Jankyn van Eyck and the Wife of Bath

When my fourth husband was on his bier,
I wept for hours, and sorry did appear –
As wives must, since it’s common usage,
And with my kerchief covered up my visage.
But since I was provided with a mate,
I only wept a little, I should state.
To church was my husband borne that morrow,
With neighbours that wept for him in sorrow,
And Jankin, our clerk, was one of those.
So help me God, when I saw him go
After the bier, I thought he had a pair
Of legs and of feet so fine and fair,
That all my heart I gave to him to hold.
He was, I swear, but twenty winters old,
And I was forty, to tell the truth,
But yet I always had a coltish tooth.
Gap-toothed I was, and that became me well;

I’d the print of Venus’ seal, truth to tell.

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Wife of Bath’s Prologue,
Translated by A. S. Kline, © 2007

Some months ago I posted this detail from the Pilgrim’s panel of the Ghent Altarpiece, and wondered who the smiling woman at the back of the group might represent.

Could she be the Wife of Bath, one of the pilgrims featured in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales? Could she also be Margaret van Eyck, the woman Jan married in 1431, just a year before the Ghent Altarpiece went on display?

The Wife of Bath married five times. Her fifth husband was a young apprenticed clerk named Jankyn, a religious and studious man according to the tale she told to the other pilgrims in the group on their way to Canterbury. After a turbulent start the marriage settled into a happy and loving relationship.

The young Jankyn is the beardless youth with the bowl-shaped hair style, and wearing a red cloak. He stands out among the crowd of hairy, elderly men, but not above the colossus of a man leading the group of pilgrims. He is St Christopher – the Christ Bearer – who carried Jesus on his back across a raging river.

Jesus is depicted as the young man on St Christopher’s shoulder, with curled hair and looking straight ahead with his Father’s words in mind: “Let your eyes be fixed ahead, your gaze be straight before you.” (Proverbs 4 : 28)

Jesus represents the New Adam. The Original Adam (mankind) is the man on his right with eyes cast downward. (Compare this likeness to the panel dedicated to Adam in the top register of the altarpiece.) The face of the grey-haired head alongside is covered by the martyr’s red cloak and is symbolic of Christ’s saving grace for the world through his own death and resurrection.

Jan van Eyck’s two versions of Adam

St Christopher is known as the patron saint of travellers. The Wife of Bath was a pligrim. She says in her account she made visitations – to religious feasts and processions – to listen to preachers and to plays about miracles. St Christopher is also the patron saint of batchelors, which may explain why the Wife of Bath with her track record in finding husbands is featured as the only woman among the group of ageing men, and also the reference to Van Eyck’s recent marriage.

While Jesus heeds the words of his Father and fixes his eyes firmly ahead, the eyes of the young Jankyn, the apprenticed clerk, look upwards to the towering giant in front, but not in the guise of St Christopher. In this instance Jankyn is presented as Jan van Eyck himself, in awe of and apprenticed to a painter with a giant reputation who led the way before him – Roger Campin.

The colossus Campin and the smaller Jankyn (notice the rhyming association pun) are paired in another way. While Van Eyck’s reputation is renowned, – he is depicted as the Colossus of Constantine with his fringed forhead and visible ear – his stature is not as great as his teacher and a probable father-figure.

The young Jankyn matched with the Colossus Constantine displayed in Rome

However, Campin also had a reputation other than as a painter. He was a convicted adulterer. Perhaps Van Eyck is hinting that Campin, just as the Wife of Bath confessed, also had ‘a colt’s tooth’ (a euphemism for having youthful and lustful desires) – although he is not portrayed “with teeth set wide apart” that “becomes the woman so well”.

Campin is often portrayed with a turban or, in the case of the St Christopher image, just with a Bourrelet, as shown in the images below.

Pierce the Ploughman’ sCrede

Detail from the January folio of the Très Riche Heures

In a previous post I highlighted detail from the January folio of the Très Riche Heures that pointed to the pseudo Plowman’s Tale associated with Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and the debate between the ‘Pelican without pride’ and the ‘Griffin of grim stature’. The Plowman’s Tale is said to have been sourced from Pierce the Ploughman’s Crede.

