20.03.02 Fumo, Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess

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Corey Sparks

The Medieval Review 20.03.02

Fumo, Jamie C. ed. Chaucer's Book of the Duchess: Contexts and Interpretations. Chaucer Studies. Woodbridge, UK: D.S.Brewer, 2018. pp. x, 239. ISBN: 978-1-84384-504-1 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Corey Sparks
California State University, Chico

Geoffrey Chaucer's fourteenth-century courtly dream vision the Book of the Duchess is the kind of work of late-Medieval vernacular verse--utterly occasional, rich in allusion, perplexing in its paradoxes--that certainly warrants more critical attention than it has heretofore received. This fact is not without some irony, for, as Aranye Fradenburg has elsewhere said, "the poem requests, and promises vigilance, in the form of attention, attending on and to, paying and getting attention." [1] The poem recapitulates, recycles, and repurposes classical and French sources, staging a highly occasional meditation on loss, survival, and memorialization within a highly allusive intertextual economy. The collection of essays under review here, edited by Jamie C. Fumo and published in D. S. Brewer's Chaucer Studies series, constitutes a necessary contribution to the study of the poem, especially in terms of its intertextual imbrications.

In her "Introduction," Fumo outlines that the volume is not simply an attempt to synthesize approaches to the text in order to fix an "especially fragmented" scholarly conversation; rather, it constitutes an embrace of multiplicity and polyvocality in the spirit of Chaucer's poem. This collection addresses three strands of scholarship on Book of the Duchess [hereafter BD, following the volume's lead]. One strand is "literary relationships in the sphere of French and English writing." Another strand is the poem's "material processes of transmission and compilation." Finally, essays in the collection address the poem's "patterns of reception" (3). The volume's essays pursue these three strands across two major divisions, "Books and Bodies" and "The Intertextual Duchess." The two headings foreground concepts that traverse both sections, including embodiment, corpora, translation, metafictionality, incorporation, citationality, and the archive. Though it is enfolded into the second major section, the final essay, written by Ardis Butterfield, provides a response to the volume that both draws the volume's strands together and also advances its own argument.

As a whole, the collection possesses a robust citational apparatus as well as bibliographies of primary and secondary texts. The volume's four black and white illustrations are all located in the first chapter. Fumo stakes out the centrality of the following question for the collection's essays: "How do we account for BD culturally, linguistically, theoretically?" (3). The tripartite question and the textually-oriented work of the volume suggest the pressing need for further explication of "contexts and interpretation" of Chaucer's text. Riven as BD is by transformation, absence, and strangeness, I imagine there is further productive work to be done with it in relation to queer and trans* theory. [2] Moreover, despite D. W. Robertson's assertion that the poem possesses "clearly artificial settings, having little to do with everyday experience," [3] perhaps the time is ripe for extended attention along ecocritical and animal studies lines. [4] One might also easily imagine that the poem's production history, metatextual, and metafictional aspects providing compelling source material for the more speculative arms of the digital humanities as well as work centered on computational methods and manuscript network visualizations. Even the most capacious collection of essays must, of course, butt up against limits, and I do not mean it as a criticism to point out the necessary limits of this particular collection.

Here, I wish to turn from the more global issues touched on above to provide brief accounts of each of the ten essays in the volume. Although spending time on the essays individually greatly expands the length of the review, I do so in order to do due diligence to the work done by each of the authors in the volume. Overall, the multifarious critical insights from the essays provide a most welcome case for both the uniqueness and significance of Chaucer's Book of the Duchess.

Julia Boffey and A. S. G. Edwards's "Codicology, Text and the Book of the Duchess" begins the "Books and Bodies" section. The essay focuses on the complicated, fragmented, "enigmatic" transmission history of BD, a history that the authors position as requiring study of the poem to "proceed with a proper awareness" (27). They argue this is especially the case with the authorial status of the Ovidian story of Ceyx and Alcyone, which appears in BD lines 31-96. Their argument for the status of lines 475-86 as an insert lyric was a particularly compelling piece of their essay. The essay's primary position might suggest an implicit assumption of the collection: that textual status trumps theoretical intervention. Nevertheless, Boffey and Edwards's careful curation of the codicological complications of the BD marks merely one node in a network of accounts of Chaucer's highly allusive and yet destabilizing text.

Springing from a reading of the "ydel thought" of the poem's early lines, B. S. W. Barootes places the BD in conversation with penitential and patristic literature. In his "Idleness, Chess, and Tables: Recuperating Fables in Chaucer's Book of the Duchess," Barootes concentrates on moments where "considerable expenditure of energy" seemingly "leads nowhere" (30); when linked to fables, Barootes argues, those moments do not signal sinful waste as in the poem's moments of gaming, but instead act as productive sites that solve the problem of idleness. That is, there are in the Middle Ages unproductive and productive kinds of idleness.

In "'Noon other werke': The Work of Sleep in Chaucer's Book of the Duchess," Rebecca Davis argues that the portrayal of sleep in BD does "epistemological and imaginative work that underwrites the craft of poetry-making"; ultimately, sleep--or, more properly Chaucer's (and Machaut's) "investigations of sleep" constitute those authors' "theories of mind." These poetically-generated theories address what contemporary philosophy calls the "mind-body problem," and Davis's analysis seeks to parse those moments in the text that worry at the bridge, gap or crux of matter and spirit.

