Steve Ellis, ed., Chaucer, An Oxford Guide
Oxford University Press, 2005
university Paris I Panthéon Sorbonne
This Guide is an enormous project in the publishing business, and yet at a very reasonable price. The editor, Steve Ellis, summoned the skills and knowledge of thirty-seven authors to write thirty-six chapters on Chaucer and his works. Just this dimension of the project is impressive. With such a variety of writers, we may understand the book becomes a presentation of the totality of what we may and can know or think about Chaucer, this monument of English literature and the English language.
Such a book targets three different audiences. First, university — and other — libraries who will buy such a book to display it next to Chaucer’s poems for their curious public. When we know how Chaucer was used in the popular film Seven, we can understand that a real fad may exist around this author, but a fad that needs some fuel to live on in, through and even in spite of Chaucer’s language and poetic style. Second, students who will, according to the poems they are working on or the topic they are studying, read some chapters, probably not all. These students will use the copies of the book they will find in their libraries. Finally, Chaucer or Middle English scholars, graduate students, and professionals, who will own the book for their regular work and read it all from cover to cover. We need to add to this first approach the fact that Chaucer has been for more than one century and still is the object of a battle from all kinds of people to make him available in highschool and university syllabi all over the world as a pillar of any English literature and English language programs, not to speak of the exploration necessary to understand the suspense of the film Seven, when studied in highschool classes. This explains the rather low price for such a heavy and even hefty book, and the rather unsophisticated tone and style of some of the chapters. This being said, we can enter the book itself.
It is divided into five sections that aim at covering the whole ground around Chaucer. First the historical context. Second the literary contexts. Third the Readings. Fourth the Afterlife. Fifth and last the Study resources. One formal remark before entering the matter of the book. There is no general bibliography. Each chapter has its own bibliography. This is a shortcoming because it is not easy then to navigate in this inexistent bibliography, and the chapter bibliographies are extremely repetitive. The index helps to find a reference, but only as a second-best procedure, and the reference you are looking for is going to send you back to several places in the book, and not necessarily and immediately to the real bibliography reference you may be looking for.
The second preliminary remark I will do here is that a glossary of Chaucer’s words might have been a good help, particularly for students. The quotations are, and that is absolutely needed to be so, in Middle English, but generally, they are not translated nor accompanied by some lexical notes. These quotations become difficult for people who are not Middle English scholars, or who do not have a Middle English dictionary at hand, or a translated version of the poems (translations that are too often very defective if they are in verse, and always un-understandable, hence insufficient, at the level of Chaucer’s real language, its phonology, its morphology, its lexicon and its syntax, all elements not studied in enough depth in this book. This book is definitely too light at the level of Chaucer’s language and poetics).
I will also here note a strange illustration. The illustration page 114 is oriented left side right or right side left as compared to the section of the same illustration used on the front cover as well as the other section of it used on the back cover. Such an intriguing dis-orientation or misorientation is a flaw in such a serious book.
After these preliminary remarks, I can enter the book itself. I will follow the chapters and the sections and make critical remarks along my reading, because each chapter has a different topic and author, thus all needing a particular approach.
Steve Ellis’s Introduction brings up an idea that is extremely provocative: “the culture of postmodernism finds much that anticipates it in Chaucer”. It is difficult to accept the idea of anticipation in history. An event might be the result of a previous situation or another anterior event, the latter event being the cause of the effect that the former is. But the event that came first cannot anticipate the event that came second, as if there were some consciousness of the second in the first. The use of this word “anticipate” implies some teleology of some kind and that is disquieting. This mental vision naturally leads to: “If postmodernism signals the death of meta-narrative — … — then Chaucer might indeed seem to be ‘postmodern’ “. In spite of the moralizing words “might” and “seem”, it is historically, hence mentally, difficult to say that Chaucer could be in any way “postmodern” since he even lived before what we now call the modern period. That is anachronistic to the utmost. That Chaucer might have been an inspiration to modern artists, writers or scholars, that is understandable, but the reverse movement is impossible since history is a constant and continuous flow in one direction only. But the great merit of this introduction is that it brings us directly and immediately inside the dilemma that is going to be ours all along: how can we assess the historical value of Chaucer and his poems without discarding or limiting the artistic potential of the poems, and the poems only.
First Part: Historical contexts
We are surprised by the plural of this title. There is only one historical context and there can’t be more than one even if that context is contradictory. We live in one time, in one place, in one social group and each one of these is contradictory and thus may look multifarious, but they are not. If we state they are multifarious then we freeze history because its evolution can only come from and through these contradictions, just as we freeze any possible meaning that can only come from a global analysis and not a scattered vision. That reminds me of Sartre’s image of the can of peas which is one as long as the can contains the peas. If we do not state the unity of each time-place-society seen globally (the globality of the time of course that could not take into account the southern hemisphere and the western hemisphere and a few other areas that had not yet been discovered by Europeans), then we cannot conceive of any historical dynamism, hence of any historical meaning. This approach does not say there is only one meaning possible for each time-place-society. But it says that there is no meaning possible if there is not a unified vision of a time-place-society containing contradictions that dictate its historical evolution.
Ruth Evans considers Chaucer’s life and at once tries to make clear that Chaucer’s life is important because it determines Chaucer’s work, if we follow what Michel Foucault calls, without necessarily agreeing, ‘the-man-and-his-work criticism’. So, she does explore Chaucer’s non-aristocratic gentile-ness. She does identify the ‘upward social mobility’ that characterizes the post-plague period; though she does not push the reasoning far enough. When a society loses something like one-third of its population within a few years or a couple of decades, it is quite obvious many problems are captured differently. Social mobility becomes a necessity to fill in the empty positions in the administrative professions. Though the feudal society could be seen as very frozen socially, in this period it is impossible to close up the elite groups and the noble class. But when the very society, in fact the very species, seems to be fighting for its survival, the actions that will ensure this survival of the species are no longer seen with any possible distantiation or even moral criticism: this society needs to produce children just like so many commodities, women have to produce as many children as possible, i.e. one a year or so, and procreation can no longer be limited in time and age: as soon as a woman can become pregnant she has to be procreationally productive. In such a society sex and love become neglected elements and even side-effects of what is essential: to repopulate the world if the world is not supposed to die. And what’s more the English crown gets entangled in the One Hundred Years’ War. In other words, in this chapter we do not get any kind of fleshy, concrete social and cultural vision of Chaucer’s life. Luckily, Ruth Evans turns to Michel Foucault’s theory of the author-function to approach the poet. But she imports the concept without adapting it to the concrete situation of the time. There cannot be anything looking like what Foucault calls an author in the 15th century, before printing. But Chaucer is a writer or a poet, and it is this function that has to be explored concretely in the 15th-century English society to understand the ‘author-function’ in those days. One element has to be kept in mind: the author is a character, a persona in society that has a function that may have little to do with the person and his real function and profession behind this author. As a person Chaucer is an administrative civil servant of the time, but as a persona he deals with the reality he sees and reflects/distorts in his verse in order to entertain in any positive or negative way a public that has to be defined. That is this reflection/distortion/entertainment that represents the function of the persona the poet Chaucer is in his society, beside or behind the person he is really, and in his mind it might be the reverse, the persona being the center and the person being the periphery. Though she is coming close to this re-evaluation of Chaucer I am harping at when she says: “Today’s academic Chaucer cuts a very different figure: cultured, cosmopolitan, elusive, and postmodern, he is more likely to be catching a plane to Renaissance Italy than tripping through a medieval English meadow”. This remark ignores both the author-function of the persona Chaucer the poet, and the reader-function of the persona/ae of the reader/s of Chaucer who may take him along onto the plane that might fly them to present-day Florence or present-day Sussex with their minds tuned onto the persona/ae of those who are going to try to get back to these old Renaissance, pre-Renaissance, post-plague times in the 15th century with the help of the poems by the persona Chaucer that they carry in their pocket like a book, in their mind as a recollection or knowledge, in their computer as a set of digitalized files. And yet her last sentence shows she feels there must be something along that line she does not identify entirely: “There are documents to find in the archives; there is historical work to be done, particularly on Chaucer as a man of letters; and the life-records will be resifted and reread with different political agendas, generating new meanings and making new and unforeseeable connections”. She feels the reader (critic, scholar or common) reads Chaucer from his own point of view and has the tendency to project this point of view into Chaucer, which means she is approaching the persona of the reader, and yet she aims at understanding the person Chaucer and not the persona Chaucer the poet, because she does not state the fact that the poems are a fixed, closed and frozen body of literary meaningful elements that cannot be changed and that have to contain the potential of any reading if these readings want to be in any way objective. Besides the persona of the reader and the persona of the poet, we have to state the ‘(could-we-call-it)-persona’ of the poem. It is a trilogy that is going to be missing all along this book. I have been a little bit long on the question because it is central, and it is visible from the very start that it is not captured at all by most of the authors and only approached or hinted at by a few. I am speaking here more as a linguist who knows that a message can only be understood if we capture and state the three elements that constitute (I use this word because it refers to a constitution, what the Germans call a ‘grundgesetz’, some rock bottom principle) a communicational situation: SPEAKER — MESSAGE — HEARER. The poet-persona encodes his/her conscious/unconscious meaning (determined by his/her impulses, desires and objectives within his/her vision and experience of his/her society and world) into the message that the reader-persona decodes or deciphers (determined as he/she is by his/her impulses, desires and objectives within his/her vision and experience of his/her society and world).
