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Medieval People by Eileen Edna Power

Part 2 out of 5

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(There's Paradise above, 'tis true,
But here below we've Hang and Su.)[13]

Kinsai seems far enough away in all conscience from Venice in
the year 1268, and Venice was all unwitting of its existence,
far beyond the sunrise. Yet there was in the city of the
lagoons that year, watching the same procession of the gilds
which Canale watched, a boy who was destined to link them for
ever in the minds of men--a lean lad of fourteen, Marco Polo
by name, who was always kicking his heels on the quay and
bothering foreign sailors for tales of distant lands. He
heard all they had to tell him very willingly, storing it up
in that active brain of his, for his curiosity was
insatiable; but always the tales that he heard most willingly
were about the Tartars.

At this time the Tartars were at the height of their power in
the West and the East. Tartars ruled at Peking all over
northern China, Corea, Mongolia, Manchuria, and Tibet, and
took tribute from Indo-China and Java. Tartars were spread
over central Asia, holding sway in Turkestan and Afghanistan.
The Golden Horde ruled the Caucasus, a large part of Russia,
and a piece of Siberia. Tartars held sway in Persia, Georgia,
Armenia, and a part of Asia Minor. When the great Mangu Khan
died in 1259, one empire lay spread across Asia and Europe,
from the Yellow River to the Danube. There had been nothing
like it in the world before, and there was nothing like it
again, until the Russian Empire of modern times. By 1268 it
was beginning to split up into the four kingdoms of China,
central Asia, Russia, and Persia, but still it was one
people. Now, the attitude of the West to the Tartars at this
time was very interesting. At first it feared them as a new
scourge of God, like Attila and his Huns; they overran
Poland, ravaged Hungary, and seemed about to break like a
great flood upon the West, and overwhelm it utterly. Then the
tide rolled back. Gradually the West lost its first
stupefaction and terror and began to look hopefully towards
the Tartars as a possible ally against its age-old foe, the
Moslem. The Christians of the West knew that the Tartars had
laid the Moslem power low through the length and breadth of
Asia, and they knew too, that the Tartars had no very sharply
defined faith and were curious of all beliefs that came their
way. Gradually the West became convinced that the Tartars
might be converted to Christianity, and fight side by side
beneath the Cross against the hated Crescent. There grew up
the strange legend of Prester John, a Christian priest-king,
ruling somewhere in the heart of Asia; and indeed little
groups of Nestorian Christians did still survive in eastern
Asia at this time.[14] Embassies began to pass between Tartar
khans and western monarchs, and there began also a great
series of missions of Franciscan friars to Tartary, men who
were ethnologists and geographers at heart as well as
missionaries, and have left us priceless accounts of the
lands which they visited. In the year of grace 1268, much
was known about central Asia, for in 1245 the Pope had sent
the Italian friar John of Plano Carpini thither, and in 1251
another friar, William of Rubruck, a French Fleming, had been
sent by the saintly Louis, King of France. Both got as far as
Karakorum, the Tartar camp on the borders of northern China,
though they did not enter China itself. They had brought back
innumerable stories about the nomad conquerors, who carried
their tents on carts, and drank fermented mares' milk, about
the greatness of the khan and his welcome to the strangers
from the West, and the interest with which he listened to
their preaching.[15] These tales were common property now,
and Marco Polo must have listened to them.

Marco Polo was always talking of the Tartars, always asking
about them. Indeed, he had reason to be interested in them.
This (as we have said) was the year of grace 1268, and eight
years before (some, indeed, say fifteen years) his father,
Nicolo Polo, and his uncle Maffeo had vanished into Tartary.
They were rich merchants, trading with their own ship to
Constantinople, and there they had decided to go on a
commercial venture into the lands of the Golden Horde, which
lay to the north of the Black Sea. So they had sailed over to
the Crimea, where they had a counting-house at Soldaia, and
taking with them a store of costly jewels, for they were
jewel merchants, they had set off on horseback to visit the
Khan of the West Tartars. So much the Venetians knew, for
word had come back from Soldaia of their venture; but they
had never returned. And so Marco, kicking his heels upon the
quay, caught sailor-men by the sleeve and asked them about
those wild horsemen with their mares' milk and their
magicians and their droves of cattle; and as he asked he
wondered about his father and his uncle, and whether they
were dead and lost for ever in the wilds of Tartary. But even
while he asked and wondered and kicked his heels on the quay,
while the Doge Tiepolo was watching the procession of the
gilds and the clerk Canale was adding up customs dues or
writing the ancient history of the Venetians, at that very
moment the two Polos were slowly and wearily making their way
across the heights of central Asia with a caravan of mules
and camels, drawing near to golden Samarcand with its teeming
bazaars, coming nearer and nearer to the West; and in the
following year, 1269, they reached Acre, and took ship there
for Venice, and so at last came home.

They had a strange story to tell, stranger and better than
anything the lean, inquisitive boy had heard upon the quays.
They had soon disposed of their jewels and they had spent a
year at the camp of the Khan of the Golden Horde of Kipchak
on the mighty River Volga. Then war broke out between that
ruler and the Khan who ruled the Persian Khanate, and it cut
off their way back. But Marco's curiosity was inherited; and
no Venetian was ever averse to seeing strange lands and
seeking out new opportunities for trade; so the Polos decided
to go on and visit the Khan of central Asia or Chagatai, and
perhaps make their way back to Constantinople by some
unfrequented route. They struggled over plains peopled only
by tent-dwelling Tartars and their herds, until at last they
reached the noble city of Bokhara. They must have followed
the line of the Oxus River, and if we reverse the marvellous
description which Matthew Arnold wrote of that river's course
in _Sohrab and Rustum_, we shall have a picture of the
Polos' journey:

But the majestic River floated on,
Out of the mist and hum of that low land,
Into the frosty starlight, and there moved,
Rejoicing, through the hush'd Chorasmian waste
Under the solitary moon; he flow'd
Right for the Polar Star, past Orgunje,
Brimming and bright and large: then sands begin
To hem his watery march, and dam his streams,
And split his currents; that for many a league
The shorn and parcell'd Oxus strains along
Through beds of sand and matted rushy isles--
Oxus, forgetting the bright speed he had
In his high mountain cradle in Pamere,
A foil'd circuitous wanderer:--till at last
The long'd-for dash of waves is heard, and wide
His luminous home of waters opens, bright
And tranquil, from whose floor the new-bathed stars
Emerge and shine upon the Aral Sea.

For three years the Polos remained at Bokhara, until one day
it happened that an embassy came to the city, on its way back
from the khan in Persia to the great Khan Kublai, who ruled
in far-off China, and to whom all the Tartar rulers owed
allegiance. The chief ambassador was struck with the talents
and charm of the brothers, who had now become proficient in
the Tartar language, and persuaded them to accompany him on
his journey to the presence of the Great Khan, who had never
yet set eyes on a man of the West, and would, he assured
them, receive them honourably. They would not have been
Venetians had they refused such an opportunity, and, taking
their Venetian servants with them, they journeyed for a year
with the Tartar embassy across the heart of Asia, and so
reached the great Kublai Khan. Many years later Marco himself
described their reception, as they had told it to him:

Being introduced to the presence of the Grand Khan Kublai,
the travellers were received by him with the condescension
and affability that belonged to his character, and as they
were the first Latins who had made their appearance in that
country, they were entertained with feasts and honoured with
other marks of distinction. Entering graciously into
conversations with them, he made earnest inquiries on the
subject of the western parts of the world, of the Emperor of
the Romans, and of other Christian kings and princes ... and
above all he questioned them particularly respecting the
Pope, the affairs of the Church, and the religious worship
and doctrine of the Christians. Being well instructed and
discreet men, they gave appropriate answers upon all these
points, and as they were perfectly acquainted with the Tartar
language, they expressed themselves always in becoming terms;
insomuch that the Grand Khan, holding them in high
estimation, frequently commanded their attendance.[16]


The Great Khan finally decided to send these two intelligent strangers
back to their own land on a mission from himself to the Pope, asking for
a hundred men of learning to be sent to teach and preach to his Tartars,
and for some holy oil from the lamp which burned over Christ's sepulchre
in Jerusalem. He provided them with a golden tablet of honour, which
acted as a passport and secured that they should be entertained and
their journey facilitated from city to city in all his dominions, and so
they set forth once more upon their homeward journey, But they were
delayed by the dangers and difficulties of travel, 'the extreme cold,
the snow, the ice, and the flooding of the rivers', and it was three
years before they at last reached Acre in the April of 1269, and finding
that the Pope had died the year before, and that no election had yet
been made, so that they could not immediately accomplish their mission,
they decided to visit their home again, and so went back to Venice.
There Nicolo found that his wife, who had been with child at his
departure, was dead, leaving behind her a son Marco, our young
haunter of quays.


This was the marvellous tale which the same Marco drank in from the lips
of his new-found father and uncle. But more marvels were to come. For
two years the Venetians remained at home, awaiting the election of a
Pope in order to deliver the Great Khan's letters; but no election was
made, and at last, fearing that Kublai might suspect them of playing him
false, they decided to return to the East, and this time they took with
them Marco, now a well-grown lad of sixteen or seventeen years with a
bright eye that looked everywhere and took in everything, observant and
sober beyond his age. But when they got as far as Ayas on the Gulf of
Scanderoon, news was brought them of the election of Tebaldo di Piacenza
as Pope Gregory X, and as Tebaldo had already interested himself in
their mission, they returned with all speed to Acre, and obtained from
him letters to the Khan (they had already visited Jerusalem and provided
themselves with some of the holy oil), and two Dominican friars, 'men of
letters and science as well as profound theologians,' though not the
hundred men of learning for whom the Khan had asked; and so they set out
again from Acre in November 1271. The Dominicans may have been profound
theologians, but they were somewhat chicken-hearted adventurers, and
when rumours reached them of wars in the district of Armenia, through
which they had to pass, they hastily handed over their letters to the
Venetians, put themselves under the protection of the Knights Templars,
and scuttled back to the coast and safety as fast as they could go,
leaving the Polos, 'undismayed by perils and difficulties, to which they
had long been inured,' to proceed alone. Assuredly, St Francis crows
over St Dominic somewhere in the courts of Heaven; his friars never
feared for their skins, as they travelled blithely into the heat of
India and the cold of central Asia; and it is easy to imagine the
comments of fat William of Rubruck upon the flight of the profound

The account of this second journey of the Polos may be read in the
wonderful book which Marco afterwards wrote to describe the wonders of
the world. They went from Lajazzo through Turcomania, past Mount Ararat,
where Marco heard tell that Noah's ark rested, and where he first heard
also of the oil wells of Baku and the great inland sea of Caspian. Past
Mosul and Bagdad they went, through Persia, where brocades are woven and
merchants bring caravan after caravan of treasures, to Hormuz, on the
Persian Gulf, into which port put the ships from India, laden with
spices, drugs, scented woods, and jewels, gold tissues and elephants'
teeth. Here they meant to take ship, but they desisted, perhaps because
they feared to trust themselves to the flimsy nailless vessels in which
the Arabs braved the dangers of the Indian Ocean. So they turned north
again and prepared to make the journey by land. They traversed the salt
desert of Kerman, through Balk and Khorassan to Badakhshan, where there
are horses bred from Alexander the Great's steed Bucephalus, and ruby
mines and lapis lazuli. It is a land of beautiful mountains and wide
plains, of trout streams and good hunting, and here the brothers
sojourned for nearly a year, for young Marco had fallen ill in the hot
plains: a breath of mountain air blows through the page in which he
describes how amid the clean winds his health came back to him. When he
was well, they went on again, and ascended the upper Oxus to the
highlands of Pamir, 'the roof of the world' as it has been called in our
own time, a land of icy cold, where Marco saw and described the great
horned sheep which hunters and naturalists still call after him the
_Ovis Poli_,[17] a land which no traveller (save Benedict Goes, about
1604) described again, until Lieutenant John Wood of the Indian Navy
went there in 1838. Thence they descended upon Kashgar, Yarkand, and
Khotan, where jade is found, regions which no one visited again until
1860. From Khotan they pushed on to the vicinity of Lake Lob, never to
be reached again until a Russian explorer got there in 1871. They halted
there to load asses and camels with provisions, and then, with sinking
hearts, they began the terrible thirty days' journey across the Gobi
Desert. Marco gives a vivid description of its terrors, voices which
seem to call the traveller by name, the march of phantom cavalcades,
which lures them off the road at night, spirits which fill the air with
sounds of music, drums and gongs and the clash of arms--all those
illusions which human beings have heard and seen and feared in every
desert and in every age.

