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Knowledge, belief, and lack of agency: the dreams of Geoffrey, Troilus, Criseyde, and Chauntecleer.

In the process of their posthumous life they [great works] are enriched with new meanings, new significance: it is as though these works outgrow what they were in the epoch of their creation.

Mikhail Bakhtin, Speech 4

The great institutions of power that developed in the Middle Ages . . . were able to gain acceptance[;] this was because they presented themselves as agencies of regulation, arbitration, and demarcation, as a way of introducing order in the midst of these powers, of establishing a principle that would temper them and distribute them according to boundaries and a fixed hierarchy.

Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality 86-87

Great texts written centuries ago remain meaningful, providing sites for examining, understanding, and questioning current epistemology and ontology. Instead of defining what something means, exegesis and criticism of great texts highlight relationships and downplay inconsistencies, clarifying the nexus among knowledge, experience, and belief. A careful analysis of dream-lore categories, primary sources (Parliament of Fowls, Troilus and Criseyde, and the Nun's Priest's Tale), and current criticism uncovers an elaborate epistemology underscoring modem expectations of knowledge. Because readers' interpretations lead to the authorship of "new" texts - interpretations affected by the protocols of reading of an environment, culture, and historical period exegesis of the above texts underscores the paradigms and practices of modern culture, presenting a sectarian version of rationality as well as documenting formulations of self, truth, and power.(2) Present practices, rituals, and traditions concerning knowledge - seemingly objective, monolithic, and reliable - can be further understood through a critical exploration of and by comparison with the dominant knowledge paradigms of Chaucer's culture. In particular, signs of conflict, incoherence, and/or contradiction indicate emergent epistemes sustained by alternate epistemelogical structures. Building on Mikhail Bakhtin's definition of authoritative discourse and Michel Foucault's historical reconfigurations of knowledge and power, I identify dreams as a tangible, constraining mechanism that directs the individual conduct of Geoffrey, Troilus, Criseyde, and Chauntecleer. Their responses to dreams mark them as authoritative, monologic, hegemonic texts that depict a future with meaningful albeit limiting ontology. To interpret their actions as disempowered or lacking in agency, however, is to misunderstand the network of power relations which demand their assiduous complicity.

Mikhail Bakhtin defines authoritative discourse as "the word of the fathers," in which external knowledge must be simultaneously internally persuasive. Participants are expected to adhere obediently, all the while working diligently to internalize its precepts so that it serves as a terministic screen for how they comprehend and interact with the world (Dialogic 342-45). Within the paradigm of authoritative discourse, there is no place for "experiential knowledge." Authoritative discourse, located in "a distanced zone, organically connected with a past that is felt to be hierarchically higher," requires "unconditional allegiance" (342-43). It "is indissolubly fused with its authority - with political power, an institution, a person - and it stands and falls together with that authority" (343). There can be no middle ground, no rational process for accepting one part of knowledge while rejecting another. Authoritative discourse demands total acquiescence so that knowledge and belief operate simultaneously to support the development of a legacy, an epistemological paradigm, a substantive justification for the monarchy. Because knowledge and belief are fused, the interpreter serves as a passive and invisible agent. Knowledge, understood as a static entity, is unchanging in meaning even with subsequent interpretations or multiple interpreters. Working out of the context of Christian doctrine, this paradigm expects minimal human involvement, prohibiting human agency in the processes of knowledge-making. The dominant medieval paradigm of knowledge, espoused by St. Augustine and other medieval theologians and revealed through rigorous exegesis of medieval texts, emphasizes a passive, humble, and receptive human mind. Only in such a state would the human mind be acted upon, illuminated with divine truths. Careful, sustained mindfulness to divine ideas, the sole reason of human knowledge, leads to beatitude. Knowledge of external truths, a result of divine revelations and reflection, brings Christian wisdom, knowledge of God and God's purposes. Synonymous with belief, medieval attitudes toward knowledge accentuate it as a matrix of warranted truth claims, institutionally sanctioned rituals that are seemingly objective and publicly legitimate. Perceived as a unified and coherent system, the theory of illumination defines what constitutes legitimate knowledge during the Middle Ages (see Murphy 47-64, 284-92; Kennedy 265-70; Colish 1-3). Instead of interpreting knowledge as a process of uncovering new possibilities for truth, it permits a priori Truth to reign supreme by suppressing conflict and dissent.

Implicit in Bakhtin's investigation and explicit in Foucault's conception of knowledge is an analysis of alignments of power. According to Foucault, an episteme is "the total set of relations that unite, at a given period, the discursive practices that give rise to epistemological figures, sciences, and possibly formalized systems"; it functions as a cultural code or pattern for the organization of knowledge (Archaeology 191). The episteme provides the rules of formation or the conditions of existence; therefore, these rules and conditions are both adaptable and sustainable over time. The episteme is a "constantly moving set of articulations, shifts, and coincidences that are established . . . [making] it possible to grasp the set of constraints and limitations which, at a given moment, are imposed on knowledge" (192). The episteme provides a context for material bodies and alignments of knowledge to become authoritative and legitimate, determining how rituals and behaviors are organized, practiced, characterized, and authenticated. Because knowledge is validated by and through the episteme, they are inseparable; these alignments then engender conflicts and resistances. Through sophisticated and prescribed power relations, truth and right - unified and monolithic in the episteme - suppress conflict, straggle, and difference.

According to Foucault, power relations can be distinguished in the types of relationships among truth and right on the one hand and conflict and difference on the other. Thus, conflict can also become the locus for the continuing development and reorganization of the episteme: "they [relations of power] are the immediate effects of the divisions, inequalities, and disequilibriums which occur in the latter [types of relationships such as economic processes, knowledge relationships, and sexual relations], and conversely they are the internal conditions of these differentiations" (History 94). Competing assertions and conflicting positions may strengthen an episteme - if knowledge does not subdue and conceal resistance, its lack of public acknowledgment may lead to its slow demise. Instead of defining power as acts of hegemony and suppression, Foucault explains that "power is everywhere not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere" (93). Power "is deployed through a net-like organisation. . . . [I]ndividuals circulate between its treads; they are always in a position of simultaneously undergoing and exercising this power" (Power 98). Thus power is not possessed by a dominant agent (e.g. God and sovereignty), nor is it located in that agent's actions on those dominated (e.g. serfs and slaves), but is distributed through complex social networks and is sustained by individual complicity in the rituals and practices. In other words, power functions not as a top-down matrix but through a vast network of web-like institutional and social alignments.

Writing out of a political and social context marked by violent and uncertain redefinitions of power - the close of the reign of Edward III and the ascent of minor Richard II to the throne - Chaucer was conscious of the necessity for restoring public confidence in the monarchy (Frantzen, Troilus 4; Patterson, Chaucer 32-39; Strohm, Social 107). In addition, Chaucer's scope of reading and his fluency in a variety of languages and disciplines distinguish him from other medieval writers, underscoring his historical position as a politically suave operative who understood the implications of working from socially acceptable modes of inquiry. Thus Chaucer avoided "direct personal and political commentary," expressing conflicting views and factionalism in his works through contrast and juxtaposition (Strohm, "Politics" 84; 109-11). Recognizing the importance of enhanced visibility in the sovereign's ability to supervise conduct, Chaucer's writing illustrates how he worked within a set of agreed-upon rules for gathering, testing, validating, accumulating, and distributing knowledge, even to the level of dreams and the subconscious. His primary concern is what Anne Middleton identifies as the "common good" or "commun profit," whose "central pieties" are "worldly felicity and peaceful, harmonious communal existence" (qtd. in Frantzen, Troilus 5; see also Middleton).

Medieval power structures were preserved within the boundaries defined by Christian doctrine through a conflation of knowledge and belief. The responses of Geoffrey, Troilus, Criseyde, and Chauntecleer to their own dreams illustrate how external knowledge must be internalized and transformed into personal belief, the basis of all their actions. This complicated process, Augustine explains, involves the following: "[n]o one doubts that things are perceived more readily through similitudes and that what is sought with difficulty is discovered with more pleasure" (38). In addition, the episteme which emphasizes "common good" and divine intervention anticipates challenges from the lower birds, Pandarus, and Pertelote, disruptions that are easily and promptly suppressed. Views articulated by these challengers must be dismissed not because they are considered false, but because the participants - constrained by the episteme - cannot envision for themselves the significance of rendering the dissenting views meaningful or inconsequential. These epistemological alignments provide a hegemonic normalcy (a technique of power, normalization provides the protocols for demarcating, organizing, and distributing fields of possible action) so that what may seem to contemporary readers as the most natural course of action is to Chaucer's characters inconceivable and absurd.

In the Parliament of Fowls, Geoffrey's explorations of love highlight the particular discursive functions of medieval knowledge, which ultimately reinforces the authority of the social structure. The episteme endorses homogeneity and hierarchy: individual fowl are restricted to their proper social place and that place is determined by protocols of where and how discourse can originate. The paradigm of authoritative discourse continues in Troilus and Criseyde, where dream categories and dream-lore interpretation - an inherited, accepted body of knowledge - empower dreams, making them authoritative texts that limit Troilus's and Criseyde's behavior. Geoffrey's, Troilus's, and Criseyde's actions are neither flawed nor lacking in agency but consistent with legitimate medieval knowledge-making endeavors - their complicity is significant. Challenges to the episteme in the form of experiential knowledge, however, can be distinguished in Pandarus's interpretation of Troilus's boar dream and Pertelote's scientific interpretation of Chauntecleer's dream in the Nun's Priest's Tale, both illustrating the failure of belief. The authority of dreams lies in the conflated relationship between knowledge and belief.

I. Parliament of Fowls

Although many critics have focused on nature and the workings of love in the Parliament of Fowls (Nieker 57; Wilhelm 205-6; Piehler 190, 207), a less frequently investigated theme is Chaucer's examination of knowledge, agency, and power structures as illustrated by the narrator Geoffrey's attempt to learn, define, formulate, and transform love, Through the bird congregation in Nature's garden, Geoffrey witnesses a debate on "demande d'amour traditions" (Hewitt 25), not unlike a "scientific" investigation of the concept. However, knowledge in the Parliament functions as authoritative discourse; its justification is the idea of "commun profit" and its sustenance, the specific and careful demarcation of society: "that every sterre shulde come into his place" (68). Dominant agents (Affrycan and Nature) show the subordinate agents (Geoffrey and the royal birds) how disruptions and conflict (opinions expressed by the lower birds) must be suppressed in order to protect the unified scheme presented in the dream vision.

Placing emphasis on divine illumination, the Parliament commences with Geoffrey's interest in love as a learnable "skill":

The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne, Th'assay so hard, so sharp the conquerynge, The dredful joye alwey that slit so yerne: Al this mene I by Love, that my felynge Astonyeth with his wonderful werkynge So sore, iwis, that whan I on hym thynke Nat wot I wel whet that I flete or synke. (1-7; my emphases)

Ambivalent in his expectations of love as a "dreadful joye," Geoffrey's bewilderment is magnified as he is paralyzed by his lack of discovery (Nieker 60). According to the principles of medieval epistemology, Geoffrey will achieve Christian wisdom through deliberate, disciplined meditation and moral contemplation of the Dream of Scipio. Scipio's enigmatic dream uses strange shapes to conceal the true meaning of the information being offered; holy truths are "presented beneath a modest veil of allegory" (Whitman 230-31). Because the exact nature of signs is ambiguous, Geoffrey searches through "bokes" for the complete definition of love - "Of usage - what for lust and what for lore - / On bokes rede I ofte" (15-16):

For out of olde feldes, as men seyth, Cometh al this newe corn from yet to yere, And out of olde bokes, in good feyth, Cometh al this newe science that men lere. (22-25; my emphases)

External knowledge, contained in "olde bokes" or "pagan books of antiquity," is the genesis for "newe science," which represents the "pursuit of knowledge for moral instruction through skillful exegesis" (Whitman 234). New knowledge, "newe science," emerges from "olde bokes" through the process of enarratio or exegesis of content. Geoffrey's actions are consistent within the boundaries of medieval commentary, involving active exegesis through rewriting and commentary (Irvine 101).(3) Although legitimate knowledge may occur without human participation, Geoffrey's recording of his dream vision is in itself commentary, likened to marginalia, a record of his writing on reading. The medieval epistemology is usually considered as favoring a paradigm where "new conceptual schemes simply emerge as by divine miracle" (Aers, Parliament 2).(4) In keeping with the theory of illumination, this gradual process of understanding transpires without the exegete's direct involvement and is consistent with the modalities of authoritative discourse. Knowledge "a certeyn thing" independent of historical, social, and cultural influences is contained in "olde bokes."(5) Echoed in the Parliament's conclusion, Geoffrey awakes only to return to "othere bokes" in his search for that which is "certeyn":

I wok, and othere bokes tok me to, To reede upon, and yit I rede alwey. I hope, ywis, to rede so som day That I shal mete som thyng for to fare The bet, and thus to rede I nyl nat spare. (695-99)

The phrase "for to fare / The bet" suggests that Geoffrey's dreams neither advance his agency nor his capacity as a knowledge-maker. So it is to books that Geoffrey turns and will continue to turn as he endeavors to transform external knowledge into personal belief.

