8 June, 2015Issue 28.4Film & TVLiterary CriticismLiterature

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The Recursive Middle Ages

Julia Mattison

Transporting Chaucer
Helen Barr
Manchester University Press
£70 (hardcover)
288 pages
ISBN: 9780719091490


The name Geoffrey Chaucer is likely recognized by countless people across the globe, even those not specializing in the narrow field of medieval English literature. Perhaps his name has arisen in the secondary school classroom, where generations of students have been required to read translations of The Canterbury Tales. Or maybe, it was as a character in one of various movies he features in, from the avant-garde I racconti di Canterbury (1972) of Pier Paolo Pasolini, or Paul Bettany’s gambling drunk in A Knight’s Tale (2001). And then, of course, there is the popular Twitter feed of @LeVostreGC, “Chaucer Doth Tweet”, with over 38,300 followers. In an academic context, he is even more prominent: a brief search of the International Medieval Bibliography generates a staggering 5,550 hits, which likely underestimates the amount of criticism that Chaucer has generated. While still overshadowed in popular culture by his literary grandson Shakespeare, Chaucer is everywhere and may well merit his title as the “Father of English Literature”. What more can be said about a fourteenth-century poet whose vocabulary, syntax, and language seem so far removed from our own?

Helen Barr’s Transporting Chaucer reveals that there is still much left to be explored, and much of it fresh and captivating. Even the most beleaguered medievalist tired of endlessly rehearsed readings of The Canterbury Tales or The House of Fame will be startled to find both widely-read texts de-familiarized, broken down, and reconstructed. Calling attention to the weight of the multitude and multiplicity of Chaucer interpretations that have appeared, almost since the moment when the poet ceased composing, Transporting Chaucer takes as its starting point the question, “What is going on when we encounter Chaucer’s characters in works he did not make?” In this way, Transporting Chaucer would seem to be less about Chaucer’s own writings than it is about Chaucerian spawn. Yet, as Barr demonstrates over the course of the book, not only do Chaucerian “fan fictions”, so to speak, influence our perceptions of the canon, but also Chaucer too—or, more accurately, a version of the author’s persona—is present in the works both by his own hand and by those of his successors. Toggling back and forth between Chaucer the author and his fictionalized avatars, between his characters and those of his imitators, between his texts and visualizations of his poems, Transporting Chaucer is a wide-ranging study that simultaneously takes the time to look closely at individual lines of a number of Chaucerian poems as well as to connect these works to larger cultural contexts and mentalities.

First and foremost, Barr excels at close readings of texts, picking out specific details that might seem insignificant in isolation but take on new resonances and significances as they begin to reappear in multiple works. This is particularly evident in Chapter 3, “Chaucer’s hands”. After a discussion of the symbolic meanings assigned to hands in fourteenth-century England, Barr looks at a variety of The Canterbury Tales, reading these appendages as “signs of…guilt” for wrongdoings and, unlike the “hand of God” so prevalent in medieval art, as “instrument[s]…of transgressive bodies”. The devil’s hand is prominent in The Parson’s Tale, a canon and a priest perform slights of hand to cheat each other in The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, Thomas delivers his scatological “gift” into the friar’s hand in The Summoner’s Tale, and the hands of the Pope and Harry Bailey both fondle the Pardoner’s relics/genitalia in his Prologue, to name but a few of the examples Barr finds. Hands are everywhere, deceiving, groping, touching, molesting, such that even seemingly innocent hands are tainted with the same sexual, bodily desire: Canace’s hand bearing a golden ring in The Squire’s Tale, a courtly romance, represents “the sign of a finger in a vulva”. It is through the collection of small details, hiding in plain sight, that Barr creates persuasive new understandings of Chaucer’s works.

Barr connects her more traditional analyses of literature with manuscript studies, art history, and architecture, showcasing the way in which these overlap and influence one another in medieval literature. Thus, she expands the same exploration of hands in Chaucer’s poems to the hands in Chaucer’s manuscripts, representations of the same character over which the author had no control, as well as to the hand-shaped marginalia readers might add to a manuscript page. Literature does not exist in isolation but rather is set within its material context that supplement and nuance the poetry. Thus, an illustration of the Pardoner in a manuscript of The Canterbury Tales where he holds a jawbone in his hand iconographically links him to Cain and to Judas, prejudicing a reader against the character before he has even said a word. In a discussion of the Pardoner in relation to Thomas Becket, the stained glass windows of Canterbury Cathedral, too, come under her lens for how they represent Becket’s miracles. By combining analysis of so many media, Barr demonstrates both the influence of Chaucer’s world on his work as well as the cultural penetration of the poet and his creations.

