The Medieval Review 11.10.23

Fein, Susanna and David Raybin. Chaucer: Contemporary Approaches. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2009. Pp. vii-xiii, 259. $65. ISBN 978-0-271-03567-3. . .

Reviewed by:

Stephen Partridge
University of British Columbia

This collection of essays grew out of Kalamazoo sessions that were intended to celebrate forty years of the Chaucer Review, but also to outline where Chaucer studies stand now and which directions they might take next. To the historical and literary critical approaches that inspired the founding of the Chaucer Review and have long occupied many of its pages, therefore, have been added more theoretical engagements, and what might be broadly characterized as archival approaches. One admirable agenda of the editors in commissioning these essays is to encourage those working in the increasingly diverse field of Chaucer studies to learn more about each others' approaches to the poet and his contexts. The volume's contributors, from both sides of the Atlantic, from several generations, and from a genuine variety of critical "faiths," have fulfilled this agenda with generous and accessible surveys.

The editors arrange the chapters in four groups. The first, "Chaucer's Places, " includes essays by Robert R. Edwards on "Italy," Ardis Butterfeld on "France," and Kathy Lavezzo on "England." The second, "Chaucer's Audiences," consists of Simon Horobin's essay on "Manuscripts and Scribes" and Seth Lerer's on "Receptions: Medieval, Tudor, Modern." Two essays on "Chaucer and Language" follow, Karla Taylor's "Language in Use" and "Colonialism, Latinity, and Resistance" by John M. Bowers. The collection concludes with a disparate set of essays grouped under the heading "Reenvisioning Chaucer": Laura Kendrick's "Humor in Perspective," A. C. Spearing's "Dream Poems," Glenn Burger's "Gender and Sexuality," and Steven Justice's "Literary History." The editors acknowledge that the book does not have space to represent some contemporary approaches, including feminism (though Burger surveys some of the most influential such work), aesthetics, and performance studies.

In general, each chapter begins by reviewing critical approaches to its topic, especially those employed during the period since the Chaucer Review was founded. It then describes aspects of theory or method that have been in play in the most recent criticism, or that might be brought into the conversation, and demonstrates the potential of these approaches by reference to one or more specific examples from Chaucer's work (sometimes comparing Chaucer to others). Finally, contributors propose broader implications of these recent developments and possible directions for further inquiry. Essays vary in the relative space they devote to each of these tasks. For example, Burger devotes much of his essay to tracing the history and relationships of feminist and gender criticism and queer studies before he offers a relatively brief re-reading of the Clerk's Tale, while Justice's powerful reassessment of historicist approaches never settles into a specific illustrative instance from Chaucer's oeuvre. Other chapters, such as Spearing's, Taylor's, and Butterfield's, argue primarily by working through a series of examples, though even here theory has a presence, as when Butterfield productively cites Derrida's Le Monolinguisme to illuminate the linguistic and literary situation of Chaucer's England.

One observes several patterns in these essays. First, Chaucer's writing is represented predominantly by the Tales, and to a lesser extent by the dream poems. In this the essays may fairly represent tendencies in recent Chaucer criticism. Lerer gives the only extended attention to Troilus or the shorter poems (specifically "Truth"), and then in the context of their reception, while Horobin, urging that manuscript scholarship extend its attention beyond copies of the Tales, summarizes some recent discoveries about the early audience of the Boece. Second, these essays collectively demonstrate the continuing usefulness of close attention to Chaucer's words. Edwards, for example, identifies a nexus of words such as "foreign," "stranger," and "familiar" that recur in references to Italy by Chaucer and Gower. Taylor finds new things to say about the connotations of "cozen" and "cosinage" in the Shipman's Tale, as well as about Chaucer's use of "deliberacion" and "arbitracioun" in the Melibee. Lavezzo makes her case that Thopas alludes to England's geographic isolation most compelling when she identifies its ludicrous characterization of Flanders as a "fer contree" as an echo of Guy of Warwick's description of his homeland as a "farre Contree."

Third, perhaps due to their origins in a celebration of the Chaucer Review, many of these essays share a bias toward emphasizing the collaborative, incremental quality of criticism and scholarship and tend to downplay how contentious Chaucer studies can be. Horobin, for instance, by drawing his examples to illustrate developments in method from later and lesser known manuscripts, skirts the debates about what narrative might best explain what we find in the earliest surviving copies of the Tales. Butterfield, to be sure, laments the tendency of scholarship to cling to the view of Chaucer's relationship to the French tradition articulated by Charles Muscatine half a century ago, and Kendrick draws attention to the relative dearth of scholarship on Chaucer's humor. Yet this volume's essays can become most engaging when the scholarly disagreements are most visible, as when Spearing criticizes widespread assumptions about Chaucer's learning and about the nature of the "I" in his dream poems, or Justice calls for a renewed and specifically literary history to engage with the varieties of historicist argument that have recently dominated the field.

One nevertheless can spot significant differences between these essays, even when they are not explicitly responding to each other. For example, Lavezzo praises the lively, heterogeneous mix of vernaculars spoken in Britain, including in London, "while Latin, to all intents and purposes a dead language, was recited during services in churches" (49)--a dismissal which discounts the increasing numbers of friars, university students, and clerks in secular administration who may well have enlarged the presence of Latin in everyday life during the later Middle Ages, especially in the cities and large towns. Bowers, rather like Lavezzo, asserts that Latin was suffering a "process of erosion and domestication in which Chaucer participated throughout his career as a bureaucrat and civil servant" (117). According to Bowers, "Chaucer launched a literary insurgency against this foreign incursion [i.e., of Latin in England] with a wide-ranging translation project" (117-18). On a more micocosmic level, Chaucer "engaged in a playful mockery of Latin" (119) at various specific points in the Tales, such as when Chantecleer famously and comically mistranslates "In principio, / Mulier est hominis confusio." But one could read these rather as signs of an evolution conjectured by Spearing, which is that "as the fourteenth century proceeded, the audiences for which [Chaucer] wrote may gradually have come to be better educated" (161). One notices that Chaucer's "Latin jokes" are clustered in the relatively late Canterbury Tales, which might suggest that Chaucer is appealing through a set of in-jokes for membership in a Latinate (and male) milieu for which he is writing.

Such points of disagreement, between contributors and in the minds of readers, are inevitable and healthy. These essays do some of their best work when they make explicit debates about fundamental assumptions which often remain tacit in more specifically focused scholarship and criticism. The editors and contributors are to be commended for an admirably clear and lively set of essays that will help enable scholars of many persuasions to understand and converse with one another; may their work be continued.