An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

July 26, 2013

Cawsey: Twentieth-Century Chaucer Criticism

Kathy Cawsey. Twentieth-Century Chaucer Criticism: Reading Audiences. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011. 

Reviewed by: Valerie B. Johnson ( 

Kathy Cawsey's 2011 monograph, Twentieth-Century Chaucer Criticism: Reading Audiences, is an excellent reference for graduate students struggling to synthesize a century of scholarship on Chaucer and his (many) audiences; indeed, Cawsey makes this explicit in her “Preface.” As she observes, though there are many excellent guides to Chaucerian scholarship, “most of these books are historical summaries, and do not provide explanations for why completely contradictory ways of reading Chaucer arose over the course of the twentieth century” (ix). Appropriately, then, Cawsey herself has considered her own audiences at length, and identifies plural categories of ideal readers: within the field of medieval studies, she sees the book as useful for advanced undergraduates and early graduate students, and perhaps mature scholars as well; outside of medieval circles, she sees her work as participating in a larger conversation of authorship studies and the history of literary criticism, and thus providing non-medievalists a perspective on how, and why, general trends in literary study are adapted to work with medieval texts. Cawsey is not seeking to make an argument about Chaucer, his audiences, or his texts, and she does not engage with medieval material directly – readers will instead find an overview of the role of the “audience function” within Chaucerian scholarship and an examination of how the assumptions underlying individual critics' understanding of audiences directly impacted the theoretical frameworks which those critics have developed. Instead of an argument for a particular theoretical approach to audience or response theory, Twentieth-Century Chaucer Criticism is a sustained demonstration that further research into Chaucerian audiences, medieval and modern, is urgently necessary; moreover, this research must be intimately aware of its own histories and accompanying biases. 

Cawsey's work, which in structure and approach clearly started as a dissertation, demonstrates how frequently assumptions and biases drive our meticulous and careful studies of audience and reception. Whether the audiences under study are medieval or modern, the breadth of her survey leaves no room to disagree with this point. Within the context of Chaucer studies, Cawsey structures her book to reflect the six major modern critics she deems most influential as well as representative of their particular critical modes. The result is a book that seeks to further develop the importance of the “audience function” by focusing on how individual scholars engaged this singular author; Cawsey includes brief biographies that contextualize each scholar's critical influences. Each chapter also attempts to summarize the critic's approach to reading in a single adjective: thus, the first chapter focuses on George Lyman Kittredge, the “dramatic reader”; C. S. Lewis the “psychological reader”; E. Talbot Donaldson “the careful reader”; D. W. Robertson the “allegorical reader”; Carolyn Dinshaw the “gendered reader”; and Lee Patterson the “subjective reader.” Twentieth-Century Chaucer Criticism is a history of literary criticism, but it is a history that is aware of its own inward-facing nature. The book will perhaps have value in years to come as an artifact that is representative of how early twenty-first century scholars are explicitly questioning their own biases and examining their own critical pasts. 

For scholars now, however, Twentieth-Century Chaucer Criticism serves best as a finding aid that presents a detailed, though not exhaustive, review and selected bibliography of critical trends, filtered through the work of individual critics. Cawsey envisions her work as useful to graduate students, and this is certainly correct. Graduate students preparing for comprehensive exams will undoubtedly find this book extremely useful, and Cawsey's impartial presentation will enable these students to determine whether or not a particular trend or mode of thought requires further research. Each chapter identifies keystone publications for each trend, sometimes tracing the origins of an individual critic's particular stance. Consequently, I believe the book will allow students of medieval English literature and history a necessary measure of impartial distance that can be difficult to achieve under the stressful and fast-paced context of exam reading. Moreover, Cawsey's linear presentation of the critical history of Chaucerian audiences demonstrates the radical turns the field has taken in the last three decades, turns that, in my view, we should not attempt to reverse: gendered reading practices, female readers reading within male contexts, racial awareness, acknowledgment of the impact of class upon interpretation of a text, cultural sophistication, post-colonial awareness . . . the list goes on, and should be guarded to prevent backsliding. For the mature scholars that Cawsey sees as her second category of readers, Twentieth-Century Chaucer Criticism can be useful secondary reading for teaching graduate seminars and in articulating interpretive possibilities to advanced undergraduates. In terms of scholarship, the book functions well as a quick reference text or a synthesis which can be used to build the foundations of Chaucerian reception theory. Cawsey's third category of readers, non-medievalist historians of literary criticism or literary specialists working primarily in non-medieval periods, may find the final two chapters on Dinshaw and Patterson most useful since Dinshaw and Patterson engage most directly with contemporary literary theories. 

A fourth category of reader, one Cawsey does not explicitly anticipate, could be readers interested in medievalism. Medievalism is both the use of medieval material in modern works and the study of this process, and in my view both the artistic and scholarly sides of the equation could derive mutual benefit from Twentieth-Century Chaucer Criticism. I suggest that the creators of artistic works – which I consider to include traditionally “artistic” media like painting, stained glass. and sculpture, as well as modern films, video games, role-players, web designers, app programmers, novelists, and generally anyone, professional or enthusiast, who creates imaginative works using medieval themes, materials, images, etc. – could use Cawsey's book to understand or explain the multiplicity of the Middle Ages and medieval source material. Artists and authors are frequently asked to articulate the sources of their inspiration and to define how, and why, their own works deviate from those sources; successful creators often cite scholarly works with crossover appeal as key parts of their artistic process, particularly when crafting the intricate layers of detail which modern audiences demand. 

As an example, I offer two major traditions with roots in the medieval period that have benefited, in the past, from dialog between artists and scholars: Robin Hood and King Arthur. Both traditions have reflected contemporary tastes in cinema and a desire for realism that feels emotionally correct while also challenging stereotypes, moves which have pushed the traditions forward and made them viable commercially and culturally. In the 1980s, television creators like Richard Carpenter (Robin of Sherwood) and novelists like Robin McKinley (The Outlaws of Sherwood) explicitly identified J. C. Holt's monograph Robin Hood (1982), a dense scholarly history, as exceptionally influential in their research on Robin Hood narratives and the Middle Ages more generally. Antoine Fuqua's 2004 film King Arthur bills itself as the “True Story Behind the Legend,” and while the historical accuracy of much of the material is problematic, Fuqua successfully achieved his desire to avoid a blandly generic faux-medieval “fantasy” setting. The impact of these works is significant: Carpenter's Robin of Sherwood introduced the concept of the racial Other as an integral addition to the traditional outlaw band, a trope which has reappeared in every major filmed version of the tradition (barring only the 2011 Russell Crowe vehicle), and the Fuqua film provided a strong commentary on the obligations and responsibilities of long-term occupying forces when interacting with native populations, a trope which paralleled American military actions at the time of release and in the decade following. 

Creators who claim their works are based purely on the Middle Ages are often (correctly) criticized by medievalists and modern cultural studies scholars alike, because – like many of the early critics which Cawsey surveys – these creators are assuming what Cawsey calls a universal audience. Modern authors and audiences are increasingly sensitive to these universalizing assumptions. Moreover, such universal claims often appear, to audiences, to be superficial attempts to justify misogyny and racism, or to dismiss it as “historically inaccurate” and thus permissible. Both perspectives do active harm to the modern audiences consuming those artistic works. Thus, works which examine and lay out the history of a field in direct and impartial language, like Cawsey's Twentieth-Century Chaucer Criticism, can be useful to the creator of a work drawing on themes common to medievalism to understand how better to meet, frustrate, or misdirect audience reactions. Cawsey's impartial presentation may help these interested yet non-specialist readers come to their own conclusions. 