Let’s note the people who came closest to this approach are Umberto Eco, Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault, without forgetting Jacques Derrida, though we could and should quote here Freud, Jung, Reich, Lacan, Kenneth Burke, Julia Kristeva and many others, though I have the impression that over the last twenty years or so no true new breakthrough has been registered, and the present book shows how dead the dead-end is, or how blind the blind alley is.
S.H. Rigby scrutinizes the society and its politics. Starting from the three estates of feudal society, he analyses the consequences of the plague on these social structures. The gentle social class was only four percent of the population. Twenty percent of it lived on the profits of commerce. More than fifty percent of the population lived on wages. In 1377 two percent of the population (38,000 people including 2,000 nuns) were clerics, and the church-owned at least one-third of England and the tithes brought in ten percent of all forms of production or income. The Plague then had a catastrophic effect on such a society: food prices declined, and wages went up, and women managed to get some independence in this situation, though the author asserts it was only short-lived. Then the author evokes the 1381 revolts whose first and foremost demand was to abolish serfdom. Though this rebellion was crushed, and serfdom was not abolished, in 1500 serfdom had become virtually extinct. This enables S.H. Rigby to push aside the interpretation that Chaucer was an orthodox, conservative or even reactionary writer, in favor of the idea that “Chaucer’s own poetic achievement [strains] to achieve the polyphony of competing voices which gives the Canterbury Tales its veracity”. In the political field, the author is just as much inspired as in the social field. He analyses Edward III, the Hundred Years’ War and the deposition of Richard II. This leads him to show how in this period the concept of political authority appeared and started building up. The author lists the five principles along which the rejection of tyranny and deposition of the king was made possible in the Middle Ages: not being bound by law, endangering the security of life and property of subjects, ruling for his own personal gain and glory, refusing to listen to the counsel of wise and learned men, and being personally vicious and immoral (though no sexual accusation was retained), and the author reminds us that this was true for the elite of the realm, “England’s propertied elite who regarded themselves as the spokesmen of the entire nation”, which excluded most of the population. Then the author examines Chaucer’s poems to illustrate these medieval principles. The author could have insisted more on the social contradiction that these principles cover and even hide: most of the population is deprived of any rights, or at least of many rights, though deprived is not the right word: they have never had any civil rights and the few civil rights they may have are historically new. In other words, the vast majority of the population lived in a lawless situation, submitted to arbitrary decisions from the few who have authority in this society, the noble and the clerical elites, at times fighting against each other. In fact Chaucer is in a way very provocative for his time because some of his characters tell tales though in their society they have absolutely no rights, they are from the rightless lower stratum of the third estate, Plowman for example, though this plowman does not tell a tale. Would he have told one? Or would Chaucer not have challenged social order and social hierarchy? We will never know since we consider the Canterbury Tales are unfinished. But are they? The author’s conclusion, “In literary criticism, historical context can never provide us with a conclusion but, nevertheless, it remains the indispensable starting, point of our analysis”, is quite acceptable in its first premise, but is debatable in the starting-point-principle. Indispensable for sure, but the starting point certainly not. The starting point, if there is to be one which I doubt very much, is the poems themselves and the signifying linguistic, textual, semiological and symbolic structure(s) they contain. The historical context(s) are there to provide us with what the poems cannot be ignorant of and what the poems cannot know at all: in Chaucer’s poems the traveling of the pilgrims cannot be envisaged as being performed with any mechanical machine, because they did not exist at the time but it would be false to consider there were no roads on which to travel, even if these roads were not dual carriageways or motorways. It is quite clear when we do not know the author, or when the author is anonymous or unidentified because collective. But this could be seen as a pet-method of mine. More about such pet-methods or pet-principles later.
Ardis Butterfield approaches the concept of nation in the 14th-15th centuries. It is just unthinkable. The whole system is founded on allegiance and vassality, which meant conflicting loyalties most of the time. Then he considers the question of the language. He probably underestimates the weight of Latin, but he is right when he sees what we are going to call ‘national’ languages emerging, but not as ‘national’ languages but as ‘regional’ languages. English is even a more interesting case because it is the result of a second invasion after the Germanic invasions. The Germanic invasions did not produce a creolized language with Latin because Latin was not dominant at all in England at the time. But the Norman invasion did produce a creolized language, English, from the Anglo-Saxon vernacular languages under the influence or shock treatment of the imposition of French to the territory and population. But this does not create a ‘nation’ in Chaucer’s time. It may create a culture and the author here puts forward three elements constituting a cultural identity: the people and the feeling of living together and sharing some kind of common heritage; the language that is just emerging out of a bilingual creolizing situation; and writing that became the tool of education and cultural sharing. We will note that England had always been a special case in a way since it probably was the first country whoever translated the Bible into a vernacular language, viz. Anglo-Saxon in Bede’s time, that is seven centuries before Luther. We will note that Chaucer’s England is also plunged in that request to have a Bible in vernacular language. We will never emphasize enough the role of writing, and then printing, in the development of national identities and consciousness. Chaucer plays an enormous role in this domain because he codifies in a way the language of his time enabling written versions of some texts to circulate and be read and understood by thousands of people. Those who cannot read can of course listen, as it is so well said in the Book of Revelation (“Happy the man [sic, singular] who reads this prophecy, and happy those [sic, plural] who listen to him, if they treasure all that it says, because the Time is close”, Revelation, 1:3), or look at the carved capitals, the wall-paintings and the stained-glass windows to have their stories told.
C. David Benson considers London as it appears in Chaucer’s poems. In fact, that London appears very rarely. London, the city in which Chaucer lived all his life, is hardly mentioned here and there. Chaucer’s poems most often refer to a world that has nothing to do with the English metropolis of his time. The Cook’s Tale is an exception to this general image.
Jim Rhodes deals with a quite more important question, that of religion. It is difficult for us to understand today that Chaucer’s society, like all other European societies of the time, was a theocracy in a way. God was a central character, presence, concept and real being. The king got his power from God. Everyday has at least one saint. Religious festivities were giving social life a regular rhythm. All ancestral traditions had been reinterpreted and rewritten within the Christian dictate, and it is the right word to use: the Christian faith and the Christian Bible were dictated to the apostles or the prophets by God himself or his direct representatives: “This is the revelation given by God to Jesus Christ so that he could tell his servants about the things which are now to take place very soon; he sent his angel to make it known to his servant John, and John has written down everything he saw and swears it is the word of God guaranteed by Jesus Christ”. (Revelation, 1:1–2) And once again the stained-glass windows were the Scriptures of the people. The author mentions the debates going on at the time and the existence in these debates of vernacular theology, but he forgets to tell the fact that the Inquisition never had any influence in England. Religion was the only possible ideology and heresies were not a real problem. In fact, all debates, cultural, social, political, etc., took place within the religious ideology. That’s why we can say we had a real theocracy in those days, though we should insist on the political debate that is witnessing the slow emergence of the King as a person who is as formidable as the church and that will explain later on the easy constitution of the Anglican church. We are in the 14th-15th centuries already in that context: the king is king by God’s decision which puts him even higher than all bishops and archbishops and on equal footing with the Pope himself. We must understand that the independence of the crown from the catholic church and the sovereign’s position in the Anglican church, still to come, is entirely contained in the religious debate of Chaucer’s days. The author does not insist enough on this typical medieval theocratic ideology. He insists though on the common rites and rituals, with the saints, the Holy Virgin and Christ, but also on the encouraging attitude from the clergy for simple people to have a personal practice of devotion, though the books he quotes could only concern a narrow elite. Yet some popular and general events made religion the apex of all social life. He quotes the Corpus Christi, a feast or maybe even a festival dedicated to the Passion of the Christ with many of the cycle plays being performed on this occasion. Chaucer did write some devotional poetry, particularly to the Virgin. But Chaucer also reflects the mounting demand from Wyclif for example that all Christians should have direct access to the word of God and personal knowledge of the law of Christ. At the time the Lollards were very critical of some ecclesiastical practices and an echo of these Lollards can be found here and there in Chaucer, and here the author surprises us slightly: “neither the Church nor the clergy were resistant to change”. This is amazing and presented as a mounting truth due to new evidence coming up. This is an essential question because it would entirely explain the particular fate of religion in England at the time of the Reformation. All that to say that this chapter is essential and suggests more questions than it answers. But we have neglected the religious question long enough: we have to go back to it and try to understand its inner logic because it is the only logic these old centuries knew and had. We seem to forget that Descartes explains at the beginning of his philosophical works that his main intention is to prove the existence of God by demonstrating the scientific logic of the world, which is logical because divine and divine because logical. Even Descartes in the 17th century could not think science outside the Christian faith, the theological ideology.
