Chaucer's Host: Up-So-Doun

Excerpts from the Preface, Chapters I and II

 This is how Chaucer’s Host: Up-so-doun begins.

from the Preface: About Chaucer and Me (and You)

When I met Chaucer for the first time, I was no ingenue. In spite of that, he swept me off my feet. As I read the Canterbury Tales, I could feel something developing, but it was an experience I'd never had before. Then, without warning, it quickened. There was no longer any doubt: Chaucer's work had taken up a life in my intellect. It began gesturing to me, teasing me, cavorting along the paths of my mind. I found it irresistible. When it coaxed, I followed where it led. I invite you to join us—the poem and me—in our adventure together. Chaucer's poetry will bilocate with inexplicable ease and be alive to you as well as to me, if you will extend your mind in a gesture of welcome.

Chapter I tells how the Host is up-side-down (Up-so-doun).

Push it. Examine all things intensely and relentlessly. Probe and
search each object in a piece of art. Do not leave it, do not course
over it, as if it were understood, but instead follow it down until
you see it in the mystery of its own specificity and strength.
— Annie Dillard, The Writing Life (1989)

I: The Problem

My problem with Chaucer began, not with Chaucer — he was entertaining, stimulating. No, my problem began when I started to read critiques, analyses of the role of the Host, the guide of the pilgrims. The impression the poetry gave me was often the opposite of critical opinions. Then I discovered, quite by accident, a fifteenth-century "ally," whose mental image of the Host was similar to my own. This is how it came about.

In accepting the challenge of the word game Chaucer's poetry proposed, I needed to consider all the possibilities in order to progress, to enhance my position. So, while trying to make headway with the Tale of Melibee, it seemed like a good move to check the medieval connotations of prudence—Prudence, being the name of Melibee's wife in the tale. As I scanned the page of the Oxford English Dictionary looking for prudence, my eye wandered over to the interesting, but obsolete prudenciall. (I am often attracted to interesting words.) Prudenciall was a word I'd never met before, so I paused to make its acquaintance. It handed me an unexpected gift: midway in the entry there was a quote from The Tale of Beryn, a poem I'd known about but never developed an interest in, because, even though it was once credited to Chaucer, it has been proven spurious. This chance meeting, however, taught me that even spurious offspring of a great writer can have value.

The value here is that a character called the host of Southwark, a deliberate imitation of Chaucer's Host of the Canterbury Tales, plays a part in the story's introduction. This reemergence of the Host was an exciting surprise, which provided a unique opportunity to see how an author of the Middle Ages viewed the personality of Chaucer's Host. This anonymous writer provides an important comparison to today's thinking.

I must interject a few words to put your mind at ease. As we begin to look at Middle English works, you need not be put off. To facilitate reading, Modern English is used in the text. (Corresponding Middle English, however, may be found in the notes.) Renderings in today's words are my own, unless otherwise indicated. Where the fourteenth-century word can have more than one meaning, these additional possibilities are noted.

We return, now, to the fifteenth-century characterization. Following our look at the host of unknown authorship, we will view some twentieth-century ideas of the same personage. The host, in the prologue to Beryn's tale, functions much as Chaucer's Host in the General Prologue, making arrangements and handling problems of the guests.

At the beginning of the Beryn prologue, the pilgrims have just arrived at Canterbury. Our anonymous poet depicts the host of Southwark, ruler of them all, arranging for their supper on the evening of arrival, before the group had made its visit to the cathedral. When they arrive at the church, a few of the pilgrims behave with disrespect toward their surroundings, whereupon the host scolds them saying, "Peace! Go up and make your offering."

Later he takes the opportunity to thank all of them for the stories they had told while traveling, and recommends they spend the evening relaxing, each man as he pleases, but reminds them that they will rise early for the homeward journey. After the day spent in Canterbury, the group assembles for the evening meal. The narrator sets the scene, commenting that the host did everything prudently as a sober and wise man. "Now let's go to supper," said the host courteously. Following the supper there is an incident with pilgrims doing some late night carousing while the host is at his accounts; he becomes a bit angry. He asks them politely, nevertheless, to wend toward bed; problem resolved.

In the host's final appearance in the Beryn prologue, he recites a lengthy appreciation that the Almighty Sovereign had sent so fair a day for the journey home. A litany follows of reasons for not choosing the first storyteller by lots (drowsiness, hang-over, hunger, dry mouth, etc.). Finally he suggests that someone begin because of gentlemanliness. The pilgrim Merchant is ready to do the host's bidding, and explains why:

As far as I've sailed, ridden and gone
I've never seen a man, before this very day,
Who could rule a company as well as our host can,
His words are so comfortable and come so in season,
That my mind is overcome and I can't imagine
Any reason to go contrary to his wishes;
Therefore I will tell a tale for your consolation.

And, after conventional excuses about his inadequacies as a storyteller, he begins the story of Beryn.

In these scenes, I find the host a well-respected figure of authority, who handles situations courteously, who compliments those who perform properly (even the Lord Almighty), and who has a depth of understanding for human frailties. These are the characteristics the fifteenth-century author understood to be those of Chaucer's Host.

