Preferred Citation: Neuse, Richard. Chaucer's Dante: Allegory and Epic Theater in The Canterbury Tales. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1991 1991.


Chaucer's Dante

Allegory and Epic Theater in The Canterbury Tales

Richard Neuse

Berkeley · Los Angeles · Oxford
© 1991 The Regents of the University of California

Marjorie Coté Neuse
quella che 'mparadisa la mia mente

Preferred Citation: Neuse, Richard. Chaucer's Dante: Allegory and Epic Theater in The Canterbury Tales. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1991 1991.

Marjorie Coté Neuse
quella che 'mparadisa la mia mente



"My suggestion is that Chaucer read Dante the way Dante read Virgil," Ronald B. Herzman has written (Acta 9 [1982], 1), and his formulation expresses most succinctly the central argument of this book. Dante's Comedy "reads" Virgil by making him speak, not, it is true, precisely in the language and manner of the first-century B.C. poet, but in the only way a poetry, whatever its original language, can speak to us: by a sustained act of translation. Dante speaks thus in The Canterbury Tales, also "in translation," though not in a role especially created for him, as Virgil does in the Comedy, one reason being perhaps that although he died a little more than half a century earlier, his is still a palpable presence in the Europe of Chaucer's day. The ways in which Dante speaks in and through The Canterbury Tales are numerous, various, and subtle, and I have necessarily proposed and dealt with only a few that seemed important and suggestive as a means of establishing that Chaucer's poem is indeed in the line of "epic succession" to the Comedy . As my title indicates, I will argue that Chaucer takes from Dante the structural features of the allegorical quest and epic theater and in so doing creates a narrative text that in some ways foreshadows the literature written two centuries later for the Elizabethan stage.

The idea for this book came to me many years ago when I collaborated on a paperback edition of The Canterbury Tales that never materialized and left me with useless glosses on a number of the tales but also with introductory essays and notes that eventually, with painful slowness, metamorphosed into the chapters that follow.


The real push to finish the project came during a sabbatical leave in 1985–86 spent in solitude at my mother's house in the Sussex countryside. I express here my heartfelt thanks for her hospitality and the encouragement and support she has provided over the years. To my father I also owe a debt of thanks, but he has departed this little threshing floor, which, Dante says, makes us so ferocious. Instead of ferocity it taught him above all a humorous, skeptical irony, with which he would assuredly have greeted the present effort.

Without the help and encouragement of various friends and colleagues this project would never have come to completion. Among these I should mention especially Masao Miyoshi, Harry Berger, Al Shoaf, and Pete Wetherbee. In the early stages of my struggle with the manuscript I received valuable criticism and advice from Colin Hardie, Jim Hepburn, and Derek Pearsall; I am grateful to them and to the anonymous readers for the University of California Press, whose comments and suggestions gave me a much clearer idea of what I was doing and what I should be aiming for in this book. And finally, my thanks to the ones from whom I have learned the most over the years, the students in my undergraduate and graduate classes. Among these I continue to enjoy and benefit from the friendship of and conversation with Mark Sherman, now a fellow worker in the academic vineyard; Anthony Verrill, master of the computer, into whose mysteries he initiated me; Courtney Gwynn, defector to the bond market; and Stuart Blazer, poet.

My chief debt, beyond any words I might have to express it, is to two friends without whose unflagging support, advice, and criticism this book could not possibly have come into being. They are Jim Rhodes and the dedicatee.

A Note on the Texts Used

For the Italian text of the Comedy I use The Divine Comedy, trans., with a commentary, by Charles S. Singleton, 3 vols.: Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980, 1982). References to Singleton's commentary will be simply to the canticle, canto, and line number. For the English translation I use mostly Allen Mandelbaum's bilingual text, The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri: A Verse Translation, 3 vols. (New York: Bantam Books, 1982, 1984). At times, for a more literal translation, I use Singleton's and indicate this by putting an S after it. For the Italian


text of the Convivio I have relied primarily on G. Busnelli and G. Vandelli, eds., Il Convivio, 2 vols. (Florence: Felice le Monnier, 1964), and I have used the English translation by Philip H. Wicksteed, The Convivio of Dante Alighieri, Temple Classics (London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1940).

For the text of Chaucer's poetry I use The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd ed., ed. Larry D. Benson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987) and refer to it as the Riverside edition. For Greek and Roman authors I use the Loeb Classical Library editions (Cam bridge: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann) throughout, unless otherwise noted. For Milton's poetry I use M. Y. Hughes, ed., Complete Poetry and Major Prose (New York: Odyssey Press, 1958).



The argument of this book—that The Canterbury Tales is modeled on Dante's Comedy and that there is a fundamental affinity between the two works—has, I confess, an air of profound implausibility about it. Outwardly, at any rate, they could not be more different: one tightly organized and finished, seemingly to the last syllable, the other a sprawling series of fragments, everywhere showing evidence of continuing revision. Practically nothing is known about the personal circumstances in which their authors composed the works that are by scholarly consensus assigned to their final years, but I imagine them as again totally different one from the other. Despite its odd title, the Comedy is associated with the bitter years following Dante's political defeat and his exile from Florence, in 1302, under sentence of death.[1] Even the much earlier genesis that can be inferred for it from the Vita Nuova (itself completed in about 1293) has an aura of great personal tragedy about it. The Vita Nuova, it will be remembered, deals with the poet's passionate if sublimated love for Beatrice and with her sudden death. In the concluding section the poet speaks of having had a "miraculous vision"—he does not say of what or whom—which has led to his resolve not to write about her further until the day

[1] Commedia is Dante's; Divina was added in the fifteenth century.


when he can write "that which has never been written of any woman."[2]

It is difficult indeed to imagine the composition of The Canterbury Tales as having its genesis in such a mood of passionate exaltation and devotion to the memory of a dead person. And by contrast with Dante's, I picture the final years of Chaucer's life as the busy but contented ones of a successful civil servant undisturbed by the turmoil of Richard II's reign. This could be a totally misleading picture, of course, and in any case it is ultimately quite irrelevant to the fact, as I should like to call it, that the poem Chaucer left unfinished at his death plays on fundamentally the same emotional, poetic, and intellectual registers as its Italian predecessor.

That Chaucer had read Dante by the time he started to work on The Canterbury Tales has long been a familiar fact of literary history.[3] But the idea that he had read him with enough care and understanding to develop a sense of a poetry or a poetics specifically "Dantean"—as distinct, say, from "Petrarchan" or "Boccaccian"—would have met with considerable skepticism not so many years ago. Fortunately this is no longer the case, thanks in part to our increased knowledge about Anglo-Italian cultural relations during the fourteenth century and a concomitant abandonment of the idea that, in contrast to Italy, England represented a feudal backwater largely untouched by the intellectual and other currents of the Continent.[4] Wendy Childs has pointed out that "Chaucer lived in a society where international contacts were a commonplace of commercial, diplomatic, religious and intellectual life."[5] As a servant of the crown who is known to have made at least two trips to Italy on diplomatic and commercial missions, Chaucer would undoubtedly have been part of this cosmopolitan scene.[6] Yet once again there has been a long-

[2] Mark Musa, Dante's "Vita Nuova, " p. 86. On this passage, see the remarks by Michele Barbi in the excerpt from his Life of Dante reprinted in Discussions of "The Divine Comedy, " ed. Irma Brandeis, p. 46.

[3] The evidence for this familiarity, in the form of individual lines and passages bearing the stamp of the Comedy, is carefully reviewed by Howard Schless, Chaucer and Dante .

[4] Particular credit must go to Piero Boitani, who in a series of publications has shed light on these relations. See especially his Chaucer and the Imaginary World of Fame and Boitani, ed., Chaucer and the Italian Trecento . The first chapter of Schless's book also contains a useful survey of the subject.

[5] "Anglo-Italian Contacts in the Fourteenth Century," in Chaucer and the Italian Trecento, ed. Piero Boitani, p. 84.

[6] For an account of these, see Schless, Chaucer and Dante, ch. 1.


standing belief among scholars that he lacked the linguistic competence to master the nuances of an Italian literary text.

Were it not for a shift in general orientation that has taken place over the past few decades in medieval studies, therefore, the present undertaking would first have to offer detailed historical and philological evidence to "prove" what it takes for granted, namely, that Chaucer not only could read Italian texts but, in the case of the Comedy (among others), did so with the kind of care and joy as to affect profoundly his own poetic practice. The reader who requires the preliminary evidence and demonstration mentioned is advised to look elsewhere than in this book.

A sign of the shift in the critical sensibility that has given me some confidence in the writing of this book is R. A. Shoaf's Dante, Chaucer and the Currency of the Word, which, focusing on the two poets' concern with a poetic language, demonstrates that Chaucer was, in his words, "no mere quoter of virtuoso passages" from the Comedy, but "a great interpreter of Dante."[7] Another important recent work dealing with the relationship between the two poets, Winthrop Wetherbee's Chaucer and the Poets: An Essay on "Troilus and Criseyde, " illustrates the changed understanding of such a relationship. "For Chaucer," Wetherbee observes, "Dante is not only a model but a standard by which the quality and seriousness of his own future work may be measured," and he goes on to show how the Comedy fulfills this dual role with respect to the Troilus .[8] More recently, Karla Taylor's Chaucer Reads "The Divine Comedy " has shown how the Troilus is illuminated when read in the light of the Comedy . Where Shoaf thinks of one poet's absorption by interpretation of the other's work, and Wetherbee of the implicit, intertextual presence of one poem in the other, Taylor starts from the premise of Chaucer's "sustained dialogue with Dante," though what she demonstrates is really more an argument or a debate, since to her they are essentially antithetical in their approach to poetic fiction.[9]

All three ways of conceiving the Chaucer-Dante relationship seem to me fruitful and illuminating, and in the following chapters I hope to show that they are not mutually exclusive. At the same time I am bound to demur at Taylor's suggestion that Dante's influence on Chaucer's poetry diminishes after the Troilus : "Chaucer no longer

[7] R. A. Shoaf, Dante, Chaucer and the Currency of the Word, p. 8.

[8] Winthrop Wetherbee, Chaucer and the Poets, p. 21.

[9] Karla Taylor, Chaucer Reads "The Divine Comedy, " p. 209.


argues against Dante as openly as he does here. He pays a compliment here and picks a quarrel there, but for the most part he silently assimilates what he can use, and ignores the rest. If his subsequent engagement with Dantean poetry is not as sustained as it is here, however, Chaucer does not shy from taking Dante on again" (p. 209). In chapter 2 I argue the opposite view, that the real assimilation of the Comedy begins with The Canterbury Tales rather than before. I also contend that Chaucer, while no direct imitator, was no enemy to Dante's poetic principles and in fact applied them in his own epic project. My starting point, in other words, is that the intertextuality between the Comedy and The Canterbury Tales results from the fact that one poem responds to the other in a conscious attempt to continue the poetic tradition that Dante was himself continuing, as he indicates by making Virgil the guide for much of his Pilgrim's journey.[10] That Dante's quasi-autobiographical narrative should be regarded as a conscious continuation of Virgilian epic with its quasi-historical narrative may well strike the reader as problematic, though perhaps no more so than the idea that The Canterbury Tales is modeled on the Comedy, given the striking formal differences between the two. Like the Comedy, The Canterbury Tales is still a first-person narrative, yet it is clearly less a "novel of the self," in Freccero's phrase,[11] and more a poem with a communal vision. But this contrast is itself questionable. John Freccero has written that the "process" of Dante's poem,

which is to say the progress of the pilgrim, is the transformation of the problematic and humanistic into the certain and transcendent, from novelistic involvement to epic detachment, from a synchronic view of the self in a dark wood to a diachronic total view of the entire world as if it were, to use Dante's powerful image, a humble threshing floor upon which a providential history will one day separate the wheat from the chaff.[12]

This description does not seem to me altogether accurate, since "novelistic involvement" and "epic detachment," like the problematic and the certain, appear to be intertwined throughout, but it does

[10] Throughout the following chapters I will use "Pilgrim" with a capital P to designate Dante-the-pilgrim, and "Poet" for Dante-the-poet of the Comedy . As we shall see, the distinction between these two entities is by no means as clear-cut as my typographical convention might imply.

[11] See John Freccero, "The River of Death," in Freccero, Dante: The Poetics of Conversion, p. 57.

[12] "The Prologue Scene," in Poetics of Conversion, pp. 25–26.


very neatly point up the full scope of the Comedy 's project to view the life of the individual in relation to that of the community[13] and of universal history.

For all the contrast between the paths they travel—literal road to Canterbury and mysterious, circling route to the Empyrean—the scope of The Canterbury Tales is scarcely less ambitious than that of the Comedy . Both are pilgrimage or quest epics, and I will argue that the quest of one protagonist, Dante's Pilgrim, is, as it were, recapitulated, in whole and in part, by Chaucer's many pilgrim tale-tellers. To claim that every pilgrim with his or her tale recapitulates (at least in intention) the entire Dantean pilgrimage would of course be hyperbolic. The more usual situation is that in their recapitulation the various pilgrims comment or focus on one or more aspects of the Dantean pilgrimage. Thus some pilgrims-plus-tale may appear in a predominantly "infernal" mode, others in a "purgatorial," and so forth. But always there is a sense of the whole, since like Dante's Pilgrim, Chaucer's pilgrims are still en route. For this reason, too, Chaucer's pilgrims are perhaps most like the characters the Pilgrim encounters in the Purgatorio, since these are not yet fixed—as those in the other two canticles appear to be—but in transition, like actual, living persons. Again, the contrast is by no means perfect, since Dante's three realms are really so many ways of looking at one reality—a point that Freccero's statement quoted earlier also implies.

If, now, we inquire into the goal or object of the pilgrimage-quest in either poem, we enter into the province of their allegory. In the Comedy this province is demarcated clearly enough as the otherworld fiction, where, for all its vivid realism, the literal asks to be translated into the metaphoric, the concrete into the abstract. And it is in the Inferno, where the Pilgrim encounters distorted, mutilated, and transformed versions of a sinful and suffering humanity, that the object of the quest becomes unmistakable. Allegorically, that is, the self-alienated Pilgrim is searching for his own lost image and, in so doing, for that of humankind at large. He recapitulates, accordingly, the human predicament since the self-inflicted wound of original sin. Arguably, however, the predicament begins even before the Fall, with God's statement "Let us make man in our image, after our

[13] Whose "monologic" voice or mouthpiece the epic is traditionally thought to be. On "epic monologism," see Mikhail M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, "Epic and Novel," especially pp. 13ff; and the comments by Julia Kristeva, in Desire in Language, p. 77.


likeness" (Gen. 1.26). The enigmatic character of these words led Augustine to conclude, in his commentary on Genesis, that human beings were created incomplete and therefore must define or form themselves: "The light itself [of the human intellect] was first created, in which the understanding of God's word would come into being, by which it had been created, and this understanding had to turn away from its own unformed state to the forming God and be created and formed."[14]

The predicament, in other words, is not only intellectual but also existential. From the moment of its creation, the human creature has the arduous task, in Herbert Schade's words, of "tirelessly seeking its way back to the lost paradise and heaven."[15] For the Pilgrim astray in the selva oscura of this world, it seems, this task has suddenly taken on an especially urgent, personal meaning. Consequently, his vision in heaven at journey's end, of the divine-human image—nostra effige —painted (pinta ) in the circle of Eternal Light (Par . XXXIII.131), does not perhaps resolve the enigma posed by Genesis 1.26 but unmistakably signifies that he has reached the goal of his quest in personal (and presumably also paradigmatic) terms. The Poet's words following his attempt to describe the vision, "Here force failed my high fantasy" ("A I'alta fantasia qui mancò possa," 142), indicate that his entire being was engaged in this vision and that to reach this point is to lose the sense of a bounded self and to discover one's will and desire, as it were, outside oneself, moved "by / the Love that moves the sun and the other stars" (144–45).

The allegory of the quest for the human image, then, is at the same time one of the protagonist's self-discovery: it can be observed in every one of the Pilgrim's encounters with the residents of the otherworld. Its pattern—what I shall call the "allegorical plot"—is most fully laid out in the mysterious and bizarre episode, discussed at length in chapter 3, involving the composite monster Geryon. In the Pilgrim this monster inspires mainly terror, even though his guide Virgil has already alerted him to the fact that its origin is in the Pilgrim's own thought, that it is, in short, his image, at once bestial and human, of himself. Self-encounter, the allegory here suggests, is an adventure involving a high degree of risk—of self-hatred, despair, madness . . .

[14] Quoted, in German translation, by Herbert Schade, "Das Paradies und die Imago Dei," p. 124. For the Latin, see De Genesi ad Litteram, pp. 86–87.

[15] Schade, "Das Paradies," p. 182.


True to the epic's title, the adventure here, as elsewhere, has a comically anticlimactic ending as the suddenly serviceable beast transports the Pilgrim and his guide through the infernal void. Allegorically, the narrative intimates a subtle transformation taking place in the Pilgrim's soul. But that is not all. The episode also illustrates, even if in an elusive way, the principle of allegory Dante enunciated in the Convivio, affirming the primacy of the literal level. The discussion of allegory in the Convivio is by no means altogether clear, and I certainly do not mean to be dogmatic about it in my interpretation. Instead, I want to hazard the suggestion that Dante's insistence on the primacy of the literal is part of his poetic agenda to reconnect what Western dualism (whether overt or covert) habitually tends to disjoin: body and soul, matter and spirit, animal and human. The Geryon episode seems to me a working out of this allegorical agenda, for Geryon as image of the self is at once an image of the soul and of the body, and the conclusion of the episode implies the error of regarding the physical, "animal nature" in purely instrumental terms, an error that is, precisely, a source of human self-alienation.

In the spirit of literal pilgrimage, The Canterbury Tales substitutes a whole group of pilgrims for one, and its "allegorical plot" is accordingly more dispersed, less clearly structured. Individually and collectively, nonetheless, Chaucer's pilgrims are also part of the allegorical quest to define and redefine the human image and likeness. Collectively they form an open symposiastic circle in which everyone contributes to the debate but no conclusion is reached.

In the absence of a final, "paradisal" vision, however (unless we accept that discussed in chapter 8), there is one pilgrim's tale that, like the Geryon episode in Inferno XVI and XVII, epitomizes the allegorical quest for the human image in—supreme Chaucerian irony!—a beast fable, and does so by erasing the traditional theological and other distinctions between the animal and the human. I discuss the Nun's Priest's Tale, to which I am of course referring, by way of concluding my consideration of allegory in chapter 3.

In the next chapter I deal with what I call "epic theater" as a complement to or realization of the allegorical plot. The theatrical has been recognized as part of epic tradition ever since Aristotle praised Homer for the dramatic-mimetic character of his poems, and in its general structure the Comedy conforms to epic tradition both in the way the work functions as a cosmic theater and in the way


the Poet "stages" his narration of many of the poem's scenes as well as his own role in relation to the reader. As for the cosmic theater, it is suggested by the celestial amphitheater in the Paradiso, where the blessed are pictured as the privileged spectators of what goes on in the world.

Except in the Knight's Tale, and to an extent in the Merchant's Tale, where the pagan gods are the witnesses of earthly affairs as they are in classical epic, The Canterbury Tales lacks a properly cosmic theater. Instead, it transfers its primary epic theater to earth, once again to the road to Canterbury. There it has, furthermore, the improvised, spontaneous character of much medieval theater: the Host does act in his self-appointed role as master of ceremonies, but his control is partial at best, and one tale-telling performance often seems, unpredictably, to generate another. And for the pilgrims themselves the tale-telling is their adventure, involving unforeseeable risks, and as such it parallels the quest on which Dante's Pilgrim sets out from the selva oscura .

My suggestion is that the tales represent the realm of the pilgrims' soul-searching, with all the dangers that can involve. But to put the matter that way is to fall into the trap—perhaps not always avoided in the following pages—of traditional criticism's use of the concept of "character" as though it were an irreducible given, a signifier endowed with soul and who knows what other characteristics. Marshall Leicester seems to me entirely right when in his superb article on the relation of Chaucer's pilgrims to their tales, "The Art of Impersonation: A General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, " he states:

The voicing of any tale, the personality of any pilgrim, is not given in advance by the prologue portrait or the facts of history, nor is it dependent on them. The personality has to be worked out by analyzing and defining the voice created by each tale. It is this personality in the foreground, in his or her intensive and detailed textual life, that supplies a guide to the weighting of details and emphasis, whether portrait or history.[16]

Incontestably, the personality of the pilgrims, as of any literary character, is the effect of the text and of the active intervention of the reader attentive not only to the what and how of the text but also

[16] See H. Marshall Leister, Jr., in PMLA 95 (1980): 217.


to its gaps, what it does not say but leaves to be inferred.[17] Leicester's comments on Chaucer the pilgrim-narrator in his conversational exchange with the Monk make the point perfectly:

What we have, in fact, is a speaker who is not giving too much of himself away, who is not telling us, any more than he told the Monk, his whole mind in plain terms. The tensions among social, moral, and existential worlds are embodied in a single voice here, and they are embodied precisely as tensions, not as a resolution or synthesis, for we cannot tell exactly what the speaker thinks either of the Monk or of conventional morality. What we can tell is that we are dealing with a speaker who withholds himself from us, with the traces of a presence that asserts its simultaneous absence. The speaker is present as uncomprehended, as not to be seized all at once in his totality. He displays his difference from his externalizations, his speaking, in the very act of externalizing himself. It is this effect, I think, that creates the feeling of "reality" in the text, the sense that there is somebody there.[18]

At the same time these comments do imply what I think is true, namely, that we do credit a character like "Chaucer the pilgrim" with at least potential depth, interiority, mystery, even before the text has had much opportunity to establish its identity or "voice." And if this is true of "Chaucer the pilgrim," there seems to be no good reason why it should not be true of the Monk, the Knight, or any of the other pilgrims. That, at any rate, is my argument in chapter 4: that the reader, on the basis of their General Prologue portraits, already has a sense of the pilgrims' identity even before they start telling their tales. In other words, Warren Ginsberg seems right in saying that "the Canterbury pilgrims are twice-formed at least; once by their tales, once by their frames."[19] In a slightly different sense the same applies to the characters in the Comedy before we ever hear their story: they, too, receive a prologal, provisional, or preliminary identity by the particular place they occupy in the otherworld, by the shape or manner in which they manifest themselves to the Pilgrim, and by the extratextual fame as historical or literary figures that they may bring with them.

[17] See the closely argued essay to that effect by Philippe Hamon, "Pour un statut sémiologique du personnage."

[18] Leicester, "The Art of Impersonation," p. 220. Just below the passage cited we read: "His lack of definition may also explain why he can be taken for Chaucer the pilgrim. . . . his identity is a function of what he leaves unspoken—because it is derived from implication, irony, innuendo, the potentialities of meaning and intention that occur in the gaps between observations drawn from radically different realms of discourse."

[19] Warren Ginsberg, The Cast of Character, p. 164.


In calling The Canterbury Tales "a literary imitation of oral performance" (p. 212), Leicester has something rather different in mind from the idea of epic theater I am proposing for The Canterbury Tales and the Comedy, but I think his conclusion about the relation of Chaucer the speaker to his poem can be readily extended to a broader notion of narrative theatricality in these two poems:

The relation of the voice that speaks in the General Prologue to the personality of the poet is like that of an individual portrait to its tale and that of the Prologue itself to all the tales. It is a prologal voice, a voice that is only beginning to speak. Chaucer's Prologue, like this prologue of mine, needs the tales to fulfill itself in the gradual and measured but always contingent and uncertain activity of impersonation in both senses. The speaker of the Canterbury Tales —Chaucer—is indeed as fictional as the pilgrims, in the sense that he is a self-constructing voice. He practices what I have called the art of impersonation, finally, to impersonate himself, to create himself as fully as he can in his work. (P. 222)

Clearly, if the (fictional) poet impersonates the "voices" of the different pilgrims and in so doing ultimately impersonates himself, then, on another, "theatrical" level the pilgrims also impersonate themselves even as they impersonate the "voices" of their tales.

What this means is that we come to see the pilgrims as actors (on an imaginary stage) who have a reality or an existence somehow apart and separate from their voice or the role they are playing. They are, to reiterate the point, analogues of the poet-narrator who impersonates them, to whom as readers we readily ascribe an extratextual reality. In the case of the fictive pilgrims, the name for that reality, I shall argue, is the body, that mysterious entity—unrepresentable except by real actors on an actual stage—which is not simply a physical object among others but an integral part of the human person. "One cannot say that one has a body or is in it," Gerald Bruns has written, "as if the body were something objective, an entity apart, a form of containment or prison-house. It is true perhaps," Bruns continues,

that in virtue of our bodies we are brought up against otherness, our own temporality, where we are always turning into someone else. But this just means that the body does not seal us off from whatever is apart: it is our mode of being temporal, of entering into apartness, which is to say: our mortality, our being mortal. It is in virtue of our bodies that we come into our own, that is, appear as what we are (situated, historical, contingent, mortal). The body (the outward and visible sign, not of the soul, but of mortality) catches us up, absorbs us, incarnates us and carries us along, not,


however, as its burden or its passenger but as its dancer. Think of the dance as a carrying away, bodily, as by the sheer exuberance or overflowing of embodiment, a releasement. It is no accident that Heidegger figures the belonging-together of earth and sky, gods and mortals (that is, the world) as a dance. The body is our mode of dancing, that is, our mode of belonging to the world, fitting into it, being appropriate to it, owning up to it, acknowledging or accepting it. One could say: the body is our mode of belonging to Saying, whose "soundless voice" calls upon us to speak (or sing) aloud, as with the body.[20]

My reason for quoting at such length from Bruns's essay is for its relevance not only to my discussion of epic theater but also to the larger theme, which I have attributed to Dantean allegory, of the recuperation of the body. Thus what Bruns says about the body as carrying us along not "as its burden or its passenger but as its dancer" anticipates to an extraordinary degree my discussion of Geryon in chapter 3 (especially what I see as a bilingual pun at Inferno XVII.99 on soma, meaning in Italian "burden," in Greek "body"). And surely the dance described in this passage is one kind of gloss on the concluding lines of the Paradiso ?

As will be evident to the reader, it is here, with the theme of the body, that our two topics, epic theater and allegory, come to coincide. Not only do Chaucer's pilgrims in their playacting on the road to Canterbury acquire a body (however provisional and hypothetical) of their own, by which they come to embody the human image rather than merely illustrate it abstractly,[21] but also, as we are frequently reminded in the first two canticles of the Comedy, even in the otherworld the Pilgrim retains his literal, concrete ("extratextual") body. These reminders, it seems to me, serve two different, quite contradictory purposes. On the one hand, they draw the reader's attention to the fact that this is after all an allegory in which the corporeal demands to be translated into the spiritual, the literal into the metaphoric. On the other hand, the reminder that an embodied Pilgrim, like the reader herself, is intruding on disembodied shades,

[20] Gerald L. Bruns, "Disappeared: Heidegger and the Emancipation of Language," in Languages of the Unsayable, ed. Sanford Budick and Wolfgang Iser, p. 130.

[21] In Freudian terms, in acquiring a body they also acquire an unconscious: see Paul Ricoeur's discussion of "the mode of being of the body, neither representation in me nor thing outside of me," but "the ontic model for any conceivable unconscious. This status as model stems not from the vital determination of the body, but from the ambiguity of its mode of being. A meaning that exists is a meaning caught up within a body, a meaningful behavior." See Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation, p. 382.


seems to suggest a break with allegory and its entrenched assumption that letter and spirit, body and soul, material and immaterial constitute neatly distinguishable realms that can yet stand in for each other. One implication would seem to be that in the Comedy Dante is redrawing the intellectual map of medieval Europe in such a way as to make the physical, the human body, an integral part of it.

A recent book by Robert P. Harrison entitled The Body of Beatrice lends support to this proposition. It argues that the figure of Beatrice in the Vita Nuova differs significantly from the figure of the lady to be found in the poetry of the troubadours or of contemporaries like Cavalcanti, precisely because Dante insists on seeing her not just as image but also as body . Dante, he says, "never ceased to acknowledge the exteriority of Beatrice or the historical otherness of her being in the world. It is this otherness that I have been calling her body."[22] Beatrice, Harrison suggests, is also at the center of the Comedy 's poetics, and this helps to account for that poem's ability to represent, in his words, "the embodied historical world" without compromising its "exteriority and otherness" (p. 52). In a later chapter I return to Harrison's subtly argued thesis, which obviously fits very well with my own reading of the Comedy . Meanwhile, the question remains just how the body—whether Beatrice's or that of other literary characters like the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales —can manifest itself textually .

Like Spinoza's "absent cause" or Lacan's Real, which "resists symbolization absolutely,"[23] the body cannot make itself felt directly in the text, but only indirectly, perhaps by the kind of "gaps" that an author creates in his narrative "so that," in Wolfgang Iser's words, "the reader has room to enter into it."[24] In The Implied Reader Iser discusses such gaps as may occur in a narrative between a represented world and a particular system of values, or when the narrative is suddenly broken off; they elicit, Iser suggests, the reader's active participation and so serve as a powerful means of bringing the text to life. Both types of gap mentioned here are common in The Canterbury Tales and the Comedy . One has only to think of the General Prologue and the question of what system of values the reader is expected to apply to the various pilgrims. Is the Knight, for instance,

[22] Robert Pogue Harrison, The Body of Beatrice, p. 54.

[23] I am drawing here on Fredric Jameson's definition of history in The Political Unconscious, p. 35.

[24] Wolfgang Iser, The Implied Reader, p. 138.


to be judged by the traditional standards of chivalry (whatever they might be)? Or is Terry Jones correct in arguing that he should be judged by altogether different criteria?[25] Is the Prioress to be condemned for her numerous violations of the rules of the convent? And is the Monk wrong to "leet olde thynges pace" (I.175), like the monastic rules of St. Benedict and St. Maurus? And if he is wrong, how wrong is the poet-narrator to say, "And I seyde his opinion was good" (183)? These and questions like them require the reader's constant active participation and surely have a great deal to do with the "vitality" traditionally attributed to Chaucer's characters. The same applies to the Comedy, where the question of what criteria to judge its characters by must constantly be faced. In the Comedy Dante also develops to a fine point of perfection the second type of gap mentioned above: the abrupt ending of a narrative, which forces the reader to complete, in Iser's words, the "realization of the text" (p. 35). We need only think of Francesca's "that day we read no more" (Inf. V.138), or of La Pia's three-line summary of her destiny (Purg. V.134–36). But even the spaces between the cantos can be seen as examples of Iser's "gaps," like the various spaces created between tales and links by editorial (?) headings in The Canterbury Tales .

The reader will not necessarily apprehend a body or bodies, of course, upon "entering" the text through one of these "gaps." However, in terms of our concern with epic theater it does make sense to think of the implied reader—now, needless to say, also a member of the implied audience—as "realizing" the text by a kind of physical empathy, a projection of his or her bodily sensations onto the text. In the Comedy this bodily empathy might be especially stimulated by the incongruity between the image presented of the otherworld residents and the sense of them as human characters as they engage in dialogue with the Pilgrim. As an instance there are the double tongues of flame from which, disconcertingly, there issues the voice of Ulysses with his magnificent peroration (Inf. XXVI). Here the problematic contrast, as Iser might say, between the presented image and the "actual" character speaking allows for, or entices, the engagement of the reader's own bodily sense.

In The Canterbury Tales the gaps occur above all whenever the need or possibility arises of establishing a connection between the

[25] See Terry Jones, Chaucer's Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary .


portraits of the pilgrims in the General Prologue and their dramatic roles as they unfold on the road to Canterbury and especially, of course, in the course of their tales. When the reader "enters" through these gaps, the textual pilgrims achieve a vitality and an autonomy analogous to the reader's own sense of self. Part of the reason for this is because the reader is also, like the audience in the theater, witnessing a play-within-a-play. Just as the play-audience is invested with a greater degree of "reality" than the players they are watching, so the pilgrims become less fictive or closer to real selves in the act of telling their fictive stories. And then there are those occasions, analogous to Dante's interweaving of narrative, simile, and metaphor, when the tales blend into the world of the pilgrims—most spectacularly, perhaps, in the Merchant's Tale, where Justinus cites the Wife of Bath as an authority on marriage (IV.1685–87)[26] —so that the reader is once again compelled to "step in" and adjust his perspective on the fiction.

The final four chapters focus on a number of individual Canterbury tales and the varieties of intertextuality with the Comedy that they evidence. The Monk's Tale, as I try to show in chapter 5, is a strange amalgam of literary allusion, parody, and philosophical reflection. In the first instance it is a commentary on the Inferno by way of recreating and reinterpreting a number of "instances," ancient and modern, historical and mythical, in the mode of the Monk's idea of tragedy. The Monk himself is a Boccaccio figure, by which I mean the Boccaccio of the De Casibus Virorum Illustrium (the major "source" of the Monk's Tale) and the commentator on the Comedy both in his public lectures delivered in Florence and in the one hundred tales of his Decameron, which carry on a "sustained dialogue" with the one hundred cantos of the Comedy .[27] What emerges from the Monk's re-creative commentary is no less than a meditation on history as the record of mankind's struggle for autonomy and freedom. In the course of that struggle, the Monk's tragedies show, the human image becomes most ambiguous, for at the very moment that it seems utterly degraded it is likely to appear in unexpectedly exalted forms.

[26] In the process giving much offense to positivistically inclined critics. See the note ad loc. in the Riverside edition, p. 887.

[27] The vexed question of Chaucer's acquaintance with the Decameron has not yet been settled, but scholarly opinion seems to be inclining toward the affirmative in the matter.


Philosophically, the Monk's Tale embodies the kind of Stoic humanism implicit in Seneca's tragedies, the same humanism that underlies the Inferno, as the strange figure of Cato, transitional between Inferno and Purgatorio, would seem to confirm. Another index of this humanism is the notion of contrapasso operative in the Inferno . It implies that the sinners of that canticle have condemned themselves before the bar of their own conscience by the very sin they have consciously embraced, which through a kind of repetition compulsion continues to torment them. Chapter 6 discusses the Friar and the Summoner—the most demonic, in the Dantean sense, of the Canterbury pilgrims—as, together with their tales, perfect examples of the idea of contrapasso as I have defined it. Once again, it is they, rather than a higher authority, who condemn themselves, as well as each other, to hell, and they do so before a jury of their fellow pilgrims.

The last two chapters deal with the Clerk's Tale and the Merchant's Tale, respectively, and address the question of allegory in its relation—ultimately—to the fear of death. As Harold Bloom has shrewdly suggested, allegory, or the habit of troping, is a way of warding off death: "Death is therefore a kind of literal meaning, or from the standpoint of poetry, literal meaning is a kind of death. Defenses can be said to trope against death, rather in the same sense that tropes can be said to defend against literal meaning ."[28] What Bloom calls the standpoint of poetry we may in this case identify with Petrarch, the source of the Clerk's Tale. In his prologue and envoy, at any rate, the Clerk seems to intimate Petrarch's obsession with death, insisting that not only Petrarch but also his "heroine," Griselda is dead, "And both at ones buryed in Ytaille" (IV.1178). Their allegorizing, even of themselves, has not protected them against the ultimate destiny.[29] The man who "enlumyned al Ytaille of poetrie," the Clerk notes with curious emphasis, "is now deed and nayled in his cheste" (33, 29).

From the standpoint of Petrarchan allegory the great enemy is life in the body, subject as it is to contingency and the final catastrophe of death. It is thus in direct opposition to Dantean allegory, which,

[28] Harold Bloom, A Map of Misreading, p. 91.

[29] In Chaucer's Sexual Poetics Carolyn Dinshaw makes the excellent point that, as she puts it, Griselda "reads herself symbolically" and as an "allegorical image" (p. 146). In his Rime Petrarch can be said to do the same thing (i.e., to himself, not just to Laura).


as we have noted, insists on the primacy of the literal and the necessity of recognizing the body as integral to the human being. It looks as though the Clerk has reached something like this conclusion when, after finishing his tale, he sings a humorous encomium to the Wife of Bath. The Wife, that is, like Beatrice and unlike Griselda, will not submit to the violence of Petrarchan allegory, which is always ready to sacrifice the literal story for the sake of the "tropical" message. Just as she would never passively endure Walter's arbitrary violence against his wife Griselda, so she will not allow herself to be troped in order to demonstrate a spiritual or moral truth.

The verbal violence that the Merchant in his Prologue directs at his wife of two months suggests that he has troped her and that like Walter in the Clerk's Tale he has entered into marriage with motives once again bound up with the fear of death. However, the tale the Merchant proceeds to tell is thoroughly Dantean; indeed, it most fully exemplifies the intertextual relationship between Chaucer's epic project and the Comedy, for both of which marriage serves in different ways as the "mirror" where the human image and enterprise are most perfectly reflected. In this connection, the crucial mediating text for both poems is the Old Testament's Song of Songs, in the first instance, as passionate love poem, and, in the second, as storehouse of the West's marital symbolism. Thus the long-delayed "reunion" of the Pilgrim and Beatrice in the Purgatorio is presented in terms that suggest the triumph of a love "strong as death," in the words of the Song of Songs (8.6), between the Solomonic bridegroom and his bride.

Now, the Merchant's Tale reenacts the (re)union of the Pilgrim and Beatrice and of Solomon and his bride in the fabliau-style marriage of January and May. The effect, however, is in the long run one not so much of parody as of a seriocomic exploration of the way the human image, for all its glorious divine origin, has been split into two, so that body is divided from soul, heart from head, and so forth. The tale suggests that the culprit is the West's allegorical habit of mind and offers as "evidence" the interpretive fate suffered by the Song of Songs. When January invites May to accompany him into their erotic garden retreat, he does so in the powerful language of the Song of Songs, language that the Merchant-narrator dismisses as "olde lewed wordes" (IV.2149). The Merchant here repeats a gesture performed by a long line of ecclesiastical commentators, of suppressing the text's literal meaning for the sake of a


spiritual allegory. And the consequences of this suppression have been particularly fateful in the case of the Song of Songs, since it has meant eliminating the erotic from the category of the sacred as from official Christian consciousness. And the result of that has been many centuries of Christian theology troping against death and life in fearful uncertainty as to which is to be preferred.

The Comedy 's own erotic garden, the Earthly Paradise in the Purgatorio where the Pilgrim and Beatrice are united, leaves little doubt as to where Dante's poem stands on this question. Its significance at the ambiguous boundary between earth and heaven, life and death, a boundary the living, embodied Pilgrim is able to cross effortlessly, seems to me well glossed by Philippe Sollers's commentary on Bataille's assertion that "we have been given the power to face death directly, and to see there at last the opening onto the unintelligible and unknowable continuity which is the secret of eroticism, and of which eroticism bears the secret."[30]

This opening [writes Sollers] is achieved not abstractly, but through the body. Not through the abstract element generally designated by this word, but at the heart of the material mass whose effects, opacity, resistances, and deviations we believe we dominate. The body is what the idea of "man" does not manage to destroy; it is what cries out mutely before the self-assurance of reason and propriety; it is that tapestry in which our shape shifts and alters, the weaving of desire and of the dream, of deep organic life pursuing its work of death; it is the "continuous" from which we fashion a visible, insistent discontinuity for ourselves and for others. The body is that in us that is always "more" than us, that kills its own representation in us and kills us silently. Through discourse and science we can know this body's conspicuous activities, its contingencies, modifications, uses, and speech; in sum, its formal activity. But only eroticism gives us access to its flesh, in other words, not to a "substance" but to its own inscription, to the excess which is this ungraspable inscription's relation to itself.[31]

[30] See Georges Bataille, Erotism, p. 24. The wording of this translation, by Mary Dalwood, varies somewhat from Sollers's.

[31] Philippe Sollers, "The Roof: Essay in Systematic Reading," in Sollers, Writing and the Experience of Limits, p. 116.


The Question of Genre:
The Canterbury Tales as Dantean Epic

The nineteenth-century notion of The Canterbury Tales as an anthology or collection of miscellaneous tales is no longer widely accepted, yet there has been little discussion in modern times about the genre to which The Canterbury Tales ought to be assigned. Not one of the notable discussions of the poem to appear in recent years, so far as I am aware, devotes any space to the question. Donald R. Howard, for example, whose book is significantly entitled The Idea of the Canterbury Tales, begins like most Chaucerians today, with the premise that despite its variety Chaucer's poem has a conceptual unity. He argues persuasively that the "inner form" of The Canterbury Tales can be understood in terms of the metaphors of speculum and labyrinth, but aside from a reference to the "interlace" of medieval romance, he does not attempt to connect the poem to any of the recognized medieval literary genres.[1]

One reason for the neglect of this topic in contemporary Chaucer studies has doubtless been a justifiable distrust of genre criticism, a distrust that could only be magnified in the case of a fragmentary text like The Canterbury Tales, which is itself already composed of a prolific variety of genres, from the fabliau to the sermon. How is one going to fit such variousness into a single generic category? For these and other reasons the reluctance to speculate about the genre of The Canterbury Tales seems understandable, and yet I believe that the attempt to establish a genre for the poem as a whole has value.

[1] Donald R. Howard, The Idea of the Canterbury Tales, pp. 217ff., 327ff.


It can only help to clarify the "idea" of Chaucer's unfinished poem by suggesting its primary literary antecedents and the general shape it might have had when completed. Not that the genre I am proposing for The Canterbury Tales, that of the medieval epic as an extension of the classical, Greco-Roman epic, has a very clearly defined shape. Its narrative begins, or should begin, according to Horace's verse epistle, in "the middle of things" ("De Arte Poetica," l. 148), and it has a tendency to end there, with many loose strands and most questions unresolved. As a genre, indeed, the epic is perhaps the most perfect example of the way some recent theory views all genre: as a nonlimiting form in which heterogeneous conventions and narrative patterns compete with each other but are ultimately harmonized.[2] At least since Virgil, the epic as a genre has been perhaps rather like a problem or project an author takes on involving history in a dual sense: political, dealing with the destiny of peoples, Horace's "res gestae regumque ducumque et tristia bella" (things done by kings and leaders and dire wars, "De Arte Poetica," 1. 73); and literary, the evocation of a past literature as providing a model to be imitated and revised.

The epic poet's self-imposed task as interpreter and mediator of this twofold past may well have prompted Virgil to begin the Aeneid with an uncharacteristic bit of literary "autobiography":

Ille ego, qui quondam gracili modulatus avena
carmen, et egressus silvis vicina coegi
ut quamvis avido parerent arva colono,
gratum opus agricolis; at nunc horrentia Martis
arms virumque cano. . . .

(I am he who once tuned my song on a slender reed, then, leaving the
woodland, constrained the neighbouring fields to serve the
husbandmen, however grasping—a work welcome to farmers: but
now of Mars' bristling arms I sing and the man. . . .)

But it is scarcely surprising that the authenticity of the first four lines has often been questioned, for Virgil otherwise adheres strictly to the impersonality of classical epic. Nowhere else in the Aeneid does he draw attention to himself as a poet with a career, however symbolically idealized, of his own. In countless ways, however, the text

[2] I am adapting what Fredric Jameson says, in The Political Unconscious, p. 144, about the problematic genre of the "great" nineteenth-century European novel. The discussion of genre theory in the chapter entitled "Magical Narratives" strikes me as excellent.


of the Aeneid shows a poet working in full awareness of his literary predecessors, epitomized for him by Homer. The poet is literally a textor, a weaver combining strands from the Iliad and the Odyssey to tell his story of Aeneas. This point has often been noted and has at times led to the judgment that Virgil was excessively dependent on his exemplary texts, allowing his project to be overwhelmed by them. It seems possible that Virgil's own reputed dissatisfaction with his poem sprang from similar doubts, but such a negative opinion surely ignores the extraordinary originality with which he forged his Homeric materials into a quite non- or post-Homeric vision of human destiny where men and gods are, as it were, "historicized," that is, seen to derive their being from their place in a historical continuum. This continuum is dominated by a succession of different ethe, now passionate, violent, unselfconscious, now detached, inward, cunning, and so forth. These do not, however, cancel each other out but in their mutual strife or competition constitute a kind of historical "deep structure" of which earthly events are the visible manifestation.

For all the sense of a ceaseless and mysterious process that the Aeneid presents, its reflective style implies a kind of superior vantage point from which the bewildering scene can be viewed and analyzed. It is this effect of the style, I suggest, that Dante personifies in the figure of Virgil in the Comedy, giving it the role of the Pilgrim's guide through hell and purgatory. "You are my master and my author" ("Tu se' lo mio maestro e'l mio autore," Inf. I.85), the Pilgrim tells him when he first meets Virgil, and the words reverberate throughout the Comedy . Now, the extensive medieval legend of Virgil the magus and proto-Christian undoubtedly contributed to the creation of Dante's fictional Virgil, yet the primary source was surely the authorial personality Dante inferred from the poems, particularly the Aeneid .[3] In that sense, I would say, the Virgil of the Comedy is "textual," the result of a bold act of literary interpretation in which author and text are identified.

Dante thus makes explicit from the beginning of his poem what remains implicit throughout the Aeneid : his Comedy acknowledges one master-text and will engage in a form of dialogue with it. This

[3] For the medieval legends of Virgil, see especially Domenico Comparetti, Vergil in the Middle Ages . On Dante's "textual" Virgil, see the interesting comments by Geoffrey L. Bickersteth as quoted in Bernard Stambler, Dante's Other World, p. 77.


has the further effect of placing the Comedy in the epic tradition, a tradition Dante brings to a kind of life when the Pilgrim and Virgil join the shades of Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan in Limbo. Dante-the-poet-pilgrim is invited to be the sixth in this group of classical poets (Inf . IV.100–103), which constitutes what admittedly looks like a rather idiosyncratic line of epic descent. The presence of Horace, the one decidedly nonepic poet in the group, might be accounted for, I suggest, by the fact that like Ovid he was a contemporary of Virgil and thus underscores the centrality, in Dante's scheme, not just of Virgil but also of the Rome of Virgil's time.

The figure of Virgil is a major crux in the Comedy, full discussion of which is well beyond the scope of this chapter. It epitomizes the momentous transformation of the epic genre wrought by the Comedy ; thereafter, the personal role of the poet becomes absolutely central. At the same time Dante's Virgil foregrounds a problem that in the classical epic remains altogether submerged: the relation between individual, personal history and collective, "universal" history. In the classical epic the individual tends to be treated as part of the great historical scheme of things (whether as victim, victor, or mere bystander). Not so in Dante's epic. There the individual has his or her own history, and the question is how that fits into the pattern of a larger, global history. Thus Virgil, the poet who in the famous sixth book of his epic described his hero's visit to the underworld, is ideally qualified to serve as guide and model for the story of a pilgrimage through the otherworld. As a historical individual, however, born sub Iulio, "nel tempo de li dei false e bugiardi" ("in the time of the false and lying gods," Inf . I.72), he suffers from a fatal flaw or disability: he is eternally barred from entrance into the heavenly city, having been in life, as he affirms, a rebel to the heavenly emperor's law (Inf . I.124–26). The pagan poet is thus, in the perspective of the Christian scheme of history, a problematical, even paradoxical, guide in this Christian pilgrimage.

As such, Virgil also raises a personal question for the poet of the Comedy : Is Dante's ambition to be the author of a great Christian epic perhaps a terrible mistake or an anachronism? In other words, is the very idea of Christian literature a contradiction in terms? Virgil's paganism, and that of his fellow poets in Limbo, might suggest that in the perspective of a Christian dispensation the very pursuit of literature leads only to a dead end, to a way of condemning oneself


to a life of desire without hope.[4] Or is there a specifically Christian kind of poetry that can escape this sense of futility? Perhaps that is what the Comedy is intended to figure forth. Giuseppe Mazzotta seems to believe that such is the case when he speaks of "the radical predicament of a Christian poet [like Dante] who seeks more than an esthetic humanistic redemption and less than to perform the supreme transgression of writing an appendix to the Bible."[5] The dilemma represented by these alternatives undoubtedly played its part in the composition of the Comedy, but my hunch is that what the Comedy is concerned with in the first place is the redemption of poetry, or literature, as such, regardless of its doctrinal or other orientation. Let us not forget that Dante is proud to count himself as one of the select company of pagan poets in Limbo.

The figure of Statius, which appears in Purgatorio XXI–XXVII, illustrates the complexity of the problem and simultaneously, I believe, hints at a resolution. Statius attributes both his becoming a poet and his becoming a Christian to Virgil's influence—"Per te poeta fui, per te cristiano," "Through you I was a poet and, through you, / a Christian" (Purg . XXII.73)—but though by Dante's historical fiction Statius was a Christian before he finished his first epic, neither the Thebaid nor the unfinished Achilleid was explicitly Christian in content. There is thus a certain irony in his enthusiastic tribute to the Aeneid :

Al mio ardor fuor seme le faville,
    che mi scaldar, della divine flamma
    onde sono allumati più di mille;
    dell'Eneida dico, la qual mamma
    fummi e fummi nutrice poetando:
sanz'essa no fermai peso di dramma.
                                     ( Purg . XXI.94–99)

(The sparks that warmed me, the seeds of my ardor,
were from the holy fire—the same that gave
more than a thousand poets light and flame.
I speak of the Aeneid; when I wrote

[4] I am adapting Virgil's self-description, "sanza speme vivemo in disio" ("we have no hope and yet we live in longing," Inf . IV.42). In a recent study, Robert Hollander proposes the idea of a tragic Dantean Virgil who was an "inadequate" reader of his own poem and thus, unlike Statius, unable to save his own soul; see Il Virgilio Dantesco, p. 71. There is an important essay on Dante's Virgil by Colin Hardie, "Virgil in Dante," in Virgil and His Influence, ed. Charles Martindale, pp. 37–69.

[5] Giuseppe Mazzota, Dante, Poet of the Desert, p. 194.


verse, it was mother to me, it was nurse:
my work without it, would not weigh an ounce.)

The words recall Dante-the-pilgrim's passionate acknowledgment of his debt to Virgil (Inf . I.79ff.) and remind us that Statius is yet another "mirror" for the Pilgrim. The implied judgment on Statius as a poet, however, is that he represents a weak or an inadequate link in the heroic tradition. This is not primarily a matter of his self-confessed cowardice in refusing to declare himself openly a Christian in his poems; that merely obscures, I believe, what is in reality to be seen as his imaginative failure. As his wonderfully hyperbolic language intimates—mamma / fummi e fummi nutrice poetando —he had a childlike dependence on the Aeneid, drew too much of his poetic sustenance from it, so that when it came to writing his own poems he was unable to move beyond the Virgilian model. His lukewarm Christianity, it could almost be said, results from his failure to take his poetry seriously enough, to see it as a vital and integral part of his existence. Had he taken it more seriously, he might have gained the courage to write an overtly Christian epic. As it is, not he but Dante is the next in line of succession from Homer.

Statius, or rather the myth Dante has fashioned of him in the Purgatorio, thus provides in the first instance a negative answer to the question concerning a specifically Christian poetry. For Statius, even though he was converted to Christianity by the reading of a poem—Virgil's fourth Eclogue (Purg . XXII.70ff.)—Christianity and poetry exist in separate compartments; in his mind there is clearly no connection between them.[6] This is, I believe, one of a number of reasons that Statius does not replace Virgil as the Pilgrim's guide, despite the fact that he now reveals himself as somewhat of an authority on theological matters. Poetry plus theology is not what the Pilgrim—or the poet of the Comedy —is after. Instead, he continues to be guided by the pagan poet ignorant of the mysteries of Christian revelation. The implication, as I see it, is that any poetry, if pursued seriously, so far from being antagonistic to religious truth, is integral

[6] The story of his conversion from prodigality by misprision of a single line from the Aeneid (Purg . XXII.40f.) may well be intended to predispose the reader to a somewhat skeptical view of his subsequent conversion to Christianity. For a very different view of Statius's role in the Comedy, see Winthrop Wetherbee, "Dante and the Thebaid of Statius." My guess is that Statius's sin of prodigality, for which he did penance in Purgatory for over five hundred years (Purg . XXI.67f.), is a bit of covert literary criticism: what is called dismisura at Purg . XXII.35 could be the sheer rhetorical excess of the Thebaid .


to it.[7] And one further conclusion I should like to draw from the foregoing considerations is that there is no specifically Christian poetry. There is only poetry written by Christian, Jew, Muslim, "pagan" . . .

Virgil's sudden and wordless disappearance once the Pilgrim has entered the Earthly Paradise seems to accord with this conclusion. Here is no violent rupture, like the earthquake signaling that Statius has been cleansed of his sin (Purg . XX and XXI.58ff.), but a natural progression. The Pilgrim was about to speak to Virgil—who by now is a fellow traveler rather than a guide or master—and he has already formed the sentences in his head, but Virgil, he discovers, is no longer by his side (Purg . XXX.43ff.). The dialogue with Virgil, in other words, is not concluded, indeed, cannot be concluded, because Virgil and all that that name stands for has been fully internalized by the Pilgrim-poet, who is now ready to move on to the next stage of his pilgrimage, his encounter with Beatrice.[8]

In the preceding paragraphs I have tried to sketch in rough outline what I believe may have been Dante's understanding of the epic tradition and of his poem's place in it, from the evidence of the Comedy itself. My emphasis has been on Dante because I start from the premise that for his epic project Chaucer chose his Italian predecessor for a guide as Dante had chosen Virgil for his. In two poems composed before The Canterbury Tales, we can observe Chaucer looking ahead to and meditating upon his project. In both he has Dante in mind and alludes to the group of poets assembled in Dante's Limbo. First, there is the envoy to Troilus and Criseyde :

Go, litel bok, go, litel myn tragedye,
Ther God thi makere yet, er that he dye,
So sende myght to make in some comedye!
But litel book, no makyng thow n'envie,
But subgit be to alle poesye;
And kis the steppes, wher as thow seest pace
Virgile, Ovide, Omer, Lucan, and Stace.

[7] And this point is once again demonstrated very neatly by the role that Virgilian texts have played in Statius's life.

[8] The fact that this encounter takes place in the Earthly Paradise, the place for which Virgil, as it were, laid the groundwork, above all in his Eclogues, seems significant in this context. The Comedy is thus marked as a genuine extension of the Virgilian tradition.


That last line does not, of course, refer to Chaucer's "sources," for which he has already created the fiction of "Lollius" (I.394)—notoriously, he nowhere in his works mentions Boccaccio. Rather, like Dante's poets in Limbo, Chaucer's are mentioned to place the book of Troilus in the line of epic that they created. That the list reflects Dante's group seems clear enough.[9] It may also allude, as it has at times been suggested, to the end of the Filocolo, where Boccaccio addresses "mio libretto" and names the same authors, except that Chaucer puts Homer where Boccaccio had Dante![10]

There are other hints of Dante's presence in our passage. When Chaucer describes Troilus and Criseyde as "litel myn tragedye" and expresses the hope that before he dies he will "make in some comedye" he may well be echoing Dante's references to his poem as "questa comedìa" (Inf . XVI.128) and "la mia comedìa" (Inf . XXI.2) over against Virgil's reference to his poem as "l'alta mia tragedìa" (XX.113). In his characteristically understated, self-deprecatory way Chaucer could here be insinuating an extraordinary ambition that matches Virgil in tragedy, Dante in his comedy.[11]

The idea of the Troilus as somehow modeled on the Aeneid is not as farfetched as it might at first appear to be. It would require, in the first place, a focus on the early books of the Aeneid dealing with the destruction of Troy and Dido's love tragedy as the real center of the epic. That is precisely the focus we get in the dream-vision summary of the Aeneid at the beginning of the House of Fame : 290 lines for the first four books, 33 for the rest.[12] I mention this because I believe that the House of Fame is Chaucer's fullest meditation on the nature and meaning of epic and the second of the two poems in which he most clearly looks ahead to The Canterbury Tales with Dante in mind. The connections between fame and the epic are clear enough: traditionally, they may be said to depend or "feed" upon each other. Fame supplies the motives and the materials that inspire

[9] See Alfred David, The Strumpet Muse, p. 24.

[10] See F. N. Robinson, ed., The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, n. to ll. 1786ff. of Troilus and Criseyde ; also J. H. Whitfield, "Chaucer fra Dante e Boccaccio." For Chaucer's "indebtedness" to the Filocolo, see the essay by David Wallace, "Chaucer and Boccaccio's Early Writings"; also Nicholas Havely, Chaucer's Boccaccio .

[11] Donald Howard sees "comedye" as a reference to The Canterbury Tales and observes: "We must therefore ask whether in 1386–1387 Chaucer had in mind a poetic conception comparable to Dante's" (The Idea of the Canterbury Tales, p. 35). To discuss the problematic terms "tragedy" and "comedy" at this point would take me too far afield.

[12] House of Fame, I.143–432, 433–65


the epic poet, but in this poem, which Alfred David has aptly characterized as a mock-epic, fame is also scrutinized for what it is and how it operates.[13] In the course of the scrutiny there is a hint of a possible redefinition of the idea of fame and thus of the traditional focus of epic. All this fits very well, of course, with Dante's Comedy, but what makes the House of Fame most obviously an exploration of Dante's epic manner in the mode of parody is the fact that the poet-figure is made the dramatic center of his narrative. The poem as a whole, we might say, serves as Chaucer's announcement or preparation for the new departure that is to be The Canterbury Tales, in which Chaucer will, in effect, manifest himself as "Dante in Inglissh," to use Lydgate's characterization of the House of Fame .

The seed of the idea developed in the House of Fame derives from Dante's Limbo (Inf . IV). There, it will be remembered, the Pilgrim and his guide encounter crowds of the unbaptized and the great poets and sages, as well as heroes and heroines of antiquity, all, in a manner of speaking, at home there. Who, the Pilgrim wants to know, are those so honored that they are segregated from the others (974–75)? Virgil answers, in words pregnant with implications for the House of Fame :

               L'onrata nominanza
che di lor suona sù ne la tua vita,
grazïa acquista in ciel che sì li avanza.
                                ( Inf . IV.76–78)

               (The honor of their name,
which echoes up above within your life,
gains Heaven's grace, and that advances them.)

The assumption in Virgil's speech of a correlative between earthly fame and divine grace comes in for extended mockery in the House of Fame, whose lady seems to hold the key to one of the central jokes in that work: the name that "resounds" (suona ) on earth receives its reward in Fame's "heaven" by being amplified as sound, noise, moving air, wind.[14]

The Proem of the House of Fame —whose narrator, as I said, is Dante's histrionic "I" that typically makes itself the center of a drama

[13] See Alfred David, The Strumpet Muse, p. 21, where he also gives the quotation from Lydgate, "Dante in Inglissh," cited at the end of this paragraph.

[14] Note Dante's use of suono as equivalent to "fame" at Inf . XXVII.78, and Oderisi's remark that "worldly renown is nothing other than / a breath of wind" (Purg . XI.100f.).


of writing—begins with a discussion (anticipating the Nun's Priest's Tale) of dreams, which retrospectively we can recognize as a veiled if lighthearted inquiry into the sources, value, and authority of poetic visions like Dante's.[15] In the Invocation this inquiry is extended to the problem of communicating the vision when the poet prays to Morpheus for help "my sweven for to telle aryght" (80). The same problem occupies Dante at the very opening of the Paradiso, which the Invocation may well echo with its reference to "he that mover ys of al" (81; cf. "La gloria di colui che tutto move" [Par . I.1]). There follows the Story of the actual dream, which takes place inside Venus's glass temple containing, as in the Knight's Tale, "portreytures." Somewhat anticlimactically, however, these merely retell in slightly garbled fashion the familiar story of the Aeneid . Why? Is this Chaucer's humorous and half-ironic comment on his lack of visionary powers? Or on the tyrannical hold the Virgilian model has on the poet's very unconscious? Whatever the answer, the "reading" of this miniature version of the Aeneid leaves the dreamer thoroughly disoriented: he knows not "where I am, ne in what contree" (475).[16]

Such disorientation is not uncommon in the Comedy,[17] and Chaucer's parody seems aimed in part at the "autobiographical" cast of Dante's vision, the idea that it will serve as a way of resolving the poet-pilgrim's existential dilemma. In the House of Fame the vision inside the temple has obviously had the contrary effect, but when he leaves the temple to look for someone "that may telle me where I am" (479), he begins, in effect, that quest for "authority" which comes to such an ambiguous conclusion in the last line of the poem. Once outside the temple, he finds himself in a deserted field reminiscent of the Libyan desert and of the "gran diserto" of Inferno I.64, where Virgil suddenly appears to rescue a Dante terrified by the beasts on the hillside. An eagle comes to save the Chaucerian dreamer from his terror (492ff.), but it also may be said to have

[15] It should be clear that though I repeatedly link the visionary mode and its various characteristics with the name of Dante, they are not exclusive to him, being in fact common in medieval literature generally. It goes without saying, however, that in Dante this mode reached its apogee.

[16] He does not wake up when he leaves the temple, as we might have expected. The result is a fusion of dreamer and poet-narrator such as does not usually happen in the Comedy and does happen in The Canterbury Tales . This is a subject I discuss below.

[17] See, for instance, Purg . IX.36, "e non sappiendo là dove si fosse," referring to the babe Achilles in his mother's arms and applied as simile to the pilgrim awaking from his dream of the eagle.


flown out of one of Dante's dreams, the one in Purgatorio IX, where it carried the pilgrim aloft to the sphere of fire below the moon (IX.30). Like Virgil (and Beatrice) in the Comedy, the eagle was sent down, as he tells the dreamer, by Jupiter, not to give him a vision of heaven, to be sure, but to bear him to the House of Fame and so compensate him for his seemingly fruitless devotion to Cupid, Venus, and his books.

In the guise of the eagle, so I would interpret the "dark conceit" of Chaucer's parody here, Dante carries or guides the English poet away from his dependence on learned and aristocratic models toward the contemporary world buzzing with everyday speech that Dante incorporated so triumphantly into his poem. A perfect example of this speech is the dialogue between the eagle and the dreamer, which echoes so many of the dialogues that make up a major portion of the Comedy . "A ha!" says the eagle, as if he had just discovered a new form of discourse, "lo, so I can, / Lewedly to a lewed man / Speke" (865–67). Indeed, there may be a hint here that Chaucer, who had demonstrated his artistry in this kind of dialogue ever since the Book of the Duchess, has nothing much to learn from his master in this area, except perhaps for the idea of an essentially theatrical poem that incorporates various kinds of speech and stylistic levels of everyday life.[18]

Books II and III of the House of Fame parody Dante's otherworld fiction with their description of the house and the companies of people who come there for favors from its lady. The "afterlife" here is chaotic and as seemingly capricious as the life we know; despite the eagle's energetic flight we seem not to have left earth at all. Chaucer's otherworld, unlike Dante's, never really pretends to the "otherness" of visionary experience, and it contains nothing that seems designed to help our poet-dreamer to orient himself. There is, of course, the house—variously also called a castle or palace (1090; 1114; 1294; 1310)—but it is built on a rock of ice, "a feble fundament / To bilden on a place hye" (1132–33), and what is inside it has no apparent bearing on the dreamer's concerns. Its "hall of fame" contains statues of authors among whom there are again four of the five poets who in Limbo welcome Dante into their company (Inf . IV.102), a scene that underlines the contrast between the two castles of fame, because in the Chaucerian one the dreamer is never

[18] See the comments on this matter by J. A. W. Bennett, "Chaucer, Dante and Boccaccio," in Chaucer and the Italian Trecento, ed. Piero Boitani, p. 107.


more than an awestruck spectator and outsider among the statues. These, furthermore, include a representation of "Lollius," Chaucer's playful invention in the Troilus and a perfect exemplum of the questionableness that must attach to all of Fame's institutions. How far, after all, is the revered name of Homer from "Lollius"?

Does Dante's Limbo guarantee its distinguished residents a more substantial immortality than Fame's hall? Not necessarily. True, the elaborate structure of the Comedy suggests that in the Dantean universe, as in God's, all is purposeful, nothing and nobody is ultimately overlooked. The significance of the structure can, however, be over-emphasized, and often has been, in Dante criticism. At least as important, and certainly more mysterious, is the temporal dimension in Dante's poetic scheme, and it is this, obviously, that bears crucially on the question of poetic, or generally intellectual, posthumous fame. It seems to me we get a clue regarding an answer to the question very early in the Comedy when the Pilgrim first sees Virgil as one "chi per lungo silenzio parea fioco" (Inf . I.63). The interpretation of this line has aroused controversy that shows no sign of flagging and which I am not competent to resolve even if such were possible. Ignoring all the difficulties, including the fact that the Italian has no explicit reference to "voice," I accept Sinclair's translation: Virgil first appeared to the Pilgrim as "one whose voice seemed weak from long silence."[19] A possible interpretation of the line, then, seems to me that Virgil was silent until he got back his voice through Dante when he wrote the Comedy .

The obvious implication with respect to immortality is that a poet depends upon succeeding generations of poets—and commentators—to be heard, to remain alive after he has died. After death, in other words, a poet becomes identified with the texts he produced: they are his potential voice because, until brought back to life by one of the living, the poet-text is a mute shade languishing in Limbo. In light of what I said earlier about the epic poet's master project being the creative reinterpretation and renewal of the past, it follows that he is both aspirant to fame and the one peculiarly responsible for preserving the fame of others. Through him the ghosts in Limbo

[19] The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, with translation and comment by John D. Sinclair, I: Inferno (New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), p. 25. See also Singleton's note on this line. One crux is the word fioco, which can also mean "visually dim." See also Colin Hardie, "Virgil in Dante," p. 54: "A literal sense seems better, that, as Dante rushes down crying out for help, the figure, without response until Dante is near, seems almost dumb because of his long silence."


can hope to live again, momentarily. Through Virgil, who is the Aeneid, Homer speaks again, even for those who have never read Homer; through Dante, Virgil speaks once again, after how long a silence?

Now, the House of Fame, I have argued, shows us Chaucer aspiring to carry on the epic tradition as redefined by Dante—to make Dante speak "in Inglissh"—and at the same time, as befits a true continuator, detaching himself from some central aspects of Dantean epic. Detachment here does not mean repudiation, of course, but skepticism or at least a refusal to accept at face value. That would apply, as was already indicated, to the visionary element so central to Dante, and here also belongs the idea of poetic authority. It is, I believe, no accident that the House of Fame breaks off at the point when the dreamer sees a man who "seemed for to be / A man of great auctorite." Who this might be has been the subject of considerable scholarly speculation, but the prior point I would insist on concerns the inherent unlikelihood that a person of actual, let alone great, authority would make his appearance in this context. It is true, as I argued earlier, that the dreamer leaves Venus's temple looking for someone with sufficient authority to set him straight, that is, to tell him "where I am." This is assuredly part of the poem's parody of Dante, and it seems entirely appropriate to this parody that the poem would stop abruptly at the apparent culmination of the quest (whose point the dreamer has meanwhile characteristically forgotten). As a culmination turned into anticlimax, it is meant, I think, to be seen in relation to the moment at the beginning of the Comedy when the Pilgrim saw a man "whose voice seemed weak from long silence," and the slightly later occasion when the six poets in Limbo are in a meadow below the castle, "where there were people with grave and slow-moving eyes and looks of great authority" (S) ("Genti v'eran con occhi tardi e gravi / Di grande autorità ne' lor sembianti," Inf . IV.112–13).

Looking once again past or through the parody, we can say that Chaucer, too, is searching for a "Virgil figure," has in fact found it, but simultaneously hesitates or refuses to commit himself to one. Indeed, in The Canterbury Tales such a figure is notable for its absence. Where we might look for a "man of gret auctorite" to lead the pilgrimage, we find only—the Host! Paradoxically, however, the Host proves to be a not altogether inappropriate surrogate for the absent authority figure, as we shall see. The reason is that the concept


of poetic—as of religious—authority is not, as we might expect, vested in an individual, an institution (like the court), or a text (like the Aeneid ), but belongs instead to a group, any group, that has gathered for the purpose of telling and listening to tales. In The Canterbury Tales the fictive representatives of this group are of course the twenty-nine persons gathered in Southwark "from every shires ende," for whom the Host decides to act as master of ceremonies. This group very quickly evolves into a "felaweshipe" (General Prologue, ll. 26, 32) that spontaneously gathers to itself its own authority.

My suggestion of a poetic authority that is collective but also temporary and provisional is based on the Turners' idea of the religious, social, and political community formed by groups of people—like pilgrims—whose common pursuit has somehow placed them outside the boundaries of their customary social structure.[20] The crucial feature of such a community is its "liminality," the fact that it is on the threshold (limen ) between an established community temporarily left behind and a new one that springs from the spontaneous collaboration of people pursuing a common goal. Authority in this kind of community will itself be "liminoid," strictly provisional, and the collective expression of its individual members, like Bakhtin's "carnival spirit."[21] In the tale-telling community the authority that I have called poetic, but that is of course also "critical," in a sense will be redefined with every tale that is told, but as a group the pilgrims and their tales also establish their collective authority.

The idea of a collective poetic authority paralleling that of the pilgrimage fellowship is based on the fiction that the Canterbury pilgrims in their dual role as tale-tellers and audience somehow mirror or stand in for the author-audience relationship that is projected in The Canterbury Tales . What I am saying is that Chaucer the narrator treats his readers as if they were an audience for whose collective benefit and approbation he is not simply reporting but also reenacting in its various roles the tale-telling game of the Canterbury pilgrimage. I shall return to this point when I come to discuss the

[20] Victor Turner and Edith Turner, Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture, ch. 1, "Introduction: Pilgrimage as a Liminoid Phenomenon"; Appendix A, "Notes on Processual Symbolic Analysis." See also Bernhard Kötting, Peregrinatio religiosa, especially p. 11, where the "subjective" decision of the individual to go on a pilgrimage is also stressed as an important element.

[21] Cf. Mikhail M. Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, and Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics .


whole idea of epic theater. Meanwhile, the distinction I suggested between Dante's and Chaucer's concepts of authority is tied in, as will be evident, with the different ways in which they treat the pilgrimage idea, the structural backbone of their respective poems. In the Comedy, the pilgrimage is essentially metaphorical, an individual's ascent (starting with his apparent descent) to heavenly vision. In The Canterbury Tales it is literal and collective, moving horizontally over familiar ground to Canterbury and (in principle) back to its starting point. Dante's Pilgrim, furthermore, journeys through a precisely articulated tripartite setting, which simultaneously orders and mirrors the stages of moral instruction and spiritual reformation through which he must go. Chaucer's pilgrims, on the contrary, pass through a landscape that remains almost totally indistinct and unvisualized and thus neither imposes nor reflects a moral-spiritual structure.

Like his counterpart in the Comedy, the poet of The Canterbury Tales is inside his poem as a pilgrim, but he remains peripheral, a mere member of the group, never, like Dante, the virtual center of the drama. Dante, after all, casts his poem in the form of "spiritual autobiography," where he looks back on his past self from the vantage point of his present self as epic poet reborn in faith. Chaucer, too, casts his poem in the form of a record of a past event in which he participated "with ful devout corage" (I.22); for him The Canterbury Tales is also an account of personal spiritual experience, but that experience is presented no longer, as in Dante's case, as somehow outside or separate from the poem, but as an integral part of the poem's fiction. And this point has a number of interesting implications.

It means, in the first place, that with the vivid sense of theater it creates, the poem always insists on its own fictiveness, on the fact that it is after all a transaction, complex but playful, between poet and reader. In The Canterbury Tales, that is, Chaucer the pilgrim and Chaucer the poet-narrator, roles usually kept distinct in the Comedy, are one.[22] And just as Chaucer the poet does not attempt to distance himself from his pilgrim persona, so in the final analysis he does not distance himself from the other pilgrims either. Particularly in their role as tale-tellers, these are so many masks for him, and that is an important reason why we can say that for all its fundamental differences from the Comedy, The Canterbury Tales is still

[22] Pace Donaldson and others. See E. T. Donaldson, "Chaucer the Pilgrim." As we shall see later, Dante does not always keep these two roles distinct in the Comedy .


a "spiritual autobiography," a record not so much of the author's past self as of his selfhood imagined in and through others.

A second implication of the idea that it is the fiction which is the autobiography in The Canterbury Tales involves our view of the pilgrimage it describes. In theory this pilgrimage, like Dante's, is a past event now completed. In practice, however, it is not completed at all. I am not referring to the unfinished state in which we have the poem, though that undoubtedly contributes to the effect I have in mind. This is the sense we develop as readers that the pilgrimage is still going on, in the "now" of reading and contemplating the text, and that, in contrast to the apparently perfect closure of Dante's pilgrimage, it will never and can never be completed, for the simple reason that there is always more to be said, further impressions to be revised . . . In short, I would argue that the fragmentary and unfinished state of The Canterbury Tales might well be regarded as the outward and visible sign of the poem's "inward" condition as "work-in-progress."

Here once again the House of Fame in quite remarkable fashion prepares for The Canterbury Tales even as it defines how that poem will differ from Dante's. Is it entirely accidental, I wonder, that the earlier poem mimics the tripartite organization of the Comedy and still breaks off abruptly, anticipating the seemingly contingent chaos of The Canterbury Tales ? More significant, perhaps, we have seen how the dreamer-poet of the House of Fame begins like a typically Dantean persona only to turn into a peripheral figure, listening, observing, giving others, like the eagle, center stage on which to reveal themselves. As visionary poet, furthermore, he has trouble keeping the account of his vision straight; the same apparently applies to his quest, though it is possible that it is the dreamer who can never quite make up his mind or remember what it is he is looking for. Unlike his Dantean counterpart, he experiences no visionary transport but wants to hear "tidings" in a labyrinthine house (1920–21) full of a motley assortment of people, shipmen, pilgrims, pardoners (2121 ff.). These are surely an anticipation of the Canterbury pilgrims, and the whirling house, which stops whirling once the dreamer is inside (2031–32), is perhaps really an inn.[23]

[23] It was perhaps the dreamer's head that was whirling at first. I am tempted to suggest a parody of the Pilgrim's vision of the light in which eventually the circles of the Trinity appear: "one simple semblance / was in the Living Light at which I gazed— / for It is always what It was before— / but through my sight, which as I gazed grew stronger, / that sole appearance, even as I altered, / seemed to be changing "(Par . XXXIII.109–14; my italics). The house of Rumor has been repeatedly linked with The Canterbury Tales —e.g., by J. A. W. Bennett, Chaucer's Book of Fame, especially pp. 178–87. He notes that its length (l. 1979) corresponds to the sixty-mile route the pilgrims must travel to Canterbury; here, too, occurs the suggestion mentioned at the beginning of the next paragraph. John Leyerle, "Chaucer's Windy Eagle," p. 260, adds that the house will be transformed into the Tabard Inn. Donald R. Howard connects the labyrinth simile (1920–21) with the labyrinth symbolism he finds at the basis of The Canterbury Tales, but he is not convinced that one poem points ahead to the other; see Idea, p. 332.


As J. A. W. Bennett suggested a number of years ago, furthermore, what the dreamer is waiting to hear at the house of "Aventure, / That is the moder of tydynges" (1982), are in effect the tales to be heard on the way to Canterbury. And in the perspective of the House of Fame, these tales are somehow analogous to the goal of the Pilgrim's quest in the Comedy . In the final cantos of the Paradiso, that is to say, the Christian message, a kind of "tidings," is revealed in the form of symbolic images that have a transfiguring effect on the Pilgrim, so that within the rainbow circles of the Trinity his concluding vision is of the human image, nostra effige (Par . XXXIII.131). Like the imagery of the Paradiso, the tales of the Canterbury pilgrims—the tidings awaited by Chaucer's dreamer—will have a revealing and transfiguring power whose ultimate message might well be, once again, the clarified human image.[24]

In this sense, then, the message or "idea" of The Canterbury Tales I am proposing is close to Northrop Frye's idea of "the secular scripture," his collective term for "secular stories" forming "the epic of the creature," in contradistinction to the Bible, "the epic of the creator," whose hero is God.[25] I am not claiming Frye's "secular scripture" as a perfect fit for The Canterbury Tales, but it does strike me as a useful characterization of the inspiration dramatized in the House of Fame, an inspiration combining epic, Dante's Comedy, and tale-telling. Following Dante, the new epic theme or project that Chaucer envisions will be, precisely, tale-telling, with the implication

[24] Some readers may object that my discussion presupposes too close a link between the House of Fame and The Canterbury Tales, whereby one is the figura, the other its fulfillment. But there is plenty of precedent for authors linking works together with the intent of suggesting a certain shape, unity, or progression with respect to the life's work. Dante would be a prime example. During the Middle Ages the so-called rota Virgilii was considered a model of such a progression for the epic poet; cf. Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, pp. 201 n., 232.

[25] See The Secular Scripture, p. 15. Frye's ostensible subject is romance, but he uses the term pretty interchangeably with epic, a (con)fusion that presumably began with the Odyssey .


that there is no tale, however humble or trivial-seeming, that does not deserve to be included because of its potential for illuminating the human condition. That, it seems to me, is the implication of the house of Aventure with its varied clientele and tidings. It is tempting to suggest that the house represents the realm of popular (and essentially oral) literature like the folktale, which Chaucer has discovered as a new source of inspiration, but such an interpretation would nonetheless be too narrow. Instead, I propose that the house signifies a new poetic inclusiveness open to the varied styles, themes, and genres of the oral and popular as well as the learned tradition, and above all open to a varied audience ranging over the entire social spectrum, as implied by the occupants of the house, who, like the Canterbury pilgrims, are at once tellers and audience of the tidings.[26]

By way of summarizing my conclusions about the House of Fame, I can say that it implies two stages in the poet's career, the first associated with the house of Fame, the second with the house of Aventure. In one of its aspects Lady Fame's palace (1090) is a satirical portrait of court with its countless attendants and endless crowds of courtiers pressing for royal favor(s).[27] The scene must have been familiar to the younger Chaucer, the poet of the first stage, who, it is generally agreed, wrote the kind of poetry—learned, erotic, French-inspired—calculated to appeal to a court audience, a poetry, furthermore, whose ancestry is on display in Fame's hall of statues. The house of Aventure, contrariwise, is not familiar to the mature Chaucer, the poet of the second stage, judging by its name, his unorthodox entry by a window with the help of the eagle (2030–33), and his repeated stress on his reclusive, book-centered existence. As was already indicated, the precise way in which the poetry of this second stage differs from that of the first is not so easy to pinpoint. Looking at the house of Aventure, we can infer that the later poetry will be less conventional because prepared to venture outside the closed world and status quo ante of the house of Fame and into the greater world beyond the court, and the really crucial difference will have to do with the idea of a new audience for which the poet is now writing.