What might this be? A thousand fantasies
Begin to throng into my memory,
Of calling shapes, and beckoning shadows dire,
And airy tongues that syllable men's names
On sands and shores and desert wildernesses.

At last they arrived safely at Tangut in the extreme north-west of
China, and, skirting the frontier across the great steppes of Mongolia,
they were greeted by the Khan's people, who had been sent forward to
meet them at the distance of forty days' journey, and so at last they
reached his presence in the May of 1275, having journeyed for three
years and a half.

The Great Khan received the Polos kindly, listened attentively to the
account which they gave of their mission, commended them for their zeal
and fidelity, and received the holy oil and the Pope's gifts with
reverence. He then observed the boy Marco, now a 'young gallant' and
personable enough, no doubt, and inquired who he was, and Nicolo made
answer, 'Sire, this is your servant, and my son,' to which the Khan
replied, 'He is welcome, and much it pleases me,' and enrolled Marco
among his own attendants. It was the beginning of a long and close
association, for Kublai Khan soon found that Marco Polo was both
discreet and intelligent, and began to employ him on various missions.
Moreover, Marco, for his part, found that the Great Khan was always
desirous of learning the manners and customs of the many tribes over
whom he ruled. Kublai had to the full that noble curiosity which is the
beginning of wisdom, and it irked him exceedingly that his envoys, good
conscientious men, followed their noses upon his business, looking
neither to right nor to left, and as like as not never even noticed that
among the aboriginal hill tribes of the interior called Miaotzu there
prevailed the peculiar and entertaining custom of the _couvade_, wherein

Chinese go to bed
And lie in, in their ladies' stead.[18]

'The Prince, in consequence,' says Marco, 'held them for no better than
fools and dolts and would say, "I had far liever hearken about the
strange things and the manners of the different countries you have seen
than merely be told of the business you went upon,"'

Very different was the habit of the Venetian, who as a lad, had lent ear
so readily to swarthy sailors on the Rialto. He quickly picked up
several of the languages current in the Great Khan's empire, and here is
his account of his proceedings when on a mission to foreign parts:

Perceiving that the Great Khan took a pleasure in hearing
accounts of whatever was new to him respecting the customs
and manners of people, and the peculiar circumstances of
distant countries, he endeavoured, wherever he went, to
obtain correct information on these subjects and made notes
of all he saw and heard, in order to gratify the curiosity of
his master. In short, during seventeen years that he
continued in his service, he rendered himself so useful, that
he was employed on confidential missions to every part of the
empire and its dependencies; and sometimes also he travelled
on his own private account, but always with the consent and
sanctioned by the authority of the Grand Khan. In such
circumstances it was that Marco Polo had the opportunity of
acquiring a knowledge, either by his own observation or by
what he collected from others, of so many things until his
time unknown, respecting the Eastern parts of the world, and
these he diligently and regularly committed to writing....
And by this means he obtained so much honour that he provoked
the jealousy of other officers of the court.[19]

It is small wonder that when first the lad came back with his reports
the Great Khan and his courtiers marvelled and exclaimed, 'If this young
man live he will assuredly be a person of great worth and ability.'

It was while on these various public missions that Marco Polo journeyed
through the provinces of Shansi, Shensi, and Szechuen, and skirted the
edge of Tibet to Yunnan, and entered Northern Burma, lands unknown again
to the West until after 1860. For three years he was himself governor of
the great city of Yangchow, which had twenty-four towns under its
jurisdiction, and was full of traders and makers of arms and military
accoutrements.[20] He visited Karakorum in Mongolia, the old Tartar
capital, and with his Uncle Maffeo spent three years in Tangut. On
another occasion he went on a mission to Cochin China, and by sea to the
southern states of India, and he has left a vivid picture of the great
trading cities of Malabar. He might indeed have pondered with Ulysses,

I am become a name
For always roaming with a hungry heart,
Much have I seen and known, cities of men,
And manners, climates, countries, governments,
Myself not least, but honoured of them all.

He describes the great capital Cambaluc (Peking) in the north, and the
beautiful Kinsai (Hangchow) in the south. He describes the Khan's summer
palace at Shandu, with its woods and gardens, its marble palace, its
bamboo pavilion swung like a tent from two hundred silken cords, its
stud of white mares, and its wonder-working magicians. Indeed his
description of the summer palace is better known to Englishmen than any
other part of his work, for Shandu is Xanadu, which Coleridge saw in a
dream after he had been reading Marco's book and wove into
wonderful verse:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree,
Where Alph the sacred river ran,
Past caverns measureless to man,
Down to a sunless sea.

And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills
Where blossomed many an incense bearing tree,
And here were forests, ancient as the hills
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

Nor is it only palaces which Marco Polo describes, for he tells of the
great canal and inland river trade of China, the exports and imports at
its harbours, the paper money, the system of posts and caravanserais,
which linked it together. He gives an unsurpassed picture of that huge,
rich, peaceful empire, full of wealth and commerce and learned men and
beautiful things, and of its ruler Kublai Khan, one of the noblest
monarchs who ever sat upon a throne, who, since 'China is a sea that
salts all the rivers that flow into it,'[21] was far more than a
barbarous Mongol khan, was in very truth a Chinese emperor, whose house,
called by the Chinese the 'Yuan Dynasty', takes its place among the
great dynasties of China.

Even more than Marco Polo tells us he must, indeed, have seen. The
impersonality of the greater part of the book is its one blemish, for we
would fain know more of how he lived in China. There is some evidence
that he consorted with the Mongol conquerors rather than with the
Chinese, and that Chinese was not one of the languages which he learned.
He makes no mention of several characteristic Chinese customs, such as
the compressed feet of the women, and fishing with cormorants (both of
which are described by Ordoric of Pordenone after him); he travelled
through the tea districts of Fo-kien, but he never mentions
tea-drinking, and he has no word to say even of the Great Wall.[22] And
how typical a European he is, in some ways, for all his keen interest in
new and strange things. 'They are,' he says of the peaceful merchants
and scholars of Suchow, 'a pusillanimous race and solely occupied with
their trade and manufactures. In these indeed they display considerable
ability, and if they were as enterprising, manly, and warlike as they
are ingenious, so prodigious is their number that they might not only
subdue the whole of the province, but carry their rule further
still.'[23] Nearly five hundred years later we find the same judgement
expressed in different words: 'Better fifty years of Europe than a cycle
of Cathay.' The answer is a question: Would you rather be the
pusillanimous Chinese, who painted the landscape roll of which a portion
is reproduced opposite page 52, or the enterprising, manly, and warlike
European of the same period, whose highest achievement in pictorial art
is the picture of Marco Polo's embarkation, reproduced opposite page 21?
What is civilization and what progress? Yet Marco Polo shows himself
throughout his book far from unable to appreciate other standards than
those of his own land and religion, for of Sakya-muni Buddha he says
that, 'had he been a Christian he would have been a great saint of our
Lord Jesus Christ,' and he could honour Kublai as that great
Khan deserved.

Nevertheless, although Marco Polo shows less knowledge of the Chinese
than one might expect from the extraordinary detail and fidelity of his
observation in other directions, he must have known many of these
charming and cultivated people, at Kinsai or Cambaluc, or at the city
which he governed. Among others, he must have known the great artist who
painted the roll mentioned above, Chao Meng-fu, whom the Chinese called
'_Sung ksueeh Tao jen_' or the 'Apostle of Pine Trees and Snow'. He was a
lineal descendant of the founder of the Sung dynasty and a hereditary
official. When that dynasty at last fell before the Tartars, he and his
friend Ch'ien Hsuean, 'the Man of the Jade Pool and Roaring Torrent',
retired into private life. But in 1286 Chao Meng-fu was summoned to
court by Kublai Khan, and, to the indignation of his friend, returned
and became secretary in the Board of War, occupying his time in this
post (what must Marco Polo have thought of him!) in painting his
marvellous pictures. He became a great favourite of the Khan and was
always about the court, and Marco Polo must have known him well and
perhaps have watched him at work painting those matchless landscapes,
and those pictures of horses and men for which he was famous. Marco
loved horses, as, indeed, he loved all kinds of sport (of which he had
plenty, for the Khan was a great hunter and hawker), and he has left a
word picture of the white brood mares at Shansi, which may be set beside
Chao Meng-fu's brush picture of the 'Eight Horses in the Park of Kublai
Khan'.[24] He knew, too, perhaps Chao Meng-fu's wife, the Lady Kuan, who
painted most exquisitely the graceful bamboo and the peony, so loved by
Chinese artists, and of whom it is related that 'she would watch the
moving shadows of the sprays thrown by the moon on the paper windows,
and transfer the fugitive outlines to paper with a few strokes of her
supple brush, so that every smallest scrap of her work was mounted in
albums as models for others to copy'.[25] Chao Meng-fu and the Lady Kuan
had a son, Chao Yung, who is of special interest to us, for he painted a
picture of a Tangut hunter, and Marco Polo has also given a description
of the Tartar horsemen and of the province of Tangut, where he saw and
described the musk deer and the yak.

But we must return to the history of the Polos in China. From time to
time in Marco's book we hear also of his father and uncle, travelling
about the empire, growing rich by trade, and amassing a store of those
jewels, in the value of which they were so skilled, even helping the
Khan to reduce a rebel town, by constructing siege engines for him on
the European model, handy Venetians that they were, who could lay their
hands to anything.[27] Without doubt they were proud of their Marco, who
from an inquisitive lad had grown to so wise and observant a man, and
had risen to so high a position. So for seventeen years the three Polos
abode in the Khan's service in China. The long months slipped by; and at
last they began to feel upon them a longing to see Venice and the
lagoons again, and to hear Mass once more beneath the majestic roof of
St Mark's before they died. Moreover, Kublai Khan was growing old
himself, and the favour which he had always shown to them had excited
some jealousy among his own people, and they feared what might happen
when he died. But the old Khan was adamant to all their prayers; wealth
and honours were theirs for the asking, but he would not let them go.
They might, indeed, have died in China, and we of the West might never
have heard of Marco Polo or of Kublai Khan, but for a mere accident, a
stroke of fate, which gave them their chance. In 1286 Arghun, the Khan
of Persia, lost by death his favourite wife Bolgana, and, according to
her dying wish, he sent ambassadors to the Court of Peking to ask for
another bride from her own Mongol tribe. Their overland route home again
was endangered by a war, and they therefore proposed to return by sea.
Just at that moment, Marco Polo happened to return from a voyage on
which he had been sent, and spoke with such assurance of the ease with
which it had been accomplished, that the three ambassadors conceived a
strong desire to take with them all three of these ingenious Venetians,
who seemed to know so much about ships. Thus it was that the great Khan
was prevailed upon, very reluctantly, to let them go.

Early in 1292 they set sail from the busy port of Zaiton in fourteen
big Chinese junks (of which Marco, writing of the shipping of the
Indian and China seas, has left an excellent description),[28] with the
three envoys, the princess, a beautiful girl of seventeen, 'moult bele
dame at avenant,' says Marco, who had an eye for pretty ladies, and a
large suite of attendants. One version of Marco's book says that they
took with them also the daughter of the king of Mansi, one of those Sung
princesses who in happier days had wandered beside the lake in Hangchow,
and who had no doubt been brought up at Cambaluc by the care of Kublai
Khan's favourite queen, the Lady Jamui. The voyage was a long and
difficult one; they suffered lengthy delays in Sumatra, Ceylon, and
Southern India, occupied by Marco in studying the sea charts of the
coast of India which the Arab pilots showed him, and adding to his
knowledge of these parts, which he had already visited. Thus it was over
two years before the junks reached Persia, and two of the three envoys
and a large number of their suite had died by the way. When at last they
landed, it was found that Arghun, the prospective bridegroom, had
meanwhile died too, leaving his throne in the charge of a regent for his
young son. But on the regent's advice a convenient solution of the
difficulty was found by handing the princess over to this prince, and
Marco and his uncles duly conducted her to him in the province of
Timochain, where Marco Polo noticed that the women were 'in my opinion
the most beautiful in the world', where stood the famed and solitary
_arbor secco_, and where men still told tales of great Alexander and
Darius. There they took leave of their princess, who had come on the
long voyage to love them like fathers, so Marco says, and wept sorely
when they parted. It was while they were still in Persia, where they
stayed for nine months after handing over the princess, that the Polos
received news of the death of the Great Khan whom they had served so
faithfully for so many years. He died at the ripe age of eighty, and
with his death a shadow fell over central Asia, darkening the shining
yellow roofs of Cambaluc,

the barren plains
Of Sericana, where Chineses drive
With sails and wind their cany waggons light,

the minarets of Persia, and the tents of wild Kipchak Tartars, galloping
over the Russian steppes. So wide had been the sway of Kublai Khan. A
shadow fell also upon the heart of Marco Polo. It was as though a door
had clanged to behind him, never to open again. 'In the course of their
journey,' he says, 'our travellers received intelligence of the Great
Khan having departed this life, which entirely put an end to all
prospects of their revisiting those regions.' So he and his elders went
on by way of Tabriz, Trebizond, and Constantinople to Venice, and sailed
up to the city of the lagoons at long last at the end of 1295.

