Chaucerian Polity: Absolutist Lineages and Associational Forms in England and Italy.
In Chaucerian Polity David Wallace makes "visible, through an expansion of temporal and spatial parameters, relations and developments that would otherwise remain obscured or unconnected" (xvii). Specifically, through examination of the political structures of fourteenth-century Florence and Milan, to which Chaucer was exposed on his travels, Wallace makes Chaucer's political thought visible. He sees "the material and ideological conflict" between Florentine "republican libertas and [Lombard] dynastic despotism" to have been essential to Chaucer's understanding of the political situation in England, and he argues that Chaucer connected Boccaccio with Florentine "associational polity" and Petrarch with Lombardy and absolutism (1). Though first and foremost a study of Chaucer, Wallace's "expansion of temporal and spatial parameters" persuasively and insistently challenges the notion that the Renaissance can be cleanly divided from the Middle Ages and England from Italy; scholars of the English sixteenth century, he argues, need to know Chaucer, Ricardian England, and Italian Trecento culture in order to understand Tudor absolutism and its literature.
Given the brevity of this review, two examples will have to serve to illustrate Wallace's many original and convincing expositions of the politics of texts and his use of Italian material to formulate English problems. First, his exploration of the peculiar near absence of London and urban narrative from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (chap. 6) despite the profusion of narrative material that the contemporary city offered: Wallace makes this absence visible by contrasting the Canterbury Tales with "its Italian twin," Boccaccio's Decameron, in which Florence is all important. Wallace presents the Decameron as Boccaccio's brilliant response to post-plague Florence's need of"some form of cultural production . . . to challenge ideologies hostile to associative polity while concealing the internal divisions of such polity" (164); in his representation of the witty verbal and social interactions of Cisti the baker with a prominent Florentine (6.2) Boccaccio celebrated the city's associative polity.
Wallace's reading of"Cisti the Baker" makes him aware of "the absence in Chaucer of the kind of urban ideology so brilliantly exemplified by Boccaccio"; he attributes this lack not to a dislike of such an ideology on Chaucer's part, but to "its absence on English territory and in English texts. In Chaucer's London (as in Chaucer's "Cook's Tale"), any discourse beginning with aspirations to inclusiveness soon comes to discover special allegiances and unbridgeable hostilities" (180). Wallace demonstrates this failure of English associational polity through citation of many documents from contemporary London - among them law cases and proclamations by the lord mayor, and he shows how the "Cook's Tale" reveals Chaucer's awareness of this failure.
Trecento absolutist polities, Petrarch's texts and career, and Chaucer's English political hopes come together magnificently in "Legends and Lives of Good Women," Wallace's final chapter and my second example of his use of Italian material to formulate English problems. Both Petrarch and Chaucer found themselves in "the most desperate predicament of absolutist poetics, namely, the dream of a solitary poet trapped in the immediate presence of a godlike masculine monarch who misinterprets his makynge and finds it personally and sexually insulting" (338). Petrarch chose to be his own advocate in his works, spoke from "'feminized' subject positions," and did not challenge current social arrangements, whereas Chaucer in his works sought "to position an eloquent wife between himself and the sovereign . . . figure" (338). Wallace argues that for Chaucer and for England, Anne of Bohemia, wife of Richard II, "symbolized a historical alternative to the polity pursued by 'tyraunts of Lumbardye,' a form of rule where masculine 'wilfulhede' and self-aggrandizement turn a deaf ear to the moderating persuasions embodied in the person of an eloquent wife" (377).
The predicament of being "trapped in the immediate presence of a godlike masculine monarch who misinterprets his makynge and finds it personally and sexually insulting" was, of course, familiar to Tudor poets, and, thus, the parts of this book that discuss Petrarch, Chaucer, and absolutism will be of special interest to those who work on the Tudor period. Wallace has this application of his book in mind. He urges Renaissance scholars to discover in the "particular forms and dynamics of medieval polity," analogues and antecedents of Tudor absolutism. He urges us all to read Chaucer: "the texts of Chaucer should become required reading for any future theorists of medieval/Renaissance periodization" (4). Chaucerian Polity makes this seem excellent advice.
Rhode Island College
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|Author:||Benson, Pamela J.|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1999|
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