Richard Utz

title.none: Andretta, Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde (Utz)

identifier.other: baj9928.9902.013 99.02.13

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Richard Utz, University of Northern Iowa,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1999

identifier.citation: Andretta, Helen Ruth. Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde: A Poet's Response to Ockhamism. Studies in the Humanities: Literature-Politics-Society, Vol 29. New York, Paris, Berlin: Peter Lang Publishing, 1998. Pp. x, 201. 44.95. ISBN: 0-820-43361-6.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 99.02.13

Andretta, Helen Ruth. Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde: A Poet's Response to Ockhamism. Studies in the Humanities: Literature-Politics-Society, Vol 29. New York, Paris, Berlin: Peter Lang Publishing, 1998. Pp. x, 201. 44.95. ISBN: 0-820-43361-6.

Reviewed by:

Richard Utz
University of Northern Iowa

Until well into the 1960s most Chaucerians tended to accept a literal understanding of the narrator's self-characterization in Troilus and Criseyde as Chaucer's own admission of being naive and therefore incapable of grappling with the more challenging questions of philosophy. When philosophical readings of Chaucer's texts occurred, they tended to reduce philosophy to a mere handmaid of prevalent literary concerns and/or based such observations on either Boethian or Thomistic tenets. Most critics posited an idealist/essentialist notion of the Middle Ages as one unified historical entity, dominated by a clearly identifiable, abstract medieval mind. This medieval mind, in turn, was held to be dominated by epistemological Christian realism (i.e., Neoplatonic idealism) and, thus, nominalist thought was considered never to have been anything but a late-medieval reaction, "a countercurrent vainly disputing the ground with the fundamental tendencies of the medieval spirit" (Johan Huizinga, The Waning of the Middle Ages, 1954, p. 204).

This marginalization of the late Middle Ages and late-medieval nominalism was to a large part due to the hegemony of theology over scholarship in philosophy. Catholic scholars, on the one hand, were intent on defending Thomas Aquinas, the essential high medieval influence on their twentieth-century Catholic theology, and disregarded nominalism because it challenged the Thomist synthesis of faith and reason. Protestant scholars, on the other hand, characterized nominalist thinkers as forerunners of the Reformation. After 1945, in a gradual process, philosophical investigation freed itself from the role as a mere ancilla theologiae. Hans Blumenberg, Gordon Leff, William Courtenay, David Knowles, Armand Maurer, Charles Trinkaus, Heiko Oberman, Juergen Miethke, and Marilyn McCord Adams, to name only a few, advanced a new and more comprehensive view of the late medieval philosophical mentalite and provided literary critics with more solid grounds for reevaluating nominalism as an important movement of thought and Chaucer's fourteenth century as "more prolific than the thirteenth in those idees forces that were to dominate the course of European intellectual life" (David Knowles, The Evolution of Medieval Thought, 1961, p. 334).

Encouraged by this scholarship in a variety of neighboring disciplines, the academic search for correspondences between nominalism and the literature of late medieval Europe developed into a sizeable subfield of its own. About a dozen monographs and doctoral dissertations and about fifty essays, pursuing a wealth of critical approaches, demonstrate how late medieval poets (e.g., Boccaccio, Chaucer, Chretien, Julian of Norwich, Langland, Molinet, the Gawain Poet, Rabelais, Skelton, the authors of the Chester, York, and Townely Cycles, and the Libro de buen amor) negotiated in their literary texts themes and issues which were similarly disputed among coeval realist and nominalist philosophers and can even be shown to be part of the prevalent late medieval Zeitgeist.

Helen Andretta's study of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde as the "Poet's Response to Ockhamism," while acknowledging the widespread distribution of nominalist thinking, lags behind the level of information and sophistication reached by current critical work on nominalism and literature. In her intention to read Chaucer's longest poem as a moral corrective of nominalist tendencies in fourteenth-century England, she slights some fundamental terminological discussions. The most problematic choice she makes is the unfounded equation of "nominalism," "Ockhamism," and "terminism" (the first two terms she employs interchangeably) with "skepticism" (which, in turn, she appears to equate with [postmodern] "relativism"). She never explains why she has chosen "Ockhamism" (a term rarely used by any of the current specialists in the field) over "nominalism," and her short introducton to "Ockhamism" as "skeptical" is legitimized by using the work of Gordon Leff, the very scholar who, in his extended study, William of Ockham. The Metamorphosis of Scholastic Discourse (Manchester University Press, 1975) included an authoritative retraction of his own previous (mis)understanding of the philosopher as a mere skeptic. Moreover, Andretta's chapter 2, described in her introduction as a "comprehensive study of Ockhamism and Chaucer's exposure to its influence" (p. 11) disappoints because its seventeen pages mostly reiterate well-known topoi (e.g., Ralph Strode's potential influence; the fourteenth century as a period of crises) and derive too much information from dated surveys (e.g., Copleston).

