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Geoffrey Chaucer 1340?-1400

English poet, prose writer, and translator.

The following entry presents discussions of gender issues and female sexuality in Chaucer's works. See also Geoffrey Chaucer Poetry Criticism and The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale Criticism.

Chaucer is commonly hailed as “the father of English poetry,” who...

(The entire section contains 110763 words.)

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Geoffrey Chaucer 1340?-1400

English poet, prose writer, and translator.

The following entry presents discussions of gender issues and female sexuality in Chaucer's works. See also Geoffrey Chaucer Poetry Criticism and The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale Criticism.

Chaucer is commonly hailed as “the father of English poetry,” who in such works as his masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales, significantly contributed to the development of English as a literary language. The “General Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales has often been praised as “the most perfect poem in the English language.” The Canterbury Tales and his other notable works—including The Book of the Duchess, The Parlement of Foules, The House of Fame, and Troilus and Criseyde—reflect Chaucer's familiarity with French, English, Italian, and Latin literature, and demonstrate his consummate mastery of a variety of literary genres, styles, and techniques. His poems continue to draw the interest and praise of readers centuries after his death and are among the most acclaimed works of the English-speaking world. The originality of his language and style, the vivacity of his humor, and the depth of his understanding are continually cited as reasons for the permanence of his works.

Biographical Information

Chaucer was born sometime in the 1340s into a family of London-based vintners. He spent most of his adult life as a civil servant, serving under three successive kings—Edward III, Richard II, and Henry IV—and much of what is known of his life is derived from various household records. In 1357 he served as a page to Elizabeth, the Countess of Ulster and wife of Prince Lionel, the third son of Edward III. By 1359 he was serving in Edward's army in France and was captured during the unsuccessful siege of Rheims. The king contributed to his ransom, and he shortly thereafter entered the king's service. By 1366 he had married Philippa Pan, who had also been in the employment of the Countess of Ulster. Around this time Chaucer appears to have established a connection with John of Gaunt, Edward III's fourth son, who may have become Chaucer's patron; the fortunes of the two traced parallel courses over the next three decades, rising and falling in tandem. Chaucer traveled to Spain in 1366, on the first of a series of diplomatic missions throughout Europe. After a 1373 visit to Italy he returned to England and was appointed a customs official for the Port of London; he was given additional customs responsibilities in 1382. By 1385 he was living in Kent, where he was appointed a justice of the peace. Although he became a member of Parliament in 1386, that year marked the beginning of a difficult period for Chaucer. He either resigned or was removed from his post as a customs official. His wife died by 1387; additionally, he was not returned to Parliament. Chaucer's fortunes rose again when John of Gaunt returned from the continent in 1389 and the young King Richard II regained control of the government from the aristocracy, which had for a time been the dominant political force in England. Chaucer was appointed a clerk of the king's works but was removed from this office in 1391. Records suggest that by 1396 Chaucer had established a close relationship with John of Gaunt's son, the Earl of Derby, who as King Henry IV later confirmed Chaucer's grants from Richard and added an additional annuity in 1399. Chaucer then leased a house in the garden of Westminster Abbey where he lived for the rest of his life. He died on October 25, 1400, and was buried in Westminster Abbey, an honor traditionally reserved for royalty. His tomb became the center of what is now known as Poet's Corner.

Major Works

Chaucer's first major work, The Book of the Duchess, depicts the author's attempt to soothe the grief of John of Gaunt, whose wife, Blanch, died in 1368. The work has parallels in French courtly poetry but transforms the conventions of the genre, converting the contrived sentimentality of the French models' imagery of dying for love into a poignant depiction of the death of a beautiful woman and the grief of the Knight who mourns her. Although the chronology of Chaucer's works is uncertain, he likely next composed two “dream-vision” poems: The Parlement of Foules and The House of Fame. Both works are thought to comment on the efforts to arrange a suitable marriage for Richard II. The Parlement of Foules, believed to have been prompted by the unsuccessful attempt to betroth Richard to the daughter of Charles V of France, is an allegorical debate about the nature of love. The House of Fame celebrates the betrothal of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia in 1380 and examines the function of poets, the nature of poetry, and the unreliability of fame. Many critics long considered Chaucer's next major work, Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer's finest poetic effort. An adaptation of Boccaccio's II Filostrato, this work, set against the backdrop of the Trojan War, is characterized by a symmetry, decorum, and metaphorical quality lacking Boccaccio's version.

The Canterbury Tales, the work now generally regarded as Chaucer's masterpiece, was probably begun around 1386. The work is organized as a collection of stories told by a group of pilgrims on their way to the shrine of Thomas à Beckett in Canterbury. Within this overall framework are ten parts, which appear in different order in different manuscripts. Many critics therefore believe that Chaucer never realized his final plan for the work. The work opens with a General Prologue, introducing the pilgrims with short, vivid sketches. Twenty-four tales follow, interspersed with short dramatic “links” presenting lively exchanges among the pilgrims. The tales are highly diverse in style, subject matter, and theme; they include courtly romance, allegory, sermon, fable, and sometimes a mixture of genres. Each story generally reflects the social class and personality of the teller, leading many to consider The Canterbury Tales as a whole a realistic representation of the vitality and the multifaceted nature of Chaucer's world.

Critical Reception

Chaucer's depiction in his works of a variety of female figures in varying lights and contexts has led to much modern criticism focused on issues of sexuality and gender. In his study of Chaucer's narrative technique, E. Talbot Donaldson focuses on the stories of several female characters. Donaldson argues that while each of Chaucer's (male) narrators seems to provide a unified point of view, each actually describes things “simultaneously from several distinct points of view,” permitting the reader to see potentials in the women that the narrator appears not to see, “preoccupied as he is with the ladies' outward beauty.” R. Howard Bloch approaches the gender relationships in Chaucer's work by emphasizing medieval assumptions regarding female sexuality. Exploring the apparent disparities in “The Physician's Tale” between the characters' actions and motivations, particularly in respect to Virginia, Bloch explains that the religious conception of virginity at the time was such that a virgin ceased to be considered pure if she were even looked at with desire. The primary motivating moment in “The Physician's Tale,” is, therefore, the moment Appius first sees and desires Virginia. S. H. Rigby similarly grounds his investigation of Chaucer's representation of women in medieval attitudes concerning women. Rigby points out that many medieval writers either placed women on a “pedestal” of virginity or condemned them to the “pit” as sexual predators or temptresses. In examining how Chaucer's heroines fit into these contemporary views, Rigby contends that while “The Wife of Bath's Tale” may seem to challenge such misogynist notions, the tale should in fact be read ironically. However, Rigby maintains, Chaucer does offer a balanced view of women in such works as “The Tale of Melibee” and “The Parson's Tale,” where he presents women as “rational creatures with the potential to offer moral guidance to their husbands and who [have] a worthy respected part to play in society.”

The Legend of Good Women has been the subject of a pair of recent studies on gender issues. Rather than a work about women, Elaine Tuttle Hansen argues, the Legend is actually more about men and how they are “feminized.” The legends Chaucer discusses, Hansen shows, includes those with literary heroes (Pyramus and Antony) who suggest the difficulty in attaining and maintaining manhood. Hansen states that the remaining heroes are trapped, “like women, in the plots of other men.” David Wallace centers his study of The Legend of Good Women on the political context of Chaucer's world. Highlighting the parallels between Chaucer's work and that of Boccaccio and Petrarch, who similarly depicted the lives of ancient and classical figures, Wallace contends that Chaucer was trapped between his duties as a poet and a as political subject. Whereas Petrarch dealt with this conflict by speaking from a number of “feminized” positions, Wallace argues, Chaucer chose to position an “eloquent wife” between himself and the dominating masculine ruler of his world.

Other critics have focused on the relationship between language and gender issues in Chaucer's poetry. Carolyn Dinshaw argues that for Chaucer literary activity was always a gendered activity. She explores the relationship between the control of language and masculine power in the patriarchal society depicted in Chaucer's poetry. Similarly, Priscilla Martin examines the way silence and spoken language relate to gender and power in Chaucer's work. Martin demonstrates how, in Chaucer's time, feminine speech was connected to original sin and was often equated with “improper” female behavior. Chaucer's understanding of such issues, Martin argues, allowed him to “transcend” the boundaries of gender.

Principal Works

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Romaunt of the Rose [translation of Guillaume de Lorris's Roman de la Rose] (poetry) circa 1360s

The Book of the Duchess (poetry) circa 1368-69

The House of Fame (poetry) circa 1378-81

The Parlement of Foules (poetry) circa 1378-81

Boecius de consolacione philosophies [translation of Boethius's De consolatione philosophiae] (prose) circa 1380s

Troylus and Criseyde [adaptation of Boccaccio's Il Filostrato] (poetry) circa 1382-86

The Legend of Good Women (poetry) circa 1386

The Canterbury Tales (poetry) circa 1386-1400

The Equatorie of the Planetis (prose) circa 1391-92

Treatise on the Astrolabe (prose) circa 1391-92

The compleynt of Anelida; The compleynt of Chaucer; Th’envoye of Chaucer unto the kinge [edited by William Caxton] (poetry) 1477

*The temple of bras; A tretyse which John Scogan sente unto the lordes and gentilmen of the kynges hows; The good counceyl of Chaucer; Balade of the vilage without peyntyng; Th’envoye of Chaucer to Skegan [edited by William Caxton] (poetry) 1477

Boecius de consolacione philosophies [edited by William Caxton] (prose) 1478

The Canterbury Tales [edited by William Caxton] (poetry) 1478

The book of Fame made by Gefferey Chaucer [edited by William Caxton] (poetry) 1483

The double sorow of Troylus to telle [edited by William Caxton] (poetry) 1483

Book of the Tales of Cauntyrburye [edited by William Caxton] (poetry) 1484

Complaint of Mars; Complaint of Venus; Envoy to Bukton [printed by Julian Notary] (poetry) 1499-1502

Chaucer's Works [printed by Richard Pynson] (poetry) 1526

The Workes of Geffray Chaucer newly printed, with dyuers works which were neuer in print before [edited by William Thynne] (poetry and prose) 1532

The Workes of our Ancient and lerned English Poet, Geffrey Chaucer, newly Printed [edited by Thomas Speght] (poetry and prose) 1598

The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer compared with former editions, and many valuable MSS. out of which, three Tales are added, which were never before printed [edited by John Urry] (poetry and prose) 1721

The Canterbury Tales of Chaucer. 5 vols. [edited by Thomas Tyrwhitt] (poetry) 1775-78

The Poetical Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. 6 vols. (poetry) 1845

The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer. 7 vols. [edited by Walter W. Skeat] (poetry and prose) 1894-97

The Book of Troilus and Criseyde by Geoffrey Chaucer [edited by Robert K. Root] (poetry) 1926

The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer [edited by F. N. Robinson; revised edition, 1957] (poetry and prose) 1933

The Text of the Canterbury Tales, Studied on the Basis of All Known Manuscripts. 8 vols. [edited by J. M. Manly and Edith Rickert] (poetry) 1940

The Canterbury Tales [edited by Nevill Coghill] (poetry) 1951

The Equatorie of the Planetis [edited by Derek J. Price] (prose) 1955

The Parlement of Foulys [edited by Derek S. Brewer] (poetry) 1960

Troilus and Criseyde [edited by Nevill Coghill] (poetry) 1971

Chaucer's Lesser Poems Complete in Present-Day English [translated by James J. Donohue] (poetry) 1974

The Complete Poetry and Prose of Geoffrey Chaucer [edited by John H. Fisher; revised edition, 1989] (poetry and prose) 1977

The Variorum Edition of the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer [general editor Paul G. Ruggiers] (poetry and prose) 1979-

The Riverside Chaucer [general editor Larry D. Benson] (poetry and prose) 1987

*This volume consists of separate fascicles; these works are now known as the Parlement of Foules, the “Envoy of Scogan,” “Truth,” “Fortune,” and “Lenvoy de Chaucer a Scogan,” respectively.

†This volume represents the first publication of Romaunt of the Rose, The Book of the Duchess, and The Legend of Good Women.

E. Talbot Donaldson (essay date 1970)

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SOURCE: “The Masculine Narrator and Four Women of Style,” in Speaking of Chaucer, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1970, pp. 46-64.

[In the following essay, Donaldson examines the way in which Chaucer “simultaneously” describes events from a number of different viewpoints while apparently seeing them from a singular point of view. In particular, Donaldson focuses on four of the women who become the object of the narrator's discussion: Emily (“The Knight's Tale”), May (“The Merchant's Tale”), Criseyde (Troilus and Criseyde), and the Prioress (“The Prioress's Tale”).]

Not long ago an American Chaucerian harshly reprimanded those modern critics who talk about Chaucer as if he had a complicated or difficult style such as Donne's or Pope's. Chaucer, Professor Bronson asserts, was ‘a poet who deliberately practised a style capable of being instantly followed by a moderately attentive ear, and who seems to have had a genuine liking for russet yeas and honest kersey noes’1 Therefore those who go digging in the poet's works with highly sophisticated tools, searching for buried subtleties, are guilty of the worst kind of critical vanity, which is to make what is really easy seem hard.

I have much sympathy for this point of view, despite the fact that a critical term I once used in connection with Chaucer seems to have provided one of the principal impulses for Professor Bronson's attack.2 Chaucer does indeed have a simple, readily understandable style. Any poet who, near the beginning of a narrative about a trip to Canterbury, can expend eight laborious lines in order to inform us that, while he has time and space, before he goes any further in the story, he thinks it in accordance with reason to tell us all the condition of each of the people he met—according to the way it seemed to him, that is—and which they were, and of what degree, and also in what array that they were in, and finally announces that he will begin with a knight, and then climaxes this prospectus with the triumphant statement that there was a knight—well, such a poet is obviously so dedicated to the proposition that poetry should be understood that he might almost be said to have cornered the market in russet and kersey. Nevertheless, I do not think that this is all that can be said of his style—that this is an end to it; if it were, I suspect that a few more sentences like the one I have just paraphrased (which is actually a self-parody) would have brought an end to most readers' acquaintance with his works, and that no Chaucer criticism would ever have grown to irritate Professor Bronson with its rank blossoms. In this paper I should like to investigate some passages in which a style that seems so simple and comprehensible is able to achieve effects that deserve a rather richer comparison than russet or kersey.

I shall concentrate on a single kind of effect—Chaucer's ability to describe things simultaneously from several distinct points of view while seeming to see them from only one point of view, and thus to show in all honesty the complexity of things while preserving the appearance of that stylistic simplicity which we feel to be so honest and trustworthy. The particular objects of his regard that I shall discuss are women—four attractive women, to be exact. I choose women because they are, obviously, the most complex topic that a man can try to deal with, a subject that no honest poet can hope to treat simply. An attractive woman requires even more complex handling, for she is likely to provoke in a man certain emotional responses that become, in any fiction, a part of her reality. That is why male narrators in literature so often fall in love with their heroines—to encourage the reader also to make an emotional investment from which he will expect, though not necessarily get, a return. Almost always with attractive women there is an element of deception—in literature, that is. A heroine fails to live up to the high ideals which a romantic male assumes to be a necessary corollary of her beauty, and thereby deceives him, or, more accurately, undeceives him, which is worse. Or else her charm is such—‘so absolute she seems, and in herself complete’—that his idea of what is right becomes unhinged, as happened to poor Adam. Or if she does live up to the male's romantic expectation, she may well cease to be a woman at all, and elude him by becoming a symbol or a cypher. In Chaucer's description of the four women I have chosen to talk about he has, with absolute honesty, brought it about that careful readers—those with attentive ears—may perceive potentials that he himself seems not to see, preoccupied as he is with the ladies' outward beauty. The ladies are Emily, the symbolic heroine of the “Knight's Tale,” May, the downright deceitful heroine of the “Merchant's Tale”; Criseide, the disappointing heroine of Troilus; and the Prioress, a romance heroine masquerading as a nun.

Let us begin with Emily, who is from the human point of view one of the least interesting and hence least Chaucerian of Chaucer's heroines, though as an artistic creation she is splendid. Readers are so often disappointed by Emily because she has no character, and they are apt to blame Chaucer for not having given her any, failing to observe how very hard he has worked, in his simple-minded way, to see that she has none: for symbols such as Emily do not act, they merely are. We first meet her as she walks in the garden beneath the grim tower in which Palamon and Arcite are imprisoned:

… It fil ones in a morwe of May
That Emelye, that fairer was to seene
Than is the lilye upon his stalke greene,
And fressher than the May with flowres newe—
For with the rose colour stroof hir hewe:
I noot which was the fairer of hem two—
Er it were day, as was hir wone to do,
She was arisen and al redy dight,
For May wol have no slogardye anight:
The seson priketh every gentil herte,
And maketh it out of his sleep to sterte,
And saith, ‘Aris and do thyn observaunce.’
This maketh Emelye have remembraunce
To doon honour to May and for to rise.
Yclothed was she fresshe to devise;
Hir yelow heer was broided in a tresse
Bihinde hir bak a yerde long, I gesse,
And in the gardin at the sonne upriste
She walketh up and down, and as hire liste
She gadreth flowres party white and rede
To make a subtil gerland for hir hede,
And as an angel hevenisshly she soong.


Despite a measure of grammatical confusion which the modern editor is hard put to straighten out by dashes or parentheses, the style of the passage is simple enough, and the meaning is wholly clear: Emily is a pretty, long-haired blonde with a good complexion and an excellent singing voice. Yet while this information occupies four lines, the Knight has taken twenty-two to weave his tapestry. If we unravel the threads, we shall find that Emily is a good deal more—if a good deal less—than a woman. Not only is she like the May flowers that she is gathering, but she is also vying with them in beauty; and the fact is, of course, that she is herself a May flower which the warm sunrise of May wakes and causes to take its natural position in the garden of Spring. The poet seems to be trying to describe a woman, but he is actually showing us something of a rather different order. May, May, May, May; lily, stalk, flowers, garden, flowers, garland; green, rose, yellow, white, red; morning, day, sunrise: all the best of nature in the Spring, and all part of Emily, or rather, through the poet's intricate craft, of these things is Emily all compact. She becomes not only the embodiment of all pretty young girls in the Spring, but a proof that the Spring of pretty young girls is a permanent thing, and that May in their persons will always warm the masculine heart as May warms their hearts and sends them out among the flowers: ‘Up rose the sun, and up rose Emily’. Like so many of Chaucer's narrators when they are describing attractive women, the aging Knight twice brings himself into the description as if he were himself trying to share more intimately the company of a creature not subject to time's decay—or, if it is, one that will always renew itself with each season and generation.

Of course the portrait lacks individuality. The whole “Knight's Tale” lacks individuality, for it is less concerned with real people than with the ideas and ideals by which people live in a real world, one which often seems devoid of purpose or significance. Emily is one of the ideas that make this world tolerable, and if she were given a personality, she would lose her symbolic significance as the goal toward which the better side of chivalry aspires. Within the tale she is scarcely permitted to act; she merely reacts to the incidents of the plot in a way which the Knight evidently considers ideally feminine, praying Theseus to spare the young knights' lives when they are found fighting in the wood, asking Diana to let her remain a maiden and then adapting herself becomingly to the prospect of marriage with Arcite, lamenting his untimely death, and finally living happily ever after with Palamon. She has no mind or character of her own, desiring only what most desires her, fulfilling in almost total passivity the symbolic function assigned to her in the Knight's initial description. Virtually untouched by the grim realities of the story, she gives recompense for them and makes the chivalric ideal come true, at least for Palamon and the reader. When Palamon first saw her he mistook her for a goddess; but I’m not sure that Arcite was not even more mistaken in supposing that she was a woman. She deceived them both, for she was only an idea, though one of more importance to the ideal of chivalry than a real woman could have been.

From Emily in her eternal May let us move to the heroine of the “Merchant's Tale,” whose deceptiveness begins with the fact that she bears the name of Emily's month. We first meet May in the night-time fantasies of the old lecher January, through whom we are to make whatever emotional investment we care to make in her:

And when that he was in his bed ybrought,
He portrayde in his herte and in his thought
Hir fresshe beautee and hir age tendre,
Hir middel smal, hir armes longe and sclendre,
Hir wise governance, hir gentilesse,
Hir wommanly bering and hir sadnesse. 


With the easy self-deception of the romantic libertine, January first pictures to himself her physical charms, and then, as if by inference from these, her fine moral qualities: the boy's brain that accompanies his colt's tooth makes the Platonic assumption that May is all-of-a-piece, the passive exponent of her own loveliness, so that fresh beauty, tender age, small waist, and long slender arms necessarily imply wise behaviour, gentility, true femininity, and constancy. The reader himself is not permitted to see May until the wedding feast is being served:

Mayus, that sit with so benigne a cheere
Hire to biholde it seemed faïrye—
Queene Ester looked nevere with swich an yë
On Assuer, so meeke a look hath she—
I may you nat devise al hir beautee,
But thus muche of hir beautee telle I may,
That she was lik the brighte morwe of May,
Fulfild of alle beautee and plesaunce. 


On first sight—or perhaps to only ‘a moderately attentive ear’—this passage seems not unlike the description of Emily: something about a beautiful woman and a May morning and a narrator hard put to it to describe such beauty. But Chaucer in his own devious way is playing quite honestly with us, for beneath the seemingly simple description of a romance heroine there runs a disturbing undercurrent. The two specific qualities of character that May's appearance suggests—benignity and meekness—are initially pleasing, but as one dwells on them in their emphatic isolation, they must appear to be too good to be true, for they are the very qualities that a woman would need in full measure in order to serve as bride to January, who is evidently destined to have no such luck. The beauty of Emily was unmixed with any traits of character, nor was she likened to another woman. But May's is the meekness of Queen Esther, whose charm was sufficient to accomplish the deaths of Haman, his ten sons, and tens of thousands of other souls. Even that haunting line, ‘Hire to biholde it seemed faïrye’, invokes a sense of illusion—or delusion—and to the medieval reader probably invoked a sense of something disquieting. Finally, the narrator seems more than conventionally baffled in his attempt to describe May. May is the grammatical as well as the topical subject of the passage, but there is no verb to go with her: the narrator is distracted into anacoluthon.3 In similar grammatical circumstances Emily had threatened to escape from the Knight, but he caught her again by taking a by-path through the May flowers, which he thus made part of her. The Merchant, however, breaks off as if wholly frustrated. The last four lines of an eight-line passage of description consist of an acknowledgement of his failure adequately to depict May's beauty. Instead of depicting it, he uses the word ‘beauty’ itself in three of his four lines, and escapes from his cul-de-sac only by way of an arid double pun, rhyming the verb may with the month May in order to describe the woman May.

I should not wish further to infuriate Professor Bronson by suggesting that in this pun the verb may, while expressing grammatical potentiality, also suggests May's potentiality to be other than what her beauty might imply. Nevertheless, the effect of the whole passage is surely to suggest such potentiality, and the narrator's elaborate clumsiness must make a careful reader feel that there is something impenetrable about May's loveliness, a cool hardness that puts one off. One senses, moreover, no real enthusiasm in the description, almost, indeed, a kind of reluctance on the narrator's part to explore this woman's mystery. We may well suspect that what appears in her face to be the romance heroine's passivity is actually a latent potentiality for stealthy action. The suspicion that May has a shrewd mind of her own, though it is confirmed only late in the poem, is intermittently aroused in the reader during the intervening action. Thus while describing the morning after the bridal night the Merchant intrudes on the scene to say:

But God woot what that May thoughte in hir herte
Whan she him saw up sitting in his sherte,
In his night-cappe and with his nekke lene—
She praiseth nat his playing worth a bene. 


The last line is a splendid example of how in Chaucer the straight may become crooked. Strictly speaking, since the Merchant does not know what May thought—only God knows—her failure to praise January must be taken as negative narrative action: she did not speak praise of him, and yet, since she is not said to have spoken at all, she did not speak dispraise of him. On the other hand, the Merchant, by saying that she did not praise his playing worth a bean, that is, by seeming to use the very words with which May did not speak, has either contradicted his earlier disclaimer of knowledge or has foisted upon her his own thought. Of course the reader reading quickly what seem to be easily understood lines will not pause to make this awkward analysis, and will probably conclude that May's meekness and benignity have begun to give way when put to the test of January's love-making. But he will be wrong, for in his own devious way Chaucer is being careful to preserve, in letter if not in spirit, the fiction of the romance heroine's passivity until the last possible moment, while, of course, simultaneously suggesting to us that it is a fiction. The portrait of May is thus a curious combination of superficial honesty and subcutaneous deceit, taking its form from the woman it is describing.

Critics have sometimes noticed a similarity between May and Criseide, and I suppose they are right, although I resent their doing so because I remain as enchanted by Criseide as I am unenchanted by May. Yet Chaucer's descriptions of the two women do share something of the same technique, for since in both cases the women themselves will be ultimately revealed as untrue to what their beauty implies to the romantic beholder, in both cases the poet's honesty allows for this development from the very beginning. But Criseide, who has the larger function of destroying a truly romantic vision of life—not the falsely romantic, selfish one that May destroys—is handled with the most loving care, as befits so unusually charming a woman. In Book I the narrator makes three separate attempts to describe her, with the second and third perhaps suggesting his consciousness of having failed to do the job adequately in the first and second—although they also suggest the magnitude of his own emotional involvement. Here is the first description, which follows the summary of the Trojan war and of Calchas's treachery to his city and his daughter:

Criseide was this lady name aright:
As to my doom, in al Troyes citee
Nas noon so fair, for passing every wight,
So angelik was hir natif beautee,
That like a thing immortal seemed she,
As dooth an hevenissh parfit creature
That down were sent in scorning of nature. 

(TC I.99-105)

One wonders whether the narrator may not, in this first attempt, have been working extraordinarily hard in order to counter the Biblical saying that nothing but bad fruit will come from a bad tree, a treacherous daughter from a treasonable father; for here the vocabulary is more ornate than in most of Chaucer's descriptions of women. Yet it is also highly conventional, and certainly not difficult to understand. Indeed, one might complain that the sense of the stanza lags behind its vocabulary: what the narrator has succeeded in saying is that Criseide was this lady's name aright (the word aright is one of those pedantic emphases by which Chaucer constantly reminds the reader that his style is easy),4 and further, that in his opinion, there was none so fair in the whole city of Troy (and one wonders how he got to a Troy that was sacked several thousand years ago), because her natural beauty surpassed everyone's, being so angelic (or angel-like) that she seemed like an immortal thing (i.e., an angel), as does a heavenish perfect creature (i.e., an angel), of the kind that might be sent down in scorn of Nature (i.e., her natural beauty was so great that it was supernatural). In general, there seems to be no doubt about it: Criseide is as beautiful as an angel, and we romantic-minded men may expect that she will show a heroine's integrity: her role will be to reflect her beauty in her personality, naturally if rather inertly pleasing us. But we really know no more about her than if she were a complete mystery to the poet himself.

Seventy lines later, Criseide goes to the temple to attend the Feast of the Palladion, and the narrator tries to describe her again:

Among thise othere folk was Criseida,
In widwes habit blak, but nathelees,
Right as oure firste lettre is now an A,
In beautee first so stood she makelees:
Hir goodly looking gladed al the prees.
Nas nevere yit seen thing to been praised derre,
Nor under cloude blak so bright a sterre,
As was Criseide, as folk saide everichone
That hire biheelden in hir blake weede. 


Notice how the narrator invokes the opinion of contemporary Trojans in support of what he is saying about Criseide. This is a device he often uses, sometimes rather irritably, when he seems to fear that readers, knowing the outcome, will not wholly share his enthusiasm for his heroine—not wholly believe in her seeming excellence. It is possible that the effect here will be the opposite of what seems intended—that some readers may be made to experience some doubt, not perhaps about Criseide's beauty, but about its implications. In any case, the narrator has not described a knowable woman: while she shines out from her black clothing like a star from behind a black cloud, Criseide has not yet left the skies to put on earthiness. The description continues:

And yit she stood ful lowe and stille allone,
Bihinden othere folk, in litel brede,
And neigh the dore, ay under shames drede:
Simple of attir and debonaire of cheere—

a timid, mild, meek angel obviously out of place in the ambiguous position on earth she has been left in by her mortal father. All this is highly conventional, highly romantic in the easiest sense of the word: a fair damsel in distress. But the stanza ends:

                                         … and debonaire of cheere,
With ful assured looking and manere.

So unexpected is this last line that one is tempted to split it off from Criseide and apply it to the still confident Troilus, who appears as the subject of the next sentence, leading his companions up and down in the temple and making fun of love. Such a division would be grammatically and textually possible, but it would be wrong. For Criseide has finally made the trip from heaven to earth, almost without the narrator's having noticed it: standing full lowly, still, alone, behind other folk, a little apart, near the door, under shame's dread, simple of attire, mild of face—with look and manner full assured. If ever a line cried for expatiation, it is this one, but the narrator, as if caught up by the narrative action, turns straight to Troilus. Yet the unexpected juxtaposition lingers in the mind for a moment, at once charming and remotely disquieting, for we do not understand how so conventionally timid a creature comes to possess such sudden self-assurance. By learning more about Criseide we know less: detail increases her mystery not our knowledge of her. But if we hurry on with the narrator we will soon forget any uneasiness that may have arisen in us, submerging it in the delight we receive from the whole portrait.

Ninety-eight lines later there occurs the third portrait of Criseide. Having finally accepted the fact that she is a woman, the narrator describes her as such:

She nas nat with the leeste of hir stature,
But alle hir limes so wel answeringe
Weren to wommanhood, that creature
Was nevere lasse mannish in seeminge;
And eek the pure wise of hir mevinge
Shewed wel that men mighte in hir gesse
Honour, estaat, and wommanly noblesse. 


If one reads the stanza quickly, one is almost certain to get the impression that what Chaucer has said is that Criseide's appearance proved that she had admirable qualities of character, which any one who looked at her could see. But if one reads carefully, one will find that the poet has proceeded with remarkable caution, and has, indeed, told us nothing more about Criseide than that, being a very beautiful woman, she was attractive to men. She was not the smallest of women (which does not mean that she was the tallest, or even that she was tall), but all her limbs so well answered to womanhood that no creature could have seemed less masculine—that is, she looked entirely female. And the very way she moved showed well that men might guess there to be in her honour, estate, and womanly noblesse. This last sentence is another fine example of how to achieve honesty by deceit: one can hardly help reading it to mean that the way she moved proved that she had womanly noblesse; but in fact it means that the way she moved looked so well that, as a result, men might guess she had it. In other words, the readily understandable sense is not the same as the grammatical sense. Chaucer the poet has further enhanced Criseide's charm, but Chaucer the grammarian has been careful to draw no inferences from it. Caveat spectator—in this case, both Troilus and the romantic reader.

Once again the description is amplified, and modified, by the narrative action. The next stanza continues:

To Troilus right wonder wel withalle
Gan for to like hir meving and hir cheere,
Which somdeel deinous was, for she leet falle
Hir look a lite aside in swich manere
Ascances, ‘What, may I nat stonden here?’
And after that hir looking gan she lighte,
That nevere thoughte him seen so good a sighte.

Once again that tantalizing self-assurance, momentarily disquieting, ultimately enhancing her mystery and charm. On most masculine readers, as on Troilus and the narrator, the effect of this lovely meek woman whose look can be a challenge will be devastating. We will not worry about how she goes about the business of ‘lighting her looking’, since such a woman can obviously do anything to please. So charmed are we that we readily forget that we still know nothing about her except that she is charming.

It would be a gross oversimplification to say that the rest of the poem consists of a gradual discovery on everyone's part that Criseide is, while altogether charming, little else, ‘matter too soft a lasting mark to bear’. But it would not be too misleading to say that it is one of the qualities that the romanticist imputes to her on first sight that helps betray her: her passivity, which insures that she will behave in such a way as to please the on-looker, and desire what most desires her. But the onlooker must be physically present to look on her and to desire her: separated from Troilus, she is desirable in Diomede's eyes, to whom she resolves that she ‘wol be trewe’. It is interesting that the narrator, ultimately forced to face the actuality of Criseide's infidelity to Troilus, tries to understand it by looking upon her once more, in a final description of her. This occurs in the well-known passage in Book V that has as its source the earliest of all descriptions of Criseide, the one given in Dares of Crete (though Chaucer knew it through Joseph of Exeter). In Chaucer's poem, Diomede has been urging himself on Criseide in the Greek camp, hardly believing that even his experienced technique will win her. The narrator breaks off the story for a moment to describe Diomede, and then moves on to Criseide:

Criseide mene was of hir stature,
Therto of shap, of face, and eek of cheere,
Ther mighte been no fairer creature;
And ofte times this was hir manere:
To goon ytressed with hir heres clere
Down by hir coler at hir bak bihinde,
Which with a threed of gold she wolde binde;
And, save hir browes joineden yfere,
Ther nas no lak in ought I can espyen. 


While there are a number of echoes of the descriptions in Book I, the romantic excitement has gone, replaced by a kind of puzzled melancholy, as though the narrator were painfully going over what he had said before in order to find out what had gone wrong. Reviewing the topic, he picks up petty details not mentioned before: her medium stature, which earlier had been vaguely described as not the smallest; a not very remarkable coiffure, which occupies four lines; joined eyebrows, the only fault he can see—notice the curious nostalgia that arises from his still being able to see a woman whom he had never known and who had, indeed, died thousands of years before he was born. And once again he reinforces his own opinion with the testimony of others:

But for to speken of hir yën clere,
Lo, trewely, they writen that hire sien
That Paradis stood formed in hir yën;
And with hir riche beautee everemore
Stroof love in hire ay which of hem was more.

These lines show a sudden powerful surge back toward the initial vision that has been frustrated—the vision of Paradise in a woman's eyes, a land of lush beauty and of high passion. Like the old men on the walls of Troy watching Helen pass, the narrator is suddenly requickened, and he seems on the point of trying to restore to the poem the rich romantic values it once had. But reillusionment is not possible, and he continues with his sad examination of the facts:

She sobre was, eek simple and wis withal,
The beste ynorisshed eek that mighte be,
And goodly of hir speeche in general;
Charitable, estaatlich, lusty, free,
Ne nevere mo ne lakked hire pitee:
Tendre-herted, sliding of corage—
But trewely I can nat telle hir age.

The style of this stanza is wholly different from anything we have encountered before in the ground covered by this paper. It is, indeed, closer to the style of the portraits in the “General Prologue” to the Canterbury Tales, and Chaucer is in a very real sense presenting us with a person we have hardly known before: we thought we knew her, but we didn’t. Like some of the portraits in the “General Prologue” the passage concludes with an anticlimax—indeed, a double anticlimax. After all those admirable attributes, so natural to a woman with a kind, tender, and responsive heart, the simple fact that Criseide was ‘sliding of corage’, that her heart was unstable, comes as the unemphatic explanation of everything that has occurred in the sad dénouement of the poem—a highly simplified explanation, to be sure, but one whose logical force is irresistible; in its limited way, it is true and honest. Yet Chaucer here, as often elsewhere, gives an explanation for his poem that will satisfy our reasoning faculties because of its perfect suitability to the facts of the plot, but will leave our imaginations floundering in anticlimax, with most of our questions unanswered. It is true that we have never known Criseide; but most readers will prefer to continue not to know her rather than accept simple instability of heart as the key that unlocks her mystery. And the narrator himself finishes the portrait by invoking the unknown in his last line and second anticlimax: for ‘trewely’ he ‘can nat telle hir age’. All that is certain is that this immortal-seeming creature was most subject to time and to change, and that her mutability is indeed the sole reason for her immortality.

From Criseide to the Prioress is an easy transition suggested by the similarity of phrases in the last stanza quoted to phrases in the portrait of the Prioress.5 But the narrator of Troilus had described a heroine of romance whose conventional romance qualities did not enable her to endure the tests imposed by the real world. The narrator of the General Prologue, on the other hand, is trying to describe a nun who, in the real world, is better fitted to be a romance heroine. And even more than in Troilus, the tension (to use a somewhat weary critical term) between what is and what is expected exists primarily in the mind of the beholder. The portrait of the Prioress is the fourth of the series in the General Prologue, following those of Knight, Squire, and Yeoman. From the time the Knight first began to ride out, he loved chivalry—that is, from the time that he first became a knight he loved being a knight—and all his traits of character are interchangeable with those of an ideal knight. So it is also, on a less exalted scale, with the Squire and the Yeoman. After three such perfect examples of congruency between the person described and his profession, both the reader and the narrator may well expect more of the same. And the description starts promisingly enough:

Ther was also a Nonne, a Prioresse—


a statement that names the lady's profession twice, raising her nunliness to a higher mathematical power, as it were. One would not be surprised if the next line were to read:

Devout she was, and loved holinesse—

if, that is, the portrait had begun on the odd line. But the portrait begins on the even line, and it is the next line that is odd:

That of hir smiling was ful simple and coy.

It is easy to ignore how very odd this line is, for it follows with such plausible simplicity upon its predecessor, as if the first thing any one would want to know about a nun would naturally be the quality of her smiling—and after that, of course, the manner of her swearing:

Hir gretteste ooth was but by sainte Loy.

And so the portrait continues, as if the narrator were happy that for once in his life he has met a real-life romance heroine. But the old deception is inevitably present because, of course, she is a nun. Yet this incongruity is less a part of her consciousness than of the narrator's—until that is, he succeeds in exorcising it. Mindful of her profession, he manages to work in a reference to the divine service, if only to emphasize the aesthetic aspects of her rendition of it. But thereafter, charmed by the woman, he gets down to the really basic stuff of her table manners, and after five lines of graceful eating achieves what is apparently a terminal generalization on this aspect of the Prioress:

In curteisye was set ful muchel hir lest.

But the Lord Chesterfield in him has been too strongly stimulated by her dining-table elegance, and he turns from generalization back to specifics in order to make it clear that she drank every bit as daintily as she ate. Only then is he free once more to describe her in general terms, using some of the same ones that we have seen applied to Criseide. Then, in the twenty-fifth line of a forty-five line portrait, the awareness that he is talking about a nun returns to halt his descriptive progress with a sudden jerk:

But, for to speken of hir conscience,
She was so charitable and so pitous—.

But if he had thought to get her back to the convent's chapel-door with the high-Christian ideas of conscience, charity, and pity, he was mistaken, for she has gone off on her own way again, feeling sorry for mice and spoiling small dogs. And so, with one last defiant assertion that at once affirms and dismisses her religious side,

And al was conscience and tendre herte,

he turns, with obvious relief, to what both she and he are more interested in, her perfectly delightful appearance. Amor vincit omnia.

In discussing these portraits of four women I have tried to show some of the ways in which Chaucer can create complexity with his basically simple style—or rather, with a style that might better be called deceptively simple. In all four women there is an element of deception built into their descriptions. Emily is presumably a woman, but emerges from her description as the symbol of what may make the ideal of chivalry worthwhile. May seems the lovely meek victim of senile lust, but her potentiality for relieving her predicament in the most ruthless way is implicit in her description. Criseide, most charming of women, is candidly described as an ideal heroine of romance whose mystery the reader is encouraged, but not forced, to explore in search of qualities as fair as her own person is, only to find that in the end the mystery remains, and the qualities are, at best, insufficient. And finally the Prioress, whom the narrator tries to describe as a religious but ends up by describing, in all delighted honesty, as a romance heroine, thereby accomplishing, without using one satiric word, a double satire, on himself as a man as well as on her as a nun.

Although the Prioress herself is not really a complex woman, her portrait is surely one of the most complex brief portraits in English literature. Moreover, it concludes with a touch that seems to me representative of Chaucerian simplicity at its most diabolical. You will recall that after the narrator has finished his actual description, he adds the couplet,

Another Nonne with hire hadde she
That was hir chapelaine, and preestes three. 


Stylistically speaking, there isn’t a simpler sentence in Chaucer, a plain statement of plain fact. Yet although the couplet appears in all complete manuscripts—and the second line is one of those great rarities in the Canterbury Tales, a line with no manuscript variations—scholars as far back as Tyrwhitt have often questioned the authenticity of those three priests.6 Perhaps the principal stated objection to them is that they contradict another plain statement of fact, that there were twenty-nine pilgrims, for three priests would make at least thirty-one; and of course two of them never show up again in the Canterbury Tales. But one suspects that scholarly doubt about the priests is not uninfluenced by a certain gentlemanly impulse to save the Prioress's reputation: and one can point out, as Manly did, that the Convent of St Leonard's in Stratford-atte-Bowe (to which scholars, repairing Chaucer's omission, have assigned her) was too small to allow its Prioress three priests on her journeyings.7 Thus the majority of Chaucer's recent editors have agreed in assigning the priests to a curious limbo: they appear clearly in the text, but are rendered non-existent by the notes.8 Now you see them, now you don’t. In order to kill off Partridge, Swift turned both himself and Partridge into fictions; but one feels that the scholars, overcome by the charming verisimilitude of the portrait of the Prioress, have in their own real persons turned her fictional priests into real priests in order to prove that they have no fictional existence.

Fortunately there have been those who uphold the right of the three priests to remain in the text, notably Professors Sherbo and Hamilton.9 And Mrs Hamilton has re-emphasized Skeat's important point that Chaucer's nine-and-twenty is not the exact number it is often taken to be.10 Chaucer did, indeed, avoid using thirty, a round number which generally means in Middle and Modern English about thirty; but having chosen the utterly specific number twenty-nine, Chaucer then made it unspecific again by writing ‘wel nine and twenty’, which means ‘fully’ or ‘at least’ but not ‘exactly’ twenty-nine. This is a microcosm of his style: he gets credit for being an honest, straightforward, clearheaded narrator, while allowing himself a dishonest leeway of one, or two, or three: an honest russet number is made dishonest by its kersey modifier.

So much for Chaucer's reputation for honest dealing. But what about the lady's? Should the only fictional Prioress that St Leonard's ever enjoyed be going to Canterbury in the company of three priests? Surely not. Yet, like all the attractive women we have been examining, she is a romance heroine, and a most attractive one at that; and, as we have seen, the reaction of men to a romance heroine is a part of her character. I’m afraid that the three priests are a part of the Prioress's character, and while it may be courteous of scholars to try to relieve her of moral responsibility for them, it is untrue to that simple, trustworthy narrator, Geoffrey Chaucer. I’m sure he enjoyed awarding his creation such company, and I hope she is properly grateful to her creator. In any case, I am happy to think that even after five and a half centuries the Prioress is continuing her journey to Canterbury in the company of her three priests, probably making a fool of herself, but surely capable, like other attractive women, of making even bigger fools of us male critics.


  1. B. H. Bronson, In Search of Chaucer (Toronto, 1960), p. 10.

  2. Such terms as persona in their application to Chaucer … are roundly castigated by Professor Bronson on pp. 25-9.

  3. Robinson succeeds in avoiding the anacoluthon by putting a full stop after the second line; he thus makes a main clause out of what I take to be a consecutive clause dependent on a relative clause (that sit … cheere). Robinson's text would presumably be translated, ‘To behold May, who sits with so benign a look, seemed magic’.

  4. Both Robinson and R. K. Root in Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde (Princeton, 1926) prefer the even more pedantic variant al right.

  5. See, e.g., A. C. Cawley, ‘A Note on Chaucer's Prioress and Criseyde’, MLR, xliii (1948), 74-7.

  6. Thomas Tyrwhitt, The Canterbury Tales of Chaucer (London, 1775-8), i, ‘Introductory Discourse’. See also J. M. Manly ed., Canterbury Tales (New York, 1928), pp. 507-8; Manly-Rickert, ii, 95, and iii, 422-3; Robinson, p. 655; and A. C. Baugh, ed. Chaucer's Major Poetry (New York, 1963), p. 241.

  7. See Manly's 1928 edition, p. 508.

  8. An exception is Robert A. Pratt, ed., Selections from the Tales of Canterbury and Short Poems (Boston, 1966) who omits the words ‘and preestes three’ from A164, leaving the line incomplete.

  9. Arthur Sherbo, ‘Chaucer's Nun's Priest Again’, PMLA, lxiv (1949), 236-46; Marie P. Hamilton, ‘The Convent of Chaucer's Prioress and Her Priests', Philologica: The Malone Anniversary Studies, ed. T. A. Kirby and H. B. Woolf (Baltimore, 1949), pp. 179-90.

  10. Philologica, p. 182; W. W. Skeat's multivolumed Oxford Chaucer (1894), v, 19.

R. Howard Bloch (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11038

SOURCE: “Chaucer's Maiden's Head: ‘The Physician's Tale’ and the Poetics of Virginity,” in Representations, No. 28, Fall, 1989, pp. 113-28.

[In the following essay, Bloch points out that apparent discrepancies exist between the motivation and actions of the characters in Chaucer's “The Physician's Tale.” The key to making sense of such disparity, Bloch maintains, is understanding how the character Virginia's virginity would have been understood by medieval readers. Bloch explains how the Church Fathers of the time would have viewed the story, noting that once Virginia is looked upon with desire by Appius, she ceases to be a virgin.]

It is hard not to be struck in reading Chaucer's “Physician's Tale” by the insufficient motivation of this narrative account of how a virgin named Virginia is espied by a judge named Appius, who, through the churl Claudius, brings an indictment against her father Virginius, who, in turn, puts his daughter to death rather than suffer the shame of her sequestration in Appius' house.1 Chaucer, or the narrator, seems not very motivated to begin, for the stultified moralizing prologue, in which he discusses Nature's creation of Virginia and the importance of parents' surveillance of their children, occupies 118 lines, or over one third of the whole. Once the poet does begin, that beginning itself participates to such an extent in the quality of the accidental—the “Once upon a time, it happened”—that one wonders what the relation between the prologue and the almost generic narrative start really is: “This mayde upon a day wente in the toun / Toward a temple, with hire mooder deere, / As is of yonge maydens the manere” (118-20).2 Chaucer is, moreover, so anxious to end “The Physician's Tale” that the compressed resuming action is more postulated than shown: a crowd appears out of nowhere, Appius is thrown into prison, Claudius is exiled, and everybody else is hanged—all in ten lines! (267-76).

The characters of “The Physician's Tale” act so inexplicably and even illogically that not even the weight of psychologistic Chaucerian criticism can recuperate their intent. The whole turns, of course, around what is possibly a conscious play on words—that the maiden must lose her head in order to preserve her maidenhead.3 Yet the fact remains that Claudius' accusation is unconvincing on the level of plot,4 as is Appius' refusal to hear Virginius' defense: “This cursed juge wolde no thyng tarie, / Ne heere a word moore of Virginius” (196-97). There is no internal debate or discussion when Virginius announces to his daughter that there are only two alternatives—“outher deeth or shame / That thou most suffre” (212-13). The father's sentence is, furthermore, as illogical as that of the judge—“For love, and nat for hate, thou must be deed”; all the more so since Virginius knows the accusation to be false: “Allas, that evere Apius the say! / Thus hath he falsly jugged the to-day” (227-28). It is implausible that with so little, and even contradictory, explanation, Virginia herself should beg for death. Nor is the sudden appearance of those who recriminate Appius after the fact, but not at the time of his false judgment, any easier to believe since we learn too late that the “false iniquitee” (262) was known all along: “The peple anon had suspect in this thyng, / By manere of the cherles chalangying, / That it was by the assent of Apius: / They wisten wel that he was lecherus” (264-67). Then too, one wonders at the very end why Virginius, so uncompromising toward the beloved daughter for whom the notion of mercy never arises, is so quick to pardon Claudius, the instrument of the plot against her: “But that Virginius, of his pitee, / so preyde for hym that he was exiled” (272-73). Most of all, however, it is Appius' instantaneous passion for Virginia, the love at first sight, that fatal attraction, which animates the rest of the tale but which itself remains completely unmotivated and unexplained.

The incongruence between motivation and action has not escaped the eye of critics. Anne Middleton asserts that the “moral of the tale may be independent of the motives of any of the characters, and also independent of the point of view of the teller.” Thus her reading of “The Physician's Tale” focuses on the “passive sacrifice” of the virgin martyr, victimized by both justice and father, within a parable of passivity that extends all the way to the level of sentence structure: “Virginia is seen as an object, not a person; even when she is the grammatical subject of a sentence she is the sufferer of an action.”5 Charles Muscatine speaks of the “few essential details of plot handled so vaguely as to rob the tale … of any power it might have had to make us suspend disbelief.”6 Emerson Brown sees the Physician as “the literary projection of a mind incapable of dealing with causes” in a sick “world in which causes are at best imperfectly related to results.”7 Brian Lee concludes that “so good a character as Virginia is almost inevitably passive.”8 All who have written on “The Physician's Tale” (or at least all I have read, who are by no means all) insist, as if Chaucer himself assumed a posture of passivity, as if Chaucer himself were, in other words, innocent, that this is a story determined by a subsuming framing narrative. I refer not to the obvious structuring boundaries of an acknowledged source (“There was, as telleth Titus Livius, / A knyght that called was Virginius”; 1-2), nor to the pretense at factual presentation (“For this is no fable, / But knowen for historical thyng notable; / The sentence of it sooth is, out of doute”; 155-57), but to the perception of some governing abstract design. Derek Pearsall speaks of a “moral imperative,” Anne Middleton of a “larger, operative philosophical context than his [Chaucer's] predecessors.” Sheila Delany maintains that this context is intentionally apolitical—a pagan politicial narrative transformed into static Christian exemplum.9

It is precisely something on the order of the exemplary that one senses in “The Physician's Tale” which encourages the critic to move so easily, apparently logically, in the direction of allegory and to elide the narrative altogether in favor of personification. Thus Patricia Kean: “The moralitas, indeed, suggests that the ‘historical thing’ is being presented as an exemplum, in human terms, of the war of the vices against the virtues.”10 Anne Middleton notes that the characters of “The Physician's Tale” act like allegorical figures, demonically possessed, without self-awareness; they embody ideas, are unidimensional, they lack freedom of will. Brian Lee speaks of “the undeviating rigor with which the characters adhere to the idea that animates them. … Apius is as ideal or allegorical a figure as Virginia herself, purely evil as she is purely good.”11

There is no denying that “The Physician's Tale” is an allegory, or that Virginia, daughter of Virginius, is an allegorical figure whose name connotes the qualities that she embodies. Virginia's actions are, as Chaucer claims, a text: “For in hir lyvyng maydens myghten rede, / As in a book, every good word or dede / That longeth to a mayden vertuous, / She was so prudent and so bountevous” (107-10). Yet I would like to suggest that the fatality which seems to hang over “The Physician's Tale” has less to do with the model of the Christian martyr, with the constraints of history or a received story, or finally with moral allegory per se; rather, it has to do with medieval definitions of virginity, and with the relation of virginity, within the context of medieval poetics, to the specifically literary effects of a poetics of praise. Chaucer participates in a long tradition, most elaborately articulated by the Church Fathers, put into practice by the French vernacular poets, passed on through Jean de Meun and others, according to which the relation between sexual desire and poetic language was taken for granted and in which the concept of virginity occupied pride of place.

If Virginia is the figure of virginity, what is it exactly that she embodies? Of what consists her virtue? Where can we locate it? What exactly is virginity as the medievals understood it? The key to understanding motivation within “The Physician's Tale” lies, I think it can be shown, in the answer to these questions.

For the Early Church Fathers virginity always carries a reference to Adam and Eve before the Fall. Jerome, for example, speaks of the “paradise of virginity”: “In paradise Eve was a virgin.”12 Jerome refers not, of course, to a historical time or a geographical place but to a theological state of man—the angelic, asexual state of apatheia akin to Augustine's notion of technical virgins who reproduce in Eden without desire or pleasure. Ambrose too claims that “in holy virgins we see the life of the angels we lost in paradise,” and, as Peter Brown has shown in a recent article and a major book, the “abnormal” status of the virgin body made it, like the angels, a “mediator between the human and the divine.”13 Then too, the notion of virginity is all bound up in doctrinal reference to Mary, the Virgin, who redeems Eve. “Death,” Jerome writes, “came through Eve, but life has come through Mary. And thus the gift of virginity has been bestowed most richly upon women, seeing that it has its beginning from a woman.”14 And though Jerome asserts elsewhere that “God cannot raise a virgin once she has fallen,”15 it is clear, according to the Christological model of salvation history, that redemption implies a return to the state of virginity, to the vita angelica—an eschatological abolition of sexuality. Methodius speaks of the “bliss of a new Eden,” Gregory of Nyssa of a return to the time before the Fall: “Through this sequence of events, we, together with our first father, were excluded from paradise, and now, through the same sequence, it is possible to return to the original blessedness.” Following Paul, Gregory asserts that in Christ “there is neither male nor female.”16

On the individual level one assumes, of course, that a virgin is a woman who has never slept with a man. Indeed, much of the imagery surrounding virginity focuses upon the notion of a bodily integrity that rhetorically holds the promise to the woman willing to renounce her sexuality of escaping the consequences of the Fall.17 Yet, as the Fathers make abundantly clear, it is not enough merely to be chaste. The distinction between virgins in mind and chastity of the body is emphasized throughout, and there is no difference between desire and the act. Rather, the act is defined by the mental state of the actor. Thus, a couple, according to the Glossa Palatina, could be said to practice chastity even while making love.18 And, conversely, “One can commit an adultery only in the heart,” writes Origen in his commentary on Matthew, “without going all the way toward realizing it. … The one who is guilty only in his heart will be punished for this adultery. … And if, on the contrary he has wanted to do it and has tried without succeeding, he will be punished as if he had sinned in act and not only in the heart.”19 Which means that a virgin is a woman who not only has never slept with a man but who has never desired to do so. “There are virgins in the flesh, not in the spirit, whose body is intact, their soul corrupt,” Jerome maintains. “But that virgin is a sacrifice to Christ whose mind has not been defiled by thought, nor her flesh by lust.” “There must be spiritual chastity,” John Chrysostom insists, “and I mean by chastity not only the absence of wicked and shameful desire, the absence of ornaments and superfluous cares, but also being unsoiled by life's cares.”20 One might well ask how the absence of “superfluous cares” can be anything but the very superfluity it renounces, but that is one of the defining paradoxes of virginity that must await our conclusion.

To continue: since the desire of a virgin is sufficient to make her no longer a virgin, and since, according to the Patristic totalizing scheme of desire, there can be no difference between the state of desiring and of being desired, a virgin is a woman who has never been desired by a man. St. Cyprian:

But if you … enkindle the fire of hope, so that, without perhaps losing your own soul, you nevertheless ruin others who behold you, you cannot be excused on the ground that your mind is chaste and pure. Your shameless apparel and your immodest attire belie you, and you can no longer be numbered among the maidens and virgins of Christ, you who so live as to become the object of sensual love.21

Or Tertullian: “For that other, as soon as he has felt concupiscence after your beauty, and has mentally already committed [the deed] which his concupiscence pointed to, perishes.”22

What’s more, the Fathers argue, since desire is engendered by, and indeed consists in, a look, a virgin, seen, is no longer a virgin.23 Almost to a man they quote the dictum from Matthew 5.28—“Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery”—and are obsessed by public baths, the fantasized locus classicus of the prurient regard. “For it is required of thee, O believing woman,” we read in the Didascalia apostolorum, “that thou shalt flee from the multitude of vain sights of the pride of eye which is in the bath.”24 And it seems, Cyprian argues, that no amount of soap and water can cleanse the body sullied by being seen: “You gaze upon no one immodestly, but you yourself are gazed upon immodestly. You do not corrupt your eyes with foul delight, but in delighting others you are corrupted. … Virginity is unveiled to be marked out and contaminated.” “Seeing and being seen,” Tertullian states, “belong to the self-same lust”; “Marriage … as fornication, is transacted by gaze and mind.”25 And, finally, in what is perhaps the most violent expression of the deflowerment of the look, Tertullian insists that “every public exposure of a virgin is (to her) a suffering of rape.”26 There is in the founding thinking of the problem of desire in the first four centuries of the Christian era a profound link, which will surface occulted in the twelfth century to dominate the Western love tradition, between the distortion implicit to the gaze and erotic desire. Thus Andreas Capellanus' definition of love, almost seven centuries later, as “a certain inbred suffering caused by sight of and excessive meditation upon the beauty of the opposite sex,” and thus the prescription, found in the penitentials, that sexual intercourse should take place at night and the stipulation of one in particular that a man should never see his wife naked.27 The Didascalia apostolorum speaks of “pride of eye,” Ambrose of the “guilt even in a look,” Chrysostom of “unchastened gazing,” Cyprian of the “concupiscence of the eyes,” and Novatian of “the adultery of the eyes.” A virgin, in short, is a woman who has never been seen by a man.

But not exactly, since, in condemning public baths, the place par excellence of the gaze of the other, Jerome wonders if it is licit for virgins to bathe at all since, in seeing their own bodies, there is always the potential for desire: “For myself, I wholly disapprove of baths for a virgin of full age. Such a one should blush and feel overcome at the idea of seeing herself undressed.”28 Nor do things end here really: since desire resides in sight, and since it makes no difference whether one sees or is seen, either by the other or oneself, and, finally, since sight is not contained entirely in the faculty of perception but is also a faculty of the intellect, a virgin is a woman who is not thought not to be one in the thought of another. The virgin is above suspicion: “Even though they [men and women] may be separated by walls, what good is that?” John Chrysostom asks. “This does not suffice to shelter them from all suspicion.” And Clement of Rome, supposedly the disciple of Peter, warns against sitting next to a married woman, “lest anyone should make insinuations against us.”29 Thus, the only true virgin is the one who has never sat next to or been in the presence of the opposite sex, or, finally, one who has not entered the thought of another. “For,” to quote Tertullian again, “a virgin ceases to be a virgin from the time it becomes possible for her not to be one.”30

Here we arrive at an interpretation of the key motivating moment of “The Physician's Tale,” for the concept of virginity as elaborated by the Church Fathers bears directly, almost paradigmatically, upon Appius' fatal attraction to Virginia since, as we have seen, the judge's fixation cannot be accounted for psychologistically in terms of his lecherousness, or, in the phrase of one critic, his “blind lust,” without adducing a conclusion unjustified by its assumptions. In simplest terms, that which motivates the action of “The Physician's Tale” is nothing more than the look. The fatality of Appius' attraction has nothing to do with Virginia per se and everything to do with the implicit transgressive sight of a virgin. Thus the passion that comes out of nowhere, that arrives accidentally in the course of a walk:

And so bifel this juge his eyen caste
Upon this mayde, avysynge hym ful faste,
And she cam forby there as this judge stood.
Anon his herte chaunged and his mood,
So was he caught with beautee of this mayde,
And so to hymself ful pryvely he sayde,
“This mayde shal be myn, for any man!”


And thus the finality of the result; for Virginia is deflowered from the moment she steps into the street, or from the moment she crosses paths with Appius, whose very name resonates with the deponent Latin verb apiscor (a rare form of the compound adipiscor) meaning “to reach after,” “to seize,” “to get possession of,” “to perceive,” just as Claudius' name summons claudo, “to close,” “shut,” “hem in,” which is also his function. What this means is that the shame which Virginius offers to his daughter as an alternative to death has already occurred in the moment that Virginia is perceived since, as Tertullian holds, once again, “every public exposure of a virgin is [to her] the equivalent of rape.” “Allas,” Virginius laments, “that evere Apius the say!” (227).

Among the classical ascetic writers of the Patristic period and the Middle Ages, woman is allied not only with what I have identified elsewhere as the cosmetic, with decoration, adornment, hairstyle and color, dress, makeup, and jewelry, but with the whole range of what Jerome calls “life's little idle shows”—idolatry, fornication, prostitution, horses, games, the theater, mime, poetry, and especially with rhetoric (in short, anything sensually pleasurable at all.).31 Virginity is, in fact, precisely the opposite of the cosmetic, and just as marriage, according to the Fathers, is associated with ornamentation, virginity implies a lack of ornament. “Let her very dress and garb remind her of Whom she is promised,” warns Jerome. “Do not pierce her ears or paint her face consecrated to Christ with white lead or rouge. Do not hang gold or pearls about her neck or load her head with jewels, or by reddening her hair make it suggest the fires of gehenna.”32 So too Methodius: “While guarding herself against those things which are intrinsically sinful, the virgin must not on the other hand be such things as resemble or are equivalent to the same; for in that case, while conquering the one, she would be overwhelmed by the other. Such would be the case if she pampered her body with the textures of clothing, or with gold and precious stones and luxury and other bodily finery—things which of themselves intoxicate the soul.”33 And Cyprian: “What have such maidens to do with worldly dress and adornments. … No one on seeing a virgin should doubt whether she is one. Let her innocence manifest itself equally in all things, and her dress not dishonor the sanctity of her body. Why does she go forth in public adorned, why with her hair dressed, as if she either had a husband or were seeking one? Let her rather fear to be attractive.”34 The virgin, adorned, having appealed to the senses, is, like the virgin seen, no longer a virgin.35

Within the “cosmetic theology” (Marsha Colish) of the Early Church Fathers, the feminine is practically synonymous with the realm of the senses.36 Philo, for example, states that “the most proper and exact name for sense perception is ‘woman,’” who is allied with the sensitive (i.e., sensual) part of the soul as opposed to man, who remains on the side of intellection.37 The Philonian distinction, which may resonate with the Old Testament relation of Abraham to Sarah or Lot to his wife, is indeed another version of the contrast between form and matter, activity and passivity, soul and flesh, which are gendered respectively male and female in Christian tradition. Thus man is associated with intelligence, mens, ratio, the rational soul; woman, with sensus, the body, the animal faculties, appetite. Origen follows the Philonian lead, as do Ambrose, Augustine, and, later, Jean Scottus, Hughes de Saint-Victor, and Gilbert de Poitiers; for them, woman, in the phrase of Rosemary Ruether, assumes the burden of “carnality in the disorder of sin.”38

Though one does well to contemplate the paradox that this entails—namely, that if woman is conceived to be analogous to the senses or perception, then any look upon a woman's body must be the look of a woman upon a woman, and the male gaze is a non sequitur—the fact remains that in Western tradition, whether courtly or misogynist, transgression lurks in a look. As John Chrysostom warns:

Hence how often do we, from beholding a woman, suffer a thousand evils; returning home, and entertaining an inordinate desire, and experiencing anguish for many days; yet nevertheless, we are not made discreet; but when we have scarcely cured one wound, we again fall into the same mischief, and are caught by the same means; and for the sake of the brief pleasure of a glance, we sustain a kind of lengthened and continual torment. … The beauty of a woman is the greatest snare. Or rather, not the beauty of woman, but unchastened gazing!39

To see, in other words, is to be within the realm of the senses and desire, while chastity implies a lack of perception that transcends the corporeal. True chastity connotes a lack of desire that, as Clement of Alexandria maintains, goes beyond even the self-renunciation of the Stoics: “The human ideal of continence, I mean that which is set forth by Greek philosophers, teaches that one should fight desire and not be subservient to it so as to bring it to practical effect. But our ideal is not to experience desire at all. Our aim is not that while a man feels desire he should get the better of it, but that he should be continent even respecting desire itself.”40 To be chaste is to be beyond the corporeal. “The pursuit of virginity,” Gregory of Nyssa writes, “is a certain art and faculty of the more divine life, teaching those living in the flesh how to be like the incorporeal nature.”41

The desire to transcend desire, to be beyond perception, is indistinguishable from the desire to escape the body altogether. It is in this sense that virginity becomes a central virtue for the Patristics, the organizing principle of what Michel Foucault has analyzed in the third volume of History of Sexuality in terms of the “techniques of the self” as they were set into place in the early centuries of Christianity.42 As Methodius proves methodically, there can be no chastity merely of the sexual organs: “Thus it would be ridiculous to keep one's generative organs pure, but not one's tongue; or to keep one's tongue pure, but not one's sight, one's ears or hands; or to keep all these pure, but not one's heart, allowing it to consort with anger and conceit.” And, conversely, there can be no control of the rest of the body that does not imply chastity: “For if a person endeavors to restrain his body from the pleasures of carnal love without controlling himself in other respects, he does not honor chastity; indeed, he rather dishonors it to no small degree by base desires, substituting one pleasure for another.”43

To be chaste is to transcend the corporeal, or in some profound sense to be rid of consciousness itself. In this desire for totality lies the unmistakable symptom of a death wish.44 “While in the flesh let her be without the flesh,” urges Jerome; “The virgin … both yearns for her death and is oppressed by life, anxious as she is to see her groom face to face and enjoy that glory,” John Chrysostom assures us.45 “What is virginity,” Novatian asks, “if not a magnificent contemplation of the afterlife?”46 The Patristics are, of course, highly aware that if everyone practiced chastity, the human race would perish,47 and it is in this way that celibacy, generalized, conspires with the end of human time, “for from marrying,” warns Tertullian, “result wombs, and breasts, and infants. And when an end of marrying? I believe after the end of living.”48

In fact, a certain inescapable logic of virginity, most evident in medieval hagiography, leads syllogistically to the conclusion that the only good virgin—that is, the only true virgin—is a dead virgin. For Cyprian the only proper adornments of the virgin's flesh are the wounds of the martyr: “These are the precious jewels of the flesh; these are the better ornaments of the body.”49 Martyrdom is practically synonymous with virginity, as Ambrose insists in his tale of St. Agnes's beheading. “Why are you delaying, executioner?” the anxious martyr asks, “Let this body perish which can be loved by eyes which I would not.”50

This combination of a desire to transcend perception and the death wish has particular meaning for our understanding of “The Physician's Tale,” since it implies not only that Virginia is not a virgin from the moment she is seen, but that her death is inferred the moment she steps into the street. This is perhaps why, as critics have noted, there is so little give and take surrounding the father's taking of his daughter's life. But the scholarly debate about whether or not Virginius loves Virginia, and therefore whether he should have given her more room to protest, is misplaced. So too is the rationalization that Virginia, because she was ravished, is technically still chaste.51 To repeat, Virginia is dead, at least as a virgin, the minute she falls under Appius' gaze, by which the action of the story, thus transformed into allegory, is complete.

The time has come to confront at least one of the paradoxes of virginity, which lies at the center of one important strain of the medieval discourse on women, and which, I maintain, plays a determining role in “The Physician's Tale.” First, and here the theologians are fully aware of the contradiction, if virginity were general, then there would be no human race. Virginity as absolute cannot, in other words, be absolute but depends upon the difference it excludes. This is one of the persistent justifications for sexual intercourse—that in losing one's virginity one can give birth to a virgin. Second, though virginity may represent the antithesis of the cosmetic, it remains, because of its very typical status, an adornment in its own right. And despite the fact that Cyprian, for example, maintains that “virgins, in desiring to be adorned … cease to be virgins” and that the only proper adornments of the virgin are the wounds of the martyr, Jerome speaks of continence as the “ornament of the inner man”; and Methodius, of Christ as “arming the flesh with the ornament of virginity.” There is, again, no way of dissuading the reader from ornamentation without becoming complicit with that from which one pretends to dissuade.52 Third, to the extent that virginity is conceived as a quietude of the senses, an escape from desire, it itself becomes a source of desire: “True and absolute and pure virginity fears nothing more than itself,” Tertullian warns. “Even female eyes it shrinks from encountering. Other eyes itself has. It takes itself in refuge to the veil of the head as to a helmet, as to a shield, to protect its glory against the blows of temptations, against the darts of scandals, against suspicions and whispers and emulations; (against) envy also itself.”53

Virginity as Idea, virginity as potential or absence, becomes translated into a pure negativity, or vacuum, to which man is drawn. This may, in fact, be the way we should understand Chaucer's attention to the fact “that thrugh that land they preised hire echone / That loved vertu, save Envye allone” (113-14). Perfection as a source of desire is, of course, an idea with a long and highly polarized history that not only leads to the current of medieval misogyny; the seductive negative potential of virginity also entails that which is conceived (wrongly) as the antidote to misogyny or the courtly relation. The close proximity of antifeminism and idolatry of the feminine is nowhere more evident than in Thibaut de Champagne's lyric “Ausi conme unicorne sui,” which exploits the fatal effects of perception upon the perceiver; for we must not forget that Appius too dies because of a look:

Ausi conme unicorne sui
Qui s'esbahist en regardant,
Quant la pucele va mirant.
Tant est lië de son ennui,
Pasmee chiet en son giron;
Lors l’ocit on en traïson.
Et moi ont mort d’autel senblant
Amors et ma dame por voir.
Mon cuer ont, n’en puis point ravoir.

[I am like the unicorn which is stunned in looking, fascinated, at the virgin. Happy with his torment, it falls into her lap; prey offered to the traitor who kills it. So it is with me: I am truly put to death by Love and my lady. They took my heart, and I cannot recover it.]54

“Ausi conme unicorne sui” is a parable of the fatalism of the gaze upon the virgin, a parable of virginity, which underscores the overriding paradox of the courtly lyric and of courtliness.

That is, to the extent to which the woman of the courtly lyric seduces but is never seduced, she represents a virgin. The prerequisite of her being desired, in fact, is that she be perfect, ideal, complete unto herself, without imperfection or lack, and therefore without desire. One of the stipulations of loving is that one not be loved in return. The lady must be a virgin in order to be loved, the desire for the virgin representing an ideal or idea that I have identified elsewhere—in relation to the concept of misogynistic virginity—as a desire for the absolute, which in this case subtends a profound wish for identity with the other, for self-identity. Yet the very notion of self-identity, like the possibility of the embodied virgin, is undercut at every instant within the poem by the fact that it is never realizable within the realm of language. The proof lies no further than the first line: “Ausi conme unicorne sui.” “To be like” a unicorn is not “to be” a unicorn; language itself embodies the principle of difference, or opens a space within the self, each time one speaks or writes.

Though virginity may hold the fantasy of an escape from desire, it cannot escape the logic of the desire to escape desire, which remains internal to desire itself. Nonetheless, we are drawn closer to a conclusion according to which there can be only two possibilities: 1) either virginity, as absolute, has no substance, does not exist. Thus the images of evanescence it engenders. Methodius speaks of virgins “clothed … in the brightness of the Word”: “For her robe, she is clothed in pure light; instead of jewels, her head is adorned with shining stars. For their light is for her what clothing is for us. And she uses the stars as we do brilliant gems; but her stars are not like those visible to us on earth, but finer and brighter ones, such that our own are merely their copies and representations.”55 Or 2) the abstraction that virginity implies is destroyed by its articulation. This is another way of saying, again, that the loss of virginity implied in its exposure is analogous to the loss of the universality of an Idea implicit to its expression; or, more simply, that there is no way of talking about virginity that does not entail its loss since the universal is always veiled by the defiling garment of words. For if, as Tertullian maintains, the veil is the sign of the virgin, protecting her from both the gaze of others and her own gaze, then virginity itself can be nothing but a veil; and, as veil, it falls within the material pale implicit to all embodied signs. There can be no difference between Tertullian's “veil of virginity,” Jerome's “veil of chastity,” and Methodius' “veil of letters.” “With the word the garment entered,” Tertullian assures us elsewhere.56 Which can only be read: language is the ornament, the veil, that defiles the virgin by exposure, since the senses, equated with the body, have no direct access to an Idea, allied with the soul. “No one,” John Chrysostom writes, “has anywhere seen a soul by itself stripped of the body,”57 which, turned upon “The Physician's Tale,” inevitably poses the question of Chaucer's own complicity in the act of despoliation that he, through the Physician, narrates.

