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date: 22 May 2018

classical antiquity

The Oxford Companion to Chaucer
Douglas Gray

classical antiquity 

(see also classical literature). Medieval illustrations of the siege of Troy show a walled town (sometimes with a drawbridge) and battles between knights in armour . Modern readers of Troilus and Criseyde are surprised to find not only knights but also a ‘bishop’ (see Amphiorax). Neither artists nor writers attempted to portray the exterior appearance of an ancient setting in the manner of a 19th-c. historical novelist. There is evidence for an interest in the ancient world in many places: a 12th-c. guide to ancient Rome, the Mirabilia Romae Urbis or ‘wonders of the city of Rome’, for instance, but here legend takes over from history, and the book was adapted for the use of pilgrims. Classical archaeology as we know it is the product of the Renaissance.

Medieval popular literature, if it uses the ancient world at all, transforms it into an exact replica of the medieval world. More sophisticated writers, however, are aware of differences (especially of religion), and draw the attention of their readers to them, creating a strange world in which past and present are intermingled, and in which figures from the pre-Christian world are endowed with contemporary feelings and problems as well as contemporary dress, and act out their destiny in a kind of ‘eternal present’. Such ‘anachronism’ may be less a manifestation of naivety than a way of heightening and intensifying scenes and characters.

Chaucer has this kind of interest in the ancient world. In Troilus and Criseyde he produces perhaps the greatest medieval ‘romance of antiquity’, and finds many other stories in his old books. These are set around the Mediterranean from Rome to Athens (Atthenes) and from Troy to Egypt. He seems to have been especially interested in mythography (as in the descriptions of the gods and their temples in The Knight's Tale and The Parliament of Fowls), but he refers also to history, and to legend. From his sources he takes many local details: thus he alludes to the Capitol (Capitolie), to the theatre (I.1885, 1901, 2091), and several times to a triumph (II.400; VII.2363, 2696; Anel 43), which he knows involves captives walking beside the laurel-crowned victor's chariot. Rome has senators. In The Second Nun's Tale, set in the Rome of early Christianity, a less well-known rank is mentioned: Maximus, an ‘officer | Of the prefectes, and his corniculer’ (VIII.369). ‘Corniculer’ (adjutant, subordinate officer) from L. cornicularius (the soldier wore a horn-shaped helmet) seems to appear here in English for the first time. This is also the case with ‘urn’, rather self-consciously introduced in Troilus, where the hero thinking of his death requests that the ashes of his heart should be kept ‘in a vessell that men clepeth [call] an urne’ (V.311). This body of knowledge, limited though it is by the standards of later classicists, is used to great effect in allusions. These come very naturally in those tales which are set in the ancient world, but are not restricted to them. In The Nun's Priest's Tale, for instance, there are several, usually in mock-heroic contexts, a clear sign of his (and presumably a significant part of his audience's) familiarity with them.

In his ‘ancient’ stories Chaucer uses this material to give a sense of ‘actuality’. Troilus is made to refer to a number of other details of the ancient funeral: the pyre (‘the fir and flaumbe funeral | In which my body brennen shal to glede [glowing coal]’); the festival at his ‘vigile’ (wake); ‘and pleyes palestral’ (the athletic games at the funeral—another word apparently appearing for the first time in English). At the beginning of The Knight's Tale Theseus gives back to the ladies the bones of their husbands ‘to doon obsequies, as was tho [then] the gyse [custom]’ (I.993): they are burnt accompanied by great lamentations. At the end of the tale there is an elaborate description of the building of Arcite's pyre, the burning of the bodies, and the lamentation and festivities (including the ‘wake-pleyes’ which involve wrestling ‘naked with oille enoynt’). There are frequent references to ancient religious rites (e.g. ‘alle the rytes of his payen [pagan] wyse’, I.2370) and the sacrifices at the temples of the gods in The Knight's Tale are made into powerful and eerie scenes.

In the narrative of The Second Nun's Tale (VIII.392–9) Christian faith comes into direct conflict with a pagan demand to sacrifice. The total antagonism of paganism to Christianity, characteristic of the early Christian period, sometimes returns in later times, when the threat of pagan religion had disappeared. It will sometimes haunt even those medieval writers who are normally happy to explore the ancient world and to use its mythology in their poetry. Probably Chaucer's remark at the end of Troilus and Criseyde (V.1849) about the ‘cursed old rites’ of the pagans is an example. Usually, however, he is content to use the old gods, the Furies, and other creatures of antiquity (the ‘satiry [satyrs] and fawny more and lesse, | That halve goddes ben of wildernesse’ (Tr IV.1544–5), etc.) without evident strain and with enjoyment. His delight in classical antiquity is not at all antiquarian, and in this it is characteristic of a kind of medieval humanism.


Fyler, John M. (2000), ‘Pagan Survivals’, in P. Brown (2000).Find this resource: