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21.11.13 Akbari/Simpson (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Chaucer

21.11.13 Akbari/Simpson (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Chaucer

This handbook is a monumental achievement that will guide scholarship in Chaucer and late Middle English literary studies for a generation. With thirty-two chapters, the volume organizes different kinds of knowledge that a reader, teacher, or scholar of Chaucer will find indispensable. With an aim to be “stereoscopic” (1), the volume does not just provide a series of new readings of Chaucer’s different works; rather, its most prominent organizing factor is “time” (1-3), which allows a focus on how Chaucer sits within his own cultural moment as well as an investigation of why he is frequently said to transcend it. Across six sections, authors treat images (Denise Despres), travel (Peter Brown), grammar (Rita Copeland), pilgrimage (Suzanne M. Yeager), law (Matthew Giancarlo), and the city (David L. Pike). Analysis of Chaucer’s debts to Petrarch (Ronald L. Martinez), Ovid (Jamie C. Fumo) and the Romance of the Rose (David F. Hult), as well as the ways that Dante is important for Boccaccio (Martin Eisner), shows many of the intellectual currents of the era. It is frankly hard to compass all this volume has to offer, given the richness of chapters on the Fifth Inn of Court (Eleanor Johnson), Henryson and Dunbar (Iain MacLeod Higgins), as well as scribes (Martha Rust) and books (Alexandra Gillespie).

That’s because this volume deliberately charts a different course than other guides to Chaucer. As Suzanne Conklin Akbari explains in the introduction, “We invited those who are not primarily Middle English specialists to write the chapters on other literary traditions...we were determined to get outside of the Middle English bubble, and particularly to get out of the Chaucer bubble, in order to see what new regions we might begin to map out with this terra incognita” (5). To wit, Karla Mallette offers a fascinating assessment of the Italian tradition of frame narratives, demonstrating how their emphasis on the high stakes of narration is foreclosed or at least ignored in Chaucer’s storytelling. Fabienne Michelet and Martin Pickavé’s overview of the realist/nominalist distinction in medieval philosophy, moreover, shows a need for nuance in assessing how Chaucer responded to or drew upon current thinking in university circles. I could not put down Stephen Lahey’s engaging treatment of Wycliffitism for its ability to show the consequences of Wyclif’s thought for late medieval religion, politics, and poetry. And Ruth Nisse’s work on twelfth-century Anglo-Hebrew writers opens an entirely new vista on late medieval literature. Seeing Chaucer through a “Mediterranean Frame” (Part II), or in light of “Philosophy and Science in the Universities” (Part IV), certainly affords a refreshing perspective.

To be sure, exciting readings of Chaucer abound across this volume. With a chapter on “Anti-Judaism/Anti-Semitism and the Structures of Chaucerian Thought,” by Steven Kruger, Troy narratives by Marilynn Desmond, and rhetoric by James Simpson, this collection assembles something of a “dream team” of Chaucer studies. Warren Ginsburg affirms that an equal critical investment in Boccaccio’s and Chaucer’s romances casts new light on both writers. And reading E. Ruth Harvey’s “Medicine and Science in Chaucer’s Day” provides important analysis of Henry Daniel’s fourteenth-century medical treatises as contemporary meditations on movement and bodily health which express “an almost-Chaucerian tolerance for the demands the frail human body puts upon the soul” (451). If Deborah McGrady’s concern is patronage in relation to francophone writers, her analysis nonetheless adds important nuance to any consideration of how Chaucer’s poetry related to elite cultures.

Taken together, essays in this volume demonstrate that Chaucer provides a point of intersection for intellectual, social, and religious considerations. I will admit that I do not usually read handbooks or guides cover to cover, but, and I say this as someone who has edited an anthology of criticism on Middle English literatures, this collection exceeds even its lofty ambitions in its range, quality, and usability. [1] I can anticipate turning to Anthony Bale’s insightful reading of John Lydgate’s Mumming at Bishopswood and Edith Dudley Sylla’s discussion of the “Oxford calculators” for my scholarship. I also see myself using a great many of these essays to prepare for teaching several of my medieval courses, not just my Chaucer classes. That said, given my admiration for this volume’s achievements, I am also prompted to reflect on what we might want from guidebooks on Chaucer--or on any aspect of medieval literature--during our current moment.

With the collapse of the job market in higher education, I am left to wonder who will be around to read this field-defining volume in the next generation. I pair what might sound like a hyperbolic worry with mounting evidence that Chaucer is increasingly marginalized in the profession. I was part of the MLA Chaucer division when the organization considered merging that body with the Middle English division, and like this handbook, we argued that Chaucer is a focal point of study that allows myriad interests to coalesce and interact. The New Chaucer Society has taken a similar approach, and that organization’s growth and verve has depended on seeing Chaucer as an expansive figure whose poetry and culture provides a way to talk about a host of issues, from temporality to ethnicity, from religion to sexuality. I believe this approach is right, as far as it goes, because as this volume attests, a capacious Chaucer studies can foster new and invigorating thinking.

Recent debates about Chaucer, however, prompt me to wonder if this kind of thinking goes far enough. Rather than treating Chaucer as a vehicle for medieval studies more broadly, I believe it is time to reassess why Chaucer might be at the center of any field. This is not, I hasten to add, because I think Chaucer should be shuffled offstage. On the contrary, I am a Chaucerian who welcomes a more robust conversation about what comes next in late medieval literary studies. To provide such an articulation, I believe, will be to redress what I find to be the most curious omission in the otherwise invaluable Oxford Handbook of Chaucer, viz., its lack of any theoretical consideration of the question, “Why Chaucer?” Answering this query will require a return to theory, as well as a deliberate emphasis on the intersectional approaches to race, gender, embodiment, territory, religion, status, and sexuality that have galvanized medieval studies alongside other fields.