To the extent that we are tempted to psychologize “The Physician's Tale,” to explain the characters in terms of Virginia's natural goodness and Appius' lecherousness, we must bear in mind that the negative potential that Virginia as virginity embodies cannot, by its very abstraction, fail to attract the attention of Appius as apperception; together they stand as the two poles of an allegory which is not so much that of the virtues and vices as that of the genesis of the story itself. “The Physician's Tale,” which contains no other action than the coming of a conception into the purview of perception, is, at bottom, a parable of embodiment presented under the guise of the deflowering glance. The coming into consciousness of something so abstract that it can only be conceived in terms of being, the breaking of the universality of the idea implicit to material personification, is the very essence of the literary act. No narrative account of virginity can, in other words, be other than the very act of despoiling that which fiction presents as the possibility of virginal perfection.

My point is really very simple: that Chaucer, in exposing his tale, does to the characters exactly what Appius, under the guise of fiction, does to Virginia. He deflowers at the very instant he depicts. And this is done prospectively by the rhetoric of excessive praise, absent both in Livy and Jean de Meun, that excites the desire of the reader even before Appius enters upon the scene. Chaucer, in the opening encomium to Virginia's beauty, issues—through the Nature that he creates and who is invested with the power of creation—a challenge:

Fair was this mayde in excellent beautee
Aboven every wight that man may see;
For Nature hath with sovereyn diligence
Yformed hire in so greet excellence,
As though she wolde seyn, “Lo! I, Nature,
Thus kan I forme and peynte a creature
Whan that me list; who kan me countrefete?”


By bringing Virginia under the gaze that is (to Tertullian) the equivalent of rape, Chaucer loses all pretense at innocence; he incites, in fact, the very thing which the tale seems morally to denounce:

And if that excellent was hire beautee,
A thousand foold moore vertuous was she.
In her lakked no condicioun
That is to preyse, as by discrecioun.
As wel in goost as body chast was she;
For which she floured in virginitee
With alle humylitee and abstinence,
With alle attemperaunce and pacience,
With mesure eek of beryng and array.


In praising Virginia, Chaucer, enmeshed in the paradoxical logic that would sing the virtues of perfect modesty, that would adorn excessively that which exists “with mesure eek of beryng and array,” violates the virgin. For there is, again, no way of speaking about virginity that does not imply its loss, no poetics of praise that is not already complicit in the violence of rape, no magnification of the perfection of woman abstracted that is not a taking of possession such that the Physician, or Chaucer for that matter, can avoid finding himself in the position of Appius—aping Appius: “This mayde shal be myn, for any man!” (129). This is an assertion with enormous implications for another major component of the Chaucerian canon, “The Legend of Good Women,” where the same rhetoric of excessive praise is transformed into the equivalent of a genre. In “The Legend of Lucrece,” for example, the boast that incites rape is explicitly thematized: “And lat us speke of wyves, that is best; / Preyse every man his owene, as hym lest, / And with oure speche lat us ese oure herte” (1702-5)—Thus Tarquin prepares the way for Collatine's complicity—again through a rhetoric of praise that solicits excess—in Lucretia's violation and death: “‘I have a wif,’ quod he, ‘that, as I trowe, / Is holden good of alle that evere hire knowe. / Go we to-nyght to Rome, and we shal se’” (1708-10).58

Among the French poets no one understood the relation of a poetics of praise, erotic desire, and the making of fiction better than Marie de France, whose “Lanval,” in many respects the archetypal lay, allegorizes the boast so explicitly as to confirm the reading of “The Physician's Tale” that I have just proposed. “Lanval” is the story of a knight of Arthur's court who, though he participates in the royal campaign against the Picts and the Scots, is forgotten when the time comes to distribute the booty of war:

Asez i duna riches duns
E as cuntes e as baruns.
A ceus de la Table Roünde—
N’ot tant de teus en tut le munde—
Femmes et teres departi,
Fors a un sul ki l’ot servi:
Ceo fu Lanval; ne l’en sovint
Ne nuls des soens bien ne li tint.

[He (King Arthur) gave rich gifts to counts and barons. To those of the Round Table—and there were not such in all the world—he distributed women and lands, except to one who had served him: that was Lanval; he did not remember him nor give him any of his goods.59

The neglected knight, who also happens to be far from home (“Fiz a rei fu, de haut parage, / Mes luin ert de sun heritage!” [He was a king's son, of high peerage, but far from his inheritance”; 27-28), wanders off with his horse into the countryside, where he encounters a series of marvelously beautiful ladies before meeting the fairy princess of his dreams, a woman so rich that “Queen Semiramis and the Emperor Octavian himself together could not buy the right panel of her tent.” She promises Lanval her love, eternal fidelity, and as much wealth as his heart desires, under one condition—that he not reveal her existence:

“Amis, fet ele, or vus chasti,
Si vus comant et si vus pri:
Ne vus descovrez a nul humme!
A tuz jurs m’avrīez perdue,
Si ceste amur esteit seüe;
Jamés nem purrīez veeir
Ne de mun cors seisine aveir”

[Friend, she says, now I warn you, I command and pray of you: Do not reveal yourself to any man! You will have lost me forever, if this love becomes known; never will you be able to see me nor have possession of my body; 143-49]

As a representation of fantasy, a pure compensatory idea conjured by the mind, Marie's fairy queen, in a version of the drama of virginity written some two centuries before that of Chaucer, is Virginia's older, wiser sister. A rural pixy, she not only distances herself from the possibility of stepping into the street but warns about the danger of commingling abstraction with expression. For the conditions that she sets, and that resemble the Celtic ordeal of silence or geis, make explicit the analogy between the violence of the gaze and that of speech while at the same time underscoring the identity of the paradox of the virgin and that of the poet. Once again, there is no means of representing an idea that does not entail its violation, no promise articulated that can be kept, that is not, in the instant it is pronounced, already broken.

Indeed, Lanval, whose generosity to other knights as well as to jongleurs compensates for Arthur's neglect, is able to maintain the secret of the source of his wealth until Guenivere requests his love and, when he refuses, accuses him of homosexuality. The knight is only able to extricate himself with the boast of loving someone more beautiful than the queen. Guenivere, in yet another medieval rendering of the Potiphar's wife motif, denounces him to her husband. Lanval realizes all is lost: “Il s'esteit bien aparceüz / Qu’il aveit perdue s'amie: / Descovert ot la druërie!” (“He knows well he has lost his love: He uncovered loving”; 334-36). Arthur, meanwhile, puts the wronged knight in a position of either proving the truth of his boast—which, as boast, prevents its own proof—or of being punished. The disconsolate Lanval, who contemplates suicide, is rescued at the last minute when, amidst all the realistic trappings of his trial, the fairy maiden suddenly appears, is acknowledged to be the most beautiful—“La pucele entra el palais: / Unkes si bele n’i vint mais!” (The lady entered the palace; never did a more beautiful one come there; 601-2)—and carries him off to Avalon.60 “Lanval” is an exemplum about the violence of the boast, but also about the impossibility of speaking virginity without violating it as we have seen in “The Physician's Tale.” And yet, Lanval, the neglected knight, finds himself in exactly the position of the courtly lover, and presumably the poet: in order to declare his love he is obliged to expose that which, by the contract of courtliness—which is none other than that of fiction itself—is supposed to remain secret.

The lay underscores once again the coterminous paradox of courtliness and of virginity—that to love one must love perfection or a virgin; that to love a virgin is to love an abstraction, that which is, by definition, unembodied. Whether one desires the unattainable lady of courtly tradition or the Holy Virgin of the spiritual lyric, the object of desire is always absent in order for desire to fix upon it.61 And it is always violated when made present, boasted of, or even, as is inherent to the poetics of praise in which Chaucer participates, spoken of. The lady must remain unseen, unspoken, or even unthought of in order to remain worthy of love; the lover must remain silent in order to be worthy of speaking that which his speech will transgress.

“Lanval,” like “La Chastelaine de Vergi,” is structured around the motif of the broken promise, which, because of the implicit situation of communication that courtliness implies—that is, the necessary exposure of that which according to rules of discretion should be secret—transforms Lanval's dilemma (the fairy's proposition “If you reveal it, you lose it”) into what one might think of as the implicit paradox of the poet: “If you say it, you destroy it,” a proposition entailed by the adulatory context of the courtly poem. The requisite discretion is transgressed by the equally requisite praise of the beloved. “I love and am the friend of she who should have the prize among all those whom I know,” boasts Lanval.62

Lanval's boast is the very essence of the courtly encomium—the excessive praise of the lady who surpasses all others. “Even her poorest maid,” he claims, “is worth more than the queen” because of “her body, her face, her beauty, her learning, and her goodness.”63 Nor is the knight's boast different from, say, that of the troubadour Cercamon: “Compared to my lady, I would not value the most beautiful woman ever seen more than a glove.”64

And what too is Lanval's suffering but that of the archetypal afflicted courtly lover, unable to obtain the beloved, faint, begging for mercy, alienated from himself, suicidal?

En une chambre fu tuz suls;
Pensis esteit e anguissus.
S'amie apele mut sovent
Mes ceo ne li valut neent.
Il se pleigneit e suspirot
D’ures en autres se pasmot;
Puis li crie cent feiz merci,
Qu’ele parolt a sun ami.
Sun quor e sa buche maudit;
C’est merveille k’il ne s'ocit!

[In a room he was all alone, downcast and anguished. He calls his friend often, but that avails him not at all. He complains and signs and faints every other hour; then he cries a hundred times for mercy, that she should appear to her friend. He curses his heart and mouth. It’s a miracle that he doesn’t kill himself; 338-47]

The only difference between Lanval and the eternally singing and suffering lover of the courtly lyric is one of perspective: where the planctus is within the lyric presented in the first person “from within,” it is here presented narratively from the point of view of a third party.

What this suggests is that the discourse of praise, which culminates in the figure of the apparently perfect woman, the virgin, is neither the antidote to nor the opposite of the medieval discourse of misogyny but a co-complicit abstraction of woman that, as idealization, functions alongside of and not against the antifeminist strategy of possession that dominates the articulation of gender from the Early Church Fathers to the early troubadours.65 This is the only way, in fact, that one can explain certain seeming contradictions which have perplexed scholars from the beginning and which are no contradictions at all—the scabrous versus the courtly “sides” of William IX, the idealistic versus the realistic “halves” of Andreas Capellanus' Art of Courtly Love or of the Roman de la Rose, or even the conflicting impulses of many courtly poets both to praise and to deprecate the woman of their dreams.66 And it means as well that the question which currently obsesses Chaucer specialists—whether Chaucer is “the friend or foe of women”—is unresolvable, that it has to be rearticulated outside of the limits of simple alternatives, and that it may, ultimately, have more to do with the way the Middle Ages thought the question of the feminine than with any particular woman or with women at all.

Second, in closing something should perhaps be said about the obviously close connection between the paradox of the virgin and the ever present masochism of the poet inscribed at the core of Western eroticism; for it is difficult to deny that a certain fatalism haunts the courtly tradition which even Chaucer does not manage to escape. It is not simply, as Georges Bataille, Denis de Rougement, Gertrude von le Fort, and other high priests of the erotic have suggested, that love and death go together, or are bound in a theologized notion of a desire for transcendence mediated through the individual love object. Rather, the intimacy of love and death in eroticism has to do with the fact that one kills something whenever one desires, if only the virginal purity that is conceived to be the sine qua non of loving. Virginia's “beautee was hire deth,” Harry Bailly reminds us in the “Prologue” to “The Pardoner's Tale,” which directly follows that of the Physician (297).

Finally, the impossibility of thinking virginity without violating it should be seen in the larger context of the literary instance. Doomed to failure, it works nonetheless. “No one,” to repeat John Chrysostom's words, “has anywhere seen a soul by itself stripped of the body.” “Who could describe the pleasure? What expression could suggest the joy of a soul so disposed?” he goes on to ask. “It does not exist.”67 The recognition of the paradox inscribed in the literary endeavor denies none of its force or pleasure. On the contrary, the truth of literature, once it has renounced the pretense to historical or biographical accuracy, lies precisely in this truth of fiction that is allegorized by Chaucer in “The Physician's Tale.”


  1. This lack of motivation accounts no doubt for its critical disrepute and relative neglect.

  2. All quotations are from The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. F. N. Robinson (Boston, 1961), 145-47. Citations of verse lines will be given in parentheses in the text.

  3. I am endebted to Lee Patterson for pointing this out to me.

  4. “To yow, my lord, sire Apius so deere,
    Sheweth youre povre servant Claudius
    How that a knyght, called Virginius,
    Agayns the lawe, agayn al equitee,
    Holdeth, expres agayn the wyl of me,
    My servant, which that is my thral by right.
    Which fro myn hous was stole upon a nyght,
    Whil that she was ful yong; this wol I preeve
    By witnesse, lord, so that it nat yow greeve.
    She nys his doghter nat, what so he seye.
    Wherfore to yow, my lord the juge, I preye,
    Yeld me my thral, if that it be youre wille.”
    Lo, this was al the sentence of his bille.


  5. Anne Middleton, “‘The Physician's Tale’ and Love's Martyrs: ‘Ensamples Mo Than Ten’ as a Method in the Canterbury Tales,Chaucer Review 8 (1973): 14, 21.

  6. Charles Muscatine, Poetry and Crisis in the Age of Chaucer (South Bend, Ind., 1972), 139.

  7. Emerson Brown, “What Is Chaucer Doing with the Physician and His Tale?” Philological Quarterly 60 (1981): 134, 141.

  8. Brian Lee, “The Position and Purpose of ‘The Physician's Tale,’” Chaucer Review 22 (1987): 154.

  9. Sheila Delany, “Politics and the Paralysis of Poetic Imagination in ‘The Physician's Tale,’” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 3 (1981): 47-60.

  10. Patricia Kean, Chaucer and the Making of English Poetry, 2 vols. (London, 1972), 2:183.

  11. Lee, “Position and Purpose,” 142, 155.

  12. Jerome, Letter 22, in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, 2nd ser., ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, 14 vols. (Grand Rapids, Mich., 1961), 6:29.

  13. Ambrose, De institutione virginis, as quoted by John Bugge, Virginitas: An Essay in the History of a Medieval Ideal (The Hague, 1975), 31; Peter Brown, “The Notion of Virginity in the Early Church,” in Christian Spirituality: Origins to the Twelfth Century, ed. Bernard McGinn and John Meyendorff (London, 1986), 433; see also Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York, 1988).

  14. Jerome, Letter 22, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 6:30.

  15. Ibid., 6:24.

  16. Methodius, The Symposium, trans. Herbert Musurillo (Westminster, Md., 1958), 39; see also 67; Gregory of Nyssa, On Virginity, in Ascetical Works, trans. Virginia Callahan (Washington, D.C., 1967), 46, 64; see also 59. For the reference in Paul, see Epistle to the Galatians 3.28.

  17. See Marina Warner, Alone of All Her Sex (New York, 1976), 72-73.

  18. Glossa Palatina to C. 31, q. 1, c. 11, v. obtrectatores, Trinity O. 10.2, fol. 55ra; cited in James A. Brundage, Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe (Chicago, 1987), 366.

  19. Origen Commentaria in Matthaeum 16.7-8, (cited in Henri Crouzel, Virginité et mariage selon Origène (Paris, 1962), 101. The “Penitential of Vinnian,” however, states that the penance differs, depending on whether or not one has succeeded: “But if he continually lusts and is unable to indulge his desire, since the woman does not admit him or since he is ashamed to speak, still he has committed adultery with her in his heart—yet it is in his heart, and not in his body; and it is the same sin whether in the heart or in the body, yet the penance is not the same”; cited Pierre J. Payer, Sex and the Penitentials: The Development of a Sexual Code, 550-1150 (Toronto, 1984), 48.

  20. Jerome, Against Jovinianus, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 6:357; John Chrysostom, On Virginity, Against Remarriage, trans. Sally Rieger Shore (New York, 1983), 115.

  21. Cyprian, “The Dress of Virgins,” in Treatises, ed. and trans. R. J. Deferrari (New York, 1958), 39.

  22. Tertullian, “On the Apparel of Women,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, 24 vols. (Buffalo, N.Y., 1885), 4:19.

  23. This despite the fact that virginity, as a means of transcending the distortions of perception that emanate from the senses, is supposed to lead to clarity of vision. Gregory of Nyssa writes: “For, just as the eye cleansed from rheum sees objects shining brightly in the distance in the air, so also the soul through incorruptibility acquires the power to perceive the Light. The goal of true virginity and zeal for incorruptibility is the ability to see God, for the chief and first and only beautiful and good and pure is the God of all, and no one is so blind in mind as not to perceive that even by himself”; On Virginity, 46. See also Carolly Erickson, The Medieval Vision: Essays in History and Perception (New York, 1976), 190.

  24. Didascalia apostolorum, trans. Margaret Dunlop Gibson (London, 1903), 10. See also Brundage, Law, Sex, and Christian Society, 302.

  25. Cyprian, “The Dress of Virgins,” in Treatises, 47; Tertullian, “On the Veiling of Virgins,” in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 4:28, 34.

  26. Ibid., 4:29.

  27. Andreas Capellanus, The Art of Courtly Love, trans. J. J. Parry (New York, 1969), 28; see Brundage, Law, Sex, and Christian Society, 161.

  28. Jerome, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 6:194. This is no doubt the origin of the practice, still apparently current in French religious schools, of the bathing smock.

  29. John Chrysostom, Les Cohabitations suspectes, comment observer la virginité, ed. and trans. J. Dumortier (Paris, 1955), 130; Clement of Rome, “Two Epistles Concerning Virginity,” in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 8:64.

  30. Tertullian, “On the Veiling of Virgins,” Ante-Nicene Fathers, 4:34.

  31. R. Howard Bloch, “Medieval Misogyny,” Representations 20 (1987): 1-24.

  32. Jerome, Letter 107, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 6:192. The disparagement of the ornamental extends logically even to the language arts. Jerome's admonishment of virgins to pay more attention to rectitude of expression than to the decoration of manuscripts amounts to a preference for grammar over rhetoric: “Let her treasures be not silks or gems but manuscripts of the holy scriptures; and in these let her think less of gilding, and Babylonian parchment, and arabesque patterns, than of correctness and accurate punctuation” (194). Ambrose makes the same analogy between marriage and the cosmetic in speaking of wives: “And in this position spring up those incentives to vice, in that they paint their faces with various colours, fearing not to please their husbands; and from staining their faces, come to think of staining their chastity. What madness is here, to change the fashion of nature and seek a painting”; Three Books of St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, Concerning Virgins, to Marcellina, His Sister, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 10:367.

  33. Methodius, Symposium, 87.

  34. Cyprian, “Dress of Virgins,” 35.

  35. Cyprian: “Hence virgins in desiring to be adorned more elegantly, to go about more freely, cease to be virgins”; ibid., 47.

  36. Marsha L. Colish has written a brilliant article, “Cosmetic Theology: The Transformation of a Stoic Theme” (as well as a book of which “Cosmetic Theology” is a major subject), in which she shows convincingly that the Early Christian Fathers' appropriation of the Stoic (and before that Cynic) attempt to ally ethics, nature, and reason involved a shift from a concern with masculine modes of self-presentation (including dress and hairstyle) to the obsession with the aesthetics of femininity, and with it the invention of an entirely “new genre of Christian hortatory literature addressed to women”; “Cosmetic Theology: The Transformation of a Stoic Theme,” Assays 1 (1981): 3-14. Colish, The Stoic Tradition from Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages, 2 vols. (Leiden, 1985), 1:27; and 1:28, 81-86, 246, 260, 2:48.

  37. Philo Judeas, On the Creation (London, 1929), 237, 249; Marie-Thérèse d’Alverny, “Comment les théologiens et les philosophes voient la femme,” Cahiers de civilisation médiévale 30 (1977): 105-29.

  38. Rosemary Ruether, “Misogynism and Virginal Feminism in the Fathers of the Church,” in Religion and Sexism, ed. Ruether (New York, 1974), 156. See also Crouzel, Virginité, 136.

  39. John Chrysostom, homily 15, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 9:441. Novatian too sees the idolatry engendered by the gaze to be the central avenue of seduction leading to all other transgressions: “And anything else that draws the eyes and soothes the ears of the spectators has at bottom either an idol, or a demon, or some deceased person. You have only to look into its origin and foundation. Thus it was all devised by the devil because he knew full well that idolatry of itself is horrendous. He combined idolatry with spectacles so that idolatry would be loved through the pleasure that spectacles afforded”; “The Spectacles,” ed. and trans. Russell J. De Simone in The Fathers of the Church, 100 vols. (Washington, D.C., 1974), 67:127.

  40. Clement of Alexandria, “On Marriage,” in Alexandrian Christianity, ed. and trans. J. E. L. Oulton, and H. Chadwick (Philadelphia, 1954), 66.

  41. Gregory of Nyssa, On Virginity, 27. “How do you, the living, listen to the Crucified One, the Healer of sin, when He orders us to follow Him and to carry a cross as a banner against the Adversary, if you are not crucified to the world and have not taken on the death of the flesh?” (74).

  42. See also Michel Foucault, “Le Combat de la chasteté,” Communications 35 (1982): 15-21.

  43. Methodius, Symposium, 150, 149.

  44. I am not unaware of the fact that according to a certain Christological logic, virginity can also be said to triumph over death. Gregory of Nyssa: “Corruption has its beginning in birth, and those who refrain from procreation through virginity themselves bring about a cancelation of death by preventing it from advancing further because of them, and, by setting themselves as a kind of boundary stone between life and death, they keep death from going forward. If, then, death is not able to outwit virginity, but through it comes to an end and ceases to be, this is clear proof that virginity is stronger than death”; On Virginity, 48.

  45. Jerome, Letters, in Nicene and Post Nicene-Fathers, 6:194; John Chrysostom, On Virginity, Against Remarriage, 96.

  46. Novatian, “In Praise of Purity,” in Fathers of the Church, 67:170.

  47. Novatian continues: “Virginity means victory over pleasure. Virginity does not have children, but, what is more, holds them in disdain”; ibid.

  48. Tertullian, “On Exhortation to Chastity,” in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 4:55.

  49. Cyprian, “The Dress of Virgins,” in Treatises, 37.

  50. Ambrose, Three Books, 10:364.

  51. See Emerson Brown, “What Is Chaucer Doing?” 138.

  52. Tertullian even seems aware of the paradox where the ornaments of rhetoric are concerned. He manages, however, simply to turn this awareness into another seductive ruse. “‘With speech,’ says [my antagonist], ‘you have tried to persuade me,—a most sage medicament.’ But, albeit utterance be mute—impeded by infancy or else checked by bashfulness, for life is content with an even tongueless philosophy—my very cut is eloquent. A philosopher, in fact, is heard so long as he is seen”; “On the Pallium,” in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 4:12.

  53. Tertullian, “On the Veiling of Virgins,” 4:36.

  54. Thibaut de Champagne, “Ausi conme unicorne sui,” in Poèmes d’amour du XIIe et XIIIe siècles, ed. Emmanuelle Baumgartner (Paris, 1983), 98.

  55. Methodius, Symposium, 111; “My fair virgins, nothing can so help a person toward virtue as chastity. For chastity alone causes the soul to be guided in the noblest and best possible way and to be washed clean of the stains and impurities of the world. … But from the moment when Christ became man and armed the flesh with the ornament of virginity, the cruel despot that rules incontinence was overpowered; and peace and faith reign, and men are not so much given to idol worship as they were of old”; Symposium, 141.

  56. Tertullian, “On the Pallium,” 4:8.

  57. John Chrysostom, “Letters to the Fallen Theodore,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 9:104.

  58. This too is how Shakespeare understood Collatine's boast of Lucrece's chastity and the desire it elicits:

    Happ’ly that name
    of “chaste” unhapp’ly set
    This bateless edge on his keen appetite;
    When Collatine unwisely did not let
    To praise the clear unmatched red and white
    Which triumph’d in that sky of his delight

    (“The Rape of Lucrece,” 8-12)

    As Joel Fineman writes: “The poem understands Collatine's praise of Lucrece, his ‘boast of Lucrece’ sov’reignty’ (29), as the fundamental cause of Tarquin's rape of Lucrece; pointedly, it is not Lucrece's chastity but ‘that name of “chaste” that ‘set / This bateless edge on his keen appetite’”; “Shakespeare's Will: The Temporality of Rape,” Representations 20 (1987): 30.

  59. Marie de France, “Lanval,” in Lais, ed. Jean Rychner (Paris, 1983), lines 13-20.

  60. Fors de la sale aveient mis
    Un grant perrun de marbre bis,
    U li pesant humme muntoent,
    Ki de la curt le rei aloent.
    Lanval esteit muntez desus.
    Quant la pucele ist fors a l’us,
    Sur le palefrei, detriers li,
    De plain eslais Lanval sailli!


    [Outside of the room they had put a great stone of dark marble, where heavy men mounted when they were leaving the king's court. Lanval got up on it. When the maiden came out of the door Lanval jumped up on the horse behind her with a single leap.]

  61. Herein lies the profoundest sense of the famous “love from afar” (amor de lonh) of the troubadours, which, far from isolated subcategory of courtly love, stands as the purest expression of the logic of virginity inherent to courtliness. The locus classicus is, of course, the case of Jaufré Rudel, whose legendary Vida offers a geographical analogue to the logic of the absent lover:

    Jaufres Rudels de Blaia si fo mout gentils hom, princes de Blaia. Et enamoret se de la comtessa de Tripol, ses vezer, per lo ben qu’el n’auzi dire als pelerins que venguen d’Antiocha. E fez de leis mains vers ab bons sons, ab paubres motz. Et per voluntat de leis vezer, et se croset e se mes en mar, e pres lo malautia en la nau, e fo condug a Tripol, en un alberc, per mort. E fo fait saber a la comtessa et ella venc ad el, al son leit e pres lo antre sos bratz. E saup qu’ella era la comtessa, e mantenent recobret l’auzir e-l flairar, e lauzet Dieu, que l’avia la vida sostenguda tro qu’el l’agues vista; et enaissi el mori entre sos bratz. Et elle lo fez a gran honor sepellir en la maison del Temble; e pois, en aquel dia, ella se rendet morga, per la dolor qu’ella n’ac de la mort de lui.

    [Jaufré Rudel of Blaye was a very noble prince of Blaye. He fell in love with the Countess of Tripoli without seeing her because of the good which he heard said about her by the pilgrims who came from Antioch; and he composed many songs (vers) about her, songs with good melodies but poor in rhyme. And out of a desire to see her, he took the cross and set out to sea. He fell sick in the ship and was taken to Tripoli, to an inn, like a dead man. The countess was informed; and she came to his bed and took him in her arms. He knew that it was the countess and immediately recovered the senses of sight and smell; and he praised God for having kept him alive long enough to have seen her. Thus he died in her arms. She had him buried with great honor in the house of the Temple. Then she became a nun on that same day, for the pain that she had of his death.]

    J. Boutière and A.-H. Schutz, Biographies des Troubadours (Paris, 1983), 83.

    Jaufré's example is sometimes taken to be particular or idiosyncratic; yet it points in the direction of several more general elements of the courtly song whose logic is merely here presented in the form of a story. First, in many love lyrics, as well as many romances, love is kindled by rumor rather than by direct contact. When desire, in other words, does not enter by the gaze, it arrives in the form of hearsay. Second, the vida makes clear the extent to which the love lyric depends upon the absence of the lady as prerequisite to the poet's song. For, finally, Jaufré's voyage toward her is fatal; despite the fact that she revives his senses of sight and smell, the meeting with the lady corresponds not only to the end of song but to the end of life itself. The lady must remain a virgin in order for singing to occur, and her own renunciation of the world as a result of his death is symptomatic of the aesthetics of virginity that courtliness entails.

  62. “Mes jo aim e si sui amis / Cele ki deit aveir le pris / Sur tutes celes que jeo sai”; Marie de France, “Lanval” (230-32).

  63. “Tute la plus povre meschine, / Vaut mieuz de vus, dame reïne, / De cors, de vis e de beauté, / D’enseignement et de bunté!”; ibid. (299-302).

  64. “Tota la genser qu’anc hom vis / Encontra liey no pretz un guan”; Les Poésies de Cercamon, ed. A. Jeanroy (Paris, 1922), 2.

  65. The view of courtliness as the opposite of antifeminism is, of course, a widespread and tenacious one. Diane Bornstein, who wrote the article on “Courtly Love” in The Dictionary of the Middle Ages, states: “It also celebrated woman as an ennobling spiritual and moral force, thus expressing a new feminism that contradicted both the antifeminism of the ecclesiastical establishment and the sexual attitudes endorsed by the church”; The Dictionary of the Middle Ages, ed. Joseph R. Strayer, 12 vols. (New York, 1983), 3:669. For a more sophisticated, and in my opinion correct, view see: Jean-Charles Huchet, L’Amour discourtois: La “Fin’Amors” chez les premiers troubadours (Toulouse, 1987), 59-141.

  66. Bernart de Ventadorn, for example, in “Can vei la lauzeta mover,” both praises his lady as the source of all good in stanza 6 and condemns her for having destroyed and confounded him in stanza 4. He admits to loving and hating women at the same time: “I cannot keep myself from loving her,” he confesses in stanza 2; “I despair of women,” he maintains in stanza 4; The Songs of Bernart de Ventadorn, ed. S. G. Nichols (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1962), 166.

  67. John Chrysostom, Virginity, 104.

This essay was originally presented as a paper before the New Chaucer Society, Vancouver, B.C., August 1988.

Carolyn Dinshaw (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 17640

SOURCE: Introduction to Chaucer's Sexual Poetics, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1989, pp. 3-27.

[In the following essay, Dinshaw maintains that in his works Chaucer figuratively associates literary activity with the human body. This association, argues Dinshaw, may be seen in the poem “Adam Scriveyn,” as well as in a number of Chaucer's other works. Dinshaw further contends that for Chaucer all literary activity is gendered, and that the characters in his works who control language are associated with masculine power in patriarchal society.]

Adam scriveyn, if ever it thee bifalle
Boece or Troylus for to wryten newe,
Under thy long lokkes thou most have the scalle,
But after my makyng thou wryte more trewe;
So ofte adaye I mot thy werk renewe,
It to correcte and eke to rubbe and scrape,
And al is thorugh thy negligence and rape.(1)


“Chaucers Wordes unto Adam, His Owne Scriveyn” offers a brief glimpse of the fourteenth-century poet at work, allows us a rare exposure to the material circumstances and social relationships involved in late-medieval literary activity. In the House of Fame, of course, we get a glance of the poet at work when, in book 2, the eagle narrates a detailed scenario of “Geffrey's” eremitic life of study, depicting long hours, silence, and isolation from neighbors. Chaucer's dream-vision narrators are frequently depicted as encountering the old books, “write with letters olde” (Parliament of Fowls, 19), that motivate their poetry; but the process of composition itself is occulted—consider the ending of the Book of the Duchess, for example (“This was my sweven; now hit ys doon” [1334])—and the transmission of the written texts is seldom an issue. In “Adam Scriveyn,” however, the remonstration of the hapless scribe addresses precisely the problematics of textual transmission and makes it clear that literary production in the late fourteenth century is a social enterprise: this “maker” is unavoidably dependent on the copyist for the accurate transmission and, indeed, the very intelligibility of his works. The texts of “Boece” and “Troylus” have, apparently, been compromised by Adam's carelessness already; in fact, the voice of the maker had knowingly expressed the same concerns at the end of “Troylus” itself. Textual distortion would seem to be all but inevitable in the process of transcription: the narrator in his address to his “bok” at the end of Troilus and Criseyde worries about just such scribal mismanagement as is later castigated in “Adam Scriveyn.”

And for ther is so gret diversite
In Englissh and in writyng of oure tonge,
So prey I God that non myswrite the,
Ne the mysmetre for defaute of tonge;
And red wherso thow be, or elles songe,
That thow be understonde, God I biseche!


“Adam Scriveyn” as lyric is conventional enough—it sounds like a classical epigraph—but its tone of exasperation may be understood to express as well Chaucer's deep and lingering concern with the treatment of the letter of his texts, and the appropriate interpretation of that letter.

“Adam Scriveyn” focuses, however, not only on the basic constituent of written literary production, the relationship between maker and scribe, but also on the basic constituent of all social relations: the human body. Chaucer threatens Adam with a future of itchy scabs on his head because he himself must “rubbe and scrape” the scribe's defective work. Literary production takes place on bodies—on the animal skins made into pages, on cursed scribes' scalps—and the rubbing and scraping that must be done to both suggests a figurative identification here between the human body and the manuscript page, the text. It is just such a figurative association of literary activity with human bodies that I want to pursue in the course of this book.

Chaucerians considering “Adam Scriveyn” these days tend to sympathize with the exasperated author and ruefully recall their own experiences with incompetent typists, thus positing the existence of a timeless brotherhood of authors (the masculine significance of that phrase here will soon become clear) and placing themselves, like Dante in Limbo, in the company of the great. Scholars earlier in the twentieth century (Brusendorff, Hammond, and Manly among them) found the search for the “real” Adam, the fourteenth-century scrivener, tantalizing—irresistible, albeit inconclusive.2 I think the poem does in fact solicit a timeless identification—although not that of critic with Chaucer—as well as invite such reconstruction of the particular conditions of Chaucer's literary production. The poem evokes and exploits the rich implications of what may be simply a particularly felicitous circumstance: the scribe's name is Adam. “The mark of Adam,” as the Wife of Bath will later put it, is both the generic sign (derived from the first man) of masculine humanity and the writing that men (such as Adam scriveyn) do.

And that mark, to continue to use the Wife's vocabulary, itself needs to be “redressed.” Chaucer castigates here an Adam who is definitely fallen, an Adam whose written letters do not accord with the intent behind them. The first Adam was the first human to use language; indeed, he was, according to Genesis 2:19, the inventor of names: “Omne enim quod vocavit Adam animae viventis ipsum est nomen eius” (“Whatsoever Adam called any living creature the same is its name”).3 Medieval commentators on the original human language—from Philo, in the Alexandrian tradition, to Augustine, to Dante, to late fourteenth-century grammarians—saw it as a flawless language in which the name of a thing perfectly suited the thing's material nature:

The names assigned are manifest images of the things, so that the name and thing are inevitably the same from the first, and the name and that to which the name is given differ not a whit.4

That original, single tongue, undivided in essence from things and undivided as yet into different languages, was constituted of sounds given by God. Dante, in fact, uncanonically assumes that Adam's first word must have been the word for “God” (El, the first language being Hebrew) rather than the names of beasts; Adam's first linguistic expression was of his most fundamental being, his essence as imago Dei.5 In addition, some commentators saw Adam as the inventor not only of proper names but of letters. This was not a widespread notion—Moses was most often identified as the inventor of letters, with which the Law was written—but it is consistent with this view of Adam in the originary moments of language.6

But clearly something intervened between that originary moment in the garden and this moment of frustration in the scribal workshop. Adam scriveyn is hasty; his attention is divided, wavering, uncertain; his “werk”—the word itself refers to the modus vivendi of postlapsarian man—is defective and corrupt. The letters he inscribes apparently do not correspond to Chaucer's intent, his meaning.7 As the narrator has lamented in the Epilogue to Troilus and Criseyde, there is “gret diversite / In Englissh and in writyng of oure tonge,” and that diversity of the language imperils the intelligibility of Chaucer's texts. The language that Adam scriveyn uses is a fallen language: when mankind disobeyed God in the garden, the word was cut off from the Word, and the continuity of language and being was disrupted; after Babel, human language was split into many languages and dialects (a common rubric for Genesis 11 was “Confusio linguarum et dispersio populorum”). I shall discuss language and the Fall more fully in later chapters, but here I want to suggest that the situation “Chaucers Wordes unto Adam” delineates—divided attention; corruptible letters; a text that deviates from its author's intention; the necessity of “correccioun” (as the Parson will also put it); “negligence”; and, finally, “rape” (fallen sexuality)—is indeed resoundingly postlapsarian.

The idea that this Adam scriveyn might elicit associations with the first Adam is supported by a very popular Latin lyric of the twelfth century, in which “clericus Adam” sits under a certain tree and writes of “primus Adam”:

Arbore sub quadam dictauit clericus adam
quomodo primus adam peccauit in arbore quadam.

The remarkable thing to me about this lyric—about fifty-five lines in all, the length varying slightly across versions—is its obsessive proportions: after these two lines, which almost invariably open the poem, follow forty-six lines beginning with the word “femina.” It is classic, the paradigmatic poem of the medieval antifeminist tradition:

femina uicit, adam uictus fuit arbore quadam;
femina serpenti mox credidit alta loquenti.
femina deceptos sapientes reddit ineptos;
femina te, dauid, et te, salamon, superauit;
femina decepit te sanson, et hoc tua fecit
femina job; uicit genesis quoque quomodo dicit.
femina … 
femina … 
femina …(8)

If, as R. E. Kaske also thinks, the words directed to “Adam scriveyn” resonate with figural overtones of “Adam primus,” where is Eve, where is “femina,” in Chaucer's poem?

She is the condition that motivates the lyric in the first place; she is what has caused its sad necessity to begin with. For, as “clericus Adam” put it, “Femina uicit, adam uictus fuit arbore quadam”; if Adam is the first namer, associated with a language that is unified, perfectly expressive of intent or spirit, Eve is associated with fallen language (in the Ancrene Riwle it is Eve's speech that is said to be the cause of the Fall)9, with the division, difference, fragmentation, and dispersal that characterize the condition of historical language. If the first Adam is associated with the spirit of an utterance, Eve is associated with its letter, divided from intent or spirit, fragmentary, limited, and unstable. I shall locate these associations in medieval discussions of language in a moment; for now, let me note the diction Chaucer uses to admonish Adam: he is urged to “wryte more trewe.” “Trewe”: this is a loaded word in Chaucer's poetry, one that occurs frequently; among its various connotations in the texts, it is used to enunciate a—perhaps the—major problematic in Chaucer's narratives, the problem of truth in love. That problematic is very often focused on woman's truth—her honesty, her fidelity—or her significant lack of it. Men, of course, can be true, and their truth or lack thereof is also problematized in Chaucer; but unlike a man's fidelity, a woman's truth in love, as I shall argue in my discussion of Troilus and Criseyde, constitutes her function within the structure of patriarchal society. Criseyde, like Adam scriveyn, should have been “more trewe” (“Adam Scriveyn,” 4); the women in the Legend of Good Women are, in contrast, “trewe in lovynge” (G:475); Constance and Griselda are tried and prove themselves “trewe” (2:456; 4:713); the test in the “Franklin's Tale” is a test of Dorigen's “trouthe” (5:759); the Wife of Bath is, in her own words, “kynde / … And also trewe” (3:823-25). The problem of the corruptibility of the letter, itself associated with Eve, is expressed in “Adam Scriveyn” with a word that suggests its implication in a general problematics of the feminine. And when Adam as scribe is urged to be attentive (not negligent), patient (not hasty), “trewe” to his master's intent, conforming his will to that of the “maker,” he is not only associated with the fallen letter but is urged to be, in a sense, like a woman—like Constance, say, or Griselda, whose desires, as we shall see, must conform to the desires of the men who possess them in patriarchal society.

But what of the obvious and age-old association of the pen with the phallus, celebrated, for instance, in two of Chaucer's favorite poems, De planctu naturae and Le Roman de la rose? Alain de Lille's De planctu, mentioned in the Parliament of Fowls, is noteworthy for the thoroughness with which it makes the metaphorical identification between writing and male penetration of the female.10 And in the Rose—which is enumerated among Chaucer's translations in the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women—Genius' vivid exhortation to Amors' barons emphasizes that writing with this special stylus is necessary to the continuation of the human race.11 The fallen Adam may be feminized, both in exegetical tradition and in relation to the “maker” Chaucer, but there is another lively tradition of sexualized literary discourse at work here with the opposite association. This tradition is activated, I suggest, by the poem's last word, which alludes to another consequence of the Fall and preserves Adam's masculinity: violent sexuality, “rape.” This word is univocally glossed by Chaucer's editors as “haste”; the Middle English Dictionary [MED] cites this very line in its definition of “rape, noun (1),” derived from an Old Norse root. “Haste” is, no doubt, the primary denotation of the word here; but it seems to me that a secondary meaning, or at the very least a connotation, of sexual violation is evoked as well. The word “rape,” it is true, occurs very seldom in Chaucer; “ravish” or “oppress” are the words he chooses most often for acts of sexual violation (remember, for example, that Troilus worries aloud to Criseyde in book 4 that Calkas will so praise some eligible Greek man “That ravysshen he shal yow with his speche” [4.1474]). But it seems very likely that “rape” had a sexual denotation by the mid-1380s, the probable date of the lyric.

According to the MED, in Chaucer's day two verbs “rapen” were current and idiomatic. One is derived from the Old Norse; this is “rapen, verb (1)”—“to make haste, hasten, hurry; rush, charge,” and so on, as attested by citations from the thirteenth century on. The other, a Norman French borrowing that entered the English lexicon later than the Germanic word, is derived from the Latin rapere (cp. Anglo-French raper, Old French rapir); this is “rapen, verb (2)”—“to abduct (a woman), ravish, rape; also seduce (a man); to seize prey; to carry off; to fix (a certain time),” and so forth, as attested in works dating from about 1390. “Rape,” the noun derived from this verb, is found in a legal document dating from 1291-92 to mean sexual violation. In the Romaunt of the Rose (1929, 6516; if he indeed made these particular translations), Chaucer uses “rape” derived from the first verb. But in Troilus and Criseyde he uses a noun derived from the second verb in an unequivocally sexual context: in book 4, Pandarus tries to convince Troilus to carry off Criseyde, saying, “It is no rape, in my dom, ne no vice / Hire to witholden that ye love moost” (4.596-97).12

What is more decisive for my purposes here, however, is the MED's “rapen, verb (2) (e),” which defines the verb in an idiom, “rapen and rennen”—“to seize and make off with (something), perhaps confused with rapen v. (1)” (my emphasis). The dictionary cites line 1422 of Chaucer's “Canon's Yeoman's Tale” (c. 1395) as evidence: “Ye shul no thyng wynne on that chaffare, But wasten al that ye may rape [variant: rappe] and renne.” It is precisely the possibility of such conflation of the two verbs that enables me to argue that “rape,” as it appears in “Adam Scriveyn” (c. 1385), can denote sexual violation. The late Middle Ages was a time of great change in the English language, as this very word suggests, and it is entirely characteristic of Chaucer—a poet with a keen alertness to social shifts and changes—to choose to accentuate words that reflect, and are themselves in, transition or flux.13 Late Middle English “rape” seems to be able to denote either haste, or abduction, or sexual violation, or a combination of these; and here, I maintain, it indeed carries a sexual charge.

If, then, “rape” in this short lyric does indeed connote a sexual act, what does it mean to say that Adam scriveyn “rapes” the text? The phrase's strong and assertively masculine associations suggest the idea that writing is a masculine act, an act performed on a body construed as feminine. I am not concerned here with the genitally focused sexual act but with its abstract gender structure, “gender” referring not to biologically determined sex (“male” and “female”) but to sexual identities that are socially constructed ideas (“masculine” and “feminine”). I am concerned with masculine and feminine as roles, positions, functions that can be taken up, occupied, or performed by either sex, male or female (although not with equal ease or investment, as I shall suggest throughout this book). The poem's last word points out that literary activity has a gendered structure, a structure that associates acts of writing and related acts of signifying—allegorizing, interpreting, glossing, translating—with the masculine and that identifies the surfaces on which these acts are performed, or from which these acts depart, or which these acts reveal—the page, the text, the literal sense, or even the hidden meaning—with the feminine. As will become clear in the following pages, the significance and value of the masculine and the feminine in such a model of gendered hermeneutics constantly shift and change in the exegetical tradition and in Chaucer's poetry; Chaucer plays with the gender associations, hermeneutic values, and power relations this structure suggests. Some of the richness of, say, the denouement of the “Miller's Tale” lies in its playful reversal of this model so that the feminized Absolon brands with a hot poker—“writes” on—the naked body of the clerk Nicholas. Some of the Wife of Bath's peculiarly affirmative subversiveness is directed toward a radical revaluation of the feminine within this model. And some of the jolting power of the Pardoner's performance comes from his confounding any certain determination of gender and any interpretive models that depend on stable and distinct binary categories. It will be my project in this book to elaborate the varied and nuanced uses of gendered models of literary activity in Chaucer's works.

But we can already see the suppleness of Chaucer's ideas of gendered poetics, the flexibility and complexity with which language and literary acts, gender, and power are interrelated, in “Adam Scriveyn.” Whoever exerts control of signification, of language and the literary act, is associated with the masculine in patriarchal society—but that position can be seen to be occupied by both Chaucer and the scribe, and, in turn, the feminine is assumed as well by both characters. Adam, writer of a fallen letter, is associated with Eve (with his “long lokkes”) and is feminized in relation to the “maker,” Chaucer; but Chaucer, in turn, represents himself as the victim of scribal rape: his text, his work, his intent are violated by the pen of the scribe. I shall argue that it is such positioning of himself as feminine, in fact, his extraordinary and difficult attempts to envision fully the place of the Other in patriarchal society—to imagine even the pleasures and pains of a woman's body, be they May's feelings of sexual repugnance on her wedding night, the Wife of Bath's delight in past sensuality and her rueful awareness of present pain in her ribs, or Griselda's resistance to the public exposure of her “wombe”—that motivate, to a large extent, Chaucer's thematic concerns as well as the very forms and structures of his poetry.14

It may seem richly ironic that Chaucer should position himself in “Adam Scriveyn” as raped, not as rapist. Perhaps the one biographical fact everyone remembers about Chaucer, if one fact is going to be remembered, is that in 1380 Cecilia Chaumpaigne apparently threatened to accuse him of raping her. Parallel, we might say, to scholarly alacrity in glossing “rape” in line 7 as “haste” is the scholarly eagerness to vindicate the father, as it were, of English poesie of the charge of rape. From the moment of the discovery in 1873 of Cecilia Chaumpaigne's release to Chaucer of all legal action “tam de raptu meo, tam [sic] de aliqua alia re vel causa,” debate raged about the meaning of “raptus” in fourteenth-century legal usage, the circumstances that surrounded such a release, the identity of the woman, the plausibility of the charge, even the date of birth and parentage of the “lyte Lowys my sone” whom Chaucer addresses in the Treatise on the Astrolabe. Scholarly research and debate over this incident have abated as interest in general in the biography of Chaucer has diminished in the later twentieth century; but the “strange case,” as one scholar called it, has not been settled, and no scholarly consensus has ever been reached.15 It is usually merely passed over as an “unfortunate incident” about which too little is known.16 Robinson is paradigmatic here:

It has sometimes been supposed that this referred to an act of physical rape. … But it is more generally believed that the case was one of civil “raptus,” or abduction. … It has recently been argued that in 1380, after the passage of the Statute of Westminster, “raptus” would have meant “rape,” as it is there defined. But the circumstances of the Chaumpaigne case, and Chaucer's connection with them, still remain unknown.17

But even by the time of Robinson's second edition, from which I quote here, it had been established that “raptus” in fourteenth-century legal usage denoted either abduction or sexual violation or both.18 The Riverside Chaucer (1987) acknowledges this, but emphasizes that although the meaning of “raptus” is ambiguous, “the record, however, is clear; it means that Cecilia Chaumpaigne clears Chaucer of all responsibility.”19 The interpretation of all the documents surrounding this case (the releases by Goodchild and Grove to Chaucer of all legal actions; the release by Cecilia Chaumpaigne to Goodchild and Grove; the payment by Grove to Cecilia of ten pounds) is disputed, but a sexual incident involving Cecilia and Chaucer does seem to have taken place. Legal historian Theodore Plucknett wrote in 1948—in an argument that itself has not been challenged since—that “if only abduction had been involved, the release would have proceeded from the injured party, viz., the feudal lord, parent, husband, or employer of Cecilia.” Haldeen Braddy maintains that there is no reason to suspect (as Plucknett does, in a sudden and unsubstantiated reversal of the apparently intolerable implications of his argument) that the charges were brought by Cecilia against Chaucer falsely or in bad faith.20

It is mere happenstance that we have this record. Like all the Life-Records, it does not mention that Chaucer was a poet. But it is a very felicitous circumstance that it exists alongside the poetry; it reminds us that there are not only figurative rapes—the writer's intent raped by the scribe's pen, the text as woman's body violated by the interpretations of literary and exegetical tradition—and there are not only fictional rapes—the rape of Philomela, the rape of Helen, the rape of the maiden in the “Wife of Bath's Tale”—but there are real rapes as well. It forces us, first of all, to face the literal reality that such a metaphorical identification can obscure, and it keeps in front of us the difference between literary activity and sexual violation. To equate reading with rape would be to underestimate drastically the transgressive reality of rape, on the one hand, and to slight the potentially positive value of literary interpretation, on the other.21 But this fact also invites us to consider causal relationships between gendered representation and actual social relations between men and women; it invites us to consider the relations that form the bases for figurative discourse and that, in turn, are affected by literary representation. In the first chapters of this book, I shall analyze Chaucer's poetry in terms of its allegorical representation of the text as a woman read and interpreted by men; similarly, in the last chapter I shall analyze the poetry as it figuratively represents hermeneutic values in the gender of the Pardoner. But in the chapters on the Wife of Bath and Griselda, and in aspects of my consideration of the Pardoner, I shall suggest that this very representation of literary activity has actual social consequences: it has real, and negative, effects on lived lives.

Thus it is the figurative gender value and implications of literary representation that will concern me, for the most part but not exclusively, in this book. As I remarked above, in treating gender I am interested in analyzing masculine and feminine as positions that can be occupied by either sex; thus I shall speak of “reading like a man” in Troilus and Criseyde and the Legend of Good Women and not “reading as a man.”22 Women can and do read like men, and—perhaps more importantly—men don’t have to read like men. I shall suggest that the Clerk, in fact, reads like a woman. Cross-gender identifications are not made with equal ease or maintained with equal consequences by men and by women, however; I am concerned, in the cases of the “Wife of Bath's Tale” and the “Clerk's Tale,” to determine what exactly it might mean for a man in patriarchal culture to take up the feminine place. In the case of the Pardoner, I want to discuss the consequences of an individual's not clearly identifying with either gender. Chaucer, I suggest, is alert to the social construction of gender and to the patriarchal power structures that keep these gender notions in place. But, in addition, he shows an important awareness of the difficult relations between abstract or figurative gender formulations and people with real bodies and “sely instruments.” The Wife of Bath points to the distance that can open up between clerkly notions (gender) and biological sex; Griselda and the Pardoner both point up the actual consequences, borne on male and female bodies, of gendered hermeneutic formulations. Accordingly, the literal, or real, social effects of gendered literary metaphorics and formulations are my concerns as well.23

If this reading of “Adam Scriveyn” should seem too preoccupied with gender and sex—if my reading of scribal practice, of “trewe” and of “rape” should seem to ascribe unwarranted significance to the literary and social relationships represented in this lyric—I ask the dubious reader to consider the language of modern textual editing. Its pervasively moralized, gendered diction, I suggest, explicitly carries into the modern age the tradition I have been describing here, the fundamental correlation between language and literary interpretation, on the one hand, with gender, on the other. We might note in passing that Petrarch, whose literary concerns as humanist can be seen in part as forerunners of modern textual studies, puts scribal practice in a moral framework as he commends a certain scribe for his castigata letters—his neat, chaste hand. (Petrarch also, in desperation and with high expectations, as he tells a correspondent, employed a priest as scribe.)24 But the conventional, moralizing diction of modern textual criticism makes the point clearly enough: scribes “corrupt,” they “contaminate”; the editor seeks “fair” copies, seeks “purity” of the text, avoids texts of “mixed” character. As Eugène Vinaver remarks, the term “textual criticism” itself “implies a mistrust of texts.”25 Of course the discourse of modern textual editing is indisputably informed by late nineteenth-century preoccupations—Darwinist theory, to mention one—but I would suggest that there is an older tradition informing this diction as well.

The basic procedure of textual editing as it was practiced in the nineteenth century by Karl Lachmann, among others, consisted of the construction of genealogical stemmata. This fundamental model of textual criticism was thus based on the model of the family. Although stemmatics (and, in particular, classification by shared error) has come to be questioned by some textual scholars, the familial model of cataloging manuscripts is still employed by all editors: they construct family trees, construe family resemblances, hypothesize parent texts, ancestors, and patriarchs. In this context, moral and gender relationships are obviously immanent. One recent historian of textual editing, commenting on the “desire” at “the heart of every editorial procedure,” in fact speaks of the “libido” of the model of stemmatics.26 E. Talbot Donaldson's elaborate sexual scenario of textual editing in his article “The Psychology of Editors of Middle English Texts” thus differs only in its explicitness—differs in degree, not in kind—from the discourse of his colleagues:

The editor, not unlike a bachelor choosing a bride, selects Line Form A for his text. For a time he lives in virtuous serenity, pleased with his decision. A year or more passes, and then one day it comes to him, like a bolt from the blue, that he should, of course, have chosen Line Form B; in short, he married the wrong girl. She is attractive, she is plausible, she has her points, but he just can’t live with her; he lies awake at nights enumerating her faults, which seem considerable when she is compared with her rejected rival, who now appears infinitely preferable. So the editor (who is the least reliable of all possible husbands) obtains a divorce. … His marriage with Line Form B is now consecrated, and he settles down to live happily ever after. Then after a year or so, Wife B begins to prove incompatible in a different and even more annoying way than Wife A. …27

When Donaldson ponders the question of whether a particular manuscript is “a chaste virgin” or a “scarlet whore,”28 he is participating in a discourse, I suggest, that Chaucer himself understood intimately.


From “Adam Scriveyn,” one of Chaucer's “minor poems,” we thus gain access to a major nexus of late-medieval ideas concerning literary activity and gender relations. The variety, range, and popularity in the Middle Ages of works which represent literary activity by means of gendered models argue for the fundamental nature of this correlation between the use and interpretation of language, on the one hand, and the social relations and organization of gendered bodies, on the other hand. The models are indeed various: I shall focus on the particular figure of the text as woman's body, but I do so only because of practical limitations of space and time; other sexual metaphorics were commonplace and influential in the literary culture of the later Middle Ages. To mention just a few: the Ovidian recommendation to lovers to use poetry as a seduction (Ars amatoria 3.29-46) and Ovid's own demonstration that love follows a rhetoric—that the art of love might be seen more precisely as an art of reading and writing love poetry—informs the romantic use of the book as a go-between (consider Paolo and Francesca's use of the Lancelot as a “Galeotto” in Inferno 5, and Chaucer's own narrator's offering Troilus and Criseyde as an aid to lovers in his audience).29 The imaging of literary creation as a dissemination, a scattering of seed, may owe something to Matthew 13:3-23 (the parable of the sower); it is perhaps behind Dante's representation in Inferno 15 of the author Brunetto Latini, who, as sodomite, scatters seed where it cannot grow.30 Plowing a field, an image related to dissemination, is used as a figure both for sexual intercourse (see Alain de Lille, for example, in De planctu naturae, and the Roman de la rose, 19513-762) and for literary creation (Chaucer's Prologue to the Legend of Good Women and the “Knight's Tale” both allude to this figure). And “Adam Scriveyn” itself might be read to suggest not just the text as woman's body but, alternatively, the text as child of the “maker,” an offspring that has been abducted (“raped” in this sense) by the scribe; such a reading would be supported by the narrator's admonitions to his “litel bok” at the end of Troilus and Criseyde. Love, sex, gender, and literary activity are intimately, metaphorically related in the Middle Ages. That Chaucer's early narrators are all outsiders in matters of love thus indicates something about their literary practice, and erotic models of literary activity provide us with some broadly based ways to read power relations between auctores, narrators, and readers.

In fact, literary activity as it is represented in Chaucer is always, I believe, a gendered activity; it is an activity that is represented in terms of relationships between people and that expresses larger principles of social organization and social power. In the earliest of the dream visions, the Book of the Duchess, reading is a substitute for a love affair and itself has an erotic valence (and that erotics, in turn, expresses relationships of authority and power between author and reader); in the strange and shifting House of Fame the love story of Dido and Aeneas forms one third of a triptych, the rest of which is an anatomy of literary tradition and literary authority; in the Parliament of Fowls the act of reading yields a dream of courtship. These varied sexual poetics extend to the Canterbury Tales, early and late: in the “Second Nun's Tale,” for example, the desire to demonstrate the fullness of meaning of Cecilia's name is related to the desire to preserve virginity, the purity of the female body; in the “Nun's Priest's Tale” “glossing” is a tool of masculine sexual conquest; and in the “Manciple's Tale” Phoebus, god of lyric poetry, breaks his “mynstralcie” with a gesture identical to the one by which he kills his wife. Throughout Chaucer's poetic corpus, I argue, literary representation is understood in terms of the body—the body as it enters into social interactions, as it functions in social organization, as it is assigned gender value in the transactions that constitute social structure. Even in the “Retractions,” as we shall see at last, the renunciation of fables is performed with reference to a body—to the incarnate Christ, who was sent down to earth in human form in a divine commercial transaction, a holy trade: Chaucer, even in this final redefinition of his poetics, invokes the embodied “Lord Jhesu Crist … that boghte us with the precious blood of his herte” (10:1090).31

This statement—that literary activity in Chaucerian narrative is significantly represented as a gendered activity—is founded on a broader claim—that Chaucer's poetics is essentially gendered—and, broadest claim of all here—that language (signifying activity) is essentially structured in relation to gender. This claim about language is of course not new: it is widely accepted that language, whether seen from an anthropological, sociological, psychoanalytic, philosophical, or theological point of view, is structured in very basic ways by relations between males and females. Two such accounts of language and gender relations—one by Claude Lévi-Strauss, the other by Jacques Lacan—will be particularly important to my analysis of Chaucer in the chapters to follow. I shall detail them later; here I shall simply sketch them. Lévi-Strauss contends (as explicated by Gayle Rubin) that society as we know it—patriarchal society—is constituted by “traffic in women,” the exchange of women between groups of men that is motivated by the prohibition of incest, and that women function therein, as do empty linguistic signs, in forming bonds between men.32 Lacan revises Freud, suggesting that the infant enters language—enters the realm of signification—at the precise moment, again due to the prohibition of incest, at which he or she turns away from primary identification with the mother toward the figure of the father.33

What is especially important in these paradigms for my analyses is not, in fact, their putative value in describing a universal truth about language but, rather, their specifically patriarchal and misogynistic character. Both the anthropologist and the psychoanalyst here—whose theories of relations between social and linguistic structures are themselves clearly related—make signification dependent upon the passivity, blankness, or absence of woman.34 I suggest that between the Middle Ages (although it did not originate there) and the modern day there is a continuity of such patriarchal thinking about signifying; I suggest that these modern articulations are inflections of a very long patriarchal tradition of understanding language and literary activity. Such specific inflections vary from age to age, but, I argue, the abstract social forms and structures remain constant. In Chaucer's time, for example, bourgeois wives legally were not property in any simple sense, but the form of the exchange of women does not itself depend upon legal ownership. Lévi-Strauss's paradigm of patriarchal social organization as a traffic in women usefully describes medieval hermeneutic paradigms—and it does so, I claim, because both modern and medieval theorists participate in the same kind of patriarchal thinking, the same ideology. Lacan's paradigm of signification elucidates the Pardoner's performance, and that correspondence between medieval and modern has similar implications. I shall argue that Chaucer's works point to a critique of patriarchal conceptions of language and literary activity—conceptions at work in recent criticism of Chaucer as well as in larger theoretical formulations about language, the self, and society—and that they suggest alternatives to such misogynistic formulations.

I maintain, indeed, that the modern theories I engage and the medieval texts and ideas I discuss—Lacanian theory and Augustinian language theory, for example—are related through what might be called a philosophical or intellectual-historical tradition; their relationship, I think, is not only heuristic. Some such relationship has already been acknowledged, in fact, as when Lacan cites Augustine's De magistro in stating that “no signification can be sustained other than by reference to another signification,” an idea about language that has powerful anxiety-generating capacity in the Pardoner's performance.35 But the continuity of sexual poetics remains largely undiscussed. An important part of my general critical project, as I see it, will be to describe a medieval philosophical tradition (or, more precisely, the medieval component of what I take to be an ancient philosophical tradition) informing modern theoretical preoccupations and formulations, as I have already briefly done in my suggestions about modern textual editing in reference to “Adam Scriveyn.” I want to develop, that is, a more extensive intellectual context for understanding certain modern literary-critical formulations and hermeneutic obsessions than has heretofore been delineated. My discussion of a medieval sexual poetics provides a fuller cultural context for the idea, current in feminist literary criticism, of the text as woman's body, inscribed, read, and interpreted by men;36 it writes, that is, a history of feminist critical theory. Moreover, it suggests a context for understanding the significance of Barthes's poststructuralist formulation of “the pleasure of the text” and the gender implications of that formulation. Chaucer's literary concerns may sound quite modern in this book, but I would prefer to say that our present-day critical concerns turn out to be quite medieval.

Although it follows from my remarks on the fundamental nature of this tradition that Chaucer is not unique in his constant coordination of poetics and gender, he is nonetheless noteworthy for his penetration, as it were, of these ideas, for the thoroughness, flexibility, and variety of his engagement with and exploration of traditional formulations. I now want to sketch out, roughly and with broad strokes, the medieval literary-interpretive context of Chaucer's sexual poetics. More particularly, I want to outline the context for his repeated, subtle, exploratory use of the figurative identification of the text with woman or the principle of the feminine. The representation of the allegorical text as a veiled or clothed woman and the concomitant representation of various literary acts—reading, translating, glossing, creating a literary tradition—as masculine acts performed on this feminine body recur across narratives as various in thematics and structure as Troilus and Criseyde, the Legend of Good Women, and the Canterbury Tales. Though not the only representation of literary activity in Chaucer, this image of the text as veiled woman focuses Chaucer's narrative and hermeneutic concerns with particular clarity and locates them within large structures of social organization. It is to the literary development of this image through the Middle Ages that I shall now turn.


Richard of Bury, bishop of Durham in the mid-fourteenth century, makes the masculine structure of literary tradition exceptionally clear in his Philobiblon (completed in 1345), and hence this work makes an apt starting point for my investigation of the gender valence of medieval literary activity. Richard openly identifies the care and preservation of books with the care and preservation of the patriarchy.

The bishop of Durham wrote his treatise in defense of his vast and costly collection of books: his detractors had accused him of lavishing too much money and attention on them. (At the same time that he was defending his library, he was defending his embattled northern diocese against the Scots, and his king against the French.) Books, both ancient and modern, Richard argues, contain the treasure of wisdom and thus must be preserved. He urgently exhorts men not to be seduced (subtrahit) away from the “paternal care of books” (paterna cultura librorum) by the lures of “stomach, dress, or houses” (which are, we note, the Wife of Bath's concerns).37 Paternal care is necessary to preserve the purity of the race of books against the loss of their ancient nobility, against defilement by imposters pretending to be authors: paternal care is necessary lest “the sons,” as he puts it, be “robbed of the names of their true fathers.”38 Indeed, the handing down or transcribing of ancient books, Richard writes, “is, as it were, the begetting of fresh sons, on whom the office of the father may devolve, lest it suffer detriment.”39 The ideas of passing on old books and of old books' essential role in new learning were common enough in the Middle Ages. No one, however, discloses the patriarchal investment in this idea more forthrightly than Richard. In the act of preserving books, Richard argues, one protects against violations of property, territory, lineage, and family—against violations of the patriarchy.

Women's active participation in a literary culture characterized in this way was obviously extremely limited. To be sure, some women in the Middle Ages did own and compose texts—a few overcame institutional obstacles and obtained the necessary education and leisure to read and write.40 And, by the late fourteenth century, they passed on their books to their daughters as well as to their sons41 But women's disenfranchisement within the literary sphere was certain, and medieval attitudes about women's expression preserved strong classical and biblical prohibitions.42 Juvenal writes, for example, in his Sixth Satire, that virulently antifeminist diatribe whose influence extended to Walter Map, Jean de Meun, and Boccaccio: “Wives shouldn’t try to be public speakers; they shouldn’t use rhetorical devices; they shouldn’t read all the classics—there ought to be some things women don’t understand.”43 Aristotle's theory of social class structure in his Politics is based on the prohibition of women's expression:

All classes must be deemed to have their special attributes; as the poet [Sophocles] says of women, “Silence is a woman's glory”; but this is not equally the glory of man.44

Aquinas, in his commentary on the Politics, repeats this formula—as does Averroës in his commentary on the Aristotelian text—and corroborates it with a biblical injunction, Saint Paul's prohibition (in 1 Cor. 14:34-35) of women's speaking in public: “Let women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted them to speak, but to be subject, as also the law saith. But if they would learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home” (“Mulieres in ecclesiis taceant, non enim permittitur eis loqui, sed subditas esse, sicut et lex dicit. Si quid autem volunt discere, domi viros suos interrogent”). Aquinas conflates the classical and biblical traditions and continues the discourse in his own works.45 Significantly, Saint Paul's admonition to Timothy (in 1 Tim. 2:11-12) about women's speaking—“Let the women learn in silence, with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to use authority over the man: but to be in silence” (“Mulier in silentio discat cum omni subiectione. Docere autem mulierem non permitto, neque dominari in virum: sed esse in silentio”)—directly follows his admonitions (in 1 Tim. 2:9-10) about the adornment of women's bodies: such proscriptions as these on women's teaching, women's speaking, women's writing reflect intense and anxious responses to woman's physical being.46

A defining characteristic of the female, in both classical and Christian exegetical traditions, is her corporeality, her association with matter and the physical body as opposed to the male's association with form and soul.47 Aristotle's political analysis of woman, mentioned above, is clearly related to his theory of the metaphysical female principle as steresis, the totally passive privation of the male principle, and is subtended by his association of her physical being with matter (as opposed to the male being, which is characterized by form, animation, and generation).48 As Vern L. Bullough has suggested, assumptions about woman's body common in the ancient world were powerful determinants of the development of medieval law and doctrine regarding women: woman was seen in various classical medical and scientific writings as defective, deformed, or mutilated man; man turned inside out; a creature whose anatomy wouldn’t stay still; a creature who needed to be kept under control.49 Medieval limitations of woman's expression seem, in the final analysis, inseparable from the regulation of woman's body. The history, established recently, of the gynecological treatises by Trotula (who is included in Jankyn's “book of wikked wyves”) is itself a neat testimony to the correlation between the masculine silencing of women's writing (and appropriation of women's voices) and the masculine control of their bodies: as John F. Benton has demonstrated, three treatises commonly attributed in the Middle Ages to Trotula were in fact written by men, whose control of medical theory and gynecological literature in the Middle Ages was complete.50 The intense emotion—simultaneous fascination and repulsion—behind the connection of woman's body and woman's speech is expressed in Jean Gerson's almost obsessive comment about Saint Bridget: he speaks of her “insatiable itch to see and to speak, not to mention … the itch to touch.”51

But clearly, if we return to consider Richard of Bury's genealogical allegory of literary tradition, we can see that a female is necessary to perpetuate the lineage, however passive her participation may be.52 And thus it is her purity upon which the purity of the race depends.53 This necessary protection of woman's purity associates her, allegorically, with the wisdom that must be protected, the truth contained in the old books to be preserved by the paterna cultura. Writing a few years after Richard of Bury, Boccaccio suggests an association of the female with the truth contained within books when, in his Genealogia deorum gentilium, he declares that the truth must be protected from the “gaze of the irreverent,” so that “they cheapen not by too common familiarity.”54 And in this connection he points elsewhere in the Genealogia to the opening of Macrobius' commentary on the Somnium Scipionis (c. 400). At the beginning of that commentary, Macrobius presents a fully sexualized image of truths that must not be prostituted, must not be made into whores. He writes that the secrets of Nature that the text contains are wrapped in mysteries, veiled in the mysterious representations of fabulous narratives, so that the vulgar may not see and profane them. In an exemplum, Macrobius cites the brash Numenius, who expounded the sacred Eleusinian mysteries and thereby made prostitutes of them: the Eleusinian goddesses appeared to Numenius in a dream, wearing the garments of courtesans and standing by an open brothel.55 The body of Nature, as Macrobius argues—or nuda veritas, as Richard of Bury refers to the hidden body—must be kept secret, clothed in the garments, veils, protective coverings of fiction, poetry, mystery.

This is, of course, the standard medieval analysis of the allegorical text: it contains truth veiled by obscurity. Augustine, Lactantius, Isidore of Seville, Vincent of Beauvais, Petrarch, Dante, Boccaccio use this figure of the veil to describe passages in both biblical and secular literature.56 The figure is used in the service of quite different arguments, of course: Augustine identifies the veil of allegorical language in both biblical and pagan texts, delighting in the scriptural passages while condemning the pagan; Augustine's condemnation was mitigated through the period, as Lee Patterson remarks, until, at the end of the Middle Ages, Boccaccio argues for the licitness of the act of reading pagan fable.57 Nonetheless, the structure of the allegorical text and the process of reading it remain the same from Augustine to Boccaccio: the spiritually healthy reader will discover the truth under the veil of fiction, under the covering of poetical words. As Boccaccio argues, fiction pleases even the unlearned by its surface blandishments, and it exercises the minds of the learned in the discovery of its beautiful, hidden truth (Genealogia 14.9).

So allegorical interpretation is, in this sense, undressing the text—unveiling the truth, revealing a body figuratively represented as female. This interpretive activity is only for initiates of the highest intelligence, Macrobius argues; only available to the learned, Boccaccio argues; and only for men, as the diction of heterosexual culture suggests. Richard of Bury, again, provides a clear example of this gendering of allegorical reading: in describing the difficult and tedious task of discovering the truth in a classical text, he uses the language of seduction: “The wisdom of the ancients devised a remedy by which to entice the wanton minds of men by a kind of pious fraud, the delicate Minerva secretly lurking beneath the image of pleasure.”58 The garments—that “image of pleasure”—seduce the reader to look further, to the body of Minerva. The image appeals to the “wanton minds of men” through the senses. It is the lying surface, the letter of the text, the signifier.

