in Chaucer in context


As an historian, my primary purpose in writing this book has not been that of most works of literary criticism, i.e., to generate new interpretations of Chaucer’s works: we already have an excess of readings of Chaucer available to us. Rather, my aim has been to survey competing approaches to understanding medieval literature in its historical context; to put the case for each of them in as persuasive a fashion as possible; to assess the relative merits of these approaches; and to discuss how we can reconcile or decide between the wildly divergent interpretations of Chaucer’s work which they produce. Although as an historian I am primarily concerned with the social meaning of Chaucer’s work, the approach adopted here is by no means intended to transform the brilliant and complex poetry of the Canterbury Tales into a mere political tract. After all, we do not primarily read Chaucer today because of his theology, social theory or political beliefs but rather because of his ability to bring together an unparalleled range of inherited genres, from the epic and the saint’s life to the fabliau and the animal-fable, and, in the process, to rework and transform them into new and more sophisticated forms. Any historical criticism will be damned if it ignores this achievement and simply reduces the bricks of great literature to the straw of sociological analysis.1 But what an historical perspective can provide is an awareness that the bricks of Chaucer’s literature were intended to construct an edifice with purposes which were often very different from those which we today expect of works of art. It emphasises that the concepts of society and of ‘human nature’ contained in works of literature, and even the very notion of literature itself, are never natural or eternal but are always specific according to time and place and thus capable of being analysed in historical terms.

Certainly, in the late fourteenth century itself, poetry was not seen simply as a vehicle for expressing personal feelings (although, of course, personal and emotional experiences are themselves always shot through with socially and historically specific values and assumptions). Instead, poetry was used to discuss a wide range of contemporary questions, such as the nature of good kingship, the failings of the Church or the conduct of the war in France, the kind of problems which we today might explore in various forms of non-literary prose such as newspaper articles or polemical pamphlets. More generally, medieval literary theory, as we shall see below (Chapter 3), regarded poetry as a branch of ethics and thus saw it as intimately connected with political, social and gender issues since medieval writers themselves saw such issues as questions of personal morality. It is not just modern critics who wish to look at the social significance of literature: the medieval period itself blurred the distinction between literature, ethics, politics and social theory. More specifically, in the case of the Canterbury Tales, a work which opens with a panoramic survey of contemporary social types, we do not have to decide between analysing literary form on the one hand and looking at social meaning on the other. On the contrary, what is at issue is the question of how Chaucer’s choice of literary form, such as his adoption of a multiplicity of different voices, his use of first-person monologues and his use of particular generic conventions, generates specific social meanings. Thus, whilst I have every sympathy with Walker’s rejection of modern attempts to psychoanalyse Chaucer’s fictional characters as though they were real people, it does not follow that the academic study of medieval literature must confine itself to the study of a work’s ‘textual devices’ and ‘verbal constructs’. We cannot restrict an analysis of Chaucer’s texts to how he achieved particular literary effects (suspense, comedy, a sense of character etc.) but will also be interested in how his use of specific textual devices is related to the overall meaning and social significance of his work, including its view of human nature, its social and political assumptions, and its religious attitudes.2

Anyone who seeks an understanding of the social meaning of the Canterbury Tales is struck immediately by the contradictory and mutually exclusive interpretations of Chaucer’s work which modern literary critics have put forward. One the one hand, Chaucer’s work is seen as providing a mirror of his age, one which reflects the social reality of late medieval England. On the other, his social vision is portrayed as the product of traditional, even centuries-old, concepts and conventions (see Chapter 1, below). For some critics, Chaucer was a defender of contemporary social inequalities; for others, he unmasked contemporary justifications of inequality as social ideology (Chapter 2). Many of those who see Chaucer as a social conservative argue that his work depends upon the traditional methods of Augustinian allegory; by constrast, those who oppose them claim that Chaucer himself parodied the techniques of such allegorization (Chapter 3). This debate extends to Chaucer’s views on society’s gender relations and inequalities, with some critics asserting that Chaucer reproduced the misogyny common to his age whilst others characterise him as a protofeminist in his sexual politics (Chapter 4).

In order to choose between such mutually exclusive interpretations of a particular work, critics often call for an historically informed reading of it. Locating a text within the broader context of contemporary social relations, religious beliefs, notions of gender and so on might allow us to arrive at a consensus about what would constitute a plausible interpretation of the author’s meaning: ‘our reading needs to be informed by a serious attempt to reconstruct the text’s moment of production, its own contexts of discourse and social practices within and for which it achieved meaning’. Seeing Chaucer in the context of the social conflicts, political strife, religious controversies, thought-structures, literary conventions and iconographic traditions of his own day seems, to many critics, to provide at least the possibility of deciding which interpretations of his work are to be preferred. Reading Chaucer historically might allow us to reach ‘some degree of certainty in literary interpretation’ even if it cannot generate an ‘authoritative, never-to-be-disputed reading of Chaucer’s text’.3 Yet, immediately, we are faced with the problem that there are a number of rival and mutually incompatible historical approaches on offer to us: historical context provides no easy court of interpretive appeal, not least because the provision of a context in which to understand any work is itself the result of a process of interpretation. The main purpose of this book is to use the works of Chaucer, particularly the Canterbury Tales, to illustrate the range of contextual approaches to medieval literature which are now available to us and to provide an assessment of such competing perspectives. I have thus approached Chaucer’s work on the assumption that, as Pearsall puts it, ‘no writer can withdraw himself from the social and cultural practices in which his existence as an individual and the language that he uses are embedded’.4 However, in turn, this claim applies as much to historians and to literary critics as it does to the authors whom they study. My own political and religious prejudices will doubtless soon become apparent to the reader but, nevertheless, I have tried here to avoid either demonstrating that Chaucer was lucky enough to have anticipated the wisdom of my own views by six centuries or berating him for having failed to do so: ‘the historian is not a judge, still less a hanging judge’.5 As George Eliot once said, ‘we cannot reform our forefathers’; my aim here is to understand Chaucer, not to reform him.

I would like to express my gratitude to a number of scholars for their willingness to comment on earlier versions of this book: Alastair Minnis provided reassurance about the argument set out in Chapter 2 when it was particularly needed; David Shepherd and Carole Weinberg also helped to clarify the structure of this chapter; Jeff Denton offered extremely useful advice on Chapter 3; and Lesley Johnson was kind enough to read and to comment on the whole book even though she can scarcely have agreed with a word of it. Richard Davies is owed particular thanks for his exacting criticisms of both my logic and prose style. Finally, above all, I would like to thank Rosalind Brown-Grant who read many versions of the book in draft and suggested innumerable improvements to both its content and the presentation of its case. Naturally, all of those named above are absolved of any responsibility for what follows.


1 Wood, 1995.
2 Walker, 1985.
3 Minnis, 1982: v; Aers, 1986a: 1-2, 6-7; Aers, 1988a: 3-4; Knight, 1986: 3, 5-6; Pearsall, 1986: 123-4; Knapp, 1990: 1-2.
4 Patterson, 1987: 43-4, 150-2; Pearsall, 1992: 244; Pearsall, 1986.
5 Carr, 1970: 77 quoting D. Knowles.

Chaucer in context

Society, allegory and gender


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