This "lecture" is the second installment of Book Lush 101: The History of English Literature, Adult Beverage-style. Sign up and take a look at the course syllabus here. If you missed Lecture 1, Uncorking English Literature, or "Hand me another mead, Wiglaf, this epic poetry is killing me," get the class notes here or risk failing the midterms and having to wash everyone else's wine glasses for the rest of the course.
Lecture 2: The Canterbury Tales: Alcohol and Literature and Sex, oh my
The harmonious union of Alcohol and Literature had several hundred years to perfect itself after the birth of their first, great English lit offspring in the 700s, Beowulf.
By the time Geoffrey Chaucer took a swig of wine and laid quill to parchment in the late 1300s to begin The Canterbury Tales, adult beverages of every sort were cropping up in practically everything human beings bothered to write down. And, with good reason. As Plato so pithily said:
He was a wise man who invented beer.
The 29 pilgrims trekking to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral in The Canterbury Tales must have been wise, as well as merry, with alcohol indeed.
Far from being the squeaky-clean version that would be inflicted on the helpless masses of humanity if this same story were written today, Chaucer's lengthy ditty is more of a paean to the delights of ale, mead, and wine than that of piety.
Straight out of the gate, ere the cork is even out of the bottle, Chaucer lets the alcohol go to his head, describing April as having "bathed each vein with licquor that has power." Nearly every one of the pilgrims is described in the prologue in reference to their drinking habits, from the Prioress ("Her upper lip was always wiped so clean/ That in her cup was no iota seen/ Of grease, when she had drunk her draft of wine"), to the Clerk ("He loved right well his morning sop in wine"), to the Monk ("In towns he knew the taverns, every one/ And every good host and barmaid too").
When the pilgrims, at their Host's request, begin to while away the time telling tales, the Pardoner's tale outdoes all the rest in alcoholic indulgence: he begins his tale only after swallowing the last of his "corny ale" and then launches into a smilingly hypocritical diatribe against -- what else? -- drunkenness.
The Wife of Bath, before a few glasses of wine
Chaucer, being a canny young lad, knew that however amusing anecdotes on the enjoyment of Bordeaux might be, it just wasn't enough to spark serious interest in a reading public (at that time consisting of approximately 20 people) who had heard enough about ale, mead, and wine to fill every bodily orifice. The marriage of alcohol and literature needed something else to liven things up a bit. Chaucer, always a man ahead of his time, chose the ever enticing sex to throw into the fray and succeeded in producing some of the most amusing alcohol-drenched comic sex scenes known to literature.
Take the Miller's tale: Alisoun and Absolon cavort while simultaneously tricking the earnest Nicholas into passionately kissing Alisoun's "naked ers."
What induced Chaucer to write such a bawdy series of ditties? (And remember, Chaucer intended to write 124, but died after having only completed 22. Good grief.) The answer may lie in a portion of the Wife of Bath's tale, in which she comments that:
Whenever I take wine I have to think of Venus, for as long as cold engenders hail/ A lecherous mouth begets a lecherous tail./ As lechers know from long experience.
Yes, even in the 14th century people commonly believed that a woman drinking excessively was a green light for sex. All Chaucer was doing was expressing the union of the two on the written page, perhaps in the misguided belief that, if alcohol was such a stimulant, what would alcohol, the written word, AND sex do? It's a pity he died so young -- imagine what further delights he had in store. For readers, I mean.
Incidentally, if you are a Chaucer and/or Canterbury Tales aficionado, consider visiting The Canterbury Tales museum in England. Located in Canterbury, Kent, the museum features a reconstruction of 14th century England in St. Margaret's Church, complete with audio guides that take visitors through a narration of each of Chaucer's pilgrim's tales. The museum also hosts a number of nifty medieval-themed workshops, including medieval cooking, Knight School, and the medicines and "cures" of the medieval physician (bring out the leeches). Take a look at their website here.
Don't forget to come to class for Lecture 3, Another Round for the Knights of the Round Table: Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur.