False Men in the Legend of Good Women
A decade or so ago, my emerging interest in what it might mean to approach Chaucer from a feminist perspective took me to a poem that seemed to focus most exclusively on images of the female: the Legend of Good Women . If I could argue from the evidence of this recalcitrant work, one that other feminist scholars had already despaired of understanding, I thought I might pin down the elusive author and determine whether he was or was not a friend of women. I have recanted some of the conclusions I drew when first looking into Chaucer's Legends, and the questions about women, feminism, and male authors that I am asking now are somewhat different. The story of how and why my reading of Chaucer's last dream-vision changed may serve to introduce the project this book comprises.
My first reading of the Legend of Good Women emphasized an overall design in the narrator's curious treatment of his ten heroines. If her traditional reputation is passionate and aggressive, even wicked in some way (like Cleopatra's, say, or Medea's), he domesticates the heroine's forcefulness and covers up her iniquity; where she is known for innocence and goodness (like Thisbe, Lucrece, or Hypsipyle), he hints at other flaws in her character, devalues her virtues, and punishes her model behavior. At the same time, the narrator reveals from the outset his own interest in the manly world of politics and war. In the opening Legend of Cleopatra , Antony's failed career is foregrounded, and the sea battle at Actium is lovingly detailed; as other readers have noted, the narrator's boredom with the stories of loving women he has been coerced into telling becomes ever more patent as the poem proceeds. Al-
though for the most part he obeys Alceste's orders to tell stories about "false men" (G.476) and debunks his heroes as well as his heroines, this narrator does not finally hide his identification with "us men" (920), and he even joins in their efforts to fool "ye women" (see, for example, 2559–61).
So overt are the biases of the narrator, I decided, that readers are prevented from trusting him and obliged instead to see how his selection and treatment of good women ironically define the double bind in which the female in his culture is caught: victimized if she follows the rules of love and lives up to medieval ideals of the feminine; unworthy, unloved, and unsung if she does not. The line between unreliable narrator and trustworthy author in this characteristically ironic Chaucerian fiction is less overt. I ventured to conclude that probably both the narrator and Cupid were to be regarded as unaware of the antifeminism inherent in their idealization of women, although I also suggested that there might be a further irony. The narrator might well be awake to the implications of his storytelling and thereby poking fun at Cupid by giving him a poem whose effect is just the opposite of what the tyrannical male god demanded. The narrator might be much closer to the author, then, but the object of the irony, I argued, is still the antifeminist tradition; the narrator merely dons the mask of the antifeminist to make his satiric point. Other critics had already argued that many of the revisions in the Prologue reveal Chaucer's concern with freeing himself from the limitations of courtly convention. I added that in his attempt to move toward "a poetry more of the world and less of the garden," the poet becomes more aware of and ironically exposes the imprisonment of women in that garden. I drew the line at imputing antifeminist sentiment to Chaucer as implied author because of the way I then read his treatment of women in other works; because I thought the blatant antifeminism of the Legends was unworthy of the subtle intelligence that is obviously Chaucer's; and because I failed to understand why an antifeminist work would impugn men, too, in the insistent way that this poem does.
Not long after completing this reading of the Legends, I was asked to participate in a debate about the poem at a meeting of the New
Chaucer Society, and for that purpose I decided to explore more fully the question of how and why the narrator did, as I had observed, impugn men too. As I noted, he deflates his heroes as well as his heroines and, following Alceste's instructions, attacks the male characters with increasing harshness; I saw this treatment originally as both mask and symptom of his overriding interest in his own sex. The more I looked, the more it seemed that the Legend of Good Women was best thought of as a poem about men, not women, and specifically about two kinds of oddly related men: those who can't seem to help loving women, for one reason or another, and those who can't stop trafficking in stories about women. Part of what makes both types "false men," I began to see, was their feminization. Since this is an issue I return to throughout this study, let me pause here to spell out in some detail how the Legends articulate the problem of feminized men: those who sometimes act as women are said to act and who are treated as women are often treated.
For the literary heroes of the Legends, heterosexual union is clearly presented not as a good or even attainable end, but as a serious, perhaps insuperable problem, a necessary yet perilous part of the quest for stable masculine identity and social bonds between men. What is most dangerous about heterosexual desire, according to the Legends, is the feminine position, itself a divided one—vulnerable, submissive, subservient and self-sacrificing on one hand, crafty and duplicitous on the other—that men in love or lust for a woman seem forced to assume. By this reading, the heroes of the first two legends, Antony and Pyramus, appear not as exceptions to the rule Cupid laid down, as "trewe" male lovers set apart from all the other tricksters, rapists, and cowards in the poem, but as early object lessons in the fate of men who give themselves wholeheartedly to a heterosexual passion or to the idea of one. In different ways, both are utterly unmanned by their submission to the service of Love. For the love of Cleopatra, Antony loses his reason, his freedom, and his interest in the public realm: "love hadde brought
this man in swich a rage, / And hym so narwe bounden in his las . . . That al the world he sette at no value."[*] The narrator similarly implies that Antony's motive in killing himself, after the defeat at Actium, is not so much the loss of Cleopatra as the loss of manly honor and prowess that he has suffered on account of love: "'My worshipe in this day thus have I lorn,'" he says, in the line just preceding the report of his suicide (660–61). The adolescent Pyramus is presented as a less tragic figure in that he has little manly "worshipe" to lose in the first place. From his unexplained tardiness in arriving at Ninus's tomb, we can infer that he is not as bold or appetitive or eager as Thisbe, nor as able and willing to leave the domestic sphere; as the narrator notes in his translation of the Ovidian story, "al to longe, allas! at hom was he" (824). Revealing his own fear of women and heterosexuality, Pyramus misreads Thisbe's bloody veil as a sign of her death; it more accurately represents, in this version of the tale, her confrontation with the feminine aggression and appetite figured in the lioness, forces that the nubile maiden also hides from but is not undone by. In his only speech in the legend, Pyramus is less concerned with the loss of Thisbe than with his own failure as a man to protect her (833–41), and his immediate response to this blow to manly pride is, like Antony's, suicide.
