The Temptations of Chaucer

The Strumpet Muse: Art and Morals in Chaucer’s Poetry

by Alfred David
Indiana University Press, 352 pp., $15.00

The Idea of The Canterbury Tales

by Donald R. Howard
University of California Press, 403 pp., $15.00

England in the Age of Chaucer

by William Woods
Stein and Day, 230 pp., $10.00

Chaucer: Sources and Backgrounds

edited by Robert P. Miller
Oxford University Press, 500 pp., $7.00 (paper)


   Listeth, lordes, in good entent,
And I wol telle verrayment Of myrthe and of solas;
Al of a knyght was fair and gent
In bataille and in tourneyment, His name was sire Thopas.

Yborn he was in fer contree
In Flaundres, al biyonde the see, At Poperyng, in the place.
His fader was a man ful free,
And lord he was of that contree, As it was Goddes grace.

It takes a great poet to write poetry as bad as this. In twelve lines Chaucer has already succeeded in making us lose all further interest in the deeds of his hero. No wonder Harry Bailly, the Host of the Tabard Inn, who has accompanied the pilgrims on their way to Canterbury and taken it upon himself to act as master of ceremonies, interrupts him with: “Namoore of this, for Goddes dignitee…. Myn eres aken of thy drasty speche.” The question for us is: How are we to take it? Why is it spoken? Is it merely a parody of second-rate romances or is such parody, as in Cervantes, only the symptom of a larger unease? Once we open ourselves to such questions others come pouring in: Who is speaking this? The pilgrim Chaucer? The poet? (But who is the poet?) Where is it spoken? On the road to Canterbury? In our heads? Then? Now?

Chaucer is one of the great unread writers of world literature. It is true that he is the Father of English Literature, but outside of English departments, where the feeling I suppose is that if you are going out with the daughters you’ve got to be civil to the father, one does not imagine anyone reading him or having any particular incentive to do so. Dryden’s remark that “here is God’s plenty,” though meant as a term of praise, would seem designed to put one off rather than encourage one to sample. Who wants God’s plenty nowadays, especially if it’s in verse and in a slippery language that at moments looks just like English and then turns suddenly into gibberish? But perhaps he has more to say to us than we often realize, perhaps he is more puzzling, doubting, inquiring, than the traditional image of him suggests. All we need to do is open his poems and see for ourselves. This, in their various ways, is what all the books under review urge us to do. Some, however, are more persuasive than others, and it may be of some theoretical as well as practical interest to see just why this should be so.

The great merit of John Gardner’s books is that they clearly set out to convert: “I write about Chaucer,” he says, “because I believe profoundly what he says in his poetry about human life, and believe his ideas are more significant right now, in the twentieth century, than they ever were before, even in his own century.” His assets are enormous enthusiasm for anything connected with Chaucer and a boundless confidence in his own ability to convey that enthusiasm. The results, however, are disappointing.

Let us begin with the biography. Here, right at the start, Gardner runs into difficulties. For the fact is that very little is known about Chaucer. We have no letters, no memoirs, no way of knowing what Chaucer thought or what his contemporaries thought about him in private. Since he was a civil servant for most of his life there are plenty of records, but these never once mention poetry or even writing. Thus Gardner is reduced to filling out his book with potted intellectual and political history: the troubles of Edward II, medieval attitudes to children, the course of Edward III’s French wars, the medieval school curriculum, fourteenth-century Oxford, Ockham, Wycliffe, Alice Perrers, The Peasants’ Revolt, etc., etc. When the going gets a little heavy he brings in a bit of “human interest”: Did John of Gaunt have an affair with his sister-in-law, Chaucer’s wife? Was Chaucer’s son really Gaunt’s? What exactly did Chaucer do to incur the charge of raptus (rape or abduction)—this in 1380, when he was a middle-aged, happily married man? The evidence, here as elsewhere, is inconclusive.

