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Chaucer's Knight's Tale and the politics of distinction.

TELL US" commands the Host of the Canterbury Tales, "sore murie thing of aventures" (15). (1) Harry Bailey's words to the Clerk constitute a warning: "don't get too fancy; keep it simple. To make sure that the Clerk gets the message, Harry elaborates:
   "Youre termes, youre colours, and youre figures,
   Keep hem in stoor til so be ye endite
   Heigh style, as whan men to kynges write.
   Speketh so pleyn at this tyme, we yow preye,
   That we may understonde what ye seye.

The Host's request for "pleyn" speech as opposed to "heigh style" encodes adventure as an aspect of the popular as opposed to the elite, the "murie" and solacing as opposed to the sententious. Harry's demand for "a murie thing of aventures" is a demand for narrative as enjoyment rather than as a site for self-conscious rhetorical display. Here as elsewhere in the Tales, Harry personifies the demands of the literary marketplace and points to the ways in which such demands come into conflict with authorial desire. While seeming to comply with those demands--remarking coyly to the Host that "I am under youre yerde" (22)--the Clerk tellingly glances at "Frauncys Petrak, the lauriat poete" (31) as the source for his tale, registering in the process exactly the kind of elite affiliation with "rethorike sweete" (32) that the Host has forbidden. Petrarch, as the figure who has "enlumyned al Ytaile of poetrie" (33), becomes the model for the Clerk's own literary ambitions, even as he seems to abandon those ambitions in the interest of telling a "pleyn" tale. (2)

As others have remarked, we can see in the Clerk's response to the Host a reflection of Chaucer's complex negotiations with the idea of literary value. (3) But the Host's words also point to a feature of Chaucer's writing that has hitherto gone unnoticed: the key role of adventure in Chaucer's career long attempt to forge an identity as an author. The demand for adventure, characteristic of medieval as it still is of modern audiences, was associated with romance in particular as the most popular secular form of literature in the Middle Ages. This article explores Chaucer's engagement with romance by looking at his treatment of adventure--both the word and the idea--in the Knight's Tale. I argue that Chaucer makes a number of changes to the story upon which he drew for the tale and that the collective effect of these changes is to distance the story from popular English romances. I will suggest that Chaucer's conspicuous rejection of popular adventure stories in the Knight's Tale--as elsewhere in his poetic output--serves as an important basis for his self-conscious claim to cultural distinction as a writer. Before moving to the Knight's Tale itself, however, I begin with a brief discussion of the "romances of adventure" to which I think Chaucer is responding in his tale. Seeing how adventure works in these popular texts is vital to recognizing what Chaucer does with the conventions of the adventure story in his own writing.


While by no means synonymous with romance, "adventure" has often been said to name what is most characteristic about the genre, indicating "the arbitrary, the random, and the unmotivated that divide the experience of romance from the clear necessities of epic struggle." (4) In Morton W. Bloomfield's influential formulation, adventure represents "the opening out to the unexpected, the encounter with the unknown." (5) The Latin adventura originally meant simply "that which happens to a person," suggesting a kinship with the random and unexpected that persists to this day in our notion of a "venture" as something uncertain. (6) Medieval writers of romance clearly prized this quality of adventure as a distinctive quality of the genre, and the term aventure appears with great frequency throughout the earliest romances.

Yet I want to suggest that adventure also names the threatening possibility of romance's cultural debasement, and not just for medieval authors. Erich Auerbach, who perhaps did more than any other modern critic to identify romance with adventure, worried that romance adventures too often "present themselves to the knight as if from the end of an assembly-line." (7) Similarly, Bloomfield claims that romance adventures "became debased as time went on and led ultimately to the piling up of episodes and contributed heavily to the disorganization and looseness of later manifestations of the genre," a problem that he dubbed "mechanization of action" Adventure is what gives romance its characteristic plot, but to make a convention of the unexpected is to rob adventure of its power to surprise, so that adventures become "mechanical surprises." The debasement of adventure is thus inscribed in its own definition as a generic feature of romance. "Popular romances" according to Bloomfield, "have fewer unmotivated episodes"--in a word, fewer genuine adventures. Adventure, initially an "element of mystery," comes to be associated with the routine and the predictable. (8) John Finlayson sees English romances in particular as providing adventure in the debased form of a "sensational (and often tedious) succession of chivalric victories of ever-mounting odds." Indeed, Finlayson argues, most English romances "are romances of adventure, not ... because the English writers deliberately rejected courtly love, but because this is the basic form of romance and the most 'popular' in both senses of the word." Rather than Bloomfield's "opening out to the unexpected," adventure in English romances becomes a mere "demonstration of prowess," not noticeably different in function from the feats of arms performed in martial epics. The end result is that "apart from the Knight's Tale, Sir Gawain, and a few others, the English achievement in the romance form is not of a very high order." (9)

Adventure, of course, is not just an object of anxiety for the modern critic but a significant structural element of many--indeed, most--English romances, and the motif of the knight setting forth in quest of adventure occurs at the beginning of countless such texts. A good example of this emphasis is found in the Middle English Ywain and Gawain (ca. 1350), which begins with a series of repetitive allusions to adventure as the characteristic activity of romances:
   And als the aventurs that I soght. (180)
   Or that ani aventures soght. (225)
   Aventures forto layt [seek] in land. (237)
   That soght aventurs in that land. (315) (10)

Likewise, the Stanzaic Morte Arthure (ca. 1400) alludes to "aunters" twice in its first stanza while even the Alliterative Morte Arthure (ca. 1400), likely composed for a more limited audience, conforms to the basic pattern of adventure-seeking in its presentation of Gawain: "Then wendes out the warden, Sir Gawain himselven, / Als he that wise was and wight, wonders to seek" (2513-14). (11) The self-consciousness of such references serves as evidence that medieval English writers of romance recognized in adventure "the characteristic form of activity developed by courtly culture." (12) Further examples of self-conscious adventure-seeking can be found in English romances as otherwise diverse as the Stanzaic Guy of Warwick (ca. 1300), Of Arthour and of Merlin (before 1300), Sir Otuel (ca. 1300), and Sir Tryamour (ca. 1380), to name a few. (13) The self-consciousness of such references suggests that English writers of romance recognized clearly the importance of adventure to a particular kind of story. Self-consciousness is encoded not just in references to seeking after adventure, but in the ways that adventure can provide an identity and raison d'etre for the hero of romance. Matilda Bruckner has shown the importance of adventure to constructing the identities of heroes in French romances, and this connection between adventure and identity is if anything even stronger in English texts. (14) At the most literal level, adventure provides a name for the heroes of a number of English romances. Both the heroes of Lybeaus Desconus (ca. 1350) and Sir Degrevant (ca. 1400) are referred to in the course of their stories as "Syr knyght aventorys" (1904) and "Syr Aunterous" (1385), respectively, while the hero of Sir Eglarnour of Artois (ca. 1350) declares rather immodestly when asked to identify himself that "my name ys Antorus" (463). (15) More than a mere convention, then, adventure is at the core of what it means to be a hero of knightly romance.