For both Antony and Pyramus, unbearable flaws in their masculine identity—as warrior/ruler in Antony's case, as sexually mature and independent adult male and defender of helpless women in Pyramus's—appear to have been caused or at least exposed by their faithful efforts to establish and maintain a heterosexual relationship. It seems plausible to conclude from their stories that these heroes consequently choose suicide not because they cannot live without the women they love, but because they cannot live with themselves in the emasculated state to which they have been reduced. But, ironically, their suicides confirm how they have been feminized by love, for suicide is defined by the poem, and the long-lived traditions from which it draws, as the last recourse for a woman who is raped, abandoned, or otherwise troubled by the vagaries of her inevitable heterosexual relations, or who, like Alceste, sacrifices
herself for her husband. Antony and Pyramus, the only two "good men" the narrator can find, serve then to introduce the real agenda of the Legends by representing the danger to men in love at either end of the masculine life cycle. Antony is the mature hero lamentably feminized and finally doomed by ungoverned heterosexual desire, Pyramus the boy who does not reach manhood because he rushes (admittedly not quite fast enough) into the dangerous path of love before he is equipped to negotiate the perils along the way (notably without his father's guidance, let alone approval).
If the first two Legends suggest that manhood is difficult both to attain and to maintain, the remaining stories extend the problem of feminization from those men who try to serve love to a number who are not so naively loyal to women or to the God of Love's ostensively woman-centered code. Most of the other heroes, older than Pyramus and wiser than Antony, seem to know that heterosexual union is sometimes a pleasant or necessary diversion—it confirms one element of their manhood and often saves their lives—but a dangerous state in which to settle down, a place in which the manhood they are supposedly proving is in fact deeply threatened. These others survive the mortal dangers of love by betraying and abandoning women, but the problems of feminization are not so easily solved.
All of the remaining heroes are presented as characters caught up—like women—in the plots of other men (weak fathers, jealous uncles, and warring rulers), constrained by forces beyond their control and unable to rule their own destinies. Those few males who are circumstantially freer, apparently more in control of their lives, are presented as even more inescapably in bondage to an internal force, the irrational effect of what is characterized as innate, gratuitous male lust. Tereus rapes Philomela because of an unexplained, unmotivated, perhaps involuntary, and clearly brutalizing desire;
Tarquinius rapes Lucrece on account of a somewhat more explicable passion, as male competition routed through women (who has the most faithful wife?) fuels the fires of his lust and violence. The male characters' status as victims and pawns—like women, again—of external and internal forces beyond their rational control is also emphasized and aggravated by the frequent reversal of roles, anticipated in the story of Pyramus and Thisbe, where Thisbe is more aggressive, more eager, and even more manly than her lover, or at least as capable of taking care of herself in the woods. While the narrator downplays the unfeminine characteristics of his heroines to make them fit his model of "good women," most of them (including Dido, Ariadne, Phaedra, Medea, Phyllis, and Hypermnestra) are or could be in positions of material power over their lovers. The sexual anxiety that this circumstance generates in men is brought into the open in the plot of the last story, the legend of Hypermnestra, when Hypermnestra's father gives her a knife on her wedding night and commands her to kill her husband (who is also his nephew) in their nuptial bed. But Chaucer's women are themselves already mutilated creatures, not castrating agents. Hypermnestra is said to be congenitally unable to wield a blade, and she and all the women of the narrator's subversive tradition are uninterested in using their past and present powers except to rescue men from life-threatening situations, usually in the hope of marrying them afterwards.
