Damned to Fame by James Knowlson (1996) part 1

This is a brilliant literary biography, combining extraordinarily thorough research with discretion and sensitivity about Beckett’s private life, and a sure touch when it comes to analysing Beckett’s surprisingly numerous works. Everything a Beckett fan could ever want to know is covered, thoroughly and intelligently.

How James Knowlson came to write Samuel Beckett’s biography

James Knowlson (born in 1933) is Emeritus Professor of French and founder of the International Beckett Foundation at the University of Reading. He got to know Beckett after organising an academic conference to celebrate the fact that Beckett had won the Nobel Prize (1969) and founding the Beckett Archive at Reading, corresponding by letter and meeting him several times a year. As early as 1972 a publisher suggested he write a biography but when he broached the idea, Beckett said no.

But some 17 years later, the famous author changed his mind. He had realised that someone was going to write a biography come what may and that, on balance, he’d prefer it to be someone who knew and respected the actual works. He knew from their professional correspondence that Knowlson was very knowledgeable about his oeuvre and the result was that Beckett not only agreed to let Knowlson write the authorised biography, but agreed to give him a series of exclusive interviews and answer all the questions he posed.

Thus, over the last five months of his life, till Beckett’s death in December 1989, the two men had a series of long, in-depth interviews and Knowlson quotes from them liberally i.e. this book benefits hugely from Beckett’s own words and views about numerous aspects of his life and career. That is a masterstroke in the book’s favour.

But Knowlson went quite a lot further further and has spoken or corresponded with an extraordinary number of people, conducting over one hundred interviews with Beckett’s immediate family and close friends to a huge range of people he met in his professional life as a prose writer, playwright and director. The acknowledgements section lists them all and runs to six pages densely packed with names. The range is awesome and Kowlson’s stamina in meeting and corresponding with so many people, and then organising the resulting plethora of information into a coherent and fascinating narrative is awesome.

Samuel Beckett’s family and upbringing

Beckett’s family was comfortably upper-middle-class. His father, William, was a surveyor and made enough money to buy an acre of land in the rising suburb of Foxrock, south of Dublin, and build a big house on it which he named Cooldrinagh (after his wife’s family home), complete with servants’ quarters and tennis court.

The house was in sight of the Dublin hills which his father loved to go climbing and also of the sea, where the boy Beckett learned to swim and then dive into the locally famous pool named Forty-Foot at Sandycove. Not far away was the Leopardstown race track which features in various works, notably the radio play All That Fall.

Beckett’s parents were very different. His father, ‘Bill’ Beckett, was loud and sociable and not at all intellectual. He liked playing golf and going for long walks up into the Dublin hills. His mother, Amy, was tall and stern with a long face. Beckett inherited her looks and personality. The family was Protestant, the mother, in particular, being a devout church-goer.

Beckett had a brother, Frank, three years older, and a bevy of uncles and aunts who, with their own children, created a large, intelligent, well-off and cultured extended family. Samuel Barclay Beckett was born on 13 April 1906, in later life he enjoyed the symbolism of having been born on Good Friday.

As a boy Beckett was sent to a small, eccentric preparatory school, Earlsfort House then, from age 13, on to an established public school, Portora Royal School in Enniskillen (1919 to 1923) which, like most of its type, placed a big emphasis on sports and super-high standards of honesty, integrity and politeness. Everyone who ever met him later in life commented on Beckett’s immaculate manners and considerateness.

Beckett was very sporty

Beckett was a very sporty young man. At school he won medals for swimming and cross-country running, and was a very proficient boxer, becoming the school’s light heavyweight boxing champion. He was a keen golfer, joining his father’s club, Carrickmines Golf Club, playing for whole days at a stretch, and, when he went on to Trinity College, Dublin (TCD), representing the college at golf. He also played cricket for the college, and was included in the Dublin University team which went on a tour of English country clubs in 1926 and 1927. Hence the well-known fact that Beckett is the only Nobel Prize winner who is also in the cricketing ‘Bible’, Wisden.

Beckett’s extended family was very musical and Beckett played the piano very well, well enough to know piano renditions of most of Gilbert and Sullivan when a boy, and to be able to play Debussy at university. When he was down in the dumps as a young man a friend hired a piano for his rooms to cheer him up.

Beckett’s parents bought him a motorbike in his final year at school, and then a two-seater ‘Swift’ sports car at college. As a student he was affluent enough to be able to pick holiday destinations, so one year went on a tour of the Loire Valley visiting the birthplaces of notable French writers, and, in his final college vacation, went to visit Florence where he looked up the sister of his Italian tutor at TCD.

Private school, piano lessons in a music-loving family, membership of sports clubs, top university in Ireland, motorbike, sports car, cultural trips abroad. Beckett had what we would nowadays think of as a very privileged upbringing.

Influences at Trinity College, Dublin

Beckett attended Trinity College Dublin from 1923 to 1927 where he studied Modern Literature. Here he came under the wing of the Professor of Romance Languages, Thomas Browne Rudmore-Browne, a brash, aggressively freethinking, womanising intellectual who taught him the English classics and introduced Beckett to a wide range of French poets, classic and contemporary. ‘Ruddy’ as he was nicknamed, is caricatured as ‘the Polar Bear’ in Beckett’s early short story collection, More Pricks Than Kicks.

Beckett’s second formative influence was:

small, plump, middle-aged, Italian tutor named Bianca Esposito, who gave him detailed private lessons in Italian language and literature, who ignited his lifelong love for Dante and features in Pricks’ opening story, Dante and the Lobster.

Nearly 50 years later, Beckett still carried round the student copy of Dante Bianca gave him, packed with his notes and annotations.

Beckett was solitary and aloof

Despite all this physical prowess, and his height and his piercing blue eyes, Beckett was a shy boy, at prep and boarding school and at college. He often withdrew right into himself and, when forced to attend social occasions, did so without saying a word. Tall, clever and charismatic, young Beckett sometimes felt contempt for those less able than him, which he then felt guilty about, redirecting the loathing inwards at himself, creating a downward spiral of negative emotions.

In other words, despite all the privileges of his upbringing, his loving extended family, loads of material advantages, encouragement in sports and the best education money could buy, Beckett developed into a hyper-shy, extremely self-conscious young man, plagued by narcissism, solipsism and self-obsession. Here are just some of the phrases Knowlson uses about him at this period:

  • Beckett, the least gregarious of people (88)
  • Beckett was diffident and solitary (90)
  • Beckett’s cocoon of shyness and silence (90)
  • retiring and inhibited (92)
  • shy, retiring nature (95)
  • he would lapse into deep, uncomfortable silences (95)

The problem of pain

Like many a privileged young man, the discovery of the misery of the poor in his student years had a devastating effect on Beckett, and combined with intellectual doubts to undermine his Christian faith – something which went on to become a bone of contention with his pious mother.

A long time ago I was paid to do the research for a documentary series about the conflict between faith and atheism, a series which set out to define the arguments and counter-arguments across the full range of human history, culture, philosophy, psychology and so on. What emerged, at least in my opinion, was that beneath the thousand and one arguments of believers and atheists, both intellectual positions have One Big Fundamental Weak Spot:

The chief intellectual difficulty for thinking Christians is The Problem of Pain i.e. the very old conundrum that if God is all-powerful and all-loving why does he allow children to die in screaming agony? There is no answer to this, though thousands of theologians have come up with clever workarounds e.g. he is all-loving but is, for some reason, not quite all-powerful; or he is all-powerful but is not what we think of as all-loving because he is working to a plan which is beyond our understanding and presumptuous to try.

Thus Beckett was being very traditional, almost trite, in losing his faith once he came to appreciate the pain and misery in the world around him which his privileged upbringing had hitherto sheltered him from. In a way, most of his writing career went on to focus on this theologically-flavoured issue. (Actually, it might be more accurate to say that Beckett’s central subject is not the Problem of Pain so much as the Problem of Physical and Mental Decay).