Mark Sherman in his approach of Chivalry follows the emergence of feudal knighthood starting with Charlemagne. Strangely enough, he does not mention two essential events in Christian Europe in those centuries. First the powerful popular movement led by the church for what was called the Peace of God that pacified Europe by forcing these local knights to disarm against other Christians. This will eventually produce the Crusades to provide these knights with some war activity, but this time outside Christendom. Then he does not mention what is called the proto-industrial revolution based on the horse collar and the water mill (essentially), both technical developments carried by Benedictine monks. In both processes the church plays the leading role and the feudal system is transformed. It is the necessity to respect Sundays and religious holidays (the first time ever in humanity, or at least Christian humanity that men and women had days on which it was forbidden to work) that forced this society to look for mechanical work to replace human work, and this implied a vast social and economic change that imposed serfdom as the norm in the countryside, pushing away the small landlords or other economic organizations that prevailed after the fall of slavery along with the Roman Empire because of the necessity of a complete concentration on one objective: change working methods and agricultural techniques as fast as possible to make the religious reform itself possible. So, the crusades were not only “the first great movement of expansion and colonization by the Christian West”, they were also an outlet for the young vigorous fighting class, the knights. The author then insists on the emergence of troubadours, courtly love literature and “Western romantic love” as a consequence of this feudal order with the reference to the “Nine Worthies” as a form of mythology: three Biblical figures, King David, Joshua, Judas Maccabeus; three classical characters, Alexander, Hector, Julius Caesar; and three Christian and feudal representatives, Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfroi de Bouillon. Then the author turns to the Knight’s Tale and Troilus and Criseyde to show Chaucer’s own vision of this feudal ideology. In fact, we should insist on the distantiation that Chaucer represents from the standard version of feudal knighthood. But this side of Chaucer’s works is definitely a reflection of his real-world at a turning point in its history, most visible in the Parliament of Fowls.
Stephen Penn studies literacy and literary production. The main argument is that printing, that was still to come in Chaucer’s time, must be seen as the technical development that answered the emerging need for a new form of books to satisfy the needs of the newly developing literate class. Literacy spreads in Chaucer’s society and these literate people are no longer satisfied with readings and other oral presentations, though they cannot afford hand-copied books, and society as a whole cannot afford to multiply the copyists. Chaucer is the very proof of this movement towards an increased literate class by his use of the vernacular language of the country, which implies this literate class, though educated in Latin for sure, does not control their Latin well enough to use it as a vector of literary entertainment. It also shows the emergence of some “national” feeling or pride, answering in a way the same development in France or should I say in French, knowing that French is one of the languages of the English court, not to speak of Italian beyond with Dante and Boccaccio. Then the author tries to identify Chaucer’s circle of acquaintances and friends, which enables him to identify the ‘clerks’ as Chaucer’s closest audience, and among these, there must have been a Lollard presence and there was an important number of women. But the main idea remains that Chaucer could not reach out as much as he may have wanted, as his rather open style shows, because the printing press was still missing.
Donka Minkova studies Chaucer’s language. This study is very interesting because it clearly states that Chaucer’s poetry was perfect, at least for his time, if we consider the real language he was speaking, in its real phonetic and morphological dimension. This brings up two meters in Chaucer. The traditional tetrameter that corresponds to the continental octosyllabic tradition. And the iambic pentameter borrowed from the decasyllabic continental line, that will become a fundamental meter in English poetry. The author studies this meter in great detail to show how Chaucer invented it and reached perfection in his own poetry.
Richard Utz brings up the philosophical context, which is simple to identify with Chaucer since he translated Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, bringing this philosopher up to modern taste in the 14th-15th centuries. But Chaucer remained in the Augustinian tradition too, and his biblical exegesis seen as a multi-layered system of expounding the Bible: the literal level, the historical level, the spiritual level, the allegorical level, the tropological level, and the analogical level. What is important here is to understand that in the Middle Ages, and in the Augustinian tradition, divine beauty could be found in the world and developed in literature or any other form of expression (art for sure but not defined as such, rather defined as a way to express God’s intention in his creation) by observing and then imitating the stable equilibrium between all these levels and strata. Beauty, and the Middle Ages had that concept indeed, was to be defined as the both precarious and stable balance between good and evil, neither having any autonomous life, between various shapes and forms that all got their meaning from their possible associations and working together in order to create an image of God’s perfect creation. The rise of the Franciscan William of Ockham and of nominalism is seen here as a development of the previous tradition, though it opens a door by stating that this perfection in creation is a limit to God’s creativity: he could not do anything he wanted but he had to create the world within these forms and shapes and their equilibrium. This leads to two definitions of truth, one that depends on faith only and the other one that depends on human rational thinking to discover it in God’s creation. The Renaissance is already there, and Descartes is entirely contained in this emerging nominalism.
J. A. Tasioulas goes even further in this line with his approach of Science. From astronomy to astrology, from medicine to magic, Chaucer is well-read in these subjects and actually even wrote some pieces in these scientific fields of his time. Here Chaucer appears as one of these new literate people who are literate in all subjects, not only in one, be it the Bible or courtly love. The author insists on the presence of zodiacal signs and planets in Chaucer’s poems, but not as some kind of trick or bigotry, just as the reflection of his time: everyone literate referred to these approaches and zodiacal signs were often to be found in churches, particularly those under the influence of the Benedictines.
David Griffith deals with visual culture, and this subject is essential provided we understand that written literature and written literacy is of course visual. In Chaucer’s time, a new development of visual culture was in the oven with printing. The author concentrates on two dimensions of this visual culture: iconography and stylistic visual-ness. The author defines Chaucer as a Gothic poet, a poet that brings together individually complete elements in order to generate a total form by juxtaposition, what he refers to as a “checker-board of styles and approaches”, with two dimensions: the juxtaposition of autonomous elements like the squares on the checker-board but also the connections and relations among the pawns on the checker-board that builds a complete and complex game. The author identifies some common illustrations in Chaucer’s time, such as the dance macabre and the vulpine iconography (wolf and fox). Gothic art developed the decorating of all possible surfaces in churches with all kinds of paintings, stain-glass windows, etc., whose sole objective was to illustrate the Scriptures and develop devotion among the faithful. But this objective does not erase the artistic dimension as already defined. Then the author studies three visual dimensions in Chaucer: first the visual descriptions in the poems, then the images in the margins of the manuscripts and then the relations between the text and the images with the illustrations or illuminations integrated into the text itself. The conclusion leads to a fundamental idea in the Middle Ages: “For Chaucer and his contemporary’s visualization is a key to demonstrating the realities of the physical and spiritual worlds”. If you add the fact that all illustrations had the function of developing devotion and ethics among the faithful, you have the complete picture of these days, knowing that some ‘evil’ or ‘immoral’ pictures are necessary to balance the whole presentation since ‘good’ and ‘moral’ elements find their value in this balancing act. This gives a good dose of leeway to illustrators and illuminators.
