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The Art of Death

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by

Will Rossiter

on 12 October 2015

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Transcript of The Art of Death

The
Pardoner's Tale
Revisited

Who is this?
A privee theef
men clepeth
Deeth
But...
Nor were the countless petitions humbly directed to God by the pious, whether by formal processions or in all other ways, any less ineffectual. [...] Some people were of the view that a sober and abstemious mode of living considerably reduced the risk of infection...
Digressio
: The Benefits of Plague
But while the plague at Farnham took, it also gave. John Crudchate, then a minor, was left an orphan, but an orphan with assets since he inherited the lots of both his father and another relative, perhaps an uncle. [...] The balance of economic power was shifting dramatically, and, for once, it favoured the people, not the lords. [...] Following the labour markets hundreds of thousands migrated to wherever their economic and social prospects were best served. And there was nothing anyone could do about it. (Schama 236-7)
All Flesh is Grass
For all flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away (1 Peter 1:24)
Three Living and Three Dead
Others took the opposite view, and maintained that an infallible way of warding off this appalling evil was to drink heavily, enjoy life to the full, go round singing and merrymaking [...] they practised what they preached to the best, for they would visit one tavern after another, drinking all day and night [...] for people behaved as though their days were numbered, and treated their belongings and their persons with equal abandon. [...] But for all their riotous [
bestiale
] manner of living, these people always took care to avoid any contact with the sick.
Three living?
For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night.
For when they shall say, Peace and safety; then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall not escape.
But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief. [...]
Therefore let us not sleep, as do others;
but let us watch and be sober.
For they that sleep sleep in the night; and
they that be drunken are drunken in the night
. (1 Thess. 5:2-7)
Matthew 24:7, 40-43
...and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places. [...] Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left.
Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left.
Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.
But know this, that if the goodman of the house had known in what watch the thief would come, he would have watched, and would not have suffered his house to be broken up.
Therefore be ye also ready
: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh.
2 Peter 3:10-11
But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.
Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved,
what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness
[...]?
Drunken in the night
He was, pardee, an old felawe of youres;
And sodeynly he was yslayn to-nyght,
Fordronke, as he sat on his bench upright.
Ther cam a privee theef men clepeth deeth,
That in this contree al the peple sleth,
And with his spere he smoot his herte atwo,
And wente his wey withouten wordes mo.
He hath a thousand slayn
this
pestilence.
And, maister, er ye come in his presence.
Me thynketh that it were necessarie
For to be war of swich an adversarie.
Beth redy for to meete hym everemoore
(672-83)
in flaundres whilom was a compaignye
Of yonge folk that haunteden folye,
As riot, hasard, stywes, and tavernes,
Where as with harpes, lutes, and gyternes,
They daunce and pleyen at dees bothe day and nyght,
And eten also and drynken over hir myght,
Thurgh which they doon the devel sacrifise
Withinne that develes temple, in cursed wise,
By superfluytee abhomynable. [...]
Thise riotoures thre of which I telle,
Longe erst er prime rong of any belle,
Were set hem in a taverne for to drynke
(463-71, 661-3)
But living where?
Now kepe yow fro the white and fro the rede,
And namely fro the white wyn of lepe,
That is to selle in fysshstrete or in chepe.

