Pilgrimage and Conquest

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What are the two most powerful human impulses–after food and sex? I’d vote for motion. Let’s try pilgrimage and conquest. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales gives voice, certainly for the first time in English, to the charm of communal travel toward a benign goal. Then there’s conquest.

I read the Canterbury Tales in the midst of one of my own most significant relocations, from the east coast of the U.S. to the midwest. We were settled briefly in Atlanta where my then husband received training in public health, his alternative to going to Vietnam. In a warm but not sweltering upstairs suite–bedroom, bath, and small sitting room–I sat at a battered desk and read Chaucer. My favorite tale was of chickens: Chantecleer and Pertelotte, sexy and wise–I was, after all, a young married. I still like birds.

Then, every evening on TV, conquest bashed us through dinner. U.S. troops invading Vietnam, scorching trees and villagers, with the “chop-chop” of helicopters. We like to think our technological advances have made war and pillage more deadly, and who could argue with Agent Orange or the atomic bomb. But for sheer, on-the-ground destruction, the 14th century was our match.

Barbara Tuchman’s vivid and intensely peopled history of the 14th century, A Different Mirror, portrays both French and English knights in the 14th century, with their huge retinues of squires, etc., as pillaging for years at a time. The Black Prince from England wore out a troop of knights traisping through the south of France for 18 months or so, stealing food, burning fields and villages, sending peasants into the walled cities for protection, and eventually exhausting themselves so thoroughly that half his force of men and horses were dead of starvation. The Sieur de Coucy, Tuchman’s “hero,” was commissioned by Charles V of France to lead hoards of brigands (mercenaries without purpose or leader) into Switzerland, there to attempt conquest. This force, repulsed by the stalwart Swiss, returned accomplishing almost nothing except depopulating France of a dangerous, lawless class.

What with the Black Death reducing the population of Europe by half, with its recurring scourge, during the 14th century, these endless wars in the name of chivalry, along with the crusades against the “infidels,” represent that era’s world wars. It’s no wonder that English peasants revolted in 1381, or that the last crusade of the century to oust the Turks ended in stalemate or exhaustion, and the imprisonment and death of the Sieur de Coucy.

A student of mine has just written a readers theater about women whose “men” as part of the Minnesota National Guard were deployed to Iraq for 18 months. Listening to the voices of these women reminds me of the female portion of the 14th century who, outside Chaucer’s tales and a few outstanding writers, had almost no voice, lived often fiercely attenuated lives, dying of seven childbirths at age 28, a French princess married into the English nobility. It’s nice to think that perhaps hermits and nuns lived longer because they renounced sex, but reading Chaucer puts that notion down. His religious women are often as lusty as their secular counterparts. Thank heaven for antibiotics and birth control, I say, and heaven help us from flood, famine, and pestilence, not to mention war.

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