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Boethius and Medieval Cosmology in Chaucer's Works

Hilary Grimes


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In medieval cosmology, the universe was a finite and logical place.  Earth, the center of a teleological space, was cradled by a set of spheres upon which the planets and stars spun.  At the helm of His creation, an eternal God governed all in a reasonable manner, His actions traced and interpreted by humans. People in the Middle Ages inherited this cosmology from their ancient roots, from the Pythagoreans obsessed with sacred numbers and Plato’s creation story Timaeus.  These early thinkers first hypothesized the theory of musical spheres, planets in seven layers hovering around earth.  Pythagoreans used numbers to understand creation, taking dualisms they created to explain the world and reducing them to one plus one.  This replacement of abstract concepts like Sameness and Difference with symbolic numerals carried through into Plato’s work and beyond (James 29).  Later authors such as Boethius, Macrobius and Saint Augustine considered spiritual questions of their day using similar deductions by way of reason, allegory and numbers (Jordan 20).  The underlying assumption in these works is the belief in a creator.  A not necessarily Christian proposition, this governor of the universe had the power to create everything, run everything, and most importantly, know everything.  As an omnipotent force, the Creator had knowledge even of things that had not yet happened.  An all powerful and all encompassing being, He was paradoxically the cause of good and evil.  These essential quandaries at the core of a medieval worldview fascinated Chaucer, who worked through them in his written works.  He wove the themes of foreknowledge, fortune, and happiness notably into Troilus and Criseyde and The Canterbury Tales, tapping into a canon of works debating these issues within a shared cosmology. 
    Chaucer was particularly inspired by Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy, which he translated into English while writing Troilus and Criseyde and The Knight’s Tale.  Boethius was wrongfully imprisoned in the sixth-century, which gave him time and material for The Consolation (Jefferson 47-48).  This narrative, composed while incarcerated, gave him a means of expressing and understanding his unfortunate circumstances through an imaginary conversation with Philosophy herself.  As another shamed victim of fickle Fortune, the Boethius character sounds much like Troilus at the book’s beginning: “now in tears and sad refrains[…]gloomy songs make no feigned tears bedew my face[…]sad is it how death turns away from the unhappy with a deaf ear” (Boethius 1).  Unlike Troilus and Criseyde, however, the narrative does not illustrate former happiness lost, including only the subsequent attainment of enlightened ideas.  That Chaucer would choose this source to draw direct quotes and fundamental themes may give insight to his spiritual sensibilities, what it was that his stories were to accomplish for a medieval audience.  Both authors shared the Pythagorean and Platonic “perfectly harmonized, hierarchically structured universe,” and both questioned its workings, expressing doubt about certain holy truths (Jordan 13).  Boethian philosophy is one lens to interpret Chaucer as translator and devotee of Boethius.            
    The seemingly paradoxical principles of divine foreknowledge and free will have long sparked theological debates.  Boethius’ character in Consolation poses questions about foreknowledge to Lady Philosophy, arguing “if God foresees all things…then that which His Providence foresees as going to happen must result necessarily.  If from eternity He foreknows not only men’s deeds but their designs and wishes, there will be no free will” (52).  Philosophy herself, while reasoning through the question, expresses sorrow that there is “set such strife between two truths” (55).  Her eventual answer is far from conclusive, mainly that human reasoning cannot, within its temporal confines, comprehend the perspective of an eternal God.  Their “step-by-step” reasoning process, linear in itself, makes insight into divine foreknowledge impossible (55).  Men are also bound to the world, which they can only comprehend through their senses.  By contrast, God can know the nature of things without blinders from the necessarily limited knowledge through physical sensation.  Furthermore, the deity “possesses simultaneously the entire fullness of an unending life, a life which lacks nothing of the future and has lost nothing of the fleeting past” (63).  Life on earth attempts to echo this eternal simplicity, she suggests, but must break itself into temporal parts.  In this culminating argument of Consolation, Boethius does not quell problems leading from divine foreknowledge, perhaps inciting more by voicing the logical inconsistencies between these two truths.  One of the larger issues concerns “necessary” action and “unnecessary” action.  Boethius’ character alludes to the necessity of God’s foreknowledge occurring and Philosophy begins to define necessity thus:
[T]here are two kinds of necessity.  One is simple: for instance, it is necessary that all men are mortal.  The other is conditional: for instance, if you really know a man is walking… no necessity compels a man who is walking of his own accord to proceed, though it is necessary that, if he is walking, he should be proceeding. (65)
In this way, foreknowledge is allowed to be conditional and reconcile free will with divine foreknowledge.