But according to Richard of Bury (and Augustine before him), the reader must pass beyond that pleasurable surface, the signifier, to the hidden truth beneath, the signified.59 To stop at the image of pleasure is to succumb to the seductions directed at the reader's “wantonness.” To stop at the signifier is to enjoy something that should be used, to put it in Augustine's terms in the De doctrina christiana (3.5.7). In Richard's statement, then, we have the suggestion of another discourse, one that reverses the valence of woman as truth of the text: it’s the patristic association of the surface of the text (the letter) with carnality (the flesh, the body), and carnality with woman—an association I alluded to earlier in reference to “Adam Scriveyn.” Taking pleasure of the text is analogous to taking carnal pleasure of a woman: “letter” and “bele chose” are the site of that illicit bliss. Woman, in this Pauline model of reading, is not the “hidden truth” but is dangerous cupidity: she is what must be passed through, gone beyond, left, discarded, to get to the truth, the spirit of the text. When Dante, in Inferno 9, admonishes his reader to “mark the doctrine under the veil of strange verses,” he links that veil with the threat of feminine beauty posed by Medusa.60

Saint Paul associated the letter of the text with death—with everything old, sinful; with things of the flesh. The text, as Claudius of Turin (c. 800) suggested of Scripture, has a body and a soul; to read literally is to read carnally (litteraliter vel carnaliter).61 Earlier, Origen was concerned that the spiritual meaning of the Song of Songs could be missed by the carnal man; he warns not only that the carnally minded reader should not read this text but that youths should not even hold it in their hands—as though it is itself a dangerously seductive body.62 The further association of the body, the carnal, with woman is commonplace in exegetes throughout the Middle Ages, from the church fathers to Chaucer's Parson: in tropological accounts of the Fall (by Philo of Alexandria, Augustine, John Scottus Eriugena, and the Parson, to name a few), Eve is associated with the carnal appetite, Adam with higher intellectual faculties. I’ve already alluded to the fallenness of language, in reference to “Adam Scriveyn”—the letter's fragmented, transitory nature, its association with the postlapsarian, newly mortal body and with Eve. Boccaccio associates the letter with “the fruit of sin,” as seductive and enticing as the temptation used on the first woman and by her on the first man.63

To follow out this Pauline model of reading would mean to discard altogether the model of woman as central, naked truth of the text, to rigorously pass through the text's female body on the way to its spirit—its male spirit, as Ambrose and others suggest.64 Augustine dismissed pagan fable as worthless precisely because he considered it to have only false or empty “spirit” below its enticing letter.65 But Jerome addresses the problem of reading classical fable using a subtler model—Jerome, author of the notoriously antifeminist Adversus Jovinianum (a text the Wife of Bath knows and abhors), and a reader who was plagued by the seductions of classical style.66 He likens the classical text to the beautiful captive woman in Deuteronomy 21:10-13.67 The biblical passage reads:

Si egressus fueris ad pugnam contra inimicos tuos, et tradiderit eos Dominus Deus tuus in manu tua, captivosque duxeris, et videris in numero captivorum mulierem pulchram, et adamaveris eam, voluerisque habere uxorem, introduces eam in domum tuam: quae radet caesariem, et circumcidet ungues, et deponet vestem, in qua capta est: sedensque in domo tua, flebit patrem et matrem suam uno mense: et postea intrabis ad eam, dormiesque cum illa, et erit uxor tua.

[If thou go out to fight against thy enemies, and the Lord thy God deliver them into thy hand, and thou lead them away captives, And seest in the number of the captives a beautiful woman, and lovest her and wilt have her to wife, Thou shalt bring her into thy house: and she shall shave her hair, and pare her nails, And shall put off the raiment, wherein she was taken: and shall remain in thy house, and mourn for her father and mother one month: and after that thou shalt go in unto her, and shalt sleep with her, and she shall be thy wife.]

Jerome defends his reading of the pagan text on the basis of its carnal attractiveness, the elegance of classical style: “Is it surprising that I, too, admiring the fairness of her form and the grace of her eloquence, desire to make that secular wisdom which is my captive and handmaid, a matron of the true Israel?”68 He is attracted by its beauty, but, finally, the way to read the pagan text properly is to divest it of its sinful seductions, its Pauline deadness: to strip it of its garments, shave its hair, and pare its nails.

Nevertheless, the text, though stripped, doesn’t stop being a woman. The Pauline model would discard the female when the male spirit has been uncovered. But Jerome's captive woman is instead betrothed and married (indeed, this is an enactment of the paradigm of marriage as a trade of women between men at war that Lévi-Strauss outlines); she begets servants for God, just like Richard of Bury's “sons.” The truth of the text is itself feminine and fertile. The alien woman, of an enemy people, has been won by the triumphant warrior; her pagan seductions have been removed, but her essential beauties are nurtured by washing, shaving, and clothing and are now put to Christian use. The text's wisdom and truth are the key to the increase and multiplication of the faithful; the warrior takes the alien from her people, has her unclothed and reclothed in a ritual preparation for the nuptials, and transforms her from alien seductress to fecund wife.

Jerome thus represents the reading of the pagan text as a captive woman's passage between men, her marriage, and her domestication. The reader is drawn to the text by its attractive appearance; the text is then interpreted—stripped of its stylistic and fictional blandishments, revealing and preparing its wisdom for Christian use. Jerome stresses the harsh necessity of taking a sharp razor to the woman, of making her bald, of scrubbing her with niter, of getting rid of all her carnal attractions.69 That harshness is an index of the urgency in early Christendom of putting behind the temptations of pagan literature. But the act of interpretation is itself pleasurable, as the metaphor of ritual purification and arraying for the bridal suggests.70 The tradition of later exegetes who use this figure of the beautiful captive confirms this sense that both harshness and pleasure are intimated here: the commentators fall into two camps, “les accueillants et les sévères,” according to de Lubac.71 Augustine acknowledges this pleasure of interpretation—with a certain amount of wonder—in relation to the figurative surface of some scriptural passages, in his De doctrina:

No one doubts that things are perceived more readily through similitudes and that what is sought with difficulty is discovered with more pleasure.72

There is pleasure in the very act of interpretation—in the discovering and converting the truth of the text under the figures and ornaments of its letter. Boccaccio quotes both Augustine and Petrarch (Invectives, bk. 3) on this “delightful task” (Genealogia 14.12).

In Jerome's example of the captive woman, the pleasure is one-way: the woman's desires are not consulted or recognized. Indeed, as she is passed between men, from alien camp to Israelite household, masculine desire is the only motivating force. Guillaume de St.-Thierry calls attention (albeit inadvertently) to this ignoring of the female's desire (continued by all the others who follow Jerome's use of the figure) when he unprecedentedly adapts the captive image to represent the human soul longing for Christ, the victorious warrior.73 In other uses of the image, by Peter Damian and Gregory IX, for example, the woman is to be “enslaved” by the warrior. Gregory IX reduces the image rather severely in an early twelfth-century letter: the captive woman should be obedient and subject to the warrior, just as man should dominate woman and spirit should dominate flesh.74 Any subtle attractions and interactions of bride and warrior, text and interpreter are eliminated by Gregory here, and one point is clear: no independent desire of woman is vouchsafed. The value of the feminine (and the letter) is thus shifting and contradictory in exegetical tradition, ranging from Jerome's apparent nurturing of the feminine to Gregory's drastic reduction. But the hermeneutic paradigm itself remains resolutely patriarchal.


Chaucer's use of this hermeneutic is subtle and nuanced, demonstrating both his investment in patriarchal discourse and his awareness of its limitations. Chaucerians have by now, in this post-Robertsonian age, recognized that the poet deeply and persistently engaged patristic and postpatristic thought in his major works, but I suggest here a new aspect of his use of it, and, further, I suggest that his relationship to that discourse is shifting and flexible. Chaucer attempts to discern the consequences for literature and literary tradition, and the effects on lived lives, of understanding literary endeavor as masculine acts performed on feminine bodies. As I shall suggest in the chapters to follow, in Troilus and Criseyde and the Legend of Good Women the narrator, emphatically masculine, engages with his pagan source texts as if they were women, treats them in ways analogous to the ways in which male lovers in the narratives treat their women. In the “Man of Law's Tale,” pale Constance is traded between pagan shores just as the tale itself (along with other merchandise) has been traded across the seas; she is a blank, an empty sign, exchanged between men in the linguistic and commercial transactions that constitute patriarchal social structure. In all three of these narratives, interpretive acts are performed on an ultimately powerless feminine corpus.

But the alien woman herself speaks, as it were, in the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale and the “Clerk's Tale,” and the social effects of such patriarchal and misogynistic models of literary production—the unhappy consequences of the occlusion of feminine desire—are given urgent expression by the voices of the Wife and Griselda. Through the Wife of Bath's performance Chaucer suggests the possibility of a renovated patriarchal hermeneutic that acknowledges, even solicits, feminine desire; but this essentially sympathetic acknowledgment of the value of the feminine, though necessary and just, is seen in the “Clerk's Tale” to be impossible within the confines of a gender-asymmetrical patriarchal hermeneutic.

It is finally the Pardoner, however, who provides the most radically denaturalizing perspective on the hermeneutic model of woman as text read by man. He is outside this patriarchal—and heterosexual—hermeneutic altogether: his body, unlike the beautiful and distinctly feminine body of truth in the Hieronymian model, instead defies distinct gender categories of masculine and feminine (the narrator of the General Prologue, indeed, can’t tell exactly what he is). The Pardoner destablizes this hermeneutic project with its clear and certain discovery procedures by confounding binary oppositions such as man/woman, surface/meaning, truth/falsehood. His use of language in his pardons, sermons, and “Tale”—acknowledging their falsity while accepting them as true—thoroughly problematizes any traditional hermeneutic model. Only a language of presence, suggested in Chaucer's “Retractions” in his invocation of the incarnate Word, can adequately counter the radical absence on which the Pardoner's poetics is founded.

This series of texts—Troilus and Criseyde, the Legend of Good Women, the “Man of Law's Tale,” the “Wife of Bath's Tale” and its Prologue, the “Clerk's Tale,” and the “Pardoner's Tale”—forms a coherent narrative sequence of its own as well as a textual group whose iconography and thematics are closely coordinated. Each text after Troilus and Criseyde contains at least one character who is figured as having read the previous work. We recall, of course, that the narrator of Troilus and Criseyde is reading and responding to “Lollius'” tale of the lovers. In the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women, the God of Love and Alceste have read Troilus and Criseyde; they demand an explanation for it and reparation for the damages it has wreaked on the reputation of women—and the Legend is the result. The Man of Law, in turn, has read the legends, and solemnly approves of them; he is so impressed by Chaucer's propriety in writing them that he sets out to emulate them in his own “Tale.” But after his “Tale,” at the prospect of more solemnity and “difficulte,” the Wife of Bath bursts out with her Prologue and “Tale.” Her Prologue is soon interrupted by the Pardoner; and the Clerk, in turn, wittily refers to her at the end of his own “Tale.”75 While considering this group of texts as thus linked, however, I don’t intend to ignore their formal diversity. Troilus and Criseyde is obviously and importantly a different kind of narrative undertaking from the Legend of Good Women and from the Canterbury Tales.76 I shall argue, indeed, that the structure of Troilus and Criseyde has itself a gendered valence, in its positioning of an explicitly masculine narrator who manipulates the feminine text; in contrast, the narrative structure of the Tales, the structure of impersonation, is informed by a double perspective that I identify, apropos of Griselda, as “reading like a woman.”

I have spoken of several characters just now—the Pardoner, the Wife of Bath, Griselda—as embodiments or reifications of patristic images and hermeneutic ideas. I consider all of these characters to carry symbolic or allegorical significance; that is, I read them as educing a tradition of patristic figuration or as signifying typologically (as does Adam, in “Adam Scriveyn”). But I want to suggest that they have psychological dimensions as well: they have the capacity to make choices—I understand the Man of Law to have chosen not to talk about incest, for example—and they have a certain interiority—the Pardoner's behavior, for another example, is motivated by his own sense of lack. My approach can be further distinguished from conventional iconographical or allegorical readings in its proposal that a telling metacritical level can be discerned in the poetry: I shall suggest that Chaucer explores via the Wife of Bath and Griselda in particular the consequences of using these literary forms, representations, models in the definition of human lives.77 Chaucer does not passively employ an image or reify a traditional idea; he finally insists on accounting for the exclusions and effects of just such a representation.


  1. Geoffrey Chaucer, “Chaucers Wordes unto Adam, His Owne Scriveyn,” in The Riverside Chaucer, gen. ed. Larry D. Benson, 3d ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987). All further quotations of Chaucer's works are from this edition, hereafter cited by line number (or by book or fragment and line number).

  2. A contemporary exception is Russell A. Peck, who briefly suggests a figurative association with the first Adam (as does R. E. Kaske and as I shall do below, pp. 5-7) in “Public Dreams and Private Myths: Perspective in Middle English Literature,” PMLA 90 (1975): 467. F. N. Robinson summarizes early conjectures: “Adam” might have been Adam Chaucer, who held a lease in Smithfield and might have been a relative of the poet (Aage Brusendorff's idea); he might have been Adam Lachares (Eleanor Hammond); Adam Stedeman, law scrivener (Ramona Bressie); Adam Acton, limner (John Mathews Manly); or Adam Pinckhurst, member of the Brotherhood of Writers of the Court Letter in London between 1392 and 1404 (B. M. Wagner) (The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. F. N. Robinson, 2d ed. [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957], p. 859). It is symptomatic of current trends in Chaucer criticism that these speculations are not detailed in the notes by Laila Z. Gross in The Riverside Chaucer.

  3. Biblical translations are from the Douay Version. All other translations, unless otherwise noted, are my own.

  4. Philo of Alexandria, On the Cherubim 17, ed. F. H. Colson and G. H. Whitaker, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1929), p. 43. Cited in R. Howard Bloch, Etymologies and Genealogies: A Literary Anthropology of the French Middle Ages (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1983), p. 39. See Bloch's excellent discussion of the original human language in early medieval thought, pp. 30-63.

  5. Dante Alighieri, De vulgari eloquentia 1.4.4, ed. Aristide Marigo, 3d ed. (Florence: Felice le Mounier, 1957).

  6. In his brief article, “‘Clericus Adam’ and Chaucer's ‘Adam Scriveyn’” (in Chaucerian Problems and Perspectives: Essays Presented to Paul E. Beichner, C.S.C., ed. E. Vasta and Z. P. Thundy [Notre Dame, Ind.: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1979]), pp. 114-18, R. E. Kaske cites a thirteenth-century Saxon chronicle by Eike von Repgow as a witness to the tradition of Adam as inventor of letters: “Adam underdachte bochstave allerest” (in a later Latin translation: “Adam primus adinuenit literas”). See Gesellschaft für ältere deutsche Geschichtskunde, ed., Sächsische Weltchronik, in Deutsche Chroniken und andere Geschichtsbücher des Mittelalters, MGH, Scriptores qui vernacula lingua usi sunt, 2 (Hannover: Hahn, 1877), 2:69; and H. F. Massmann, ed., Das Zeitbuch des Eike von Repgow in ursprünglich niederdeutscher Sprache und in früher lateinischer Übersetzung, Bibliothek des Litterarischen Vereins in Stuttgart, 42 (Stuttgart: Litterarische Verein, 1857), p. 15. It is interesting to note, with Kathleen Walkup (“By Sovereign Maidens' Might: Notes on Women in Printing,” Fine Print 11, no. 2 [April 1985]: 100-104), that this chronicle was issued by Anna Rugerin in 1484 from her press at Augsburg, the first European press “solely owned and operated by a woman” (p. 100). For a statement of the traditional view that Moses invented letters, see Robert Hollander, “Babytalk in Dante's Commedia,Mosaic 8 (1975): 76-77, n. 10.

  7. Cf. Petrarch, De remediis utriusque fortunae 1.43 (“De librorum copia”), on scribes:

    Nunc confusis exemplaribus et exemplis unum scribere polliciti, sic aliud scribunt, ut quod ipse dictaveris non agnoscas.

    [Now, with their confused copies and drafts, they promise to write one thing but write another, so that you do not recognize what you yourself dictated.]

    (Petrarch: Four Dialogues for Scholars, ed. and trans. Conrad H. Rawski [Cleveland: Western Reserve University, 1967], pp. 36-37)

  8. [Beneath a certain tree Adam the clerk wrote
    Of how the first Adam sinned by means of a certain tree.
    Woman conquered, man was conquered by means of a certain tree;
    Woman easily trusted the serpent, who was speaking about profound matters.
    Woman made deceived fools out of wise men;
    Woman overcame you, David, and you, Solomon;
    Woman beguiled you, Samson, and on you, Job,
    Woman did the same job; she conquered just as Genesis says.
    Woman … 
    Woman … 
    Woman …]

    For the full text, see S. G. Owen, “A Medieval Latin Poem,” English Historical Review 2 (1887): 525-26; and Carlo Pascal, Letteratura Latina Medievale: Nuovi Saggi e Note Critiche (Catania: Francesco Battiato, 1909), pp. 107-15. Kaske's article, cited in n. 6, pointed me to this poem; I have adopted his translation of the first two lines.

  9. Eue helde longe tale wiþ þe neddre in paradys and tolde hym al þe lesson þat god hadd forboden hem forto eten of þe Appel. And so þe neddre vnderstoode þoroui her woordes onon riith her feblesse. and her brotylnesse of fallynge. And fonde way þoroui her mychel speche hou he schulde brynge hire to forlernesse.

    (Ancrene Riwle, Magdalene College, Cambridge, MS. Pepys 2498 [ed. A. Zettersten, EETS 274 (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1976), p. 25])

    Cited in Deborah Ellis's lively and perceptive article, “The Merchant's Wife's Tale: Language, Sex, and Commerce in Margery Kempe and in Chaucer,” Exemplaria (October 1989).

  10. In the De planctu, writing and sexual intercourse are figuratively equated; concomitantly, the laws of grammar are identified metaphorically with the laws of Nature. Dame Nature herself comments on her appointment of Venus to build a progeny on earth: Nature says she gave Venus “two approved hammers” and workshops with anvils in which the Fates might be defeated, and she ordered that the hammers should not on any account stray from the anvils. Similarly,

    Ad officium etiam scripture calamum prepotentem eidem fueram elargita, ut in competentibus cedulis eiusdem calami scripturam poscentibus quarum mee largitionis beneficio fuerat conpotita iuxta mee orthographie normulam rerum genera figuraret, ne a proprie descriptionis semita in falsigraphie deuia eumdem deuagari minime sustineret.

    [I had also bestowed on her an unusually powerful writing-pen for her work so that she might trace the classes of things, according to the rules of my orthography, on suitable pages which called for writing by this same pen and which through my kind gift she had in her possession, so that she might not suffer the same pen to wander in the smallest degree from the path of proper delineation into the byways of pseudography.]

    (Alanus de Insulis, De planctu naturae 10.30-34 [ed. Nikolaus Häring, Studi medievali, 3d ser., 19 (1978): 845-46; trans. James J. Sheridan, under the title The Plaint of Nature [Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1980], p. 156)

  11. Genius threatens to excommunicate those who refuse to procreate:

    Mes cil qui des greffes n’escrivent,
    par cui li mortel tourjorz vivent,
    es beles tables precieuses
    que Nature por estre oiseuses
    ne leur avoit pas aprestees,
    ainz leur avoit por ce prestees
    que tuit i fussent escrivain,
    con tuit et toutes an vivain … 
    o tout l’esconmeniemant
    qui touz les mete a dampnemant,
    puis que la se veulent aherdre,
    ainz qu’il muirent, puissent il perdre
    et l’aumosniere et les estalles
    don il ont signe d’estre malles!
    Perte leur viegne des pandanz
    a quoi l’aumosniere est pandanz!
    Les marteaus dedanz estachiez
    puissent il avoir arrachiez!
    Li greffe leur saient tolu,
    quant escrivre n’an ont volu
    dedanz les precieuses tables
    qui leur estoient convenables!

    [But those who do not write with their styluses, by which mortals live forever, on the beautiful precious tablets that Nature did not prepare for them to leave idle, but instead loaned them in order that everyone might be a writer and that we all, men and women, might live … may they, in addition to the excommunication that sends them all to damnation, suffer, before their death, the loss of their purse and testicles, the signs that they are male! May they lose the pendants on which the purse hangs! May they have the hammers that are attached within torn out! May their styluses be taken away from them when they have not wished to write within the precious tablets that were suitable for them!]

    (Félix Lecoy, ed., Le Roman de la rose vv. 19599-646 [CFMA (Paris: Honoré Champion, 1976); trans., Charles Dahlberg, under the title The Romance of the Rose (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1971), pp. 323-24])

  12. Note the significant change in The Riverside Chaucer from Robinson's second edition of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, which follows Root in printing another version of the line—“It is no shame unto yow ne no vice”—but notes the “rape” reading in the list of significant variants. For more on the textual history of this line, see R. K. Root, The Textual Tradition of Chaucer's “Troilus,” Chaucer Society, 1st ser., no. 99 (London: Kegan Paul, 1916 for 1912), p. 201; and The Manuscripts of Chaucer's “Troilus,” Chaucer Society, 1st ser., no. 98 (London: Kegan Paul, 1914 for 1911), pp. 13, 33, 35.

  13. Another example of Chaucer's attention to words' participating in the process of social change is “fre” in the final question posed by the Franklin in his tale (see 5:1622). In reference to “rape” here, it might be useful to recall in addition that Chaucer was fluent in French and Latin and could very well have added Latinate connotations to the Germanic word.

  14. I want to distinguish my discussion here and throughout this book from the notion, current in some Chaucer criticism, of Chaucer's “androgyny.” Donald Howard gives voice to much liberal critical sentiment when he writes of Chaucer's “androgynous personality”:

    Chaucer was what may be called an androgynous personality. He lived in a man's world, achieved eminence as a public figure and a writer in a man's world, yet he had no difficulty at all seeing the world through women's eyes. “Androgynous” in this sense does not suggest any physical anomaly or any characterological limitation. It is simply the ability to see things from the viewpoint of either sex; Coleridge said that a great mind must be androgynous.

    (Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World [New York: Dutton, 1987], p. 97)

    However, as I shall attempt to demonstrate throughout this book, Chaucer has a deep and acute sense of the differences between the genders in Western patriarchal culture, the mutually exclusive relations between “masculine” and “feminine,” and the personal and political stakes any individual may have in identifying with or taking up a particular gender position. The concept of “androgyny,” it seems to me, elides or at the least blurs these considerations in its idea of the naturalness and ease of cross-gender or double-gender identification.

  15. For texts of the documents and for summary bibliography of the scholarly discussion, see Chaucer Life-Records, ed. Martin M. Crow and Clair C. Olson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966). See also P. R. Watts, “The Strange Case of Geoffrey Chaucer and Cecilia Chaumpaigne,” Law Quarterly Review 63 (1947): 491-515.

  16. Sheila Delany, in her provocative and speculative essay on the Manciple's Tale, is an exception here; see her Writing Woman: Women Writers and Women in Literature, Medieval to Modern (New York: Schocken, 1983), pp. 47-75.

  17. Robinson, ed., The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, xxiii.

  18. See Theodore F. T. Plucknett, “Chaucer's Escapade,” Law Quarterly Review 64 (1948): 33-36. J. B. Post's essay, “Ravishment of Women and the Statutes of Westminster” (in Legal Records and the Historian, ed. J. H. Baker [London: Royal Historical Society, 1978], pp. 150-64), provides discussion and texts of the 1275 and 1285 Statutes; the statutes effectively blurred the distinctions between elopement, abduction, and sexual violation. For canon law's earlier blurring of these distinctions, see James A. Brundage, Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1987), p. 209.

  19. Martin M. Crow and Virginia E. Leland, “Chaucer's Life,” in The Riverside Chaucer, pp. xxi-xxii.

  20. See Plucknett, “Chaucer's Escapade,” pp. 33-36; and Haldeen Braddy, “Chaucer, Alice Perrers, and Cecily Chaumpaigne,” Speculum 52 (1977): 906-11. Braddy identifies Cecilia as Alice Perrers's stepdaughter, a discovery that Donald Howard uses in his speculations about Cecilia's motives in Chaucer, pp. 317-20.

  21. Lee Patterson makes a related point when, in his critique of New Historicism, he states that analyzing all historical actions as symbols reduces or obviates their practical impact or possibility:

    It is true that the literary historian must perforce operate within the closed world of textuality, and that he must not hypostasize a part of his evidence as the historically real. But our experience also teaches us that the historically real—as economic, political, social, and material reality—does indeed exist, and that action in the world has a presence and consequentiality that cannot be evaded.

    (Negotiating the Past: The Historical Understanding of Medieval Literature [Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1987], pp. 62-63)

  22. This is a crucial distinction several critics have begun to consider in relation to medieval texts: see, for example, Sheila Delany, “Rewriting Woman Good: Gender and the Anxiety of Influence in Two Late-Medieval Texts,” in Chaucer in the Eighties, ed. Julian N. Wasserman and Robert J. Blanch (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1986), pp. 75-92; and Susan Schibanoff, “Taking the Gold Out of Egypt: The Art of Reading as a Woman,” in Gender and Reading, ed. Elizabeth A. Flynn and Patrocinio P. Schweikart (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), pp. 83-106.

  23. For varied and nuanced perspectives on the problematic relationship between sex and gender, see Men in Feminism, ed. Alice Jardine and Paul Smith (New York: Methuen, 1987). Stephen Heath's “Male Feminism” (pp. 1-32) is especially clear and cogent in its articulation of the issues.

  24. Petrarch wrote to Boccaccio in 1366 in praise of his young copyist: although the letters of other scribes are sumptuous but ill defined, those of his copyist are clear, neat, and chaste:

    Quas tu olim illius manu scriptas, prestante Deo, aspicies, non vaga quidem ac luxurianti litera … sed alia quadam castigata et clara seque ultro oculis ingerente.

    [God willing, you will see them [Petrarch's Familiar Letters] sometime, written in his hand, not with that pompous and fancy lettering … but in neat and clear lettering, affecting more than just the eyes.]

    (Le Familiari 23.19, ed. Umberto Bosco [Florence: Sansoni, 1942], 4:205; trans. Aldo S. Bernardo, under the title Letters on Familiar Matters [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1985], 3:301)

    In Seniles 5.1, a letter to Boccaccio actually written at about this time, Petrarch writes of the priest whom he has employed: “Whether he will, as a priest, perform his duty conscientiously, or, as a copyist, be ready to deceive, I cannot yet say” (trans. James Harvey Robinson and Henry Winchester Rolfe, in Petrarch: The First Modern Scholar and Man of Letters, 2d ed. [New York and London: Putnam's Sons, 1914], pp. 27-28).

  25. Eugène Vinaver, “Principles of Textual Emendation,” in Studies in French Language and Medieval Literature Presented to Mildred K. Pope (Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press, 1939), pp. 351-69. See B. A. Windeatt's comments on the moralizing diction of textual criticism: “The technical vocabulary of editing expresses itself through metaphors of moral degradation from purity of text” (“The Scribes as Chaucer's Early Critics,” SAC 1 [1979]:119). Windeatt's edition of Troilus and Criseyde (London and New York: Longman, 1984), attempts to correct this moralistic view of scribal contamination by speaking of scribal variants and interpretations. (For an example of the traditional textual criticism of Chaucer to which Windeatt is reacting, see R. K. Root, The Textual Tradition of Chaucer's “Troilus” and The Manuscripts of Chaucer's “Troilus.” A history of textual criticism of Chaucer can be found in Paul G. Ruggiers, ed., Editing Chaucer: The Great Tradition [Norman, Okla.: Pilgrim Books, 1984].) For similar reflections on scribal contamination, see Derek Pearsall, “Editing Medieval Texts: Some Developments and Some Problems,” in Textual Criticism and Literary Interpretation, ed. Jerome J. McGann (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1985), pp. 92-106; and Anne Hudson, “Middle English,” in Editing Medieval Texts, ed. A. G. Rigg (New York: Garland, 1977), pp. 34-57.

  26. See the invigorating analysis of textual editing, on which I have drawn here, by Lee Patterson: “The Logic of Textual Criticism and the Way of Genius: The Kane-Donaldson Piers Plowman in Historical Perspective,” in Textual Criticism and Literary Interpretation, pp. 55-91, esp. p. 59.

  27. E. Talbot Donaldson, Speaking of Chaucer (London: Athlone Press, 1970), p. 103.

  28. Ibid., p. 105.

  29. See Peter L. Allen, “Ars Amandi, Ars Legendi: Love Poetry and Literary Theory in Ovid, Andreas Capellanus, and Jean de Meun,” Exemplaria 1 (1989):181-207.

  30. See Eugene Vance, “The Differing Seed: Dante's Brunetto Latini,” in his Mervelous Signals: Poetics and Sign Theory in the Middle Ages (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1986), pp. 230-55.

  31. On the Redemption as an “admirable commerce,” see R. A. Shoaf, The Poem as Green Girdle: “Commercium” in “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” University of Florida Monographs, Humanities no. 55 (Gainesville: Univ. Presses of Florida, 1984), pp. 15-30.

  32. For a concise statement of the “substantial comparability” between women and signs, see Claude Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf (New York: Basic Books, 1963), pp. 61-62. See also his Elementary Structures of Kinship, trans. J. H. Bell, J. R. von Sturmer, and R. Needham, rev. ed. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969). For Gayle Rubin's analysis of the impact of Lévi-Strauss's formulations on women, see her acute article, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex,” in Toward an Anthropology of Women, ed. R. R. Reiter (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975), pp. 157-210.

  33. See Jacques Lacan, “The mirror stage as formative of the function of the I as revealed in psychoanalytic experience” and “The Signification of the Phallus,” in Ecrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Norton, 1977), pp. 1-7 and 281-91; and his essays collected in Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the école freudienne, ed. Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose, trans. Jacqueline Rose (New York: Norton, 1982). For the problematization of the place of the woman in Lacan's myth of language acquisition, see Margaret Homans, “Representation, Reproduction, and Women's Place in Language,” chapter 1 of her Bearing the Word: Language and Female Experience in Nineteenth-Century Women's Writing (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1986), pp. 1-39.

  34. For the interrelations between structural anthropology and psychoanalytic theory, I have found Anthony Wilden very helpful: see his essay, “Lacan and the Discourse of the Other,” included in Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis, by Jacques Lacan, trans. Anthony Wilden (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1981), pp. 159-311.

  35. See Jacques Lacan, “The Agency of the Letter in the Unconscious or Reason since Freud,” in Ecrits: A Selection: “Cf. the De Magistro of St Augustine, especially the chapter ‘De significatione locutionis,’ which I analysed in my seminar of 23 June, 1954” (p. 176 n. 10). For a suggestion of the deconstructive implications of Augustinian language theory, see Margaret W. Ferguson, “Saint Augustine's Region of Unlikeness: The Crossing of Exile and Language,” Georgia Review 29 (1975): 842-64. Tracing the Platonic roots of Augustine's use of the figure of exile in Confessions 7, Ferguson analyzes Augustine's view of flawed, fallen human language as “exiled” into a region of dissimilitude, a region of figuration.

  36. See, for example, Susan Gubar's article, “‘The Blank Page’ and the Issues of Female Creativity” (in Writing and Sexual Difference, ed. Elizabeth Abel [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982], pp. 73-93), which articulates the idea, long implicit in French feminist thinking, of the text as woman's body.

  37. Sed proh dolor! tam hos quam alios istorum sectantes effigiem a paterna cultura librorum et studio subtrahit triplex cura superflua, ventris videlicet, vestium et domorum.

    [But alas! a threefold care of superfluities, viz., of the stomach, of dress, and of houses, has seduced these men and others following their example from the paternal care of books, and from their study.]

    (The Philobiblon of Richard of Bury [ed. and trans. Ernest C. Thomas (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, and Co., 1887)], ch. 6, sec. 87)

  38. Generositati nostrae omni die detrahitur, dum per pravos compilatores, translatores et transformatores nova nobis auctorum nomina imponuntur et, antiqua nobilitate mutata, regeneratione multiplici renascentes degeneramus omnino. Sicque vilium vitricorum nobis nolentibus affiguntur vocabula et verorum patrum nomina filiis subducuntur.

    [Our purity of race is diminished every day, while new authors' names are imposed on us by worthless compilers, translators, and transformers, and losing our ancient nobility, while we are reborn in successive generations, we become wholly degenerate; and thus against our will the name of some wretched step-father is affixed to us, and the sons are robbed of the names of their true fathers.]

    (Ibid., ch. 4, sec. 68)

  39. “Sunt igitur transcriptiones veterum quasi quaedam propagationes recentium filiorum, ad quos paternum devolvatur officium, ne librorum municipium minuatur” (Ibid., ch. 16, sec. 207)

  40. These women are, of course, the exceptions; their own discourse and that of those around them make their exceptional status clear. Christine de Pizan's extended treatise on social obstacles to women's achievements, Le Livre de la cité des dames, may be taken as an epitome here. See Susan Schibanoff's recent analysis of Christine's attempt to read as a woman (to read, that is, according to her own experiences and knowledge), “Taking the Gold Out of Egypt: The Art of Reading as a Woman,” in Gender and Reading, ed. Elizabeth A. Flynn and Patrocinio P. Schweikart (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1986), pp. 83-106. Among the many recent discussions of medieval women's literary achievements, see Kathleen Walkup's brief comments in “By Sovereign Maidens' Might: Notes on Women in Printing” (see n. 6 above), pp. 100-104; Peter Dronke, Women Writers of the Middle Ages: A Critical Study of Texts from Perpetua to Marguerite Porete (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1984); Katharina M. Wilson, ed., Medieval Women Writers (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1984); and Joan M. Ferrante, “The Education of Women in the Middle Ages in Theory, Fact, and Fantasy,” in Beyond Their Sex: Learned Women of the European Past, ed. Patricia H. Labalme (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1980), pp. 9-42.

  41. Lady Alice West, Hampshire, for example, in a will proved in 1395, leaves to her son “a peyre Matins bookis,” among other items, but to his wife she leaves “a masse book, and alle the bokes that I have of latyn, englisch, and frensch” (see Fifty Earliest English Wills in the Court of Probate, London, A.D. 1387-1439, ed. Frederick J. Furnivall, EETS o.s. 78 [London: Trübner, 1882], p. 5).

  42. “Disenfranchisement” is R. Howard Bloch's term in his comments on woman's place in social history in “Medieval Misogyny,” Representations 20 (1987): 1-24. That social structure did not accommodate literary women is suggested by the thirteenth-century author of Urbain le Courtois, who advises “mon filz chier” against choosing a bride who can read:

    Si femme volez esposer,
    Pensez de tei, mon filz chier,
    Pernez nule por sa beauté
    Ne nule ke soit en livre lettrié [sic],
    Car sovent sunt decevables
    Et relement sunt estables;
    Mès pernez une que soit sage,
    Ke vous ne i poise sa mariage.
    [If you want to take a wife,
    Think of yourself, my dear son,
    Take no woman for her beauty,
    Nor any who is skilled at reading,
    For often they are deceivers
    And rarely are they faithful;
    Instead, take one who is wise,
    Who will not trouble your marriage.]
    (Urbain le Courtois, ed. Paul Meyer, Romania 32 [1903]: 72, ll. 57-64.)

    I was pointed to this text by John F. Benton, “Clio and Venus: An Historical View of Medieval Love,” in The Meaning of Courtly Love, ed. F. X. Newman (Albany: State Univ. of New York Press, 1968), pp. 19-42.

  43. non habeat matrona, tibi quae iuncta recumbit,
    dicendi genus aut curvum sermone rotato
    torqueat enthymema, nec historias sciat omnes,
    sed quaedam ex libris et non intellegat.
    (Juvenal, Satires 6.448-51, ed. G.
    G. Ramsay, Loeb Classical Library [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press,
    1940], p. 120; trans. Roger Killian et al., in Sarah Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity
    [New York: Schocken, 1975], p. 172)

    This passage is quoted by Lee Patterson, in his “‘For the Wyves love of Bathe’: Feminine Rhetoric and Poetic Resolution in the Roman de la Rose and the Canterbury Tales,” Speculum 58 (1983): 656.

  44. Aristotle, Politics 1260a28-31 (trans. Benjamin Jowett, in The Complete Works of Aristotle, ed. Jonathan Barnes [Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1984], 2: 2000). Cited in Prudence Allen, R.S.M., The Concept of Woman: The Aristotelian Revolution, 750 B.C. to A.D. 1250 (Montreal: Eden Press, 1985), p. 110. This encyclopedic volume contains thorough examination and documentation of classical traditions of thinking about “woman” and their continuation into the Christian era.

  45. Ad mulieris enim ornatum vel honestatem pertinet quod sit taciturna, hoc enim ex verecundia provenit quae mulieribus debetur: sed hoc ad ornatum viri non pertinet, sed magis quod sicut decet loquatur. Unde et Apostolus monet quod mulieres in ecclesiis taceant, et si quid dicere volunt, domi viros suos interrogent (I Cor., XIV, 34).

    [For what is appropriate for the decorum of a woman or her integrity—that she be silent—comes from the modesty that is appropriate to women, but this does not pertain to the decorum of a man; rather, he should speak as is fitting. Therefore the Apostle warns, Let women keep silent in the churches and if they wish to learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home (I Cor. 14:34).]

    (Aquinas, In octo libros Politicorum Aristotelis expositio 1.10, ed. Raymundi M. Spiazzi [Taurini: Marietti, 1966], p. 50)

    Cited in Allen, The Concept of Woman, p. 400; I have altered her translation here.

  46. Cf. R. Howard Bloch, who argues in “Medieval Misogyny” (Representations 20 [Fall 1987]:1-24) that masculine proscriptions on adornment are directed at its “perverse secondariness” and are not proscriptions of the flesh per se. Such secondariness, he argues, is a condition of the female at the Creation, a condition of ornament, and indeed a condition of all figuration or representation. As I shall develop more fully below, it seems to me that the exegetical assimilation of literality and carnality to femininity is more thorough and profound than the assimilation of the loss of the literal to femininity that Bloch suggests.

  47. For the exegetical tradition, see below in this section. For the classical tradition, examples of the association of the female with matter abound: see Aristotle, Generation of Animals 738b20-25, trans. A. L. Peck, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1953), p. 12; and Pliny the Elder, Natural History 7.15, ed. H. Rackham, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1942), p. 549. This association was steadily carried through to the end of the Middle Ages by Averroës, Colliget 2.10, supp. 1 (Aristotelis opera cum Averrois commentariis [Frankfurt am Main: Minerva Verlag, 1962], p. 23); Albertus Magnus, Quaestiones super De animalibus 5.4 (“Utrum maior sit delectatio in viris quam in mulieribus in coitu”), ed. Ephrem Filthaut, vol. 12, Opera omnia (Monasterii Westfalorum in Aedibus Aschendorff, 1955), pp. 155-56; and Aquinas, Summa theologica 1a.92.1 (“Utrum mulier debuerit produci in prima rerum productione”) and 3a.32.4 (“Utrum B. Virgo aliquid active egerit in conceptione corporis Christi”) (Opera omnia [Parma, 1852-73; rpt. New York: Musurgia, 1948]).

  48. Aristotle rejected any idea of an active contribution of seed or formative matter by the mother. The seed was a male product only, and existed “by potentiality, and we know what is the relation of potentiality to actuality,” he argues in Parts of Animals 641b25-642a2 (trans. A. L. Peck, Loeb Classical Library [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1937], pp. 73-75). If the male seed is potentiality, therefore, the female matter is actuality. See Allen, The Concept of Woman, pp. 90-91, 95-103.

  49. For discussion of the development of medieval ideas of women out of classical scientific and medical treatises, see Vern L. Bullough, “Medieval Medical and Scientific Views of Women,” Viator: Medieval and Renaissance Studies 4 (1973): 485-501. For woman as defective man, see Aristotle, Generation of Animals 728a13-27 (Loeb ed., p. 103); and Galen, On the Usefulness of the Parts of the Body 14.5-6, (trans. Margaret Tallmadge May [Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1968], 2:627-28. For woman as deformed man, see Aristotle, Generation of Animals 737a26-30, 775a12-16 (Loeb ed., pp. 175, 459-61). For woman as man turned inside out, see Galen, Usefulness 14.6 (trans. May, 2:628-30). Christian writers retained the classical notion of woman as imperfect; they adapted it to the notion that God's creation of male and female was flawless by distinguishing between universal nature and particular nature: the generation of men and women on the level of universal nature was willed by God, although the generation of individual women is a defect in the order of nature. See Allen, The Concept of Woman, p. 393. For the distinction between the individual and the species of humans, see Albertus Magnus, Quaestiones super De animalibus 15.2 (“Utrum generatio feminae intendatur a natura”); and Aquinas, Summa theologica 1a.75.4. On the creation of the female, see Aquinas, Summa theologica 1a.92.1. For discussion of the synthesis of Aristotle, Genesis, and New Testament discourse on the female, see Patricia Parker, Literary Fat Ladies (London: Methuen, 1987), pp. 178-85.

  50. John F. Benton, “Trotula, Women's Problems, and the Professionalization of Medicine in the Middle Ages,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 59 (1985): 30-53. For the distinctive roles of medicus (male doctor) and obstetrix (female midwife)—theory and practice—see the brief comments in Helen Rodnite Lemay, “William of Saliceto on Human Sexuality,” Viator 12 (1981): 180-81.

  51. “Habet insatiabilem videndi loquendique, ut interim de tactu silentium sit, pruriginem” (Jean Gerson, De probatione spirituum 11 [(1415), in Oeuvres complètes, ed. P. Glorieux (Paris: Desclée, 1960-73), 9:184]). The treatise, prompted by Bridget's canonization, concerns false inspiration and attempts to provide some criteria for detecting it. Clearly, gender is at issue in this treatise; Gerson warns theologians of religious fervor in young people and in women, claiming that more is at stake than mere waste of time. For brief discussion of Gerson's treatise, see Barbara Obrist, “The Swedish Visionary: Saint Bridget,” in Medieval Women Writers, ed. Katharina M. Wilson (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1984), pp. 227-39; the translation appears on p. 236.

  52. Aristotle emphasizes the active role of the male in reproduction over the purely passive role of the female:

    Thus, if the male is the active partner, the one who originates the movement, and the female qua female is the passive one, surely what the female contributes to the semen of the male will not be semen but material [for the semen to work upon].

    (Generation of Animals 729a25-30 [Loeb ed., p. 103])

    Aristotle's rejection of the female seed or any female formative material was a clear break with earlier writers on generation (Parmenides, Empedocles, Democritus, Anaxagoras, the Hippocratic writings) and was not followed by Galen or, later, Averroës or Albertus Magnus. All agreed, however, that passivity was the key to the female role in reproduction: Aquinas, for example, wrote that the female was necessary but passive in reproduction (see Summa theologica 3a.32.4 [“Utrum B. Virgo aliquid active egerit in conceptione corporis Christi”], also 1a.98.2 [“Utrum in statu innocentiae fuisset generatio per coitum”], and 1a.118.1 [“Utrum anima sensitiva traducatur cum semine”]; De anima 11.5 [Opera omnia, 8:500]; and Summa contra gentiles 4.11.1 [Opera omnia, 5:307-8]). The male seed was understood to have primary importance. See the summary discussion in John T. Noonan, Jr., Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1966), pp. 88-91, and Allen, The Concept of Woman, esp. p. 97.

  53. See Aquinas' comments on monogamy in Summa contra gentiles 3.123: monogamy is natural to the human species because there is in men (hominibus) a certain natural solicitude to be certain of their offspring:

    Quaecumque igitur certitudinem prolis impediunt sunt contra naturalem instinctum humanae speciei. Si autem vir posset mulierem dimittere vel mulier virum et alteri copulari, impediretur certitudo prolis, dum mulier a primo cognita postmodum a secundo cognosceretur. Est igitur contra naturalem instinctum speciei humanae quod mulier a viro separetur.

    [So, whenever there are obstacles to the ascertaining of offspring they are opposed to the natural instinct of the human species. But, if a husband could put away his wife, or a wife her husband, and have sexual relations with another person, certitude as to offspring would be precluded, for the wife would be united first with one man and later with another. So, it is contrary to the natural instinct of the human species for a wife to be separated from her husband.]

    (Opera omnia 5:260; trans. Vernon J. Bourke, Summa contra gentiles [Notre Dame; Ind.: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1975], vol. 3, pt. 2, p. 148)

  54. cum inter alia poete officia sit non eviscerare fictionibus palliata, quin imo, si in propatulo posita sint memoratu et veneratione digna, ne vilescant familiaritate nimia, quanta possunt industria, tegere et ab oculis torpentium auferre.

    [Surely it is not one of the poet's various functions to rip up and lay bare the meaning which lies hidden in his inventions. Rather where matters truly solemn and memorable are too much exposed, it is his office by every effort to protect as well as he can and remove them from the gaze of the irreverent, that they cheapen not by too common familiarity.]

    (Boccaccio, Genealogia deorum gentilium 14.13, ed. Vincenzo Romano [Bari: Laterza, 1951], 2:715; trans. Charles G. Osgood, under the title Boccaccio on Poetry [Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1956], pp. 59-60)

  55. Numenio denique inter philosophos occultorum curiosiori offensam numinum, quod Eleusinia sacra interpretando vulgaverit, somnia prodiderunt, viso sibi ipsas Eleusinias deas habitu meretricio ante apertum lupanar videre prostantes, admirantique et causas non convenientis numinibus turpitudinis consulenti respondisse iratas ab ipso se de adyto pudicitiae suae vi abstractas et passim adeuntibus prostitutas.

    [Indeed, Numenius, a philosopher with a curiosity for occult things, had revealed to him in a dream the outrage he had committed against the gods by proclaiming his interpretation of the Eleusinian mysteries. The Eleusinian goddesses themselves, dressed in the garments of courtesans, appeared to him standing before an open brothel, and when in his astonishment he asked the reason for this shocking conduct, they angrily replied that he had driven them from their sanctuary of modesty and had prostituted them to every passer-by.]

    (Macrobius, Commentarii in Somnium Scipionis 1.2.19 [ed. J. Willis (Leipzig: Teubner, 1963), pp. 7-8; trans. William Harris Stahl, Commentary on the Dream of Scipio (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1952), pp. 86-87])

  56. For a short bibliography of medieval uses of this figure of the veiled text, see Boccaccio on Poetry (see n. 54 above), p. 157 n. 8.

  57. On the relation of Augustine and Boccaccio here, see Lee W. Patterson, “Ambiguity and Interpretation: A Fifteenth-Century Reading of Troilus and Criseyde,” Speculum 54 (1979): 327-29.

  58. “Idcirco prudentia veterum adinvenit remedium, quo lascivium humanum caperetur ingenium quodammodo pio dolo, dum sub voluptatis iconio delicata Minerva delitesceret in occulto” (Richard of Bury, Philobiblon, ch. 13, sec. 180). I have altered Thomas' translation slightly.

  59. This is where Boccaccio's project diverges from the strictly moral Augustinian one echoed by Richard of Bury: Boccaccio suggests a relaxation in regard to pleasure in the letter—if the reader himself is armed by faith, a certain delectation of the letter might be allowable (Genealogia 14.18). See Patterson, “Ambiguity and Interpretation,” pp. 327-29.

  60. “Mirate la dottrina che s'asconde / sotto ’l velame de li versi strani.” Inferno 9.62-63, in The Divine Comedy: Inferno, ed. and trans. Charles S. Singleton (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1970), 1: 92-3. See John Freccero, “Medusa: The Letter and the Spirit,” in his Dante: The Poetics of Conversion, ed. Rachel Jacoff (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1986), pp. 119-35.

  61. In The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages, 3d ed., rev. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1983), Beryl Smalley begins her chapter “The Fathers” by quoting Claudius, In libros informationum litterae et spiritus super Leviticum praefatio, and suggesting that he “sums up the patristic tradition as it had reached the scholars of Charlemagne's day” (p. 1).

  62. Origen, The Song of Songs: Commentary and Homilies, trans. and ed. R. P. Lawson (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1957), pp. 22-23.

  63. See Philo of Alexandria: “The serpent is a symbol of desire[,] … and woman is a symbol of sense, and man, of mind” (Questions and Answers on Genesis 1.47, trans. Ralph Marcus, Loeb Classical Library [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1953], supp. 1, p. 27); Philo: “The mind in us—call it Adam—having met with outward sense, called Eve …” (On the Cherubim 17-19 [Loeb ed., p. 43]); Augustine, De civitate Dei 14.10-26, CC 47 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1955), pp. 430-50); Augustine, De trinitate 12.12, ed. W. J. Mountain, CC 50 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1968), pp. 371-73; Augustine, De sermone Domini in monte 1.12.36, ed. A. Mutzenbecher, CC 35 [Turnhout: Brepols, 1967], p. 39); and John Scottus Eriugena, De divisione naturae 4.16 (PL 122:814B-29B). For a discussion of this tradition of tropological analysis of the Fall, see D. W. Robertson, Jr., A Preface to Chaucer (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1962), pp. 69-75. See also Albertus Magnus: “Unde, ut breviter dicam, ab omni muliere est cavendum tamquam a serpente venenoso et diabolo cornuto” (“Briefly, therefore, everyone is to be warned away from every woman as from a poisonous serpent or a horned devil”) (Quaestiones super De animalibus 15.11 [“Utrum mas habilior sit ad mores quam femina”]). Boccaccio's association of the letter of the text with the fruit of sin (mala frux) appears in Genealogia 14.15.

  64. It is tempting, in fact, to develop a theory of the transsexual text, based on the metaphor of transsexuality used by Ambrose and by Jerome. Bullough quotes and translates both church fathers: Ambrose writes

    Quae non credit, mulier est, et adhuc corporei sexus appellatione signatur; nam quae credit, occurrit in virum perfectum, in mensuram aetatis plenitudinis Christi.

    [She who does not believe is a woman and should be designated by the name of her bodily sex, whereas she who believes progresses to complete manhood, to the measure of the adulthood of Christ.]

    (Expositio evangeliis secundum Lucam [PL 15: 1844]; quoted in Bullough, “Medieval Medical and Scientific Views of Women” [see n. 49 above], p. 499)

    And Jerome states:

    Quamdiu mulier partui servit et liberis, hanc habet ad virum differentiam, quam corpus ad animam. Sin autem Christo magis voluerit servire quam saeculo, mulier esse cessabit, et dicetur vir.

    [As long as woman is for birth and children, she is different from man as body is from soul. But if she wishes to serve Christ more than the world, then she will cease to be a woman and will be called man.]

    (Commentariorum in Epistolam ad Ephesios libri 3 [PL 26:533]; quoted in Bullough, “Medieval Medical and Scientific Views,” p. 499)

    But in other—and more characteristic—places in the fathers, following Paul in 1 Timothy 2:15, woman's redeeming characteristic is her childbearing function, an idea that is carried into the metaphorics of discourse on the letter, as we shall see.

  65. Augustine, De doctrina christiana 3.7 (ed. J. Martin, CC 32 [Turnhout: Brepols, 1962], pp. 84-85). Secular works, such as those of the Platonists, can be read, according to Augustine, if their occasional, useful precepts or truths are taken for better use by Christians. He likens these truths stolen from the pagan texts to gold taken from Egyptians by the Israelites (De doctrina 2.40 [pp. 73-75]).

  66. Augustine is concerned with the truths of pagan philosophers—specifically, Neoplatonists—but Jerome, when discussing the virtues of classical texts, alludes more to Terence and Virgil than to Plato, as Henri de Lubac notes in “La belle captive,” ch. 4, pt. 5, of Exégèse médiévale (Paris: Aubier, 1959), vol. 1, pt. 1, p. 293.

  67. Henri de Lubac points out that Jerome got this image from Origen (in a homily on Leviticus), who likens the captive woman to the pagan text but associates her beauties with the rational wisdom the Christian might find there—not, as does Jerome, with the elegances of classical rhetoric and language (Exégèse médiévale, vol. 1, pt. 1, pp. 291-92).

  68. “Quid ergo mirum, si et ego sapientiam saecularem propter eloquii uenustatem et membrorum pulchritudinem de ancilla atque captiua Israhelitin facere cupio?” (Jerome, Epistulae, letter 70 (to Magnus), ed. I. Hilberg, CSEL 54 (Vienna: F. Tempsky, 1910), 1:702; trans. W. H. Fremantle, A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church [1892; rpt. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, n.d.], 6: 149.)

  69. See Jerome, Epistulae, letter 66 (to Pammachius) (1:658).

  70. Jerome returns to this metaphor at two other important interpretive moments: letter 21 (to Damasus), and letter 66 (to Pammachius). As Laura Kendrick has recently suggested, interpretive pleasure lies not solely in the transformation of the carnal text into a spiritual one but also “in preserving, by such legitimization, the arousing, carnal images of the original text” (Chaucerian Play: Comedy and Control in the “Canterbury Tales” [Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1988], p. 28). Her original and provocative argument concerns interpretation as more a veiling—a cover-up—than a stripping, but her comments on serious exegesis as “feed[ing] on the arousing aspects of the text” while taming and transforming them are appropriate to my discussion here.

  71. Henri de Lubac, Exégèse médiévale, vol. 1, pt. 1, p. 300.

  72. “Nunc tamen nemo ambigit et per similitudines libentius quaeque cognosci et cum aliqua difficultate quaesita multo gratius inueniri” (Augustine, De doctrina 2.6.8; trans. Robertson, in Preface to Chaucer, p. 38). It is significant that both Augustine and Jerome quote the Canticles in this connection: that text is an intensely erotic one whose female object is transformed from secular bride to the Church, in a pleasurable application of the cloak of interpretation:

  73. Guillaume de St.-Thierry, Expositio super Cantica canticorum 4 (PL 180: 473-546; quoted in de Lubac, Exégèse médiévale, vol. 1, pt. 1, pp. 301-2). De Lubac also implicitly acknowledges this ignoring of female desire when he comments that Peter the Venerable could hardly use the image in his correspondence with Heloise and so uses Augustine's Egyptian gold image (p. 298).

  74. Gregory IX to the masters of theology at Paris, 7 July 1228; cited by de Lubac, Exégèse médiévale, vol. 1, pt. 1, p. 300.

  75. This “narrative sequence” of texts does not depend on or presuppose a tidy chronology of Chaucer's works. Dating the canon is of course a vexed issue, and tentativeness must be the rule. The Prologue to the Legend of Good Women, for example, seems to have been revised well after various Canterbury Tales were written—in about 1394-96. It does make sense, however, to treat the Legend of Good Women as a palinode to Troilus and Criseyde—for that’s what even the revised Prologue says it is—and to hold discussion of the Man of Law's Tale until after treatment of the Legend, because the Man of Law explicitly refers to the Legends as if he has read them. For a good summary discussion, see Larry D. Benson, “The Canon and Chronology of Chaucer's Works,” in The Riverside Chaucer, pp. xxvi-xxix. And on the ordering of the Tales, see E. Talbot Donaldson defending the Ellesmere order as “almost” entirely satisfactory, in “The Ordering of the Canterbury Tales,” in Medieval Literature and Folklore: Essays in Honor of Francis Lee Utley, ed. Jerome Mandel and Bruce A. Rosenberg (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1970), pp. 193-204.

  76. Winthrop Wetherbee, in Chaucer and the Poets: An Essay on “Troilus and Criseyde” (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1984), has recently emphasized the classical and Dantean aspirations of Troilus and Criseyde, in clear contradistinction to the story collections, the Legend of Good Women and the Canterbury Tales.

  77. H. Marshall Leicester, Jr., makes similar claims in his article, “‘Synne Horrible’: The Pardoner's Exegesis of His Tale, and Chaucer's,” in Acts of Interpretation, ed. Mary J. Carruthers and Elizabeth D. Kirk (Norman, Okla.: Pilgrim Books, 1982), pp. 25-50. From a different (Gadamerian) perspective, Judith Ferster explores the power of interpretive models in the perception of the world, in her Chaucer on Interpretation (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985).

Priscilla Martin (essay date 1990)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5918

SOURCE: “Sex, Discourse and Silence,” in Chaucer's Women: Nuns, Wives and Amazons, Macmillan, 1990, pp. 218-30.

[In the following essay, Martin assesses the way in which Chaucer's heroines use both speech and silence to their advantage. Additionally, Martin demonstrates the correlation between the biblical archetypes of Eve and Mary—as representatives of “improper” and “proper” female behavior—and Chaucer's heroines, such as the Wife of Bath and the Prioress.]

In felaweshipe wel koude she laughe and carpe

CT [Canterbury Tales] I 474

In the “General Prologue” we are told that the Wife of Bath laughs and talks well in company, whereas the first attribute in the portrait of the Prioress is her ‘coy’, or quiet, smile. This is one of the most significant contrasts between these very different women. One is quiet, one is voluble throughout the Canterbury Tales. The Prioress never speaks during the Links between the stories. Harry Bailly goes into uncharacteristic contortions of politeness when he invites her to tell her tale, as if he were broaching a matter of the utmost delicacy. At the other extreme, the Wife is the most talkative of the pilgrims. She arrogates to herself a ‘long preamble’ (iii 831) of an autobiographical prologue as well as a tale and her skill in speaking is remarked by some of the professional speakers in her audience. Assertive and expansive, she spreads herself and dilates, spilling into other Canterbury Tales and out of the Tales altogether.1 She receives an ironic bow at the end of the “Clerk's Tale,” she breaches literary decorum by irrupting into the “Merchant's Tale” and she reappears in a quite separate poem, ‘Lenvoy de Chaucer a Bukton’. This contrast between the women is reflected in their stories. Prioress celebrates the piety of the child who learns a holy song by rote and sweetly reproduces the words of others. The Wife describes her verbal violence to her husbands, questions what she has been told, argues with authority and tells a tale in which victory is won by a woman's power of discourse.

This is one of the most important respects in which the Prioress is very feminine by the standards of her age, the Wife unfeminine or even an example of female vice. The Prioress is consciously refined, aping the manners of the court. The Wife is ‘wandrynge by the weye’ (i 467) and breaking the rules. Modern feminist discussion has emphasised that language privileges the male, that the female subject has particular problems in entering its symbolic order. In Chaucer's Europe different linguistic behaviour was prescribed for men and women. Medieval books of advice for women recommended them not to speak much and not to laugh or joke.2 Women are meant to be quiet. Loquacious women are a favourite target of medieval satire and types of discourse that are considered womanish but not feminine—‘labbyng’, nagging, scolding, gossip—come in for heavy criticism. Alison exemplifies all these habits of speech. She expatiates on how she would abuse her husbands and betray all their secrets. When she relates the anecdote of Midas's ears, she substitutes for the indiscreet barber of the sources an indiscreet wife. But while speaking ill is unattractive in a woman, speaking well is far more subversive. Alison competes with the most articulate men in her society, the clerks, and invades such masculine territories of discourse as preaching and interpretation of Scripture. Perhaps her laughing and joking are also subversive, the comedy of the satirist, the dreaded female ‘tee hee’ at male pretension.3

The archetypes of Eve and Mary also lend themselves to this contrast between improper and proper female behaviour. The Original Sin has been variously interpreted: as pride, disobedience, gluttony, lust and speech. The Nun's Priest blames it on Eve's words—‘Wommannes conseil broght us first to wo, / And made Adam fro paradys to go’ (vii 3257-8)—making woman the cause and man the victim of the Fall, supporting Chaunticleer's ‘Mulier est hominis confusio’ and defining Pertelote's rationalist persuasion as potential death to her husband. The Madonna-like Constance also attributes the Fall to ‘wommanes eggement’ (ii 842) and is strengthened to bear and belittle her own suffering, caused ultimately by Eve and surpassed infinitely by Mary. In contrast with Eve, who counsels disobedience to God, the Virgin accepts her divinely appointed role, saying at the Annunciation ‘Be it unto me according to thy word’. Eve usurps words and power, Mary resigns herself to God's will and God's word.

‘Good’ and ‘bad’ wives differ sharply in their discourse. This is underlined in the “Clerk's Tale.” Griselda's absolute submission to Walter's trials is manifested in her lack of verbal resistance. Walter wonders if ‘by his wyves cheere he myghte se, / Or by hire word apercyve, that she / Were chaunged’ (iv 598-600) and ‘waiteth if by word or contenaunce / That she to hym was changed of corage’ (708-9). But ‘she was ay oon’ (711), as ‘sad’, ‘sobre’ and loyal in her words as her actions. Her vow to Walter is almost her last exercise and expression of individual will. The Envoy to the Tale ironically advises wives to be the opposite of Griselda and make their husbands thoroughly wretched: ‘Folweth Ekko, that holdeth no silence … Ay clappeth as a mille … The arwes of thy crabbed eloquence / Shal perce his brest’ (1189, 1200, 1203-4). The talkative woman is the examplar of bad wives and her words are weapons, the more piercing if she is eloquent. At this the Merchant pours out his misery at his recent marriage to a shrew and tells his bitter story of January and May. This provokes the Host to some rueful comments on his own wife, who sounds more like the Merchant's than like May: she is ‘as trewe as any stel’ (iv 2426) but also ‘a labbying shrew’ (2428). He returns to the subject after the “Tale of Melibee.” Harry's scolding wife is quite different from patient Prudence: violent and a counsellor of violence, she wants to exchange gender roles, take his knife and give him her distaff (vii 1889-1922). Interestingly, the ‘real’ wives in the pilgrimage frame of the Tales—the Wife of Bath, Harry's Goodelief and the Merchant's bride—are all at odds with the ideal of quietness. In the “Merchant's Tale” Justinus advises caution against wedding a woman who may be, among other bad things, a ‘shrewe / A chidestere’ (iv 1534-5), implies that it is wiser not to marry and refers back to the Wife's Prologue for corroboration: ‘The Wyf of Bathe, if ye han understonde, / Of mariage, which we have on honde, / Declared hath ful wel in litel space’ (1685-7). Ironically, the Wife is condemned by her own eloquence. Her ability to speak ‘ful wel’ becomes evidence against her and against all women. Similarly in ‘Lenvoy de Chaucer a Bukton’, Bukton is advised to read the Wife of Bath before being trapped in marriage: her example will presumably serve as an awful warning and her forthrightness is contrasted both with the guarded ironies and occupationes of the poet and the silence of Christ before Pilate.

The “Merchant's Tale” suggests (but no one seems to notice) that silence too has its drawbacks. The young wife is quiet throughout the Tale but ‘God woot what that May thoughte in hir herte’ (iv 1851). Like silent Emily, she has unvoiced desires of her own, though they are very different. There are many voices in the Canterbury Tales. There are also various kinds of silence, ranging from Emily's political helplessness to May's sneaky opportunism, from the charming reticence of the Prioress to the pious self-effacement of the Clerk, who never speaks a word more than is necessary (i 304). When they are particularly powerless some of Chaucer's heroines turn a well-bred silence to advantage and shelter behind an impassive façade: on her arrival at the Greek camp Criseyde ‘stood forth muwet, milde and mansuete’ (TC [Troilus and Criseyde] v 194); May is ‘broght abedde as stille as stoon’ (iv 1818). Characters have different reasons for silence and are silent in different ways. In The History of Sexuality Michel Foucault discusses the relationships between sex, power, discourse and silence and dissolves the absolute opposition between silence and speaking:

Silence itself—the things one declines to say or is forbidden to name, the discretion that is required between different speakers—is less the absolute limit of discourse, the other side from which it is separated by a strict boundary, than an element that functions alongside the things said, with them and in relation to them within over-all strategies. There is no binary division to be made between what one says and what one does not say; we must try to determine the different ways of not saying such things, how those who can and those who cannot speak of them are distributed, which type of discourse is authorized, or which form of discretion is required in either case. There is not one but many silences, and they are an integral part of the strategies that underlie and permeate discourse.4

Foucault is right to deny any absolute binary division between the spoken and the unspoken. But the usual binary division by gender is at its vicious work again in authorising less and fewer types of discourse and demanding more and more types of discretion in women. The Wife of Bath's appeal to experience as well as authority points to her lack of authorisation. The inequity, with its consequences for both behaviour and perception, seems to continue: modern studies of conversation and gender suggest that women tend to say less than men but are perceived as saying more.5

May exemplifies first strategic silence, then strategic speech. When she is exposed in adultery, Proserpina comes to her aid and supplies her and all future women with the capacity to excuse themselves, no matter how guilty they are. They will always have the last word: ‘For lak of answere noon of hem shal dyen’ (iv 2271). The goddess shares the garrulity attributed to her sex—‘I am a womman, nedes moot I speke’ (2305)—but sees her own aggressive speech as an apt response to male verbal aggression against women: ‘For sithen he [Solomon] seyde that we been jangleresses … I shal nat spare, for no curteisye, / To speke hym harm that wolde us vileynye’ (2307-10). Her juxtaposition of ‘curteisye’ and ‘vileynye’ provides more than a rhyme. It suggests the doubly double standard that is applied to male and female discourse: women are not only wrong to speak but indecorous. It is unmannerly, unattractive, unbecoming to their sex. This is unjust yet, since we value courtesy, it also suggests some of the further complexities of the distribution of gender roles. Like many modern feminists, Proserpina could be accused of being ‘unfeminine’ in her indifference to courtesy and might well reply that there are more important things. But courtesy is important in that it can be expressive and symbolic of consideration in personal relationships. It is a problem for feminism that some genuine virtues are particularly expected of women: this encourages women to behave better in some areas than men but it is also unjust in exposing them to more censure and inhibiting them from behaviour incompatible with their role. The same moral standards should be applied to both sexes, as Chaucer implies when he describes the courtesy of his heroic Knight, a veteran of many campaigns, who is ‘of his port as meeke as is a mayde. / He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde / In al his lyf unto no maner wight’ (i 69-71). It is morally inadequate to confine gentleness and delicacy to one sex, strength and candour to the other.

One consequence is that articulacy and initiative are blamed in women, gentleness and unassertiveness suspected in men. Qualities praised in one sex are feared or despised in the other. The narrator of the Canterbury Tales commends the Knight for bearing himself as meekly as a maid but the Host finds the quietness of the Clerk effeminate and tries to spur him into the manly self-assertion of telling a story:

Ye ryde as coy and stille as dooth a mayde
Were newe spoused, sittynge at the bord;
This day ne herde I of youre tonge a word.

iv 2-4

The comparison is revealing. The silent Clerk is not only like a young woman but like a bride. The parallels here between sex, gender and discourse are obvious: on the one hand, coy, still, shy, silent, virginal, feminine; on the other, confident, active, articulate, experienced, sexual, masculine. The bride is expected to be quiet because she is a woman, probably a young woman and deemed to be a virgin. She faces sexual initiation and is assumed to be less eager for it than her partner: if the Virgin Mary is the ideal of womanhood, marriage represents defilement and diminution to the bride. Blushing, bashfulness, shyness and silence are proper responses. The female eagle in the Parliament of Fowls somehow manages to blush as red as a fresh rose in sunlight when her suitor expresses his love for her (PF 442-5). That paragon of maidenhood, Virginia in the “Physician's Tale” is ‘Discreet … in answeryng alwey’ (VI 48), modest verbally and sexually, and, when her virginity is threatened, her father chooses for her the ultimate silence of death. Though a man, the Clerk, like the bride, is presumed to be a virgin. He blurs the binary division by combining maleness with chastity and silence. This double position—more than a man? less than a man?—excites both admiration and unease. The sexuality of the clergy is a potent source of comedy in the Canterbury Tales: even with the more austere of them, such as the Clerk and the Nun's Priest, Harry Bailly cannot resist the subject. His suspicions would be justified of some of Chaucer's seducers, whose amorous adventures are furthered by a modest and maidenly demeanour: Nicholas, in the “Miller's Tale” is ‘sleigh and ful privee / And lyk a mayden meke for to see’ (i 3201-2); Jason in the Legend is ‘as coy as is a mayde’ (LGW 1548) and when he meets Hypsipyle, his first victim, he ‘answerde mekely and stylle’ (LGW 1491). The ‘feminine’ behaviour of these men should be a danger signal. The Wife of Bath conversely snipes at the binary division, a female whose forthright speech argues (in both senses) her frank sexuality. No wonder she has such a love/hate relationship with clerks.

The other pilgrim whom Harry twits for his silence is Chaucer himself. The Host notices that he rides with his eyes on the ground, talking to nobody, and challenges his author with the question ‘What man artow?’ (vii 695). He speaks for all of us who find it impossible to tell what Chaucer thinks. The author has disguised himself as the pilgrim and the pilgrim is silent. Does the Host also imply that manliness should be more verbally assertive? Does he express and assuage his nervousness about gender with an instant jokey reference to the man's sexuality? This is Harry's reaction when he compares the quiet Clerk to a bride, a verbal nudge, and insists that the celibate Nun's Priest would have made a ‘trede-foul aright’ (vii 3451), a verbal slap on the back. Similarly, the poet-pilgrim would be ‘a popet in an arm t’enbrace / For any womman, smal and fair of face’ (vii 701-2), reassuringly masculine in his orientation but oddly feminine in his smallness, fairness and passivity. For the Host the suggestion of androgyny is comically incongruous but Harry, the first critic of the Tales, is one of the least subtle. Six hundred years later Donald Howard seriously proposes that Chaucer in his understanding of both sexes transcends gender boundaries and is an androgynous poet.6 I agree and would want to add this. Chaucer lived in a society which tended to polarise the genders. He writes of some qualities as ‘womanly’ and others as ‘manly’. The Shavian distaste for a ‘womanly woman’ or a ‘manly man’ would be foreign to him. But he certainly implies that some virtues particularly associated with women, such as pity, should be common to both sexes and he shows men learning from women. His persona in the Canterbury Tales tells a story in which a man learns pity from a woman and which demonstrates that he is right to do so.

‘Chaucer’ is the only Canterbury pilgrim who tells two stories, though this is because his first attempt is not successful. When the Host calls on him, he says modestly that he knows no stories but ‘a rym I lerned long agon’ (vii 709). This is the “Tale of Sir Thopas,” at one level a tedious example, at another a sophisticated parody of a vapid late medieval romance. The Host characteristically sees only the obvious and interrupts to stop this feeble performance. The pilgrim weakly protests that this is unfair, since it is the best he can do, but Harry is adamant that he can bear no more of this ‘drasty rymying’ (vii 930). So Chaucer obliges him with the prose “Tale of Melibee.” It is the most beautiful of the many jokes the poet plays with his literary personae. Chaucer, the author of the Canterbury Tales, the creator of the pilgrims and their stories, has only one party piece and is told that it is ‘not woorth a toord! (vii 930). The lengthily edifying “Tale of Melibee” could be seen as his revenge on his obstreperous creation. The two tales told by the pilgrim-poet himself are at fictional extremes. Harry originally proposed a prize for the ‘Tales of best sentence and moost solaas’ (I 798); after “Sir Thopas” he despairs of receiving improvement and entertainment from Chaucer and merely demands ‘som murthe or some doctryne’ (vii 935; my italics). “Sir Thopas” is (if you see the joke) all mirth, “Melibee” all doctrine. “Sir Thopas” presents a fizzy travesty of the knightly ethic, “Melibee” a grave debate on violence and revenge which concludes in the forgiveness of enemies. Opposite in every way, the two Tales propose opposite ideals of the relationship between the sexes. Many maidens suffer vain and improbable agonies of unrequited love for Sir Thopas ‘whan hem were bet to slepe’ (vii 744); he decides that no real woman is worthy of him and that he will love an elf-queen. In the “Tale of Melibee” the wife, Prudence, and the daughter, Sophie, derive from the venerable tradition of allegorical female figures of wisdom, such as the Boethian Philosophy. Prudence converts Melibee from the plan of vengeance to the practice of mercy, disposing first of his objections that he should not heed her counsel because all women are wicked and he would be giving her mastery over him. In the bathetic mock-romance Sir Thopas sets his heart on an imaginary, invisible and impossible ideal. In the earnestly didactic allegory Prudence does represent an ideal and in her wisdom solves at the theoretical level some of the problems which bedevil other couples in the Canterbury Tales.