The ubiquity of the adventure theme in English romances raises the problem of "popularity" in a special way. To what extent do English romances, in narrating "assembly-line" adventures, threaten to become predictable and debased? While Finlayson takes it for granted that the mass of English romances were popular productions, it should be noted that scholars have yet to agree on the extent to which the romances of late-medieval England can actually be called "popular" in any definable sense. Derek Pearsall's view of English romances as bourgeois fictions continues to be influential, especially his picture of an English audience for romances composed of "a class of social aspirants who wish to be entertained in what they consider to be the same fare, but in English, as their social betters." (16) That picture has been challenged in the past by Susan Crane, who argues for an aristocratic audience, and in a more qualified way by Felicity Riddy, who argues for a socially broad audience that she defines as "bourgeois-gentry" rather than exclusively one or the other. (17) Even Crane freely admits, however, that the romances were at least "congenial to the middle class." One might also suspect that Crane's focus on longer romances of family origin tends to color her results given that such stories were only a fraction of the total romance output in Middle English. (18) Riddy's argument for a part-gentry audience offers what I regard as a stronger challenge overall to the thesis of popularity, but she herself points to the logic of cultural diffusion through which late-medieval romances became popular over time even as they may have retained some flavor of their elite origins. As she memorably puts it, stories can provide "a focus for the fantasies of people who are not themselves members of the knightly class, just as cowboys are part of the imaginative lives of people who have never ridden a horse." (19) While more recent critics have fully embraced the popularity thesis, it is difficult to prove definitively that the Middle English romances were actually "the pulp fictions of medieval England" (as the title of one recent book suggests). (20) What does seem clear is that the romances "catered to people of wide interests and from many walks of life." (21)

Without pretending to offer a solution to this long-standing debate over the romances' popularity, I suggest that Chaucer's response to romance offers us one way of thinking about what popularity might mean in this context. A tradition need not be "popular" in any absolute sense for it to be coded as such by an ambitious writer. If adventure does, indeed, contain within it the threats of routinization and debasement, then an ambitious writer in Middle English might well be expected to regard it with suspicion and to present his suspicions textually as evidence of his literary distinction. That Chaucer did regard romances of adventure in just this way is the central claim of this essay. A disdain for "popular romance" similar to Chaucer's can be observed in at least one other ambitious English romance. As W. R. J. Barron has argued, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight rewrites adventure "by using the key term aventure in a variety of ambiguous contexts" to encourage "the reader's scrutiny of the events" in the poem. (22) Significantly, however, conventional adventures of the "knight sets forth" variety are almost entirely absent from the poem (though glanced at briefly in the narrator's offhand summary of the hero's battles with "wodwoes and warlocks"). (23) The poet's dismissive attitude toward such adventures reveals an anxiety in the face of the popular that implicitly codes the poem and its audience as elite. Rather than hack-and-slash encounters that function as a test of prowess, the poem rewrites adventure as a moral and spiritual test. While this revision of the conventional has traditionally been identified as one basis of the poem's merit, as in Barron's account, it also functions to mark the poem socially. The inclusion at the poem's ending of a motto relating to Edward III's formation of the Order of the Garter mimics and confirms the drawing of a social distinction that the poem as a whole enacts in its refusal to narrate popular adventure stories.

More than any other late-medieval English writer, however, it was Chaucer who reconfigured the idea of adventure in the service of a distinctive literary project. In order to show how he did so, I turn in the remainder of this essay to the Knight's Tale. While Chaucer's engagement with the adventure theme is by no means confined to the story told by the Knight, it is here that Chaucer's own ambition and the threat of popularity named by adventure collide most forcefully. Rather than the "murie thing of aventures" requested by the Host of the Clerk, Chaucer offers a story that radically forecloses upon the possibility of adventure. The Knight's Tale thus demonstrates some of the vital ways in which the concept of adventure served Chaucer as a means for creating and then countering the idea of "popular romance."


The Knight's Tale constitutes Chaucer's most thorough if not his most amusing rejection of knightly adventure (a distinction undoubtedly due the Tale of Sir Thopas). The Knight announces from the tale's very beginning his intention to avoid such adventures by dismissing the "chivalrie" (865) of Theseus and all that pertains to it: "But al that thyng I moot as now forbere" (885). Instead of a roman d'aventure, we get a story in which, as E. D. Blodgett remarks, "the knight does not go forth." (24) Crane, who argues that the Knight's Tale exemplifies in a broad way "adventure's illogicalities and marvels," nevertheless agrees that the tale "is not so evidently indebted to the adventures of romance" as more conventional examples of the genre. (25) There is no riding-out of a knight in search of adventure and, indeed, no knightly quest of any kind. The main protagonists remain fixed at or near the Athenian court either by force (during their joint imprisonment) or by choice (as when Arcite, given the chance, refuses to leave Emilye's presence even for the purpose of ultimately winning her back). The specific use of the word "aventure" to mean "a knightly quest," while common in Middle English romance generally, is here absent barring one notable exception to be considered below. A related term for a knightly quest, "emprise" (2540), is used once to describe the tournament that will determine which of the lovers will be awarded Emilye. Significantly, however, this "emprise" is undertaken by Theseus, not by the lovers themselves, and its outcome has been predetermined by the pagan gods who control the tale's action. Adventure in the usual sense of a self-directed activity on the part of the romance hero has, remarkably, no place in this tale.

In arguing that adventure gets deliberately suppressed in the Knight's Tale, I start from Crane's recognition that adventure is an oddly absent presence in this tale. But whereas Crane stresses the ways in which the tale makes space for "feminine adventures," I argue instead that Chaucer subverts romance adventure as it is conventionally understood not because adventure is too "masculine" but because it names for him what is predictable and debased about the mass of English romances. (26) One passage that helps us to locate the tale's engagement with adventure in the specific context of other Middle English romances occurs fairly early in the story. This is the passage in which Palamon imagines that Arcite, having been freed from Theseus's prison through the intercession of a friend, is now in a position to undertake a knightly adventure in pursuit of the woman he loves:
   Thou mayst, syn thou hast wisdom and manhede,
   Assemblen alle the folk of oure kynrede,
   And make a werre so sharp on this citee,
   That by sore aventure or some tretee
   Thow mayst have hire to lady and to wyf
   For whom that I moste nedes lese my lyf.
   For, as by wey of possibilitee,
   Sith thou art at thy large, of prisoun free,
   And art a lord, greet is thyn avauntage
   Moore than is myn, that sterve here in a cage.
      (1285-94, italics mine)

Palamon here suggests a continuation of the narrative in a specifically adventurous vein. Arcite, now free, can undertake an adventure--"som aventure" or other--and thereby win Emilye "to lady and to wyf." The hypothetical adventure takes the usual form of a knightly encounter: Arcite need only "make a werre so sharp" that Theseus is forced to surrender Emilye to him. As it turns out, Arcite does not do so, electing instead to sneak back to Theseus's court in the guise of a servant and simply watch Emilye as she goes about her daily routine. Arcite's decidedly passive behavior in this episode is perhaps most readily explained by the extreme wasting effects of his lovesickness, but Palamon's explicit reference to a more active solution is telling nonetheless and is unique to Chaucer's version of the story. Boccaccio's Palamon, by contrast with Chaucer's, never even raises the possibility of knightly adventure as a solution to Arcite's dilemma, suggesting instead only that the freed Arcite will "see many things that will relieve [his] amorous pains." One imagines the Arcite of this envious hypothesis taking a page from Pandarus's playbook and cheerfully forgetting about his beloved altogether. (27) That Chaucer found such a possibility inappropriate to the tone of his version of the story seems a likely reason for the excision. But what he replaces it with--the "wey of possibilitee" represented by adventure--is as telling as what he leaves out. Adventure is both what is missing from the tale and also what very explicitly could have been. Although the change seems slight, I want to argue that it is symptomatic of Chaucer's debt to the very romances from which he is seeking here as elsewhere to dissociate himself.

