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The Animals of the Hunt and the Limits of Chaucer’s Sympathies

From: Studies in the Age of Chaucer
Volume 34, 2012
pp. 331-337 | 10.1353/sac.2012.0000

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The Animals of the Hunt and the Limits of Chaucer’s Sympathies

When Dryden describes the multifarious collection of characters that Chaucer assembled for the pilgrimage to Canterbury, he declares himself overwhelmed by the sheer diversity of the group and the strongly drawn presence of each individual; so much so that he gives up trying to summarize their specific qualities. “But enough of this,” he says, “There is such a Variety of Game springing up before me, that I am distracted by my Choice, and I know not which to follow. ’Tis sufficient to say according to the Proverb, that here is God’s Plenty.”1 Dryden’s admiring observation that “here is God’s Plenty” continues to be quoted regularly, especially in popular appreciations of Chaucer,2 and it may therefore provide a useful starting point for this essay, in which I shall argue that, in contrast with Chaucer’s thoughtful and strongly imagined depictions of human characters, his writings show a marked lack of sympathy for animals as quarries of the hunt. Such creatures, I shall argue, fail to engage Chaucer’s empathetic imagination, and consequently (and ironically) fail to contribute to the totality of one’s sense of “God’s Plenty” in his work. From an ecocritical perspective, this constitutes what may be termed a “significant silence” in Chaucer’s overall achievement, and one that can be thrown into sharp relief by other works in which such silence is broken.

I shall begin by observing that, for a writer who displays so much curiosity and knowledge about so many aspects of the world, Chaucer appears to be only passingly interested in the sport of hunting and even [End Page 331] less concerned with hunting as a means of subsistence. One looks to Chaucer in vain for anything like the extended accounts of deer, boar, and fox hunts found in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the meticulous stalking of the stag described in the Parlement of the Thre Ages, or Arthur’s strenuous pursuit of a boar in The Avowynge of Arthure. This is not to say that Chaucer is ignorant of contemporary hunting practices; on the contrary, as I have argued elsewhere, Chaucer’s hunting lexicon shows that he was as well acquainted with the technicalities of the aristocratic sport as he was with other specialized subjects, from astronomy to law to rhetoric.3 Such knowledge is apparent in numerous passing references to hunting that are scattered throughout Chaucer’s work, such as his statement concerning the Monk that, “Of prikyng and of huntyng for the hare / Was al his lust” (I.191–92); the simile in The Merchant’s Tale revealing that the sly Damian “gooth as lowe / As evere dide a dogge for the bowe” (IV.2013–14); and Pandarus’s advice to Troilus to “hold the at thi triste clos, and I / Shal wel the deer unto thi bowe dryve” (II.1534–35).4 Powerfully evocative as such allusions are, they do not constitute accounts of hunts, and in this regard it is noteworthy that the only hunts that Chaucer does describe in any detail are hart hunts; furthermore, there are only three of them, all remarkably brief. These are to be found, in chronological order, in The Book of the Duchess (c. 1369: 372–86), The Legend of Good Women (c. 1386: 212–17), and The Franklin’s Tale (c. 1395: V.1189–94). Together, these descriptions of hunts add up to a mere twenty-seven lines in Chaucer’s entire oeuvre, which is considerably less than the eighty-one lines devoted to the first day’s hunting in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1150–77, 1319–71).

Of course, Chaucer’s tally could be increased by including Theseus’s hunt in The Knight’s Tale (I.1673–95), but the problem with that passage is that most of it is devoted to the preparations and anticipation of the event, and it is unclear whether the hunt itself ever gets properly under way. I have also excluded from my tally those lines in The Book of the Duchess and The Legend of Good Women leading up...