"Naked text": Chaucer wrote the phrase before I did, in the poem this book is about, and others had written it before he did. What it meant to him and to them has given me a way to write about the poem and its culture. Less centrally, what it means to us has also given me a way to write about modern scholarly attitudes and the ways they have constructed the idea of medieval poetry. The notion of nakedness has thus worked as a key, if you will—indeed a "key of remembraunce," to borrow another phrase from the Legend.
This is a book about a single poem by a single author: it is as stripped, topic-wise, as it could be. On the other hand, my treatment renders the topic as fully clothed as I have been able to make it: after all, we have learned to ask what a text is, and what an author is. My interest in the Legend began when I was writing about the House of Fame as a graduate student at Columbia University. The Legend seemed to extend some of the philosophical concerns of the earlier poem to questions that might best be brought into the challenging and then newly opening arena of gender studies. In writing about the Legend over the past decade, I found it did that; moreover it inscribed much more that emerged into visibility under the light of new or newly applied work in historicism, semiotics, and language theory.
In a sense, then, I might metaphorize this study as itself a "naked text," knowing full well, just as Chaucer knew, that there is no such thing as true nakedness whether of texts or of people or of ideas: no thing completely an sich. A philosophical position is thus addressed with the metaphor of nakedness, a position relevant to the idea of "Woman"—that is, to the construction of femininity—and to much else besides. In showing the impossibility of nakedness, Chaucer necessarily administers a realistic corrective to the utopian impulse, wherever that impulse surfaces. This corrective is, at bottom, a theological gesture, indebted largely to St. Augustine, who hovers
as a kind of éminence grise in the background of the Legend. It is a theme Chaucer returned to again and again: the necessary dialectic of utopian desire and objective conditions. Dorigen and January exemplify it in its relatively innocent and its malevolent versions respectively, in connection with marriage; the House of Fame stages it as an adventure in epistemology; "Lak of Stedfastnesse" opens with a fairy-tale glance backward at the sociolinguistic "once upon a time" when
the world was so stedfast and stable
That mannes word was obligacioun;
"The Former Age" presents a full-fledged, if conventional, portrait of the time before "men first dide hir swety bysinesse" (28)—the reference is to mining—and before greed and "doublenesse" (62) entered the world; Boece 2. m. 5 offers a nostalgic evocation of the first age. Broadly speaking, then, the Legend is about ideals and realities—the title says as much, with its hagiographical parody—and nakedness was one means available to a medieval rhetor to represent that theme.
I have in mind also another use for nakedness: to metaphorize the poet's aesthetic procedure in his Legend. For Chaucer too chose a minimalism of topos (the woman faithful in love) but went on to clothe this bare plot in as varied costume as he could, producing a many-layered meditation on many things: on sex and gender, on language and nature, on philosophy and theology, on reading and writing, on hagiography and classical literature, on English intellectual life and English foreign policy. Some of this clothing is woven of rhetorical devices, particularly wordplay, which is attended to throughout this study and most concentratedly in Chapter 3. Some of it is ideological drapery, discussed mainly in Chapters 2 and 4; some inheres in the management of narrative voice, the concern of Chapter 5.
Other metaphors are always possible, and they lead in other directions. For the poet's method, and my own, I might use the Aristotelian image, adopted by Chaucer's eagle in the House of Fame , of a stone thrown into water, spreading larger and larger circles of ripples. Chaucer, like Aristotle, used the image to illustrate the movement of sound through air; I readapt it to represent the centrifugal motion of aesthetic minimalism such as found in the Legend.
Moreover, the "scientific" image might apply to the Legend's fortunes as well as to its method, for the poem has had circles of influence that would surely have surprised its author.
In 1609, Chaucer's Legend of Good Women was enlisted in a worthy cause: to outlaw the abuse of married women. In that year, the Oxford clergyman William Heale published An Apologie for Women, or an Opposition to Mr. Dr. [William] G[ager] in his assertion¼That it was lawfull for husbands to beate their wives. Heale wrote:
All women (you saie) are altogether evil¼ And are they evil all? Why then (ô grave Plutarch) how came it to passe thy wisdom so failed thee? ancient Hesiode, who corrupted thy mature judgment? ¼ Chaucer, how miscarried thy golden pen? ¼ Who deceived you al? for deceived you al are (if this position be received) who have severally written several tracts in honor of honorable women.
Heale's booklet was commissioned by a woman: "Madam, your commaunde is effected," the dedication to Lady M. H. begins. On the title page there appears as epigraph the scriptural admonishment "Husbands love your wives, and be not bitter unto them" (Col. 3:19). Perhaps not surprisingly, given its polemical purpose, this epigram omits, in Wife of Bath—like fashion, the immediately preceding sentence: "Wives, be subject to your husbands; that is your Christian duty." I shall have more, much more, to say about textual management, for it is an important theme and process in the Legend of Good Women. Heale goes on to regret the time limit imposed by his patron, explaining that he could have done much better in so good a cause. Here he avails himself of an ancient trope and an equally ancient theme that are also relevant to the Legend: text as body, and the relations of nature and art: "For I know that this little body of my apologie is not so artificially featured, nor the limbs thereof so naturally jointed, that (as it should) it can seem a natural art, or an artificial nature." The "limbs" or chapters of the
treatise take up the question of misogyny and wife-beating from the perspectives of natural law, the rules of "civill Pollicie," the traditions of civil and canon law, and the law of God. The book ends with exhortations to loving and peaceful marriage.
Despite his admirable intention Heale was not without his critics: the antiquarian and biographer Anthony Wood characterized Heale as "a zealous maintainer of the honour of the female sex ¼ always esteemed an ingenious man, but weak as being too much devoted to the female sex."
This was not the first time the Legend had been appropriated to make a feminist point—and I use the term "feminist" very loosely here to mean a point defending the rights or honor of women. Less than two years after the poet's death, Chaucer's disciple the hapless clerk Thomas Hoccleve used the Legend to make such a point. In his "Letter of Cupid," Hoccleve mentioned "my legende of Martires" (stanza 46), perhaps specifying his own personal copy of the poem; another version has the proud patriotic possessive "our" legend. In both cases, though (despite other textual discrepancies), the reference is intended to demonstrate, against the supposed misogyny of Jean de Meun, that women do indeed suffer at men's hands: masculine betrayal is "to womman ¼ nat unknowe."
Later on, a poet who perhaps was Chaucer's son's son-in-law used the Legend to more immediate contemporary effect. MS. Fairfax 16 (Bodleian, Oxford) contains a series of twenty poems tentatively attributed to William de la Pole, first duke of Suffolk, who
married Thomas Chaucer's daughter Alice in 1431. The manuscript is an anthology of Chaucer's and others' poetry, including the Legend, and the influence of the Legend is particularly prominent in the poems attributed to Suffolk. Balade 3 is obviously derivative of Chaucer's balade "Hyde Absolon" from the Legend :
O ye Lucresse, and also fair Eleyn,
Thys I require yow of your gentylesse
That in no wyse ye take yt in dysdeyn
Though she which is my lady and maistresse
Stand in your noumber, for in sothfastnesse
I know her not alyve that in thys case
Is bettir worthy ther to have a place.
More polemically relevant, though, is number 19 in the series, virtually a miniature replica of the scenario in the Legend of Good Women. The piece is entitled "How the lover ys sett to serve the floure," and the flower is the daisy "Wyth colours fressh ennewyd white and rede." The first-person Narrator, like Chaucer's Narrator professing "fayth" and performing "observaunce" to the flower, duplicates the Chaucerian use of the vocabulary of the religion of love. Like Chaucer, the fifteenth-century poet wishes for talent sufficient to praise the flower duly. Indeed, in apostrophizing the dead poet as it does, the piece not only pays pious tribute to a great literary predecessor but, if the poet is Suffolk, also offers filial tribute to someone about to become an ancestor-by-marriage in the Pole line.
Not only formally, but ideologically, the balade locates itself on what it sees as the terrain of Chaucer's Legend , for it vindicates the courtly versus the clerical-misogynist attitude toward women. This is expressed in an attack on John Lydgate, the "monke of bury," who—now that Chaucer is dead and buried—the poet considers the obvious candidate "After Chaucer to occupye his place." Yet the successor's worthiness is in doubt, for Lydgate composed a number of misogynist poems in the traditions of moral satire or moral exhortation: "Bycome and Chichevache," "Examples against Women," "Beware of Doubleness," and others. He had also made, in Fall of Princes, the snide antifeminist guess that Chaucer's Legend remains incomplete of its full complement of nineteen good women because the great predecessor was unable "In al this world to fynde so greet
a noumbre" (1.336). In Troy Book, Lydgate repeats at length the misogynist sentiments of Guido Colonna, his main source for that work. Though he adds that for every bad woman there are many good (such as the 11,000 virgins martyred at Cologne), Lydgate concludes that woman are "double naturelly" (3.4408) but that men should not blame them for it. There is plenty to choose from in Lydgate's oeuvre. The Fairfax poet specifies no titles, but accuses Lydgate of writing "that love ys but dotage" and that women are untrustworthy and "unstedfast of nature."
Since no single one of Lydgate's poems is explicitly targeted, we may take the Fairfax verses as a composite remonstrance. The poet admonishes the monkish author that, since
love ys of so grete autoryte, ¼
It is your part in every maner wyse
Of trew lovers to forther the servyse.
His analysis is ad hominem:
What causeth this? for every creature
That ys gylty, and knowyth thaym-self coulpable
Demyth alle other [to] thair case semblable.
Echoing the opening section of the Legend the poet comments,
Yit god defende, that everything were trew
That clerkes wryte, for then myght thys be prevyd,
That ye have sayd which wyll not be bylevyd,
I late yow wyt, for trysteth verely,
In your conseyt yt is an eresy.
He calls shame upon Lydgate the "envyous man," urges him to "Thynk whens thou came," and demands a retraction in much the same invective tone as Eros denounces the Chaucerian Narrator in the Legend's Prologue:
Thy corupt speche enfectyth alle the air;
Knoke on thy brest, repent [the] now and ever
Ayen ther-wyth, and say, thou saydyst yt never.
Thynk fully this, and hold it for no fable,
That fayth in women hath his dwelling-place;
For out of her cam nought that was unable,
Saf man, that can not well say in no place.
O thou unhappy man, go hyde thy face;
The court ys set, thy falshed is [out] tryed;
Wyth-draw, I rede, for now thou art aspyed.
Chaucer's Legend, then, had an early reputation as a serious and accomplished poem in defense of women, an instructive model of female fidelity, an enlightening beacon in the surrounding clericalmisogynist gloom. Or so it was for the readers cited. But even in the fifteenth century, not everyone saw it that way, not even admirers of Chaucer's art. I borrow the title of this introductory chapter from Osbern Bokenham, a fifteenth-century Augustinian friar living at Clare Priory in East Anglia. Bokenham was a Cambridge graduate, himself a poet, and an attentive reader of the Legend of Good Women. For his own all-female hagiography, the so-called Legendys of Hooly Wummen (1443–47), Bokenham loosely imitated the structure of Chaucer's mock hagiography. It was an act of homage that also became a profound critique. The central legend in Bokenham's collection, that of Mary Magdalene, is preceded by a prologue and by a prologue to the prologue: a "prolocutory" as Bokenham calls it in one of his many neologisms. In this prolocutory he offers a poetic credo, specifying the ideological, polemical, and aesthetic angles of his work. Bokenham does not consider the religion of love to be much of a defense of women. On the contrary, he deplores the eloquence of "curyals" (courtiers)
In uttryng of here subtyl conceytys,
In whych oft tyme ful greth dysceyt is,
And specially for there ladyis sake
They baladys or amalettys lyst to make,
In wych to sorwyn & wepyn thei feyn
As thow the prongys of deth dede streyn
Here hert-root, al-be thei fer thens ¼
Nor does Bokenham consider the mutation of classical rhetoric a suitable strategy for the Christian author. Particularly offensive is the invocation of classical deities—a fashion initiated by Chaucer and, in the Legend, carried to the absurd and possibly blasphemous extreme of invoking a daisy as muse, mistress, and "erthly god" (F, 95). Bokenham therefore refuses such tactics "As evere crystene man owyth to do" (5223). Instead of heroines of cupiditas, Bokenham portrays heroines of caritas ; not woman as victim but woman teaching, healing, converting, and triumphant. Although Bokenham's indictment of courtly classicizers does not name names, Chaucer's Legend is one obvious target. If (as I shall argue further on) Chaucer parodies hagiography in order ultimately to validate its ideology, Bokenham misses or perhaps chooses to ignore the procedure: he parodies Chaucer in order to re-validate hagiography. It may strike us as odd that an Austin friar should present himself as a better champion of women than a worldly-wise urban courtier. I believe that Bokenham and his great predecessor are finally on the same side, even though one has to dig deeper for the moralitas in Chaucer. It seems, then, that even among its earliest audiences there would have been controversy about the poem, not least around the kind of question that continues to occupy us in connection with other authors, and not necessarily poets: Does the work offer a new dignity to women, or is it more of the same old thing?
