Lois Roney

title.none: Russell, Chaucer and the Trivium (Roney)

identifier.other: baj9928.9910.006 99.10.06

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Lois Roney, St. Cloud State Universtiy,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Russell, J. Stephen. Chaucer and the Trivium: The Mindsong of the Canterbury Tales. Gainsville, FL: University of Florida Press, 1998. Pp. x, 265. $49.95. ISBN: 0-813-01637-1.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.10.06

Russell, J. Stephen. Chaucer and the Trivium: The Mindsong of the Canterbury Tales. Gainsville, FL: University of Florida Press, 1998. Pp. x, 265. $49.95. ISBN: 0-813-01637-1.

Reviewed by:

Lois Roney
St. Cloud State Universtiy

Back in the early '80s, Joan Ferrante came to Houston to deliver a lecture on (as I recall) medieval advice books to women. When it was over, as the audience (mostly faculty and grad students from Rice and nearby institutions) were milling about in the corridor, there was a lull in the chatter and someone remarked to her, "Surely you're not saying that medievals had an interest in psychology!" The tone was incredulous; the question apparently rhetorical. What I remember was not her reply, and in fact I don't think she attempted one. What I remember, even now twenty years later, was the stunned look on her face caused by the question--as if to say, "How does one cope with such ignorance? These are educated people. Where would one start?"

Today, one could well start with J. Stephen Russell's Chaucer and the Trivium. The book is an attempt to get into the mind habits/thought models that would have resulted from the curriculum taught in the grammar-schools of Chaucer's time, a curriculum focused esentially on language and its uses, mostly in Latin, and deeply interested in classifying, dividing into parts, and analyzing whatever its objects of study. That is to say, elementary education in those days was not concerned with teaching creativity, self-expression, and nonverbal experiential skills. As a result, Russell argues, medieval people thought differently than we do. And, further, those differences constituted "a fundamental and formative influence" on Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

The book is divided into six chapters. The first sets forth aspects of a typical London grammar-school education: Grammar (Latin and vernacular vocabulary, syntax, reading, writing, and metrics); Logic (a cognition model, Porphyry's Tree, Aristotle's Categories, and supposition theory); and, briefly, Rhetoric. The next four chapters consist of readings of the General Prologue, the Knight's Tale, the Man of Law's Tale, and the Clerk's Tale, suggesting how they are informed by that type of education. And the concluding chapter touches briefly on similar concerns in the characterizations of the Wife of Bath, Merchant, Franklin, and Melibee.

Russell's book is an important addition to Chaucer studies and to medieval culture studies. For that reason, I want first to summarize the chapters (the first chapter at length), and only after that to complicate things a little by raising a few additional points.

Chapter 1, "A Medieval Education and Its Implications," opens with examples from early grammar texts of the teaching of Latin and its constant comparison with English, always to the derogation of English. Whether explicitly or not, the student learns that Latin is pure, precise, stable, and clear; whereas his own English is chaotic and clumsy, although able to be funny and evocative (not necessarily a good thing), and that using the vernacular will always entail a compromise of quality for the sake of commmunication. English- (and French-) speaking students had to adjust themselves to the Latin way of thinking in order to learn it and to understand by comparison their own feeble language; and in learning Latin they would have developed an appreciation for order and hierarchy, an appreciation no doubt reinforced by the necessary presence of a Latin master. Additionally, they would have learned that Latin would give them entry into an intellectual life and into membership in the exclusive international community of clerks and philosophers. As a result, says Russell, from his grammar- school training the student internalized a set of "peculiar and powerful notions: of compromise, of a hierarchy of languages (with English at or near the bottom), of order in the universe and speech discernible but not attainable, and of the intellectual life as initiation into a brotherhood of mysteries" (19).

Next, Chapter 1 turns to the teaching of logic, and offers first a medieval model of cognitive processing: of how the mind comes to know and react to things. Russell offers as "the most fundamental medieval analysis of cognition" (22) a 2-part model of the intellect: an agens intellectus responsible for abstracting the important elements from sensory data and identifying (i.e., 'recognizing') them, and an intellectus passivus responsible for performing the various rational operations (i.e., 'cogitating') on those elements. After an item has passed through the agens intellectus (i.e., been recognized), it is then held in the mind in the form of a "mental language," which, as opposed to natural languages like English or Latin, is universal, disambiguated, nonredundant, adequate in expressive power, and not subject to declension, conjugation, tense, or any other accident of time, place, person, or context (25-26). In short, this universal "mental language" is the pure prelapsarian language, and therefore capable of truth. This, says Russell, explains the gulf between truth, which can exist in mental language, and human speech and hearing, which are always compromised in natural languages. Thus, the medievals' belief that truth was attainable, at least in theory, and yet, at the same time, their awareness that natural languages are not transparent but always a function of theindividual minds of speaker and hearer and the linguistic units themselves. And thus, certainly by the time he was a teenager, a grammar-school student would have learned that in his mind he could think a truth, and think about a truth, but his chances of adequately expressing that truth to someone else, and of being correctly understood by that someone else, were poor indeed.

