Gender and language in Chaucer

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Gender and language in Chaucer
Cox, Catherine S., 1962-
Place of Publication:
University Press of Florida
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x, 196 p. : ; 24 cm.


Subjects / Keywords:
English language -- Lexicology -- Middle English, 1100-1500 ( lcsh )
Women and literature -- History -- England -- To 1500 ( lcsh )
Gender identity in literature ( lcsh )
Sex role in literature ( lcsh )
Women in literature ( lcsh )
Sekseverschillen ( gtt )
Anglais (Langue) -- Lexicologie -- 1100-1500 (Moyen anglais) ( rvm )
Femmes -- Histoire -- Angleterre -- 500-1500 (Moyen AÌ‚ge) ( rvm )
Civilisation médiévale dans la littérature ( rvm )
Identité sexuelle dans la littérature ( rvm )
Rôle selon le sexe dans la littérature ( rvm )
Femmes dans la littérature ( rvm )
Frau ( idszbz )
Geschlechterrolle ( idszbz )
Motiv (Literatur) ( idszbz )
Geschlechterrolle <Motiv> ( swd )
Frau ( swd )
Sprache ( swd )
bibliography ( marcgt )
government publication (state, provincial, terriorial, dependent) ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )


Includes bibliographical references (p. 167-187) and index.
Statement of Responsibility:
Catherine S. Cox.

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Gender and Language in Chaucer

Gender and Language
in Chaucer

A Catherine S. Cox

University Press of Florida
Gainesville/Tallhassee/Tampa/Boca Raton
Pensacola/Orliladol/A iatin7 /Jackson, iill'

Copyright 1997 by the Board of Regents of the State of Florida
Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper
All rights reserved

02 01 00oo99 98 97 6 5 4 3 2 1

Cox, Catherine S., 1962-
Gender and language in Chaucer / Catherine S. Cox.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0-8130-1519-7 (alk. paper)
1. Chaucer, Geoffrey, d. 1400-Characters-Women. 2. English language-Middle English,
11oo-15oo-Lexicology. 3. Women-England-History-Middle Ages, 500oo-1500oo. 4.
Civilization, Medieval, in literature. 5. Chaucer, Geoffrey, d. 1400-Language. 6. Gender
identity in literature. 7. Sex role in literature. 8. Women in literature. I. Title.
PR1928.W64C69 1997
821'.1-dc21 97-9730

The University Press of Florida is the scholarly publishing agency for the State University
System of Florida, comprised of Florida A & M University, Florida Atlantic University,
Florida International University, Florida State University, University of Central Florida,
University of Florida, University of North Florida, University of South Florida, and
University of West Florida.

University Press of Florida
15 NW 15th Street
Gainesville, FL 32611

To the memory of my sister
Diana Stallworth

A Contents

Preface ix

Abbreviations xi
Introduction: Gender and the Craft of Making 1
I Promiscuous Glossing and Virgin Words 18
2 The Text of Criseyde 39
3 "Wreched Engendrynge" and (wo)Mankynde 53
4 Marks of Womanhood in the Ballades 76
5 The Jangler's "Bourde" 97
6 The Summoner's Subversive Erotics 113
Notes 133
Works Cited 166
Index 187



3 Preface

This study considers the significance of gender construction in Chaucer's
work. My intention is to demonstrate the complex and ambivalent relation
of Chaucerian texts to orthodox codes of gender, and to this end I consider
the texts both within their cultural contexts (theology, epistemology, poet-
ics) and in light of contemporary feminist and poststructuralist theories. It
is my hope in writing this study that readers will find it informative and
provocative, perhaps an impetus for their own pursuits. The book's in-
tended audience, therefore, includes not only veteran Chaucerians but
also scholars, teachers, and students interested in medieval literature and
culture, feminist critical theory, and gender studies.
My work has benefited from the advice, criticism, and enthusiasm of a
number of readers and colleagues whom I am pleased to acknowledge. I
would like to thank in particular R. A. Shoaf, whose guidance has been
invaluable. Special thanks go to Karen S. Robinson and Michael W. Cox.
My thanks also to Ira Clark, Dan Cottom, Jack Perlette, Carol Lansing,
Marie Nelson, John Taggart, Judy Shoaf, Bonnie Baker, Chauncey Wood,
and the late Richard Hamilton Green; to the anonymous readers for
Exemplaria, South Atlantic Review, and the University Press of Florida; and
to Walda Metcalf, acquisitions editor for the press. I am grateful to have
had the opportunity to present portions of my work at a number of
conferences, including the 1993 and 1995 South Atlantic Modern Lan-
guage Association, the 1994 Northeast Modern Language Association, the
1993 Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, and the 1993 Citadel Conference
on Medieval and Renaissance Studies. Local debts of fact and scholarship
have been acknowledged in the notes, but, as a medievalist working in
gender studies, I wish to acknowledge here a general indebtedness to
Carolyn Dinshaw's groundbreaking work. Finally, I would like to thank
the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown for a Faculty Scholarship Grant
awarded to me in 1994 and for the opportunity to teach Chaucer to
interested and enthusiastic students-students Aimee Bouch, Shannon

x Preface

Kelly, Chris Sedlmeyer, Jodie Nicotra, and Lynn Berry warrant special
An early version of Chapter 1, now substantially revised and retitled,
appeared in Exemplaria 5 (1993); a shorter version of Chapter 5 in South
Atlantic Review 61 (1996); and Chapter 6, revised and retitled, in Exemplaria
7 (1995). Used by permission.

A Abbreviations

CCSL Corpus christianorum series latina
EETS, e.s. Early English Text Society, extra series
EETS, o.s. Early English Text Society, original series
ELH English Literary History
MED Middle English Dictionary
OED Oxford English Dictionary
PG Patrologiae cursus completus, series graeca,
ed. Migne (volume and column cited)
PL Patrologiae cursus completus, series latina, ed.
Migne (volume and column cited)
PMLA Publications of the Modern Language Association

x Introduction

Gender and the Craft of Making

"Diverse folk diversely they seyde, / But for the moore part they loughe
and pleyde" (I.3857-58),1 observes the Canterbury Tales narrator as the
"folk" respond to the Miller's "nyce cas." Here we find a striking instance
of narrative reflexivity,2 where Chaucer acknowledges the diversity of
interpretation expressed by an audience comprising diverse pilgrims. While
their specific comments go unreported (with the exception of the Reeve,
who personalizes the story and feels compelled to "quite" it),3 we may
surmise, based on the detailed portraits "[o]f sondry folk" (1.25) reported
by the narrator in the General Prologue, that the diversity of interpretation
is informed to some extent by the personal "condicioun" and "degree" of
each pilgrim-such characteristics as occupation and economic status,
social position, physical appearance, intelligence, age, and gender (1.38,
40). By including this observation of diversity in the narrative frame of the
Canterbury Tales, Chaucer overtly and reflexively relinquishes control over
interpretations) of his text, thereby respecting its capacity to evoke many
senses (polysemy)4 of meaning and to provoke varying interpretations
from its audiences, both within and without the text.

This observation of diversity calls attention to Chaucer's recurring con-
cern with the verity of representation and textuality. Throughout Chaucer's
texts there is evident an anxious realization that a text circulates largely
outside its author's own control. In "Chaucers Wordes Unto Adam, His
Owne Scriveyn," for instance, Chaucer chides his scribe for carelessness-
"But after my making thow wryte more trewe; / So ofte adaye I mot thy

2 Introduction

werk renewe" (4-5)-and acknowledges that a text, his own makingg,"
may be corrupted by the "negligence and rape" (7) of the scribe." Chaucer's
makingg" is the subject of his self-reflexive text, underscored by an ac-
knowledgment that no control may be ensured over the finished product:
the text is subject to scribal mutability or mutilation, and the author can
only hope that its integrity might remain intact-indeed, as the narrator of
Troilus and Criseyde concedes, "for their is so gret diversity / In Englissh
and in writyng of oure tonge, / So prey I God that non myswrite the"
(5.1793-95).6 Just as a text eludes an author's or narrator's control over its
integrity once in circulation, so too it resists an author's attempted control
over its inevitably diverse perceptions by the "diverse folk" that constitute
its audience; "diverse folk" will indeed read and interpret individually
and hence idiosyncratically, and they will do so independent of an author's
wishes, whether these interests and intentions be known.
An analogy may thus be drawn between the scribal corruption of a
physical manuscript and an audience's "corruption" (interpretation) of
the literal text: both manifest the subjectivity of textuality, and both, in
effect, usurp the author's role.7 The physical activities of (mis)copying or
corrupting correspond to literary acts of interpretation in that these activi-
ties are manifestations of appropriation; the scribe who disfigures the
manuscript in effect transforms it into his own, just as hermeneutically
minded readers, in subjecting the text to analysis and interpretation; trans-
form the original author's text into personal readings, investing them with
a significance that supercedes the literal text. Chaucer frequently ad-
dresses activities germane to author and audience such as manipulation,
transmission, and reception, and his texts frequently demonstrate the
further applicability of these and related issues to other categories of
literary and cultural activity. Such is the texts' reflexive dimension, for
"reflexivity" describes a text's property of self-conscious attention to its
own processes; the term denotes what might be called a "metatextual"
critical commentary, the properties of which contribute to a semantics of
appropriation (to be described more fully below). In calling attention to its
own textual status, then, a text at once reiterates and destabilizes its own
To appreciate how such attention articulates a self-reflexive subjectiv-
ity, some contextualizing of the poet's role as "maker" will be useful.
"Makyng" is the label used by medieval poets to describe the activity of
vernacular, common poetic construction; makingg" is distinct from

Gender and the Craft of Making 3

"poesye," which largely privileges Latin language and classical, perma-
nent themes, and is clearly posited as the subordinate or inferior term.8 As
J. S. P. Tatlock noted, makingg" describes the work of Chaucer and his
contemporaries, while "poetrie" designates the work of the ancients and
the few moderns deemed worthy of the label, namely, Dante, Petrarch.'
One of the more self-conscious and elucidating articulations of this dis-
tinction is found in a concluding stanza of Chaucer's Troilus:

Go, litel bok, go, litel myn tragedy,
Ther God thi makere yet, er that he dye,
So sende myght to make in some comedy!
But litel book, no making thow n'envie,
But subgit be to alle poesye;
And kis the steppes where as thow seest pace
Virgile, Ovide, Omer, Lucan, and Stace. 5.1786-92

Chaucer, who identifies his own work as makingg," makes clear the
narrator's hope that the Troilus need not "envie" other makingg," that it
might represent the best of its kind even as it accepts a subordinate
position in relation to the classical poets. The poetry of the "makers" is
self-consciously distinguished from that of the Latin "poets."
Although, as Lisa Kiser has demonstrated, the "makyng"/"poesye"
distinction is not as distinct an opposition as it may seem, the medieval
vernacular poets still considered themselves makers.10 Chaucer, as we have
seen, returns to the label throughout his work, and we could consider
many more examples, such as the G Prologue to the Legend of Good Women,
a text infused with references to "makyng.""11 Chaucer's two most accom-
plished English contemporaries, the Pearl-poet and Langland, share
Chaucer's interest in the practice or craft of "makyng."12 Henryson, too,
speaks of his work in terms of its being made,13 and Dunbar's Lament for
the Makars, a roll call of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century "makars," identi-
fies Chaucer and his contemporaries as such without apology and with
respect: "Hfe has done petously devour, / The noble Chaucer, of makaris
flour" (49-50). Chaucer, "of makaris flour," is a "makar" nonetheless.
Of course, no contemporary critic would argue that Chaucer, Langland,
the Pearl-poet, or Henryson should not legitimately be labeled "poet." But
the medieval labels "maker" and makingg" are evocative in suggesting
the process of the vernacular poet's work and in elucidating the poets'
metacritical sense of narrative textuality. To make, according to the MED,

4 Introduction

is "[t]o write or compose (a book, poem, song, letter, etc.)," a definition
that evokes the word's sense of creating or engendering, of bringing into
existence (the sense frequently associated with God, the Creator or Maker).14
In making poetry, the medieval poet/maker exploits the instrumentality
of language to produce something more than the materials it comprises. In
addition, a Middle English pun may be determined in connection with
two forms of "make": the form described above, which corresponds to
creation and production-textual engendering-and an additional form
designating "match," "mate," "peer," "equal."15 The latter sense, while
etymologically distinct from and unrelated to the former, underscores the
connectedness of textual and sexual en/gendering; it is representative of
sexual engendering, pro /creation and re /production. The generation of
texts, like the generation of progeny, entails making/mating in order to
produce something new, something more than its origins. When I speak of
making and engendering, I am therefore using terms that for the fourteenth
and fifteenth centuries are subtly fraught with sexual connotations figura-
tively connected to the act of textual production.
When Langland, for example, refers to the "gendre of a generation"
(Piers Plowman B.16.222), or when Chaucer's narrator expresses a wish "To
know of hir signifiaunce / The gendres" (House ofFame 17-18), the genera-
tive properties of language are evoked and a sense of gender as category is
Implied. "Gender," "genre," "gendre," and "engendryng" derive from
generate, to beget,16 and these terms and other derivatives retain a twofold
sense of textual/sexual implications. "Gender" as a critical and cultural
category is distinct from, though obviously informed by, "sex"; "gender"
corresponds to social and cultural identifications and ideologies pertain-
ing to or derived from biological, chromosomal "sex," often interpreted
quite loosely or even, as it might seem, arbitrarily. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
theorizes, "Gender, then, is the far more elaborated, more fully and rigidly
dichotomized social production and reproduction of male and female
identities and behaviors-of male and female persons-in a cultural sys-
tem for which 'male/female' functions as a primary and perhaps model
binarism affecting the structure and meaning of many, many other
binarisms whose apparent connection to chromosomal sex will often be
exiguous or nonexistent."17 As Sedgwick further points out, we may speak
of "opposite" genders, given that "masculine" and "feminine" are cultural
constructs, defined in relation to each other.18 While "sex" is relatively
fixed and represents a largely recognized irreducible difference, "gender"
is not biologically determined and is therefore negotiable, subject to both

Gender and the Craft of Making 5

the influence of and resistance to normative presuppositions. Gender and
gender identity are thus complex and flexible, deriving from and yet not
limited to the core "male" / "female" differential.19
Medieval attitudes toward gender /sex distinctions are not far removed
from such contemporary thinking. As we shall see, medieval thinkers and
writers invested "masculine" and "feminine" with characteristics and
properties having nothing to do with chromosomal sex per se. And the
flexibility in gender identity that constitutes a foundation for current
thinking on gender-the recognition that a gender position may be taken
up, that is to say, appropriated, by someone of either sex-is, I shall argue,
part of Chaucer's own depictions of gender identity. Consider, for ex-
ample, the prominence of descriptive gender designation in narrative
expressions of praise and blame: Donegild of the Man of Law's Tale, for
instance, is said to exhibit "traitorie ... mannysh" (11.781-82); no woman,
the Troilus narrator insists, is "lasse mannyssh in semynge" than Criseyde
(1.284); the Host likens the Clerk to a maded" in his riding behavior
(IV.2-3). This brief sampling calls attention not only to the ubiquitous and
omnipresent attention to gender in Chaucer's texts but also to the social,
political, and cultural implications of gender identities.
Gender construction is coincidental with cultural definition, particu-
larly those junctures where social and political considerations intersect.
Here again contemporary gender theories can help elucidate these cul-
tural imperatives and enable us to look on gender construction in Chaucer's
day as part of a larger, continuous process.20 Gender identity, its percep-
tion, and its contexts constitute an important aspect of Chaucer's work,
particularly as gender is a subjective concept that in effect articulates its
own processes of conceptualization and reconfiguration. In connection
with the metatextual, or self-reflexive, dimension of Chaucer's work, evo-
cations of gendered textuality may be understood as engendered
reflexions, that is, as metacritical representations of the gendered process
of textual production.
How Chaucer uses manifestations of gender to articulate a metapoetics
is a focus of this study, and I want particularly to consider in what ways I
and to what effect a text en/genders its epistemological permutations,
what significance the interconnectedness of gender and textuality has in
relation to the construction of self-reflexive subjectivity. In opening up a
text's metacritical dimension for analysis, I do not purport to determine
what Chaucer the poet wants to do but rather what the text does or might
be doing, for Chaucer operates within an environment of cultural and

6 Introduction

literary production beyond his control, and his work is clearly a product of
intersecting cultural forces.21 How Chaucer's work might be understood
in relation to these contexts can help us appreciate his work in new light,
even if the extent to which the author might himself desire to embrace or
resist cultural influences remains speculative at best.

A 2

Gender identification for Chaucer's literary environment largely derives
from a twofold tradition of the Christian and the classical, both of which
characterize the feminine negatively in relation to the masculine. In medi-
eval Christian theology's antifeminist tenets, "feminine" and "carnal" are
linked; all that is perceived as negative and threatening about carnality is
ascribed to the feminine, equating the feminine with flesh and hence
corruption, sin, and filth. Woman is identified as the cause of Man's fall,
and antifeminist behaviors are justified through a curious illogic of collat-
eral responsibility and perpetual obligation. To catalog the biblical and
theological writings associated with misogyny would of course require far
more space than can be justified here, but a few illustrations should suffice
for contextual demonstration. Consider, for example, St. Paul's admoni-

Mulier in silentio discat cum omni subiectione. Docere autem
mulierem non permitto, neque dominari in virum: sed esse in silen-
tio. Adam enim primus formatus est: deinde Eva: et Adam non est
seductus: mulier autem seducta in praevaricatione fuit. Salvabitur
autem per filiorum generationem, si permanserit in fide, et dilectione,
et sanctificatione cum sobrietate.22

[Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. To teach however
I suffer not a woman, nor to use authority over the man: but to be in
silence. For Adam was first formed: then Eve. And Adam was not
seduced: the woman however being seduced was in the transgres-
sion. Yet she shall be saved through the generation of children if she
abides in faith, and love, and sanctification with sobriety.]

Paul advocates that Woman be denied voice, and insists that the female
body's capacity for procreation in marriage remains its sole redeeming
feature. The argument for salvation through childbearing furthermore
usurps what women accomplish by transferring the maternal contribution

Gender and the Craft of Making 7

to a wholly patriarchal design, as Augustine notes in De civitate Dei: "nec
mater, quae conceptum portat et partum nutrit, est liquid, sed qui
incrementum dat Deus" [It is not the mother, who conceives, carries,
brings forth and nourishes, who is significant, but it is God who gives
The institutionalized subjection of women and the onerous endorse-
ment of redemption through childbearing are authorized further by Paul's
analogy of women and the church:

Mulieres viris suis subditae sint, sicut Domino: quoniam vir caput est
mulieris: sicut Christus caput est Ecclesiae: ipse, salvator corporis
eius. Sed sicut Ecclesia subiecta est Christo, ita et mulieres viris suis in
omnibus. Eph 5.22-24

[Women be subject to their husbands, as to the Lord, because the
husband is the head of the wife, just as Christ is the head of the
church, exactly the saviour of his body. Therefore as the church is
subject to Christ, so also let the wives be to their husbands in all

Frequently articulated through metaphors of the body, the feminine flesh
is subjugated by hierarchical protocols to an inferior, disdained position
and regarded with revulsion by patristic theologians and by those who
embrace their tenets.25
In addition, the feminine is accorded a negativeness connected to epis-
temology and textuality. Because of the definitive associations of carnal
and literal, carnal and feminine, a third association-of literal and femi-
nine-operates as a subtext of much critical commentary on the theologi-
cal interpretations of body and spirit, flesh and reason. The "carnal" is
"literal" in Pauline theology, and hence the feminine, as carnal, is both
literal and deadly. Paul's famous dictum "littera enim occidit, Spiritus
autem vivificat" (2 Cor 3.6) [for the letter kills but the spirit quickens] and
its companion verse "Nam prudentia carnis, mors est" (Rom 8.6) [For the
wisdom of the carnal is death] helped found Augustine's influential con-
cern with letter and spirit. Augustine writes in De doctrine christiana, "Cum
enim figurate dictum sic accipitur, tamquam proprie dictum sit, carnaliter
sapitur. Neque ulla mors animae congruentius appellatur, quam .
intellegentia carni subicitur requendo litteram" [Nor can anything be
more correspondingly called the death of the spirit than ... understanding

8 Introduction

(being) subjected to the flesh in search of the letter].26 The ideal woman in
patristic theology represents the feminine carnal subjected to masculine
control, while the overtly sexual woman suggests the threat of unleashed
carnality, the potential of the feminine to corrupt inherently vulnerable
patriarchal decorums.27 Corruption owing to feminine sexuality finds rep-
resentation in images, for example, of the temptress-"aliena quae verba
sua dulcia facit" (Prv 7.5) [the stranger who makes her words sweet]28-
who lures the unwary man away from the path to God. This stereotype
further reinforces the correlation of flesh and language, for the carnal
woman is said to corrupt man's appreciation of the spiritual Word by
enticing him to the flesh, thereby obstructing his course toward the spirit.
The medieval correlation of feminine and flesh and the patriarchal
tenets of marriage and subordination described above point to a norm that
obviously fails to account for every behavior and status. Yet-with the
exception of virgins-most childless women, women who resist marriage,
and men who are said to act like women represent in this context, accord-
ing to the Christian perspective, such perceived deficiencies as unnatural-
ness, sterility, wasted potential and language abused.29
Within medieval intellectual and theological systems, however, the
strictures of patriarchal tenets and their applications had to compete with
other, provocatively contradictory, models. From the perspective of classi-
cal epistemology, within the Aristotelian/Pythagorean antifeminist tradi-
tion, the feminine is "unlimited" as well. According to the Aristotelian
paradigm, which Aristotle attributes to Pythagoras, epistemological duals
define and schematize meaning: "limit and unlimited, odd and even, one
and plurality, right and left, male and female, resting and moving, straight
and curved, light and darkness, good and bad, square and oblong."30
Those terms listed first in each pairing correspond to masculine attributes,
the subsequent term to the feminine. The feminine is characterized as
passive, bad, plural, and the like, while the ostensibly more desirable traits
are gendered masculine. R. Howard Bloch further comments: "This asso-
ciation translates into what might be thought of as a medieval metaphys-
ics of number, according to which, under the Platonic and Pythagorean
schema, all created things express either the principle of self-identity
(principium ejusdem) or of continuous self-alteration (principium alterius).
The first is associated with unity, the monad; the second with multiplicity,
dyadic structures. Also they are specifically gendered, the monad being
male, the dyad female."31 The feminine is associated with instability, mu-
tability, and unpredictability, characteristics appropriated by Christian

Gender and the Craft of Making 9

writers to intensify the construction of feminine stereotypes, particularly
regarding speech. As Bloch observes, "The assumption is, of course, that
woman is the equivalent of the deception of which language is capable, a
prejudice so deeply rooted in the medieval discourse on gender that it
often even passes unnoticed.'32 The Christian and classical epistemolo-
gies-however contradictory they appear-are often merged, as we shall
see, and yet they expose the contradictory directions in which medieval
interpretations and representations of gender may be traced. Thus Chris-
tian writers associate the feminine with both silence (submissive, mar-
ginal) and loquaciousness (immodest, excessive); one decorum empha-
sizes a controlled subject, the other a rationale for imposing control, and in -
both cases, the masculine is purported to remedy the feminine, to keep
Woman in line.
The negativeness accorded the feminine is manifest in the hierarchical
value structure attached to conventional ideologies of gender difference,
since the asymmetrical value structure of gendered ideology has conven-
tionally devalued the feminine. Helene Cixous, in her "Sorties" critique of
binary structures, observes of the gender dual, "Always the same meta-
phor: we follow it, it carries us, beneath all figures, wherever discourse is
organized. If we read or speak, the same thread or double braid is leading
us through-out literature, philosophy, criticism, centuries of representa-
tion and reflection"; and addressing Cixous's argument, Toril Moi notes,
"It doesn't matter which 'couple' one chooses to highlight: the male/
female opposition and its inevitable positive/negative evaluation can al-
ways be traced as the underlying paradigm."33 Medieval antifeminism
may indeed be traced to the classical paradigm of contraries, which was
furthered by Christianity's applications until the influence of the underly-
ing antifeminist male / female, superior / inferior paradigm became ubiqui-
tous in the Middle Ages: "Male and female were contrasted and asymmetri-
cally valued as intellect /body, active/ passive, rational / irrational, reason/
emotion, self-control / lust, judgment/mercy, and order /disorder."34
Thus in accordance with antifeminist decorums, feminine flesh and
feminine mutability are usually depicted in medieval poetry as negatives.
By unremittingly inscribing anything culturally construed as negative to
be feminine, early Christian and medieval patriarchal discourses ensured
that the negativity of the feminine would be culturally perpetuated, though
patronizing assertions of compassion and respect obscured much of the"\
blatancy. In both theological and epistemological representations, the femi-
nine is used to privilege the masculine, though theology paradoxically

10 Introduction

valorizes the feminine through virginity directives.35 Codes of decorum
are thus designed to valorize virginity and to condemn those who resist
constraint. Indeed, patristic theologians express a desire to deny gender
difference in its entirety, echoing Paul, who declares that in an ideal
Christian environment, "non est masculus neque femina" (Gal 3.28) [there
is no masculine nor feminine]. The most influential misogynist of all,36
Jerome, overtly attempts to blur gender distinctions by seeking to deny
the feminine even as he valorizes the masculine; conflating polysemous
gender with a kind of unisex ideal, Jerome rewards women who deny
their identity as women with the honorary title "man":

[Q]uandiu mulier partui servit et liberis, hanc habet ad virum
differentiam, quam corpus ad animam. Sin autem Christo magis
voluerit service quam saeculo, mulier esse cessabit, et dicetur vir.

