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Lenvoy de Chaucer a Bukton

Fourteenth-century Middle English
Geoffrey Chaucer

Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Fairfax 16, and many printed editions

A short poem

This enigmatic poem addressed to ‘Bukton’, possibly a Sir Peter Bukton of Holderness, in East Yorkshire, appears at first sight to be a warning by Chaucer against marriage, in a light-hearted and joking way. Perhaps Bukton was about to get married.

Hannah sees another interpretation. She sees it as a warning by Chaucer, not against marriage but against revealing doubts about the Christian faith. Chaucer is warning Bukton that it is better to pretend to be a good Christian than to suffer imprisonment or one of the other harsh punishments for heresy. The 'Wyf of Bath' may refer to the tale rather than the prologue. 'Frise' is free Fresia, and it may be better for him to go there if he cannot keep up the pretence.

It is, after all, as Chaucer makes clear in the envoy, ‘a litle writ, proverbes, or figure’. A metaphor. Where is the metaphor, if it is only about Bukton’s impending marriage? Perhaps Hannah is right.

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Lenvoy de Chaucer a Bukton a short ballade by Geoffrey Chaucer

My maister Bukton, whan of Criste our kinge · Was axed, what is trouthe or sothfastness, · he nat a word answerde to that axinge – When my master Bukton was asked, regarding Christ, what is the truth, not a word did he answer in reply; like someone who might have wished to say, 'No man is all true,' I guess. And therefore, although I promise to express the sorrow and woe that is in marriage, I dare not write wickedly of it, lest I myself soon fall into such foolishness. I will not liken it to the chain with which Satan was bound, and on which he gnawed unendingly, but I dare say, were he released from this torture, he would never freely be bound again. But the weak-headed fool who would rather be chained in prison than escape from it, let God never release him from his woe, nor any one cry in sympathy for him.

But yet, lest you do worse, take a wife. Better it is to wed than to burn. But you shall have sorrow all your life and be your wife's anxious servant, as has been seen. And if Holy Scripture does nothing for you, experience may teach you, perhaps, that it would be better to be captured in free Fresia 1 than to fall into the trap of marriage.

This little guiding metaphor I send you and I advise you to keep it safe. Unwise is he who can suffer no happiness. If you are sure and steady, then there is no need to fear. Read in my 'Wife of Bath' of this matter that we have in hand. God grant you your life to live freely, for it is unpleasant to suffer imprisonment.' 2

Translation and retelling of Chaucer's poem 'Lenvoy de Chaucer a Bukton' copyright © 2000, 2016 by Richard Scott-Robinson

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notes

  1. 'That thee were lever to be take in Fryse' - Frisia (East Frisia in Lower Saxony, North Frisia in Schledwig-Holstein and Friesland in Holland) was the home of the 'free Frisians' in the fourteenth century. Wikipedia

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  2. Imprisonment was the penalty for heresy in England in Chaucer's time, although the burning of heretics on the continent was hardly unknown, and a generation or so after Chaucer's death, an unrecanting heretic was publically burned at the stake in London, an execution witnessed by the young William Caxton.

    The Canterbury Tale of the Wife of Bath is really two separate pieces of work. A long prologue, which is a soliloquy by Alison, the Wife of Bath, on the subject of her many husbands and many marital infidelities, and then the tale itself, which is a retelling of a story whose key elements are found in an Irish tale of Diarmuid and Fionn mac Cumhaill, who are legendary figures whose antiquity reaches back into pagan Ireland.

    The prologue concerns Alisons relationship with her five husbands. Although they appear to have been wedded in succession; three old and wealthy men married for their money followed by a younger man and finally one half her age, there is more than a hint of something perhaps less morally acceptable in what she is saying. Particularly near the beginning of the prologue.

    Ambiguity - 'How many mighte she have in marriage? Yet herde I never tellen in myn age upon this nombre diffinicioun,' - How many might [a Samaritan woman whom Jesus rebuked] have in marriage? I have never yet encountered a definitive answer to this - soon loses much of its ambiguity: 'Eek wel I woot [also I know that] he sayde, myn housbonde sholde lete fader and moder, and take me. But of no nombre mencioun made he, of bigamye or of octogamye; why sholde men speke of it vileinye?' - Also I know that [God] instructed my husband to leave his father and mother and take me, but he made no mention of number, and two or even eight husbands at once, why should men speak ill of this? - And again, speaking of Solomon: 'I trow he hadde wyves mo than oon; as, wold god, it leveful were to me to be refresshed half so oft as he!' - I am sure he had more than one wife, and would to God that I was able to be refreshed with sex half as often as he!

    The rest of the prologue continues in this vein, celebrating the numerous instances of infidelity and promiscuousness that Alison, over the years, has indulged in; and equally as importantly, it celebrates her lordship over her husbands, a theme which leads directly into the subject matter of the tale itself. But in the context of this advice to Bukton, the opening lines of the prologue are worth a close examination. If no authority existed in this world, says Alison, experience would be enough for her to speak of 'the wo that is in mariage'. Marriage, therefore, must be taken to mean the exclusive marital relationship sanctioned by the Church, since the life that Alison has led seems to have been far from woeful! She has worn out four husbands and seems well on the way to wearing out a fifth! The woe in marriage that Alison refers to must therefore mean the woe in submitting to the authority of the Church. It is in this sense, perhaps, that Chaucer speaks of marriage in his message to Bukton as a 'litel writ, proverbes , or figure'; a figure of speech to signify submission to the doctrinal authority of the Church.

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