The Medieval Review 10.02.04

Goodall, Peter, ed. Chaucer's Monk's Tale and Nun's Priest's Tale: An Annotated Bibliography . Chaucer Bibliographies. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009. Pp. xlviii, 338. $110.00 ISBN 978-0-8020-9320-2. .

Reviewed by:

Amanda Walling
Amherst College

The eighth of eighteen planned volumes in the Chaucer Bibliographies series, this guide to centuries of scholarship on the Nun's Priest's Tale and Monk's Tale promises to become an invaluable research aid for students and specialists working on Chaucer. Like its companion volumes, it seeks to temper the comprehensiveness of database searching with a greater degree of scholarly judgment and editorial guidance. The core of the volume is its listing of virtually every article or book published on (or containing substantial discussion of) its two tales, including not only scholarly discussions but also editions, translations, modernizations, and even other bibliographical works. Each entry is annotated with a brief description or summary outlining its relevant arguments and often explaining how the work in question fits into the larger currents of debate and interpretation that the bibliography ultimately narrates. Although the title acknowledges only twentieth- century criticism as its purview, a handful of earlier works dating back to Dryden are also included, especially the seminal editions and textual analyses that have laid the groundwork for much later research. The cumulative picture that emerges from these fragments, together with the fine introduction detailing the central questions that have accumulated around each text, may prove to be the book's most important contribution to future Chaucer scholarship.

The volume's bibliographical listings are loosely arranged by topic, mostly in chapters that include work on both tales. The more technical chapters are arranged clearly into such useful categories as "Editions, Translations, Modernizations, and Retellings," "Bibliographies, Handbooks, and Indexes," "Manuscript and Textual Studies," "Prosody, Linguistic, and Lexical Studies," and "Sources, Analogues, and Allusions." The entries in these chapters include not only discussions of the topics particular to these two tales, but much of the important work on The Canterbury Tales and Chaucer's work more generally: readers will find a full account of the major editions of The Canterbury Tales from Tyrwhitt's 1775 edition to Benson's Riverside Chaucer, with a careful but concise explanation of the critical and methodological features of each, and will become acquainted with the major issues at stake in debates about the preeminence of the Ellesmere and Hengwrt manuscripts or about the Bradshaw shift and the ordering of the tales. The account of translations and adaptations will offer much of interest, from the critical tradition of Dryden's "Cock and the Fox" to bowdlerized versions for children, adaptations into other media such as play scripts and choral settings, and an array of translations into Dutch, Spanish, French, German, Italian, Swedish, Hungarian, Chinese, and other languages. Even scholars familiar with the standard literature on the tales may find intriguing avenues here that can invite further exploration and prompt new research.

While the first five chapter headings offer guides to more specialized philological, prosodic, or textual analysis of the tales, the remaining four chapters generally cover literary analysis and interpretation, though without such a precise methodological label. Under the very broad rubrics "The Narrators of the Tales Considered as Characters," "The Tales Considered Together," "The Monk's Tale," and "The Nun's Priest's Tale," they bring together a chronologically and theoretically diverse range of perspectives. These apparently straightforward and symmetrical headings conceal much more complicated stories about the transmission and reception of the tales (the reader of the table of contents may observe that the chapter on the Monk's Tale comprises a mere 22 pages as against the 79 pages devoted to the Nun's Priest's Tale). The looseness of such an organizational framework allows for a greater degree of potential dialogue amongst various approaches to the tales, and will facilitate the inquiries of scholars whose areas of interest lie in the interstices between such oft-discussed topics as tragedy, fortune, and the relative merits of wheat and chaff, but it also suggests the difficulty faced by both editors and readers in sorting through so many perspectives, theoretical approaches, and degrees of sophistication and subsequent influence. These chapter headings will offer less direct guidance to readers than those of the earlier chapters: scholars interested in one tale will still need to review the listings of works that treat both together, for example, since the latter category includes many of the most important books about Chaucer's work generally or the Canterbury Tales as a whole. In these areas, the best guides for readers will be the extensive index and the narrative overviews in the volume's introduction, which summarize critical perspectives on such topics as "Style and Rhetoric" and "NPT in Its Intellectual, Theological, and Social Context." Some redundancy among these introductory essays, the individual entries, and the paragraph-long introductions to individual chapters should be considered a virtue, since these are essential tools for navigating the volume effectively and efficiently. Given the editorial care evident throughout the volume, however, readers will be especially frustrated by the glaring omission of over 40 entries, several of them essential works on Chaucer, in a printing error (an insert advises readers to download the 15-page supplement in .pdf form from the publisher; the numbering of the omitted entries is mostly in sequence with the rest of the volume but the pagination of the supplement is not).

