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21.09.09 Johnson (ed.), Geoffrey Chaucer In Context

21.09.09 Johnson (ed.), Geoffrey Chaucer In Context

At almost 500 pages, with 52 short articles divided among seven sections, bibliographical items ending every essay, 21 pages of "Further Reading," 18 illustrations, and a 14-page index, this volume provides many pleasures to sample, with surprising insights and information on almost every page. This volume might be mined by medievalists for nuggets in support of one's own work or allow a brief immersion in a new perspective or present points of contention against which to sharpen one's thinking. Yet, as the editor, Ian Johnson, asserts, this volume aspires to do even more: neither a companion nor a guide nor a handbook nor an interpretive textual reading (1), it provides "a rich repertoire of contexts" in order to "enhance the independence and critical capacities of modern readers" (1). The presumption underlying this volume is that potential readers, not only medieval scholars, are active and inquiring--just as Chaucer would have us be. "No writer," writes Johnson in his introduction, "was more inventive and tempting than Geoffrey Chaucer in making his readers perform the work of interpreting his own writings and take responsibility for it. The same belief in the independence and answerability of the Chaucerian reader lies at the heart of this book" (3).

To have such confidence in readers is a strikingly Furnivallian position, but it also raises two issues: first, how to read this volume (this reviewer may well be the last to read it straight through, from cover to cover) and second, how to review it. Merely listing sections, topics, and authors would quickly become repetitious, even unreadable. Instead, a more productive mode of exploration for a reader or a reviewer might be to choose a topic and, by using the index, follow that thread throughout the volume to see what scholars in different disciplines have to say on the subject.

Some possibilities include Chaucer's own works; the index reveals that The Parliament of Fowls is mentioned by 20 contributors, including Andrew Galloway ("Chaucer's Life and Literary 'Profession'"), Ad Putter ("Metre and Versification"), Wendy Scase ("Chaucer's Books"), and Gwilym Dodd ("Chaucer and the Polity"), among others. Twenty-four contributors discuss Troilus and Criseyde, including Tim William Machan ("Boethius"), Bruce Holsinger ("Sex and Lust"), and Robert J. Meyer-Lee ("The First Chaucerians: Reception in the 1400s"), among others. Not surprisingly, some topics occur far less frequently, with Saint Jerome and Wynnere and Wastoure each mentioned only once, by Mishtooni Bose ("Authority") and Marion Turner ("The English Context"), respectively, while Lewis Chaucer is mentioned twice, by Nicholas Orme ("Childhood and Education") and Seb Falk ("The Medieval Universe"). In contrast, one could follow Edward III through 15 essays, including those by Chris Given-Wilson ("Rank and Social Order") and David Matthews ("The Reception of Chaucer from the Victorians to the Twenty-First Century"). One could do the same for merchants as well, as they are discussed from a variety of perspectives by Christopher Dyer ("The Economy"), Peter Fleming ("Household and Home"), and 11 others. In other words, threads cross section boundaries as the volume moves from the man (e.g., J.A. Burrows, "What Was Chaucer Like?") to the works (e.g., Stephen H. A. Shepherd, "Romance") to the natural world (e.g., Gillian Rudd, "Animals in Chaucer") to social roles (e.g., Katie Stevenson, "Heraldry, Heralds and Chaucer") to political life (e.g., Mark Bailey, "Towns, Villages and the Land") to Chaucer's later influence (e.g., Alex Davis, "The Reception of Chaucer in the Renaissance"). Although there are too many fine contributions to mention each by name, this partial list should indicate the range and variety of topics, texts, and approaches.

Even with such plentitude, and acknowledging that no work can possibly include every topic, there are some surprising omissions, such as "Muslims" (though five scholars mention "Arabia/Arabs" and "Islamic knowledge," among them Anthony Bale, "Chaucer's Borders" and Alastair Minnis, "Secularity," respectively) and "Crusades" (though John H. Arnold, "Dissent and Orthodoxy," is one of two who mention the "Holy Land"). "War" is considered only in reference to European conflicts (e.g., Wales, Scotland, France); "race" too is notably absent (one wonders what difference it would have made for this book to have been published just a couple of years later). Another surprising omission, given that the last section is devoted to centuries of reception, is Global Chaucer. While on the one hand, it is important that essays are not forced into preconceived slots, on the other hand, some of these categories are too essential to ignore.

Some inevitable omissions do not detract from the considerable value of this volume, starting with the respect shown to Chaucer's potential readers, which is something not to be passed over lightly. Most scholarship assumes specialized knowledge to even enter a text, while popularizations can play loose with facts in order to make challenging works or ideas accessible. In this volume, contributors speak from expertise and with authority, laying out foundational contexts while also suggesting avenues for further investigation; moreover, the majority seem to have taken to heart the overall aims set by the editor, and for that they are to be thanked and commended. This volume has the potential to open many doors for readers, as it has done for this reviewer. Hopefully, many readers will find their way to it, to enter and explore.