12.10.07, Higl, Playing the Canterbury Tales

Main Article Content

John M. Bowers

The Medieval Review 12.10.07

Higl, Andrew. Playing the Canterbury Tales: The Continuations and Additions. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2012. Pp. v, 198. ISBN: 978-1-4094-2728-5.

Reviewed by:
John M. Bowers
University of Nevada Las Vegas

I need to begin by putting my cards on the table as we say in Las Vegas. Though I do not know the author, Andrew Higl's book extends the initiatives of my 1992 TEAMS edition The Canterbury Tales: Fifteenth-Century Continuations and Additions into the forum of critical discussion in the twenty-first century. He cites these Middle English texts from my edition and quotes my notions on the afterlife of the Chaucerian tradition in the manuscript culture during the half-century after the poet's death, often approvingly. Higl has a great deal more to say that I knew when assembling these texts from scribal copies of the Canterbury Tales, and I was constantly educated by the insightfulness and theoretical audacity of his chapters. This is a smart book and deserves a wide readership among scholars and teachers of Chaucer.

Higl's "Introduction" reviews a reception history in which consumption and production converge in brief, non-authorial links and substantial continuations like John Lydgate's 4000-line Siege of Thebes. The standard Riverside Chaucer is the proverbial tip of the iceberg concealing manuscript sources which were a great deal more open, fluid, and various in their responses to the fragmented masterpiece, playing materially much as Chaucer's pilgrims played dramatically in their storytelling games.

Chapter 1, "Reclaiming the 'Spurious' and 'Apocryphal'," discusses how the early scribal editors worked interactively to assemble the unfinished Tales as a form of play attuned to Chaucer's own gameful, spontaneous performances, whereas modern print editions have reified the work as something more solid and complete than attested in any manuscript, even Ellesmere. The poet had left behind a work with many moving parts, better described as dynamic than corrupted, so that much assembly was required. "Ergodic literature requires non-trivial effort" (20). While dignifying these non-authorial passages as paratexts worth critical assessment, Higl is also unafraid of the presentism of comparing these earliest efforts with today's online text games.

Chapter 2, "Threshold to the Tales," focuses on the relatively neglected historiated initial in Lansdowne 851 showing Chaucer with his book, making visible the writer who kept himself so shadowy in the frame narrative. This same manuscript represents an early, thoroughgoing effort to impose completeness on the collection by supplying links between fragments. The project of making sense of these fragments was both more necessary and freer in the first decade after Chaucer's death, catering to the various desires of patrons and readers for a masterpiece looking more complete than the poet left it.

Chapter 3, "The Many John Lydgates in the World of the Tales," investigates how the Benedictine poet responded to the work's open- endedness in three ways while newly creating for himself a "virtual identity" in the frame narrative. In his Siege of Thebes, which is physically conjoined with the Tales in five manuscripts, he interjects himself into this tale-telling project as a replacement for the original narrator, who had always been shadowy and now remains nameless; he supplements Theban history with a prequel to the Knight's Tale; and he places a monastic stamp on the collection as a whole. As the only named continuator during the fifteenth century, Lydgate offers the most substantial instance of the "interactive fiction" widespread in so many of these early manuscripts, testifying to a sense of the frame narrative different from the closure argued by twentieth-century critics like Donald Howard. Lydgate's Thebes becomes the sort of reader response now called "fanfic," like current literary mashups such as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, part parody and part homage. Higl also notes that the Benedictine Rule forbade traveling monks from repeating what they saw outside the cloister--which is exactly what Lydgate does in his Prologue. Discussion of the Lydgatian author portraits in Arundel 119 and more famously Royal 18.D.ii are particularly eye-opening.

Chapter 4, "The Moveable Parts of Northumberland MS 455," recognizes the unique instance of a manuscript whose "storyboard" completely reorganizes the Tales to insert the turn-around episode Canterbury Interlude and assign seven stories for the homeward trip toward London, mostly more serious narratives as befitting pilgrims who had now visited the shrine of St. Thomas. Thopas is told on the way to Canterbury, for example, but Melibee comes after visiting the cathedral. Shifting the Summoner's final anti-fraternal jab to the return trip places it after the Friar has further misbehaved in Canterbury. Higl is more scrupulous than others (including me) at untangling the many agents responsible for what survives in Northumberland, making good use of the discovery by Linne Mooney and Lister Matheson of the Essex-dialect copyist's other productions as a professional working in a London scriptorium. The writer of the Interlude may have been a Canterbury monk whereas the author of Beryn seems to have possessed legal training. "The text is a palimpsest of sorts, revealing writerly readers playing with the Canterbury Tales" (90).

