DESIRE, VIOLENCE AND THE PASSION IN FRAGMENT VII OF THE CANTERBURY TALES: A GIRARDIAN READING(1).
In the late fourteenth century, violence on a large scale held English attention as spectacular victories against the French early in the Hundred Years War were followed by a series of costly, disastrous campaigns. In order to pay for an unprecedented state of continual war-readiness, the Crown experimented with a new form of per-person taxation that, in turn, became the immediate cause of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, some of the worst of which Chaucer could well have witnessed from his London home. Many of his works show an obvious concern with violence on scales both large and small. The two tales he assigns himself in the middle of Fragment VII, in particular, have recently been emphasized as indicating his stance against the war (Scattergood; Yeager 108-21; Lowe 94-101) and even the whole "combative ethos" of romance (Blamires 264). That these two tales could be read as opposing particular kinds of contemporary violence is, I think, a consequence of a subtler analysis of violence that Chaucer pursues in the rest of this fragment and beyond. Indeed, the problem of the unity of Fragment VII offers merely a circumscribed place to begin an interpretation of Chaucer's representations of violence.
The narrative that links the two middle tales of Fragment VII, and thus could be called its center, provides a clue to a critique of violence that goes beyond mere opposition to war. As Chaucer the pilgrim is telling his parodic romance of Sir Thopas, he is rudely interrupted by an uncomprehending Harry Bailly, who demands that he tell a different tale. "Gladly," replies Chaucer, "by Goddes sweete pyne!" In the tale he will tell of Melibee, "Goddes sweete pyne," Christ's Passion, will be the fundamental model for how to respond to an act of violence. But before he proceeds, the pilgrim, perhaps anticipating that Harry might react violently to this tale too, warns his audience not to blame him if his version of it is not the same as others they have heard. He cites as an analogy the differences between versions of the Passion:
For somme of hem seyn moore, and somme syen lesse, Whan they his pitous passioun expresse-- meene of Mark, Mathew, Luc, and John-- But doutelees hir sentence is al oon. (949-52)(2)
Chaucer's Melibee is in fact a close translation of a French translation of Albertanus of Brescia's Liber consolationis et consilii, close enough that such a disclaimer would not seem necessary for anyone who happens to know the French source. The emphasis on "sentence," a word repeated five times in the surrounding 18 lines, has been taken by "exegetical" critics as positing a stable, consistent meaning behind this and all of Chaucer's tales when read spiritually instead of literally, that is, according to a narrowly conceived version of Augustinian hermeneutics that simply reduces them to a given set of doctrines (Robertson 367-69). Resolving the differences between the four Gospels, however, was seen as no simple matter in the Middle Ages; exegetes constantly revisited the subject. Moreover, as the key to the meaning of the entire Bible, and indeed of all history, the Gospels were held to be infinitely meaningful, a mountain of significance ever rising before the interpreter (de Lubac 234-41). Thus if the existence of four different Gospels required a doctrine of stable meaning behind them, it was also an invitation to an endlessly fruitful work of interpretation. If Chaucer implies a hermeneutic here, it is one that would appear even narrower than that of his "exegetical" critics, but that proves in the end much more open and productive. For the "sentence" of all of the tales of Fragment VII (and others besides), not just the Melibee, rests deeply on the Gospels, and in particular on the Passion as a key to understanding and healing violence.
Increased devotion to Christ's Passion is one of the central facts of late medieval European culture. In order to illuminate its significance for Chaucer's treatment of violence, however, I will look not to the wide array of medieval experiences and understandings of the Passion, but to literary critic and cultural theorist Rene Girard, whose work follows from his reading of the Passion story. Girard holds that the sufferings of Christ, as told in the Gospels, make possible the supreme unmasking of the violence at the foundation of human culture. Put most simply, the Gospels, according to Girard, oppose the myths that cover over acts of founding violence by telling the same story from the perspective not of the persecutor but of the innocent victim (Things Hidden 141-79). Although this interpretation has competed with others throughout the Christian tradition, Cesareo Bandera argues that late medieval devotion to the suffering Christ made newly available the Gospel's emphasis on individual responsibility for violence as opposed to its perpetuation through systems of the sacred that regulate it. Indeed, these sacred systems, even within Christianity, began to be seen as human creations (245-55). Girard's formulation of the social meaning of the Passion provides a powerful tool for unfolding Chaucer's engagement with the Gospels and his times. I would suggest, to begin with, that Chaucer's oath in response to the Host, besides being funny, comments on his own symbolic suffering in being interrupted. Chaucer locates himself, the storyteller, in the position of an innocent, Christlike victim. Harry's colorful insults and mockery enable Chaucer to speak as a witness to suffering.
Exposure of the truth of human violence remains necessary because its concealment through the forms of culture grows ever more sophisticated, beginning with primitive myth and ritual and extending to more advanced literature and institutions. Concealing violence is, indeed, a determining function of these cultural forms. In the first three tales of Fragment VII, The Shipman's Tale, The Prioress's Tale, and Sir Thopas, which belong to the genres that make up the bulk of The Canterbury Tales as a whole--fabliau, religious tale, and romance--Chaucer displays tendencies in these genres, and in larger cultural practices related to them, to mythologize violence. Though violence takes widely different forms in these three tales, at its root is desire, and the tales share an analysis of how desire spreads. The Shipman's Tale points beneath its story of cuckoldry to the mediation of desire through the growing mercantile system; The Prioress' Tale suggests the disturbing potential of desire formed by models of piety; and The Tale of Sir Thopas attributes the contagion of chivalric violence in part to desires spread by romances themselves. Whether each tale succeeds in exposing such tendencies when taken on its own is perhaps doubtful. But such exposure becomes more likely when they are seen together, and more likely still in connection with the three tales that follow. After Chaucer's crucial representation of the poet as victim, and
the Melibee's explicit treatment of how to answer an act of violence, the final two tales of the fragment, those of the Monk and the Nun's Priest, explore the potential for disarming literary responses to violence through the modes of tragedy and comedy.
