15.08.61, Pugh, Chaucer's (Anti-)Eroticisms and the Queer Middle Ages

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Paul E. Dingman

The Medieval Review 15.08.61

Pugh, Tison. Chaucer's (Anti-)Eroticisms and the Queer Middle Ages. Interventions: New Studies in Medieval Culture. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2014. pp. 280. ISBN: 9780814212646 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Paul E. Dingman
Folger Shakespeare Library
pdingman7@gmail.com

That famous collection of fourteenth-century stories, The Canterbury Tales, and slices of other well-known works such as The House of Fame and Troilus and Criseyde by the father of English poetry receive a new interpretive reading in Pugh's Chaucer's (Anti-)Eroticisms and the Queer Middle Ages. As one might expect from its title, the destabilizing tenets of queer theory constitute the main basis of explication in this book that focuses on episodes of desire in the Chaucerian canon, but Pugh also calls upon modern theorists in philosophy and psychology to highlight underlying anxieties regarding love and sexuality in medieval literature.

Structurally, the monograph is divided into seven chapters, the last a short epilogue, and while much of Chaucer's oeuvre is referenced, Pugh's analysis concentrates on The Canterbury Tales. The positioning and comparisons among literary pieces generally work well, and several interesting points emerge in the well-researched discussions of these chapters, but a unifying argument often seems elusive. Identifying a shifting yet related balance between erotic and anti-erotic forces (such as chastity or death) in the narratives is certainly one theme of the book; an inherent prospect for queerness in any account of sexuality or romantic relationships is another; exploring the conflicted attitudes toward love in medieval poetry--especially Chaucer's--could be a third, the complicated construction of desire a fourth. More candidates are possible. All of these topics are important to the study of Chaucer and/or literature in the Middle Ages, and over-simplification of the intricacies involved would be of little help. Still, a more clearly defined argument could strengthen the message of the book. Even the title, Chaucer's (Anti-)Eroticisms and the Queer Middle Ages, suggests a curious binary.

The uneven nature of the chapters does not help matters. Jargon is usually unavoidable to some degree in scholarly works, but specialized terminology falls more heavily in some sections here (e.g., chapters two, four, and five) than in others. Pugh's introductory chapter sets up the wide-ranging study in a crisp, balanced manner with enough background information, quotations from Chaucer's and other key medieval texts, and references to modern critical works to draw in the attention of readers. While the use of Freudian psychoanalytical concepts is mentioned in the introduction along with the work of Lacan, Deleuze, Kristeva, and Žižek as theoretical underpinnings for the book (27), Freud is relied on more than the rest. Even Freud, however, is missing from some of the chapters (e.g., three and six) which creates a disjointed sense. Also, a repetitive quality creeps in at times. During the second chapter, variations on the word "masochistic" appear over and over again to the point of distraction. Similarly, in chapter four, the rhyming descriptive terms, "erotic" and "necrotic," sound clever at the beginning but less so as the chapter progresses and eventually become tiresome. Overall, the seven sections of the book amount to more of a loose association--perhaps written as separate essays--than a united exploration of a scholarly question.

Nevertheless, the discussions of Chaucer's work in the distinct chapters are frequently illuminating. Pugh's analysis of fraternal/comrade vows along queer lines in chapter three shows particular strength. First, the author speaks with clarity here from the start about Chaucer's texts, saying "when a man swears an oath of brotherhood to another man, the vow is soon repudiated, rejected, or otherwise rendered problematic. No exceptions to this rule appear" (65). Queer readings of these ill-fitting covenants among male characters come through skillfully and easily. As evidence is more readily available in the literature itself, outside calls to theorists in other disciplines are fewer and less strained. In one insightful example from the chapter on satirical brotherhoods, Palamon and Arcite's difficult emotional journey in The Knight's Tale is examined. By briefly noting the story of Amis and Amiloun, another popular medieval tale, prior to the discussion, Pugh sets up the analysis well. Palamon and Arcite are shown buried together at the beginning of Chaucer's story, but alive, in an intertextual reflection of the way Amis and Amiloun are lovingly buried together in death at the end of theirs. The devoted friendship in The Knight's Tale, however, will fray and turn upon itself in comic as well as heroic ways during the story. Locked up together following their rescue, Palamon and Arcite fall in love with Emily from afar (she wants neither of them) and ultimately fight each other for her hand in matrimony. Pugh, however, points out the "potential queerness" of the pair's situation before Emily comes between them and even wonders about how these two vigorous young men passed the time living in prison together "where their only sexual releases could have been masturbatory or homoerotic" (86). Conjecture about their sexuality during incarceration certainly disrupts customary interpretations of this canonical text while adding another interpretive angle.

The less effective chapters still include many engaging observations. For example, some of the jargon and digressions on Freudian understandings of abused children in chapter five may extend unnecessarily, but the possibility of Walter's abbreviated childhood in The Clerk's Tale leading to the later torturous treatment of his wife and children is compelling. In chapter four, Pugh ignores the way brotherhood revives somewhat at the end of the The Knight's Tale, but he correctly demonstrates Chaucer's apparent view that competition arising from heterosexual desire trumps male bonds of amity. Likewise, aside from a loquacity on masochism in the second chapter concerning The Franklin's Tale, intriguing factors are noted about the narrative structure of Chaucer's more positive marriage story. After quoting Robert Scholes' observation that fiction mirrors sexuality through the building of tension and the supplying of a corresponding release, Pugh aptly asks "But what of narratives without climaxes?" (62). He then capably catalogs all the ways in which The Franklin's Tale strangely resists any culminating dramatic event. Reading the story with this queer view in mind about the lack of a climax adds an interesting perspective.

Perhaps the most successful chapter in the book is the sixth, "Chaucer's (Anti-)Erotic God." By comparing transgressions of religious ideology with transgressions of a more physically amorous kind in The Canterbury Tales and The Legend of Good Women, this section asks readers to contemplate how regulations and boundaries in either arena may actually prompt humans to violate such edicts. Furthermore, breaches of accepted doctrine and acceptable sexual behavior provide a means to reinforce the broken laws, often through guilt, and, indeed, a reason for such systems of regulation to be. Exploring the interconnected cycles of wrongdoing and punishment/penance serves as a fascinating line of inquiry into The Miller's Tale, The Friar's Tale, and The Second Nun's Tale.

Although taxing in places, the essays in Chaucer's (Anti-)Eroticisms and the Queer Middle Ages definitely contribute to the scholarly discourse on sexual implications of the stories in The Canterbury Tales. Pugh's readings of these familiar poetic gems through the prism of queer theory let us appreciate some new luster in the writing.

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