A strange fairy-tale legend has come down to us about the return of the
Polos. 'When they got thither,' says Ramusio, who edited Marco's book in
the fifteenth century, 'the same fate befell them as befell Ulysses, who
when he returned after his twenty years' wanderings to his native Ithaca
was recognized by nobody.' When, clad in their uncouth Tartar garb, the
three Polos knocked at the doors of the Ca' Polo, no one recognized
them, and they had the greatest difficulty in persuading their relatives
and fellow-Venetians that they were indeed those Polos who had been
believed dead for so many years. The story goes that they satisfactorily
established their identity by inviting all their kinsmen to a great
banquet, for each course of which they put on a garment more magnificent
than the last, and finally, bringing in their coarse Tartar coats, they
ripped open the seams and the lining thereof, 'upon which there poured
forth a great quantity of precious stones, rubies, sapphires,
carbuncles, diamonds, and emeralds, which had been sewn into each coat
with great care, so that nobody could have suspected that anything was
there.... The exhibition of such an extraordinary and infinite treasure
of jewels and precious stones, which covered the table, once more filled
all present with such astonishment that they were dumb and almost beside
themselves with surprise: and they at once recognized these honoured and
venerated gentlemen in the Ca' Polo, whom at first they had doubted and
received them with the greatest honour and reverence.[29] Human nature
has changed little since the thirteenth century. The precious stones are
a legend, but no doubt the Polos brought many with them, for they were
jewel merchants by trade; they had had ample opportunities for business
in China, and the Great Khan had loaded them with 'rubies and other
handsome jewels of great value' to boot. Jewels were the most
convenient form in which they could have brought home their wealth. But
the inquiring Marco brought other things also to tickle the curiosity of
the Venetians, as he lets fall from time to time in his book. He
brought, for example, specimens of the silky hair of the Tangut yak,
which his countrymen much admired, the dried head and feet of a musk
deer, and the seeds of a dye plant (probably indigo) from Sumatra, which
he sowed in Venice, but which never came up, because the climate was not
sufficiently warm.[30] He brought presents also for the Doge; for an
inventory made in 1351 of things found in the palace of Marino Faliero
includes among others a ring given by Kublai Khan, a Tartar collar, a
three-bladed sword, an Indian brocade, and a book 'written by the hand
of the aforesaid Marco,' called _De locis mirabilibus Tartarorum_.[31]

The rest of Marco Polo's life is quickly told. The legend goes that all
the youth of Venice used to resort to the Ca' Polo in order to hear his
stories, for not even among the foreign sailors on the quays, where once
the boy Marco had wandered and asked about the Tartars, were stories the
like of his to be heard. And because he was always talking of the
greatness of Kublai Khan's dominions, the millions of revenue, the
millions of junks, the millions of riders, the millions of towns and
cities, they gave him a nickname and jestingly called him Marco
_Milione_, or _Il Milione_, which is, being interpreted, 'Million
Marco'; and the name even crept into the public documents of the
Republic, while the courtyard of his house became known as the _Corte
Milione_. To return from legend to history, the ancient rivalry between
Venice and Genoa had been growing during Marco Polo's absence, nor had
Venice always prevailed. Often as her galleys sailed,

dipping deep
For Famagusta and the hidden sun
That rings black Cyprus with a lake of fire, ...
Questing brown slaves or Syrian oranges,
The pirate Genoese
Hell raked them till they rolled
Blood, water, fruit, and corpses up the hold.

At last in 1298, three years after Marco's return, a Genoese fleet under
Lamba Doria sailed for the Adriatic, to bate the pride of Venice in her
own sea. The Venetians fitted out a great fleet to meet it, and Marco
Polo, the handy man who knew so much about navigation, albeit more
skilled with Chinese junks than with western ships, went with it as
gentleman commander of a galley. The result of the encounter was a
shattering victory for the Genoese off Curzola. Sixty-eight Venetian
galleys were burnt, and seven thousand prisoners were haled off to
Genoa, among them Marco Polo, who had now a taste of the results of that
enterprise, manliness, and warfare, whose absence he so deprecated in
the men of Suchow.

But soon there began to run through the streets and courtyards of Genoa
a rumour that in prison there lay a certain Venetian captain, with tales
so wonderful to beguile the passing hours that none could tire of
hearing them; and anon the gallants and sages and the bold ladies of
Genoa were flocking, just as the men of the Rialto had flocked before,
to hear his stories of Kublai Khan.

Lord of the fruits of Tartary
Her rivers silver-pale,
Lord of the hills of Tartary,
Glen, thicket, wood, and dale,
Her flashing stars, her scented breeze,
Her trembling lakes, like foamless seas,
Her bird-delighting citron-trees
In every purple vale.

'Messer Marco,' so runs Ramusio's account of the tradition which
lingered in Venice in his day, 'finding himself in this position, and
witnessing the general eagerness to hear all about Cathay and the Great
Khan, which indeed compelled him daily to repeat his story till he was
weary, was advised to put the matter in writing, so he found means to
get a letter written to his father in Venice, in which he desired the
latter to send those notes and memoranda which he had brought home
with him.'

It happened that in prison with Marco Polo there lay a certain Pisan
writer of romances, Rusticiano by name,[32] who had probably been taken
prisoner before at the battle of Melaria (1284), when so many Pisan
captives had been carried to Genoa, that the saying arose 'He who would
see Pisa let him go to Genoa.' Rusticiano was skilled in the writing of
French, the language _par excellence_ of romances, in which he had
written versions of the Round Table Tales, and in him Marco Polo found a
ready scribe, who took down the stories as he told them, in the midst of
the crowd of Venetian prisoners and Genoese gentlemen, raptly drinking
in all the wonders of Kublai Khan. It was by a just instinct that, when
all was written, Rusticiano prefixed to the tale that same address to
the lords and gentlemen of the world, bidding them to take heed and
listen, which he had been wont to set at the beginning of his tales of
Tristan and Lancelot and King Arthur: 'Ye Lords, Emperors and Kings,
Dukes and Marquises, Counts, Knights and Burgesses and all ye men who
desire to know the divers races of men and the diversities of the
different regions of the world, take ye this book and cause it to be
read, and here shall ye find the greatest marvels.' But he adds, 'Marco
Polo, a wise and learned citizen of Venice, states distinctly what
things he saw and what things he heard from others, for this book will
be a truthful one.' Marco Polo's truthful marvels were more wonderful
even than the exploits of Arthur's knights, and were possibly better
suited to the respectable Rusticiano's pen, for his only other claim to
distinction in the eyes of posterity seems to be that in his abridgment
of the Romance of Lancelot he entirely omits the episode (if episode it
can be called) of the loves of Lancelot and Guinevere. 'Alas,' remarks
his French editor, 'that the copy of Lancelot which fell into the hands
of poor Francesca of Rimini was not one of those expurgated by
Rusticiano!' [33]

Marco Polo was released from prison (there must have been mourning in
the palaces of Genoa) and returned to Venice at the end of a year.
Sometimes hereafter his name occurs in the records of Venice, as he
moves about on his lawful occasions.[34] In 1305 we find 'Nobilis
Marchus Polo Milioni' standing surety for a wine smuggler; in 1311 he is
suing a dishonest agent who owes him money on the sale of musk (he,
Marco, had seen the musk deer in its lair); and in 1323 he is concerned
in a dispute about a party wall. We know too, from his will, that he had
a wife named Donata, and three daughters, Fantina, Bellela, and Moreta.
Had he loved before, under the alien skies where his youth was spent,
some languid, exquisite lady of China, or hardy Tartar maid? Had he
profited himself from the strange marriage customs of Tibet, of which he
remarks (with one of his very rare gleams of humour), 'En cele contree
aurent bien aler les jeume de seize anz en vingt quatre'? Had Fantina,
Bellela, and Moreta half-brothers, flying their gerfalcons at the quails
by the shores of the 'White Lake' where the Khan hunted, and telling
tales of the half legendary father, who sailed away for ever when they
were boys in the days of Kublai Khan? These things we cannot know, nor
can we ever guess whether he regretted that only daughters sprang from
his loins in the city of the lagoons, and no Venetian son to go
venturing again to the far-distant country where assuredly he had left a
good half of his heart. Perhaps he talked of it sometimes to Peter, his
Tartar servant, whom he freed at his death 'from all bondage as
completely as I pray God to release mine own soul from all sin and
guilt'. Some have thought that he brought Peter the Tartar with him from
the East, and the thought is a pleasant one; but it is more likely that
he bought him in Italy, for the Venetians were inveterate slave-owners,
and captive Tartars were held of all the slaves the strongest and best.
So his life passed; and in 1324 Marco Polo died, honoured much by his
fellow-citizens, after making a will which is still preserved in the
library of St Mark's.

A characteristic story of his death-bed is related by a Dominican friar,
one Jacopo of Acqui, who wrote some time later. 'What he told in the
book,' says Jacopo, 'was not as much as he had really seen, because of
the tongues of detractors, who being ready to impose their own lies on
others, are over hasty to set down as lies what they in their perversity
disbelieve or do not understand. And because there are many great and
strange things in that book, which are reckoned past all credence, he
was asked by his friends on his death-bed to correct the book, by
removing everything that went beyond the facts. To which his reply was
that he had not told _one half_ of what he had really seen.'[35] How
well one can see that last indignant flash of the dying observer, who in
the long years of his youth had taken notes of strange tribes and
customs for the wise and gracious Kublai Khan, and whom little men now
dared to doubt. Indeed, modern discovery has entirely confirmed the
exactitude of Marco Polo's observation. It is true that he sometimes
repeated some very tall stories which had been told to him, of dog-faced
men in the Andaman Islands and of the 'male and female islands' so
beloved of medieval geographers. These were sailors' yarns, and where
Marco Polo reports what he has seen with his own eyes, he reports with
complete accuracy, nor does he ever pretend to have seen a place which
he had not visited. The explorers of our own day, Aurel Stein, Ellsworth
Huntington, and Sven Hedin, travelling in central Asia, have
triumphantly vindicated him. 'It is,' says an eminent French historian,
'as though the originals of very old photographs had been suddenly
rediscovered: the old descriptions of things which were unchanged could
be perfectly superimposed upon present reality,'[36] and Huntington and
Aurel Stein took with them to the inaccessible districts of central Asia
as guide-books the book of the Chinese pilgrim Hiwen Thsang (seventh
century) and the book of Marco Polo, and over and over again found how
accurate were their descriptions.

It is indeed almost impossible to exaggerate the extent of Marco Polo's
accomplishment. It is best estimated in the often-quoted words of Sir
Henry Yule, whose edition of his book is one of the great works of
English scholarship:

He was the first traveller to trace a route across the whole
longitude of Asia, naming and describing kingdom after
kingdom, which he had seen with his own eyes, the desert of
Persia, the flowering plateaux and wild gorges of Badakhshan,
the jade-bearing rivers of Khotan, the Mongol steppes, cradle
of the power that had so lately threatened to swallow up
Christendom, the new and brilliant court that had been
established at Cambaluc: the first Travellers to reveal China
in all its wealth and vastness, its mighty rivers, its huge
cities, its rich manufactures, its swarming population, the
inconceivably vast fleets that quickened its seas and inland
waters; to tell us of the nations on its borders with all
their eccentricities of manners and worship; of Tibet with
its sordid devotees; of Burma with its golden pagodas and
their tinkling crowns; of Laos, of Siam, of Cochin China, of
Japan, the Eastern Thule, with its rosy pearls and
golden-roofed palaces; the first to speak of that Museum of
Beauty and Wonder, still so imperfectly ransacked, the Indian
Archipelago, source of those aromatics then so highly prized
and whose origin was so dark; of Java the Pearl of Islands;
of Sumatra with its many kings, its strange costly products,
and its cannibal races; of the naked savages of Nicobar
and Andaman; of Ceylon, the Isle of Gems, with its Sacred
Mountain and its Tomb of Adam; of India the Great, not as a
dreamland of Alexandrian fables, but as a country seen and
partially explored, with its virtuous Brahmans, its obscene
ascetics, its diamonds and the strange tales of their
acquisition, its sea-beds of pearl and its powerful sun; the
first in modern times to give any distinct account of the
secluded Christian Empire of Abyssinia, to speak, though
indeed dimly, of Zanzibar with its negroes and its ivory and
of the vast and distant Madagascar, bordering on the Dark
Ocean of the South, with its Ruc and other monstrosities; and
in a remotely opposite region, of Siberia and the Arctic
Ocean, of dog-sledges, white bears and reindeer-riding

The knowledge which Marco Polo had thus brought to Europe, the
intercourse between East and West which his experience had shown to be
so desirable, continued to grow after him. Merchants and missionaries
alike travelled by land or sea eastward to Cathay.[38] Another of those
indomitable Franciscan friars, John of Monte Corvino, went out at the
age of fifty and became Archbishop of Peking. Churches and houses of
friars were founded in some of the Chinese cities. Odoric of Pordenone,
another friar, and a very good observer too, set forth in 1316 and
sailed round India and through the Spice Islands by the same sea route
by which the Polos had brought their Tartar princess back to Persia, and
so reached Canton, 'a city as big as three Venices ... and all Italy
hath not the amount of craft that this one city hath.' He left a
wonderful account of his travels in China, including descriptions of
Peking and Hangchow, and ends his stories with the words, 'As for me,
from day to day I prepare myself to return to those countries, in which
I am content to die, if it pleaseth Him from whom all good things do
come'--no doubt where he had left his heart, but he died at Udine in
Italy. Later there went out another friar, John Marignolli, who was
Papal Legate to Peking from 1342 to 1346.