This is the implied or dramatized audience of inn and road in

[26] For a concise discussion of the theoretical audiences an author can be said to write for, see Paul Strohm, "Chaucer's Audience(s)." Strohm's is one of four papers on the subject of Chaucer's audience in the same issue of the Chaucer Review .

[27] For a nearly encyclopedic treatment of medieval and Renaissance court satire, see Claus Uhlig, Hofkritik im England des Mittelalters und der Renaissance .


The Canterbury Tales . For all that it is a part of the poet's fiction, it has a decisive effect on the very notion of what a poem is and does. Negatively speaking, this audience makes impossible a "pure" poetry whose intelligibility depends on a knowledge of esoteric symbols or interpretive techniques (as in the case of certain types of allegory). Nor can an author with such an audience in mind rely on stock responses, a favorite recourse, if we follow C. S. Lewis, of the epic poet's style.[28] Given a nonselect, culturally diverse audience, every feature of the poet's literary stock-in-trade is bound to fall under critical scrutiny: one and the same text, line, or word will call forth a whole gamut of interpretations and responses. And this also means that within the context of such an imagined audience must be envisaged the constant possibility of misunderstanding, of the wrong or the altogether irrelevant response, which will somehow insist on its rightness and relevance.

In the heterogeneous audience it postulates for itself and the style it develops as a result, The Canterbury Tales looks ahead to the Elizabethan drama of the public theater and the mass-circulation book once the printing press and widespread literacy have established themselves. The style is what Bakhtin calls "dialogical," always conscious of and responsive to other viewpoints;[29] its frequently artless, innocent appearance allows for, perhaps even invites, the interpretive free-for-all Plato associates with the written word (and that is presumably even more characteristic of the printed word). It is, to adapt Derrida's entertaining paraphrase of Plato's argument,

the phantom, the phantasm, the simulacrum . . . of living discourse. . . . This signifier of little, this discourse that doesn't amount to much, is like all ghosts: errant . . . wandering in the streets, he doesn't even know who he is, what his identity—if he has one—might be, what his name is, what his father's name is. . . . Uprooted, anonymous, unattached to any house or country, this almost insignificant signifier is at everyone's disposal, can be picked up by both the competent and the incompetent, by those who understand and know what to do with it . . . , and by those who are completely unconcerned with it, and who, knowing nothing, can inflict all manner of impertinence upon it.[30]

In some ways that also seems a wonderfully apt description of Chaucer's poetic persona.

[28] See A Preface to Paradise Lost (London: Oxford University Press, 1942), chs. 4 and 8.

[29] See Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics .

[30] Jacques Derrida, "Plato's Pharmacy," in Dissemination, pp. 143–44.


It fits the bewildered, wandering dreamer of the House of Fame, twice unceremoniously picked up and transported by the eagle, who also speaks to him with condescension, not to say impertinence. But the dreamer does know his own name, as does the eagle, a "Dante figure," as I suggested earlier, who addresses him as "Geffrey" (729; cf. 558), just as Beatrice calls Dante by his name (Purg . XXX.55). In The Canterbury Tales the poet-persona is no longer the slightly dazed dreamer of the House of Fame, or of the Book of the Duchess, for that matter, but a wanderer with a purpose, a pilgrim among pilgrims.[31] Yet he still has the self-effacing, seemingly unfocused manner that tends to elicit an attitude of superiority and impertinence in others. Alongside this persona, evidently anonymous to his fellow pilgrims, Chaucer is, however, careful to inscribe both his name and his career as a poet in The Canterbury Tales . The shape of that career, furthermore, corresponds perfectly, as we shall see, to that outlined in the House of Fame . I conclude from the foregoing observations that Chaucer, though no post-structuralist, may well have accepted the Nominalist or Ockhamite position that the word, like the poet who uses and depends upon it, is very nearly an "insignificant signifier," almost no more than a breath of air. The word has no inherent authority, no inherently authoritative meaning. Whatever authority and persuasive power it possesses must therefore come from the personality somehow inscribed in it, from the reader's or listener's sense that it is indeed the expression of a person seeking communication, seeking understanding, of his "semblable." For that reason, though not for that reason alone, Chaucer followed Dante in making the poet's self-presentation an integral part of his epic design.

In this connection let us consider the moment (II.45ff.) when Chaucer's name is, so to speak, inscribed in The Canterbury Tales by one of the pilgrims, who at the same time provides an ironic and humorous anticipation of what a poet can expect from posterity. In his Introduction the Man of Law cites Chaucer as obviously a well-known writer of love stories who, despite his old-fashioned English and defective craftsmanship, is worthy of comparison with Ovid and significant enough to warrant a brief survey of his career. But when the Man of Law summarizes what he calls the "Seintes Legende of Cupide," his list of heroines is so wildly inaccurate—he mentions

[31] I have already insisted on the identity of poet and pilgrim in The Canterbury Tales and will not argue the point further here.


eight heroines not even dealt with in the Legend—as to convey the impression that his knowledge of the work is based essentially on hearsay. The degree of his literary sophistication, finally, is indicated by his complaint that he has no story to tell, because Chaucer has already told them all. If posthumous—as well as contemporary—fame depends upon people like this, the poet might well ask himself, who needs it?

Despite such ironies, the Man of Law's opinions deserve our attention, in part because they echo what Chaucer says or implies about his career elsewhere in his poetry. His notion, however simplistic, of Chaucer as an Ovidian love poet from the start corresponds perfectly with Chaucer's self-presentation in the House of Fame as one who has served Venus and Cupid and whose dream about the Aeneid turns that poem almost entirely into a love tragedy. That dream, or rather, the amusingly eccentric synopsis of the Aeneid it gives rise to, could be, as I suggested earlier, a highly indirect allusion to Troilus and Criseyde, another love tragedy with a Trojan setting (which that of the Aeneid is only by extension). Similarly, there would seem to be another possible (and indirect) allusion to Troilus and Criseyde when the Man of Law mentions "Brixseyde" (71) as one of love's victims in the Legend of Good Women . There is of course no Brixseyde in the Legend, but since she bears the name of the heroine in Benoît de Ste. Maure's Roman de Troie (twelfth century), she almost inevitably brings to mind Boccaccio's Criseida and Chaucer's Criseyde. And these oblique references to the Troilus, I suggest, draw attention to the fact that the "middle" stage of Chaucer's career is absent from the Man of Law's retrospect and from the House of Fame, "middle" not in an exclusively chronological sense but primarily to refer to Troilus and Criseyde as the poetic monument "nel mezzo del cammin" between the early Chaucer of the love visions[32] and the late Chaucer of The Canterbury Tales .

By any standards, Troilus and Criseyde is a masterful achievement. It has been truly said that in it "Chaucer reached the height of his powers,"[33] and we saw earlier how in his envoy the poet with proud humility placed it in the line of Virgilian epic. So why, we may ask, is it absent from both the House of Fame and the Introduction to

[32] Book of the Duchess, Parliament of Fowls, Legend of Good Women —no matter that the latter's "Prologue" must be later than the Troilus . The Man of Law's view of Chaucer as primarily an Ovidian love poet receives support from this very "Prologue," where the poet once again has a dream, in which the God of Love appears and accuses Geoffrey of heresy against his law.

[33] The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. F. N. Robinson, p. 385.


the Man of Law's Tale? Especially since its theme is still love? The reason, I speculate, is that from the perspective of the House of Fame and The Canterbury Tales, the Troilus does not represent the new departure, the epic "breakthrough," that at one time it must have seemed to Chaucer. In spite of its magnificent achievement it looks in retrospect like a continuation of the earlier Ovidian mode, its extension, let us say, into serious tragedy. What I am implying, in other words, is that by the time he was finishing the Troilus and looking ahead to the next project, Chaucer underwent a kind of poetic conversion. That may be a rather hyperbolic, and to some a contradictory, phrase, but poetry is an analogue of religion, and I think that when Chaucer had at length fully absorbed the Dantean poetic it did amount to a real transvaluation of values for him.

The first effect of this transvaluation was the rejection of what might be called Boccaccian antiquarianism, Boccaccio's habit, particularly in the Filostrato and the Teseida, of creating an "antique" world that would serve as a more or less self-contained, edifying object of the reader's contemplation. The Troilus is not an antiquarian poem in that sense, but I believe that in composing it Chaucer became conscious of the risks—of escapism, moralism, excessive irony—that the antiquarian poetic can involve. Certain parallels between Pandarus and Chaucer's own role as poet-narrator, for instance, might recall Francesca's indictment of the romance she and Paolo were reading together: "A Gallehault indeed, that book and he / who wrote it, too" ("Galeotto fu 'l libro e chi lo scrisse," Inf . V.137). Perhaps the most explicit indication of Chaucer's disenchantment with the antiquarian poetic is the awkward, jarring, and yet immensely vigorous recantation that concludes the Troilus . There is something a trifle absurd in the spectacle of a poet who has to the best of his ability created the sense of a "pagan" past and then recants his fiction because it does not conform ex hypothesi to "Christian" truth. To put it slightly differently, the Boccaccian or antiquarian poet-persona keeps out of his poem, stays in his own world, which is sealed off from the fictive world, except in the theatrical sense that he is its spectator and, Pandarus-or Galeotto-fashion, its "presenter." Once he leaves his pagan theater, how can he do other than acknowledge that, like his readers, he lives under a Christian sky and a Christian sun?[34]

The revolution Dante introduces in this "Boccaccian" scheme will

[34] For an excellent commentary on the recantation, see Karla Taylor, Chaucer Reads "The Divine Comedy, " pp. 192–200.


already be apparent to the reader. In the Comedy antiquarianism is, as it were, set on its head, because the past, whether real or fictive, political or literary, is seen entirely in relation to the contemporary world. It is seen through the medium of the poet, who is inside the poem, not as spectator and presenter, but primarily as an active participant who represents or embodies the vital aspects and concerns of the contemporary world. In the Dantean epic, accordingly, there are no areas that are "off limits": sacred and profane, Christian and pagan, Bible and "secular scripture" mingle and clash from the start, because Dante's poem is both polemical and contemporary from start to finish. Dante's Virgil, once more, can serve as a perfect illustration of this twofold character of the Comedy, which begins with a man in almost complete despair rescued by a poet and a pagan who leads him, furthermore, not back to a real or an imagined past but forward to an understanding of the world as it is and may be.

By this detour we arrive at the second and crucial moment of Chaucer's self-presentation in The Canterbury Tales, when the poet-pilgrim himself takes center stage. "What man artow?" the Host demands to know (VII.695), underlining once again the anonymity of the pilgrim and the fact that he inspires anything but awe. Like Derrida's "almost insignificant signifier . . . at everyone's disposal," this man, in the Host's humorous words, "were a popet in an arm t'enbrace / For any womman, smal and fair of face" (701–2). And when he steps forward to tell his tale it becomes quite simply a distillate of The Canterbury Tales, the phantasm, to quote Derrida's paraphrase of Plato once more, "of living discourse, . . . signifier of little . . . [it] can be picked up by those who understand and know what to do with it, and who, knowing nothing, can inflict all manner of impertinence upon it."

As a parody, indeed, the Tale of Sir Thopas could be called the phantasm of a phantasm, so that the Host, not characterized as the possessor of a subtle mind, can perhaps be excused for inflicting his gruff impertinence upon it. He interrupts Chaucer in the middle of a line—"Namoore of this, for Goddes dignitee" (919)—not, as we might think, out of sheer ignorance or unconcern, but precisely because he has some call to consider himself an expert on the genre Chaucer is parodying. According to various scholars who have written on the late-fourteenth-century "popular" romance, this genre evolved when professional minstrels took romances out of their aristocratic milieu and adapted them for recitation to audiences in such


places as the courtyards of inns.[35] Though he seems a bit unsure of his terminology—" 'This may wel be rym dogerel,' quod he" (925)—we must for once allow that on his own grounds the Host's critical judgment is justified.

At the point, then, of the Host's interruption, Chaucer's covert poetic autobiography, the trajectory of his career as prophetically adumbrated in the House of Fame, reaches a characteristic climax. With the never-to-be-completed Thopas, Chaucer has triumphantly established the place of The Canterbury Tales in the context of his own poetic development. Together with the Man of Law's retrospect it is his equivalent of the Aeneid 's opening "Ille ego, qui quondam gracili modulatus avena . . . " ("I am he who once turned my song on a slender reed . . . "). The slender reed is now represented by the Ovidian beginnings at court, which he has left to forge a popular epic for a popular audience such as might be found at the Tabard Inn ready for pilgrimage. This audience encompasses, as was already indicated, high and low, Virgil's men-at-arms as well as his shepherds and farmers, so that "popular" here does not mean quite what it often means in literary histories. There the term is often used as an antonym of "aristocratic" in the sense of "adapted to the understanding, taste, or means of the (common) people."[36] Or, where it is not used in a condescending fashion, the term may carry the opposite implications, derived from nineteenth-century Romantic notions of the folk, of something authentic, real, the "unconscious wisdom of the race." Unavoidable as some of these implications doubtless are, in calling The Canterbury Tales a "popular" epic I intend the idea that its fiction embraces the different social classes of Chaucer's day, plays their perspectives off against one another, and never allows one to emerge as the ultimate or "true" perspective.[37]

The idea of the popular epic is thus connected with the pilgrimage communitas discussed earlier, which, it will be recalled, involves a temporary abandonment of the accustomed social structure and the spontaneous emergence of a new sense of community. In The Canterbury Tales, correspondingly, the pilgrims come to us first like

[35] See Laura Hibbard Loomis, "Chaucer and the Achinleck MS," pp. 111–28; A. C. Baugh, "The ME Romance"; Derek Pearsall, "The Development of ME Romance."

[36] Definition adapted from The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, 5th ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964), s.v.

[37] A point supported by D. S. Brewer, "Class Distinction in Chaucer."


representatives of fourteenth-century society, stamped with names indicating their place and function in that society. But as they start to become individualized in the General Prologue portraits, their names tend to lose force as class or type designations, and as a consequence the whole idea of social structure with its various stratifications insensibly gives way to the fellowship of persons beginning to evolve at the Tabard Inn. With characteristic indirection the poet draws attention to this development near the end of the General Prologue when he concludes his "apologia" to the reader with the request that he may be forgiven for not having "set folk in hir degree / Here in this tale, as they that sholde stonde. / My wit is short, ye may wel understonde" (744–46).[38] The reader who believes in "degree" is herewith warned to be prepared for surprises.

Once the pilgrimage is under way, it is the tale-telling game that displaces notions of "degree" and social decorum whenever they threaten to obtrude themselves. The important signal here is the "defeat" suffered, near the very beginning of the pilgrimage, by the Host in his role as self-appointed master of ceremonies. Like a typical innkeeper, he is scrupulous about observing the rules of social precedence, so that when he eventually yields to the Miller, who insists on telling his tale next, it can be said without exaggeration that the spirit of play triumphs over principles of social propriety. The triumph is never perfect, but its actuality is shown precisely on those occasions when the pilgrims show themselves anxious to preserve the spirit of play and fellowship in the face of what would disrupt it.

It is in the spirit of play that we must understand Thopas and the role Chaucer the pilgrim adopts in telling it. If that spirit is also, or even preeminently, the spirit of parody in The Canterbury Tales, this should not dismay us. As the House of Fame shows, Chaucerian parody is no simple debunking but the exploration of a style, a mannerism, an attitude, by a process of assimilation that constantly threatens to become total. What saves it as parody, in other words, is the realization that style is not just the expression of an individual consciousness but also a matter of choice; in short, of play. Now, we do not know just what kind of minstrel Chaucer had in mind as

[38] One of the many jokes of the apologia concerns the concept of decorum. Regarding literary decorum, the poet fears he may not render the pilgrims' speeches with sufficient fidelity; regarding social decorum, he regrets that he must render exactly what they say even if it offends the reader.


the target of his parody in Thopas . Are we to think of him as a simpleminded hack who caters to his audience's taste for aristocratic entertainment and in the process, out of carelessness or ignorance, gets most of it wrong? Or should we think of him as a shrewd professional who is quite conscious of what he is about in adapting his material to a nonaristocratic audience? Perhaps it does not matter just how we imagine this minstrel. What seems important is that he represents in various possible forms a composite of the author of The Canterbury Tales .

With this we have reached the final stage of Chaucer's self-presentation, beginning with the dreamer in the House of Fame and concluding with the "minstrel" of Thopas as the epic poet. The latter has a recognizable continuity with the past in the form of the pixieish blunderer who is the Chaucerian persona from the very start. The new and "epic" element is less easy to define because in some ways it is no more than an affirmation of his lifelong career as "entertainer" to audiences that never take him quite seriously, never quite accept him as one of them. To this we should add, however, that like the minstrel, the epic poet is also preeminently a transmitter of traditional materials that he has refashioned, and with that, it seems, we have a satisfactory explanation of Chaucer's virtual identification of the roles of epic poet and minstrel in The Canterbury Tales . And that identification, it is somewhat startling to realize, means that the parodist and the target of his parody have become one, as we noted they have a tendency to do. By way of support for this idea we might cite J. A. Burrow's observation that a number of the striking stylistic features parodied in Thopas are in fact Chaucer's own.[39]

Thopas, then, acts as a mirror or speculum in the dual sense current in the Middle Ages of a model and a reflector.[40] What it reflects is an image of some kind of its teller, and in this respect Thopas serves as a model for the rest of the Canterbury tales, all of which, I shall argue later, are mirrors in which the pilgrim-tellers may, but need not, see themselves. At the same time we are bound to recognize that the case of Thopas is rather more complex than the others for the reason that, as I have argued, its narrator brings with him a whole past history demanding to be seen in relation to this tale. Until now our focus has therefore been on the act as well as the manner of its

[39] See J. A. Burrow, Ricardian Poetry, ch. 1, "Ricardian Style," pp. 12ff.

[40] See, from a long list of studies, Sister Ritamary Bradley, "Backgrounds of the Title Speculum in Medieval Literature."


telling, as the climax of that history. But now we must penetrate beyond these "externals" of the presentation to the interior of the tale itself.

That last sentence is misleading to the extent that it implies a discontinuity between narrative and plot. If we focus for a moment on the tale's hero, "Child" Thopas, it soon becomes apparent that he has a great deal in common with the narrator, whether we think of him as the would-be minstrel or as the pilgrim described by the Host as a "popet" who "semeth elvyssh by his contenaunce" (703). Doll-like, otherworldly, elfin, faintly epicene,[41] the picture conjured up by the Host is a perfect fit for the incongruous Flemish knight "with sydes smale" (836) who rides into fairyland in quest of the elf-queen, with whom he declares himself to have fallen in love in a dream vision.

Sir Thopas is yet another incarnation of the poet, particularly as the world perceives him: a dreamer who boasts of his allegiance to a world beyond the one his fellow human beings can see or inhabit, and who dashes off into this otherworld of his invention at every opportunity, returning with wild stories of exploits like encounters with giants. At the same time this dreamer constantly demonstrates his incompetence in the simplest everyday tasks . . . We have no difficulty recognizing here numerous features of the Chaucerian persona this chapter has examined. But if we left matters there we would be doing scant justice to Thopas, which, precisely because of the simplicity of its basic plot, seems able to cast a peculiar spell.

Shorn of the comic excesses of its style, Thopas might well stand as an archetype or urtext of Frye's "secular scripture." Its hero in combat with a giant who proves to have three heads could be a god or a semidivine being waging eternal war against the forces of darkness; he could be a fairytale hero destined to marry the queen of fairyland once he has overcome the various obstacles placed in his way; he could be, and in some ways obviously is, the knight of chivalric romance on a quest in the course of which he must prove himself worthy of the ideal represented by the woman he has seen

[41] In the Host's words, "This were a popet in an arm t'enbrace / For any womman, smal and fair of face" (901–2), the final phrase could refer to the popet, in which case the Host's question "What man artow?" would contain an added nuance. An essay whose argument in a number of ways parallels mine is Lee Patterson, "'What Man Artow?'" Patterson makes the point that The Canterbury Tales represents Chaucer's self-definition as classical humanist poet versus the courtly maker he was earlier; see especially p. 123.


in his dream. Indeed, it seems possible to match Thopas with the protagonists in many of the genres and modes mapped out, say, in Frye's Anatomy of Criticism .[42] Our main concern, though, is with the genre of the epic, and here it gives me considerable satisfaction to recall that Chaucer's most important follower and interpreter among English poets—the true continuator of the Chaucerian epic tradition!—derived from Thopas the seminal plot for his own encyclopedic-allegoric epic of chivalry.[43] Spenser's appropriation of Thopas for the Arthurian plot of his Faerie Queene points at the same time to his understanding that Thopas is likewise at the very basis of Chaucer's epic project.

Rather than attempt to show how Thopas serves as sub- or pretext for the pilgrimage plot of the other Canterbury tales—"endlesse work," indeed, in Spenser's words—I want to approach the matter once more by way of our Dantean theme. Sir Thopas is, I suggest, Chaucer's fictive mirror in the specific sense that he is the poet as hero as he appears above all in the Comedy : inside the otherworld of his poem but always aware of the world beyond that otherworld, this world, an active quester guided by (his love of) the lady of his dream-visions and prepared to encounter, though not without fear and trembling, the monsters in his path. I hope the reader is prepared for yet another parody version of the Comedy, because it seems to me that for all its lighthearted foolery Thopas represents Chaucer's affirmation of his commitment as an epic poet to Dante's example.

In this connection let us examine the episode of Thopas and the giant Olifaunt, who appears to block Thopas's progress into fairyland and calls out to him:

               "Child, by Termagaunt!
But if thou prike out of myn haunt,
    Anon I sle thy steede
        With mace.
    Heere is the queene of Fayerye,
With harpe and pipe and symphonye,
            Dwellynge in this place."

[42] For a full survey of the poem's parody of the various features of medieval romance, see Laura Hibbard Loomis, "Sir Thopas," in W. F. Bryan and Germaine Dempster, eds., Sources and Analogues of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, pp. 486–559.

[43] See The Faerie Queene I.ix.12ff. and Spenser's Letter to Raleigh prefatory to The Faerie Queene .


In response, Thopas promises to return the next day with his armor and to pierce the giant's "maw" as though he were a dragon or a similar monster (823ff.). When the giant throws stones at him "out of a fel staf-slynge" (829), like David fighting Goliath, Thopas escapes, "and al it was thurgh Goddes gras, / And thurgh his fair berynge" (831–32). Back in town Thopas tells his men he must fight "a geaunt with hevedes three, / For paramour and jolitee / Of oon that shoon ful brighte" (842–44).

In a curious way this entire episode manages to re-create some of the grotesque humor and dreamlike atmosphere of the final cantos of Dante's Inferno . There the travelers' passage through hell seems to be blocked at one point by a whole congregation of giants, though the pilgrim Dante at first mistakes them for the towers of a city (Inf . XXX.20–21). His error sets the tone for a kind of Swiftian comedy in which the reader is simultaneously impressed with the terror experienced by the Pilgrim and with the narrator's knowledge of the harmlessness of these monsters, the fact that they are, as it were, dinosaurs or extinct volcanoes. The scene increasingly takes on the air of a visit to the zoo where prehistoric animals are kept. The narrator speaks as we might imagine a medieval zookeeper who browsed in the Church Fathers might speak, as when he comments on Nimrod:

Natura certo, quando lasciò l'arte
di sí fatti animali, assai fa bene
per torre tali essecutori a Marte.
E s'ella d'elefanti e di balene
non si pente, chi guarda sottilmente
più giusta e più discreta la ne tene;
chè dove l'argomento della mente
s'aggiunge al mal volere ed alla possa,
nessun riparo vi può far la gente.
                                      ( Inf . XXXI.49–57)

(Surely when she gave up the art of making
such creatures, Nature acted well indeed,
depriving Mars of instruments like these.
And if she still produces elephants
and whales, whoever sees with subtlety
holds her—for this—to be more just and prudent;
for where the mind's acutest reasoning
is joined to evil will and evil power,
there human beings can't defend themselves.)


In other words, it is a good thing that elephants (ME olifaunts ) are just elephants! And Olifaunt just Olifaunt, thinking he needs a giant-killer's slingshot to fight a puny mortal.

Canto XXXI ends with the comic anticlimax of the giant called Antaeus serving as the pilgrim's conveyance down to the lowest circle of hell (130ff.), a scene that looks ahead to their final escape from hell when they climb along Satan's hairy sides and legs. Indeed, the giants of canto XXXI are clearly a prologue to the "emperor of the dolorous kingdom" himself, who is, like them, a combination of terrifying supergiant and absurd impotence, stuck as he is up to his waist in ice and flailing his three sets of wings about like some colossal windmill (Inf . XXXIV. 28–30; 46ff.). Satan's most startling feature, his three faces, is shared by Olifaunt, at least if we go by Thopas's casual but also startling reference to "a geaunt with hevedes three."[44]

Even as parody, then, Thopas seems remarkably faithful to what I take to be Dante's meaning: What passes for the darkest evil in this—or the other—world is frequently no more than the projection of our fears and feelings of impotence. Accordingly, what at one moment inspired terror can in a flash take on a harmless or even benign aspect. We saw this happening with the giants in the Inferno, who are initially terrifying, at least to the pilgrim hero, but eventually become the means by which he and his companion advance toward their goal of paradise. And so, too, in the comically compressed style of Thopas, the battle with the giant is presented as almost identical with the attainment of the beloved object.

     His myrie men comanded he
To make hym bothe game and
     For nedes moste he fighte
With a geaunt with hevedes
For paramour and jolitee
     Of oon that shoon ful brighte.

[44] The "tre facce a la sua testa" (XXXIV.38) recall three-headed Cerberus in the Third Circle (Inf . VI.13ff.) and anticipate the Trinity at the end of the Paradiso .

[45] Similarly, the frantic pricking Thopas does throughout the tale is surely an anticipation of the other pricking that, despite his vow of chastity, he expects upon completion of his quest. For use of the term in that sense the reader may recall the Reeve's Tale, "He prikketh harde and depe as he were made" (I.4231). About OlifauntI originally wrote that he could be regarded as the distorted manifestation of the beloved object and then canceled that as too extreme. Upon reexamining the last three lines of the stanza, however, I realized that my idea was not completely wrong: "oon that shoon ful brighte" could refer to one of the "hevedes three." If that head belongs to Lucy, the one who shines, are the other two those of Beatrice and Mary, thus making up the trinity of women who are instrumental in saving Dante in the Comedy, and through whom, according to Joan Ferrante, "man learns to know God" (Woman as Image in Medieval Literature, p. 141)?


This is not to imply that there is no real evil in the world. Such a view would hardly be compatible with the general tenor of the Inferno . But I think it is a basic implication of the Inferno and of the Comedy generally that at the basis of evil there is what might be called unreality, absence, nothingness, and that this chimerical element must be mastered before the actual evil can be attacked.

The charmed life Sir Thopas leads likewise seems to me in complete harmony with the way we perceive the Pilgrim of the Comedy . The latter, far from being passive, actively explores, questions, and reacts to what is around him, but he is also repeatedly rescued from difficult situations by a timely swoon or the intervention of a benign helper, so that it can also be said about him what was said about Thopas's escape from the giant, "And al it was thurgh Goddes gras / And thurgh his fair berynge" (831–32). Strictly, the two parts of that statement are incompatible, but in what might be called the dimension of faith they are surely reconciled.

Along with Aeneas, St. Paul, and others, the Pilgrim of the Comedy is doubtless a knight of faith in whose career "Goddes gras" is somehow interchangeable with "his berynge." And Sir Thopas, it need hardly be said, is another such knight, as is all but spelled out just before his story breaks off when we are told that

    Hymself drank water of the well,
As dide the knyght sire Percyvell
    So worly under wede. . . .

Commentators generally regard this as a reference to the eponymous hero of the Middle English romance Sir Perceval of Galles, which deals with his upbringing by his widowed mother, in the woods, and his eventual knighting by King Arthur.[46] But in fact, as Chaucer and at least some of his audience must have known, Perceval was

[46] In Walter H. French and Charles B. Hale, eds., Middle English Metrical Romances .


the one knight of Arthurian romance whose career bears a certain resemblance to that of the Pilgrim in the Comedy . In the earlier Arthurian literature he was the knight of Arthur's court who led the Grail quest and at the climactic conclusion received a vision of Christ.[47]

To be sure, the lines quoted refer only to the simplicity and purity of Perceval's habits, but it is precisely these that set him apart from his fellow knights of the Round Table, making him not only the Grail knight par excellence, but also a type of the "holy fool." This is an important concept in the Middle Ages whose basis is at least partly biblical.[48] In the first Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul describes apostles as "fools for Christ's sake" ("stulti propter Christum," Vulgate 4.10) and develops at length the theme that "God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise" ("quae stulta sunt mundi elegit Deus, ut confundat sapientes," Vulgate 1.27). "Let no man deceive himself," Paul warns the Corinthians; "if any man among you seemeth wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise" (3.18). Starting from uncourtly, even uncouth, origins—in the Welsh woods and Flanders—Perceval and Thopas appear to the world as foolish knights and by the Pauline logic are therefore well qualified to confound the worldly-wise.

I am not, to be sure, suggesting any direct equation between Perceval and Thopas. The latter belongs, after all, to the realm of pure literary play, whereas Perceval in some ways demands to be taken seriously, even as a knight. The point seems to me, rather, that both characters imply a critique of the tradition of chivalry with its notions of adventure and heroic action, and in that respect, at least, Thopas may be said to represent the more radical perspective. For if, as a Fleming, he begins as that apparent contradiction in terms, a bourgeois knight, he ends by subverting both the chivalric and the bourgeois:

    And for he was a knyght auntrous,
He nolde slepen in noon hous,
But liggen in his hoode;

[47] As in Chrétien de Troyes' Perceval, ou le Conte du Graal (ca. 1182) and Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzifal (ca. 1205). In Malory's Tale of the Sankgreal, written in the fifteenth century but based on earlier sources, Perceval is one of three knights distinguished for their purity—the others are Galahad and Bors—who achieve the quest. Afterward, Perceval becomes a monk.

[48] See, for instance, Barbara Swain, Fools and Folly During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and Enid Welsford, The Fool .


His brighte helm was his wonger,
And by hym baiteth his dextrer
Of herbes fyne and goode.

Thopas's adventurous "houselessness" is altogether consistent, not just with Paul's apostolic "foolishness," but also with a type of unspectacular heroism that we might associate with a St. Francis of Assisi.[49]

Our examination of Thopas leads us to the somewhat surprising conclusion that in the twofold sense mentioned earlier he serves as a mirror for Chaucer's epic persona: reflecting the image of the poet as unworldly bumbler and projecting an image of an individual who in his unlikely, quixotic way is yet prepared to face foes where more conventional heroes fear to tread. Thopas thus shows us Chaucer as a true follower of Dante, redefining the nature of heroism as involving, not the usual violence of the Homeric and chivalric epic, but a moral and intellectual struggle whose arena is social as well as "interior" and whose outcome is always uncertain, ambiguous.[50] And in this context it is tempting to link Chaucer-Thopas with yet another exemplary figure of Western intellectual history, the ironic, self-mocking, erotically charged and yet supremely self-controlled Socrates, whose uncompromising quest for self-knowledge brought him into conflict with Athenian society. The connection is all the more tempting because from the start of his career Chaucer's persona bears a striking resemblance to the Socrates of such dialogues as the Phaedo, the Apology, the Phaedrus, and the Symposium . How much of this Socrates could Chaucer have been acquainted with, however? After all, until the fifteenth century, the only dialogues available in the West, in Latin translation, were the Meno, the Phaedo, and a portion of the Timaeus .[51] Now, the first two do in fact provide a

[49] Who appears at Paradiso XI.58ff. in the role of bridegroom of lady Poverty. In Bonaventure's The Life of St Francis, ch. 2, he is mocked as fool and madman right after his conversion. The issue of apostolic poverty was a subject of bitter controversy well into the fourteenth century.

[50] It is as usual Milton who acts as the perfect commentator on the epic tradition. Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained recapitulate the major epic motifs and in their practice take to their logical conclusion the critiques of the tradition performed by Dante and his successors like Chaucer and Spenser. I am thinking in particular of something like the invocation to Book IX of Paradise Lost, which in the process of defining what is truly heroic evokes by way of contrast the embattled worlds of Homeric and chivalric action.

[51] As well as passages from the Parmenides to be found in Proclus's commentary;see Raymond Klibansky, The Continuity of the Platonic Tradition During the Middle Ages . For the influence of Chalcidius's translation of the Timaeus, see the important article by Joseph E. Grennen, "Chaucer and Chalcidius." The Latin texts of the Phaedo and the Meno have been published by the Warburg Institute (London): Meno, ed. Victor Kordeuter (London, 1940); Phaedo, ed. Laurentius Minio-Paluello (London, 1950).


very full portrait of the "Platonic" Socrates, and the Phaedo, since it deals with Socrates' final hours and execution, represents, perhaps better than any other single dialogue, a reflection on the meaning of his philosophic career in its personal and public, political dimensions.

Assuming he was acquainted with one or more of these dialogues, therefore, Chaucer would not have had to depend upon the considerable post-Platonic legend of Socrates[52] to arrive at an image not as rich and varied as that afforded by the full range of the Platonic dialogues yet possessing many of their essential features. The chief significance of the surmise that Chaucer might have come to think of his persona in relation to Plato's Socrates would be that it provided him with a model for the view of life as an intellectual quest in which no questions are foreclosed, no answers final.

The persona of The Canterbury Tales differs from that of the earlier poems by the sense of the magnitude and seriousness of the epic quest. Irony and dialogic openness are now in the service of a moral passion that is to be found preeminently in the Platonic dialogues dealing with the collision between Socrates and the Athenian state. A preliminary indication of this moral seriousness, in suitably ironic form, comes from the second tale told by Chaucer the pilgrim after his tale of Thopas has been cut short by the Host. The Tale of Melibee follows its French source very closely, and it is usually assumed that Chaucer simply utilized "this litel tretys heere" (957) out of a habit of thrift, because it was available.[53] Over against this assumption I

[52] The problem with that Socrates is that he tends to be monochrome or monologic. Much of the medieval legend of Socrates seems to focus on his troubles with his wife or wives. Eustache Deschamps calls Chaucer "Socrate plains de philosophie" (OEuvres[*] Complètes, ed. Gaston Raynaud, vol. 2, p. 138), but he probably had nothing more specific in mind than Usk and Hoccleve when they paid tribute to Chaucer's philosophic mind. For the latter, see Caroline F. Spurgeon, Five Hundred Years of Chaucer Criticism and Allusion, 1357–1900, nos. 21, 22. Other references to Socrates in Deschamps's poetry all involve the conventional notion of the sage who had trouble with his two wives.

[53] See J. Burke Severs, "The Tale of Melibeus," in Bryan and Dempster, Sources and Analogues .


propose that Chaucer, in looking at Le livre de Mellibee et Prudence, or his translation of it, recognized its character as a dialogue, which at the same time touches upon the central issues of his poem as of Christian morality.[54]

To call this dialogue Socratic or in the Socratic manner may seem like stretching a point, yet I contend that in the context of The Canterbury Tales, Melibee can be seen as dramatizing the victory of dialogue over monologue, of argument over exhortation and legislation. As with a number of Socratic dialogues, the discussion is triggered by an event or situation, in this case the beating of Melibee's wife and the near-killing of his daughter. The intellectual drama that develops is constantly in danger of being swamped by the sheer quantity of authorities cited and the often stilted rhetoric that accompanies the reliance on textual authority. All the same, we never quite forget that the disputants are man and wife who have more than an abstract interest in the issues they are arguing about, and their discussion is genuine in the sense that the conclusions are not given from the outset. However rudimentary the characterization, furthermore, it is by no means totally lacking in psychological interest. For example, Melibee's struggle with himself, at once comic and deeply serious, in gradually yielding to the arguments of his wife, is something the reader can hardly fail to recognize as universally human. And in this struggle we come face to face with what I take to be the real subject of Melibee, the forgiveness of those who have trespassed against us, not as dogma, an article of faith, or a command from on high, but as an intellectual and moral problem with which people must grapple, in Socratic fashion, by weighing and debating the alternatives.[55]

My contention with respect to Melibee is that its character as dialogue is not so much given as realized or achieved by its place in Chaucer's poem, which itself has many of the characteristics of a vast

[54] A number of Plato's dialogues also have a narrative framework. In his monumental study of the dialogue as a literary genre from Greek antiquity onward, Rudolf Hirzel cites Melibee, as well as the frame of The Canterbury Tales, as an example of a dialogue; see Der Dialog, part 2, p. 398, n. 2.

[55] Thematically, Melibee is linked with Thopas as a critique of chivalry, in this case its lex talionis . Again the clearest narrative example of this is the Knight's Tale, which begins with Theseus's spectacular revenge against Thebes. In this and other respects, the Knight's Tale sets a standard, which the other pilgrims either follow or react against. Revenge is a central feature of the two tales immediately following the Knight's, and the Miller's idea of tale-telling as quiting the previous tale (I.3127) can at times take on a menacingly retaliatory meaning.


dialogue. In this dialogue, extending over the pilgrimage to Canterbury, entire tales can serve as arguments for their tellers. Accordingly, if we must find allegory in Melibee, I would relate it to the idea of dialogue and of intellectual quest. Chaucer provides an unobtrusive hint, it seems to me, in this direction by giving a name to Melibee's daughter, who in the sources remains anonymous. Her name, Sophie, might suggest the Socratic wisdom, sophia, that Melibee must recover with the help of his wife, Prudence. Melibee's name, Greek, Latin, and now ambiguously English as well,[56] seems to imply that its possessor is a typical European, whereas his wife's name points squarely to the medieval Latin tradition, where prudentia stands for the chief or "mother" of the four cardinal virtues in the Thomistic scheme.[57]

By himself, Melibee is that self-assertive, masculine, socially or tribally oriented spirit that has played such an important part in the Western tradition since Homeric times. Over against it there is the "Latin" spirit of the Church, with its tradition of self-abnegation and a moral and spiritual idealism that is always attentive to the common good. In the history of the West these two have often existed in separation or with one subordinated to the other. Their marriage, the marriage of Melibee and Prudence, is in one sense no more than a partnership in dialogue by which the Socratic sophia is, so to speak, spontaneously brought into being.

By way of conclusion to this chapter I want to suggest that much more emphatically than Dante's Beatricean inspiration,[58]The Canterbury Tales contains a distinctively, and what would nowadays be

[56] The actual etymology of the name is from Greek meliboas, "sweet singing (or singer)," though Servius interprets Meliboeus of Virgil's first Eclogue as from the Greek for "the one who takes care of oxen"; see H. Albertus Lion, ed., Commentarium in Virgilium Serviani, p. 97. At 1. 1410 of the tale his name is interpreted as though it were from the Latin mel bibens, "a man that drinketh hony." By "ambiguously English" I mean that it can be seen as a macaronic name meaning "honey-bee."

[57] The function of prudentia is to assist the practical intellect to arrive at correct moral decisions; see Josef Pieper, Prudence, who quotes Peter Lombard's commentary on the Sentences to the effect that "Prudentia dicitur genitrix virtutum" (p. 79). Prudentia is also the heroine of Alan of Lille's allegorical Latin epic, Anticlaudianus, where she is synonymous with Fronesis, Sapientia, and Sophia, however. See Anticlaudianus, ed. R. Bossuat; Alan of Lille, Anticlaudianus or The Good and Perfect Man .

[58] On this subject, see Marianne Shapiro, Woman Earthly and Divine in "The Comedy" of Dante, and Joan Ferrante, Woman as Image in Medieval Literature . In a later chapter I discuss what I consider the marital-erotic dimension of the Dante-Beatrice relationship, which Dante criticism has taken in far too allegorical (and theological) a sense.


considered a conventional, marital ideal. This ideal, as Melibee suggests, runs the gamut from the metaphoric and metaphysical, the tension-within-harmony of male and female, "Which two great Sexes animate the World," in Milton's formulation (Paradise Lost VIII.151), to the down-to-earth literal partnership of man and woman. Hence the appropriateness of the Host's reaction to Melibee when he contrasts Prudence with his own violent and vengeful wife, ironically named Goodlief. Somewhere in all of this, I feel sure, there also lurks an ironic joke at the expense of Socrates (and his followers) who, as the Wife recalls from Jankyn's "book of wikked wyves," needed all his wisdom to endure the abuse of a shrewish wife or two.[59]

[59] See the Prologue to the Wife of Bath's Tale, 727ff. John Gower tells essentially the same story in Confessio Amantis, Liber Tercius, "The Patience of Socrates."


The Canterbury Tales and Dantean Allegory
(Geryon and the Nun's Priest's Tale)

In arguing for the intertextuality of the Comedy and The Canterbury Tales I mentioned pilgrimage as a central structural feature shared by both poems. Ironically, this shared feature could also be seen as setting the two at opposite poles. The pilgrimage in Dante's Comedy is everything, almost, that the one in The Canterbury Tales is not: it is otherworldly, allegorical, and individual, whereas the other is thisworldly, literal, and collective. For generations of critics this contrast could well serve as a compact symbol of what they have perceived as the unbridgeable poetic gulf between the two poets and their poems. C. S. Lewis's statement, made more than half a century ago, to the effect that "nowhere in Chaucer do we find a radically allegorical poem," today still expresses pretty much the prevailing view.[1] The early "experiments" in allegory, like the Book of the Duchess and Parliament of Fowls, are of course recognized as such, but the major works are regarded as basically realistic and nonallegorical.

Contrary to the critical consensus, I argued earlier that not only are there individual allegorical tales—like Melibee, discussed at the end of chapter 2—but there is also an overarching allegory in The

[1] C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love, p. 166. In specifying "radically allegorical" Lewis covers himself very effectively. Depending on how one interprets his adverb, one might conclude that there is no author who has written a "radically allegorical" poem!


Canterbury Tales paralleling that of the Comedy, which has to do with the question of the human image. It is the idea of allegory in the two poems that I now want to examine from its theoretical and thematic aspects. Granted that the Comedy 's otherworld setting is from the start an invitation to allegory that the road to Canterbury is not, or not necessarily, both poems nonetheless share a basically similar orientation toward allegory.

That The Canterbury Tales continues the kind of allegory initiated in the Comedy is the explicit contention of Robert Hollander:

In his mimetic intention Dante is greatly different from the poets of the thirteen hundred years since Virgil, the poets of his own time, and the poets of the three hundred years following him, with the single exception of the author of that other fourteenth-century "Divine Comedy," the Canterbury Tales . These are the only two major works until the sixteenth century which, like the Bible, treat the literal as historical, and thus must perfect the techniques of mimesis as well as those of doctrine.[2]

Naturally, such pairing of the Comedy and The Canterbury Tales fits in very well with the purpose of this chapter. Unfortunately, however, it is predicated on an idea of allegory that seems to me subject to question. Developing the thesis propounded by C. S. Singleton, Hollander argues that Dante set out to imitate "God's way of writing" by modeling the allegory of the Comedy on a system of scriptural interpretation that distinguishes four types or levels of meaning summed up in a familiar tag:[3]

littera gesta docet, quid credas allegoria,
moralis quid agas, quo tendas anagogia.

(The literal teaches what happened, allegory what you
believe, the moral what you should do, and anagoge what
should strive toward.)[4]

Dante, according to this theory, then proceeded to compose a nar-

[2] Robert Hollander, Allegory in Dante's "Commedia, " p. 53.

[3] See C. S. Singleton, "'In exitu Israel de Ægypto.'" Though Singleton originated the theory of Dante's fundamentally theological allegory in this century, as early as the fourteenth century there were commentators who held very similar views; see Appendix I, "The Fourteenth-century Commentators on Fourfold Allegory," pp. 266–96 in Hollander, Allegory in Dante's "Commedia ."

[4] Quoted from Jean Pépin, Dante et la tradition de l'allégorie, p. 83.


rative that, though obviously fiction, nonetheless insists on its own literal truth. Many so-called realistic narratives, and many fantastic ones as well, do the same, but Dante's insistence on the "historical" truth of his otherworld journey is seen by Singleton, and Hollander, as a different matter, evidence of an ambition to go beyond merely poetic allegory and to imitate the Bible by means of a visionary fiction that would represent an authoritative basis for theological allegory. Not content with the poet's allegoria in verbis, an allegory depending on the multiple (metaphoric) meanings of words, Dante tried to approximate an allegoria in facto, "God's way of writing," in the sense that God "writes" not in the medium of language but in that of historical events, which he charges with prophetic significance.[5] The Bible, needless to say, represents the record of God's historical "writing"; Dante, in turn, makes the Comedy into the record of his fictive journey, which he treats as if its events were not merely true but also charged with the prophetic content that, strictly speaking, only God could endow them with.

With this theory we certainly have an answer to the question discussed in the preceding chapter: What does the ambitious Christian poet do? According to Singleton and Hollander, he composes, not an "appendix" to the Bible, but a poetic text that will replicate its allegorical structure and thus possess the same truth claim as the Bible. Now, if that truth claim is doctrinal, that is, confined to the strictly allegorical levels, it is relatively unproblematic but also unexciting. But if the truth claim is also meant to cover the literal level, then it becomes either self-contradictory or too grandiose for its own good.

In addition, Dante's own theoretical statements about allegory in no way bear out the theory. The Letter to Can Grande, a kind of author's preface like Spenser's Letter to Raleigh prefixed to The Faerie Queene, describes the Comedy as a "polysemous" allegory, suggesting that Dante has a primarily verbal rather than "factual" or "historical" allegory in mind.[6] He does, to be sure, go on to explicate the opening of Psalm 113, "When Israel came out of Egypt, and the house of Jacob from a people of strange speech," in terms of the traditional four senses. However, he then promptly indicates that his real in-

[5] For the distinction, traditional since Augustine, between allegoria in verbis and allegoria in facto, see Pépin, p. 47.

[6] Assuming it is Dante's, a matter on which there is as yet no definitive consensus; see, e.g., Colin Hardie, "The Epistle to Can Grande Again."


terest is in the literal-allegorical distinction. "And although these mystic senses have each their special denominations, they may all in general be called allegorical, since they differ from the literal and historical; for allegory is derived from alleon, in Greek, which means the same as the Latin alienum or diversum ."[7] For his Comedy, accordingly, he goes on to claim no more than a twofold subject: "The subject of the whole work, then, taken in the literal sense only, is 'the state of souls after death,' without qualification, for the whole progress of the work hinges on it and about it. Whereas if the work be taken allegorically the subject is 'man, as by good or ill deserts, in the exercise of the freedom of his choice, he becomes liable to rewarding or punishing justice.'"[8] As Carolynn Van Dyke points out in commenting on this passage, "the subject of the Divine Comedy  . . . is not punishment, purgation, and beatitude; not justice, but man as subject to justice. Some distance between immediate and ultimate referent is the irreplaceable representation of the human relationship to truth."[9]

In an earlier work, the Convivio, Dante has a lengthy discussion of allegory in the course of which he appears to make a distinction between the "allegory of the theologians" and the "allegory of the poets." But as Hollander himself admits, the effect of his discussion is to blur rather than establish the distinction between the two.[10] Dante's purpose in this is, I suspect, to allow poets like himself to cross over into biblical and related territory without subjecting them to the exegetical shackles of the theologians. The same or a similar motive probably underlies the extraordinary emphasis Dante places on the primacy of the literal level, claiming—as the biblical exegetes did not and indeed could not—that it is the indispensable basis from which the "spiritual" senses are derived.[11]

[7] Epistola X [to Can Grande della Scala], translated by Philip H. Wicksteed, p. 348, in A Translation of the Latin Works of Dante Alighieri, Temple Classics (London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1929). The Latin reads: "Et quanquam isti sensus mistici variis appellentur nominibus, generaliter omnes dici possunt allegorici, cum sint a litterali sive historiali diversi. Nam allegoria dicitur ab 'alleon' grece, quod in latinum dicitur 'alienum' sive 'diversum.'"

[8] Ibid.

[9] Carolynn Van Dyke, The Fiction of Truth, p. 216.

[10] Hollander, Allegory, p. 33.

[11] According to Robert P. Miller, "Allegory in the Canterbury Tales, " in Companion to Chaucer Studies, ed. Beryl Rowland, the exegetical tradition of the Church had become a fixed method, "a habit of mind which attaches to ideas, events, qualities,and things a series of standardized 'meanings,' primarily those developed and conventionalized within the system of clerkly authority" (270–71).


And in thus expounding, the literal should always come first, as the one in the meaning whereof the others are included, and without which it were impossible and irrational to attend to the others, and especially to the allegorical. It is impossible, because in everything that has an inside and an outside it is impossible to come at the inside save we first come at the outside. Wherefore inasmuch as in the scriptures [the literal sense] is ever outside, it is impossible to come at the others without first coming at the literal. Again it is impossible, because in every natural and artificial thing it is impossible to proceed to the form without first duly disposing the subject on which the form must be impressed. Just as it is impossible for the form of gold to accrue if the material, to wit its subject, be not first digested and prepared; or for the form of a chest to come if the material, to wit the wood, be not first disposed and prepared. Wherefore inasmuch as the literal meaning is always the subject and material of the others, especially the allegorical, it is impossible to come at the knowledge of the others before coming at the knowledge of it. Further, it is impossible because in every natural or artificial thing it is impossible to proceed unless the foundation be first made; as in a house, and as in study. Wherefore since demonstration is the building up of knowledge and the literal demonstration is the foundation of the others, especially the allegorical, it is impossible to come at the others before coming at this.

Again, suppose it were possible it would be irrational, that is to say out of order, and would therefore be carried on with much irksomeness and with much error. Wherefore, as saith the Philosopher in the first of the Physics, nature wills that we should proceed in due order in our learning, to wit by proceeding from that which we know better to that which we know not so well. I say that nature wills it, inasmuch as this way of learning is naturally born in us. And therefore if the other senses are less known than the literal (which it is manifestly apparent that they are) it would be irrational to proceed to demonstrate them if the literal had not been demonstrated first.[12]

The variety of arguments Dante musters to demonstrate that the literal sense contains the others—"quello ne la cui li altri sono inchiusi"—indicates the importance he attaches to this point. The primary analogy he establishes is with Aristotelian hylomorphism, the literal being to the allegorical as the material substrate is to the formal principle. This analogy involves obvious difficulties, like the fact that a text, being linguistic, does not consist of formless matter but al-

[12] Philip Wicksteed, trans., The Convivio of Dante Alighieri, pp. 64–66. Cf. Busnelli and Vandelli, eds., Il Convivio, pp. 100–103.


ready has a determinate form, that is, meaning. It is not the same kind of object as the gold piece or wood chest (arca ) to which Dante compares it. On the other hand, if we consider the text from the perspective of the mind seeking to understand it, the literal meaning may be said to point beyond itself to principles (or "intentions") in terms of which it becomes evermore intelligible.[13] In other words, the interpretation of a "polysemous" text involves not a one-time decoding but a series of attempts at comprehension, and it is this fact that authorizes Dante, citing a principle of Aristotle's Physics,[14] to parallel a person's "innate" need to proceed from the better- to the less-known with the progression from literal to allegorical. The analogy neglects Aristotle's distinction between what is better known to us (quae sunt nobis magis nota ) and what is more knowable in nature (ea quae sunt magis nota naturae ).[15] But that is presumably just the point: from the perspective of the interpreting mind the distinction becomes superfluous, since the act of interpretation constantly turns what is "out there" into what is "in here," and vice versa.

The Aristotelian principles Dante introduces into his discussion suggest that since the literal level is an analogue of the experiential world, the reader's orientation toward the text must be empirical, taking nothing for granted. In her excellent discussion of Dante's allegory, Carolynn Van Dyke rounds out this picture by observing that in the Comedy the literal level of the narrative is quite literally the "world" as its narrator, what she calls the "persona," experiences it, and must be interpreted as such by the reader:

Auerbach and Singleton properly insist that the story itself is no disposable surrogate for the implicit Realities. It is, rather, a different order of being: the empirical observations and recollections of the persona. The empirical perspective is unremitting here, never giving way, as in Bunyan, to allegorical omniscience. Even in the passages sometimes called personification allegory—the Beatricean pageant, the opening of the Inferno, and so forth—the

[13] At the beginning of the Physics Aristotle states that "we do not think we know a thing until we are acquainted with its primary conditions or first principles" (Physica, trans. R. P. Hardie and R. K. Gaye, in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon, p. 218). The Convivio itself starts with a citation from Aristotle's Metaphysics, "All men by nature desire to know" (Temple Classics trans.).

[14] Actually, Aquinas's Commentary on the Physics, as Pépin, Dante, p. 91, points out, following Busnelli and Vandelli, p. 102n.

[15] See Pépin, Dante, p. 92. The Latin phrases are from Aquinas's Commentary 1.1.lect. 1, cited by Busnelli and Vandelli, p. 102.


objects seen by the persona require interpretation, being at least partially opaque to whatever Realities they manifest. If intelligibles are named directly as agents and objects in Prudentius' narrative code, in Dante's they are intermittently visible, incompletely reconstructable antecedents from which the narrative, like the visible world, seems to have been derived.[16]

Later, I will have more to say about matter "at least partially opaque" to intelligibles that might cast doubt on the Platonism implicit in the statement quoted above. Dante's almost aggressive Aristotelianism in the Convivio suggests that Van Dyke's idea of the experiencing subject or persona as central to Dante's allegory is right. At the same time this subject's experience is obviously not confined to an external world but encompasses another, internal world of thought and feeling such as Paul Piehler postulates for his idea of the "allegorical plot."

In his book The Visionary Landscape, Piehler locates the archetype of this allegorical plot in Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, which presents its protagonist-prisoner in a moment of crisis from which he is rescued by a personification of superior wisdom and metaphysical order who engages him in a dialogue that is at once enlightening and therapeutic.[17] Dante's most important innovation in this scheme, according to Piehler, was to substitute for the "authority figures" like Boethius's Philosophy and Alan of Lille's Nature (in the twelfth-century Plaint of Nature ) "concrete personalities" like Virgil and Beatrice to guide the pilgrim out of his predicament. Not that these personalities are antithetical as such to theology or metaphysics, but since they do not possess any recognized authority, the chief reason for their introduction is clearly their link with the protagonist's personal history. This personal dimension, according to Piehler, constitutes Dante's most significant departure from the model established by Boethius.

Allegory, in this view, is no longer an abstract structure but rather the dramatization of an existential crisis or problem as this works itself out in the "consciousness" of one or more of the characters involved. The terms of an allegory are thus peculiarly double-edged, on the one hand referring to a perceived "external" reality (whether concrete or ideational) and, on the other hand, characterizing the "internal" state or disposition of the perceiver. And the complexity of the allegory will increase as the crisis that sets the allegorical action

[16] Carolynn Van Dyke, The Fiction of Truth, p. 215.

[17] Paul Piehler, The Visionary Landscape . Chapter 7 deals with Dante.


in motion becomes itself more enigmatic. In pre-Comedy allegories the causes and the nature of this crisis are usually well defined and of a broadly philosophical nature; in the Comedy, however, they remain mysterious and unspecified beyond the imagery of being lost in the dark forest and confronted by the beasts on the hillside in the opening canto.

In lieu of a "crisis," Paul de Man, taking his cue from Baudelaire's essay on comedy, posits a "fall" as the originary moment in the plot of allegory or its twin, irony.[18] Whether it is literal or alludes to that of Adam and Eve, the fall creates in the protagonist a sudden awareness of his doubleness, turning him into a "disinterested spectator" of his phenomenal self.

In the idea of fall thus conceived, a progression in self-knowledge is certainly implicit: the man who has fallen is somewhat wiser than the fool who walks around oblivious of the crack in the pavement about to trip him up. And the fallen philosopher reflecting on the discrepancy between the two successive stages is wiser still, but this does not in the least prevent him from stumbling in his turn. It seems instead that his wisdom can be gained only at the cost of such a fall. The mere falling of others does not suffice; he has to go down himself. The ironic, twofold self that the writer or philosopher constitutes by his language seems able to come into being only at the expense of his empirical self, falling (or rising) from a stage of mystified adjustment into the knowledge of his mystification. The ironic language splits the subject into an empirical self that exists in a state of inauthenticity and a self that exists only in the form of a language that asserts the knowledge of this inauthenticity. This does not, however, make it into an authentic language, for to know inauthenticity is not the same as to be authentic.
("The Rhetoric of Temporality," p. 214)

This scheme lends itself rather neatly to Dante's "allegorical plot," which starts with a "fall" revealing a self existing "in a state of inauthenticity"; simultaneously there emerges another self with a purely linguistic mode of existence, which in pre-Dantean allegory would be a personification like Boethius's Philosophy that by means of therapeutic dialogue leads the "empirical self" to an understanding of its condition.[19] The Comedy, as Piehler suggests, has figures

[18] Baudelaire's "De l'essence du rire," in Curiosités esthétiques: L'Art romantique et autres (Euvres critiques, ed. H. Lemaître, pp. 241–63 (Paris: Garnier, 1962), forms the basis of Paul de Man's discussion of irony in its relation to allegory in "The Rhetoric of Temporality," in Blindness and Insight, pp. 208ff.

[19] Cf. Seth Lerer, Boethius and Dialogue, p. 32: "Cicero, Augustine, and Fulgentius anticipate Boethius in that they all postulate a mind in conversation withitself; that they express this conversation between the figures of student and teacher; and that their conversations always produce a readable work which will engage a future imaginary audience in constant colloquy with its authors."


like Virgil and Beatrice that perform a parallel function, but Dante's real innovation, it is now evident, is a true Baudelairean dédoublement by creation of the role of poet-narrator as the dialogic double or counterpart to the "empirical" Pilgrim.

In the Comedy, the self-duplication of Poet and Pilgrim, we might say, begins as an allegory of writing, the act of composing a poem that "records" the discovery of a self existing "in a state of inauthenticity" and the quest to recover or, as the case may be, discover a state of authenticity. The reader will have noted that the language of existentialism can readily be replaced by the biblical and theological language with which earlier I described the Dantean pilgrimage as a quest for the human image. Both concepts are obviously problematical and both involve a general, philosophic (or theological) idea as well as something intimately personal and "existential." The self-duplication of Poet and Pilgrim is, then, the ideal instrument for the quest after the "authentic image," and without turning the poem into a psychodrama, it gives the allegory a distinct psychological edge. The self-duplication, that is, sets a pattern that invites the reader to see the poem's various dramatic encounters as also self-encounters (and self-divisions) pointing to "a discontinuity and a plurality of levels within a subject that comes to know itself by an increasing differentiation from what is not."[20]

The allegory in The Canterbury Tales works in a fashion more or less analogous to what I have sketched so far for the Comedy, as I will discuss later in this chapter. In the first place, then, there is the larger quest for the clarified human image, a quest growing out of the private and individual "impulse to pilgrimage"—itself the result of a crisis? a fall? And then there is the reiterated "allegorical plot" of tale-telling en route, with its own repeated dédoublement of the "empirical" pilgrim and his or her dialogic double, the pilgrim-narrator. My discussion of the Clerk's Tale and the Merchant's Tale in the last two chapters of this book will attempt a full-scale exploration of Chaucer's allegorical plot in which allegory itself is at the center of the "crisis."

[20] de Man, "The Rhetoric of Temporality," p. 213. At Par . XXII.112ff. there is an invocation to Gemini or Twins as the constellation that is the source of the Poet's ingegno ; this is a point to which I shall return.


I turn now to a discussion of the Geryon episode in cantos XVI and XVII of the Inferno as a perfect example of the dédoublement —in its most startling, Kafkaesque form—at the center of Dante's allegorical plot, the chief allegorical "knot" of the entire Comedy, in which its very genesis is enacted. It is intended as a paradigm for the self-conflicted character of allegorical narrative in both the Comedy and The Canterbury Tales, and I will therefore deal with the episode at some length. Let us briefly consider first of all the literal narrative.

At the edge of the seventh circle of hell, the progress of the pilgrims is stopped by a steep precipice. Here Virgil has the Pilgrim remove the girdle (corda ) from around his waist and then cast it into the abyss. A novelty (novità ) is bound to respond to such a novel sign (novo cenno ), the Pilgrim says to himself (115–16).[21] Virgil tells him:

Tosto verrà di sovra
ciò ch'io attendo e che il tuo pensier sogna;
tosto convien ch'al tuo viso si scovra.
                                                 ( Inf . XVI.121–23)

(Soon will come up what I look for and what your mind
of . . . ; soon must it be discovered to your sight. [S])

And so the Pilgrim sees "through the dense and darkened air . . . a figure swimming, rising up" ("per quell' aere grosso e scuro / venir notando una figure in suso," l. 130f.). Let us note, first of all, how the scene recapitulates the opening of the Inferno when the Pilgrim, driven back into darkness by the she-wolf, is in near despair. At that moment there appears before his eyes ("dinanzi a li occhi mi si fu offerto," l. 62) a faint figure that identifies itself as Virgil. From the perspective of the Geryon episode we can see that the historical figure, born "sub Julio " (70), represents a true dialogic double to the Pilgrim. Not only can he read the latter's mind, but in canto XVI he all but becomes part of that mind, its muse and intellectual midwife, by which the Pilgrim is led to a novità, new vision promising new understanding, perhaps a "new life."

[21] I am deliberately translating with awkward literalness because the terms in parentheses seem to me important, and they get lost in the more idiomatic rendering of Singleton and Mandelbaum: "And surely something strange must here reply," / I said within myself, "to this strange sign." For Dante, n(u)ovo in all its forms would seem to be at all times a highly charged term.


In canto XVI, this novità —the figure whose name is revealed in the next canto as Geryon—will (ex hypothesi ) be another "double" of the Pilgrim, but this time by way of a Sphinx-like figure rather than of any recognized historical or fictional character. This fits with the symbolic manner in which Virgil reenacts the Pilgrim's "fall." As we saw, he casts his girdle down the abyss (and follows it with his eyes), and the girdle now is a metonymic symbol of the Pilgrim's self. I will return to these symbolic doublings later, but first I want to propose that the scene at the edge of the seventh circle is yet another reenactment, namely, of the genesis of the entire Comedy . As I picture it, in this genesis Virgil—not the man but the "embodied" text (as I have discussed in chapter 2)—plays a central role. Through the agency of this Virgil, so I go on to speculate, the possibility arose of an epic poem in which the past might be rewritten or rewrite itself in such a way as to recuperate a lost authenticity.

The moment in which this possibility dawns upon the Poet is imaged by Geryon rising to view in what seems a poetic autobiogenesis, as the infernal abyss—imaged by the space between cantos XVI and XVII—turns into the hidden depth of the Poet's mind, which Virgil has not so much compelled as enticed to yield its dream image. The poem looks at this point, in other words, as if it were generating itself from within its own fictive text, a particularly striking confirmation of Philippe Sollers's idea of the Comedy as "un texte en train de s'écrire."[22] In this connection it is surely no coincidence that by the end of the canto a perfectly docile Geryon, carrying two poets on its back down to the eighth circle, looks for all the world like another Pegasus.

As it descends, the monster—la fera (114)—is actually swimming through the air or void: "Ella[23] sen va notando lenta lenta" ("She goes swimming slowly slowly," XVII.115). Susan Noakes has made the excellent suggestion that notando is a pun here and that the beast, whose name she derives from Greek geruon, "speaking, singing" (gerus, "voice"), not only "goes swimming" but also "goes along by writing slowly, slowly."[24] Needless to say, this fits perfectly with

[22] See "Dante et la traversée de l'écriture," originally published in Tel Quel 23 (1965), and reprinted in L'Écriture et l'expérience des limites ; trans. as Writing and the Experience of Limits . Jeremy Tambling, Dante and Difference, p. 67, cites Sollers's essay in discussing Dante's textuality.

[23] English translations like Mandelbaum's and Singleton's miss the change of grammatical gender here, which in the Italian is dictated by fera as the antecedent.

[24] Susan Noakes, Timely Reading, p. 65.


my suggestion that Geryon "is" the Comedy "en train de s'écrire." And the same wordplay is obviously at work earlier when the Pilgrim first saw "venir notando una figura" (131): a shape, image, or character come swimming, like a diver returning to the surface (ll. 133–36), and writing (itself). Within four lines of this notando, furthermore, there is its cognate, note, in the Poet's address to the reader prior to the actual emergence of the beast:

Sempre a quel ver c'ha faccia di menzogna
de' l'uom chiuder le labbra fin ch'el pote,
però che sanza colpa far vergogna;
ma qui tacer nol posso; e per le note
di questa comedìa, lettor, ti giuro,
s'elle non sien di lunga grazia vote,
ch' i' vidi per quell'aere grosso e scuro
venir notando una figura in suso,
maravigliosa ad ogni cor sicuro.
                                              ( Inf . XVI.124–32)

(Faced with that truth which seems a lie, a man
should always close his lips as long as he can—
to tell it shames him, even though he's blameless;
but here I can't be still; and by the lines
of this my Comedy, reader, I swear—
and may my verse find favor for long years—
that through the dense and darkened air I saw
a figure swimming, rising up, enough
to bring amazement to the firmest heart.)

These note are, of course, the poem's "lines" (Mandelbaum), the "notes" recording the poet's pilgrimage, and the "musical notes" or "strains" ("As if the poem were a song")[25] that make up the poem as a whole (questa comedìa ), and they appear to be part of the technical vocabulary of Dante's poetics, as when Bonagiunta has the secret of the dolce stil nuovo explained to him by the Pilgrim:

        I' mi son un, che quando
Amor mi spira, noto,  e a quel modo
ch'e' ditta dentro vo significando.
                                                                         ( Purg . XXIV. 52–54; my italics)

[25] This is the interpretation favored by Singleton in his Commentary, ad loc.: "As if the poem were a song" (p. 292). Cf. Purg . XXX.91f., where the Pilgrim hears "'l cantar di quei che notan sempre / dietro a le note de li etterni giri," "the song of those who ever sing in harmony with the eternal spheres."


(I am one who, when Love inspires me,  takes note,  and
goes setting it forth after the fashion which he dictates
within me.  [S])

Jeremy Tambling's comment on these lines gives an accurate sense of the pervasive doubleness of Dante's poetics. "When love speaks," writes Tambling, "Dante takes notes — . . . he writes it down, both inside, in the 'libro de la mia memoria,' and outside, in the poem."[26]

At this point some crucial questions arise. In the Vita Nuova Love speaks and so provides its poems' note . But such is not the case in the epic "text that writes itself." Where, then, do its note come from? Who or what inspires them? If the text is an infernal Pegasus, furthermore, will it not take its poet-passengers far from any authentic image? The Poet-narrator shows his consciousness of these questions by a rather fantastic joke: he swears to the truth (authenticity) of what he is telling by le note di questa comedìa, in short, the very note whose character and source are in question. The joke is compounded in light of the possibility that questa comedìa, usually taken to indicate the title of Dante's epic, can equally well refer to the Geryon episode, thus turning the latter into a kind of gloss on the whole poem.[27] And the problem with that is Geryon's total ambiguity. With a "faccia di menzogna"[28]and a "faccia d'uom giusto," it is truly two-faced, a veritable emblem of fraud:

E quella sozza imagine di froda
sen venne, ed arrivò la testa e 'l busto,
ma 'n su la riva non trasse la coda.
La faccia sua era faccia d'uom giusto,
tanto benigna avea di fuor la pelle,
e d'un serpente tutto l'altro fusto;
due branche avea pilose infin l'ascelle;
lo dosso e'l petto e ambedue le coste
dipinti avea di nodi e di rotelle.
Con più color, sommesse e sovraposte
non fer mai drappi Tartari né Turchi,
né fuor tai tele per Aragne imposte.
                                        ( Inf . XVII. 7–18)

[26] Dante and Difference, p. 98.

[27] See Singleton's note ad loc. for the standard interpretation of questa comedìa, which certainly seems to be supported by the reference to "la mia comedìa" of Inf . XXI.1. However, I see no problem in the use of comedìa as both title and designation of a generic mode.

[28] Recalling the bella menzogna that at Convivio II.i.3 is said to be the means for concealing a truth in classical fable.


(And he came on, that filthy effigy
of fraud, and landed with his head and torso
but did not draw his tail onto the bank.
The face he wore was that of a just man,
so gracious was his features' outer semblance;
and all his trunk, the body of a serpent;
he had two paws, with hair up to the armpits;
his back and chest as well as both his flanks
had been adorned with twining knots and circlets.
No Turks or Tartars ever fashioned fabrics
more colorful in background and relief,
nor had Arachne ever loomed such webs.)

Here is indeed an insidious duplicity, a benign or seductive exterior behind which there lurk bestial violence and cruelty. For the Pilgrim the beast is a source of terror recalling his emotions in the selva oscura of canto I. During the flight down to the eighth circle he is in constant fear of falling off, like a later visitant to the otherworld, who implores his Muse:

Return me to my Native Element:
Least from this flying Steed unrein'd, (as once
Bellerophon,  though from a lower Clime)
Dismounted, on th' Aleian  Field I fall
Erroneous, there to wander and forlorn.
                                      ( Paradise Lost,  VII.16–20)[29]

The Pilgrim's fears suggest the Poet's sense that his poem has developed a mysterious, beastlike life and force of its own and is apparently beyond his control. So his oath by the note of his Comedy / comedy is perhaps not a joke after all? But here we must observe that there is the other poet, who from the start seems to be familiar with the beast and exclaims against it in terms of vehement contempt:

ecco la fera con la coda aguzza,
che passa i monti, e rompe i muri e l'armi;
ecco colei ch tutto 'l mondo appuzza!

(Behold the beast who bears the pointed tail,
who crosses mountains, shatters weapons, walls!
Behold the one whose stench fills all the world!)

[29] Just as Milton's invocation to the Muse occurs exactly halfway through the poem—"Half yet remaines unsung" (PL VII.21)—so the Geryon episode occurs precisely midway through the Inferno .


Despite this denunciation, Virgil goes on to negotiate with the beast for a kind of shuttle service, and during the ride through space he speaks to it as to a reasonable fellow human being. Unlike the Pilgrim, furthermore, Virgil remains perfectly calm throughout and shows himself an expert pilot or rider in control of the beast.

To Virgil, in other words, Geryon presents neither a moral nor a poetic problem, but is simply an instrument to be used. As such, the Roman poet helps to allay, perhaps, some of the anxieties, implied in the appearance of the beast, that I mentioned earlier. Virgil shows that it is possible to control the apparently treacherous and fraudulent medium and make it serve one's purpose. Inspired by Virgil's example, the reader, too, can see how by a slight shift in perspective the seemingly horrific appearance of Geryon turns into a subtle, and subtly self-parodying, description of the Comedy . The "twining knots and circlets" with which Geryon's serpent flanks are adorned (dipinti ), for instance, lose their sinister associations when we consider that the fabrics of Turks and Tartars and Arachne's webs are, like the Comedy, works of art, and woven, Latin textus, thus textual .[30] The sommessa and sovraposta —essentially, interweaving varicolored threads—and the tele imposte by which these weavers create their exotic designs are like highly compressed descriptions of the Comedy 's textual devices with their capacity for producing a sense of receding depths and shifting foregrounds, all on an apparently flat surface.

Via its Ovidian subtext in the Metamorphoses (VI.5–145), the story of Arachne might be seen as yet another version of the Comedy 's allegorical plot. In a weaving contest with Pallas Minerva, Arachne creates a "divine comedy" picturing the gods' philandering with mortals that outdoes Minerva's own "poema sacro" in cloth. The goddess punishes Arachne for this act of hubris by destroying what she has woven. Arachne thereupon tries to commit suicide by hanging herself, but at the crucial moment is saved by Minerva, who turns her into a spider hanging by a thread. Allegorically, Arachne attains the ambiguous immortality of a poet spinning beautiful fictions out of her own body. And I might add that the spider's web

[30] Italian testo ; cf. Inf . XV.89 and Purg . VI.29, the latter instance referring to a verse in the Aeneid . Cf. Martha C. Nussbaum's distinction between the Platonic and the Sophoclean soul, the latter like "Heraclitus's image of psuche : a spider sitting in the middle of its web, able to feel and respond to any part of the complicated structure": The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 69.


with its concentric "circles" bears a remarkable resemblance to the abstract design of the Inferno, and ultimately of the entire Dantean cosmos.

The (writing of the) poem, then, has done its work of saving the Poet-Pilgrim from falling irretrievably. But that is not, after all, a resolution of the problems—having to do with the nature of the poem and the source of its inspiration—that I mentioned earlier, because what the Poet-Pilgrim seeks is not simply life or even poetic immortality, but "authenticity," the recovery of the authentic human image in this life, in this life, in this flesh, but by poetic means. And here the guidance of the Roman poet is perhaps of limited help. Both intellectually and poetically the Poet-Pilgrim must venture beyond the classical ideal of an ultimately fixed and stable order, whether in human nature or in human art. In somewhat different terms, the quest of the Comedy must risk fraud, error, failure because, as I shall argue, it must accept the ambiguity of all images and the radical instability and duplicity of the poet's language. Only by beginning with such acceptance can the Poet hope to create more than, in Mazzotta's words, "a prodigious crystal, an idolatrous self-referential construct."[31]

The description of Geryon at the beginning of canto XVII cited earlier evokes certain notions about human nature, going back to classical antiquity, that envision it as a composite of rational and bestial elements. When the Poet calls Geryon "that filthy image of fraud," therefore, I believe he is thinking, not of an allegorical abstraction labeled "Fraud," but of an image that is fraudulent or deceptive, first of all, for those who accept it as authentic. And this is consistent with a basic assumption of the allegory in the Comedy, particularly the Inferno,[32] that the denizens of the otherworld are where and what they are by virtue of a conscious act of self-projection—whether in act or thought—that determines the "image" in which they appear in the poem. By a demonic self-duplication, the image embraced by the sinner thus combines moral cause and effect, a self-conception that is its own instant realization.

Now, Geryon is presented initially as if it were a singular, fixed image, but, as we shall see, this is itself deceptive, and the beast

[31] Giuseppe Mazzotta, Dante, Poet of the Desert, p. 237.

[32] In the two later canticles the person comes to be defined less and less in terms of an external, visible image, and increasingly by way of speech, tone of voice, facial expression, and so forth.


eventually proves to be a shifting constellation or kaleidoscope of possible images. In canto XVII the image is particularized in relation to the Pilgrim, the critical detail being "the face of a just man." In itself the phrase is undecidable—a face is, after all, an adjustable mask—but behind it, as it were, there is an entire tradition of classical anthropology that ranks and classifies human souls and also holds that the specifically human (the face) must rule or suppress the animal or subhuman in the name of justice or morality. Reason must control the bestial in man.[33]

This assumption of classical anthropology is placed under a critical lens in the figure of Geryon, which is characterized by what I would call an amphibiousness that projects the countless ways in which human beings cross the boundary between one species and another and between one realm and another. In classical mythology, he was a three-headed, three-bodied giant living in the stream Oceanus until Hercules killed him; but Dante's Geryon, though doubtless related to this giant, also merges with another figure from classical mythology, the shape-shifter god of the sea, Proteus.[34] In the Odyssey Proteus plays a role as a reluctant or unexpected helper not altogether unlike Geryon's role in the Comedy . As Virgil is able to persuade the monster to provide transportation for the travelers, so Menelaos, by a trick learned from Proteus's daughter, catches the sea god, and despite the latter's attempts to elude him through various metamorphoses, compels Proteus to reveal to him the way home.[35]

In the Comedy, certainly, the pilgrimage is a nostos, or journey home, a concept that surely encompasses the "human image," whose quester is himself destined to be gradually transformed in conformity

[33] The idea of reason or the divine part as the properly ruling element of the soul is prominent in Plato and the Stoics. For the Christian transformation of the idea, see Robert Javelet, "La réintroduction de la liberté dans les notions d'image et de ressemblance conçues comme dynamisme." Justice as the goal of political society, and of the soul that is its prototype, is a central theme in a number of Plato's dialogues. For the idea that the person who fails to master his bodily passions will eventually reappear on earth transformed into "some brute who resembled him in the evil nature which he had acquired," see Timæus 42B (trans. Jowett); similar imagery occurs at Timæus 70D-E.

[34] I acknowledge here various hints from Theresa Kelley's excellent article, "Proteus and Romantic Allegory," which argues that behind such characters as Wordsworth's Leech-gatherer there can be discerned the figure of Proteus. My guess is that her theory applies to a good deal of pre-Romantic allegory as well.

