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Roasting a Friar, Mis-taking a Wife, and Other Acts ofTextual Harassment in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales R.W. Hanning Columbia University Q,ofthe most ,h,,acteci,:i,, and ,cmarkabl,, frarures ofChau­ cer's Canterbury Tales is its penchant for what can perhaps best be called textual harassment. The Canterbury pilgrims- and indeed the characters within their tales-harass texts almost as frequently, and enthusiastically, as they harass each other. That is, they misquote, quote out of context, misinterpret, vulgarize, and generally abuse textual "auctoritee." Various hypotheses can be advanced to explain this constant mistreatment of established wisdom. For example, StewartJustman has argued persuasively that Chaucer's habitual abuse ofauthority in his poetry accurately reflects a basic tension in medieval intellectual culture between an impulse to take absolutist, monistic positions (buttressed by inherited "auctoritees") and a need to restrain absolutism (by invoking the same, or equivalent, au­ thoritative texts) in the face of complex reality. Because Chaucer under­ stood this tension, Justman claims, "authority [in the CT] is there for the abusing, and receivedmaterials are... abundantlyliable to abuse."1 Or we can assume that the pilgrims' infidelities to the letter and spirit of textual authority dramatize Chaucer's recognition ofthe inevitable distortion that befalls written texts in a pre-print, only partly literate culture. (We recall the poet's evocation, in book 5 of Trozlus and Criseyde and in the verses to Adam Scriveyn, ofthe hazards his own works face in the process of scribal transmission.)2 1 StewartJustman, "Medieval Monism and Abuse ofAuthority in Chaucer," ChauR 11 (1976):95-111; the quotation is from p. 108. 2 See TC5.1793-96: "And forcher is sogretdyversite / In Englyssh andynwrytyngofoure ronge, / So prey I God that noon myswryte the [i.e., the poem], / Ne the mysmetre for defaute oftonge." All referencesto and quotations from Chaucer's poetry are taken fromJohn 3 STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER In my opinion we can best see textual harassment in CT as but one among many verbal tricks that the pilgrims play on each other to put themselves in the best (and their rivals in the worst) light or to express an idiosyncratic opinion or pet peeve without incurring rebuke. That is, authoritative texts offer prime occasions for the consciousmanipulation of language that links poetic and social discourse in Chaucer's basic concep­ tion of his framed tale collection. As I have articulated this conception elsewhere: In CT Chaucer propounds a fundamental kinship between poetry and the verbal systems generated by very real personal needs and social competition. The ... paradigm can be summarized thus: poetry is social strategy applied to language; society is poetic strategy applied to experience. Linking the two enterprises is the verbal strategy, or language game, a universal human tendency to transform our capacity for communication into an instrument of self-presentation, competition, or mastery.3 The specific language game I am calling textual harassment occurred, as Justman and others remind us, whenever medieval exegetes, scholars, and preachersselected from or imposed specialmeanings on their considerable legacy ofcanonic or authoritative textswith a view to buttressing a particu­ lar-and especially a new or possibly subversive-argument. Chaucer understood that this strategy carried with it considerable potential for distortion in the cause of intellectual self-aggrandizement or successful competition. (He also doubtless recognized its close relationship to tech­ niques-his own and others'-for appropriatingor subverting poetic tradi­ tions in the pursuit of a poetic vocation.) When, in CT, he presents the members ofhis storytelling, socially competitive "felaweship" as experts in textual harassment, he both exposes and celebrates this culturally sanc­ tioned, widely played language game, while concurrently giving himself scope for new displays of artistic virtuosity. H. Fisher, ed., The Complete Poetry and Prose of Geoffrey Chaucer (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1977; hereafter cited as Chaucer). See also Alfred David, "How Marcia Lost Her Skin: A Note on Chaucer's Mythology," in Larry D. Benson, ed., The Lerned and the Lewed: Studies in Honor ofBartlett Jere Whiting (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1974), pp. 19-29, for an instance of how Chaucer perpetuates a mistaken reading of an Ovidian tale from the Metamorphoses, by which the satyr Marsyas becomes a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1949-0755
Print ISSN
0190-2407
Pages
pp. 3-21
Launched on MUSE
2018-01-03
Open Access
No
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