“Sir Thopas” is forcibly left unfinished, as impotent as its hero to reach its destination. The “Tale of Melibee“ is a closed structure: in a clear and orderly progression the correct counsel of Prudence prevails over the other competing voices and brings the story not only to a happy ending but to the promise of ‘the blisse that never hath ende’ (vii 1887-8). These are formal extremes which we may find elsewhere in Chaucer's poetry but between which most of his poems operate. His two earliest surviving poems end in perfect closure and attempted closure. The ABC concludes at the letter Z with the prayer for heaven. The narrator of the Book of the Duchess takes his leave with the blunt ‘This was my sweven; now hit ys doon’ (BD 1334): the dream has ended, the poem has been written. But we do not know what has been concluded by this double conclusion, whether the Man in Black has learnt from the Dreamer or the Dreamer has learnt from the dream. The Parliament of Fowls ends with a frank statement of the Dreamer's disappointment. Other poems—the House of Fame, Anelida and Arcite, the Legend of Good Women—are unfinished. Within the Canterbury Tales the stories of the Cook, Monk and Squire are abandoned or truncated by their audience. The Canterbury Tales as a whole is both incomplete and decisively closed. The plan proposed by Harry Bailly that each pilgrim shall tell two tales on the way to Canterbury and two on the way back to the Tabard is not realised. No pilgrim except Chaucer tells two stories, some tell none, the tales are grouped in fragments whose order is disputed and the poem leaves the pilgrimage at an anonymous ‘thropes ende’ (x 12), probably but not certainly on the outward journey. But its closure is emphatic. Night is falling, the Host calls upon the Parson to ‘knytte up wel a gret mateere’ (x 28) with a final tale, the Parson refuses to utter fiction or poetry and preaches his ‘myrie tale in prose’ (x 46) on sin and repentance. This is followed by the words ‘Heere taketh the makere of this book his leve’ and Chaucer's Retractions.

In the Canterbury Tales, as we have them, it seems that the “Manciple's Tale” is intended to come immediately before the Parson's. The two fragments are linked by the line ‘By that the Maunciple hadde his tale al ended’ (x 1). If so, the stern attitudes expressed in the “Parson's Tale” and the Retractions are prepared for by a narrowing of sympathy in the “Manciple's Tale.” Both the Tale and its Prologue echo and contrast with the generous scope of the First Fragment. In a sense the last movement of the Tales begins where the first left off, with an abortive attempt to extract a Tale from the Cook and some sparring and suggestion of professional antagonism between the Cook and another pilgrim. But the Cook is too drunk to speak, the Manciple comments scornfully on his condition and offers to take his place, the Host remarks that the Cook could probably expose some of the Manciple's dishonest reckonings, the Manciple agrees but reconciles the Cook with an offer of a drink. The Host apostrophises Bacchus, the god who can turn ‘ernest into game’ (ix 100), but the drink seems no more than a parody of friendship. The taste of carnival is growing sour.

The First Fragment celebrates plenitude. It descends, socially and morally, in its progression from Knight's Tale to Cook's, but the narrator declares the obligation to record the stories of all pilgrims faithfully, ‘be they bettre or werse’ (i 3174). His language should reflect theirs, even if this obliges him to speak ‘rudeliche and large’ (i 734): such accuracy is sanctioned by the example of Christ and the opinion of Plato that ‘the wordes moot be cosyn to the dede’ (i 742). The Manciple cites the same passage of Plato in the interest not of presenting every point of view as authentically as possible but of levelling all concepts down to the lowest common denominator. Women significantly provide the example of treacherous signifiers: a woman with a lover is called ‘lady’ if she is of high birth, ‘wenche or … lemman’, if she is poor (ix 207-22). Yet ‘myn owene deere brother, / Men leyn that oon as lowe as lith that oother’ (ix 221-2). The argument seems to have a certain rough egalitarian justice until one considers the way it is expressed. The speaker draws his implied audience into an implied group of men betrayed but not bemused by women. If the ‘owene deere brother’ implies a friend rather than a sibling, it emphasises male bonding at the expense of trust and love between the sexes. After this address the general term ‘men’ suggests ‘men’ rather than ‘one’ and the wordplay of the next line confirms this interpretation. The lay/low/lie pun identifies discourse with intercourse: it equates male lovemaking with defamation and degradation of women and approves the equation. Women are devalued by their sex and by their sexuality.

Like the first Tale, the last opens in the world of classical mythology but it signally lacks the splendour and dignity of the “Knight's Tale.” It introduces ‘Phebus’, the god Apollo, when he ‘dwelled heere in this erthe adoun’ (ix 105), but he is in this version very ungodlike, created in the image of that stock medieval comic character, the cuckolded husband. When his musical white crow reveals his wife's infidelity, he precipitately murders her and promptly regrets it. His one exercise of his divine power is to turn the crow black and spoil his voice, a sad miracle from the god of sun and music. This is the only metamorphosis in the Canterbury Tales and it disfigures. It also silences. The unfaithful wife is totally silent. She is not even named and her murder is hurried over in two lines. Her introduction is almost identical to the crow's, though he takes precedence over her: ‘Now hadde this Phebus in his hous an crowe / Which in a cage he fostred many a day’ (ix 130-1); ‘Now hadde this Phebus in his hous a wyf / Which that he lovede moore than his lyf’ (139-40). The similarity of the first line of each couplet suggests a metaphorical similarity in the second: Phebus, like John the carpenter, the first jealous husband of the Canterbury Tales, tries to keep his wife ‘narwe in cage’ (i 3224). The notion of the cage recurs a moment later, when the narrator demonstrates by analogy the futility of trying to constrain a wife: a pet bird will escape a golden cage and a luxurious diet to eat worms in the forest; the well-fed cat prefers to chase a mouse; a she-wolf will evince her ‘vileyns kynde’ (ix 183) by choosing to mate with ‘the lewedeste wolf that she may fynde, / Or leest of reputacioun’ (i 184-5). ‘Alle thise ensamples speke I by thise men / That been untrewe, and nothyng by wommen’ (ix 187-8), explains the narrator disingenuously, adding that men lecherously want to satisfy their appetites on lower things than their wives, that the flesh is ‘newe-fangel’ and that we have pleasure in nothing ‘that sowneth into vertu any while’. The grossness of the evasion reflects back on the speaker: perhaps it is another example of the way the Manciple cooks the books; perhaps his moral shabbiness is reflected in this all-purpose cynicism. But he raises issues that have been explored more subtly in earlier Tales. The Franklin's ‘Wommen, of kynde, desiren libertee, / And nat to been constreyned as a thral; / And so doon men’ (v 768-70) is both more generous and more glancingly ironic, suggesting that the sexes are morally and emotionally alike and implying that their common ground may therefore be an area for conflict.

The Franklin uses a different analogy from the Manciple, one that points to the social basis of sexual politics. It is natural to want freedom rather than slavery. The conjunction of nature and liberty here oddly anticipates Romantic thought. Perhaps not so oddly, since the Franklin is presented as a ‘new man’ with an interest in levelling up and blurring traditional hierarchy: his Tale ends with the implication that gentillesse is innate and can be found in any class. The Franklin's generosity may finally seem rather bland: the woman question is no longer asked, the gentillesse of the men is not questioned. His Tale presents a comfortable optimism, egalitarianism and tolerance. The Manciple's bitter conservatism, misanthropy and misogyny are based on a blinkered pessimism. He uses animal analogies to explain and debase human behaviour. And the debasement goes both ways. Within the animal analogy he uses human analogies, so that humans look brutish and animals ignoble. The she-wolf is not only wolfish but has the ‘vileyns kynde’ of a noble lady who lacks gentillesse: she prefers the ‘lewedeste wolf that she may fynde, / Or leest of reputacioun’, as if there were honour among wolves for her to misprize. The language makes the woman-as-beast message seem ludicrous. But it also achieves a confused sort of generality, a sour condemnation of every kind of creature. The Manciple does not mislead me into anachronisms about Romantic thought: he despairs of nature, despises animals and uses the symbol of the bird in flight to prove that we are hopelessly earthbound. His disclaimer—that the satire is directed at men, not at women—may be meant to creak so badly that it reinforces the misogyny. But it works in that the Manciple dislikes men as thoroughly as women and his impartial cynicism also extends to animals and gods. His creed is that we needs must love the lowest when we see it and the events of his story bear him out. The god behaves like a man, a foolish and vindictive man: he displays the very emotions—anger, jealousy, vengefulness and regret—that theologians carefully defined as ‘accommodated language’ when they were attributed to the Christian God. The woman behaves like a she-wolf of the poorest character. The crow loses his beauty, his song and ‘eek his speche’ (ix 306), the attribute which he shared with humanity.

The god's final vengeance is on the crow. The wife and the crow seem linked as objects of Phebus's love. But the crow also seems like an image of the poet. Like the narrator of the Canterbury Tales, he can ‘countrefete the speche of every man / … whan he sholde telle a tale’ (ix 134-5). His tale-telling is condemned, first by Phebus and finally by the Manciple. The moral of the story proves to be not ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’ nor ‘Thou shalt not kill’ but ‘Kepe wel thy tonge’ (ix 362). It concludes with a long speech to this effect, the counsel the mother gave her son. ‘Thus taughte me my dame’ (ix 317) was a proverbial expression, approving an idea as obviously sensible: here it is both literalised as the advice of the Manciple's mother and generates a host of proverbs on the folly of speaking. She passes on the lessons that women were given. Her culminating advice to her child is ‘My sone, be war, and be noon auctour newe / Of tidynges, wheither thei been false or trewe’ (ix 359-60). This is a counsel of silence and, for the poet, of despair. In his biography of Chaucer, Donald Howard claims that the passage directly expresses the poet's ‘disillusionment’: ‘the end of the last story told on the pilgrimage is an overlong speech commending silence. And its last image is a wagging tongue making meaningless noise. With this Chaucer brings the tale-telling game to a close’.7

It is a depressing conclusion. I am reluctant to identify Chaucer's point of view so absolutely with the Manciple's. The faults of the teller are reflected in the limitations of the Tale. But the Tale and its closure do lead into the closure of the Tales. Perhaps the Manciple figures in malo what the Parson intends in bono. The Manciple certainly anticipates the Parson's suspicion of fiction and twice dissociates himself from literature in the same words as the Parson: ‘I am noght textueel’ (ix 235, 316; x 57). Perhaps his sour statement of human depravity—‘we ne kanne in nothyng han plesaunce / That sowneth into vertu any while’ (ix 194-5)—modulates into the fear expressed in the Retractions that some of the Tales ‘sownen into synne’. In the last two fragments speech and sin, poetry and sexuality are connected and suspected as the ‘wrecchednesse’ (ix 171; x 34) which fallen nature prefers.

Chaucer's delight in human diversity is manifested in the scheme of the Canterbury Tales. ‘Diverse folk diversely they seyde’ (i 3857) could be a summary of the project. We hear from all the estates, the voices of rich and poor, good and bad, lerned and lewed, men and women. Chaucer's creative sympathy expresses itself in plurality and androgyny. But it seems to narrow as we move towards the emphatic closure of the Tales. Some readers have sensed that Chaucer became depressed as he grew older.8 The Retractions convey the anxiety of one near death. Chaucer's poetic achievement is now a source more of concern than consolation to him. He revokes and asks forgiveness for his ‘translacions and enditynges of worldly vanitees’ (x 1083-4), including ‘the book of Troilus; the book also of Fame; the book of the xxv. Ladies; the book of the Duchesse; the book of Seint Valentynes day of the Parlement of Briddes; the tales of Caunterbury, thilke that sownen into synne’ (x 1085-91). He is comforted only by the memory of the translation of Boethius and ‘othere bookes of legendes of seintes, and omelies and moralitee, and devocioun’ and thanks ‘Lord Jhesu Crist and his blisful Mooder, and alle the seintes of hevene’ for them. Although Chaucer does not specify which of the Canterbury Tales promote sin, it seems clear that his conscience finally dictates an absolute separation between secular and religious literature. It is a melancholy farewell to a poetic career of such imaginative range and courageous experiment.

The career began, as far as is visible to us, with a prayer to the Virgin Mary. The ABC concludes in penitence and the hopes of paradise: ‘Now, ladi bryghte, sith thou canst and wilt / Ben to the seed of Adam merciable, / Bring us to that palais that is bilt / To penitentes that ben to merci able. Amen’ (181-4). The last work, the Canterbury Tales ends similarly with the prayer to Christ, his mother and the saints, the expression of repentance and the hope of salvation. But between these two utterances Chaucer has often carefully defined his arena as neither heaven nor hell. Like the Wife of Bath he has been quizzical in balancing the teaching of authority and the claims of experience. His creativity and sexuality, sympathy and criticism interfuse. At the beginning of the Canterbury Tales he presents it as his obligation to report the discourse of all his pilgrims and justifies ‘brode’ speaking by the example of Christ himself (i 739). The similar defence in the first link, between the Tales of the ‘gentil’ Knight and the ‘cherl’ Miller (i 3167-86), suggests that the range of the poetry imitates the plenitude of the divine Author. Now faith and focus narrow. Experience submits to authority and the many voices to silence.


  1. On the Wife of Bath's rhetoric and ‘dilation’, see Lee Patterson, ‘“For the Wyves love of Bath”: Feminine Rhetoric and Poetic Resolution in the Roman de la Rose and the Canterbury Tales', Speculum, 58 (1983) pp. 656-95. Also Ellen Schauber and Ellen Spolsky, ‘The Consolation of Alison: The Speech Acts of the Wife of Bath’, Centrum, 5 (1977) pp. 20-34: ‘Major credit for our perception of her separateness goes to the force with which she constantly sets herself and her opinions in opposition to the opinions of others—she defines herself as apart by these patterns of speech’ (p. 26).

  2. Diane Bornstein, ‘As Meek as a Maid: A Historical Perspective on the Language for Women in Courtesy Books from the Middle Ages to Seventeen Magazine’, Women's Language and Style: Studies in Contemporary Language (Akron, Ohio, 1978) I, 136-7.

  3. A phenomenon from which Angela Carter wittily draws far-reaching conclusions in ‘Alison's Giggle’, The Left and the Erotic, ed. Eileen Phillips (London, 1983).

  4. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction, tr. Robert Hurley (London, 1979) p. 27.

  5. See Dale Spender, Man-Made Language (London, 1980) pp. 41-50.

  6. Donald R. Howard, Chaucer and the Medieval World (London, 1987) p. 97.

  7. Ibid., pp. 494-5.

  8. Ibid., pp. 482-3, 486-8.


AA: Anelida and Arcite

BD: Book of the Duchess

CT: Canterbury Tales

HF: House of Fame

LGW: Legend of Good Women

PF: Parliament of Fowls

RR: Romance of the Rose

TC: Troilus and Criseyde

Elaine Tuttle Hansen (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10565

SOURCE: Introduction to Chaucer and the Fictions of Gender, University of California Press, 1992, pp. 1-25.

[In the following essay, Hansen analyzes the “feminization” of men in Chaucer's Legend of Good Women. Hansen contends that Legend is more about men than it is about women, and that in it Chaucer emphasizes a sense of “feminine absence and masculine anxiety.”]


A decade or so ago, my emerging interest in what it might mean to approach Chaucer from a feminist perspective took me to a poem that seemed to focus most exclusively on images of the female: the Legend of Good Women. If I could argue from the evidence of this recalcitrant work, one that other feminist scholars had already despaired of understanding, I thought I might pin down the elusive author and determine whether he was or was not a friend of women. I have recanted some of the conclusions I drew when first looking into Chaucer's Legends, and the questions about women, feminism, and male authors that I am asking now are somewhat different. The story of how and why my reading of Chaucer's last dream-vision changed may serve to introduce the project this book comprises.

My first reading of the Legend of Good Women emphasized an overall design in the narrator's curious treatment of his ten heroines.1 If her traditional reputation is passionate and aggressive, even wicked in some way (like Cleopatra's, say, or Medea's), he domesticates the heroine's forcefulness and covers up her iniquity; where she is known for innocence and goodness (like Thisbe, Lucrece, or Hypsipyle), he hints at other flaws in her character, devalues her virtues, and punishes her model behavior. At the same time, the narrator reveals from the outset his own interest in the manly world of politics and war. In the opening Legend of Cleopatra, Antony's failed career is foregrounded, and the sea battle at Actium is lovingly detailed; as other readers have noted, the narrator's boredom with the stories of loving women he has been coerced into telling becomes ever more patent as the poem proceeds. Although for the most part he obeys Alceste's orders to tell stories about “false men” (G.476) and debunks his heroes as well as his heroines, this narrator does not finally hide his identification with “us men” (920), and he even joins in their efforts to fool “ye women” (see, for example, 2559-61).

So overt are the biases of the narrator, I decided, that readers are prevented from trusting him and obliged instead to see how his selection and treatment of good women ironically define the double bind in which the female in his culture is caught: victimized if she follows the rules of love and lives up to medieval ideals of the feminine; unworthy, unloved, and unsung if she does not. The line between unreliable narrator and trustworthy author in this characteristically ironic Chaucerian fiction is less overt. I ventured to conclude that probably both the narrator and Cupid were to be regarded as unaware of the antifeminism inherent in their idealization of women, although I also suggested that there might be a further irony. The narrator might well be awake to the implications of his storytelling and thereby poking fun at Cupid by giving him a poem whose effect is just the opposite of what the tyrannical male god demanded. The narrator might be much closer to the author, then, but the object of the irony, I argued, is still the antifeminist tradition; the narrator merely dons the mask of the antifeminist to make his satiric point. Other critics had already argued that many of the revisions in the “Prologue” reveal Chaucer's concern with freeing himself from the limitations of courtly convention. I added that in his attempt to move toward “a poetry more of the world and less of the garden,” the poet becomes more aware of and ironically exposes the imprisonment of women in that garden.2 I drew the line at imputing antifeminist sentiment to Chaucer as implied author because of the way I then read his treatment of women in other works; because I thought the blatant antifeminism of the Legends was unworthy of the subtle intelligence that is obviously Chaucer's; and because I failed to understand why an antifeminist work would impugn men, too, in the insistent way that this poem does.

Not long after completing this reading of the Legends, I was asked to participate in a debate about the poem at a meeting of the New Chaucer Society, and for that purpose I decided to explore more fully the question of how and why the narrator did, as I had observed, impugn men too.3 As I noted, he deflates his heroes as well as his heroines and, following Alceste's instructions, attacks the male characters with increasing harshness; I saw this treatment originally as both mask and symptom of his overriding interest in his own sex. The more I looked, the more it seemed that the Legend of Good Women was best thought of as a poem about men, not women, and specifically about two kinds of oddly related men: those who can’t seem to help loving women, for one reason or another, and those who can’t stop trafficking in stories about women. Part of what makes both types “false men,” I began to see, was their feminization. Since this is an issue I return to throughout this study, let me pause here to spell out in some detail how the Legends articulate the problem of feminized men: those who sometimes act as women are said to act and who are treated as women are often treated.

For the literary heroes of the Legends, heterosexual union is clearly presented not as a good or even attainable end, but as a serious, perhaps insuperable problem, a necessary yet perilous part of the quest for stable masculine identity and social bonds between men. What is most dangerous about heterosexual desire, according to the Legends, is the feminine position, itself a divided one—vulnerable, submissive, subservient and self-sacrificing on one hand, crafty and duplicitous on the other—that men in love or lust for a woman seem forced to assume. By this reading, the heroes of the first two legends, Antony and Pyramus, appear not as exceptions to the rule Cupid laid down, as “trewe” male lovers set apart from all the other tricksters, rapists, and cowards in the poem, but as early object lessons in the fate of men who give themselves wholeheartedly to a heterosexual passion or to the idea of one. In different ways, both are utterly unmanned by their submission to the service of Love. For the love of Cleopatra, Antony loses his reason, his freedom, and his interest in the public realm: “love hadde brought this man in swich a rage, / And hym so narwe bounden in his las … That al the world he sette at no value.”4 [All Chaucer quotations are from The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, 2d ed. Edited by F. N. Robinson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957).] The narrator similarly implies that Antony's motive in killing himself, after the defeat at Actium, is not so much the loss of Cleopatra as the loss of manly honor and prowess that he has suffered on account of love: “‘My worshipe in this day thus have I lorn,’” he says, in the line just preceding the report of his suicide (660-61). The adolescent Pyramus is presented as a less tragic figure in that he has little manly “worshipe” to lose in the first place. From his unexplained tardiness in arriving at Ninus's tomb, we can infer that he is not as bold or appetitive or eager as Thisbe, nor as able and willing to leave the domestic sphere; as the narrator notes in his translation of the Ovidian story, “al to longe, allas! at hom was he” (824). Revealing his own fear of women and heterosexuality, Pyramus misreads Thisbe's bloody veil as a sign of her death; it more accurately represents, in this version of the tale, her confrontation with the feminine aggression and appetite figured in the lioness, forces that the nubile maiden also hides from but is not undone by. In his only speech in the legend, Pyramus is less concerned with the loss of Thisbe than with his own failure as a man to protect her (833-41), and his immediate response to this blow to manly pride is, like Antony's, suicide.

For both Antony and Pyramus, unbearable flaws in their masculine identity—as warrior/ruler in Antony's case, as sexually mature and independent adult male and defender of helpless women in Pyramus's—appear to have been caused or at least exposed by their faithful efforts to establish and maintain a heterosexual relationship. It seems plausible to conclude from their stories that these heroes consequently choose suicide not because they cannot live without the women they love, but because they cannot live with themselves in the emasculated state to which they have been reduced. But, ironically, their suicides confirm how they have been feminized by love, for suicide is defined by the poem, and the long-lived traditions from which it draws, as the last recourse for a woman who is raped, abandoned, or otherwise troubled by the vagaries of her inevitable heterosexual relations, or who, like Alceste, sacrifices herself for her husband.5 Antony and Pyramus, the only two “good men” the narrator can find, serve then to introduce the real agenda of the Legends by representing the danger to men in love at either end of the masculine life cycle. Antony is the mature hero lamentably feminized and finally doomed by ungoverned heterosexual desire, Pyramus the boy who does not reach manhood because he rushes (admittedly not quite fast enough) into the dangerous path of love before he is equipped to negotiate the perils along the way (notably without his father's guidance, let alone approval).

If the first two Legends suggest that manhood is difficult both to attain and to maintain, the remaining stories extend the problem of feminization from those men who try to serve love to a number who are not so naively loyal to women or to the God of Love's ostensively woman-centered code. Most of the other heroes, older than Pyramus and wiser than Antony, seem to know that heterosexual union is sometimes a pleasant or necessary diversion—it confirms one element of their manhood and often saves their lives—but a dangerous state in which to settle down, a place in which the manhood they are supposedly proving is in fact deeply threatened. These others survive the mortal dangers of love by betraying and abandoning women, but the problems of feminization are not so easily solved.

All of the remaining heroes are presented as characters caught up—like women—in the plots of other men (weak fathers, jealous uncles, and warring rulers), constrained by forces beyond their control and unable to rule their own destinies. Those few males who are circumstantially freer, apparently more in control of their lives, are presented as even more inescapably in bondage to an internal force, the irrational effect of what is characterized as innate, gratuitous male lust. Tereus rapes Philomela because of an unexplained, unmotivated, perhaps involuntary, and clearly brutalizing desire; Tarquinius rapes Lucrece on account of a somewhat more explicable passion, as male competition routed through women (who has the most faithful wife?) fuels the fires of his lust and violence. The male characters' status as victims and pawns—like women, again—of external and internal forces beyond their rational control is also emphasized and aggravated by the frequent reversal of roles, anticipated in the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, where Thisbe is more aggressive, more eager, and even more manly than her lover, or at least as capable of taking care of herself in the woods. While the narrator downplays the unfeminine characteristics of his heroines to make them fit his model of “good women,” most of them (including Dido, Ariadne, Phaedra, Medea, Phyllis, and Hypermnestra) are or could be in positions of material power over their lovers. The sexual anxiety that this circumstance generates in men is brought into the open in the plot of the last story, the legend of Hypermnestra, when Hypermnestra's father gives her a knife on her wedding night and commands her to kill her husband (who is also his nephew) in their nuptial bed. But Chaucer's women are themselves already mutilated creatures, not castrating agents. Hypermnestra is said to be congenitally unable to wield a blade, and she and all the women of the narrator's subversive tradition are uninterested in using their past and present powers except to rescue men from life-threatening situations, usually in the hope of marrying them afterwards.

The hero, then, is initially feminized by circumstances, fate, or innate weakness; and he finds that the strategies he can subsequently employ to escape this status in fact only confirm it. To secure a more powerful woman's assistance, for instance, a hero is often forced, like any victim, to play up his weakness. Aeneas weeps and threatens suicide; Theseus begs and bribes and makes false promises; and Jason is as “coy as is a mayde” (1548), while his friend Hercules serves as his pander. Tarquinius and Lucrece's husband Colatyne leave their post in the Roman camp to steal into the “estris” (1715), the inner spaces, of Lucrece's chamber (recalling Troilus's hideout in Book III); in that domestic enclosure, Tarquinius's proper masculine reason and honor is defenseless against “his blynde lust” (1756). Tereus, inflamed by the vulnerable beauty of Philomela, uses his “wiles” (2294) to take her from her father's protection; and again the feminizing quality of his lust is illustrated by the underscored interiority of the space where the rape occurs, in a “derke cave” within a forest (2310-12). After prostituting himself to win (with little effort) the lady's undying affection, or removing himself to a feminine place where he can indulge in his lust, the hero must then attempt to recover his masculine position—his independence, nobility, and devotion to more important issues—by eschewing the heterosexual union in which he is dependent on a woman. And yet, for the heroes of the Legends, abandoning a woman, like the earlier process of seducing one, is emasculating in one way or another: men's infidelities and betrayal of women in this poem always involve them again in lies and storytelling, wiliness and other duplicities, ignoble escapes out of windows, and the complete failure of the chivalric obligation to protect the lady herself.

By the end of the poem we might well conclude that feminization is hard to avoid in this world because the rules of patriarchy are incompatible with the rules of love, and that men are caught in the consequent contradiction as they try to establish stable gender identity. Whereas patriarchy devalues the culturally feminine and insists on the difference between men and women as well as the power of men over women, the heterosexual love idealized by the laws of Cupid values traits associated with femininity such as irrationality, self-sacrifice, submission, and service, and thus diminishes in theory both the difference and the power differential between male and female. The problematic lack of difference that such a conception of love entails is clarified and developed in various ways: note, for example, that the women in the poem who give themselves utterly to men are in fact attracted not by otherness and virility, but by the male's temporary or apparent sameness, his passivity, coyness, vulnerability, and dependence (and even, in the case of Jason, his looks)—those very characteristics that also signal the heroes' feminization. When women are raped, there is no suggestion of their sexual arousal or complicity—Lucrece is not even conscious. What might be construed as the women's unconscious desire, like the men's, to remain connected to one of their own sex cannot be gratified for long by the hero, who for his part must necessarily be unfaithful if he is to demonstrate his manhood, his dominance and difference. Moreover, the actual, fatal loss of gender differentiation that a successful heterosexual union would bring about, if two actually became one, is perhaps hinted at in the essential similarity of the most innocent and true lovers in the poem, Pyramus and Thisbe, who speak in one voice, both “wex pale” and are separated only by the cold wall their fathers have built, in vain, to keep them apart.

If the poem suggests that there is something wrong with the laws of love, it also reveals a serious problem in the rule of the fathers. Fathers are, in theory at least, men who have negotiated that treacherous path of heterosexual desire. The institution of patriarchal rule should facilitate the next generation's passage to adulthood: hence a father must at once protect his daughters and pass proper standards of manliness on to his sons. But the contradiction in this charge is brought out in the Legends by the fact that all the men of the fathers' generation fail in one way or another to see their offspring to sexual maturity, whether through absence, incapacity, or malevolence. Cleopatra's story, as told by this narrator, opens pointedly “After the deth of Tholome the kyng” (580), and so too we are reminded early in the linked stories of Medea and Hypsipyle that Aeson, the father of their common seducer, Jason, is dead. Living fathers, like Anchises and Pandeon, are sometimes too weak to protect their sons and daughters; or, as is more often the case, they cause active harm, intentionally or not, to the next generation. Thisbe's and Pyramus's fathers inexplicably prohibit love and so indirectly cause their childrens' deaths. Aeetes unwittingly seals his daughter Medea's doom when he bids her to sit at the table with Jason. Theseus passes on his good looks and his false ways with women to his son, Demophon, while Jason and Lyno are both objects of schemes by jealous uncles. In the latter story, we also see a strong suggestion of incest in Egiste's bizarre speech to his daughter, Hypermnestra. In the same breath the father vows his love and threatens to kill the girl if she refuses to murder her bridegroom-cousin, Lyno, and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this is the story of a Lear-like father who cannot let his daughter grow up and sleep with another man. The public, institutional consequences of such unresolved Oedipal situations—of the patriarchal failure to help sons become men—reach epic proportions in the legend of Lucrece, where the narrator frames his story with reminders that Tarquinius's irrational lust brings an end to the whole line of Roman kings (1680-84, 1862-64).

Turning briefly to the figure of the dreamer/narrator himself as he is characterized in the “Prologue,” in retrospect we find arguably sufficient explanation for his only partially concealed antipathy toward women and his complex anxieties about the infectious feminization of men as lovers and fathers alike. The narrator of the Legend of Good Women presents himself in the well-known opening lines (F.1-209, G.1-103), before the dream-vision, as a bookworm who is drawn from his fanatic devotion to reading by only one “game” (F/G.33), the cult of the marguerite. His situation emphasizes both the literary man's prior lack of interest in actual heterosexual love and his professional obligation to take part in an elaborate courtly word game, here one in which the explicit substitution of the daisy for the lady at once covers over and underscores the unimportance or irrelevance of real women.6 The dream that follows suggests the multiple anxieties of the figure of the court poet in such circumstances, including his fear of a tyrannical male ruler who (perhaps anxious to demonstrate his own superior status and potency) blames his servant for writing antifeminist poetry and also calls attention to that servant's inability to perform as a lover: “Thow … art therto nothyng able,” the God of Love says (F.320, G.246). The figure of the poet is further feminized by the intervention of a powerful, aristocratic woman who speaks the kind of rational words that he for some unexplained, but psychologically and historically plausible, reason cannot.7 His indifference to real women can perhaps turn to active antipathy when he is, in effect, treated like a woman himself, not recognized as a man by the male ruler and blocked from proving his manhood either by loving an actual female or by ignoring the subject of women altogether. As in the case of the heroes of the Legends, the only strategy the narrator can use to escape the censure and embarrassment revealed in the dream actually requires one type of stereotypically feminine (and uncourtly) behavior: wiliness and duplicity, as he apparently submits to and then subtly betrays Cupid's purposes and instead writes to his own ends.8


And trusteth, as in love, no man but me.

Legend of Good Women, 2561

To the extent that feminist discourse defines its problematic as “woman,” it, too, ironically privileges the man as unproblematic or exempt from determination from gender relations.9

Jane Flax, “Postmodernism and Gender Relations in Feminist Theory”

This analysis of feminization in the Legends brought me to conclusions different from my earlier ones. I did not find myself retracting the observation that this poem is not performing traditional antifeminist satire, or that it criticizes the less subtle forms and traps of misogyny inherent in certain already tired discursive conventions. However, it became clear to me that I needed to think harder about my naive assumption that a literary critique of the socio-gender system and its constraining effects on masculine identity and the male writer has anything to do with a pro-woman position. This book records the results of that effort. The Legend of Good Women is usually thought to represent Chaucer's return to a genre he has outgrown, but focusing on the problematic of “false men” marks the late dream-vision as central, not marginal, and affords a point of entry into the particularities of this poet's apparently lifelong engagement with the woman question. By turning in the next chapter to questions about his most infamous female character, in the “Wife of Bath's Prologue” and “Tale,” I aim to establish the priority of two issues: first, my prevailing concern with (the representation of) women, although my explicit topic is as often as not men, the masculine imagination, and the male author; and second, my equal regard for Chaucer's fictions and for the fictions of Chaucer formulated by the modern critical reception of the texts, which is nowhere more interesting than in response to the Wife of Bath. The rest of the book moves from the early dream visions through Troilus and Criseyde and then concludes with five more of the Canterbury Tales that seem most pertinent to my inquiries. Attending to the representation of gender difference and gender relations throughout these works, with an ongoing regard for the feminization of both male characters and male figures for the poet, I have found myself no longer interested in defending Gavin Douglas's well-known dictum that Chaucer was “euer, God wait, wemenis frend.”10 What then, I have inquired, is the nature and function of a late twentieth-century feminist analysis of these canonical, male-authored late medieval texts?

As I have pursued this question, I have become convinced that in Chaucer studies, the uncertain footing of any feminist approach to pre-modern works has been made even more slippery, ironically, by the unusual ease with which a prima facie case for the importance of women as characters and Woman (and gender, where the feminine is the marked position) as topic can be made. Under the influence of recent mediations in the practice of literary criticism, a growing number of scholars—including, as I have said, myself at an earlier point—have concluded in one way or another that the representation of women in Chaucerian fiction testifies to the poet's open-mindedness and even intentional subversion of traditional antifeminist positions. This view is sometimes part of a move to make Chaucer studies more theoretically au courant and to draw analogies between various contemporary approaches and Chaucer's insights and methods. There has been no systematic and thorough attempt to posit the evolution of the protofeminism that many have identified in Chaucer and his poetry. However, if the implications of separate studies were brought together and extended, it would be possible to see that they sketch a developmental poetics in which the female voice itself, as speaker instead of spoken about, gradually enters Chaucerian fiction, while, as one recent critic sees it, Chaucer “abandoned his career as a poet of women.”11

I claim, however, that the attempt to recuperate a feminist Chaucer who does not threaten the humanist Chaucer, based on the assumption that Chaucer is sympathetic to women's problems and that we hear in his poetry either a female voice or an écriture féminine (in the vernacular of the fourteenth-century East Midlands), is misguided. Such efforts, moreover, have so far prevented feminist critics from making much difference in the way we read and theorize about Chaucer and have contributed to the difficulty of finding or creating the larger audience that our work might address. While I have moved beyond my early efforts to determine Chaucer's sexual politics, it has remained important to me to interrogate readings that recover Chaucer as a protofeminist or continue to adulate him as a humanist because such readings may stand in the way of the necessary activity of making new models for feminist interpretations of Chaucer and other male authors.

I have stressed, then, that in the very real continuity of concern throughout Chaucerian fiction with the representation of women, I hear not a swelling chorus of female voices entering the text and speaking for and about themselves, but something of a monotone making known both feminine absence and masculine anxiety. As I listen, what often sounds like a woman's voice, what is spoken in the name of women inflected by different and highly realistic, sometimes subversive dialects, always enters and leaves Chaucerian story not as the enunciation of an autonomous speaker, but as an urgent problem for the gendered identity of male characters, male narrators, and (?male) readers. The problem is always represented in large part as a problem of the feminization of men. The repetitive return to the fraught depiction of women and of male speakers, characters and narrators alike, who in various ways resemble those women in turn documents the dubious nature of gender difference: the fact that men and women are similar and dissimilar, depending on how, why, and when we are looking at them, or that all human beings have both feminine and masculine characteristics.

This understanding of a fundamental similarity between male and female is consistent with orthodox medical and scientific views that prevailed until the late eighteenth century. As Thomas Laqueur has observed:

For several thousand years it had been a commonplace that women have the same genitals as men, except that, as Nemesius, bishop of Emesa in the sixth century, put it: “Theirs are inside the body and not outside it.” Galen, who in the second century a.d. developed the most powerful and resilient model of the homologous nature of male and female reproductive organs, could already cite the anatomist Herophilus (third century b.c.) in support of his claim that a woman has testes with accompanying seminal ducts very much like the man's, one on each side of the uterus, the only difference being that the male's are contained in the scrotum and the female's are not.12

Belief in the genital homology of male and female did not translate into assumptions of their social, political, or moral equality; the female's insufficient heat accounted medically for the internalization of her organs of reproduction and her natural inferiority. Moreover, the paradigm of homology equated the male with the human, and female difference was not inquired into. For example, Laqueur points out that until 1797 no one thought to reproduce illustrations of female skeletons: “Up to this time there had been one basic structure for the human body, the type of the male.”13 While it is usually assumed that the perceived similarity and mutability of biological gender were tightly controlled in premodern thinking by a firm sense of natural and proper hierarchy, Chaucerian fiction seems to call this assumption into question. Chaucer seems to insist, as some of us might put it today, that gender is socially constructed and historically experienced as protean, provisional, intermittent, and discontinuous, and his poetry explores the consequent difficulty that men face in securing masculine identity and dominance.

This concern with the instability and incompleteness of gender difference undermines the uncomplicated assumption that we can hear women speaking when the author describes or impersonates a woman. Chaucer, it could be argued, is the last to imagine and give voice to something we can categorize with useful certainty as a female speaker, for the poems attributed to him are among the first to problematize the notion of singly gendered subjectivity, even as they may in various ways imply that in all the orthodox prescriptions of gender roles by which experience is given social meaning, women's voices are precisely those that have been silenced. In Chaucer, moreover, the foregrounded problem of representing the silenced woman characteristically intersects the problem of poetic authority in general and the self-authorization of the individual poet's voice in particular. According to certain authoritative discourses of the Middle Ages (not unlike some postmodern discourses in this regard), writing itself occupies a feminine position in a culture that insists on the inherent and necessary inferiority and absence, both materially and symbolically, of women. As we see in the Legend of Good Women, the figure of the male poet in Chaucer dreams of impotence, of being treated like a woman—marginalized, for instance, in the court, or misread by future audiences—and yet he is obliged to write about women in order to compete with other men and enter into a privileged discourse. In response to this position, he employs a striking and, in certain obvious ways, effective strategy: he underscores and imitates the charge, exploits the negative, subversive powers of nonrepresentability assigned to the female, the feminine, and the poetic—and then shows, or works to show, that there is still a masculine position to be taken within writing.

Representations of the vicissitudes of masculine identity in a patriarchal culture, then, do not necessarily entail abandoning its potential privilege. In Chaucer, moves to reclaim the boldly destabilized notion of integral maleness, to occupy the space that has been opened up by the inversions and subversions of courtly love in particular and thus to manage the woman question, characteristically implicate an equally insistent re-essentializing of gender and a re-marking of gender difference—for women especially. If the difference of the female is not fully clear and plausible, it has to be repeatedly reconstructed. To this end the female character is always redefined as other than the male characters and speakers in the texts in a variety of predictable ways: she is generically fixed and fully engendered; in every instance she is dead, or mutilated, victimized, violated, anesthetized, abandoned, mystified; or she lacks art, or she lacks desire.14 The figure of the male poet, by contrast, is drawn beyond gender; he is represented as variously asexual (or postsexual), alive, creative, playful, uncertain, neutral, or empty to the point of vanishing, and yet full of desire. In other words, the poet exploits his insight into the indeterminacy of gender difference and the social construction of gender relations as part of his efforts to produce himself as multiply, resistantly, and evasively as possible. Moreover, he repeatedly represents other men and other male poets as having foundered over the problems of feminization and gender instability entailed in loving or desiring a woman and/or telling her story. At this early stage in the history of English poetry, the figure of the poet constitutes his own authority by entering into classical and earlier medieval traditions of discourse about women and sexuality and negotiating the problems of doing so more successfully than others have done. If Chaucer abandons his career as a poet of women, then, it is not once but repeatedly, always as a gesture of one-upmanship in a world where writing about women is what literary men do, and always to take up the problem of “false men” and “true women” again in the next text.15 The figure of the poet in Chaucer tells us that no one can write woman even as he does so. In this way, Chaucerian fiction is representative of the Western literary canon at perhaps its most interesting and certainly its most subtly problematic for late twentieth-century women readers and feminist scholars.


Tunc effeminati passim in orbe dominabantur indisciplinate debachabantur sodomiticisque spurciciis foedi catamitae flammis urendi turpiter abutebantur. Ritus heroum abiciebant, hortamenta sacerdotum deridebant, barbaricumque morem in habitu et uita tenebant. Nam capillos a uertice in frontem discriminabant, longos crines ueluti mulieres nutriebant, et summopere comebant, prolixisque niniumque stictis camisiis indui tunicisque gaudebant.

Orderic Vitalis, Historia Ecclesiastica

(At that time effeminates set the fashion in many parts of the world: foul catamites, doomed to eternal fire, unrestrainedly pursued their reveals and shamelessly gave themselves up to the filth of sodomy. They rejected the traditions of honest men, ridiculed the counsel of priests, and persisted in their barbarous way of life and style of dress. They parted their hair from the crown of the head to the forehead, grew long and luxurious locks like women, and loved to deck themselves in long, overtight shirts and tunics.)16

“No, I don’t want to destroy you, any more than I want to save you. There has been far too much talk about you, and I want to leave you alone altogether. My interest is in my own sex; yours evidently can look after itself. That’s what I want to save.”

Verena saw that he was more serious now than he had been before, that he was not piling it up satirically, but saying really and a trifle wearily, as if suddenly he were tired of much talk, what he meant. “To save it from what?” she asked. “From the most damnable feminization!”17

Henry James, The Bostonians

In looking at Chaucer's career as a poet of women from the standpoint of my reading of the Legend of Good Women, I rely on a couple of terms that merit some discussion at the outset. First, I have retained the word “feminization” to describe circumstances that are represented in various forms in all the texts I have included here. It refers throughout to a dramatized state of social, psychological, and discursive crisis wherein men occupy positions and/or perform functions already occupied and performed, within a given text and its contexts, by women or normatively assigned by orthodox discourses to Woman. There are various reasons for speaking of feminization as opposed to either “emasculation” or, to use a more symmetrical and common term, “role reversal.” The emasculation of men is indeed often explicitly the problem for male characters and types: hence all the drooping courtly lovers, from the Black Knight, Troilus, Palamon, Arcite, and Aurelius to the most clearly comic and parodic version of all, Absolon; hence, in a different way, the coy and maidenly Clerk of Oxenford and his prototype, the impotent Geffrey himself in the House of Fame, and the heroes of his own tales, the henpecked Melibeus and sweet young Sir Thopas. In some senses and at some moments, feminization and emasculation are interchangeable effects, and I do not intend to set up or adhere to a rigorous distinction between the two. But in calling the problem one of feminization rather than one of emasculation, I want to emphasize my assumption that various fictional failures of manliness can be read as signs or results of another issue, one that always puts men whose stake is in their own gendered identity and their relations with other men into a situation involving women and Woman. To speak of emasculation is to privilege the exclusively positive valence of the masculine, to see maleness as the ideal state from which something is sometimes, and always problematically, missing or taken away. To speak of feminization is on the contrary to suggest that the feminine, in this cultural context a pejorative mark and a set of subordinated or marginalized positions historically occupied most often by female human beings, may have a certain potency and priority, although this possibility is just what it is repeatedly necessary to disprove.

Role reversal is a somewhat broader term, often used by anthropologists, that would cover much of the symbolic and practical terrain I want to explore here, but it implies a symmetry not found in the material I have examined, in which women are rarely “masculinized.” Sometimes the feminization of men is indeed an effect in part of their apparent relation to women on top, so to speak; thus the narrator in the “Prologue” to the Legend of Good Women is silenced by the rational, authoritative voice of Alceste, and in the Book of the Duchess the Black Knight looks more womanly when he talks about his submission to the dominance of White. But White and Alceste are represented as archetypally feminine figures, in ways I shall explore. Chaucerian fiction as a whole suggests that role reversal really only goes one way; both the risks and the benefits of gender instability are for men only. For women, the crossing of gender lines is often fatal (White and Alceste are dead), and in many poems, the implication that a woman might be masculinized is explicitly foreclosed, as in the Legend of Good Women and in figures like Dido in the House of Fame and Criseyde.

Caroline Walker Bynum's recent work on what she often speaks of as role reversal in medieval religious experience and theological writing reveals a similar pattern. Men were more likely to “become” women—not in practical terms, where cross-dressing would have been of little benefit to them, but in the stories they told about their psychic experiences and the theories they devised to account for them—than women were to become men. Bynum sees this phenomenon as both a site for social rebellion and a safety valve for maintaining normative social order; “descriptions of God as female and the startling reversal at the heart of the mass provided an alternative to and critique of the asymmetry between the sexes in the ordinary world.”18 While I do not focus here on Chaucer's relations to this religious context or to theological writings about gender (a study that would require a different background and would attend more carefully to another group of Chaucerian fictions as well), it seems clear that Chaucer, like the medieval men whom Bynum studies, found symbolic cross-dressing fascinating, useful, inevitable, and frightening.

My use of the term “feminization” is connected to but markedly different from its usage in studies of later periods, such as Ann Douglas's Feminization of American Culture or Nancy Armstrong's Desire and Domestic Fiction.19 To put the principal difference, as I see it, most simply, Douglas and Armstrong are both talking about the influence of historical women and of frequently positive female roles on culture, which it is possible to do in the nineteenth-century America and England they study. I am talking about the influence of a negative cultural position or function, as reconstructed from authoritative and prescriptive discourse in the medieval period—and related to the activity of actual women in ways that it is difficult, if not impossible, to assess in this period, even as we keep the problem in mind—on the men who produce the cultural artifacts by which we have traditionally known the Middle Ages and by which our own culture has thus been shaped.20 But as the work of Armstrong, Douglas, and others indicates, the concept of feminization has a history, and that history begins well before and continues long after the Middle Ages.21 It is not my project in this study to trace either the full course of this history or the long stretch and complicated shape of its medieval chapters. Within a field circumscribed by my interests and training, I attempt to examine with care and specificity one momentous and consequential engagement with the problem.

Before I proceed, however, it may be useful to point out that other modern scholars of medieval culture, like Bynum, have also begun the task of identifying and analyzing from various perspectives what I am calling the feminization of men and male writers; although they may not use exactly this term, their work intersects my findings in interesting ways and suggests the outlines of historical contexts that I do not explore further here. Toril Moi, for instance, building on Marc Bloch's earlier observations on the influence of noblewomen on artistocratic males of the courtoisie, explains what she terms the “effeminisation” of the knightly classes from the twelfth century on as strategic to the naturalization of class differences: “Signalling their cultural superiority, the ‘effeminisation’ of the aristocracy paradoxically enough comes to signify their ‘natural’ right to power. It is precisely in its insistence on the ‘natural’ differences between rulers and ruled that courtly ideology achieved its legitimising function, a function which operates long after the feudal artistocracy has lost its central position in society.”22 By such a reading it appears that for certain political and socioeconomic purposes, one important difference, class, tends to override or alter the orthodox configuration of another prominent difference, gender. But this exigency creates enormous pressures, as Chaucerian fictions often suggest, and the ensuing strains, so marked in the literature of courtly love, remind us that gender difference has never historically remained a “weak difference” for long.23

While the courtly model of aristocratic behavior feminizes the male lover—rendering him subservient, weakened, infantilized, privatized, and emotional—Georges Duby has pointed out that in the twelfth century a countermodel also elevated the ideal of the “fruitful couple,” the married man and woman “temporarily entrusted with the husbanding of a patrimony.” This model, in contrast to the courtly model, required and reinforced strong gender difference: “The same attitude which at that time led to greater differentiation between male and female attire also established different models of behavior for the two sexes: it was fitting for boys to be aggressive, but girls should be prudent and guarded.”24 The feminization that functioned to reinforce class difference, according to Moi, coexisted then with an ideology that implied the kind of distrust and hostility towards fashionably effeminate men recorded elsewhere.25

Duby maintains that these two apparently opposing “shifts in ideology,” courtly love and the ideal of the “fruitful couple,” were “actually profoundly compatible and indeed complementary,” together managing the division between “youths” and “elders” within the aristocracy. “Their combined impact,” Duby affirms, “constituted a welcome aid in safeguarding what had now become, more clearly than ever, the keystone of the dominant society—the married state.”26 The “Franklin's Tale,” as I read it, narrates precisely how “the married state” accommodates incompatible ideals of gender identity and gender relations, although elsewhere in the poetry of Chaucer contradictions and concussions within and between models that regulate gender may seem more visible than strategic complementarity. As a longstanding focus of Chaucer criticism makes clear, by the late fourteenth century, at least, the keystone is showing signs of the stresses it holds in balance, and marriage is represented as a prominent site of discussion and anxiety for dominant elements of society.

The difference between Duby's analysis of twelfth-century France and my observation about the writings of a fourteenth-century English poet may reflect in part the fact that the perception of inadequate or instable gender differentiation is increasingly acute for the secular poet in the late medieval period, given the poet's material and intellectual position. In the centuries before Chaucer wrote, one important strain of medieval thinking linked poetry and rhetoric with social and sexual deviance. Some recent scholarship has focused on the influential text of Alan of Lille's De planctu naturae, and, as R. Howard Bloch puts it in his discussion of De planctu, “It is, ultimately, the mobility of poetic language and of sexual identity that represents for Nature the most potent threat to the straightness … of grammar and to the continuity of lineage.”27 In another study, Bloch pushes the argument to the conclusion that the medieval poet from the early patristic period to the late Middle Ages is, by definition, a woman.28 Eugence Vance has also recently offered a reading of the twelfth-century romance as serving the interests of a new class and ideology. Most interesting for the purposes of my study of Chaucer, Vance considers the identification of a court poet writing two centuries before Chaucer, Chrétien de Troyes, with his fictional female characters, the silk workers in the Pesme Avanture episode of Yvain, and suggests that it reveals the author's anxiety that the male worker of texts, like the female weaver of textiles, will be exploited by the new ideology.29

In his study of the court poet in the specific period during which Chaucer flourished, R. F. Green, like Duby, Bloch, and Vance, does not use the term “feminization,” nor does his analysis include the category of gender. But Green's work may indicate certain analogies between the position of the male poet and the (aristocratic) woman in later medieval society. The writer is a marginalized figure at the fourteenth-century English court, one who must be careful not to offend those of higher rank and authority. He seeks to please and entertain those who have real and theoretical power over him as both interpreters of texts and patrons of art. Moreover, Green observes that some familiar features of the poetic texts we know from the period may be explained as a function of the social situation; the poet's “self-effacement” and “obliqueness,” in particular, reflect the caution necessary in claiming authority in the court. At the same time, the poet could bond with aristocratic men (and perhaps women) by displaying his expertise in the literary game, the game of love-talking. Green believes, however, that the poet in this period could not acquire much social importance through poetry, and he points out that we have no evidence that Chaucer's reputation as a poet furthered his career as a court official.30 It may be possible, and it would certainly be interesting, to uncover more historical evidence of this sort to flesh out what we see in Chaucer about the poet's concern with the perceived instability of gender identity in an age when a hierarchical ordering of the sexes was said to be both natural and divinely ordained. Socially, the poet is put in a position more like that of women and yet forced to compete with men; to write poetry is to violate the proprieties of grammar and gender, to submit to the judgment and authority of the audience, and yet it is also to play a man's game—and in Chaucer to constitute the rules of the game, I shall suggest, so that only men can or will play.31

A second term I want to comment on before I proceed with this project is of a rather different order; it is not a concept I have chosen to use in preference to other possibilities, it is not susceptible to brief remark, and its meaning is in one sense the subject of all that follows: it is the term “Chaucer.” Today more than ever the name of the author is thrown into quotation marks by the conjunction of the longstanding textual and historical difficulties of reconstructing the fourteenth-century author and postmodern efforts to deconstruct notions of the writing subject's identity and intentionality altogether. Like dramatic readings of the Canterbury Tales, claims about Chaucer's intentions and authority can always be challenged by sobering reminders of how little we know, how conjectural our assumptions must be about this author's biography, the dating of individual texts, and even the authority (or authorship) of (parts of) the texts we now have. To tell a story about Chaucer's agency, to try to seek out and reveal his real intentions, moreover, is to presuppose what postmodern thought no longer lets us rely on: the unity or knowability of any authorial position or any subjective stance. Daring to speak about Chaucer at the close of the twentieth century, we might only want to say that he mirrors and compounds both the historical and theoretical problems by self-consciously erasing himself from his fiction, most notably through the varying forms of his infamous irony. Chaucer seems thus to represent, even exaggerate the dilemma par excellence for the literary critic, as succinctly articulated by Peggy Kamuf: “The undecidable trait of the signature must fall into the crack of the historicist/formalist opposition organizing most discourse about literature.”32 At the same time, those moments throughout the Chaucer canon when so much is given to suggest the presence of a historical author with intentions (that is, after all, one implication of both irony and evasiveness), and even with worries that we will misinterpret them, may make some readers understandably reluctant to deconstruct Chaucer too far. More importantly, perhaps, the emergence of forces that would politicize postmodern theory militates against surrendering all sense of authorial (and critical) presence and agency.

It is both from and about the crack, as Kamuf describes it, that I speak, then, when I use the word “Chaucer.” One thing I am implicitly asking throughout this study is whether and how we can demystify and politicize rather than reify the undecidability and unknowability of the author, the problem of the signature, seemingly so perfectly embodied in Chaucer, and whether in particular we can do so from the perspective of gender asymmetries. Does the history of gender, as written in part by literary traditions, have anything to do with the fact that most modern and postmodern discourse about literature is organized, one way or another, around the principle of authorial undecidability? Is the shifting, provisional nature of the author function that Chaucer so often seems to epitomize in tension or in collaboration with the humanist fiction of the unimplicated, all-seeing artist whom Chaucer also represents to so many readers? With such questions at the fore, I suggest, we can discover in Chaucerian fictions—the poems that have come down to us under his signature and the fiction of Chaucer they have made possible—something about the formation of liberal views of the (male) author as both an individual “unencumbered” personality and a transcendent self with authoritative insights into universal human nature, at a liminal moment in its history.33 While “Chaucer,” then, comprises our historical and theoretical lack of knowledge about the author and in that way identifies the author with neutrality, absence, and obliqueness, so too, I suggest, “Chaucer” comprises strategic obfuscations that are part of a sexual politics and that cannot be divorced from a sense of gendered agency in the production and reception of literary texts. This agency can be conceived of as dispersed and fragmentary, sometimes authorial, sometimes scribal, sometimes critical, sometimes textual and discursive. I henceforth retain the term “Chaucer” (and the adjective “Chaucerian”) without quotation marks to refer to this potent, evasive, multipartite, and internally divided agency not to avoid the problems it raises, and not for want of better words, but because one of my main aims is to intervene in the ongoing critical enterprise of constructing in the name of Chaucer a literary father figure, like many fathers powerful and attractive by virtue of his distance and absence, a magisterial authorial self “we” can know and trust.


  1. “Irony and the Antifeminist Narrator in Chaucer's Legend of Good Women,Journal of English and Germanic Philology 82 (1983), pp. 11-31.

  2. R. W. Frank, Chaucer and the Legend of Good Women (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972), p. 36.

  3. Fifth International Congress, Philadelphia, March 1986; the session on the Legend of Good Women included papers given by Sheila Delany, Arlyn Diamond, and myself. My second reading of the Legends was subsequently published as “The Feminization of Men in Chaucer's Legend of Good Women,” in Seeking the Woman in Late Medieval and Renaissance Writings, ed. Janet Halley and Sheila Fisher (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1989); the rest of the first section of this chapter is taken directly from that article.

  4. LGW 599-602.

  5. Saint Augustine, for example, links the discussion of whether a man's lust can pollute a Christian woman (i.e., if she is raped) with the discussion of suicide, with much consideration of Lucrece, whom he pronounces guilty. In carefully explaining, in his version of the story, that Lucrece fainted before she was raped, Chaucer seems to be vindicating her of the suspicion that Augustine raises, one often held against victims of rape: what if she enjoyed it? “Quid si enim (quod ipsa tantummodo nosse poterat), quam-vis juveni violenter irruenti, etiam sua libidine; illecta consensit, idque in se puniens ita doluit, ut morte putaret expiandum?” (De Civitate Dei, I. xix, Patrologia Latina 41, p. 33).

  6. On the displacement of the actual lady as object of medieval love poetry, see R. F. Green, Poets and Princepleasers (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980), pp. 99-134.

  7. Omitted from my argument here but worthy of fuller consideration as part of the historical context of the poem is the notion thoroughly explored, but not analyzed, in early twentieth-century scholarship that the Legend of Good Women was an occasional poem commissioned by (or presented to) a royal female patron: either Queen Anne or, possibly, Joan of Kent, wife of the Black Prince and mother of Richard II. For an overview and bibliography of the historical argument, see John H. Fisher's review in Companion to Chaucer Studies, rev. ed., ed. Beryl Rowland (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), pp. 464-76.

  8. We need go no further than Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde for a restatement of the widespread misogynistic assumption that women are craftier than men. In Book IV, when Pandarus wants Criseyde to stop crying and start plotting, he observes: “‘Women ben wise in short avysement; / And lat sen how youre wit shal now availle’” (IV.936-37). Later, in conversation with Troilus, Criseyde tries to claim for herself the potential power of feminine wiles that Pandarus invokes (“‘I am a womman, as ful wel ye woot’” [IV.1261-67]), but Troilus knows better, and tells her she won’t be able to fool her father: “‘Ye shal nat blende hym for youre wommanhede, / Ne feyne aright’” (IV.1462-3). The pattern here is repeated throughout Chaucerian fictions: in the hands of women, stereotypical feminine powers turn out to be unavailing in a world that men control. Men actually use feminine strategies more successfully, in the short run, than women do, but they cannot be admired for doing so.

  9. The quotation from “Postmodernism and Gender Relations” is taken from Signs 12 (1987), p. 629.

  10. From Douglas's Eneados (1513), cited in Caroline F. E. Spurgeon, Five Hundred Years of Chaucer Criticism and Allusion, 1357-1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1925), vol. I, p. 72.

  11. This is Lee Patterson's claim in “‘For the Wyves Love of Bath’”: Feminine Rhetoric and Poetic Resolution in the Roman de la Rose and the Canterbury Tales,” Speculum 58 (1983), pp. 656-95. References to other scholars who find a “feminist” Chaucer will be found throughout this study, and especially in Chapter 2.

  12. “Orgasm, Generation, and the Politics of Reproductive Biology,” in The Making of the Modern Body, ed. Catherine Gallagher and Thomas Laqueur (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), p. 2 (originally published as Representations 14 [Spring 1986]). For an overview of the scientific discussion of whether and how women differed from men, see also Vern L. Bullough, “Medieval Medical and Scientific Views of Women,” Viator 4 (1973), pp. 485-501.

  13. Laqueur, “Orgasm, Generation, and the Politics of Reproductive Biology,” p. 4.

  14. Compare Naomi Schor's argument in “Dreaming Dissymmetry: Barthes, Foucault, and Sexual Difference,” in Men in Feminism, ed. Alice Jardine and Paul Smith (New York and London: Methuen, 1987), pp. 98-110, on re-essentializing and denying women's specificity. And from a forthcoming essay by Jane Gallop, Schor quotes: “‘The wish to escape sexual difference might be but another mode of denying women’” (100). See also Leslie Wahl Rabine's discussion of the Derridean move: in his works such as “The Double Session,” Glas, and Spurs: Nietzsche's Styles, she observes, “the feminine or woman comes into play but serves to make the male hero … bisexual or multi-sexual, in a move that continues to exclude and marginalize women” (“A Feminist Politics of Non-identity,” Feminist Studies 14 [1988], 16).

  15. Again, compare Rabine's formulation: “The repression of the feminine that founds his masculinity is not an isolated event but an ongoing and continuous process. In other words, his apparently stable, self-identical ego rests not on a solid foundation but on this unstable process” (“A Feminist Politics of Non-identity,” 20).

  16. Both the Latin and the translation are taken from Marjorie Chibnall, ed. and trans., The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis, IV, Books VI and VII (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), pp. 188-89. Two recent discussions brought this passage to my attention: Sharon Farmer, “Persuasive Voices: Clerical Images of Medieval Wives,” Speculum 61 (1986), 517-43; and Brian Stock, The Implications of Literacy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), pp. 481-82.

  17. Henry James, The Bostonians (New York: Modern Library, 1956), pp. 342-3.

  18. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), especially Chapter 10, “Women's Symbols,” pp. 277-96.

  19. Ann Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (New York: Knopf, 1977); Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987). Perhaps I should add that I do not use the term “feminization” in the way that has been used by some modern feminist writers, either, to suggest that the feminine is a subversive position in culture, a positively transgressive site from which phallocentrism can be attacked and deconstructed.

  20. I assume throughout this study an understanding of medieval misogyny and notions about women and Woman based on several recent works, including Hoffman Reynolds Hays, The Dangerous Sex: The Myth of Feminine Evil (New York: Putnam, 1964); Katharine M. Rogers, The Troublesome Helpmate: A History of Misogyny in Literature (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1966); Shulamith Shahar, The Fourth Estate: A History of Women in the Middle Ages, trans. Chaya Galai (London: Methuen, 1983); Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast; Sisters and Workers in the Middle Ages, ed. Judith M. Bennett, Elizabeth A. Clark, Jean F. O’Barr, B. Anne Vilen, and Sarah Westphal-Wihl (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989), and many others specifically and gratefully acknowledged in subsequent notes.

  21. For a study of Greek drama that would permit interesting analogies to be drawn between the blurring and refixing of gender difference in Chaucerian fiction and classical tragedy, see Nicole Loraux, Tragic Ways of Killing a Woman, trans. Anthony Forster (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987). Recent works suggesting that the history of the relations between male writers and women/Woman extends through the Enlightenment into the modern period include Ruth Salvaggio's discussion of Swift in Enlightened Absence: Neoclassical Configurations of the Feminine (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988); Margaret Waller, “Cherchez la Femme: Male Malady and Narrative Politics in the French Novel,” PMLA 104 (1989), pp. 141-51; Barbara Johnson, “Mallarmé as Mother,” in A World of Difference (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), pp. 137-43. Relevant to this history, too, would be studies considering the different position in relation to writing occupied by a female subject; for a discussion of “feminization in the writing subject” that focuses on a female writer in another premodern field, see for instance Catherine Gallagher, “Embracing the Absolute: The Female Subject in Seventeenth-Century England,” Genders 1 (1988), pp. 24-39.

  22. “Desire in Language: Andreas Capellanus and the Controversy of Courtly Love,” in David Aers, ed., Medieval Literature: Criticism, Ideology, and History (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986), p. 19. For useful comments on the complex relation of the figure of the male poet and the female to whom his poetry is addressed in an earlier medieval period, see E. Jane Burns, “The Man Behind the Lady in Troubadour Lyric,” Romance Notes 25 (1985), especially pp. 263ff. Where I am interested in the male's feminization, Burns stresses that the lady is masculinized and suggests that the purpose of this kind of writing is “to attenuate the menace of female sexuality by codifying desire and seduction, enclosing them within a safely idealized framework” (p. 267).

  23. In speaking of a “weak difference,” I am borrowing from D. A. Miller's work on Middlemarch in Narrative and Its Discontents (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), pp. 110ff. Miller argues that in any narrative a number of “weak differences” are suppressed so that “strong differences” may be foregrounded and used to counter threats to the “social arrangements” that they maintain.

  24. Medieval Marriage: Two Models from Twelfth-Century France, trans. Elborg Forster (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), p. 15.

  25. See, for example, the passage from Orderic Vitalis used as an epigraph for this section.

  26. Ibid., pp. 13-15.

  27. “Silence and Holes: The Roman du Silence and the Art of the Trouvère,” Yale French Studies 70 (1986), pp. 81-99; see also Jan Ziolkowski, Alan of Lille's Grammar of Sex (Cambridge, MA: The Medieval Academy of America, 1985).

  28. “Medieval Misogyny,” Representations 20 (1987), pp. 1-24. For critiques of the latter by several feminist medievalists, including myself, see Medieval Feminist Newsletter 6 (Fall 1988), pp. 2-15.

  29. “Chretien's Yvain and the Ideologies of Change and Exchange,” Yale French Studies 70 (1986), pp. 42-62.

  30. Green, Poets and Princepleasers, pp. 99-134.

  31. Relevant here in ways that I can only allude to are discussions of the changing status of poetic authority in late medieval theorizing about language and meaning; see, for example, Holly Wallace Boucher, “Nominalism: The Difference for Chaucer and Boccaccio,” Chaucer Review 20 (1986), pp. 213-20, and, more generally, Jesse Gellrich, The Idea of the Book in the Middle Ages (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985). For discussion of the relation of poets and their authority over their texts to historical changes in reading practices, see Susan Schibanoff, “The New Reader and Female Textuality in Two Early Commentaries on Chaucer,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 10 (1988), pp. 71-108.

  32. Signature Pieces: On the Institution of Authorship (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988), p. 13. See also Michel Foucault's discussion in “What Is an Author?” in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, ed. D. Bouchard (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), pp. 113-38; in Foucault's words, “The author's name is not a function of a man's civil status, nor is it fictional; it is situated in the breach, among the discontinuities, which gives rise to new groups of discourse and their singular modes of existence” (p. 123).

  33. For an early instance of a discussion that tackles these questions and draws helpfully on postmodern theorizing, see H. Marshall Leicester, “The Art of Impersonation: A General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales,PMLA 95 (1980), pp. 213-24. Leicester's most recent writing about Chaucer in The Disenchanted Self: Representing the Subject in the Canterbury Tales (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990) was unfortunately published after my work on this book was completed. Recent discussions of the history of reading and authorship that examine this liminal moment include Gellrich, Idea of the Book, and, without explicit consideration of Chaucer but in terms that usefully flesh out crucial background, Susan Noakes, Timely Reading: Between Exegesis and Interpretation (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988). For a clear description of the feminist critique of the “unencumbered” self, see Seyla Benhabib and Drucilla Cornell's “Introduction: Beyond the Politics of Gender,” in Feminism as Critique, ed. Benhabib and Cornell (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), pp. 10-13.

S. H. Rigby (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: “Misogynist versus Feminist Chaucer,” in Chaucer in Context: Society, Allegory and Gender, Manchester University Press, 1996, pp. 116-63.

[In the following essay, Rigby offers a study of Chaucer's attitude toward women in the Canterbury Tales. Rigby first reviews medieval views regarding sexual difference, demonstrating how many medieval writers presented polarized views of women. Rigby then discusses how Chaucer's presentation of women in “The Wife of Bath's Tale,” The Tale of Melibee,” and “The Parson's Tale” corresponds to or rejects the contemporary conception of women. In conclusion, Rigby states that Chaucer's view of women, while failing to emphasize equality, can be seen as anti-misogynist.]

Diverse men diversely hym tolde
Of mariage manye ensamples olde.
Somme blamed it, somme preysed it, certeyn.

(‘The Merchant's Tale’, CT, [Canterbury Tales] III: 1469-71)

All of the critical debates we have examined so far come together in the final issue we have to consider: Chaucer's representation of women. For the Wife of Bath, anti-feminism (meaning, in a medieval context, the criticism of women rather than of feminists!), was the dominant tendency in the clerical teachings about women current in her day: ‘no womman of no clerk is preysed’. Her opinion is supported by the numerous misogynist exempla and authorities compiled in the ‘book of wicked wives’, real-life examples of which survive in large numbers, which Jankyn, her fifth husband, insists on reading to her (CT, III: 685, 688-91, 706). Even the Clerk, the representative of the estate attacked by the Wife of Bath, admits that ‘clerkes preise wommen but a lite’ despite the fact that no man can be as humble or even half as true as woman can (CT, IV: 935-8). As Christine de Pizan put it in her Book of the City of Ladies (1405), a comprehensive rejoinder to the misogyny of her day, the philosophers, poets and orators ‘all concur in one conclusion: that the behaviour of women is inclined to and full of every vice’.1 As we shall see, whether outright misogyny was the most common attitude to women in medieval society as a whole is debatable. Nevertheless, anti-feminism was undoubtedly one of the loudest voices amongst the competing opinions about women in the later Middle Ages, one which often drowned out other views which, precisely because they were taken for granted rather than being explicitly expressed, bore a rather closer relation to the reality of women's social position than did misogynist abuse. How then did Chaucer's work address such issues? Did Chaucer's representation of women rehearse and buttress the misogyny common to so much medieval literature or did Chaucer himself supply a critique of such misogyny, being, as Gavin Douglas put it in 1513, ever ‘womanis frend’?2

Interest in Chaucer's representation of women has intensified in recent years as the issue of gender has come to the fore in medieval studies under the impact of feminist scholarship. Feminist approaches to literature are based on two fundamental assumptions. Firstly, that although there are unchanging biological differences between the sexes, these differences are always construed in socially and historically specific ways so that what seems ‘natural’ and ‘obvious’ about the sexes in one society will seem totally alien and mistaken in another. Through such social interpretation, biological differences between male and female become the socially constructed categories of masculine and feminine: sex becomes gender. Secondly, in a patriarchal society in which women enjoy a lesser degree of wealth, status and power than the men of their own class, the construction of gender involves not just the creation of social difference but also the reaffirmation of a fundamental inequality between the sexes, as sexual differences come to be presented as a justification for sexual inequality.3 Feminist literary critics thus tend to explore how works of literature participate in the construction of gender differences and ask to what extent they embody or challenge the dominant gender ideology of their day.

However, just as patristic critics need not agree on the allegorical meaning of any particular tale told by Chaucer's pilgrims, so there is no reason why feminist critics should agree on the nature of Chaucer's sexual politics. For instance, Delany, though herself a feminist, adopts the view of the patristic critics that we as readers are intended to take the ‘Nun's Priest's Tale’ seriously and that the voice of the Nun's Priest can be equated with that of Chaucer. She thus sees the misogyny of this tale, its blaming of women for man's downfall and its treatment of marriage, as a rehearsal by Chaucer of the male supremacism characteristic of medieval intellectual orthodoxy. Indeed, she sees Chaucer's ‘Nun's Priest's Tale’ as reactionary not just in our terms but even by the standards of earlier medieval versions of the story which, in having Chauntecleer's wife as the one who correctly interprets his dream, had shown women to be superior to men in perception and foresight. Mann, by contrast, refuses to equate the voice of Chaucer with that of the misogynist Nun's Priest and instead sees Chaucer as satirising the latter's views. For Mann, the ‘Nun's Priest's Tale’ by no means reproduces the misogyny typical of medieval thought. Instead, by transferring traditional gender roles on to a cock and a hen, it reveals the arbitrary and superfluous nature of human sexual conventions and thus undermines the power-structures upon which they rest. Far from Chaucer being reactionary by the standards of the fourteenth century, he is up-to-date by the standards of the late twentieth century. Thus, whereas a critic such as Hansen sees Chaucer's poetry as bringing Woman to life only ‘in order that she may be killed off, lost, silenced and erased’, Mann is happy to describe Chaucer as a ‘feminist’ writer.4

As we have seen (Chapter 1), medieval literature cannot be used directly to read off the reality of medieval social life since literature actively interprets social reality in the light of its own conventions of character, narrative and genre and of the broader ideological conceptions and values of its time. Literary and generic convention is certainly crucial for the representation of women in the Canterbury Tales. There is a world of difference between the portrayal of women in a bawdy fabliau such as the ‘Miller's Tale’ (woman as lustful, deceitful wife), in the Knight's chivalric romance-cum-epic (woman as a romantic ideal to be worshipped and as a means of cementing political alliances) or in the saint's life told by the Second Nun (woman as virgin martyr).5 Inevitably, medieval literature also incorporated broader cultural stereotypes and ideological assumptions about the sexes so that women in literary narratives were presented in the light of a variety of non-literary discourses, particularly those expounded in medieval scientific treatises and theological works. Thus the register or topos of misogyny is to be found in a wide variety of medieval genres. Conversely, one genre, such as the romance, could be used to express a variety of opinions about women.6 In examining Chaucer's construction of gender and representation of women, it would, therefore, be wrong to see the Canterbury Tales as simply reproducing the late medieval conception of women since there was no single medieval conception of women for Chaucer's works to reproduce in the first place. Rather, the Canterbury Tales comprise an arena in which virtually every medieval discourse about women clashes and competes for our attention, providing in the process an encyclopedia of medieval views about women and the inevitably related issues of love and marriage. This chapter outlines some of the major medieval discourses about sexual difference which inform Chaucer's depiction of women in the Canterbury Tales, in particular, the tendency of medieval writers to polarise their views of women, condemning them to the pit or elevating them to the pedestal (section i). It then asks whether any of these views can be equated with Chaucer's own position by examining the Wife of Bath's rejection of the pedestal (section ii) and, finally, by exploring the alternative to both the pit and the pedestal offered in the ‘Tale of Melibee’ and the ‘Parson's Tale’ (section iii).