[As long as woman is for birth and children, she has difference from
man, as body from soul. But if she wishes to serve Christ more than
the world, then she will cease to be woman and will be called man.]37
It is hardly surprising, then, as Bloch notes, that "in the misogynistic
thinking of the Middle Ages there can be no distinction between the
theological and the sexual."38 Such bizarre statements as Jerome's indicate
that for Jerome-and for other Christian misogynists-the problem that
Woman poses is how the theologian is to exclude women, the objects of
revulsion, from patriarchal hegemony while simultaneously purporting
to embrace all of God's creation.39 In the Middle Ages, then, antifeminism,
deriving from paradigmatic epistemology, often took the form of outright
The conflicting implications of the classical and Christian associations
of the feminine with the unlimited and with the flesh inform various
debates of contemporary feminist theory as well. A connection between
the multiple and the feminine, for example, is articulated in This Sex Which
Is Not One by Luce Irigaray, who finds that "women's speaking lips/
ecriture feminine metonymically suggest plurality, multiplicity, and the
dissolution of bounds."40 Irigaray argues, from a perspective that borders
upon a sexual essentialism, for a "multiplicity of female desire and female
language," noting that femaleae sexuality has always been conceptual-
ized on the basis of masculine parameters."41 Irigaray-who addresses the

Gender and the Craft of Making 21

complex, unpredictable, and mutable nature of the feminine as defined by
the polemical antecedents put forth by the ubiquitous binary epistemol-
ogy-is concerned that the feminine has been conventionally understood
in relation to the masculine, that is, it has been used "to mark difference
from a masculine universal."42 In this sense, the masculine/ feminine di-
chotomy operates within the ancient epistemology-by-contraries system;
epistemologically, comparison is used to determine difference, and hence
definition, though in practice a hierarchical divestment of value is ef-
fected.43 One might argue that the devaluation of one item of the pair in
relation to the other does not negate the utility of binarism as an epistemo-
logical model, even as its ideological implications and cultural applica-
tions are problematic. But the parity suggested by the inocuous label of
"duality" is a false one, and we shall see just how insidiously this devalua-
tion operates.
While it is beyond the scope of my analyses to engage the feminist/
psychoanalytic debate on the origins of desire and the priority of differ-
ence, I do wish to emphasize the risk of essentialism-a metaphysics of
presence-that informs Irigaray's theorizing of gender and sexual differ-
ence, an essentialism whose presence informs medieval interpretations of
gender as well. For Irigaray, as for medieval constructions of gender
epistemology and representation, a morphology of the body is used meta-
phorically; the body of Woman is not only the empirical corpus but also
the origin of selectively representational flesh-metaphoricity connotations.
In this respect, the essentialismm" debate is largely a quibbling over termi-
nology, for any representational apparatus may be reduced to its "essen-
tial" foundation-and either privileged or denigrated as a result. While
many feminists wish to reject the masculine/ feminine contingency owing
to its insistence on an essentializing of Woman,44 it is important to recog-
nize its historical and conventional contexts, for in order to appreciate the
feminine in medieval poetry and poetics, one cannot isolate the feminine
from its place in binary structures.45 While addressing the contingency of
masculine and feminine as cultural constructions perceived in binary
form, I should note here also that while contemporary gender studies,
including my own, frequently concentrate disproportionately on the femi-
nine, an evocation of one gender necessarily evokes the other as well, at
least as a point of reference and contrast. Hence while my analyses focus
more on the role of the feminine than the masculine, it should be under-
stood that I am addressing the relationship between the two as well. My

12 Introduction

own analyses of textual gender correspond, therefore, not to the presence
of an ecriture feminine but to a medieval epistemological metaphor of
paradigmatic distinction.
In evoking a twofold tradition of metaphorized representations of flesh
and mutability,46 Chaucer, we shall see, exploits the discrepancies between
the two components in relation to language; there is, it should be clear, no
monolithic "otherness" inhabiting medieval discourses of gender. Medi-
eval Woman is not only the carnal or only the passive, or submissive, or
whatever; complex and multiple, often contradictory and paradoxical,
Woman is representative textually not only of the carnal-the feminine
flesh from which further meaning might be conceived, predicated as this
medieval model is on a heterosexual orthodoxy-but also of the potential
multiplicity of meaning that gives rise to the polysemy necessary for
language to transcend literal constraints. Woman may be understood to
represent not only the body of the text-as Carolyn Dinshaw has so
effectively argued-but also its figurative capacity to generate and articu-
late meaning; Woman corresponds to both form and process. Representa-
tions of the "feminine" as a gendered component of epistemological con-
structions and hermeneutic processes are manifest in figurative
representations, and Chaucer supplies his texts with complex and reflex-
ive tropes that call attention to these gendered relationships. Because
Middle English lacks the overt gendered identifications of Latin-which
makes possible the elaborate grammatical puns of, say, Alan of Lille's De
planctu Naturae47-gender is presented by means of tropic representation
, that takes us beyond the level of superficial images to metaphoric repre-
sentations and epistemological constructions that operate in cognitive,
literary, and cultural spheres.

This relationship of the feminine to language incorporates a medieval
poetics that identifies language in terms of property and decorum, which I
sketch here, the particulars to be detailed in the chapters that follow.
Figurative meaning is imposed, "improper"; such meanings are not the
literal, "proper" (proprium, one's own) definitions of words (inasmuch as
there can be a truly literal or proper sense) but rather are extraliteral,
additions that are neither property nor proper. In Contra mendacium Au-
gustine posits his fundamental epistemological definition of appropria-
tion and transfer: "quae appellatur metaphor, hoc est de re propria ad
rem non proprium verbi alicujus usurpata translation" (10.24) [which is

Gender and the Craft of Making 13

named metaphor, that is, the usurped transfer of any word from a thing
proper to a thing not proper].48 While the signum proprium represents
proper association, the signum translatum suggests improper, erring senses49
effected by usurpative, transgressive, and arbitrary transfer ("usurpata
translation according to Augustine and Isidore of Seville, translatea in
eum" to Quintilian, ornatuss difficilis" to Geoffrey of Vinsauf)."5
The designation "proper" evokes a twofold set of semantic parameters,
corresponding to both decorum and property; that is, the word operates
within a set of parameters designating appropriate usage, and it calls
attention to ownership and identity, its sense of belonging to someone or
something. Property, as identity, is marked by contingencies-the interre-
lationships that occur within socially and politically delineated param-
eters-and cannot be fixed even as, paradoxically, appropriation supplies
a sense of location and relativity. When we make something "proper,"
when we insist that it is our property, available to us owing to our appro-
priation of it, we are in effect asserting our belief that we have made
something truly our own while exposing our anxiety that we have not. As
"property," language operates within a semantic economy of exchange, a
system of linguistic quid pro quo that defies certainty and invites manipu-
lation, and which also assimilates the erotic dimension of textuality mani-
fest in gendered acts of reading and writing. The pleasure of the text-of
the hermeneutic enterprise, impositio ad placiturm-is predicated upon a
synthesis of appropriation and exchange.1 Medieval theologians and po-
ets caution against appropriation that insists on too extensive a personal-
ization, for to make language too personal-too much one's own prop-
erty-is to render it wholly literal and exclusive, to deny the spiritual
sense that might otherwise be known.
As the carnal flesh, the feminine would be presumably limited; but as
the unlimited translation, the feminine sense of language is its errancy, its
extraliteral, improper senses. As I hope to demonstrate throughout the
chapters thatow theatloo emine, e rauslaioinscribes the capacity of signi-
fication to challenge-or violate- proper decorum in order that multiple
senses (poly / seme) obtain. The feminine sign, as improper, are frequently
articulated in conjunction with sexual metaphors since the unlimited sense
of th ep.istemological-feminine is, in effect, promiscuous _(ro / miscere,
mixed, confused, indiscriminate), for signa translate resist constraint and
challenge masculine insistence on ordered decorum. The language of con-
traries inscribes the feminine difference in terms of plurality, in contrast to
the stability, consistency, and certainty implied by a masculine universal,

14 Introduction

and the governing concept in patriarchal definitions of Woman is mutabil-
ity; Woman recuperates the potential of multiplicity to defy decorum and
hence to resist control and so is almost universally subjected to textual/
sexual parameters imposed by masculine codes.
Woman, then, may be understood to represent the feminine text that
challenges the limitedness of proper masculine stability and the oppres-
sive rigidity of patriarchal propriety. Hence medieval feminine associa-
tions are used pejoratively because feminine sign necessarily violate mas-
culine decorum in their poetic instrumentality; there is no usurpata translation
without impropriety, and accordingly the "improper" woman is the sub-
ject of masculine scorn. But in poetic terms the correspondence of the
feminine to language, problematized by the inhering contradiction of
theological and epistemological origins, is itself figurative; hence
metaphorized feminine representations are both unstable and destabilizing.
The unlimited / improper feminine is checked by the propriety of mascu-
line parameters but would seem otherwise free-playing and unpredict-
able, indeed promiscuous. Thus while the female association with "unlim-
itedness" is largely negative owing to the positive/negative valuation of
the pairings, medieval poetics' emphasis on the polysemy of "improper"
signification enables the unlimitedness of the feminine to be understood
as representative of polysemy and hence of poetic language itself, with all
its ambiguities and uncertainties and with all its capacity to facilitate the
construction of meaning. There is therefore a maneuverable space inher-
ing in the tension between antifeminist decorums, which Chaucer argu-
ably appropriates to negotiate gendered tropes of discursive investiture.
Couching language in terms of property and appropriation leads us to
consider the tenuousness of meaning and propriety. If appropriation de-
scribes a gesture of possessive identification, it follows that the threat of
potential reversal-the dismantling of possession and authority-under-
lies any linguistic transfer. Appropriation as a descriptive epistemology
foregrounds both the tenuousness of meaning and the sense of loss that
underlies language and representation. In a recent essay on origin and
loss, Gayle Margherita critiques the problematic of literary origins and
questions the degree to which history and mourning are themselves a
problem of language, arguing that medieval studies, like psychoanalytic
discourse, has "an obsession with the problem of origins, an obsession that
in both cases is linked to a traumatic loss" and underscoring the "difficulty
and contradiction inherent in conceptualizing what can only be known in
terms of absence or lack."52 The linguistic transfer of property operates in a

Gender and the Craft of Making 15

discursive system that conceptualizes loss while seeking to restore an
image of its shape and meaning; traces of what is lost make their presence
known and call attention to their contextual absence. In his study of
memory and presence, Memoires for Paul de Man, Derrida argues that we
are involved with "an absolute past, not reducible to any form of presence:
the dead being that will never itself return, never again be there, present to
answer to or to share this faith [in the fidelity of memory]"; what we
cannot bring back, we can only try to recall through image (eidolon).'3 If we
consider the substance of the body-the flesh-as the origin of the eidolon
of gender, we may come to recognize the subtle, and not so subtle, pres-
ence of the flesh in the gendered nuances of language and textuality. We
may trace the presence of gender, how it constitutes and is constituted by
interpretive paradigms, how it is situated in an imagined space that rene-
gotiates the flesh as a site of textual production.4 The gendered sense of
language evokes the originary flesh that gives definition to meaning;
inhering in language is a recollection, a memoir as it were, of the flesh, and
to trace the metaphoric operations of gender in language is to recognize
the paradoxical presence of what is absent.
What I have described here is an epistemological framework for gender
that I believe can further our understanding of Chaucer's texts. It is impor-
tant to note, however, that each text dictates its own sense of gender and
gendering. Conventional patterns and associations form the basis of
gendered expressions; owing to the contradictory multiplicity of these
very decorums, however, there are no universals, even for a historical era
so uniformly associated with antifeminist tradition. But it is not enough
merely to identify poetry as misogynistic (or not so). In order to consider
the place of misogyny in relation to gendered poetics and to recuperate the
feminine as a legitimate agent of hermeneutic representation, we will also
need to determine how misogyny informs the texts' articulation of their
own subjectivity. Subjectivity-a text's qualitative treatment of its own
"subject" and its manifestation of subjective presentation-is articulated
reflexively by the texts' voice, mediated by voice characterizations and
representations; thus the relationship of character, narrator, and author is
crucial to the texts' articulation. As an illustration, it will be useful to recall
that all of the Canterbury Tales are "reherced" by the pilgrim-narrator
"Chaucer": "Whoso shal telle a tale after a man, / He moot reherce as ny
as evere he kan" (1.731-32). No one speaks in his/her "own" voice but
rather in the voice the narrator-Chaucer assigns in his own recollective
narration-there is one self-described narrator of the Canterbury Tales, and

16 Introduction

he supplies the illusion of many character-narrators. The narrator here
expresses a concern with the accuracy of his recollections-juxtaposing
Plato and Christ, the classical and the Christian, in the process-and
insists on the efficacy of "ful brode" language, even as he articulates these
concerns in the language of poetry. And he is himself a rhetorical con-
struct, a narrator used by Chaucer to articulate the text, to give it a voice
that is itself reflexively a fiction. Bakhtin's argument that there are two
Narrative levels operating simultaneously in the text, "one, the level of the
narrator, a belief system filled with his objects, meanings, and emotional
expressions, and the other, the level of the author, who speaks (albeit in a
refracted way) by means of this story and through this story,"56 seems
fitting in this respect. Accordingly, narrator and poet are divided, even as
the poet uses the narrator to shape the text.
Within the frame, Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims are both narrators
and characters participating in the articulation and the fiction of the text,
as are the narrators of the Legend, Troilus and Criseyde, and others, who
recall and report the dialogue and events as they ostensibly wish the
experiences to be told. Through these voices the poet articulates his con-
cern with the narrative line that gives existence, moment by moment, to
the texts. Narrators and characters may be understood as mimetic repre-
sentations, as having a history and psychology beyond that specifically
depicted in a given text; characters are also clearly fictive constructs whose
reality is defined by the parameters of the text in which they appear. (As
Milan Kundera wittily asserts, "It would be senseless for the author to try
to convince the reader that his characters once acutally lived. They were
not born of a mother's womb; they were born of a stimulating phrase or
two or from a basic situation." )57 But the two need not be mutually
exclusive, and we should therefore consider the characters in the analyses
to follow as both, with the necessary distinctions and simultaneity to be
addressed where significant throughout the chapters.
Chaucer's narrators thus recall speakers and stories, evoking the pres-
ence of that which is lost and offering the text as memoir. Briefly, then, let
us note Derrida's theorizing of narrative and its connection to memory.
Derrida asserts that narrative evokes something lost, something that can
never again be fully present, and yet narrative comes as close as is possible
to recuperating the loss: "Who can really tell a story? Is narrative possible?
Who can claim to know what a narrative entails? Or, before that, the
memory it lays claim to? What is memory? If the essence of memory
maneuvers between Being and the law, what sense does it make to won-
der about the being and the law of memory? These are questions that

Gender and the Craft of Making 17

cannot be posed outside of language, questions that cannot be formulated
without entrusting them to transference and translation above the abyss."58
The ineffable link between memory and narrative accentuates the emo-
tional aspects of telling and making, for coinciding with the theoretically
sophisticated dimension of Chaucer's work is an equally emphatic appre-
ciation of human vitality and evanescence-passion, joy, grief, and pain. It
is neither naive nor sentimental to address these issues in the significant
work of an accomplished poet, and indeed Chaucer's poetics are never too
far removed from their human origins. The poetry is not a history of "real
life" but rather a history of how those experiences are remembered and
interpreted. That the history of humanity resides in the flesh is a reality
that Chaucer never lets us forget.59
My purpose throughout the chapters that follow is to explore the
interconnectedness of gender, epistemology, and poetics in Chaucer's
texts by focusing on idioms of gender that attend narrative protocols of
reflexivity and appropriation. I do not claim to trace a single image or
ideology; rather, I wish to address issues of gender and textuality as they
inform the making of poetry and the process of interpretation for specific
texts, though I shall address the connections among them as well. Chaucer's
work covers a wide range of topics and techniques, but the manner by
which gender and narrative are articulated metaphorically is frequently
an overt concern or an underlying motive for various narrative occa-
sions-characters, narrators, and texts take up and relinquish gendered
positions throughout the Chaucerian canon. Chaucer's texts are about
gender and, therefore, about language-or, we could say, that because
about language, therefore about gender-for the two are coexistent and
coincidental. By considering how these relationships operate and are ar-
ticulated in various texts, we can get a sense of how the texts recall
gendered epistemological foundations, and how their applications may be
traced through the texts as gestures of appropriation that underscore both
the foundations and their conflicts.
In the Preface to his Mervelous Signals, Eugene Vance reminds us that
"[n]o important medieval literary text lacks an awareness of language,
whether as a medium of consciousness or as the living expression of the
social order [A] poet such as Dante or Chaucer is concerned with the
personal, ethical, and historical consequences of choosing words to ex-
press (or conceal) our thoughts and deeds."60 It is my aim throughout the
following chapters to locate and elucidate the complex and powerful
textual operations of such expressions as they coincide with the language
of gender.

Y Chapter One

Promiscuous Glossing and
Virgin Words

The Wife of Bath seems a likely starting point for an analysis of Chaucerian
gender, for she continues to be Chaucer's best-known and most controver-
sial "feminine" construction. Indeed the popularity of the character has
given rise to a sense among readers that she is somehow an autonomous,
self-determined, real voice. No other Chaucerian narrator has been attrib-
uted the same degree of self-determination, it would seem, as the Wife;
readers continue to define her, as Elaine Hansen notes, "as speaker, agent,
and, most recently, reader of texts."' And yet as a character within a
fictional frame, the Wife of course exists as words of narrative; her exist-
ence is a textual reality. And as a fictional voice articulated from moment
to moment by narrative structures, the Wife does not control the agency of
her own narrative, her "own" voice, even as the narrative voice constructs
the illusion of character. As Marshall Leicester notes, "What we call the
Wife of Bath exists in the text as a set of unresolvable tensions between
self-revelation and self-presentation, repentance and rebellion, determin-
ism and freedom, the individual and the institution, Venus and Mars, past
and present. In each of these cases the opposition is both necessary and
unsustainable, and the terms ceaselessly turn into one another. Of course
the Wife is a construction, an interpretation."' Although without the mi-
metic portrait there would be no "Wife," Chaucer's concern lies more
clearly with the Wife as textual fiction, and my own remarks attend
primarily to the Wife as the narrative/discursive construct that Chaucer
uses to delineate his own discovering of the limits of discourse. While the
Wife ultimately does not replace or supplant the masculine with what

Promiscuous Glossing and Virgin Words 19

could be construed as an ecriture feminine, her characterization nonetheless
challenges patriarchal orthodoxy in its evocation of the feminine compo-
nent of epistemological dualism and in the text's grappling with the ten-
sions thereby introduced.

Although the Wife of Bath, in her Prolo ue, argue es in a qu asi-feminist
voice for the validity of her own experience and authority,3 her narrative
seems ambiguously-and ambivalently-both feminist and antifeminist.4
This sense of the narrative becomes clearer when we consider the Wife to
be a textual "feminine" representation, one constructed within the param-
eters of "masculine" discourse and articulated in masculine terms, even as
specific components of the construction may be identified as feminine.
The feminine may be understood as an engendered epistemological con-
struct existing within the parameters of an ostensibly masculine discourse.
The Wife, herself a textual construct, does not produce what could be
described as a feminine discourse; rather, she is produced by and reiter-
ates an ostensibly masculine discourse, though as I hope to demonstrate,
her narrative calls attention to an ambivalent feminine poetics within
those parameters.
The Wife's narrative foregrounds its treatment of gender positions-
including those of reading and writing-in relation to the body, establish-
ing a contextual frame of morphological essentialism in which to situate
idioms of femininity and masculinity:

Glose whoso wole, and seye bothe up and doun
That [thynges smale] were maked for purgacioun
Of uryne, and oure bothe thynges smale
Were eek to knowe a femele from a male,
And for noon other cause-say ye no?
The experience woot wel it is noght so. III.119-24

Here the Wife argues that "thynges smale" of both female and male are
intended not only for procreation and identity but also, as she goes on to
insist, for "ese," for pleasure. Moreover, this "ese" is produced by bodily
interaction, the engagement of their "instruments"; the Wife notes that the
bodies of the two sexes are different, but she uses the same word to
describe them together. The narrative thus evinces an awareness of the
critical distinction between sex and gender-humans have bodies and
bodies have sex, but gender is subjectively constructed and situationally

20 Chapter One

occupied, subject to both the dictates of cultural "auctoritee" and the
parameters of personal "experience."
That said, I want to consider the linguistic, discursive, and sexual
ambiguities of the Wife's attention to "glossing," which I shall eventually
connect to the narrative's articulation of an appropriative gendered poet-
ics. This poetics in turn inscribes Chaucer's concern with his own glossing,
his own sense of the equivocalness of discursive investiture. To gloss a
word, phrase, or passage is to supply a new and more readily accessible
interpretation or annotation, ostensibly for clarification or explanation.
Owing to the word's etymology, however, an underlying erotic sense
informs its use in the Wife's discourse.5 For example, the Wife's descrip-
tion of glossing-"Men may devyne and glosen up and doun," "Glose
whoso wole, and seye bothe up and doun" (III.26, 119)-not only suggests
a thorough attempt at interpretation, covering both ends and everything
between, but also hints at erotic activity, of the connotations of which the
Wife is no doubt aware and, indeed, in which the character delights. It is
important, too, to note the shift in gender identification: first, the Wife
insists that "men" may gloss (III.26), using a noun that, while signifying a
general sense of "people," is nonetheless masculine; she then uses "whoso"
(III.119), signifying "anyone," masculine or feminine.6 Thus what is ini-
tially described as a masculine activity is subsequently assigned to-or
appropriated by-the feminine. Both men and women may "gloss," be it
sexually or textually; as the Wife clearly demonstrates in her own ambigu-
ous "glossing," the tongue is, in effect, bisexual, belonging to and repre-
sentative of both the masculine and the feminine.7
Glossing informs the role of the text as mediation of desire, under-
scored throughout the Prologue by the Wife's articulation of sexualized
language "pleye": "But yet I praye to al this compaignye, / If that I speke
after my fantasy, / As taketh not agrief of that I seye; / For myn entente
nys but for to pleye" (11.189-92), claims the Wife, using a disclaimer
typical of Chaucerian narrators (that likewise reminds us not to "make
ernest of game" [1.3186], not to impart to the text such seriousness that it is
stripped of its wit and pleasure).8 Glossing is connected to sexualized
textuality9 in the Wife's description of the episode involving Jankyn's
"book of wikked wyves" (111.685), for example, an episode demonstrating
that this particular text serves as an instrument of seduction.1" It is, after
all, the book that prompts the confrontation that in turn leads to reconcili-
ation (according to the Wife's narrative of events). Jankyn is described as
preferring the book to his wife, substituting the eros of the text for the eros

