Chapter 3: Sociological Poetics
and the Canterbury Tales.
Any attempt to deal with a concrete literary production from a sociological point of view must take into consideration a complex set of ideas and formulations, hereafter referred to as the ideological horizon, that evolved from the sociohistorical milieu and traditions which informed the development of the issues the literary work addresses. Sociological poetics, as practiced by the so-called Bakhtin circle, came into being specifically as a response to the principles of evaluation articulated by Russian formalism in the late 1920's and early 1930's. Many of the principles of formalist theory worked their way into western literary criticism where they became influential for the next several decades. This study of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales will be concerned primarily with principles of evaluation established by Bakhtin's group. While it is true that elaborations and qualifications of sociological poetics have appeared from time to time, altering in one way or another some of his concepts, the fundamental principles underlying his perceptions of literary production have remained basically the same. At the heart of his position is the recognition that literary works are essentially and inescapably social phenomena which can only be understood as utterance through a process of social evaluation. P. N. Medvedev notes, for instance, that
Social evaluation actualizes the utterance both from the standpoint of its factual presence and the standpoint of its semantic meaning. It defines the choice of subject, word, form, and their individual combination within the bounds of the given utterance. It also defines the choice of content, the selection of form, and the connection between form and content. (121)
M. M. Bakhtin, in a nearly identical vein, notes that
Form and content in discourse are one, once we understand that verbal discourse is a social phenomenon--social throughout its entire range and in each and every of its factors, from the sound image to the furthest reaches of abstract meaning. (Dialogic Imagination, 259)
Medvedev goes on to argue that "[i]t is impossible to understand the concrete utterance without accustoming oneself to its values, without understanding the orientation of its evaluations in the ideological environment" that both produced it originally and that has, or might, receive it ultimately. He also notes that "[i]t is necessary to understand the meaning of the utterance, the content of the act, and its historical reality, and to do so, moreover, in their concrete inner unity" (121-122).
The foundation upon which this formula of interpretation rests, according to Medvedev, is predicated on the following concepts:
Every concrete utterance is a social act. At the same time that it is an individual material complex, a phonetic, articulatory, visual complex, the utterance is also a part of social reality. It organizes communication oriented toward reciprocal action, and itself reacts; it is also inseparably enmeshed in the communication event. Its individual reality is already not that of a physical body, but the reality of a historical phenomenon. Not only the meaning of the utterance but also the very fact of its performance is of historical and social significance, as, in general, is the fact of its realization in the here and now, in given circumstances, at a certain historical moment, under the conditions of the given social situation. (120)
One reason it seems appropriate to apply this kind of evaluation to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, in particular, concerns the fact that he so deliberately created a literary production based on obvious interactions of speech performance between and among different social classes and ideologies represented by his group of pilgrim-narrators. James R. Andreas, in his recent study of the Bakhtinian character of Canterbury's links, notes that "Chaucer's poem is articulated on the broadest possible social scale" (54). Every tale in the sequence can be said, in one way or another, to react and respond to the others, selectively and collectively, as instances of concrete historical utterance bound together in a sociological frame. Medvedev also emphasizes the individual character of utterance in a field of discourse by stating that its "individuality is that of a historical achievement in a definite epoch under definite social conditions. This is the individuality of a sociohistorical act" (120).
Medvedev argues that meaning is derived or constituted in the individual speech act by virtue of its connection to a specific field, or type, of ideological, and hence, social intercourse. He notes that an "organic, historical, and actual connection is established between the meaning and act (utterance), between the act and the concrete sociohistorical situation" (120). With regard to meaning, he states that it
is itself historical. The organic connection between the sign and meaning attained in the concrete historical act of the utterance exists only for the given utterance and only under the given conditions of its realization.
If we tear the utterance out of social intercourse and materialize it, we lose the organic unity of all its elements. (120)
A significant problem with Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, with respect to general perceptions of how best to evaluate it, as they have been developed over the last hundred years or so, can be read in Derek Pearsall's stated preference for a methodology specifically "stressing the diversity of the Tales, and the essential independence and uniqueness of individual tales." Pearsall argues that this approach is necessary, not optional, because its utility "has to do with the practical realities of a critical approach to a text which is unfinished" (xi). R. K. Root, writing during the early part of the century has addressed this same problem:
We have the first tale told, the Knight's, and the last, the Parson's; but between the beginning and the end there are eight gaps which should have been filled with tales, or with connecting links; so that we have not a fragment of the whole, but nine separate fragments, the longest of which contains seven connected tales, and the shortest but one. . . . Further confusion is caused by the fact that in the various manuscripts of the Canterbury Tales the order of the tales is different, even the integrity of the several groups or fragments not being always preserved. (153)
Root, unlike Pearsall, does not specifically argue that evaluation must be based on isolating the tales from one another. He suggests instead a scheme of tale-telling, based on a four day journey from Southwerk to Canterbury, that means to recreate the substance of Chaucer's original, if incomplete, design. The fact that he sees the eight gaps between fragments as needing to be filled "with tales, or with connecting links" assumes, however, that Chaucer did not finish his work on the project.
These traditional views of the methodological problems associated with Chaucer's work contradict Medvedev's approach on two different levels. Pearsall's perception that individual tales must be read and evaluated in isolation from each other as separate entities contradicts Medvedev's notion that individual utterances naturally interact with each other on a sociological plane. Chaucer's frame narrative, the fact that he deliberately linked tales to each other compositionally, suggests that Medvedev's method would be more appropriate than Pearsall's. It is also true that Root's assumption that the gaps need to be filled in with missing or unwritten material may reflect more a concern for modern expectations of how a work of art ought to appear than it does with a thorough and deep appreciation for the thematic unity of Chaucer's work. Root also notes that "many of the pilgrims are never called upon, and the company never reaches Canterbury" (153). It is just as easy to argue that those two facts are part of Chaucer's plan for the thematic unity of the production as it is to say that they should be taken as signs confirming an accident attributable to the author's premature death. The fact is that acceptance of the second possibility has always preceded consideration of the first in Chaucer scholarship and the issue of thematic unity has hardly been considered at all.
The other area of contradiction, directed more at Pearsall than at Root, concerns the notion that the Canterbury Tales is "unfinished" and that its "fragmentary" character necessitates one kind of evaluation (formalistic) over another (sociological). In reality, however, if one considers a fundamental difference between compositional and thematic finalization, as Medvedev does (130), the issue of the ultimate status (finished or unfinished) of Chaucer's literary production becomes a substantially more complex issue than one that depends solely on the external and somewhat chaotic appearance of manuscripts produced after Chaucer's death. Thematic unity, coherence, and finalization are issues that have nothing to do with compositional circumstances and methods of manuscript production relating to individual medieval texts. To put this another way, part of Pearsall's argument rests on the assumption that there is a necessary absence of thematic unity in fragmentary works but, as Medvedev suggests, utterances that are torn from the social intercourse that creates their meaning lose the "organic unity" of their elements as a consequence of that action. Dealing with the tales as individual and isolated speech acts carries with it the inevitable consequence that the whole cannot be perceived in any way except as a work that lacks fundamental unity. Sociological poetics works toward an understanding of literary production on the basis of its "concrete inner unity" whereas formalistic approaches tend to move in the opposite direction. This issue will be taken up in more detail later.