The hero, then, is initially feminized by circumstances, fate, or innate weakness; and he finds that the strategies he can subsequently employ to escape this status in fact only confirm it. To secure a more powerful woman's assistance, for instance, a hero is often forced, like any victim, to play up his weakness. Aeneas weeps and threatens suicide; Theseus begs and bribes and makes false promises; and Jason is as "coy as is a mayde" (1548), while his friend Hercules serves as his pander. Tarquinius and Lucrece's husband Colatyne leave their post in the Roman camp to steal into the "estris" (1715), the inner spaces, of Lucrece's chamber (recalling Troilus's hideout in Book III); in that domestic enclosure, Tarquinius's proper masculine reason and honor is defenseless against "his blynde lust" (1756). Tereus, inflamed by the vulnerable beauty of Philomela, uses his "wiles" (2294) to take her from her father's protection; and again the feminizing quality of his lust is illustrated by the underscored
interiority of the space where the rape occurs, in a "derke cave" within a forest (2310–12). After prostituting himself to win (with little effort) the lady's undying affection, or removing himself to a feminine place where he can indulge in his lust, the hero must then attempt to recover his masculine position—his independence, nobility, and devotion to more important issues—by eschewing the heterosexual union in which he is dependent on a woman. And yet, for the heroes of the Legends, abandoning a woman, like the earlier process of seducing one, is emasculating in one way or another: men's infidelities and betrayal of women in this poem always involve them again in lies and storytelling, wiliness and other duplicities, ignoble escapes out of windows, and the complete failure of the chivalric obligation to protect the lady herself.
By the end of the poem we might well conclude that feminization is hard to avoid in this world because the rules of patriarchy are incompatible with the rules of love, and that men are caught in the consequent contradiction as they try to establish stable gender identity. Whereas patriarchy devalues the culturally feminine and insists on the difference between men and women as well as the power of men over women, the heterosexual love idealized by the laws of Cupid values traits associated with femininity such as irrationality, self-sacrifice, submission, and service, and thus diminishes in theory both the difference and the power differential between male and female. The problematic lack of difference that such a conception of love entails is clarified and developed in various ways: note, for example, that the women in the poem who give themselves utterly to men are in fact attracted not by otherness and virility, but by the male's temporary or apparent sameness , his passivity, coyness, vulnerability, and dependence (and even, in the case of Jason, his looks)—those very characteristics that also signal the heroes' feminization. When women are raped, there is no suggestion of their sexual arousal or complicity—Lucrece is not even conscious. What might be construed as the women's unconscious desire, like the men's, to remain connected to one of their own sex cannot be gratified for long by the hero, who for his part must necessarily be unfaithful if he is to demonstrate his manhood, his dominance and difference. Moreover, the actual, fatal loss of gender differentiation that a successful heterosexual union would bring about, if two actually became one, is perhaps hinted at in the essential similarity
of the most innocent and true lovers in the poem, Pyramus and Thisbe, who speak in one voice, both "wex pale" and are separated only by the cold wall their fathers have built, in vain, to keep them apart.
If the poem suggests that there is something wrong with the laws of love, it also reveals a serious problem in the rule of the fathers. Fathers are, in theory at least, men who have negotiated that treacherous path of heterosexual desire. The institution of patriarchal rule should facilitate the next generation's passage to adulthood: hence a father must at once protect his daughters and pass proper standards of manliness on to his sons. But the contradiction in this charge is brought out in the Legends by the fact that all the men of the fathers' generation fail in one way or another to see their offspring to sexual maturity, whether through absence, incapacity, or malevolence. Cleopatra's story, as told by this narrator, opens pointedly "After the deth of Tholome the kyng" (580), and so too we are reminded early in the linked stories of Medea and Hypsipyle that Aeson, the father of their common seducer, Jason, is dead. Living fathers, like Anchises and Pandeon, are sometimes too weak to protect their sons and daughters; or, as is more often the case, they cause active harm, intentionally or not, to the next generation. Thisbe's and Pyramus's fathers inexplicably prohibit love and so indirectly cause their childrens' deaths. Aeetes unwittingly seals his daughter Medea's doom when he bids her to sit at the table with Jason. Theseus passes on his good looks and his false ways with women to his son, Demophon, while Jason and Lyno are both objects of schemes by jealous uncles. In the latter story, we also see a strong suggestion of incest in Egiste's bizarre speech to his daughter, Hypermnestra. In the same breath the father vows his love and threatens to kill the girl if she refuses to murder her bridegroom-cousin, Lyno, and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this is the story of a Lear-like father who cannot let his daughter grow up and sleep with another man. The public, institutional consequences of such unresolved Oedipal situations—of the patriarchal failure to help sons become men—reach epic proportions in the legend of Lucrece, where the narrator frames his story with reminders that Tarquinius's irrational lust brings an end to the whole line of Roman kings (1680–84, 1862–64).
