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Chaucer’s Solar Pageant: an Astrological Reading of the Canterbury Tales

Chaucer’s Solar Pageant: an Astrological Reading of the Canterbury Tales

By Garth Carpenter

PhD Dissertation, Victoria University of Wellington, 1997

A Zodiac illustration from a medical almanac, 1399. The man’s pointing finger serves as a warning against the powerful forces of the stars. Photo courtesy British Library

Abstract: This thesis proposes a correlation between the twenty-four Canterbury Tales and an external ordered system, namely the twelve signs of the zodiac, from which one might infer Chaucer’s intended ordering of the Tales. While it is generally acknowledged that the Tales contain much astrological material, the radical suggestion here is that Chaucer wrote them as a means of fulfilling his intention, expressed in A Treatise on the Astrolabe, to write a fifth part of that Treatise, in which be would explain to his ten-year old son, Lewys, the principles of astrology. The zodiac comprises twelve signs expressed as six binary oppositions throughout nature.

In creating the Canterbury Tales, the thesis claims, Chaucer employed in each Tale two of those binary oppositions, a quadratic structure, to express the interplay of tensions between its main characters. The zodiacal signs symbolise parts of the human body which serve as metaphors of human characteristics according to an astrological medical melothesia that was commonplace in medieval times. The melothesia thus acts as a code, enabling Chaucer to covertly communicate sophisticated astrological knowledge whilst presenting it simplistically to political and royal court contemporaries who would have formed the bulk of his readership.

Chaucer makes two rounds of the zodiac, starting with the Knight’s Tale aligned with Aries (the head) replete with pagan astrological practices, completing the sequence with the Parson’s Tale, aligned with Pisces (the feet), in which the pilgrims are exhorted to save their souls by repentance. The consistency with which the Tales in sequence give an emphasis to characteristics believed in the Middle Ages to be representative of the zodiacal sequence of signs is claimed to provide substantive evidence in support of one particular ordering of the Tales.

Click here to read this thesis from Victoria University of Wellington (54 MB file)

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