"Women-as-the-Same" in the A-Fragment
Probably no male human being is spared the terrifying shock of threatened castration at the sight of the female genitals.
The misdirected kiss reminds us that Emily and Alisoun are no different under their clothes.
Edward C. Schweitzer, "The Misdirected Kiss"
The general understanding that the Miller's story comments on the Knight's from another class and generic perspective is unexceptionable, and many critical readings of the interaction between these first two offerings in the Canterbury sequence are available. Here, I want to inflect the critical discussion of both literary and class relations between Knight and Miller, romance and fabliau, with the category of gender. The Knight's Tale , like the Miller's Tale , takes the problem of male rivalry as its (unromantic) topic, and through its specific articulation and resolution of the problem seeks to consolidate aristocratic masculine identity. As Jerome Mandel points out in his study of courtly love in the Canterbury Tales , the tale that is apparently most courtly of all, the Knight's Tale , differs from other literary treatments of courtly passion, from Chretien to Malory, in a prominent structural regard: the two courtly lovers in the tale are both men. Such male rivalry, he notes, is generically atypical of romance and epic and more commonly associated with fabliaux. According to Mandel, this alteration of generic expectations identifies the
real subject of the A-fragment as a whole: "The central issue is still amicitia . . . . Questions of order, power, loyalty, and friendship were far more pressing and more momentous to Chaucer's audience, the nobility and intellectuals of Ricardian England, than were delicate matters of a decayed literary convention that no one took seriously any longer." But "delicate matters," insofar as the phrase suggests among other things the place and interests of the female and the feminine, may not be as readily erased from either the romance or the fabliaux of the A-fragment as such a reading suggests. The Knight's assumptions about women are not, on careful inspection, so different from the Miller's. A certain common ground between men of different classes is available and necessary, it seems, to the formation of their gender identity and their literary voices, and Emily and Alisoun together represent, I shall argue, a kind of shared terrain whereon knight and peasant talk to each other across their differences.
The Knight's Tale
The central narrative of the Knight's Tale begins with the discovery and imprisonment of Arcite and Palamon, and it is in their relation to each other and to Theseus that the tale imagines what is both desirable and difficult about relations between noblemen. The introduction of the two young knights underscores not their rivalry, which becomes the main focus of the story, but their sameness and intimacy. Their wounded bodies are discovered by pillagers among the victims of Theseus's victory over Creon, "liggynge by and by / Boothe in oon armes . . . of sustren two yborn" (1011–12,1019). The common heraldic decoration they wear, marking them as the same, is their only identity at this liminal moment. As a sign of their shared class identity, it spares them from the death suffered by the nameless masses of defeated Thebans (1005–8), but at the same time it condemns them to remain side by side in Theseus's prison, where they are barred from the mutually interactive exercises in
love and war that should give each noble youth an opportunity to claim his own name, to forge an identity that negotiates his necessary similarity to and difference from other noblemen. Modern commentators have repeatedly disputed whether subsequently the two characters can be adequately distinguished. The interpretive debate defies resolution because it replicates precisely what it is that Arcite and Palamon themselves are trying to work out and what the Knight presents as the dramatic heart of his tale: how can noblemen be both identifiably discrete heroes and yet true chivalric types, models, and brothers?
The (eventual) solution to their problem lies in the (apparent) cause of the main plot, the woman they spy from their prison window. The two cousins are spoiling for a fight that can simultaneously unite them in their common goals and divide them adequately, and Emily is the only "bone," as Arcite puts it, in sight. Like the aristocratic eagles in the Parliament , in their initial dispute over the same lady Palamon and Arcite show predictably little interest in the beloved; instead they quibble, just like the birds, over conventional, unanswerable questions such as who "loved hire first" (1146, 1155). In their early verbal disputes, moreover, each knight fairly clearly and coherently represents one side of the chivalric code. Palamon speaks for the value of sworn brotherhood among noble kinsmen and recites the proper pledge they have made "ech of us til oother" (1132), while Arcite articulates their equally pressing need to be individual heroes: "'Ech man for hymself, ther is noon oother'" (1182). As Arcite also points out (1172ff.), that neither of them looks to stand a chance of actually winning the lady's hand is irrelevant; the competition is all.
As storyteller, the Knight intrudes at the end of Part I to underscore the comforting illusion of individual difference between men that unattainable love can sustain by posing the concluding, again necessarily undecidable question, the demande d'amour: which of the knights suffers more from his ungratified desire (1348)? In Book II, moreover, a deus ex
machina of sorts offers Arcite an experience that will materially separate and distinguish him from Palamon, but the sudden twist of the plot also underscores in its own right the power, endurance, and complexity of male bonds. Perotheus, "felawe . . . unto Duc Theseus/Syn thilke day that they were children lite" (1192–93), comes to Athens for a visit, and, with a characteristic gesture, the Knight digresses for a moment to celebrate what looks peripheral to his narrative, but actually lies at its very heart: the lifelong love of two boyhood friends who, as grown men, still play together. Perotheus comes to Theseus
. . . for to pleye as he was wont to do;
For in this world he loved no man so,
And he loved hym als tendrely agayn.
So wel they lovede, as olde bookes sayn,
That whan that oon was deed, soothly to telle,
His felawe wente and soughte hym doun in helle—
But of that storie list me nat to write.
Perotheus also, however, "loved wel Arcite," and so he is able to go between the older ruler and the youthful enemy and persuade Theseus to honor male friendship over male rivalry by letting Arcite go.
Arcite's behavior in the rest of Part II further dramatizes the entanglements of aristocratic masculine identity in a way that at once anticipates and resists the Miller's subsequent challenge. The transformation that Arcite suffers when he is exiled to Thebes—his enervation, his weeping, and the alteration in his speech and voice, "that no man koude knowe" (1370)—suggests the threat to selfhood and manhood, to both class and gender identity, that love of a woman (even when that means merely talking about and gazing at her) inevitably poses. As Schweitzer has noted, the correspondence between the martial Arcite and the effeminate Absolon of the Miller's Tale is made clear at this point, and the dream that follows underscores that it is Arcite's yet unproven manhood that is at risk: Mercury comes to tell him to go back to Athens, and he bears the emblem of the elusive, promised phallus: "His slepy yerde in hond he bar uprighte" (1387). The disguise Arcite adopts defines the implicated class concern: love has so disrupted his identity—"turned was al up so doun" (1377)—that the royal youth can appear "as a povre
laborer" (1409), willing to hew wood and bear water, to become a servant in Theseus's household, just to see Emily.
Later, in both the Miller's and the Reeve's tales, the dangers inherent in taking single young men into households become apparent, and retrospectively it is possible to note in Arcite a model of the subversive potential of gender and class fluidity. But the truly disruptive possibilities of Arcite's situation are thoroughly rejected by what happens next in this story. Arcite profits from his disguise as a servant of the lord, assigned to the lady's chamber, not to woo Emily but to win the love of Theseus. He spends three years in the position of servant, but his inborn nobility shines through and establishes a critical bond between former enemies—or else Theseus prefers men of lower ranks. At any rate, Arcite bears himself so well that "ther was no man that Theseus hath derre" (1448).
But to win the ultimate prize, the lady, the knight must still reclaim his true name and, most important, must fight and be reconciled with his sworn brother, Palamon, under Theseus's dose supervision, and reenacting precisely the move from enemy to dear friend that Arcite has already made in his relations with Theseus. As a servant, apart from Palamon and acting in secret disobedience to Theseus, no matter how close to Emily he may come and how much "renoun" he may win under his false identity, Arcite cannot develop into a noble, manly hero. This limitation is dear in his lament in the grove where Palamon is hiding. Sounding now more like Palamon in the beginning, because he has recognized the price paid by a man who betrays male bonds in order to pursue (uselessly) his identity through heterosexual love, Arcite bemoans the confusion of both lineage and personal selfhood that plagues him: "'Allas, ybroght is to confusioun/The blood roial of Cadme and Amphioun . . . I dar noght biknowe myn owene name'" (1545–46,1556). Palamon's first words to Arcite, when he comes out of hiding, accuse his cousin of having "byjaped" Theseus, "'and falsly chaunged hast thy name thus!'" (1586). In ironic contrast, he who has upheld the priority of sworn brotherly bonds is able to proclaim with pride his own name and identity as male rival: "'For I am Palamon, thy mortal foo'" (1590).