The biggest weak point in the Atheist position – the mirror image of what the Problem of Pain is for Christians – is The Problem of Consciousness: If we humans are the result of millions of generations of evolution by natural selection, descended from the first amoeba, and if we are the result of the purely mechanistic and amoral struggle for survival, how come we have such complex and delightful feelings and sense impressions, can be transported by the sight of a sunset or the fragrance of a flower? How come we have such a highly developed moral sense that can lead us to spend days debating the rights and wrongs of various actions, feeling such an acute sense of guilt, wasting so much time in complicated rumination? Surely we should just do whatever benefits us or the tribe without a moment’s thought. None of those attributes seem particularly useful for a creature which has come about via the blunt and violent process of evolution.

Maybe we can see this as another of Beckett’s central themes, or the other wing of his interests: the problem of consciousness, which in his prose works in particular, but also in most of the plays, is deeply compromised, broken, fragmented, in some cases, apparently, posthumous (in Play, for example).

Paris

(pp.107+). Beckett graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 1927 with a BA degree. Patrons and supporters at the college wangled him the position of lecteur d’anglais at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris from November 1928 to 1930.

Paris came as a massive cultural and personal liberation. Throughout school and university Beckett had been strictly teetotal and sexually puritanical but in Paris he learned to drink, both beer and wine, becoming particularly partial to white wine. From now on there are numerous stories of Beckett getting completely trashed, passing out, being found under the table or passed out in alleyways, and so on.

Regarding sex, Knowlson gives detailed accounts of Beckett’s love affairs as a teenager and young man which were strongly shaped by his strict Protestant upbringing and the ferocious emphasis on ‘purity’ at his public school. As a result he was screwed up about sex in a predictably traditional way and Knowlson quotes from diaries, journals and early stories to show how he had the classic difficulty of reconciling the women he respected and placed on a pedestal with the ‘dirty’ shenanigans he got up to with hookers in Paris brothels, sex and love. (pp. 108, 139).

(Later, in the mid-1930s, when he was living a solitary existence in London during his two years of intensive psychotherapy at the Tavistock Clinic, Knowlson claims Beckett availed himself of London prostitutes on a regular basis.)

James Joyce

The post Beckett took up at the Ecole Normale Superieure had been occupied by another Irishman, Tom MacGreevey, who stayed on in the city he loved, and acted as guide and mentor to young Sam. MacGreevey had developed high-powered literary contacts and, among others, introduced him to James Joyce and his circle, his wife and grown-up son and daughter, his publishers and magazine editors and so on. It was a golden opportunity, an entrée into a whole new world.

Joyce was widely acknowledged to be the most important avant-garde writer in Europe. Beckett was a star-struck 23-year-old graduate. Sam quickly became one of the great man’s secretaries, tasked with finding Joyce books, reading them out loud or providing written summaries, as well as taking dictation and other chores. The master and the ephebe went for long walks along the Seine (Joyce’s flat was only 100 yards from the river).

Beckett was still so utterly shy that he hadn’t the small-talk to spend with Joyce’s wife, Nora, who, partly as a result, took against him. Whereas Joyce’s nubile and impulsive daughter Lucia, just a year younger than Beckett, became infatuated with the tall, aloof, blue-eyed sportsman, sitting near him at dinner, making eyes at him, inveigling him to take her for walks.

Countless articles have been written about the impact of Joyce on Beckett but the central, much-repeated point is that in the end, Joyce’s example helped set Beckett on a track diametrically opposite to the great man’s. Both men not only spoke the major European languages (English, French, Italian, German) and were deeply familiar with the respective canons of literature of each of these countries, but were impatient with the realist or Naturalist worldview they’d inherited from turn of the century literature – were committed to going beyond the realist worldview.

But whereas Joyce’s technique was accumulative, each sentence attracting to it multiple references and variations in other languages, breaking down English words and (by the 1930s) creating in their stead the entirely new polyglot language in which he wrote Finnegans Wake – Beckett found he could follow Joyce only so far. Indeed he did so in the short stories and novels of the 1930s, which are characterised by deliberately arcane syntax, literary references, the liberal sprinkling of obscure or foreign words, and an attitude which is deliberately contrived and non-naturalistic.

But Beckett lacked the musicality, the sensual feel for language, the world-embracing sympathy and the sheer joy of life which pours from Joyce’s pages. Beckett was by his nature much more tightly wrapped, intellectually costive, temperamentally depressive, repressed by his stern Protestant upbringing.

Compare and contrast the lovely swimming sensuality of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy which ends Ulysses with any description Beckett ever wrote anywhere of sensuality and sex. Molly is sweet and sensual and world-accepting; Beckett writes about sex a lot, but it is nearly always shameful masturbating (Malone Dies), callous sucking-off (Mercier and Camier), the disgusting rutting described in the four post-war short stories, the horrible homosexual abuse in How it is and so on. Sex in Beckett is never any fun at all.

Joyce is open to all the world, his books are overflowing with characters, incidents and brimming over with the joy of language. Beckett is locked away in one small, grey room, lying in the darkness, listening to the voices in his head punishing him with guilt and remorse, obsessively paring away language till it is reduced to blunt telegraphese, laced with one or two obsessively repeated key phrases.

Beckett’s women

One of the most boring things about biographies is the attention they are forced to pay to their subjects’ love lives. Here, as everywhere else, Knowlson does a very good, thorough job, providing all the facts without judgement or salacity.

Peggy Sinclair (1911 to 1933)

Beckett fell madly in love with his cousin, Ruth Margaret Sinclair, known as ‘Peggy’, daughter of William ‘Boss’ Sinclair who had married Sam’s aunt, Frances Beckett, generally known as ‘Cissie’. I’m not much interested in classic ups and downs of the actual ‘love affair’, the interesting thing was the way her parents moved from Dublin to Kassel in north Germany, and sent Peggy to school in Austria, so that his visits to see her accustomed Beckett to travelling all over the continent and speaking the local languages. He visited the Sinclair household in Kassel a number of times between 1928 and 1932.

Peggy was the inspiration behind the character of Smeraldina in Beckett’s first, unpublished novel, A Dream of Fair To Middling Women. Eventually the love affair burnt out, and when he visited the Sinclairs in the early 1930s, it was to be distressed by their mounting business problems and by Peggy’s deteriorating health. He was devastated when Peggy, by that stage engaged to another man, died of tuberculosis in May 1933 (page 168).

Lucia Joyce (1907 to 1982)

James Joyce’s daughter, unsmiling, squint-eyed Lucia Joyce, became infatuated with the tall, handsome Samuel and, to please his father, Sam obligingly took her for walks or out to dinner, but he was still in love with Peggy Sinclair and not in the market for affairs. Things came to a head when Lucia threw a fit, denouncing Beckett to her parents and claiming he had cruelly led her on. Egged on by Nora, Joyce cut his links with Beckett, refusing to see him again. Sam was distraught. It was only as the 1930s progress that it became increasingly obvious that Lucia was suffering from severe mental illness, and ended up being placed in a series of sanatoria. A couple of years later, the pair were quietly reconciled and when Beckett moved to Paris permanently in 1935, started to see a lot of each other again.

Ethna MacCarthy (1903 to 1954)

MacCarthy was arguably Beckett’s first mature love. She was a poet, short story writer and playwright who went on to carve a career as a paediatrician. Their love is very tenderly and respectfully traced.

These three women are singled out not least because Beckett’s first attempt at a full-length fiction was a novel about a young Irishman whose life is dominated by… three women! The novel eventually became titled A Dream of Fair To Middling Women (a typically learnèd reference to both Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem, The Legend of Good Women and Alfred Tennyson’s long poem A Dream of Fair Women).

