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Future Perfect: The Augustinian Theology of Perfection and the Canterbury Tales R. James Goldstein Auburn University Ageneration ago the most vigorous scholarly debates among Chaucerians in North America pitted the neo-Augustinian or exegetical critics, represented by D. W. Robertson and his followers, against New Critical formalist critics, represented most influentially by E. Talbot Donaldson.1 In recent years, as older controversies over exegetical criticism recede into the ever more distant past, there have been signs that resistance to thinking seriously about the relation of Chaucer’s writing to medieval theological discourses is waning. Indeed, current scholarship in the rapidly growing field of vernacular theology suggests that the time may be ripe to reexamine such a fundamental question as how the pervasive influence of Augustinian thought in the fourteenth century might matter to our reading of Chaucer, though such lines of questioning have long been taboo lest one be accused of harboring a reactionary Robertsonian agenda. By focusing on the theology of Christian perfection in The Canterbury Tales, the present essay aims to situate Chaucer’s work within an Augustinian framework to offer an alternative I would like to thank the College of Liberal Arts and Auburn University for summer grants in 2001 and 2002 that helped support research for this essay. Early versions of portions of this essay were read to the Chaucer Division of the Modern Language Association at the 2000 meeting in Washington, D.C., and at the New Chaucer Society Congress in Boulder, Colorado, in 2002; my thanks to the organizers and audiences. For helpful comments and suggestions on earlier drafts, I am grateful to Nicholas Watson, Britton J. Harwood, V. A. Kolve, and especially to the anonymous reviewers for SAC and to its editor. 1 See Lee Patterson’s still indispensable analysis of this debate in Negotiating the Past: The Historical Understanding of Medieval Literature (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987), pp. 1–39; for a contrasting account, see Alan Gaylord, ‘‘Reflections on D. W. Robertson, Jr., and ‘Exegetical Criticism,’’’ ChauR 40.3 (2006): 311–33. PAGE 87 87 ................. 16596$ $CH4 11-01-10 14:06:37 PS STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER to suggestions in recent scholarship that locates convergences between The Canterbury Tales and reformist thought, sometimes of a radical or Wycliffite tendency.2 By focusing on the theology of perfection, this essay seeks to remedy the relative neglect of that topic by scholars who have generally not sought to appraise the cultural work performed by Chaucer’s writing in terms of medieval ideas of perfection.3 A notable exception is a recent essay by Nicholas Watson, who argues that Chaucer’s self-consciously lay stance in The Canterbury Tales is best understood as ‘‘anti-perfectionist ,’’ or what he identifies as a ‘‘mediocrist’’ position.4 The ‘‘public Christianity ’’ that Chaucer displays in The Canterbury Tales, as Watson understands it, ‘‘is dismissive of the ideals of the professional religious orders,’’ the religious who in the Church’s traditional hierarchical thinking about personhood had claimed the privilege of being the perfecti, in contrast to the mediocri, those ‘‘virtuous lay Christians in active life.’’5 While it is far from my intention to recuperate a Robertsonian herme2 For examples, see Peggy Knapp, Chaucer and the Social Contest (New York: Routledge, 1990); Paul Strohm, ‘‘Chaucer’s Lollard Joke: History and the Textual Unconscious ,’’ SAC 17 (1995): 23–42; David Aers and Lynn Staley, The Powers of the Holy: Religion, Politics, and Gender in Medieval English Culture (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996); Alan J. Fletcher, ‘‘Chaucer the Heretic,’’ SAC 25 (2003): 53–121. The list is by no means complete. 3 Robertson barely mentions Christian perfection in his major work, though the idea received some attention in the work of his followers; see D. W. Robertson Jr., A Preface to Chaucer: Studies in Medieval Perspectives (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1962), p. 350; Bernard F. Huppé, A Reading of the Canterbury Tales (Albany: SUNY, 1964), pp. 39, 113–17, 142–47, 228–29; Paul A. Olson, The Canterbury Tales and the Good Society (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), who concludes that Chaucer ‘‘is preeminently the poet of perfection and discipline not only of the mind but...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1949-0755
Print ISSN
0190-2407
Pages
pp. 87-140
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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