As a spin-off from the World’s Classics series, Oxford’s “Authors in Context” will command a wide readership, so it is good to report that Peter Brown’s thoughtful volume on Chaucer is packed with accurate information, intelligent negotiation between texts and contexts, and interpretations that command respect.
In Chaucer’s case, the chief problem confronting anyone who would anchor the writer to pertinent “social, cultural, and political contexts,” as is the general aim of this series, is where to ground the discussion and how to structure it. Brown means to eschew the temptations of fictionalizing and of “short-circuiting” (so as to fill tantalizing gaps), which in his view bedevil attempts to work either from life-records or from historical superstructure to the poetry. His preferred approach is looser: “to take a topic with roots in life records, Chaucer’s poetry and historical writing alike, and present a conspectus” (18–19). As a result, the book is not governed by historical chronology but is topic-based; nor is it (to any significant extent) thesis-driven; nor does it develop through supposed evolutions in Chaucer’s poetry and interests, except insofar as it begins with the topic “Finding a Voice,” as exemplified in The Book of the Duchess. That subsection crowns the initial chapter, which summarizes Chaucer’s life and discusses his self-representation, the early [End Page 368] reception of his work, and some impediments to contextualizing that work.
An idea of the management of the numerous topics scattered in the book will be apparent from the contents of two of the seven chapters. Chapter 2, “The Social Body,” covers “social structures,” “religion and piety,” “the Black Death,” “the wars of Edward III,” “revolt,” and “the reign of Richard II.” Chaucerians will often feel on familiar ground here. Thus Chaucer is considered “elliptical” (27) in response to social tensions, and this is seen as a tendency reinforced by his own allegedly “liminal” social status. A little less routine is the connection suggested between contemporary lay piety’s emphasis on individual moral responsibility and the poetry’s habit of apportioning judgment to the reader. Then there is Brown’s bracingly direct argument that Chaucer fundamentally wrote as a Christian, all the more able to interweave religious and secular motifs in The Miller’s Tale for fun because he was an author working in a culture “profoundly and securely Christian” (37). Brown encapsulates the late fourteenth-century social body well in parts of this chapter: but it is perhaps symptomatic of the hold-all tendencies of the book’s method that an account of “the wars of Edward III” is made to slot in here on the pretext that waging war “was a dominant activity of the society Chaucer knew” (45).
Brown’s “conspectus” approach restricts his own interpretative endeavors in Chapter 2 and some others, but not in Chapter 4, “Society and Politics.” (“Politics” here seems to be meant in the frustratingly diffuse sense that the term has recently attracted in the world of literary criticism.) The chapter’s topics are “personal identity,” “authority,” “status,” “women and gender,” “chivalry,” and “peace.” Here there is a thesis, that Chaucer understands the individual to be generally “an unstable amalgam of a number of possible identities” and accordingly explores “identities in flux” (104, 106)—as demonstrated by slippages in the pilgrim Merchant’s attitudes and by slippages disclosed by figures in his tale. Griselda is then analyzed as a contrasting figure, whose identity does not fragment within The Clerk’s Tale’s topical probing of the ideology of authority. The chapter’s further subsections accommodate analyses of The Franklin’s Tale (status anxiety), The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale (women, gender, then chivalry), and Melibee (peace).
Brown’s concise writing sustains interest in these readings from the Tales and keeps up a pressure of response. He alerts readers to inherited falsifications: in the “thematically connected narratives, sometimes referred [End Page 369] to as ‘the marriage group,’ ” marriage is “not so much the topic as the means of representing...