Chaucer
Essays

The Necessary Duality of Order and Disorder in Chaucer’s Societies

Chaucer’s “The Parliament of Fowls” and “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” both explore order and disorder in an animal society. By using animals rather than human beings, Chaucer is able to approach with a dichotomy, simultaneously emulating and parodying human society. Chaucer seeks to show the necessary co-dependent relationship between order and disorder. Disorder is characterized as compulsory for order to exist or function. It is this necessary duality that lies at the heart of both texts, and makes the narratives so intricate and compelling.

Despite the two texts being primarily concerned with animals and their society, they should also be viewed as allegories applicable to human beings. Animals function as proximate strangers, beings who are similar to humans but fundamentally apart. This distance allows Chaucer to more objectively study human order, as well as to explore natural order. The narrative mode suggests such an anthropocentric approach. Both texts share a human narrator explicitly telling their story to a human audience. This explicit acknowledgement of an audience also serves to make Chaucer’s points more compelling, as the reader is more like to empathize. In “The Parliament of Fowls”, the narrator is addressing the reader directly. In “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale”, the Canterbury pilgrims function as an audience surrogate. Such a narrative mode also implies some semblance of order and cohesion; stories recount a sequence of events.

This order further manifest in the very words and ideas Chaucer chooses. For “The Parliament of Fowls”, the constant presence of rhyme royal indicates the omnipresent order in the poem and the world. “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale”, on the other hand, uses its content to imply order. As mentioned, the Tale is an explicit story, one that is expected to have some appearance of a plot. More importantly, “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” is based on the Reynard cycle, and is reminiscent of both beast fables and mock epics. Particularly for a medieval audience, the tale of Chauntecleer would have certain genre and literary expectations. These expectations can be seen as an orderly guide. However, give the dichotomy of disorder within order, it is not so straightforward; as will be shown later, there are certain trope subversions that explicates this duality.

“The Parliament of Fowls” begins with the narrator reading “The Book of Scipio” in his search for truth and order. Affrican appears in two different dream contexts. First, he is Scipio’s guide, and then he is the narrator’s. Such a progression suggests that there is a similarity between the two; “The Book of Scipio” hence clarifies and foreshadows the narrator’s dream. In Scipio’s dream, Affrican emphasizes to Scipio the vastness of a greater nature. He “shewed him the galaxye. / Then shewed he him the litel erthe that here is.” (The Parliament of Fowls lines 56-57) The conduplicatio of “shewed” stresses Affrican’s role as a guide and teacher. The human world encompasses nature, but a greater nature encompasses the human world. The galaxy is portrayed as ultimately ordered, “nyne speres” that are “well is of musyk and melodye / In this world here, and cause of armonye.” (Parliament 59; 62-63) Chaucer plays on the double entendre of “armonye”, which can alternatively have musical or orderly connotations. Chaucer portrays the universe as orderly, but containing disorder. Hence, the narrator’s dream of the birds’ parliament should be seen as a similar construct of disorder within order. The relationship between music and order should also be noticed. Music was seen as a sign of natural order, and this becomes a recurring motif in “The Parliament of Fowls.”

“The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” is slightly more complicated in that it begins with the Priest in the human world in the Prologue, before moving on to Chauntecleer’s tale. The very first lines of the tale also establish an enveloping human sphere. “A povre widwe, somdel stape in age, / Was whilom dwelling in a narwe cottage.” (The Nun’s Priest’s Tale lines 2821-2822) The focus here is on the human widow and her human home. Both texts, although they are literally concerned with animal society, have a deeper anthropocentric undercurrent. It is within Chaucer’s narrator’s dream that the birds hold their parliament; it is within the Priest’s tale and on the widow’s farm that Chauntecleer lives. If the human mind encompasses the animal society, then the two must be intimately linked: the animals function as a microcosm, revealing deeper truths about humanity and the universe.  Indeed, Chauntecleer is introduced only in possessory relation to the widow: “In which she hadde a cok hight Chauntecleer.” (Tale 2849). Such an anthropocentric background should be expected; it agrees with the medieval natural order where animals were lower than humans. By focusing on animals, however, there is an inversion of this orderly hierarchy. The duality of disorder in order can be seen here: animals are focused on, but only in relation to human beings.

In both texts, Chaucer establishes an initial general order. Affrican vouches for the order of the universe; Chauntecleer keeps his domain sexually and socially harmonious. “This gentil cok hadde in his goevrnaunce / Seven hennes, for to doon al his plesaunce.” (Parliament 2865-2866)   Interestingly, Chauntecleer’s physical description uses similes of nature: “His comb was redder than the fyn coral” and “His nayles whytter than the lilie flour.” (Parliament 2859; 2863) Such a description emphasizes the relationship between nature and order, and Chaunteceleer’s role in mediating the two.