Pol Limbourg makes reference to the latter in this way: The Ploughman is the figure between the Pelican and the Griffin. He ‘borrows’ the last letter from the word Ploughman’s and cleaves it to the word crede or ‘creed’ to make ‘screde’ – screde in its meaning as a strip of cloth; in this instance, the tail or liripipe descending from the figure’s blue hood. So we have the pelican’s beak ‘piercing’ the ploughman’s-crede.

Screed can also refer to the aggressive hanrague the Pelican directs at the Griffin during their debate on Church corruption.

I mentioned earlier the word ‘cleave’. It can mean adhere to or, conversely, to separate. In both cases the word is a pointer to another poet, Thomas Hocleeve, whose Marian ‘miracle’ story called Item de Beate Virgine also found its way at one stage into The Canterbury Tales.

The name Thomas is identified by the communion wafer in the hand of the ploughman. Closer inspection reveals the Host has a bloody hole and is meant to refer to ‘doubting’ Thomas, the disciple of Jesus who would not believe in the resurrection until he could see and put his fingers into Christ’s wounds. The Catholic belief is that the consecrated host is actually the Body of Christ. Hoccleve was a follower of Chaucer and so perhaps explains why he is illustrated turned in the direction of Chaucer and not towards the banquet table set out as representing the tomb of Christ. Was Hoccleve caught between two creeds – that of the Lollards as depicted by the Pelican, and the creed of the Catholic Church as spoken by the Griffin? It’s interesting to see that Pol LImbourg has covered the eyes of Hoccleve with the Pelican’s beak, perhaps pointing to the warning Jesus gave to his disciples in Matthew’s gospel (16:6)… “Keep your eyes open, and be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”.

It is said that Hoccleve’s Marian miracle story was inserted or ‘cleaved’ in 15th century versions of The Canterbury Tales to counter the Lollard sentiments expressed in the Plowman’s Tale (Complaint of the Ploughman), that is, inserted for a particular purpose or ‘ad hoc’. When we take the reference to ‘Thomas’ and add ‘Hoc’ and ‘Cleave’, we arrive at the name of Thomas Hoccleve.

More on this in my next post and how Hoccleve’s Item Beate Virgine links to the detail shown here and the French chronicler Jean Creton.

When “screed” first appeared in English in the 14th century, it meant simply “a fragment cut or torn from the main piece” or, a bit later, “a strip of torn cloth.” This sense evolved over the centuries to include the use of “screed” to mean “a strip of land” or “a border,” as one might add a fancy border to a piece of cloth or paper. In the late 18th century, this sense of “long strip of something” produced “screed” meaning “a long list, a lengthy discourse or diatribe, or a gossiping letter,” and our modern polemical “screed” was born.

The Word Dictionary


Other posts on the January folio of the Très Riche Heures:
A plowman’s lunch
Richard the Redeless
Checking the guest list
There’s a book in this…
Identifying Pol Limbourg
Thoughts on the “wise men”
Telling tales about Chaucer
Happy New Year!
We’re going on a boar hunt!
The Pearl Poet… another sighting
A very rich duke and his bear
Playing hide and seek
A who’s who, what’s what list

A plowman’s lunch

Detail from the January folio of the Trés Riche Heures du Duc de Berry

As I looked to the east right into the sun,
I saw a tower on a toft, worthily built;
A deep dale beneath, a dungeon therein,
With deep ditches and dark and dreadful of sight.

William Langland, Piers Plowman

So why has Pol Limbourg portrayed the poet Geoffrey Chaucer looking West and turning away from the (Yeast)? Could it be that Chaucer’s choice is for the yeast that has risen to the head of the figure below him – Richard Fitzalan, 4th earl of Arundel – who in political terms could be described as a ‘Sadducee’ or maybe even a ‘seducer’?

“Keep your eyes open, and be on your guard aganst the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”Matthew 16 : 6

Other posts on the January folio of Très Riche Heures:
A plowman’s lunch
Richard the Redeless
Checking the guest list
There’s a book in this…
Identifying Pol Limbourg
Thoughts on the “wise men”
Telling tales about Chaucer
Happy New Year!
We’re going on a boar hunt!
The Pearl Poet… another sighting
A very rich duke and his bear
Playing hide and seek
A who’s who, what’s what list

Richard the Redeless

Detail from the January folio of the Très Riche Heures du Duc de Berry

In my previous post I named three poets who are referenced in the January folio of the Très Riche Heures. There is a fourth, but anonymous, who wrote Richard the Redeless (“Richard without counsel”), a fifteenth-century English alliterative poem that critiques Richard II’s kingship and his court.