THE Shipman's Tale has, on the face of it, the least to do with violence of any tale in Fragment VII.(3) Indeed, as a fabliau (like the tales of the Miller, Reeve, and Merchant) that of the Shipman is noteworthy for its lack of a violent conclusion. In this elaborate version of the folktale type known as "the lover's gift regained," a merchant's wife trades sexual favors to their friend, the monk Daun John, in return for a loan of one hundred franks, which the monk, in turn, borrows from the merchant. The duped merchant suffers neither physical violence nor even the shame of knowing he has been cuckolded; the lecherous monk gets off scot free; and the unfaithful wife satisfies her husband, who is angry merely that he didn't know the monk had repaid the hundred franks when he brought up financial matters with him, by inviting him to "score it upon my taille" (tally stick or sexual member). The magic of the market seems to have deferred the typical end of a fabliau's sexual rivalry. Patterson goes so far as to argue that the mercantile world of exchange that dominates the tale, having first assimilated the domestic sphere to itself, then reconstitutes it and saves the merchant's honorable innocence (Subject of History 349-65). On the other hand, more usual readings of this tale emphasize the traces within it of a source of ethical standards by which the judgment that is not explicit within the tale could be supplied by interpretation. Gail McMurray Gibson, in a particularly persuasive example, has shown how the meeting of wife and monk in which they agree to break their vows calls to mind Mary Magdalen's encounter with the resurrected Christ in the garden, so that "the prostitute-made-saint is replaced by a contemporary Magdalen who will contract to prostitute herself both within and without her marriage" (109). The tale certainly calls for ethical judgment, but by displacing the grounds for it outside of the tale itself, and by deferring the violence of suffering and retribution through exchanges of money and sex, the tale shifts the focus of judgment away from its characters and toward systems of desire in which they are caught up. Mary Magdalen was thought in the Middle Ages to be the prostitute from whom Jesus expelled seven demons, and we might ask, extending Gibson's argument: What are the demons that inhabit the prostitute of this tale, as well as her lovers?
The tale begins with a lengthy description of the wife's expensive, seemingly insatiable desire for clothes, the desire that we later discover has led her into the debt that makes her ask Daun John for a loan. Fashion offers an especially clear example of what Girard calls mimetic desire, that is, desire that originates in a perception of another's desire for the same object--wanting something simply because someone else wants or has it. Girard's theory of culture begins by positing that all human desire, beyond what is necessary for bodily survival, is mimetic. Chaucer, by focusing first on the wife's devotion to fashion, cues an analysis of mimetic desire in all three characters that, while unnecessary to the story and lacking in the closest analog (Boccaccio's Decameron, day 8, story 1, which might be Chaucer's source), is at the same time completely at home in it. What motivates the wife's desire for clothes is not said to be keeping up with other women--though this can be assumed--but rather her husband's "worship" (13). Wanting to be "arrayed" by him she is thus driven by imitating the desire she perceives him to have to array her. His desire is itself represented as mimetic, for he is introduced in the context of a competition for public honor signified by making a trophy of his wife. From the outset we see them both caught up in a world of mimetic desire, a world that becomes most potent through money.
Money is the sign of all others' desires, and the merchant's singleminded devotion to it, emphasized throughout and so basic that it would seem to need no explaining, is nonetheless given, within the structure of the tale, a mimetic origin. Before we know anything about the merchant except that he is rich and generous and perhaps resents having to spend so much on his wife's clothes, the description of the monk dwells at curious length on his seemingly greater generosity, especially with money, when he visits the merchant's house. Emphasizing his liberality, rather than just the indulgence in worldly pleasures monks were often criticized for, only makes him a more powerful model of desire that has achieved its object to a point of self-sufficiency: "Free was daun John, and manly of dispence" (43). The order of the tale, then, leads us to relate the merchant's desire for money to rivalry, however friendly, with a monk who practices the appearance of wealth. Conversely, the tale quite clearly locates the monk's sexual desire in his imagination of the merchant. When the wife greets Daun John in the garden by teasing him for being up so early, his reply ends:
"I trowe, certes, that our goode man Hath yow laboured sith the nyght bigan That yow were nede to resten hastily." And with that word he lough ful murily, And of his owene thought he wax al reed. (107-11)
He is taking the opportunity for a come-on, but his words and his embarrassment suggest that it comes not from simply conceived, spontaneous lust, but from a rivalrous fantasy. Thus the tale's rivals, besides being from the same village and calling each other cousin, are quite carefully constructed as mirror images: a merchant whose religion of money is modeled on the monk, and a worldly monk projecting himself into the merchant's bed.
Chaucer has already explored such close, mimetic rivalry in The Knight's Tale, where the imitation of each other's desire makes any difference between Arcite and Palamon arbitrary and leads to a crisis in which one of them must eventually be sacrificed for the sake of the larger social order (Amtower 139-41). Through what Girard calls the scapegoat effect, "suddenly the opposition of everyone against everyone is replaced by the opposition of all against one" (Things Hidden 24). Though Arcite's death in The Knight's Tale is not a result of human scapegoating, it is given a sacred cast by being attributed to divine forces and, what is crucial, has the effect of restoring order to the community. In The Shipman's Tale, the preservation of order through the exchange of money, while it avoids outright violence, is far from establishing peace in any positive sense. Commodification of relationships leaves no one innocent. It is worth noting that Chaucer associates the rise of commerce closely with the fall from an innocent, peaceful state in his lyric "The Former Age." More important, however, the tale takes to a more anthropological level the theological problem of free will and necessity through which The Knight's Tale frames its answer to the problem of violence. The tale's relatively harmless resolution is attributable not to Providence but to the market, and its humor is overshadowed, not by moral judgment of the characters as individuals, but by the disclosure that mimetic desire leads them to be dominated by a system that puts each into competition and potential conflict with all others. The violence of such a dynamic will escalate, as the next tale in Fragment VII implies, until it is met with a more severe response.