In its modern history, the Legend appears less as an ethical exemplum or polemical tool than as an interesting variant in the annals of canonicity. Its authenticity has never been doubted, but its relative neglect during the present century has at times amounted to de facto exclusion from the Chaucer canon. Since the early years of the century, when John Livingston Lowes quashed the hypothesis of H. C. Goddard about the Legend's ironic treatment of love, and until the past few years, studies of the poem were few and usually limited to source study or speculation about the occasion that might have called it forth. John Fisher noted, in the revised (1979) edition of Beryl Rowland's Companion to Chaucer Studies, that "up to 1940 ¼ there were 115 articles and sections of books dealing mostly with the two forms of the prologue in their historical context. Since 1940¼ there have been only 48 articles and books devoted to the Legend¼ Since 1970 [there] have appeared ¼ a book and three dissertations" (473). Tellingly, the original (1968)
edition of the Companion had no essay on the Legend. The poem was and still is infrequently taught in Chaucer courses. Many critical studies of Chaucer's poetry do not discuss the Legend, and it is often excluded from or only partially printed in teaching editions. Robert O. Payne and Robert W. Frank have been important exceptions to the negative consensus, although Payne's study of the poem confined itself to the Prologue, and Frank's concentration on narrative technique left aside critical and intellectual issues that many readers will now want to address. Two recent books on the Legend, by Lisa Kiser and Donald Rowe, signal a renewed scholarly interest in the poem, as does the (still small but growing) number of papers on it at scholarly meetings.
The revival of interest lately in the poem is not, I believe, due only to a search for new ground in the burgeoning Chaucer industry. Rather it reflects two developments of the 1970s and 1980s. One is the revival of feminism and, with it, the development of feminist scholarship. The poem is not only a collection of stories, as Frank effectively reminded us; it is a collection of stories about women. It is a series of narratives about sexual relationships, about desire fulfilled and desire thwarted. I think it no accident that the three Ph.D. theses mentioned by Fisher were all by women, as were a disproportionate number of the (few) articles about the poem published during this same period.
The other influence I have in mind is the penetration into North American literary scholarship of European critical theory and speculation about language. In these Chaucerian short narratives, speech acts play a crucial role: promise, lament, prevarication, threat, revelation. Moreover, the Legend is a poem whose verbal texture calls attention to itself, foregrounding the act of its own production and that of its interpretation. This, at least, is how we are able to see it, if we wish to, because of paradigm shifts that have occurred in our profession. Books have their fates, and so do critical approaches. Both of them take us into history—but into what history?
Virginia Woolf made an interesting observation in "The Leaning Tower," a paper she read to the Workers' Educational Association of Brighton in 1940. She said that most English writers in the nineteenth century remained unaffected by the wars England engaged in during their lifetimes. The Napoleonic Wars were not mentioned
by Jane Austen or Walter Scott. The Crimean War, the Indian mutiny, "all the little Indian frontier wars, and at the end of the century the Boer War" (164) do not find their reflection in English literature. They were, she said, very distant and remote without radio and telegraph and telephone.