Just as Palamon and Arcite have a necessarily oscillating association as antagonists and comrades, so too Theseus has an essentially conflicted relation to the single position of aristocratic young male that the two represent. No motive is supplied for Theseus's original decision to imprison Arcite and Palamon "perpetuelly" (1024), instead of simply killing them or allowing them to be ransomed; subsequently, he seems to set Arcite free quite as easily as he made him stay. Theseus's willingness to release his prisoner may testify to the strength of his love for Perotheus, as I suggested earlier; it also enables the plot to clarify that it is love, not war, that really imprisons a man "perpetuelly" (cf. 1458). Furthermore, his change of heart is congruent with the shifting, somewhat mysterious feelings that Theseus seems to have for Palamon and Arcite. This instability is again prominent in his attitude toward his prisoners when he finds them fighting illicitly in the grove: although "he first for ire quook and sterte" (1762) and pronounces a death sentence, in the next line Theseus "shortly" accedes to the ladies' request that he spare the younger men. It might be simplest to assume that he acts out of "pitee" (1761) or "resoun" (1766), or that they just are not all that important to Theseus, but elsewhere the poem suggests otherwise. The disguised Arcite, as we have seen, is taken "so neer" by Theseus in Part II, and in Parts III and IV Theseus goes to extraordinary lengths first for the tournament and then for Arcite's funeral. The tears he weeps for the dead hero register an investment in his young erstwhile enemy that goes beyond "pitee" and "resoun," and when he subsequently makes Palamon his brother-in-law, multiple motives seem to be in play.
Theseus's behavior is only superficially inconsistent; it actually reconfirms and extends the concern of the tale with the fraught ties between powerful men. More specifically, his relations with Arcite and Palamon enact the complex relations of older and younger males, in local, temporary, and transitional competition and in larger concert. Theseus, we might imagine, imprisons the young men for two good reasons: because he must control the threat they represent to the Athenian state and to Theseus's own position within the kingdom and the household; and because he wants to hold onto and protect them and the youth and promise they embody (and his identification with them is made clear in the grove scene, as he recalls "in my tyme a servant was I oon" ). In the plot that follows, Theseus experiences and manages the dual demands of the patriarch, who must dominate his sons while teaching and allowing (one of) them, eventually, to dominate in turn. The other-
wise gratuitous and innovative appearance of Egeus, Theseus's father (2837–52), emphasizes the divided nature of masculine identity: Theseus, like every patriarch, is also a son, and his behavior here models the narrative of generations of ruling men coexisting under one roof. The father's philosophy is superannuated by Theseus's more enlightened (Boethian) views, but the father himself is honored, not supplanted, and he offers crucial emotional support when precious male bonds within and across class distinctions are severed: he is said to be the only one who can comfort Theseus (2837–38) and "the peple" (2852) for the death of Arcite.
For the duration of the Knight's Tale , Theseus's elaborate, artificial arrangements hold potentially disruptive generational conflict in bounds, and the symmetry of the temples, the equality of the competing sides of the tournament, and even the outcome of the fighting all reveal the paradoxical return to a certain sameness that unites different men in harmony and affection. There is indeed a winner in baffle, to prove that a fight has taken place, but both Theseus and the Knight take pains to establish the seemingly illogical but essential claim that there is not really a loser. There is no "cowardye" in a proper defeat (2719–30), Theseus insists; wounds are all healed, and Theseus makes revelry and feast and decrees that the competition is now over (2731ff.). With the help of the gods, too, both sides can triumph: Arcite fights a heroic fight and receives a splendid funeral, and Palamon gets Emily. The obsessive symmetry of the poem equates funeral and wedding as the two halves of Part IV, at the end of which we might expect the Knight to pose a final question: who has it best, now, the dead hero or the living husband?
The truly decisive winner is the aristocratic ideal of manhood, whereby a man can compete with and still be brother, son, and/or father to other men, an ideal proven by the quarrel over Emily, the ritual sacrifice of Arcite, and the belated marriage of Palamon to Theseus's sister-in-law. It is interesting that Arcite, the initial spokesman for individual heroism, is killed, while Palamon, who valued brotherhood, survives and inherits. But the lines of difference between the two cousins cross and recross too frequently to distinguish them or their signifying fates so firmly. Even before the tournament, Arcite's vital will to differ-
entiate himself from Palamon coexists, thanks to the chivalric code, with his care for his "felawe," as he brings his rival food, drink, and proper weapons. By line 2762, Palamon is "his cosyn deere" again, and in what most critics view as his most generous act. Arcite is reconciled on his deathbed to Palamon and recommends that Emily marry his ex-rival. He thereby enacts the virtuous repudiation of love and the lady that we witness in Troilus, and this is just the notion of male generosity, as we shall see, that resurfaces to close the Franklin's Tale .
Just as Palamon and Arcite's differences are both proved and erased, or written over by their common concerns, so too Theseus's conflicted relations to the young men are fortuitously resolved by the plot. He retains his position as lord by organizing the tournament, the funeral, and the marriage, and yet he moves easily from tyrannical enemy to mournful friend and father-in-law. But subsequently the Miller's Tale , if nothing else, may make us wonder what will happen, or whether it is really possible for the older man to take the younger one into his household without risking his own manhood and inviting humiliation and betrayal. The scalding of Nicholas's "toute," as other commentators have noted, restages and foreshortens the tournament in the Knight's Tale , and thus we may be led to reconsider the homosocial and homosexual undertones of chivalry as the Knight presents it. I suggest, moreover, that the integrity of the Knight's ideals is more seriously called into question by the fact that despite his apparent disagreement with the Miller about how men are made and how they bond, the two actually reveal a common attitude toward women.
Woman in the Knight's Tale looks at first glance like the inverse of Woman in the Miller's Tale: we can hardly imagine the courtly heroine, Emily, playing even a polite joke, let alone exposing her backside for a kiss from whichever one of her rival suitors she isn't sleeping with at the moment. Emily is usually presented to readers as the idealized lady, just as she appears to Palamon to be a goddess. If Emily and Alisoun have anything in common, it would seem to be that they are both peripheral to the main concerns of the male characters and storytellers who
ostensively desire them. While Alisoun's marginality is less obvious and will be discussed at length later in this chapter, Emily's exclusion from the Knight's Tale seems to require no subtle reading and has been affirmed by many modern critics. As one early twentieth-century scholar says, we have in Emily "a heroine who is merely a name." Mandel points out that "For all courtly intents and purposes of love, Emily does not exist in this tale." Charles Muscatine views Emily as "merely a symbol of the noble man's desires"; E. Talbot Donaldson stresses that "she has no character," and Donald Howard notes that "the lady herself is a distant and unreal figure." I submit, however, that while all these observations are accurate, and while the poem is, in the ways I have already argued, about male rivalry and the reconciliation it affords, the representation of women in the Knight's Tale , especially when viewed in the context of the A-fragment as a whole, is not quite as simple or simply exclusionary as it seems. We need not take the Knight's representation of Emily at face value, nor is Emily the only female figure in the poem.
The tale actually begins not with the love triangle—Palamon, Arcite, and Emily—but with another triad of characters that has a different gender ratio, in which Emily is the only common factor: Theseus, Hippolyta, and her "yonge suster Emelye" (871) on the way back to Athens after Theseus has conquered the Amazons and married their queen. Shortly after he has begun, the Knight interrupts his story to describe this procession with a characteristic use of occupatio (875–94) in which he speaks of what he will not, he says, have time to represent fully:
And certes, if it nere to long to heere,
I wolde have toold yow fully the manere
How wonnen was the regne of Femenye
By Theseus and by his chivalrye;
And of the grete bataille for the nones
Bitwixen Atthenes and Amazones;
And how asseged was Ypolita,
The faire, hardy queene of Scithia;
And of the feste that was at hir weddynge,
And of the tempest at hir hoom-comynge;
But al that thyng I moot as now forbere.
What he forbears to speak of, here and elsewhere, calls attention to itself as something that the Knight consciously views and treats as incidental, corollary, or distracting, but which audiences are invited to perceive as bearing a deeper significance. What the Knight can't help talking about, and yet doesn't want to talk about, is an odd conjunction of events that suggests both cyclical and progressive movement: a battle, a wedding, and a stormy homecoming. The relevance of these events, in this sequence, becomes clearer only as the story progresses.