Alcuin Blamires has quite a challenge on his hands when he deals with sexuality. The concept of sexuality is modern and has no existence in Chaucer’s days. The sexual instinct is in no way an autonomous human function. This idea will only appear in the 19th century and Foucault even considers it to be a modern concept. Even the word does not exist in the English language still in Samuel Johnson’s dictionary (1755). It is thus anachronistic to consider sexuality in Chaucer in its modern conception. Chaucer though has a clear idea of what gendered behaviors are. Male and female are associated respectively to heat, dryness and the right (side) on one hand, and cold, moisture and the left (side) on the other. The male is active and the female passive. This idea is central to the Middle Ages. The religious approach is Saint Paul’s: each spouse is sexually ‘owed’ to the other and they share a sexual ‘debt’. In spite of this marital equity, the male is seen as dominant and active, hence he can take any payment of his sexual debt any time, justifying thus the desire of the male as unrejectable for the female, though to speak of ‘marital rape’ is definitely too strong, and the result of the importing of a modern attitude into the Middle Ages. We must keep in mind that ‘raptus’ in the Middle Ages (Chaucer was connected to such a case) did not mean rape per se but abduction that could include rape. We must also understand that this is true only for the elite. Simple people, serfs, and servants, laborers of any type have no possible way to complain about something that is natural among them and unrefusable if it comes from a member of the elite. We must also add that in the Middle Ages they did not have any concept of child, which meant that children had no protection whatsoever and that pedophilia was just out of range and reach conceptually. Children were toys, even among the elite, and at the age of 12 or 13 the child had disappeared and transformed into a man or a woman. This explains the heavy preaching from the church against fornication. Sex was as natural as drinking or breathing and it was supposed to be taken by the active males whenever they felt like it. The church could only try to set this fornication into some kind of moral frame, just like drinking alcohol was also criticized. This leads the author of this chapter to the question of sodomy. This question is only valid for grown-ups. In fact, the biblical book Leviticus is very complex about such sexual subjects. A precise study should be done. Chapter 18 deals with incestuous sexual intercourse. Strangely enough the “you” it is addressed to is supposed not to have sexual intercourse (“uncover the nakedness”, 18:7) with “a woman who is closely related to you” (18:6). The only male considered in this chapter is the father, “uncover the nakedness of your father or mother” (18:7). This mention of a male in this chapter, even the father, is surprising since it is only women who are concerned, here, by incestuous sex as the target of some “you” that we assume to be a male. But we have to see that the chapter is absolutely explicit as for the woman status of these females, that is to say them being married to a member of your family, or them being of age for sex. Children are not concerned, and men are not mentioned, except the father, and the general rule: “You must not lie with a man as with a woman. This is a hateful thing.” (18:22). But the meaning is clear that a man is an of-age male just like a woman is an of-age female. This does not cover children, though daughters and sisters are off-limits, and they seem to be meant at any age. In other words, sex with children is not really covered by such rules. Alcuin Blamires remains at the surface of medieval things: obsessive heterosexual activity, rejection of effeminacy, and he comes to the remark: “Chaucer’s interest lay insistently in the ambivalence of the heterosexual drive endowed by Nature”. But we have to note his remark on the Miller’s Tale: “the savage penetration from the rear by Absolon’s red-hot plowing implement …, a symbol for Absolon’s phallus…” that Nicholas experiences, is seen as some kind of gay innuendo. We could and should discuss such modern interpretations that imply that such categories and concepts, like ‘gayness’ and ‘gay sex’, are and have been eternal. The least we can say is that anything that has to do with man’s sexuality is a historical construct and it has no permanence and no universality in time as well as in place. There is no reason to state that Chaucer’s sexual unconscious is similar to ours, though we have to admit that the text in its structure enables modern readers to invest their own phantasms at this level. But we cannot conclude Chaucer intended such a meaning which is beyond his own mental and intellectual historically defined and limited capabilities. Here we come across the necessity to differentiate the author’s constructed poem from the reader’s deconstruction and then reconstruction of what he/she considers as being the meaning of the poem.
John M. Ganim questions identity and subjecthood. It is difficult to speak of the individual in a society in which all relations are founded on rules of dependence or dominance. The author speaks of the “renaissance” of the 12th century. This corresponds to the passage from the Romanesque conception to the gothic one, from the vision of a Christian as one who has to follow a special horizontal progress from the world to God, from darkness to light, from the west to the east, along the nave of a Romanesque church, etc., to the vision of a Christian being vertically elevated by the gothic vault of the church as soon as he enters this gothic church, and what’s more directly from the south, from the side-porch, even at times moved from the west facade to the south side when practices changed at the end of the 12th century. It is no longer some collective or at least shared pilgrimage in the church but a personal at the most common feeling. The individual is getting some kind of autonomy. What is strange is that the author does not insist, as he should, on the real autonomy most of Chaucer’s characters have in their economic life and independence. All these characters are responsible for themselves economically in their society, though we cannot speak of economic freedom which will come later in history with the liberation of the economic markets. But this autonomy or personal responsibility that comes with commercial practices cultivates a certain desire for freedom in the intellectual field. Chaucer is one example, but his characters are just as many more. Hence the author is quite justified to study how Chaucer represents himself in his own Canterbury Tales, inventing thus a persona for himself in his fictional work, doubling the real author he is with a fictional author in the poem: Chaucer hence has two personae in the poem, himself and a representation of himself. And he does the same with most of his characters who become very often divided between what the world is and what the world could be, what they are in this world and what they would like to be in a different world. Chaucer is thus the great announcer of a change that is to come but that he cannot have the smallest inkling about. Here we do have Chaucer’s unconscious at work but at the level of social and historical change. And this can work because of the fact Chaucer reflects contradictions through his own contradictory vision and projects these contradictorily captured contradictions into a text which is just as contradictory as reality, and the text is then captured by an audience that also lives in a contradictory world that they catch through their contradictory visions. By not clearly defining the author and the reader and their respective societies and visions, and all the contradictions that haunt each sphere, we miss what is the highest potential of Chaucer’s poetry. Chaucer is not at all like an architect or a builder who adds his picture in a sculptural decoration in a church in these Middle Ages, as the author of the chapter says. He creates a reading potential that can, centuries later, grow out of his writing potentialities.
Bernard O’Donoghue opens tremendous doors in his chapter on Love and marriage. The real difficulty is that the English language at the time had no word for what was called love, courtly love, ‘amor’, on the continent. Chaucer had to tinker about with words that did not convey the same meaning or nuances. How can you be a love-poet if you don’t have the words for it? In the Canterbury Tales, the Knight’s Tale is typical of this difficulty. A precise study is necessary to differentiate and qualify the love of the two heroes, Palamon and Arcite, and to qualify the love of Emilye. Palamon loves a picture, a myth but does not really want to possess the woman, whereas Arcite only wants to possess her but does not love her in any other way. In fact, we can wonder if Arcite does not desire here just because Palamon loves her. We then get into a conflict between the two men and the object of this conflict is to realize, for each one of them, their masculinity, maleness, anthropo-gender-identity, Palamon through his mental and spiritual love for the idealized being of a woman, Arcite through his military, violent conquest of her physical being by defeating his opponent. In fact the author’s conclusion: “This warning that people in different ages and places love by different means seemed to fall on deaf ears in the twentieth century with reference to marriage as well as to love” does not capture the extreme present value of Chaucer’s reflection on love with a shift appearing in his poems from a purely feudal conquering approach, to a purely courtly-love venerating approach, and to an even newer (but is it really new or just a new dressing of an old conception?) approach in which love can hardly be considered as the key to marriage defined as some kind of economic asset (the future capitalistic approach of ‘love’) quite present in The Wife of Bath’s Tale for one example.
This section seems to reveal how we cannot get to a clear-cut conception of the author’s generating and creative process as opposed to the reader’s deciphering process, which is also a generating and creative process of its own. Chaucer, by setting a personification of himself in the Canterbury Tales, heavily hints at the fact that writing is one thing and reading is another but that both are both different and inseparable. This first section too often forgets the reader or at best projects into the text a modern interpretation without any clear distinction between the author’s creation and the reader’s re-creation that is only valid if the former contains the potentiality of the latter, if the poems created by the author contain what makes the re-creation of the poem by the reader possible. But what the reader re-creates is not what Chaucer created and we must clearly differentiate the one from the other, which this section of the book does not do all the time, and not very clearly at all.
Second Part: Literary Contexts
I will go a lot faster on this section. It is essentially an examination of various authors of Chaucer’s past or present and of the way he borrows from them and imitates them, with a strong emphasis on the changes he introduces, hence the new meanings he may have introduced.
Helen Cooper, Wendy Scase, Helen Philips, Nick Havely, and Valerie Edden respectively explore the classical background, the English background, the French background, the Italian background, and the Bible.
As for the classics, Chaucer had access to Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Cicero, Seneca, Cato, Livy, and Suetonius. But the classics also provided them with a rich and detailed setting for some of his tales or poems. The Knight’s Tale is one of the tales that owes tremendously to the classical age, which is also the pagan age, which is of course in contradiction to Chaucer’s Christian environment. The question of authority is crucial, the authority of the classical author that Chaucer will accept. In the case of Dido and Aeneas for example, Chaucer accepts the authority of Ovid who is on Dido’s side over that of Virgil who stands by Aeneas. But this is a false question really. Chaucer proposes a rewriting of classical themes and events and it is his poems that are interesting here, not whose side among the classics he took. It will be the same thing with the other backgrounds. Here the question is important because Chaucer himself and his contemporaries consider him as a poet of his own who has his own authority, is a second Virgil or a second Ovid.
