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Chaucer's Obscenities

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Bill Watts Butler University Sept. 15, 2010 346IMU, Indiana Room

Chaucer’s Swyvyng in Context

(Slide 1) After declaring that “Chaucer followed Nature everywhere,” and that God’s plenty can be found in his works, John Dryden, in his Preface to the Fables, Ancient and Modern, considers why Chaucer includes “low characters” in the Canterbury Tales, such as “the Reeve, the Miller, the Shipman, the Merchant, the Sumner, and above all, the Wife of Bath, in the prologue to her tale.” This tendency toward the low, Dryden suggests, is a quality that Chaucer shares with Boccaccio, whom he also includes in the Fables. “What need [had] they,” Dryden asks, “of introducing such characters, where obscene words were proper in their mouths.” Dryden’s answer to this question is simple: there is no need for such characters, with their obscene words. And, in the case of the Canterbury Tales, the solution is equally simple; Dryden omits from his collection the tales containing these obscene words. Surely, the word “swyven” is foremost among the dirty words uttered by the “low characters” that Dryden condemns. Chaucer uses this word seven times, and all are in the Canterbury Tales. Five of the seven uses of swyven appear in the fabliaux of Fragment One. The other two appear in tales heavily indebted to the fabliau, The Merchant’s Tale and the Manciple’s Tale. Cuckolding is the central event in four of the five tales that contain the word swyven. Of course, Chaucer was not the first to use the word swyven in English. The word had its origins in the Old English word swifan, which had a root meaning of “to sway” or “to sweep.” (slide 2) At some point, prior to Chaucer’s writing, the Old English word came to be used as a metaphor, and possibly a euphemism, for copulation, comparable to the later “screw.” Interestingly, the Oxford English Dictionary records only a single instance of swyven in the sexual sense (and the MED records none) prior to Chaucer’s seven uses of the word. This one usage appears in a political song that had its origins in the late 13th century: (slide 4) Richard of Alemaigne, whil that he wes kyng,
He spende al is tresour opon swyvyng
This ballad, which appears in the Harley Lyrics, ms. 2253, and was included in Percy’s Reliques, is about the Richard, Duke of Cornwall and King of the Romans, who was brother to Henry III. It is thought to reflect the rivalry among barons after the Battle of Lewes in 1264, in which Henry was significantly weakened. It is telling, I think, that swyven in the sexual sense first appears in the written record of a song, and this suggests that the word probably had a robust oral circulation before it was widely used in writing. Chaucer’s innovation, then, lay not in sexualizing swyven, but in importing this sexual meaning to a literary context. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the sexual meaning of swyven remained in circulation until well into the 18th century. Among the examples it quotes, the Dictionary includes a passage from Samuel Butler’s Characters, from 1680: “In the Scotch translation Genesis is rendered the Buke of Swiving,” a novel way of explaining the “begats” of the first book of the Bible. This suggests that the sexual meaning of swyven was available to Dryden’s audience when he wrote the introduction of the Fables, a work roughly contemporary with Samuel Butler’s Characters. By the nineteenth century, however, swyven in the sexual sense had become arcane, and, of course, we have no vestige of the word in our language today. We do, however, have a memory of the word in swivel, which retains the original Old English sense of “to sweep” or “to sway,” but in a non-sexual sense.
Not all critics join Dryden in condemning Chaucer’s taboo words. Thomas Ross, whose 1972 book, Chaucer’s Bawdy, lists scores of words and phrases that either are or might conceivably be viewed as indecent, is a leading apologist for Chaucer’s obscenities. In his introduction to that work, Ross argues that contemporary readers have been liberated by John Updike, Philip Roth and Allen Ginsburg from the prudery of earlier generations, and are now free to enjoy the bawdiness he finds so abundant in Chaucer. (slide 5) Ross writes, for example, that “Chaucer views copulation with healthy and effervescent good humor. The ‘swyvynge’ that goes on in the ‘Miller’s’ or ‘Reeve’s Tales’ is supremely good fun for those involved directly’ (16). Fortunately for the reader, in Ross’s view, this “swyving” is also supremely good fun for those who are indirectly involved. The contrasting views of Dryden and Ross show how difficult it is to separate judgments about what is obscene from the social context of the judge. Dryden helps to define and develop the sense of decorum and good taste that we associate with the Neoclassical period. Thomas Ross, by contrast, avows that his own sensibilities, and those of contemporary readers, have been shaped by the fiction of John Updike and other contemporary writers. (It is worth noting here that in 2008, shortly before his death, Updike won the lifetime achievement award of the Bad Sex in Fiction sponsored by the Literary Review. ) If we are to separate Chaucer’s obscenities from the judgments and sensibilities of subsequent generations of readers, and arrive at some understanding of what these words meant for Chaucer and his fourteenth-century audience, where do we look, and how do we assay the valences of these words? The problem, of course, is that taboos against obscenities mean that they are much slower to make their way into the written language than they are in the spoken language. For contemporary readers of Chaucer, as for contemporary readers of James Joyce, the force and meaning of a taboo word depend upon their knowledge of a much more extensive oral context in which the word is used. But we know relatively little of the oral culture of the fourteenth century, and, consequently, we must rely largely upon indirect evidence and conjecture in order to understand the import of Chaucer’s obscenities. The temporal gap between this song about Richard of Germany and The Canterbury Tales, together with the paucity of textual evidence for the sexual use of swyven, leaves a great deal of room open for the interpretation of Chaucer’s swyving. In an article on taboo words published a dozen years after Chaucer’’s Bawdy, Ross suggests that (slide 5)
‘Swyve’ is used commonly enough; it carried a less powerful stigma than did ‘fukken.’ Chaucer uses ‘swyve’ without reservation, especially in the Reeve’s Tale. It seems to carry a connotation of violence or at least of boisterousness.