Promiscuous Glossing and Virgin Words 21

of the marital relationship. The Wife notes that he amuses himself with the
book, reading it "gladly, nyght and day" (III.669). The confrontation be-
tween Jankyn and the Wife is provoked by the Wife's apparent jealousy
over her husband's preferring to spend his evenings with his book rather
than with her. Thus the book substitutes for desire (for Jankyn) and then
effects desire's mediation, ultimately bringing together Jankyn and the
Wife. Indeed, the Wife notes that he gave her "of his tonge, and of his
hond also" (III.815), again suggesting the correlation of eros and language
in her controlling of his "tonge."" The Wife's narrative insists on an
alignment of the two-eros and language-and indeed the Prologue itself
"glosses" one in terms of the other.
There is, then, a crucial connection between eros and language that the
Wife draws on throughout her narrative; her attention to sex may be
understood as attention to language and vice versa, for her discourse on
marriage is not only a commentary on marriage as institution but also on
the discourse of that institution and, indeed, on discourse itself. Further, as
the Wife embodies the textuality of the framing narrative, her textuality is
sexualized just as her body is textualized. The relationship of textuality'
and sexuality is underscored by attention to the abuse of each component
in that the abuse of eros-perversion-serves as a commentary on or
metaphor of the abuse of language. As Eugene Vance comments, "The
equation between idolatry, including idolatry of the letter, and sexual
perversion became a subtle force in medieval poetics,"12 informing sexual
metaphors that call attention to their own signification processes in addi-
tion to thematic considerations of the activities described. The Wife's
inclusion of fairly explicit double entendres, then, provides an incessant,
though erratic, reminder throughout the Prologue that the character is
commenting on both medium and message, that the narrative addresses
concerns of both textual representation and normative presuppositions in
the narrative's moral dimension. Chaucer sets out the Wife as a kind of
narrative decoy in order to confront normative/narrative presuppositions
and to test the dangers of glossing in relation to his own poetic appropria-
tion. He demonstrates the inevitability of discursive promiscuity-an in-
hering insistence on the resistance of language to unmitigated subjection.
Whereas moralizing readings that fault the Wife's behavior or find her
wanting-usually conventional masculine readings-are clearly supported
by the text's own emphases,13 the Wife, as a narrative construct, as a
textual representation of Woman, also supports a reading that challenges
this perspective without ignoring the unfavorable details included in the

22 Chapter One

Wife's construction. In other words, to find a feminine valorization inher-
ing in the Wife's narrative is not-and need not be-to ignore the reality of
the portrait. That said, the Wife delights in talking about sexuality; the
language of eros is, for the Wife, apparently far more appealing than is any
active participation itself. Of course since the Wife is narrative, she can
only talk; however, her apparent attitude toward her subject matter varies.
Clearly she suggests delight when speaking of sexual matters, just as she
clearly suggests anger when describing antifeminist stereotypes of women.
With regard to her "olde" husband she notes, "For winning wolde I al his
lust endure, / And make me a feyned appetite; / And yet in bacon hadde I
never delit" (III.416-18) she endures her husband's sexual demands in
order to maintain her profit-making status as "wyf."14 Moreover, she
confesses outright that she feigns an appetite, that she fakes arousal and
desire because she has no interest in nor derives enjoyment from "bacon."
(She describes her older husbands] sexually as "bacon," old meat, aged
and dry, while her own female anatomy she identifies as "bele chose,"
beautiful thing [111.447, 510].) Her comment suggests that for all her sexu-
ally charged banter and erotic "pleye," language is the medium of eros for
her, and the excitement she does not find in active sexuality she finds in
language, its substitute. The Wife participates in an eroticization of the
letter, for the erotic sense of language apparently holds for the Wife far
greater appeal than does participation in the activities to which the lan-
guage refers. Her "bele chose" is her "pleye" of language, not the play of her
female anatomy, and she apparently derives satisfaction from the response
that her word-"pleye" elicits from her audience. To construct her "pleye,"
then, she imposes connotations not only according to her pleasure butfor
her pleasure as well.'1
The Wife's use of "appetyt" to describe her desire for sexual/textual
pleasure-jouissance-points to her true motive in speaking. The Wife
desires to desire (to borrow the phrase made popular by Mary Anne
Doane),"to elicit a response from her predominantly male audience, even
if her narrative/rhetorical performance demands inconsistencies in the
narrative/rhetorical line. "Rhetorical" here suggests that "desire" is con-
structed by the discourse; desire exists only as the rhetorical line suggests
its existence; the rhetorical line is not informed by an a priori desire, but
rather the line generates desire simultaneously with its articulation, even
if the articulation contradicts itself. "Desire" is for the Wife rhetorical, for
her desire to desire seems to be accompanied by a desire to be recognized as
having desire; she seems to construct her narrative for the effect of elicit-

Promiscuous Glossing and Virgin Words 23

ing approval from her audience of "lordynges" (111.4) and, as such, the
narrative voice ventriloquizes, speaking their language-the language of
the audience-rather than her "own." Hence her claims of sexual promis-
cuity ("I ne loved never by no discrecioun" [111.622]) and her impulse to
talk about this alleged lack of discretion may be understood as an attempt
to enhance the likelihood of acquiring this recognition from her masculine
audience (comprising the "lordynges" whom she addresses overtly and
the clerical women whom she largely ignores).
Indeed her very status as "wife" is wholly rhetorical, subject to the faith
of the audience. No husband is present to corroborate her status and the
discourse could just as easily be fanciful ratings or the sour grapes of a
spinster ("For half so boldely kan their no man / Swere and lyen, as a
woman kan" [111.227-28]). The Wife's attempts to maintain audience
interest render her a caricature, an exaggeration of a woman who not only
desires to desire but who uses that desire as a rhetorical strategy, as a
sexualized captatio lbeicoleftiiae. As a caricature of a feminine desire pro-
duced by the dominant masculine discourse, the Wife is not only made a
spectacle but is shown as a conspirator in her own objectification." Hence
too her own narrative of desire continues despite interruption ("'Abyde!'
quod she" [III.169]), while the subsequent telling of the formal tale is
contingent on the audience's interest ("if ye wol heere" [III.828]; "right as
yow lest" [111.854]; "If I have licence" [111.856]). The Wife privileges her
Prologue, which reports her own desire, over her Tale, which merely
narrates the desire of wholly fictive others (themselves produced by a
fictive construct).
Moreover, in calling attention to her appetite, the Wife calls attention
to her desire as a desire to consume, be it sexually, textually, or otherwise.
In effect, as she "glosses" she consumes both partners and texts, appropri-
ating them for her own use and deriving from them whatever satisfaction
she can find. Her warning-"For peril is bothe fyr and tow t'assemble- /
Ye knowe what this ensample may resemble" (III.89-90)-uses the con-
sumption metaphor of fire and fuel that suggests, or resembles[s]" the
consuming nature of sexuality."8 The metaphor is reiterated later in the
narrative-"The moore it brenneth, the moore it hath desir / To consume
every thyng that brent wole be" (111.374-75)-essentially restating Prv
30.15-16 and its explication in Jerome's Adversus Jovinianum:

Non hic de meretrice, non de adultery dicitur, sed amor mulieris
generaliter accusatur, qui semper insatiabilis est, qui exstinctus

24 Chapter One

accenditur, et post copiam rursum inops est, animumque virilem
effeminat, et except passion quam sustinet, aliud non sinit

[It is not of the harlot, or the adultress who is spoken, but the love of
women in general is accused, which is always insatiable, which extin-
guished, bursts into flame, and after plenty, it is wanting, and it
effeminizes a man's spirit, and except for the passion that it feeds, it
does not permit any other thought to think.]

Her attention to consumption imagery therefore calls attention to the
twofold manifestation of her ambivalent desire: it represents both lack and
surplus. Louise Fradenburg comments: "The inability of the Wife's desire
to find closure-the sense in which it is a desire for desire-is thus pre-
sented, on one level, as lack. But of course this characterization of her
desire is meant to constrain the text's presentation, on another level, of
desire as multiplicity, a supplement or surplus-as always more than its
representations, and hence as always urged to remake the world."2( Her
glossing suggests a kind of excess that calls attention to its own vicarious-
ness. In Derridian terms, the Wife's excess may be understood as supple-
ment: "The supplement adds itself, it is a surplus, a plenitude enriching
another plenitude, the fullest measure of presence. But the supplement
only supplements. It adds only to replace. It intervenes or insinuates itself
in-the-place-of-it; if it fills, it is as if one fills a void."21 The process of
consumption, as the Wife describes it, not only represents an attempt to fill
in empty space, to satisfy some perceived lack, but also suggests the
underlying almost paradoxical nature of desire as represented by the
Wife: in her quest to fill the empty spaces, she is depicted as consuming far
more than needed but remains necessarily unfulfilled by the vicariousness
of her excessive supplementation. Thus Chaucer locates in the Wife his
apparent angst about his own measure of supplementation and appro-
priation; he constructs and embodies in the Wife his own concern with
It is therefore quite fitting that the Wife should be initially described as
having "hipes large" (1.472), as having excessive flesh or girth, for she
apparently fails to respect any boundary or limit of consumption. (Over-
consumption of food and drink is obviously manifest in the kind of carnal
evidence that cannot be negated through language alone. )22 Further, she
aligns her excessive consumption of drink with other sumptuary interests:

Promiscuous Glossing and Virgin Words 25

"And after wyn on Venus most I thynke, / For al so siker as cold
engendreth hayl, / A likerous mouth most han a likerous tayl" (111.464-
66), suggesting that perhaps she must ply herself with alcohol to trigger a
minimum erotic response or, additionally, that in her mind activities of
consumption-carnal behaviors-are locked together. Her comment, too,
erotically aligns "mouth" and "tayl," noting that both may be described as
"likerous," that is, lustful, greedy, eager. Just as "likerous" suggests
"gourmandizing-with food, drink, and licking," so, too, its connotations
extend to "lechery," and here the Wife's alignment seems to emphasize
the possible pun of "likerous" and "lecherous."23 The Wife's "mouth" is as
eager as her "tayl," indeed even more so, and calls attention to the Wife's
carnal excesses, for the mouth is the point of intake for excesses of food
and drink, and it is a vehicle for her excess of words, most of which are
associated with her "tayl."
Further, the "mouth" and "tayl" may be likened in sexual terms-an
analogy articulated in contemporary feminist theory by Luce Irigaray and
discussed at length in Jane Burns's recent analysis of fabliaux24-in that
the mouth not only resembles the "tayl" but serves as its substitute as well.
Burns analyzes a fabliau that uses anal descriptions to identify female
genitals: "To call a vagina an asshole is to characterize woman's lower
orifice in terms of man's own singular hole, obscuring the fact that women
have two distinct openings in the lower body" (87). The Wife, in using the
ambiguous word "tayl," would seem to evoke a similar confusing of the
masculine and the feminine, reducing the feminine plural to the masculine
singular. For the Wife the mouth is instrumental in effecting not merely
consumption but excessive consumption, both sexually and textually. Hence
she describes herself as "Gat-tothed" (1.603), again associating her mouth
with her sexual behavior and reiterating that consumption-effected by
mouth-is for the Wife an erotic act.25
The mouth is the locus of sexuality for the Wife, for not only does it
contain the teeth that conventionally signify erotic interests, but, more
important, it houses the origin of speech-it is the location of the tongue of
which the Wife seems so fond. Indeed, the tongue mediates the utility of
both textuality and sexuality. Flesh and text cleave through the instrumen-
tality of the tongue, and the two are united through the metaphoricity of
"glossing." The tongue both covers and consumes; for the Wife, to "gloss"
a text is to sexualize it, and, in turn, the sexualized text elicits erotic
excitement. The tongue seduces as well, having potential use as an instru-
ment of flattery and deception; the efficacy of flattery may be accorded to

26 Chapter One

the tongue.26 Along these lines the Wife notes that her husband could
easily seduce her with his tongue: "And therwithal so wel koude he me
glose / Whan that he wolde han my bele chose" (111.509-10). In this respect,
"glossing" functions as erotic foreplay, as Carolyn Dinshaw argues: "But,
curiously, it is the openly pejorated, carnal, ostentatiously masculine gloss-
ing by the clerk Jankyn that the Wife-the body of the text-finds so
appealing, so effective, so irresistible.... Glossing here is unmistakably
carnal, a masculine act performed on the feminine body, and it leads to
pleasure for both husband and wife, both clerk and text."27 While this
particular instance of "glossing" represents a masculine act, here the Wife's
treatment of "glossing" does not preclude the possibility of reciprocation;
indeed, the Wife seems herself quite capable of "glossing"-one could
argue that as the Wife usurps the masculine propriety of "glossing" in its
textual sense, so too does she usurp its erotic sense.
The Wife exploits the etymology of "glossing" and the practice of
glossing biblical texts to construct a sexual rhetoric. Her treatment of
patristic authority in conjunction with her descriptions of her own experi-
ence results in a kind of "holy erotica," a scriptural glossing designed for
titillation. Her quasi-holy erotic discourse represents a rhetorical mixing,
for her sexual rhetoric comprises a mixing, or coupling, of two distinct
registers, the theological and the erotic.28 Erotica represents a "coupling"
of textuality and sexuality, for it textualizes sex and sexualizes the text in
its sexual instrumentality. Moreover, the instrumentality of erotica is auto-
erotic, for it serves the self and requires no other; it is narcissistic, an erotic
exclusion of other-ness manifest in self-affection. (Though contemporary
theorists-Luce Irigaray in particular-identify autoeroticism as a posi-
tive concept,29 in a context of medieval language metaphor, autoeroticism
is clearly negative in suggesting sterility, a point to which I shall return.)
Glossing the Bible and its concomitant patristic directives is, for the Wife,
an erotic act; she derives a kind of erotic excitement and satisfaction from
her glossing and in conveying-or exhibiting-her glossing to an audi-
ence. The autoeroticism of the glossing is extended further in that the body
as texts becomes a target for her own glossing as well; in effect she glosses
Moreover, this sexual rhetoric is again a substitution, interchanging
textuality and sexuality in a blurring of boundaries between the two. This
substitution is of course not limited to the female alone, as the Wife notes,
for Jankyn himself used the text as a substitute for eros (III.669-70). In
addition, the Wife argues that such substitution by men is fairly common-

Promiscuous Glossing and Virgin Words 27

The clerk, whan he is oold, and may noght do
Of Venus werkes worth his olde sho,
Thanne sit he doun, and writ in his dotage
That women kan nat kepe hir marriage! III.707-10

But the major difference between masculine and feminine substitution,
according to the Wife's demonstration, is that while men read and write
about eros, women talk about it. Speaking to an audience provides the
kind of direct, immediate response not possible through writing; while
men derive satisfaction from the solitary act of writing about eros, women,
the Wife suggests, desire active appreciation and response from an audi-
ence, an "other.""' Erotic textuality is an active oral process for the Wife,
delighting both speaker and audience through the instrumentality of the
mouth and tongue.


Having identified the narrative's use of "gloss" as both a destabilizing
erotic metaphor and a discursive operating feature of narrative errancy, I
would now like to turn to the self-reflexive, or metatextual, "glossing" that
underscores the narrative's attention to an engendered epistemology, be-
ginning with the Wife's rambling treatise on the role of sex in marriage,
wherein she argues in favor of unrestrained sexuality by suggesting that
procreation justifies such behavior (though she acknowledges no offspring
of her own):

For hadde God commanded maydenhede,
Thanne hadde he dampned weddyng with the dede.
And certes, if their were no seed ysowe,
Virginitee, thanne wherof sholde it growe? III.69-72

By first aligning the image of seed and sowing to "virginitee" as the
desired fruits of that labor, the Wife extends the metaphor not only to
evoke the relationship of seed and sowing to sexual reproduction but also
to question the paradox inhering in what she has determined to be the
scriptural privileging of virginity.31 Human seed must be sown if procre-
ation is to take place, and, according to widespread fourteenth-century
explanations of physiology and reproduction, this sowing entails both
male and female seed-the female contributes her own seed to the concep-
tion process even as she serves as the receptacle for the male seed.32
The Wife's assertion here is flawed by hyperbole, for she uses an
extreme example and has lifted out of context the exegetical directives

28 Chapter One

regarding marriage and procreation. One could of course argue that she is
reacting to the views of Jerome, whose rigid and excessive advocation of
virginity in Adversus Jovinianum and Ad Eustochium is coupled with an
ambivalent attack on marriage in these and other texts, the most famous
being Ad Furiam, in which Jerome counsels the widow against remarriage
using fervently unappealing images:

[A]marissimam cholera tuae sensere fauces. Egessisti acescentes et
morbidos cibos: relevasti aestuantem stomachum. Quid vis rursum
ingerere, quod tibi noxium fuit? Canis revertens ad vomitum suum et sus
ad volutabrum luti. Bruta quoque animalia et vagae aves, in easdem
pedicas retiaque non incident.33

[The bitterest of gall your throat has tasted. You have voided the sour
and disease-causing food: you have relieved a heaving stomach. Why
would you wish to force back something that has been harmful to
you? The dog reverts to his own vomit and the sow to the slough to wallow.
Even brute animals and roving birds, into the same snares or nets do
not fall twice.]

To this end, the Wife fulfills Jerome's realistic recognition that his
virginity directive could hardly be met with widespread acceptance or
successful implementation: "Noli metuere ne omnes virgines fiant: difficilis
res est virginitas, et ideo rara, quia difficilis: Multi vocati, pauci electi.
Incipere plurimorum est, perseverare paucorum" [Be not afraid that all
will become virgins: a difficult thing is virginity and therefore rare,
because difficult: Many are called, few chosen. Many are to begin, few to
persevere].3 Her ironic, satiric treatment of marriage doctrine calls atten-
tion to the flawed structure of such directives, suggesting that "all preten-
sions to and regulations of marital affairs, all selective codes of behavior,
are ludicrous because, as the Wife of Bath suggests, they come from
precisely those people who know least about them.""3 Again the Wife
privileges "experience" as "auctoritee." In addition, she hints at the un-
suitability of Christian scriptural models-"Crist was a made and shapen
as a man, / And many a seint, sith that the world bigan" (III.139-40)-
suggesting a sense of puzzlement that masculine practitioners of patriar-
chal directives should set the standards for women as well.
The Wife's response to Jerome, however, is in part problematic because
Jerome's views are hardly typical of the Wife's contemporary social con-
text.36 Moreover, the Augustinian argument that to praise Christian vir-

Promiscuous Glossing and Virgin Words 29

ginity need not be to denigrate Christian marriage marks a more realistic
and acceptable stand for both the Church and those who follow the Church's
directives.3 Thus while the Wife shows off her knowledge of patriarchal
"auctoritee," she simultaneously is shown to demonstrate her appropria-
tion of anachronistic core issues, to avail herself of patriarchal orthodoxy
in the construction of her rhetorical lines even as she mis/represents them
by omission or exaggeration. And because virginity is too rigid a directive,
the Wife accepts no directive, no restraint; she rejects the notion of conti-
nence in its entirety, observing no balance or moderation within the pa-
rameters of sexual behavior. It is hardly surprising that she who delights
so in talking of sexuality would be aghast at what she perceives to be the
virginity directive's rigid constraints and at the implicit repression that
such a decorum represents.
But by casting sexuality in the radical division of virginity/promiscu-
ity, the Wife leaves no middle ground for women. Her dichotomizing
imposes on her social/political reality what might be described as patriar-
chal binary thought, "this endless series of hierarchical binary opposition
that always in the end come back to the fundamental 'couple' of male/
female.""8 Virginity, as the patriarchal ideal, is privileged within this schema
as the positive, male component of the dual, while promiscuity serves as
the negative complement, ultimately the target of scorn. Here, then, the
Wife subverts her ostensibly assertive stance to a pervasive and ultimately
oppressive patriarchal context. And clearly, too, the Wife seems to invert
the positive/negative valuation underlying her dichotomy-perhaps ow-
ing to her desire for audience approval-and identifies herself as promis-
cuous: "I ne loved never by no discrecioun" (III.622), she notes, boldly
stating that she lacks discretion or discrimination in matters of "love"-
love in its erotic, sexual sense, which the Wife herself equates with sin:
"Allas, allas! That evere love was synne" (111.614), she exclaims, smugly
identifying herself as a sinner. The either/or rigidity of the Wife's im-
posed identifications is as reductionistic and value-laden as the patriar-
chal "auctoritee" against which she ostensibly rails. Further, her identifi-
cation calls attention to the problematic masculine nature of her
stereotypical sexual boasting: she in essence speaks like a man about
acting like a man, using a bullying sexuality to confront restrictive social
and theological guidelines. Yet she seems to sacrifice her femininity in the
process of adhering to the masculine dichotomy that she herself intro-
duces to the rhetorical line.
The Wife's sexualized dichotomizing is further problematized by en-
gendered tropes of fertility and propagation. In terms of the Pauline

30 Chapter One

sowing metaphor, "seed" must be "sown" if the word is to propagate, and
unsown seed represents unused potential. With regard to the command
"to wexe and multiple" (III.28), the Wife notes thatht gentil text kan I wel
understonde" (III.29).39 The pleasures of the text are propagated by multi-
plication; therefore to deny multiplication is both to deny the pleasure of
the text and to curtail further propagation. Following this analogy,
"virginitee" may be understood not only as the physical state of sexual
chastity but also, as the Wife suggests, as a state of unused capability, of
wasted potential-of seed unsown. Literal and figurative manifestations
of "seed" constitute a complex relationship of signification structures that
underscores the Prologue's attention to poetic language, the language of
the Prologue explicating what may be described as its own figurative
mulitiplicity, its awareness of the crucial relationship between polysemy
and poetry. The sexual wordplay in the Prologue may be understood as a
commentary on the necessity of polysemy if poetic language is to have
meaning. Through this garrulous, vulgar voice, Chaucer addresses his
own apparent concerns about the complex dangers of discursive fertility/
promiscuity, the paradoxical necessity of the author's appropriations of
language to his own task. Poetic language is necessarily promiscuous, no
matter how the poet wishes to control his own words to limit their fertility;
he proves by that very desire that language is too fertile, too promiscuous,
beyond his control. The Wife exploits the polysemy of language in order to
construct her sexual wordplay; she insists that many seeds be sown, that
many shades of meaning inhere in the language of her discourse in order
for the "pleye" to occur. The Wife as a representation of Woman is a
caricature, an exaggeration that draws from an antifeminist tradition even
as it ostensibly attacks that tradition. The Wife is shown to delight in the
entertainment value of the potentially offensive word-"pleye," yet at the
same time she seems oblivious to the contradictions inhering in her self-
revelatory discourse, making unclear just what, in fact, she is advocating,
though clearly the Wife couches her argument in sexual terms to an
ostensibly feminist end.
The Wife seems similarly oblivious to the ramifications of those contra-
dictions in terms of what many readers perceive to be the Prologue's
valorization of the feminine. To this end, the Wife's discourse calls atten-
tion-to an apparent and problematic alignment of the "feminine" and the
"carnal." The pairing of "flesh" and "female" suggests a correlation of the
feminine and the carnal, in that the seductive threat of the female to the
male finds epistemological representation in the seductive threat of the

Promiscuous Glossing and Virgin Words 31

carnal to the spiritual (indeed, many well-known instances of medieval
misogyny can be traced to this analogy).4" And in a positive sense, just as
the literal carnal is, in terms of signification, the base starting point from
which further spiritual meaning may be conceived, so, too, the feminine
represents positive potential.41 But to suggest that the feminine be equated
wholly with the carnal as the Wife embodies carnality is to suggest that the
Wife's limiting, restrictive, and rather hostile generalizations-the either/
or dichotomy of virginity and promiscuity-are valid. The crux of this
problematic of valorization is the Wife's appropriation, that is, her at-
tempting to take possession-"assertively" and "knowingly," as Carolyn
Dinshaw argues42-of the patriarchal language of which she presumably
recognizes the efficacy, or at least the necessity. The Wife would arguably
not need to appropriate patriarchal discourse if she had at her disposal an
alternative discourse; nor would she appropriate the patriarchal if she
were not confident of its efficacy and utility. In short, she usurps what she
knows works-or, more accurately, what she knows should give the illu-
sion of working-apparently hoping that the appropriation will supply
her discourse with the authority, credibility, and efficacy that she herself
finds lacking.
The Wife's appropriation may be understood, in terms of the medieval
sign theory that designates language in terms of property, as a problem-
atic dichotomizing of public and private (or, in Bakhtinian terms, as the
public or social dimension rather than an authoritative or privileged sys-
tem).43 Medieval theologians, philosophers, and poets would have under-
stood language in terms of the literal and figurative, proper and improper,
as usurpative and polysemous. To use language figuratively is thus to
usurp meaning and transfer it. Beyond the literal sense, language signifies
according to usurpation and transfer, and transfer by usurpation allows
for the Wife's bawdy and significant word-"pleye." Usurpative transfer
allows for public access to private appropriation, impositio ad placitum,
imposed according to the pleasure of the imposer;44 the Wife, of course, is
no stranger to the pleasures of textuality.
Further, the public/private semantic implications of the Wife's atten-
tion to glossing are framed by the aforementioned patriarchal binary
thought, manifest in the ubiquitous medieval epistemology by contraries,
asserting that comparison is the basis for all understanding and that
definition is contingent on the difference identified by the process of
comparison.45 Clearly, the epistemology by contraries, in its construction
of oppositional binarisms,. dichotomizes. The dichotomizing of contraries

32 Chapter One

within the epistemology, however, is not the rigid, exclusive dichotomiz-
ing evident in the Wife's demonstration. For while the Wife uses di-
chotomy to construct a valuated identification strategy of patriarchal la-
bels, the epistemology uses dichotomy to establish difference, not to
condemn it, and to use that difference as a means of freeing or enhancing
thought, not to constrict or reduce it. If the Wife's narrative is interpreted
within a context of this epistemology, her use of sexual language takes on
additional connotations. Although infinite limitlessness would ultimately
call into question the very possibility of meaning, the "unlimited" taken in
conjunction with "plural" connotes a sense of polysemy, a choice of more
than one even if some ultimate limit must be identified or assumed.
But the usurpative appropriation demonstrated in the Wife's narrative
is problematic owing to the ostensibly feminine agency of the appropria-
tion in relation to private discourse.46 On the one hand, the excess of the
Wife's glossing-culturally marked as feminine-underscores the Wife's
insistence that the restrictive, oppressive signifying practices of the patri-
archal "auctoritee" be opened up. The Wife invites further glossing even
as she herself glosses, thereby challenging patriarchal claims of interpre-
tive closure. As such, the Wife may be seen as challenging the propriety of
private, self-serving glossing by exposing its underlying ideological exclu-
And yet the Wife is herself shown as privatizing language. The Wife
usurps patriarchal discourse, patriarchal "auctoritee," in an apparent at-
tempt to challenge its dominance; and yet her usurpation effects an exclu-
sivity not unlike that which she confronts. Just as she speaks like a man in
challenging men's speech, so too she speaks the exclusive language of
patriarchy in professing to speak out against patriarchal "auctoritee"; it is
no less exclusive simply because it intends to confront exclusivity. The
Wife's struggle with exclusivity marks Chaucer's own anxiety about ap-
propriation: How is he to effect the usurpation necessary for polysemous
signification without himself risking a personal exclusivity? Can the poet
use language effectively and poetically without claiming it as his own? To
retain possession to the exclusion of other possibilities is to render lan-
guage problematic in that the possessive usurper not only denies lan-
guage its proper-and thus accessible and universal-sense but also at-
tempts to control how the language is understood. In short, exclusive
appropriation denies language the very plurality that allows it to signify
beyond the literal; attempting to privatize language shifts meaning to the
private usurper.

