Steven Rigby

title.none: Bisson, Chaucer and the Late Medieval World (Rigby)

identifier.other: baj9928.9810.008 98.10.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Steven Rigby, University of Manchester,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Bisson, Lillian. Chaucer and the Late Medieval World. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press, 1998. Pp. x, 294. $45.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-312010667-X.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.10.08

Bisson, Lillian. Chaucer and the Late Medieval World. New York, NY: St. Martin's Press, 1998. Pp. x, 294. $45.00. ISBN: ISBN 0-312010667-X.

Reviewed by:

Steven Rigby
University of Manchester

The starting-point of Lillian M. Bisson's attempt to place Chaucer in his historical context is John Ganim's observation that recent critics, whether conservative or radical, "have given us a Chaucer much more deeply implicated in fourteenth- century controversy" than had previously been recognized. Bisson convincingly offers a picture of the late medieval world as one of social, intellectual and religious conflict and crisis. However, as she rightly points out, the problem is that, as yet, "no consensus has emerged" about where Chaucer's own loyalties lay in such conflicts (pp. vii-viii). Indeed, at the moment, Chaucerian scholarship is polarised between, on the one hand, radical and conservative critics who perceive Chaucer's work an expression of the dominant ideology/official culture of the day and, on the other, those radical critics who are able to find in Chaucer a writer of like mind; as far as I know, no conservative critic has yet been able to discern a radical or dissenting content in Chaucer's work.

Bisson's study attempts to provide us with some of the context which would allow modern readers to understand the issues with which Chaucer was grappling and perhaps even to arrive at our own view of where Chaucer's personal sympathies lay. The implied reader seems to be that elusive creature the general reader or perhaps the undergraduate student of literature who has no prior knowledge of medieval social or cultural history.

The book is structured logically, beginning in Part I with very able summaries of the dominant medieval view and the literary theories of the medieval period before passing on to discussions of religion, social structure and gender (Parts II- IV) and then concluding with an overview of Chaucer's 'carnivalesque' achievement. The only disappointment here is that a chapter was not devoted to kingship and government, issues which did, after all, loom rather large in Richard II's reign.

The book has a number of virtues. It is written in a clear and engaging style; draws the reader's attention to a mass of recent discussion about the social meaning of Chaucer's work; and is always fair to those whose views it summarises or disagrees with. Students are likely to find Part I of the book, which outlines the origins of the medieval world-view in classical, patristic and scholastic thought and sets out the varieties of medieval attitudes to literature, particularly useful whilst the later chapters conveniently summarise a mass of historical scholarship which most students and teachers of literature are unlikely to plough through for themselves.

Nevertheless, although sympathetic to the author's general project, I would hesitate before recommending the book to my own students as a text-book on the background to Chaucer. In particular, Parts II, III and IV of the book, which shift to more traditional history are rather less satisfactory than the extremely valuable opening chapters on intellectual and cultural history. Firstly, the assumption of total ignorance on the part of the reader means that ideas and institutions (the papacy, monasticism, serfdom etc.) are often traced back for centuries with little apparent relevance for the interpretation of Chaucer's work so that history and literature are just left sitting alongside each other. For instance, does the reader of Chaucer really need to know about the arrival of the Cistercians in the twelfth century in England or the theft of relics in ninth-century France?

Secondly, the historical background provided is often that of 'medieval Europe' rather than the specificities of late medieval England. This is perfectly natural when discussing the common European intellectual heritage but it is more problematic when discussing social and economic trends. For example, the situation of the peasantry, a key issue in late fourteenth-century English social history, is illustrated with examples from works such as Evergates's study of the bailliage of Troyes, 1152-1284. The result is that a vocabulary is imported which makes little sense in the context of late medieval England, such as the distinction between 'peasant' and 'serf' or the use of the 'manor system' to mean labour services and the 'village system' to refer to money rents (pp. 147-9). A related problem is that the secondary sources which are used (e.g. Russell and Ziegler from the 1960s on the Black Death) are not the most recent summaries of the subject. The decision to cite without criticism Chambers's views (from 1903) on fertility rituals (p. 245) was even more unwise.

Thirdly, Bisson's historical contextualisation contains a number of factual errors. For instance, the Avignon papacy is not usually dated as from 1303-78 (p. 53); monks did not occupy a majority of seats in the House of Lords (p. 81); hopes for peace between England and France had not been defeated by 1397 (p. 136): on the contrary, the two countries had signed a 28- year truce in the previous year; the Essex rebels of 1381 did not converge on Blackheath (which is on the other side of the Thames) nor did the Kent rebels who had already entered London via London bridge then need to re-enter the city through Aldgate (p. 155); Alan Macfarlane did not write a book called John Wycliffe and the Beginnings of English Conformity (p. 233) etc. etc. Other claims are not literally incorrect but are perhaps misleading. For instance, whilst it is true that John Wyclif was not personally condemned of heresy in his own lifetime (p. 57), his views most certainly were.

Fourthly, some of the historical interpretations offered may draw raised eyebrows from historians. For instance, was Lollardy in the late fourteenth century a "popular discourse" (p. 71)? Bisson's own analysis of Lollardy, with its emphasis on the role of Oxford theologians and Lollard knights suggests that it was not. The example of the Lollard text "Pierce the Ploughman's Crede", which attacks the promotion of the poor in the church instead of the sons of noblemen (lines 744-59) also suggests that the equation of Lollard views with popular discourses is problematic. Similarly, the peasant rebels who queued up to receive charters of freedom in 1381 may have been surprised to know that one day their revolt would be seen as an attack on "literate culture" (p. 156).

Finally, the interpretations of Chaucer on offer are frequently indecisive and agnostic (for instance on the merchant in the Shipman's Tale (p. 182) or rather cursory (as when the fifteen pages spent discussing pilgrimage conclude with two pages on the importance of pilgrimage in Chaucer). More generally, it is never clear how Bisson conceives of the relationship between literature and social reality. There is, for instance, a contradiction between seeing Chaucer's portraits, for instance of the friars, as reflecting historical reality (pp. 97-8) and, on the other hand, as the expressions of decades-old stereotypes (p. 90). There is here a lack of awareness of Scase's work on the 'new anti-clericalism' which emphasises how stereotypes altered and evolved to meet new needs and interests. As a result, whilst it is perfectly possible that Chaucer saw his own literary project as akin to heresy (p. 71) and was a pacifist (p. 142) with a sympathetic understanding of the grievances of the 1381 rebels (pp. 146, 163) and an ability, through the Wife of Bath, to create the illusion of a real woman speaking (p. 213), Bisson's analysis is unlikely to persuade the reader who is not already convinced of these positions. The imbalance between, on the one hand, the extensive background material and, on the other, the brief analyses of Chaucer's texts means that, where they are provided, Bisson's own views tend to be asserted rather than argued through.

In a sense, Bisson's work is an expression of the impasse which Chaucer studies have now reached. Whilst the need to see Chaucer in his historical context is the orthodoxy of the day, the particular contextualisations we are offered tend to be the work either of literary critics, whose grasp of fourteenth- century history is often rather tenuous, or, alternatively, of historians, whose idea of literary analysis is to identify real-life characters and allusions to actual historical events in Chaucer's text. The interdisciplinary union of literature and history remains the Holy Grail of medieval studies but, as yet, whilst the field has many a Lancelot who enjoys a vision of the Grail, it is yet to find its Perceval, Galahad or Bors who can complete the quest.