For a medieval writer, the desire for naked text is even more problematic than for a modern, complicated as it is by the intertextual nature of medieval poetic production. Nowhere is this more the case than with the medieval posterity of Ovid, Chaucer's major source for the Legend. "What difference does it make who is speaking?" Samuel Beckett's question, used by Michel Foucault to problematize the notion of authorship, can scarcely be more aptly applied than to the medieval conception of "Ovid"—a name designating not only a large number of texts by the Roman poet, but texts not even claiming to be composed by Ovid, texts known to be written by others, and yet constituting in their ensemble the "author-function" (to use Foucault's term) called "Ovid." If we limit ourselves to the Meta-morphoses alone, the range includes the manuscript of a long classical Latin poem, usually transmitted with medieval marginal and interlinear glosses; Latin prose commentaries on the poem; a moralized condensation of the poem in Latin verse; excerpts from the original in florilegia; scattered episodes inserted as exempla in many Latin and vernacular poems or embedded in scientific treatises and encyclopedic compilations; a substantially amplified French verse translation of the original with naturalistic, euhemeristic, and Christian allegories added; and a Latin prose redaction incorporating several of the preceding, which in turn incorporate one another. Such was the intertextual embarras de richesses confronting the late-medieval English poet in search of Ovid.
Small wonder, then, that in introducing his collection of tales drawn largely from Ovid's Heroides and Metamorphoses, Chaucer should attempt to clear a space for himself, a territory just wide enough to accommodate a narrative stance:
For myn entent is, or I fro yow fare,
The naked text in English to declare
Of many a story, or elles of many a geste,
As autours seyn; leveth hem if yow leste.
. (G 85–88)
What the "nakedness" of a text might mean to the Chaucerian Narrator is not necessarily a simple thing, as I have indicated in Chapter 2. Here I would like to come closer to this "nakedness" in order to feel its meaning to Chaucer, to derive some sense of the poetic project he seems to set for himself, and thence to observe the operation or non-operation of the concept in the legends.
"Naked" is the past participle of a transitive verb: to naken or to nake an object, meaning to make bare, to expose, to strip someone or something of covering or protection. It carries therefore a sense of agency: nakedness is a produced condition, requiring an act of intervention. This transitivity suggests further that nakedness is not necessarily a usual condition, still less a desirable one. Both aspects of the word appear in the Prologue, when in spring the earth forgets "his pore estat / Of wynter, that hym naked made and mat" (F 125–26), and the sun reclothes all "That naked was" (F 129). One might indeed nake oneself, but this would be an exceptional, even a deplorable circumstance, as in Chaucer's translation of Boethius:"O nice men! why nake ye youre bakkes? (as who seith, 'O ye slowe and delicat men! whi flee ye adversites, and ne fyghte nat ayeins hem by vertu, to wynnen the mede of the hevens?')" (Consolation of Philosophy 4. m. 7, 60–70). More typical is Hoccleve's usage, in his "Letter of Cupid" (1402), in which Eve is relieved of direct responsibility for having "made al man-kynde lese his lyberte, / and naked yt of loye" (stanza 51). So that we need first to sense the verbness of "naked," to hear that a naked thing is a thing that has been rendered naked, it has been impoverished, stripped of what had properly covered or adorned it.
Yet, paradoxically, nakedness is a natural condition: the pristine condition, after all, of the human race and the human individual. In
the sense of originary nakedness, we find the images "naked as a needle," "naked as a worm" (Romaunt of the Rose, 454), "naked as my nail." There seems, then, to be a certain multileveled quality to the word and the concept, a quality revealed in other Middle English usages. A "naked bed," for instance, is not a bed stripped of bedding but rather a bed in which one sleeps naked, the attribute of the occupant transferred to the bed; one might, with similar poetic license, speak of a "sorrowful" bed as one in which sorrow is experienced. And to be in one's "naked shirt" (Romaunt, 5446) is not to be entirely naked but to be naked under one's shirt, clad only in one's shirt. Here the almost-perceptible attribute of the wearer is transferred to the garment. But this creates a logical conundrum, for since it is a garment worn by the wearer, the wearer is no longer naked, and this disqualifies the qualifier.
