In a remarkable passage in the Book of the Duchess, the Man in Black, asked by the Dreamer to tell him about his sorrow so that he may help to remedy it, politely refuses any such assistance, but offers instead a portrait of his grief as something which, conversely, may be of help to the Dreamer.
But whooso wol assay hymselve
Whether his hert kan have pitee
Of any sorwe, lat hym see me....
And whoso wiste al, by my trouthe,
My sorwe, but he hadde rowthe
And pitee of my sorwes smerte,
That man hath a fendly herte;
For whoso seeth me first on morwe
May seyn he hath met with sorwe,
For y am sorwe, and sorwe ys y.
(BD, ll. 574-76, 591-97)(1)
Chaucer's Book of the Duchess contains numerous borrowings from the love visions of contemporary French poets, but these ten lines are not among them.2 Of all the poems which may have provided models for Chaucer in dealing with the pains and sorrows of love, none presents a sorrowing figure in such detail and in such a central position as the portrayal of the Man in Black, which has rightly been called a "symbolic picture of grief".(3) The features of this sorrowing figure are conventionally recognizable: his black clothes, his extreme pallor, his self-absorption and listlessness, all are traditional signals of a melancholy or sorrowful state of mind.(4) Some details are drawn from the Romance o the Rose, from the personification of Sorrow outside the enclosure of the garden of Mirth: this provides the sorrower's bloodless colour, the motif of inconsolability, and the assertion that the hardest heart would have been moved to pity.(5) But the particular details which are so striking in the passage just quoted--the sorrower's presentation of himself and his pain to the observer's view, and the first-person appeal to the observer's pity--are derived from a source which makes uniquely powerful demands upon the emotions of the reader: traditional representations of the sufferings of Christ.
The liturgy of Holy Week contains a rich store of affective images of Christ's suffering, and one which seems to have been especially influential was the verse from the Lamentations of Jeremiah: "O vos omnes, qui transitis per viam, attendite, et videte siest dolor similis sicut dolor meus" (1, xii; Vulgate text). It was sung four times during the offices of Good Friday and Holy Saturday according to the Sarum Use.(6) The words were attributed to Christ, speaking from the cross. Translated into English they were used frequently in lyrics, sermons, and drama: a representative example occurs in the fourteenth-century sermon collection, Fasciculus Morum:(7)
A, 3e men Pat by me wendenn,
Abydes a while and loke on me,
3ef 3e fyndenn in any ende
Suche sorow as here 3e se on me.(8) In every case Christ makes a person appeal to Man, to pause, behold, and acknowledge His supreme grief. His sorrow is offered as a standard by which all other pain may be measured. There is a clear parallel with the words uttered by Chaucer's Man in Black presenting his "sorwes smerte" to the observer as a definitive example of sorrow.
Fourteenth-century lyrics use this complaint of Christ in a devotional, meditative manner, requiring the reader to make a visual response to the text. Again and again the reader is asked to "behold," "look," "see" the sorrows and pains of Christ.(9) In some fifteenth-century manuscripts this demand that the reader visualize the sufferings of Christ is provided for by accompanying illustrations of the crucified redeemer, or of the wounds of the Passion, or of jesus as the Man of Sorrows;(10) but already in lyrics of the fourteenth century it is assumed that the reader will have at hand, or can imagine, some well-known, conventional representation of the suffering Christ.(11)
Several poems make reference, in a clearly visual way, to the "armes" of Christ, the emblematically presented instruments of the Passion traditionally known as the Arma Christi. A lyric from Friar John Grimestone's commonplace book begins with these demonstrative lines: "Behold thu man her myth thu se / The armes that I bar
for the," while another enumerates some of the "armes"; "he nailes he scourges, & he spere, he galle, he hornes sarpe".(12) The first person complaint together with the visual details in these poems present to the reader an image of Christ surrounded by the instruments of the Passion, an iconographic scheme that was widely known in Europe in the fourteenth century, and can be seen in stained-glass windows, in paintings, and in manuscript illuminations.(13) An illustration of the Arma Christi from Omne Bonum, an English encyclopaedia dated c. 1360--1375 (plate I), is interesting because as well as an image of Christ crucified, the design incorporates one of the earliest appearances in English art of the motif of the Man of Sorrows.(14) The fourteenth century, indeed, saw the beginning of a huge expansion in the use of devotional images in the West, as to ancient types such as the Madonna and Child and the Crucified Christ were added others: the Pieta, for example, the Wound in Christ's side, and the Man of Sorrows, images which enabled the faithful to visualize and realize for themselves the sufferings of Christ's Passion.
Chaucer's Man in Black also asks the observer to "see" him, and the poem gives us a clear and detailed description from which to construct a mental image of this exemplar of grief. One detail, however, stands out from the dreamer's observations on the appearance of the Man in Black as different in kind, and within the fiction of the narrative as perplexingly incongruous. The dominant detail in this knight's appearance is his black attire, to which the dreamer makes repeated reference (ll. 445, 457); this provides a visual, symbolic image of a grief-stricken state of mind, which is further suitably expressed in the pale colour of the figure (l. 470). The dreamer then launches into a detailed physiological explanation of the knight's bloodless pallor, concluding:
and that made al Hys hewe chaunge and wexe grene And pale, for ther noo blood ys sene In no maner lym of hys. (ll. 496-99; my emphasis)
This is a strangely inappropriate expression to use in a description of a man who is "clothed al in blak" and in line with contemporary knightly costume could not be revealing more than his face and hands. Chaucer invites the reader just momentarily to imagine the black knight as a naked, bloodlessly pale, sorrowing figure: a perception which cannot, of course, be assimilated directly into the picture of the "wonder wel-farynge knyght" (l. 452) drawn by the rest of the dreamer's description. However, if in adapting the "O vos omnes" appeal of Christ to Man for use in a secular context expressive of superlative grief, Chaucer had in mind an accompanying visual image of the suffering Christ, then the pallor of the whole body would become a highly significant element in the description, in accord with rules not of verisimilitude, but of iconographic appropriateness. The Man in Black could thus be seen as a secular version of the Man of Sorrows.
For the most part this motif does not appear in English visual art or religious lyrics until the fifteenth century, but the interesting lyric of the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century known as "Quia Amore Langueo" already presents us with a speaking Man of Sorrows image of remarkable complexity, in a manner which compares strikingly with Chaucer's portrayal of the Man in Black in the Book of the Duchess.(15) As Douglas Gray has pointed out, the man who speaks the complaint in this lyric at first appears to be "like a sorrowing lover such as the Man in Black," but as the details of his wounds are revealed, the image of the Man of Sorrows "begins to emerge."(16) The narrator notices a hill to which he is drawn by the sound of a voice "In huge dolour complaynynge":
Upon this hil I fond a tree, Undir the tree a man sittynge; From heed to foot woundid was he-- His herte blod I sigh bledinge. A semeli man to ben a king, A graciouse face to loken unto; I askide whi he had peyninge. He seide, "Quia amore langueo". (ll. 9-16)
Though the dreamer's encounter with the Man in Black in the Book of the Duchess takes place within a wood, the moment of discovery isolates the Man in Black in an attitude exactly like that of the man on the hill in "Quia Amore Langueo":
I was war of a man in blak, That sat and had yturned his bak To an ook, an huge tree. "Lord", thoght I, "who may that be? What ayleth hym to sytten her?" Anoon-ryght I wente ner; …