09.03.17, Minnis, Fallible Authors

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Dominique Battles

The Medieval Review baj9928.0903.017


Minnis, Alastair. Fallible Authors: Chaucer's Pardoner and Wife of Bath. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008. Pp. xvi, 510. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4030-6.

Reviewed by:
Dominique Battles
Hanover College

Fallible Authors unfolds another chapter in the author's life- long exploration of the idea of medieval authorship. In a nutshell, it takes up the perennial tension between the message and the messenger in the realm of the spiritual. Its purpose is three-fold: first, to explore fourteenth-century debates over clerical fallibility, the inherent disconnect between the extensive powers given to clerical offices and the limited, flawed nature of individual men who fill them, debates which came to a head in the heresy of Wycliffism; second, to apply the paradigms of clerical fallibility to literary figures, using Chaucer's characters of the Pardoner and the Wife of Bath as examples of fallible "authors"; third, to make the case that while Chaucer participates fully and enthusiastically in these popular debates, his association with Wycliffite ideas does not make him guilty of Lollardy.

Minnis brings together in a single volume ideas that he has explored in a series of interrelated essays published between 1991 and 2006. The volume divides itself into two discussions of fallibility: moral fallibility as it pertains to priestly service, and how those discussions play themselves out in the character of Chaucer's Pardoner (chapters 1 and 2), and gender as a form of fallibility, and how this plays out in the example of Alisoun of Bath (chapters 3 and 4). It also includes a 35-page introduction and over 100 pages of notes.

Chapter one concerns how the medieval Church interpreted and handled moral fallibility among clergy and the potential consequences to parishioners. To what extent does moral failing in a priest compromise his ability to save souls? Minnis takes up this question through discussions of an array of priestly functions including preaching, administering sacraments, conducting mass, and dispensing pardons. Drawing on preachers' handbooks and the works of various continental and English theologians (including Peter Lombard, Thomas Aquinas, Albert the Great, and Bonaventure), Minnis unfolds the many permutations that clerical fallibility might take depending on the nature of a priest's sin, the extent to which his sin was known (and by whom), his own sense of contrition for the sin, the precise priestly function in question (e.g. baptism, consecration of the sacraments), and the extent of his personal desire to do good for his congregation despite the sin. Minnis concludes that, despite differences among theologians and churchmen, on the whole the medieval Church separated the office of the priest from the office holder with the reassuring consequence that the souls under the jurisdiction of an immoral priest were not compromised through their association with him. An immoral priest can deliver a moral message.

Minnis' discussion of priestly function also reveals several unexpected exceptions to priestly intervention, exceptions that may inform our understanding of some of Chaucer's characters. For instance, according to Peter Lombard and others, in extreme circumstances (in extremis, such as the imminent death of a newborn), a layperson, even an old woman, a heretic, a schismatic, or a non-Christian (e.g. a Jew) could administer the sacrament of baptism.

With respect to the Canterbury Tales, Minnis has a lively discussion of the "Canterbury indulgence," the indulgence instituted for the shrine of Thomas à Becket at Canterbury, the destination of Chaucer's pilgrims. Canterbury, it seems, did not want to miss out on the indulgence system, since having one would bring significant spiritual traffic and revenue to the cathedral. At the same time, the validity of the Canterbury indulgence, as Minnis reveals, was not without controversy, as one 15th-century treatise attributed to Richard Godmersham attests. All of this sets the stage for Chaucer's Pardoner, a deeply fallible man in the business of indulgences on his way to Canterbury.

In Chapter 2, Minnis approaches the character of Chaucer's Pardoner with an honest agenda: "...it is high time...that we recuperated the idealism which marks the foundational theology of indulgences, its affirmation of divine love and expression of religious communality and mutuality" (103). Reacting against the Protestant readings of the Pardoner that make up the bread and butter of criticism of this particular Canterbury prologue and tale, Minnis makes the bold and refreshing (and Catholic) argument that, in exposing religious deviance in the figure of the Pardoner, Chaucer affirms, rather than mocks, the orthodox religious ideals of the medieval Catholic church.

