Women, Nature, and Language
Here we see another good illustration of the original sin of all metaphysics, the attempt to read real or alleged features of language into the world.
John Searle, Speech Acts
That the Legend of Good Women is above all a collection of stories, an experiment in short narrative, Robert Frank reminded us nearly two decades ago in his rhetorical study of the poem. The reminder usefully warns against an approach to the Legend that is especially tempting in a period of renewed interest in literary theory and Chaucerian poetics, and one to which numerous scholars have succumbed: I mean the temptation to concentrate on the Prologue as a poetic credo, while ignoring or minimizing the legends. The Prologue is a poetic credo, but not a freestanding one. It introduces the legends that follow, and its fiction motivates their production. If that fiction constitutes a statement of poetic principles, then the poetry it generates can be seen as the manifestation of those principles. I believe that Prologue and legends are related as theory and practice. The legends exemplify a theory of literary production, which is defined in the Prologue in a variety of indirect ways. Whether we call this theory a poetic or an aesthetic, it includes a great deal more than what we now consider proper to either aesthetics or poetics. I shall call it an aesthetic of nature.
The other dimension of what follows begins as an addendum to Frank's reminder. It is the observation that the Legend of Good Women is above all a collection of stories about women. One is led, then, to ask why Chaucer should have chosen, as the test, demonstration, or praxis of his aesthetic of nature, the literary representation of women. The answer closest at hand is that that is what some of his important sources had done. The trouble with answers closest at hand, though, is that they often do little more than defer the question. In this case, that there were antecedents is no sufficient an-
swer, for we should then have to interrogate Ovid's Heroides about its representational strategies, and likewise Boccaccio's collection De mulieribus Claris. And the answers would differ from case to case, for we cannot assume identity of purpose among exemplars in a diachronically dispersed generic or representational tradition. My aim, therefore, is to problematize the obvious, which always seems less problematic than the obscure, but which—as Roland Barthes showed in Mythologies and elsewhere—constitutes the ideologyladen language of a culture.
Nature, Language, Women
I want to begin in res medias, with a passage from the Prologue that, like so many of Chaucer's rhetorical flights, crystallizes, in miniature, the issues and meanings of the whole work. They are issues of language, nature, and women, and their imbricated relations create a densely textured, multilayered textual fabric. The mise en abîme I have in mind is the description of the spring season, lines 125–52 in the F text. The passage opens with a short, vivid dramatic scene or enargia : the warfare of winter against earth, and the rescue of earth by the sun.
Forgeten hadde the erthe his pore estat
Of wynter, that hym naked made and mat,
And with his swerd of cold so sore greved;
Now hath th'atempre sonne all that releved,
That naked was, and clad him new agayn.
This elaborates an earlier passage from the Book of the Duchess:
Hyt [the erthe] had forgete the povertee
That wynter, thorgh hys colde morwes,
Had mad hyt suffre, and his sorwes;
All was forgeten, and that was sene,
For al the woode was waxen grene;
Swetnesse of dew had mad hyt waxe.
The struggle of personified seasons in the amplified Legend version recalls the marvelous passage in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (fitt 2, stanzas 1–2) describing the progress of the seasonal cycle. In both
places, personification conveys a sense of dynamic purposiveness in nature. But personification of natural process is a rhetorical device fraught with ideological implications. It carries a sense of that "commerce twixt heaven and earth," that "traffique" whose loss John Donne would lament some two and a quarter centuries later in "The First Anniversary." It is a kind of mutual transferability that lets us believe we observe ourselves writ large in nature, and nature writ small in our human selves. The trope is a rhetorical consequence, one might say, of the theory of correspondence between microcosm and macrocosm, that series of interlocking metaphorical registers that was the foundation of traditional political theory, natural philosophy, and medicine. This ideology found perhaps its clearest practical expression in the sixth-century Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, with their intense desire for connection between word and meaning, word and thing. Amor (love) is derived from amus (hook) because love entraps us like a hook. The spider is called aranea because it is generated from air; and so on. The history of correspondence as a basis for language theory or sign theory extends from Plato (especially the Cratylus ) through Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas.
The paronomasia in the penultimate line of the passage—relieved/ re-leaved—is more obvious in G's version, where the mention of greenery in the last line ("And clothed hym in grene al newe ageyn" [G 117]) becomes a fairly blatant hint. Now pun, or paronomasia ,
does in small what allegory does on a larger scale: it holds in equilibrium two lines of interpretation. Here, the wordplay duplicates linguistically the two-level operation of the little allegorical scene to which it belongs. In this sense, the pun itself is a metaphor, not by virtue of its content, but by virtue of its method, its structural and functional resemblance to the larger construct; that is, its ability to balance two levels of meaning.
In another way the wordplay operates thematically, its method and its content recreating the stable instability of nature that is the explicit content of the passage: the equilibrated alternation of the seasonal cycle. Finally, the polysemous word—the signifier with multiple signifieds—represents a condition of plenitude. It does not destroy the relation of words with things but rather fulfills it, literally fills it full, as do Isidore's multiple etymologies for a single word. In doing so, language is once again true to nature, for nature was created as full as it possibly could have been. We may observe the principle of plenitude at work in both microcosm and macrocosm, in nature and in language. In multiple ways, then, this tiny bit of equivocal language imitates equivocal reality. Through this use of language and others noted above, we begin to see that the Prologue is developing a concept of language as itself resembling nature, language perhaps as an aspect of nature. The implications of this concept for the poem as a whole, and its relation to the literary representation of women, will become evident further on.
Already, then, the nature of language and of the linguistic sign is inscribed as a subtext in some of the rhetoric Chaucer has used in the short passage from the Legend quoted above. It was a problem that also occupied philosophers of language throughout the Middle Ages. Is language a natural phenomenon or is it arbitrarily consensual? Is a word signa dei, flatus vocis, or some compromise? The controversy—recorded in Plato's Cratylus —was carried, during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, in competing theories of modist and terminist grammarians. Jan Pinborg describes the modist approach as follows: it assumed
that language, thought, and things are isomorphic with one another: the elements of any one of these three systems correspond to the elements of both the others in their internal relations¼ . According to this "modistic" analysis words are endowed with an immutable meaning, derived from the original imposition of words to signify
something specific, which can be influenced by context not at all, or only to a strictly limited degree¼ . The modistae tried to bridge the gap between words and objects by various kinds of entities¼ . partaking both in the nature of signs and the nature of objects. And so, unavoidably, they ran into the trouble of all picture-theories: the construction of "bridging" entities could go on ad infinitum since there is no real tertium comparationis between objects, concepts and words. In the years after 1300 these difficulties caused considerable tension which gradually undermined the theory. (21–22)
The work of terminist or nominalist opponents of this approach—scholars like Jean Buridan, William of Ockham, Pierre d'Ailly, and Johannes Aurifaber—has received far less attention than that of the modists. Nonetheless, from what has been done, it is possible to deduce that the essence of the anti-modist position was to emphasize the truth-value of propositions and to reject the existence of "modes of signification" as something distinct from signifier or signified. Terminist theory "therefore displayed what has been called a contextual approach, that is, it attended to the precise function and reference the term actually had in the proposition analyzed" (ibid.).
That Chaucer was no scholastic could not impede his awareness of the general problems of signification, any more than it could hinder his absorption, in broad outline, of the epistemological speculation of his day (see Chapter 1). Both as practicing poet and as reader of Augustine, Chaucer had to confront the nature of signification. Moreover, one of the most important works of medieval literature and one of Chaucer's most fertile sources—the Roman de la rose —poses the problem of signification both implicitly and explicitly. The implicit method occurs, as Daniel Poirion points out, in the first part: Guillaume de Lorris's use of codified courtly language, and his use of dream (which signifies the allegory, which signifies a truth). Jean de Meun, on the other hand, uncomfortable with both allegory and courtly love, exemplifies the crise de signification that French literature would experience during the thirteenth century. This is accomplished most obviously in the famous discussion of Reason's use of the word coilles (testicles) in her account of Saturn's fall(RR 6871 ff.). "Voilà une souriante leçon de philosophie de langage!" comments Poirion, a lesson in which is evident "ce cou-
rant nominaliste qui se caractérise par l'opposition entre res et vox" (173).
The poetic proposed in Chaucer's Prologue and exemplified in the legends plays with notions of language and meaning, as I want to show in my exegesis of the passage at hand. That the text of the poem hovers in the space of what Jacques Derrida has called différance may account for the difficulty scholars have had in reading and interpreting it. One finds in the poem the play of differing/deferring/deference between—on one hand—the ideals of a pristine, stable, absolute, and paradigmatic langue, and—on the other—the realities of fallen, contingent, infinitely variable parole. The signifying system or code in which this disjunctive play occurs may be language, ethics, literature, love, beauty, nature, or the human body. In the Legend of Good Women, it is all of them. This play of différance destabilizes the poem, producing an aura of uncertainty about meaning and the status of language that affects content and structure, narrative and rhetoric.
For the text resists classification. It is hard to pin down, unusually hard even for a text within a corpus well known for its ambiguities. On the one hand, it expresses a longing for "the naked text" (G 86), a phrase to be more fully glossed in Chapter 3. Here it may mean a text bare of rhetoric, a text faithfully translated, a text devoid of gloss, or a text completely transparent to meaning. On the other hand, the actual linguistic surface of this text could scarcely be more elaborately draped, displaying as it does the techniques of classical rhetoric, metaphysical speculation, formulas of courtly love, and a range of ironic devices, including pun and, as we shall see further on, obscenity. A puzzling text, then, as rich and as self-contradictory as the three entities; the ones named in the title of this chapter, that it unites. Let us return now to nature, women, and language.
The passage I have chosen continues with another little dramatic scene, another scene of conflict, but this time between the small birds and their old enemy the fowler:
The smale foules, of the sesoun fayn,
That from the panter and the net ben scaped,
Upon the foweler, that hem made awhaped
In wynter, and distroyed hadde hire brood,
In his dispit hem thoghte yt did hem good
To synge of hym, and in hir song despise
The foule cherl that, for his coveytise,
Had hem betrayed with his sophistrye.
