- Faux Semblants:Antifraternalism Reconsidered in Jean de Meun and Chaucer
Faustus was hardly pleased. Having sealed his pact with the Devil, and having waited long hours for his promised assistant and guide, he was left thoroughly unimpressed by the external appearance of Mephistopheles once the latter finally arrived:
[Faustus:] I Charge thee to return and change thy shape; Thou art too ugly to attend me. Go, and return an old Franciscan friar; That holy shape becomes a devil best.1
Faustus's ingenious solution seems to invoke a celebrated tradition. From Rutebeuf to Rabelais, from Cecco Angiolieri to Boccaccio, from Chaucer to Marlowe, the apparent perseverance of antifraternal sentiment from medieval to early modern literature has helped perpetuate the notion of a Devil-serving friar as a popular, if disturbing, representation of medieval mendicants. Although the presence of mendicants, or friars, in fiction has won a certain amount of scholarly attention, so far the few attempts to deal comprehensively with the topic have yielded questionable generic statements which define such fiction as one form or another of "antifraternal literature." This branding, however, [End Page 357] obscures the true diversity of friar-characters and their functions within their respective fictional contexts.
Chaucer's Friar John in the Summoner's Tale is a case in point, as is Jean de Meun's Faus Semblant in the Roman de la Rose. Both authors have been dubbed antifraternal largely on the basis of these characters which, scholars have traditionally argued, illustrate the fallen state of mendicancy that their authors wished to bemoan. Yet not only are these characters multivalent rather than partisan, manuscript evidence for the reception of Faus Semblant's speech reveals that his allegedly anti-fraternal confession was ambivalent enough in the eyes of contemporaries to prompt the interpolation of a sizable chapter articulating objections to the mendicants' privileges in unambiguous terms. Chaucer, in turn, familiar with an amended version of the Roman, also created a multi-faceted friar-character, whose actions and interactions do not convey a strictly negative appraisal of mendicancy.
In 1923, Joseph Spencer Kennard published a series of studies about key depictions of friars in medieval and early modern fiction in England, Germany, and Italy.2 One striking feature of his essays is an explicit insistence on the correlation between fiction and reality inherent in these characters; the friar's image as deceitful and immoral, Kennard is "obliged to conclude," "represent[s] the typical friar as found in real life during those centuries."3 This is one instance in which antifraternal literature is cast as an authentic response to the friars' ubiquitous moral plummet.
Were it not for its continuing legacy in modern scholarship, Ken-nard's Coultonian approach could have been dismissed as simply old-fashioned, perhaps eccentric, and certainly impaired methodologically. A fairly recent account of medieval antifraternal literature, however, has no qualms about firmly placing Chaucer (and others) in the tradition of English antifraternalism: "Chaucer, Langland, Gower, Dunbar, Henryson all wrote against the friars, mainly in longer poems that depict, sometimes comically, sometimes somberly, the decay of human [End Page 358] society near the end of an era."4 Yet branding Chaucer with a brazen antifraternalism, one, moreover, that offers a direct representation of reality, is an inappropriate evaluation; it reduces the art of Chaucer's verisimilitudes to simple partisanship, quite in contrast to a growing appreciation among Chaucerians of his refusal to commit to any particular point of view.5
The mislabeling of Chaucer also rests on a similar and prevalent misapprehension regarding the work of Jean de Meun, whom Szittya identifies asChaucer's antifraternal forerunner in the French tradition.6 While their affinities cannot be mistaken, it is not the case that the tradition itself is relentlessly antifraternal. Even Jean de Meun's borrowing from the work of Guillaume de Saint Amour—long considered the ecclesiological fountain of antifraternal literature—and from Rutebeuf's poetry was not carried out with an eye towards targeting the friars exclusively.7 I wish to argue, on the contrary, that Faus Semblant, the Roman de la Rose's hypocrite friar, is a personification of hypocrisy, not a direct depiction or a caricature of a real...