Blog Post 4/14: Pilgrim Authors

It is clear from the second half of Chapter Five, “Illuminating Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales”, that the Canterbury Tales was meant to be read along with the illustrations. Because of such an illiterate audience, these illustrations were vital to the audience’s understanding of the text. However, according to Hilmo these illustrated pilgrims did more than reference the story. Hilmo suggests that these illustrations may have resembled prominent political figures during this time. For example, Hilmo suggests that the Knight “might indeed be intended as a flattering reference to Henry IV” (274). Hilmo draws comparisons between other pilgrims and political figures. How do you think this may have influenced medieval readers? Would this be distracting? Or would this help illiterate audiences?

9 thoughts on “Blog Post 4/14: Pilgrim Authors

  1. I think one of the most interesting points made about this illustrations is that they separate Chaucer from the tales as the author, and suggest that the pilgrims are the real “authors” excusing Chaucer from “responsibility for any content that might prove offensive to his audience.”
    It also makes me think of what we discussed in class the other day about Chaucer’s focus in writing. We discussed how much attention he pays to the appearance of the pilgrims, describing their clothing, their demeanor, their looks, etc. It only makes sense, then, that these illustrations of the pilgrims would be so prominent and play such an important role in the manuscript. This story is one of character, and the illustrations reflect that. If it were any other piece of writing, yes, I think the illustrations might be a bit distracting. But I think that for someone reading the Canterbury Tales, especially someone who may not be as literate as we would like, these illustrations are not distracting but are instead a very useful aide to the reader.

  2. Perhaps an illiterate medieval audience could better relate to the pilgrims if they represent famous people of their time, thus enabling them to better understand a story. Similar, in a way, to how we relate to, or like, a movie or TV show if it features an actor or actress we like. Like with us, imagining famous figures portraying a roll might cause more of an interest, understanding, and focus on the story instead of a distraction. Alternately some people are “visual” and it may help to look at a picture to get an idea of who is speaking. If person depicted happens to be someone well know, then that persons mannerisms and personality might be visualized when reading the story (or having the story read to them assuming they’re illiterate) creating a greater immersion for the story.

  3. It is hard for me to put myself in the clogs of an illiterate medieval individual who could not necessarily make the correlation between the written word and the illustrations on the page. The best way for me to think about this is to try to revisit some of the memories I had as a child, when stories were read to me before I could read myself. Obviously an illiterate child’s mind is very different from an illiterate adult, but we can assume there are at the very least some baseline similarities between the two. As I recall, in some cases I would flat-out ignore the narrative of the story itself and only pay attention to the illustrations of a storybook, especially if the pictures were particularly attractive or attention-grabbing. There were other times when I used the images on the pages to influence my own understanding of the narrative as it unfolded. There were also instances where I remember paying very little attention to the images, and instead created a set of mental characters and settings that suited my own imagination. In the case of an illiterate medieval reader, I would think the interpretation of a text would come in some combination of these forms. Based on my own experience, images can either inform a text or play no role in its interpretation at all. Even if the images on a manuscript were unrelated to the text, there’s certainly a chance that it could influence the mind of the reader in a positive way.
    I wouldn’t consider any image, regardless of its significance to the text, to be “distracting” because at the end of the day, an interaction with a medieval text is very holistic (in terms of the many elements of a medieval manuscript). The “meaning” of the text, therefore, can’t necessarily be boiled down into one solid component of the production, whether it be the narrative, the textual presentation, the illustrations or anything else.

  4. For me personally, I would’ve found the images distracting from the true meaning of the story. Ayre mentioned in her comment that we might see a film with stars we are familiar with today; this is valid, however, in my own experience I find it difficult to remove a preconceived notion I have about intensely famous actors in new roles. This might have been a similar experience for these illiterate medieval audiences; seeing familiar political figures would place these preconceived notions about the characters’ values, ultimately creating a stock character situation. In a literary sense, this would’ve limited the potential of the characters themselves. Instead of allowing each person a unique and complex story, they become boiled down to a set of preconceived values that are associated with a “type” of person instead. However, considering the purpose of most texts during this time, I believe that using these images would’ve been effective. In the annotation chapter in Opening Up Middle English Manuscripts, I remember the author mentioning that getting to the “kernel”, or primary moral lesson, was most important to medieval audiences. I think boiling down the narrative into easily understood images would’ve produced an experience closer to the “kernel”, making this an effective use of the imagery. These readers would’ve ben able to use associative inferences based on what they already knew about political figures to understand the work in a broad, value-based context.

  5. Well an image of a a character makes that character’s currency grow exponentially. What I mean is that as soon as there is an expensively rendered drawing of a character beside the text a reader will automatically give that character more importance even if that attention is undeserved. Take the squire for instance. In the General Prologue he is minor and his tale went unfinished. He is not a major player in the other tales either–he doesn’t get into a scuffle or challenge other people’s opinions or insult his fellow pilgrims. For the most part, I forget the squire even exists. But when his picture is the stately face of an entire folio it is hard to ignore him and hard to forget him. Do you see what I mean? These picture regardless of their likenesses are not narrative devices as much as they are bits of candy hidden in the book–delectable but ultimately distracting from the meat of the text (and it might spoil your dinner if you aren’t careful).

