Stephanie Trigg

title.none: Cullen, Pilgrim Chaucer (Trigg)

identifier.other: baj9928.0006.001 00.06.01

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Stephanie Trigg, University of Melbourne,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2000

identifier.citation: Cullen, Dolores. Pilgrim Chaucer: Center Stage. Santa Barbara: Fithian Press, 1999. Pp. xi, 208. $14.95. ISBN: 1-564-74306-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 00.06.01

Cullen, Dolores. Pilgrim Chaucer: Center Stage. Santa Barbara: Fithian Press, 1999. Pp. xi, 208. $14.95. ISBN: 1-564-74306-3.

Reviewed by:

Stephanie Trigg
University of Melbourne

It has become customary in some quarters of Chaucer scholarship to lament the sheer bulk of published criticism in the field. Reviewing a cluster of books on Chaucer in 1996, for example, Peter Mack commented: "What Chaucer needs is intelligent popularization and a good television adaptation: what he has got is a thriving sector of an academic industry." This kind of anxiety first appeared in response to the proliferation of 'theoretical' readings of Chaucer and medieval poetry in the 1980s, but it has increasingly taken the form of nostalgia for a kind of pre-professional Chaucerianism, and for the days when there was such a being as a "general reader" of Chaucer who could respond intelligently to the poet's work without having to produce two refereed and exhaustively documented articles a year on the subject. Most medieval poetry requires too much historical explication and elucidation to survive for long beyond the safety of the professional, critical embrace. But in any case, the most avid expressions of anti-critical feeling are reserved for the discussion of canonical poets who, by definition, are supposed to speak to us across time and cultural difference, with minimal specialist intervention. If any medieval English author might still find such a general reader, confident in his or own responses, it would be Chaucer.

Dolores Cullen's work on Chaucer offers some consolation to those who feel that Chaucer scholarship has become too specialised, too arcane. Pilgrim Chaucer is presented and packaged as an 'iconoclastic' contribution to Chaucer criticism. It is not an anti-critical project as such, though Cullen is quick to lump 'scholars', 'diligent researchers' or 'Chaucer-lovers' together in undifferentiated homogeneity. Its avowed 'iconoclasm' resides rather in its refusal to accept the sanitised Chaucerian personality produced by the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Nevertheless, in its narrative voice and rather outdated bibliography, it seems to pride itself on its non-professional orientation. Cullen thus makes an interesting discursive intervention into a field that is normally dominated by specialists.

Pilgrim Chaucer is the second in a projected series of three volumes. The first, Chaucer's Host: Up-So-Doun (1998), argued that the Canterbury Tales Host "is a surface image which conceals Christ Himself". (13) The third volume will focus on the pilgrims, while this volume studies those portions of the Tales where Chaucer himself seems to take 'centre stage': parts of the General Prologue; the Thopas, Melibee and related links; and the Retractions. The theatrical metaphor is only partially sustained in this volume, however; it is still a long way from Cullen's Chaucer to the 'good television adaptation' desired by Peter Mack.

In her discussion of the General Prologue, Cullen charts, in the present tense, her first responses to Chaucer's confusing mentions of time and narrative purpose on his arrival in Southwark. To preserve the impression of spontaneity, she avoids weighing herself down with too much recent criticism, but finds consolation when she finds a critic with whom she can agree. For example: "It brought me reassurance to find that Bertrand Bronson [In Search of Chaucer, 1960] did not subscribe to the 'schizoid notion' of two Chaucers with independent 'attitudes and intelligences.' Now I know that I need not try to understand how other scholars pictured creative fantasy retaliating against reality, or acting independently without informing the author's imagination." (20) At a single stroke, the complexities of Donaldson's readings of 'pilgrim Chaucer' and the subsequent critical responses to this notion over the last forty years are sidestepped. In a research paper, this would be woefully inadequate; although I suspect many writers on Chaucer must sometimes revel in such illicit wish-fulfillment, in the possibility of bypassing so dramatically a body of criticism: "Now I know that I need not try to understand...."

