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  • Introduction:Women’s Literary Culture and Late Medieval English Writing
  • Liz Herbert Mcavoy and Diane Watt

Over the last three decades medieval women’s writing has become a significant focus of scholarly research. Women’s literary culture in England in the late Middle Ages and the influence of Continental European women writers in Britain have been painstakingly charted. Simultaneously, the working practices of Chaucer, his predecessors, contemporaries, and successors, along with their relationships with scribes, patrons, and audiences, have been subject to close and necessary scrutiny, as has the European context of Chaucer’s work. Yet, while there have been numerous studies of women or gender in the work of Chaucer and his contemporaries, research on women’s writing has, to a significant extent, existed in parallel with research on Chaucerian literature. The established “canon” of medieval English literature has remained fundamentally unchallenged by the emergence of scholarship on medieval women’s writing. In order to ameliorate this dichotomy of criticism, this special issue of The Chaucer Review brings together essays by scholars who work both on canonical medieval writers, such as Chaucer, the Pearl poet, and Hoccleve, and on women’s literary culture in England and Europe.

Our main objective in lessening the divide between so-called “female” and “male” literary traditions in the period is to up-end the idea that these apparently different and separate literary cultures constitute a hierarchical binary—and that most women’s writing needs to be seen as noncanonical. Here we interrogate what the male tradition shares with—and owes to—the female tradition. At the same time, we do not argue for an end to the idea, now well established, that there is a distinctive female literary tradition in [End Page 3] the late Middle Ages. Rather, the essays in this issue seek to demonstrate that Chaucer and other male authors have much in common with women’s literary culture.

Before discussing the methodologies and principles that underpin the essays in this issue, it is helpful to tease out the difference between the terms tradition and canon as used in literary histories and criticism. The literary term canon is a relative neologism, first appearing in North American contexts in 1929 but not finding its way into the Oxford English Dictionary until 2002. There it is defined as

A body of literary works traditionally regarded as the most important, significant, and worthy of study; those works of esp. Western literature considered to be established as being of the highest quality and most enduring value; the classics.1

As Liedeke Plate has pointed out, such a definition not only posits the canon as something equating to cultural memory, but also suggests that the canon “embodies the values of dominant social groups,”2 with these groups, until very recently, having been almost entirely male. Thus, the notion of a canon has played into the hands of a political teleology that has concertedly forgotten women’s contribution to literary culture.

Plate’s conception of the relation between memory and the canon resonates clearly with the questions raised by Virginia Woolf in her essay of 1940, “The Leaning Tower,” in which she queries why Western culture insists upon “the belief that there is some force, influence, outer pressure which is strong enough to stamp itself upon a whole group of different writers so that all their writing has a certain common likeness.”3 Woolf uses the phallic metaphor of the tower to pinpoint a literary genealogy that has worked, like patrilineage, to ensure that “Books descend from books as families descend from families.”4 Here Woolf anticipates by some thirty years Michel Foucault’s identification of the incestuous interdependence between the literary canon and a culture’s sense of literary tradition, which renders often very diverse [End Page 4] works “both successive and identical . . . making it possible to rethink the dispersion of history in the form of the same.”5 Such a process has served to obscure the ways in which literary production is always multifaceted, inherently nonlinear, and, as Woolf had argued forty years previously, far more like “a spider’s web . . . attached to life at all four corners.”6 As such, literary production is anything...


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