Historical Criticism and the Development of Chaucer Studies
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c h a p t e r o n e Historical Criticism and the Development of Chaucer Studies By the early 1980s, the word historicism—indeed, the very word history— had become highly charged both in the local field of medieval studies and in literary criticism generally. And yet the charge was in each instance of a different valence: for the medievalist the phrase “historical criticism” was a code word for a densely annotated and narrowly argued reading of an often aggressively moralistic cast; while for critics concerned with other periods, criticism that advertised itself as historical raised expectations of politically engaged readings of a progressive kind. The answer to the question why this should have been so—why should the historicism of the medievalist have differed so sharply from that of critics working in later periods?—is itself historical, and is inscribed with particular clarity in the history of Chaucer criticism. Hence the focus of my attention here is upon the two great critical formations, Exegetics and New Criticism, that served Chaucer studies for almost twenty-five years as the most effective vehicles 1 Patterson-01 9/17/09 4:07 PM Page 1 for critical work. Moreover, the opposition they figured remains in force, although with a strange reversal in values. The apriorism and explicitly ideological commitments characteristic of Exegetics are now more likely to be found in work that defines itself as “theoretical,” while the purportedly ideologically free empiricism claimed by New Criticism has attached itself to the kind of historicism now most commonly practiced. These are, to be sure, large generalizations that must accommodate many exceptions, but they do point to the persistence of an opposition that first emerged in the 1950s.1 Despite this shift in values, these two attitudes—one aggressively historical, the other by and large indifferent to questions of historical understanding—are bound by their shared participation in the development of English studies. Their struggle has been essentially sibling in nature, and all the more violent for that. Here as often, the history of scholarship presents the features of a family romance, and its postures and polemics articulate no simple pattern of thesis and antithesis but a complex interweaving of piety with rebellion, covert borrowings entwined with ostentatious declarations of independence.2 This dynamic was especially evident in Chaucer studies, where New Criticism and Exegetics were never on speaking terms, although each critical camp remained oddly and even obsessively aware of the other’s presence. When in the 1950s and early 1960s the work of D.W. Robertson first established Exegetics as a major force in the study of medieval literature, most medievalists hastened to position themselves vis-à-vis this new critical formation.3 Some issued anathemas (Donaldson, Utley), some offered less global but still severe strictures (Bloomfield, Howard), some rather gingerly signed up as co-workers in the Exegetical vineyard (Kaske).4 Without exception, however, these responses remained true to the empirical temper of American criticism by engaging Exegetics at the level of practice , attacking it for historical misrepresentation and interpretive inadequacy or, conversely, seeing in it new possibilities for critical work. Indeed, as Talbot Donaldson candidly acknowledged, such an approach was forced on the opposition by its inability to frame a theoretical objection.5 The result of this pragmatism was that, despite and even because of the force of its practical objections, New Criticism was unable to confront Exegetics at the level of theory. Moreover, the silent but powerful New Critical reliance upon the educated sensibility as the final arbiter of interpretive common sense—a silence all the more impenetrable because of the necessary implicitness of sensibility itself—ensured that those opposed to Exegetics 2 Acts of Recognition Patterson-01 9/17/09 4:07 PM Page 2 would decline to articulate a program of medieval literary studies to challenge Exegetics’s easily replicated paradigm. The result has been that Exegetics remained for all too many years, apparently against all odds, the great unfinished business of medieval studies . The point is not simply that the Exegetical method continued to be practiced but that it continued to arouse passions. Unable to absorb Exegetics and move on, Chaucer studies instead circled back almost compulsively to an apparently irrepressible scandal. Despite attaining a healthy maturity, Exegetics remained as combative and polemical as ever, while its opponents declined the passé title of New Critics but continued to denigrate a critical approach that was presumably beneath their notice.6 And while in the twenty-first...


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Subject Headings

  • Literature and society -- England -- History -- To 1500.
  • England -- Civilization -- 1066-1485.
  • Historical criticism (Literature).
  • English literature -- Middle English, 1100-1500 -- History and criticism.
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