Renowned scholar of medieval literature, Lee Patterson, presents a compelling vision of the shape and direction of Geoffrey Chaucer’s entire career in Chaucer and the Subject of History.
Chaucer's interest in individuality was strikingly modern. At the same time he was profoundly aware of the pressures on individuality exerted by the past and by society—by history. This tension between the subject and history is Patterson's topic. He begins by showing how Chaucer’s understanding of history as a subject for poetry—a world to be represented and a cultural force affecting human action—began to take shape in his poems on classical themes, especially in Troilus and Criseyde. Patterson's extended analysis of this profound yet deeply conflicted exploration of the relationship between "history" and "the subject" provides the basis for understanding Chaucer's shift to his contemporary world in the Canterbury Tales. There, in the shrewdest and most wide-ranging analysis of late medieval society we possess, Chaucer investigated not just the idea of history but the historical world intimately related to his own political and literary career.
Patterson's chapters on individual tales clarify and confirm his provocative arguments. He shows, for example, how the Knight's Tale represents the contemporary crisis of governance in terms of a crisis in chivalric identity itself; how the Miller’s Tale reflects the social pressures and rhetoric of peasant movements generally and the Rising of 1381 in particular; and how the tales of the Merchant and Shipman register the paradoxical placement of a bourgeois class lacking class identity. And Patterson's brilliant readings of the Wife of Bath’s Tale—"the triumph of the subject"—and the Pardoner’s Tale —"the subject of confession"—reveal how Chaucer reworked traditional materials to accomplish stunning innovations that make visible unmistakably social meanings. Chaucer and the Subject of History is a landmark book, one that will shape the way that Chaucer is read for years to come.
Through an analysis of the poems Chaucers wordes Unto Adam, His Owne Scriveyn, Troilus and Criseyde, the Legend of Good Women, the Man of Law’s Tale, the Wife of Bath’s Tale and its Prologue, the Clerk’s Tale, and the Pardoner’s Tale, Carolyn Dinshaw offers a provocative argument on medieval sexual constructs and Chaucer’s role in shaping them. Operating under the assumption that people read and write certain ways based upon society’s demands, Dinshaw examines gender identity and the effects of a patriarchal society. The focal point of Dinshaw’s argument is the idea that the literary text can be seen as the female body while any literary activities upon the text are decidedly male. Through a series of six provocative essays, Dinshaw argues that Chaucer was not only aware that gender is a social construction, but that he self-consciously worked to oppose the dominance of masculinity that a patriarchal society places on texts by creating works in which gender identity and hierarchy were more fluid.
Advice on sex and marriage in the literature of antiquity and the middle ages typically stressed the negative: from stereotypes of nagging wives and cheating husbands to nightmarish visions of women empowered through marriage. Satiric Advice on Women and Marriage brings together the leading scholars of this fascinating body of literature. Their essays examine a variety of ancient and early medieval writers' cautionary and often eccentric marital satire beginning with Plautus in the third century B.C.E. through Chaucer (the only non-Latin author studied). The volume demonstrates the continuity in the Latin tradition which taps into the fear of marriage and intimacy shared by ancient ascetics (Lucretius), satirists (Juvenal), comic novelists (Apuleius), and by subsequent Christian writers starting with Tertullian and Jerome, who freely used these ancient sources for their own purposes, including propaganda for recruiting a celibate clergy and the promotion of detachment and asceticism as Christian ideals.
Warren S. Smith is Professor of Classical Languages at the University of New Mexico.
Each generation finds in Chaucer’s works the concerns and themes of its own era. But what of Chaucer’s contemporaries? For whom was he writing? With what expectations would his original audience have approached his works? In what terms did he and his audience understand their society, and how does his poetry embody a view of society?These are some of the questions Paul Strohm addresses in this innovative look at the historical Chaucer. Fourteenth-century English society was, he reminds us, in a state of accelerating transition: feudalism was yielding to capitalism, and traditional ways of understanding one’s place in society were contending with new social paradigms. Those like Chaucer who lived on the fringe of gentility were particularly sensitive to these changes. Their social position opened the way to attractive possibilities, even as it exposed them to special perils.Strohm draws on seldom-considered documents to describe Chaucer’s social circle and its experiences, and he relates this circle to implied and fictional audiences in the texts. Moving between major works like the Canterbury Tales and less frequently discussed works like Complaint of Mars, he suggests that Chaucer’s poetry not only reproduces social tensions of the time but also proposes conciliatory alternatives. His analysis yields a fuller understanding of Chaucer’s world and new insight into the social implications of literary forms and styles.
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