Chapter 10

 

Introduction: Fragment A and the Versions of the Household

AT THE END of the Prologue to The Miller's Tale, Chaucer addresses his audience in the voice which he discovered in the process of translating Troylus and Criseyde (MilP A 3167-86; emphasis added):

What sholde I Moore seyn, but this Millere
He nolde his wordes for no man forbere,
But tolde his cherles tale in his manere.
M'athynketh that I shal reherce it heere.
And therfore every gentil wight I preye,
For Goddes love, demeth nat that I seye
Of yvel entente, but for I moot reherce
Hir tales alle, be they bettre or werse,
Or elles falsen som of my mateere.
And therfore, whoso list it nat yheere,
Turne over the leef and chese another tale;
For he shal fynde ynowe, grete and smale,
Of storial thyng that toucheth gentillesse,
And eek moralitee and hoolynesse.
Blameth nat me if that ye chese amys.
The Millere is a cherl, ye knowe wel this;
So was the Reve eek and othere mo,
And harlotrie they tolden bothe two.
Avyseth yow, and put me out of blame;
And eek men shal nat maken ernest of game.

Here Chaucer successfully applies the theory of mediation which he arrived at in the Troylus. And the Dantesque elements of the theory are relevant building blocks. Chaucer is going to make a copy of original "mateere." The "mateere" in this case is that of the Miller. The Miller, Chaucer is quick to {163} point out, has his own position, too, his "manere" as well as his "mateere," that of a "cherl," and Chaucer must respect that position, "reherce" that manere" as well as the "mateere." But his copy, while faithful to the original, must not be identical with it. His copy must be a copy in order to posit the illusion of an original and thus the illusion of a Miller in all his distinctive individuality. If there is to be a Miller, he must be copied. If Chaucer does not copy the Miller, thus negating possible identification of himself with his character, there will be no (illusion of a) Miller, only a false image of a Miller. He must copy the Miller to put the Miller "off there" where distance helps generate the illusion of reality. To bring Dante to bear directly on the text: if Chaucer subtracts from and then adds to his "mateere" (like a Master Adam), he will reduce "mateere" and "manere" to identity with his own version of them, and he will render them thus "irreferent," counterfeit, false. He will -- and the word is big with significance for The Canterbury Tales -- falsen his "mateere" if he does not copy it as faithfully as possible. But this means he must insist on the copy as much as on the fidelity. If he is copying and not masking the fact that he is copying, then the likelihood is greater than it would otherwise be that he is not falsifying. The fact of copying is as important to the illusion as the fidelity of the copy. Now, at the same time, it is true -- and this truth is important to Chaucer's poetics -- that, even as he insists on the copy and its fidelity, he censors the Miller, every bit as much as the Narrator in Book 3 of Troylus and Criseyde censors the play of Pandarus with Criseyde after Troylus's departure from the "stewe" (lines 1576-82). For Chaucer to inform us that he "moot reherce / Hir tales alle ... / Or elles falsen som of [his] mateere," is also to inform us, inevitably, that the Miller's "tale" is a "cherles"; and that is, without question, to censor. However, it is to censor without subsequent ban. Moreover -- and this is essential Chaucer -- it is to censor in such a way as to enlist the censorship in support of (the illusion of) the reality of the Miller. In other words, by following Dante's lead and insisting on himself as mediator of what his audience reads, Chaucer has it both ways: he censors the Miller and tells us in the process exactly what kind of tale and language we are about to read, while at the same time and in just this way, he insists on the autonomy, the independence, and the reality of the Miller as character and free agent -- one does not censor a mannequin. And all this he achieves, first and foremost, by intruding into the text to tell us "I moot reherce / Hir tales alle." His very visibility in the text is a guarantee that he is not a Master Adam or a Pandarus forging a false image, in this case, of a Miller. His very subjectivity -- the emphasis on "I" and "me" (lines 3167, 3170-73, 3175, 3181, 3185) -- generates the true image of a Miller, wholly other (in the illusion) than the signs which refer to him.1 Chaucer's very {164} mediation or instrumentality posits a personality. Although every pilgrim is Chaucer's version of or position on that pilgrim, his theory of mediation enables him to discount the narcissism of his instrumentality, thus to posit, precisely through the dialectic with his position, the (illusion of the) reality of each pilgrim and his or her position.2 Every time Chaucer speaks, our position changes -- we have to take our bearings again. And by keeping us on the move, he keeps us moved. Finally, there is only Chaucer, only writing his