Lives of their Own: The Wife of Bath, the Pardoner, and Critical (Dis)Approval

  • Geoffrey W. Gust
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


In her influential examination of the Epistemology of the Closet, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has illuminated the ways in which individuals are assignable to—or constrained by—a “binarized identity” of homo/heterosexuality that is “full of implications, however confusing, for even the ostensibly least sexual aspects of personal existence.”2 She contends that since its establishment in the late nineteenth century, this “reductive binary” has caused a “crisis of homo/heterosexual definition” that profoundly affects self-identity in our modern culture.3 Sedgwick feels that the widespread belief in a diametrical conception of sexuality is misguided and has resulted in a disregard for historically significant and “unexpectedly plural, varied, and contradictory” possibilities for sexuality and gender.4 In recent years many gender theorists have joined Sedgwick in critiquing the function of such inhibiting thinking in notable cultural realms such as art, history, and literature. Yet as Karma Lochrie has shown, “reductive” binary thinking continues to taint contemporary scholarship, where accepted sexual and gender norms remain “potent” forces that commonly relegate variant sexualities and gender configurations to the “excluded penumbra of heteronormativity.”5 This exclusion is evident in Chaucer Studies, and the current chapter seeks to encourage further thought regarding the “normality” of key “definitional binarisms” found in criticism of the Wife of Bath and Pardoner.