Nor was it only missionaries who went to Cathay. Odoric, speaking of the
wonders of Hangchow, refers for confirmation to Venetian traders who
have visited it: ''Tis the greatest city in the whole world, so great
indeed that I should scarcely venture to tell of it, but that I have met
at Venice people in plenty who have been there'; John of Monte Corvino
was accompanied by Master Peter of Lucolongo, 'a great merchant,' and
John Marignolli mentions a _fondaco_ for the use of Christian merchants,
which was attached to one of the Franciscan convents at Zaiton. Above
all, there is Francis Balducci Pegolotti, that intrepid factor who
served the great commercial house of the Bardi of Florence, and who
wrote a priceless handbook for the use of merchants about 1340. In this
he gives detailed instructions for the guidance of a merchant, who
wishes to proceed from Tana on the Black Sea by the overland route
across Asia to Cathay and back again with L12,000 worth of silk in his
caravan, and remarks casually, in passing, 'The road you travel from
Tana to Cathay is perfectly safe, whether by day or night, according to
what merchants say who have used it'--'il chanmino dandare dana Tana al
Ghattajo _e sichurissimo_![39] Think only of what it all means. Marco
Polo travelling where no man set foot again till the twentieth century.
The bells of the Christian church ringing sweetly in the ears of the
Great Khan in Peking. The long road across central Asia perfectly safe
for merchants. The 'many persons at Venice' who have walked in the
streets of Hangchow. This is in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth
centuries, in the despised and hidebound Middle Ages. _E sichurissimo_!
It takes some of the gilt off Columbus and Vasco da Gama and the age
(forsooth) of 'discovery'.

But a change came over everything in the middle of the fourteenth
century. Darkness fell again and swallowed up Peking and Hangchow, the
great ports, the crowding junks, the noble civilization. No longer was
the great trade route _sichurissimo_, and no longer did Christian friars
chant their Masses in Zaiton. The Tartar dynasty fell and the new rulers
of China reverted to the old anti-foreign policy; moreover, Islam spread
its conquests all over central Asia and lay like a rampart between the
far east and west, a great wall of intolerance and hatred stronger by
far than the great wall of stone which the Chinese had once built to
keep out the Tartars. All Marco Polo's marvels became no more than a
legend, a traveller's tale.

But that great adventurer was not done for yet. Nearly a century and a
half after Marco's death a Genoese sea captain sat poring over one of
the new printed books, which men were beginning to buy and to hand
about among themselves. The book which he was reading was the Latin
version of Marco Polo's travels. He was reading it with intentness and
indeed with passion. As he read he made notes in the margin; on over
seventy pages he made his notes.[40] From time to time he frowned and
turned back and read again the tale of those great ports of Cathay and
the gold-roofed palaces of Cipangu; and always he wondered how those
lands might be reached, now that the wall of darkness covered central
Asia, and anarchy blocked the road to the Persian Gulf. One day (may we
not see him?) he lifted his head and smote his hand upon the table. 'I
will sail west', he said. 'Maybe I shall find the lost island of Antilha
in the western ocean, but maybe on its far rim I shall indeed come to
Cipangu, for the world is round, and somewhere in those great seas
beyond the coast of Europe must lie Marco Polo's rich Cathay. I will
beseech the kings of England and of Spain for a ship and a ship's
company, and the silk and the spices and the wealth shall be theirs. I
will sail west,' said the Genoese sea captain, and he smote his thigh.
'I will sail west, west, west!' And this was the last of Messer Marco's
marvels; he discovered China in the thirteenth century, when he was
alive, and in the fifteenth, when he was dead, he discovered America!


_Madame Eglentyne_


Ther was also a Nonne, a Prioresse,
That of her smyling was ful simple and coy;
Hir grettest ooth was ne but by seynt Loy;
And she was cleped madame Eglentyne.
Ful wel she song the service divyne,
Entuned in hir nose ful semely;
And Frensh she spak ful faire and fetisly,
After the scole of Stratford atte Bowe,
For Frensh of Paris was to hir unknowe.
At mete wel y-taught was she with-alle;
She leet no morsel from hir lippes falle,
Ne wette hir fingres in hir sauce depe.
Wel coude she carie a morsel and wel kepe,
That no drope ne fille up-on hir brest.
In curteisye was set ful muche hir lest.
Hir over lippe wyped she so clene,
That in hir coppe was no ferthing sene
Of grece, whan she dronken haddie hir draughte
Ful semely after hir mete she raughte,
And sikerly she was of greet disport,
And ful plesaunt and amiable of port,
And peyned hir to countrefete chere
Of court, and been estatlich of manere,
And to be holden digne of reverence.
But, for to speken of hir conscience,
She was so charitable and so pitous,
She wolde wepe, if that she sawe a mous
Caught in a trap, if it were deed or bledde.
Of smale houndes had she, that she fedde
With rosted flesh, or milk and wastel-breed.
But sore weep she if oon of hem were deed,
Or if men smoot it with a yerde smerte:
And al was conscience and tendre herte
Ful semely hir wimpel pinched was:
Hir nose tretys; her eyen greye as glas;
Hir mouth ful smal, and ther-to softe and reed;
But sikerly she hadde a fair foreheed;
It was almost a spanne brood, I trowe;
For, hardily, she was nat undergrowe.
Ful fetis was hir cloke, as I was war.
Of smal coral aboute hir arm she bar
A peire of bedes, gauded al with grene;
And ther-on heng a broche of gold ful shene,
On which ther was first write a crowned A,
And after, _Amor vincit omnia!_


_Prologue_ to the _Canterbury Tales_

Every one knows Chaucer's description of the Prioress, Madame Eglentyne,
who rode with that very motley and talkative company on the way to
Canterbury. There is no portrait in his gallery which has given rise to
more diverse comment among critics. One interprets it as a cutting
attack on the worldliness of the Church; another thinks that Chaucer
meant to draw a charming and sympathetic picture of womanly gentleness;
one says that it is a caricature, another an ideal; and an American
professor even finds in it a psychological study of thwarted maternal
instinct, apparently because Madame Eglentyne was fond of little dogs
and told a story about a schoolboy. The mere historian may be excused
from following these vagaries. To him Chaucer's Prioress, like Chaucer's
monk and Chaucer's friar, will simply be one more instance of the almost
photographic accuracy of the poet's observation. The rippling
undercurrent of satire is always there; but it is Chaucer's own peculiar
satire--mellow, amused, uncondemning, the most subtle kind of satire,
which does not depend upon exaggeration. The literary critic has only
Chaucer's words and his own heart, or sometimes (low be it spoken) his
own desire to be original, by which to guide his judgement. But the
historian knows; he has all sorts of historical sources in which to
study nunneries, and there he meets Chaucer's Prioress at every turn.
Above all, he has the bishop's registers.

For a long time historians foolishly imagined that kings and wars and
parliaments and the jury system alone were history; they liked
chronicles and Acts of Parliament, and it did not strike them to go and
look in dusty episcopal archives for the big books in which medieval
bishops entered up the letters which they wrote and all the complicated
business of running their dioceses. But when historians did think of
looking there, they found a mine of priceless information about almost
every side of social and ecclesiastical life. They had to dig for it of
course, for almost all that is worth knowing has to be mined like
precious metals out of a rock; and for one nugget the miner often has to
grub for days underground in a mass of dullness; and when he has got it
he has to grub in his own heart, or else he will not understand it. The
historians found fine gold in the bishops' registers, when once they
persuaded themselves that it was not beneath their dignity to grub
there. They found descriptions of vicarages, with all their furniture
and gardens; they found marriage disputes; they found wills full of
entertaining legacies to people dead hundreds of years ago; they found
excommunications; they found indulgences to men for relieving the poor,
repairing roads, and building bridges, long before there was any poor
law, or any county council; they found trials for heresy and witchcraft;
they found accounts of miracles worked at the tombs of saints and even
of some quite unsaintly people, such as Thomas of Lancaster, and Edward
II, and Simon de Montfort; they found lists of travelling expenses when
the bishops rode round their dioceses; in one they even found a minute
account of the personal appearance of Queen Philippa, then a little girl
at her father's Court at Hainault, whom the Bishop of Exeter had been
sent to inspect, in order to see if she were pretty and good enough to
marry Edward III: she was nine years old, and the bishop said that her
second teeth were whiter than her first teeth and that her nose was
broad but not snub, which was reassuring for Edward.[1] Last, but not
least, the historians found a multitude of documents about monasteries,
and among these documents they found visitation records, and among
visitation records they found Chaucer's Prioress, smiling full simple
and coy, fair forehead, well-pinched wimple, necklace, little dogs, and
all, as though she had stepped into a stuffy register by mistake for the
_Canterbury Tales_ and was longing to get out again.

This was the reason that Madame Eglentyne got into the register. In the
Middle Ages all the nunneries of England, and a great many of the
monasteries, used to be visited at intervals by the bishop of their
diocese--or by somebody sent by him--in order to see whether they were
behaving properly. It was rather like the periodical visitation of a
school by one of Her Majesty's inspectors, only what happened was very
different. When Her Majesty's inspector comes he does not sit in state
in the hall, and call all the inmates in front of him one after another,
from the head mistress to the smallest child in the first form, and
invite them to say in what way they think the school is not being
properly run, and what complaints they have to make against their
mistresses and which girl habitually breaks the rules--all breathed
softly and privately into his ear, with no one to overhear them. But
when the bishop came to visit a nunnery, that is precisely what
happened. First of all, he sent a letter to say he was coming, and to
bid the nuns prepare for him. Then he came, with his clerks and a
learned official or two, and was met solemnly by the prioress and all
the nuns, and preached a sermon in their church, and was entertained,
perhaps, to dinner. And then he prepared to examine them, and one by one
they came before him, in order of rank, beginning with the prioress, and
what they had to do was to tell tales about each other. He wanted to
find out if the prioress were ruling well, and if the services were
properly performed, and if the finances were in good order, and if
discipline were maintained; and if any nun had a complaint, then was the
time to make it.

And the nuns were full of complaints. A modern schoolgirl would go pale
with horror over their capacity for tale-bearing. If one nun had boxed
her sister's ears, if another had cut church, if another were too much
given to entertaining friends, if another went out without a licence, if
another had run away with a wandering fluteplayer, the bishop was sure
to hear about it; that is, unless the whole convent were in a disorderly
state, and the nuns had made a compact to wink at each other's
peccadilloes; and not to betray them to the bishop, which occasionally
happened. And if the prioress were at all unpopular he was quite certain
to hear all about her. 'She fares splendidly in her own room and never
invites us,' says one nun; 'She has favourites,' says another, 'and
when she makes corrections she passes lightly over those whom she likes,
and speedily punishes those whom she dislikes'; 'She is a fearful
scold,' says a third; 'She dresses more like a secular person than a
nun, and wears rings and necklaces,' says a fourth; 'She goes
out riding to see her friends far too often,' says a fifth;
debt-and-the-church-is-falling about-our-ears-and-we-don't-get-enough-
woods-and farms-without-your-licence-and-she-has-pawned-our-best-set-of
spoons; and no wonder, when she never consults us in any business as she
ought to do.' They go on like that for pages, and the bishop must often
have wanted to put his fingers in his ears and shout to them to stop;
especially as the prioress had probably spent half an hour, for her
part, in telling him how disobedient and ill-tempered, and thoroughly
badly behaved the nuns were.