At a more basic level of evaluation, and one which presupposes the existence of these more complex issues, a nearly universal commonplace in Chaucerian scholarship asserts that Chaucer almost never expresses an opinion about the state of his contemporary society, that he was either unaware of, or uninterested in, the events and circumstances that shaped fourteenth century life. One bias that fuels the apparent validity of this notion in the minds of some critics is that great art transcends the specific, localized ideological environment surrounding the great artist's life. If Chaucer is a great artist, then, by definition, his work must have come into existence on a plane above and beyond the contemporary milieu of his social experience. Great art is alive for all time, as it were, since it transcends the local and topical environment of the artist. Great art does not need to express the details of the artist's actual milieu and, even if it does, those elements of the art are not important in establishing the transcendent character of the production.
Lynn Staley Johnson, as noted earlier, in her study of the political implications of the Tale of Melibee, a very closely translated version of a French work, Le Livre de Mellibee et Prudence, which Chaucer assigned to himself in the story-telling contest, notes that "[t]hough Chaucer preserves his characteristic silence about contemporary events, we may infer that he watched them as closely as anyone writing during the period." An obvious objection to the idea that Chaucer used the Melibee to comment directly on his contemporary English social milieu concerns the fact that he translated a French text written prior to his own contemporary experience, where the original was not about England, but about France. That simple observation seems to preclude the possibility that Chaucer could have used the Melibee, even if he wanted to, as a commentary on English court affairs after he began work on the Canterbury Tales. By citing similarities of court culture and political ideology between the ruling power of the Valois in France and the Plantagenet in England, between Charles VI and Richard II after 1387, it does become possible to argue an indirect application of the values expressed in the Melibee for both cultures simultaneously. To suggest, however, that a direct, unconflicted intention on Chaucer's part exists to comment on Richard's reign one would probably have to argue that the Melibee is Chaucer's original work. This same problem arises to greater or lesser extent with most of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, since most of them were derived from recognized, documented source material produced both outside his social milieu and prior to his personal experience.
The issue of whether or not Chaucer ever commented directly on his real social milieu is one that sets up a wide range of critical questions. These evaluative problems stretch across the spectrum from the apparently simplistic kind associated with his use of pre-existing source material, which seem rigidly bound to other predetermined contexts, to more complex problems tied to theoretical positions in literary criticism itself, which, in greater or lesser degree, tend to exclude altogether any evidence derived from historical or sociological study. While it might be profitable to pursue an inquiry into the theoretical underpinnings and/or philosophical wellsprings of critical formulas that exclude the relevance of sociological commentary on the part of poets and critics alike, as a criterion for the study of literary production in general, a thorough evaluation of formalistic positions would only serve to draw us far afield of the more pertinent issues we might wish to have in hand here. A complete evasion of the issue at the same time, however, does not serve any useful purpose either and it is necessary to address certain kinds of problems that arise along the great divide separating techniques of literary formalism from sociological poetics before any concrete evaluation of Chaucer's poetry can be undertaken.
The idea that Chaucer maintains a "characteristic silence about contemporary events" is one that falls naturally out of a theoretical approach to his poetry based more on attention to formal aspects of literary production than it does on a contrary position that means to investigate the content of his poetic work. This is not to say, of course, that formal components of poetry are somehow insignificant. The problem with a strictly applied formal approach is that it often excludes consideration of practical and concrete social, political, and religious ideologies as a matter of course. Medvedev argues that the formalists'
fear of meaning in art led [them] to reduce the poetic construction to the peripheral, outer surface of the work. The work lost its depth, three-dimensionality, and fullness. Their concept of material and device are expressions of this superficial view of the construction. Having established a reverse proportionality between meaning and artistic significance, the formalists inevitably arrived at the device, which, as the combination of indifferent material, was formalistically empty. (118)
Meaning, then, in any comparison between formal and social theories of art is pushed to the side in the former and brought to the foreground in the latter. Showing, however, that Chaucer did include references to contemporary events in his poetry does not, in itself, tell us anything more about his production than isolating and defining formal characteristics in it is likely to do. Establishing Chaucer's plane of reference relative to his real social milieu is only a first necessary step in creating a "sociology" of his poetry.
Coming at this problem from the opposite point of view, René Wellek and Austin Warren, in Theory of Literature, which can be viewed as a kind of manifesto of New American critical and formalistic approaches to literature, in discussing the relationship between society and literary art, conclude that
Only if the social determination of forms could be shown conclusively could the question be raised whether social attitudes cannot become 'constitutive' and enter a work of art as effective parts of its artist value. One can argue that 'social truth', while not, as such, an artistic value, corroborates such artistic values as complexity and coherence. But it need not be so. There is great literature which has little or no social relevance; social literature is only one kind of literature and is not central in the theory of literature unless one holds the view that literature is primarily an 'imitation' of life as it is and of social life in particular. But literature is no substitute for sociology or politics. It has its own justification and aim. (109)
Wellek and Warren also argue that sociological approaches to literature suffer from "excessive historicism" and that they fail ultimately from the "inability to connect 'content' with 'form'" (108). Becoming more specific as to type, they note that
Like Marxism, preoccupied with an irrationalistic explanation, it is unable to provide a rational foundation for aesthetics and hence criticism and evaluation. This is, of course, true of all extrinsic approaches to literature. No causal study can do justice to the analysis, description, and evaluation of a literary work. (108)
If Chaucer rarely (never) comments directly on the social milieu of fourteenth century life, as Johnson suggests by asserting that he maintains his "characteristic silence about contemporary events," then Wellek and Warren might be justified in arguing, for him at least, that extrinsic approaches to literature are a relatively barren ground for analysis, description, and evaluation in his work.
Medvedev does not specifically address the kind of criticism that Wellek and Warren level at sociological approaches to literature. It should be clear, however, that the problem with their view of the relationship between society and literature has nothing substantial to do with the concept of sociological poetics that Medvedev has outlined in his study and critique of formalistic method. Wellek and Warren suggest that social views of art in some way seek to substitute sociology or political science for literature itself or that such an approach to literature is necessarily concerned with finding and evaluating aspects of literary production that overtly express an author's opinion about contemporary social or political events or causes. The point of sociological poetics is to recognize that all literature, all uses of language, are sociologically charged and accentuated precisely because language itself is a social construct which comes into being through interactive speech communication between and among members of real social groups. Meaning itself is determined, not by dictionaries, but by the social relationships that generate and define speech communications in real historical and social contexts.
The notion that sociological poetics, and Marxism in particular, suffers from an "excessive historicism" is a criticism of its methodology that has as much to do with the hermeneutic approach to literature favored by formalists as it does with any real or imagined deficiency one can find in the practice of sociological and historical approaches to literary production. Jeff Rider, for instance, in a recent article dealing with the subject of historical evaluations of medieval texts, argues that "a historically limited interpretation of medieval texts--an interpretation which seeks to understand these texts within the contexts of the historical circumstances of their production--is indeed a valid and useful endeavor." Rider goes on to note, however, that historical approaches to literary texts carry with them several inescapable problems. Texts are capable of transcending or surviving their original contexts and thus demand interpretations that may not have been intended by their authors. Rider says that "[i]t is in fact precisely because a text may be understood in various contexts and in ways that the writer did not intend that interpretation's primary task is the rediscovery of the text's original context: this context limits and controls our understanding and permits us to distinguish meanings which the writer may have intended from those that he or she may not have intended" (295). The fact that a text can "decontextualize itself--survive and pass beyond its historical context--and recontextualize itself, be understood, in other contexts" (299) applies with equal force to every kind of text, to both historical documents and to the value systems that inform literary works. As a result, the historical context appealed to in historical or sociological criticism is just as much a product of interpretation as is any other kind of intrinsic value system that can be applied to a literary text. The value structures of fourteenth century aesthetics are historically limited to their original context in exactly the same way that historical events are limited to theirs. A more cautious approach here is to say that both can be "rediscovered" and "recontextualized," and are in fact so treated, before either can be applied to critical evaluation. In both instances, one should recognize the fact that neither event nor aesthetic value comes to a critic in any pure sense of being understood without prior interpretation. Understanding an "ancient" aesthetic value involves precisely the same kinds of evaluative methods that Wellek and Warren exclude in their rejection of "excessive historicism" in sociological poetics. In short, one cannot assume that "artistic values" in the fourteenth century are identical to ones that are appreciated in the modern world and, to apply modern values of aesthetic taste to fourteenth century literary production without any sense of the difference between them, is precisely the problem that sociological poetics addresses, a problem, at the same time, often ignored by formalist critics.
