19.09.28 Bugbee, God’s Patients

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Conrad van Dijk

The Medieval Review 19.09.28

Bugbee, John. God’s Patients: Chaucer, Agency, and the Nature of Laws. Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2018. pp. xxii, 477. ISBN: 978-0-268-10445-0 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Conrad van Dyk
Concordia University of Edmonton
conrad.vandyk@concordia.ab.ca

John Bugbee likes to quote from Thomas Merton. In fact, Bugbee's bibliography lists ten of Merton's works, and the Cistercian monk's reflections on Christian life are scattered throughout the book, primarily in the form of epigraphs. But then Merton's thought fits perfectly with Bugbee's aim, which is to demonstrate that Geoffrey Chaucer's understanding of agency is deeply affected by a timeless Christian ideal—namely an active passivity, a conjoint action, in which human beings are open to the will of God and live in harmony with external laws and forces (without succumbing to an overly rigorous conception of law). Merton's work is easily applicable because he exemplifies the same monastic tradition that includes Bernard of Clairvaux, the medieval monk whose writings are at the heart of this study. According to Bugbee, Bernard's works are full of the kinds of "theological commonplaces" (13) that would have shaped Chaucer's "habits or tendencies of mind" (20). Particularly in the Clerk's Tale, the Man of Law's Tale, the Franklin's Tale, and the Second Nun's Tale, Chaucer implicitly praises a willing acceptance of life that avoids such extremes as narcissism, masochism, or a stoic resignation that borders on despair.

Bugbee's important study spells out what has always been in plain sight. It is only because we live after the Protestant Reformation and the advent of modernity that we have a difficult time ascribing any positive value to passivity and suffering. We might well heed the advice of the Franklin's Tale, "Lerneth to suffre, or elles, so moot I goon, / Ye shul it lerne, wher so ye wol or noon" (777-78; qtd p. 300). It is to be hoped (note the passive construction) that Bugbee's passionate plea will provide a salutary reminder not to read our own prejudices about law and agency back into medieval texts.

I have mentioned Merton, and I can't help but quote a little from him myself. After reading Bugbee, I looked through my copy of Merton's No Man is an Island, and on nearly every page I found fragments of the lost ideal Bugbee aims to recover. Here is Merton describing the foolishness of seeking to be defined exclusively by our actions: "The soul that projects itself entirely into activity, and seeks itself outside itself in the work of its own will is like a madman who sleeps on the sidewalk in front of his house instead of living inside where it is quiet and warm" (118).

In the monastic tradition, such poetic meditations are grounded in a particularly Christian vision:

"When I see my trials not as the collision of my life with a blind machine called fate, but as the sacramental gift of Christ's love, given to me by God the Father along with my identity and my very name, then I can consecrate them and myself with them to God. For then I realize that my suffering is not my own. It is the Passion of Christ, stretching out its tendrils into my life in order to bear rich clusters of grapes, making my soul dizzy with the wine of Christ's love, and pouring that wine as strong as fire upon the whole world" (83).

It is not surprising that a secular age would dismiss such language as excessively mystical, or turn the humiliation of God into a metaphor for the suffering of women (in the words of Simone de Beauvoir, "She it is who is hanging on the tree, promised the splendour of the resurrection"). When suffering is translated into oppression by a patriarchal power, the common response is to reject such trials in favour of agency and action.

I mention feminism because one of Bugbee's targets is Jill Mann's Feminizing Chaucer, which is treated as symptomatic of the difficulty of seeing past the interpretive horizon of our secular worldview. The language of critical "horizons" is borrowed from Hans-Georg Gadamer, whose ideas about interpretation inform Bugbee's "Hermeneutical Interlude" in chapter 2. Proper interpretation, the argument goes, should avoid a simplistic historicism and instead recognize both our own prejudices and the otherness of the past. Bugbee praises Mann for acknowledging the difficulties faced by an atheist reading Chaucer, but he also takes Mann (and others) to task for their eagerness to assign "agency" to Chaucer's female characters. For instance, writing about the Man of Law's Tale, Mann makes the rudderless boat symbolize "the courage needed to hazard the self to the flux of events, bereft of all supports to selfhood save selfhood alone" (Qtd p. 106). If, as Fredric Jameson has argued, interpretation is a form of allegory, then Bugbee suggests that such recoding of the text--so that it speaks of selfhood--characterizes contemporary criticism.

According to Bugbee, "every coherent medieval account of human agency...depends in some way on an account of how to think about God's agency" (113). Not that this makes humans into God's pawns. While Christians even today pray "Your will be done," this does not represent a complete surrender of free will. Bernard of Clairvaux writes that every action consists of three stages: "the conception, the willing, and the accomplishing of a deed" (Qtd p.142). Only the middle stage (the willing) belongs properly to human beings: God gives us the thought and is in control of the outcome. The refrain of the Man of Law's Tale--"ay welcome be thy sonde"--captures the willingness to cooperate with God's plan. We might find the tale boring, or prefer a less passive heroine, but we should not dismiss the expression of piety as insincere or ironic.

