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Chaucer’s Obscenities

University/College: University of Arkansas System
Date: October 27, 2017
Words: 2836
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Chaucer’s Obscenities

This tendency toward the low, Dryden suggests, is a quality that Chaucer shares with Vocation, whom he also includes In the Fables. What need [had] they,” Dryden asks, “of introducing such characters, where obscene words were proper In their mouths. ” Dryness answer to this question Is simple: there is no need for such characters, with their obscene words. And, In the case of the Canterbury Tales, the solution Is equally simple; Dryden omits from his collection the tales contacting these obscene words. Surely, the word “Sweeney” is foremost among the dirty words uttered by the “low characters” that Dryden condemns.

Chaucer uses this word seven times, and all are in the Canterbury Tales. Five of the seven uses of seven appear in the fallible of Fragment One. The other two appear in tales heavily indebted to the fabling, The Merchant’s Tale and the Mescaline’s Tale. Cuckolding is the central event in four of the five tales that contain the word swerves. Of course, Chaucer was not the first to use the word seven in English. The word had its origins in the Old English word swifts, which had a root meaning of “to sway” or “to sweep. (slide 2) At some point, prior to Saucer’s writing, the Old English word came to be used as a metaphor, and possibly a euphemism, for copulation, memorable to the later “screw. ” Interestingly, the Oxford English Dictionary records only a single instance of sweep in the sexual sense (and the MED records none) prior to Saucer’s seven uses of the word. This one usage appears in a political song that had its origins in the late 13th century: (slide 4) Richard of Leaning, while that he west king, He spends al is treasure Upon swing This ballad, which appears in the Harley Lyrics, ms. 253, and was included in Perry’s Reliquaries, is about the Richard, Duke of Cornwall and King of the Romans, who was brother to Henry Ill. It Is thought to reflect the rivalry among barons after the Battle of Less In 1264, in which Henry was significantly weakened. It is telling, I think, that SWВ»en In the sexual sense first appears In the written record of a song, and this suggests that the word probably had a robust oral circulation before It was widely used In writing. Chaucer Innovation, then, lay not In socializing seven, but In importing this sexual meaning to a literary context. N circulation until well into the 18th century. Among the examples it quotes, the Dictionary includes a passage from Samuel Butler’s Characters, from 1680: “In the Scotch translation Genesis is rendered the Bike of Skiving,” a novel way of explaining the “begets” of the first book of the Bible. This suggests that the sexual meaning of swerves was available to Dryness audience when he wrote the introduction of the Fables, a work roughly contemporary with Samuel Butler’s Characters. By the nineteenth century, however, swan. En in the sexual sense had become arcane, and, of course, we have no vestige of the word in our language today. We do, however, have a memory of the word in swivel, which retains the original Old English sense of “to weep” or “to sway,” but in a non-sexual sense. Not all critics Join Dryden in condemning Saucer’s taboo words. Thomas Ross, whose 1972 book, Saucer’s Bawdy, lists scores of words and phrases that either are or might conceivably be viewed as indecent, is a leading apologist for Saucer’s obscenities.

In his introduction to that work, Ross argues that contemporary readers have been liberated by John Update, Philip Roth and Allen Ginsburg from the prudery of earlier generations, and are now free to enjoy the bawdiness he finds so abundant in Chaucer. (slide 5) Ross writes, for example, that “Chaucer views copulation with lately and effervescent good humor. The ‘scavenge’ that goes on in the ‘Miller’s’ or ‘Reeve’s Tales’ is supremely good fun for those involved directly (16).

Fortunately for the reader, in Rose’s view, this “swiping” is also supremely good fun for those who are indirectly involved. The contrasting views of Dryden and Ross show how difficult it is to separate judgments about what is obscene from the social context of the Judge. Dryden helps to define and develop the sense of decorum and good taste that we associate with the Neoclassical period. Thomas Ross, by contrast, avows that his own sensibilities, ND those of contemporary readers, have been shaped by the fiction of John Update and other contemporary writers. It is worth noting here that in 2008, shortly before his death, Update won the lifetime achievement award of the Bad Sex in Fiction sponsored by the Literary Review. ) If we are to separate Saucer’s obscenities from the Judgments and sensibilities of subsequent generations of readers, and arrive at some understanding of what these words meant for Chaucer and his fourteenth-century audience, where do we look, and how do we assay the valences of these words? The problem, of course, is that taboos against obscenities mean that they are much slower to make their way into the written language than they are in the spoken language.