Early Reader Inhibiting Thinking Gender Theorist Queer Theory Revere Author 
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    Alan Sinfield, Cultural Politics—Queer Reading (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 56.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), p. 2. Especially important, Sedgwick argues, is that this “binarized” conception of homo/heterosexuality, codified in the late-Victorian era, “left no space in the culture exempt from the potent incoherences” in self-identification it created.Google Scholar
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    Karma Lochrie, Heterosyncrasies: Female Sexuality When Normal Wasn’t (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), p. 24. Lochrie’s book offers a helpful discussion of the development and cultural impact of sexual “norms,” as well as their implications for medievalists.Google Scholar
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    Derek Pearsall’s scholarship is characteristic of this tradition, as is evident in his assertion that with the Wife of Bath, Chaucer “creates so powerfully the illusion of spontaneous mental activity that we have the impression of penetrating to a layer of consciousness usually concealed” so that the sense of life “is irresistible.” Similarly, Pearsall states that the poet “gives such dramatic vitality, such individuality of expression, and so many suggestions of autonomous motivation to the Pardoner that he tends to burst through the cardboard of convention.” Italics mine. See The Canterbury Tales (New York: Routledge, 1985), pp. 84, 96.Google Scholar
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    William Blake and Walter Clyde Curry represent two notable, later examples of male critics who continue to condemn Alisoun’s wanton, shrewish behavior. Blake compared the “two classes” of women that Chaucer portrayed in the Tales—represented by the Prioress and Wife— and scorned those whom Alisoun seemed to represent. In his words, she is “a scourge and a blight. I shall say no more of her, nor expose what Chaucer has left hidden; let the young reader study what he has said of her: it is useful as a scarecrow. There are of such characters born too many for the peace of the world.” See Blake, Sir Jeffery Chaucer and the Nine and Twenty Pilgrims on Their Journey to Canterbury, in A Descriptive Catalogue of Pictures, Poetical and Historical Inventions (London, 1809), p. 24. Moving forward to the early twentieth century, Curry’s inf luential physiognomical account pejoratively argues that the Wife’s “large hips indicate excessive virility,” while her round face and complexion “indicates that the woman is immodest, loquacious, and given to drunkenness.” Furthermore, Dame Alice’s voice displays her “voluptuous and luxurious nature,” while being “gat-toothed” can indicate the envy, boldness, deceitfulness, and faithlessness of this “fair Venerian figure.” See Curry, Chaucer and the Mediaeval Sciences, 2nd edn. (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1960), pp. 108–113.Google Scholar
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    Matthew Browne was a pseudonym for William Brightly Rands; see Matthew Browne, Chaucer’s England (London, 1869), 1:248. Morley’s comment is offered in a comparison of the Wife of Bath to Emily from the Knight’s Tale, whom the critic sees as the other primary example of “true womanhood” in the Chaucer Corpus; see Morley, English Writers, 2:285.Google Scholar
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    Dinshaw openly remarks on both of these aspects of her own criticism in “New Approaches to Chaucer,” in The Cambridge Companion to Chaucer, 2nd edn., ed. Piero Boitani and Jill Mann (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 274, 281 [270–289].Google Scholar
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    Elaine Tuttle Hansen, Chaucer and the Fictions of Gender (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), pp. 35, 39, 56. In a later essay, Hansen continues this line of thought by emphasizing that it is “problematic” to see the Wife of Bath as a “feminist” in the modern-day sense of the term, since it is Chaucer as male poet, not the Wife as female character, who escapes the constraints of gender and enjoys the privileges of maleness. Furthermore, by focusing on Chaucer’s intentions, critics fundamentally repeat the antifeminist move made possible by the Wife’s narratives—placing the focus on the “dangerous male” and his beliefs, while the woman in the picture fades into the background. See Elaine Tuttle Hansen, “ ‘Of His Love Daungerous to Me’: Liberation, Subversion, and Domestic Violence in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale,” in The Wife of Bath: Complete, Authoritative Text with Biographical and Historical Contexts, ed. Peter Beidler (New York: Bedford Books, 1996), pp. 276, 288 [273–289]. 64. “Medieval ventriloquism” is a useful term utilized by Ruth Evans andGoogle Scholar
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    The following list represents some of the more notable scholarly accounts of the Pardoner and his “life” of preaching. These accounts serve as suggestive examples of the ways in which historical readings tend to place the locus of accountability primarily on the shoulders of the Pardoner himself, which may allow the poet to be quietly absolved when it comes to certain moral issues and perspectives. Cf. A. L. Kellogg, “An Augustinian Interpretation of Chaucer’s Pardoner,” Speculum 26.3 (1951): 465–481; Alan Fletcher, “The Preaching of the Pardoner,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 11 (1989): 15–35; Siegfried Wenzel, “Chaucer’s Pardoner and His Relics,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 11 (1989): 37–41; David K. Maxfield, “St. Mary Rouncivale, Charing Cross: The Hospital of Chaucer’s Pardoner,” Chaucer Review 28.2 (1993): 148–163; and Alastair Minnis, “Reclaiming the Pardoners,” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 33.2 (2003): 311–334.Google Scholar