The Dream which is structured around a central protagonist (named, with characteristic over-learnedness, Belacqua Shuah, Belacqua being the name of a minor character noted for his lazy self-absorption in Dante’s Divine Comedy) and his relations with the three women, being Smeraldina, Syra-Cusa and the Alba. Much scholarly ink has been spilt arguing about which ‘real life’ women ‘inspired’ each character. Knowlson takes them to be based on Peggy, Lucia and Ethna, respectively.

After a year or so of trying to get the Dream published in the mid-1930s, and having it continually rejected, Beckett gave up and slowly came to regret having satirised his close friends and family so closely. In the end he actively suppressed the novel and it wasn’t published until 1992, three years after his death.

Writing

When he was introduced to Joyce, he not only met his family, but the network of book publishers and magazine editors connected with him. As an obviously highly intelligent, highly literate young man, Beckett found himself presented with opportunities to publish books, stories and articles which most aspiring authors can only dream of.

In 1929 he wrote his first short story, the 3-and-a-half-page Assumption which was immediately published in the leading avant-garde magazine, transition. Then a 100-line poem, Whoroscope, knocked off in a few hours in order to win the £10 prize for a poetry competition sponsored by literary entrepreneur and anthologist Nancy Cunard and published in July 1930.

A senior editor at Chatto and Windus suggested to Beckett that he write a detailed study of Proust for a series of literary introductions they were publishing. This Beckett did, extensively researching by rereading Proust, and the study was published in March 1931. Once he had bedded in with the Joyce circle he was commissioned to write a translation of the Anna Livia Plurabelle section of Finnegans Wake into French. In other words Beckett was, by 1930, very well-connected with the leading avant-garde writer in Europe, his circle and supporters and publishers.

But, despite all these advantages, Beckett failed to find a published for A Dream of Fair To Middling Women. It went the rounds of numerous publishers, both mainstream and avant-garde for two years before Beckett gave up trying, and the trickle of odd, eccentric short stories he was writing fared no better.

In 1932 the teaching post at Ecole Normale Superieure terminated, and Beckett was forced to pack his bags and return to Ireland where he was extremely lucky to be offered a prestigious teaching post at Trinity Dublin, a very sought-after position, supported by Ruddy and other patrons and supporters.

Unfortunately, Beckett hated it and discovered he was awful at teaching. Miserable, that winter he fled to ‘Boss’ and Cissie Sinclair in Kassel in northern Germany, from where he wrote a letter of resignation which dismayed his sponsors and upset his parents.

Breakdown and psychotherapy

Having chucked in his prestigious job at Trinity, completely failed to get any of his writings published, and been forced to move back in with his parents in 1933, Beckett was deeply traumatised when his father, apparently still in the prime of life in his 60s, died of a massive heart attack, on 26 June 1933.

His father’s death exposed Beckett more than ever to the cloying, critical over-attention of his mother and Beckett suffered a series of increasingly serious physical symptoms, starting with a cyst on his neck, moving to heart palpitations, night sweats and panic attacks, which on several occasions brought him to a complete dead stop, in the street, paralysed with terror, and unable to move a muscle.

Beckett consulted a good friend of his from school, a nerve specialist, Geoffrey Thompson, who was planning to move to London and recommended Beckett to come with him and try psychotherapy at the relatively new Tavistock Clinic. So in January 1934 Beckett himself moved to digs in London and began his treatment with the pioneering psychotherapist Wilfred Bion. Bion was, Knowlson informs us, himself quite a strapping, hearty, sporty chap, while also being formidably well-educated at private school. So he and Beckett bonded on a social and personal level, quite apart from the treatment.

According to Knowlson, Beckett had psychotherapy with Bion for two years, at the rate of three times a week, which equals well over 2,000 sessions, during which Beckett explored his childhood, his formative influences, and came to realise the role his love-hate relationship with his mother played in cramping his life. He came to realise that, for his entire life to date, he had created an ivory tower founded on what he felt was his physical and intellectual superiority to all around him, becoming known for his aloofness and/or shyness, what Knowlson calls an:

attitude of superiority and an isolation from others that resulted from a morbid, obsessive immersion in self (page 180)

Beckett had to learn:

to counter his self-immersion by coming out of himself more in his daily life and taking a livelier interest in others (page 181)

But more than this, Knowlson claims that Bion showed him that he could mine many of these deeply personal compulsions and tendencies to create texts.

By externalising some of the impulses of the psyche in his work – the feelings of frustration and repressed violence for example – he would find it easier to counter the self-absorption that had seemed morbid and destructive in his private life. The writing thus became essential to his later mental and physical wellbeing.
(page 181)

Over 2,000 times Beckett lay on his back in a darkened room, closing his eyes, focusing on the moment, in order to let deeply buried memories bubble up from his unconscious, struggling to express them, struggling to understand their significance – while all the while another part of his mind observed the process with analytical detachment, critiquing the shape and pose of the figures in the memories, considering the words they spoke, assessing how the scene could be improved, the dialogue sharpened up, the dramatic core reached more quickly and effectively.

This is more or less the plot of Beckett’s late novella Company and clearly the basis of the so-called ‘closed room’ and skullscape’ fictions of the 1960s. You can also see how it forms the basis of the breakthrough novels Beckett wrote immediately after the war in French, Malone Dies and The Unnameable, texts of overweening, unprecedented self-absorption and self scrutiny. As late as his last published prose piece, Stirrings Still, Beckett is obsessed with a figure who regards himself as an ‘other’, sees himself rise and leave the room, although is other ‘self’ remains seated.

Reading Knowlson’s fascinating account of Beckett’s psychotherapy makes you realise the ‘essential’ Beckett was there all the time, lying dormant. First, though:

  1. he had to spend a decade, the 1930s, getting out of his system the immature wish to clutter his texts with smartarse quotes, foreign phrases, and mock-scholarly humour in the tradition of Rabelais and Sterne and Joyce, and then
  2. his experiences during the Second World War had to sear away any residues of Romantic optimism and even the last vestiges of late Victorian naturalism

for him to emerge in the immediate post-war period as the stripped-down, minimalist, and bleakly nihilistic writer who would go on to become one of the pillars of post-war literature.


Credit

Damned To Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett by James Knowlson was published by Bloomsbury Publishing in 1996. All references are to the 1997 paperback edition.

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

The Hundred Years War by Desmond Seward (1978)

There is full many a man that crieth “Werre! Werre!”
That wot full litel what werre amounteth.

(Geoffrey Chaucer, captured in France on campaign with Edward III in 1359 and ransomed – with a contribution of £16 from the king)

The hundred years war lasted more than a hundred years

The Hundred Years War did not last a hundred years, it was really a sucession of conflicts between successive kings of France and England which are generally agreed to have started in 1337 and trundled on until a final peace treaty in 1453 (same year that Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks).

It see-sawed between prolonged periods of war, and long periods of truce

The ‘war’ was periodic, blowing hot and cold, with long periods of peace or truce – for example, there was peace between the Treaty of Brétigny of October 1360 and a new outbreak of hostilities in June 1369, and an even longer lull between 1389 – when Richard II signed a peace treaty with Charles VI of France – and the renewal of hostilities by Henry V and continued by his successors from 1415 until the final collapse of English possessions in 1453. Modern accounts divide the war into three distinct periods of conflict:

  1. Edwardian phase (named for English King Edward III) 1337-1360
  2. Caroline phase (named for French King Charles V) 1369-89
  3. Lancastrian phase (named for the House of Lancaster which came to the throne with Henry IV, and renewed the war at the wish of his son Henry V) 1415-53

What gives the long sequence of battles and campaigns a conceptual unity is that between 1337 and 1453 the King of England made a formal, legal claim to the crown of France. For much of that period successive English kings styled themselves King of England and of France. 

Historical origins of the war

The deep background to the war is of course the fact that William of Normandy invaded and conquered England in 1066, and his successors ruled not only England but Normandy and an ever-changing constellation of states, duchies and princedoms scattered round northern France.