text (Leicester 1980:220-21). There is no naive Narrator; there are not three Chaucers (cf. Donaldson 1972:1-12). There is only the one, extraordinarily sophisticated Chaucer -- so self-conscious of his poses that he will never falsify his text. For six centuries now we have believed in his character(s). Chaucer's position, so clearly visible if often difficult to construe,3 prevents his imposition upon the Miller. His own position, moreover, opposes not only the Miller's ("M'athynketh that I shal reherce it heere") but also that of "every gentil wight." The "gentils" such as those who so unanimously ap, proved of The Knight's Tale (A 3113) have their position, their "manere," their version of the truth, too; and Chaucer's differs from, is op-posed to, that position, again in order for him to posit the illusion of reality. When Chaucer enters his anti-Pandaric plea -- "demeth nat that I seye / Of yvel entente" -- he is establishing the (illusion of the) reality of the "gentils" -- not only those who are on the pilgrimage with him but also those who are (in the fiction) in the audience which he is this moment addressing. When Chaucer takes his position, he adopts the pose of one who finds drunken millers slightly abhorrent and certainly churlish in their manners, though fascinating in their vitality, and this is also the pose of one who defers to "gentils." The net result of his pose is to compel his audience to declare their own positions by the choices which they make.4 If the audience choose not to hear a "cherles tale," then they may "turne over the leef and chese another tale." But this choice makes them responsible for what they read. Indeed, reading ("legenda") always carries with it the responsibility of choice ("legenda").5 To read is to choose, and it is to choose necessarily versions of the truth, such as "gentillesse" or "moralitee" or "hoolynesse" or "harlotrie." All these versions of the truth have each its legitimacy but, at the same time, each its limitations, too. Indeed, truth is inversely proportional to the limitedness of the given version of it -- almost that is an epigraph, if a bit clumsy, for The Canterbury Tales. And if the audience choose their truth "amys" (although it may well be the truth about them), they cannot blame Chaucer since he only rehearses the numerous versions or positions. His pose is necessarily a "game," a play or a fiction,6 since only in fiction can he copy a Miller or anyone else and remain himself, not falsified nor falsifying. "And men shal nat maken ernest of game" by imposing their ver-{165} sions of reality or of truth on a poet's fictional positions, his poses in "game." In the Prologue to The Cook's Tale Herry Bailly is right that "'a man may seye ful sooth in game and pley"' (CkP A 4355), but Hogge of Ware is also right, and perhaps nearer to Chaucer's own position, when he rejoins, ""'sooth pley, quaad pley," as the Flemyng seith"' (line 4357). If a "true joke" (one could almost say, "earnest joke") is a "bad joke" (Davis 1979:110), so is a true fiction, already a monstrous hybrid, a bad fiction because it is a false or "irreferent" fiction. I am here extending (I hope not stretching) the proverb into Chaucer's poetics of reference, and I am following the proverb's lead in complicating the everyday, received senses of "true." A true fiction is a bad fiction because, like a false coin, it looks like its original, or fiction, but is, in fact, tainted with a dross of personal desire -- desire which has designs on others. A true fiction, as in the case of Herry and Hogge, has it in for someone or something -- innkeepers and cooks, of course, would be natural enemies (CkP A 4358-61); as Hogge says to Herry: "'But er we parte, ywis, thou shalt be quit"' (line 4362; emphasis added). Such fiction is in deadly earnest: I will call it, this true fiction, designing (on others); the other sort, "true" fiction, I will call designed. The former, earnest and designing fiction, is fiction which serves commoda privata" when, in fact, fiction should serve "commoda publica."7 True fiction, then, serves a "private interest" and is corrupt; "true" fiction serves a "public interest" (where "public" must not be assumed to be tainted with modern senses of "government" or "the state") and is a kind of universal vow and vowing which binds together community.
    True or designing fiction and its consequences Chaucer brilliantly illustrates in The Miller's Tale with "hende" Nicholas's fiction of the flood.8 Like a coarser Pandarus, "hende" Nicholas -- "handy" at all sorts of artifice as he is -- "engineers" a plot (fiction) to be his "meene" to Alisoun and her favors. It is a false fiction, true in the perverse sense, and very earnest, because it designs upon "sely John" the carpenter and indeed finally harms him bodily. At the same time (Chaucer never rests with one position when he can maneuver from two or more) a true or designing or earnest fiction depends for its success upon the impressionability of imagination (MilT A 3611-13):

