• David R. Carlson
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


The same submersion in the interests of power also characterizes Chaucer’s other work, in poetry. Though the records omit to mention his writing, connection remains. Chaucer’s writing did the same kind of work in the cultural sphere as he had contributed by his other employments to the concrete, less mediated work of social management. The homology of Chaucer’s literary products to his social and industrial work is unusually straightforward. As a poet, Chaucer was doing the same thing he also did as domestic servant, tax-gatherer, justice of the peace, and so on: serve and protect. He did the same jobs, serving the same purposes, in both spheres, only using the technically different means that were available and appropriate.1 Broadly speaking, the early poetry serves decoratively, by flattery, mythologizing the ideal of the aristocratic good life—beautiful ladies, courteous gentle men, and elegance, rendering invisible the exploitation and coercion that made the illusion at all tenable. Again broadly speaking, the later unfinished work on the Canterbury Tales serves by more actively disciplining what the writing represents as unruly, disruptive, recalcitrant social elements. Troilus and Criseyde is a middle term: though it has monitory, critical subtexts, standing against certain antisocial tendencies of the aristocracy, and settles in the end on an antisocial philosophical other-worldliness of its own, it too is an apology for the noble good life of erotic preoccupation.


Literary Work Fourteenth Century Cultural Sphere Christian Doctrine Dominant Order 
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  1. 2.
    This remark derives from a comment of A. C. Spearing, ed., The Knighťs Tale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1966), p. 23: “The Knighťs Tale offers, then, to its original aristocratic audience, an image of the noble life: an image of human life as a noble pageant. It was not perhaps in every respect the life that audience really lived,…but it was the life they aspired to live.”Google Scholar
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    The Two Ways 812–13, ed. Scattergood, The Works of Sir John Clanvowe (Cambridge: Brewer, 1975); cf. also 28–35 and 422–44. There are useful remarks on this part of Clanvowe’s writing in Lawton, “Chaucer’s Two Ways: The Pilgrimage Frame of The Canterbury Tales” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 9 (1987): 38–40.Google Scholar
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    On Troilus and Criseyde’s reference to current events, see Carleton Brown, “Another Contemporary Allusion in Chaucer’s Troilus,” Modern Language Notes 26 (1911): 208–11;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    See esp. Pearsall, “Pre-Empting Closure in ‘The Canterbury Tales’: Old Endings, New Beginnings,” in Essays on Ricardian Literature in Honour of J. A. Burrow, ed. Minnis, Charlotte C. Morse, and Thorlac Turville-Petre (Oxford: Clarendon, 1997), pp. 23–38.Google Scholar
  82. 64.
    In the verse letter to “Bukton” (IMEV 2262), evidently a friend though still not certainly identifiable, Chaucer refers to the Wife of Bath’s Tale: “The Wyf of Bathe I pray yow that ye rede / Of this matere that we have on honde,” sc. the matter of “The sorwe and wo that is in mariage” (Buk 29–30 and 6, this last line quoting WBT 3); and there are substantive exact quotations from the Wife of Bath’s Tale in the so-called “Moral Ballad” (IMEV 2264) of Henry Scogan (likewise a friend of Chaucer, evidently the recipient of the Chaucerian “Envoy to Scogan” [IMEV 3747]), written ca. 1400–1407, at lines 67–69 and 97–99 and 166–67, ed. Walter W. Skeat, Chaucerian and Other Pieces (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1897), pp. 237–44. On Scogan, see further below, pp. 87–89.Google Scholar
  83. 65.