Promiscuous Glossing and Virgin Words 33

The narrative's semantics of appropriation is in part played out through
metaphors of the body that both concretize and destabilize language and
flesh. That the Wife is aware of the male and female bodies and their
differences is well established in the text; her attention to difference,
however, seems coincidental with an attention to power and manipula-
tion. The Wife's desire to control language is underscored throughout the
narrative by a fervent attention to bodily manipulation, corresponding
overtly to the body's sexual performance. For example, the Wife, echoing
Paul out of context, declares that she will have her husband's "tribulacion
withal / Upon his flessh, while that I am his wyf" and that she will exercise
"the power durynge al my lyf / Upon his propre body, and noght he"
(III.156-59). She speaks of her husband's desire to be masterr of [her]
body and of [her] good" (314). Her vitriolic demands do not go undetected
or unchecked; the Pardoner responds to the oration on "instrument" us-
age, saying, "I was about to wedde a wyf; alias! / What sholde I bye it on
my flessh so deere?" (166-67) and evincing an understanding that the
dominance of one body is paid for by another. In fact the Wife's own body
bears the scars, corporeal memoirs, of the struggle: the deaf ear (I.448,
III.635-36, 795-96) and the sore ribs (III.505-7). The Wife's aversion to
virginity is clearly informed by this connecting of sex and power-to
forego sexual activity for the sake of virginity is to sacrifice the desired
purchasing power of sex, even as the risk of "by[ing] it on [the] flessh" is
thereby averted.
The Wife's desire to appropriate the flesh-the "propre body"--corre-
sponds throughout the Wife's narrative to her appropriation of language.
Assuming possession of the proper, carnal body is an act of what might be
described as patriarchal literary activity, for such possession evokes the
patristic suppressing of the flesh ostensibly effected in order to free and
protect the spirit. The Wife's stated desire to control the flesh is therefore a
statement of her desire to appropriate patriarchal power, and the Prologue
tells the story of a struggle for power that circumscribes the flesh. But this
desire is of course complicated by her status as a woman: the body of
Woman is the site of the struggle, and as the Wife vacillates uneasily
between rhetorically constructed parameters of victim and oppressor, she
finds herself constrained by the very parameters that she wishes to breach.
Her purported resistance to patriarchal decorum instead reifies its posi-
tion of privilege. One senses anxiety and uncertainty in her supposedly
bold statements that betray an apprehension. In effect the Wife embodies
both the normative suppositions of patriarchal "auctoritee" and the per-

34 Chapter One

sonal "experience" that purports to subvert them-a twofold gesture of
appropriation that threatens to negate itself.
The Wife professes to argue against virginity, the restricted sowing of
seed, but in her attempt to usurp patriarchal language, she renders her
language (as she possesses it) unisemous, not polysemous-in a sense,
"virgin." In other words, in attempting to possess language that she can-
not own, she harbors its meaning as a secret unto herself, attempting to
control through possession the propriety of its signification. In fact, the
Wife explicitly desires to mark her discourse as her "own," as having
private meaning susceptible to misinterpretation by an audience: "If that I
speke after my fantasy" (III.190). Her discourse is a subjective external
articulation of an internal narrative, private and inaccessible even if par-
tially, and willfully, exposed; it is a "queynte fantasy" (III.516) not unlike
that which she says belongs to womene" (111.515). In attempting to
appropriate language-in effect, "re-virginizing" it-she denies it the
polysemy it would otherwise entail; the "virgin" word is unisemous.
Moreover, the unisemy of the "virgin" word may be likened to the unisemy
of the autoerotic word; both represent private appropriation-or reten-
tion-of ultimately wasted potential. A significant feature of the Wife's
autoerotic textuality is in her female-ness. Although the metaphor of male
auto-/homo-eroticism (what R. Howard Bloch terms "sterile perversions"
)48 representing delight in one's own language is treated by Alan of Lille,
Dante, and others,49 Chaucer's treatment of the metaphor is given an
interesting-and significant-twist in that the Wife's autoeroticism is fe-
male. While masculine metaphors of auto-/homo-eroticism call attention
to the spilling of seed/language, the Wife's own autoeroticism emphasizes
the retention, or privatization, of seed/language.50 The Wife would seem to
usurp from language its capacity to produce meaning outside of her own
control, denying language its polysemous potential and rendering it with
a sense of sterility akin to that of the unsown virgin seed.
If the "female" sense of language is "unlimited" and "plural," then
virginity defeats that sense. Virginity hinders language because just as the
virgin female represents wasted potential (as the Wife suggests), so, too,
the "virgin" word-that is, the word devoid of its capacity for polysemy-
lacks the sense of unlimited, plural signification. And although, as Hel&ne
Cixous has argued, the binary epistemology inevitably reduces anything
aligned with the female to a negative, inferior status within the hierar-
chy,51 in poetic terms, the association of "feminine" and "plural" is signifi-
cant. In attempting to deny the "unlimitedness" or "plurality" of language
(that is, in attempting to control its signification), the Wife "re-virginizes"

Promiscuous Glossing and Virgin Words 35

her language by denying its "unlimitedness" and "plurality"; she argu-
ably denies it its "femaleness" as well. In short, the Wife reduces the
unlimited to the limited, the plural to the one and, in essence, the female to
the male, even as she seemingly attempts to valorize a new sense of the
feminine. Thus while the Wife is sterile, her words are not; she wastes, but
at the same time exploits and entertains, potential. Chaucer's impulse to
re-virginize words, to appropriate them to limited, private use, in fact
foregrounds their resistance to such appropriation. Bakhtin might con-
sider them to have a public and social dimension, existing in a "dialogi-
cally agitated and tension-filled environment of alien words, value judg-
ments, and accents," where a word "weaves in and out of complex
interrelationships, merges with some, recoils from other," and where it
"cannot fail to brush up against thousands of living dialogic threads."52
The Wife, with every attempt to control words, instead empowers them to
escape her control. Through the Wife's narrative Chaucer suggests that
this desire for re-virginizing is essentially unappeasable; it exists as a kind
of wishful thinking, an index of e(xc)lusive desire: "if that I speke after my
fantasye" "ifwommen had written stories" (III.190, 693; emphasis mine).
But the Wife's appropriation of masculine discourse does not supply a
newer "feminine" discourse; it merely supplies what could be labeled "the
Wife of Bath's" discourse, an ecriture d'Alisoun. The Wife's attempting to
privatize language not only denies it the plurality necessary if her argu-
ment is to work within the context of her discourse but also provides
commentary on the relationship between eros and language given at-
tempts at privatization. Again, the Wife's attempt to make private that
which is public may be understood in conjunction with her eroticization of
the letter-her delight in talking about sexual issues-as an autoerotic act.
Not only does the Wife find pleasure in words, in glossing, she finds
pleasure in her own words, her own glossing. As a lover of her own words
she is, in effect, her own lover. Her autoerotic textuality is private and
exclusive, and although she may evoke a laugh from her audience through
her "pleye," that laughter serves less to corroborate her complaints than to
reinforce the autoerotic motivation for her sexual rhetoric. She supplies
the object of her own delight and attempts to retain possession, even as
such possession effects a sense of sterility through its exclusion of plural-
ity. (The ambivalent nature of the Wife's appropriation is illustrated by
her own framework: because the Wife insists on the rigid parameters of
her own reductionistic dichotomizing-virgin/harlot, in particular-she
effectively excludes even herself as wyf.)
To this end, the Wife's sexual representation is both paradoxical and

36 Chapter One

ambivalent; she is sexual but not fertile, and, indeed, seems to advocate
sterile sexuality. As a harborer of the autoerotic "virgin" word, the Wife
represents a sexuality unwilling to participate within masculine param-
eters; it is, in a sense, uncorrupted by masculine seed yet corrupted by its
own exclusiveness. In seeking satisfaction, the Wife instead generates it
herself through autoerotic textuality-erotic glossing-and revels in the
experience of her own delight. Ultimately, however, the narrative speaks
to unrealized desire, for the Wife's "holy erotica" is not enough; the
privatization of eros leaves her hungry for more, and she remains-both
textually and sexually-isolated and constrained within the parameters of
the masculine discourse. Hence her promiscuity: the Wife is depicted as
continuously searching, grasping, mixing, seeking rhetorical satisfaction
through a series of appropriations. Thus her self-proclaimed status of
bullying sexuality, her own attempts to depict herself as an unattractively
aggressive and indiscriminate woman, is balanced with the reality of her
own frustration and unfulfillment; the apparent auto-/homo-erotic valori-
zation is yet another cover or veil:

We women han, if that I shal nat lye,
In this matere a queynte fantasy:
Wayte what thyng we may nat lightly have,
Therafter wol we crie al day and crave.
Forbede us thyng, and that desiren we;
Preesse on us faste, and thanne wol we fle. III.515-20

The Wife thus inscribes ambivalently the paradox of "re-virginized" lan-
guage, implicating her author: the more the poet strives for the "virgin"
word, the more he confirms the promiscuity of discourse.
The Wife herself provides a concrete example of what happens when
meaning is made personal:

Who peyntede the leon, tel me who?
By God, if women hadde written stories,
As clerkes han withinne hire oratories,
They wolde han written of men moore wikkednesse
Than al the mark of Adam may redresse. III.692-96

Her reference to Aesop's lion does call into question the subjectivity
inhering in any artistic representation, and the Wife uses the example
effectively in this respect.53 However, the bitter, angry words that follow
the example undermine her apparent efforts to demonstrate a need for a
feminine-sympathetic perspective by suggesting that she seeks to repli-

Promiscuous Glossing and Virgin Words 37

cate the masculine crime of misrepresentation; the women's stories would
merely supply an equally distorted view, framed by an opposing perspec-
tive. She advocates that the hegemonic patriarchal discourse be replaced
by an equally hegemonic feminine one, thereby calling attention not only
to the flawed, apparently self-serving nature of her diatribe but also to the
confused relationships of masculine and feminine as put forth by her own
mixing of the two. Rejecting or usurping the masculine does not constitute
a feminine even as the Wife's inversion challenges the hegemony of the
masculine. Hence the ambivalence of her narrative: her ostensibly
profeminist arguments are betrayed by an articulation that supports what
it professes to subvert.54
The Wife's narrative therefore comes across as an anti-antifeminist
(rather than "feminist") misogamous discourse that may be read as a kind
of antifeminist feminism. It attempts to refute the conventions of antifemi-
nist textuality-laying the groundwork for ideological challenge-but sup-
ports those conventions through illustration that seems only to validate
the stereotypes on which the conventions are based. She may claim to
reject patriarchal decorum-"After thy text, ne after thy rubriche, / I wol
nat wirche as muchel as a gnat" (III.346-47)-but her very act of articulat-
ing her resistance thwarts its own stated intentions. As Robert Hanning
argues, "The Wife is lost in a world of words of which she is also a
constituent. She exists as a literary creation of men, a system of texts and
glosses which she repeatedly attacks but always ends up confirming."55
Within the conventions of antifeminist textuality, the Wife does fight
back-or talks back-using the only weapon she knows, that with which
she has been assaulted; as Deborah Ellis notes, "Indeed, women who
verbally attack men most successfully use not their 'own' language but
rather that of the men they resist."56 The Wife's appropriation of "men's"
language serves to articulate her complaints but does little to effect a
newer, "feminine" system of discourse.
"Deceite, wepyng, spynnyng God hath yive / To women kyndely,
while they may lyve" (III.401-2). The character of the Wife is associated
with that of a weaver of fabric and, likewise, she is a weaver of texts, lifting
and borrowing from even the most unlikely of sources to weave together a
narrative web both self-promoting and self-incriminating; as she asserts
specific argumentative points, she subsequently undermines them in a
discourse that wanders from one idea to another, perhaps never really
certain of its own purpose. And while the text of the Prologue is itself a
fertile and provocative commentary on its own textual processes and the
processes of engendered epistemological representation, the fictive char-

38 Chapter One

acter who voices those words is presented as a kind of caricature and is
rendered oddly pathetic by her own role in the process. Unable to promote
any single argument to any effective end, the Wife employs a sexual
rhetoric that may indeed be described as promiscuous, that is, pro/miscere,
"mixed" or "confused" as well as "indiscriminate." Just as the Wife cannot
confine herself sexually to any single partner-"Welcome the sixte, whan
that ever he shal" (III.45)-so, too, she cannot find rhetorical satisfaction in
any single argumentative line.
If we return to Irigaray, we find a similar critical dynamic at work.
Irigaray's attempts to destabilize the language of patriarchy likewise ap-
propriate patriarchal language and therefore problematically reify its he-
gemony. In this respect the Wife's narrative anticipates Irigaray's own
engagement with patriarchal epistemologies and arrives at a similar quan-
dary-how can Woman find her own voice? Chaucer's depiction of the
Wife's quasi-feminist appropriation invites further consideration in its
necessary resistance to closure. Since any personal usurpation of the mas-
culine hardly suffices as a feminine, her ineffectual promiscuous narrative
would seem to underscore a need for some alternative. At a minimum, her
futile usurpation calls into question the role of the feminine in a masculine
hermeneutics, even if her ambivalent sexual textuality frustrates the reader's
attempts to identify any potential resolution.. Peggy Knapp comments,
"Alisoun of Bath may become, then, a figure for the garrulous, incorri-
gible, inexplicable text, always wandrynge by the weye, always escaping
from any centralizing authority that attempts to take over her story. She
wants to be glossed and gives out a wealth of clues to reading her enigma,
but no one reading will master the rest. And the glossing she invites is
itself readable as the work of high intellect and spiritual insight, or the
play of material forces and sexual cajolery, or both.""7 Indeed, the Wife's
narrative calls attention to still unresolved problematic relationships of
gender and language, and through its attention to the feminine utility of
poetic polysemy it asserts a feminine valorization, albeit a problematic
one: an ambivalent, paradoxical, and unresolved antifeminist feminism.
If the Wife leaves us with these unresolved problematic relationships of
gender, language, and society, it is perhaps because through her we see
the poet discovering-the limits of poetry. She is, after all, his writing, and
we read him both in her and through her. The unresolved issues are
therefore crucial to readers' appreciation of Chaucer's narrative construc-
tion because they are unresolved, inviting further critical conversation and
further debate-"Have thou ynogh, thee thar nat pleyne thee" (111.336).

SChapter Two

The Text of Criseyde

Yef men blameth that ys noght worthy to be blamed,
thanne hy buth to blame. Clerkes knoweth wel ynow that
no synfol man doth so wel that he ne myghte do betre,
another maketh so good a translacyon that he ne myghte
make a betre.
-John Trevisa, Dialogue'

For Chaucer, Criseyde manifests literary activities-reading, glossing, writ-
ing, translating-and so the narrative that produces her, by extension,
yields metatextual, or self-reflexive, commentary on its own manifestation
of these and related activities.2 The narrator of Troilus is a self-described
reader and his narrative is situated overtly in relation to a predecessor,
overtly complicated by the narrator's task of translating.3 The narrator of
Troilus concludes his work of translating "Lollius's" alleged source text by
appending to the poem a prayer that incorporates a translation of Dante's
Paradiso (14.28-30):

Thow oon, and two, and there, eterne on lyve,
That regnest ay in there, and two, and oon,
Uncircumscript, and al maist circumscrive,4
Us from visible and invisible foon
Defende, and to thy mercy, everichon,
So make us, Jesus, for thi mercy, digne,
For love of made and moder thyn benigne. 5.1863-69

The prayer is, at first glance, a request for protection or defense; the phrase
"visible and invisible foon" is comprehensive, accounting for both the

40 Chapter Two

overtly recognizable threats of the human world-e.g., enemy soldiers-
as well as those more insidious foes (such as unfaithful women) whose
evil is perpetrated under cover of their victims' ignorance or faith. Addi-
tionally, the prayer addresses the Virgin Mary-"mayde and moder"-
thereby evoking the spiritual significance of a revered feminine icon by
professing admiration and respect for the Virgin Mother, the truest and
most laudable of women in the Christian tradition.
More than a typically generic reiteration of Christian orthodoxy, how-
ever, the prayer constitutes a remarkably self-reflexive gloss on the narra-
tive preceding it. The text to which the prayer is appended obviously tells
the story of "foon" both visible and unseen, for its various manifestations
of human relationships, including war and romance, love and betrayal,
are articulated in conjunction with the narrator's own stated concerns
regarding the accuracy and propriety of his translation. I wish to argue
that the text evinces an ambivalent position germane to its own literary
activities by gendering these relationships: for the Troilus narrator, Woman
is the "invisible foe" that troubles the translation. The exclusionary binarism
of madee and moder" leaves no room for Criseyde within its nostalgic,
naively fetishizing parameters. Criseyde's occupation of the feminine gen-
der insists, connected to her sexuality, and hence
it is Criseyde as sexual Woman who fuels the narrator's problematic
rireTfionship t-t-h-erf tter t- is t-ext...

The character of Chaucer's Criseyde is mediated by layers of interpreta-
tion and perception; much of her history and profile are reported by the
men of the narrative, and even "her" words are supplied by a narrator
who, while claiming fidelity to his translation's source, nonetheless inter-
jects with such frequency and zest that his professed ability to report
without bias is obviously a fiction. Thus we find Criseyde introduced as
an object of pathos and subservience who must plead, "with pitous vois"
(1.111), for Hector's protection from those who would abuse her as a
substitute for her traitorous father. Hector's promise to her-"youre body
shal men save" (1.122)-is an act of compassion, but one that nonetheless
foregrounds her corporeal objectification, that is, her staus as body rather
than self. It introduces as well a pairing of promise and betrayal, one
whose initiation and disintegration occur a step ahead of that involving
Troilus and Criseyde; the two sets will intersect when the exchange for
Antenor is made. Her introduction therefore foregrounds her identity as

The Text of Criseyde 41

victim, a status never ameliorated by the narrative, despite the narrator's
accentuated attempts to affirm otherwise.
I am aware that I may be positing the sort of argument often criticized
for lacking humor and being too eager to exculpate a female character.5
But feminists are too often silenced by the accusation of lacking humor, as
if an unwillingness to overlook unpleasantries by veiling them in (mascu-
line) humor warrants negation of a critical position. Thus it is important to
understand why a reader might find in Troilus grounds for choosing not to
condemn Criseyde. Clearly the text supports multiple readings, and, given
the text's and the narrator's oscillating positions, determining in what
ways and to what ends such equivocality operates can help us better to
appreciate the text's gendered dynamics and its ambivalent presentation
of its story and its telling.
The opening sequence of Troilus is curiously structured and articulated
from a strikingly inconsonant narrative position. We are told from the
start that this is a biased account-"The double sorwe of Troilus to tellen"
(1.1), "In which ye may the double sorwes here / Of Troilus in lovynge of
Criseyde, / And how she forsook hym er she deyde" (1.54-56)-for we are
presented with the narrator's self-professed intention to tell, in retrospect,
the story of Troilus's sorrow, how Troilus is betrayed, how Criseyde is to
blame for his disappointment and hurt feelings. Clearly this narrative
purports to elucidate a woman's act of betrayal by examining the events
leading to and arising from her transgression, that is, her errant behavior
apropos the decorum of romance; and although the narrator overtly em-
phasizes Troilus's perspective here, his narrative is much more Criseyde's
story. Though framed as the transgressor, Criseyde is introduced in the
narrative proper as having been subjected to prior misfortunes with rather
dire consequences, continuing into the narrative present.
Hence the narrator's famous description points to her inevitably being
manipulated, and it prepares for her being assigned blame by focusing on
her physical attributes:

Among this other folk was Criseyda,
In widewes habit blak; but natheles,
Right as oure first lettre is now an A,
In beaute first so stood she, makeles.
Hire goodly lokyng gladed al the prees.
Nas never yet seyn thyng to ben preysed derre,
Nor under cloude blak so bright a sterre. 1.169-75

42 Chapter Two

She is a widow-"for bothe a widewe was she and alone" (1.97), appar-
ently childless ("But whether that she children hadde or noon, / I rede it
naught, therefore I late it goon" [1.132-33])-and thus finds herself occupy-
ing the awkward social position of having no male protector in a culture
known to victimize unprotected women, and, further, she is left behind to
bear the brunt of Trojan society's gossip and desire for vengeance owing
to her father's treason. It is hardly surprising, then, that her foremost
emotional expression is shown to be fear, that she reiterates throughout
the narrative sequence her anxiety and trepidation owing to her place in
society and its structures. Disappointing her lover and causing him some
emotional pain seem relatively minor compared to the harsh circum-
stances framing Criseyde's introduction.
Additionally, and overtly more troubling for the narrator, her status
marks her as sexually experienced, yet without the obligation of child care
or marriage. As noted above in connection with Chaucer's Wife of Bath,
widows represent an ambiguous and troubling sexual status, and their
presence is troubling for those who wish to conform to codes of patriar-
chal identification; like the widowed Wife, Criseyde has participated in
sexual experiences and is yet unencumbered by the patristic sanction of
childbirth. She is, the narrator emphasizes, "makeles"-without a match
(an equal in beauty) and without a "make" (a mate, spouse). Hence the
apparent contradiction in the continuation of the description: the narrator
describes her as "Simple of atir and debonaire of chere, / With ful assured
lokyng and manere" (1.181-82), after having just voiced his presumption
that "she stood ful lowe and still alone, / Byhynden other folk, in litel
brede, / And neigh the dore, ay undre shames drede" (1.178-80). The
narrator sets forth an image of a confident, gracious woman while simul-
taneously indicating that she has reason to wish to conceal shame from
others; whether this is owing to her having had foisted upon her an
identity of traitor's daughter or whether some personal experience moti-
vates her shame, the narrator leaves ambiguous.
Criseyde's sexual status coupled with the narrator's comparison of her
to the letter "A" defines her in relation to gender decorum and its episte-
mological connotations: as Carolyn Dinshaw, Elaine Hansen, and others
have shown, she is perceived as the carnal letter, the feminine-body-as-
text, a blank page to be inscribed by masculine agency in its numerous
manifestations.6 Dinshaw's argument demonstrates in particular the
gendered dynamics of reading taking place in this text, explicating the
"masculine" versus "feminine" readings posed by the narrator and Criseyde
(the narrator's sometime doppelganger Pandarus complicates the sex/