An apprentice seeking beatitude, Geoffrey is guided by Affrycan, who defines Geoffrey's attitude toward love: "For thow of love hast lost thy tast, I gesse, / As sek man hath of swete and bytternesse" (160-61). Affrycan leads Geoffrey to witness love, suggesting that he simply record his observations: "I shal the shewe mater of to wryte" (168). Geoffrey is at best a well-behaved, acquiescent, submissive sponge who quietly absorbs the sanctioned information, contributing minimally as he simply records without comment the events witnessed in his dream (Miller 101; Sklute 120-22). Consistent with medieval exegetical practices, Geoffrey's failure to advance an interpretation indicates his unequivocal acquiescence to God's supremacy and divine will. The ultimate objective is what Foucault calls "ritual recitation," involving the preservation and reproduction of discourse according to the strictest regulations (Discourse 225). Serving as an authoritative guide, Affrycan preserves and protects against experiential knowledge: what is experienced is subsumed in writing and the written text - "bokes." In addition, Affrycan encourages Geoffrey to declare allegiance and conform to the rituals of validated discourse. Furthermore, not only is there an external authority to precipitate Geoffrey's entry into the dream-vision, the dream begins where Geoffrey's reading of "Tullyus of the Drem of Scipioun" ends. Limiting individual agency, legitimate knowledge is divinely inspired and requires doctrinal adherence. As Lee Patterson explains, "the Middle Ages is a time in which all forms of human activity were understood in relation to an original perfection. . . . Medieval culture understood its own activity as the effort to ground itself upon a divinely authored originality" (Chaucer 18). In addition to knowledge, perfection in the great chain of being is divinely ordained: Patterson defines this as "the translatio imperii - upon which the historical legitimacy of medieval Europe was often thought to rest" (24). If properly interpreted, dreams - scriptural signs bestowed by God - indicate how divine perfection and Christian charity can be achieved. By contrast, knowledge and its articulation are inextricably linked to social status, power, privilege, and the rights of the ruling class.

In the Parliament, Nature provides a stable structure for the critique of love, defining the context and governing rules of discourse. The poem highlights "the birds' bliss at their participation in Nature's cyclical code of love . . . its participation in a time-linked plan of redemption, or return to original unity" (Hewitt 26-27). Like the authoritative Affrycan, Nature - "the vicaire of the almyghty Lord" (379) - represents the prevailing epistemological paradigm and sovereignty over an ornithological society. As God's representative, Nature will accept no dissent to her law (390). Nature is the creative, procreative principle, supplying the occasion and the inspiration for mating (Piehler 203; Dean 18). As an allegorical figure, Nature is a mode of interpreting reality, leading the fowl (and medieval society) "back towards an understanding of the mental world previous to the discovery of the self" (Piehler 192). As a trope, Nature is God, the highest point in the great chain of being. Reinforcing the legitimacy of medieval monarchy, God is coopted metaphorically so that He becomes a justificatory premise for the preservation of a social hierarchy. Fundamental to the fowls' (and serfs') docile obedience of Nature's (and imperial) laws is their complicity in supporting the power mechanisms of the status quo: "Chaucer's Nature does assume that the fowls' society should be as unquestioningly hierarchic and fixed as it was in conventional and dominant social ideology" (Aers, Parliament 10). The fowls' debate on the definition of love is influenced by social status. The royal birds advocate courtly love, endeavoring to protect its chivalric rituals, while the lower birds fail to comprehend the impetus for prolonged wooing - for them, love is simply procreation. Using contrast, Chaucer portrays the dimensions of human experience and differing points of view, such that "much of the Parliament has demonstrated the imperfection of human experience" (Dean 23; see also Kelley). The disruptive force of individual personality and differing personal styles may thus lead to a "breakdown of order and communication" (Leicester 25-26).

The birds' docile conformity to Nature's laws the suppression of conflict and unassimilable utterances - is not only an endorsement of a hierarchical status quo but a confirmation of the passive, inconsequential role of the participant/learner. The disruptive forces of dissension are excluded; the lower birds, complicit in supporting authoritative discourse, know and accept their subordinate positions. The turtle reminds the worm, seed, and water birds of their status and role: "bet is that a wyghtes ronge reste / Than entermeten hym of such doinge, / Of which he neyther rede can ne synge" (514-16). The lower fowl remain silent instead of acting on "the shaky grounds of individual authority" (Miller 111). The turtle's recommendation teaches the acceptance of one's place: "culture can only be sustained in its traditional forms if individuals will agree, personally and collectively, to self-conscious self-limitation" (Leicester 29). Ignoring textual authority and acting on experience prevent the transformation of external knowledge into internalized belief. Choosing experience as the basis for action, especially on the individual level, induces social disorder and chaos for example, the lively debates among the fowl in the Parliament. Experience, an inadequate frame for understanding, is contained by Nature. While the fowls' self-interest, individual experiences, and differing points of view threaten social stability and order, they also encourage the public articulation of and group investment in existing social alignments.(6)

In the Parliament, systems and rituals protect the integrity of authoritative discourse by diminishing the contribution of experiential knowledge - the dream-vision concludes with a roundel (375), an elaborate, ornate French form where singers have specific points of entry and must be mindful of their place and role during the lyric. Praising Nature and celebrating peacefully, the birds and their mates participate in the roundel, the differing opinions suppressed, the potentially divisive debate, conflicting viewpoints, and pervasive self-interests enveloped. Individuality is subordinated to the larger social good displayed in a harmonious reinvestment of community, stability, and agreement, an awareness from which Geoffrey awakens. The displacement of dissonance by harmony encourages a focus on the unifying qualifies of the social structure, reinforced by Nature and her authority. Hence, knowledge reinscribes and reinforces the validity of the translatio imperil, sustained by "commun profit" and the medieval conception of identity as hierarchically situated. In accordance with medieval epistemology, the Parliament reinforces the notion of the inefficacy of agency and the hazardous nature of personal experience. The individual is a tool, a conduit for enacting God's will. This episteme offers a stable, ordered framework with a singular inclination: "the sheer inertia of medieval society, its difficulty in imagining and fulfilling specific historical programs, encouraged the Middle Ages to conceptualize progress not as the directed advancement toward a future goal but as the recovery of a golden past" (Patterson, Chaucer 85). Experiential knowledge does not hold the keys to perfection; only God does.