[35] Odyssey IV.399ff. Boccaccio, in Genealogie Deorum Gentilium Libri, vol. 1, VII.ix, summarizes the Homeric episode and Virgil's imitation of it in Georgics IV.387ff.


with what he seeks. The various shapes of which Geryon is composed thus make him into a kind of retrospective epitome of the Pilgrim's life, but also an anticipation of the future, a prophecy of the Pilgrim's desire. As the following passage from the Metamorphoses indicates, Proteus is the perfect mythic archetype of the Pilgrim's capacity for self-transformation. The river god Achelous is speaking to Theseus:

               sunt, o fortissime, quorum
forma semel mota est et in hoc renovamine mansit;
sunt, quibus in plures ius est transire figuras,
ut tibi, conplexi terram maris incola, Proteu.
nam modo te iuvenem, modo te videre leonem,
nunc violentus aper, nunc, quem tetigisse timerent,
anguis eras, modo te faciebant cornua taurum;
saepe lapis poteras, arbor quoque saepe videri,
interdum, faciem liquidarum imitatus aquarum,
flumen eras, interdum undis contrarius ignis.
                                                                  (VIII. 728–37)

(Some there are, bravest of heroes, whose form has been
once changed and remained in its new state.  To others
the power is given to assume many forms, as to thee,
Proteus, dweller in the earth-embracing sea.  For now men
saw thee as a youth, now as a lion; now thou wast a raging
boar, now a serpent, whom men would fear to touch; now
horns made thee a bull, often thou couldst appear as a
stone, often again, a tree; sometimes, assuming the form
of flowing water, thou wast a stream, and sometimes a
flame, the water's enemy.)[36]

This passage is particularly relevant to the Inferno, whose residents, as I said earlier, have undergone a one-time, self-willed change and remain fixed there, as opposed to the Pilgrim, who is in a state of becoming, of striving ad imaginem, toward the realization of the image intimated (but not defined) in Genesis 1.26, when God says, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness."[37] The Pilgrim's

[36] Trans. Frank Justus Miller, Loeb Classical Library ed., vol. 1, p. 457. Dante's Geryon and Proteus share the serpent form and at least the paws of a wild animal, and also a general amphibiousness.

[37] For the concept of human existence as a progressive striving to conform oneself ad imaginem, that is, to the imago Dei, see the discussion in chapter 1 and the article by Javelet (above, n. 33), as well as Ludwig Hödl, "Die Zeichen-Gegenwart Gottes und das Gott-Ebenbild-Sein des Menschen in des Hl. Bonaventura 'Itinerarium Mentis in Deum' c. 1–3." That Dante thinks of himself as a Protean creature is made explicit at Par . V.98f.: "io che pur da mia natura / trasmutabile son per tutte guise!" "I, who by my very nature am subject to every kind of change."


capacity for self-transformation is thus viewed in a somewhat different light from that of the "mortal Proteus" celebrated by Pico della Mirandola in the Oration on the Dignity of Man almost two hundred years after the Comedy . For Pico, man's Protean capabilities are largely conscious, a matter of exuberant free play; for Dante, as the Geryon episode suggests, the transformation happens largely unbeknownst to the subject and may lead to self-imprisonment as well as a greater freedom or understanding. This is illustrated in the second half of the Inferno, where Geryon's amphibiousness is reimaged and reinterpreted in the condition of various residents who are immersed, to a greater and lesser degree, in a confining "medium," down to Lucifer up to his middle in ice (XXXIV.28–29).

Let us recapitulate for a moment the argument up to this point concerning Geryon. The episode occurs halfway through the Inferno and marks a decisive moment in the Pilgrim's progress when his conception of himself undergoes a subtle but significant change. The episode at the same time affords the poet of the Comedy an opportunity to define the general character of his allegorical plot or pilgrimage as an encounter with a past experience (real or imagined) leading to a gradual clarification of that experience (in all its various forms) and of the soul's slow release from its oppressive burden, a release that at the same time brings with it an access of hitherto unknown powers.[38]

This summary does not pretend to do justice to the Geryon episode, which is both prospective and retrospective. Nor is it just to Dante's "polysemous" allegory insofar as it implies that it is reducible to a neat philosophic paradigm.[39] As "the text writing itself," Geryon resists reduction and control, whether by author or reader. A figure of fantastic allegory, as we may call it—mindful of Todorov's

[38] The simile, cited earlier, of the diver who disengaged the anchor from an obstacle hidden in the sea (XVI. 133–36) would seem to fit into this context. As we shall see, the image is echoed at the end of canto XVII.

[39] On theoretical grounds there is reason to doubt the translatability, "without remnant," of the literal text into its allegorical meaning, though Paul Ricoeur argues that there is a univocal philosophic (or other) discourse that can be substituted for a metaphoric one; indeed, he sees such a discourse as the very raison d'être of metaphor; see his The Rule of Metaphor, especially Study 8, "Metaphor and Philosophic Discourse." Jacques Derrida attacks this same notion as the expression of a metaphysics in which the (abstract) Idea is enthroned; see "White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy," in Margins of Philosophy, pp. 207–71. Ricoeur has a critique of Derrida's essay in The Rule of Metaphor, pp. 284–89; Ricoeur's critique is in turn criticized by Rodolphe Gasché, The Tain of the Mirror, pp. 301ff.


warning that the fantastic is imperiled by the presence of allegory because of allegory's tendency to replace the supernatural and the uncanny by the bloodless categories of reason[40] —it serves to arrest the reader's rush to allegorical interpretation, the impulse to look through or past the literal for the allegorical meaning. Lastly, my summary does not touch upon the critical questions that, I suggested, arise in the course of the episode, and it is to these, particularly as they bear on the apparent duplicity and instability of language, that I will now turn.

The reflexive wordplay that we observed earlier in connection with nota/re is obviously crucial here. It represents a meditation of sorts on the nature of language as the poet's medium, the central question being whether the poet can so mold his language that his text will possess a substantial reality or structure that will make its meaning unmistakable rather than the plaything of variously interpreting minds. Now, punning would seem to be a paradoxical way of trying to establish the possibility that words have a substantiality independent of their temporal, communicative function. But the wordplay involving nota/re draws attention to the word as possessing the very characteristics that it signifies or points to, the auditory and musical, thus forming a perfect circle in which sound and meaning coincide. The line describing Geryon's wingless "flight" through the abyss brings out the "sensory component" in all language use:[41] "Ella[42] sen va notando lenta lenta" (XVII.115), which can be translated as "She goes swimming, singing, speaking, writing, taking note(s) slowly, slowly." The dense multiplicity of meaning combined with the fact that notando helps to enact what it means—the sound of speech, the rhythm, flow, and music of the line's note —all this tempts one to commit the "archetypal error," as de Man calls it, of confusing sign and substance.[43]

If it is indeed an error, the temptation to commit it exists every-

[40] See Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic, p. 63f. Todorov defines the fantastic as the realm where one hesitates between the real and the illusory or imaginary (pp. 24ff.).

[41] The phrase is taken from "The Rhetoric of Blindness," in de Man, Blindness and Insight, p. 127.

[42] The grammatical androgyny of Geryon that this prominently placed pronoun (in apposition to fera ) suggests, is perhaps intended to underline her/his/its self-generative character.

[43] "The Rhetoric of Blindness," p. 136. The complete sentence reads: "The rhetorical character of literary language opens up the possibility of the archetypal error: the recurrent confusion of sign and substance."


where in the Comedy, which presents itself throughout its cantos and canticles as something sung and spoken and heard. As an example, there is the opening of Inferno XXI:

Così di ponte in ponte, altro  parlando
che la mia comedìa cantar  non cura

(Thus from bridge to bridge we came along,  talking  of
things of which my Comedy is not concerned to  sing .
                                                      [S; italics mine])

The magic in this particular web derives in part from its apparent casualness. Here is a conversation between two friends—which continues from canto to canto, bridges over silence—as something to be sung (or not), and also reported (to the reader) as if a conversation between friends were being resumed with the start of the new canto.

A different example. In Purgatorio XXX nota/re is used in a musical sense:

'l cantar di quei che notan  sempre
dietro a le note  de li etterni giri.

(the song of those who ever  sing  in harmony with [i.e.,
following the notes  of] the eternal spheres.
                                  [S; italics and bracketed insertion mine])

The reference is to the song of angels, and it seems as though its link with the music of the spheres should give music a cosmic status and reality. But whether that is what happens remains an open question. Possibly even the note of the eternal spheres that the angels follow are no more than "Saussurian signifiers" that erase themselves the moment they have been sounded. And if that is true of them, how much more is it likely to be true of the "note de la mia comedìa" by which we heard the Poet swear. All merely play their momentary part in "a diachronic system of relationships,"[44] the self-consuming artifact that is music.

[44] "The Rhetoric of Blindness," p. 131. The full sentence reads: "Like music, language is a diachronic system of relationships, the successive sequence of a narrative ." This essay, incidentally, is a critique of Derrida's critique of Rousseau's Essai sur l'origine des langues (with a discussion of music)—a nice confirmation of Tambling's remarks in the quotation below.


Not being grounded in any substance, the musical sign can never have any assurance of existence. It can never be identical with itself or with prospective repetitions of itself, even if these future sounds possess the same physical properties of pitch and timbre as the present one.[45]

The whole vast structure of the Comedy, then, has no more status than an evanescent sign? I think that the Geryon episode, though it also registers a demurrer against this idea, ultimately does confirm it, as well as the correctness of Tambling's conclusions in his commentary on Purgatory XXIV.52–54:

"Vo significando" suggests the sign-nature of writing; it can only point towards some reality; indeed the phrase implies the sense that there is only the Saussurian "signifier" here, which does not point to some final "signified," since all "signifieds" are themselves signifiers. Amor "ditta dentro": "ditta" may have the sense of "composes," "writes works of poetry," though it also means "speaks" simply, as at Purgatorio XIV.12. Dante frames words to set forth what that poem is: a poem signifies another poem; language points to more language, writing to more writing.[46]

The finale of the Geryon episode illustrates this indefinite deferral of the signified by the abrupt disappearance of the beast itself. At the same time, in leaving a number of questions unresolved, suspended in the void, as it were, the disappearance of Geryon also suggests that there is no final answer to questions concerning the ontological status of the poet's language. By the time it has set Dante and Virgil down in the eighth circle, Geryon has undergone a transformation, though much of that transformation is the result of similes that place Geryon in a new light. Here is the account of Geryon's spiral descent for the landing:

Come 'l falcon ch'è stato assai su l'ali,
che sanza veder logoro o uccello
fa dire al falconiere "Omè, tu cali!"
discende lasso onde si mosse snello,
per cento rote, e da lunge si pone
dal suo maestro, disdegnoso e fello;
così ne puose al fondo Gerïone
al piè al piè della stagliata rocca,

[45] Ibid., p. 128; de Man is summarizing Rousseau's viewpoint, but it is clearly one he finds congenial.

[46] Tambling, Dante and Difference, pp. 99–100.


e, discarcate le nostre persone,
si dileguò come da corda cocca.

(Just as the falcon long upon the wing—
who, seeing neither lure nor bird, compels
the falconer to cry, "Ah me, you fall!"—
descends exhausted, in a hundred circles,
where he had once been swift, and sets himself,
embittered and enraged, far from his master;
such, at the bottom of the jagged rock,
was Geryon, when he had set us down.
And once our weight was lifted from his back,
he vanished like an arrow from a bow.)

These lines concluding the canto and the episode present a final variation of the Baudelairean themes with which we began our discussion. There is a fall, or the fear of it, and the doubling of the self that, according to Baudelaire, is a consequence of the fall. But here their order is reversed: falcon and falconer—like the horses and charioteer in the soul allegory of the Phaedrus[47] —represent a more elaborate version of the animal-human duality we saw in the figure of Geryon, and this duality here precedes any notion of a fall. A second, more startling reversal involves the relationship between the two selves represented by falcon and falconer. In Baudelaire's scheme, the falling or fallen self is observed in his comic discomfiture by the other, philosophical self, the "disinterested spectator." But in this instance, the spectator self is in error, because the falcon is not falling at all, but only acting independently of the falconer's commands.[48] Furthermore, the relative importance of the two selves is reversed: not only is the falconer mistaken in his observation, but the falcon, instead of being the comic butt or object, is presented as an autonomous subject justifiably enraged at his "master"—presumably for

[47] This image Dante may well have known indirectly, since in the Timæxus, which was known in the Middle Ages in Latin translation, Plato alludes to it when he has the Demiurge assign each soul to a star and "there placed them as in a chariot" (41E; Jowett trans.). Phaethon and Icarus are spectacular examples of falling and also remarkable parallels to the soul images of the Phaedrus, Icarus being like the winged soul, Phaethon the charioteer who loses control of the chariot (of the sun).

[48] In his note to Inf . XVII.128, Singleton points out that a "falcon is trained not to descend until it takes its quarry or is called down by the falconer, who whirls the lure ('logoro') about his head as a signal to recall it." Perhaps Virgil anticipates the falconer's gesture when he casts the cord-girdle-lure down the abyss.


keeping him up in the air so long. And the element of surprise does not end there, for it is in the falcon's bitter frame of mind—così —that Geryon sets down his passengers and abruptly vanishes. The reader hardly expected to get such an "inside" view of a monster earlier treated with contempt.

The simile may be taken as a commentary on the entire Geryon episode. At the philosophical level, it suggests an altogether different view of the "human image" discussed earlier, one in which the rational part does not simply control the animal part. The falcon, presumably the "animal" soul—though as winged creature it could just as well be more "spiritual" than the earthbound falconer—rebels against the idea of its purely instrumental function and asserts an independent will and dignity that the falconer has been unwilling or unable to recognize.

This brief analysis, and the fact that Geryon's state of mind parallels the falcon's, will already have suggested the direction in which the "textual" allegory will take us. As one who transports our two poets through the void, Geryon defines itself as a metaphor, derived from Greek metafora, which the Roman rhetoricians translated as translatio, the act of transporting or transferring. The Rhetorica ad Herennium, traditionally ascribed to Cicero and well known during the Middle Ages, defines the term as follows:

Translatio est cum verbum in quandam rem transferetur ex alia re, quod propter similitudinem recte videbitur posse transferri.[49]

Metaphor occurs when a word applying to one thing is transferred to another, because the similarity seems to justify this transference.

Metaphor, then, contains two members and an act of transfer from one, the "vehicle," to the other, the "tenor," which modern terms also neatly indicate the essentially instrumental view of the first member. Traditionally, too, the transfer within metaphor is regarded as "upward," raising the once humble signifier to a higher level. But in canto XVII that is reversed: Geryon takes its passengers down, effecting a translatio from a traditionally higher to a lower level, whether we want to define these as abstract and concrete, conceptual and literal, spiritual and physical. But this downward transfer is not a sign, as some commentators seem to believe, that the language of the Inferno is becoming increasingly "infernal," "dead,"

[49] XXXIV.45 in the Loeb Classical Library ed., trans. Harry Caplan, p. 342f.


and "petrified." The contrary seems to me true, and a further look at the falcon-falconer simile will provide at least the rationale for this viewpoint.

Like metaphor as traditionally understood, our simile contains two members, and its importance in this context is that it radically redefines their role and relative valuation. Falcon and falconer are connected not by similarity but by a certain functional interdependence; in this perspective, one cannot exist without the other, and the "transfer" that takes place between them is based on a mutual recognition of the other's being. Now, in the simile the falcon, like Geryon, descends —to earth—but, unlike Geryon, it does so of its own accord, and the falconer is led to the erroneous conclusion that it is falling ("Omè, tu cali!"). The falcon has demonstrated a volition and feelings of its own that the falconer has, for the moment, stupidly forgotten.

The conclusions to be drawn from the simile are obvious enough. In metaphor as in allegory—recall the argument once again of the Convivio —both members have equal dignity, and one must not be treated as mere "vehicle" for the other. And yet, in the final analysis, this proves to be an unrealizable ideal. Geryon may feel the bitterness the falcon feels for its maestro at the idea of having been used, of its dignity having been slighted. And this "proves," of course, that the beast, too, has its subjectivity—at least by reflection, as it were, from the falcon simile. But this subjectivity, the potential infinity of its meaning, would seem to be controlled by a superior force, an intention, that narrows it down to a determinate signification.

This is perfectly expressed in the canto's final simile describing Geryon's disappearance "come da corda cocca" ("like an arrow from the bowstring"). The image is a recurrent one in the Comedy and points to the inevitable instrumentality, goal-directedness, even of a poetic language. It also suggests that the rhythm of tension and the release of tension is a basic element in the Geryon episode and in the Comedy as a whole. I suspect we can even see it in the term corda, with which the episode begins and ends. At the beginning, the reader will recall, Virgil asks Dante to take off the corda tied around his middle (XVI.106), with which the Pilgrim had thought to catch the leopard with the painted hide (XVI.107–8). Now, as the beast returns to invisibility in the underworld like an arrow shot from a corda, it is the difference between the first and the second corda that is crucial. In the first instance it is a lure, allegorically speaking, for


the mind to relax and allow itself to be possessed by language, dream, unconsciousness. The second is the tension of the mind's bow when it has discovered its target, the novità that, without knowing it, it was aiming for. The conscious tension ("in-tension") followed by release is the very rhythm of speech utterance itself, as Virgil's "Homeric" address to the Pilgrim makes clear:

l'arco del dir, che 'nfino al ferro hai tratto."
                                            ( Purg . XXV.17–18)

("Discharge the bow of your speech, which you have
drawn to the iron."[S])

And this same rhythm is anticipated on an unconscious level by the much earlier simile of

        one returning from the waves where he
went down to loose an anchor snagged upon
a reef or something else hid in the sea.

Just as the ship is first held back and can now continue on its way across "lo gran mar de l'essere" ("the mighty sea of being," Par . I.113), so the bow of the mind can shoot at the target that it has caught in its sight.

The process of writing the poem thus proves to be directly parallel to, if not identical with, the "process" (or progress) of the Comedy's otherworld pilgrimage. Imagistically, this is evident from Beatrice's speech in canto I of the Paradiso, about the divine order that makes the universe to be the likeness of God (103ff.) and where God, furthermore, is "the Archer who aims us at Himself":[50]

La provedenza che cotanto assetta,
del suo lume fa 'l ciel sempre quïeto
nel qual si volge quel c'ha maggior fretta;
e ora li, come a sito decreto,
cen porta la virtù di quella corda
che ciò che scocca drizza in segno lieto.
                                                ( Par . I.121–27)

(The Providence that has arrayed all this
forever quiets—with Its light—that heaven
in which the swiftest of the spheres revolves;

[50] I am quoting from Singleton's note to ll. 125–26.


to there, as toward a destined place, we now
are carried by the power of the bow
that always aims its shaft at a glad mark.)

Finally, Geryon disappears after it has "discharged" the Pilgrim and Virgil: discarcate nostre persone . Without nostre persone, language, text returns to a dormant, unconscious state of mere potency. But there is more at stake in the phrase. The beast has "discharged" its passengers in the sense that they are, as I argued a moment ago, its metaphors, "creatures" produced by the text. But in the act of disburdening (carico, carco = "burden") itself of the two poets and vanishing, Geryon also establishes a further, crucial point: namely, that language and person are interdependent but also distinct. A person—nostra persona —is not (reducible to) a signifier or even a chain of signifiers but ultimately, from the textual perspective, something alien, unassimilable, a kind of burden. What I am suggesting, in other words, is that the concluding scene of canto XVII dramatizes a distinction that theoretically the poem, any poem, is incapable of making: the distinction between mere language, signifiers, images, and so forth, and characters who make or have some claim to being considered persons like ourselves (nostre persone ).

In the chapter on epic theater I develop this idea further, but meanwhile I propose the presence of a bilingual pun in the Geryon passage that, in my opinion, lends it further weight. I am thinking of Virgil's commands to the beast just before takeoff:

        "Gerïon, moviti omai:
le rote larghe, e lo scender sia poco:
pensa la nova soma  che tu hai."
                          (XVII.97–99; my italics)

        ("Geryon, move on now; let your circles be wide,
and your descending slow; remember the new  burden  that
you have."[S])

The italicized term, soma (= "burden"), I suggest, plays on St. Paul's term for the body, soma, as integral part of the human being, over against the body, sarx, as flesh, as that which is given over to mortality and opposed to spirit. This contrast comes out strongly in chapter 8 of Paul's Epistle to the Romans, where sarx is consistently associated with sin, and soma with its counterpart awaiting redemption. "For we know," writes Paul, "that the whole creation [omnis creatura ] groaneth and travaileth in pain until now."


And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body [tou somatos hemon ].
(Rom. 8.22–23)

Since it involves Greek, the reader may well consider the pun problematic. However, Dante repeatedly shows a knowledge of Greek terms, and since he obviously plays on the significance in Greek of the name Geryon, other Greek terms could well be lurking in its vicinity. And since my concern is with St. Paul's usage, the likelihood that Dante knew it seems that much greater. My suggestion, then, is that Virgil is advising Geryon not only of the new burden but also of the "new" body that is on its back. The reference to the Pilgrim's "new" body would then be in the nature of a prophecy that even at this stage of his pilgrimage is (gradually) being fulfilled.

There is another, more "textual" claim implied in Virgil's exclamation, I believe. It is that the Comedy represents a new departure in poetics by the fact that it places the nova soma, the glorified body, at the center of its project. In other words, not only does the Pilgrim experience the gradual redemption of his body as an integral part of his quest for "authenticity," but this same body is also integral to the human image that he seeks, is in fact the crucial element that various earlier definitions of that image have tended to slight. Poetically, we have seen, this body is impossible to represent, since it is that space where signifiers and their signified coincide, whereas the poetic text consists of signifiers that only point to other signifiers. The Dantean text by various means, as will be discussed further, attempts to "show" the absent body by creating precisely such "knots" as Geryon in its metaphoric structure through which a non-verbal, extratextual reality can make itself felt.

The disappearance of Geryon from the narrative, accordingly, does not mean that the "Geryon factor" disappears from the text. On the contrary, Geryon vanishes in one sense only so that it can reappear in countless guises, some of them more or less explicitly recalling the original image. One such is the figure of the Griffin, part eagle and part lion, that appears drawing the triumphal car in the procession through the Earthly Paradise in Purgatorio XXIX. 108ff.[51] In

[51] It is, to say the least, intriguing that these composite creatures also have remarkably similar names: Gerion(e), Grifon, Chiron(e) (one of the Centaurs guarding the tyrants and murderers in the seventh circle; Inf . XII). Without being exactly a composite, the falcon so ubiquitous in the Comedy 's similes also seems to fit in here.


an article challenging the usual interpretation of the Griffin as representing the dual nature, divine and human, of Christ, Colin Hardie has argued that he is, rather, "a symbol of Dante's own nature restored,"[52] and that when Dante sees the image of the Griffin in Beatrice's eyes (Purg . XXXI. 118–26) this anticipates the final vision in Paradiso XXXIII. Needless to say, this fits perfectly with the idea of the Pilgrim's quest and his concomitant evolution that I have been discussing. Instead of summarizing Hardie's argument, I will content myself with quoting from his article a provocative passage that is particularly germane to the thesis I am pursuing:

No longer is it the task of the rational soul to keep itself uncontaminated by bodily passions. The corruption of the spirit cannot be set right without restoring the vegetative and animal "souls" which it has infected, but on which it depends, and with which it must be linked again in harmony. Redemption does not descend from heaven to liberate the rational soul from its material embodiment; it comes up from under foot, from the antipodes, through matter and the body, through the vegetative and animal "souls" to the rational soul or spirit. Or, to express it otherwise, Dante must go down past the densest and most material centre of the earth (where the being, created most spiritual, Lucifer, is found to be lodged) to find the restoration of his vegetative and animal "Souls."
(Pp. 129–30)

By way of a concluding consideration of the Geryon episode I want to touch on yet another way in which it reflects the allegorical plot of the Comedy, particularly as it concerns the very idea of the spiritual journey or otherworld pilgrimage. My starting point again is the simile of the falcon and the falconer, a pair that clearly parallels the Pilgrim and Virgil (as well as Geryon and Virgil), Virgil being the maestro to the Pilgrim, as the falconer is to the falcon (see XVII.132). The simile, pointing to the analogy among the three, Dante, Geryon, and the embittered falcon, raises the question Is there reason to impute feelings of anger to the Pilgrim (as well as Geryon) even though the narrative gives no explicit indication of these? I think there is and suggest that it has to do with the fact, repeatedly emphasized in the Comedy, that Dante moves through

[52] "I.e., of his two 'Souls,' animal and spiritual, in close harmony"; cf. "The Symbol of the Gryphon in Purgatorio XXIX.108 and following Cantos," in Centenary Essays on Dante by Members of the Oxford Dante Society (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), p. 123. For an account of the Aristotelian-Thomistic theory of the composite soul, see Statius's exposition at Purg . XXV. On the Griffin, see further Peter Armour, Dante's Griffin and the History of the World .


the otherworld in the flesh; that is to say, he still shares in "animal" nature even as he finds himself in a realm of spirits and guided by a spirit, in the first instance Virgil. The sense of exhaustion, anger, and sullenness that we impute to him via the falcon simile belongs to one who is nel mezzo del cammin through hell and asks himself what the point is of such an undertaking with its self-denial and highly uncertain goal.[53] Is that fleshly existence in the here and now, however imperfect it might be by some standards, not its own justification and preferable to the arduous discipline of self-transformation of the pilgrimage, whose completion, furthermore, seems to be forever deferred?

The Pilgrim's dissatisfaction is surely in part directed at the Virgil who represents the spiritual, moral, and poetic authority imposing this painful quest. Contrariwise, the Pilgrim's identification with Geryon can be imagined, especially at that moment when the mental travelers dismount and the beast, relieved of its burden, vanishes and in so doing acts out the Pilgrim's own desire to escape, to have done with his ordeal. All this must be considered a kind of allegorical subtext, however. Overtly, the Pilgrim accepts that he is no (longer) Geryon and that he must continue his journey with its constant risks of falling, self-multiplication, and self-dispersal, because that, it is now abundantly clear, is the nature of the spiritual quest in the Comedy .

Turning from Dante's to Chaucer's epic pilgrimage, we are bound to be impressed by the contrasts between the two, contrasts that seemingly confirm the traditional notion of an allegorical Dante and a nonallegorical Chaucer. Chaucer's pilgrimage lacks virtually all the features we have associated with Dantean allegory. Instead of an otherworld and startling monsters, his pilgrims exist in a matter-of-fact here and now that the reader is inclined to accept as the real world. In spite of all that, I will argue that The Canterbury Tales has an "allegorical plot" comparable to that of the Comedy and that the two poems have a basically similar allegorical orientation.

At this point one may ask whether, quite aside from any allegorical

[53] Here is another way that the Geryon episode recapitulates the opening canto of the Inferno . An analogous situation occurs in canto 7, Book One, of The Faerie Queene, when the Redcross Knight, whose quest has more than a casual resemblance to that in the Comedy, sits down "in middest of the race" (stanza 5) and in a similar state of mind.


plot, The Canterbury Tales has any plot at all, any "action," in Aristotle's terms, that the poem as a whole "imitates" (Poetics VI.6). Criticism has certainly not been unanimous in its answer to that question. There is no problem, of course, with regard to individual tales or the pilgrimage "frame," whose plot begins clearly enough in Southwark and would presumably have come to some kind of conclusion, either in Canterbury or back in Southwark, had Chaucer lived long enough to complete his project. But what I am concerned with here is a plot, both in the common and in the allegorical sense, that encompasses both the tales and the frame, and there have in fact been some notable attempts to define such a plot, of which I single out two as especially relevant to my argument.

The first of these is Kittredge's idea that the tales function as dramatic utterances revealing the personality of their tellers. This combines pilgrimage frame and tales in one plot by making the narrators' dramatic self-display on the road to Canterbury a fundamental feature of the pilgrimage.[54] Ralph Baldwin's The Unity of the "Canterbury Tales, " published forty years after Kittredge's book, considerably refined the latter's plot idea by insisting on the religious implications of the pilgrimage frame and attempting to see the tales as parts of a great morality drama in which the pilgrims grapple with questions affecting their salvation. Baldwin's thesis does involve some difficulties, among them the fact that not a few tales seem unconcerned with specifically religious problems, and it seems impossible, until we get to the Parson's Tale, to arrange the tales in a sequence, of increasing religious awareness, say, that would parallel (or indicate) the progress of the pilgrimage.

Some of these difficulties might disappear if we abandoned the idea of a linear plot and substituted for the drama of salvation on the road to Canterbury a slightly more philosophical one. What I am proposing is a roughly circular plot, like the labyrinth to which Donald Howard compares The Canterbury Tales,[55] and like that of the philosophical symposium, in which each speaker takes up the same theme and in a sense starts anew even as he or she may also be responding to previous speakers. Though Chaucer would only have known of it indirectly through other people's works, I will take

[54] George Lyman Kittredge, Chaucer and His Poetry, ch. 5. Baldwin's book, mentioned in the next sentence, is vol. 5 of Anglistica (Copenhagen: Rosenkilde and Bagger, 1955).

[55] Donald Howard, The Idea of the Canterbury Tales, pp. 327ff.


Plato's Symposium as the ideal type of the genre, in part because of its rather striking affinities with The Canterbury Tales .[56] Both may be said to revolve around a basic if complex idea. In both the intellectual focus is bound up with a playfulness reflecting the festive sociability of the participants and an ironic awareness of the insufficiency of language to do what is expected of it. In both works, furthermore, an underlying "darker" purpose becomes apparent. At Agathon's house the various speeches in praise of Eros prove to be part of a theoretically endless debate—there is no concluding definitive speech, and the gathering dissolves in drunkenness—exemplifying the Socratic theme that real philosophy and life are coextensive, a quest in which every voice must be given a hearing. On the road to Canterbury a similar hidden agenda is revealed in the course of the tale-telling contest proposed by the Host.[57] The first indication of it occurs when the Miller insists that he, and not the Monk, will tell a tale to "quite the Knyghtes tale" (I.3126f.), meaning he will not just "match" but also "challenge" the first tale with his own. The humble Miller is a "Socrates figure" of sorts, as I show in the next chapter, and he introduces the element of intellectual argument that will henceforth be a constant element in the tale-telling game. His impatience to tell his tale, furthermore, underscores the intimate connection between teller and tale that from now on as readers we take for granted, and it also expresses the dynamism of a narrative text that seems to be telling itself. The connection is a matter of

[56] There may be a reference to the Symposium in the F Prologue to the Legend of Good Women, 1. 526, "As telleth Agaton," since Plato's work was sometimes known as Agathon's Feast, and Macrobius calls it Agathonis Convivium (Saturnalia ii. 1); see notes ad loc. in Robinson and Benson editions of Chaucer. Alongside Rudolf Hirzel's monograph Der Dialog it would be good to have one on the symposium. William H. Stahl has pointed out the need for a study of the genre's development in antiquity, beginning with Plato and Xenophon and going up to Macrobius. See his Martianus Capella and the Seven Liberal Arts, p. 26, n. 15. The later fate of the symposium as a genre would also be of great interest; for example, the title of Dante's Convivio clearly alludes to it. In the Etymologiae (XX.1.3) Isidore notes that "Convivium apud Graecos a conpotatione, apo tou potou . Apud nos vero a convictu rectius appellatur, vel quia vitae conlocutionem habet," "a feast among the Greeks is derived from drinking together, but among us it is more correctly so called from sociability or from what offers an occasion for conversation in life." Clearly the two etymologies are not mutually exclusive.

[57] Modern criticism is by no means unanimous, as Chaucer's contemporaries were, in calling Chaucer a philosophical poet. "Socratès plains de philosophie," Eustache Deschamps called him; Thomas Usk has Love refer to Chaucer as "Myne owne trewe servaunt, the noble philosophical poete in Englissh"; see J. A. Burrow, ed., Geoffrey Chaucer: A Critical Anthology, pp. 26–29.


personality, but that term is inseparable from intellectual conviction and belief, in short, from idea.[58] Like the speeches in the Symposium, furthermore, the tales are not simply assertions but also questions, hypotheses awaiting confirmation, conjectures: "Let me see, is this what I really think? where I stand?"

The allegorical plot of The Canterbury Tales might, then, be described in the following manner. The tales represent recurrent occasions for the individual pilgrims to define a version or a view of the human image. If the pilgrims were actual persons, we could say they discover this image in relation to their own experience and existence. But since they are not, the readers must make the discovery for them, with the General Prologue portraits to guide them in each instance. In a sense, the reader becomes the pilgrim whose tale she is reading and finds in the tale reflections of the fictional identity that as reader she has temporarily adopted, reflections that clarify and also perhaps modify that identity.

It might be objected that "human image" is too broad and general a concept to describe the allegorical theme of a given work. Such an objection is not without force, but in the case of The Canterbury Tales the concept remains a useful one because there the large-scale philosophical and religious issues are at the same time particularized in minutely personal terms. The link remains intact between an objective and distanced, because narratively dramatized, reflection and existential anxieties. Like Socratic philosphy, furthermore, the quest for the human image is never finished. Dante, to be sure, concludes his Comedy by giving his Pilgrim a vision of just that image, but the image remains essentially undefined and undefinable, more like a moment of personal illumination pointing to possibilities of existence not yet realized. On a rather lesser scale, the tales of Canterbury, each from its particular perspective and informed by a particular eros, lead up to such a moment of illumination even as they contribute to a collective debate on the subject of nostra effige .

As in the Symposium, this debate, like the plot that it constitutes, is open-ended: there is always the possibility of another tale, as of additional pilgrims, like the Canon's Yeoman, and there is no final, definitive tale. Some commentators are inclined to see the Parson's Tale as at least a doctrinal summation of The Canterbury Tales, but

[58] Cf. Mikhail Bakhtin's observation that "the idea is a live event, played out at the point of dialogic meeting between two or several consciousnesses"; see Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, p. 88.


even if that idea were acceptable, and I don't think it is, Baldwin seems to me closer to the truth when he suggests that the Parson's sermon represents a transition from the fiction of The Canterbury Tales to the "real world" of Chaucer and his readers. It is not a tale in the way all the others are.[59]

One tale does qualify, not indeed as the "definitive" tale, but as a veritable exemplum of the allegorical, tale-telling plot central to The Canterbury Tales . This is the Tale of Sir Thopas, which the pilgrim Chaucer tells in response to the Host's blunt question, "What man artow?" (VII.695). As I argued in the preceding chapter, the tale does represent an answer to that question; at the same time it embodies an "archetypal" pattern of action that has many of the basic ingredients once more of Dante's epic: the "knight" riding out into the forest that is always there as the scene of his adventures, and having to prove himself against a monster whose name may be Lucifer, Geryon, whatever. This knight is also a perfect fit for the poet leaving his world to conquer another, textual world so that he may find there the elf-queen of his dream vision. And ultimately the knight is or stands in for all tale-tellers with the urge to distance themselves from an everyday reality in order to discover possibilities ordinarily dismissed as the product of dreams and delusions.

Complementary to Thopas, there is preeminently one tale in which this "archetypal" pattern is itself subjected to ironic scrutiny. If in Thopas the emphasis falls on the second element in Aristotle's formula for plot, "the imitation of an action" (tes praxeos mimesis: Poetics VI.6), in the Nun's Priest's Tale the stress is all on the imitation, on the countless ways in which an action can be imitated, represented, reproduced, reinterpreted. The action is Chauntecleer's encounter with the Fox, another version of the giant who, in this case, to his loss, has only one head and one mouth. The encounter is first of all foreshadowed in a dream, and the significance of this dream, as of all dreams, is promptly subjected to a lengthy and inconclusive debate between the dreamer and his wife, recalling the opening of the House of Fame . The debate shows how verbalization becomes a goal in itself, displacing or replacing an extraverbal reality with which, in theory, it is attempting to deal. Thus the initial question of the truth-value of Chauntecleer's dream, and of dreams gen-

[59] See the entire Epilogue of Ralph Baldwin, The Unity of the "Canterbury Tales, " pp. 83ff.; also cf. the discussion of the Parson's Tale in Howard, The Idea of the Canterbury Tales, pp. 376ff.


erally, is by the end of this debate entirely replaced by the question of who will win the argument, which in turn comes to be seen as simply another skirmish in the interminable battle between the sexes.[60] The debate, then, parallels the tale's mock-epic style, which constantly displaces or veils the action and its agents with a cloud of incongruous analogues suggesting that everything is already in the realm of imitation.

The Nun's Priest's Tale thus turns into a vast comedy of verbalism, of the inability of people—and animals—to stop talking, their insistence on giving an account of themselves and of what they know. Taking the verbal for the real, the tale-telling animal constantly betrays and deceives itself and yet, for all that, manages, for the most part, to survive and at times even to prosper. It is not just that in telling their stories the pilgrims imitate the same fundamental pattern of "action"; even their way of imitating it and the conclusions they might draw from it, the Nun's Priest's Tale seems to say, have already been anticipated by earlier generations. There is nothing new under the sun. The Nun's Priest's Tale thus hovers over all the Canterbury Tales as a kind of mocking critique or response to each of them, and as a commentary on the entire tale-telling game. I suggest that the tale somehow stands apart from the others, and one symbolic indication of that is perhaps the fact that it is the only tale that does not have a visualized narrator. The Nun's Priest is only mentioned in the General Prologue as one, or one of three, accompanying the Prioress, with not a word of description. It is of course possible that Chaucer planned to add a portrait at some later stage of revision,[61] but as it is, the tale is like Ariel's music, "play'd by the picture of Nobody" (Tempest III.iii.127). As the very spirit of the allegorical plot, this narrator-pilgrim is entirely displaced by his verbal double, the tale. And this is a perfect instance of the way speaking and writing constantly impose themselves as something separate from speakers and writers, as a disembodied world of "spirit" or "intellect." The narrator of the Nun's Priest's Tale, in other words,

[60] For all the energy expended by the disputants and the importance they attach to their respective points of view, the debate also has no discernible effect on their subsequent practical conduct. Similarly, the Fox tempts Chauntecleer by making the latter's singing ability an essentially theoretical or academic problem, to which the cock responds with an equally "academic" demonstration. It should be noted that the Nun's Priest's Tale itself, though it appears to be "above the battle," could easily be viewed as the Priest's attempt to settle various (unspecified) scores with the Prioress.

[61] For this assumption, see Derek Pearsall, ed., The Nun's Priest's Tale, p. 135f.


is like Geryon, a tale telling itself, a bodiless voice (gerus ) speaking (geruon ) itself.

Or so it might seem, were it not for the fact that in the end-link of his tale the narrator is "unmasked" as very much an embodied spirit—even if we are not sure just exactly what his body looks like—when the Host addresses him:

"I-blessed be thy breche, and every stoon!
This was a murie tale of Chauntecleer.
But by my trouthe, if thou were seculer,
Thou woldest ben a trede-foul aright.
For if thou have corage as thou hast myght,
Thee were nede of hennes, as I wene,
Ya, moo than seven tymes seventene.
See, whiche braunes hath this gentil preest,
So grete a nekke, and swich a large breest!
He loketh as a sperhauk with his yen;
Him nedeth nat his colour for to dyen
With brasile ne with greyn of Portyngale."

The Host's remarks are so similar to his earlier ones to the Monk (VII.1934ff.) that it is difficult to know whether to take them literally or ironically. One could of course resort to the frequent editorial device of suggesting that the lines were meant to be canceled,[62] but they are obviously important to my argument in that they draw attention to the Priest's unmistakable physicality, be it impressive or pitiful, and in any case the reference to the hawklike eyes seems quite unambiguous.

There is another, more thematic reason for not regarding the Nun's Priest's Tale as a tale that tells itself. When the barnyard animals speak, and in the mode of the mock epic, the resultant incongruities serve to draw special attention to the fact that language is always the utterance of a speaker, whose needs and desires as a physical organism it expresses, and that all kinds of "category mistakes" result as soon as we forget this fact and treat a verbal utterance as a reality unto itself. The reader is kept aware of the speakers as physical organisms in the Nun's Priest's Tale, not least because the tale inverts the allegory and the anthropomorphism of the beast fable genre and insists that it is concerned with a literal barnyard. This is evident from the opening twenty-nine lines, which make up a kind

[62] For a brief discussion of this, see the Riverside edition, p. 941.


of prologue and together with the brief epilogue (3438–46) provide a more or less realistic frame for the fable itself, rather like the frame of The Canterbury Tales with its General Prologue and pilgrimage links. In the context of the "prologue," Chauntecleer, Pertelote, and the others are no mere tropes, and even the fact that they have personal names is wittily prepared for by the fact that the widow in whose barnyard the action takes place, remains, like her two daughters, anonymous, whereas her sheep is known as Malle (2831).[63]

After the down-to-earth presentation of the setting, the narrative takes off with a highly allusive description of the protagonist and his seven wives. No device is spared to humanize and heroicize them, including the ability to speak a high-flown language: "For thilke tyme, as I have understonde, / Beestes and briddes koude speke and synge" (4070f.). "Frame" and "tale" thus pull in opposite directions, the style of the first insisting that this is a tale "of a fox, or of a cok and hen" (3439) in an actual farmyard, the style of the second saying it is about anything—and everything—but that. And in the brief epilogue the Nun's Priest addresses his audience:

         "But ye that holden this tale a folye,
As of a fox, or of a cok and hen,
Taketh the moralite, goode men.
For Seint Paul seith that all that writen is,
To oure doctrine it is ywrite, ywis;
Taketh the fruyt, and lat the chaf be stille."

His words draw on a long tradition of medieval allegory and biblical hermeneutics, some of which I discussed earlier in this chapter.[64] Nonetheless, it is clear that they contain a trap for even the wariest reader, because to recognize the trap is not necessarily to avoid it. E. T. Donaldson, for example, has written that "the real moral of the tale is in the chaff—the rhetorical amplifications which make of Chauntecleer a good representative of western man trying to maintain his precarious dignity in the face of a universe and of a basic

[63] Near the end of the tale, when the widow and her daughters reenter in pursuit of the Fox, there is a brief return to the stylistic level of the opening lines, but with a sudden wrenching twist in the simile of Jack Straw and the killing of the Flemings (3394–96).

[64] This whole matter is conveniently summarized by Pearsall in The Nun's Priest's Tale, p. 256f., nn. to ll. 4631 and 4633, where he cites the relevant ancient and modern authorities.


avian (or human) nature which fail to cooperate with him."[65] Even allowing for the fact that every commentary necessarily abstracts from the text, is Donaldson's not a statement of the tale's "moralite," if a considerably more sophisticated one than that proffered by the Nun's Priest himself? In making this a story about "western man," Donaldson would seem to have aligned himself with the "goode men" who regard as "a folye" the tale itself "as of a fox, or of a cok and hen."

Naturally, I am not saying that Donaldson's allegorical reading is wrong, or even that any commentary can escape the dichotomies that lurk like land mines in the Nun's Priest's epilogue. These are an integral part of Western thinking, and particularly of the allegorical "habit of mind." However, in the perspective of the Nun's Priest's beast fable, this habit of mind must be seen, like the urge to anthropomorphize, as an act of intellectual aggrandizement by which mankind lays claim to special domains of meaning as marks of its uniqueness and superiority to the other animals.

The tale, then, does not reject allegory but in the spirit of the Convivio keeps allegory dependent on the primary, literal level. And this means that for all their humanoid characteristics the animals must in the first instance be taken literally as animals. This point gains added significance in light of the many-leveled attack, in the tale, on the idea of human uniqueness and superiority in the scheme of creation. First, the claim to uniqueness on the basis of superior physical or mental endowment is disposed of by showing the barnyard animals, particularly Chauntecleer, to be endowed by birth with qualities and skills, like sexual vitality, the ability to fly, and astronomical knowledge, that would be the envy of most human beings. Second, in the sphere of practical intelligence, both Fox and Cock show that they are at least the equals of human beings. Having fallen victim to his own pretensions and the wiles of the Fox, Chauntecleer saves himself by his presence of mind. Both he and the Fox also promptly learn from their mistakes. By contrast, the Nun's Priest's mock-epic similes serve as insistent reminders of the fatal penchant of human beings for repeating rather than profiting from the disasters of history. Perhaps the most shocking of these reminders occurs in the simile comparing the people and dogs running after the Fox to "Jakke Straw and his meynee / . . . / Whan that they wolden any

[65] Cited by Pearsall, Nun's Priest's Tale, p. 257.


Fleming kille" (3394–96). This, the sole reference to contemporary history in The Canterbury Tales —which in this respect could not be more different from the Comedy —also involves what earlier I called a "category mistake," that is to say, a mistake produced by reliance on words and abstract logic as indices of the real. Flemings living in London were indeed killed during the so-called Peasants' Revolt (1381), in which Jack Straw was a leader. But they were in no sense the real target or cause of the rebellion. The error, therefore, in this case, I presume, lies in the equation of relatively well-to-do outsiders with the "enemy."[66] Finding the enemy, or cause of one's problems, in the wrong places, however, is a recurrent one in history.

Finally, there are the theological reasons for considering man a unique creature, like the idea that he is imago Dei, the likeness of God.[67] It is here, as we would expect from a sprightly priest, that the tale develops its most exuberantly comic allegory. The allegory involves Chauntecleer in a multiple and complex imitatio Christi, one of whose immediate purposes would seem to be, precisely, to demonstrate that the animal creation, too, is imago as well as similitudo Dei, so that here again, even in the theological realm, man's claim to uniqueness becomes questionable.[68]

His encounter with the Fox shows Chauntecleer in a twofold "imitation of Christ," suffering a kind of crucifixion in the Fox's mouth and achieving a triumphant resurrection with his flight up the tree.[69] The cabbage patch is at the same time the scene of Chaun-

[66] A related category mistake occurs a little earlier in the tale when Chauntecleer first sees the Fox: "up he sterte / As man that was affrayed in his herte. / For natureelly a beest desireth flee / Fro his contrarie, if he may it see, / Though he never erst hadde seyn it with his ye" (3277–81; my italics). The logical idea that "beasts" have "contraries" from which they "naturally" flee is certainly put in doubt by the context.

[67] The basic text here is Genesis 1.26, "And God said, Let us make man in our image [imago ], after our likeness [similitudo ]: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth." For a useful discussion of medieval ideas about man's uniqueness and centrality in the creation, see Marian Kurdzialek, "Der Mensch als Abbild des Kosmos," pp. 37–75.

[68] The biblical parallels I will discuss as the basis of the Nun's Priest's allegory have all been pointed out in Chaucer criticism of the last few decades, but they have for the most part been treated as a kind of solemn supplement rather than as a vital part of the tale's comedy. I will cite the chief articles on this topic but will not attempt to give precise credit for every detail to the authors concerned. The most comprehensive treatment is that of Bernard S. Levy and George R. Adams, "Chauntecleer's Paradise Lost and Regained," which reviews earlier discussions and adds significant new details.

[69] The scene takes place on a Friday (3341–54) in spring (3187ff.), presumablyMay 3, around Easter. The Fox was earlier compared to "Scariot" (3227), and the pursuers yell "Harro!" (3380). All this is most fully discussed by Levy and Adams, pp. 182ff. Once started, there is no theoretical limit to the possibilities of allegorical exegesis. The reader will have to decide what he considers plausible, relevant, and illuminating. The widow with her dairy farm, for instance, could be seen as a symbol of the Church, which is frequently represented as a widow. The point is made by M. J. Donovan, "The Moralite of the Nun's Priest's Sermon," p. 505, and following him, by C. R. Dahlberg, "Chaucer's Cock and Fox," JEGP 53 (1954): 277–90, who cites, among others, Augustine (285, n. 43). It seems to me perfectly relevant, but it also leads to considerations that go beyond my concern with the allegorical theme of the human image.


tecleer's "temptation in the wilderness," where the Fox challenges him: "Lat se, konne ye youre fader countrefete?" (3321), as Satan did when he challenged Jesus to demonstrate his godhead by casting himself down from the pinnacle of the temple (Luke 4.9; Matthew 4.6). Chauntecleer, of course, succumbs to the flattering temptation of the Fox when he stands on tiptoe, closes his eyes, and crows. But if his imitation of Christ is thus imperfect, his presence of mind, as we have seen, nonetheless rescues him from the Fox's satanic jaws in a happy ending that combines the Easter story and the Temptation in the Wilderness story in a way that theologically foreshadows Milton's Paradise Regained .

After his resurrection Christ commanded his disciples, "Praedicate omni creature" ("Preach the gospel to every creature," Mark 16.15), a theme developed by Paul in his Letter to the Romans:

Nam exspectatio creaturae revelationem filiorum Dei exspectat. Vanitati enim creatura subjecta est non volens, sed propter eum, qui subjecit eam in spe. Quia et ipsa creatura liberabitur a servitute corruptionis in libertatem gloriae filiorum Dei. Scimus enim, quod omnis creatura ingemiscit et parturit usque adhuc. Non solum autem illa, sed et nos ipsi primitias spiritus habentes et ipsi intra nos gemimus, adoptionem filiorum Dei exspectantes, redemptionem corporis nostri. Spe enim salvi facti sumus. Spes, autem, quae videtur, non est spes; nam quod videt quis, quid sperat? Si autem quod non videmus speramus, per patientiam exspectamus.
(Ep. ad Romanos 8.19–25)

(For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God. For the creature was made subject to the vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope. Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we


ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body. For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope; for what a man seeth, why doth he yet hope for? But if we hope for what we see not, then do we with patience wait for it.)

The phrase omnis creatura in both Mark's gospel and the Letter to the Romans clearly refers to the whole of (nonhuman) creation, though some later theologians interpreted it as referring to man the microcosm or image of the entire creation.[70] Gospel and Letter imply that the extrahuman creation imitates or participates in the redemptive history initiated by Christ,[71] and thus gives biblical authority of a sort to the Nun's Priest's theological allegory that we have been discussing. Equally important, however, in this connection, seems to me the way Paul in the Letter to the Romans links the yearning of omnis creatura for "the glorious liberty of the children of God" with "the redemption of the [human] body." Paul's text raises the (allegorical) possibility that "seeing" Chauntecleer in his natural, unconscious, nonmiraculous imitatio Christi, the reader recognizes him as a sign of his own redeemed body and physical nature. What for Paul, in other words, was still in the realm of hope and patient waiting, for the fourteenth-century Christian, according to the Nun's Priest's Tale, is an accomplished, "visible" reality.

In this sense, the Nun's Priest's Tale may reasonably be regarded as an Aesopian "divine comedy" whose mode or spiritual climate is that of the Comedy, as our earlier discussion of the redeemed body in connection with Geryon suggests. The Purgatorio, particularly the final cantos set in the Earthly Paradise, seems to me to come closest in its spiritual climate to the tale. Chauntecleer is a Dantean Adam or Everyman, Pertelote his Eve and Beatrice. His dream (2896–2907) recapitulates some features of the opening canto of the Inferno . Instead of Dante's three beasts, Chauntecleer sees only one, but the fear aroused by the vision still haunts him in the telling of it (2906), as it does Dante (Inf . I.6). Chauntecleer's is explicitly a dream or nightmare vision, whereas Dante only hints that his otherworld experience begins with a dream in the selva oscura (Inf . I.10–11). The dream of the Fox, then, is Chauntecleer's "Inferno" actualized when he finds himself in the "foul prisoun" (2897) of the Fox's mouth. His escape by flight to the treetop takes him back to

[70] See Marian Kurdzialek, "Der Mensch als Abbild des Kosmos," pp. 37–75.

[71] It was presumably to avoid this conclusion that some theologians read omnis creatura as referring to man; see article cited in n. 70.


his earthly paradise, which is of course the barnyard itself (I will have more to say about the tree in a moment). The fact that this escape is not due to any divine intervention, but represents Chauntecleer's own intellectual triumph,[72] fits in well with what Kantorowicz has called Dante's secularized Adam-theology. Kantorowicz discusses this concept in reference to the dual-paradise passage of De Monarchia III.xvi and the scene in the Purgatorio where the pilgrim at length reaches the Earthly Paradise and Virgil, who has been his guide, proceeds to "crown" and "mitre" him over himself ("te sovra te corono e mitro," Purg . XXVII.142) in token of his having recovered Adam's sinless prelapsarian state.

It was left to Dante to re-"humanize" the idea of a recovery of Adam's original nature and again to release the "human" from the Christian aggregate of thought. For as a consequence of his philosophy of dualities or of his concept of perfection in both a terrestrial and celestial paradise, it was probably unavoidable to "secularize" also the current Adam-theology and build up a doctrine of a purely human regeneration which was not identical with the doctrine of Christian regeneration—though the one need not contradict the other.[73]

We are at a point in our discussion of the Nun's Priest's Tale where it seems safe to conclude that the tale is indeed, at the level of its theological allegory, a summation of the debate about the human image that, I have suggested, constitutes the real plot of The Canterbury Tales . The human image is the biblical imago Dei, but in the perspective of the Nun's Priest's Tale it is no longer the exclusive possession of humankind but belongs instead to the entire creation, which since the Incarnation is fully redeemed and thus capable, in Dante's words, of achieving "beatitudinem . . . vite, que in operatione proprie virtutis consistit et per terrestrem paradisum figuratur" ("the blessedness . . . of this life, which consists in the exercise of his proper power and is figured by the terrestrial paradise," De Monarchia III.xvi.7 [Temple Classics ed., p. 277]). This passage refers of course to a specifically human "blessedness," but in the context of the Nun's Priest's animal fable, this secular blessedness is legitimately an attribute of the animal world as well, so that, as I have argued, human beings can look to the barnyard as a manifestation of their own redeemed nature. This is not to say, as the fable

[72] Note a further parallel: each hero bears the poet's name, CHAUnteCleER twice, since this name also means "the clear or famous singer."

[73] Ernst H. Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies, p. 484.


makes clear, that moral and metaphysical problems have disappeared, only that, as our discussion of Geryon indicated, there are no longer any obstacles requiring supernatural intervention to the exercise of human virtue.

As further confirmation of the general thesis I have been arguing, namely, that for the Nun's Priest the Christian redemption has been definitive, let us consider a central allegorical symbol in the tale. I refer to the tree to which, as we have observed, Chauntecleer flies (3417). The tree, which means life in a specific sense for Chauntecleer, has been prepared for, "planted" in the text. In the argument about dreams, Chauntecleer cites Croesus's dream:

Mette he nat that he sat upon a tree,
Which signified he sholde anhanged be?

The same dream is described in the last of the "tragedies" the Monk tells just before the Nun's Priest tells his tale. His daughter Phania expounds Croesus's dream for him and tells him that the tree "the galwes is to meene" (2751) and that "thou shal anhanged be, fader, certeyn" (2755). The Monk's Tale ends significantly on this note of Croesus about to be hanged on the gallows tree, because it reminds the audience of Christ's death on the cross. But the Nun's Priest echoes this episode to give new life, as it were, to the familiar topos of medieval iconography and homiletics, in which the gallows crucifix is identified with the Tree of Life (Genesis 2.8), by suggesting that the crucifix has disappeared or been transformed into the Tree of Life, meaning that the sacrifice on the cross has redeemed the promise of "eternal" life contained in the Tree. Support for this idea is provided by the fact that the tree on which, according to Chauntecleer, Croesus dreamed he sat—like a bird!—is imagistically and etymologically related to the "bemes" (2942) or "beem" (3127) on which Chauntecleer sat when he had his dream and which at night he finds too narrow a perch on which to ride Pertelote (3167–69).

In the imagery of tree, gallows, and chicken perch, then, we see a specific instance of what the Nun's Priest's Tale's allegory projects: the reconciliation of natural and supernatural, animal and human, creature and creator. And in this connection I will cite one final illustrative detail, involving wordplay that supports this allegorical theme. Chauntecleer, we are told, is an instinctive "keeper" of solar time:


Wel sikerer was his crowyng in his logge
Than is a clokke or any abbey orlogge.
By nature he knew ech ascencioun
Of the equinoxial in thilke toun;
For whan degrees fiftene weren ascended,
Thanne crew he, that it myghte nat been amended.

And later, as part of her medical advice to Chauntecleer, Pertelote tells him: "Ware the sonne in his ascencioun" (2956). In both passages, ascencioun refers literally to "the increasing elevation of the sun in the heavens between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice" (OED s.v. 3), yet once we are aware of the theological overtones that the narrative constantly generates, it is difficult indeed to exclude another meaning of ascencioun, "the ascent of Jesus Christ to heaven on the fortieth day after His resurrection" (OED s.v. 2, attested as early as 1315). Through this wordplay, the Son's miraculous ascencioun is made as natural as the sun's daily ascencioun celebrated by the cock's hourly crowing. Christ, we might say, is in his heaven, but his splendor is here in the world for all to see and feel. And if human beings nonetheless fail to see and feel it, the Nun's Priest may be saying, let them look to the world quite literally at their feet. Indeed, in his "epilogue" he once more wittily indicates that it is the animals that know by instinct what human beings learn, if at all, by constant study and admonition. "Taketh the fruyt, and lat the chaf be stille" (3433), he tells his audience, and his wording coyly avoids making the point too obvious: barnyard fowl do not need to be told to differentiate between "corn" and "chaff," since their lives depend on it.[75]

[74] Chauntecleer's musical and astronomical skills make him a kind of seriocomic foreshadowing of Cusanus's ideas about man as the created being who, through the power of Christ, "completes" or "actualizes" the cosmos. Here is how Kurdzialek describes Cusanus's conception:

In ihm [i.e., man] erreicht nämlich "omnis creatura" die Fülle der Vollkommenheit. Dem Menschen ist somit nichts fremd, weder der Himmel noch die Erde. Indem er das alles vereinigt und harmonisiert, was in ihm ist, findet er in sich Prinzipien der Mathematik, Astronomie und Musik vor. Er findet sie vor und verwirklicht den Kosmos. ("Der Mensch als Abbild des Kosmos," p. 74)

[75] My reading of the Nun's Priest's Tale does not pretend to be exhaustive or definitive. I have avoided more ironic readings, which tend to make the tale more a defense than a critique of medieval "orthodoxy." For an interesting example, see Judson B. Allen, "The Ironic Fruyt: Chauntecleer as Figura." By the logic of my argument about Chaucer's (Dantean) allegory, such readings are of course entirely legitimate.


Earlier I stated that the Nun's Priest's Tale is also peculiarly the one tale that can serve as a more or less direct critique of every other tale in The Canterbury Tales . Perhaps we can now see rather more clearly why this is so. As in the matter of the theatrical principle, the tale stands somewhat apart from the others in relation to the theme of the human image. Its animal protagonists, as I have argued, subvert the notion of a distinctly human image and of the imago Dei as an exclusively human characteristic or prerogative. And even as it thus redefines and expands the idea of the (human) self in some unexpected and in some ways unimagined directions, it also presents an unorthodox vision of history in which the physical world with its bodies and their recurrent rhythms, rather than a spiritual principle with its desire for transcendence, plays a central role. And what is true of the idea of history applies equally to the idea of story. Like other stories, to be sure, this one presents itself as an "aventure" (cf. 3185), a going out into as yet uncharted space, but that turns out to be largely an illusion. Once defined at the start, the spatio-temporal boundaries of the Nun's Priest's Tale prove to be firmly fixed and are never really crossed. The narrator, to be sure, ranges over history and geography to "illustrate" his fable, but all that heterogeneous matter merely serves to enhance our idea of the archetypal "cosmogonic" theater,[76] the barnyard on that morning in the (thirty-two days after the) "month in which the world bigan" (3187).[77] In the Nun's Priest's Tale all time is contained in the cosmogonic Now.

To conclude discussion of this tale I examine in some detail its relationship to one other, and that perhaps the most obvious, since at least in name the Nun's Priest is defined by his relationship to the Prioress. Her tale is also of a widow, though this one lives in an Asian city and has a son who is murdered by Jews, rather than of a barnyard cock who is almost murdered by a fox. Her tale is classed as a Miracle of the Virgin, since through his devotion to her the murdered boy continues to sing in praise of her. (Chauntecleer nearly loses his life when he sings for the fox.) But the boy's murder also

[76] The yard "enclosed al aboute / With stikkes, and dry dich withoute" (2847–48) would seem to be a parody of the traditional cosmos surrounded by the river Oceanus, and it also recalls the "noble theatre" of the Knight's Tale, "walled al of stoon, and dyched al withoute" (1888).

[77] The text is corrupt in this passage, and I accept the usual emendation by which the action takes place on May 3. Nonetheless, the cosmogonic reference is obviously significant.


involves once again the idea of an imitatio Christi, a point underscored by the Prioress when she alludes to Hugh of Lincoln (VII.684ff.), another boy said to have been literally crucified by Jews in 1255. But the "resurrection" of the Prioress's "litel clergeon" (503) is a curiously muted affair, almost, one gets the impression, of hastily altered funeral arrangements. First, the murdered and still singing boy is rushed to burial by the monks of the local abbey. Then, after the abbot has removed the "greyn" from the boy's tongue, so that he finally dies, the monks suddenly

    tooken awey this martir from his beere;
And in a tombe of marbul stones cleere
Enclosen they this litel body sweete.
Ther he is now, God leve us for to meete!

That Ther of the last line is surely designed to confuse the reader, momentarily leading him to identify the marble tomb with heaven and, just as troubling, insinuating that the "litel body sweete" endures because it is enclosed by marble stones. For the Prioress, indeed, flesh and blood seem best when transformed into a marblelike hardness: "This gemme of chastite, this emeraude, / And eek of martirdom the ruby bright" (609), she earlier called the seven-year-old. And her narrative engenders the sense of a morbid physicality—the boy's murder, his gradual death, the drawing and hanging of the Jews—quite at odds with the ostensible purpose of celebrating a triumph of faith in the Virgin and her Son.

Another way of stating this point would be to say that for the Prioress the Christ event has not meant the redemption of the world and the flesh, which remain essentially still in the power of "oure firste foo, the serpent Sathanas, / That hath in Jues herte his waspes nest" (558f.). If is this point to which the Nun's Priest opposes his Easter allegory of the cock who would not die, and which turns the contrasts between the two tales into opposing arguments in the allegorical debate.[78] As an example, let us look at the protagonists of these tales. The Prioress's schoolboy is a sexual and intellectual innocent, singing, even with his throat cut, the hymn whose Latin

[78] In "Definition by Comparison: Chaucer and Lawrence," Milton Miller suggests a parallel between Chauntecleer and the cock in D. H. Lawrence's novel The Man Who Died ; see Charles A. Owen, Jr., ed., Discussions of the Canterbury Tales, pp. 90–94.


words he does not understand. The Nun's Priest's cock is an intellectual who jokes in Latin, keeps seven wives sexually content, likes to sing pop tunes (2879), but also learns that there are times when singing is less than appropriate, when it is better to keep one's mouth shut (and eyes open). Then there is the law of vengeance. In the Prioress's Tale this law is conspicuously not abrogated, as witness the unspeakable collective punishment of the Jews. In the Nun's Priest's Tale we hear nothing of any vengeance being carried out against the satanic fox. The people and dogs running after the fox are, however, compared to "Jakke Straw and his meynee / . . . / Whan that they wolden any Fleming kille" (3394–96). The simile, as we saw earlier, bears, not on the peasants' justified anger at the thieving and murderous fox, but on the blind murderousness that can overtake a mob and that so often in history is directed at blameless outsiders. In that last respect the simile might well glance at the treatment meted out to the Jews in the Prioress's Tale. And it demonstrates at the same time that the Nun's Priest is not blind to this side of human nature and society, but also does not allow it to dim his vision of the creation as in the image of God.

In this chapter I have argued that Dante had a theory of allegory, much of which he put into practice in the Comedy, and that Chaucer, whether he was acquainted with the Convivio and the Letter to Can Grande or not, understood the basic points of Dante's theory and incorporated them into his design of The Canterbury Tales . I now briefly recapitulate what I consider to be the basic principles of Dantean allegory as I have tried to define them so far.

The first principle is, naturally, the fundamental importance of the literal level and its corollary, that any allegorical meanings must spring from the literal. To put the matter in the form of a maxim, allegory must not ob-litera-te the text, that is, "destroy . . . all trace, indication, or significance" of the lit(t)era of the story (Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, s.v., obliterate ). The literal story is a mimesis of a hypothetical world and a hypothetical existence, and, so our second principle goes, as such provides the indispensable context in which the allegorical meaning is to be understood. The third principle is that there can be no perfect correlation between literal and allegorical meaning and that instead there will always be unresolvable differences between them, so that allegory will, from this standpoint alone, appear as something unclear, mysterious, a


"dark conceit," as Spenser calls it in his Letter to Raleigh. Surely one of the best symbols we have of Dantean allegory is the Dragon of Error at the very beginning of Spenser's Faerie Queene, because it represents so perfectly, and paradoxically, an insight into the many kinds of error that beset any attempt at allegorical interpretation. Redcrosse's problems, and errors, really begin after he has dispatched this particular dragon, and so it is with the reader who believes he has discovered the perfect key to the allegory. None of the Comedy lends itself to straightforward conversion or translation from one type of discourse to another. As an example, the basic premise that physical states stand for spiritual ones proves impossible to maintain with absolute consistency or precision and thus in its own way demonstrates that the physical realm is not clearly delimited from the spiritual and that the relation between the two is an enigma without a solution. The repeated stress, furthermore, in the Comedy, on the concrete physicality of the pilgrim Dante amidst the insubstantial shades of the otherworld is itself a reminder of the inevitable inconsistency of the allegory as well as a warning to the reader that the narrative must never be dissolved or ob-litera-ted into mere metaphor. Paul de Man has emphasized the need to keep the distinction between literal and metaphoric (or figural, as he prefers to call it) in mind, in a passage that reads like a perfect gloss on Dante's discussion of allegory:

Even if, as is often said to be the case for poetic language, the figure is polysemous and engenders several meanings, some of which may even be contradictory to each other, the large subdivision between literal and figurative still prevails. Any reading always involves a choice between signification and symbolization, and this choice can be made only if one postulates the possibility of distinguishing the literal and figural. This decision is not arbitrary, since it is based on a variety of textual and contextual factors (grammar, lexicology, tradition, usage, tone, declarative statement, diacritical marks, etc.). But the necessity of making such a decision cannot be avoided or the entire order of discourse would collapse. The situation implies that figural discourse is always understood in contradistinction to a form of discourse that would not be figural; it postulates, in other words, the possibility of referential meaning as the telos of all language. It would be quite foolish to assume that one can lightheartedly move away from the constraint of referential meaning.[79]

[79] Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading, p. 201. The general distinction de Man makes between "grammar" and "rhetoric" is also of obvious relevance to Dante's literal-allegorical distinction; see "Semiology and Rhetoric," ch. 1 in Allegories of Reading .


What interests us in this statement is of course not just the importance of the distinction between literal and metaphoric, but also the difficulty, often, of making the distinction and of maintaining it. In The Canterbury Tales there is not the same temptation to "move away from the constraint of referential meaning" that there is in the Comedy . But as our discussion of the Nun's Priest's Tale has tried to indicate, there is the same need to distinguish between literal and allegorical. Indeed, as we shall see, there are occasions in the Tales when the reader is confronted with a kind of "allegorical crisis," the dilemma or necessity of deciding between a literal and a metaphoric reading. And the fact that this problem is left to the reader to resolve is directly connected to our fourth and final feature, rather than principle, in this case, of Dantean allegory, namely, the absence of a formal metaphysical or theological framework that would direct the flow of allegorical meaning and establish a hierarchy of relationships between literal and metaphoric, physical and spiritual, and so forth.

The absence of such a metaphysical framework in the Comedy is signaled in part by the fact, noted earlier, that in place of personifications like Philosophia and Natura of earlier allegories, Dante puts "concrete personalities" (Piehler). This does not mean that the reader is deprived of all guidance regarding the allegorical interpretation, to be sure. What it does mean, rather, is that the interpretive authority is no longer concentrated in one source but is now diffused among a whole series of more or less problematic figures, allowing for what, borrowing a phrase from Kenneth Gross, I would call the "allegorical struggle,"[80] that is, the clash, without resolution, of different philosophical perspectives. In the Comedy, in other words, there is not a complete absence of allegorical authority, but a situation in which any "authority figure" will be perceived as historically determined, partial, relative, fallible, because he or she—I am speaking of Virgil, Cato, Statius, Beatrice, and others, though the situation with respect to the figures of the Paradiso is not fundamentally different—possesses no institutional authority and derives his or her special status largely from a personal relationship to the poet-pilgrim. This is not to say that they are a pure "Thou" to his "I"; they do have an independent status, whether as epic poet or hero of political

[80] See Kenneth Gross, Spenserian Poetics ; see pp. 59–60 for the passage in which the phrase "allegorical struggle" occurs and shows that Gross also believes the allegorist's enterprise to be fundamentally critical.


history, but scarcely of a kind to give them metaphysical authority in the eyes of the Western tradition.

In The Canterbury Tales allegorical authority is further diffused and internalized. In the first place, there are the individual pilgrims. Their portraits in the General Prologue, as well as their comments as narrators, affect at least to some degree our expectations and interpretation with respect to the particular tale. Minimal as that may be, it does constitute at least some kind of authority, though obviously an even more problematic one than that of Virgil, Beatrice, and the others. Then there are the authority figures inside the tales, usually old-timers—like the sene who suddenly appears and tells Dante where he can find Beatrice (Par . XXXI.59) and later identifies himself as Bernard of Clairvaux. The clearest example in the Tales is probably the Old Hag in the Wife of Bath's Tale, whose bedroom lecture on gentilesse, which cites Dante as an authority (III.1125–30), establishes the moral-intellectual basis of the tale's moral allegory. Beyond or behind these various authority figures there is the poet himself, who both as private individual and public poet makes himself part of the fiction in The Canterbury Tales as in the Comedy . But precisely because he is so much a part of the fiction, his authority is not much greater, perhaps less, than that of his fictive surrogates. In neither poem is there a final, unifying authority, implicit or acknowledged, that can serve as a reliable guide to allegorical meaning. At a certain point the reader is pretty much on her own.


Epic Theater:
The Comedy and The Canterbury Tales
(The Knight and the Miller)

In terms of genre, I have argued so far, The Canterbury Tales takes its place in the line of epic, particularly as that has been redefined by Dante's allegorical poem. In this chapter I want to pursue the argument by exploring another feature common to both poems. This is also part of epic tradition—hence my use of the phrase "epic theater"[1] —but in the works under consideration it is developed, as I intend to show, to a point of special structural and thematic significance.

When Aristotle praised Homer for the basically dramatic character of his epics, the link between epic and drama was perhaps not altogether obvious. Homer, Aristotle writes,

deserves our admiration for many reasons, but particularly because he alone of the (epic) poets is not unaware what it is one should be composing [himself]. Namely, the poet himself ought to do as little talking as possible; for it is not by virtue of that that he is a poet. Now the others are on stage themselves, in competition, the whole time, and imitate but little and occasionally, whereas he, after a few words by way of preface, immediately brings on stage a man or a woman or some other character, and not one characterless but (all) having character.[2]

[1] Chapter 2 of Michael Lynn-George, Epos: Word, Narrative, and the "Iliad, " is entitled "The Epic Theatre: the Language of Achilles" (pp. 50–152), but it deals exclusively with the "theater of language."

[2] Poetics 60a5–11, trans. Gerald F. Else, Aristotle's Poetics: The Argument, pp. 619–20.


Whether Dante or Chaucer ever read this passage we do not know, but they might have done so in William of Moerbeke's Latin translation of the Poetics (1278).[3] In any case, the idea that the Homeric epics represent the true origin of Greek drama was probably familiar to them from a text like Evanthius's De Fabula (fourth century A.D. ), which was widely known in the Middle Ages.[4] Evanthius wrote that

although . . . those who have gone through ancient documents find that Thespis was the first inventor of tragedy and believe that Eupolis together with Cratinus and Aristophanes is the father of old comedy, nonetheless Homer, who is the most ample source of almost all matters poetical, also provided the examples for these songs and prescribed, as it were, a certain law for their works: he is shown to have made the Iliad on the model of a tragedy, the Odyssey in the image of a comedy. For after he established such a great example, highly ingenious imitators reduced to order and divided up what until then was being written with boldness but without polish or any of the seemliness and lightness of touch that became the practice afterward.[5]

The original reason for considering the Homeric narratives the very model and fountainhead of drama would seem to be their role in bridging the gap, as it were, between an oral and a literate stage in Greek society. A modern scholar comments on the Poetics passage as follows:

To Aristotle's mind Homer is not really so much a narrator as a dramatist . He is just that epic poet who narrates least and dramatizes most. Aristotle does not dodge the paradox, he states it boldly—even, perhaps, with a little too much insouciance . Homer, he says, uses straight narrative only for a brief prologue, then immediately "brings on stage" a "character" (who then takes over and speaks for himself). The other poets remain on the stage themselves all the way through. But how else, after all, should a narrative poet behave? The paradox is certainly not a sign of different "strata" in the Poetics . It is inherent in Aristotle's conception of Homer as a man between two worlds: epic poet, but also precursor and in a sense inventor of the drama. If this is treason to the epic as such, it springs from allegiance to a greater cause, that of poetry as a whole, of which tragedy is the exemplar and Homer was the first prophet.[6]

As "a man between two worlds" Homer represents for Aristotle a

[3] Unknown to scholarship until the twentieth century. See Guillelmus de Moerbeka, De Arte Poetica, Praefatio, pp. 11ff.

[4] See Marvin Carlson, Theories of the Theatre, p. 26.

[5] My translation. See Evanthius, De Fabula, pp. 14–15.

[6] Else, Aristotle's Poetics, p. 620.


link with an earlier stage of the culture when the verbal arts were regarded as essentially performative. The special status of the Homeric epics in Athenian society is accordingly attributable to their dramatic character, the fact that they bring to life and keep alive in the present, as only dramatic tragedies will be able to do, a heroic past in its human individuality, where no one is characterless but all have character (ouden aethes all' echonta ethos ). The polemic against Homer of Aristotle's teacher Plato would seem to support this idea. It is based on the conviction (as Eric Havelock has argued) that Homer stands for a concrete, rhythmic mode of cultural transmission that Plato sought to replace by a more abstractly philosophic paideia .

Plato's attack, accordingly, focuses on Homer's mimesis, by which he understood, in Havelock's words, the oral poet's

power to make his audience identify almost pathologically and certainly sympathetically with the content of what he is saying. And hence also when Plato seems to confuse the epic and dramatic genres, what he is saying is that any poetised statement must be designed and recited in such a way as to make it a kind of drama within the soul both of the reciter and hence also of the audience. This kind of drama, this way of reliving experience in memory instead of analysing and understanding it, is for him "the enemy."[7]

The very characteristic, in other words, that for Plato is an objectionable survival of preliteracy becomes for his disciple Aristotle a mark of Homer's superiority to later epic poets, who lacked his understanding of "the poet's duty: that is, to imitate (mimeisthai = poiein ), not merely to talk (legein )."[8]

In the Europe of Dante's and Chaucer's time a shift similar to that marked by the Homeric poems was taking place, from a largely oral to a largely literate kind of society. If this rough parallel allows for any inferences regarding the "mimetic" character of the Comedy and the Tales, they seem rather more plausible for the latter than for

[7] Eric A. Havelock, Preface to Plato, p. 45. Havelock believes that Plato quite consciously developed the term mimesis to denote "the basic psychology of the oral-poetic relationship between reciter and listener or between reciter and the material recited, and the corresponding characteristics of the oral-poetic 'statement'" (p. 57, n.22). In origin, mimesis referred, not to "copy" or "imitation," but to "theatrical representation," mimos meaning "actor," "mime," or the performance by same. For all its differences in emphasis (on which see Else, Aristotle's Poetics, pp. 93–95), Aristotle's mimesis is in some ways a formalistic version of Plato's.

[8] Else, Poetics, p. 621. And cf. John Kevin Newman, The Classical Epic Tradition : "The distinction made by Brecht . . . between his epic drama and Aristotelian drama must not obscure the extraordinary tribute which the very notion of epic drama pays to Aristotle's insight into the dramatic tendencies of the Homeric epos " (p. 40).


the former. In The Canterbury Tales the Chaucerian poet presents himself at once as minstrel performing for a "popular" audience (Sir Thopas ) and as bookish translateur (Melibee ). The poet of the Comedy does of course speak, and stage himself, to his audience, but he usually addresses it as "reader." What I have called the theatrical character of these works is thus an effect less of their cultural-historical situation than of a particular poetics. One of the "norms" of epic narrative, as Thomas Greene has shown, is its alternation of different kinds of dramatic scenes.[9]

My discussion of "epic theater" accordingly focuses, in the first instance on the inner constitution of the works concerned and largely slights their historical context, including such intriguing questions as their relation to the actual drama of the time and late-medieval ideas about the staging of plays, especially Seneca's, in antiquity. An example of the latter especially relevant to my notion of epic theater is to be found in the early-fourteenth-century commentary on Seneca's Hercules Furens by the English Dominican Friar Nicholas Trevet:

And note that tragedies and comedies were customarily recited in the theater in the following manner. The theater was a semicircular platform in the midst of which there was a small structure called the stage, consisting of a scaffold on which the poet declaimed verses; beyond this scaffold there were mimes who imitated the declamation of the verses by corporeal gestures, adapting them to whatever character might be speaking.[10]

The spectacle of the poet on a scaffold stage declaiming his verses while mimes act out their different roles by bodily movements—this fits well with our discussion in the preceding chapter of the poet's allegorical self-multiplication. In addition, the mimes serve as an apt metaphor for the audience that simultaneously reads and participates in the epic theater.

The distinction between "mimetic" and "diegetic" narrative, to use the Aristotelian terms,[11] can be clarified by the distinction Keir

[9] See the chapter "The Norms of Epic" in Thomas Greene, The Descent from Heaven .

[10] Vincentius Ussani, Jr., ed., Nicolai Treveti Expositio Herculis Furentis, p. 5 (my trans.). For an excellent discussion of the knowledge of Seneca and his theater in the fourteenth century, see Renate Haas, "Chaucer's Monk's Tale."

[11] Cf., e.g., Poetics 59a17, Else, Poetics, pp. 569ff.


