Ruth Evans

title.none: Davenport, Chaucer and His English Contemporaries (Evans)

identifier.other: baj9928.9906.008 99.06.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Ruth Evans, Cardiff University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Davenport, William Anthony. Chaucer and his English Contemporaries: Prologue and Tale in The Canterbury Tales. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998. Pp. x, 245. $55.00 HB 0-312-21438-3. ISBN: $19.95 PB 0-312-21439-1.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.06.08

Davenport, William Anthony. Chaucer and his English Contemporaries: Prologue and Tale in The Canterbury Tales. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998. Pp. x, 245. $55.00 HB 0-312-21438-3. ISBN: $19.95 PB 0-312-21439-1.

Reviewed by:

Ruth Evans
Cardiff University

The latest and arguably most fashionable Chaucer on the current academic scene is a continental European, with cultural connections in Paris, Flanders and Florence. Yet while this EuroChaucer urges the rethinking of a number of perennial questions -- for example, of the period-boundaries between "the Middle Ages" and "the Renaissance" -- there is still a need for critics to remind us, as Davenport rather modestly does, that Chaucer was immersed in English vernacular culture. Others, of course, have been there before -- Donaldson, Bennett, Brewer, Muscatine, Kean, Pearsall, Windeatt and Cooper, to name only a few. But this is the first full-length study that I know of which considers the form of Chaucer's prologues and his ideas of narrative in the Canterbury Tales in relation to contemporary English poetry and popular English story collections. It also offers, incidentally, some fairly substantial readings of the non-Chaucerian material. Since this volume might appear narrowly Anglocentric, it must be set alongside recent innovative work in Chaucer criticism. Christopher Cannon, for example, has compelled a renewed interest in the debate over Chaucer as "the father of English poetry." [[1]] And a forthcoming anthology will prompt a reassessment of English vernacular writing and Middle English literary theory that could have a considerable impact on our view of what Chaucer was doing and the cultural environment in which he was doing it. [[2]] A Chaucer who read and used English writings need not therefore represent a return to parochialism.

Yet it must be said at the outset that Davenport's book tends to look backwards not forwards. It ignores most recent innovative Chaucer criticism; it does not reflect on its own historicist assumptions; its vocabulary and critical method are decidedly unvogueish. But it does succeed in making The Canterbury Tales newly unfamiliar, by asking where Chaucer drew his material from and why his work offers puzzles. In this respect, Chapter 2, on Prologues, is the most interesting in the book. By questioning the apparent norms of Chaucer's prologues, Davenport forces the reader to acknowledge not only their oddity and variety but also their distinctively vernacular differences from academic traditions. This, he argues, is because Chaucer was writing fiction, not a prose textbook; therefore "the application of a body of theory devised originally for forensic oratory to creating perspective for narrative is a good deal harder to predict and interpret" (p. 14). Compared to Gower's and Langland's prologues, Chaucer's General Prologue cannot be clearly separated from the multilayered poem it prefaces. Rather it exhibits the double structure of The Canterbury Tales as a whole: the elaboration of a tale-telling framework and a self-contained narrative structure of its own. The debate within the frame narrative is then used to create further prologue material, in a process that makes the individual prologues to the tales the scene of continued conversation about Chaucer's role as writer and the "value of different literary forms" (p. 44) -- including prologues themselves.

Turning his attention to another literary category, "Tales," Davenport appears to argue that The Canterbury Tales constitute a form of Middle English theoretical meditation on the nature of narrative. Quite what this meditation is, however, is difficult to grasp. The implications of the argument are sometimes more arresting than the actual observations on Chaucer's art. For example, in setting The Canterbury Tales in relation to the vernacular collections of "tales" in Mirk's Festial, the Cursor Mundi and Handlyng Synne (especially their prologues), Davenport draws our attention to a range of self-conscious vernacular reflection on the purpose of narrative and the use of English. He argues that earlier vernacular writers faced similar problems to those Chaucer contended with, and that Chaucer shares with them a strong sense of audience and of a speaking voice. This kind of thinking could effect some useful shifts in our view of literary history. But how far does it actually produce new insights about Chaucerian narratology or about Chaucer's relationship to vernacular culture? In many places Davenport notes that the tales express a strong scepticism about narrative. But we already know that Chaucerian narrative is self-reflexive. And though it is important to recognise the extent to which Chaucer shares material with Gower and Langland, it is unsatisfactory to observe that the material of the Chaucerian fabliaux and "other stories of contemporary life" overlaps "at many points the interest in the moral standards of contemporary public and private life which occurs in other English writing of the period" (p. 91). More, I think, would have emerged if Davenport had a new story of his own to tell about the cultural history of the period and about Chaucer's place in it.