    Chaucer takes up foreknowledge notably in the dreams of the Nun’s Priest Tale, one of the last Canterbury Tales.  This quasi-allegory explores complex theological issues through the quaint setting of a farm.  Chauntecleer, a surprisingly well-read rooster, debates with one of his wives whether foreknowledge of an event can be found in dreams.  He has had what proves to be a prophetic dream that “I romed up and doun / withinne our yerde, wher sa I saugh a beste, / was lyk an hound and wolde han maad areste / upon my body, and wolde han had me deed” (VII, 2898-2902).  Chauntecleer’s wife Pertelote is not amused with her husband’s fear and considers him a boyish fool for being afraid of a mere dream.  Her opinion is that the nightmare must come from “the grete superfluitee / of youre rede coloera,” a medical imbalance of his bodily humours (2926-2927).  To counteract his wife, Chauntecleer dispenses his knowledge about the meaning, particularly the prophetic applications, of dreams.  This narrative is particularly interesting because it argues that dreams can be predictive.  The story he draws is of a man who ignores prophetic dreams in which his friend is murdered.  The dreamer’s skepticism keeps him abed while in the dream-world, his friend calls out to him “Allas!  For in an oxes stalle / this night I shal be mordred ther I lye. / Now help me, dere brother, or I dye” (3004-5).  As the man chooses to return to sleep after waking from this dream, his friend is actually murdered in the ox stall.  The friend’s spirit comes to him again in another dream, saying he is now dead but that his body will be hidden in “a carte ful of donge” (3018).  When the dreamer awakes, he finds that everything he encountered in his sleep has come to pass, even the location of his friend’s corpse.  Chauntecleer thus argues that dreams can possibly transmit knowledge of things that have not yet occurred.  This, like divine foreknowledge, can be seen to counteract free will because it suggests that worldly actions are predetermined.  
    While the Nun’s Priest’s Tale maintains the possibility of foreknowledge through dreams, it does not argue that his knowledge negates personal choice.  Chaucer makes direct reference to Boethius’ considerations about necessity in this Tale.  Though the humble Nun’s Priest concedes that he cannot give the arguments justice, masters of theology have asked
whether that Goddes worthy forwiting 
streyneth me nedely for to doon a thing 
(‘Nedely’ clepe I simple nececessitee); 
or elles, if free choiy be graunted  me 
to do that same thing or do it nought, 
though god forwoot it er that I was wroght; 
or if his witing streyneth never a del 
but by necessitee conditionel. (3243-3250)
Chauntecleer meets the beast from his dreams in the farmyard, but things do not come to pass exactly as in his nightmare.  The fox “by heigh imaginacioun forncast” lies in a bed of herbs, “wayting his tyme on Chauntecleer to falle, / as gladly doon thise homicydes alle” (3217-3224).  When Chauntecleer spies the fox, his first instinct is to run away “as man that was affrayed in his herte,” but the fox convinces him that “the cause of my cominge / was only for to herkne how that ye singe” (3278-3290).  After this flattery, Chauntecleer forgets the beast of his dreams and sings for the fox with his eyes closed and neck extended “as man that coude his tresoun nat espye” (3323).  Even with the aid of foreknowledge, Chauntecleer falls into the fox’s trap, easy prey for the fox to capture and drag into the woods.  Though all manner of farm creatures pursue the fox, with Chauntecleer still in his teeth, they cannot catch him.  It is Chauntecleer himself who outwits his captor through an insult to which the fox must reply.  When the fox speaks, his mouth opens just enough for the bird to escape, flying out of reach on a tree branch.  The doomed Chauntecleer saves himself through his own intellect without fulfilling all implications of the portentous dream.  Even where knowledge of the future is available to mortals, they have the choice to use the information or not.  Chauntecleer is, in spite of the warning, deceived by the fox as the man in his dream allegory decides to disregard his friend’s pleas, however, he is able to save himself where the man is not able to save his friend.