This wyn of spaigne
crepeth subtilly

In othere wynes, growynge faste by,
Of which ther ryseth swich fumositee
That whan a man hath dronken draughtes thre,
And weneth that he be at hoom in chepe,
He is in spaigne, right at the toune of lepe, --
Nat at the rochele, ne at burdeux toun; (562-71)
A Parable of Social Mobility?
And forth they goon towardes that village
Of which the taverner hadde spoke biforn.
[...] and ther they founde
Of floryns fyne of gold ycoyned rounde
Wel ny an eighte busshels, as hem thoughte.
No lenger thanne after deeth they soughte,
But ech of hem so glad was of that sighte,
For that the floryns been so faire and brighte,
That doun they sette hem by this precious hoord. [...]
This tresor hath fortune unto us yiven,
In myrthe and joliftee oure lyf to lyven,
And lightly as it comth, so wol we spende.
Ey! goddes precious dignitee! who wende
To-day that we sholde han so fair a grace? (706-7, 769-783)
Missing the Signs
whan they han goon nat fully half a mile,
Right as they wolde han troden over a stile,
An oold man and a povre with hem mette. [...]
Why artow al forwrapped save thy face?
Why lyvestow so longe in so greet age? [...]
For soothly thou art oon of his assent
To sleen us yonge folk, thou false theef! (711-59)
But trewely, by daye it may nat bee.
Men wolde seyn that we were theves stronge,
And for oure owene tresor doon us honge.
This tresor moste ycaried be by nyghte
As wisely and as slyly as it myghte. (788-92)
In Flaundres whilom was a compaignye...
fourteenth-century Flanders became a country of powerful and wealthy cities, ruled by a merchant class, who with their new-found power and jealousy of each other's possessions, provoked continual strife. [...] [in 1382] English merchants were expelled from Bruges and their property was confiscated. (Macbride Norris 636-8)
[During the 1381 Peasants' Revolt] anyone marked as 'foreign' was hunted down, and perhaps 150 were killed. Thirty-five Flemings, who had replaced the Jews as the scapegoat of choice -- the personification of money -- were dragged from sanctuary in St Martin
in Vintry
and decapitated on the same block, one after another. (Schama 252)
How to Read the Plague: A Divine Comedy?
the present work [
Decameron
] will seem to you to possess an irksome and ponderous opening. It carries at its head the painful memory of the deadly havoc wrought by the recent plague, which brought so much heartache and misery to those who witnessed, or had experience of it. But I do not want you to be deterred, for this reason, from reading any further [...]. You will be affected no differently by this grim beginning than walkers confronted by a steep and rugged hill, beyond which there lies a beautiful and delectable plain. The degree of pleasure they derive from the latter will correspond to the difficulty of the climb and the descent.
Boccaccio,
De genealogia deorum gentilium
, lib. XIV
[The poet seeks] to make truths which would otherwise cheapen by exposure the object of strong intellectual effort and various interpretation, that in ultimate discovery they shall seem more precious (Osgood, 1956: 60).
From History to Fiction (i)
these were the conditions prevailing in our city, which by now was almost emptied of its inhabitants, when one Tuesday morning (or so I was told by a person whose word can be trusted) seven young ladies were to be found in the venerable church of Santa Maria Novella, which was otherwise almost deserted. [...] I could tell you their actual names, but refrain from doing so for a good reason, namely that I would not want any of them to feel embarrassed at any time in the future, on account of the ensuing stories, all of which they either listened to or narrated themselves.
From (Fiction to) History to Fiction
The wheat was ripening, and on this one night, lit by a great bonfire, the unmarried women of the village, flowers in their hair, could flirt with impunity. [...] The bacillus
Yersinia pestis
had disembarked at the port [...] It took no time at all for the bacillus to make itself at home in southwest England. [...] the scythe moved steadily through Europe, reaching into cities and remote villages alike (Schama 222-6)
The Literary Source of Historiography
'The pestilence grew so strong,' wrote Thomas Burton, a monk in Yorkshire, 'that men and women dropped dead in the streets' [...] Whatever their remorse, parents might be forced to abandon some children for whom they could do nothing to save others still clean of the disease. [...] the bodies had been flung in the pit pell-mell, like so much human junk. (Schama 230)
fathers and mothers refused to nurse and assist their own children, as though they did not belong to them. [...] Many dropped dead in the open streets [...] huge trenches were excavated in the churchyards, into which new arrivals were placed in their hundreds, stowed tier upon tier like ships' cargo (Boccaccio 9-12)
Conclusion: Literary History?
Boccaccio
:
history as prelude to fiction
history as text (
allegoria in factis
)
history via fiction (
exemplum
)
Schama
:
history via literary sources
history via literary tropes (prosopoeia)
history via narrative strategies (fictional eye-witness)
Chaucer
:
history as
within
fiction, cognitively and heuristically available through fiction's signs and symbols
trace the movement from Black Death to social mobility to revolt without referring to them, in a synchronic rather than diachronic way
Liberated by death?
Postscript: Impotent Rage
In the face of so much affliction and misery, all respect for the laws of God and man had virtually broken down and been extinguished (Boccaccio 7-8)

Increasingly, salvation seemed a do-it-yourself project. The Oxford scholar John Wyclif taught that the priesthood was not indispensable for salvation and that, in the words of scripture, each Christian might find the true way. (Schama 238)
Decameron
there grew up a practice almost previously never heard of, whereby when a woman fell ill, no matter how gracious or beautiful she might be, she raised no objection to being attended by a male servant, whether he was young or not. Nor did she have any scruples about showing him every part of her body as freely as she would have displayed it to a woman, provided that the nature of her infirmity required her to do so; and this explains why those women who recovered were possibly less chaste in the period that followed. (Boccaccio 9)
Judas Hanged
Cain & Abel
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