Schwager

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Category: English Composition

Date Submitted: 09/17/2011 05:43 PM

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MIDDLE ENGLISH MARIAN LYRICS: INTRODUCTION

So begins a late-fourteenth-century poem composed at the request of Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster, in circumstances which reflect a scene characteristic of Marian devotion at the apex of its flourishing. The influential Blanche, a woman known for her piety, seeks devotional material in the vernacular for her personal use, and perhaps also for instructional use within her great household. She makes her request of a courtier in the service of her husband, John of Gaunt. The courtier, Geoffrey Chaucer, turns to an ABC prayer in one of the most popular works of the day among French and English aristocracy, Guillaume de Deguilleville's La pèlerinage de vie humaine. 2 Chaucer's adaptation is an eloquent manifestation of the enthusiastic religious sensibility of its audience. The poem demonstrates the centrality of the Virgin Mary to devotional literature among the highly sophisticated Christians of the age. In many ways, their devotion to Mary is the key to their refinement; she is the model of courtesy and of faith. In condensing Guillaume's twelve-line stanzas into eight-line stanzas, Chaucer relies masterfully on the full range of Marian epithets which resonate throughout his culture's uses of Mary as muse, mediator, intercessor, comforter, instructor and gracious model for feeling, piety, and discipline. In the "A.B.C. called La priere de Nostre Dame" 3 (see Appendix A), the first word of each stanza fixes an image that evokes what Donald Howard calls a "centrifugal" thought pattern 4; the meditator's focus on each image, often on Mary as the embodiment of some quality ("Almight[iness]," "Bounty," "Comfort," and so on), triggers a host of associations which focus the reader's heart on these qualities.

Chaucer uses common Marian typology here: she is the burning bush, the flower of flowers, the queen of mercy, the vicar and mistress of the world, and the governess of heaven. The legalistic imagery is noteworthy and...