With a general order established, Chaucer is able to highlight the necessary layers of disorder. In both texts, disorder is introduced in the form of dreams. The dream vision would have been a familiar trope to the medieval audience. Dream visions were frequently used as allegories that addressed waking concerns.  In both texts, the dream world features as a necessary mirror domain that facilitates order in the waking world. Pathetic fallacy is used in “The Parliament of Fowls” to emphasize the polarity of the waking world and dreams: “The day gan failen, and the derke night / Berafte me my book for lak of light.” (Parliament 85-86) Night, the domain of dreams, is seen as an absence of light, which the narrator associates with his books. Hence, the dream is a place where traditional order and knowledge does not exist. The narrator is transported to bird court, where there is a disturbance in the mating order.

Similarly, “The Nun’s Priest’s tale” has a dream that threatens animal society: the death of Chauntecleer, the alpha male. Interestingly, both dreams have political and social impacts. Both feature a feudal animal society based on hierarchy, where disorder stems from chaos of the elite that descends to the rest of the population. The other birds in “The Parliament of Fowls” are not able to finish their mating ritual while the eagles bicker. Chauntecleer’s dream has an immediate effect on Pertelote, who remarks, “Now han ye lost myn herte and al my love. / I can nat love a coward, by my faith!” (Tale 2911-2912) The disorder of the dream and Chaunticleer’s possible death threatens marital and the hierarchal societal relations. Whereas “The Parliament of Fowls” had the onset of night to indicate the beginnings of the narrator’s tumultuous journey into chaos, Chauntecleer’s dream is recounted at dawn, “so bifel that in a daweninge.” (Tale 2882) The dream ends as Chauntecleer awakes, and as it gets lighter, he is no longer afraid “For it was day.” (Tale 3173) With this, order is temporarily restored and he has sexual relations with Pertelote. “Real he was, he was namore aferd; He fethered Pertelote twenty tyme.” (Tale 3176-3177) This marks a return to social and sexual order, where Chaunticleer is again the virile king.

Chaucer cleverly stresses the importance and pertinence of dreams in “The Nun’s Priest’s tale” through Chauntecleer. Chauntecleer’s appeal to authority colludes with ideas found in “The Parliament of Fowls”. Both poems see books as an importance source of knowledge and truth. Chauntecleer particularly notes that “Men may in olde bokes rede” of the importance of dreams. (Tale 2974) His ample examples of historical prophetic dreams further lend his dream credibility. This suggests that dreams can provide answers that cannot be found elsewhere. Indeed, the dream vision trope often involved such a progression. The dream in “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” serves as a foreshadowing of the main event involving the fox. It is an indicator of the disorder and main plot to follow. The dream in “Parliament of Fowls”, on the other hand, is the main plot. The narrator notes that people dream of events closely related to them. The hunter dreams of hunting, the judge dreams of lawsuits, and so on. (Parliament 99-105) The narrator was previously characterized by a desire for truth and order. His dream of nature, then, implies the relationship between order and nature. The gate he encounters is particularly indicative of this, being inscribed on both sides. Going into the dream garden is euphonic: “that blissful place / of hertes hele and ededly woundes cure.” (Parliament 127-128) The alliterative emphasis on “hertes hele” shows that the garden is a place of harmony and love—indeed, it is the place where the birds go to find a mate. The inscription that would be read upon leaving the garden, on the other hand, is cacophonic and barren: “There tre shal never fruyt ne leves bere.” (Parliament 137) The gate perfectly encapsulates the dichotomy of order and disorder. They are necessary faces to the same coin. While it would appear that the dream garden is orderly, and the waking world is disorderly, Chaucer subverts both of these expectations later—the garden is revealed to be disharmonious among the tercet eagles, and the waking world is shown to have order in the end.

Upon entering the garden, the narrator is struck by its beauty. Such abundance of nature suggests an over-arching order, not dissimilar to Affrican’s description of the universe. Chaucer invokes the auditory senses, “Of instruments of strenges in accord / Herde I so pleye a ravishing swetnesse.” (Parliament 197-198) Again, the relationship between music and order is stressed. However, immediately following this beautiful description, the narrator observes the individual trees, which reveals a harsher picture. Anaphora is used to highlight the variety and number of trees: “The bilder ook… The piler elm… The boxtree piper” and so on. (Parliament 176-182) The medieval audience would have been familiar with the types of wood and their purposes. The forest is populated by trees with very different purposes and connotations. For example, the presence of the olive tree indicates peace, but the holly tree has connotations of whipping. Such a contradiction suggests a deeper disorder. Again, the parallel to Scipio’s dream, where the orderly galaxy contains the disorderly earth should be noted.

