Fortune as a metaphor for the medieval church

Geoffrey Chaucer created the short poem ‘Fortune’ during a time of great economic and political turmoil in late 14th century England.  The ongoing war with France, the difficulties following the succession of the young Richard, and social upheaval of The Peasant’s Revolt were but a few of the problematic events unfolding at the time of this poem’s release. The poem is written in the context of a court setting in which its two characters, the Plaintive and Fortuna, are narrated as a plaintiff (Plaintive) presenting his case against the defendant (Fortuna).  In ‘Fortune’, Chaucer takes elements of Pagan and monotheism beliefs and combines them to illustrate a euphemism for the argument of reasoning and logic versus Christianity and the English church. The argument Chaucer is attempting to make through this work is that the power of one’s logic and reasoning is more powerful and rewarding than the desires of worldly possessions. Chaucer portrays the idea of ‘fortune’ as a means of control that the Church uses to expand its influence and control over the people of England. Going along with this ideal, Fortune is compared to Christian spirituality in the sense that those considered to be the highest in the church and spirituality achieved their position through wicked means and a twisted set of desires to pervert its influence into a tool of control while disguising it behind the mask of its intended use, as a tool to give and help.

Before diving into the analysis of the poem we must first define the representations of what the characters are meant to portray. The first of which being the Plaintive which is used as a figure of Chaucer’s philosophical ideals and a few of his favorite philosophers; those being Boccaccio, Dante, Socrates, and Boethius whom of which had many works translated by Chaucer. Chaucer’s foremost philosophical idea upon is summarized by Howard R. Patch in his article “Chaucer and Lady Fortune”, “The Universe, as they see it, is neither surrendered to the working of chance, nor given up to the laws of blind fate which ultimately are just as capricious in their effect on man. Instead it is based on intelligence, and that is how one may hold the conviction that ‘Trouthe shal delivere, hit is no drede.’ Chaucer’s counsel implies a belief in free will, and, at the very opposite pole from cynicism, a sure hope in the meaning of existence.”(Patch 388). Much like the Plaintive in the poem, Chaucer believes that following something blindly only for the hope of material gain is absurd in the sense that you are giving up the logic and reasoning that makes you more valuable than anything materialistic. This ideal was drawn from the philosophical works of Boethius. This idea being that, “Boethius of course undertook the original theological negation of the concept (rendering Fortune into an anamorphic image of Providence)” (Mitchell 102). The next character is the old pagan goddess Fortuna that was taken over from Roman culture. Despite the Christian dominated religious landscape, the deity’s popularity continued to live due largely in part to her unique attributes. Unlike the other pagan gods Fortuna did not have a specific function or role; she dispersed her gifts and blessings randomly through her ‘wheel of fortune’. The symbolism behind Fortuna is used as a representation of the Church. This symbol is used to show how the Church disperses its gifts and blessings at random, or as they see particularly fit to specific people. Also in the poem when Fortuna presents her response, she speaks in a threatening manner, never openly admitting any wrong doing towards the Plaintive but rather her argument consists of how she could have done him and ones close to him wrong. Her use of words give her the appearance of someone who uses cunning and influence in conversation to turn the tides into their favor, much like how the Church expanded its power through the royal court at the time.

 

 

The goddess Fortuna spinning her ‘wheel of fortune’


As mentioned previously, the structuring of the poem which appears to be in a court setting, has all of the components needed except for one vital character, a judge. This is intentionally left out so that the readers can form their own opinion of each of the character’s prospective arguments and reach their own personal conclusion of who is right and wrong. The Plaintive begins his argument by stating that no matter your condition, health or monetary, people are under the control of an unpredictable goddess who rules without order or judgment. This is a stab at the idea of free will versus predetermined destiny, which both are ideas in Christianity. Christianity says that God has given all of us free will to make our own decisions and follow our own endeavors but it also teaches that God is omnipotent and knows the future. These are, of course, logically contradicting ideals that followers of the church accepted as truths without questioning why. The Plaintive goes on to say that even though he will not be in her favor upon death, he will have no regrets upon his life lived. This is emphasized in the poem when he states that dying out of her good graces will not make him sing “J’ay tout perdu mon temps et mon labour” which is translated into “I have lost all my time and my effort”. After defying the goddess and mocking her contradicting ideals the Plaintive then thanks the goddess for teaching him the lesson of how to distinguish true friends from foes and acquaintances. His last statement is the praise of the famous philosopher Socrates. This is used by Chaucer to show his high regard to not only Socrates but philosophical ideals in general. He ends the Plaintive’s last stanza by saying, which he had repeated in the previous two stanzas, “For, once for all, Fortune I defy you!” The multiple use of this phrase emphasizes the feelings of hate and the logical lack of desire for any of the goddess’ teachings and gifts.