It was Henry II who, by marrying Eleanor of Aquitaine, expanded the northern realm by bringing this huge area of south-west France under ‘English’ rule, thus expanding the so-called Plantagenet Empire to its fullest extent. In this map everything in pink was controlled by the Plantagenet king and amounted to just over half the nominal territory of France.

Plantagenet possessions in France in 1154 (source: Wikipedia)

Alas, Henry’s second son, King John, managed to throw away almost all this territory, through mismanagement, bad alliances and military defeats, and his successors – notably Henry III (1216-72), Edward I (1272-1307), and Edward II (1307-27) – lived in the shadow of the loss of the empire’s once-huge extent in France, and made spasmodic attempts to revive it.

Edward III’s claim to the throne of France

It was King Edward III, who ascended the throne as a boy in 1327 but then seized power from his guardians in 1330, who took the bull by the horns.

When the French king Charles IV died in 1328 without a son and heir the nobles of France had to decide who to succeed him. Edward’s claim was that he was the son of Isabella, sister to Charles IV. However, the French nobles, understandably, did not want to hand the crown to the English and chose to emphasise that the French crown could not be handed down through the female line – so they chose instead Philip VI, a cousin of the recently dead Charles IV.

Philip’s father had been a younger brother of a previous king, Philip IV, and had had the title Charles of Valois. Thus the throne of France passed to the House of Valois (having previously been the House of Capet).

Edward, only 16 when all this happened, was under the complete control of his mother and her lover, Roger Mortimer, who were allies with the French crown, who had indeed needed the support of the French king to overthrow Edward’s ill-fated father, Edward II, and so who made no protest and didn’t promote boy Edward’s claim.

It was only once he had himself overthrown Mortimer and banished his mother, and securely taken the reins of power, only in the 1330s, that Edward III got his lawyers to brush up his claim to the French throne and make a formal appeal for it. But it was, of course, too late by then.

Relations between the two kings deteriorated, and the road to war was marked by numerous provocations, not least when Edward happily greeted the French noble Robert of Artois who had, at one point been a trusted adviser of Philip VI, but then was involved in forgeries to secure the duchy of Artois, and forced to flee for his life.

This offensive gesture led King Philip to declare that Guyenne (another name for Aquitaine, which the English had held on and off ever since Henry II married Eleanor) was now forfeit to Edward i.e. no longer his. This triggered a formal letter from Edward III objecting to the forfeiture of Guyenne, and in which Edward  formally lay claim to the throne of France.

A maze of powers and alliances

Almost any summary of the war is likely to be too simplistic for two reasons. One, it went on for a very long time with hundreds of battles, sieges, campaigns, on land and sea, each of which deserves a detailed account.

But – two – I was also struck by how many kingdoms, dukes and princes and whatnot got involved. Just in the early stages in the 1330s and 1340s, you need to know that Edward sought alliances with the Count of Flanders up in the north-east of France, and also tried to ally with the dukes of Burgundy on the eastern border. He also tried to get on his side the Holy Roman Emperor and the pope. Early on (1341) there was a civil war in Brittany between two claims to the title of Duke of Brittany, one backed by Edward, one by the French, and this degenerated into a civil war which went on for decades. Normandy – once the base of the Plantagenet empire – was, and then was not, allied with Edward.

In other words, France was far more fragmented an entity than the England of the day, and this made for a very complex kaleidoscope of shifting alliances. It’s broadly correct to speak of the king of England trying to secure the crown of France but that doesn’t begin to convey the complexity of the situation.

And that’s without Scotland. The king of England was always worried about what the Scots were doing behind his back which was, basically, to invade the north of England whenever the king of England was busy in France. It didn’t take much brains for the French to renew a sequence of pacts and alliances with Scotland to provide men and munitions to encourage their repeated invasions, renewing the ‘Auld Alliance’ which had first been made during the time of the aggressive ‘Hammer of the Scots’, Edward I, in 1295.

The same goes, to a lesser extent, for Wales and Ireland, which periodically rebelled against English rule, and which required armed expeditions, for example the large army which Richard II led in person to put down Irish rebellion and force Irish chieftains to submit to English overlordship in 1394.

And Spain. Spain also was divided into warring kingdoms and these, too, got drawn into the complex alliances north of the Pyrenees, which explains why, at various moments, the kingdoms of Castile or Navarre became involved in the fighting. Castile, in particular, allied with the French king and provided ships to the French fleets which repeatedly harried and raided ports on the south coast and attacked English merchant shipping going back and forth from Flanders (wool) or Guyenne (wine).

Famous highpoints

For the English the high points are the early, Edwardian phase of the war, featuring the two great battles of Crécy (26 August 1346) and Poitiers (19 September 1356) where we heartily defeated the French, plus the sea battle of Sluys (24 June 1340) where we destroyed an invasion fleet anchored off modern-day Holland, and the Battle of Winchelsea (29 August 1350) where a British fleet just about defeated a Castilian fleet commanded by Charles de La Cerda.

The Caroline phase 1369-89 marked the slow disintegration of the English position in France, latterly under the unpopular King Richard who, in 1389, signed a long-term peace.

Then, after a very long lull, Englishmen like to remember the Battle of Agincourt in 25 October 1415, fought as part of a prolonged raid of northern France undertaken by King Henry V, but this was just part of Henry V’s sustained campaign to conquer France, which was continued after his early death in 1422 by his brother John of Lancaster, Duke of Bedford, and others, until England had complete control of all Normandy and even Paris.

But this is, of course, is to forget the various achievements of successive French kings during this period, and to underestimate the importance of the fact that France descended into civil war (the Armagnac–Burgundian Civil War) from 1407 to 1435, partly because it was ruled by a completely ineffectual king, Charles VI, also known as ‘the Mad’ (1388-1422). It was only because France was completely divided and that we allied with the powerful Burgundians, that we managed to seize and control so much of northern France.

As soon as Philip of Burgundy defected from the English cause by signing the Treaty of Arras with Charles VII and recognising him (and not the English Henry VI) as king of France, the rot set in and the period from 1435 to 1450 marks to steady decline of English landholdings and influence in France, ‘a protracted rearguard action by the English in France’ (p.235).

Famous characters

The protagonists of the Hundred Years War are among the most colourful in European history: King Edward III who inaugurated the Order of the Garter, his son the swashbuckling Black Prince, and Henry V, who was later immortalized in the play by Shakespeare. In the later, Lancastrian phase, I was impressed by Henry V’s brother, John of Lancaster, 1st Duke of Bedford, who took over control of the war and acted as regent to the baby Henry VI, and to the great commander of the day, Sir John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, known as ‘Old Talbot’, ‘the English Achilles’ and ‘the Terror of the French’.

On the French side there were the splendid but inept King John II who was taken prisoner at Poitiers and died a prisoner in London; Charles V, who very nearly overcame England; Charles VI who went spectacularly mad; and the enigmatic Charles VII, who at last drove the English out – not to mention Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orleans, who died aged just 19 but whose legend was to grow enormous.

The war also features walk-on parts from King David II of Scotland, who was captured when the Scots army was defeated at the Battle of Neville’s Cross on 17 October 1346, and spent the next 11 years in captivity in England. And Peter the Cruel, king of Castile and León from 1350 to 1369 who lived up to his nickname, and whose daughter married Edward’s son, John of Gaunt, who thus became heir to the crown of Castile.

And Charles the Bad, King of Navarre, who proved a thorn in the side of the French crown because of ancestral lands he owned near Paris. The deeper you read, the more complex the web of personalities and players becomes.

Seward’s account

Seward’s book is a good, popular account, which includes family trees explaining the complex genealogical aspects of the war and is dotted with black and white reproductions of paintings, tomb effigies and brass rubbings of the main protagonists.

He describes all the military campaigns and diplomatic manoeuvrings behind them. The book includes interesting sections about the arms and ammunition of the day (English longbows versus French crossbows) and brings out the uniqueness of the English tactics which lay behind our early victories, namely the tactic of having mounted archers who were able to ride into position, dismount, and then release volleys of arrows at such a rate (ten per minute!) that the sky turned dark and the attacking French was slaughtered.

But I just happen to have read Dan Jones’s account of the Plantagenet kings and, although Jones’s book is also popular in intent, I felt it gave me a much clearer sense of the machinations going on in English politics at the time. Take the reign of Richard II (1377-99). Once you start looking into this 22 year period, it reveals a wealth of issues which lay behind the two big political crises of 1386–88 and 1397–99. Only by reading the 40 or so pages that Jones devotes to it did I develop a feel not only for why Richard was against war with France and signed the peace treaty of 1389 and married his child bride (Isabella of Valois, aged just seven when she married Richard), but why there continued to be a powerful War Party among the top aristocracy, which continued to promote raids and attacks on France.

Seward conveys some of this, but his account of Richard’s period of the war lacks the depth and detail of Jones’s account – he skims over the first crisis in Richard’s rule without even mentioning the so-called ‘Merciless Parliament’, which seized control from the king and oversaw the systematic arraignment for treason and execution of most of his council.

This, I suppose, is reasonable enough if we grant that Seward’s account is focused on the war and deliberately gives no more about the domestic situation of the English (or French) kings than is strictly necessary. But comparison with the Jones brought out the way that it is not a full or adequate account of the period as a whole, and begs the question: how much of the domestic political, economic and social situations in England, France (and the numerous other countries involved, from Scotland and Burgundy to Castile) do you need to understand, to fully understand the Hundred Years War?

What is a full understanding of a historical event or era? Is such a thing even possible?

From what I can see, the fullest possible account of not only the war but all the domestic politics behind it in both England and France and further afield, is Jonathan Sumption’s epic, multi-volume account:

The chevauchée – death and destruction

Instead the main thing that came over for me was the scale of the destruction involved in the war.

Obviously war is destructive but I hadn’t quite grasped the extent to which the English pursued a deliberate scorched earth policy, a conscious policy of systematically devastating all the land they passed through, as their main military strategy, sustained for over one hundred years.

Some campaigns the English launched had little or no strategic value, their purpose was solely to destroy as many French towns and villages as possible, to loots and burn, to rape and pillage, to steal everything worth stealing and to murder all the inhabitants over really significant areas of France – from Gascony and Aquitaine in the south-west, up through the Loire valley, in Brittany, in Normandy and right up to the walls of Paris itself.

What makes the 1339 campaign of particular interest is the misery inflicted on French non-combatants. It was the custom of medieval warfare to wreak as much damage as possible on both towns and country in order to weaken the enemy government. The English had acquired nasty habits in their Scottish wars and during this campaign Edward wrote to the young Prince of Wales how his men had burnt and plundered ‘so that the country is quite laid waste of cattle and of any other goods.’ Every little hamlet went up in flames, each house being looted and then put to the torch. Neither abbeys and churches nor hospitals were spared. Hundreds of civilians – men, women and children, priests, bourgeois and peasants – were killed while thousands fled to fortified towns. The English king saw the effectiveness of ‘total war’ in such a rich and thickly populated land; henceforth the chevauchée, a raid which systematically devastated enemy territory, was used as much as possible in the hope of making the French sick of war… (p.38)

Thus:

  • in autumn 1339 English ships raided Boulogne burning thirty French ships, hanging their captains and leaving the lower town in flames
  • in September 1339 Edward invaded into France from the Low Countries, ‘he advanced slowly into Picardy, deliberately destroying the entire countryside of the Thiérache and besieging Cambrai’
  • in 1339 the pope was so appalled by the ruin the English were inflicting that he sent money to Paris for the relief of the poor, and the envoy who distributed it wrote back a report describing the 8,000 utterly destitute peasants forced to flee their land, and of 174 parishes which had been utterly laid waste, including their parish churches
  • in 1340 Philip’s army invaded Aquitaine and ‘laid waste the vineyard country of Entre-Deux-Mers and Saint-Emilion’

In 1346 Edward landed with a huge force in Normandy and proceeded to rampage through the countryside.

The following day the king launched a chevauchée through the Cotentin, deliberately devastating the rich countryside, his men burning mills and barns, orchards. haystacks and cornricks, smashing wine vats, tearing down and setting fire to the thatched cottages of the villagers, whose throats they cut together with those of their livestock. One may presume that the usual atrocities were perpetrated on the peasants – the men were tortured to reveal hidden valuables, the women suffering multiple rape and sexual mutilation, those who were pregnant being disembowelled. Terror was an indispensable accompaniment to every chevauchée and Edward obviously intended to wreak the maximum ‘dampnum‘ –  the medieval term for that total war which struck at an enemy king through his subjects. (p.58)

On this campaign the English burnt Cherbourg and Montebourg and Caen. In Caen, after the garrison surrendered, the English started to plunder, rape and kill. The desperate townsfolk retaliated by taking to the rooves throwing down bricks and tiles onto the English soldiers, killing several hundred at which Edward went into a rage and ordered the massacre of the entire population, men, women and children. Later persuaded to rescind the order, but the sack lasted three days and some 3,000 townsfolk were murdered. Nuns were raped, religious houses looted, the priory of Gerin was burned to the ground, and so on.

This chevauchée took the army right to the walls of Paris where they burnt the suburbs of Saint-Cloud and Saint-Germain before retreating northwards and burning the town of Mareuil, along with its fortress and priory.

After the famous victory at Crécy, the English went on to besiege the port of Calais for over a year, which involved the systematic destruction of the entire countryside for thirty miles around.

In 1355 the Black Prince rode out of Bordeaux with a force of 2,600 and carried out a 600-mile chevauchée across Languedoc to Montpelier and almost to the Mediterranean burning as many villages and hemlet as they could, burning mills, chateaux and churches. His forces took by storm and then burned to the ground Narbonne, Carcassone, Castlenaudry, Limousin and many other settlements large and small.

When war broke out in 1369 John of Gaunt led a chevauchée through Normandy, employing mercenaries and criminals. In 1370 the mercenary leader Sir Robert Knolly led a chevauchée through the Ile de Paris, burning and looting villages and towns right up to the walls of Paris, so that the king of France could look out over the burning and devastated landscape surrounding the capital.

In 1373 John of Gaunt led 11,000 men out of Calais on a chevauchée through Picardy, Champagne, Burguny, the Bourbonnais, the Auvergne and the Limousin, ‘cutting a hideous swathe of fire and destruction down central France’ (p.114).

During such a chevauchée the English killed every human being they could catch (p.85)

It is shocking to read that even the ‘great’ Henry V pursued exactly the same policy. The Agincourt campaign was in fact an attempt to take the walled city of Harfleur and then march up to the Seine to capture Paris. This completely failed because Harfleur held out for over a month during which a third of Henry’s expensively assembled army died of disease. Once the town was finally taken he decided to retreat north towards Calais, burning and laying waste to everything in sight, in the by-now traditional English way. Henry is quoted as saying that was without fire was like sausages without mustard.

Indeed Seward is at pains to deconstruct the image of the Shakespearian hero. Seward emphasises the ruthlessness of the young king – a man of ‘ruthless authority and cold cruelty’ (p.154) – and compares him, somewhat shockingly, to Napoleon and Hitler, in his single-minded self-belief, religious fanatacism and obsession with war and conquest. The account of his short reign is quite harrowing, involving the massacre of the entire population of Caen after it fell to an English siege in 1417, and the deliberate starving of the besieged population of Rouen later that year. All his sieges are marked by brutal treatment of the losers.