Elam draws between what he calls the "ostended" world of drama and the "represented" world of narrative:

Classical narrative is always oriented towards an explicit there and then, towards an imaginary "elsewhere" set in the past and which has to be evoked for the reader through predication and description. Dramatic worlds, on the other hand, are presented to the spectator as "hypothetically actual" constructs, since they are "seen" in progress "here and now" without narratorial mediation. Dramatic performance metaphorically translates conceptual access to possible worlds into "physical" access, since the constructed world is apparently shown to the audience—that is, ostended—rather than being stipulated or described.[12]

The epic obviously cannot dispense with "narratorial mediation," but it does have various ways of creating a textual counterpart of an "ostended world." One is the elaboration of larger-than-life characters, the mere invocation of whose names can import into the narrative, Atlas-fashion, the aura of an entire world. Then there are the gods, not only participants in the action, but also spectators; hovering over the reader as well as the heroes, they hint at a world theater encompassing all.

Indeed, central to "epic theater" is the idea of an action presented as being observed even as it takes place, and the awareness of being observed of those involved in the action. The action, in other words, is also a transaction with an audience of gods or other characters. And this transaction parallels in various ways the implicit relationship between the narrative and its audience of readers or listeners. There is of course never more than a parallel here; the narrator never quite "disappears" into the characters, the reader never quite merges with the fictive audience. But in its relation to the reader the text will constantly strive for a self-exhibition like that of its characters; like them it will, in Aristotle's words, always have character and never be characterless (i.e., a mere function of the plot).

Narrative theatricality, in other words, involves a heightened reflexiveness, a heightened self-consciousness; and this self-consciousness in turn generates a more than usual "audience participation," permitting readers to accept characters as analogues of themselves, physical, social, yet inward and desiring they know not what or

[12] Keir Elam, The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama, pp. 109–10.


why.[13] Thematically, the epic theater of the Comedy and The Canterbury Tales points to a goal beyond the human image, to an apprehension of the human person or subject in its concrete, worldly manifestation.

What, now, is the place of the Comedy in the line of descent from the "theatrical" Homeric epic? With the advent of Christianity we would expect the spectator gods to be displaced by the all-seeing eye of God, the "sighte above," as the Knight calls it (I.1672). But that is not exactly what happens in Dante's poem. By the end of the Paradiso it is apparent that the tripartite cosmos is also a world theater (like Seneca's, cited in the next chapter), except that the spectators now are not the gods but the saints seated in the celestial Rose, which is really a vast amphitheater or colosseum,[14] where they have an unobstructed view of everything: looking up, they see God's face; looking down, they can observe the human scene.

This last detail is, however, already made evident in canto II of the Inferno, during the so-called "prologue in heaven," which unobtrusively points ahead to the amphitheater of the Paradiso . There Lucy asks Beatrice:

ché non soccorri quei che t'amò tanto,
ch'usci per te de la volgare schiera?
Non odi tu la pieta del suo pianto,
non vedi tu la morte che 'l combatte
su la fiumana ove 'l mar non ha vanto—?

(why have you not helped him who loves you so
that—for your sake—he's left the vulgar crowd?
Do you not hear the anguish of his cry?
Do you not see the death he wars against
upon that river ruthless as the sea?)

Her questions indicate that in their activities, in their struggle with visible and invisible foes, even in the expression of their most intimate feelings, the inhabitants of the Comedy 's cosmos are seen and heard by a heavenly audience.

That heavenly audience is important. It means, in the first place, that the various scenes which the Pilgrim confronts, and by which the Comedy, like the classical epic, advances, are a drama that is

[13] For a discussion of theater as the source of our ideas of selfhood, see Bruce Wilshire, Role Playing and Identity .

[14] Cf. Singleton's on Par . XXX, pp. 502f., and on Par . XXXII.116.


judged by human, not by fixed unearthly standards. In the second place, it means that it is not just a "drama of the mind," in Francis Ferguson's phrase,[15] but a historical drama of sorts with a cast of thousands, though it has its origin and, we might say, its raison d'être, in the autobiographical fiction that is its central plot. Let us look more closely at this fiction.

It looks at first as though what is involved is a simple split—common in autobiographical and confessional literature—of the Dantean "subject" into two, an earlier and a later, Pilgrim and Poet. This is essentially how Singleton and those, like Gianfranco Contini, who follow him, view the matter. For them the "I" of the Comedy is divided into an allegorical Everyman figure and a real individual on a literal journey through the otherworld. I cite at length from Singleton's well-known discussion of this point, first, because he endorses the idea for which I am arguing here of Dante's basically dramatic approach to his fiction, and second, to show that his simple dichotomy of the Comedy 's subject does not do full justice to Dante's fiction.

In a sense it might be regretted that somehow a curtain does not fall at the end of Canto II Inferno to mark off the first two cantos of the poem for the prologue which they are. Such a marker would serve to point up some fundamental distinctions as to time and place in the poem, distinctions which must be grasped if we are to see the true nature and outline of its allegory. Just there, at that point, some such device would help us to realize that in the prologue scene we are set up on the stage of this life; that on this first stage we may speak of the actor or actors in the first person plural, as "we," even as the poem suggests in its first adjective. This is the way of our life, the life of soul, this is our predicament. It ought to be the scene we know best, the most familiar scene in the world—and in the poem. Here lies the way of our life. The features of it, the things here that we can make out; a hill, a wood, these beasts, all have their existence there where the fiumana runs which Lucia sees from Heaven. . . . Here we are in no space-occupying place. Then: curtain—to rise again on the first act of this play, on a scene before the doorway to Hell which is an abyss that is space-occupying and which, on Dante's map, may be located. The change in scene is not only a change in place. Time has changed. For we do not forget that this is a remembered journey (and hence may not really be given in dramatic form). The man who went that way has now returned. His journey was

[15] See Francis Ferguson, Dante's Drama of the Mind . In The Idea of a Theater, Ferguson singles out the Purgatorio as a notable example of narrative that is essentially theatrical: "In this part of the Divine Comedy, it is evident that, though Dante was not writing to be acted on a stage, he appeals, like the great dramatists, to the histrionic sensibility, i.e., our direct sense of the changing life of the psyche" (p. 18).


there and it was then. And time in yet another sense has changed. Of the scene and of the journey in the prologue we might say "our life." Not so beyond the door. The journey beyond is too exceptional an event to bear any but a singular possessive. It was then, and there, and it was his journey. Whereas in the prologue (even though the tense is past) in so far as we might see this as "our" journey, it takes place, as to time, in a kind of "ever-present," with Everyman as actor.

And yet, no sooner have we imagined a curtain at this point than we could wish it away. It might help us with certain essential distinctions. But the poet has not wanted there any such discontinuity as it might suggest. His problem was not Augustine's "how shall I tell of movements of soul in concrete images." His language is already given to the poet and he uses it with full assurance. His problem is to manage to leave this scene, which is not space-occupying, and to attain to that scene which is; to remove a wayfarer from this scene, where he functions in a mode open to a plural "we," on to a scene and a journey where his role is a most singular one. "Our" journey must become "his" journey, "his" must arise out of "our." A literal and very real journey of a living man, a man in a body of flesh and bone, is to be launched forth from a place that does not occupy space. A curtain cannot help, indeed can only defeat. Only a movement within poetic ambiguity at its fullest power could bring about an organic transition in these terms.[16]

As with almost everything else Singleton has written on the Comedy, this strikes me as extraordinarily interesting and illuminating even when, or precisely when, it provokes disagreement. Here he describes with great cogency how the opening cantos of the Inferno serve to establish a dual relationship between the reader and the Pilgrim-protagonist of the Comedy . On the one hand, that is, the reader is drawn into an identification with the Pilgrim as one of "us," and with Everyman, who finds himself where all, at one time or another, find ourselves. On the other hand, the reader is distanced from the Pilgrim by the sense that he is a literal other, "a man in a body of flesh and bone" who does not fit into any of the categories of a strictly (or radically) allegorical poem. The intriguing phrase by which Singleton seeks to explain the Pilgrim's transition from Everyman figure to mysteriously individuated character fits, I believe, with my discussion in chapter 1 of Dante's attempts to incorporate the human body into his poem. A "movement within poetic ambiguity at its fullest power" might well be an equivalent of the "gaps" that

[16] "Allegory," pp. 9–10, in Dante's "Commedia "; also Gianfranco Contini, "Dante come Personaggio-Poeta della 'Commedia,'" pp. 33–62.


allow the reader to create an extratextual reality as a kind of "supplement" to the text.[17]

There are, nonetheless, certain aspects of Singleton's discussion that strike me as questionable. The first thing is his curious division between the first two cantos and the rest, with the claim that the former are allegorical, the latter literal. No sooner has he drawn the line than he goes on to erase it, for the obvious reason that, whatever else it may be, the otherworld journey is undeniably allegorical. But why should he want to insist on a distinction that is so clearly unfounded? Granted that the events and the landscape described in the "prologue" belong to the realm of allegory, it makes no sense to regard the "I" speaking there as distinct from the "I" speaking in the later cantos. And why should this "I" refer any less to a particular individual than the one speaking during the actual pilgrimage?

Singleton's division is designed, I believe, to establish the Dantean "I" as both in control of and controlled by the scheme of biblical allegory that he regards as determinative in the Comedy (see chapter 2). Thus he curtains off—even if he then wishes the curtain away—the allegorical (Everyman) self from the real (de Man's "empirical") self, because his theory compels him to find within the poem a "literal" Dante who remains uncontaminated, as it were, by the allegorical fiction. And once he has found this literal, real self, that is to say, the Pilgrim, within the poem, he can identify him with the Poet outside the poem, the only significant difference between the two being that one has completed the journey whereas the other is still on it. And the same maneuver that allows Singleton to insist on the fundamental identity of Pilgrim and Poet in reality also allows him—against the evidence, as we have seen in earlier chapters—to insist on the strict separation between Pilgrim and Poet throughout the Comedy, until they are finally "merged" at the conclusion.

Now, if we take seriously, as I believe we should, the idea of the narrative as a kind of theater, we arrive at the conclusion that, given the autobiographical fiction, the voice speaking to us in the first person is, from first to last, a voice inside the poem's imaginary theater,

[17] This idea of the readerly "supplement" I derive from Wolfgang Iser, "The Play of the Text," in Languages of the Unsayable, ed. Sanford Budick and Wolfgang Iser, pp. 325–39. For Iser, this supplement is not just a function of particular textual "gaps" but rather a normal result of the "play of the text," which, he says, "can be acted out individually by each reader, who by playing it in his or her own way produces an individual 'supplement' considered to be the meaning of the text" (p. 336).


while we (readers) constitute an audience analogous to that seated in the celestial auditorium. Putting it in slightly different terms, from the very opening line of the poem the "I" that addresses us is merely one, if the most dominant, of a variety of roles played by the poem's subject: poet-narrator, Florentine citizen, pilgrim, Everyman or "man in general" (Contini), and so forth. Somewhere among or behind these roles there also lurks the "real," historical individual we refer to as Dante Alighieri, but at no point can we identify that individual with any one role or any combination of these roles.

This multiplex, indeterminate persona would seem to be implied in Virgil's remark to the Pilgrim after the latter's ecstatic vision on the third terrace of Purgatory:

         "Se tu avessi cento larve
sovra la faccia, non mi sarian chiuse
le tue cogitazion, quantunque parve."
                                    ( Purg . XV.127–29)

         ("Although you had a hundred masks
upon your face, that still would not conceal
from me the thoughts you thought, however slight.")

A hundred masks is just what we would expect our Pilgrim-Poet to wear in the course of his journey through the hundred cantos of his poem. Here in Purgatory, where there is tremendous consciousness of the ways in which human existence is a matter of artifice, these masks can be acknowledged. And that masks are not mere playthings but are fraught with implications and consequences for their wearers is indicated in a simile applied to the flowers and sparks of the Empyrean changing before the Pilgrim's eyes,

        come gente stata sotto larve,
che pare altro che prima, se si sveste
la sembianza non süa in che disparve.
                                      ( Par . XXX.91–95)

        (just as maskers, when they set aside
the borrowed likenesses in which they hide,
seem to be other than they were before.)

In the selva oscura at the beginning of the Inferno, however, the crisis is precisely that of a man shocked by the realization of his masklike existence. He is filled with terror at the thought of having lost his authentic self somewhere along life's way, a terror—paura (I.6, 15,


19, etc.)—of his situation that Michael Goldman ascribes to the self-alienation of the actor:

The actor's body is possessed by something other, that is at once the particular object of his mimesis and a vaguer, more numinous source. I would say that it corresponds to otherness itself in its threatening aspect, all that generality of terror man has tried, apparently from his earliest days, to enact so as to control.[18]

That generality of terror can in this case be seen as the Inferno, which the Pilgrim will shortly enter, though it will be the shades (ombre ) there that will enact its threatening otherness. In making the Inferno the first stage of his epic theater Dante could draw on a tradition especially strong among early Christian writers like Lactantius and Augustine, which saw the theater as a place where demons take possession of the human soul and induce in the spectator "a miserable madness."[19]

By entering the Infernal theater, the Pilgrim risks madness and demonic possession, and certainly in the first canticle that risk never disappears altogether. But in the course of his engagement with the shades the Pilgrim-actor gradually overcomes his sense of self-alienation. By the end of the Inferno he has, like Macbeth, "supp'd full with horrors" and is capable of feeling a sense of community even with the inhabitants of that monstrous world. The Pilgrim experiences otherness less and less as a threat because in his growing self-awareness he recognizes his own Protean nature—"che pur da mia natura / trasmutabile son per tutte guise" ("who by my very nature am / given to every sort of change," Par . V. 98–99)—and above

[18] Michael Goldman, The Actor's Freedom, p. 11. Goldman speculates about a special association between primitive drama and the spirits of the dead; e.g., "Drama probably began with ghosts, with prehistoric impersonations intended to transfigure the malice of spirits—to indulge, placate, or wrestle with the dead, to turn Furies into Eumenides" (p. 27).

[19] "miserabilis insania"; I am quoting from Augustine's Confessions, III.ii, p. 101, in the Loeb ed., trans. William Watts (1951), vol. 1, where he describes his own experience of attending stage plays. On this entire subject, see Jonas Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice, in which he states that Augustine condemns the theater strictly on the grounds of practical morality because it encourages every form of vice (p. 64); but this is contradicted by his own demonstration that Augustine, following Lactantius, consistently links the theater with demons, and by Augustine's denunciation of actors, his praise of the Romans for "having banished from the number of [their] citizens all actors and players" (City of God II.29, p. 73). Tertullian wrote an antitheatrical tract, De Spectaculis (ca. 198). On Tertullian, see Barish, p. 63f.


all an inescapable doubleness, the actor's self-consciousness but also the sign (Gemini) imprinted on his genius at birth:

O glorïose stelle, o lume pregno
di gran virtù, dal quale io riconosco
tutto, qual che si sia, il mio ingegno.
                                  ( Par . XXII.112–14)

(O stars of glory, constellation steeped
in mighty force, all of my genius—
whatever be its worth—has you as source.)

The Canterbury Tales continues the Comedy 's theatricality and thematizes it. I will discuss the tales of the Knight and the Miller as examples of this theatricality and of certain opposed views about the theater that continued into the fourteenth century and beyond. First, however, let us look at the basic features of The Canterbury Tales as "epic theater."

An obvious difference from the Comedy is the absence of an overtly autobiographical fiction, even though the role of the poet-pilgrim continues to be pivotal, as we have seen. Another obvious difference is that in place of an otherworld stage, Chaucer has the literal stage of inn and roadside familiar to fourteenth-century theatrical genres like the morality and mystery plays.[20] On this stage, which is a lot like Elam's "hypothetically actual" world in that it is "ostended" rather than described, Chaucer's pilgrims are alternately both players and audience. In the act of telling their tale, the pilgrims find themselves at "center stage" and confronting the others as audience. The tale becomes their script, by and through which they perform and in a sense exhibit themselves to their audience.[21] In the absence of stage directions this self-exhibition is of course limited and indirect. But a definitive indication that we are to think of them as physical presences in the course of their tale-telling is the General Prologue, whose portraits constitute an "illustrated" catalogue of the dramatis personae who will eventually appear "on stage." The gap between the pilgrims' portraits and their tales necessitates a conscious exercise of the reader's memory, and this might be considered an analogue

[20] In this connection see the comments by Claude Gauvin, "Le théâtre et son public en Angleterre au Moyen-Age et à la Renaissance," especially pp. 58–59 on the "placea" or acting area, frequently on the same level as the spectators and not separated from them by other than a symbolic barrier.

[21] Latin fabula means both "drama, play" and "tale, story, fable"; I return to this point later.


to an audience's experience of a literal performance, in this sense at least, that the tale-teller is not a disembodied voice but an individual with a set of physical and other characteristics.

I have not forgotten the caveats in chapter 1 against treating literary characters as though they had an existence independent of the text. I am obviously contending that epic theater like that of The Canterbury Tales encourages, if not a confusion between characters in fiction and actual persons, at least an increased sense of an analogy between them. So it does not seem self-contradictory to think of the Canterbury pilgrims as standing in a variety of relations to their narrative. Some, for example, seem more "inside" their narrative than others, as though they were engulfed by it or were dreaming even as they were telling it. Something like this last seems to me the case with the Wife of Bath's Tale, which perhaps not so incidentally ends with a wish fulfillment in the bedroom. It is generally assumed that this wish is really the Wife's and that the Old Hag's becoming young again is her self-projection. But there are other possibilities. The young knight, for instance, and his enforced quest to discover what it is that women most desire, could well be an "unconscious" self-projection that subtly criticizes her Prologue's self-presentation with its pretense that she knows her desire.

Let us turn now to the group of pilgrims—Chaucer, the Second Nun, the Nun's Priest—that are not given a portrait. Of these Chaucer the pilgrim, reporter, and poet is obviously the most important and makes himself felt throughout as a presence, like Dante the pilgrim-poet, and in analogous fashion.[22] There has been considerable debate about this Chaucer, his character and his role in the poem, and that this debate is appropriate, that the reader is meant to treat Chaucer's "personality" as a puzzle alongside that of the other pilgrims, is evident from the scene in which the Host, who has apparently not noticed him before, turns to Chaucer with the abrupt question, "What man artow?" (VII.695). At this point Chaucer becomes another figure on the poem's stage, and the answer to the Host's ultimately unanswerable question is now his burden, as it is that of each pilgrim-teller to announce and reveal himself. The

[22] See the comments on Chaucer the pilgrim-poet as "the single evaluating mind placed in the center of the dramatic situation" of The Canterbury Tales, by Alfred David, The Strumpet Muse, pp. 70ff., and Donald Howard's discussion of Chaucer the poet-performer in The Idea of The Canterbury Tales, p. 194f., and "The Narrative Now," pp. 78ff.


Host's question, in other words, is like an echo of the unspoken one that hangs over Dante's Pilgrim at the very beginning of the Comedy and causes him so much terror. In both poems it is the starting point of the pilgrimage, its tentative answer (or answers) the distant goal toward which the respective pilgrimages move.

The Host's words to Chaucer also give a hint of the latter's physical appearance, precisely what the reader has lacked so far to round out his sense of the poet as pilgrim and player:

He in the waast is shape as wel as I;
This were a popet in an arm t'enbrace
For any womman, smal and fair of face.

The picture of a slightly rotund "popet" should not, perhaps, be taken entirely at face value, but the hint of a faintly ambiguous sexuality ("smal and fair of face" has two possible referents) allows us to "see" the poet's presence in child Thopas with his "lippes red as rose" and "semely nose" (VII.726, 729). That this is at least in part a comic mask, a playful self-caricature, is itself an important index to Chaucer's personality in The Canterbury Tales .[23]

The other two pilgrims with no portrait might of course have received one had Chaucer lived to complete his poem, though we cannot be sure of that. In any case, the absence of a portrait of the Second Nun would seem to have a certain logic. After forty-five lines in which the Prioress emerges in her full individuality and disregard for the rules of her order, the mere mention of her "chapeleyne" in a line and a half (I.163f.) suggests that here is someone who at any rate aspires to be equal to her nun's habit.

The case of the Nun's Priest is more complicated. Not only is there no portrait of him in the General Prologue, but there is even some question whether he is just one of three priests attending the Prioress.[24] The Host's words to him after he has told his tale (VII.3450ff.) do little to illuminate the mystery of the Priest's appearance, for they are markedly similar to his words earlier to the Monk (VII.1934ff.), surely a very different type. The Nun's Priest's Tale thus implicitly raises certain questions in relation to the the-atrical principle of The Canterbury Tales . What kind of evidence, for instance, does a given tale provide about its teller? How necessary

[23] For a discussion of this passage from a different perspective, see Lee W. Patterson, "'What Man Artow?'"

[24] See various editors' notes to I.164.


is collateral evidence—regarding appearance, social background, personal habits, attitudes—to confirm or at least corroborate the impression of a teller's character as derived from his tale?

The "disembodied" Nun's Priest accordingly serves a dual function in The Canterbury Tales . First, he helps to establish the ultimate undecidability of all these questions about character. Second, the bodiless Nun's Priest underscores, paradoxically, the importance of physical appearance as an index or basis of character. Where there is no body we are bound to invent one. Thus, though his tale is delivered by a voice seemingly from nowhere, we are at once grateful for and tantalized by the Host's reference, at the conclusion of the tale, to the Priest's large neck and chest (3456). Is it intended literally? ironically? How does it square with our sense of the Priest's physical dimensions as conveyed by his tale?

It may be that the Nun's Priest is intended as just that figure of indeterminacy that makes theatrical play possible, the "nobody" who can represent or "stand in" for anybody.[25] This capacity for theatrical representation is of course not purely negative, but must in turn appeal to the audience's sense of potentiality, such as is dramatized in Shakespeare's Bottom, who believes himself capable of playing any role he chooses (A Midsummer Night's Dream II.ii). The unspecified or "blank" persona of the Nun's Priest, in other words, acts as a lure for the reader, enticing him or her (!) to identify with it mimetically, to use Bruce Wilshire's terms.[26]

In her book Narrative as Performance Marie Maclean points out that aside from empathy, the theatrical performer is also subject to "the gaze and measurement of others,"[27] the others in the case of The Canterbury Tales being the pilgrims, who constitute the immediate or "narrative audience." This audience has behind it, or stands in for, a second or "authorial audience" consisting of the readers of the text. The complexity of interdependence that obtains between Chaucer's pilgrims and their twofold audience is caught perfectly by Maclean's observation about narrative performance, which according to her involves

an intimate relationship which, like all such relationships, is at once a co-operation and a contest, an exercise in harmony and a mutual display of power. It is both "act" and interaction, and implies a contract, a recognition

[25] See Bruce Wilshire, Role Playing and Identity .

[26] Wilshire, Role Playing, passim.

[27] "Performance," she writes, "always implies submitting to the gaze and measurement of others"; see Marie Maclean, Narrative as Performance, p. xi.


of obligation and expectation, thus acknowledging the rules which govern the interplay. The two parties to the agreement, the narrative performers and the narrative audience, must be seen in relationship to the text and to each other.
(Pp. xii–xiii)

Co-operation and contest, exercise in harmony and mutual display of power—these phrases seem an apt characterization of the tale-telling game in The Canterbury Tales, and at the same time they make clear that this game can serve as model for the relationship between Chaucer's epic theater and the "live audience" of his readers. As there is among the pilgrims, so an implied contract or agreement governs the latter relationship, with the poet-narrator acting in the role of mediator or negotiator who anticipates the readers' resistance or calls upon their goodwill. For the contract is clearly a provisional one, constantly subject to renegotiation and reinterpretation, as befits the kind of theater that is being enacted, open-ended, improvisational, akin to carnival and various types of festival.[28]

In what follows I focus on the tales of the Knight and the Miller and the way that by their very opposition they initiate this theatrical process. The opposition between the tales is more than stylistic; it is as if the Miller had suddenly entered the lists against the Knight in order to challenge his entire vision and version of self and society. And though the Knight himself does not respond—the Reeve, we might say, serves as his ironic proxy—the combat of wits will continue in one form or another throughout the pilgrimage and with all the weapons that the theatrical medium can supply. Significantly, furthermore, the opposition between the first two tales revolves to a considerable extent around their very different notions of theater.

In the Knight's Tale, this notion is most fully represented by the amphitheater built for the tournament between Palamon and Arcite:

swich a noble theatre as it was
I dar wel seyn in this world ther nas.
The circuit a myle was aboute,
Walled of stoon, and dyched al withoute.
Round was the shap, in manere of compas,
Ful of degrees, the heighte of sixty pas,
That whan a man was set o degree,
He letted nat his felawe for to see.

[28] On this, see Carl Lindahl, Earnest Games . My view of the implications of game and festivity in The Canterbury Tales differs radically from Lindahl's.


In its monumental circularity and the unobstructed view it provides for its occupants, this theater recalls the celestial Rose that, as we saw above, is also a kind of colosseum from which the blessed can view the events in the world below. Both structures are obviously classical, that is, Roman, in inspiration and represent a microcosm of the human society in each poem.[29] Each structure also creates the idea of a "world theater" along the lines of the classical epic discussed at the beginning of this chapter. In the Comedy, as we have already seen, it is the whole of human history that is played out before the eyes of the elect, who themselves at one time were players on the world's stage. In the Knight's Tale the world theater has the much more limited function of being the staging ground for an aristocratic tournament "For love and for encrees of chivalrye" (2184) and for the benefit of the Athenian populace. Just as God the Prime Mover is above the Rose, so the gods are above Theseus's amphitheater,[30] and, more important, three of the principal gods have temples dedicated to them on the periphery of the amphitheater.

Rose and amphitheater, then, define the respective worlds of their poems, and I suggest that the parallels and contrasts between the two are sufficiently striking to raise the possibility that the Knight's Tale is in a number of ways an antithesis to the Comedy . In order to explain what I mean by this, I must digress for a moment and refer the reader to Francis P. Pickering's important but neglected thesis, first published in 1967,[31] that all medieval narrative, whether historical or fictional, involved a choice between two models: an Augustinian, the history of the City of God on earth, and a Boethian, also Christian in spirit, yet essentially secular and dynastic. The premises of the Augustinian model include these:

That history began with the Creation, and that from the Fall of the Angels until beyond the Day of Judgment it is foreordained by the triune Godhead. God's providence is responsible for the course of all that happens in time. But the only events which ever become history within this system are those which the Church elects to remember, and on which it has passed its verdict. The memorable history of the world since Christ's Ascension is Church history, sub specie aeternitatis it is "Heilsgeschichte." In respect of datable events, there are for instance the Church's Councils and the victories of the

[29] On the rose in Paradiso XXXIII as a microcosm of the family of man—the "society" of the Comedy —see Joan Ferrante, The Political Vision, p. 306f.

[30] Venus's tears fall into the lists when she sees that her knight Palamon has been captured (2663–67).

[31] Francis P. Pickering, Augustinus oder Boethius ?


faith itself over the heathen. There are the res gestae of those heroes which the Church canonised or declared martyrs.[32]

In this scheme, furthermore, Fortune is "little more than a talisman, of pagan Rome, now fallen and superseded by the Rome of Peter and Paul" (p. 177). The Boethian model, contrariwise, focuses precisely on the problems posed by a seemingly arbitrary Fortune and in so doing is able to deal with just the secular, dynastic history that Augustine in the City of God dismisses as irrelevant. But even though Boethius's focus is on the problematic, confused realm of secular history dominated by Fortune, he still finds in it a divine order as expressed by this descending "hierarchy of instances": God and his Providence ; the Fate of all temporal things and beings—including man; Fortune ; the Free Will of Man . And it is Pickering's contention that the Boethian model, derived from the Consolation of Philosophy, "was known to every medieval author as being the only one available for works of non-theological content, for the rational interpretation of 'real' history . . . for the composition and interpretation of all kinds of fictions " (p. 181f.)

Pickering's thesis, with whose general applicability I am not here concerned, clarifies two fundamental points about the Knight. First, in the General Prologue he sees himself as part of the Augustinian paradigm of history, as a fighter for "the victories of the faith over the heathen," rather than for some spiritually ambiguous dynastic cause. Though he may have too much humility to present himself as a hero of Heilsgeschichte, he probably looks upon the "felaweshipe" of the Teutonic order, with which he banqueted and fought against the Russian infidels (I.52–55), the way the Arthurian Grail knights saw themselves, namely, as a portion of the City of God on earth.[33] Second, as tale-teller, the Knight makes precisely the kind of choice Pickering says a medieval author must make. His tale is "Boethian" in the sense that its pagan characters have, aside from their gods,

[32] Francis P. Pickering, Literature and Art in the Middle Ages, p. 174.

[33] Ibid., p. 193, speaking of Wolfram von Eschenbach's Grail community; see also Jean Frappier, "Le Graal et la Chevalerie." The religious meaning of "Ful worthy was he in his lordes werre" (I.47) thus not only is plausible on historical grounds—the Knight is not connected with any campaigns in France—but would also fit in with his self-interpretation. Certain battles in which the Knight took part were by no means unambiguous; on this see C. Mitchell, "The Worthiness of Chaucer's Knight," and Terry Jones, Chaucer's Knight . It could hardly be otherwise, and Chaucer may have expected his knowledgeable readers to be aware of complexities the Knight would not acknowledge.


only a philosophy outside the Christian theological framework to guide and console them.[34] And this accounts for the Knight's refusal to tell where Arcite's soul went upon his death:

     His spirit chaunged hous and wente ther
As I cam nevere, I kan nat tellen wher.
Therfore I stynte, I nam no divinistre;
Of soules fynde I nat in this registre,
Ne me ne list thilke opinions to telle
Of hem, though that they writen wher they dwelle.

Surely Dante is among those whose opinions the Knight prefers to ignore,[35] since his Comedy is always ready to raise doctrinal difficulties, especially regarding pagans, and to insist on the vital role that pagans play within a Christian framework of history. The Knight's Tale points entirely in the opposite direction, and the amphitheater is a perfect emblem of this opposition. Its temples and the gods enshrined in them define, as we have seen, the limits of the tale's pagan world. The Knight is intent on keeping the pagan world neatly framed and apart from his own.

The idea of history, furthermore, that is enacted in his theater differs fundamentally from the Comedy 's. In the latter, there are no privileged performers: all, high or low, Christian, Jew, or pagan, can be heroes or villains. In the Knight's Tale, on the contrary, the only players who count are aristocrats: others may have supporting roles, but for the most part they merely make up the multitude and serve as spectators for the aristocratic spectacle. And from the Knight's point of view this is a very consciously staged, ritualistic spectacle

[34] This is a tricky point. Boethius was of course a Christian, and the Consolation presumably implies, in the final analysis, something very close to the Augustinian scheme of providential history. Notoriously, however, the Consolation also avoids any overtly Christian references, so that it could be used as representing "pagan" philosophy. Pickering cites Konrad's German adaptation (ca. 1170) of the Chanson de Roland as an example of a work in which Boethianism is equated with pagan wisdom: "In any well-organized work of Augustinian conception, the philosophy attributed to the heathen may be based on the best secular philosophy available, in Boethius"; see "Historical Thought and Moral Codes in Medieval Epic," in H. Scholler, ed., The Epic in Medieval Society, p. 15.

[35] By way of contrast to the Knight's professed ignorance about the fate of pagans after death, his immediate source, the Teseida, describes Arcite's ascent to the eighth sphere (an episode Chaucer had used in his other "pagan" epic, the Troilus [1807ff.; cf. Tes . XI.1–3]).


whose rules are well defined and strictly enforced. For all that, however, it involves an unpredictable, ominous element; indeed, an atmosphere of potential disaster hovers over the entire theater.

Its source is the gods, and their menace is portrayed in the temples on the periphery of the amphitheater. These temple interiors with their frequently sinister statues and murals have some of the atmosphere as well as some fairly specific echoes of Dante's Inferno . Accordingly, when the Knight, in describing the temples, suddenly resorts to the formula "Ther saugh I"—a frequent formula in the Comedy[36] —eight times in short succession (1995; cf. 2005, 2011, 2017, 2056, 2065, 2067, 2073), he takes on the air of a Dantean tourist in hell, with this difference: he does not need to descend to the otherworld, since as far as he is concerned hell is already where the pagan gods are. A further difference from Dante's pilgrim is that the Knight's gaze is entirely impassive; it merely registers and remains wholly unmoved by the horror or absurdity of what it beholds.

This unemotional, nonempathetic spectatorship characterizes, of course, the old warrior's entire attitude toward the world of his tale. He is clearly determined to keep it at a distance from himself, in part, at least, because of a suspicion of the theater—of which the temples are an integral part—and its potentially devastating effect upon the unguarded viewer. We are, in other words, in the intellectual and spiritual ambience of Tertullian and other early Christian polemicists who regarded the theater as an essentially pagan institution diabolic in origin.[37] In the City of God Augustine views it, in

[36] Dante's oft-repeated vidi, vid'io is of course not unique to the Inferno, but in conjunction with the various echoes of that canticle in the entire passage, there can be little doubt that, as he catalogues the imagery of the temples, the Knight imagines himself in a Dantean hell, especially in the temple of Mars; cf., e.g., the forest painted on the wall (1975ff.), clearly inspired by the forest of suicides in Inferno XIII. Boccaccio is the intermediary here, of course; Boitani has pointed out various echoes of the Inferno in the Teseida, especially where the gods are concerned: see Chaucer and Boccaccio, pp. 38ff. The Knight's formula replaces vide(vi) in the Teseida VII (32ff.), where it is used for the personified prayers to Mars and Venus. As epic formula it recalls Aeneas's eyewitness account of the destruction of Troy (Aen . II, 499, 501), on which see E. R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, p. 175.

[37] On Tertullian, see n. 19 above. His spirit is alive in Chaucer's time and place, 19, in Anne Hudson, ed., Selections from English Wycliffite Writings, pp. 97ff. The Knight would have found plenty of hints of such an antitheatrical attitude in his source, the Teseida, which, it has been suggested, reflects Boccaccio's antiquarian interests in pre-Christian Rome even as the plot points to a Christian bias against the ancient Roman theater. The gods' intervention leading to Arcite's death has ampleprecedent in Latin epic, but as James H. McGregor has pointed out, the fact that it takes place, in demonic form, during a ludus in the theater, shows the influence of those who, like Tertullian, saw the theater as dedicated to the worship of demons. See James H. McGregor, "Boccaccio's Athenian Theatre."


the words of one modern authority, as "a false temple, or antitemple, standing in mocking antithesis to the true temple, . . . inhabited by demons . . . and dedicated to the overthrow of humanity."[38]

Against this threat, the Knight—whose Augustinianism we have discussed—must fortify himself with a coldly ironic stare, especially when the theater literally fulfills its demonic role, at Saturn's instigation, as a "furie infernal" bursts from the ground and causes Arcite's fatal fall from his horse.[39] This sudden peripeteia, followed by Arcite's final illness, his moving speech of farewell to Palamon and Emily (2765–97), his death and the violent grief of young and old (2817)—all this fits into the pattern of tragedy to be examined in the next chapter, and we can amplify the comments made there about the Knight's interruption of the Monk's tragedies. For it is clear that even Arcite's extremely simple "tragedy" is anathema to the Knight:[40] whenever his own voice enters by way of comment, it is to deflate the aura of tragedy and to demonstrate his own utter emotional detachment.[41]

This, the Knight seems to say, is the only way of dealing with the spectacle of pagan theater, or, in the larger perspective, of history. One must contemplate it with the calm objectivity of one who is totally uninvolved because as a Christian he knows himself to be free of the demonic forces that, in the guise of the gods, can still enthrall the pagan soul . But to know oneself free of them is of course not to say that they cannot once more take possession of one's soul, and it is therefore imperative to remain vigilant against that eventuality.

For all that the Knight attempts to seal off the world of his tale from any contact with his own experience, it is evident that what I have described as the spectacle of pagan history is in essence the

[38] Barish, The Antitheatrical Prejudice, p. 63f.

[39] For the source in the Teseida of this episode, see McGregor, "Boccaccio's Athenian Theatre."

[40] Arcite lacks even the rudimentary tragic stature attributable to most of the protagonists in the Monk's Tale.

[41] Cf. 2743–61 (the clinical details of Arcite's fatal illness); 2809–16 (the account of his death): 2820–26, 2835–36 (humorous, flippant comments on grieving women).


Knight's vision of profane, secular history, the history that is distinct from Augustinian Heilsgeschichte, the struggle of the City of God in time. Profane history, in other words, is still, at bottom, demonic, or at least one where the "furie infernal" may erupt at any moment. In the face of that threat, however, the situation is not completely hopeless. There is one character capable, not of preventing the furies, but of controlling them. That is of course Theseus. Like the Knight, Theseus refuses to be drawn into the "tragedy" of Arcite's death. Instead, he proceeds by all means at his command to regain control of the "theater" that, as ruler of Athens, he directs and of which he is the center. Until the accident, Arcite and the tournament were part of this political "theater," and Theseus's chief concern now is to make them once again a part of it. So that the accident will not dampen the cheer of his guests (2703), therefore, he organizes allnight revels (2715ff.), decrees that all rancor and envy must stop (2731f.), gives gifts, holds a three-day feast, and then conveys the royal guests out of town (2735ff.). After the death, he is quickly comforted by his father's platitudes (2837) and loses no time in organizing the funeral pyre (2853ff.). While laying out the body, it appears for a moment as though he succumbs to the emotion of the occasion:

He leyde hym, bare the visage, on the beere;
Therwith he weep that pitee was to heere.
And for the peple sholde seen hym alle,
Whan it was day, he broghte hym to the halle,
That roreth of the criyng and the soun.

But stripped of their modern punctuation (in this case the period after 2878),[42] the lines more than hint at the theatricality of Theseus's tears.

It is difficult indeed to determine what attitude the Knight has

[42] A parallel ambiguity occurs a little later in the Knight's Tale:

By processe and by lengthe of certeyn yeres,
Al stynted is the moornynge and the teres
Of Grekes, by oon general assent.
Thanne semed me ther was a parlement
At Atthenes . . .

Some modern editors put a period after "teres," presumably to avoid the obvious implication that all the tears shed for Arcite could be considered theatrical.


to this kind of political theater. We may smile at Theseus's unwavering attention to its ceremonial niceties and its thinly veiled opportunism, as when he summons Palamon, who is still in mourning and has no inkling of what is going on (2977–78), to the Athenian parliament, "To have with certein contrees alliaunce, / And have fully of Thebans obeisaunce" (2973–74), by having him marry Emily. And we may smile at his theatrical posturing before delivering his oration to the same parliament (2981–86). But it does appear that Theseus, as the one who orchestrates the theater of which he is himself the principal focus, is a model for the Knight in his undertaking to master his narrative and his audience.

The first part of this undertaking need not concern us in any detail, since it has been discussed by a number of commentators. I am referring to the deliberate, rhetorically self-conscious ways in which the Knight reduces the Teseida not only in length but also, especially, in the vitality and dramatic autonomy of its characters.[43] Starting with his literal and symbolic conquest of "al the regne of Femenye" (866), the Knight's Theseus achieves an analogous dominance over the people around him. The second part of the Knight's undertaking, the mastery of his audience, has also received ample critical attention, especially his excessive use of occupatio, the rhetorical ploy of describing something while in the act of saying that one will not describe it. The many occasions when the Knight interrupts his narrative to address the pilgrims directly likewise demonstrate his desire, mingled with an ironic condescension, to hold their attention.[44] It is here that the Knight's ambiguous attitude to the pilgrim audience suddenly mirrors that of Theseus toward the Athenian crowd. This crowd is waiting outside the ducal palace for a proclamation while Theseus is "at a window set, / Arrayed right as he were a god in trone" (2529–30). Below, meanwhile, "an heraud on a scaffold made an "Oo" / Til al the noyse of the peple was ydo" (2533–34), and then delivers Theseus's message. This brief scene is fleetingly recapitulated by the Knight, 140 lines later, in his own role as narrator. After he has described the crowd's frenzied reaction to Arcite's victory:

[43] For a detailed recent discussion of what the Knight—or Chaucer—has done with his Boccaccian source, see Boitani, Chaucer and Boccaccio ; Boitani also comments on the flatness of the Knight's characters.

[44] Most notably at lines 885–92, 1347–54, 1520–24, 1531–39, 1623–26, 1663–72, 2110–16, 2206–8, 2284–88, 2447–49, 2681–82, 2811–14.


Anon ther is a noyse of peple bigonne
For joye of this, so loude and heighe withalle
It seemed that the lystes sholde falle

he goes on to admonish his own audience:

But herkneth me, and stynteth noyse a lite,
Which a myracle ther bifel anon.

His words insinuate an ironic equation between the pilgrims and the Athenian crowd; both have the characteristics that make a theater audience so objectionable: incessant noisiness, readiness to be swayed by emotion, addiction to spectacle and the spectacular ("Which a miracle"!). But beyond these ironies there is also, surely, more than a slight hint of a connection between the Knight's exhibitionism as a performer and Theseus's near-blasphemous self-elevation.

The scene in which the Miller, over the objections of the Host, insists on his right to speak next, has been discussed earlier. Nonetheless, I want to refer to it yet again to underline how perfectly it exemplifies a kind of theater diametrically opposed to the Knight's, and one, furthermore, that will be fully exemplified by the Miller's own tale. In this theater, first of all, there are no performers who are elevated above all the other performers. By the same token, no performer is in complete control of the performance—first, because each performer has a chance to be at center stage and no role is absolutely fixed, and second, because there is no radical separation between performers and spectators, so that spectators can at any moment become a part of the performance.

It is not hard to imagine the Knight reacting to the Miller's intrusion into the Host's protocol as an example of "the cherles rebellyng" (2459), a matter for which, in the Knight's Tale, Saturn takes credit. "The multitude," as a recent observer of Western society might put it, though the Miller is of course nothing like Ortega's "mass man."[45] Technically, to be sure, "the Millere is a cherle, ye know wel this" (3182) and "told his cherles tale" (3169); but the

[45] "The multitude," writes Ortega, "has suddenly become visible, installing itself in the preferential positions in society. Before, if it existed, it passed unnoticed, occupying the background of the social stage; now it has advanced to the footlights and is the principal character" (Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses, p. 8).


poet-narrator's mock-apology on this point is, rather, a way of reinforcing the inclusiveness of the pilgrims' theater, its readiness to yield center stage to all, aristocrats, churls, and others. What the narrator does not say, and does not need to say, is that in "quiting" the Knight's Tale the "churl" initiates a transformation of social and literary values that marks The Canterbury Tales as a whole.

The characters of the Miller's Tale reflect his approach to theater as play, a form of inspired improvisation in which the performer seeks to engage the audience's active participation in the performance. Each of the characters at one point or another in the tale occupies center stage, making us see the world through his or her eyes. In addition, the characters represent a variety of social classes, from the "knave" Robin to the parish clerk Absolon, and the carpenter, John, who for all that he is "a riche gnof" (3188), knows himself inferior to the "poure scoler" Nicholas: "What! thynk on God, as we doon, men that swynke" (3490).

The lowly shot-window—it only reaches up to Absolon's chest (3696)—of the carpenter's house, might be said to function as "center stage" in the theater of the Miller's Tale. Early in the tale, indeed, when Absolon stations himself by this window to serenade Alison (3695), who is in bed with her husband, it functions rather like the window in the Knight's Tale at which we saw Theseus "set, / Arrayed right as he were a god in trone": it allows communication between performer and audience even as it establishes a discreet barrier between them. Later, however, on the fateful night when Absolon reappears at the window to beg a kiss, it still frames the performers like any proscenium arch, but now it also opens up to allow direct contact between the characters, who are, interchangeably, performers and audience. And here, at center stage, the three principals of the Miller's Tale take turns in making an entrance, as it were, and delivering a statement in truly theatrical fashion, that is, not just with words but also by physical gesture and action.

Alison's "statement" in sticking her rear out the window is clear enough, though we might question whether it is aimed just at the "romantic" Absolon or, ultimately, at all men and their unceasing quest for "taille" (VII.416). Absolon's response to her with the "hoote kultour" (3776) would seem to signify all the repressed anger men feel toward women and which, in the Knight's Tale, they express in violence toward the rivals for the object of their desire. Nicholas's statement, finally, seems akin to that of the demon Barbariccia in


Inferno XXI, who "had made a trumpet of his ass," ("avea del cul fatto trombetta," 139); Singleton's comment on the conduct of the other demons in the preceding lines seems perfectly apt for Barbariccia's fart as well: a gesture, he calls it, "of complicity and delight at the prospect of the adventure ahead, in which the devils are going to trick Virgil and Dante."[46] Only a slight change in the wording is needed to fit this to the demonic Nicholas's performance at the window. He is expressing his complicity and delight at the apparently successful adventure in which he and Alison tricked the old carpenter and Absolon. There is further reason to suspect the invisible presence, in this scene, of Dante's demon, whose name means "curly beard": after planting his kiss Absolon "thoughte it was amys, / For wel he wiste a womman hath no berd" (3736–37), and Nicholas, who cannot very well have heard Absolon's unspoken reflection, exclaims "A berd! a berd! . . . / By Goddes corpus, this goth faire and weel" (3742–43).

Nicholas is "demonic" in his apparent knowledge of the unspoken (and, we might add, of the unseen), and in the more precise sense of his systematic, meticulous way of inverting all the norms, sacred and profane, of his society. As such, he reflects an aspect of the Miller especially prominent in the General Prologue portrait, the physical features that make him like an embodiment of the infernal, demonic side of the mystery plays—like Noah's Flood—to which his tale alludes. His mouth is a virtual hell-mouth, traditionally represented by "a greet forneys" (I.559) in the mysteries. The various animal associations of his facial features suggest the animal masks worn by the "demons" in the mysteries. By his appearance, in other words, the Miller seems to stand for the comically profane and grotesque elements of the mystery plays that oppose and burlesque the sacred event, "Goddes pryvetee."[47] As a sideshow performer, too, the Miller comes to seem a comic subverter of social norms: at least his wrestling, his lifting doors off their hinges or breaking them down with his head, and his playing the "goliardeys" can easily be imagined as so many ways of exposing the pryvetee usually hidden under masks and conventions or kept behind locked doors.

[46] There the other demons press their tongues between their teeth "as signal for their leader Barbariccia" (138: "verso lor duca, per cenno"). Singleton's comment is taken from the Commentary on the Inferno, p. 377.

[47] See the excellent articles by Margery Morgan, "'High Fraud': Paradox and Double-Plot in the English Shepherds' Plays," and Linda E. Marshall, "Sacral Parody in the Secunda Pastorum ."


In the perspective of the Miller and his tale the demonic is of course not perceived or felt as such, but is, rather, considered part of the natural order or course of things. Thus, what in the Knight's Tale is feared as a potential source of disaster—the spontaneous, the accidental, the erotic, like the sudden glance of a woman—is in the Miller's Tale simply a facet of the unaccountable plenitude of creation. Indeed, as the scenes at the shot-window demonstrate, it is precisely the fortuitous and seemingly demonic that cause poetic justice to prevail:[48] Nicholas and carpenter John are punished for their respective presumptions, and Alison is spared, since, as the Miller asserts in his prologue, a wife is an intimate part of "Goddes pryvetee" (3164).[49] Repudiating the Knight's opposition between Augustinian and Boethian accounts of the way of the world, the Miller remains true to the premises of the mystery cycles to which he owes much of his own being and presents in his tale a Boethian fortune working an apparently providential justice.

The Miller's theatrical critique of the Knight's Tale begins with a reduction of the latter's monumental political theater to the intimate dimensions of the carpenter's household, where literally everyone can play. The broader setting of the Miller's Tale suggests a comic translatio studii but also the reduction of the fabled center of ancient civilization to contemporary small-town Oxford with its humble "street-theater," whose spirit rules the tale. Of the various specific allusions to the mystery plays in the Miller's Tale the following is particularly significant because it is also one of a number of echoes of the Knight's Tale.[50] "Somtyme, to shewe his lightnesse and maistrye," Absolon "pleyeth Herodes upon a scaffold hye " (3383–84; my italics), recalling the moment when "an heraud on a scaffold made an 'Oo!'" (2533) to silence the Athenian crowd. The juxta-position of these two scaffolds, one belonging to the homely "epic theater" (in the Brechtian sense!) of the mysteries, the other to the

[48] Is there a special connection between farting and the demonic? The example of Luther would suggest there is. And at the end of the Summoner's Tale the lord calls farmer Thomas a "demonyak" (III.2240) for having thought of the problem of fart-distribution. I assume the lord alleges the inspiration of the devil not just for the problem in "ars-metrik" (2222).

[49] As center of attraction, Alison also illustrates the democracy of sexual desire: "She was a prymerole, piggesnye, / For any lord to leggen in his bedde, / Or yet for any good yeman for to wedde" (3268–70).

[50] The most outrageous of these is "Allone, withouten any compaignye," l. 2779 in the Knight's Tale, l. 3204 in the Miller's.


"political theater" of classical epic, defines the theatrical distance between the respective tales. And of course this is a matter, not just of the scaffolds, but also of acting styles and rapport with the audience. Playing the ranting tyrant of the mysteries, Absolon is like the "heraud" who is Theseus's mouthpiece, but his audience knows from his manner of playing the part—made more absurd, surely, by his high-pitched voice[51] —what kind of character he represents, something the Athenian audience could scarcely infer from the herald's decorous "Oo!" In the same vein, furthermore, Absolon's eagerness to impress his audience with his lightnesse and maistrye as an actor sums up in one phrase the paradoxical ambitions of the small-town dandy and the Athenian ruler.

Absolon's desire to demonstrate maistrye also serves broadly as a parody of the Knight's preoccupation with various kinds of mastery in his tale, his evident desire to impose himself on his audience,[52] his covert identification with Theseus, who so effectively dominates the world of the tale. And it is here that the Miller's Tale once again presents a startling contrast, for the Miller includes himself in his tale quite overtly and as a strictly marginal figure. I am referring to his namesake and mirror image, carpenter John's servant, Robin, "a strong carl for the nones," who lifts the door of Nicholas's room off its hinges. We already know the Miller's name from the Prologue to his tale (3129), and in the General Prologue we learned that the Miller is a "stout carl for the nones" for whom there "was no dore that he nolde heve of harre, / Or breke it at a rennyng with his heed" (545, 550–51). Assuming the Robin in the tale is a deliberate self-portrait, however, the Miller obviously sees himself in a rather different way from the brash figure presented in the General Prologue. This Robin is a humble "knave" who is himself somewhat of a dupe as he kneels outside Nicholas's door:

An hole he foond, ful lowe upon a bord,
Ther as the cat was wont in for to crepe,
And at that hole he looked in ful depe.

[51] See l. 3332, "Therto [i.e., to a rubible or fiddle] he song some tyme a loud quynyble." On the figure of Herod, see Roscoe E. Parker, "The Reputation of Herod in Early English Literature."

[52] In addition to his use of occupatio, there are his numerous addresses to the audience, most notably at lines 885–92, 1347–54, 1520–24, 1531–39, 1623–26, 1663–72, 2110–16, 2284–88, 2447–49, 2681–82, 2811–14.


His position is faintly anticipatory of Absolon's later at the window, and however deep he looks he sees only what Nicholas wants him to see. Later, speaking to the carpenter, Nicholas singles out Robin and the maid as among those excluded from the divine scheme of salvation:

But Robyn may nat wite of this, thy knave,
Ne eek thy mayde Gille I may nat save;
Axe nat why, for though thou aske me,
I wol nat tellen Goddes pryvetee.

Of course, it is just this humble pair who are saved, at least from the comic catastrophe at the carpenter's house, because by some irrational scruple John thinks to save them from the flood by sending them off to London on an errand (3630–31). It may be no more than a coincidence that the maid and Noah's wife in the Towneley cycle are both named Gill.[53] In any case, it seems entirely congruent with the spirit of the Miller's Tale to suggest that as this lowly pair trudge off to London we subliminally perceive them as a latter-day Mr. and Mrs. Noah embodying the fate of mankind.

For all its marginality, then, the figure of Robin in the Miller's Tale is of wide-ranging significance. It suggests the potentially multiple roles of the tale-teller as participant and spectator in his own tale. A final question concerns the contrast between this Robin, the apparent innocent, and Robin the extroverted, aggressive, crude "janglere" who tells the tale. Despite their outward similarities, are these not different, even antithetical characters? In a sense, that is certainly undeniable, yet I argue that they also belong together, that it is in fact the triumph of the theatrical conception of character that it can yoke apparently antithetical elements together in a believable union.[54]

[53] See Processus Noe cum Filiis, l. 219 and note, in A. C. Cawley, ed., The Wakefield Pageants in the Towneley Cycle

[54] It should be clear that this is not a question of different perspectives on the Miller: for instance, the Miller's sense of himself as member of a despised profession, a virtual outsider in his society, over against the society's view of him as a crude intruder. On the low status of the medieval miller, see G. F. Jones, "Chaucer and the Medieval Miller," p. 11. This point seems to be largely substantiated by the voluminous study of the miller in history by Richard Bennett and John Elton, History of Corn Milling . The authors observe that the medieval miller "was little, if at all, raised above the lowly status of the slave who sat behind the mill of Pharaoh" (p. 106f.). For a recent discussion of the social and economic status of Chaucer's Miller, whichcomes to slightly different conclusions while admitting that given the present state of historical research the matter cannot be resolved, see Lee Patterson, "'No man his reson herde'"; see particularly p. 467 and p. 490, n. 25. Patterson makes, I think, an important point in noting that millers took part in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 (467ff.). The connection, incidentally, between mystery plays and the Miller and his tale becomes quite ironic if Lydgate's poem "Against Millers and Bakers" (cited by Jones, p. 11) is correct in asserting that millers had no guilds—and thus presumably could not perform in the mysteries. Bennett and Elton, p. 114f., do record an instance of a guild of millers in York in the fourteenth century, but this guild had no hall of its own and seems to have been an exceptional case.


Virtually from his first appearance on the road to Canterbury we see the two Robins in the figure of the Miller. When the Knight has finished his tale and the Host exclaims, "trewely, the game is wel bigonne" (3117), the Miller immediately seizes upon the theatrical implications of his words and

     in Pilates vois he gan to crye,
And swoor, "By armes, and by blood and bones,
I kan a noble tale for the nones,
With which I wol now quite the Knyghtes tale."

The Miller here reenacts that union of game-playing and theater that V. A. Kolve's book on medieval drama has described so felicitously:

When the drama [of the Church] moved into the streets and the market place, into a milieu already the home of men's playing and games, it was redefined as game and allowed to exploit fully its nonearnest, gratuitous nature. . . . It was a special kind of game . . . in which a peasant is made a king or knight, and after it is over becomes once again a peasant.[55]

The Host has not yet caught on to the Miller's idea of game and attempts to stop him on the grounds of social precedence. But when the Miller threatens to "go my wey," the Host yields the stage to him: "Tel on, a devel wey! / Thou art a fool; thy wit is overcome" (3134–35). If we now expect "a prototype of the traditional raging, frothing, pompous Pilate," as K. B. Harder has characterized him, we will be disappointed.[56] The "janglere and goliardeys" eager to

[55] V. A. Kolve, The Play Called Corpus Christi, p. 19.

[56] K. B. Harder, "Chaucer's Use of the Mystery Plays in the Miller's Tale, " p. 194. This is "Robyn the rybadour" with his "rusty wordes," whom Langland's Truth would expunge from the book of the living along with whores, dice-players, and "folk of that ordre": cf. W. W. Skeat, ed., Piers the Plowman, vol. 1, C. Passus, ll. 73–79. In the Roman de la Rose, ed. E. Langlois, vol. 3 (Paris, 1921), l. 12129, Robin(s) is the name of the traditional conductor of village dances; see note on p. 238 of this edition.


impress with his "lightnesse and maistrye" is only one side of the Miller.

Or rather, the Miller has his lightness as well as his maistrye . I am referring to the side of him that is humorous, humble, and reasonable and able to articulate an astonishingly enlightened view of marriage, as witness his diplomatic words to the angry Reeve. "Leve brother Osewold," he tells him,

Who hath no wyf, he is no cokewold.
But I sey nat therfore that thou art oon;
Ther been ful goode wyves many oon,
And evere a thousand goode ayeyns oon badde.
That knowestow wel thyself, but if thou madde.
Why artow angry with my tale now?
I have a wyf, pardee, as wel as thow;
Yet nolde I, for the oxen in my plogh,
Take upon me moore than ynogh,
As demen of myself that I were oon;
I wol bileve wel that I am noon.
An housbonde shal nat been inquisityf
Of Goddes pryvetee, nor of his wyf.
So he may fynde Goddes foyson there,
Of the remenant nedeth nat enquere.

I have quoted the entire speech because its irreverent, slightly blasphemous banter can cause us to overlook just how extraordinary it really is. The idea of marriage it implies, as the joke of the last four lines underscores, accords the wife her full measure of independence, and—once we get beyond the purely sexual equation[57] —godlike mystery. Marriage, in other words, is not like the yoking together of two oxen before a plow, but a union of free persons respecting the otherness of the other.

Even if the sentiment is not considered startling in itself, it surely is coming from the Miller, to the point that it forces us to revise the impression we have developed of him up to now. And for the purposes of this revision there is perhaps no more appropriate model than the one the Miller presents of marriage as a multiplicity—"Goddes foyson"—united into one without losing the heterogeneity of its constituent parts. In the General Prologue portrait these heterogeneous elements take on a self-proliferating, grotesque life of

[57] See Bernard F. Huppé's interesting analysis of this "remarkable piece of blasphemous wordplay" in A Reading of the Canterbury Tales, p. 78.


their own, so that it is as though we were seeing multiple exposures of the Miller at once. Using his head to break down a door (551), he becomes the ram that is also his as a prize in wrestling (548). The wart on the tip of his nose with its hairs "reed as the brustles of a sowes erys" (556), together with the black and wide nostrils, the large mouth, and the "berd [that] as any sowe or fox was reed" (552), creates the surreal effect of one face superimposed on another. It is not until the final detail, the bagpipe played by the Miller, that the entire portrait stands revealed as one great synecdoche, a mask. Made of a sow's bladder, shaped like a gut and phallus, and classified by Machaut among the "instrumens des hommes bestiaulx,"[58] it is the Miller's comic double, another example of his self-multiplication. But the bagpipe makes clear that the Miller's portrait is not just another Geryonic image.[59] Like a theatrical mask, it is hollow and receives its animation from a source not its own but behind and inside it: "A baggepipe wel koude he blowe and sowne, / And therwithal he broghte us out of towne" (565–66). That blowing and sounding is what transforms a mere image into a "living" character, just as Zephirus's "sweete breeth" (5) brings to life the springtime landscape and arouses folk, who suddenly "longen . . . to goon on pilgrimages" (12).

In his comic apology before he starts his tale, the Miller speaks as one who is aware of himself as wind instrument and mask, whose sound is not entirely his own:

"Now herkneth," quod the Millere, "alle and some!
But first I make a protestacioun
That I am dronke; I knowe it by my soun;
And therfore if that I mysspeke or seye,
Wyte it the ale of Southwerk, I you preye."

[58] Cited by G. F. Jones, "Wittenwiler's Becki and the Medieval Bagpipe," p. 213. For further information on medieval bagpipes, see E. A. Block, "Chaucer's Millers and Their Bagpipes"; also D. W. Robertson, Jr., A Preface to Chaucer, index, s.v.; and, finally, the excellent article on bagpipes and music in Shakespeare by L. J. Ross, "Shakespeare's 'Dull Clown' and Symbolic Music."

[59] Cf. K. L. Scott, "Sow-and-Bagpipe Imagery in the Miller's Portrait." Scott's view of the Miller is uncharitably moralistic. I share her prejudice against bagpipes but do not hear the Miller's voice as a porcine "squawl" (p. 290). Robert Boenig, "The Miller's Bagpipe," suggests that the bagpipe was a courtly instrument more appropriate to the Knight than to the Miller; though not altogether convincing, the argument suits my point about the Miller's bagpipe.


The sound, then, of his bagpipe that "broghte us out of towne" is like the sound of his voice in that its source is ultimately mysterious, coming from without and within. And it is by way of these sounds issuing from bagpipe and mask that Chaucer sets out to recover, I believe, the original theatrical idea of the human person expressed in the presumed etymology of persona as per-sonare (or even per-se-sonare ), "to sound through oneself," which was familiar during the medieval centuries especially because it was cited over and over from Boethius's influential tract On the Dual Nature and One Person of Christ :

Wherefore if Person belongs to substances alone, and these rational, and if every nature is a substance, existing not in universals but in individuals, we have found the definition of Person, viz.: "The individual substance of a rational nature." Now by this definition we Latins have described what the Greeks call hupostasis . For the word person seems to be borrowed from a different source, namely from the masks which in comedies and tragedies used to signify the different subjects of representation. Now persona "mask" is derived from personare, with a circumflex on the penultimate. But if the accent is put on the antepenultimate the word will clearly be seen to come from sonus "sound," and for this reason, that the hollow mask necessarily produces a larger sound. The Greeks, too, call these masks prosopa[*] from the fact that they are placed over the face and conceal the countenance from the spectator: para tou pros tous opas[*] tithesthai . But since, as we have said, it was by the masks they put on that actors played the different characters represented in a tragedy or comedy—Hecuba or Medea or Simon or Chremes,—so also all other men who could be recognized by their several characteristics were designated by the Latins with the term persona and by the Greeks with prosopa .[60]

The etymology that Boethius gives is not connected, so far as one can see, with his definition of person as "the individual substance of a rational nature." It seems to be there, rather, to indicate what his philosophical formula eliminates or replaces: a theatrical conception of person as a mysterious matter of masks and sounds that at once conceal and identify the human individual.

Boethius's abstract, essentially Aristotelian definition is itself one climax of a centuries-long discussion of the concept persona in the

[60] Trans. H. F. Stewart and E. K. Rand (under the title Contra Eutychen et Nestorium ) in the Loeb ed., Boethius: The Theological Tractates and The Consolation of Philosophy, pp. 85–87. For the influence during the Middle Ages of Boethius's formulation, see, among others, James H. Hoban, The Thomistic Concept of Person and Some of its Social Implications ; Mary H. Marshall, "Boethius' Definition of Persona and Mediaeval Understanding of the Roman Theater.


course of which it would seem the theatrical element is progressively pushed aside in favor of the philosophical.[61] We can see this happening in Cicero's influential discussion of the subject in Book I of De Officiis —very likely familiar to Dante and Chaucer—where he distinguishes between two personae or "characters" with which, he argues, all of us are endowed (duabus quasi nos a natura indutos esse personis ):

One of these is universal, arising from the fact of our being all alike endowed with reason and with that superiority which lifts us above the brute. From this all morality and propriety are derived, and upon it depends the rational method of ascertaining our duty. The other character is the one that is assigned to individuals in particular. In the matter of physical endowment there are great differences: some, we see, excel in speed for the race, others in strength for wrestling: so in point of personal appearance, some have stateliness, others comeliness. Diversities of mental disposition are greater still.[62]

Now, there is no question that for Cicero every human being is constituted by or as the interplay of these two personae, the first representing what he calls universa natura with its ethical and rational imperatives, the second propria nostra natura, our individual bent or genius, be it physical, intellectual, or temperamental. Neither persona, in short, exists by itself, and the attempt to give up either one of them is a surrender of our very humanity. But that the idea of the theatrical mask is not far from Cicero's mind is clear from his discussion of the second persona . This, he says, is assigned to us by nature, but then he goes on to say that it is also chosen by the individual:

Every one, therefore, should make a proper estimate of his own natural ability and show himself a critical judge of his own merits and defects; in this respect, we should not let actors display more practical wisdom than we have. They select, not the best plays [fabulas ], but the ones best suited to their talents. Those who rely most upon the quality of their voice take

[61] For an account of Latin persona and its semantic evolution, see Hans Rheinfelder, Das Wort "Persona, " especially the first chapter. Rheinfelder, p. 31, points out that during the Middle Ages the theatrical meanings disappeared from the Romance equivalents of Latin persona —presumably because of Christian hostility to the theater. (Boethius's tract is written in part to refute Nestorius's contention that Christ had both a twofold nature and a twofold person, divine and human.)

[62] Cicero, De Officiis, trans. Walter Miller (London: William Heinemann; New York: Macmillan, 1913), p. 109. In the last sentence I have silently amended Miller's translation, which confusingly renders animis with "character."


the Epigoni and the Medus; those who place more stress upon the action, choose the Melanippa and the Clytaemnestra; Rupilius, whom I remember, always played in the Antiope, Aesopus rarely in the Ajax. Shall a player have regard to this in choosing his role upon the stage, and a wise man fail to do so in selecting his part in life ?[63]

Clearly, Cicero's idea of the individual as constituted by the interplay of two personae is in many ways still a theatrical one. Indeed, I think it is enormously suggestive for the interplay of the first two tale-tellers in The Canterbury Tales, who could be said to stand for or lean toward one and the other of the two personae respectively. The Knight tends toward the pole of the universa natura that raises man above the beasts and enables him to discover his moral obligations. Contrariwise, the Miller is close indeed to the second, propria nostra natura, given us by nature and yet, paradoxically, also chosen, precisely as if it were (what it ultimately is) a mask.

By a happy accident, concerning our idea of epic theater, in Cicero's Latin the word for play and story is the same, allowing us once more to envision Knight and Miller as actors choosing the fabula most suited to them (sibi accommodatissimas ). The Knight's, as we have seen, perfectly expresses his urge for domination, control, maistrye, above all, perhaps, in the intellectual sphere. The Miller's, reminding us, in Yeats's terms, of "the uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor," allows its characters to act out their particular bent, whatever it might be, without passing judgment on them. At this point we also need to remind ourselves, however, that as "plays" the tales are no pure self-expression or self-reflection, but also places, like Dante's three realms, for the encounter of otherness in all its various guises. This means that the pilgrim-performers run the risk, if not of madness and possession, then of a new insight, a change of heart. But these are matters that are left to the reader's intuition. The important point, it seems to me, is that once the interplay between Knight and Miller has been set going, it continues for the rest of the journey.

[63] Italics in the last sentence are mine. Trans. Walter Miller, p. 117. The two additional personae mentioned later by Cicero (p. 116f.) look more like an afterthought than an integral part of his discussion.


Chaucerian Intertextuality:
The Monk's Tale and the Inferno

Of all the tales in The Canterbury Tales, the Monk's has the clearest intertextual relationship to the Comedy . I stress the idea of intertextuality here not just because of the tale's explicit reference to Dante and the Ugolino episode of Inferno XXXIII—Dante is mentioned by name in the Wife of Bath's Tale and the Friar's Tale—but also because it seems to me that even though it can certainly stand on its own, it becomes most meaningful when considered as a response to Dante's epic. As response, it also involves a degree of imitation, for with its varied "tragedies" of famous individuals the tale bears a distinct resemblance to one aspect of the Comedy, namely, the sense in which it can be considered, without undue simplification, a series of vignettes or "case studies" of the deceased. Like the Comedy, furthermore, and especially the Inferno, the Monk's Tale draws for its characters on such varied sources as the Bible, classical myth and legend, ancient and contemporary history, without regard for chronological sequence or distinctions between real and fictitious, sacred and profane.

The effect is a sense that the Monk's Tale's characters exist in an imaginary simultaneity, a tout ensemble not unlike Dante's otherworld. Paradoxically, this does not diminish or blur the sense that in the tale as in the Comedy the basic theme is history, the nature and meaning of human existence in time. Rather, what the conjunction of imaginary and actual cases brings out is that there is no history apart from the way it is written and therefore interpreted;


that there are, in other words, narrative patterns and genres among which a writer must ultimately choose to present his vision of the past, so that a historical account is also, to a considerable extent, a fiction or a myth.[1]

In the Monk's Tale and the Comedy the implied stress on history as a literary construct has an important corollary, for it leads to a questioning of a fundamental assumption of biblical theology, namely, that human history has a supernatural basis. The Monk's Tale, indeed, does more than question this assumption. It offers, as I intend to show, an implicit critique of providential theories of history, according to which earthly events represent the unfolding of a divine plan whose central feature is that justice will prevail in the sublunary world.

At this point the reader is likely to feel that the thesis might be defensible for the Monk's Tale but does not apply to the Comedy . To this objection I would respond by agreeing that the Comedy has little of the critical reductiveness of the Monk's Tale—it also has an incomparably richer texture—and yet, on balance, the Monk's non-or antiprovidential vision of history seems to me astonishingly faithful to the spirit of the Comedy . I suggest that his is the pivotal tale by which Chaucer aligns his own epic project with Dante's in its refusal of theodicy, the attempt, in Milton's words, to "assert eternal Providence, / And justify the ways of God to men."[2]

The refusal of theodicy doubtless is based on a variety of reasons, but it seems to me connected above all with a conception of individual human autonomy that was certainly not absent from antiquity but gathered momentum, particularly during the Christian centu-

[1] Many Indo-European languages do not differentiate, as does English, between history and story . On the whole topic, see the discussion by Jeremy Tambling in chapter 2 of his Dante and Difference . I will only take issue with his parenthetical observation in the following passage: "[Dante's] placing of Virgil in Limbo rather than saving him, reveals a sense of history as non-cyclical but moving forward: there is no habit with him of huddling together exempla drawn from all phases of history, as though all were one, and the experience of one were the experience of all. (Chaucer's Monk's Tale makes the interesting contrast.) Out of his sense of differences between fact and fiction, he creates a sense of history where issues are not confused: Virgil's distinctive virtues are not the Christian ones, and they are not to be reconciled" (p. 49).

[2] Paradise Lost I.25–26 (Hughes ed.). Milton's epic adopts the style but not the substance of theodicy. Thus, the dialogue in Heaven in Book III stylistically stands apart from the rest of the poem and finds no real resonance in the subsequent narrative. Much more explicitly than the Comedy, Paradise Lost also lacks a system of reward and punishment, either in this life or the next. Readers have generally felt the version of universal history in the last two books to be unduly gloomy.


ries, reaching a kind of apogee in the late Middle Ages.[3] Obviously, this conception could coexist quite successfully with a strictly providential outlook, as it does in Augustine, who in fundamental ways set the orthodoxy here.[4] In the long run, however, it was surely bound to lead to a different, more vaguely defined view of history, not as divinely orchestrated drama, but as the realm where human beings are free, within limits, to determine the conditions of their existence.

The idea that at the center of their respective epics Chaucer and Dante put an unorthodox, though not, I think, heterodox, notion of history, is so far merely a hypothesis, an assertion that needs to be backed by evidence from the texts. Before I undertake that task, however, I must express the belief that at least part of the reason for the low estimate of the Monk's Tale in Chaucer criticism, which has rarely even taken the tale seriously,[5] is that, like its teller, it flaunts its disregard for tradition and the "rules" to which a tale told by a religious should conform. The tradition, at least as far as Chaucer scholarship is concerned, has meant a rather narrow band of religious and intellectual orthodoxy beyond which a medieval text was not supposed to stray. Along with other long-held assumptions, this tradition has been changing,[6] and the critical climate now seems more favorable to a secondary aim of this chapter, which is to rehabilitate, as it were, the Monk and his tale as a serious meditation on the nature of history.

The Monk's interest in history should not surprise us. Medieval monasteries were, as is well known, centers of historical study. By the twelfth century "historian-monks" were active in secular politics, and to them goes the credit for the fact that history eventually became

[3] See the discussion of the Nun's Priest's Tale in chapter 2 and the bibliographical references there with respect to the human image. For antiquity, see Bruno Snell, The Discovery of the Mind ; for the late Middle Ages, see also Karl Joachim Weintraub, The Value of the Individual .

[4] For Augustine's providential view of history, see chapter 8, "Christian Providence," in Étienne Gilson, The Spirit of Mediæval Philosophy, pp. 148ff. And see the useful chapter on Augustine in Weintraub, Value of the Individual, pp. 18–48, for his view of the autonomy of the human individual.

[5] Negative views of the tale are too frequent to need documentation here. A common suggestion, on the basis of manuscript variations in the arrangement of its tragedies, is that the tale is unfinished; see the notes in the Riverside edition.

[6] For a recent indication of this, see the important study by Lee W. Patterson, Negotiating the Past .


a respectable part of the scholastic curriculum.[7] As an "outridere" (I.66), or supervisor of monastic estates, and a passionate huntsman, our Monk probably does not belong in the ranks of the historian-monks, if such there were in fourteenth-century England.[8] His portrait in the General Prologue, however, is more than usually deceptive. Jill Mann has shown how much in that portrait is left to the reader's willingness, or refusal, to draw inferences.[9] A striking example of this is Chaucer's expressed agreement with the Monk's blunt repudiation of monastic rules: "And I seyde his opinion was good" (I.183). Commentators have been all but unanimous in taking this as ironically meant, but that is by no means a necessary inference, any more than that the Monk is a mere playboy. From the prologue to his tale it seems clear that he has spent time reading books and studying—though not to the point to "make hymselven wood" (I.184). "I wol doon al my diligence," he declares, ignoring the Host's banter about his wasted masculinity,

As fer as sowneth into honestee,
To telle yow a tale, or two, or three.
And if yow list to herkne hyderward,
I wol yow seyn the lyf of Seint Edward;
Or ellis, first, tragedies wol I telle,
Of whiche I have an hundred in my celle.

His reference to "the lyf of Seint Edward" seems highly significant. Not just another saint's life, the archetypal genre of monastic literary production, it is presumably the history of Edward the Confessor, the saintly king of England who lost his throne to the Norman

[7] See M.-D. Chenu, Nature, Man, and Society in the Twelfth Century, p. 164. In a footnote on this page Chenu cites Joseph de Ghellinck, L'Essor de la Littérature Latine au XII Siècle, p. 314: "The ironic history of history: eliminated by so cultured a writer as Peter Damian from the list of activities worthy of a monk . . . it was almost entirely by the efforts of monks that history regained life in the Middle Ages and by their efforts that it flourished brilliantly." Chenu comments: "This point gains support and importance when we recall that the scholastic masters paid practically no attention to the great historical texts of The City of God —texts often pondered, however, by monastic authors."

[8] David Knowles, The Religious Orders in England, vol. 2, p. 263, says that by the thirteenth century the historical industry of the twelfth had ceased, but he allows for exceptions and in any case is thinking primarily of monastic and other religious chronicles.

[9] Jill Mann, Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire ; pp. 17–37 are on the Monk.


invader in 1066. This biography, in other words, combines secular and sacred, dynastic and ecclesiastical history and might well raise questions about a divine Providence governing earthly affairs, the problem that, I have said, concerns the Monk in his tale. Then there are the hundred tragedies in his monastery library. In the first instance these probably belong to the genre of the "falls" of famous persons represented by Boccaccio's De Casibus Virorum Illustrium . But the latter work clearly owes a considerable debt to the tradition of the monastic "universal" chronicle, in which the idea of history as a tragedy is no stranger, even in the context of an Augustinian scheme. Otto von Freising, for example, in his Chronicon, quod de duabus civitatibus intitulavimus (twelfth century), speaks of "aerumnosas mortalium tragaedias" ("the sad tragedies of mortals") and thinks of the present age in eschatological terms as the prelude to the end of history.[10]

From the lines just quoted, furthermore, it is evident that our Monk is someone with literary ambition of his own. His words to the Host suggest that he is prepared to take over the entire tale-telling game: he will tell a tale, or two, or three and "the life of Seint Edward; / or ellis, first, tragedies wol I telle, / Of whiche I have an hundred in my celle" (1970–72). It is difficult to know what to make of this list of narrative possibilities. Chaucer, who has just preceded him in tale-telling, is the only one among the Canterbury pilgrims to tell two tales, though the first was cut short by the Host. Is the Monk, then, indicating that, given the opportunity, he could do considerably better than that? It is in any case noteworthy that his prologal apology for failure, due to ignorance, to observe the chronological order of his "matere" (1984–90) closely echoes Chaucer's near the end of the General Prologue, especially for his failure, likewise because of ignorance, to set down the pilgrims in the order of their "degree" (743–46).

Perhaps, too, the numbers so casually mentioned by the Monk, one, two, three, a hundred, are intended to suggest that in his "cell"—his monastery and his brain—he has a store of narrative to rival a Dantean epic, which also contains a one-two-three and pre-

[10] de Ghellinck, L'Essor de la Littérature Latine, ch. 5, "L'Histoire"—Chroniques Universelles, pp. 332–33. In Boccaccio's De casibus the monastic chronicle tradition combines with classical, primarily Senecan, ideas about tragedy. See especially Zaccaria's Introduction in De Casibus Virorum Illustrium, ed. Pier Giorgio Ricci and Vittorio Zaccaria, in Tutte le Opere di Giovanni Boccaccio, and Annalisa Carraro, "Tradizioni Culturali e Storiche nel 'De Casibus.'"


cisely a hundred cantos. Further, the Monk's reference to "popes, emperours, or kynges" (1986) as the subjects of his tragedies once again sounds like a pointed reference to the Comedy .[11] There is no mention of a pope in his tale, but all three types of ruler are to be found in the Comedy, and especially in the Inferno, which is particularly concerned with those who by various means have tried to control and dominate the world around them. With this canticle, then, the Monk's Tale would seem to have the most direct relationship, just as it is this canticle that most nearly approximates—at least in certain episodes—the Monk's chosen genre of tragedy. By exploring their intertextual relations, accordingly, I aim to demonstrate that the Monk's Tale deserves to be regarded as one of the cornerstones in the edifice of Chaucer's Dantean epic.