The trouble with all this is not so much that there is a great deal we can never know; it is that even the things we can be reasonably certain about seem to cast little light on the man, the poet, or the age. Gardner points out at the start that where there are gaps in knowledge he will frequently be forced to use “the novelist’s prerogative” to invent, but though this makes the book more readable, in the end it does Chaucer a disservice. We are very conscious of having Gardner’s Chaucer, rather than Chaucer himself, Gardner’s version of the English fourteenth century rather than any insight into what the period was really like. It is true that we learn a few facts on the way—it was, for example, “legal to beat a wife into unconsciousness, but not acceptable to beat her until her inert body farted, a sign that she was in shock and might possibly be dying”1—but these remain isolated and fragmentary. By the end we are no nearer to Chaucer or his age than when we started.

The Poetry of Chaucer is equally disappointing, though here it is harder to put one’s finger on the source of failure. “I have no single point to make about Chaucer’s poetry,” Gardner says at the start, “except of course, that it is a joy to read, a magnificent, puzzling, delightful world to move into….” His method is to begin at the beginning, with The Book of the Duchess, and to work his way through the canon to the Retraction at the end of The Canterbury Tales. He has read much of the recent scholarship on Chaucer and there are many good insights on the way, usually culled (with ample acknowledgment) from the work of others. But my overall impression of the book is that it is at once too dense and too thin. Gardner’s answer would no doubt be that the book is meant to be an introduction for the general reader: “In a book meant for nonspecialists,” he says at the start of his discussion of The Canterbury Tales, “it would be impossible to present a full line-by-line analysis of the whole work, much less a full appreciation of its magnificence as poetry.” But does this distinction not rest on a strange assumption? Is the difference between a book for the general reader and one for “specialists” really that between general comments and line-by-line analysis? Though Gardner constantly gestures in the direction of scholarship he hives it off from “response to the poetry” with a positively ruthless determination: “It is not my purpose,” he declares in the preface, “to write a book closely examining Chaucer’s possible use of the writings of Robert Grosseteste, or Chaucer’s relationship to John Gower, or the influence of Livy on Chaucer’s aesthetic theory. My purpose is to follow where the poems lead, avoiding presuppositions but turning to ideas popular in Chaucer’s day when those ideas seem to illuminate the poem.” Are these really the alternatives?

Part of the trouble would seem to be that it is very hard to write an interesting book which has no particular point to make. Our sense of the book’s diffuseness and lack of bite stems perhaps from Gardner’s initial decision about the kind of book he wanted to write. But this is not the whole reason, for Gardner does in fact, despite his early disclaimer, have a “point” or thesis, and it is one he drives rather hard. Chaucer, he argues, lived in a period which saw the triumph of Nominalism, and he sensed therefore that all truth is relative “and knew that quite possibly, there can be, in the end, no real communication between human beings.” This, it seems, links him with “Samuel Beckett and many other writers of the first rank in this century,” who have also played with “the paradox of speech denying the validity of speech.”

This is a strange argument. Though Chaucer does undoubtedly deal in his later works with problems of language and communication it seems odd to relate this exclusively to a scholastic controversy. Is it not more likely that Nominalism too is the response to profound and complex transformations in medieval society in the later Middle Ages? However, that is not the point I want to labor. I don’t feel it’s the oddness of Gardner’s thesis or the general flaccidity of the language in which he presents it (“Samuel Beckett and many other writers of the first rank in this century”) that is the primary reason for our dissatisfaction with his book; it has to do rather with the kinds of questions he asks of Chaucer’s text.

Here is where Alfred David’s book can help us, if only negatively. For he does definitely have a thesis—indeed, he sets out to do little else than argue this thesis—and yet it leaves us with the same feeling as Gardner’s book: we are left at the end with the sense that the pieces have been energetically moved about on the board, but that in reality nothing has changed.

David’s thesis is oddly old-fashioned, though he too makes full use of the most recent scholarship. Briefly, he argues that Chaucer began his career with the notion of the poet as preacher which was prevalent in his time, and ended it by divorcing his fiction completely from the domination of morality. The turning point, according to David, is to be found in the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales:

Chaucer’s Prologue…is liable to the charge that, by medieval standards, it is not moral enough because it fails to make judgement explicit. By modern standards, that is its greatness as a work of art. Great fiction has the power of making the reader suspend moral judgement along with the sense of disbelief. He becomes absorbed in the imaginary characters for their own sake and not for the sake of some truth or moral that can be learned from them.

