Using Bergman’s The Seventh Seal to Teach Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

James Dwyer (Huron High School)

From the very beginning, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal(1957), like Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, is directly concerned with binary pairings, oppositional forces, and adversarial relationships — playful and otherwise. The film’s opening shots show us the sky and sea, the sea and the shore, the dagger and sword of the squire and the lord, the black and white pieces and squares of the chessboard — the playing field of life and death. In one of his earliest lines, Max von Sydow’s Antonius Bloc utters an oppositionally qualified admission of fear when he owns that, in the face of Death, “My flesh is afraid, but I am not.” The film is often seen as an allegory for man’s search for meaning in a world in which God is distant, if extant; and of course, this is in part true. Others have seen in the film a more modern allegory, in which the nameless plague that stalks the land is a shadow of the grim spectre of nuclear war that hovered over the world in the decade of the film’s production. This too is not without merit as a claim. Yet, when paired with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, it seems clear that The Seventh Seal, in addition to these concerns, is also deeply preoccupied with the very purpose and function of art itself. To borrow some terms from Horace, should art teach us, or delight us? Can it do both effectively? We see this binary opposition also in the criteria Chaucer’s Host, Harry Bailey uses for the story-telling contest: “And which of yow that bereth hym best of alle –/That is to seyn, that telleth in this caas/Tales of best sentence and moost solaas –/ Shal have a soper at oure aller cost.”(General Prologue, Lines 796-799). High school students who’ve been guided through the structure of Chaucer’s elaborate puppet show can see how all stories (all movies, all books, even all teachers) have elements of “that which is instructive” and “that which is pleasing.” Bergman’s film helps reveal to my students the essential modernness of Chaucer’s project and disposition. The Seventh Seal also reveals that the function and purpose of art is essential to the very living of life itself.

I begin my Chaucer unit by outlining the frame narrative and emphasizing Bailey’s criteria. After reading the famous first 20-odd lines, discussing the nature of the pilgrimage in general and the Canterbury pilgrimage in particular, we carefully read Bailey’s guidelines and discuss the key terms: sentence and solas. I tell them that we’ll use these terms as we discuss and consider each of the tales, and that we as readers will pick our own winner, on the final exam, and use these criteria to defend our choice. The first tale they read on their own is “The Franklin’s Tale.” This story is an easy crowd pleaser (as befits a man of the franklin’s social ranking — a point I’ll embellish in discussion) and invites, literally, the audience to debate and consider the various merits each character represents. Students will respond to a short prompt at the beginning of class which echoes the Franklin’s question: Which one of these seemed the most noble and generous to you? The following day, I’ll perform a dramatic reading of the oh-so-dangerous “Miller’s Tale” and the students can hardly believe what they’re hearing. Their surprise that such an old piece of literature should be so laugh out loud funny is balanced after the fact by the almost astonishing realization that, filled with solas as it is, the tale is also filled with various kinds of sentence. Chaucer’s stories are of course famously fun and funny, but the experience of reading Canterbury Tales in an Humanities literature course is greatly enhanced when the game of the contest is emphasized, when the rivalries and competitive oppositions are explored, and when “earnest games” are taken seriously, but not too seriously.

Bergman, strangely, has a reputation for being depressing, even dour in outlook, though I would argue that The Seventh Seal belies that claim. The Seventh Seal is rich in humor which is genuine and deep (especially involving Jons the squire, Joseph the actor). Wry old Death is not above a droll witticism or knowing eye brow wrinkle. Despite the Grim Reaper’s victory in the game, this film is still powerfully life-affirming. Like Chaucer’s Canterbury TalesBergman’s film moves from the esoteric to the mundane: from Bloc’s philosophical quest to experiences of the actors. We are struck early on with pronounced oppositional elements wrought into a single event. Joseph has had a vision (in the great medieval dream vision tradition) of the blessed virgin and child. When he goes to tell his lovely young wife Mary she is unconvinced at first, though he protests: “A vision. It was quite real!” Joseph’s dream that is more than a dream is a paradox like Bloc’s statement that his body is afraid of death, but that he himself remains unafraid. On the face of it, these statements don’t make sense, yet they are truths. It’s just as Jons the squire observes to the church painter: “Whichever way we turn, our backside’s behind us.”