Chaucer's revised account of Palamon's lament exemplifies a refusal of adventure that characterizes a surprising number of the Canterbury Tales. Revealingly, Thopas is the only "romance" among the tales that qualifies even vaguely as an adventure story--even starring a "knight auntrous" (909)--and of course it is a merciless parody. The Squire (the Knight's son) appears to have more of a taste for adventure stories than his father, declaring at the outset of his tale that he intends to "speken of aventures and batailles" (659), but his treatment of the promised "aventures" threatens to become so tedious that (like the "Chaucer" who narrates Thopas) he is interrupted before he fairly begins. In both narratives, the absurdities of typical romance adventure are given burlesque treatment when Chaucer makes fun of the physical means of such adventuring. So, for instance, Thopas features a worn-out horse whose "sydes were al blood" (777) while the Squire's Tale tells of a mechanical "steede of bras" (115) that can be operated with a "pyn" (316). The threat of aesthetic exhaustion in such images is telling, and it is perhaps no coincidence that riders on the mechanical steed of the Squire's romance can "slepen" (126) while being ferried to some predictably exotic destination. The quite literally mechanistic nature of such adventures seems to me to be one of the objects of Chaucer's satire in the Squire's Tale especially.

Perhaps the closest analogue among the other tales to the Knight's in this respect is the romance told by the Franklin, a similarly ambitious and canny teller who also raises, only to reject, the possibility of adventure. Although the Franklin begins by promising "diverse aventures" (710) in his story, his definition of what might constitute an adventure appears to be an expansive one, going beyond "the narrower sense some romances convey." (28) I would go farther by suggesting that the notion of knightly adventure is actively subverted in the tale, especially in the Franklin's dismissive allusion to the knight Averagus's "labour" (732) in winning Dorigen by knightly combat and, later, to Averagus's desire "to seke in armes worshipe and honour" as a similarly tedious kind of "labour" ("For al his lust he sette in swich labour" [812-13]). (29) Even the sources of the tales bear comparison: the Franklin's Tale is drawn primarily from Boccaccio's Il Filocolo (1335-36), which includes no mention of Averagus's chivalric "labour" (the courtship of Averagus's wife by Aurelius happens while husband and wife are together). (30) Arveragus's departure in quest of adventure is thus Chaucer's addition to the Franklin's Tale in much the same way that the Knight's allusion to Arcite's hypothetical "aventure" subtly adds to Chaucer's source for that story. In both cases, Chaucer relies on sources that make no mention of adventure at all, revising them so that simple absence becomes self-conscious dismissal. To put it in the terms suggested by Palamon, adventure in these tales becomes the "wey of possibilitee" (1291) that gets deliberately rejected. What this "wey of possibilitiee" might look like in the case of the Knight's Tale is suggested quite specifically. I am thinking here of an episode in which Arcite disguises himself and pays a visit to the court of his enemy, Duke Theseus. There he enjoys advancement, becoming a powerful and trusted figure in a development that Richard Firth Green has suggested might recall the plot of the Middle English Havelok the Dane (ca. 1285), a romance of adventure that resembles the Knight's story in featuring "a high-born nobleman reduced to menial service who enjoys subsequent advancement." (31) Unlike Havelok, however, Arcite notably fails to make any use of the opportunities thus opened up. The entire episode is narrated in the space of a few lines and ends abruptly with the statement that Arcite lived in this way for "thre yeer" (1446) before being discovered fighting in the woods with Palamon. Where disguise in most English romances--including Havelok--is the tactical means by which heroes undertake some especially daring action, here it is a way of preserving the status quo of being near, but unable to touch, the beloved Emilye. Instead of a serving as a pretext for adventure, disguise becomes a means of refusing one.

The passivity with which the characters of the tale suffer their various fates recalls the original meaning of aventure in both Latin and French, noted above as "that which happens to a person." When Arcite dies, or when Emilye is forced into a marriage that she famously does not seem to want, they can hardly be said to have an "adventure" in the usual sense of that term. And yet the sense of adventure as a "happening" is a deeply rooted one in Western culture. For Michael Nerlich, this passive form of adventure is the one that informs classical literature, whose characteristic figure is "the passive, suffering, unchanging human being to whom things happen." Such a conception is "fundamentally different" from the later, medieval idea of adventure, whose "essential hallmark" is that "adventures are undertaken on a voluntary basis, they are sought out" as in a knightly quest. (32) The Middle English word aventure encodes something of this conceptual tension, denoting both a chance happening as well as the activity of "seeking adventure" or even, by extension, "a story about seeking adventure." Further complicating the matter, there are cases in which aventure can denote not chance but, in contrast, fate or destiny. (33)

The first of these meanings, adventure-as-chance, occurs frequently in the Knight's Tale, most remarkably when Arcite's deadly fall from his horse is judged by the onlookers to be "nat but an aventure" (2722) or accident. But the possibility that this "aventure" is in fact preordained is suggested by the controlling presence of the gods in the tale. In particular, "Saturnus the colde / that knew so manye of aventures olde" (2443-44)--that is, old stories of past "adventures"--uses his knowledge to shape the new "aventure" that leads to Arcite's death. As Lee Patterson has observed, "the shape of the narrative argues that what appears to be 'aventure' or 'cas' is in fact 'destynee.'" (34) What all of these uses of "aventure" have in common, however, is a rejection of adventure in the sense associated with romance by Nerlich and the other scholars discussed above. Instead of an "activity" (to use Auerbach's term), adventure in the Knight's Tale returns to its classical roots in telling a story of passive suffering--one that takes place, appropriately enough, in ancient Thebes and Athens and seems designed to emulate the grandeur of classical literature.

I admit that the notion of a passive adventure is not unique to Chaucerian romance. Adventure can be as inactive as sitting in a rudderless boat and being steered toward one's destiny, as in Emare (ca. 1400) and Chaucer's own Man of Law's Tale, whose heroine is described at the tale's end as having "scaped al hire aventure" (1151). Malory codes adventure in similar terms when he has Balin declare, "I shall take the aventure ... that God woll ordayne for me." (35) Nevertheless, the contrast between quest-adventure and adventure-as-suffering is especially strong in the Knight's Tale, not only because the tale mentions aventure so often (twelve times not including cognates) but also because the Knight is famously concerned with the question of events and the ordering of human life--with why things happen as they do. (36) Aventure in the sense of chance plays a part in such concerns because of its close association with medieval Boethian notions of the mutability that governs earthly affairs. But to say that the Knight is interested in philosophy and leave it at that does not adequately address the strange role of adventure in the tale, especially since the Knight's own biography looks so much more like a conventional roman d'adventure than the tale that he ends up telling. In the General Prologue, the Knight moves across a conventional romance geography that includes most of Europe and parts of the Holy Land in a trajectory reminiscent of English romances like Guy and Bevis of Hampton (ca. 1324) (both mentioned by Chaucer in his Tale of Sir Thopas). The Knight's refusal to narrate such adventures when he comes to tell his tale is all the more striking given what we already know about him as a walking personification of chivalric activity. Whether or not he is an "adventurer" in the specific and almost certainly post-medieval sense of being a mercenary, it can at least be said that the match between teller and tale here is among the more problematic in the Tales and raises questions about the tale's pointed lack of the very activity that seems to define the Knight. (37) Like the use of aventure to mean everything but knightly activity, the implicit contrast between teller and tale encourages us to ask why the Knight (and, by extension, Chaucer) seems reluctant to engage with literary conventions that the Knight's own biography exemplifies.

So far I have been focusing on the ways in which the Knight's Tale writes adventure as passive rather than active, even while registering the possibility of an active sense in the story that it tells about one of the heroes. In the remainder of this article, I will consider some of the ways in which this treatment of adventure encodes for Chaucer the possibility of cultural distinction--specifically, a distinction between his own elite writing and the mostly anonymous romances whose much-debated "popularity" I am suggesting Chaucer himself helped to construct.