In connection with language or textuality, the word has a long and equally complicated history. Rather than compile a lengthy list of references from classical and medieval literatures, I shall offer a few examples that best illustrate ambiguities particularly relevant to my argument about the Chaucerian project in the Legend of Good Women.
In dedicating A Treatise on the Astrolabe (1391) to "Lyte Lowys my sone," Chaucer promises to give the work "under full light reules and naked wordes in Englissh, for Latyn canst thou yit but small, my litel sone." Further on in the dedication he seeks pardon from a more "discreet" audience for his "rude endityng" and "superfluite of wordes," justifying both by the fact that the recipient is a child. Nakedness of language here refers first to the vernacular, secondarily to a simple and repetitive instructional style. Rhetorical simplicity was also, apparently, what Richard de Bury had in mind when, in Philobiblon, he wrote of poetry and its enemies:
All the various missiles by means of which those who love only the naked Truth attack the poets are to be warded off with a double shield, either by pointing out that in their obscene material a pleasing style of speech may be learned, or that where the material is feigned ¼ , a natural or historical truth is enclosed beneath the figurative eloquence of fiction (in Robertson, Chaucer's London, 181).
This would not be, however, the primary meaning for many of Chaucer's contemporaries. The translator of the C fragment of the Romaunt of the Rose (who may or may not have been Chaucer) has Fals-Semblant send his audience to "The nakid text, and lete the glose" (6556) in order to determine whether there is scriptural antecedent for mendicancy. The text is Holy Writ, most likely in Latin, and its nakedness refers to the absence of interpretive glosses. It is interesting that in the corresponding French passage, Jean de Meun does not use the imagery of nakedness, although he does have Faus Semblant emphasize the literality of his interpretation (la lestre ; selonc la letre ) and the image was available in Latin texts very likely to have been known by Jean.
The English translator has therefore inserted the image, and this usage is consistent with that of the Wycliffites or Lollards, concerned as they were with the direct apprehension of Scripture in vernacular translation and without accumulated exegetical glosses (see Chapter 2). Since the Lollards believed that truth does not inhere in one language more than another, and used this principle to justify their translations, they did not see the vernacular as any more inherently "naked" than Latin. A Lollard tract on translating the Bible shows that the absence of gloss, rather than the language itself, is the important thing. If, the tract says, a priest can no longer preach, one remedy is as follows:
recorde he in the woke [week] the nakid tixt of the Soundaie Gospel that he kunne the groos story and telle it to his puple, that is if he understonde Laytne, and do he this every woke of the yeer and forsothe he schal profite wel ¼ If for-sothe he understonde no Latyn, go he to oon of his neightboris that understandith, wiche wole charitabily expone it to hym and thus edifie he his flock ¼ [for] if it is levefful [lawful] to preche the naked text to the pupel, it is also lefful to write it to hem & consequentliche, be proces of tyme, so al the Bibil.
It was exactly this lack of gloss that the opponents of scriptural translation opposed, because of its subversive potential. This is why, as Anne Hudson observes, "The naked text in the ploughman's hand was a much more dangerous and a much more readily
available weapon" (Lollards, 155) than a sermon explained by the preacher. In several tracts, Jean Gerson, chancellor of the University of Paris, argued that such translation would be likely to sow heretical deviations. If the Bible "were badly translated or presumptuously understood, contrary to the exposition of holy doctors[, it] would be better to be completely ignorant of the matter." The "sowers of heresy, and enemies of truth" have already, he complains, infected England, Scotland, Prague, Germany, "and even, shameful as it is to admit it¼ , France." About 1415, in his tract On Communion, Gerson wrote: "Now this use of holy scripture by modern men, as if holy scripture should be believed in its bare text without the help of any interpretation or explanation, is a kind of use which is attended by grave dangers and scandals" (Deanesly, Lollard Bible, 104–6).