    Troilus and Criseyde is intimately conjoined with Boethian thought.  Chaucer lifted whole passages from The Consolation of Philosophy and placed them in the mouths of his main characters.  Like Consolation, Troilus turns away from worldly concerns to focus on the heavenly, eyes skyward at the end when Troilus ascends into the eighth sphere.  Foreknowledge is one of the central concerns in Troilus, particularly as a factor of characters’ divination and awareness of the audience.  The story takes place during the Trojan War, which, for medieval and modern readers means they are already informed of its outcome (Grady 230-251).  While Chaucer explores the confines and consequences of foreknowledge, his readers are left with a passive awareness of the ending without the ability to alter it.  This cognizance allows the reader to focus on a foreknown ending that is brought into motion by fate and the free will of mortals.  Looking from a Boethian perspective, the “double sorwes” of Troilus and fall of Troy are known of simple necessity (“Troilus” Book I, 54).  Unless the narrator plays the reader falsely and creates a new ending that goes against established conceptions of history and the previous warnings, there is no condition involved in the knowledge of Troilus’ tragedy.  Even its characters appear to be aware of this dubious future.  Criseyde’s traitorous father deserts to join the Greeks after his foreknowledge through divination informs him that the Greeks will be victorious.  Troilus later discovers her disloyalty through his sister Cassandre’s power to correctly interpret his prophetic dreams.  Foreknowledge is woven into the fabric of this tale, which in itself is concerned with interpreting predestination.
    The doomed love affair between Troilus and Criseyde receives its fatal blow when Criseyde’s father requests that she follow him to the Greek camp so that she will be safe.  Although she is no political prisoner, the Greeks offer such an irresistible trade to the people of Troy that she will be shipped off to the Greek camp.  Troilus’ reaction is to spend time in contemplation in a temple, where his Boethian quandaries about providential knowledge come to the forefront.  He believes that “forsight of divine purveyaunce / hath seyn alwey me to forgon Criseyde,” but “natheles, allas, whom shal I leeve? / for ther been grete clerkes many oon / that destine through arguments preve; / and som men seyn that nedely ther is noon” (Book IV, 961-970).  He continues to question whether there is freedom of choice.  Chaucer also gives him only limited agency that may be interpreted as passivity or his inability to choose.  Troilus’ decision to become the servant of love is itself somewhat compromised by the meddling of Pandarus and the God of Love.  Had this God not sunk his arrows into Troilus when he first spied Criseyde and Pandarus not enabled the affair, Troilus could have saved himself much grief and forgotten her.  An even stronger argument for a divine negation of Troilus’ free will is the dream that condemns Criseyde.  In his nightmare, Troilus sees “a bor with tuskes grete[…] and by this bor, faste in his armes folde, / lay, kissing, ay, his lady bright, Criseyde” (Book V, 1238-1241).  As disturbing as this dream is, he asks his sister Cassandre to help him interpret it.  What is strange about her method is that her knowledge comes not from the future, but from the past: “if thow a soth of this desirest knowe, / thow most a fewe of olde stories heere” (Book V, 1458-1459).  She goes on to correctly identify who the boar represents through the lineage of a character in her myth and what this means for Troilus’ love affair: “Diomede is inne, and thow art oute” (Book V, 1519).  Troilus’ plight is thus linked to a larger chain of historical and mythological events, making the power of his choices appear miniscule. 
    This is not to say that Chaucer was necessarily a determinist.  Troilus does little of his own volition, even to keep Criseyde, who the Trojans use as a bargaining chip.  It isn’t pertinent to argue that the impotency of this character’s choice is a statement against free will.  There are small moments where Troilus makes a clear decision, as when he becomes a servant of love, saying to himself a thousand times a day that he serves and labors for Criseyde, that he would resign even his royalty “into hire hond” (Book I, 433).  Indeed, even passive acceptance of Pandarus’ help, which he deemed to be good fortune, suggests a choice.  In his inner dialogues, Troilus disables himself for fear.  As a courtly lover, he cannot defend Criseyde in parliament because he fears others will catch on to their relationship.  Reason tells him that while he wants to keep Criseyde close because of his love for her, “thorugh thy medlyng is iblowe / youre bother love, ther it was erst unknowe,” so he will let the lords send her away if they so choose (Book IV, 165-168).  He restrains himself as he watches Diomede carry Criseyde away, even though “for ire he quook” lest that “Criseyde, in rumour of this fare, / sholde han ben slayn; lo, this was al his care” (Book V 36; Book V, 53-54).  While the end result is that Troilus remains silent as his love is carted away, this is itself a deliberate choice to save his lady’s honor.  Readers know that this inaction will lead to the loss of his love and to her betrayal, but it is too late to change him.  Troilus has bound himself to the confines of love and honor that necessitate these selfless inactions. 
