The Nun’s Priests’s Tale (3)

Chauntecleer starts his lengthy speech in haughty mode with elaborate politeness as he tries to regain his dignity after her demeaning advice and attempts to put dreams back in the realm of philosophical signficance rather than being a matter of digestion. He refutes Cato’s belief that dreams are not fearful and adduces other sources “moore of auctoritee” [of greater authority, the word itself meaning both a respectable author and powerful in influence].  He is rather vague about these “olde bookes” which were usually taken to be the Bible or Classical writers and he opens up a battle of the authorities which he hopes to win either by superior quotation or by sheer long-windedness. All his sources say the “revers” [opposite] of Cato, that dreams are meaningful and can presage both joy and sorrow, the test being experience. The comedy lies in the fact that he tries so hard to establish his nightmare as presaging a reality and then forgets all about it as he carries on as normal: the gentle satire by the Priest is on humans who conform to habit despite warnings and do not like disturbance.

“Oon of the gretteste auctour that men rede” is too vague for an accomplished user of exempla which should be precise in reference, although the story that follows is well-constructed in itself with attention to detail, tone and form.  It is a story within a story as well as being a digression within a digression, if the actual fable plot is considered the main point. “Whilom” [once upon a time] is also undefined but the two friends are on a pilgrimage with a “ful good entente” [the holiest of intentions], the mention of which would strike the listeners and cause them to listen carefully whilst flattering them, although the allusion is from the Priest not Chauntecleer. The difficulty of finding lodgings is made real as it leads on to a sense of the inevitable whereby one friend finds himself by necessity in a stall in a farmyard (recalling to Pertelote the danger inherent in their surroundings) and the other is comfortably housed. The emphasis on such words as “happed,” “necessitee”, “wolde falle”, “aventure” [chance], and “fortune” [luck] add up to the magnification of luck into something akin to Fate or Providence. Chauntecleer wants to elevate his themes into abstract argument, as does the Priest, so that their discourse is more respected. The generalisation: “That us governeth all as in commune” [in common] increases this sense of an impending scholarly debate about free will and predestination. The register has moved upwards from a recipe for laxatives and the housewifely Pertelote who can merely mention Cato is being put firmly – he hopes – in her place.

The narrative takes the point of view of the better housed man who dreams about his friend coming to him three times with pleas for help, or rather imperatives to make the matter more urgent. The fear is Chauntecleer’s and the man wakes up with a start but then takes no heed of the first nightmare, believing it to be “vanitee” [emptiness or illusion]. This picks up the hen’s word at line 156 and it is clear that her partner intends to rebut her arguments in detail.  The skill is complex as there is the voice of the threatened man within the dream of the first one, which is inside Chauntecleer’s speech which is part of the Priest’s story, all created by the maestro, Chaucer. Yet the result is clear and effective, particularly in the dead man’s account of his “Bloody woundes depe and wide” and his humiliating end in a dung cart. He is pictured as having “a ful pitous face, pale of hewe” as he gives more commands to the friend to go to investigate.  This is an insinuation to Perlelote that she should take the dream more seriously instead of explaining it away as physiological. We expect Chauntecleer, therefore, to act in accordance with the prophecy in his dream but he does not and so his example loses its point, despite the building up of tension in “his dreem he foond ful trewe.” The friend, however, does take the injunctions seriously and goes to the inn to find out what has happened.

The inn-keeper’s reply: “Sire, your felawe is agon” could mean that he has left or that he is dead and the “gan” in line 266 does not have the sense of “began” but merely reinforces the past tense. The man hurries to find the truth: “no lenger wolde he lette” [delay] – another reproof to Pertelote who will not believe her paramour’s dream to be a matter of urgency. The words “wente as it were” suggests that the purpose of the cart is not truly to carry dung and implies that one should look beneath the surface of things. The use of “ye” draws in both Pertelote and the pilgrim listeners to respond with sympathy when the man cries out boldly for vengeance and justice. By prefigurement this tells us, that should a similar fate befall Chauntecleer, there would be an outcry. The description of the dead man is horrific and realistic, as he is lying in the cart “gaping uopright” [face upwards with his mouth open] and his friend calls out to the “ministres” [authorities in power] to act on his behalf. The moral is that one should not be sceptical about the prophecies within dreams. The Priest now promises to regain the main plot: “What sholde I moore unto this tale seyn?” The two main overall components of rhetorical advice were either to amplify or to compress and the audience would frequently be grateful for the latter: the Priest has shown himself to be in control of this material. The people rush out and find the corpse that “mordred was al new” [who had just been murdered].  Chauntecleer is both proving the power of dreams but also revealing his own fears and suggesting what might happen to him.

