Friday, 17 April 2015

Today's the Day

Anniversaries in Academia & Elsewhere

April 17
This day was to prove quite a significant one in the life of Geoffrey Chaucer, the Canterbury Tales bloke, commonly known as the Father of English Literature, and the first writer to be interred in Poets’ Corner. Whilst his name derives from the French, chasseur, meaning shoemaker (his father and grandfather were vintners and extremely well-heeled by all accounts), he himself was something of an astronomer, philosopher and alchemist, though his main job was that of civil servant, bureaucrat and diplomat, which meant spending his days hanging around the courts of Edward III and Richard II. In actual fact, so upper crust was he that he was almost what you might call royal-in-law, seeing he married Philippa Roet (lady-in-waiting to Philippa of Hainault, wife of Edward III), who (Philippa Roet) was sister of Katherine Swynford (also from Hainault, making them all three Belgians), who eventually became John of Gaunt’s third wife, John of Gaunt (that’s Ghent, actually, also in Belgium) being not only third son of Edward III but also dad of Henry Bolingbroke, who would eventually usurp Richard II and then starve him to death in Pontefract Castle, which is where Thomas Beaufort happened to be Constable, he being the third illegitimate child of, wouldn’t you know it, John of Gaunt and Katherine, while she was still only his mistress. Talk about keeping it in the family. Or amongst what you might call a flange of highly dubious Belgians. And a mighty complex and incestuous web of intrigue it was too, with Chaucer flitting around at the periphery trying to steer clear of all the scandal and bloodletting. Mind you, it’s easy to see where he might have got some of his ideas for bawdy tales from, though what with that vaudeville farce going on and all his various day jobs to be getting on with, it’s amazing he found any time at all for the old authoring side of things.

But he did. And he even achieved fame for it during his own lifetime, so much so that on St George’s Day 1374 (23 April, and a day on which artistic endeavours were traditionally recognised), Edward III rewarded Chaucer’s efforts in penmanship with the grant of “a gallon of wine a day for the rest of his life.” Now, that is going it some, even for our own times, so either our Geoff had plenty of mates to help him out with getting through that little lot or else the monarch was rather less than pleased with the prospect of some upstart bureaucrat hogging all the limelight and simply wanted to provide the means with which Chaucer might drink himself all the faster into his niche in Poets’ Corner. If that was the plan, it failed miserably, as it was Eddie himself who pegged out first, on 21 June 1377, leaving the throne to a ten year old Richard II who, it seems, took a dim view of this voracious wine guzzling (well, someone high up did, anyhow) and so 17 April 1378 saw the last of the gallons of wine handed over, the grant becoming a strictly cash only one the next day. Still, mathematically speaking, Chaucer had managed to enjoy nearly three years of wetting his whistle on the gratis grape, equating to (1376 was a leap year) some 1090 gallons of the stuff and, though that only works out at less than five cubic metres volume-wise (a metre by a metre by five, if you want to picture it and, yes, we do realise gallons is a measure of volume, but it’s hardly a very illustrative one, now is it?) it still sounds like the makings of a darn good party, we’d’ve said. Or a quietish night down the old Bullingdon Club, perhaps?

This day in 1397 was also when Chaucer began reading out his Canterbury Tales to the court of Richard II. They must’ve been on at him for ages about it, saying stuff like, “Come on, Geoff lad, tha’s been scratching away at that theer parchment s’long now, that quill pen o’ thine must be nigh on redhot be now.” Except that they would’ve phrased it in French, rather than vernacular Northern, being as they were all still Plantagenets just then, which is probably why Chaucer wrote it in Middle English in the first place: so those land-grabbing Frenchies (of then) would have about as much idea as to what he was on about as we do today when we’re confronted by it. Anyhow, no matter how much he tried to put them off, they were having none of it, even though he kept on insisting that they weren’t finished yet. Which they weren’t. Nor would they ever be. So let’s none of us have too much sympathy with the EngLit boffins and all their tearful tales of woe about how they’ve had to “wade through the whole thing” studying it word by word, “sometimes in the original Middle English” because they’ve actually got off amazingly lightly. Yes, a very lucky escape as it turns out, seeing our Geoff had intended to have each of the pilgrims telling two tales out and two tales back, which would then make it one hundred and twenty tales, or six times longer than it actually ended up. So let’s have a bit less of the moaning from you EngLit people in future, shall we? Just countest thye blessings …

Chaucer was something of a trendsetter for his time because, up until then around the palaces, and for as long as anybody could remember, entertainment had been nothing but court minstrels, who never did anything original and kept on churning out the same old whiskery stories over and over, time after time after time, that everyone had heard ad nauseum and were just about fed up to the back teeth with. To paint the picture brutally blunt, it would be very much the same thing for us today if, every time we turned on the television, all we could ever find by way of entertainment was wall-to-wall Jimmy Tarbuck. Yes, not at all funny. The Ricardians were utterly sick to death of endless court minstrels, which is why they turned to Chaucer and begged him to do a spot in the limelight. So he agreed to help them out and got started, as we’ve seen, on 17 April 1397.