RELIGIOUS devotion, debased in The Shipman's Tale, becomes excessive in the next one. The Prioress' Tale belongs to a category of medieval religious tales that tell of miracles attributed to the Blessed Virgin, and like many of them it concerns a stereotypical act of violence by Jews. In an unnamed city in Asia Minor, Jews hire one of their own to cut the throat of a seven-year-old boy who had taken to singing a song in praise of the Virgin on his way to and from school through their ghetto. By her miraculous intervention, the boy remains alive, and continues singing, until a mysterious grain she had placed on his tongue is removed by the local abbot. Meanwhile the Jews are tortured and executed. Most of the tale, however, concerns the piety of the boy, the pathos of his bereaved mother, and the wonder of the miracle. Critical debate remains divided over how to interpret the tale's apparent anti-Semitism. One approach attributes it to Chaucer but attempts to excuse it as a result of his choice to explore the emotional dimensions of a kind of story that requires a stereotypical enemy. The other main approach attributes it instead only to the immediate teller of the tale, the Prioress, and finds that Chaucer exposes her misguided piety through satire. Because Jews had been expelled from England a century before Chaucer wrote, the relevance of satirizing anti-Semitism is perhaps questionable. And almost every element in the tale has parallels in similar stories that were evidently popular in England at the time and carry no hint of satire. On the other hand, explicit decrees of the church had declared the stereotypical accusations against Jews to be lies, and although of course this did not stifle them, it establishes that opposition to them would not be unprecedented. In addition, as many have shown, the portrait of the Prioress in Chaucer's General Prologue gives abundant reason to suspect her devotion.(4) I am more inclined to see the dubious piety of the Prioress as an invitation to look more closely at the persecution of the Jews in her tale. Rather than simply saving Chaucer by blaming the Prioress, I would suggest that Chaucer is finding his way, through the fallibility of the Prioress, to an understanding of how religion requires victims, so that the persecution of Jews can be seen as a victimization in which all Christians participate. This victimization is not fully exposed, as is that of Christ in the Gospels, but neither does it remain fully concealed, as does that of Jews after the Black Death in Guillaume de Machaut's Judgment of the King of Navarre. Machaut's brief episode of Jews causing the plague and being killed for it simply represents as true the very accusations that a modern interpreter would take as evidence of scapegoating (Girard, Scapegoat 1-11). In The Prioress' Tale, the representation of violence against Jews is complicated by its close connection to Christian piety that, like desire in The Shipman's Tale, has a mimetic origin and leads to rivalry. In this case rivalry, on its way to murder and vengeance, turns in on itself in a phenomenon that, once again, Girard's reading of the Gospels can help us describe.
The single largest element in the Prioress' tale that is unparalleled in any of the surviving analogs offers a guide to Chaucer's diagnosis of the violence here. Whereas in other versions the boy is old enough to learn the offending song in a class at school, Chaucer makes him only seven and adds an older boy whom he begs to tell him the meaning of this song he has heard the older children singing. When he finds out it is a song in praise of the Virgin, he resolves to memorize it instead of learning his primer, even though he cannot understand the words. Though the older boy does not seem to be particularly fervent in his devotion, and can only provide a simple explanation of the song, he figures as a model and rival that highlights how intensely mimetic the little boy's piety is. His mother had already taught him a fervent devotion to Mary, and the Prioress comments on the readiness of simple, innocent children to learn by imitation (495-515). Twice the tale says he learned the song "by rote" (522, 545). Medieval conceptions of childhood emphasized that up to the age of seven children are incapable of making rational choices and learn primarily by imitation (Shahar 24, 172). And Girard has noted that children are easily scandalized because they imitate so readily (Things Hidden 417). Moreover, the boy's devotion reflects that of the Prioress herself, who, in the prayer that forms a prologue to her tale, has shown herself to be fixed on imitating the Virgin Mary. As exquisite as her praise of Mary's devotion is, it also hints at envy of Mary's motherhood, hints that are developed in the tale's strong identification with the emotions of the murdered boy's mother. The oddest feature of this prologue, the Prioress's comparison of herself to a one-year-old, professes modesty and innocence at the same time that it perhaps signifies a propensity to imitate like a child. The tale's emotional fervency thus arises from a web of imitated desire, and its violent potential is foreshadowed when the little boy says he will learn the song even if it means being "beaten thrice in an hour" for not learning his primer.
Indeed, this imagination of an obstacle that only makes his desire more intense implies another aspect of mimetic desire, for which the Gospels use the word scandal (often translated "stumbling block"). When the model of desire is a particularly overpowering one, as here in the whole chain of models from the older boy to the Virgin herself, it becomes a rival so strong that it prevents successful appropriation of the object and tends to eclipse it as the focus of attention, resulting in "all kinds of destructive addiction, drugs, sex, power, and above all morbid competitiveness, professional, sexual, political, intellectual, and spiritual, especially spiritual" (Girard, "Satan" 198). The little boy's scandal is figured powerfully, I think, in the grain that must be removed from his tongue in order for him to die. At the moment he should have died, he tells the abbot, the Virgin told him to keep singing her song, laid the grain on his tongue, and promised to fetch him when it is removed. Many interpretations of the grain have been suggested by reference to biblical and medieval symbolism.(5) Besides any significance it draws from outside the tale, however, the grain serves as an image of how obsession with the song is an obstacle that keeps the boy stuck in a sort of devotional prison, unable to stop singing. The Virgin herself, then, plays a complex role that includes being both the object of his scandalized piety and his deliverer from it (much as Christ is for his disciples in the Gospels). Once the abbot takes the grain away, the little boy gives up the ghost "full softly" (672). The dramatic reaction of those who witness his death is worth quoting at length:
And whan this abbot hadde this wonder seyn, His salte teeris trikled doun as reyn, And gruf he fil al plat upon the grounde, And stille he lay as he had ben ybounde. The covent eek lay on the pavement Wepyng, and herying Cristes mooder deere, And after that they ryse, and forth been went, And tooken awey this martir from his beere. (673-80)
Imitating his death and continuing his act of worship must be construed, at least in part, as a non-conflictual kind of mimesis on the part of the crowd. In this way they all share in the benefit the boy receives from the removal of the obstacle. Yet the crowd's powerful release of emotion in response to his death, and its vaguely cleansing and unifying effect, also resemble what Girard finds to be the more usual resolution of mimetic rivalry and scandal: the arbitrary choice of a single victim against whom everyone else's violent energy is directed. The death of this victim, this scapegoat, has such power to restore peace to the community that the dynamic of unanimous violence is repeated in sacrificial ritual. Of course we cannot see the boy as a scapegoat or his eventual death as a sacrifice in any simple sense. For one thing, the significance of his death is complicated because his killing is, in effect, divided between two agents. Yet his two deaths share some features that can, in turn, shed light on the significance of the death that falls between them, that of his first killers, the Jews.
