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Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales

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Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales

Critics interpreting Chaucerian depictions of drunkenness have traditionally focused on the state as an unalloyed vice, citing variously as justification the poet’s Christian conservatism, his intimate association with the disreputable London vintner community, and even possible firsthand familiarity with alcoholism. While we must always remain vigilant to the evils of excessive inebriation, to portray Chaucer’s images of drink and revelry in The Canterbury Tales as an unqualified denunciation is to oversimplify the poet’s work and to profane his art. By fusing his portrayals of drunkenness with the revelation of truth and philosophical insight, Chaucer demonstrates the capacity of wine and ale to evoke the funky earthiness of humanity that we so desperately seek to avoid and that is so fundamental to our corporeal experience.

On the surface, drunkenness in The Canterbury Tales seems to be a force of disruption. The belligerent Miller churlishly demands to tell his tale before the Monk and thus violates the Host’s intended order of tale-telling. Indeed, the Miller’s interruption violates the very structure of the medieval social order by having member of the third estate of commoners interrupt the representative of the nobility embodied in the Knight. In another example of disruption, the intoxicated Cook falls off his horse as the party finally approaches Canterbury. He, too, causes a weighty disturbance as the stronger pilgrims are forced to remount “his hevy dronken cors” (IX. 67). For its tendency to disrupt the tales, commentators have traditionally portrayed drunkenness in an unfavorable light. Yet, such an interpretation is misguided. The eruptions of drunken...

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...enness is “hard-wired into the structure as a whole.” But drunkenness in the Tales is not “a symptom of some pervasive spiritual malaise,” as Bowers argues; drunkenness is a sign of a vibrant spiritual vitality. Drunkenness realigns the pilgrims with the inescapable earthy creatureliness that constitutes the fundamental paradox of the human condition. We assiduously endeavor to transcend our material world and use myriad euphemisms to avoid the truth, but we inevitably come crashing down into the filthy, funky, moist humus. We are ever burying our dead, ever reconstituting our humando. No, the answer lies not in Bowers’s teetotalism; Criseyde holds the truth. “In every thing, I woot, ther lith mesure,” she says. Everything must come in moderation, including moderation itself. According to Chaucer, a few drams of whiskey will be just fine. In vino veritas.
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