Only through an ecclectic concentration on Ockham(ism), his alleged skepticism, and surprising lacunae in her use of existing research in philosophy/theology (none of the valuable studies of Heiko Oberman, Charles Trinkaus, William Courtenay, Steven Ozment, or Hans Blumemberg have been consulted), is Andretta in a position to detect in Chaucer's depiction of characters in Troilus and Criseyde a negative response to the nominalist/skeptical mentality in the poet's age. This a priori perspective of Chaucer's religious orthodoxy pervades the entire study and does little more than solidify the well-known claims of Boethian and Thomist readings: Pandarus becomes a "proponent of Ockhamist philosophy" (p. 77) and a "relativist who uses words for specific ends" (p. 59). Troilus himself errs, because he stylizes his earthly love affair with Criseyde (whom Andretta reads as a personified representation of Fortuna) as a potential gateway to the realm of transcendental happiness. Small wonder, then, if Andretta also reads all of Chaucer's changes from his main source, Boccaccio's Il Filostrato, as orchestrated "to manifest truths that are Boethian, traditionally scholastic, and therefore certain -- a challenge to propositions that are Ockhamist, skeptical, and only probable" (78). All of the philosophical and theological problems pondered by the three protagonists, especially their questions about divine foreknowledge, divine grace, human free will, are explained by Andretta as revealing the radical uncertainty of the logic-based Ockhamist propositions: "Chaucer seems to answer such uncertainty with the certain message of his Epilogue" (148) and to establish an (Aquinas-like) literary synthesis between the human, earthly microcosm and the universal, divine ordo. The results of earlier studies, which claim parallels between Ockham's separation of truths and the tension in Troilus and Criseyde between the main part of the poem and its so-called "Epilogue," Andretta challenges.

Perhaps her unequivocal disagreement with some of the earlier studies and her universalizing claim for Chaucer's alleged traditionalist and orthodox rejection of nominalism occurs because Andretta has not made an effort to consult even half of the existing research on literary nominalism. There is no mention of Sheila Delany's substantial work (e.g., Medieval Literary Politics: Shapes of Ideology, 1990) on the widespread influence of nominalist thought in the areas of cosmology, logic, physics, poetry, political theory, and the visual arts, nor does Andretta acknowledge Ullrich Langer's invaluable investigation of divine omnipotence and literary auctoritas (Divine and Poetic Freedom in the Renaissance. Nominalist Theology in France and Italy, 1990). The postulates of a German monograph on nominalism in Troilus and Criseyde (R. Utz, Literarischer Nominalismus im Spaetmittelalter, 1991) Andretta rejects, apparently on the basis of reading the four-page English abstract; and the extensive 1993 survey of research on the very topic of her study, "Nominalist Perspectives on Chaucer's Poetry" (W.H. Watts and R. Utz, Medievalia et Humanistica, 1993), and the pertinent monographs by Larry Sklute (Virtue of Necessity: Inconclusiveness and Narrative Form in Chaucer's Poetry, 1984) or David Williams (The Canterbury Tales. A Literary Pilgrimage,1987) have apparently not been consulted either. Thus, despite often thorough and quite original close readings of the potential philosophical implications of Chaucer's text (see, e.g., the solid analysis of the contrasting metaphoricity of literary particulars and universals on p. 126), Andretta's study must be characterized as an unconvincing contribution to the growing research on the paradigm of literary nominalism.

One final observation: because the notes in this study very often contain very basic information on such issues as Chaucer studies and fourteenth-century culture, I had the impression that this text had perhaps originally been produced as a doctoral dissertation. I found out that Andretta had indeed written a thesis with the exact same title in fulfillment of her PhD requirements at CUNY in 1993, and that the thesis had been published with UMI Dissertation Services (Ann Arbor) in 1994. I ordered a copy via interlibrary loan from the University of Utah and compared the 1993 dissertation with the 1997 publication. Only very few revisions had been made and, according to my count, the author incorporated in her book-length study only two of the more than twenty publications on nominalism and medieval literature which appeared between 1993 and 1996. This negligence is aggravated by the fact that the version recently published by Peter Lang makes no indication that the monograph was originally submitted and published as a doctoral dissertation. The publisher and the series editor (Guy Mermier) should be encouraged to pay more attention to these issues.