Rounding out the first section, Marion Wells's "Discovering Woe: The Translation of Affect in Chaucer's Book of the Duchess and Spenser's Daphnaida" moves furthest from where Boffey and Edwards began, embracing the uncertain affective terrain of BD. The parallel senses of "translation" as involving languages and bodies surfaces in the section heading "Bringing Up the Body." The connection between language and the body in the context of the Middle Ages' diverse conceptions oftranslatio is otherwise left subterranean. Against Chaucer's consolatory translation project in BD, Wells pits Spenser's Daphnaida, which she argues presents a bleaker picture in its refusal to translate affects.

Jeff Espie's "Alcyone's Grave: Inscription and Intertextuality in Chaucer, Spenser, and Ovid" inaugurates the second major section of the volume, "The Intertextual Duchess." His essay tracks the omissions, recursions, and detours of the story of Ceyx and Alcyone as it appears in Chaucer's and Spenser's retellings of the Ovidian tale. Significantly, Espie argues that tale as it exists in the Metamorphoses itself recapitulates and reorganizes scenes of inscription from the Heroides, an act, Espie argues, which moves narratives about literary inheritance and genealogy away from "descent" toward a transhistorical "touch" (98).

Sara Sturm-Maddox, in "Tribute to a Duchess: The Book of the Duchessand Machaut's Remede de Fortune," seeks to resituate longstanding discussions on the proximity of Chaucer's BD to Machaut's Remede de Fortune in terms of a "cosmopolitanism" in the mid-fourteenth century. She argues that Chaucer, while following Machaut's caginess in leaving explicitly unnamed the dedicatory dead woman nevertheless departs from his source material by actually offering that "some consolation might be found...in happiness and beauty remembered" (134).

Philip Knox argues for a more central place for the Roman de la rose among BD's intertexts in his "'Hyt am I': Voicing Selves in the Book of the Duchess, the Roman de la rose (RR), and the Fonteinne Amoureuse." Knox provides a delightful explication of the revelation scene at RR10496, wherein the God of Love gestures at the text's writers, Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, who themselves have become figures in the narrative they have crafted; futher, the moment retrospectively reveals that de Meun, the current writer, took up de Lorris's ostensibly incomplete text. For Knox, the "richness and strangeness" of the moment (141) helps readers traverse "the problematics of the representation of speech in writing," ultimately providing an answer to a slippery question that registers both textuality and subjectivity: "What is the connection between what we say and who we are?" (138).

In "'Counterfeit' Imitatio: Understanding the Poet-Patron Relationship in Machaut's Fonteinne amoureuse and Chaucer's Book of the Duchess," Elizaveta Strakhov presents a Chaucer who doubts the ability of language "to be relied upon as a fixture of 'truth' owing to its inherent slipperiness" (174). For Strakhov, Chaucer's BD provides a skeptical rejoinder to Machaut's credulous Fonteinne Amoureuse, in which occasional poetry is "a felicitous form of imitatio" (164). Whereas Machaut embraces a "verbatim imitatio" rooted in an authorial self-identification via the poet-patron relationship, Chaucer posits an authorial self-identification routed through "carefully taxonomizing one's relationship to one's literary predecessors" (160). Uncited, but lurking in the background like a corpse reanimated by a dream-god with questionable motives, is Harold Bloom's Anxiety of Influence.

Helen Phillips, in the volume's penultimate piece, "The Shock of the Old? The Unsettling Art of Chaucer's Antique Citations," notes that Chaucer's lists of names--especially in BD but also elsewhere--do not merely compile classical knowledge but instead suggest powerful "equivocations about meaning and ethical standpoint" (180). As such, the lists' operation as coherent exempla is put under intense pressure. "Unlike certain of his contemporaries, whose antique name lists can seem comparatively routine," remarks Phillips, suggesting Charles d'Orleans as one particular suspect, "Chaucer shows a control, creativity, and readiness to surprise which are quite distinctive" (179).

Nodding to what renders compelling the variety of essays on display in the volume, Ardis Butterfield's response essay, "Response: The Book of the Duchess, Guillaume de Machaut, and the Image of the Archive," characterizes Chaucer's BD as possessing an intertextual "kaleidoscopic abandon" wherein "Chaucer appears to veer from text to text" (200). Butterfield's titular "image" provides an important qualifier to her titular "archive," for archive here is less a physical repository of various works but instead the textual arrangement of stories which simultaneously relies on and constructs the mental storehouses of the writer's memory. Arguing that Machaut's Prologue acts as a "memory archive" (204), Butterfield goes on to say that Chaucer's BD operates similarly via a "proliferation of compositional archives" marked by recursivity and repetition (211).



1. Aranye Fradenburg, Sacrifice Your Love: Psychoanalysis, Historicism,Chaucer (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 92.

2. The work of, for two examples, Susan Schibanoff and Tison Pugh, marks established routes for such considerations not only in relation to Middle English literature but specifically concerning the Book of the Duchess.

3. D. W. Robertson, A Preface to Chaucer: Studies in Medieval Perspectives (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1962), 242.

4. See, for examples of work begun along these lines, Christopher Roman and Ryan R. Judkins's essays on animals and BD in Carolynn Van Dyke (ed.), Rethinking Chaucerian Beasts (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

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