That there was no single medieval view about the nature of women, love or marriage, issues which were invariably raised in association with one another by medieval writers, can be seen in the tendency for conflicting views to be pitted against each other in formal debate. For example, in the famous letters between Abelard and Heloise, Abelard praises women's piety and Heloise replies by attacking her own sex as the cause of the downfall of mankind, her letters being one of the works included in Jankyn's ‘book of wicked wives’ (CT, III: 677-8).7 In the late thirteenth-century poem The Thrush and the Nightingale, a male and a female bird discuss whether women are noble and gentle or fickle and dishonest whilst in Sir John Clanvowe's The Book of Cupid, a cuckoo and a nightingale debate the merits of love.8Dives and Pauper (1405-10), an early fifteenth-century exposition of the Ten Commandments, includes a dialogue in which Pauper defends women from Dives's stock accusations about feminine vice.9 Women and relationships between the sexes have been seen as Chaucer's own favourite subject and his literary career viewed as a ‘lifelong engagement with the woman question’. Indeed, critics have regarded such issues as central to the Canterbury Tales ever since Kittredge identified a ‘marriage debate’ between the pilgrims, a debate supposedly initiated by the Wife of Bath when she claimed that men should be governed by their wives. Kittredge saw a number of the other pilgrims as responding to the Wife's comments: the Clerk, who tells a tale of the patient Griselda which defends the orthodox view of female submissiveness within marriage; the Merchant, whose shrewish wife is the opposite of Griselda and who tells a tale of feminine deceit; the Host, who also complains of his wife; and the Franklin, who offers a view of marriage as based on mutual love, respect and forbearance which Kittredge identified as that of Chaucer himself. In fact, views about marriage pervade even more of the tales than Kittredge suggested. If, as Neuse argues, the tales are like a philosophical symposium in which, rather than following logically one after another, the speakers discuss a number of related topics, women, love and marriage are central to the themes which the pilgrims address.10

Thus, paying attention to gender and gender ideology is by no means to bring an anachronistic, twentieth-century perspective to bear on Chaucer's work. On the contrary, the Middle Ages had a very clear conception of gender difference and a clearly formulated theory of sexual inequality. However, given that the male was taken as the norm and woman as the ‘marked case’, medieval attitudes to gender tended to be most explicitly formulated in discussions of women's nature. Certainly, Lawler found very few generalisations about men in the Canterbury Tales, apart from those made to contrast them with general claims about woman's nature, whereas the tales are littered with over 140 generalisations about women, a point which is nowhere more apparent than in the ‘Wife of Bath's Tale’, in which a knight, in order to save his life, has to discover ‘What thyng is it that wommen moost desiren?’ (CT, III: 905).11 Whilst men are defined in terms of their estate or occupation, women in the Canterbury Tales, as in other contemporary estates literature, are defined in relation to men, sex and marriage: as virgins (for instance, Virginia in the ‘Physician's Tale’), married women, whether faithful (Griselda in the ‘Clerk's Tale’) or unfaithful (as in the ‘Manciple's Tale’), mothers (in the ‘Prioress's Tale’ and the ‘Man of Law's Tale), prostitutes (perhaps the merchant's wife who sells her body to a monk in the ‘Shipman's Tale’), or widows (as in the ‘Wife of Bath's Prologue’). Typically, the magical mirror brought to the court of Cambyuskan in the ‘Squire's Tale’ allows the king to see any threats to his kingdom whereas it enables women see if their lovers are unfaithful (CT, V: 132-40).12

That man was the norm against which woman was defined as inferior or deformed was certainly the assumption underlying the scientific thought about women which the Middle Ages inherited from the ancient world. Aristotle, for instance, assumed that male domination was the rule in all natural species. Men were morally, intellectually and physically superior to women; to attempt to counter such natural superiority would, therefore, damage the entire community, including women. To the Aristotelian tradition was added the influence of Galen (fl. second century A.D.) who advanced a case for female inferiority based on the doctrine that everything within the sublunary world is composed of the four basic elements: earth, fire, water and air, each of which has related quality: coldness, heat, wetness and dryness. … For Galen, it was women who were dominated by the cold and wet qualities, men by the hot and the dry. Since heat is nature's primary instrument it follows that ‘within mankind the man is more perfect than the woman’.13 Such views passed into medieval scientific orthodoxy. For Albertus Magnus, a thirteenth-century Aristotelian, female children were the product of weak semen: women were, in a sense, deficient or imperfect men. Aquinas rejected the claim that women, as God's creation, were misbegotten, but he accepted Aristotle's view that in conception it is the male force which is active in giving form to the material passively provided by the female. Since ‘the active cause is always more honourable than the passive’, it followed that ‘it is the father who should be loved more than the mother’. This notion of women's bodily imperfection was associated with the idea of their mental inferiority. For Aquinas, ‘the power of rational discernment is by nature stronger in man’ than in woman who is ‘by nature of lower capacity and quality than man’. Man's superior reason explained why ‘woman is naturally subject to man’. God had given the task of reproduction to women in order to free men for other tasks, including the intellectual work to which their superior reason suited them. Since, in a human family, good order was the product of the rule of the wisest, women should naturally be subject to men. For the author of Dives and Pauper, sin was more serious in man than in woman since ‘by nature man has greater strength and greater intelligence and reason’ with which to withstand the Devil's guile. Chaucer's Wife of Bath even twists man's supposed greater reason to her own advantage, citing it as a reason why her husband should bow to her will: ‘Oon of us two moste bowen, doutelees, / And sith a man is moore resonable / Than womman is, ye must been more suffrable’ (CT, III: 440-2).14

If the idea of women as physically, mentally and socially inferior was inherited by the Middle Ages from the ancient world, there is no doubt that it was buttressed by the account of the creation and the fall given in the book of Genesis. Here, on being expelled from paradise, Eve is told by God: ‘thou shalt be under thy husband's power and he shall have dominion over thee’ (Genesis 3: 16). As St Paul says in justifying man's authority over woman, ‘Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not seduced; but the woman being seduced, was in the transgression’ (1 Timothy 2: 13-14). Adam and Eve might be the mother and father of us all but, nevertheless, it was, as Innocent III pointed out, women who suffered in childbirth as a reminder to them of their kinship with Eve. That the fall was primarily the result of Eve's disobedience, rather than of Adam's, was a frequent refrain of medieval authors. In the early thirteenth-century Ancrene Riwle, St Paul's requirement that women, unlike men, should cover their heads when praying or prophesying (1 Corinthians 11: 5-13) was interpreted as a commandment to each woman to ‘cover her shame, as a sinful daughter of Eve, in remembrance of the sin which brought shame upon all of us in the beginning, and not use the covering as a means of adorning herself, as a matter of pride’. Aquinas had argued that the superior rationality of men meant that the subjection of woman must have obtained even before the fall, but for the author of Dives and Pauper it was only when Eve sinned that ‘woman was made subject to man’.15

Woman's responsibility for the fall is certainly taken for granted by a number of the Canterbury pilgrims. For instance, in the ‘Man of Law's Tale’, when the Sultan of Syria's evil mother opposes her son's intention to convert to Christianity on his proposed marriage to Custance and murders the Christians who accompany Custance to Syria, the Man of Law says that Satan knows of old the way to women and it was he who ‘madest Eva brynge us in servage’; when he seeks to beguile us, he makes woman into his instrument. Even Custance, the heroine of the tale, takes for granted in her prayer to the Virgin that it was through woman's instigation that ‘Mankynde was lorn, and damned ay to dye’, Christ's suffering on the Cross being needed to overcome the effects of Eve's actions (CT, II: 323, 365-71, 841-4). This charge is repeated in Jankyn's ‘book of wicked wives’: it was woman that was ‘the los of all mankynde’ (CT, III: 685, 715-20). Similarly, the ‘Nun's Priest's Tale’ reminds us that ‘In principio / Mulier est hominis confusio’: it was ‘Wommanes conseil broghte us first to wo / And made Adam fro paradys to go’, although the Nun's Priest himself denies any responsibility for this opinion and Chauntecleer manages to interpret the phrase to mean that ‘Womman is mannes joye and al his blis’ (CT, VII: 3163-6, 3257-66). It is the Parson who stresses that Adam was not free of guilt in the fall, citing St Paul (Romans 5: 12) to argue that sin and death entered the world by a single man: ‘And this man was Adam’. Even though it was Eve who sinned first in being tempted into tasting of the forbidden fruit, Adam remained in a state of innocence until he too consented to eating the fruit so that it was Adam from whom we took original sin ‘for of hym flesshly descended be we alle’ (CT, X: 321-4, 330-3).

The events of the fall were frequently interpreted allegorically, with Adam representing the superior aspect of our nature, reason, and Eve signifying our lower nature, the flesh. This hierarchy, with Eve, woman, the flesh and the carnal appetites of our lower nature on the one hand, and Adam, man, the spirit and our superior, rational nature on the other, was a commonplace of Christian theology from the patristic period to the end of the medieval period. Even when Augustine used the serpent to represent the flesh, Eve still figured as lower reason and Adam as the higher wisdom: the latter should dominate the former as the husband does the wife. Duns Scotus similarly saw paradise as an allegory of human nature in which the man represents the interior region of the spirit, truth, goodness and reason, and the woman represents the exterior region of the corporeal senses, falsity and vain fantasies. All error begins in the exterior region which may then corrupt the inner region, just as Eve tempted Adam.16 It is this standard allegorical reading of the fall that is expounded by Chaucer's Parson when he interprets the temptation of Adam and Eve and the events of the fall to mean that ‘deedly synne hath, first, suggestion of the feend, as shewth heere by the naddre; and afterward the delit of the flessh, as sheweth heere by Eve; and after that, by the consentynge of resoun, as sheweth here by Adam’. Although it was the flesh—‘that is to seyn Eve’—which first took delight in the forbidden fruit, it was reason—‘that is to seyn Adam’—which consented to it (CT, X: 330-1).

Since sin was the result of a delight in the things of this world, the temptations of power, riches and of the flesh, it followed that the highest human condition was to renounce the transitory glories of this world and to live a life of poverty, chastity and obedience, vows of which were required from those regular clergy who had, supposedly, withdrawn from the pursuit of the things of this world. Virginity in particular was presented by theologians as the highest spiritual state. As St Paul said, ‘It is good for a man not to touch a woman’. ‘I say to the unmarried and the widows, it is good for them if they so continue, even as I’. ‘The unmarried woman and the virgin thinketh on the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But she that is married thinketh on the things of the world, how she may please her husband’ (1 Corinthians 7: 1, 8-9, 34). From Tertullian (c. A.D. 160-c. A.D. 225) onwards, theologians argued that ‘abstinence from sex was the most effective technique with which to achieve clarity of soul’. Sexual sin was, Aquinas argued, ‘more disgraceful than other immoderate action’, partly because during sex ‘our reason gets submerged’. Abstaining from such bodily pleasure allows us to ‘seek the soul's good in a life of contemplation mindful of the things of God’17 Perhaps the most famous statement of this view, one which, inevitably, was included in Jankyn's compilation of misogamous texts alongside the work of Tertullian (CT, III: 673-6), was Adversus Jovinianum (c. A.D. 393), in which St Jerome attacked the belief that, once baptised, the single, married and widowed could all attain equal spiritual merit. Against this belief, he cited the work of the pagan philosopher Theophrastus to support his argument that the wise man should not marry: even the pagan Greeks and Romans had recognised the superior virtue of virginity. According to Jerome, the reward of the hundredfold fruit is ascribed to virginity, that of the sixtyfold fruit to widowhood, and that of the thirtyfold fruit to those who are married. It is true that, as Paul said, virginity is a counsel to us rather than a command (1 Corinthians, 7: 6-9) but nevertheless, this still means that ‘Christ loves virgins more than others’, since they willingly give what was not commanded of them. For Jerome, the difficulties involved in married life were a ‘rhetorical commonplace’ which could be invoked to dissuade both men and women from marriage or remarriage.18

In the Canterbury Tales, the Parson defends this view of virginity as superior even to chastity in marriage or widowhood: the virgin is spouse to Christ, beloved of the angels, and the equal of the martyrs; Christ was born of a virgin and was a virgin himself (CT, X: 915, 943, 947-50). Similarly, the ‘Second Nun's Tale’ tells of the heroic life of a woman, St Cecilia, who was both virgin and martyr, retaining her chastity even in marriage, converting her husband and brother-in-law to the true faith, and defying the male authorities of the Roman Empire who demanded that she should renounce her Christian beliefs. Thus, whilst the Wife of Bath claims that clergymen cannot speak well of any woman unless she is a ‘holy saint’, it is actually one of the other women amongst the pilgrims, the Second Nun, who sings the praises of a woman who is a virgin martyr (CT, III: 688-91; VIII: 87-8). The ‘Physician's Tale’ also sings the praises of a virgin, Virginia, who ‘floured in virginitee / With alle attemperaunce and pacience, / With mesure eek of beryng and array’, whose father kills her rather than surrender her to Apius, as he is ordered to do, ‘in lecherie to lyven’ (CT, VI: 44-6, 206).

Inevitably, given the churchman's obligation to celibacy, the works which attacked women most virulently were those addressed to monastic and clerical audiences and whose generic conventions, designed to strengthen clerics in their vow of chastity, portrayed women as the gateway leading to sin and damnation. Similar texts, vividly depicting women's misery in marriage and their pain in childbirth, could be produced for female recluses or to dissuade women from marriage or remarriage. The problem was that attacks on women intended for clerical ears could be cited outside their original context and came to be presented as expressions of general truths about womankind. Thus in Walter Map's ‘Letter of Valerius to Ruffinus, Against Marriage’ (c. 1180), another work included in Jankyn's book (CT, III: 671), it is claimed that even the very best woman, ‘who is rarer than the phoenix’, cannot be loved ‘without the bitterness of fear, anxiety and frequent misfortune’, let alone the wicked women who devote themselves to tormenting men. In such cases, misogamy, opposition to marriage, came to be justified in terms of misogyny, the abuse of women.19

It was this misogamous tradition which provided the raw materials for much of the portrait of the Wife of Bath which emerges in the unusually lengthy ‘Prologue’ to her tale. The vivid speech and disarming frankness of the Wife's of Bath's lengthy autobiography, in which she recounts the way in which she mastered her first three husbands by deceit and trickery, seem when we first encounter them, to provide us with a rare glimpse of domestic life of the kind which medieval sources rarely allow us, an account based on the ‘experience’ to which the Wife appeals in support of her views and which thus seems to be drawn straight from life. In fact, long passages of the Wife's tirade, as when when she accuses her husbands of saying things when they were drunk of which they were entirely innocent (‘Thou seist that oxen, asses, hors and houndes, / They been assayed at diverse stoundes; … But folk of wyves make noon assay, / Til they be wedded’ etc. etc.), are lifted almost verbatim from Theophrastus's Liber de Nuptiis as passed on to the Middle Ages by Jerome's Adversus Jovinianum. Far from being drawn from real life, the Wife here is rehearsing lines attacking women by a pagan philosopher of the fourth century B.C. as preserved for us by a Church Father of the late fourth century A.D. (CT, III: 1-6, 235-302, 669-72).20 The Lamentations of Matheolus of Matthieu of Boulogne (c. 1295; translated from Latin into French c. 1371 by Jehan le Fèvre), in which, just as in the Wife's ‘Prologue’, a clerk marries a widow but then bemoans his fate, depicting his marriage to a deceitful, nagging, disobedient woman as a purgatory on earth, was obviously also a major source for the Wife's ‘Prologue’.21 Her speech is equally indebted to the ‘sermon’ by La Vieille in Jean de Meun's continuation of the Roman de la Rose, a lengthy monologue in which the old woman gives cynical advice on the ruses which allow love to be used to obtain money and power. Indeed, the Wife often repeats verbaim the words of La Vieille, regretting her lost youth, advising women to be like the mouse that always has a hole to run to and claiming that even Argos with his hundred eyes could not do anything to stop a wife intent on adultery. In addition, the Wife's confession owes much to the words of Dipsas, the old woman who gives cynical advice on how to turn a girl's sexual attractions to her advantage in Ovid's Amores.22

Inevitably, the association of man with humanity's rational and intellectual faculties and the affiliation of women with the carnal and the worldly was particularly pronounced in those texts which warned the male philosopher against the servitude of love and the worldly distractions of marriage. In Abelard's Historia Calamitatum, for instance, Heloise tries to dissuade him from marriage by echoing the warnings in Adversus Jovinianum about the ‘burden’, ‘base servitude’, ‘unbearable annoyances’ and ‘endless anxieties’ of marriage and quotes Jerome's example of Cicero who refused a second marriage on the grounds that ‘he could not devote himself to a wife and philosophy alike’: ‘What harmony can there be between pupils and nursemaids, desks and cradles, books or tablets and distaffs, pen or stylus and spindles?’ As Seneca said, ‘Philosophy is not a subject for idle moments. We must neglect everything else and concentrate on this, for no time is long enough for it’.23 The Wife of Bath characterises this opposition in terms of the astrological influences of Mercury and Venus, i.e., ‘wysdam and science’ versus ‘ryot and dispence’: ‘ech falleth in otheres exaltacioun’ (CT, III: 607-705). Thus, in addition to the equation of the masculine with the superior, with reason, spirit, the active, heat and dryness and the feminine with the inferior, the flesh, body, the passive, coldness and wetness, went a whole series of associated binary oppositions which are personified by Chauntecleer and Pertelote in the ‘Nun's Priest's Tale’ and by Alisoun and Jankyn in the ‘Wife of Bath's Prologue’:

masculinity femininity
Chauntecleer Pertelote
Jankyn Alisoun
the thinker the wife
Mercury Venus
the public the domestic
the intellect the body
the abstract the practical
the universal the particular
the other-worldly the mundane
bookish authority everyday experience
the ideal the material

Typically, when Chauntecleer has a nightmare warning him of the danger ahead, he mounts a lengthy and learned defence of the view that dreams presage the future, buttressing it with exempla and authorities, whereas the down-to-earth Pertelote tells him that it is simply the product of overeating and recommends a laxative (CT, VII: 2923, 2943, 2970-3156). Equally typically, Chauntecleer then ignores his own fine words and is lured into forgetfulness by his lustful delight in Pertelote's sensual charms, just as all of Jankyn's book-learning about the wiles of women is useless when it comes up against the wordly cunning of his wife. Like Jerome's Gorgias the Rhetorican, who preached an excellent sermon on concord to the Greeks yet could not keep peace between himself, his wife and his maid, all of Chauntecleer's and Jankyn's learning is of no avail when confronted with the seductive might of woman and the power of their own lower natures. One of the most popular secular images in all medieval art, that of Aristotle being ridden by Phyllis, Alexander's palace courtesan, epitomised this opposition between the flesh and the intellect and the weakness of the latter when confronted with the power of the former. In this story, Alexander is berated by Aristotle, his tutor, for abandoning all reason and becoming like a dumb beast because of his infatuation for the beautiful Phyllis. Phyllis and Alexander then teach the philosopher a lesson when she seduces Aristotle but agrees to make love to him only on the condition that she can saddle him and mount him and Alexander then appears to confront his tutor with the evidence of his inability to follow his own teachings.24 The familiar image of the flesh as the horse and reason as its rider is thus inverted, an inversion alluded to by the Wife of Bath when she refers to herself as the ‘whippe’ for her husbands and as having the bridle of marriage in her hand (CT, III: 175, 813).

However, despite the tradition of misogamy which flourished in literature, in reality the vast majority of medieval men and women did marry. As St Paul said, those who cannot commit themselves to virginity should marry: ‘it is better to marry than to be burnt’ (1 Corinthians 7: 9; LB: 18). Indeed, whether medieval writers presented women as members of their husband's estate or whether women were presented as an estate in their own right, with their own internal sub-divisions into lay and religious, single, married and widowed, marriage was central to a woman's social identity in a way that it was not for men, since men's legal and property rights remained unaffected by it. Thus, although the ‘General Prologue’ tells us that the Wife of Bath was a cloth-maker whose abilities exceeded those of Ypres and of Ghent, cloth-making is, in this context, a traditional gendered trait rather than a profession or the focus of Chaucer's interest.25 It is her expertise as a wife which is emphasised in the lengthy autobiographical ‘Prologue’ to her tale, her skills in the arts of marriage having been perfected on the five husbands which she has had since the age of twelve, skills which have allowed her to win control of each of them, whether through sex, trickery, lying or jealousy. The ‘Wife of Bath's Tale’ itself reinforces this association of women and marriage when the knight, given the task of finding out what women most desire, eventually learns that the answer is that ‘wommen desiren to have sovereynetee / As wel over hir housbond as hir love, / And for to been in maistrie hym above’ (CT, I: 447-8; III: 1-6, 155, 173-4, 488, 813-22, 905, 1038-40).

In the realm of marriage, as everywhere else, the message of the theologians was that of man's superior reason and woman's inferiority. As St Paul said, it was wrong for women to usurp authority over men since ‘Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being seduced was in the transgression’. Since women were ‘commanded to be under obedience’ by God, it followed that if women sought to learn anything they should ‘ask their husbands at home, for it is a shame for women to speak in the church’ (Genesis 3: 16; 1 Corinthians 14: 34-5; 1 Timothy 2: 11-14). It is true that St Paul had said that, once united in Christ, ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female’ (Galatians 3: 28). But just as this did not mean that there should be social equality between freeman and bond, neither did it entail the earthly equality of men and women. On the contrary, ‘The head of every man is Christ; and the head of woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God’. Man was created as the ‘image and glory of God but the woman is the glory of the man’. ‘Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man’ (Genesis 1: 26-7; 1 Corinthians 11: 3, 7-9). Just as Christ is the head of the Church so ‘the husband is the head of the wife’. Just as Christ loves the Church, so ‘ought men to love their wives as their own bodies’ (Ephesians 5: 22-33). St Paul's arguments were rehearsed by Chaucer's Parson: a man should love his wife as much as Christ did the Church, for which he was prepared to die. Man is the head of the woman, so a woman should have only one husband so that she did not have more than one head, ‘an horrible thing biforn God’ (CT, X: 920-30).

Since medieval preachers took for granted the superiority of the husband within marriage, they were frequently obliged to denounce women who failed to respect such superiority. They thus invoked the harlot of the Book of Proverbs (7: 10-12) and the wicked woman of the Book of Ecclesiasticus (25: 23-36) to criticise women for wandering about when they should remain at home and for exhibiting the supposed female faults of impatience, foolishness and inconstancy. Of course, it is the function of sermons to denounce sin and preachers were just as likely to denounce sinners who were male as they were to criticise women. The difference was that whilst male sin was presented either as an example of general human frailty or as related to particular occupations and estates (the avarice of the merchant, the pride of the knight), women's faults were seen as specifically female, as arising from the weaknesses of their sex per se. In particular, lust was seen as the female sin par excellence. There was a familiar double standard at work: when women fall prey to lust, this was because they were prone to such weakness by their nature; when men submitted to their own carnal desires, this was often said to be because they had been tempted by women or by demons in female form. It was, said the preachers, wise for men to abstain from ‘the dawnsynge of wommen and other open syghtes that draweth men to synne’, to reject the company of ‘folyes women’ and, in general, to avoid excessive familiarity with any member of the female sex. After all, who was stronger than Samson, wiser than Solomon, holier than David? And yet they were all overcome ‘by the queyntise and whiles of women’. Closely associated with misogynist accusations of luxuria was the charge of female vanity. In particular, in a tradition going back to St Paul (1 Timothy 2: 9) and Tertullian, woman's pride in her appearance, her love of adornment, expensive clothing and head-dresses, were attacked as the occasion of sin in both men and women. With their long tail-like gowns and ‘horned’ heads, women reduce themselves to the level of beasts and become the ‘Devil's nets, with which he fishes in God's fishpond, seeking to transfer His fish to the lake of Hell’.26

Garrulity was also seen by the preachers as a particularly feminine fault, perhaps because it was measured not by the standards of male talkativeness or misogynist loquacity but by that of female silence, as is shown by the Speculum Laicorum, a thirteenth-century sermon collection, which advises women to be like the well-bred dog, silent and free of guile, rather than the ill-bred dog which is noisy and ill-tempered. Similarly, both the London preacher William Lichfield and the author of the Ancrene Riwle named the Virgin Mary as ‘a model for all women’ on the grounds that she ‘spoke so little that we find her words recorded in Holy Scripture only four times’. Above all, women were urged to be obedient. That feminine disobedience would be punished was the constant lesson of such sermons. As John Bromyard, a fourteenth-century preacher, pointed out, all intending husbands faced the risk of a contrary wife. As a warning against such contrariness, he cited the story of a man with such a wife who, knowing a ladder to be rotten, told her not to climb it ‘because he knew that she would do the very reverse of what he said’. Predictably, she disobeyed him and as a result broke both her legs.27

Women are advised to eschew such feminine vices by Chaucer's Parson: women should please their husbands by being ‘mesurable in lookynge and in beryinge and in lawghynge’ and ‘discreet in alle hir wordes and hire dedes’ rather than ‘by hire queyntise of array’: ‘It is a greet folye, a womman to have a fair array outward and in hirself be foul inward’ (CT, X: 929-36). Again, this literary tradition fed into the image of the Wife of Bath which emerges from both the ‘General Prologue’ and the Wife's own ‘Prologue’. She embodies all of the stock traits which anti-feminist authors and preachers such as Robert Rypon, William Lichfield, John Bromyard and Nicholas Bozon habitually ascribed to women: their lustfulness and contrariness, their vanity and delight in fashionable clothes, their talkativeness and disobedience. Even the accusation that the Wife in her fine array is like a cat whose fur has not been singed and so loves to wander from home was a ‘hoary commonplace’ of the pulpit (CT, III: 348-54). Her first-person monologue, with its length, roundabout style and tendency to wander off the point, is itself a classic illustration of the stock charge of feminine garrulity, of her tendency to verbal, as well as to sexual, ‘wandering by the way’.28

Given the currency of misogyny within medieval thought, even the apparent praise of women and of marriage by medieval writers was often meant ironically—or at least was read as such. A fifteenth-century lyric, ‘What women are not’, begins ‘Of all creatures women be best’ but, before going on to list women's virtues (their patience, ability to keep a secret, their refusal to spend their husbands' money at the alehouse), adds ‘Cuius contrarium verum est’: ‘the contrary of which is true’. Likewise, Lydgate's praise of women in his ‘Beware of Doubleness’ should, a manuscript gloss tells us, be read ‘per antifrasim’, i.e., to mean the opposite of what it explicitly says.29 Chaucer's ‘Merchant's Tale’, perhaps drawing on Eustache Deschamps's Miroir de Mariage in which ‘Free Will’ is urged to marry by his false friends, Desire, Folly, Servility and Hypocrisy, whilst ‘Storehouse of Knowledge’ puts the case against,30 contains such mockpraise of women and marriage. Here the elderly Januarie, after a life of lust, decides that marriage will provide him with a paradise on earth. Since the Merchant has already told us that married men live a life of ‘sorwe and care’ and that his own wife is so cruel and malicious that she could outmatch the Devil himself, his subsequent lengthy approval of Januarie's self-delusions (‘How myghte a man han any adversitee / That hath a wyf?’ etc. etc.,) and urging of his audience to ignore Theophrastus come across as rather heavy-handed sarcasm. The ironic praise of marriage continues when Januarie's two friends, Placebo (‘I shall please’) and Justinus (‘the just one’) debate his plans. Placebo, the flattering courtier, does not dare to disagree with Januarie and urges him to go ahead with his marriage. Justinus warns him - to no avail - that a married man's life is one of ‘cost and care’, full of duties ‘of alle blisses bare’, a truth he knows from experience even though his own wife has the reputation for being loyal and mild-mannered (CT, IV: 1213-28, 1264-1392, 1478-1575).31

Yet, despite the common misogyny of the age, a number of medieval writers did attempt a defence of the female sex and there were a variety of more sympathetic views of women available. If the story of Eve's role in the Fall provided the archetypal symbol of female evil then, as hardly needs saying, it was the Virgin Mary, the ‘Quene of Paradis, of Hevene, of erthe, of all that is’, who represented female virtue. All of the evidence available to us, from church, chapel and parish-guild dedications to the ballads of Robin Hood, points to the genuine popularity of her cult. It has been claimed that the cult of Mary and of the other virgin saints, in creating an ideal which was impossible to emulate, tended to bolster the medieval view of women as inferior. After all, unlike the Virgin, other women do not bear children whilst remaining, in the words of the Prioress and the Second Nun, a ‘Virgine wemmelees’ and a ‘mayden pure’ (CT, VII: 462; VIII: 47-8). Margery Kempe, for example, doubted her own salvation because she was not a virgin and had to be reassured that God loved her ‘as much as any maiden in the world’. Thus it has been claimed that only with the Protestant Reformation did the role of wives as mothers come to be celebrated by Chritian theologians.32

Nevertheless, despite the uniqueness of her ‘singular grace’, the Virgin Mary was regularly cited by those who wished to defend all women, as in The Thrush and the Nightingale, in which the nightingale finally overcomes the thrush's misogyny by invoking the Virgin's name.33 Her exaltation in heaven above all the choirs of angels (the ex exaltacione topos) was one of the five arguments commonly used to show why woman was preferred to man (the others being the e materia topos: Adam was made from clay, Eve from Adam's rib; e loco: Adam was made outside paradise, Eve inside it; e conceptione: a woman conceived Christ not a man; ex apparicione: Christ appeared first to a woman after the resurrection).34 Similarly, ‘Women are worthy’, a carol from the fifteenth or early sixteenth century, argues that ‘Our Blessed Lady bereth the name / Of all women wher that they go’. In ‘The Mother and Her Son on the Cross’, a lyric of c. 1300, Mary asks for help from her son for all those who cry out to her whether they be maidens, wives or ‘fol wimmon’ (prostitutes). The virgin saints could be recommended as models for all women, maidens, wives and widows, and one of them, St Margaret, was even the patron saint of childbirth. In general, the virgin saints did not so much serve as examples to be followed as reservoirs of particularly effective intercessory power which was available to be tapped by the faithful. In much medieval poetry, it was the Virgin Mary's motherhood, her tender love for her child, rather than a purity which was impossible to emulate, which led people to worship her and seek her intercession. That a high regard for motherhood did not arrive only with the Reformation can be seen in the frequent medieval descriptions of the Church as our ‘spiritual mother’ which carries and gives birth to us, washes, bathes, clothes, nurses and feeds us, and lays us down to rest. Thus, despite the frequent claim that good mothering is a modern invention and that pre-modern societies regarded the welfare of infants and children with indifference, medieval writers did present motherhood as a particularly honoured female role. If medieval writings assigned fathers the role of educating and disciplining their children, it was mothers who were expected to nurture and care for them. As ‘Women are worthy’ says, it is shameful to abuse women because women are the mothers to us all.35

It is as the merciful intercessor who intervenes to avert our Father's wrath that the Virgin is portrayed in Chaucer's ‘An ABC’ in praise of the Virgin (ABC: 49-56) and the ‘Invocacio ad Mariam’ in the ‘Second Nun's Prologue’ (CT, VIII: 39-84). But it is as the caring mother that the Virgin appears most prominently in the Canterbury Tales, as when Custance in the ‘Man of Law's Tale’ prays to the Virgin, the ‘glorie of wommanhede’ who suffered by seeing her own son die in torment, to take pity on her child when they are placed in the rudderless ship in which they are cast adrift from Northumbria (CT, II: 841-54). In the ‘Prioress's Tale’, an example of the popular genre of the ‘Miracles of the Virgin’, the nurturing qualities of the Virgin and of earthly mothers are combined in the tale of a seven-year-old boy who is murdered by the Jews and his body thrown into a cesspit in a Christian city in Asia for singing the song ‘O Alma redemptoris’ in the Virgin's honour as he passes through the Jewish ghetto on the way to and from school. His widowed mother, ‘With moodres pitee in her brest enclosed’, searches frantically for her missing son until she finally discovers his body when she hears it singing ‘O Alma redemptoris’, the Virgin having come to him and promised that he should continue to sing the song until a seed which she places on his tongue is removed. Only when the abbot removes the seed does the boy ‘yaf up the goost ful softely’ to be united through his death with the Virgin (CT, VII: 551-71, 593-4, 658-69, 672, 691). The Virgin's role as merciful intercessor could also be ascribed to earthly women. In the ‘Knight's Tale’, it is the tears of Ypolita, Emelye and the ladies of Theseus's court which win mercy for Palamon and Arcite when Theseus has condemned them to death; in the ‘Wife of Bath's Tale’, it is Queen Guinevere and her ladies who beg for mercy and obtain a reprieve for the knight sentenced to death for rape; in the ‘Tale of Melibee’, Melibeus's enemies beseech his wife Prudence to sway Melibeus with her ‘wommanly pitee’ when they submit themselves to his judgement. Far from the Virgin being a reproach to all other women, who necessarily failed to emulate her perfection, her virtues inform many of the heroines and worthy women of the Canterbury Tales (CT, I: 1748-71; III: 894-905; VII: 1749-50).36

If the religious cult of the Virgin offered the possibility of a more sympathetic treatment of women, the conventions of ‘courtly love’ have traditionally been seen as a secular challenge to clerical misogyny. Indeed, women themsleves were frequently presented as the readers of chivalric romances, as when the Nun's Priest says that it is women who ‘holde in ful greet reverence’ the ‘book of Launcelot de Lake’ (CT, VII: 3212-13).37 ‘Courtly love’ is often rejected by scholars as far too embracing or inaccurate a term to be useful. Certainly, C. S. Lewis's famous claim that adultery was a necessary part of such love finds little support in medieval English literature. None the less, whilst never constituting a clearly defined code of conduct, courtly love is useful as a portmanteau term with which to refer to a group of loosely related literary concerns and conventions.38 Love in this conception is the ‘unrestrained adoration of a lady’, a love caused by her beauty, charm, wit and character. Such love ennobles and improves the lover himself, both as a warrior, who might be inspired to fight to bring honour to his lady or to win the renown needed to gain her approval, and as a courtier, who is expected to display the refinement needed to win a lady's heart such as the ability to compose love-songs, or at least to sing them, to dance, and to engage in witty and charming conversation. Along with these qualities went specific forms of stock behaviour (such as falling in love at first sight, frequent sighing, an inability to sleep and thinking only of one's lady) and of literary expression, particularly those relating to feudal service, with the lover cast in the role of the faithful vassal who must perform a love-service for his lady. In particular, the literature of romance emphasised the obstacles to love's realisation, such as absence or marriage, and consequently presents love as suffering, as an ‘inquietude’ of heart. For instance, Marie de France told the story of Guigemar who falls in love with an (unnamed) lady already married to another lord and so suffers extreme pain and anguish, fearing that he will die of grief if she does not grant him her mercy: ‘love is an invisible wound within the body’.39 Such romantic love need not be mutual or consummated although it was more likely to be presented as reciprocal in the later, northern European romances, where it was seen as compatible with, or even desirable for, marriage, than it was in the lyrics of the early troubadours of courtly love of twelfth-century Languedoc.40

The patristic critics have argued that many of the works supposedly illustrative of ‘courtly love’ are in fact satires of a lecherous ‘idolatrous passion’ which was seen as destructive of chivalry rather than as the inspiration for it. Nevertheless, even Robertson has space for the concept of a ‘courteous love’ in which a knight is inspired to courtesy and bravery by love of his lady.41 For instance, in the romance Guy of Warwick (composed in Anglo-Norman c. 1232-42, translated into English c. 1300), Guy, the son of the Earl of Warwick's steward, falls in love with the inaccessible Felice, daughter of the earl. He grows sick and laments his fate, calling on death to end his suffering but eventually wins her love when his deeds of arms prove that he is the best knight in all the world.42 The conventions of such fin amour, or ‘fyn lovynge’ (LGW, F: 544), are to be found in the works of Chaucer himself, particularly his shorter poems and lyrics such as ‘A Complaint to his Lady’, where the despairing sleepless lover, ‘slayn with Loves fyry dart’, who values his lady above all earthly things, pledges that he will be her true and obedient servant and begs her to take pity on his suffering (CL: 1-7, 32, 36, 61, 91-3, 110-11, 118, 124-7).

Such conventions are also put to work in the Canterbury Tales themselves, most notably in the ‘Squire's Tale’ which describes the tercelet, the male falcon, who through his apparent humility, truth, years of love-service and outward observance of all ‘That sownen into gentilesse of love’, wins the love of the peregrine falcon (CT, 514-35). Similarly, in the ‘Franklin's Tale’, Arveragus, in order to win the love of Dorigen, performs ‘many a labour, many a greet emprise’, finally telling her of ‘his wo, his peyne and his distresse’ so that she, ‘for his worthynesses’, takes pity on him and agrees to marry him. In turn, Aurelius the squire, whose dancing and singing exceeds every other man's, falls in love with Dorigen, keeps his love to himself for two years and, though tormented and despairing, expresses his feelings only in the ‘layes, songes, compleintes, roundels [and] virelayes’ which he composes, before he too reveals his suffering to her (CT, V: 729-42, 925-59). Love as adulterous longing appears also in the ‘Miller's Tale’, where Absolon serenades Alison, his loved one, beneath her window (CT, I: 3352-63) and in the ‘Merchant's Tale’, where Damyan, the young squire, undergoes a now-familiar suffering because of his love for May, the wife of January, his master. He weeps, sighs and complains, burning in the flames of Venus's fire so that ‘he dyeth for desyr’ until he can win her ‘pitee’ and her ‘verray grace’ (CT, IV: 1774-82, 1875-84, 1940, 1995-7).

Yet courtly love is far from being celebrated in these tales. In the ‘Squire's Tale’, the tercelet, having finally won the heart of the falcon, betrays her, his love having been won by a kite, and leaves her alone to bemoan her fate (CT, V: 504-631). Similarly, in the ‘Franklin's Tale’, Aurelius's love poses a threat to the happiness of Dorigen's marriage to Arveragus and the narrative problem which has to be resolved is how Dorigen can avoid giving herself to Aurelius, as her promise obliges her to do once Aurelius appears to have removed the rocks upon which she feared the returning Arveragus would be shipwrecked (CT, V: 993-7). In the cynical ‘Merchant's Tale‘, romantic love is as much of a self-delusion as any other idealisation of human relationships.43 Finally, in the satirical ‘Miller's Tale’, courtly love is simply held up as a piece of ridiculous affectation. Lewis's four criteria of courtly love (Humility, Courtesy, Adultery and the Religion of Love) nowhere appear more clearly in the Canterbury Tales than when they are parodied in the figure of Absolon, the parish clerk, who cannot sleep for love, sings like a nightingale as all lovers should, and swears to be his loved one's page, wooing her with the words of the Song of Songs (CT, I: 3371-77, 3695-707).

Romantic love appears as an ideal within the tales only in the context of marriage, as at the end of the ‘Knight's Tale’ when Emily loves Palamon so tenderly and Palamon serves her ‘so gentilly’ that there was never a cross word between them. Yet, as we have seen …, marriage here is only permitted after Palamon has been made to wait for the ‘lengthe of certeyn yeres’ and has overcome the irrational power of his love for Emily. Before this, the love which strikes Palamon and Arcite on their first sight of Emily is presented as a destructive force, one which exceeds the bounds of reason and divides the two beloved kinsmen and friends from one another with fatal results, depriving them of their rationality and turning the whole world into their prison, even when they escape their captivity. Such love is the emotion whose suffering and disastrous effects are depicted on the walls of the Temple of Venus at which Palamon worships, where can be seen the tears and lamentations of lovers and the fate of those such as Solomon and Hercules who were trapped and destroyed by the snares of love (CT, I: 1077-9, 1918-54, 2967, 3101-6). In all of these cases, courtly love is presented by Chaucer either as a form of dangerous and ineffective posturing when indulged in by noble youths or as an affectation and a sham when adopted by their inferiors.44

If the misogynist tradition within medieval thought consigned woman to the pit, the conventions of courtly love, like those of the cult of the Virgin Mary, have often been seen as elevating woman to the pedestal but, in the process, as rendering women passive, restricting them to the role of beautiful objects whose function is to inspire action in others. When women do take on an active role in love, it is often that of the predatory temptress, like the lovely lady who attempts to seduce Sir Gawain in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.45 In those cases when we are presented with events from the woman's viewpoint, it is frequently when the woman, like the falcon in the ‘Squire's Tale’, is the victim of male duplicity, bewailing the treachery of the lover who deserts her once she has given him her heart. Chaucer's Legend of Good Women is a collection of such tales of ‘goode wymmen, maydenes and wyves’, such as Dido and Ariadne, ‘that weren trewe in lovyng al hire lyves’, and of the false men, such as Aeneas and Theseus, who betrayed them (LGW, F: 484-5, 1254-89, 2170-92).

More recently, literary critics have challenged the view that romances simply confine women to the pedestal as a passive idol who is there to be worshipped. Instead, they argue that medieval French romances do allow the interrogation of the power dynamic of male-female relations, offering forceful alternative responses and resistance to traditional notions of femininity. Whilst female characters in the romance are often ‘displaced from the centre of narrative action’, losing their autonomy and agency, romances could also offer the potential for a more active critical response and a questioning of the power relations between men and women.46 Thus, despite the characteristic presentation of the male lover as the unworthy vassal performing his love-service to win his reward from his lady, romantic love could also be expressed in the language of mutual love, service and obedience: ‘love is not honourable unless it is based on equality’, as King Equitan's lady tells him in Marie de France's Breton lai.47

In Chaucer's ‘Franklin's Tale’, itself introduced by its narrator as a Breton lai (although no direct Breton source is known for this tale),48 Arveragus, in order ‘to lede the moore in blisse hir lyves’, swears to his wife Dorigen that he will never ‘take no maistrie / Agayn her wyl’ but instead will obey and follow her in all things whilst, in return, she promises to be his ‘humble trewe wyf’. When the Franklin asks ‘Who koude telle, but he hadde wedded be, / The joye, the ese, and the prosperitee / That is bitwixe an housbounde and his wyf?’, we are meant to take his praise of marital bliss seriously rather than reading it as irony, as we do in the case of the Merchant's almost identical eulogy of married life. As the Franklin says, repeating the words of the Roman de la Rose, ‘When maistrie comth, the God of Love anon / Betheth his wynges and farewel, he is gon’. Both men and women by their natures ‘desiren libertee, / And nat to been constreyned as a thral’ so that those who want their love to endure, ‘everych other moot obeye’ (CT, IV: 1338-41; V: 709-15, 744-806).49 By these means, we are told, Arveragus achieves a blissful life, although, as Crane argues, the actual plot of the ‘Franklin's Tale’ tends to undermine this impression: equality and mutuality are more successful when they bring events to a close, as they do in the ‘Wife of Bath's Tale’, rather than when, as here, they function as a premise of the narrative.50 Even the Goodman of Paris, whose book of guidance (c. 1395) to his young wife constantly urges her to be unquestioningly obedient to his commands, says that in love husband and wife desire ‘to do pleasure and obedience unto each other … if they love each other, they care naught for obedience and reverence’.51 Courtly romances have often been seen by feminist critics as an ideological mystification of patriarchy which, through their idealisation of love and marriage, invite the female reader's complicity with traditional gender ideology. Nevertheless, such idealisations of male-female relations do provide a genuine contrast with the Nun's Priest's misogyny, the Parson's insistence on female subordination and the Merchant's misogamy. The Canterbury Tales thus provide us with an encyclopedia of medieval discourses about love and marriage and of medieval representations of women. But is it possible to equate any of its multiple views with those of Chaucer himself? It is to this issue that we now turn.


In attempting to establish Chaucer's own view of women and of marriage, the Wife of Bath, a figure whose opposition to clerical misogyny has caught the imagination of century after century of readers, must necessarily have a central role. Critics are, however, divided in their interpretations of the Wife into two main camps. On the one hand, many critics reject the idea that Chaucer's voice can be equated with the Wife's or that the reader is intended to sympathise with her views. For such critics, Chaucer is satirising the Wife by having her condemn herself out of her own mouth in her attempts to become a preacher and a scriptural exegete, thus substantiating all that the theologians had ever said against women. This interpretation is particularly favoured by the patristic critics who read the Wife's ‘Prologue’ as a warning of the dangers of misunderstanding texts by ignoring their spiritual meaning and reading them only for their carnal or literal sense.52 Those who adopt this view are often accused themselves of joining in the clerical castigation of women. Certainly, Robertson himself made the astonishing claim that if the Wife of Bath's carnal character still seems feminine to us today, this ‘is a tribute to the justness of the ideas which produced her’.53 Nevertheless, it is perfectly possible and legitimate for modern critics to argue that Chaucer intended us to interpret the Wife as a corroboration of misogynist attitudes even though they themselves may reject such attitudes.

On the other hand, many critics believe that, far from there being a gap between the voice of Chaucer the author and that of the Wife of Bath, it is ‘quite certain’ that the Wife's views are those of Chaucer himself. Critics who adopt this approach believe that we as readers are supposed to identify with the Wife of Bath's opinions, to agree with her shrewd attacks on clerical misogynists, and to accept her arguments for the male surrender of sovereignty within marriage as a means of establishing the relation of the sexes on a new basis of mutual accommodation. As Hansen says, there is now a ‘general consensus’ that the Wife of Bath is an ‘authentic female speaker’ (although Hansen herself rejects this view), one who illustrates Chaucer's ‘radical criticism of the anti-feminist tradition’. The Wife's portrait thus reveals Chaucer as open-minded and sympathetic to women in his questioning of the inevitability of the gender hierarchy, which he shows to be an unstable social construct.54 Even Evans and Johnson, who warn us that to celebrate the Wife as a modern feminist ‘simplifies both history and textuality’, accept that the Wife can be seen as a ‘point of resistance’ to the clerical anti-feminism and anti-matrimonialism which she ‘wittily debunks’. Similarly, for Patterson, the Wife's rhetoric offers not just delectation ‘but the higher pleasures of ethical understanding’. In offering a rhetoric that is ‘at once carnal and moral’, she ‘ameliorates the harsh polarisations of Augustinian theory’.55

Above all, it is the Wife's defence of women against clerical misogyny which—understandably—draws the approval of modern critics. In particular, critics have praised the ‘reflexivity’ of the Wife's discourse, i.e., its tendency to uncover the speaking subject of misogynist discourse, a figure whom that discourse, in seeking to pass itself off as an impersonal authority, tries to render invisible. Medieval misogyny was typically a ‘citational mode’ of discourse, one epitomised by Jankyn's anthology of antifeminist auctores, ‘whose rhetorical thrust is to displace its own source away from anything that might be construed as personal’, emphasising instead the sacred authorities which legitimate its hostility to women. The Wife, by contrast, shows us that such discourses are grounded in particular individuals; they are not abstract or eternal verities but rather the words of particular men with their own particular agendas and interests. She thus ‘desublimates a reified discourse’, exposing the motivations which lie behind it and subjectivising and subverting a supposedly objective patriarchal wisdom. In both her ‘Prologue’ and her Tale, it is claimed, she reveals and recovers ‘those things necessarily excluded by patriarchal discourse’.56 Unusually, her performance does not merely personify or illustrate the traditional clerical view of women's nature, rather ‘she has an attitude to it, just as it has an attitude to her’.57 In the Wife's case we do not just see the anti-feminist stereotype from the outside; here the stock type speaks back and defends herself. She is not the ignorant sinner awaiting enlightenment from her betters. On the contrary, she is familiar with the clerics' arguments and seeks to counter them, rejecting clerical denunciations of women as the work of embittered, impotent old men, personalising their supposedly impersonal authority and accusing them of the viciousness with which they tax wives (CT, III: 707-10). Her first-person ‘Prologue’ requires us to see events from her standpoint; for the viewpoint of a man who has been in the same position as one of the Wife of Bath's first three husbands we have to await the testimony of the ‘‘Merchant's Prologue’ and ‘Tale’. For a number of critics, ‘mimicry’ is central to the reflexive nature of the Wife's speech. This idea is taken from the work of Luce Irigaray who says that in mimicry, ‘one must assume the feminine role deliberately. Which means already to convert a form of subordination into an affirmation and thus to begin to thwart it.’ By an act of ‘playful repetition’ mimicry makes visible what was supposed to remain invisible. In this perspective, the Wife's actions are not simply a corroboration of the patriarchal discourse of misogyny. Rather, like other female characters in the tales, ‘she mimics the operations of patriarchal discourse’ and, in so doing, exposes those operations to view. By consciously acting out and reproducting the discourse of others, she offers a witty parody which undermines the authority of the original.58

There are two classic instances where the Wife's ‘Prologue’ explicitly exposes the subjective interests underlying the supposed objective truth of patriarchal discourse. The first is where she explains the fact that ‘no womman of no clerk is preysed’ on the grounds that misogynist clerks are frustrated old men: ‘The clerk, whan he is oold, and may nogt do / Of Venus werkes worth his olde sho, / Thanne sit he doun, and writ in his dotage / That wommen kan nat kepe hir mariage!’ (CT, III: 707-10). For those who sympathise with her argument, one which Chaucer may have taken from Le Fèvre's Livre de Leësce and which was to be employed by Christine de Pizan, the Wife is able to judge the anti-feminist tradition ‘so accurately as the outpourings of psychically crippled’ males.59 The second instance of the Wife's subjectivising of misogynist authority is in her allusion to the fable (which Chaucer perhaps knew from the work of Marie de France)60 in which a peasant shows a lion a picture of a peasant killing a lion, to which the lion replies ‘Who peyn-tede the leon, tel me who?’ In other words, why should we trust tales about women told by men: ‘By God, if wommen hadde writen stories, / As clerkes han withinne hire oratories, / They wolde han writen of men more wikkednesse / Than al the mark of Adam may redresse’ (CT, III: 693-6). The Wife thus demonstrates that ‘the truth of any picture often has more to do with the prejudices and predilections of the painter than with the “reality” of the subject’ and anticipates the modern feminist insistence that no criticism is value-free: we all speak from some position.61

Besides this general subjectivising of misogynist authority, many critics have been impressed by the Wife's mastery of ‘scole matere’ (CT, III: 1270-3), believing that the Wife takes on the misogynist expositors of the Bible and beats them at their own game. Such critics approve of the ‘good points’ in the Wife's case, as when she questions the clerical criticism of sex by pointing out that without sex there would be no virgins in the first place (CT, III: 71-2).62 Whilst Alisoun accepts the superiority of virginity over marriage, her use of the metaphor of the different vessels in a lord's household, some of which are of gold and some of wood (CT, III: 99-104), seems to show the equal serviceableness of both and to offer a convincing justification for her ‘cheerful renunciation of spiritual ambition’. Indeed, Mann argues that whilst there is no evidence that the Wife's first three husbands ever did make the accusations against her which she claims they came out with when they were drunk, ‘by the same token, there is no evidence that the Wife actually did the things that are alleged of women’.63 The experience of teaching the Wife of Bath also suggests that many modern readers are impressed by her views. After all, isn’t it ‘common sense’ that we should ‘increase and multiply’, as the Lord bade us (Genesis 1: 28), a text which the Wife says she can ‘wel understonde’ (CT, III: 28-9)? Why shouldn’t the Wife of Bath cite the wise King Solomon, who had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines, to support her case for multiple marriage (3 Kings 11: 3; CT, III: 35-43)? If the sixth ‘husband’ of the Samaritan woman whom Jesus met was not really her husband (John 4: 18), how many times was it lawful to marry? Does the fact that Jesus only attended one marriage, that at Cana, really mean that we can only marry once (CT, III: 10-13, 17-18)? In citing such texts for her own purposes, the Wife has been seen as simply doing what more orthodox Biblical exegetes did to their texts, pulverising and fragmenting them so as to impose their own predetermined meanings on them. In turning the scholastic method against itself, the Wife seems to confirm that, as Alanus de Insulis sagely observed: ‘Authority has a waxen nose; that is, it can be turned in either direction’. Thus, in so far as Chaucer was mocking the Wife's arguments, he was, ‘however discreetly’, mocking the official tradition from which she learned her methods of interpretation.64

This positive assessment of the Wife of Bath's achievement tends to be qualified by those who adopt it only by a New Historicist pessimism about the possibility of our ever entirely throwing off the thought-patterns of society's dominant ideological discourses. In contrast to those liberal or radical critical approaches which stress the power of art and literature to question or challenge existing social relations and dominant world-views, New Historicists have often argued that acts of social opposition tend to use the very tools they condemn and thus risk falling prey to the very practices they oppose. In its most extreme form, this approach can become a belief that social opposition merely confirms the original power structure of society or even, as in Orwell's 1984, that such opposition is one of that structure's delusive political effects.65 Chaucer's portrait of the Wife of Bath in the Canterbury Tales has certainly been read in this way. Aers, for instance, argues that Chaucer presents the Wife of Bath's rebellion against conventional controls and attitudes as ‘real’ while simultaneously showing how subordinate groups ‘may so internalise the assumptions and practices of their oppressors that not only daily strategies of survival but their very acts of rebellion may perpetuate the outlook against which they rebel’, thus producing ‘a significant conformity with the established values which they are opposing’. For instance, the Wife does not reject the economic attitude to marriage of her time, she simply seeks to turn it to her own advantage. Similarly, in depersonalising sex and separating it from ‘any constant and total human love’, she reproduces rather than undermines the orthodox ecclesiastical tradition. Defining herself against the image of women constructed by clerical anti-feminism, she becomes that discourse's own mirror-image. As Patterson puts it, try as she might to articulate feminist truths, Alisoun ‘remains confined within a prison house of masculine language’. She is dependent upon her voice for those she attacks. As a result, ‘her performance is a kind of transvestism’.66

Here, in contrast to those critics who argue that Chaucer intends us to sympathise with the Wife's reflexive exposure of clerical misogyny, I will argue that Chaucer himself satirises her performance. Even though Alisoun relies on familiar clerical and scholastic modes of argument, such as appealing to traditional authorities, citing stock exempla and glossing Biblical passages to her own advantage, much of the humour of the ‘Prologue’ depends upon the Wife's misuse and ‘gross misunderstandings’ (by medieval standards) of such modes of argument to support her own unorthodox and (again, by medieval standards) wilfully perverse conclusions.67 In the Wife of Bath, Chaucer could simply have personified all of the faults of which medieval authors accused women, thus showing the ‘truth’ of such accusations. Alternatively, he could have rejected such accusations by having the Wife refute them one by one. In practice, Chaucer does neither. Instead, for comic literary effect, he has the Wife substantiate the clerical accusations of garrulity, lust and disobedience in the very act of attempting to refute them. In other words, the Wife's defence of women is to be read ironically. We today often associate irony with radicalism, with uncertainty, scepticism and the subversion of established authority.68 In the Middle Ages, by contrast, much literary irony was grounded in certainty: it is because we are assumed to know the opinion which is morally correct (and to share the author's view about this) that it is possible to see the ‘ridiculousness’ of those voices which diverge from it, as when the Monk tells us that he does not give an oyster for the rules of his order (CT, I: 179-82). Similarly, an appreciation of the humour of the ‘Wife of Bath's Prologue’ depends upon a recognition that her arguments are intended to justify a position which is the opposite of the accepted medieval norm and that, by medieval standards, it is a rather inadequate refutation of that norm. Medieval misogyny associated woman with sophistry, with persuasion and deception by means of false logic. As the Lamentations of Matheolus says, ‘a woman can lead her man to false conclusions by means of five different types of sophism’, a sophistry which was also associated with Epicurean voluptuousness. The Wife of Bath, with her face that is ‘reed of hewe’ (CT, I: 458), is one of those ruddy-faced Epicureans denounced by Jerome who find scriptural justification for their own incontinence.69 It is this sophistic mode of argument which the Wife of Bath personifies, a comic sophistry which we tend to overlook because we ourselves agree with her conclusions. Whilst patristic critics are often accused of taking Chaucer too seriously in imposing a moral message on to his poetry, in the case of the Wife of Bath it is the patristic critics who can argue that it is those who take the Wife's arguments seriously who are missing a large part of the joke, a joke which, whether we like it or not, is made at the Wife's expense. To avoid inevitable misunderstandings, I cannot emphasise too strongly that I myself am not criticising the Wife's attempt to refute medieval misogyny; I am claiming that it was Chaucer who was satirising the Wife's reasoning and mode of speech. It is regrettable to have to go through the Wife of Bath's arguments in order to show why, in medieval terms, they are inadequate but the number of scholars who now believe that we are supposed to find the Wife's case convincing requires us to perform this task.

Why should we see the Wife's mode of argumentation in her ‘Prologue’ as being satirised and ridiculed by Chaucer? What are the textual cues and markers which indicate the presence of irony within the text? A good example of such irony is provided by the Wife's use of the metaphor of the need for vessels of both gold and silver and of wood and earth in a lord's household to justify why she will not be a virgin (i.e., a gold vessel): people can serve God in different ways; not all are called to be virgins (CT, III: 99-104). The Wife takes this metaphor from St Paul (2 Timothy 2: 20-1) whom the Glossa Ordinaria interpreted to mean that ‘Just as wooden and earthen vessels are of value for cleansing gold and silver vessels, in the same way, the evil are of profit for the improvement of the good’ since they provide the good with a lesson in what to avoid. With this gloss in mind, identifying one's self with the wooden vessels would seem to be a rather double-edged form of defence.70 Significantly, perhaps, the passage from St Paul to which she draws our attention continues: ‘Flee thou youthful desires and pursue justice, faith, charity and peace’. By contrast, the Wife, it will be remembered, regrets the passing of her youthful beauty and vigour (CT, III: 469-78). In particular, St Paul advises those who would be honoured vessels to ‘avoid foolish and unlearned questions’ which engender strife. The servant of the Lord should not wrangle but should rather be meek to all men (2 Timothy 2: 22-4). In setting herself up as a Biblical exegete, the Wife also draws our attention to biblical passages and glosses which undermine her own case and point out her own faults, condemning herself out of her own mouth even though she herself does not realise it.71

However, even if we ignore the Biblical glosses explaining the meaning of the different vessels in the lord's household and take this passage of scripture in its immediate sense, as St Jerome himself did, to mean simply that we can all serve God in different ways,72 many of the Wife's arguments against the clerics' exaltation of virginity are beside the point. The orthodox teaching of the Church was not that everyone had to strive for the perfection of virginity since, as the Wife reminds us, St Paul only counselled virginity but could not command it for all (1 Corinthians 7: 6-8; CT, III: 73-86). Jerome himself went out of his way to deny that in praising virginity he therefore condemned marriage, a position which he ascribed to the Manichean heresy. ‘All’ that Jerome argued was that although marriage was an honourable and lawful state, a gift of God, it was still inferior to virginity and that the heavenly reward for virginity would exceed that of widowhood, just as that for widowhood would exceed that for marriage: to praise virginity is not to disparage marriage. They represent not the polarity of bad versus good but the hierarchy of good versus better. Thus, although Jerome argued that by going only once to a marriage Christ taught that men and women ‘should only marry once’, he did not prohibit second, third or even eighth marriages. People ‘should’ only marry once in the same sense that they ‘should’ be virgins rather than married: it is the superior of the two states. In his letter to Ageruchia, Jerome did argue that those women who (like Alisoun) married five times identified themselves with harlots, rioting in every kind of excess. However, just as it is better to marry than to burn in lust, so it is better to remarry than to be guilty of fornication, even though the chastity of widowhood is a superior state. It is permitted for widows to remarry (1 Corinthians 7: 39) but all that is permitted is not necessarily expedient: that remarriage is not condemned does not mean that is positively commended.73

More importantly, what the Wife ignores is that if few can attain the most perfect state, all (according to medieval theologians) can attempt to attain perfection within their own state.74 A wife, for instance, can be saved ‘through childbearing; if she continue in faith, and love, and sanctification with sobriety’ (1 Timothy 2: 15); ‘the woman that feareth the lord, she shall be praised’ (Proverbs 31: 30). Yet leading a life of sobriety and living in the fear of the Lord is just what the Wife has not done. Mann says that there is no evidence that the Wife was ever guilty of the things of which her first three husbands supposedly accused her. In fact, the Wife herself confesses to faults at least as bad as the charges made against women which she puts into her husbands' mouths. She herself tells us that she has been her husbands' ‘whippe’; that, since they had given her control of their wealth, she did not need ‘to winne hir love, or doon hem reverence’; that she ‘chidde hem spitously’; that she could lie so well that she made them believe that black was white; that she deceived her husbands and conspired against them with others even when her husbands were innocent of what she accused them of; that she had the better of them ‘by sleighte, by force’ and by ‘continueel murmur or grucching’; that she refused to have sex with them until they gave her control of their property; that she was drunken and lecherous; that she could not keep her husbands' secrets; and that she lied to Jankyn in order to win his love while her fourth husband was still alive (CT, III: 175, 204-6, 223, 228-32, 382-3, 405-6, 419, 464, 531-42, 582). It was open to a wife such as Prudence, the wise wife in the ‘Tale of Melibee’, to reject misogynist dinunciations of woman's evil: ‘by youre leve, that am nat I’ (CT, VII: 1087; …). Such a rejection of clerical criticism of women was, in medieval terms, less convincing when it came from the mouth of a woman who has already pleaded guilty to the clerical charges made against her sex. Not aspiring to the pedestal of virginity did not, for medieval writers, justify wallowing in the pit of self-confessed sin.

The Wife of Bath's sophistry can be seen in the use she makes of many of the other Biblical texts to which she alludes. For instance, she quotes St Paul who ‘bade our housbondes for to love us weel. / Al this sentence me liketh every deel’ (CT, III: 161-2). In fact, what St Paul actually says in these passages is that whilst each man should love his wife as Christ does the Church, so, just as Christ is the head of the Church, the husband ‘is the head of the wife’ and she should submit herself to him as to the Lord, as a child should to its parent, or as a servant to his master (Ephesians 5: 22-33; Colossians 3: 18-22). The Wife is on slighter safer ground when, following St Paul, she refers to her husband as her ‘dettour’ and her ‘thrall’ (CT, III: 129-30, 153-60), since Paul said that, in marriage, husband and wife should render their marital ‘debt’ to each other, so that each had power over the other's body (1 Corinthians 7: 3-4), a text to which the Wife refers eight times.75 However, in refusing to have sex with her husbands until they submit to her (CT, III: 409-11), she is happy to ignore St Paul's teaching that if the wife has power over her husband's body then she ‘hath not power over her own body, but the husband’. Furthermore, even though Paul wrote that the husband ‘hath not power over his own body’, he still said ‘Let women be subject to their husbands’ (Ephesians 5: 22). This remained the standard argument of theologians such as Peter Lombard and Jacques de Vitry who argued that ‘however much a married couple is equal as regards the carnal debt, in other things the husband is his wife's head, to rule her, correct her (if she strays) and restrain her (so she does not fall headlong)’, a teaching which was to be repeated by Chaucer's Parson. …76

What of the Wife's argument that without sex there would be no virgins in the first place and that God made the sexual organs to be used for sexual purposes (CT, III: 71-2, 115-28)? Powerful though this argument is to the modern reader, Jerome had anticipated it a thousand years previously when Jovinian, someone with all the status for a late medieval audience that a flat-earther has for a modern one, had used it to bolster his claim that marriage was not inferior to virginity. As Jerome said, the fact that we had sexual organs did not compel us to use them, otherwise virginity would not have a superiority over marriage, a superiority which the Wife of Bath herself accepts (CT, III: 105). Should Christ have made use of his sexual organs, simply because God had given them to him, rather than remaining a virgin? We will still possess our sexual organs after the resurrection of the body at the Last Judgement but will we be then required to use them? Jerome thus argued that if marriage replenishes the earth then ‘virginity fills Paradise’. Besides, he added, urging people to replenish the earth was not really a priority in an age when lust was raging and rampant.77

Nor is the Wife's argument in favour of multiple marriages enhanced by her appeal to King Solomon's seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines since, according to the Old Testament, these women, who came from foreign nations forbidden to the Jews, turned away his heart to the idolatrous worship of strange gods, a sin for which God promised to divide and rend his kingdom out of the hand of his son (Exodus 34: 16; 3 Kings 11: 1-12). For Jerome, in Adversus Jovinianum, Solomon's experience meant that ‘no one can know better than he, who suffered through them, what a wife or woman is’.78 Solomon's parables, which claim that ‘it is better to dwell in the wilderness than with a quarrelsome and passionate woman’ (Proverbs 21: 19) and that ‘it is better to sit in the corner of the housetop than with a brawling woman’ (Proverbs 25: 24) are thus included in Jankyn's compliation of misogynist texts (CT, III: 679). Their description of the woman in ‘harlot's attire … talkative and wandering. Not able to be quiet, not able to abide still at home’ (Proverbs 7: 10-11) may have a particular relevance for the portrait of the Wife of Bath. Solomon himself was a stock figure, along with Samson and David, cited for century after century as a demonstration that even the best of men could be brought low by a woman. As Jerome said, if Solomon is to be cited as evidence that it is acceptable to have many wives, is he also to be taken as a proof that it is fine to have three hundred concubines?79

What of the Wife's claim that she can ‘wel understonde’ the Lord's commandment that we should ‘increase and multiply’ (Genesis 1: 28; CT, III: 28-9)? Jerome's response to this argument was that under the Old Law of the Old Testament, humanity was enjoined to go forth and multiply and that even multiple marriages were then permitted, but that now another command applied to the people of an age whose duty was to act as though the end of the world were imminent: as Abraham, with his three wives, once ‘pleased God in wedlock, so virgins now please him in perpetual virginity’. In a similar vein, the author of Dives and Pauper argued that the command to go forth and multiply no longer applied once humanity had propagated itself and that husbands and wives were now free to choose, by mutual consent, to be chaste.80 Furthermore, whilst the Lord's command to the beasts to multiply (Genesis 1: 22) was interpreted literally, his instruction to humanity to multiply was traditionally also given a spiritual interpretation. Tropologically, it meant that we should multiply our virtues; allegorically, it meant that we should multiply the congregation of the faithful in the Church.81 The Wife's interpretation, however, is restricted to the literal sense, to the letter of the Old Law, although she interprets even this sense to her own advantage by using it as a justification for her own lust and wandering by the way.

In her failure to understand the spiritual meaning of this passage and her twisting of the literal meaning to justify her own sin, the patristic critics see the Wife as ‘dominated by the senses or the flesh rather than by the understanding or the spirit, by oldness rather than by newness. In short, the Wife of Bath is a literary personification of rampant femininity or carnality and her exegesis, in consequence, is rigorously carnal and literal.’ Femininity here should be seen as ‘a philosophical rather than a psychological concept’. As St Ambrose said, ‘She is “woman” to the extent that she does not believe, because a woman who believes hastens “unto the perfect manhood, unto the measure of the age of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians, 4: 13), lacking then her temporal name, her bodily sex, the wantonness of youth, the garrulity of old age’. The feminine is associated here, as it is in the ‘Parson's Tale’ …, with the flesh and with the transitory, the masculine with the reason which grasps the eternal and the spiritual.82 As St Paul said, ‘the flesh lusteth against the spirit: and the spirit against the flesh’. He went on to identify the works of the flesh as ‘fornication, uncleanness, immodesty, luxury, idolatry, witchcrafts, enmities, contentions, emulations, wraths, quarrels, dissensions, sects [“sectae”: significantly, the Clerk refers to the Wife of Bath and “al hire secte” (CT, IV: 1170)], envies, murders, drunkenness, revelings and such like’. Opposed to these are the works of the spirit: charity, joy, peace, patience, benignity, goodness, forbearance, mildness, faith, modesty and chastity (Galatians 5: 16-23). If it is possible for a woman to aspire to the ‘perfect manhood’ of Christ, it is equally possible for a man to be characterised by the supposedly ‘feminine’ trait of carnality. Thus the (male) summoner of the ‘Friar's Tale’ is characterised by Robertson as ‘hopelessly “carnal”’ in his blindness to the spiritual aspects of reality whilst Fleming sees the Wife's carnality as relatively moderate when compared to that of the (male) Pardoner.83

The equation between the Wife and the flesh is also suggested by the parallels hinted at in the ‘General Prologue’ and the ‘Prologue’ to her tale between the Wife and the Samaritan woman whom Jesus met ‘biside a welle’ at Sychar (John 4: 5-30). The Wife herself invokes the example of the Samaritan woman and, like her, Alisoun has been married five times (CT, III: 6, 15-25). That the Wife herself comes from ‘biside Bathe’ (CT, I: 445) may thus be a joking allusion to the name ‘Bath and Wells’, one of the two double sees in medieval England, although the humour of her name also depends upon the common classical and medieval association of bath-houses with prostitution and illicit sex: the bath-house as temple of Venus.84 In John's gospel, Jesus arrives at the well ‘about the sixth hour’ and asks the Samaritan woman for water. When she refuses on the grounds that he is a Jew, Jesus replies that he could give her ‘living water’: he who drinks water of the well will be thirsty again but he that drinks of Jesus's living water will never thirst again since it is the water of life everlasting. When Jesus tells her to call her husband, she says ‘I have no husband’, to which Jesus replies ‘Thou hast said well … For thou hast had five husbands and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband. This thou hast said truly.’ When the woman answers, ‘Sir, I perceive thou art a prophet’, Jesus reveals to her that he is the Messiah, and she then brings many others to hear his teachings. For the Glossa Ordinaria, the water of the well represents sensual delight which offers no permanent satisfaction and is thus opposed to the grace which Christ's living water provides. Jesus arrives at the sixth hour, i.e., allegorically, in the sixth age of human history. According to Augustine, just as the world was created in six days and there are six phases in the life of man (infancy, boyhood, adolescence, youth, maturity and old age), so world history is divided into six ages. The first five (from Adam, from Noah, from Abraham, from David, and from the Babylonian captivity) represent the Old Law (see above, pp. 80-1). The sixth age, from the coming of Jesus until the end of the world, sees the decline of the exterior man but the possibility of his inner renewal under the promise of the New Law which offers the eternal rest of the sabbath.85 Allegorically, the wife's five husbands represent the five ages of the Old Law. When Jesus says ‘he whom thou now hast is not thy husband’, this means that she should turn from the letter of the Old Law to join herself with the spirit of the New Law. Tropologically, her five husbands represent her five senses which have formerly ruled her but which should now be replaced with spiritual understanding. The equation of the Wife with the Samaritan woman thus associates her once more with the Old Law, with the flesh and with literal understanding.86

As we have seen, those who believe that we are supposed to accept the Wife of Bath's arguments often claim that, in citing Biblical texts for her own purposes, the Wife is simply turning the traditional methods of scholastic exegesis against itself and twisting the waxen nose of authority to her own advantage. Certainly, as Dives and Pauper shows, Biblical citations could be used for contradictory purposes, proving either that ‘Solomon said much about the evil of woman’ or, alternatively, that ‘Solomon said much about the good of women’.87 Nevertheless, despite the flexibility of scriptural authority, the Wife of Bath can still be seen as an unreliable exegete, one who is unable, for instance, even to ascribe the Gospel reference to ‘barley-breed’ to the correct evangelist (CT, III: 145; John 6: 9; compare with Mark 6: 38), just as later she mistakenly refers to Sulpicius Gallus as ‘Symplicius Gallus’ (CT, III: 643). Indeed, when confronted with Jesus's words to the Samaritan woman, all the Wife can retort is ‘What that he mente therby, I kan nat seyn’—thus inviting us to consider what he did mean (or, more significantly, what Biblical exegetes said he meant). Similarly, when faced with St Paul's command that women should adopt ‘decent apparel: adorning themselves with modesty and sobriety, not with plaited hair or gold or pearls or costly attire’ (1 Timothy 2: 9), she simply says that for this text ‘I wol nat wirche as muchel as a gnat’ (CT, III: 20, 327-47). Again, it may be significant that St Paul's text continues: ‘Let the woman learn in silence, with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to use authority over man; but to be in silence’ (1 Timothy 2: 11-12). In short, the Wife of Bath's arguments do not so much twist the waxen nose of authority one way as pull it off altogether by using it to support an opinion of ‘wilful heterodoxy’. Jerome could almost have been describing Alisoun in his letter urging the pious widow Ageruchia not to remarry but implicitly addressing his words, as he puts it, to those who are ‘idle, inquisitive and given to gossip. They wander from house to house … Of the scriptures they know nothing except the texts which favour second marriages but they love to quote the example of others to justify their own self-indulgence.’88

Does the Wife's confession of the faults supposedly typical of her sex (‘kan ther no man / Swere and lyen as a womman kan’ etc. (CT, III: 237-8) actually constitute a subversive mimicking of patriarchal discourse rather than a humorous confirmation of it? Undoubtedly, the Wife does show an amusing ability to mimic the stock misogynist accusations against women, most notably in those passages where she puts such accusations into the mouths of her first three husbands. As Leicester says, she seems to construct her life-story from the discourses about women contained in Jankyn's book of wicked wives.89 Nevertheless, in general, the Wife seems to lack the ironic distance and deliberation which would make mimicry subversive of misogynist notions of feminine nature. The view of femininity and of feminine language which she embodies seems best expressed by the digression in the Wife's tale where she tells an adapted version of the story of King Midas. In Ovid's original, it is the king's barber who cannot keep the secret of Midas's ass-like ears. In the Wife's version, it is the king's wife who swears that she will never reveal his secret but who thinks that she will die if she has to keep it to herself: ‘Hir thoughte it swal so soore about hire herte / That nedely som word hire moste asterte’. She runs to a marsh where she burbles the secret into the water, only for the whispering reeds to betray it to all (CT, III: 945-82).90 Similarly, in her ‘Prologue’ the Wife tells us that she could not have kept one of her husband's secrets from her ‘gossib’, even if it was a thing which would have cost him his life (CT, III: 530-42). Rather than ironically mimicking notions of femininity from the outside, the Wife seems helpless in the face of the compulsion to act, and above all to speak, in line with the demands of her inner nature.