The tale begins where the Inferno ended, with Lucifer, who here is no grotesque but a splendid creature about to fall. Like a biblical "fall of princes," the tale continues with Adam and Samson, neither of whom appears in the Inferno . Next, the tragedy of Hercules is told as though he were another biblical hero; the opinions of "clerkes" on different parts of the story are cited (2121, 2127), as though it were a sacred text over which the commentators have fought. There is obviously no reason for falling back here on the hoary view of the Monk as naive or confused in his attempt to fit disparate materials into a familiar pattern. We have already seen ample reason to believe that he is adept in literary matters, and there is further evidence to support this belief, starting with his precise, not to say pedantic, definition of tragedy and going on to his knowledgeable references to Dante (2459–62 in "Ugolino") and "my maister Petrak" (2325 in "Zenobia"). He knows what he is doing in his tale, which is, precisely, to break with the expected, familiar patterns of narrative by introducing into them elements of now subtle, now fairly outrageous incongruity.

The Knight would seem to have a sense of what the Monk is up to, so that he exclaims, at the end of "Croesus," "Ho! . . . good sire, namoore of this!" (2676). With that the Knight clearly intends to stop the Monk, and the scribal Heere stynteth the Knyght the Monk of his tale takes the intention for a fact. But it is possible, as I attempt

[11] I concede that Boccaccio's De casibus also deals with popes, emperors, and kings, and, parenthetically, that the Decameron also consists of one hundred novellas. But here again Boccaccio's works (if we admit the Decameron into the canon of works known to Chaucer) seem primarily conduits leading back to Dante.


to show, that with the "Croesus" the Monk had reached the climax of his argument regarding history and was in fact finished with his tale. If the Knight is unaware of this, he is nonetheless uneasy about the direction in which the Monk's Tale is moving. His comments (2767–79) show that Kaske and others are right in saying that the Knight's objections are not, finally, literary so much as philosophical. But his philosophical perspective has not, in my opinion, been accurately defined, and I intend to deal with this question later in this chapter; here I merely suggest that the Knight is an upholder of "olde thynges" confronting one who holds "after the newe world the space" (I.175, 176 [General Prologue]).

First, then, let us examine "Croesus," which demonstrates as well as any of the tragedies the Monk's engagement with the kind of philosophic poetry represented in the fourteenth century above all by the Comedy . It may be an exaggeration to say that the tale alludes to Boethius's Consolation, but given the popularity of this work throughout the Middle Ages, some members of the audience could surely be counted on to catch a Boethian echo in the last line of the story (and the tale), where Fortune is said to "covere hire brighte face with a clowde." In the opening metrum of the Consolation Boethius complains that "Nunc . . . fallacem mutauit [sc. fortuna] nubila uultum" (l. 19), "now . . . Fortune cloudy hath chaunged hir deceyvable chere," in Chaucer's translation.[12] The image recurs, though not in direct relation to Fortune, in the "Croesus passage" of the Consolation, from which I quote at length, for I believe that it contains the dramatic as well as the intellectual germ of the Monk's Tale. Fortune is speaking in her own defense, declaring her lack of malice, since she is only doing what comes naturally:

An ego sola meum ius exercere prohibebor? Licet caelo proferre lucidos dies eosdemque tenebrosis noctibus condere. Licet anno terrae uultum nunc floribus frugibusque redimire, nunc nimbis frigoribusque confundere. Ius est mari nunc strato aequore blandiri, nunc procellis ac fluctibus inhorrescere. Nos ad constantiam nostris moribus alienam inexpleta hominum cupiditas alligabit? Haec nostra uis est, hunc continuum ludum ludimus; rotam uolubili orbe uersamus, infima summis summa infimis mutare gaudemus. Ascende si placet, sed ea lege ne utique cum ludicri mei ratio poscet, descendere iniuriam putes. An tu mores ignorabas meos? Nesciebas Croesum regem Lydorum Cyro paulo ante formidabilem mox deinde miserandum rogi flammis traditum misso caelitus imbre defensum? Num te praeterit

[12] The importance of the image is underscored by the Host's repetition: "He spak how Fortune covered with a cloude / I woot nevere what" (2781–82).


Paulum Persi regis a se capti calamitatibus pias inpendisse lacrimas? Quid tragoediarum clamor aliud deflet nisi indiscreto ictu fortunam felicia regna uertentem?[13]

(Must I only be forbidden to use my right? It is lawful for the heaven to bring forth fair days, and to hide them again in darksome nights. It is lawful for the year sometime to compass the face of the earth with flowers and fruits, and sometime to cover it with clouds and cold. The sea hath right sometime to fawn with calms, and sometime to frown with storms and waves. And shall the insatiable desire of men tie me to constancy, so contrary to my custom? This is my force, this is the sport which I continually use. I turn about my wheel with speed, and take a pleasure to turn things upside down. Ascend, if thou wilt, but with this condition that thou thinkest it not an injury to descend when the course of my sport so requireth. Didst thou not know my fashion? Wert thou ignorant how Croesus, King of the Lydians, not long before a terror to Cyrus, within a while after came to such misery that he should have been burnt had he not been saved by a shower sent from heaven? Hast thou forgotten how Paul piously bewailed the calamities of King Perses his prisoner? What other thing doth the outcry of tragedies lament, but that fortune having no respect, overturneth happy states?)

I said that Fortune is here speaking in her own defense. That is not strictly accurate. In actuality, it is Philosophy who speaks in Fortune's behalf, addressing Boethius as she imagines Fortune might do. Now, this rhetorical situation is a perfect anticipation of the Monk's Tale: he speaks with the voice of Fortune, or, more accurately, with tragoediarum clamor : "I wol biwaille," he says, "in manere of tragedie, / The harm of hem that stoode in heigh degree . . . , " and, more distantly, at the conclusion:

Tragediës noon oother maner thyng
Ne kan in syngyng crie ne biwaille
But that Fortune alwey wole assaille
With unwar strook the regnes that been proude;
For whan men trusteth hire, thanne wol she faille,
And covere hire brighte face with a clowde.

Behind the "clamor" of tragedy, there is the reflective Monk, a figure

[13] In the chapter on the Monk's Tale in Bryan and Dempster, Sources and Analogues, R. K. Root notes that the opening stanza of "Croesus" recalls Boethius's sentence about Croesus. I quote the Loeb translation of Boethius rather than Chaucer's because the latter tends to obscure the nicer points of the Latin text. For a brief discussion of this passage that recognizes its importance for the Monk's idea of tragedy but otherwise is quite different from mine, see Richard A. Dwyer, Boethian Fictions, p. 36f.


of Boethian Philosophy, but one intent on upsetting the metaphysical applecart of Boethius's Philosophy.[14]

The passage cited from the Consolation also provides the model for this undoing of metaphysical pretensions. In asserting her right (ius ) alongside that of heaven, earth, and sea, Fortune leaves herself no space of her own but becomes part of the natural order, her continuus ludus just another way of saying "the law of change." And in the specifically human realm Fortune becomes a kind of shorthand for the inexpleta hominum cupiditas, "the insatiable desire of men," as an explanatory cause of historical upheavals. Like the "pious tears" (pias lacrimas ) that, somewhat absurdly, Aemilius Paulus sheds over the calamities of King Perses, whom he himself holds prisoner, concepts like Fortune have a self-generated quality, responding not so much to a situation out there as to a need the mind has found within itself. Thus, the Paulus example can also be applied to the concept of tragedy as the overthrow of happy states (felicia regna ) by fortune, in other words, as the idea of a certain causal pattern in the face of which human agents appear helpless and thereby absolved of responsibility for what has happened.

Let us now consider Fortune's reference to Croesus. Its single sentence sums up a kaleidoscope of different causes operating in human affairs and attributes them all to Fortune, as it pictures Croesus the feared king and military leader becoming the pitiable man consigned to the flames of a pyre and then suddenly saved by a shower sent from heaven (misso caelitus imbre ). What does the sentence really tell us? That Croesus is the mere plaything of Fortune's caprices? That he gets the comeuppance that the rich and powerful must expect? Or that he is somehow still blessed by heaven, which miraculously saves him from catastrophe? Obviously there is no consistent answer to these questions, since in various ways they cancel each other out. Fortune, after all, is speaking (via Philosophy), precisely to demonstrate the basic unreliability of intellectual categories that presume to explain the vagaries of historical events.

Fortune's "Croesus" can be seen as a perfect distillation of the Monk's "Croesus," with this difference, that the confusion she creates rhetorically in her one-sentence account is by the Monk located largely in Croesus's mind. Thus, no matter what happens, his Croesus sees the event as a cause for pride. Wealthy, a king, and feared

[14] Though who knows how "Boethian"—or Augustinian, for that matter—the Philosophy of the Consolation really is!


by his rival, Croesus is "caught amyddes al his pryde" (2729) and led off to be burned. He is saved, not by a heaven-sent miracle but by a quite mundane rain "that slow the fyr, and made hym to escape" (2732). Nonetheless, Croesus now believes himself the invulnerable protégé of Fortune. Next, he has a dream in which the gods serve him, and this now increases his pride and desire for military revenge. In the dream he is on a tree, Jupiter washes him "bothe bak and syde" (2744), and Phoebus supplies a towel. Croesus's unsentimental daughter Phania interprets the dream for him in a deflatingly naturalistic manner,[15] by demythologizing the gods: Jupiter is really the rain and snow that will wash him; Phoebus is the sun that will dry him while he is hanging from the tree, which is really a gallows. Phania's dream interpretation is meant as a warning to Croesus (2757), presumably to abandon his pride, but it is to no avail: "Anhanged was Cresus, the proude kyng; / His roial trone myghte hym nat availle" (2759–60). And this leads directly to the Monk's concluding observation that the only theme of tragedies is Fortune's unforeseen attacks on "the regnes that been proude" (2764).

"Croesus," then, caps the Monk's own playfully malicious assault on providential and moralistic attitudes to history, for by the end of his tale the term "proud" has also lost any determinate meaning and become part of a vast tautology: it is now a fixed attribute of the rich and powerful, who are made such by Fortune, just as, in the normal course of things, they are also unmade by Fortune. Such is the invariable stuff of tragedy, the contemplation of which gives enjoyment to many, though apparently not to the Knight.

The rhetoric of Fortune, then, is the instrument by which the Monk seeks to banish from history the specters of a grand design.[16] Behind its deconstructive façade, however, the Monk has his own philosophic agenda, which can perhaps be summed up by his question in the General Prologue, "How shal the world be served?" (187). This might seem to imply something rather different from the conquest and domination of the world with which his tale is preoccupied, but I think for the Monk the crucial term is "the world," that is, the historical world in which human beings create

[15] Anticipating her barnyard sister, Pertelote, in the next tale.

[16] Boccaccio's De casibus virorum illustrium has the moralistic and the grand design notion of history. In The Canterbury Tales the latter is best exemplified by the Knight's emphatic statement about "The destinee, ministre general, / That executeth in the world over al / The purveiaunce that God hath seyn biforn," which concludes with "Al is this ruled by the sighte above" (1663–72).


their own social and political arrangements and for which they feel responsible. That this is also a world in which conflict and suffering of all kinds are unavoidable is of course understood by the Monk, and it means that for him there is a concept of tragedy worth taking seriously after all. This concept, I suggest, has to do with the belief that in the midst of catastrophic failure (whether due to sin, error, or simply "misfortune") there is a vision of hope for humanity.

A nontragic version of this belief is to be found in the Purgatorio . There, one goal of the otherworld pilgrimage is shown to be the attainment of political and spiritual autonomy when, in canto XXVII, Virgil turns to the Pilgrim with the words "I crown and mitre you over yourself" ("io te sovra te corono e mitrio," 142).[17] The Earthly Paradise, furthermore, where this scene takes place, implies that this autonomy is more than an individual possibility, that the struggle in human history for the same goal is, despite setbacks, not foredoomed to failure. Such, at any rate, I take to be one implication of the procession, in the Earthly Paradise, with the chariot drawn by the Griffin, usually interpreted as a symbolic history of the Church in its relation to the Empire. Like the other symbolic visions of history in the Comedy, the procession ends inconclusively, even negatively,[18] and yet with a mysterious and exhilarating sense that it is part of the Pilgrim's existence, as Bernard Stambler has pointed out.[19] Whatever its claims to transcendence, in other words, an institution like the Church is part of human history because it exists not merely for individual beings but also in and by them. More clearly than other institutions could, therefore, the Church shows that in the Comedy individual and collectivity are, in terms of their history, distinct but inseparable, mirror images one to the other.

Given this interdependence of the two, the Comedy 's stress on individuals and their moral responsibility can be seen, not as an evasion of history, but as a particular way of seeing and understand-

[17] See my discussion of this in chapter 2, and Kantorowicz's chapter 8 in The King's Two Bodies .

[18] Peter G. Bietenholz speaks, in connection with this passage, of Dante's "unbalanced pessimism with regard to his own time," which seems wrong in light of his own suggestion that the Comedy contains a tragic understanding of world history; see "Clio and Thalia: The Place of History in Dante's Comedy." Gerald G. Walsh likewise speaks of Dante's "tragic interpretation of history" but gives the same procession an excessively optimistic, "metahistorical" interpretation; see "Dante's Philosophy of History."

[19] Bernard Stambler, Dante's Other World, p. 256. I discuss the procession in the Earthly Paradise again at the beginning of chapters 7 and 8.


ing it.[20] In this connection it is worth noting that even those symbolic figures that project the history of institutions and other large-scale, collective events—including the procession in the Earthly Paradise, the Old Man of Crete (Inferno XIV) and the Roman Eagle (Paradiso VI)—are all somehow individualized. They are presented, not as (in Stambler's terms) universal and transcendent, but as particular historical phenomena that coexist with others. At no point in the Comedy is the multiplicity of the historical world reduced to a unitary scheme in the manner, say, of the City of God .

For all that, commentators have traditionally felt that the majestic otherworld ("metahistorical") structure of the Comedy imposes what is ultimately a clear-cut and definitive moral judgment on the historical world known to Dante, definitive, furthermore, in the sense that it is presented as if it were an expression of the divine will, part of the objective structure of the divinely created universe. My objection to such a view is twofold. First, the poem itself, as I hope to show, constantly undermines any idea of a final judgment. Second, the idea that any system of morality can do justice to human history is inherently implausible, not to say absurd. The principles of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, which Virgil uses to explain the organization of hell (Inf . XI), had by Dante's time achieved something of the status of natural law (by way of Aquinas); even they, however, soon come to appear provisional and arbitrary in the course of Dante's poem, especially when the souls in hell present themselves in their social and political context.

The further down in hell we go, the more insistent the indications become that it is a construct, and a totally problematic one at that. The climactic indication is the Ugolino episode in canto XXXIII, which, because of its importance to my argument, I examine at some length here, with the further motive of showing that it was the logical choice for the Monk to include in his own version, sub specie fortunae, of the Inferno .

The Ugolino episode extends over two cantos and is the most elaborate, gruesome, and enigmatic of all the episodes in the Inferno . It begins and ends with the cannibalism of Ugolino's shade chewing the skull and neck of Archbishop Ruggieri's shade (XXXII. 127ff.; XXXIII.77–78). Ugolino's own story—the center of the episode—concludes with a hint that he may have eaten his dead sons: "Then

[20] And thus it justifies Joan Ferrante's treatment of the entire poem in political terms; see The Political Vision of the "Divine Comedy ."


fasting had more force than grief" ("Poscia, più che 'l dolor, poté 'l digiuno," XXXIII.75).[21] The line is entirely symptomatic of this episode. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is clear or straightforward here. And no wonder; we are in the region where nothing is to be trusted, that of the traitors to homeland and party, the second ring of the ninth circle, called Antenora, where they are immersed in a frozen lake, with only their faces showing above the surface. The heads of Ugolino and Ruggieri emerge from a single hole: in death, in hatred, in mutual betrayal, they are joined like Siamese twins. Only Ugolino speaks, but we know, from the silent presence of the other head, that there is at least one other version of his story (as we surmise when Francesca speaks while Paolo maintains his silence in Inf . V). The immersion in icy water suggests a paralysis of some kind, perhaps of the emotions, because Ugolino expects his auditor to weep at his story—"if you don't weep now, when would you weep?" ("se non piangi, di che pianger suoli?" 42)—and yet he notes that he himself did not weep, because within he had already turned to stone (49). Even when the children imprisoned with him weep and ask what is wrong, he neither weeps nor replies (52).

The setting of Ugolino's narrative is Pisa, specifically "the Eagles" Tower, / Which now, through me, is called the Hunger Tower, / a cage in which still others will be locked" ("la Muda, / la qual per me ha 'l titol de la fame, / e che conviene ancor ch'altrui si chiuda," 22–24). Now, this orribile torre is surely intended as a precise analogue of the intraterrestrial tower that is Dante's hell.[22] Ugolino calls it a doloroso carcere, "sorry prison" (56), echoing Cavalcanti's cieco / carcere, "blind prison" (X.58–59),[23] and adjectivally anticipating canto XXXIV, where Lucifer appears as "The emperor of the despondent kingdom" ("Lo 'mperador del doloroso regno," 28). The tower, in other words, represents the hell people create for each other

[21] The cannibalism motif is particularly strong in this part of the Inferno . Note especially Satan chewing Brutus, Cassius, and Judas with his three mouths (XXXIV.55ff.).

[22] In canto XXXI the Pilgrim mistakes the giants—at l. 44 they are called "li orribili giganti"—standing in the central pit of hell, for the towers of a city (20–21); in other words, hell is both the infernal city with many towers and one towerlike structure with many levels—and where, incidentally, the way down and the way up are the same (see canto XXXIV.90ff.). Paradise Lost XII.40ff. explicitly links Hell and City, Tower, and Nimrod, one of the giants in canto XXXII and builder of the Tower of Babel.

[23] Virgil uses the same phrase at Purg . XXII.103.


on earth, and what makes it particularly like Dante's hell is the presence of the children in it.

Those children, the innocent victims of murderous adults, have their own analogue in the children whom Dante, with a kind of Miltonic delight in facing theological difficulties head-on, places in Limbo alongside the virtuous pagans. These children were sinless, and they appear in Limbo only because they died before they could receive baptism (canto IV.34–36; and cf. Purg . VII.28–33). Like the admirable souls who lived before the time of Christ, we could say that the children in Limbo represent part of the great mystery of divine justice. However, I think the children in the tower, and especially their gruesomely pathetic death from slow starvation, argue against a resort to "mystery" as, in the final analysis, an evasion. Because the question that must be confronted here is this: Can the human mind construct or conceive a scheme that will "justify" the course of human history, especially the enormous gratuitous suffering that it entails?

Dante the poet-philosopher-theologian has just elaborated such a scheme over more than thirty cantos. But the Ugolino episode now serves to dismantle this elaborate structure, not only because it is hopelessly inadequate from the point of view of justice, but also because it is a kind of tautology, mankind being all too proficient at creating for itself a hell right here on earth. Let us look further at the ways in which this same episode completes the deconstruction of Dante's hell.

When Ugolino has finished his narrative, the poet, in the manner of an Old Testament prophet, exclaims against Pisa as

        vituperio de le genti
del bel paese là dove 'l sì suona,
poi che i vicini a te punir son lenti,
muovasi la Capraia e la Gorgona,
e faccian siepe ad Arno in su la foce,
sì ch'elli annieghi in te ogne persona!
Che se 'l conte Ugolino aveva voce
d'aver tradita te de le castella,
non dovei tu i figliuoi porre a tal croce.
Innocenti facea l'età novella,
novella Tebe, Uguiccione e 'l Brigata
e l' altri due che 'l canto suso appella.


        (the scandal of the peoples
of that fair land where si  is heard, because
your neighbors are so slow to punish you,
may, then, Caprara and Gorgona move
And build a hedge across the Arno's mouth,
So that it may drown every soul in you!
For if Count Ugolino was reputed
to have betrayed your fortresses, there was
no need to have his sons endure such torment.
O Thebes renewed, their years were innocent
and young—Brigata, Uguiccione, and
the other two my song has named above.)

The denunciation emphasizes the innocence of the children who are the victims in the tower, and the (apparent) absence (so far) of a historical nemesis for what is now treated as Pisa's collective guilt rather than the archbishop's responsibility—as though, furthermore, Pisa's "punishment" would not exact another, larger toll of innocent victims on both sides! Finally, the reference to novella Tebe ("Thebes renewed") links Pisa, too, with hell as a literary construct in the Inferno, where Thebes serves as the type of hell. Thus the invocation to the Muses in the previous canto mentions with apparent casualness that they "helped Amphion when he walled up Thebes" ("aiutaro Anfione a chiuder Tebe," 10–11). Amphion, an Orpheus figure who raised the walls of Thebes by the power of his music, in this context is clearly an analogue of the poet Dante. Just as Amphion, with the help of the Muses, completed the construction of Thebes by putting a wall around it, so Dante is completing his "city of hell" and bringing the first canticle to a close. Like Thebes, the Inferno is the creation of an Orphic music or poetry, and the (en) closure announced by the invocation invites the further, radical interpretation that with the end of the canticle the notion of an otherworld hell will be "closed" (another meaning of chiuder ) as well. For support of this idea we go ahead once more to the next canto and to Ugolino's prophecy about the Tower of Hunger, "che conviene ancor ch'altrui si chiuda" (24). The usual interpretation takes altrui as the subject of "si chiuda,"[24] yielding the translation "in which others are yet to be shut up" (S). But it is possible to take altrui as a dative plural—as at Inf . II.89—and la Muda (the Eagles' Tower) as the subject of "si chiuda," so that the line could be translated as "it will yet be

[24] I am following Singleton's note ad loc., p. 613, which also refers to Ugolino's observation as "dire prophecy."


fitting that to others it will be closed." As Singleton indicates in his note to the line, during Dante's lifetime the tower ceased to be used as a prison. Did Dante anticipate as much for the very idea of hell?

The deconstruction of this idea is, I believe, coupled with a kind of theological critique. I mean that the father and his sons in the Ugolino episode represent a somewhat grotesque parody of Christianity, with the covert suggestion that the hell idea implies a vengeful God who is, in a manner of speaking, a cannibal to his own creation. Singleton has noted two allusions to the Crucifixion, the first when the fourth son, little Gaddo, throws himself at his father's feet and implores him, "Father, why do you not help me?" ("Padre mio, ché non m'aiuti?" 69), recalling Christ's words on the cross (Matthew 27.46). Later, when Dante denounces Pisa for its cruelty, he says, in a passage quoted earlier, that it need not have put the little sons to such a cross: "non dovei tu i figluoli porre a tal croce" (87). These allusions gain force from the Eucharistic implications of the sons offering themselves to be eaten by the father.[25]

The idea of hell, then, is of a piece with the insistence on the bloody sacrifice of the cross as central to human salvation, in that both bring the God of transcendence close to the Saturn of Greco-Roman myth, who devours his offspring in order to secure his cosmic throne. Boccaccio's discussion of the myth—in his Genealogie Deorum Gentilium Libri —is of considerable interest for the theme I am pursuing and seems to have overtones critical of traditional Christian doctrine as well:

Eum [sc. Saturnus] devorasse filios et evomisse demum, duplicem tegit sensum, hystorialem scilicet, et naturalem. . . . Saturnus ut retineret regnum, cum Tytano fratre pactionem habuit occidendi omnem masculinam prolem, que a se gigneretur. . . . Circa autem naturalem rationem dicit Cicero: Saturnus autem est appellatus, quod saturetur annis; edere enim natos fingitur, quia consumit etas temporis spatia, annisque preteritis insatiabiliter expletur etc. Et hoc quantum ad devorationem filiorum dictum; de emissione autem dicetur, de fructibus annuis e terra susceptis; nam producte in tempore fruges ex terra, esto devorentur, omnes in tempore, ab eodem tempore, agente deo, anno sequenti redduntur. Ob hanc fictionem ab ignaris minime intellectam, a nonnullis creditum est detestabilem illum sacrorum ritum

[25] The point is all the more striking, since for line 66, ahi dura terra, perché non t'apristi ? Singleton cites a passage from Seneca's Thyestes (vss. 1006–9), which also deals with a father's (in this case unwittingly) eating his children. In "Filologia ed esegesi dantesca," in Un'Idea di Dante, p. 126f., Gianfranco Contini discusses this matter.


apud quosdem barbaros nationes exortum, quo scilicet Saturno quidam, nedum alios, sed natos immolabant proprios, quasi ad instar illius acturi. Macrobius autem dicit in libro Saturnaliorum, quod Hercules, Gerione superato, sacrum hoc apud Ytalos immutavit, iussitque loco humanorum capitum, quibus conficiebatur, oscilla, ad humanam effigiem ex cera composita, Saturni aris accensis luminibus imponerent; quod postea diu observatum est.

(His having devoured his sons and eventually vomited them out, conceals a twofold meaning, a historical and a natural one. . . . Saturn, in order to retain his kingdom, made a pact with his brother Titanus of killing every male child that would be produced by him. . . . But concerning the natural reason, Cicero says as follows: He is called Saturn because he is satiated with years; it is fabled that he eats his sons, since time consumes portions of time, and gorges itself insatiably with the past years. And that is said in relation to the devouring of the sons; as for the vomiting, it may be said of the annual fruit received from the earth; for the fruit produced in time from the earth may all, certainly, be devoured, in time, but by the same time, through the agency of the god, they are returned the following year. Because of this fable, ill understood by the ignorant, some believe that there arose that detestable religious rite among certain barbarous nations, in which they sacrificed to Saturn not others' but their own sons, as if, in so doing, they acted like him. Macrobius, however, says in his book The Saturnalia, that Hercules, having overcome Geryon, changed this ritual among the Italians, and ordered that in place of the human heads with which it was carried out they should make from wax little masks in the likeness of human heads and place them on Saturn's altars with lighted candles; something which was afterwards observed for a long time.)[26]

The passage reads astonishingly like a gloss on the Inferno and ultimately on the entire Comedy . The Saturn who devours his children is representative of the dark world of the Inferno and its God, who does require the human sacrifice. But then there is the culture hero Hercules, representative (here, at least) of a new vision of humanity. He subdues Geryon—whose Dantean version we examined in chapter 2—and is then able to reform the religion of the Italians! Instead of rituals using actual human heads, that is, based on flesh-and-blood sacrifice, Hercules gets them to honor the god by means of the human image, an image shaped, furthermore, by human ingenuity and skill. It is hard to imagine a more succinct formulation

[26] Boccaccio, Genealogie Deorum Gentilium Libri, vol. l, p. 388 (Lib. VIII, cap. l) (my trans.). The Cicero reference is from De Nat. Deorum II. xxv; for Macrobius, see Saturnalia I. vii (p. 60f. in The Saturnalia . Macrobius, incidentally, does not, like Boccaccio, make a direct connection between Saturn's devouring of his male children and the ritual involving the human heads, but an implied link is doubtless there.


of the Inferno 's allegorical paradigm.[27] And this includes the oscilla, ad humanam effigiem ex cero composita (Boccaccio's wording derives from Macrobius),[28] for the oscilla, "little mouths, little faces, little masks," perfectly express the point that the human image is primarily theatrical, verbal as well as visual.

In rendering the Ugolino story in his tale; the Monk replaces Dante's demonically obsessed, mysterious count with a strangely abstracted, self-concerned character. When his three-year-old son dies in his lap, he blames Fortune: "Thy false wheel my wo al may I wyte" (2446). This from someone who, in the Monk's version, is the victim of the archbishop's machinations (241 5ff.)! The Monk further changes or flattens the characterization of his protagonist by omitting one of the most interesting features of Ugolino's narrative in the Inferno, his dream in the tower. This dream reinforces the suggestion that becomes so insistent in the final cantos of this canticle, that the real hell is the one on earth. Ugolino's dream, that is to say, recapitulates or rather anticipates, since he is dreaming while still on earth, the atmosphere and imagery of the Inferno . Even at the level of his dreams this traitor is possessed of an infernal mentality. In the dream he and his sons have lost their human image, as they are being hunted in the form of a wolf and his young whelps ("lupo e' lupicini," 29) by a nameless lord and master ("maestro e donno," 28), presumably the archbishop, "upon the mountain that prevents the Pisans / from seeing Lucca" ("al monte / per che i Pisan veder Lucca non ponno," 29f.). The situation is a telling inversion of the Pilgrim's in canto I, where he, also a fugitive (25), is faced by the three beasts (including a lupa [49]) and rescued by the man, or rather shade, he calls lo mio maestro (85). The maestro of the dream is, rather, a master of the hunt, and he has his beaters "with lean and keen / and practiced hounds" ("Con cagne magre, studïose e conte," 31) going after his quarry.[29] This recalls those

[27] This is not to say that this was Boccaccio's intent. Certainly, his "official" commentary, delivered in public lectures in Florence, is very different, essentially a contribution to the image of Dante as orthodox poet-theologian.

[28] Macrobius has "oscilla ad humanam effigiem arte simulata"; I am using the text of Ambrosii Theodosii Macrobii Saturnalia, ed. Iacobus Willis, p. 33.

[29] Note that it is the she-wolf (lupa ) facing the pilgrim on the mountainside that is notable for her magrezza, "leanness" (50). A further example of Ugolino's dream as an inversion of canto I would be Virgil's prophecy of the greyhound (veltro ) hunting the she-wolf down "until he thrusts her back again to Hell," "fin che l'avrà rimessa ne lo inferno" (110). I should acknowledge that here, as throughout, I depend heavily on Singleton's excellent commentary.


circles in the Inferno where the sinners are constantly pursued and harassed by demons, most memorably the violent against their neighbors, guarded by the Centaurs, "armed with arrows, / as, in the world above, they used to hunt" ("armati di saette, / come solien nel mondo andare a caccia," XII.57), and the barrators, constantly prodded by demons who, as they rush about, are compared to a mastiff chasing a thief and dogs when they set on a poor wretch (Inf . XXI.44–45 and 68).

His dream, then, shows that Ugolino has already completely "internalized" hell, so that everything that happens in the tower is as if it were written beforehand in the tablets of his imagination. This is not the case with the Monk's Ugolino. When the jailer shuts the doors of the tower at the time when food was usually brought to the prisoners, Hugelyn does draw a grim inference, but again only for himself and with no sense that he pre-intuited it:

He herde it wel, but he spak right noght,
And in his herte anon ther fil a thoght
That they for hunger wolde doon hym dyen.
"Allas!" quod he, "allas, that I was wroght!"
Therwith the teeris fillen from his yen.

The Monk, by contrast, makes us very much aware of the children—the eldest is scarcely five years old (2412)—the terrible hunger they suffer, their attachment to and dependence on the father, and the latter's apparent inability to communicate with them. At the death of the youngest, Hugelyn "for wo his armes two . . . gan to byte" (2444), whereupon the other two sons "wende that it for hunger was / That he his armes gnow, and not for wo" (2447–48)—a reminiscence of Ugolino in hell gnawing the nape of Ruggieri's neck, "just as he who's hungry chews his bread" ("come 'l pan per fame si manduca")[30] —and offer themselves to be eaten by the father. Later, they lie down in his lap and die. The parodic Christian allegory here is somewhat different from that of the Inferno, at least in emphasis. Dante's Ugolino has a powerful psychological dimension that the Monk's lacks, and the Monk seems more preoccupied with the in-

[30] In the same context, rodere is twice used, a verb closer to "gnaw" than manducare: "non altrimenti Tidëo si rose / le tempie a Menalippo," "no differently had Tydeus gnawed the temples / of Menalippus" (XXXII.130–31); and Ugolino's "traditor ch'i' rodo, " "this betrayer / whom I gnaw" (XXXIII.8). Later, Ugolino merely bites at both his hands for grief, "ambo le man per lo dolor mi morsi " (XXXIII.58).


comprehensible violence and death endured by the children, as part of his argument, I suggest, for the theme of the deus absconditus, the God of history whose face is hidden. We recall, in this connection, the last line of his tale, which is about Fortuna but ultimately points, I believe, to what for the Monk is the theological truth that God does not reveal himself in history: "For whan men trusteth hire, thanne wol she faille, / And covere hire brighte face with a clowde ."

In part, too, the Monk seems content to evoke the work of the miglior fabbro, to whom he pays a glowing tribute at the end of the story:

Of this tragedie it oghte ynough suffise;
Whoso wol here it in a lenger wise,
Redeth the grete poete of Ytaille
That highte Dant, for he kan al devyse
Fro point to point; nat o word wol he faille.

Not only is Dante's story difficult if not impossible to improve upon, but it also fits the Monk's purposes precisely, as I have tried to show. Finally, the Monk has in reserve a tale that as an allegorical coup de grace to Christian orthodoxy certainly matches Dante's Ugolino "fro point to point"! I am referring yet again to the Croesus story, which features at its center the protagonist's dream that the Monk omitted from his version of the Ugolino story.

We have already examined Croesus's dream and his interpretation of it, as well as that by his daughter Phania. It remains only to view both dream and its interpretations in the perspective of the crucifixion allegory to which Croesus's death on the tree indubitably points. I say "indubitably" because, as we have already seen in our discussion of the Nun's Priest's Tale, that tale, with its reference to Croesus's dream (VII.3138ff.), makes the crucifixion theme all but explicit. Croesus, then, is a Christus figure, and his dream a parodic version of the Crucifixion, which his daughter proceeds to debunk. And what the Monk's parody aims at here in particular is the idea of the Crucifixion as a cosmic and historic event by which both the world and time were transformed once and for all. Once again, furthermore, the classical deities, in this case Jupiter and Apollo, serve a multiple purpose, one of them being to suggest that the Church's view of the Crucifixion as a definitive event is itself a subtle form of paganism.


That it is also a form of wish-fulfillment and self-flattery, with the cosmos and time now dedicated to serving the interests of man, is indicated by Croesus's dream (and of course his interpretation of it). Here again we see how fully the Monk's Tale anticipates the Nun's Priest's Tale, rather than the latter being a "refutation" of the former. The dream provides the license for man's self-pleasing illusions, which in both tales the woman, Phania, Pertelote, criticizes, even if she cannot stop his believing them. As a self-debunking allegory of the Crucifixion, the Croesus story represents the Monk's climactic argument against a providential view of history. What his tale asserts, at least by implication, is that the Crucifixion did not change the course of history or the conditions of human existence, that impenetrable jumble of motives and causes best summed up in the term fortuna .

Fortuna, then, serves the Monk's purpose, as we have seen, in deconstructing a metaphysics or theology of history. As a catchall term for all sorts of political and other factors, it can mean just about anything—or nothing at all. And yet its function in the Monk's Tale is not entirely negative or critical, as I have been arguing. Earlier I made the point that the Monk is a man of literary sophistication, and I suggest that in linking the terms fortune and tragedy he is pointing not only to the Consolation of Philosophy, but also beyond Boethius to classical Roman, specifically Senecan, tragedy as the ultimate source of his tragedies. Thus when he says that he will

        biwaille, in manere of tragedie,
The harm of hem that stoode in heigh degree,
And fillen so that ther nas no remedie
To brynge hem out of hir adversitee.
For certein, whan that Fortune list to flee,
Ther may no man the cours of hire withholde

he is describing in the first place a literary genre in which the protagonist's fall from prosperity may be irreversible but for the audience provides an insight into the conduct of life:

[31] The Host picks up the idea of the irremediable fall in the Monk's definition of tragedy when he seconds the Knight's objections to the Monk's Tale as "of a tragedie / Right now ye herde, and, pardee, no remedie / It is for to biwaille ne compleyne / That that is doon" (2783–86).


Lat no man truste on blynd prosperitee;
Be war by thise ensamples trewe and olde .
                                         (1997–98; my italics)

Just what that insight involves beyond a prudential outlook is so far not clear. It is clear, however, that the tragedies are not an expression of cultural pessimism or despair, any more than the Inferno is.

Thematically, it has been said, the Inferno is the tragic part of the Comedy,[32] and the hypothesis that the Monk's Tale is a "gloss" on this aspect of the canticle once again helps to illuminate both works. I have already suggested a link between the Monk's Tale and Senecan tragedy.[33] Like the Monk's, Seneca's tragedies are at once political and philosophical. Their typical protagonists are conquerors and rulers who, as they extend and consolidate their mastery of the world around them, also show that world, philosophically speaking, to be obedient to man-made laws, to constitute a realm in which human beings can be in control. However, in asserting this distinctively human mastery, the Senecan heroes tend to overreach themselves and forget the fundamental law of their existence: the need for self-mastery, for awareness of limits of various kinds, personal, political, moral. The consequence is a fall whose cause may be ascribed to Fortune, but whose real cause lies within the hero, his need to go beyond the very restraints that his Stoic morality enjoins upon him.

Seneca's tragedies thus exploit a basic tension within Stoicism, between the ideal of human autonomy, on the one hand, and the acceptance of certain transcendent norms, on the other. In his assertion or discovery of an ever-increasing autonomy, the hero comes into conflict with these norms. But the disaster that results does not lead to a theophany that calls into question the idea of human autonomy; instead, it is ascribed to a failure of insight, of political or moral prudence. Senecan tragedy, then, so far from proclaiming

[32] By Contini: "l'Inferno è tematicamente la parte tragica della Commedia ." Cf. "Filologia ed esegesi dantesca," p. 126.

[33] We do not know, of course, what the degree of Chaucer's acquaintance with Seneca's tragedies might have been. I am proceeding on the assumption here that it was fairly extensive, as Boccaccio's clearly was, judging by the numerous citations from various tragedies in the Genealogie deorum gentilium . An article by Renate Haas, "Chaucer's Monk's Tale," sheds considerable light on the question. On the general topic of Chaucer's knowledge of the Roman classics, see Richard L. Hoffman's chapter, "The Influence of the Classics on Chaucer," in Companion to Chaucer Studies, ed. Beryl Rowland. As Haas's article shows, Chaucer scholarship has been much too conservative in its estimate of Chaucer's belesenheit .


man's metaphysical dependence on the gods and the forces over which they preside, reinforces the idea of man's moral accountability and enlarges the empire of his autonomy.

The drama that most completely illustrates this pattern, Hercules Furens, at the same time displays a profound affinity with Dante's Comedy and so supports the theory that Senecan tragedy is the common ground on which the Monk's Tale and the Comedy meet. The play's action begins while Hercules is still in the underworld, performing the final labor imposed upon him by Juno of bringing Cerberus to the upper world. Juno is the first speaker, and with the very fact that the goddess speaks begins a whole series of dramatic ironies that run through the play.

Juno fears that Hercules, having successfully accomplished his mission and exposed the mysteries of Pluto's realm, will, once back on earth, attack the heavens, seize his divine father's sceptre, and "desire to rule in an empty universe" ("vacuo volet / regnare mundo," 67–68). Should Hercules succeed, that would mean the abolition of the gods, including Juno herself (though she has already left heaven because of Jupiter's affairs with other women), and the traditional sanctities. Another way of stating the matter would be to say that like the heroine of Spenser's Mutability Cantos, Hercules threatens a radical demystification of the world, which shows the gods to be superfluous, a purely human invention better replaced by simple categories of reason. That such demystification has already taken place on earth is intimated by Hercules' earthly father, Amphitryon, who speaks after the Chorus has announced the arrival of the new day. He begins, it is true, by praying to Zeus, the "mighty ruler of Olympus, judge of all the world" ("magne Olympi rector et mundi arbiter," 205), for an end to their troubles. But what really troubles him and the earth itself is the continued absence of his son, the great subduer of monsters:

                 orbe defenso caret.
sensere terrae pacis auctorem suae
abesse. rursus prosperum ac felix scelus
virtus vocatur; sontibus parent boni,
ius est in armis, opprimit leges timor.

(He is absent from the world which he defended.  All the
earth has felt that the giver of its peace is lost to it.  Once
again prosperous and successful crime goes by the name of


virtue; good men obey the bad, might is right, and fear
oppresses law.)[34]

And Amphitryon concludes by lamenting the present situation of Thebes, where Lycus, taking advantage of the absence of Hercules, has slain Creon and usurped his throne:

                quis satis Thebas fleat?
ferax deorum terra, quem dominum tremis?
 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
cuiusque muros natus Amphion Iove
struxit canoro saxa modulatu trahens,
in cuius urbem non semel divum parens
caelo relicto venit, haec quae caelites
recepit et quae fecit et (fas sit loqui)
fortasse faciet, sordido premitur iugo.

(Who could lament Thebes enough? O land, fertile in
gods, before what lord dost thou tremble now? . . . whose
walls Jove's son, Amphion, built, drawing its stones by his
tuneful melodies—to which not once alone came the
father of the gods, quitting the sky—this city, which has
welcomed the gods and has created gods and (may the
word be lawful) perchance will yet create them, is
oppressed by a shameful yoke.)

The dependent status of the gods, their fundamental irrelevance, even, to earthly affairs, could scarcely be stated more forcefully.

It is in the speeches of Megara, the wife of Hercules, and in Theseus's account of his journey, with Hercules, through the underworld, that the most striking parallels with Dante's otherworld pilgrimage appear.[35] And though there are three separate judges to

[34] Seneca, Tragedies, I, trans. Frank Justus Miller, p. 23 (trans. slightly modified).

[35] In many ways, of course, Hercules is an antitype of Dante-the-pilgrim, since he pursues his way through the underworld by dint of sheer muscular force. But there is an interesting parallel between the two when they cross one of the rivers in Hell. The Pilgrim's physical weight weighs down Phlegyas's bark crossing Lethe (Inf . VIII.27). When Hercules climbs aboard, "cumba populorum capax / succubuit uni; sidit et gravior ratis / utrimque Lethen latere titubanti bibit," "The craft, ample for whole nations, sinks low beneath one man" (776–78). Hercules' encounter with Geryon, a giant shepherd in Spain, is repeatedly referred to in the Hercules Furens . The question of Dante's knowledge of Seneca the moralist and the tragedian—these were sometimes thought to be distinct persons—has been debated over the years. There is a convenient summary by Ettore Paratore in his article on Seneca in the Enciclopedia Dantesca . With qualifications, Paratore concludes that Dante had firsthand knowledge of the tragedies, as well as of the essays and epistles, and thought of their author as one person.


pass sentence on the sinners in the underworld, the actual principle of punishment is the thoroughly Dantean (and shall we say Stoic?) contrapasso . As Theseus expresses it:

quod quisque fecit, patitur; auctorem scelus
repetit suoque premitur exemplo nocens.

(What each has done, he suffers; upon its author the
crime comes back and the guilty soul is crushed by its own
form of guilt.)

This underworld principle, especially in the phrasing of the Loeb translation—a more literal one might be "the offender is oppressed by his own example"—looks a lot like Dante's contrapasso, the term used by Bertrand de Born at Inferno XXVIII.142. In his note on this line Singleton observes that contrapasso is "often cited in discussion of the principle on which he [i.e., Dante] conceived the punishments of Hell," and he renders it as "retribution" (Mandelbaum has the more interesting "law of counterpenalty"). Seneca's, or Theseus's, formula comes a lot closer, in my opinion, to what Dante had in mind, namely, that the crime, or sin, is its own punishment by the way it distorts the human image here on earth. It is in this radical sense that I would interpret the idea of contrapasso throughout the Inferno, a matter I will discuss further in the next chapter.

Theseus's contrapasso formula also anticipates the conclusion of the Hercules Furens . In the blind fury aroused in him by Juno,[36] Hercules killed his wife and children, thinking he was avenging Lycus's treachery during his absence. Now, when he awakens from his madness and realizes what he has done, he is ready to kill himself. His father, Amphitryon, threatens suicide should Hercules kill himself and at length persuades him to live. In allowing himself to be so persuaded, Hercules takes upon himself the ultimate burden of a moral autonomy whereby the individual is left to judge himself and, if possible, also to forgive himself. In Villy Sørensen's words, "The greatest labour of Hercules is left: to live like Hercules."[37]

[36] At the beginning of the play Juno had proclaimed that she would cause Hercules to make war with himself: "bella iam secum gerat" (85).

[37] See Villy Sørensen, Seneca: The Humanist at the Court of Nero, trans. W. Glyn Jones (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 262. Amphitryon is the one who advises Hercules of the need to forgive himself: "Memoranda potius omnibus facta intuens / unius a te criminis veniam pete," "rather think upon thy deeds glorious to all, and seek from thyself pardon for one sin" (1265–66).


Now, the Monk's tragedy of Hercules does not fit very precisely into the pattern of Hercules Furens . There are various reasons for this. One, as was noted earlier, is that the Monk deliberately juxtaposes and parallels Hercules' tragedy with Samson's in order, once again, to undermine the biblical notion of history and thus remove God from the endless conflicts among tribes, nations, and dynasties. Samson is betrayed by "his lemman Dalida" (2063) and placed on an equal plane with that "noble champioun" Hercules, who is treated as a historical figure—"in his tyme of strengthe he was the flour" (2097)—and likewise falls because of a "lemman . . . / That highte Dianira, fressh as May" (2119–20).[38] In fact, judging by the conclusions the Monk draws from their respective stories, he considers Hercules the more admirable hero. "Beth war by this ensample oold and playn," he says of Samson, "that no men telle hir conseil til hir wyves" (2091–92). As for Hercules, he concludes:

Ful wys is he that kan hymselven knowe!
Beth war, for whan that Fortune list to glose,
Thanne wayteth she her man to overthrowe
By swich a wey as he wolde leest suppose.

Possibly the Monk considers that the tragedy of two such entirely physical heroes cannot be taken with complete seriousness, but that would be an unlikely judgment from one who is himself such a "manly man, to been an abbot able" (I.167). It also lacks plausibility on other grounds, for the Monk parallels his heroes in a further, surprising way: both, he says, commit suicide. In the Senecan and tragic economy of his tale this means that they are not trivial figures but, on the contrary, are animated by a genuine heroic spirit prepared to assert its freedom and what the Stoics called autopragía, self-determination,[39] at all costs. That Samson killed himself is bluntly

[38] "But nathelees somme clerkes hire excusen / By oon that highte Nessus, that it [i.e., the poisoned shirt] maked. / Be as be may, I wol hir noght accusen" (2127–29). I have already remarked on these "clerkes" made to look like biblical commentators. Samson and Hercules were regularly paired in biblical exegesis of the Middle Ages. The exegetes were intent on assimilating the classical hero to biblical history and Christian truth; the Monk juxtaposes the two heroes without any "exegetical" guidelines. For a brief account, see F. Michael Krouse, Milton's Samson and the Christian Tradition, p. 44f.

[39] For this term, see Miriam T. Griffin, Seneca: A Philosopher in Politics, p. 379. For a thorough and judicious discussion of Seneca's views on suicide, see pp. 369–88.


stated twice (2022, 2086), over against such authorities as Augustine and Aquinas, who regard it as an act ordered by God.[40] Hercules' case is slightly more complex; when he puts on the shirt of Nessus,

        his flessh was for the venym blaked.
And whan he saugh noon oother remedye,
In hoote coles he hath hymselven raked,
For with no venym deigned hym to dye.

Thus starf this worthy, myghty Hercules.

One's first reaction might be to suspect humorous intent in these lines, but on reflection they prove to point up the perfectly serious paradox in the idea of tragedy with which the Monk is concerned in his tale. We saw that the fall of the tragic hero has "no remedie" (1993), and that is precisely the predicament of Hercules in his poisoned shirt. Yet at that very moment he displays his autonomy or autopragía by choosing that he will die, and how, in other words, by finding a "remedy" where to all appearances there was none. This is the way of the Senecan tragic hero, like the Hercules of Hercules Oetaeus, like the historical Cato and Socrates—and like Seneca himself, as the Monk demonstrates, though rather ambiguously, in the tragedy of Nero. There Nero condemns Seneca to bleed to death in a bath,

But natheless this Seneca the wise
Chees in a bath to dye in this manere
Rather than han another tormentise;
And thus hath Nero slayn his maister deere.
                                             (2515–19; my italics)

In the Hercules Oetaeus, similarly, Hercules, who is already dying from Nessus's poison, nonetheless orders a pyre to be prepared for him so he will die by his own choice rather than by a woman's hand (1176ff.).

But the Monk's statement "with no venym deigned hym to dye" may well involve another, more sublime Senecan allusion, to the essay "On Providence" and its enthusiastic praise of Cato's suicide.

[40] For Augustine, see The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods (New York: Modern Library, 1950), I.26 (p. 31); for Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II,ii, ques. 64, art. 5, par. 4; and Krouse, Milton's Samson and the Christian Tradition, pp. 37ff.


One grisly detail of that encomium rather strikingly parallels Hercules' disdain for death by poison:

I am sure that the gods looked on with exceeding joy while that hero, most ruthless in avenging himself, took thought for the safety of others and arranged the escape of his departing followers; while even on the last night he pursued his studies; while he drove the sword into his sacred breast; while he scattered his vitals, and drew forth by his hand that holiest spirit, too noble to be defiled by the steel [indignam quae ferro contaminaretur ].[41]

In similar fashion, Hercules on the pyre "rather burns than is burned," as Eugene Waith puts it; or, as Philoctetes says, "The one enemy on earth which he had not o'ercome, e'en fire, is vanquished."[42]

The title of Seneca's essay might strike the reader as contradictory to my thesis that both the Monk's Tale and the Comedy draw on Seneca, especially Senecan tragedy, to "refute" a providential view of history. Beginning with the importance the essay ascribes to suicide, however, everything points to the conclusion that Seneca's version of Stoic providentia is a far cry indeed from the biblical-Christian notion of a divine Providence working in history, in fact that there is very little but the name they share. Let us consider the opening of the passage in which Cato's suicide is praised:

But lo! here is a spectacle worthy of the regard of God as he contemplates his works; lo! here a contest worthy of God,—a brave man matched against ill-fortune, and doubly so if his also was the challenge. I do not know, I say, what nobler sight the Lord of Heaven could find on earth, should he wish to turn his attention there, than the spectacle of Cato, after his cause had already been shattered more than once, nevertheless standing erect amid the ruins of the commonwealth. "Although," said he, "all the world has fallen under one man's sway, although Caesar's legions guard the land, his fleets the sea, and Caesar's troops beset the city gates, yet Cato has a way of escape; with one single hand he will open a wide path to freedom. This sword, unstained and blameless even in civil war, shall at last do good and noble service: the freedom which it could not give to his country it shall give to Cato! Essay, my soul, the task long planned; deliver yourself from human affairs. Already Petreius and Juba have met and lie fallen, each slain

[41] De Providentia in Seneca, Moral Essays, trans. John W. Basore, vol. l, p. 13 (my italics; the Latin in brackets at the end is closer to the Monk's wording than the translation).

[42] "Quod unum in orbe vicerat nondum malum, / et flamma victa est" (Hercules Oetaeus, ll. 1614–15). For Waith's statement, see The Herculean Hero in Marlowe, Chapman, Shakespeare, and Dryden, p. 37.


by the other's hand. Their compact with Fate was brave and noble, but for my greatness such would be unfit. For Cato it were as ignoble to beg death from any man as to beg life."[43]

The scene pictured by Seneca illustrates perfectly the Stoic vision of providential order. The gods are present, guarding the cosmic structure and its workings. Within the structure, which is a kind of vast theater,[44] there is the arena of human politics and history—humanae res —where the fight goes on. Here the gods are mere spectators. They may be impressed, diverted, disgusted, or whatever, by what they see. But in any case they will not intervene to ensure an outcome that accords with one or another principle of morality. The specifically providential element, then, that human beings have to be thankful for is—aside from the stability of the cosmic theater—that they have been endowed with the moral and intellectual capacity to suffer, endure, and learn, and—this is the point Seneca returns to at the very end of his essay—to make a voluntary exit from the world stage if all else fails.[45]

The act of suicide could thus be considered a kind of emblem or cornerstone of Seneca's philosophic, that is, fundamentally tragic, vision. We should not, of course, speak of suicide in this absolute way, as if there were only one kind. As Cicero observes in his praise of Cato's suicide, differences in character are of such force "that suicide may be for one man a duty, for another [under the same circumstances] a crime."[46] In a very general way, we might differentiate between a noble or tragic suicide and an ignoble kind, depending on whether or not it is carried out in the name of a moral or political principle, like the opposition to tyranny that motivated Cato's suicide.[47]

I believe it is no exaggeration to say that especially in the Inferno suicide is a much more pervasive theme than is generally recognized.

[43] De Providentia, pp. 11–13.

[44] A theater that, as Seneca says toward the end of his essay, "rejoices in the spectacle of itself," "mundus . . . spectaculo sui laetus" (p. 44).

[45] In tragedies like Hercules Furens the gods still appear to have their archaic ("Homeric") role in human affairs, but in reality, as we saw, they are subjected to a consistent demythologizing that points up all the more clearly the purely human (and tragic) responsibility of creating whatever order and justice might be on earth.

[46] De Officiis, Loeb ed., pp. 114, 115.

[47] Stoics like Seneca were greatly concerned about the circumstances that might justify suicide; see Miriam T. Griffin, Seneca, pp. 376ff.


Arguably, the residents of hell have committed a kind of spiritual or psychic suicide—this is how I would interpret the Dantean contrapasso in its full, radical sense—and thus in their own way they have answered the question that arises at the beginning of the poem, when the Pilgrim is lost and terrified in the dark forest: Is life really worth living? The resemblance between the selva oscura of canto I and the mesta selva of the suicides in canto XIII is surely no coincidence. The residents of the latter forest carried out what the Pilgrim contemplated and what the other residents did to themselves in symbolic rather than expressly physical fashion.

Startling is the variety of perspectives in which the reader of the Comedy comes to see the subject of suicide. There is no question of the horror inspired by the pathless wood with its black leaves and harpies and the branch that bleeds and speaks to the Pilgrim, who broke it off. But the story told by the branch arouses intense compassion, so that the Pilgrim must depend on Virgil to ask the questions to which he seeks an answer. Gone is the sense of an utterly alien horror, nor does Pier della Vigna's story create a sense of the violence (forza ) against the self that earns him a place, in accord with Virgil's infernal classification (XI.28ff.), below the violent against neighbors and above the violent against God (blasphemers). Then there is Cato, who has been placed in charge of Purgatory and gruffly questions the pilgrims wanting to enter. His position, his appearance, and Virgil's deference to him suggest that he represents an ideal in the Comedy that is intimately connected with Dante's entire conception of Purgatory (which, as is well known, is almost entirely original with him). That this ideal is epitomized by Cato's suicide is evident from Virgil's words explaining the reason for Dante's appearance in the flesh:

libertà va cercando, ch'è si cara,
come sa chi per lei vita rifiuta.
Tu 'l sai, ché non ti fu per lei amara
in Utica la morte, ove lasciasti
la vesta ch'al gran dì sarà si chiara.

(he goes in search of liberty—so precious,
as he who gives his life for it must know.
You know it—who, in Utica, found death


for freedom was not bitter, when you left
the garb that will be bright on the great day.)[48]

What is curious here is that the freedom Virgil sees as the goal of the Pilgrim's journey through Purgatory is hardly the same as that which the souls in Purgatory are seeking to attain. Their goal, in Singleton's terms, is "freedom from the stains of sin" (n. to l. 66), and this freedom is made to appear strictly instrumental, a means by which souls can make the transition to another, better place. Thus the poet announces, at the start of the Purgatorio,

        canterò di quel secondo regno
dove l'umano spirito si purga
e di salire al ciel diventa degno.

(I will sing of that second realm where the human spirit is
purged and becomes fit to ascend to heaven. [S])

And Statius, to give another example, explains the shaking of the mountain of Purgatory as a sign that a soul has completed its penitential climb and is now ready to move on:

Tremaci quando alcuna anima monda
sentesi, sì che surga o che si mova
per salir sù.

(It trembles here when some soul feels itself pure so that it
may rise or set out for the ascent. [S])

Cato's suicide, on the other hand, and the freedom it asserts (rather than seeks), is not a way of transcending the past or history, not a way of reaching a higher stage or state of being. Rather, it is a fully historical act by which, as Seneca's praise of it indicates, the individual preserves his dignity and nobility, his autonomy and freedom in a personal as well as a political sense.

Cato, I suggest, represents a "Senecan" subtext in the Purgatorio, which subverts the notion of an otherworld Purgatory as a stage in

[48] Elsewhere in this speech Virgil makes explicit what remains implicit in the Inferno : "Questi non vide mai l'ultima sera; / ma per la sua follia le fu sì presso, / che molto poco tempo a volger era," "This man had yet to see his final evening; / but, through his folly, little time was left / before he did—he was so close to it" (58–60). It appears that Dante's motives for suicide were not noble in the manner of a Cato.


the soul's ascent to Heaven. Instead, this subtext helps us to see the Purgatorio as parallel to the Inferno in its examination of the human scene, but from a vastly different perspective. The residents of Hell, I suggested earlier, are viewed as having committed suicide in one way or another. In the Inferno, that is to say, sin means that by a moral choice individuals have abandoned or utterly disfigured their human image. But in the Purgatorio sin is not viewed in this final, "suicidal" perspective; instead, it is seen as an inescapable aspect of historical existence for which the sinner can repent and render a kind of compensation, even as he attempts to regain the integrity of his image.

The parallelism between Inferno and Purgatorio is well brought out in an observation by Jacques Le Goff in his study of the history of Purgatory:

[Dante's] Purgatory is indeed the place where sins are expiated, but Dante seems at least partly to have neglected the teachings of the theologians on this score. The sins expiated in Dante's Purgatory are not venial sins, about which the poet has little to say save perhaps for an allusion to excessive love for one's own kin, one of the "slight" sins mentioned by Augustine. Essentially, the sins purged on the seven cornices of Dante's Purgatory are the seven capital sins, the same sins punished in Hell. Dante, who always kept the underlying logic of Purgatory in view, clearly saw it as a Hell of limited duration. It is a reprise, in a minor key, of the infernal torments appropriate to each class of sin.[49]

But if Dante's is "a Hell of limited duration," it is a hell with a difference. To quote once more from Le Goff's chapter on the Comedy :

If I am right in thinking that Dante more than anyone else made Purgatory the intermediate region of the other world, then it follows that he rescued Purgatory from the infernalization to which the Church subjected it in the thirteenth century. Dante was in a sense more orthodox than the Church, more faithful to Purgatory's underlying logic. He depicts Purgatory as a place between two extremes, but closer to one of them, straining in the

[49] Jacques Le Goff, The Birth of Purgatory, p. 341. The remainder of this last sentence reads: "with this difference: the sinners in Purgatory have sinned less gravely than those in Hell, whether because they have partly effaced their sin by repentance and penance, or because they were less inveterate sinners, or because their sins were mere blemishes on lives otherwise animated by the love of God." My suggestion is that it is not the gravity of the sin that is different but the perspective from which it is viewed.


direction of Paradise. For him it is a place of hope, of initiation into joy, of gradual emergence into the light.
(P. 346)

Its character as "intermediate region" and "place of hope" makes Dante's Purgatory an apt analogue of the historical world, especially when we add to this the fact that in this canticle time is the absolutely dominant dimension. And there is yet another factor noted by Le Goff that, to my mind, decisively points Purgatory in the direction of history. That is the emphasis on the will as crucial to the process—it should rather be called the "drama"—of purgation. Le Goff cites Statius's explanation of the quake that shook Mount Purgatory, from which I have already quoted, to illustrate his point:

De la mondizia sol voler fa prova,
che, tutto libero a mutar convento,
l'alma sorprende, e di voler le giova.

(Of its [i.e., the soul's] purity the will alone gives proof,
which takes by surprise the soul, wholly free now to
change its convent, and avails it to will.  [S])

The statement that the individual will is the "proof" of the soul's purity, it seems to me, effectively distances the idea of purgation from notions of sin as defilement and impurity and moves it closer to the world of Senecan tragedy, where the soul is tutto libero a mutar convento, that is, entirely free to change its dwelling place in Cato's fashion.[50] I am not saying, to be sure, that that is the primary meaning of Dante's phrase—Singleton, ad loc., interprets convento as referring to Purgatory and Paradise respectively—but the wording seems sufficiently ambiguous to permit of just such an overtone. In any case, however, even as an "eschatological" moment that takes the soul by surprise, it depends to a surprising degree on that soul's act of the will.

Cato, then, seems to me an ideal link between the two worlds of the Inferno and the Purgatorio, looking back to the one where suicide in its various forms is apparently final, and looking forward to the other, where suicide, like every other human act, is to be judged morally, to be sure, but by a morality aware of its limitations, aware

[50] On this whole complex of ideas, see the analysis by Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil, especially sec. 1, ch. 1, "Defilement," pp. 25–46.


of the sheer complexity of human existence.[51] And it is here, I suggest, that the Monk's Tale is perfectly in tune with the Purgatorio 's perspective. Earlier, I spoke of Samson's, Hercules', and, more ambiguously, Seneca's, suicides as indicating a tragic heroism (in the Senecan manner). But in fact the Monk leaves the judgment of these suicides up to his audience, and this is not a matter of his moral indifference, his willingness to treat his protagonists as so many "cases," but an implicit acknowledgment that moral judgment, though perhaps inescapable, will always be inadequate.

Most interesting in this connection is the tragedy of Nero, who is characterized at the very outset as no less than satanic:

Although that Nero were as vicius
As any feend that lith ful lowe adoun,
Yet he, as telleth us Swetonius,
This wyde world hadde in subjeccioun,
Bothe est and west, [south], and septemtrioun.

Morally, the Monk tells us, Nero is no better than a fiend in hell, and yet this is, we must remind ourselves, his tragedy. In what sense, we ask, can it be a tragedy and Nero a tragic protagonist? Is the Monk not serious after all, but playing with the idea of tragedy as Fortune does with Nero, when first she "as his freend hym wolde obeye" (2478) and in the end "lough, and hadde a game" (2550) after Nero has killed himself? A degree of playfulness, even frivolity—though at the expense of abstractions presuming to explain the course of history—must be conceded to the Monk, and this Fortune provides a particularly good example of such an abstraction in its mythological guise. Midway through the Nero story she decides to behave as she is supposed to behave in the Boethian scheme, that is, in the service of a superior morality to which in another, popular, sense she is a total stranger:

Now fil it so that Fortune liste no lenger
The hye pryde of Nero to cherice,
For though that he were strong, yet was she strenger.

[51] This point is nicely dramatized, I think, at the very beginning of the Purgatorio, in canto II, with Casella's song ("amoroso canto " [106]), which earns Cato's rebuke but is surely outside any specifically moral framework. (In addition to being a canto, Casella's are also note [119], a term we have also seen Dante apply to his own poem!)


She thoughte thus, "By God! I am to nyce
To sette a man that is fulfild of vice
In heigh degree, and emperour hym calle.
By God, out of his sete I wol hym trice;
Whan he leest weneth, sonnest shal he falle."

Naturally, the Monk loses no time in deconstructing this Fortune by in effect equating her with the Roman populace, which, in the very next stanza, decides to rebel:

The peple roos upon hym on a nyght
For his defaute, and whan he it espied,
Out of his dores anon he hath hym dight
Allone, and ther he wende han been allied,
He knokked faste, and ay the moore he cried,
The fastere shette they the dores alle.
Tho wiste he wel, he hadde himself mysgyed,
And wente his wey; no lenger dorste he calle.
The peple cried and rombled up and doun,
That with his erys herde he how they seyde,
"Where is this false tiraunt, this Neroun?"
For fere almoost out of his wit he breyde,
And to his goddes pitously he preyde
For socour, but it myghte nat bityde.
For drede of this hym thoughte that he deyde,
And ran into a gardyn hym to hyde.

I cite both stanzas because they seem to me an extraordinary feat of narration, which manages to convey simultaneously the atmosphere of the rebellion and Nero's changing states of mind: his fear, his sudden recognition that he is alone, his terror leading to his thoroughly uncharacteristic prayer to his gods, his decision to hide in the garden. The climactic change, a sudden reversal, really, occurs in the last stanza when, instead of hiding, Nero wants to be killed:

And in this gardyn foond he cherles tweye
That seten by a fyr, greet and reed.

[52] I want to raise once more the possibility of a "Seneca connection." The Roman court tragedy Octavia, usually attributed to Seneca but obviously not by him, is a striking analogue of the Nero episode. In Octavia, the people's rebellion against Nero—admittedly a part of the account from Suetonius on—is given the same sort of prominence as in the Monk's Tale. The role of the people begins with the Chorus's call for the overthrow of the emperor, ll. 686ff. Seneca also appears in the play in the role of a well-intentioned but ineffectual counselor to Nero.


And to thise cherles two he gan to preye
To sleen hym and to girden of his heed,
That to his body, whan that he were deed,
Were no despit ydoon for his defame.
Hymself he slow, he koude no bettre reed,
Of which Fortune lough . . .

The enigmatic, sinister picture of the "cherles" sitting in apparent silence by the big fire strikes me as magnificently "Dantean" in its miniaturist's skill of creating the most powerful suggestions with a tiny scene and the simplest details. Nero's request to have his head cut off, out of what seems a confused desire to save his body from mutilation, is doubly ironic in view of the "pitous aray" he put his mother in, "For he hire wombe slitte to biholde / Where he conceyved was" (2483–85), but it fits with the theme of suicide we have been pursuing. However paradoxical, Nero's concern for the (partial) integrity of his body in death accords with a heroic or tragic suicide, which is about the preservation of one's human image, though not primarily in the physical sense of that phrase.[53]

Despite its dismissive ring, therefore, Hymself he slow, he koude no bettre reed, must in light of the Monk's Senecan perspective be taken as a grudging concession of respect. I am not claiming that Nero's is to be regarded as on a par with Cato's or Samson's or even Hercules' suicide. But I believe it is presented as sufficient to make even the fiendish Nero into a tragic hero, somewhat in the manner of Shakespeare's Macbeth, in that both acknowledge responsibility for what they have done and pass judgment on themselves.

The point seems to gain support from a curious feature in the account of Nero's death: the garden where he first thinks to hide from the angry mob and then asks the two churls to kill him. In the Roman de la Rose, generally considered the primary source of the Nero story, it is an orchard (vergier, l. 6436) where Nero seeks refuge with two of his slaves. The change to a garden seems designed to evoke an echo of the gospel stories of Jesus' retreat to a garden (hortus, John 18.1) shortly before the Crucifixion; in three of the gospels he expresses great fear and foreboding and prays, "O my

[53] The primary source of the Nero segment is the Roman de la Rose, ll. 6450f., where it is clear that Nero wants his head cut off so his body will not be recognized; see Robert K. Root, in Bryan and Dempster, Sources and Analogues, pp. 621 and 640. In Suetonius, Nero is concerned about preserving the integrity of his head and asks to be cremated completely; see C. L. Roth, ed. C. Suetonii Tranquilli Quae Supersunt Omnia, p. 196.


Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me" (Matthew 26.39). This, I suggest, may be reflected in Nero's fear and praying; the remainder of the scene with the churls and the great fire (Purgatorial?) might recall the variant account, in John's gospel, of Jesus in the garden going directly to meet Judas and his band of soldiers by the fitful light of their "lanterns and torches" (John 18.3).

The same gospel narrative notes that when he stepped toward Judas, Jesus knew "all things that should come upon him" (18.4). One might conclude, as the Monk does with Samson, that Jesus' death was also a form of suicide. In any case, however, it should be clear by now that for the Monk suicide of the kind we have been discussing involves not merely a sacrifice for the sake of a greater good, but also the affirmation of the human image in the dimension of its autonomy and freedom. That such an affirmation is also a commitment to the inescapable moral ambiguity of human existence—especially in its "historical" aspect—is again, I believe, made clear in the Nero story. I am thinking in particular of the ironies that play around the character of Seneca, who, as we saw earlier, threatens to steal the show from Nero. He is introduced in terms that echo the description of Hercules:

In yowthe a maister hadde this emperour
To teche hym letterure and curteisye,
For of moralitee he was the flour,
As in his tyme,  but if bookes lye.
                                    (2495–99; my italics)[54]

A kind of culture hero in the moral realm, he achieved in later centuries, when people still knew that books do not lie, the apotheosis of an unquestioned auctorite . There is, therefore, more than a touch of irony in the spectacle of the learned "maister" for all his "maistrye" going down to inevitable defeat before his political master. Seneca's program of moral education, the wording suggests, not only was doomed from the start but might even have contributed to the viciousness his imperial pupil eventually displayed:

And whil this maister hadde of hym maistrye,
He maked hym so konnyng and so sowple

[54] With the italicized portion, compare this about Hercules: "For in his tyme of strengthe he was the flour" (2097). In Limbo (Inf . IV.141) he appears as Seneca morale .


That longe tyme it was er tirannye
Or any vice dorste on hym uncowple.

In retrospect, at least, a character that is "konnyng" and "sowple," even without their modern overtones, has ominous possibilities.[55] And those dogs implied in that last image will be all the more vicious for the control Seneca temporarily exercised over them. In the next stanza the Monk underscores the bathos of a moral stance in the context of political tyranny:

This Seneca, of which that I devyse,
By cause Nero hadde of hym swich drede,
For he fro vices wolde hym ay chastise
Discreetly, as by word and nat by dede—
"Sire," wolde he seyn, "an emperour moot nede
Be vertuous and hate tirannye—"
For which he in a bath made hym to blede
On bothe his armes, til he moste dye.

The brutal irony here is yet again in the service of demonstrating the total incommensurability of moral ideals and historical experience. But such a formulation itself involves an unnecessary and ultimately false antithesis. The Monk's Tale affirms moral ambiguity as a basic fact of existence, so that there can be no question of a coincidence of real and ideal, only the attempt to bring about an approximation of the two.

The Monk's Tale thus represents, I would say, an emphatic repudiation of any system of otherworld justice as something that does violence to the fabric of human existence. Now, in this, the reader will note, it goes not so much counter to the Comedy as simply one radical step further. For in the Comedy, as I have been arguing, Dante constantly deconstructs the very system he is creating. Nonetheless, for Dante the otherworld is still a valid fiction for coming to terms with life—and death. One reason, presumably, for its validity is that it is necessary to make moral judgments even if we recognize that these are fictions, since our knowledge is always partial and incomplete and human reality is constantly changing. Thus we have, in the Inferno, the fiction of Pier della Vigna, self-condemned in the

[55] "Konnyng" means "skilled, knowledgeable" in ME; in the General Prologue the Monk is said to have "bootes souple" (I.203).


forest of suicides. To Pier, I believe, the Monk opposes the example of Seneca in the Nero story, less as a corrective than as an alternative interpretation of Pier's kind of suicide.

Before examining this possibility, I will discuss another instance of Dantean self-deconstruction that occurs just before the Ugolino episode and, like it, bears directly on the theme of moral ambiguity in the Comedy . My reason for doing so here is that I suspect the reader will have most trouble with this part of my argument, which is yet central to the purpose of this chapter, namely, to demonstrate the intimate intertextuality between the Inferno and the Monk's Tale.

The scene I will discuss is the curiously brutal one between the Pilgrim and Bocca degli Abati in Inferno XXXII. Bocca is in the ring Antenora of the ninth circle, one of the "traitors to homeland or party," who are stuck up to their necks in ice. As he walks along the Pilgrim deliberately kicks this spirit in the face, who

Piangendo mi sgridò: "Perché mi peste?
se tu non vieni a crescer la vendetta
di Montaperti, perché mi moleste?"

(Weeping, . . . chided then: "Why trample me?
If you've not come to add to the revenge
of Montaperti, why do you molest me?")

The Pilgrim tells his maestro Virgil to wait for him while he clears up a "doubt," which turns out to be the question of Bocca's identity. To this Bocca replies with a question of his own, and here I cite the remainder of the episode so far as it concerns my argument:

"Or tu chi se' che vai per l'Antenora,
percotendo," rispuose, "altrui le gote,
sì che, se fossi vivo, troppo fora?"
"Vivo son io, e caro esser ti puote,"
fu mia risposta, "se dimandi fama,
ch'io metta il nome tuo tra l'altre note."
Ed elli a me: "Del contrario ho io brama.
Lèvati quinci e non mi dar più lagna,
ché mal sai lusingar per questa lama!"
Allor lo presi per la cuticagna
e dissi: "El converrà che tu ti nomi,
o che capel qui sù non ti rimagna."
Ond' elli a me: "Perché tu mi dischiomi,
né ti dirò ch'io sia, né mosterrolti
se mille fiate in sul capo mi tomi."


Io avea già i capelli in mano avvolti,
e tratti glien' avea più d'una ciocca,
latrando lui con li occhi in giù raccolti,
quando un altro gridò: "Che hai tu, Bocca?
non ti basta sonar con le mascelle,
se tu non latri? qual diavol ti tocca?"

("And who are you who go through Antenora,
striking the cheeks of others," he replied,
"too roughly—even if you were alive?"
"I am alive, and can be precious to you
if you want fame," was my reply, "for I
can set your name among my other notes."
And he to me: "I want the contrary;
so go away and do not harass me—
your flattery is useless in this valley."
At that I grabbed him by the scruff and said:
"You'll have to name yourself to me or else
you won't have even one hair left up here."
And he to me: "Though you should strip me bald,
I shall not tell you who I am or show it,
not if you pound my head a thousand times."
His hairs were wound around my hand already,
and I had plucked from him more than one tuft
while he was barking and his eyes stared down,
when someone else cried out: "What is it, Bocca?
Isn't the music of your jaws enough
for you without your bark? What devil's at you?")

Commentators have been delighted with the irony of Bocca's companion betraying his name but, perhaps as a consequence, have over-looked the unwitting accuracy of his question, "qual diavol ti tocca?" In this entire episode the Pilgrim behaves like a devil, and the poet is almost reckless in the way he inverts the expected moral order so that the despised traitors seem possessed of a humanity—for all the insistence on their doglikeness—that is largely absent from the Pilgrim.

There are of course various explanations for the Pilgrim's behavior. One of them is that toward such sinners as he faces in the ninth circle one can only be brutal.[56] Another possibility is that the Pilgrim is spiritually exhausted after his long descent through hell, with its endless spectacle of human depravity, and so not fully in command

[56] About his conduct to Fra Alberigo the Pilgrim says, "it was courtesy to show him rudeness" (XXXIII.150).


of his emotions. These and other explanations doubtless have a certain validity, but I do not think that they get to the heart of the matter. Above all, they miss the poetic crux of the passage, namely, that a distinction that elsewhere in the Comedy is carefully maintained breaks down here. I am referring to the distinction between Pilgrim and Poet. With the boast that he is alive and can confer fame on Bocca by setting his name "tra l'altra note" (93), the Pilgrim suddenly identifies himself as the author in the process of gathering "material" for the poem he is writing.

This interpretation obviously hinges on the term note . Translators like Mandelbaum translate it as "notes"; others, like Singleton and Sinclair, make a verb of it: "that I note your name among the rest." Obviously sensing a difficulty, Singleton glosses "tra l'altre note" rather elaborately as "In the book of my memory where this journey is recorded." I am arguing that note refers to the poem that Chaucer correctly perceived as Dante's own "house of fame" (see chapter 2). The point receives support from the Geryon passage in Inferno XVI that was discussed in chapter 3. In that passage, it will be recalled, the Poet swears to the truth of his vision of the monster "per le note / di questa comedìa" (127–28). The author retrospectively—and quite comically!—vouches for the "truth" of what, as pilgrim, he experienced, by the (poetic) record he has made of it. Here, then, poet and pilgrim are kept distinct, though not altogether securely so, since note can be taken in a self-referential sense as the "musical notes," "strains" of the Comedy, which as such make no claim to any truth that is external or anterior to them.

In the Bocca episode, however, the fiction of the two Dantes is deliberately exploded as the poet-pilgrim insists on getting Bocca into his poem, name and all, by any means. Now, one reason for this is to make the obvious enough point—pace Singleton and his followers—that the poem is not the record of a past experience on which the poet is now looking back. The much more important reason seems to me an admission by the poet of something that has been implicit from the start in his otherworld fiction, namely that the imaginative construction of a hell—for fellow human beings!—however nobly motivated it may be by a yearning for justice, is ultimately an act of violence, of vengefulness, involving a risk to one's very humanity, hence the question qual diavol ti tocca ? is by no means without its justification.


All of this, to be sure, is conveyed in a scene of grotesque comedy, even farce, in which the expected values are rudely inverted: a pitiless, vicious Dante over against a weeping sinner, who with a certain dignity and justice rebukes Dante for his absurd and, in the circumstances, pathetic offer of fame. What the offer suggests, if only momentarily, is not that the poem exists for the sake of exploring the awful mystery of human evil but rather that the evil, and its mystery, exist for the sake of the poem. But it is the violence that most emphatically marks the scene as farce. The kick in the face and the threat to pull out all the hair from his skull are absurd when we consider that the intended victim is a disembodied spirit. To be sure, Dante's otherworld is constructed on the allegorical premise that physical events have moral and spiritual correlatives, but the present scene is unlike others in the Inferno in that the Pilgrim's violence appears to be gratuitous, that is, allegorically inconsequential, and transgresses the boundary separating living flesh and blood from the dead souls—a boundary that is crossed regularly by speech, however.

These "violations" of the poem's fictive premises draw special attention to the Pilgrim, who, as was said, is stepping out of his established role and into that of the poet, or rather of the person who somehow encompasses the roles of both poet and pilgrim. As a result, the Inferno becomes in a peculiar way the poet-pilgrim's confession. Not just that many if not all the sins represented, analyzed, and punished there are also his, but that the very act of imagining and transcribing his vision of hell has been an expression of his rage, vindictiveness, pride, pettiness, murderous violence, to name but a few of the more questionable motives.

The episode, then, brings out what I have been emphasizing all along, namely, that Dante's epic is an intensely personal poem which, for all the philosophical, theological, literary, and other authorities it invokes, represents an individual vision with all the moral ambiguity that necessarily attaches to such an enterprise. And with that we return to the question of suicide as treated through the "vignettes" of Pier della Vigna (Inf . XIII), Seneca (in the Nero tragedy), and Cato (Purg . I and II). I list the three in this order because it seems possible to see the Monk's Seneca as a fairly precise median between the two extremes of the damned Pier and the glorified Cato. Like Pier, furthermore, Seneca is a courtier—Pier even refers to his master, Frederick II, as Augustus (68) and his court as "Caesar's


household" ("l'ospizio / di Cesare," 64–65); like Cato, he is an ancient Roman, and both are defeated, in one way or another, by a Caesar.

