- Chaucerian Obscenity in the Court of Public Opinion
In academic writing over the past few decades, the adjective "Chaucerian" often modifies the word "irony" or other terms that imply his literary virtues. But in contemporary public discourse, the adjective more commonly refers to his legendary smuttiness. For example, when the pornographic film Debbie Does Dallas was turned into a musical for the stage, one theater critic described the resulting production as relying "on the Chaucerian tension of bawdiness, and the decidedly raunchy, to arrest and disturb."1 In a 1993 essay pondering the use of authors' names as adjectives, David Mills confidently defined "Chaucerian" as "bawdy in an acceptably Olde Englishe way," and much popular usage backs him up.2
This essay tries to take the casually alleged fact of Chaucer's obscenity seriously, and argues that this has become the defining feature of his reputation in the United States. Though the position of Chaucer's work within the American curriculum remains marginal, and his hold on the popular imagination even more tenuous, his legendary obscenity keeps his work in view. Chaucer's work, I hope to show, has been and remains one of the principal places our culture articulates its standards of obscenity, pornography, censorship, and toleration. Despite the recent appearance of several excellent studies [End Page 1] of Chaucer's nachleben over the last two centuries, the role Chaucer's work has played in delimiting the boundaries of acceptability has not been fully acknowledged by Chaucer's professional readers.3 Nor has this role remained static. And the evidence suggests that Chaucer's reputation may be changing: long viewed as canonical despite his obscenity, Chaucer may now be canonical because of his obscenity. The aim of this essay is not to decry or protest this dynamic, but simply to recognize it for what it is.
A few definitions and disclaimers are necessary here. I use the terms "obscenity" and "pornography" deliberately, and eschew older terms like "bawdy" because these older terms are wrapped up in the rhetorical project of defending Chaucer's work from detractors, and because words like "bawdy" have little or no legal significance. No one has ever proposed anti-bawdiness laws. And in the context of this argument, "Chaucer" and "Chaucer's work" almost always means the Canterbury Tales, and only a few tales in particular. One could, of course, make a list of obscene or potentially obscene moments in Chaucer's other texts: Pandarus's notorious thrust under the bed sheets in Book 3 of Troilus and Criseyde, and the Parliament of Fowls with its smirking description of Priapus or its self-conscious peekaboo vision of Venus in her "subtyl coverchef "(272) might head such a list.4 But these works have much less prominence in the wider intellectual marketplace, receive less attention in the undergraduate curriculum, and attract far fewer readers than the Tales. As a result, they have played a much smaller role in defining Chaucer's reputation.
The essay is also primarily concerned with Chaucer's reputation in the United States, for the reason that his obscenity has dominated readers' perceptions here in peculiar ways that it has not elsewhere. The Tales have been subject to very occasional indirect censorship in the U.K., but have not played a prominent role in legal arguments.5 In cases involving child pornography [End Page 2] and pamphlets denying the Holocaust, Canadian courts have pointed to Chaucer's work in ways that resemble the use of Chaucer in U.S. cases, but these cases have not been as central to Canada's evolving standards of censorship.6 And as far as I have been able to discover, elsewhere in the English-speaking world Chaucer's reputed obscenity has only rarely been invoked in legal or public discourse.7 Chaucer's obscenity seems to have posed more problems for American audiences. The essay explores these problems in three sections. The first considers Chaucer's appearances in popular film and in the courts, the second considers responses from artists and critics, and the final section considers the way Chaucer's obscenity now defines his role in the classroom.
"Quite Chaucerian in Character"