When the plot is picked up again in line 893, Theseus is almost home; Emily and Hippolyta are not mentioned at this point, but Theseus interacts with another group of women associated with military defeat and subservience to Athenian rule, the Theban widows. Theseus thus appears in the beginning in conjunction with two sets of women, not with men: throughout the tale, he is always described with a female entourage or audience for his actions and words, even as those actions and words are directed almost exclusively toward other men. From the outset, the male ruler and the problems of masculine authority are situated in contexts that always include women. Most important to my reading, moreover, is the particular way that the presence of women in these contexts is redefined so that it looks like absence and is thereby managed in conventional ways by both Theseus and the male storyteller.
In the first passage in the poem, Emily is associated with Hippolyta, that "hardy" queen of what the Knight refers to twice as "the regne of Femenye" (866, 877). (The Middle English Dictionary defines hardy as "strong in battle"; the term is also used to describe Turnus  and Arcite .) The term "Femenye" is interesting: John Fisher notes that "this place name (from Latin femina , woman) was evidently invented by Chaucer." Whether or not Chaucer invented it, it seems to have been rarely enough used to be striking, and its generalizing, abstracting quality equates Amazons with women in general and with Woman as an idea and a territory. The name Femenye reminds us, too, that Hippolyta
and Emily are not to be seen (yet) as courtly ladies in their initial appearance; they are described as Amazons, mythical, fighting, manlike women who have waged "grete bataille" with Theseus. They are being brought from a distant land into the court of Athens; notably, Theseus has not just conquered them but is also marrying their queen. In their first appearance, then, women in the poem are erstwhile powerful separatists, rivals to the hero who first defeats them with martial violence and then domesticates them through marital union.
The "tempest at hir hoom-comynge" about which the Knight does not speak is original to Chaucer's version of this story; in the Teseida , the return journey is notably easy and pleasant. The tempest might well allude to the untold story of stormy early days in Theseus and Hippolyta's marriage; in any naturalistic account, the transformation of an Amazonian queen into a proper wife for the Athenian king would probably be difficult and protracted. The Knight, however, both acknowledges and eclipses that presumably tempestuous taming of the wild woman and then embodies the success of Theseus's policy in those females who stand in the place of Hippolyta and Emily in the second part of the opening: the Theban widows, who are represented as proper, submissive, defeated, and dependent and who thus serve as a crucial part of the narrative strategy that defines Woman. The widows appears in pairs, suggesting the Amazon royal sisters (and the sister-mothers of Palamon and Arcite), but unlike Hippolyta and Emily, they are nameless, part of a group, kneeling, dressed all alike in clothes that symbolize their status in relation to (dead) men: "A compaignye of ladyes, tweye and tweye, / Ech after oother, clad in clothes blake" (898–99). In gestures that hint at their simultaneously passive and yet demanding and intrusive nature, they wail superlatively and seize the bridle of Theseus's horse.
Theseus's odd double response to these female petitioners suggests that he is himself making a transition from challenging women as enemies and rivals to pitying them as dependents. He speaks first to wonder if these strange females are complaining because they are jealous of him: "'Have ye so greet envye / Of myn honour'" (907–8). On second thought, he becomes more chivalrous and asks if someone has hurt them
and whether he can help (909–11). The oldest lady speaks for the group—after she swoons—and clarifies how they represent the proper narrative of aristocratic, cultivated womanhood. She stresses that each one of them was once "a duchesse or a queene" (923); now they are a collective of feminine misery ("us wrecched wommen," 921). She goes on to explain that they want Theseus to help them bury the bodies of their husbands, whom Creon has defeated and thrown in "an heep" (944) without funeral rites—negating their individual identity as men, which it is the function of wives to help sustain, and prefiguring the fate of Theban men, who will be treated by Theseus just as Creon treats his enemies. The Theban women thus serve to incite the main plot of a story that has nothing to do with them. The imprisonment of Arcite and Palamon and all that follows is generated by Theseus's eagerness to best Creon ("That al the peple of Grece sholde speke / How Creon was of Theseus yserved," 963–64), under the guise of polite service to a domesticated female honor that actually serves to define and aggrandize Theseus's personal reputation and the collective values of aristocratic men.
Taken together, Theseus's appearances in the first hundred lines of the poem with two sets of foreign women—first his new wife and sister-in-law, former Amazons, and then the Theban widows—suggest that although Emily may not be a "fully-rounded" character, but "merely a name," still the haunting subject of Theseus's relation to the female Other is fundamental to the rest of the story and to our understanding of the Athenian ruler's character. The opening scenes tell us, quite literally, where Theseus is coming from: from the apprehension that women somewhere, on the margins of culture and historical or narrative reality, are powerful rivals, martial and manlike, whom the proper male hero must first conquer with superior violence and then domesticate. Theseus's rule, like Scipio's vision in the first part of the Parliament of Fowls , is founded on a martial conquest of Femenye that is reportedly complete and, in this telling, unproblematized by the feminine qualities of the hero himself. To this end, the Knight omits a crucial episode in Boccaccio's version, wherein Theseus dallies in Scythia after his marriage to Hippolyta and is summoned back to manly fame and glory in a dream that links immaturity with a comfortable life among foreign women.
The appearance of the Theban widows suggests what the Parliament also sees as somewhat more problematic or as yet unimaginable: that the conquest can and will be continued, and won, on the domestic front. For, among other things, these widows represent the destiny and proper destination of the Amazonian sisters, Hippolyta and Emily. This point is reaffirmed in the center of the poem, in a scene that neatly matches the opening one, when the royal ladies intercede to spare Palamon and Arcite from the wrath of Theseus. Here Hippolyta, now referred to only as "the queene," weeps "for verray wommanhede" (1748); she is joined by Emily and other ladles who collectively cry for mercy "upon us wommen alle" (1757), fall down on their bare knees, and even, the Knight says, "wolde have kist his feet ther as he stood" (1759).
Emily's function in the rest of the story corroborates and develops the repressed narrative about Woman upon which the aristocratic story is founded. She is an unattached Amazon in Athens, and her position here can be compared to Alisoun's in the Miller's Tale in one salient way. Alisoun represents the excessive female sexuality that the Miller, as we shall see, presupposes in his prefatory remarks to the Reeve. So too Emily, as Hippolyta's younger sister, represents an extra female whom Theseus himself cannot marry, but whose sexuality—clearly deadly to at least one knight, and symbolically threatening to the bonds that unify and identify aristocratic men—must be contained by marriage. (Does the story of Theseus's mythic involvement with another pair of sisters, Phaedra and Ariadne, which Chaucer tells in the Legend of Good Women , have any bearing on a reading of the Knight's Theseus? If it does, Emily's meaning in relation to Theseus and the problem of male rivalry is more complicated than I have suggested here.)
The Knight's treatment of Emily plays out both the latent threat of Femenye and the control that Theseus manages, through the elaborate artifice of the tournament, to maintain. The sense that there is something dangerous and (therefore) titillating about Emily is made explicit at least once, however, in the Knight's obscure attraction and resistance to representing her ritual cleansing at the temple of Diana:
This Emelye, with herte debonaire,
Hir body wessh with water of a welle.
But hou she dide hir ryte I dar nat telle,
But it be any thing in general;
And yet it were a game to heeren al.
To hym that meneth wel it were no charge;
But it is good a man been at his large.
This passage has puzzled many modern readers, but seen in the context of this study, it confirms the Knight's wishful and somewhat guilty participation in the old game of trading stories about women that he thinks he is too polite to play, as well as his investment in avoiding the frightening sight of the female body.
Another crucial aspect of the threat that the female body poses to masculine identity and dominance, as we saw in the Parliament of Fowls , is the possibility of a woman's indifference to heterosexual relations. That possibility is prominently added to the Knight's version of this story—added, however, in order to be foreclosed. As other commentators have noted, the Chaucerian Emily differs from her counterpart in Boccaccio in her ignorance of the lovers' interest in her; whereas the Boccaccian lady knows she is being watched, and responds immediately by playing to her audience, Emily is apparently oblivious to the gaze of Palamon and Arcite that seals her fate. Her indifference is sustained, moreover, in her devotions to Diana and her prayer that she may remain chaste. But this indifference is from the beginning of the poem eroded in various ways; Emily's heterosexual desire is constructed so that it can be channeled into marriage.
