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Chris Saunders on Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop, SF Issue 73

Not So Verray Parfit

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I once taught English at a girls’ school in which the head of depart­ment didn’t like poetry. It’s an odd aversion but it worked well for me. The poetry room was right at the top of a very tall building, and thither wended her way every pupil in the place, to be rewarded by peaceful sessions chewing over every kind of poem, from epic to lyric to limerick. But some of these girls also had to pass public exams. The A-level syllabus was dictated by a higher authority and this term the poetry module featured Chaucer. No problem in that. To me, he is the tops. He understood the complicated, subtle, self-deluded and some­times glorious nature of human beings better than any writer, before or since, and he displayed enough humour, generosity and lightly worn erudition to keep a whole pilgrimage entertained from here to eternity.

The story selected from The Canterbury Tales was, however, ‘The Knight’s Tale’. It is the only really tricky one. The language is quite easy, but the story itself makes your heart sink. Set in vaguely classical times, it is very long and, despite being extremely bloodthirsty, profoundly boring: enough to put these students off the great man for life. Based very loosely on Boccaccio’s Teseida, it tells the story of Palamon and Arcite, knights and cousins who fall in love, almost simultaneously, with the lovely Emelye, sister-in-law of Theseus. There follows a great deal of extremely violent fighting until Arcite is killed and a tetchy Theseus orders Emelye to marry Palamon and be done with it. There is precious little to endear the reader to any of these characters, and to call it a Romance seems absurd.

How, why, could Chaucer have written such tedious stuff? Virtually every other pilgrim is described with wit and irony aplenty, yet the only academic studies available to a teacher insisted that the Knight was genuinely the epitome of virtue and his wretched story a marvellously heroic and chivalric tal

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I once taught English at a girls’ school in which the head of depart­ment didn’t like poetry. It’s an odd aversion but it worked well for me. The poetry room was right at the top of a very tall building, and thither wended her way every pupil in the place, to be rewarded by peaceful sessions chewing over every kind of poem, from epic to lyric to limerick. But some of these girls also had to pass public exams. The A-level syllabus was dictated by a higher authority and this term the poetry module featured Chaucer. No problem in that. To me, he is the tops. He understood the complicated, subtle, self-deluded and some­times glorious nature of human beings better than any writer, before or since, and he displayed enough humour, generosity and lightly worn erudition to keep a whole pilgrimage entertained from here to eternity.