All these tales the bishop's clerk solemnly wrote down in a big book,
and when the examination was over the bishop summoned all the nuns
together again. And if they had answered 'All is well', as they
sometimes did, or only mentioned trivial faults, he commended them and
went his way; and if they had shown that things really were in a bad
way, he investigated particular charges and scolded the culprits and
ordered them to amend, and when he got back to his palace, or the manor
where he was staying, he wrote out a set of injunctions, based on the
complaints, and saying exactly how things were to be improved; and of
these injunctions one copy was entered in his register and another was
sent by hand to the nuns, who were supposed to read it aloud at
intervals and to obey everything in it. We have in many bishops'
registers these lists of injunctions, copied into them by the bishops'
clerks, and in some, notably in a splendid fifteenth-century Lincoln
register, belonging to the good bishop Alnwick, we have also the
evidence of the nuns, just as it was taken down from their chattering
mouths, and these are the most human and amusing of all medieval
records. It is easy to see what important historical documents
visitation reports are, especially in a diocese like Lincoln, which
possesses an almost unbroken series of registers, ranging over the three
centuries before the Dissolution, so that one can trace the whole
history of some of the nunneries by the successive visitations.

Let us see what light the registers will throw upon Madame Eglentyne,
before Chaucer observed her mounting her horse outside the Tabard Inn.
Doubtless she first came to the nunnery when she was quite a little
girl, because girls counted as grown up when they were fifteen in the
Middle Ages; they could be married out of hand at twelve, and they could
become nuns for ever at fourteen. Probably Eglentyne's father had three
other daughters to marry, each with a dowry, and a gay young spark of a
son, who spent a lot of money on fashionable suits.

Embroidered ... as it were a mede
All ful of fresshe flowers white and rede.

So he thought he had better settle the youngest at once; and he got
together a dowry (it was rarely possible to get into a nunnery without
one, though Church law really forbade anything except voluntary
offerings), and, taking Eglentyne by the hand one summer day, he popped
her into a nunnery a few miles off, which had been founded by his
ancestors. We may even know what it cost him; it was rather a select,
aristocratic house, and he had to pay an entrance fee of L200 in modern
money; and then he had to give Eglentyne her new habit and a bed, and
some other furniture; and he had to make a feast on the day she became a
nun, and invite all the nuns and all his own friends; and he had to tip
the friar, who preached the sermon; and, altogether, it was a great
affair.[2] But the feast would not come at once, because Eglentyne would
have to remain a novice for some years, until she was old enough to take
the vows. So she would stay in the convent and be taught how to sing and
to read, and to talk French of the school of Stratford-atte-Bowe with
the other novices. Perhaps she was the youngest, for girls often did not
enter the convent until they were old enough to decide for themselves
whether they wanted to be nuns; but there were certainly some other
quite tiny novices learning their lessons; and occasionally there would
be a little girl like the one whose sad fate is recorded in a dull
law-book, shut up in a nunnery by a wicked stepfather who wanted her
inheritance (a nun could not inherit land, because she was supposed to
be dead to the world), and told by the nuns that the devil would fly
away with her if she tried to set foot outside the door.[3] However,
Eglentyne had a sunny disposition and liked life in the nunnery, and had
a natural aptitude for the pretty table manners which she learnt there,
as well as for talking French, and though she was not at all prim and
liked the gay clothes and pet dogs which she used to see at home in her
mother's bower, still she had no hesitation at all about taking the veil
when she was fifteen, and indeed she rather liked the fuss that was made
of her, and being called _Madame_ or _Dame_, which was the courtesy
title always given to a nun.

The years passed and Eglentyne's life jogged along peacefully enough
behind the convent walls. The great purpose for which the nunneries
existed, and which most of them fulfilled not unworthily, was the praise
of God. Eglentyne spent a great deal of her time singing and praying in
the convent church, and, as we know,

Ful wel she song the service divyne,
Entuned in hir nose ful semely.

The nuns had seven monastic offices to say every day. About 2 a.m. the
night office was said; they all got out of bed when the bell rang, and
went down in the cold and the dark to the church choir and said Matins,
followed immediately by Lauds. Then they went back to bed, just as the
dawn was breaking in the sky, and slept again for three hours, and then
got up for good at six o'clock and said Prime. After that there followed
Tierce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline, spread at intervals through
the day. The last service, compline, was said at 7 p.m. in winter, and
at 8 p.m. in summer, after which the nuns were supposed to go straight
to bed in the dorter, in which connexion one Nun's Rule ordains that
'None shall push up against another wilfully, nor spit upon the stairs
going up and down, but if they tread it out forthwith'![4] They had in
all about eight hours' sleep, broken in the middle by the night service.
They had three meals, a light repast of bread and beer after prime in
the morning, a solid dinner to the accompaniment of reading aloud in the
middle of the day, and a short supper immediately after vespers at 5
or 6 p.m.

From 12 to 5 p.m. in winter and from 1 to 6 p.m. in summer Eglentyne
and her sisters were supposed to devote themselves to manual or brain
work, interspersed with a certain amount of sober and godly recreation.
She would spin, or embroider vestments with the crowned monogram M of
the Blessed Virgin in blue and gold thread, or make little silken purses
for her friends and finely sewn bands for them to bind round their arms
after a bleeding. She would read too, in her psalter or in such saints'
lives as the convent possessed, written in French or English; for her
Latin was weak, though she could construe _Amor vincit omnia_. Perhaps
her convent took in a few little schoolgirls to learn their letters and
good manners with the nuns, and when she grew older she helped to teach
them to read and sing; for though they were happy, they did not receive
a very extensive education from the good sisters. In the summer
Eglentyne was sometimes allowed to work in the convent garden, or even
to go out haymaking with the other nuns; and came back round-eyed to
confide in her confessor that she had seen the cellaress returning
therefrom seated behind the chaplain on his nag,[5] and had thought what
fun it must be to jog behind stout Dan John.

Except for certain periods of relaxation strict silence was supposed to
be observed in the convent for a large part of the day, and if Eglentyne
desired to communicate with her sisters, she was urged to do so by means
of signs. The persons who drew up the lists of signs which were in use
in medieval monastic houses, however, combined a preternatural ingenuity
with an extremely exiguous sense of humour, and the sort of dumb
pandemonium which went on at Eglentyne's dinner table must often have
been more mirth-provoking than speech. The sister who desired fish would
'wag her hands displayed sidelings in manner of a fish tail'; she who
wanted milk would 'draw her left little finger in manner of milking';
for mustard one would 'hold her nose in the upper part of her right fist
and rub it'; another for salt would 'fillip with her right thumb and
forefinger over the left thumb'; another desirous of wine would 'move
her forefinger up and down the end of her thumb afore her eye'; and the
guilty sacristan, struck by the thought that she had not provided
incense for the Mass, would 'put her two fingers into her nostrils'. In
one such table drawn up for nuns there are no less than 106 signs, and
on the whole it is not surprising that the rule of the same nuns enjoins
that 'it is never lawful to use them without some reason and profitable
need, for oft-times more hurt hath an evil word, and more offence it may
be to God'.[6]

The nuns, of course, would not have been human if they had not sometimes
grown a little weary of all these services and this silence; for the
religious life was not, nor was it intended to be, an easy one. It was
not a mere means of escape from work and responsibility. In the early
golden age of monasticism only men and women with a vocation, that is to
say a real genius for monastic life, entered convents. Moreover, when
there they worked very hard with hand and brain, as well as with soul,
and so they got variety of occupation, which is as good as a holiday.
The basis of wise St Benedict's Rule was a nicely adjusted combination
of variety with regularity; for he knew human nature. Thus monks and
nuns did not find the services monotonous, and indeed regarded them as
by far the best part of the day. But in the later Middle Ages, when
Chaucer lived, young people had begun to enter monastic houses rather as
a profession than as a vocation. Many truly spiritual men and women
still took the vows, but with them came others who were little suited to
monastic life, and who lowered its standard, because it was hard and
uncongenial to them. Eglentyne became a nun because her father did not
want the trouble and expense of finding her a husband, and because being
a nun was about the only career for a well-born lady who did not marry.
Moreover, by this time, monks and nuns had grown more lazy, and did
little work with their hands and still less with their heads,
particularly in nunneries, where the early tradition of learning had
died out and where many nuns could hardly understand the Latin in which
their services were written. The result was that monastic life began to
lose that essential variety which St Benedict had designed for it, and
as a result the regularity sometimes became irksome, and the series of
services degenerated into a mere routine of peculiar monotony, which
many of the singers could no longer keep alive with spiritual fervour.
Thus sometimes (it must not be imagined that this happened in all or
even in the majority of houses) the services became empty forms, to be
hurried through with scant devotion and occasionally with scandalous
irreverence. It was the almost inevitable reaction from too
much routine.

Carelessness in the performance of the monastic hours was an exceedingly
common fault during the later Middle Ages, though the monks were always
worse about it than the nuns. Sometimes they 'cut' the services.
Sometimes they behaved with the utmost levity, as at Exeter in 1330,
where the canons giggled and joked and quarrelled during the services
and dropped hot candle wax from the upper stalls on to the shaven heads
of the singers in the stalls below![7] Sometimes they came late to
matins, in the small hours after midnight. This fault was common in
nunneries, for the nuns always would insist on having private drinkings
and gossipings in the evening after compline, instead of going straight
to bed, as the rule demanded--a habit which did not conduce to
wakefulness at 1 a.m. Consequently they were somewhat sleepy at matins
and found an almost Johnsonian difficulty in getting up early. Wise St
Benedict foresaw the difficulty, when he wrote in his rule: 'When they
rise for the Divine Office, let them gently encourage one another,
because of the excuses made by those that are drowsy.'[8] At the nunnery
of Stainfield in 1519 the bishop discovered that half an hour sometimes
elapsed between the last stroke of the bell and the beginning of the
service, and that some of the nuns did not sing, but dozed, partly
because they had not enough candles, but chiefly because they went late
to bed;[9] and whoever is without sin among us, let him cast the first
stone! There was a tendency also among both monks and nuns to slip out
before the end of the service on any good or bad excuse: they had to see
after the dinner or the guest-house, their gardens needed weeding, or
they did not feel well. But the most common fault of all was to gabble
through the services as quickly as they could in order to get them over.
They left out the syllables at the beginning and end of words, they
omitted the dipsalma or pause between two verses, so that one side of
the choir was beginning the second half before the other side had
finished the first; they skipped sentences, they mumbled and slurred
what should have been 'entuned in their nose ful semely', and altogether
they made a terrible mess of the stately plainsong. So prevalent was
the fault of gabbling that the Father of Evil was obliged to charter a
special Devil called Tittivillus, whose sole business it was to collect
all these dropped syllables and carry them back to his master in a big
bag. In one way or another, we have a good deal of information about
him, for he was always letting himself be seen by holy men, who
generally had a sharp eye for devils. One Latin rhyme distinguishes
carefully between the contents of his sack: 'These are they who wickedly
corrupt the holy psalms: the dangler, the gasper, the leaper, the
galloper, the dragger, the mumbler, the fore-skipper, the fore-runner
and the over-leaper: Tittivillus collecteth the fragments of these men's
words.'[10] Indeed, a holy Cistercian abbot once interviewed the poor
little devil himself and heard about his alarming industry; this is the
story as it is told in _The Myroure of Oure Ladye_, written for the
delectation of the nuns of Syon in the fifteenth century: 'We read of a
holy Abbot of the order of Citeaux that while he stood in the choir at
matins he saw a fiend that had a long and great poke hanging about his
neck and went about the choir from one to another and waited busily
after all letters and syllables and words and failings that any made;
and them he gathered diligently and put them in his poke. And when he
came before the Abbot, waiting if aught had escaped him that he might
have gotten and put in his bag, the Abbot was astonied and afeard of the
foulness and misshape of him and said unto him: What art thou? And he
answered and said, I am a poor devil and my name is Tittivillus and I do
mine office that is committed unto me. And what is thine office? said
the Abbot. He answered: I must each day, he said, bring my master a
thousand pokes full of failings and of negligences and syllables and
words, that are done in your order in reading and singing and else I
must be sore beaten.'[11] But there is no reason to suppose that he
often got his beating, though one may be sure that Madame Eglentyne,
busily chanting through her nose, never gave him the slightest help. In
his spare moments, when he was not engaged in picking up those
unconsidered trifles which the monks let fall from the psalms,
Tittivillus used to fill up odd corners of his sack with the idle talk
of people who gossiped in church; and he also sat up aloft and collected
all the high notes of vain tenors, who sang to their own glory, instead
of to the glory of God, and pitched the chants three notes higher than
the cracked voices of their elders could rise.