Similarly, when discussing P.R. Watts, the "twentieth-century lawyer [who] was good enough to sort out the information (and misinformation) being circulated nowadays" about the case of Cecily de Chaumpaigne, Cullen comments, inaccurately, that his 'efforts' have been largely ignored, and goes on, "You can understand, then, how pleased and gratified I was to find another paper on the raptus case published by Christopher Cannon in the prestigious journal, Speculum." The scholarly narrative presented here is contradictory, even perverse. On the one hand, Cullen personalises her research, and her responses to what she finds; and yet what she 'finds', in the main, is hardly inaccessible. Indeed, Cannon's important paper is all the more 'gratifying' because it is published in a high status, high profile journal. Cullen's methodology and choice of scholarly sources are highly selective: to judge most harshly, she chooses what suits, and ignores what doesn't suit her argument, but presents those choices and selections as if they represented novel and fresh primary research.

This is not, however, what the publishers have in mind by 'iconoclastic'. Cullen's reading of the General Prologue finds a great deal of trivial ambiguity or inconsistency of time references and statement of authorial intention in this text to no great purpose; but her project takes its strongest direction from the raptus case of 1380. Cullen posits first, that the Second Nun's tale of Cecilia is offered to, or was perhaps even commissioned by, Cecilia de Chaumpaigne as a kind of poetic recompense for whatever offence had been committed; and second, that Sir Thopas is a priapic allegory of sexual excess, contamination with a sexually transmitted disease, or perhaps elephantiasis, and a painful cure. This 'confession' is followed by the Tale of Melibee as a kind of penitential offering.

These are bold and intriguing possibilities. The evidence cited is often unconvincing, however, and depends a great deal on searches of the Middle English Dictionary (the author is even pictured on the back cover hugging a fascicle of this text) for possible alternative meanings for Chaucer's lines. But too often Cullen treats words as signifiers floating in a vacuum apart from their original syntactic context. In the line, "Of Brugges weren his hosen broun", for example, Thopas's 'hosen' are not stockings at all, but women. How so? 'Hosen' can also mean 'something resembling a stocking' and a sheath resembles a stocking, and a sheath is another name for a vagina, and vaginas mean women; therefore, the poet is admitting to sexual activity with sunburnt farm workers when he was in Bruges. "In Bruges his women were brown," as Cullen translates. There is a great deal of this kind of reasoning in this chapter. I was rarely persuaded by the 'translations' on which Cullen insists: double entendres and sexual implications, even if Cullen is right to find them in this Tale, aren't always best served by such literal equivalences. (And while I agree with her that many of Chaucer's critics are reluctant to acknowledge his double entendres, Cullen is not the first to make this observation: in a context like this, it would be at least courteous to acknowledge the work of prior scholars such as Thomas Ross and Sheila Delany.) Similarly, with the 'Host equals Christ' analogy, a great deal can be lost by insisting too far on a single allegorical reading of Chaucer at the expense of the literal content, and the subtlety of mouvance between the two.

It would be very easy for professional Chaucerians to scorn, or to ignore this chatty, somewhat eccentric book from a minor press. Cullen describes herself as first encountering Chaucer "as a middle-aged college student", and her written discourse betrays the novelty of her encounters with Chaucer and the world of scholarship. She charts, for example, her own frustrations and successes in her library searches ("I almost cheered"; "my face turned red. . . and I burst out laughing"). Such enthusiasm is normally edited out, just as, more seriously, most presses would have insisted on major rewriting to update Cullen's research and to modulate many of her conclusions. For these reasons, few teachers will want to recommend this book to their students, and I doubt it will very often be cited in scholarly articles. And yet I suspect many such teachers would be secretly quite glad if they could inspire their own students to write a series of three volumes on Chaucer. It's also worth remembering that all discourse needs its other: the 'lite' end of professional Chaucerianism-- by far the most visible, and most audible end--depends for its symbolic capital on Chaucer's status as canonical author, and his continued appeal to readers beyond the strictest confines of the academy. Cullen reminds us what some of those readers-- and perhaps, many of our students--think and feel when they read Chaucer, and when they read Chaucer criticism.