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  • Locating Authorial Ethics:The Idea of the Male or Book-Bag in the Canterbury Tales and Other Middle English Poems
  • Megan G. Leitch

Oure Hooste lough and swoor, "So moot I gon,This gooth aright; unbokeled is the male.Lat se now who shal telle another tale;For trewely the game is wel bigonne."—miller's prologue

(I 3114-17)1

Occurrences of the word male as 'bag or pouch' are curiously rare and distinctive in the Chaucerian canon. The term appears in only five instances, all of which are in the Canterbury Tales,2 where it seems to carry connotations different from the mundane meanings of its synonyms. In the Host's proclamation, "unbokeled is the male," this physical object is configured as a conceptual analogue for Chaucer's incipient Canterbury storytelling project. In addition to this self-reflexive locus, Chaucer associates males with religious "authors" who present radically different attitudes toward, and radically different models of, authorship: the Pardoner (twice), the Parson, and the Canon. This article reads Chaucer's selective deployment of the signifier male as a strategic juxtaposition of certain figures and moments whose interrelation of sinful and salvific discourse interrogate authors' roles and the moral implications of their work. Male can mean not only 'bag or pouch,' but [End Page 403] also 'man, male gender, or genitals,' 'stomach,' and 'wrongdoing'—and the very inappropriateness of this polysemy is appropriate for the way in which Chaucer invests the word with an exploration of authorial ethics that partly concerns the scatological registers of his poetics, and in which he refuses to articulate a single verdict. In the second half of this article, the nature of this network of associations as a seemingly conscious—and consequential—wordplay is further contextualized by examining distinctions in use between male and its synonym objects in the Canterbury Tales, and by an analysis of related tropes in other Middle English poems. Chaucer seems to have been the first and, in certain respects, the only Middle English writer to employ the motif of the literary male. The final section of this article addresses how Chaucer's exploration of the problematic ethics of secular authorship through his use of male can productively inform our understanding of the place of an ending such as the Retraction—Chaucer's act of confession for his own authorship—as a textual utterance with a multiplicity of conflicting yet coexisting intentions.

When Chaucerian males are read in dialogue with each other (a reading that their placement and attributes seem to invite), they present reflections upon the issues of being an (im)moral author. The first instance of the word occurs when the Host refers to the Canterbury Tales as a male in his expressed metanarrative assessment of the literary work-in-progress of which he is a part (I 3114-17), associating this project-inaugurating male with Chaucer and his literary undertakings. Here, Chaucer establishes the identity of a male as a container for texts. The authorial implications for this signifier are further solidifed through rhyme. Every time male appears in line-final position (I 3115, VI 920, and X 26, but not I 694 or VIII 566), it rhymes with tale, creating a thematically resonant collocation.3 Each Chaucerian male is imagined, moreover, as a material and metaphorical analogue for a literary locus, such as a book. Each also connects literature to, or serves as a reminder of, [End Page 404] the authorial bodies who produce the tales, wearing a male attached to their persons—that is, the particular pilgrims who explicitly possess them within the frame, and also Chaucer as both pilgrim-narrator and external author.

Yet male could signify more than something that can be attached to the author's body. It could signify that body itself, in whole and in parts. Male as 'gender' and male as 'masculine genitals' were both usages current in the late fourteenth century.4 Tison Pugh has argued that Harry Bailey's unbuckle the male phrase contains an "oblique reference to male genitalia and sexuality" that "powerfully link[s] manhood to narrative."5 It is also worth observing that tale, as the common rhyme-word (and literary complement) for male...


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