Here the opponents are types of nonrational and rational life: or, to replace that Aristotelian formulation with a Christian one, creatures without and with souls. We know how fond Chaucer was of dovetailing the activities of avian and human species: the Parliament of Fowls reminds us of it, as do the opening of the Canterbury Tales, and the Nun's Priest's Tale. The present birds have escaped the fowler's nets and traps, but he has frightened them all winter long and destroyed their young. We would scarcely expect a Chaucerian bird to turn the other cheek, and indeed these gloat in triumphant selfassertion, for their survival is the trapper's failure.
Who, or what, is this fowler? Satan, B. G. Koonce proposed, basing his interpretation on scriptural exegesis. The art historian Meyer Schapiro, though, writing on the bowman and bird motif in the plastic arts, grouped it with a "large class of medieval images of the hunter and the beast," many of which have secular rather than religious significance. I consider a secular source for Chaucer's fowler more likely than a scriptural-patristic one. But whatever its origin, the figure of the fowler can be understood only contextually and diacritically: what he is and what he is not, what he is for and what he is set against. Here he is set against the birds.
The simplest relation of fowler to birds is that of hunter to victims. It is easy enough—too easy, I think, with our post-Romantic and ecology-conscious sensibilities—to take the bird-victims' side and to deplore the hunter's pursuit. Yet such a response can scarcely have been desirable or even imaginable to a society that not only lived in part by the hunt but elevated it to a fine art. The theme emerges elsewhere in the Chaucerian corpus as well. If rapacity is
part of the natural order, as the Parliament of Fowls suggests it is, with its aristocratic predators in Nature's park; if the sexual power struggle is a principle of nature, as the presence of Pluto and Proserpina indicates in the Merchant's Tale, then the relation between fowler and prey in the Legend's Prologue has anticipatory and persuasive power. It invites us to see the battle of sexes waged in the legends as a permanent condition of postlapsarian life. Men will victimize women, it is their (fallen) nature to do so; and if social structures encourage or enable that victimization, they too are consequences of the expulsion from Eden. It is, as Tennyson would later phrase it, "nature red in tooth and claw," and in Chapter 5 I shall look more closely at the Chaucerian representation of these "facts" of life and of nature. Nonetheless, this view of man as predator (more recently articulated by Susan Brownmiller in Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape ) should not be interpreted as justification for rape: any sin, after all, is equally the consequence of our fallen nature. Rape was considered a sin and a crime, punishable in the ecclesiastical sphere by excommunication, in the civil by various penalties, depending on time and place and provability, but in England in the fourteenth century including "loss of life and of member." It is possible, as I have suggested elsewhere, that Chaucer's personal experience with raptus in 1380 gave him a particular awareness of the subject, reflected not only in the Wife of Bath's Tale but in the legends of Lucrece and Philomela.
Yet our birds are no silent victims. They turn the tables in derogatory song, as surely as May turns the tables on January in the Merchant's Tale with the ready reply guaranteed her and all women by Proserpina. It is through language that—Proserpina assures us—women will always prevail, or at least survive: "For lak of answere noon of hem shal dyen" (IV. 2271). It is through language that the victimized women in the Legend also eventually triumph, their suffering memorialized and perhaps transcended through the works of art that tell their stories and renew their lives to posterity. Ovid had already opened the way to such a perspective when he wrote, in the Ars amatoria —apostrophizing a list of abandoned women including Dido, Phyllis, and Ariadne—that what ruined
them was a lack of art: "Defuit ars vobis; arte perennat amor" ("Art was lacking in you; love endures by art" [3.42]). The art he means is, of course, the techne[ *] of loving; yet it is also the techne[*] of poetry, and particularly his own poetry, which the ever-assertive Ovid was never loathe to advertise: in the present passage one notes the strong dicam (I will say) in the line preceding the one cited, and the obvious echo of Horace's monument perennius aere. An ambiguity similar to Ovid's surfaces in the opening line to Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls —"The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne"—where "craft," although soon glossed as love (4), nonetheless is easily mistaken for poetry, especially if one recalls another Latin commonplace, "Ars longa, vita brevis."
That it is not their own language that accomplishes the permanence of women's stories but someone else's—many others, Virgil, Ovid, and Chaucer among them—suggests again the necessary intermediacy that is art or tradition. The poets are, by and large, men; but in Chaucer's fiction the memorialization is a woman's idea. Alceste motivates the poetic language that commemorates these literary lives, just as in the Merchant's Tale Proserpina motivates the argumentative language women use to facilitate their real lives. In both cases a woman generates language on behalf of women.
Is it sheer coincidence that these female figures, Alceste and Proserpina, linked in a similar relation to women by way of language, also share several other elements in their stories? Both travel to the underworld. Both are companion to a powerful god who represents a force of instinctual nature (Eros and Thanatos respectively). In both cases the female companion has to mitigate the punitive force of the male deity she attends. Here, then, is another permutation of the woman/nature/language triangle: poetic language, inspired by women or about women, as a means to moderate (or sublimate) the effects of nature.
There is still more to our birds, though, for these are poet-birds. They have a natural song based on experience and on instinctual desire, with which they are able to insult the fowler. The fowler, on the other hand, has technology: the panter and the net. He also has a complicated moral life, partly the consequence of his participation in a complicated social life, for his motive is said to be "coveytise," the profit motive. He is trapping birds not to eat but to sell. His
relation to the birds is neither aesthetic nor strictly natural: he neither appreciates their song nor hunts them for biological sustenance. From the fowler's point of view, the birds are a commodity. They have no immediate use-value but only exchange-value on the market, where they may be bought as food, as pets, as bait for larger birds, as a source for feathers, and so on. The birds are, for the fowler, mediated and distanced by a socially determined system of value within which they are signs and therefore to be exchanged. We shall return to this notion of signs and exchange later on in connection with women.
If such is the fowler's view of the birds, they too have their special view of him. From a bird's-eye view, the fowler has "sophistrye" and "craft." What is meant is the fowler's techne[*]: the special skills and tools he possesses that enable him to follow his profession. Yet these are curious words for Chaucer to have chosen here, and curious qualities with which to endow a "cherl," an undereducated rural working man, for they are linked to advanced verbal skills both oral and written: sophistry to the philosophical argumentation that formed an important part of university training, craft to poetic making. "Sophistry" in particular also has a much older ancestry; it goes back to Plato (as so much does in medieval culture), where it is intimately linked to the notion of the hunt. In the Sophist, a philosophically inclined visitor from Elea, instructing Theaetetus on the sophist's nature, develops the predatory image at length (secs. 219–23). In these sections, and in the two following, both professions are also considered in their economic light. The Eleatic's conclusion is that sophistry can be defined as "the chase after young men of wealth and reputation by an art of appropriation by conquest, effected by hunting, of an animate quarry inhabiting the dry land, when the quarry is man, and the hunting done by the persuasion of an individual, paid in current coin, and carried on under a pretext of imparting education."
That Chaucer has chosen these heavily freighted words for his fowler should alert us to the language theme. If the birds are natural or intuitive singer-poets, what sort of wordsmith might the fowler represent? Is he perhaps a hostile critic or censorious patron, or a
heavy-handed ideological poet? Or ought we rather to see him, more simply and more generally, as an abuser of verbality in any genre? Louis Marin wrote of narrative itself as a trap, although this is not a trail I want to follow here. Nonetheless, the vocabulary of sophistry and craft bespeaks a long-standing mistrust of the rhetor, as well as mistrust of rhetoric as a technique of disguise, hence entrapment. If, in my reading of hunter and birds, the fowler's technology represents the snares of rhetoric, then the scene offers another connection with the stories to follow, where a male lover lays verbal traps for his "bridde" (woman/bird). Plato too made this connection:
ELEATIC: Then I suppose you have never remarked how a lover gives chase.
THEAETETUS: Why, what of him? E
LEATIC: He actually lavishes presents on his quarry.
THEAETETUS: Very true.
ELEATIC: So we may call that type of persuasion the art of love.
(Sophist, secs. 222–23)
In Ovid's Ars amatoria, the hunt is a constant structural metaphor for love. Perhaps picking up Plato's lead, Ovid also uses the vocabulary of the hunt for the rhetoric of love: Cydippe is captured by words (verbis capta [1.458]); the mind is trapped (deprendere [1.619]) by flattery; poetry is recommended to women as a way of attracting prey (3.329–48), as is writing (3.467–98): these are among the ways "we [men] are caught" (capimur [3.133]). Later, a relationship among language, hunting, and sexuality would also be discerned by John of Salisbury, who, in Metalogicon (1159), wrote of sophistry that it "disguises itself as all the disciplines, and ¼ lays its traps for everyone, and catches the unwary¼ [If abused, sophistry] will play the adulteress, who betrays her blinded lovers by exposing them to errors and leading them to the precipice" (4.22).
Lisa Kiser (Telling, 67) adduces two further passages: one from Walter Map's De nugis curialium, which links bird-trapping and sophistry, and the following lines from the Roman de la rose, in which the nearly triumphant lover warns others that though many women are like birds deceived by word traps, the older woman is likely to be suspicious even of lovers who swear by all the saints who are, will be, and were ("Les sainz qui sunt, seront e furent" ). The lover operates through simulation,
ainsinc con fet li oiselierres
qui tant a l'oisel come lierres ¼
li fos oiseaus de lui s'aprime,
qui ne set respondre au sofime
qui l'a mis en decepcion
par figure de diction.
as a fowler does,
who lures the bird ¼
the silly bird approaches
not knowing how to respond to the sophism
that has deceived it
by a figure of diction.
As with so much in Chaucer, the figure is overdetermined.
However we read the fowler, he is as much a philistine as the God of Love will shortly prove to be with his critical sophistry and all his craft of love. And the fowler is as cleverly defied in bird song as Eros will be defied in the ironical legendary whose making escapes his control. Are they, Eros and the fowler, to be condemned? Yes and no, depending on what view we take. In their defense it can be observed that, from a normative medieval perspective, neither erotic nor economic compulsion is entirely avoidable in the world as we have it: such is Jahweh's curse on Adam and Eve. We might therefore want to see fowler and birds as a necessary dialectic in nature—much like men and women. We might want to see them as two kinds of artist in confrontation: the trained, sophisticated/sophistical rhetor with his elaborate nets, limes, and traps, versus the intuitive, naïf, spontaneous singer who blurts out love and hate. We might even want to see these as two aspects of the same artist, like the two brothers in Sam Shepard's play True West. One of them, a well-paid professional scriptwriter in suburban Los Angeles, lacks a compelling story to tell; the other, an ill-educated wanderer, can recount his fascinating experience in the desert but cannot write it up. Eventually the two change places: the scriptwriter abandons his house and typewriter to go on a pilgrimage to the desert in search of material, inspiration, and his "real self," while the wanderer moves into the house, learns to type, and sells scripts. It is, in short, about the integration of book, experience, and dream in a writer's work, a theme familiar to Chaucerians.
It remains only to add that our birds do not only produce a song
of hatred. They are also capable of "clere / Layes of love, that joye it was to here" (F 139–40), songs in praise of springtime and Saint Valentine, who lets them choose their mates (F 145–47). These simple, contrasting songs reflect the double reality of the birds' merely instinctual lives. As nature is dual and contradictory, so is our experience of it, and so must art be if it is to be faithful to nature and to life. But how much more ambivalent and nuanced must be the lai of the human artist if he or she is to maintain a similar "troth" with nature. Nature is the given—and yet nature is not all, for the opening lines of the Prologue have already warned us that there is more to it than meets the senses. Nonetheless, fidelity to nature is at least where one starts to tell the truth, and part of the truth is the "troth," the connections, bonds, or promises that are present but invisible, possible but unachieved, once felt but now lost.
The power, and the danger, of the God of Love, is that he aims precisely to break a representational troth, the bond between signifier and signified. Demanding an unbalanced representation of women, which is really misrepresentation, Eros requires the poet-Narrator to falsify experience in the name of a specialized literary tradition. Much like the discourse of Pandarus, although in another register, the god's command can only cut language off from its mooring in reality. He will effect a divorce rather than a marriage. The image of woman that Eros proposes is simply a massive synechdoche, taking the part for the whole or taking one (ideal or good) woman for the entire sex. It substitutes a rhetorical device for reality. Of course, there are good, faithful, and true women, but there are also bad and faithless women, and then there are most women, whose goodness is mixed with error of various kinds and degrees. To let the individual stand for the sex is a standard tactic of misogyny, which Christine de Pizan would denounce some twenty years later in her Livre de la cité des dames. As a defense of women, essentialism destroys itself. To argue that women are by nature good is to accept the conceptual foundation for the opposite view: that they are by nature bad. Either position is reductive, and therefore false. Chaucer's intent, I suggest, is to occupy the orthodox middle ground, neither misogyny nor courtly adulation. As Henry Fielding would more cynically put it some centuries later, in Tom Jones:
The finest Composition of human Nature, as well as the finest China, may have a Flaw in it; and this, I am afraid, in either case, is equally incurable; though, nevertheless, the Pattern may remain of the highest Value. (Book 2, ch. 7)
To return to my exegesis, here are the last lines of the passage at hand:
And therwithalle hire bekes gonnen meete,
Yeldyng honour and humble obeysaunces
To love, and diden hire other observaunces
That longeth onto love and to nature;
Construeth that as yow lyst, I do no cure.
The last three lines contain a favorite Chaucerian device, the "deliberate mystification" as Talbot Donaldson christened it, or coy evasion that tells all. Sexuality belongs to nature and therefore to love. No love poetry that omits it can claim to be realistic or complete. The coy remark above hints at this perspective, and we ought not to expect that the tales to follow will be purged of lust or sexuality. As I show in Chapter 3, the steady current of sexual wordplay in the legends keeps this dimension of natural experience firmly before us.
Finally, a curious thing happens in the very last line of the passage. We, the audience, are suddenly kidnapped into subjectivity, in several senses. The reader becomes the subject (topic) of poetry, incorporated into the line as "you." The reader is urged to act (to become grammatically a subject) and specifically to construe something (to exercise personal subjectivity). What are we to construe? The antecedent of "that" is indefinite, referring both to the reported action of the birds and to the coy verbal formulation in which the report is couched. When the poet reaches out in the imperative mood to shake us into judgment, he forces us to realize that there is an author. This author can choose rhetorical tactics and now separates himself from his composition in order to designate it as "that."
With the command to construe, Chaucer abruptly reinserts us into history, specifying a textual procedure that bore important contemporary meaning. To "construe" is to translate a text literally and grammatically, word for word rather than meaning for mean-
ing, and a "construe" is a text so translated. About the relative merits of these two methods there was much debate in Chaucer's day, for between about 1375 and 1395 the Wycliffites were engaged in their translation of the complete Bible out of the Vulgate's Latin into the vernacular: as Margaret Deanesly put it, "a great undertaking, and no one had done such a thing before in England" (Significance, 4). Was it lawful to translate Scripture at all? Would ordinary people benefit or would they be spiritually endangered by difficult or shocking episodes? Should the massive project rely on strict construal of the Latin, or should Latin grammar and usage be adapted for ease of comprehension? Even more significant, ought the text to be accompanied by a gloss—accumulated authoritative exegetical commentary (as, say, Richard Rolle's translation of the Psalter was accompanied by parts of the gloss of Peter Lombard)—or might it legitimately be confined to "the bare text"? An allusion to the problem of method occurs in the Friar's Tale, when the fiend refers to controversy over literal versus interpretive understanding of a biblical passage (1 Sam. 28:7–20):
Somtyme we ¼
¼ speke as renably and faire and wel
As to the Phitonissa dide Samuel.
(And yet wol som men seye it was nat he;
I do no fors of youre dyvynytee.)
A first version of the "Lollard Bible" was completed probably in 1384, the year of Wyclif's death and not long before Chaucer began to work on the Legend. Construal was the method chosen. As a construe, this first version maintained a Latinate vocabulary, word order, and grammar. But the method produced a stilted translation that impeded rather than facilitated comprehension: it was, in short, a failure. In the 1390s, therefore, a second, more fluent and colloquial version was undertaken. Its General Prologue (1395–96) summarized many of the relevant scholarly and interpretive questions and stated the principles of the new project.
With all its freight of contemporary meaning, there is an irony to Chaucer's demand for construal, for that method can produce nothing beyond the literal. Who is so austere a reader of poetry as to want to practice mere construal, or indeed who is capable of it? The inevitability and the limitation of subjectivity are constantly before us in the rest of the poem; as Chapters 3, 4, and 5 will show, we find that no encounter, whether with texts or with persons, can produce pellucid meaning. Our construal is always tainted with interpretation. In the present locus, only subjective interpretation can carry us beyond the literal to wonder what "hire other observaunces" might be, or why the poet should choose to mention them.
For these reasons, I hear the tone of Chaucer's "Construe that!" as resembling the tone in which Canadians, displaying a raised middle finger, often told their prime minister, "Tax this, Brian!" Given the newly published Wycliffite construe, hyperscholarly and unusable as it was, there is a distinctly snide edge to the remark, which cuts at the removedness of some scholar-theorists from social reality and practice, even from their intended popular audience. And, since the object of construal here is that most experiential of things, a kiss, the remark crystallizes the problem crucial to the legends: less how to translate human interactions—especially sexual ones—than the very possibility of doing so. It is fitting, I think, that this poem, which is so deeply about ambiguity and ambivalence, should have been influenced by the preeminent English intellectual figure of its day, John Wyclif, in both positive and negative directions. The inadequacies of construal, so recently demonstrated for all to see, gave way to something less pure, more realistic. That tension between original purity and present reality is at the core of the Legend, whether language is the immediate concern, or women, or nature. In Chapter 3 we shall see how this tension is tightly focused in the single image—also drawn from the Wycliffite project—of "naked text."
Returning to Chaucer's birds, then, perhaps we may read the poet's imperative as a prod to interpretive method. We are not to lose ourselves in delight at the marvelous poetry we have just read.
On the contrary, we must now contemplate this fabrication with critical intelligence. And how exactly do we wish to engage it? This is no mere rhetorical question, for the problem of construal versus interpretation will soon be illustrated by Eros and Alceste. It will motivate production of the work itself, a penalty arising from Eros's pedantically literalistic construal of the Narrator's previous works. Rejecting all but the most superficial reading of text and of behavior, denying the need for any interpretation (gloss) of either, Eros upbraids the Narrator:
Thou maist yt nat denye,
For in pleyn text, withouten nede of glose,
Thou hast translated the Romaunce of the Rose,
That is an heresye ayeins my lawe¼
Is the Narrator a misogynistic lout, as Eros woodenly asserts? Or is he merely a gullible fool, as Alceste explains in her contextualizing interpretation? Do we construe the legends as boring, sentimental tales, or do we interpret them on other levels? Are these "good women" to be pitied, or condemned, or both? The history of Legend scholarship in this century shows how live an issue construal has remained.
Women, nature, and language overlap especially strikingly in the passage I have just examined, but prominently everywhere in the Prologue. Central to this convergence is the daisy, which is at once flower, object of erotic devotion, female poetic muse, poetic topic, linguistic equivalent to (Saint) Margaret, and "remembraunce" (F 530) of Alceste. Nothing distracts the bookish narrator from his studies, he says, except devotion to the daisy. Although his protestation of inadequacy undercuts itself in its virtuosity, what one can believe is the Narrator's lament for his own belatedness, addressed to his famous precursors, the great love poets:
For wel I wot that ye han her-biforn
Of makyng ropen, and lad awey the corn,
And I come after, glenyng here and there,
And am ful glad yf I may fynde an ere
Of any goodly word that ye han left.
The central conceit is of reaping and gleaning grain. This agricultural image also evokes the figure of a woman, the scriptural
gleaner Ruth, which in turn evokes the question of literary tradition, authority, and interpretation already addressed in the opening lines of the Prologue. And there is the triple pun in line 76 on the word "ear," again uniting nature, language, and woman as ear of corn, audience's ear, lover's ear. The passage evokes tradition in an even more practical way, for a very similar concatenation of themes and imagery occurs in Ranulf Higden's famous encyclopedic world-history, the Polychronicon. Its presence there suggests direct influence on Chaucer, and a widespread acceptance of the language/ nature/woman connection. Higden too begins with belatedness and inadequacy, then moves to Ruth and gleaning:
Yif after the travaille of Hercules, ¼ a pigmey bosketh hym to bataille and array hym to fighte, who myghte thanne leve to laughe? Also who wolde not schoute to skorne, yif I pipe with an otene reed, and unhighte so noble a matire with grisbaitinge, gruntynge and whistelynge, after so noble spekers that sownede at the beste ¼ ? But ich have wel in mynde what Booz seide to Ruth that was schamefast, and lase up the eeres after his ripe men, "No man," he seide, "the schall wratthe¼ ." Therefore¼ I schal entre in to the feeldes of oure forme fadres, and folwe the rype men, yif ich may any wyse leese and gadre me som eres that rype men schedeth and skapeth of here hondes. (1.1)
Higden was already a famous author when he was summoned to the court of Edward III in 1352. His book is another of the massive fourteenth-century compilations whose usefulness to Chaucer, although probably significant, has not been fully investigated yet. I have in mind also Bersuire and the Ovide moralisé, about which more below.
