Chaucer's Jokes

April 1, 2016

“April is the cruellest month” - T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

I hardly think that T.S. Eliot had Chaucer in mind when he wrote those lines. However, Chaucer does begin the pilgrimage in The Canterbury Tales in April, and most of the tales are relentlessly cruel. But his cruelty is also full of laugh-out-loud hilarity. What else can we call the ironies spelled out by The Canterbury Tales? Who else has had the audacity to discuss God's governance and obedience through the use of a Clerk? Who else has been bold enough to have a friar uphold the oath of a fart? Or a Host who has no control? Or the Franklin's tale, a breton lay (a type of chivalric romance), told by the ignoble Franklin himself? A Monk who hunts and feasts, looking for prey instead of prayer? The list continues....

Chaucer begins the tales in April, but, contrary to Eliot, Chaucer chooses to laugh among the ruins. In the Prologue, he writes, “When in April the sweet showers fall/ And pierce the drought of March to the root, and all/ The veins are bathed in liquor of such power/ As brings about the engendering of the flower,/ When also Zephyrus with his sweet breath/ Exhales an air in every grove and heath/ Upon the tender shoots, and the young sun/ His half-course in the sign of the Ram has run,/ And the small fowl are making melody/ That sleep away the night with open eye/ (So nature pricks them and their heart engages)/ Then people long to go on pilgrimages...” We should list the reader too, among the pilgrims on this voyage. And then, the people in this pilgrimage do all of those lovely things of spring in a slightly questionable, and at times, vulgar manner. Leave it to Chaucer to make a joke of the season itself, personified through the bawdy tales that follow and the people who inhabit the stories.

The Canterbury Tales are filled with fantastical stories, silly asides, jealousy, rivalry, and... most important for April Fool's Day... jokes. Chaucer chose to incorporate the French genre of fabliaux into his tales. These elements can be found in tales by the Miller, Reeve and Summoner. Though the genre was all but dead, Chaucer reanimates it through the use of his hilarious and irreverent characters. The fabliaux allowed Chaucer to step outside strict conventions of both language and religion. He created spoofs (think Saturday Night Live spoofs) in real time of people with real names and then made them slightly (or extremely) ridiculous. He describes characters that cheat, steal, chase money and/or sex and, of course, fart. His characters are fun because no one is left out, no one is safe. Chaucer obviates flaws in the stereotypes of society as well as the way man thinks about society. These seemingly frivolous tales make for excellent reading on a day dedicated to jokes.

“One shouldn't be too inquisitive in life/ Either about God's secrets or one's wife./ You'll find God's plenty all you could desire;/ Of the remainder, better not enquire.” - Miller's Prologue