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  • The Leper on the Road to CanterburyThe Summoner, Digital Manuscripts, and Possible Futures
  • Bridget Whearty (bio)

[I]nstead of becoming encased or, more accurately, stilled in the past, archival objects circulate in ways that parallel yet differ from their previous uses. In other words, instead of being a catalog of dead objects, the archive may foster an afterlife, and it may recirculate. And such circulation inextricably depends on bodies. Indeed, the material of the archive is inseparable from the uncategorized bodies with which it engages: the touch of human hands, the impulse of the scholar, an active tide of research wherein these objects, once again, move. How do we deal with that unarchived process of use? How do we talk of the ways in which objects are touched (both tactilely and symbolically) and deployed?

—Leah DeVun and Michael Jay McClure, “Archives Behaving Badly”

The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.

—William Gibson (attributed but not identified)

The portrait of the Summoner in the Ellesmere manuscript depicts a strikingly ugly figure (Fig. 1).1 Scholars generally suggest that the Ellesmere Summoner’s red face is drawn directly from his General Prologue portrait—his “fyr-reed cherubynnes face” (I.624)—and connect the Summoner’s remarkable ugliness with the sins and crimes Chaucer describes therein.2 However, as scholars increasingly note, the Ellesmere miniatures are not docile reflections of the characters’ General Prologue portraits.3 Instead, as Hilmo, Rosenblum, and Finley have shown, these marginal portraits systematically undermine Chaucer’s satire of upper- and upper-middle-class figures, flattering the powerful and orthodox while [End Page 223] emphasizing negative physical and moral traits in the portraits of the lower-rank pilgrims.4 The Summoner falls into the latter camp: Rosenblum and Finley describe him as a “predator” and assert, “The Summoner’s face is ‘fyr-reed’ with evidence of alopecia, a sign of lechery. His beard in the miniature is ‘piled,’ another symptom of this disease.”5

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Figure 1.

Portrait of the Summoner, detail. MS El 26 C 9 (the Ellesmere Manuscript), fol. 81r. The Huntington Library, San Marino, CA.

This medical diagnosis connects the Ellesmere miniatures to an enduring thread of modern criticism that sees the Summoner’s portrait in the General Prologue as a description of an unnamed disease and seeks to identify moral and medical causes for the character’s grotesque symptoms. This recent diagnosis of the Ellesmere [End Page 224] Summoner’s “alopecia” reprises W. C. Curry’s classic study Chaucer and the Mediaeval Sciences (1926), which diagnosed the Summoner with “a species of morphea known as gutta rosacea, which has already been allowed to develop into that kind of leprosy called alopecia.”6 Pauline Aiken, however, argues that a leper would not be allowed to travel with other pilgrims and offers a counterdiagnosis of dry scabies, a painful and highly contagious rash caused by subcutaneous infestation of the Sarcoptes scabiei mite.7 Thomas Garbáty offers another counterdiagnosis to Curry, arguing that the Summoner is in the final stage of syphilis in which Treponema pallidum bacteria attack the central nervous system and brain.8 Still, the leprosy diagnosis endures in recent studies, which see Chaucer’s description of the Summoner’s face as a compilation of symptoms of leprosy and interpret that leprosy as a visible sign of the pilgrim’s sins, variously diagnosed as a lazy disregard for widely accepted medieval medical wisdom and as the much more serious offenses of lechery, sodomy, and simony.9

This paper seeks to reconnect discussions of the Summoner to the bodily experience of leprosy in later medieval England. In doing so, it challenges a pattern in scholarship on the Summoner that debates what terrible diseases the character might have but fails to consider what those diseases would mean for the character as a suffering human body. A subtle pattern of pain runs through Chaucer’s description of the Summoner, but this pattern has been largely overlooked by modern criticism for reasons that have as much to do with modern sexual ideologies as with medieval sources. Moreover, while diagnoses of the Summoner’s leprosy rarely consider the...


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