Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

The Holy and the Unholy in Chaucer's Squire's Tale

Academic journal article Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies

The Holy and the Unholy in Chaucer's Squire's Tale

Article excerpt


As Richard Kieckhefer once noticed, "the holy" and "the unholy" were interlocking phenomena in the medieval culture. Such a perspective on religion and magic may, indeed, be seen in possible sources of Chaucer's Squire's tale, John Carpini's Historic Mongalorum and in Historia Tartarorum, attributed either to Benedict the Pole, a member of the 1245 papal mission to Mongols, or to the scribe, "C. de Bridia". Perhaps Carpini and Benedict projected their Christian perception of magic as connected with religion onto the Tartar world they experienced. The Mongol beliefs they related may have been the very convictions mentioned by Chaucer in the discussion of Cambuskyan's "secte". The tale then proceeds to a discussion of magic, but the magic there is no longer "unholy", as opposed to "the holy", but technological, manmade, and unnatural. The texts portray two stages in a medieval approach to magic, which were followed by the Renaissance condemnation of magic as heretical. In Squire's tale magic leads to the experience of wonder, which unites the community.


In his seminal text The holy and the unholy: sainthood, witchcraft, and magic in late medieval Europe, Richard Kieckhefer demonstrates that the boundary separating what we nowadays deem to be utterly different, the one between religion and magic, was less distinct before the modern age. He envisages the two spheres of life, the holy comprehended here as religion and the unholy understood, as in James Frazer's monumental The golden bough (2009), as magic rather than irreligiousness or even immorality; the two, the holy and the unholy, were seen as closely interlocking in medieval culture, whereas the early modern times with their idea of Reformation were the period which started to define them as distinct from each other (Kieckhefer 1994: 355-386). Those two areas of experience shall be central for us in our consideration of Chaucer's Squire's tale, which should be scrutinized against the background provided by the historiography texts about missions to Tartary (Comelia 1977: 81-89). One of them, Historia Tartarorum, has been attributed to the Franciscan missionary Benedict Polonus, even though the scribe signed himself as the mysterious "C. de Bridia". (1) John Carpini's Historia Mongalorum [sic!] used to be more widely read at the time it was written, but Benedict Polonus's text was equally reliable and more correct than John's in diverse aspects, including the linguistic one. It shall not be implied here that Chaucer must have been familiar with either of them, but, according to Cornelia, "Chaucer in his customs house would not have forgotten [Tartary of his day]" as he knew it both from his life as a diplomat and from some unspecified literary sources, perhaps even Carpini's one (1977: 87).

The proto-travelogue written by Benedict, a papal envoy to the Great Khan in 1247, resulted from the mission undertaken by John Carpini, Stephen of Bohemia, Ceslaus of Bohemia (if the two were not one and the same person) (Plezia 1971: 169) and Benedict Polonus from Wroctaw (which later became known as Breslau). They travelled to the Coman territory, were introduced to Batu's court, and attended the assembly near Karakorum which elected Guyuk qagan. (2) Their mission consisted in gaining more knowledge about Europe's new enemies, including detailed information about their warfare, and attempting to convert Mongols due to the alleged possibilities created by the Nestorian Christianity coexistent with other religions there. (3) John's and Benedict's reports represent the holy and the unholy as inseparable from each other in the Tartar world, while such an attitude must have undergone a marked shift before Chaucer presented the Mongol religion and magic in The Squire's tale. (4)

In Chaucer's tale, Cambuskyan, the ruler residing in "Sarray" (V: 9) (5), exemplifies a powerful Tartar leader and a character appropriately noble for the chivalric tale (6), despite his obstinacy in religious customs:

   This noble kyng was cleped Cambyuskan,
   Which in his tyme was of so greet remount
   That ther was nowher in no regioun
   So excellent a lord in alle thyng:
   Hym lakked noght that longeth to a kyng. … 
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