One way Minnis argues for the religious idealism underlying the portrait of the Pardoner involves presenting one of the most detailed cases for the Pardoner's professional transgressions. Where much of the scholarship on the Pardoner, for instance, revolves around his ambiguous status and function within the clerical hierarchy, Minnis instead pinpoints his status precisely (or nearly precisely) as "a layman or at best a man in minor orders" (118), a status that completely disqualifies him for most of what he does, including selling pardons, absolving sins, and preaching. Chaucer's Pardoner acts "without legal warrant" in performing functions "properly reserved for those in major orders" (118). While the church authorized pardoners, to be sure, this particular Pardoner sets his professional sights well above their legal limit. We cannot, therefore, hold the Church accountable technically for the sins of this single maverick, since there were rules in place designed to prevent this very thing. On the flip side, contemporary theology and ecclesiastical regulation indicate that the Pardoner acts well within bounds when he claims that he, as an immoral man, can preach a moral tale, and in this regard Minnis seems to want it both ways. He is both more harsh and more forgiving in his reading of Chaucer's Pardoner.

Another way Minnis asserts the religious idealism inherent in Chaucer's portrait of the Pardoner concerns the copious theological evidence he unearths for internal admonitions against, and controls for, precisely the kind of religious racketeering the Pardoner conducts. The Pardoner does not expose the corrupt nature of the 14th-century church; just the opposite. For example, "during the 1380's, warrants were issued to arrest persons mendaciously claiming to be collecting alms for the Rounceval Hospital," the very hospital with which the Pardoner affiliates himself (102). Similarly, the Oxford Petition of 1414, a mere 14 years after Chaucer's death, explicitly attacks the all-too-common practice of pardoners absolving people from punishment and from guilt, and other forms of fraud. Likewise, Minnis discusses Bishop John de Grandisson's 1356 condemnation of "impious questors" and those who facilitate them (118). Thus Minnis makes a well-supported case that Chaucer's scandalous portrait of the Pardoner places Chaucer himself squarely on the side of the orthodox Church rather than in the camp of Wycliffite heretics.

Minnis recuperates the proverbial "other side of the story" with respect to indulgences, a practice that has long been synonymous with church corruption. Departing from the common reading of indulgences as a religious scam for easy money, Minnis defends the idealism underlying the system. Looking to Bonaventure as an example, he argues for the spiritual benefits for both the granter and the grantee of the indulgence. Indulgences provided the recipient with a concrete way to put penitential thought into action, to give outward form to an inner process of contrition. For the granter, indulgences become a form of sharing the burden of the sinner, and the money gained could keep hospitals and schools in good repair to the benefit of the entire community. This is an ideal, of course, and Minnis fully acknowledges the gaps between ideal and practice, but he also asserts the church's efforts to maintain the ideal and the considerable dissent within the church itself regarding the sale of indulgences against a backdrop of that ideal. He also notes the predicament they created for the church (and the parishioners): if an indulgence is "recalled," so to speak, the church loses authority and the parishioner loses the spiritual benefit conferred. Thus the practice continued amidst ambivalence within the Church. Not everyone will agree with the case for indulgences argued in this book. Nevertheless, Minnis allows us to hear again the medieval Catholic voice on this subject, a voice that we must keep in the conversation, certainly those pertaining to the Pardoner.

If Minnis magnifies the Pardoner's scandal in the matter of professional practices, he reduces scandal in the matter of the Pardoner's gender identity and sexual preference. On the one hand, he applauds the contributions of queer theorists: "I do not want to be misread as dismissing the possibility of homoerotic interpretation of Chaucer's Pardoner" (147). He does not rule out the possibility of homosexuality or bisexuality, but, he says, the Pardoner's homosexuality "remains unproved" (158). On the other hand, he suggests that medieval audiences and poets held less sharp distinctions between heterosexual and homosexual lust, "misleading modern binaries" (160). "Lust was lust" (147). More importantly, Minnis rectifies certain misconceptions regarding the sexual and marital status of eunuchs such as the Pardoner. According to at least one body of contemporary opinion, a eunuch "was deemed capable of marriage, both physically and legally" (151), even in the role of producing offspring (154). Such a reading accords with the Pardoner's own stated desire to cavort with women and even marry. In sum, Minnis argues for a more inclusive understanding of the Pardoner's sexual status, one less quick to categorize or damn one way or the other.