II. Troilus and Criseyde

Many critics have debated on the quality and purpose of Troilus's and Criseyde's dreams - prophetic (Frantzen ["Dreams"] and Corsa), analytic (Corsa and Hieatt ["Dreams"]), structural (Meech and Provost), and proairetic (Corsa, Frantzen, and Provost). In Troilus and Criseyde, dreams serve as a stabilizing factor and an authoritative guide for the lovers' actions, providing external knowledge and predicting future events. Criseyde's eagle dream and Troilus's boar dream represent external knowledge transformed into internalized belief both Criseyde and Troilus act on the future their dreams portray. Troilus and Criseyde's deliberate obedience to their dreams does not signify a failure of reason and a lack of agency. Rather, dreams - illuminations of God's will - are authoritative texts that must be obeyed. Constituted by the totality depicted in their dreams, Troilus and Criseyde remain complicit, supporting the existing power mechanism which underscores a lack of agency and passive selfhood, like chess and military pawns. Their actions - seemingly absurd to the contemporary reader - are consistent with medieval epistemology, which emphasizes three elements: the passive, humble mind; the conflation of external knowledge with belief; and the invisibility of the interpreter. By contrast, Pandarus challenges the destiny recorded in Troilus's dreams, urging his friend to subvert its script. Pandarus's failure to save Troilus is a reassertion of the tenacity of medieval ontology.

Dream-lore interpretation can be considered authoritative discourse. In a variety of works, including Macrobius's Commentary on the Dream of Scipio and John of Salisbury's Policraticus, medieval writers carefully classified dreams in order to organize and simplify dream exegesis, devising systems to distinguish true dreams - those illuminated by God - from false - those induced physically (see Spearing). In his analysis of sixth-century Greek discourse, Foucault defines true discourse as capable of "inspiring respect and terror, to which all were obliged to submit . . . it prophesied the future, not merely announcing what was going to occur, but contributing to its actual event, carrying men along with it and thus weaving itself into the fabric of fate" (Discourse 218). His definition, linking discourse with exercises in power, characterizes true dreams. Medieval discourse on dreams presumes a ritualized act of interpretation, where discoveries of God's decree result from a will to acceptance. For example, a dream's significance can depend on such factors as its origin and context, the social status of the dreamer, and the time of year or season when dreamed (Hieatt, "Medieval 24). Beyond offering insight into the dreamer's cares, dreams also influence decisions and provide a context for action. On the basis of this accepted mode of inquiry and rules of interpretation, medieval writers saw dreams as divine intervention, pathways to perfection and beatitude. Although dreams demand careful and rigorous exegesis, the role of the interpreter is minimized in lieu of a mediary like Affrycan, Nature, and Fortune. Outlining the dangers of individual agency, Patterson explicates the medieval protocols for interpretation: "the task of the medieval reader is to rewrite the signa translata of figurative language back into the signa propria of the literal truth, a task accomplished by recourse to an extratextual source of authority able to cut through the laterally extended veil of words to the truth within" ("Writing" 62). Fortune dictates Troilus's fate; despite his attempt to seek an alternate interpretation from Cassandra, he recognizes his future is sealed in his dream. Compatible with medieval epistemology, the divine sources hold the key to perfection and must be adhered to vigilantly. Ignoring the realm of the imperfect - the experiential world - medieval culture conceived of Fortune as an influential force: "The idea of Fortune both provides the reader with a standpoint outside the whirligig world of events, and by privileging spiritual growth, preserves the notion of a purposive linearity by locating it within the ahistorical realm of the self' (Chaucer 129). Above and beyond the powers of prophesy, dreams disclose a fait accompli future.

Early in the narrative, dreams are introduced as a possible influence on the plot - Criseyde greets Pandarus by admitting that she has dreamt of her uncle "this nyght thrie," hoping "To goode mote it turne, of yow I mette!" (II.87-90). Pandarus reassures her: "Ye, nece, yee shal faren wei the bet, / If God wol, al this yeer" (II.91-92). Canvassing on Troilus's account, Pandarus withholds the reason for his visit, promising only that "Good aventure, O beele nece, have ye / Ful lightly founden, and ye konne it take" (II.288-89). The dreams prepare Criseyde for Pandarus's visit and proposition, just as Troilus's dream prepares him to serve Criseyde: "as he sat and wook, his spirit metre / That he hire saugh a-temple, and al the wise / Right of hire look, and gan it newe arise" (I.362-63). Contemporary readers may identify dreams as foreshadowing, that is, introducing the future into the present and suggesting a range of possible actions. Medieval audiences recognize that dreams provide an avenue by which the divine will is rendered intelligible; dreams are physical evidence of God's will and remain accepted and routine in the characters' lives; their validity and dominance are warranted truth-claims to future events. For example, in Book V, Troilus falls into a troubled sleep, only to envision his own demise at the cruel hands of his foes, the Greeks:

And dremen of the dredefulleste thynges That myghte ben; as mete he were allone In place horrible makyng ay his mone, Or meten that he was amonges alle His enemys, and in hire hondes falle. (V.248-52)

Medieval exegetic rituals demand that only one interpretation is possible - it is a pronouncement of doom: "For wele I fele, by my maladie / And by my dremes now and yore ago, / Al certeynly that I mot nedes dye" (V.316-18). Without resistance or question, Troilus obediently accepts his fate, instructing Pandarus to divide his estate (V.295-315).(7) Constituted by the discursive formation of his dream, Troilus recognizes transcendental authority by embracing his own tragic end. His actions illustrate how, through a conflation of external knowledge and personal belief, utterances control and limit the repertoire of his actions.