In arguing that Chaucer's treatment of romance themes is motivated by his desire for distinction, I find it useful to rely on Pierre Bourdieu's notion of "symbolic capital." One corollary of Bourdieu's theory of literary production is that the quest for cultural distinction always involves a denigration of popular or "commercial" art, to which elite art can then be opposed as disinterested. The artist for Bourdieu has a paradoxical "interest in disinterestedness" since "symbolic capital" can be accumulated only when the goal of accumulation is disavowed. (38) As an index of this disinterest in the Knight's Tale, it is worth returning once again to the passage in which Arcite nearly "becomes" Havelok the Dane. The Knight's account of Arcite's rise ends with the following cryptic lines (again not present in Chaucer's source):
   Of his chambre he [Thesues] made him [Arcite] a squier,
   And gaf hym gold to mayntayne his degree.
   And eek men broghte hym out of his contree,
   From yeer to yeer, ful pryvely his rente;
   But honestly and slyly he it spente,
   That no man wondred how that he it hadde.
      (1440-45) (39)

The lines offer a "realistic touch" absent from the Teseida, as the editors of The Riverside Chaucer note. (40) Yet I would like to suggest that the deeper significance of the passage lies in the way that it encodes symbolic capital. It does so (to invoke Bourdieu's terms) by way of a "disavowal" of material profit, here represented doubly by the "gold" that Arcite gets from Theseus and the "rent" brought to the hero in secret. Nor is it a coincidence, I contend, that this disavowal of material profit is conducted in terms of the refusal of aventure that I noted above. Part of what adventure names in medieval romance is the quest for profit--what Nerlich calls the "voluntary daring" undertaken by knight-heroes in the hope of obtaining personal advantage. (41) Without wishing to press the point too far, I suggest that we might see the text's refusal of "avauntage" (1293) as part of a broader project of securing cultural distinction through a rejection of the material profit that romances tend to inscribe.

Following Green, then, I, too, would like to suggest an affinity between Chaucer and Arcite, but I see a fundamental difference between them as well. The similarities go beyond the simple fact that both the character and his creator find considerable advancement in royal service. (42) What Chaucer and Arcite also share, I suggest, is a commitment to acting "slyly" in relation to capital. A disavowal of material richness, for Chaucer as for Arcite, is the specific means by which each is able to achieve a desired end. Arcite's immediate goal is to avoid detection as his employer's enemy, but his commitment to discretion also resonates with a more general interest in the concealment of wealth in late-medieval England, particularly among merchants. D. Vance Smith has argued convincingly that a desire for concealment can be read in the behavior of a late-medieval English mercantile class that was keenly aware of the precariousness of its position and of practical dangers such as distraint of knighthood, with the result that they worked actively to hide their true economic worth. (43) While I am not arguing that Arcite is a figure for the English merchant class, I do suggest that we might read his behavior as significant insofar as it testifies to a late-medieval interest in how wealth can be made to disappear. The terms of Chaucer's interest in this question also suggest a fundamental difference between his own situation and Arcite's fictional one. Whatever Chaucer's own concerns about his personal safety, his interest in the process of making capital vanish can be read as part of a broader project of symbolic alchemy. Like Arcite, Chaucer conceals, but unlike Arcite he conceals richness only to reveal it again in its "true," symbolic form. Whereas disavowal is for Arcite a practical strategy-a means of avoiding danger--for his creator such disavowal is an end in itself. A self-advertising concealment of wealth in effect becomes its own form of capital. Chaucer is thus among the first to recognize that symbolic capital can only ever be seen as the residue of a material loss or disappearance. It is here, I believe, that Chaucer's own motives can be connected to his representation of Arcite's strange predicament.

I am not the first to notice Chaucer's interest in this kind of symbolic alchemy, but I think we can extend our sense of what that interest means for his engagement with a genre like romance. Christopher Cannon in particular has recently argued that Chaucer "learned from particular romance texts" how to project an aura of cultural value, "to de-materialize things" as Cannon puts it. I would emphasize, however, that what gets de-materialized in Chaucer's texts is more often than not romance itself. While my focus here is the Knight's Tale, Cannon's analysis of Sir Thopas makes what I take to be a broadly similar point about Chaucerian romance in general. At the same time, Cannon arguably downplays the extent to which Chaucer sought to differentiate his own poetry from other English romances. This is perhaps most clearly evident in the well-known passage from 7hopas that lists some of the romances that Chaucer seems to have known:
   Men speken of romances of prys,
   Of Horn child, and of Ypotys,
   Of Beves and Sir Gy,
   O f Sir Lybeux and Pleyndamour,
   But Sir Thopas, he bereth the flour
   Of roial chivalry.

In Cannon's reading of this passage, these English "romances of prys" (that is, of "high quality, excellence," but also "monetary of exchange value") become for Chaucer "the substance out of which the 'prys' of Thopas is made." (44) As evidence of Chaucer's "larger debt to the kind of holography romances were capable of," this is a brilliant analysis but also one that I think underestimates the extent to which Chaucer anxiously fled the taint of the commercial and popular. If Chaucer did, indeed, learn from the romances how to "de-materialize" things, then one of the things that disappears from his writing is the very debt to stories "Of Beves and Sir Guy" that Cannon insists upon. What Chaucer's poetry can be said to have in common with Havelok the Dane (one of Cannon's examples) might be less telling, in the end, than the ways in which Havelok itself disappears into the text of a "romance" like the Knight's Tale. The tale accomplishes this by using Havelok not as a model but as a foil for its own high "prys." To put it another way, what gets "de-materialized" in the passage from the Knight's Tale quoted above is precisely the kind of self-advertising richness in which Thopas so naively indulges.

If we accept that something like this logic is at work in the Knight's Tale, it becomes easy to spot instances of "de-materialization" in the tale. Besides Arcite's vanishing profit, we could consider the Knight's account of the unspecified but magnificent sum spent by Duke Theseus in the decoration of the temples adjoined to the amphitheatre where Palamon and Arcite do battle, but which we are assured was "many a floryn" (2088); again, Theseus's refusal of ransom in exchange for the two lovers' freedom ("ther may no gold hem quite" [1032]); the sumptuous extravagance of the tale's many chivalric pageants and ceremonies, performed "ful richely in alle manner thhynges" (2181); and, in a more disturbing instance, the orgy of expenditure that accompanies the funeral in which the slain Arcite, bedecked with

"richesse aboute his body" (2940), is "caste" (2945) onto the burning pyre. Such moments signal a refusal of economic interest that leaves the tale's commoners dumbfounded; they can only wonder at the sad fate of a knight who had "gold ynough, and Emelye" (2836). Yet this refusal of easy profits is at the heart of what the Knight's Tale imagines symbolic capital to be. By rejecting the conventional goals of romance--gold and the girl--Chaucer signals his preference for the symbolic profit of literary prestige. Such prestige is the opposite of its "real" counterpart, or what Bourdieu refers to as "the economic world reversed," and Chaucer's generally anti-economic stance in the tale suggests his keen awareness of this fact. (45) Like Arcite's secret surplus--which the hero doles out "honestly and slyly" (1444)--symbolic capital depends for its legitimacy upon the fiction that it does not exist.