In actual fact, of course, neither the damnation of Pier nor the glorification of Cato is by any means unqualified. An allusion to Cato in the canto following Pier's (XIV.15) slyly indicates that the subject of suicide has another side remaining to be considered, and the mesta selva where Pier is now (106f.) recalls the selva oscura of the Pilgrim's own suicidal feelings; having heard Pier's story, the Pilgrim is so overwhelmed by pity that he has Virgil ask him questions (84). Indeed, the entire Pier episode raises questions to which no final answers are forthcoming. As for Cato, he may have sacrificed his life for the sake of liberty, but the picture we get of him at the start of the Purgatorio is of a rigidly legalistic puritan who in his own being seems free in a very limited sense.

It follows from this that the Monk's Tale is less a critique than a gloss or an interpretation of the Comedy . In specific terms, the Monk's Seneca has a heroic constancy which is made to seem a trifle unimaginative, not unlike the excessive gravity of Dante's Cato, and a readiness to spare himself further, or other, torment (as the Monk, with a touch of unkindness, suggests), which makes his suicide something less than heroic. Conversely, by juxtaposing Seneca with Pier we are enabled to see that Pier—or Dante—has it both ways, that his suicide can be interpreted as a self-condemnation and as a heroic or tragic assertion of freedom in the face of tyranny.

An especially dazzling feature, indeed, of the episode is that in it the two perspectives are inextricably intertwined: in the very act of justifying himself, that is, Pier also "damns" himself. At first, certainly, he does not appear to view his suicide in a heroic light. On the contrary, he is rare if not unique among the residents of hell in regarding his decisive act as an unjust one and condemning himself for it, though the self-condemnation is not unqualified:

L'animo mio, per disdegnoso gusto,
credendo col murir fuggir disdegno,
ingiusto fece me contra me giusto.

(My mind, because of its disdainful temper,
believing it could flee disdain through death,
made me unjust against my own just self.)


These lines are characteristic of Pier's account in that they describe his suicide as resulting, not from compelling outward circumstances, such as we witnessed in the case of all the other suicides we discussed, but as the consequence of a character flaw ("disdegnoso gusto") and of a miscalculation or mistaken belief ("credendo col murir fuggir disdegno").[57] His battle is, in other words, with himself and not, as with the others, a response to an opponent, the world at large, or a sudden reversal of fortune. In fact, the "Caesar" whom he served so faithfully and tirelessly and who turned against him receives nothing but praise:

vi giuro che già mai non ruppi fede
al mio segnor, che fu d'onor sì degno.

(I swear to you . . . / . . . I never broke my faith with him
who was so worthy—with my lord.)

By turning the story of his suicide into a grand moral and psychological drama, Pier emerges as a tragic hero who preserves his personal integrity and autonomy even as he does hopeless battle with the antagonists in his own soul. And the "proof" of the tragedy is that the Pilgrim reacts in proper Aristotelian fashion by being overcome with pity—and fear (cf. l. 45).

Yet Pier's highly mannered narrative, possibly reflecting a literary fashion at the Sicilian court of Frederick II, also creates ambiguities that tend to undermine his presentation of himself as a tragic protagonist. Let us consider the lines already quoted:

L'animo mio, per disdegnoso gusto,
credendo col morir fuggir disdegno.

We assume that it is his "disdegno" he is trying to escape from. But Singleton's gloss to line 71 is right on target as the other meaning that Pier simultaneously hints at and backs away from: "Seeking to flee a life that has become unbearable because of the scorn of others and especially that of the emperor, Pier, like other suicides, chooses death as the lesser of two evils."

Even when he does acknowledge actual enemies, it is as though

[57] These are (more or less!) the two traditional interpretations of hamartia in Aristotle's theory of tragedy, which was available to Dante in Latin translation.


they are agents in a psychodrama. They are "li animi tutti" ("all minds," 67) of the court, inflamed against him, and they in turn inflamed "Augustus" ("e li 'infiammati infiammar sì Augusto," 67). And what inflames them is not scorn but presumably envy, "morte commune e de le corte vizio" ("the death of all and vice of every court," 66). And is he saying that even the emperor envied his counselor? Here again Pier implicates himself, for whether he means scorn or envy, he just insisted that he had near-exclusive ownership of the keys to Frederick's heart, "che dal secreto suo quasi ogn' uom tolsi" ("that from his secrets I kept almost every one" [S], 61 [italics added]).[58]

The conclusion seems inescapable that Pier maintains a heroic posture by purging his narrative of any sense of actual persons and concrete circumstances as well as of the physical horrors he had to endure, of which the commentators remind us: especially his unjust incarceration and blinding. By turning all this into "psychodrama," he creates for himself an unwarranted degree of moral autonomy and of independence from historical events. The Pier episode, then, is really about the limits of human autonomy, of the individual's ability to transcend his historical situation, and thus, in a certain sense, also an exploration of the nature of the human soul.

This would explain the puzzling intertextuality with Book III of the Aeneid, to which Virgil himself draws attention in his highly convoluted and enigmatic apology to Pier: "S'elli avesse potuto creder prima,"

rispuose 'l savio mio, "anima lesa,
ciò c'ha veduto pur con la mia rima,
non averebbe in te la man distesa;
ma la cosa incredibile mi fece
indurlo ad ovra ch'a me stesso pesa."

(My sage said: "Wounded soul, if, earlier,
he had been able to believe what he
had only glimpsed within my poetry,
then he would not have set his hand against you;
but its incredibility made me
urge him to do a deed that grieves me deeply.")

[58] Togliere (tolsi is the preterite) often has a connotation of violence or cunning. Pier presumably did not hesitate to deal with rivals for the emperor's confidence by any means he saw fit.


By way of Virgil's obscure apology to Pier, I suggest, Dante is subtly correcting the master's idea of the human soul as it is expounded in the underworld by Anchises. In their passage from the underworld to the upper world, Anchises tells his son Aeneas, the souls, which are also the universal seeds of things, go through successive cycles of incarnation and purification extending over millennia (Aen . VI.713ff.). What specifically concerns me in Anchises' account is its Platonic-Stoic dualism: the souls exist in a state of purity when separated from the body, but once joined with or imprisoned in it, they become tainted by corporeal vices like the passions and need to be purified when again separated from the body. I cite the critical portion of Anchises' exposition:

igneus est ollis vigor et caelestis origo
seminibus, quantum non noxia corpora tardant
terreni hebetant artus moribundaque membra.
hinc metuunt cupiuntque, dolent gaudentque, neque
dispiciunt clausae tenebris et carcere caeco.
quin et supremo cum lumine vita reliquit,
non tamen omne malum miseris nec funditus omnes
corporeae excedunt pestes, penitusque necesse est
multa diu concreta modis inolescere miris.
ergo exercentur poenis . . .

(Fiery is the vigour and divine the source of those life-
seeds, so far as harmful bodies clog them not, nor earthly
limbs and earthly frames dull them.  Hence their fears and
desires, their griefs and joys; nor discern they the light,
pent up in the gloom of their blind dungeon.  Nay, when
at their last day life is fled, still not all quit them utterly;
and it must needs be that many a taint, long linked in
growth, should in wondrous wise become deeply
ingrained.  Therefore are they schooled with penalties . . .
[Loeb trans. slightly modified])

At this point the intertextual situation becomes especially complex. Canto XIII of the Inferno evokes Anchises' underworld dialogue with Aeneas and the Polydorus episode of Book III, and in juxtaposing these two in the reader's mind it invites the reader to reflect on alternative notions of the soul-body relationship, with the possibility that one represents a corrective to the other. What, after all, is the self against which the suicide perpetrates his violence? Where does


his soul end? his body begin? Is the hand an instrument preeminently of the soul?

As Aeneas asks Anchises, so Virgil asks Pier to explain the fate of the souls that have become part of the forest of the suicides, and while his question literally concerns the postmortem condition of the suicides, it is ultimately a general question, surely, about the body-soul relationship. "Spirito incarcerato," he says to him,

               "ancor ti piaccia
di dirne come l'anima si lega
in questi nocchi; e dinne, se tu puoi,
s'alcuna mai di tai membra si spiega."

               ("Imprisoned spirit,
 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
may it please you to tell us something more
of how the soul is bound into these knots;
and tell us, if you can, if any one
can ever find his freedom from these limbs.")

The trunk holding Pier's soul responds with what I would call a mildly parodic version of Anchises' disquisition:

"Quando si parte l'anima feroce
dal corpo ond'ella stessa s'è disvelta,
Minòs la manda a la settima foce.
Cade in la selva, e non l'è parte scelta;
ma là dove fortuna la balestra,
quivi germoglia come gran di spelta.
Surge in vermena e in pianta silvestra."

("When the savage spirit quits
the body from which it has torn itself,
then Minos sends it to the seventh maw.
It falls into the wood, and there's no place
to which it is allotted, but wherever
fortune has flung that soul, that is the space
where, even as a grain of spelt, it sprouts.
It rises as a sapling, a wild plant.")

This reincarnation of the suicide's soul in the form of a sapling (vermena ) is precisely what happens to Polydorus in Book III of the Aeneid . But Polydorus is neither a suicide nor trapped in alien vegetation. Polydorus's spirit has become a part of the Thracian land-


scape, and it is only by a bit of subtle wordplay that his vegetative reincarnation is made to appear sinister, a reflection of the cruel fate he suffered. Let us consider his story.

During the siege of Troy, King Priam, lacking confidence in his army, secretly sent his son Polydorus to Thrace with a quantity of gold—like a latter-day dictator setting up a private bank account in Switzerland. After Troy was conquered and Fortune withdrew—"opes fractae Teucrum et Fortuna recessit" (53)—the Thracian king killed Polydorus for the gold. Some time later, Aeneas lands with his people in Thrace and, being in search of a new homeland, promptly founds a city, named Aeneadae after himself. In the course of doing sacrifice to his mother Venus, Aeneas pulls up some saplings from "a mound, on whose top were cornel bushes and myrtles bristling with crowded branches"[59] ("tumulus, quo cornea summo / virgulta et densis hastilibus horrida myrtus," 22–23; my italics). From the saplings issues black blood, and then from the depth of the mound a voice that identifies itself as Polydorus's warns Aeneas to flee the cruel land: "Here an iron harvest of spears covered my pierced body, and grew up into sharp javelins"—"hic confixum ferrea texit / telorum seges et iaculis increvit acutis" (45–46; my italics). As in the forest of suicides, Polydorus's unnatural death produces the counternatural growth of death-dealing weaponry.[60] But this image is anticipated by the myrtle Aeneas sees, "densis hastilibus horrida"—"bristling with [crowded] spear-shafts." At this point in his career, every unfamiliar landscape holds a certain terror for Aeneas.

In the context of the Inferno, the Polydorus scene has a rather different meaning. There it implies, I suggest, the inseparability of soul, personal destiny, and place in the world, over against Anchises' vision of the souls as disembodied and eventually purged of all earthly "taint." In death Polydorus has become part of the landscape and still bears the marks of his origin and his final destiny.

In a wonderfully paradoxical way, this is also true of our unfortunate Pier. By the most perfect of contrapassi he ends up where he has been all along, inside an alien integument that to him has nothing "natural" about it. Being, Dante implies, of Anchises' dualistic persuasion, Pier was from the start a "spirito incarcerato," as Virgil calls

[59] Here and in the next quotation from the Aeneid I have adapted the Loeb translation, which obscures the ambiguity of hastile that Virgil is exploiting.

[60] Just so, in the forest of suicides, there are no fruit but poisonous briars: "non pomi v'eran, ma stecchi con tòsco" (6).


him (87), dwelling in a "carcere caeco," as Anchises calls the body (Aen . VI.734). It is thus no wonder that Pier makes no mention of his terrible fate of being blinded and in prison: he was there all the time. His physical fate merely confirmed what his mind had told him long ago.

And now we can see why Pier's thornbush imprisonment is the supreme contrapasso of the Inferno . It is surely no coincidence that the Inferno itself is called cieco carcere (Inf . X.58–59) in direct translation of Anchises' phrase. For, as I have been arguing, it applies to all the living who would turn the flesh and the world into a prison house or a torture chamber either by their actions or by virtue of some belief.

Belief is, I believe, the key word for Pier and his episode. The question of belief is introduced with Virgil's curious apology to Pier for the "wound" inflicted on him,[61] which I quote again, emphasizing the words involving belief:

"S'elli avesse potuto  creder  prima,"
rispuose 'l savio mio, "anima lesa,
ciò c'ha veduto pur con la mia rima,
non averebbe in te la man distesa,
ma la cosa incredibile  mi fece
indurlo ad ovra ch'a me stesso pesa."
("If he, O wounded spirit, had been able to believe before,"
replied my sage, "what he had never seen save in my
verses, he would not have stretched forth his hand
against you; but the incredible thing made me prompt
him to a deed that grieves me." [S])

With a certain amount of absurdity to cover his confusion, Virgil is here confessing his lack of belief in what his poem, by way of the Polydorus episode, implies. Virgil's own belief, the implication is, tends toward Anchises' notion of the human soul, but in any case, the further implication seems to be that for Virgil belief is largely

[61] Actually it begins with Virgil's advance warning to the Pilgrim that he is about to see "cose che torrien fede al mio sermone," "as would deprive my speech of all belief" (21; my italics), and the wonderful line "Cred'io ch'ei credette ch'io credesse," "I believe that he believed that I believed" (25 [Singleton]). The Italian fede covers cases where faith would be the preferable English equivalent, but for emphasis I use belief throughout, except when he speaks of not breaking faith with his lord (74).


an imaginative, poetic matter, which can tolerate change and contradiction; it is not carved in stone.

The case is different with Pier. For him belief is a life-and-death matter, more important, as we have seen, than either life or death, and it does not distinguish sharply between his earthly and his heavenly lord,[62] as his oath to the pilgrims at the end of his story demonstrates:

"Per le nove radice d'esto legno,
vi giuro che già mai non ruppi  fede
al mio segnor, che fu d'onor sì degno."
                                        (73–75; my italics)

("By the new roots of this tree I swear to you that I never
broke faith with my lord, who was so worthy of honor.")

And finally it is his belief that he could escape from himself—"credendo col morir fuggir disdegno" (71)—his "corporeal" passions, the world itself. But in the "otherworld" he is still entangled, not in the world of the court, but rooted in the soil of the forest, which in some ways may be intended to recall the court,[63] and feeling intensely the physical violence done to him, as evidenced by his bitter reproach to the Pilgrim, rather like Bocca degli Abati's in canto XXXII.[64] But the clearest evidence of his total entanglement still with the world of the living is his continuing concern with his reputation or "fame," which Virgil shrewdly, not to say insidiously, exploits in his dialogue with Pier (cf. 52–54 and 85–86). This is a theme that runs through, not just the Inferno, but the entire Comedy, and it seems to me powerful support for the argument I have been

[62] Chaucer hints at a possible similar ambiguity in his Knight: "Full worthy was he in his lordes werre" (I.47). With his two keys to Frederick's heart (58–60) and the faith he bore to his glorious office ("fede portai al glorïoso offizio," 62), it is clear that Pier (= Peter) casts himself unwittingly (?) in the role of St. Peter to a lord whose very name, FEDErigo, spells faith.

[63] As when the Pilgrim first enters it and hears many voices seemingly emanating from people hidden behind the trees (26–27). It is what people say about him at court that Pier claims to find so devastating. The court is a "jungle."

[64] "Your hand might well have shown us greater mercy / had we been nothing more than souls of serpents" (38–39). As his reference to "anime di serpi" shows, Pier remains consistent, at least in his terminology. But there is absurdity in the idea of raising a hand against the soul of a serpent (or any other creature), and it is evident that as far as the Comedy is concerned, there is no easy or straightforward dichotomy of physical and spiritual (a point I make earlier, in chapter 1).


pursuing here that in the poem's scheme the human soul is worldly, not otherworldly.[65]

Further evidence of its worldly, contingent character—that is, of the limits of the soul's autonomy—is provided by the Harpies, birds with women's heads, who nest in the forest of suicides and feed on its black leaves. They are, we might say, the winged doubles of the souls that have entered the thornbushes, emblems of the fact that the soul cannot escape its bodily constituent.[66] As they feed on the leaves, they "cause pain and for that pain provide a vent" ("fanno dolor, e al dolor fenestra," 102), and in this they curiously mirror the Pilgrim breaking off the branch. But whereas they form part of a closed masochistic circle—one interpretation of suicide—the wound that the Pilgrim inflicts does open a window (fenestra ) through which Pier's pain can be seen and understood. Pier's indignant questions, "Perché mi schiante?" ("Why do you tear me?" 33), "Perché mi scerpi?" ("Why do you break me off?" 33), are the very questions a suicide might ask himself in flagrante delicto .

The wound, which allows blood and words to flow, will not lead Pier to any new insight, to be sure. He maintains his grimly dualistic view, even declaring (ll. 103ff.) that when all other souls regain their flesh, the souls of the forest will not be able to take up again their cast-off bodies (103; spoglie, meaning anything stripped off, like spoils), which will hang "ciascuno al prun de l'ombra sua molesta" ("each on the stump of its vindictive shade," 108). As Cesare Angelini has noted, Pier's belief even leads him to revise orthodox Catholic doctrine, according to which all souls are destined to return to their bodies at the Last Judgment.[67]

The Harpies also constitute yet another link with the account, in Book III of the Aeneid, of Aeneas's wanderings in search of a homeland. They "chased the Trojans from the Strophades" (Inf . XIII.11), a reference to one of a number of occasions, the Polydorus episode in Thrace among them, when Aeneas and his people found themselves on hostile soil and were forced to move on. Their wandering

[65] Cf. Otto von Freising's idea of the persona mundialis, discussed by Walter Ullmann in Medieval Foundations of Renaissance Humanism, p. 65f.

[66] With their hybrid anatomy, the Harpies recall Geryon and the whole question of the human image discussed in chapter 3. Their connection with the body is clear in the Aeneid (see esp. II.216–18), where their chief association is with food and excrement, and they inspire disgust by their filth and stench (like Swift's Yahoos).

[67] See his essay on canto XIII in Lectura Dantis Scaligera: Inferno, p. 445. Angelini mistakenly attributes Pier's view to the poet himself.


continues, as everyone knows, until they reach the "promised land" of Latinus, the future site of Rome.

Aeneas's (allegorical) wanderings serve as a perfect analogy to the Pilgrim's otherworld journey. The Pilgrim, too, as we have seen, has contemplated suicide, and like Aeneas he wanders through lands of unlikeness in search of a place where the soul is no longer alien, an exile in its own body. And this raises a question with respect to a contention central to this chapter, for Aeneas's career has traditionally been viewed as the gradual and painful fulfillment of a providential scheme endorsed by Jupiter's promise at the beginning of the epic (I.257–96). Is it not reasonable to assume, therefore, contrary to what I have been arguing, that both poems contain a providential design? Like Aeneas, the Pilgrim, a Christian Aeneas, though not on a historical mission, completes his divinely enjoined journey, which could serve, at the same time, as a paradigm of history as well.[68]

My hesitations about this line of argument begin with the Aeneid . Its treatment of the gods seems to me too skeptical and the poem as a whole oriented too much toward tragedy—as Dante recognizes when he has Virgil refer to "l'alta mia tragedìa" (Inf . XX.113)[69] —to make a convincing case for a theodicy with a teleology of history. As for the Comedy, its intertextuality with the Aeneid is selective and (I believe) unsystematic, and to the extent that it allegorizes the Aeneid, as in canto XIII of the Inferno, it also tends to negate its "historicity." There remains the much-discussed idea of Rome in its role as world empire and consummation of history in the Aeneid and in the Comedy .

It would be foolish to minimize the importance of this idea in either poem. At the same time, I do not believe that there is any warrant for assuming the "providentiality of the establishment of the Empire as of all history" in the Comedy .[70] Interestingly, the

[68] This, as I understand them, is essentially the argument—with some simplification—of three of the foremost contemporary American Dante scholars: Singleton's Exodus pattern (see esp. "In Exitu Israel de Aegypto," 78th Annual Report of the Dante Society of America [1960]); John Freccero's "poetics of conversion" (see "The Significance of Terza Rima, " ch. 17, in Dante: The Poetics of Conversion ); and Giuseppe Mazzotta's "poetics of the desert" (see Dante, Poet of the Desert, esp. chs. 5 and 6).

[69] And see W. R. Johnson, Darkness Visible, especially chapter 4, for a powerful argument for both a tragic and an antiprovidential reading of the epic.

[70] Mario Fubini, "Catone," p. 881 in Enciclopedia Dantesca . I should stress that I am concerned exclusively with evidence from the Comedy . Commentators oftendraw on all of Dante's various writings as if they constituted one seamless web. The texts often illuminate each other, but I consider it imperative to respect the integrity of each for what it says and does not say.


assumption is formulated in the article on Cato in the Enciclopedia Dantesca, for here, of all places, we might have expected a different perspective. The author notes that Caesar's role was crucial in the "providential design" of establishing the Empire,[71] and so he is faced with the question How could Dante make Cato, one of Caesar's greatest antagonists, into the embodiment of "un ideale supremo dello spirito dantesco"? Caesar himself is not presented in a very favorable light, as a warrior "who made the whole world afraid? (Par . XI.69),[72] and Curio punished as a schismatic in hell for advising Caesar to cross the Rubicon (Inf . XXVIII.112) also presents a problem. All the same, the author remains unshaken in his assumption of Caesar as an agent of divine Providence, which makes well-nigh incomprehensible the elevation of his historical enemy to lord and judge of Purgatory and model of the liberty for which the Pilgrim quests (Purg . I.71–72).

Even if one believes, as I do, that Fubini's assumptions concerning Caesar and Empire do not apply to the Comedy, this is not to say that their role in the poem is without puzzles. One of these concerns the prominent place given Caesar's assassins Brutus and Cassius in Lucifer's mouths alongside Judas. Does this odd detail provide grounds for regarding Caesar as equivalent in the secular political sphere to Christ in the spiritual and ecclesiastical sphere?[73]

Here I turn back to the Monk's Tale, which provides, I think, a resolution of this puzzle, but one that proceeds by the indirection of narrative and thus will require a somewhat circumstantial exposition of its own. Julius Caesar is given a tragedy by the Monk, but one he is forced to share with his enemy Pompey the Great[74] —an intriguing parallel to the Caesar-Cato problem Fubini finds in the

[71] In his tragedy of Caesar, the Monk calls him an emperor of Rome (2677). The note in the Riverside edition points out that in the Middle Ages Caesar was regarded as the first of the Roman emperors; Brunetto Latini is cited to that effect.

[72] This reference in St. Thomas's account of St. Francis's life alludes to an anecdote in the Pharsalia (V.515–31) more or less at Caesar's expense (Lucan's poem being anti-Caesar and pro-Cato).

[73] F. Gundolf thinks Caesar in the Comedy is "the representative of a sacred metapolitical dignity" (Caesar: storia della sua fama [Milan-Rome, 1932]), cited by Fubini, p. 881.

[74] Cf. ll. 2687ff.: "But now a litel while I wol biwaille, / This Pompeus . . . "; and 2722–23: "to thise grete conquerours two / Fortune was first freend, and sitthe foo" (my italics).


Comedy . Unlike Dante's, the Monk's Caesar becomes an emperor; like Dante's, he is a great conqueror, who defeats Pompey, "Thurgh which thou puttest al th'orient in awe" (2685), a close echo of "colui ch'a tutto 'l mondo fé paura" (Par . XI.69) in rhythm and in sense, because before this Caesar had already won "al th'occident by land and see" (2674). Next, leaving Caesar to one side for a moment, we recall that the Monk begins his tale with the tragedy of Lucifer and ends it with the tragedy of Croesus, whose death on the "tree" is a parody of the Crucifixion, reinforced by the name (Croesus, Christus, crux, crucis ). The placement of these three tragedies is, I think, quite deliberate and allows us to draw certain preliminary conclusions. For the Monk, history can be regarded as a form of tragedy whose pattern is set by the fall of Lucifer and includes the Crucifixion, which generically is not different from Caesar's or Pompey's assassination or Cato's suicide.

An analysis of Dante's Lucifer in canto XXXIV can lead, I believe, to very similar conclusions as far as Dante's view of history is concerned. Singleton's observation that Lucifer is not "a kind of pole of absolute Evil counter-balancing that of the Supreme Good at the center and end of Paradiso" has not received the attention from commentators that it deserves.[75] This is surely a most unusual Satan, not a creature of the theologians, the painters, or the folkloric imagination, but rather a complex literary emblem,[76] an emblematic grotesque like Geryon, with whom he shares the feature that for all the terror he inspires, he actually furthers the Pilgrim's progress, not by anything he does, but by his hairy legs. But if, as I contend, this Lucifer is an emblem, the extraordinary thing is that it is by no means clear what precisely he is an emblem of and that, indeed, there may be no simple or single answer to this question. Even the account of him is indirect and tentative:

S'el fu sì bel com 'elli è ora brutto,
e contra 'l suo fattore alzò le ciglia,
ben dee da lui procedere ogne lutto.

(If he was once as beautiful as he is ugly now, and lifted up
his brows against his Maker, well may all sorrow proceed
from him. [S])

[75] Singleton, Dante's "Commedia, " p. 42. Perhaps Singleton's notion of the "Supreme Good" in the Paradiso is also excessive.

[76] Freccero refers to Satan as emblem in The Poetics of Conversion, p. 174.


"If" indeed! Nothing in this statement is quite clear or what we would expect. What is the reason for his fall and transformation? How much of an understatement is it to say he raised his eyebrows against God?[77] And did he do whatever that phrase implies? Some critics will say that all that is needed to answer these questions is a little bit of medieval theology. But that hardly seems a solution, given the unconventionality of Dante's Lucifer and of the poet's attitude toward him, with the almost anticlimactic and tender conclusion that if he did raise his eyebrows against God, then Lucifer must be the source of all—grief, sorrow, lutto !

I suggest at this point that we take seriously the Monk's idea of a tragic Lucifer, which on the conventional face of it is absurd. But it makes sense if we see him the way the Monk sees him, as the originator, with his fall, of history as a series of catastrophes in the course of which human beings nonetheless continue in their attempts to establish their collective autonomy, to control their collective destiny, to found an empire where the human word will be law. Dante's Lucifer, it seems to me, is the complex emblem of this complex idea, combining, that is, the continuously renewed aspiration, dream, or attempt to create such an empire and the cause as well as consequences of its failure. For that reason he combines, as emblem, opposites at every point: royal and imperial associations with a sense of impotence, paralysis, and futility; heartless brutality with suffering and grief; awe-inspiring stature and structure with absurd and repellent features. And another curious, even disconcerting feature, but one totally characteristic of the Inferno, is the fact that within the emblem, so to speak, the reader is made to sense the presence of a person, a sentient being.

This Satan, I believe, provides a satisfactory explanation for the identity of the three sinners on which his three mouths are chewing. But before I discuss this matter, I want to consider the first and in some ways most startling conjunction of opposites, Virgil's ironic citation, with which the canto begins, from Venantius Fortunatus's hymn on the Crucifixion, "Vexilla regis prodeunt inferni" ("the banners of the king of hell advance" [needless to say, inferni is Virgil's addition]). It combines with his later title as "Lo 'mperador del doloroso regno" ("the emperor of the despondent kingdom," 28)

[77] The Monk is almost equally unspecific: "For though Fortune may noon angel dere, / From heigh degree yet fel he for his synne / Doune into helle . . . " (my italics).


to give us a sense of somber majesty. However, in case we missed the allusion to the Crucifixion in the Latin hymn citation, Virgil alludes to it again when he exclaims "Ecco Dite" ("Behold Dis!" 20), mimicking Pilate's "Ecce homo!" "Behold the man" Jesus wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe (John 19.5). Even allowing for the element of parody—which is all the easier to do since Virgil is an outsider to Christianity—the identification of the crucified Christ with Lucifer frozen in place in the pit of hell is startling indeed.[78] The implication as I read it is twofold and thoroughly in the spirit of the Monk. The first is that like all historical events the Crucifixion is a unique event and yet also representative of what happens throughout history. The second is that Dante's Lucifer is an emblem of the suffering victim as well as of the arrogant conqueror and tyrant, for which he earns the triple face, parodic symbol of the Trinity.

The meaning of Judas, Brutus, and Cassius in Satan's mouths is now clear. It has nothing whatever to do with the elevation of Caesar to a level of "metapolitical" sanctity. Rather, the Crucifixion and the assassination of Caesar are perceived in their distinct ways as moments of decisive failure in mankind's efforts to change the course of history. And what is most remarkable in this grotesque image of the three betrayers being tortured is our, the readers', divided response: the sense that the traitors are getting what they deserve, and the horror at what they are being subjected to in those monstrous mouths. And this takes us to the possibility that, like Saturn and Ugolino (who in the Monk's Tale has three rather than four sons), Lucifer is the father who cannot quite get himself to swallow his sons.

Allegorically, this makes perfect sense. As embodiment of the spirit of envy, of thwarted ambition and resentment, Satan would be the father of all those who betray and try to bring down their "maker" (fattore ), benefactor, superior. And yet, such are the moral paradoxes or imponderables of history, another way of viewing that Satanic spirit is as the urge for freedom and independence that, so I argued a moment ago, is a part of the Luciferan emblem. As Dante was well aware, Brutus and Cassius, like Cato, were also revered as defenders of republican liberty, and conversely Cato had his detractors too. Judas has not had any notable apologists, and yet there is

[78] For the "visual parody" of the Crucifixion here, see Freccero, "The Sign of Satan," p. 170.


one important detail that links him with the other two: like Brutus and Cassius, Judas commits suicide. What is more, it might be argued that Judas's suicide, which coincides with his repentance for having betrayed "righteous blood" ("sanguinem justum," Matthew 27.4), fits better into the pattern of tragedy we have been discussing than that of the other two.

If, then, Lucifer is the spiritual father of these three traitors, the one who showed them the way to betrayal and murder, he also weeps for them. His tears, gushing grotesquely from his six eyes and down his three chins, recall those of another infernal emblem of history, the statue of the Old Man of Crete (Inf . XIV.113ff.). Its tears, their source unstated, but presumably suffering mankind, drip down the fissure of the statue and gather to form the three rivers of hell. History, we are left in no doubt, is seemingly endless grief, is a form of hell. But Satan's tears come from himself as spectator and "source" of history, a sign that as tragedy it can create a sense of humanity even in the pit of hell.

Those tears suggest that as tragedy history triumphs even over the satanic principle itself. A spectacle of betrayal and inexplicable suffering, it nonetheless inspires a paradoxical hope for the future of mankind. In their very propensity for criminality and self-assertion human beings may yet come to recognize not only their potentialities for good as well as evil but also their interdependence, their human solidarity, their responsibility toward and for each other. This is a point that seems to me implicit in the Inferno and also in the Monk's tragedies, but one that the Knight seems not to understand when he breaks into the Monk's narrative with uncharacteristic abruptness, "Ho! . . . good sire, namoore of this!" To the Monk's supposed pessimism, he opposes what seems an astonishingly simplistic optimism. What is going on here?

We are not dealing with a naively optimistic Knight over against a darkly brooding Monk. From his tale we know the Knight to be pretty much the Monk's equal in philosophic and literary matters and, if anything, less optimistic than the Monk. "What is this world? what asketh men to have? / Now with his love, now in his colde grave / Allone withouten any compaignye" (2777–79), the mortally wounded Arcite asks. No clear-cut answers are forthcoming, but the implication is that the world is a place hostile to human aspirations, and on top of that, as he himself said earlier in the tale, "We woot nat what thing that we prayen heere" (1260). Arcite's tragedy—and


it provokes more than its share of tears and clamor—is very different from the tragedies in the Monk's Tale. Much more truly than the latter, it is a tragedy of Fortune, whose protagonist is the victim of an accident, not a hero who achieves or asserts his ultimately indefeasible human autonomy.

The problem of the Knight's interruption is thus compounded. Given his own not exactly cheerful view of the human condition, why should he object to the Monk's "hevynesse" (2769), as he chooses to call it? And why should he state his objection in terms of a preference for success stories in which people climb up rather than fall down? By way of an answer to these questions, I will recapitulate the discussion in the preceding chapter of the Knight's perspective as a storyteller in terms of Francis P. Pickering's thesis, that all medieval narrative, whether historical or fictional, involved a choice between an Augustinian and a Boethian model. In the Augustinian model, history is essentially that of the Church on earth guided by divine Providence, whereas Fortune is "little more than a talisman, of pagan Rome, now fallen and superseded by the Rome of Peter and Paul."[79] The Boethian model, contrariwise, deals with the workings of Fortune and the secular, dynastic history that Augustine in the City of God dismisses as irrelevant. Now, the Knight portayed in the General Prologue as a fighter for "the victories of the faith over the heathen" belongs to the Augustinian model, and he is faithful to Pickering's thesis in that for his tale he chooses the Boethian model, so that its pagan characters have, aside from their gods, only a philosophy outside the Christian theological framework to guide and console them. Refusing to tell where Arcite's soul went upon his death (I.2809ff.), the Knight guards his tale against the intrusion of theological considerations but at the same time leaves no doubt that as narrator he speaks and views his tale from an Augustinian perspective. This perspective accounts for the detached, ironic tone of his tale and its disconcerting shifts from high drama to bathos and outright flippancy. For at its extreme the Augustinian perspective discounts what happens in the secular realm—and by definition that would include the ancient world of paganism—as of no real consequence. The Knight, in other words, is not vitally engaged in the proceedings of his tale but regards them with an amused condescension. What, after all, is to be expected of people who con-

[79] Francis P. Pickering, Literature and Art in the Middle Ages, p. 177.


fuse God's Providence with Fortune—as Arcite does (l. 1252)? And so the Knight can, without a sense of impropriety, juxtapose a completely heartless description of Arcite's mortal illness (2743ff.) with the same character's extremely moving speech of farewell to Emily and Palamon (2765ff.). These incongruities are his way of indicating that the matters at issue in his tale are not to be taken with full seriousness, since they belong to a relativistic realm in which no final truth can be found.

Given this attitude, it may still seem odd that the Knight should react as he does to the Monk's tragedies, which, except for a couple, deal with figures from profane history. And equally odd are the terms in which the Knight expresses his viewpoint:

I seye for me, it is a greet disese,
Whereas men han been in greet welthe and ese,
To heeren of hire sodeyn fal, allas!
And the contrarie is joye and greet solas,
As whan a man hath been in povre estaat,
And clymbeth up and wexeth fortunat,
And there abideth in prosperitee.
Swich thyng is gladsom, as it thynketh me,
And of swich thyng were goodly for to telle.

Let us consider the second point first. The Knight's words seem to me those of someone who understands only too well that his own intellectual position has been under attack and who is now impatient to end the argument. He thus introduces a completely nonphilosophical observation about his personal preference, designed to take the wind out of the Monk's polemical sails.

There is a certain analogy here with the conclusion of his own tale. The "happy ending" of Palamon's marriage to Emily—"For now is Palamon in alle wele, / Lyvynge in blisse, in richesse, and in heele" (3101–2)—might be considered the Knight's concession to Christian optimism about the world of everyday. Not a very satisfactory concession, unless we are prepared to abstract the conclusion almost entirely from the rest of the narrative, as the Knight is perhaps willing to do. But the reader is bound, I think, to feel its unsatisfactoriness, since Palamon and Emily are entirely the passive actors in a script of Theseus's devising. Their marriage fulfills his


scheme to "have fully of Thebans obeisaunce" (2974), and so it is with his political triumph that the tale ends as it began.

It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that there is really only one complete character in the Knight's Tale, and that is my point: in spite of himself and of his staunchly Augustinian principles, the Knight believes in the pagan Theseus and in the necessity of his triumph. If he has reservations about Theseus's at times ruthless grip on the instruments of military and political power, he keeps them implicit and in the final analysis looks up to him as representative of those who play an essential part in the great design of history. This, I would argue, fits with some of the ambiguities that, the General Prologue hints, the Knight's own campaigns have been involved in. In the General Prologue we also read, "Ful worthy was he in his lordes werre" (I.47), a statement that leaves unresolved whether the heavenly or the earthly lord is intended. Like Pier della Vigna, the Knight may not always be interested in making too fine a distinction in the matter.

I surmise, therefore, that his identification with Theseus is what prompts the Knight's impatient outburst against the Monk's catalogue of the fall of mighty lords and conquerors. As Athens's "lord and governour, / And in his tyme swich a conquerour, / That gretter was ther noon under the sonne" (861–63), Theseus is of course just the military-political type whose downfall the Monk's tragedies simultaneously "bewail" and celebrate as evidence of mankind's problematic and heroic attempts to achieve autonomy. This, as we have seen, represents a very different vision of history from the Knight's, challenging the latter's assumption that the world must be divided into conquerors and conquered, rulers and ruled. The unruly, unpredictable Fortune who keeps cropping up in the tragedies can take the form of people rebelling against a tyrant, or she can demonstrate, as she does in the Consolation of Philosophy, how rhetoric can serve the most varied uses of deception. With her for guide it becomes possible, for example, to deconstruct Theseus's impressive "Boethian" oration as startlingly analogous to the pious tears that in Fortune's example Aemilius Paulus sheds over the calamities of a man he himself holds prisoner. Theseus can speak of "this wrecched world adoun" (2995) and of "this foule prisoun of this lyf" (3061), for he helps to make it such, as when he sends Palamon and Arcite, whom his pillagers found half-dead on the


battlefield, "To Atthenes, to dwellen in prisoun / Perpetuelly,—he nolde no raunsoun" (1023–24). The arbitrariness and the finality of this action have something of the force of natural law!

It would be wrong, I think, to conclude this chapter with the implication of a total opposition between Knight and Monk. Part of the "symposiastic" scheme of The Canterbury Tales, it seems to me, is to suggest that just as there is no tale-teller who can presume to be in possession of the truth, so there is no one whose tale does not shed some light on the truth. In addition, one of the subtleties of Chaucer's poem, as I have tried to show, is that its characters—and I am referring primarily to the pilgrims—are not fixed types but like actors in a play who reveal, as does Dante's Pilgrim, various facets of themselves in the course of their performance. With the exception of the Host, the Knight appears most frequently on stage, and there are hints that his outlook and conception of himself are changing as the pilgrimage proceeds. One hint, I believe, is the curiously "Boethian" language in which he couches his objection to the Monk's Tale, as well as the un-Boethian optimism he expresses in wanting to hear of one who "clymbeth up and wexeth fortunat, / And there abideth in prosperitee" (2776–77; my italics). Earlier I criticized this statement as a sign of the Knight's refusal to engage the Monk on a philosophical level, but it could, I admit, be read very differently. With its reference to worldly prosperity and the thoroughly un-Boethian and therefore unphilosophical notion that there can be permanence in such prosperity, we might well see it as a sign that the Knight has begun to realize that, whatever his ultimate destiny, he is a part of the "sondry folk, by aventure yfalle / In" an all-too-brief earthly "felaweship."


The Friar and the Summoner:
Chaucerian Contrapasso

The Monk's Tale, I argued in the preceding chapter, can be seen as an interpretation of the Inferno, which it represents as an essentially tragic vision of history, with all the ambivalence that the concept of tragedy traditionally carries with it: the inspiring spectacle of individuals striving to realize a vision of order and autonomy in the face of a knowledge that this striving is almost inevitably doomed to failure. Despite his idea of tragedy, however, the Monk's narrative, though it has moments of genuine pathos, is marked by an ironically detached manner, suggesting his own ambivalent attitude toward the world, at once of a passionate attachment and a wary distancing. His is a somewhat different persona and narrative style, in other words, from the Dantean, with its considerably greater range of emotions.

Chaucer's Friar and Summoner comment on the Inferno in a very different way from the Monk. They may be said to represent Chaucer's comic experiment with the Dantean conception of hell as a loss of soul, a form of spiritual suicide, a death-in-life.[1] Like the residents of the Inferno, these two pilgrims are Gogolian "dead souls." Each in his way is a spectacular example of contrapasso, the concept that governs the representation of the damned in the Inferno . At the heart of this concept, to recapitulate briefly my earlier discussion, is the idea that the sin is its own punishment and that the torments of the

[1] Various critics have commented on the Dantean influence here. See, e.g., Paul Ruggiers, The Art of the Canterbury Tales, p. 96f.


damned are therefore strictly self-inflicted. Defined in this way, contrapasso provides support for the theme we saw to be central to the Monk's Tale: namely, that human beings are fundamentally autonomous and so are responsible for their own weal or woe by the choices they make. The centrality of this theme in the Comedy and The Canterbury Tales marks these as true humanist epics in which the idea of a supernatural, transhuman agency actively intervening in worldly—or even in other worldly—affairs is ultimately viewed as a needless and possibly even an objectionable hypothesis. This is not to assert that either the Comedy or The Canterbury Tales presents a merely profane, or godless, universe; this says only that as theatrical epics their horizon is human, social, communal, and that the profane and the sacred are to be found within that horizon. The imagination, to be sure, constantly desires to soar beyond this horizon, but always the Poet is there to remind us that it is powerless to do so: "Here force failed my high fantasy" ("A l'alta fantasia qui mancò possa," Par . XXXIII.142).

The following discussion is designed to illustrate the theme of the human horizon in the context where we might least expect it, namely, the ecclesiastical and theological one of the Friar and the Summoner, two figures locked in fierce verbal combat, so that we could imagine them temporarily escaped from one of those circles of Dante's hell where twinned residents are forever engaged in mutual recrimination. That Chaucer had the Inferno in mind when dealing with these two pilgrims seems unmistakable from direct and strategically placed allusions to the canticle in this part of the poem. Thus in the Friar's Tale the yeoman-demon tells the summoner, who wants to know about the bodies of demons:

Thou shalt herafterward, my brother deere,
Come there thee nedeth nat of me to leere,
For thou shalt, by thyn owene experience,
Konne in a chayer rede of this sentence
Bet than Virgile, while he was on lyve,
Or Dant also.

Here is a complex literary joke: having expressed his contempt for the theologians (l. 1512), the yeoman cites the poets as if they were the only significant authorities on hell, certainly the next best thing to direct personal experience, and as if they held forth on the subject


in academic lectures. The lines also foreshadow my argument about the tales of the two pilgrims, namely, that each, while undoubtedly an attack on the other, constitutes at the same time an indictment of the teller himself. Thus, though the lines quoted are addressed to a summoner, they are clearly much more appropriate to a friar. Friars were noted for their interest in abstruse theological questions, and for their association with universities as lecturers, scholars, and preachers. The reference to a professorial chair from which he might lecture is thus perfectly suited to the ambition of a friar, hardly to that of a summoner.[2]

The second Inferno allusion occurs in the Prologue to the Summoner's Tale, where the Summoner tells of a friar who, having been shown by an angel the torments of hell (a mini-Inferno ), asks why he has seen no friars there. By way of an answer the angel leads him to Satan, who has, he says, "a tayl / Brodder than of a carryk is the sayl" (1687–88), under which there proves to be a vast nest of friars. The simile has been plausibly related to a similar one applied to Lucifer's wings at Inferno XXXIV.46, 48,[3] so that it is mildly surprising that another Inferno allusion at the very beginning of the Summoner's Tale has not been noted, possibly because the friar is advertising his trentals, masses said for the benefit of souls in purgatory, not hell.

"Delivereth out," quod he, "anon the soules!
Ful hard it is with flesshhook  or with oules
To been yclawed, or to brenne or bake."
                                               (1729–31; my italics)

The allusion here to the torments of the barrators in cantos XXI to XXIII seems to me unmistakable. The barrators are plunged into ditches of boiling pitch and treated like so many pieces of meat by demons armed with unghia (claw) and uncino (hook) (Inf . XXII.69), who also act like cooks of an infernal Irish stew. And the allusion has exactly the same appropriateness that the mention of Dante has

[2] For useful information about friars and their reputation in the fourteenth century, see Beryl Smalley, English Friars and Antiquity in the Early Fourteenth Century, and Penn R. Szittya, The Antifraternal Tradition in Medieval Literature . Do the yeoman's words contain a covert reference to the public lectures on the Inferno given in Florence in 1373 and 1374 by Boccaccio, himself a member of a minor order by this time?

[3] See Howard Schless, Chaucer and Dante, p. 194f. Schless recognizes only this and the earlier Dante reference with respect to the Friar's and Summoner's Tales.


in the Friar's Tale. As the crude and corrupt official in the Church's legal system, the Summoner almost seems to aspire to the status of flesh without soul and thus makes himself an obvious candidate for the fleshhooks that skewer Dante's barrators.

As the Friar and the Summoner attack and attempt to entrap each other, therefore, they also condemn themselves by their own words—and before a jury of their fellow pilgrims—in Chaucer's version of Dante's contrapasso, a rigorous application of the rule, in reading the Inferno, that what the "damned" characters say must be held against them. To demonstrate this I begin by recalling what was said in an earlier chapter about the theatrical principle in The Canterbury Tales as involving, for the reader, a shuttling back and forth between a given tale and the teller's portrait in the General Prologue. First, therefore, if we place the General Prologue portrait of the Friar alongside the Friar's Tale we discover numerous points of contact between the portrait and the summoner presented in his tale. In attacking his antagonist on the pilgrimage by means of the summoner in his tale, these parallels suggest, the Friar is in effect attacking himself.

The first and most comprehensive example (embracing all the others) is the Friar's comparison of his tale's summoner to Judas:

And right as Judas hadde purses smale,
And was a theef, right swich a theef was he;
His maister hadde but half his duetee.

Editors refer this passage to John 12.6, where we are told that Judas carried the disciples' little purses (Vulgate: loculos ), from which he stole what was put in them (Vulgate: ea quae mittebantur, portabat ).[4] For our purposes the preceding verse is equally important; there Judas expresses his indignation that the ointment with which Mary has just anointed Jesus' feet was not sold for three hundred pence and the money given to the poor. The gospel narrative here suggests that Judas's expressed concern for the poor is a piece of hypocrisy whose implications are ultimately betrayal and murder. The Friar, whose mendicant order is ideally dedicated to evangelical poverty

[4] See the note ad loc. in the Riverside edition, p. 875. The King James version of John 12.6 reads: "This he [i.e., Judas] said, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein." This fits perfectly with the sack which, in the Summoner's Tale (1754ff.), the friar's servant carries on his back and into which are put the various gifts that the friar is able to beg from the people of his district—undoubtedly for his own enrichment.


and to assisting the poor and the sick,[5] by way of the comparison convicts himself not simply of hypocrisy—by the fourteenth century, friars had become pretty well synonymous with hypocrisy—but of a hypocrisy that is in its very essence murderous and prepared to betray everyone, including (in this instance) himself!

This implied conclusion about the Friar is strikingly parallel to the treatment of friars in the Inferno . There one friar, frate Gomita, is to be found among the barrators in the eighth circle, fifth pouch (Inf . XXII.81–82); two further (Jovial) friars turn up in the next pouch of the eighth circle (Inf . XXIII.82ff.), where reside the hypocrites wearing lead-lined cloaks like the capes in which traitors were drowned at the court of Frederick II (66). Finally and climactically, there is frate Alberigo, among the traitors against guests in the ninth circle, though he has not yet "officially" died. As he explains to the Pilgrim in what amounts to a gloss on the contrapasso :

sappie che, tosto che l'anima trade
come fec' ïo, il corpo suo l'è tolto
da un demonio, che poscia il governa
mentre che 'l tempo suo tutto sia vòlto.
Ella ruina in sì fatta cisterna;
e forse pare ancor lo corpo suso
de l'ombra che di qua . . . verna.
                         ( Inf . XXXIII.129–35)

                 (know this:
as soon as any soul becomes a traitor,
as I was, then a demon takes its body in his power
until its years have run their course completely.
The soul falls headlong, down into this cistern;
and up above, perhaps, there still appears
the body of the shade that winters here. . . . )

The spiritual condition of Chaucer's Friar, we may conclude, is ultimately similar to that of frate Alberigo. Commentators tell us that the historical Alberigo had Manfred and his son killed at a banquet to which he had invited them.[6] The Inferno 's Alberigo merely tells the Pilgrim:

i' son quel da le frutta del mal orto,
che qui riprendo dattero per figo.
                            ( Inf . XXXIII.119–20)

[5] See General Prologue, 240–45.

[6] See Singleton's note to l. 118. For a comparison of the Friar's Tale and the frate Alberigo episode, see Ronald B. Herzman, "The Friar's Tale, " pp. 1–17.


(I am he of the fruits from the evil garden, and here I am
paid date for fig. [S])

The implication of these lines, I take it, is that Alberigo is one of those friars who knowingly corrupted the garden—the Church? European society?—in a kind of Faustian wager with the devil that they could thrive on its poisonous fruit.

Arguably, Chaucer's Friar also has his "evil garden." He begins his tale by describing an archdeacon who "was dwellynge in my contree" (1301; my italics)—echoing the statement in the General Prologue, "Ful wel biloved and famulier[7] was he / With frankeleyns over al in his contree" (215–16; my italics). The possessive pronoun implies that the residents of the district are in effect his guests whom he, Judas- and Alberigo-fashion, betrays and (spiritually) murders.

Next, the "old wydwe, a ribibe" from whom the summoner wants to extort money by "feynynge a cause" (1377, 1378), recalls the destitute widow in the General Prologue from whom the Friar is determined to receive, by his ingratiating manner, "a ferthyng, er he wente" (255).[8] The summoner, of course, expects to achieve his goal by threatening rather than soft-soaping his intended victim, but his confrontation with the widow turns into a complex inversion of the Friar's own method of hearing confession, as this is described in the General Prologue (ll. 221–32). For as the widow curses the summoner for his lying accusations, she is on her knees (1625) in manner of one making confession. At this point the demon-yeoman asks her whether she means what she says, and she replies by reaffirming her curse unless "he wol hym repente" (1629). "Nay, olde stot, that is nat myn entente" (1630), the summoner replies, whereupon the demon claims him as his prize: "Thou shalt with me to helle yet to-nyght" (1636)—as though he were an infernal Christ speaking to the thief crucified by his side (Luke 23.43)! The "confessional" situation has suddenly been reversed, with the summoner now in the position of the unrepentant sinner condemned by the demon (and the widow). It is, then, by his indifference to the whole

[7] A macaronic pun reminiscent of the "famillionaire" joke Freud analyzes in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, pp. 16ff. The Friar is on very familiar terms with every mulier (woman, wife).

[8] The farthing even anticipates the question asked by the friar in the Summoner's Tale, "What is a ferthyng worth parted in twelve?" (1967), which punningly foreshadows, or perhaps even inspires, farmer Thomas's conundrum about the equal distribution of the fart. On this point, see J. F. Adams, "The Structure of Irony in The Summoner's Tale."


question of "entente"—whether the widow's or the demon's—that the summoner is trapped. And it is this same indifference that makes the summoner a perfect stand-in for the Friar, who, as we learn in the General Prologue, grants absolution to anyone, regardless of his "entente," willing to give money to his order (222–32). And as a further irony, it is the demon who by his concern with "entente" shows himself to be a "confessor" morally superior to the Friar.[9]

The irony does not stop there. The language he uses, particularly when confessing his true identity to the summoner, echoes that of the Friar's portrait in the General Prologue to such an extent that he appears as a demonic version of the Friar, precisely in the manner suggested by Dante's frate Alberigo:

       "Brother, " quod he, "wiltow that I thee telle?
I am a feend; my dwellyng is in helle,
And here I ryde aboute my  purchasyng,
To wite wher men wol yeve me any thyng.
My purchas is th'effect of al my rente
Looke how thou rydest for the same entente,
To wynne good, thou rekkest nevere how;
Right so fare I, for ryde wolde I now
Unto the worldes ende for a preye."

The words and lines I have italicized in this passage all have a direct connection with the Friar and his General Prologue portrait. The demon habitually refers to the summoner as "brother," and they swear brotherhood to each other (1404–5), reminding us of the meaning of the term "friar" and the fact that theirs was supposed to be a brotherhood (cf. General Prologue, l. 252b). Line 1451 is almost a quotation from the General Prologue portrait of the Friar: "His purchas was wel bettre than his rente" (256), except that once again the demon is shown to be morally superior to his pilgrim counterpart.[10] And the line before that echoes the Friar's unceasing quest for people willing to give to the friars. That these same people are ultimately his prey (1455) is perfectly clear at this point.

In the earlier dialogue between the "yeoman" and the summoner

[9] As he explains to the summoner, the demons are, after all, "Goddes instrumentz" (1483); by way of example there is the person whose soul they are allowed to disturb: "Whan he withstandeth oure temptacioun, / It is a cause of his savacioun, / Al be it that it was nat oure entente / He sholde be sauf, but that we wolde hym hente" (1497–1500; my italics).

[10] For various interpretations of l. 256, see the Riverside edition, p. 808.


the same device is observable. What the yeoman tells the summoner about himself is ostensibly applicable to summoners, but the language (especially what I have italicized in the next two quotations) refers us time and again to the General Prologue portrait of the Friar and to friars in general:

I am unknowen  as in this contree ;
Of thyn aqueyntance I wolde praye thee,
And eek of bretherhede  . . .

Asked where his dwelling is, the yeoman replies,

       Brother, . . . fer in the north  contree,
Whereas I hope som tyme I shal thee see.
Er we departe, I shal thee so wel wisse
That of myn hous  ne shaltow nevere mysse.

That last line may well remind us that the Friar "was the beste beggere in his hous " (252).

Next, there is a complex irony in the fact that the summoner first encounters the demon, in the guise of "a gay yeman, under a forest syde " (1380; my italics). This is the precise location where the fairies appear to the rapist-knight in the Wife of Bath's Tale (990),[11] the fairies who, she tells us, were displaced by—the friars, themselves seducers, if not rapists, who, the Wife implies, with their official asceticism have done their utmost to banish the last vestiges of the feminine mystique from European consciousness (864–81). There is, thus, an exquisite poetic justice in the conclusion of the Friar's Tale, where the summoner is, as it were, defeated by the old and poor widow. If, as I have proposed, this summoner can be equated with the Friar himself, then the widow unwittingly exacts a kind of justice in behalf of the Wife of Bath and the old hag of her tale.

This last sentence is not altogether satisfactory, and the reason is that so far in this chapter I have done less than full justice both to Chaucer's tale-telling game and to Dante's contrapasso idea. Before proceeding to the Summoner's Tale, therefore, I will try to correct both deficiencies. First then, I suggested just now that the summoner in his tale projects the Friar's own spiritual condition. This is only

[11] Significantly, the fairies vanish at the intrusion of the knight (995–96), just as they did when the friars first appeared on the scene.


partially true, and the problem here is directly related to my incomplete account of Dante's contrapasso . Of critical importance to the latter is the rather unlikely figure of Minos, who in canto V of the Inferno is introduced as standing in the second circle, where he examines the offenses of those who enter and

giudica e manda secondo ch'avvinghia.
Dico che quando l'anima mal nata
li vien dinanzi, tutta si confessa;
e quel conoscitor de le peccata
vede qual loco d'inferno è da essa;
cignesi con la coda tante volte
quantunque gradi vuol che giù sia messa.

(judges and assigns as his tail twines.
I mean that when the spirit born to evil
appears before him, it confesses all;
and he, the connoisseur of sin, can tell
the depth in Hell appropriate to it:
as many times as Minos wraps his tail
around himself, that marks the sinner's level.)

The crucial point here is the confession of the spirits; they know that and what they have done wrong. Contrapasso, in other words, is not just the sin but also the consciousness (however "repressed") of the sin that is the sinner's punishment.

We are not yet done with Dante's Minos, legendary king of Crete noted for his strict justice, here inexplicably turned monster with a tail. This new, monstrous Minos clearly originates from a kind of contamination of the just-king legend with the other legend of Minos the sacrilegious tyrant who annually exacted from the Athenians a tribute of seven youths, whom he sacrificed to the Minotaur, the monster, half bull, half human, at the center of his labyrinth.[12] (This monster, incidentally, appears stretched out at the edge of the abyss above the seventh circle in the Inferno XII.11ff., reinforcing the idea of the Inferno as a—or the —labyrinth.) Without stopping to show how once again Dante deconstructs the very idea of an "actual" hell (see the preceding chapter), I merely note that Minos as monster anticipates Geryon, "that filthy effigy / of fraud" whose face "was that of a just man" (Inf . XVII.7–8, 10; my italics). The grotesque

[12] See the account of Minos in Boccaccio's Genealogie Deorum Gentilium Libri, vol. 1, pp. 563ff.


joke, therefore, by which Minos assigns the sinners their place in the Inferno by means of the number of times he wraps his tail around his body,[13] I interpret as signifying that before the bar of the individual and collective body,[14] that is, at the unconscious, intuitive, prerational level, which is also that of the community, the anima mal nata,[15] already knows in which circle of hell it belongs. In the context of The Canterbury Tales this means in the first place that the tales constitute a confession in one form or another, not merely in the explicit cases of the Pardoner and the Wife of Bath, and that the audience of Canterbury pilgrims, furthermore, constitutes a collective if nonmonstrous Minos by whom tale-tellers like the Friar and the Summoner in effect ask to be judged.

The very ferocity with which these two attack each other indicates, I believe, an awareness of a lack within. They thus exemplify an ambiguity of Dante's hell that becomes evident the further down we go: the more monstrous the criminality or sinfulness, the greater the grief that the sinners seem to suffer. The supreme, enigmatic instance of this is Lucifer, discussed in the preceding chapter, but it is also fully apparent in the frate Alberigo passage, to which I have already referred. Here, too, is a cannibalistic traitor, but in the final analysis the real treason is to the self, to the divine-human image of which the sinner knows himself to be possessed. The point is unmistakable when the Pilgrim comes upon the friar in the Ptolomaea ring of the ninth circle, where he is stuck in ice, and his eyes are sealed by frozen tears, like the other traitors against guests. The exclamation with which the friar greets the Pilgrim and Virgil manifests, not the icy

[13] Geryon, it will be recalled, has a pointed tail (XVII.1). Wrapping his tail around his body, Minos makes himself into an emblem of hell. (This should resolve Singleton's question in his note to l. 11.)

[14] This dual, symbolic role of the body is thoroughly characteristic of the Comedy . In chapter 8 I propose the Griffin (Purg . XXIXff.) in the Earthly Paradise as an important example.

[15] Is this not a way of saying the animal[e] (mal) nata ? The importance in a whole variety of ways of the animal both in the Comedy and in The Canterbury Tales has been stressed repeatedly in this study. In Italian, as the concealed pun I suggest indicates, the connection between "soul" and "animal" is obvious, as it is not in English, and so makes it easier to accept the idea of the animal as an integral part of human nature. To reinforce the importance of Minos's tail in the allegory, I suggest an echo between "cignesi con la coda " "girds himself with his tail" (I. 11 [S]) and "Io avea una corda intorno cinta " "I had a cord girt round me" (XVI.106 [S]), referring to the girdle with which the Pilgrim once thought he "should be able / to catch the leopard with the painted hide" (107–8), and which Virgil casts down the abyss (113f.).


indifference of the callous criminal, but, astonishingly, an enormous grief:

        "O anime crudeli
tanto che data v'è l'ultima posta,
levatemi dal viso i duri veli,
sì ch'io sfoghi 'l duol che 'l cor m'impregna,
un poco, pria che 'l pianto si raggeli."

        ("O souls so cruel that the last station is given to
you, lift from my face the hard veils, so that, before the
weeping freezes again, I may vent a little the misery that
stuffs my heart." [S])

By the paradox of tragedy, these "hard veils" simultaneously cover and reveal the human-divine image that, I suggest, remains frate Alberigo's ultimate concern.

By a paradox belonging now as much to comedy as to tragedy, Chaucer's Friar also reminds himself as well as his audience of his own failure when he implies that the Summoner fails the test of the divine image:

And God, that maked after his ymage
Mankynde, save and gyde us, alle and some,
And leve thise somonours goode men bicome!

In condemning themselves and at the same time showing their awareness of what they are doing even as they are attacking each other, the Friar and the Summoner demonstrate that as characters they are not fixed but open-ended, capable of change. And here, then, is a reason why the reader must not confuse the characters in the tales with the pilgrims at whom they are aimed. In comparison with the pilgrims, the characters in the tales are closed, complete, emblematic in the sense of not being open to future possibilities. By the principle of "epic theater," that is, the pilgrims are set off from the characters inside the tales as the onstage audience is from the players in a play-within-a-play, and just as paradoxically, since all are equally fictive and exist on the same plane of text or stage.

With that, we are ready to turn to the Summoner's Tale, which

[16] Earle Birney touches on the theme of the divine image in "'After his Ymage,'" pp. 17–35.


involves a somewhat different kind of contrapasso for its teller from that of the Friar's Tale, a self-indictment that is, furthermore, obscured by the brilliance of the tale's attack on friars and their proverbial hypocrisy. This attack takes the form of a satire on a hermeneutic principle, and an entire way of life founded on it, that is spelled out by the friar himself when he speaks to farmer Thomas sick in bed:

I have to day been at youre chirche at messe,
And seyd a sermon after my symple wit—
Nat al after the text of hooly writ,
For it is hard to yow, as I suppose,
And therefore wol I teche yow al the glose
Glosynge is a glorious thyng, certeyn,
For lettre sleeth, so as we clerkes seyn—
There have I taught hem to be charitable,
And spende hir good ther it is resonable.

The hermeneutic principle of "glosyng" finds and substitutes a spiritual or metaphoric sense for the literal, on the grounds that, as St. Paul says, the "lettre sleeth" (2 Corinthians 3.6: litera enim occidit, spiritus autem vivificat). The friar is adapting to his own corrupt purposes Augustine's injunction to exegetes that whenever the literal reading of a biblical text does not promote charity, its meaning should be taken in an allegorical sense,[17] at the same time as he cleverly perverts, or "gloses," the term charity to mean, not love of God and of neighbor, but the giving of money. Or perhaps the giving of money is "glosed" as love of God and neighbor! The point is that the friar has turned his life into a radical allegory in which there is no literal, only "spiritual," meaning. And by abolishing the literal sense, he has liberated his language from any normative basis, from any restraint there might be on pure metaphoric flight. Thus the friar achieves that nightmare of the anti-Derrideans, a linguistic usage that permits total freedom of definition and redefinition, a phantasmagoric, Alice-in-Wonderland verbal freeplay,[18] as in his statement:

[17] On Christian Doctrine 3.10, trans. D. W. Robertson, Jr., pp. 87–89. For further discussion of this point, in connection with the Song of Songs, see the next chapter. See also D. W. Robertson, Jr., A Preface to Chaucer, p. 332, for a parallel discussion of this passage.

[18] Bernard F. Huppé, noting Thomas's wife's strange (re)definition of anger (ll.1824–31), says she makes words mean what she decides they should mean and that the friar shares her "skill" (A Reading of the Canterbury Tales, p. 204). I think he should give the friar the primary credit.


Fro Paradys first, if I shal nat lye,
Was man out chaced  for his glotonye;
And chaast  was man in Paradys, certeyn.
                                       (1915–17; my italics)

The Summoner's attack on his fellow pilgrim, then, consists of a twofold demonstration. First, he shows that the fraternity's entire existence is founded on an empty verbalism, an arbitrary inscription, reinscription, and erasure of terms, that also allows the friars to pretend that there is no material reality except what words create. Second, he shows that the language they use to express religious and other concepts really has, for the most part, a literal meaning that is crassly material but which their "glosyng" enables them to ignore. The twofold demonstration culminates in the joke of farmer Thomas's "gift" and the "problem" of its proper distribution.

That the first part of the Summoner's demonstration strikes home immediately is clear from the Friar's outburst at the beginning of the tale. The Summoner has just described how friars go around in pairs to people's houses to collect alms. One of the friars makes a show of writing down on an ivory tablet the names of those who give, but as soon as they are out of the door "He planed awey the names everichon / That he biforn had writen in his tables" (1758–59). At this point the Friar breaks in with great vehemence: "Nay, ther thou lixt, thou Somonour!" (1761). The empty ritual of inscribing and erasing names is a perfect analogue of the friars' way with language, and the fact that it is this relatively trivial detail, rather than the gigantic deception of the friars' whole enterprise, that arouses the Friar's rage, shows the depths of his hypocrisy.[19]

His reaction to the Summoner's Tale appears to negate the point I just made, for it suggests that the Friar is very close indeed to the friar of the tale, trapped as they both are inside their hypocritical masks, unable to act otherwise than they do. But in fact, as we have already seen, the pilgrim Friar maintains his dramatic mobility, whereas the Summoner's friar is a Dickensian caricature with fixed

[19] Comparable to that of frate Catalano's response to Virgil's complaint that a demon in an earlier bolgia misinformed the pilgrims: "In Bologna, I / once heard about the devil's many vices— / they said he was a liar and a father of lies" (Inf . XXIII.142–44).


traits, as is best illustrated perhaps by his "sermon" on anger (1981–2093), irrelevant to begin with and loaded with irrelevant exempla from which he draws laughable and immoral conclusions. This performance, a masterpiece of comic absurdity, may at the same time glance at the incoherent ranting of the Summoner when he has been drinking:

Thanne wolde he speke and crie as he were wood.
And whan that he wel dronken hadde the wyn,
Thanne wolde he speke no word but Latyn.
A fewe termes hadde he, two or thre . . .

The friar is unable to recognize, or even to experience, a physical event as such. To him it must always be something else. The crucial case in point here is farmer Thomas's fart, which the friar regards as a blasphemy, an insult to the order, an intellectual and technical problem of division and distribution—anything but just a fart. Now, by the logic of the tale—a logic we have already connected with the Inferno —the friar's refusal to acknowledge the simple physical reality of the fart has the effect of turning his entire being into—a fart. And that means in the first instance, of course, the words he uses. The point is made by the lord's squire, Jankyn, in his "gloss" on the problem posed by farmer Thomas (2243ff.). Having explained how the fart can be evenly divided among twelve friars with their noses at the ends of the twelve spokes of a cartwheel, Jankyn deals with this friar. "By cause he is a man of greet honour," he declares, this friar will receive a larger dose of sound and stink by holding his nose at the nave of the wheel:

And certeinly he hath it well disserved.
He hath to-day taught us so muchel good
With prechyng in the pulpit ther he stood,
That I may vouche sauf, I sey, for me,
He hadde the firste smel of fartes thre.

His cartwheel solution, Jankyn makes clear, is really a reenactment of the friar's preaching, which derives its inspiration, however, not from one but three farts—presumably the Trinity that rules over the friar's world. The friar's words, then, are not just flatus vocis, "noght but eyr ybroken," as the eagle in the House of Fame puts it (l. 765),


but fundamentally just flatus . And once this point has been established we can look back over the tale and discover that, just as Midas turned everything he touched into gold, so for the friar everything turns to flatulence and the problem of its proper division, distribution, and so forth. So it is with the trentals at the very beginning of the tale—one a day for thirty days, or thirty in one day?—and even more obviously, because it functions as a kind of Freudian slip, the question he poses to farmer Thomas: "What is a ferthyng worth parted in twelve?" (1967).[20] And when he denounces Thomas to the lord's wife,

The false blasphemour, that charged me
To parte that wol nat departed be,
To every man yliche, with meschaunce!

he is, by another kind of Freudian slip, raising a theological question. Whether it is one involving the Holy Spirit or the Trinity, the unmistakable implication is that for the friar it all comes down to flatulence.

In his ruminations on the matter (2218–42), which follow next, the lord comes close to falling into the same trap, reducing arithmetic to a kind of flatulence and suspecting Thomas of being either a religious or a social reformer: "To every man ylike, tel me how? / It is an inpossible, it may nat be" (2230–31). But he has a growing conviction that the devil put farmer Thomas up to the whole thing:

I trowe the devel putte it in his mynde.
In ars-metrik shal ther no man fynde,
Biforn this day, of swich a question.
 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
What, lo, my cherl, lo, yet how shrewedly
Unto my confessour to-day he spak!
I hold hym certeyn a demonyak!
Now ete youre mete, and lat the cherl go pleye;
Lat hym go hange hymself a devel weye!
                                                   (2221–23; 2238–42)

The lord's words here are of course not meant seriously, but they

[20] Also relevant in this context: "Lo, ech thyng that is oned in himselve / Is moore strong than whan it is toscatered" (1968–69). See John F. Adams, "The Structure of Irony in the Summoner's Tale," p. 128. My whole discussion of the Summoner's Tale is greatly indebted to this article.


do tend to confirm what the Summoner's Tale has been leading up to, that the friar exists in a self-created "hell" of flatulence.

Why flatulence? Beyond the fact that we are dealing with a fabliautype joke, is there any special significance to the fart as punishment for the friar? I believe there is, and at the risk of appearing over-solemn on a humorous subject, I will explain what I think it means. Quite simply, then, to begin with, the fart is something physical emanating from the body, and as such it represents the body's revenge against the friar, whose entire existence, as we have seen, is predicated on the pretense that the body does not exist, or exists only as an instrument for achieving spiritual perfection, divinity.

At this point we must first deal with a difficulty. The Summoner's Tale, as we have seen, more or less explicitly equates words and farts. As the lord says, in the spirit of the House of Fame 's eagle, after all, "every soun, / Nis but of eir reverberacioun" (2232–33). And yet there is a very important difference between the two. To put it succinctly, one is a sign, the other not. As I said in the discussion of Geryon in chapter 3, the word or signifier is a mere sign that, despite its vocalization, lacks any real substance; it dissolves with the fulfillment of its function, though it can always be recalled and reiterated, iterability being one of its basic attributes. The fart, contrariwise, does have substance—a distinct sound and smell—and lacks the character of a mere sign precisely because it lacks iterability. It is on this point that the reader may object, since in the tale one fart is treated as identical to another: the one distributed by means of the cartwheel, in other words, is assumed to be the same as the original gift delivered under the bedcovers. As I shall argue, the Summoner does indeed hold out for some such equation of speaking and farting, but his tale with its heavy emphasis on eating (as well as the friar's repeated references to fasting) contradicts this: the "soun or savour of a fart" (2226), to borrow the lord's words once more, as anyone who has reflected on the matter will know, varies with the contents of the stomach and the person's state of health.

Significantly, there is one place where a fart does function pretty much as a "pure" sign, and that is among the demons guarding the barrators, whose leader, Barbariccia, "had made a trumpet of his ass" ("avea del cul fatto trombetta," XXI.139). I have already discussed this joke in connection with the Miller's Tale in chapter 4, and only bring it up here to reinforce the idea that the Summoner, too, has


definite "demonic" associations, and as I suggested earlier, specifically with the bolgia of the barrators.

It is time now to deal with the long-delayed contrapasso of the Summoner, but first I must at least take note of the second part of the Summoner's attack on the fraternal order, designed to deflate its intellectual and spiritual pretensions. This is his demonstration, culminating once again in the "problem" of the fart, that the terms used to express intellectual and religious concepts are really just a troping of terms that in their literal signification have an unwanted material reference. But in convicting friars of a dishonest, wholesale "glosyng" or troping, the Summoner is, as it were, slain by his own letter. By denying the possibility of metaphoric "flight" beyond the material and the experientially known, he remains trapped in an empty literalism, empty because it can only affirm and reaffirm itself; it dare not venture into the unknown. All language is thus ultimately like Latin to him, something that he can only repeat by rote:

A fewe termes hadde he, two or thre,
That he had lerned out of some decree—
No wonder is, he herde it al the day;
And eek ye knowen wel how that a jay
Kan clepen "Watte" as well as kan the pope.
But whoso koude in oother thyng hym grope,
Thanne had he spent al his philosophie;
Ay "Questio quid iuris " wolde he crie.
                                    (General Prologue, ll. 637–46)

The lines confirm, I think, what our analysis of the tale has revealed as the trap or contrapasso the Summoner has created for himself. He is like the jay imprisoned in the cage of his reductive idea of language, and I think it is significant that the word grope occurs in this context. In the tale it is also first used as a metaphor, by the friar, who is complaining about the curates being "ful necligent and slowe / To grope tendrely a conscience / In shrift" (1816–18), only to be debunked with comic violence by the farmer:

         "Now thanne, put thyn hand doun by my bak,"
Seyde this man, "and grope wel bihynde.
Bynethe my buttok there shaltow fynde
A thyng that I have hyd in pryvetee."


Could we ask for a better "positivist" parody of the rite of confession than this?

Comic as it undoubtedly is, the parody does also point to a problem for the Summoner. If, as I said earlier, the tales serve the pilgrims as a form of confession leading to clearer vision, this possibility would seem to be denied him. A little bit reminiscent of frate Alberigo with his "hard veils" down in the ninth circle, the Summoner can only clarify his vision by vain attempts at a literal cleansing of his face, truly a map of hell:

[He] hadde a fyr-reed cherubynnes face,
For saucefleem he was, with eyen narwe.
As hoot he was and lecherous as a sparwe,
With scalled browes blake and piled berd.
Of his visage children were aferd.
Ther nas quyk-silver, lytarge, ne brymstoon,
Boras, ceruce, ne oille of tartre noon,
Ne oynement that wolde clense and byte,
That hym myghte helpen of his whelkes white,
Nor of the knobbes sittynge on his chekes.
                                                                 (I. 624–33)

There is, however, one character who appears in his tale literally (!) in the last minute to rescue the Summoner from his contrapasso, or at least to suggest that he too is capable of insight into his condition. I refer to the lord's squire, whose pragmatic and debunking "gloss" on the fart problem is a perfect antitype to the friar's "glosyng" and so suggests that he is in some way the Summoner's double. He is, I suggest, precisely the Summoner's comic double. His name involves a pun carefully anticipated in the friar's address to farmer Thomas during his sermon against ire:

        Now, Thomas, leeve brother, leve thyn ire;
Thou shalt me fynde as just as is a  squyre .
Hoold nat the develes knyf ay at thyn herte . . .
                                                  (2089–91; my italics)

The image of the squyre, or carpenter's square, neatly combines the roles of squire Jankyn as the one who comes up with the technical solution of the cartwheel and the one who represents a comic justice triumphant—though the grimmer justice meted out to the barrators may be briefly hinted at by the fact that he is also the carver (with "the develes knyf") of the lord's meat (2244)! Together with farmer


Thomas, Jankyn represents the spirit of comic tale-telling and points to the way this can transform a community, which in this case consists of the villagers, who at the end join in praise of Jankyn's and Thomas's comic speaking :

         The lord, the lady, and ech man, save the frere,
Seyde that Jankyn spak, in this matere,
As well as Euclide [dide] or Ptholomee.
Touchynge the cherl, they seyde, subtiltee
And heigh wit made hym speken as he spak;
He nys no fool, ne no demonyak.

The spirit of Chaucerian tale-telling is, needless to say, also the spirit of the Comedy, and I venture to suggest that the heigh wit in the above passage is an oblique allusion to that alta fantasia of Paradiso XXXIII.142. I am slightly more diffident about suggesting that Jankyn's picture of the twelve friars ranged around the cartwheel and one at its center, recalls—once again!—the Pilgrim's final vision of nostra effige inside the circle that is one of, or for, three (Par . XXXIII.131). My diffidence, however, is diminished by the reflection that the "covent" of thirteen friars is intended to represent Christ and his twelve apostles,[21] and by the fact that in the Paradiso the vision of the divine-human image is followed by the simile-comment:

Qual è 'l geomètra che tutto s'affige
per misurar lo cerchio, e non ritrova,
pensando, quel principio ond' elli indige,
tal era io a quella vista nova;
veder voleva come si convenne
l'imago al cerchio e come vi s'indova.

(As the geometer intently seeks
to square the circle, but he cannot reach,
through thought on thought, the principle he needs,
so I searched that strange sight: I wished to see
the way in which our human effigy
suited the circle and found place in it.)

[21] Alan Levitan notes that the Joachimite friars, with whom Chaucer's friar shares many characteristics, saw themselves as types of Christ: see "The Parody of Pentecost in Chaucer's Summoner's Tale, " p. 236f.


The geometer is echoed by Euclid, most famous of all geometers, and the attempt to square the circle is reflected in the "squire" and the cartwheel. In a curiously satisfying way the Comedy 's sublime vision and the Summoner's profanely "positivistic" one do complement each other after all.


The Clerk's Tale:
A Chaucerian "Poetics of Conversion"

Two tales from the point of view of Dante's Infernal mode and the principle of contrapasso, which in its narrative-dramatic application means that anything you say will be held against you, were discussed in the preceding chapter. The Clerk's Tale involves a rather more complex relation between teller and tale, as surely befits a member of the intellectual class.[1] The reader may wonder what justifies the tale's inclusion in the present study, since it has no evident relationship of intertextuality with the Comedy . My provisional answer is that I want to examine the Clerk's Tale precisely as a test case for my thesis of a Dantean poetics in The Canterbury Tales . Does the thesis break down here? Will it be necessary to admit other models, such as the Petrarchan, say? By way of anticipating my conclusion to that question, I propose that the Clerk's narrative performance becomes the arena where two literary-intellectual ideologies associated with the two major figures of the Italian trecento collide.[2]

I stress the idea of the Clerk's performance because, as I intend to show, it is here, as part of the epic theater discussed in preceding chapters, that the ideological conflict appears and is played out, with

[1] For a useful discussion of the term clerk as it applies to our Clerk, see Huling E. Ussery, "How Old Is Chaucer's Clerk?"