In themselves, the conversations and actions of the counterfeit host do not appear exciting. But my excitement comes from discovering a confirmation to my feeling about the personality of Chaucer's Host. I had been offended and confused by very different assumptions about the guide of the pilgrims made by modern writers, such as the following:

His salient characteristic…is impudence…our host plays a comic part, almost from the beginning. He bullies the pilgrims into taking him for guide and master of ceremonies; he brooks no opposition; he makes a point of being rude; he is high-handed at every turn. All this is meant to be funny.

This derogatory twentieth-century view makes it nearly impossible to catch a glimpse of the medieval character. Today Chaucer's Host is often seen as a comic, pompous, money-grubbing cheat! In considering how to demonstrate the great change in the accepted personality of the Host, there seemed no clearer way to illustrate the difference than to juxtapose the respected host from Beryn's author with the "bully" view of today. Chaucer's Host has become distorted and out of focus. In the pages ahead, we will see that today's comic interpretation disregards much of the potential of Chaucer's words.

It must be granted that there are many ways to view Chaucer's Host and pilgrims. My reading is certainly not intended to replace others. It reveals a second level of meaning as Chaucer's covert intent. The humor-dominated image of the Host does not allow for the entire personality Chaucer created. Another way of expressing my problem with the Host is that when Geoffrey Chaucer created the role, he had a Paul Scofield in mind—a man for all situations—but somehow when the contracts were signed the part went to Jackie Gleason.

Over the centuries, between Chaucer's day and ours, many decisions about the Host were made and perpetuated. Interpreters delineate a flamboyant braggart, and make it difficult to see the respected medieval figure. There is, within the Host, a personality of strength and integrity waiting to be revealed. The task ahead asks the comedians to wait in the wings, so they can watch as we part the curtain just enough to reveal a medieval drama that has been in rehearsal for six hundred years.

Chapter 2 tells how I plan to rectify the Problem.

[The Canterbury Tales] must be read with a full savoring of its
sense, but with the expectation that the sense is designed richly
to embody a sentence, an underlying meaning in
accord with Christian truth.

—Bernard F. Huppe, A Reading of the Canterbury Tales (1967)

from II: The Proposal

When the poem set the word Host spinning toward me, my Catholic background provided the recognition of its radiance. Host is "a modest sphere containing galaxies." In one cosmic expression of fourteenth-century thought, it is God's greatest gift to mankind; it is the Father's sacrifice of His Son. And another representation of Host is God Himself—the Second Person of the Trinity within the Eucharist. The reverberating potential is awesome. G. K. Chesterton asserts Chaucer's "fundamental belief in the sacramental and ecclesiastical system of the Middle Ages," and adds, "those who do not realize that fact simply do not know the system." The overseeing presence of the medieval Church could be compared to the air that was breathed. Miri Rubin presents the medieval Church as a "narrative of sacramentality…the dominant tale [of] which embraced man, the supernatural, order and hierarchy, sin and forgiveness; it punctuated life, marriage, birth and death."

It is the dominance of the Church in everyday life that makes the proposal, of Christ contained in this Host, reasonable. The most renowned host of the fourteenth century was the Eucharistic Host. The Eucharist, simply put, was "an axis around which worlds revolved." To the individual person of faith, "from the very nature of [the eucharist's] sacramental status, it belonged in every area of life."

The Dogma of Transubstantiation, promulgated in the thirteenth century, states that the bread and wine of the Mass truly become the Body and Blood of Christ. The Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist came to be celebrated in the Feast of Corpus Christi (Body of Christ). The festival grew in importance in the course of the fourteenth century, with more and more splendid festivities incorporating specially composed liturgies, elaborate processions and dramatized presentations.

Entire communities were involved in these celebrations (Chester, York, etc.). Each year "the leading ceremony was a great procession in which the host (the consecrated bread of the Mass), escorted by local dignitaries, religious bodies and guilds, was borne through the streets and displayed successively at out-of-door stations." The feast "provided new contexts of meaning for the eucharist in the feast's evolving iconography."

This was Chaucer's day to day world. Picture the poet, if you will, as one of the spectators at this grand procession; see his fertile imagination scanning the scene passing before him, and transposing it into the masterpiece we know as the Canterbury Tales. The multiple connotations of host, the ambiguity the word contains, enriches the poem's possibilities.

I believe that the character in the Canterbury Tales, that we know as the Host, is the covert personification of this Eucharistic Host, as he leads the pilgrims who—as in the procession described above—are dignitaries, religious, and guild members. (This identity is a heuristic assumption on my part. I believe this assumption can be clearly demonstrated, and as a result, many oddities will take on real meaning.) To identify the guide of pilgrims as Christ Himself would be in complete harmony with the medieval mind-set.

In order to provide a foundation, and confirm Chaucer's plan, a number of questions occurred to me which needed answering:

Why would Chaucer create covert complexities?
How could he accomplish a hidden meaning?
Why hasn't this identity been seen before?
What makes discovery possible?
What are the characteristics of the fourteenth-century image of Christ?
and Does Herry Bailly (Chaucer's name for the Host) fit the Christ-image?

The answers to these questions will prepare us to open the curtain on the long-awaited performance you've been promised.

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