    Hoccleve mentions the Wife of Bath by name in the Dialogue 694 (“The Wyf of Bathe take I for auctrice” [ed. J. A. Burrow, Thomas Hoccleve’s Complaint and Dialogue, EETS os 313 (Oxford: r4, 1999), p. 67]), which Burrow has shown to date ca. 1419–1421: see “Thomas Hoccleve: Some Redatings,” Review of English Studies, n. s. 46 (1995): 366–72. The parallels that lead Charles R. Blyth to assert that “at various points in his work, Hoccleve echoes the Pardoner, names the Wife of Bath, alludes to The Book of the Duchess and The Legend of Good Women, and (grotesquely) echoes a passage in the Knighťs Tale” in Thomas Hoccleve The Regiment of Princes, METS (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1999), p. 13, might in some cases admit more skeptical evaluation. For example, in evidence for Hoccleve’s knowledge of Chaucer’s Pardoner by the time Hoccleve wrote the Regiment ca. 1411, Blyth adduces the likenesses between Regiment 2425 “his tonge go so faste and yerne” and CT 6.398 (= Pard T 398) “Myne handes and my tonge goon so yerne,” and between Regiment 404 “He is a noble prechour at devys” and some conflation of CT 1.708 (in the GP description of the Pardoner) “He was in chirche a noble ecclesiaste” and CT 3.165 (in the Pardoners interruption of the Wife of Bath) “Ye been a noble prechour in this cas.” Similarly, Larry Scanlon’s assertion, Narrative, Authority, and Power: The Medieval Exemplum and the Chaucerian Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 305 (cited by Blyth, p. 208), that Regiment 624–30 “explicitly recalls the Pardoner’s Tale,” may only be true in hindsight; otherwise, the stanza would appear to be what it says it is, another description of contemporary taverning-activity drawn from Hoccleve’s extensive self-documented experience, but not from the Canterbury Tales. Google Scholar
  84. 66.
    The discussion of the Canterbury Tales herein only develops points made by Patterson in two papers: “The ‘Parson’s Tale’ and the Quitting of the ‘Canterbury Tales,’” Traditio 34 (1978): 331–80, and “‘No Man his Reson Herde’: Peasant Consciousness, Chaucer’s Miller, and the Structure of the Canterbury Tales,” South Atlantic Quarterly 86 (1987): 457–95, also in Literary Practice and Social Change in Britain, 1380–1530, ed. Patterson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), pp. 113–55, some parts of which are treated further in Chaucer and the Subject of History. Otherwise, I have relied generally on Helen Cooper, Oxford Guides to Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).Google Scholar
  85. 67.
    The remarks that follow on representations of social relations in the Canterbury Tales derive from the paper of R. T. Lenaghan, “Chaucer’s General Prologue as History and Literature,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 12 (1970): 73–82, concentrating on the one (chief) effect Chaucer’s exclusions: in Chaucer’s General Prologue, “there are certainly omissions from his roll [of pilgrims], but he does give good coverage to the middle segment of society” (73). Lenaghan shows that the governing category for Chaucer’s representations of this “middle segment of society,” on which he focuses, is economic: “the best way of establishing a pattern of organization is to infer it from Chaucer’s practice and say the obvious: he presents his pilgrims by occupational labels, he is concerned with what men do. In the General Prologue as elsewhere, what men do falls largely into the category of economics” (74). In emphasizing this preeminence of labor—when Lenaghan writes, for example, that Chaucer’s “pilgrims are what they do, and what most of them do primarily is work” (79)—though there is no reference, Lenaghan is restating the basic Marxian anthropology, the notion that human beings (or humans’ being) are (or is) produced, by humans themselves, in labor. “Labor” is “man’s act of self-creation; ““The whole of what is called world history is nothing but the creation of man by human labor,” as Marx put it already (though attributing the insight to Hegel) in the “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844,” in Karl Marx Early Writings, ed. and trans.T. B. Bottomore (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1963), pp. 166 and 213; and later, with Engels, in “Chapter I of The German Ideology” (Selected Works, 1:20): what humans “are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce.” In this perspective of economic activity that Lenaghan adduces, the “sources of livelihood” for the members of Chaucer’s “middle segment” “fall into three large classes: land, the Church, and trade (understood to include everything not in the other two, manufacture, commerce, and services)” (74). Lenaghan shows that Chaucer’s members of the church are variously implicated in landholding or varieties of trade—”Chaucer does not separate his churchmen into a special category. In other words, …clerical occupations are social and economic indicators in the same way as lay occupations” (78–79)—and that the economic activities of those in trade, be they lay or cleric, are dominated by a “rule of precarious individual interest” — “each of these pilgrims shares a common necessity to face the rigors of economic competition