Howard Kaminsky

title.none: Rigby, Chaucer in Context (Kaminsky)

identifier.other: baj9928.9808.008 98.08.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Howard Kaminsky, Florida International University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1998

identifier.citation: Rigby, S. H. Chaucer in Context. Manchester Medieval Studies . Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996. Pp. xii, 205. $24.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-719-04236-4.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 98.08.08

Rigby, S. H. Chaucer in Context. Manchester Medieval Studies . Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996. Pp. xii, 205. $24.95. ISBN: ISBN 0-719-04236-4.

Reviewed by:

Howard Kaminsky
Florida International University

Chaucer is notoriously elusive in the Canterbury Tales (CT), even when compared to his late-medieval peers in vernacular poetry--Jean de Meung in The Romance of the Rose and Dante in The Divine Comedy--neither of which is exactly transparent. For one thing these other works have sustained and integral narrative schemes capable of embodying profound ideas about the meaning of life whose import can be established by reference to the sense of the narrative as a whole. Chaucer offers both more and less. There is the General Prologue which portrays a gallery of types so playfully and ironically that scholars still argue about what impression Chaucer wanted his readers/listeners to carry away. Then there are the stories, each of which raises its own questions about symbols and meanings, along with questions about their respective propriety in relation to their tellers. For well over a century now modern scholars have addressed these questions in thousands of books and articles dealing with everything from Chaucer's prosody, rhetoric, and sources to his ideas about society and salvation. But just what Chaucer was saying on all these levels has remained as elusive as ever, with apparently clear statements and images turning into ironies, parodies, and mockeries the more closely one studies them. As Rigby puts it (p. 167), "It would seem that on virtually every aspect of Chaucer's work, his readers are currently assailed by a host of mutually exclusive interpretations and critical approaches"; nor is there any simple way to discriminate among them. All great works of art, to be sure, have this endlessly open quality; what is peculiar to the CT is its claim on the hearts of Anglophonic medievalists.

In any case Rigby is far from agnostic in the matter: "the fact that there are innumerable plausible readings of Chaucer does not mean that there are no implausible ones," and "where specific readings are mutually exclusive, it is often possible to prefer one reading ... to another." But this takes not only erudition and hard thought but also much sensitivity and hermeneutic ingenuity. It is Rigby's great merit to have deployed all of these faculties in a systematic analysis of all the currently prominent diverse readings. The work is very well done, bound to be valuable especially to those of his readers who are not ex professo literary critics but straight historians (like the author, who has written books about Marxism and History and English Society in the Later Middle Ages), and who might therefore be more or less unfamiliar with such modern critical topics as Bakhtin's "dialogic" exegesis, the "humanist" and "patristic" interpretations associated respectively with E. Talbot Donaldson and D. W. Robertson, the New Historicism, and feminist theory, not to mention hard-core post-modernism (whatever that is--Rigby will deal with it more particularly in another book). All are carefully defined, discussed in their applications to key Tales, and evaluated according to the author's own ideas about what Chaucer was really doing. These ideas are indicated in his title, "Chaucer in Context," which means moving away from the potentially infinite combinations of self-referential textual exegesis to the controlling facts of Chaucer's situation in his own sociocultural order--which was very different from ours.

So, in Chapter One, Rigby argues that Chaucer did not attempt real-life descriptions but constructed his characters according to standard systems: estates satire, the varieties of humoral mixture, astrological qualities. Real life figured rather in his themes: the good order of society, good kingship, the social dimension of individual morality, etc. In Chapter Two, relying on Bakhtin's distinction between monologic and dialogic discourse, the former offering authoritative images of world order, the latter constantly relativizing and undermining the authoritative discourse it contains, Rigby develops a complex judgement of CT as dialogic in its game of story-telling but monologic in an implicit supposition of common values that relies on the reader/listener to make the correct-- authoritative--judgements. His prime exemplification here is the Knight and his Tale, both of which have been dialogically deconstructed by others as implicitly contradicting the ideals they ostensibly embody, but whose monologic import would have been accepted by a late-medieval audience. In Chapter Three, "Allegorical versus Humanist Chaucer," he confronts the "humanists" who see the CT unproblematically as dealing with psyches much like our own (Donaldson, Kittredge, Lumiansky, etc.) with the Robertsonians who look under a deceptively candid text to find a congested structure of Augustinian allegory, to be decoded according to the same system used to decode scriptural allegory.

Finally, a long Chapter Four on "Misogynist versus Feminist Chaucer," featuring inevitably the Wife of Bath, takes us firmly across the swamps of cutting-edge abstraction - "desublimates a reified discourse," "reflexive exposure of clerical misogyny" - to a conclusion (p. 150) both adequately complex and gratifyingly perspicuous:

"Thus, in the figure of the Wife of Bath, Chaucer did not just personify the faults ascribed to women by contemporary preachers but neither did he simply negate them by having her refute such accusations. Instead, for satiric literary purposes, he negated this negation by having her personify such faults in the very act of refuting them, producing a defence of women which was intended to be read ironically, so as implicitly to undermine the very position it explicitly expounds."

