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Chaucer's Friar: "Typet" and "Semycope"

From: The Chaucer Review
Volume 34, Number 3, 2000
pp. 317-343 | 10.1353/cr.2000.0012

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Chaucer Review 34.3 (2000) 317-343

In his General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer clothes Friar Huberd in a combination of garment signs surely chosen with satire in mind and then amplifies this costume sentence with systrophe, the rhetorical technique of "heaping up descriptions of a thing without defining it." The effect of these collective images is exceptionally strong. In this costume portrayal, Chaucer literally "spells it out" that anyone who could be fooled by such a friar's beguiling speech and merry manner would first have to deny the visual evidence of his dress, which flouts the fraternal ideal, and also refuse to give this image the name it deserves. Rather than utilize the standard antifraternal metaphor of "wolf in sheep's clothing," Chaucer's satire clarifies and delineates this Friar in a parade of fresh costume details, doubly damning him as a wolf in wolf's clothing, wearing the clearly recognizable garments of Greed that convey the signs of his vices, "covetyse," "doublenesse," and lechery.

Chaucer presents his description of the Friar's costume and accoutrements in two passages separated by twenty-six lines that recount his musical skill, his knowledge of taverns and their owners, his unctuous and successful prowess in begging, and his sporting on "love-dayes." The first costume passage describes the Friar's headgear (A 233-34) while the second (259-63) gives an account of his cloak. Following Chaucer's two-part division, this analysis of Chaucer's costume rhetoric, informed by examples from its historical and literary context, will deal first with the Friar's "typet" that is stuffed with knives and pins, then with his bell-shaped, double worsted "semycope," and finally with a consideration of their combination in one costume and in the costume rhetoric employed by Chaucer.

In the first costume passage of two lines, Chaucer's multifaceted image of Friar's tippet filled with knives and pins constitutes a description that can hold its own among the most scathing antifraternal commentary in medieval literature:

His typet was ay farsed ful of knyves
And pynnes, for to yeven faire wyves.

(A 234-35)

Since the fashion term "typet" has more than one meaning, we must first determine which of these was the most likely one behind Chaucer's choice of diction. A tippet is defined as a "pendant streamer from the hood or from the arm" or "a shoulder cape." If Chaucer meant "pendant streamer," he has given the Friar a garment that, by ca. 1387, was no longer in style. Such a garment would have signified vanitas, superbia, and by extension luxuria had it been worn by a friar, for example, in 1340 when it was fashionable; even worse, by 1387 it would have suggested a comparison with fools and jesters, in whose costumes tippets were standard features. However, it is not likely that this out-of-fashion layman's garment, completely unrelated to the fraternal habit, was the "typet" Chaucer had in mind, even though such pendants might offer a handy storage place for the Friar's knives and pins. "A shoulder cape," with a deep hood, is the more likely meaning for this "typet" since a hood is part of the standard friar's habit.

Highly significant for our analysis of Chaucer's costume rhetoric, Chaucer's employment of Huberd's tippet as a costume sign is a unique contribution to friars' costumes in the antifraternal literary tradition, ca. 1387. In earlier antifraternal poems, friars' habits and friars' love of fine clothing are often mentioned. The standard costume complaint against friars is that they have enlarged hems on their copes, meaning that they have used too much fabric and are therefore prideful. I have found no extant poem that mentions a friar's hood prior to Chaucer, although following him, in the fifteenth century, there is mention of a "grete hood" and a "tipet":

But if my cloth be over presciouse,
Jakke, blame the werer;
ffor myn ordre hath ordeyned
al in good mesure.
Thou axist me, Jacke, of my grete hood.
What that it meneth,
my scapelarie and my wide cope,
and the knottide girdil.
What meenith thi tipet, Jakke,
as long...

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