If the boy is scandalized by his own piety, it is even more of a scandal to the Jews. Rather than giving a subtle, psychological portrayal of what motivates their rivalry, however, the tale represents them simply as inspired by Satan.
Oure firste foo, the serpent Sathanas, That hath in Jues herte his waspes nest, Up swal, and seide, "O Hebrayk peple, allas! Is this to yow a thyng that is honest, That swich a boy shal walken as hym lest In youre despit, and synge of swich sentence, Which is agayn your lawes reverence?" (558-64)
Girard interprets Satan in the Gospels as the figure of scandal, a linkage made explicit in Jesus' rebuke to Peter, "Move behind me Satan, because you are a scandal to me" ("Satan" 200, citing Matthew 16.23). Yet we do not need to supply such an explicit equation in Chaucer's reference to Satan in order to find the dynamics of scandal. Satan's words appeal to the Jews' sense of rivalry as a people with their own laws from which they derive honor. The boy is a scandal to them, not just in the broad, modern sense of a disgrace but in the specific, New Testament sense of an obstacle on which their conflictual drives focus. A parallel between the scandalizing effect of the boy's piety on himself and on the Jews is reinforced by the fact that it leads in each case to involuntary speech. Like the boy compelled to keep singing, the tale asks us to imagine Satan swelling within the Jews' hearts and causing speech that they either hear within themselves or actually utter with their own mouths.(6) In both the boy and his killers, being scandalized is manifest as a state of spiritual possession. Whereas the cause is represented in the boy's case by an innocuous grain, in the Jews' case it is symbolized as Satan. This opposition is crucial because it shows the phenomenon of scapegoating from two different perspectives, the victim's and the persecutor's. Taking the perspective of the victimized boy, the tale exposes his scapegoating by the Jews. He is a randomly chosen victim in so far as his offense is distinguishable only in degree, not in kind, from that of any other Christians; he merely draws attention to himself and is vulnerable. What makes him guilty in the eyes of the Jews is, of course, innocent in the eyes of the Prioress (even if at another level of interpretation the tale also implies dangers of pious innocence). The unifying effect of scapegoating appears in the unanimity of the Jews acting as one through a chosen representative and, more dramatically, heating and perhaps speaking as one the voice of Satan.
In the persecution of the Jews, on the other hand, scapegoating is concealed behind the persecutors' perspective of the Jews' unquestioned guilt, which demands punishment. It is easy for us to see how the tale's accusation against them fits into the pattern of the "blood libel" against Jews that circulated among Christians in the late Middle Ages, and which the medieval church had declared by the thirteenth century to be a lie (Schoeck 251-52). Girard calls such violence-justifying accusations "stereotypes of persecution" and finds in them recognizable patterns of distortion that arise from their usefulness in enabling the scapegoat mechanism. Among these are accusing the scapegoat of crimes against those it is most criminal to attack, such as children, and choosing as scapegoat a minority group, such as the Jews (Scapegoat 1-23). The question of whether Chaucer's tale takes such accusations, which it inherits from its sources, as reality or stereotype can only be answered through attention to details of how it represents the Jews' crime and punishment. That they throw the boy's body into a privy, for instance, has been read as satiric exaggeration of the crime's brutality. Explicit demonization might also be seen as a telltale excess, but then again demons were a favorite device of religious tale and drama. Of course it is difficult even to guess how such details would have registered with Chaucer's original audience. More telling, I think, is the symmetry between the murders of the boy and of the Jews, which, though inverse with regard to guilt, is direct in the actions of the persecutors. Like the Jews, the Christians act as one through a chosen representative, the provost:
He cam anon withouten tariyng, And herieth Crist that is of hevene kyng, And eek his mooder, honour of mankynde, And after that the Jewes leet he bynde. (617-20)
The anaphora of these lines conveys, with a frightening inevitability, the religious sanction given to this violence, less conscious even than the Jews gave to theirs. Least conscious, however, and the most telling sign of unanimity among persecutors (including the Prioress), is the stereotype with which the tale begins; namely, by describing in its first stanza how the Jewish community was sustained by the local lord for the sake of their moneylending, "Hateful to Crist and to his compaignye" (492). Here we glimpse how violence against the Jews was part of negotiating their continuing presence. David Nirenberg, in his recent study of both annual, ritualized violence and larger, cataclysmic violence against Jews in Iberia, concludes that "although they differed in stridency and despair, Holy Week riots and plague massacres were alike in that they were both part of the same violent mechanisms by which the Christian majority articulated the terms of coexistence and made it possible" (245). The violence against Jews in The Prioress' Tale falls somewhere between these two poles in that it is ritualized through legal rather than liturgical authority but leads to real rather than just symbolic slaughter.
