Wednesday, April 12, 2006

"He priketh harde and depe as he were mad."

The Reeve (Farm or Estate Manager)
Ellesmere Manuscript of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

I really do need to read all of Chaucer again, for it's a principle of scriptural hermeneutics that one should interpret scripture by scripture, and Chaucer is nothing if not holy writ for Medievalists.

To assist in this hermeneutic circle, I'm using a hypertext website, titled Librarius, devoted to Chaucer and his writings, especially The Canterbury Tales (edited by Sinan Kökbugur).

In the "Reeve's Tale," two university students (called "clerks") -- John and Alan -- visit a miller and contrive to sleep with his daughter and his wife because the miller has cheated them of some of their grain (as millers were wont to do).

Alan manages to 'seduce' the Miller's daughter, then John, in the following passage (lines 360-379), moves a cradle to trick the miller's wife into 'sleeping' with him (and if this blog entry's title didn't warn you already, you'd best stop now if you want to avoid reading sex scenes in literature):

Soon after this the wyf hir rowtyng leet,
And gan awake, and wente hire out to pisse,
And cam agayn, and gan hir cradel mysse
And groped heer and ther, but she found noon.
"Allas!" quod she, "I hadde almoost mysgoon;

I hadde almoost goon to the clerkes bed.
Ey, benedicite! thanne hadde I foule ysped."
And forth she gooth til she the cradel fond.
She gropeth alwey forther with hir hond,
And foond the bed, and thoghte noght but good,

By cause that the cradel by it stood,
And nyste wher she was, for it was derk;
But faire and wel she creep in to the clerk,
And lith ful stille, and wolde han caught a sleep.
Withinne a while this John the clerk up leep,

And on this goode wyf he leith on soore.
So myrie a fit ne hadde she nat ful yoore;
He priketh harde and depe as he were mad.
This joly lyf han thise two clerkes lad
Til that the thridde cok bigan to synge.

For those unversed in Middle English, the hyperlinks should help in understanding, but the site also helpfully provides a Modern English translation:

Soon after this the wife no longer snored,
But woke and rose and went outside to piss,
And came again and did the cradle miss,
And groped round, here and there, but found it not.
"Alas!" thought she, "my way I have forgot.

I nearly found myself in the clerks' bed.
Eh, bless me, but that were wrong!" she said.
And on, until by cradle she did stand.
And, groping a bit farther with her hand,
She found the bed, and thought of nothing but good,

Because her baby's cradle by it stood;
And knew not where she was, for it was dark;
But calmly then she crept in by the clerk,
And lay right still, and would have gone to sleep.
But within a moment this John the clerk did leap,

And on this good wife did he vigorously lie.
No such merry time she'd known in years gone by.
He pierces her hard and deep, like one gone mad.
And so a jolly life these two clerks had
Till the third cock began to crow and sing.
Well, this looks pretty clear: "He priketh harde and depe as he were mad" translates as "He pierces her hard and deep, like one gone mad."

I say 'looks' because for a strict scholar, this is still only circumstantial. The sexual act narrated here is itself one rightly described as piercing, so the use of "priketh" in this passage doesn't provide hard and fast evidence of a double meaning generally. Moreover, the word is perhaps used by Chaucer to imply that the miller's wife is being raped ... though the Reeve does describe her as having "[s]o myrie a fit" ("such [a] merry time "), and that doesn't sound like rape, but perhaps the good wife's pleasure comes from the student's deception. At any rate, the evidence is not so clear as it first appears.

So ... I still haven't found what I'm looking for.


At 2:24 AM, Blogger Saur♥Kraut said...

...but you had fun trying to find it... :D

I can't stand Chaucer, and my reason is clear: he is basically Middle Ages White Trash.

I always get a kick out of the esoteric types that sit around and talk about Chaucer in a voice like Mr. Howell from Gilligan's Island. They usually never read Chaucer, or (at best) read an edited version or a mere excerpt.

OK, OK, I'm leaving now... *ducking*

At 4:23 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The entire English royal court must have been White Trash since Chaucer had royal patronage and read his works aloud to the king and his court (though I do wonder if ladies were present, given the age's emphasis upon courtesy).

Chaucer is surprisingly explicit, as blunt as any German in his use of the Anglo-Saxon.

Part of our surprise at what Chaucer says might stem from the degree to which we've assimilated French, Latin, and Greek terms into English and use these to express physical things in a more refined manner.

Germans, for instance, eat "Schweinfleisch," but we would never eat Germanic "swineflesh," which would sound rather disgusting, even vulgar. Instead, we eat French "pork."

But this doesn't explain everything about Chaucer's seeming predilection for the vulgar. And the Peal Poet, who wrote Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the lovely works on religious devotion and personal purity that are found in the same manuscript, was far more refined in his language and choice of subject matter than Chaucer was even though he was writing in a dialect far more closely related to Old English than Chaucer's was.


Well, as they say, the past is another country. I wouldn't want to live there, but Chaucer's time makes for an enjoyable 'moral vacation' (and I'm trying to recall who coined this expression).

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:04 AM, Blogger Saur♥Kraut said...

The entire English royal court must have been White Trash ... No, I think that's what we call Nouveau Riche. ;o) I was only being a tiny bit provoking. I'm just glad I don't have to deal with all that raw humor which I don't find appealing or humorous. But, tastes change. After all, our parents generation thought "Laugh In" was funny. :D

At 10:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that the "myrie fit" precludes the possiblity of rape.

This tale, and the Miller's Tale, were two of my favorites when I was a high school student!

At 12:33 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Nathan, only if the wife's "myrie fit" was experienced in the knowledge that she was having sex with the student rather than with her husband.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:11 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, I suppose that's a rather important point, but it seems a bit conceptually awkward. For example, could we say that Jacob was raped by Leah? As for the episode we are discussing, I have to admit that I hadn't given that particular element much thought before.

At 5:38 PM, Blogger gordsellar said...

This may be a stupid question, but does the penile connotation of "prick" arise too much later in English for "priketh" to be a pun?

I like that it's white trash. My Chaucer prof went on and on about how funny it was that the first reference to womens' pubic hair in English lit came so early on, in one of Chaucer's Canuterbury Tales:

"A beard!"

At 5:41 PM, Blogger gordsellar said...

Whoops, I see you mentioned the possibillity in an earlier post... did you find anything in the OED? I can't install my copy as I'm running Linux now.

At 5:49 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Gord, I keep forgetting to check in my OED.

I have the miniaturized, two-volume copy of the OED (with magnifying glass) in my KU office, but I've been so busy with various things that looking up the word "priketh" doesn't even enter my mind at the times when checking would be possible.

I'll check on Tuesday ... if I don't forget.

Jeffery Hodges

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