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. The artist 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.

Update: November 2021: I’ve since ascertained the January miniature was produced by Barthélémy d’Eyck and not the Limbourg brothers, and likely complete sometime in the 1440s.

Other posts on the January folio of Très Riche Heures