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Chaucer's Company

by Lynn Staley
Harrington and Shirley Drake Professor of the Humanities in English

This thyng was graunted, and oure othes swore
With ful glad herte, and preyden hym also
That he wolde vouche sauf for to do so,
And that he wolde been oure governour,
And of oure tales juge and reportour,
And sette a soper at a certeyn pris,
And we wol reuled been at his devys
In heigh and lough; and thus by oon assent
We been accorded to his juggement.
And therupon the wyn was fet anon;
We dronken, and to reste wente echon,
Withouten any lenger taryynge.

"This thyng" is, of course, the deal that makes twenty nine separate pilgrims into a company, and the "he" is Harry Bailey, tavern keeper, entrepreneur, whose shrewd ability to read his guests is matched only by his astuteness as the first "reader" of Chaucer’s book of Canterbury.

‘I have finally to say I got old enough to listen to Chaucer. I tell my students not to want answers, but, if they "take the trip," he will teach them to ask questions.’

The passage, which comes near the end of the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales, was written within twenty years of parliamentary Commons first choosing a speaker to represent its views and, consequently, of the articulation of the growing belief by its members that the Commons spoke with the voice of the realm. That it also frequently spoke with the self-interested voice of the landed gentry who too often looked to the lords for guidance and benefits, that for Chaucer the cherished myths of the body politic are myths that frequently serve less than noble ends is only part of the many layers of irony built into this passage. For the passage is heavy with important words that ultimately pertain to the formation of all social bodies, all companies: Harry Bailey is to be judge, record keeper, governor, and keeper of the purse, a purse that is rarely absent from the calculations of all involved in this grand company. Thus, by oon assent, they choose him to be their master for the duration of the pilgrimage; the bargain is sealed with wine, another of those glues that holds together a social body.

This body turns out to be subject to ill humor, malice, drunkenness, hypocrisy, chagrin, waywardness, rebellion, and, most insidiously, irony. At a time when England, along with all of Europe, was confronted with vast social and economic changes, with the demographic shock caused by continual outbreaks of plague, with heterodox challenges to "orthodox" Christianity, with Schism in the papacy itself, with a draining and ongoing war between England and France that snarled the diplomatic relations of many countries, as well as involving the two popes who presided over the faithful of a divided Europe, when the myths of order that had served past generations no longer fit the world of the late fourteenth century, Chaucer wrote a collection of tales in English that set a new direction for English poetry. He did not use the tales merely to harangue his contemporaries, to forecast Apocalypse, or to endorse the compromised values of the world in which he lived. He used them to create a way of asking penetrating questions about that world, about the suppositions that underlie our own social and religious myths.

When Jim Leach asked me to write about my favorite course, I realized I could only pass the assignment on to Chaucer. I am never bored with Chaucer, always find new things to notice, new things to say. And no class on The Canterbury Tales is ever the same as another. When I first started teaching Chaucer I was younger and believed more in certainties, or held onto those facts and habits of reading I took away with me from graduate school. But the field of Medieval Studies has changed, and I have changed. Our scholarly world has expanded to include the inquiries of social historians into what we thought a stable realm, The Past. Social historians have taught us to look into questions about social relationships, into the sources of social tension, into subjects like gender and marriage that were unknown twenty years ago. You could say that they have taught us to look at history with an eye to things that interest writers, or into the details of everyday life. Though the changes in my own scholarship and teaching reflect the newly vital atmospheres of departments of history and English, I have finally to say I got old enough to listen to Chaucer.

I tell my students not to want answers, but, if they "take the trip," he will teach them to ask questions. Chaucer is one of the shrewdest social and political analysts I have encountered and consistently quizzes the icons with which we hallow our frequently unsanctified dealings. He will show you how to query the foundations of social bodies without the malicious destructiveness of some of his pilgrims. He is the only author I know of who consistently points out the similarities between himself and each one of his characters. He has compassion without sentimentality — no mean feat. He will teach you to laugh. He will teach you how to make really good puns. If our own late twentieth century, with its dislocation, urban bewilderment, economic uncertainty, shifting gender roles, shattering diseases for which we do not yet have cures, strident materialism, and attempts to find stability on what is unknown terrain seems like a shadow of the world Chaucer knew and attempted to understand, he can give you a way of thinking, or a perspective upon the stories we tell about ourselves in such a world. Maybe he’ll teach you to swear in Middle English.

Return to the passage with which I began — it is, after all, a business deal. Money will change hands; someone will profit. Harry Bailey means it to be him. Chaucer neither validates our impulse to profit nor condemns it outright. He is most concerned with the rhetorical acts by which we create and ratify social institutions. Such rhetorical acts also enable us to lie to ourselves and others, as well as to make stories that hold us together, albeit temporarily. However, Harry Bailey, the man of the future, the "speaker" who sees a fine prospect of gain before him, is also the pilgrim who gets some of the best lines. His last act of speech, his injunction to the Parson to tell his tale, is blunt in its recognition of the limits built into an economy based on profit:

‘Telleth,’ quod he, ‘youre meditacioun.
But hasteth yow; the sonne wole adoun;
Beth fructuous, and that in litel space . . .’

Which is, of course, the best any of us can do.

1 Geoffrey Chaucer, General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, ed. Larry Benson, The Riverside Chaucer (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), 11. 810-821. [vouche sauf: agree; juge: judge; reportour: record keeper; pris: price; at his devys: as he wishes; in heigh and lough: in high and low; assent: agreement, consent; fet: fetched; echon: each one] [back to poem]

2 beth fructuous: be fruitful [back to poem]

Lynn Staley has taught at Colgate since 1974, specializing in Chaucer, medieval literature and culture, Spenser, and early renaissance literature.