As for the English background, Chaucer has little competitors or challenge or even heritage. In his time there is the opposition of verse versus geste, the latter a style Chaucer does not use much. He also knows preaching and religious drama, both being in vernacular English. He uses these styles when necessary. We can even find in his works some pieces that are theological or devotional following a tradition in England. The influence of Lollardy is more difficult to find, though his Parson conveys some of it. There is also another religious influence in Chaucer when he tries to teach female readers the value and advantages of virginity over marriage: virginity literature was common in those days. English romance did not have an important influence on Chaucer. ‘Sir Thopas’ is an example of such entertainment diverting people from moral and religious literature. The main attraction was the technique of oral vernacular narrative. In this tradition he finds Marie de France’s Breton lays that lead him towards a reevaluation of the role of women in romance and society. In his conclusion, the author regrets the fact that we hardly know any other works or any other authors from the Middle Ages: our knowledge is reduced to Chaucer. Why is it so? No easy answer and to say that it is the fault of the teaching institution is a little bit short. There must be some more complex answers having to do with the quality of these works and authors but also with our way of looking at the Middle Ages, the desire to systematically transfer and transpose the literary works we retain to our modern world. All medieval authors cannot submit to such a journey without losing something. Then the question is: why Chaucer can suffer such treatment without apparently losing anything or not too much, or he keeps at least enough value for us to read him and like him. But is ‘keep’ the right word?
Concerning the French background, the first element is the fact that in 1362 lawsuits shifted to English and in 1387 schools switched to English too. Hence French is declining in Chaucer’s time. Chaucer knows French literature quite well. He is influenced by their dream poems in which imagination is free and creative. He invests this style in poems in which other influences are visible. In the same way, he is deeply influenced by French romance or fabliaux. Reading some poems with the French influence in mind provides quite new interpretations. The French influence is multifarious. As we have seen it provides Chaucer with two meters he is going to adopt and adapt to the English language with great success. He also translated some French literature. Finally, he is influenced by the Roman de la Rose. That is why he is known as the ‘great translator’. “French literature-inspired some of Chaucer’s most sustained expressions of beauty, tragedy, satire, and humor”. And yet he is always himself and creative.
The Italian background is essential. In fact, there is some irony in speaking of the Italian background because Italy is not seen or experienced as one country at the time, but as several provinces, the Lombards are not the Tuscans, and each has their own languages. Chaucer knows three authors: Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch. Boccaccio is essential because he provides Chaucer with a model for his Canterbury Tales in his Decameron. But once again, Chaucer may have borrowed a lot, yet he made it his own in his own creative way.
The Bible is a completely different story because it is known by many, both the canonical scriptures and the apocryphal oral tradition. Biblical influence is always tricky, especially nowadays when people know these texts and traditions a lot less. Valerie Edden says for example: “Judith brought about the death of Holofernes through her cunning (apocryphal book of Judith)”. This declaration is not entirely false, but it is unclear, even for people who know the text well. Apocryphal, the Book of Judith? Maybe today for the Protestants, but what was the situation for the Catholics in the fifteenth century? The Book of Judith is definitely in the Jerusalem Bible. It was in the Vulgate, though modified. What’s more, the word ‘cunning’ is ambiguous. It could be seen as negative, though in the Book of Judith it has to be understood as positive. She saves Israel from utter destruction by destroying Holofernes, a pagan general coming from Nebuchadnezzar with the mission of destroying all those who did not support his king in a war that had turned out victorious. When compared with the presentation of Esther that follows, Judith is definitely badly described. “Esther used her position as queen to destroy Haman, the king’s chief officer, because of his hostility to the Jews”. (Esther 3–8) How can we summarize these women as “good and faithful wives … also deceivers”, especially when Judith is a widow? In the Middle Ages these women had to be admired because they put their people, Israel, hence their God, who is also in the common reading of the Old Testament by Catholics at the time the Christian God, in the foreground. So, this chapter contains interesting elements but it is too skimpy for a modern audience and misunderstanding, if not even misinterpretation may run in the text and in the reader’s reading of the text, and in spite of the following declaration, “medieval Christianity had many competing voices, responding to particular intellectual debates and particular circumstances in various ways”, the chapter does not provide us with a real picture of the diversity and also of the severe fight against a diversity considered as beyond unacceptable heretical limits. We must understand that England was not touched by the Inquisition, and yet that some limits existed in the field of religion and religious debates. This comes from the fact that the article is written too much from a modern standpoint. The conclusion borrowed from Lisa Kiser, “The only truth that emerges from Chaucer’s work, then, is that truth is impossible to ascertain”, is totally off the point. The truth is that there must be some balance between different approaches and visions. There is one truth that is built with balancing and contradictory elements. Lisa Kiser seems to have the illusion that there could be one homogeneous truth and only one. The truth is that the truth is not one but a unified-in-equilibrium multiplicity. That’s what Christian truth was in the Middle Ages, especially will I say in England where there was no Inquisition. So pagan and sacred elements could stand together especially since the apocryphal tradition made Jesus go down to hell to save Adam and Eve from damnation in spite of the fact that they could not be Christian at all. There could be good pagans before Christ because Christ had not come yet. Saint Augustine deals with that problem a lot since he started as a pagan rhetorician and philosopher, and Augustine is very close to the English, and Chaucer, since a second and later Saint Augustine is known as the Apostle of the English and was the first archbishop of Canterbury (601–604)
Third Part: Readings
This section is essential to understand the dilemma of today’s criticism when confronted with a man like Chaucer who is so much a man from his century and yet is so easily open to multifarious readings, including modern ones.
Elizabeth Robertson considers modern Chaucer criticism, from post-Victorian times to post World War II times. In post-Victorian times critics tried to reduce Chaucer to one single meaning with a difference between English and American approaches. Even when a man like John Matthew Manly offers two perspectives on Chaucer’s work, one a study of his use of rhetoric, the other a meticulous study of the historical backgrounds of Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims, there is no real multiple meaning. The rhetoric does not lead to a meaning but to the tools used to build the meaning, and the second approach is reducing the poems to a realistic approach of concrete characters, which can only produce one meaning: the sociological vision of the characters, Chaucer and his poetical style and imagination being erased in this process. When the author shifts to post Second World War critics she is confronted with another challenge. These critics are infused with “secular liberal humanism”, which means the critics are projecting into and onto the poems the ideological convictions of theirs, particularly the conviction that Chaucer’s characters, and Chaucer behind them, try to liberate themselves from their historical surroundings. This is amazing because this freeing of the self is not considered in its historical context. It is an abstract absolute. I have already touched this question and in the 14th century it is true that the individual self is coming of age and conquering some independence if not freedom. But it is only on the mental state and far from anything looking like freedom. It is some kind of thinking autonomy that remains within the limits of the only conceivable ideological frame of religion. And this newly appearing desire of intellectual freedom is prompted by something that has little to do with intellectual freedom, the economic development that has enabled a commercial elite to develop, particularly in England, but not only, and this economic elite is politically crucial in England because of the money they can summon in their hands, and the concentration of commercial interests the City of London represents (a City of London that is the first visit of William the Conqueror after his victory in Hastings and we know how Shakespeare is exploiting this City of London and their power in Richard III). This intellectual freedom will start blooming with the printing press and then in the Renaissance to finally come to completion in the 18th century with the Enlightenment. Then this intellectual freedom will be relayed by the economic freedom conquered at the end of the 18th century (slightly earlier in England than in the rest of Europe) with the fall of feudalism and the emergence of free markets (in the plural) which will bring up capitalism in the 19th century. But the freedom people like Charles Muscatine have in mind is the freedom of the individual subject. This freedom is historically dated too and can only develop when the individual has become a ‘free’ actor on the various markets, and this reshapes the subject bringing up the development of psychoanalysis with Lacan as the most mature approach of the individual subject. In other words, Muscatine’s reading of Chaucer is projective and not interpretative. Does Chaucer’s poetry justify and carry such a reading? Probably but it has to be presented as a reading of Chaucer and not the truth about Chaucer, the only true reading. This means the critics must take into account the trilogy AUTHOR — POEM — READER I have already spoken of. The reader is totally right when he projects his own interests in what he reads. In fact, he cannot read in any other way. It is the only objective and realistic method to read. The critics have to accept this and theorize about it. We then come to a multiplicity of readings, each one more or less supported by the text itself. This third section of the Guide is all about this but each particular approach more or less considers themselves as the acme of interpretation, whereas they should capture the idea that all readings are a reconstruction of the author’s intended meaning from the potentialities of the text and through the particular ideological, sociological and cultural convictions and interests of the readers.
This being said the other chapters of this section can be covered very fast. Most of them are each a presentation of particular approaches and the illustration of these approaches through a quick reading of Chaucer.