Another strength of Transporting Chaucer is Barr’s decision to work diachronically across a variety of media, setting aside traditional boundaries of periodization that separate the medieval, the early modern, and the modern, as well as the literary and the material. Transporting Chaucer takes an installation of Anthony Gormley’s Transport (2010) in Canterbury Cathedral as a point of inspiration exemplifying the tension between the artist’s body and his art; Gormley’s suspended sculpture of a human form provokes myriad identifications from Christ to Saint Thomas Becket to Gormley himself. Such is the case with Chaucer’s works and those works that are influenced in some way by the medieval poet, well into the seventeenth century. Barr reads Chaucer against The Canterbury Interlude, an anonymous addition to The Canterbury Tales extant in one manuscript, as well as John Lydgate, Shakespeare, John Dryden, and Sir William Davenant; medieval and Renaissance authors are not divided from one another, but rather demonstrate a continued tradition of influence. Unencumbered by strict periodization, Chaucerian bodies are “free to play” and become “figures of resistance to teleological versions of literary history”. This should perhaps not come as a surprise for a book that emphasizes “transport” in the sense of moving between places. Such an attitude towards Chaucerian literature allows Barr to embrace the many unanswerable questions that accompany the study of the literature of this period—How was it disseminated? Who copied it? Who read it?—and find within these lacunae in knowledge the space to experiment with ideas. For example, although The House of Fame is not the Chaucerian “source” of the plot of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, the two titular characters never appear in the poem, and there is no way to prove that Shakespeare ever read a copy of it, Barr still finds that “in no other early modern work does the soundscape of The House of Fame receive such acute replay as in Troilus and Cressida“. The way that these two texts play off of each other—in spite of there being no tangible link between them—opens up both a ludic reading of The House of Fame and a silent one of Troilus and Cressida. By ignoring the strict bounds of periodization, Barr can connect Shakespeare to a long line of other readers of Chaucer, from the fifteenth century to 1700.

Barr is daring and somewhat unorthodox in some of the suggestions that arise from her readings. She links Chaucer’s bawdy tales with those that are usually considered lyrical and elegiac. Genitalia appear in surprising places: the naked, prone Dreamer of The Book of the Duchess is read as a version of the Annunciation—where the stirrings of English poetry within the poet is substituted for the conception of the Word of God within the Virgin Mary—which is then overlaid with the window of The Miller’s Tale, the window through which Alison sticks out her “hole” for Absolon to kiss. In this way, “the translucent purity of an Annunciation window, and an originary writing scene of English vernacular poetry, is become a woman scandalously thrusting her nethers through an open window in a fourteenth-century public street.” Similarly, the sexually indeterminate Pardoner, whose genitalia are missing or damaged and who is engaged in a thinly veiled homosexual romp in The Canterbury Interlude, can be transformed into a reflection of Saint Thomas Becket. The Host’s desire to hold the Pardoner’s mysterious testicles in his hand is not unlike a pilgrim’s desire to hold mysterious relics. Throughout Transporting Chaucer, the boundaries of eroticism and devotion are continually broken down. Religious and sexual desire overlap. To those familiar with the scatological margins of medieval manuscript illuminations, where apes sodomize priests and anything from a spear to a squirrel can take on a phallic connotation, such resonances might be less surprising. However, unlike the Internet forums that misleadingly represent the carnal and erotic as the sole content of medieval culture, Barr balances such queer and sexualized readings with careful exploration of their link to medieval devotional practice. Seemingly scandalous interpretations are squared with orthodoxy.

Somewhat frustratingly, Transporting Chaucer ends conclusionless; rather a short “Da Capo” note takes us back to where we began with a discussion of the cover art. The various strands that are taken up over the course of the study—Chaucer’s role as author, the Pardoner’s sexual deviance, the sounds of The House of Fame, the ways that Chaucer’s texts are reworked in later literature, to name just a few—are left for the reader to evaluate. In this sense, Transporting Chaucer opens outward by moving toward the edges of both the narrative and the physical book in “an endlessly recursive carousel—a merry-go-round”. We as Barr’s readers become caught up in the same cycle of recursive reworkings of Chaucer that comprise the subject(s) of her study. As a whole, Transporting Chaucer is a fruitful work emphasizing the ambiguities, queerness, bawdiness, and reverberations that accompany the study of medieval literature. While this study only reaches as far as Dryden, it is tempting to imagine a second instalment reaching beyond 1700, perhaps to the nineteenth-century editions of The Canterbury Tales, to the insertion of Chaucer and Chaucerian beings into non-Western literatures, and of course, to the numerous film and Internet renderings of the medieval poet.

Julia Mattison is an MPhil student studying English literature at Jesus College, Oxford. She is a Copy Editor for the Oxonian Review.