Should we see the Wife's arguments in favour of female sovereignty as really being an argument for the renunciation by men of their supremacy within marriage which is the precondition of a new and more equal relationship between the sexes? Certainly, the Wife tells us that once her fifth husband surrendered ‘the governance of hous and lond, / And of his tonge, and of his hond also’, she was then ‘to hym as kynde / As any wyf from Denmark unto Ynde, / And also trewe, and so was he to me’. Her tale also ends with the knight surrendering ‘maistrie’ to the old hag he has been forced to marry, putting himself in her ‘wise governance’ whilst she then swears to be ‘good and trewe / As evere was wyf’, obeying him in all things so that the two of them lived ‘in parfit joye’ (CT, III: 811-25, 1230-56). The reader might at this point ask, in the Wife's own words, ‘Yes, but who painted the lion?’ After all, one of the Wife's favourite themes in her ‘Prologue’ is ‘her skill at manipulating others with false speech’. Certainly, the Wife's picture of the marital bliss which results from female sovereignty tends to be undermined by her closing prayer at the end of her Tale for Christ to send women ‘Housbondes meeke, yonge, and fresh abedde’ and to shorten the lives of those husbands ‘that noght wel be governed by hir wyves’ and for God to send a pestilence on those husbands who are miserly (CT, III: 1258-64). That the Wife was intended to depict the ‘sorwe and wo’ characteristic of the thraldom of marriage would certainly seem to be implied by Chaucer's ‘Lenvoy de Chaucer a Bukton’ where Chaucer prays his addressee to read the Wife of Bath if he would know of the bondage of wedlock (LB: 5, 20, 29-32).91

Thus, in the figure of the Wife of Bath, Chaucer did not just personify the faults ascribed to women by contemporary preachers but neither did he simply negate them by having her refute such accusations. Instead, for satirical literary purposes, he negated this negation by having her personify such faults in the very act of refuting them, producing a defence of women which was intended to be read ironically so as implicitly to undermine the very position it explicitly expounds. Explaining Chaucer's humour at length, as I have done here, inevitably tends to ruin Chaucer's joke, but perhaps this is preferable to not getting the joke in the first place. In other words, for all the Wife's explicit desire to defend women, the controlling viewpoint of her ‘Prologue’ remains ‘unmistakably anti-feminist’.92 This is not because, as the New Historicists argue, the Wife is genuinely struggling but failing to express feminist truths, but rather because she herself is an embodiment of the anti-feminist ‘truths’ of medieval culture. In this perspective the ‘Wife of Bath's Prologue’ is not a failed attempt to break out of the prison-house of masculine language—it is another brick in the prison wall. In offering a defence of women which was actually meant to be read ironically, Chaucer may have been influenced by Jehan Le Fèvre's Livre de Leësce which, though seemingly a reply to the accusations made against women in the Lamentations of Matheolus (which Jehan himself had translated into French) may actually have been intended as a mock-defence, as when it argues that Solomon's sensual delight in his wives and concubines at least helped to propagate the species and meant that he eschewed homosexuality. Whether the Livre de Leësce was originally intended to be read ironically is unclear, although it does seem that it was received in this way in the later Middle Ages.93 Similarly, it has been argued that Hoccleve's translation and reception of Christine de Pizan's Epistre au Dieu d’Amours undermined the sense of Christine's pro-feminist original, allowing him to ‘laugh at women whilst ostensibly defending them’.94

If we read the ‘Wife of Bath's Prologue’ as a fabliau, as the story of a series of tricks played by a clever wife to gain mastery over her husbands, we will suspend our moral judgement and simply enjoy the humour and comic frankness of Alisoun's speech. Yet, her story is more than a fabliau, much though it owes to the conventions of that genre. As the Pardoner says, the Wife speaks to us as a ‘preacher’ who seeks to persuade us of a particular viewpoint (CT, III: 165). The Wife invites us to judge her arguments and, in so doing, draws our attention to a whole series of Biblical texts which, even if we do not accept the patristic interpretation of her as the carnal reader, undermine her own arguments and suggest an alternative standard by which to judge the faults to which she herself so readily admits. Reading her words in the light of such Biblical passages is not to impose some arcane sense on to Chaucer's text nor does it transform the critic into a cryptographer with access to some hidden level of connotation. On the contrary, the manuscript versions of her ‘Prologue’ are amongst the most heavily annotated sections of the Canterbury Tales with copious references to Chaucer's sources in the scriptures and in Jerome.95 In short, the ‘Wife of Bath's Prologue’ is not, by medieval standards at least, a very convincing defence of women but rather has the effect of exonerating the anti-feminist position.96 For Chaucer's critique of anti-feminism, we have to turn elsewhere in the Canterbury Tales.


Despite the widespread currency in the Middle Ages of the misogynist views which inform Chaucer's portrait of the Wife of Bath, it would be wrong to see the social identity of late medieval women as having been constituted only through the medium of misogynist discourse or to expect women's actual social position to have been be congruent with women's literary representation.97 It is undoubtedly true that the women of late medieval England experienced a systematic social inferiority to men in terms of their wealth, status and power, of their inheritance and property rights, and in their access to formal education, political power, clerical office, a structured inferiority which justifies the description of late medieval England as a patriarchal society. Nevertheless, despite such inferiority, women's real social position was far superior to that which we might have predicted from a reading of the texts produced by clerical misogynists. As Eileen Power once said, ‘The position of women is one thing in theory, another in legal position, yet another in everyday life’.98 In the everyday life of late medieval England, it was the assumption that woman was both man's inferior and his companion, his fellow and his help-meet, rather than the ritual misogynist denunciation of woman as the snare of the Devil or her elevation into an ideal to be worshipped, which formed the basis of the reality of women's lives. There was thus a marked disparity between the claims of much medieval gender ideology on the one hand and the actual social practice of the time on the other, a gap between discourse and reality which usually worked to women's benefit. A classic instance of this divergence of theory and practice is that between the view expressed by Sir John Fortescue (c. 1390-1476), that women, with their inferior reason, were incapable of exercising the powers of concentration needed for business and the actual reality of medieval urban life in which women could function as entrepreneurs in their own right, renting shops and houses from which they ran their own businesses, trading on their own accord, and employing servants and apprentices, a role which was even given legal recognition in some towns where married women were allowed to sue and be sued as though they were single (‘femmes soles’). Misogynists may have portrayed woman as an irrational creature who should respect her husband as her lord but a noblewoman such as Isabel, wife of Lord Berkeley, could write to her husband about the legal business which she was conducting on his behalf in London: ‘treat not without me, and then all things shall be well’. Given the central role of the household in economic production, politics and piety, medieval women enjoyed the potential for a degree of economic power, political influence and personal status (albeit, it should be emphasised, one which was always inferior to that accorded to the men of their own class) which ill accords with more modern notions of the ‘housewife’ who inhabits a private realm divorced from public life.99

This social reality was addressed by a strand of medieval thought which was characterised neither by the stentorian hyperbole of contemporary misogyny nor by the elevation of woman to the status of a passive goddess but instead recognised that women could achieve a certain degree of status, responsibility and respect in their own domain. In such thought, women occupied neither the pit nor the pedestal but were assigned—or were simply assumed to hold—the position of respected inferior. Wives, it was argued, should be ‘subject to their husbands’ but, in return, husbands should ‘give honour to the female as to the weaker vessel’ (1 Peter 3: 1-7). As Dives and Pauper puts it, Eve was created by God from Adam's rib in order that he might have a help-meet (Genesis 2: 22-4) and woman was created as man's ‘companion in love, helper in difficulty and closest comfort in distress’. Even though ‘woman was made subject to man’ because of Eve's sin and ‘should be ruled by her husband and be in awe of him and serve him’, the husband should ‘respect and esteem his wife in that they are both one flesh and blood’. Thus, even though Dives and Pauper claimed that ‘there are more wicked men than women’, argued that the more malicious sins were more typically committed by men than by women and criticised those men who irrationally defamed the female sex in general for the faults of a few, its author continued to see male superiority as inevitable. Although Eve was made from Adam's rib as a symbol that she should be his companion whom he esteemed and respected, the woman should still ‘love man as her origin’ and ‘respect man as her perfection, her principal who preceded her in the order of perfection’. In this perspective, woman may be man's inferior but she is also his respected companion, not a serf or slave to be held in base subjection.100 Similarly, whilst misogamous writers might condemn marriage as a form of purgatory, others, such as Robert Mannyng, pointed out that marriage was a perfectly respectable institution: it was a sacrament which had been ordained by God in paradise and it was at a marriage (that at Cana) that Christ had performed his first miracle. As the Sarum Missal said, it was God who had consecrated the state of matrimony, which was a sacrament considered worthy enough to signify the union between Christ and the Church.101

It is this conventional view of woman as man's respected inferior within marriage which would seem to be the view which Chaucer himself puts forward in the two didactic prose works which appear in the Canterbury Tales. The first of these is the ‘Tale of Melibee’ told by Chaucer the pilgrim which is a translation from Reynaud de Louen's French version of Albertanus of Brescia's Liber Consolationis et Consilii (1246); the second is the ‘Parson's Tale’ which, as we have seen, enjoys an authoritative position at the end of the tales. … Against the misogamous tradition, the Parson repeats Robert Mannyng's defence of marriage as a sacrament, ‘so noble and so digne’, which had been ordained by God in paradise (unlike other human institutions such as the state and private property which were the consequence of the fall). Marriage had been legitimised by God, the ‘auctor of matrimoyne’, when he said ‘A man shall lete fader and mooder and taken hym to his wif, and they shullen be two in o flessh’ (Genesis 2: 24; Matthew 10: 7-9; Ephesians 5: 31). It was a state into which God, as Christ, had ‘hymself be born’ and which he had shown as blessed when he performed his first miracle at the marriage of Cana. For the Parson, sex between man and woman, which would otherwise be the deadly sin of lust, is changed through marriage into a mere venial sin. The sexual act is justified within marriage for three reasons: for the meritorious motive of producing children; so that husband and wife can render to each other ‘the dette of hire bodies’ to which St Paul refers, a motive which is also meritorious since it does not necessarily undermine the possibility of chastity within marriage; and as a means by which ‘to echewe leccherye and vileynye’, a motive which does involve venial sin, although such venial sin can scarcely be avoided in sexual pleasure. It is, however, wrong for husband and wife to indulge in sex ‘oonly for amorous love’, to experience the pleasure of ‘brennynge delit, they rekke nevere how ofte’. Despite January's claim in the ‘Merchant's Tale’ that ‘A manne may do no synne with his wyf’, sex as an end in itself turns the sexual act into a deadly sin, in effect into a form of adultery, even when it takes place between husband and wife. For a husband to believe that he does not sin with that ‘likerousnesse that he dooth with his wyf’, is as mistaken as believing that a man cannot be killed with his own knife. Against the all-consuming passion admired in romances of courtly love, the Parson urges that ‘Man sholde loven hys wyf by discrecioun, paciently and atemprely’, as though she were his sister, rather than setting her up as an idol ‘that he loveth biforn God’ (CT, IV: 1835-40; X: 841-2, 858-60, 881-2, 903-5, 915-20, 938-42).

Within marriage, the Parson, like the author of Dives and Pauper, takes for granted the subordination of the wife to the husband.102 Just as marriage figures the marriage of Christ to the Church of which he is the head, so ‘man is heved of womman; algate, by ordinaunce it sholde be so’ (Ephesians 5: 23-5). In other words, ‘a womman sholde be subget to hire housbonde’ (1 Peter 3: 1) so that she ‘hath noon auctoritee to swere ne to bere witnesse withoute leve of hir housbonde that is hire lord’. (This was, in fact, the case in medieval English law where, for instance, a married woman could not make a will without her husband's permission.) ‘She sholde eek serven hym in all honestee’ and ‘above alle worldly thyng she sholde loven hire housbonde, and to hym be trewe of hir body’ (CT, X: 921, 929-36). Neverthless, despite his assumption of woman's inferiority, the Parson also emphasises that she was made by God to be a ‘fealwe unto man’. Like the author of Dives and Pauper,103 the Parson argues that God did not make Eve out of Adam's head for that would have signified a claim to female mastery and, as daily experience showed, ‘ther as the womman hath the maistrie, she maketh to muche desray’. Yet neither had God made Eve out of Adam's foot, signifying that she should be his thrall: ‘for she ne sholde nat been holden to lowe; for she kan nat paciently suffre’. Unlike the Wife of Bath, the Parson, who assumes that wives should be obedient to their husbands, is not inclined to cite man's supposed superior reason and patience as a justification for wives to have their own way (CT, III: 436-42), but he does conclude that since God made Eve out of Adam's rib (Genesis 2: 21-3), this signified that ‘womman sholde be felawe unto man’ and that he should treat her with ‘suffraunce and reverence’. If a woman should love her husband with all her heart and be faithful to him, ‘so sholde an housbonde eek be to his wyf’. Since the wife's body is her husband's, so should her heart be, or else there is ‘no parfit mariage’ between them (CT, X: 924-30, 936-8). The Parson's presentation of woman as both the companion and the inferior of her husband was a patriarchal ideal but, as an ideal to aspire to, it was one which was rather closer to the everyday reality of women's lives than the vicious misogyny of many clerical texts.

Similar views of women and marriage are expressed in the ‘Tale of Melibee’ through the figure of Dame Prudence. In the ‘Nun's Priest's Tale’, as we have seen, the narrator, or at least Chauntecleer his surrogate, expresses the view that ‘Wommanes conseils been ful ofte colde’ (i.e., fatal) and that it was a woman's counsel that ‘made Adam fro Paradys to go’ (CT, VII: 3256-66). The ‘Tale of Melibee’ told by Chaucer the pilgrim makes exactly the opposite case by showing how Melibeus benefits from the advice of his wife, Prudence, after three of his enemies have assaulted Prudence and his daughter Sophie. In order to decide whether he should take revenge on his foes, Melibeus calls a ‘greet congregacion of folk’, a council which ignores the wise advice of those who urge caution and urges him on to vengeance (CT, VII: 1004, 1008, 1027, 1034-5, 1049). When his wife cautions him against hasty action, Melibeus gives five reasons why he intends to ignore her advice (CT, VII: 1053-62). Dame Prudence listens patiently to her husband, asks permission from him to speak and then, gracefully, refutes his points one by one (CT, VII: 1063-82, 1083-113). Whilst most of Chaucer's heroines, such as Custance, Prudence and Cecile, suffer for their virtue, Prudence instead teaches it to her husband.104

Firstly, Melibeus argues that people would hold him a fool if, by reason of her advice alone, he changed what had been affirmed by the advice of many. To this Prudence replies that it is no folly to change one's mind for the better once things appear differently from the way they had previously and that it is better to listen to the ‘fewe folk that been wise and ful of resoun’ rather than the ‘greet multitude’ amongst which ‘every man crieth and clatereth what that hym liketh. Soothly swich multitude is nat honest.’ Whereas for a modern audience the problem is knowing what is to count as wisdom in the first place, Dame Prudence identifies an a priori wisdom possessed by a favoured few, not the opinion of the many, as the basis of authority. As Aquinas put it, ‘it does not befit a wise man that he should be induced to act by someone else but that he should use his knowledge to induce others to act’.105

Secondly, Melibeus says that he will ignore her advice on the misogynist grounds that ‘alle wommen be wikke and noon good of hem alle’ and that, as Solomon said, in a thousand men he had found one good one, but among women ‘good womman foond I nevere’ (Ecclesiastes 7: 29). Prudence replies to this argument with classical wisdom and Biblical exempla. As Seneca said, he who would have wisdom should not be ashamed to learn ‘of lasse folk than hymself’. Far from all women being wicked, ‘ther hath been many a good womman’, including the Virgin Mary, to whom Christ himself was born, and Mary Magdalene, to whom, ‘for the grete bountee that is in wommen’, Christ first appeared following the Resurrection. Even if Solomon said that he had never found a good woman, many other men have done so. Besides, Solomon's words that he had only found one good man may simply have meant that ‘ther is no wight that hath soveryn bountee save God allone’ (as Prosperyna, queen of ‘Fayerye’, also argues in her defence of women in the ‘Merchant's Tale’ (CT, IV: 2287-90)) since ‘ther nys no creature so good that hym ne wanteth somwhat of the perfeccioun of God’ (PL, 113: 1124). By invoking wisdom and moral worth as the key issues in whether one should take someone's counsel, Prudence is therefore able to argue that it is honourable to be advised by lesser folk while simultaneously dismissing the views of the foolish multitude. If in the figure of the Wife of Bath, Chaucer parodies woman as the carnal exegete, in the case of Prudence he shows us a woman who can read allegorically in order to provide her husband with the discretion he lacks and to correct his literal-mindedness. The example of Prudence would thus seem to indicate that, unlike Hoccleve, Chaucer does not simply urge women to leave arguments about holy writ to ‘clerks grete’ and to ‘cackle’ about some other subject while getting on with their spinning.106

Thirdly, Melibee claims that to take Prudence's counsel would be to admit her ‘maistrie’ over him and ‘if the wyf have maistrie, she is contrarious to hir housbonde’. Here, Prudence argues that if men were only counselled by their superiors they would not so frequently receive the advice of others. Listening to the advice of one's inferiors is not to grant them mastery: one is not constrained by their advice but still has a free choice whether to act on it or not.

Fourthly, Melibeus claims that, if he worked by her advice, his counsel would never be secret ‘as the chattering of woman can hide nothing’. Prudence replies that such sayings apply only to those women ‘that been jangleresses and wikked’, of whom Solomon rightly said ‘it were bettre dwelle in desert than with a womman that is riotous’ (Proverbs 21: 19). However, if some other women are riotous, he should know that she herself is not ‘for ye han ful often assayed my grete silence and my grete pacience, and eek how wel that I kan hyde and hele thynges that men oghte secreely to hyde’. Like Christine de Pizan, who argued that to condemn all women for the faults of some was tantamount to labelling all of God's angels bad because of the evil of a few, Prudence asks Melibeus to judge her by individual worth rather than by her sex. Like the words of many of the other virtuous women of the Canterbury Tales, such as the Man of Law's Custance and the Second Nun's Cecilia, Prudence's speech is persuasive because she herself embodies the values, such as patience and forgiveness, of which she is attempting to convince her husband. Lacking any a priori power or status, Chaucer's women have to establish an authority for their speech by the persuasiveness of their morality and their deeds.107

Finally, Melibeus quotes Aristotle's saying that ‘through evil counsel, women conquer men’. Prudence, however, reinterprets this claim to mean that it is the man who is prevented from doing wicked deeds by the ‘reson and good conseil’ of his wife who is restrained or vanquished by her and that such a wife deserves praise, not blame, for doing so. Again, Prudence argues that all women should not be blamed for the faults of some, citing the Biblical examples of Rebecca, Judith, Abigail and Hester, along with many other good women, to show how often men have benefited from female counsel. Furthermore, God had made Eve to be Adam's help-meet: ‘if that wommen were nat goode, and hir conseils goode and profitable, / oure Lord God of hevene wolde nevere have wroghte hem, ne called hem help of man, but rather confusioun of man’—as indeed the Nun's Priest later labels them. Prudence concludes with a series of proverbial questions and answers: ‘What is better than gold? Jasper. What is better than jasper? Wisdom. What is better than wisdom? Woman. What is better than a good woman? Nothing.’ Whilst wicked women undoubtedly do exist, ‘manye wommen been goode and hir conseils goode and profitable’.

Melibeus is convinced by his wife's arguments and decides to be ruled by her counsel in all things. Prudence here represents an aspect of Melibeus's own intellect, that higher mental faculty ‘which disposes reason to issue good commands' and which teaches us how to live well and to distinguish good from evil. As Aquinas says, citing Aristotle, ‘a prudent man is a well-advised one’.108 Prudence counsels her husband against vengeance, urging him to be reconciled with his enemies and securing mercy for them once she has persuaded them to submit to her husband's judgement. Metaphorically, as the virtue of prudence, Melibeus grants her governance over him but, as a wife, Prudence accepts that she is her husband's inferior and that her wisdom and advice are there for the benefit of her ‘lord’ (CT, VII: 1081-3, 1278-81, 1285-6, 1426, 1495, 1674, 1713, 1717, 1724 1727, 1744, 1765-6, 1772, 1834, 1852, 1871-2, 3163-4).109

The examples of Dives and Pauper, the ‘Tale of Melibee’ and the ‘Parson's Tale’ would seem to indicate that even those medieval authors who were sympathetic towards women also took for granted their social inferiority and subservience to men; their works tended to be anti-misogynist rather than pro-equality. Significantly, even when Christine de Pizan sought to defend of women against misogynist slander in The Book of the City of Ladies by citing examples of women who were skilled rulers or learned in philosophy, who invented new arts and crafts and who were Christian teachers and martyrs, she still accepted that God had ‘ordained man and woman to serve Him in different offices', giving to each sex ‘a fitting and appropriate nature and inclination’. Women should, therefore, be assiduous ‘in those duties assigned to them to perform’, i.e., governing their households and in providing everything for them. At the end of her book, she still calls on married women not to ‘scorn being subject to your husbands’. Women should prove their worth by their individual moral conduct (being humble, modest in their dress etc.), making liars of the misogynists by showing forth their virtue and fleeing vice. Those women with good husbands should thank God for this boon, those with husbands who are not completely bad should seek to moderate the latter's vices (exactly as Dame Prudence does to Melibeus), whilst those who have cruel, mean and savage husbands who cannot be reformed should ‘strive to endure them’ so that they ‘will acquire great merit for their souls through the virtue of patience’.110 Both here and in her practical guidance to women in The Book of the Three Virtues, the sequel to The City of Ladies, Christine takes as given the constraints imposed on women in her contemporary society and so concentrates, in her defence of her sisters, on women's exercise of their intellectual qualities and practical skills as governors of their households. Above all, as in ‘The Tale of Melibee’, the necessity of replying to misogynist attacks on women's moral worth meant that the medieval defence of women became a justification of women's potential as moral agents with souls and free will, rather than a call for social equality.111 Significantly, it is ‘Worldly Prudence’ who teaches the wise princess how to order her life and to conduct herself honourably in The Book of the Three Virtues, prudence itself frequently being presented by medieval writers as one of the feminine virtues. Indeed, the dialogue of Melibeus and Prudence was actually included alongside Christine's The City of Ladies and her Book of the Three Virtues in a de luxe manuscript compiled at the Burgundian court c. 1450-82 whilst, at one time, the French translation of Albertanus of Brescia's work was even erroneously ascribed to Christine.112 In its rejection of misogyny, the Wife of Bath's ‘Prologue’ has sometimes been equated with Christine's defence of women; in fact, it is the discourse of Chaucer's Dame Prudence which is rather closer to the spirit of Christine's medieval feminist project.

As the ‘Tale of Melibee’ suggests, it was not that medieval writers did not have a good word to say about women or even that, as the Wife of Bath claims, they only praised women who were holy virgins. The important point is that, following the ‘valiant woman’ of Proverbs 10-31 and Ecclesiasticus 1-4, 16-24, the qualities of the ‘good woman’ in everyday life were defined in terms of how she could benefit her husband.113 As Bartholomaeus Anglicus put it, the husband should care and protect his wife and undertake all perils for her sake but, in return, the good wife (‘Ecclesia’) will be ‘busy and devout in God's service, meek and obedient to her husband’. ‘Such a wife is worthy of praise who studies to please her husband more with her good behaviour than with her curled hair, more with her virtue than with rich clothing.’ She should not be like the evil wife (‘Synagoga’) ‘who cries and quarrels, is drunk, lecherous, changeable, contrary, costly, inquisitive, envious, lazy, wearisome, wandering, bitter, suspicious and hateful’. ‘No man is happier than he who has a good wife. And no man is unhappier than he who has an evil wife.’ It was this view which was put forward in medieval courtesy books addressed to women such as that of The Goodman of Paris who taught his young wife that her main priorities should be the salvation of her soul and the comfort of her husband, followed by the good governance of her household in her role as its ‘sovereign mistress’ and, finally, by her own amusement.114 Chaucer's Parson agreed: wives should be obedient to their husbands and ‘setten hire entente to plesen hir housbondes' by loving them ‘aboven alle worldly thyng’ (CT, X: 929-36). Thus, whilst the ‘Tale of Melibee’ uses woman to personify man's higher faculties, the patience and the prudence which temper his masculine desire for violent revenge, and the ‘Parson's Tale’ interprets woman as the flesh which first succumbs to temptation before overcoming reason, both tales arrive at a similar conclusion about the ideal relationship between the sexes. Each casts woman as the companion and help-meet of her husband who, by her behaviour, can prove herself worthy of her husband's respect.


As we have seen, medieval views of women were frequently polarised between extremes of praise and condemnation, between the position of, as Chauntecleer put it, ‘hominis confusio’ and that of ‘mannes joye and al his blis’ (CT, VII: 3164-6). As John Gower said, the good woman is ‘one whose praise is above all things' whereas the bad woman is ‘a subtle snare for the destruction of men’ (VC, V: 6). Nevertheless, this straightforward opposition between invective and panegyric needs to be qualified in a number of respects. Firstly, we should not read such opinions of women too literally, since how women were presented in any specific text was determined by its particular rhetorical purposes. In the ‘Man of Law's Tale’, for instance, the narrator's purpose is to establish the evil nature of the Sultan's treacherous mother who murders Custance's Christian companions and sets Custance herself adrift in a rudderless ship. To achieve this goal he is quite happy to see her, like Eve, as an archetypal female instrument of the Devil while simultaneously describing her as a ‘feyned womman’, invoking the ideal image of woman as nurturing mother to criticise the Sultaness's treachery towards her own son. In a like manner, he first, refers to Donegild, Custance's Northumbrian mother-in-law, as ‘mannysh’ (i.e., unwomanly) in her evil, before going on to denounce her treachery as inhuman and diabolical (CT, II: 358-71, 781-4). Similarly, whilst the Man of Law blames Eve for the Fall because of his purposes, the Monk, whose generic purpose in his tale is to tell us the tragic tales of men of ‘heigh degree’ who fell into adversity, argues that it was Adam's own ‘mysgovernaunce’ which had led to his expulsion from Eden (CT, VII: 2012-14). In this mode of thought, an argument or exemplum exists for the sake of a conclusion which is already given, rather than the conclusion flowing from the argument or the illustrations which buttress it. As a result, according to his generic purposes, Chaucer was able to interpret the figure of Theseus in malo in the context of the Legend of Good Women where he features in a catalogue of masculine treachery (LGW, F: 2174), but in bono in the context of a chivalric epic such as the ‘Knight's Tale’ where he becomes the wise ruler. The meaning of a medieval image, including that of woman, can be understood only from its role in specific generic and rhetorical contexts.

Secondly, misogynist texts were not necessarily meant to be taken literally but rather exhibited the medieval love of adopting a stance for the purposes of debate and then taking it to its extreme, demonstrating learning and ingenuity with the support of any possible argument, evidence or authority, purposes to which the ‘citational mode’ of misogyny, with its reliance on traditional authorities, was particularly well suited.115 An instance of the extremes to which this literary game could lead is provided by the Lamentations of Matheolus in which Matheolus's desire to push his case to its ‘logical, if extreme conclusion’ at one point even leads him to argue the heretical case that it is impossible for a woman's soul to be saved and that, at the Last Judgement, when Adam is made whole by the return of the rib from which woman was made, ‘woman will be no more’.116

This point needs particularly to be borne in mind when medieval writers says that ‘Woman is this’ or ‘Woman or that’. Beneath such rhetorical exaggeration, what is frequently meant in such cases is ‘Some women are this’, or ‘Women can be that’, or ‘For the purposes of moral admonition it is useful to see woman as this’, or ‘Women can metaphorically be seen as that, which is the subject I am actually interested in’. A classic instance is the Liber Decem Capitulorum of Marbod of Rennes (d. 1123), which contains one of the most vituperative pieces of medieval misogyny in which we are told that ‘woman’ is a dire monster to be avoided, ‘woman’ is the greatest snare of the Devil, ‘woman’ is envious, capricious, irascible etc. etc. etc. Yet, in the very next chapter, this blanket condemnation of women's viciousness is replaced by the claim that virtue has not ‘often been found to be lesser in the inferior sex, nor has wrong-doing been found to be greater’, as is illustrated by the Virgin Mary and by Judas.117 Thus, even if we accept that Chaucer uses woman metaphorically to represent sophistry and carnality in the ‘Wife of Bath's Prologue’, we should also note that he uses women in other tales to personify each of the four cardinal virtues: the fortitude of Custance in the ‘Man of Law's Tale’, the eponymous virtue of Dame Prudence in the ‘Tale of Melibee’, the temperance of Virginia in the ‘Physician's Tale’, and the justice of Griselda, who renders to others what is their due, in the ‘Clerk's Tale’. Indeed, male writers of the Middle Ages seem to have had a particular preference for using femininity as a symbol of the virtues of the meek.118 But women who rejected such meekness were likely to be depicted as monstrous, as in the case of the Sultaness, or comic, as with the Wife of Bath: the theological opposition between the rebelliousness of Eve and the humility of the Virgin was reproduced in literary form.119 Thus, if Griselda and Prudence seem to be opposites to the modern reader, with Griselda's absolute submissiveness to Walter contrasting with Prudence's willingness to ‘maken semblant of wratthe’ in order to correct her husband (CT, VII: 1696-710), the two women are united in each personifying what, for medieval thought, was a particular virtue or attitude needed in life. If Prudence represents the mental faculty which prompts reason to good acts, then Griselda does not, in medieval terms, simply represent passive suffering but is rather a model of active co-operation with God's will, proving her faith by her works, like Abraham and Job, as we are urged to do in the epistle of St James which the Clerk recommends as the end of his tale (James 1: 2-4; 2: 14-26) (CT, IV: 1154-5).120 Thus the Goodman of Paris was able to cite both of these women as role-models whose example his wife should follow: Griselda for her humble obedience to her husband; Prudence for ‘wisely and humbly’ dissuading her husband from acting foolishly. In this perspective, the moral Dame Prudence is not so much the ‘follow up’ to the pro-feminist Alisoun of Bath as her exact opposite.121

The dominant medieval view of women, one that was often taken for granted rather than explicitly formulated, was that which saw woman as man's help-meet and companion, the mulier economica who exercised power within the household so long as it did not bring her into conflict with her husband's wishes.122 It is this role which we see in the ‘Shipman's Tale’ when the merchant of St Denis sets off for Bruges and beseeches his wife that in his absence she will ‘be to every wight buxom and make. / And for to kepe oure gode be curious, / And honestly governe wel oure hous. / Thou hast ynough, in every maner wise, / That to a thrifty houshold may suffise. / Thee lakketh noon array ne no vitaille; / Of silver in thy purs shaltow nat faille’ (CT, VII: 242-8). It would, therefore, be wrong to portray medieval views of women as universally or straight forwardly misogynist or to see the idealisation of women as the only medieval alternative to such misogyny. On the contrary, in the sphere of gender relations as in that of class inequalities, the underlying assumption of the dominant social theory of the day was that order and harmony depended upon stable social hierarchies and that through each person fulfilling his or her role, all would benefit, even the socially inferior. The scientific, religious and social philosophy of the Middle Ages justified sexual inequality by portraying women's inferiority as natural, inevitable, divinely sanctioned and socially beneficial. Whilst extreme views of woman as the inhabitant of the pit or the pedestal made for exciting literature and provided the preacher with dramatic moral examples, the role which woman was assumed to hold elsewhere in medieval thought, that of respected inferior and help-meet, which informed much actual medieval social practice lay at neither of these poles. It was this view, the one set out in the ‘Tale of Melibee’ and ‘Parson's Tale’, which, if we are to identify any of the multiplicity of opinions about women expressed in the Canterbury Tales with that of its author, would seem to be that of Chaucer himself. In the sense that he presented women as rational creatures with the potential to offer moral guidance to their husbands and who had a worthy respected part to play in society, it is possible to describe Chaucer as a ‘feminist’ writer, at least when his views are contrasted with the stentorian voice of medieval misogyny. It is simply that this ‘feminism’, one in which women are confined to the role of respected inferior, was of a kind which—understandably—is unlikely to appeal to modern feminists.


  1. Ferrante, 1975: 1-2; Richards, 1983: 4; Bloch, 1987: 1; Fiero et al., 1989: 5.

  2. Brewer, 1978: 86.

  3. Greene and Kahn, 1985a: 3; Crane, 1994: 4-5, 14.

  4. Delany, 1990: 143-50; Mann, 1991a: xi-xii, 186-94; Hansen, 1992: 56. In 1914, Hadow claimed that ‘it must be evident even to the most superficial observer, that Chaucer had an innate reverence for womanhood’ even though he was well aware that not all women ‘were angels’ (Hadow, 1914: 124-41, quotations from 124-5).

  5. Evans and Johnson, 1994b: 16.

  6. Bloch, 1987: 1.

  7. Radice, 1974: 70, 120-5, 130-1.

  8. Blamires, 1992: 224-8; Scattergood, 1975.

  9. Barnum, 1980: 66-71, 79-93.

  10. Hansen, 1992: 10-12; Pearsall, 1992: 138; Kittredge, 1911-12: 133-58; Neuse, 1991: 87.

  11. Hansen, 1992: 51; Walker, 1992: 167; Lawler, 1980: 58-64.

  12. Lawler, 1980: 55-8; Maclean, 1980: 57; Martin, 1990: 30; Crane, 1994: 97-8, 134.

  13. Bullough, 1973; Wood, 1981: 715-7; Cadden, 1993: 14-34.

  14. Bullough, 1973; Wood, 1981: 723-4; Rowland, 1981: 59; Blamires, 1992: 38-42, 46-7, 92-3, 261-2, 270; Barnum, 1980: 67-8; Cadden, 1993: 121, 192-3.

  15. Salu, 1990: 186; Blamires, 1992: 81, 92-3, 262, 265; Barnum, 1980: 66.

  16. Bullough, 1973; Blamires, 1992: 59-63; Robertson, 1969: 22-3, 70-4; Ferrante, 1975: 18-21.

  17. McDermott, 1989: 429-31

  18. Fremantle, 1892: 346-416.

  19. Colker, 1984: 163-5; Fiero et al., 1989: 120-47; Millett and Wogan-Browne, 1992: 6, 21-35; Swanson, 1989: 114-18, 125-6; Blamires, 1992: 106; Wilson and Makowski, 1990.

  20. Bowden, 1954: 214, 226-7; Fremantle, 1892: 383-4; Brown and Butcher, 1991: 22-7.

  21. Blamires, 1992: 177-97; Van Hamel, 1892; Thundy, 1979.

  22. Matthews, 1974; Dahlberg, 1983: 221-4; Blamires, 1992: 21-3.

  23. Radice, 1974: 70-4.

  24. Kolve, 1984: 246-7, CA, VIII: 2705-13; Van Hamel, 1905: 21, 26-9.

  25. Rigby, 1995: 245; Lawler, 1980: 58; Crane, 1994: 98.

  26. Blamires, 1992: 51-8; Karras, 1992; Owst, 1966: 375-404; Elliott, 1991.

  27. Salu, 1990: 33; Owst, 1966: 375-404; Miller, 1977: 403-6.

  28. Owst, 1966: 375-404; Patterson, 1983: 656-7.

  29. Davies, 1963: 221-2; MacCracken, 1934: 438-42; Mann, 1991a: 2.

  30. Miller, 1977: 387-90; see, however, Cooper, 1989: 244-5.

  31. Brown, 1974: 387-8.

  32. Davies, 1963: 103; Power, 1975: 31; 79; Roberts, 1985: 103-18; Warner, 1985: 73; Newlyn, 1989: 124; Blamires, 1992: 11-12; PPB, XVI: 68-72; Meech and Allen, 1940: 48-53; Ross, 1940: 246-9, 260, 318-19, 329, 332-3; Bennett, 1987: 54, 140.

  33. Blamires, 1992: 227-8.

  34. Meyer, 1877: 499-503; Meyer, 1886: 321; Power, 1975: 14.

  35. Ross, 1940: 319; Davies, 1963: 86-8, 210, 283; Salu, 1990, 33; Sisam, 1962: 167-8; Richards, 1983: 254-5; Millett and Wogan-Browne, 1992: xxii, 45, 79; Duffy, 1990; Wenzel, 1989: 81, 89; Anderson, 1980: 59-61; Karras, 1992; Shahar, 1992: 1-4, 115-16, 205, 252.

  36. Clasby, 1979: 225, 230; Martin, 1990: 19; Dinshaw, 1989: 108-9.

  37. Painter, 1964: 95, 143-7; Krueger, 1993: xi-xii, 1-3.

  38. Lewis, 1977: 2; Donaldson, 1977: 156; Calin, 1980: 34, 43.

  39. Patterson, 1987: 125; Burgess and Busby, 1986: 46-7.

  40. Painter, 1964: 112-14, 134-5; O’Donoghue, 1982: 5; Kane, 1982; Barron, 1990: 33; Duby, 1984: 224-5; McCash, 1990.

  41. Robertson, 1970: 260-4; Robertson, 1969: 454-7.

  42. Zupitza, 1883; Barron, 1989: 75-80.

  43. Cooper, 1989: 211.

  44. Patterson, 1987: 125; Mandel, 1985: 288.

  45. Barron, 1974: 115-27.

  46. Burns, 1993: 3-4, 241-2; Krueger, 1993: xiii, 10-11, 14, 247, 251.

  47. Burgess and Busby, 1986: 49, 58.

  48. See Rosenberg, 1980: 344; Cooper, 1989: 232-3.

  49. Dahlberg, 1983: 154-70.

  50. Crane, 1994: 109; Martin, 1990: 62.

  51. Power, 1928: 110, 145, 147-8.

  52. Cooper, 1990; Jordan, 1967: 216-26; Reid, 1970; Wilson, 1985: 249; Robertson, 1969: 317-31; Huppé, 1967: 107-29; Allen and Gallacher, 1970; Olson, 1986: 235-47.

  53. Robertson, 1969: 331.

  54. Oberembt, 1976; Spisak, 1980: 152; Van, 1994: 180, 191; Knapp, 1989: 50-1; Hansen, 1992: 11, 13, 27, 40, 42.

  55. Evans and Johnson, 1994b: 1, 2, 8, 15; Patterson, 1991: 316, emphasis added.

  56. Bloch, 1987: 6; Aers, 1980: 82-8; Gottfried, 1985: 206-7; Dinshaw, 1989: 126; Martin, 1990: 212-16; Hamel, 1979: 138; Hanna, 1989.

  57. Mann, 1991a: 79-80; Root, 1994: 260.

  58. Dinshaw, 1989, 115-16, 118-20; Martin, 1990: 31-2; Crane, 1994: 59, 62, 116; Moi, 1985: 139-43; Millard, 1989: 170, 175-6.

  59. Pratt, 1994: 62; Fenster and Erler, 1990: 50-1; Aers, 1986: 80.

  60. Spiegel, 1987: 123-5.

  61. Carruthers, 1979: 22; Moi, 1985: 43, 84.

  62. Brown and Butcher, 1991: 31; 37-8; Knapp, 1990: 121.

  63. Crane, 1994: 119; Mann, 1991a: 72-3, 78.

  64. Speirs, 1951: 137-8; Justman, 1976: 109; Mann, 1991a: 72; Mann, 1991b: 8; Spisak, 1980: 151-2, 156-7, 160; Aers, 1980: 86; Shoaf, 1983: 176; Schibanoff, 1986: 226-7; Bishop, 1988: 121-2.

  65. Veeser, 1989b: xi; Gallagher, 1989: 38-9; Graff, 1989: 169-70, 174-8; Patterson, 1987: 63-5; Lentricchia, 1989: 235, 237, 239; Pecora, 1989: 267.

  66. Aers, 1980: 147-50; Patterson, 1983: 682; Shoaf, 1983: 182-3.

  67. Muscatine, 1972: 115; Jordan, 1967: 216-26; Crane, 1987: 21.

  68. Sklute, 1984: 5; Moi, 1985: 35, 40.

  69. Reiss, 1979: 81; Bloch, 1987: 17; Blamires, 1992: 179; Van Hamel, 1892: 26; Olson, 1986: 238, 243; Fremantle, 1892: 238, 377-8, 415-16.

  70. Robertson, 1969: 327; BS, VI: 742.

  71. Huppé, 1967: 108.

  72. Fremantle, 1892: 67-71; Kaske, 1963: 183.

  73. Fremantle, 1892: 23, 66-71, 76-8, 230-3, 344, 347-8, 351-2, 375, 379; Cook, 1978: 53.

  74. Fremantle, 1892: 373; Huppé, 1967: 115-18.

  75. Fremantle, 1892: 351; Patterson, 1983: 677.

  76. Cook, 1978: 56; Blamires, 1992: 146; Morgan, 1970: 136.

  77. Fremantle, 1892: 353, 360, 373-4.

  78. Fremantle, 1892: 367.

  79. Boren, 1975; Blamires, 1992: 75, 81, 90, 101, 106, 116, 180, 194, 264, 280; Smith, 1990: 208-10; Minnis, 1991b: 57-9; Fremantle, 1892: 364.

  80. Fremantle, 1892: 234-5, 344, 356, 360, 364, 390; Barnum, 1980: 79.

  81. Robertson, 1969: 322-3; Miller, 1955: 226-7; BS, I: 35.

  82. Robertson, 1969: 321, 330-1; Walker, 1992: 178.

  83. Robertson, 1969: 268-9; Fleming, 1985: 159; Myles, 1994: 126-9.

  84. Weissman, 1980: 12-23; Dahlberg, 1983: 245-6; Fremantle, 1892: 378.

  85. Burrow, 1986: 80-92, 199-200.

  86. BS, V: 1075-9; Robertson, 1969: 321-2; Olson, 1986: 246-7.

  87. Barnum, 1980: 80-1, 89-90; Blamires, 1992: 268.

  88. Cook, 1978: 54; Fremantle, 1892: 238, see also 403, 415.

  89. Leicester, 1990: 137; Hanna, 1989: 2; Owen, 1991: 42.

  90. Innes, 1973: 250-1; Patterson, 1983: 657.

  91. Crane, 1994: 117; Pearsall, 1992: 184, 259-60: Hamel, 1979: 138; Patterson, 1983: 683-4; Benson, 1986: 13; Rowland, 1986: 145-6.

  92. Jordan, 1967: 216.

  93. Van Hamel, 1905: 21, 26-7; Pratt, 1994.

  94. Bornstein, 1981-2; Pearsall, 1992: 184; see, however, Fenster and Erler, 1990: 165-7.

  95. Manly and Rickert, 1940, III: 496-502.

  96. Jordan, 1967: 226.

  97. Diamond, 1977: 61; Walker, 1992: 152; Crane, 1994: 7, 58-9.

  98. Power, 1975: 9.

  99. Barron, 1989: 45-7; Rigby, 1995: 268-78.

  100. Fremantle, 1892: 351; Blamires, 1992: 261-270; Barnum, 1980: 66-71, 79-92; Fenster and Erler, 1990: 185.

  101. Furnivall, 1901: 345; Miller, 1977: 381.

  102. Barnum, 1980: 67-8.

  103. Barnum, 1980: 66-7.

  104. Owen, 1973: 270.

  105. Olsson, 1992: 19 n. 11.

  106. Ellis, 1986: 105; Seymour, 1981: 64-5.

  107. Fenster and Erler, 1990: 42, 184; Cowgill, 1990: 174-6, 182-3.

  108. Knowles, 1972: 854; McDermott, 1989: 55, 233, 235, 236, 237, 239, 376-82.

  109. Pearsall, 1992: 254.

  110. Richards, 1983: 31, 88-9, 255-7.

  111. Lawson, 1985, 62-5, 145-9; Brown-Grant, 1994: 310; Gottlieb, 1985: 353-6.

  112. Lawson, 1985: 55-98; Cadden, 1993: 205, 209; Curnow, 1975: 408-9, 423.

  113. For the Wife of Bath as the anti-type of the mulier fortis of Proverbs 31: 10, see Boren, 1975.

  114. Furnivall, 1901: 68; Miller, 1977: 385-7; Seymour, 1975: 307-9; Power, 1928: 43-6.

  115. Gottlieb, 1985: 357; Bloch, 1987: 6.

  116. Blamires, 1992: 193, 196-7; Van Hamel, 1892: 199-200.

  117. Blamires, 1992: 100-3, 228-32.

  118. Baker, 1991; Walker, 1992: 165-6, 175.

  119. Utley, 1972: 218-21; Delany, 1974.

  120. Martin, 1990: 219-20; McNamara, 1973.

  121. Like Chaucer's Clerk, the Goodman recognised that husbands would be foolish to test their wives as Walter did Griselda. Power, 1928: 44-5, 112-38, 188-91, 320 n.; Daileader, 1994: 26, 38.

  122. Maclean, 1980: 57-60.


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All references to Chaucer's works are from L. D. Benson, ed., The Riverside Chaucer (Oxford, 1989) and are cited in the text by an abbreviated form of the title with a page or line reference. All other works are cited by its author or editor and date, with page numbers where appropriate. A full bibliography of references appears at the end of this volume. All biblical quotations are taken from Bishop Challoner's Douay-Rheims translation.


BS: Biblia Sacra cum Glossa Ordinaria (Antwerp, 1634)

CA: John Gower, Confessio Amantis, in G. C. Macaulay, ed., The English Works of John Gower, vols I and II (EETS, Extra Series, vols 81 (1900) and 82 (1902)).

CL: A Complaint to His Lady

CT: The Canterbury Tales

LB: Lenvoy de Chaucer a Bukton

LGW: The Legend of Good Women

PL: Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne, 221 volumes, Paris 1841-1905

PPB: William Langland, The Vision of Piers the Plowman: A Compete Edition of the B-Text, ed. A. V. C. Schmidt (London, 1989) …

VC: John Gower, Vox Clamantis in G. C. Macaulay, ed., The Complete Works of John Gower, vol. IV: the Latin Works (Oxford, 1902)

David Wallace (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: “‘If That Thou Live’: Legends and Lives of Good Women,” in Chaucerian Polity: Absolutist Lineages and Associational Forms in England and Italy, Stanford University Press, 1997, pp. 337-78.

[In the following essay, Wallace investigates the parallels between Chaucer's Legend of Good Women, and the works of his Italian humanist predecessors, Boccaccio and Petrarch, who similarly presented ancient and classical lives. In particular, Wallace examines the way in which Chaucer, like his predecessors, operated as both a poet and a political subject, maintaining that, unlike Petrarch, who spoke from several “feminized” positions within his work when dealing with masculine rulers, Chaucer situates an “eloquent wife” between himself and the dominant masculine figure of his social world.]

Chaucer's Legend of Good Women, particularly its “Prologue,” shares the “Monk's Tale”'s interest in the dynamics of kingship and despotism but locates itself, in de casibus terms, before the fall. And, like the “Monk's Tale,” the Legend (while grounded in the poetic traditions of Machaut, Froissart, and Deschamps) follows Italian humanist precedents in collecting and framing ancient and classical lives. Boccaccio's De mulieribus claris is Chaucer's most obvious inspiration here, although he may also have heard of Petrarch's short treatise de laudibus feminarum, dedicated to an empress, Anne of Bohemia (the woman after whom the English queen, wife of Richard II, was named). In a landscape suggestive of Edenic (if not prelapsarian) natural beauty, the “Prologue” to the Legend conducts an extended exploration of absolutist poetics. By this I mean both the cultural forms deployed by an all-powerful figure to dramatize his own authority and the strategies developed by a poet to survive (as a poet, or at all) in such circumstances.

These two aspects of “absolutist poetics” come together some three hundred lines into the “Prologue,” when Chaucer, seemingly unaware that a court structure has suddenly configured itself in his presence, is called to account by a figure more “myghty” than any in his “Monk's Tale.” This “myghty god of Love” (F 226; G 158) is reminiscent of the jealous and irascible sun-god who dominates the “Manciple's Tale”: “corowned with a sonne,” his face shines so brightly that it can hardly (“unnethes”) be looked upon (F 230-33). And yet Chaucer knows that he is being looked at “ful sternely”: “his loking,” he tells us, “dooth myn herte colde” (F 239-40). Chaucer is out of place. He has adopted a position too close to this god's beloved (“myn oune floure,” F 316); he has written slanderously of this god's servants (F 323); he is a heretic and worse than a worm (F 318, 330). And, since he is seemingly unlettered in such circumstances (he cannot read the social signs; he cannot grasp that this daisy-dotted ground is shifting from court of love to court of law, from Hof to Gericht), he seems likely to destroy himself the moment he opens his mouth. Left to his own devices, he will surely perish at the hands of a wrathful, god-like ruler likened to “tirauntz of Lumbardye” (F 374). Condemned both as poet and as political subject, he stands in desperate need of the right social and rhetorical strategies.

Boccaccio's De mulieribus, I shall argue, provides no path out of such a predicament. Boccaccio did not interest himself in absolutist poetics. His advice to a poet living under the shadow of despotic authority was that he should change the polity he lived under.1 But Petrarch, as we shall see, promises to be more helpful on this subject. Valued by Lombard tyrants as an illustrious cultural figure, Petrarch was careful not to let such greatness challenge that of his political masters. While willing to be crowned and fêted as emperor of poets, Petrarch simultaneously cultivated a quite different persona through his letter collections, particularly his Familiares. Such self-representation was developed in part through the struggle to define humanist culture (an enterprise that forced Petrarch, paradoxically and often comically, into intimate relations with the vulgus he affected to despise). The humorous, domestic, and otherworldly aspects of such self-representation proved to be of great utility in Petrarch's development of a modus vivendi under despotic authority. Criticism, dazzled by the Petrarch legend, has failed to notice that Chaucerian and Petrarchan court and domestic personae have much in common. Indeed, there are moments when the two poets seem to exchange the roles that literary history has assigned them. Petrarch, conventionally portrayed as the lofty and singular “laureate poete,” seems married to the masses, a Canterbury compagnye of vernacular voices that counterdefine humanism while providing its material infrastructure. And it is Chaucer rather than Petrarch who offers strategies from the most desperate predicament of absolutist poetics, namely, the dream of a solitary poet trapped in the immediate presence of a godlike, masculine monarch who misinterprets his makynge and finds it personally and sexually insulting.

In representing his personal dealings with despots and “myghty men,” Petrarch typically decides both to be his own advocate and to speak from a variety of “feminized” subject positions. Chaucer, by contrast, typically seeks to position an eloquent wife between himself and the sovereign or god-like masculine figure who dominates his social world. Alceste, the eloquent wife of the F “Prologue,” has a historical surrogate beyond the text in Anne of Bohemia; and Bohemia, I shall argue, represents a congenial cultural and political ground for Chaucer that saves us from the terrifying alternative of an Anglicized “Lumbardye.” With the death of Queen Anne in 1394, however, Chaucer's delicate strategies for wifely eloquence lose something of their purchase on historical reality. In attempting to save the literary text from the movement of history, the revisionary gestures of the G “Prologue” turn from a Dantean acceptance of temporality to a Petrarchan longing for transcendence. Chaucerian polity, in G, contemplates its own redundancy even as it reinvests its hopes in a post-historical literary afterlife.


Boccaccio's De mulieribus claris survives, in whole or in part, in more than ninety manuscripts (including a holograph manuscript in the Biblioteca Laurenziana, Florence).2 Boccaccio wrote his first draft in the summer of 1361, added a dedication to Andreola Acciaiuoli in June 1362, and continued modifying the work, with slight expansions, until his death in 1375.3 The 106 lives of the De mulieribus run in more or less chronological order, beginning with Eve, “citizen of Paradise” (1.5), and ending with Queen Giovanna I of Naples (ruled 1343-82). The second chapter is on Semiramis, Queen of Assyria (celebrated, as in Chaucer's Legend, for her defensive fortification of Babylon);4 chapters 3-40 are dedicated to figures from mythology and ancient poetry. Chapters 41-100 feature (with just three exceptions) women from the ancient and secular world, from Lavinia to Zenobia; this last legend was translated from the De mulieribus by Chaucer and transferred to his “Monk's Tale.”5 Boccaccio's last six lives feature women from the Middle Ages, beginning and ending with women (Pope Giovanna; Queen Giovanna) who share his first name (Giovanni, Iohannes).6

Boccaccio's late turn to “modern instances” clearly reproduces the movement of his own De casibus virorum illustrium. He begins his Proemio by acknowledging both the ancient tradition of writing compendia “de viris illustribus” and the text in this genre on which Petrarch, “preceptor noster,” is currently at work (1). Soon, however, Boccaccio announces his intention to turn from praise of men to praise of women:

If men are to be praised when, with the strength allotted to them, they have achieved great things, how much more deserving of praise are women (considering how, by nature, they are endowed with softness and physical weakness and sluggish intelligence) if they have shown manly spirit, daring to take on and accomplish outstanding feats through ingenuity and virtue, things that would be most difficult even for men? (Proemio 4)

This pattern of putting women in their political place while affecting to praise them is repeated throughout the De mulieribus. A little later in his Proemio, Boccaccio argues that his expansion and elaboration of female lives will prove useful and pleasurable to men and women alike, especially to women, who are largely ignorant of historical matters (8). And at the end of his Conclusio, Boccaccio admits that he may at times have been drawn along by excessive pleasure (“affectio,” 5) in narrating. Boccaccio certainly takes interest and pleasure in the minutae of female lives in ways that recall Petrarch's evocation of great men in his De viris. The sense of political urgency that we noted at the very beginning of his De casibus, however, stands in marked contrast to the leisurely tone set by the De mulieribus in its opening period (addressed to Queen Giovanna):

Not long ago, outstanding woman [mulierum egregia], while a little removed from the uncultivated multitude and almost freed from other concerns, I wrote a little book in singular praise of the female sex (more for the pleasure of my friends than as a great service to the state). (Dedica 1)

Whereas the masculine lives of the De casibus were written to help secure the state, res publica, against the threat of tyranny, the female lives of the De mulieribus are offered as a pastime to be enjoyed once the security of the state has been assured. The De mulieribus does show signs of Boccaccio's characteristic intelligence and skepticism in political matters: the Flora story, for example, sees a Roman prostitute proclaimed a goddess (much as Ciappelletto, in the Decameron's first novella, is proclaimed a saint).7 But the explicit exclusion of postclassical women who have resisted “the tortures of tyrants” (Proemio, 11; one thinks of Griselde) helps ensure that this version of history will narrate women's experience within preordained political categories, rather than telling of their role in challenging and changing them. The real political work of the De mulieribus, then, is achieved through its paradigms of gender. Women's history, it argues, is to be written and read in a leisured manner at one remove from the public realm where the fate of communities and nations is actually decided.

Petrarch, in all the hundreds of letters through which he structured, sustained, and instructed members and political patrons of the incipient humanist movement, wrote to a woman just once (on May 23, 1358). The recipient of this letter was Anne of Bohemia, empress and third wife of Emperor Charles IV. Petrarch had visited Prague and spent time with Anne in 1356. Two years later, Anne wrote to him in person announcing the birth of her first child, a daughter (Elizabeth). Petrarch wrote back a long letter of congratulation, Familiares 21.8, which is, in effect (as his own rubric suggests) a short treatise de laudibus feminarum. The Petrarchan “I” that addresses the Empress Anne (or “Augusta,” as he calls her) is learned, lofty, almost imperious: this is the Petrarchan voice that posterity best remembers. Petrarch begins by congratulating Anne on “the great wisdom” she displays in her letter “for such a young person.” He acclaims her childbirth as an event of universal import: Christ, he says, “has cheered your youth with solemn fertility not only for yourself but for the entire empire.” Anne need not be disappointed that her first child is a girl since “better fortune often follows upon a weak beginning” (3). Petrarch then sets out to demonstrate that “the female sex is noble not only for child-bearing, but for its intellect, its manifold virtues, and for the glory and accomplishments of the empire.” Having named women who were of importance in founding learned traditions, verse forms, and alphabets (Minerva, Isis, Carmenta, Sappho, Proba), Petrarch proceeds to discuss a long sequence of ancient and illustrious women. Then, seemingly anxious “lest antiquity claim all the credit,” Petrarch turns his attention to “our own time” (“apud nos,” 15). The only woman he actually names in this short modern excursus, however, is the Countess Matilde di Canossa; all other women remain as generic wives or daughters or have their names concealed under le nom de père. Soon returning to his favorite topic of ancient Roman women, Petrarch ends with Livia: she proved to be the ideal consort for Caesar Augustus, “sharing not only his bed but his deliberations and his entire life”; Anne may prove to be her equal. Petrarch concludes with a final note of congratulation, hoping that this daughter may have been sent by heaven “as a token [literally, ‘earnest-money’] of a more noble birth and a more complete joy” (“arram nobilioris partus et gaudii plenioris,” 30): meaning again, of course, a masculine child.

Petrarch and Boccaccio are keen to ensure that their uncovering of ancient female lives need not be taken to challenge current social (patriarchal) arrangements. Both tend to emphasize the pastness of female power: contemporary women are simply not as illustrious as their ancient counterparts. Such an emphasis pushes both of them toward a gender essentialism that each finds difficult to sustain through his own self-representation. Boccaccio's authorial “I” shows a perennial drift toward fictional cross-dressing. For whatever reason (his own well-documented fleshliness; his sense of legal and artistic illegitimacy), Boccaccio feels compelled to imagine himself in a woman's place or (more simply) as a woman.8 Petrarch, in one voice, adopts a militantly masculine tone in speaking across Europe to address the imperial household as an equal: he, too, has been crowned at Rome. But in other parts of the Familiares (letters intended only for cultivated men, hidden behind a high wall of complex Latinity), Petrarch confesses to lapses in personal authority that grow more egregious (and more comical) the deeper he wades into scholarship. It is abundantly evident, for example, that Petrarch rarely felt himself to be the master of his own household. In dramatizing this sense of displacement from his own domestic sphere, Petrarch may easily have availed himself of the misogynistic tropes recycled by Chaucer's Wife of Bath and Boccaccio's Corbaccio. But for Petrarch there was a voice that articulated cultural (political, personal) otherness more compellingly and completely than that of woman: that of the vulgus, particularly the urban proletariat.


Petrarch professed to prefer living in rural solitude, but the demands of his political patrons, his ambitions for the humanist movement, and the war-ravaged state of the Italian countryside forced him to be a city-dweller for most of his life.9 This drew him, inevitably, into intimate, long-term relations with the urban proletariat, a class for which he affected disgust. His household could offer no retreat from the vulgus since it needed to be staffed. While the great man was rapt in study, his domestic servants would (so he tells us) rob him shamelessly. Petrarch tried to keep his mind above such distractions. One day, however, his domestic servants quarreled in his presence, brandishing knives, over the sharing out of Petrarch's own property. Sacking these servants on the spot, Petrarch was clearly outraged: “I had truly been a father to them, whereas they were not sons to me but rather plotters, assassins, and domestic thieves.”10 Subsequently, however, Petrarch felt lonely and unsafe in a large, unprotected house and was forced to move.11 The Petrarchan household simply could not function efficiently without domestic servants to attend to the numerous visitors, relatives, and copyists who lived with him; and he needed them to form a protective curtain between his study and the outside world. They protected him from unwelcome and untimely visitors when he was active and from doctors when he was ill. Seniles 3.8 tells of how he was trapped in bed by a physician afflicted with excessive “verbositas”: he was only able to get rid of him by feigning a relapse.12 On May 7, 1371, Petrarch was laid low by fever. Doctors gathered at his bedside, decided that death was imminent and that his only hope lay in being bound with cords so that he could not sleep. Petrarch's household, however, had standing orders either to ignore what doctors recommended or to do the precise opposite. When these doctors returned on the following morning expecting to find Petrarch dead they found him busy writing.13

The poet's behavior must have seemed eccentric, sometimes comical, to those who shared his household. He slept only six hours a night and habitually rose before dawn; but he was afraid of sleeping alone and a servant was obliged to sleep with him and (with much grumbling) to get up at an unearthly hour. Bookishness, for Petrarch as for Chaucer, is a defining trait, a quality that wins them a place in the world and yet excludes them from it. Relationships with books characterize the peculiar source of both their strength and their weakness, a complex liaison neatly mythologized by Familiares 21.10. One day Petrarch walked absentmindedly into his study and caught a volume of Cicero with the edge of his gown.14 This Cicero (kept on the floor by the door for ready reference) fell over and bruised his left leg. Petrarch upbraided the book (“Quid rei est, mi Cicero, cur me feris?”) but the same thing happened to his “unlucky left leg” (as one of his servants called it) on the following day and at least twice thereafter. The leg swelled and a poisonous tumor developed. Laid up for weeks, Petrarch was forced to depend on his household servants and to subject himself to doctors. These doctors put him through a particularly painful course of treatment. Petrarch complained that his beloved Cicero “has now wounded my leg as he once did my heart.”15 This confession of personal inadequacy contains hints of two-way sexual betrayal: Petrarch ignores the world for books, and the world—through the physical agency of a book—bites back at him. If we do detect sexual overtones here (as Petrarch lies in bed like some wounded lover) they serve chiefly to remind us how thoroughly Petrarch's letters exclude the erotic. This Petrarch is seemingly an outsider to love; rather than the erotic torments of the Canzoniere, we find sufferings that are chiefly social, cultural, and political. The chief source of such suffering, it seems, is Petrarch's relationship to the vulgus.

Petrarch's exposure and subjection to the workaday world was an inevitable, albeit much lamented, consequence of his ambitions for humanist culture. He relied upon merchants to carry books in their bales, messengers to deliver his correspondence, and a variety of contacts living in various parts of Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Greece, and Britain to further the search for Cicero manuscripts.16 Petrarch bargained with peasants at Rome who dug up Roman coins and with the Calabrian Leontius Pilatus (described as beastly, slovenly, greedy, insolent, and unreliable) for Latin translations of Homer's Greek epics;17 he also made desperate efforts to track down a pawned copy of Cicero's De gloria.18 And in a remarkable passage, directed to his brother Gherardo, Petrarch is forced to acknowledge his dependence on artisanal labor in textual production even as he attempts to distance himself from it:

An architect does not mix the mortar but orders it to be mixed; a military commander does not sharpen swords, a ship's captain does not plane a mast or the oars, nor did Apelles saw boards or Polyclites ivory or Phidias marble. The proper work [suum opus] of the plebeian intelligence is preparing that which the noble intelligence will consume. Thus in our time, some scrape parchment, others write books, others correct them, others, if I might use a common word, illuminate them, others bind them, others adorn the covers; the noble intellect aspires to higher things, flying beyond the humbler ones.19

Petrarch, then, knew himself to be married to the vulgus as surely as Walter is married to Griselde. He needed them (it?) to provide the material infrastructure requisite for transcendent flights of humanism; he needed his idea of them in order to articulate, by counterdistinction, the idea of his own elite program. The last sentence of what may be regarded as Petrarch's very last text—his will—can only end by both invoking and repudiating the vulgus:

Ego Franciscus Petrarca scripsi, qui testamentum aliud fecissem, si essem dives, ut vulgus insanum putat.20

I, Francesco Petrarca, have written this, and would have drawn up a different testament if I were rich, as the mad rabble believes me to be.

The marriage metaphor seems apt in describing Petrarch's relation to the vulgus because Petrarch was evidently fascinated even as he was alarmed by a succession of colorful and eccentric characters. In Familiares 18.6, for example, Petrarch speaks of a “seniculus” who shares his household and “speaks stones.” This old man could be a Scotsman or a slave from north and east of the Black Sea slaving port of Caffa; for Petrarch he is simply a nameless object of wonder:

In my own house lives an old fellow who, though born at the fringe of the inhabited world beyond which there are no men, is still a man, possessing a man's soul and appearance; but he behaves so inhumanly that he either growls like a bear or snarls like a wild boar when he wants to show affection. In short, his behavior is so rough, so thoroughly barbaric, that he seems to bite when he licks; you would consider most appropriate for him not the great prophet's words to the effect that his eloquence flows like dew, but rather those of the comic poet that he speaks with words of stone. Stone, I say, which is bare and hard, with which he strikes the mind in an incredible fashion, wearying and saddening the heavens with his awful thunder.21

In Familiares 20.12 Petrarch tells of the comforting presence22 of another extraordinary character, a man of 85 who “had almost returned to childhood”; his speech “would evoke laughter even among mourners.” Fond of engaging in religious and philosophical disputes and of employing outrageous linguistic barbarisms and solecisms, the old man would tap his forehead and declare: “It is here, here, that I have my books and my knowledge.”23 Petrarch was similarly captivated by Enrico Capra, a goldsmith from Bergamo who became a fanatical admirer of Petrarch, filled his house with Petrarchan busts and portraits, and finally gave up his craft in favor of studying at the local gimnasium.24 During his first summer at Milan, Petrarch was accosted in the street, trapped under a blazing sun, by an interminably talkative old soldier who would not let him pass until he gave him a message (any message) to take to Florence. A month or so later Petrarch was visited at home by an interminably talkative old monk who spoke without pause until the city clock (a recent innovation) struck a late hour. Realizing that the monk and the soldier were one and the same person, Petrarch named him Bolanus (after a character in Horace, Satires 1.9).25 Bolanus continued to perform valuable services for Petrarch as a messenger although he continued to cause him some awkward moments. One day in January 1360, for example, he turned up at Petrarch's door at a late hour with a crowd (turba) of companions in a rainstorm: “at his noisy arrival,” Petrarch remarked to Socrates, “this solitude became a veritable public square.”26

There are many saving moments in the Familiares when Petrarch seems to view himself, so to speak, from the cultural far side. His gardening habit, for example, makes for an extended narrative of bookish incompetence: the humanist struggling to imitate the natural man. Shortly after arriving at Milan in 1353, Petrarch spent several days planting spinach, beetroot, fennel, and parsley. He then added details of this to his gardening notes in a manuscript containing the De agricultura of Palladius. Several weeks later, on reviewing his handiwork, he sadly noted that not a single seed had sprouted. On April 4, 1357, Petrarch planted six laurel trees and an olive brought from Bergamo, making careful notes about climatic conditions and the state of the moon. And once again, a brief note follows: all dead. Petrarch later made efforts to acquire Varro's Res rusticae. Perhaps he thought it would bring him better luck. He must have seemed an odd figure, standing in the garden of Sant’Ambrogio surveying shriveled trees and seeds that will not sprout. He was obviously led to such an unlikely situation by a purely literary ideal that, he hoped, would bear fruit in the tradition of Vergil's Georgics.27

Petrarch's ineptitude in the domestic (and gardening) realm, then, is self-cultivated and deliberately documented. This invites his correspondents to read his neglect of personal affairs both as indifference to political intrigue and as a sign of his singleminded devotion to the transcendent pursuit of scholarship:

As I see it, I am no better a householder than a politician [yconomicus quam politicus]; the love of solitude and literature has completely deprived me of all that, nor do I entertain any hope of changing my ways in the future. Despite my daily attempt to learn something, it is too late to develop a skill utterly unknown to me; and so, let my private affairs go as they will or as they can, provided that I escape safely even though stripped naked [licet nudus].28


The forms of self-disclosure essayed in Petrarch's letters are not to be confused with the intimacies of a modern diary, a quite different mode of rhetorical self-fabrication. Some letters are addressed to fictional or classical personages; some were never dispatched; and some (as comparison of final and missive form reveals) were extensively revised for inclusion in the Familiares and Seniles. The oscillation between competence and ineptitude, practical ability and bookish otherworldliness, that is so characteristic of these texts does not seem to herald the invention of a newly interiorized, newly self-doubting, Renaissance “self.” It seems, rather, to parallel forms of self-construction that are actively pursued by Petrarch's fourteenth-century contemporaries, Machaut and Chaucer.29 In the House of Fame, the poem that plays out the immediate shock of his exposure to Italian culture, Chaucer's mind turns to the familiarity of domestic space even as it is called heavenward (“in mannes vois,” 556) by the Dantean eagle:

And called me tho by my name,
And for I shulde the bet abreyde,
Me mette “Awak,” to me he seyde
Ryght in the same vois and stevene
That useth oon that I koude nevene.