Similarly, predestination via Fortune's wheel minimizes the range of choices for individual action. The visium, another type of dream that offers information concealed in strange shapes and cryptic rhymes, requires interpretation (Hieatt, "Medieval" 28). Yet a dream's accuracy in revealing the future goes unquestioned. Anticipated in Criseyde's dream of the eagle is a love affair with the noble Troilus. Despite Criseyde's anxiety, confusion, and worry - she explicitly desires to remain her "owene womman" (II.750-56) she will succumb to the future her dream portrays. After Pandarus reveals Troilus's intentions, Criseyde asks, "What shal I doon? To what fyn lyve I thus? / Shal I nat love, in cas if that me leste? / What, pardieux! I am naught religious!" (II.757-59). After she hears Antigone's song about equal love, Criseyde falls asleep and dreams that a white-leathered eagle inserts his claws into her breast and rips out her heart, leaving his in exchange - "And out hire herte he rente, and that anon, / And dide his herte into hire brest to gon" (II.928-29). This exchange signifies the prospect of equal love, which Criseyde has little reason to fear; however, she remains a spectator of her own life's events (Frantzen, "Dreams" 109). Portrayed as a helpless victim, Criseyde allows herself to be shaped and moved by a force larger than her own free will. Left in silence, Criseyde never discusses the dream; her isolation and privacy, just as disassociative as her dream, remain her secret, "a moment interiorized and kept from others" (Troilus 75). Patterson describes Criseyde's passivity as a lack of awareness: "she knows and doesn't know that she desires: she has heard it and dreamed it, and the knowledge is at once part of and apart from her" (Chaucer 146). Contemporary feminist readers may criticize Chaucer's Criseyde for renouncing her independence and autonomy, acts which underscore her lack of agency.(8) Modem knowledge relations, founded on empiricism and rationalism, oriented toward equality and free will, highlight Criseyde's passivity as a mistake, an error resulting from her acceptance of her dream as the signa propria, mistaking the dream as legitimate in presenting a context for action.(9)

Like Criseyde, Troilus works from the same epistemological paradigm, obediently complicit with the power mechanisms ascribed to Fortune. After being separated from her for seventeen days, Troilus dreams of Criseyde showering tender kisses on the boar:

He mette he saugh a bor with tuskes grete That slepte ayeyn the bryghte sonnes hete. And by this bor, faste in his armes folde, Lay, kyssyng ay, his lady bryght, Criseyde. (V.1238-41)

Troilus has two reactions - first, he proclaims his own death: "I n'am but ded" (V.1246); then, he accepts the prophetic accuracy of his dreams: "My lady bryght, Criseyde, hath me bytrayed . . . Hah in my drem yshewed it ful right" (V.1247-51). Although his dream puts Criseyde's love pledges and confident reassurances of loyalty into perspective. Troilus cannot believe his loss and seeks out Cassandra, hoping that she will discredit the authority and accuracy of his dream (V.1456-1519). Cassandra confirms the truth of Troilus's dream: "Wep if thow wolt, or lef, for out of doute, / This Diomede is inne, and thow art oute" (V.1518-19). Grounded in the authority of "olde bokes," Cassandra serves as mediary rather than active interpreter (V.1478). While Troilus accuses Cassandra of false prophesy, he recognizes that he is helpless to prevent Criseyde's betrayal.(10) Without confirmation of her treachery, Troilus becomes a paragon of action, excelling on the battlefield as he seeks to exorcise Criseyde's memory and his grief: "And day by day he gan enquere and seche / A sooth of this with al his fulle cure; / And thus he drieth forth his aventure" (V.1538-40).

Modern readers may sympathize with Troilus's bitter plight but fail to understand why he does not confront her. Why does he not put her under surveillance? Why does he not plead his case, woo her yet again? Why not test the dream's legitimacy? According to Patterson, Troilus and Criseyde is a "deeply self-canceling" text which calls "into question the very possibility of historical action per se" (Chaucer 25). Medieval epistemology underscores a will to acceptance, predicated by a lack of individual agency, by the inefficacy of experiential knowledge, and by the refusal to transcend the boundaries of institutionally sanctioned behavior. To interpret medieval epistemology as restrictive and monologic is to misunderstand the dynamic relationship between knowledge and belief. Because true dreams promulgate God's will, because they announce a fait accompli future, Troilus and Criseyde must obey God's will in order to achieve perfection - their complicity cannot be ignored. Both act on what they perceive to be God's will. To challenge the future portrayed in dreams is not only to call into question God's will but also to doubt His existence.

Challenges to the supremacy of authoritative discourse can be perceived in Pandarus's refusal to remain invisible and inactive. After Troilus dreams of his destruction by the Greeks, Pandarus flagrantly dares him to reconsider the belief that dreams foretell his future: "A straw for alle swevenes signifiaunce! / God helpe me so, I counte hem nought a bene! / Ther woot no man aright what dremes mene" (V.362-64). While "prestes of the temple teilen this, / That dremes ben the revelaciouns" (V.365-66), Pandarus boldly contends that "Wel worth of dremes ay thise olde wives" (V.379). Pandarus's controversial position produces his lament: "Allas, allas, so noble a creature / As is a man shal dreden swich ordure!" (V.384-85). Later, when Troilus dreams of Criseyde showering kisses on the boar, Pandarus again declares, "Have I not seyd er this, / That dremes many a maner man bigile? / And whi? For folk expounden hem amys" (V.1276-78). Refusing to accept what Troilus considers a forgone conclusion Criseyde's treachery - Pandarus suggests that Troilus write to Criseyde, arguing Troilus's resignation is a sign of cowardice: "How darstow seyn that fals thy lady ys / For any drem, right for thyn owene drede? / Lat be this thought, thow kanst no dremes rede" (V.1279-81). Unlike Troilus and Criseyde, Pandarus will not acquiesce to the dreams' pronouncements, refusing to believe that they are divine revelations about the future. In his refusal to conflate knowledge and belief, in his unwillingness to assume a monologic stance with rigid, fixed interpretations, Pandarus represents what Bakhtin calls the hidden polemic:

In a hidden polemic, on the other hand, the other's words [in the same discursive context] are treated antagonistically, and this antagonism, no less than the very topic being discussed, is what determines the author's discourse. This radically changes the semantics of the discourse involved: alongside its referential meaning there appears a second meaning - an intentional orientation toward someone else's words. (Dialogic 196-97)

Within the realm of authoritative discourse is the disruption, the "intentional orientation toward someone else's words." Within the context of every utterance is a rejoinder and "every word of that rejoinder, directed toward its referential object, is at the same time reacting intensely to someone else's word, answering it and anticipating it" (197). Tragically, Pandarus's plea for resistance via insidious human praxis, which might have saved Troilus, is ignored. Pandarus's alternate interpretations - a subtext against belief in God - illustrate the ceaseless negotiations for the acceptance of what governing rules are legitimate. Marked by ongoing straggle, power, not unified in one dominant agent, is dispersed across complicated and heterogeneous social networks. Pandarus's disregard for divine illumination and his lack of success in turning Troilus from God's supremacy allows a rearticulation of the episteme - a reification of the great chain of being. Perfection, achieved through a careful and rigorous adherence to God's will, requires that Troilus and Criseyde remain passive, immobile, and ignorant of their own subjectivity. Their reactions and responses to their dreams reveal a linear, hierarchical, teleological ontology. Therefore, it is fitting that the epic concludes with an acknowledgment of medieval ethos - an appeal of Christian beatitude and a prayer to God (V.1842-48, 1863-68).

III. Nun's Priest's Tale

Challenges to authoritative discourse as well as a reproduction of it can also be witnessed in the Nun's Priest's Tale. The discursive world of the barnyard is a hierarchical, authority-driven world, supporting the primacy of a monarch. External knowledge not only privileges the status quo but is also responsible for maintaining a social hierarchy. Those who are knowledgeable not only wield social power, but are representatives, central to the preservation of the episteme and the political state. Alfred David sees the tale as a "satire on human learning" (225). David indirectly defines medieval "human learning" as the extensive knowledge of books and the ability to use "auctoritee" to add weight and significance to a story; Chaucer parodies the pride and arrogance that accompanies human learning. Experiential learning, as a mode of inquiry, is investigated in the debate on dream-lore interpretation between Chauntecleer and Pertelote. The ways Chauntecleer and Pertelote respond to his dream symbolize how medieval culture conflates external knowledge with belief, evoking textual testimony as mediating authorities for conflicts and problems. Truth and perfection are not the result of experiential knowledge, but are a continued endeavor to obey God's will.

Like that of a medieval potentate, Chauntecleer's authority is clear from the beginning of the tale. Among the three large sows, a sheep named Malle, three cows, seven hens, the widow, and her two daughters, Chauntecleer stands out as the supreme and only male in a world of women (2829-31). In addition, his masculine supremacy is authenticated by his superior excellence in crowing: "In al the land, of crowyng nas his peer. / His voys was murier than the murie orgon / On messe-dayes that in the chirche gon" (2850-52). More precise and dependable than mechanical instruments, Chauntecleer's crowing represents his keeping of time, epitomizing his direct power over the community as he declares when their days begin and end. Not only is Chauntecleer a considerable influence in the barnyard community, he remains unrivaled physically:

His coomb was redder than the fyn coral, And batailled as it were a castel wal; His byle was blak, and as the jeet it shoon; Lyk asure were his legges and his toon; His nayles whitter than the lylye flour, And lyk the burned gold was his colour. (2859-64, my emphases)

The colors used to describe Chauntecleer invoke images of nobility and majesty. His greatness is further inflated through invincible and commanding descriptions like "grym leoun," "roial, as a prince is in his halle" (3179; 3184).

When Chauntecleer dreams of a threatening yellow and red hound-like beast, he seeks solace from his favorite wife, Pertelote. Knowledgeable about dreams, Pertelote offers advice; her discursive style is like a scientist's - she focuses on empirically observable and measurable data. Pertelote's acumen and mastery in applying medieval science to her husband's dream are demonstrated by her familiarity with rituals concerning the humours, dream-lore interpretation, and ancient texts on which she relies to diagnose and cure her husband's indigestion. In the scientific tradition of reducing life to elemental, base terms, she identifies the source of Chauntecleer's dream as overeating, flatulence, and the excess of humors: "Swevenes engendren of replecciouns, / And ofte of fume and of complecciouns, / Whan humours been to habundant in a wight" (2923-25). Pertelote launches into an insightful, learned lecture about the results of both black and red choleric excess, advising her husband, "Dredeth no dreem; I kan sey yow namoore" and prescribes a laxative (2969). Pertelote's position is the hidden polemic that subverts the authority and monologism of Chauntecleer's discursive world. He ignores her opinions for a number of reasons. First, governing rules have delineated that her utterances must be rendered null and void. She lacks legitimacy because she prioritizes individual experience, unlike Chauntecleer, whose investment in the episteme requires a ritual regurgitation of external texts. Second, she limits the scope and extent of his authority - his dream, caused by constipation, is a product of the physical world.

When a dream is the outcome of natural causes, which frequently occurs to the common multitude, it is categorized as somnium naturale (Curry 220). Pertelote's literal dismissal of Chauntecleer's uneasiness, her condemnation of his cowardice, and her reduction of the source of his dream to overeating offend him; he is irritated especially when she quotes Cato: "Lo Catoun, which that was so wys a man, / Seyde he nat thus, 'Ne do no fors of dremes'?" (2940-41). In her attempt to pacify and quell his fears, Pertelote diminishes Chauntecleer's authority and social status. Only commoners have somnium naturale, while royalty and eminent citizens have dream visions or somnium coeleste (Curry 220, 230). Chauntecleer's status requires that his dream of the hound-like beast be a vision. By referring to his dream as "avisioun," Chauntecleer betrays his own presumptuous arrogance; his selection of the dream category reveals how he wishes others to see and act toward him - as a legitimate and influential member of the upper class, or even of nobility. Challenging Pertelote's lone source, Cato, Chauntecleer establishes his social authority by invoking a variety of sources - the story of St. Kenelm, the Old Testament dreams, Greek tragedy, and Macrobius's scientific treatise on dreams - in order to reclaim his "rightful" place in the company of kings and princes: the King of Egypt, the King of Lydia, and the noble warrior prince Hector. Through his examples and arguments, Chauntecleer betrays his hubris, exposing his pride and manly self-absorption. Like Troilus, who ignores Pandarus's advice, Chauntecleer disregards Pertelote's interpretation, which attributes his dream to "physical maladies" (Johnson 232).