The Text of Criseyde 43

gender association, Dinshaw argues, indicating that men need not read
like men).7 Further, the female-body-as-text metaphor is manifest in the
text's recurring assertions of approval germane to the feminine being
manipulated by the masculine, for she will reveal herself to be not the
fixed, literal glyph (pointing to the signum proprium of decorum) to which
the narrator compares her but instead a more complex and indefinite
sequence of signa translate.8 Criseyde thus embodies the "slydyng" text,
subject to the manipulative manueverings of the men who would inscribe
her. She is in effect the translated text of each reading, bearing the lan-
guage that each imposes on her as each reader appropriates her as his or
her own.
Troilus's initial attraction to Criseyde, for example, contributes to the
text's reflexive theme of Woman-as-text, for the description of Troilus's
incipient desire underscores not only the carnal/literal superficiality of
visually incited desire-"And upon cas bifel that though a route / His
eye percede, and so depe it wente, / Til on Criseyde it smot, and their it
stente" (1.271-73)9-but also Troilus's own degree of complicity in the
construction of his fantasy object/text:

Thus gan he make a mirour of his mynde
In which he saugh al holly hire figure,
And that he wel koude in his herte fynde.
It was to hym a right good venture
To love swich oon, and if he dede his cure
To seven hir, yet myghte he falle in grace,
Or ellis for oon of hire servantz pace. 1.365-71

Gayle Margherita argues that such "specular pleasures become perilous
precisely because of the potential slippage of desire into identification."1"
Troilus's imagination constructs a fantasy object whose origin is located in
Troilus's singular desire; hence his narcissistic desire motivates his-and
Pandarus's-pygmalionism, their attempt to force reality into compliance
with the fantasy.11 The manipulative, self-centered quality of Troilus's
erotic interests is elided by their mode of articulation, which employs
proper sentiment belonging to a conventional romance decorum and which
therefore participates in the rather oxymoronic gesture of codifying that
which resists codification.
It is thus fitting that the narrator interrupts Troilus's fantasy with a
digression on the mechanics of translating and the difficulties of doing so
with a missing text:

44 Chapter Two

And of his song naught only the sentence,
As writ myn auctour called Lollius,
But pleinly, save oure tonges difference,
I dar wel seyn, in al, that Troilus
Seyde in his song, loo, every word right thus
As I shal seyn; and whoso list it here,
Loo, next this vers he may it fynden here. 1.393-99

In a startling admission of invention, the narrator indicates that the Canticus
Troilii he presents,12 while deriving from the "sentence" of Lollius's text, is
absent in its presented form from the supposed source-in other words,
the narrator is "translating" an original that does not exist, or, to the point,
She is writing the narrative himself.13 For the narrator subsequently to claim
total fidelity to Troilus's words then underscores his role as "maker"; it is
he who constructs the fantasy of Troilus's fantasy at the level of its literal
articulation. The narrator's interpolated commentary on language and
fabrication gives further emphasis as well to Troilus's own process of
"making," with this interruption jolting the narrative temporarily out of
its romance mode, thereby calling attention to its own status as text. The
narrator sharply juxtaposes the kitschy trappings offin' amors convention
with a pointed explication of the craft by which these conventions are
brought to fictional life, as though the narrator-or Chaucer-does not
want the reader to become too comfortable in the role of reading.
The narrator's exterior paternalistic role is taken up internally by
Pandarus, who voyeuristically mediates the romantic exchanges like a
vicariously adolescent father goading and applauding a son's initiation
into active sexual manhood. To be sure, Troilus is as much a pawn in
Pandarus's game as Criseyde, but for Troilus the stakes are much lower;
Pandarus trifles with Troilus's affections using Criseyde as the prize ob-
ject, but Criseyde's compliance connotes a sense of coercion. Pandarus
expresses succinctly his self-designated role:

That is to seye, for the am I bicomen,
Bitwixen game and ernest, swich a meene
As maken women unto men to comen;
Al sey I nought, thow wost wel what I meene. 3.253-56

'- Clearly Pandarus derives vicarious excitement from orchestrating
Criseyde's seduction; he is thereby able to experience erotic delight in the
romance without having to invest personally in its consequences ("I dide

The Text of Criseyde 45

al that the leste.... I kan namore seye" [5.1736, 1743], he responds in the
aftermath of Troilus's dejection). Troilus, too, may be implicated in ma-
nipulative behavior, particularly as he determinedly adheres to the literal
text of fin' amors, anxiously attempting to shape Criseyde according to a
procrustean decorum that excludes the harsh political and social realities
of a volatile and violent world. Thus the grandiose romance of the con-
summation scene is troubled by the ambiguous, subtle indications that it is
Troilus and Pandarus whose desires are being fulfilled by Troilus and
Criseyde. Consider, for instance, Troilus's seductive invitation, "Now
yeldeth yow, for other bote is non!" (3.1208), which may be read as
indicative of fantasy, rape-fantasy, or rape. In an insightful explication of
the consummation episode, Louise Fradenburg argues that "the ambigu-
ity cannot be resolved through interpretation; we cannot 'decide' whether
Criseyde has consented or not, whether she has been raped or not."14
Hence the impossible task of translation: ambiguity promotes slippage,
uncertainty, and thus each reader translates the moment in a personal,
appropriative gesture of interpretation.
The narrator's (and Pandarus's) exaggerated, voyeuristic, and vicari-
ous delight in the conspicuously undetailed report of Troilus and Criseyde's
much anticipated sex scene seems strikingly at odds with the troubling
indications underlying the fin' amors cliches. Within the frame of the
fiction, theirs is not a conventional, literary romance; it is complicated by
outside forces, much as is the Paolo/Francesca literary romance that Troilus
and Criseyde seems to evoke.'" The masculine triumvirate (Troilus, Pandarus,
the narrator) seems determined to shape the romance to fit the literary

O blisful nyght, of hem so long sought,
How blithe unto hem bothe two thow were!
Why nad I swich oon with my soule bought,
Ye, or the leeste joie that was there?
Awey, thow foule danger and thow feere,
And lat hem in this hevene blisse dwelle,
That is so high that al ne kan I telle! 3.1317-23

Hence too the narrator's and Troilus's exaggerated response to Troilus's
perceived betrayal; Troilus within the text and the narrator without both
wish to write the story first as romance then as tragedy, even if the events
being narrated betray their desires.
Thus the narrator's waxing romantic as he reports the consummation is

46 Chapter Two

quickly betrayed by the jarring contrast in tone as he prefaces Book 4.
Lambasting Fortune in language remarkably similar to that subsequently
used to condemn Criseyde, the narrator rehearses commonplaces of femi-
nine mutability:

But al to litel, weylaway the whyle,
Lasteth swich joie, ythonked be Fortune,
That semeth trewest whan she wol bygyle
And kan to fooles so hire song entune
That she hem hent and blent, traitour comune!
And whan a wight is from hire whiel ythrowe,
Than laugheth she, and maketh hym the mowe. 4.1-7

The conflation of Fortune and Woman is manifest most tellingly in the
"traitor comune" label, not only owing to conventional associations but
also because the phrase is used as part of a narrative that implicates a
specific woman's analogous status. Traitorous mutability-"slydyng of
courage" (5.825)-is identified as the ubiquitous, visible specter of Fortune;
but Criseyde is to Troilus, the narrator regrets, an invisible foe. The
narrator's oddly emphatic denouncing of Criseyde would seem to point to
a larger displeasure with women and romance in general:

For how Criseyde Troilus forsook-
Or at the leeste, how that she was unkynde-
Moot hennesforth ben matere of my book. 4.15-18

This ilke ferthe book me helpeth fyne,
So that the losse of lyf and love yfeere
Of Troilus be fully shewed heere. 4.26-28

The vocative addresses, frantic exhortations, and personalized laments
almost obscure the less than tragic quality of their underlying motivation:
a woman takes up with a new lover. In fact the narrator admits to the
relatively trivial nature of Criseyde's perceived transgression: "how that
she was unkynde"; kindness and decorum are laudatory characteristics,
but surely no act of mere unkindness warrants the text's obsessive la-
ments, and thus the excess seems absurd. In the midst of war, death,
injury, and other such devastation, the narrator finds the highest outrage,
the greatest cause for grief, to be Troilus's feeling betrayed by the woman
whom he let go. Granted, these other subjects provide context and are not
themselves a significant part of the lovers' venture. But the narrator's

The Text of Criseyde 47

florid expressions nonetheless provide the text with a humorous irony
generated by overstatement; the grandiose pretensions to high tragedy
seem comical, the melodrama ironic.
The humor deriving from the narrator's ludicrous excesses, however, is
quickly redressed by the central event of the Troilus, that of Criseyde's
being sold to the Greeks.16 Despite his professions of patronizing concern,
the narrator, of course, goes ahead and blames Criseyde, as do Troilus,
Pandarus, and the majority of Troilus's critics. In this regard, one is re-
minded of Jerome's notorious condemnation of Helen-Criseyde's the-
matic counterpart-who is similarly victimized and blamed: "et propter
unius mulierculae raptum, Europa atque Asia decennalia bella confligunt"
[and on the account of the rape of one little woman, Europe and Asia clash
in a ten-year war].17 It is true, according to the narrator, that Criseyde
readily finds a new protector in Diomede-"If that I sholde of any Grek
han routhe, / It sholde be youreselven, by my trouthe!" (5.1000-1001)-
presumably a necessity in enemy territory, though her Trojan protectors
give her little reason for confidence: "I say nat therefore that I wol yow love,
/ N'y say nat nay; but in conclusion, / I mene wel, by God that sit
above!" (5.1002-4). It is true as well that Criseyde's retrospection of her
night with Troilus does not correspond to her earlier professions; her
telling Diomede, "I hadde a lord, to whom I wedded was, / The whos
myn herte al was, til that he deyde; / And other love ... ne never was"
(5.975-78) is far removed from her recitation of romance cliches to Troilus
after their consummation scene ("For I am thyn, by God and by my
trouthe!" [3.1512]), though her love for her late husband comes across as
sincere, an acute loss.
But while Criseyde's professed fidelity to Troilus is compromised once
she belongs to the Greeks, it is Troilus who betrays Criseyde first. Con-
sider, for example, Troilus's selfish desire to protect himself from mock-
ery: "Bat natheles he no word to it seyde, / Lest men sholde his affeccioun
espye" (4.152-53). Even while Hector attempts to protect Criseyde-"But
on my part, ye may eftsone hem telle, / We usen here no women for to
selle" (4.181-82)-Troilus is wholly ineffectual and passive-"Departed
out of parlement echone, / This Troilus, withouten words mo" (4.218-
19), and offers the weak excuse that to try to rescue Criseyde might result
in her being slain (5.50-56). Further, Troilus sings of his woe with little
regard for Criseyde (638-44), and his letter (1317-1421), full of fin' amors
platitudes, blames her for going to the Greeks: "ye me lefte," "Whan that
ye wente." Granted, Troilus does attempt to consult with Criseyde, to his

48 Chapter Two

credit, and he seems genuinely confused. But this is hardly the behavior of
a hero, and thus while Troilus should be accorded some measure of
compassion, even sympathy, by the reader, his inefficacy hardly exoner-
ates him in relation to Criseyde's alleged betrayal.
To blame Criseyde without accounting for her dire circumstances is to
legitimize misogynistic convention, to blame her for being both a woman
and a victim. As Elaine Hansen observes, "Pandarus and Troilus make
Criseyde the scapegoat for their own incapacities, and if we care to look,
we see how and why misogyny works at one level."'8 Thus despite the
narrator's overt attempts to implicate Criseyde as the betrayer, she is
herself betrayed, in effect, by the men who fail her: her father, who deserts
her in his traitorous movement to the Greeks (1.54-112) and who, like
Pandarus, hints at incestuous attachment (4.1471-75, 1628-29); her hus-
band, who dies and leaves her a widow (5-974-76); Pandarus, who orches-
trates her seduction by exploiting her weaknesses (3.1563-68); Hector,
who is unable to keep his promise to protect her (1.116-23, 4.176-96);
Troilus, who passively relinquishes her (5.148-54, 218-19); and Diomede,
who takes up where Pandarus and Troilus have left off (5.841-945). The
narrator therefore betrays Criseyde most of all by naming her as the
betrayer. Textualizing Criseyde's story ensures that her crime is perpetual;
readers of Troilus who choose to blame Criseyde will find plenty of ammu-
nition with which to attack her. The narrative invites alternative readings,
but those who read literally-who, in Dinshaw's terms "read like men"-
need not look beyond the narrative's superficial misogyny to find a cause
to champion.


But what, then, we might ask, actually constitutes Criseyde's betrayal?
And how does that betrayal correspond to the narrator's "translation" of
Criseyde? Within the literal parameters of the fictional story, Criseyde's
betrayal of Troilus is her neglecting to maintain the romantic fantasy after
leaving Troy. Indeed her crime is her exposing their romance as the fin'
amors cliche that it was; she violates the decorum by exposing it as deco-
rum, and her errancy marks her as traitor within the literal paradigm.
Troilus is unable to maintain the illusion of romance by himself, obvi-
ously, and certainly not when his fantasy-object is known to be associated
with another man. It is no surprise that such a blow would be crushing to
Troilus, given his reluctance to translate idealized fantasy into potentially
disappointing reality-

The Text of Criseyde 49

"I have herd told, pardieux, of you're lyvyng,
Ye lovers, and you're lewed observaunces,
And which a labour folk han in wynnynge
Of love, and in the kepyng which doutaunces;
And whan you're prey is lost, woo and penaunces.
O very fooles, nyce and blynde be ye!
Ther nys nat oon kan war by other be." 1.197-203

-and his deliberate attempts to make the romance fit his ideal, even
speaking to himself in cliches, for instance: "O fool, now artow in the
snare" (1.507). That Criseyde acclimates herself into the culture into which
she has been sold is perceived by Troilus to be a personal rejection of such
magnitude as to constitute a devastating betrayal. In fitting with the
narrator's and Troilus's desire to force reality to fit literary decorum,
Troilus finds in this unfortunate but relatively trivial incident the grounds
for high tragedy and its grand expression. In order to present himself as
the wronged party, Troilus blames Criseyde, thereby exonerating himself
of any ethical shortcoming and enabling himself to indulge in self-pity
(this from the "hero" who chose not to risk himself for the woman he
purports to love): "But trewely, Criseyde, swete may, / Whom I have ay
with al my myght served, / That ye thus doon, I have it nat deserved"
(5.1720-23). The narrator, whose own rhetorical excesses supplementing
the story parallel the melodramatic expressions within it, likewise in-
dulges in excessive articulations that seem motivated not by factors present
in the literal narrative but by some other source; the "Swich fyn" stanza,
for example, exhibits a grandeur inappropriate for the story that
contextualizes it ("Swich fyn hath, lo, this Troilus for love! / Swich fyn
hath al his grete worthynesse! ... Swich fyn hath false worldes brotelnesse!"
As part of its larger explication of literary decorums and their artifice,
the text considers the constraints imposed by decorum and exposes their
insufficiency in the face of situational and contextual shifts. This is best
exemplified, perhaps, by the text's treatment of exchange, whereby vari-
ous decorums govern symbolic gestures subject to fluctuating interpreta-
tions. Thus the gift-giving exchange following the consummation-"As
fel to purpose of this venture, / And pleyinge entrechaungeden hire
rynges" (3.1367-68)-though meaningful as part of thefin' amors decorum
of appropriate romance behavior, loses its significance once fin' amors no
longer obtains. Hence Criseyde's dream:

50 Chapter Two

And as she slep, anonright tho hire mette
How that an egle, fethered whit as bon,
Under hire brest his long clawes sette,
And out hire herte he rente, and that anon,
And dide his herte into hire brest to gon-
Of which she nought agroos, ne nothing smerte-
And forth he fleigh, with herte left for herte. 2.925-31

Because a dream, the "herte for herte" exchange is painless, but,
foreshadowing the reciprocal pain present in human relationships, the
dream brings to the text the not-so-subtle message that there is no love
without there being, ultimately, some pain, exchange, and loss. Thus the
exchange of Criseyde for Antenor, which results in Criseyde's figuratively
exchanging Troilus for Diomede, imposes a harsh reality on the romance
decorum so fiercely held dear by Troilus and infuses their story with a
realistic measure of pain and loss.
Criseyde is herself shown to be aware of what emotional and erotic
entanglements entail. She has suffered one great loss before her introduc-
tion to Troilus, and she is well aware of the gender bias inhering in social
decorums that perpetuate suffering: "Therto we wrecched women noth-
ing konne, / Whan us is wo, but wepe and sitte and think; / Oure
wrecche is this, oure owen wo to drynke" (2.782-84). Fradenburg ob-
serves: "But Crisede's lines about women's woe hint at that narrative
paradigm wherein the coincidence of rescuer and tormentor in the same
person turns the feminine subject's affect-her 'wo'-into body: she is
language-less, somatized, and figured as the source of her own unpleasure:
'oure owen wo to drynke."'19 Criseyde's observation regarding gender
and the origin of suffering follows shortly after her more famous "drynke,"
which she evokes figuratively to describe her reaction to the sight of
Troilus's triumphant return from battle, "So lik a man of armes and a
kynght / He was to seen, fulfilled of high prowesse" (2.631-32):

Criseyda gan al his chere aspien,
And leet it so softe in hire herte synke,
That to hireself she seyde, "Who yaf me drynke?"
For of hire owen thought she wex al reed. 2.649-52

The "drynke" that triggers her interest in showing Troilus "mercy and
pitee" is the "wo" of which she later speaks. Criseyde correctly locates her
Sown "wo" in her body, for it is her desired body that initiates her "wo";
Troilus desires her flesh, and the Greeks desire one body (hers) in ex-

The Text of Criseyde 51

change for another (Antenor). Passive, pathetic, and incapacitated by fear,
Criseyde is obviously no heroine in the conventional sense-but that is
precisely her point. She claims only to be human and to behave, however
ineffectually or mistakenly, as a human and a woman.
Thus the text simultaneously reifies and destabilizes patriarchal order.
At one level, Criseyde is the stereotypical fickle woman who betrays her
good man, and her victimization points to the hegemonic and patriarchal
social and literary codes that perpetually mark the feminine as errant;
always subject to obsessive and conflicting desire and ideologies, Woman
seems doomed to be measured as a manifestation of distance from a set of
impossible masculine expectations and ideals. And yet, on another level,
the narrative supplies so extensive a challenge to the patriarchal codes it
ostensibly embraces that Criseyde-as-text destabilizes the system that con-
demns her. In connection with the text's metatextual dimension, Criseyde's
betrayal points to far more than a naive young man's thwarted fantasies; it
elucidates and is analogous to the narrator's translating of Lollius's text.
To translate a text is to risk betraying it or being betrayed by the text, the
translation, or the act of translating. Sources and authors share an uneasy
relationship in which identities and labels are blurred: Boccaccio and
Chaucer, Lollius and narrator, Criseyde and reader. The narrator's appar-
ently naive desire that the integrity of his text be maintained-

And for their is so gret diversity
In English and in writyng of oure tonge,
So prey I God that non myswrite the,
Ne the mysmetre for defaute of tonge;
And red wherso thow be, or elles songe,
That thow be understonde, God I biseche! 5.1793-98

-is equally an ironic, reflexive observation that it will of course be subject
to the corrupting (feminine) instrumentality of readers' diverse herme-
The narrator has overtly gone to great lengths to foreground Criseyde-
Woman-as the corrupting, errant translation and, as we have seen, the text
obviously participates to a degree in reifying some conventional misogy-
nistic associations. But that very participation invites its own dismantling,
as Chaucer not only exploits the discrepancies between decorums but also
points to the perilousness of rigidity and over-reliance on sign propria and
codes of propriety and decorum. The denouement and peroration of Book
5 provide an instructive illustration of this metatextual trajectory. Criseyde's

52 Chapter Two

famous letter reiterates the figurative interconnectedness of gender, epis-
temology, and textuality:

Yet preye ich yow, on yvel ye ne take
That it is short which that I to yow write;
I dar nat, their I am, wel lettres make,
Ne never yet ne koude I wel endite.
Ek gret effect men write in place lite;
Th'entente is al, and nat the lettres space. 5.1625-30

Criseyde recognizes the subjectivity of the text, that it is subject to inter-
pretation and that interpretation and intent are frequently divided, be-
yond the author's control. In her reiteration of the polysemy of the text,
she further underscores the subjectivity of the (feminine) letter: that its
surface covers far more than is made apparent and that therefore the
codified and formal articulation of the letter is betrayed by the invisible
legions occupying its semantic space.
Hence the narrator's unwillingness to commit ultimately to a single
opinion of his subjects, choosing instead an ambivalent oscillation that
impugns even Troilus ("What nedeth feynede loves for to seke?" [5.1848]);
excessive Christian rhetoric ends the text without concluding it, forcing
the reader to contend with a jarring juxtaposition of the patriarchal secu-
rity of Christian orthodoxy and the ambiguous uncertainty of the human
world. This oddly situated closing gesture is further troubled, as are
frequent occasions throughout the narrative, by a statement of its own
unreliability: "Beth war of men and herkneth what I seye" (5.1785). There
is no certainty or closure, Chaucer, through the narrator, insists, and those
who seek it are, like Troilus, pursuing a fantasy.20 Things unseen may be
substantiated by faith-"Est autem fides sperandarum substantial rerum,
argumentum non apparentium" (Heb 11.1) [Faith is moreover the sub-
stance of things to be hoped for, the argument for what is not apparent]-
including a faith in the scapegoating of the "invisible foe," but the com-
plex plurality with which Chaucer infuses Troilus belies such a conve-

S Chapter Three

"Wreched Engendrynge" and

Although arguably the most provocative and fully developed of the women
populating Chaucer's texts, the Wife of Bath and Criseyde are by no
means Chaucer's only discursive exploration of cultural codes of sexuality
and their textual manifestations. Despite the sense of strength and self-
determination that many readers find in the Wife's narrative, the pathos
that ultimately undermines the Wife's ostensibly aggressive words speaks,
insidiously, to a more pervasive and more profound dimension of Chaucer's
incorporation of gender decorums in his poetry, one I have argued com-
plicates the theme of subjectivity and betrayal in Troilus and Criseyde-that
of victimization.1
Feminists are often uneasy about Chaucer's interest in-indeed, obses-
sion with-victimized women. Why is it that Chaucer, the "humanist"
and "woman's friend,"2 so frequently casts women in the role of victim?
And why is it too that Chaucer seems to praise these women for their
participation in cultural codes of suffering and subordination, thereby not
only valorizing the necessity of women's suffering but seemingly absolv-
ing men of responsibility as well? Aside from the unlikely possibility that
Chaucer is himself a misogynist whose depictions of women have been
grossly misread as sympathetic by feminists and humanists alike, one
could argue, as has Arlyn Diamond, that Chaucer, "unwilling to abandon
the values and hierarchies he inherits, unable to reconcile them with what
he has observed of human emotion and social realities ... accepts uneasily
the medieval view of women as either better or worse than men, but never
quite the same," that Chaucer himself participates, albeit uneasily, in the
perpetuation of cultural codes of female pseudovalorization and submis-

54 Chapter Three

sion.3 To the extent that Chaucer's work is the product of a social system
inextricably bound to institutionalized gender bias, suffering is an integral
part of Chaucer's concern with gender, and it is situated in relation to
convention. But, we might ask, to what end?