In fact, it is this conversation between Jons, the film’s earthier, lowbrow philosopher and the church painter that first introduces the centrality of the artist’s need/struggle to balance sentence and solas. As he paints a procession of flagellants and plague-related funeral pyres, the artist is asked, “Why not paint something bawdy? The people like it better.” But, in times of uncertainty, people are afraid, giving their money to the priests, who can then offer to commission the artists. The painting of the procession suggests the edifying role of art, here used as the Church’s instrument to remind a community to “get right with God.” In contrast, the troupe of actors attempt to divert people with their silly songs and dumb shows. But their spectacle is overshadowed by the parade of flagellants. Nevertheless, even as this bizarre procession succeeds in sucking the joy out of the village, and throws a wet blanket on the troupe’s efforts at levity, not all are impressed with it. Jons pithily observes to his lord that, “They don’t expect modern people to believe in that sort of nonsense, do they?” But many do believe, and others take it to heart in some degree. The meal in the inn scene which directly follows Jons’s question illustrates this clearly. The negative energy of the overly wrought, sentence-laden quasi-ritual behavior of the flagellents climaxes when the corrupt thieving cleric bullies the actor and leads the angry smith to attack the actor in a jealous rage. With the image of the actor dancing on the table “like a bear” Bergman shows us a world where the artist and his art are degraded, and the world itself is turned into a kind of hell. Conversely, this rage, anger and cruelty will delightfully be transformed into playful insults and circuitous threats when Plog the smith eventually confronts the real wife-stealer. We even get to laugh at the death of this wife-stealing actor when he encounters Death in the woods, Death’s most mischievously playful scene in the film.

Like Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale,” The Seventh Seal allows the body to do the talking in this film. In the amusing seduction scene between the other actor and Plog’s wife, Bergman’s playful use of animal noises and sounds create a comedic high point. Scenes like this, much like the climax of the Miller’s Tale, delight youthful audiences often expecting to see flagellation, not flirtation, “back in the day.” There are of course several other key sentence and solas moments in the film: the dialogue with and burning of the witch, the overly-dramatic death of the thief in the woods, Joseph’s vision of the knight playing chess with death, the knight’s wife’s reading of Revelation. Any of these provide fertile ground for post-film discussion with students. Bergman’s film itself can be discussed according to the parameters of Bailey’s criteria: How does it teach? What does it teach? How effectively does it do so? How does it entertain? How effectively does it do so? I know that Bergman’s film entertains my students, since each year several will tell me that they’ve forced their parents and families to watch it again with them. And indeed, though many students will initially react poorly to the prospect of reading subtitles, once they get into the swing of it, the power of the acting and directing take hold and the rest is easy.

I want to conclude by going beyond my thematic analysis to suggest that Chaucer’s Canterbury world can be seen in The Seventh Seal in other ways, too. Characters like Chaucer’s truthful conman, the Pardoner, or the sentimental, bigoted Prioress could exist comfortably in Bergman’s medieval world. Both texts offer us a vision of a world in which contradictions exist side by side, very similar, in fact, to our own world, in our own time. This is perhaps the most powerful realization that the student can have: Bergman’s so-called “medieval film,” like medieval literature, cannot escape the problems and concerns we still grapple with in the so-called modern world. We are no more complex, confused, hopeful or despairing than past generations ever were. The problems and endeavors of humankind, including our ideological struggles in a world charged with binary opposition, are, like the work of Chaucer and Bergman, truly timeless.


James Dwyer teaches Humanities Literature at Ann Arbor’s Huron High School, where he has taught since 1997. He has a Master’s degree in Literature from Eastern Michigan University and is a pre-screener for the Ann Arbor Film Festival.

Original Citation:  The Once and Future Classroom , Volume VIII, Issue 1, Spring 2010

NOTE: Links have been corrected and/or deleted.  The original “look and feel”  of the journal has been preserved as much as possible, but the original logos have also been removed.  No editing to the actual texts has been done since their original publication.

TEAMS: Teaching Association for Medieval Studies