Substituting physical for intellectual regurgitation, Chauntecleer makes two errors and reveals a superficial, childish intellect that is unable to transform external knowledge into internal belief: first, he is unable to conduct the work necessary to transform figural language (signa) containing God's will into a pursuit of truth (res); second, he succumbs to arrogance and pride. While his knowledge of texts is extensive, his main purpose for reciting them is to prove "That many a dreem ful soore is for to drede" (3109). Narrating example after example of the fate that befalls those who ignore their dreams - the man who finds his murdered friend's body buried in a dung cart, the man whose friend drowns even after he is warned not to embark on the voyage, Hector who ignores Andromache's warning and goes out to battle Achilles, etc. - Chauntecleer "fails to take his own advice and falls into deadly peril through ignoring the dream warning" (Hieatt "Dreams" 401). Chauntecleer's vast knowledge remains intellectual and external, unlike Pertelote, who assimilates the knowledge and provides a diagnosis for the source of his dream. If Chauntecleer had truly understood his dream's warning, he certainly would have been more careful when descending to the barnyard floor, recognizing the hound-like beast that beckoned to him and flattered him so. Thus Chauntecleer's long rhetorical and philosophical soliloquy is no more than an attempt to prove Pertelote wrong and reestablish his sovereignty in the barnyard. Although Chauntecleer's "citation of sources" is a common reaction to dreams (Hale 53), his utterances function as a silencing mechanism, forcing Pertelote and her single source into rhetorical submission. Dissatisfied with intellectual and verbal submission, Chauntecleer must ensure her physical submission as well, feathering her twenty times (Scanlon 59). Pertelote's interpretation of Chauntecleer's dream displaces him from his authoritative position. To ignore the prophetic power of the dream is to reject its power over his life by reclaiming his personal authority. Chauntecleer denies the authoritative power of his dream even though he argues in support of its prophecy. Instead of being a victim of Fortune, he is a victim of his pride and his own interpretive error, unable to internalize the material over which he pretends mastery, symbolizing the intellectual chaos that results from the conflicted relationship between individual agency and "auctoritee."

The Nun's Priest shifts attention from external forces - a dream that foretells impending doom - to the psychology of interpretation and personal responsibility (Jager 4). In a sense, Pertelote is the source of Chauntecleer's "downfall" because she is the source of his joy and bliss and distracts him physically and intellectually from his main concern - the prophetic truth of his dream: "Wommennes conseils been ful ofte colde; / Wommannes conseil broghte us first to wo" (3256-57). Chauntecleer's "tragedy" thus parallels that of the fall of Adam when seduced by Eve, in addition to highlighting the hidden polemic's disruptive possibilities on the episteme. While Pertelote may have given Chauntecleer erroneous advice, even the Priest softens his criticism of Pertelote:

But for I noot to whom it myght displese, If I conseil of wommen wolde blame, Passe over, for I seyde it in my game. Rede auctours, where they trete of swich mateere, And what they seyn of wommen ye may heere. Thise been the cokkes wordes, and nat myne; I kan noon harm of no womman divyne. (3260-66)

In Chauntecleer's mind, he has disproved Pertelote's position - the episteme has suppressed a challenge of its authority; yet he does not heed his own interpretation, unable to transform external knowledge into personal belief. Chauntecleer's own knowledge of dream-lore interpretation heightens his error (Jager 10).

On the binary scale between textual "auctoritee" and experience, many critics believe that Chaucer typically prefers "auctoritee." But, in the Nun's Priest's Tale, the boundaries between "auctoritee" and "experience" are no longer clearly delineated; instead, external knowledge cannot be transformed easily into belief because it encounters conflicts which question the legitimacy of the governing rules. Although Chauntecleer ignores the authority of his dream, the texts he cites, and his father's experience described by the fox, he must learn from experience, specifically from Russell's flattery; Chauntecleer imitates Daun Russell's trickery and deceives him into gloating over his victory. E. Talbot Donaldson, commenting on Chauntecleer's pride, notes that "rhetoric enables man to find significance both in his desires and in his fate, and to pretend to himself that the universe takes him seriously" (149). By encouraging the fox to celebrate his victory, Chauntecleer is able to escape the imminent death foretold in his dream. While a dream may be prophetic and may foretell the future, whether this future is fulfilled is contingent on the dreamer's response (Jager 16).

In the Parliament of Fowls and Troilus and Criseyde, precedence is given to authoritative discourse - written texts and external knowledge. Geoffrey, Troilus, and Criseyde obey God's will while the hidden polemic expressed by Pandarus is suppressed. In the Nun's Priest's Tale, individual experience augments textual authority: Chauntecleer's familiarity with dream-lore interpretation does not help him fulfill his dream's prediction. Instead, he learns from an alarming, perilous experience. The tale concludes with the Priest asking listeners and readers to

Taketh the moralite, goode men. 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.


The above is an open invitation to read all of Chaucer's works as allegories, encouraging readers to search for the fruit of sentence beneath the chaff of fiction (David 229). In its relationship to knowledge and meaning-making, this statement suggests the application of related experiential knowledge while discarding irrelevant textual knowledge. Within the episteme of authoritative discourse, Geoffrey, Troilus, and Criseyde declare their allegiance, sustaining the power relationship, reproducing and reenacting social alignments in order to render that episteme meaningful. To enhance the visibility and legitimacy of the sovereignty, there can be no boundaries to the supremacy of external knowledge reflected in seamless epistemological univocality. The will to acceptance coupled with belief prohibits and constrains individual autonomy as understood in the contemporary sense. Experiential knowledge demystifies the authority of textual knowledge - the ambiguous ending highlights the problematic nature of Christian authority (Hale 54; Scanlon 49). Individual agency cannot be understood by focusing on Pandarus and Pertelote but on the complicity of Geoffrey, Troilus, Criseyde, and Chauntecleer, who attribute meaning to the credentialized knowledge of their dreams.

