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An 'Ars Legendi' for Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales': Re-Constructive Reading.

For Dolores Frese Chaucer is a writer of concentrated dark conceits, a poet who veils truth under a cover of witty allusion and narrative which the fit audience will blissfully uncover and penetrate (Frese's word: e.g., p. 180). This fit audience of Barthesian Robertsonians will find an apparently infinite supply of allegories of textuality/sexuality. When they read that the Old Man in the Pardoner's Tale has vanishing |flessh, and blood, and skyn' (VI 732), they will see that the image |suggests the loss of male erection' (p. 18); when the Pardoner tells us that he uses Christians' anxieties |to make hem free / To yeven hir pens, and namely unto me' (VI 401-2), they will follow Frese and turn |pens' to |pen[i]s' (p. 87) - as befits a chapter headed, |The pen(is), mightier than the (s)word'. When they read that the Pardoner's tongue has stung men and that he spits out poison in the guise of holiness, they will see that |this image also hints at the possibility of oral sex between men, with the very word "semen" hidden beneath the tongue of the Pardoner', an expert in |oral manipulation' (pp. 45-6; see VI 421-2). When they find the Dreamer in the Roman de la rose waking up and washing his hands, they will see this as a Chaucerian-style involucrum for |autoerotic manual activity', part of an exploration of |writing-as-masturbation' (pp. 62-3).

For Frese every involucrum, everv integumentum, everv act of |creative reading' (p. 257) takes us to an understanding of authorial control, one which |may be usefully analogized to Boethian Providence' (p. 98). The final order Frese dis-covers is guaranteed by her reading of numerological and astrological terms in |The Canterbury Tales. And vet this final order only shines forth from Ellesmere. Hence the final allegorical turn in this book. Adam-scribe blundered so badly in composing Hengwrt that he unloosed the crucial order of Chaucer's |sybilline leaves', creating a workshop disaster that only the author could rectify and only Frese de-code. He did so by making certain additions, the most spectacular of which is the Canon Yeoman's Prologue and Tale, a poetic sequence which is a continued allegory about manuscript production, the specific disaster of Hengwrt and Chaucer's integumental reflections on this hypothetical event. The |Yeoman is the scribe whose failures' allegedly made Hengwrt, |the "Canon" ... is a literary canon', the Canon pricking his horse refers to the pricking of margins in manuscript production, and so on (ch. iv).

The Age of Saturn represent a critical paradigm very different to Frese's. For Brown and Butcher, to understand a language demands the understanding of a complex and specifte form of social, political and intellectual life. It is shown to be crucial that we do not envisage the |Middle Ages' as a homogeneous block in which a late fourteenth-century London poet is treated as synchronic with twelfth-century Chartrian Neoplatonists, his work and vision disengaged from the determinate history of the England in which he became an individual human being. This commitment to cmpirical evidence does not at all mean that Brown and Butcher regress to that naive positivism which has been one of the less distinguished marks of mediaevalists' historicism. On the contrary, they appreciate full well the epistemological questions any attempt to connect |history and literature' cannot avoid (Introduction and ch. vi); and they are prefectly aware of the distinctive work distinctively |literary' language does in late mediaeval culture (for example, p. 17).

Their detailed study of the |general crisis' of later fourteenth-century England shows that this period involved unprecedented problems within all social networks and within structures of feeling and belief. Traditional forms in which various authorities had been legitimated were now called into question and not only in words. It is characteristic of the difference in the two books being reviewed that, whereas Frese's chapter on the Pardoner never considers the relevance of Wyclif to Chaucer's vision, Brown and Butcher include a serious attempt to address the poet's complex and far from uniform relations with contemporary Lollardy.

Focusing on six tales, Brown and Butcher explore Chaucer's responses to the crisis in the major institutions and discourses of English culture in the post-plague period. Their decision to restrict their study to these tales (Wife of Bath's, Squire's, Franklin's, Merchant's, Pardoner's, night's) enable them to work in fascinating historical and textual detail. Like Frese, they take Chaucer's interest in astrology very seriously; but for them it provided the poet with a paradigm facilitating his exploration of the changes and struggles of his own period - |the age of Saturn'. Chaucer emerges as a writer concerned to foster |reform and regeneration ... the restoration within the existing structures of Christian chivalric and feudal society of those values and beliefs which will maintain harmony and prosperity' (p. 250). But the challenge of the book will lie in its reading of the minute particulars of a poetry they find to be engaged with |all levels of political life' in its complex and self-conscious response to what its author experienced as unprecedented dislocation in mentalite (p. 240). Although they occasionally collapse into an implausible allegorism (Damyan as William Lord Latimer in ch. iv), and although this reviewer was puzzled at the absence of Piers Plowman (even when they are dealing with Chaucer's Pardoner) as well as of Cecily Chaumpagne, they have offered an admirable and lucid contribution to our understanding of late mediaeval culture and Chaucer's dazzling responses to its novel and far-ranging problems.
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Author:Aers, David
Publication:Medium Aevum
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1992
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