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Patience and Parliament



Here are Part I, and Part II of this work (which I should retitle as to not confuse them with the other parts of the Chaucer Project…)

Repentance, while significant in Pearl and even more so Purity,  is also a central theme in Patience, and patience is prominently depicted in Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls, but extracted from an eternal context and applied to worldly love. Courtly love during the Middle Ages (and following), had less to do with love than etiquette, and it required great patience. The man would inevitably endure great pains from the object of his affection while she remained coy, refusing his love for prolonged periods of time, if not forever. In looking at the different ways courtly love operated it was often a deliberate show relying on a great deal of playacting. This in no way negates that real love did exist and the courtly aspect of it was the publicized and/or acceptable version, but for every instance of true love there were just as many idle demonstrations (almost as if people needed something to do during the day). A secondary element of courtly love was the competitive aspect, as there was quite often something at stake, even if only pride. Arcite and Palamon are some of the finest examples of courtly love turned combative, but through a less extreme method Parliament also depicts courtly love as an aggressive contest. However, unlike Emeleye, the formel has a choice, and all parties involved will have to exert patience in various forms. Parliament exemplifies this scenario through a highly stylized personification of birds. As the tercels vie for the formel’s affection, she, apt to her role as coy mistress, “axe[s] respite for the avise” her since she will “nat serve Venus ne Cupide, / Forsoth as yit, by no manere weye.” She is most certainly not serving Venus or Cupid, but merely adhering to convention, refusing to take a mate as would be fit for her station. Emotion does not guide her response, much like it does not guide the tercels who pursue her. Their speeches do not convey strong desire for the formel, as they too operate in accordance to social behavior that demands they chase the high ranking formel for their own vainglory or fame which here is defined in terms of success in courtly pursuit, and very much linked to pride. Nature’s response is really the voice of such convention:

“‘To you speak I, ye tercelets,’ quod Nature,

‘Beth of good herte, and serveth alle thre.

A yer is nat so longe to endure,

And ech of yow peyne him in his degre

For to do wel, for, God, wot, quyt is she

Fro yow this yer; what after so befalle,

This entremes is dressed for yow alle.'”

In short, she advises them to exercise patience and wait a year to try once more. In the meantime they are expected to woo her with good deeds in hopes that she may choose him who has done most. Patience in this sense is not merely worldly, but strikingly blasphemous, bordering on idolatry. The formel is placed upon a pedestal, detracting attention from the greater purpose of mating and multiplying as God prescribed. She is the object of worship and has the power to exert patience while demanding her followers do the same. This is very much unlike the patience God exerts towards Jonah in Patience, yet quite similar to the practices Chaucer witnessed and perhaps experienced throughout his life. Courtly love guided by pride and vanity, detached from real love or virtue, is in line with the practices that desecrated the sacred vessels in Baltassar’s court in Purity. Arguably the vessels are the objectified women, but that is too narrow of an explanation, and a better one would apply to the all encompassing human vessel that desecrates itself with unnatural practices.

God in Patience is benevolent and seeks to guide Jonah towards a greater meaning of life, and Jonah is to learn from his mistakes and achieve a higher existence. As demonstrated by the destruction of the woodbine, worldly matters are of little consequence, and human emotion, as exemplified by the people of Ninive through fear and sorrow, is only useful if used towards repentance. With such dismissal towards humanity, Patience becomes increasingly like a sermon.  However, the greatness of God is not to be depicted in language, but as demonstrated in the previous poems, elevated in an intricate number scheme. Admittedly, Patience does not exemplify the complexity of the other poems, thematically, or numerically. Nevertheless, the poet maintains the numerical pattern, not only for consistency, but as will be discussed later to create a unity within the manuscript that could not have been achieved differently.

The 531 lines of the poem represent the first three prime numbers, which by now should be familiar to the reader. Yet, what is more interesting is the system of division used. Unlike the other poems of the manuscript Patience is not divided into stanzas, but rather continues in one long passage. The only markings that would signal a break are the ticks on the side of the text that occur every fourth line. However, the poem has five thematic sections, almost as though there is a conflict between the numbers four and five. The story, having been adopted from scripture, also shows such conflict as the four chapters of the original biblical story, expand into five parts of Patience. Surely the poet had not misinterpreted the Old Testament, nor had he misrepresented it. The expansion is clearly deliberate, and when regarded in theological terms, quite logical. As aforementioned, four is representative of a traditional cross, while five is symbolic to the cross of Christ. Having both numbers present depicts a consolidation of the Old Testament and the New Testament, negating a common belief that the two are divided by God’s change from anger to forgiveness. This is also portrayed thematically as a vengeful God, ready to destroy the Ninivites, decided to forgive them when they realize their sins and repent.

As God practices patience, he serves as an example for all humans, and thus patience becomes one of the highest virtues for all Christians. However, when applied to situations outside the spiritual realm, it loses its luster and perhaps origin. In Parliament, the patience the tercels must practice is not spiritual in nature, but mere human, or bird, convention, prescribed by society as depicted within the tercels’ pride riddled speeches. In this sense, Chaucer portrays an exemplum as well, highlighting the human condition in a mocking manner, through birds. Yet the seriousness of the poems servers to emphasize the reality of the tercerls’ actions as they exist in courtly life, and among humans, in general. Thus the two poems, Parliament and Patience, achieve harmony as they each manage to portray humanity from different perspectives: the theoretically theological aspect where the idea of virtue is handed down by God and, in contrast, the strikingly human aspect that has real world applications.

While this section was brief due to the length of original work, in the next, and final section I will be looking at the largest parts of the quartets, paralleling Gawain and Troilus and Criseyde.