In a play on the word ‘redeless’ the painter Pol Limbourg has depicted Richard in livery which is ‘less red’ than what appears to be King Richard’s actual gown worn by his close friend and advisor Robert de Vere, the figure with the long baton.

The general opinion of art historians is that the figure in the corner is simply a servant feeding one of the Duke of Berry’s dogs, matched in the colours of the servant shown on the left side of the illumination. But there is a reason why the two men are depicted in similar style and colours.

Pol Limbourg is repeating, perhaps even confirming, a rumour that the isolated Richard II was the illegitimate son of one of his mother’s servants. Legitimacy and identity are major themes expressed in the January folio.

Officially, Richard was the son of Edward of Woodstock, known as “the Black Prince”. The appellation is said to derive from Edward’s black shield and his brutal reputation earned in battle, particulary against the French. The black cloth hanging from Richard’s waist represents the shield, while the reflection is that of the dog he is feeding. The shift from a white greyhound to a perceived black hellhound is probably a pointer to Richard’s own cruel reputation toward’s the end of his reign.

Other posts on the January folio of Très Riche Heures:
A plowman’s lunch
Richard the Redeless
Checking the guest list
There’s a book in this…
Identifying Pol Limbourg
Thoughts on the “wise men”
Telling tales about Chaucer
Happy New Year!
We’re going on a boar hunt!
The Pearl Poet… another sighting
A very rich duke and his bear
Playing hide and seek
A who’s who, what’s what list

Checking the guest list

Detail from the January folio of the Très Riche Heures

Some more notes on the identities of the figures in the above detail taken from the January folio of the Très Riche Heures.

Already identified is Pol Limbourg, tucked in behind Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby and later King Henry IV. But another identifier to Pol is the “e-paul-ette” on his right shoulder. Its truncated conical shape is also a clue to the identity of the man below in blue. For conical, read chronicle. He is Jean Creton, an esquire who served at the French court of King Charles VI and wrote what is referred to as the Metrical History of the Deposition of Richard II after travelling to England in 1399 “for amusement and to see the country”. His right hand rests on the right shoulder of the knight dressed in green and wearing a red chaperon. This man is John Montacue, 3rd earl of Salisbury. In front of him and already identified in an earlier post is Thomas Blount. Both Montacue and Blount were executed for their part in the failed attempt to restore Richard II to his throne after being deposed by Henry Bolingbroke.

Pol Limbourg has carefully created two identities for the ‘green knight’ John Montacue. The figure also represents Jean de Montaigu, Master of the Household at the French royal court. His career and life was also terminated by beheading, and his placing behind Thomas Blount is for a reason connected with the execution.

Next to Blount and dressed in blue is the designated butler for Richard II’s coronation, the 4th earl of Arundel, Richard Fitzalan. He made an enemy of of the king under Richard II’s reign and was executed in 1397 for his opposition.

The guzzling figure above Fitzalan is the poet Geoffrey Chaucer and the mysterious, half-hidden person behind is another English poet, Thomas Hoccleve doubling up as Wiliam Langland.

I will highlight the iconography that discloses these identities in a future post.

Other posts on the January folio of Très Riche Heures:
A plowman’s lunch
Richard the Redeless
Checking the guest list
There’s a book in this…
Identifying Pol Limbourg
Thoughts on the “wise men”
Telling tales about Chaucer
Happy New Year!
We’re going on a boar hunt!
The Pearl Poet… another sighting
A very rich duke and his bear
Playing hide and seek
A who’s who, what’s what list

There’s a book in this…

Harley MS 1319 f. 2r, British Library. Jean Creton and a French knight.

This illumination is from the Metrical History of the Deposition of Richard II. The chronicle was written by Jean Creton who served as a valet de chambre to the French king, Charles VI.

It shows Creton kneeling before an unknown French knight before starting out on his journey to England in 1399 “for amusement and to see the country”. Creton later wrote his account of the events surrounding the deposition of Richard II that happened while he was there.