The Legend of Good Women is an appropriate starting point for analyzing
Chaucer's attention to women's suffering, given the overt centrality of
women's valorized suffering to the text's structure and theme. Ordered to
perform a literary penance for his shewingg how that wemen han don
mis" (G.266), the poet is instructed to make a "gloryous legend / Of
goode women, maydenes and wyves" (G.473-74).4 His task is to articulate
a narrative memorial to exemplary women-to recall their stories and
vivify their experiences, that their exceptional womanly goodness might
be known and lauded. "[G]oode" is defined in context as both submissive
and victimized, for the sequence of the ten legends that follow equates
goodness with relativity and pain; more than half commit suicide, for
instance, and many suffer horribly in the name of "love," e.g., Philomela's
rape and mutilation: "she was served for hire systers love" (2365). What
makes the Legend so unnerving, in part, is that the tales recount the
suffering of "goode" women-these are not the topoi of the despised
harlot, wicked traitor, or insidious temptress so often inhabiting conven-
tional misogynistic lore. And yet they are twice victimized: first in their
situation of origin and second in the Legend narrator's re-telling, which
reinforces the cultural codes that made possible, indeed inevitable, the
original victimization. Apropos of this schema of valorization, to be a
woman is to be subjected to suffering, and to be a "goode" woman is to
accept it passively; "goode" women are replications of a masculine ideal,
void of individuality as articulated within the constraints of the
hagiographic paradigm.
In addition, women are grouped according to labels of social/sexual
status according to a masculine ideal: "maydenes and wyves." Woman's
social identity is determined by the sexual role she occupies in relation to
men. Thisbe, for example, is one of the "Maydenes ... ykept, for jelosye, /
Ful streyte, lest they diden som folye" (722-23), for as a virginal maiden
she is too valuable a commodity to risk and is therefore confined by the
stone wall for her own good; former wives (widows) such as Cleopatra
and Dido are presented as inevitably seeking subsequent husbands to
reify their status as wives and hence their value as women. Not only do

"Wreched Engendrynge" and (wo)Mankynde 55

"maydenes and wyves" suffer as women, but, more specifically, women
suffer as maidens and wives; sexual status governs the quality and degree
of suffering, with the greater sense of shame accorded the maidens (fre-
quently identified as daughters also) who dared enter the sexual arena in
disobedience to their fathers. Elaine Hansen observes the "double bind in
which the female in [the narrator's] culture is caught: victimized if she
follows the rules of love and lives up to medieval ideals of the feminine;
unworthy, unloved, and unsung if she does not."'
Within the text, women are gendered and sexualized constructs articu-
lated in masculine terms in relation to masculine decorums. The miseria
theme that connects the legends asserts the relative positioning of women:
"That were trewe in lovynge al here lyves; / And telle of false men that
hem betrayen" (G.475-76). One becomes a "goode" woman only if one is
chosen, for within these parameters women require men for self-identity,
even as such identification results in reduction and abuse. In fact, the
reduction to topos is so emphatic that the women of the Legend are hardly
recognizable as women, or as human beings for that matter; as Hansen
notes, "Just as Cleopatra and Thisbe calmly and quietly commit suicide,
their fellow heroines never get angry when they are raped, left behind, or
stranded on desert islands with wild beasts; they are sad but not frenzied
or vindictive, and at worst they weep and swoon."6 Hence a contingency
of gender and gender representation is effected; the feminine exists only in
relation to the masculine, and only in a clearly gendered relationship of
dominance and submission necessitating the forfeiture of self-identity and
self-determination. And yet the text seems to tire of its own relentless
accounting of miseria; indeed, the narrator's own expressions of boredom
throughout7 suggest that it is boredom that precludes his completion of
the Legend. I make a distinction here between the poet-Chaucer and the
narrator/character-Chaucer; it is the narrator of the Legend who appears
bored by his telling of repetitious narratives, and certainly there is no need
to presume the same of the author outside the text, who, I would argue,
uses the narrator's boredom to underscore the tedium of the unwavering
allegiance to generic form. Perhaps the legends cease because there is
nowhere for the text to go other than through an interminable cycle of
unremarkable thematic repetition; the contrived structure and diluted
content doom the Legend even as the narrative begins.
But the Legend of Good Women is equally concerned with textual process
and exhibits a typically Chaucerian concern with self-reflexive or
metatextual constructions. The Prologue is overtly concerned with read-

56 Chapter Three

ing and writing, and it calls attention to textual construction as process,
thereby elucidating the dynamics of its own articulation. As Jill Mann
argues, "It is in [Chaucer's] consciousness of the intermediary role of
literature in creating and nourishing these stereotyped interpretive pat-
terns that the real sophistication of the Legend lives."8 For example, a
connection between translating and making is articulated by Cupid, who
asks, "Hast thow nat mad in Englysh ek the bok / How that Crisseyde
Troylus forsok" (G.264-65), and by Alceste, who comments, "But for he
useth bokes for the make, / And taketh non hed of what matere he take"
(G.342-43). Alceste speaks too of the poet's "makynge" as she lists the
works that "He hath maked" (G.4o3), and commanding that "he shal
maken" (G.427) the legends, instructs, "[t]he most party of thy tyme
spend / In makynge of a gloryous legend" (G.472-73). The Prologue is
clearly concerned with the role of the poet as maker, as one who creates
texts and who articulates in those very texts his awareness of himself as
maker and of the texts as being made.
Given the foregrounding of both concerns, is there a connection be-
tween the manifestation of the misera motif and Chaucer's self-reflexive
attention to his own role as "maker"? We might approach this question by
way of Alceste's cataloging sequence:

He hath in prose translated Boece,
And Of the Wreched Engendrynge of Mankynde,
As man may in Pope Innocent yfynde;
And mad the lyf also of Seynt Cecile. G.413-16

To "make" a text is to engender it; textual construction is a process of
creating, and it may be understood in ambiguously gendered terms. To
the extent that language is informed by cultural conceptions of gender,
en/gendering evokes both creating and gendering. The title "Of the
Wreched Engendrynge of Mankynde," perhaps a lost translation of Inno-
cent III's De miseria condicionis humane,9 is therefore particularly intriguing,
for the "misery of the human condition" has become "wreched
engendrynge," an engendered or begotten state of wretchedness. Innocent's
invective against anything sexual repeatedly uses conception-engender-
ing-as the locus of filth and misery:

In carnali quippe commercio racionis sopitur intuitus, ut ignorancia
seminetur; libidinis irritatur pruritus, ut iracundia propagetur;
voluptatis saciatur affects, ut concupiscencia contrahatur. Hic est

"Wreched Engendrynge" and (wo)Mankynde 57

tyrannus carnis, lex menbrorum, fomes peccati, languor nature,
pabulum mortis, sine quo nemo nascitur, sine quo nullus moritur.

[Certainly in fleshly intercourse the gazing of reason is lulled to sleep,
so that ignorance is sown; the itch of lust is provoked, so that anger is
propagated; the feeling of sensual pleasure is felt keenly, so that
concupiscence is brought about. This is the tyrant of the flesh, the law
of members, the tinder of sin, the languor of nature, the nourishment
of death, without which no one is born, without which none dies.]10

Chaucer's translation-or, more accurately, replacement-of Innocent's
title demonstrates a concern with textual construction as an active,
gendered, and deliberate event. The poet-maker, in the process of creat-
ing, engenders language and text. Moreover, humanity itself has become
overtly, if ambiguously, gendered: "Mankynde." Though the genitive con-
struction allows for the interpretation that the "wreched engendrynge" is
imposed by, rather than upon, "mankynde"-that the reality of wretched-
ness is that it is engendered by masculine agency and inflicted on feminine
objects-it is perhaps ironic that miseria should be associated with man-
kind in the prologue of a text obsessed with women's suffering.1 The label
seems at once both paradoxically self-reflexive and ironically ambiguous.
But "wreched engendrynge" is more than an ironic metatextual mo-
ment in the Legend of Good Women; the phrase describes a metapoetics of
gendered textual construction incorporated throughout Chaucer's works,
particularly the tales of pitee included in the Canterbury Tales.12 My concern
with the miseria motif, and its textual implications, is not necessarily to
recuperate Chaucer's reputation by finding a significance in the depictions
of suffering that somehow exonerates Chaucer of the misogyny informing
such depictions; instead, I wish to analyze the operation of a gendered
poetics signifying an en/gendering of narrative and text articulated in
relation to two masculine constructions of quasi-valorized women-the
virgin ("maydenes") and the wife ("wyves")-in order to develop a con-
nection between masculine constructions of feminine representations and
the dynamics of orthodoxy and subversion. I shall therefore consider
Chaucer's representations of gendered suffering in four related Canterbury
Tales-those of the Physician, the Second Nun, the Clerk, and the Man of
Law. By doing so, I hope to determine the extent to which the miseria
inhering in these representations articulates a feminine poetics through
metaphors of en/gendering framed by an overt masculine hermeneutic. I

58 Chapter Three

hope to demonstrate that these texts use sexualized tropes of cruelty and
pain subversively, as does the Legend of Good Women, to challenge narra-
tive decorum even as they overtly assert cultural orthodoxy.


Chaucer's tales of pitee exploit the discrepancies between the two gender
models of carnality and plurality. Observing the hierarchical definitions of
gendered representation of his culture, Chaucer evokes a negative "car-
nal" feminine, the subject of textual manipulation and submissiveness; in
addition, and, I would argue, more important, Chaucer uses feminine
representations to signify poetic polysemy in conjunction with an erotics
of reading and writing that is itself ambiguously and ambivalently gendered
and sexualized-and punished. Representations of social/sexual status
(virgin, wife) are used in conjunction with sexualized tropes of suffering
to construct a reflexive poetics of "wreched engendrynge," of the mi-
sogyny problematized through gendered decorums and the Christian
orthodoxy they both privilege and subvert. Hence the tales of pitee overtly
privilege a Christian hermeneutic that is, on closer analysis, a masculine
hermeneutic pitted against itself within the parameters of conflicting
gendered epistemologies.
Resembling the structure and the relatively diluted content of the tales
in the Legend of Good Women, the Physician's Tale, one of the least liked and
most maligned of Chaucer's Tales, posits the misogynistic sentence that
virginity is more important than the virgin herself.13 Virginia represents to
her father Virginius the ideally inaccessible and sexually unavailable
maiden, and the fourteen-year-old girl's virginity is what marks her worth:
"As wel in goost as body chast was she, / For which she floured in
virginitee" (VI.43-44). Attached to the "virginitee" ideal are the traits of
humility, abstinence, and patience, among others;14 each represents a sub-
missiveness, a willing acquiescence to patriarchal codes of gendered deco-
rum. The glorification and valorization of these traits in the tale-what R.
Howard Bloch has argued constitute "a poetics of praise" or "a rhetoric of
excessive praise"l"-displace the value and even the necessity of the woman
who embodies these attributes and instead acknowledge only the at-
tributes themselves.
Moreover, sexual chastity is linked here, as it is conventionally, to
chaste speech; Virginia's words, like her body, represent a chaste ideal,
subject to masculine control. The Physician's description of Virginia's
body and language not only unite the two in an idealized embodiment of

"Wreched Engendrynge" and (wo)Mankynde 59

sexual chasteness but deliberately contradict other negative feminine ste-
reotypes in order to set up a simplistic good/bad dichotomy: "Discreet
she was in answeryng always" (VI.48). The odd emphasis on shame in the
Physician's description-"Shamefast she was in maydens shamefastnesse"
(55)-speaks to a cultural unease with the female body; women, the Physi-
cian asserts, should be ashamed as women. Because their bodies are de-
sired by men, women are expected to assume responsibility both for that
desire and for the culture's own shame thereof. By denying her own
sexuality, the virgin satisfies the patriarchal code; she is taught to fear the
men who desire her, to blame herself for their desire, and to conform to
their notion of maded" in order to earn their forgiveness for her female
This transfer of responsibility and shame is further exacerbated by the
expectation of the virgin's silence: her silence legitimizes the cultures's
denial of responsibility and perpetuates its misplaced obligations. Al-
though Virginia is a pagan character inhabiting a pagan narrative, her
characterization and circumstances echo obviously Christian doctrine; with
regard to virginity, Virginia's story evinces a hagiographic motif of virtu-
ous suffering. Indeed Virginia, as described by the Physician, embodies
Jerome's virginal ideal, whereby fear and silence govern:

Sexus femineus suo iungatur sexui: nesciat, imo timeat cum pueris
ludere. Nullum inpudicum verbum noverit et si forte in tumultu
familiar discurrentis liquid turpe audiat, non intellegat.16

[The female sex should associate with the same of sex; she should not
know how, indeed she should fear to play with boys. By no means
should she know an unchaste word and, if among the bustle of a
household she should hear something unclean, she should not under-
stand it.]

Hence the virginal ideal refutes the nonvirginal feminine stereotypes of
duplicity, mutability, garrulousness, and immodesty in language. To be a
virgin, the Physician insists, echoing Jerome, is to speak the language of
virginity-that is, to reject the language of women and to speak the lan-
guage of men appropriate for women: silence and obedience.17
R. Howard Bloch has made a cogent argument that Virginia is doomed
because, according to Jerome's beliefs, she is seen by others as an object of
desire; visual penetration, as it were, suffices to negate her virginal status,

60 Chapter Three

and hence her death is not unexpected. Death is inevitable in a tale that
privileges virginity, for, as Bloch argues, "a certain inescapable logic of
virginity, most evident in medieval hagiography, leads syllogistically to
the conclusion that the only good virgin-that is, the only true virgin-is a
dead virgin."18 Jerome's fanatical writings on virginity point to such a
likelihood, indicating that the virgin does not look forward to an easy or
pleasurable life on earth: "ante lacrymas scitura, quam risum; prius fletum
sensura, quam gaudium. Necdum introitus, jam exitus" [she is to know
tears, before laughter; she will feel sorrow, sooner than joy. Hardly an
entrance, now an exit].19 As Peter Brown has demonstrated, virginity
historically could serve as a sign of membership in a Christian commu-
nity, one that "everyone could share, independent of their sex and of their
levels of cultural and social status"; sexual renunciation was available to
anyone, "made open to all."20 But the Physician's Tale reveals what hap-
pens when such a tenet is practiced in isolation. No longer a sign of
Christian community, or even of self-discipline, virginity is perverted into
a private, personal source of masculine pride and domination-a medium
of exchange within the parameters of a homosocial economy.21
Virginius therefore murders his daughter in order to preserve his own
masculine determination of feminine value; she is worthless to her father
should her sexuality escape the control of patriarchal valuation. The
Physician's diatribe on parental authority underscores the text's presenta-
tion of Virginia as Virginius's property, as subject to her father's ironclad
ownership and directed inculcation, describing the necessity of
governancec" and "governynges" (VI.72-82). Again the Physician's nar-
rative points to Jerome: "Matris nutum pro verbis ac monitis, et pro
imperio habeat. Amet ut parentem, subjiciatur ut dominae, timeat ut
magistram" [Her mother's nod for a word and advice, and for a command
let her have this. She should love her as parent, obey her as mistress, fear
her as teacher].22 Both Jerome and the Physician assign the duties of virgin-
rearing to women (mother, governess), while reserving authority for the
father, though the Physician pays lip service to the silent mother: "Ye
fadres and ye moodres eek also, / Though ye han children, be it oon or
mo, / Youre is the charge of al hir surveiaunce" (93-95). Virginia is so
closely aligned with her father's absolute authority that she is marked as
his property, proper to him only, and is inscribed with the name of her
master in which resides the label of her social and sexual identity.
More insidiously, Virginius's obsessive attention to the sexual status of
his daughter's body hints at incestuous desire, which, not surprisingly, is

"Wreched Engendrynge" and (wo)Mankynde 61

transferred into an economic and political arena that deflects its sexual
overtones. There is thus a marked emphasis throughout the Physician's
brief narrative on the father's own possession of the daughter's virtue, that
her virginity is an asset or piece of property that, belonging to him, is
threatened by Appius's desires. Virginius's concern, then, is not that Vir-
ginia is herself threatened but rather that his own interests are at stake,
and thus he is quite willing to sacrifice her in defiance of another man's
superior political position: "'Doghter,' quod he, 'Virginia by thy name, /
Ther been two weyes, other deeth or shame, / That thou must suffre;
allas, that I was bore!'" (VI.213-15; emphasis mine). The passage in which
Virginius informs Virginia of his quandary is remarkably centered on
Virginius; his lament articulates his own woe at the prospect of losing his
"gemme of chastitee" (223): "0 doghter, which that art my last wo, / And
in my lyf my last joye also" (221-22; emphasis mine). As her father's
property, she is subject to his decision: "Take thou thy deeth, for this is my
sentence" (224). And Virginia is clearly her father's daughter, not only in
that she is dominated by him but also in that she speaks the virgin's
language of submissiveness and self-denial: "Blissed be God that I shal
dye a made! / Yif me my deeth, er that I have a shame; / Dooth with
you're child you're wyl, a Goddes name!" (VI.248-50). Her expressed wish
to preclude shame is betrayed by the Physician's earlier observation that
Virginia embodies the obligatory degree of shame befitting a woman, and
her words thus echo her father's fanatical obsession with his own sense of
Virginia stands as a token of the power struggle between her father and
his political superior-and therefore the token is easily sacrificed, Virginia
erased, to secure the father's victory. The remarkable valorizing of virgin-
ity in this tale, then, speaks to the dehumanizing impact of a masculine
ideal. In her recent discussion of the Physician's Tale, Linda Lomperis
argues, "[T]he effort on the part of the Physician seems to be one of
bridling, containing, or shall we say, policing the physical aspects of the
maid through a set of rhetorical strategies designed to focus attention
instead either on sexual abstention or on metaphysical virtues, that is, on
matters that actively point away from bodily activities .... On the whole,
however, the tale actually records the Physician's failure to contain and
control the body, the sexual."23 But while the tale retains the body in the
figure of the "body politic of late fourteenth century England,"24 the text's
literal female body-Virginia-is severed, destroyed. Thus within the tale
virginity functions as a sign of controlled feminine sexuality and hence of

62 Chapter Three

masculine dominance and feminine submissiveness, to the point where
the feminine ceases to exist in the flesh, remaining only as a remembrance
of the politics of patriarchal domination as inflicted on the body of Woman.
As noted above, the Christian concern with virginity is played out in
this tale as a trope of masculine language. Virginity is a masculine concept
of womanhood, an artificial and unwarrantedly praised notion of what a
woman might be; the Christian impulse to valorize virginity ostensibly
represents a praising of Woman but in actuality represents a troubling
misogyny: "virginity" valorizes the feminine by denying what makes the
feminine feminine: sexuality. The masculine decorum appropropriates the
feminine and subverts it; the woman who embraces virginity in effect
ceases to be a woman and instead impersonates a masculine ideal. Ac-
cordingly, a woman who is not a virgin represents the threatening possi-
bility of a feminine sexuality not wholly subject to masculine control, and
hence the virgin is a patriarchal fantasy constructed in opposition to a
feminine reality.
The virginity trope of masculine domination is underscored by the
commentary supplied by the Physician-narrator and by the response of a
member of his immediate audience, the Host. The Physician devotes more
of his tale's space to his own exhortation than to the narrative movement
itself; only a few dozen lines of the tale are allocated to the brief conversa-
tion between father and daughter and the subsequent killing of Virginia
by Virginius, despite the Physician's insistence that it is Virginia's story:
"This made, of which I wol this tale express" (VI.105).25 Indeed an
analogy may be drawn between father and daughter, narrator and text;
each pairing illustrates apoplectic domination, an appropriation that kills
its own subject through the very act of asserting possession. Virginia is no
more important as a mimetic representation of a living being to the teller
of her story than she is to Virginius within the tale; she is but a token or
symbol of a privileged masculine ideal for which responsibility is de-
ferred. The Physician attributes to Nature his own description of Virginia,
as if he were unwilling to accept responsibility for the praise:

As though [Nature] wolde seyn, "Lo! I Nature,
Thus kan I forme and peynte a creature,
Whan that me list; who kan me countrefete?
Pigmalion noght, though he ay forge and bete,
Or grave, or peynte ...."
Thus semeth me that Nature wolde seye. VI.11-15, 29

"Wreched Engendrynge" and (wo)Mankynde 63

Ironically, the Physician does in fact "countrefete" the perfect "creature,"
constructing in his narrative the masculine-feminine ideal of virgin and
attributing to his own creature those characteristics he wishes her to
embody. Hence the Physician's absurd moralitas-"Heer may men seen
how synne hath his merite" (276)-seems disconnected from the events of
the narrative that are supposed to have occasioned it.26 The point of the
tale seems to be a reaffirmation of masculine constraining of the female
body, and thus the moralitas seems remote and inappropriate even within
the gendered dynamics of this sexualized patriarchal decorum.
Likewise the Host's outrageous blame-the-victim interpretation dem-
onstrates the insidious misogyny inhering even in patriarchal codes of
pathos: "Algate this sely made is slayn, allas! / Allas, to deere bought
she beautee! / ... / Hire beauty was hire deth, I dar wel sayn. / Allas, so
pitously as she was slayn!" (VI.292-98). The Host's assertion that Virginia's
death is the price she has paid to purchase beauty underscores the mi-
sogyny that informs patriarchal notions of feminine desirability and be-
havior. The Host, like the Physician, completely sets aside the issue of
Virginius's crime. Although the foremost compendium of canon law,
Gratian's Concordia or Decretum, permitted the suicide of virgins to avoid
defilement, homicide is not sanctioned, and therefore Virginius's murder-
ing of his daughter should hardly be excused by the Physician's pilgrim
audience.27 Yet it is Virginia's attractiveness-not Appius's lust, not
Virginius's selfishness-that the tale posits as the root cause of her death.
Blaming a woman for her being involuntarily the object of another's lust
was sanctioned by Jerome and other patristic misogynists,28 and it illus-
trates an astounding dismissal of women as having any personal identity
or right of existence of their own. The Host's words call attention to the
glaring misogyny of the tale and reiterate as well that the tale is flawed as
an exemplum and is thus an inferior demonstration of didactic poetry.
But the aesthetic and artistic weaknesses of the Physician's Tale work in
connection with the virginity theme to articulate a metatexual level of
gendered poetics: the tale is itself a "virgin" text, representing wasted
potential and artificial constraints. In this respect, the tale parallels its own
poetics of virginity and limitation, for the tale demonstrates the impact of
excessive limitation on its manipulative suppression of the feminine flesh
and on the polysemy of language and text. In straining to impose patriar-
chal limitations, the Physician strips the text of its fecundity and depth.
But the Tale succeeds because of this failure: Chaucer demonstrates through
the Physician's narrative that adherence to rigid masculine codes results

64 Chapter Three

not in a valorizing of those codes but instead in a crippling of the text by its
own limitations. Hence the masculine-feminine ideal of virginity is ex-
posed as both a misogynistic denial of Woman and a reflexive poetics of
This masculine-"feminine" concept of virginity informs the Second Nun's
Tale as well, and in part to a similar, though ambivalent, end. The Second
Nun's Tale, Chaucer's version of a well-known hagiography, is itself an
unremarkable and familiar "virgin" text;29 it too trumpets the virtues of
virginity in a formulaic presentation that reflexively underscores its limi-
tations. Like the legends in the Legend of Good Women, the Second Nun's Tale
lacks individuality; it is largely a replication of a masculine ideal, with a
strong sense of (non)sexual valorization. But the Second Nun's Tale is more
complicated owing to its teller's Prologue and to the ambivalence inhering
in the narrative's articulation of appropriation dynamics; it has as well a
dimension of wit difficult to locate in the more extreme hagiographic-
mode stories such as that of Virginia.
As a text obsessed with virginity, the Second Nun's narrative is obvi-
ously informed by Jerome's copious writings on the subject. Indeed, an
instance of self-identity in the Prologue, which many readers dismiss as a
certain location of intended revision, alludes to one of Jerome's more
unusual tenets in relation to gender identity: "And though that I, unwor-
thy sone of Eve, / Be synful, yet accepted my bileve" (VIII.62-63).30 Jerome's
assertion that the ideal woman of Christ is rewarded by having her name
changed from "woman" to "man" is demonstrated here in the Nun's
invocation to the Virgin Mary;31 she acknowledges her connection to Eve
but refers to herself not as a daughter of Eve-that is to say a woman-but
as a son. Her virginity entitles her to an honorific masculine identity; she
remains "of Eve," and therefore liable for Eve's sin, but her sacrifice of her
female body and its concomitant sexuality purchases the masculine name.
Hence the Nun's elaborate pseudo-etymologizing of the name "Cecilie"
with an emphasis on whiteness and purity: the symbolic interpretation of
the name affords public appreciation of a private sacrifice. (Of course the
Second Nun's praising of Mary, like that of most medieval Christians,
overlooks the irony that Mary's hallowed status is owing to her being the
virgin mother-her virginity is fetishized by her admirers, but it is her
maternal accomplishment that secures her place in the Church.)
Within the Tale, the obsession with virginity demonstrated by Cecilia
speaks as well to the text's own participation in a code of masculine

"Wreched Engendrynge" and (wo)Mankynde 65

decorum. Cecilia's desire to remain chaste is uncompromising: "She never
cessed, as I written fynde, / Of hir preyere and God to love and drede, /
Bisekynge hym to kepe hir maydenhede" (VIII.124-26). Cecilia herself
articulates the desire: "O Lord, my soule and eek my body gye /
Unwemmed, lest that I confounded be" (136-37). The idea of virginity
clearly governs Cecilia's masculine-"feminine" behavior, and indeed vir-
ginity is for Cecilia-as for Jerome, John Chrysostom, Ambrose, and oth-
ers-fetishized. All aspects of Christian faith seem to converge in this
patriarchal concept of the nonsexual-and hence valorized-woman ea-
gerly embraced by Cecilia as her means of occupying as privileged a
position that a Christian nonmale might attain.
There is a clear sense that Cecilia, like Paul, Jerome, and other patristic
misogynists, rejects the female body, her own flesh, and punishes herself
for being a woman. Indeed, on her wedding day, "Under hir robe of gold,
that sat ful faire, / Hadde next hire flessh yclad hire in an haire" (132-33).
This remarkable self-torment and rejection of the flesh underscores her
desired participation in a patriarchal decorum: Cecilia serves God and
patriarchy by denying her femininity through a fanatical devotion to
virginity and a punishing of the female flesh. One could of course situate
Cecilia's behavior in a context of Christian asceticism and its sometimes
extreme rejection of the body and the flesh, perhaps most memorably
articulated in Innocent's De miseria:

Conceptus est enim homo de sanguine per ardorem libidinis
putrefacto; cuius tandem cadaveri quasi funebres vermes assistant.
Vivus, gignit pediculos et lubricos; mortuus, generabit vermes et
muscas. Vivit, product stercus et vomitem; mortuus, product
putredinem et fetorum. 3.1

[For one is conceived of blood made putrid through the ardor of lust;
in the end, like mourners, worms stand by one's body. Alive, one
brings forth lice and internal worms; dead, one begets vermin and
flies. Alive, one produces dung and vomit; dead, one produces
putridness and fetidness.]

