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Magician in the Franklin's Tale (Revised)

Magician in the Franklin's Tale (Revised)

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Published by Tim Meester

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Published by: Tim Meester on Dec 02, 2011
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Tim Meester Chaucer 12/15/10“New Men” Magic in The Franklin’s TaleIn Chaucer’s England, there emerged a group of individuals born outside of thetraditional nobility who were able to ascend to higher levels of social status owing to changingideas of class. These “new men” refer to “those lower gentry and civil and legal professionalswho attained office and privilege in significant numbers under the Tudors” (Middleton, 15).The new man identity has a strong connection to a particular character in “The Franklin’s Tale” – the Magician. The presence of the Magician characterizes and reveals the motives and methodsof the “new men” as represented by Chaucer in the Franklin’s performance, as well as in theGeneral Prologue.The meaning of the Middle English word that Chaucer assigns to the Magician forms the basis of our understanding with regard to the motives and methods of the new men. In medievalEngland, the “Tregetour” was known as “an entertainer, a sleight-of-hand artist, a juggler, anillusionist” (M.E.D. a) as well as “a deceiver, charlatan” (M.E.D. c). Tregetoures in the“Franklin’s Tale” are described as entertainers, “Swiche as thise subtile tregetoures pleye/For ofte at festes have I wel herd seye” (FranT, 1141-1142), as well as illusionists: “Somtyme acastel, al of lym and stoon -/And whan hem liked, voided it anoon” (FranT, 1149-50).Chaucer’s Magician proves his talent as an illusionist when he projects images of knights jousting in his home, but more impressively, when he uses natural magic to feign theconcealment of the large rocks near the shore of Brittany. Yet the greatest deception associated
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with the Magician lies not in his mastery of natural magic but rather, in a trick that doesn’t havean explicit presence in the tale – sleight-of-hand. The true artfulness of the sleight-of-hand lies inthe fact that it doesn’t belong exclusively to the craft of the Magician, but more subtly, to thecunning of the Franklin.The Franklin uses sleight-of-hand to liken himself to the Magician in order to projectcharacteristics of the new man identity onto the Magician. In the General Prologue, Chaucer describes the Franklin as a “housholdere” who has a generous food supply: “It snewed in hishouse of mete and drinke” (GP, 345). The description of the Franklin as a generous homeowner encapsulates his identity as a new man. By the time Chaucer wrote his Canterbury Tales,franklins had amassed an enormous amount of wealth and power as landowners, which wouldhave distinguished them from other villagers in their communities (Specht, 91). The privilege toown land as an untitled class (a privilege traditionally exclusive to the nobility) was the franklinschief opportunity to ascend in the social hierarchy. The Magician’s association with the newman seems elusive on a superficial level, because the Franklin identifies him as a clerk. Yet, beyond that illusion of identity, one discovers a character described remarkably similar to theFranklin:Hoom to his hous, and maden hem wel at ese.Hem lakked no vitaille that mighte hem plese.So wel arrayed hous as ther was oonAurelius in his lyf saugh nevere noon (Chaucer, 223, 1185-888).The description of the Magician as a landowner with a generous food supply complicates hisspecific identity as a clerk because the description suggests a more than coincidental associationwith the Franklin. Yet the Franklin isn’t the only new man that the Magician is likened to, he
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also reminds the reader of the tavern owner Harry Bailey.There are two major similarities between the Magician and Harry Bailey that areassociated with the essential identity of the new man: entertainment and generosity. Both theMagician and Bailey are thought of as entertainers. The Magician entertains at feasts with hisillusions and natural magic, whereas Harry Bailey entertains the pilgrims at his tavern andencourages the pilgrims to tell stories on the way to Canterbury in order to make an otherwise boring trip entertaining: “And wel I woot, as ye goon by the weyek/Ye shapen yow to talen andto pleye”(GP, 771-772). The idea of telling stories is caught up in a complicated system of generosity strategically designed to empower Bailey.Like the Franklin and the Magician, Chaucer describes Bailey as a generous host: “Heserved us with vitaille at the beste./Strong was the wyn, and wel to drinke us leste” (GP, 749-50).The idea of generosity is central to the new man’s strategy of gaining power over their superiors.In an insightful study of the meaning of gift-giving in archaic societies, Marcel Mauss arguesthat on the surface gifts seem simply generous and are given with no ulterior motives, but in truththey work like contracts and determine rank and power within and between tribes: “To give is toshow one’s superiority, to show that one is something more and higher, that one is
magister 
. Toaccept without returning or repaying more is to face subordination, to become a client andsubservient, to become
minister 
” (Mauss, 72).Harry Bailey’s generosity to the pilgrims embodies Mauss’ idea of a contract systemcaught up with the dynamics of rank and power. Bailey’s generosity appears to have no stringsattached, but in truth his generosity is used strategically to position himself as
magister 
. He precedes his proposal for a story contest by giving the pilgrims plenty to eat and drink so that,
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