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Abandon the Fragments

From: Studies in the Age of Chaucer
Volume 35, 2013
pp. 47-83 | 10.1353/sac.2013.0038

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The fact that the Canterbury Tales consists of a collection of fragments of an unfinished work is one, I would gather, that many readers of this journal, in their roles as teachers of Chaucer, make sure to expose on the first day of their consideration of the Tales . Although for students this fact is, in my experience, usually surprising and frequently a source of critical interest, for us professionals it is part of the most basic knowledge of our object of study. In this article, I reconsider the status of this knowledge, specifically with respect to the term “fragment.” That the work is unfinished I will not question, although the range of possible implications of this deceptively simple adjective will form an important part of the discussion. I will also not argue, despite the skepticism that I bring to the term “fragment,” for the authority of any particular tale order; indeed, the conclusions one may draw may just as easily lead in the opposite direction. My complaint is an editorial one, about the representation of the Canterbury Tales as a set of fragments, and my argument in brief is that, among the many legacies that Frederick Furnivall—the irrepressible founder of the Chaucer Society—has bestowed upon our conception of the Tales , the notion of the fragment is one that we have good reason to give up.

Although the meaning of the term “fragment” may seem self-evident, to be clear about the precise target of my skepticism, I quote the introductory discussion of the notion from The Riverside Chaucer :

For reasons unknown, Chaucer left The Canterbury Tales incomplete and without final revision. The work survives in ten fragments . . . editorial units determined by the existence of internal signs of linkage—bits of conversation or narrative that explicitly refer to a tale just told or to one that immediately follows. There are no explicit connections between the fragments . . . and, consequently, no explicit indication of the order in which Chaucer intended the fragments to be read.1

As we will see, there is much of interest to point out in these admirably lucid sentences, including in some that I have elided (i.e., mention of different fragment labeling schemes and exceptions to the rule of “no explicit connections”), but here at the outset I call attention only to the phrase “editorial units”: as this phrase denotes, the fragments in The Riverside Chaucer —as in all editions that use the term—are a hypostatization of an editor’s idea about the Tales ’ organization, or lack thereof, that that editor has included in his or her physical constitution of the work. Such editorial inscriptions of literary structure, to be sure, are inevitable and not in themselves problematic, yet because of their power to shape the reader’s perception of the work, they require justification. Indeed, when the intervention is as prominent as this one and as critically influential as it has been, it requires justification, so to speak, beyond a reasonable doubt. By this jurisprudence analogy I do not mean to suggest that all editorial decisions are subject to some sort of scrupulous rules of evidence but only the principle that editorial impositions on surviving witnesses carry a heavier burden of justification than do negative decisions against such impositions. My task in this article is not, therefore, to demonstrate conclusively the inapplicability of the representation of the Canterbury Tales as a sequence of fragments, but rather only to offer important and plausible reasons to question it. If the doubt that accumulates is enough to shake the certainty in the fragments representation, then I would hold that the soundest decision is to abandon it.

My case against the fragments necessarily involves a level of detail that some readers may find overblown with respect to what may seem an issue of a few headers, terminology, and lineation. As much recent book history scholarship has shown, however, the specifics of editorial representation may fundamentally shape our apprehension of a literary work, and hence I suspect that for most of us the impact of the division of the Tales into fragments has not been superficial. If my argument is persuasive, therefore, it may have ramifications not just...

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