Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Hearing Kneeling - snapshot from tonight's Friar's Tale Teaching


Jeffrey's inspired me to uncork my blogging a bit more. Read his post, here, and also have fun with this one too. And for the sake of W00t! get your hands on Fradenburg's new book. And then come back.

From the Friar's Tale, Jill Mann ed.

"Thow lixt! quod she, 'By my savacioun,
Ne was I nevere er now, widwe ne wif,
Somoned unto youre court in al my lif,
Ne nevere I nas but of my body trewe.
Unto the devel blak and rough of hewe
Yeve I thy body, and my panne also!'
     And when the devl herde hire cursen so
Upon her knees, he seide in this manere: &c.

When the devil HEARD her curse UPON HER KNEES. He heard her on her knees. Really?

I told my students to close their eyes, and I got down on my knees behind my desk and menaced them with a whispered, "Damn you all to hell!"

"So, was I on my knees or not?"

They pretended not to be sure.

How do we know if the old widow's sincere? I mean, apart from the whole medieval culture of gesture, what kind of synaesthesia does certainty require, when the voice has to be supplemented with gesture in order to be believed? And is this tale, so much about intention vs. words, resolved with action, neo-Donatist or not?

That was tonight's class. The secret kneeling: highly recommended. The move into demonic synaesthesia: even more recommended.


Jonathan Hsy said...

@Karl: Ooh this is such an interesting passage; most of my energies focus on the weirdness about the PAN that I've never noticed this phrasing before!

I wonder if part of the synaesthetic effect here has to do with the enjambment that Chaucer is obliged to make due to the rhyme; the phrase "Upon her knees" does not come directly after "hire" the reader makes a cognitive shift from her speech to her gesture at the line break. Perhaps if this were in Latin there would be some sort of "ablative absolute" equivalent of "upon her knees" that would convey that information in a slightly different way.

In any case, I'd say you're right -- this does strike indeed strike me as a synaesthetic narrative technique that puts us in the perceptual POV of the devil (who is both hearing AND seeing evidence that the woman's utterance is in earnest). Given the legalistic resonance of this passage, it seems to me that there is a more fully embodied performative sense of what medieval "witnessing" entails -- it's not just vision!

Joseph Taylor said...

Funny, I taught the Friar's Tale last night as well, looking at the wild/supernatural forest vs. tame/ legal forest and also the tale's wild/slippery language vs. its tame/legal language (the "entente" thing again!). I wondered about the carter's own performative gestures. He "smote and cryde as he were wood," which amounts to a tantrum of sorts as well as a multi-sensory moment (forceful slap of the hand on a surface and forceful sounding of non-linguistic noise--his cry). So why is his curse-con-tantrum hollow and the widow's on-her-knees curse licit? Is it simply her kneeling, which amounts to an accepted religious pose, that makes her intent true? It's always funny as well that she demands a written accusation, which seems to subsume the word and gesture (the stamping of a seal or whatever) into some sort of static form or snapshot of intention. Thanks for pointing out that line that I've repeatedly overlooked.

Jonathan Hsy said...

@JT: Very cool point about the legalistic actions and/as gestures here and the question of how "entente" is rendered legible! It does seem that the conventionality of the oath/kneeling posture does a lot of "work" here that the cry/slap does not (or cannot) perform.

(This also reminds me that the demon/devil is not exclusively in the business of seizing human souls? -- he takes the pan, AND he could, under the right conditions, seize horses.)