This is just a more sophisticated version of the old argument that Chaucer gradually broke free of the shackles of medieval conventions and found a way to write about “real life.” David compares Chaucer’s achievement with Boccaccio’s, but one just has to look at The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron to see the error of such a view: Boccaccio’s elegant young people are cocooned from the world; they tell their tales in a vacuum, and they themselves have, in a sense, no past. Chaucer sets his characters on a pilgrimage to Canterbury, and neither their own pasts nor the culture in which they are embedded can be cast off: the book is in one sense precisely about the interrelation of the two, of individual and society, the modern and the ancient, freedom and tradition.

But again, it is not so much the errors of David’s thesis that need to be established as the weakness of the questions he asks of Chaucer. Perhaps what he says is true; perhaps it isn’t. Either way it seems to make little difference. But, it may be asked, is there any kind of criticism or scholarship which does make a difference? I think there is, and, rather than arguing my case in a theoretical way, I would like to place alongside the three works I’ve looked at a couple of others which will make my point for me.

In 1960 J.V. Cunningham published an essay entitled “Convention as Structure: The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales,” in a book called Tradition and Poetic Structure. In it he pointed out that the pilgrimage to Canterbury was undoubtedly a common occurrence in Chaucer’s day, and that “he had in all likelihood seen a good many groups of pilgrims among whom were to be found close analogues to the characters in the Prologue” (cf. Gardner: “It was probably during this period too that he came to know well those country types he would immortalize in The Canterbury Tales“). But where scholars had been concerned to establish that Chaucer lived in Greenwich on the Canterbury Road or even went on pilgrimage himself, Cunningham wants to establish something quite different:

The argument is that what he found day after day in real life he needed no literary precedent to invent. But this is not so. It is not the direct observation of murders and of the process of detection that leads to the construction of a detective story. Nor was it the perception of violent death in high places that prompted the Elizabethan dramatist to compose a tragedy. What a writer finds in real life is to a large extent what his literary tradition enables him to see and to handle.

With this essential principle in mind, Cunningham goes on to discover a model for the Prologue in a number of medieval works: in The Romance of the Rose, in Gower’s Confessio Amantis, and in Chaucer’s own early dream vision poems. In all of these, as in the Prologue, we can discern a number of constant elements: the poem is set in a specific season, usually spring; the season is often described; the author, usually as dreamer, is a character in his own poem; he comes to a place—field, palace, or inn—where he sees a series of portraits or a group of people; these are then described, panel fashion; where-upon one of the group, or a new character, initiates the main action, sometimes by proposing that a series of tales be related.

Now why is such an account so immediately exciting? First of all, I think, because it recognizes a central fact about artistic practice. Art, even an art that deals with characters and situations we can believe in, is never a natural activity. It is the result of selection, choice, adjustment. Literary criticism that is committed to a “realist” aesthetic chooses to ignore this, just as the novel itself ignores or hides its origins at the writer’s desk. But that is itself a feature of “realist” art, perhaps its most essential one. An approach like Cunningham’s does not belittle Chaucer’s achievement by denying its absolute originality or novel-ty; on the contrary, it makes it possible for us, for the first time, to understand how amazing that achievement really is.

But the question: “What model did Chaucer have in mind for the Prologue?” has not yet exhausted its value. Cunningham proceeds to point out that if we look at the whole of Fragment A of The Canterbury Tales (the Prologue and the tales of the Knight, the Miller, the Reeve, and the Cook’s fragment, with their various linking passages) we can find a model for its shape too in an earlier work of Chaucer’s. For, after the Prologue, the Host starts the Knight off with his tale and then asks the Monk, as the leading representative of the next estate, the Clergy, to follow it up. The Miller, however, rudely interrupts and forces the company to listen to his tale instead. Now if we look at The Parliament of Fowles with this sequence in mind we find there that Nature opens the Parliament and orders the birds to speak in order of rank. This they proceed to do until suddenly the lower orders break in, crying “Have don, and lat us wende!… / Whan shal youre cursede pletynge have an ende?” Until then the subject had been courtly love; now a very different view of love “is urged by a vigorous churlish personality amid a certain amount of general uproar.”