But the monotony of convent life sometimes did more than make the nuns
unconscious contributors to Tittivillus's sack. It sometimes played
havoc with their tempers. The nuns were not chosen for convent life
because they were saints. They were no more immune from tantrums than
was the Wife of Bath, who was out of all charity when other village
wives went into church before her; and sometimes they got terribly on
each others' nerves. Readers of _Piers Plowman_ will remember that when
the seven deadly sins come in, Wrath tells how he was cook to the
prioress of a convent and, says he,

Of wycked wordes I, Wrath ... here wordes imade,
Til 'thow lixte' and 'thow lixte' ... lopen oute at ones,
And eyther hitte other ... vnder the cheke;
Hadde thei had knyves, by Cryst ... her eyther had killed other.

To be sure, it is not often that we hear of anything so bad as that
fifteenth-century prioress, who used to drag her nuns round the choir by
their veils in the middle of the service, screaming 'Liar!' and
'Harlot!' at them;[12] or that other sixteenth-century lady who used to
kick them and hit them on the head with her fists and put them in the
stocks.[13] All prioresses were not 'ful plesaunt and amiable of port',
or stately in their manner. The records of monastic visitations show
that bad temper and petty bickering sometimes broke the peace of
convent life.

But we must be back at Eglentyne. She went on living for ten or twelve
years as a simple nun, and she sang the services very nicely and had a
sweet temper and pretty manners and was very popular. Moreover, she was
of good birth; Chaucer tells us a great deal about her beautiful
behaviour at table and her courtesy, which shows that she was a lady
born and bred; indeed, his description of this might have been taken
straight out of one of the feudal books of deportment for girls; even
her personal beauty--straight nose, grey eyes, and little red
mouth--conforms to the courtly standard. The convents were apt to be
rather snobbish; ladies and rich burgesses' daughters got into them, but
poor and low-born girls never. So the nuns probably said to each other
that what with her pretty ways and her good temper and her aristocratic
connexions, wouldn't it be a good thing to choose her for prioress when
the old prioress died? And so they did, and she had been a prioress for
some years when Chaucer met her. At first it was very exciting, and
Eglentyne liked being called 'Mother' by nuns who were older than
herself, and having a private room to sit in and all the visitors to
entertain. But she soon found that it was not by any means all a bed of
roses; for there was a great deal of business to be done by the head of
a house--not only looking after the internal discipline of the convent,
but also superintending money matters and giving orders to the bailiffs
on her estates, and seeing that the farms were paying well, and the
tithes coming in to the churches which belonged to the nunnery, and that
the Italian merchants who came to buy the wool off her sheeps' backs
gave a good price for it. In all this business she was supposed to take
the advice of the nuns, meeting in the chapter-house, where all business
was transacted. I am afraid that sometimes Eglentyne used to think that
it was much better to do things by herself, and so she would seal
documents with the convent seal without telling them. One should always
distrust the head of an office or school or society who says, with a
self-satisfied air, that it is much more satisfactory to do the thing
herself than to depute it to the proper subordinates; it either means
that she is an autocrat, or else that she cannot organize. Madame
Eglentyne was rather an autocrat, in a good-natured sort of way, and
besides she hated bother. So she did not always consult the nuns; and I
fear too (after many researches into that past of hers which Chaucer
forgot to mention) that she often tried to evade rendering an account of
income and expenditure to them every year, as she was supposed to do.

The nuns, of course, objected to this; and the first time the bishop
came on his rounds they complained about it to him. They said, too, that
she was a bad business woman and got into debt; and that when she was
short of money she used to sell woods belonging to the convent, and
promise annual pensions to various people in return for lump sums down,
and lease out farms for a long time at low rates, and do various other
things by which the convent would lose in the long run. And besides,
she had let the roof of the church get into such ill repair that rain
came through the holes on to their heads when they were singing; and
would my lord bishop please to look at the holes in their clothes and
tell her to provide them with new ones? Other wicked prioresses used
sometimes even to pawn the plate and jewels of the convent, to get money
for their own private purposes. But Eglentyne was not at all wicked or
dishonest, though she was a bad manager; the fact was that she had no
head for figures. I am _sure_ that she had no head for figures; you have
only got to read Chaucer's description of her to know that she was not a
mathematician. Besides the nuns were exaggerating: their clothes were
not in holes, only just a little threadbare. Madame Eglentyne was far
too fastidious to allow ragged clothes about her; and as to the roof of
the church, she had meant to save enough money to have some tiles put on
to it, but it really _was_ very hard to make two ends meet in a medieval
nunnery, especially if (as I repeat) you had no head for figures.
Probably the bishop saw how the land lay, so he ordered her never to do
anything without consulting the convent, and he shut up the common seal
in a box with three different sorts of locks, to which Madame Eglentyne
and two of the senior nuns had the keys, so that she could not open it
alone and so could not seal any business agreement without their
consent. And he ordered her to keep accounts and present them every year
(there are bundles of her accounts still preserved in the Record
Office). Finally he deputed a neighbouring rector to act as custodian of
the business affairs of the house so that she should always have his
help. Things went better after that.

Eglentyne, it seems, was never really interested in business, and was
quite pleased to have her time taken up with looking after internal
affairs and entertaining visitors, with an occasional jaunt outside to
see how the estates were getting on. And she began to find that she
could lead a much freer and gayer life now that she was a prioress; for
the prioress of a convent had rooms of her own, instead of sharing the
common dormitory and refectory; sometimes she even had a sort of little
house with a private kitchen. The abbess of one great nunnery at
Winchester in the sixteenth century had her own staff to look after her,
a cook, and an under cook, and a housemaid and a gentlewoman to wait
upon her, like any great lady in the world, and never dined with the
nuns except on state occasions. But a superior generally had with her
one nun to act as her companion and assist her in the choir and be a
witness to her good behaviour; this nun was called her chaplain, and was
supposed to be changed every year, to prevent favouritism. It will be
remembered that when Madame Eglentyne went on her pilgrimage she took
her nun chaplain with her, as well as three priests; that was because no
nun was ever allowed to go out alone. One of Madame Eglentyne's duties
as prioress was to entertain visitors with her celebrated cheer of
court, and we may be sure that she had a great many. Her sisters, who
were now grand ladies with husbands and manors of their own, and her old
father, and all the great people of the county came to congratulate her;
and after that they used often to drop in for a dinner of chickens and
wine and wastel bread if they passed the house on a journey, and
sometimes they spent the night there. One or two ladies, whose husbands
were away at the wars or on a pilgrimage to Rome, even came as paying
guests to the convent and lived there for a whole year, for nothing
pleased the country gentlemen or wealthy burgesses better than to use
nunneries as boarding-houses for their women-kind.

All this was very disturbing to the peace and quiet of the nuns, and
especially disturbing were the boarders, for they wore gay clothes, and
had pet dogs and callers, and set a very frivolous example to the nuns.
At one nunnery we find a bishop ordering: 'Let Felmersham's wife, with
her whole household and other women, be utterly removed from your
monastery within one year, seeing that they are a cause of disturbance
to the nuns and an occasion to bad example, by reason of their attire
and of those who come to visit them.'[14] It can be easily imagined
_why_ the bishops objected so much to the reception of these worldly
married women as boarders. Just substitute for 'Felmersham's wife' 'the
Wife of Bath' and all is explained. That lady was not a person whom a
prioress would lightly refuse; the list of her pilgrimages alone would
give her the _entree_ into any nunnery. Smiling her gap-toothed smile
and riding easily upon her ambler, she would enter the gates, and what a
month of excitement would pass before she rode away again. I am sure
that it was she who taught Madame Eglentyne the most fashionable way to
pinch a wimple; and she certainly introduced hats 'as broad as is a
buckler or a targe' and scarlet stockings into some nunneries. The
bishops disliked it all very much, but they never succeeded in turning
the boarders out for all their efforts, because the nuns always needed
the money which they paid for their board and lodging.

It is easy to understand that this constant intercourse with worldly
visitors would give rise to the spread of worldly habits in Madame
Eglentyne's nunnery. Nuns, after all, were but women, and they had the
amiable vanities of their sex. But Authority (with a large A) did not
consider their vanities amiable at all. It was the view of Authority
that the Devil had dispatched three lesser D's to be the damnation of
nuns, and those three D's were Dances, Dresses, and Dogs. Medieval
England was famous for dancing and mumming and minstrelsy; it was Merry
England because, however plague and pestilence and famine and the
cruelties of man to man might darken life, still it loved these things.
But there were no two views possible about what the Church thought of
dancing; it was accurately summed up by one moralist in the aphorism,
'The Devil is the inventor and governor and disposer of dances and
dancing.' Yet when we look into those accounts which Madame Eglentyne
rendered (or did not render) to her nuns at the end of every year, we
shall find payments for wassail at New Year and Twelfth Night, for May
games, for bread and ale on bonfire nights, for harpers and players at
Christmas, for a present to the Boy Bishop on his rounds, and perhaps
for an extra pittance when the youngest schoolgirl was allowed to dress
up and act as abbess of the convent for the whole of Innocents' Day. And
when we look in the bishops' registers we shall find Madame Eglentyne
forbidden 'all manner of minstrelsy, interludes, dancing or revelling
within your holy place'; and she would be fortunate indeed if her bishop
would make exception for Christmas, 'and other honest times of
recreation among yourselves used in absence of seculars in all wise'.
Somehow one feels an insistent conviction that her cheer of court
included dancing.[15]

Then, again, there were the fashionable dresses which the visitors
introduced into nunneries. It is quite certain that Madame Eglentyne
was not unmoved by them; and it is a sad fact that she began to think
the monastic habit very black and ugly, and the monastic life very
strict; and to decide that if some little amenities were imported into
it no one would be a penny the worse, and perhaps the bishop would not
notice. That is why, when Chaucer met her,

Ful fetis was hir cloke, as I was war,
Of smal coral aboute hir arm she bar
A peire of bedes, gauded al with grene,
And ther-on heng a broche of gold ful shene.

Unfortunately, however, the bishop did notice; the registers are indeed
full of those clothes of Madame Eglentyne's, and of the even more
frivolous ones which she wore in the privacy of the house. For more than
six weary centuries the bishops waged a holy war against fashion in the
cloister, and waged it in vain; for as long as nuns mingled freely with
secular women, it was impossible to prevent them from adopting secular
modes. Occasionally a wretched bishop would find himself floundering
unhandily, in masculine bewilderment, through something like a complete
catalogue of contemporary fashions, in order to specify what the nuns
were _not_ to wear. Synods sat solemnly, bishops and archbishops shook
their grey heads, over golden hairpins and silver belts, jewelled rings,
laced shoes, slashed tunics, low necks and long trains, gay colours,
costly cloth, and valuable furs. The nuns were supposed to wear their
veils pinned tightly down to their eyebrows, so that their foreheads
were completely hidden; but high foreheads happened to be fashionable
among worldly ladies, who even shaved theirs to make them higher, and
the result was that the nuns could not resist lifting up and spreading
out their veils, for how otherwise did Chaucer _know_ that Madame
Eglentyne had such a fair forehead ('almost a spanne broad, I trowe')?
If she had been wearing her veil properly, it would have been invisible,
and the father of English poetry may be observed discreetly but plainly
winking the other eye when he puts in that little touch; his
contemporaries would see the point very quickly. And that brooch and
that fetis cloak of hers.... Here is what some tale-bearing nuns told
the Bishop of Lincoln about their Prioress, fifty years after Chaucer
wrote the _Canterbury Tales_. 'The Prioress,' they said with their most
sanctimonious air, wears golden rings exceeding costly, with divers
precious stones and also girdles silvered and gilded over and silken
veils and she carries her veil too high above her forehead, so that her
forehead, being entirely uncovered, can be seen of all, and she wears
furs of vair. Also she wears shifts of cloth of Rennes, which costs
sixteen pence the ell. Also she wears kirtles laced with silk and tiring
pins of silver and silver gilt and has made all the nuns wear the like.
Also she wears above her veil a cap of estate, furred with budge. Item,
she has on her neck a long silken band, in English a lace, which hangs
down below her breast and there on a golden ring with one diamond.[16]
Is it not Madame Eglentyne to the life? Nothing escaped our good Dan
Chaucer's eye, for all that he rode always looking on the ground.

Moreover, it was not only in her dress that the Prioress and her sister
nuns aped the fashions of the world. Great ladies of the day loved to
amuse themselves with pet animals; and nuns were quick to follow their
example. So,

Of smale houndes had she, that she fedde
With rosted flesh, or milk and wastel-breed.
But sore weep she if oon of hem were deed,
Or if men smoot it with a yerde smerte.