Let me acknowledge that this volume includes important considerations of race, nation, religion, and language--and it also features essays that are theoretically sophisticated. For instance, Kellie P. Robertson’s essay on “Labor and Time” thoughtfully considers the “biopolitically vulnerable body” of laborers in conjunction with Chaucer’s representations (73). And in the most delightfully surprising way, Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s “Geographesis, or the Afterlife of Britain in Chaucer,” demonstrates how postcolonial critique can urge us to rethink the relationship between Chaucer, history, ethnicity, and time. I say “surprising,” not because it is any great shock that Cohen would write movingly on these, his areas of established scholarly expertise. Rather, and like Robertson, Cohen uses theory to show how Chaucer continues to matter, albeit in the case of Cohen’s essay, in a negative way. To put it more simply: Cohen tracks what Chaucer forecloses, a move that in other circles of Chaucer studies prompts complaint, even censure.

When A.S.G. Edwards incited what has recently been called the “Chaucer Wars,” he singled out “radical feminist” interventions into the field that question the centrality of Chaucer, or that fail to promote Chaucer’s importance in a time of professional marginalization. [2] His suppressed premise seems to be that to do anything but laud Chaucer is to threaten a field that is already at risk. This is despite the fact that junior scholars who are calling for a reassessment of Chaucer are not calling for his erasure or demotion. Instead, a new generation of anti-racist, queer-, and feminist-scholarship is showing how Chaucer’s works are foundational to persistent structures of domination. These voices are all but missing from the Oxford Handbook of Chaucer. Jonathan Hsy’s contribution on mercantile multilingualism has little to do with the anti-racist medievalism he is currently pursuing. [3] And with only a couple of exceptions, most contributors are senior scholars. In a characteristically generous collaboration, Kathryn Kerby-Fulton writes a chapter on inter- and anti-clericalism whose energy and brilliance stems in large measure from her interaction with two more junior women scholars, Melissa Mayus and Katie Anne-Marie Bugyis; yet there is no acknowledgment, here or elsewhere, that more junior scholars will be called upon to answer the “Why Chaucer?” question with an existential urgency that their teachers and mentors have frankly never faced.

Instead, many essays in the Oxford Handbook of Chaucer allow Chaucer to recede into the background, treating him like a useful connector between ideas, texts, authors, and eras. Years ago, I argued that such cultural invisibility was a privileged position, and that Chaucer’s poetic persona was constructed as empowered using terms of blankness and neutrality. Looking back, I argued that this unmarked masculinity is part of an ugly legacy of racialized whiteness. [4] Looking forward, I will say that keeping Chaucer in this untheorized space of cultural privilege does his poetry no favors. Rather, and this is to take lessons from colleagues who are doing the work to make Chaucer more rather than less accessible, who are theorizing the difficult connections between Chaucer’s poetry and the forms of racial, gendered, and sexual dispossession that continue to make medieval studies largely a province of the elite: future readers will ask “Why Chaucer?” and as scholars and teachers we need better answers to that question. [5] While the Oxford Handbook of Chaucer points the way to answers, it leaves Chaucer to speak for himself in a fashion that will get us no closer to understanding his poetry’s significance for future generations.



1. Holly A. Crocker and D. Vance Smith, Eds., Medieval Literature: Criticism and Debates (London and New York: Routledge, 2014).

2. A.S.G. Edwards, “’Gladly wolde he lerne?’: Why Chaucer is Disappearing from the University Curriculum,” The TLS, July 2, 2021: Subsequent issues debate Edwards’s claims via letters to the editor from Tom Bailey, Jill Mann, and A.S.G. Edwards.

3. See Jonathan Hsy, Anti-Racist Medievalisms: From “Yellow Peril” to “Black Lives Matter”(Amsterdam: ARC Humanities Press, 2021). Also see Shazia Jagot, “Students from all backgrounds need access to the literature of every age,” Times Higher Education Supplement, January 31, 2021:, which argues that studying medieval literature is enriching to anti-racist and anti-imperialist work of contemporary scholars, students, and activists. Dorothy Kim delivered a paper, “Toxic Chaucer,” Race and Periodization, MLA Annual Convention, Washington State Convention Center, Seattle, 10 Jan. 2020, and Kim and Michelle M. Sauer were scheduled to chair a session entitled “Toxic Chaucer,” at the 2020 meeting of the New Chaucer society (now rescheduled for 2022).

4. Holly A. Crocker, Chaucer’s Visions of Manhood (New York: Palgrave, 2007), 2-3, 10-11.

5. Probably no volume has done more to make Chaucer more accessible than the Open Access Companion to the “Canterbury Tales,” ed. Candace Barrington, Brantley L. Bryant, Richard H. Godden, Daniel T. Kline, and Myra Seaman (2015-17): More recently, A New Companion to Critical Thinking on Chaucer, Ed. Stephanie Batkie, Matthew Irvin, and Lynn Shutters (Amsterdam: ARC Humanities Press, 2021) provides a “keywords” approach to terms that are theoretically significant across Chaucer’s poetry.