Next in the teaching of grammar-school logic, Russell takes up the medieval idea of the ordered design of creation, "called variously Porphyry's Tree and the Great Chain of Being" (28). The grammar-school student would have found conceptually similar the notion of root and accidence (declensions, case endings, tenses, etc.) in Latin grammar and the way the Porphyrian Tree takes the category substance (the most general of categories) and divides it down into series of genera and species. Each body of knowledge, one grammatical, the other phenomenological, would have reinforced the essence/accidence thinking model. Further, under rational animal on the Porphyrian Tree, the bottom species is man. After man, there are only individuals. That is to say, essentially we are no more and no less than human. After this essence, everything else is accident. This Porphyrian-Tree doctrine is one of the "founding principles" of the Canterbury Tales, says Russell. On the one hand, the fact that the Tree is organic and one can move from the bottom to the top suggests that all is connected, that individuals participate in the Divine to the extent they most perfectly realize the ideal of their species. On the other hand, human beings are, finally, "not essentially knights or wives or monks." (32) They are humans. Throughout the Canterbury Tales, says Russell, Chaucer explores this tension "between individuals and their respective vocations, classes, social roles, and ideals." (34)

And finally in Russell's exposition of the teaching of grammar- school logic come the Categories and Supposition Theory. Aristotle's Categories is the "single most important elementary logical work in the Middle Ages." (34) The ten Categories, or Predicables, is a list of all the questions that can be asked (or things that can be predicated) about any subject: Substance, Quantity, Quality, Relation, Time, Place, Position, Possession, Action, and Passion (i.e., being acted upon). The Category questions exhibit, in Russell's view, "a carefully structured approach to knowledge," and were apparently used as a heuristic in writing, for example, the accessus ad auctores that introduced school texts in the Middle Ages. Supposition Theory resembles the Categories in that, whereas the Categories attempt to specify every possible type of information that can be predicated of a thing, Supposition Theory attempts to specify every possible literal meaning that can be used of a word (figurative usages were dismissed out of hand as 'improper supposition,' not in themselves significant). The problem Supposition Theory was solving was ambiguity; the goal was perfect clarity. For example, in Homo currit, the word 'man' has three different literal meanings: 'A man is running' (common supposition, i.e., no discrete referent); 'The man is running' (discrete supposition, i.e., a particular referent); and 'Man runs' (natural supposition, i.e., referring to all possible men, past, present, and future). Further, the word 'man' can stand for itself, a word; or for the noise one makes when saying the word; or for the marks one makes when writing the word (all three being types of material supposition). Russell helpfully supplies a complete "Armchair Guide to the Modes of Supposition" (43), with explanations for the grammatically-challenged. Questions as to supposition permeate the General Prologue, Russell says. What is 'natural' for the Knight, the Monk, the Wife? And what is 'accidental' about each of them? That is to say, what is by choice, by circumstance, by habit, and so on.

Rhetoric, the third facet of the Trivium, was, Russell says, "everywhere and nowhere in the medieval school curriculum." (53) Topics and figures apparently fell under grammar; much of invention fell under logic or dialectic. Under the name of rhetoric students might have studied levels of style and amplification and possibly a few ancient and contemporary texts, but medievals (like moderns) exhibited ambivalence about the status of "rhetoric" as a body of learning. Similarly, says Russell, rhetoric is everywhere and nowhere in the Canterbury Tales. Usages we designate as rhetoric abound, but Chaucer disclaims the endeavor.

