Tuesday, 26 May 2015



A. The Summoner:

According to the medieval sciences, the Summoner is afflicted with a species of morphea (a skin disease resulting from a corruption of the blood) known as gutta rosacea, which has alreadv developed into that kind of leprosy called alopecia. Gutta rosacea covers the skin of the face with livid red pustules. But the Summoner has, besides this, `scalled browes blake and piled herd', 'narwe eyes', 'whelkes whyte' and `knobbes' on his cheeks. Chaucer is evidently following contemporary medical opinion in supposing that the Summoner's skin disease has already developed into that type of leprosy that is produced de sanguine, or alopecia.

Alopecia. says a contemporary of Chaucer, is a species of leprosy marked by a complete depilation of the eyebrows and beard. The eyes of the patient become inflated and red. Pimples of a reddish colour appear in the face and even on the whole body, from which runs corruption mixed with blood, as seen in the `whelkes whyte and 'knobbes ' of the Summoner. His eyebrows have nearly all fallen out, and in their place is discovered a scabby, scurfy mark of black colour. His beard too has the scall to such an extent that it is thin and slight. His eyes are swollen and inflamed to a violent red and the lids, already deprived of lashes, are enlarged and corrugated so that the slits in between them—'narwe eyes' as Chaucer calls them.

Geoffrey Chaucer
Chaucer has indicated two principal causes of the disease. The Summoner is 'lecherous as a sparwe' and is accustomed to eating 'oynons, garleek and eek leekes' and drinking strong wines. He is either criminally ignorant or ruthlessly indifferent. Any physician in his time would tell him that leprosy may be contracted by association with infected women, and that garlic, onions and leeks all produce evil humours in the blood, and that red wine is the most powerful and heating of drinks. The Summoner has not read, or treats with contempt, the medical authorities, and having once contracted alopecia by riotous and lascivious living, by the immoderate use of unwholesome drinks and meat, he aggravates it by sticking to his practices.

B. The Cook:

The Cook is also affected with kind of cutaneous eruption which is less malignant than the Summoner's but more offensive to the eye. It is generally agreed that his `normal’ is to be identified with what the medieval medical writers call the malum mortuum. It is a species of ulcerated, dry-scabbed apostemas produced by a corruption in the blood. It is an infirmity infecting the arms and shins of the patient. It consists of dry. ulcers slightly generative at times of bloody matter, sometimes accompanied by severe  itching. The cause is said to be  much consumption of melancholie food (e.g., flesh of cattle and salt fish) and unhygienic sexual practices, unclean habits, lack of frequent bathing and continuous wearing of soiled clothes, drinking of strog wines and so on. So the threadbare sketch of the Cook's pre-eminence in his profession, mormal and his knowledge of London ale actually reveal all the elements of his personality. Similarly, the Summoner’s tainted blood strongly indicates this Archdeacon's messenger has called too promiscuously upon certain erring women of his diocese with other than the professional purpose of haling them to the court.

C. The Pardoner:

The Pardoner's physiognomy is clearly denoted—long straight hair as yellow as wax, which hangs thinly spread over his shoulders, wide open and glaring eyes, with voice high-pitched and thin as a goat, no indication of a beard, and a long scrawny neck. The ancient physiognomist Antonius Polemon Laodicensis says that glaring eyes prominrntly set indicate a man given to folly, a glutton, a libertine and a drunkard. High, thin voice with such eyes are directly associated with shamelessness, impudence, gluttony and licentiousness. Long, soft hair, fine in texture and reddish or yellow in colour indicates an impoverished blood, lack of vitality, and effeminacy of mind. The sparser the hair, the more cunning and deceptive is the man. Another authority opines that a long thin neck is a sign of garrulity, haughtiness of spirit and evil habits, and a man beardless by nature is endowed with a fondness for women and for crafty dealings, besides being impotent.