Lo, which a greet thyng is affeccioun!
Men may dyen of ymaginacioun,
So depe the impressioun be take.

Here "ymaginacioun" may mean "plot" or "scheme" as well as "imagination" (Davis 1979:79). But these meanings only enhance Chaucer's point. Imagination and the products of imagination, such as fictions, may be anything but disinterested (they may be designing), and one had best be careful of "affec- {166} cioun." The reader, we already know from Antigone's lyric (see Chap. 9), is as responsible as the author; and gullibility will bring forth true or designing fictions: "Never give a sucker an even break," as the saw has it. Different as they are, Criseyde and John are one in their failure to detect the falsifications perpetrated upon them. "They that have ears to hear, let them hear" (Matt. 11.15). But at the same time, the Father of lies, "when he speaks a lie, speaks his own and from his own" (John 8.44), and indeed, every liar, such as "hende" Nicholas or Pandarus, speaks his "own" or "from his own" when he lies -- that is why he is so hard to hear. Even the poet speaks his "own" or "from his own" if he is not careful, for when he "lies" -- that is, makes a fiction -- in the process of his "lie" he is gazing intently at himself (else he could not write), and thus he risks being another Narcissus, artificer of the consummate true (that is to say, false and "irreferent") fiction -- so true, so earnestly true, that it killed him.


Chaucer's theory of mediation saved him from the fate of Narcissus. With this assertion we reach a crucial juncture, and it will be of help to summarize briefly before taking the next step. The theory accounts for the instrumentality by which Chaucer posits the characters of his pilgrims. By insisting on himself, by interposing himself between, say, the Miller and us, Chaucer compels us to ask why he is complicating our perception of his narratives in this way (cf. Leicester 1980:221). And once we have asked that question, we are no longer innocent audiences but active participants in the text -- readers in the double sense of "legenda." Moreover, the theory reveals that if we are not such self-conscious readers and choosers we may well wind up being counterfeiters or falsifiers of fiction -- we may well try to "quite" others with fiction, spending fiction as if it were coin.
    We are poised here, I think, for a major breakthrough into the structure of The Canterbury Tales. In fact, every pilgrim "quites" someone or something with the tale he or she tells (even the Knight,. who "quires" his version of disorder in the world). Every pilgrim is an unredeemed, unself-conscious narcissist. Selfhood depends on taking a position, but if one's position is only in opposition to. . ., then one's opponent radically circumscribes one's self. Not in opposition, then, but in relationship, in mutual and just exchange, is freedom of the self posited. The Canterbury pilgrims repeatedly fail in such relationship, fail in community, because they are forever opposing or "quiting" someone or something; even though we occasionally hear some such formula as "God save al this faire compaignye" (KnT A 3108), we are never allowed to forget at the same time that, for example, the Friar and the Summoner cannot stand each other (FrP D 1265-68). And since the sphere of economics, {167} the marketplace, is the space where community, mutual and just exchange, is most visible and strenuously tested, Chaucer posits economics, "quiting," as the structure of relations in The Canterbury Tales.9 Economics is their genetic origin -- economics understood, by Chaucer and his contemporaries, probably under the category of ethics from the perspective of positive justice.10
    Opposition is indisputably one of the most basic phenomena of The Canterbury Tales, if not the most basic phenomenon.11 Indeed, recent scholarship has argued that binary oppositions are the organizing principle of the poem as a whole (Patterson 1978:375-76). In addition to the exchange between Herry Bailly and Hogge of Ware, consider, for example, the Miller once again (MilP 3126-27):
 