As late as 1435, when the English began to slowly lose control of their territory, an experienced soldier like Sir John Fastolf suggested that two small forces of 750 men be created who, twice a year, in June and November, would invade a different part of France and burn and destroy all the land they passed through, burning down all houses, corn fields, vineyards, all fruit and all livestock. The aim? To create famine. To starve the French unto submission.

Loot

Throughout this period the main motivation for ordinary soldiers to go and fight was loot. Everything of value in enemy territory was stolen. The English confiscated all the food and drink from every farm they despoiled and then burnt.

In the towns they stole gold, silver, jewels, fur coats. The king took possession of the best spoils and from each chevauchée sent convoys of carts bearing clothes, jewels, gold and silver plate and cutlery and much else lumbering back to the coast and to ships which bore it all back to England.

The English now regarded France as a kind of El Dorado. The whole of England was flooded with French plunder (p.81)

In the countryside they took all the livestock and stole all the grain then burned everything else. Many areas took decades to recover. Seward quotes contemporary chroniclers describing mile upon mile of devastated landscape, every building, cottage, manor house and church gutted and burnt to the ground, with no survivors to prune the vines or plough and sow the land, the sheep and cattle all killed and eaten by the English, the roads empty in every direction.

No wonder the English came to be hated like the Devil, like the Nazis were 600 years later.

Mercenaries

A crucial aspect of the war was the employment of mercenaries. Warriors for hire had, of course, existed through the ages. In post-Conquest England they flourished during the Anarchy i.e. the civil war between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda from 1135-1153. Later, King John used mercenaries in his wars against the barons in the early 1200s, leading to the hiring of foreign mercenaries being specifically banned by Magna Carta.

But not abroad. The reappearance and flourishing of mercenaries was particularly associated with the Hundred Years War. By the 1340s the English king was finding it difficult to pay his own or foreign troops and license was given to soldiers to ‘live off the land’.

This opened the road to hell, for soldiers, English and foreign, quickly took advantage of the new liberty to a) take all the food and drink from every farm or village they passed b) terrorise and torture the natives to hand over not just foodstuffs but anything of value c) to create protection rackets: pay us a regular fee or the boys will come round and burn everything to the ground. This became known as the pâtis, or ‘ransoms of the country’.

For example, in 1346 the Earl of Lancaster captured Lusignan, a fortress near Poitier. When he moved on he left a garrison under the command of Bertrand de Montferrand. Many of his troops were criminals and misfits. Despite a truce between 1346-1350, the garrison laid waste to over fifty parishes, ten monasteries, and destroyed towns and castles throughout southern Poitou. One story among thousands.

It is easy, reading the countless examples of blackmail, threat, looting, ravaging, burning, stealing and extorting, to see the entire era as one in which the English and their mercenaries mercilessly terrorised, attacked and looted the French people for over a hundred years. The Hundred Years Extortion.

After the Treaty of Brétigny, signed between England and France in October 1360, which brought the first phase of the war to an end, thousands of mercenaries and low-born vassals, serfs and miscellaneous crooks from  a number of nations, were left jobless. They didn’t want to go back to slaving on the land, so they set up their own mercenary groups.

In French these groups became known as routes and so the mercenaries acquired the general name of routiers (pronounced by the barbarian English ‘rutters’).

But in English they came to be referred to as the Free Companies, ‘free’ because they owed allegiance to no king. The Free Companies included all nationalities including Spaniards, Germans, Flemings, Gascons, Bretons and so on, but collectively the French chroniclers refer to them as ‘English’ because of the terrors the English chevauchées caused throughout the period (p.135).

Many of the routier groups were well organised, with administrative staff, quartermasters, and army discipline. They continued to be available for hire to the highest bidder. One scholar has identified 166 captains of mercenary groups during the period. The largest bands became notorious along with their leaders, such as the notorious Bandes Blanches of the Archpriest Arnaud de Cervole. Some routier groups even defeated the national armies sent to suppress them.

Many of the leaders became very rich. In an intensely hierarchical society, one of the chief motivations for fighting, for joining up with an army, was the incentive to make money. Really successful mercs were extremely useful to the sovereigns who paid them, and quite a few were given knighthoods and ‘respectability’, allowing them to retire back to England where they built mansions and castles, many of which survive to this day.

For example, plain Edward Dalyngrigge enlisted in the Free Company of Sir Robert Knolles in 1367 and over the next ten years accumulated a fortune in loot and plunder, returning to Sussex in 1377, marrying an heiress and building the splendid Bodiam Castle in Sussex, which is today a peaceful National Trust property. Built with money looted and extorted abroad by a mercenary soldier. Possibly a fitting symbol of this nation, certainly a classic example of the money, power and rise in social status which was possible during the Hundred Years War.

Other examples include Ampthill Castle built by Sir John Cornwall with loot from Agincourt, and Bolton and Cooling castles, as well as Rye House near Ware, built with French money by the Danish mercenary Anders Pedersen, who rose through the ranks of the English army and found respectability as Sir Andrew Ogard MP.

This helps explain the unpopularity of Richard II’s policy of peace with France.

[The English] had been fighting France for over half a century; almost every summer ships filled with eager young soldiers had sailed from Sandwich to Calais or from Southampton to Bordeaux. War was still the nobility’s ideal profession; the English aristocracy saw a command in France much as their successors regarded an embassy or a seat in the cabinet. Moreover, men of all classes from [the Duke of] Gloucester to the humblest bondman, regarded service in France as a potential source of income; if the war had cost the English monarchy ruinous sums, it had made a great deal of money for the English people… (p.141)

Why are there wars? At the top level, because of the strategic and territorial greed or nationalistic fervour, or simple mistakes, of dim leaders. But if you ask, why do men fight wars, this sociological explanation must be taken into account. It’s because wars are a way of escaping from poverty and being trapped in the lower levels of society and offer the opportunity of escape, foreign travel, adventure, testing yourself as a man, and 1. raising your social status and 2. making money – in the case of the Free Companies of the Hundred Years War, lots of money.

The war was long remembered as a time to rise in the world. The fifteenth-century herald, Nicholas Upton, wrote that ‘in those days we saw many poor men serving in the wars in France ennobled.’ (p.119)

Conclusion

Looking beyond the boys’ adventure aspects of the great military victories, and the supposedly dashing figures of the Black Prince or Henry V, the distraction of the girl saint Joan of Arc (who was burned to death by the English aged just 19), mad King Charles who thought he was made of glass, or the long rearguard action by John Duke of Bedford – it is, I think, difficult for a modern reader not to feel oppressed by the sheer scale of the deliberate wanton destruction the English visited across huge areas of rural France and the ultimate futility of all those lives wasted, all that treasure expended, all that land and buildings and carefully built farms, manors, churches, priories and so on burnt to the ground. Human folly.

By 1453 all the English had to show for over a century of oppressive taxation, countless deaths and the expenditure of vast fortunes paying for weapons and mercenaries, was to end up pathetically clinging on to tiny little Calais. Meanwhile, France had become unified as a nation and emerged as the strongest state in Europe. And a long legacy of mutual mistrust which, arguably, lasts right up to the present day, as Seward points out in the very last sentences of his book.

France suffered horribly when England escaped unharmed – every local historian in northern and western France will show the tourist a château or a church which was sacked by the English. There is a strong case for maintaining that the origin of the uneasy relationship between the two peoples can be found in the battles, sieges and the chevauchées, the ransoming and the looting, the pâtis, the burning and the killing by the English in France during the Hundred Years War. (p.265)


Related links

Other medieval reviews

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (1400)

In a second hand shop in Shrewsbury I picked up David Wright’s 1985 verse translation of the Canterbury Tales, published by Oxford University Press (1985 neatly being some 500 years after the first manuscripts of the tales began circulating). With a short introduction and hardly any notes, it is an edition intended to be read and enjoyed and I found it very readable and very enjoyable.