Lastly, there is the courtly fad of leaf and flower, twice introduced as occasion for poetic making:
In this cas oghte ye [lover-poets] be diligent
To forthren me somwhat in my labour,
Whethir ye ben with the leef or with the flour.
But natheles, ne wene nat that I make
In preysing of the flour agayn the leef,
No more than of the corn agayn the sheef;
For, as to me, nys lever noon ne lother.
I nam withholden yit with never nother;
Ne I not who serveth leef, ne who the flour.
Furthering the language-nature connection, Jesse Gellrich has noted the possible play on "leaf" as page of a book, and "flower" as rhetoric (212). Beyond rhetoric, though, there is an underlying idea, or even ideology. Flower and leaf, corn and sheaf: courtiers may set them in competition, but in nature they are part of a single organism. To insist on one or the other is at best an innocuous pastime. At worst, though, it might indicate a taste for verbal or intellectual structures that are unnaturally rigid, unnecessarily divisive. This idea allows us to look forward to the legends to come. Good women or bad women, dark or fair, slim or plump: should the one be "lever or lother" than the other? Is any woman all bad or all good, or do the two aspects of personality coexist as closely as corn and sheaf?
Women, Nature, Language
A piece is missing. It is a piece of rhetoric, a metaphor so deeply embedded in Western culture, so absolutely taken for granted, that it is virtually invisible. Nonetheless it is this missing piece that enables the connection of theory to practice—that is, of Prologue to legends—and of the aesthetic of nature to the literary representation of women. This link is the equivalency of woman with nature. This is so ancient and omnipresent a turn of thought and of language that only with difficulty can it be treated simply as metaphor. It has become what P. N. Medvedev and Mikhail Bakhtin called an "ideologeme."
"Is female to male as nature is to culture?" Anthropologist Sherry Ortner asks this question in the title of her well-known essay and the answer, she claims, in most cultures is "Yes." She cites three reasons for this phenomenon. First, women's reproductive capacity; second, women's social role as family nurturer and socializer of children; third, the "feminine" personality structure that is a consequence of social arrangements, particularly division of labor and family structure.
While Ortner's evidence comes mainly from the tribal societies that constitute her field of specialization, the idea itself is by no means limited to these societies. In ancient Greece, for instance, gender difference was intimately linked with agriculture and with writing: as Page du Bois writes, "For the Greeks, writing is like plowing is like sexual intercourse," and women are "tablets for
inscription, fields for sowing and writing, assuring the scriptural, agricultural and sexual reproduction of the polis" (45, 47). Since my interest here is the analogy itself rather than its socioeconomic determinants, I shall confine myself to noting its amazing longevity through the most drastic metamorphoses of social life. Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival gives us the startling image of earth as a virgin grandmother raped by her grandson Cain (9.464), and the femininity of nature was an accepted topos among the Chartrian humanists of the same period. We learn from Annette Kolodny that "Mother Earth"—a slogan in the battle for People's Park in Berkeley, 1969—was a recurrence of the "land-as-woman symbolization in American life and letters" (ix, 3–4), and Susan Gubar brings the metaphors full circle with her discussion of places in modern and contemporary literature where woman is likened to page or text. I choose these moments—classical, medieval, and modern—as representative of what would otherwise be an unwieldy list of references. To transfer these data, then, to the Legend of Good Women: the literary representation of women can serve as test case for an aesthetic of nature, because woman has traditionally been thought to bear a far more intimate relation to nature than man does, a relation so close as to border on equivalence.
Women and nature, then; but where does language fit, the third component of my argument? Here anthropology can help again, for it is Claude Lévi-Strauss's exposition of the exchange of women that links women to language through the notion of the sign. Insofar as women represent value, they become signs. It is not, however, simply as "a thing of worth" that Levi-Strauss uses the term "value," although women's reproductive capacity certainly renders them valuable in this sense. Like language, they are full of "meaning" in their ability to generate other signs: more people, the wealth of the tribe. But the value represented by women, according to Lévi-Strauss, is rather a social function, the prohibition of incest. This rule has the same purpose as language: communication and integration with others. Rules governing marriage and non-marriage are "a means of binding others through alliance," so that "the relations between the sexes can be conceived as one of the modalities of a great 'communication function' which also includes language." Thus "Women themselves are treated as signs, which are misused when not put to the use reserved to signs, which is to be
communicated" (493–96). Although the exchange of women is no longer as important as it once was, the remnants survive, as testified in these words to an old jazz classic:
As a silver dollar goes from hand to hand,
A woman goes from man to man.
In the Middle Ages, though, the exchange function of women was still a very prominent aspect of marriage mores, including dowries, property settlements, and family or political alliances made by marriage. Chaucer himself, as guardian of marriageable young aristocrats and bourgeois, personally profited from the marriage market of his day. The sodoeconomic realities of marriage, especially the exchange value of women, are an important theme in the Canterbury Tales. Obvious examples are the Merchant's sardonic praise of a wife as a more durable gift than "londes, rentes, pasture, or comune, / Or moebles" (IV.1313–14) and Alison of Bath's commodification of her own sexuality as a response to society's commodification of women. Less obvious, perhaps, is Chaucer's description of the other Alison, the young wife of the Miller's Tale. In a long series of natural images—animal, avian, and botanical (I.3233–70)—there intrudes the following dissonant couplet:
Ful brighter was the shynyng of hir hewe
Than in the Tour the noble yforged newe.
Coinage of the gold noble had been introduced only in 1344, and it is not clear just how complimentary Chaucer means to be here. On one hand, the Tower mint maintained probably the purest standard (that is, the highest percentage of precious metal) in Europe, during a period when debased or alloyed foreign coinage was common; indeed during the 1390s the English noble would be counterfeited by Duke Philip the Bold of Flanders. On the other hand, John Munro notes that the gold noble had already been debased by 14 percent of its original weight within a few years of first issue, and after 1370 there was a continuing deterioration of English coinage (Munro, chs. 1 and 2). Relatively, then, the coin was "fine"; absolutely, it was flawed.
Why an intrusive money image—social, urban, man-made, technological—to disrupt this otherwise consistent set, if not to
make the point that woman, like the coin, has exchange value: she does go "from hand to hand." In one sense, of course, she ought not to do so: that is in the promiscuous sense represented in the narrative. Yet in another sense, she must, for such are the demands of marriage as a social institution when a woman goes from her father's hand to that of her husband, her exchange value dependent on her father's income and status. Of this perspective we are reminded in the last lines of the descriptive passage:
She was a prymerole, a piggesnye,
For any lord to leggen in his bedde,
Or yet for any good yeman to wedde.
Intertextually, though, the money-image was related to nature in the Chartrian discourse familiar to Chaucer. In a passage Chaucer had already imitated in the Parliament of Fowls, Alanus de Insulis has Natura define herself as God's vicar. She uses the imagery of numismatics:
He appointed me as his substitute, his vice-regent, the mistress of his mint, to put the stamp on the different classes of things¼ I obeyed the commander's orders in my work and I, to use a metaphor, striking various coins of things according to the mould of the exemplar, and producing copies of my original by fashioning like out of like, gave to my imprints the appearance of things imaged. (Plaint, trans. Sheridan, Prosa 4)
By way of Alanus's treatise, then, the coin-and-mint image came to Chaucer already integrated into a doctrine of nature, already spoken by a female figure whose fertility links woman, nature, and language in the metaphor of exchange.
It might be objected here that men as well as women were exchanged in medieval marriage; indeed, both of Chaucer's wards were young men. Yet this would be a superficial objection. One needs to ask with whom exchange is made, and for what. To the extent that men hold positions of sodal power (government, clergy, administration) and, in the main, own capital (land and other means of production), to that extent it is men with whom political alliances or property settlements are made. Hence woman remains, structurally, the exchanged item. Had women equal power and status with men, we would be able to speak of exchange of men and women, although this power and status would have to be general
rather than exceptional. Two centuries after Chaucer wrote the Legend of Good Women, even Queen Elizabeth I knew full well that her best strategy to retain "maistrie" both personal and political, was predsely to maintain her single state.
Returning now to language, I note that an interesting feature of Chaucer's rhetoric in the Legend is an absence, one of the several mentioned in Chapter 1. Nowhere in any legend does the poet describe the lady who is its protagonist. This absence of physical description is especially striking because the blazon of female charms was so prominent a convention in the courtly literature that the Narrator has been ordered to imitate. In Troilus the deferral of physical description invests those descriptions with special force when they do finally appear in book 5. Here, the omission of physical description seems a clue to the poet's subversive intention. He refuses to titillate the reader with a conventional catalogue of female charms, or to fragment the natural human body and hand it over, in fetishized form, on a silver platter of rhetoric.
Yet if this refusal of the catalogue signals a poetic practice that Chaucer means to reject, it simultaneously implies what he wishes to endorse. I mean that sense of the proper use of goods that came to Chaucer from numerous late-classical and medieval sources. Here is one formulation, taken from Augustine's discussion in The City of God (22.17) of whether women's bodies will retain their own sex in the Resurrection:
For my part' they seem wiser who make no doubt that both sexes shall rise. For there shall be no lust, which is now the cause of confusion. From those bodies, then, vice shall be withdrawn, while nature shall be preserved. And the sex of a woman is not vice, but nature. It shall then indeed be superior to carnal intercourse and childbearing; nevertheless the female members shall remain adapted not to the old uses but to a new beauty, which, so far from provoking lust, now extinct, shall excite praise to the wisdom and clemency of God, who both made what was not and delivered from corruption what He made.
If the poet Jack Spicer is right that the desire for meaning is the desire for love, then the medieval poet's wish for "the naked text" is a utopian wish for the naked body too. (The wish, and the metaphor, are further explored in Chapter 3.) Text-as-language becomes analogous to woman, the two linked as versions of what Eugene
Vance suggests we think of as temporality. It is a wish infinitely deferred, as Augustine writes, to the time or non-time beyond nature when we will see naked bodies with no ill effect; when we will interpret everything aright, and meaning will be redeemed in the transcendent signifier. This, I propose, is what Chaucer too considers the best use of signs, whether these are female beauty, nature, or language: as good coin in the exchange between this world and the next. That his text juggles these registers of meaning may explain not only the silence of scholars but that of the text itself: unfinished, after all, like the House of Fame before it, which also dealt with the nature of language, textuality, and communication. To end where I began, with Barthes: "The disintegration of language can only lead to the silence of writing" (75). It is no coincidence, therefore, that I find a fit ending in the last chapter of the same text, Writing Degree Zero, entitled "The Utopia of Language":
Feeling permanently guilty of its own solitude, [literary language] is none the less an imagination eagerly desiring a felicity of words, it hastens toward a dreamed-of language whose freshness, by a kind of ideal anticipation, might portray the perfection of some new Adamic world where language would no longer be alienated. The proliferation of modes of writing brings a new mode of Literature into being in so far as the latter invents its language only in order to be a project: Literature becomes the Utopia of Language.
For the medieval writer, necessarily mistrustful of utopia, literature could not be the site of utopia outright, not while there remained, in Catholic ideology, a "mystical society of universality" that did hold forth the ultimate possibility of transparent signification. At best literary language could acknowledge the utopian wish together with its natural failure, so that only in this restricted sense might one add to Barthes's conclusion the rejoinder: it always has been.
In "The Laugh of the Medusa," Hélène Cixous proposes "marked writing" as a term for gender-influenced work. She goes on to say that writing is "a locus where the repression of women has been perpetuated ¼ and in a manner that's frightening since it's often hidden or adorned with the mystifying charms of fiction." I don't know that I would want to apply the word "charming" to the Legend
of Good Women. It has always impressed me as far too strenuous a work to warrant that description, what with its narratorial egotism, its elaborated linguistic texture, its deaths and lamenting. Nor have critics generally responded in large numbers or with strong attraction to whatever fictional charms the work does offer. Conveniently for my purpose, Cixous speaks of fiction in the time-honored ambiguous imagery of clothing or adornment. This discloses a mistrust of fiction familiar to every medievalist, particularly to Chaucerians: we recall, for instance, the Parson's scorn for "fables and swich wrecchednesse" (X.34), as well as the agonized ambivalence of the Retraction. Cixous's metaphor of adornment implies the existence somewhere of a writing unmarked, unhidden, unadorned: a "naked text" as it were—and a utopian wish. Needless to say, such a manifesto carries its own ideological premises, which I do not accept.
What I would like to borrow from Cixous is the notion of "marked writing"—gender-marked—and to look at the Legend as an instance of it. Obviously the best way to explore the murky field of gender-linked aesthetics here is to compare the Legend with a similar text written by a woman—that is, a text with more or less the same variables except the author's gender. Such a text is at hand in Christine de Pizan's Lime de la cité des dames, composed about twenty years after the Legend (1405). Its author was, like Chaucer, a courtier-poet and scholar, and, like him, not native to the courtly milieu, for while Chaucer came to the English court from the London bourgeoisie, Christine came to the French court from the Italian urban intelligentsia to which her father had belonged. Both authors shared—besides similar social status—an intellectual background and ideological assumptions; they were largely self-educated and had read and been influenced by roughly the same set of authors (among them Boethius, Boccaccio, Matheolus, Scripture, assorted bits and pieces of medieval mainstream philosophy, Ovid and the Ovide moralisé, hagiography, French courtly lyric, and the matter of Troy). There is no evidence that the two writers met, but they probably knew of each other. They shared a patron in Henry IV, who invited Christine to England. She did not go, but her son did, and Henry became his protector at the English court.
Both works are written in the first person, and the stimulus for each of them is said to be the author-narrator's anxious confronta-
tion with literary misogyny: Christine's reading of a misogynist text, the Chaucerian Narrator's trial for misogyny. Each text opens with an intensely self-consdous account of how the writer resolved his or her relation to the authoritative (but not uncontested) misogynistic tradition; each results in a compilation of short biographies of famous women. Both works purport to rewrite that tradition in order to present a new image of woman, that of the good woman. That Christine actually does this, while Chaucer does not, strikes me as an interesting opportunity for speculation within the problematic of gender-linked literary production.
How does gender become relevant to these two texts? To begin with, the social mediation between biological sex and culture—gender—is strikingly and painfully evident in the position of the narrators. Chaucer's Narrator meets the misogynist tradition as a male poet accused of belonging to that tradition: he is accused of having written ill of women and love, of turning people away from love (F 320–40). He appears, therefore, as speaking subject, with a good deal of power in his speech. Christine meets the misogynistic tradition, represented by the work of the thirteenth-century cleric Matheolus, as a woman reader, whom that tradition defines as inferior to men, lacking the high moral and intellectual capacity required of a writer. She appears, therefore, as spoken object, justly deprived of speech. For Chaucer, the issue is what kind of writer to be, with the representation of women his test case. For Christine, the issue is the possibility of writing at all, with the representation of women offering role models of strength and virtue. For her, then, the stakes are much higher, and the questions are gender-specific.
The directive to rewrite woman as good comes to both authors in a dream-vision and from a female figure; yet the treatment and role of this figure and her instructions are very different in each case. An important aspect of the dream-vision as genre is that it can be seen as an externalization of the author's internal monologue; this is particularly true of the consolatio form deriving from Boethius. The Livre de la cité des dames is an instance of this form, while Chaucer's Prologue might be seen as a kind of inverted version of it, a disconsolatio, as it were, a vision bringing not comfort and rehabilitation to the poet but criticism and a penalty.
If we can read Chaucer's discussion with Alceste as externalizing part of the poet's inner debate about the meaning, reception, and
worth of his own work, we note some gender-linked features in the treatment of the character. First, the externalization function is suppressed: we have to read it in. The female figure is not represented as an aspect of the poet's self. Instead, she is distanced, remaining woman-as-object: critic of the poet's work and object of his devotion, Other. Christine's female figure, on the other hand, is Lady Reason, explicitly portrayed as an aspect of the narrator's self: her own capacity for reason, as well as the personification of human reason generally.
Consequently, while Chaucer's Alceste is a deeply ambivalent figure, as I shall show in the next section of this chapter, there is no such ambivalence to Christine's Lady Reason. She gives no orders. She suggests and supervises and works alongside Christine, engaging in frequent tactful dialogue with her. The author-narrator is not struggling against herself, but rather, with Reason's help, for herself, for full integration of personality. It is after all herself she must rewrite, not, as in Chaucer's case, an Other.
This is why the two narrators confront the misogynist tradition, and tradition generally, with completely different strategies. Geffrey's skeptical fideism (see Chapter 1) allows him to give "feyth and ful credence" to authoritative texts, while limiting the truth-value of (merely subjective and empirical) personal experience. Skeptical fideism also permits him to resolve the "agony of influence" he undergoes in comparing his own belated talents to those of his predecessors, the great love poets (F 66–83). He is able to transcend his doubts by invoking the daisy-saint-muse as controller of his creativity:
¼ ye ben verrayly
The maistresse of my wit, and nothing I.
My word, my werk ys knyt so in youre bond
That, as an harpe obeieth to the hond
And maketh it soune after his fyngerynge,
Ryght so mowe ye oute of myn herte bringe
Swich vois, ryght as yow lyst, to laughe or pleyne.
Be ye my gide and lady sovereyne!
As to myn erthly god to yow I calle¼
Striking in this passage is the passivity inherent in fideism: the poet represents himself as an instrument played by a superior hand. His
intellectual posture can scarcely generate a frontal assault on tradition, for it is a posture of receptivity rather than of reconstruction.
As a woman writer, Christine can afford no such passive tolerance of tradition. If she were to give "feyth and ful credence" to all old books, she would believe in her own inferiority and abandon the role of writer. Her first task as a writer must be to enable herself to work: to affirm woman's intellectual and moral capacity. She must therefore select the texts she wishes to believe in, and polemicize against the others; this is accomplished in book 1 with the help of Lady Reason. She must also develop, as Chaucer did, an epistemology on which to base her authorial stance; but it will be an epistemology opposite to his. Rather than depreciating personal experience, she asserts its value as a source of genuine knowledge. "We have come," Reason says in her first speech,
pour¼ te gitter hors de ingnorence qui tant aveugle ta meismes congnoissance que tu deboute de toy ce que tu scez de certaine science et adjoustes foy ad ce que tu ne scez, ne vois, ne congnois autrement fors par pluralite d'oppinions estranges. Tu ressembles le fol dont la truffe parle, qui en dormant au moulin, fu revestu de la robe d'une femme, et au resveiller, pour ce que ceulx qui le mouquoyent luy tesmoignoyent que femme estoit, crut myeulx leurs faulx diz que la certainete de son estre. (1.2)
to take you out of the ignorance which so blinds your consciousness that you debate with yourself what you know as certain knowledge, and lend faith to what you neither know nor see nor understand except through the multiplicity of different opinions. You are like the fool that the joke tells about, who while sleeping at the mill was dressed up in women's clothing, and on waking—because those who were mocking him assured him he was a woman—believed their false assertions rather than the certainty of his being!
It is not simply her own experience that Christine brings forward as a basis for knowledge. Constantly Reason urges her—and thus the reader—to use personal experience against misogyny. Women are said to show off at church? It would be strange if young, pretty, and
wealthy women were not seen there, but for every one such you will see twenty or thirty older women, soberly dressed. Women are supposedly self-indulgent? Just recall the drunk you saw the other day whose wife's utter sobriety compensates for his sins (1.10).
What then of textual authority? We have seen that Christine can scarcely afford fideism, but skepticism she can. Reason points out that philosophers differ among themselves: their words are not articles of faith, and they can err. Poets often speak figuratively or ironically, and some lie. So, "Chiere ami," Reason concludes,
or te reviens a toy meismes, reprens ton scens et plus ne te troubles pour telz fanffelues. Car saiches que tout mal dit si generaument des femmes empire les diseurs et non pas elles meismes. (1.2)
now return to yourself, take hold again of your good sense and don't trouble yourself any longer on account of such nonsense. Know that all evil spoken so generally about women vitiates the speakers and not women themselves.