Turning briefly to the figure of the dreamer/narrator himself as he is characterized in the Prologue , in retrospect we find arguably
sufficient explanation for his only partially concealed antipathy toward women and his complex anxieties about the infectious feminization of men as lovers and fathers alike. The narrator of the Legend of Good Women presents himself in the well-known opening lines (F.1–209, G.1–103), before the dream-vision, as a bookworm who is drawn from his fanatic devotion to reading by only one "game" (F/G.33), the cult of the marguerite. His situation emphasizes both the literary man's prior lack of interest in actual heterosexual love and his professional obligation to take part in an elaborate courtly word game, here one in which the explicit substitution of the daisy for the lady at once covers over and underscores the unimportance or irrelevance of real women. The dream that follows suggests the multiple anxieties of the figure of the court poet in such circumstances, including his fear of a tyrannical male ruler who (perhaps anxious to demonstrate his own superior status and potency) blames his servant for writing antifeminist poetry and also calls attention to that servant's inability to perform as a lover: "Thow . . . art therto nothyng able," the God of Love says (F.320, G.246). The figure of the poet is further feminized by the intervention of a powerful, aristocratic woman who speaks the kind of rational words that he for some unexplained, but psychologically and historically plausible, reason cannot. His indifference to real women can perhaps turn to active antipathy when he is, in effect, treated like a woman himself, not recognized as a man by the male ruler and blocked from proving his manhood either by loving an actual female or by ignoring the subject of women altogether. As in the case of the heroes of the Legends, the only strategy the narrator can use to escape the censure and embarrassment revealed in the dream actually requires one type of stereotypically feminine (and uncourtly) behavior: wiliness and
duplicity, as he apparently submits to and then subtly betrays Cupid's purposes and instead writes to his own ends.
And trusteth, as in love, no man but me.
Legend of Good Women , 2561
To the extent that feminist discourse defines its problematic as "woman," it, too, ironically privileges the man as unproblematic or exempt from determination from gender relations.[9
] Jane Flax, "Postmodernism and Gender Relations in Feminist Theory"
This analysis of feminization in the Legends brought me to conclusions different from my earlier ones. I did not find myself retracting the observation that this poem is not performing traditional antifeminist satire, or that it criticizes the less subtle forms and traps of misogyny inherent in certain already tired discursive conventions. However, it became dear to me that I needed to think harder about my naive assumption that a literary critique of the socio-gender system and its constraining effects on masculine identity and the male writer has anything to do with a pro-woman position. This book records the results of that effort. The Legend of Good Women is usually thought to represent Chaucer's return to a genre he has outgrown, but focusing on the problematic of "false men" marks the late dream-vision as central, not marginal, and affords a point of entry into the particularities of this poet's apparently lifelong engagement with the woman question. By turning in the next chapter
to questions about his most infamous female character, in the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale , I aim to establish the priority of two issues: first, my prevailing concern with (the representation of) women, although my explicit topic is as often as not men, the masculine imagination, and the male author; and second, my equal regard for Chaucer's fictions and for the fictions of Chaucer formulated by the modern critical reception of the texts, which is nowhere more interesting than in response to the Wife of Bath. The rest of the book moves from the early dream visions through Troilus and Criseyde and then concludes with five more of the Canterbury Tales that seem most pertinent to my inquiries. Attending to the representation of gender difference and gender relations throughout these works, with an ongoing regard for the feminization of both male characters and male figures for the poet, I have found myself no longer interested in defending Gavin Douglas's well-known dictum that Chaucer was "euer, God wait, wemenis frend." What then, I have inquired, is the nature and function of a late twentieth-century feminist analysis of these canonical, male-authored late medieval texts?
As I have pursued this question, I have become convinced that in Chaucer studies, the uncertain footing of any feminist approach to pre-modern works has been made even more slippery, ironically, by the unusual ease with which a prima facie case for the importance of women as characters and Woman (and gender, where the feminine is the marked position) as topic can be made. Under the influence of recent mediations in the practice of literary criticism, a growing number of scholars—including, as I have said, myself at an earlier point—have concluded in one way or another that the representation of women in Chaucerian fiction testifies to the poet's open-mindedness and even intentional subversion of traditional antifeminist positions. This view is sometimes part of a move to make Chaucer studies more theoretically au courant and to draw analogies between various contemporary approaches and Chaucer's insights and methods. There has been no systematic and thorough attempt to posit the evolution of the protofeminism that many have identified in Chaucer and his poetry. However, if the implications of separate studies were brought together and extended, it would be possible to see that they sketch a developmental poetics in which the female
voice itself, as speaker instead of spoken about, gradually enters Chaucerian fiction, while, as one recent critic sees it, Chaucer "abandoned his career as a poet of women."
I claim, however, that the attempt to recuperate a feminist Chaucer who does not threaten the humanist Chaucer, based on the assumption that Chaucer is sympathetic to women's problems and that we hear in his poetry either a female voice or an écriture féminine (in the vernacular of the fourteenth-century East Midlands), is misguided. Such efforts, moreover, have so far prevented feminist critics from making much difference in the way we read and theorize about Chaucer and have contributed to the difficulty of finding or creating the larger audience that our work might address. While I have moved beyond my early efforts to determine Chaucer's sexual politics, it has remained important to me to interrogate readings that recover Chaucer as a protofeminist or continue to adulate him as a humanist because such readings may stand in the way of the necessary activity of making new models for feminist interpretations of Chaucer and other male authors.