I have already begun to suggest the complex role of adventure in this process of symbolic alchemy. Adventure, like capital, is what disappears in Chaucer's most ambitious romances, and yet reminders of adventure are everywhere in Chaucer's writing. Its gross material presence in Thopas is evident in the material stuff of adventure--the horse, the jeweled armor, and so forth--and adventure is glanced at again, as we have seen, in the hero's status as a "knight auntrous" (VII.909) as well as in the narrator's reference to "romances of prys" classifiable quite specifically as romances of adventure. The presence of adventure in Chaucer's poetry is not confined to the romances alone, however. We might also fruitfully consider Chaucer's use of the word aventure in some of his other poems. Aventure, as David Wallace points out, is a central figure in Chaucer's early poem The House of Fame, where she stands in personified form as "the moder of tydynges" and by extension as a reminder of "the commercial aspects of fiction-writing":
   And loo, thys hous, of which I write,
   Syker be ye, hit nas not lyte,
   For hyt was sixty myle of lengthe.
   Al was the tymber of no strengthe,
   Yet hit is founded to endure
   While that hit lyst to Aventure,
   That is tile moder of tydynges,
   As the see of welles and of sprynges.

Following Nerlich, Wallace glosses adventure in this sense as "the term that merchants came to appropriate by way of suggesting the resemblance between their particular form of professional activity and the time-honoured values of the knightly class." (46) This is again the sense in which Chaucer refers to aventure in the Cannon's Yeoman's Tale, when a character declares that those who would turn a profit "moste putte oure good in aventure" (964) like "a marchant" (965). (47) Yet even if, as Wallace suggests, "Chaucer knows himself to be just one more writer in the market for tidynges" he clearly wanted more for himself than to be yet another minstrel or hackwriter, whether of romance or anything else. That ambition is most evident, as I have been suggesting, in the Knight's Tale itself. It is precisely in the interest of disavowing the ever-present reality of "storytelling as commodityproduction" that Chaucer in the Knight's Tale steadfastly rejects adventure in its conventional romance sense. (48) Rather than the hope of profit, aventure in the tale names the certainty of disaster--the inevitable conclusion of the rigged game against Arcite. But the tale is a rigged game in another sense, too, since in it the refusal of adventure becomes the basis of an unquestioned cultural distinction, the sureness that Chaucer is, indeed, telling what the pilgrims will soon confess to be "a noble storie / And worthy for to drawen to memorie" (3111-12).

It is perhaps no coincidence, given this pattern of self-advertising disavowal, that the most visible expression of symbolic capital in the Knight's story also turns the usual logic of romance adventure upside-down. Halfway through the Knight's well-known description of the "lystes" (1884) built by Theseus in order to house the tournament between Palamon and Arcite, there appears a personification who is the perverse mirror-image of aventure as a hero of romance would hope to find that goddess: "Amyddes of the temple sat Meschaunce, / With disconfort and sory contenaunce" (2009-10). If aventure suggests the usual terms of romance's proposed wish-fulfillment--voluntary daring rewarded with success--then Meschaunce personifies the logic that governs this tale, in which involuntary "chances" lead as often as not to catastrophe. The location of this figure in the middle of Theseus's building project is significant, given the long tradition of identifying that structure with the architecture of the tale itself. (49) It is a structure that encodes symbolic capital, as David Epstein has pointed out in a recent reading of the lists, and as such it stands as a fit emblem for the project of the entire tale. (50) I would add that the scene lays claim to this capital not just through its aestheticizing of violent late-medieval realities (as Epstein suggests), but also, and significantly, through a rejection of the romance conventional, of what we might expect to find in a structure with temples dedicated to the chivalrically appropriate deities of Mars and Venus. Instead of the affirming view of life typically offered by romance, the decorations represent every kind of misery and disaster, from "the folye of kyng Salomon" (1942) to the stories of "Ercules" (1943) and Medea (1944)--as examples of love--to a horrifying description of (among other things) "open werre, with woundes al bibledde" (2002) as a summation of the influence of Mars. Such scenes constitute a rejection of chivalric ideology, as David Aers argued some time ago, but they also work to subvert the expectations that define romance as a form. (51)

What is perhaps most notable for my argument about the lists is the way in which they seem to obscure the very narratives that they display, the "olde stories" (2039) that bedeck the temple walls and which the Knight "may not rekene" (2040) for lack of time. Stories are, indeed, the stuff out of which the tale's claim to distinction is made. Yet those stories are not classical exempla, as the Knight would have us think, but something closer to home and not so old. It is romance--and a Middle English romance like Havelok at that--that lurks behind the tale's structure and defines the happy expectations from which the Knight's grand narrative of misfortune so carefully and self-consciously measures its distance.

The recognition that Chaucer engages with "the popular" from the start of the Canterbury Tales has significant implications for the way in which we might think of the Knight's romance as fitting into the overall drama of the Tales. A classic view of the Knight's Tale, expressed most forcefully by Alfred David, is that Chaucer in the tale offers a version of the elite courtly literature that he then rejects when he turns to the remainder of the tales. The Miller's eruption into the Tales after the Knight ends his story is a "literary peasants' revolt" that deflates the elite by means of the popular, in the process laying down a pattern for the tales to come. (52) My argument is intended to suggest, however, that the mutual construction of "eliteness" and "popularity" truly is mutual. If the Miller's Tale constructs popularity as a playful subversion of chivalric elitism, that elitism in turn owes much of its force to the way in which it has already subverted the popular. Adventure, as a name for the logic of romance, appears in the Knight's Tale only as an index of the remorselessness with which the tale undertakes its tragic negations. It is a performance designed to appeal to "the gentils everichon" (3113) at a time when adventures in the mode of Sir Thopas had begun to encode for an ambitious writer like Chaucer the threat of popularity.

I do not mean to deny, of course, the many stark differences between Thopas and the Knight's ambitious romance, or for that matter between the Knight's Tale and a romance like Havelok the Dane. For one thing, as we have seen, Thopas is guilty of advertising its cultural "prys" a little too openly, its topazlike commodity-value. Similarly, Cannon has shown how Havelok proclaims its value by means of a cross-shaped birthmark "of gold red" (1263) that the hero bears with him on the text of his body.(53) The difference, of course, is that Thopas is a satire. However much Chaucer may have learned from a text like Havelok, he would also undoubtedly have learned that to claim distinction in so direct a manner would, in fact, amount to no distinction at all.

Yet the Knight's Tale, too, proclaims its value, though in more subtle ways. Charles Muscatine, arguably the Knight's most influential reader, speaks of "the poem's general texture ... of richness" as among its most prominent features, and it cannot be doubted that something like this sense of textual value was Chaucer's aim. R. K. Root long ago compared the tale memorably but also tellingly to "a web of splendidly pictured tapestry," inaugurating a tradition of metaphors for the tale that stress its stasis as well as its aesthetic beauty (akin to that of a pageant, a manuscript illumination, and so on). (54) While more recent criticism of the Knight's Tale has been keen to refute such an aestheticizing view of the poem--and often to suggest that Chaucer would have us do so--earlier readers were surely not all mistaken in recognizing the poem's power to compel an "aesthetic" response. I want to suggest that such a response is not misguided. It is, in fact, practically guaranteed by the tale's consistent and uncompromising negations--its refusal to tell a story of the "usual" kind.

One way in which the tale performs this work of negation, I have suggested, is by rewriting the expectation of adventure. If adventure is what a reader like Harry Bailey demands, it is a demand that goes conspicuously unmet in the Knight's Tale, so much so that the mere act of comparing the tale to an adventure-romance is apt to seem at first glance absurd. Even a fiction as subtle as the Knight's Tale, however, cannot fully erase the ways in which it depends upon what it rejects in order to establish its claims. We have seen, in fact, that Chaucer's rejection of popular romance in the Knight's Tale is not so complete as to leave no trace of what is denied.