Now Chaucer also understands the contradictory nature of written authority: it is what the House of Fame is about. Skepticism he shares with Christine, yet her skepticism does not pause at the fideistic resolution; it pushes through to faith in herself. "Experience, though noon auctoritee / Were in this world, were ryght enough for me¼ ": it is the Wife of Bath's stance and her revisionist methodology, but seeing it in the flesh (as it were) lets us appreciate its survival value above its solipsism; its corrective rather than its distortive effect. It is an epistemology—"the certainty of one's being"—which, for all its modest presentation in an old French jest—heralds renaissance individualism and the Cartesian cogito.
The God of Love asks Geffrey for propaganda. Although Geffrey will not provide it, Christine not only will but must. She has to rewrite woman good in order to provide herself with role models, with a line of mothers to think back through (to paraphrase Virginia Woolf). Christine also writes on behalf of other women: to keep them, she says, from despondency such as she had experienced upon reading Matheolus, to give sage counsel, to offer positive role models, and to influence men in favor of female education. Does Christine flatten out contradictions in her version of womanhood? She does. Does she skew the tradition, omit what is unsuitable to her purpose, rationalize aberrant behavior in the women she writes
about? Certainly. Are her figures realistic, balanced, or contradictory characters? By no means. Xanthippe empties no pisspot over Socrates's head but is a loving and reverent wife. Medea kill her children? No children are mentioned in either of Christine's versions of Medea. Semiramis did marry her son Ninus, but only for reasons of state. Women invented virtually all the technology of civilization. Christine acknowledges the existence of individual bad women, but she has no reason to portray them; indeed, an evil woman is unnatural,
monstre en nature, qui est chose contrefaitte et hors de sa propre condicion naturelle qui doit etre simple, coy et honeste¼ (1.8)
a monster in nature, a thing wrongly made and outside its own natural condition, which must be simple, quiet and honest.
One does not know whether Christine would extend this attitude to men also, but in any case someone of the Chaucerian persuasion might be struck by the theological naïveté of this position. It seems to deny the decisive effects of Original Sin, in consequence of which evil is precisely an aspect of the natural human condition.
We have, then, two revisionary texts about women, but revising different representational traditions and in different directions. Chaucer revises the courtly tradition in disobedience to Eros; Christine revises the misogymstic tradition in cooperation with Reason. For Chaucer, to write in unambiguous praise of woman would be to reduce the natural complexity of reality. To write such poetry is punishment; it is to be set right again, rendered complex again, by irony. For Christine, it is the clerical-misogynist tradition that distorts reality, reducing the natural complexity of women by effacing their goodness. To read such poetry is punishment, and the proper balance is restored by a necessarily one-sided completion of the picture. Christine does offer her crisis and its cure as representative and therapeutic; she does produce her text explicitly on behalf of women. The very image she chooses for her text—the cityfortress—is a clever extension of Augustine's cities of God and of man, but it also reveals the author's sense of the vulnerable and beleaguered condition of even the exceptional woman of her day.
If Christine writes as a woman in the Livre de la cité des dames, does Chaucer write as a man in the Legend of Good Women? I posed this question over a decade ago, in "Rewriting Woman Good" (now
reprinted in Medieval Literary Politics), and I would stand by the conclusions I reached then. One does not have to be a man to endorse skeptical fideism, or to see nature as inherently contradictory, or to dislike formulaic and simplistic courtly verse. Nor does one have to be a woman to revise tradition in a humanist direction: Giovanni Boccaccio—Christine's countryman and her main source for the Cité —had taken an important step in that direction in De mulieribus Claris, and the Ovide moralisé had contributed to the revisionary process with its moral-religious interpretations of classical characters. Yet the Chaucerian Narrator's role as daisy lover and as alleged misogynistic poet are clearly gender-defined features of the text. So is the issue he chooses to define and test his aesthetic of nature: the representation of women. At issue, I think, is less a specific intellectual position than a consciousness: relations to nature, love, tradition, oneself, the other sex; relations that are gender-linked so long as gender translates into privilege or exclusion.
Eros And Alceste
The figure of the accused poet writing of his woes is a familiar one in the Chaucerian literary world. There is Ovid, exiled to icy Dacia for an offense against great Augustus; there is Boethius, imprisoned for treason; there is Guillaume de Machaut, forced to expiate in writing the antifeminism of an earlier work (cf. Le Jugement dou Roy de Navarre, 1349). Even the highly placed Richard de Bury claimed that he wrote to silence "the perverse tongues of gossipers" who accused him of curiosity, vanity, greed, and intemperate pleasure in books (Zacher, 63–64). Such oversupply of precedents is typical enough for Chaucer, even at those moments when we want to think he is most personal, most revelatory, most sincere. But whether contradictory or mutually reinforcing, experience and authority are a coexisting pair throughout Chaucer's work and, I do not doubt, his life. What I want to examine here is authority of another kind: that of the peremptory figures who appear to the poet-Narrator in order to accuse, to try, and to punish him for literary-ideological offenses committed against them.
Measured against the aesthetic of nature that emerges in the Prologue to the Legend of Good Women, the God of Love can only appear absurd in demanding a poetry that effaces contradiction or
nuance. His aesthetic, competing with that of the rest of the Prologue, is a prescriptive bureaucratic utopianism where women are always true and good. His utopia, though, has nothing in common with the one imagined by Augustine, but is its polar opposite, an "eroticist unrealism" based on the maintenance of his own power. This can scarcely surprise, if Chaucer's model is Ovid's imperious Cupid as portrayed in Amores 1.2.19–34, a figure modeled in turn on the emperor Augustus: as Eleanor Winsor remarks, "the triumphs of Augustus become the triumphs of Cupid" (259). The issue of sheer feudal-bureaucratic power is unabashedly to the fore in Eros's address to the Narrator:
[T]how [art] my foo, and al my folk werreyest,
And of myn olde servauntes thow mysseyest,
And hynderest hem with thy translacioun,
And lettest folk from hire devocioun
To serve me, and holdest it folye
To serve Love. Thou maist yt nat denye,
For in pleyn text, withouten nede of glose,
Thou hast translated the Romaunce of the Rose,
That is an heresye ayeins my lawe,
And makest wise folk fro me withdrawe¼ .
Instead, Eros asks for tales of "clene maydenes¼ trewe wyves ¼ stedefaste widewes" (G 282–83) in imitation of classical and Christian authors, tales of women "trewe in lovyng al hire lyves" (F 485). He asks, in short, for propaganda. It is from the standpoint of a self-interested courtly bureaucrat afraid of losing influence that the Narrator is accused of being anti-love and anti-woman, in short, a misogynist.
It is interesting that Christine de Pizan, about fifteen years later (in 1401, in her correspondence in the "querelle de la rose"), would also denounce the Roman de la rose. We may speculate whether she did so for the same or for opposite reasons. Christine's critique is based in what she conceives as the misogyny and immorality of the work: its warnings against marriage, its "revelations" of women's tricks, its blunt sexual language, its portrayal of joyful non-marital fornication at the end. Chaucer's Eros might also deplore some of the Roman's negative portrayals of women's wiles, but he could scarcely be offended by much else. One wonders whether Chaucer has given Eros
a cannier understanding of Jean de Meun's ultimately orthodox religious attitude than the deity is usually credited with: that Eros hates the work not only because of its misogynistic passages but also because it is too moral or even moralistic. Such appears to be the import of the following lines from G, immediately after the passage about the Roman cited above, but missing in F:
And thykest in thy wit, that is ful col,
That he nys but a verray propre fol
That loveth paramours to harde and hote.
Wel wot I therby thow begynnyst dote,
As olde foles whan here spiryt fayleth;
Thanne blame they folk, and wite nat what hem ayleth.
The offense pinpointed here is not misogyny but alienation of affection in general.
As for Troilus, there is no ambiguity. Eros's sentiment is the same in both versions, though F adds an unobtrusive little homonymic play on the syllable "seyd":
And of Creseyde thou hast seyd as the lyste,
That maketh men to wommen lasse triste¼
Hast thow nat mad in Englysh ek the bok
How that Crisseyde Troylus forsok,
In shewynge how that wemen han don mis?
The God of Love is no frivolous reader, we see: he takes literature as ethically exemplary. His confidence in the real effectiveness of literature—that it will change the behavior of masses of readers—can only strike us as it must have struck Chaucer, as another piece of utopian-bureaucratic comedy, consistent with the pedantry already noticed. Although he grossly overestimates the powers of art, nonetheless Eros understands Troilus very well, probably better than the gentlemanly spark of Chaucer's day who might consult it for amorous guidance. Eros is not exactly wrong, then, but his reading is a narrow one. To take the lesson of Troilus is not necessarily to trust individual women less, but rather to invest less trust in the project of erotic love as redemptive act. In this sense the Narrator-poet is even guiltier than charged.
Besides being a bureaucrat, the God of Love is a philistine. In G, repeating the agricultural imagery of earlier portions of the Prologue, he says:
Let be the chaf, and writ wel of the corn.
Why noldest thow han writen of Alceste,
And laten Criseide ben aslepe and reste?
The irony is that Troilus himself had thought of Criseyde as another Alceste. Enraged at his sister Cassandra's prognostication that "Diomede is inne, and thow art oute" (5. 1519), Troilus accuses Cassandra of falsehood, adding,
"As wel thow myghtest lien on Alceste,
That was of creatures, but men lye,
That evere weren, kyndest and the beste!"
It is worth noting here the little escape-clause "but [unless] men lye"; its relevance will become clear further on. In any case, Eros's question does have an answer. The answer, of course, is that Criseyde is so much more interesting than Alceste: so much more complex and realistic, so much more natural, we might say, in her will to survive than Alceste in her will to die. But Eros, single-minded as always, intent only on what affects himself, is blind to aesthetics or psychology.
Last but not least in the list of Eros's flaws is the near-blasphemous assurance he gives near the end of the Prologue: "Ne shal no trewe lover come in helle" (F 553), Dante and the Church to the contrary notwithstanding. There is something here—only the lightest hint (or anticipation, depending on chronology)—of the Wife of Bath with her single-mindedness, her false doctrinal reassurances, her revisions of doctrine in the interest of eroticism.
