Geographies Of Desire: Orientalism In The Legend
The construction of woman as Other would seem the obvious target in a work as fitly titled for that purpose as the Legend of Good Women. I have argued that the socio-literary construction of gender is what Chaucer aims to deconstruct—but not necessarily to reject—in his Legend, through a variety of rhetorical means and in the service of an ultimate (that is, a historically unattainable but nonetheless "true")
genderlessness such as that offered by St. Paul in his remonstrance to the Galatians, or by Augustine in his vision of the Resurrection. Both have been cited above, but I repeat them here for the reader's convenience. The Pauline text says: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Jesus Christ" (Gal. 3:28). Augustine's statement, quoted in Chapter 2, is:
For my part, they seem to be wiser who make no doubt that both sexes shall rise [at the Resurrection]. 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 From those bodies, then, vice shall be withdrawn, while nature shall be preserved.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 a vice, but nature. It shall then indeed be superior to carnal intercourse and child-bearing; 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. (City of God 22.17)
What I want to propose here, though, is another target than woman for the construction of otherness in the Legend: the foreigner, specifically the Middle Eastern, non-European Mediterranean or northern African foreigner, inhabiting what was called in Chaucer's day, and is still often called, "the Orient." I am indebted in this portion of my project to the provocative work of Edward Said, who distinguishes three meanings for the term "Orientalism." The first, the academic study of the Orient from whatever disciplinary perspective, is relevant to my discussion to the extent that it provides evidence for my reading of Chaucer. The second or "imaginative" meaning—"a style of thought based upon an ontological and epistemological distinction made between 'the Orient' and (most of the time) 'the Occident'" (Said, Orientalism , 2)—will accommodate most poets, including Chaucer. Further, I want to claim Said's third definition—"a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient" (ibid., 3)—for the fourteenth century, although Said (following Michel Foucault's notion of a discourse) locates the starting point of this meaning as the late eighteenth century. It is doubtful whether meanings two and three can really be separated: whether the ontological/epistemological uses of the Orient can exist without an accompanying and even generative material basis in colonialism (the Greeks in Asia Minor,
Romans in North Africa, etc.). The concept is "historically and materially defined" in the late Middle Ages—which, in the Crusades, certainly had its "institution for dealing with the Orient" (ibid.).
Although it is not possible here fully to display the medieval discourse on Orientalism, I hope at least to sketch its contours and to show its operation in a fourteenth-century English courtly poem about love and gender. As we shall see, the two versions of otherness—gender and geography—reinforce one another, although not necessarily in mechanical or predictable ways.
Let me begin with material and institutional definition: land, commodities, social organization.
Joshua Prawer has articulated the colonial character of the European military presence in Palestine—Outremer, the Holy Land, the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem, won by Europeans in the First Crusade in 1099 and reconquered by the Muslims in 1291. This presence had broader motives than the desire to salvage heathen souls and save one's own, even broader than the ambition of nobles and of ecclesiastical administrators to acquire fertile estates abroad or of the servile to gain their freedom there. The Orient included, for example, numerous Mediterranean port cities that opened "the Moslem hinterland to European penetration and inversely [brought] ¼ a flow of Eastern wares to the European marts and fairs across the Alps" (Prawer, Latin Kingdom , 352) from as far away as India, Africa, and Southeast Asia. As a market, the Orient took textiles and clothing; furs and leather; pearls; timber; iron and tin; metalwork of various kinds, whether ornamental or armorial (along with wool, a British specialty for centuries); slaves (from non-Christian Slavic populations); and a great deal of hard currency. Pilgrimage was also, of course, major export business, especially lucrative for moneylenders, shipbuilders, seamen, hostelers, and suppliers. As resources, the Orient gave, as Lopez and Raymond show, oils; honey and wax; citrus and other fruits; wines; textiles (silks, brocades, cottons); ivory; glassware; dyes (used in painting as well as in the textile industry); grains; spices; and especially sugar.
Socially, institutionally, the Crusades had a profound effect on European society; even for the Church, they were more than a spiritual exercise. Christopher Tyerman writes of the lucrative
crusade finance market, in which some ecclesiastical establishments had, by the thirteenth century, "emerged as major institutions of capitalist enterprise, acting as bankers and financiers as well as territorial empire builders" (206). The widespread desire to sell or mortgage in order to finance crusading created something like a real-estate boom in the thirteenth century, with what Tyerman calls "cut-throat competition" among lay and ecclesiastical purchasers to acquire available properties. The alienation of lands also created assorted problems for disinherited offspring and disendowered wives, who often had to pursue their rights in court.