A necessary resolution to these issues has already been suggested in earlier discussions. Chaucer's use of a real-time chronotope in the frame structure of Canterbury, which specifies 1383 and 1391 as possible years in which the pilgrimage occurred, makes his reference to the Norwich crusade and Boniface IX's first encyclical (condemning Pardoners) an intrinsic aspect of the text and not an extrinsic feature of fourteenth century history. Chaucer incorporates and embodies these historical events in the physical persons of the narrators (Squire and Pardoner) who enact the speech performances that articulate and illuminate elements of those profoundly sociological realities. Chaucer brings this history into his text and makes it part of the story he is telling.
Northrop Frye, more properly perceived as a structuralist than as a strict formalist, nevertheless adheres to a perception of literary criticism that avoids the recognition of sociopolitical events as a valid aspect of artistic evaluation. Frye argues that a basic difference exists between "descriptive or assertive writing" and "all literary verbal structures" (74). The distinction depends upon whether the meaning of the structures are directed "outward" or "inward." He notes that
In literature, questions of fact or truth are subordinated to the primary literary aim of producing a structure of words for its own sake, and the sign-values of symbols are subordinated to their importance as a structure of interconnected motifs. Wherever we have an autonomous verbal structure of this kind, we have literature. (74)
Frye's point here is that literature is free ("autonomous") from references to facts outside of the self-contained verbal structure it labors to create. He then argues that
The reason for producing the literary structure is apparently that the inward meaning, the self-contained verbal pattern, is the field of the responses connected with pleasure, beauty, and interest. The contemplation of a detached pattern, whether of words or not, is clearly a major source of the sense of the beautiful, and of the pleasure that accompanies it. (74)
Frye also suggests that "a poet's intention is centripetally directed" and that "it is directed at putting words together, and not with aligning words with meaning" (86). Tzvetan Todorov, in his recent assessment of Frye's critical project and specifically with regard to Anatomy of Criticism, notes that it is "a sort of superclassification [in a scientific sense] that makes room for all aspects of literary works, but that unequivocally refuses to interpret them or to situate them in relation to social history" (96).
One point we can take here is that Chaucer has Harry Bailly tell us that the tale which demonstrates an adherence to the "best sentence" and the "moost solaas" (I.798) will be judged as the one that wins the story-telling contest. In this context, Chaucer surely means to invoke both a formal structure and a living, contemporary, content for his audience's reception of the work. A term like "moost solaas" implies a pursuit of the pleasure seeking interest that Frye postulates as the dominant objective of poetic art. However, and just as obviously, the term "best sentence" must be taken as a reference to that aspect of discourse Frye tends to subordinate to the inward "field" of poetic activity. There is no way, after all, that a sense of the "best sentence" can come about if the poet's intention is never turned "toward aligning words with meaning," as Frye suggests. At the same time, it is also clear that Chaucer does not appeal to the long ago and far away of a purely mythic and moribund ground upon which none of his listeners and readers have ever walked. His pilgrimage must be about something his audience has seen, heard of, or participated in as a shared and common ground of social interaction.
To ignore that fact, simply for the purpose of justifying a critical or methodological approach to a literary production that demonstrates little or no awareness of a concept like "the primary literary aim of producing a structure of words for its own sake," is the same as insisting against all reason and evidence that Chaucer is a twentieth century thinker who somehow got lost in a previous age. In short, Chaucer's sense of artistic value is not the same one articulated by Northrop Frye. Bakhtin, in the Dialogic Imagination, addresses this issue by arguing that the relationship between art and the social reality that produces it is "similar to the uninterrupted exchange between living organisms and the environment that surrounds them" (259). He notes that "[a]s long as the organism lives, it resists fusion with the environment, but if it is torn out of its environment, it dies" (259). Frye's concept of the "self-contained verbal pattern," which he also claims is a "detached" one, is essentially that aspect of formal criticism Bakhtin always rejects as a reification of living utterance. He says that
The work and the world represented in it enter the real world and enrich it, and the real world enters the work and its world as part of the process of its creation, as well as part of its subsequent life, in a continued renewing of the work through the creative perception of listeners and readers. Of course this process of exchange . . . occurs first and foremost in the historically developing social world, but without ever losing contact with changing historical space. (259)
Bakhtin's point is that whenever a work of art is perceived and evaluated as an objective abstraction, a detached pattern of verbal surfaces, it loses its life, its living reality. The act of tearing Chaucer's Canterbury Tales out of its sociohistorical milieu, for the sake of evaluating it as a formal abstraction, destroys its meaning and its essential significance.
Going back to the initial point of departure in Lynn Johnson's statement, the problem that should concern us here is the question of Chaucer's "characteristic silence about contemporary events" and whether or not that perception is a fact that can be demonstrated in his texts, or whether, to the contrary, it is a result of applying formalistic methods to them and accepting as a given the fact that contemporary events "are not there" because they are perceived as irrelevant to aesthetic evaluation. Wellek and Warren make this a problem by insisting that "social attitudes" must "be shown conclusively" as determining factors in the creation of formal aspects of the work before they can be considered "as effective parts of its artistic value." That some "great literature has little or no social relevance" is a highly dubious assertion that suggests audiences of artistic production ignore the content of the work in favor of its formal characteristics. One cannot deny the possibility that some literature may have been produced solely as art for art's sake, but to attribute that kind of motivation to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is the same as ignoring the fact that Chaucer gives an equal weight to meaning ("best sentence") and formal structures ("moost solaas") in his literary production. At the same time, he has taken deliberate and obvious steps to create a work profoundly based on a broad range of social interactions across every level of fourteenth century class stratification. From Plowman to Knight, Chaucer included representative types of virtually every social class in England and delineated many different "degrees" of status within them. It is also clear that every speech performance Chaucer created is generically specified, tale to teller in most cases, in ways that tend to privilege ideological fields of discourse connected to the specific professional and social identities of his pilgrim characters and narrators. In virtually every case, Chaucer's artistic intent depends upon the sociological field of its embodiment in one or another kind of genre.