But Cecilia not only torments her physical body-she does so on her
wedding day, an occasion that obviously foregrounds her sexual status as
a woman. By denying her sexuality, Cecilia achieves Paul's desired an-

66 Chapter Three

drogynous state: "non est masculus neque femina" (Gal 3.28). The virgin
Cecilia is, to an extent, neither masculine nor feminine, impersonating a
masculine ideal by denying her sexual identity.32 And the typed characters
in the tale are shown to respond appropriately: the "good" valorize Cecilia's
devotion and the "bad" reject her piety.
Appropriately, the tale is told by the Second Nun, a character as generic
and nondescript as the topos she articulates. As Gail Berkeley Sherman
observes, "The Second Nun and the Nun's Priest are the only pilgrim
storytellers represented anonymously, facelessly, and as a function of
another in the General Prologue; the nun is one of the few pilgrim narra-
tors whose prologue represents no interaction with the pilgrim audience.
She is in truth the 'Second Nonne,' the 'other no one,' the anonymous
vehicle for, and creation of, the language attributed to her."33 A virgin
herself owing to professional occupation, the Nun would logically be
concerned with virginity and its reception and would logically valorize its
desexualizing impact on women seeking to participate in masculine deco-
rum. Despite feminist readings of Cecilia and the Second Nun that find an
empowerment in sexual renunciation-for instance, Luecke's argument
that "[b]oth utilize virginity as the only means available to them to
effect freedom of action and both scorn as well as exploit the power of the
establishment to make martyrs of them"34-generic hagiographical praise
both inscribes and limits the virgin text. Asceticism may be a choice, but if
chosen to suit patriarchal decorum, then the feminine is effectively erased,
subsumed by a masculine code that insists on sexual renunciation as the
requisite price of admission. In this respect, the tale's articulation of a
poetics of "wreched engendrynge" corresponds to the powerfully mascu-
line incorporation of doctrine in a narrative largely void of true feminine


The Man of Law's Tale and the Clerk's Tale are more sophisticated and more
complex treatments of gendered poetics than the "virgin" texts of the
Physician and Second Nun. Both use the other, more complicated mascu-
line-"feminine" concept-the wife-to illustrate decorums of imposition
and control. These narratives demonstrate not the excesses of virgin con-
straints but the more subtle workings of masculine dominance and femi-
nine submission within the parameters of more typical social and sexual
behavior. The Man of Law's Custance and the Clerk's Griselda embody a
misogynistic ideal that is both ambiguous and ambivalent, ultimately

"Wreched Engendrynge" and (wo)Mankynde 67

privileging a masculine hermeneutic that nonetheless lays the ground-
work for ideological challenge.
The Clerk's Tale of patient Griselda, probably the best-known medieval
example of feminine submissiveness, supplies a curiously ambiguous de-
piction of the "good" wife.35 Griselda, like Virginia, is valued for her
womanly virtue with an emphasis on her feminine attributes: "vertuous
beautee" (IV.211); "With everich obeisaunce and diligence" (230);
"Commendynge in his herte hir wommanhede" (239). And yet she is, for
most of the tale, not a virgin but a wife, though obviously constructed in
terms of a masculine ideal. Griselda, like the effeminate Clerk who tells
her story, is idealized as a passive, gentle, and seemingly unthreatening
presence.36 Griselda's presence, in fact, is so passive that she represents
utter submissiveness: silence. For while Griselda is a wife, and therefore
not overtly connected to the ideal of virgin silence, as a wife she is so
contrived, so obviously constructed as a textual embodiment of masculine
ideals-not unlike those espoused by adherents to similarly masculine
codes of Mariolatry37-that she participates in a (non)sexual decorum of
feminine closure. And unlike the more famous Wife of the Canterbury
Tales, Griselda embodies a masculine marital ideal that includes mother-
hood. Griselda is depicted as practicing what Dame Alisoun only preaches,
using her "instrument" not as a tool of emotional and financial manipula-
tion but as the necessary means by which her conventional marital duties,
including conception and childbirth, are to be fulfilled. And, as we shall
see, Griselda's response to her requisite participation constitutes a subtext
of misogamous rhetoric.
Certainly misogamous propaganda was widespread during Chaucer's
day, serving two distinct purposes: to encourage women to eschew mar-
riage and family in favor of devotional virginity and to provide men with
a discourse that could help ensure the perpetuation of patriarchal social
codes. Not content merely to valorize virginity for its own sake and to
appeal to women through treatises on its merits, theologians sought com-
pliance through scare tactics as well, using distorted, graphic descriptions
of sexual obligations and pregnancy as rhetorical devices.38 One of the
better-known treatises, the anonymous thirteenth-century Hali Meidenhad,
underscores the submissiveness demanded of wives in fulfilling these

[H]eo schal his wil, muchel hire unwil, with much weane ofte. alle
his fulitohchipef & his unhende gomenes-ne beon ha neauer swa

68 Chapter Three

with fulthe bifunden, nomeliche i bedde-ha schal, wulle ha, nulle
ha, tholien ham alle. Crist schilde euch meiden to freinin other to
wilnin forte witen hwucche ha beon!39

[She is obliged to his will, much against her own will, though she love
him never so well, with much misery often. All his lasciviousness and
his ungracious merriments-be they never so with filth found, espe-
cially in bed-she is obliged, willy nilly, to suffer them all. May Christ
shield each maiden from inquiring or from wishing to know what
they may be!]

Such descriptions were not unknown to Chaucer. Consider, for instance,
the description of May and January's wedding night in the Merchant's Tale,
which, despite its comical elements, is perhaps the most appalling and
repulsive consummation scene in Middle English poetry; not only is May
subjected to January's amorous behavior, but, as the Merchant tells us,
thushs laboureth he til that day gan dawe" (1842)-it is interminable. And
afterward, as he sings, "The slakke skyn about his nekke shaketh" (1849),
which perhaps underscores the depiction of desire in this episode as being
wholly one-sided (though the Merchant coyly insists, "But God woot what
that May thought in hir here. .... She preyseth nat his pleyyng worth a
bene" [1851-54]). The Meidenhad author's text, like the Merchant's Tale,
speaks to the powerlessness of the wife in complying with social and
sexual expectations and obligations: unappealing as the husbands' de-
mands might be, the wives are obliged to participate. Further, his descrip-
tion of pregnancy, specifically its effect on the woman's body, underscores
the powerlessness of the pregnant woman with respect to her own body-
it becomes the source of her torment:

Ga we nu forthre, & loki we hwuch wunne arifeth threfter i burtherne
of bearne, hwen thet streon in the awakeneth & waxeth. & hu monie
earmden anan awakeneth therwith, the wurched the wa inoh, fehted
o thi seolue flesch, & weorrith with feole weanen o thin ahne cunde.
thi rudie neb schal leanin, ant ase gres grenin. thine ehnen schule
doskin, & underneothe wonnin; & of thi breines turnunge thin
heaued aken sare. Inwith i thi wombe, swelin thi butte, the bereth the
forth as a weaterbulge.40

[Let us continue further. Look we at what joy arises afterward in the
bearing of children when the seed in you awakens and grows. How

"Wreched Engendrynge" and (wo)Mankynde 69

many miseries anon awaken therewith that cause you woe enough,
contend with your own flesh, and war with many tribulations on
your own kind (kynde). Your radiant face shall grow lean and as
grass is green. Your eyes will cloud and underneath darken, and of
your brains turning your head will ache sorely; within your belly will
swell the womb, that bulges out like a water bag.]

I interpose these passages here to contextualize my reading of the Clerk's
Tale: the Clerk's narrative of Griselda's marital experience is as extreme,
though more subtly and ironically so. Marriage and motherhood consti-
tute a trope of powerlessness desired by both husband and wife: Walter
subordinates Griselda, who willingly accedes to maintain her status as his
wife, thoroughly. The text offers a critique of patriarchal codes of feminine
behavior through its images of submission; suffering as a wife and as a
mother is cast not in the graphic manner of Hali Meidenhad or the Merchant's
Tale but more figuratively so, in connection with orthodox gender deco-
rum and the responses it invites. Griselda is presented as an ideal that
ultimately undermines its own valorized status.
We might additionally consider Julia Kristeva's theorizing of mother-
hood in relation to Griselda's role as mother. Arguing that Western cul-
ture has historically and oppressively reduced Woman to her role in
reproduction, Kristeva suggests in Stabat Mater that new representations
of maternity are needed to avoid the detrimental social impact of such
reductivism.41 She argues that the Christian maternal image of the Virgin
fails to give meaning to motherhood because it elides those aspects of
maternity that patriarchal culture finds unsettling.42 Hence Mariolatry-
the cult of the Virgin-valorizes the usurpation of Woman's contribution
by a patriarchal hegemony; the Virgin's impregnation by the Word of the
Father offers a certainty of paternity otherwise unavailable, and the virgin
mother's body is wholly subjected to paternal control even after concep-
tion, gestation, and delivery have been successfully performed.
The Clerk's Tale's incorporation of the motherhood trope suggests that
only Griselda's tears mark her as a true mother. With regard to the Virgin's
corporeal representation, including her tears, Kristeva further notes, "We
are entitled only to the ear of the virginal body, the tears, and the breast.
... And yet Marian pain is in no way connected with tragic outburst; joy
and even a kind of triumph follow upon tears, as if the conviction that
death does not exist were an irrational but unshakable maternal certainty,
on which the principle of resurrection had to rest."43 Griselda is described
as acting "Ful lyk a mooder" (IV.1084) only when she sheds tears. These

70 Chapter Three

tears, like those of the Mater dolorosa, constitute the mother's responding to
evidence of restoration based on a maternal loss. To be a mother, the
narrative reiterates, is to suffer, for children beget tears.
Griselda is depicted as an ideal wife/mother. She bears the desired
heirs for their father and willfully forfeits her rights and privileges ger-
mane to their upbringing: "And thus she seyde in hire benigne voys, /
'Fareweel my child! I shal thee never see"' (IV.554-56). Further, Griselda
echoes the antimaternal and misogamous propaganda in her assertion
that the children being taken away from her is welcome, insisting, like the
Hali Meidenhad author, that pregnancy leads only to pain and obligation-
the true "wo" of marriage: "I have noght had no part of children tweyne /
But first siknesse, and after, wo and peyne" (645-51). Her relinquishing
the children is problematic to many modern readers, who wonder at the
absence of maternal commitment and the complete lack of remorse or
blame.44 Indeed, Griselda actually praises "benyngne""5 Walter for not
having the children killed and suggests that the children do likewise: "O
tendre, o deere, o yonge children myne! .. .God of his mercy / And you're
benyngne fader tendrely / Hath doon yow kept" (1093, 1906-8). In
Griselda's largely dispassionate relinquishing of the children, we see a
mother offering up her children in order that she might retain her own
status as wife, a startlingly self-interested strategy depicted as a gesture of
valorized submissiveness. So extensive is the narrative's insistence on her
willingness to please Walter that the text reads almost as a parody of the
"good wife" genre: how can Griselda be "good" when she serves so selfish
and cruel a master? Griselda's obedience serves only Walter and, to the
extent that she desires to please her husband/King, herself. (Thus the
children are eliminated from the scene until the daughter is reintroduced
as a rival for Walter's hand. )46
For all her quasi-valorized feminine attributes, however, Griselda is
described foremost in relation to her inhuman patience, and as "stedfast,"
a decidedly unfeminine trait. Griselda is an ideal woman in part because
she is an unwomanly woman-that is, she exemplifies a masculine ideal
that contradicts misogynisic stereotypes of the mutable, "slydyng," and
unstable feminine.47 Her firm commitment to suffering and her unwaver-
ing patience finally convince Walter that she is a worthy woman; para-
doxically, those traits typically valorized as masculine ultimately define
her femininity. But Griselda displays other unwomanly/manly behav-
iors-her leadership abilities, her verbal efficacy when initially permitted
to speak48--that problematize her qualifications as wife from Walter's

"Wreched Engendrynge" and (wo)Mankynde 71

perspective. Hence, as Elaine Hansen argues, "To prove her 'wommanhede,'
Griselda must suffer and submit; the more obviously unsuitable part of
her virtue-her allegedly inherent but nevertheless unnatural manliness
and power-must be punished and contained.'49
Griselda is indeed ill-treated by Walter, but she is a problematic victim.
Not only does she invite domination by choosing to promise complete
obedience-"And heere I swere that never willyngly, / In werk ne thought,
I nyl you disobeye" (IV.362-63)-but she is passively aggressive in her
behavior; she is, as Robert Longsworth has remarked, relentlessly submis-
sive."5 As Harriet Hawkins has demonstrated, "Chaucer makes it glaringly
evident that Griselda's suffering resulted from her having been born into
social and sexual categories that made her vulnerable to tyranny, and
from a tyrant's ruthless exploitation of her vulnerability.""1 However,
Griselda is paradoxically proud of her behavior, as is suggested by
Griselda's insistence that no new wife could withstand Walter's tortures
as has she: "She koude nat adversitee endure / As koude a povre fostred
creature" (IV.1042-43). Arguably Griselda exploits those same categories,
albeit to a submissive end; she manipulates by acquiescing, thereby illus-
trating the antifeminist topos of the duplicitous woman even as she sug-
gests an attempt at personal empowerment in the face of oppression.
And yet the tale posits her behavior as an unattainable ideal, not as an
exemplum for wives to follow-which, as the Clerk notes, would be a
futile effort-but as a reminder that every person should suffer steadfastly
when confronted by miseria:

This store is seyd nat for that wyves sholde
Folwen Griselde 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 Griselde. IV.1142-47

If we set aside the allegorical presence here that has received much atten-
tion-that of the soul's submissiveness to God52-we might interpret in-
stead the tale's adamant insistence that "every wight ... be constant" to
mean that everyone be masculine, that one uphold patriarchal codes of
decorum. This would mean privileging the kind of patriarchal ideology
demonstrated in the tales of the Physician and the Second Nun. Hence, in
terms of poetic process, poetry would stop, constrained by excessive limi-
tation, which in seeking to deny the feminine denies the plurality or

72 Chapter Three

polysemy of improper, figurative signification. But the text offers no de-
finitive reading; it insists on debate and supplies ample evidence for many
readings. In this respect, I would argue, the Clerk's Tale posits itself as an
ambivalently feminine text: mutable, polysemous, and yet framed by a
masculine hermeneutic. Inasmuch as the Clerk's narrative resists closure,
it nonetheless participates in a well-defined gendered decorum of limita-
The Man of Law's Tale similarly evinces the feminine characteristics of
errancy and resistance to closure. The Man of Law's Custance is likewise
depicted as relentless in her patient suffering (though apparently less
selfish in her motives) and she is depicted, like Griselda, as virgin, then
wife, then mother. Sheila Delany has noted, "For most readers Constance
is among the least attractive of Chaucer's women, sharing with patient
Griselda (The Clerk's Tale) the repulsive masochistic qualities of extreme
humility and silent endurance," though in a less formulaic presentation
that, while obviously contrived and indeed fantastic, more actively en-
gages the fate of Woman in literary activity.53 Indeed, when first directed
to marry the Sultan, Custance articulates her situation in a generalized
sense of what women are and can expect:

But Crist, that starf for our redempcioun
So yeve me grace his heestes to fulfill!
I, wrecche woman, no fors though I spille!
Wommen are born to thraldom and penance,
And to been under mannes governance. 11.283-87

Hope Weissman argues, "Constance's grandiose appropriation of patriar-
chal cliches concerning the female nature succeeds in reducing her
saintly servitude to mere biological and social necessity," which "proves
to be a literalization, and a reductio ad absurdum, of Trivet's hagiographical
idealization of Christian patience."54 But what does this "appropriation"
signify? Custance articulates a patriarchal reality that, even if cliched,
governs the narrative; her identification is apt but in no way empowers
her, nor does it become her own(ed).
Custance's lament constitutes a remarkably reflexive articulation of
Chaucer's poetics of en/gendering because it accurately locates misery
and relativity within the parameters of gendered decorum. Custance iden-
tifies herself as "wrecce woman," owing in part to her lack of decision-
making power and in part to her appreciation of Woman's subordinate
status apropos social institutions of gender and decorum (in the immedi-

"Wreched Engendrynge" and (wo)Mankynde 73

ate context, marriage). Moreover, she asserts that women are born "to
been under mannes governance," an elucidating articulation of binary
relativity. Just as women are under "mannes governance," so, too, the
feminine is limited by masculine parameters, by masculine codes of be-
havior and status. She recognizes that the feminine flesh is subject to
masculine governance and that the story of woman's suffering is told
through the thraldom of the body and the penance of the soul. Hence
Custance's observations underscore the gendered poetics operating
throughout the Man of Law's narrative: the feminine sense of language is
bound both to and by the masculine, and gendered decorum overtly
privileges a heterosexual orthodoxy of active masculine domination and
passive feminine compliance.
But the Man of Law's narrative demonstrates as well that it is not
without ambivalence and ambiguity that this gendered decorum obtains.
Gendered ideologies seem to contradict themselves throughout, and the
only truism in the text is that the feminine be subject to masculine manipu-
lation or control;55 indeed, Custance is a narrative construct of the mascu-
line Man of Law, himself the narrative construct of a poet operating
largely within the parameters of a patriarchal orthodoxy.56 But Custance
herself is a polysemous text, resisting closure and troubling any attempt to
fix her within orthodox parameters; as Juliette Dor remarks, "Chaucer can
present Constance as the traditional stock figure of the lives of saints
without coming to the monological conclusion that that is all she is.""57 She
initially represents the virtues of virginity, with that nonwoman, non-
sexual status approved by patriarchal codes, and yet throughout the text
she suggests a sexuality not only restricted but dangerous. The deaths that
occur throughout-particularly those of the Sultan, the would-be ship-
board rapist, and, indirectly, Alla-may be attributed to Custance's capac-
ity to arouse, as perceived by others."
Moreover, the contradictory parameters of patriarchal orthodoxy are
manifest in Custance as she embodies the paradox of holy wives, who
must set aside their status as "hooly thynges" in order to take up the
sexual role insisted on by the same theology that, ironically enough,
endorses such treatises as Hali Meidenhad:

They goon to bedde, as it was skile and right;
For though that wyves be ful hooly thynges,
They most take in pacience at nyght
Swiche manere necessaries as been plesynges,

74 Chapter Three

To folk that han ywedded hem with rynges,
And leye a lite hir hoolynesse aside,
As for the tyme-it may no bet bitide. 1.708-14

If wives are holy women, then they are necessarily nonsexual. And yet
wives are, by definition, sexually bound to their spouses. Thus, Carolyn
Dinshaw notes in her analysis of Custance, "Wives must stop being wives,
as it were, if they want to be wives. The paradox of this wedding night is
left intact and reveals a crucial patriarchal formation of woman.
'Hoolynesse' cannot encompass female sexual behavior; what is revealed
when wives lay their defining holiness aside is an effect of masculine
desire.""9 Sexually and socially, Custance, like her Middle English sisters,
is good because she suffers and suffers because she is good; within the
generic code of hagiographic praise, goodness is rewarded with pious
pain. Within the parameters of patriarchy, suggests the Man of Law, men
simultaneously desire two conflicting ideals: the nonsexual holy woman,
who is to be valorized and fetishized, and the object of masculine desire,
who is to be desired with a cautious disdain. Hence, too, at the level of
narrative and text, gendered decorums exhibit tension between relative
positions of hermeneutic process, which, like their thematic counterparts,
cannot easily be reconciled.
That Chaucer depicts feminine sexualized suffering does not mean of
course that he endorses it, nor does it suggest that he necessarily evinces
frustration regarding the status of women in society. What the treatment
of women in Chaucer's work does suggest, however, is that Chaucer is
fully aware of gender difference and that gender is theorized as part of
Chaucer's own reflexive poetics. The process of textual makingng" what-
ever the poet's motive, cannot help but situate itself in relation to the
nuanced language of gender decorum and its polemical antecedents. Thus
the illusion of solidarity between the poet and his women dissolves into a
more complex and unstable set of uneasily coexisting ideological formula-
tions. Chaucer's texts demonstrate an acute awareness of the subordina-
tion and asymmetricality inhering in gendered decorum, and through
representations of female characters shown to participate in the structures
of oppression anc limitation Chaucer exposes the unresolved problematic
of contingency; through the narrative operations of such characters as
Virginia, Cecilia, Griselda, and Custance, we see the poet coming to terms
with the anxious imbalance of gender and its implications for textual

"Wreched Engendrynge" and (wo)Mankynde 75

Each of these submissive women is praised for acquiescing to codes
imposed by a society desiring to pursue the limits of control, and hence
these texts say far more about masculine designs than about the motiva-
tion of women who suffer for their sex. Indeed, the Legend of Good Women
and the Canterbury Tales' demonstrations of pitee constitute a sad commen-
tary on institutionalized misogyny: the represented women are victims of
their literary and cultural environments. Despite the illusion of a feminine
presence and feminine voice in the various characterizations, these women
speak not in their own voices but in-and, more important, of-the domi-
nant voice of patriarchal culture. A reader concerned by the sexualized
treatment of cruelty and suffering in these texts can hardly be moved by
the "goode"-ness of these women but, rather, should be troubled by the
glorification of feminine submissiveness and victimization and by the
cultural and social implications inhering in constructions germane to
"wreched engendrynge." The texts may assert an orthodoxy of affected
valorization, but beneath a benignant surface of respect and adoration lies
an abyss of requisite sorrow and pain.

x Chapter Four

Marks of Womanhood
in the Ballades

Women characters, we have seen, give the illusion of a feminine presence
and voice. This is not to say, of course, that the texts they inhabit do not
exhibit a feminine dimension but rather that the characters themselves are
hardly the autonomous, self-determined originators of their own repre-
sentation. In Chaucer and the Fictions of Gender, Elaine Tuttle Hansen ob-
serves that "Woman, in the form of the female character, is brought to
represented life precisely in order to be killed off, silenced, displaced,
ignored, again and again."' Female characters vivify cultural and episte-
mological conceptions of gender within the frame of the fiction and under-
score various social and sexual implications of gender associations and
their corresponding epistemological foundations. Accordingly, as we have
seen, the Wife of Bath, Griselda, Cecilia, Criseyde, and other such female
characterizations inhabiting Chaucer's major texts supply a productive
basis for interpreting Chaucer's semantics of gender appropriation. But
what happens, we might ask, when female characters are absent? Repre-
sentations of gender are obviously not limited to character alone; Woman
may be presented indirectly-addressed though unanswering, described
but without voice, suggested by metaphoric allusions to gender-specific
categories. Let us therefore consider as well those narrative moments that
articulate gender categories in the absence of a fictive feminine presence,
where marks of womanhood inscribe the text's gendered poetics as
signifiers of an indirect presence, and where categories of gender operate
as part of the narrator's-and ultimately the poet's-rhetorical line.
Chaucer's shorter poems are quite instructive in establishing and eluci-

Marks of Womanhood in the Ballades 77

dating the poet's treatment of gender categories and representational
strategies in relation to narrative reflexivity. The balades in particular pro-
vide insightful instances when feminine representations are addressed by
a narrative voice that excludes women, even as it is through this voice that
they are defined.2 Individually, the ballades are brief observations or
meditations, sometimes humorous, of a commonplace theme or topic,
articulated by a narrator whose own persona constitutes the text's single
fictive voice, the only "character," as it were. Each takes as its subject some
cultural perception of gender construction and each sketches out a con-
cern with the traditions or, less frequently, the countertraditions apropos
of these decorums. Together, the ballades may be read as a critique of
conventional gender hermeneutics and, consequently, as a commentary
on Chaucer's own poetic enterprise. In this chapter I begin by surveying
the individual ballades' evocations of Woman in conjunction with various
topoi of gender construction and representation, in order to delineate the
ballades' individual angles and recurring manifestations; I shall then con-
sider the theoretical implications of these models and their complex inter-
relationships of gender and power, narrator and poet.

