A poor widow, somewhat stooped with age, once lived in a little cottage beside a wood, in a valley. Ever since her husband had died she had led a simple and patient life, for her possessions were few and her income was small. By the little skill that she had at husbandry, she supported herself and her two daughters by keeping three large sows, three cows and a sheep called Moll. Her bedroom and her living room, where she laid out her meagre meals, were filthy with soot. She served no spicy sauces – no fancy dishes passed down her throat! Her simple fare was in proportion to her wealth.
She was never ill through over-eating though. A moderate diet was the only medicine she needed, along with exercise and contentment with what she had. She was never prevented from dancing by an attack of the gout! She never had a hangover, never drank wine, neither white nor red, but served mostly black and white at her trestle table, that is to say, milk and wholemeal bread, of which there was no shortage, smoked bacon and sometimes an egg or two, for she was something of a poultry-keeper.
She had a paddock, enclosed with a wattle fence with a dry ditch outside, in which she kept a cockerel whose name was Chauntecleer. In all the land of crowing there was none his equal. His voice was merrier than the merry organ that rings out from a church on Mass days. When he crowed from the henhouse, the sound was more reliable than that of a clock, or even a great timepiece in an abbey. He knew intuitively when the equinoctial wheel had risen another fifteen degrees – then he would crow like there was no tomorrow! His comb was redder than a perfect coral and crenulated like the battlements on a castle wall. His beak was black and shone like jet, his legs were a shiny deep-blue and so were all his toes. His toenails were whiter than a lily and his body shone like burnished gold.
This noble cock had seven hens to look after and to do all his will with; they were his sisters and his lovers and very similar to him in colour. The most daintily patterned on her throat was a young hen called Pertelote. She was courteous, friendly, well-groomed and well-spoken, and since seven days old had been so pretty that she had captured the heart of Chauntecleer. She made him very happy and it was a joy to hear them singing together when the dawn broke: ‘My love has gone fighting overseas,’ or some such popular refrain; for at this time, as I understand, animals and birds could speak and sing.
One day, just as the sun was rising, Chauntecleer was sitting on his perch amongst all his wives when he began to make a horrible noise with his throat, as though he was having a nightmare. Pertelote was roosting next to him and when she heard this she was astonished and said: ‘Oh dearest, what’s making you groan like this, what’s the matter? You’re normally a very good sleeper, for shame!’
‘My dear,’ he replied. ‘By God, I just dreamed that I was in such danger that my heart is still going like the clappers! God, let that dream foretell nothing serious! Don’t be upset, but I dreamed I was strutting up and down in our yard when I saw an animal very like a dog who wanted to seize me in his jaws and kill me – he was an orangey-red in colour and both his ears and his tail were tipped with black, his nose was small and he had two glowing eyes. I nearly died with fright when he looked at me. That, I should imagine, was the reason I was groaning.’
‘Away with you!’ exclaimed Pertelote. ‘You should be ashamed of yourself! Alas, by God above, you've now lost all my affection and all my love, you weakling. I cannot love a coward. Whatever any woman may say, we all desire our men, if we can, to be intelligent, generous, courageous, trustworthy, willing to spend a little on us but no fool with money, no gambler and certainly not someone who jumps out of his skin at the sight of a breadknife! How can you bring yourself to admit, in front of the one you love, that a dream has frightened you? Alas! Are dreams so frightening? What kind of a man are you? A dream is nothing but a conceit. Dreams are caused by overeating, by flatulence or by one of the four humours in a person’s body being out of balance.
'Without doubt, this dream which you have just had is because of an excess of your red bile, which causes folk to have nightmares about arrows and licking flames, great red beasts chasing after them, bloody conflict or the piglets of wild boars; just as the humour of melancholy causes a sleeping man to cry out in fear of black bulls and black bears, or devils in black.
