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Pagans, Tartars, Moslems, and Jews in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

By Brenda Deen Schildgen. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001. ISBN 0-8130-21073. Pp. 183. $59.95.

No group of people could be more English than the company Geoffrey Chaucer reports he joined one April day at the Tabard Inn in Southwark; no purpose could have been more in keeping with the spirit of their age than the desire to go on pilgrimage. A surprising number of tales they tell, however, are set in times or places where Christianity was unknown or unaccepted. The Knight's story unfolds mostly in Theseus's Athens; the principal characters in his son the Squire's romance are Tartars. The Franklin's tale takes place in pre-Christian Brittany, the Wife of Bath's in an era before friars had driven fairies from their haunts. The Man of Law's Constance suffers among Muslims in Syria and heathens in England; the Prioress's "litel clergeon" is murdered by "Jewes" in "Asia"; the Second Nun recounts Cecilia's martyrdom in pagan Rome. In her new book Brenda Deen Schildgen argues that these tales "from the margins" play a central role in defining the ethos of The Canterbury Tales because in them Chaucer "deliberate[d] on the grand rifts between the Christian or pagan past and [his] present and between other cultural worlds and the Latin Christian world" (2).

In itself such a claim is not new; Schildgen's evaluation of it, however, is. She does not contend that Chaucer undertook his investigation of divergent philosophies and faiths for the purpose of confirming the truth of Christianity, as exegetical critics have done. Nor does she present the New Critics' Chaucer, bemused as much by the faults of Christians as by the virtues of those who are not. The Tales lack even this sort of tendentiousness, in which the ironic detachment that purchases Chaucer's tolerance of others' beliefs remains underwritten by his confidence in the rightness of his own. For Schildgen the Tales are rather an exercise in ethical speculation that takes place on truly neutral ground. When Chaucer inscribed the imagined practices of pagans, Muslims, Jews, and Tartars, he suspended the jurisdiction of Christian revelation, thereby motivating his readers to debate the validity of competing convictions by displaying the kinds of lives they inspired people to lead.

The spirit of The Canterbury Tales, in other words, is ecumenical; the work generates moral meaning through dialogues conducted in an atmosphere of "equal respect and solidaristic responsibility for everybody." These words are from Jurgen Habermas, whose theory of "discourse ethics" and particularly his explanation of the "modernity" of a community that lives by its principles, furnishes the ideas Schildgen deploys to situate her reading of Chaucer. If a society pledges to respect difference, it will inevitably find itself at odds with hegemonic truths of the day. Chaucer's "sundry folk" become such a polity by committing themselves to the give-and-take of their stories; in doing so, they perform the modernity of late fourteenth-century England. In the wake of the plague, a rising "middle class;' and increasingly mobile workers, the collision and negotiation of their aspirations make visible the obsolescence of social codifications like the three estates. In their embrace of the adventitious and in their willingness to defy authority, Chaucer's pilgrims dramatize Ockham's contention that contingency lodges in every absolute or abstract formulation that human beings can comprehend. When so many around him were moved to engage the material world in all its particularity, Chaucer's decision to present the Parson's "Jerusalem celestial" as only one destination the road to truth can lead to carries the force of an ethical imperative.

On the face of it, these contentions will seem intrinsically implausible to many Chaucerians. After all, in his one direct comment on the Tales, Chaucer recanted those that "sownen into synne"; the sin they list toward is Christian sin, and, no matter who takes the census, most of the stories Schildgen uses to build her case would be among the "enditynges of worldly vanitees" Chaucer calls his "gyltes" Even the defense he offers for having composed tales like the Knight's and the Wife's circumscribes these narratives within the orbit of his faith. "Al that is writen is writen for oure doctrine, and that is myn entente": by quoting St. Paul (2 Tim. 3:16), Chaucer leaves no doubt about which "doctrine" he wants all his writing to communicate. From the vantage of the "Retraction" at least, it strains belief to believe that the poet had ever suspended his.

Chaucer's contrition, however, acknowledges only post hoc remorsefulness for his fiction; it does not necessarily explain its qualities. Schildgen can still argue that literature in The Canterbury Tales functions much the way it does in the Decameron. Boccaccio had created a sale haven for his cento novelle by identifying them as a pleasant means of passing time in idyllic gardens. If the brigata's stories celebrate the dangerously subversive powers of imagination, desire, and wit, they do so in a space that has been deliberately cordoned off from the actual world. They make no claim at all on the reader to take or reject them as guides for conduct. The space Chaucer created in his Tales is comparable. Christianity is not privileged; the virtues and failings of its adherents are set without prejudice alongside the virtues and failings of those who live by other beliefs.

The argument is appealing but not fully convincing. Unlike Boccaccio, Chaucer did not quarantine his tales from history; the Knight begins his at the Watering of St. Thomas, where London's criminals were hanged. Chaucer gives no indication that he exempted his fictions from the end he clearly thought history was moving toward. There is a large difference between speaking in an environment in which the pertinence of judgment has been suspended, as Boccaccio's ladies and gentlemen do, and speaking prior to judgment, which is the condition under which Chaucer's pilgrims tell their stories.

Nevertheless, though judgment may be imminent, it is "not yet"; since humans can never have more than provisional knowledge of it, Chaucer could stage the contest between Christian and non-Christian cultures without needing to represent his belief that its outcome was predetermined. I therefore agree with Schildgen that Chaucer conducted his meditation on identity, values, truth, and ethics under the aspect of provisionality and that the tales set outside the Latin West are the focal point of his inquiry, but Chaucer's provisionality at the same time is forward-looking, and I am not persuaded that he ever lost sight of what he was looking forward to. Schildgen's perspective thus allows her to argue cogently that the Man of Law, who continually erects impassable barriers between the Christian Constance and the societies that persecute her, is culpably doctrinaire in comparison to the Knight and Squire, who adopt the different "worldviews of their narrative materials" (50), yet Schildgen also argues that Chaucer faults Theseus in "The Knight's Tale" for failing to act sufficiently in accord with Stoic principles. As the story of a soldier just returned from "viage" in foreign wars and now on "pilgrimage" to Thomas a Becket's shrine, however, his tale would seem to question the sufficiency of any human work, no matter how virtuous, in the absence of faith. Pagan philosophies do indeed vie with one another in and across the Knight's and Squire's tales; most in Chaucer's audience, though, would have felt St. Paul had constructed the arena in which they compete.

In a similar manner Schildgen forcefully compares the ethical transformations that the Wife of Bath sets in the "green spaces" of preconverted England with the perverse conversions of intrusive Friars who have displaced the elves of yore. Supplanted laws and promises are shown to have as much moral muscle as any in Alice's day. When the scene shifts to Roman Brittany, Schildgen finds that the Franklin rehabilitates Epicureanism as "a practical ethics for living in a courtly or noble atmosphere" (75). His attitudes do not differ much from those John of Salisbury had expressed about Epicurus in the Policraticus; if Chaucer meant to satirize his "vavasour's" values, he provided no direct evidence of it in the tale. These points are well founded; once again one can acknowledge their force and still contend that Chaucer, both within and outside their tales, prompts readers to measure the different manners in which the Wife and Franklin prosecute their pleasures against Christian standards. The juxtaposition of the Wife's partial deafness with a picture of her pique if someone offers before her at Church, the sop of bread in wine the Franklin loves each morning--consistency requires Schildgen to assess the implications of such details in the portraits and links if she also will argue that Chaucer exposes the narrowness and ignorance of the Prioress's vilification of the Jews by setting her rigid separation of goats from sheep against the fluid economic, political, and social debates of the other tales in Fragment VII. Likewise, a reading that maintains the Monk's tragedies mount a weighty challenge to the moralized determinism of sacramental history must conjure first with the fact that Fortune is every bit as much a universal teleology in the Monk's historiography--everyone ends badly--as providence is in Orosius's, and then with the pilgrims' reaction to the unvarying moral he draws. Their interruption of him hardly seems an endorsement of his views.

The strengths of Schildgen's thesis are best on display in her analysis of "The Second Nun's Tale." Here she masterfully tracks the dynamic energies that conversion narratives can release: even though St. Cecilia's martyrdom exemplifies virtues that Christians would call timeless, her Christianity is thoroughly liminal. Her unwavering devotion suspends the sway of all that is accepted and opens "a time of possibility when everything known and assumed is suddenly tentative and contingent" (116). At the same time, her belief is the belief of the primitive Church; an enormous gap separates it from a divided, corrupt latter-day Church alienated from the purity it had before it petrified under the carapace of hegemonic authority. The Second Nun's yearnings are intensely nostalgic: she would reinstitute the convictions of a newborn Christianity (which I think establishes extremely interesting connections between her and the Prioress she serves), yet her vision opens a future space for the renovation of her faith. For Schildgen pilgrimage ritually recreates such threshold states. These ideas are all finely conceived. Does it follow, though, even if we grant that Chaucer believed Christianity needed to reinvent itself, that he felt any non-believer had access to verities equal to the ones he continued to profess?

Schildgen's Pagans, Tartars, Moslems, and Jews in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is an important and timely contribution to Chaucer studies. Not all readers will be entirely persuaded by its arguments; everyone, however, will find much to ponder and learn from in each of them.
Warren Ginsberg
University of Oregon
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Author:Ginsberg, Warren
Publication:Christianity and Literature
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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