From the outset, for instance, there are hints that Emily is not quite as resolutely devoted to chastity as she appears to be. When she first appears in the garden, her conventional and necessary susceptibility to romance is suggested by the Knight's indication that this Amazon has been aroused from sleep and led to the garden by her own response to May, the season that "priketh every gentil herte" (1043). May is the traditional time of courtly love, and critics have often suggested that Emily's association with May simply confirms that she is the perfect romance heroine: Donaldson waxes lyrical over Emily as "not only the embodiment of all pretty young girls in the Spring, but a proof that the Spring of pretty young girls is a permanent thing, and that May in their persons will always warm the masculine heart as May warms their hearts and sends them out among the flowers." But Natalie Davis reminds us that in the festive tradition of the Middle Ages in nearby
parts of Europe that she studied, May is also the time of disorder and of female sexual excess. In folk traditions, Davis points out, "Generally May . . . was thought to be a period in which women were powerful, their desires at their most immoderate. As the old saying went, a May bride would keep her husband in yoke all year round. And in fact marriages were not frequent in May." The final turn of Emily's prayer to Diana, similarly, suggests her practical understanding that chastity is only an ideal, not a plausible destiny for a woman, and that it is in her interests to believe that these men want her, that her value is proportional to the male desire she can arouse: if I must marry, she begs, "'Sende me hym that moost desireth me'" (235).
Another strategy for controlling and eroding Emily's indifference involves a series of comments by both the male characters and the storyteller that devalue or question the sincerity of her indifference even as they remark on it. Theseus makes the point most directly and callously in the speech where he forgives Palamon and Arcite for their folly in loving and then observes that the joke is on them. Emily could care less: "'She woot namoore of al this hoote fare, / By God, than woot a cokkow or an hare!'" (1809–10). Theseus's low tone absorbs Emily's potentially disruptive indifference into the game here, presumes its irrelevance to the fact that men will keep on falling in love whether women know it or not, and compares the courtly lady to small birds known for their low-mindedness and selfishness or to minor animals of prey known for their timidity.
One of the Knight's own asides similarly works to call into question the sincerity of Emily's devotion to Diana. Just before his fatal fall, Arcite looks up at his prize, and Emily returns his look: "And she agayn hym caste a freendlich ye / (For wommen, as to speken in comune, / Thei folwen alle the favour of Fortune)" (2679–82). The Knight, like Theseus and Arcite, resorts to the "comune" register when he wants to constitute Emily in terms of her representative status and at the same time suggest her willingness to respond to male desire, her opportunism, and her subjection to Fortune. In effect he is only saying that Emily, like all women, acts on Theseus's dictum and makes a virtue of necessity, but the effect of this policy when enacted by a woman is, in the context of
this tale, quite different. Several lines later, the Knight for once lets women speak for themselves, but in a way that reauthorizes both their status as male property and their own foolish incomprehension of the higher ideals that men serve: the women of Athens, bemoaning Arcite's loss, ask the corpse, "'Why woldestow be deed . . . And haddest gold ynough, and Emelye?'" (2835–36).
The indifference that might be threatening or at least disruptive in a poem like the Parliament of Fowls is thoroughly disallowed by the end of the Knight's Tale , as the conquest of Femenye that we were told we were not going to hear about is actually reenacted inside the gates of Athens through the narrative strategies I have examined. Emily's marriage at the end of the poem not only allies Athens and Thebes but also contains and domesticates the dangerous female excess that an Amazon sister-in-law might represent in Theseus's royal household. Moving on to the Miller's Tale from this vantage, we shall see that Alisoun's response to Nicholas, moving from perfunctory resistance to lusty acquiescence in six lines, restages with all the force of comic foreshortening much the same course that the lengthy Knight's Tale charts, and thus underscores the inevitability of Emily's conquest and the fundamental similarity of the polite and churlish views of Woman.
The Miller's Tale
Just as (the Manciple reminds us) a countess can be laid as low as a peasant girl, a miller (or, at least, Chaucer's Miller) can make a tale to match a knight.
Carl Lindahl, Ernest Games
When Absolon begs Alisoun for a kiss in the dark of the night, she offers him not her mouth, "sweete as bragot or the meeth" (3261), but "hir hole" (3732). Alisoun's substitution of what is perceived as foul for what is described as sweet is a revealing gesture; in more ways than one, it exposes what is usually kept hidden by polite discourse. It seems to confirm what the churlish male storyteller has already suggested: this female character's frank sexuality and animal nature, that "free, instinc-
tive, sensual, untamed" brand of femininity depicted earlier in the Miller's opening barrage of similes comparing Alisoun to animals and other natural or material objects. The Miller expresses this same view of women from the moment he first speaks, even before the tale begins, in the linking matter. In response to the Reeve's objections, he clarifies the presupposition that women's sexual desires are in fact naturally excessive, and the only sure way for a man to avoid being humiliated by female promiscuity is to forgo marriage: "Who hath no wyf, he is no cokewold" (3152). For those with wives, like the Miller himself, he goes on to suggest another strategy. A man may simply close his eyes to the likelihood that he has been cuckolded; "I wol bileve wel that I am noon" (3162). His final generalization reiterates the principle that the inevitable excess of female sexuality should not be looked at too closely by men whose own needs are adequately satisfied (or who wish to believe that that is the case):
An housbonde shal nat been inquisityf
Of Goddes pryvetee, nor of his wyf.
So he may fynde Goddes foyson there,
Of the remenant nedeth nat enquere.
Here, it could be argued, the Miller seems happy enough toaccord women not only sexual desire and experience but also the freedom and privacy to enjoy their sexuality, powers most often denied to women in the plots of Chaucer's fictions as in the authoritative discourse of the Middle Ages in general. Bearing out this unusual attitude, the tale that follows punishes the three male characters for their sensuality and blindness, while Alisoun teases and frolics and giggles and is "swyved" but not hurt in the final fray. Modern critics have almost unanimously relished and praised this "triumph of Alisoun's fresh and lusty animal-
ity," the "entirely successful" performance of "Nature's female." The story has been judged "not only funny but also oddly innocent and imaginatively gay." And Alisoun, like her namesake the Wife of Bath, may represent to many readers Chaucer's unprecedented understanding, defense, and even celebration of female desire.
There is a darker, less liberal and innocent side, however, to the Miller's tolerant, churlish, frank view. What is odd about this tale is not its innocence, but the modern critical insistence on its innocence; and at the risk of displaying that poor sense of humor often attributed to feminist scholars, I want to take this poem seriously by considering what is revealed by Alisoun's prank that is not so funny and not so openly treated by the Miller, this tale, or many of its readers. Most obviously, Alisoun's freedom from punishment, like the Miller's tolerant injunction not to inquire too far into the natural and uncontrollable excess—the "remenant"—of female sexuality, may reflect the familiar judgment that Woman is not immoral but amoral. Her animality is all there is; it is not worth examining a woman's moral or spiritual qualities, the tale implies, because she has none that are available to either correction or representation by husband or storyteller. One recent critic describes Alisoun as "the good they [the three men] have chosen, as innocent in herself as gold or rich food or drink. The choice, not the object, is punished." As this formulation unintentionally (I assume) reveals, Alisoun's "triumph" only further clarifies her objectification and guarantees her erasure. By such a reading, the male characters are, as we might expect, the subjects and agents of the tale and its morality; and they, like their counterparts in the Knight's Tale and like the Miller and the Reeve, are less interested in Alisoun than in besting each other and proving their threatened manliness in ways I shall explore. If I find it hard to see Alisoun, therefore, as a triumphant or liberating or harmless sign of female desire, I find it even more difficult to praise or enjoy, as so many
critics do, the "wholesome sexuality" of a tale in which the more polite of the two male rivals intends and attempts to assault the "pryvetee" of the woman he claims to adore with a red-hot iron blade. I also want to open up for discussion the fact that it is only an accident, a side-effect of Nicholas's intervention in Alisoun's prank, that saves the female from punishment of a particularly vicious sort and ask again the question raised in the Clerk's Tale : Who can be liberated by humor, and at whose expense?