Gail Ashton considers feminism. She brings up the concept of ‘deconstruction’ which is essential in our ‘postmodern’ times. I will not argue whether it comes from Lacan, as Gail Ashton says, or from Derrida as Derrida claims himself. Deconstruction has to do with the unconscious. What is strange is that the author considers Chaucer’s unconscious and only his. Deconstruction means that the text is deconstructed in order to reveal not only the author’s unconscious but the confrontation of the author’s and the reader’s unconscious-es (if we can build that necessary plural). That is what is most bothering about these postmodern readings: they are all biased and yet they do not see that they are projecting their own unconscious into the reading, hence into the text, and they pretend they are discovering Chaucer’s unconscious or even the text’s unconscious which is the potential meaningful structures contained by the text and waiting for someone to come and interpret them along any line which these structures are more or less compatible with. If these readings are implying the involvement of the reader’s unconscious, that means the reader is projecting his/her impulses, desires and passions into the text. This is bothering many of these critics because they want to pretend their particular approaches are the revelation of rejected sides of the poems, of rejected unconscious impulses of the poet, never the revelation of their own personal particular impulses. When Gail Ashton writes about the Wife of Bath: “It is not the Wife’s words that are crucial but her voluble and bodily presence in the text(s) that constructs her”, as a conclusion on her previous remark that “its [the Wife’s repressed feminine] predominant quality is purely oral”, she distorts the Wife tremendously. First by qualifying her as oral she blocks her in the ‘oral phase’ of psychoanalysis, which is regressive. Second, she reduces her to a non-thinking being in her very femininity, which is at least sexist (feminism produces a certain type of sexism not against men but against women, and here we have a clear case). Third she neglects the Wife’s discourse which is at least regrettable because the words, the sentences, the similes and rhetoric used by the Wife do have a meaning and do imply that Chaucer, the poet, also had an intention, conscious or unconscious it does not matter, when he made her speak, especially since she is a pure creation of his own mind under the modeling influence of his personal, social and historical environment. Here we do find Lacan but with the simple idea that even women have what Lacan calls a “phallus” which is an “Ideal of the Ego” and not to be mistaken with the “penis” which is an anatomic appendix of the male. But it is this unknowing of Lacan and this mixing up of phallus and penis that brings up a tremendous limitation in these feminist approaches. The conclusion of this chapter, “Asserting the feminine”, is an interpretation of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath only if we consider the phallus to be a masculine attribute because it is reductively understood as the penis: “Insistently feminine yet constructed through the masculine, it is the Wife’s monstrous textual body rather than the words of a ‘real’ character that speaks itself through its body parts and through the sound it makes. Perhaps this assertion of the feminine is conservative in scope, its attempt to represent the unrepresentable — ‘woman’ — driving her back into nonsensical babble. But to read through rather than with the Wife (in other words, to read her as textual and not as a ‘lifelike’ character) makes us aware of how the repressed feminine exists within and not independently of the dominant masculine. What we deny or repress indelibly marks us [sic, who is ‘we’ and ‘us’?]. Like the monster, then, the Wife — or rather her shifting and excessive figuration — always returns to haunt us [sic again]”. That has little to do with Chaucer and the Wife and all to do with the very repressed dimensions of the author of the chapter. We have to come to the idea that we critics are authors like all others and that we project and realize our own repressed impulses in our very critical writings. This remark is valid for all the subsequent chapters in this section by just shifting it to the subjects of these particular chapters.
Marion Turner deals with Bakhtin and the carnivalesque. An interesting approach that shows Chaucer’s poetry can be seen as a carnival of the English society of his time, systematic trespassing of rules and limits in order to reassert them and cathartically liberate people from their repressed impulses. All this is interesting, but it is only one part of Bakhtin and it cannot be cut off from his linguistic approach of the literary text, an approach often attributed to the sole Voloshinov, viz. the text itself in its very words is crossed and animated by lexical and discursive meanings that represent and reveal the social — or even class — conflicts of its time, and it is this contradictory dialectic embedded in the text that enables readers of later times to project their own contradictory dialectics. This is in perfect unison with Lenin’s approach of Tolstoy in a couple of shorter texts by Lenin written before the First World War, which explains why Bakhtin could go through Stalinism without too much ado, which was not true of Voloshinov: he was surfing on the crest of the Leninist wave in his field. The carnivalesque is only one instance of this approach and no matter how interesting it is that is reducing Chaucer who is a lot more complex than just a carnival or, to seize another tradition of the type in the middle Ages, a Mass or Feast of Fools or Asses.
Barry Windeatt deals with postmodernism, and once again defines this approach more than explores Chaucer. I will not discuss this approach because it is not the object of this Guide nor of this review. Chaucer cannot be postmodern at all. This is an anachronic approach, though a postmodern reading of Chaucer’s works is perfectly legitimate. The essential argument about Chaucer’s postmodernism is that Chaucer’s poems, particularly the Canterbury Tales, display a multiplicity of points of view, that Chaucer’s poems cannot be seen as a totally unified and unitary text. I will send you back to what I said about the medieval approach of the divine in the world as the balancing unity of contradictory elements. This is absolutely medieval, and we cannot anachronistically say that Chaucer is postmodern or even the precursor of postmodernism. At the best postmodernism is going back to the medieval, i.e. pre-Renaissance, vision of reality as necessarily multiple and as having to be contradictory in order to be and become — divine is implied, understood and does not need to be mentioned in those days –, hence have a history. Kenneth Burke when dealing with logology has demonstrated this dialectical vision of the divine world, and of the world at the same time, since the world is necessarily divine in the Christian vision of a creating God, by the founding fathers of Christianism as well as by the writers of the Old and New Testaments. Just one quotation from this chapter to show the anachronic approach: “For postmodern readers, it is the self-reflexiveness of Chaucer’s writing that has made his work seem to anticipate modern theoretical concerns”. I have emphasized the anachronic words by bolding and underlining them. The whole conclusion is a real rape of Chaucer’s poetry: “…At the opening of the ‘Squire’s Tale’, the magic mirror gives the power to foresee the future… Postmodernism parodies the notion of progress as a superseded myth, and its sense of coming very near the end of foreseeable cultural development is its own contemplation of mortality, or art of dying, in a post-religious age… That mirror of enchantment in the Squire’s Tale gives the power not only to foresee future changes in fortune but also to look into characters’ inner lives, distinguishing friend from foe and unmasking the ‘subtilty’ of faithless lovers …”. When he reads the text Barry Windeatt is interesting, but when he theorizes beyond his own reading, he becomes anachronic and ideological. How can Chaucer be seen as supporting in any way “a post-religious age”? Chaucer’s use of the magic mirror in this Squire’s Tale can support neither a post-religious vision nor a godless vision. This magic mirror has to do with religion entirely in the Middle Ages. Any representation of any living being in the world, be it a painting, a carving or a literary piece, was seen as a mirror image of the real character thus represented, and this mirror was supposed to reveal the soul of this character both in its representation and in the structure in which this representation was embedded. We could demonstrate this approach by studying a set of carved capitals in a Romanesque church, and even by studying the composition of any one particular of these carved capitals. I am thinking of two representations of the Last Supper and a couple more of Jesus Christ’s life and destiny that cross the first two, with Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper in mind. These representations of Christ were magic mirrors too in the Middle Ages because they were a representation of our own fate through Christ’s and our confrontation to this or these representations was supposed to help us reveal and capture our own souls. Postmodern critics can think of themselves as a post-religious approach, but if they do not capture the religious dimension of Chaucer, they will miss a lot of meaning. The magic mirror is deeply religious in the Middle Ages. It is one of its meanings, and a very important one, though not the only one.
