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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)

Abstract

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.

Keywords

Early Reader Inhibiting Thinking Gender Theorist Queer Theory Revere Author 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 1.
    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
  3. 5.
    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
  4. 6.
    Helen Cooper, “Chaucer’s Self-Fashioning,” Poetica 55 (2001): 57 [55–74].Google Scholar
  5. 8.
    On these points, see Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge, 1993), pp. 94, 95.Google Scholar
  6. 12.
    This quotation is taken from Louise Fradenburg and Carla Freccero’s “Introduction: Caxton, Foucault, and the Pleasures of History,” in Premodern Sexualities, ed. Fradenburg and Freccero (New York: Routledge, 1996), p. xix [xiii–xxiv].Google Scholar
  7. 16.
    James F. Rhodes, “Motivation in Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale: Winner Take Nothing,” Chaucer Review 17.1 (1982): 41 [40–61].Google Scholar
  8. 21.
    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
  9. 22.
    C. David Benson, “Trust the Tale, Not the Teller,” in Drama, Narrative and Poetry, Harding, p. 21 [21–33]. The barb I have quoted is indicative of Benson’s firm belief that “it is Chaucer’s poetry, more than the elusive personalities of his pilgrims, that deserves our trust and attention” (p. 23).Google Scholar
  10. 24.
    Carolyn Dinshaw, Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre-and Postmodern (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1999), pp. 112, 128.Google Scholar
  11. 37.
    Priscilla Martin, “Chaucer and Feminism: A Magpie View,” in A Wyf Ther Was: Essays in Honour of Paule Mertens-Fouck, ed. Juliette Dor (Liège: Universitè de Liège, Département d’Anglais, 1992), p. 241 [235–246].Google Scholar
  12. 39.
    For a particularly helpful reading of the Wife’s satirical background, see Jill Mann’s Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire: The Literature of SocialClasses and the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), pp. 121–127.Google Scholar
  13. 42.
    Richard Brathwait’s commentary on the Wife is located on pages 60–149 of A Comment Upon the Two Tales of Our Ancient, Renowned, and Ever Living Poet Sr Jeffray Chaucer, Knight (London, 1665), pp. 72, 73. Perspectives of this sort were, in fact, firmly entrenched long before the Restoration, as is seen clearly in John Skelton’s Philip Sparrow (ca. 1507), where the reader is told how the shrewish Wife “controld/ Her husbandes as she wold,/ And them to dispise/ In the homeliest wise/ Bring other wiues in thought/ Their husbandes to set at naught”; see Spurgeon, Five Hundred Years of Chaucer Criticism, 1:1.69.Google Scholar
  14. 43.
    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
  15. 45.
    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
  16. 51.
    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
  17. 53.
    Ethan Knapp, “Chaucer Criticism and Its Legacies,” in The Yale Companion to Chaucer, ed. Seth Lerer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), p. 350 [324–356].Google Scholar
  18. 57.
    E. Talbot Donaldson, “Designing a Camel; or, Generalizing about the Middle Ages,” Tennessee Studies in Literature 22 (1977): 4 [1–16].Google Scholar
  19. 61.
    Cf. Elaine Tuttle Hansen, “Irony and the Antifeminist Narrator in Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 82.1 (1983): 11–31. In this essay, Hansen asserts that “Chaucer’s irony is directed not, indeed, at women, but at Cupid, at the narrator of the Legend of Good Women, and at the antifeminist tradition to which both unwittingly perhaps but nevertheless certainly subscribe. Both Cupid’s views of female virtue, in accord with the canons of his Religion of Love, and the narrator’s treatment of women in his Legends are... inherently antifeminist” (p. 12).Google Scholar
  20. 62.
    Écriture féminine is a concept famously developed by the French critic Hélène Cixous, who praised the subversive possibilities of such writing for the purpose of exposing the oppressiveness of male structures. See, for instance, Cixous’s essay “The Laugh of the Medusa,” trans. Keith Cohen and Linda Cohen, Signs 1 (1976): 875–899; and her book (with Catherine Clément) The Newly Born Woman, trans. Betsy Wing (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986).Google Scholar
  21. 63.
    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
  22. Lesley Johnson to describe medieval writing in which female voices proceed from male authors. See their Introduction to Feminist Readings in Middle English Literature: The Wife of Bath and All Her Sect (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 2 [1–21].Google Scholar
  23. 68.
    Helen Phillips, An Introduction to the Canterbury Tales: Reading, Fiction, Context (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), p. 36.Google Scholar
  24. 70.
    D. W. Robertson, Jr., “ ‘And for My Land Thus Hastow Mordred Me?’: Land, Tenure, the Cloth Industry, and the Wife of Bath,” Chaucer Review 14.4 (1980): 403 [403–420]. Robertson’s essay demonstrates that widowhood would have afforded the Wife her money and a certain amount of power and freedom, and argues that inheritance laws therefore explain the attractiveness of Alisoun’s lands to her husbands (see also pp. 406, 414).Google Scholar
  25. 71.
    Robertson, “And for My Land,” 415, 416. Stewart Justman has provided a similar reading, arguing that, in effect, Alisoun is a trader who multiplies husbands as a usurer would money; thus, Chaucer presents a thoughtful image of the commercial class, which mocks the “clamorous economic desires of men.” Cf. Stewart Justman, “Trade as Pudendum: Chaucer’s Wife of Bath,” Chaucer Review 28.4 (1994): 345, 347, 349 [95–111].Google Scholar
  26. 72.
    Beverly Kennedy, “ ‘Withouten Oother Compaignye in Youthe’: Verbal and Moral Ambiguity in the General Prologue Portrait of the Wife of Bath,” in Chaucer and Language: Essays in Honour of Douglas Wurtele, ed. Robert Myles and David Williams (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001), p. 32 [11–32]. 73. Anne Laskaya, Chaucer’s Approach to Gender in the Canterbury Tales (Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 1995), p. 187.Google Scholar
  27. 74.
    S. H. Rigby, “The Wife of Bath, Christine de Pizan, and the Medieval Case for Women,” Chaucer Review 35.2 (2000): 135 [133–165].Google Scholar
  28. 81.
    These are the words of an anonymous Romantic critic on “The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer,” in Retrospective Review 14.2 (1826): 341 [305–357]. 82. Dickens’s comments are cited in Spurgeon, Five Hundred Years of Chaucer Criticism, 2:3.82.Google Scholar
  29. 83.
    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
  30. 84.
    Kittredge, Chaucer and His Poetry, pp. 180, 211, 212.Google Scholar
  31. 90.
    C. D. Deshler, Selections from the Poetical Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (London, 1847), p. 65.Google Scholar
  32. 92.
    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
  33. 97.
    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
  34. 99.
    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
  35. 100.
    Monica E. McAlpine, “The Pardoner’s Homosexuality and How It Matters,” PMLA 95.1 (1980): 13 [8–22].Google Scholar
  36. 104.
    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
  38. 110.
    See Glenn Burger’s essay “Queer Chaucer,” English Studies in Canada 20.2 (1994): 160, 163 [153–170].Google Scholar
  39. 113.
    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
  40. 116.
    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
  41. 118.
    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
  42. 121.
    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
  43. 123.
    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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