At the same time that I interrogate the significance of the female character's (alleged) freedom to desire and (narrow) escape from judgment, I also want to suggest that this tale does not in fact let the topics of female sexuality and imperiled manhood go quite as easily or lightly as the Miller himself recommends to the Reeve, or as most critics have been eager to do. Reexamining Alisoun's final self-exposure of her "hole," I submit that the Miller's description of her gesture reveals not so much a straightforward representation of a woman's desire, which we might read as either celebratory or dismissive, but the actual and strategic vagueness, or obfuscation, in his portrayal of female "pryvetee," as he at once focuses on and just fails to bring into focus Alisoun's genitals, in a rhetorical move subtly comparable to the Knight's elaborate refusal to say more about Emily's rites in the temple of Diana. In the beginning of the Tale, the Miller speaks quite frankly and unambiguously, it seems, about Alisoun's "queynte," the "woman's external organ" (as the Middle English Dictionary puts it) that Nicholas grabs. What Alisoun exposes to Absolon at the end, however, is referred to as her "hole," a term that may refer either to her anus or to her vaginal orifice.
Reflecting the absence of nomenclature for female sexual organs in the lexicon, the Miller does not distinguish between these two proximate parts of the female anatomy, and it actually remains unclear what Alisoun intends Absolon to kiss, what Absolon does kiss, and what he thinks he has kissed. As far as I know, Chaucer scholars have not pursued this particularly rich case of semantic and structural ambiguity; to do so, however, proves instructive.
Insofar as the word "hole" may refer to Alisoun's vaginal orifice, the Miller seems to be moving onward and inward in his examination of female sexuality, progressing from the "external" organ, the pudendum, to the gateway to internal organs. Most readers seem to have assumed that the "hole" in question, however, is Alisoun's anus. And since this assumption is at once likely and unverifiable, the word "hole" suggests both that the Miller as inspector of woman's private parts is actually in retreat, moving here and in the tale as a whole away from the female genitals, and that his move, moreover, effects the conventional association or conflation of (female) genital and anal functions, of women's sex (or sex with a woman) and dirt, decay, and dissolution.
This association has in fact been assumed, however unself-consciously, by many modern critics. Derek Brewer, for instance, in expressing sympathy for Absolon, notes in the Miller's Tale the "injustice" typical of fabliaux: "They rub the nose of a young man in the dirt , simply because he is fastidious in love" (my emphasis). Earle Birney writes that Absolon "offers up his sweetened effeminate lips to the unsavory bearded female fact " (my emphasis); and V. A. Kolve (reading the pun in line 3754) notes that "though fastidious Absolon may . . . have missed his mark by a few millimeters, the real nature of what he sought has been made unmistakably clear to him" (my emphasis). It is assumed by these scholars that the "fact," the "real nature" of female sexuality is
what Alisoun exposes—that is, its "dirt." By this quite traditional view, the anal and the genital have been confused and hence connected. The reference to Alisoun's "hole" thus succinctly performs the contagious magic at the center of the tale's plot, whereby exposure to the desired "queynte" entails a shocking encounter with female dirt and danger that both sickens and (therefore) heals the lovesick man. Or as the Miller puts it in a pun that semantically pulls "hole" away from the anus and back to the female organ: "His hoote love was coold and al yqueynt" (3754).
The tried and true cure that the Miller provides for lovesick Absolon, however, may be as painful as the disease. For the use of the term "hole" also shifts attention from something that is anatomically female, the "queynte," to something that men have too, something that is anatomically undifferentiated in males and females, the anus. This shift sets up and is writ large by the subsequent substitution of Nicholas's body for Alisoun's, a maneuver that returns agency to the male but in doing so also exposes the humiliating and frightening lack of difference between male and female bodies. While the Miller's semantic strategy realizes an implicitly and conventionally hostile view of women and of sex with women, then, it also returns attention simultaneously to men, to the instability of gender difference, and hence to the particular problem that the Knight's Tale , from a different angle, also tackles: the vulnerability of masculine identity.
Nicholas and Absolon compete with each other and with John for sexual access to Alisoun, and, true to type, the male rivals actually demonstrate less interest in the female object of their alleged desire than in their own gender and class identity and hence their relations to each other in a closed sphere of male activity. Alisoun herself may seem most important to the uxorious John, whose first thought, when he believes the second flood is coming, is "Allas, my wyf!" (3522). John, however, is the least developed of the male characters and the biggest fool of the three; moreover, his explicit motivation for cherishing Alisoun (and therefore keeping her "narwe in cage," 3224), according to the beginning of the tale, is his jealousy and his expectation that other men will makee
him into a cuckold (3224–26) and thus disprove the manhood that the old man's possession of the young wife is meant to confirm. Absolon and Nicholas, the more fully characterized males in the story, are in their respective roles of bachelor and clerk excluded from the possession of a wife and so even more in need of proving their manhood through Alisoun, and it is possible to see in some detail how and why they struggle—with only partial success—to do so.
Absolon is the more obviously worried about his manliness, for he is the effeminate man par excellence. Other critical studies have already detailed the ways in which Absolon is "too ladylike" and have located the sources of his characterization in patristic readings of the biblical Absalom and in the figure of Mirth in Le Roman de la Rose . Most often such studies suggest that the purpose of Chaucer's emphasis on Absolon's effeminacy is both humor and "organic unity"; his squeamishness, it is thought, makes Alisoun's joke all the more fitting. Attention to the carefully narrated details of his response to actual contact with Alisoun's "hole"—with the general neighborhood, at least, of the female parts he presumably desires—suggests, however, that Absolon figures underlying issues that make effeminacy a source of both masculine humor and masculine anxiety: in general the fluidity and instability of gender difference, and in particular the possibilities of homosexuality and castration.
After kissing Alisoun's "naked ers/Ful savourly" (3734–35), the kneeling Absolon jumps up:
Abak he stirte, and thoughte it was amys,
For wel he wiste a womman hath no berd.
He felte a thyng al rough and long yherd,
And seyde, "Fy! allas! what have I do?"
His first vague thought that something is wrong, because he knows women don't have beards, suggests that what's immediately upsetting is the apparent displacement of what he thought was a certain and visible sign of fixed sexual difference; it may also suggest that he hasn't had much experience with certain parts of the female body. It may imply, too, that Absolon wonders initially whether he has kissed a man's face, rather than a woman's—that the fear of homoerotic experience is uppermost in his mind. At another level the subsequent actuality of an unwitting homosexual exchange—the branding of Nicholas—is also anticipated by the initial reference to the secondary male sex characteristic.
Then Absolon overhears Alisoun sniggering and Nicholas repeating the word that most directly indicts Absolon's confusion: "'A berd, a berd!' quod hende Nicholas" (3742). At this point Absolon seems to realize whom, or at least what, he has in fact kissed, and he responds by furiously biting and scouring his polluted lips: "Who rubbeth now, who froteth now his lippes/With dust, with sond, with straw, with clooth, with chippes" (3747–48). This hysterical response indicates his deep sense of the foulness of Alisoun's "hole" and the self-scourging that contact with this dirt demands. After he vows revenge (3744–52)—using precisely the term that the Host and Miller have used, in the linking matter, to speak of the verbal competition, "'I shal thee quyte'"(3746)—the narrator tells us he has been "heeled of his maladie" (3757) and that he weeps "as clooth a child that is ybete" (3759).
This last simile is particularly telling, for it suggests that Absolon feels both infantilized and punished by oral contact with female "pryvetee." The Freudian fiction seems to be anticipated here. Absolon is like the putatively generic little boy who sees female genitals for the first time (and his childishness has already been suggested in line 3704, in his parody of the Song of Solomon: "'I moorne as dooth a lamb after the tete'"). The boy-child has in this case felt, although not seen, the lack that seems to mark the place of women's sexual organs, and his response indicates both guilt and fear for his own as yet unproven difference and dominance, his phallus. Like his initial confusion (and like the subsequent interchangeability of male and female posteriors), this reaction identifies what is most disturbing: the actual and feared lack of distinction between women and men, which in turn suggests the related possibilities of castration and homosexuality.
