One evening the model Kate Moss appeared on my television, looked directly at me, and asked if I was “ready for the Apocalips [sic]?”. This appeal turned out to be an advert for a lipstick, a lipstick so chromatically superlative, its strapline claims, that it portends “the end of lip colour as you know it.” Rather than being chastened by my failure properly to contemplate and prepare for the End Times, I burst into laughter at the prospect that a lipstick might ready me, indeed that Kate Moss herself might be readied by it, for the final and terrifying Revelation prophesied by St John.
Once my laughter had subsided, I began to think about the ways that the ad speaks to the difficulties of teaching the religious aspects of medieval literature to modern students. In my multi-ethnic classroom there are students of many faiths and others of none; some do, but more don’t, have a working knowledge of terms and ideas like “apocalypse,” or a habit of reading allegorically. The names of the Apocalips-tick shades – “stellar,” “nova,” “galaxy,” “luna,” “big bang” – suggest that the word “apocalypse” in this advert, and perhaps for some of my students, is just a shorthand for something big, something of cosmological or astronomical significance, but it has shed its theological valences. However, whilst the advert aims to draw on this rather hazy popular understanding of the “apocalypse,” for those more familiar with religious ideas, it creates a wonderfully bathetic juxtaposition: on the one hand Kate Moss clutching her lipstick (possibly) with misplaced confidence and, on the other, the Apocalypse.
Recently, I was answering an editor’s queries on an article in which I discussed this advert; “isn’t it supposed to be funny?” he asked (forthcoming 2014). Now, that I look at it again, I’m not sure. My first impression was that Kate Moss’s pout looks all too earnest for the ad to be knowing, part of the po-face of Blairite Brit-pop (which, incidentally, is the name of a mid-blue nail polish, also sold by Rimmel and one of ten colors specially “created” by Kate, her roundy-written signature slanting across the bottle). But the brand promises to be “witty, edgy and street-wise”; maybe we are supposed to laugh. See what you think. The more I consider the disproportion between Kate or her lipstick and the Apocalypse, the more medieval, even the more Chaucerian, it begins to look. Contrasts of scale are what the gothic aesthetic did so well, presenting the human subject, with her many worldly preoccupations, as a total object, dwarfed by and carried along in the grand sweep of time.
Memorably, the medievalist C. S. Lewis excluded his character Susan Pevensie from his fictionalized holy land at the end of his Chronicles of Narnia books; newly and exclusively interested in “nylons and lipstick and invitations,” she is no longer a “friend of Narnia” (The Last Battle, chapter 12). Whatever he intended in this episode – and the debate goes on – he at least disapproves of lipstick, if not adult female sexuality. Medieval women did, of course, use make-up, although I’m not sure that they wore lipstick as such. There is evidence, at least, of skin whitening and cheek reddening (Woolgar, The Senses in Late Medieval England). Whitening the skin would have had the effect of making the lips appear redder, and it is not a huge leap in a beauty regime to apply rouge to the lips; I think I’d try it. In medieval literature there are, of course, those voices which rejected female cosmetic fakery, as Lewis did (see Cowell, Exemplaria, 1999); but there were also others which more fully and less prejudicially pondered the question of whether salvation was possible for the ethically “mediocre” (Watson, Religion and Literature, 2005) or “fallible” (Minnis, Fallible Authors) – a category into which “lipstick”-wearing women like Susan Pevensie or Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, for example, might fit. Of all The Canterbury Tales narrators, Alisoun seems the least qualified to ask the Canterbury pilgrims and, by extension, Chaucer’s readers about their readiness for the Apocalypse and yet her Prologue is a thorough-going engagement with Pauline eschatology. She shares a fragment with the Summoner and, more pertinently, the Friar and yet neither of them is so scripturally preoccupied. The eschatological rhetoric of calling in her Prologue (which I have discussed in more detail elsewhere; SAC 34 ), and the spiritual message at the heart of her Tale – about the gentillesse imparted by the example of Christ, isn’t picked up again until the more evidently earnest, but nonetheless still ambiguous Parson’s Tale, a text which also provokes us to ask whether it is supposed to be funny.
Chaucer and his contemporaries were writing in the context of a high-end fashion for apocalypse sequences (Nolan, The Gothic Visionary Perspective). This fashion was driven by the color and the wild visionary power of the Johannine book as much as anything more theoretical or interpretive. The apocalypse tapestries at the Castle of Angers ((Maine-et-Loire, north-western France), for example, commissioned by Louis I, duke of Anjou at the end of the fourteenth century, borrowed and trumpeted a devastating confidence from John’s visions of destruction and renewal.
The front of the tapestry is faded but the back retains the vibrancy of its initial colors: the end of color as the Middle Ages knew it. Whilst some of the panels are expected to depict desolation and privation, like the panel ostensibly illustrating famine, the artist, choosing luxury over realism, is unable to resist making the vegetal background verdant and lush.
Despite the military and political authority and extraordinary wealth that a piece of work like this articulated, worldly patrons like Louis, nonetheless, took a risk: they might try to borrow the power and definitiveness of Revelation but they might accidentally come off looking small, puny, overly-attached to the colors and fashions of this world, indeed even comic in comparison. Presumably, a piece of this size and scale was not wholly a private one and there might have been people who were able to contrast Louis’ indifferent military and political achievements with the great narratives of a Babylonian civilization brought low and the making of a bright, new and perfect city, and who were able to contrast the claims of a temporal lord, albeit one with a fantastic tapestry, with the great and final shattering of time itself.