Issues of genre will be dealt with as a matter of course throughout this study and a few basic observations about the nature of Chaucer's use of them might be appropriate here. Medvedev notes that formalists tend to
separate genre from contact with its two determining poles. They separate the work from both the reality of social intercourse and the thematic mastery of reality. They make genre the fortuitous combination of chance devices. (135)
Taking this approach to Chaucer's work completely negates the significance of the fact that he decided to have the Knight tell a tale that is generally perceived as a "philosophical romance," as several critics have maintained. If the Knight's genre choice is completely fortuitous, and all its elements "chance devices," then there is nothing to be gained from an examination of the problem of why Chaucer decided to give that genre to him, as opposed to some other pilgrim, and why he gave him that particular genre, as opposed to some other kind. One reason among many for Chaucer's decision is that knights are involved in matters of chivalry and romance as a matter of course in the social interactions of their daily lives. That, at least, is consistent with the view we now have of the fictive role of knights during, and prior to, the fourteenth century, even if it may not be perfectly consistent with historical and social reality at the time. Churls and prelates, on the other hand, while both deal with knights in reality, are not themselves necessarily involved in the value structures of courtly behavior. As a consequence, Chaucer can have his Miller tell a tale that is an obvious parody of the Knight's speech performance. The Miller's "choice" of genre (fabliau) is no less determined by his class affiliations, by his status in the social milieu, than it is by the demands of Chaucer's artistic design. Medvedev puts it this way:
the reality of the genre and the reality accessible to the genre are organically interrelated. But we have seen that the reality of the genre is the social reality of its realization in the process of artistic intercourse. Therefore, genre is the aggregate of the means of collective orientation in reality. . . . This orientation is capable of mastering new aspects of reality. The conceptualization of reality develops and generates in the process of ideological social intercourse. Therefore, a genuine poetics of genre can only be a sociology of genre. (135)
In the "ideological social intercourse" that Chaucer creates between the Knight and the Miller, between "philosophical romance" and "fabliau," he reaches beyond the static reality of the Knight's perceptions of a courtly myth, "historical" though it may be, and clearly meant to reflect, if only nostalgically, the values of English court life, and redefines those values by appropriating them on a different social level. As Medvedev puts it, the Miller's orientation toward the ideological horizon "is capable of mastering new aspects of reality," which are essentially invisible and inaccessible to the Knight.
When the Miller confronts us with the exploits of Nicholas, Absolon, and Alison, he forces us to question the validity of the Knight's perceptions of Palamon, Arcite, and Emelye. When he confronts us with the tub-building enterprise of John to create and maintain order in the face of a second flood, he forces us to question the construction of the list that Theseus builds, at the expense of an entire forest, to contain the destructive energies of two love-sick knights. The question that genre poses is which of these two visions of reality is the one that defines fourteenth century life. To insist on the valorization of the Knight's Tale simply because it is upscale, high style, and a reflection of the values of the aristocracy, as formalist theory is prone to do, simply misses the point of Chaucer's juxtaposition between Knight and Miller as speech performers. Chaucer meant to parody one with the other, which is exactly what he did. Deciding, on the basis of formalistic categories, which is the "best" poem, is the same as trying to judge whether a dog is better than a horse in the absence of any qualification relating to the purpose the "best" is expected to serve. Treating the two stories as isolated speech performances might make that distinction possible but it does not make it valid. The point here is that Chaucer is acutely aware of the issue of his generic choices and the real issue over the appropriateness of narrators to the tales they tell is really one of genre. Since that choice always depends on sociological motivations in orientation to the ideological horizon, formalism is never a very effective means of dealing with the problems that exist in the genre choices Chaucer has make in his work.
Another way of evaluating this same problem, of course, is to compare and contrast the chronotopes that formulate the ideological horizons of the stories told by members of the company. The Knight depends on the long ago and far away temporal reality of ancient Thebes and Athens for the generation of expectations his genre (romance and adventure-time) demands. The Miller, on the other hand, fully engages a contemporary setting in the here and now that foregrounds a crude physicality characteristic of fabliau. It is also one much closer to Chaucer's use of real-time and real-space in the chronotope of the frame structure of the General Prologue and links than it is to the Knight's chronotopic perspective. The movement back and forth from story to frame, chronotopically speaking, produces a sense that Chaucer may have privileged the Miller's point of view over that of the Knight's, since the transition from one chronotope to the other is both less obvious and less conflicted. In other words, it is easier to believe the Miller's version of events than it is to believe the Knight's.
Lynn Johnson suggests a concern for precisely this kind of sociological relevance in the second half of her statement about Chaucer's use of contemporary events in the Canterbury pilgrimage when she argues that Chaucer surely "watched [contemporary events] as closely as anyone writing during the period." The fact that Johnson's study argues a real, concrete political context for Chaucer's decision to include the Tale of Melibee in the Canterbury sequence makes it obvious she believes an understanding of Chaucer's art depends upon its actual social context. Johnson's statement is one way of justifying Chaucer's knowledge of court affairs, a way, furthermore, that binds it to a fundamental practice of sociological inquiry, since sociologists spend a considerable amount of time making careful observations of the contemporary events that constitute their field of study before reaching any conclusions about what they have seen. What one chooses to do with data drawn from observations of social interactions and events, after the fact of watching them unfold, of course, may well determine whether the observer is a social scientist or a literary artist. R. K. Root, in describing the artist he called Chaucer some sixty years ago, said that he "was living the while in another realm, in the realm of fantasy" (31). Root goes on to assert that, while Chaucer was certainly aware of reality,
by temperament and choice he held aloof, not an actor but a spectator, sympathizing but not sharing in the interests of the world. He was in the world, but not of it; and for this very reason, perhaps, he continues to live when the more active and conspicuous men of his age have become but a shadow and a name. (32)
These other "more active and conspicuous men" were probably not poets and the reason Chaucer "continues to live" is because he was one, not because he ignored his contemporary sociohistorical milieu. Not surprisingly this explanation of Chaucer's genius exactly accounts for the notion that Chaucer does not concern himself with contemporary events, preferring a world of "fantasy," but does have the inclination to watch real life unfold. This choice of behavior elevates him into a timeless realm as a producer of great art. Any argument that attempts to identify the kind of mind Chaucer had is highly speculative, of course, and is merely a part of the "image of the author" a particular critic has constructed from his own exposure to Chaucer's work.
The assertion that literary artists in general, and Chaucer in particular, are somehow able to exclude social reality from their art seems to rely on the notion that the faculties employed in artistic creation exist on a plane of reference elevated somehow beyond or outside of the ones that allow human beings to be aware of, and become actively engaged in, their own social milieu. If a critic's only concern is to establish the "value" of a literary production, then perhaps its formal characteristics, ranged along side of other comparable works, are more significant than its content in creating that evaluation. If one wishes, on the other hand, to reach an appreciation of the meaning of a literary production, formal considerations, to the exclusion of content, may not be particularly helpful. Whether a poem finds its existence in rime royal stanzas, as opposed to rhymed couplets, might be a useful piece of information in some ways but the bare observation of that formalistic reality cannot tell us how, or even whether, the meaning of the Second Nun's Tale (rime royal) plays off against the meaning of the Nun's Priest's Tale, which precedes it, or against the Canon's Yeoman's Tale, which follows it, where the other two poems are expressed in rhymed couplets.
The idea that Chaucer does not refer to contemporary events, that he does not incorporate them into his poetry, can be taken as an inescapable element of the predominant literary theory that has shaped Chaucerian scholarship during the last fifty years. Since formalistic theory does not privilege a poem's content, critics who follow it do not, or have not, found reason to pursue the existence of references to contemporary events in Chaucer's poetry. Chaucer, however, like most poets, perhaps even more than some, not only does incorporate historically relevant material into his poetry, but also finds and creates substantially unique methods for doing so. In the Second Nun's Prologue, for instance, Chaucer turns the legend of St. Cecile into a contemporary event in its own right by having the Second Nun voice the following claim:
And for to putte us fro swich ydelnesse,
That cause is of so greet confusioun,
I have heer doon my feithful bisynesse
After the legende in translacioun
Right of thy glorious lif and passioun,
Thou with thy gerland wroght with rose and lilie--
Thee meene I, mayde and martyr, Seint Cecilie. (VIII.22-28)
In spite of several obvious and well-rehearsed critical problems over questions of who it is that may be speaking these words--is it Chaucer the poet or is it the Second Nun?--the fact always remains that a very deliberate effort has been made here to bind the legend of St. Cecile, which follows as the Second Nun's Tale, to a contemporary activity, referred to as "my feithful bisynesse," which has resulted in the production of a literary event, called a "translacioun," delivered in the absolute present moment of its recital by the pilgrim narrator Chaucer designates as the Second Nun. The event itself, the translation not the recital, comes to us as a fully motivated human activity whose purpose is "to putte us fro" the idleness the narrator has fully outlined and described in the previous three stanzas. Her intent, furthermore, is to save us, her audience, from the confusion (sin) that arises naturally whenever anyone is caught in a condition of habitual idleness. St. Cecile's life, a saint's legend and exemplum, is meant to teach us the value of a "lastynge bisynesse" (VIII.98) dedicated to "good werkynge" (VIII.116) in a Christian context as a means of achieving salvation. Since the assertion occurs in the frame and not as part of the story itself, it must be taken in the context of Chaucer's real-time chronotope.