In making this argument, I am by no means the first to suggest that we might read in Chaucer's writing an anxiety about popularity. Middle English romance has always loomed large in such discussions because of Chaucer's obvious mockery of it in Sir Thopas. (55) At the same time, it has long been recognized that Chaucer did depend on a preexisting English tradition, and particularly romance, in forging his own authorial identity, a point that recent work by Cannon and others has served to emphasize. (56) The tension between Chaucer's dependence on the romance tradition (on the one hand) and his antipathy toward that tradition on the other is summed up by A. C. Spearing, for whom Chaucer's satire of English popular romance in Thopas "has the effect not just of biting the hand that fed it but of snapping off the wrist." On another occasion, Spearing tellingly locates the source of Chaucer's antipathy in the knightly quest, which "indeed in English romances often takes a crudely materialistic form." (57) My reading of the Knight's Tale follows this hint in suggesting adventure as the name that Chaucer gave to his anxiety about the "crude" materialism of the popular. I have deliberately avoided the question of whether English romances are, in tact, culturally debased in the sense that Spearing's formulation implies. The important point is that Chaucer writes as though they were and in doing so contributes to the sense that they could not be anything else. Appropriation of "the popular" becomes for Chaucer a way of defining it and warding it off.

A strand of Chaucer criticism that I can only touch upon here involves the question of how Chaucer might relate to his English sources through the medium of his engagement with Italian and other European literatures of his day, especially the writing of Giovanni Boccaccio. John Ganim, for example, has explored Chaucer's appropriation of popular culture in the Pardoner's Tale alongside Boccaccio's similarly anxious relation to the popular in a tale from the Decameron. Ganim argues that Chaucer's Pardoner, like Boccaccio's character Ciappelletto, points to and reviles the popular in his picture of "lewed peple" who "loven tales olde" (6.437-38), a reaction that may mirror Chaucer's own desire to put popular culture at a safe distance even while appropriating it. (58) Wallace likewise gives a privileged place to Boccaccio in his account of how Chaucer learned from "a poet of undoubted cultural hybridity" how to negotiate the competing claims of native and foreign literary traditions. (59) I differ from Ganim and Wallace, however, in stressing how Chaucer revises Boccaccio (as he does in the Knight's Tale and the Franklin's Tale) at precisely those points when the Boccaccian stories that he is working with threaten to recall a native romance tradition. However much he may have depended on Boccaccio for a model, Chaucer is perfectly willing to depart from his Italian source whenever it serves to make his own claim to distinction more legible. Like Boccaccio himself, Chaucer aspired to the status of elite authorship even as he contended with the pull of a native tradition--a point recently made by Karla Taylor in her discussion of how Chaucer tries to defuse the threat of "'lewed' English and twice-told tales" in the tales of the Man of Law and Wife of Bath by turning instead to Dante and, ultimately, to Virgil. (60) Taken together, the work of Taylor and the other critics mentioned above suggests just how complex Chaucer's adaptation of his Italian sources really was. Rather than unproblematic examples of poetic ambition, what Chaucer saw in Italian writers was a model of how cultural distinction can be achieved only through strategic engagement with a preexisting tradition. Recognizing this fact allows us to see how Chaucer works to claim distinction not merely in the abstract but in relation to a specific literary milieu, even as he draws on the lessons of a wider European tradition in order to do so.

The extent to which Chaucer succeeds in this obviously ambitious project is suggested not just by the reception of the Knight's Tale but more broadly by the reception of Chaucer himself as the father of elite literature in English. William Caxton, the man who was arguably more responsible than any other for Chaucer's posthumous fame, writes the following of the poet in his 1484 edition of The Canterbury Tales:

We ought to give a singular laud unto that noble and great philosopher Geoffrey Chaucer, the which for his ornate writing in our tongue may well have the name of a laureate poet. For to-fore that he by labour embellished, ornated, and made fair our English, in this realm was had rude speech and incongruous, as yet it appeareth by old books, which at this day ought not to have place ne be compared among, ne to, his beauteous volumes and ornate writings. (61)

By pronouncing Chaucer to be the original "laureate" of English poetry, Caxton's praise exemplifies what Seth Lerer has called the turn toward "laureation" in the fifteenth-century reception of Chaucer. (62) That praise--not coincidentally an advertisement for Caxton's edition of the Tales--reveals the extent to which Chaucer had already by the late fifteenth century been constituted as the originator of self-consciously elite English literature. Tellingly, moreover, Caxton's advertisement for Chaucer's literary value is situated in terms of its superiority to popular and debased literature in the form of "rude speech," favorably compared by Caxton with the "beauteous volumes and ornate writings" of Chaucer. The difference imagined by Caxton here to exist between rude speech and "beauteous volumes and ornate writings" marks Chaucer as a poet of distinction in much the same way that I have argued Chaucer worked to distinguish himself.

Admittedly, Caxton's praise of Chaucer says as much about fifteenth-century literary attitudes and values as it does about Chaucer's own "intentions." Nonetheless, the logic of distinction that drives a text like the Knight's Tale is articulated with startling clarity in Caxton's denial that such a text could ever be "compared among, ne to" more popular productions-a refusal to compare that invites precisely what it prohibits as impossible. Whether Caxton's "rude speech" can be identified as encompassing the popular romances is unknowable, but it is above all the Middle English romances that have been most often associated with minstrelsy and the medieval culture of oral performance. (63) The transformation of minstrel speech into the comforting substantiality of "beauteous volumes" suggests one way in which Chaucer's status as auctor rather than minstrel-performer might be guaranteed (even as evidence suggests that Chaucer did, in fact, perform his work on several occasions). (64)

While reading back from Caxton's time to Chaucer's is a perilous endeavor, I have attempted to show that Chaucer himself was engaged in exactly the project of distinction that Caxton was later to undertake on his behalf. One way in which Chaucer carried out this project was by distancing himself from the "rude speech" of the Middle English romances, especially in their characteristic focus on knightly adventure. While this distancing is sometimes overt, as in Thopas, it also takes a variety of more subtle forms. In the Knight's Tale, the subtlety of the distancing is of a piece with the loftiness of Chaucer's goals to become something like the "laureate poet" whom Caxton proclaims him to be.

Adventure is crucial to this project of self-laureation because it names what is most conventional and therefore "popular" about the broadly disseminated romances of Chaucer's day. Yet the idea of adventure outlives medieval forms by many centuries, as Nerlich has argued in his magisterial two-volume survey The Ideology of Adventure. Beyond its immediate consideration of Chaucer's poetry, my reading is intended to suggest how "adventure" construed broadly as a narrative concept might evoke for elite writers of diverse places and times an anxiety about popularity. As Martin Green notes, the adventure tale in modern times "has usually been labeled the opposite of fine art" and referred to in terms that pillory its direct attempt to satisfy the demands of the marketplace: "penny dreadful" "dime novel," and so on. (65) Works of high art, by contrast, often work in opposition to the direct pleasures of adventure. Green considers modernist works like Waiting for Godot as "anti-adventure" in this elitist sense, but perhaps a more direct example is the ironically titled Antonini film L'Avventura (1960), which promises what it notoriously does not deliver. Whatever else we might say about the value of these elite works, it seems reasonable to suggest that part of their cultural capital lies in the way in which they refuse the pleasures of fast-paced and exciting narrative. (66)

My assertion that such modern "anti-adventure" works have a long genealogy calls into question a traditional view of the Middle Ages as a time when "popular culture was everyone's culture"--an idealized period before the fragmentation of culture into high and low spheres. (67) But Chaucer's appropriation of popular romance in the Canterbury Tales offers itself as a particularly early example of how a work can itself produce such fragmentation in the very act of appropriating a tradition. If "to appropriate is to construct," as has recently been argued, then a given set of texts need not be popular in any absolute sense to function as the raw material out of which elite fantasies can be manufactured. Ambitious works, considered from this standpoint, can best be understood as part of "the classifying process that produces the popular." (68) That this is one important function of the Knight's Tale has been the central claim of my essay. In seeking to understand the continuing appeal of the tale for modern readers, we need perhaps look no farther than our own sense of what Chaucer is (and, by contrast, what most Middle English romance is). We, too, want to be among the "gentils everichon" (3113) who can see the value of the tale's negations. Yet what texts like the Knight's Tale also reveal is that they are, in a sense, dependent upon the very formulae that they take such pains to reject. Like Arcite's secret surplus, the conventional in such works is the gross remainder that dares not speak its name.

