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Society, allegory and gender
Author: S. H. Rigby

This book on Geoffrey Chaucer explores the relationship between Chaucer's poetry and the change and conflict characteristic of his day and the sorts of literary and non-literary conventions that were at his disposal for making sense of the society around him. Critics who consider the social meaning of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales fall into two main schools: those who present his social thought as an expression of the dominant spirit or ideology of his day and those who see Chaucer as possessing a more heterodox voice. Many of the present generation of Chaucer critics have been trained either as 'Robertsonians' or as 'Donaldsonians'. For D. W. Robertson, even those medieval poems which do not explicitly address religious issues were frequently intended to promote the Augustinian doctrine of charity beneath a pleasing surface; for E. Talbot Donaldson, there are 'no such poems in Middle English'. The book sets out the basics of the Augustinian doctrine of charity and of medieval allegorical theory and examines 'patristic' interpretations of Chaucer's work, particularly of the 'Nun's Priest Tale'. It looks at the humanist alternative to the patristic method and assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the patristic approach. The book also outlines some of the major medieval discourses about sexual difference which inform Chaucer's depiction of women, in particular, the tendency of medieval writers to polarise their views of women, condemning them to the pit or elevating them to the pedestal.

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Real-life observation versus literary convention
S. H. Rigby

Geoffrey Chaucer's lifetime, from his birth early in the 1340s to his death in 1400, encompasses one of the most dramatic periods of English history. The search for a historical Chaucer has led critics to look for the 'real-life models' of the pilgrims described by Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales. The pilgrims and the characters are best seen as active reinterpretations of reality in terms of the literary conventions, scientific doctrines and stock social satires of the day. Chaucer's works do not offer direct evidence about late fourteenth-century society. Chaucer's accounts of the pilgrims are often couched in terms of the stock 'scientific' stereotypes of his day and thus describe individuals in terms of the attributes thought appropriate to their age, astrological character and physiological make-up. Such 'scientific' stereotypes, Chaucer draws upon traditions of character-description which are more specifically literary in origin.

in Chaucer in context
S. H. Rigby

Critics who consider the social meaning of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales fall into two main schools: those who present his social thought as an expression of the dominant spirit or ideology of his day and those who see Chaucer as possessing a more heterodox voice. This chapter attempts to put the case for each of these views, examining them in terms of Mikhail Bakhtin's distinction between the conservative monologic work and the more subversive, dialogic text, before an assessment of their relative merits. It is possible to reconcile the apparently contradictory 'monologic' and 'dialogic' interpretations of the Canterbury Tales. If the Canterbury Tales left itself open to being read as a dialogic work by modern critics, it could be argued that, given medieval notions of the purposes of literature, such a reading was far removed from that of Chaucer himself and hardly available to readers in Chaucer's own day.

in Chaucer in context
S. H. Rigby

Many of the present generation of Chaucer critics have been trained either as 'Robertsonians' or as 'Donaldsonians'. For Robertson, even those medieval poems which do not explicitly address religious issues were frequently intended to promote the Augustinian doctrine of charity beneath a pleasing surface; for Donaldson, there are 'no such poems in Middle English'. This chapter sets out the basics of the Augustinian doctrine of charity and of medieval allegorical theory and examines 'patristic' interpretations of Chaucer's work, particularly of the 'Nun's Priest Tale'. It looks at the humanist alternative to the patristic method and concludes with an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the patristic approach. The chapter argues that the 'Nun's Priest's Tale' can be seen as a satire of rhetorically inflated and over-serious accounts of the human condition.

in Chaucer in context
S. H. Rigby

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. It 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. It explores the alternative to both the pit and the pedestal offered in the 'Tale of Melibee' and the 'Parson's Tale'. It is possible and legitimate for modern critics to argue that Chaucer intended peple to interpret the Wife as a corroboration of misogynist attitudes. It would 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.

in Chaucer in context
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Chaucer: validity in interpretation
S. H. Rigby

It would seem that on virtually every aspect of Geoffrey Chaucer's work, his readers are currently assailed by a host of mutually exclusive interpretations and critical approaches. On the one hand, Chaucer is an Augustinian allegorist; on the other, he is sceptical about exegesis as a mode of interpretation and satirises the excesses of moral allegorising. On the one hand, he is a misogynist; on the other, he a defender of women. This book emphasises the ways in which seeing Chaucer in the context of the political issues, social values, generic conventions and literary theory of his own day can help us to understand the meaning of his work. It concludes that what a contextual approach to Chaucer's work reveals, above all else, is that literary texts are nowhere more historical in their nature than when they seek to pass themselves off as timeless and dehistoricised.

in Chaucer in context