Scott Lightsey

title.none: Boitani, Mann, eds., Chaucer (Scott Lightsey)

identifier.other: baj9928.0501.008 05.01.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Scott Lightsey, Georgia State University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2005

identifier.citation: Boitani, Piero, and Jill Mann, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Chaucer, 2nd edition. Series: Cambridge Companions to Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge Univerrsity Press, 2003. Pp. xiv, 317. $60.00 0-521-81556-8. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 05.01.08

Boitani, Piero, and Jill Mann, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Chaucer, 2nd edition. Series: Cambridge Companions to Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge Univerrsity Press, 2003. Pp. xiv, 317. $60.00 0-521-81556-8. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Scott Lightsey
Georgia State University

The second edition of The Cambridge Companion to Chaucer supplements material from the first edition of 1986 with several additional essays and an expanded "further reading" section. Although some of the original essays remain unaltered, a few have been revised to cohere with several new essays, resulting in a new Cambridge Companion to Chaucer that maintains the eclecticism of the first edition while offering a broader range of introductory material and a more polished presentation than its earlier incarnation.

Unlike other introductory volumes, such as Helen Cooper's 1989 volume for the Oxford Guides to Chaucer or Derek Pearsall's 1985 The Canterbury Tales, the essays comprising this volume have a range of objectives beyond the CT, and often beyond the introductory. In this editor Boitani and Mann gesture in the direction of A Companion to Chaucer, edited for Blackwell in 2000 by Peter Brown, while maintaining a greater focus on critical practice. The result is a volume that seeks to model critical approaches and frame some of the field's intellectual challenges, rather than to summarize issues under the generalities of an 'introductory' format. The "students, teachers, and all general readers" (ix) who are the stated audience of the collection will find Chaucer and his works emerging from the synthesis of the volume, rather than in surveys or spot introductions.

The editors wisely choose to retain and revise a slight majority of material from the first edition, a compilation of studies touching upon the range of Chaucer's social contexts, his works, and their artistic influences. The essays are loosely organized into informal thematic groupings. Beginning with Paul Strohm's essay locating Chaucer in the domestic literary scene of London, the first few pieces deal with England and the continent, after which selections from the so-called "minor" poems are examined in essays by Piero Boitani (BD, HF, LGW), Mark Lambert (Troilus), Jill Mann (Troilus and KT), and Julia Boffey and A.S.G. Edwards (LGW). The first edition's group of essays on CT remains, followed by several new essays on Chaucerian legacies such as his contributions to vernacular style, ongoing presence in literary history, and continuing relevance to the critical fields. This last section draws the full contents of the second edition into a unity unrealized in the edition of 1986.

The new volume thus addresses some of the lapses of the earlier edition, which failed to provide detailed discussion of the Legend of Good Women or more extensively to cover the relationship between Chaucer's writing and contemporary continental forms. Ardis Butterfield now provides a helpful introduction to the French tradition, while David Wallace has redirected his essay on Chaucer and continental form to concentrate on Italian literature, highlighting the ways in which the poet renegotiated form with the continental scene. Both of these essays refuse to centralize either the volume's subject or to see him as an imitator, instead seeking to observe Chaucer consciously in dialogue and negotiation with other literary and linguistic traditions.

The core collection of numbered essays on the Canterbury Tales, covering romance (J.A. Burrow), comedy (Derek Pearsall), pathos (Robert Worth Frank, Jr.), and exemplum and fable (A.C. Spearing) remains without emendation. This group is still bracketed by C. David Benson's essay on personification and poetic form as an introduction, and by Barry Windeatt's meditation on literary structures and Chaucerian conclusions, or lack thereof, as conclusion.

Windeatt's essay on Chaucerian transitions works well as a bridge to the final segment, now comprised of new essays that may be characterized by their attention to Chaucerian legacies. In a sense, these latter essays are the new heart of the volume, since each plays upon some aspect of the history of Chaucer criticism, seeking to reframe that history for current and future readers.

Christopher Cannon's essay on Chaucer's style attempts to overcome the stylistic dualities implied by discussions of the poet's courtliness and naturalism, high and low forms, rhetorical sophistication and simplicity, all enacted through Chaucer's reworking of source material in pursuit of an English idiom. Cannon plays on the tensions between a variety of polarizing stylistic moves, characterizing Chaucer's work as "wholly defined by the activity of mixing" (243). As such he adds to the discussion of literary influence begun by Butterfield and Wallace, while framing Chaucer's mixed style as a personal synthesis.

James Simpson's chapter on Chaucer's presence and absence is a welcome addition to the scope of the Cambridge Companion, detailing fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century responses to Chaucerian posterity. Simpson charts well over a century of poetic memorials and eulogia of Chaucer, taking examples from among poets who resisted acknowledging Chaucer's definitive progression into the philological afterlife to show that the poet lived on in the minds of his admirers until the sixteenth century.

In a period when the relevance of medieval studies is increasingly measured against the social and economic imperatives of the bottom line, it seems more than appropriate to conclude with Carolyn Dinshaw's essay, "New approaches to Chaucer." Under this generic title she meditates widely on themes that arose from her attempt to retreat to Chaucer for solas on the morning of 9/11. She directs the reader to new possibilities and theoretical approaches, and in doing so, offers an appeal for the relevance of the entire project of Chaucer studies. The encompassing plea of this critique explores the very habitus of Chaucer studies that the volume as a whole seeks to introduce; here Dinshaw is at her instructive best, as she probes the mobile dimensions of a field that remains vital and relevant despite the daunting volumes of scholarship confronting the beginner.

Despite the additional critical breadth of the new Cambridge Companion, lacunae remain and are especially obvious to those interested in, for example, Chaucer's prosody or his proto-scientific writing, which together with his Boethian laments, are represented obliquely if at all. The editors seek to defray the effects of such omissions by reenlisting the device of a "further readings" section, this time greatly expanded by the original editor, Joerg O. Fichte. Despite his caveat (301), the natural idiosyncrasies of such a selection require little or no justification to professional medievalists, who will find the editorial choices fundamentally sound. On the other hand, the target audience--those who by definition are more susceptible to editorial influence--could want for more of Fichte's instructional commentary. This is particularly so of difficult or technical areas, for example in astronomy/astrology, where the works of Sigmund Eisner, Chauncey Wood, and J.D. North are dispersed without comment to sections on "Sources and Analogues" and "Historical Criticism." Nevertheless, this compilation of basic resources, organized on principles similar to those in the Variorum, will provide a welcome point of departure for most beginners.

Although this volume retains the flavor of the first edition, it exceeds the original in its useful intent as a companion volume for those embarking on their first engagements with Chaucer. Despite my affection for the revised essays held over from the previous edition, each of which remains instructive, it is the group of new essays that invigorates this second edition with the sense--invaluable in a teaching edition--that the reader is asked to join an ongoing project, to participate in the critical conversation. Although it is difficult to sustain this sense at length outside of fundamental single-author introductions, editors Boitani and Mann, through their judicious management of participants' strengths, have rejuvenated this staple introductory collection for new generations of Chaucer scholars. It is a volume that will challenge as well as instruct: a welcome measure of respect for the reader that is not always offered by the companion format.