One assumes, appropriately, that Chaucer means for us to recognize the "translacioun" as the work of the Second Nun when he refers to it, in her voice, as "my feithful bisynesse," since one would reasonably hesitate to apply that designation to Chaucer's artistic production in general. The attribution is more appropriate to a nun than to a secular poet. One aspect of the problem raised here in granting historical status and "contemporary" existence to a translation of a saint's legend, especially if it is taken as the kind of event Chaucer is never supposed to mention, is that the same set of qualifications can be applied to virtually every other story Chaucer included in the Canterbury Tales. Most of them were also translated or redacted from preexisting source material. What distinguishes the Second Nun's Tale from other examples, the Physician attributes his Tale to Titus Livius (VI.1), for instance, is that mention of an authority for a story cannot be said to occupy the same precise status that must be given to a story directly translated by the narrator who recites it. Chaucer is so intent on establishing the terms of this fictional condition that he has the Second Nun say to her audience,
Yet preye I yow that reden that I write,
Foryeve me that I do no diligence,
This ilke storie subtilly to endite,
For bothe have I the wordes and sentence
Of hym that at the seintes reverence
The storie wroot, and folwen hire legende,
And pray yow that ye wole my werk amende. (VIII.78-84)
This may not be a typical claim of modesty but instead signals a warning that what follows should not be taken at face value, since the Nun knows it for a story which contains "no diligence" and no subtlety. The view she may hold of her own work is overshadowed by the view Chaucer has of her place in the Canterbury pilgrimage and, in one very important sense, his knowledge of her place in the sociological frame of the fictive construct must take precedent over her claims to modesty. It is also made clear that she has followed "the wordes and sentence/ Of hym" who originally recorded the legend and invites a critical comparison between the two versions.
Several critics have assumed that Chaucer is talking about himself in this passage, that his first person, singular form here draws specific attention to the fact that the Tale and its Prologue were written forms and not spoken orally, that the reference to a written form is an inadvertent, or careless, violation of the fictive frame of the orally delivered story of the pilgrimage which reveals Chaucer's as the voice behind the statement. This seems consistent and true to form since it describes what we know of Chaucer's own method of producing tales for his Canterbury project. That perception overlooks another possible motivation. In the first place, taking the description at face value suggests that the Second Nun is able to translate a saint's legend from a Latin source extemporaneously while riding a horse, and is also able to craft the translation into rime royal stanzas as she goes along. That is surely a claim so outrageous that no one can be expected to believe in its fictive credibility. A more likely possibility, and the one Chaucer suggests here, is that the Nun has translated the legend beforehand, written it out in one form or another, converted it to rime royal stanzas, has memorized its lines, and then recites it to the other pilgrims. That she has not done so with enough "diligence" to fashion it "subtilly," and that her work may need to be amended, opens her performance to evaluations directed at its credibility as a saint's legend and as an exemplum. All this is clearly within the range of Chaucer's intentions for the story.
What might be the most obvious fact about that intention is its profoundly sociological character. As already noted, the Second Nun means for her story to act as a counterbalance to the kinds of idleness that draw people into confusion and into sin. Her own "feithful bisynesse," enacted through her socially determined act of "translacioun," is meant to cure the souls of her audience by putting them away from confusion. The active agent of that salvation is the heavy weight of the example afforded by St. Cecile's life and martyrdom. In a late fourteenth century context, no act could be more sociologically accentuated. At the same time, it is literally impossible to ignore the fact that the Second Nun's translation of the legend is a total fiction. Chaucer translated the legend of St. Cecile and his motivation in separating the act of translation from the subsequent act of recital can be taken as a gesture meant to accentuate the profound difference between a sociological and historical event (his own translation of the legend) from its subsequent incorporation into the body of an artistic literary production. The Second Nun's recital is not, strictly speaking, an historical event. It is, rather, an artistic mediation or replication of the historical fact that Chaucer translated the legend of St. Cecile from a Latin source, or two, into vernacular English, and more importantly, used that translation to constitute a specific artistic frame of reference, which the legend did not have or possess prior to that action. Chaucer's translation, however, may serve a purpose, sociologically speaking, quite radically different than the one he ascribes to his pilgrim narrator. That possibility, which will be examined in more detail later, does not make his purpose any less sociologically motivated.
With regard to the issue of intrinsic and extrinsic aspects of art and whether or not they should be given equal status in literary criticism, an issue Wellek and Warren and Northrop Frye resolve by stating that only intrinsic elements should be considered and that sociological approaches cannot demonstrate a firm connection between the two, Chaucer's decision to relinquish his extrinsic and historically grounded translation of the saint's legend to his fictional narrator, the Second Nun, transforms that extrinsic element of historical reality into an intrinsic element of his literary production. Chaucer's very deliberate effort to make that distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic aspects of art clear to his audience, so deliberate in fact that several critics argue that only Chaucer's voice can be heard in the Prologue to the Second Nun's Tale, removes the issue of whether the translation should be perceived as a sociological artifact from the hands of the critics altogether. Chaucer's work in the Prologue makes that reading of the poem necessary and wholly inevitable. There is no way to understand the Second Nun's Tale out of the sociological purview of her social milieu because she intends it to function as a cure for the confusion that is generated by idleness among her fellow pilgrims. Chaucer's play with the fact of the legend's status as a translation begs the question of how, or whether, the story achieves a successful utility as an exemplum. We are given the task, finally, of deciding whether her "feithful bisynesse" should be allowed to stand as she has recited it, or whether we should "amende" it as she goes along. All that is the concern, not of formalist criticism, but of sociological poetics, since formalism consciously excludes itself from the issues of content and meaning.
Turning to a more traditional appearance of contemporary events in Chaucer's poetry, as already noted, we find that he mentions the Norwich crusade of 1382-1383 in his portrait of the Squire in the General Prologue. In dealing with the historical import of the Norwich crusade, which was led by Hugh Despenser, the bishop of Norwich, just five years after the beginning of the Great Western Schism in the European Catholic church, one is confronted with a wide array of social, political, and religious issues that troubled virtually every aspect of fourteenth century English life. The crusade itself was of short duration and resulted in no significant battles between French and English forces but had a lasting and profound effect on England's military consciousness. Coming, as the reference does, just after the list of battles the Squire's father has fought (I.51-66), we get a clear sense of just how limited the Squire's experience is in military encounters and affairs. One can even argue that the reason Chaucer supplies a catalogue of noble battles with which to define the Knight's military career was so he could contrast that list to the single, disastrous and ignoble, affair in which his son has participated. The problem with the Squire's experience, however, on a different level of social and political reality than the one Chaucer's straightforward reference to it creates, is that the bishop of Norwich, and most of his captains, were impeached by the Parliament of 1383 on their return to England after the disastrous affairs in Flanders and Picardy came to an end. The crusade was the most humiliating defeat suffered by English forces on the Continent during the span of the Hundred Years' War.