Nanyang Technological University


(1) This and all subsequent citations of Chaucer are drawn from Larry D. Benson, ed., The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987).

(2) The Host's distinction associates high style specifically with writing (enditing) and plain style with speech. Lurking behind this distinction, I contend, is a set of audience expectations that associates the narration of "aventures" with oral delivery. For a classic reading that connects Chaucer's treatment of orality directly to his knowledge of the popular romances, see Ruth Crosby, "Chaucer and the Custom of Oral Delivery," Speculum 13 (1938): 413-32. On Petrarch as a model for Chaucer's own literary ambitions, see especially David Wallace, Chaucerian Polity: Absolutist Lineages and Associational Forms in England and Italy (Stanford U. Press, 1997), 262-67, and, more recently, Warren Ginsberg, Chaucer's Italian Tradition (Ann Arbor: U. of Michigan Press, 2002), 240-68.

(3) On the many conflicts that develop between the Host and the tellers, see Alfred David, The Strumpet Muse: Art and Morals in Chaucer's Poetry (Bloomington: Indiana U. Press, 1976). David briefly discusses the Host's command to the Clerk (160-61).

(4) Susan Crane, Gender and Romance in Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" (Princeton U. Press 1994), 165.

(5) Morton W. Bloomfield, "Episodic Motivation and Marvels in Epic and Romance," Essays and Explorations: Studies in Ideas, Language, and Literature (Harvard U. Press, 1970), 106.

(6) On this etymology, see Michael Nerlich, Ideology of Adventure: Studies in Modern Consciousness: 1100-1750, trans. Ruth Crowley (Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota Press, 1987), 3.

(7) Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. Willard Trask (Princeton U. Press, 2003), 135.

(8) Bloomfield, "Epic and Romance," 108, 110-11.

(9) John Finlayson, "Definitions of Middle English Romance,' Stephen H. A. Shepherd, ed., Middle English Romances (New York: Norton, 1995), 440,455,436.

(10) Citations are from Mary Flowers Braswell, ed., Sir Perceval of Galles and Ywain and Gawain (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1995).

(11) Citations of both the Stanzaic Morte Arthure and Alliterative Morte Arthure are from Larry D. Benson, ed., King Arthur's Death: The Middle English Stanzaic "Morte Arthur" and Alliterative "Morte Arthure" (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1994). The reference in the Alliterative Morte Arthure is also noted by Finlayson, "Definitions of Middle English Romance," 440.

(12) Auerbach, Mimesis, 134.

(13) Stanzaic Guy of Warwick, lines 879-80; Of Arthour and of Merlin, line 9490; Sir Otuel, line 706; Sir Tryarnour, lines 1048-50. The most accessible editions are Alison Wiggins, ed., Stanzaic Guy of Warwick (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2004); O. D. Macrae-Gibson, ed., Of Arthour and of Merlin, vol. 2 (Oxford U. Press, 1973); and, for Tryamour, Harriet Hudson, ed., Four Middle English Romances, 2nd ed. (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute, 2006). Sir Otuel is not readily available in print, but a digital reproduction may be found at the Web site Auchinleck Manuscript, ed. David Burnley and Alison Wiggins, NLS 2003,

(14) Matilda Bruckner, Shaping Romance: Interpretation, Truth, and Closure in Twelfth-Century French Fictions (Philadelphia: U. of Pennsylvania Press, 1993).

(15) Lybeaus is available in George Shuffleton, ed., Codex Ashntole 61: A Compilation of Popular Middle English Verse (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2008). For Degrevant, see Erik Kooper, ed., Sentimental and Humorous Romances (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2006). Eglamour can be found in Hudson, Four Middle English Romances.

(16) Derek Pearsall, "The Development of Middle English Romance," Medieval Studies 27 (1965): 93.

(17) Despite recognizing their middle-class appeal, Susan Crane argues that the romances "primarily address the aristocracv's deteriorating situation"; Insular Romance (U. of California Press, 1986), 219. For Fdicity Riddy's identification of the audience for the romances as "bourgeois-gentry," see "Middle English Romance: Family, Marriage, Intimacy," The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Romance, ed. Roberta L. Krueger (Cambridge U. Press, 2000), 235.

(18) Dieter Mehl, Middle English Romances of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969), 37. While it is true that a majority of the longer romances survive in more manuscripts, they are substantially fewer in number and seem not to have been as popular in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Mehl offers several explanations for this discrepancy, the most convincing of which may be simply that shorter poems "could more easily get lost" (207).

(19) Riddy, "Middle English Romance," 238.

(20) Nicola McDonald, ed., Pulp Fictions of Medieval England: Essay.; in Popular Romance (Manchester U. Press, 2004).

(21) Mehl, Middle English Romances, 13. For an argument that the romances are "popular" in an appreciably modern sense, see Velma Bourgeois Richmond, The Popularity of Middle English Romance (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green U. Popular Press, 1975).

(22) W.R.J. Barton, "The Ambivalence of Adventure: Verbal Ambiguity in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Fitt I," The Legend of Arthur in the Middle Ages, ed. R B. Grout et al. (Cambridge: Boydell and Brewer, 1983), 38.

(23) Finlayson, "Definitions of Middle English Romance," 456.

(24) E.D. Blodgett, "Chaucerian Pryvetee and the Opposition to Time," Speculum 51 (1976): 486.

(25) Crane, Gender and Romance, 169.

(26) Crane, Gender and Romance, 185.

(27) This and subsequent references to the Teseida are taken from Vincent Traverza, trans., Theseid of the Nuptials of Emilia/Teseida delle nozze di Emilia (New York: Peter Lang, 2002), 436.

(28) Crane, Gender and Romance, 166.

(29) J.A. Burrow, "The Canterbury Tales I: Romance" The Cambridge Companion to Chaucer, ed. Piero Boitani and Jill Mann (Cambridge U. Press, 2003), 146, remarks of these lines: "it is startling to see the business of so many romances--seeking honour in arms--dismissed in a single couplet."

(30) See Dominique Battles, "Chaucer; Franklin's Tale and Boccaccio's Il Filocolo Reconsidered," Chaucer Review 34 (1999): 38-59.

(31) Richard Firth Green, "Arcite at Court," English Language Notes 18 (1981): 254-55.

(32) Nerlich, Ideology of Adventure, 5.

(33) For these meanings, see The Middle English Dictionary, ed. Hans Kurath, Sherman M. Kuhn, John Reidy, and Robert E. Lewis (Ann Arbor: U. of Michigan Press, 1954-2001), s. v. "aventure" (n.), 1a ("fate, fortune, chance"); 2a ("something that happens, and event or occurrence"); 4a ("a venture, an enterprise; a knightly quest"); 6 ("a tale of adventures").