[2] David Wallace discusses some of the ideological contrasts between Dante and Petrarch in his article on the Clerk's Tale, "Whan She Translated Was." I will let these contrasts develop from the discussion rather than attempt a preliminary summary of them here.


the Clerk undergoing a poetic conversion of sorts. In a general way this conversion begins with the Clerk's struggle against the moral and literary authority of Petrarch, whose story, he announces, he will retell.[3] That this is a real struggle is suggested by the way the Clerk speaks about Petrarch, which implies that at the very least he once was a disciple of the Italian author and considered the tale he "learned" from him as no mere entertainment but as a vehicle of its author's insights.

In the course of retelling this, to him, canonical story, I will argue, the Clerk develops doubts about it that focus first on Walter's treatment of his wife, Griselda, but then also on Griselda's conduct, and finally on Petrarch's notion of allegory. At the conclusion of his tale the Clerk utters a humorous but nonetheless serious "recantation," which implicitly puts him in the Dantean "camp," first of all in regarding allegory's prime responsibility to be to the literal and concrete level, a matter discussed at the beginning of chapter 2. In the Envoy, furthermore, the Clerk addresses himself primarily to the Wife of Bath and "archewyves" like her, and in so doing he once again puts himself on "Dante's side," in the sense that the Wife of Bath's role in The Canterbury Tales is more or less analogous to that of Beatrice in the Comedy . Both may be said to embody their respective texts in that they have the capacity—or seem to have it—of standing apart from the text that creates them as its "reality principle," possessing the characteristics we associate with the concrete (but not the textual) body: contingency, mortality, otherness, mystery, historicity.

The reader who has no trouble associating the Wife of Bath with corporeality may well balk at doing the same for Beatrice. She, after all, has died and gone to heaven. This is undeniably the situation presented in the Comedy . But the very "historicity" of her physical death, insisted upon by the structure of the Vita Nuova and also at the center of the Comedy, paradoxically makes it easier to think of her as appearing in the flesh to the Pilgrim in the Earthly Paradise. She refers to her own death as "when, from flesh to spirit, I / had risen" ("Quando di carne a spirito era salita," Purg . XXX.127), and to "my buried flesh" ("mia carne sepolta," Purg . XXXI.48), and, almost in the spirit of Francesca, to "the lovely limbs in which / I was enclosed—limbs scattered now in dust" ("le belle membre in

[3] See the still authoritative monograph by J. Burke Severs, The Literary Relations of Chaucer's Clerkes Tale .


ch'io / rinchiusa fui, e che so' 'n terra sparte," 50–51). But Singleton has noted that Beatrice's appearance in the Griffin-drawn chariot is repeatedly associated with the bodily resurrection and the bodily advent of Christ,[4] and I suggest that both chariot (It. carro, with a possible play on Lat. caro, flesh) and Griffin—in the line of succession from Geryon—are symbols of the body.[5] To the Pilgrim in the Earthly Paradise, it seems safe to say, Beatrice does not appear as a disembodied shade or spirit.

The symbolic and dramatic role of the Wife of Bath as a counterpart to Beatrice will concern me later in this chapter when I deal with the Envoy to the Clerk's Tale, which, he says, he will sing "for the Wyves love of Bathe" (IV.1170), a gesture signaling the Clerk's embrace of a Dantean over against a Petrarchan perspective. The idea that the Clerk starts as a disciple of Petrarch derives from his Prologue, where he reveals that he "lerned" his tale "at Padowe of a worthy clerk" (27). That the Clerk has traveled all the way to Italy surprises one, in view of the reclusive impression one gets of him in the General Prologue. Could he have gone on a personal pilgrimage in order to sit at the feet of the famous man who "taughte" (40) him this tale? One imagines a scene somewhat like that pictured by Petrarch himself in a letter to Boccaccio included by Petrarch in the final volume of his collected correspondence.[6] In this letter Petrarch tells Boccaccio that his love for the final tale of the Decameron —the tale of Griselda—led him to memorize it and then to retell it in Latin. He then gives the tale to two friends to read, the first of whom

[4] See his notes to Purg . XXX.15, 19, and 22–32. My discussion of Beatrice as "embodied" takes for granted Robert Harrison's argument to that effect in The Body of Beatrice, mentioned in the first chapter.

[5] The individual body and the body politic, a tricky matter that I cannot go into here. I refer the reader to the discussion of what in his chapter heading Peter Dronke calls "The Phantasmagoria in the Earthly Paradise," in Dante and Medieval Latin Traditions, pp. 55–81, and the same author's "Purgatorio XXIX: The Procession," pp. 114–37. In the latter, Dronke observes that the "single conception underlying and controlling all that passes" in the procession "is Dante's reawakening to Beatrice" (p. 115). My reference to the Griffin as a symbol also for the "body politic" is designed to accommodate Peter Armour's largely political understanding of the double-natured beast ("la doppia fiera": Purg XXXI.142) in his Dante's Griffin and the History of the World . Finally, for the importance of the body, see Solomon on the soul's longing for the flesh, Par. XIV.37ff. His "song" celebrating the flesh will be a principal focus of the next chapter.

[6] XVII. 3 of the Letters of Old Age (Epistolae Seniles ). An English version is in James H. Robinson and Henry W. Rolfe, Petrarch, pp. 191–96, and is reprinted in Mark Musa and Peter E. Bondanella, eds., trans., and sel., The Decameron, pp. 184–87 (page references in the text are to the latter edition).


is so overcome with emotion that he cannot go on, while the other remains dry-eyed but says he would have wept if it had not been just a fiction. "If it were true," he asks, "what woman, whether of Rome or any other nation, could be compared with Griselda? Where do we find the equal of this conjugal devotion, where such faith, such extraordinary patience and constancy?" (p. 187).

We do not know whether Chaucer knew the entire text of this letter or worked from a manuscript that contained just the Latin story as Petrarch transcribed it.[7] Nor is the question strictly relevant to my argument, which has to do with the Clerk 's reaction to the tale. As we have seen, for him it was evidently an instrument of instruction from the master rather than something designed to play upon the emotions, as it was for Petrarch's naively literalist friends. Undeniably, however, it would be nice to be able to place the Clerk's Tale alongside Petrarch's letter as an ironic commentary on the Rezeptionsgeschichte that the letter anticipates, as it were, for his Griselda story. That this was an extraordinary one even during the fourteenth century is not a matter I need dwell on here,[8] though Petrarch's contemporaneous and posthumous Europe-wide fame encourages me to speculate that Chaucer might have expected some readers to catch an allusion to Petrarch's correspondence, which included letters to kings and other potentates, in the Host's admonition to the Clerk to speak plainly so that the other pilgrims can understand him:

Youre termes, youre colours, and youre figures,
Keepe hem in stoor til so be ye endite
Heigh style,  as whan that men to kynges write .
                                                   (16–18; my italics)

Regardless of whether we are permitted to read such an allusion into the Host's words, they do serve to put the Clerk on his guard, in that he suppresses the fact that what he learned from Petrarch was in Latin. Twice during his narration, indeed, he applies the Host's

[7] Anne Middleton, "The Clerk and His Tale: Some Literary Contexts," assumes Chaucer knew the entire letter and other parts of Petrarch's correspondence; more recently, Charlotte Morse, "The Exemplary Griselda," has questioned this assumption. The matter is likely to remain speculative, but circumstantial evidence seems to favor Middleton's position. There is an almost complete late-fourteenth-, early-fifteenth-century manuscript of the Epistolae Seniles, at Cambridge University (Peter-house 81), but no inferences can be drawn from it with respect to Chaucer's possible knowledge of Petrarch's letters.

[8] See Eli Golenistcheff-Koutouzoff, L'Histoire de Griseldis (Paris: Droz, 1933).


"heigh style" to Petrarch's original, and precisely at points when he seeks to distance himself from it (see lines 41–55 and 142–48). He knows, or assumes, that for Petrarch Latin was virtually identified with the high style and a certain remoteness from the concerns of everyday life, which for him was the province of the vernacular.[9] He thus avoids telling the pilgrims that the tale was never intended for people like them, that it was never really told to or for an audience, but set down as a closed linguistic order to which only "clerks" would have the key.[10]

Our Clerk and his tale, in short, are situated at the center of the paradox that characterizes the European reception of a number of Petrarch's works: written in Latin, with active disdain for anything but an elite audience, they nonetheless achieve an enormous popularity through a prolific series of translations. As one of the translators and intermediaries, the Clerk is in a special position because, as was already intimated, he faces both ways, to his original and its author, and to his audience, which is threatened with incomprehension by the original's "high style." His sense of this dual responsibility is apparent in his tribute to the master, which with a slight touch of pedantry also identifies him for his unlearned audience:

                 a worthy clerk,
As preved by his wordes and his werk.
He is now deed and nayled in his cheste;
I prey to God so yeve his soule reste!
   Fraunceys Petrak, the lauriat poete,
Highte this clerk, whos rhetorike sweete
Enlumyned al Ytaille of poetrie,
As Lynyan dide of philosophie,
Or lawe, or other art particuler;
But Deeth, that wol nat suffre us dwellen heer,

[9] A frequently expressed view is that the references to "heigh stile" result from a scribal error in Chaucer's ms. that changed alio stilo to alto stilo . See the note to 1142–62 in the Riverside edition. But there is no doubt that Petrarch almost automatically associated Latin with the high style. As Umberto Bosco has written: "Scrivendo in latino, in una lingua che non parlava nella vita practica, egli era portato da questa considerare la vita pratica, la minuta realtà circostante come qualcosa di estraneo alla letteratura. Egli si pone davanti al volgare in una posizione di distacco" (Petrarca, p. 240, cited by Arnaud Tripet, Pétrarque ou la connaissance de soi, p. 180).

[10] As David Wallace has observed, "Despite the studied casualness with which he announces his own translating, Petrarch evidently sees his own work as a literary and historical terminus: future translation is obviated by a text that is good for all times and all places" ("'Whan She Translated Was,'" p. 190).


But as it were a twynklyng of an ye,
Hem bothe hath slayn, and alle shul we dye.

The passage is full of hints supporting our earlier suggestion that the Clerk is or was a disciple to Petrarch. The repeated emphasis on death, the thought about fame, time, and eternity—these are of course not themes exclusive to Petrarch, but they have a prominence in his works (especially the Trionfi and Canzoniere ) that suggests the Clerk has absorbed an entire way of looking at life from the Italian poet-philosopher.[11] A certain irony enters into the encomium, however, because Petrarch's life and achievements are now invested with the pathos of his own obsessive concern with death and the brevity of life.[12]

From the beginning, then, the Clerk demonstrates a certain ambivalence toward his author, an ambivalence that also manifests itself in the narration and gathers momentum there. Thus he dismisses Petrarch's geographical "prohemye" (43) as "a thyng impertinent" (54), that is, irrelevant, but not before he has rendered a good part of it. The ambivalence derives, as was suggested, from, on the one hand, the Clerk's attachment to the Petrarchan model, to which he is in many ways scrupulously faithful,[13] and, on the other hand, from his consciousness of an audience of socially and in other ways diverse individuals. In Bakhtinian terms, he is compelled by the latter circumstance to transform the Latin text from a monologic to a dialogic narrative where words and sentences, instead of claiming a semantic fixity, are uttered in implicit response to challenges, objections, questions.[14] Thus, where Petrarch has impersonal declarations, the Clerk shows his personal, ethical involvement. With respect to Walter's

[11] Piero Boitani believes that "Petrarch would have liked this conflicting, subtle, 'petrarchan' way of celebrating his glory"; see Chaucer and the Imaginary World of Fame, p. 158.

[12] For all he has done to "enlumyne" Italy, Petrarch must share the honor with others, like Giovanni da Legnano, on whom see John P. McCall, "Chaucer and John of Legnano."

[13] Though Severs exaggerates a bit when he calls the tale very nearly a "sentence for sentence rendering" of Petrarch's Latin; see The Literary Relations of Chaucer's Clerkes Tale, p. 227.

[14] For two recent articles that discuss the Clerk's Tale in the light of Bakhtin's theoretical principles, see Lars Engle, "Chaucer, Bakhtin, and Griselda," Exemplaria 1 (1989): 429–59, and William McClellan, "Bakhtin's Theory of Dialogic Discourse, Medieval Rhetorical Theory, and the Multi-voiced Structure of the Clerk's Tale," ibid., 461–88.


blameworthy traits, for instance, Petrarch has "quodque in primis egre populi ferebant, ab ipsis quoque coniugij conscilijs abhorreret" ("and what the people took amiss above all was that he shrank away from the very idea of marriage"). Significantly, the Clerk makes the people's objections his own:

    I blame hym thus: that he considered noght
In tyme comynge what myghte hym bityde,
But on his lust present was al his thoght,
As for to hauke and hunte on every syde.
Wel ny alle othere cures leet he slyde,
And eek he nolde—and that was worst of alle—
Wedde no wyf, for noght that may bifalle.

In so doing he shows he does not accept Walter as a simple given and does not expect his audience to do so, but takes seriously the problems raised by his character and conduct.

Even at this early point, in other words, the Clerk is indicating that his (view of the) tale is moving in a direction that is not necessarily Petrarch's. His narrative stance, let us note further, invites the audience to take such matters as Walter's marriage quite seriously, even at the level of mundane, practical details. At the same time, by arguing with the text and with the audience, he insinuates an allegory, as we shall see, concerned less with great spiritual truths than with a critical examination of the narrative itself.

In making Walter's refusal to marry the climactic criticism of his character, the Clerk brings out what is merely subliminal in Petrarch's text. Walter's concentration on the "lust present" of hawking and hunting to the exclusion of all other "cures"—these are presented as symptoms of someone who wants to evade any serious commitment.[15] For the Clerk, as for Kierkegaard, marriage is the ethically serious antithesis of a false "immediacy,"[16] a point further suggested by the scene in which a delegation of the people urges Walter to marry. The leader of the delegation reminds Walter of the very things that, as we saw, occupied the Clerk's mind in the Prologue and that

[15] See the shrewd comments on Walter in Thomas A. Van, "Walter at the Stake," especially p. 216.

[16] Cf. Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death : "The dearest and most attractive dwelling-place of despair is in the very heart of immediate happiness. All immediacy in spite of its illusory peace and tranquillity, is dread, and hence, quite consistently, it is dread of nothing" (p. 158).


the marquis in his pursuit of happiness presumably wants to block from consciousness:

   thenketh, lord, among youre thoghtes wyse
How that oure dayes passe in sondry wyse,
For thogh we slepe, or wake, or rome, or ryde,
Ay fleeth the tyme; it nyl no man abyde.

And thogh youre grene youthe floure as yit,
In crepeth age alwey, as stille as stoon,
And deeth manaceth every age, and smyt
In ech estaat, for ther escapeth noon;
And al so certein as we knowe echoon
That we shul deye, as uncerteyn we alle
Been of that day whan deeth shal on us falle.

But in echoing the Clerk's earlier meditation on death with its resounding "and alle shul we dye" (38), the delegate of the people (speaking of course through the Clerk) criticizes not just Walter but implicitly the Clerk himself as well, with his possibly somewhat complacent philosophizing. We recall that in rather abruptly calling upon the Clerk to tell a tale, the Host had compared him to a still-virginal bride at the wedding table—"Ye ryde as coy and stille as dooth a mayde / Were newe spoused, sittynge at the bord" (2–3). For all its humor, the image reminds us that the Clerk, obviously no longer really a young man,[17] has not yet committed himself to anything other than the study of logic and his books:

For he hadde geten hym yet no benefice,
Ne was so worldly for to have office.
For hym was levere have at his beddes heed
Twenty bookes . . .

Though less frivolous, he nonetheless resembles Walter, who fears to surrender his liberty for the "servage" of marriage (145–46). Walter simply does not want to concern himself with the complications and possible disappointments that responsibilities and obligations bring with them and that the previous rulers of Saluzzo had apparently managed to avoid "thurgh favour of Fortune" (69). "For God it woot," he tells the delegation, "that children ofte been

[17] See Ussery, "How Old Is Chaucer's Clerk?"


/ Unlyk hir worthy eldres hem bifore" (155–56), demonstrating a natural anxiety that is belied only by the placid history of his dynasty (cf. 64–65).

If the Clerk was implicated in the delegate's criticism of Walter, the latter's conduct now points to an even larger target. When he promises to take a wife, the marquis solemnly charges the people to worship whomever he might choose to marry, "whil that hir life may dure, / . . . / As she an emperoures doghter were" (166–68). Well before he decides to test her, Walter has made Griselda an all-encompassing ideal, the embodiment of a virtue able to triumph over a difficult reality. This includes the political realm: she "koude so the peples herte embrace, / That ech hir lovede that looked on hir face" (412–13). Indeed,

So wise and rype wordes hadde she,
And juggementz of so greet equitee,
That she from hevene sent was, as men wende,
Peple to save and every wrong t'amende.

With the hint of Griselda's Christlikeness, her close kinship with Laura becomes apparent. Both are plucked from humble surroundings: Griselda from the poorest household in a "throop" (199) of Walter's domain, where she sets down her water pot "biside the threshfold, in an oxes stalle" (291); Laura from the "picciol borgo" ("little town," Sonnet iv)[18] of her birth. Both are "translated . . . in swich richesse" (385) that they seem like "another creature" (406): Griselda, stripped and then reclothed in Walter's finery, is enthroned in his palace; Laura, dressed in the poet's finery, is enthroned in the palace of his imagination. For each, the "translation" means fame—"publiced was the bountee of hir name" (415)—and universal affection—she "koude so the peples herte embrace, / That ech hire lovede that looked in hir face" (412–13).

The parallels between Walter's idealization of Griselda and Petrarch's of Laura suggest that the Clerk's Tale is turning into a critical examination of "Petrarchism" before this had become a European

[18] In the Triumphus Mortis Laura herself speaks of the "troppo umil terren" where she was born (165), as a result of which she might almost have escaped being celebrated in Petrarch's poetry; but undoubtedly this same humble terrain contributes to her Christlike qualities. All quotations from the Rime and Trionfi are from Francesco Petrarca, ed. F. Neri, et al.


phenomenon.[19] Griselda's idealization suggests an allegory in which woman becomes the mirror where men—husbands, lovers, poets, ordinary citizens—see their own perplexities mysteriously resolved. The idealization, in other words, is really a form of escapism, a mask for an underlying fear or hostility with respect to whatever the mind cannot control or has not itself created—an intellectualist attitude to which a "clerk" is surely more prone than a marquis. As was suggested, the most powerful symbol of this threatening extramental reality is death. In view of Walter's fear of marriage and of having children, it is perhaps easy to see how woman in her unidealized capacity can become a symbol of this threat. In the prophetic perspective of the Clerk's Tale, therefore, Petrarchism can be seen as a vast defense, or "troping,"[20] against a contingent, untextualized reality. And by way of this unexpected association of woman and death—woman as St. Paul's "body of death" (Rom. 7.24)—we have arrived at the source of the antifeminism that Petrachan idealization or troping is also designed to mask. That Chaucer had reflected on this point is suggested by Lee Patterson's comment on the Legend of Good Women, which, he writes, "argues that the goodness and moral authority of women is not merely defined but created by male tyranny, a dialectic that reimposes the encompassing authority of the very antifeminism it seeks to evade."[21]

The Clerk shows his awareness of the intellectual trap described by Patterson, not least by his refusal to treat Griselda as an abstraction or simply a passive victim. He shows that to a certain extent she collaborates with her husband's tyranny, so that she bears at least some of the blame for the suffering inflicted on her. For example, when Walter first decides to "tempte his wif, hir sadnesse for to knowe" (452),[22] the Clerk severely disapproves (449ff.) and goes on to note that Griselda "neither weep ne syked, / Conformyng hire to that the markys lyked" (545–46), even though she suspects that

[19] This presumably did not happen until the fifteenth century. But with the Canticus Troili in Troilus and Criseyde I.400–420, a fairly close rendering of Petrarch's Sonnet 88 (no. 132 in the Canzoniere ), Chaucer proves himself one of its early disseminators.

[20] See Harold Bloom, A Map of Misreading, p. 91, cited in chapter 1.

[21] Lee Patterson, "'For the Wyves love of Bathe,'" 691.

[22] On a mundane level Walter is not just testing her steadfastness (the usual gloss for sadnesse ). By removing their newborn daughter, he seeks the answer, through Griselda, to questions the birth of a child gives rise to: how will the parents be affected? how will they endure the loss of the child? And so forth.


the child is about to be killed. And at this point the Clerk goes beyond Petrarch's text by having Griselda speak to the child "in hire benigne voys"—perhaps the same with which the Clerk had "benignely answerde" (21) the Host:

Fareweel my child! I shal thee nevere see.
But sith I thee have marked with the croys
Of thilke Fader—blessed moote he be!—
That for us deyde upon a croys of tree,
Thy soule, litel child, I hym bitake,
For this nyght shaltow dyen for my sake.

Her reference to "thilke Fader . . . / That for us deyde" seems designed to contrast Christ-the-father with that other father, Walter, who is apparently sending his innocent child to her death. But this startling contrast between the two fathers points to yet another father, the heavenly one, who is like Walter in his mysterious demand for the sacrifice of his child. A grim and disturbing theology is thus implied in Griselda's seemingly innocuous prayer. It is as though we are suddenly in the oppressive atmosphere of the tower in which Ugolino and his sons are trapped in Inferno XXXIII. Griselda, too, is trapped in a world she imagines ruled by capriciously cruel fathers whose only possible kindness consists of dying "upon a croys of tree." At the same time, in commending her child's soul to Christ, she indicts herself as a mother unable to defend or even grieve for her baby, but also as accepting the idea that her child will die for her sake, in place of the mother. Even the role of mater dolorosa is denied her, since, in a violent twist on the idea of the vicarious sacrifice, she offers her child as a way of saving—herself![23]

At almost every point, then, we find the Clerk elaborating his tale in order to uncover complications and contradictions that Petrarch's version has glossed over. I will illustrate once more his growing uneasiness with the tale and his refusal to idealize or sentimentalize Griselda in her role as victim. Elaborating the merest hint in his original, he gently criticizes Griselda for her "benign" acceptance of the removal of her child:

[23] Griselda could be compared to other biblical figures, like Abraham ready to sacrifice his only son in obedience to divine command (Genesis 22); but her farewell speech alone makes it clear that she is no Kierkegaardian "knight of faith" making the "infinite movement of resignation" and submitting her will to the "absolute": see Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, passim.


    I trowe that to a norice in this cas
It had been hard this reuthe for to se;
Wel myghte a mooder than han cryd "allas!"
But nathelees so sad stidefast was she . . .

This very sad-steadfastness, the Clerk goes on to imply, may be at least somewhat to blame, for after the birth of their second child Walter "caughte yet another lest / To tempte his wyf yet ofter, if he may" (619–20). "O nedelees was she tempted in assay!" the Clerk observes (independently of Petrarch),

But wedded men ne knowe no mesure,
Whan that they fynde a pacient creature .
                                       (621–23; my italics)

As with his first "temptation," Walter is clearly again testing his wife in order to resolve his own doubts, aroused in him by the birth of another child. When he pretends, for instance, that his people object to being ruled by someone with "the blood of Janicle" (632), he is surely expressing his own apprehensions about marriage to a social inferior and, more important, about the perennial conundrum of an heir who will eventually replace the father.

To Walter's threat that he will kill the son—as she is bound to interpret it—Griselda gives her usual agreeable answer, and yet its general tenor differs markedly from that in the Latin and French sources. There she reiterates the total coincidence of her will with Walter's. In the Clerk's Tale she professes utter obedience to a will or "lust" about which she leaves no doubt that it is both alien and superior:

Dooth youre plesaunce; I wol youre lust obeye.

     And certes, if I hadde prescience
Youre wyl to knowe, er ye youre lust me tolde,
I wolde it doon withouten negligence;
But now I woot youre lust, and what ye wolde,
Al youre plesance ferme and stable I holde;
For wiste I that my deeth wolde do yow ese,
Right gladly wolde I dyen, yow to plese.

     Deth may noght make no comparisoun
Unto youre love.


Significantly, Griselda speaks, not as she does in the sources, of "our love," but of "youre love." Her offer to die for him and her implicit equation of Walter's love with death show her realization that she is his means of appeasing the forces of darkness, of keeping death at bay.

With that we are recalled to the Prologue and the Clerk's meditation on "Deeth, that wol nat suffre us dwellen heer, / But as it were a twynklyng of an eye." From the perspective of Griselda's speech just quoted, these words now take on an unexpectedly dark, pessimistic tone: The world we consider home is in fact ruled by a hostile and arbitrary power that turns it into a battleground and earthly life into a brief holding action that ends with a violent defeat for everyone.[24]

The Clerk's narration has, accordingly, uncovered the dark roots of Petrarch's tale and of "Petrarchism." This has been persuasively analyzed by Charles Trinkaus as what he calls Petrarch's "double consciousness," "his sense of an opposition between the religious and secular realms—life in accord with the discovery of God and holiness vs. the attainment of worldly goals such as literary fame, wealth, romantic love, and glory."[25] In the Clerk's retelling, the marriage of Griselda and Walter reveals itself as an allegory of this ambivalence: two modes of consciousness uneasily united in one mind. The first of these is always ready to renounce the self and die to the world; the other is accustomed to command, yet constantly threatened by the thought of death. At the beginning of the tale, the focus is on Walter as yet unaware of the threat and awakened to it when urged to marry. Once married, however, he is able to transfer the burden of this awareness onto his wife. Like the ever-inventive, infinitely resourceful Petrarchan poet, he projects his own doubts and anxieties on a passively receptive figure while he himself

[24] John P. McCall notes the importance of the theme of death in the Clerk's Prologue and Tale, but reaches different conclusions: "The Clerk's Tale and the Theme of Obedience," pp. 264–66.

[25] Charles Trinkaus, The Poet as Philosopher, p. 52. Chapter 2 is entitled "Petrarch and the Tradition of Double Consciousness." Note also the title of Trinkaus's earlier study, Petrarch: Man Between Despair and Grace . Citing Adelia Noferi, L'esperienza poetica del Petrarca (Florence, 1962), Sara Sturm-Maddox says that Petrarch's "vacillations between an acknowledged spiritual good and an unrenounced earthly attraction are the story of the Rime sparse, a story of unrest whose prototype is once again the unregenerate Augustine of the early books of the Confessions": Petrarch's Metamorphoses, p. 123.


remains uninvolved.[26] Walter can indulge his "lust" of devising ways by which he can triumph over death precisely because, like Laura, Griselda accepts from the start that his love is a form of death for her, an obliteration of whatever tenuous identity she had before he took her from her father's house. Her expressed willingness to die in order to please him, cited earlier (664–65), is really a tautology.

Walter's final "temptation," in which he sends Griselda back to her father's house and stages a mock-marriage with his own daughter, shows him playing out yet another fantasy of triumph over death. Griselda willingly "dies" when she is stripped once more and returns in her smock to "hir fader house" (896) so that her place can be taken by a much younger replica of herself. Momentarily, indeed, it looks as though this latest "death" might signal Griselda's transformation from a mere mirror or accomplice of Walter's fantasies into an autonomous person. Thus she tells him that she will remain in her father's house, a "wydwe clene in body, herte, and al" (836)—as though Walter had already died. By such gestures toward independence that he allows Griselda, often on the basis of slight hints in the original,[27] the Clerk complicates and deepens the allegory. Insofar as he makes Griselda more than a passive cipher, he demonstrates the price Petrarchan dual consciousness exacts: literally, the oppression of woman; tropologically, the repression of the instincts, a hatred of life in the flesh, and a theology in which God and Satan become interchangeable.

Thus, when she learns that her children are alive after all, she instantly knows that this is due to the kindness of Walter:

[26] For analytic purposes I am distinguishing in Petrarch's case between poet and lover; the latter is of course very much involved; indeed, in the Canzoniere and the Trionfi Laura defends herself against accusations that she displayed a Walter-like cruelty toward her lover; cf. Sonnet 341 and Triumphus Mortis II, 100–105; and see the comments by Sara Sturm-Maddox, Petrarch's Metamorphoses, p. 62. For Walter as model or mirror of Petrarch, see Rafaello Ramat, Saggi sul Rinascimento (Florence, 1969), pp. 1–32, who sees Petrarch as wanting to be "maestro di vita fuori della vita" and as judging contemporary matters in the light of classical exemplars while he himself remains immune in his atemporal sphere. I take these observations from A. S. Bernardo's summary in Petrarch, Laura, and the "Triumphs," p. 21f. My discussion of Petrarch is indebted to John Freccero, "The Fig Tree and the Laurel."

[27] In the original, Griselda does say she will return to her father's house and live there as an always happy and honorable widow, but the implications there seem to me very different. The passage might also recall the moment in Triumphus Mortis when Petrarch asks Laura whether she is alive or dead, and she replies that it is she who is alive and he who is dead: "Dimmi pur, prego, s' tu se' morta or viva!" / "Viva son io e tu se' morto ancora" (II.21–22).


"Grauntmercy, lord, God thanke it yow," quod she,
"That ye han saved me my children deere!
Now rekke I nevere to been deed right heere;
Sith I stonde in youre love and youre grace,
No fors of deeth, ne whan my spirit pace!

     "O tendre, o deere, o yonge children myne!
Youre woful mooder wende stedfastly
That crueel houndes or som foul vermyne
Hadde eten yow; but God of his mercy
And youre benyngne fader tendrely
Hath doon yow kept."

Once more ready to "die"—she will shortly be stripped one last time and dressed in new finery (1114ff.)—Griselda has here completed her allegorical role. The tyrannical father she had earlier contrasted with the "father" who died on the cross, is now, in her words "redeemed" as "youre benyngne fader" (that word again!), like Christ and like her own helpless old father, who at the end comes to live at Walter's court, "til that the soule out of his body crepeth" (1134).[28]

Griselda's readiness to suppress or sacrifice her identity "saves the appearances," makes it possible to believe that a benign Father rather than a pitiless tyrant (whose name may be Father, Death, or whatever) rules over human existence, and allows Petrarch to turn the tale into an edifying allegory. By the time the Clerk presents Petrarch's formulation of his allegorical intent in the first part of his two-part "postscript" to his tale (the second part being the Envoy), Petrarch has completed the "sacrifice" of Griselda as a true-to-life wife so he can turn the text into the allegory he envisioned:

       This storie is seyd nat for that wyves sholde
Folwen Grisilde as in humylitee,
For it were inportable, though they wolde,
But for that every wight, in his degree,
Sholde be constant in adversitee
As was Grisilde; therefore Petrak writeth
This storie, which with heigh style he enditeth.

[28] Compare the lines describing the death of Laura in the Triumphus Mortis : "quasi un dolce dormir ne' suo' belli occhi, / sendo lo spirto già da lei diviso," "like a sweet sleep in her beautiful eyes, / the spirit being already departed from her" (169–70). This looks ahead to a "resolution" of the fear of death, which is such a dominant motif in Petrarch.


        For sith a womman was so pacient
Unto a mortal man, wel moore us oghte
Receyven al in gree that God us sent;
For greet skile is he preeve that he wroghte.
But he ne tempteth no man that he boghte,
As seith Seint Jame, if ye his pistel rede;
He preeveth folk al day, it is no drede,

        And suffreth us, as for oure exercise,
With sharpe scourges of adversitee
Ful ofte to be bete in sondry wise;
Nat for to knowe our wyl, for certes he,
Er we were born, knew al oure freletee;
And for oure beste is al his governaunce.
Lat us thanne lyve in vertuous suffraunce.

In presenting to his audience the allegorical significance Petrarch ascribed to his tale, the Clerk, like Griselda, "saves the appearances," making it seem that he has faithfully retold the text he "learned" in Padua. By this point, however, the reader is aware that the Petrarchan moral can apply only if much of the narrative is erased: Walter's conduct as husband and as tempter god, Griselda's as literal woman and wife. When the Clerk declares her humility to be "inportable," he is not just translating Petrarch's "vix imitabilis," "scarcely imitable," but also implying what we have seen his version repeatedly insinuate, namely, that Griselda's "humility" is unbearable in being morally repugnant.

The Host's words in the Prologue, then, once again prove to be on target when he jokingly suggests to the Clerk: "I trowe ye studie aboute som sophyme" (5). The Clerk, who "unto logyk hadde longe ygo" (I.286), will have understood the Host's term in the precise, technical sense. By the end of his tale he has in effect exposed Petrarch's allegory as a sophism, "A specious but fallacious argument, either used deliberately in order to deceive or mislead, or employed as a means of displaying ingenuity in reasoning" (OED, s.v.). Petrarch, the Clerk implies, either wants a Griselda who is both an imaginable historical actuality and a timeless allegorical ideal, without admitting that the two are incompatible; or else he is prepared to sacrifice, as we saw, the literal Griselda for the sake of a preconceived spiritual idea that is more or less completely disjunct from the narrative.[29] In either case we are dealing with a form of violence.

[29] According to R. P. Miller, "there can be no real correlation between . . .spiritual truth and the human terms employed by the Clerk to represent it": "Allegory in the Canterbury Tales, " in Companion to Chaucer Studies, ed. Beryl Rowland, p. 281. But other commentators are troubled by the tale's literal-allegorical disjunction—e.g., Elizabeth Salter, Chaucer: "The Knight's Tale" and the "Clerk's Tale" (London: Edward Arnold, 1962), p. 61f., and Bertrand Bronson, In Search of Chaucer (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1960), p. 114.


When he addresses the audience directly before launching into the high-spirited Envoy, the Clerk bears a remarkable resemblance to the actor who speaks the epilogue of an Elizabethan comedy:

        But o word, lordynges, herkneth er I go:
It were ful hard to fynde now-a-dayes
In al a toun Grisildis thre or two;
For if that they were put to swiche assayes,
The gold of hem hath now so badde alayes
With bras, that thogh the coyne be fair at eye,
It wolde rather breste a-two than plye.

Like the actor, he is getting ready to leave the stage—"herkneth er I go"—and, already halfway out of his dramatic role, he shifts his tone in order to communicate more directly (perhaps) with his audience. There is of course only the make-believe stage of the road to Canterbury. Nonetheless, the gesture of transition that the Clerk makes, like the Elizabethan epiloguist, providing a bridge between the fictive world of his story and the "actual" world of the pilgrims, is of enormous significance for The Canterbury Tales . The tale has been a kind of theatrical performance in which, as we have seen, the Clerk encountered himself by "impersonating" (to use Marshall Leicester's felicitous term) Griselda and Walter; at the same time it involved a return to the past in Padua where Petrarch's presence seemed to make an ideal Griselda possible or at least imaginable. But as the Clerk steps into the "now" of the pilgrimage, he bids a final farewell to Petrarchan idealism, not without a satiric thrust at the humanist-antiquarian's habit of opposing a golden past to a degenerate present.[30] But the Clerk's prime target is quite simply an

[30] In an essay entitled "Petrarch and the Humanist Hermeneutic," in Italian Literature: Roots and Branches, ed. Giose Rimanelli and Kenneth J. Atchity, pp. 201–24, Thomas M. Greene credits Petrarch with turning allegory into an "archaeological hermeneutic" (p. 210), "a decipherment of the latent or hidden or indecipherable object of historical knowledge beneath the surface" (p. 208). Perhaps this allegory is still essentially timeless, however, since for Petrarch the antique past (like the "time" of Griselda) is an idealized, static entity rather than part of a historical continuum.See Arnaud Tripet, Pétrarque ou la connaissance de soi, p. 141, on Petrarch's "classicisme mythique."


allegory that disjoins the literal from the other senses and in effect presumes to impose these others on the text by authorial fiat. The Petrarchan allegorist, in other words, does not expect the literal text to yield an allegorical meaning voluntarily or naturally, and if it does, he is not interested in it. Like Walter with Griselda, he feels the need to subject his text to violence so that it will conform to his spiritual idea.

The Clerk concludes his performance with the epilogue-song (1177–1212) "for the Wyves love of Bathe— / Whos lyf and al hir secte God mayntene / In heigh maistrie, and elles it were scathe" (1170–72). It seems at first a strictly backhanded tribute to the Wife, as if to say that wives must choose between an "inportable" patience and an equally unbearable "maistrie." But the tone of playful irony suggests otherwise. The opening announcement that "Grisilde is deed, and eek her pacience, / And both atones buryed in Ytaille" (177), implies that even as a moral-spiritual ideal Griselda is as timebound as her author, whose death the Clerk so emphatically mentioned twice in his Prologue in terms that his song is surely intended to recall.[31] But in the radically different perspective of the song, death is perceived, not as a quasi-demonic force, as it was in the Prologue and through most of the tale, but as in the nature of things and even as a means of liberating the living from an undue attachment to authoritative texts, images, figures of the past by enforcing their temporal, contingent character.

By invoking "the Wyves love of Bathe" the Clerk is signaling, I believe, a victory of sorts over the Petrarchan dread of death as a threat to all human endeavor. Of all the pilgrims, the Wife represents most fully a vitality that does not shrink from old age and death, and the Clerk's advice to all wives to fight it out in her fashion is, finally, no merely ironic gesture but a seriocomic statement of the real moral of his tale: unless the woman's voice makes itself heard, the man will be tempted to become a tyrant; unless the integrity of the literal is respected, the allegorical will be a mere sophism, a specious argument designed to deceive the audience and perhaps the allegorist himself.

[31] Here again there may be a subtle echo of Petrarch's own words, in Sonnet 264, when he expresses his fear that his glory will die with him: "e temo ch'un sepolcro ambeduo chiuda," "I fear one sepulcher will enclose both" (65).


The Clerk, we have seen, has in the course of his narration come to recant his youthful Petrarchism and by the end, under the aegis of the Wife of Bath, as it were, has moved decisively in the direction of what at the beginning of the chapter I called a Dantean ideology. I now want to make this last point more persuasive.

Perhaps the best commentary on the Clerk's Tale and the "odyssey" it has involved him in is the Pilgrim's dream of the siren in canto XIX of the Purgatorio . This dream begins with the appearance of a stammering woman with eyes askew, crooked feet, and so forth. The dreamer's gaze transforms this woman into a beautiful one, who identifies herself in song as the siren who "turned aside Ulysses, although he / had longed to journey" ("Io volsi Ulisse del suo cammin vago," 22f.). At this moment in the dream, a woman appears, "alert and saintly" ("santa e presta," 25), who asks Virgil, "Who is this?" Virgil then violently tears off the siren's clothes (who says sirens do not wear clothes?), exposing her belly, and the resultant stench awakens the Pilgrim.

For the Pilgrim this dream represents part of his gradual reeducation before he can be reunited with Beatrice in the Earthly Paradise. For him the decrepit, repulsive figure of the woman is the repressed image of the dead Beatrice, a point reinforced by the simile applied to the effect of the dreamer's gaze on her: "just as sun revives / cold limbs that night made numb" ("come 'l sol conforta / le fredde membra che la notte aggrava," 10f.). The death of Beatrice ("recorded" in the Vita Nuova ) left Dante (Pilgrim and Poet) disconsolate and tempted by what Robert Harrison has called the "Petrarchan alternative," which, he says, became "real for Dante only in the wake of the loss of Beatrice."[32] The temptation of this Petrarchan alternative would seem to be perfectly exemplified by the dream, specifically the dreamer's transformative gaze, analogous to Walter's having Griselda stripped and then clothed in his finery, so that like Laura she will be essentially the product (and fulfillment) of his desire, his imagination.[33]

In the dream another Beatrice figure, the "donna . . . santa e

[32] Robert Harrison, The Body of Beatrice, p. 96.

[33] Cf. Robert Harrison on Cavalcanti's lyric mode, of which Petrarch's is clearly an extension:

Love figures as a dangerous confusion between the woman proper and the ineffable, ideal beauty that inheres in her corporeal substance only accidentally, that is to say,not as a proper attribute but as a condescension from another realm. Her beauty, in other words, belongs to an independent order of reality that has no substantial links to the world of generation and decay and no real similitude in the world of substances. (The Body of Beatrice, p. 87f.)

Harrison's observation that "to save the dead from speechlessness becomes the first step in the epic enterprise of redemption" (The Body of Beatrice, p. 162), makes an especially poignant (self-referential) detail of the dreamer's gaze in its effect of loosening the stammering woman's tongue. Note that like the Wife of Bath in her relation with her five husbands, Beatrice's role with respect to the Pilgrim in the Earthly Paradise is primarily accusatory; it could almost be called combative.


presta" (26), rescues the Pilgrim-dreamer from the Petrarchan alternative by calling on Virgil. But Virgil's act of stripping the siren and exposing her belly, as Walter has Griselda stripped a second time before sending her home, is obviously not a satisfactory solution, and the fact that the dreamer is awakened by the stench from her belly shows his continuing disgust at the (female) body. He will require the further reeducation of three Purgatorial terraces and another dream (in Purg . XXVII) before he is ready to be reunited with Beatrice.

The preceding excursus into the Comedy is intended to suggest that the Clerk undergoes an education very much as Dante's Pilgrim does, at his own hands, as it were. After all, "gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche" (I.308). Tempted at one time by the siren song of Petrarchism and its promise of intellectual mastery and self-sufficiency, the Clerk gains an insight into its darker consequences and implications. In the end he realizes that it is not the self-pleasing image of an obediently stammering Griselda, but the full-bodied and cantankerous "person" of the Wife of Bath—she of the loosened tongue!—that has been the goal of his quest all along. An unlikely marriage! the reader will say. But is it? What, after all, was her fifth husband?

I am not suggesting the beginning of a literal roadside romance. My point is merely that through the theatrical play of his tale, and through the awareness of the audience for which he "performs" the Petrarchan fable, the Clerk learns what the Wife of Bath is about. For this moment, at least, she is his Beatrice.


The Merchant's Tale:
Allegory in the Mirror of Marriage

Just before the veiled Beatrice appears "in person" for the first time in the Comedy, an old man invites or announces her entrance into the Earthly Paradise in the words of the Song of Songs: "Veni, sponsa, de Libano" (Purg . XXX.11).[1] The great formality of the scene, the use of Latin, and the symbolic trappings—the old man is one of twenty-four representing the books of the Old Testament, in this case the Song of Solomon—should not obscure the fact that Dante is here using the language and allegorical symbols of the Bible,[2] for the purpose of dramatizing a highly personal and in the first instance quite literal, nonallegorical event, namely, the reunion at long last of the Pilgrim and Beatrice. What underlines both the personal and the literal element here is the fact that for the only time in the entire poem the name Dante is mentioned (l. 55), it being the first word addressed to him by Beatrice. The extratextual "biographical" reality or status of these two characters is powerfully suggested by this detail, and it is reinforced by their extended references to a shared past before the poem's fictive present (see ll. 34–42; 114ff.). They know each other not as allegorical entities but as concretely imagined individuals.

[1] See Charles S. Singleton's note to Purg . XXX.10; the full quotation from the Vulgate reads: "Veni de Libano, sponsa mea, veni de Libano, veni, coronaberis," "Come from Lebanon, my bride, come from Lebanon, come and you shall be crowned" (Cant. 4.8). In the same note Singleton identifies the old man as representative of the Song of Songs.

[2] Not only the Bible; one Latin quotation (l. 21) is from the Aeneid .


Of the entire scene, including the enigmatic pageant that begins in canto XXIX, Bernard Stambler has written in words that stress the boldness of Dante's poetic undertaking:

We must realize that the entire pageant is being staged for the intensely personal transaction that Beatrice has to execute with Dante. If Scripture, Church, and Christ are to be thought of as universal and transcendent, Dante reminds us that by the same token all three exist for every individual being.[3]

What Stambler calls the "intensely personal transaction" must be, given the citation from the Song of Songs, a kind of marriage. The Pilgrim, in other words, becomes the Solomonic bridegroom to Beatrice's Queen of Sheba in a marriage that was merely deferred in the Vita Nuova . And the procession that has so puzzled the commentators is surely, at its most fundamental level, their wedding procession.

It is in the mirror of this impossible or at least unconsummated sacrament that I think the Comedy takes shape. Just after Beatrice has declared her identity to him (XXX.73), the Pilgrim happens to see himself reflected in the water of Lethe, and he withdraws his eyes in shame (76–78), a clear sign that his pilgrimage is still crucially incomplete. It will take him to the end of the Paradiso before he can "see" the identity between the image glimpsed in the water and that inscribed in the divine circle, before his Solomonic marriage can be consummated. Marriage, in short, is a mirror in which the partners find a reflection of themselves and of the other; it is, furthermore, the mirror in which poets like Dante and Chaucer discover an abstract of their society and civilization. If this is true of the Comedy, it is all the more true of The Canterbury Tales, where, as we know, the institution becomes a well-nigh obsessive metaphor.

In no other tale is this obsessiveness more apparent than in the Merchant's Tale, one reason, I think, for its central place in the total design of The Canterbury Tales . Its importance to the present study derives from the fact that it takes as its basic premise the "wedding" of Dante and Beatrice in the Earthly Paradise, and in so doing incorporates, again as no other single Canterbury tale does, many of the major themes and motifs of the Comedy in its own exuberant and yet also grimly satirical comedy. My discussion of the tale in the following pages, accordingly, is intended to be a kind of sum-

[3] Bernard Stambler, Dante's Other World, p. 256.


mation at the same time of the intertextual relations between the two epics with which I have been concerned throughout.

In telling his tale, the Clerk was aware of his audience of fellow pilgrims, among them the Wife of Bath, who, it was suggested, becomes a Beatrice leading him out of the closed world of Petrarchan allegory into Dante's and Chaucer's "theater in the round." In the Merchant's Tale, contrariwise, the Wife of Bath plays a very different role. There, one of the characters, Justinus, concludes a discussion about marriage by facetiously declaring that "the Wyf of Bathe, if ye han understonde, / Of mariage, which we have on honde, / Declared hath ful wel in litel space" (1685–87). By thus incorporating her in his fiction, the Merchant seems to be reducing her to the size (as it were) of his fictive characters, though it could be argued that he is raising the latter to the level of the pilgrims. In any case, this amusing gesture, whatever its precise effect, does imply that for the Merchant the boundaries of (his) fiction are much more loosely drawn than they are for the Clerk.[4] Indeed, at times in the course of his tale it seems as though these boundaries are so blurred as to scarcely exist at all. And this is all the more surprising since the Merchant's Tale is surely the most "literary" of all the Canterbury tales, a veritable storehouse of intertextual "sources and analogues," and of explicit allusions and citations naming a variety of texts and authors. Among these texts, the Comedy, though it remains unnamed, occupies, as I have indicated, a place of central importance.

This last statement will need defending for various reasons, the first of which is that the Merchant's Tale has often seemed to commentators to lack a central focus or organizing principle, and this lack has also repeatedly been cited to cast doubt on the "dramatic theory" according to which the tales are the expressive utterance of a particular narrator. There is unquestionably a problem here, and since the theory is a cornerstone of this study, I propose to deal with it head-on.

Let me begin by granting that the tale lacks a unified perspective. As a corollary to this, I suggest, we are meant to see a narrator who is unsure of his own viewpoint, does not know quite where he stands. The relationship between this teller and his tale, in other words, differs subtly from that of the others in that the tale seems to have a life and a dynamic of its own, which the teller is unable to control,

[4] I am echoing here a comment by R. A. Shoaf in his discussion of the Merchant's Tale in Dante, Chaucer, and the Currency of the Word, p. 199.


to which he can only react. The image that comes to mind is one I discussed in chapter 3: the monster Geryon carrying the terrified poet-pilgrim down to the eighth circle of the Inferno. The Geryon episode, I argued earlier, implied a view of the Comedy as a text emerging from the hidden recesses of the pilgrim-poet's mind and seeming to "write itself" without his conscious intervention.[5] The analogy with the Merchant's Tale as a kind of ventriloquist's text "telling itself" is of course rough. The Merchant is no professional poet and has no expert beast-handler like Virgil to help him. What he does perhaps have is a great mimetic gift, if we are to believe Boccaccio, who explains why Mercury is the god of merchants by the fact that they must "adapt themselves to the customs of the nations to which they go, and conduct all their business with a certain astute circuitousness of speech" (quadam astuta sermonis circumvolutione ).[6]

A monster rather like Geryon does crop up in the Merchant's Tale, and if it causes him no terror, it does express his anxiety. More precisely, it appears in his exclamation at the sudden blindness of his male protagonist, January. I will cite the passage, not with any pretense that Chaucer had Geryon in mind when he wrote it, since the reference to a scorpion in both is sufficient to explain the similarity between them,[7] but because it vividly illustrates the Merchant's emotional investment in the progress of his story, its ability to provoke in him violently ambivalent feelings:

        O sodeyn hap! O thou Fortune unstable!
Lyk to the scorpion so deceyvable,
That flaterest with thyn heed whan thou wolt stynge;
Thy tayl is deeth, thurgh thyn envenymynge.
O brotil joye! O sweete venym queynte!
O monstre, that so subtilly kanst peynte
Thy yiftes under hewe of stidefastnesse,
That thou deceyvest bothe moore and lesse!
Why hastow Januarie thus deceyved,
That haddest hym for thy fulle freend receyved?
And now thou hast biraft hym bothe his yen,
For sorwe of which desireth he to dyen.

[5] This idea derives from Philippe Sollers, "Dante et la traversée de l'écriture," in L'Écriture et l'expérience des limites, p. 15.

[6] Boccaccio, Genealogie Deorum Gentilium Libri, VII, xxxvi; vol. l, p. 367.

[7] See especially the note, in the Riverside edition, to ll. 636–41 of the Book of the Duchess, and Singleton's note to Inf . VIII.1–18 and 11.

[8] Correspondences with Geryon in Inf . XVII are "The face of a just man, / sogracious" (10–11); "all his tail was quivering in the void / while twisting upward its envenomed fork, which had a tip just like a scorpion's" (25–27).


What, the reader wonders, justifies this passionate outburst,[9] this concern for January as Fortune's victim and even as tragic protagonist (in the manner of the Monk's Tale) who has brought a terrible fate upon himself? And how did Fortune become a monster of a deadly sexuality: Thy tail is death, O sweete venym queynte ?[10] The incongruities, the rhetorical excess, and the sexual double entendres hint at a hidden, "repressed" logic. Just before the onset of his blindness January had used his garden retreat for sexual pleasure with his wife, May, a matter that the Merchant related with evident pleasure (2048–55). The invocation, therefore, of a Fortune at once seductive and lethal is a protest at and a covert justification of what is now happening to January. For this intensely ambivalent narrator the story turns into a battle between erotic desire and the belief that eroticism will somehow destroy a man.[11]

This ambivalence may be further illustrated by the account of January's wedding. Picturing the bride sitting "with so benyngne a chiere," the Merchant says that "Hire to biholde it semed fayerye" (1742–43), putting himself in the place of the bridegroom "ravysshed in a traunce / At every tyme he looked on hir face" (1750–51), and of another spectator, January's squire, Damyan, also "ravysshed" (1774) at her sight. All are ravished not just by the bride but also by the wedding procession where Venus "with hire fyrbrond in hire hand about / Daunseth biforn the bryde and al the route" (1727–28). But when this squire finds that Venus has "hurt hym with hire brond, / As that she bar it daunsynge in hire hond" (1777–78), the traditional wedding torch becomes, like the scorpion-For-

[9] The Merchant is prone to such outbursts, starting with the one against his wife in his Prologue. Coincidentally, Inf . XVII begins with Virgil's outburst against "the beast who bears the pointed tail."

[10] The Riverside editor has no comment on these, but just above (to ll. 2045–46) notes that "clyket" and "wyket" "may be a double entendre for male and female genitalia." For "tail" and "queynte" as double entendres for female genitalia I would think the evidence of The Canterbury Tales suffices: see VII. 416 (Shipman's Tale), III. 466 (Wife of Bath's Prologue), and I. 3276 (Miller's Tale).

[11] This idea, too familiar to require documentation, is recurrent in the medieval antifeminist literature. From antiquity, Lucretius provides a striking example: De rerum natura IV. 1121f. For a fourteenth-century example, see Eustache Deschamps's Miroir de Mariage, one of the numerous "sources" of the Merchant's Tale: xvii. 1579–80. For the idea that sex affects the eyesight, see VI. 252–77, where is cited the Old Testament story of Tobit, whose blindness seems to be connected with male anxiety about sex; and Paul Delany, "Constantinus Africanus and Chaucer's Merchant's Tale ."


tuna discussed above, not just exciting but also quite alarming, so alarming, indeed, that the Merchant feels compelled to exclaim against it in yet another of his outbursts:

        O perilous fyr, that in the bedstraw bredeth!
O familier foo, that his service bedeth!
O servant traytour, false hoomly hewe,
Lyk to the naddre in bosom sly untrewe,
God shilde us alle from your aqueyntaunce!
O Januarie, dronken in plesaunce
In mariage, se how thy Damyan
Thyn owene squier and thy borne man,
Entendeth for to do thee vileynye.
God graunte thee thyn hoomly fo t'espye!
For in this world nys worse pestylence
Than hoomly foo al day in thy presence.

In his typically repetitive, almost incantatory manner, the Merchant here does what we saw him do in the exclamation against Fortune. By, in effect, identifying the perilous fire with Damyan as the homely or familiar foe, he can speak simultaneously about the story and his own emotional state. Like that other oxymoron, "the sweete venym queynte," the homely foe is to be feared and shunned because it will betray and destroy: "God shilde us alle from your aqueyntaunce!" Yet we all know it is there and not to be denied: "God graunte thee thy hoomly fo t'espy." Looking outward to the actual story, the double prayer is fulfilled with startling literalness much later in the tale when the god Pluto grants January the ability to spy Damyan with May in the tree, and he proceeds to repress the knowledge of what he has seen. Looking inward, the prayer speaks to and from the Merchant's embattled soul.

When he tells of January's wedding night, the Merchant's view of Damyan has changed. Now he shows him as the victim of the very fire with which he earlier identified him: "This sike Damyan in Venus fyr / So brenneth that he dyeth for desyr, / For which he putte his lyf in aventure" (1875–77). So solicitous has he become that he speaks to him as though he were a friend by his side:

                 O sely Damyan, allas!
Andswere to my demaunde, as in this cas.
How shaltow to thy lady, fresshe May,
Telle thy wo?  She wole alwey seye nay.


Eek if thou speke, she wol thy wo biwreye.
God be thyn help! I kan no bettre seye.

May has stepped into the role of the homely foe who "wol thy woe biwreye," a role she will play again later to January when he has become blind and Venus's fire turns into "the fyr of jalousie" that "So brente his herte that he wolde fayn / That som man bothe hir and hym had slayn" (2075–76).

For January, sexual desire has become indistinguishable from the desire for murder and suicide, and it is tempting to see here a reflection of the Merchant's own psychic state, the "soory herte" of whose sorrow, he says at the end of his Prologue, he will not tell any more. That his tale does in fact tell "more" has been my argument so far, and also that it does so without the Merchant's being aware of it. At innumerable points it touches upon what he wants to shield from his "aqueyntaunce," and it is just this that enables the tale to push and pull him around, as we have seen it do.

And if the tale reveals what its teller is, or wants to remain, unconscious of, it will do so in an indirect fashion. As an example, let us note the transposition undergone by the two months the Merchant says he has been married (1234). Rather conspicuously, like the purloined letter, they reappear in the names of the marriage partners. Later, quite inconspicuously, they show up when January is reconciled to his blindness but not to his jealousy, "after a month or tweye" (2081). What is the Merchant inadvertently—by the "parapraxis" of tale-telling—revealing about himself and his marriage?

In attempting to answer that question we must first look at the Prologue to his tale, which begins with his outburst about his marital unhappiness, an outburst rather strangely triggered by the Clerk's humorous envoy, whose last line it echoes. He blames his wife for this unhappiness and denounces her with extraordinary ferocity as "the worste that may be" (1218) for her "hye malice" and "cursednesse" (1222, 1239). We learn that "thogh the feend to hire ycoupled were, / She wole hym overmacche, I dare wel swere" (1219–20), and are left wondering how such a diabolical monster could be unmasked in a period of two months. But when the Merchant declares that there is "a long and large difference" between Griselda's patience and his wife's "passyng crueltee" (1225), the thought presents itself that the Merchant is fictionalizing even before he has


started his tale. So I propose that the Merchant, reacting to the Clerk's Tale, has in fact turned his marriage into a Petrarchan allegory or morality play, in which his wife plays the part of Walter and he that of a kind of Griselda.

When the Merchant now turns to his tale he is turning, not, as we might have thought, from "real life" to fiction, but from one kind of fiction—Petrarchan, to another—Dantean, Chaucerian. In short, he is making the same transition we saw the Clerk making, except that the Clerk made it consciously, the Merchant not. The specifically Dantean character of the Merchant's Tale will already be apparent to the reader—especially in light of the narrator's conspicuously dual role as both outside and (in various ways) inside his fiction—but its fuller intertextuality with the Comedy awaits discussion of January, the prosperous sixty-year-old Lombard knight with whom the tale begins. After a lifetime of following "ay his bodily delyt / On women, ther as was his appetyt" (1249–50), he has a sudden desire to marry. In the fourteenth century Lombards were generally considered synonymous with merchants,[12] and so I propose the hypothesis that January stands for the Merchant in the first month of his marriage. By this I mean to imply no more than a parallelism between them, whether of outlook, habits, mannerisms, or the like. As an example, both are fairly addicted to invoking the name of God, and both tend to view things in theological or biblical terms. Thus the Merchant comments on the knight's sexual promiscuity when he was a bachelor, with "As doon thise fooles that been seculeer " (1251; my italics), that is, in the precise ecclesiastical sense of the term, "worldly, unspiritual."[13] Similarly, the Merchant comments on January's desire to marry with "Were it for hoolynessse or for dotage / I kan nat seye" (1253–54). But if the narrator is uncertain, his character is in no doubt and begins by

Preyinge oure Lord to graunten him that he
Mighte ones knowe of thilke blisful lyf
That is bitwixe an housbonde and his wyf,
And for to lyve under that hooly boond

[12] "All commercial Italians seem to have been called 'Lombards' at first," writes Armando Sapori in The Italian Merchant in the Middle Ages, p. 14, as quoted by Joan Ferrante, The Political Vision of the "Divine Comedy, " p. 326, n. 29. The Clerk's Tale is also set in Lombardy.

[13] Not "lay," as those who want to assign the tale to a member of the clergy like to suggest. For a refutation of their view, see J. C. McGalliard, "Chaucer's Merchant's Tale and Deschamps' Miroir de Mariage, p. 194f.


With which that first God man and womman bond.
"Noon oother lyf," seyde he, "is worth a bene;
For wedlok is so esy and so clene,
That in this world it is a paradys."
Thus seyde this olde knyght, that was so wys.

The Merchant now follows with his own 126-line encomium of marriage, echoing and expanding January's reflections. January's reference to the "holy bond," the Merchant elaborates into:

A wyf is Goddes yifte verraily.  (1311)
Marriage is a ful greet sacrement.  (1319)
. . . womman is for mannes help ywroght.
The hye God, whan he hadde Adam maked,
And saugh him al allone, bely-naked,
God of his grete goodnesse seyde than,
"Lat us now make an helpe unto this man
Lyk to hymself"; and thanne he made him Eve.
Heere may ye se, and heerby may ye preve,
That wyf is mannes helpe and his confort,
His paradys terrestre, and his disport."

That last line in turn echoes January's idea of wedlock as "in this world . . . a paradys."[14] Many commentators read these lines as bitterly ironic; others read them unironically and wonder who their speaker might be.[15] Without abandoning the idea that they belong to the Merchant, I want to combine the two viewpoints and say, yes, the lines contain much irony (the Merchant is no longer in the first month of marriage), and yet they are not consistently ironic in the sense that at one time (the first month) the Merchant believed in them and he retains a certain faith in the institution if not in what it presumes about wives.

It is, after all, his wife whom he blames for his unhappiness, so that his virtual participation in the ensuing "marriage debate" as a defender of the institution, though certainly tinged with irony, is not completely insincere. Thus, his refutation of Theophrastus's antimatrimonial arguments (1293–1310) anticipates, or by anticipa-

[14] Kenneth A. Bleeth has shown that the idea of marriage as a paradise is a recurrent one in ME poetry; see his "The Image of Paradise in the Merchant's Tale, " p. 46f.

[15] See the note to this passage in the Riverside edition.


tion echoes, the "disputisoun" (1474) that develops between Placebo and Justinus, two friends of January, after the latter has announced his decision to marry for the good of his soul (1400–1405). Now, this so-called dispute brings out an irony that has been present from the beginning of the "marriage debate," but of which the Merchant—as well as a number of commentators—has been entirely unaware, being himself one of its targets. It is that in a fundamental sense the "marriage debate" has been no debate at all, and the Merchant's alternatives, "hoolynesse" or "dotage," in this case involve a distinction without a difference. When Placebo extravagantly praises January's decision (1478–1518), and Justinus gravely cautions him against rushing into a risky transaction (1521–65), between them they define precisely January's idea of marriage as a sanctified way to the man's gratification (placere ). Like Theophrastus earlier, Justinus simply insists on using "realistic" terms, which for him means those of a hardheaded business deal; acquiring a wife is like buying livestock: "no man fynden shal / Noon in this world that trotteth hool in al, / Ne man ne beest" (1537–39).[16] January does not disagree, except that in his language the livestock has turned to meat; his wife, he insists, must not be more than sixteen (some mss. have twenty) years old, for "bet than old boef is the tendre veel" (1420).

Whereas the reader, in other words, sees the "debaters" absolutely agreed on the basic purpose of marriage, the characters, including the narrator, are convinced they are engaged in a genuine clash of viewpoints, chiefly between what they consider a sacred or sacramental and a profane or economic idea of the institution.[17] How serious January is about the theological implications of his undertaking, once he has found the young woman of his choice, is shown by the hesitation he confides to his friends:

"I have," quod he, "herd seyd, ful yoore ago,
Ther may no man han parfite blisses two—

[16] In A Reading of the Canterbury Tales, Bernard F. Huppé regards Placebo and Justinus as "allegorical embodiments of two aspects of January's mind" (p. 148), with Justinus as "the awareness of right conduct." Joseph J. Mogan, Jr., in "Chaucer and the Bona Matrimonii, " notes, "The advice of January's faithful counselor Justinus reflects the teachings of the moralists concerning pleasure in marriage" (p. 130).

[17] The "economic"—from Greek oikonomía, the management of a household—is the classical, "Aristotelian" conception of marriage. See R. A. Shoaf's chapter, "The Merchant and the Parody of Creation," in Dante, Chaucer, and the Currency of the Word, pp. 185ff., citing Nicole Oresme's 1374 translation of the pseudo-Aristotelian Oeconomica under the title Le Livre de yconomique d'Aristote .


This is to seye, in erthe and eek in hevene.
For though he kepe hym fro the synnes sevene, . . .
Yet is ther so parfit felicitee
And so greet ese and lust in mariage
That evere I am agast now in myn age . . .
That I shall have myn hevene in erthe heere.
For sith that verray hevene is boght so deere
With tribulacioun and greet penaunce,
How sholde I thanne, that lyve in swich plesaunce
As alle wedded men doon with hire wyvys,
Come to the blisse ther Crist eterne on lyve ys?
This is my drede, and ye, my bretheren tweye,
Assoilleth me this question, I preye."

Like Justinus, the reader is likely to consider this "folye" unworthy of serious refutation (1655ff.), though Justinus does give a theological answer of sorts that, as I have already noted, ironically invokes the authority of the Wife of Bath (1685–87). In fact, however, the question of the "two beatitudes" that concerns January was a live theological issue in the fourteenth century. Dante devotes serious discussion to it in De Monarchia and in the fourth treatise of the Convivio, continuing a tradition whose most authoritative exponents in the thirteenth century were Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas,[18] and of course it is implicit in his two paradises, the terrestrial in the Purgatorio and the celestial in the next canticle. To be sure, from a traditional theologian's point of view January states the problem the wrong way around, since he proceeds from the absurd premise—of which Justinus tries to disabuse him—that marriage guarantees perfect earthly bliss. And the long-standing Christian belief in a supernatural bliss has always tended to imply that any notion of complete earthly happiness is illusory—something that, once again, Dante deals with in the treatises just mentioned. But once January's premise is accepted—and from the perspective of marriage as a sacrament it is not entirely unreasonable—his expressed concern gains considerable cogency and even qualifies as an indirect critique of Christendom with its fixation on the penitential and its opposition to eroticism.

I am not saying that January intends to criticize the Church or its

[18] See Mario Trovato, "Dante and the Tradition of the 'Two Beatitudes,'" pp. 19–36. Trovato argues that Dante's views conform perfectly to those of Albert and Thomas; in The King's Two Bodies Ernst Kantorowicz makes a convincing case for Dante's originality in this area.


theologians. On the contrary, perhaps his most salient trait is a naive faith in the institutions of the Church, most particularly the sacrament of marriage. As we saw, this sacrament is closely linked with the Earthly Paradise because it is there that God established it. In January's words quoted earlier (and echoed by the Merchant), "that hooly boond / With which that first God man and womman bond" thus contains the promise of creating "in this world . . . a paradys."

In his earnest if ludicrously misguided quest for "holiness" and felicity in marriage, January is not altogether unlike that other quester who does pass through the Earthly Paradise and celebrates a kind of wedding there, preparatory to his entry into the celestial paradise! Accordingly, when "Heigh fantasye and curious bisynesse / Fro day to day gan in the soule impresse / Of Januarie aboute his mariage" (1577–79; my italics), the reader may be reminded of the climax of the Comedy when the pilgrim-poet's alta fantasia (Par . XXXIII.142), having brought him thus far, at last fails him. And when at length January has completed his search for a bride—its method deflatingly compared to setting up a mirror in the market-place (1582ff.)—and "apoynted hym on oon, / And leet alle othere from his herte goon" (1595–96), one may well think of the Pilgrim reunited with Beatrice in the Earthly Paradise.

These parallels certainly suggest a travesty of the Dantean pilgrimage, but a travesty that is also a perfectly serious act of interpretation and "translation." By that I mean, first of all, that Chaucer in transforming Dante's otherworld narrative into a thisworldly one is, as it were, testing Dante's premises precisely by the incongruities that they create when seen in a different context. I shall argue also that in the Merchant's Tale the Comedy functions as one of the "repressed" texts—properly a subtext, therefore—which at the surface level will necessarily manifest itself in a distorted or travesty form.

As a text, the Comedy does what in his misguided way January also attempts to do, namely, to recuperate in its integrity the one biblical text that represents a celebration or sacramentalization of eroticism and the body.[19] It is ultimately because she is a reincarnation, as her cantos in the Purgatorio demonstrate, of the mysterious female figure in the Song of Songs, that Beatrice has a body. But in allowing the Song of Songs its literal signification, the Comedy sets itself in opposition to the almost unanimous trend, going back to

[19] In this connection I refer the reader to Sollers's discussion of Bataille in "The Roof: Essay in Systematic Reading," in Writing and the Experience of Limits, p. 116.


the early Jewish commentators, of denying it the status of a literal love poem and giving it instead the status of a spiritual or quasipolitical allegory only. For the medieval view of the Song of Songs, Augustine's principles of biblical hermeneutics appear to have been fairly decisive. One of these decrees that any interpreter must be selective in considering the literal meaning of a biblical text, so that whenever the literal reading of a biblical text does not promote charity, its meaning should be taken only in an allegorical sense.[20] Commenting himself on the Song of Songs, Augustine invoked Paul's dictum about the letter that kills and warned the reader against taking in a "carnal" sense "much that is written in the Song of Songs," because it will lead "not to the fruit of luminous charity but to a disposition of libidinous cupidity."[21] For at least a millennium Augustine's warning appears to have been effective: the great majority of medieval commentators either ignore the literal sense of the Song of Songs or else pass over it very quickly in favor of discussing the allegory.[22] Thus, even though the Song of Songs was generally regarded as a wedding poem or drama and was often thought to have been composed by Solomon himself in celebration of his wedding to Pharaoh's daughter or the Queen of Sheba, this "literal" sense is never discussed or examined for its own sake. Instead, the focus is on the allegorical significance of the Song of Songs, specifically the idea of a mystical marriage between God and man. A perfect early example of the resultant confusion with respect to the textual status of the Song of Songs occurs in Isidore of Seville's influential Etymologiae (sixth century), where the entry on wedding songs reads:

Wedding songs are songs for persons getting married, sung by scholars in honor of the bridegroom and bride. These were first composed by Solomon in praise of the Church and Christ. Hence the gentiles took over the epithalamium for themselves, making it a distinct genre. The gentiles first celebrated this genre on the stage but later it was used only at weddings.[23]

[20] On Christian Doctrine 3.10. For a parody of this Augustinian principle in the Summoner's Tale, see chapter 6 at n. 17.

[21] De spiritu et littera, cap. 4 (PL 44,203), as cited by Friedrich Ohly, Hohelied-Studien, p. 48 (my translation).

[22] In addition to Ohly's study cited in n. 21 I am depending in this discussion on the following authorities: D. W. Robertson, Jr., "The Doctrine of Charity in Medieval Literary Gardens"; R. E. Kaske, "The Canticum Canticorum in the Miller's Tale "; J. I. Wimsatt, "Chaucer and the Canticle of Canticles ."

[23] Etymologiae I.39.18. I have used the bilingual edition of J. Oroz Reta and M.-A. Marcos Casquero, eds., Etimologias, 2 vols. (Madrid: Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos, 1982), vol. 1, p. 354.


In other words, whereas pagan writers modeled their wedding songs on Solomon's, his actually never concerned a literal marriage.

Augustine's hermeneutic principle, in effect denying the Song of Songs its literal level and clearly reflected in Isidore's account, is almost perfectly exemplified by the account of January's wedding and its preliminaries, demonstrating how the "ful greet sacrement" (1319) is cut off, not just from the erotic, but virtually from the entire realm of profane existence. First there are the legal and financial arrangements, which are made to appear rather discreditable: "by sly and wys tretee" (1692) May agrees to marry January, and she in turn by a variety of "scrit and bond / . . . was feffed in his lond" (1697–98). Then there is the ceremony in the church, by which the priest "made al siker ynogh with holinesse" (1708). After this ceremony there is the wedding feast at January's palace, in effect an elaborately staged epithalamium. Framed as it is by the priest's actions in church and in the bridal chamber, where he blesses the bridal bed (1819), the epithalamium conforms remarkably to the historical formula for the genre cited earlier from Isidore's sixth-century encyclopedia. It contains no biblical references,[24] and instead calls attention to itself as an entirely classical occasion presided over by Bacchus, Venus, and Hymen, and accompanied by music superior to that of Orpheus and Amphion (1716).

Once married, January causes a garden retreat to be built, which, in the account the Merchant gives of it, could be considered an extension of the wedding feast, except that the gardens to which it is compared are no longer exclusively classical but are also of more recent provenience:

Somme clerkes holden that felicitee
Stant in delit, and therfore certeyn he,
This noble Januarie, with al his myght,
In honest wyse, as longeth to a knyght,
Shoop hym to lyve ful deliciously.
His housyng, his array, as honestly
To his degree was maked as a kynges.
Amonges othere of his honeste thynges,
                 He made a gardyn, walled al with stoon;
So fair a gardyn woot I nowher noon.
For, out of doute, I verraily suppose
That he that wroot the Romance of the Rose
Ne koude of it the beautee wel devyse;

[24] Except for two Old Testament names, Joab and Esther (1719; 1744–45).


Ne Priapus ne myghte nat suffise,
Though he be god of gardyns, for to telle
The beautee of the gardyn and the welle,
That stood under a laurer alwey grene.
Ful ofte tyme he Pluto and his queene,
Proserpina, and al hire fayerye,
Disporten hem and maken melodye
Aboute that welle, and daunced, as men tolde.

Among the profusion of sources and analogues cited by the Merchant, one is conspicuously absent. January, who is repeatedly linked with Solomon, clearly models his garden on that in the Song of Songs, especially that contained in the metaphor "a garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed" (4.12).[25] Somewhat like a Freudian dream censor, the narrator is repressing the "forbidden" garden by a process of displacement, the gardens he does mention being surrogates for the unmentionable one. But these demonstrate the extraordinary emotional and imaginative charge that attaches to the displaced garden of the Song of Songs and represent, in a loose, apparently random way, a tradition of eroticism that somehow has survived and continued despite the hostility of official Christian culture.

The "clerkes" mentioned first, who "holden that felicitee / Stant in delit," are a case in point. They would seem to be followers of Epicurus, about whom feelings have always been ambivalent and worse in the West. Epicurus was known as the philosopher of the Garden as Plato was of the Academy, the garden being for Epicurus a place of withdrawal from the world and the cultivation of friendship. During the fourteenth century there is, alongside the usual condemnation, an attempted rehabilitation of Epicurus, in D. C. Allen's phrase, culminating in the next century in Lorenzo Valla's De Voluptate .[26] Dante, for example, places the "Epicureans" who deny the immortality of the soul in the sixth circle of his hell (Inf .

[25] Commentators and Christian iconography had long ago literalized that metaphoric garden; see Stanley Stewart, The Enclosed Garden . The clearest linking of January with Solomon occurs when Placebo twice compares the two during the council in January's palace (1481–90).

[26] See D. C. Allen, "The Rehabilitation of Epicurus and His Theory of Pleasure in the Renaissance." The wording in ll. 2021–22 suggests something more serious than the jocular cliché about the Franklin as "Epicurus owene sone" (I.336). There is an important article on Epicurus by Emerson Brown, "Epicurus and Voluptas in Late Antiquity."


X.13ff.), yet in the Convivio he describes without a note of disapprobation Epicurus's doctrine as positing "this our goal to be pleasure . . . , that is, delight without pain" ("questo nostro fine essere voluptade . . . , cioè diletto sanza dolore," IV.vii.11).[27]

Of course, the narrator merely hints at January's Epicureanism, and in calling it honest he calls up a key term of Stoicism and so raises fleetingly the possibility that in this garden the ancient conflict between Stoic and Epicurean might be resolved.[28] The view of January's garden quickly becomes more negative, however, as the narrator compares it, first, to that of Guillaume de Lorris, whose wall was intended to keep elde —time, old age—out and make it into a playground for feckless youth.[29] And the next figure seems like a very sardonic comment on Guillaume's literary ancestry, for this Priapus is not a garden ornament but a god of gardens and a poet figure who, we are told, is unable to tell the beauty of January's garden. He could perhaps be considered the primitive Lacanian father of Ovid and his medieval descendants, whose eroticism has been described as a "cult of desire" in which "the other, the woman . . . has no more personality or presence than Echo. She is the reflection of male desire."[30]

The narcissism of the Priapic poet is perfectly epitomized in the central feature of January's garden, "the welle, / That stood under a laurer alwey grene" (2036). With a sideways glance at the fountain in the Song of Songs, the well recalls the fountain of Narcissus—

[27] Medieval authors from John of Salisbury in the twelfth century to Petrarch demonstrate a curious ambivalence toward Epicurus, alternately condemning and praising him. See Enciclopedia Dantesca, vol. 2, s.v. "Epicurei," p. 698, and Allen, "Rehabilitation," p. 4, where he also mentions Boccaccio's respectful comments on Epicurus.

[28] Honestas is the term Roman authors like Cicero use in connection with Stoicism. Dante uses it, as when he describes the goal of the Stoics as "solamente la rigida onestade" (Conv . In the same treatise Dante envisions a synthesis similar to the one hinted at for January's garden, this one "a quelle Atene celestiali, dove gli Stoici e Peripatetici e Epicurii, per la l[u]ce de la veritade etterna, in uno volere concordevolemente concorrono," "in that celestial Athens where the Stoics and Peripatetics and Epicureans harmoniously agree in one will by the light of eternal truth" (Conv . III.xiv.14–15).

[29] Line 2032, "he that wroot the Romance of the Rose," presumably refers to Guillaume, as the note ad loc. in Robinson's 1957 edition affirms. What about the other author, Jean de Meun, who does deal with serious issues excluded by Guillaume?

[30] Daniel Poirion, "Narcisse et Pygmalion dans Le Roman de la Rose, " p. 158. For Priapus as poet, see Jacques Lacan, "The Signification of the Phallus," in Ecrits: A Selection, pp. 281–91. In the Parliament of Fowls Priapus adorns the Temple of Venus "with hys sceptre in honde" (l. 256).


under a pine tree—in the Romance of the Rose, into which the dreamer looks so that he falls in love. January, who earlier told his friends, "I feele me nowhere hoor but on myn heed; / Myn herte and alle my lymes been as grene / As laurer thurgh the yeer is for to sene" (1464–66), can now see his own evergreen virility (like poetic immortality) in the laurel tree mirrored in the glassy surface of the well below it.[31]

At this point the narrative produces its boldest Verfremdungseffekt . January's walled garden opens up to worlds of pre-Christian myth, Roman and Celtic, as it becomes the setting for "Pluto and his queene, / Proserpina, and al hire fayerye," who "disporten hem and maken melodye / Aboute that welle, and daunced, as men tolde." With their fairy retinue, Pluto and Proserpina are both god and goddess of the Virgilian underworld and king and queen of the Celtic otherworld. And with their music and dancing they seem to be engaged in a continuous wedding procession, as if they had replaced King Solomon and his bride in the epithalamic garden of the Song of Songs.

The unexpected entry onto the scene of this divine couple produces a subtle but definite change in the entire atmosphere of the tale. It is as if, with their joint appearance above ground,[32] the earth had been released from an ancient curse, as of course it has, and as if this world had suddenly been invested with the fairy splendor of the (Celtic) otherworld, where all the world's myths (as in some Fryean heaven) peaceably coexist. The question of the replacement or displacement of one myth by another thus no longer applies. Instead, there is genuine syncretism (as in Sir Orfeo ), where Pluto and Proserpina prove to be perfectly familiar with "Jhesus, filius Syrak " (2250), Christ and his church or "hous" (2282), and King Solomon and his views about women, which provide fuel for their argument about the perennial, first and doubtless last, question (see 2242ff. and 2275ff.).[33] Equally significant, the garden of the Song

[31] For the fountain in the Romance of the Rose (in Chaucer's translation), see ll. 1455ff. For another Chaucerian example of "Priapic" poetics, see the nearly identical landscape in Anelida and Arcite, ll. 18–19, on Mount Parnassus with Helicon "in the shade / Under the laurer which may not fade."