There were other institutional consequences. A range of new taxes, with the necessary administrative apparatus (a layer of bureaucrats), came into being to support the Crusades. Privileges conferred upon the crucesignatus included exemption from interest, immunity from taxation and from court summonses, a debt moratorium, and protection for his family; neither were these privileges dependent upon immediate departure.
How important would or could the Orient be to an English courtier / civil servant of the late fourteenth century? Would it not seem remote to the point of utter irrelevance? And were the Crusades not already obsolete both as an ideal and as a military phenomenon? In fact, Aziz Atiya describes the fourteenth century as "the age of the later Crusade in its fuller sense ¼ the real age of propaganda for the Crusade" (92, 94). This is because the military expansion of the Islamic Ottoman empire was taken very seriously indeed in Europe. As Thomas J. Hatton observes, "Europe buzzed with plans, preparations and half-hearted efforts to launch still another great expedition to the Holy Land. The need was real." If England was not directly threatened by Islamic expansion, some of its allies were. Although the major confrontations were to occur in the 1390s, there was nonetheless plenty of concern and action during the preceding decades, when Chaucer played an active, if minor, diplomatic role in his country's international politics, and when the Legend was composed. Certainly a very keen sense of East-West dynamic is revealed in the Monk's Tale, which has four of the five uses in all of Chaucer's work of the word "orient" (the other is in the Knight's Tale, 1494). Moreover, all four occur in context of Roman colonialism. Cenobia arouses the wrath of imperial Rome by conquering many kingdoms
In the orient, with many a fair citee
Apertenaunt unto the magestee
Of Rome ¼ .
and Caesar's rival Pompey is no less than thrice characterized as a campaigner in the "orient" (2681, 2685, 2693), with Caesar himself "the conqueror, / That wan al th' occident" (2673–74).
Given the events of the day and Chaucer's role at court, it should scarcely surprise us that the poet incorporated into his work some consciousness of the East-West confrontation threatening Europe. Nonetheless, as is often the case with medieval authorial attitudes, and particularly Chaucer's, the question of specific response is not clear-cut.
Throughout the 1340s, there were battles against the Turks, chiefly by Italians. A key date in the Muslims' progress was 1353, when the Turks seized Gallipoli on the Hellespont and entered Europe. During the 1370s, they took control in the Balkans, and in 1389 they reached the Danube. All during the 1360s, there were appeals for military help from rulers directly threatened by the Turkish onslaught: from the king of Hungary; from Constantinople; from the king of Cyprus and Jerusalem, Pierre de Lusignan.
The latter toured Europe trying to organize a crusade; he visited the English court in 1363–64 (a time for which we have no records of Chaucer's whereabouts). Lusignan managed to organize a temporarily victorious attack on Alexandria in 1365, in which he was assisted by a company of English knights. This event was commemorated in La Prise d'Alexandrie by Guillaume de Machaut, whose poetry Chaucer knew well and often imitated. It appears also in Chaucer's own Monk's Tale , of which a stanza is devoted to
worthy Petro, kyng of Cipre ¼ . .
That Alisandre wan by heigh maistrie
and again in Chaucer's description of his Knight, who has participated in this battle and numerous others, both with and against the Muslims, from the 1340s through the 1360s in Spain, Turkey, and Morocco (GP 51–66). We may note too, to extend the geographic range, that the Wife of Bath has traveled to Jerusalem thrice (GP 463).
Among Lusignan's strongest proponents was Philippe de Mézières, former chancellor of the kingdom of Cyprus and, after the assassination of Lusignan in 1369, tutor to the young Charles VI of France. For four decades Mézières propagandized for the regaining of Jerusalem, founding the Order of the Passion of Jesus Christ Crucified to that end. He circulated documents calling for international support of the Order in 1368, 1384, and throughout the 1390s, winning twenty-two members from England. Among them was Chaucer's friend and fellow-diplomat Lewis Clifford, who acted as intermediary between Chaucer and his admirer at the French court, Eustache Deschamps.
