11.05.07, Crocker, Chaucer's Visions of Manhood

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Wan-Chuan Kao

The Medieval Review 11.05.07

Crocker, Holly A.. Chaucer's Visions of Manhood. The New Middle Ages. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Pp. 250. ISBN: 978-1403975713.

Reviewed by:
Wan-Chuan Kao
City University of New York Graduate Center

Masculinity is boring. Or rather, particular types of masculinities pass themselves off as boring, unremarkable, and even invisible. Yet the seeming boringness of masculinity is key to Holly Crocker's trenchant investigation of how gender works within the Chaucerian corpus. Deliberately avoiding the more popular Chaucerian figures and texts--such as the Pardoner and his tale--in recent studies of medieval gender and sexuality, Crocker instead treats "a much weirder kettle of fish" (16) in her monograph: the Tale of Melibee, the Physician's Tale, the Book of the Duchess, the Shipman's Tale, and the manuscript Harley 7333. While some of these texts may not have received much critical attention by critics who view them as boring in one way or another, they are, in Crocker's view, more extreme and excessive in their representations of masculinity and femininity. One could argue that Crocker's project, by virtue of its chosen texts, is also a study of "minor" literature within the Chaucerian canon. And these minoritized textual spaces create a network of minor lineations that, as Deleuze and Guattari argue, always trigger uncontrollable movements and deterritorializations. [1] The minor Chaucerian texts therefore put forth a more radical vision of the male and the female in which gender, identity, and ocularity form an interlocking nexus. The negotiation and play of (in)visibility emerge as crucial to the daily lives of the characters that Chaucer depicts: both men and women seek not to become gender outlaws but survivors and victors.

The paradox of invisibility is that, on the one hand, it confers cultural privileges and mystique on certain performances of gender, especially for men; on the other hand, it marks social exclusion, powerlessness, and erasure. In this fluid space, the visible does not necessarily signify the powerful. Because visibility also involves the self and the community, its meanings are subject to appropriation and debate. Using studies of passing in critical race theory, Crocker argues that individual gender expressions need to pass unnoticed and become invisible in order to escape the punitive surveillance of heterosexual economies. At the same time, passing presupposes the danger of being exposed as a gender fraud. If there is an ocular logic to gender, it is one that awards the most talented manipulator of visibility. Dominant masculinity might pass itself as invisible and therefore universal because it is what everyone already knows. Simultaneously female agency, by busily constructing itself as passive and dependent on masculine control, might in turn accrue autonomy and expose masculine prowess as a sham. Both masculinity and femininity could fade into what Crocker calls the "visibly invisible" (2). And the visibly invisible also extends to Crocker's unveiling of multiple Chaucers within Chaucerian texts and within the historical reception of his works. Crocker is interested not so much in Chaucer the Father of English literature as in the Chaucer who passes himself off as a self-proclaimed minor poet. Rejecting the traditional tripartite division of Chaucer into the poet, the pilgrim, and the man, Crocker argues that such trinitarian readings of Chaucer render his corpus invisible, underscore the readerly desire to control their versions of Chaucer, and erase the collaborative nature of reception between readers and Chaucer. In staging his own poetic masculinity as minor, elusive, and invisible, Chaucer rejects dominant masculinity assumed universality and inclusiveness; gender, in fact, is multiple and malleable. The invisibility gained through the guise of a poor poet grants Chaucer mobility within his own texts; a mobility that lets him explore the performative potential of vision, agency, and gender.

In the first chapter, Crocker reads the Tale of Melibee through the lens of Roger Bacon's visual theories. The early Middle Ages privileged the Platonic extramission theories of vision, in which a penetrating, masculine gaze brings objects into visibility. By the late Middle Ages, however, Aristotelian intromission theories of vision gained valence. Whereas extramission posits that visual rays emanate from the eyes of an active viewer, intromission conceives of objects as sending out visual rays that enter the eyes of a passive viewer. As Crocker notes, Bacon is a critical figure in the history of optics because of his attempt to synthesize extramission and intromission theories of vision. Bacon constructs an equal reciprocity between viewer and object; in the moment of vision, the viewer is simultaneously active and passive. The coexistence of passivity and agency in the act of vision, for Crocker, blurs gender distinctions and allows for greater gender reciprocity; no longer is the masculine gaze of extramission privileged. In the Melibee, Chaucer similarly widens the scope of vision and portrays the inherent equality between Melibee and Prudence, exemplified in the dialogue between the spouses that demonstrates marital partnership. Yet both Chaucer and Bacon, in recognizing the simultaneity of passivity and agency, also subsume reciprocity within gender hierarchy: Bacon worries about the masculine viewer's vulnerability to false images, and Chaucer covers marital equality with allegory. Prudence remains an allegorical figure, a voice without a body, who actively erases her own agency and stresses female receptivity and allegory of marriage as a model of masculine consciousness. Her use of commonplace proverbs substantiates Melibee's masculinity, thereby exemplifying the art of feminine persuasion that is nonetheless premised on the stereotype of female deception. The Tale of Melibee is boring to modern sensibility because Prudence is a boring woman and her wisdom, conventional. Yet Crocker contends that Prudence's banality is ultimately what makes the tale radical because it demonstrates her active deployment and management of her invisibility. The more she turns herself into a marker of masculine power, the more she reveals masculinity's dependence on the invisibility of female agency. Conventional manhood becomes "an ethereal nothing," as disembodied as Prudence. If managing masculinity means the managing of femininity, then a reduction of female agency would result in a corresponding reduction in male agency. Melibee's masculinity, Crocker reminds us, is problematic because it is boring.

