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STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER comprehensive treatment of the theme of conversion and of the poetic operations by which it is delivered. RAYMOND-JEAN FRONTAIN Harpeth Hall Preparatory School STEPHEN KNIGHT. Geoffrey Chaucer. Rereading Literature. Oxford and New York: Basil Blackwell, 1986. Pp. xi, 173. $19.95. ,£4.50. Of the several guides to Chaucer's poetry that have recently appeared, Stephen Knight's Geoffrey Chaucer is certainly the most provocative and arguably the best. It is a brief book, and is evidently written, at least in part, for an audience new to Chaucer. Yet its appearance in Terry Eagleton's "Rereading Literature" series guarantees that it will be both theoretically motivated and resolutely revisionary, and Knight's book is indeed imbued with a polemical, even militantspirit. As readers ofhis challenging essay on "Chaucer and the Sociology of Literature" (SAC 2 [1980]) know, the for­ malism of his excellent 1973 book, Ryming Craftily, has in recent years been replaced by a politically committed concern with historical situating, and he offers this book as "a thorough study of Chaucer's major work in terms ofits relation to the dynamic historical forces ofits own period." As this phrasing itself suggests, Knight's brand of historicism is explicitly Marxist, and he sets himself in opposition not just to the "anti-historical and asocial" criticism practiced by "bourgeois ideologues" like the New Critics and their heirs, but also to two other, inadequate versions of historicism: the glossatorialpositivismofscholarswhose "worm's eye view of history. . .quiteobscures the realhistoricalfunction" ofthepoetry, and the monolithic Geistesgeschichte of "a priestly caste of American professors [which] has baptized the text in a shower of footnotes and pronounced it devout Christian allegory." On the contrary, for Knight "the dynamic historical forces" that shaped Chaucer's poetry are neither local events nor intellectual traditions but social contradictions generated by the displace­ ment of the feudal mode of production by capitalism. Chaucer's poetry is part oftheculturalsuperstructure, and to be understood must berealigned with the material base which originally conditioned its production. There will doubtless be many readers who will immediately dismiss Knight's project as hopelessly tendentious, another anachronistic attempt 220 REVIEWS to use Chaucer to grind one's own axe. And in fact the book does suffer from most of the familiar limitations of its genre: it is intemperate in tone (Knight rarely denies himself an opportunity to epater la bourgeoisie), ungenerous in citation, programmatic to the point of narrow dogmatism, and so sprinkled with both lapses of interpretive decorum and errors of fact that it will strain the patience of themost charitable ofreaders. Moreover, in its eagerness to demonstrate Chaucer's historical pertinence the book too often indulges in an unmediated political allegorizing (the reading of The Parliament ofPowis as a commentary on the parliaments of 1376-77 is an egregious instance) that simply effaces Chaucer's pervasive reliance upon the materials of the medieval literary tradition. There is something wrong, for instance, with a method that reads the Melibee as a response to the Peasant's Revolt but never mentions that it is a virtual word-for-word translation of a thirteenth-century treatise. Yet after all the objections have been duly entered, this remains a very important book. Brief and propaedeutic it may be, but it packs an im­ mense amount of interpretive work into its pages. While the intensity of its advocacy may convert its readers into opponents, it offers readings that are not only often startlingly new but open up exciting prospects for further work. Moreover, and most to the point, Knight's effort to locate Chaucer in relation to the political, social and economic conditionsof late fourteenth­ century England gives new urgency to the project of historical contex­ tualization that is now widely recognized as at the top of ourcurrent critical agenda. Whatever we may think of his answers-and for the most part I find myself entering demurrals-it is the aptness of the questions that endows Knight's book with its greatest value. Knight understands the fourteenth century in terms of a fundamental opposition between the manorial world of the feudal aristocracy and the monetized market economy of the urban merchant and the...


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