Marion Turner. Chaucer: A European Life. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019.
Reviewed by Robert J. Meyer-Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Addressing Chaucer’s legacy in the epilogue to Chaucer: A European Life, Marion Turner writes, “Chaucer became a monumental poet, enclosed in a monumental tomb, with monumental volumes of his Complete Works functioning as the bedrock of the English national canon” (506). By this point, Turner’s readers will readily understand that the repetition of the adjective monumental here signals that this eventuality represents a regrettable distortion of the real significance and actual tenor of the poet’s writings, as Turner has characterized them in the preceding pages. Acknowledging that “[i]n death, Chaucer came to represent Englishness, patriarchy, authority[,]” Turner ends her account of his life by highlighting, in contrast, his current status as “an inspiration for diverse writers around the globe…the starting point for Refugee Tales, a collection published in 2016 that brings together contemporary politics, current writers, and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales” (508). In a nutshell, this concluding move—which repositions Chaucer from authoritative, national literary patriarch to inspiring, approachable global story teller—encapsulates the most essential aim of this remarkable new biography.
Without question, this book is an astounding scholarly achievement, one that will evoke in current and future readers of Chaucer tremendous gratitude, serve as a springboard for innumerable new research projects, and leave more than a few of us gaping in awe. Its approach to its subject, however, involves a bit of a paradox, given that its very existence depends, of course, on the history of Chaucer’s canonical monumentality. (This is not a criticism: it is inescapable.) Moreover, the volume is itself monumental, in at least a couple of ways. Most obviously, the book is massive, totaling more the 600 pages from title page through the end of its exceptionally detailed index. Since very little actual new biographical information about Chaucer has been unearthed since, say, Derek Pearsall’s popular 1992 biography of the poet (and the vast majority of documents were compiled in Martin M. Crow and Clair C. Olson’s 1966 Chaucer Life-Records), potential readers of this new one may wonder what is on offer that escaped Pearsall’s seemingly thorough 375 pages. The answer lies in Turner’s innovative organization.
To be sure, the book’s largest contours are predictable, as it progresses chronologically through Chaucer’s life and, as the titles of its three major parts (“Becoming,” “Being,” and “Approaching Canterbury”) suggest, presents that life teleologically, as culminating in the composition of his consensus literary masterpiece. Yet, just one level down, with the individual chapters, we encounter a striking difference: rather than zooming in on a more fine-grained subdivision of Chaucer’s life, each of the twenty chapters instead focuses on a specific kind of physical space. Some of these are geographical places (such as Chapter 4’s “Hainault and Navarre” or Chapter 15’s “South of the Thames”), some are institutions (such as Chapter 12’s “Parliament” or Chapter 20’s “Abbey”), and some are abstractions closely associated with physical objects or positions (such as Chapter 8’s “cage” or Chapter 19’s “threshold”). In this organization, the raison d'être of each chapter is not simply to account for Chaucer’s life but also to evoke more broadly a vivid, detailed sense of a particular facet of the late medieval world through which Chaucer moved—to weave a historical narrative fabric in which Chaucer’s life serves as just one thread among others, albeit the most prominent and intertwined thread. Each chapter, therefore, may be appreciated as a standalone essay, a set piece that may be comprehended in its own terms and that might serve as a reading assignment for, say, medieval history courses, as well as literature courses.
Within the chapters, one of Turner’s frequent methods is to take a single item or set of related items from the Chaucer Life-Records and follow the chains of references leading out from these terse bureaucratic texts, constructing thereby a sort of thick description of the context that produced them. For example, in Chapter 6, Turner considers the commission for Chaucer’s 1372-73 journey to Genoa and Florence, tracing its political, economic, social, and cultural implications in ever-widening circles that eventually attain global scale. In addition, then, to noting the usual significance ascribed to this trip—that it represents Chaucer’s first exposure to trecento literature—Turner paints a detailed picture of fraught international systems of commerce and the various conflicts that they engendered. In this way, Turner shows us the Chaucer that many of his contemporaries would have most readily recognized: a minor but still important player on the international political stage, a skilled, valued diplomat who adroitly negotiated multiple competing interests. In chapters such as this one (and they are the overwhelming majority) this method—and more generally Turner’s thematic-space focus—produces a thoroughly absorbing, illuminating, and informative essay.