on his own” (76–78). Additionally, Lenaghan establishes, “pilgrims deriving their livelihood from land fall into two Chaucerian subclasses: agents, who see to the operation and expansion of agricultural enterprises” or “the legal work of control and capital expansion,” “and principals, the landholders” (75). The “differing kinds of agents work at different levels of removal from the land, but socially the important point is that they all work;” on the other hand, “the other class of pilgrims deriving their livelihood from land do not work, at least not directly for their own monetary gain” (76): The supporting wealth comes obviously from agricultural operations and less obviously from capital expansion, and it is earned by the agents who work for the landholders. The two groups are defined by different activities: the agents get and the principals spend, the agents work and the principals amuse themselves and render public service. This is the central pattern of Chaucer’s social structure. (76) “Chaucer seems to hold with Fitzgerald rather than Hemingway: the rich, at least the landed rich, are different from the rest” (80). In any case, Lenaghan shows, this is the fundamental difference with which Chaucer worked, “this difference between landed wealth and other wealth” (80), “his basic distinction between landholders and the rest of society” (82). For the Chaucer of the General Prologue, “there was a categorical distinction between most men who struggled to live and a smaller group of landholders who were above the struggle” (80). As Lenaghan also points out, landholders were not in fact “above the struggle” quite as much as they might have wished to be; still, Chaucer reproduces the basic class division and conflict within the General Prologue in order again to advertise the well-being of the ruling-class: in Chaucer, here again landholders’ “social position” is made to look “far more secure.… and their style far more negligent of practical economics than the evidence indicates” (82). In keeping with Chaucer’s own real-world social position (81–82), the purposes of “Chaucer’s poetic narrative” are “practical charity, orthodoxy, and social conservatism” (82). Also pertinent are the comments on Chaucer’s habitual, characteristic “omission of the victim,” inCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  86. Jill Mann, Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), esp. pp. 190–91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  87. 69.
    There is much useful information on the situation of post-plague English laborers of this sort in Robert Worth Frank, Jr, “The ‘Hungry Gap,’ Crop Failure, and Famine: The Fourteenth-Century Agricultural Crisis and Piers Plowman,” Yearbook of Langland Studies 4 (1990): 87–104;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  88. see also Christopher Dyer, “Piers Plowman and Plowmen: A Historical Perspective,” Yearbook of Langland Studies 8 (1994): 155–76, and, for the shock of Langland’s decision to use such a figure,CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Ellen Meiksins Wood, “Capitalism, Merchants and Bourgeois Revolution: Reflections on the Brenner Debate and its Sequel,” International Review of Social History 41 (1996): 214 and 211.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    On Chaucer’s Plowman, see Gardiner Stillwell, “Chaucer’s Plowman and the Contemporary English Peasant,” English Literary History 6 (1939): 285–90, who remarks “It is impossible to believe that, … in writing the portrait, he was expressing his love of the laborer” (290): “the real plowman of the time was revolting against everything Chaucer stood for” (285); cf. also Strohm, Social Chaucer, pp. 173–74. Of course, the Plowman’s silence might be only a reflex of the incompletion of Chaucer’s work: a tale might eventually have been assigned him.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    D.W. Robertson, Jr, A Preface to Chaucer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1962), p. 51: “To conclude, the medieval world was innocent of our profound concern for tension. … We project dynamic polarities on history as class struggles, balances of power, or as conflicts between economic realities and traditional ideals. … But the medieval world with its quiet hierarchies knew nothing of these things. Its aesthetic, at once a continuation of classical philosophy and a product of Christian teaching, developed artistic and literary styles consistent with a world without dynamically interacting polarities.” Important critiques of these claims are inGoogle Scholar
  93. Patterson, “Historical Criticism and the Development of Chaucer Studies,” in Negotiating the Past (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987), esp. pp. 31–37, and Aers, Community, Gender, and Individual Identity, pp. 6–12.Google Scholar
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    Morton W. Bloomfield, “Chaucer’s Sense of History,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 51 (1952): 301–313, assembles evidence for Chaucer’s “sense of cultural diversity,” arguing that (by contrast with most of his contemporaries, at least) he “has a considerable sense of historic succession and cultural relativity” (305).Google Scholar