Another guest at the English court was Leo VI, king of Little Armenia (Cilicia). Expelled by the Mamelukes, who controlled Egypt and, intermittently, Palestine and Syria, Leo was in England in 1384–85; that is, just before the composition of the Legend. His aim was to forge a European alliance that would launch a crusade; hence Mezieres writes, in his Songe du vieux pelerin (1389), of "ladicte paix ¼ par le tresvaillant Lyon, roy d'Armenie diligemment traictee et poursuite" (1.78). Leo's visit provoked what May McKisack calls "a glaring example of royal recklessness," for Richard II bestowed on Leo "lavish gifts and entertainment and an annual pension of £1000." She adds that according to one chronicler, the king "was so liberal that he gave to all who asked him, dissipating the revenues of his crown so that he was forced to recoup himself by taxing his people" (441).
Following hard upon Leo's stay in England was the well-known Scrope-Grosvenor trial of 1385–86, in which Chaucer was called to testify. This was an armorial dispute over who had the right to display a certain heraldic figure. Tyerman observes that "at least fourteen individual crusaders either testified or were mentioned,
their exploits of the previous twenty-five years stretching from Egypt to Lithuania" (p. 259), and Maurice Keen has proposed this collective dossier as Chaucer's model for his Knight.
By and large, the official English policy toward the Crusades was not, in the 1380s, particularly supportive. Richard II was himself a crusade enthusiast, but his major plans in this area—an Anglo-French project to repel the Ottomans and recover Palestine—did not commence until the 1390s (that is, several years after the Legend was composed). In the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, English kings had several times expropriated for their own use moneys raised by the papacy to fund crusades, and after 1336 no new mandatory crusade taxes were levied by the papacy in England (Tyerman, 253). It was consistent with the anti-papal and nationalistic policies of Edward III that, in contrast to the French, he declined to finance crusades, even though individuals were permitted to do so themselves; hence English crusaders of the fourteenth century were privately financed through loans, mortgages, or gifts, though by 1378 crusade bequests and legacies had virtually disappeared as a means of funding (Housley, 236). Indeed, Philippe de Mézières took the opportunity in his Songe (1.76–8) bitterly to denounce the English for (among other things) sabotaging French efforts to regain the Holy Land.
Yet despite the hands-off attitude of Edward III, and despite some criticism of the movement, recent scholars generally agree that both the theory and practice of crusade continued to enjoy a great deal of prestige in Chaucer's day:
The crusade was very much in men's minds in England, and it was a live issue in political society, among the highest and most influential in the realm, in the late 1380s and 1390s¼ . Plenty of men went on crusade. (Keen, 57)
Clearly it would be wrong to regard the crusade in the fourteenth century as an unpopular movement. There was a broadly based acceptance of the crusade ¼ though criticism of what was happening in practice continued to be vociferous. (Housley, 239)
Opposition to crusading was by no means widespread, and criticism of the ideal was even rarer. The crusade remained a practical and farfrom-amateurish concern throughout the century. (Tyerman, 288)
Indeed, it was extremely practical. England may have taken a less active role in regaining the Holy Land than could satisfy Philippe de Mézières, but it did nonetheless plan and launch two crusades of its own between 1382 and 1386, just preceding the composition of the Legend . These were quite similar campaigns, both of them opportunistically exploiting the Great Schism in the Church for ends of foreign policy and personal profit, both of them designated "crusades"—equally opportunistically—by the Roman Pope Urban VI because they targeted opponents of his who professed loyalty to the rival antipope in Avignon, Clement VII.
It is important to remember the decisive and disruptive impact on public life at every level of the proclamation of a crusade: sermons being constantly preached for the crusade, a multi-pronged national fund-raising effort, new taxes and levies, the diversion of commercial shipping, and recruitment of armies.
One of these campaigns was the May 1383 invasion of Flanders: the crusade of Henry Despenser, bishop of Norwich. Nominally, its purpose was to ensure that the French did not force Flanders to support Clement. Richard Vaughan discerns an economic motive: to maintain free passage for English wool, which had been embargoed by the count of Flanders (28). J. J. N. Palmer sees instead a political motive: to use Flanders as a wedge against the French in the ongoing Hundred Years' War (21—22). A distinctive feature of this crusade was the gross abuse of plenary indulgence: in return for contributions to the crusade, Urban offered full remission of sins for both living and dead. This offer contributed to what McKisack calls "the prevailing mood of national hysteria"; she writes of "the avidity with which the credulous of all classes, men and more especially women, sought to buy the plenary remissions" (431). Paul Olson proposes that the abusive ecclesiastical practices of this campaign are reflected in the Pardoner's Tale ; he notes too that Chaucer's Squire—who has learned chivalry in Flanders—has evidently participated in it (203–7).