Female agency must be rendered invisible because it is a threat to masculine control. In the second chapter, Crocker explores the extreme violence that such a threat could trigger in the Physician's Tale. Virginia, who is a perfect copy of her father Virginius, is known for her perfect passivity and purity; in fact, she is born fully endowed with virtues. But her passive autonomy is problematic because Virginia does not need a man or conduct manual to teach her how to behave. Virginius, lacking a properly masculine role of a teacher to his daughter, can achieve his manhood only through positive association with Virginia. The father-daughter relationship is intromissive: she, as feminine image, gives shape to his masculine identity. When Virginia's purity is under threat, Virginius's impotence is exposed for public view. Crocker compares the tale to the historical Elizabeth of Lancaster, the daughter of John of Gaunt whose elopement and subsequent marriage to John Holland was a political scandal in Chaucer's time. Elizabeth, like the fictional Virginia, is marked by her passivity to men's actions. Both women become a piece of property in the dispute among men. More important, the traffic in woman is premised on the male regulation of femininity within the household: this is the regime of masculine control advocated in conduct literature such as the Book of the Knight of the Tower or the Ménagier de Paris. When Virginia's purity is threatened, Virginius experiences patriarchal panic that exposes the impotence of male agency. The only way for him to regain control is through violence. By beheading Virginia, Virginius removes the feminine threat and assumes the "head" of his household. In death, Virginia is denied the privileges of exemplarity, as her father reduces her to "a real, live girl" (68) who needs his intervention after all; no longer is she able to assert her visible independence from men. But if Virginia is a copy of her father, then Virginius's act of violence is an act of self-castration in the end.

In the third chapter, Crocker moves from male violence to masculine detachment. Central to Chaucer's Book of the Duchess is the work of mourning and memorialization. As Crocker points out, medieval memorial composition works at physiological, aesthetic, and moral registers. In the Book of the Duchess, the work of memorialization is distance-dependent, as memory in medieval mnemonic schemes is visualized in topographic terms; past time is spatialized as measurable distance. In the poem, gender difference is staked on temporal and spatial distances that are relational, not linear. That is, gender-mapping is a negotiation of distance, and vice versa. To gain perspective, to pull away from the beloved lost object, is to withdraw one's empathy. Emotional detachment is a measure of ordered masculinity. The Man in Black, who is immersed in endless mourning, performs a crisis of distance for men, to whom deep heterosexual attachment is a threat. Being too close to White, the Man in Black is a memorial subject who cannot see properly and whose complaint is initially unintelligible to the Dreamer. Crocker further contextualizes the poem's crisis of gender within late medieval controversies over the power of religious images. If religious images are in danger of assuming independent meanings, so too are women, as objects of the masculine gaze, false idols who might lead men astray. For John Wyclif, cognitive discipline is necessary for proper visual discernment between proper and improper uses of images. In terms of the Book of the Duchess, memorial composition is one such cognitive discipline whose goal is not consolation but male subjectivity and composure. With the collaborative help of the Dreamer, the Man in Black is able disentangle himself from White, reduces her into invisible "white noise," and passes off her autonomy as passive. Like Troilus who gazes down on Earth from the heavenly spheres after death, the Man in Black retreats and elevates himself into a proper distance that signals his masculine detachment and difference from the deceased White.