I have stressed, then, that in the very real continuity of concern throughout Chaucerian fiction with the representation of women, I hear not a swelling chorus of female voices entering the text and speaking for and about themselves, but something of a monotone making known both feminine absence and masculine anxiety. As I listen, what often sounds like a woman's voice, what is spoken in the name of women inflected by different and highly realistic, sometimes subversive dialects, always enters and leaves Chaucerian story not as the enunciation of an autonomous speaker, but as an urgent problem for the gendered identity of male characters, male narrators, and (?male) readers. The problem is always represented in large part as a problem of the feminization of men. The repetitive return to the fraught depiction of women and of male speakers, characters and narrators alike, who in various ways resemble those women in turn documents the dubious nature of gender difference: the fact that men and women are similar and dissimilar, depending on how, why, and when we are looking at them, or that all human beings have both feminine and masculine characteristics.
This understanding of a fundamental similarity between male and female is consistent with orthodox medical and scientific views that prevailed until the late eighteenth century. As Thomas Laqueur has observed:
For several thousand years it had been a commonplace that women have the same genitals as men, except that, as Nemesius, bishop of Emesa in the sixth century, put it: "Theirs are inside the body and not outside it." Galen, who in the second century A.D. developed the most powerful and resilient model of the homologous nature of male and female reproductive organs, could already cite the anatomist Herophilus (third century B.C.) in support of his claim that a woman has testes with accompanying seminal ducts very much like the man's, one on each side of the uterus, the only difference being that the male's are contained in the scrotum and the female's are not.
Belief in the genital homology of male and female did not translate into assumptions of their social, political, or moral equality; the female's insufficient heat accounted medically for the internalization of her organs of reproduction and her natural inferiority. Moreover, the paradigm of homology equated the male with the human, and female difference was not inquired into. For example, Laqueur points out that until 1797 no one thought to reproduce illustrations of female skeletons: "Up to this time there had been one basic structure for the human body, the type of the male." While it is usually assumed that the perceived similarity and mutability of biological gender were tightly controlled in premodern thinking by a firm sense of natural and proper hierarchy, Chaucerian fiction seems to call this assumption into question. Chaucer seems to insist, as some of us might put it today, that gender is socially constructed and historically experienced as protean, provisional, intermittent, and discontinuous, and his poetry explores the consequent difficulty that men face in securing masculine identity and dominance.
This concern with the instability and incompleteness of gender difference undermines the uncomplicated assumption that we can hear
women speaking when the author describes or impersonates a woman. Chaucer, it could be argued, is the last to imagine and give voice to something we can categorize with useful certainty as a female speaker, for the poems attributed to him are among the first to problematize the notion of singly gendered subjectivity, even as they may in various ways imply that in all the orthodox prescriptions of gender roles by which experience is given social meaning, women's voices are precisely those that have been silenced. In Chaucer, moreover, the foregrounded problem of representing the silenced woman characteristically intersects the problem of poetic authority in general and the self-authorization of the individual poet's voice in particular. According to certain authoritative discourses of the Middle Ages (not unlike some postmodern discourses in this regard), writing itself occupies a feminine position in a culture that insists on the inherent and necessary inferiority and absence, both materially and symbolically, of women. As we see in the Legend of Good Women , the figure of the male poet in Chaucer dreams of impotence, of being treated like a woman—marginalized, for instance, in the court, or misread by future audiences—and yet he is obliged to write about women in order to compete with other men and enter into a privileged discourse. In response to this position, he employs a striking and, in certain obvious ways, effective strategy: he underscores and imitates the charge, exploits the negative, subversive powers of nonrepresentability assigned to the female, the feminine, and the poetic—and then shows, or works to show, that there is still a masculine position to be taken within writing.
Representations of the vicissitudes of masculine identity in a patriarchal culture, then, do not necessarily entail abandoning its potential privilege. In Chaucer, moves to reclaim the boldly destabilized notion of integral maleness, to occupy the space that has been opened up by the inversions and subversions of courtly love in particular and thus to manage the woman question, characteristically implicate an equally insistent re-essentializing of gender and a re-marking of gender difference—for women especially. If the difference of the female is not fully clear and plausible, it has to be repeatedly reconstructed. To this end the female character is always redefined as other than the male characters and speakers in the texts in a variety of predictable ways: she is generically fixed and fully engendered; in every instance she is dead, or mutilated, victimized, violated, anesthetized, abandoned, mystified; or she lacks art, or she lacks desire. The figure of the male poet, by contrast, is drawn
beyond gender; he is represented as variously asexual (or postsexual), alive, creative, playful, uncertain, neutral, or empty to the point of vanishing, and yet full of desire. In other words, the poet exploits his insight into the indeterminacy of gender difference and the social construction of gender relations as part of his efforts to produce himself as multiply, resistantly, and evasively as possible. Moreover, he repeatedly represents other men and other male poets as having foundered over the problems of feminization and gender instability entailed in loving or desiring a woman and/or telling her story. At this early stage in the history of English poetry, the figure of the poet constitutes his own authority by entering into classical and earlier medieval traditions of discourse about women and sexuality and negotiating the problems of doing so more successfully than others have done. If Chaucer abandons his career as a poet of women, then, it is not once but repeatedly, always as a gesture of one-upmanship in a world where writing about women is what literary men do, and always to take up the problem of "false men" and "true women" again in the next text. The figure of the poet in Chaucer tells us that no one can write woman even as he does so. In this way, Chaucerian fiction is representative of the Western literary canon at perhaps its most interesting and certainly its most subtly problematic for late twentieth-century women readers and feminist scholars.