For contemporary readers of Chaucer, as for contemporary readers of James Joyce, the force and meaning of a taboo word depend upon their knowledge of a much more extensive oral context in which the word is used. But we know relatively little of the oral culture of the fourteenth century, and, consequently, we must rely largely upon indirect evidence and conjecture in order to understand the import of Saucer’s obscenities. The temporal gap between this song about Richard of Germany and The Canterbury Tales, together with the paucity of textual evidence for the sexual use of sway. En, leaves a great deal of room open for the interpretation of Saucer’s swiping. Suggests that (slide 5) ‘Sweep’ is used commonly enough; it carried a less powerful stigma than did fake. ‘ Chaucer uses ‘Sweeney’ without reservation, especially in the Reeve’s Tale. It seems to carry a connotation of violence or at least of boisterousness. Ross offers some comparisons between Saucer’s use of Sweeney and later uses in the otter of Dunbar and other 1 5th-century poets, but he provide little support for his claim that swan. ‘en is a relatively mild and relatively frequent word in Saucer’s Middle English.

In an article that came out in the same year as Rose’s article”in 1984”Larry D. Benson takes the opposite view of seven, arguing that, by Saucer’s time, it had become “one of the most offensive words in Middle English. ” In support of his position, Benson points out that that the first recorded use of “buck” does not come until near the end of the fifteenth century; this fact is supported both by the Oxford English Dictionary (slide 6), and by Jesse Shoddier in his 1995 study, The F-Word: The Complete History of the Word in All Its Robust and Varied Uses.

Consequently, we cannot know whether the word “buck” was available to Chaucer, and, by extension, we cannot know whether swan. ‘en functioned as a milder alternative to this more forceful word. Even more importantly, however, Benson offers textual support for the offensiveness of seven. In a number of cases, medieval scribes employ various strategies to avoid writing the word seven. In a strategy that anticipates the “SSH”” or “chit” and “Shadowed” in Dryness “Nonchalance,” the scribes of both the Lesser and Hangers manuscripts write “SW’ followed by either a dash or an ampersand where swan. En appears in the Mescaline’s Tale. In other cases, scribes substitute more polite terms, such as tight, served, did, did amiss and played with, for seven. This scribal squeamishness is the best evidence we have for the forcefulness of swan. ‘en in Saucer’s Middle English. The internal evidence of Saucer’s poetry would also seem to support this more forceful reading of seven. As we have already noted, all seven of Saucer’s uses of warren occur in The Canterbury Tales. This means that Chaucer delivers the word not in his own authorial voice, but in the voice of his invented characters.

And, of course, those who utter the word Sweeney are among the more scurrilous of the Canterbury pilgrims, and they speak out of some of the more scurrilous circumstances created in the frame tale. The first pilgrim to utter the word Sweeney is the Miller, and he is, of course drunk, and manages to disrupt Harry Baileys plan to have the Monk follow the Knight in the opening sequence of tales. The last pilgrim to SE the word Sweeney in the Canterbury Tales, both as we have the unfinished work and as Chaucer probably planned the finished product, is the Municipal.

The Municipal (slide 7) has the crow tell Apollo, bluntly, that he has been cuckolded: “on thy bed thy I sough hymn sweep” (XX. 256). This use of the word Sweeney comes after the drunken Japing of the Prologue to the Mescaline’s Tale, in which the Cook is sufficiently drunk to fall of his horse, and Harry Bailey delivers his tribute to the god of wine: (slide 8) O thou abacus, haplessly be thy name, That so Kansas tureen Ernest into game! ‘X. 99-101 And the Cook, who is so deliriously drunk in Fragment ‘X, speaks of the final swiping in the closing lines of Fragment l.

In this way, then, Chaucer associates swiping with drunkenness and a lack of control. And while the Reeve and the Merchant”the other two pilgrims who speak the word seven–do not seem to be drunk, their tales are also animated by forces they cannot control”anger on the part of the Reeve, and lascivious Jealousy on the part of the Merchant. But it is in Fragment One that swiping is most prominent, and is most deeply embedded into the sequence of the tales. Five of the seven occurrences of the word Wayne are to be found in Fragment One.

It appears first in the Miller’s summation of events in the closing lines of his tale: (slide 9) Thus spewed was this carpenter’s vhf, For al his keeping and his Jalousie; And bassoon hath kits hair nether ye; And Nicholas is scalded in the tote. This tale is don, and God save al the rewrote! L. 3850”54 Here, sway,’De is Juxtaposed with two other past participles”kits and scalded” describing scandalous actions; this Juxtaposition brings a sense of completion and finality to the tale.

In his most immediate response to the tale, we are told, the Reeve is motivated by re and a desire to quit the Miller for his portrait of the carpenter. This desire is reflected in his use of the word sway. ‘en. Whereas the Miller uses the word once, in the closing lines of his tale, the Reeve uses it three times. Moreover, the Reeve’s delivery of the word carries an edge of violence and retribution that is largely absent from the Miller’s summation.