The voice and sound of the “oon” that Chaucer could name, we are led to assume, belong to his strong-lunged wife: a figure both intimidating yet (given the soaring ambitions of the imperial and pedagogical eagle), comfortingly domestic. Eighty lines later, as Chaucer is dragged heavenward, this distinction between greater public and lesser domestic realms is revived again, this time by the imperial bird:

                    “Wherfore, as I seyde, ywys,
Jupiter considereth this,
And also, beau sir, other thynges:
That is, that thou hast no tydynges
Of Loves folk yf they be glade,
Ne of noght elles that God made;
And noght oonly fro fer contree
That ther no tydynge cometh to thee,
But of thy verray neyghebores,
That duellen almost at thy dores,
Thou herist neyther that ne this;
For when thy labour doon al ys,
And hast mad alle thy rekenynges,
In stede of reste and newe thynges
Thou goost hom to thy hous anoon,
And, also domb as any stoon,
Thou sittest at another book
Tyl fully daswed is thy look.”


The eyes of Jupiter—the deity associated with Theseus in the “Knight's Tale”—penetrate the heavens and enter Chaucer's “dores.” Chaucer is evidently a dullard: having spent all day doing the books at the customhouse, he spends all evening going through more books at home. Jupiter pities Chaucer (and has him whisked heavenward) because he can discover no “tydynges.”30 The discovery of “tydynges,” for Jupiter, would seem to be the preeminent aim for a creature such as Chaucer, a makere of “bookys, songes, dytees” (622). The chief recipient of such compositions would naturally be “Cupido,” or the God of Love, Jupiter's “blynde nevew” (617). “Tydynges,” the exact English equivalent of the Italian term novelle, suggests stories of immediate, contemporary import; “tydynges” are the lifeblood of both love life and court life (and hence of political life). “Newe thynges” (654) are what lovers and political rulers—such as the sultan in the “Man of Law's Tale”—are forever desperate to discover. It is the insatiable appetite for tidynges and novelle that sends Chaucer across the heavens (a journey he evidently takes no interest in) and Petrarch across the Alps and down the canals of war-torn Italy. The unspoken secret of Petrarch's household is that it is not the vulgus but his political masters who break up the happy home; they have little genuine interest in humanist scholarship, or “olde bokes,” except as a repository of tropes that they, or Petrarch, can take on the road to do political business with.

The private household, for Chaucer and Petrarch, cannot be imagined as a refuge from the gaze of their political masters. It is a place where large cultural pretensions are seen to collapse and personal foibles stand revealed. It does offer a measure of protection, but it is no hiding place from the perils of the greater household that that lies beyond its threshold: the seigneurial court.

Court life, especially when constellated around a figure with absolutist proclivities, is densely and precariously rhetorical. August ceremony may totter into outrageous farce. Petrarch evidently lived through many such moments. On October 5, 1354, his patron and political master, Giovanni Visconti, died, leaving Lombardy to be governed by his three nephews, Matteo, Bernabò, and Galeazzo. Petrarch was requested to deliver a commemorative oration which would precede the investiture of the three brothers as co-rulers of Lombardy. This was a tense and awkward moment in Visconti history: no despotic regime could survive long if divided three ways. Petrarch duly embarked on his oration, only to be interrupted by the court astrologer who insisted that the time had come to hand the brothers their symbols of office; delay would be dangerous. Petrarch stopped speaking at once, thereby unnerving the astrologer completely. He asked Petrarch to go on for a while, but he insisted that he had finished. As the audience grew restless (some snickering, some indignant), the astrologer grew agitated. Suddenly, he exclaimed “hora est,” “the time has come.”31

Chaucer must have lived through or heard tell of many such moments of impending breakdown in the presence of the famously foul-tempered Richard II. In 1385, to cite just one early example, Richard became so incensed with the archbishop of Canterbury that he drew his sword; the men who restrained him from killing the archbishop were so terrified by the “rex iratus” that they leapt from the royal barge into the archbishop's boat. And since no monarch can afford to be seen as the centerpiece of a farce, the archbishop was subsequently obliged to kneel before the king and sue for his pardon.32 Courtiers, at such moments, must exercise great ingenuity in saving their monarch from suggestions of ineptitude or illegitimate action. Petrarch was obviously adept at this, as when he likens Galeazzo's gout to the pains of stigmata suffered by St. Francis of Assisi.33 Gout pains drove Galeazzo to desperate straits. One evening in the autumn of 1365, while Petrarch was dining with Galeazzo at Milan, news arrived of a healer approaching from the Canton Valais. Galeazzo sent a white horse with an armed escort to hasten his arrival and obediently swallowed his egg-based concoction. But Galeazzo's gout only worsened under this treatment; the healer now maintained that the only hope of cure lay in certain books of magic that he intended to go off and search for.34 A gout-ridden Visconti tyrant could not have been much easier to deal with than a gouty Henry VIII. Petrarch did what he could in 1365 by writing a lengthy diatribe against physicians (Seniles 5.3); this was added as a supplement to his Invective contra medicum. Such writing served a vital function in exposing the ineptitude of doctors; the heat of the invective draws attention away from a prince pursuing any quack in his desperate search for a remedy.

Petrarch was of immense value to the Visconti because he brought suggestions of legitimacy both through his competence (as the crowned heir to Roman cultural tradition) and his ineptitude. When he first moved to Milan in 1353, Petrarch wore the fashion-conscious clothes of a courtier. Later on, however, he began persuading himself to adopt “a common and modest, even ‘philosophical’ dress,”35 steeling his mind against “the shame of wearing worn-out clothes.” By dressing as a threadbare philosopher, Petrarch obviously offered little social competition for the mighty princes he served. And in one extraordinary text, Variae 56, Petrarch grasps how his own social ineptitude, his need of a “myghty man,” can allow a young prince to dramatize his saving power and hence be legitimized as an instrument of God.36 The letter opens by tracing a grand and sustained historical vision: the succession of illustrious legates who served ancient Rome. The scene then shifts to the coming of a modern Roman legate: Cardinal Albornoz, representing Innocent VI and the papal curia. When the papal legate approaches Milan on September 14, 1353, Petrarch is chosen to join the ceremonial greeting party. But as the Milanese contingent moves out of the city, Petrarch is rendered deaf, blind, and voiceless by the incredible clouds of dust thrown up by carriage wheels and horses' hooves. Confused by this tumult, Petrarch's horse lets its hind legs slip over the edge of a precipice. Petrarch, however, remains oblivious of the fact that he is in mortal danger:

But that great-hearted young man, to whom (unless the fates cut off the beginning web of succession) the rich inheritance of Milan and Liguria is promised, and than whom (unless love defeats my judgment) among favored youths none is better, none more refined, before all others was warning me, calling me by name, that I should watch out.

At this delicate narrative juncture, Petrarch holds his story in suspension with a long meditation on whether it is better, or not, for an individual to know of the peril he is in. Returning to the precipice, he tells us that he was then saved from destruction more by an invisible force than by his own efforts. This saving power soon takes the physical form of the young signore,37 who commands his servants to unhorse while himself coming to the rescue not just with words (Petrarch emphasizes) but with his own hands.38 Yet again, Petrarch suspends his narrative at the brink: if he were to have fallen then, he would now be dead; he was rescued only by virtue of Christ stretching out his hand (“manum,” vol. 3, p. 462). All this goes to show, he tells Nelli, that humans are blind, subjected utterly to the force of fate. He then goes on to tell of his meeting with the papal legate.

This narrative, written just a few months after Petrarch's controversial move to Milan, has the force of an apologia for living under despotism. Deaf, blind, and voiceless, Petrarch situates himself in a liminal drama in which he is powerless to act or even to grasp his own predicament. He is saved only by the dramatic intervention of a seigneurial hand (subsequently likened to the hand of God) that sets him on firm ground. Without such a hand, Petrarch would no longer be with us; everything that follows is owed to this fateful intervention. All this is strongly reminiscent of the liminal drama played out in Familiares 16.12, written just three weeks earlier, which sees a Griselde-like Petrarch, blushing and voiceless, seduced by the Visconti lord who first offered him a home.39 In Variae 56, Petrarch again discovers and reveals himself as the natural subject of absolutist rule.


The precarious and sustained predicament of Variae 56—the poet, in the midst of a courtly ceremony, hangs over a cliff, oblivious to his own danger—forms an obvious and compelling analogue to the self-representation essayed by Chaucer's “Prologue” to the Legend of Good Women. The Legend was perhaps first written between 1386 and 1388, a period that has been taken to represent the apogee both of Chaucer's involvement in public affairs and his career as “a poet of the court.”40 It certainly postdates, following the honeymoon period of the early 1380s, the first attribution of autocratic tendencies to Richard.41 It is at a period of rapid change and exceptional political instability, then, that Chaucer is moved to represent himself as a courtly makere at the edge of the abyss. Unlike Petrarch, however, he identifies the abyss with the very center of the social structure in which he struggles to function: the ruler of the court, the youthful, irascible, and “myghty god of Love” (F 226).

The first two hundred lines of the “Prologue” to the Legend of Good Women are remarkably uneventful. Chaucer declares his devotion to old books, abandons books to worship a daisy, admires a landscape, listens to birds, and then returns to his bed and falls asleep. Such procedures are familiar from Chaucer's earlier dream poems and their French antecedents, although the lack of dramatic interaction here is quite exceptional. The opening phases of Chaucerian dream poems typically function as overtures to the work; here the groundwork for the later association of Alceste with the daisy is laid out in detail. But if the thematics of this opening are to prove significant, so too is its modus agendi. The relative absence of dramatic content tends to draw attention to the functioning of language itself and to the struggles of the poet to shape diction, control referentiality, and generate intelligible meanings. If control of language is to prove crucial in negotiating with the “myghty god of Love,” we realize that Chaucer, or the Chaucer persona, walks on dangerous ground from the very start. His opening couplet, prefacing discussion of the limits of personal experience and the utility of books (F 1-28), establishes the certainty of the joys of heaven and pains of hell, and (as their necessary precondition) the inevitability of final judgment.

Chaucer first turns attention to himself in an elliptical and apologetic manner (“And as for me …” F 29), defining himself not as a maker of books but as a reader or devotee of them (he holds them “in reverence,” F 32). But when May comes he soon turns apostate (“Farewel my bok and my devocioun!”), drawn by “gret affeccioun” to “reverence” a new object of desire: the daisy, “of alle floures flour” (F 39-53). In seeking to praise this bloom, however, he immediately runs up against the limits of language—or at least of the language available to him:

Allas, that I ne had Englyssh, ryme or prose,
Suffisant this flour to preyse aryght! 

(F 66-67)

Faced with this impasse, Chaucer calls upon members of two courtly factions for assistance: lovers who “ben with the leef or with the flour” (F 72).42 But he then immediately helps himself out by turning to a text that few, if any, English devotees of the flower or the leaf would be familiar with: Boccaccio's Filostrato. This citation is both unambiguous (Chaucer closely imitates the opening of the second stanza of Boccaccio's opening book)43 and treacherous, a secret betrayal of his imagined audience: for it was his imitating of the Filostrato in the Troilus that supposedly provided the occasion for the present corrective exercise, the Legend of Good Women. It is from this duplicitous position that Chaucer moves directly from imitation of the Troilus's source text (F 84-85) to heartfelt protestations of loyalty to the lady; she is (he tells her) “The maistresse of my wit, and nothyng I” (F 88). Chaucer claims to be “nothyng” (even as he drifts back to imitating the Filostrato)44 because his voice, his every word, responds to her direction; she plays him like an instrument:

My word, my werk ys knyt so in youre bond
That, as an harpe obeieth to the hond
And maketh it soune after his fyngerynge,
Ryght so mowe ye oute of myn herte bringe
Swich vois, ryght as yow lyst, to laughe or pleyne.
Be ye my gide and lady sovereyne! 

(F 89-94)

If Chaucer is to be reckoned a poet, then, his current status (in the symbolic presence but physical absence of the lady who gives him voice) is nothing at all: “nothing I.” Rather than lapsing into silence or nothingness, however, the narrator forces a fresh start: “But wherefore that I spak …” (F 97). Why did he just spend a hundred lines speaking of the importance of old books (F 98-100)?

That shal I seyn, whanne that I see my tyme;
I may nat al at-ones speke in ryme. 

(F 101-2)

This strange deferral at least serves to recognize the art of “whanne” or quando, saying the right thing at the right time, as the most crucial principle of household or courtly rhetoric. As the “Prologue” progresses, however, we continue to doubt whether this Chaucer figure possesses the mastery of language requisite for its successful deployment. Kneeling before the daisy before dawn, Chaucer waits for it to unclose before the sun, “that roos as red as rose” (F 112): suddenly he has two flowers to contend with, one bracketed within the figure of comparatio and one presumably real, but in need of an allegorical referent. We also have two “roses,” one verbal, one substantive, a doubling (underscored by alliteration) that both compares a greater thing to a lesser, dependent one (a sun to a rose) and distracts attention from daisies, “of alle floures flour.” Such infelicitous doubling reminds us of the struggles of another would-be courtly rhetor: the Squire, who recognizes principles of ars dicendi even as he proceeds to fall short of them:

Accordaunt to his wordes was his cheere,
As techeth art of speche hem that it leere.
Al be that I kan nat sowne his stile,
Ne kan nat clymben over so heigh a style,
Yet seye I this … 


Chaucer in the Legend obviously has much in common (besides equivalent rank: both are squires) with the youngest storyteller of the Tales. Each finds courtly language drawing attention to itself as it trips over the artificialities of its own deployment; each has terrible trouble in applying the tropes and figures of rhetorical craft to the description of the natural world. “Comparisoun may noon ymaked be,” cries Chaucer, struggling to put the smell of a daisy into words (F 115-24). Immediately afterwards, however, he deploys comparatio and every other trope that lies to hand in attempting to evoke the coming of summer. This passage continues to play as an overture to the poem to come, although its themes are realized more as accidents of style than, as the substance of narrative argument:

Forgeten hadde the erthe his pore estat
Of wynter, that hym naked made and mat,
And with his swerd of cold so sore greved;
Now hath th’atempre sonne all that releved,
That naked was, and clad him new agayn.
The smale foules, of the sesoun fayn,
That from the panter and the net ben scaped,
Upon the foweler, that hem made awhaped
In wynter, and distroyed hadde hir brood,
In his dispit hem thoghte yt did hem good
To synge of hym, and in hir song despise
The foule cherl that, for his coveytise,
Had hem betrayed with his sophistrye.
This was hire song: “The foweler we deffye,
And al his craft.”

(F 125-39)

The seasonal cycle is here figured in social terms as a change of “estat,” effected through the agency of lordship: tyrannical winter wreaks havoc with his sword and reduces all to nakedness, while benign summer (personified as the sun) relieves and re-leaves his subjects by offering new clothes (a traditional obligation of good lordship). Such natural artifice encourages the birds to mate, and to sing a song of political liberty against the “coveytise” and “sophistrye” of another artificer, the “foule cherl” fowler. All this is penned by a poet-artificer, a craftsman deploying rhetorical figures while pretending to aspire to the ideal of fashioning a “naked text in English” (G 86). Chaucer is at once bird and birdcatcher: as what might be termed auctor, he lays out his duplicitous poetic tropes; as what might be termed Chaucer-protagonist or persona, he walks through the landscape of his own poem in apparent ignorance of the traps laid in the text he speaks.45 For example, not all birds within the collectivity of birds are trustworthy: the “tydif” is said to pursue “newefanglness” (F 154, one of the key terms in Wyatt's lexicon of courtly betrayal).46 Such unfaithful birds finally win an “accord” with their mates, swearing “on the blosmes to be trewe” (F 157-59). The blossoms of May, of course, will not last until September, a consideration buried beneath a rapid recapitulative gloss on the bird's love affair. This begins with an extraordinary concentration of courtly artificialities; the whole history of courtship is dispatched in just four lines, featuring five allegorical personifications (seven if we promote “innocence” and “myght,” which seem just as deserving as “Mercy” and “Ryght”):

Al founde they Daunger for a tyme a lord,
Yet Pitee, thurgh his stronge gentil myght,
Forgaf, and made Mercy passen Ryght,
Thurgh innocence and ruled Curtesye. 

(F 160-63)

The poet steps back from this compacted history as soon as he speaks it, invoking the name of an auctor to gloss what he means, which differs, apparently, from what he says. This is followed by a firm bid for narrative closure, beginning with a familiar summarizing formula (“And thus”) and ending with a chorus of universal “acord”:

But I ne clepe nat innocence folye,
Ne fals pitee, for vertu is the mene,
As Etik seith; in swich maner I mene.
And thus thise foweles, voide of al malice,
Acordeden to love, and laften vice
Of hate, and songen alle of oon acord,
“Welcome, somer, oure governour and lord!”

(F 164-70)

The narrator is clearly moved here by a desire to proclaim all elements of social discord resolved by the univocal acclamation of a single authoritative figure. This is, of course, familiar as the strategy that brings earlier dream poems (the Parliament of Fowls; the House of Fame) to an end. In the Legend, however, the same device is employed just as the dream is about to begin. Such premature placement of narrative resolution invites us to examine this “accord” more closely. Summer is “governour and lord” for the moment; when the season changes the “tydif” will return to his “malice,” the fowler to his traps, and the earth to the “pore estat” evoked just forty lines before. The desire to live in May “alwey” is tempered by the realization that such a landscape will, “day by day,” disappear (F 175-77). The fantasy of living in perennial May might be read here as a response to the daily pressures of life at court, a structure constituted in Chaucer's England not by any one physical locality but by a nexus of relationships centered on a single authoritative figure. Such a complex cannot be fixed or stabilized because it is organic, actualized by a medium that is (in Dante's famous formulation) forever moving toward flowering or decay: human language.47 It is unrealistic to seek a position of neutrality within such a structure, since this would amount to a position outside language. This, however, is just what Chaucer's narrator tries to map out for himself shortly before entering the dream. He chooses no side in the factional debates of the court; he will praise the merits of the flower against the leaf

No more than of the corn against the sheef;
For, as to me, nys lever noon ne lother.
I am withholden yit with never nother;
Ne I not who serveth leef ne who the flour.

(F 190-93)

It might seem gratuitous to apply the term “faction” to defenders of the flower or the leaf in Maytide games, but it is surely naive to underestimate the ways in which such debates might have rehearsed or developed, albeit in humorous vein, political and sexual alliances at court. It is worth noticing that Chaucer actually strengthens the linkage with factional politics here by employing the term “withholden,” which is, as Lee Patterson has demonstrated, a key term used in indentures of retaining in this period.48 Chaucer's line F 192 might then be translated as follows: “I am as yet retained by neither one party nor the other.” This can hardly be taken as a statement of studied political neutrality, since it both draws attention to the practice of retaining (an increasingly controversial subject in late Ricardian England) and suggests that Chaucer might “yit” be in the market.49

All hopes of social neutrality or invisibility are immediately dispersed once Chaucer enters the dream and falls beneath the gaze of the God of Love:

For sternely on me he gan byholde,
So that his loking dooth myn herte colde. 

(F 239-40)

Within the compass of such “loking,” the dreamer is already fixed within a court structure, although he persists in thinking of himself as a neutral observer until he is called to account some seventy lines later. Turning his attention to the god's “noble quene,” he is moved to fulfill his recognized social function as poet by meditating a balade in her honor. It is clear to the poet that when he speaks of “my lady” in this balade he is referring to “this lady free” (F 248), queen to the God of Love. But he does not name her, since he is as yet ignorant of her identity. When detached from its immediate context here in this court space, then, the identity of this balade-lady who may “disdeyn” the most beautiful beings of antiquity (two men, positioned first and third, and eighteen women)50 remains in doubt: a circumstance that will have painful repercussions for the poem's makere later on. It is worth emphasizing (since most critics seem to overlook the point) that in the F text the balade is not sung by the dreamer, nor by anyone else: it “may ful wel ysongen be” by the queen (F 270), but it is not. The only song performed here is that “songen in one vois” by the ladies who follow the queen (F 296-99).

These women singing in unison are said to be those women who, since God made Adam, were “trewe of love” (F 290). These ladies, whose number is said to be very great (F 285-89), deliberately form themselves into a court structure, arranging themselves “a-compas enviroun” around the royal couple “as they were of estaat, ful curteysly” (F 305). The court of Love is now formally constituted, a circumstance of which the dreamer seems sublimely ignorant. Still apparently thinking of himself as a neutral and invisible spectator, the dreamer fails to grasp that within such a courtly configuration, mapped by the strict observance of social degree, he is himself turned spectacle. Holding to his station by the God of Love's “oune floure,” he becomes absurdly and presumptuously overvisible. Once the deity's gaze falls upon him, the dreamer is subjected to intensive interrogation as the court shifts from Hof to Gericht, from court of love to court of law. Charges are leveled: the dreamer profanes the God's “relyk” by his mere presence; he slanders his “olde servauntes”; he has disseminated “heresye” through his translating of the Roman de la Rose; his account of Criseyde erodes trust in women. And, suddenly, he is called to speak in his own defense:

“Of thyn answere avise the ryght weel;
For thogh thou reneyed hast my lay,
As other wrecches han doon many a day,
By Seynt Venus that my moder ys,
If that thou live, thou shalt repenten this
So cruelly that it shal wel be sene!” 

(F 335-40)

The charge here is both apostasy and treason, since the God of Love clearly arrogates both religious and secular authority to his own person.51 The outlook is bleak: the dreamer must speak to save himself, but words may inflame his accuser, a son of Venus, rather than mollify him. The god may then act cruelly, that is, tyrannically; the dreamer might not live long enough to hear his own penance.52 The dreaming Chaucer, at this crucial point in the poem, hangs over the abyss. Rhetoric and political acumen are his only hope, but such skills, as we observed in painful detail before the dream began, are absent from his repertoire. Even as he occupies center stage at court, this dreamer thinks that he plays no part in court politics. And even as he prepares to speak in his own defense, he seems not to know, as we do, that the content and timing of his own tropes lie beyond his control. He is bound to destroy himself the minute he opens his mouth.

Petrarch, we have noted, chooses to represent himself being saved from mortal danger by the power of masculine lineage (as the son and heir of his signore takes hold of his bridle). Chaucer, by contrast, looks for salvation in a female speaker:

Thoo spak this lady, clothed al in grene,
And seyde, “God, ryght of youre curtesye,
Ye moten herken yf he can replye
Agayns al this that ye have to him meved.”

(F 341-44)

In Chaucer's revision of the Legend, the G text, we were told early on (and then frequently reminded) that “this lady” is Alceste. The lines in G corresponding to F 341-44 continue this disambiguating trend:

Thanne spak Alceste, the worthyeste queene,
And seyde, “God, ryght of youre curteysye,
Ye moten herkenen if he can replye
Ageyns these poynts that ye han to hym meved.”

(G 317-20)

In F, however, the lady's identity remains concealed until close to the end of the “Prologue” (508-19). This encourages the F audience to play the familiar marguerite game of guessing the lady's identity: just who might this “dayeseye” be? Speculation is held suspended between fictional and historical terms of reference. Representation of the God of Love, who is said to be “corowned with a sonne” and possessed of a face “so bryghte” that it cannot be looked upon (F 230-34) must, at some level of consciousness, have encouraged associations with Richard II.

The king, like the sun, is the vital presence of life at court; courtiers and subjects open and close like flowers in the light and darkness of his favor and absence. Richard II was evidently concerned to have himself portrayed as a dazzling, sunlike presence; the sunburst, which adorns his robes on his tomb effigy,53 was a favorite personal symbol. If the sunlike and sun-crowned God of Love evokes associations with Richard, then, it follows that the “dayesye” might point to his queen, Anne of Bohemia. The seeds for such an association are planted early on in the F “Prologue” when the daisy is acclaimed as “of alle floures flour” (F 53). If the God of Love's queen is to be seen “ryght as a dayesye” (F 218), then she is associated not just with a flower but with the flower of flowers: in short, with the empress of flowers. This chain of association is made explicit shortly before the dream begins; the daisy is said to be “the emperice and flour of floures alle” (F 185).

Anne of Bohemia was the daughter of an emperor (Charles IV); her mother, Elizabeth of Pomerania, traveled to Rome to be crowned empress in 1363.54 She was half-sister to the emperor's son, King Wenceslaus; and she was also the great-granddaughter of Emperor Henry VII, the most crucial political figure in Dante's Commedia. This last association may have inspired Chaucer's deft citation from Inferno 13.64-66, a tercet designed to remind us of Dante's perennial concern with the imperial household:

Envie ys lavendere of the court always,
For she ne parteth, neither nyght ne day,
Out of the hous of Cesar; thus seith Dante.

(F 358-60)

The Dantean speaker imitated by Chaucer here is Pier della Vigna (c. 1190-1249), a member of Frederick II's household who, among other things, negotiated the marriage of the emperor with Isabella, sister of Henry III of England, in 1234-35. Pier, also a poet, became the emperor's most intimate political advisor, but suddenly fell into disgrace and was arrested, imprisoned, and blinded, the victim (according to Dante) of calumny. In prison he committed suicide, supposedly by smashing his head against a wall.55 Chaucer's citation of this tercet in the Legend (a poem that hinges on crucial misinterpretations of a poet's work by an irascible and godlike master) is tantalizing, but is not clear how much or how little Chaucer actually knew of Inferno 13.56 It is certain, however, that Chaucer was learning a great deal about the art of calumny and betrayal at court in this desperate period. We have noted that his hopes for social and personal survival are elsewhere in his work heavily invested in the practice of wifely eloquence. In the Legend, such hopes are associated with a woman who comes “out of the hous of Cesar.” The cultural and political significance of Anne of Bohemia has been grossly underestimated (or unestimated) by Chaucer's critics and biographers; she certainly brought more to England than sidesaddles, pins, and extravagant headgear.57 Critical reactions to Anne are somewhat reminiscent of the attitude maintained by old-fashioned source study toward the Filostrato: foreign texts (and foreign persons) only come alive as they enter English territory. The problem is exacerbated in the case of Anne in that she was “only” a sixteen-year-old girl when she set foot in England. It seems worthwhile, then, to enquire who she was and what she might have brought with her.


The question of who Anne was before she was queen of England, posed to the historical sources currently available, returns a predictable answer: the daughter of the Emperor Charles IV. But this answer can be held at bay, for a moment, by considering two pictorial representations still visible at Prague. The first is the famous Zlatá Brana or Golden Portal on the south side of St. Vitus's cathedral, at the heart of the Hradčany or Prague Castle complex. The decorative front wall of this portal, built by Petr Parléř in 1367, features a mosaic in colored stone and gilded glass (now much faded): Charles IV and Elizabeth of Pomerania, Anne's parents, kneel to either side of a Last Judgment. Emperor and empress, in this representation, share the same horizontal plane, but just a few hundred yards to the northeast, within St. George's Basilica adjoining the former Benedictine convent,58 we find a female figure dominating the vertical axis (see plate 10). On the tomb of Prince Vratislav I, the convent's founder, a mitred bishop is painted kneeling, less than willingly, before an abbess—an image recording the prerogative of the princess abbess (who was selected from the royal family or high aristocracy) to crown the Czech queen. English politics and pictorial representations would require Queen Anne to adopt kneeling and intercessionary postures before King Richard II, but we cannot assume that Anne came from Bohemia to England with no sense of the politics of such postures, or with no capacity for imagining alternatives.

Charles was in every sense a dominating personality: he ruled as emperor from 1346 to 1378, fathered 11 children with 4 wives over 42 years,59 and presided over one of the most brilliant and well-connected courts and cities of postpandemic Europe.60 The Black Death affected Bohemia and Moravia in 1348-50 less severely than most parts of western Europe. Prague actually experienced a significant growth spurt in the second half of the fourteenth century. Charles attempted to strengthen this dynamic urban culture by undermining the nobility's position as the traditional interpreters of law.61 His attempt to introduce a written constitution would certainly have given rise to a new class of urban and legal professionals whose competence was defined by education rather than by birth—an initiative in keeping with the principles and practices disseminated through the writings of Albertano of Brescia. Prague, where Anne grew up, was a remarkably cosmopolitan city, the biggest of all European cities east of the Rhine. Nové Město (New Town) was founded in 1348 to provide for a rapidly expanding population made up predominantly of Czech speakers of rural provenance. Staré Město, north of Nové Město on the east bank of the Vltava, gained rights for a town hall in 1338 and a university ten years later. German was the most favored language here and at Malá Strana, the “Lesser Side,” a town that had grown up across the river on the slopes beneath the Prague castle complex.62 The Jewish community of Prague, which proved exceptionally influential and resilient over the centuries, expanded into the area now known as Josefov (north of Stare Město) during the twelfth century; the extraordinary Staronova Synagogue was one of the first Gothic structures in Prague.63 French culture continued to exercise an important influence. John of Luxemburg, Anne's grandfather, had been an infrequent visitor to Prague, preferring to divide his time between Luxemburg and the court of the French King Charles IV. He removed his eldest son, Wenceslaus, from Prague in 1323, when he was seven, to have him educated at the French court. At the time of his son's confirmation in France, John changed his name from Wenceslaus to Charles.64

Charles's new name spoke eloquently to his ambition of becoming a second Charlemagne, cynosure of a pan-European culture: this ambition is still legible in the disposition of architecture and civic space in Prague today. The multilingual Charles did not feel obliged to promote one vernacular culture at the expense of others. He was certainly a vigorous supporter of Czech and encouraged numerous translation projects, including a Czech Bible undertaken by monks of a Slavic-speaking cloister he himself had founded in 1348. But he did not seek to advance Czech by downplaying German; indeed, his court proved vital for the development of German in this period. His distinguished chancellor, Johann von Neumarkt (1310-80; also known as Jan ze Středy), translated numerous prayers, documents, and religious works into German and devoted his Buch der Liebkosung to the emperor.65 Charles himself wrote (in Latin) both a life of his ancestor St. Wenceslaus (Václav), patron saint of Bohemia, and an autobiography that reads like a mirror for princes and has been described as “a literary effort unique among mediaeval rulers.”66 He gave an imperial and royal charter for a university at Prague in 1348, staffed his chancery with scholars, and offered particular encouragement to the writing of history, especially Bohemian history. He was fluent in Czech, German, French, Latin, and (according to Petrarch) Italian.67

Charles IV and Petrarch took a very particular interest in one another since their cultural and political roles were complementary: if Charles were heir to the Roman emperors, then Petrarch was his contemporary Vergil. Their twelve-year letter exchange plays out across Europe like an unrequited love affair, in which Petrarch assumes a passionate and impatient, one might say “feminized,” role.68 Petrarch is forever exhorting Charles to descend on Italy and take charge of affairs (backpedaling only when the local interests of his despotic patrons are threatened).69 The poet moves between acclaiming his emperor and denouncing him with the passion and vehemence of a spurned lover. When things go well (as when Charles visited Italy in 1354), Petrarch acclaims him personally (“michi”) as king not of Bohemia but of the world; as emperor of Rome; as Caesar himself: “Iam michi non Boemie sed mundi rex, iam romanus imperator, iam verus es Cesar.” When things go badly (as Charles heads back to his “barbaric kingdoms” in 1355), Petrarch, feeling he has been cut with a sword, is full of reproaches: “Farewell, O Caesar, and consider what you are leaving behind and where you are headed.”70 Less than a year later, however, things are patched up, as the exigencies of Visconti foreign policy shift again: Petrarch sets off in pursuit of the emperor in Basel (where he fails to find him) and Prague (where he spends about a month in the company of the emperor, Empress Anne, and their court). Here he discovers “nothing more human than Caesar” and, in Caesar's entourage, “men of consummate kindness and courtesy, as though born in Attic Athens.”71 A later, petitionary letter, which reads like a love letter to “Caesar” but is actually a letter of reference for a friend, opens with the simple declaration: “Love makes even timid people daring.”72

Petrarch and the emperor were evidently drawn together both by scholarly interest and by a shared fascination with (and investment in) the cult of great men. Petrarch was flattered to learn that his name was revered on the far side of the Alps and to discover that the emperor, in conversation, “wished to have a chronological account of my entire life from the day I was born to the present time.”73 The emperor, having already written his own vita, was particularly keen to get his hands on the Petrarchan De viris illustribus. Petrarch, like a romance heroine contemplating the yielding of her favor, promises it to him “provided your virtue persists and my life as well.” Pressed to explain, Petrarch declares that Charles will have proved himself worthy both of the book and its dedication when, with deeds and a valorous spirit, he writes himself into the company of illustrious men (“rebus gestis et virtute animi illustribus te te viris ascripseris”).74 Charles's desire to possess and be part of the De viris was neither renounced nor satisfied; a later letter from Johann von Neumarkt indicates that the De viris illustribus continued to be discussed and longed for at the imperial court.75

Charles IV and his court occupy an important structuring role in Petrarch's Familiares: letters to Prague grow more frequent through the course of the work, and those addressed to Charles often occupy a prominent position (at the beginning or end of particular books).76 The Bohemians, for their part, attached particular importance to Petrarch as a vital part of what Ferdinand Seibt has termed the “mythische Legitimation des Kaisertums.”77 Petrarch met with the emperor during both of his descents into Italy (1354, 1368); he marshaled his brilliant philological skills to disprove the authenticity of documents prejudicial to imperial interests; he could be called upon to exercise his powers as a Count Palatine, an honor accorded him during his visit to Prague.78 Since Petrarch enjoyed close relations with the court as well as the emperor, reminiscences and textual traces of Petrarch were certain to outlast the death of Charles in 1378. For the young Anne of Bohemia, the poet's name would have been closely bound up with the memory and mystique of her father. In the realm of imperial culture, Petrarch was the one true counterpart to the Emperor Charles IV.

A recent bibliographical guide to medieval studies lists the term “Bohemia” under the organizational heading “Central Europe,” thereby subordinating medieval culture and geography to categories from postwar or cold war Europe. Postpandemic and imperial Bohemia is central to Europe rather than Central European (a category that lumps it in with Bulgaria, Armenia, and the Balkans).79 From such a viewpoint, then, England must have seemed to Anne and her followers (as it seemed to contemporary Italians) eccentric in its geography, politics, and culture.80 Bohemians who had accompanied the emperor through Lombardy in 1368 and lodged with Bernabò might have recalied the massive English contingent that accompanied Lionel, duke of Clarence, to Milan for the famous wedding.81 But the English would have been more immediately associated with the long and ruinous war with France: John of Luxemburg, Anne's grandfather, had been killed fighting (or bystanding: he was blind at the time) for the French at Crécy in 1346. Anne was to arrive in England with no dowry, and English commentators such as Walsingham were quick to complain about the expense of maintaining Anne “cum suis Boemiis,” especially when they embarked on a tour of English monasteries “in excessivo numero.”82 Walsingham also complains about how the Bohemians, “patriotae Reginae,” were quick to forget their native land once they had tasted the sweetness of English hospitality.83 Given such xenophobic resentment, the Bohemians must surely have welcomed signs of cultural continuity that might have made Prague seem not so very far away. Chaucer's writing, I would suggest, provided one such hopeful sign. Anne and her retinue, who formed part of a sophisticated, multilingual culture that valued both Latin and vernacular composition, arrived in England speaking French.84 (Anne's supposed dependence on vernacular texts and “glossed gospels” for her reading of the Bible was to be eagerly exploited by Lollard propagandists.)85 Chaucer's writing, particularly his earlier, courtly poems, was strongly influenced by French models; his Book of the Duchess owed a particularly heavy debt to the most popular French dit of the fourteenth century, Machaut's Le Jugement du roy de Behaigne.86 There is no doubt that Chaucer owned (or had ready access to) a manuscript of this poem, which tells how a historical monarch—Anne's grandfather, John of Luxemburg, King of Bohemia—comes to deliver a judgment at a specific site, the Castle of Durby. Machaut followed John all over Europe as his private secretary from c. 1323 until the late 1330s; his work continued to be influential at Prague throughout the fourteenth century (albeit the music rather than the poetry).87 Machaut's second major patron, Peter of Cyprus, was well-known to the Bohemians and attended the wedding of Charles and Elizabeth of Pomerania, Anne's mother, at Krakov in 1363.88 Froissart speaks of Peter (and he speaks of him at considerable length) being in Prague “et là environ” in 1363, shortly before his celebrated visit to England.89

The decline and fall of Peter of Cyprus was, as we have seen, one of the four “modern instances” included in the “Monk's Tale.” It is plausible that Chaucer was encouraged to write this essay in the Italian humanist genre, and to advertise it with the rubric “De Casibus Virorum Illustrium,” by hearing talk of the Petrarchan De viris illustribus. Such talk was as likely to emanate from Bohemians in England as from Italians in Milan or Florence since, as we have noted, the Petrarchan De viris was the object of particular desire in Prague. No Bohemian, so far as we know, had ever seen the De viris, since it was bottlenecked in Padua by the jealous guardians of Petrarch's estate.90 Chaucer was therefore at liberty to work from a Boccaccian model but to suggest the effect of a Petrachan text by having readers or auditors discover “my maister Petrak” (7.2325) in the middle of it. The inclusion of “modern instances” in the “Monk's Tale” would have been as topically poignant for the Bohemians as it was for the English. Anne's young half-brother Wenceslaus, like her husband Richard, was finding it very difficult to succeed as a young ruler following a long-lived monarch.91

Chaucer's decision to write the Legend of Good Women as a recompense for Troilus and Criseyde might similarly have been influenced by Bohemian connections. The opening book of the Troilus has generally been read as paying a compliment to the newly arrived Queen Anne. As Stephen A. Barney argues,92 the case for deliberate allusion is considerably strengthened by use of the word “now”:

Right as oure firste lettre is now an A,
In beaute first so stood she, makeles.


It is problematic to suggest too close an association between a contemporary queen and an ultimately unfaithful heroine, but consciousness of this fact may well have prompted the writing of the Legend as a palinode to the Troilus (a precedent clearly suggested by Machaut's two Jugement poems, where Behaigne is complemented, or reversed, by Navarre).93 But inspiration for the Legend might again have derived from Bohemian recollections of Petrarchan texts, here specifically of the little treatise de laudibus feminarum addressed to Anne of Bohemia, third wife of the emperor. This unfortunate Anne died in childbirth (probably along with her third child) on July 11, 1362, at the age of 23; our Anne of Bohemia, born of the fourth empress three years later, was named in her memory.94 Part of this memory must surely have been talk or material evidence of the letter that Petrarch had written to the young Empress Anne. Chaucer, once again, was stirred to compose the kind of neo-Italian humanist encyclopaedic text that might claim “Petrak” as its “maister.” And once again he employs a Boccaccian model, the De mulieribus claris, since Petrarchan texts were very hard to come by. His choice of Alceste, the dead queen of the Book of the Duchess, might have been influenced by knowledge of how Anne came to be named. And, at the risk of gilding the daisy, it is perhaps worth noting that Anne's father devotes a whole chapter of his autobiography to the virtues of the margarita or pearl, the gem that, for all those soaked in French literary tradition, adds symbolic luster and pious suggestion to the English “dayesye.”95 The association between Alceste as “dayesye” and Alceste as pearl is made explicit by Chaucer in F 215-25, where she is said to wear a white crown “of perle fyn.”

Such suggestions of the various ways in which Chaucer's court-based writing might have served, meshed, or intersected with Bohemian interests are designed not so much to encourage further study of sources and influences (although much is clearly needed) as to draw attention to a remarkable congruence of cultural fields. The congruence is not specifically between Bohemian and English culture, but rather between the Bohemians and Chaucer, for there was nobody in England more capable than Chaucer, through his particular political, diplomatic, and literary experiences in France, Italy, and elsewhere, of grasping the full internationalist dimensions of Bohemian style.96 “Style” is a term that hangs ambiguously, often ephemerally, between literary and political terms of reference.97 It is quite clear that the style of Richard's monarchy—in dress, culture, and political ambition—owed much to his marriage to the Bohemian daughter of an “emperice.” It is also possible to show, by tracing lines of manuscript transmission, that certain productions of English culture (as diverse as Latin satire and Lollardy) were, sooner or later, carried back to Bohemia.98 It seems legitimate, then, to see Chaucer's texts offering themselves, in both their literary and political styles, as an imaginative bridging of London and Prague.

Anne of Bohemia's education in English culture and politics was quite advanced before she reached London and Westminster in December 1381.99 One of her chief instructors was Sir Simon Burley, a longterm associate of Chaucer's and a member of the so-called “Chaucer circle” in the 1380s.100 Burley had taken a leading part in negotiating Anne's marriage with Richard and had accompanied her to England. Three days after landing in England, however, Anne passed (at Canterbury) from the care of Burley to the supervision of Thomas of Woodstock, Richard's uncle, later duke of Gloucester.101 Burley, who had been entrusted with Richard's education by Edward III and was still described as “meastre del roy” in 1380,102 was evidently popular with both Richard and Anne. But his access to the royal couple became more problematic when, at the insistence of the parliament of November 1381, two guardians (Sir Michael de la Pole and Richard, earl of Arundel) were appointed “to attend the king in his household and to counsel and govern his person.”103 Anne and Richard were married on January 14, 1382.

Very little time elapsed after her arrival in England before Anne, or the name of Anne, was pressed into service as a mediatrix seeking mercy or favor from the king on behalf of his wayward subjects. In 1382-83, many individual pardons to 1381 rebels were said to be granted at the queen's request; in 1382, Anne's nominal intervention supposedly saved Wyclif from the Council.104 A charter of 1389 pictures Anne kneeling before Richard (within the R that begins his name) on behalf of the citizens of Shrewsbury (plate 11). Anne continued to play this role, one traditionally assigned to English queens,105 for the rest of her life. In 1391, the Grand Master of the Teutonic Knights wrote to her (and separately to John of Gaunt) urging her to influence Richard in adhering to the terms of a treaty; in 1392, she knelt before Richard in Westminster Hall, making formal intercession on behalf of the citizens of London.106 It is evident that at most such intercessory moments, Anne is simply acting out a scripted role in a public drama that is not of her making. But it is rash to suppose Anne incapable of assuming an active role, or to assume (as does one historian) that she was valued chiefly for her docility and charm.107 Her reported commissioning of a book of heraldry, the Tractatus de armis of the mysterious Johannes de Bado Aureo, may indicate an ambition to read the signs in disputes such as the Scrope-Grosvenor controversy (the six-year Court of Chivalry epic that erupted in 1385).108 And, like the rebels of 1381, or like the wife in the “Shipman's Tale,” she may have been perfectly capable of envisioning an active role within political structures that assumed only passive compliance.109 If she could play Mary and Esther, merciful mediatrix and wise counselor,110 in public, she was evidently capable of assuming such roles in private: in the household (a location at once public and private) and in the bedchamber (one of the most notable Chaucerian sites for female eloquence). Chaucer's evident conviction that wifely eloquence represents the chief hope of facing down a powerful, irascible spouse is clearly shared by the citizens of London, or at least by the poet who writes on their behalf: “Quod vir non audet, sola potest mulier” (“What a man does not dare, a wife alone can do”).111


F 342—Alceste's first intervention for Chaucer before her irate, godlike husband—is clearly a moment deserving of the thickest description. The first thing to notice (once again) is that the saving voice in Chaucer is female. Petrarch, in his relations with Anne's father, keeps women out of the picture, preferring (as in his dealings with other great men) to play the woman himself. Chaucer, in representing his relations with a figure of equivalent authority, chooses to position an eloquent wife between himself and his lord. He clearly felt licensed to do this both by immediate political contingencies and by political tradition: he too could imagine an English-speaking queen, a sage and merciful mediatrix, who would intervene on his behalf. But there is more to be said about Chaucer's personal devotion to a fictional figure, Alceste, who stands in some relation to a historical queen, Anne of Bohemia:112 Chaucer might be considered as a suitor. The fact that nobody thinks to take Chaucer seriously as a suitor might well be read as testimony to the brilliance of his protective coloring. How can such a “worm” be taken seriously? But such a “worm,” as the irascible god himself points out, is found very near the bud. What, then, does such a suitor have to offer? An appreciation, unmatched by any man in England, of the kind of cultural terrain a Bohemian abroad might recognize and feel welcomed by. What might his reward be? Perhaps the freedom to stand in the place he has already unwittingly occupied; and also the license, “whan this book ys maad,” to “yive it the queene, / … at Eltham or at Sheene” (F 496-97).

There is no need to assume, with Lydgate, that Chaucer wrote this poem expressly “at request off the queen.”113 But even if the Legend never left his desk, it remains remarkable for its intimate imagining of relations between an eloquent queen and a productive poet. This intimacy between poet and queen is suggested by the possibility of secret communication between them (as Chaucer evokes a cultural terrain more familiar to the queen than to her husband) and by the perennial question of whose voice occupies whose body at any given moment. As devotee of the “dayesye” within the poem, we have noted, Chaucer claims that his voice is really hers: like fingers on a harp, she plays his heart and brings forth whatever “vois” she chooses (F 89-93). But it becomes clear as the poem progresses that language has complex and dangerous political connotations that escape Chaucer's control or comprehension. When the time comes for Chaucer to defend himself from the accusations of an outraged spouse who stands at the brink of tyranny, the conceit that his “vois” is directed by the lady will have to be abandoned: to save him, she must speak not through him but instead of him. Yet every word she speaks, of course, is scripted by the historical Chaucer, who stands in some relation (however distant) to the historical Anne of Bohemia. Given such complexities and dangers, where timely use of language seems the only guarantee of salvation or betrayal, and such subtle overlaps between poetic and historical worlds, it is not surprising if we occasionally call to mind relations between a later poet and a later Anne under the shadow of a later (and more terrible) absolutist monarch: Thomas Wyatt, Anne Boleyn, and Henry VIII.114

Alceste's defense of Chaucer before the God of Love must surely rank as one of the most brilliant set-pieces of political rhetoric ever written. Although it begins with a hundred-line monologue (F 342-441), it nevertheless suggests the dialogic qualities of the “Melibee” by seeming to respond to the shifting emotional state of its addressee. It would be otiose to trace every twist and turn of this rhetorical performance, since this would tend to repeat the thematic concerns of the “Melibee” chapter. But it is worth noting how Alceste fights to establish, or to redefine, the circumstances of her utterance and how she achieves the brilliant feat of practicing the arts of dicendi and tacendi at the same time. Her crucial intervention (to recap a little) comes as the God of Love considers turning Chaucer from a spectacle of foolishness to a spectacle (“wel be sene!”) of cruelty:

“By seynt Venus that my moder ys,
If that thou lyve, thou shalt repenten this
So cruelly that it shal wel be sene!”
Thoo spak this lady, clothed al in grene,
And seyde, “God, ryght of youre curtesye,
Ye moten herken yf he can replye
Agayns al this that ye have to him meved.”

(F 338-44)

Chaucer must speak, says Alceste; he deserves the right of “replye.” But, knowing that if Chaucer does “replye” he will certainly destroy himself, Alceste continues talking for a hundred lines, monopolizing the dicendi while imposing tacendi on Chaucer. The first problem she addresses is the confusion of Hof and Gericht (always a danger when the same authority rules over both). She begins by separating out these functions, appealing first to her spouse's “curtesye” (Hof) and then to his sense of judicial procedure (“that ye have to him meved,” Gericht). It is difficult for a God of Love (and son of Venus) to be always mindful of his obligation to govern by due process of law, “by right” (351); but it is also difficult for anyone to remind him of this duty, since, being a god (and absolute ruler) he knows everything. Alceste solves this dilemma even as she expresses it through the indispensable courtly trope (much favored by the Knight, and botched by the Squire) of occupatio:

“And yf ye nere a god, that knowen al,
Thanne myght yt be as I yow tellen shal”:

(F 348-49)

Alceste next returns to the problematic Hof-Gericht divide by considering the topic of flattery, one of much concern to political theorists such a John of Salisbury and Albertano of Brescia. The “losengeour,” or flatterer, systematically exploits the confusion of Hof and Gericht by attempting to turn the former into the latter: that is, he drums on the ears of his monarch at court in order to win his “daliaunce” and then to move him against those he envies (F 352-56). And so we come to Alceste's first major defense of Chaucer. Her general strategy is to separate the intentions, fruits, and uses of Chaucer's makyng from the historical individual who is supposedly responsible for them (F 362-72). In denying Chaucer any defining moment of authorial intent, Alceste encourages the God of Love to view “Chaucer” as what we might term an “author function”: to let the axe fall on the neck of the historical Chaucer would be unduly essentializing, endowing the flesh-and-blood Chaucer with a historical grandeur that he could never actually command. If this formulation seems too indebted to modern literary theory, it might be rephrased in terms of medieval understanding of legal ownership (in which the notion of “absolute ownership” is very rare). Chaucer never “owned” the writings that bear his name: he might claim usus fructi of the tropes that cycle through his writing, but never dominio.115

Alceste now develops a remarkable parallel between the relations of kings to makeres and the relationship of monarchs to subjects, beginning with an infamous negative exemplum:

“This shoolde a ryghtwis lord have in his thought,
And be nat lyk tirauntz of Lumbardye,
That han no reward but at tyrannye.
For he that kyng or lord is naturel,
Hym oghte nat be tiraunt ne crewel
As is a fermour, to doon the harm he kan.
He moste thinke yt is his lige man,
And is his tresour and his gold in cofre.”

(F 373-80)

No king should diminish himself by behaving like a tyrannical taxgatherer (“fermour”); he must think that such a man as Chaucer (“yt”) is his liegeman, his treasure and his money in the bank. The text does not make such high claims for Chaucer quite so directly, of course (although he remains the most logical choice as referent of the pronoun “yt”). Alceste's discourse is evidently drifting from the immediate scene of intercession and judgment to more general but no less concrete political reflections in which “yt” stands in for political subjects in general. Such subjects are evidently those of Richard II's England rather than the God of Love's dreamland: the discussion of the need to honor and advance magnates (evocatively described as “half-goddes,” F 387) while respecting the rights of lesser subjects (F 384-90) seems particularly apt for the 1380s. But most timely and eloquent of all is the naming and repudiation of “tirauntz of Lumbardye”: Anne of Bohemia must surely have come to represent for Richard (as for Chaucer) the living antithesis of the Lombard option. Before his marriage to Anne was arranged, Richard's diplomats were actively pursuing a union between the English monarch and Caterina Visconti.116 Instead of having Emperor Charles IV as a father-in-law, illustrious and deceased, Richard might have ended up with Bernabò, infamous and alive. Having observed Bernabò and his polity at first hand, Chaucer was well equipped to imagine how a Lombard absolutist model might play on English soil; the nightmare of Fragment 4 would be much closer to home. Anne/Alceste, therefore, represents the historical alternative to such a fate; no wonder she sends Chaucer zipping into the fields.

Alceste's next move, effected so elegantly that it is possible to miss its extraordinary boldness, is to convince an absolute ruler, her spouse, of the virtue of silence and inaction:

“In noble corage ought ben arest,
And weyen every thing by equytee,
And ever have reward to his owen degree.”

(F 397-99)

The practice of “arest” is obviously vital to a king in his struggle to master his passions and remain “ryghtwis”; it is the quality—commended by Dante's Aquinas as part of his discourse on “regal prudenza,” “kingly prudence”—that differentiates Theseus from Walter (and, one hopes, Richard II from “tirauntz of Lumbardye”).117 The whole of Alceste's speech is a form of “arest”: it prevents Chaucer from speaking (while insisting on his right to speak) and allows the God of Love to recover himself—his kingly self. It also continues to offer both monarch and subject clues as to what their next speeches and actions should be. Chaucer's role is laid out first: he should simply beg for mercy “ryght in his bare sherte” (F 405). The God of Love, for his part, should be “sumwhat tretable,” remembering (and here Alceste interpellates her spouse most cleverly) that no death sentence is involved in this case (F 409-11). Chaucer has attempted to be loyal to Love in his poetry, however ineptly, as the catalogue of his works suggests (F 417-30). Since he “mysseyde” in his makynge, he should now make amends in kind (and under a tighter rein): responsibility for inventio should be taken from him, and all phases of his literary production should be dictated by the God of Love (“as ye wol devyse,” F 431-41). Having argued long and hard for Chaucer's right to reply, Alceste has now relieved him of the need to speak. The only speech she has envisaged for him is a suit for pardon (F 403-6). Sensing that even this may be too much to ask, however, she speaks it herself (taking the opportunity to remind her spouse that she, like Anne of Bohemia, had a life before she ever set foot in his kingdom):

“I, youre Alceste, whilom quene of Trace,
Y aske yow this man …”

(F 432-33)

Alceste's request is immediately granted by her spouse, who, judging from the judiciously qualified quality of his first sentence, has evidently regained his composure (F 443-46). Although Alceste has alerted him to his responsibilities within the court as Gericht, the framing of her final appeal enables him to speak höflicherweise: he grants the queen's request (like a good king in a romance) purely out of devotion to her. No mention is now made of Chaucer's rights under law. Chaucer is addressed in just one line, where he is brusquely directed to thank the queen. Chaucer does so, but with appalling lack of tact; he actually manages to subordinate the God of Love (to “God above,” and to his wife) twice in the space of three lines:

                                        “Madam, the God above
Foryelde yow that ye the god of Love
Han maked me his wrathe to foryive.”

(F 456-58)

Chaucer immediately makes things worse by attempting to reopen a judicial procedure that has evidently come to an end, and by taking issue with some of the lines of defense that Alceste employed to save him. Whatever his sources might have meant, he claims, he always had a firm grip on his own authorly intent, his “menynge” (F 470-74). Alceste soon calls a halt to such “arguynge” (a term, like “counterpleted,” drawn from the lexicon of legal procedure):118

“For Love ne wol nat countrepleted be
In ryght ne wrong, and lerne that at me!
Thow hast thy grace, and hold the ryght therto.”

(F 476-78)

Since Love is the absolute arbiter on matters of love, there can be no questioning of his judgments: Chaucer must accept the social and judicial reality of his “trespas” and serve the life sentence of supervised “makyng” that is handed down to him (F 479-84). The suspicion that the God of Love's court is governed by political rather than philosophical perceptions is confirmed some fifty lines later when a new charge is leveled against Chaucer: that he neglected to include Alceste in his balade “Hyd Absolon” (F 537-43). It is quite clear, from the context provided three hundred lines earlier, that this balade is intended to praise “this lady fre,” Alceste. But, as Chaucer the dreamer has recently learned, authorly “entente” and “menynge” are difficult to hang on to once a text enters public circulation: when the God of Love heard the balade it seems that nobody was on hand to gloss “my lady” as “Alceste.” Chaucer has also learned, however, that “Love ne wol nat countrepleted be” (F 476): he holds his tongue, swallows some reasoned but unwarranted abuse, and gets on with making his “Legende.” The “Prologue” closes with the poet's despotic master exercising extremely close control over his “makynge”: he prescribes content (“goode women”), sources (“thy bookes”), form (rhyming meters), starting point (Cleopatra), and mode of treatment (exemplary; epitomizing—“the grete”—with a marked tendency toward abbreviatio rather than amplificatio).

Such tight control suggests that makyng in such a context will prove just as claustrophobic and restrictive as it is at the court of Theseus: the temple walls writ (but only slightly) longer. And the dreamer Chaucer, one realizes, seems particularly ill-qualified to assess “the grete” of lives of ladies (inevitably) at court. His own readings of court space suggest that he belongs in the study or the marketplace rather than within the familia regis. His reaction to learning that Alceste is to be identified with his special flower seems particularly crass:

“Wel hath she quyt me myn affeccioun
That I have to hire flour, the dayesye.”

(F 523-24)

Chaucer now understands why Alceste has stood up for him: she has repaid (“quyt”) his devotion to her symbol, the daisy. Court life, in this view, is reduced to commercium, commercial exchange: the idea that Alceste's mediation, like that of the Virgin Mary, cannot be bought or deserved at any price remains a mystery beyond his grasp. His very ignorance of this point is designed to assure us, as cultured courtly readers, that his need for Alceste (and her surrogate beyond the text) remains as great as ever.


The rewriting of the so-called F text of the Legend of Good Women as so-called G (uniquely preserved by Cambridge University MS Gg. 4.27) reiterates an issue of growing importance for this book: the ways in which a text, over time, comes to mean different things as circumstances change; the ways in which contemporary history may break into and embed itself in a literary construct or, as in the case of G, demand both expansion and excision. The ultimate effect of the G revision, I shall argue, is an attempt to save or withhold the text from history by denying it the force of occasion and by fixing it in a past that is sharply separated from the single viewpoint of an all-knowing present. As the agent of such a revision, the G-author (whom I take to be Chaucer) follows the precedent of Petrarchan humanism, turning his back on the vernacular poetics of Dante, Boccaccio, and the Canterbury Tales.

The delicate courtly scenario of the F-text “Prologue” could hardly survive if Alceste were to kneel to one of the “half-goddes” (F 387) who attend the God of Love while the god himself stands uselessly by. Something analogous to this, however, is said to have happened to Richard II and Anne of Bohemia in 1388 (that is, almost as soon as the F-text had been written). Sir Simon Burley, Richard's childhood tutor and his matchmaker with Anne, was impeached for treason by the Lords Appellant. The two junior appellants—Derby and Nottingham—interceded for Burley, but their senior partners—Gloucester, Arundel, and Warwick—proved obdurate.119 Queen Anne went on her knees before the earls of Arundel and Gloucester begging for the life of Burley, who (in the laconic words of the Traïson et Morte) “nonetheless had his head chopped off.”120 Adding insult to injury, Arundel responded to the queen's entreaties by telling her that she would do better to pray for herself “et pour vostre mary.” The all-powerful royal husband is not now one to be prayed to, but (at the direction of one of his own magnates) to be prayed for. The insult maintains contact with the courtly world of the Legend through the choice of epithet chosen by Arundel to address the queen: “Mamie,” “my lady-friend.”121

There is no doubt that Burley was resented for his links with the Bohemians: he was explicitly charged with showing them undue favor.122 There can be little doubt, too, that Anne was personally attached to Burley, the courtier who had escorted her to England before transferring her to Gloucester's care in 1381. The helplessness of king and queen before the events of 1388 makes the delicate politics and rhetoric of the F “Prologue” seem anachronistic—properly the stuff of dream poetry—almost as soon as they were written. The deaths of Burley and his fellow chamber knights, commonly characterized as the first political executions in England for more than half a century,123 made any kind of attachment to the royal household and its courtly politics seem highly dangerous. As signs of trouble grew more abundant during and after the parliament of October 1 to November 28, 1386, Chaucer systematically distanced himself from the royal circles. By 1388 he had resigned from his controllership of customs (a royal appointment), given up his exchequer annuities, and left his dwelling above Aldgate. Such astute reading of historical signs (a talent not to be guessed at from the self-representation of the F “Prologue”) enabled him to survive 1388 when lesser talents, such as Thomas Usk, did not.124

If the events of 1388 threatened the delicate mechanisms of the F “Prologue,” the death of Anne of Bohemia in 1394 made them worse than obsolete: a painful reminder of lost options. Anne, who represented the chief source of continuity in the much-damaged royal household, came to assume increasing importance for Richard after 1388.125 Their marriage seems to have been, to borrow Caroline Barron's felicitous phrase, a “companionate” one.126 The death at Sheene on June 7, 1394, of the “benignissima domina” (as Adam of Usk calls her) was experienced as a sudden and unforeseen disaster by Richard, who ordered that the entire manor be destroyed (“fecit extirpari”); there is no evidence that he ever visited the site again.127 Anne's demise also marks, I would argue, a disastrous terminus for Chaucerian polity, the subject of this book. As we have seen, so many of the hopes for the stability of male-headed households hang upon the office and performance of eloquent wives. Anne of Bohemia, while she lived, represented an important historical correlative for the wives who fight out political battles in a whole host of Chaucerian texts. The absence of Anne makes the future look about as bright as it does for Apollo and his court-trained crow once Apollo has killed his wife. The likely consequences of Richard attempting to rule without his queen were soon glimpsed in an extraordinary scene that took place as Anne lay in her coffin at Westminster Abbey. Arundel, one of the Appellants who had pressed for the death of Burley, absented himself from the funeral procession from St. Paul's, arrived late at the Abbey, and then asked to leave early on urgent business. Richard, outraged, struck him violently on the head, causing his blood to flow freely and pollute the church.128 Richard without Anne is a Melibee without Prudence: outrage at insult and injury to a much-loved wife, in that wife's absence, is doomed to lead to a renewal of violence. The particular cycle of intermagnate violence initiated in 1388 and rehearsed at Anne's death was not completed until 1397, when Richard had Arundel escorted through London by his Cheshire archers and beheaded on Tower Hill.129 Gloucester, having been reminded of his failure to spare Burley when the queen kneeled before him, died at Calais soon after.130

The timing and circumstances of Anne's death were particularly unfortunate for Chaucer. Anne's death on June 7, 1394, the feast of Pentecost, must have made the pentecostal imagery of the “Summoner's Tale” seem wholly distasteful: the unholy wind that descends over the twelve spokes in the convent is a joke that, for the moment, does not bear repeating.131 The bright idea of associating this tale with Holderness, held by Queen Anne “ad terminum vitae suae,” must also suddenly have seemed a liability, especially when the Duke of Gloucester arrived in Holderness soon after the death of Anne, “circa festum Pentecostes,” to claim the dominium as his own.132 Even Chaucer's choice of name for his peasant protagonist was ill-fated. The new claimant to Holderness was, as the monastic chronicler tells us, “serenissimus princeps dominus Thomas Wodstok, dux Gloucestriae.”133 The “Summoner's Tale” could evidently survive such strokes of coincidence and dumb luck: but the F “Prologue” of the Legend was another matter. Chaucer had, after all, associated the very moment of his completing the text with the queen and the place she died, a bond made tighter through the effect of rhyme:

“And whan this book ys maad, yive it the quene,
On my byhalf, at Eltham or at Sheene.”

(F 496-97)

Chaucer would also, I believe, have found the suggestive associations he had forged between Alceste as “perle” and “dayesye” and “the quene” very difficult to shake. In October 1396, when Richard traveled to Ardes to receive his new, infant queen from King Charles VI, he had his male attendants dress in the livery of his dead queen, Anne of Bohemia, while he himself wore a hat of hanging pearls.134 It is clear that Richard explicitly associated the pearl with Anne because he gave the French king a collar of pearls from the livery of the dead queen, worth 5,000 marks.135 It could be that Chaucer's suggestive association of Anne with his pearl-crowned queen, Alceste, had proved so successful that Richard was moved, at this crucial moment, to wear the margarita in her memory. It is more likely, of course, that Chaucer's Legend is simply refining and recycling motifs and associations originated from royal circles. Either way, allusion to “the quene” within a context soaked in marguerite tradition seems certain to have stirred memories of Anne of Bohemia years after her death.

In his Book of the Duchess, Chaucer actually introduces the image of a historical site that quite literally speaks the memory of a loving, courtly marriage destroyed by death. As the “hert-huntynge” in that poem ends, the king rides homeward to

A long castel with walles white,
Be Seynt Johan, on a ryche hil.


“Johan” may be taken as representing John of Gaunt, “long castel” as Lancaster, “white” as Gaunt's deceased wife Blanche, and the “ryche hil” with Richmond, their castle in Yorkshire. But whereas in the Duchess Chaucer is moved to introduce a building that evokes memories of a deceased and much-loved wife, in the Legend (in a gesture analogous to Richard's repudiation of Sheene) he elects to tear one down, or out: the F 496-97 couplet that invokes Sheene is excised. So too is the characterization of the daisy as “of alle floures floure” (F 53) and as “emperice” (F 185); so too thoughts of “my lady sovereyne” (F 275). In fact, a whole succession of cuts are made that weaken both the mystery and political suggestiveness of Alceste; she is, from the start, both a known and a diminished quantity. The refrain of the balade critiqued for its nebulousness in F (“My lady cometh”) is rewritten in G as “Alceste is here”; the risk that the God of Love will misjudge Chaucer's intentions is thereby neatly removed (G 525-28). The general effect of the G revision is to preserve both text and author from those linguistic traps that made F such dangerous and exhilarating territory: all those lines on the tydif's “newefanglnesse,” on the betrayals of bird courtship (and of personification allegory), and the final, dubious acclamation of Summer as “governour and lord” (F 154-70) are simply cut. Ambiguities that remain seem less topical and therefore less threatening: a considerable passage of time has evidently passed between F and G. In F, May has just begun (108), but in G it is almost over (89). Chaucer, in G, “begynnyst dote” (261); he belongs now among “olde foles” (G 262), busying himself with “olde bokes” that speak of “olde women” (301). Indeed, the Legend now seems to think of itself as an old book, a text that has become familiar and hence less remarkable. There is no talk now of the lady authoring the text through Chaucer since the excursus from the Filostrato, F 84-96, is cut entirely. There is, however, much more talk of auctors in general. Even the God of Love seems to have grown more bookish and orthodox in his thinking:

“This knoweth God, and alle clerkes eke
That usen swiche materes for to seke.
What seith Valerye, Titus, or Claudyan?
What seith Jerome … ?”

(G 278-81)

These lines form part of the greatest single addition to G (267-312), a passage that makes a concerted attempt at pushing experience back into “the world of autours” (308). All this distracts from the sense of occasion so vividly generated by F: if this text were tied to any specific historical moment, the sense now is, it lays—like some old romance—far back in the past.136 The God of Love's lengthy speech about old books, delivered just before Chaucer is called upon to speak and defend himself, serves to diffuse the tension generated by F at this most crucial juncture. In F, we have noted, the deity stands on the very brink of losing self-control and threatens death and cruelty (F 339-40). Such extreme language is moderated in G: the God of Love calls for Chaucer's “answere” in G at line 267, but then goes on (in a forty-line excursus) to develop a reasoned critique of Chaucer's makynge suggestive of irritation rather than outrage. Alceste's intervention in G 317 is less dramatic because it seems less urgently required.

At this point, I would suggest, the G-text loses contact with (or washes its hands of) contemporary history. The hope that an irate son of Venus would moderate his anger on his own initiative (rather than relying on the rhetorical skill of his queenly spouse) seems a pious wish indeed after 1394. In his poem or dream world, Chaucer elects to erase lines that might point to an Alcestian surrogate beyond the text. In the historical world there was, indeed, nobody to point to but the monarch himself (plus, in 1396, a seven-year-old queen). While Anne was alive, Richard could feed and stage his own importance by having the daughter and sister of an emperor kneel before him; the lion rises above the eagle.137 Once Anne was dead, however, Richard felt compelled to retain the prestige of her imperial pedigree by becoming Holy Roman Emperor himself. To do this he needed to depose Anne's brother, the Emperor Wenceslaus. As early as 1394, Richard was sending gifts to the imperial electors; by 1397 he had made four of them his pensioners (including the influential archbishop of Cologne, who became his vassal and liegeman).138 His affectation of imperial style may be seen in the Wilton diptych, where eagles alternate with white harts on his robe; in the extraordinary carved head at York Minster, said to represent Richard II as emperor-designate,139 and in his characterization in the roll of the Hilary Parliament in 1397 as “entier Emperour de son Roialme d’Engleterre.”140 To advance his ambitions, Richard was willing to support (but then to repudiate) the Franco-Florentine war against Gian Galeazzo Visconti, “tyrant of Lombardy”; to encourage yet another “Visconti marriage,” this time between Henry of Derby and Lucia, another of Bernabò's daughters; and to become the author (rather than the attentive reader) of de casibus tragedy by deposing his own brother-in-law.141 The self-deluding grandiosity of such schemes must have driven the author of the “Clerk's Tale,” the “Melibee,” the “Manciple's Tale,” the “Monk's Tale,” and the Legend of Good Women close to despair (or into retirement).

The G revision does make some effort to adjust to new political realities. One expansion (360-64) emphasizes the importance of listening to the “excusacyons” of subjects, and of respecting parliamentary procedures (“here compleyntes and petyciouns”). The very need to make such a plea suggests that tyrannical or absolutist tendencies are in the ascendant. The term “tyrannye,” used to describe “tyraunts of Lumbardye” in F, is now coupled with “wilfulhede” (suggestive of the term voluntas arbitrium).142 New emphasis is laid on kingly tradition in the evocation of oaths sworn by kings before their lieges “Ful many a hundred wynter herebeforn”: the tendency of tyrannous polity, as we have seen, is to effect a violent rupture with the past. Such traces of resistance in G are heartening, but they cannot alter the dominant impression that the death of Anne and the diminution of Alceste have sapped the text of its political vitality and its occasional (that is, historical) force. Time has passed, and the poet “begynnyst dote” (261). Taking his place among “olde foles” whose “spiryt fayleth” (262), his chief concern becomes the saving of his text from temporal vicissitudes and its delivery to posterity as a finished book. This effort to save a text by a process of revision that stabilizes the present by confining historical indeterminacies to a carefully distanced past marks the closest Chaucer ever comes to adopting a Petrarchan or neohumanist poetic. Dante, in opening his Convivio, explicitly refuses either to repudiate or revise his youthful work, the Vita nuova, in the light of later experience: “Ché altro si conviene e dire e operare ad una etade che ad altra.”143 His Commedia also stands unrevised even after the death of the Emperor Henry VII has vitiated the political hopes with which it set out; the frustrations and disasters of unfolding history, perhaps most poignantly captured in Paradiso 30, 136-38, are integral to its power as a vernacular text. Petrarchan tarditas, by contrast, refuses to release texts to the movement of history until they promise to be, through a process of private revision, unassailably finished. Petrarch's technique, followed by Chaucer in G, is to make the present a secure point of reference against the newly essentialized otherness of a now distant past.144 Such a technique serves regimes keen to assert the unquestionable givenness of present political arrangements better than it suits those that would trace continuities between past and present.

The Wilton diptych, that most enigmatic and beautiful of texts from the last years of Richard II, speaks both to the English monarch's immediate absolutist and imperial ambitions and to his sense of continuity with a political and religious tradition of English kingship. As one of three kings kneeling before the Virgin and child, he claims his figurative place both among the magi and in a line of succession leading from the English royal saints Edmund and Edward the Confessor to himself. The Lancastrian dynasty, given its violent usurpation of the throne, had little choice but to downplay the significance of historical continuity and to accentuate the overwhelming reality of new political (and religious) circumstances. The emphases of Petrarchan humanism, elaborated within the contexts of northern Italian despotism, seem quite in keeping with the ideological needs of such an enterprise. Chaucer's G-text, in its repudiation of Dantean temporality, reads like a Lancastrian text avant la lettre.


The F-text of the “Prologue” to the Legend of Good Women, much like the Wilton diptych, gains much of its poignancy as an artefact through our knowledge that its delicate balancing of symbolic claims is, almost at the moment of its completion, about to be swept away. The Lancastrians will attempt to legitimate themselves in matters of religion not by celebrating the continuity of royal bloodlines but by turning the machinery of state to the persecution of religious dissent. Wifely rhetoric will contribute little to the testing and tempering of Lancastrian policy: Henry IV had little time or inclination to develop court life with his second wife, Joan of Brittany; Henry V (who spent much of his brief married life outside England) paid for his wife's dowry by seizing that of his stepmother (once his prospective mother-in-law) whom he charged with witchcraft.145 Chaucer's dedication to exploring the domestic dynamics and political efficacy of female eloquence, then, seems peculiarly a phenomenon of the years of Richard's first marriage, 1381-94. Such dedication is not shared by his Italian contemporaries. Boccaccio, we have noted, sees the business of writing de mulieribus claris as a pastime to be enjoyed once the serious business of res publica has been taken care of. Petrarch, with the single exception of his short de laudibus feminarum treatise, excludes women from the international networks of correspondence represented by his letter collections. When, in his personal dealings with “myghty men,” Petrarch discovers a need for traditionally feminine roles (the powerless, Griselde-like subject; the hopeful or spurned lover; the romance heroine, offering and withholding her favors) he plays them himself. Only Chaucer, it seems, is moved to keep positioning an eloquent wife between an irate masculine master and himself and the public world. When he hangs over the abyss, as he does in the F “Prologue,” he is saved not by the strong hand of masculine bloodlines (as Petrarch is saved at Milan), but by the timely intervention of wifely eloquence.