In these three texts, authoritative discourse - dreams and dream-lore interpretation - presents a monologic stance for understanding knowledge. In medieval epistemology, the learner is passive and humble, awaiting with Christian piety God's will. Manifest in God's will is the great chain of being or the status quo where every person's place is predetermined. As conduits or tools for acting out God's will, Geoffrey, Troilus, and Criseyde model appropriate Christian behavior and are complicit in upholding the hegemony of medieval discursive practices. According to Foucault, "sovereignty and disciplinary mechanisms are two absolutely integral components of the general mechanism of power in our society" (Power 108). Like sovereignty that personifies an organizing framework for the master discourse during the Middle Ages, disciplinary divisions between knowledge and belief limit contemporary exegetical practices. Foucault asks, "What theoretical-political avant garde do you want to enthrone in order to isolate it from all the discontinuous forms of knowledge that circulate about it?" (85). By enthroning an episteme that depends on rule-governed techniques for examining provable phenomena and valorizes the status of the autonomous subject, contemporary readers are unable to sympathize with the passive obedience and submissive actions of Geoffrey, Troilus, and Criseyde. In addition, modern readers may be frustrated with the failure of Pandarus and Pertelote, who represent a hidden polemic, challenging the determinacy of a unitary, hegemonic episteme. Although the texts do indicate the endurance of dissonance - objections from the lower fowl, Pandarus, and Pertelote - they also highlight the rearticulation of the governing rules of a medieval ontology - an investment in the divine power of Christian doctrine and, by extension, a hegemonic normalcy for the translatio imperii of the status quo. Therefore, to build on the trajectories of difference provided by Pandarus and to interpret Troilus and Criseyde's behavior as a lack of agency is to misconstrue the governing rules of medieval ontology.

While uncovering the complex strategically created divisions of medieval society, contemporary critics must turn a critical lens upon its governing rules, contemplating how those refractions hide the limitations and discontinuities of modern discursive practices. According to Aers, the "vocation of medievalist should include the study of just how the paradigms and practices of modern culture emerged, how present versions of rationality, the good, the self, justice and community are formulated, how and when they became dominant" ("Medievalists" 37). Great works outgrow "the epoch of their creation" because they offer ways for scrutinizing our own assumptions about knowledge, belief, and agency, ways for understanding the deliberate and vast network of power relations supported by complex social alignments with greater specificity. A critical comprehension of current governing rules may also broaden our horizons, by transcending historically contingent boundaries in order to imagine the following - "why do we remember the past and not the future?" - as a possible warranted truth claim. To do so will require a less rigid, dichotomous discernment of the relations among knowledge, belief, and experience.(11)


1 Quotations from Chaucer are taken from Benosn, The Riverside Chaucer. Thanks to Nancy Myers, Kris Fleckenstein, and William Nelles, who helped develop key arguments in this essay.

2 In defining reading as a two-way process, Louise Rosenblatt describes two separate, albeit simultaneous, psychological stances - "efferent" (to carry away) and "aesthetic" (lived through) - where meaning emerges from a combination of the reader's experiences and the limits described in the text itself; Wolfgang Iser portrays the reader as the subordinate co-creator of a text, as each text provides incomplete instructions and requires "gap-filling" by the reader; see also Jane Tompkins, Steven Mailloux, and Robert Scholes.

3 Martin Irvine interprets the dream-vision as a "metatext, an interpretation of an earlier text, [that] occurs within the space of commentary, after or outside a text. To 'dream' is to supplement, to enter the space of marginality, the writing of reading" (108).

4 Aers argues that the poem discredits this attitude toward knowledge and authority, reasoning that Chaucer is establishing a context to point out to his readers how "individuals . . . create authoritative discourse"; this challenges the "timeless, dogmatic objectivity of authoritative discourse" (Parliament 5).

5 Mark Nieker asserts that a "centyn thing" is often considered as an attainable object, "reading 'certyn' to mean not 'specific' but 'unassailable,"free from all doubt'; however, it makes possible an interpretation consistent with the text of Chaucer's work, one that harmonizes the narrator's desires and the world he encounters" (57).

6 Many modern critics resist this interpretation. Aers argues that Chaucer is "presenting us with a dynamic world of conflicting interests and multiple viewpoints where no one can even claim access to an absolute and impersonal viewpoint, from which to issue timelessly valid 'authoritative' statements" (Parliament 8). Larry Sklute claims that "we are never urged to accept those of one class as more valid than those of another. Rather Chaucer directs our attention to the fact of pluralistic opinion. . . . Authority, in fact, is here being undermined by an implication that individual opinion has its own validity" (126-27). In addition, Mark Nieker believes that Chaucer's "dreamed experience mirrors the personal dilemma he [the narrator] establishes at the beginning of the poem, and ultimately suggests that meaning must be personally divined and actively chosen despite a necessary incomplete understanding" (57).

7 Many critics have examined Troilus's lack of agency through a Freudian lens: Strohm maintains that Troilus moves and acts at a "lower velocity," his actions always tending toward "stasis" and "inertia" (Social 119). According to Patterson, the dream's continued focus on Troilus's troubles magnifies his "obsessive inwardness" ("Writing" 56).

8 By contrast, Valerie Ross argues that Chaucer purposefully amplifies Criseyde's "function as an agent of ambiguity who repeatedly parodies and resists stable, unified, and essentialized notions of gender, authority, and authenticity" (343). Based on intertextual analyses and comparisons among Boccaccio, Dante, Ovid, and Chaucer's versions, Ross claims that Chaucer is "establishing an alliance with female discursive power" (352).

9 Textually, Criseyde's dreams can be considered a structural device that occurs at crucial points in the story, "clearly designed to call . . . attention to some of the most important turning points of the poem," especially the love affair between Criseyde and Troilus (Provost 95, 107).

10 Noting Troilus's lack of free will, Frantzen says, "[o]nce more dreams raise the larger issue of fate and free will that was dealt with extensively, and inconclusively, in the previous book. Troilus's belief in dreams serves as an excuse not to act" (Troilus 117). Instead of providing an excuse for inaction, Troilus's dreams are the reason for his battlefield prowess, where he achieves Christian perfection by fulfilling God's will - facing his death with valor and dignity.

11 Stephen Hawking quotes from L. P. Hartley's The Go Between (New York: Penguin, 1953): "The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there - but why is the past so different from the future?" (129). This question sets up Hawking's discussion on the direction of time and its connection with an expanding universe.

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Author:Hum, Sue
Date:Sep 22, 1997
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