Again, it is difficult to distinguish how much of an analysis of scapegoating mechanisms is performed by the tale on its own culture and how much can merely be performed on the tale as it reflects its culture. Though Girard draws a sharp distinction between texts like the Gospels that explicitly indicate that the victim is a scapegoat and those like Machaut's that do not but can be interpreted as stories of scapegoating (Scapegoat 117), The Prioress' Tale falls again between the two types. An interpretation of the Jews as scapegoats is merely implicit in its parallels between acts of violence, their causes, and their effects. While scapegoating the Jews ought to restore peace to the Christian community, this effect is elided in favor of the effect, as we have seen, of the boy's eventual death. In removing the grain from the boy's tongue so that he may finally die, the abbot repeats the role of the provost in torturing and killing the Jews. We could see in this displacement a suppression of the truth of religious violence under the veil of the sacred. On the other hand, the parallels, reaching back to the role of the Jewish murderer in acting for his community, suggest rather an exposure of such violence that recognizes the phenomenon of scandal. What comes through most clearly perhaps in this picture of mimetic rivalry leading to conflict that is resolved through scapegoating is the potential for religious piety to require and justify violence. Readings of the tale that attribute its anti-Semitism to the Prioress have located this potential in her character, but I am suggesting that she too is seen as participating in a larger, social dynamic of human desire and violence. The remaining tales of Fragment VII will bring that dynamic further to light and begin to contemplate responses other than violence.
THE Tale of Sir Thopas told by pilgrim Chaucer has long been recognized as satire or parody of the chivalric romances that were perhaps second in popularity only to Marian miracle stories in Chaucer's time. A tissue of romance conventions, the tale's every detail, beginning with a knight named after a minor gemstone, invites laughter. The early-seventeenth-century poet Michael Drayton shows awareness of the tale's humor by beginning his mock-epic Nimphidia with a reference to Sir Thopas along with Rabelais. More recent readers have extended Chaucer's ridicule to chivalric ideals themselves and thus to the war with France (e.g. Scattergood 290, 294). But when seen as an extension of the analysis of mimetic desire from the preceding two tales, Chaucer's parody becomes an even more radical critique of reading romances.
That great reader of romances, Don Quixote, with whom Girard begins his first exposition of mimetic desire (Deceit 1-17), provides an illuminating comparison to Sir Thopas. The parallel seems to have been noticed first by Drayton, who tells how his own Fairy King's exploits exceed those of "Don Quishott" and "Sancha Panchas" in a stanza ("Nimphidia" lines 273-80) that recalls this one from Sir Thopas:
Men speken of romances of prys, Of Horn child and of Ypotys, Of Beves and sir Gy, Of sir Lybeux and Pleyndamour-- But sir Thopas, he bereth the flour Of roial chivalry! (897-902)
In his 1762 Letters on Chivalry and Romance, Richard Hurd refers to this stanza at the end of a list of parallels with Cervantes that he uses to argue that Sir Thopas too is a burlesque (340). Of course the crucial difference between Cervantes and previous romance-writers is that the hero's claim to surpassing chivalry becomes ironic, and his conscious imitation of everything romantic animates the entire story. Such revelation of the mediated nature of desire, unfathomed in conventional romance, places Don Quixote, according to Girard, at the start of a new, "novelistic" tradition (Deceit 17). Sir Thopas does not draw as much attention to the sources of its hero's aspirations, but they are clear. The knight's preparations to fight the giant Sir Olifaunt begin with this request:
"Do come," he seyde, "my mynstrales, And geestours for to tellen tales, Anon in myn armynge, Of romances that been roiales, Of popes and of cardinales, And eek of love-likynge." (845-50)
We are invited not just to compare Sir Thopas to other heroes of romance, but to imagine him, like Quixote, consciously imitating them (along with popes and cardinals for good measure).
Listening to romances is not unprecedented within romances, but the tale highlights its hero's mediated desire in other ways as well. More than once he is called "child," which, though not uncommon in ballads and romances for "a youth of gentle birth" (OED, def. 5), could also, especially coming after The Prioress' Tale, imply that he is prone to imitation. That Sir Thopas comes from Flanders fits Chaucer's parody not just because of the Flemings' poor reputation for chivalry, but, as David Wallace proposes, because "it suggests, to Chaucer's audience, the vigorous imitation of nobility in the land of the non-noble" ("In Flaundres" 74). Most interesting is the knight's fall into "love-longynge." It begins, before he has encountered any lady, while he is out "prikynge" in the forest and hears birds singing; that is, it seems to have no object, only models, namely, all of the examples of literary love this conventional setting would call to mind. Two stanzas later he says he has dreamed that an unspecified elf queen will be his lover. When he goes off to search for one, his desire has been given no other possible cause than the idea that this is what knights do, an idea transmitted by the sort of poem that this one is mocking in every aspect down to its verse form. The real object of Thopas' desire, in fact, is not an elf-queen but rather the same as his model: simply to be a knight. And this combination of model and object is not another character in the tale but rather a whole genre and the discourse it idealizes. Sir Thopas has been scandalized by romance. Whereas The Shipman's Tale hints at the potential of the fabliau as a genre to propagate mimetic rivalry under concealment, and The Prioress' Tale comes closer to identifying the contagious dangers of the piety inherent in its kind of tale, Sir Thopas exposes (to laughter) how desires are shaped by a form of discourse.
It is a short step from the desire spread by romance to showing that mimetic rivalry is at the root of chivalry itself, as The Knight's Tale does. For a more positive attempt to intervene within the genre of romance we might perhaps look to The Franklin's Tale, where the chain of generous acts that resolves its crisis constitutes a disavowal of such rivalry. Nonetheless, Sir Thopas perhaps goes further than these romances to negate, by way of parody, the romance mythology that justifies violence. The chivalric notion of honor will be one of the justifications of vengeance dealt with more seriously in the next tale, the Melibee.
