Incidental hagiographic references in The Canterbury tales
Bell, David Kevin
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When fully examined, Chaucer’s numerous references to incidental saints in The Canterbury Tales serve to enrich the meaning of the rhetorical context in which they occur. Although, at first glance, these references may appear arbitrary to today’s reader or perhaps even irrelevant to the Tales, they actually hold great significance and often enhance one’s understanding. Chaucer’s audience most likely understood the function of these hagiographic references based on a thorough familiarity with the legends of the saints. Saints and their legends were ubiquitous in medieval culture, ranging from their prominence in Mass readings and visual depictions in stained glass windows to pilgrimages to their shrines and relics. Their mere mention in the Tales would have triggered a whole host of concrete associations, specific character traits, and iconographic recollections related to their colorful legends and pictorial representations. With the advent of collections of saints’ lives like Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda Aurea and The South English Legendary in the late thirteenth century, hagiography reached an unprecedented level of popularity by the fourteenth century. Chaucer’s incidental references to such saints as Frideswide, Neot, and Cuthbert, point to their legends, which, when explored, serve the purpose of enhancing and subverting a tale’s meaning, typically through such elements as ironic contrast, wordplay, comic relief, and double entendre. The Legenda Aurea and other sources, including the South English Legendary, are valuable resources in one’s effort to recover a portion of the meaning Chaucer most certainly encoded into The Canterbury Tales via incidental hagiographic references.