restricted access Pastoral and the Politics of Plague in Machaut and Chaucer
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Pastoral and the Politics of Plague in Machaut and Chaucer Ardis Butterfield Downing College, Cambridge University Mevalliteracy studies ovec che last decade have been pec­ plexed by the relationship between literature and history. This has revealed itself in a lingering awkwardness in the use of the conjunction in such titles as Literary Practice and Social Change, Politics and Poetics, and Chaucer and the Subject ofHistory.1 The seemingly innocuous "and" proposes a con­ nection, but its very neutrality gives no indication of what sort. Of course, my own title has the same characteristic coyness. The common difficulry is that, despite frequent assertions that literature is history, or that literature is political,2 it is not easy to find a rhetoric that avoids sounding like special pleading. For example, despite his forcefully intelligent manifesto on behalf of "critical historicism" in Negotiating the Past,3 Lee Patterson's formulations of the task of relating history and literature admit more of difference than ofcontinuiry between the two kinds ofinquiry: "No area of literary study," he asserts, "has been immune from the impulse to traverse the terrain between literary texts and a material world that constitutes the not-literature of history."4 To describe the relations between literature and history as a journey across an intervening terrain gives in to the notion that the two are not only distinct but separate. The blame for this only semi­ acknowledged inconsistency must be laid, at least in part, on Chaucer. A 1 Lee Patterson, ed., Literary Practice and SocialChange in Britain, 1380-1530 (Berkeley: University ofCalifornia Press, 1990), which includes an essay by Paul Strohm, "Politics and Poetics: Usk and Chaucer in the 1380s," pp. 83-112; Lee Patterson, Chaucer and the Subject ofHistory (London: Routledge, 1991). 'See, for instance, David Aers: "Texts, immersed in history, are social acts"; Chaucer (Brighton: Harvester, 1986), p. 2; andStephen Knight: "Literature is not 'related to' society, not a foreground against which society and history are background, but . . . the cultural production is itself a social act"; Geoffrey Chaucer (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986), p. 66. 3 Lee Patterson, Negotiating the Past: The Historical Understanding ofMedieval Literature (Madison: University ofWisconsin Press, 1987). 4 Patterson, ed., Literary Practice, p. 1. 3 STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER problem felt by many Chaucerians is that the already delicate area of nego­ tiation between literature and history is compounded in his case by his apparent suppression of history, or at least of political history. Even the most assiduous efforts to rescue Chaucer from the notion that he is "ideo­ logically free-floating" and to realign him as a political poet have found more irresolution and ambivalence than political commitment.5 Chaucer, despite our best attempts, would seem to force a wedge between politics and poetry. Yet there are other reasons, too, for coyness. The difficulties involved in reconciling the fictive with the historical include the complicating factor of genre: a work cannot be said simply to "reflect" a social situation or cir­ cumstance since its form and mode will at least in part be shaped by literary tradition and convention. For this reason, a work might appear on the one hand to be socially disruptive yet on the other to be generically conventional; that is, its conservative generic affiliation might be working against its radical social purport.6 At the same time, genre carries with it a social history of its own: not only does literary tradition continually interact with social history, but also it sets up its own sphere(s) of social meaning.7 The example par excellence of this process is pastoral. Indeed, pastoral as a theoretical model has been developed specifically to think through these relations between the literary and the social.8 Its potency as a model de­ rives in part from its capaciry to illustrate the convolutions of the relation­ ship so sharply. For while pastoral is clearly concerned with the political, it also mystifies it. PastQral's relationship with the political is covert, or coded. William Empson, in a famous formulation, describes this with dis­ arming offhandedness as "the essential trick of the old pastoral," which is "to imply a beautiful relation between rich and poor," a phrase which , For...