:  read 5 – 6 works, two of which may be Recent and one must be
                    Old
     Paladin:  read more than 6 works, two of which may be Recent and two 
                     must be Old, unless you include a non-fiction work (see Bonus)

     Bonus achievement:  read a non-fiction work analyzing Arthurian 
                                         literature

I am going to aim for Squire with 3 -4 works and hope to reach the level of Knight with 5 – 6 works.  My list:

1.  Once and Future King – T.H. White

2.  The Way of King Arthur – Christopher Hibbert

3.

4.

5.

6.

Some of my choices I will take from the following books:

  


I’m really looking forward to this challenge and learning more about King Arthur and his knights!

30 DAY CHALLENGE – Day 23

Day 23 – A Book That You’ve Wanted to Read But Haven’t

Written by Giovanni Boccaccio in the 14th century, it is a medieval allegory presented as a frame story.  One hundred tales are told by ten young people, seven young women and three young men, after they flee to a deserted villa to escape the plague ravaging Florence.  The stories are various tales of different forms of love interspersed with tales of wit and moral lessons.  

This book is a tome but I think it would be fascinating to get a look in at 14th century Italy.  

BEOWULF – translated by Seamus Heaney

The first time I read this poem was for a university class and I was not looking forward to the gore, blood and general epic hero story.  In retrospect, how fortunate I was to be forced to read it because Beowulf immediately became one of my absolute favourites!

Hrothgar, king of the Danes, is being harassed and attacked by the monster, Grendel, a son of Cain, who trashes his precious hall and eats his warriors.  No one is able to combat such evil until Beowulf arrives, determined to repay an old debt.  He defeats the monster, and later Grendel’s mother who comes for revenge.

The story is quite riveting but it is the underlying behaviour of these pagan warriors living in a blood-feud society, which points to a different theme from the usual pagan story.  Beowulf is strong and brave, and is drawn by the lure of spoils, yet he shows moments of kindness, consideration and a propensity not to accept power or prestige if it goes against what he thinks is right.

Tolkien in his essay, The Monster and the Critics, tends to think this poem shows the advent of Christianity and the beginning effects which it had on a pagan culture.  I would tend to agree.  There is certainly a Christian theme, yet it does not appear the religion is being forced upon the culture (or upon the reader), just a gentle and slow changing of perception and behaviour.

A few of my favourite quotes from the book:

Perhaps the goriest:

” ….. struck suddenly and started in; he grabbed and mauled a man on his bench, bit into his bone-lappings, bolted down his blood and gorged on him in lumps, leaving the body utterly lifeless, eaten up hand and foot …”

the most poignant:

” …. And so the good and grey-haired Dane, that high-born king, kissed Beowulf and embraced his neck, then broke down in sudden tears. Two forebodings disturbed him in his wisdom, but one was stronger: nevermore would they meet each other face to face. And such was his affection that he could not help being overcome: his fondness for the man was so deep-founded, it warmed his heart and wound the heartstrings tight in his breast ……”  

and a good lesson for life:

” …… Whoever remains for long here in this earthly life will enjoy and endure more than enough ….” 

A wonderfully crafted poem and story that is a must-read for everyone!

 

Links to (Later) Read-Along: