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  • Humor and Humoralism:Representing Bodily Experience in the Prologue of the Siege of Thebes
  • Melissa Raine

John Lydgate's early fifteenth-century Siege of Thebes is best known for its Prologue's continuation of The Canterbury Tales, in which it depicts its author meeting up with the pilgrims in Canterbury. Critics have disagreed, however, as to whether the Prologue represents a cheerful but heavy-handed tribute to Chaucer, or a less-than-amicable attempt to appropriate some of Chaucer's literary reputation by imitating his style. Thus, for John Ganim, Lydgate "has acknowledged his debt by virtually becoming a character of Chaucer," whereas for A. C. Spearing, a more rivalrous Lydgate "kill[s] Chaucer," "in order to live as a poet."1 This discussion has subsequently taken on ethical as well as aesthetic dimensions, with Scott-Morgan Straker's claim that "Lydgate establishes his authority as much by distancing himself from Chaucer's dubious morality as by associating himself with Chaucer's vernacular poetic."2 However, amid these varied positions on the relationship of the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, there has been little appreciation of the significance of Lydgate's body humor. Straker touches upon "the moral authority that Lydgate represents physically in the prologue" without further elaboration, and Lee Patterson comments that "in the Prologue Lydgate corrects what he would have seen as the Chaucerian misrepresentation of monasticism in The Canterbury Tales," without fleshing out, as it were, the details of Lydgate's act of "correction."3 Although John Bowers acknowledges more [End Page 458] directly the Prologue's jokes about bodily functions and gratifications, his conclusion—that the Prologue justifies, among other deviations from monastic tenets, the "personal comfort" of the author—does not take into account the critical agenda embedded in the Prologue's vulgar body humor.4 Both Bowers and Patterson have argued that the Prologue responds to an attempt by Henry V to reform the Benedictine Order. Whether or not the Prologue relates specifically to the process initiated by Henry, the critique implicit in the Prologue's body humor or, more specifically, its preoccupation with eating and digestion is most coherent when the Prologue is understood as a rebuttal of contemporary secular criticism of the Benedictines, articulated through a dialogue with Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Neither Bowers nor Patterson addresses how the sheer crassness of the Prologue's humor is integral to this project, and Straker's alternative interpretation of Lydgate's critical agenda makes no reference to the comedy associated with Lydgate the Pilgrim's physicality.5

This absence has little to do with Lydgate, Chaucer, or the historical circumstances of composition, but much to do with the significance attributed to bodies in literary texts. There is widespread interest in bodies in Middle English literary criticism, but despite recent insightful scholarship into bodily matters—most notably for this discussion, in the form of reappraisals of scatological references—the subject of the consuming body remains relatively underexplored, pun intended.6 Susan Signe Morrison, [End Page 459] referring to Bryan Turner, points out a tendency, not limited to literary studies, for "recent attention to the body [to be] impatient with the material body, rendering it 'dematerialized by feminist, linguistic, and psychoanalytic theory.'"7 This insight can be usefully extended to include a consideration of the concept of self that informs the body and its symbolic associations in each of these discourses. Ian Burkitt argues that the modern experience of the self is split, along Cartesian lines, between the body and a sense of mind, rationality, or identity that is experienced as separate or "disembodied."8 This opposition reduces the body to the status of an unknowing machine, effectively depriving it of any capacity for agency. As a result, according to Burkitt, we do not habitually, or easily, attribute profound or higher meaning to the physical body itself, an argument that is also applicable to literary constructions of bodies, especially those exhibiting supposedly "base" desires and functions. This is relevant to the bodies represented in Middle English narratives because the split articulated by Burkitt shapes critical appraisals of body symbolism produced in this earlier historical moment. The critical debate around Lydgate's Prologue exemplifies how the...


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