Robert S. Sturges

title.none: Cox, Gender and Language in Chaucer (Sturges)

identifier.other: baj9928.9807.010 98.07.10

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Robert S. Sturges, University of New Orleans,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Cox, Catherine. Gender and Language in Chaucer. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997. Pp. xi, 196. $49.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-813-01519-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.07.10

Cox, Catherine. Gender and Language in Chaucer. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997. Pp. xi, 196. $49.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-813-01519-7.

Reviewed by:

Robert S. Sturges
University of New Orleans

Gender and Language in Chaucer is a welcome addition to the burgeoning field of studies in medieval gender, primarily because the author makes an effort to link the study of gender in literature with another medieval and postmodern concern, hermeneutics. Her attempts to do so are sometimes more convincing, sometimes less so, but the connection itself is to be applauded, and to be investigated further.

While Cox's introduction announces that her topics are "[h]ow Chaucer uses manifestations of gender to articulate a metapoetics" and "what significance the interconnectedness of gender and textuality has in relation to the construction of a self-reflexive subjectivity," (5) her book is more a collection of essays directly or indirectly related to these matters (several of which have been published previously) than a single, coherent argument. This is not to be regarded as a failure: neither Chaucer nor medieval discourse in general speaks univocally on these issues, and Cox is right when she does not to try to make them do so. Nevertheless, as is to be expected of such an undertaking, some of the essays are more successful in their own terms than are others.

Following the introduction, "Gender and the Craft of Making" (1-17), this short book includes the following essays or chapters: "Promiscuous Glossing and Virgin Words," on the Wife of Bath's Prologue (18-38); "The Text of Criseyde," on Troilus and Criseyde (39-52); "'Wreched Engendrynge' and (wo)Mankynde," which uses the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women as a starting point for a discussion of the Physician's Tale, Second Nun's Tale, Man of Law's Tale, and Clerk's Tale (53-75); "Marks of Womanhood in the Ballades," which considers several of the shorter poems (76-96); "The Jangler's 'Bourde,'" on the Manciple's Tale (97-112); and "The Summoner's Subversive Erotics," on the Summoner's Tale (113-132). Even this brief list of chapter titles reveals one of the book's major flaws: the "gender" of Cox's title refers almost exclusively to the feminine gender. Except for the final chapter, with its consideration of male-male erotics, Cox's book examines Chaucerian perceptions of women, not really of "gender"; this bias has the curious (and, in a self-proclaimed feminist text, obviously unintentional) effect of reinforcing certain kinds of medieval (and modern) misogyny: "woman" remains the problematic category, the aspect of "gender" that needs to be explained and analyzed, while "man" and "the masculine" are largely taken for granted (except when they are in some way being feminized). To her credit, Cox does seem to understand this problem, declaring early on that "an evocation of one gender necessarily evokes the other as well," (11) but this is a weak response to the difficulty created by using the term "gender" throughout to refer mostly to women.

Another flaw is Cox's tendency to rely on small lumps of undigested theoretical material, both medieval and (post)modern, to provide context. Her strengths and, apparently, interests, lie more in the close readings of Chaucerian texts that occupy by far the greatest amount of textual space here, with the result that short forays into, say, Isidore of Seville (on the one hand) or Freud and Lacan (on the other) alternate with lengthy close textual analyses of Chaucer's texts--without, in many cases, being directly applied to them. A good example is the chapter entitled "Marks of Womanhood in the Ballades." Here Cox announces that "[a] brief look at current psychoanalytic lines of thought and their philosophical antecedents can frame our understanding of the association of feminine and absence germane to Chaucer's ballades." (77) Indeed it can, but the ensuing two-page whirlwind tour of Derrida, Irigaray, Lacan, Freud, Aristotle, Galen, and St. Paul can hardly be expected to do so, especially since they never reappear anywhere in the rest of the chapter; certainly their specific insights are never explicitly applied to the texts under consideration.

And while Cox does cite medieval contexts as well (such as the aforementioned Isidore), she rarely cites sources contemporary with Chaucer, too often assuming that if a source is generally "medieval" it must be relevant to Chaucer without further investigation, and thus betraying a monolithic view of the medieval period with little historical nuance. Such flaws are to be expected of a young scholar, and indeed Cox's book has in many ways a distinctly dissertationish feel; someone at the University Press of Florida might have done her a favor by recommending another revision or two before publication, especially one aimed at a better integration of the theoretical and the practical. (The author's sometimes obfuscating prose could have used some attention as well, especially her excessive fondness for the term "instrumentality," as in "[j]anglers may be 'to God abhomynable,' . . . but in the discourse of human interaction their instrumentality effectively resides" ["The Jangler's 'Bourde,'" 111]--whatever that means).