And so, to mediate the God's anger, there steps forth Alceste. If, as V. A. Kolve has proposed, the Legend is a quest to discover the identity and meaning of Alceste, then we must, I believe, take a broader view than the strictly iconographical to yield the full range of Chaucerian meaning. Together Alceste and Eros form a Mercy/ Justice pair, perhaps to be seen as an extension of the sapiential fortitudo polarity discussed by Ernst Curtius (ch. 9). Eros and Al-
ceste are not unlike Theseus and Hippolyta in the Knight's Tale (a version of which is mentioned in F 420) or Arthur and Guinevere in the Wife of Bath's Tale: the ruler enforcing law, his wife diverting it.
The parallels may be instructive. When we consult the place in the Knight's Tale where Hippolyta, Emily, and other ladies successfully intervene to deter Theseus from enforcing the death penalty on Palamon and Arcite (who have wittingly courted capital punishment), we find it followed by two speeches by Theseus that evoke the Legend. In the first, Theseus reminds himself of a lord's obligation to mercy, in an internal monologue ("softe unto hymself" ) which is a shorter version of Alceste's lecture on good rule. In the second, spoken aloud ("al on highte" ), Theseus offers a sardonic praise of "the god of love, a, benedicite!" (1785) who can reduce two such noble gentlemen to such desperate straits. "Who may been a fool, but if he love?" (1799). Theseus also ridicules the fact—"yet the best game of alle" (1806)—that Emily, the bone of contention, knows nothing of her self-styled lovers' love or even of their existence. Without dismissing love (for Theseus acknowledges that he, too, was once Eros's servant ), he shows how foolish love—and love's servants—can be. So that besides introducing an orderly system of justice tempered by mercy, Theseus also introduces a comic and naturalistic perspective on the conventions of courtly love.
More complex is the role of Guinevere in the Wife of Bath's Tale, for her intervention achieves the eventual pardon not of a lover but of a rapist. This is done in contravention of the law of the land ("cours of lawe ¼ the statut tho" [III.892–93]), which makes rape a capital offense. The law has been brought into play by the maiden's relatives or neighbors protesting the knight's "oppressioun" (889). Evaluation is complicated by several factors, most prominent among them the question of narrative viewpoint. Is Guinevere disloyal to her sex in helping to save a member of her class? Is the law too harsh? Is Arthur a henpecked husband? Without attempting to cut through this Gordian knot, I mean simply to observe that female intervention—the manifestation, apparently, of mercy—is no straightforward matter here but problematic in the extreme.
Alceste's intervention combines salient features of the other two. Like Hippolyta's, it is associated with a distancing of the conventions of courtly love, for she defends the poet against Eros's accusa-
tions, and her penalty generates an ambiguous portrait of erotic passion in the legends. Like Guinevere's, it discloses an ambiguous position for the intervener, although this may not be evident at first. Alceste's role is a strong one, but she is rhetorically tactful. Like the good fairy in "The Sleeping Beauty," Alceste cannot rescind a penalty, but she can mitigate it. She remonstrates gently with her lord about due process of law. She lectures on the duties of godhood and of good rule (F 342–411). She brings out extenuating circumstances for the offending poet, also balancing his dossier by citing his works that do praise love. Alceste is the complete lawyer and courtly advisor—and no less a virtuous, attractive woman. What takes place is a rather interesting reversal of stereotypical gender roles, which has the effect of exculpating the poet even as he is charged with misogyny. We are given a male deity who is narrow-minded, selfish, and temperamental, with a female advisor who is balanced, objective, and controlled. It is as if Chaucer intends to prove that he can indeed portray a good woman—when he wants to.
In context of our exploration of the Legend as "marked writing," the significance of Alceste in the trial scene resembles that of Penelope invoked in Hades (Odyssey 11). The two figures are already, in Chaucer's mind, a "natural" pair, possibly because he could have found them linked in the headnote to a medieval commentary on Ovid's Epistulae ex Ponto. Chaucer mentions them together in Troilus (5.1778), the Man of Law's Tale (75), and the Franklin's Tale (1442–43). Of six references to Penelope, she is linked with Alceste in three; and in four references to Alceste outside the Legend, she is linked with Penelope in three. Chaucer has in mind, apparently, the two women's capacity for wifely self-sacrifice: Penelope waited twenty chaste years for the return of Odysseus, Alceste volunteered to die in place of her husband, Admetus. That there is no story of Penelope among the nine extant lives is perhaps a clue to Chaucer's ironic intention in the Legend, for the figure of Penelope reached the Middle Ages as the most unambiguous example of female virtue that a genuine vindicator of the sex could use. She occupies the choice first position in Ovid's Heroides, Chaucer's major source for the Legend. On the other hand, silence is not a strong argument in the case of an unfinished work, and we do not know how Chaucer might have ironized even Penelope. Ovid—as ever, deflating the
epic viewpoint—managed to present a wife who, while certainly chaste, is nonetheless reproachful to her husband, deeply resentful of the war and the adulterer who caused it, suspicious about the reason for her husband's delay, and occasionally sarcastic.
What I propose in comparing these two female figures is not similarity of character but rather similarity of strategic function. In the Odyssey, in Hades, the shade of Agamemnon makes the strong misogynistic claim that all women are evil, tainted by the misdeeds of one woman, his own wife, Clytemnestra. It is a more or less essentialist position, allowing one to stand for all. Agamemnon's position can be refuted by the existence of a single good example. This example, the polar opposite to Clytemnestra, is, of course, Penelope, whose memory frames the misogynistic passage: before it in information about her provided by the shade of Odysseus's mother, afterward in Agamemnon's own praise of Penelope. Yet few women can be either a Clytemnestra or a Penelope. Most women occupy a middle position on the spectrum of female virtue, and of this we are reminded in the procession of female shades, the wives and daughters of great men, that comes up after Odysseus's mother has spoken. The poet thus asks us to see that neither he nor his hero is misogynistic. Implicitly, he asks us to make the same judgment about other values represented in the Odyssey, such as monogamy, female chastity, the double sexual standard, monarchy, and patrilineal transmission of property and rule. These values are not considered misogynistic or anti-woman; they are, rather, "natural" and good. Women may be very good, very bad, or a mixture of good and bad. Outright essentialist misogyny is displaced onto the embittered Agamemnon, while (or in order that) the hero's value system can be represented as the moral, "natural," and deity-supported one. We might note a similar strategy in the Aeneid: the hero's decision to abandon Dido is to some extent displaced onto the god Mercury. Mercury appears to the hero in a dream, urging a hasty departure with the essentialist misogynist comment that "semper varium et mutabile femina est" ("woman is always variable and fickle" [4569–70]). We will come back to this episode in Chap-
ter 5, where I will show that Chaucer's treatment of it extends the Virgilian direction.
In its broad structure, the Homeric strategy is duplicated (although I infer no direct influence) in the Legend. The God of Love accuses the Narrator of misogyny: he has represented all women by a single treacherous one (Criseyde). His charge against the poet is refuted, albeit implicitly, when the poet has his accuser shown up by an archetypally virtuous female character. Yet few women can be either Criseyde or Alceste. Most of them occupy the middle range, as represented in the legends themselves. The poet thus asks us to see that neither he nor his Narrator is misogynistic. Nor, by extension, are the values represented in the Legend: the battle of sexes, victimization and suffering, obsessive desire. These, if not absolutely moral, are the natural, inevitable conditions of human morality. Their transcendence in a doctrine defined and transmitted by a partially gender-exclusive institution (the Catholic Church, in which women could not be ordained) is also not to be viewed as misogynistic but as a moral absolute. Both poet and Church understand the complexities of created nature, including human nature. Real misogyny, or at least its reductive essentialist method, is displaced onto the God of Love.
How good, really, is Alceste? I find her a deeply ambiguous figure, whose kindness is limited by her loyalty to the angry God of Love. Her defense of the Narrator-poet is scarcely what any of us would wish for ourselves, for she refutes the charge of malice with that of stupidity: "this man ys nyce¼ Hym rekketh noght of what matere he take ¼ he kan nat wel endite" (362–414). She cites to the Narrator's credit not only works like the Book of the Duchess, the Parliament of Fowls, and the story of Palamon and Arcite, which might legitimately be seen as conducing to love (although not without considerable ambivalence in the latter two), but also a series of religious works that can surely only compound the poet's sins in the
eyes of Eros, for these works portray real holiness, not erotic "holiness" in the religion of Cupid. Alceste's compromise penalty also leaves a great deal to be desired. It requires the Narrator not only to retell stories of good women, whose goodness is defined as truth in loving, but to
telle of false men that hem bytraien,
That al hir lyf ne do nat but assayen
How many women that may doon a shame¼
This resolution is as shortsighted as Eros's original accusation, for it only reverses the terms of offense. Instead of the treacherous woman and suffering man, we are to have treacherous men and suffering women. It is scarcely an edifying prospect, and, if we bear in mind the debilitating eye-for-an-eye morality of the Reeve's Tale, little more than an example of sexual "quiting." Indeed, its effect is blatantly misogynistic, for once we introduce "false men" into the structure of female goodness, the "good" woman will almost inevitably be an abused woman, faithful despite the atrocities done to her. Clearly it is not mainly happy women Alceste has in mind but suffering ones who wind up affirming the model of masculine power and feminine weakness all over again. Their suffering—indeed their death—is precisely the index of their truth, a perspective more succinctly shown in the G prologue than in F, in Eros's indictment of the poet:
For to hyre love were they so trewe
That, rathere than they wolde take a newe,
They chose to be ded in sondry wyse,
And deiden, as the story wol devyse;
And some were brend, and some were cut the hals,
And some dreynt for they wolden not be fals;
For alle keped they here maydenhede,
Or elles wedlok, or here widewehede.
Although this passage does not appear in F, its tenor is confirmed by Alceste in the passage cited above, and in the legends themselves. Plainly, Alceste belongs to Eros, and she does not transcend his laws.