His chronicle was later given to Jean duke of Berry and is listed in the duke’s inventory of 1413, about the time the duke commissioned the Limbourg brothers to produce the Très Riche Heures.

Pol Limbourg referenced the above illustration in the TRH January calendar to make an important connection to the work of poet Geoffrey Chaucer and also the Epiphany Rising witnessed and recorded by Jean Creton.

More on this in my next post.

Other posts on the January folio of Très Riche Heures:
A plowman’s lunch
Richard the Redeless
Checking the guest list
There’s a book in this…
Identifying Pol Limbourg
Thoughts on the “wise men”
Telling tales about Chaucer
Happy New Year!
We’re going on a boar hunt!
The Pearl Poet… another sighting
A very rich duke and his bear
Playing hide and seek
A who’s who, what’s what list

Identifying Pol Limbourg

How subtle is some of the detail identifying Pol Limbourg with the Conversion of St Paul, one of the listed feast days on the January calender from the Très Riche Heures.

Pol is wearing a ‘voyager’ cap. It’s flap represent a tongue. The legs of two riders behind him represent the ears of a hare. For hare, read hair. Notice how clean-shaven Pol is. His temple and the side of his face are lighter in tone than the rest of his face complexion. The hare’s ears are also meant to represent scissor blades. Pol has had a haircut and his beard shaved. A warm, wool hat covers his head.

These are all pointers to a verse in the Acts of the Apostles (18:18) mentioning St Paul having his head shorn: “Paul stayed on in Corinth for some time. Then he left the brothers and sisters and sailed for Syria, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila. Before he sailed, he had his hair cut off at Cenchreae because of a vow he had taken.”

As for the tongue reference we move on to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and the verse 13 : 1 which reads: “If I have all the eloquence of men or of angels, but speak without love, then I am simply a gong booming or a cymbal clashing.” The rather large tongue represents “all the eloquence of men”.

For cymbal, read symbol, those on Pol’s blue collar which doubles up as a hat to help identify the man below. The bell shape of Pol’s collar, is also symbolic of the bell shape feature which distinguishes the capital that tops a Corinthian style column. Two Corinthian columns support the fireplace mantle further along the “Straight Street”.

Other posts on the January folio of Très Riche Heures:
A plowman’s lunch
Richard the Redeless
Checking the guest list
There’s a book in this…
Identifying Pol Limbourg
Thoughts on the “wise men”
Telling tales about Chaucer
Happy New Year!
We’re going on a boar hunt!
The Pearl Poet… another sighting
A very rich duke and his bear
Playing hide and seek
A who’s who, what’s what list

“The Lord knows wise men’s thoughts… he knows how useless they are.” *

Detail from the January folio of the Très Riche Heures pointing to the Feast of the Epiphany and the arrival of ‘three wise men’.

Christianity celebrates the Epiphany on January 6, a feast day commemorating the visit of the Magi to pay homage to Jesus the new-born king. The Magi are sometimes referred to as the Three Kings or Three Wise Men and it is this context they are represented in the January folio of the Très Riche Heures.

The three men are grouped, one behind each other, with their arms and hands extended. Commentators have suggested the men are looking to warm their hands at the fire as they are called to approach by the marshall and pay homage – not to John duke of Berry, but the newly crowned king of England, Richard II, (shown elsewhere in the painting and whose birthday is January 6). However, the artist Pol Limbourg suggests that the homage and gifts these three wise men desire to offer is akin to the false homage Herod the Great wanted to pay the infant KIng, Jesus.

But the marshall is wise to the false intentions of the three men. His call to approach is a signal for combat associated with knights competing against each other at a tournament. In reality the three men are backing away from the marshall. They are wise men to do so, but their surrender stance will not save them. Hell fire, French style, awaits behind the screen.

The marshall is Robert de Vere, a close friend of Richard ll, standing his ground ready to defend his king. The three men, right to left, are Edward of Woodstock (the Black Prince), Thomas of Woodstock, duke of Gloucester, and Henry Bolingbroke, the future King Henry IV, all opposed to Richard II and his rule as KIng of England.