As the chapters unroll, each with their focus on different medieval narrative forms and genres, Davenport adds to the range of vernacular material that Chaucer might have been familiar with and the range of his texts that might be read alongside it. In the chapter on Romances, he argues against the past assumption "that Chaucer had to create an English tradition of narrative poetry from virtually nothing, that there were no native models which could have been of use to him" (p. 107), convincingly demonstrating Chaucer's extensive debts to the colloquial style, motifs and literary theorising of the English popular romances. Here Davenport draws, inter alia, on works ascribed to Thomas Chester and on the Auchinleck and Findern miscellanies. The Chaucer that in the past was often assumed, on the basis of Sir Thopas, to have nothing but contempt for "the feebler examples of the genre" (p. 131) is now seen as sharing a cultural and even intellectual milieu with English romance writers. Important as this is, Davenport is nevertheless apparently unaware of a large body of thinking in the vernacular about the status of English, in terms that recall the romance prologues he cites but which are by no means confined to romance (as his own quotation from Cursor Mundi reveals). Though Davenport may be going too far when he claims that Havelok the Dane, Gamelyn and Sir Degrevant might have become the Knight's, Yeoman's and Squire's tales respectively (p. 116), he is right to point out that Chaucer "cannot leave romance alone" (p. 132). The focus on the recurrence of English romance elements in The Canterbury Tales, especially in those tales that have not been traditionally or primarily read as romances, leads to some new views on intergeneric mixing. He claims, for example, that the Clerk's Tale "explores the edges of the romance world and the places where it overlaps with exemplum and saint's life" (p. 130).

Davenport's interest in Chaucer's hybridizing of native traditions continues in his discussion of Emare, where he compares Gower's and Chaucer's reworkings of Nicholas Trevet's upmarket version, in the Confessio Amantis and the Man of Law's Tale. This might have been developed into a valuable discussion of fabula and sjuzet (terms explicitly rejected on p. 167 as unable to account for "the peculiarities of medieval narrative structures") but Davenport is not interested in historicising narratology. This weakens his discussion throughout. In Chapter 6, where he deals directly with narrative, he identifies in the Knight's Taleand the Second Nun's Tale a core "well-made tale" and "normative pattern of narration" (p. 185), constituting a "model of well-proportioned fiction" which makes even Sir Thopas "comfortable to read" because "underneath the absurdity of the character, motives, language, we are given the pattern we expect; the pastiche of the style needs the defining structure of the form in order to be identified" (p. 188). This illustrates some of the problems of Davenport's critical method: it collapses past and present, reader and textual effects. The reader, after all, has some responsibility in deciding what is a "model of well-proportioned fiction" -- it does not just reside in the text. It also suggests that readers can dismiss potentially disturbing narrative content as long as the structure is "comfortable." Form, of course, is also ideological: some kind of critical distance from the formal strategies of Chaucer's texts is necessary in order not to keep repeating those strategies in one's own reading. Though Davenport rightly calls the accepted categories of Chaucerian narrative into question, many other categories in his book go unexamined, notably "performance," "voice," "language," "structural strategies," "interlinked ideas," "plot," and "realistic settings." And in the central chapters on romance there is no reference to Susan Crane's valuable work. [[3]]

Yet the book's claim to our attention lies in its central proposition that the heterogeneity of Chaucer's narrative practices has its roots not in continental European models but in a vibrant English tradition of literary experimentation. I certainly agree with Davenport that "the fourteenth century was a time of literary experiment and invention, not merely the era in which English became the normal medium for literary expression" (pp. 206-7), though of course such invention appears in a range of Middle English texts that fall outside the frame of what we now call "literature." In his conclusion Davenport argues that The Canterbury Tales combine narrative experiment on the one hand with the impulse towards a one-way journey on the other, and thus participate in Ricardian poets' specialising in "ironic recognitions of limitation." Chaucer is not simply an innovator but "an absorber and an imitator" (p. 216). In its lack of a strong narrative drive of its own, Davenport's book has its limitations but it also has considerable, though unexploited, potential for revising literary history. Many readers, for example, will be interested in Davenport's proposal that Chaucer wrote in English not because he was taking up the cause of the mother tongue but because of his status as an ironic observer, uncertain both of his own position and of the positions of others, and hence withholding identification with the language and position of either the courtier (French) or the weighty political commentator (Latin). The book therefore opens up a set of invaluable questions, not only about Chaucer's relation to late-medieval English vernacular culture but about that culture itself.


1. Christopher Cannon, "The Myth of Origin and the Making of Chaucer's English," Speculum 71 (1996), 646-75.

2. Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, Nicholas Watson, Andrew Taylor and Ruth Evans, eds, The Idea of the Vernacular: An Anthology of Middle English Literary Theory, 1280-1520 (University Park, Pennsylvania and Exeter: Pennsylvania State University Press and Exeter University Press, 1999).

3. Susan Crane, Gender and Romance in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).