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    Marcuse, “Repressive Tolerance,” in Robert Paul Wolff, Barrington Moore, Jr, and Herbert Marcuse, A Critique of Pure Tolerance, 2nd edn. (Boston: Beacon, 1969), pp. 81–123.There are good pages on these strategies in the Canterbury Tales—by means of which, in order to “chastise anti-social impulses” (p. 152), differences are “repressed, contained, or surmounted” (p. 145)—in Strohm, Social Chaucer, esp. perhaps pp. 151–57; cf. also Strohm’s earlier paper, “Form and Social Statement in Confessio Amantis and The Canterbury Tales,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 1 (1979): 30–34, claiming to find “tolerance, or even positive acceptance, of multiplicity” (40) in Chaucer’s work.Google Scholar
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    Cf. Glenn Burger, “Kissing the Pardoner,” PMLA 107 (1992): esp. 1145–48. Another image of reconciliation in the Canterbury Tales framework is discussed in Wallace, Chaucerian Polity, pp. 175–76.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    In the pre-C versions only: the tearing itself was excised, though the rest of the passus’s criticisms of pardoning remained, as is argued by Frank, “The Pardon Scene in Piers Plowman,” Speculum 26 (1951): esp. 319–24: “A dramatic passage was removed because it was confusing; it could be dropped completely only because the essential meaning of the scene is communicated without it” (322); with or without the tearing, “the scene simply tells man that he cannot buy salvation, he must do good to attain it” (327). For Piers Plowman, generally I rely onGoogle Scholar
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    The chief passages in Langland’s work dealing with these topics are analyzed in John A. Burrow, “The Action of Langland’s Second Vision,” Essays in Criticism 15 (1965): 247–68; cf. also, in broader context, Aers, Chaucer, Langland and the Creative Imagination, esp. pp. 13–23. On the pilgrimage framework of the Canterbury Tales, Knight, Geoffrey Chaucer, p. 69—suggesting that the London-Canterbury route of Chaucer’s pilgrimage was an admonitory-allegorical reversal of the Canterbury-London route followed by a group of the 1381 revolutionaries: “the journey itself and its reversal of revolt into pilgrimage is a major overarching pattern of the text”—wrote: The world of The Canterbury Tales is the world of conflict that generated the Peasants’ Revolt, and one of the major forces of the long poem is to realize the unrest and the quest for freedom and individual rights that were all central to this historically potent period. They were not represented with approval: Chaucer’s own social position does not suggest that he would sympathize with revolution, and frequently there are signs that the forces of conflict are realized under strain and arouse inevitable constraint. Ultimately those forces are neutralized in a number of ways. One of them is the overall plan, that contemporary conflict is being recreated within the model of a pilgrimage which is both a physical reversal of the peasants’ march and also a cultural reversal of their secular and political concerns into an eventually dominant spiritual mode.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    “Thorpe’s Examination,” ed. Anne Hudson, in Two Wycliffite Texts, EETS os 301 (Oxford: Early English Text Society, 1993), pp. 62–63. On Thorpe, see the instructive paper of Rita Copeland, “William Thorpe and his Lollard Community: Intellectual Labor and the Representation of Dissent,” in Bodies and Disciplines: Intersections of Literature and History in Fifteenth-Century England, ed. Barbara A. Hanawalt and Wallace (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996), pp. 199–221, finding that (to quote Horkheimer, “The Authoritarian State” [written 1940 but unpublished], in The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, ed. Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhardt [New York: Urizen Books, 1978], pp. 98–99) “the revolutionary movement negatively reflects the situation which it is attacking,” since “integration is the price which individuals and groups have to pay in order to flourish:” “Whatever seeks to exist under a state of domination runs the danger of reproducing it.” See also Fiona Somerset, “Vernacular Argumentation in The Testimony of William ThorpeMediaeval Studies 58 (1996): 207–41, also in Clerical Discourse and Lay Audience in Late Medieval England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 179–215. Important information about Thorpe has more recently been publishedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  103. by Maureen Jurkowski, “The Arrest of William Thorpe in Shrewsbury and the Anti-Lollard Statute of 1406,” Historical Research 75 (2002): 273–95.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Strohm, “Chaucer’s Lollard Joke: History and the Textual Unconscious,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 17 (1995): 23–42—now also in Theory and the Premodern Text (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), pp. 165–81—discusses other matters.Google Scholar

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