‘I could explain to you the other humours as well, which also cause nightmares, but I don’t want to dwell on it. Look, Cato, who was such a wise man, warned us to take no heed of dreams. So when we fly off these beams, for God’s love, take a laxative! I’ll stake my life that this is the best thing that you can do. Purge yourself of choler and melancholy; and in order to do so quickly, since there is no apothecary in this village, I shall guide you to all the necessary herbs myself, all the ones that will be beneficial and do you the most good. They are all growing in our yard and they will expel what needs to be expelled, both in your phlegm and in your stool. Make sure you do it, though, for God’s love! Your complexion looks awfully choleric. And be careful that the hot sun doesn’t find you full of these red humours, for if it does, you’ll catch a fever that might be the death of you. I’ll lay a groat on it.
'For a day or two you shall take digestives in the form of worms, before you take your laxative, which will consist of centaury, fumaria or else hellebore that grows nearby, laurel or failing that, sloes, and ground ivy, which both grow in our yard. Peck them up where they are growing and swallow them down. Cheer up, husband, by your father’s kin! Fear no dream. I've nothing more to say.’
‘Madam, thank you for that,’ replied Chauntecleer. ‘Nevertheless, regarding Cato, who was so renowned for his wisdom, although he advised us not to worry too much about dreams, one can read in numerous old books about men who were of higher standing even than Cato and who say exactly the opposite. They found through experience that dreams are highly significant and foretell both the joy and the tribulation that people will have to endure on this Earth. There is no reason to argue about it, for it can be proved.
‘One of the greatest writers who ever lived tells of two fellows who once went on a pilgrimage, in good spirits, and chanced to come into a town where there were so few inns and so many people looking for places to stay the night that they couldn’t find so much as a cottager willing to take them both in. So, through necessity, they had to separate and try to make their own arrangements. Each found a hostelry, one in a barn with plough-oxen, the other well enough within the town but quite a long way from his companion, as chance fell – or fortune, which governs all our lives.
‘Long before dawn, this man who had found a comfortable place to stay, lying in his bed, dreamed that his companion was calling to him: “Alas! I’m going to be murdered tonight in this ox’s stall! Help me, before I die! Come quickly!”
‘This man woke out of his sleep in a panic, but when he had come to, he turned over and went back to sleep again, considering it to be just a dream. He chose to ignore it. Twice this happened. Then a third time his companion appeared to him in a dream and said: “Now I have been killed. Look at my dreadful wounds! Get up early in the morning and go to the west gate of this town and there you will see a cartload of dung. My body is hidden at the bottom of it. Seize possession of this cart. I was murdered for my gold, needless to say.”
'In this dream, the fellow's companion went on to tell him exactly how he had been slain, his face piteous and pale as he did so. And believe me, this dream turned out to be true. The next morning, as soon as the sun had risen, the man made his way to where his friend had stayed the night and when he came to the ox’s stall he began to shout for him. The innkeeper came out and said: “Sir, your companion has gone. He left at dawn.” This made the man suspicious and, remembering his dream, went to the west gate of the town where he saw a dung cart, looking as though it was bound straight for dungland, exactly as his dead companion had described it. Gathering his courage, the man cried for vengeance and justice for this felony. “My companion was murdered last night!” he cried out to those nearby. “He is lying dead at the bottom of this cart. I call upon the officials who rule this city. Alas! My friend lies here slain!”
‘What more is there to say? The people rushed out, overturned the cart and in the middle of all the shit and straw they found the dead man, murdered, his wounds still fresh.
‘Oh blissful God, so faithful and just, how you always see to it that a murderous act is uncovered! Murder will always be revealed, we see proof of this every day. Murder is so loathsome and so abominable to God, who is so just and reasonable, that he never allows it to remain undiscovered for long; although it might lie so for a year or two, or even three. But murder will always be uncovered!
'Straight away, the town officials seized the carter and tortured him, and the innkeeper as well, so brutally that they quickly admitted to the crime and were hanged.
‘Here, then, is proof that dreams are to be feared.