The story selected from The Canterbury Tales was, however, ‘The Knight’s Tale’. It is the only really tricky one. The language is quite easy, but the story itself makes your heart sink. Set in vaguely classical times, it is very long and, despite being extremely bloodthirsty, profoundly boring: enough to put these students off the great man for life. Based very loosely on Boccaccio’s Teseida, it tells the story of Palamon and Arcite, knights and cousins who fall in love, almost simultaneously, with the lovely Emelye, sister-in-law of Theseus. There follows a great deal of extremely violent fighting until Arcite is killed and a tetchy Theseus orders Emelye to marry Palamon and be done with it. There is precious little to endear the reader to any of these characters, and to call it a Romance seems absurd. How, why, could Chaucer have written such tedious stuff? Virtually every other pilgrim is described with wit and irony aplenty, yet the only academic studies available to a teacher insisted that the Knight was genuinely the epitome of virtue and his wretched story a marvellously heroic and chivalric tale. There was no option but to set about it with as much enthusiasm as possible. And then, as if by magic, the postman delivered a new book, sent from the Economist for urgent review: Chaucer’s Knight (1980) by Terry Jones. It was an exciting moment. For a start, the author was one of the Monty Python team, which boded well; then just a quick look at his Preface showed that this was probably going to be the answer to a maiden’s prayer. ‘I could not understand’, he wrote (obvi­ously having read my mind), ‘why such a man could have written such apparently dull pieces as “The Knight’s Tale”, “The Monk’s Tale” and “The Tale of Melibee”.’ His book, most comprehensively, enjoy­ably and convincingly, sets about giving the answer. It begins with the Knight’s description in the Prologue, which is heavy on battles. Previous scholars had, for centuries, blithely assumed that all these were heroic endeavours, crusades undertaken to spread Christianity into a heathen – or, more accurately, an Islamic – world. Not a bit of it. The very first mentioned, for example, the siege of Alexandria, was notorious for the appalling behaviour of the Christian knights. Alexandria was a rich and thriving port, peacefully inhabited by many different races, and an important centre of the spice trade. When, on the morning of 10 October 1365, the large fleet gathered by Peter of Cyprus arrived in the old harbour, the citizens flocked cheerfully down to meet the ships, ready to do business. The resultant massacre spared nobody, male or female, young or old, Muslim, Jew or even Christian. The city was comprehensively sacked, its churches, synagogues and mosques looted, thousands of its inhabitants slaughtered and 500 people enslaved. After three days the ‘crusaders’ departed with their booty, leaving the ruins to fall back into the hands of the infidel. As the Benedictine historian Thomas Walsingham observed not long after the event, the only tangible result was that the price of imported spices shot up. By Chaucer’s time, anyway, the very notion of crusading had become tarnished. What did so much bloodshed have to do with promoting a religion of love and peace? It would be hard to make a case for there being any evangelizing benefit at all in such forays. The Knight claimed to have ‘reysed’ (or raided) in Lithuania more often than any other Christian of his rank. After those raids the score, according to that same Walsingham, was 4,000 slain or captured as against eight converted: not much of a return. And so it goes on. Every one of the battles listed in the Prologue would have been notorious to Chaucer’s first audience, who would at once have realized that this knight was not what he pretended to be. The Great Schism, which began in 1378, produced two, later three Popes, all at war with each other, and all scandalously employing soldiers of fortune, Christian against Christian. It is easy to imagine the reaction of Chaucer’s early audiences when they heard the knight apparently praised for riding to war ‘as wel in cristendom as in hethenesse’. I’d studied medieval history for A level but had never thought of putting Chaucer so firmly in his historical context. How blinkered we were. Of course we should have questioned what a proper, noble, ‘parfit’ knight was doing fighting all these foreign wars when he was so clearly needed at home. England was having a dreadful time after the appalling loss of life in the Black Death. The Peasants’ Revolt and the many subsequent uprisings terrified people. ‘Although I may weep over it,’ wrote Chaucer’s friend John Gower, ‘I shall write of a tearful time, so that it may go down as an example for posterity . . . my heart and hand tremble.’ The war with France had led to frequent raids all along the south coast, as well as such great epic battles as Crécy and Poitiers. These, and the recurrent threats from Scotland, required every able-bodied knight of the realm to defend king and country. And all the while Chaucer’s gallant knight was busy fighting for anyone who would pay him, far from home. This scruffy knight, accompanied by a ‘yeoman’ armed to the teeth (a longbow in the 1380s was a battlefield weapon), wore no identifi­able heraldic device, no coat-of-arms, nothing at all to allow him to be recognized, no insignia of the chivalry he professed to admire. This was actually illegal, but it made for a quick getaway if things got too hot for him. In case any doubt remained as to his probity, more evidence keeps on coming. As a diplomat, Chaucer had been to Milan in 1378 to suggest a marriage between Richard II and Caterina, daughter of Bernabó Visconti, the terrifying ‘tyrant of Lombardy’ (as well that the match never happened). At the same time, he met Sir John Hawkwood, leader of the notoriously powerful and savage White Company of mercenaries, who was married to another Visconti daughter and who, Jones points out, had many grim characteristics in common with our scurrilous knight. There is a clue to this in the near-contemporary Ellesmere manuscript illustrations of the pil­grims, where the knight’s war-horse is branded with an M, which could well be code for Milan. And in his tale, the statue of Mars is adorned with the revolting symbol of a wolf devouring a man, directly identifying it, to its early audiences, with the hated and feared Visconti. This is just one of the many ways in which the elegant gracious­ness of Boccaccio’s Teseida is vulgarized and distorted by its pretentious and unconvincing narrator. Another example is the Temple of Venus. In Boccaccio, the temple contains a garden of delights, writes Jones, where ‘Comeliness, Elegance, Affability and Courtesy walk arm in arm’. Chaucer’s knight finds only ‘debauchery, expenses, lying, flat­tery and even force. Instead of birds of every kind, sparrows and doves, he sees only the cuckoo sitting on the hand of Jealousy, in itself a parody of the courtly hawking image.’ The fact that so few, if any, scholars seem previously to have made such detailed compari­sons might be due to the fact that the Teseida was not even translated into English until 1974. Gradually unpicking all the clues is serious, scholarly, painstaking and analytical detective work, but it makes genuinely thrilling reading. I reviewed Jones’s book accordingly but was then faced with a further problem. What to tell my students? There was no middle way. Either this fellow was a glorious soldier, with a story to tell of love and honour – or he was a ridiculous fraud. I wrote to Terry Jones, asking him how his book had been received by the kind of academics who might be marking A-level papers. He replied saying that the only bad review had been written by a woman whom (he was ashamed to say) he had not treated well when they had both been undergraduates – and, incidentally, could he come and talk to our girls about it all? On the appointed afternoon, the lower floors of the school emp­tied upwards as everyone crowded into the little poetry room. All the staff were there, even the unpoetic head of English and the netball teacher, and Terry Jones did not disappoint us. He started by asking what we thought of knights, showing us a Breughel painting of armoured horsemen apparently handing out presents to villagers. The next picture, of an X-ray of that painting, showed the real hor­rors of the original. It was The Massacre of the Innocents, and the parcels became babies, snatched from their mothers or impaled on swords. Perhaps, he suggested, knights weren’t always gallant, roman­tic and brave after all? He told us that he’d begun really thinking about this book while filming The Life of Brian in North Africa. He’d asked a local historian whether he knew anything about the English soldiers who had been in that part of the world during the fourteenth century. The answer succinctly confirmed a suspicion he’d been harbouring. ‘They were the very worst and most feared of all the mercenaries.’ Jones spoke for two hours, never pausing. Nobody wanted it to end: we were, en masse, enraptured. Gradually, school life resumed its humdrum normality and, as the glory of this most excellent of lecturers faded, my girls settled down to revision. By then, they had been thoroughly seduced by the Terry Jones approach, so I suggested that – if they chose to use it – they should also point out, for their own security, that many fine and respected scholars ignored it, preferring the traditional interpretation . . . . . . and, astonishingly, with a very few honourable exceptions, they still do. Fellow Python Michael Palin, lamenting this fact, says that it is because people like to pigeon-hole each other: ‘If you’re a comic, then that’s the box you belong in, and there you should stay,’ although he has himself largely escaped such a straitjacket. Whatever the reason, nearly all academics, study guides and commentaries still carry on in the tedious and unconvincing old ways, as if this remark­able book had never been written. The great, clever, generous Terry Jones died just as this article was being written. It might be timely for them to have another think.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 73 © Sue Gaisford 2022


About the contributor

Sue Gaisford is a freelance journalist, which isn’t quite the same thing as a mercenary. She has been a literary editor, interviewer, columnist and critic, and now mostly reviews books.

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