One April Geoffrey is staying at the Tabard pub in Southwark (presumably on or near the current Borough High Street) when a miscellaneous party of pilgrims arrives, 29 in all. They have arranged for the host of the Tabard, Harry Bailly, to accompany them to Canterbury. By the end of the evening Geoffrey is firm friends with the party and, the next morning, they invite him to accompany them. The Host proposes to while away the time of the journey with a competition – they’ll each tell two tales on the way there, two on the way back, and the winner gets a dinner paid for be everyone else!

‘Whoever best acquits himself, and tells
The most amusing and instructive tale,
Shall have a dinner, paid for by us all…’

29 + Geoffrey = 30 x 4 = this plan, if carried out would have resulted in 120 tales. In the event Geoffrey got nowhere near this goal; we have only 21 tales scattered into half a dozen different ‘groups’ or fragments of manuscript,  several incomplete, several quite clearly allocated to the wrong teller – in other words the Tales are radically unfinished. But we can still enjoy the 20 we have and, as it is, these twenty plus the connecting passages or ‘introductions’ to each speaker, easily fill a 400-page paperback.

The prologue to the Canterbury Tales lists the pilgrims with a brief description of each:

  1. the Knight
  2. his son, the Squire
  3. his servant, the Yeoman, dressed like a forester
  4. a Prioress, Madame Eglantine
  5. the nun’s priest
  6. the nun’s second priest
  7. the nun’s third priest
  8. another nun
  9. a merry, worldly Monk
  10. Hubert, the worldly Friar
  11. a Merchant
  12. a poor Oxford Scholar
  13. a knowledgeable Sergeant-at-Law, or Man of Law
  14. a Franklin ie a country gentleman
  15. a Haberdasher
  16. a Weaver
  17. a Carpenter
  18. a Dyer
  19. a Tapestry-Maker
  20. their Cook, Roger Hodge of Ware
  21. a Sea Captain
  22. a Doctor/Physician, greedy for gold
  23. the Wife of Bath, a businesswoman in cloth, fat, five times married
  24. a good honest poor village Priest
  25. the priest’s brother, an honest Ploughman
  26. Oswald the Reeve, an estate manager, skinny and mean, from Norfolk
  27. Robyn the Miller, massive and strong, a wrestler and loudmouth who plays the bagpipes
  28. a Pardoner from Charing Cross who sells indulgences
  29. a Summoner who enforces religious law eg on adultery and fornication, and is randy, greedy and corrupt
  30. a Manciple, like a bursar, who buys supplies for colleges
  31. the Narrator, Geoffrey
  32. our Host, Harry Bailly

There are 83 manuscripts of the tales, none complete, all varying, from variant details like individual words, to large variations such as the order of the stories appear in. This Wikipedia article explains the numbering of the fragments. It will be observed that David Wright’s order is not the classical one: he goes Fragments I, II, VII, III, IV, V, VI, VIII, IX, X.

1. The Knight’s Tale – very long, 2,250 lines: in ancient Greece cousins Palamon and Arcite barely survive Duke Theseus of Athens’ devastation of Thebes (prompted because weeping widows complained their husbands haven’t been buried by beastly Creon), are imprisoned and from their prison window both see and are smitten in love with Theseus’ sister, the beautiful Emily. There follow sundry adventures ie Arcite is released from prison but returns to serve Emily’s household in disguise; Palamon is finally released through intervention of a friend of Theseus’s but overhears Arcite singing Emily’s praises in the woods and attacks him Duke Theseus and his entourage just happen to arrive at that moment, part the fighting cousins and tells them to gather 100 men each for a mighty tournament, and builds a vast arena. In the lovely structured way of medieval literature they each pray to their intercessor: Palamon to Venus for her love, Emily to Diana to stay chaste, Arcite to Mars for victory. Palamon and Arcite fight valiantly until Palamon is wounded by one of Arcite’s men and dragged form the arena. As Arcite rides towards the dais to claim his bride a fiend out of hell erupts from the earth, frightens his horse and unseats him; crushed, mortally injured, he tells Emily to marry Palamon as he genuinely loves her.

The Knight’s Tale inaugurates the central theme of LOVE in the Tales. Also a number of moral dilemmas – the cousins fighting, who has precedence, should one submit, who should Emily choose – etc, which indicate that these fictions were meant to prompt discussion and debate in the audience who heard them.

2. The Miller’s Tale – the Host wants the Monk to speak next but the amiable anarchy of the Tales is established when Robyn the Miller, completely plastered, interrupts and insists on telling his tale: Fly Nicholas the lodger devises a scheme to fornicate with beautiful Alison, wife of John the old carpenter: he tells the carpenter the Flood is coming so he hangs three baths from the ceiling packed with provisions ready to float away. That night they get in their baths and when John falls asleep Nicholas and Alison climb down and go to bed. However Alison has another admirer, the dapper parish clerk Absalon. He picks that very night to climb a ladder to the little privy window of her bedroom and beg a kiss: she sticks her bottom out and Absalon kisses her arse; as he descends wondering why she has a beard she hears Alison and Nicholas giggling and, flying into a fury, goes gets a red hot poker for the early rising blacksmith: He whispers to Alison but this time it is Nicholas who sticks his bottom out the window and is rewarded by having the poker rammed between his buttocks; he screams, John wakes up and cuts the ropes crashing his bath to the ground, inciting the neighbours to come crowding in where Nicholas suavely tells everyone the carpenter has gone raving mad.

The Miller’s tale is an ironic and vulgar response to the knight’s courtly love; it uses tropes common in continental literature such as deep learning misdirected to scandalous ends and the ‘misdirected kiss’, and is obviously a variatoin on the central theme of Love, Married Love.

3. The Reeve’s Tale – the skinny, dry, abstemious reeve or estate manager: as a carpenter he is offended by the miller’s tale about a carpenter who is cuckolded so he promptly tells a story about a miller, nicknamed Show-off Simkin, in the village of Trumpington outside Cambridge who takes a noble wife and is very jealous of her and of his beautiful 18 year olf daughter. Two students, John and Alan, visit him with corn to see if he’ll swindle them but the wife frees their horse who rampages off across fields and by the time they’ve captured him it’s late and they stay the night. Through various farcical contrivances the students manage to sleep with the daughter and the wife before giving the game away and, in the uproar, also stealing the pie the miller had made with the corn he stole for them. Comprehensive humiliation.

Chaucer’s texts are stuffed to the gunwales with proverbs, saws, apothegms, texts and sayings. It is as if the stories, as if the medieval mind, is strung from them, is made up of them – rather as our minds are saturated with truisms about the Information Age, the Environment, Welfare Spongers, Immigrants, the Recession etc etc etc most of which will turn out to be equally untrue.

4. The Cooks’ Tale starts to be about a gadabout London apprentice who is eventually kicked out by his master and goes live with a fellow young man and wide boy when it abruptly ends after only 58 lines.

5. The Man of Law’s prologue goes on at surprising length about Chaucer and his works, praising his Legend of Good Women, before commencing the Man of Law’s Tale – the long trial of Constance, daughter of the Christian Roman Emperor who is sent to marry the Sultan of Syria but he is murdered along with all her entourage by the wicked mother-in-law and Constance is set adrift in a boat which floats for years right out of the Mediterranean and to the coast of Northumbria where she is rescued by the pagan governor and converts first his wife, Hermengyld and then him before a randy knight tries to seduce her: she refuses: he murders Hermengyld and frames her with the bloody knife; however God strikes down the guilty knight as a result of which king Alla marries Constance and converts  but goes off to fight the Scots; in his absence Alla’s wicked mother forges letters telling the governor to set her adrift in a boat again and she (and her son) drift right back to Italy where they are rescued by a senator and brought to court where the Emperor realises she is his daughter and where Alla happens to be on pilgrimage and recognises his wife and daughter. All good.

