- Chaucer as a London Poet:A Review Essay
When, in the Fall of 2006, I proposed to speak to the Illinois Medieval Association on Chaucer and London, I was imprudent. I imagined the project to be not only interesting—which it is—but also safe. Only David Wallace—so I imagined—had written at all recently on the subject, back in 1992 in his essay on "Chaucer and the Absent City," and as I don't think London is absent in Chaucer's work, and most particularly in the Canterbury Tales, I looked forward to the opportunity to respond to him.1 What I hadn't appreciated is that the subject had turned, if not quite hot, at least tepid (see the Appendix): Michael Hanrahan has a "London" chapter in Peter Brown's 2000 Companion to Chaucer; David Benson has a chapter on "London" in Steve Ellis's 2005 Chaucer: An Oxford Guide; Marion Turner has a chapter entitled "Politics and London Life" in Corinne Saunders and David Bradshaw's 2006 Concise Companion to Chaucer, and her Chaucerian Conflict: Languages of Antagonism in Late Fourteenth-Century London was released by Oxford in January 2007. Most disconcerting, in May 2006 Boydell and Brewer issued Ardis Butterfield's groundbreaking collection, Chaucer and the City, an offshoot of the 2002 London Chaucer Conference on "Cities, Courts, Provinces." Not only does this splendid volume include another chapter by Benson, "Literary Contests and London Records in the Canterbury Tales," and thus certify that the moderator of the session in which I was to speak knows far more about the present subject than I do; but the volume's essays, written by a stellar cast, "All are," in Butterfield's words,
grounded in a sense, profoundly articulated by David Wallace, that Chaucer's writings offer a conundrum. Chaucer may be a city icon but London does not emerge as clearly or directly from his poetry as that might suggest. Trying to understand the city [End Page 21] in Chaucer involves confronting this strangeness: Chaucer's poetry rebuffs as much as invites our efforts to grasp its urban character.2
It's not enough that I was thinking to contest Wallace; I was up against a Wallace army. The book is dedicated to him! I rather expected Benson to show up in blue face paint.
Cognizant now of the new state of the field, what I offer in these pages are first a review of current thinking on Chaucer and London, and then a few reflections of my own. Wallace argues that where the countryside offers a "mysterious and powerful" presence in Chaucer, "the city is chiefly notable by its absence." The Troy of Troilus and Criseyde suggests "something of the experience of a walled medieval city," but it "plainly differs from Chaucer's London" in that the events of the poem take place "within a unified walled space," while those of Chaucer's time "were conducted between such spaces: between, that is, London and Westminster." The Canterbury Tales amplifies the elision of London, as Chaucer pointedly begins the pilgrimage not in London, but "south of the Thames in Southwark; the "projected return journey . . . is never made"; and "Chaucer's solitary attempt at pure London fiction [the Cook's Tale] comes to an abrupt end after just 58 lines" (156). This said, Wallace proceeds to analyze Chaucer's treatment of London in both the Cook's Tale and the Canon's Yeoman's Tale and uncovers an attitude that presents London as a locus of transgression and punishment. In Letter Book H of the London Guildhall records, for example, Wallace finds numerous "narratives of crimes and misdemeanors" containing "some quite spectacular examples of native wit and inventiveness" (159) that help us to appreciate Chaucer's articulation of London discourses "freighted with suggestions of duplicity and bad faith" (178). Comparison to Boccaccio suggests how extreme is Chaucer's vision of the city: where the Florentine "establishes a form of associational governance within the city that is then carried to the countryside" (158), the Englishman moves "the disease that infects . . . the blind alleys of the suburbs . . . to the city itself" (178). For Chaucer, then, the city is...