Chaucer and Henryson

I find it very interesting that both tales we have read this week are written by authors who worked off the tales of other authors of the Middle Ages.  Chaucer’s Clerk’s Tale was first written by Boccaccio, although Chaucer most likely hadn’t read that, instead he read the latin translation of Petrarch and wrote his own version in the Canterbury Tales. Henryson, too, read Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde before writing The Testament of Cresseid even states in his prologue that he read Chaucer’s story to try to sleep at night and secondly read an addition to the story that focuses on downfall of Cresseid. Henryson tells the reader that the piece is:

Maid to report the lamentatioun
And wofull end of this lustie Creisseid,
And quhat distres scho thoillit, and quhat deid.

Through this introduction, we learn that the story we are about to read is about Cresseid and her downfall. While Chaucer’s story focuses a lot on Troilus, this story will focus on Cresseid.  I think that it is interesting that authors used each other’s pieces to build their own work on.  It seems that Henryson wanted to express the tale of Cresseid as he imagined it, focusing on her distress in a sympathetic way. Like Chaucer did in Clerk’s Tale, where he focus is less on the allegory that Petrarch infused in his tale.  Rather than speaking a religious message, Chaucer tells his audience not to tell a religious message, or to encourage women to ask like Griselda, but instead to tell everyone to be “constant in adversitee” (Chaucer 1146).  Chaucer’s tale was able to bring a whole new meaning and purpose to an old story.

Affect vs. Emotion

When reading Trigg’s discussion of affect verses the other words like emotions or passions, I think a light bulb finally went off for me.  Throughout the semester, I have thought that I understood the difference between affect and emotion, however, Trigg’s essay revealed to me that I had not fully understood.  Affect has to do with the preconscious responses rather than the socially constructed responses.  When a heart races, tears burst out uncontrollably, or sweating begins, these are bodily responses rather than conscious decisions.  One of the most helpful aspects of today’s discussion was the reference to the experiment in which Japanese people initially reacted with disgust (an affective response), followed by changing to a straight face (a culturally determined response).  In terms of the medieval literature we are reading, the distinction between the words affect, passions, sentiments, emotions, and feelings is important for critical conversation.  In order for critics to build on each other’s works, the definitions must be clear.  Now that I have a better grasp on what affect means, I think I can more successfully understand the critical conversation.

The Power of God’s Mercy

In both The Incestuous Daughter and The Jealous Wife, a lesson of God’s power and mercy is conveyed to its readers. In both texts, a sinful person if forgiven and accepted into heaven because God (and Mary) deem them worthy to go to heaven.  Even though both the daughter and the wife are murderous and sinful, because of either their own prayer for forgiveness or a loved one’s devotion they are accepted by God into heaven.  The over arching theme in both poems is that of God’s mercy.  In The Jealous Wife, Mary’s battle with the fiends is evidence of God’s power by speaking out and explaining to them that they do not choose who they take to hell, God does.  Similarly, The Incestuous Daughter depicts the sinful daughter as wearing chains of the devil around her neck and being accompanied by four fiends, until the bishop speaks of God’s mercy in front of them and the chains fall away.  Once the words of the bishop are heard, the daughter feels them in her heart, sheds tears, and the fiends and chains flee.  Both descriptions of the fiends fleeing demonstrate the power of God.  In both texts, God holds a higher power than the devil and chooses who goes to hell.

The lesson of God’s mercy in these exempla is especially relatable because like most exempla, the characters are not given names.  To appear as a type of “everyman” or universal person, the characters are referred to as “daughter” or “wife” rather than a specific name.  This technique of universality suggests that everyone is a sinner but everyone is also able to receive God’s mercy.  This would help readers understand that like the daughter, one should sincerely ask for forgiveness even if the Catholic sacrament is unable to be performed and like the wife, even without asking for forgiveness God has the power to choose if you go to heaven or hell.  Both pieces encourage the act of asking for forgiveness especially when it comes to emotion.  The sincerity of the request for forgiveness is just as important as the act of praying for forgiveness.  It is only when the word reaches the daughter’s heart and she sheds a tear and feels the mercy of God that the fiends flee.  Emotional importance is also demonstrated through the devoted husband in The Jealous Wife.

