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The Wife of Bath's Shipman's tale and the invention of Chaucerian fabliaux.

The theory that the Shipman's Tale was originally written for the Wife of Bath is generally thought to be based simply on the use of pronouns in the early portions of the tale. The present study shows that the theory is not a textual one, but rather implicated in a series of developments in medieval studies: in Chaucerianism itself, the theory is part of the transformation of traditional theories of decorum into theories concerning character 'growth and development'; it depends also, and less obviously, on the creation of the genre of the fabliau by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French anthologists.


Article-length histories of literary reception almost inevitably focus on single problems; these micro-arguments are then placed within some general history of culture or cultural development (such as 'nineteenth-century thought') which embraces other problems, textual, literary, or social. But a singular focus is also a potential liability, in that the larger 'grand recit' exists apart from evidence. In such studies, selected and limited evidence finds its coherence less in relation to other evidence than in relation to this larger intellectual narrative. My argument here, by contrast, will consider relations between two specific but apparently diverse problems of Chaucerian reception: the genre of Chaucerian 'fabliaux' and the persistent myth that Chaucer's Shipman's Tale was originally written for the Wife of Bath.

The fabliau, the subject of the first part of this paper, is one of the most studied and more secure genres among the Canterbury Tales. Chaucer wrote fabliaux; no one disagrees, although the list of what these fabliaux are might vary. The Miller's Tale, the Reeve's Tale, the Shipman's Tale, and possibly the unfinished Cook's Tale are nearly always included in discussions of Chaucerian fabliaux; less frequently included are the Merchant's Tale and, occasionally, the Summoner's Tale and Friar's Tale. Modern definitions of the fabliau range from the deceptively simple, such as Bedier's 'contes a rire en vers', to what might be called the deceptively complex, such as this formulation by Tatlock in 1950:

For the most part [...] an almost unmixed narrative, plot the main thing, full of dramatic irony and poetic justice; its purpose is sheer amusement, and it will stick at nothing, not at the fantastic, or even the impossible, assuredly not at the coarse and obscene, the crude, and the cruel [...]. (1)

These tales and the genre they presumably represent are particularly interesting to Chaucerians; they are accessible, short, and can be read even by our undergraduates; they are modern and congenial to our literary sensibilities; (2) the genre itself is intelligible and seems securely documented. Yet the notion that Chaucer wrote fabliaux needs to be qualified. The history of Chaucer's fabliaux is a nineteenth-century history, one intimately connected with the reception and publication of the French fabliaux. Chaucer wrote what we call fabliaux. That is, he wrote in a genre whose definition, or, more strongly, discovery and invention we owe to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French scholars: scholars whose sensibilities and ideologies are not always congenial to those who rely uncritically on their conclusions.

The second problem addressed in this study is the myth prevalent among twentieth-century Chaucerians that the Shipman's Tale was originally written for the Wife of Bath. Like the scholarly notion of the Chaucerian fabliau, this is an idea that soon after its formulation became construed less as theory or conjecture than as fact--another of the 'happy hits' dear to late nineteenth-century philologists. (3) Skeat (1894):

This [the pronoun us] is clear proof that some of the opening lines of this Tale were not originally intended for the Shipman, but for the Wife of Bath, as she is the only lady in the company to whom they would be suitable. (4)

Skeat's confident conclusions regarding 'some of the opening lines' were then generalized, with equal confidence, to apply to the entire Tale. Tatlock (1907): 'the Shipman's Tale was certainly written not for the Shipman but for a woman [...] there cannot be the smallest doubt that the woman is the Wife of Bath'. Kittredge (1915): 'The Shipman's Tale was originally intended for a woman; for the Wife of Bath, beyond a doubt. It accords with her character both in style and in sentiment.' Whiting (1941): 'There can be little doubt that Chaucer originally intended what is now the Shipman's Tale for the Wife of Bath. (5) The self-assured tone in which these assertions are expressed is perhaps an index of the tenuous nature of the evidence on which the theory was based. But no one has considered what assumptions the theory and such weak objections as are occasionally raised against it actually entail, (6) that is, how belletristic arguments insinuate themselves into textual-critical ones.

Each of these critical and scholarly myths has its own history and could be subject to critique; each shows, as do other cases in reception, succeeding generations of scholars relying uncritically on conclusions of earlier scholars whose ideological and critical assumptions they claim to renounce. (7) But reception myths exist not only in relation to general movements of scholarship; they also exist in specific relation to each other. And the specific histories intertwine in ways that are not always clear when each is studied only in relation to a predetermined master narrative of scholarly history.

The Fabliaux

What we now consider to be Chaucer's fabliaux were not 'Chaucer's fabliaux' until someone so identified them. And this was not done until the mid-nineteenth century, during the publication of a series of anthologies by French scholars which specifically described the works as 'fabliaux' in their titles. The word fabliau comes into English in early English translations of eighteenth-century French anthologies of medieval 'contes et fabliaux', beginning with Barbazan's Fabliaux et contes of 1756. Tyrwhitt, in his Chaucer edition of 1775, cites Barbazan as a source in the following comment on the Reeve's Tale:

It has been generally said to be borrowed from the Decameron, D. ix. N. 6. but I rather think that both Bocace and Chaucer, in this instance, have taken whatever they have in common froman old Fabliau, or Conte, of an anonymous French rimer, De Gombert et des deux Clercs. (8)

Tyrwhitt's note is followed up by Thomas Wright, Anecdota literaria (1844), again commenting on the Reeve's Tale. Wright cites Robert's Fabliaux inedits (1834), and is also familiar with the re-edition of Barbazan by Meon, Fabliaux et contes (1808). (9) Wright finds the tale of the Miller and Two Clerks represented in 'two forms':

one branch is represented by the tales here printed, the French fabliau, the Miller of Trompington, and the Miller of Abingdon; the other is found in the fabliau of Gombert, in the story in Boccaccio, and in the French novelists down to Lafontaine. The English fabliau of Dame Siriz is one form of a story of which we can trace the history through all its variations from its first origin in the farthest East. (p. vi) (10)

At this point, the word fabliau is obviously very broadly defined, and Wright associates such broadly defined narratives with an even broader class of literature that he calls 'ribald poetry', a genre defined socially:

The ribalds, to whom the terms lechers, harlots, and various others, were applied, formed a large class of society in the feudal ages, including the worst portion of the population, those who lived upon the rich and earned their life by low and degrading offices. They were in fact men devoid of character and of moral principle. (p. 59) The Reeve's Tale analogue might be one example; but so is 'The Ribald's Excommunication', a poem that is in no way a fabliau in the modern sense but appears in two of the most central and accessible manuscripts that contain what we now consider fabliaux (Berne 354 and what for Wright is MS Bibl. Royale 7218=BN fr. 837). (11)

Wright and Tyrwhitt, among other English scholars, (12) understand the word and genre through the various contemporary French anthologies entitled 'Fabliaux et contes', and before looking at later English uses of the word, that history needs to be reviewed. The principal collections include the three-volume anthology by Barbazan (1759), a four-volume anthology of translations and selections (many from Barbazan) by Le Grand d'Aussi (1779), Meon's 1808 re-edition of Barbazan (the most influential and widespread), and Jubinal's supplements to this collection in 1839 and 1842. (13) In none of these is a strict or even general definition for fabliaux a goal. The purpose was simply dissemination of texts previously unpublished. LeGrand d'Aussi, in an introduction that attempts to write a history of the fabliaux with 'le Peuple' as hero, defines fabliaux negatively against other genres such as sirventes, tensons, and chansons d'amours:

un genre plus agreable que plus varie--des contes. On nommait ces Contes, Fables, Flabels ou Fabliaux, parce que la plupart ne sont que des fictions fabuleuses; leurs Auteurs s'appelaient Fableors ou Fabliers. (14)

Meon, in his re-edition of Barbazan, provides no definition for Barbazan's poems nor for those he adds, and claims to follow 'what M. le Grand has said' in his introduction. There is no justification for the poems Meon added; no articulation of clear principles. A glance at the table of contents of the first volume of the Barbazan/Meon anthology is enough to show how far from our modern 'fabliau' these texts were. From Barbazan are 'L'Ordene de Chevalerie', a miracle of Notre Dame, several moral tales; the tales added by Meon are equally eclectic: the 'Bataille des Vins' by Henri d'Andeli, 'Aucassin et Nicolette', and the various 'Conges' by Jean Bodel, Baude Fastoul, and Adam de la Halle, the last three texts included simply because they contain so many names of contemporary personnages (p. xv). So when Wright refers to this genre in 1844, he is not referring to fabliaux as we know them , but rather to poems contained in collections with the word fabliaux in their titles. Neither the English nor the French fabliau existed by mid-century, and thus, Chaucer could not have been seen as composing a variant of one.

All this would change, however, with the publication of the six-volume anthology Fabliaux et contes by Montaiglon and Raynaud (1872-90). (15) In the introduction to volume 1, Montaiglon criticizes the principles implied in earlier collections, noting that they contain many pieces that should not be fabliaux: 'Miracles, Contes devots, chroniques historiques rimees, Lais, petits Romans d'aventures, Debats, Dits, pieces morales'. The principles of selection used in these earlier anthologies were simple: their editors included everything 'that was old and curious without being too long' (p. vi). (16)

Maintenant que les publications d'anciens textes francais, et il faut encoreun long temps pour en epuiser la mine, se sont accumules, il convient forcement d'etre plus severe au point de vue du genre, et, si l'on s'occupe des Fabliaux, de s'en tenir a ce qui est le vrai Fabliau, c'est-a-dire a un recit, plutot comique, d'une aventure reelle ou possible, meme avec des exagerations, qui se passe dans les donnees de la vie humaine moyenne. Tout ce qui est invraisemblable, tout ce qui est historique, tout ce qui est pieux, tout ce qui est d'enseignement, tout ce qui est de fantaisie romanesque, tout ce qui est lyrique ou meme poetique, n'est a aucun titre un Fabliau, et par suite ce Recueil se trouvera ne pas reimprimer plus d'un tiers, peut-etre une moitie de ceux qui l'ont precede. (i, pp. vii-viii)

The definition is not without its own imprecisions: what is real or possible, though perhaps exaggerated, but not historical. And despite the polemic, the discussion relies on many of the same principles as its predecessors: if it is not possible to say what a fabliau is, we certainly know what it is not. None the less, Montaiglon is the first of the anthologists to use the phrase and promote the idea of 'le vrai fabliau', a phrase that implies a new understanding of genre: historical genres are things that exist historically; it is the purpose of scholarship to identify the 'true' examples.

The Montaiglon-Raynaud anthology was the basis for the single most important modern discussion of the genre, Joseph Bedier's Les Fabliaux (1893). Despite Bedier's much-praised critique of the assumptions and ideologies of nineteenth-century scholars, (17) he seemed unconcerned about the ideologies of the collection itself. With few exceptions, the corpus Bedier accepted as the basis for discussion was that in Montaiglon and Raynaud. These are the poems we are talking about when we talk about fabliaux. Decades later, in the equally influential study challenging Bedier by Per Nykrog, the same assumption remains. We may argue about audience, and we may argue about the precise definition of genre, but the existence of the genre itself is never seriously questioned and the genre itself remained embodied in the anthology of Montaiglon and Raynaud. (18)

In a very understated and important article, Elizabeth Dawes shows how even editorial choices by Montaiglon and Raynaud serve to constitute linguistic evidence, that is to say, lexical entries in dictionaries. Primary source material, evidence itself, is created in the editor's office. The same process goes on at the more abstract levels of genre, and the same hardening occurs. Early editors worked with the most easily accessible manuscripts, such as BN 837 and Berne 354, and their linguistic and literary decisions produced a corpus of evidence in the nineteenth century that is as much a product as an object of historical scholarship. (19)

In French scholarship, a tradition of anthologizing, medieval to modern, produced a modern definition of genre. Chaucerians accepted this definition, and a once eclectic group of tales containing some form of what was called 'scurrilitie' was reorganized and reshaped to accord with it. And it was this modern genre (the fabliau) that the newly formed Chaucer Society began to work with in developing the scholarship (principally source and analogue criticism) that bore on these tales.

Before the development of the modern definition of a fabliau, the tales we now classify this way were referred to very rarely. When they were cited, they were grouped together simply as 'obscene' or 'scurrilous'. John Harington, An Apologie of Poetry (1591), criticizes Chaucer for his 'flat scurrilitie', giving as examples 'his millers tale [...] the good wife of Bathes tale, & many more'. Only his 'decorum', the appropriateness of tale to teller, excuses this. (20) In the letter of Francis Beaumont to Thomas Speght, widely disseminated owing to its inclusion in the editions of 1598 and 1602, we hear much the same comment regarding Chaucer's 'inciuilitie':

How much had hee swarued from Decorum, if hee had made his Miller, his Cooke, and his Carepenter, to haue told such honest and good tales, as hee made his Knight, his Squire, his Lawyer, and Scholler tell? (21)

Dryden in 1700 provides another loose classification, again, based less on formal matters than obscenity:

If I had desir'd more to please than to instruct, the Reve, the Miller, the Shipman, the Merchant, the Sumner, and above all, the Wife of Bathe, in the Prologue to her Tale, would have procur'd me as many Friends and Readers, as there are Beaux and Ladies of Pleasure in the Town. (22)

These tales are grouped together not because they constitute a genre in a formal sense, not because they resemble a modern fabliau, but rather because these are tales that might 'offend against Good Manners'. (23) Also notable is the inclusion of the Shipman's Tale, a tale very rarely cited in earlier Chaucer commentary. (24) Warton's statements in 1778 are similar. Humorous tales are classed together, beginning with the two canonized by Dryden and Pope in their translations: the Nun's Priest's Tale and the Merchant's Tale. Warton then discusses in turn the Miller's Tale, the Reeve's Tale, with a note to the Shipman's Tale, then 'satirical tales' such as that of the Sumpnour, and tales of 'genuine humour', such as the Rime of Sir Thopas. (25) There is again no hint of the modern notion of the fabliau. Nor is there in the comments of early nineteenth-century Chaucerians on Chaucer's 'licentiousness' and 'humour'. Tales are grouped together on the basis of their obscenity, not their form. (26)

The influence of the Montaiglon-Raynaud anthology and its definitions makes itself felt in the twentieth century. The contemporary Chaucer Society's Originals and Analogues of Some of Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales' (1872) followed Wright's 1844 Anecdota literaria, and identified two analogues of the Reeve's Tale, which they labelled fabliaux. (27) The word, like the tales, was simply repeated from Meon and Barbazan, and from Wright. But in the Bryan and Dempster anthology of 1940 the new definition of fabliau is in full force, and the Wife of Bath is excluded. The word appears in the introductions to essays on the tales of the Miller, Reeve, Cook, Summoner, and Shipman. It does not, however, appear in the introduction to the Merchant's Tale, a tale that hardly suits the Montaiglon-Raynaud definition, nor in B. J. Whiting's discussion of the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale. The most fabliau-like analogue for this tale, Dame Siriz, receives no mention. (28) D. S. Brewer's 1968 essay in the Rowland Companion defines the fabliau as a practical joke, and includes the tales of the Miller, Reeve, Cook, Friar, Summoner, Merchant, and Shipman as examples, but not that of the Wife. (29) Brewer also defines the Shipman's Tale as conforming to the 'pure fabliau type'. (30) The anthology of Benson and Andersson includes the tales of the Miller, Reeve, Merchant, and Shipman (Dame Sirith is also included, but only as a 'non-fabliau'). (31) By the mid-twentieth century, then, the problem of the English fabliau is not a problem at all. Chaucer wrote fabliaux and a few 'fabliaux-like' tales (variously defined, but neither including the Wife of Bath's Prologue or Tale); these were generally scurrilous, but scurrility was no longer a defining attribute. (32)

There is little discussion of what it meant to claim that such a genre as the English fabliaux existed. Unlike Montaiglon and Raynaud, who certainly imply in their introduction that their anthology, unlike those of their predecessors, is an act of modern classification (the definition of 'le vrai fabliau'), Chaucerians interested in genre seemed to be uncovering pre-existent medieval genres--the fabliau, the romance, the Breton lai--rather than discovering or inventing them.

The Wife's Shipman's Tale

The second reception problem at issue here is the notion that the Shipman's Tale was originally intended for the Wife. Whereas the emergence of the fabliaux is related to the development of a specific genre of scholarship--French collections of short medieval 'contes'--this seems more eclectic in its development but more deliberate in its formulation. It attempts to resolve a problem exposed or defined by extensions of eighteenth-century definitions of 'decorum'. The argument is less venerable than is often claimed. Chaucerians occasionally attribute it to Tyrwhitt in his edition of 1775. (33) But Tyrwhitt's note on the opening lines of the tale says nothing particular about the Wife of Bath:

12942 He mote us clothe] In [the Urry edition of 1721] it is them; but all the Mss that I have seen read us: which would lead one to suspect, that this Tale was originally intended for a female character. (34)

The arguments in support of the Wife as the original teller involve some of the oldest cliches of Chaucer reception, such as the notion of 'decorum' or the appropriateness of tale to teller, as well as more recent textual ones, beginning with the pronouns at the beginning of the tale ('he mote us clothe'). In the nineteenth century, the growing evidence of textual instability led to the possibility of resolving that instability in terms of an evolving authorial plan or development--an argument that has an obvious counterpart in various competing editorial projects currently underway.

The argument from decorum--the appropriateness of the speaker for the tale--is ex post facto. These arguments have rarely been made to establish a textual fact, but rather to justify a literary or textual situation. (35) In the sixteenth century, for example, Chaucerians excused Chaucer's scurrilitie on the basis of decorum; in the eighteenth century and again in the twentieth, Chaucerians demonstrated ex post facto that the tales were perfectly suited to whatever teller they happened to be assigned to. Kittredge's statement in 1915 is typical:

The Shipman's Tale was originally intended for a woman; for the Wife of Bath, beyond a doubt. It accords with her character both in style and in sentiment. Its tone is hers precisely, frankly sensual,--unmoral, if you like--but too hearty and too profoundly normal to be unwholesome. (Chaucer and his Poetry, p. 170)

A more compelling class of arguments concerns the pronouns:
   The sely housbonde, algate he moot paye
   He moot us clothe, and he moot us arraye,
   Al for his owene worshipe richely,
   In which array we daunce jolily [...]

   (Shipman's Tale, 11-14)

It is not unreasonable to claim that the speaker should be a woman, and many Chaucerians have done so, but none before the eighteenth century. No manuscript attempts to correct the presumed lack of agreement between speaker and pronoun and the only edition to my knowledge that does so is Urry's of 1721. There is no evidence that these pronouns bothered any scribe or reader before this. (36)

The last group of arguments is textual. These arguments dovetail into those involving the Bradshaw Shift--the argument for moving fragment VII, covering the Shipman's Tale to the Nun's Priest's Tale, to a position following fragment II, the Man of Law's Tale, and forming what in the Chaucer Society publications and in the edition of Skeat is called Fragment B. The basis for such a shift is the references to place, which are said to follow Chaucer's unrealized final intentions. The notion of unrealized intentions circumvents the lack of manuscript evidence: the Chaucer Society's 'Fragment B', and the required link between the Man of Law's Tale and the Shipman's Tale, exists as a coherent unit only in the Selden manuscript, and even there, it does not follow Fragment A. And only in Selden does the now standard prologue for the Shipman's Tale identify the following speaker as the Shipman. In all other manuscripts, the word in the text is either Squier, or Summoner. (37)

The variable nature of the prologue was a key piece of evidence for what we might call 'the Wife's Shipman's Tale'. Not until 1775 was the Shipman's Prologue the Shipman's Prologue. All previous folio editions (1532-1687) as well as the 1721Urry edition used this prologue to introduce the Squire (linking it with the Man of Law's Tale). (38) The manuscripts, as noted, identify the speaker variously as the Summoner or the Squire; and many of those of most importance for modern Chaucerians use the link to join the tales of the Pardoner (Fragment C) and the Shipman (Ellesmere, Cambridge Gg 4.27, Cambridge Dd 424; Harley 7334; Lansdowne, Petworth). Tyrwhitt's contribution to this controversy is therefore not the assignment of the Shipman's Tale to the Wife, but rather the editorial canonization of this link as belonging to the Shipman, an association for which only Selden provides authority. (39)

The uneasy relation of the Shipman's Tale and its Prologue became an issue in Chaucer scholarship at a time when several different chronologies and histories were being defined and examined: the geography and implied history of what might be called possible pilgrimages; the history of manuscript compilation and production; and the history of Chaucer's own artistic development. These various histories ought to be distinct, but it was through appeal to the third, Chaucer's artistic development, that problems and discrepancies of the first two could be resolved. Chaucer himself might not have cared about the mechanics of a 'real' pilgrimage: discrepancies in temporal and spatial references were part of his text; it is also possible that manuscripts were compiled and organized nearly at random, i.e. without coherent and articulable principles of organization. But the notion of a Chaucer/poet developing in his own history could bring order to these otherwise problematic histories. Incoherence, inaccuracy, and error could be explained not by the illogicality and absurdity of any chosen history, but rather through the higher logic of a third history: the history and psychology of Chaucer, or even of his characters. (40) Contradictions and outright absurdities on one level are paradoxically resolved by multiplying them on other levels. We could thus argue, despite the recalcitrance of the textual evidence, that Chaucer did care about absolute verisimilitude in his use of geographical and temporal references, just as his late nineteenth-century critics did; if such anachronistic intentions are not manifest, that is because they happen not to have been 'realized'.

It is in this context that the myth of what I call the 'Wife's Shipman's Tale' arises. This myth is, from the standpoint of imagined authorial intentions, the converse of the notion of the Bradshaw Shift, and the evidence for it is even less persuasive. The Bradshaw Shift is a matter of Chaucer's 'unrealized intentions'; Chaucer was in the process of moving Fragment B2 (VII) to follow B1 (II), but had not completed this move. The Wife's Shipman's Tale is a matter of 'cancelled intentions'. In both cases, the notion of Chaucer's carelessness easily explains away inconsistencies in the evidence. (41) And in both cases, this 'intending' Chaucer, as opposed to the less comprehensible Chaucer documented, say, in early manuscripts, has aesthetic tastes that are happily identical to the critic's own. (42)

Let us look at a few examples of these arguments. Again, my point is not that they are wrong. They may well be right, as could a number of other arguments regarding Chaucer's intentions. What I am concerned with is only the logical and aesthetic assumptions one must make in order to promote these arguments. By the mid-twentieth century, the whole issue seems settled:

There can be little doubt that Chaucer originally intended what is now the Shipman's Tale for the Wife of Bath. At a later time, however, he desired to substitute for it a story which would be more in keeping with the substance and tenor of the Wife's Prologue [...] an exemplum which clinches by an appeal to authority, an argument which in the prologue was largely derived from experience. (Whiting, 'The Wife of Bath's Tale', p. 223)

When we compare such assurance to statements in the early twentieth century, little seems to have been added, and conversely, little seems to have been left out. The language of Tatlock's statements in 1907 found its way into many later discussions:

the Shipman's Tale was certainly written not for the Shipman but for a woman [...] there cannot be the smallest doubt that the woman is the Wife of Bath. [...] The Shipman no doubt had his faults, but muliebrity was not one of them. (43)

Tatlock's rhetoric seems embarrassingly old-fashioned, and should have seemed so even in 1950; but his statement on the Shipman's 'muliebrity' was still quoted favourably by Lawrence, whose 1958 Speculum article is an excellent summation of the state of the argument in mid-century. (44)

The article generally cited as authoritative on this subject is by Richard F. Jones in 1925. But Jones's arguments, like Tatlock's rhetoric, should not sit well with the late twentieth-century scholars who still cite them. The chronology Jones conjectures is complex:

The first part of the Prologue was originally preceded by the Present Shipman's Prologue plus a number of lines which were later omitted, and [...] the whole served as a Wife's Prologue to the present Shipman's Tale. Later a change in design inspired Chaucer to remove D 1-193 from this position, to add to the lines the account of the five husbands, and to prefix the whole to the present Wife of Bath's Tale. (45)

Why does Jones construct such a detailed history? He is not motivated by, say, manuscript or textual evidence, but rather by his own aesthetic reaction to reading what in 1925 was the received text. His primary evidence is his own 'experience [of] difficulty in adjusting my expectation to what I actually found' (p. 512). Jones then invents a presumably less difficult text, and a far more difficult history of its creation and suppression. The gap between the new unbothersome text and material evidence disappears.

Jones's argument includes two sets of psychologically complex personages: Chaucer himself, and his characters:

My guess is that the Parson refused to be silenced by the Wife's rudeness, and seized the opportunity to give the much feared 'predicacioun' and to 'snibben [her] sharply for the nones'. He could hardly have found a more 'obstinat' person. (p. 527)

Jones's theory 'makes it possible to trace the original development of one day's complete quota of tales'--a day's quota that exists only in Jones's own construction. The text conjectured by Jones is as follows: the tale of Melibee told by the Man of Law; Harry Bailly's remarks on 'domestic infelicity'; the Physician and Pardoner's Tales; what is now the Shipman's Prologue: the Host rises in his stirrups and calls upon the Parson 'But the Wife hastily and impudently says she will tell a tale'; lines 1-193 of the Wife's Prologue follow, and then the present Shipman's Tale. Jones's text continues: Chaucer is selected, and 'To meet the need, Melibeus is bodily removed, with parts and its headlink and endlink from its earlier position' (p. 543).

For late twentieth-century Chaucerians, the argument should be self-refuting. Note here how a conjectured history of sequential texts is conflated with a fictional one (the history of the characters). In a remarkably postmodern move, Chaucer the tale-teller is called upon by the Host in the course of the pilgrimage narrative, and somehow takes with him the tale already told by The Man of Law. The histories of the pilgrimage and of Chaucer writing about a fictional pilgrimage exist on the same level and seem to possess the same legitimacy.

That characters have a psychology apart from that represented in the text is an assumption often slipped into twentieth-century Chaucerian criticism. The notion that the Wife 'develops' is crucial to arguments assigning the Shipman's Prologue to her, and the venerable arguments from decorum are often reintroduced into discussion. In 1961, Robert Pratt seems to be providing less an argument for the theory than a narrative explaining it as an accepted fact: Chaucer 'gradually assimilated and reworked the riches of his antimatrimonial inheritance [...] enlarging and developing the original portrait of the Wife of Bath'. (46)

It is here that the new 'hardened' definition of the fabliau inherited from Montaiglon and Raynaud comes into play. A tale conforming to such a definition (one with the presumed generic 'purity' often invoked by Chaucerians in reference to the Shipman's Tale) is unworthy of such a presumably original personage, one fully developed artistically and psychologically. But some worthy form of the fabliau might well be suitable for an undeveloped version of her. Lawrence, in 1958: 'It looks, then, very much as if Chaucer deliberately altered his fabliau or fabliau-like source to fit the Wife of Bath.' (47) The logic of such conjectures is worth outlining directly: (1) the Shipman's Tale differs from what scholars define as its source; (2) there is little textual and no manuscript evidence that the Shipman's Tale belonged to the Wife; (3) the Shipman's Tale, even in its final form, does not suit modern understandings of the Wife; (4) therefore Chaucer's 'deliberate' actions must be responsible for these discrepancies. Chaucer 'deliberately' made changes in the conjectured tale to suit this conjectured teller. If we accept such logic, the 1978 ELH article by Nicholson will make perfect sense; if we do not, its conclusion will seem a classic example of obscurum per obscurius:

We may imagine the Wife of Bath as the original teller only if we remember that she could not be the woman that we know from her famous prologue and allow the tale to create her voice for us as we read. (48)

We are 'reminded' of the obstinacy of the evidence, as if this very obstinacy lends support to the theory it opposes. When the evidence refutes our theories, it is clearly in denial.

By the twentieth century, the Wife had become as much a subject of 'Growth and Development' myths as Chaucer himself, despite the irrefutable textual fact that, unlike Chaucer, she obstinately tells the same tale over and over again in every manuscript and in every edition. But the theory of growth and development required support: if the 'developed' Wife told the tale now documented in manuscripts, an 'undeveloped' Wife must have told a different tale in the undocumented past, and perhaps such a first attempt was a (mere) fabliau--a 'bourgeois' genre, clearly appropriate to her social state. The genre was then well defined in scholarship, and its 'purest' English example was not only in the Canterbury Tales but also conveniently wanting a secure teller. The reception narrative that results from the combination of these two cases could be stated as follows. Prior to the nineteenth century, in what might be called 'pre-fabliau' times, certain Chaucer tales were grouped together as obscene or scurrilous; such a group might include many of what we now consider fabliaux: the Miller's Tale, the Reeve's Tale, the Summoner's Tale, the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale, even the Nun's Priest's Tale; many of the tales, indeed, that were the objects of early translations of Dryden and Pope. Once the fabliaux coalesced as a genre, the history of the fabliaux reorganized these 'coarse' or 'churlish' tales, with the Shipman's Tale, a tale rarely cited in early commentary on Chaucer, the 'purest' example of the genre. The Wife of Bath was thus written out of this discussion: what early twentieth-century critics considered Chaucer's great creation in her final psychological development would not have told a mere fabliau. This writing of the Wife of Bath out of discussion, a product of fabliau history and purely aesthetic assumptions, was in turn projected back onto Chaucer: it was not Chaucerians and medievalists who had dissociated the Wife from these coarse tales through their definition of the fabliau; it was, rather, Chaucer himself, who suppressed the Wife's earlier fabliau and assigned it to the Shipman.

The argument for the Wife as the original narrator of the Shipman's Tale has never been a direct function of the quality of the evidence supporting it. Rather it depends and will continue to depend on the way that argument fits with other contemporary arguments and scholarly assumptions. It survived because it accorded well with venerable Chaucerian critical cliches, such as the notion of decorum, and several more recent myths that developed in the late nineteenth century concerning Chaucer's own poetic development and the increasing 'realism' of his personages and the pilgrimage itself. It also accords with the institution of Chaucerianism, which in the nineteenth century defined itself not as in a mere state of fluctuation, but rather as in a state of progress: nineteenth-century scholarhip was, according to those who practised it, better than eighteenth-century scholarship, and organizations such as the Chaucer Society produced a series of monographs designed to improve scholarship still further.

Easily traceable through this history is the critical development and growing sophistication of what is said about Chaucer and what is said about the Wife. That is to say, what develops is Chaucerianism. And this demonstrable growth is projected onto Chaucer himself, and from Chaucer onto his characters. Chaucer becomes a better poet as his critics become better and more sophisticated; and in turn his characters become more worthy of the increasingly sophisticated analyses of them as psychological personages and even as narrators. The Wife's Tale is then seen as a realization of her own more complex character in ways in which a fabliau could not be, and a dubious textual-critical history involving the Shipman's Tale is grafted onto this notion. The growth of the Wife, the 'growth and development' of Chaucer, even the evolution of the Canterbury Tales themselves: these are things to which scholars prior to 1800 were strangely oblivious. But such blindness had less to do with fourteenth-century history than the unpredictable future of their own institution.

(1) Joseph Bedier, Les Fabliaux: etudes de litterature populaire et d'histoire litteraire du moyen age, 2nd edn (Paris: Bouillon, 1894); J. S. P. Tatlock, The Mind and Art of Chaucer (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1950), pp. 97-98, quoted in The Miller's Tale, ed. by Thomas W. Ross, Variorum Chaucer, II, 3 (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983), p. 8.

(2) The most important recent scholar to study both English and French examples, Charles Muscatine, The Old French Fabliaux (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), saw the genre as best expressing the concerns of modern America.

(3) The phrase finds variants in Furnivall (on the Bradshaw Shift) and in Bradley (on textual rearrangement of Usk's Testament of Love). Seemy Who is Buried in Chaucer's Tomb? Studies in the Reception of Chaucer's Book (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1998), ch. 4.

(4) W. W. Skeat, The Complete Works of Georey Chaucer, 7 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1894-97), v (1894), 168.

(5) John S. P. Tatlock, The Development and Chronology of Chaucer's Works, Chaucer Society Publications, ser. 2, 37 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1907), p. 205; George Lyman Kittredge, Chaucer and his Poetry (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1915), p. 170; Bartlett J. Whiting, 'The Wife of Bath's Tale', in Sources and Analogues of Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales', ed. by W. F. Bryan and Germain Dempster (1941; repr. New York: Humanities Press, 1958), p. 223.

(6) So R. W. Chapman, 'The Shipman's Tale was Meant for the Shipman', Modern Language Notes, 71 (1956), 4-5; Murray Copland, 'The Shipman's Tale: Chaucer and Boccaccio', Medium Aevum, 35 (1966), 11-28, esp. pp. 25-26.

(7) For other examples in the history of Chaucerianism, see my 'The Myth of Chaucerian Irony', Papers in Language and Literature, 24 (1988), 115-33, and studies in Who is Buried in Chaucer's Tomb?

(8) Thomas Tyrwhitt, The 'Canterbury Tales' of Chaucer, 5 vols (London: Payne, 1775-78), iv (1775), 154. See also Fabliaux or Tales Abridged from French Manuscripts of the xiith and xiiith Centuries by M. LeGrand, Selected and Translated into English Verse by the Late G. L. Way, [...] with a Preface, Notes and Appendix by the Late G. Ellis, new edn, corrected, 3 vols (London: Rodwell, 1815); no strict definition is sought or even believed to exist, e.g. 'By degrees they introduced greater diversity into their compositions, and formed dits (ditties or moral songs), ballads, complaints, roundelays, and virelays, of which there were many varieties, and lastly fabliaux and lays, which perhaps only diered from each other by some peculiarity in their musical accompaniments' (i, p. xxxiv). Such 'fabliaux' had little if anything to do with what were commonly called 'fables', i.e. short narratives, as in Dryden's Fables of 1700.

(9) Thomas Wright, Anecdota literaria: A Collection of Short Poems in English, Latin, and French, Illustrative of the Literature and History of England in the Thirteenth Century, and More Especially of the Condition and Manners of the Different Classes of Society (London: J. R. Smith, 1844); Fabliaux et contes des poetes francois, des xi, xii, xiii, xiv et xve siecles, tires des meilleurs auteurs; publies par Barbazan, nouvelle edition, augm. et revue sur les manuscrits de la bibliotheque imperiale, par M. Meon, 4 vols (Paris: Crapelet, 1808).

(10) In modern source and analogue criticism, the narrative Dame Siriz is generally considered an analogue for the Wife's Tale, and rarely described as a fabliau. Cf., however, Miller's Tale, ed. by Ross, p. 7: 'Before Chaucer, only Dame Siriz represents the genre in English.'

(11) For the influence of these manuscripts, see Jean Rychner, 'Deux copistes au travail: pour une etude textuelle globale du manuscrit 354 de la Bibliothaeque de la Bourgeoisie de Berne', in Medieval French Textual Studies in Memory of T. B. W. Reid, ed. by Ian Short (London: Anglo-Norman Text Society, 1984), pp. 187-218, esp. p. 203, and, in the same Festschrift, P. Menard, 'Tradition manuscrite et edition de textes: le cas des fabliaux', pp. 149-66.

(12) Henry Hart Milman's use of the word fabliau in 1855 is clearly paraphrasing definitions in earlier French anthologies: 'I cannot but think that he was familiar with the Troubadour poetry of the Langue d'Oc; of the Langue d'Oil, he knew well the knightly tales of the Trouvaeres and the Fabliaux, as well as the later allegorical school, which was then in the height of its fashion in Paris' (Caroline F. E. Spurgeon, Five Hundred Years of Chaucer Criticism and Allusion, 1357-1900, 5 pts (1914-22; repr. New York: Russell and Russell, 1960), 111 (1921), 24.

(13) For a brief history of these anthologies, see Bedier, Fabliaux, pp. 28-29. See also Nico van den Boogaard, 'La definition du fabliau dans les grands recueils', in Epopee animale, fable, fabliau, ed. by Gabriel Bianciotto (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1984), pp. 657-68).

(14) I cite the edition of 1781: Fabliaux ou Contes, du xiie et du xiiie siecles fables et romans du xiiie, traduits ou extraits d'apraes plusieurs manuscrits du temps [...], new edn aug. par M. Le Grand, 5 vols (Paris: Onfroy, 1781), 1, p. xl. For recent comments on Le Grand's notes, see Michael Glencross, 'Relic and Romance: Antiquarianism and Medievalism in French Literary Culture', MLR, 95 (2000), 337-49 (pp. 343-44).

(15) Anatole Montaiglon and Gaston Raynaud, Recueil general et complet des fabliaux des xiiie et xive siaecles, 6 vols (Paris: Librairie de bibliophiles, 1872-1890).

(16) See Carter Revard, 'From French "Fabliau Manuscripts" and MS Harley 2253 to the Decameron and the Canterbury Tales', Medium Aevum, 69 (2000), 261-78, distinguishing' collections' from' anthologies'; Revard's distinction may apply better to these nineteenth-century works than to the medieval manuscript collections on which they are based.

(17) See the excellent discussion by Hans Aarsleff, 'Scholarship and Ideology: Joseph Bedier's Critique of Romantic Medievalism', in Historical Studies and Literary Criticism, ed. by Jerome J. McGann (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), pp. 93-113. That Bedier simply accepted the Montaiglon-Raynaud corpus is noted by Roy J. Pearcy, 'Anglo-Norman Fabliaux and Chaucer's Merchant's Tale', Medium Aevum, 69 (2000), 227-60.

(18) Per Nykrog, Les Fabliaux (Geneva: Droz, 1957). The influence of the ongoing, but far less accessible, critical edition by Noomen and van den Boogaard has yet to be felt: Willem Noomen and Nico van den Boogaard, Nouveau recueil complet des fabliaux (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1983-).

(19) Elizabeth Dawes, 'Des manuscrits aux dictionnaires: la creation des lieux communs', Cahiers de l'Association Internationale des Etudes Francais, 49 (1997), 39-57.

(20) Spurgeon, Five Hundred Years of Chaucer Criticism, 1, 134. Harington probably means the Wife's Prologue here.

(21) The Workes of our Antient and Learned English Poet, Gerey Chaucer, ed. by [Thomas Speght] (London: Islip, 1598), sig. a4r.

(22) John Dryden, Fables Ancient and Modern; Translated into Verse, from Homer, Ovid, Boccace, @Chaucer (London: Tonson, 1700), sig. c1v.

(23) It is somewhat curious that this same Drydenesque group is repeated by Eichmann and DuVall in their 1984 edition of BN 837, although it is not clear whether they are referring to the Wife of Bath's Tale (which Dryden translated) or the Prologue (which Dryden omitted as 'too licentious') (Raymond Eichmann and John Duval, The French Fabliau: B.N.MS. 837, 2 vols (New York: Garland, 1984), 1, p. xxvii, identifying 'six and a half' Chaucer tales as fabliaux: those of the Miller, Reeve, Cook, Shipman, Summoner, Merchant, and Wife).

(24) See the indices in Spurgeon, Five Hundred Years of Chaucer Criticism.

(25) Thomas Warton, The History of English Poetry from the Close of the Eleventh to the Commencement of the Eighteenth Century, 3 vols (London: Dodsley, 1775-78), section xvi, 1 (1775), 419-34.

(26) See Hazlitt's grouping of the Wife of Bath's Prologue, Nun's Priest's Tale, and Merchant's tale as 'most licentiousness of comic humor' (1818; Spurgeon, Five Hundred Years of Chaucer Criticism, 11 (1918), 103-04). Hallam, in 1837, notes that with the exception of Beaumont's apology for the 'ribaldry of the comic tales and a passage in Puttenham's Arte of English Poetrie, there is scarcely any distinct recognition of the poetic merits of the Canterbury Pilgrimage anterior to Dryden' (ibid., 11, 213). See also Ward (1879), who speaks of the 'gross salt of Reeve and Miller and one or two others', while distinguishing other works in more modern critical language: 'the burlesque fun [...] of the Nun's Priest's Tale', the 'half-melancholy irony of the House of Fame' (ibid., 111 (1921), 125).

(27) Chaucer Society Publications, ser. 2, 7 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Truubner, 1872), section 4: 'Two French Fabliaux, like Chaucer's Reeve's Tale'.

(28) The section on the Shipman's Tale is by John Webster Spargo, who identifies the unknown source (somewhat tautologically!) as 'an Old French fabliau very similar to the Shipman's Tale' (p. 439). Cf. Spargo's earlier statement in 1930: 'Among the most interesting of Chaucer's tales are those commonly called vulgar, the fabliaux.' Spargo includes under a 'flexible definition' the tales of the Miller, Reeve, Pardoner, Wife, Summoner, Merchant, and Manciple) (John Webster Spargo, Chaucer' Shipman's Tale: The Lover's Gift Regained (Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 1930), p. 5 n. 3).

(29) D. S. Brewer, 'The Fabliaux', in Companion to Chaucer Studies, ed. by Beryl Rowland (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), pp. 247-67 (p. 248).

(30) Brewer, 'The Fabliaux', p. 259; the phrase 'pure-fabliau-type' is quoted by J. A. Burrow and V. J. Scattergood, notes to Shipman's Tale, in The Riverside Chaucer, ed. by Larry D. Benson (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), p. 910.

(31) The Literary Context of Chaucer's Fabliaux, ed. by Larry D. Benson and Theodore M. Andersson (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1971).

(32) Further examples: Roy J. Pearcy, 'The Genre of Chaucer's Fabliau Tales', in Chaucer and the Craft of Fiction, ed. by Leigh Arrathoon (Rochester, MI: Solaris Press, 1986), pp. 329-84; Robert Lewis, 'The English Fabliau Tradition and Chaucer's Miller's Tale', Modern Philology, 79 (1982), 141-55, arguing that there indeed was an English tradition, but that Chaucer was not indebted to it.

(33) So Peter Nicholson, 'The Shipman's Tale and the Fabliaux', English Literary History, 45 (1978), 383-96 (p. 387).

(34) Canterbury Tales, 111 (1775), 312. See also 'Introductory Discourse', iv (1775), 172-73. Again, there is no reference to the Wife, or even a female speaker.

(35) One exception might be Skeat's rejection of the 'The Assembly of Ladies' from the Chaucer canon, a decision that seems to rest largely on the existence of a female persona. See Skeat, Works of Chaucer, vii (1897), p. lxix, and Kathleen Forni, '"Chaucer's Dreame": A Bibliographer's Nightmare', Huntington Library Quarterly, 64 (2001), 139-50.

(36) For modern arguments explaining the presumed discrepancy away, see n. 6 above.

(37) The most convenient table of tale orders is in John Manly and Edith Rickert, The Text of the 'Canterbury Tales', 8 vols (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1940), 11, 494-5, repr. in Larry D. Benson, 'The Order of the Canterbury Tales', Studies in the Age of Chaucer, 3 (1981), 77-120 (pp. 118-20).

(38) In the de Worde edition of 1498, the end link, still introducing the Squier, follows the Merchant'sTale. For the order of the editions prior to the 1532 edition, see Eleanor Prescott Hammond, Chaucer: A Bibliographical Manual (New York: Macmillan, 1908), pp. 202-04; 'On the Order of the Canterbury Tales: Caxton's Two Editions', Modern Philology, 3 (1905), 159-78.

(39) In the Manly-Rickert edition, what is the Shipman's Prologue inmost recent editions (Skeat, following the Bradshaw Shift, and Ellesmere-based editions, such as Robinson) is the Man of Law's endlink (see discussion at 111, 452-53). Tyrwhitt, anticipating proponents of the Bradshaw Shift a century later, refers to Selden as the sole authority while denying that it has any authority. See my 'The Chaucerian Reception of Henry Bradshaw', Archiv fur das Studium der neueren Sprachen und Literaturen, 235 (1998), 68-84.

(40) For examples of Chaucerians' insistence on coherence in what may be incoherent critical histories, see my review 'The Importance of Importance', Huntington Library Quarterly, 56 (1993), 307-17.

(41) William W. Lawrence, 'Chaucer's Shipman's Tale', Speculum, 33 (1958), 56-68: 'We may cautiously conclude that the resulting inconsistencies in the text were due to the fact that his full interest was not engaged when he made this shift' (p. 67).

(42) What to me seems the most egregious example of such thinking is by F. J. Furnivall, who described Chaucer as 'closer to me than any other poet, except Tennyson' (Temporary Preface to the Six-Text Edition, Chaucer Society Publications, ser. 2, 2 (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1868), p. 3).

(43) The Development and Chronology of Chaucer's Works, p. 205.

(44) Lawrence, 'Chaucer's Shipman's Tale', p. 58.

(45) Richard F. Jones, 'A Conjecture on the Wife of Bath's Prologue', Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 24 (1925), 512-47 (p. 512).

(46) Robert A. Pratt, 'The Development of the Wife of Bath', in Studies in Medieval Literature in Honor of Professor Albert Croll Baugh, ed. by MacEdward Leach (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1961), pp. 45-79, quotations at 46, 55. Pratt's commitment to the Bradshaw Shift lends itself to the notion of earlier, cancelled Canterbury Tales organizations.

(47) 'Chaucer's Shipman's Tale', p. 58.

(48) Nicholson, 'The Shipman's Tale and the Fabliaux', p. 394.


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