In chapter 3, Minnis takes up the question of female authority in women's roles as teachers and, especially, preachers. First, he explores the layers of Biblical and theological arguments that prevented women from holding ecclesiastical office, and therefore preaching in any official capacity. At the same time, he notes the numerous ways women did assume spiritual authority in both Biblical and in real life roles as prophetesses, teachers of the Gospel, and abbesses presiding over female (and, in some cases, male) members of the orders. In Chaucer's own day, women like Margery Kemp and Julian of Norwich found ways to teach (and preach) despite being barred from ecclesiastical office, Kemp repeatedly denying any association with Wycliffite heresy.

Following his discussion of the orthodox scene on the question of gender and preaching, Minnis turns to the Lollard scene of 14th- century England. Here, he argues that contemporary scholars have overstated the Lollard (Wycliffite) defense of women within the Church. First, Minnis revisits John Wycliff's own writings, which give sporadic and largely speculative attention to the question of women clergy. Second, he turns to Wycliff's followers, men like Walter Brut, whose views are gleaned largely from documents and testimonials composed by their attackers who invariably exaggerate and distort their actual views on a host of theological questions, including women clergy. Third, he examines Lollard writings that essentially agree with the orthodox position that women can substitute for male clergy in extremis, and that women's sphere as teachers belongs predominantly in the home with the young. He concludes that, for all the credit the Lollards have received as champions of women's rights in religious practice, there is very little evidence that they a) envisioned a priesthood with regular women clergy and b) gave women sustained theological prominence. Their women mainly helped their men, as in the orthodox Church.

Chapter 4 is devoted to the Wife of Bath, and challenges a popular reading of the Wife as a mouthpiece for Lollard doctrine. Scholars have attributed her liberal attitudes towards marriage and sexuality, and her brazen confidence in her own physical and intellectual instincts, to Lollard beliefs on the supremacy of personal conscience over institutional authority. This interpretive move stems, according to Minnis, from a mistaken understanding of Wycliffite doctrine, notably on the subject of marriage. First, the Wycliffites "had little to say on the subject of marriage, while Chaucer had a lot to say [through the Wife]" (294). Second, what little they did say seems to validate marriage only for procreation, and openly permits dissolving a union should it fail to produce young, a position that could not be further from the practice of serial marriage without progeny championed by Alisoun of Bath. Third, Alisoun draws more heavily upon Jerome's (orthodox) Adversus Jovinianum than on any specifically Lollard text. Fourth, she wages a "scholastic style defense of sexual desire" (309). Finally, in the tale, Chaucer draws upon the "moral advantages of vetularity" whereby women assume genuine, sanctioned potential for authority, and drastically departs from the crude literary stereotype of the vielle as found in the Romance of the Rose. This chapter also contains a lively analysis of the language Alisoun uses to describe body parts within the context of medical vocabulary of the day as well as profanity. In the prologue as well as the tale, Chaucer challenges two "despised stereotypes" of his day: the sexually rapacious widow, and the vetula or vielle (old woman), maneuvers that "decisively separate Alisoun from her antifeminist ancestors" (309). Minnis argues that Chaucer adheres strictly to none of the doctrines of the day, radical or otherwise, but chooses his own way.

Minnis states his conclusion in writing Fallible Authors on p. 277: "'orthodoxy' should not be regarded as a monolithic and determined structure which is devoid of contradiction, contestation, and downright confusion." Though he admits to the severe restrictions during the of period of the "heresy hunt" of Chaucer's day, Minnis argues that the larger orthodoxy was more inclusive and pluralistic than many like to believe, while Lollardy may have more in common with Puritanism than with Romantic liberalism, certainly in the area of love and marriage. Thus, while his arguments at times adhere to the letter of the law of Catholic orthodoxy of Chaucer's day, sometimes rigidly so, he demonstrates how the letter of the law was, in fact, not always so rigid in the end. In this respect, Fallible Authors seeks to restore scholarly and doctrinal balance in the competing claims over the poetry, and indeed the soul, of Geoffrey Chaucer.

Article Details

Author Biography

Dominique Battles

Hanover College