In her still-useful book about Chaucerian animals, Beryl Rowland argues that the poet consistently tends to “rely on tradition and iconography” in his animal allusions, a point that many of us, in our day-to-day practical criticism, might easily concede.1 But in this essay, I want to confront a handful of animal references that have bothered me over the years because “tradition and iconography” haven’t entirely fulfilled Rowland’s promise. These references, which seem irrational given their contexts and intractable even in the face of the valuable current scholarship they have sponsored, continue to haunt me.
In The Pardoner’s Tale, when the youngest rioter visits the apothecary to purchase the poison designed to do away with his two companions, he comes up with a plausible fiction to justify his grisly purchase, presumably to distract the druggist from his actual intentions. He mentions rodents, of course, certainly common enough pests in medieval households, but then he spins out a more detailed and entirely unnecessary animal-centered scenario: “and eek ther was a polcat in his hawe, / That, as he seyde, his capouns hadde yslawe, / And fayn he wolde wreke hym, if he myghte, / On vermin that destroyed hym by nyghte” (855–58). This scene, wherein formerly male animals, now with weak and nonnormative bodies that lack the testicular edge that might allow them to [End Page 311] effectively resist an attack, are viciously slain by a predator, seems uncannily to reflect something close to the Pardoner’s own identity. What exactly that might be is hard to capture without closing down the interpretive richness of Chaucer’s character. Yet we are asked, I think, to meditate on these dead capons, to see in them a vulnerability that carries over to the Pardoner himself. Are they offering up for view and consideration an image of the Pardoner that he himself has carefully crafted as a vehicle for coyly “outing himself” before his audience? Or, to follow a different line of inquiry, do they reflect a buried, perhaps even a totally repressed, desire for the kind of spectacular death that the capons themselves are victims of? However one decides to link this animal scene to The Pardoner’s Prologue and Tale (and there are many different ways in which one might do so), the image of the dead and dying capons seems important—doubly so given Chaucer’s typical care as a writer. Although these animals are deeply sublimated, a fact signaled, perhaps, by the way in which Chaucer tucks them deep inside a fiction-within-a-fiction, and although their damaged bodies are incompatible with the confident self-presentation of the speaker with whom they seem to be aligned, they stand out as abject tokens of something that is being signaled, even if it is impossible to try to pin down.
Other things might be said about the oddness of this animal moment in The Pardoner’s Tale. Neither the capons nor the doomed polecat that attacks them have any extensive medieval social or literary history that would overdetermine their possible significance in this tale. There are no polecat/capon fables and myths, for example, or heraldic devices, or proverbs, or well-known saints’ lives that feature either of these animals. Dragging little or no cultural baggage along with them, they remain resolutely literal, unlike the elaborate animal metaphorizing of the Pardoner’s sexual identity that goes on in the General Prologue, where he’s compared to a mare, a gelding, a goat, and a hare, all common animals that serve as symbols of lechery or male sexual deficiency drawn from common medieval systems of signification. In other words, the polecat and the capons, though acting a bit like personal psychic totems for the Pardoner, “represent while escaping representation.”2
The Wife of Bath’s Prologue teems with animal life, mostly the sort that one commonly associates with domesticity. There are spaniels, geese, [End Page 312] oxen, horses, asses, cats, sheep, pigs, and sows—some of these animals appearing in the Wife’s own richly metaphorical discourse and some appearing...