Cunningham’s point seems to me to be established beyond doubt. But it is more than a “point.” He has alerted us to aspects of Chaucer’s art which had been thrust into the shadows by the “realist” assumptions of previous critics. He has done this in a short essay with very little line-by-line analysis. Rather, sensing what questions to ask, he has made the poem and Chaucer’s achievement come alive for us.

Donald R. Howard’s The Idea of The Canterbury Tales sets out to do for the whole work what Cunningham had sketched out for a small portion of it. Howard wants us to start by taking seriously the possibility that what we have here is neither a random collection nor a small fragment of some mighty work we can only guess at, but a precisely planned work of art with only one or two minor elements missing or still to be worked out. He asks us to try to understand what happens to us as we read the book, and he realizes that this means using all the available means of scholarship to try to understand how it came to be. This means not just grasping how Chaucer put it together, but why he should ever have thought of such a thing in the first place.

After arguing persuasively that the medieval notion of a pilgrimage was always of a one-way affair (no one was interested in what you did once you had reached the holy place), and thus establishing that the book has the beginning and end Chaucer meant it to have, he proceeds to a detailed comparison of some of the key elements of Troilus and The Canterbury Tales. He contrasts, for example, Chaucer’s insistence on the past tense in Troilus with his use of the present in the Tales: “This circumstance,” he says,

—that we are present in the work as hearers or readers—is expressed in a passage whose temporal relationships are remarkable:

The Miller is a cherl, ye know well this;
So was the Reeve eek and othere mo,
And harlotrie they tolden bothe two.
Avyseth you, and put me out of blame;
And eek men shall nat make ernest of game.

Why in these lines is the past tense used of the Reeve, the present tense of the Miller?—because the Miller is there at hand about to tell his tale. It is as if the narrator were watching with us…. Addressing us parenthetically, he removes (so to speak) the mask of the Miller, which he is about to put on again—holds the mask at arm’s length as he pauses to comment. It is one of the most extraordinary moments in medieval literature.

Howard does not analyze the passage in detail. He only picks on the salient point for his purposes: the use of the tenses. He then proceeds to make us aware of its implications, and of the extraordinary nature of what Chaucer has done. (He rightly will have no truck with reductionist arguments of the kind: “But who would notice this if it was read aloud?” or: “This is too subtle for the average reader.” It’s there and it’s up to us to notice. The critic’s task is to turn an average reader into a good one.) Again and again he sharpens our awareness by the use of comparison and contrast:

In the Troilus the book is in the narrator’s hand: he draws his material from it, and directs us. In The Canterbury Tales the book is put in our hands to make of it what we will.

But, like Cunningham, his most potent weapon is the revelation of different possibilities, paths Chaucer might have taken but did not. He points out, for example, how much of what actually went on in pilgrimages is left out by Chaucer: we know that pilgrims sang songs on the way, but we are only given tales; the shrines where pilgrims habitually stopped on the road to Canterbury are never mentioned; pilgrimages had certain rituals of prayer and blessing, but these are ignored by Chaucer. “Chaucer chose, then, to overlook some kinds of ‘historical’ or ‘realistic’ detail in his account of the pilgrimage in order to focus” on what was necessary for his purposes. Again, although pilgrimages would have passed through a number of towns on their way to the holy place, Chaucer takes care to start his particular one outside London and to end it outside Canterbury; he often mentions towns they pass close to, but he never has the pilgrims actually enter a town in the course of their journey. This is surely a remarkable fact, as remarkable as the things he chose to include.

Howard has explanations for all this, not all of them equally convincing. He raises far more questions than he can answer, throws out far more ideas than he quite knows what to do with: that the whole book is a “book of memory”; that the basic design is that of the interlacing we find in fourteenth-century English illuminated manuscripts and in the Arthurian romances; that the formal model is that of the labyrinth, itself a substitute, when inscribed on the floors of churches, as at Chartres, for actual pilgrimage.