Nor did she in some earlier representations. Chaucer cannot
have known Euripides's Alcestis, but the tonal kinship is suggestive of a not entirely dissimilar sensibility. The tone and meaning of the play are controversial among classicists. The play, produced in 438 B.C.E., was last in a tetralogy that would normally have ended with a satyr-play. The drama, while full of pathos, gives full weight to the ambivalencies of its situation. Apollo opens the play by setting its action in the context of the violent Olympian familial politics that have resulted in the imminent sacrifice of Alceste. Before she dies, Alceste requires her husband to promise that he will not remarry. The couple's two children make an appearance on stage, and the boy is given short speeches. At Alceste's funeral, there is a vicious quarrel between Admetus and his father, in which the son castigates the father's selfishness in refusing to die for him, and the father the son's cowardice in being reluctant to die. Heracles appears in his traditional burlesque role, denounced by a servant as an insensitive, brawling, intrusive guest. He is at first unaware of the death of his hostess, playing an inquisitive role very like that of the Chaucerian Narrator in the Book of the Duchess. When he returns Alceste, she is veiled in order to intensify the final recognition through the long scene known as "the Teasing of Admetus." It is, in short, an emotionally, socially, and tonally complex work for all its brevity (about 1, 160 lines) and simplicity of plot.
There are a few other minor classical references that cannot be entirely ruled out as possibly having come to Chaucer's attention in some form, whether gloss, quotation, or florilegium. Plato, in the Symposium, refers briefly to Alcestis, "Pelias' daughter ¼ the only person who was willing to die for her husband, though he had a father and mother living, and the affection which love inspired in her was so surpassing that it made them appear mere strangers to their son, and his kindred in nothing but name" (sec. 179C)—a critique consistent with that of Euripides. The first-century Greek writer Apollodorus tells the story in his Library (1.9.15)—with the interesting twist (apparently a more archaic version) that Kore, or Persephone, sent Alcestis back from Hades in rejection of such a sacrifice. Ovid mentions the story, without Alceste's name, in the Ars amatoria (3.17–20), and such a reference would certainly have been glossed in medieval commentaries on the Ars. Indeed, the story, with names, is summarized in a commentary on a text having nothing to do with Admetus or Alceste. The text is Ovid's Epistulae
ex Ponto; the lemma is the first phrase in book 3 ("Aequor Iasonio"), and the gloss includes the story of Alceste, who endured death for her husband ("quae pro viro suo mortem sustinuit" [Hexter, 115]). Another first-century writer, Musonius Rufus, cites the story of Admetus and Alceste to illustrate the strength of the marriage bond (Foucault, Care, 159).
But there are several stronger possibilities. The figure of Alceste survived in mythographical compendia, so that, as Winthrop Wetherbee asserts, "its meaning was largely determined by the moralizations conventionally associated with it in mythographic tradition" (142). What were these associations? Kolve, with admirable succinctness, summarizes the tradition through Fulgentius, the Vatican mythographers, and Boccaccio (172); like him, Wetherbee focuses on the collections of Fulgentius and the Vatican mythographers, for whom Admetus represents the human mind, Alceste spiritual courage. If we limit ourselves to these sources, it is easy enough to conclude that Chaucer's portrait of Alceste is unequivocally a positive one.
Another well-known compendium offers a rather different approach, one far more congenial with the Chaucerian worldview than the others, and with the advantage over others that it is known to have been used by Chaucer elsewhere. I refer to the midfourteenth-century Reductorium morale of the Benedictine Pierre Bersuire, a friend of Petrarch's in Avignon. At the end of his prologue, Bersuire tells the story of Admetus, Alceste, and Hercules. The story is glossed as an allegory of the good wife, whose perfect love of her husband causes Jesus to lead her out of purgatory into heaven, and also as an allegory of the virgin martyrs who preferred to die for their God rather than to live physically but perish spiritually. This interpretation is used by D. W. Robertson to support his contention that numerous incidents in the Legend's Prologue "all point to the same concept: the Christian ideal of marriage" (378); Kolve too, following Bersuire, emphasizes the Christian-redemptive possibilities of the Alceste story.
Yet the spiritual interpretation is only part of Bersuire's commen-
tary, for amidst his doctrinal exegetics, the Benedictine author moves into a long comic digression deploring the lack of faith of modern women:
Nowadays it stands against many women that they not only would not die so that their husbands might live, but they even wish them dead so that they themselves might remarry. There are many who assert they would die for their husbands if necessary, but if the necessity arose, would not wish to suffer anything for them. This is shown in the story of a young woman who claimed she would rather die than her husband. To test this her husband said that death would come within three days to take him. When she said she wished to die for him, the husband took a live chicken and plucked it and hid it, along with himself, in a closet, forbidding his wife to show Death (who was to arrive very soon) the hiding-place. When he let the plucked chicken out, the wife thought it was Death himself and, frightened, began to scream: "It isn't me, it isn't me you're looking for!" And she revealed the place where her husband was hiding. Seeing this, the husband crept out of the closet rebuking his wife for her false promise. He killed the chicken and ate it, saying to his wife that she would not eat of this Death since she didn't wish to endure it for him. There are infinite other examples, such as [the one about] the wife whose husband tested her love by pretending to be dead. When he was carried in his bier under a tree, the branches lifted the biercloth. He immediately arose and his wife pretended to be very happy. Then it befell that the man really died. She, fearing he might once again revive, wouldn't let him be carried by the same path, so that he shouldn't be resurrected by the branches as before.
Alceste is not criticized in Bersuire's text, but her story is associated with a strong critique of women conveyed in comical, indeed nearly fabliau-like, sketches. Besides a skeptical attitude toward women, the other aspect of Bersuire's treatment that Chaucer might have noted with interest is the virtual frenzy of interpretation accompanying many of his narratives of gods and heroes. "Vel si vis
dic¼ vel si vis exponere iste moraliter ¼ vel dic e contrario" are among the formulae littering Bersuire's text. Of course, if the book were effectively to fulfill its purpose as a handbook for preachers, it would have to display a wide variety of applications. Yet for an author as attuned as Chaucer to the vagaries of communication both oral and written, and to the subjectivity of interpretation, the flurry of alternatives might have seemed at once bizarre and paradigmatic: bizarre when placed against an imagined or desired norm of univocity—the "naked text"—but paradigmatic of the real conditions of textual transmission and interpretation.
Despite a variety of possible classical and medieval sources for Chaucer's version of Alceste, we need to recall, as Robert Payne emphasizes, that Alceste is a fictional figure; moreover, that Chaucer, by this point in his career, felt free to rewrite the classical tradition, because his fiction was as valid as any other. He is a producer of fiction like others, as Alceste herself points out, who compose "Ryght after hire ymagynacioun" (F 355). Quite aside from attitudes in the sources, there is ample reason for Chaucer to offer an ambiguous portrait of Alceste. She is a woman, a natural creature: how could she escape the mixed motives humanity is doomed to? Even Hercules, who rescued Alceste from the underworld, is far from a univocal sign: he will play a bad role in the story of Hypsipyle, as Jason's best friend and go-between.
Moreover, Alceste is a woman whose love—like that of the secular "saints" portrayed in the legends—leads her to suicide. The problem of suicide is one that Chaucer had already addressed openly in the Book of the Duchess, at a point when the Black Knight's obsessive sorrow leads the Narrator to anticipate a possible impulse to self-slaughter. In a passage that names, as negative examples, several of the protagonists of the Legend, Chaucer has his Narrator intervene in impeccably orthodox Christian and Stoic-philosophical terms:
"A, goode sir," quod I, "say not soo!
Have som pitee on your nature
That formed yow to creature¼ .
Ne say noght soo, for trewely,
Thogh ye had lost the ferses twelve,
And ye for sorwe mordred yourselve,
Ye sholde be dampned in this cas
By as good ryght as Medea was,
That slough hir children for Jasoun;
And Phyllis also for Demophoun
Heng hirself—so weylaway!—
For he had broke his terme-day
To com to hir. Another rage
Had Dydo, the quene eke of Cartage,
That slough hirself for Eneas
Was fals—which a fool she was!
And Ecquo died for Narcisus
Nolde nat love hir, and ryght thus
Hath many another foly doon; ¼ "
Even if Alceste's apparent motivation for suicide is not lust but charity, nonetheless, from a doctrinal viewpoint, this is misplaced charity, appropriating to oneself the right to decide the moment of one's death rather than leaving it to God or to nature, "the vicaire of the almyghty Lord" (Parliament of Fowls 379). Alceste could be seen as so subordinated to her husband that she does for him what everyone must do for himself, namely, die. Fulgentius etymologizes the names of the spouses in order to support his interpretation (1.22), so it will not be entirely gratuitous if I also analyze them, although not etymologically. I am struck by the homophonic similarity of the two names, which begin with the same letter, have the same number of syllables, and end with nearly the same syllable (Alcestis/Admetus). In the late-fourteenth-century or early-fifteenth-century Libellus "Admetus" is miswritten as "Almetus," so there seems to be a scribal tendency for the names to become even more similar. Is her devotion so voracious that she would become a version of her husband, not allowing his separate submission to the process of nature? With or without the analysis of names, from a Christian perspective Alceste in her will to substitute herself for another is as sinful, albeit more subtly so, as any of the women in the legends, and as arrogant as Eros, her lord and companion.
This is why Alceste is finally the instrument of a double bind for the reader. Does the Narrator deserve the punishment he gets? If yes, then it is because he wrote ill of women and judges them badly; because he was, in short, a misogynist. If no, then Alceste is wrong to assist in the punishment. She proves a misogynistic point: that women lack courage and independence but are best suited to act as agents of men's judgment. This lets the Narrator off the hook, but it implicates the poet.
My last comment on Alceste as she appears in the Legend is to observe that she is obeyed in form but not in spirit. Her instructions are to produce a propagandistic work, but the result is far more complicated and nuanced than that, as I show in Chapters 3, 4, and 5. The movement of Chaucer's poem, then, is that of a double subversion. It is a movement we see again in the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale, where a female and apparently prowoman speaker winds up undermining her own case in a variety of ways. Here, the directive to rewrite woman good is supposed to subvert a traditional antifeminist representation of woman (that is, Chaucer's pre-Legend representation, as Eros sees it). But the actual response is to subvert that directive in accordance with an aesthetic predicated upon the inherently contradictory nature of nature. Hence the legends assert not unitary faith and goodness, but contradiction. They do so indirectly, to be sure, but just as inevitably and "naturally" as birds in spring defy the fowler's "sophistry."