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21.09.36 Wright, Mobility and Identity in Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales'

21.09.36 Wright, Mobility and Identity in Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales'

The Canterbury Tales is quite the undertaking for someone like Chaucer to create given his professional commitments to the monarchy. For that reason, over the centuries we critics have tried hard to listen to and for Chaucer's expressions of creativity. Perhaps, even more remarkable, Chaucer's fourteenth-century poem continues to puzzle us in the twenty-first century. Many critics have wondered: what is Chaucer masking with his faux pilgrimage in the Canterbury Tales that assembles a slice of medieval people from fourteenth-century England? Chaucer's narrative, after all, seems far more invested in displaying the personalities and professions of his characters through their tales, their wit, and even -- as is the case with the Pardoner -- their finagling. That is to say, Chaucer's travelers seem to be taken by other concerns than arriving at Canterbury Cathedral and paying homage to Thomas Becket despite the claims of the opening of the Canterbury Tales themselves:

"Of Engelond to Canterbury they wende, The hooly blisful martir for to seke, That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke." (I 16-18) [1]

Despite the claim of these opening lines, Chaucer seems to be inventing an elaborate and imaginative ruse and inviting his readers to interpret the meaning(s) that lie behind that ruse.

Sarah Breckenridge Wright's Mobility and Identity in Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales' subscribes to this same theory that Chaucer's Canterbury Tales narrates a lot more than a story about a pilgrimage. In four chapters that are sandwiched in between an effective introduction and a provocative close, Wright educates us about the necessity and importance of mobile objects, especially in certain tales; provides us with yet another way of looking at what we might have hitherto considered to be stationary things, such as medieval bridges, global pandemics, and fictional tales; and "show[s] movement to be central to an understanding of the late-medieval world and literary representations of it" (3). Wright's claims are clearly laid out with ample examples from Chaucer's text and illustrations of the bridges discussed in Chapter Two. Wright's conclusion, "Mobilizing Medieval and Modern Identities," may hit you with a bit of a (un)pleasant surprise, however. Just when Wright had fully convinced me of mobility's relative value to healthy social growth, she introduced her honest and realistic vision of where mobility is taking us -- a modern "hypermobility" (183). Wright's close effectively brings us to realize that our present-day state of hypermobility, embodying an unnecessary surplus of movement, has caught us postmoderns in the disconcerting grip of continuous distractions as our "cell phones and email notifications encourage [us] to jump between multiple tasks rather than focusing on and accomplishing a single goal" (183). Because of Wright's book, I now wonder, how did we step into our dysfunctional culture of continual, diversionary movement that we willingly accept as a form of multitasking? While Mobility and Identity in Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales' does not answer this question, Wright's text might bring you to question, as it did me, when healthy expressions of mobility transformed into our current unhealthy ones. Either way, as Wright argues, the contemporary world moves in a continual state of incompleteness, where humans ironically "accomplish less because we are exposed to more" (184).

Before we get to this place, though, there is the healthy movement of medieval times. The "Introduction: Moving Across, In, and As the World" explains that Mobility and Identity in Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales' divides the larger argument into two apparent parts: one aspect of this book studies the ways that human and nonhuman bodies achieve mobility in the fourteenth century; and the other part points out that "although Canterbury Cathedral is the ostensible destination of Chaucer's pilgrimage," the movement of the alleged pilgrimage extends well beyond the human bodies' arrival at the Cathedral century and includes "nomadic assemblages, tidal ecologies, and synchronous spacetimes" (20). After introducing the notion that movement expresses a human and nonhuman thing's identity, Chapter One, "Economic Mobilities in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales," shows us how nonhuman things, such as the Black Death and pilgrimage travel, dramatically altered the market economy in southeast England. (We ourselves have witnessed how much our own global pandemic has also shifted our own local and national economies.) In this first chapter, Wright wants us to consider how the pilgrims' travel essentially created a veritable "tourism industry" (51) that affected the smaller economies of the places named in the Canterbury Tales--namely, Southwark, Rochester, Sittingbourne, and Harbledown. In this regard, as Wright explains, "[a]t the time Chaucer was writing, Sittingbourne, Rochester, and Harbledown were making improvements to attract visitors (thereby increasing their revenue) and simplify movement through the physical landscape, including the construction of stables, hospitals, and bridges" (52-53). Following a discussion of this "pilgrim economy" (53), Chapter Two, "Building Bridges to Canterbury," brings us to join the pilgrims' virtual travel across the Rochester and London Bridges while allegedly moving from Tabard Inn to Canterbury Cathedral. Chapter Two interrogates the language of "built and liquid landscapes" (85) in the Canterbury Tales to illustrate that these bridges are far more than ways of crossing the Thames and the Medway. Instead, the Rochester and London Bridges perform in their own era as "hybrid" (60) spaces, and both bridges serve double lives, simultaneously enabling the traveler to cross the Medway and the Thames while also providing travelers with places to live, shop, and eat.