If the Man of Law's Tale is used as a positive model of conjoint action, the Clerk's Tale and Second Nun's Tale represent negative exempla. In the Clerk's Tale, Chaucer makes Griselda more human than in Petrarch's version, with the result that what is merely a cruel thought experiment for Petrarch becomes in Chaucer a horrific reductio ad absurdum. Chaucer's Griselda "is a portrait of someone who takes Petrarch's Griselda as an exemplum, and makes the mistake of trying to imitate what she sees there" (67). Griselda lives out a pernicious ideal that requires an "asinine patience" (73) where human beings relinquish their will and act like a donkey that obeys the whip and suffers insensibly, without real feeling or purpose. When we read the tale ironically--a frequent requirement in this book--we realize that Griselda provides "a concrete lesson in how not to suffer, regardless of what one suffers for" (79). The opposite extreme is then depicted in the Second Nun's Tale, where Cecilia is a kind of anti-Mary. Cecilia is "a person whose agency rises entirely from within herself" (174), and Bugbee argues that whereas Chaucer's two sources are more nuanced, his selective retelling removes any hint of cooperative action. Cecilia therefore represents all agency, and Griselda pure passivity. In the end, "it is only Custance, to put it very simply, who gets it right" (82).

Part 2 of Bugbee's study turns to the subject of law, which is here defined quite broadly as "any regularity or rule--any formal pattern that claims to guide" (220). The issue is whether one should abandon one's will, not to another person (or to God), but to the rigor iuris, to the strict interpretation of the law. In this sense, Dorigen's dilemma in the Franklin's Tale--whether to keep her oath to Aurelius--is little different from Griselda's choice of consenting to let Walter make all the decisions. However, Bugbee suggests that Dorigen's problem is ultimately a false dilemma, as contemporary theology had clearly spelled out "requirements for valid swearing" (215). Valid oaths had to abide by three conditions (justice, truth, and judgment), and on all three counts Dorigen's oath would be considered invalid or breakable. There is therefore no need to choose between what Richard Firth Green has called the private law of trouthe and the public law of ecclesiastical marriage (224). Rather than pick sides, we should realize that Chaucer only raises the question to point out the problems with such moral rigorism.

Again, Bugbee draws on Bernard to flesh out this understanding of law. Bernard's reflections stemmed from the question how strictly the Rule of St. Benedict was to be followed in a twelfth-century monastery. Bugbee's careful elucidation of Bernard's moderate and nuanced approach to law is a major achievement, and provides a utopian vision of law that, while somewhat removed from the reality of the common law in Chaucer's lived experience, nevertheless provides an important theological context. As Bugbee concludes, in somewhat colloquial fashion, for Bernard "following a law becomes something more akin to living with another person in marriage than to answering questions on a multiple-choice exam" (270). If God himself is law, then law is less about passively obeying an unchangeable set of rules and more about being in a living relationship based on trust.

If this sounds too rosy, then according to Bugbee you may be guilty of accepting Luther's false dilemma of having to choose between a strict law that no one can fulfill and a grace that is entirely unmerited. Or else you may have fallen into the Nominalist error of understanding God entirely in terms of "will" rather than law or love. In other words, Bernard's ideal has become so remote and esoteric that it takes a special effort to recover those attitudes and beliefs that would have been instinctual and habitual for Chaucer.

In the end, Bugbee's work is a thoughtful and detailed corrective to the kinds of interpretive errors that medievalists are prone to make. In arguing for the importance of conjoint action, Bugbee can be quite polemical, and there is room for compromise and further exploration. For example, Bugbee notes that Chaucer is writing at a time where the ideal is being challenged by Nominalism, yet he tends to discount the interpretation of the Clerk's Tale that would see Walter as a Nominalist God. Similarly, I would have liked to see more discussion of other forms of law: while the principle of equity was important for canon law, Chaucer's legal landscape was more varied, so that to dismiss Dorigen's dilemma does not fully account for the ways in which conditional oaths posed real challenges in the late fourteenth-century. There are other difficulties—most notably the problem of how to distinguish between Chaucer and his narrators. Nevertheless, God's Patients is a lucid and lively account of a neglected theological perspective, and Bugbee is to be commended for challenging the way we tend to rewrite Chaucer as sharing many of our contemporary assumptions. It is all too tempting to refashion Chaucer's work into a forum for social justice activism. To recover the real Chaucer is of course an impossible task, but Bugbee has done Chaucerians a great service by reconstructing an important context--the monastic tradition--that has often been needlessly occluded from view.

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