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Chaucer’s Volumes: Toward a New Model of Literary History in the Canterbury Tales Karla Taylor University of Michigan The battle between the Wife of Bath and her fifth husband, Jankyn, in which she ‘‘rente out of his book a leef, / For which he smoot me so that I was deef,’’1 enacts the spectacular failure in transmission that results when a coercive literary tradition collides with an audience whose resistance finally wells over into violence. In addition to its commentary on the effects of antifeminist writings in the Wife’s autobiographical prologue—the focus of most recent criticism on the Wife of Bath—the battle also figures the very structure of literary tradition, whose motive force is the dynamic interaction of repetition (emulation, imitation) and rupture,2 as an overt rivalry. As she tells it, the Wife It gives me great pleasure to acknowledge those whose responses to this essay (or to the papers it draws on) have shaped my thinking: Elizabeth Allen, Piero Boitani, Denise Boulange, Catherine Brown, Warren Ginsberg, Frank Grady, Teresa Kennedy, Ashby Kinch, Winthrop Wetherbee, and the anonymous readers for Studies in the Age of Chaucer. 1 Wife of Bath’s Prologue, III.685, 667–68. All references to the Canterbury Tales are to Larry D. Benson, et al., The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd rev. ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987). 2 In the enormous literature on literary tradition, I have found particularly helpful Gian Biagio Conte, Memoria dei poeti e sistema letterario: Catullo, Virgilio, Ovidio, Lucano (Turin: Einaudi, 1974); Conte, The Rhetoric of Imitation: Genre and Poetic Memory in Virgil and Other Latin Poets, ed. and trans. Charles Segal (Ithaca: Cornell University Press), pp. 23–95; Conte, ‘‘Concluding Remarks’’ in Genres and Readers: Lucretius, Love Elegy, Pliny’s Encyclopedia, trans. Glenn W. Most (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), pp. 129–43; and Stephen Hinds, Allusion and Intertext: The Dynamics of Appropriation in Roman Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). For penetrating comments on Chaucer’s ‘‘translation’’ of prior traditions, see Helen Cooper, ‘‘After Chaucer ,’’ SAC 25 (2003): 1–25. Cooper stresses the ‘‘ideological supersession’’ (p. 5) involved in translating tradition into new cultural contexts; Conte asserts that reuse is ‘‘the fundamental condition for the formation of an active tradition’’ (Rhetoric of Imitation , p. 41). PAGE 43 43 ................. 16596$ $CH3 11-01-10 14:06:25 PS STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER triumphs over Jankyn and his relentlessly repetitive antifeminism. After plucking one (or three) pages from the book, she makes him cast the whole thing into the fire, and takes control in all other ways as well. In her account, utter rupture prevails: the book destroyed, its audience partially deafened. But the Wife’s triumph obscures the continuities that also shape and finally delimit her refusals. Not only does the book continue to influence her represented life—it has provided the terms by which she understands herself, and she continues to reiterate its contents to her listeners —but her refusal itself appropriates the words and signifying structure of a different poetic predecessor. For, in summarizing the nightly recitals from the antifeminist book with which Jankyn regales her, the Wife borrows a rhyme from Dante’s Paradiso XXXIII: bookes many on, And alle thise were bounden in o volume. And every nyght and day was his custume, Whan he hadde leyser and vacacioun From oother wordly occupacioun, To reden on this book of wikked wyves. (III.680–85, emphases mine) Startlingly, the source of the rhyme is the culminating metaphor with which Dante describes the universe and its creator as a bound book:3 Nel suo profondo vidi che s’interna, legato con amore in un volume, ciò che per l’universo si squaderna: sustanze e accidenti e lor costume quasi conflati insieme, per tal modo che ciò ch’i’ dico è un semplice lume. [In its depth I saw ingathered, bound by love in one single volume, that which is dispersed in leaves throughout the universe: substances and accidents and 3 For the widespread metaphor of the universe as a book (with biblical, twelfthcentury , and Dantean instances), see E. R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. Willard R. Trask, Bollingen Series...


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