Feb 9, 2013

Summer 1981: Male Nudity in English Class: The Canterbury Tales


My favorite Boomer summer was the summer of 1981, just after my junior year in college. I saw a dozen movies with gay subtexts: Clash of the Titans, Wolfen, Arthur, American Werewolf in London, Hell NightThe Chosen.  And tv shows: One Day at a Time, Alice, TaxiSoap, Barney Miller. There were subtext songs on the radio.

And I heard The Word, for the first time ever in a college class.  My Culture and Civilization of Modern Germany was devoted to proving that no German ever wrote about homosexualitat, but the professor in my Chaucer class, a big, hoarse-voiced woman named Dr. Dorothy, thought that The Canterbury Tales was all about how terrible "homosexuality" was.

Ok, but the Pasolini adaption of The Canterbury Tales had the most impressive male nudity I had ever seen.  I can't show a picture on a G-rated blog, but those guys were huge. (My complete review is here.)


















The Pardoner, one of the pilgrims who tell stories on the road to Canterbury, was thin and willowy, beardless, with long yellow hair and a high pitched voice.

"An effeminate homosexual!" Dr. Dorothy cried, obviously delighted to say a forbidden word.  "How grotesque!"

Ok, but look at the Squire: a powerfully built young man of about twenty.  But instead of jousting and fighting dragons, he spends his time dancing, singing, and embroidering, quite feminine pursuits. He is a "lover and a lusty bachelor," so busy having sex that he doesn't sleep much at night.  Yet who does he have sex with?  Chaucer leaves this vague, but traditionally squires were devoted to the knights they served.






In The Miller's Tale, a parish clerk named Absolon is infatuated with the Miller's wife, and asks her for a kiss through a peep-hole.  Instead, the Miller shoves his bare butt through and farts in Absolon's face.  But Absolon gets revenge by shoving a red-hot poker into the Miller's butt.

"Symbolic homosexuality!" Dr. Dorothy cried, enjoying the shocked expressions on the students' faces. "How humiliating for the Miller!"

Ok, but look at The Knight's Tale, about two bosom buddies, Arcite and Palamon, who are both in love with Emily.  A classic triangulation, with the quarrel over the girl an impediment to their love, which is described in lushly romantic terms:

Sworn as we are, and each unto the other,
That never, though for death in any pain,
Never, indeed, till death shall part us twain.

Medieval literature was filled with men in love, like Roland and Oliver.  Shakespeare and John Fletcher used the same story as the basis for The Two Noble Kinsmen (1634), here performed by Tyler Neale and Tim Elliott for the Hudson Shakespeare Company.


A Knight's Tale (2001), starring Heath Ledger, tells a different story, but it does feature a nude Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany), plus a homoromantic couple, the Knight's humorous sidekicks, Roland and Wat (Mark Addy, Alan Tudyk).

As I discovered in my classes in Modern British and American Literature, you can't always believe what you hear from a college professor.