Anne of Bohemia, I have suggested, is a historical surrogate of vital importance for Chaucer's elaboration of the role of Alceste. The arrival of Anne and her fellow Bohemians prompted Chaucer to explore a rich new cultural ground: a vital conjunction of his awakening interest in Italian neohumanism and his long-term dedication to the courtly poetics of Machaut. The abiding presence of Anne, the daughter and sister of an emperor, also symbolized a historical alternative to the polity pursued by “tyraunts of Lumbardye,” a form of rule where masculine “wilfulhede” and self-aggrandizement turn a deaf ear to the moderating persuasions embodied in the person of an eloquent wife. The loss of such a wife, or the lost possibility of imagining one, is a disaster that Chaucerian polity cannot survive.

Chaucer's dedication to imaging wifely eloquence is, in the comparative and diachronic perspectives developed by this book, the most singular aspect of his oeuvre. This is not a phenomenon limited to his court-based writing. Eloquent wives who influence or determine the outcome of events are a perennial feature of all kinds of Chaucerian text. Differences between Chaucer's court and noncourt writing have, I think, been unnecessarily exaggerated. The Wife of Bath, for example, is a remarkable crossover phenomenon: she represents the mercantile and manufacturing world, but tells a tale that hinges (twice) on wifely eloquence at court and is cited in a courtly near-balade as a familiar authority on marriage.146 The royal household itself, through its exemplary relation of king to queen, may be read as a model both of relations between monarch and subject and (in a structure reproduced throughout the kingdom) between masculine household head and feminine spouse. Attempts to identify the origins of literature with court structures seem to me to fall victim to the court's own ideology of self-sufficiency. The court, like the fragile project of Petrarchan humanism, knows itself to be dependent on sources of supply beyond itself both for purposes of ideological counter-definition and for its own material infrastructure (that is, food, drink, and clothing).147 When the king is dwelling at London or Westminster, “at Eltham or at Sheene,” the Tabard at Southwark (where the associational form of Chaucer's pilgrimage takes shape) falls within court space and so becomes subject to one-sided expropriation.148

Chaucer's dedication to particular eloquent wives—Alceste and Alisoun, Griselde and May—seems ultimately to express something larger than allegiance to a particular form of courtly or noncourtly polity. Their moments of utterance read like epiphenomena of a greater narrative that speaks, perhaps, to Chaucer's sense of writing a new lingua materna; or issue, perhaps, from psychological depths that other critics are better qualified to fathom.149 This book can insist, however, that Chaucer's dedication to wifely eloquence is a singular historical phenomenon, one to which Chaucer himself draws attention. The “sixth of six” topos, we have noted, was adopted by Chaucer (following the precedent of Ovid, Jean de Meun, Boccaccio, and Dante) as a form of authorial signature. In the Troilus, Chaucer's self-definition as the sixth of six expresses his most exalted ambitions in a tradition of great auctors; in the “General Prologue,” it draws attention to the oddity of his social positioning among the most marginal and parasitical of pilgrims. But the last of his “sixth of six” signatures seems, all things considered, to make the most convincing claim on him: “Welcome the sixte, whan that evere he shal” (3.45). Given his lifelong devotion to wifely eloquence, Chaucer and his Tales are clearly the person and the moment, the man and “whan,” that the Wife of Bath is riding forth to find.


  1. On Boccaccio's advice to Petrarch, newly arrived in Milan, see Chap. 10 above.

  2. Cod. Pluteo XC sup., 98.1 (Gadd. 593), Biblioteca Laurenziana, Florence. This well-known manuscript is conclusively proved to be an autograph by Pier Giorgio Ricci, “Studi sulle opere latine e volgari del Boccaccio,” pp. 1-12. It forms the basis of Vittorio Zaccaria's edition of the De mulieribus claris in Tutte le opere, ed. Branca, vol. 10. Guido A. Guarino's useful translation of the De mulieribus is based on the edition of Mathias Apiarius: see Giovanni Boccaccio, Concerning Famous Women, p. xxxi.

  3. See De mulieribus, ed. Zaccaria, pp. 458-59; Ricci, “Studi sulle opere,” pp. 12-21. Andrea was the sister of Niccolò Acciaiuoli, a Florentine who had risen to become Queen Giovanna of Naples's gran siniscalco. Boccaccio, having suffered a severe and mysterious fall in his economic fortunes in Florence during the winter of 1361-62, moved to Naples (not, it was to transpire, permanently) in November 1362. See Ricci, “Studi sulle opere,” p. 17; Branca, “Profilo biografico,” pp. 128-33; Wallace, Early Writings, p. 24.

  4. See De mulieribus 2.8; Legend of Good Women (henceforth LGW), pp. 706-9 (the beginning of the Thisbe legend).

  5. See Chap. 11 above.

  6. Boccaccio actually begins his “modern instances” by commenting on the sexual ambiguity that may hide behind names: “Iohannes, esto vir nomine videatur, sexu tamen femina fuit” (101.1).

  7. See De mulieribus, chap. 64 (and Decameron 1.1); see also Famous Women, trans. Guarino, pp. xxiii-v.

  8. See Wallace, “Decameron 2.3.”

  9. See Chap. 10 above.

  10. See Familiares 22.12.7: “quod ego illis vere pater fueram, quanquam illi michi non filii sed insidiatores essent ac sicarii furesque domestici” (to Albertino da Cannobio, physician: Padua, Sept. 6, 1360).

  11. See Familiares 22.12.7; 21.14.1-2; Wilkins, Eight Years in Milan, p. 198.

  12. See Wilkins, Petrarch's Later Years, p. 137; Seniles 3.8, in F. Petrarchae … Opera que extant omnia, ed. Johannes Herold, p. 861. Although some of the Seniles have been edited for the anthologies, the great majority (and almost all of the Epistolae variae) are available only in early editions. But for a recent translation, see Francis Petrarch, Letters of Old Age: Rerum senilium libri I-XVIII, trans. Aldo S. Bernardo, Saul Levin, and Reta A. Bernardo. This translation has adopted as its base text the Librorum Francisci Petrarche annotatio impressorum (Venice, 1501); questionable readings were checked against four fifteenth-century manuscripts.

  13. See Wilkins, Petrarch's Later Years, p. 203; Seniles 15.14 and 13.9.

  14. See Familiares 21.10 (to Neri Morando of Forlì: Pagazzano, Oct. 15, 1359).

  15. “Ita dilectus meus Cicero cuius olim cor, nunc tibiam vulneravit” (Familiares 21.10.26).

  16. Petrarch describes his lifelong devotion to Cicero and his searches for Cicero manuscripts in Seniles 16.1 (to Luca da Penna: c. Mar. 28, 1374; the 1554 Basel edition denotes this, erroneously, as 15.1).

  17. See Wilkins, Later Years, pp. 56-57; Seniles 3.6, 5.3, 6.1.

  18. Petrarch loaned this manuscript to Convenevole da Prato, his poverty-stricken old teacher, who subsequently pawned it. Since the manuscript was never recovered, it is impossible to know whether or not it did contain the Ciceronian De gloria (of which no copy now exists). See Seniles 16.1; Wilkins, Petrarch's Later Years, pp. 263-64.

  19. Familiares 18.5.4-5 (to his brother Gherardo, a Carthusian monk: Milan, Apr. 25, 1354); my translation here departs from that of Bernardo at several points.

  20. Text and translation follow Testament, ed. Mommsen, pp. 92-93. Petrarch is typically scrupulous in thinking of each and every member of his household (“de familiaribus autem domesticis”). Named attendants receive twenty ducats (not to be used for gambling); other attendants receive ten ducats and his servants and cook two each (pp. 84-85).

  21. Familiares 18.6.4-5 (to Forese, a parish priest and member of the Florentine circle of Petrarch's admirers: Milan, Mar. 15, 1354 or 1355).

  22. See esp. Familiares 20.12.4: “Erat tamen adhuc michi et curis meis gratum familiare solatium.” This letter is addressed to “Lelius,” Lello di Pietro Stefano dei Tosetti, a dedicated Roman supporter of the Colonna family (Milan, May 1, 1358).

  23. Familiares 20.12.7: “‘Hic, hic,’ dicebat, ‘et scientiam et libros habeo.’” The old man goes on to argue for the superiority of the habit of memory to the habitual use of books: “‘libri enim humane fragilitatis emendicata suffragia, nonnisi propter defectum memorie sunt inventi.’”

  24. See Familiares 21.11 (to Neri Morando of Forlì: Pagazzano, Oct. 15, 1359). Petrarch visited Capra at Bergamo on Oct. 11, 1359, and elected to stay at the goldsmith's house rather than at the palazzo pubblico. Capra was so overjoyed at hosting such a celebrity, Petrarch tells us, that “his friends were alarmed for fear that he might fall ill or become mad or, as happened to many in times past, even die” (21.11.12).

  25. Variae 44, in Franciscus Petrarca, Epistolae de rebus familiaribus et variae, ed. Giuseppe Fracasetti, vol. 3, pp. 415-20.

  26. “Solitudinem hanc fori instar turbidi suo fecit adventu”: Familiares 22.8.1, written to “Socrates” from Milan in Jan. 1360. “Socrates” was the Fleming Ludwig van Kempen, chanter in the chapel of Cardinal Giovanni Colonna.

  27. Petrarch's adventures in gardening may be followed through the pages of Wilkins, Eight Years in Milan, esp. pp. 38-39, 42, 137-38, 205-6.

  28. Familiares 22.12.4.

  29. For a study of Machaut and the concepts of poète, poet-narrator, lover-protagonist, and witness-participant, see Kevin Brownlee, Poetic Identity in Guillaume de Machaut.

  30. On the importance of tidynges in the House of Fame, see Chap. 7 above.

  31. This episode is recounted years after the fact in Seniles 3.1 (to Boccaccio, late summer 1363): see Wilkins, Eight Years in Milan, pp. 75-76; Later Years, p. 56. The heading for this epistle in the 1554 Basel edition is “De astrologorum nugis.” Elsewhere Petrarch relates how the same astrologer got himself into a similar muddle when trying to compute the exact hour at which a siege attack should be mounted.

  32. The Westminster Chronicle, 1381-1394, ed. and trans. L. C. Hector and Barbara F. Harvey. The Monk of Westminster, author of this Chronicle, was plainly disturbed by the political implications of this incident: “The truth is that with due regard always to the paths of righteousness and justice he [the archbishop] would never have bent the knee in that fashion to anybody, when according to the canonical rule it is rather the necks of kings and princes which should be bowed in submission at the feet of pontiffs” (p. 139).

  33. Seniles 8.3 (Nov. 9, 1367: to Tommaso del Garbo, a physician who sometimes treated Galeazzo Visconti).

  34. See Wilkins, Later Years, p. 87.

  35. Familiares 21.13 (to Francesco Nelli, Milan, Dec. 7, 1359): “ad comunem et modestum, ne dicam philosophicum, vestis modum” (12). It is interesting to note that Petrarch has to negotiate in earnest with himself in order to give up courtier's clothes; gluttony, laziness, and lust were much easier to renounce.

  36. See Variae 56 in Epistolae, ed. Fracasetti, vol. 3, pp. 458-64. This letter was written to Francesco Nelli on Sept. 18, 1353.

  37. It is not known with certainty which of Giovanni Visconti's three nephews (Matteo, Galeazzo, Bernabò) is involved here: Fracasetti assumes it was Galeazzo; Wilkins, with some reservations (and with dubious reference to “later events”) tends to agree with him (Epistolae, vol. 3, p. 452; Eight Years in Milan, pp. 32-33). Visconti territory, we have noted, was divided into three on the death of Giovanni in 1354. Since Matteo Visconti was the eldest nephew, it seems quite possible that Petrarch (perhaps as yet unaware of the plan for territorial division) is referring to Matteo (who died in 1355 of excesses alluded to in Petrarch's Variae 61).

  38. Variae 56, vol. 3, p. 461: “Ipse non modo vocis obsequium mihi praebuerat, sed dexterae.”

  39. Discussed in Chap. 10 above.

  40. “We may take it,” Pearsall argues, “that the Legend was written in 1386-7, at the height of Chaucer's career as a ‘poet of the court’” (Life of Chaucer, p. 191). Pearsall surmises that during the autumn of 1386, Chaucer, in walking from the refectory of Westminster Abbey (where he gave evidence at the Scrope-Grosvenor trial) to the chapter house (where he sat in the parliamentary Commons as M.P. for Kent), “could think himself, for a moment, at the centre of his country's affairs” (p. 203).

  41. There is no hard and fast evidence for specific dating of the first version of the Legend. Paul Stronm, in private correspondence, suggests that it may well be read “as a meditation on the problematics of court life and princepleasing, begun either in 1389-90 (as part of a bid for return) or 1390-92 (dealing with the experience of return).” Such a dating makes the Legend seem a braver poem, since Richard's autocratic habits were more fully established by the early 1390s. Whatever the precise moment of its initial composition and circulation, the poem would come to mean differently, from week to week, as the 1390s advanced.

  42. On the courtly cult of the flower and the leaf, see “The Floure and the LeafeandThe Assembly of Ladies,” ed. Derek Pearsall, esp. pp. 22-52.

  43. Compare F 84-85 (“She is the clernesse and the verray lyght / That in this derke world me wynt and ledeth”) with Filostrato, ed. Branca, 1.2.1-3 (“Tu, donna, se’ la luce chiara e bella / per cui nel tenebroso mondo accorto / vivo …”).

  44. Compare F 89-94 with the concluding couplet of Filostrato 1.4: “Guida la nostra man, reggi lo ’ngegno, / nell’opera la quale a scriver vegno.”

  45. The distinction often drawn by critics between Chaucer as poetic auctor and as persona represented within the poem—a distinction that Alceste attempts to maintain in her defense of Chaucer—is clearly inadequate to the complexities of the F-Prologue; as “Chaucer” discovers, strange things happen once texts leave the minds of their authors.

  46. See, for example, Thomas Wyatt, Collected Poems, ed. Daalder, 37.19 (“And she also to use newfangleness”).

  47. See Paradiso 26.137-38.

  48. “Court Politics and the Invention of Literature: The Case of Sir John Clanvowe,” p. 10. Patterson discusses the implications of a line from Clanvowe's The Boke of Cupide (“Terme of lyve, love hath withholde me,” p. 289), a poem that draws explicitly from the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women. The term “withholde” is also used by Chaucer to denote the relationship of a chaplain to a fraternity (CT, General Prologue, 1.511).

  49. See G 71-80. Having argued that he sides neither with the leaf against the flower nor with the flower against the leaf, Chaucer insists that “I am witholde yit with never nother” (G 76), adding that he is ignorant even of knowing who serves one party or the other.

  50. The fact that Absalom and Jonathon are accorded such prominence is just the first indication that this song, supposedly in praise of women, is very odd indeed. The words of the song actually reiterate a denial or negation of female beauty (“Thy faire body, lat yt nat appere, / Lavyne,” F 256-57) and assume an attitude of scorn, contempt, and derision (“disdeyne”) on the part of an unnamed lady toward her fellow women.

  51. Compare Man of Law's Tale, 2.372-78, where the “Sowdanesse” promises, falsely, to “reneye hir lay” (376).

  52. On the term cruel as a standard epithet for tyranny, see Chap. 10 above.

  53. See Gordon, Wilton Diptych, p. 52.

  54. See Seibt, Karl IV: Ein Kaiser in Europa 1346-1378, pp. 339-42.

  55. See Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, trans. Charles S. Singleton, Inferno, Part 2, pp. 209-10.

  56. Howard H. Schless considers four putative borrowings from Inferno 13 in his Chaucer and Dante: A Reevaluation, pp. 133, 154, 174, 176. In considering LGW F 358-60, Schless quotes only the Dantean tercet from which Chaucer derived his wording: “La meretrice che mai da l’ospizio / di Cesare non torse li occhi putti, / morte comune e de le corti vizio” (13.64-66). But it is not evident from this exactly who, or what, “la meretrice” represents (flattery? barratry?); some wider knowledge of the canto would seem to be necessary for Chaucer's accurate translation, or interpretation, of “la meretrice” as “Envie.”

  57. See Agnes Strickland, Lives of the Queens of England, vol. 1, p. 597. This eight-volume history by the two Strickland sisters (the entry on Anne of Bohemia was actually written by Elizabeth) has been vastly influential. First printed in 1848, it ran through four editions by 1854 and was reprinted as recently as 1972 (with a “New Introduction” by Antonia Fraser under the auspices of the Library Association, London and Home Counties Branch). The headgear supposedly worn by Anne consisted of a cap “at least two feet in height, and as many in width; its fabric was built of wire and pasteboard, like a very wide-spreading mitre, and over these horns was extended some glittering tissue or gauze. Monstrous and outrageous were the horned caps that reared their head in England directly the royal bride appeared in one” (vol. 1, p. 597, n. 1).

  58. For basic information on this area, with useful maps, see Roberta Bromley Etter, Prague, pp. 112-26; Michael Jacobs, Czechoslovakia, pp. 132-46.

  59. See Seibt, Karl IV, p. 401; Kamil Krofta, “Bohemia in the Fourteenth Century,” in The Cambridge Medieval History, ed. J. B. Bury et al., vol. 7, p. 174.

  60. The richness and intellectual sophistication of this culture may readily be gauged from Lebensbilder zur Geschichte der Böhmischen Länder, a series begun in 1974 under the editorship of Karl Bosl. See especially Ernst Schwarz, “Johann von Neumarkt,” in Lebensbilder, ed. Bosl (vol. 1 of this series) and all thirteen chapters of vol. 3, published as Ferdinand Seibt, Karl IV und sein Kreis. See also S. Harrison Thomson, “Learning at the Court of Charles IV.” Ferdinand Seibt, ed., Kaiser Karl IV. Staatsmann und Mäzen, an extraordinarily rich collection of essays by some 49 scholars, is particularly good on domestic and European politics, culture, and affairs at court. Pierre Grégoire, Kaiser Karl IV: Eine mediävale Kulturpotenz aus dem Hause Luxemburg is quite good on manuscript illumination and book production; Alfred Thomas, Czech Chivalric Romances offers a succinct overview of the expansion of genres in Czech during the reign of Charles IV (1346-78) and a detailed study of the relationship of Czech to German romance. On Czech drama, see A Sacred Farce of Medieval Bohemia: Mastičkář, ed. Jarmila F. Veltruský, pp. 3-117. Mastičkář (which survives in two fourteenth-century manuscripts) is a bawdy, scatological farce starring a spice merchant and his manservant Rubin, suppliers of the unguents taken by the women to Christ's tomb on the first Easter Sunday.

  61. See Klassen, “Bohemia Moravia,” in Dictionary of the Middle Ages, ed. Strayer, vol. 2, p. 301. Charles and Wenceslaus IV after him appointed nonnobles to high office. Charles's attempt to impose his Majestas carolina, which would have undermined the nobility as a law-interpreting body, was not successful.

  62. See Jaroslav Krejčí, Czechoslovakia at the Crossroads of European History, p. 26; John Klassen, “Bohemia Moravia,” p. 303; Etter, Prague, pp. 48, 80, 94; Jacobs, Czechoslovakia, pp. 88-89, 94, 119. Terminology as employed in various histories can be confusing; Malá Strana was known as the New Town until the early fourteenth century.

  63. A banner presented by Charles IV to the Jews of Prague still hangs in the Staronova (“Old-New”) Synagogue: see Jiři Všetečka and Jiři Kuděla, Osudy Židovské Prahy (The Fate of Jewish Prague), pp. 28-41. The reign of Charles IV is characterized by Milada Vilímková as a period of exceptional peace and prosperity for Jews in Bohemia; matters deteriorated under the rule of Charles's son, Wenceslaus IV (Die Prager Judenstadt, p. 18). On medieval Jewish Prague, see further Ctibor Rybár, Jewish Prague, pp. 8-25. On the pogrom of 1389, commemorated by the famous seliha (elegy) of Rabbi Abigdor Kara, see Rybár, pp. 20-23, Vilímková, pp. 82-83.

  64. See Krofta, “Bohemia,” p. 160.

  65. See Thomson, “Learning,” pp. 14-15. Das Buch der Liebkosung is a translation of the pseudo-Augustinian Liber soliloquiorum anime ad Deum. The Silesian Johann von Neumarkt (Jan ze Středy), like his master Charles, had studied in Italy. He conducted a vigorous exchange of letters with Petrarch and knew some of Dante's Latin texts (and perhaps more): see Seibt, Karl IV, p. 370.

  66. Thomson, “Learning,” p. 9. For the text of this vita (followed by Czech and German versions), see Život Císaře Karla IV, in Fontes rerum bohemicarum, vol. 3, pp. 323-417.

  67. See Familiares 19.2; Fontes rerum bohemicarum, vol. 3, p. 330. Charles spent two years of his youth in Italy (first at Brescia, then at Parma), attempting to uphold his father's dynastic claims to Italian territory. His Italian experiences are recounted in his autobiographical vita. See Count Lützow, Lectures on the Historians of Bohemia, pp. 21-26.

  68. Characterizing this exchange as “eine merkwürdige Brieffreundschaft” (Seibt, Karl IV, p. 218) seems something of an understatement. For discussion of “feminized men,” see Hansen, Fictions of Gender, passim and p. 3, where they are defined as “those who sometimes act as women are said to act and who are treated as women are often treated.” For reflections on the applicability of the term “Frühhumanismus” (early humanism) to the culture of Charles IV's Prague, see Seibt, “Kirche und Kultur im 14. Jahrhundert.”

  69. The Visconti were enraged in June 1355 when Charles granted the imperial vicariate of Pavia to their bitter enemy, the marquis of Montferrato (who happened to be Charles's cousin). Petrarch's sharply reproachful Familiares 19.12 (discussed below) was written several weeks later. See Wilkins, Eight Years in Milan, pp. 97-98.

  70. Familiares 19.1.2 (Oct. 1354); 19.12.7 (June 1355). For a detailed account of Charles's first trip to Rome, see Emil Werunsky, Der Erste Römerzug Kaiser Karl IV (1354-1355).

  71. Familiares 21.1 (to Arnošt ze Pardubic, archbishop of Prague: late Feb., 1357).

  72. “Audaces et timidos amor facit” (Familiares 21.7.1, dated Mar. 25, 1358).

  73. Familiares 19.3, a long and detailed account of Petrarch's meeting with the Emperor at Mantua in December of 1354, written to “Lelius” in February 1355). Petrarch also remarks on the emperor's ability to fill the gaps in his autobiographical account, “often knowing my affairs better than I.”

  74. Familiares 19.3.13. It should be emphasized that Petrarch is not addressing the emperor in this letter, but is rather recounting his meeting, or performance, with the emperor to a friend.

  75. This letter may have been written anytime between Petrarch's 1356 departure from Prague and 1364: see Wilkins, Eight Years in Milan, pp. 242-43.

  76. Petrarch himself comments on the heightened importance to be accorded to matter placed first or last in Seniles 17.3, his famous response to the Boccaccian Griselde story (see Chap. 10 above).

  77. Seibt, Karl IV, p. 215.

  78. See (for the philology) Seniles 16.5 (dated Mar. 21, 1361); Wilkins, Eight Years in Milan, pp. 226-30. On Petrarch as a Count Palatine (which gave him various rights, including the power to legitimize persons of illegitimate birth) see Wilkins, Later Years, p. 245.

  79. See Crosby, Bishko, and Kellogg, Medieval Studies: A Bibliographical Guide, pp. 198-207.

  80. For a succinct account of Charles IV's rather distant view of England, see Schnith, “England.”

  81. See Jiří Spěváček, trans. Alfred Dressler, Karl IV: Sein Leben und seine staatsmännische Leistung, p. 109.

  82. Historia anglicana, vol. 2, p. 96 (commenting on events of 1383). On the particular vulnerabilities of foreign queens, see Fradenburg, City, Marriage, Tournament, p. 79.

  83. Historia anglicana, vol. 2, p. 119 (on 1385).

  84. Pearsall, Life of Chaucer, p. 66.

  85. See Margaret Deanesly, The Lollard Bible and Other Medieval Biblical Versions, pp. 248, 278-79; Anne Hudson, The Premature Reformation: Wycliffite Texts and Lollard History, pp. 248-49. John Purvey's claim that Archbishop Arundel commended Anne at her funeral in 1394 for having obtained his approval to use “the foure gospeleris with the docturis vpon hem” is entertained by Deanesly but dismissed by Hudson as a Lollard concoction dating from no earlier than 1401.

  86. See Guillaume de Machaut, “Le Jugement du roy de Behaigne” and “Remede de Fortune”, ed. James I. Wimsatt and William W. Kibler, pp. 8, 26-32.

  87. See Joseph Bujnoch, “Johann von Neumarkt—Johann von Jenstein—Guillaume de Machaut”; Jitka Snížková, “Les traces de Guillaume de Machaut dans les sources musicales de Prague,” and M. Ladislav Vachulka, “Guillaume de Machaut et la vie musicale de Prague.” Vachulka states that Machaut “revint de Reims à Prague pour y demeurer presque jusqu’à fin de sa vie” (p. 326).

  88. See Bujnoch, “Johann von Neumarkt,” p. 97. R. Barton Palmer's suggestion that Machaut dedicated the Prise d’Alixandre to Charles, c. 1370, is erroneous. See Guillaume de Machaut, The Judgment of the King of Bohemia, ed. Palmer, p. xv.

  89. Chroniques, ed. Luce, vol. 6, p. 85.

  90. See Chap. 11 above.

  91. Born on Feb. 26, 1361, Wenceslaus, like his English counterpart, was accused of being proud, irascible, and tyrannical. In 1393 he reportedly had John of Pomuk, vicar-general to the archbishop, burnt with torches and lighted candles. When the tortured man was unable to sign a document swearing him to secrecy, he was bound hand and foot and thrown in the Vltava. Wenceslaus was imprisoned in the castle at Prague in 1393 and again in 1402; in 1400 he was deposed by the German Electors. See Spěváček, Karl IV, p. 109; Krofta, “Bohemia,” pp. 175-78.

  92. See Riverside Chaucer, p. 1020. The notion that 1.171 compliments Queen Anne was first advanced by John L. Lowes in 1908.

  93. See Machaut, Jugement, ed. Wimsatt and Kibler, p. 10.

  94. See Spěváček, Karl IV, p. 109.

  95. See Život Císaře Karla IV, capitulum 13 (Fontes, vol. 3, pp. 356-57). In making the (commonplace) comment that the margarita is “sine … macula,” the Život draws our attention to the term “makeles” as employed in the compliment to Anne in Troilus 1.172. In the description of the young maiden of Pearl, there is considerable interplay (for some sixty lines) between the terms mascellez (“spotless”) and makellez (“matchless”): see Pearl, 721-80 (and note) in The Poems of the Pearl Manuscript, ed. Malcolm Andrew and Ronald Waldron. The Pearl Maiden finally brings the similar but distinct meanings of these terms together in lines 781-84, maintaining that she is “maskelles,” but not a “makelez quene.” It is possible, then, for Chaucer's courtly readers to have imagined some symbolic continuity between the “makeles” beauty described in Troilus 1.172 and the “noble quene” of the Legend who derives her iconography from French marguerite tradition. On the etymological history of medieval French daisies, flors des margerites, see Alain Rey, ed., Dictionnaire historique de la langue française, vol. 2, p. 1192.

  96. On Chaucer's “internationalism,” see Elizabeth Salter's short but seminal article, “Chaucer and Internationalism.” Salter notes that Jean le Bon was followed to England, after his defeat at Poitiers in 1356, by one of his painters, Girard d’Orleans. Girard stayed in England for at least two years and is thought to have worked on a polyptych during this period depicting Jean, the Dauphin Charles, Edward III, and the Emperor Charles IV. Only the portrait of Jean has survived; see Salter, p. 74; Millard Meiss, French Painting in the Time of Jean de Berry: The Late Fourteenth Century and the Patronage of the Duke, p. 62 and fig. 507.

  97. I prefer the term “style” to “poetics” because medieval discussion and deployment of the term, especially in rhetorical theory, invariably comes freighted with both literary and political suggestion.

  98. A. G. Rigg has argued that because of ties with England through Anne of Bohemia, and political links between Lollards and Hussites, the English satirical tradition “took on a new life, and many Latin anthologies of Bohemian provenance can be related textually to English ones” (“Anthologies,” vol. 1, pp. 319-20; Rigg grounds his claims in work conducted for a series of four articles for Mediaeval Studies entitled “Medieval Latin Poetic Anthologies”). For connections between English Lollards and Bohemians, see K. B. McFarlane, Lancastrian Kings and Lollard Knights, pp. 195-96; Margaret Aston, Lollards and Reformers, pp. 263-64; Anne Hudson, Lollards and Their Books, pp. 31-42, 45; Hudson, Premature Reformation, pp. 100-102, 126-27, 372, and 514 (where she observes that the precise chronology of the transmission of Wyclif's works to Bohemia requires further scrutiny). One of the two surviving medieval manuscripts of William Thorpe's Testimony in Latin was written in a variety of Bohemian hands in the 1430s (now Prague Metropolitan Chapter Library, MS O.29); another manuscript at Prague (University Library, IV.H.17) once contained a Latin copy of the Testimony (in a section of the manuscript now missing). See Two Wycliffite Texts, ed. Anne Hudson, pp. xxvi-xxx.

  99. The marriage plans between Anne and Richard were worked out within the complex context of the recent papal schism in which Prague and Westminster both sided with the pope at Rome: see Jörg K. Hoensch, Geschichte Böhmens, pp. 135-37.

  100. See Pearsall, Life of Chaucer, p. 105.

  101. See Jones, Royal Policy, pp. 12-13, 20-21; McKisack, Fourteenth Century, pp. 426-27; Pearsall, Life of Chaucer, p. 153. Burley left England for Prague on May 15, 1381: see T. F. Tout, Chapters in the Administrative History of Mediaeval England, vol. 3, p. 368; vol. 4, p. 340. Tout also suggests that Burley made long trips to Prague in 1380 and 1381 (vol. 3, p. 382, n. 3, read in conjunction with vol. 4, p. 340, n. 2).

  102. See Tout, Chapters, vol. 3, p. 331, n. 3.

  103. Rotuli Parliamentorum, vol. 3, p. 104, as translated by McKisack, Fourteenth Century, p. 426.

  104. See Antony Steel, Richard II, pp. 90, 110. In 1382 Anne supposedly interceded for the rebel and disappointed heir Thomas Farndon, who sought to buttonhole Richard in the street: see Strohm, Hochon's Arrow, p. 106.

  105. For an excellent account of this role, see “Queens as Intercessors,” the fifth chapter of Strohm's Hochon's Arrow (pp. 95-119).

  106. See Tuck, Richard II and the English Nobility, p. 140; Strohm, Hochon's Arrow, pp. 105-11.

  107. May McKisack argues that “Anne soon won Richard's passionate devotion and he would seldom allow her to leave his side; but there is no evidence that she sought to restrain his excesses and it is likely to have been her docility which charmed him” (Fourteenth Century, p. 426).

  108. De Bado presses his claims to a personal commission from Anne in introducing his work: “ad instantiam igitur quarundam personarum & specialiter Domine Anne quondam Regine Anglie compilavi” (Evan J. Jones, Medieval Heraldry: Tractatus de armis, p. 1). For an edition of two different texts of this work, see Medieval Heraldry: Some Fourteenth-Century Heraldic Works, ed. Evan J. Jones, pp. 95-212. On the Scrope-Grosvenor controversy, see Jones, Tractatus de armis, pp. 3-4; on the controversy and Chaucer's part in it, see Patterson, Subject of History, pp. 180-98.

  109. In 1381, rebels in the south of England employed the organizational structure of commissions of array (designed to organize resistance to French invaders) to march on London: see A. F. Butcher, “English Urban Society and the Revolt of 1381,” p. 101; The Peasants' Revolt of 1381, ed. R. B. Dobson, p. xxxvi. See also the Shipman's Tale, passim (and especially 7.416-19).

  110. On Mary and Esther as queenly intermediaries associated primarily and respectively with mercy and sage counsel, see Strohm, Hochon's Arrow, pp. 96-98. Strohm discusses Chaucer's references to Esther in the Melibee (7.1100), the Merchant's Tale (7.1370-74, 1744-46, both subversive), and the Legend (F 250, where Esther comes second only to Absolom in the fateful balade).

  111. Richard Maidstone, Concordia, line 442 (as cited by Strohm, Hochon's Arrow, p. 110). Maidstone, a Carmelite friar, wrote his poem (which runs to 548 lines) to celebrate Richard's reconciliation with London and his procession through the city with Anne on August 21, 1392.

  112. The question of the precise “referential relation between Alceste and Anne” is addressed with considerable subtlety by Strohm, Hochon's Arrow, p. 116.

  113. Fall of Princes, ed. Bergen, 1.330 (Prologue).

  114. See, for example, “They flee from me, that sometime did me seek,” a poem in which Wyatt's metaphors of semidomesticated, half-wild animals, coupled with meditations upon “newfangleness,” recall the uneasy courtly rhetoric of Chaucer's Squire (Collected Poems, ed. Daalder, 37; Squire's Tale, esp. 5.604-29).

  115. On this terminology, see Janet Coleman, “Property and Poverty,” pp. 611-16. For discussion of the Foucauldian “author function,” see Chap. 11 above.

  116. Steel writes that in March 1379, an English embassy, headed by Michael de la Pole, traveled to Milan “in order to negotiate a marriage between Richard and Catherine Visconti, which had rather surprisingly ended as a marriage between Richard and Anne of Bohemia” (Richard II, p. 96). Chaucer had been in Milan for six weeks less than nine months earlier.

  117. See Paradiso 13.104, 112-20.

  118. See MED, arguing; pleten, 1(a).

  119. See Goodman, Loyal Conspiracy, pp. 45-46; McKisack, Fourteenth Century, p. 458.

  120. See Chronicque de la Traïson et Mort, ed. B. Williams, p. 10. Beheading (rather than hanging) was apparently the only concession that Gloucester, Arundel, and Warwick were willing to make; see McKitterick, Fourteenth Century, p. 458.

  121. Traïson et Mort, ed. Williams, p. 10.

  122. See McKitterick, Fourteenth Century, p. 458.

  123. See, for example, Goodman, Loyal Conspiracy, p. 47; McKitterick, Fourteenth Century, p. 459.

  124. See the excellent account of Strohm, “Politics and Poetics: Usk and Chaucer in the 1380s,” pp. 92-97; Pearsall, Life of Chaucer, pp. 208-9.

  125. See Steel, Richard II, p. 174.

  126. Richard and Anne “were almost exactly the same age,” Barron writes, “and it would appear that they were happy together” (“Richard II: Image and Reality,” p. 15).

  127. See Chronicon Adœ de Usk, ed. Thompson, pp. 8, 9; see also Given Wilson, Royal Household, p. 31.

  128. The fullest account of this episode is interpellated into Walsingham's Historia Anglicana in MS Cotton. Faustina B.9 (fol. 198): see H. T. Riley, ed., Trokelowe and Blaneforde, Chronica et Annales, ed. Riley, p. 424 (and pp. 168-69). There is a record of Richard's committing Arundel to the Tower on August 3, 1394, and of his ordering his release one week later; see Thomas Rymer, Foedera, 3rd ed., vol. 4, p. 101.

  129. See McKitterick, Fourteenth Century, p. 481.

  130. See Eulogium historiarum, ed. Haydon, vol. 3, pp. 72-73. According to the continuator of the Eulogium, Richard—on cornering Gloucester at his manor of Pleshy, Essex—replied to his uncle's pleas for mercy as follows: “Illam gratiam habebis quam praestitisti Symoni de Burley, cum Regina pro eo coram te genuflecteret” (vol. 3, p. 372).

  131. See Chap. 5 above.

  132. See Thomas of Burton (and others), Chronica monasterii de Melsa, ed. E. A. Bond, vol. 3, pp. 219-20.

  133. Thomas of Burton, Chronica de Melsa, vol. 3, p. 257; my italics.

  134. See John H. Harvey, “The Wilton Diptych—A Re-examination,” p. 10, n. 5. Harvey's source here is Oriel College, Oxford, MS 46, ff. 104-6.

  135. See Harvey, “Wilton Diptych”: “un coler des perles et autres preciouses perres de la liveree de la roigne que derrein murrust, pres de V.m. marcz” (p. 10, n. 5).

  136. Chaucer, as Susan Crane suggests, clearly possessed a sense of generic obsolescence (as part of a wider historical consciousness): “Romance,” Crane argues, “is not only feminine but outmoded in Chaucer's milieu. The pastness that earlier conferred dignity on the genre … becomes a mark of obsolescence in the later fourteenth century” (Gender and Romance, p. 11).

  137. In the copy of Iohannes de Bado Aureo's Tractatus de armis copied by the scribe Baddesworth in 1456 (BL Add. MS 30946), Richard II is explicitly associated with the lion (“quod Ricardus secundus leones non leopardos portavit”). The lion is then associated with the king, and the eagle with the queen (“ut leo velut rex, ita aquila velut regina”). The linkage of the eagle with Roman emperors is then (nonetheless) affirmed: “Imperatores Romani aquilam portaverunt.” See Jones, Tractatus de armis, pp. 6-8.

  138. See Édouard Perroy, L’Angleterre et le Grand Schisme d’Occident, p. 342; D. M. Bueno de Mesquita, “The Foreign Policy of Richard II in 1397: Some Italian Letters,” p. 632.

  139. See Gordon, Wilton Diptych, pp. 30, 49, and p. 63, n. 13; John H. Harvey, “Richard II and York,” p. 214 (and plate opposite 207). One of the painted soffit panels of Richard's tomb depicts “a shield of France and England impaling the eagle of the Empire quartering the crowned lion of Bohemia” (Royal Commission, vol. 1, Westminster Abbey, p. 31).

  140. Rotuli Parliamentorum, vol. 3, p. 343 (“Legitimation pur Beaufort”). Richard's grasping after imperial status might be contrasted with the humorously self-assured behavior of Anne's father, the Emperor Charles IV, who had himself crowned King of Arles before that city's cathedral chapter in a parodistic service; see Sacred Farce, ed. Veltruský, p. 307.

  141. See Bueno de Mesquita, “Foreign Policy,” pp. 628-31, 634-37. The epithet “tyrant of Lombardy” is used of Gian Galeazzo by a Florentine observer, writing from London to a Florentine citizen on Jan. 2, 1397 (pp. 628-29). Sienese envoys, writing from Pavia on Mar. 6, 1397/8, write of having heard that the “conte derbi figliuolo del duca del lencaustro, che è nipote carnale del detto Re d’inghilterra, dé venire qui a primavera e credesi farà parentado col Signore di prendere per sua donna madonna Lucia figliuola dimisser Barnabò” (p. 637).

  142. For voluntas arbitrium, see Chap. 10 above.

  143. Convivio, ed. Simonelli, 1.1.17 (“for it is appropriate both to speak and behave differently at different stages of life”).

  144. In the opening sonnet of the Canzoniere, earlier texts (now prefaced by present wisdom) are seen to represent “giovenile errore,” written “quand’era in parte altr’uom da quel ch’i’ sono” (“when I was in part a different man from that which I am”; note the crucial equivocation of “in parte”). See Canzoniere, ed. Alberto Chiari, 1.3, 4.

  145. See E. F. Jacob, The Fifteenth Century, 1399-1485, p. 480; G. L. Harriss, “The King and his Magnates,” pp. 49-50; Christopher Allmand, Henry V, p. 397, n. 52; A. R. Myers, “The Captivity of a Royal Witch: The Household Accounts of Queen Joan of Navarre, 1419-21.”

  146. See Lenvoy de Chaucer a Bukton, lines 29-30.

  147. For a different account of court poetry and its relations to makyng beyond the court, see Patterson, “Court Politics and the Invention of Literature,” esp. pp. 8-9.

  148. See Given-Wilson, Royal Household, p. 51.

  149. Whether we think as historicists, psychologists, or gender critics, it is important to remember that the long sequence of women in Chaucer who speak to save men from the block is not matched by men who speak to save women; the Virginia story continues to haunt each episode of this dominant Chaucerian paradigm.

Jessica Cooke (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5394

SOURCE: “Januarie and May in Chaucer's Merchant's Tale, in English Studies, Vol. 78, No. 5, September 1997, pp. 407-16.

[In the following essay, Cooke argues that in “The Merchant's Tale” the naming of the characters Januarie and May is more obscure than many critics have previously allowed. Cooke demonstrates the error many have made in calculating the ages of the characters, and discusses the significance of this miscalculation.]

In his article of 1973, Norman E. Eliason expressed a commonly held view concerning the naming of Januarie and May in Chaucer's “Merchant's Tale”:

… the metaphor involved in applying these month names to the old husband and his young wife is anything but obscure nor one which demanded much ingenuity of Chaucer.1

Though written over twenty years ago, Eliason's view is generally held to be as true today as when it was first expressed. While the article rightly warned against over-interpretation of the names in the Canterbury Tales, I believe that the naming of Januarie and May is, on the contrary, sufficiently obscure to have resulted in two distinct misunderstandings on the part of modern critics. The first misunderstanding concerns the calculation of their ages according to the months by which they are named. The second is that Januarie is an extremely old man, on the point of death.

The story of the old man married to the young woman seems so familiar that it is often presumed to mean the same for a modern audience as for the original audience of the “Merchant's Tale.” Yet the behaviour appropriate to the stages of life, and marriage between people of incompatible ages, were subjects addressed by the medieval authorities quite differently (and much more categorically) to the way in which they are currently addressed. The tale is rarely examined within this medieval context, with the result that the ages of the protagonists are never considered to have been calculated very precisely. This paper will argue that the evidence of medieval texts addressing the issue of the ages of man calculates that Januarie is precisely at the transition point from middle to old age at the outset of the tale, and that though young, May is firmly in the early stage of adulthood.

To address the first misunderstanding: it has long been acknowledged that the names Januarie and May symbolise the incongruous ages of the two characters by analogy with the months of the year.2 The depiction of these months in the medieval calendars has comprehensively been explored.3 It has been tempting not to examine the relative ages of the husband and wife more closely because the incongruity between them seems so obvious. Therefore, Januarie has often been described no more precisely than as ‘very old’ and May as ‘very young’. However, the relative positions of the names January and May in the calendar of months is frequently misunderstood. It is often assumed that the calendar year began on 1 January as much in Chaucer's time as now.4 But according to this reckoning, Januarie ought not to be an old man, but a baby, at the very beginning of his life! In addition, far from being young, May would be in the fifth month of her twelve month span, nearing the mid-point of her life. To this end, it has been asked of Chaucer:

Why did he name the young wife May and the old husband January? May and December have been familiar in modern times as nicknames for such a pair.5

What can be forgotten is that in England until 1752, the year began, not on 1 January but on 25 March,6 despite the tradition that New Year's Day continued to be celebrated on 1 January according to the earlier Roman calendar. Therefore, the characters Januarie and May were named after the months of the year following the contemporary medieval English calendar.7 Accordingly, the name Januarie is appropriate for a character nearing the end of his life, but not yet at the end of it.

This leads me to the second misapprehension, that Januarie is at the very end of his life. Januarie is more than sixty years old at the outset of the tale. Words such as ‘senility’ have frequently been used to explain his behaviour,8 when ‘vanity’ and ‘folly’ can explain it equally well. There is an implicit assumption that because life was more hazardous in medieval times, sixty years must have been an extremely old age.9 In fact, while the average life span was much shorter than today, if a person lived through the high-risk stages of infancy to early adulthood, they stood a good chance of living as long as old people today, especially if they were wealthy and lived well, like Januarie.10 Modern statisticians calculate that sixty years was not an exceptionally old age in the Middle Ages, and that many people lived longer than this.11

Contrary to the frequent assumption that Januarie is at the end of his life, he seems more likely to be on the cusp between middle age and old age, hence his haste to change his life and beget heirs to whom he will leave his property.12 Accordingly, at the outset of the tale, he is ageing but not yet on the brink of death. Though the length of time that passes during the tale is not specified, Januarie crosses from middle age to old age and starts to decline, losing his sight towards the end. Though symbolically blind for most of the tale, his physical blindness seems to be a symptom of old age.13 By analogy with the medieval English calendar, at the outset of the tale he is under two months away from the 25 March or the end of his life, figuratively speaking. If Chaucer had reckoned by the Roman calendar we use today where the year begins on 1 January, he might indeed have named the old knight, not after December, the final month of the year, as J. S. P. Tatlock suggested, but most likely after November.

May's age is not given, but when Januarie resolves to take a wife, he warns Placebo and Justinus that:

I wol noon oold wyf han in no manere.
She shal nat passe twenty yeer, certayn.

(IV 1416-7)14

It is therefore likely that she is twenty years of age, or just under. While May is young, the Wife of Bath was first married at the much younger age of twelve, and accordingly, May's actions reveal her to be a competent (if devious) adult rather than the juvenile victim she has occasionally been described. Though she is passive at the beginning of her marriage, she becomes increasingly more active, gaining both the dependence of her husband and the service of a lover by the end of the tale.15

The ages of the protagonists then seem deliberately to have been chosen, deviating slightly but significantly from the schemes of other writers on the same subject. The ballade 880 of Eustache Deschamps about the incongruous marriage between two characters named January and April is generally agreed to have influenced Chaucer's “Merchant's Tale.”16 If this was so, it has been asked why Chaucer altered the wife's name from April to May.17 Following the medieval calendar, April would be a younger woman than May, perhaps without the adult competence of the wife in Chaucer's “Merchant's Tale.” The month of May, rather than April, was also traditionally associated with lust and love. It is clear that the name May, and the age it implies, is more fitting for such a character. Gower also used the device, but instead chose the names December and May, portraying a slightly younger husband according to the medieval calendar.18 It therefore seems likely that Chaucer deliberately chose the name January rather than December for the older character that it implied to his audience.

The action of the tale seems to bear out these arguments. Januarie pretends to his friends that he wishes to marry in order to amend his life before he dies:

                                                  Freendes, I am hoor and oold,
And almoost, God woot, on my pittes brynke;
Upon my soule somwhat moste I thynke.

(IV 1400-2)

But inwardly, he indulges in rapturous anticipation of the worldly delights of marriage. His proffered reason to marry in order to live a holier life in his declining years is clearly an excuse, for instead, he wishes to marry for pleasure and in order to produce heirs.19 His hasty choice of a young and beautiful (though otherwise undistinguished) wife proves this. Justinus judges Januarie's wishes to be folly (IV 1655), and it is folly, not holiness nor dotage, which prompts his choice of wife. It does not occur to him that his wish for heirs and a young wife to bear them is inappropriate for his time of life, for he has persuaded himself that his desire to marry stems from common sense.20

In the same conversation, he contradicts his earlier assertion that he is nearing death when he assures his friends that:

I feele my lymes stark and suffisaunt
To do al that a man bilongeth to.

(IV 1458-9)

Clearly Januarie is confused about the behaviour appropriate to his age, and does not know whether he should behave like an old or a young person, describing himself alternatively as ‘almoost … on my pittes brinke’ and ‘nowhere hoor but on myn heed’. His confusion seems to stem, not from senility, but from the fact that he is undergoing the transition from middle age to old age. From his youth, he retains his worldly appetite for possessions, feasting and women, though he cannot satisfy his young wife and loses the faculty of sight. For most of the tale, his age is telling against him but he has not yet reached total decrepitude. But towards the end, as he grows older, it seems that he stops pretending that at his age he is a suitable match for May:

                                        whan that I considere youre beautee
And therwithal the unlikly elde of me.

(IV 2179-80)

He has finally crossed the threshold into old age.

Concerning whether sixty years was considered to be an exceptionally old age in the Middle Ages or not, there seem to have been two distinct opinions on the average life-span. Pope Innocent III asserted in his treatise De Contemptu Mundi that, contrary to biblical lore, the span of a man's life numbered sixty years, not three score and ten.21 Following Innocent III, Deschamps described the expected maximum of a man's life as sixty years, and stated that, by thirty, women were old. Januarie echoes this opinion when he declares:

I wol no womman thritty yeer of age;
It is but bene-straw and greet forage.

(IV 1421-2)

Yet many other medieval authorities calculated a longer life-span than De Contemptu Mundi.

The medieval schemes dividing a man's life reduced it most often to three, four, six or seven stages,22 and these schemes very often imply that a sixty-year-old man was not at the end, but at the penultimate stage of his life. It has been suggested that Chaucer knew the text of the second-century astronomer Ptolemy, entitled Tetrabiblos,23 in which the stages of life are equated with the seven known planets, placing a sixty-year-old man not in the oldest category ruled by Saturn from sixty-eight years until death, but in the penultimate age from fifty-six to sixty-eight ruled by the planet Jupiter.24 Isidore of Seville (c. 560-636) divided the ages of man into a six-part scheme in his Etymologiae (XI ii). While Isidore probably did not influence Chaucer directly, his encyclopaedia formed the basis for many medieval lexica until the late Renaissance. In the Etymologiae, the fifth age extends up to seventy years, before the period of senectus until death. Isidore described the transitional nature of the fifth stage in a way which demonstrates Januarie's confusion about his age: ‘It is not yet old age but neither is it any longer youth’.25 Because he is neither young nor very old at the beginning of the tale, Januarie seems not to know how he should behave.

The eleventh-century dictionary of Papias, Elementarium Doctrinae Rudimentum, also divides a man's life into six ages, following Isidore. In this text, the fourth age is called youth or manhood and lasted up to forty-nine years, followed by the fifth age up to seventy years. As in Isidore's Etymologiae, the fifth age is a time of transition, ‘having fallen away from youth towards old age but not yet reached it’. According to Papias, decrepitude is confined to the sixth and final age from seventy onward.26 Dante described a scheme of four ages in the Convivio (IV xxiv 3).27 The third age he called ‘sennetute’, old age, lasting from forty-five to seventy, in which man declines from the second age of greatest perfection, to the fourth and final age of ‘senio’ or senility. While Dante generally followed Aristotle's scheme of three ages, where the second age is the prime of life, he added a fourth age to define the period of senility from that of sentient old age. Dante surmised that ‘senio’ could last about ten years until death. Januarie falls into the third age, one of change and decline stretching from the peak of maturity to old age, but still one in which he retains his mental faculties.

According to these and other schemes, Januarie falls most often into the penultimate category of decline but not yet death. A parallel can be drawn with the seven-stage scheme of Ptolemy in which the last two stages are ruled over by the planets Jupiter and Saturn respectively. Januarie seems to be crossing over from the sixth age of Jupiter into the final age of Saturn. In these terms, Chaucer's Knight provides a comparison to Januarie, for he has been described thus: ‘we have to think of the wise “meeke”. … Knight as being himself in passage from the Sixth to the Seventh Age’.28 Put in this perspective, it is clear that, while he is old, Januarie is not actually on the point of death any more than is the Knight. The difference between them lies in the fact that while the Knight embodies the Aristotelian concept of middle age being the moral prime of life, Januarie embodies all that is reprehensible about middle age, following the homiletic tradition with which Chaucer was very likely familiar,29 and which is evident in the fourteenth-century poem, The Parlement of the Thre Ages.

The Parlement of the Thre Ages30 provides a useful parallel to the character of Januarie in the “Merchant's Tale.” Youthe, Medill Elde and Elde embody the preoccupations of each age: enjoyment, wealth and death. While Januarie is most closely equated with Medill Elde, he seems to encompass the negative aspects of all three: he aspires to sensual pleasures though he has lost the physical capacity, he is concerned with begetting an heir to whom he can leave his wealth, and he is beginning to dwell on his own mortality. Januarie never left the pursuits of youth behind, and is struggling now to maintain those of middle age. Old age will force him to abandon all his pursuits, the inevitability of which he only realises by the end of the tale. The Parlement of the Thre Ages represents a man's life as one day from sunrise to sunset. The “Merchant's Tale” represents it as one year in which Januarie and May have reached incongruous, though transient stages. The transience of life's stages and the consequences of one's actions are issues which May has not yet begun to address, but which Januarie will be forced to, having reached the threshold of old age. Elde explains with awful clarity:

Thou man in thi medill elde hafe mynde whate I saye!
I am thi sire and thou my sone, the sothe for to telle,
And he the sone of thiselfe þat sittis one the stede,
For Elde is sire of Midill Elde, and Midill Elde of Youthe.


Januarie is most similar to Medill Elde in the Parlement, who is also sixty years old and represents the zenith of middle age:

Hym semyde for to see to of sexty yere elde,
And þerfore men in his marche Medill Elde hym callede.


Like Januarie, Medill Elde has many possessions, and enjoys a prosperous life. Januarie's concern for his wealth, proverbial among aristocratic Lombard merchants, prompts him to want heirs to inherit his property:

Yet were me levere houndes had me eten
Than that myn heritage sholde falle
In straunge hand, and this I telle yow alle.

(IV 1438-40)

By contrast, the character of Elde has transcended any interest in worldly things and considers only death. Januarie's consideration of death is farcical as he wonders whether his marriage will be too blissful to allow him to go to heaven afterwards. As the archetypal figure of age, Elde is clearly much older than Januarie:

The thirde was a laythe lede lenyde one his syde,
A beryne bownn alle in blake with bedis in his hande,
Croked and courbede, encrampeschett for elde.


While Januarie resembles Medill Elde for most of the “Merchant's Tale,” his journey from middle to old age is noticeable by the end. Like Elde, he grows blind; he cannot walk by himself but needs the support of his wife, and his jealousy of May increases the feebler he grows. Old age crept up on Elde when he least expected it: the same is happening to Januarie.

The three ages in the Parlement are described as thirty, sixty and one hundred years. These ages seem to represent the zenith or total of the three stages of life, rather than the average ages, even though according to Innocent III and Deschamps, at sixty years of age, Medill Elde should be at the end rather than the middle of his life.31 It has been noted that the three ages derive from the parable of the sower (Matthew XIII 8) and biblical exegesis. In particular, the age of sixty years ‘was regarded as a perfect number because it was at this age that Isaac was said to have produced sons’.32 That Januarie claims pious reasons for his intention to marry at the age of sixty only highlights his vanity in attempting to emulate Isaac, however unwittingly. The numbers thirty, sixty and one hundred in the parable of the sower were equated by patristic authors with varying levels of perfection. Sixty was taken to symbolise continence, widowhood and the contemplative life. Such symbolism highlights the inappropriate behaviour of Januarie, who is by contrast lecherous, luxurious and never sincerely concerned for his spiritual well-being. Therefore, while Januarie thought it fitting to emulate Isaac (whether knowingly or not) and father sons at sixty, the Church fathers indicated that it was more fitting to remain continent at sixty; that marriage was the state appropriate to the young. In this way, Januarie contravenes ecclesiastical as well as natural laws, though he cites both to justify his actions.

There seems to be a deliberate element of irony in Januarie's choice to have children at sixty like Isaac. At the beginning of the tale, Januarie expounds on the wisdom of women, citing the example of Rebecca, the wife of Isaac:

Lo, how that Jacob, as thise clerkes rede,
By good conseil of his moodor Rebekke,
Boond the kydes skyn aboute his nekke,
For which his fadres benyson he wan.

(IV 1362-5)

Though Januarie intends to demonstrate wifely wisdom, his example is one of wifely deception. When Isaac lost his sight, Rebecca substituted their second son Jacob for their firstborn Esau so that Jacob received the blessing from his blind father that was intended for his brother. Later in the tale, May is advised by the priest at her wedding to behave like Rebecca, ‘In wysdom and in trouthe of mariage’ (IV 1705). Yet when Januarie's sight fails, May, like Rebecca, takes the opportunity to deceive her husband. This biblical motif, cited twice throughout the tale, acts as a forewarning which prepares the audience for May's deception of Januarie in the garden.

While earlier and contemporary medieval texts exploring the issue of middle age and old age can shed light upon the character of Januarie, May's stage of life is more elusive to set in context. The medieval texts addressing the ages of man seldom address the ages of woman, and when they do, it is usually only to point out the differences from a masculine norm.33 By and large, the “Merchant's Tale” is told from the perspective of Januarie, not from that of May, and therefore she is almost completely silent. All we are told is:

But God woot what that May thoughte in hir herte.

(IV 1851)

However, it can be argued that the reminiscences of the Wife of Bath about her first three rich old husbands in her “Prologue” may indicate what May thought in her heart. Though lacking the contextual evidence to examine May's stage of life more precisely, it is clear that her evident youth does not preclude her from conducting herself with adult capability. Though the Merchant seems to criticise the Wife of Bath through the mouth of Januarie, who complains:

And eek thise olde wydwes, God it woot,
They konne so muchel craft on Wades boot,
So muchel broken harm, whan that hem leste,
That with hem sholde I nevere lyve in reste.

(IV 1423-6)

Alison has already declared that she was at her most manipulative and effective when she was young, married to her three old husbands. Januarie's supposition that young women are more malleable in the hands of their older husbands has already been undercut by the Wife's confessions. His mistake becomes apparent as his wife gains more and more control within the marriage while he gets older and weaker. The fate which Youthe in The Parlement of the Thre Ages predicts for Medill Elde, that mourning will be brief after his death (258), came true for Alison's old husbands and will most likely come true also for Januarie.

In one sense, the naming of Januarie and May by the months of the year transforms the characters from people into abstract, static phases of life. Their names are only relevant to the stages of life they have reached during the tale. Is it possible to imagine that the husband was called Januarie when he was twenty, or that the wife will be called May when she is an old woman? Or do their names change as they enter different phases of life? In this way, the audience is almost discouraged from imagining that the characters are mortals whose lives change according to the laws of nature, because their names only have meaning for their present stages of life. Yet on the other hand, their names ensure that the issues of time and change are highlighted in the tale and are therefore impossible to ignore.

For the “Merchant's Tale,” as for so many of his works, Chaucer took a popular device, that of the old husband and the young wife, and shaped it to a precise purpose. Once it is perceived that Januarie and May are named according to the months of the medieval calendar, where January is the eleventh month and May is the third, their relative ages in the tale become clear. And these relative ages are specific. Everything in the tale indicates that Januarie is at a particular time in his life, having reached a specific age. His actions are those of a man passing from the last stage of middle age to the first part of old age. His description of himself as ‘on my pittes brinke’, intended to convince his friends that he feels the onset of death, seems more aptly to describe his transition from middle to old age. He has reached a cross-roads in his life, where he anxiously assures his friends that he is young for his age, but also makes hasty provision for his last years. Like Janus, the two-headed Roman god often used in the medieval calendars to symbolise the month of January looking back to the old year but also facing the new, Januarie is at a threshold where he faces both the past and the future. He tries to retain the lifestyle of his past while becoming ever more aware of the restrictions of old age: the events of the tale are precipitated precisely because of this situation.

Yet it has been easy to overlook the specificity of Januarie's stage of life, and tempting simply to call him very old and exaggerate his age. Correspondingly, it has been tempting also to exaggerate May's youth, and designate her no more precisely than as a young girl. Yet this too belies her actions in the tale which are those of a competent young adult. Such exaggeration does not highlight the incongruity between the protagonists (which is already perfectly clear in the tale). Instead, it clouds the precision with which the characters are drawn and renders their actions less clear to the audience.


  1. See Norman E. Eliason, ‘Personal Names in the Canterbury Tales’, Names 21 (1973), pp. 137-52, p. 140.

  2. For example, see Emerson Brown, Jr., ‘Chaucer and a Proper Name: January in the Merchant's Tale’, Names 31 (1983), pp. 79-87.

  3. See Derek Pearsall and Elizabeth Salter, Landscapes and Seasons of the Medieval World (London, 1973), p. 137; John Winter Jones, ‘Observations on the Origin of the Division of Man's Life into Stages’, Archaeologia 35 (1853), pp. 167-89; Rosemond Tuve, Seasons and Months: Studies in a Tradition of Middle English Poetry (Cambridge, 1974); E. Dal and P. Skårup, The Ages of Man and the Months of the Year (Copenhagen, 1980).

  4. For example, see Derek Pearsall and Elizabeth Salter (1973), p. 155, where January and December are described as ‘the beginning and end of the year's turning …’

  5. J. S. P. Tatlock, ‘Chaucer's Merchant's Tale’, Modern Philology 33 (1935-6), pp. 367-81, p. 377; reprinted in Chaucer Criticism vol. 1: The Canterbury Tales, ed. R. J. Schoeck and J. Taylor, (Indiana, 1960), pp. 175-89, p. 185.

  6. This issue was addressed by R. L. Poole in ‘The Beginning of the Year in the Middle Ages’ Proceedings of the British Academy 10 (1921), pp. 113-37. Poole demonstrated that March was considered the first month in England following ecclesiastical practice, while the astrological year began in January following Roman reckoning. See also J. C. Eade, The Forgotten Sky: A Guide to Astrology in English Literature (Oxford, 1984), p. 33-4. Hence there was always some ambiguity in contemporary accounts, though it is evident that medieval and Renaissance authors themselves understood the year to begin in March, e.g., E. Spenser, The Shepherd's Calendar, ed. W. L. Renwick (London, 1930), p. 12. The relevance of the beginning of the year in the Middle Ages to Januarie and May in the Merchant's Tale was referred to by Emerson Brown Jr. in ‘The Merchant's Tale: Januarie's “Unlikely Elde”’, Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 74 (1973), pp. 92-106, p. 96. Despite this, there is still a certain amount of confusion concerning the beginning of the year in the Middle Ages, and the issue is rarely taken into account.

  7. C.f., also Jessica Cooke, ‘The Beginning of the Year in Spenser's Mutabilitie Cantos’, Notes and Queries, 240 (1995), pp. 285-6.

  8. See the description of Januarie as ‘senile’ by A. E. Hartung, ‘The Non-Comic Merchant's Tale, Maximianus, and the Sources’, Medieval Studies 29 (1967), pp. 1-25, p. 7; see also Philippa Tristram, Figures of Life and Death in Medieval English Literature (London, 1976), p. 69: the ‘union itself becomes an expression of senility’; see also Hubertis M. Cummings, The Indebtedness of Chaucer's Works to the Italian Works of Boccaccio (New York, 1965), p. 36.

  9. For example, the assumption that Januarie is ‘closer to the end of a normal life span in Chaucer's age than in our own’, J. Boothman, ‘“Who Hath no Wyf, he is no Cokewold”: A Study of John and January in Chaucer's Miller's and Merchant's Tales’, Thoth 4 (1963), pp. 3-14.

  10. Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800, abridged edition (Harmondsworth, 1982), pp. 46-66.

  11. See J. C. Russell, ‘Late Ancient and Medieval Population’, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 48 (1958), pp. 22-35, p. 22: ‘Actually, if one lived through all of the dangers of the first thirty years of life, he had normally a fine constitution and good immunity against ordinary diseases and might live a long time even by modern standards’; and again at p. 35: ‘The human constitution probably differed little from ours: the upper limit of age of those who survived the diseases and wore out was about one hundred years, as it is today’.

  12. Philippa Tristram (1976), p. 69, noted that while the Reeve and the Merchant are often taken to represent old age in the General Prologue, they more accurately suggest ‘prosperous middle years’. Januarie is also taken to personify old age when he more accurately represents the transition from middle to old age.

  13. See J. S. P. Tatlock (1935-6), p. 374.

  14. All quotations from the Merchant's Tale are cited from The Riverside Chaucer, third edition, ed. Larry Benson (Oxford, 1988).

  15. Peter Brown and Andrew Butcher examined how May's power grows, not simply because she is young and strong, but also as a result of favourable zodiacal influence, while Januarie's power diminishes, in The Age of Saturn (Oxford, 1991), p. 169-71; for a detailed astronomical interpretation of the Merchant's Tale, see J. D. North, Chaucer's Universe (Oxford, 1988), pp. 443-55.

  16. See Oeuvres Complètes d’Eustache Deschamps (Paris, 1887), p. 63; William Matthews, ‘Eustache Deschamps and Chaucer's Merchant's Tale’, Modern Language Review 51 (1956), p. 217-20.

  17. Emerson Brown, Jr. (1983), pp. 80-81

  18. S. Echard and C. Fanger, eds., The Latin Verses in the Confessio Amantis: An Annotated Translation (East Lansing, MI., 1991), pp. 90-1.

  19. For an examination of the possible nature of Januarie's desires, see P. J. C. Field, ‘Chaucer's Merchant and the Sin against Nature’, Notes and Queries 215 (1970), pp. 84-6.

  20. See George D. Economou, ‘Januarie's Sin against Nature: The Merchant's Tale and the Roman de la Rose’, Comparative Literature 17 (1965), pp. 251-7, pp. 254-5; See also Mortimer J. Donovan, ‘Chaucer's January and May: Counterparts in Claudian’ in Chaucerian Problems and Perspectives: essays presented to Paul E. Beichner, ed. Edward Vasta and Zacharius P. Thundy (Notre Dame, Indiana, 1979), pp. 59-69, p. 66.

  21. Patrologia Latina CCXVII, ed. J.-P. Migne (Paris, 1889), pp. 701-46, p. 706.

  22. The schemes were comprehensively examined by J. A. Burrow in The Ages of Man: A Study in Medieval Writing and Thought (Oxford, 1986).

  23. See J. D. North (1988), p. 66.

  24. J. A. Burrow (1986), p. 42-3. However, Burrow noted that where the seven-stage scheme was used in medieval English poetry, the stage of Jupiter represented the zenith of power, echoing the status of Jupiter as king of the gods, rather than the declining stage of the planet Jupiter in the Ptolemaic scheme.

  25. Isidore, Etymologiae, ed. W. M. Lindsay (Oxford, 1911), XI ii 6: ‘Quinta aetas senioris, id est gravitas, quae est declinatio a iuventute in senectutem; nondum senectus sed iam nondum iuventus, quia senioris aetas est …’

  26. J. A. Burrow (1986), p. 85.

  27. Dante, Il Convivio, trans. by Richard H. Lansing (New York and London, 1990), pp. 218-19.

  28. Douglas Brooks and Alastair Fowler, ‘The Meaning of Chaucer's Knight's Tale’, Medium Ævum 39 (1970), pp. 123-46, p. 142.

  29. J. A. Burrow, ‘Chaucer's Knight's Tale and the Three Ages of Man’, in Essays on Medieval Literature (Oxford, 1984), pp. 27-48, pp. 29-30.

  30. The Parlement of the Thre Ages ed. Thorlac Turville-Petre in Alliterative Poetry of the Later Middle Ages (London, 1989), pp. 67-100.

  31. The unusually great ages assigned to Youthe, Medill Elde and Elde in The Parlement of the Thre Ages were discussed by Russell A. Peck in ‘The Careful Hunter in The Parlement of the Thre Ages’, English Literary History 39 (1972), pp. 333-41, p. 338: ‘… it seems curious that the poet would consider … a 60 year old as Middle Age. Perhaps his point is that by defining each at the extremity of his measure he keeps us mindful of the inevitability of each one's passing on to the next degree. Youth has scarcely begun to realize what youth is before he becomes Middle Age, etc.’ Likewise, Januarie has not come to terms with what it means to be middle-aged, before he begins to pass into old age. Anne Kernan also discussed the point in ‘Theme and Structure in The Parlement of the Thre Ages’, Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 75 (1974), pp. 253-78, p. 264: ‘The ages assigned to the three characters … seem rather unnatural, though they may with some stretching be taken as representing the extreme end points of the “three ages” of man’. See also G. R. Coffman, ‘Old Age in Chaucer's Day’, Modern Language Notes 52 (1937), pp. 25-6.

  32. Beryl Rowland, ‘The Three Ages of The Parlement of The Thre Ages’, The Chaucer Review 9 (1975), pp. 342-52, p. 345.

  33. See Mary Dove, The Perfect Age of Man's Life (Cambridge, 1986), p. 20.

Further Reading

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Pearsall, Derek. The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer: A Critical Biography. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992, 365 p.

Detailed biography discussing what is known about Chaucer's birth, parentage and childhood; his early career and writings; his achievement of fame and his public life; and his later career.


Allen, Valerie and Ares Axiotis, eds. Chaucer. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996, 268 p.

Collection of critical essays dealing largely with the Canterbury Tales. Several essays focus on gender issues.

Besserman, Lawrence. Chaucer's Biblical Poetics. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998, 338 p.

Book-length study of the biblical allusions and quotations in Chaucer's work. The author maintains that Chaucer's poetry, suffused with such allusions, demonstrates his interest in medieval beliefs concerning biblical authority and in the “specifically English problematization” of those beliefs.

Blamires, Alcuin. The Canterbury Tales. London: Macmillan, 1987, 87 p.

Offers an introduction and overview focusing on Chaucer's sources, literary conventions, medieval contexts, social and political historicism, dramatic and psychological readings, and varieties of textual analysis. Blamires also discusses questions concerning Chaucer's authorship, his intent, and his narrative strategies.

Cooper, Helen. “The Canterbury Tales.” In The Canterbury Tales, pp. 5-25. Oxford Guides to Chaucer. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.

Introduces the text with a discussion of the date, textual history, sources and analogues, structure, themes, and style of the Canterbury Tales.

Despres, Denise L. “Cultic Anti-Judaism and Chaucer's Litel Clergeon.” Modern Philology 91, No. 4 (May 1994): 413-27.

Examines the relationship between the eucharistic symbolism and anti-Judaism in the “Prioress's Tale,” in an effort to discern how such issues were presented to Chaucer's contemporary audience, who had no association with and little memory of Jews in England.

Dugas, Don-John. “The Legitimization of Royal Power in Chaucer's Man of Law's Tale.Modern Philology 95, No. 1 (August 1997): 27-43.

Suggests that the tale not be studied in terms of its story and heroine, but treated in terms of historical and genealogical significance.

Robertson, D. W., Jr. A Preface to Chaucer: Studies in Medieval Perspectives. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1962, 519 p.

Analysis of the particularly medieval contexts within which Chaucer wrote, and the importance of artistic, stylistic, religious, philosophical, and social considerations.

Woods, William F. “Society and Nature in the Cook's Tale.Papers on Language and Literature 32, No. 2 (Spring 1996): 189-205.

Discusses the ways in which “The Cook's Tale” informs the earlier tales by providing the context of urban London, which develops the motivation and action of the other tales.

Additional coverage of Chaucer's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Group: Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography Before 1660; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 146;DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British; DISCovering Authors: Canadian; DISCovering Authors: Modules—Most Studied Authors Module and Poets Module; Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, Vol. 17; Poetry Criticism Vol. 19; andWorld Literature Criticism Supplement.

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Geoffrey Chaucer World Literature Analysis


Chaucer, Geoffrey (Poetry Criticism)