"Feminization" and "Chaucer"
Tunc effeminati passim in orbe dominabantur indisciplinate debachabantur sodomiticisque spurciciis foedi catamitae flammisurendi turpiter abutebantur. Ritus heroum abiciebant, horta-
menta sacerdotum deridebant, barbaricumque morem in habitu et uita tenebant. Nam capillos a uertice in frontem discriminabant, longos crines ueluti mulieres nutriebant, et summopere comebant, prolixisque niniumque stictis camisiis indui tunicisque gaudebant.
Orderic Vitalis, Historia Ecclesiastica
(At that time effeminates set the fashion in many parts of the world: foul catamites, doomed to eternal fire, unrestrainedly pursued their revels and shamelessly gave themselves up to the filth of sodomy. They rejected the traditions of honest men, ridiculed the counsel of priests, and persisted in their barbarous way of life and style of dress. They parted their hair from the crown of the head to the forehead, grew long and luxurious locks like women, and loved to deck themselves in long, over-tight shirts and tunics.)
"No, I don't want to destroy you, any more than I want to save you. There has been far too much talk about you, and I want to leave you alone altogether. My interest is in my own sex; yours evidently can look after itself. That's what I want to save.
Verena saw that he was more serious now than he had been before, that he was not piling it up satirically, but saying really and a trifle wearily, as if suddenly he were tired of much talk, what he meant. "To save it from what?" she asked. "From the most damnable feminization!" Henry James, The Bostonians
In looking at Chaucer's career as a poet of women from the standpoint of my reading of the Legend of Good Women , I rely on a couple of terms that merit some discussion at the outset. First, I have retained the word "feminization" to describe circumstances that are represented in various forms in all the texts I have included here. It refers throughout to a dramatized state of social, psychological, and discursive crisis wherein men occupy positions and/or perform functions already occupied and performed, within a given text and its contexts, by women or normatively assigned by orthodox discourses to Woman. There are various reasons for speaking of feminization as opposed to either "emasculation"
or, to use a more symmetrical and common term, "role reversal." The emasculation of men is indeed often explicitly the problem for male characters and types: hence all the drooping courtly lovers, from the Black Knight, Troilus, Palamon, Arcite, and Aurelius to the most clearly comic and parodic version of all, Absolon; hence, in a different way, the coy and maidenly Clerk of Oxenford and his prototype, the impotent Geffrey himself in the House of Fame , and the heroes of his own tales, the henpecked Melibeus and sweet young Sir Thopas. In some senses and at some moments, feminization and emasculation are interchangeable effects, and I do not intend to set up or adhere to a rigorous distinction between the two. But in calling the problem one of feminization rather than one of emasculation, I want to emphasize my assumption that various fictional failures of manliness can be read as signs or results of another issue, one that always puts men whose stake is in their own gendered identity and their relations with other men into a situation involving women and Woman. To speak of emasculation is to privilege the exclusively positive valence of the masculine, to see maleness as the ideal state from which something is sometimes, and always problematically, missing or taken away. To speak of feminization is on the contrary to suggest that the feminine, in this cultural context a pejorative mark and a set of subordinated or marginalized positions historically occupied most often by female human beings, may have a certain potency and priority, although this possibility is just what it is repeatedly necessary to disprove.
Role reversal is a somewhat broader term, often used by anthropologists, that would cover much of the symbolic and practical terrain I want to explore here, but it implies a symmetry not found in the material I have examined, in which women are rarely "masculinized." Sometimes the feminization of men is indeed an effect in part of their apparent relation to women on top, so to speak; thus the narrator in the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women is silenced by the rational, authoritative voice of Alceste, and in the Book of the Duchess the Black Knight looks more womanly when he talks about his submission to the dominance of White. But White and Alceste are represented as archetypally feminine figures, in ways I shall explore. Chaucerian fiction as a whole suggests that role reversal really only goes one way; both the risks and the benefits of gender instability are for men only. For women, the crossing of gender lines is often fatal (White and Alceste are dead), and in many poems, the implication that a woman might be masculinized is explicitly fore-
closed, as in the Legend of Good Women and in figures like Dido in the House of Fame and Criseyde.
Caroline Walker Bynum's recent work on what she often speaks of as role reversal in medieval religious experience and theological writing reveals a similar pattern. Men were more likely to "become" women—not in practical terms, where cross-dressing would have been of little benefit to them, but in the stories they told about their psychic experiences and the theories they devised to account for them—than women were to become men. Bynum sees this phenomenon as both a site for social rebellion and a safety valve for maintaining normative social order; "descriptions of God as female and the startling reversal at the heart of the mass provided an alternative to and critique of the asymmetry between the sexes in the ordinary world." While I do not focus here on Chaucer's relations to this religious context or to theological writings about gender (a study that would require a different background and would attend more carefully to another group of Chaucerian fictions as well), it seems clear that Chaucer, like the medieval men whom Bynum studies, found symbolic cross-dressing fascinating, useful, inevitable, and frightening.