The fact that the misadventures of the English forces in Flanders are referred to as a crusade confers upon them a special status, granted by the Roman pope, Urban VI, in 1382, which held that the campaign was a legitimate war against a "non-Christian" enemy. Crusade status also allowed the use of alms collections by pardoners as a way of financing the military action. The enemy in this case, France, was considered as "non-Christian" because the Valois court maintained obedience to Clement VII, whose papal court was located on French soil at Avignon, while England remained loyal to Urban VI in Rome.
In response to the Norwich crusade, a year later in fact, France sent a large invasion force into Scotland under the leadership of Jean de Vienne. The border raids conducted from Scotland against the northern provinces of England in 1384-1385 finally compelled Richard II to raise an army to repel the French forces from the realm. On June 13, 1385, Richard issued the official feudal levy employing the distraint of knighthood, the last time it was used anywhere in Europe in the Middle Ages, and raised the third largest army on English soil during the fourteenth century. After only several months of raiding in the Scottish countryside, without ever confronting the French forces directly, Richard and his army returned home. The show of force seems to have sufficiently quelled the problem in Scotland at the time since there were no further raids by French forces afterwards. While it is true that the Norwich crusade (1382-83), the French response to it (1384-85), and Richard's invasion of Scotland to repel their presence there (1385) did not collectively amount to any substantial military action in the field--no single battle was fought during the period, a fact which may diminish the significance of the events from a military point of view--the episode did produce important social consequences. May McKisack notes that the end result of the Norwich crusade saw "the bishop of Norwich, the Urbanist cause, and, indeed, the whole Church . . . gravely discredited by the gross abuse of indulgences and by the exploits of an army of marauders masquerading as soldiers of the Cross." One way of comprehending Chaucer's decision to include a pardoner on his pilgrimage concerns the fact that their activities discredited the church through their participation in helping to finance schismatic warfare between the rival obediences. This is yet another sin one can attribute to the Pardoner by virtue of his occupational ideology.
This may seem like a rather heavy burden of historical fact to place on a mere four lines of Chaucer's General Prologue but, in reality, every member of Chaucer's audience was intimately aware of the events associated with the Norwich crusade and its immediate aftermath. Indeed, all of these events occurred only a few years before Chaucer began work on the Canterbury Tales and no one would argue that they had receded into the deep places of the far away in the national consciousness. Chaucer does not abandon the issue in the Squire's portrait either. In the link he composed to join the Squire's Tale and the Franklin's Tale in Fragment V, he brings the subject up again in a subtle reference to the concept of the distraint of knighthood when the Franklin says:
I have a sone, and by the Trinitee,
I hadde levere than twenty pound worth lond,
Though it right now were fallen in myn hond,
He were a man of swich discresioun
As that ye been! Fy on possessioun,
But if a man be vertuous withal! (V.682-687)
This comment of the Franklin to the Squire is usually taken as a compliment to the Knight's son and is justified in the context as a way for the Franklin to excuse himself to his social superiors for his implied rudeness in interrupting the Squire's Tale. His mention of the "twenty pound worth lond," however, suggests a different motive. A man like the Franklin, who clearly already possesses land which produces an annual income of twenty pounds would have been able to enter the ranks of the knightly class by simply pledging his fealty to the king and promising to respond to the king's call for men-at-arms during a national crisis like the one occasioned by the French invasion of Scotland in 1384. In exchange for benefits of title, which the Franklin clearly desires, he would have been bound to respond to the king's use of the feudal levy. If he refused to serve, the king was empowered as monarch of crown lands, which the knightly class held in tenure, estate to estate, to seize any and all land held by the "rebellious" knight in equal value to the amount of revenue specified by the distraint of knighthood in the feudal levy. The Franklin, however, simply refuses to accept the obligations of knighthood. Harry Bailly's response to the Franklin's speech in the link, "Straw for youre gentilesse!" (V.695), indicates that Harry, and probably the other pilgrims as well, are perfectly aware of the man's hypocrisy, aware of the fact that his words to the Squire are accentuated with irony and sarcasm.
This point of view can be sustained by virtue of the fact that the Franklin is probably responding to the knowledge of the Squire's participation in the Norwich crusade. When the Franklin refers to his son's habit "But for to pleye at dees, and to despende/ And lese al that he hath" (V.690-691), one cannot help but compare what he does, and has done, to what the audience knows about the Squire's national gamble in "chyvachie/ In Flaundres, in Artoys, and Pycardie." The bishop of Norwich, and his captains, put the reputation of England's military power at risk in an effort to depose the schismatic pope at Avignon and lost everything in that single throw of the dice. To believe that the Franklin might be serious in his praise of the Squire's rhetorical power (V.673-681) is one thing, but to assume that he also actually wishes his son to be considered in the same social context the Squire has achieved through his misadventures in Flanders is the same as ignoring the historical reality of that national embarrassment. The Franklin's comparison, then, between his son and the Squire, says plainly enough that his son only wastes and squanders his own possessions while the Squire has managed to throw away the reputation of the military traditions created by Edward III and has brought down on England in response to the Norwich debacle a French invasion force to Scotland which had to be repelled at considerable expense to the crown.
In the Franklin's Tale itself, Chaucer seems to reinforce the connection he has established between the Squire's participation in the Norwich crusade and the Franklin's reference to the value of the land involved in the distraint of knighthood in the feudal levy. After the first blissful year of marriage to Dorigen, Arveragus,
Shoop hym to goon and dwelle a yeer or tweyne
In Engelond, that cleped was eek Briteyne,
To seke in armes worshipe and honour--
For al his lust he sette in swich labour--
And dwelled ther two yeer . . . (V.809-813)
The fact that time and duration are essentially arbitrary in romance genres draws attention to Chaucer's narrowing of that duration with respect to Arveragus's absence in England. The first line of the passage gives one more than enough information about the length of Arveragus's military service, "a yeer or tweyne," to satisfy romance convention and so one is left with the question as to why, just three lines later, Chaucer minimizes the duration at exactly "two yeer." One answer to that question can be read as Chaucer's intention for his audience to associate Arveragus's absence from home with the French invasion of Scotland that was prompted by the Norwich crusade. French presence there lasted from 1384 to 1385.
The obvious objection to this assertion is that the Franklin's story is about "Thise olde gentil Britouns in hir dayes" (V.709), a fact which seems to preclude any reference to contemporary events. The issue of genre here, which is reflected in Chaucer's decision to introduce a Breton Lai as opposed to the open-ended, and even endless, frame-romance half-told by the Squire, is one that must be kept separate from issues of content. To put this more directly, the reference to "olde gentil Britouns" reflects a generic choice that does not include a temporal framework for the actions that ensue in the story because that framework is so clearly expressed as covering a period of only "two yeer" by the narrator himself. The brevity and specificity of the temporal frame violates the romance chronotope which we have just seen in an exaggerated form in the Squire's Tale which the Franklin suspends with his interruption.
This same issue was encountered earlier in the discussion of the Second Nun's Tale. The saint's legend of Cecile, which exists as Chaucer's source in Latin, is an "olde" form of the story. Chaucer, and his agent, the Second Nun, have "translated" it into a new form, which may, or may not, be an adequate expression of the original. The new form is a contemporary event that Chaucer specifically refers to in the Prologue of the Second Nun's Tale and by doing so makes it an object of evaluation, not as an example of the past, but as an example of contemporary literary production. The only thing one can evaluate in that specific context is the social milieu of the Second Nun in order to determine whether or not her view of a Christian saint maintains the same standards and principles expressed by the original. Chaucer does exactly the same thing in the Franklin's Tale and emphasizes that point precisely when Harry Bailly says, "Straw for youre gentilesse!" The Franklin tries to pass his view of the aristocracy off on the pilgrims under the guise that it really belongs, not to him, but to "[t]hise olde gentil Britouns."