Sylvia Federico studies new historicism. Once again Chaucer is used to illustrate the approach. This approach though, putting “the symbolic significance of events” in the forefront and considering “the symbolic [to constitute] the real”, enables the new historian to give literary works a new dimension in historical studies. “How do we try to come to terms with facts, or lived historical truth, within a post-deconstructive framework that interrogates the epistemological foundation of the very idea of facts?” To explore this approach, and to illustrate it, Sylvia Federico studies the topic of rape. We know Chaucer is linked to such an accusation. We also know the medieval term ‘raptus’ had a wider understanding. But Sylvia Federico looks for the representations of rape in Chaucer’s poems, and she does study the details of the poems. Her approach of connected concepts or social dimensions of this rape is very interesting because it constructs (we are beyond the deconstructive phase) a cluster of symbolical connections that can deliver a wide symbolical meaning. She connects rape to revolt, to invisibility, to punishment, to social position. Rape is actually used as a means of social warfare by the rebels of 1381. To balance this point we must remember that in the Middle Ages a knight’s or nobleman’s taking, by force if necessary, a woman, of any age, from the lower social majority of the population was not really considered as rape and that some noblemen had the right, or at least seized the right, to be the first lover of a newly-wed woman in the lower social majority of the population. We find this question widely and deeply debated in Adam de la Halle’s (died in 1288) The Play of Robin and Marion that Chaucer could not ignore. Generally, and it is true in this Guide as a whole, we consider courtly-love literature as an inspiration to Chaucer, but on the side of this literature about and for the nobility, there is also a literature of great quality dealing with the third estate of society and the relations they most of the time suffer with and from the noble elite of society. This literature seems to be encouraged by the church in many ways because these ‘plays’, from the Latin ‘Ludus’, are often produced by clerics and within the church territory and authority. Oral literature (tales, lives of saints, etc.) contains a lot of cases of women raped or victimized by noblemen and then beatified by the church, and no borders can be put forward to limit the circulation of such saints and the story of their lives. I will regret that this chapter does not take this dimension — which is, of course, a very religious or church-inspired dimension — into account. And these elements prove, if necessary, that the men who performed these acts could go entirely un-accused and un-bothered. The cases we can find in this ‘popular’ literature in which the man is caught up by some secular justice seem to always involve the death of the woman, hence be a murder case. It is true that the 13th century seems to show a level of higher consciousness about these cases and yet Adam de La Halle does not criticize the rape his knight performs: he aims at the woman, Marion, and shows how she can love Robin because he is nice, young and handsome, and love the knight because he gives her presents and speaks to her gently. Adam de La Halle also works the dimension of love for a woman like Marion or a man like Robin, and we must note that Marion being taken by the knight does not cause and cannot cause any desire of vengeance in Robin. That is what new historicism is all about. These symbolical representations of rape in the Middle Ages, with some kind of change starting to occur in the consciousness of society in the second half of the 13th century, are the proof that the question was debated at the time, that rape was not considered as a crime when a man-member of the noble elite was taking a woman of the lower social estate. This creates a real perspective for Chaucer’s connection with the ‘raptus’ that historians have found in legal records of the time and his vision of rape in his poems.
Glenn Burger presents the queer theory. Once again, Chaucer is at most an illustration. This queer theory has emerged from the gay studies of a previous age. It is the attempt to unbalance any reading of Chaucer’s poems by looking for disruptive elements and angles under which the poems are deconstructed. We are still in a deconstructive approach. This queering of Chaucer’s poems, or of any piece of literature, is the use of an allegorical, metaphorical and symbolical approach to explore levels that are rarely if ever explored. It reveals the shortcomings of all traditional or not so traditional critical approaches that neglected some potentialities of the poems because these levels unbalanced, deconstructed and even destroyed the methods, procedures, and conclusions of these traditional or not so traditional critical approaches. It also reveals that the unifying and unitary tradition has to be queered, viz. exploded. Truth, if any truth can be constructed, can only come from multiple explorations of Chaucer’s poems. If that had been the objective, most of these deconstructive approaches of today would not have been necessary. What is being deconstructed is the text to get to new levels of meaning, but also the established critical approaches that have the tendency to exclude what could be an alternative to their discourses. This queering has to be a fundamental and lasting method because the new approaches have the tendency to satisfy themselves with themselves and they will need to be deconstructed in their turn to get to some perennialness. Note this queering has nothing to do with sex, gender or anything linked with sexuality, even if it was more or less invented within the melting pot of gay studies, and even if the term itself is quite linked to a particular form of sexuality.
Jeffrey J. Cohen tries to bring postcolonialism into the Guide. Once again it is a presentation of the method illustrated with Chaucer. In Chaucer, it considers how this newly born English literature rejects people who are not considered as English, including the Britons, i.e. the Welsh. Maybe the British neglected this approach because of their century-long colonial practice: it was not trendy to criticize the colonialization of people at a time when the British nation was colonializing half of the world. It is the obvious shortcoming of intellectuals in those days that have to be compensated today by ‘post-colonial studies’ that look for all elements of downtrodding or minorizing of some and any ethnic, national, regional or linguistic groups. And when this work is done, Chaucer appears in a new light. “Chaucer’s renditions of cultural difference, internal and external, do not necessarily lack nuance”. And this is an accusation against intellectuals of the past who did not study this level of Chaucer’s poetry in spite of the ‘nuance’ it may reveal, which means because it does not simply justify a colonial attitude. The case of Jews is important in Chaucer since Jews were expelled from England in 1290, and Chaucer gives a few instances in which the poignant fate of the rejected Jews is described and even valorized, in other words not plainly justified from the good dominant established point of view of the Christian elite. And we find here another case of supposed antisemitism that appears under scrutiny as being a lot more complex in its motivations and symbolical dimensions. It reminds us of Shakespeare’s Shylock who could be seen as a ‘typical wailing and over-complaining Jew’ if we neglected the very words he utters and only kept the tone (that reminds me of the chapter on feminism and the reduction of the Wife of Bath to an oral quasi-non-linguistic discourse), and yet can easily be seen as a denunciation of anti-Jewish feelings at the end of this 16th century if we took the words into account and listened beyond the wailing crying tone.
Patricia Clare Ingham closes this section of the Guide with her approach of psychoanalytical criticism. The reference to Lacan is indeed interesting, and yet only captured on the surface of things. It all has to do with the Symbolic Order. She reduces it to the structure of language that includes “various power relations, authorities and hierarchies”. She then recognizes that Lacan states an essential fact: “desire involves the desire to be desired by someone else”, hence a dialectic between inside and outside, intimacy and what she does not translate ‘extimité’ and could have been translated as extimacy. This implies that the symbolic order is also a concrete, material, outside reality. And at the same time, she does not study the syntax of the language as representing the architecture of the symbolic order, and that to the point of getting trapped by her own shortcomings. “While interested in those contexts, psychoanalytic critics attend to aspects of language that are structural and fundamental, positing a subject whose psychic and social identity is mediated through such structures of language, a speaking subject literally subjected to language. This is in part because any speaking subject articulates and understands herself (sic, it should have been themselves, certainly not the feminine singular) through the strictures of the first-person pronoun, in the grammatical position of “I”. This articulation produces an identity, a psychic and literary ‘I’ who speaks, but at a cost. As an ‘I’, the subject mediates and manages the fiction that her (sic again, it shouldn’t be the feminine singular) identity is not contradictory, ambivalent, alienated, and split, but always unified, singular, coherent.” This repeated feminine gender in a discourse that would have implied the plural in the first case and the modern politically correct his/her or even her/his in the second case does look like the projection of some intention or impulsive desire by the author into her own discourse. It is surprising and requires some explanation that does not seem to be clearly present in the text, especially since it is applied to Chaucer as the author, hence the subject of his poetry, “the psychic and literary ‘I’ who speaks”. There is though another dimension in this chapter. The author is only trying to reconstruct the unconscious, or at least unknown of us, intentions of the author. Psychoanalysis can provide the critic with another tool to analyze the text he is studying. I am surprised that Patricia Clare Ingham does not use it: Kenneth Burke has demonstrated how the technique used by Freud, all the more if we consider Lacan who is a lot more linguistic than Freud, to analyze the symbolic syntax of dreams can become an extremely useful tool to analyze the hidden symbolical meaning of a text, and the author Chaucer does not interest us here. In other words, psychoanalysis can provide us with a lot more than a discourse on the symbolic order and the speaker. We have to reverse it and take into account this time the reader confronted to the text and how the symbolism of the text can trigger our own symbolic order. Once again by using a tool produced to clinically help people suffering from some psychiatric trouble, we forget that this tool could be used to analyze/deconstruct a text in order to reconstruct the symbolic meaning(s) it may have had for the generating author, and eventually intermediary fictionalized speakers, but also to reveal, analyze/deconstruct and reconstruct our own symbolic meaning(s) of the text for us readers, and eventually intermediary actors as readers of a kind (multiple probably with at least one other level, the director who might eventually direct himself as an intermediary actor/reader).
This section proposes many new approaches and readings. They are a priori all legitimate because it is always legitimate to consider a new method, a new set of axioms that lead us to new conclusions and visions. We must never forget that we are readers, like any other readers, and we project, consciously or unconsciously, or we censor, consciously or unconsciously, our impulses into the reading, our emotional, sentimental, sensual or even sexual impulses, but also our intellectual and cultural impulses. We have been trained to look at things in a certain way and this acquired method, what I have already called a pet-method, has become instinctual, automatic, unconscious. It sounds and looks natural to do things like this or like that, but it is only an embedded habit and habits are second nature for every one of us. There is no 100% objective and non-subjective method, and this is my very own absolutely conscious first axiom of my intellectual impulse. We live times, and this might have been true for centuries, millennia, maybe forever, that require us to choose between many things, but it is always, or at least by far too often, reduced to a black or white choice, a yes or no answer, etc.