The old idea that the prosaic length of the second tale Chaucer gives himself to tell makes it some kind of joke has been generally rejected in favor of readings that take it as a serious, even central statement of his vision. Certainly the principles of response to real violence it articulates are crucial to the development of this theme in Fragment VII. In Melibee himself we see a further representation of the forces that perpetuate violence, while his wife, Prudence, provides a model of how to confront these forces.
While Melibee was in the fields, three "old foes" broke into their house, beat Prudence, and gravely wounded their daughter, Sophia. The dialogue between Prudence and Melibee that makes up the long middle of the tale centers on her advice that he imitate the patience seen above all in Christ's Passion, seek peace, and ultimately forgive his enemies. Here is the simple answer for confronting violence, though of course practicing it in any given situation is far from simple. The tale's interest lies in how Prudence turns Melibee from his immediate impulse toward vengeance, an impulse initially nurtured by counsel he solicits from men of his community. In questioning Melibee's interpretation of the physicians' advice that "oon contrarie is warisshed [cured] by another contrarie," Prudence exposes the core of his motivation: "For right as they han venged hem on me and doon me wrong," says Melibee, "right so shal I venge me upon hem and doon hem wrong; and thanne have I cured oon contrarie by another" (1276, 1281-82; see also 1522-25). All we ever hear about his enemies' motive is what Melibee assumes it to be: vengeance. They are the model and justification of his own desire for vengeance, as he reiterates in response to Prudence's speech about patience. Both times Prudence responds by asserting that his desires have clouded his thinking. The point of the physicians' proverb, she explains in the first instance, is that "wikkednesse shal be warisshed by goodnesse, discord by accord, werre by pees, and so forth of othere thynges" (1289). She focuses on his misdirected desires again when she ventures an explanation of why God would have allowed this villainy to occur. The three enemies, she reasons, signify the three temptations--the world, the flesh, and the devil--and Sophia's five wounds signify the five senses in which Melibee has been wounded by turning away from Christ to worldly goods. Though his covetousness, unlike his desire for vengeance, is not here analyzed as mimetic, we might recall the world of The Shipman's Tale. Prudence's task, then, is not only to make a logically compelling case for her advice about how to restore peace to the community, but to rescue Melibee's heart from being caught in conflictual mimesis. The tale, that is, approaches the problem of violence by focusing not on what to do about the evil of Melibee's enemies, but on what to do about the evil in himself, a reorientation strongly linked to the Christian focus on the Passion and its remembrance in the anti-sacrificial ritual of the Eucharist (Bandera 250-51).
In seeking to change Melibee's heart, Prudence mainly offers herself as an alternative model of desire, although she tries other tactics as well and in the end is not completely successful. In order to talk Melibee into pursuing peace, for instance, she adds that it would lead to greater prosperity as well. Switching from a bourgeois to a chivalric set of values, he objects that such meekness would not uphold his honor. At this Prudence pretends to be angry, which we might see as imitating Melibee and making herself a rival in pursuit of his honor. In any case, the result is Melibee's new self-awareness of his anger and willingness to go along with her: "I am redy to do right as ye wol desire" (1702). After winning Melibee's consent, Prudence is even more successful in offering herself as a model to his enemies, who are "ravysshed" when she shows them "the grete goodes that comen of pees" (1729). Once Melibee's enemies submit themselves to him, however, he does an about-face, threatening to take their goods and exile them, and turns again to forgive them only after Prudence preaches the honor in generosity and the good politics of courtesy, concluding with a two-handed exhortation: "Wherfore I pray yow, lat mercy been in youre herte, to th'effect and entente that God Almighty have mercy on yow in his laste juggement. For Seint Jame seith in his Epistle: `Juggement withouten mercy shal be doon to hym that hath no mercy of another wight'" (1867-69). On one hand, Prudence perhaps succeeds in transferring Melibee's mimesis from his supposedly vengeful enemies to a forgiving God through herself as intermediary. But on the other hand, she threatens him with divine vengeance against his own vengefulness. Retribution rather than patience seems still in the end to move Melibee, whose words to his adversaries at the close of the tale predicate his forgiveness on their repentance. He acts as if he has mastered them rather than chosen to suffer and forgive.
All of the initiative to choose patient suffering over reciprocity, then, remains with Prudence. David Wallace's recent, groundbreaking interpretation of the tale places it in the context of Chaucer's experience of politics, in both England and his travels to Italy, as a guide to maintaining a healthy body politic despite masculine tendencies toward despotism. Throughout the Canterbury Tales, Wallace sees Chaucer placing hope in peacemaking counsel that comes consistently from wives (Chaucerian Polity 214-46 and passim). We have seen that Chaucer's treatment of the dynamics of violence in Fragment VII does not find women, such as the wife of The Shipman's Tale or the Prioress, immune to mimetic rivalry. But the Melibee does suggest a strong connection between such rivalry and masculinity, and a corresponding link between the alternative, the patience of the Passion, and the feminine. Girardian theory has not, to my knowledge, taken issues of gender into rigorous account, and I will not attempt to do so here.(7) Obviously, though, women have less power in a patriarchal society and are more routinely victimized, just as it is Melibee's wife and daughter who suffer violence to their bodies, not merely their honor. Perhaps as a result, they are more likely to stand in solidarity with victims. The fundamental lesson of the Passion in dealing with violence, for both Girard and Chaucer, is the imperative to suffer persecution patiently in the hope of breaking the cycle of mimetic violence by exposing the victims' innocence while forgiving their persecutors. That this is not a purely female role for Chaucer, however, is clear from his representation of himself, not just through the tales he tells, but in the links that precede them.
