Richard Utz

title.none: Schildgen, Pagans, Tartars, Moslems, and Jews in Chaucer's (Richard Utz)

identifier.other: baj9928.0203.023 02.03.23

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

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

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Schildgen, Brenda Deen. Pagans, Tartars, Moslems, and Jews in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Gainsesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2001. Pp. xiii, 183. $59.95. ISBN: 0-8130-2107-3.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.03.23

Schildgen, Brenda Deen. Pagans, Tartars, Moslems, and Jews in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Gainsesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2001. Pp. xiii, 183. $59.95. ISBN: 0-8130-2107-3.

Reviewed by:

Richard Utz
University of Northern Iowa

This book is a Habermasian answer to the sempiternal question about the special attraction the late medieval Canterbury Tales exerts on (post)modern readers. Habermas, in The Inclusion of the Other, states that "in modern societies a consensus on principles of justice that is neutral with respect to worldviews, and hence inclusive, is required in view of religious and cultural pluralism" (quoted according to Schildgen, p. 3). Schildgen, who feels that the majority of existing interpretations of the Canterbury Tales have restricted the meaning of the collection of stories through the positing of one single and exclusive thought system (e.g., Augustinianism, a mercantile ethic, gender studies, etc.), wants to abandon such reductionism by viewing the tales from the perspective of their "intellectual alterities" (p. 3). The work and its various voices would, thus, provide an opportunity for what Habermas calls "discourse ethics," an arena of dialogue and free exchange in which ethical principles are negotiated through a "practice of deliberation." In order to place Chaucer, the author, in an intellectual climate that would allow for his creation of such a proto-modern mindset, Schildgen (following a motley crew of writers and critics such as Jorge Luis Borges, Robert Myles, Jacques Derrida, and Richard Rorty) posits that the modern philosophical conditions which promote pluralist "discourse ethics" in post-traditional societies can be located in the principle of "anti-essentialism." The roots for this "anti-essentialism," in Schildgen's terms "a sense of the multiplicity of meanings and the breakdown of the concept of absolute 'universals' outside the mind," was promoted in Chaucer's time through the atmosphere of Ockham's and Holcot's "nominalism" (Schildgen prefers to use the similarly disputed term "Ockhamism" but does not explain why) which stressed the potential radical contingency of history and human action and challenged the traditional "ordo" of medieval society. Chaucer, by withholding authorial and political commentary, has his pilgrim narrators enact this "Ockhamist" condition of his own turbulent age. While he does not completely abandon the framing spiritual goals of the pilgrimage, he produces a text permeated by a discourse ethics that guarantees a fictional space in which diverse aesthetic as well as intellectual and ethical positions may find free and equal expression. Chaucer never determines victory for any of the often mutually exclusive positions, but the possibility (or even legitimacy) of such an open exchange represents considerable progress toward "alternative value systems that are distinct from contemporary Christian practice" (p. 12).

In order to demonstrate Chaucer's orchestration of such a pluralistic debate, Schildgen focuses on the margins of the fictional world in the storytelling contest, those tales conspicuously situated beyond the spatio-temporal geography of Christianized Western Europe. She reads the "Knight's Tale" as a story which suspends Christian teleology by its teller's adoption of Stoic ideas in the face of a relentless fate, and the "Squire's Tale" as an Epicurean narrative which resists the notion of any direct influence of the stars on human behavior and emphasizes the pleasure principle as the only teleology at Cambyuskan's Tartar court. Alternatively, the "Man of Law's Tale" memorializes a past in which "sides where clearly drawn between Christians and pagans and Moslems, and when Rome was the political and religious center of Christianity" (p. 68). Far from renegotiating cultural and religious boundaries, the Man of Law reinforces the traditional imagined divisions between Christendom and "heathen" societies and, instead of considering the Knight's Stoic acceptance of Fortune's fickleness, reaffirms the universal soteriological power of divine providence. This conservative message is, in turn, answered by the Wife of Bath and the Franklin, who both place their contributions in pre-Christian Britain/Brittany, and whose Stoic-Christian humanist morality (Wife) and Epicurean philosophy (Franklin) suspend universal Christian teleology for worldly concerns. The Prioress, who ignores the emerging pluralistic attitude, attempts to anchor the storytelling contest once more within the foundational Christian metaphysics through a story in which her childlike religious sentimentality is paralleled by her simplistic binary distinctions between Christians and Jews. Her conservative and fully providential historiography is quickly questioned by the Monk's "chaos theory of history" (p. 108), an anthology of tragic exempla that undermine the theology of Christian hope and gloss them with pagan resignation. Like the other tales pitching Christians against cultural and religious "others", the Second Nun's story, once again a story temporally and geographically removed, discloses the rift between Chaucer's present-day experience and the "grand narratives that sustained the ecclesiastically dominated culture that emerged in the previous millennium" (p. 109). Indeed, by resorting to the golden age of Christianity, a distant past that celebrates Christian martyrdom and the difficult path of early Christians, the tale "portrays the Christian ideal as . . . vulnerable and opposed to or by temporal powers. It sets up a contrast between this heroic antique Christianity, the subject for narrative, and the ostensibly Christian hegemonic culture revealed in the fractious and disunified pilgrimage to Canterbury" (p. 120).