[32] In the Greco-Roman myth, it will be remembered, only Proserpina leaves the underworld, for six or eight months out of the year, so that the grain may grow; when she goes back down, winter returns to the earth.

[33] The real "marriage debate" of the Merchant's Tale, proving he heard more of the Wife of Bath's discourse than Justinus indicated.


of Songs, which earlier we saw displaced from the narrative, suddenly makes its presence felt when January invites May to go with him into his garden:

                 er that dayes eighte
Were passed [of] the month of [Juyn],[34]  bifil
That Januarie hath caught so greet a wil,
Thurgh eggyng of his wyf, hym for to pleye
In his gardyn, and no wight but they tweye,
That in a morwe unto his May seith he:
"Rys up, my wyf, my love, my lady free!
The turtles voys is herd, my dowve sweete;
The wynter is goon with alle his reynes weete.
Com forth now, with thyne eyen columbyn!
How fairer been thy brestes than is wyn!
The gardyn is enclosed al aboute;
Com forth, my white spouse! Out of doute
Thou hast me wounded in myn herte, O wyf!
No spot of thee ne knew I al my lyf.
Com forth, and lat us taken oure disport;
I chees thee for my wyf and my confort."

The narrator responds to this lyrical pastiche from the Song of Songs with the laconic comment, "Swiche olde lewed wordes used he," and immediately continues with the story of the adultery May and Damyan are planning (2150–51). His abrupt dismissal of January's speech shows that the "censorship" we noted in his commentary on January's garden is now openly at work. As far as the Merchant is concerned, the Song of Songs must remain unacknowledged and its powerfully moving poetry disguised and discredited by the odd phrase "olde lewed wordes."

The Merchant's censorship is clearly implicated with a whole perspective on the Bible as epitomized in the Song of Songs and with the cause, ultimately, of his own marital unhappiness. In using the words from the Bible, as in constructing his garden, January is literalizing and appropriating for everyday purposes what should remain in the domain of allegory, an allegory that belongs to the Church and its "clerkes," who formulated it to begin with. Hence,

[34] Despite the textual crux here, or perhaps because of it, I suggest that the opening lines contain yet another "unconscious" hint of the chronology of the Merchant's marriage. If we count May this time as the first month, then we are now eight days into the second month of his marriage.


when the Merchant refers to January's use of the Canticles language as "lewed," he is using the term in a way that recalls his use of "seculeer" at the beginning of the tale. He means primarily, not that January's words are "stupid, worthless, lewd, ignorant," but that they are such above all because his is a "lay" usage belonging to the seculum, without benefit of clergy, that is, without the benefit of clerical exegesis.[35]

In declaring various "old words" of the Bible unusable for everyday, profane existence, the Merchant is putting himself on the side of ecclesiastical orthodoxy. He thus endorses a deliberate dissociation of sensibility that reserves one area of human experience for Church and Bible and consigns the remainder to limbo (like Dante's!) for "pagan" literature, philosophy, and myth to deal with. The dissociation can be epitomized by the Prioress's Amor vincit omnia and the Wife's Allas! allas! that evere love was synne ! (III.614).

If this were the end of the tale, we would have to say that the Merchant learns nothing from his narrative performance. But we have already observed indications in his tale that its tenor is shifting from a male-centered perspective to one that accords woman her distinct role as person, a shift inaugurated by the mysterious divine visitors to January's garden. What happens there while they are the interested spectators and participants—recalling the amphitheater of the Knight's Tale with its divine onlookers!—does indeed once more produce a radical change in perspective in a tale that is characterized by dramatic twists and turns in its narrative course.

Pluto and Proserpina reappear just before the tale's climactic scene in the pear tree. And there we are referred to Claudian as the author who told the story of how Pluto obtained his wife by abducting her "in his grisly carte" while she was gathering flowers in the mead (2227–33). As M. J. Donovan demonstrated more than thirty years ago, Claudian's brief mythological epic De Raptu Proserpinae (fifth century A.D. ) is a major subtext of the Merchant's Tale.[36] Indeed, Claudian's poem is of enormous relevance to the entire "marriage debate" in The Canterbury Tales and is astonishingly Chaucerian in spirit, humorous, ironic, psychologically subtle, and (presumably)

[35] See A Chaucer Glossary, compiled by Norman Davis, Douglas Gray, et al., s.v. lewed. See again J. C. McGalliard, "Chaucer's Merchant's Tale and Deschamps' Miroir de Mariage ."

[36] See M. J. Donovan, "The Image of Pluto and Proserpina in the Merchant's Tale ."


unfinished. Marriage is viewed from the woman's perspective as a kind of rape and a kind of death, which the self somehow survives, though at a considerable loss in vitality and freedom. Ceres, Proserpina's mother, dreams about her lost daughter as, among other things, a laurel tree cut down to the roots (III.75–79), and at poem's end she is still lamenting her loss, so that for the reader she achieves a kind of identity with the daughter become mournful consort of Pluto in his dusky underworld.

The Claudian subtext, in other words, is a commentary on the January-May marriage. It was a kind of rape by which he ambiguously wanted to take into himself her vitality (the laurel tree that he sees as his image) or reduce her to his own morbidity, but either way as a means for him to escape death. Claudian's poem also provides a proleptic commentary on the ending of the Merchant's Tale by raising the possibility that when January leads his wife out of the garden and back to his palace he is indeed taking her—from her momentary freedom with Damyan—back into the dungeon of wedlock.

Whether Chaucer intended an allusion to Sir Orfeo in making Pluto and Proserpina king and queen of Fayerye, we do not know, but it would certainly fit with the present context of the Merchant's Tale. The Middle English romance deals very subtly with a marital relationship, and it represents a kind of inversion of Claudian's and the Merchant's stories—as of the classical Orpheus legend—in the sense that the husband gains the full release of his wife from her otherworld bondage. I believe that Heurodis's enchantment by the king of Fayerye is intended as an aspect or phase of her marriage to Orfeo,[37] from which she is finally released when her husband, after his ten-year penance in the wilderness (212ff.), sees her for what she is. Whether January ever reaches this point is something that I will try to determine before the end of the chapter. It could be that May's marriage is itself a form of "otherworld bondage" from which the gallant adulterer Damyan is unable to rescue her.

On this interpretation, Sir Orfeo meshes extraordinarily well with another major subtext of the Merchant's Tale, the Wife of Bath's, where the queen of fairies is transformed into a beautiful young woman once her husband acknowledges her as a "sovereign" person. In her tale, the Wife of Bath clarifies another point about the fairies

[37] It might be significant that on his father's side Orfeo is said to be descended from King Pluto—in other words, the Fayerye king's Roman counterpart or double; see A. J. Bliss, ed. Sir Orfeo, l. 43 (Auchinleck ms.).


that entered the Merchant's Tale as the retinue of Pluto and Proserpina. They were driven out of the land, she says, by the friars. For her, in other words, the fairies represent a stage in Western history—imaginary as it might be—before the triumph of monastic asceticism as represented by the friars. In the Merchant's Tale, similarly, the fairies, in their association with Pluto and Proserpina and January's garden, point to an age before an ascetically inspired exegesis had read or written the erotic out of the sacred text.[38] Once this happens, as the Wife of Bath recognizes, woman as person is in jeopardy. Paul's antipathy to "ese / Of engendrure" (III.127–28) is the real threat to her. The triumph of the ascetic exegetes means that women no longer belong in the scheme of things, that they become not unlike otherworld creatures, fayerye, elusive, seemingly insubstantial beings glimpsed as objects of fear or desire.

In this context the sudden onset of January's blindness (2057ff.) can be regarded as a way of underlining his failure from the start to see May—or any woman—as other than an object for his "bodily delit."[39] But the equally sudden "cure" of this blindness does not necessarily imply that his vision is now purged. Indeed, the significance of this event in the scheme of the Merchant's Tale seems particularly ambiguous. Through the intervention of Pluto, January is enabled to see May up in the pear tree "dressed" (2361) by Damyan. His reaction is to let out "a roring and a cry, / As dooth the mooder whan the child shal dye: / "Out! Help! Allas! Harrow!" he gan to crye, / "O stronge lady stoore, what dostow?" (2364–67).

What are we to make of this scene and the simile the narrator applies to it? Let us begin with the simile, which endows the entire scene with a sense of unfathomable depth, especially the gender shift in seeing and hearing January as anguished mother at the sight or thought of the child's impending death. Or is the anguish she articulates—"Out! Help! . . . "—also the pain of childbirth? And since

[38] This point becomes especially clear in the debate between Pluto and Proserpina in the garden, where Pluto invokes the authority of Solomon in his low estimation of women (2242ff.), and Proserpina responds with an exegetical freedom and literalism worthy of the Wife of Bath, as in her refusal to be awed by the authority of "this Jew, this Salomon" (2277).

[39] The analogues of the Merchant's Tale printed in Bryan and Dempster, Sources and Analogues, involve either a husband blind from the start or else a sighted husband who comes to believe in an optical illusion caused by an enchanted tree. The twist in the plot whereby the husband becomes blind could therefore be Chaucer's invention.


the cry was actually triggered by the sight of May and Damyan having intercourse, we seem to have here a perfect instance of the mystery of conception, birth, and death in "the unintelligible and unknowable continuity which is the secret of eroticism," to use the words of Bataille quoted in chapter 1.

The child that "shal dye" is the inscription of this continuity. It is the child being conceived in the tree; it is Christ on the cross-tree dying and resurrected; it is the self that must die to be reborn; and it is the (unrepresentable) body, with whose frequently unhappy destiny both The Canterbury Tales and the Comedy have been much concerned, as this study has attempted to show. We have said enough about the pear-tree scene in the perspective of the mother-child simile to make the case, I hope, that, supremely comic fabliau moment that it is, it is also Chaucer's—and the Merchant's—version of nostra effige, our human, divine, and inescapably double image, as the text declares: "in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them" (Genesis 1.27), where the term "image" hardly seems adequate to the relationship implied. Enough, also, to persuade the reader that January's garden is Chaucer's version of the Earthly Paradise or, in January's formulation, "hevene in erthe heere" (1645).

But even if January's sight of the lovers in the pear tree is a version, as I allege, of the paradisal vision, and the garden where it takes place a version of the Earthly Paradise, is it not simultaneously, at least for January, a moment when paradise is lost? The simile discussed above might imply that something, possibly of great value, will take its place. On the other hand, the ensuing dialogue between January and May—Damyan having mysteriously vanished from the scene—might suggest that the Earthly Paradise was a delusion all along.[40] To May's obviously false yet also true claim that she had attempted to heal his eyes by struggling with a man upon a tree (2372–74), January responds with "He swyved thee, I saugh it with myne yen" (2378). May's reply, especially the line I have italicized, seems to say that January's language shows he still cannot see her as she needs to be seen:

     "Thanne is," quod she, "my medicyne fals;
For certeinly, if that ye myghte se,

[40] In an earlier version of this chapter published in Chaucer Review 24 (1989): 115–31, I presented such an interpretation, which still seems to me possible.


Ye wolde nat seyn thise wordes unto me .
Ye han some glymsyng, and no parfit sighte."

But is May right in objecting to January's language? Does it convey an attitude of disrespect or contempt? For us this question is at least in part one involving the rules of linguistic decorum in Chaucer's day, a tricky matter at best, since we know so little about them. That they are at issue here is evident from the Merchant's elaborate apology to the "ladies" in his audience (2350ff.). He is a "rude man" who cannot "glose" but must give the facts and say: "sodeynly anon this Damyan / Gan pullen up the smok, and in he throng" (2352–53). This is certainly vivid, but scarcely (I would guess) the violation of decorum he had led his audience to expect. And now he goes on to do what he has just said he cannot do, and that is to "glose" in describing how January saw "that Damyan his wyf had dressed / In swich manere it may nat been expressed, / But if I wolde speke uncurteisly" (2361–63).

In thus playing with his audience and the idea of narrative decorum, the Merchant wittily draws attention to January's use of "swyve" and to the fact that May's objection to it signals an unexpected reversal of roles. It is now she who would play the part he played earlier, that of the "censor" who rules out of order certain "olde lewed wordes" for being too much "cosyn to the dede" (I.742). She thus makes herself complicit in the general willingness to ignore the evidence of the senses and preference for "glymsyng" over "parfit sighte,"[41] of which we earlier saw her, like all women, the victim. Accordingly, when she gets January at length to accept her explanation of the happening in the tree and he leads her home to his palace (2415), we may feel that she has at least taught him the Miller's lesson that a husband must not be inquisitive about his wife's "pryvetee" (I.3163–64). But it could also signal the triumph of a grim view of life that rejects the possibility of a "hevene in erthe heere" and sees in the mirror of marriage only a mutual purgatory where husband and wife "rule" like Pluto and Proserpina in the underworld.

More completely than the other tales, then, the Merchant's Tale incorporates the three realms of Dante's Comedy as so many ways

[41] See Derek Pearsall's discussion of this scene in The Canterbury Tales, pp. 204ff.


of fashioning and seeing the world of earthly experience. Also more completely than the others, the Merchant's Tale continues and extends the Comedy 's epic project of recuperating not just the sacred texts from the ecclesiastical exegetes, but other areas of human experience traditionally declared off limits for serious discourse like epic poetry. One such area might be loosely called the taboo, which would include elements like the obscene, the repulsive, the grotesque, the blasphemous. The pear-tree episode obviously fits into this category in a number of ways, and along with January's "swyve" it constitutes part of Chaucer's redefinition in The Canterbury Tales of epic decorum, another way of incorporating the body and its opacity in his fiction. The Merchant-narrator's playful acceptance, as I intimated, of this decorum, seems to me a sign that he has learned to "see" in the course of his narrative, just as the Dantean Pilgrim learns to see throughout his journey, but especially in the Paradiso .

As I suggested near the beginning of this chapter, the Pilgrim's instruction in seeing begins and ends, in a sense, in the mirror of the impossible sacrament uniting a young woman long dead and a middle-aged poet. For all that Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales transforms, transposes, and reinterprets the Comedy, it is clear that he and Dante are engaged in a fundamentally similar project of healing the dissociated sensibility of their civilization by "marrying" the human image to itself again, showing that it is not single or static but rather the ever-varying story of the old man, the man and woman in the tree, and the child that already knows it "shal dye."




Abbreviations of Journals


Essays in Criticism


English Language Notes


Journal of English and Germanic Philology


Modern Language Notes


Modern Language Quarterly


Mediaeval Studies


Philological Quarterly


Review of English Studies


Studies in the Age of Chaucer


South Atlantic Quarterly


Studies in Philology


Shakespeare Quarterly


University of Toronto Quarterly

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———. Rabelais and His World . Translated by H. Iswolsky. Cambridge: M.I.T. Press, 1968.

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———. Chaucer's Book of Fame . Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968.

Bennett, Richard, and John Elton. History of Corn Milling . Vol. 3, Feudal Laws and Customs . London and Liverpool, 1900.

Bergin, Thomas G. Boccaccio . New York: Viking, 1981.


Bernardo, A. S. Petrarch, Laura, and the "Triumphs ." Albany: State University of New York Press, 1974.

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Birney, Earle. "'After his Ymage': The Central Ironies of the Friar's Tale. " MS 21 (1959): 17–35.

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———, ed. Geoffrey Chaucer: A Critical Anthology . Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1969.

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Chenu, M.-D. Nature, Man, and Society in the Twelfth Century: Essays on New Theological Perspectives in the Latin West . Selected, edited, and translated by Jerome Taylor and Lester K. Little. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968.

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Curtius, Ernst Robert. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages . Translated by Willard R. Trask. New York: Pantheon Books, 1953.

David, Alfred. The Strumpet Muse: Art and Morals in Chaucer's Poetry . Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976.

Davis, Norman, Douglas Gray, Patricia Ingham, and Anne Wallace-Hadrill, comps. A Chaucer Glossary . Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981.

de Ghellinck, Joseph. L'Essor de la Littérature Latine au XII e Siècle. Brussels: Desclée de Brouwer, 1954.

Delany, Paul. "Constantinus Africanus and Chaucer's Merchant's Tale." PQ 46 (1967): 560–66.

de Man, Paul. Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust . New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979.

———. Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism . 2nd rev. ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.


Derrida, Jacques. Dissemination . Translated by Barbara Johnson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

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Adams, J. F., 206 n

Aeneas, 48 ;

in underworld, 185 ;

wanderings of, and pilgrimage in Comedy , 191

Aeneid :

idea of Rome in, 191 ;

intertextuality with Comedy , 191 ;

and literary autobiography, 19 ;

Polydorus in, 186 –87;

story of, in House of Fame , 27 ;

style personified in Virgil of Comedy , 20 ;

tragic view of life, 191 ;

and vision of history in, 20 .

See also Epic; Genre; History; Intertextuality; Tragedy; Virgil

Alan of Lille, 61 ;

Sophia in Anticlaudianus , 53 n

Alberigo, frate :

episode discussed, 210 –11


allegoria in verbis and allegoria in facto , 57 , 57 n;

in Canterbury Tales :

pilgrims' self-duplication as tale-tellers, 63 ;

discussed in Convivio , 7 ;

and the four levels of medieval scriptural interpretation, 56 ;

as "God's way of writing," 56 ;

Hollander on, in Canterbury Tales and Comedy , 56 , 56 n;


literal sacrificed for tropical, 16 ;

as province of Church, 258 ;

thematized in Clerk's and Merchant's Tales, 63 .

See also Literal meaning; Metaphor; Troping

Allegory in Comedy :

absence of metaphysical framework in, 103 ;

authority figures in, 103 ;

clash of different perspectives in, 103 , 103 n;

and Dragon of Error in Faerie Queene , 102 ;

experiencing subject central in, 61 ;

inconsistency in, 102 ;

primacy of literal level in, 7 ;

principles of, summarized, 101 –104;

role of literal level in, 101 –2;

self-duplication of Poet and Pilgrim in, 63 , 63 n;

terms of, as having dual reference, 61

Allen, D. C.:

on rehabilitation of Epicurus, 255 , 255 n, 256 n

Allen, Judson B., 98 n

Angelini, Cesare, 190 , 190 n

Anglo-Italian cultural relations, 2

Animal-human duality, 77 ;

in Nun's Priest's Tale, 97

Animal nature, 7 , 84

Animals, 98 ;

and anima mal nata as wordplay, 210 n;

eagle in House of Fame , 28 , 33 , 35 , 37 ;

enviable skills of, 92 ;

falcon, 76 –78, 83 ;

as in God's image, 93 , 96 , 99 ;

human superiority to, denied, 92 ;

importance of, in Comedy and Canterbury Tales , 210 n;

instinctive knowledge of, 98 ;

in Nun's Priest's Tale, 90 –92;

spider, 69 ;

three beasts in Inferno I, 157 ;

in Ugolino's dream, 157 –58.

See also Omnis creatura



and Comedy 's allegorical plot, 69 ;

and Geryon, 68 ;

and Heraclitus's image of soul, 69 n;

in Metamorphoses , 69 ;

spider's-web design of Inferno and cosmos, 69 –70


death of, 125 ;

funeral of, 126 ;

and pattern of tragedy, 125 ;

soul of, after death, 197 .

See also Knight's Tale

Aristotle, 60 , 60 n;

on dramatic character of Homer's epics, 7 ;

hylomorphism and Dante's theory of allegory, 59 ;

Nicomachean Ethics and organization of Inferno , 151 ;

Poetics in Latin translation available to Dante, 183 n

Armour, Peter, 223 n

Arthurian Round Table, 49


Clerk and his, 225 –27, 237 , 243 ;

effect of, on style, 36 ;

imagined and implied, in Canterbury Tales , 36 ;

Merchant and his, 263 ;

pilgrims as, 116


Chaucer's, 35 –36;

discussed by Paul Strohm, 35 n

Augustine, Saint, 124 –25, 212 , 212 n;

City of God , 197 ;

on human autonomy and providential history, 141 –42, 142 n;

on Samson's death, 166 , 166 n;

on theater as demonic, 115 , 115 n


and Dantean subject in Comedy , 111 –16;

literary, in Aeneid , 19 , 41 ;

literary, in Canterbury Tales , 41

Autopragía :

self-determination as Stoic ideal, 165 , 166


Bagpipe, 136 nn;

and etymology of persona , 137 ;

Guillaume de Machaut on, 136 ;

like the Miller, 136 –37

Bakhtin, Mikhail, 5 n, 36 ;

on carnival spirit, 31 ;

on dialogism, 226 , 226 n

Baldwin, Ralph:

on Parson's Tale, 88 n

Barbi, Michele, 2 n

Barish, Jonas, 115 n;

quoted, 125

Bataille, Georges, 262 ;

quoted, 17

Beatrice, 1 ;

accusatory to Pilgrim, 240 n;

and dream of Siren, 240 ;

nonallegorical, 241 ;

refers to her own death, 222 ;

reunion with Pilgrim, 24 , 24 n, 222 –23, 241 –42;

and Song of Songs, 252 .

See also Earthly Paradise; Harrison; Vita Nuova ; Wife of Bath

Bennett, J. A. W., 33 , 34 n;

on stylistic levels in Chaucer's poetry, 28 n

Bennett, Richard and John Elton, 133 n

Bernardo, Aldo S., 234 n


and Dantean allegory, 56 –58;

as epic of creator, 34 ;

Epistle to Corinthians, 49 , 212 ;

Epistle to Romans, 81 , 94 –95;

and four levels of meaning, 56 ;

Genesis and enigma of human image, 5 –6, 72 ;

and "God's way of writing," 56 –57;

gospels, 176 , 195 , 204 ;

Luke, 94 ;

Matthew, 94 ;

Psalm 113 , 57 .

See also Allegory; Song of Songs

Bietenholz, Peter G., 150 n

Bleeth, Kenneth A., 249 n

Bloom, Harold, 230 n;

on troping as defense against death, 15

Boccaccio, Giovanni, 209 , 256 n;

Decameron , 14 , 14 n, 145 n, 223 , 263 –64;

De Casibus , 14 , 145 n;

discussion of Saturn myth, 155 –57, 156 n;

Filocolo , 25 ;

on Proteus, 71 n;

public lectures on Inferno , 14 , 157 n, 203 n;

Teseida , 124 nn, 127 , 127 n

Bocca degli Abati:

episode discussed, 178 –81;

Pilgrim and poetic violence, 180 –81

Body, 16 ;

ascribed to pilgrims in Canterbury Tales , 10 ;

Beatrice and Wife of Bath, 222 –23;

child as symbol of, in Merchant's Tale, 262 ;

in Dantean allegory, 10 , 11 –12, 16 ;

disgust at, 240 ;

Griffin and chariot as symbols of, 223 ;

Robert Harrison's Body of Beatrice discussed, 12 ;

and human image in Comedy , 82 ;

individual and collective, 210 , 210 n;

as "mode of belonging to the world," 10 –11;

in Petrarchan allegory, 15 ;

in Prioress's Tale, 100 ;

and reader's empathy, 12 , 13 ;

and redefinition of epic decorum, 264 ;

redemption of, 82 , 95 ;

retained by Pilgrim in otherworld, 11 , 84 , 102 , 112 –13;

revenge of, in Summoner's Tale,


216 ;

sacramentalization of, in Comedy , 252 ;

and St. Paul's soma and sarx , 81 ;

and secret of eroticism, 17 ;

soma as bilingual pun, 11 ;

textually unrepresentable, 10 , 12 , 82 .

See also Allegory; Dualism; Epic theater; Eroticism; Song of Songs; Soul

Boenig, Robert, 136 n


Consolation of Philosophy , 199 ;

Consolation as representative of pagan philosophy, 123 n;

dialogue with Philosophy in Consolation , 62 ;

on etymology of persona , 137 .

See also Fortune; History; Monk's Tale; Person; Pickering

Book of the Duchess , 28 , 55

Bosco, Umberto, 225 n

Brewer, D. S., 41 n

Bronson, Bertrand, 236 n

Brown, Emerson, 255 n

Bruns, Gerald, 10 –11

Burrow, J. A., 86 n;

on Chaucerian parody, 43


Cannibalism, 122 ;

and allusion to Seneca's Thyestes , 155 n;

in Monk's "Ugolino," 151 ;

as motif in Inferno , 152 n;

and Saturn devouring his offspring, 155 –57;

in Ugolino episode, 151 –2

Canterbury Tales :

as actors, 10 , 211 , 213 ;

as anthology, 18 ;

like characters in Purgatorio , 5 ;

conceptual unity of, 18 ;

as continuation of Dantean epic, 4 ;

as "liminoid" authority in, 31 ;

as masks for narrator, 32 ;

narrator in, 31 , 32 ;

persona in, 51 ;

pilgrimage in, and the Now of reading, 33 ;

pilgrim fellowship as implied audience in, 31 ;


as actors, 10 , 211 , 213 ;

like play-within-a-play, 14 ;

as popular epic, 41 ;

as spiritual autobiography, 33 ;


as confessions, 210 ;

Thopas and tale as "mirror," 43 -44;

as "work-in-progress," 19

Carlson, Marvin, 106 n

Carraro, Annalisa, 144 n

Category mistakes:

in Nun's Priest's Tale, 90 , 93 , 93 n


as bridge between Inferno and Purgatorio , 172 –73, 173 n;

and the problem of freedom, 169 –70;

a "Senecan" subtext in Purgatorio , 170 –71.

See also Stoicism; Suicide; Tragedy


and actual persons, 81 , 117 ;

composed of antithetical elements, 133 ;

concept discussed, 8 –10;

and Ginsberg on pilgrims "twice-formed," 9 ;

and mask, 136 ;

of Miller, and two Robins, 134 ;

personality of pilgrims, 8 ;

physical appearance and question of, 118 –19;

Singleton on Pilgrim as individuated, 112 ;

and traditional criticism, 8 ;

and use of "gaps" for reader to "realize the text," 13 –14;

and voice as other, 137 .

See also Epic Theater; Theater

Chaucer the man, 2 , 3

Chaucer the pilgrim:

personality of, 117 , 118 ;

physical appearance of, 118 ;

"What man artow?", 40 , 41

Chaucer the poet:

career of, 37 –43;

conversion of, to Dantean poetic, 39 ;

described by Man of Law, 37 –38;

epic persona of, 50 –51;

as minstrel, 40 ;

as narrator of Thopas , 41

Chauntecleer, 99 –101;

and Cusanus, 98 n;

imitatio Christi of, 93 –94.

See also Animals; Dreams; Nun's Priest's Tale

Chenu, M.-D., 143 n


in Clerk's Tale, 228 –29, 230 n, 231 –4;

in Hunger Tower and in Limbo, 153 –54;

in Merchant's Tale, 261 –62, 264 ;

emphasis on, in Monk's Tale, 158 –59;

in Prioress's Tale, 99 , 100

Childs, Wendy, 2


and literature, 21 –24;

and Statius in Comedy , 22 –24

Cicero, 168 , 256 n;

on meaning of name Saturn, 156 , 156 n;

on persona , 138 –39;

quoted on translatio , 78


De Raptu Proserpinae and Merchant's Tale, 259 –60


like actor, 237 ;

ambivalent attitude to Petrarch, 226 –28;



of, and Wife of Bath, 16 , 237 –40;

learns by his performance, 240 ;

and Petrarchan dread of death, 238 ;

and Petrarchan Rezeptionsgeschichte , 224 –25;

as Petrarch disciple, 223

Clerk's Envoy:

and Now of pilgrimage, 237 ;

and Petrarchan dread of death, 238 ;

Wife of Bath vs. Griselda, 240

Clerk's Tale:

as critique of Petrarchism, 229 ;

and dream of Siren, 239 ;

epilogue, 237 ;

as farewell to Petrarchan idealism, 237 –39;

and fear of death, 15 ;

Griselda and Laura in, 229 ;

Griselda blameworthy in, 230 –31;

and Latin original, 224 –25;

narrative stance in, 227 ;

Petrarchan allegory in, 235 –36;

and poetic conversion, 222 ;

and question of allegory, 15 ;

as site of ideological clash, 221 –40;

and Wife of Bath, 222 .

See also Allegory; Death; Marriage; Petrarch

Comedia :

as title and designation of generic mode, 66 –67, 67 n, 75

Comedy , 1 ;

allegorical plot of, 6 ;

not antiquarian, 40 ;

as dialogue with Aeneid , 20 ;

and dialogue with Virgil, 24 ;

and embodied pilgrim in, 11 –12;

as example of philosophic poetry, 146 ;

individual and community in, 5 , 21 ;

moral ambiguity in, 178 ;

narrator of, in variety of roles, 114 ;

otherworld setting:

and allegory, 56 ;

overcomes self-alienation, 115 ;


as center of, 32 ;

and recuperation of Song of Songs, 252 –59;

as sung and spoken, 75 ;

and unvisualized landscape of Canterbury pilgrimage, 32

Comparetti, Domenico, 20 n


in Friar's Tale, 206 –7;

Minos and, 209 –10;

parody of, in Summoner's Tale, 217 –18

Contini, Gianfranco, 155 n

Contrapasso , 204 , 221 ;

and confession, 209 –10;

defined, 15 , 209 –10;

and frate Alberigo, 205 ;

Minos, 209 –10, 210 n;

as self-condemnation, 15 .

See also Confession; Inferno ; Minos; Sin

Convivio , 101 ;

discussion of allegory, 58 –61;

on Epicureans and Stoics, 256 , 256 n;

Isidore of Seville on title of, 86 n

Cosmic theater, 7 ;

in Comedy , 8 ;

"cosmogonic" in Nun's Priest's Tale, 99 ;

and heavenly audience in Comedy , 110 –11;

in Seneca, 168 , 168 n


in Nun's Priest's Tale, 97

Crucifixion, 262 ;

and cannibalism, 155 , 155 n;

Chauntecleer's, 93 ;

in Clerk's Tale, 231 , 235 ;

"Croesus" and parody of, 97 , 159 ;

and history in Monk's Tale, 193 ;

and Lucifer in Inferno , 194 –95, 195 n;

in Merchant's Tale, 262 ;

in "Nero," 175 –76

Curtius, E. R., 124 n


Dahlberg, C. R., 93 n


influence on Chaucer, 3 –4;

a "literal," 113 , 114 ;

Monk's tribute to, 159 ;

named, 37 , 140 ;

as poet-philosopher-theologian, 153 ;

political defeat and exile of, 1

Dantean poetic, 40

David, Alfred, 25 n;

on House of Fame as mock-epic, 26 , 26 n

Death, 235 ;

of Beatrice, 239 ;

in Clerk's Prologue and Tale, 226 , 228 , 230 , 233 –34, 238 ;

and eroticism, 17 ;

as extramental reality, 230 ;

fantasy of triumph over, 234 ;

fear of, and allegory, 15 ;

of Laura, 235 n;

as literal meaning, 15 ;

love as, in Clerk's Tale, 233 –34;

marriage as, in Merchant's Tale, 260 ;

marriage as escape from, in Merchant's Tale, 260

Deconstruction, 160 , 174 , 199 ;

of hell, 153 , 155 , 177 , 178 –81, 209 , 210 n

de Ghellink, Joseph, 143 n, 144 n

Delany, Paul, 245 n

de Man, Paul, 102 , 102 n;

on allegory and Baudelaire's essay on comedy, 62 , 62 n;

"Rhetoric of Blindness" quoted, 74 , 74 nn, 75 , 75 n, 76 , 76 n;

"Rhetoric of Temporality" quoted, 62 , 63 , 63 n

De Monarchia :

quoted on terrestrial paradise, 96

Derrida, Jacques, 40 , 75 n;



metaphor's resistance to translation, 73 n;

paraphrase of Plato, 36

Deschamps, Eustache, 86 n;

Miroir de Mariage , 245

Deus absconditus :

in Monk's Tale, 159

Dialogic double:

in Canterbury Tales , 63 ;

in Comedy , Virgil as, 64 .

See also Allegory; Masks


over monologue in Melibee , 52 ;

as "therapeutic" in allegory, 62 –63

Dialogues, Plato's:

and portrait of Socrates, 50 –51;

Symposium described, 86 , 86 n

Dinshaw, Carolyn, 15 n

Donaldson, E. T., 32 n;

on moral of Nun's Priest's Tale, 91 –92

Donovan, M. J., 93 n, 259

Drama. See Theater


in Comedy , 27 ;

disoriented, 27 ;

in House of Fame :

addressed as Geffrey, 37 ;

outsider, 28 –29

Dreams, 27 , 28 , 64 , 88 –89, 95 , 260 ;

Croesus's, in Monk's Tale, 149 , 159 , 160 ;

Geryon as, 65 ;

Phania and Pertelote as interpreters of, 149 n;

of Siren in Purgatorio , 239 –40;

Ugolino's, 157 –58

Dronke, Peter, 223 n


and Dantean allegory, 7 ;

and Petrarchan "double consciousness," 233 ;

and Pier della Vigna, 185 –90

Dwyer, Richard A., 147 n


Earthly Paradise, 17 , 96 , 150 ;

Beatrice calls Dante's name in, 241 ;

extratextual dimension of characters in, 241 ;

and January's garden, 262 ;

procession in, 150 , 151 ;

and Virgil's Eclogues, 24 n;

wedding procession in, 242 .

See also Eroticism; Merchant's Tale; Song of Songs

Edward the Confessor, 143 –44

Elam, Keir:

on "ostended" world of drama, 108 –109

Else, Gerald F.:

commentary on Aristotle's Poetics quoted, 106

England in fourteenth century, 2

Engle, Lars, 226 n

Epic, 109 ;

defined, 19 –20;

line of descent of, 21 ;

and "monologism," 5 n;

poet of, as textor, 20 , 69 ;

as renewal of past, 29 –30;

transformation of, in Comedy , 21 ;

and twofold history, 19 .

See also Genre

Epic theater:

in Canterbury Tales , 8 ;

in Comedy , 7 –8;

complements allegory, 7 ;

"gap" between General Prologue and tale, 116 –17;

and narrative theatricality, 10 ;

portraitless Nun's Priest and, 118 –19;

roadside stage, 116 ;

teller's relations to tale, 10 , 116 –17;

ways of presenting characters, 109 –10.

See also Character; Theater


philosopher of Garden, 255 –56

Eroticism, 17 , 251 , 261 ;

ambivalent attitude to, in Merchant's Tale, 244 –46;

and Comedy , 252 ;

and January's wedding, 254 ;

opposition to, 251 ;

secret of, 262 ;

tradition of, 255 .

See also Earthly Paradise; Song of Songs


De Fabula quoted, 106



in Merchant's Tale, 261 ;

queen of, in Wife of Bath's Tale, 260 ;

in Wife of Bath's Tale, 208 .

See also Pluto and Proserpina

Fame, 180 , 189 ;

and epic, 25 .

See also House of Fame


Barbariccia's and Summoner's Tale, 218 ;

as demonic, 131 n;

friar reduced to, 214 ;

Nicholas's and Barbariccia's, 129 –130.

See also Language

Fathers, 97 , 155 , 158 , 176 , 213 n, 235 ;

Christ as, in Clerk's Tale, 231 ;

and Lucifer, 195 –96;

and "temptation in wilderness" in Nun's Priest's Tale, 94

Ferguson, Francis:

on Purgatorio as theatrical, 111 n

Ferrante, Joan, 48 n, 53 n, 151 n, 248 n

Flemings, 49 , 91 n, 93

Fortune, 122 , 146 –49, 197 ;

in Monk's Tale, 146 , 157 , 160 , 173 –74;

and Senecan tragedy, 161 ;

as sexual monster, 244 .

See also Boethius; History; Tragedy

Francis of Assisi, Saint:

bridegroom of


Poverty in Paradiso , 50 n;

St. Bonaventure's Life of, 50 n

Frappier, Jean, 122 n

Freccero, John, 4 , 191 n, 193 n, 234 n

Frederick II, emperor, 182 , 205

Freud, Sigmund, 206 n


compared to frate Alberigo, 205 –6;

and confession, 206 ;

and contrapasso , 15 , 201 –4, 211 ;

and friars in Wife of Bath's Tale, 208 .

See also Summoner

Friars, 203 n, 208 ;

"covent" of, as symbol, 219 ;

in Inferno , 205 –6

Friar's Tale, 202 –8

Frye, Northrop, 34 , 34 n

Fubini, Mario, 191 n, 192

Furie infernal , 126 ;

and Arcite's fall, 125



tale-telling as, 31 , 42 , 120 ;

as play-acting, 134


frate Alberigo's, 206 ;

Friar's, 206 ;

in Merchant's Tale, 254 –58;

in "Nero," 174 –76.

See also Epicurus; January; Priapus; Roman de la Rose

Gasché, Rodolphe, 73 n

Gauvin, Claude, 116 n

General Prologue, 31 , 42 ;

characterization of pilgrims in, 9 , 14 ;

as "dramatis personae," 116 ;

standards of judgment in, 12 –13

Genre, 4 , 5 , 7 , 19 , 41 , 44 , 88 , 105 , 140 ;

court satire, 35 , 35 n;

fabliau, 18 ;

fairytale, 44 ;

miracle of the Virgin, 99 ;

mock-epic, 26 ;

saint's life, 143 ;

"secular scripture" as epic of the creature, 34 ;

symposium, 86

Geryon, 6 , 7 , 64 –84;

as allegorical knot, 63 ;

amphibiousness of, 73 ;

and Baudelaire's theory of comic, 77 ;

and Comedy 's textuality, 69 ;

conclusion analyzed, 76 –78;

defines allegorical plot, 73 ;

as emblem of fraud, 67 –68, 70 ;

and falcon simile, 76 –79, 83 –84;

and genesis of Comedy , 65 ;

meaning of name, 65 ;

as metaphor, 78 –79;

and Pilgrim's "fall," 65 ;

and poetic autobiogenesis, 65 , 65 n;

like Proteus in Odyssey , 71 ;

and soul allegory, 77 , 77 n;

Virgil familiar with, 68 –69;

and wordplay, 65 –67

Gilson, Étienne, 142 n

Ginsberg, Warren, 9

Giovanni da Legnano, 226 n

Goddes Pryvetee , 130 , 131

Gods, 110 , 124 , 159 ;

above Theseus's amphitheater, 121 ;

in Aeneid , 191 ;

Bacchus, 254 ;

called "false and lying" by Virgil in Comedy , 21 ;

as demonic in Knight's Tale, 125 ;

demythologized in "Croesus," 149 , 159 ;

do not intervene in human affairs, 168 ;

as guardians of cosmos, 168 ;

Hymen, 254 ;

Morpheus, 27 ; in Senecan tragedy, 161 –62, 163 ;

as witnesses of earthly affairs, 8 .

See also Pluto and Proserpina; Priapus; Proteus; Saturn; Venus

Goldman, Michael, 115 , 115 n

Golenistcheff-Koutouzoff, Eli, 224 n

Grail knights, 122

Greene, Thomas, 108 , 237 n

Griffin, 150 ;

anticipates paradisal vision, 83 ;

as Geryon figure, 82 .

See also Earthly Paradise

Griffin, Miriam T., 165 n, 168 n

Gross, Kenneth, 103 , 103 n

Guillelmus de Moerbeka, 106 , 106 n


Haas, Renate, 108 n, 161 n

Hamon, Philippe, 9 n

Harder, K. B., 134 , 134 n

Hardie, Colin, 22 n, 57 n;

quoted on Pilgrim's vegetative and animal souls, 83

Harpies, 190 , 190 n

Harrison, Robert P., 223 n;

on Beatrice as key to Dante's poetics, 12 ;

on "Petrarchan alternative," 239 , 239 nn

Havelock, Eric, 107 , 107 n

Havely, Nicholas, 25 n

Hercules, 166 ;

in Boccaccio's Genealogie , 156 ;

in Hercules Furens , 162 –64;

and suicide, 164 .

See also Monk's Tale; Seneca; Tragedy

Herzman, Ronald B., ix , 205 n

Hirzel, Rudolf, 52 n, 86

History, 141 , 142 –43, 191 . See also Augustine; Boethius; Fortune; Inferno ; Pickering; Tragedy

History in Canterbury Tales :

as critique of providential idea, 141 , 146 , 149 ,


160 ;

in Knight's Tale, 123 –26, 149 n;

in Monk's Tale:

as basic theme, 140 , 142 ;

as tragedy, 193 .

See also Nun's Priest's Tale

History in Comedy :

individual and collective, 21 , 150 –51;

as tragedy, 196

Hoban, James H., 137 n

Hoccleve, Thomas, 51 n

Hödl, Ludwig, 72 n

Hollander, Robert, 22 n, 57 ;

on discussion of allegory in Convivio , 58 , 58 n

Homer, 25 , 34 n;

Aristotle on epics of, as mimetic, 7 , 105 –7;

in Limbo, 21 ;

and orality, 106 –7;

Proteus as helper in Odyssey , 71 ;

and relation to Aeneid , 20 , 30

Horace, 19 , 21

Host, 8 , 40 , 44 , 44 n, 128 , 143 , 228 , 236 ;

Miller's triumph over, 42 ;

surrogate for authority figure, 30 ;

wife Goodlief, 54

House of Fame , 25 –29;

and Dante's Limbo, 26 ;

and discussion of dreams, 27 ;

dreamer in, addressed as "Geffrey," 37 ;

as parody of Comedy , 26 –27;

as prologue to Canterbury Tales , 33 –35;

search for Virgil figure in, 30 ;

and two stages of poet's career, 35 .

See also Dreams; Epic, Fame

Howard, Donald, 25 n, 33 n, 85 , 85 n, 88 n;

on "inner form" of Canterbury Tales , 18


compared with Ugolino episode, 158 –59.

See also Children; Inferno ; Monk's Tale; Tragedy; Ugolino

Human (and divine) image, 56 , 156 , 157 , 211 ;

in Canterbury Tales , 34 ;

discussed by Augustine, 6 ;

Gen. 1.26 quoted, 93 n;

Geryon's, 70 ;

as nostra effige , 218 –20, 261 –64;

in Nun's Priest's Tale, 93 , 96 ;

and personal illumination, 87 ;

Pilgrim striving to realize, 72 , 72 n;

vision of, in Paradiso , 6 , 87 ;

in water of Lethe, 242 .

See also Allegory

Huppé, Bernard F., 212 n, 250 n;

on "Goddes pryvetee," 135 n

Image. See Human (and divine) image

Imitatio Christi :

Chauntecleer's twofold, 93 –94;

in Prioress's Tale, 100

Inferno , 145 ;

allusions to:

in Friar's Tale, 202 –3;

in Prologue to Summoner's Tale, 203 –4;

barrators in, 158 , 203 –4, 205 , 218 ;

Bertrand de Born in, 164 ;

comedy of giants in, 46 –47;

denizens' self-conception realized in, 70 ;

denizens' self-willed change in, 72 ;

and epic theater in, 115 –16;

Francesca in, 13 , 39 , 152 ;

as labyrinth, 209 ;

and nature of evil, 48 ;

Ulysses in, 13 .

See also Alberigo, frate ; Bocca degli Abati; Pier della Vigna; Ugolino

Intertextuality, 3 , 14 , 184 –88, 191 , 243 , 248 ;

and Monk's Tale, 140

Iser, Wolfgang, 12 , 113 , 113 n;

on "realization of the text," 13


Jameson, Fredric, 12 n, 19 n


blindness of, 245 ;

compared to mother, 261 –62;

cured by Pluto, 246 ;

and Dantean Pilgrim, 252 ;

Epicureanism of, 256 ;

and faith in Church, 252 ;

garden of, 254 –58;

and ideas about marriage, 248 –49;

literal use of Bible by, 258 ;

and Miller on marriage, 263 ;

and reasons for marrying, 250 ;

and search for bride, 252 ;

and use of "swyve," 262 –63;

and vision in pear tree, 261 –62;

wedding of, and Song of Songs, 254 ;

and willingness to ignore evidence of senses, 263 ;

and worry about "blisses two," 250 –51.

See also Language; Marriage; Merchant; Merchant's Tale; Song of Songs

Javelet, Robert, 71 n, 72 n

John of Salisbury, 256 n

Johnson, W. R., 191 n

Jones, G. F., 133 n

Jones, Terry, 13 , 122 n

Judas, 93 n, 176 ;

in Friar's Tale, 204 –5;

as suicide, 195 –96

Julius Caesar, 192 , 193 , 195


Kantorowicz, Ernst H., 150 n;

quoted on De Monarchia , 96


Kaske, R. E., 146 , 253 n

Kelley, Theresa, 71 n

Kierkegaard, Søren, 231 n;

on marriage, 227 , 227 n

King Arthur, 48 , 49

Knight, 12 , 200 ;

ambiguities in General Prologue portrait of, 199 ;

Augustinian perspective of, 125 ;

and chivalry, 13 ;

interrupts Monk's Tale, 145 –46;

self-presentation of, in General Prologue, 122 , 122 n, 197 ;

and urge for "maistrye," 139 .

See also Miller

Knight's Tale:

attitude to audience in, 127 –28;

idea of theater in, 120 –128;

narrator deflates aura of tragedy in, 125 , 126 ;

narrator's perspective in, 124 , 197 ;

view of history in, 126 .

See also Arcite; Boethius; History; Pickering; Theater; Theseus

Kolve, V. A., 134

Kötting, Bernhard, 31 n

Kristeva, Julia, 5 n

Krouse, F. Michael, 165 n, 166 n

Kurdzialek, Marian, 93 n, 95 n, 98 n


Lacan, Jacques, 12 ;

"Signification of the Phallus," 256 n

Lactantius, 115 , 115 n

Language, 3 , 74 –76;

of Bible in Purgatorio , 241 ;

and Derrida on written word in Phaedrus , 36 ;

duplicity and instability of, in Comedy , 70 ;

fart unlike verbal sign, 216 ;

farting and speaking equated, 216 ;

friars' treatment of, 212 –13;

in Inferno , 78 –79;

like Latin to Summoner, 217 ;

levels of, in Comedy , 28 ;

music of, 74 –76;

Nominalist view of, 37 ;

in Nun's Priest's Tale, 89 , 90 , 93 ;

"olde lewed wordes," 258 –59, 262 , 263 ;

Petrarch's Latin and Clerk's vernacular, 225 –26;

"sensory component" in, 74 .

See also Allegory; Fart; Literal meaning; Metaphor; Troping; Wordplay

Laura, 229 n, 234 n, 235 n;

resemblance to Griselda, 229

Legend of Good Women , 86 n, 230

Le Goff, Jacques, 171 –72, 171 n

Leicester, Marshall, 8 , 9 n, 237 ;

"The Art of Impersonation" discussed, 8 –10

Lerer, Seth, 62 n

Letter. See Literal meaning

Letter to Can Grande, 101 ;

on allegory of Comedy , 57 –58, 58 n

Levitan, Alan, 219 n

Levy, Bernard S., and George R. Adams, 93 nn

Lewis, C. S., 36 ;

on allegory in Chaucer's poetry, 55 , 55 n

Leyerle, John, 33 n

Literal meaning:

of animals in Nun's Priest's Tale, 92 ;

Aristotelianism and, in Convivio , 59 –61;

Augustine on letter that kills as, 253 ;

in Comedy and Bible, 57 ;

distinction between metaphoric and, discussed, 102 –3;

friar abolishes, in Summoner's Tale, 212 ;

and "glosyng," 212 , 213 ;

integrity of, 238 ;

as kind of death, 15 ;

letter that kills as, in Summoner's Tale, 212 ;

Letter to Can Grande on, of Comedy , 58 ;

littera as, in biblical exegesis, 56 ;

primary in Dantean allegory, 7 , 58 –61, 101 ;

reader's tendency to look past, 74 ;

sacrifice of, in Petrarchan allegory, 16 , 238 ;

Singleton on, in Comedy , quoted and discussed, 111 –13;

Summoner slain by letter as, 217 ;

suppression of, and Song of Songs, 16 , 252 –54.

See also Allegory; Language; Metaphor; Troping

Littera. See Literal meaning

Lollards, 124 n


and idea of fame, 29

Loomis, Laura Hibbard, 41 n, 45

Lorenzo Valla, 255

Lucan, 21 , 192

Lucifer in Comedy , 47 , 152 , 194 , 210 ;

aids Pilgrim's progress, 193 ;

and ambiguity of "Satanic spirit," 195 –96;

and crucified Christ, 195 , 195 n;

as emblem of victim and tyrant, 195 ;

as father unable to swallow sons, 195 ;

Singleton on, 193 , 193 n;

and tragedy of history, 196 ;

and tragic Lucifer in Monk's Tale, 194 .


See also History; Monk's Tale; Satan; Sin; Tears; Tragedy

Lucretius, 245 n

Lydgate, 26 , 133 n

Lynn-George, Michael, 105 n


McCall, John P., 226 n, 233 n

McClellan, William, 226 n

McGalliard, J. C., 248 n

McGregor, James H., 124 n

Maclean, Marie:

quoted, 119 –20

Macrobius, 86 n, 156 , 156 n, 157 n

Mann, Jill, 143

Man of Law, 37 –38

Marriage, 135 , 233 ;

in Canterbury Tales , 54 , 242 ;

in Clerk's Tale, 227 , 228 , 232 ;

as mirror of civilization, 242 ;

as otherworld bondage, 260 ;

as sacrament, 251 –52;

Solomonic, in Earthly Paradise, 242 .

See also Earthly Paradise; January; Merchant's Tale; Song of Songs

Marshall, Linda E., 130 n

Marshall, Mary H., 137 n

Masks, 157 , 213 ;

Boccaccio on, 156 –57;

face as, 71 ;

and idea of person, 137 ;

and poetic persona of Comedy , 114 ;

and portrait of Miller in General Prologue, 136 .

See also Miller; Mystery Plays; Person

Mazzotta, Giuseppe, 22 , 22 n, 70 n, 191 n;

quoted, 70

Medieval Monasteries, 143 n;

and historical study, 142

Melibee , 51 –53;

as allegory, 55 ;

as critique of chivalry, 52 n;

Host on Prudence, 54 ;

and Latin tradition of prudentia , 53 , 53 n;

as Socratic dialogue, 52 , 52 n


contrasts wife with Griselda, 247 ;

and ecclesiastical orthodoxy, 259 ;

embattled soul of, 246 ;

January as mirror of, 248 ;

learns to see, 264 ;

marriage of, linked with fear of death, 16 ;

marriage of, a Petrarchan allegory, 248 ;

source of unhappiness of, 258 –59;

tropes wife as demon, 16 , 247 ;

two-month marriage of, 247 .

See also January; Marriage

Merchants, 248 , 248 n;

Boccaccio on, 244

Merchant's Tale, 14 , 15 , 16 ;

ambivalence about marriage in, 248 –250;

ambivalence of narrative viewpoint in, 243 , 245 ;

antimatrimonial arguments in, 249 ;

censorship in, 255 , 258 –59, 263 ;

Comedy one of "repressed" texts in, 252 ;

desire as threat in, 246 –47;

eroticism in, 245 –46, 251 , 254 , 255 , 261 , 262 ;

Fortune as sexual monster in, 244 ;

garden of Song of Songs:

displaced in, 255 ;

and tradition of eroticism, 255 –57;

Geryon and, 244 ;

intertextuality with Comedy , 16 , 242 –64;

and linguistic decorum, 263 –64;

marriage debates in, 249 –51, 259 –61;

May as censor in, 263 ;

and monastic asceticism, 261 ;

narrator playing with audience in, 263 ;

and "olde lewed wordes," 258 –59;

Orpheus, Amphion in, 254 ;

"our image" in pear-tree in, 261 –64;

Priapus in, 256 –57;

problem of focus in, 243 –47;

repression in, 245 , 246 ;

rhetorical excess in, 245 ;

shifts of perspective in, 257 , 259 ;

Song of Songs as repressed text in, 254 –59;

search for wife in, 252 ;

unconscious revelation in, 247 –52;

Venus in, 245 , 246 , 247 ;

Verfremdungseffekt in, 257 ;

wedding procession in, 245 , 257 ;

wife compared to livestock, meat in, 250 ;

Wife of Bath's authority invoked in, 251 .

See also Allegory; Earthly Paradise; January; Marriage; Pluto and Proserpina; Song of Songs

Metaphor, 57 , 217 ;

Dantean pilgrimage as, 32 ;

Derrida on, 73 n;

Geryon as, 78 –79;

and intention, 79 ;

Ricoeur on translatability of, 73 n;

translatio as, 78 –79.

See also Allegory; Language; Literal meaning; Troping

Middleton, Anne, 224 n

Miller, 128 –29, 133 –34;

bagpipe as comic double of, 136 ;

challenges Knight's outlook, 120 ;

General Prologue portrait of, 132 ;

and masks, 136 ;

and mystery plays, 130 ;

and tale-telling game, 86 ;

views on


marriage quoted, 135 .

See also Knight; Robin

Miller, Milton, 100 n

Miller, Robert P., 58 , 236 n

Miller's Tale:

Boethian fortune and providential justice in, 131 ;

as critique and parody of Knight's Tale, 131 –32;

demonic as natural in, 131 ;

"Goddes pryvetee" in, 130 ;


as dupe in, 132 –33;

and scheme of salvation, 133 ;

shot-window as proscenium arch in, 129 ;

street-theater in, 131 ;

theater in, 128 –29;

theatrical "maistrye" in, 131 –32;

translatio studii in, 131 ;

violence in, 129 .

See also Epic theater; Knight; Knight's Tale; Mystery plays; Person; Robin; Theater

Milton, John, 50 n, 54 , 68 n, 141 , 141 n, 152 n


monstrous judge in Inferno , 209 ;

tail of, 210 .

See also Confession; Contrapasso ; Sin


as poet figure in Canterbury Tales , 43 .

See also Tale of Sir Thopas

Mitchell, C., 122 n

Mogan, Joseph J., Jr., 250 n

Monk, 13 , 201 ;

a Boccaccio figure, 14 ;

and contrast with Knight, 146 ;

defines tragedy, 145 ;

General Prologue portrait of, discussed, 143 ;

hundred tragedies of, 144 –45;

literary ambition of, 144 ;

and monastic rules, 143 ;

tragic vision of, 149 –50

Monk's Tale, 12 , 14 , 15 , 145 –46, 196 –200;

begins where Inferno ends, 145 ;

breaks with expected narrative patterns, 145 ;

Cato's suicide in, 193 ;

as critique of providential theories, 141 –42, 149 ;

"Croesus" and Crucifixion parody in, 159 –60, 193 ;

and fall of Lucifer in, 193 ;

Fortune in "Nero" in, 173 –74;

garden in "Nero" and Crucifixion story in, 175 –76;

"Hercules" paralleled with "Samson" in, 145 , 165 –66;

heterogeneous characters of, as in Comedy , 140 ;


basic theme in, 140 –41;

and human autonomy in, 14 , 142 ;

as literary construct in, 141 ;

"Hugelino" in, 157 –59;

as interpretation of Inferno , 201 ;

and rhetoric of Boethian Fortune, 149 ;

Seneca in "Nero" as Senecan hero, 166 , 176 –78;

Senecan tragedy in, 160 –61;

suicide in, 166 –67, 174 , 175 , 176 ;

tribute to Dante in, 159 .

See also Boethius; Fortune; History; Knight; Seneca; Suicide; Tragedy

Morgan, Margery, 130 n

Morse, Charlotte, 224 n

Mystery plays, 116 , 131 ;

animal masks in, 130 ;

and Miller and his Tale, 130 –34.

See also Epic theater; Miller; Theater



"mimetic" and "diegetic," 108 –9;

as theater in Comedy , 113


as disembodied voice in Nun's Priest's Tale, 89 ;

problematic, in Merchant's Tale, 243 –47

Newman, John Kevin:

on Brecht's epic drama and Homer, 107 n

Nicholas Trevet, 108 , 108 n

Nimrod, 46

Noakes, Susan, 65 , 65 n

Nostra effige. See Human (and divine) image

Nun's Priest:

ambiguous embodiment of, 90 ;

hawklike eyes of, 90 ;

indeterminate persona of, 119 ;

settling scores with Prioress, 89 n;

and textual problem in General Prologue, 89 .

See also Epic theater; Prioress

Nun's Priest's Tale, 7 , 88 –101, 142 n;

as Aesopian divine comedy, 95 ;

battle of sexes in, 89 ;

category mistakes in, 90 –91, 93 , 93 n;

as comedy of verbalism, 88 , 89 ;

Croesus's dream in, 97 ;

debate about dreams, 88 ;

Host on narrator's appearance, 90 ;

idea of human uniqueness in, 92 –93;

imago Dei as belonging to entire creation in, 94 –96;

and mock-epic style, 89 ;

Peasants' Revolt in, 91 n, 92 –93, 101 ;

and primacy of literal level, 92 ;

relation of, to Prioress's Tale discussed, 99 –101;

in spirit of Dante's Earthly Paradise, 95 ;

tree as


central allegorical symbol, 97 ;

vision of history, 99 ;

wordplay on ascencioun in, 98 .

See also Allegory; Animals; Chauntecleer; Prioress's Tale


Ohly, Friedrich, 253 n

Omnis creatura , 94 –95;

and redemption of body, 95

Ortega y Gasset, José, 128 , 128 n

Otto von Freising, 190 n

Ovid, 256 ;

Chaucer compared to, by Man of Law, 37 –38;

Metamorphoses , 69 , 72


Paradiso :

Bernard of Clairvaux in, 104 ;

God cited as Archer, 80 ;

Pilgrim learns to see in, 264 ;

Pilgrim's final vision of nostra effige in, 6 , 87 , 219 –20, 262

Paratore, Ettore, 163 n

Pardoner, 210

Parker, Roscoe E., 132 n

Parliament of Fowls , 55


as exploration of style, 42 –43;

House of Fame as, 26 –27;

in Monk's Tale, 14 ;

as self-parody, 43

Parson's Tale, 87 –88

Patterson, Lee W., 44 n, 118 n, 142 n;

on Legend of Good Women , 230 ;

on millers and Peasants' Revolt, 133 n

Pearsall, Derek, 41 n, 89 n, 92 n;

on literary tradition in Nun's Priest's Tale, 91 n

Pépin, Jean, 56 n, 57 n, 60 nn


Arthurian knight, 48 –49

Person, 81 ;

Boethius quoted on etymology and definition of, 137 , 137 n, 138 n;

Cicero on, as interplay of personae , 138 –39, 138 n, 139 n;

and epic theater, 110 ;

presumed etymology of, 137 ;

progressive elimination of theatrical idea from, 137 –39;

Hans Rheinfelder on semantic history, 138 n;

theatrical idea of, 137 .

See also Boethius; Character; Masks; Miller

Persona. See Person


inseparable from belief, 87

Petrarch, Francis, 16 , 145 , 224 , 226 ;

Clerk's relation to, 221 –26;

letters of, 223 –24;

obsession with death, 15 ;

use of Latin, 225 , 225 n


Chaucer early disseminator of, 230 n;

and Clerk's Tale, 229 –30, 233 ;


as form of escapism, 230 ;

as mask for antifeminism, 230

Pickering, Francis P., 197 ;

quoted on Augustinian and Boethian narrative models, 121 –23, 123 n

Pico della Mirandola, 73

Piehler, Paul:

on "allegorical plot," 61 ;

on "concrete personalities" in Dantean allegory, 61 ;

on dialogue as therapy, 62 –63

Pieper, Josef:

on Prudence, 53 n

Pier della Vigna, 181 –90;

belief as key word for, 188 –89;

and Harpies as doubles of suicides, 190 ;

intertextuality with Aeneid of, 184 –88;

mesta selva and selva oscura , 182 ;

and Monk's Seneca, 182 ;

and nature of human soul; 184 –90;

Pilgrim as spectator at tragedy of, 183 ;

story of, as "psychodrama," 183 –84;

as supreme example of contrapasso in Inferno , 188 .

See also Aeneid; Contrapasso ; Dualism; Inferno ; Soul; Suicide

Pilgrimage, 5 , 7 , 32 , 55 , 71 , 84

Pilgrimage fellowship, 42 ;

and class distinctions, 41 –42

Plato, 36 , 40 ;

on justice as goal of political society, 71 n;

Timaeus on mastery of passions, 71 n

Play-within-a-play, 14 ;

and Friar's and Summoner's Tales, 211


allegorical, 6 , 7 , 87 ;

analogy with Plato's Symposium , 86 –87;

Aristotle's formula for, 85 , 88 ;

in Canterbury Tales , 85 –88;

Kittredge on tales as dramatic utterances, 85 , 85 n;

Thopas as archetypal, 88

Pluto and Proserpina:

appearance in Merchant's Tale: 257 , 259 –61;

signals shift of narrative perspective, 257 , 259 ;

like gods in Knight's Tale, 259 ;

as king and queen:

of Celtic otherworld, 257 ;

of "fayerye," 257 , 260 –61;

of Virgilian underworld, 257 ;

as leaders of wedding procession, 257 ;



mythic syncretism, 257 ;

and "real" marriage debate, 257 n, 261 n;

and seeing woman as person, 259 , 260 , 261 , 262 ;

like Solomon and bride in Song of Songs;

on Solomon's views about women, 257 , 261 n.

See also Claudian; Gods; Marriage; Merchant's Tale; Proserpina; Song of Songs

Poetic persona:

Dante's and Chaucer's compared, 32 –33.

See also Chaucer

Poirion, Daniel, 256 n

Priapus, god of gardens:

in Parliament of Fowls , 256 n;

as poet figure, 256 ;

poetics of, in Anelida and Arcite , 257 n


and rules of convent, 13

Prioress's Tale:

"clergeon" and imitatio Christi , 100 ;

Hugh of Lincoln, 100 ;

law of vengeance not abrogated, 101 .

See also Nun's Priest's Tale


exegetical freedom of, 261 n;

unawed by male authority, 261 n;

like Wife of Bath, 257 n, 261 n;

and Wife of Bath's Tale, 260 .

See also Gardens; January; Merchant's Tale; Pluto and Proserpina; Song of Songs


and Dante, 72 n;

type of self-transformation, 72


Caesar as agent of, 192 ;

Cato's essay on, cited, 166 –67;

distinguished from Stoic providentia , 167 –68;

in Knight's Tale, 198 .

See also Augustine; Boethius; Fortune; History; Inferno ; Monk's Tale; Tragedy

Purgatorio :

and Casella's song, 173 n;

La Pia, 13 ;

and secret of dolce stil nuovo , 66 –67;

Statius, 22 –24;

Virgil "crowns" Pilgrim, 96 .

See also Cato; Earthly Paradise; Purgatory


as analogue of historical world, 172 ;

as "Hell of limited duration," 171 –72;

purgation of sin not traditional, 172



relationship of, with Dantean Pilgrim, 87 , 112 ;

role of, in character creation, 8 –9, 12 –13;

and "supplement" to text, 113 , 113 n

Reeve, 135 ;

as Knight's proxy, 120

Reeve's Tale, 47 n


and chivalry, 52 n;

in Melibee , 52 ;

in Prioress's and Nun's Priest's Tales, 101 ;

and tale-telling, 52 n

Ricoeur, Paul, 11 n, 172 n;

on translatability of metaphor, 73 n

Robertson, D. W., Jr., 212 n, 253 n;

on medieval bagpipes, 136 n


as name:

of Miller, 132 ;

in Piers Plowman , 134 n;

in Roman de la Rose , 134 n;

of servant in Miller's Tale, 132 –34

Roman de la Rose , 257 , 257 n;

Guillaume de Lorris as author, 256 , 256 n;

Jean de Meun, 256 n;

referred to in Merchant's Tale, 256 n;

as source of Monk's "Nero," 175 , 175 n


idea of, in Comedy , 191

Root, R. K., 147 n, 175 n

Ross, L. J., 136 n

Rota Virgilii :

discussed by Curtius, 34 n

Ruggiers, Paul, 201 n


Salter, Elizabeth, 236 n


Fox as, in Nun's Priest's Tale, 94 ;

and God in Clerk's Tale, 234 ;

in Prioress's Tale, 100 ;

in Prologue to Summoner's Tale, 203 .

See also Inferno ; Lucifer; Monk's Tale


devours his children, 155 –56.

See also Boccaccio; Cannibalism; Gods; Lucifer


poet reciting on, 108 ;

as stage in Miller's and Knight's Tales, 131 .

See also Epic Theater; Theater

Schade, Herbert, 6

Schless, Howard, 2 n, 203 n

Scott, K. L., 136 n

Second Nun, 118

Self-alienation, 7 , 115

Self-duplication (dédoublement ):

in allegory, 62 –63;

"demonic," in Inferno , 70 ;

Geryon as example of, 64 –71;

and Pilgrim's quest, 84

Seneca as author:

Boccaccio's knowledge of, 161 n;

on Cato's suicide, quoted and discussed, 167 –68, 167 n, 168 nn;

close affinity with Comedy , 162 ;

contrapasso in Hercules Furens , 164 ;

Hercules' death in Hercules Oetaeus , 167 , 167 n;


Hercules and demystification of world, 162 , 168 n;

Hercules Furens and tragic pattern, 162 –64;

and idea of cosmic theater, 168 , 168 n;

in Limbo, 176 n;

Stoic providentia compared with Christian Providence, 167 –68,

Theseus's underworld journey and Dantean pilgrimage, 163 –64, 163 n;

tragedies characterized, 161 –64.

See also Cato; Inferno ; Monk's Tale; Suicide; Tragedy

Seneca as character:

in "Nero," 176 –77, 178 , 181 –82;

in Octavia , 174 n

Severs, J. Burke, 51 n, 222 n, 226 n

Shakespeare, 89 , 119 ;

Nero compared to Macbeth, 175 ;

Pilgrim and Macbeth, 115

Shapiro, Marianne:

on Dante's "Beatricean" inspiration, 53 n

Shoaf, R. A., 3 , 243 n;

on marriage as oikonomía , 250 n

Simile, 80 ;

falcon-falconer, analyzed, 76 –78, 79 , 83 –84;

mother-child, analyzed, 261 –62


as defilement, 172 , 172 n;

and quest for lost image, 5 –6;

views of, in Inferno and Purgatorio , 171 , 171 n.

See also Contrapasso

Singleton, C. S., 57 , 191 n;

on allegory in Comedy , 56 , 56 n;

and passim

Sir Orfeo :

and syncretism, 257 ;

parallels with Merchant's Tale, 260

Smalley, Beryl, 203 n

Snell, Bruno, 142 n


and Chaucerian persona in Canterbury Tales , 50 –51;

Eustache Deschamps likens Chaucer to, 51 n;

in Gower's Confessio Amantis , 54 n;

in Jankyn's "book of wikked wyves," 54 , 54 n;

in Latin versions of Platonic dialogues, 50 –51;

post-Platonic legend of, 51

Sollers, Philippe, 17 n, 65 , 65 n, 244 n, 252 n;

on eroticism, 17

Song of Songs:

allegorical character of, 252 –54;

Augustine on, 253 , 253 n;

and ecclesiastical commentators, 16 ;

erotic eliminated from, 17 ;

Isidore of Seville on, quoted, 253 –54;

and marital symbolism, 16 ;

and Merchant's Tale, 16 ;

and Pilgrim and Beatrice, 16 ;

and suppression of literal, 16 –17, 253 –54;

as wedding poem or drama, 253 .

See also Allegory; Earthly Paradise; Eroticism; Literal meaning; Marriage; Merchant's Tale

Sørensen, Villy, 164 , 164 n

Soul, 7 ;

allegory of, in Phaedrus , 77 ;

Arcite's, 197 , 198 ;

classical view of, 71 ;

contrapasso as loss of, 201 ;

flesh without, and Summoner, 204 ;

Colin Hardie on redemption of, 83 ;

Heraclitus's image of, 69 ;

ideas of, in Aeneid , 185 –89;

inseparable from personal destiny, 187 ;

relation of, to body, 185 –86, 191 ;

Thomistic theory of composite, 83 n;

Virgil's belief about, 188 –89.

See also Body; Dualism; Pier della Vigna

Spenser, Edmund:

on allegory as "dark conceit," 102 ;

continuator of Chaucer tradition, 45 ;

Kenneth Gross on Spenser's allegory, 103 , 103 n;

Mutability Cantos, 162 ;

Redcross in Faerie Queene and Pilgrim in Inferno , 84 n

Spinoza, 12

Spurgeon, Caroline, 51 n

Stahl, William H., 86 n

Stambler, Bernard, 20 n, 150 , 150 n;

on reunion of Beatrice and Pilgrim, 242 , 242 n


as authority on theological matters, 23 ;

as character in Purgatorio , 22 –23;

implied judgment on, 23 ;

Virgilian texts in life of, 22 –24, 24 n

Stewart, Stanley, 255 n


honest as key term in, 256 , 256 n;

and Senecan tragedy, 161 ;

Stoic humanism in Inferno , 15 .

See also Cato; Monk's Tale; Seneca; Suicide

Sturm-Maddox, Sara, 233 n, 234 n

Suetonius, 174 n, 175 n

Suicide, 168 –69, 181 –90;

as affirmation of human image, 176 ;

Arachne's attempted, 69 ;

Cato's and Comedy , 169 –72;

Cicero on, 168 , 168 nn;

Dante's motives for, 170 n;

Judas's, 195 –96;

in Monk's Tale, 165 –66, 173 , 175 –77;

Seneca's and


Pier della Vigna's, 178 , 181 –82;

Seneca on Cato's, 165 n, 166 –68;

and Seneca's tragic vision, 168 , 168 n.

See also Cato; Inferno ; Monk's Tale; Pier della Vigna; Seneca; Tragedy


and barrators in Inferno , 203 –4;

as example of contrapasso , 15 , 217 ;

and frate Alberigo, 218 .

See also Confession; Contrapasso ; Friar; Friar's Tale; Inferno

Summoner's Tale, 131 n, 204 n, 206 n, 253 n;

attack on friars in, discussed, 212 –16;

contrapasso in, discussed, 211 –18;

fart not mere sign, 216 –17;

"glosyng" defined, 212 ;

literal and metaphoric groping in, 217 –18;

as satire on hermeneutic principle, 212 –13;

squire Jankyn:

cartwheel solution of, and paradisal vision, 218 –20;

and spirit of comic tale-telling, 219 ;

as Summoner's double, 218 .

See also Confession; Friar; Friar's Tale; Language; Literal meaning

Swain, Barbara, 49 n

Swift, Jonathan, 190 n

Szittya, Penn R., 203 n


Tale of Sir Thopas , 40 –50;

and archetypal plot, 88 ;

and genre of popular romance, 40 ;

Lucifer and Olifaunt, 46 –47;

and minstrel as figure of poet, 42 –43, 44 ;

and moral vision of Comedy , 47 ;

as parody of Comedy , 45 –49;

and poetic autobiography, 41 ;

Spenser's appropriation of, in Faerie Queene , 45 , 45 n;

as urtext of "secular scripture," 44 .

See also Thopas.

Tale-telling game:

as model for reader, 120

Tambling, Jeremy, 65 n, 75 n;

on Dante's poetics, 67 , 67 n;

on Dante's sense of history, 141 n;

on Purgatorio , 76

Taylor, Karla, 3 , 3 n;

on recantation in Troilus and Criseyde , 39 n

Tears, 197 ;

frate Alberigo's frozen, 210 –11;

as sign of tragedy and hope, 196

Tertullian, 115 n, 124

Textor. See Weavers


of Canterbury Tales , characterized, 120 ;

ideas about, in Miller's and Knight's Tales, 121 , 128 –32;

medieval, characterized, 8 , 116 n;

medieval ideas about classical, 108 , 134 .

See also Character; Epic theater; Mystery plays


thematized in Canterbury Tales , 116 , 120

Theodicy. See Providence

Theseus, 126 –28, 198 –99;

amphitheater of, 121 ;

Boethian oration of, 199 ;

political theater of, 126 –27.

See also Knight; Knight's Tale

Thomas Aquinas, Saint, 165 –66, 166 n


like Dantean Pilgrim, 48 ;

encounter of, with giant Olifaunt discussed, 45 –48;

and hero as bourgeois knight, 49 ;

like Perceval of Galles, 48 –49;

and St. Francis of Assisi, 50 .

See also Tale of Sir Thopas

Todorov, Tzvetan:

on the fantastic and allegory, 73 –74, 74 n

Towneley Cycle, 133 , 133 n

Tragedy, 25 , 144 ;

and Aeneid , 191 ;

and ambivalence, 201 ;

and death as remedy, 166 ;

discussed by Monk, 160 –61;

Inferno as, 161 , 161 n;

Monk's definition of, 145 ;

paradox of, and frate Alberigo, 211 ;

and Troilus and Criseyde , 25 .

See also Comedy; History; Inferno ; Monk's Tale; Pier della Vigna; Seneca

Transition from oral to literate culture:

Comedy mainly addressed to reader, 108 ;

in fourteenth-century Europe, 107 –108;

Homer "between two worlds," 106 –107;

poet of Canterbury Tales as minstrel and "translateur," 108

Translatio. See Metaphor


Chauntecleer's flight to, 93 ;

etymologically related to "bemes," 97 ;

as gallows, 97 , 149 ;

of Life replaces crucifix, 97 ;

in Merchant's Tale, 256 –57, 261 –62, 264

Trinkaus, Charles:

on Petrarch's "double consciousness," 233 , 233 n

Tripet, Arnaud, 225 n, 237 n


Troilus and Criseyde , 123 n;

and Boccaccio's antiquarian poetics, 39 ;

echoes of Comedy in, 3 ;

envoy possibly from Filocolo , 25 ;

envoy quoted, 24 ;

in line of epic, 25 , 38 –39;

"Lollius" as source of, 25 ;

Man of Law's "Brixseyde" and, 38 ;

as modeled on Aeneid , 25 ;

and Ovidian mode, 39 ;

predates conversion to Dantean poetic, 38 –39;

recantation in, 39 , 39 n;

as tragedy, 38 , 39


of Merchant's wife, 16 ;

Pretrarchan idealization and, 230 , 234 ;

as warding off death, 15 .

See also Allegory; Language; Literal meaning; Metaphor

Trovato, Mario, 251 n

Turner, Victor and Edith:

on liminality and pilgrimage community, 31 , 31 n

"Two beatitudes" question:

and Albert the Great and Aquinas, 251 ;

discussed in De Monarchia and Convivio , 251 ;

and dual paradise of Comedy , 251 ;

Kantorowicz on Dante's view of, 251 n;

worries January, 251



analyzed in relation to Monk's "Hugelino," 151 –59;

and children in Tower and unbaptized in Limbo, 153 ;

and Clerk's Tale, 231 ;

and "closure" of Tower, Thebes, and Inferno, 154 –55;

Hunger Tower as analogue of Inferno, 152 ;

as parody of Christianity, 155 ;

Pisa and Thebes as types of hell, 153 –54.

See also Cannibalism; Deconstruction; History; Inferno

Uhlig, Claus, 35 n

Ullmann, Walter, 190 n

Ulysses, 239

Usk, Thomas, 51 n, 86 n

Ussery, Huling E., 221 n, 228 n


Van, Thomas A., 227 n

Van Dyke, Carolynn, 58 ;

quoted on Dante's narrative, 60 –61

Venantius Fortunatus, 194

Venus, 27 , 245 , 246 , 254 ;

temple of, in House of Fame , 30 .

See also Eroticism; Gods

Virgil as author: 20 , 21 ;

medieval legend of, 20 ;

Proteus in Georgics , 71 n

Virgil as figure in Comedy :

with authority, 84 ;

first appearance of, 29 ;

as major crux, 21 ;

and meaning of fioco discussed, 29 , 29 n;

as muse, 64 ;

as poet-text in Limbo, 29 ;

regains voice in Comedy , 30 ;

sudden disappearance of, 24 , 64

Vita Nuova , 1 , 12 , 222 , 242 ;

death of Beatrice in, 239 ;

Love speaks in, 67


Waith, Eugene, 167 , 167 n

Wallace, David, 25 n, 221 n, 225 n

Walsh, Gerald G., 150 n


epic poet like, 20 , 69 ;

Turks and Tartars, 69

Weintraub, Karl Joachim, 142 nn

Welsford, Enid, 49 n

Wetherbee, Winthrop, 3 ;

on Dante's Statius, 23 n

Whitfield, J. H., 25 n

Wife of Bath, 54 , 210 , 259 , 261 ;

as character in relation to tale, 117 ;

and Clerk's Envoy, 238 ;

role like Beatrice's, 222 –23, 240 ;

role in Merchant's Tale, 243 , 251

Wife of Bath's Tale:

as critique of Prologue, 117 ;

and fairies in Merchant's Tale, 260 –61;

intertextuality with Friar's Tale, 208 ;

lecture on gentilesse in, 104 ;

mention of Dante in, 140

Wilshire, Bruce, 119 n, 110 n

Wimsatt, J. I., 253 n

Wolfram von Eschenbach, 122 n

Wordplay, 74 n;


soma , 81 –82;

carro-caro , 223 ;

chiuder as "close" and "enclose," 154 –55;

corda , 79 –80;

famulier , 206 n;

nota/notare , 66 –68, 74 ;

in Nun's Priest's Tale, 97 –98;

squire , 218 .

See also Language


Yeats, W. B., 139


Compositor: Impressions, a division of Edwards Brothers, Inc.
Text: 10/13 Galliard
Display: Galliard
Printer: Edwards Brothers, Inc.
Binder: Edwards Brothers, Inc.

Preferred Citation: Neuse, Richard. Chaucer's Dante: Allegory and Epic Theater in The Canterbury Tales. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1991 1991.