The Reeve first uses the word in the bedroom, when Allen announces his intention to John, his fellow student: (slide 9) For, John, seedy he, alls ever moot I thru,’e, If that I may, yon wench will I swan. ‘e. L. 4177-78 The word appears a second time when, after the fact, Allen speaks again to his bed- mate, who he thinks is Alone, but is, after the exchange of beds, Siskin the Miller. Alone boasts: (slide 10) For by that lord that called is seine Came, As I have threes in this shorter night Spewed the millers tighter bolt upright … . 4264-66 Finally, the Reeve, like the Miller, uses swan. ‘en in his closing lines: (slide 1 1) His ‘. WFM is spewed, and his tighter alls. Lo, swish it is a miller to be falls! L. 4317-18 This leads to his declaration of victory over the Miller: “Thus have I quit the miller in y tale” (l. 4324). The parallel formulas of the Miller’s and Reeve’s tales emphasize the contrast between swiping in the two works. The relationship between Alison and Nicholas in the former tale is consensual, and gives some Justification to Thomas directly. By contrast, a number of critics have described the events in the Reeve’s Tale as rape, and the swiping here is informed by anger and the desire for revenge. In its final appearance in Fragment One, the word swerves again serves to bring a tale to an end. In the closing lines of his account of the career of Perky, the Cook scribes the reveler’s new roommate: (slide 13) That loved days, and revel, and disport, And headed a ‘Miff that held for countenance A Shoppe, and spewed for hair sustenance. L. 420-22 There is, of course, an important difference between the closing swiping of the Cooks and the two tales that precede it. This tale is unfinished, and the swiping marks not closure and finality, but incompleteness and uncertainty. While there is some critical debate about Saucer’s designs for the Cooks Tale, it seems likely that he planned a narrative intervention of the sort that we find at the end of the unfinished Squire’s Tale, Monks Tale or Tale of Sir Tops, in which the Knight or the Host steps forward to spare the pilgrims further suffering at the hands of an inappropriate story teller.

In the case of the Cooks Tale, this inappropriate story-telling has a specifically linguistic component, for swiping of this wife would seem to promise more foul language and more bawdy action. Thus, the use of swiping tracks the narrative decline in Fragment One. We move from the annalistic, but apparently Joyful coupling of Alison and Nicholas in the Miller’s tale, to the vengeful and angry deflowering of Symphony’s wife and daughter in he Reeve’s Tale, to prostitution in the Cooks Tale.

And, however Chaucer intended to manage the ending of the Cooks Tale, it seems to me that this final iteration of swiping capitalizes on the full force and shock inherent in the word. Several critics in recent years have commented on Saucer’s interest in the French tradition of deploying taboo words in works of literature. Thus, for example, Alistair Minis argues that Chaucer brings to his poetry the debate about what constitutes obscenity from Jean De Menu’s continuation of the Roman in which Reason famously sees the word “collies,” or “balls,” in her exchange with Ant.

In this vein, Marjorie Osborne has argued that the Harry Baileys use of the English of equivalent, “scallions,” in his threat to cut off the Pardoner’s balls, recalls the debate about language in the Roman, and raises important philosophical questions about the ontological status of words, and how they express meaning. In considering the fabling tradition in particular, Laura Kindlier makes the interesting and important point that, in comparison to the French analogues to his works, Chaucer is rather sparing in his use of obscenities.

In works such as “La Male Hone” (“The Bag of Hone”) and “Du Prettier ski better” (“The Priest who spies”) and “Du Footer” (“The Pucker”), writers of fallible make liberal use of outright obscenities, such as the verb future, and puns on male and female genitalia. One purpose for this extensive and innovative use of obscenities, Kindlier argues, is to mock and dethrone what she calls the “father language””usually French but sometimes Latin” the language of authority. As Kindlier points out, French fallible sometimes depend more heavily on this kind of verbal deflation than they do on turns of plot for

Because English was only beginning to regain its standing as a literary language, it did not enjoy the authority of French, and, consequently, there was both less reason and less occasion to mock and dethrone it. This circumstance accounts, at least in part, Kindlier suggests, for the fact that there were virtually no fallible in English prior to those of Chaucer. This also helps to account for the fact, I would suggest, that there is virtually no written record of swan. ‘en before Chaucer. In this regard, then, it seems to me that what Chaucer is doing is both serious and important.

Saucer’s use of swerves and other obscenities is not simply a display of unnecessary vulgarity, as Dryden suggests, nor is it an exercise in frivolous fun, as Ross seems to suggest. Rather, Chaucer, through his use of seven, is working to expand the expressive range of English, making it both a fit vehicle for the stately language of the Knight’s Tale, devoid of any villainy, as well the mocking and dethroning language of the Miller, the Reeve and the Cook. Ironically, Chaucer asserts the authority of English by creating the means and the occasion to mock it.

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