The visitation reports are full of those little dogs and other animals;
and how many readers of the Prologue know that the smale houndes, like
the fair forehead and the brooch of gold full sheen, were strictly
against the rules? For the bishops regarded pets as bad for discipline,
and century after century they tried to turn the animals out of the
convents, without the slightest success. The nuns just waited till the
bishop had gone and then whistled their dogs back again. Dogs were
easily the favourite pets, though monkeys, squirrels, rabbits, birds and
(very rarely) cats were also kept. One archbishop had to forbid an
abbess whom he visited to keep _monkeys and a number of dogs_ in her own
chamber and charged her at the same time with stinting her nuns in food;
one can guess what became of the roasted flesh or milk and wastel-breed!
It was a common medieval practice to bring animals into church, where
ladies often attended service with dog in lap and men with hawk on
wrist; just as the highland farmer brings his collie with him today.
This happened in the nunneries too. Sometimes it was the lay-boarders in
the convents who brought their pets with them; there is a pathetic
complaint by the nuns of one house 'that Lady Audley, who boards there,
has a great abundance of dogs, insomuch that whenever she comes to
church there follow her twelve dogs, who make a great uproar in church,
hindering the nuns in their psalmody and the nuns thereby are
terrified!'[17] But often enough the nuns themselves transgressed.
Injunctions against bringing pet dogs into choir occur in several
visitation reports, the most amusing instance being contained in those
sent to Romsey Abbey by William of Wykeham in 1387, just about the same
year that Chaucer was writing the _Canterbury Tales_: 'Item,' runs the
injunction, 'whereas we have convinced ourselves by clear proofs that
some of the nuns of your house bring with them to church birds, rabbits,
hounds and such like frivolous things, whereunto they give more heed
than to the offices of the church, with frequent hindrance to their own
psalmody and to that of their fellow nuns and to the grievous peril of
their souls--therefore we strictly forbid you all and several, in virtue
of the obedience due to us that ye presume henceforward to bring to
church no birds, hounds, rabbits or other frivolous things that promote
indiscipline.... Item, whereas through hunting dogs and other hounds
abiding within your monastic precincts, the alms that should be given
to the poor are devoured and the church and cloister ... are foully
defiled ... and whereas, through their inordinate noise divine service
is frequently troubled--therefore we strictly command and enjoin you,
Lady Abbess, that you remove the dogs altogether and that you suffer
them never henceforth, nor any other such hounds, to abide within the
precincts of your nunnery.'[18] But it was useless for any bishop to
order Madame Eglentyne to give up her dogs, she could not even be parted
from them on a pilgrimage, though they must have been a great nuisance
in the inns, especially as she was so fussy about their food.

For Chaucer's prioress, we must admit, was rather a worldly lady, though
her pretty clothes and little dogs were harmless enough on modern
standards and one's sympathies are all against the bishops. She
probably became more worldly as time went on, because she had so many
opportunities for social intercourse. Not only had she to entertain
visitors in the convent, but often the business of the house took her
away upon journeys and these offered many opportunities for hobnobbing
with her neighbours. Sometimes she had to go to London to see after a
law-suit and that was a great excursion with another nun, or perhaps
two, and a priest and several yeomen to look after her. Sometimes she
had to go and see the bishop, to get permission to take in some little
schoolgirls. Sometimes she went to the funeral of a great man, whom her
father knew and who left her twenty shillings and a silver cup in his
will. Sometimes she went to the wedding of one of her sisters, or to be
godmother to their babies; though the bishops did not like these worldly
ties, or the dances and merry-makings which accompanied weddings and
christenings. Indeed her nuns occasionally complained about her journeys
and said that though she pretended it was all on the business of the
house, they had their doubts; and would the bishop please just look into
it. At one nunnery we find the nuns complaining that their house is L20
in debt 'and this principally owing to the costly expenses of the
prioress, because she frequently rides abroad and pretends that she does
so on the common business of the house although it is not so, with a
train of attendants much too large and tarries too long abroad and she
feasts sumptuously, both when abroad and at home and she is very choice
in her dress, so that the fur trimmings of her mantle are worth

As a matter of fact there was nothing of which the church disapproved
more than this habit, shared by monks and nuns, of wandering about
outside their cloisters; moralists considered that intercourse with the
world was at the root of all the evil which crept into the monastic
system. The orthodox saying was that a monk out of his cloister was like
a fish out of water; and it will be remembered that Chaucer's monk
thought the text not worth an oyster. Indeed most of the monks managed
to swim very well in the air, and the nuns too persisted in taking every
sort of excuse for wandering in the world. Right through the Middle Ages
council after council, bishop after bishop, reformer after reformer,
tried in vain to keep them shut up. The greatest attempt of all began
in 1300, when the pope published a Bull ordering that nuns should
never, save in very exceptional circumstances, leave their convents and
that no secular person should be allowed to go in and visit them,
without a special licence and a good reason. This will make the modern
reader pity the poor nuns, but there is no need, for nobody ever
succeeded in putting it into force for more than five minutes, though
the bishops spent over two centuries in trying to do so and were still
trying in vain when King Henry VIII dissolved the nunneries and turned
all the nuns out into the world for ever, whether they liked it or not.
At one nunnery in the Lincoln diocese, when the bishop came and
deposited a copy of the Bull in the house and ordered the nuns to obey
it, they ran after him to the gate when he was riding away and threw the
Bull at his head, screaming that they would never observe it.[20] The
more practical bishops indeed, soon stopped trying to enforce the Bull
as it stood and contented themselves with ordering that nuns were not to
go out or pay visits too often, or without a companion, or without
licence, or without a good reason. But even in this they were not very
successful, because the nuns were most prolific in excellent reasons why
they should go out. Sometimes they said that their parents were ill; and
then they would go away to smooth the pillow of the sick. Sometimes they
said that they had to go to market to buy herrings. Sometimes they said
that they had to go to confession at a monastery. Sometimes it is really
difficult to imagine _what_ they said. What are we to think, for
instance, of that giddy nun 'who on Monday night did pass the night with
the Austin friars at Northampton and did dance and play the lute with
them in the same place until midnight, and on the night following she
passed the night with the Friars' preachers at Northampton, luting and
dancing in like manner'?[21] Chaucer told us how the friar loved harping
and how his eyes twinkled like stars in his head when he sang, but
failed perhaps to observe that he had lured Madame Eglentyne into
a dance.

It is indeed difficult to see what 'legitimate' excuses the nuns can
have made for all their wandering about in the streets and the fields
and in and out of people's houses, and it is sorely to be feared that
either they were too much of a handful for Madame Eglentyne, or else she
winked at their doings. For somehow or other one suspects that she had
no great opinion of bishops. After all Chaucer would never have met her,
if she had not managed to circumvent her own, since if there was one
excuse for wandering of which the bishops thoroughly disapproved, it was
precisely the excuse of pilgrimages. Madame Eglentyne was not quite as
simple and coy as she looked. How many of the literary critics, who
chuckle over her, know that she never ought to have got into the
Prologue at all? The Church was quite clear in its mind that pilgrimages
for nuns were to be discouraged. As early as 791 a council had forbidden
the practice and in 1195 another at York decreed, 'In order that the
opportunity of wandering may be taken from nuns we forbid them to take
the path of pilgrimage.' In 1318 an archbishop of York strictly forbade
the nuns of one convent to leave their house 'by reason of any vow of
pilgrimage which they might have taken. If any had taken such vows she
was to say as many psalters as it would have taken days to perform the
pilgrimage so rashly vowed.'[22] One has a melancholy vision of poor
Madame Eglentyne saying psalters interminably through her tretys nose,
instead of jogging along so gaily with her motley companions and telling
so prettily her tale of little St Hugh. Such prohibitions might be
multiplied from medieval records; and indeed it is unnecessary to go
further than Chaucer to understand why it was that bishops offered such
strenuous opposition to pilgrimages for nuns; one has only to remember
some of the folk, in whose company the prioress travelled and some of
the tales they told. If one could only be certain, for instance, that
she rode all the time with her nun and her priests, or at least between
the Knight and the poor Parson of a town! But there were also the Miller
and the Summoner and (worst of all) that cheerful and engaging sinner,
the Wife of Bath. It is really quite disturbing to think what additional
details the Wife of Bath may have given the prioress about her
five husbands.

This then was Chaucer's prioress in real life, for the poet who drew her
was one of the most wonderful observers in the whole of English
literature. We may wade through hundreds of visitation reports and
injunctions and everywhere the grey eyes of his prioress will twinkle at
us out of their pages, and in the end we must always go to Chaucer for
her picture, to sum up everything that historical records have taught
us. As the bishop found her, so he saw her, aristocratic,
tender-hearted, worldly, taking pains to 'countrefete there of court';
liking pretty clothes and little dogs; a lady of importance, attended by
a nun and three priests; spoken to with respect by the none too
mealy-mouthed host--no 'by Corpus Dominus' or 'cokkes bones' or 'tel on
a devel wey' for her, but 'cometh neer, my lady prioress,' and

My lady Prioresse, by your leve
If that I wiste I sholde yow nat greve,
I wolde demen that ye tellen sholde
A tale next, if so were that ye wolde.
Now wol ye vouche-sauf, my lady dere?

He talks to no one else like that, save perhaps to the knight. Was she
religious? Perhaps; but save for her singing the divine service and for
her lovely address to the Virgin, at the beginning of her tale, Chaucer
can find but little to say on the point;

But for speken of hir conscience (he says)
She was so charitable and so pitous,

and then, as we are waiting to hear of her almsgiving to the poor--that
she would weep over a mouse in a trap, or a beaten puppy, says Chaucer.
A good ruler of her house? again, doubtless. But when Chaucer met her
the house was ruling itself somewhere at the 'shire's ende'. The world
was full of fish out of water in the fourteenth century, and, by seynt
Loy, said Madame Eglentyne, swearing her greatest oath, like Chaucer's
monk, she held that famous text not worth an oyster. So we take our
leave of her, characteristically on the road to Canterbury.


_The Menagier's Wife_


The sphere of woman is the home.
--_Homo Sapiens_

The men of the middle, as indeed of all ages, including our own, were
very fond of writing books of deportment telling women how they ought to
behave in all the circumstances of their existence, but more
particularly in their relations with their husbands. Many of these books
have survived, and among them one which is of particular interest,
because of the robust good sense of its writer and the intimate and
lively picture which it gives of a bourgeois home. Most books of
deportment were written, so to speak, in the air, for women in general,
but this was written by a particular husband for a particular wife, and
thus is drawn from life and full of detail, showing throughout an
individuality which its compeers too often lack. If a parallel be sought
to it, it is perhaps to be found not in any other medieval treatise but
in those passages of Xenophon's _Economist_, in which Isomachus
describes to Socrates the training of a perfect Greek wife.

The Menagier de Paris (the Householder or Goodman of Paris, as we might
say) wrote this book for the instruction of his young wife between 1392
and 1394. He was a wealthy man, not without learning and of great
experience in affairs, obviously a member of that solid and enlightened
_haute bourgeoisie_, upon which the French monarchy was coming to lean
with ever-increasing confidence. When he wrote he must have been
approaching old age, and he was certainly over sixty, but he had
recently married a young wife of higher birth than himself, an orphan
from a different province. He speaks several times of her 'very great
youth', and kept a sort of duenna-housekeeper with her to help and
direct her in the management of his house; and indeed, like the wife of
Isomachus, she was only fifteen years old when he married her. Modern
opinion is shocked by a discrepancy in age between husband and wife,
with which the Middle Ages, a time of _menages de convenance_, was more
familiar. 'Seldom,' the Menagier says, 'will you see ever so old a man
who will not marry a young woman.' Yet his attitude towards his young
wife shows us that there may have been compensations, even in a marriage
between May and January. Time after time in his book there sounds the
note of a tenderness which is paternal rather than marital, a
sympathetic understanding of the feelings of a wedded child, which a
younger man might not have compassed. Over all the matter-of-fact
counsels there seems to hang something of the mellow sadness of an
autumn evening, when beauty and death go ever hand in hand. It was his
wife's function to make comfortable his declining years; but it was his
to make the task easy for her. He constantly repeats the assurance that
he does not ask of her an overweening respect, or a service too humble
or too hard, for such is not due to him; he desires only such care as
his neighbours and kinswomen take of their husbands, 'for to me
belongeth none save the common service, or less'.