    Although the ending of Troilus and Criseyde fulfills all prescribed elements of tragedy and sorrow, its intrinsic moral message is still cause for surprise.  What can it mean that the hero for whom an audience should feel sympathy dismisses his own ordeal?  Troilus dies in battle and is promptly whisked away to the “holughnesse of the eighthe spere” where he leaves behind every element and can look down upon earth.  From this vantage point, surrounded by the music of the spheres, he “fully gan despise / this wrecched world, and held al vanite / to respect of the pleyn felicite” (Book V, 1816-1818).  Interpreting this ending as honestly Boethian rather than tongue in cheek, the story of Troilus and Criseyde suddenly becomes a warning to all potential Christian lovers.  True happiness is debated at length in The Consolation of Philosophy, to the conclusion that no worldly joys can encompass the happiness that is God.  Troilus is a perfect example of why pleasures such as love, fame, power and honor will not satisfy.  As the son of a king, he is born into worldly circumstances people could easily envy.  In addition to his birthright to power and wealth, Troilus is a great success on the battlefield.  Yet he will resign this power for hope of winning and keeping love.  Happiness is divided by humanity, Lady Philosophy argues, from one simple godly entity into false parts “and while man tries to gain a part of what has no parts, he fails to obtain both the portion, which cannot exist by itself, and the whole” (Boethius 27).  As Troilus lusts for Criseyde, he is actually seeking a happiness that can only come from union with God.  Chaucer’s repetitions of “swich fyn” during his ending stanzas highlight the unnecessary sufferings for love which “younge, fresshe folks” should avoid by turning their faces to heaven and forgetting worldly desire (Book V, 1829, 1835).  This sentiment, taken directly from Consolation, suggests Chaucer did intend his tragedy to have spiritual value.
    It may be easy to forget that in Chaucer’s universe, there was but one governor whose influence was all-encompassing.  Even ancient pagan writings could attest to this creator through their own myths of creation and the cosmology they bequeathed to medieval thinkers.  The Canterbury Tales are so grounded in the everyday, so contrary in their own ways that one can dismiss placement of the Parson’s Tale and Chaucer’s subsequent retraction as further ironies or riddles.  It is in the comparison of Chaucer to Boethius that the ironist’s loyalties are most bare.  For what reason other than appreciation would someone translate into English an entire Latin work and use it so liberally in their writings?  Chaucer criticized the Catholic Church through the mouthpieces of pilgrims and expressed doubts concerning mutually exclusive divine foreknowledge and free will in his narratives.  Still, it is important that at the end of his books and his career, Chaucer returned to spiritual messages.  Perhaps he so enjoyed Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy because Boethius also questioned the ways of God and the Universe.  Here was a spiritual thinker who could say to Philosophy “behold, again I am plunged into yet more difficult doubt” on the subject of divine foreknowledge (52).  And yet, even for one so filled with doubt and troubled by misfortune, Boethius writes through Philosophy
all [humans] have their faces inclined along the ground, and this drags downward and dulls their senses.  Alone of all, man lifts up his head high and stands on easy balance with the body upright, and looks down to spurn the earth.  If you be not too earthly through evil folly, the pose is a lesson.  Your glance is upward and you carry high your head, and thus your search is heavenward. (61-62)    
Following suit, after tales about earthly vanities, Chaucer lifts the gaze of his narration back upwards into the medieval cosmology where God was most prominent.







 Works Cited
Boethius.  The Consolation of Philosophy.  Ed. and trans.
James J. Buchanan.  New York: Frederick Ungar, 1962.
Chaucer, Geoffrey.  Troilus and Criseyde.  Ed. Stephen
A. Barney.  New York: W.W. Norton, 2006. 
---.  The Canterbury Tales.  Ed. V.A. Kolve and Glending Olson.
New York: W.W. Norton, 2005.
Grady, Frank.  "The Boethian Reader of Troilus and Criseyde."
Chaucer Review 33.3 (1999): 230-51.
James, Jamie.  The Music of the Spheres: Music, Science and
the Natural Order of the Universe.  New York:
Copernicus P, 1995.
Jefferson, Bernard L. Chaucer and the Consolation of Philosophy
of Boethius.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton U P, 1917.
Jordan, Robert M.  Chaucer and the Shape of Creation. 
Cambridge, MA: Harvard U P, 1967.