By praising God in more general terms for revealing “wlatsom and abhominable” [ugly and unnatural, hateful] murders, the Priest seems to have another motive as he repeats in a brief but punchy clause “Mordre wol out” – the pre-occupation with dreams has been side-lined temporarily, possibly because he feels he must emphasise his position as priest with a secondary moral. The murderers are swiftly “pined” [tortured] severely on the rack to produce a confession and hanged. The violence is in keeping with the human aspect of murder and summary justice and casts its shadow forward on to Chauntecleer’s fate to remove some element of the mock in mock-heroic. It will not merely be the possible death of a cockerel but a death in more general terms.

The authorities in the sense of sources continue to be vague: “in this same book” but the Priest promises not to lie: “I gabbe nat so have I joye or blis”, the voice here being more human as hens perhaps were not thought to enjoy heavenly salvation. Fate enters the next story as the wind influences the action but there is a moment of relaxation: “murie upon a haven-side” [pleasantly enjoying themselves on the harbour-side] before the fatal voyage, which adds to the tension. This story is closer to that of the two fowls as the sceptic is the non-dreamer who laughs and scorns his friend “ful faste” [thoroughly]. The dream is not in itself frightening as it merely contains a warning that they should delay to avoid drowning. The sceptic, unlike Pertelote, does have an excuse as his business affairs to attend to but he is vigorous in his refutation, using again her word: “vanitees and japes”. He inveighs against dreams at some length, saying that men dream about owls and apes “alday” [constantly] as well as many a “maze” [fancy] and other things which never were or will be.

He accuses his friend being ready to “forslewthen wilfully thy tide” [wilfully lose through delaying]. The details of the shipwreck are not given and the device of occupatio [refusing to describe] here underlines the elemnt of Fate, ready to destroy the ship “casuelly” [by accident] by any means available. “Noot I nat why, ne what mischaunce it eyled” makes the story seem more real and not the creation of an omniscient narrator who would have known what happened. Other ships did not suffer the same fate and so this one is singled out from the rest as the cockerel will be later, thus stressing a malign Providence: it is a casual catastrophe. Chauntecleer’s voice now takes over as he turns to Pertelote with loving and courteous language and reminds her that his “ensamples” [exempla or examples] are old and therefore respectable, though he loses credence in failing to be specific. Yet he emphasises his main point, that no man (or woman or hen presumably – he seems to have lost reference here) should be “recchelees” [heedless] of dreams as “many a dreem ful soore is for to drede.” [Many dreams are to be feared most strongly].

The next lines are full of references and form a rapid melange of sources from the Bible, literature and history as the cockerel tries to win the debate by weight of exempla and the priest shows off his learning. So skilled is Chaucer’s virtuoso hand that we rarely stop to ask how a fowl could know so much but, when we do, it only adds to the humour.  The example of the child-saint Kenelm is the Priest’s reference to the tale told earlier by the Prioress; it is possible that, had Chaucer completed the entire work, there would have been more of such interplay between the pilgrims as an added drama. Here the Priest may be trying to curry favour with the Prioress. It is not a parallel to the situation of the fowls as the child was too innocent to have belief in his own dream even though his nurse warned him to take it seriously and be aware of possible treachery. Clearly this is Chauntecleer’s point of view since he would like Pertelote to be more like the nurse and, instead of recommending remedies, share or exceed his anxieties and yet this does not prevent the Priest from having him mention a human shirt as he accuses his hen of being too ignorant to have read the tale.