Suzanne Akbari

title.none: Carlson, Chaucer's Jobs (Suzanne Akbari)

identifier.other: baj9928.0602.025 06.02.25

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Suzanne Akbari, University of Toronto,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Carlson, David R. Chaucer's Jobs. Series: The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Pp. 168. $65.00 (hb). ISBN: 1-4039-6625-7.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.02.25

Carlson, David R. Chaucer's Jobs. Series: The New Middle Ages. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Pp. 168. $65.00 (hb). ISBN: 1-4039-6625-7.

Reviewed by:

Suzanne Akbari
University of Toronto

Carlson's new monograph on the still-canonical founding father of medieval English literature is both less than a whole book (99 pages, excluding notes) and two books in one, for within the copious notes that follow the text is enacted a separate debate on the value of Marxist analyses within the field of medieval studies. Therefore, taking a cue from the author, this review will begin with the body of the text, which presents a lucid account of the place of Chaucer's writing within English literary history, and then move on to a summary of the theoretical approaches that emerge explicitly only within the apparatus that follows.

Carlson has long been known as a meticulous and intelligent scholar of late medieval English literature within its historical context, and is particularly remarkable for his command of the Latin literature of the period. Among his most recent publications is an edition of the Concordia facta inter regem et cives Londoniae of Richard Maidstone, a Latin verse account of the reconciliation of Richard II with London in 1392. The Concordia commemorates the public ceremonies that (symbolically, at least) healed the social wounds resulting from the city's resistance to financial demands by the Crown, and subsequent political turmoil. Carlson's edition, which includes an English verse translation by A. G. Rigg, is an exemplary study of the linguistic and cultural history that lay behind Maidstone's work. Carlson's command of both the literary and the social history of medieval England is amply evident in his numerous articles, which range from fourteenth-century allegory to the interplay of Latin and vernacular culture on the eve of the Renaissance. It is unsurprising, therefore, to find that Carlson wears his learning lightly in Chaucer's Jobs, where his wide-ranging knowledge of late medieval English institutional and economic structures serves as the substrate of an overview of Chaucer's work as--precisely--work, in the sense of paid labor.

Chaucer's Jobs is divided into three brisk, efficient chapters: "Work" (1-31), "Writing" (33-64), and "Reception" (65-99). In the opening paragraphs, he pulls his readers up short by introducing us to, not the rather heroic 'Father Chaucer' of so much traditional scholarship, but to a rather thuggish lesser functionary of the English royal bureaucracy. "Chaucer was the police," Carlson declares, "an official of the repressive apparatus of state." (1) The poet's role as the paterfamilias of English poetry was, as Seth Lerer and others have shown, largely the construction of a later generation of writers who self-consciously looked back to a figure who could play the role of founder of an English literary dynasty. In Carlson's reading, however, this false lineage is stripped away to reveal a man both petty and despised, subordinate and overlooked. The summary biography presented by Carlson in "Work" is not that of a literary giant, but of a very small man. The account is largely based on that found in Crow and Olson's Chaucer Life-Records, supplemented by additional documentary evidence drawn from secondary sources.

In the following chapter, "Writing", the conspicuously absent history of Chaucer the poet emerges as Carlson's focus of inquiry. Carlson begins the chapter by focusing on texts that reveal the patronage structures that were crucial to Chaucer's ability to make a living, including the Book of the Duchess and the "Complaint to his Purse". This sound beginning gives way, however, to a more dubious account of Troilus and Criseyde that centers on the poem's treatment of erotic love, which, in Carlson's account, "evokes something else...something utopian, or revolutionary even". (48) Troilus's ascent at the end of book five, therefore, becomes a rejection of eros and, consequently, "an inchoate critique of aristocracy". (52) The brisk reading of the Canterbury Tales that follows includes an interesting reading of the incomplete work as "an incipient disciplinary machine" (54) that achieves its full mechanistic potential only in its ordering and dissemination after Chaucer's death, at the hands of his first readers. The succinct discussion of Chaucer's figure of the Plowman (55-57) is more suggestive than fully elaborated, and soon gives way to a more general view of repression and exclusion along lines of race and gender in the Canterbury Tales. The chapter closes with an attempt to integrate Chaucer's two "jobs", his day job as a minor functionary of the Crown, and his after-hours work in his private study. In his writing, Carlson suggests, Chaucer engaged in what can be called "police-work: enforcement of the established order by literary-cultural means. Writing for him was another job." (64) Both of Chaucer's "jobs" were in the service of the state, mediated through a web of patronage relationships, the most important of which involved John of Gaunt.

In the final chapter, "Reception", the two "jobs" of Chaucer give way to a survey of how the poet's oeuvre continued to be used to carry out the same tasks of state repression and control. Eustache Deschamps, Thomas Usk, Gower, Clanvowe, Scogan, and Hoccleve are each in turn examined in the context of Chaucer's legacy. In light of Carlson's earlier work on Usk, it is no surprise to find that the treatment of that unfortunate poet is particularly nuanced and perceptive. The account of Hoccleve is marred by the lack of reference to Ethan Knapp's important book, The Bureaucratic Muse, though Knapp's earlier articles are cited. In the end, according to Carlson, Chaucer's "legacy" is simply "the possibility, promise, and routine of servile literary production". (98) Carlson's tone is sometimes aggressive, even polemical: "what made the Chaucerian tradition apt for the election it received was its collaborative subordination." He concludes the book with a bitingly terse statement, "It served." (99) I suspect that this is a deliberate strategy: Carlson intends to disturb the casual reader of Chaucer's poetry who assumes that the greatness subsequently conferred on the author was already embedded in the work even as it was written.

The notes to Chaucer's Jobs are abundant, making up one-third of the total pagination of the book. The chapters themselves read almost like a series of lectures, while the notes carry out a separate debate that touches on the historiography of Marxist approaches to late medieval literature. Some of the notes contain cogent critiques of the efforts of other scholars of late medieval English literature, such as R. T. Lenaghan (127-29n67) and Paul Strohm (131-32n77); the limitations of the note form, however, leave the reader longing for a fuller engagement with contemporary debate in the field. It would be particularly exciting to see Carlson take on some of the Marxist- informed social history that has emerged within the framework of Langland studies, especially the work of David Aers and, more recently, Kellie Robertson. Instead of building upon the foundations laid by these scholars, Carson prefers to draw from the theorists themselves, devoting long notes to summaries of apposite passages in Marx and Engels, Benjamin, Marcuse, Althusser, and Macherey. There is certainly nothing wrong with returning to these sources; one would like to see, however, a fuller integration of these theoretical approaches with the medieval texts that are ostensibly their object of study. The work of Lee Patterson, cited briefly in the notes, would provide a very useful model for a fuller integration of Marxist analysis with (pace New Criticism!) close reading of Chaucer's written work.

It is undeniably churlish to complain about what a book does not do. I describe the limitations of Carlson's notes, however, not to deprecate what he has accomplished but rather to point toward what work still remains to be done in the on-going effort to understand more fully the relationship between Chaucer's two "jobs", and their synergistic participation in the social flux of late medieval England. Carlson's book is an energizing stimulus to further study that will be absorbed with interest by a wide range of readers.