Katherine Little

title.none: McCormack, Chaucer and the Culture (Katherine Little )

identifier.other: baj9928.0804.028 08.04.28

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Katherine Little , Fordham University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2008

identifier.citation: McCormack, Frances. Chaucer and the Culture of Dissent: The Lollard Context and Subtext of the Parson's Tale. Portland, OR: Four Courts Press, 2007. Pp. 252. $65 $65 978-1-84682-049-6. ISBN: 978-1-84682-049-6.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 08.04.28

McCormack, Frances. Chaucer and the Culture of Dissent: The Lollard Context and Subtext of the Parson's Tale. Portland, OR: Four Courts Press, 2007. Pp. 252. $65 $65 978-1-84682-049-6. ISBN: 978-1-84682-049-6.

Reviewed by:

Katherine Little
Fordham University

The relationship between Chaucer's Parson in his Canterbury Tales and the late medieval English heresy Lollardy has pre- occupied Chaucerians at least since Hugo Simon's essay, "Chaucer a Wicliffite," published in 1876 (an essay which the study under review does not mention). [1] The traditional evidence for the Parson's Lollardy (as suggested by Simon and others) is, of course, the description in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales and the Epilogue to the Man of Law's Tale, in which the Shipman calls the Parson a "lollere." As far as the Parson's Tale is concerned, the scholarly consensus remains that it is "perfectly orthodox" in the words of the editor of the Riverside Chaucer. [2] In returning to the matter of the Parson's Lollardy, McCormack's study proposes a new approach: the Tale is not the orthodox treatise it has been taken to be. Instead, it shows evidence of Lollard language and ideas.

After laying out her argument in a brief introduction, McCormack discusses Chaucer's sympathies with Lollardy. Here she is going over well-trodden ground: the description in the General Prologue and the Epilogue to the Man of Law's Tale as well as Chaucer's acquaintance with the so-called Lollard knights. In the second chapter, she turns to "Lollard language" in the Tale, drawing on a series of other scholars to identify various aspects of Lollard language: Anne Hudson's essentializing discourse, "reverse discourse," and legal terms as identified by Helen Barr, and "institutional sin" as defined my own essay. [3] She then finds these "Lollard" traits in the Tale. Such a close approach to the language of the Tale would seem to be well worth doing, but McCormack's argument is more asserted than proven. For example, although she repeatedly refers to the Parson's "use of essentializing terms" (58), none of the terms that she discusses is particularly Lollard: for example, "wey" [way], "ordinaunce," or "noumbrid." In order to prove that Chaucer's usage is specifically Lollard, she would have to demonstrate that these words do not appear in orthodox penitential manuals and sermons. Indeed, she herself notes that "such terms are...part of the common language" (63). What then makes them Lollard in Chaucer's Tale and not in other instances? For McCormack, the answer is that Lollards "use them divisively, as part of their essentializing strategy" (63), but nowhere is this strategy distinguished from the orthodox uses. If "the vocabulary of the Tale...contains repeated words and phrases that are not typical of the traditional language of penance" (103), then we need to see that this is the case.

Chapter 3 turns to translation, arguing that Chaucer's view of translation resembles that of the Lollards. Once again, McCormack draws heavily on the work of another scholar of Lollardy, Andrew Cole, and then attempts to demonstrate that Chaucer's scriptural translations are indebted to the Wycliffite translation. [4] As in chapter 3, the evidence is inconclusive. Indeed, the examples she gives do not even share a majority of the same words with the Wycliffite translations. For example, Chaucer translates Matthew 5:44 thus, "Loveth youre enemys, and preyeth for hem that speke yow harm, and eek for hem that yow chacen and pursewen, and dooth bountee to hem that yow haten" (Matt. 5:44). The Wycliffite versions read as follows: "loue 3ee 3oure enemyes, do 3ee wel to hem that haten 3ou, and preye 3e for men pursuynge and falsly chalengynge 3ou" (Early Version) and "loue 3e 3oure enemyes, do 3e wel to hem that hatiden 3ou, and preye 3e for hem that pursuen and sclaundren 3ou" (Later Version). Perhaps more interestingly, McCormack notes both Chaucer's "experimental alterations" to scripture (135) and his independence from the translations used by his sources (149). This line of inquiry would seem to be more fruitful than any attempt to link Chaucer to the Wycliffite Bible.

The fourth and final chapter finds evidence of Lollard ideology on penance, the clergy, politics, and oaths in the Tale. For each of these, she aligns passages from the Tale with Lollard views. For example, in the Parson's discussion of avarice she finds a critique of church wealth that parallels Lollard critiques (221). Such a claim is certainly interesting, but one would have to consider the sources of the Parson's Tale in order to see how or whether Chaucer changes the context and the language of the original. In addition, any claims that Chaucer's anticlericalism is Lollard have to take into account non-Lollard anticlericalism, such as the popularity of antifraternalism at this time, extensively discussed by both Arnold Williams and Penn Szittya.

While the study certainly poses an interesting (and controversial) question, and its close attention to one of the least studied of Chaucer's Tales is admirable, I find myself not particularly persuaded quite simply because the evidence is so thin. Perhaps the most telling example is her seemingly paradoxical claim that the absence of the Decalogue is evidence of Parson's Lollardy precisely because the Lollards were known for their expositions of the Decalogue. Would the presence of the Decalogue then have indicated that the Tale is not Lollard? As far as Lollardy is concerned, the author presents throughout what seems to me to be a mistaken understanding: "the sect was predominantly political" (28) and again "a political movement operating under colour of ecclesiastical concerns" (81). Even more surprisingly, she appropriates Lollard values to liberalism's own: "Their promotion of the vernacular was thus essentially a promotion of the modern concepts of democracy and egalitarianism" (56). Surely a movement that took scripture as the basis for its tenets could also be considered religious? Finally, the author does not engage with enough of the critical literature on the Parson's Tale to give a sense of how her study would change the scholarly consensus about the meaning of the Tale. There is very little discussion of Lee Patterson's influential essay on the Tale, and Larry Scanlon's Narrative, Authority and Power is never mentioned. [5] The only object, it seems, is to prove that the Tale is Lollard, not what that might mean for Chaucer's project as a whole (his ending of the Tales) or for our understanding of penance.


[1] Hugo Simon, "Chaucer a Wicliffite: An Essay on Chaucer's Parson and Parson's Tale," Essays on Chaucer, Pt. III, Chaucer Society, 2nd series 16 (London, 1876): 227-92.

[2] The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), 863 n. 1173.

[3] Anne Hudson, "A Lollard Sect Vocabulary?" in M. Benskin, M. and M.L. Samuels, eds., So Meny People, Longages, and Tonges: Philological Essays in Scots and Mediaeval English Presented to Angus McIntosh (Edinburgh: Middle English Dialect Project, 1981), 15-30; Helen Barr, Signes and Sothe: Language in the Piers Plowman Tradition (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1994); and Katherine Little,"Catechesis and Castigation: Sin in the Wycliffite Sermon Cycle," Traditio 54 (1999): 213-44.

[4] "Chaucer's English Lesson," Speculum 77.4 (2002): 1128-67.

[5] "The 'Parson's Tale' and the Quitting of the 'Canterbury Tales,' Traditio 34 (1978): 331-80; Narrative, Authority and Power: the Medieval Exemplum and Chaucerian Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).