In his Prologue, addressed to her, he gives a charming picture of the
scene which led him to write his book: 'You, being of the age of fifteen
years and in the week that you and I were wed, did pray me that I would
please to be indulgent to your youth and to your small and ignorant
service mewards, until that you should have seen and learned more, to
the hastening whereof you did promise me to set all care and
diligence, ... praying me humbly, in our bed as I remember, that for the
love of God I would not correct you harshly before strangers nor before
our own folk, 'but that I would correct you each night or from day to
day in our chamber and show you the unseemly or foolish things done in
the day or days past, and chastise you, if it pleased me, and then you
would not fail to amend yourself according to my teaching and correction,
and would do all in your power according to my will, as you said. And I
thought well of, and praise and thank you for, what you said to me and I
have often remembered it since. And know, dear sister[D], that all that
I know you have done since we were wed up to this day, and all that you
shall do hereafter with good intent has been and is good and well hath
pleased, pleases and shall please me. For your youth excuses you from
being very wise, and will still excuse you in everything that you do
with good intent to please me. And know that it doth not displease, but
rather pleases me that you should have roses to grow and violets to care
for and that you should make chaplets and dance and sing, and I would
well that you should so continue among our friends and those of our
estate, and it is but right and seemly thus to pass the time of your
feminine youth, provided that you desire and offer not to go to the
feasts and dances of too great lords, for that is not seemly for you,
nor suitable to your estate nor mine[1].'

[Footnote D: He addresses her throughout as 'sister', a term of
affectionate respect.]

Meanwhile he has not forgotten her request that he would teach and
correct her in private, and so he writes a little book (but it was a big
book before he had finished) to show her how to comport herself; for he
is sorry for this child, who has for long had neither father nor mother,
and who is far from kinswomen who might counsel her, having 'me only' he
says, 'for whom you have been taken from your kinsfolk and from the land
of your birth.' He has often deliberated the matter and now here is 'an
easy general introduction' to the whole art of being a wife, a
housewife, and a perfect lady. One characteristic reason, apart from his
desire to help her and to be comfortable himself (for he was set in his
ways), he gives for his trouble and recurs to from time to time, surely
the strangest ever given by a husband for instructing his wife. He is
old, he says, and must die before her, and it is positively essential
that she should do him credit with her second husband. What a reflection
upon him if she accompanied his successor to Mass with the collar of her
_cotte_ crumpled, or if she knew not how to keep fleas from the
blankets, or how to order a supper for twelve in Lent! It is
characteristic of the Menagier's reasonableness and solid sense that he
regards his young wife's second marriage with equanimity. One of his
sections is headed, 'That you should be loving to your husband (whether
myself or another), by the example of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel.' How
different from those husbands (dog-in-the-manger, or anxious for the
future of their children under a possibly harsh stepfather) whose wills
so often reveal them trying to bind their wives to perpetual celibacy
after their deaths, such husbands as William, Earl of Pembroke, who died
in 1469, admonishing his lady: 'And wyfe, ye remember your promise to me
to take the ordere of wydowhood, as ye may be the better mastre of your
owne to performe my wylle.'

The plan of the book 'in three sections, containing nineteen principal
articles', is most exhaustive. The first section deals with religious
and moral duties. In the words of the Menagier, 'the first section is
necessary to gain for you the love of God and the salvation of your
soul, and also to win for you the love of your husband and to give you
in this world that peace which ought to be had in marriage. And because
these two things, to wit the salvation of your soul and the comfort of
your husband, are the two things most chiefly necessary, therefore are
they here placed first.' Then follows a series of articles telling the
lady how to say her morning prayer when she rises, how to bear herself
at Mass, and in what form to make her confession to the priest, together
with a long and somewhat alarming discursus upon the seven deadly sins,
which it assuredly never entered into her sleek little head to commit,
and another, on the corresponding virtues.[2] But the greater part of
the section deals with the all-important subject of the wife's duty to
her husband. She is to be loving, humble, obedient, careful and
thoughtful for his person, silent regarding his secrets, and patient if
he be foolish and allow his heart to stray towards other women. The
whole section is illustrated by a series of stories (known as _exempla_
in the Middle Ages), culled from the Bible, from the common stock of
anecdotes possessed by jongleur and preacher alike, and (most
interesting of all) from the Menagier's own experience. Among the
Menagier's longer illustrations is the favourite but intolerably dull
moral tale of Melibeu and Prudence, by Albertano of Brescia, translated
into French by Renault de Louens, whose version the Menagier copied, and
adapted by Jean de Meung in the _Roman de la Rose_, from which in turn
Chaucer took it to tell to the Canterbury Pilgrims. Here also are to be
found Petrarch's famous tale of patient Griselda, which Chaucer also
took and gave a wider fame, and a long poem written in 1342 by Jean
Bruyant, a notary of the Chatelet at Paris, and called 'The Way of
Poverty and Wealth', inculcating diligence and prudence.[3]

The second section of the book deals with household management and is
far the most interesting. The range of the Menagier's knowledge leaves
the reader gasping. The man is a perfect Mrs Beeton! The section
comprises a detailed treatise on gardening and another on the principles
which should govern the engagement of servants and the method by which
they should be managed when hired; the modern problem of servants who
leave does not seem to have presented itself to him. There are
instructions how to mend, air, and clean dresses and furs, get out
grease spots, catch fleas and keep flies out of the bedroom, look after
wine, and superintend the management of a farm.

At one point he breaks off, addressing his wife thus: 'Here will I leave
you to rest or to play and will speak no more to you; and while you
disport yourself elsewhere I will speak to Master John, the Steward, who
looks after our possessions, so that if there is anything wrong with any
of our horses, whether for the plough or for riding, or if it is
necessary to buy or exchange a horse, he may know a little of that it
behoves him to know in this matter.' There follow several pages of wise
advice as to the good points of horses, how to examine them and to find
their ages and defects under the eye of the horse dealer, the practical
'tips' of a man who evidently knew and loved his horses, together with
advice upon the treatment of their various diseases. Among the various
recipes which the Menagier gives to this intent are two charms; for
instance, 'when a horse has glanders, you must say to him these three
words, with three paternosters: _abgla_, _abgly_, _alphard_, _asy_,
_pater noster_, etc.'[4]

Last, but not least, there is a magnificent cookery book, arranged in
the form sacred to cookery books from that day to this, beginning with a
list of specimen menus for dinners and suppers, hot or cold, fast or
feast, summer or winter, giving hints on the choice of meat, poultry,
and spices, and ending with a long series of recipes for all manner of
soups, stews, sauces, and other viands, with an excursus on
invalid's cookery!

The third section of the book was intended by the Menagier to contain
three parts: first of all, a number of parlour games for indoor
amusement; secondly, a treatise on hawking, the favourite outdoor
amusement of ladies; and thirdly, a list of amusing riddles and games of
an arithmetical kind ('concerning counting and numbering, subtle to find
out or guess'), presumably of the nature of our old friend, 'If a
herring and a half cost three ha'pence.' Unfortunately, the Menagier
seems never to have finished the book, and of this section only the
treatise on hawking has survived. It is a great pity, for we have
several such treatises, and how interesting an account of indoor games
and riddles might have been we may guess from a passage in the
Menagier's version of the story of Lucrece, when he describes the Roman
ladies 'some gossiping, others playing at _bric_, others at _qui fery_,
others at _pince merille_, others at cards or other games of pleasure
with their neighbours; others, who had supped together, were singing
songs and telling fables and stories and wagers; others were in the
street with their neighbours, playing at blind man's buff or at _bric_
and at several other games of the kind.'[5] In those days, before the
invention of printing had made books plentiful, medieval ladies were
largely dependent for amusement upon telling and listening to stories,
asking riddles, and playing games, which we have long ago banished to
the nursery; and a plentiful repertoire of such amusements was very
desirable in a hostess. The Menagier was clearly anxious that his wife
should shine in the amenities as well as in the duties of social life.

Such was the monumental work which the Menagier de Paris was able to
present to his awed but admiring wife; and though it has been sadly
neglected by historians it deserves to be well known, for it gives us a
picture of a medieval housewife which it would be hard indeed to
surpass. There is hardly a side of her daily life upon which it does not
touch, and we may now with advantage look more closely upon her, and see
in turn the perfect lady, whose deportment and manners do credit to her
breeding; the perfect wife, whose submission to her husband is only
equalled by her skill in ministering to his ease; the perfect mistress,
whose servants love her and run her house like clockwork; and the
perfect housewife, the Mrs Beeton of the fifteenth century.

The Menagier's views on deportment are incongruously sandwiched into his
section on spiritual duties, under the general headings of getting up in
the morning and going to church. His ideas on the subject of clothes are
very clearly defined: a sweet disorder in the dress was in no way to
his taste:

Know, dear sister, that if you wish to follow my advice you
will have great care and regard for what you and I can afford
to do, according to our estate. Have a care that you be
honestly clad, without new devices and without too much or
too little frippery. And before you leave your chamber and
house, take care first that the collar of your shift, and of
your _blanchet, cotte_ and _surcotte_, do not hang out one
over the other, as happens with certain drunken, foolish or
witless women, who have no care for their honour, nor for the
honesty of their estate or of their husbands, and who walk
with roving eyes and head horribly reared up like a lion (_la
teste espoventablement levee comme un lyon!_), their hair
straggling out of their wimples, and the collars of their
shifts and _cottes_ crumpled the one upon the other, and who
walk mannishly and bear themselves uncouthly before folk
without shame. And if one speaks to them about it, they
excuse themselves on the ground of their industry and
humility, saying that they are so diligent, hardworking, and
humble that they care not for themselves. But they lie; they
care so much for themselves that if they were in an
honourable company, never would they be willing that men
should wait less upon them than upon the wiser ladies of like
lineage with themselves, nor that they should have fewer
salutations, bows, reverences and speech than the rest, but
rather they desire more. And they are unworthy of it, for
they know not how to maintain their own honourable fame, nay,
nor the fame of their husbands and of their lineage, which
they bring to shame. Therefore, fair sister, have a care that
your hair, wimple, kerchief and hood and all the rest of your
attire be well arranged and decently ordered, that none who
see you can laugh or mock at you, but that all the others may
find in you an example of fair and simple and decent
array.... When you go to town or to church go suitably
accompanied by honourable women according to your estate, and
flee suspicious company, never allowing any ill famed woman
to be seen in your presence. And as you go bear your head
upright and your eyelids low and without fluttering, and look
straight in front of you about four rods ahead, without
looking round at any man or woman to the right or to the
left, nor looking up, nor glancing from place to place, nor
stopping to speak to anyone on the road.[6]

Such was the model of female deportment in the Middle Ages.

Let us pass from the lady to the wife. On the attitude of wife to
husband the Menagier's ideas are much the same as those of the rest of
his age. They may be summed up as submission, obedience, and constant
attention. She must be buxom at bed and at board, even in circumstances
when buxomness hides a heavy heart. The good sense of the burgess does
not prevent him from likening the wife's love for her husband to the
fidelity of domestic animals towards their masters: 'Of the domestic
animals you see how a greyhound, or a mastiff, or a little dog, whether
on the road, or at table, or in bed, always keeps near to the person
from whom he takes his food, and leaves and is shy and fierce with all
others; and if the dog is afar off, he always has his heart and his eye
upon his master; even if his master whip him and throw stones at him,
the dog follows, wagging his tail and lying down before his master,
seeks to mollify him, and through rivers, through woods, through thieves
and through battles follows him.... Wherefore for a better and stronger
reason women, to whom God has given natural sense and who are
reasonable, ought to have a perfect and solemn love for their husbands;
and so I pray you to be very loving and privy with your husband who
shall be.'[7] Patience is an essential quality in wives, and, however
sorely tried they must never complain. The Menagier tells three stories
to illustrate how a wife should bear herself in order to win back the
love of an unfaithful husband. One of these is the famous tale of
Griselda, but the two others are drawn (so he says) from his own
experience. In the first of these he tells of the wife of a famous
_avocat_ in the _parlement_ of Paris, who saw to the nurture and
marriage of her husband's illegitimate daughter; 'nor did he ever
perceive it by one reproach, or one angry or ugly word.' The second is
the charmingly told story of how John Quentin's wife won back her
husband's heart from the poor spinner of wool to whom it had strayed.[8]
All seem to show that the Menagier's simile of the little dog was
selected with care, for the medieval wife, like the dog, was expected to
lick the hand that smote her. Nevertheless, while subscribing to all
the usual standards of his age, the Menagier's robust sense, his hold
upon the realities of life, kept him from pushing them too far. The
comment of another realist, Chaucer, on the tale of Patient Griselda
will be remembered.

Grisilde is deed and eek hire pacience,
And bothe at ones buryed in Ytaille;
For which I crie in open audience,
No wedded man so hardy be t'assaille
His wyves pacience in hope to fynde
Grisildes, for in certein he shal faille!

O noble wyves, ful of heigh prudence,
Lat noon humylitee youre tonge naill,
Ne lat no clerk have cause or diligence
To write of yow a stone of swich mervaille

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