A relation between (the fear of) castration, homosexual behavior, and the rape or mutilation of the female (who is presented in this tale as definitely asking for it) is equally clearly brought out in the revenge Absolon hastens to enact. Absolon borrows a hot "kultour"—the iron blade at the front of a plough—from his friend Gervase, the blacksmith, and his own professional skills, we may remember, include barbering (and hence surgery). Gervase has been taken as a figure of "plain masculinity" who serves to confirm that Absolon may be effeminate, but not homosexual: according to Cornelius Novelli, "one never supposes that Absolon has anything but a masculine desire for women." But what happens afterwards problematizes modern efforts to distinguish homosexual desire so clearly from "masculine desire." It seems plausible that Absolon urgently, stealthily, and seriously seeks out the masculinity represented by the smith, who swears and makes jokes about Absolon's lovemaking, because this masculinity is indeed what was already at risk in his squeamishness and parodic courtly behavior and what Alisoun's gesture has openly challenged. He borrows the violent maleness, the phallus-as-weapon, that the coulter symbolizes simultaneously to avenge and display his vulnerable manhood. The choice of instruments, incidentally, also takes us back to the sexualized terminology used both to differentiate and to link as gendered male the approaches and motives to narrative taken by the Miller and the Knight. Absolon realigns himself with the phallic Miller, who ambiguously swears that he won't believe he's a cuckold "for the oxen in my plogh" (3159), instead of with the "gentil" knight whose first use of occupatio ends with the allegation that "wayke been the oxen in my plough" (887).
But what Absolon does with the borrowed blade of the plough is not exactly what he apparently intends to do; he is fooled again in a second moment of even more explicit gender confusion and cross-undressing. His reaction to the first substitution of Alisoun's "hole" for her mouth indicates that Absolon's effeminacy is an outward sign of the precariousness of masculine desire in the ways I have suggested; the second substitution of Nicholas's private parts for Alisoun's blocks Absolon from
affirming his masculinity through violence against the woman who has humiliated him. It is no accident that the actual recipient of Absolon's blade—the surrogate of his imagined, frustrated desire for a woman—is a man, and a man in a social position very similar to his own in many ways; and this turn of events has several interesting consequences. It frustrates the effort to prove manliness and emphasizes the ambiguities of gender difference, and it further unmans and humiliates the effeminate male both by demonstrating that he is not even capable of taking revenge against a woman and by forcing him to engage unwittingly in an act that must suggest sodomy. At the same time, the substitution of Nicholas for Alisoun, together with the tale's humorous treatment of the episode, covers up the will to violence against women that is represented in Absolon's case as an effect of male fear and sexual anxiety.
It should be emphasized, however, that such violence, as in the Knight's Tale , is occluded but never denied or condemned. Because nothing happens to Alisoun, readers never seem to notice what Absolon intended to do with the hot coulter, and Absolon's cruel and exaggerated retribution for the woman's practical joke is both presented and read as a normal, appropriate response by a man whose masculinity has not been able to express itself honestly and naturally: as Kolve, for instance, puts it, "The hairy kiss restores him to his proper person, ending the make-believe and role playing . . ." (my emphasis). Finally, the inefficacy of the effeminate man's sudden conversion to violent misogyny also indicates one aspect of the actual illogic of extreme woman-hating, for the more women are the overt target of male hatred, the more their centrality and power over men is implied. (This point is quite overtly addressed, as we shall see, in the Merchant's Tale .) Nicholas's intervention in the plot allows the tale to sidestep this issue, however, and to reaffirm that the only real social and moral agents are male.
In arguing for the importance of the fact that the actual recipient of Absolon's blade is male, however, I do not want to lose sight of the fact
that Nicholas's part in the joke foregrounds the way in which his own masculinity is also put into question by this tale. Nicholas has often been taken as the antithesis of Absolon, a type even of "uncomplicated male maturity." But in fact the "hende" clerk reflects the same complicated lack of certain manliness that Absolon flaunts. Most dramatically, the substitution of his body for Alisoun's discloses that the region of the female's private parts is, in the dark night of this tale, interchangeable with the male's: what might seem to be a grounding line of gender difference is thus blurred. When Nicholas puts himself literally in the woman's exposed position here, he may intend to tap into her power and her immunity to one-up his rival, and, as I have said, he certainly reappropriates the role of prankster and agent that Alisoun has momentarily played. But at the same time he acts out the feminization he too, only slightly less obviously than and in different ways from Absolon, has displayed throughout the tale.
"Hende Nicholas" is first described as "sleigh and ful privee" (3201), with a wiliness and secrecy more often associated, in other fabliaux as in the Miller's opening comments on women's "pryvetee," with women. In the same couplet, he is, like other clerks, literally described as feminine and/or virginal in demeanor: "lyk a mayden meke for to see" (3202; compare the last words that Absolon speaks before he is cured: "'I may nat ete na moore than a mayde'"). His unequivocal and direct lust for Alisoun would seem designed to contradict this maidenly appearance: the first words he speaks, while grabbing his land-
lord's wife "by the queynte," are: "'Ywis, but if ich have my wille,/For deerne love of thee, lemman, I spille'" (3277–78). The action and texture of the tale, like the formulaic nature of his words, reveal, however, that his real interest lies elsewhere, in his own "queynte" skills, his clever tricks. When an intrusively parenthetical reference interrupts the narrative of his first approach to Alisoun, the conflation of female genitals and clerkly ingenuity is blatantly signaled in the dissolution of rhyming difference into mere repetition and synonymity:
. . . this hende Nicholas
Fil with this yonge wyf to rage and pleye,
Whil that hir housbonde was at Oseneye,
As clerkes ben ful subtile and ful queynte;
And prively he caughte hire by the queynte . . .
Note, moreover, that the ruse Nicholas cooks up will not provide him with what he professes to want, gratification of his alleged desire for Alisoun, on a routine basis. In fact, his cleverness is bound to be found out, or at best to work only once, and to destroy John's dim-witted faith in the "queynte" clerk as completely as it verifies his instinctive distrust of his wife's "queynte."
What Nicholas's scheming does offer him, more than a single night in possession of Alisoun's "queynte," is the chance to prove that he is "queynte," that he can play the parts of both actor and director in this once-in-a-lifetime performance of an elaborate and supremely tellable, highly formulaic drama, in which the "hende" clerk once more outwits the old married fool. The energy of the narration in the tale matches and defines the energy of Nicholas not as sexual but as authorial. He plans in splendid detail and complication for an actual sexual encounter that is itself described in less than ten lines (3650–56). By one reading, then, what is excessive in this story is neither female sexuality nor sex itself, but fiction-making.
Fiction-making, moreover, is not a gender-neutral activity, and both the benefits and risks of authorial daring and excess are clearly (re)attached to questions of gender, sexuality, and power at the end of the tale. While Nicholas is literally feminized, and literalizes his feminization in the ways I have suggested, he also does his best to reaffirm gender hierarchy and restore the action to a competition between men. His substitution of his male body for Alisoun's female body, his "ers"
exposed instead of hers, preempts the woman's initiative, just as it seems to disambiguate the earlier reference to Alisoun's "hole." Even in play, or perhaps especially in play, it seems that the female cannot be left in the unsuitable role of agent for long; what is exposed, whether it is the similarity or difference between queynte (n.) and queynte (adj.), is too dangerous. As a result of his appropriation of her attempted joke, Alisoun escapes the retribution that would too clearly mark the fact that women can't defend themselves with humor, as men can, that they can't merely refuse to suffer. She is also refixed in a position that is clearly marginal to the action and the message of the tale and that is now even passive. For when she is referred to in the closing recapitulation—"Thus swyved was this carpenters wyf" (3850)—Nature's female has suddenly become the grammatical object of the verb and a nameless possession of her husband in a way that does not seem to reflect what we saw earlier of Alisoun any more than it supports a reading of her as "triumphant."
Nicholas's punishment is in part the price he pays for reasserting his control and firmly ousting the woman from the position of visible importance and potential liberation she momentarily occupies; however, the price might have been higher. He is merely "scalded in the towte" (3853), and while it hurts so much that "he wende for to dye" (3813), a few lines later he is perfectly capable of more self-defensive jesting, running into the street to make everyone in town laugh at John. Just as the near miss of Absolon's attack on Alisoun obscures the reality and the horror of male violence against women, so too Nicholas has a near miss, if we think about it, one that suggests that if he is not really like a maiden to begin with, he comes close to being like one in the end. If the hot iron of Absolon "brende . . . his toute," then those same few millimeters that separate (and connect) Alisoun's two holes save him from castration, the fate of so many other promiscuous medieval clerks, real and fictional.