Ross offers some comparisons between Chaucer’s use of swyven and later uses in the poetry of Dunbar and other 15th-century poets, but he provide little support for his claim that swyven is a relatively mild and relatively frequent word in Chaucer’s Middle English. In an article that came out in the same year as Ross’s article—in 1984—Larry D. Benson takes the opposite view of swyven, arguing that, by Chaucer’s time, it had become “one of the most offensive words in Middle English.” In support of his position, Benson points out that that the first recorded use of “fuck” does not come until near the end of the fifteenth century; this fact is supported both by the Oxford English Dictionary (slide 6), and by Jesse Sheidlower in his 1995 study, The F-Word: The Complete History of the Word in All Its Robust and Varied Uses. Consequently, we cannot know whether the word “fuck” was available to Chaucer, and, by extension, we cannot know whether swyven functioned as a milder alternative to this more forceful word. Even more importantly, however, Benson offers textual support for the offensiveness of swyven. In a number of cases, medieval scribes employ various strategies to avoid writing the word swyven. In a strategy that anticipates the “sh—“ for “shit” and “Shadwell” in Dryden’s “Macflecknoe,” the scribes of both the Ellesmere and Hengwrt manuscripts write “sw” followed by either a dash or an ampersand where swyven appears in the Manciple’s Tale. In other cases, scribes substitute more polite terms, such as dight, served, did, did amiss and played with, for swyven. This scribal squeamishness is the best evidence we have for the forcefulness of swyven in Chaucer’s Middle English. The internal evidence of Chaucer’s poetry would also seem to support this more forceful reading of swyven. As we have already noted, all seven of Chaucer’s uses of swyven occur in The Canterbury Tales. This means that Chaucer delivers the word not in his own authorial voice, but in the voice of his invented characters. And, of course, those who utter the word swyven are among the more scurrilous of the Canterbury pilgrims, and they speak out of some of the more scurrilous circumstances created in the frame tale. The first pilgrim to utter the word swyven is the Miller, and he is, of course drunk, and manages to disrupt Harry Bailley’s plan to have the Monk follow the Knight in the opening sequence of tales. The last pilgrim to use the word swyven in the Canterbury Tales, both as we have the unfinished work and as Chaucer probably planned the finished product, is the Manciple. The Manciple (slide 7) has the crow tell Apollo, bluntly, that he has been cuckolded: “on thy bed thy wyf I saugh hym swyve” (IX. 256). This use of the word swyven comes after the drunken japing of the Prologue to the Manciple’s Tale, in which the Cook is sufficiently drunk to fall of his horse, and Harry Bailley delivers his tribute to the god of wine: (slide 8) O thou bacus, yblessed be thy name,
That so kanst turnen ernest into game!
Worshipe and thank be to thy deitee! IX. 99-101
And the Cook, who is so deliriously drunk in Fragment IX, speaks of the final swyving in the closing lines of Fragment I. In this way, then, Chaucer associates swyving with drunkenness and a lack of control. And while the Reeve and the Merchant—the other two pilgrims who speak the word swyven--do not seem to be drunk, their tales are also animated by forces they cannot control—anger on the part of the Reeve, and lascivious jealousy on the part of the Merchant. But it is in Fragment One that swyving is most prominent, and is most deeply imbedded into the sequence of the tales. Five of the seven occurrences of the word swyven are to be found in Fragment One. It appears first in the Miller’s summation of events in the closing lines of his tale: (slide 9) Thus swyved was this carpenteris wyf,
For al his kepyng and his jalousye;
And absolon hath kist hir nether ye;
And nicholas is scalded in the towte.