My use of the term "feminization" is connected to but markedly different from its usage in studies of later periods, such as Ann Douglas's Feminization of American Culture or Nancy Armstrong's Desire and Domestic Fiction . To put the principal difference, as I see it, most simply, Douglas and Armstrong are both talking about the influence of historical women and of frequently positive female roles on culture, which it is possible to do in the nineteenth-century America and England they study. I am talking about the influence of a negative cultural position or function, as reconstructed from authoritative and prescriptive discourse in the medieval period—and related to the activity of actual women in ways that it is difficult, if not impossible, to assess in this period, even as we keep the problem in mind—on the men who produce the cultural
artifacts by which we have traditionally known the Middle Ages and by which our own culture has thus been shaped. But as the work of Armstrong, Douglas, and others indicates, the concept of feminization has a history, and that history begins well before and continues long after the Middle Ages. It is not my project in this study to trace either the full course of this history or the long stretch and complicated shape of its medieval chapters. Within a field circumscribed by my interests and training, I attempt to examine with care and specificity one momentous and consequential engagement with the problem.
Before I proceed, however, it may be useful to point out that other modern scholars of medieval culture, like Bynum, have also begun the task of identifying and analyzing from various perspectives what I am calling the feminization of men and male writers; although they may not use exactly this term, their work intersects my findings in interesting ways and suggests the outlines of historical contexts that I do not explore further here. Toril Moi, for instance, building on Marc Bloch's earlier observations on the influence of noblewomen on artistocratic males of the courtoisie , explains what she terms the "effeminisation" of the knightly classes from the twelfth century on as strategic to the naturalization of class differences: "Signalling their cultural superiority, the 'ef-
feminisation' of the aristocracy paradoxically enough comes to signify their 'natural' right to power. It is precisely in its insistence on the 'natural' differences between rulers and ruled that courtly ideology achieved its legitimising function, a function which operates long after the feudal artistocracy has lost its central position in society." By such a reading it appears that for certain political and socioeconomic purposes, one important difference, class, tends to override or alter the orthodox configuration of another prominent difference, gender. But this exigency creates enormous pressures, as Chaucerian fictions often suggest, and the ensuing strains, so marked in the literature of courtly love, remind us that gender difference has never historically remained a "weak difference" for long.
While the courtly model of aristocratic behavior feminizes the male lover—rendering him subservient, weakened, infantilized, privatized, and emotional—Georges Duby has pointed out that in the twelfth century a countermodel also elevated the ideal of the "fruitful couple," the married man and woman "temporarily entrusted with the husbanding of a patrimony." This model, in contrast to the courtly model, required and reinforced strong gender difference: "The same attitude which at that time led to greater differentiation between male and female attire also established different models of behavior for the two sexes: it was fitting for boys to be aggressive, but girls should be prudent and guarded." The feminization that functioned to reinforce class difference, according to Moi, coexisted then with an ideology that implied the kind
of distrust and hostility towards fashionably effeminate men recorded elsewhere.
Duby maintains that these two apparently opposing "shifts in ideology," courtly love and the ideal of the "fruitful couple," were "actually profoundly compatible and indeed complementary," together managing the division between "youths" and "elders" within the aristocracy. "Their combined impact," Duby affirms, "constituted a welcome aid in safeguarding what had now become, more clearly than ever, the keystone of the dominant society—the married state." The Franklin's Tale , as I read it, narrates precisely how "the married state" accommodates incompatible ideals of gender identity and gender relations, although elsewhere in the poetry of Chaucer contradictions and concussions within and between models that regulate gender may seem more visible than strategic complementarity. As a longstanding focus of Chaucer criticism makes clear, by the late fourteenth century, at least, the keystone is showing signs of the stresses it holds in balance, and marriage is represented as a prominent site of discussion and anxiety for dominant elements of society.
The difference between Duby's analysis of twelfth-century France and my observation about the writings of a fourteenth-century English poet may reflect in part the fact that the perception of inadequate or instable gender differentiation is increasingly acute for the secular poet in the late medieval period, given the poet's material and intellectual position. In the centuries before Chaucer wrote, one important strain of medieval thinking linked poetry and rhetoric with social and sexual deviance. Some recent scholarship has focused on the influential text of Alan of Lille's De planctu naturae , and, as R. Howard Bloch puts it in his discussion of De planctu , "It is, ultimately, the mobility of poetic language and of sexual identity that represents for Nature the most potent threat to the straightness . . . of grammar and to the continuity of lineage." In another study, Bloch pushes the argument to the conclusion that the medieval poet from the early patristic period to the late Middle Ages is,
by definition, a woman. Eugence Vance has also recently offered a reading of the twelfth-century romance as serving the interests of a new class and ideology. Most interesting for the purposes of my study of Chaucer, Vance considers the identification of a court poet writing two centuries before Chaucer, Chrétien de Troyes, with his fictional female characters, the silk workers in the Pesme Avanture episode of Yvain , and suggests that it reveals the author's anxiety that the male worker of texts, like the female weaver of textiles, will be exploited by the new ideology.