Make no mistake about it, there will be those out there now who will be chuntering away to themselves right this minute, complaining about how that seems to be a mightily precise dating for so very long ago (it was a Monday, by the bye), so how can you be so cocksure certain about it, matey? Sounds about as emphatic as a Grant Shapps strenuous denial and we all know how wide of the mark they can sometimes be. In actual fact, it’s all down to Experts. Quite where they manage to haul these Experts (as in “Experts now say”) up from has always been something of a mystery as far as we’re concerned, seeing the only ones we’ve ever come across are of the utter ignoramus sort that are easily converted into experts by the mere addition of a little alcohol. However, in this case, ours were Scholars. They have successfully managed to prove that the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales set off on 17 April 1387, which also happens to be the year that Chaucer went on pilgrimage himself. The 17 April part comes from the text itself (and it’s at this point that the EngLit people come into their own by claiming, quite rightly, fair play to ‘em, that “We knew that; it’s in The Man of Law’s Introduction”) and (as they also knew already) he gets going on his tale the second day, with lines five and six informing us that, “He wiste it was the eightetethe day / Of Aprill, that is messager to May”. Ergo, they set off on the 17 April. By a process of elimination, getting rid of Sundays and any Easter weeks, and by events referred to, the year must be 1387. 17 April would thus be a fitting day on which to commence readings, and 1397 the first time he had The Canterbury Tales knocked into any kind of decent shape. Well, the first sixth of it, anyhow. It does seem that Richard II eventually had a change of heart over the wine grant business, reinstating it in that same year of 1397 but, for some reason, only two hundred and fifty two gallons a year this time. Bad luck, Chaucer. He died in 1400. We don’t know what of …

17 April 1521 wasn’t such a good one for Martin Luther, the Ninety Five Theses bod, seeing he found himself being hauled up before the infamous Diet of Worms that day, in order to explain to them just what in the name of Wittenberg he thought he was playing at. This wasn’t about his having caused damage to church property by nailing his Theses to one of their doors back in 1517 because, of course, he never did any such thing, not at All Saint’s nor anywhere else, but more to do with the Diet’s desire to restore market forces to parity before they all came a cropper. It seems that the pontiff – that’d be Pope Leo X – had cast his eye over the work the previous year and discovered that Luther had been saying some very unseemly things about the practice of selling of Indulgences (that’s basically sinners buying absolution for a sum in hard cash, usually from highranking churchmen), arguing that why should these highflying clerics be making fat wadges of cash at it when the sinners could be getting their redemption for free from the Almighty by merely bending their knees? This approach was tending to undermine trade somewhat so, once Leo X got to hear about it, he thought we’d better have a word with this fellow sharpish like or he’s going to ruin the whole damn scam for everybody. So they summoned him to appear. With the reassurance, of course, that they were all bishops and archbishops and popes and the like, pillars of the church establishment, thoroughly decent chaps all, honest and upstanding, trust us on this one, as well as throwing in a guarantee of safe conduct while they were at it. Luther, for some reason, wasn’t quite convinced, pointing out to them that they were the very rogues and scallywags whose thoroughly deserving wedding tackle he’d been swinging his size niner at in the first place when he penned his Theses, scoundrels and reprobates out to make a fast buck, and about as trustworthy as a sack of badgers. Besides all of which, they’d also given that selfsame promise of safe conduct to Jan Hus, and look what happened to him.

Though Luther generally gets the “credit” for the Protestant Reformation, it was actually Hus that was instrumental in getting the ball rolling (and Wycliffe before him even) and, once again, the Church – that’d be the Catholics, or the bigwig ones, anyhow – got a touch edgy about the whole business and thought they’d better have him in so they could whisper a bit of advice in his shell-like, with the promise of safe conduct, of course. So Hus duly turns up to the ecumenical Council of Constance in 1415 to hear what they’ve got to say, only it turns out that the advice is simply “recant or we’ll burn you, matey.” Following a fair trial, they dressed him in priestly garb simply so they could ritually strip it from him, ruined his haircut (tonsure) and stuck a paper hat on his head for good measure. They knew how to make a man suffer in those days. The next thing he knew, he was tied to the stake with firewood and straw piled up to his chin, which was probably about the point he realised that they’d promised safe conduct to him only on the way in

Anyhow, Luther got a guarantee for both legs of the journey, so he decides he might as well go along and see what all the fuss is about, only to find that they want to have a go at his library and pick holes in the works he’d been reading (which the Church hierarchy thought eminently unsuitable). They debate the whole thing thoroughly throughout 17 April, though they didn’t allow Luther a defence advocate or to speak except in answer to a direct question so, at the end of the day, he says he needs more time to respond and they grant him until the next morning. Then, having “prayed for long hours,” the blackguard is actually barefaced enough to admit they were his books all along, even adding his own version of “So what?” at the end of it. They found him guilty. Then they spent the next five days deciding what to do with him until finally Emperor Charles V got up onto his hind legs and told the Diet of Worms that Luther was an outlaw, banned his literature, demanded his arrest and that he be apprehended and punished as a notorious heretic, making it a crime for anyone to give him food or shelter, and saying it was OK if anyone fancied doing him in. You may already have spotted the tiny flaw in all this: by the time they had eventually made their minds up, the unarrested Luther had already legged it longsince. And, when they finally did get round to going after him, other things cropped up to distract them, so in the end he was allowed to return to public life. By everyone except, strangely enough, the Belgians …

Barely a dozen years later and it was none too good a day for Sir Thomas More, the Utopia chap, either as, on 17 April 1534, he was being frogmarched into the Tower of London, which, back in those days, tended to leave the future looking decidedly iffy, not to mention perilously short. More was the polar extreme to Luther and, in fact, he hated him more than Marmite, liking nothing better than to sit there of an evening, pen in hand, thinking up adjectives and epithets with which to vilify his rival – turd is about as far as we dare go down that particular road in these columns but, believe us, there were far worse than that. So, you see, he wasn’t quite the saint his reputation would have us believe, not when he kept his cellar kitted out as a dungeon for chaining up the beastly Protestants in, where he could then (allegedly) torture and flog them into a sounder way of religious thinking, not to mention the fact that he thoroughly approved of burning the wretches afterwards when they refused to see sense. But anyone of that ilk is almost bound to come a cropper sooner or later, just as More was about to find out.
Not only did he detest Luther to the very depths of his bowels (which is where he pulled most of the adjectives from, it seems), he was none too keen on Henry VIII’s new wife, Anne Boleyn (she had six fingers, so More was clearly right in thinking she was a wrong ‘un), his main beef being that the Catholic Church didn’t believe in divorce, so he reckoned Henry was still legally married to Catherine of Aragon (who had been married to Henry’s own brother, Arthur, before that, so More was being a tiny bit picky about what he did and didn’t believe). Which is why he never bothered to turn up when Henry finally married Anne in 1533, something that Anne took as a snub, especially as you’d expect something half-decent in the wedding present line from your Chancellor, wouldn’t you? (Actually though, looking at our own current one, not a chance, we take that all back), and then it was downhill all the way. He was accused of taking bribes, conspiring with a nun (the Holy Maid of Kent), neither of which were proven, but then he threw it all away on 13 April 1534 by refusing to acknowledge that Henry was on first name terms with God, then publicly declaring that the King was still shackled to Catherine of Aragon in Catholic eyes and that Anne Boleyn was therefore no better than a concubine. None of which went down at all well and four days later he was given his own room in the Tower, so he could have a bit of a think about what he’d done.

On 1 July 1535, More was tried. He probably had a fairish idea of how things might pan out when he noticed that the panel of judges included Anne Boleyn’s father, brother and uncle. More tried to wriggle out of the charges by saying nothing (he couldn’t be convicted unless he explicitly denied that Henry was Supreme Head of the Church) but it took the jury all of fifteen minutes to find him guilty. Being as he was such a treacherous rotter, they dished out the usual reward of a sentence to be hanged, drawn and quartered, only for his erstwhile mate, the King, to go all tender-hearted at the last minute and commute it to beheading. Five days later, 6 July 1535, More arrived at the steps to the scaffold, where he is reputed to have quipped, “I pray you, Mr Lieutenant, see me safe up and, as for my coming down, I can shift for myself.” He is also alleged to have claimed to the executioner that his beard was entirely innocent of any crime (after so long in the Tower, it was a good long bushy one too but, seeing he’d grown it in prison, you could argue it was a lifelong gaolbird), so he moved it out of the way of the axe and was then decapitated. Thus it was that, just like his chum Henry before him, he too would lose his head over Anne Boleyn …

Geoffrey Chaucer: By anonymous portrait (Government Art Collection) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Edward III (portrayed in the Sixteenth Century): [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Richard II: By English: Anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Chaucer as a Pilgrim (Ellesmere Script): [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Pope Leo X with his cousins the Cardinals: Raphael [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Jan Hus: By Janíček Zmilelý z Písku (Jena codex) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Luther at the Diet of Worms: Anton von Werner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Thomas More as Chancellor: Hans Holbein the Younger [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Anne Boleyn: [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Thomas More with his daughter after sentence of death: William Frederick Yeames [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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