A brief look at current psychoanalytic lines of thought and their philo-
sophical antecedents can frame our understanding of the association of
feminine and absence germane to Chaucer's ballades. As psychoanalytic
and deconstructionist theories have made evident, patriarchal culture
operates in connection with what Derrida labels "phallogocentric" lan-
guage, which combines the privileged "centrist" status of the phallus and
the Logos.3 The phallus-a symbol of masculine presence-dominates the
power structures of gender and language, in contrast to the fear-inducing
absence symbolized by feminine "lack" (as Luce Irigaray notes in her
critique of Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, Western discourses of desire
dictate that Woman's "sexual organ represents the horror of nothing to
see")4. Derrida has critiqued and rejected binary logic because of its pre-
supposition of closure, but his somewhat uncritical insistence on the dual-
ity of presence and absence in the "free play" of the signifier obviously
and ironically points to the essence of difference.5 Absence would therefore
seem an omnipresent condition of language and textuality, and it is mani-
fest in narrative articulations of fear and desire-the former correspond-
ing to loss, and the latter, nostalgia.
If Lacan's principles of psychoanalytic theory are valid, then he has

78 Chapter Four

developed a useful model of the masculine psyche and a critical method-
ology with a utility and practicability valid to the extent that it is governed
by its masculine identity (it is, however, utopian in its implicit bias toward
white, bourgeois, two-parent households). But what of the feminine-is
there a valid feminine model to be located in Lacan's own phallocentric
discourse? For Freud and Lacan are but recent articulators of a concept
with a tradition dating beyond the pre-Socratics: that of woman as a
defective man, as lacking what makes a man. Aristotle's infamouss dic-
tum in the De generation anamalium, for example, clearly locates feminine
inferiority in lack: "Just as it sometimes happens that deformed offspring
are produced by deformed parents, and sometimes not, so the offspring
produced by a female are sometimes female, sometimes not, but male. The
reason is that the female is as it were a deformed male. ... [A]nd we
should look upon the female state as being as it were a deformity, though
one which occurs in the ordinary course of nature."6 Similarly the influen-
tial Greek physician Galen associates the feminine with mutilation, a
grotesque manifestation of lack that suggests castration, his De usu partium:
"[S]o too the woman is less perfect than the man with respect to the
generative parts. for there needs must be a female. Indeed you ought
not to think that our Creator would purposely make half the whole race
imperfect and, as it were, mutilated, unless there was to be some great
advantage in such a mutilation."7 So Lacan reiterates in his Seminaire III,
echoing Freud's unquestioned assumption of masculine superiority: "The
feminine genitals have a character of absence, of emptiness, or of hole
which causes them to be found less desirable than the masculine genitals
in the latter's provocative aspect, and causes an essential dissymmetry to
appear."8 Hence the crucial significance of "castration" in both Freud's
and Lacan's philosophies: castration represents the ultimate, yet originary,
horror, that of the masculine forfeiting its phallic primacy and becoming
what it most fears and detests, a nonman (woman).9 Symbolically located
in the language of patriarchy, castration anxiety reifies masculine primacy
by underscoring phallic power and, more insidiously, feminine inferior-
ity. Freud's obsession with castration anxiety and Lacan's restatement of
the fear as metaphoric reality not only perpetuate the ancient equating of
feminine and absence but also attempt to legitimize the masculine fear of
loss that fuels phallocentric dominance.
What stands out in Freud's and Lacan's revisionist philosophies is their
theorizing of feminine desire from this phallocentric perspective. Both

Marks of Womanhood in the Ballades 79

Freud and Lacan theorize feminine sexuality and feminine desire as part
of their psychoanalytic methodologies, but problematically so, particu-
larly as they endorse ways of countering the perceived deficiency of
women (e.g., motherhood, baby-as-substitute). Even Lacan, in whom some
feminists find an ally,10 seems more to reinforce conventional stereotypes
than to challenge them, dressing them up in the language of his new
discourse. Both men purport to speak for women, to articulate women's
experiences and desires, though from a position of superior authority, and
both succeed in absenting women from discourses of the psyche. Thus, I
would argue, Freud and Lacan's theories frequently come across either as
patronizing in their pseudovalorization-such as in Lacan's challenge to
locate jouissance "beyond the phallus""1-or as overtly misogynistic-as in
Freud's insistence that women merely fantasized incestuous seductions
when they were children and were never really abused.12 Such contempo-
rary positions, we shall see, are not unlike those occupied by the narrator
of the ballades.
Gender figures prominently in the ballades, but the vehicle by which it
operates is not presence but absence, an association conceived through
epistemological binarity and reified in its cultural manifestations. Again
the positive/negative valuation of binarism governs the association, and
the psychosexual dimension of the associations, rooted metynonimically
in the anatomy of sexual difference, provides a mechanism for articulating
the implications and consequences of the "missing" women. Medieval
theology accepts Paul's assertion that "scientes quoniam dum sumus in
corpore, peregrinamur a Domino" [while we are in the body we are absent
from the Lord],13 and thus the status of corporeality-the flesh-that pre-
cludes spiritual achievement implicates Woman and motivates her being
absented from the masculine text. The incomplete dialogue that consti-
tutes each text-that is, the masculine monologue that creates an illusion
of the absent and therefore wholly submissive and contingent "other"-
foregrounds the conventional love/hate literary and cultural relationships
of masculine and feminine: the narrator is the sole voice, and whether he
overtly denigrates women through commonplace barbs and insults or
praises them with insidiously antifeministfin' amors cliches, he speaks the
language of patriarchal literary activity.
The ballade known as Against Women Unconstant, or Newefangelnesse,14
overtly draws off antifeminist commonplaces in the narrator's complaint
against an unnamed woman. It is a personalized complaint, ostensibly

80 Chapter Four

directed toward a single woman-"Madame"-and yet not personal; it is
a series of familiar, stereotypical complaints, commonplaces of antifemi-
nist grumbling:

Madame, for your newefangelnesse
Many a servaunt have ye put out of grace.
I take my leve of your unstedfastnesse,
For wel I wot, whyl ye have lyves space,
Ye can not love ful half yeer in a place,
To newe thing your lust is ay so kene.
In stede of blew, thus may ye were al grene. 1-7

The poem describes the woman with conventional metaphors of fickleness
and instability; she is compared to a mirror's superficiality, a weathercock's
fluctuating in the wind.15 These topoi of medieval poetry articulate anti-
feminist perceptions of feminine instability and mutability; here they are
presented as if to a specific individual, though the cultural context of the
topoi attaches them to a decorum that, by extension, blames Woman for
the world's uncertainties.
The poem is also striking for its overtly satiric reference to the insidious
antifeminist strategy of quasivalorization (e.g., Mariolatry,fin' amors), which
points to the insincerity of men who purport to valorize women with
excessive or unwarranted praise. Just as the idealized Rosemounde is "of
al beaute shryne," the disparaged "Madame" is to be enshrined for her
"brotelnesse."16 Distorted valorization preserves and perpetuates an anti-
feminist topos:

Ye might be shryned for your brotelnesse
Bet than Dalyda, Creseyde or Candace,
For ever in changing stant your sikernesse;
That tache may no wight fro your herte arace.
If ye lese oon, ye can wel tweyn purchase;
Al light for somer (ye woot wel what I mene),
In stede of blew, thus may ye were al grene. 15-21

That the unnamed woman might be "shryned for [her] brotelnesse" more
so than the notorious women named directly is delightfully ironic-how
might this unnamed woman therefore be known? This local irony under-
scores that which governs the poem, that it is more about the narrator than
his anonymous, absent subject. It is a poem about his own perception of
Woman and his attempts to shape her identity, and through the narrator's

Marks of Womanhood in the Ballades 81

reification of conventional associations he shows himself to be situated
squarely within the confines of a patriarchal decorum.
Additionally, the narrator's use of the word "newefangelnesse" in his
denigration of conventional feminine "brotelnesse" is itself an ironic, re-
flexive occasion of "newefangelnesse." Having been coined by Chaucer
himself, the word and its subsequent uses are examples not only of nov-
elty but of "unstedfastnesse," of the unpredictability and newness enabled
by the creation of words hitherto unknown. The narrator is therefore
implicated through a literary enactment of an ideological convention of
his own making-he participates in a feminine epistemology even as his
text ostensibly denigrates its gendered implications. The narrator, like the
poet, in effect feminizes himself through reflexive articulation that ex-
poses its own underpinnings; language is not static and, as the
"newefangelnesse" coinage demonstrates, poetic meaning is problematized
yet made possible by "brotelnesse." In short, the narrator foregrounds his
own contribution to the very mutability against which he ostensibly rails.
Chaucer returns to the theme of feminine mutability and its narrative
implications throughout the ballades in conjunction with various deco-
rums of gender representation. Feminine mutability as the origin of hu-
man misery, for instance, is taken up in three of the so-called "Boethian
lyrics," where Boethian themes are expressed in a tone of Christian mi-
sogyny.17 In these poems the Christian attribution of Man's Fall to Woman
coincides thematically with the Boethian treatment of the myth of the
Golden Age (prior aetas),18 and together the conflated representations pro-
duce a commonplace theme of antifeminist lamentation: Man laments the
loss of his Edenish age and implicates Woman in the loss. This conflation,
as illustrated throughout the Former Age,19 for example, bears further

A blisful lyf, a paisible and a swete,
Ledden the peples in the former age.
They helde hem payed of the fruites that they ete,
Which that the feldes yave hem by usage;
They ne were nat forpampred with outrage. 1-5

Allas, allas, now may men wepe and crye!
For in oure dayes nis but covetyse,
Doublenesse, and tresoun, and envye,
Poyson, manslawhtre, and mordre in sondry wyse. 60-63

82 Chapter Four

The narrative's movement from unity to plurality-from "A blisful lyf," "a
paisible," "the former age" to "oure dayes," "Doublenesse," "sondry
wyse"-underscores its participation in the cultural misogyny that its
imagery evokes. The complete and full dominance of unity that defines
the former age gives way to the confusion and disorder of plurality;
masculine stability is replaced-or at least compromised-by feminine
instability. Further, images of life and growth give way to descriptions of
death; spiritual bliss is compromised by flesh and death, and this fear of
death, of the temporal flesh, manifests itself in a lament from which
Woman is curiously absent: "[M]en wepe and crye" for the loss of their
former age, and the nostalgic desire governing the poem therefore speaks
of men's desire to recuperate Man's loss.
Perhaps the most striking lament in the poem, then, is the narrator's
recurring nostalgia for an era in which Man's work is not necessary-
fruits are provided "by usage"; corn grows "unsowe of mannes hond";
men need not acquaint themselves with "fyr" or "flint," "quern" or "mill";
cultivation is not necessary since the earth's bounty is supplied without
human labor. Recalling the punishment set forth in Genesis-

Quia audisti vocem uxoris tuae, et comedisti de ligno, ex quo
praeceperam tibi ne comederes, maledicta terra in opere tuo: in
laboribus comedes ex ea cunctis diebus vitae tuae. Gn 3.17

[Because you have listened to the voice of your wife, and have eaten
of the tree from which I commanded that you not eat, cursed is the
earth in your work: in labor you shall therefore eat all the days of
your life.]

-we can trace the lament back to Eve's seducing of Adam, because of
which (so the biblical account goes) Adam must work for a living. An
underlying lament of the Former Age, then, is the forfeiture of Eden and the
inception of labor as a consequence of Woman's temptation. Typical of
antifeminist convention, Woman in the Former Age is held accountable for
some undesirable reality and yet is absented from the text that articulates
the blame.
The biblical origins of the Former Age's lament further inform the text's
treatment of gender in relation to epistemological associations. The first
epistemological binarism known to humankind in the creation myth-
good and evil-is overtly linked to sexual difference; woman succumbs to

Marks of Womanhood in the Ballades 83

an anterior temptation, and Man to the temptation of Woman. Hence the
immediate shame associated with the transgressions: "Et aperti sunt oculi
amborum, cumque cognovissent se esse nudos, consuerunt folia ficus, et
fecerunt sibi perizomata" (Gn 3-7) [And the eyes of both were opened,
and when they perceived themselves to be naked they sewed fig leaves,
and they made for themselves aprons]. The sexual body is immediately
perceived as a source of shame, and the shame articulated as a conse-
quence of knowing. To know good and evil, the story suggests, is to know
male and female, masculine and feminine; to know sexuality is to know
Significantly, too, the lament calls attention to the implementation of
power structures that mark the transition from paradise to this world. One
specific example is manifest in the Former Age's attention to hierarchy in
relation to sustenance, implicated as a consequence of the fall. The poem
depicts the desired food sources of paradise as plant-based, of the earth:
"mast," "hawes," "corn," "fruites." Animals exist but are not included as
part of the passive human inhabitant's food chain. The second of the two
creation accounts in Genesis depicts a similar model of passive gathering
as opposed to active hunting and killing: "Produxitque Dominus Deus de
humo omne lignum pulchrum visu, et ad vescendum suave ..
Parecepitque ei dicens: Ex omni ligno paradisi comede. De ligno autem
scientiae boni et mali ne comedas" (Gn 2.9, 16) [And the Lord God brought
forth of the ground all manner of trees, fair to behold, and pleasant to eat
of.... And he commanded him saying: Of every tree of paradise you may
eat: but the tree of knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat]. But after
the transgression of sexual knowing, flocks are raised, flesh eaten, the
most prized animals sacrificed to ensure further abundance-"Abel quoque
obtulit de primogenitis gregis sui, et de adipibus eorum" (Gn 4.4) [Abel
also offered of the firstlings of his flock, and of their fat]. And the first
garments sanctioned by God comprise the skins of lesser beasts: "Fecit
quoque Dominus Deus Adae et uxori eius tunicas pelliceas, et induit eos"
(Gn 3.21) [And Lord God made for Adam and his wife, garments of skins,
and clothed them]; God replaces the fig-leaf aprons with the skins of
animals.21 Hence through the fall, human domination over other beasts is
effected, as is Man's domination over Woman. The fall of the Edenish
former age initiates a rule of strength: the stronger dominate the weak.22
Although the first implementation of Man's power over creation takes a
verbal form-the naming of animals-further implementations take on a
far more brutal and hierarchical form.

84 Chapter Four

While Eve is created to serve as Adam's "adiutor simile sibi"-a helper
similar to himself, in the creation myth-and is therefore born into a status
of inferiority, the disparity of power relationships attains a brutal, self-
perpetuating dynamic after the expulsion from Eden. It is a commonplace
of medieval theology that an awareness of sexual difference is a conse-
quence of the fall; as noted, the first gesture of shame exhibited by humans
is the covering up of genitals, a veiling of sexual difference and the trou-
bling issues it seems to promote. Appropriately, too, the veil comprises
animal hides, a trophy of human conquest. What seems inextricable from
the awareness of sexual difference and gender distinction is inequality, the
subordination of the feminine. Knowledge of sexual difference gives li-
cense to initiate and perpetuate systems of imbalance, which, we have
seen, are rampant throughout medieval Christian culture.
Though the poem ends on a somewhat ambiguous note, complicated
by the missing line preceding the final stanza,23 figures of sexuality and
desire are evoked to mark a distinction between the "former age" and
"this world":

Yit was not Jupiter the likerous,
That first was fader of delicacye,
Come in this world; ne Nembrot, desirous
To regne, had nat maad his toures hye. 56-59

The "likerous" Jupiter, faderr of delicacye," overtly introduces sexual
desire to the poem, suggesting that carnal desires are at least partly to
blame for the decline of the Golden Age. Owing to the ubiquitous medi-
eval correlation of the feminine and carnal/sexual interests, the implica-
tion, again, is that Woman is to blame. Unchecked sexual desire under-
mines the ordered society, the image implies, and because men desire
women the consequences of this desire are said to be Woman's fault.
Jupiter may be the literary faderr" of lust, but in "this world" the associa-
tion of Woman and flesh irrevocably obtains.
More curious is the identification of "Nembrot" and "his toures hye," a
likely evocation of the tower of Babel and its consequential garbling of
speech. A. V. C. Schmidt has made a strong case for "Nembrot" and the
"toures" representing "fortified structures of any and all periods, emblem-
atic of man's domination of his fellows," and argues that "'Nembrot,' far
from confusing the picture of the Golden Age evoked by Chaucer, is
subtly integrated with the classical image as a cultural emblem of clearly
definable value."24 But while Nembrot is associated with "toures" (plural),

Marks of Womanhood in the Ballades 85

in the poem, one tower in particular comes to mind, for a poet as con-
cerned with language as Chaucer could not be unaware of the significant
connotations of Nembrot/Nimrod in relation to Babel. The allusion refer-
ences an episode in which an obviously phallic manifestation of superbia is
punished with a form of feminized punishment-that is, the building of
an enormous tower results in multiplicity, a confusing of speech. In effect
Nimrod's distorted sense of his own masculinity is transformed into a
spectacle of the feminine; unity is implicated in the desire to build the
tower and hence disunity is the penalty:

Ecce, unus est populus, et unum labium omnibus: coeperuntque hoc
facere, nec desistent a cogitationibus suis, done eas opere
compleant. .. Et idcircu vocatum est nomen eius Babel, quia ibi
confusum est labium universae terrae: et inde dispersit eos Dominos
super faciem cunctarum regionum. Gn 11.9

[Behold, it is one populace, and one lip/tongue for all: and they will
have begun to do this, neither will they leave off of their intentions,
until they have completed them in labor.... And on that account the
name was called Babel, because there the lip/tongue of the whole
earth was confused: and from there the Lord dispersed them abroad
over the face of all the region.]

The biblical episode of Nimrod may therefore be read as a metaphor for
the loss of the former age; both transformations entail a gendered dynam-
ics whereby the strength and unity of the masculine are said to be under-
mined by or enmeshed with an obviously negative sense of the feminine.
Lak of Stedfastnesse likewise treats the theme of feminine mutability as
the origin of contemporary misery, though the lamentation is couched
more in the language of philosophical meditation than in situational de-
tail. Like the Former Age, Lak of Stedfastnesse begins with the narrator's
nostalgia for a time long past and hitherto unavailable-

Somtyme the world was so stedfast and stable
That mannes word was obligacioun,
And now it is so fals and deceivable
That word and deed, as in conclusion,
Ben nothing lyk, for turned up-so-doun
Is al this world for mede and wilfulnesse,
That al is lost for lak of stedfastnesse. 1-7

86 Chapter Four

Language manifests the transformation, which the narrator regards with
regret and contempt. The narrator points to the division of "word and
deed" as a symptom of the world's decline-"mannes word," once
"obligacioun," has become "fals and deceivable." The correlation of word
and deed here echoes the Boece's restatment of Plato: "sith thow hast
lernyd by the sentence of Plato that nedes the words moot be cosynes to
the things of which thei speken" ( Division of word and deed-
an overt disjuncture of verbum and res-foregrounds a frightening truth of
human discourse, that language is tenuous, predicated on faith and con-
sensus. There is no inherent, essential coincidence of the real world and
the verbal signs that point to it, and the "proper" is always subject to the
possibility of the "improper." Should the consensus be divided or abused,
the possibility of deceit presents itself. What is therefore suggested further
in the poem is that the truth and certainty of Man's literal word have been
complicated by an agency that renders them deceptive, capable of mul-
tiple meanings that may be exploited and used to exploit. Language, the
narrator laments, no longer exhibits "stedfastnesse"; word and deed are
divided, no longer exhibiting the masculine traits of "stedfast and stable,"
and the divisive instrumentality effecting the slippage is gendered femi-
nine owing to its epistemological associations.
In accordance with antifeminist tenets, the narrator seeks to assign
blame and immediately lists conventionally feminine concepts as likely

What maketh this world to be so variable
But lust that folk have in dissensioun?
For among us now a man is hold unable,
But if he can by som collusioun
Don his neighbour wrong or oppression.
What causeth this but wilful wrecchednesse,
That al is lost for lak of stedfastnesse? 8-14

Men are divided by the instability of their corrupted language, suggests
the narrator. The abstractions used to articulate the origin of the world's
culprit variability are effectively gendered feminine through the recurring
"lak of stedfastnesse," a decidedly feminine flaw in medieval culture.
Indeed, the causes of the world's miseries are reduced to a single move-
ment, from masculine to feminine: "The world hath mad a permutacioun
/ Fro right to wrong, fro trouthe to fikelnesse, / That al is lost for lak of
stedfastnesse" (19-21). Like the Former Age, Lak of Stedfastnesse presents a

Marks of Womanhood in the Ballades 87

gendered dynamics of masculine-to-feminine effected by a feminine agency.
Here the transition is made more overt-it is described specifically as
"permutacioun"-and is more explicit gendered through the sequencing
of right and wrong, truth and fickleness. The refrain line concludes the
poem with a reiteration of agency and blame that speaks of loss without
the potential for recuperation; the lamentation underscores a bitter belief
that the damage inflicted by Woman defies restitution.
A similar reiteration characterizes a third Boethian ballade, Fortune, or
Balades de Visage sanz Peinture. This triple ballade is presented as a consolation
dialogue, with the illusion of two speakers: the "pleintif" and the personi-
fied abstract with whom he engages in conversation.26 Here Fortune is
depicted as voicing a defense, though the characteristics attributed to
Woman in the persona of Fortune are conventionally patriarchal:

This wrecched worldes transmutacioun,
As wele or wo, now povre and now honour,
Withouten ordre or wys discrecioun
Governed is by Fortunes errour. 1-4

The "pleintif" insists that Fortune is responsible for all the negative things
associated with "errour" and that he will defy her. Fortune, however,
makes an argument for the value of "errour":

I have thee taught division bitwene
Frend of effect and friend of countenaunce;
Thee nedeth nat the galle of noon hyene,
That cureth eyen derked for penaunce;
Now seestow deer that were in ignorance.
Yit halt thyn ancre and yit thou mayst arryve
Ther bountee berth the keye of my substance,
And eek thou hast thy beste friend alyve. 33-40

Fortune's insistence on the utility of "errour" evokes the medieval ontol-
ogy (by way of Augustine: "Si enim fallor sum," If I err, therefore I am)27 of
error: that wandering is a necessary part of finding one's way, that one
comes to knowledge only by erring, by making a journey or pilgrimage
consisting as much of detour as design.28 Hence learning is a consequence
of error, and hence Fortune's value as an instructor is made clear, as is that
of the other artificial women of the consolatio tradition.29 Her discussion of
friendship (presumably amicitia, the bonds between men)30 aptly calls
attention to the necessity of making distinctions divisionoun". Indeed,

88 Chapter Four

while the narrator insists that he knows friendship from his own reason,
Fortune makes a strong case for an epistemology deriving from error.
But despite the wisdom attributed to the character's articulation, her
words are provided by the same narrator who gives voice to the plaintiff;
the dialogue reveals Fortune not as a woman's voice given audience but as
a mouthpiece for a univocal or monologic discourse. Fortune is neither
self-determined nor a speaking voice per se. Hence she is shown to advo-
cate the same antifeminist topoi as are depicted in the other ballades:

Thou pinchest at my mutabilitee
For I thee lente a drope of my richesse,
And now me lyketh to withdraw me.
Why sholdestow my realtee oppresse?
The see may ebbe and flowen more or lesse;
The welkne hath might to syne, reyne, or hayle;
Right so mot I kythen by brotelnesse.
In general, this reule may nat fayle. 57-64

Her characterization and voice are merely products of narrative illusion,
and the narrative is devoted more to traditional antifeminist commonplaces
than to any countertraditional challenges. Fortune is shown to defend her
position in the patriarchal order, for while the inclusion of a female charac-
terization purports to equivocality, the character speaks the narrator's
language (and the poet's-a point to which I shall return).
Indeed, the description attributed to her reifies a condition of Man's
fallen order similar to that depicted in the Former Age-"This world hath
ever resteles travayle" (70)-and speaks to its ironic steadfastness, its
certain instability: "In general, this reule may nat fayle" (64). The rule of
phallic primacy is dominant, though the possibility of subversion is hinted
at ("In general"), leaving room for deviation, however unwelcomed and
remote. The description of the sun and rain likewise speaks of the world's
unpredictability, evoking the Sermon on the Mount's explanation of the
arbitrariness of life: "ut sitis filii Patris vestri, qui in caelis est: qui solem
suum oriri facit super bonos et malos: et pluit super iustos et iniustos" (Mt
5.45) [that you may be the children of your Father, who is in heaven: who
makes his sun to rise over the good and the bad, and it rains over the just
and the unjust]. Fortune's discourse on mutability, then, underscores a
contrast between earthly, feminine instability and spiritual, patriarchal
Truth. Earthly life is subject to "Fortunes errour," but spiritual life is
governed by the Father.

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