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"Signs and Circumstances"

A Study of Allegory in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. 
Alan Hughes, 2003 *

I last read the Canterbury Tales as a schoolboy and have no knowledge of Chaucer criticism in the intervening years. The aim is, therefore, to help make students and academics aware of an interesting newly published study by a Welsh writer rather than to attempt a detailed analysis, a task for which I am ill-equipped.  

Alan Hughes, who studied medieval allegory at the University College of North Wales in Bangor, makes a bold claim: to be the first person to realise and explain the hidden, allegorical significance of the Canterbury Tales. On an intuitive level, I found his argument rather persuasive. I can remember (through the mists of time) feeling strangely unsettled on first reading the Canterbury Tales. Some of Chaucer's barbs seemed just too refined and precise to be aimed at the archetypes we were taught that his pilgrims represented. Mr. Hughes offers a satisfying explanation, namely that the Canterbury pilgrims, or many of them, embody characteristics of some of the most noteworthy figures of the age. These include King Richard II and Geoffrey Chaucer himself.  

Chaucer (c.1343 - 1400) had good opportunity to observe the career of Richard. The king had shown early promise; crowned at the age of 10 he was deemed to have acted bravely at 14 when he confronted the leaders of the Peasant's Revolt in 1381. However, when older and sure of his power he revenged himself on the Lords Appellant by disregarding an oath of forgiveness and having Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester murdered. His properties, including Caldicot Castle in south Wales, were sequestrated. Richard later alienated many more when he confiscated the vast estates of the loyal and popular Henry Bolingbrook. Mr. Hughes points out references to Richard's tyranny and betrayal of the feudal ideals throughout the text but if I understand him correctly, he thinks that Chaucer was most disturbed by the king's relations with Isabel, his second wife and a child bride. This is rather ironic when we remember that Chaucer's Parliament of Fowles (where the birds gather on St. Valentine's Day to discuss the choice of mates) has been interpreted as a celebration of Richard's earlier marriage to Anne of Bohemia.

It is one thing to concede an allegorical basis for the Tales, another to accept Mr. Hughes' detailed interpretation. However, I found many of his arguments logical and seemingly well founded. For example, to him the Merchant of the Canterbury Tales is a figure which "presents us with a superb portrayal of King Richard as an insolvent ruler who ostentatiously attempts to impress with a pretence of his wealth ...". In support of this he mentions the forked beard worn by both men and the Merchant's trade in Flemish currency, which hints at the interest of the royal exchange in foreign currency dealing. Both Richard and the Merchant presented an affluent front but were financially hard pressed. Later, we are told that sums of twelve pence are mentioned four times between lines 1599 and 1607 and that these allude to the king's aggressive measures to collect the notorious poll-tax; "That is, when his subjects could not pay this excessive tax, Richard ousted the local collectors and issued his sergeants-at-arms with the power to commence a house to house survey."

"Signs and Circumstances" contains very many thought provoking interpretations of the pilgrims and some Chaucer enthusiasts will no doubt feel affronted. In the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer's great art lay in portraying the pilgrims in such a way that they lived for all later generations of Britons. Many modern experts will feel uncomfortable that the pilgrims they thought they knew might have hidden, and sometimes terrible, secrets. 

On the subject of names I feel that Alan Hughes is a little enthusiastic in his quest for hidden significance. "Harry Bailly" may well hint at the hidden reality of King Richard but I did not think that it was warranted to interpret Harry, in this context, as being derived from the Anglo Saxon word "hergian", to plunder. Harry was a normal way to pronounce Henry in Chaucer's day and I doubt that even his most sophisticated readers would have noticed a clue here.

By the same token "Roger, Hogge of Ware" may well really point to Richard, but would readers ever think to associate the name Roger with a French word for cheat? Roger (a Germanic name) had been popular in England since soon after the Norman invasion.  I also think that "Hogge of Ware" should be understood as "Hodge of Ware", Hodge being the old hypocoristic or pet form of Roger. This means that I would argue against Mr. Hughes' view that the name has porcine overtones.

This is not a book for the general reader. Knowledge of the Canterbury Tales, the historical background and a certain familiarity with Middle English is assumed. One might expect that students of English and English history will form the readership. I am sure that they will find this book fascinating and that many would, like myself, welcome a future expanded edition.  

Signs and Circumstances. Alan Hughes, AlaNia Press, 2003. ISBN 0 9544491 0 X. Soft cover, 158 pages, 20.00. 
Publisher e-mail: alania_press@hotmail.com


  2003   John Weston
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