The possibility that Chaucer's original audience would have recognized the Franklin's ploy for what it is, an appeal to the ideals of chivalry as they existed in the past even as his speech performance generated a parodic undercurrent which questions contemporary standards of behavior, rests firmly on the ground of Chaucer's genre choice for the story. Laura Hibbard Loomis, in her study of Chaucer's probable knowledge of the Auchinleck MS, examines the verbal parallels between the description of the Breton Lai in the opening lines of Sir Orfeo and the Franklin's introduction to his story (V.709-715). She concludes that Chaucer probably modeled his perception of the genre's characteristics on that primary source (22-23). She also argues that by Chaucer's day (1350-1400) the genre itself was "out of date and fashion" in the literary tastes of court culture (17). She finds a number of other parallels between the Franklin's Tale and Sir Orfeo as well (24-29), the most significant of which is the fact that both works depend upon a relationship between married lovers for their plots where no other so-called Breton Lai has that "exceptional theme" as its primary feature (25).
The fact that Chaucer may have chosen a Breton Lai for the Franklin's Tale, a genre choice reflecting an out-of-fashion type, in order to undercut contemporary court standards can be seen in the fact that he intentionally violates at least one significant convention of the form. His violation of the convention tends to suggest a conscious effort to bring his story forward into contact with contemporary ideologies. Kathryn Hume states that most Breton Lais use magical conventions for plot development or resolution which are "accomplished through the innate power of faerie beings" or that the magic events occur without any justification at all (370). She goes on to note that "[a] figure like Chaucer's medieval, university-trained, mortal magician, whose power is based on book-learning rather that 'natural' power, is foreign to the lais" (370). Chaucer's "clerk of Orléans" in the Tale, who may actually depend on lunar charts to predict a high tide that conceals the black rocks along the coast of Brittany, is the kind of figure one would expect as a symbolic type capable of pulling the entire story into a contemporary milieu. It is also worth noting that Chaucer ridicules the notion of fairy in general by having the hero of his own Tale of Sir Thopas engaged in the pursuit of the Queen of Fairy as a love object. The essential content of the discourse, then, remains an expression, not of "[t]hise olde gentil Britouns," but of people and events more consistent with Chaucer's own field of ideological expression. Using a lunar table to predict a high tide also tends to draw this story, chronotopically speaking, out of the long ago world of the Franklin's stated generic type into direct contact with the real-time chronotope of the frame.
A significant part of Chaucer's technique for accomplishing this transition can be found in his earlier redactions of the myth of Aeneas and Dido, first in the House of Fame (239-387) and again in the Legend of Good Women (924-1367), where he uses certain significant aspects of the story as a foregrounding text for his treatment of Arveragus and Dorigen in the Franklin's Tale. In the House of Fame, according to Sheila Delany, Chaucer's attitude toward Aeneas in the first section of his narrative is "distinctly sympathetic," allowing us to recognize him as "the Virgilian hero, known for piety and familial devotion." In Virgil's account, Aeneas is driven to abandon Dido because he must fulfill his heroic destiny by sailing to Italy. The ghost of his wife, Creusa, in the House of Fame, as we are told
Bad hym to flee the Grekes host,
And seyde he moste unto Itayle,
As was hys destinee, sauns faille; (186-188)
and we are led to believe by that statement that Aeneas's motivation is both pious and consistent with one who is devoted to his family. As Larry D. Benson points out, however, in Virgil's account it is Hector's ghost who appears to Aeneas in this context, not Aeneas's wife (1067). In the Legend of Good Women, Chaucer refers properly to Hector as one source of Aeneas's sense of his own destiny (934) but states a few lines later that it is Venus who instructs him to flee Troy's destruction (940). Subtle alterations in Chaucer's redactions of famous stories and myths, which are not at all uncommon, very often signal important changes in the way he perceives and reports the "sentence" of his source material.
Delany argues, for instance, that Chaucer deliberately shifts his vision of Aeneas's character in the House of Fame from Virgil's account, which is generally favorable and emphasizes his duty (destiny) to reach Italy, to Ovid's version of the same story where "Aeneas is transformed . . . into a calculating seducer of women" (51-52). In the Legend of Good Women, Chaucer seems to emphasize Aeneas's commitment to his heroic destiny, if only by referring to it more often than he did in the earlier treatment, when he has Aeneas report his explanation for leaving Cartage to Dido:
"Certes," quod he, "this nyght my faderes gost
Hath in my slep so sore me tormented
And ek Murcurye his message hath presented,
That nedes to the conquest of Ytayle
My destine is sone for to sayle;
For which, me thynketh, brosten is myn herte!" (1295-1300)
The weight here of his claim to be driven by his father's ghost and a message from the gods, whether genuine or not, and certainly part of Chaucer's intent in the story is to question the validity of tradition (fame) and the truth of the hero's spoken words, does foreground the appearance that Aeneas is following his duty out of "familial devotion" (now his "faderes gost") and his heroic destiny out of "piety" (Mercury's message). At the same time, of course, Chaucer's sympathies clearly lie with the tragic fate of Dido as a woman who has been betrayed by a cruel, heartless, and duplicitous "seducer of women."
The explanation given for Arveragus's absence from Brittany, which generates the plot of the Franklin's Tale in whole because it is the only justification given for Dorigen's subsequent behavior, is that he has gone to England for two years to pursue honor in battle against France's traditional fourteenth century enemy. Arveragus's motivation for joining an expedition to England is essentially the same as the Squire's, on the surface at least, "To seke in armes worshipe and honour," as opposed to the Squire's "hope to stonden in his lady grace" (I.88). One does have the sense, however, that Arveragus's motivation is considerably more elevated than the Squire's seems to be, if only because he is already married and the Squire is not. In fact, Arveragus has already performed the "greet emprise" (V.732) that won Dorigen's heart. As a consequence, one can probably assume that Arveragus's service is in response to his feudal obligation to serve as a man-at-arms for his king or his duke, and not as a chivalric effort to attract his lady's favorable gaze. The Franklin's reference to the distraint of knighthood in the real-time chronotope of his Prologue reinforces our expectation that Arveragus is fulfilling his feudal obligations in this context.
That point is probably explicitly expressed when the Franklin characterizes Dorigen's reaction to Arveragus's departure in the following terms:
She moorneth, waketh, wayleth, fasteth, pleyneth;
Desir of his presence hire so destreyneth
That al this wyde world she sette at noght. (V.819-821)
In terms of the distraint of knighthood, Chaucer's use of the word "destreyneth" in the description of Dorigen's state of mind, which has been brought upon her by virtue of Arveragus's fulfillment of his feudal obligations, coupled with the fact that the entire physical universe ("this wyde world") has become the price she must pay for her failure to honor her own "trouthe" to her husband, sets the tone and philosophical parameters for the rest of the Franklin's speech performance. Everything that happens after her loss of restraint stems from that single cause. The point is that Dorigen, when she married Arveragus, knew he was a knight and therefore subject to the call of the feudal levy in service to the crown. One can only expect her to accept the terms of his obligation, his "trouthe," to the king as an integral part of her own promise to him to be his "humble trewe wyf" (V.758). Instead of doing that, however, she promises a lowly squire, Aurelius, who has not accompanied the invasion force to England, that she will commit adultery with him if he removes the dangerous rocks along the coast of Brittany. That second promise dishonors her husband and illustrates the point made by the Squire that men, as the tercelet does to the falcon, will spurn the highest estate to seek pleasure with the lowest kind available (kyte) (V.610-629). The Manciple (IX.183-186) extends this commonplace to include, if not exclusively focus on, women in his Tale of Phebus being betrayed by his wife's adultery with a "man of litel reputacioun" (IX.199).