In this light, Chaucer's notorious silence about the 1381 revolt and other important national and international events of his time appears not especially unusual: indeed, it appears prototypical. Of course, we can scarcely say the reasons were the same, when the poet was not insulated from these events but was himself a civil servant who traveled abroad on the king's business, who may have witnessed the entry of rebels into the city of London from his house atop Aldergate, and whose wife's patron's palace was sacked by the rebels. Yet it is not really—or only—technology that Virginia Woolf was after, nor explicit reference to events. She went on to discuss the privileged social position of the vast majority of English writers, their position in life, which she metaphorizes as the writer's chair:
A chair is a very important part of a writer's outfit. It is the chair that gives him his attitude towards his model; that decides what he sees of human life; that profoundly affects his power of telling us what he sees. By his chair we mean his upbringing, his education. It is a fact, not a theory, that all writers from Chaucer to the present day, with so few exceptions that one hand can count them, have sat upon the same kind of chair—a raised chair. (168)
War may not have affected these writers directly, but peace certainly did, and all the so-called benefits of war: "the settled, the peaceful and prosperous state of England." Is there, Woolf asks, "any connexion between that material prosperity and that intellectual creativeness?" That is the theme she goes on to develop in the paper.
The kind of historicism represented in this study requires some comment. It is not the history of 1381 or of individual Ricardian political episodes that I have found most relevant to the Legend of Good Women, and neither have I sought the occasion—be it betrothal or feud—that the poem might allegorize or intervene in. This is not simply because the case for this or that occasion remains so unconvincing, but rather for a poetic and a historical reason. The poetic reason is that a writer can always invent, whatever and even despite the occasions. It is a terrible affront to the poetic imagination
to reduce as densely layered a poem as Chaucer produces to a supposedly transparent reference to someone's birth, death, or marriage. There is an enormous expenditure of creative labor in such a work of the imagination, and to boil it down to a "real meaning" that is no more than a specific occasion may amount to an erudite philistinism.
The historical reason is that, as Fernand Braudel warns about events—whether major historical events or the "mediocres accidents de la vie ordinaire"—it is not the loudest actors who are the most authentic. Braudel means by this that the mass of events big and small does not constitute all of reality, "toute l'épaisseur de l'histoire sur quoi peut travailler à l'aise la réflexion scientifique" (46). It is a kind of thickness I hope to evoke in these chapters, a cultural environment—meaning social, intellectual, moral, aesthetic—in which the Legend of Good Women takes place, and takes its place.
At the same time I do proceed on the assumption that every human artifact is a historical document one way or another, regardless of the fabricator's intent and, as Edward Said remarks, "even when they [texts] appear to deny it" (4). The textual artifact cannot help telling us about its time and the maker's position in it, any more than any of us can help having a style when we speak or write. In both cases the alternative is silence. My interest, then—to borrow Woolf's metaphor—is Chaucer's chair.
So I have historicized the poem as ideology in a broad sense: a poem about nature, tradition, desire, language, women, and sexuality, and about the making of art as the site where these intersect. If, as Joe McCarney writes, "ideology is thought which serves class interests"; if it becomes, whatever its place of origin, "the medium in which class interests are articulated" (32–33), then how can the concept "ideology" be brought into any convincing relation with the text at hand? Not, I think, in any way transparently applicable to 1381. On the other hand, the Legend is not without its politics or its ideology. Its author was the product of urban commercial life in the capital, and of life at court as well; his audience was drawn from those layers of the population primarily but also from provincial gentry and nobility. The author worked for the government, and was intensely aware of the English national interest, as well as of the distinctively English culture he drew on and added to. The
personae of the poem are aristocrats. The work depicts relations of power: political, marital, sexual, and parental. Its literary sources and its intellectual issues and procedures were those of an educated elite. Its deepest attitudes toward nature, women, sexuality, and authority are (I shall argue) entirely compatible with the orthodox Augustinian morality that suffuses both Troilus and Criseyde before it and the Canterbury Tales afterward. This is to clarify my use of the word "ideology," and to worry the anti-historicists and the occasionalists a little more; but in fact, with the exception of my excursus on Orientalism in Chapter 4, my main interest in writing about the Legend has not been to specify the immediate social referent and praxis of its ideas so much as to contextualize those ideas and elucidate the fact of their densely rich existence in a poem that has been trivialized for too long.
What about William Heale then, and before him the poet-polemicist anthologized in Fairfax 16? Were they wrong to use the Legend as feminist propaganda? Were they mistaken in their assessment of the poem as an authoritative text that could legitimately be co-opted to the defense of women? Or was Bokenham right to set his own moral vision against that of the classicizing courtier? As is so often the case with Chaucer, the answer has to be "yes and no." I hope that the following pages will make that ambivalence perfectly clear.