Chapter 5, "Geoffrey's Games in the Tale of Beryn," provides a fascinating reading of this second Merchant's Tale as an addition fully alert to the obsessive theme of game-playing. Explicitly, these include the table games of dice and chess to which young Beryn is addicted, but they come to include merchant ventures, rhetorical contests, legal wranglings, and feigned performances of disabilities. Beryn's mercantile themes look toward London, where the pilgrim band is now heading in the Northumberland arrangement, and Higl wonders if the trickster figure's name Geoffrey made him a shadow- double for the original tricky narrator Geoffrey Chaucer. The chameleon-like Geoffrey pretends to be a cripple much as the poet pretended to be dim-witted throughout his writings. His crutches become a metaphor for the "narrative prosthesis" which enables Beryn to escape his multiple entrapments. This chapter makes very convincing use of the initiatives offered recently by Disabilities Studies.

Chapter 6, "Playing Games with the Plowmen," reminds us that the post- 1400 tradition appropriated the figure of the Plowman, who had been included as an exemplary Christian in the General Prologue but went missing in Chaucer's storytelling competition, as an opportunity to insert two diametrically opposed figures. The Ploughman's Tale about a pious monk, lifted from the works of Thomas Hoccleve, was interpolated as a hyper-orthodox installment into the Christ Church 152 manuscript, but The Plowman's Tale with its debate between the reform-minded Pelican and the popish Griffon entered the print editions of the sixteenth century as a proto-Protestant text responsive to the longstanding, often underground tradition of Piers Plowman. This latter attribution did much to color Chaucer's own reputation as a forerunner of the Reformation throughout the critical tradition from the Tudor period into the nineteenth century. Interestingly, Higl reminds us that "plowman" was another name for the pawn in chess, and as long ago as 1926 Frederick Tupper argued that Chaucer had in mind the description of the plowman-figure in the thirteenth-century Chess Book of Jacobus de Cessolis, the same work translated by Caxton as Game and Pleye of Chesse (1474). Like a pawn, the Plowman was the most easily sacrificed by Chaucer himself in the larger strategies of his Tales.

Chapter 7, "Answering the Riddle of the Cook's Tale," revisits one of the most nagging questions in Chaucerian criticism: why did Chaucer leave this story unfinished? Adam Pinkhurt was the first to offer an answer in Hengwrt: "Of this Cokes tale maked Chaucer na moore." But does this mean Chaucer decided not to finish it, or died before he could finish it, or decided that it was finished, as far as he was concerned, though scribes and readers might feel it was too short? Some modern readers from Thomas Tyrwhitt in the 1770s to V. A. Kolve in his 1984 book Chaucer's and the Imagery of Narrative suspect the poet meant to cancel and omit it. Higl thinks that Chaucer invited all of these responses with his teasing final line about the friend's wife working as a prostitute. The broken-off narratives of the Squire and the Monk did not provoke nearly the interactive responses. All but eight of the fifty-plus manuscripts of the Tales react to the Cook's truncated narrative if only, as in Ellesmere, by leaving blank space in case more text surfaced. Some scribes inserted a brief bridge-passage to the next tale. Bodley 686 padded out the story with a grim-justice conclusion in which Chaucer's authentic lines enter into dialogue with alliterating non-Chaucerian lines reminiscent of Langland's. In a unique ploy, BL Add. 35286 moved the story of Perkyn prior to the Manciple's Tale where we are told that the Cook was too drunk to stay on his horse, hence an explanation why he failed to finish his performance. Twenty-five manuscripts, including the early landmark Lansdowne, Petworth and Harley 7334, inserted the rustic romance of Gamelyn as a substitute with its own contributions to the overarching theme of game-playing. Many think that Chaucer himself inserted this text into his working-papers perhaps as the source for a substitute tale never written, or perhaps as one more prank to befuddle later readers.

Andrew Higl has mastered the details of the manuscript tradition with all its authorial messiness and scribal guesswork obscured by modern scholarly editions epitomized by the Riverside Chaucer. As a scholar who found himself laboring over the photostats of microfilms assembled by Manly and Rickert for their edition during the 1930s, with many long hours in the Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago, Higl uses his "Conclusion" to plea for a great leap forward in technology to make these manuscripts of the Tales available in digitalized form, with diplomatic transcriptions, so that readers of the twenty-first century can better appreciate and assess the textual culture of fifteenth-century scribes as Chaucer's first readers.

Article Details

Author Biography

John M. Bowers

University of Nevada Las Vegas