Fortuna’s response to the Plaintive is an example of the influence and ability of the Church to make its dark attributes appear as positives to the people. The goddess does not try to rebuke the Plaintive’s remarks with examples of how she is good and just, instead she flips the argument against him by asking him why he is in defiance of her after she has provided for him and not punished him harshly like she has to so many others. This is directly correlated to Chaucer’s role in the court and church at the time. While he condemned the current operational state that England was being governed in, he still did some work for the high courts and the church as well. Throughout the response, Fortuna ended each stanza with the quote,” And eek thou hast thy beste frend alive” which in modern English translates into “And you have also your best friend yet living!” Why exactly was this mentioned without any previous reference and why did it need to be repeated 3 times? According to The Chaucer ReviewFortune makes repeated references to the Pleintif’s “beste frend,” at lines 32, 40, 48, and 50, as well as in the Envoy; but we can no longer determine either the identity of this person or his significance in the case. By contrast, Chaucer addresses Lenvoy de Chaucer a Scogan throughout to the friend named in the title, in the form – new to English poetry at the time – of a familiar epistle. It is to Scogan that all the poem’s complaints, as well as its concluding request are directed” (Burrow 352).  Henry Scogan met Chaucer on one of his frequent trips to the court and eventually befriended Chaucer, later becoming his understudy or disciple. While little is known about his life Scogan played an integral part in the creation and preserving of Chaucer’s later works. In the context of the poem Fortuna’s statements about keeping his friend alive could be taken as a threat, not only alluding to how they have control of his friend’s wellbeing but also the livelihood and preservation of Chaucer’s works and ideals.

In the Plaintive’s rebuttal, it is clear that he is not falling into the persuasive web of lies spoken by Fortuna. The Plaintive actually amps up his previous stance from simply defying the goddess’ virtues to condemning them as nothing but bitterness. This response appears to be due in part to the Plaintive taking offense to the threatening demeanor that Fortuna was speaking in relation to his friend’s health. He knows that Fortuna is unable to take away his true friends, but thanks her once again for the lesson of how to distinguish true friends from acquaintances. He seemingly mocks her by saying she can take them away, stating that the misery caused from obtaining the wealth is nothing more than a sign of how she will violently attack them and their possessions. The Plaintive ends speaking by saying “Wikke appetyt comth ay before syknesse. In general, this reule may nat fayle” (A corrupt appetite always goes before sickness. Everywhere this rule shall hold).  This statement signifies how thinking logically can prevent you from being entangled in the unpredictable wheel of fortune that has captivated the people to follow the church’s orders without question. Chaucer is making a point that by using reason and logic one can live a better and happier life than one who is following a God whose teachings are taught by the corrupt.

Lady Fortune responds to the Plaintive in a dark, almost menacing manner. Knowing that the Plaintive is wise to her games, Fortune begins to belittle him by talking about her power. She goes on to talk about how just as the sea’s waves constantly move, and how the sky will rain or shine as it pleases, she too will continue to act as unstable and erratic as she pleases. Fortune mocks him and his belief of how the system should work, calling him a blind ignorant beast. Her reasoning is for the random blessing and behavior is that only Heaven itself is stable, but the world is ever restless and unstable so it should be treated and governed as such. Because of this, he will not ever be out from under her control until the day he passes away. In a satirical manner each stanza in this poem ends with the same as the Plaintive’s previous statement of “Everywhere this rule shall hold”. While it is clear at this point that the goddess is upset, she is still always going to be superior and in control. This is a metaphor for how the Church does not like it if anyone questions its status quo, especially rational thinkers and philosophers, but their influence is stronger and more vast that than that of the philosophers and rational thinkers, this of course meaning that the church will always have multitudes of followers. The poem ends with The Envoy of Fortune, which is not directed at the Plaintive, but rather at the Princes (the jury as aforementioned in a modern day court setting). While an unlikely candidate to speak on the behalf of the Plaintive who had condemned her teachings and defied her, Fortune begins to speak on his behalf anyways. Her speech is spoken out of anger and annoyance rather than sympathy for the Plaintive. She speaks in a satirical tone to the ‘princes’ about the Plaintive. “’Princes, I prey you of your gentilesse/Lat nat this man on me thus crye and pleyne.’ It is a nice comic touch: if only the authorities would see to it that Chaucer was provided with “som beter estat,” he might be persuaded to shut up.”(Burrow 352). The ‘Princes’ most likely being referred to were the dukes of Lancaster, Gloucester, and York; lords that were charged in 1390 with the authorizing of royal gifts. Once again this is symbolic to how the church, itself being wicked, is trying to persuade others to corrupt the enlightened Plaintive by appealing to his human nature of wanting material things and wealth.

In closing, the figurative argument that Chaucer is trying to portray symbolizes the never ending philosophical argument of man and his mind versus the hierarchy of power religion creates. Through the philosophical teachings of the past Chaucer shapes his own idea that a man is defined by his thoughts and actions, not by the god he follows. This argument of finding the ‘truth’ through one’s own evaluation is universal to people of all religions. The way the poem is structured, leaving the reader as the metaphorical ‘judge’, increases the importance of Chaucer’s philosophical views, leading the reader to form his own ideal of correctness.

 

Bibliography

John, Burrow. “Chaucer as Petitioner: Three Poems.” Chaucer Review 45.3 (2011): 349-56. Literary   Reference Center. Web. 18 Sept. 2012.

 

Denny-Brown, Andrea. “Fashioning Change: Wearing Fortune’s Garments in Medieval England.” Philological Quarterly 87.1-2 (2008): 9-32. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 17 Sept. 2012.

 

Mithcell, Allan J. “Romamcing Ethis in Boethius, Chaucer, and Levinas: Fortune, Moral Luck, and Erotic Adventure.” Comparative Literature 57.2 (2005): 101-16. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 18 Sept. 2012.

 

Patch, Howard R. “Chaucer and Lady Fortune.” The Modern Language Review 22.4 (1927): 377-88. JSTOR Arts & Sciences VII. Web. 19 Sept. 2012. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3714845>.

 

“Department of English.” Chaucer and His Age I. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Sept. 2012. <http://english.cua.edu/faculty/wright/ENG351.cfm>.

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