As stated above, the close readings themselves sometimes convince and sometimes do not. Many of them attempt to show that a particular medieval discourse on women or the feminine reveals itself, when it shows up in Chaucer's texts, to be more ambivalent and less coherent than it claims to be, in short, that medieval misogyny as reflected in Chaucer deconstructs itself. Cox thus places herself in one of the more powerful critical positions currently available to cultural critics: like, for example, Mark D. Jordan in The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology, Cox at her best finds and exposes the instabilities on which a medieval concept is based, in this case the medieval concept of woman or the feminine. Indeed, though Jordan's book appeared too late to have influenced Cox, her last and best chapter, "The Summoner's Subversive Erotics" (previously published in Exemplaria) could serve as a literary example of the unstable, self-deconstructing aspects of the concept of sodomy examined by Jordan, especially as it relates to medieval misogyny. Thus Cox, on the one hand, finds that the Summoner's Tale, in its rejection of the feminine, "privileges a compulsory heterosexual decorum of gender, language, and morality" (127), but, on the other hand, also argues convincingly that "glossing, like groping, becomes a masculine act performed on a masculine body. And if glossing and groping are sexual/textual acts performed by and imposed on gendered bodies, they do not necessarily observe orthodox dictates . . . . In this sense, Chaucer, I would argue, rejects the essentialism of sexual identity as a contingency of gender construction, thereby turning the arbitrariness of gendered decorum against itself" (131).

Fascinating as this chapter is, the reference to Chaucer above displays a further difficulty with the book as a whole: Cox throughout seems unable to decide whether Chaucer's works merely reflect the self-deconstructing instabilities inherent in medieval discourses of misogyny as a whole, or whether "Chaucer" himself, the male poet, perceives those instabilities and deliberately chooses to expose them. In the introduction, Cox declares forthrightly that it is discourse that will concern her, not authorial intentions: "[in] opening up a text's metacritical dimension for analysis, I do not purport to determine what Chaucer the poet wants to do but rather what the text does or might be doing, for Chaucer operates within an environment of cultural and literary production beyond his control, and his work is clearly a product of intersecting cultural forces." (5-6) All well and good; but in the subsequent chapters, the author time and again abandons this concern with discourse in general and does try to speak for Chaucer himself, sometimes finding him a typical misogynist but sometimes, as in the passage quoted above, finding that he subverts misogynous orthodoxies.

The problem, as I suggested above, is not that Cox's arguments are discontinuous: given the ambivalence and ambiguity in late medieval discourse on gender, honest discontinuity seems preferable to a forced rhetorical harmony. The difficulties arise instead when Cox, not satisfied with deconstructing medieval discourse, tries to attribute a postmodern feminist consciousness to Chaucer the medieval poet. Such moments occur regularly throughout this book, and seriously undermine many of the author's close readings. Thus in "Promiscuous Glossing and Virgin Words" (also previously published, in a different version, in Exemplaria), while on the one hand the Wife of Bath's Prologue "comes across as an anti- antifeminist (rather than 'feminist') misogamous discourse that may be read as a kind of antifeminist feminism" (37)--hardly a surprising or original conclusion--on the other hand, "Chaucer's depiction of the Wife's quasi-feminist appropriation invites further consideration in its necessary resistance to closure. . . . At a minimum, her futile usurpation calls into question the role of the feminine in a masculine hermeneutics . . ." (38) Chaucer once again is placed in the position of a postmodern feminist critic, apparently on the assumption that if the antifeminist stance of the Prologue offends modern sensibilities, it must have offended Chaucer too.

This difficulty is even clearer in the chapters that follow. Time and again Cox claims that her concern is "not necessarily to recuperate Chaucer's reputation by finding a significance in the depictions of [female] suffering that somehow exonerates Chaucer of the misogyny informing such depictions; instead, I wish to analyze the operations of a gendered poetics . . ." ("'Wreched Engendrynge' and (wo)Mankynde," 57) or that "[h]istorically and ideologically the ballades are situated squarely within the parameters of misogynistic convention." ("Marks of Womanhood in the Ballades," 93) Yet in each case she also winds up taking refuge in the assumption that because Chaucer's works seem misogynous and thus offensive to us, they must have been intended to expose the misogyny of their conventional discourse: "Chaucer, then, while no 'feminist' himself, exposes his texts' relationship to the cultural, ideological orthodoxy out of which they arise." ("Marks of Womanhood in the Ballades," 96) Most telling is her attempt to recuperate the Physician's Tale: "In straining to impose patriarchal limitations, the Physician strips the text of its fecundity and depth. But the Tale succeeds because of this failure: Chaucer demonstrates through the Physician's narrative that adherence to rigid masculine codes results not in a valorizing of those codes but instead in a crippling of the text by its own limitations." ("'Wreched Engendrynge' and (wo)Mankynde," 64) The circularity of this argument (the patriarchal perspective is, sadly, patriarchal) elucidates the circularity of too many of this book's readings. I prefer those that resist the temptation to recuperate Chaucer as feminist and restrict themselves to an examination of the deployment of misogynous discourse in specific texts, e.g. "The Text of Criseyde."

In summary, Catherine S. Cox's attempt to link gender studies and hermeneutics is admirable (despite her apparent ignorance of much relevant earlier work on medieval hermeneutics, for instance Judith Ferster's Chaucer on Interpretation), and scholars interested in this project will want to have a look at her book. Others may prefer to skip this one and wait for this promising scholar's next.