The long-suffering woman true to her Christian faith despite all trials is a commonplace of the time: apparently there is a ‘Constance Cycle’ of interlinked stories about the same figure. Looked at structurally you begin to realise the women are fixed structural points, like hinges, around which various men carry out their various plans (whether ‘noble’ like the feuding cousins or ‘low’ like Fly Nicholas and the Cambridge students); and yet in this tale Constance is undoubtedly the heroine and the main instigators of action are the two wicked mothers-in-law.

6. The Sea Captain’s Tale, like the miller’s and reeve’s is about adultery. A merchant of St Denis has a pretty wife and an old friend a monk. He loans the monk 100 francs; the monk pays it to the wife to have sex with her while the merchant is away; when he goes to reclaim the loan the monk tells her he’s  repaid the wife; the merchant is a bit cross with the wife for not telling him of the repayment but she has sex with him and makes him happy. It is a satire on the circulation of money and sex.

7. The Host thanks the Captain and invites the Prioress to tell a tale. The Prioress’s Tale is a horrifying example of raw medieval anti-semitism. In Asia in a city with a Jewish quarter a little boy goes about singing the praises of the Virgin Mary. Satan incites the Jews to kill him and they hire an assassin who slits the boy’s throat and throws him in the cesspit. However he keeps on singing and attracts rescuers to him. They arrest, torture and execute the Jews responsible. Then the abbot removes the pearl under the boy’s tongue and he ceases singing and dies and is laid in a holy sepulchre.

The blood libel of the Jews was widespread in the Middle Ages. It starts in the new testament written by Greeks threatened by and antagonistic to Jews and we all know where it led. Jews had been expelled from England in 1290 (not to be readmitted until Oliver Cromwell in 1656) and so their remoteness made them even easier to vilify. The tale also uses the very widespread theme of a miracle of the Virgin Mary but it is hard to register the fact – the anti-semitism associates the Virgin Mary with the most evil wickedness in European history.

8. Chaucer’s Tale of Sir Topaz – Chaucer presents himself as a plump bumbler and his tale of Sir Thopas is told in a series of verses with an elaborate rhyme-scheme which he never uses anywhere else. The high flown language describes the birth and breeding of Sir Topaz and how he dreams of the elf-queen and sets off to find her in Fairy Land but is immediately waylaid by the giant Sir Olifaunt (‘Elephant’). Topaz returns to town to put on his armour, the description of which is long and boring, and at t his point the Host interrupts to say he can’t bear such awful stuff. Give us another thing. At which Chaucer commences a long work in prose.

9. Chaucer’s Tale of Sir Melibee – Melibee who is away one day when three enemies break into his house, beat his wife Dame Prudence, and attack his daughter, leaving her for dead. The tale becomes a long debate between Melibee and his wife on what actions to take and how to seek redress from his enemies. His wife, as her name suggests, counsels prudence and chides him for his rash opinions. The discussion uses many proverbs and quotes from learned authorities and the Bible as each make their points.

a) Dame Prudence is a woman discussing the role of the wife within marriage in a similar way to the Wife of Bath and the wife in The Shipman’s Tale. b) It is really very long and, for many critics, some kind of joke and a revenge on the Host for stopping him in the middle of Sir Topaz: then again, the Host claims to have enjoyed it, and wanted something with doctrine in it.

The Host says he wishes his wife were as wise and restrained as Melibee’s Prudence. He turns to the Monk and says he’s a fine figure of a man who could please many women by copulating with them; let’s have his tale. The Monk takes this in good part then explains to everyone what a tragedy and that his ‘tale’ will be a series of short verse descriptions of men brought low by Destiny. 

10. The Monk’s Tale – the fates of 17 worthies from antiquity are described in an elaborate verse form (an eight-line stanza rhyming ababbcbc) – eg Satan, Adam, Hercules, Nebuchadnezzar – for 775 lines until the Knight interrupts him, saying it’s boring.

11. So the Host asks for the Nun’s Priest tale: it is a comic fabliau or animal story, of Chanticleer the cockerel and his favourite hen, Pertelote. Chanticleer dreams he is being attacked by a red dog; he tells his wife Pertelote and this leads to a comically learned debate between the two about the validity of dreams, mentioning various high authorities including Boethius, Cato, Cicero, Macrobius and the stories of Daniel and Joseph from the Bible. The comedy is in two talking animals debating with such learning. Chanticleer says dreams are meaningless and ignores it but a month later the fox Reynard sidles out of the bushes and asks Chanticleer to close his eyes and crow for him; the moment he does he grabs him in his mouth and runs off, followed by all the farmyard in a hullabaloo; but Chanticleer has the last laugh, he asks the fox a question and when the fox replies ie opens  his mouth, flies free and up into a tree where he refuses all the fox’s kind invitations to come down again.

Chaucer satirises animals having learned discussions; but he doesn’t satirise learning as such. We now know almost everything considered knowledge in the Middle Ages was wrong.

12. The Wife of Bath has the longest prologue in the book in which she recalls her five husbands and the tactics she used to keep them under control ie falsely accusing them of accusing her of all kinds of crimes, getting them to apologise, and then owning them. The Wife of Bath’s tale is about a knight from the time of King Arthur who rapes a maiden and is about to be executed when Queen Guinevere intervenes and says he can live if, within a year and a day, he can answer the question: What does a woman want? He travels all over the country and gets hundreds of contradictory answers: only an ugly old crone tells him the correct answer, Women want mastery over their men. The knight saves  his life but is forced to marry the crone, named Alison. When she asks whether he’d prefer her old and faithful or young & beautiful but flighty, he knight gives in and says, Do what you think is best ie resigns his mastery to her: whereupon she transforms into a beautiful young woman.

At the conclusion of her tale the Friar and the Summoner bicker, vowing to get revenge by telling critical stories about each other’s professions.

13. The Friar’s Tale – the friar depicts a greedy unscrupulous summoner riding to blackmail a poor widow, when he falls in with a pleasant yeoman and they become fast friends. When the yeoman reveals he is a fiend from hell the summoner is unconcerned. When they come across a carter damning his horses to hellfire when they can’t get out of the mud, the summoner asks why the fiend doesn’t take them; because he doesn’t mean it, is the reply. When the summoner threatens the widow she damns him to hell unless he repents his bullying; he doesn’t; the widow meant it; and so with no ceremony the fiend takes the summoner off to hell.

The summoner is livid. He retells the friar who has a vision of hell and can’t see any friars there until Satan lifts up his tale to reveal 20,000 friars living up his arse.

14. The Summoner’s Tale – laugh out loud funny, this is the tale of a corrupt and unscrupulous friar who picks on a poor widower and his daughter, trying to bully him into coughing up cash: driven to paroxysms of anger the old man makes the friar promise to distribute his gift equally between all 12 friars in his college; then gets the friar to put his hand down between his buttocks; and does a big fart. Not only is the friar outraged but goes to the lord of the manor to complain and finds his insult turned into a learned debate as the lord, his wife and various servants debate just how to divide a fart equally. Eventually Jankyn the servant comes up with a solution.

Group E (Fragment IV)

15. The Oxford Scholar’s Tale aka the Clerk’s Tale – the long story, divided into six parts and, Chaucer admits, copied from Petrarch, of the constancy and devotion to her husband of the peasant girl Griselda who is plucked from cowherd obscurity to marry the marquis, Walter, who is driven by perverse determination to test her by taking away her two beautiful children and then publicly rejecting her for a younger model. Throughout Griselda remains patient and dutiful and Walter relents, takes her back as wife, reunites her with her children.

A picture of Chaucer as a pilgrim from the Ellesmere Manuscript of the Canterbury Tales. In the middle of the page are the words: "Heere Bigynneth Chaucers Tale of Melibee"

A picture of Chaucer as a pilgrim from the Ellesmere Manuscript of the Canterbury Tales. In the middle of the page are the words: “Heere Bigynneth Chaucers Tale of Melibee”

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