In this guest post, Sheri Smith, postgraduate researcher at Cardiff University, explains the surprising references to Chaucer’s Griselda and Custance in a late fifteenth-century poem.
Reading Jenni’s post on the fifteenth-century poem ‘Alas quid eligam ignoro’, I was struck by the poet’s invocation of Susannah, Griselda and Custance in a prayer asking for guidance. This seemed an unusual combination of biblical and literary figures which just so happened to bring together two strands of my own research into thirteenth- and fourteenth-century petitionary prayers and Chaucer’s use of prayer in his poetry.
In the poem, the narrator and his friend find themselves at a loss after dismissing the various career options open to them. The poet calls to mind the example of Susannah, who, when forced to choose between consenting to sin and being put to death, was rescued from death by God. With Susannah’s difficult choice to inspire him, the poet then beseeches God for guidance in his own decision-making, invoking his intervention in the lives of St Paul, Griselda and Custance.
By referring in this literary prayer to Susannah and Paul, the poet expects his audience to recognise a formula typical of a late-medieval prayer for protection. In asking for God’s protection for the supplicant, these prayers often recall examples of his aid to the faithful. Figures believed to have been dramatically rescued from death are the most likely to be invoked. Especially popular are Susannah, Daniel, Jonah, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, St Peter or St Paul, as in this example from the thirteenth-century Beatrice Hours (British Library Add MS 33385, f. 198r):
God who liberated Susannah from false accusations, and Jonah from the belly of the whale, and Daniel from the lions’ pit, and the three youths from the fiery furnace, and who stretched out your hand to Peter sinking in the water, deign to liberate me from this tribulation and distress, and from the power of all my enemies, and from their confederates. Deus qui liberasti Susannam, translated by Charity Scott-Stokes, Women’s Books of Hours in Medieval England
To judge by the unity of purpose shared across prayers with similar invocations of figures saved through divine intervention, these protective petitions are intended for use against threats to life, the danger of dying unshriven, and, as in the Beatrice Hours and elsewhere, the malicious intent of enemies.
In the context of this explicit reference to pious formulae, it is particularly surprising to find Griselda and Custance invoked alongside St Paul and Susannah, the literary pair so well-known that the poet asks, ‘What nedith rehersall of Grisild or Custaunce / Preseruyd thorow grace’ [It is hardly necessary to recount the tales of Griselda or Custance, who were preserved through grace]. Where a reader might expect mention of Jonah, or perhaps St Peter, the poet adds two literary models of perseverance to the usual biblical exempla.
Although Griselda’s inclusion might better represent an understanding of her as an exemplum of patience, rather than as a recipient of divine grace, Custance’s inclusion links closely to her portrayal in Chaucer’s Man of Law’s Tale. To explain her miraculous survival during her rudderless sea voyages, the narrator of the tale similarly appeals to biblical accounts of divine intervention, placing Custance in the company of Daniel, Jonas and the Israelites who crossed the Red Sea. Her miraculous rescue from deadly slander when a disembodied hand appears and strikes her false accuser allows Custance to occupy a place alongside those biblical figures invoked in prayers for protection.
In ‘Alas quid eligam ignoro’, however, the poet does not pray for safety from slander, for aid against dying unshriven, or for the confounding of his enemies. He asks God instead for guidance for himself and his friend in deciding a course of action. By appealing to God’s protection of Susannah and St Paul, he elevates his own quandary to a matter of life and death. The incongruity between his own situation and the pious references employed suggests that the poet is gently mocking himself, along with his friend, for succumbing to crippling indecision. Choosing to follow in Chaucer’s footsteps by adding his exempla of patience to the usual figures invoked in prayers hints too at his literary inclinations, as his next stanza humbly suggests:
‘Who made the so hardy thow simple balad / The presence to approche of poetys lawreate’ [Who made you, you simple ballad, so bold / As to approach the presence of laureate poets].
Sheri Smith, Cardiff University