Not only does the Miller obviously oppose the Knight; he does so in terms of quiting" too. He actually repeats the word "quite" from Herry (line 3119), who uses it because of the contest of tale-telling which he is conducting. The Monk should "quite" or repay the Knight, Herry insists, because he is in competition with him; they should exchange tales to see who tells the superior one; theirs is a game of exchanges. The Miller interrupts Herry and (within the game of the fiction) interrupts the game, too, to take it all very earnestly, in his drunken sort of way (he does threaten to leave; line 3133); and in doing so, he adds a much sharper edge to the economics of "quite" -- as if he were retaliating for some higher stakes. The Miller, in fact, wants something, wants to own something, and to that end he will pay the Knight back. The Miller behaves here, on the road to Canterbury, just as if he had never left his mill.
    Status, perhaps, is what he wants, or perhaps only a good time, or perhaps recognition of the rightness in love of vitality, such vitality as he certainly already possesses. But whatever it is precisely that he wants, it cannot be denied that he pays the Knight back, "quites" him, by almost retelling The Knight's Tale. This scholarship has long recognized (Donaldson 1958:1066-70). In light of the theory of mediation, however, it is possible to go further and say: the Miller tells his version of The Knight's Tale, the Miller takes his position on The Knight's Tale, the Miller betrays who he is by his carefully instrumented opposition to The Knight's Tale. But this is hardly all we can say. Chaucer almost certainly knew the etymology of "yconomique" offered by the great French translator of Aristotle, Nicole Oresme (d. 1382), and that etymology enables us to retrieve an even deeper understanding of the relation between the Miller's and the Knight's tales. Oresme writes (ed. Menut 1957:807-808): {168}
  If economics is, then as now, the science of rules and signs because ultimately it is the science of money, the referential sign, then we can say that in the economic structure of The Canterbury Tales the Miller exchanges the Knight's conventions and rules and signs for his and thus converts the latter's tale into his own. If you tell The Knight's Tale with a slightly different set of conventions and rules (fabliaux) you get The Miller's Tale. Here Dante is profoundly instructive. The Miller has falsified The Knight's Tale by subtracting from it its own reference and adding to it his. His tale, as Chaucer's, I hasten to say, finally transcends falsity; it is, as Chaucer's, more than a counterfeit Knight's Tale. But, all the same, Chaucer is asking us to see, in the economic structure of the poem as a whole, how the Miller fails in community, in mutual and just exchange, because of his designs, very selfish designs, on the Knight's version of the world. Chaucer achieves a great poem in The Miller's Tale. The Miller's falsification is Chaucer's true coin and coin of truth. The Miller himself, however, manages only to betray the limits of his self-consciousness. The Miller, to put it bluntly, does not like "gentils."