I suggested earlier that the Host's interruption places Chaucer the pilgrim in the position of a victim, its significance marked subtly with his oath "by Goddes sweete pyne" (936). Thus in response to Harry Bailly's domineering leadership, Chaucer takes the side of victims, like the old man who is similarly interrupted by Melibee's other counselors when he speaks against war. Earlier, before Harry asks Chaucer to tell his first tale, and just after The Prioress' Tale, which the Host perhaps imitates here, he addresses and then describes our narrator in a way that implies an incipient act of scapegoating
"What man artow?" quod he; "Thou lookest as thou woldest fynde an hare, For evere upon the ground I se thee stare ... He semeth elvyssh by his contenance, For unto no wight dooth he daliaunce." (695-97; 703-04)
The Host accuses him of being antisocial, a grave sin in Harry's universe, and indicates his otherness by identifying something vaguely "elvyssh" and thus different about his appearance or bearing. In a minor, playful way suitable to the context of a tale-telling game, Chaucer is being marked as a potential victim, a role he embraces by telling a parody that the Host is predictably unable to appreciate. In the Melibee, then, Chaucer the pilgrim responds to the violence of being interrupted, while through the whole episode Chaucer the poet places himself in the position of a victim in order to speak for victims. The next tale-teller will also be made a victim of interruption, and we might ask how the Monk's litany of "tragedies" also constitutes a response to violence.
TRAGEDIES, according to the Monk at the start of his tale, bewail the story of a fall from prosperity in order that we might beware the strokes of Fortune. After seventeen of them, the Knight interrupts, "for litel hevynesse / Is right ynough to muche folk, I gesse" (2769-70). Such stories, he continues, cause him "greet disese." The Host picks right up on this assessment and takes it further, adding that "no remedie / It is for to biwaille ne compleyne / That that is doon" (2784-86). As usual, the Host guides us by indirection, for a remedy is perhaps just what these tragedies offer. Indeed, the Knight's words also imply a medicinal function of tragedy, good in small doses, like an inoculation of suffering or "disese" in order to ward off, or at least prepare for, greater suffering. The Host too seems to feel that these stories do him a sort of violence, but he rejects them. In refusing to take the place of a victim, he forces that role on the teller of the tragedies, so that, like pilgrim Chaucer, the Monk becomes a victim of the Host's scorn. Unwillingness to hear a tragedy initiates an opposite response that blames and rejects the teller in order that the pilgrim company may proceed with its game. In a minority of manuscripts, thought to preserve an earlier version of this link, the Host does all the interrupting, making such scapegoating more dramatic. But by adding the Knight as a listener more willing to suffer tragedy (though not enough to hear all hundred that the Monk claims to know), the more common version clarifies two alternatives: to accept the heaviness of tragedy as a remedy in small doses as does the Knight, or to reject it as contamination. At the horizon of such a notion of tragedy's function is the semantic range of the Greek word pharmakos: poison, remedy, and scapegoat.(8)
Thus the monk is a victim in need of his own remedy. But do his tragedies offer anything more than just a taste of the suffering that flesh is heir to? Beyond the minimal definition of tragedy as fall that the Monk himself gives, it is notoriously difficult to discern a pattern to his stories. The blame they assign to their protagonists for their falls varies from great to none. As the agents of downfall, God and Fortune are not clearly distinguished and become almost interchangeable. There is barely enough consistency for the Monk to draw the lesson at the end of his last tragedy that Fortune always brings down the proud who trust in her. Yet one pattern that becomes increasingly prominent in these catastrophes is the part played by rivalry. Rivalry between brothers causes ruin in two of the four "modern" instances, Peter of Spain and Bernabo Visconti, and betrayal by envious subordinates brings down a third, Peter of Cyprus, as well as Julius Caesar. More common, however, is transcendent rivalry against God or Fortune. Such rivalry is unremarked but implicit in the opening, eight-line tragedies of Satan and Adam. With Nabugodonosor and Balthasar, however, we get Daniel's explanation that they must be punished for essentially attempting to take God's place. Though one is given the chance to learn and be restored and the other is not, the lesson is the same. Rivalry with Fortune is explicit with Nero, "For though that he were strong, yet she was strenger" (2521), and even more so with Antiochus, who (like Dr. Johnson's mad astronomer) imagines that he can attain the stars, weigh each mountain, and restrain floods. Alexander the Great is credited, rather than blamed, with taking on the office of Fortune or God in toppling pride. The last example, Croesus, challenges divinity supremely when, after Fortune delivers him from execution, he thinks himself immune to death. Such a pattern helps explain the tale's alternation, or even confusion, of Fortune and God. If each is largely constructed as a transcendent rival--and hence punisher--of human ambition, then the difference between them, and indeed the theology that would be the basis for making a distinction, is displaced outside what is instead an anthropological frame of reference. Rather than articulating a notion of Providence or divine judgment of sin, this tale points to a human dynamic, human violence that pursues those who, like all of the protagonists here after Adam (and especially the one woman, Zenobia), prosper by might. The Monk himself is one whom Chaucer the pilgrim in the General Prologue, and even more so the Host in the prologue to this tale, had seen as a "myghty man" (1951). Whether we attribute to him a self-conscious attempt to expose the consequences of living by might, or see in the tale an unconscious reflection of the worldview that such a life projects, his own fall underlines the point.
With the introduction of Fortune into the tale comes the proverb, "Ful wys is he that kan hymselven knowe" (2139). The pride of these heroes, their rivalries with Fortune/God, grow from a particular lack of self-knowledge. Yet even if the tale's divinities are human projections, the gods of human violence, there remains great mystery about the allotment of suffering. Though Croesus' pride blinds him to the meaning of the dream that warns him of his fall, nothing indicates he had a way out anyway. More than its representation of the endlessly repeated fall of the mighty, what makes Chaucer's version of the tragic view of life intolerably heavy when taken straight is its sense of the radical limitations of human knowledge and power. Within those limitations, the only reliable knowledge we are capable of is humility and our only effective power is patience. Happily, he reaffirms these lessons in a comic chaser meant to answer the requests of Knight and Host for something to make hearts glad.
