February 5, 2018
Wallace, Geoffrey Chaucer
Reviewed by KellyAnn Fitzpatrick (firstname.lastname@example.org)
In some ways it is a study in contrasts to see David Wallace follow his edited 2-volume Europe: A Literary History, 1348-1418 (Oxford UP, 2016) with this small gem of a book. At first glance the contrasts come in dimensions (10 x 3.7 x 7.2 inches vs. 6.8 x 0.6 x 5.1 inches), length (1675 pp. vs. 176 pp.), and cover design (a map of Europe vs. a dust jacket featuring tiny Canterbury pilgrims jaunting atop the title). At first read, one notes differences in voice and audience, from an amalgamation of 83 experts pitched at students and future scholars to Wallace, alone, enthusiastically sharing his love and knowledge of Chaucer with, ostensibly, a mainstream audience.
And yet, there is one glaring similarity, as each book reads its respective subject (literature, Chaucer) against a European—rather than a more insular—backdrop. This context works particularly well for Wallace’s New Introduction to Chaucer, where, in his first chapter, “Beginnings,” he asks readers to consider Chaucer as a product of numerous places and languages. Juxtaposing Chaucer’s bureaucratic and wartime travels in Italy and France with his limited experience in areas of Britain outside of the south-east corner of England, Wallace states that Chaucer “was no ‘Little Englander’” (13). He goes on to highlight the role that Chaucer’s knowledge of languages played in his present-day reputation as “Father of English Literature,” arguing that the multilingual and cosmopolitan Chaucer’s aim as a writer was “to make English illustrious by European standards as a European language.” The predominant thread running through the remainder of the book illustrates how Chaucer accomplished this goal.
As one might expect in a work that serves as an “Introduction” to Chaucer, the remaining chapters mete out biographical information (supplemented by a handy timeline at book’s end) as well as readings of selections of Chaucer’s writing. A project of this size and scope requires that Wallace be judicious in what he covers. While previous reviewers have characterized the result as disjointed, to my mind reading each chapter is akin to attending part of a lecture series where the speaker is so knowledgeable about and careful with the material that one leaves the performance both edified and convinced that one needs to get to a library/web browser forthwith. It is a book designed to introduce newcomers to some of the more fascinating aspects of Chaucer’s life and works, but it also serves to remind seasoned Chaucerians what made them choose to learn Middle English in the first place.
Wallace, at times, does run into issues of register in which his assumptions about his readers’ knowledge seem inconsistent. His second chapter, “Schoolrooms, Science, Female Intuition,” for instance, carefully explains educational practices and theories contemporary to Chaucer in conjunction with prevalent attitudes towards women. While Wallace does well in making these components accessible to a mainstream, non-specialist audience, he assumes that the same audience will have no trouble reading snippets of Chaucer’s poetry in the original Middle English (albeit, with some glosses), and will also be able to make jumps (in the first paragraph alone) from Christine de Pisan, to the Prioress’s Tale, to the Miller’s Tale, back to the Prioress’s Tale, to an illustration of how the Miller’s Tale’s Nicholas would interpret the story of Noah’s ark using a “fourfold schema” that culminates in the anagogical (27-9). Chapter 6, “Something to Believe In,” asks readers to make similar leaps in its discussion of Chaucer’s treatment of religion. As a reader who obtained her Medieval Studies degree prior to the advent of Web 2.0 search engines, I can only imagine the amount of Googling that these chapters would generate from a non-specialist reader. Yet, I suspect that Wallace’s take on Chaucer will engage many such non-specialists in a way that renders them eager to make full use of modern information technology (or The Riverside Chaucer) to better understand a medieval poet.
While biographical information throughout the book makes it clear that Chaucer was not known as a poet during his lifetime, two of Wallace’s strongest chapters examine the role that poetry played in Chaucer’s life. Chapter 3, “A Life in Poetry,” argues that the Chaucer of The House of Fame “does indeed long to be associated with great poets such as Virgil and Ovid” (43). The chapter surveys some of the linguistic, literary, and personal influences on the development of Chaucer’s poetry. These include the role that English played in his everyday life, how much he was likely influenced by writers such as Guillaume de Machaut and Dante (who also wrote himself into his poetry), and his relationship with his wife, Phillipa. Chaucer’s quest to become a “great poet” carries over to Chapter 4, “Poetry at Last,” where Wallace provides a short but interesting introduction to Troilus and Criseyde. Here we see Chaucer cribbing from Boccaccio’s Filostrato (in a later chapter it will be The Decameron), influenced by a London still protected by a city wall, and writing his way resolutely towards the Tabard in Southwark.
Chapter 5, “Organizing, Disorganizing: The Canterbury Tales,” gets to the much-anticipated business of directly addressing Chaucer’s best-known work. The chapter itself includes satisfying highlights, such as an explanation of the work’s various manuscripts and fragment arrangements, and insights, such as Wallace’s characterization of the Pardoner’s movements as “voguing” (84-5). In truth, however, The Canterbury Tales serve as another thread running throughout the entire book. In a volume dust-jacketed by pilgrims, CT references begin with a reflection on the ubiquity of The General Prologue in Chapter 1 and conclude with praise for CT performances, adaptations, and reinterpretations at the end of the last chapter, “Performance and New Chaucers.”
In this last chapter Wallace’s portrayal of Chaucer’s English poetry as a product of multilingual European cosmopolitanism culminates in an examination of how Chaucer’s works have been reinvented for a present-day global stage. This stage, where English has arguably become a world standard, sees efforts such as the Global Chaucers project, which catalogs resources where “Chaucer can now be read in Afrikaans and Esperanto, Frisian and Hebrew” (130). Wallace also surveys creative works inspired by Chaucer’s corpus, including a television adaption of The Man of Law’s Tale and a chapbook inspired by the Wife of Bath (Alyson Singes). Many of these translations and reinventions are likely new material for non-specialist and Chaucerian readers alike. In this sense, this volume is successful as a “New Introduction” both in its aim to create new audiences for a medieval poet’s work and in its capacity to reintroduce Chaucer and his postmodern acolytes to audiences who may already know him well.
Georgia Institute of Technology