Nicholas's potential castration, like Alisoun's rape or mutilation or the sodomy of Absolon's attack, lurks not at some deep level in this tale but quite close to the surface, where it clarifies part of the threat to masculine
identity that the Miller's story recognizes and averts; and yet no castration, rape, or sodomy is literally said to take place. The humorous substitution of the male body for the female body, again, together with the sudden, tightly closed denouement, occludes the consequences for women of male anger and anxiety, and for men of the vicious circle of feminization. The Miller has warned against inquiring into a woman's "pryvytee," and the tale follows and proves the wisdom of his counsel. By deflecting attention from Alisoun's threatening self-exposure as he does—blurring the focus to begin with by the use of the word "hole," and then replacing Alisoun altogether—he mystifies and averts the threats that any representation of female sexuality seems to entail: the feminization of the man who tells "queynte" stories, as well as both the homoerotic and self-mutilating aspects of male competition for the "queynte" of a woman.
But God forbede that we stynte heere.
The Cook's Prologue , 4339
At first glance, the Knight and the Miller might appear to be as different in their attitudes toward women as the pairs of male rivals within their tales—Palamon, devoted to Venus, and Arcite, follower of Mars; courteous Absolon and "hende" Nicholas—are different. In other words, disagreement within each tale between men who view Woman as goddess and those who view her as "creature" seems to be restaged between the two tales. But the differences between antithetical discourses about Woman are flattened out by the narratives in which they are embedded, in the respective tales and in the meta-tale in which each storyteller also takes part. Palamon and Arcite, never as far apart as the other rivals, are elaborately yet easily reconciled, and on his deathbed the latter putatively proves his nobility and his true bond with his brother through the generous transmission of Emily. Absolon and Nicholas, at the end of the Miller's Tale , parody the consolidating exchange of a gift, whereby Emily is equated with a fart, and their perspectives on Alisoun also draw literally and figuratively closer and perhaps even cross. So too the tale-tellers, the Knight and the Miller, are not as different as they seem; in fact, when we look more closely at their representations of women and their definitions of Woman in the ways I have suggested here, we may see their common interests and the collective effect of their two tales, the first two blows exchanged in the Canterbury tournament.
Most prominently, the first two tales similarly inscribe violence against women at the margins of their respective plots—in what happens just before Arcite and Palamon's story begins, and in what nearly happens at the end of the Miller's—so that this violence frames the tales as a pair. Moreover, what the Knight doesn't have time to talk about, like Emily's rites in the temple of Diana, is often equivalent to what the Miller doesn't want to inquire too closely into, like Alisoun's (or his wife's) sexuality: again, women are thereby characterized in divers ways as fundamentally dangerous in the world just outside or narrowly averted by each narrative. The ideals that contain women in the polite genre and the joke that lets women go in the churlish genre direct attention away from the remote violence and the threats it brackets. In each tale, moreover, women's initially marked presence—in the foreshortened story of the conquest of Femenye and in the prefatory encounter with the Theban widows, as in the rhetorically rich opening portrait of Alisoun—is gradually recast as absence. At the same time, each narrative moves to confirm the most orthodox medieval view of Woman, her fleshly, fallen reality; and, given the ordering of the tales, the progressive movement from the apparent idealism of the Knight's treatment of Emily to the apparent, although equally formulaic, realism of the Miller's representation of Alisoun also validates the Miller's highly conventional view as real, as frank and open and natural. This reiterated movement, from presence to absence and from ideal to real, accounts for the seemingly paradoxical cultural alignment of female absence and reality, of Woman as both marginal and material.
At the same time that the contrast between the paired, sequentially presented genres thus effects a sense of what is true about women, the way each of these tales also defies certain generic conventions and interacts with the other manages the potential for female presence and power more securely than either genre might in isolation. Fabliau elements in the courtly tale, including the rivalry of the two male courtly lovers and the tone of some of Arcite's, Theseus's, and the narrator's remarks, establish both the marginalization and the lack of spirituality in Woman. Courtly elements in the fabliau, such as the narrator's long
portrait of his heroine or the language of Absolon's wooing, parody the rhetorical elevation of Woman to confirm that Emily and Alisoun are not so different "under their clothes."
Taking the tales together, however, it is also possible to see the instability in both genres or positions that is opened up by the topic of Woman and the hazardous, irresistible urge to inquire into (and thus try to control) female sexuality. The importance of the idealized lady for whom men fight and die in the courtly model, for instance, calls into question the Miller's claim that the problem is so easily solved by looking the other way, that women can be "swyved" and disregarded as moral or legal agents. When Alisoun takes the initiative to trick and humiliate Absolon, it is telling that she is called to the window by his own pseudocourtly summoning: polite love in fiction grants women just the kind of power that Alisoun perversely wields, momentarily at least. The churlish view—again, appearing by virtue of its contrasting tone and content as well as its place in the sequence to offer the real, natural view—thus provides a pervasive exposure of what the Knight's Tale might on its own cover up more successfully. The character of Absolon, in particular, focuses attention on what the Knight really does refuse to talk about, the risk of effeminacy for men in polite attitudes toward women and in excessively courtly behavior. Absolon follows the logic of a Palamon, as it were, to its logical absurdity, and he is both punished and apparently locked out of the heterosexual gratification that is made available, at last, to the patient yet stalwart nobleman. Nicholas's feminization suggests the more successful usurpation of feminine strategies, the substitution of his "queynte" wits for her "queynte," to return moral agency to males. But in creating Nicholas as a type of storyteller, the Miller's Tale firmly and irrevocably destabilizes the clear gender difference and the possibility of unstrained male bonds that were reinforced by the Knight's Tale .
Such destabilization and play with the fluidity of gender need not, and in this case does not, empower women or alter the fundamental drive to define Woman in a familiar way. The function of misogyny in the fourteenth-century literary text may thus be comparable to what Peter Stallybrass finds over two centuries later in English court drama. Stallybrass argues that contradictory conceptions of woman's body in early modern England reflect "the contradictory formation of woman ["women-as-the-same" and "women-as-different"] within the categories of gender and of class." In the interests of differentiating among classes, Stallybrass argues, women may also be differentiated, so that "those in
the dominant social classes are allocated privileges they can confer (status, wealth) . . . back on men ." Oppressed groups, on the other hand, may attack aristocratic privilege by denying the class differentiation of women, constructing "women-as-the-same." But the potentially subversive conflation of women as different into "a single undifferentiated group," such as I see in the Miller's and Knight's tales, is, Stallybrass adds, "commonly articulated within misogynistic discourse."
The Miller's challenge to certain aspects of the Knight's vision of men and the social order they make tends to open up the fictions of aristocratic masculine identity to discourse (between men) across class divisions on the question of women. Despite the Miller's unchivalric view of what male bonds might amount to, then, the possibility of male bonding across class lines is precisely what is affirmed by the first two tales. And the Miller explicitly introduces Alisoun, taken as "Nature's female," as the woman for whom men of different ranks can feel common masculine desire, even as they have sexual relations with her in class-specific ways: "She was a prymerole, a piggesnye, / For any lord to leggen in his bedde, / Or yet for any good yeman to wedde" (3268–70). The gender disorder and feminization of the storyteller subsequently imagined by the Miller makes possible class satire and sustains the leveling discourse about women that enables these genres to interpenetrate so easily and these two stories to cohere so neatly.
For potentially divergent reasons, both genres and both tales seem to wish profoundly that it were as they try to say it is: that masculine identity and male bonds were possible without the problematics of what I have called the woman outside—the overt markedness and power, in different specific articulations, of the feminine position in both courtly romance and fabliaux—and the woman inside—the covert universalization of the negative feminine position that we see throughout the Canterbury Tales . What predictably seems to horrify and titillate men in both the Knight's Tale and the Miller's Tale is the thought, and/or the sight, of what women look like "under their clothes": we can call this, as Freud does, "the fright of castration," or, as I have been calling it, the perception and fear of gender instability, a lack not of the phallus but of stable sexual differentiation, and the consequent charges, for men, of male
homosexuality and feminization. In the Canterbury Tales men loathe, fear, and deny Woman because their efforts to construct masculine identity and discursive authority on the ground of Woman as Other, as properly and stably different, are constantly necessitated and undermined by the experience of both Woman and women as the same, of their own femininity as a function of both external circumstances and inherent, unruly nature. Concomitantly, what is really excessive is not (only) female sexuality but (also) authorial energy—the elaborateness of the Knight's rhetoric or of Nicholas's scheme—which displaces but does not finally conceal the anxiety about manliness that any representation of Woman entails.