    Here is, one can hardly deny, a powerful tool of analysis. We can use it to go further. We can say that The Reeve's Tale and The Cook's Tale are also versions of The Knight's Tale, and, in the Reeve's case, of the Miller's, too. So much, note, the Reeve himself makes explicit: "'I shal hym [the Miller] quite anoon; / Right in his cherles termes wol I speke"' (RvP A 3916-17; emphasis added). We can continue and say that all four tales of fragment A are ver, sions of the household. In the strict sense, each is a version of the ways in which a master, by conventions and rules, controls or fails to control his household.12 In a wider sense, each is a version of the truth of the "political animal": man must and does, by ethical norms, form communities (households) which succeed or fail according as those norms are just or unjust. In this wider sense, it is possible to affirm that every Canterbury tale is a version of the household -- some directly, as the Wife's, the Merchant's, and the Nun's Priest's; some less directly, as the Prioress's or the Second Nun's, where the household is ultimately the Kingdom of God. Hence in addition to binarism or opposition between pairs of tales, within each tale economics, in the wider sense, is also structurally relevant. just as economics, or "quiting," structures the relations between tales, so economics structures the relations between a tale and its manifest content. just as the Wife of Bath "quites" the Man of Law, so she also "quires" men and marriage; just as the Merchant {169} quites" the Clerk and the Wife of Bath, he also "quites" women and marriage; just as the Prioress "quites" the Shipman (especially his view of feminine virtue), she also "quires" Jews; and so forth.13 We have, so to speak, horizontal "quiting" (between the pairs of tales) and vertical "quiting" (within each tale). The vertical "quiting" derives from conflicts between an individual and various norms, hence also communities, even as the horizontal "quiting, derives from conflicts between two individual positions. From an analysis of each and of both combined, we can proceed to recover the characters of the pilgrims and, ultimately, the character of Chaucer. If we determine, in the case of each pilgrim and his or her tale, why community (the household) fails, we can deduce the basic injustice of that community's ethical norms; then, from his or her opposition to that injustice, we can infer the personal blindness, or the gap of self-consciousness, of each pilgrim; and we can assume that where a link is available, or some interaction or opposition between pilgrims, it will confirm our inferences about the characters of the pilgrims involved. Hence, in the exchange between the Wife of Bath and the Pardoner (WBP D 163-87) we will surmise that she wants what he has -- or consummate verbal skills winning him public status as a preacher -- and that he wants what she has -- or indisputable sexual prowess. We will be defining character thus from the incompleteness of each character's position, from the partiality of his or her version of the truth. We will be isolating in each pilgrim the desire which makes him or her so individual, so very real. We will be identifying the narcissism of each pilgrim's instrumentality: each tells his tale according to how he loves himself, and how someone loves himself is the most certain betrayal of who and what that self is. Chaucer was wise, as we have known all along, in the ways people hide from themselves the desires which most determine their characters. And now we know that his theory of mediation serves that wisdom.


"Quiting" is, to conclude the argument now, an instance of reference. The Miller refers to the Knight, the Merchant refers to the Clerk and the Wife, the Franklin refers to the Squire, and the Parson refers to everyone. Moreover, "quiting" exposes instrumentality. We can see the workings of each pilgrim's language as he or she tries to persuade the world of his or her truth. We can weigh the self-aggrandizing exordium -- "'Experience, though noon auctoritee / Were in this world, is right ynogh for me / To speke of wo that is in mariage"' (WBP D 1-3) -- we can judge the self-masking attempt upon our pity -- "'but of myn owene soore, / For soory herte, I telle may namoore"' (MerP E 1243-44) -- we can take the measure of self-doubting rhetorical gambits -- "'And Jhesu Crist, that is oure soules leche, / So graunte {170} yow his pardoun to receyve, / For that is best; I wol yow nat deceyve"' (PardT C 916-18). Chaucer structured his text with the economics of "quiting," vertical as well as horizontal, precisely in order that we might see the instrumentality, in order that we might see the Narcissus in each pilgrim. The tentativeness, the contingency, the uncertainty, the unpredictableness of the Canterbury tales and the Canterbury pilgrims derive, just as they do in real life, from the randomness of personal and often passionate relationships in a nonetheless strongly if also mysteriously boundaried world. Of such a world the marketplace is perhaps the most fitting microcosm. And of the market, place an inn is perhaps the truest center ("At nyght was come into that hostelrye Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye, / Of sondry folk, by aventure yfalle in felaweshipe" (GP A 23-26; emphasis added). And the Tabard is where it all would have ended, in the fellowship of a meal, had it not ended in a different Economy -- the Economy that transumes even pilgrimages since it is their reason for being (judgment; Salvation).14
    The economic structure of The Canterbury Tales, in which reference appears as "quiting" (consider the Wife of Bath's "'I ne owe hem nat a word that it nys quit"' (WBP D 425; emphasis added), enables Chaucer to explore the ethics of reference. Reference is not only verbal nor only literary but also personal and behavioral. The ways in which people connect words and things reflect the ways in which people love. The Wife of Bath, for example, is more loving than the Merchant because, in spite of herself, she does not tyrannize the relation between words and things, as he certainly does when, for example, he reduces the Song of Songs to "olde lewed wordes" (MerT E 2149), assuming and hoping that we too will assume that the song means no more than January's lust. At the same time, the Wife is insufficiently self-conscious of the fact that the ways in which she connects words and things involve the publication of her "privitee" -- "'I hadde the beste quoniam myghte be"' (WBP D 608). As the pilgrims speak, so they behave; as they behave, so they speak. Indeed, their speech is their behavior. Hence our understanding of their speech must be ethical understanding. Ethics is the science best suited to helping us under, stand The Canterbury Tales, for ethics is "the science which treats of behavior."15 Ethics, the system of ways in which people behave and especially behave verbally, will recover Chaucer's poem for our understanding.
    And this because Chaucer, the one Chaucer in his many poses, desires a world of justice, where each is rendered his due.16 But if a man is to render each his due, he must know and understand and sympathize with the due of each. He must be able to recognize the various masks of desire, be able to distinguish each man and woman from his and her Narcissus. He must appreciate that Narcissus is necessary to every man and woman, for without {171} self-love there is no life, but he must also be able to distinguish person from image -- "And I seyde his opinion was good" (GP A 183), and we know instantly that his opinion was not very good at all, we know, and know there is, a gap between the Monk's person and his image, between his position and his pose (Leicester 1980:220). So that he might distinguish the many persons in life from the many images of themselves they pretend to others, Chaucer invented his (potentially vast) "distinctio" collection of pilgrims. 17 In a kind of daringly tentative synecdoche, they add up, and the effect is consciously additive, to the whole creature Man, as the many distinctions of a scriptural term add up to its whole meaning.18 The fictions they tell, in the same daringly tentative synecdoche, add up to all the fictions of Man. And this is Chaucer's vision. If he embraces Man, he can understand and sympathize with men. If he understands and sympathizes with men, he can embrace Man. Obeying this vision, he can be the poet of each pilgrim without being the sort of poet that each pilgrim represents. He can manage to avoid by fictionally indulging the narcissism of each. Thus he can render each his due. He wears the mask of each in order to discover his or her person; he endures the errors of each in order to learn his or her truths; he pays each of them homage even as he laughs at the follies of each. He renders them each his or her due. Poetry its method, economics its structure, Man its Content, justice its end -- such is the poem we call The Canterbury Tales.


In the next three chapters I attempt to analyze the tales of the Wife of Bath, the Merchant, and the Pardoner from the perspective of Chaucer's theory of mediation. These three are tales in which money and exchange and falsification of one sort or another dominate. They are thus ideal test cases since not only is their structure economic but also their content is economics and, in the strict sense, commercial. Each chapter proceeds with an introductory summary of the contemporary economic data and developments significant to an understanding of that pilgrim and his or her tale; it continues with a close reading of the tale and concludes with an attempt to illuminate the character of each pilgrim -- in particular, what in that character makes him or her the sort of poet Chaucer wishes not to be. Finally, the Epilogue surveys the entire argument of the book and enters some reflections on the "Retracciouns" and reference.{172}