Despite this, there is a sense of serenity. Several virtues are personified, most important of which is Nature, “And in a launde upon an hille of floures / Was set this noble godesse Nature.” The Goddess Natura embodies life and fertility. It should be emphasized that despite its pagan associations, Chaucer firmly places the goddess Natura within a Christian context. “Nature, the vicaire of th’almighty Lorde” is an expression of divine order. (Parliament 379) Gathered around Nature are the various birds, who have come to select their mates. There is a distinct sense of class and societal commentary here. While “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” had a relatively simple hierarchy consisting of Chauntecleer at the top, with the female hens below him, “The Parliament of Fowls” is more complex with many classes. Chaucer uses anaphora and listing to describe all the birds, who are heavily anthropomorphized. The birds are variously described in human terms and personality traits: “The gentil faucoun”, “The kings hond”, “The jelous swan” and so on.  While such a bird hierarchy should imply order, Chaucer cleverly inserts disorder into it, simultaneously commenting on class systems. In a similar fashion to the disorderly trees within the orderly garden, there are disorderly birds within the orderly class divides. There are distinct contrasts and enmities in the descriptions. The goshawk is described as a “tyraunt that doth pyne / To brides for his outrageous rayne.” (Parliament 335-336)  A notable number of birds are characterized by their predatory relationship with other birds: the sparrowhawk hunts the quail, the merlin hunts the lark and so on.. In particular, many of the birds are given proverbial and human characteristics: “The stork, the wreker of avouterye; / The hote cormeraunt of tlonye; / The raven wys; the crow with vois of care” (Parliament 361-364) Despite this seemingly contradictory chaos, there is nonetheless a sense of overarching order. All the birds act orderly, “benignely to chese or for to take, / By hir accord, his formel or his make.” (Parliament 370-371)

These tensions are only bought to the surface when the tercet eagles are unable to agree on a mate. Chauntecleer’s kidnapping likewise has immediate ramifications in the larger society. “This sely widwe and eek hir doghtres two / Herden thise hennes crye and maken wo.” (Tale 3375-3376) From a gender perspective, it is interesting that the loss of the alpha male results in a female response. The opposite is true in “The Parliament of Fowls”: there, the female eagle is the object of desire, and the goddess Natura is the superlative power. While the two poems differ on their gender perspectives, both share similar class views. Harmony is threatened by the elite tercets fighting over the formel, so Nature must demand order: “Hold youre tonges there!” and asks for representatives from various bird groups to give advice. The three bird groups disagree: the watefowls wish to let the formel choose, the seed-fowl wish for the tercets to obey until death, and the worm-fowl argues that the tercets should remain un-mated. What is the purpose of such a debate? The viewpoints expressed are irreconcilable. However, from this chaos, Nature is able to discern order. Nature, unconcerned with social status, agrees with the formel’s decision to delay her choice by a year, resulting in a satisfactory compromise for all. Despite what would initially appear as discordant and divisive views, the parliament actually ends on a note of harmony. Indeed, the dream vision finishes with birdsong and the orderly motif of music. Likewise, Chauntecleer abruptly outsmarts the fox and restores order to the farm. Chauntecleer learns from the fox, and is able to flatter him into speaking so he can escape. The brevity of the ending is jarring. The tale does not elaborate on Chaunticleer’s return. Instead, the Priest ends with an explicit human moral: “Lo, swich it is for to be recchelees / And necligent, and truste on flaterye.” (Tale 3436-3437) This suggests the significance of the text does not lie in its ending. Indeed, the fox devouring Chauntecleer would have been in line with the natural order of the predators, and the greater hierarchy of the food chain. The crux of “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” is in its commentary on order and disorder, which saturates the poem.

Such a clear moral is noticeably missing in “The Parliament of Fowls”. The ending here is similarly curt, but almost unsatisfactory in its lack of closure. The events following the narrator’s awakening occupies only the final stanza. He only determines to read more, “I wook, and other books took me to / To rede upon, and yet I rede alwey.” (Parliament 695-696) Nothing really changes in the end: the narrator is still searching for truth in books; Chauntecleer returns to his farm. The threat of disorder that comes from the dream visions reiterates the order in the waking world. This disorder, while sometimes threatening, is nevertheless part of the greater order. Chaucer merely aims to show the necessary presence and potential of disorder that must characterize order. To have the texts end with a drastic change from the beginning would have defeated its purpose.

By showing the necessity of disorder to order, Chaucer explores the very duality that defines the universe and humanity. Such an analysis delves into class and gender hierarchies, passing commentary on human society. In the end, there are no simple answers. Like the very human nature both works seek to explore, “The Parliament of Fowls” and “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” are at once clear and ambiguous, divisible and unified, ordered and disordered.

Works cited

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “The Nun’s Priest’s Prologue and Tale.” In The Canterbury Tales: Fifteen Tales and the General Prologue. Ed. V. A. Kolve and Glending Olson. 2nd ed. New York and London: Norton, 2005. 269-85

Chaucer Geoffrey. “The Parliament of Fowls.” In Dream Visions and Other Poems. Ed. Kathryn L. Lynch. New York and London: Norton, 2007. 93-116.

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