In Chapter 2, "The Dance of Predication: The General Prologue," Russell shows that many of our intuitive conclusions about the General Prologue can be "thoroughly grounded in medieval thinking about language and mind" (56), for example (using Supposition Theory) that many of the pilgrims' portraits are written so as to "require Chaucer's readers to make drastic decisions about them (and about themselves)." (66) Russell posits a fascinating self-characterization of Geoffrey-the- Pilgrim: A narrator who first promises ideal, objective, repertorial-type descriptions of his fellow pilgrims ("whiche they weren ... [their] condicioun ... degree ... [and] array"), and then, using the Categories as a heuristic, succeeds in the case of the Knight, slips a little as his eyes and presuppositions focus on the Prioress, and slips a little further as he enthusiastically embraces the Monk's self- definition. "The real has overrun the ideal," Russell comments. (79) The pilgrim/narrator continues to struggle to maintain objectivity, but his own suspicions about lawyers color the Man of Law's portrait to the degree that it becomes thematic rather than exemplary, and so on, his portrait- descriptions becoming increasingly impressionistic and personally judgmental, winding up with a display of righteous orthodox anger against the Summoner, and against this particular summoner rather than the abstract ecclesiastical system. "At base," says Russell, "the General Prologue is a subtle fictional dramatising of a mind in action." (96) Russell's explanatory use of Supposition Theory, the Categories, and the two-part cognitive model raise his discussion from intuitive to grounded.

In Chapter 3, "To Be a Man: Definition in the Knight's Tale," Russell reads the story of Palamon and Arcite as an exploration of the Knight'sagens intellectus, "a celebration of masculine self-images of order, control, paternal experience, and executive virtue." (160) The Knight is a man who has "ostentatiously embraced traditional chivalric virtues." His tale is "a moral education," specifically a definition of what he thinks it means to be a man, pointedly directed at his own son, the innocent young Squire (100). Palamon and Arcite are presented by the Knight as irrational, strikingly single-minded adolescents, little more than animals maddened by love. In the Knight's opinion, there is simply no sense to losing one's head over a woman; one acquires a woman the old-fashioned way, by winning her in battle as Theseus did. Theseus, the Knight presents as a real man. He has outgrown love. When he fights, it is for honor and glory. True, he has a powerful need for control and is occasionally disingenuous, but he is brave and honest, political and statesmanlike. "If he has faults," Russell says, "they are faults Chaucer's audience would readily recognize in present and recent monarchs: an odd mixture of self-righteousness and self-indulgence; impetuosity and temper; and an almost pathological love of display" (124-25). For "Theseus is not only the Knight and the 'father figure' of the Knight's Tale," Russell says; "he is also--in ways Chaucer himself may not have realized--the lately deceased Edward III." (125) However, Chaucer-the-poet allows two small voices to undercut the Knight's celebration of masculinity, those of Emelye questioning the war ethic and of Egeus questioning the honor/glory ethic.

Like the Knight, the Sergeant of Law has "a large personal stake" in his story. His telling of the naive, xenophobic, imperialistic tale of Custance celebrates "his inmost intrinsic values and priorities" (160). In Chapter 4, "Cry for Justice: Rhetoric in the Man of Law's Tale," Russell points out that "this narrator's commitment to the true and righteous commerce of words and reports in particular suggests his profession's utter dependence on veracity and accuracy as well as its rejection of hearsay evidence and vulnerability to perjury and forgery." (140) In the Sergeant's tale, good is to be found in Rome, law, Latin, trustworthy words, and Christian civility, Custance being a passive "ambassador" of these values. (153) Evil is to be found in "hethenesse," where villains are guilty of spectacular acts of deceit, usually employing lying words and therefore standing in opposition to the verbal foundations of civilization. Russell's reading of the Man of Law's Tale focuses on its rhetoric: What this world needs "is not a warrior-hero but a voice (or mouthpiece), a voice that will loudly and correctly invoke imperial Roman law and the contiguous law of God, both the earthly manifestation of right, lex Romanorum, and its Divine exemplar, lex civitatis dei" (161). Thus, the Sergeant enters his tale "not so^B^A much through the narrative itself," but through the numerous apostrophes, exclamations, and other tropes "characteristic of forensic rhetoric" that Chaucer added to Trivet's story (161- 2). The Man of Law's Tale, concludes Russell, "is one of the more consciously impersonated" of Chaucer's performances (136).

"What if," Russell asks near the beginning of his Chapter 5, "The Madness of the Creator: The Artes in the Clerk's Tale," one "had the authority to command that reality agree with one's mental images of what it should be?" (171) Thus, Walter, "a character incarcerated in the fantasies of his own mind" (174), is a "grotesque and disturbing parody of the Creator: jealous, suspicious, and unable truly to know and love his creatures." (171) Perceiving Griselda's inner virtues, he calls them into being by transforming her, having his women strip her of the accidents of her existence as Janicula's daughter, and then reclothe her as a marquise, revealing her essence so that now his people can see and appreciate it. And, judging from his puzzling, witty, nastily double-edged epilogue, the Clerk is a good deal like Walter: Both performances are "unabashedly elitist"; the inner eyes of both men are fixed tragically on impossible ideals (199); so that both prefer the "pure but disembodied creatures" of their mind to living, breathing, imperfect real people. Thus, although the Clerk claims he will simply retell the tale of another clerk (Petrarch), at some level his tale reveals his own inner self. (173).