But this section leads us to another essential question. Is there a criterion or several criteria that would enable us to consider some readings more legitimate than others and some not at all? The answer is, for me, simple. Any reading is legitimate that is built on elements in the text itself. It is a potential in the text that makes a particular reading welcome. And we have to be careful with the comparison method, ‘like’ or ‘as if’. Comparing things might be inspiring and even exhilarating, but comparing is no proof, hence a reading that is deducted from a mere comparison of a text with something else that we declare identical or similar has no value if that comparison cannot be objectified by one or more elements in the text itself or maybe in the personality of the author, though for me that latter element is secondary. It is not because the author is a customs officer that all he writes will be a simile of his official customs job. I would like here to re-assert a principle of mine: anachronism is a defect and a flaw in any discussion or reasoning. We could argue that the iambic rhythm of Chaucer’s poetry is like the pulsing noise and jolting shivering of a train moving along its rails, but that is absurd for Chaucer because Chaucer could never have thought of that for a very simple reason. But if a musician or director decides to set up a reading of a particular tale and emphasize the iambic rhythm with the pulsing sound of a train behind or at times in-between the sections of the poem, that would be legitimate not as a reading of Chaucer’s poem but as a creative act applied to Chaucer’s poem. Romeo and Juliet is a play by Shakespeare, but it was turned into an opera by Bellini, a ballet by Prokofiev, etc., and each time it is legitimate because the new author or composer is adding something creative to the original play. But then it is not a reading, it is a new interpretation. For example, in Bellini’s opera, Romeo and Juliet are sung by two sopranos. This does not mean that for Bellini, what’s more Shakespeare (for whom Romeo and Juliet were played by two boys), this play is about lesbianism or gay love, even metaphorically.
This section though is rich in all the challenges it proposes us to embrace and embrace we should because each new embrace gives us a new lease of life and we mustn’t judge a book by its cover. A good embrace might be bracing, and if it is not, we will always have the opportunity to disengage ourselves from it. And the broth cannot and will not be spoiled by too many cooks who altogether have and keep several irons in the fire.
Fourth Part: Afterlife
This section is essentially informative.
Elizabeth Scala covers the various problems that editors over the centuries had to face when trying to bring Chaucer’s works together for publication, especially since in Chaucer’s time there were only manuscripts, hence copies that all were different.
John J. Thompson considers how Chaucer was received from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries. He was the founder of English and English poetry, the first poet laureate of England, but his works were selected and at times adapted to the taste of the day, especially when Middle English became difficult to understand and translations started being used, translations that were most of the time rewritings. He was thus protestantized after the reformation to fit with the religious taste of the time.
David Matthews turned to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a period that ends with the establishment of the Chaucer Society in London in 1868 by Frederick Furnivall. It also brought the publication of the first Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer in 1894–7 by W. W. Skeat. Chaucer has to be translated in those centuries. Dryden will look into this before some others later on. Yet Chaucer will not get a real revival before the nineteenth century because he was felt to be too gross and his poetry was considered as imperfect because his Middle English was no longer understood, and his poetics were no longer appreciated. In the nineteenth century though a revival comes because of the new taste for Gothicism and the medieval, and Chaucer is appreciated for his realism. But he was not yet a great classic by the end of the nineteenth century.
Stephanie Trigg studies his reception in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The chapter starts with a reference to Bourdieu’s sociological approach of cultural artifacts that provide the readers or audience with something they are expecting, in, other words that provide their audiences with the opportunity to satisfy their desires and project their phantasms. The reader is finally brought into the picture. Virginia Wolf, G.K. Chesterton, and Harold Bloom bring into the picture a new approach founded on the ‘common reader’ or ‘general reader’. This is important because what became the main asset of Chaucer’s poetry was the way non-specialists could read and appreciate Chaucer, hence people without any deep knowledge about the Middle Ages and Chaucer himself or his times were taken into account as a possible audience for Chaucer. What could they see and appreciate in Chaucer?
We have to understand that this last chapter has to be supplemented with the approaches of the previous part, all, or nearly all, having been developed since 1950 at the earliest.
Malcolm Andrew studies all the translations of Chaucer, first in English, and at the end of his chapter in other languages. He borrows from Dryden, the first extensive translator of Chaucer’s poetry, the idea that there are three types of translations, ‘metaphrase’ (“turning an author word by word, and line by line, from one language into another”), ‘paraphrase’ (“translation with latitude, where the author is kept in view by the translator… but his words are not so strictly followed as his sense, and that too is admitted to be amplified but not altered”) and ‘imitation’ (“where the translator… assumes the liberty not only to vary from the words and sense but to forsake them both as he sees occasion… taking only some general hints from the original”). The translations by Dryden, Pope and Wordsworth are considered. Then he moves to the twentieth century and notes that two types of translations are needed: a translation in verse that tries to recapture Chaucer’s poetics and render them in modern English for the pleasure of the audience or readers, and a translation in prose that has to be absolutely exact in words and meaning, with notes if necessary for scholars and students who want to enter Chaucer’s poems in-depth and need a perfect understanding of his poems. And that’s actually what we have nowadays on the market.
Kevin J. Harty turns to Chaucer in performance. Chaucer on stage, Chaucer as musicals, Chaucer as opera, Chaucer as a choral piece, Chaucer on (and in) film with Pasolini and with Brian Helgeland plus minor appearances and allusions, Chaucer on television finally. The author though attributes Chaucer’s rather limited presence in show business to his too identifiably Catholic message for a post-Reformation world, whereas King Arthur, Joan of Arc and Robin Hood have captured the imagination of the people for centuries. Even Dante has done it. It is strange to thus explain the marginality of Chaucer’s presence in popular imagination and entertainment with his religious message, especially in a ‘post-religious world’ evoked by the postmodernists. It seems to prove that religion is still a pregnant question in the West today. Personally, I think there is something else that prevents Chaucer from providing very popular characters or themes. Romeo and Juliet is also extremely dated. Chaucer never deals with any subject at a high enough level of abstraction for it to be understood by the popular audience of today as going beyond the historical dressing of the tale. We can forget Romeo and Juliet’s Italian Renaissance context because we climb to an absolutely modern way of looking at love, maybe not modern actually but universal: love for itself, love that can negate and reject any particular obstacle, and yet open up onto a tragic drama because of these very historical circumstances that can yet be abstracted into family and social obstacles that still exist in a way or another. That is why the pattern has been conjugated and declined in so many films and plays over and over again: cross-social-group love (family clans, social classes, racial communities, national allegiances, religious affiliations, etc.). The Knight’s Tale is tragic in the medieval context of a fight to the finish in a tournament to win a woman, and the irony of the ending where the winner does not get his prize and the loser gets it, and I say ‘it’ because we are not dealing with a woman but a plain prize. Such a situation today is either going to produce innumerable Hollywoodian comedies but without a real tragic dimension, or if the tragic dimension is cultivated it will have to be wrapped up in some kind of wider plot not to look kind of childish, even slightly ridiculous, especially the death of Arcite when he fell off his horse onto his head.
Peter Brown studies the various guides about Chaucer that have been published over the centuries, essentially because Chaucer has been on high-school and university syllabi for now more than one hundred years, and it does not seem likely that he will be dropped soon. It comes to a paradox when some of these guides provide the readers with an excuse not to read Chaucer himself, hence, to be common non-readers. The best guide for non-readers is provided by the parish church of St Margaret’s in Canterbury, ‘The “Canterbury Tales” Visitor Attraction’. The author wonders slightly why such entertaining presentations can last over long periods of time, but the answer is simple: people love to be told stories especially about the past and with some knowledge they can use in their everyday conversation with their peers when back at work. It is a mixture of entertainment, curiosity, and usefulness in a social life that has to have a cultural side, original if possible. All touristic sites of importance know such popular shows or presentations are long-lasting, even if it has to be changed slightly every so often.
Fifth Part: Study resources
Mark Allen lists the printed resources and Philippa Semper the Electronic resources. The listing is rather vast if not exhaustive, which is impossible since to question Google about ‘The Knight’s Tale’, even linked to Chaucer, will bring many answers: “about 111,000 for Chaucer, “Knight’s TaleH:\url?sa=X&oi=dict&q=http:\www.answers.com\tale&r=67" “.
It is then time for the postscript by † Julian Wasserman. He justifies us in all the questions we asked. He states that “to read a text is to rewrite it”; he speaks of “the postmodern perception of textual instability”; he exposes “the artificially constructed dualism between theory and literature classes”; he points out “ a richness and complexity that refuse to be reduced to simple threads”; he explains that “there are many Chaucers because Chaucer has taken on the contours of the places in which he is taught and read”; and he rejects the use of Chaucer to “pluck the clever out of the herd”, which leads him to this very final sentence: “The same amalgam is arguably attractive to modern Americans, who find in the Middle Ages primitivism and culture laid side by side, a combination that remains an important part of the American self-image”. And my punchline will be that this is another “artificially constructed dualism”.
It takes time and labor to read such an enormous book, but when you reach the last page you feel enriched and engrossed with many questions and intrigued by even more answers that at times lead you to more and new questions. That has to be the objective of such a Guide, to avoid its Biblicalization.