I remain skeptical about a good many of his conclusions. His detailed treatment of individual tales is often less penetrating than Gardner’s or David’s. But none of this matters. His book is a vindication of the alliance between criticism and scholarship, and of the work of Chaucer. Though his book would presumably be described as aimed at specialists, it is far more likely to make anyone into whose hands it falls start reading Chaucer than Gardner’s overtly popularizing books. And those who already thought they knew The Canterbury Tales will be sent back to that book eager to read it again as it should be read—from the first word to the last.


I have talked about a difference in the kinds of question asked by Gardner and David on the one hand, and by Cunningham and Howard on the other Critical methods do not exist in the void, however, and there is a historical dimension to the differences in approach which should not be overlooked. For the fact is that, of all the books under review, none except Howard’s takes the Middle Ages seriously enough. I don’t mean that Howard is solemn about them; only that he alone seems to be aware of the complexity and richness of the culture and of the manifold problems of understanding it, since it is so different from our own. The others invariably treat this period as something immediately graspable.

For Woods it is a dark, dreary, restricting environment—“the brackish backwater of medieval England,” “the rickety feudal world of the north”—into which Chaucer brought the light and gaiety he had found in Italy. For David and Gardner there is a clear gap between the stern, moralistic, “official” view of Church and State, and the free, fun-loving openness of “the people.” Gardner, indeed, seems to see late medieval England as a kind of rosy version of rural America more than fifty years ago: “Make Middle-English openhearted, like Mark Twain’s jokes,” he urges in his Appendix on Pronunciation.

Both David and Gardner are reacting to that school of Chaucer criticism known as “historical” or “exegetical,” and best represented by D. W. Robertson’s A Preface to Chaucer. The claim made by this school is that medieval culture was indeed moral, as David suggests, but that, far from reacting to this, Chaucer in fact always wrote according to its tenets. We thus get the curious situation whereby Robertson and his followers take the Nun’s Priest at his word when he ends his tale by saying:

For seint Paul seith that al that writen is,
To oure doctrine it is ywrite, ywis;
Taketh the fruyt, and lat the chaf be stille.

—while David would argue that, on the contrary, the point of the tale is that we must take the chaff of the fiction and forget the fruit of moral doctrine. Both groups thus opt for a singular explanation, ignoring the obvious fact that it is the conflict between the two views that is Chaucer’s primary concern.2

To see Chaucer as firmly part of the Middle Ages does not mean reducing his work to a series of moral platitudes. On the contrary, it means recognizing that he lived in a culture so radically different from our own that it cannot simply be grasped through the deployment of formulas. To oversimplify, whereas for us the raw flux of experience contains no meaning until we impose meaning upon it, for the Middle Ages the world and everything in it had inherent meaning, since it had been created by God and its value guaranteed by the Incarnation.

The difference such a view makes is enormous. It is as though Chaucer and his age lived on a different planet from ours, with different laws of motion and gravity. We cannot simply wipe that difference away or substitute for our immediate response a code extracted from two or three authors like St. Augustine or St. Thomas. What we need to do is to open ourselves to the variety, complexity, and alienness of the period, to grasp what such assumptions implied, even to a radical doubter like Chaucer, for his doubts were doubts about such a world.

As V.A. Kolve says in an important article,3 “We must move towards some accuracy of medieval imagining—’imaging’—at all levels.” To do this it is not enough to grasp the physical details of Chaucer’s England—the clothes people wore, the sights they saw, the size of their villages and cities. We need rather to make the anthropologist’s effort to grasp the whole of an alien culture with its complex set of relationships, none of which can be apprehended apart from the rest. Not to do this is, in the well-worn example, like watching a game being played but not knowing the rules; one will see as much as someone who does know the rules, but in another sense one will not see anything at all.

Historians, as well as literary critics like Howard and Kolve, are beginning to understand this. Charles Phythian-Adams, for example, in a fascinating article, “Ceremony and the Citizen: The Communal Year at Coventry, 1450-1550,”4 remarks:

Hocktide games took place “in” the city and not on adjacent waste ground; maypoles stood over the streets; bonfires burnt on them; “pageants” trundled through them…. Such practices are only a reminder that medieval streets were as important for recreation and marketing as for communication; rites and processions, like the carriage through the streets of the Corpus Christi host or the Midsummer fire, periodically added a mystical dimension to the utilitarian valuation of the immediate topographical context. While doing so, they underlined further the physical inescapability of communal involvement.