EVEN more than the other tales of Fragment VII, that of the Nun's Priest exceeds a brief analysis aimed at bringing out a theme common to them all. Tragedy is here surprised by comedy when Chaunticleer the proud cock tricks his way out of catastrophe, yet the tale yields morals like those of The Monk's Tale about pride and self-knowledge which, while clearly not the end of the story, are also not to be disregarded. Much of the tale's humor comes from overloading a simple beast fable with tragic motifs, learned discourse, and high-flown rhetoric, all of which mocks the most ambitious attempts to understand the human predicament. The fact that the main characters are not human beings but two chickens and a fox underscores the tendency that Girard has pointed out for the structures of comedy to "deny the sovereignty of the individual more radically than either god or destiny" ("Perilous Balance" 125). A beast fable is comically appropriate to the insight that, to a large extent, we are programmed, not by instinct, but by all of the discursive and genetic forms that come in for parody in the amplified course of this simple story. Comedy confronts the fiddle of violence, first of all, with the humility that we are all caught up in systems that make us both victims and perpetrators.
Indeed comedy, broadly speaking, even more than tragedy, depends on lightning reversals between victor and victim. Russell the fox is himself pursued by a clamorous barnyard mob that the Nun's Priest compares to the mob that killed dozens, perhaps hundreds of Flemish cloth workers in London during the Peasants' Revolt. Though it is possible, based on the various chronicle accounts, to see this most deadly violence of the Rising as a result of either pure chaos or calculated retribution for lost jobs, the fact that it was directed against foreigners, while the rebels' main complaints were against those in power, marks it clearly as scapegoating. Surely it is suggestive that Chaucer's only reference anywhere to the violence of 1381 not only singles out the murder of the Flemings, but does so at the conclusion of a series of tales that have diagnosed the pathways of mimetic rivalry that lead to such victimization and have exposed the economic, religious, and romantic discourses that would mythologize it.
Chaucer adduces one more mythologizing discourse, perhaps, in the last line that describes the general barnyard commotion: "It semed as that hevene sholde falle" (3401). Apocalypticism is the most violent discourse of all. Anticipating an end to history that will vindicate the innocent and visit judgment on the guilty leads easily, of course, to justifying acts of victimization in the present. Chaucerian comedy, on the other hand, keeps such judgments in constant tension with its own radical lack of closure. Here the Nun's Priest quietly mocks any attempt either to dignify or to demonize violence under the name of a sacred apocalypse. "The rising of the commons in land," as it was called in the first line of a prophetic verse "On the Earthquake of 1382," quickly came to be seen as an apocalyptic sign (Wright 1: 252). But being equated with a barnyard rabble neither justifies Jack Straw and his fellow rebels, nor does it endorse the authorities who executed them as criminals. Nor, I think, is this mere detached neutrality on Chaucer's part. Rather, suspending judgment is part of an effort to understand the complex forces that drive human actions and to find a way toward healing violence that is based not on blame but on the model, for instance, of Peter, who realized, when the cock crowed, his own participation in the scapegoating of Christ.
Girard has suggested that "Laughter is the only socially acceptable form of katharsis" ("Perilous Balance" 124). The tales of Fragment VII expose and reject violent means of purging the conflicts that desire leads to, either chivalric warfare, religious persecution, or the distributed violence of the market. Instead, The Tale of Melibee and The Monk's Tale counsel self-scrutiny and repentance. More boldly, in the face of violence, and in some mysterious fashion to undo what does it, Chaucer would have us laugh.
(1) I would like to thank the Huntington Library for support through an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant during the completion of this article.
(2) Line numbers refer to Fragment VII of The Canterbury Tales unless specified otherwise.
(3) In the sequence of The Canterbury Tales, however, issues of violence are already very much on the table. The tale that precedes the Shipman's in the Ellesmere order, that of the Pardoner, is one of the most violent and issues in the frame narrative's most chilling confrontation, between the Pardoner and the Host. It has been suggestively analyzed from a Girardian perspective by John M. Bowers as an episode of scapegoating (774-76).
(4) For a summary of scholarship on The Prioress' Tale, especially the question of anti-Semitism, see Boyd (27-50) and Fradenburg.
(5) See the notes to line B.1852, pp. 160-61 in Boyd. W. W. Skeat's odd old suggestion of a parallel to the three seeds that Seth was said to place under the tongue of Adam and from which grow the trees that provide the wood of Christ's cross perhaps resonates best with my interpretation.
(6) Chaucer usually uses the word "swell" to refer figuratively to a feeling in a person's chest or heart; in most of these cases it forces speech (Canterbury Tales III.967, IV. 2306, X.391 and 398; see also I.2743 and 2752).
(7) Girard's brief comments on feminism in an interview with James Williams imply that he sees violence as fundamentally male in some sense ("Anthropology" 275-76). Pursuit of this thesis would require historicization like that begun by Wallace as well as Felicity Riddy, who claims that "Anger in late-medieval aristocratic culture is part of the construction of masculinity: in Malory's Morte Darthur, for example, anger is a mainspring of chivalry; it is what drives knights to their greatest demonstrations of prowess. Peaceableness, on the other hand, is a feminine attribute in which women were trained" ("Women Talking" 116).
(8) Chaucer appears to have been the first to bring a derivative of this word into English, by way of Old French and Medieval Latin, as "fermacie" (Canterbury Tales I.2713), meaning a purgative medicine (Middle English Dictionary s.v. "farmacie"). He would not have known, of course, the meanings of the word in Greek.
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An assistant professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, Curtis Gruenler received his B.A. from Stanford in 1985 and his Ph.D. from UCLA in 1998. He is currently working on a book about the Middle English poem Piers Plowman.
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|Publication:||Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1999|
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