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    Vern Bullough, “On Being a Male in the Middle Ages,” in Medieval Masculinities: Regarding Men in the Middle Ages, ed. Clare A. Lees (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), p. 32 [31–45].Google Scholar
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    John Halverson, “Chaucer’s Pardoner and the Progress of Criticism,” Chaucer Review 4.3 (1970): 190 [184–202]. 98. For the main, successive readings of this kind, see especially the following pages from these three important accounts (and I quote from p. 203 of Lumiansky’s influential study): Lumiansky, Of Sondry Folk, pp. 201–203; Robert P. Miller, “Chaucer’s Pardoner, The Scriptural Eunuch, and the Pardoner’s Tale,” in Chaucer Criticism Volume I: The Canterbury Tales, ed. Richard J. Schoeck and Jerome Taylor (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1960), pp. 225–226 [221–244]; and Beryl Rowland, “Chaucer’s Idea of the Pardoner,” Chaucer Review 14.2 (1979): 143–145, 148–149 [140–154].Google Scholar
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    On these points, see, respectively, Lee Patterson, “Chaucer’s Pardoner on the Couch: Psyche and Clio in Medieval Literary Studies,” Speculum 76.3 (2001): 664, 668, 670 [638–680]; and Vern Bullough and Gwen Brewer, “Medieval Masculinities and Modern Interpretations,” in Conflicted Identities and Multiple Masculinities: Men in the Medieval West, ed. Jacqueline Murray (New York: Garland, 1999), pp. 94, 96, 101, 105 [93–110].Google Scholar
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    Monica E. McAlpine, “The Pardoner’s Homosexuality and How It Matters,” PMLA 95.1 (1980): 13 [8–22].Google Scholar
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    Steven F. Kruger, “Claiming the Pardoner: Toward a Gay Reading of Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale,” Exemplaria 6.1 (1994): 121 [115–139]. Kruger cites the Pardoner’s Tale as evidence of homophobia in Chaucer’s verse, because the rioters “clearly” illustrate the homophobic construction of male sexuality in the Middle Ages (pp. 128–131).Google Scholar
  37. 107.
    Here, I use terminology from John Bowers’s “Queering the Summoner: Same-Sex Union in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales,” in Speaking Images: Essays in Honor of V. A. Kolve, ed. R. F. Yeager and Charlotte C. Morse (Asheville, NC: Pegasus Press, 2001), p. 301 [301–324]. Bowers believes that one result of the critically “fetishized” Pardoner is that many scholars have overlooked the “queer” resonance of the Summoner (p. 302).Google Scholar
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    See Glenn Burger’s essay “Queer Chaucer,” English Studies in Canada 20.2 (1994): 160, 163 [153–170].Google Scholar
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    Carolyn Dinshaw, “Chaucer’s Queer Touches/A Queer Touches Chaucer,” Exemplaria 7.1 (1995): 90 [75–92]; Dinshaw, Getting Medieval, p. 134. The Host’s well-known threat is located in The Pardoner’s Tale, VI.952–955.Google Scholar
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    I am borrowing here from Alastair Minnis, “Chaucer and the Queering Eunuch,” in New Medieval Literatures Vol. VI, ed. David Lawton, Rita Copeland, and Wendy Scase (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 107 [107–129].Google Scholar
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    Elizabeth Allen, “The Pardoner in the ‘Dogges Boure’: Early Reception of the Canterbury Tales,” Chaucer Review 36.2 (2001): 92, 98 [91–127]. Allen also considers manuscripts that include spurious continuations such as the Prologue to the Tale of Beryn, a text that constructs a lewd figure noteworthy for a “frankly mercenary, heterosexual promiscuity” (p. 107).Google Scholar
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    Joan Cadden, Meanings of Sex Difference in the Middle Ages: Medicine, Science, and Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 6, 8, 169, 201.Google Scholar
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    See Karras and Boyd, “ ‘Ut cum muliere’: A Male Transvestite Prostitute in Fourteenth-Century London,” in Premodern Sexualities, Fradenburg and Freccero, pp. 106, 108 [101–116].Google Scholar
  44. 128.
    Richard Firth Green, “The Sexual Normality of Chaucer’s Pardoner,” Mediaevalia 8 (1982): 357 [351–358]. More recently, Green has continued this line of thought by considering Harry Bailly’s reference to the Pardoner’s “old breech” (VI.948). Green believes that the Host’s comment may contain a previously unrecognized allusion to the folktale tradition of the “Friar’s pants”; if so, then he is not referring to the Pardoner as a eunuch, hermaphrodite, or homosexual, but rather as a type of (heterosexual) cuckolder. Cf. Green, “The Pardoner’s Pants (and Why They Matter),” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 15 (1993): 132–133, 145 [131–145].Google Scholar
  45. 136.
    I borrow phrasing here from Laskaya, who asserts that the Canterbury Tales “both reinscribes and challenges the category of ‘manliness’ ”; See Chaucer’s Approach to Gender, p. 199.Google Scholar
  46. 137.
    The Monk’s description is found in The General Prologue, I.167. Michael Sharp discusses this reference at length in his essay “Reading Chaucer’s ‘Manly Man,’ ” in Masculinities in Chaucer: Approaches to Maleness in the Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde, ed. Peter G. Beidler (Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 1998), pp. 173–185. Other similar citations include: the description of King Lycurgus (in The Knight’s Tale) as having a “manly” face; the Green Knight-type entrance of a warrior who, though come from the land of Fairies, had a “manly” voice (in the Squire’s Tale); and the Parson’s citation of “manly” deeds. Cf. The Knight’s Tale I.2130; The Squire’s Tale V.99; and The Parson’s Tale X.601.Google Scholar

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© Geoffrey W. Gust 2009

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