At the Reformation all this was destroyed. Not only was spiritual life turned inward, but cultural life was too: from the streets into the churches and houses, from narration into books. The physical world, space itself, was desacralized, and the sacred found refuge only in the immaterial.

We are of course still living in that post-Reformation world. This is what makes it so important and at the same time so difficult to understand the Middle Ages. We need to develop a wholly different sense of space and time. But this is where art can help us. Medieval art does in one sense speak very directly to us. We need to learn how to translate what we instinctively feel about it into conceptual discourse, and this the scholar-critic can help us to do. With Chaucer, however, there are particular problems, partly because he has for so long been looked at through Renaissance spectacles, and partly because his irony is always so difficult to gauge.

Even Howard blurs something of Chaucer’s uniqueness in his excitement at bringing back for us long-forgotten modes of reading. For example, one of his central theses is that The Canterbury Tales is a “book of memory,” and that memory is embodied in it as a central fiction and as the controlling principle of its form: “The expressed idea of the work is that the pilgrim Chaucer, like the pilgrim Dante of the Commedia, reports on an experience of his own which includes stories told by others. Both are returned travellers, both rely on memory.” And again, later: “If we see the structure of the work in this way, there is something like a return journey: we are asked to read the Parson’s Tale and then turn about and go over the tales again in memory, see them anew from a better perspective…. The work remembered makes us change our estimate of the work experienced.”

But does the analogy really hold? In Dante as in Proust (also mentioned by Howard) memory is linked to discovery: you sink down into yourself and find there once again the plenitude of the human body as absolute potential. In Dante this work of memory is the work of the poem itself, but it is underpinned by the belief that man is made in God’s image and that Christ enjoined on us to take the sacrament in memory of his own sacrificial action. In Chaucer, on the other hand, memory remains fragmented and we never attain a better perspective, for each change of point of vantage leads to a blotting out of the previous point. We are left with a memory perhaps, but a memory of a set of babbling voices, each squabbling for priority, each insisting on its own version of reality as the only one. In Langland, Chaucer’s contemporary, the Field Full of Folk where the poem starts is called to memory by another, later field, where a joust takes place: it is Christ come to fight the devil in Piers’s armor, humana natura. And the poet wakes from his dream of this action with the bells ringing out, summoning him to mass on Easter Day. In Chaucer no one image subsumes the others under it—the gap remains constant between meaning and event.

This difference between Chaucer and the other great medieval poets with whom he nevertheless has much in common Howard senses, as indeed do Gardner and David. They all feel that in his last works Chaucer was doing something very strange indeed. “The idea,” Gardner says, “…that art is futile…will become increasingly important in The Canterbury Tales…. Unreliable narrators one after another force us to face the question squarely, ultimately casting such doubt on art’s validity as to bring on Chaucer’s Retraction.” David compares the Retraction to Kafka’s and Virgil’s wish that their work should be burned at their death. Howard is equally eloquent:

We know that the artist is meretricious, that his art is a bag of tricks, that his intent is to hoodwink. He is a clown and a swindler, and in the end he is silenced like the Manciple’s crow. It is going to be the same at the end of The Canterbury Tales: the artist is going to silence himself, retract his “endytings of worldly vanities.” There isn’t any point to all this storytelling if you are looking for the truth, because the truth lies elsewhere—lies in “auctoritee” and finally lies in God.

But isn’t there a confusion here? Kafka asked that all his work be burned; the Retraction is a typical medieval document, asking as it does for the author’s immoral works not to be taken into account at the final reckoning. It cannot be used as proof of Chaucer’s doubts about art in general, for his moral tales are just as much art as his fabliaux or his Troilus. On the other hand, if we do take the Pardoner seriously the conclusion is not necessarily that “whereof we cannot speak thereof we must be silent.” In fact it is the Wittgenstein of the Investigations rather than of the Tractatus who should be invoked here. For Chaucer, living in an age of change and disruption, when the entire fabric of society was cracking just enough for gaps to show between the separate segments, but when the shape of the whole was still present to men’s consciousness—Chaucer realized instinctively that anything we say or do falls into a pattern which is conditioned by a multitude of assumptions, most of them unconscious.