In a few instances, in contrast, I found that the method foundered a bit, typically because the relations between the thematic space and life records are rather loose. In Chapter 19, for example, the thematic space of the threshold serves to bind together the end of the Canterbury Tales, the end of Chaucer’s life, and the end of Richard II’s reign; but in this case the rather general concept of threshold functions more as an umbrella term than as a specific facet of Chaucer’s world that illuminates a network of otherwise obscure relations. To be sure, since the chapters may be read as standalone essays, the occasional miss does not much matter among the many hits. Yet, since this biography nonetheless does proceed chronologically, if readers consult it specifically for an account of the late 1390s, they cannot avoid Chapter 19. But in fact I doubt that readers will much use the book in the latter fashion, as it is simply not organized in a manner that easily facilitates this use (like, say, Pearsall’s is). That is, I imagine that readers will turn to this volume not so much as a reference work (or as an introduction to the poet) but instead for a series of literary critical touchstones—for bracing encounters with Turner’s views on a particular moment in Chaucer’s life, a particular cross-section of late medieval history, a particular literary work, or, most important, the myriad relations among these. (Although those who do use the volume for this purpose may sometimes be frustrated by how its organization entails that the readings of some of Chaucer’s works are distributed across several chapters. For this reason, the index, as I have mentioned, is appropriately capacious, but this means that it is also unwieldy.)
Another way that this biography is monumental has profounder implications but is just as evident. In seeking to counter the monumentalization of Chaucer as English poetic patriarch, Turner provides exactly that: a counter-monumentalization. The biography as a whole, that is, constructs a memorializing representation of Chaucer that is plainly designed to elicit, on balance, admiration. Turner’s Chaucer is tolerant, urbane, and cosmopolitan. He has his eyes on the street, among the people, not cast up toward the clouds, dazed by numinous philosophical and spiritual abstractions. He is troubled by political absolutism, skeptical toward empire, and appreciative of cultural, ethnic, and social difference. He has egalitarian ideas regarding class and gender. He is appreciative of visiting foreigners and resident immigrants. He is a critical thinker, wants to foster critical thinking in his readers, and is fully cognizant of the complexities, subjectivity, and open-endedness of interpretation. He aims to empower his readers to make sound ethical decisions without imposing upon them any kind of rigid moral framework. Throughout the book, for example, are comments similar to the following: “In his Canterbury Tales years, Chaucer embraced the idea of equivalence—in terms of genre, interpretation, social status, and gender. This ability to equalize without homogenizing is central to Chaucer’s ethical stance and to his poetic art. The genius of the Tales lies in its valuing of difference qua difference…Readers must make decisions for themselves” (366-67). This Chaucer is, in short, a decidedly attractive one (to me, at least), especially, and not at all coincidentally, when set against the backdrop of the twenty-first century chauvinism so evident in Brexit and Donald Trump.
The question that this counter-monumentalization inevitably provokes, then, is whether a Chaucer so attractive in twenty-first-century ideological terms is also a historically accurate one. And, certainly, Turner devotes her considerable facility with the nitty gritty of historical inquiry into building precisely this argument. Nonetheless, I suspect that readers will have a variety of estimations of her success in this regard. In my case, as much as I want her to be right about Chaucer, and find myself in full agreement on many points, I could not help but notice those moments in which her argument rests on highly contestable readings of particular literary works. For example, for Turner the Knight’s Tale is a critique of political absolutism, the Wife of Bath exhibits empowered agency over the misogynist texts from which she is drawn, and the Parson’s Tale, far from providing an authoritative conclusion to the Tales, presents “a vision that codifies the self in relentlessly simplifying ways[,]” one that “contrasts starkly with the ethical and compassionate emphasis on gentilesse as a quality not determined by gender, class, or age in other tales” (478). None of these readings is in itself especially far-fetched, and all are well argued. Yet, taken together, at times they seemed to constitute a carefully curated wardrobe in which potentially embarrassing items have been pushed to the back rack.
Along these same lines, the rather brief treatment (about two pages of sustained discussion) of what is today the single most fraught element of Chaucer’s biography—Cecily Champaigne’s rape charge—will raise some readers’ eyebrows. This discussion itself, laudably, seeks neither to defend Chaucer nor even especially to muddy the waters of the possibility that he was a perpetrator of sexual violence. Nevertheless, by the end of the discussion Turner notably shifts the emphasis, observing that Chaucer’s “life gave him multiple experiences of women as thinking and independent beings, strong women, even though they underwent all kinds of legal and social constraints” (212). The cumulative effect of such shifts is to ensure that what the book most memorializes about Chaucer is what many of those who treasure his writings would most prefer to remember.
Any book this ambitious and complex will also provoke other, more minor quibbles. For example, some of the more speculative discussions—about dates of composition, about the early circulation of Chaucer’s poems—I sometimes found less than helpful or even tendentious. And considerations of the complications and uncertainties of the manuscript evidence for Chaucer’s works, and especially for the Canterbury Tales, are rather less frequent and less in-depth than I think are needed. But these are indeed quibbles. Turner’s biography will without doubt become one of the anchors of Chaucer Studies for many years to come. Even more important, it will likely help spur the creative energies of those “diverse writers around the globe” that Turner spotlights in her epilogue—those crucial readers of Chaucer who will, more than anyone else, continue to make this late medieval English poet matter.
Robert J. Meyer-Lee
Agnes Scott College