  6. I think that comparisons between pilgrims and political figures would have had a significant influence on medieval readers both literate and illiterate. As Hilmo suggests, “many of the pilgrims are illustrated with attributes that help to identify and highlight some essential aspect of their personalities, tales, or a/vocations” (267). I think that by illustrating characters in such a way that they could be associated with prominent figures of the time would not only make the characters easier to understand, but it would also make the text more relevant as a whole. Giving readers a real life figure to compare to would allow readers to have a more relatable and comprehensive understanding of each character—I don’t think that such references would be distracting, instead I think they would have the opposite effect. Similar to what Arye said about modern day interests in tv and movies according to the figure being portrayed, a medieval audience would have had comparable inclinations. It is not unusual for more modern books to work in a similar way. I immediately thought of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. It has strong political tones and a main character—Napoleon—who is based on the socialist dictator Joseph Stalin.

  7. Comparing the pilgrims to important political figures elevates their stature even more to the medieval reader, and emphasizes the power their character held in Chaucer’s Tales. Caxton’s edition also features carefully placed references to political figures like, for example, the description of the return of Theseus that is placed above the knight’s illustration. Again, this, in a way, compares the knight to a mythical king of Athens and, perhaps, suggests that their are parallels between these two people. As far as illiterate audiences go, the comparing of characters to political figures through the appearance of their illustrations would have been crucial in conveying meaning to the medieval “reader.” For example, the Squire’s pose is much more delicate than his father’s, and his expression is soft and feminine. Even his wardrobe is softer as it lacks armor, the fancy pointed shoes that signify elevated status, and his horse is dressed much less heroically, as it only features a few tassels. The Squire is also depicted wearing a feathered hat and curly hair, which signifies that he was very concerned with his physical appearance. All of these small details included in the images would have conveyed to the illiterate reader many aspects of the characters.

  8. The interesting thing about the careful connection between illustration and text in a middle english manuscript is that this element of the text widens the readers interpretive threshold rather than clarifying it. Illustrations, regardless of how closely they mirror the events and descriptions within the text on the page, rely on visual interpretation. This does not restrict itself to the borders of the drawing but relies on placement, coloring, medium of production and actual sketched material. Depending on the societal, political, religious and visual background of the reader, visual interpretation would be totally different.
    The production team of a middle english manuscript was not housed in one single place. They often would be spread out over a series of times and places. This means there was no constant communication which would lead to the entire team workin in tandem. Instead, each small detail on an illustration may represent a different socio-political influence, put there by different hands. In this way, the reader of a manuscript would glance at the illustration, in whatever form it was at that time, without even realizing how much this glance was refining, changing or widening their perspective of the piece, and continue reading with this new perspective.

  9. This is a good question.
    I definitely think that what Hilmo refers to as the “visually materialized…real ‘authors'” (267) played important roles in the interactive and complex discourse of reading Medieval literature – a discourse with which complex Chaucer himself surely loved to experiment. When we read only transcriptions of Medieval manuscripts and do not get to experience the rich images that accompanied the original hand-scripted story, we miss an enormous amount of detail pertaining to society, politics, and/or literature at the time. I believe that we’re still missing a good deal of context, though, even as we observe the imagistic manifestations of Chaucer’s pilgrims since the very experience of recognizing, reading, and making meaning out of literature at the time was pretty different from ours today. Anyway, I have to infer that the pilgrims as representative authors – much like a troupe of recognizable, contemporary Medieval celebrities – probably enhanced the reading experience for readers/audiences who might not otherwise tune into Chaucer’s work. Hilmo states that “the illustrative pilgrim serves as a unifying device” and that he/she “connect[s] all the tales” (267). I definitely agree with this statement. It is pretty cleat to me that Chaucer wanted his characters to identify with numerous social statuses/political alignments/courtly interests. Aside from the Knight, another good example of an identifiable character on a few different levels is the Wife of Bath. Her tale seems that it should portray her as lowly (for being so sexually overt and sleeping with so many different men…even if it was in accordance with the law/church each time), but she emerges in several instances as triumphant, honest, and clever in the same way that Classical thinkers were. Her portrait is interesting because it shows her as a highly embellished figure in bright colors who is riding a noble horse adorned with gold bosses. The Wife could have been shown riding an ordinary palfrey, but that would have robbed her of her potential identification with “high-born female readers” (276). At the same time, the Wife’s non-traditional sexual situation might grab the attention of women who have been in similar real-life situations. Chaucer includes characters borne from lower social strata, too, which likely opened up his readership to not just women but also the poor/illiterate. It is important to note some of the reasons why poorer/lower class people read Medieval manuscripts as we discussed in the Romance unit. Some wanted to escape their less-than-noble reality and other just wanted to be entertained. I think the same principles apply to the reading of Chaucer’s pilgrims. In any event, the visual representations Chaucer incorporates just add another layer to the already intricate and multifaceted manuscript reading experience.

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