In his brief Chapter 6 "Conclusion," Russell points out that there is "a slippery sort of quadratic algebra involved in proving that Item X (the trivium in this case) shows a formative influence on Item Y (the Canterbury Tales)." (211) One could equally well try to prove the opposite. The fact is, neither statement is provable. Instead, what Russell has actually done is shown that many of the perceptions/beliefs/personal fascinations that we find in Chaucer's work were in fact perceptions/beliefs/issues-and- implications inferrible from the grammar-schoolcurriculum of his day. Russell shows that, judging from what was taught in the trivium, medieval thinkers were intensely aware of language and its malleability, intensely aware of its ambiguity and openness, and, even as they strove for certainty (by means of objectively logical language and abstraction), intensely aware that any certainty achieved by one thinker was bound to be soon unravelled by a host of others. That is to say, postmodern approaches to Chaucer's use of language work because postmodernists, whether or not they know it, have rediscovered theories of language that were taught in or implied by the medieval trivium.

Russell also shows that medieval cognition theory supported Chaucer's efforts to consciously evoke images of human individuals; to call them "into being as identities made of their words, for socially we are little more or less than our words." (204) How "knowable" as human beings are Chaucer's characters? Russell concludes his book with discussions of brief passages from the Wife of Bath, Merchant, Franklin, and Melibee, demonstrating the penchant of these all-too-human tellers for evasion, re-definition, memory-reshaping, belief in contradictions, and faith in abstractions, and our penchant as all-too-human readers for shaping what we read. "Chaucer well knew," Russell says, "that given the structure of the mind and the slipperiness of language, there is literally no such thing as 'someone else's words'; by the time they enter your head, encounter your agens intellectus and are interpreted and adjudicated against your own experience, those words are no one's but yours." (209)

The book is a fine and potentially fruitful addition to Chaucer studies, especially Chapter 1 on medieval education and its implications. Of the various interpretations of parts of the Canterbury Tales put forward, I found that of the General Prologue Narrator (Chapter 2) for me personally the most enlightening. At the same time, all were interesting in that all revealed how Chaucer's contemporaries, also trivium- trained, might have thought about/reacted to Chaucer's work. I'm not sure, however, that a contemporary of Chaucer, or Chaucer himself for that matter, would always have agreed with Russell's many often witty but generally dismissive judgments about the attractions of "these abstruse, even drab bodies of knowledge" (202), especially Latin and logic. Latin he speaks of as "cold" (20) and "precise but chilly" (13); the completeness of the Categories he finds "chilling and even a bit depressing" (36). Well, gee! Some of us found Latin wonderful; I can remember misting up as a graduate student when translating Horace; and, as a high-school teenager, the Categories about blew my mind with their comprehensiveness. Talk about adolescent empowerment! Only two of Russell's arguments put me off, and then only until I understood his reasoning. I mention them here so that medievalists reading the book can pass over them lightly. First, throughout the book he intertwines matters of logic with matters of the real world. For example, the Tree of Porphyry (an abstract diagram which, starting from substance as the most general category, divides down into a hierarchically ordered series of genera and species) is identified (28) with the Great Chain of Being (a name for the multiplicity of kinds of beings, from the highest to the lowest, that emanate out from the Divine Goodness, by reason of the principle of plenitude, down through all levels of potentiality). Most medieval thinkers, as also most modern thinkers, keep separate the realm of abstract logical concepts from the realm of natural or extramental things. (But not all: apparently Walter Burley did not.) For purpose of Russell's discussion, it does not matter, but I do wish he had dealt with the intertwining so that it wouldn't have caused me to stumble. The same is true of the two-part cognition model he presents as "the most fundamental medieval analysis of cognition." (22) Most medievalists, so far as I know, are familiar with one or another version of the standard, ultimately Aristotelian, three-part model (apprehension, judgment, and ratiocination). Russell's two-part model seems to collapse the first two, apprehension and judgment, into one, although not in a way I am able to understand. In any event, however, it does not matter so far as his overall argument goes. Russell's overall point is the way the trivial curriculum, with its almost-total focus on language and logic, would have informed the thinking models/mental habits of students of Chaucer's time, including Chaucer himself--informed their attitudes toward language and truth and human reality; and the demonstrations and explanations he offers are clear, valid, and enlightening. This is an important book.