Moreover, works like Cawsey's can help creators understand scholarly objections: since many creators are enthusiastic students of the medieval period, creators and scholars can open dialog on the basis of past methods of criticism. Thus, scholars (and teachers) who have often found themselves exclaiming or thinking that “it's all just wrong!” when teaching or studying these works may find Cawsey's history useful in identifying textually-based interpretive reactions, whether taken linguistically (Kittredge), ironically (Robertson), or allegorically (Donaldson). Moreover, Cawsey's work is a careful valuation and assessment of several scholars whose work is out of copyright and thus available through services like GoogleBooks or Project Guttenberg: though modern scholars may not use Kittredge's approach, my own conversations with enthusiasts and fans of particular series (or genres) demonstrates that commonly accepted academic theories, such as the “death of the author” and the resulting shift toward reader-response based methods of interpretation, are not as widely-distributed as I could wish. The increasing direct interactions of creators and fans via media platforms including Twitter, Tumblr, and blog comments has created, for some, a return to the insistence that the author knows best: most fans find it difficult to sustain their legitimate interpretations of a text when a creator has explicitly stated that an alternate interpretation was intended. C. S. Lewis, Cawsey's “psychological reader,” is a particularly good example of this situation, adding additional weight in the form of his intellectual authority as a scholar and Oxford don. Lewis' scholarly efforts, like those of his contemporary J. R. R. Tolkien, are read by fans of his fictional works as well as by academics, and his seminal monograph, Allegory of Love, is often received uncritically by readers whose exposure to his work is primarily through his created world of Narnia. These readers can be uncritical because their enjoyment of Lewis' artistic work adds value to his authority as a professor, accepting his proclamations without question. Moreover, his artistic success as a novelist who carefully crafted a world that appeals, still, to many modern audiences may also add weight to his assessment of medieval audiences. Cawsey's careful summation and assessment of Lewis could benefit these readers, and help scholars understand why readers of popular culture so often believe that medieval cultures were homologous and universal. In turn, this can help teachers improve student understanding of the complexities of medieval culture and texts without resorting to techniques – including indirect and lengthy explanations, which students find intimidating – that many non-specialists experience as exclusionary practices which try to tell these readers that their experiences as readers are “wrong.” 

Ultimately, this book can be used to help readers and writers, whether of artistic or scholarly texts, understand the contextual sensitivities that are inherent in reading and interpretation yet which are rarely articulated or acknowledged. As Cawsey notes, “[w]e have made great steps, as a discipline, in moving away from the overarching, over-generalized theories of the beginning and mid-century critics, which ignored individuals and cases in favour of broad images of the 'medieval mind',” concluding that “[w]hat is needed now is a renewal of abstraction, without an attendant loss of the material and concrete” (160). Cawsey herself has not sought to attempt this abstraction, though she does propose the concept of “swarm theory,” which she develops within the context of Patterson's work. I find that swarm theory, in Cawsey's brief outline, resonates closely with current fan practices: ideas are proposed and adopted rapidly, jumping from individual to individual, and then further refined by single persons who share and modify their ideas on the basis of quick or continual feedback from fellow interpreters as well as repeated or evolving viewings or readings of the original source material. Such swarms are encouraged by the rapid development and use of social media and micro-blogging sites, and move rapidly or invisibly across multiple media platforms. However, Cawsey's production of a history of audience criticism within the context of Chaucer studies seems to serve as a pre-history of the speculative work for which she calls: she makes no unique intervention in this book. This can be attributed to the limiting framework of a project that has undergone what appear to be only minor revisions from its original state as a dissertation: several typographical errors linger, all the more startling for the clean prose that Cawsey favors, and the simplicity of the history that Cawsey traces is marked by her studious care to avoid overt statements of her own positions. In Twentieth-Century Chaucer Criticism, Cawsey ultimately advocates balance and her monograph serves as an apt reminder that writers, readers, and audiences are all part of a dynamic ecosystem of content and exchange, enriched by the centuries of interpretation that characterize Chaucer's works.

Valerie B. Johnson 
Georgia Institute of Technology