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  • Privitee, Habitus, and ProximityConduct and Domestic Space in Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde
  • Josephine A. Koster

When William Faulkner describes a decaying Southern mansion or Jane Austen the wonders of Pemberley, modern readers add our knowledge of the physical dimensions of such residences and their class and gender markers to the words on the page and enrich our reading experiences; we can 'see' these houses both physically and interpretatively. But since few examples of medieval English houses have survived into the twenty-first century, it's harder for us to pick up the subtleties that medieval authors may have incorporated into their works when they make specific references to domestic architecture and activities. A good case of this is found in Geoffrey Chaucer's tragedy Troilus and Criseyde. Though most of its action takes place within carefully-described medieval residential settings, our unfamiliarity with the cues Chaucer so painstakingly provides leads us to miss many of the subtleties of his description that would have struck his contemporary audience. And those missed cues, in turn, may lead us to misread the text and the actions of one of the title characters.

Modern readers often perceive Chaucer's Criseyde as timorous, vacillating, and indecisive—and those are just the ones who are being kind to her. My project here is to look at Criseyde in a new light, inspired by what Roberta Gilchrist calls "gender archaeology" which she defines as "the relationship between material culture and the social construction of gender,"1 specifically aspects of gender and space. She connects this to the concept of habitus, "a common-sense knowledge of how to proceed as a man or woman in one's community."2 By looking at what Chaucer specifically says about Criseyde's environment, her physical surroundings, her behavioral patterns, and her social interactions, I hope to show that Criseyde's behavior is more understandable—if, perhaps, still as unforgivable. I also hope to show that the stereotypical literary-critical perception of Criseyde as a woman [End Page 79] isolated and governed by fear is not entirely warranted by the physical circumstances of Chaucer's settings.3

Criseyde, when we meet her in the poem, is represented as dwelling in a residence appropriate for a wealthy widow in fourteenth-century London, as Chaucer would have known such households. In a large, sophisticated paleis, she resides

with swich meyneAs til hire honour nede was to holde,And wel she was dwellynge in that cite,Kepte hir estat.

(I, 127-30)4

Her habitus is thus established for Chaucer's immediate audience and modern readers. She resides in a paleis, a luxurious dwelling, with a meyne, an entourage, which helps to maintain her honour—her reputation—and her estat—her social status. This is not a middle-class widow but a very wealthy one, perhaps even an aristocratic one. The first picture of Criseyde interacting with other people is in a very public space for women—the large temple where the people of Troy gather for worship. While much criticism of the poem focuses on Criseyde's isolation and fear, from the beginning Chaucer shows her interacting with other people in social spaces appropriate to her estate. Almost always she is accompanied by the attendants expected of a wealthy widow interested in preserving her public appearance of chastity—especially important to Criseyde's political circumstances and to the expectations of Chaucer's upper-class readers, whose ladies also lived by these rules.

Since his audience was unlikely to have seen a pagan temple, Chaucer describes Troy's temple as a structure falling somewhere between the lines of a Gothic cathedral, whose nave would be flanked by aisles for roving bachelors to prowl and would feature plenty of doorways in which widows could stand, and the lines of a fourteenth-century neighborhood church such as St. Helen's Bishopsgate in London, where the convent nuns and parishioners mingled so closely that an ecclesiastical examiner had to be appointed to control the excessive socializing taking place during divine services.5 As Chaucer's audience would know, such formal social settings allowed for a great deal of informal interaction, still governed by the approved...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1538-4608
Print ISSN
1043-2213
Pages
pp. 79-91
Launched on MUSE
2008-06-13
Open Access
No
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