Yeoman Services: Chaucer’s Knight, His Critics, and the Pleasures of Historicism
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Yeoman Services:
Chaucer’s Knight, His Critics, and the Pleasures of Historicism

Well read and often studied, the General Prologue of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales has been analyzed less in terms of the pleasure it provides than in terms of history: the medieval act of pilgrimage and the meaning of the social categories to which the pilgrims belong. The effect of such historicized reading is a consistent orientation outward, either toward the tales themselves or to the “real” world beyond them. Driving my reading of the General Prologue, however, is the recognition of the intimacy of pleasure and history. For too long the rigors of historicism have been allowed to stand against the pleasures of reading, as if mutually exclusive. As Louise Fradenburg and Carla Freccero have suggested, “history is an erogenous zone.” 1 We desire a certain past and our sacrifices to get it are themselves forms of desire rather than the properly historicist erasures of it we often take them to be.

To guarantee Chaucer’s importance and sophistication, the historicism that has dominated medieval studies strains some of his comedy, a gesture that sublimates various issues into more professionally acceptable and powerful scholarly forms. Such sublimations trickle down into our undergraduate anthologies, where, for example, they sanitize the Pardoner’s relation to the Summoner, “his freend and his compeer” (I 670) in the General Prologue: “This Somonour bar to hym a stif burdoun” (I 673). 2 The burden [End Page 194] borne toward the feminized Pardoner is explained merely in terms of its musical context—the “greet . . . soun” (I 674) and “loude . . . soong” (I 672) the Pardoner and Summoner perform together—suppressing other associations implied by these words. Likely an ironic pun on the homonymic “bourdon,” meaning ‘pilgrim’s staff,’ the phallic suggestiveness of the word originates in the pilgrimage itself. 3 Even more tellingly, “stif ” appears nowhere else paired with the musical burden, making for a phallic joke toward the effeminate Pardoner, believed to be a “geldyng or . . . mare” (I 691) by the Prologue’s narrator. But this is not the only phallic joke in the General Prologue, nor would it be the only one historicists might contest. Our sober historicism has also deflected a phallic joke in the opening portraits of the Knight and Squire, at least partially, because so few have attended to the Yeoman figure. We have thus been able to render Chaucer a serious poet interested in the serious problems and situations in his turbulent historical world. But such a deflection of humor also has historical implications of its own. The serious problems and the historicism that promotes them tend to be gendered. Such historicist readings come, that is, at the expense of familial structures, themselves no less political and historically significant. Recent feminist work has insisted on the ways familial structures are as powerful within the critical world itself as they are inside literature, where they are often implicitly associated with women and a more privatized realm over and against the larger political world in which such literature purportedly signifies. A reading of the feminine and the familial in the General Prologue may be no less historical than the militaristic historicist studies against and alongside which they arise.

A look at some recent historicist attention to the neglected figure of the Yeoman, for instance, reveals a blindness to some of the details of our literary historical objects. 4 It does not take a card-carrying Freudian to notice in the Yeoman the markings of a classic phallic object: a “myghty bowe” (I 108), [End Page 195] a sword, a spear, a “daggere/Harneised wel” (I 113–14), and arrows that “drouped noght” (I 107). Partially responsible for this blindness, ironically, is the success of our detailed studies of the individual portraits of the General Prologue and the way we principally use it. Outside of our classrooms— where it serves to introduce late medieval culture as well as the tale collection itself—the General Prologue is rarely read. Instead it is used piecemeal, as a background reference for the pilgrims and their stories in scholarly studies that focus their attention elsewhere.

We can blame our failure to read the Yeoman...