The Pardoner has been most unfortunate in his birth. He carries upon his mind and his body the marks of what is known to a physiognomist as a eunuchus ex nativitate. An authority in the fourth century says that those who are eunuchs by fault of nature possess certain evil characteristics which distinguish them from other men. They are usually cruel, crafty and vicious. The eunuchus ex nativitate is held to lack the redeeming qualities of even the eunuchus qui castratus. The ones who have never had a beard are worse.
Most of the medical authorities cite Polemon as the authority on eunuchs. He says:

"When the eye is wide open and like marble, glitters and coruscates, it indicates a shameless lack of modesty. This quality of the eyes is observed in a man who is not like other men, but is a eunuch. I have only known one of this kind. He was lustful and dissolute above all moderation. He had a prominent forehead, a long, thin neck, and his cries were like women. He took particular care of his own person by nurturing his abundant hair, rubbing his body with medicated unguents and by employing every expedient that might excite a desire for sexual pleasure. He was given to scornful jesting, and whatever came into his mind, he acted upon immediately. Being learned in Greek, he was accustomed to use that the most. He frequented cities and market-places, meditating on justice and gathering men together in order that he might display evil. Above all, he was a very astute wizard, practicing life and death for men; wherefore he so influenced people that vast crowds of men and women flocked to hear him. Moreover, he persuaded men that he was able to force women to them just as they sought women and surreptitiously he caused to transpire that which he had predicted. As an instructor in the doing of evil he was a past master; he collected all kinds of deadly poisons. All the power of his ingenuity was directed toward the performance of these things. Whenever, therefore, you see such eyes, you may understand that their possessor is similar to this kind of eunuch."

D. The Wife of Bath:

Dame Alisoun's body and mind are influenced by the dominant planet ruling at her birth, Venus. The children of Venus are beautiful, tall, delicate, given to drink and little food, music and the arts, and to passion. They are stately, plump but not stout, graceful, with white skin touched with pink. But unfortunately, these beneficial aspects of Venus are clouded by the presence of Mars, and the Wife is finally shaped by both. So she is endowed with a stocky build which is more or less ungraceful, buxom, and of medium height. The strength which should have accompanied grace and beauty of body is distorted into an abundance of fecund energy; her large hips indicate excessive virility. In place of the attractive face—round but not too large, with finely chiseled features, resplendent black eyes and finely arched brows, a lovely peach-bloom complexion set off by thick curling hair of a dark shade--all of which Venus might have given her, she has inflicted upon her by the malignancy of Mars a slightly heavy face inclined to fatness, characterized by perhaps coarsened features and certainly by a red or florid complexion, which indicates immodesty, loquaciousness and drunkenness. Her voice, which should have been sweet, low and well-modulated, is harsh, strident, and raised continually in vulgar jest and indelicate banter. Such a voice is especially significant in its betrayal of the Wife's voluptuous and luxurious nature. And where the love-star might have given her small sharp teeth white as alabaster, Mars is perhaps responsible for her 'gat-tothed' mouth, where gap-teeth signify that she is envious, irreverent, luxurious by nature, bold, deceitful faithless and suspicious.

This remarkable distortion of her body is paralleled by a warping of her character resulting from the Venus-Mars conjunction in Taurus. Those born under the sole influence of Venus are naturally of a happy, joyous disposition, amiable, charming, attractive, delighting in dance and all such innocent entertainment, but withal gentle, refined, and calmly dignified. They are religious in nature, just in their dealings with men, leaders of noble lives and of an artistic nature, loving delicate and pleasant odours, the colours of elegant apparel and precious jewels. Endowed with the warmest of hearts, they are highly prone to violent amours with the opposite sex, though their amatory relations need not necessarily lead to vice.

Such a woman the cloth-maker of Bath might have been, but for Mars. The natural cheerfulness resolves itself into a kind of crude and clamorous hilarity, an overflow of superabundant animal and intellectual spirits. Her religious instinct has been debased to her going to vigils and to preaching simply to show off her finery, and attending to Miracle plays or going on pilgrimages just to satisfy an idle curiosity or to find another lusty husband. The artistic temperament has been cheapened by Mars, so that she flashily decks herself out in gaudy colours—in scarlet dresses and hose, brand new shoes and silver spurs—and adorns herself on Sundays with cover-chiefs weighing ten pounds and on pilgrimage, with a hat as large as a shield. Mars has given her a steady hardiness and a body so full of `ragerye' that even at forty, she is still 'faire and well bigoon', and it is Mars who impels her to gain at all costs the dominating power over her husbands and who makes of her a scold, a wrangler and a striker of blows.

Bibiloliography: • W C Curry: Chaucer and the Medieval Sciences.

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