"Allas, Allas! That Evere Love Was Synne!": John Bromyard v. Alice of Bath
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The Chaucer Review 42.3 (2008) 298-311

"Allas, allas! That evere love was synne!":
John Bromyard v. Alice of Bath
Richard Firth Green
The Ohio State University
Columbus, Ohio
(green.693@osu.edu)

The main literary sources of the Wife of Bath's Prologue, especially those that draw upon the clerical tradition of antifeminism catalogued by Francis Lee Utley,1 have long been established, and one specific aspect of Alice's personality—the frank enjoyment she takes in the natural pleasures of sex—has commonly been traced to Jean de Meun. Charles Muscatine thought it owed something to the character of La Vielle (whose "theoretic championship of animal nature is entwined with her personal recollection of animal pleasure"),2 whereas for Winthrop Wetherbee Chaucer had been more influenced by de Meun's portrait of Nature ("like Nature in her long plea for procreation, the Wyf displays a prodigious imaginative and intellectual energy in affirming her sexual role").3 While I have no interest in evaluating or challenging these assessments, I wish to supplement them here with a rather different kind of evidence. I will try to show that throughout the late Middle Ages, moralists attributed to popular opinion precisely the kind of views expressed by Alice of Bath, and in particular I will cite an extended passage from the English Dominican John Bromyard on this topic—a passage that reads almost as if it were a considered rebuttal of many of the ideas floated in the Wife of Bath's Prologue.

As befits a woman who favors experience over authority, Alice of Bath is evidently speaking for a great many of her contemporaries when she defends sex as a natural instinct and mocks the church's censorious attitude towards it. Thus, Robert Mannyng of Brunne at the beginning of the fourteenth century condemns the common misapprehension that,

God of heuene ys so curteys
ƥat he shal on domysday certeynly,
Forʒeue ƥe synne of lecherye—
Lechery ys but a lyght synne—
He wyle haue mercy of all ƥer ynne,
ƥus seye ƥey ƥat kan no gode.4 [End Page 298]

And a hundred years later a character in the religious manual Dives and Pauper makes a similar point: "˛at simple fornicacion atwoxsyn sengle man and sengel woman schulde ben dedly synne Y may nout assentyn ˛erto and comoun opynyon it is ˛at it is non dedly synne."5 Finally, in the middle of the fifteenth century, Bishop Reginald Pecock offers as an example of the "vntrewe opinioun of men" that makes "her conuersacioun . . . the worse morali," that "fleischli comunyng bitwixe a syngil men and a syngil womman doon bi her fre consent is no synne."6 To the best of my knowledge, however, nowhere in the English Middle Ages do we find a fuller discussion of this point of view than in the Summa predicantium of John Bromyard.

Despite the fact that G. R. Owst in his monumental Literature and Pulpit made extensive use of Bromyard's major work,7 it has not been printed since the seventeenth century and is still little known today. Written in the third and fourth decades of the fourteenth century,8 the Summa predi-cantium seems to have been compiled as a sourcebook for preachers, intended in part to compensate for the deficiencies of the fledgling library of Bromyard's own recently founded Dominican community in Hereford.9 It contains a massive collection of articles on a wide variety of pastoral topics, rendered easily accessible by an ingenious alphabetic arrangement of headings and subheadings, supported by an elaborate system of cross-referencing. As Leonard Boyle writes, "this cross-reference system is faithfully applied throughout the Summa, so much so, indeed, that there really is no need when citing the Summa to refer to pages of a printed edition or to cite the folia of a manuscript copy."10

While Bromyard's Summa seems to have been fairly well known in late-fourteenth-century England, there is no reason to think that Chaucer...