This tale is doon, and God save al the rowte! I. 3850—54
Here, swyved is juxtaposed with two other past participles—kist and scalded—describing scandalous actions; this juxtaposition brings a sense of completion and finality to the tale. In his most immediate response to the tale, we are told, the Reeve is motivated by ire and a desire to quit the Miller for his portrait of the carpenter. This desire is reflected in his use of the word swyven. Whereas the Miller uses the word once, in the closing lines of his tale, the Reeve uses it three times. Moreover, the Reeve’s delivery of the word carries an edge of violence and retribution that is largely absent from the Miller’s summation. The Reeve first uses the word in the bedroom, when Aleyn announces his intention to John, his fellow student: (slide 9)
For, john, seyde he, als evere moot I thryve,
If that I may, yon wenche wil I swyve. I. 4177-78
The word appears a second time when, after the fact, Aleyn speaks again to his bed-mate, who he thinks is Aleyne, but is, after the exchange of beds, Symkin the Miller. Aleyne boasts: (slide 10)
For by that lord that called is seint jame,
As I have thries in this shorte nyght
Swyved the milleres doghter bolt upright . . . I.4264-66
Finally, the Reeve, like the Miller, uses swyven in his closing lines: (slide 11)
His wyf is swyved, and his doghter als.
Lo, swich it is a millere to be fals! I. 4317-18
This leads to his declaration of victory over the Miller: “Thus have I quyt the millere in my tale” (I. 4324). The parallel formulas of the Miller’s and Reeve’s tales emphasize the contrast between swyving in the two works. The relationship between Alison and Nicholas in the former tale is consensual, and gives some justification to Thomas Ross’s declaration that the swyving “is supremely good fun for those involved directly.” By contrast, a number of critics have described the events in the Reeve’s Tale as rape, and the swyving here is informed by anger and the desire for revenge. In its final appearance in Fragment One, the word swyven again serves to bring a tale to an end. In the closing lines of his account of the career of Perkyn, the Cook describes the reveler’s new roommate: (slide 13) That lovede dys, and revel, and disport,
And hadde a wyf that heeld for contenance
A shoppe, and swyved for hir sustenance. I. 4420-22
There is, of course, an important difference between the closing swyving of the Cook’s and the two tales that precede it. This tale is unfinished, and the swyving marks not closure and finality, but incompleteness and uncertainty. While there is some critical debate about Chaucer’s designs for the Cook’s Tale, it seems likely that he planned a narrative intervention of the sort that we find at the end of the unfinished Squire’s Tale, Monk’s Tale or Tale of Sir Thopas, in which the Knight or the Host steps forward to spare the pilgrims further suffering at the hands of an inappropriate story teller. In the case of the Cook’s Tale, this inappropriate story-telling has a specifically linguistic component, for swyving of this wife would seem to promise more foul language and more bawdy action. Thus, the use of swyving tracks the narrative decline in Fragment One. We move from the animalistic, but apparently joyful coupling of Alison and Nicholas in the Miller’s tale, to the vengeful and angry deflowering of Sympkin’s wife and daughter in the Reeve’s Tale, to prostitution in the Cook’s Tale. And, however Chaucer intended to manage the ending of the Cook’s Tale, it seems to me that this final iteration of swyving capitalizes on the full force and shock inherent in the word. Several critics in recent years have commented on Chaucer’s interest in the French tradition of deploying taboo words in works of literature. Thus, for example, Alastair Minnis argues that Chaucer brings to his poetry the debate about what constitutes obscenity from Jean de Meuen’s continuation of the Roman in which Reason famously uses the word “coilles,” or “balls,” in her exchange with Amant. In this vein, Marjorie Osborne has argued that the Harry Bailley’s use of the English of equivalent, “coillons,” in his threat to cut off the Pardoner’s balls, recalls the debate about language in the Roman, and raises important philosophical questions about the ontological status of words, and how they express meaning. In considering the fabliau tradition in particular, Laura Kendrick makes the interesting and important point that, in comparison to the French analogues to his works, Chaucer is rather sparing in his use of obscenities. In works such as “La Male Honte” (“The Bag of Honte”) and “Du Pretre ki abevete” (“The Priest who spies”) and “Du Foteor” (“The Fucker”), writers of fabliaux make liberal use of outright obscenities, such as the verb foutre, and puns on male and female genitalia. One purpose for this extensive and innovative use of obscenities, Kendrick argues, is to mock and dethrone what she calls the “father language”—usually French but sometimes Latin—the language of authority. As Kendrick points out, French fabliaux sometimes depend more heavily on this kind of verbal deflation than they do on turns of plot for their narrative force. Because English was only beginning to regain its standing as a literary language, it did not enjoy the authority of French, and, consequently, there was both less reason and less occasion to mock and dethrone it. This circumstance accounts, at least in part, Kendrick suggests, for the fact that there were virtually no fabliaux in English prior to those of Chaucer. This also helps to account for the fact, I would suggest, that there is virtually no written record of swyven before Chaucer. In this regard, then, it seems to me that what Chaucer is doing is both serious and important. Chaucer’s use of swyven and other obscenities is not simply a display of unnecessary vulgarity, as Dryden suggests, nor is it an exercise in frivolous fun, as Ross seems to suggest. Rather, Chaucer, through his use of swyven, is working to expand the expressive range of English, making it both a fit vehicle for the stately language of the Knight’s Tale, devoid of any villainy, as well the mocking and dethroning language of the Miller, the Reeve and the Cook. Ironically, Chaucer asserts the authority of English by creating the means and the occasion to mock it.

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