31 March 2012

'in a bath of flambes rede'--St Cecilia's Martyrdom

I'm currently working off and on on a couple of posts, but I decided to go ahead and just squeeze one short one in tonight so I could at least have the satisfaction of seeing two posts for the month of March. Also, since I 'made my name', so to speak, with Saints, I thought it would be fitting to do something about a Saint.

On Monday I'm due to discuss Chaucer's Second Nun's Tale with my Omnibus students (Omnibus being something like a 'Great Books' class), who will have read Nevill Coghill's translation. [1] For those who do not know, this particular tale is essentially Chaucer's adaptation into Middle English verse of the Legenda aurea account of St Cecilia's martyrdom by Jacob de Voraigne. Now, as firm as I am no doubt well known for being in my belief in the basic trustworthiness of Saints' Lives, I retain a certain distrust, frequently owing to the often quite anachronistic feel of the Golden Legend, for the incredibly elabourate nature of its accounts. Fr Seraphim (Rose) has written:

The Orthodox tradition is by no means credulous in its acceptance of the miracles of saints. Great care is always taken to assure that the Lives of saints contain true accounts and not fables; for it is indeed true that, in the age of 'romance' that began in the Western Middle Ages just after Rome's final separation from the Church of Christ (1054), [2] such fables were introduced into many Lives of saints, rendering all later Latin sources especially suspect. [3]

But in the course of reading a fascinating article on the Second Nun's Tale this evening, [4] I had a pleasant surprise in the form of a vindication (in a sense) of the 'legend'. According to Chaucer's retelling, after St Cecilia has bested her judge in debate, he condemns her to death:

And he weex wroth, and bad men sholde hir lede
Hom til hir hous, and 'In hire hous,' quod he,
'Brenne hire right in a bath of flambes rede.'
And as he bad, right so was doon the ded;
For in a bath they gonne hire faste shetten,
And nyght and day greet fyr they under betten.

The longe nyght, and eek a day also,
For al the fyr, and eek the bathes heete,
She sat al coold, and feelede no wo. [5]

V.A. Kolve, in 'Chaucer's Second Nun's Tale & the Iconography of Saint Cecilia', notes that this scene is described by Chaucer and depicted in Mediaeval art as involving a 'bathtub' placed over a fire. But, 'In his recent edition John Fisher became the first to gloss the word bath in this passage in a historically accurate way, suggesting that it means "bath in the Roman sense: a hypocaust, a room with a space under the floor where the heat from the furnace accumulated to heat it."' [6] The beauty of this explanation is that it gives the story of the martyrdom some real historical weight. We then learn:

Well-born Romans condemned to death for political reasons were sometimes executed in this fashion, the heat and vapor of a bath permitting them the relative dignity of death by suffocation. The Church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, in Rome, which the saint's legend claims is built upon the house in which she was martyred, contains just such a room, its heating conduits still well preserved. [7]

[1] Nevill Coghill, tr., The Canterbury Tales, by Geoffrey Chaucer (Harmondsworth, UK: 1985).

[2] It is of course, not at all uncharacteristic of Fr Seraphim to have been so blunt in expressing the traditional Orthodox view of the 'Great Schism'.

[3] Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose), 'A Prologue of the Orthodox Saints of the West', Vita Patrum: The Life of the Fathers, by St Gregory of Tours, tr. Fr Seraphim & Paul Bartlett, ed. Fr Seraphim (Platina, CA: St Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1988), p. 20.

[4] V.A. Kolve, 'Chaucer's Second Nun's Tale & the Iconography of St Cecilia', New Perspectives in Chaucer Criticism, ed. Donald M. Rose (Norman, OK: Pilgrim Books, 1981), pp. 137-74.

[5] Second Nun's Tale, ll. 513-21; The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd ed., ed. Larry D. Benson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), p. 269.

[6] Kolve, p. 142.

[7] Ibid.

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