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Chaucer and the Subject of History.

Lee Patterson, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press; London: Routledge, 1991). xiv + 489 pp. ISBN 0-415-07315-4; 0-415-073i6-2. 35-00[pounds] (hard covers); 10.99[pounds] (p/b).

The tide of this book turns on a now-familiar Gallic pun on the word |subject'. Lee Patterson is concerned both with |history as a topic for poetry, as a material and social world for representation' and also with the sujet, that is, |the individual person forged in the dialectic between the subjective and the social' (p. 19). Since he regards this |dialectic between the subjective and the social' as a determinant of human experience in all ages, our own included, he rejects the Whiggish notion that individuality and selfhood are to be looked for only in Renaissance writers and their successors. Naturally the dialectric took a distinctive form in the Middle Ages, as in all periods; but Patterson rightly stresses that, in the later Middle Ages at least, the individual sujet is conspicuously displayed, both in authors' representations of themselves and also in their fictional creations. In this connection he cites Michel Zink's valuable book La Subjectivite litteraire autour du siecle de Saint-Louis (Paris, 1985)

Chaucer and the Subject of History is a massive and somewhat daunting book, designed, it must be said, by a |Chaucerian' for his fellow-experts. The first sentence of the acknowledgements strikes a chilling note: |Since the acknowledgements page is the one part of a book that is sure to be read, the author must be concerned that his potential audience not meet with immediate disappointment, whether of nonappearance or of inclusion.' Perhaps this is a joke. Yet, although one hopes that the book's audience will not be confined to those fellow-Chaucerians whose first impulse is to look for their own name in it, I find it hard to imagine non-specialist readers doing more than dip into its 489 pages. After a long and interesting Introduction, there follow substantial chapters on Anelida and Arcife, Troilus and Crisyde, the Knight's Tale, the Legend of Good Women (a brief discussion), the Miller's Tale, the Wife of Bath, the Merchant's Tale and the Shipman's Tale, and finally the Pardoner. (Earlier versions of the first, fifth, sixth and eighth of these essays have previously been published in journals).

The three chapters on Anelida, Troilus, and the Knight's Tale all concern Chaucer's treatment of the relationship between the subjective experiences of courtly lovers and the historical worlds of Thebes, Troy and Athens in which they are set. Patterson has interesting things to say about Anelida: he sees this poem as establishing an image of Thebes which also haunts Troilus and the Knight's Tale, associated with a sinister and pessimistic conception of historical experience as subject to inevitable and recurrent tragedy. Yet these chapters are somewhat distorted, I think, by the author's own ideological hostility to those aristocratic worlds of court and chivalry which the poems portray. The following comment is representative: |It was noble culture's inability to come to self-consciousness, to rewrite its own ideology in relation to socioeconomic change, that the Knight's Tale records' (p. 230). The corollary of this hostility is an excessively respectful treatment of the Miller's Tale as a |deeply political' challenge to chivalric ideology issued on behalf of the dynamic peasant economy -- albeit a challenge that is allowed to die away in the rest of Fragment I.

Not surprisingly, Patterson finds his richest |subjects' in the Wife of Bath and the Pardoner. Thus, accepting the Ellesmere order of the Tales, he sees the Wife as presenting a challenge to the Man of Law similar to that presented by the Miller to the Knight: |But the terms of contention are in fact very different: we move from the political opposition generated by the class inequality of Fragment I to an ideological antithesis determined by gender' (p. 281). In his discussion of the Wife's performance as |an act of deliberate self-fashioning', as in his other Canterbury Tales chapters, Patterson may be said to write like a latterday, left-wing Kittredge, seeking in the Tales not |character', exactly, but the self shaped by class, occupation or gender. A notable example is his treatment of

the Merchant's Tale. Here the opening pages (pp. 324-33) offer an interesting general account of the merchantry. Patterson questions modern historians' belief in a |dynamic mercantile ethos' and concludes that |English mercantile culture was largely confected out of the materials of other cultural formations -- primarily aristocratic but also clerical -- and lacked a center of its own' (p. 333). Accordingly, he sees in the Merchant's performance the |synthetic culture of his class', drawn from 'the two great cultural formations that dominated his world, the Church and the aristocracy, but lacking a distinctive ideological character of its own.

In his earlier book, Negotiating the Past. the Historical Understanding of Medieval Literature, Patterson criticized the New Historicists for their |effacement of the subject': |Quite against its explicit intentions, New Historicism effects a monolithic totalization, suppressing the individual in favor of the general and the disparate in favor of the homogeneous.' The present study represents a further honourable attempt to develop a newer historical approach to mediaeval literature which takes due account of the individual |subject' there. Yet there is still something of a |monolithic totalization' in the very academic intensity of Patterson's readings, according to which absolutely everything, even that little |mayde child' in the Shipman's Tale, proves capable of bearing the full panoply of scholarly interpretation. It is, after all, a historical fact that things may be merely contingent, or may sometimes occur by accident or by mistake, even in the writings of a great poet. Should not a historical critic be more concerned than Patterson is, for example, about whether Chaucer meant the Wife of Bath to follow directly after the Man of Law? It is, paradoxically, the historical Chaucer himself -- not as a representative of his class and time, but as an individual poet subject to the accidents of life and the |chances of rhyme' -- who is suppressed in this powerful book.
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Author:Burrow, J.A.
Publication:Medium Aevum
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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