Master of Arts (MA)
Semester of Degree Completion
Timothy A. Shonk
Chaucer's use of scatology throughout the Canterbury Tales offers a new frontier for Chaucerian research. To this date, no book-length work dealing exclusively with the scatological elements found in his works exists. Too often, the serious and artistic effects of scatology become lost in the great comedy the device generates. Furthermore, many readers and scholars seem to find themselves somewhat "squaymous" when confronted with the "nether ye" of Chaucer. While Chaucer employs scatology perhaps less frequently than Swift or Rabelais, his mastery of this device remains unquestionable.
Recognizing that the uses for scatology extend far beyond creating humor, Chaucer instead proves that the effects achieved with this device are multidimensional. This study focuses upon three tales quite heterogeneous in nature: the Summoner's Tale, the Miller's Tale, and the Prioress' Tale. Though different in many respects, these tales contain scatological elements that effectively show the range with which Chaucer used scatology. In the Summoner's Tale and the Miller's Tale, Chaucer develops both the characters and the plot around the scatological scenes. He also employs scatology to emphasize the theme of just rewards. In doing so, he relies heavily upon biblical parallels that satirize the characters' hypocrisy.
In the Summoner's Tale, Friar John loses sight of his spiritual goals and seeks wealth and social prominence. He boasts of his order's association with the Holy Ghost and neglects the symbolic body of Christ, His people. For his neglect and his verbal flatulence, Friar John is rewarded with a fart and public humiliation. Both the fart and the subsequent cartwheel scheme are developed into a brilliant satire that ridicules the foundations of the entire mendicant order. Furthermore, Friar John's anger complements the Summoner's anger, revealing that both display a perverted sense of charity and grace.
The Miller's Tale also focuses upon a wayward religious figure. Like Friar John, Absolon shows a confusion of body and spirit. Obsessed with sensual pleasure, Absolon is a slave to his senses. That Absolon has lost sight of any spiritual goal is made clear when he swears an oath to the devil and seeks revenge. He also abuses his position in the church to satisfy his vanity and his sensual desires. In this tale, Chaucer uses language that calls to mind the Parson's warnings to wayward clergymen. Alluding to gold, "shiten shepherds," and sheep, Chaucer reveals that Absolon is the type of spiritual leader that the Parson warned about in the General Prologue. For worshipping his senses, Absolon is rewarded with two scatological tricks that effectively punish all five of his senses. As in the Summoner's Tale, Chaucer shows that the rewards for seeking earthly goals are not only insignificant but sometimes scatological.
In the Prioress' Tale, Chaucer handles scatology differently for a remarkable effect. In this tale, scatology becomes dark in order to elevate the effect of the miracle. Though entombed in excrement, the child rises to a divine level because of his adherence to Christian principles. Resembling the alimentary canal, the city's alley represents the journey from life into the afterlife. In order to escape life's excrement, one must hold fast to Christian virtues and keep sight of the "Jerusalem celestial." Showing that life can spring from dung, the little boy is blessed with the miracle because he has kept sight of his spiritual goal and has not cast his eyes downward.
Just as the Canterbury Tales concludes with the Parson's Tale, this study also ends with a focus upon this tale. In the Parson's Tale, Chaucer's view of salvation becomes clear. Sincere, humble penitence is the right path to salvation. The Parson's Tale reminds the reader that the Canterbury Tales involves a spiritual journey, not just a physical journey. In this treatise, the Parson states that many are the paths that lead to glory. Likewise, many are the ways of exposing hypocrisy. Chaucer puts the different views of his characters into proper perspective and shows that divine rewards are achievable if one holds firm to Christian principles. He also shows that the rewards of earthly pursuits are not only ephemeral, but sometimes scatological.
Wilson, Brook, "Chaucer's "Nether Ye": A Study of Chaucer's Use of Scatology in The Canterbury Tales" (1992). Masters Theses. 2181.