A New Look at an Old Emotion

Rosenfeld’s article takes a look at how envy is depicted in the Book of Margery Kempe.  As Rosenfeld explains envy is usually thought of as a negative emotion, but in some ways in can be positive, motivating, and encouraging.  What I found most interesting in the article, was the idea that Margery’s singularity both was reason for her neighbor’s envy and slander and reason for others’ worship.  Furthermore, her singularity was encouraged by Christ and envy caused her to be competitive for Christ.  Some people looked up to Margery because of her unique relationship with God and way of worshipping and other looked down at her differences.  One of the most interesting examples that Rosenfeld brings up is the people’s reaction to Margery’s weeping.  Rosenfeld deems their negative reaction to the idea that Margery was using up too much of the emotions.  Rosenfeld explains that the people were irritated by Margery’s dramatic displays because she used such an “abundance” of emotions that she was “diminishing” the other peoples’ emotions (113).  This idea, Rosenfeld states, suggests that “emotions…are not in infinite supply” (113).  This is one of the many examples that Rosenfeld provides of the reactions of other to Margery and their envy.  Rosenfeld also explains how Margery’s envy of saints, like Saint Bridget, triggered her to emulate them.  The idea of the emotion envy being both negative and positive is hard to wrap my head around but Rosenfeld paints a pictures of how envy was productive in Margery’s life.

Feminism in The Book of Margery Kempe

There are so many things to talk about when it comes to The Book of Margery Kempe. The text is filled with interesting perspective on religion, religious institutions, and affect of piety, but I am going to focus in on Margery Kempe as a precursor to the modern feminist. Although she does not stand up for women’s rights in an outward and straightforward way, she does resist the patriarchal rules of men.  To begin, she often gives men advice or asserts her opinion onto them.  For example, in Chapter 50 when a priest speaks and swears at Margery when she does not answer him, she reprimands the priest to “keep the commandments” (645).  She is not afraid to speak up about her religious convictions, which she often must do to powerful men who look down on her.  In Chapter 52, a clerk tells Margery that women are not allowed to preach according to the Bible, but she asserts “I use only conversation and good words, and that I will do as long as I live” (648).  Yet again in Chapter 53, she is put down for being a women when she is told that she should give up the life she is living and “go spin and card as other women do,” but again Margery refuses to give up her convictions or conform to gender rules (649).  All of her convictions are through her religious beliefs, and not through a want for women’s rights, however, she does stand up for herself as a women in a time when women were expected to conform to one role.

God as Mother and Father

What I found most interesting when reading Julian of Norwich was the idea that the Trinity is made up of Fatherhead, Motherhead, and Lordhead.  In chapters 58 and 60, God and Jesus are described as mother of mankind.  This surprising view on theology asserts that the Motherhead of the Trinity is merciful and loving.  Jesus is considered like a mother because he feeds mankind with himself, like a mother feeds a baby with breast milk.  This idea relates to the Miracle of the Virgin in which Mary heals a sick man with her breast milk.  We discussed in class that Mary’s breast milk was seen as magnificent.  Julian of Norwich’s chapter 60 also brings up the holiness of breast feeding by paralleling a mother’s milk with Jesus’s sacrifice of himself.  Julian of Norwich describes the Motherhead as merciful, kind, loving, sensual, wise, and knowing.  Many of these words are traditionally used to describe God but as a “Father” not as a mother.  The tenderness, sacrifice, and love of a mother is equated to the Motherhead of the Trinity, which gives us an idea of how women and mothers were seen in this time, which is very comparable to common descriptions of mothers today. In a way, the mother figure conforms to gender norms, of today at least, being loving and tender and the father figure has “high might” like a stereotypical masculine ideal. The Fatherhead is described as mighty and the Lordhead as gracious and greatly loving.  However, Julian of Norwich points out the importance of all three parts that God is made up of, especially the significance of the Motherhead. The idea of the Motherhead, I imagine, would have been a pretty radical idea at the time and even today, it is a new take on classic theology, which is one reason why it was so interesting to read.

New Perspective of the Crucifixion

I found The Dream of the Rood very interesting and emotional.  The poem begins from the point of view of a man who then dreams of the cross that Jesus died on speaks to him.  The perspective of the cross is a unique and emotional first “person” point of view of the death and resurrection of Jesus.  The cross tells of the brutal experience of being “ripped up from [its] roots” and being forced to “bear their criminals” (30-31).  It tells of the painful and sorrowful experience of the cross’s first hand experience with Christ’s death, in which the cross is covered in Jesus’s blood as it witnesses the evil men nail Jesus to itself and die. Its dialogue uses powerful words to portray the experience, calling Jesus “bone-weary” and itself “standing drenched in blood, all shot through with arrows” (62-63).    The story is filled with sorrow and pain on both the cross’s part and Jesus’s.  Not only does the cross tell the story of Jesus’s death but also of the cross’s burial and recovery.  In a way the cross’s story parallels Jesus’s.  The cross suffered and was buried and then is recovered and honored.  The perspective given by the first person point of view is very interesting because I had never read the story of Jesus’s death from any perspective other than the common versions in The Bible.  The cross explains that it was recovered, adorned with gold, honored, and rose up to heaven where it is eternally with God.  The cross’s dialogue ends with a moral lesson, telling the dreamer that God has the judgment and that those who are worthy will rise up to heaven like the cross had.  This tale shares an emotional and unique perspective that adds a new kind of emotion because it describes the pain of being a part of the crucifixion of the cross’s savior.

