Tuesday, January 22, 2013

I seek unlucky Fridays in Chaucer and find none

At New Year, traditions about unlucky 13 set me wondering how far back we can trace superstitions about Fridays. I noted that numerous websites concerned with this question trace negativity about Fridays back to the 14th century, citing Chaucer's line "and on a Friday fell all this misfortune”.

The Nun’s Priest and Chauntecleer and the fox. Source unknown
I've now checked this. I find that all these websites have copied each other, and all are wrong. Chaucer mentioned Fridays twice in the Canterbury Tales (so far as I can tell) and in each case, what he stressed was not the day's unluckiness, but its association with Venus.  In medieval astrology each of the planets had a special influence upon a given day of the week. Venus’s day was Friday. (Which is more apparent in Romance languages, where the name of the day comes from Latin Veneris dies,  eg French Vendredi.)

The line "and on a Friday fell all this misfortune” occurs in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale. The misfortune in question is the cockerel Chauntecleer being taken by the fox. The whole tale is a mock epic. The randy seven-wived Chauntecleer is dubbed a devotee of love goddess Venus; and Friday being the day the misfortune fell is the occasion of mock tragic irony, that Venus should have brought her devotee low on her very own day.

Friday also crops up in the Knight’s Tale. Here it's the changeableness of Venus that is paralleled to the changeableness of Friday weather and the changeableness of lovers’ moods.

Chaucer does mention that an earlier author had something to say about Fridays. That was Geoffrey de Vinsauf, writing in the early 13th century, about 170 years before. But I've checked, and the same applies. It's the Venus connection that interested Geoffrey de Vinsauf. Nothing else.

Now none of this actually proves that these authors were unaware of the unlucky Friday tradition. I suppose it’s just conceivable that the unluckiness of Fridays was such a well–embedded idea that it didn't need saying. But I don't think that’s likely. Were it so, I should have expected some mention to creep in, with perhaps a pious reference to Good Friday.

My conclusion: according to my very superficial research, 1592 is the earliest mention in English of Friday being unlucky.

Here are the Chaucer Friday references in case you want to check them.

So what of Friday the 13th?

The special unluckiness of Friday the 13th is even more recent. According to Dick Harrison, professor in history at Lund university, it can at the earliest be found in the mid-1800’s, and spread into popular consciousness in the early 1900’s. The idea won approval especially in literature, for example, in Thomas L. Lawson's novel Friday, the Thirteenth (1907), dealing with panic among stock brokers on Wall Street. In recent decades, we have developed a myth around Friday the 13th by looking back in history in search of various accidents that are said to have occurred on that date. One of the latest additions is the finding that Friday the 13th was the day Philip IV of France attacked the Knights Templar.*

It's the antiquity illusion: the illusion that a recent notion is sanctified by ancient tradition. The opposite of the recency illusion we find in linguistics.

Finally, in medieval theology 13 actually had a positive aspect, according to Encyclopedia Britannica online. This was due to being the sum of 10 + 3, Commandments plus Trinity.

* in Svenska Dagbladet 13th April 2012. See also Wikipedia

1 comment:

  1. I searched for the word 'Friday' in your 'Chaucer Friday references' document, and noticed that the word occurs 13 times. Now that is spooky. ;-)