The fourth man in the lineup (behind Henry Bolingbroke) is the artist Pol LImbourg. He does have a connection with the group but the reason is better explained with his association to another calendar date which occurs later in the month.

Left to right: Artist Pol Limbourg, Henry Bolingbroke, Thomas of Woodstock, duke of Gloucester, and Edwaard of Woodstock, the Black Prince.

* 1 Corinthians 3 :19

Other posts on the January folio of Très Riche Heures:
A plowman’s lunch
Richard the Redeless
Checking the guest list
There’s a book in this…
Identifying Pol Limbourg
Thoughts on the “wise men”
Telling tales about Chaucer
Happy New Year!
We’re going on a boar hunt!
The Pearl Poet… another sighting
A very rich duke and his bear
Playing hide and seek
A who’s who, what’s what list

Telling tales about Chaucer

Detail from the January calendar of the Très Riche Heures, showing Geoffrey Chaucer

In my previous post I made mention of Geoffrey Chaucer and his appearance in the January Calendar of the Très Riche Heures. The English poet is pictured above making an early start on the hospitality provided by the Duke of Berry. It’s a clue among many to the writer’s identity.

The vessel he is drinking from is a saucer. For saucer, read Chaucer. Supping the wine before the Duke of Berry is served by his butler is not good manners, but it seems Chaucer has the thirst of an elephant, indicated by the trunk-feature formed by the armoured leg of the rider at his right hand.

The elephant theme is used again on Chaucer’s blue cowl. The left side forms the elephant’s head, while Chaucer’s right shoulder bears the weight and bulk of the animal’s body and legs. This points to Chaucer’s responsibility of managing the Tower of London after he was appointed Clerk of the King’s Works in 1389. The Tower’s battlements are suggested by the elephant’s legs, even more so if the the feature is turned upside down and the elephant is visualised on its back with legs turned upwards – which makes another association with the poet and the Tower of London.

Part of Chaucer’s work at the Tower entailed overseeing construction and repair of the Tower’s wharf. More than a century beforehand King Louis IX of France gifted an elephant to Henry III. It was kept in the Tower’s menagerie. The elephant is said to have died in 1257 as a result of drinking too much red wine! Linked to this fact and Chaucer is that another king, Edward III of England, rewarded the writer at some time a gallon of wine daily for the rest of his life. A final elephant connection to Chaucer is the “Sir Olifaunt” character who appears in the Canterbury tale about the knight “St Thopas”.

Having seemingly imbibed so much wine in his life, it’s no surprise the artist has depicted Chaucer supping from a saucer. But there is another reason for this. Pol LImbourg is suggesting the figure is somewhat garrulous and perhaps incomprehensible, that he may even be talking through his hat and not his mouth, and here’s why.

It was considered at the time that Chaucer may have had Lollard sympathies. Lollards was a derogatory term given to those who followed John Wycliffe the Christian reformer and disagreed with elements of Catholic teaching, especially the authority of the Pope. The nickname derived from the Dutch word lollaerd, meaning ‘mumbler’. So with drink taken and not making much sense, and his garrulous hat doing all the talking, we arrive at the scene associated with one of the pseudo-texts attributed to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, that which relates to a conversation overheard between a Pelican “without pride” and a Griffin of “grim stature”.

Chaucer’s grey hat is shaped as the Pelican, its pouch is the blue cowl (big enough to absorb an elephant). The Griffin attempting to engage in an almost one-sided debate is formed from the red chaperon on the head of the figure in green. The position of the Pelican is one of domination, looking down on the Griffin, and echoing the general tone of the debate. The conversation is concluded when the Pelican flies off, only to return with an avenging Phoenix portrayed by the figure of Thomas Blount.

The January folio is said to have been produced by the Limbourg brothers who all died in 1416, and therefore it is probably the earliest visual reference to the so-called pseudo-texts of the Plowman’s Tale which found their way into later printed copies of The Canterbury Tales.

More on this in a future post.

Other posts on the January folio of Très Riche Heures:
Checking the guest list
There’s a book in this…
Identifying Pol Limbourg
Thoughts on the “wise men”
Telling tales about Chaucer
Happy New Year!
We’re going on a boar hunt!
The Pearl Poet… another sighting
A very rich duke and his bear
Playing hide and seek
A who’s who, what’s what list