The elements of Chaucer's legend of a good woman (Dido) that inform or mirror, as in parody, the Franklin's Tale should be obvious. Arveragus leaves (abandons) Dorigen to fulfill his duty to his liege-lord by serving as a man-at-arms in England for a year or two. His absence is totally unconflicted by any hint of a duplicitous, or hidden, motivation. Dorigen responds as Dido does by sinking into profound despair. Dorigen, however, does not kill herself because of her lover's absence; instead, she makes a rash promise to a squire (Aurelius) to love him "best of any man" (V.997), if he can make the black rocks along the coast disappear "stoon by stoon" (V.993), as she puts it. Chaucer's most obvious inversion of the original myth, and at the heart of his parody, surfaces when he has Dorigen begin her contemplation of suicide, not when her husband leaves, though it may be implicit in her first response to his absence, but when it becomes clear to her, because the rocks have been removed, that he will certainly return safely home again. That parodic strategy turns Dorigen's complaint, often perceived as a disruptive digression in his artistic performance, into an extended satire of courtly love conventions, and of the dictates of patristic discourse on the proper behavior of women, Jerome specifically, because his "heroine" is clearly ridiculous in her recital of examples that never quite play down to the level of her own predicament. In other words, there cannot be a tragic denouement in the Franklin's Tale because Dorigen is not Dido; she is Dido's parodic double.
The point to be taken here is that recognizing Chaucer's re-inscription of the Aeneas-Dido myth in the Franklin's Tale clarifies the issues being engaged. The apparent failure of the story, in critical views of it, to meet conventional expectations stems not from the Franklin's narrative ineptitude, nor from Chaucer's artistic failures, but from a misreading of his parodic intent. At the same time, it also becomes clear that Chaucer has prepared for the reader's reception of the Franklin's story through his recital of its essential form in both earlier versions of the myth in the House of Fame and in the Legend of Good Women.
One implication that can be read from this is that Chaucer has indeed built a solid ground in his artistic activity for the use of contemporary events to inscribe the terms of his juxtaposition of the Squire and the Franklin in Fragment V of the Ellesmere sequence. The Squire's frame romance is so far removed from the concrete milieu of fourteenth century court reality, at least on its surface, that its teller exposes himself as precisely the kind of person who could participate in the Norwich crusade and never become aware of the damage it caused to England's military reputation. The Franklin, first when he interrupts the Squire's Tale with his words about his own son's wasteful habits framed with the reference to the value of the annual income from land that would qualify them both for entry into the aristocracy, and again, in the tale itself, when he uses the reference to the distraint of knighthood in describing Dorigen's reaction to her husband's fidelity to his feudal obligations, draws us firmly into the milieu of events that occurred in the aftermath of the Squire's campaign in Flanders and Picardy. Arveragus's military service in England for two years brings into sharp focus the French invasion of Scotland by Jean de Vienne in 1384 and 1385. That action was a direct response to the Squire's Norwich crusade. The issue of the distraint of knighthood, which colors Dorigen's behavior in explicit terms, calls to mind Richard II's use of the feudal levy in 1385 in response to the French invasion during the previous year. The fact that these events occurred in such close proximity to Chaucer's work on the Canterbury Tales, and the fact that they were notorious throughout England, makes it certain that no one in his original audience had forgotten the events to which he refers. The fact that he parodies his own discourse in the context of the Aeneas-Dido myth makes the political and social implications of the Franklin's story explicit.
The point to emphasize here, of course, is not so much whether Chaucer actually intends for his audience to recall the historical reality of the Norwich crusade in each of its details, though that does not seem an unreasonable expectation, as it is an issue of whether or not one can understand Chaucer's design in the Squire-Franklin link in a formalistic vacuum that completely excludes as a matter of course any reference at all to the historical and sociological implications of the stories as Chaucer has told them. Many critics view the Franklin's Tale as a conclusion to the marriage debate initiated in Fragment III by the Wife of Bath but, at the same time, do not always acknowledge that subject as having or expressing a significant sociological implication. Even worse, critics generally fail to consider the political, even military, implications of the Franklin's Tale, preferring to evaluate the relationship between Dorigen and Arveragus outside the political value structure of fourteenth century Europe that always privileged marriage as a means of creating political alliances among members of the aristocracy. In light of the fact that Richard II's marriage to Isabella, Charles VI's daughter, in 1396, effectively terminated the Hundred Years' War between England and France, and served virtually no other master, as it were, surely suggests that Chaucer's perception of aristocratic marriage had more to do with issues of political expediency than it did with more modern expectations that marriage is about love between equal partners in a privatized relationship. How we perceive Chaucer's conceptualization of marriage determines how we read the story of Dorigen and Arveragus. Applying contemporary standards of behavior and expectation to fourteenth century practices may satisfy our need to make a sensible response to Chaucer's story but it does not tell us anything about Chaucer's motivation in telling the story that has come down to us.
If anything, the Franklin's Tale is a satire on the subject of love, courtly or otherwise, becoming the foundation for an aristocratic marriage. The point of the Franklin's story is that Dorigen loves Arveragus, and why else would "Desir of his presence" so distrain her that she would set the entire physical world "at noght," but shows virtually no respect at all for his honor as it relates to his feudal obligation. Desire always points to avarice in the Middle Ages and is never a virtue. A society caught up in as much war as Chaucer's was cannot long survive if every wife of a man-at-arms behaves the way Dorigen does when her husband is called to service in a foreign campaign. The way the story ends, without comment at all even after the Franklin asks the question, "Which was the mooste fre" (V.1622), suggests that Chaucer has already answered it--when Harry Bailly says, "Straw for youre gentilesse!" No one, apparently, has heard anything that changes Harry's assessment of the Franklin's perception of nobility. Chaucer lets it stand and moves his group of pilgrims along the road to the Physician's Tale.
The fact that Chaucer gives us a profoundly contemporary
context in which to evaluate the Franklin's Tale, one that
clearly demonstrates the artistic motivation underlying his
decision to link the Squire and the Franklin in Fragment V of the
Ellesmere sequence, makes it obvious that a formal approach to
the story, which deliberately excludes as a function of its
methodology the very context of the events that constitute the
substance of the tale, must ultimately fail to tell us anything
useful about both its meaning and its significance to the
Canterbury project as a whole. Instead of viewing the tale as a
conclusion to a marriage debate that privileges a modern notion
of equality between the male and female member of the
relationship, a notion that has little if any ground in
fourteenth century social ideology, it seems more reasonable to
assume Chaucer was concerned with issues involved in marriage
contracts between members of aristocratic families meant to
create or extend political connections favorable to both crown
and "commune profit." Richard's marriage to Isabella,
as a major factor in ending the Hundred Years' War, is a more
likely model for his artistic motivation than one can find in a
relationship which has no practical existence in the
sociohistorical milieu at the time. Dorigen's behavior addresses
an issue of social chaos, in her promise to commit adultery
against the sacrament of holy matrimony with a lowly squire who
has avoided military service, which was both a fairly common
possibility and threat in the context of a "century" of
war and was also an issue raised previously by the
"sentence" of the Knight's Tale. To miss that vital
connection in Chaucer's design, only for the sake of a critical
methodology that excludes the relevance of an actual social
context, makes it reasonable to fashion a thorough re-evaluation
of Chaucer's greatest literary achievement from a point of view
that takes advantage of our knowledge of his real social,
political, and historical milieu.