After the first two chapters, the book changes direction a bit: Chapters Three and Four turn more forcefully to the articulation of socio-economic and gendered mobilities in the actual tales themselves. Chapter Three, "Rocking the Cradle and Quiting The Knight," traces social mobility and cultural stasis through the relationship forged between the Miller's Tale and the Reeve's Tale, on the one hand, and the Knight's Tale on the other. Overall, Wright illustrates how the Miller and Reeve provide us with a window into the daily mobilities in the love lives of people in the lower estates whereas the Knight instantiates "chivalric stasis" (91) through a story of courtly competition. Chapter Four, "'Translating' Female Identities and (En)Gendering Mobility," focuses on Griselda and her movement in the Clerk's Tale "to reveal innovative, agentified ways of being" (131). While Wright's claim about Griselda's "renegotiat[ing]...conventional patriarchal structures" (132) is not entirely new -- many have pursued this idea before her -- her way of unpacking Griselda's agentic moves is novel. Turning to gender criticism, especially that of Judith Butler, Wright grounds her own observations about Griselda's expressions of feminist movement. Wright explains, for instance, that Griselda's "repeated performance of obedience" (133) actually expresses Griselda's agentic response to Walter's aggressive acts of masculinity. Wright invites us to consider whether Griselda passively accepts or actively rejects the choices Walter makes. Ultimately, Griselda is agentic for agreeing to the terms of her movement from her modest life at her father, Janicula's, house to the courtly world of her husband, Walter's, palace: it is Griselda herself that chooses "to pass between bodies and across boundaries...on her own terms" (181). And while Walter's sociopathic abuse of Griselda -- when he presumptively murders the children born of her lowly womb -- is always a hard feminist argument to make, Wright works hard to defend her vision of Griselda's quiet and unseen agency with the Clerk's own words in his tale. Wright points to moments when Griselda's body is either translated into something new (151) or represented as "overflow[ing] with blood, milk, and tears" (158) as a way of illustrating that Griselda's "body and the mobility it manifests...empower her despite her abject position, allowing her to reveal the instability of the status quo. In essence, movement is power, and Griselda does a lot of it" (150). In fact, Griselda moves more than anyone else in the Clerk's Tale.

From the Introduction to Chapter Four, Wright effectively argues that medieval mobility can be equated with agency of movement and should be considered an effective "challenge [to] ideas of boundedness, security, and fixity" (20). In fact, the economic "networks" of Chapter One, the seemingly stationary bridges of Chapter Two, the story of socio-economic change in Chapter Three, and Griselda's feminist subversion in Chapter Four together create a canvas of human and nonhuman mobilities in the Canterbury Tales. Even though we have become a civilization whose "attentions spin from one device to the next" and a people who "accomplish less because we are exposed to more" (183-84), we can look back to medieval moments in the Canterbury Tales when mobility indicated both independence and agency for people of the lower social and gender estates. [2] Perhaps the "potential becoming" (186) of the medieval world has grown into the miscarried hypermobilities of our modern identities, yet either way seven hundred years later movement still comprises the essential fabric of human and nonhuman existence.



1. These lines are taken from the Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987).

2. In referring to women as part of a "lower gender" estate, I am thinking of Jill Mann's claims inChaucer and Medieval Estates Satire: The Literature of Social Classes and the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1973); and Shulamith Shahar's argument in The Fourth Estate: A History of Women in the Middle Ages [Maʻamad ha-reviʻi], translated by Chaya Galai (New York: Methuen, 1983).