Window to the Soul

One of the things I found most interesting in Plamper’s piece about emotion was the description of the location of emotions and the reference to the eye as the window to the soul. Plamper explains that in English and German the eyes are often thought of as descriptors for emotions.  When someone is happy, we may describe their eyes as “shining” as Plamper exemplifies.  However, in the Chinese language eyebrows are more commonly used to illustrate emotion.  The explanation of the importance of eyes in the English language made me recall our conversation about grey eyes in the Middle Ages. Grey eyes were considered the most beautiful eyes in the Middle Ages when Pearl was written. Pearl is depicted with grey eyes which were stunning.  Although the thought behind this notion is attributed to the goddess Athena’s grey eyes, I think it is very interesting to think that the Middle English Pearl references eyes multiple times. Rather than focusing on Pearl’s eyebrows like it may have if it had been written in Chinese, Middle English shares a commonality with modern English and German: a focus on the eyes.  Whether the author of Pearl intended the grey eyes of Pearl or the reference to an “eye’s delight” in stanza 16 and other references to the eyes as illustrations of emotion is unclear but it is interesting to consider these Middle English references as a possible precursors to our notion of eyes as the window to the soul.

Repetition in Pearl

Each stanza of Pearl begins and ends with a repeating word that changes in each section.  The word “right” or variations of that word is used in section 12.  Like the word pearl, which can mean both literally the jewel, the girl Pearl, or a metaphor for something that is clear, immaculate, clean, and pure, the word “right” also has different meanings.  Pearl (the girl) explains that innocent humans have the right (the noun meaning a moral entitlement) to enter heaven under God’s grace because they have been “righteous” or “right” (adjective meaning morally correct).  The word is played around without through out section 12 stating “innocence is safe by right” and “the righteous man…shall approach God’s domicile” (stanza 57 and 58).  Another interesting repeated word is “spot” (section 16).  This word is used to describe a place in Judah or a position (spot) or something that is flawless, without a spot (like a stain) or “spotless.”  The last repeated word is “please” as the speaker describes his desire to please God and what pleases God.  After waking up, the speaker has decided to “please” God, which he learned about through out the poem and even questioned but with Pearl’s lessons he is ready to follow God’s will. The various meanings of the words and the repetitive nature of the poem, make reading it fun and entertaining but also engrain the message into the reader, much like the message was engrained into the speaker who by the end of the poem wants to submit to God’s grace and be a better Christian.

The Number System

While reading Pearl and Sir Orfeo, I focused on the pattern of numbers. I found it very interesting that the medieval number system could signify more than just a numerical digit but also a metaphysical reality, as it tells us in the introduction to Pearl. Knowing this, when I read Sir Orfeo, I pulled out some times that numbers were used, like the number ten. When Orfeo was trying to protect his wife from being kidnapped, he calls an army of “ten hundred knightes” which serves to express the extreme amount of effort and force Orfeo is asserting to protect his wife and the completeness of his army (183). It is only after ten years that Orfeo and Dame Heurodis return (492). According to the Pearl introduction, ten can symbolize fulfillment or completion. Suggesting, after ten years with the fairies and in exile, they have completed their time and return, as if it were planned that way.

In Pearl, the numbers one and two are used commonly, as well as ten. Pearl died at the age of two and later in the story during the dream vision, Pearl tells the story of the laborers who were paid the same but some worked fewer hours than others (only two hours). This story shares the lesson that God’s mercy is the same no matter how long one has worshipped him. She explains this because like the laborers who only worked two hours, she only lived two years but she is treated like a queen with God. The number two is also representative of “residus” meaning remaining. Jesus, the second part of the Trinity, goes out as a man and also remains in heaven. Although, I am not sure if this is a common interpretation, I think this “remaining” and “duality” of Jesus is similar to Pearl, who remains in heaven but through the dream reaches out to a man. I found the numbers and their various meanings very interesting.