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Home :: Archive :: 2004 :: January ::
Purses
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.0194  Monday, 26 January 2004

From:           Clifford Stetner <
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Date:           Saturday, 24 Jan 2004 07:34:21 -0500
Subject: 15.0115 Purses
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.0115 Purses

I always thought that the tossing about of purses was a kind of gentle
hint to the stingy aristos who were enjoying the play how true noblemen
should behave. The carelessness of not counting what's in it is supposed
to display the "freedom" i.e. magnanimity of "true noblesse." Showing
all the best characters tossing about their purses to faithful or
valuable servants, however they further the plot, also demonstrated to
those wondering if they should leave the players a tip how to go about
it gracefully.

As to the Pardoner. The passages cited only continue a hint laid in the
General Prologue (pardon my faulty memory and bad translation):

Him thought he rode al of the new jet;
A vernicle had he set upon his cap;
His walet lay beforn him in his lap,
Bretful of pardon com from Rom al hot;
A voice he had as small as hath a goat;
I trow he were a gelding or a mare;
Swich glaring eyen had he as an hare...

The verse goes on to describe the contents of his "male" (another kind
of purse) which contained a bunch of fake relics. In a college paper, I
illadvisedly tried to argue that Chaucer was accusing the Pardoner of
exaggerating the contents of his "nether purs" (to use an often excised
phrase of the Wife of Bath), which, like his voice, was as small as a
goat's (as an undergraduate, it didn't occur to me to research the
zoological metaphor), as a metaphor for the exaggeration of the contents
of his "male." In other words, I argued, the Pardoner's wallet, which he
carries, ostensibly because of the precious Pontifical contents, in the
front of his pants (where a codpiece (a kind of purse) customarily sat),
is overstuffed with Papal indulgences. A lollard sympathizer would
consider such paper stuffing equivalent to fraudulent claims of potency
of the kind the Pardoner admits to making regarding his pig's bones
under glass. I supported this reading with the contention that all the
company knew the effeminate Pardoner was servicing the noxious Summoner
who bore to him "a stif burdoun" (literally, a bass accompaniment on the
bagpipes to the Pardoner's lilting "come hither love to me"). "Was never
trump of haf so loud a soun" (i.e., it was pretty obvious what was going
on between them).

It takes Chaucer (or according to my professor, cigar obsessed
Chaucerians) to make a sophisticated theological argument out of a bawdy
conceit or vice versa. The purse/codpiece analogy, however, is too easy
not to turn up often in medieval fabliaux. David Cohen is right,
however, that each toss, search, theft, loss of said purse needs to be
interpreted on its own contextual merits.

That's for thee,
Clifford Stetner
CUNY

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