Any study like Schildgen's, despite its wealth of learned detail and its impressive interdisciplinary and comparatist scope, will undoubtedly have to answer to the charge of anachronism. Her discovery of "an intriguing social-political symmetry between Chaucer's time and our own," two periods united by their challenge of traditional cultural "assumptions about boundaries, identities, and shared ethics" (p. 120), will remind readers of some of the broader comparisons made between the medieval and the (post)modern by Umberto Eco (e.g., Travels in Hyperreality, 1986) and Georges Duby and Jacques Le Goff (e.g., An 1000, an 2000: sur les traces de nos peurs, 1999) and also reveals the degree to which Schildgen's scholarly ethos determined her scholarly method. Although she is keenly aware of the danger of anachronism, her investigating subject's political preferences completely govern the subject of her investigation, as when Chaucer's tales are said to show the "unruly" late medieval "union" between nation and Christianity (p. 122), demonstrate "the breakdown of the dominant outlook" (p. 7), abandon "outmoded" literary genres (p. 11), probe "alternative social and moral convictions" (p. 12), point to the "decay of any coherent purpose in chivalry," promote "cultural tolerance" (p. 43), exemplify the "pluralism of pagan philosophical attitudes" (p. 82), illustrate that the theory of providential history is "anachronistic and conservative" (p. 104), place "model Christians in the past to make the past discontinuous with the present," and retreat from any of the medieval "cultural or political hegemonies" (p. 125). In these loaded terms one senses Schildgen's strong desire to construct a continuist picture of history progressing from a supposedly completely homogeneous and dark medieval status quo of the Latin West to an exceptionally post-traditional Chaucer who, surrounded by "Ockhamism and Holcot's philosophical skepticism" (p. 110), somehow managed to create a secularized literary environment which, "for the duration of the tale telling, at least, represents a kind of modernity" (p. 3).

In conclusion, two critical observations may be appropriate. First, I wish that, in addition to various verbal and syntactic links between the two time periods (e.g., "Ockham, . . . like Kant and Habermas stressed the contingency of the moral order," p. 5), Schildgen had attempted to answer the pesky question why Chaucer -- and none of the other late medieval writers -- was inspired by the "Ockhamist" climate of his times to transform traditional literary discourse in such a conspicuous manner. One possible way to connect the poet directly with late medieval nominalism would have been to stress the role of his friend, the "philosophical" (in two manuscripts "logical") Ralph Strode who, as far as the field of logic is concerned, was a follower of the via moderna and might have shared some general principles of nominalist thought with Chaucer. Second, I am a somewhat disappointed that Schildgen does not stress the indispensable ontological foundation of the contingent world she posits. As Hans Blumenberg, William Courtenay, Juergen Miethke, and others have pointed out, the nominalist challenges to traditional medieval social, political, and scientific thought all depend on these thinkers' radicalization of the concept of the Creator's absolute power (potentia absoluta). I have no doubts that the inclusion of this theological basis of "Ockhamism" would have provided additional support for Schildgen's argument, especially when one remembers Ullrich Langer's fascinating study , Divine and Poetic Freedom in the Renaissance: Nominalist Theology and Literature in France and Italy (1990), David Steinmetz's or Robert Stepsis's work on nominalism in the "Clerk's Tale," and the various essays by Laurence Eldredge. However, these are minor lacunae in a volume which is ground-breaking in most of its other aspects and nicely supplements Peggy Knapp's thought-provoking reading of the relationship between the Knight's and the Miller's tales in Chaucer and the Social Contest (1990). Schildgen's clear and condensed style, remarkable background in Medieval Latin, Romance, and English cultures, and considerable theoretical sophistication make her book an original contribution to Chaucer studies.