Such excessiveness reappears in the remaining tales of the A-fragment, the Reeve's Tale and fragmentary Cook's Tale , and in closing I would like to sketch out some ways in which these works might be more fully explored along the lines I have laid out here. Although the Reeve says that he is out to "quite" the Miller, in several respects his tale resembles and rewrites the Knight's offering more than it does the Miller's, while at the same time it sustains the Miller's interest in what men of different classes have in common. The Reeve's story of (yet again) three male characters—the miller Symkyn, and the two clerks, John and Aleyn—restages the familiar contest between the old man who legitimately possesses a woman and the young men who don't; readers of the tales as a sequence might at this point begin to wonder if there were any other plot. The Reeve himself and the Knight's Theseus share a common trait, their "ire" (compare, for example, 1762 and 3862), and the Reeve's miller of Trumpyngtoun more closely resembles the Duke of Athens than old John the carpenter. Both Symkyn and Theseus have legal control over two women, in the miller's case a wife and a daughter, in the Duke's case a wife and a sister-in-law. Just as Theseus's marriage to Hippolyta represents proof of his aristocratic male prowess, Symkyn's marriage, in keeping with his far lower rank, is intended "To saven his estaat of
yomanrye" (3949); and in his later concern for the shame of his daughter, "that is come of swich lynage" (4272), the Reeve's miller also replicates the dynastic anxieties of Arcite and Palamon. Theseus's use of Emily to stabilize his patriarchal rule is further parodied by the Reeve's Tale in the otherwise extraneous character of the miller's father-in-law, a parson about whom we know nothing except that his corruption extends to his ludicrous desire to arrange his granddaughter's marriage "for to bistowe hire hye / Into som worthy blood of auncetrye; . . . Therfore he wolde his hooly blood honoure, / Though that he hooly chirche sholde devoure" (3981–86).
Theseus's reputation for martial prowess, born out by the beginning of the tale, is also matched and defined, in a reductive sense, by the portrait of formidable Symkyn that opens the Reeve's Tale . Never to be caught like Absolon without a blade, this miller bears a profusion of swords and knives on his belt and in his pouch and hose:
Ay by his belt he baar a long panade,
And of a swerd ful trenchant was the blade.
A joly poppere baar he in his pouche;
Ther was no man, for peril, dorste hym touche.
A Sheffeld thwitel baar he in his hose.
And the tournament Theseus arranges is patently reenacted in the struggle with staves at the end of the tale.
More like Arcite and Palamon than like Nicholas and Absolon, too, the young men in the triangular schema of the Reeve's plot, the "testif" (4004) John and Aleyn, come from "o toun" (4014). They are related through both a kind of brotherhood, an alliance of age and class interests in the hope of besting the miller (and representing the all-male institution, a college at Canterbury, whose tights they hope to protect, just as Arcite and Palamon represent Thebes), and a competitive engagement to each other. John openly casts this low form of chivalric rivalry as a jealous concern for his own reputation," 'when this jape is tald another day'" (4207), and thus implicates storytelling and masculine sexual adventure. So too it is precisely the urge to tell—comparable to Palamon's odd confession to Theseus in the grove—that initiates the final pseudotournament/brawl, when Aleyn cannot resist boasting of his conquest of the miller's daughter to the wrong bedfellow.
The female characters in the Reeve's Tale may also recall Emily in that they are much less realistic than Alisoun appears to be, and the extent
of their interest in sexual play is at least slightly ambiguous, like Emily's. Symkyn's unnamed wife and his daughter, Malyne, are more overtly than ever the means by which men compete and prove their masculinity and power over each other; the initial conflict between the clerks and the Miller, notably, is about grain, and the thieving Symkyn's wife and daughter are explicitly referred to as the "esement" (4179) to which the cheated clerks claim a legal tight. Male sexual gratification is subordinated to and conflated with other male entitlements: money, possessions, and professional honor. The women do seem to enjoy sex, although Mrs. Symkyn's pleasure is referred to only in a line that dearly serves to cast aspersions on the husband's sexual capacity: "So myrie a fit ne hadde she nat ful yoore" (4230). The Reeve's description of the rape of Malyne, who is presumably a virgin, hints at her unseemly, instantaneous pleasure, but speaks of her potential pain in a way that both reminds us of it and belittles it: "This wenche . . . faste slepte / Til he so ny was, er she myghte espie, / That it had been to late for to crie, / And shortly for to seyn, they were aton" (4194–97). Malyne also recalls the romance heroine more than Alisoun when she almost weeps in saying farewell to her "goode lemman" (4247); in this same speech, however, her effective purpose is to betray her father by telling the clerk where to find the cake that has been made out of his stolen meal. So too, when the more well-intentioned wife mistakes her husband's bald head for a clerk's nightcap and smites Symkyn "at the fulle" (4305), we see most clearly of all what both the Knight and the Miller have been able to obscure but not overcome in their tales: women are literally as well as metaphorically dangerous, wittingly or unwittingly, because even very different men sometimes look too much alike.
Were we to go on in this vein, moreover, to the Cook's Prologue and Tale , we would be able to see the only possible outcome that the tales can imagine to all this quiting and requiting among male storytellers. The Cook's response to the Reeve's Tale acknowledges the bonds of pleasure, mutual irritation, and reciprocal service between male comrades that such tale-telling affords: "For joye him thoughte he clawed him on the bak" (4326). And when the Cook encapsulates and focuses what he sees as the moral of the Reeve's story, using a proverb from Solomon, his comment in fact spells out the link between all three preceding tales:
"Ne bryng nat every man into thyn hous";
For herberwynge by nyghte is perilous.
Wel oghte a man avysed for to be
Whom that he broghte into his pryvetee.
In these very different versions of the domestic crisis, all three older men have found it threatening to bring younger men into their houses (or their prison towers) at night. The Cook refocuses attention on what is at stake: not only access to the women's "pryvetee" that is guarded within the domestic walls, and from which Knight and Miller both explicitly avert their eyes even as they wish to take a quick, thrilling peep, but also men's "pryvetee"; and when the gender changes, "privacy" also changes from a question of sexuality to a matter of place and property.
The Cook wants more of the same back-scratching—"But God forbede that we stynte heere" (4339)—and his call for an endless proliferation of authorial voices, all saying the same thing, reminds us as in the Miller's Tale and the Knight's Tale that what is excessive is a certain kind of masculine fiction-making, in which Woman is both quintessential fiction and inescapable, unspeakable reality. What we have of his own tale also suggests endless repetition of the same thing, the joke about the cuckolded husband, as the Cook sets up the story of a riotous servant—something of a cross, if possible, between Absolon and Symkyn—who is going to be taken into another man's house by night. These are the last five lines of the A-fragment:
Anon he sente his bed and his array
Unto a compeer of his owene sort,
That lovede dys, and revel, and disport.
And hadde a wyf that heeld for contenance
A shoppe, and swyved for Mr sustenance.
The last line leaves us with another strong verbal echo of (the end of) the Miller's Tale —"Thus swyved was this carpenteris wyf . . . ," although "swyved" in the Cook's Tale is an intransitive verb, rather than a participle, of which the wife is the subject. The Cook doesn't want to stop, and the literal fact that there is no end to this degenerative sequence of tales must be read as accidental. The repetition seems at the same time to effect a kind of curtailment that is highly appropriate. The in-
completion of the tale and thus of the sequence as a whole implies on one hand that there can be no end to such tale-telling and on the other hand that we have finally reached natural closure in this hardly newsworthy vision of the real truth that underlies men's dreams and jokes, that unifies and divides them across age and class differences: women are prostitutes. This is the common denominator, the familiar, traditional definition of Woman that is exchanged and fixed by the opening voices of the Canterbury Tales , as they look away from the violence against women on which the sequence is founded and instead lead the way into reality, defined here as the inevitable and progressive disillusioning of Palamon's painfully naive view that the woman in the garden is a goddess.