Perhaps there were people, in Chaucer’s own time, as perhaps there are today, who believed that some – the duke of Anjou, perhaps – were saved just by virtue of their high estate. No-one would make that mistake in an assessment of Alisoun of Bath. Chaucer brings eschatological comedy down the social scale when he gives it to his Wife: not a lord, not someone from the clergy, but a woman and one who is self-confessedly imperfect: attached to the world, its brightest colors, and most beautiful fripperies. When Kate Moss asks us about our readiness for the End, she might be the female protagonist imagined in The Wife of Bath’s Tale, speaking as in the pillow-sermon but looking as she does after her faery transformation. The Rimmel advert might have been dreamed up by the Wife of Bath: it fits with her fantasies and articulates her concerns. Although Alisoun’s ethical practice is obviously in error, it seems to me that her Pauline eschatological theory is correct, and particularly in the way that she turns it against the argument she found in Jerome’s Adversus Jovinianum, that only those who lived in ethical perfection would be saved. In fact, she reminds her audiences, “God clepeth folk to hym in sondry wyse” (102) and, as Paul himself had urged, she commits herself to remaining in that calling to which, and in which she has been called: “In swich estaat as God hath cleped us / I wol persevere” (147-8) she says, paraphrasing 1 Corinthians 7.20.
There were others, in her own time, who would have agreed with her. Richard Rolle, for example, wondered what would happen to the “inperfite” – by which he means those not governed by religious regulae who “erre noghte disposed to contemplacyoune of Godd”. Like those perfecti whose lives were governed by religious rule, the “inperfite” are also called, he concludes, although they may expect a “lawere mede” [lesser/lower reward], being the “frendis” rather than the “derlynges” of Christ (English Prose Treatises, ed. Perry, p. 45). Of course Rolle did not perhaps envisage this “lawere mede” being extended to such obvious and self-confessed miscreants as Chaucer’s Wife. Indeed, her acknowledged adultery and lustfulness might make her authority on eschatology (or anything else) seemingly easy to dismiss, except that she might be read another way, too.
If one were called by God, how might that call come? I don’t mean how might that call come to the Wife of Bath, who says that, despite her deafness, she has heard her calling; I mean to others, the Canterbury pilgrims or Chaucer’s readers, perhaps. They might be called, as St Paul was on the roadside, by God himself, in an unmistakeable, direct address: “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” (Douay New Testament, Acts 9.4). Equally, though, God’s call might be received in more unlikely locations, interrupting some humdrum chore or worldly recreation. The Parson says he won’t fall into that trap, hearing his call continually and while he conducts all his quotidian activities: “whan I ete or drynke, or what so that I do, evere semeth me that the trompe sowneth in myn ere: / ‘Riseth up, ye that been dede, and cometh to the juggement’” (159-60). The parenthetical “or what so that I do” is typical of Chaucer’s use of euphemism, having already evoked the alimentary process, he encourages his readers to imagine the Parson at the other end of it: on the loo. Church bells or a sermon might be expected sources of a divine call, the pilgrimage route to Canterbury a likely location, but equally one might be called whilst out shopping, watching TV, or on the toilet, by an “imperfect” person, perhaps by a woman wearing lipstick or scarlet “hosen” (GP, 455), out of an earthy comic fiction or the evanescent world of advertising, in ways that don’t look serious and which are difficult to credit. If God were to use such improbable channels – and he could – his calls might be underestimated or mistaken for temporal sounds, the fragmented claims of the world pulling on easily diverted attentions.
Our students will be pleased to know that for people in the Middle Ages, one response to the impending Apocalypse was to laugh. Whilst the Apocalips ad looks like the antithesis of Gothic religious art and culture, popularly assumed to be forbidding and chastening, actually it unwittingly discloses its ludic spirit, evoking the End as so big and ultimate that it makes everything else – me, you, the duke of Anjou, Kate Moss, everything – look funny. We live modernity as it was imagined in the Middle Ages. In the playful modes of late-medieval art the funny, bright, cosmetically-enhanced world could all along (but equally might not) be the medium of the divine message. Chaucer could invent an outrageous character, make her a party “girl” enamored of the latest beauty products, give her a conspectus of outrageous opinions, and yet, at the same time, never rule out the chance that she, and/or her human author (made disreputable by association), might be God’s colorful, lipsticked mouthpiece for that most serious of questions: “are you ready for the Apocalypse?”
Cowell, Andrew. “The Dye of Desire: The Colors of Rhetoric in The Middle Ages.” Exemplaria 11 (1999): 115-39.
Davis, Isabel. “Calling: Langland, Gower and Chaucer on St Paul.” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 34 (2012): 53-97. [See for a fuller bibliography]
Davis, Isabel. “Histoire et poésie: la Femme de Bath de Geoffrey Chaucer et la comédie de l’allégorie eschatologique.” Cahiers électroniques d’histoire textuelle du LAMOP (forthcoming; 2014).
Minnis, Alastair. Fallible Authors: Chaucer’s Pardoner and Wife of Bath. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2007.
Nolan, Barbara. The Gothic Visionary Perspective. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1977.
Richard Rolle. The English Prose Treatises of Richard Rolle de Hampole, ed. George G. Perry, EETS 20. London: Trübner, 1866, revised 1921.
Watson, Nicholas. “Chaucer’s Public Christianity.” Religion and Literature 37 (2005): 99-114.
Woolgar, Christopher M. The Senses in Late Medieval England. New Haven: Yale UP, 2006.
Isabel Davis is Senior Lecturer in Medieval and Renaissance Literature in the Department of English and Humanities at Birkbeck College, University of London.