The campaign was a complete disaster, in which cowardice, indiscipline, and dysentery all played a part; Vaughan cites a chronicler who observed, "percussit eos Deus in posteriora" (29). Wyclif also fulminated against it in his polemic De cruciata. The commander, Bishop Despenser, was impeached by Parliament and several captains were tried for treasonous surrender.
The other crusade of the early 1380s was the political adventure in Castile planned for 1383 by John of Gaunt. It was not Lancaster's first attempt to intervene in the dynastic affairs of that region, for ten years earlier, in pursuit of his own claim to the Castilian throne, he had led a campaign there, which P. E. Russell describes "as one of the outstanding failures in Lancaster's chequered career as a military commander" (204). Lancaster's claim was based on his 1371 marriage to Costanza, daughter of Pedro I of Castile and Leon. Negotiations for settlement dragged on through the 1370s, and by the early 1380s there was significant support in Parliament for peace, despite Lancaster's intention to mount another expedition against Castile in 1383. In March of that year, Urban appointed Lancaster "standard-bearer of the Church in the coming crusade against the Trastamaran schismatics" (Russell, 348), for the Trastamaran ruler of Castile supported the Avignon pope and was thus guilty of "the Clementist heresy." Although the plan failed, nonetheless some English troops were dispatched to Spain, and it is not difficult to believe that the cynically political deployment of crusade rhetoric would have been evident to many observers.
Yet this was not the end of the matter, for once again, in 1385, the "chemin d'Espaigne" was brought to Parliament. This time the project was unanimously accepted, and by February 1386 "vast and widely publicized preparations were being made" (Russell, 408). These included official propagation of crusade in England; fundraising; a tournament at Smithfield, at which Richard II presented John of Gaunt with a golden crown in anticipation of his coronation in Spain; and the arrest of commercial ships for diversion to military purposes. (One can imagine the indignation of an experienced customs officer like Chaucer, whose twelve years in that position ended in 1386.) This invasion took place in July 1386; it ended two years later when Lancaster abandoned his claim to the Castilian throne in exchange for a large compensatory payment and the betrothal of his daughter Catalina to his former enemy. "Nor," Russell remarks, "apparently, was his conscience greatly troubled by the thought that his daughter would be the bride of a heretic" (509), although the irritated pope did eventually revoke all acts performed under his sponsorship of the ill-fated "crusade."
Crusade was thus a rather complex phenomenon in England just before 1386, composed as it was of grandiose schemes proposed by
foreigners against the infidel in distant Arabic lands, and cynical adventures against other European Christians, which had little effect besides draining the national treasury, already stressed by the war against France. That, at least, is how an ironically minded civil servant might have seen it, and I want to suggest that in the Legends, Orientalism becomes a rhetorical device enabling Chaucer to do two things: to create a moral structure in the poem and to offer a veiled commentary on some aspects of English foreign policy. It becomes his negative pole, for certain qualities associated with Easterners become paradigmatic of flaws and vices that, while not confined to Easterners, are nonetheless seen as most dramatically exemplified in them, certainly most memorably exemplified, inasmuch as these figures are the stuff of Western literary tradition.
As such, might not their presence in the Legend represent nothing more complicated than the poet's fidelity to his classical sources? Perhaps, but there are strong arguments to the contrary. Chaucer's freedom in altering his sources for political or other purposes is well known. Moreover, some of these stories—those of Dido, Cleopatra, and the Roman Lucretia—already had blatantly political purposes, whether colonial or domestic. Finally, the prominence of Orientalist and crusade concerns at the English court during the few years just preceding the composition of the Legend, and especially the "crusades" of the magnates Despenser and Lancaster, precludes, I believe, a merely innocent or coincidental choice of "Oriental" figures and themes.
As will be evident from what follows, the Oriental theme does not run consistently from start to finish of the work. I have not found it in the Prologue in any substantial way, for instance, even though some of the ladies named there in the balade—Helen, Lavinia, Cleopatra—did come to Chaucer from literary works heavily laden with colonialist intent. The theme tends rather to surface intermittently in several of the legends.