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"Unkynde abhomynaciouns" in Chaucer and Gower The introduction to the Man of Law's Tale is surely one of the most interesting pieces of metafiction in the Canterbury Tales. In it, the M a n of Law refers to the poet Chaucer and his work as if they were entirely unconnected with either the Canterbury Tales w e are reading or the fictional Canterbury pilgrimage, which includes among the group of travellers a figure who is usually referred to by critics as "Chaucer the pilgrim":1 But nathelees, certeyn, I kanrightnow no thrifty tale seyn That Chaucer, thogh he kan but lewedly On metres and on ryming craftily, Hath seyd hem in swich Englissh as he kan Of olde tyme, as knoweth many a man. (Intro, lines 45-50)2 Briefly, what the M a n of Law says is that Chaucer, although unlearned in the technicalities of verse writing, has used up all of the themes of narrative poetry, particularly love poetry. Nevertheless, Chaucer has not been led into using those stories which deal with "unkynde abhomynaciouns" (line 88). The examples the M a n of Law adduces - Canacee and Tyro Appollonius - make it clear that he is referring to stories of incest. Furthermore, both these stories are told by Chaucer's contemporary, John Gower; indeed, the tale of Apollonius is the last and longest tale of Confessio Amands, occupying a great part of Book VTII. As a result, the Introduction itself has often been read in the past as a satirical jibe by Chaucer against his most eminent contemporary. The M a n of Law concludes by resolving not to tell such a tale himself "if that I may" (line 89). Few readers nowadays would be tempted to read the passage as straightforwardly as did those critics who saw the passage simply as Chaucer's reproof to Gower for handling sensitive material. For a long time - at least since Donaldson's article (see note 1) - we have been aware in Chaucer criticism of the J See E. T. Donaldson, Chaucer the Pilgrim, in Speaking of Chaucer, London, 1970. It seems to m e unlikely that the M a n of Law is referring heTe to the narrator-figure Donaldson calls "Chaucer the pilgrim". T o do so in this way would be inexplicably rude as the M a n of L a w speaks as if "Chaucer" were not part of the group of pilgrims listening to him. Furthermore, the description of the M a n of Law's "Chaucer" does not accord with the characterization of Chaucer the pilgrim built up elsewhere in the Canterbury Tales: for instance, Chaucer the pilgrim is an apologetic figure, who knows only the "drasty rym" of Sir Thopas; the M a n of Law's Chaucer on the other hand is a prolific author who has - and this is the M a n of Law's complaint - already used up all the "thrifty" tales and written more about lovers than even Ovid did in his "Episteles" (the Heroides). 2 A11 quotations from Chaucer taken from The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, 2nd edn., ed. F. N. Robinson, London, 1957. Chaucer and Gower 95 fallible narrator. The M a n of Law's comments have been duly read in this light two of the most interesting examples of this approach are found in papers by Chauncey W o o d 3 (who analyses the M a n of Law's comments on philosophical determinism and astrology especially) and Rodney Delasanta4 (who examines particularly the M a n of Law's literary comments). The pose of the Man of Law as literary critic is disconcerting: this talent and interest was certainly not noticed by Chaucer the pilgrim in his portrait in the General Prologue. What is noted there, beyond the fact that the M a n of Law has made a great deal of money, is that he has an excellent legal mind, especially that he has a good memory for fact In termes had he caas and doomes alle That from the tyme of Kyng William were falle. (General Prologue, lines 323-4) It is mentioned that he writes well: Therto he koude...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1832-8334
Print ISSN
0313-6221
Pages
pp. 94-102
Launched on MUSE
2013-04-03
Open Access
No
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