(34) Lee Patterson, Chaucer and the Subject of History (Madison: U. of Wisconsin Press, 1991), 208.

(35) For an extended analysis of this passage, see Jill Mann, "Taking the Adventure: Malory and the Suite du Merlin; Aspects of Malory, ed. Toshiyuki Takamiya and Derek Brewer (Cambridge: Brewer, 1981), 71-92.

(36) This question has been largely addressed through attention to the tale's Boethianism, beginning with R. M. Lumiansky, "Chaucer's Philosophical Knight," Tulane Studies in English 3 (1952): 47-68. The famous "First Movere" speech of Theseus is central to Boethian readings, as in Patricia Kean, Chaucer and the Making of English Poetry, vol. 2 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1972), 1-52. Not everyone is convinced, however: An early critique of the Boethian interpretation was offered by Elizabeth Salter, Chaucer: "The Knight's Tale" and "The Clerk's Tale" (London: Edward Arnold, 1962), and was followed by many others. While an optimistic Boethian reading of the tale is now rejected by many critics, the Knight's obvious concern with the theme of human mutability continues to attract broad attention.

(37) For the claim that the Knight was a mercenary, see Terry Jones, Chaucer's Knight: Portrait of a Medieval Mercelmry (New York: Methuen, 1980). Critiques of Jones's argument include Maurice Keen, "Chaucer's Knight, the English Aristocracy and the Crusade," English Court Culture in the Later Middle Ages, ed. V. S. Scattergood and I. W. Sherborne (London: Duckworth, 1983), 45-61; and John H. Pratt, "Was Chaucer's Knight Really a Mercenary?" Chaucer Review 22 (1987): 8-27.

(38) Pierre Bourdieu, The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of:the Literary Field, trans. Susan Emanuel (Stanford U. Press, 1996), 216.

(39) Boccaccio states with contrasting brevity that Arcite "went to the house of Theseus" (49). See Traverza, Teseida, 143.

(40) Benson, Riverside Chaucer, 832 (note to lines 1442-45).

(41) Nerlich, Meology of Adventure, 5.

(42) Green, "Arcite at Court" 254-55.

(43) See D. Vance Smith, Arts of Possession: The Middle English Household Imaginary (Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota Press, 2003), 25-43.

(44) Christopher Cannon, The Grounds of English Literature (Oxford U. Press, 2004), 205.

(45) Pierre Bourdieu, "The Field of Cultural Production, or: the Economic World Reversed," Poetics 12 (1993): 311-56.

(46) David Wallace, Chaucerian Polity: Absolutist Lineages and Associational Forms in England and Italy (Stanford U. Press, 1997), 205.

(47) See Nerlich, Ideology of Adventure, 55.

(48) Wallace, Chaucerian Polity, 205.

(49) The tradition of reading the "lystes" ekprastically begins with Charles Muscatine, "The Knight's Tale," Chaucer and the French Tradition: A Study in Style and Meaning (U. of California Press, 1957), 75-89. See also V. A. Kolve, Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative: The First Five Canterbury Tales (Stanford U. Press, 1984), 132-57.

(50) David Epstein, "With many a floryn he the hewes boghte": Ekphrasis and Symbolic Violence in the Knight's Tale" PQ 85 (2006): 49-68.

(51) David Aers, Chaucer, Langland, and the Creative Imagination (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980): 174-95.

(52) David, Strumpet Muse, 92.

(53) For Cannon's analysis of the "kin-mark," see Grounds of English Literature, 180-82.

(54) Muscatine, Chaucer and the French Tradition, 182. The critical tendency to compare the tale to concrete objects of art is noted by Salter, "Knight's Tale" and "The Clerk's Tale," 12.

(55) See J. A. Burrow, "Sir Thopas: An Agony in Three Fits," RES 22 (1971): 54-58; and Alan T Gaylord, "Chaucer's Dainty 'Dogerel': The 'Elvyssh' Prosody of Sir Thopas" Studies in the Age of Chaucer 1 (1979): 83-104.

(56) See, e.g., D. S. Brewer, "The Relationship of Chaucer to the English and European Traditions," Chaucer and Chaucerians, ed. D. S. Brewer (London: Thomas Nelson, 1966): 1-15.

(57) A.C. Spearing, Medieval to Renaissance in English Poetry (Cambridge U. Press, 1985), 3; and Chaucer: Troilus and Criseyde (London: Edward Arnold, 1976), 54. See also Kathy Lavezzo, "England," Chaucer: Contemporary Approaches, ed. Susanna Fein and David Raybin (University Park: Penn State U. Press, 2009), 58. This portion of the essay is indebted to Lavezzo's evaluation of Chaucer's relation to a preexisting English tradition, in particular her extension of David Wallace's claims regarding "the problem of English isolation" (62).

(58) John Ganim, "Chaucer, Boccaccio, and the Anxiety of Popularity," Assays: Critical Approaches to Medieval and Renaissance Texts 4 (1987): 61, 56.

(59) David Wallace, Premodern Places: Calais to Surinam, Chaucer to Aphra Behn (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004), 61.

(60) Karla Taylor, "Chaucer's Volumes: Toward a New Model of Literary History in the Canterbury Tales," Studies in the Age of Chaucer 29 (2007): 51.

(61) W. J. B. Crotch, ed., The Prologues and Epilogues of William Caxton (London: EETS, 1928), 90.

(62) Seth Lerer, Chaucer and His Readers (Princeton U. Press, 1993), 22-56. On Caxton in particular, see 147-75.

(63) An influential challenge to this view is Andrew Taylor, "The Myth of the Minstrel Manuscript," Speculum 66 (1991): 43-73. For a summary of the debate about the romances' claim to consideration as oral fictions, see Nancy Mason Bradbury, "Literacy, Orality, and the Poetics of Middle English Romance" in Oral Poetics in Middle English Poetry, ed. Mark C. Amodio (New York: Garland, 1994). Janet Coleman suggests a late-medieval culture of "aurality" that may best characterize the romances' mode of dissemination; Public Reading and the Reading Public in Late Medieval England and France (Cambridge U. Press, 1996). This is also the conclusion of a recent case study by Jordi Sanchez-Marti, "Reading Romance in Late Medieval England: The Case of the Middle English Ipomedon," PQ 83 (2006): 13-19.

(64) In the famous frontispiece to the Corpus Christi manuscript (Cambridge MS 61), Chaucer is shown reading aloud to an audience of aristocratic listeners. While Derek Pearsall, "The Troilus Frontispiece and Chaucer's Audience," Yearbook of English Studies 7 (1977): 68-74, cautions against taking the frontispiece as evidence of historical reality, he acknowledges that Chaucer probably did perform his poetry orally.

(65) Martin Green, Seven Types of Adventure Tale: An Etiology of a Major Genre (University Park: Penn State U. Press, 1991), 27.

(66) It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the near-riot provoked by the film at its Cannes debut is so often cited as evidence of the film's greatness. See, e.g., Roger Ebert, Roger Ebert's Movie Yearbook 2009 (Kansas City, MO: Andrews McMeel, 2009), 825, who calls the film an "affront" to "audiences seeking the conventional." I am grateful to Brian Bergen-Aurand for drawing my attention to the relevance of L'Avventura to my argument, which I had overlooked.

(67) Peter Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (2nd ed., London: Ashgate, 2009), 336.

(68) Garrett Sullivan and Linda Woodbridge, "Popular Culture in Print," The Cambridge Companion to English Literature, 1500-1600, ed. Arthur Kinney (Cambridge U. Press, 2000), 268-69.
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Author:Wadiak, Walter
Publication:Philological Quarterly
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Mar 22, 2010
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