All of which does not convey Chaucer's own position, which here as elsewhere, according to Rigby, can be read from the Parson's Tale: rejecting both the stereotypes of medieval misogyny and ideals of gender equality that some feminists have dialogically read into the text, Chaucer accepted "the conventional view of woman as man's respected inferior within marriage." His views were indeed much the same as those of Christine de Pizan.

Anyone who reads this work carefully will take from it a clear and well-considered compendium of modern critical positions on the CT, along with an even more valuable model of how a historian can think historically about such matters without slighting the claims of critical theories. The first duty of the reviewer in this respect is to pronounce adequate praise: rarely does one find matters of such complexity dealt with so firmly and yet luminously, in a language unfailingly crystalline. The second duty is of course to point to the limits of these very virtues. One of these is so to speak disciplinary: this reviewer, like Rigby a historian, can well imagine that specialists in medieval literary studies may be less than enthusiastic about so short and limpid a book that claims to terminate theoretical controversies in which so many thousands of lances have already been broken. So be it. But there are also some defects within a strictly historical frame of reference, and these need to be briefly noted.

The basic problem is the classic one of identifying Chaucer's own point of view amidst the irony and mockery that seem always to relativize, limit, or subvert the ostensibly clear images of the Prologue and several of the Tales. Rigby agrees with the mainstream acceptance of the Knight, the Parson, and the Ploughman as unambiguously favorable images--representing the three basic Estates of Christian society. But if the Parson and his brother the Ploughman seem to fit the scheme well enough, the Knight is not so simple, particularly in relation to his son the Squire. What are we supposed to think when Chaucer tells us that the Knight fought in crusades, the Squire in France? In his powerfully argued Chaucer's Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary (1980), Terry Jones has shown how sordid and brutal these late-medieval crusades were, how readily Chaucer's apparent praise of the Knight can be read against the grain as scorching condemnation of such a professional warrior, and how coarse, harsh, and brutal the Knight's Tale is in comparison with its model in Boccaccio's "Teseida." While it is true, as Rigby notes, that Jones's argument "has found little support from other critics," and that the bloody futility of late-medieval crusades would not necessarily have put off late-medieval observers, it is also true that most of the "other critics" have been professors ill- disposed to accept the heterodox views of an amateur; Jones's argument has yet to receive a full and fair critique. It is an important issue: what Chaucer meant by his Knight is integral to what he meant by his opus in general.

This leads into the basic question of how to define Chaucer's position vis-a-vis the society he represents in the CT. Rigby addresses the question only by implication, in his identification of the Knight, Parson, and Ploughman as Chaucer's ideals, and indeed suggests (p. 168) that there is no general answer: "as a result of the (unavoidable) process of bringing our own conceptions and theories to bear on Chaucer's text, his work tends to become simply a mirror for its readers: when a patristic critic looks into it, he does not expect to see a humanist peering back at him." But Chaucer did not float in his world; he was, as Rigby notes in passing, "a court- poet," which means that his view of the world around him can be reasonably defined as the view from the court. And the view from a court as pretentious as Richard II's might well generate a view de haut en bas, rising above the corpus of estates (including even aristocrats like the Knight who are not courtiers) and indeed seeing the hustle and bustle of all estates as so much vanity. The famous endlessly reflexive Chaucerian irony could thus be simply the way one looks at an ant-hill that one has stirred with a stick.

Such a view would indeed resonate with the Augustinian sociology often imputed to Chaucer (especially by Robertson et al.) that sees the world of fallen man as an intrinsically meaningless festival of concupiscence, deplorable and challenging from the Church's point of view but endlessly amusing in a work of poetic art. One thinks of such modern analogues as the Marx Brothers movies, in which anarchy and anomie constantly escape and thereby mock the conventional norms of order and decency that are supposed to control them. Grim in reality, the phenomenon is comic when represented in works of art whose inner logic is playful. When the fatuous and susceptible dowager played by Margaret Dumont takes one of her literal or figurative pratfalls, the upper-crust society whose pretensions to superior culture and worth she represents is mocked, chaos is evoked, but the comedy plays against the hierarchy of sociocultural excellence whose existence is thus acknowledged. So when the high-flown politology of the Knight's Tale is mocked by the obscenities of the Miller's counterpart to it, we can assume that even if Chaucer's sympathies lay with the Knight, as far as societal reality was concerned, his poetic eye, looking down from the supra-societal royal court, saw both together as constituting the human comedy.

All of which is offered here to represent a dimension of potentially decisive sociocultural interpretation that Rigby either rejected as irrelevant or did not even consider. Perhaps he should have, if only as a foil to the scholastic play of literary historians whose professional interest lies in non-closure.