In his study of the court poet in the specific period during which Chaucer flourished, R. F. Green, like Duby, Bloch, and Vance, does not use the term "feminization," nor does his analysis indude the category of gender. But Green's work may indicate certain analogies between the position of the male poet and the (aristocratic) woman in later medieval society. The writer is a marginalized figure at the fourteenth-century English court, one who must be careful not to offend those of higher rank and authority. He seeks to please and entertain those who have real and theoretical power over him as both interpreters of texts and patrons of art. Moreover, Green observes that some familiar features of the poetic texts we know from the period may be explained as a function of the social situation; the poet's "self-effacement" and "obliqueness," in particular, reflect the caution necessary in claiming authority in the court. At the same time, the poet could bond with aristocratic men (and perhaps women) by displaying his expertise in the literary game, the game of love-talking. Green believes, however, that the poet in this period could not acquire much social importance through poetry, and he points out that we have no evidence that Chaucer's reputation as a poet furthered his career as a court official. It may be possible, and it would certainly be interesting, to uncover more historical evidence of this sort to flesh out what we see in Chaucer about the poet's concern with the perceived instability of gender identity in an age when a hierarchical ordering of the sexes was said to be both natural and divinely ordained. Socially, the poet is put in a position more like that of women and yet forced to compete with men; to write poetry is to violate the
proprieties of grammar and gender, to submit to the judgment and authority of the audience, and yet it is also to play a man's game–and in Chaucer to constitute the rules of the game, I shall suggest, so that only men can or will play.
A second term I want to comment on before I proceed with this project is of a rather different order; it is not a concept I have chosen to use in preference to other possibilities, it is not susceptible to brief remark, and its meaning is in one sense the subject of all that follows: it is the term "Chaucer." Today more than ever the name of the author is thrown into quotation marks by the conjunction of the longstanding textual and historical difficulties of reconstructing the fourteenth-century author and postmodern efforts to deconstruct notions of the writing subject's identity and intentionality altogether. Like dramatic readings of the Canterbury Tales , claims about Chaucer's intentions and authority can always be challenged by sobering reminders of how little we know, how conjectural our assumptions must be about this author's biography, the dating of individual texts, and even the authority (or authorship) of (parts of) the texts we now have. To tell a story about Chaucer's agency, to try to seek out and reveal his real intentions, moreover, is to presuppose what postmodern thought no longer lets us rely on: the unity or knowability of any authorial position or any subjective stance. Daring to speak about Chaucer at the dose of the twentieth century, we might only want to say that he mirrors and compounds both the historical and theoretical problems by self-consciously erasing himself from his fiction, most notably through the varying forms of his infamous irony. Chaucer seems thus to represent, even exaggerate the dilemma par excellence for the literary critic, as succinctly articulated by Peggy Kamuf: "The undecidable trait of the signature must fall into the crack of the historicist/formalist opposition organizing most discourse about literature." At the
same time, those moments throughout the Chaucer canon when so much is given to suggest the presence of a historical author with intentions (that is, after all, one implication of both irony and evasiveness), and even with worries that we will misinterpret them, may make some readers understandably reluctant to deconstruct Chaucer too far. More importantly, perhaps, the emergence of forces that would politicize postmodern theory militates against surrendering all sense of authorial (and critical) presence and agency.
It is both from and about the crack, as Kamuf describes it, that I speak, then, when I use the word "Chaucer." One thing I am implicitly asking throughout this study is whether and how we can demystify and politicize rather than reify the undecidability and unknowability of the author, the problem of the signature, seemingly so perfectly embodied in Chaucer, and whether in particular we can do so from the perspective of gender asymmetries. Does the history of gender, as written in part by literary traditions, have anything to do with the fact that most modern and postmodern discourse about literature is organized, one way or another, around the principle of authorial undecidability? Is the shifting, provisional nature of the author function that Chaucer so often seems to epitomize in tension or in collaboration with the humanist fiction of the unimplicated, all-seeing artist whom Chaucer also represents to so many readers? With such questions at the fore, I suggest, we can discover in Chaucerian fictions—the poems that have come down to us under his signature and the fiction of Chaucer they have made possible—something about the formation of liberal views of the (male) author as both an individual "unencumbered" personality and a transcendent self with authoritative insights into universal human nature, at a liminal moment in its history. While "Chaucer," then, comprises our historical and the-
oretical lack of knowledge about the author and in that way identifies the author with neutrality, absence, and obliqueness, so too, I suggest, "Chaucer" comprises strategic obfuscations that are part of a sexual politics and that cannot be divorced from a sense of gendered agency in the production and reception of literary texts. This agency can be conceived of as dispersed and fragmentary, sometimes authorial, sometimes scribal, sometimes critical, sometimes textual and discursive. I henceforth retain the term "Chaucer" (and the adjective "Chaucerian") without quotation marks to refer to this potent, evasive, multipartite, and internally divided agency not to avoid the problems it raises, and not for want of better words, but because one of my main aims is to intervene in the ongoing critical enterprise of constructing in the name of Chaucer a literary father figure, like many fathers powerful and attractive by virtue of his distance and absence, a magisterial authorial self "we" can know and trust.