Nor were the British authorities unaware of the dangers of textual nakedness. When, about 1397, the Herefordshire squire John Croft was forced to renounce his heretical opinions, his renunciation included the promise to neither read nor own "English books extracted from holy scripture according to the bare text [secundum nudum textum ],with evil intent, by certain persons commonly called Lollards, who oppose the Catholic faith and the doctrine of the Roman church" (ibid., 288). Another document (possibly as early as 1380 and possibly by Wyclif himself) attacks vain men who cite Scripture in the service of pride:
And Poul seith, Kunnynge makith a man proud, that is nakid kunnynge withoute goode werkis, whanne it is medlid with pride veyn glorie and boost. Sich men semen to do goostli avoutrie with the word of God, for there thei schulde take of the Hooli Goost trewe undirstandyng of hooli writ by gret meknesse and hooli praier, to brynge forth very charite and goode werkis. Thei taken the nakid undirstondynge bi presumcidon of mannes witt, and bryngen forgt pride veynglorie and boost, to coloure here synnes and disceive sutilli here negebours. (Ibid., 447)
Particularly interesting in this passage is the author's artful extension of the nakedness metaphor into a mini-allegory of adulterous engendering.
Nakedness, then, can be a good thing or a bad thing. It can connote simplicity, straightforwardness, honesty, naturalness, and eroticism; or it can connote unattractive lack or weakness, suffering,
degradation, poverty, or improper exposure. There is the nakedness of the lover in one's arms (Romaunt, 2571) and the nakedness of the beggar on a dunghill (Romaunt, 6496). It is with the sincerity and vulnerability of "my naked herte" that the narrator of Troilus invokes Venus (3.43); while Philosophy assures Boethius that evil people are "naked of alle strengthes" (4. pr. 2, 10).
Such ambiguities in the word "naked" and its uses, the fact that it is able to partake of meanings not only varied but contradictory, makes it a sliding or polysemous signifier, linguistically in the same arena as the puns discussed in the previous and present chapters. Nor is it coincidental that in its Chaucerian uses this problematic word should contain within its referential range the trio of nature, women, and language discussed in Chapter 2, for the multiple possibilities of the word, its very ambiguities, lead us again to the ideological malaise noted there: the coexisting acceptance of, and discomfort with, temporality in its various versions. In the Clerk's Tale, Griselda's story combines the two axes of nakedness. As a bride, she brings "feith, and nakednesse, and maydenhede" (IV.866) to Walter; as a rejected wife, she is left nothing but her smock:
"Naked out of my fadres hous," quod she,
"I cam, and naked moot I turne agayn ¼ ."
Her first nakedness is positive, her second negative; echoing the Book of Job (1:21), Griselda aligns her trajectory to that of the human condition both individual and collective. There was a time, "th'estaat of innocence" (X.325) as the Parson reminds his pilgrim audience, when nakedness was no cause of shame. On one level this could be the moment of birth, on another, the prelapsarian condition, to which Augustine devotes a chapter, "Of the nakedness of our first parents" (14.17) in The City of God. At either of those originary points, "nakedness" would have only a single meaning; it would be a univocal signifier. Such a condition will recur, Christianity promises, in the resurrection of bodies. Until then, the nakedness of bodies can only be ambivalent at best, the nakedness of nature temporary, and the nakedness of texts impossible, an infinitely deferred utopian wish.
Whatever the phrase "the naked text" may have meant to Chau-
cer—whether a doggedly literal translation, or a work devoid of rhetoric, or a work so transparent in meaning as to require no interpretation—it must have been obvious to him even as he wrote it that he neither would nor could produce such a text. Few texts have come into a poet's hands, or left them, as elaborately appareled as Ovid's did Chaucer's. The wish is a quixotic gesture, and my use of this adjective is not accidental, for, like Don Alonso, Chaucer (or his poet-Narrator) is the willing victim of literary tradition, inspired and bound by it at once. His "credence / To bokes olde" is a leap of faith, and the Legend, like Don Quixote, chronicles (albeit on a different level) the collision between literary imagination and the exigencies of natural and social reality. Just how surely the desire for "the naked text" remains a pious but futile wish, a utopian wish, the rest of this chapter will show.