As useful as the summaries of argumentation are, the most important feature of the individual entries is perhaps their mindfulness of the broader critical scene to which they provide access, offering more substantive context than a simple catalog of abstracts. The annotators include extensive cross-referencing that allows readers to trace how scholars respond to and build upon one another's arguments, and for particularly significant or controversial works they often cite several reviews (the citations of reviews do not always address the same topics described in the annotation of the work itself, which can lead to a somewhat misleading sense of the controversy under discussion). Although the annotators do not typically critique or commend the works they describe, they often allow these interpolated conversations to do the work of evaluation: comments such as "all three reviewers lambast the work for its ahistorical, anachronistic criticism" (183) leave little doubt as to the annotator's judgment, and a well-placed "[sic]" can on occasion cue the reader's skepticism. These cross-references will prove especially valuable for graduate students and scholars new to the field who must prepare to enter conversations that have been continuing for decades. Within each chapter, the entries are arranged chronologically, emphasizing the development of themes and debates over time. To read through the entries in sequence is to derive a fascinating picture of the persistence of the dramatic theory of the tales and of the rubric of the marriage group, of the waxing and waning of historicism and patristic criticism, and of the theoretical turn that reached the Nun's Priest well before it discovered the Monk. The juxtaposition of the two tales here reminds us of their close but often neglected relationship, and makes a compelling argument for scholars to treat the Monk's Tale with the same seriousness and acumen accorded to the Nun's Priest's Tale. Moreover, viewing the tales from this formidably learned and encyclopedic perspective may invite scholars to pay more attention to their own kinship with both the Monk and the Nun's Priest: in this context, we become even more aware of the tales' preoccupations with scholarship and scholarly personae, with the enchantments and constraints of interpretation, and with the competing claims of erudition and literary pleasure.

The volume's editors justly advertise its distinctive contributions to research and scholarship, but despite its achievements, it also prompts important questions about research methods at the present moment. The General Editor's Preface offers the book's only glancing allusion to the tools that have reshaped scholarly activity in recent years, with the comment that "though the Bibliographies necessarily began from a database, each volume makes extensive use of the intellectual engagement, learning, and insight of scholars actively working on Chaucer" (vii-viii). In many ways, not least the demarcation insisted upon by the volume's terminus ad quem, this is a twentieth-century project already appearing in a different scholarly era. This should not be read as criticism: as the editors here argue, the painstaking labor and critical judgment that the contributors have applied to their research is not easily duplicated by most database searches, which offer only glimpses of what is actually contained in the works they cite and few tools for evaluating their relevance, insight, or subsequent influence. Scholars who have labored to exercise due diligence with a stack of database citations will undoubtedly appreciate the lucid appraisals offered here. Nonetheless, the research practices of most scholars today have been profoundly altered by the databases and online tools that increasingly serve as the starting point for any major project or casual inquiry, and which offer flexibility and accessibility that printed volumes cannot easily duplicate, including searchable text, constantly updated references, instant links to full articles (the publisher's reliance upon an online supplement to correct the omission of pages offers an ironic instance of the importance of such resources). In particular, when the General Editor advises that the bibliography will "move undergraduates more quickly from the generalizations and observations of textbooks and instructors to a direct access to the richness and variety of Chaucer's writing," most teachers will be aware that their undergraduate students are likely to arrive at such a volume only after having made their way through the thickets of Wikipedia, Google, and JSTOR, and that they may require as much guidance to navigate a printed bibliography, with its numbered cross-referencing and paper- saving abbreviations of journal titles, as to read Chaucer's work in Middle English. While the Chaucer Bibliographies project can usefully complement this kind of research, it might better cement its usefulness by acknowledging how readers' use of it and access to the materials it describes are shaped by these tools. As a study of the history of Chaucer criticism, however, and as an invitation to new directions in research (especially on the Monk's Tale), the work of Goodall and his collaborators will prove to be an essential and effective resource for graduate students and established scholars for years to come.