Just as the Tale of Melibee is known for its boringness, so too is the Shipman's Tale commonly perceived by critics as unremarkable. Yet the unexceptional quality of the tale, Crocker argues in the fourth chapter, belies Chaucer's complex exploration of gender relations within marriage. Because the tale might have been originally associated with the Wife of Bath instead of the Shipman, the tale is suspended between two speakers with an incomplete authorial distribution. Rather than static, the tale is constantly on the move; and its polyphonic authorial voice allows greater gender play. The Wife of Bath, Crocker points out, responds to her husband Jankyn's assertion of masculine control with physical force; hers is a confrontational marriage in which violence reveals the husband's lack of control or masculine composure. Agency, for the Wife of Bath, is actively pursued and maintained. In contrast, the Shipman's Tale departs in important ways from the Wife of Bath's reconstitution of female agency. It is the continual bargaining over identity and agency, not physical fighting, that characterizes the married estate. In the tale, the merchant is blind to his wife's equal partnership and conceives of her as part of his estate. Through the law of coverture, he seeks to contain her influence within marriage and maintain his public image of a wise and rich businessman. Yet his wife is keen on asserting her own agency while preserving the fiction of her husband's control. In her sexual encounters with the monk, she explicitly states that she desires only sex and money but not emotional attachment: a kind of a gender quid pro quod. Through her double-scheme, she manages to get what she wants and prevent her husband from being a real cuckold. The Wife's invisible agency, via her guise of wifely passivity, takes on a "private visibility" within the confines of the household. She passes as a respectable wife; the merchant passes as a husband safe from the shame of cuckoldry. Both genders' collective performance of passing in effect suspends proper hierarchy and allows for moral passing. The tale ends on an image of marital bliss without punitive gender surveillance as is in the Physician's Tale.

In the fifth and final chapter, Crocker offers a short meditation on the construction of masculinity in Harley 7333, which contains works by Chaucer, Gower, Hoccleve, and Lydgate. Specifically, Crocker focuses on a collection of 13 proverbs, a mixture of Chaucerian and extra-Chaucerian lines, compiled by a said "Impingham." Compilation is an interpretive process that stages its own reception and makes invisible various competing "Chaucers" figured in his works. Impingham's redeployment of Chaucer's text, coupled with commonplace proverbs, effectively allows him to hide within Chaucer as a construct and to assume the mobile invisibility that Chaucer himself enjoys. Moreover, the compilation constructs an "apparently authentic Chaucer" (139) who seems to authorize Impingham's particular version of masculinity. Here, Crocker circles back to the proverbial, if not boring, femininity and masculinity in the Tale of Melibee. Truisms are reassuring because they perform the cultural work of "what everybody else already knows" (143). The Chaucerian masculinity in the 13 proverbs in Harley 733 reaffirms feminine intractability, reasserts masculine control through violence, and renders invisible masculine weakness.

Gender survival, Crocker suggests, hinges on one's management of visibility within and without the household. In drawing attention to the art of management, Crocker situates the Chaucerian texts that she examines within the broader pan-European proliferation of conduct books in the late Middle Ages. The driving forces behind the emergence of conduct as a literary genre, Kathleen Ashley and Robert L. A. Clark observe, were numerous socioeconomic changes that facilitated the emergence of a new class of middling sorts" who were busily appropriating the behaviors and values of the old aristocracy. [2] Companionate marriage, with its emphasis on partnership and marital affection, provided the kind of cultural and social capital that was attractive to the emerging middle classes. But while medieval companionate marriage was intimate and personal, it was never a strictly private affair. As Shannon McSheffrey recently contends, where church and state authorities played an active role in matters of gender and sexuality, private sexual relationships did not exist. [3] The medieval household, assuming both public and private functions, did not neatly map out the Lockean divides of publicity and privacy in modernity.

This blurring of the public and private domestic space is crucial to Crocker's central argument that gender exhibits greater mobility-- sometimes visible, sometimes not--than openly acknowledged by society. In other words, if everyone knows what passes for respectability, then everyone is "doing it," and then some more. If companionate marriage, with its concept of unequal equality between the spouses, is already a problematic institution, then masculinity is always in danger of being exposed as a sham in many if not all situations. Crocker, in the introduction to her book, points to the polyvalence of the Middle English manhed, which denotes not simply masculinity but also "the human condition, or the qualities of humanity writ large" (10). One wonders if the all-encompassing manhed might also include female masculinities. Is it possible to read Virginia, who is a copy of her father, as possessing not only perfect feminine passivity but also female masculinity? Or see the wife in the Shipman's Tale, who is a better merchant than her husband, as asserting her female masculinity in her dealings with men?

Crocker evokes Seth Lerer's notion of the "anthologistic effect" in her discussion of Harley 7333 and its works of textual compilation and reception. But more broadly, perhaps all Chaucerian masculinities are anthologistic effects that are collaboratively staged among Chaucer's characters, Chaucer, and his readers. Crocker's book, too, self- consciously creates its own anthologistic effect: a minoritizing Chaucer whose masculinity hovers on the borders of visibility. To be a blind reader is to risk becoming a bad husband like Jankyn, or a bad father like Virginius. The trick of historicist criticism, then, is to own up to one's responsibility and complicity in the process and not to turn a blind eye to the "visibly invisible" workings of gender.



1. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: Univerity of Minnesota Press, 1987), pp. 104-05.

2. See Medieval Conduct, ed. Kathleen Ashley and Robert L. A. Clark (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001).

3. Shannon McSheffrey, Place, Space, and Situation: Public and Private in the Making of Marriage in Late-Medieval London, Speculum 79, no.4 (2004): 986.

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Author Biography

Wan-Chuan Kao

City University of New York Graduate Center