In other words, there is a Knightly ideology, as well as a Clerkly one, a feminist as well as a plebeian one. Moreover, all narrative, all forms of expression, have their own ideology, no matter how “true to life” they are. Nothing is exempt, not the Knight’s noble tale or the Host’s violent outburst against the Pardoner, not the Parson’s prose or even the Retraction itself. “Burn off my rusts and my deformities,” Donne was to beg his God two centuries later, “Restore thine Image, so much, by thy Grace, / That thou may’st know me, and I’ll turn my face.”

Chaucer remains aware of the Romantic folly of this desire. (Donne, it must be said, is half-aware of it too.) He has engaged with words and words can never bring him to the Truth. They are all tainted, contaminated, we can never make them our own. They can, however, if used with sufficient care, create a space where, in the interstices of speech, Truth can be made manifest. And I am not just thinking of the clash of tale with tale, but of the sudden lurches, hesitations, intrusions of other voices, within the tales themselves; of the sense, very evident in the Tale of Sir Thopas from which I quoted at the start, that there are innumerable ways of stringing speech together and no hint anywhere of how best to do it. Left to ourselves, as Chaucer is in that tale, we are certain to flounder; but the old authorities are hidden or else reveal themselves in such profusion that we are at a loss to know which one to turn to.

The moral of “my dame” in the Manciple’s tale is that God gave us all two rows of teeth to show that we ought to keep our tongues firm prisoners inside our mouths. But a little earlier the Manciple had pointed out that it is as mad to try to keep a young wife locked up as it is to try to keep a bird in a cage. Everyone knows that speech is the prerogative of man, what differentiates him from the animals (who don’t have it) and the angels (who don’t need it). And speech, like any of the goods of this world, can be either used or misused. The responsible artist is the one who is aware of the inevitable failure of all language, its narrow ideological base, and who uses his art to bring this out into the open. In Chaucer, even in so superficially silly a piece as the Tale of Sir Thopas, the space of narration is alive as a space where writer and reader confront the temptations of language and where they learn both that we must use language if we are to remain human and that language can never lead us directly to the truth.

  1. 1

    Gardner does not say where he got this piece of information from. Throughout he quotes mainly from secondary sources, and only a handful of them at that. William Woods, on the other hand, in England in the Age of Chaucer makes excellent use of primary sources and conveys a remarkable sense of what it was like to be very poor in a still largely feudal society. Unfortunately his book degenerates in its later chapters into a rather simple-minded description of the political upheavals of the latter part of the century.

  2. 2

    Robert P. Miller’s Chaucer: Sources and Backgrounds is a fine example of the strengths and weaknesses of the exegetical school. It is a splendidly varied collection of documents and extracts, some from very well known sources, such as Dante’s Letter to Can Grande, others from relatively unknown sources, like Ramon Lull’s The Book of the Order of Chivalry. All the extracts are usefully annotated and cross-referenced to the works of Chaucer. However, to give the passage in St. Augustine where, discussing figurative language, he employs the image of the fruit and the chaff or the kernel and the husk, and then to direct one to the end of the Nun’s Priest’s Tale without pointing out the complex range of ironies involved in Chaucer’s use of the idea is not just negligent, it is misleading. Still, so long as one recognizes the editor’s biases this is a very useful and informative book—apart from Howard’s, the most valuable to the reader of Chaucer of all those under review.

  3. 3

    V.A. Kolve, “Chaucer and the Visual Arts,” in Geoffrey Chaucer, edited by Derek Brewer (London, 1974). Kolve is currently working on a book on Chaucer’s narrative images which should do much to further our understanding of Chaucer.

  4. 4

    In Crisis and Order in English Towns, 1500-1700, edited by P. Clark and P. Slack (London, 1972).