'And in this same book, in the very next chapter, I've read that two men once wished to go overseas for some reason, to a distant country, but were held up by an adverse wind which prevented them from setting out. They were forced to stay in some city or other next to a port; but one day, in the evening, the wind veered and began to blow in the direction they wanted, so they went to bed very happy indeed, with the intention of getting up early the next morning to set sail. But to one of them came a great marvel during the night. He dreamed just before morning that a man stood beside his bed and instructed him to wait: "If you set sail tomorrow," this man cautioned, "you will be drowned. That is all." When he woke up, he told his companion about this dream, advising that they should take heed and delay their voyage for a day or two. His companion however, who was in the bed next to his, began to laugh and make fun of him. “No dream will ever make my heart so timid that I allow it to influence my affairs,” he said. “I don’t give a straw for your dreams. Dreams are just fictions and conceits. Men dream all the time about owls and apes and a million other ridiculous things; they dream of things that never were and never shall be. But since I can see that you intend to remain here today and wilfully miss the tide, God knows, I think it is a pity. Goodbye.”
‘He wished his companion good day and went off to the ship. But before the vessel had completed half the voyage, I don’t know what kind of error of navigation occurred but the ship’s bottom ran aground and she sank, taking all on board with her. This happened within sight of some of the other ships that had sailed on the same tide. And therefore, Pertelote my dear, you can see that there are many examples in old books that warn us to take dreams seriously. I tell you, there are some dreams you would be wise to take heed of.
‘Lo! Take the life of Saint Kenelm. He was the son of Kenulf, and the King of Mercia, and he saw his own murder in a dream. He dreamed that he was going to be murdered and then he was, His nurse explained the dream's significance to him, for he was only seven years old, and urged him to be very vigilant; but being young and inexperienced, and also very holy, he made light of it. I would give my shirt that you had read his story, as I have.
'And Dame Pertelote, what about Macrobius? He related a dream that once came to Scipio Africanas and warned us that such dreams are meaningful and can predict the future. Look in the Old Testament at the Book of Daniel and see if he considered dreams to be worthless! Read about Joseph, and you will see that dreams are sometimes – not all the time I grant you – but sometimes a warning of things to come. Consider Pharaoh, the King of Egypt, his baker and the man in charge of all his wine and beer. Did they not come to form any opinions about dreams? Anyone who reads the stories from a host of different countries will find many marvellous things said about dreams.
‘What about Croesus, who was the King of Lydia? – didn’t he dream once that he sat upon a tree, which signified that he was going to be hanged? And what about Andromache, the wife of Trojan Hector? She dreamed that her husband was going to be killed if he went into battle, and the very next day he was. She warned him, but to no avail. Hector went out to fight, regardless, and Achilles slew him. But this whole story is too long to tell, and besides, it’s nearly dawn so I haven’t any more time. But I conclude that something nasty is going to happen to me if I’m not careful, and I don’t give a fig for any of your laxatives; they are all poisonous and I defy them. I don’t like them at all.
‘So let us stop all this and speak about something pleasant. Madam Pertelote, God has graced me with one thing above all others that I can prize, for when I see the beauty of your face and the scarlet red around your eyes, I think upon the Latin phrase In principio mulier est hominis confusio, which you may take to mean: “Woman is man’s joy and all his bliss“. It makes my fear disappear completely when I feel your soft feathers beside me at night, although – alas! – I cannot screw you because this perch is too narrow. But I am so full of joy and well-being that I defy all dreams.’
With this, he flew off the beam with all his hens, for dawn was breaking. Soon, with a “cluck cluck”, he called them all over to where he was standing, because he had found some grain on the ground. He felt like a royal prince and all his fear was forgotten. He mounted Pertelote twenty times before the morning was half over and strutted about on his toes like a proud lion, never deigning once to put his feet flat upon the earth. He clucked when he found some corn scattered amongst the chicken shit and all his wives came running up to him. But I shall leave this regal cock Chauntecleer in his pasture, like a prince in his hall, and move on to his adventure.