University of Chicago
The idea of the relationships between Chaucer and Langland--or more generally, late fourteenth century English authors--has been a problem at least since J. A. Burrow's Ricardian Poetry appeared in 1971. He locates this lack of a sense of a norm for the period both in "the nature, the polycentricity, of the period itself" and also in the "posthumous fortunes so various" of the poets of this period. The differences are particularly visible between poems from the two different verse forms of the period: those verse forms, usually borrowed or adapted from continental poetry, thought of as London, courtly verse forms; and the alliterative line, usually associated with Northern or Northwestern poets, and treating religious or political matters rather than love.1 The circumstances of their reception, coupled with real differences in content, form, and poetic and historical concerns, can make it difficult indeed to see similarities between these poets, particularly between Langland and Chaucer. There are obvious differences in concern and form. Langland wrote in the alliterative line while Chaucer adopted continental verse forms, both French and Italian.2 Piers Plowman is clearly engaged with contemporary problems of political and religious thought, while Chaucer seems to be predominantly a love poet. Then too, the most obvious facts about these poets' readership show them to have moved in completely different circles. While Chaucer wrote poems at court, seemingly for patrons from the royal family, Langland was writing and revising the work that, whether he wished it or not, was the source for much of the language found in the letters John Ball wrote as a part of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. At the same time, the poems themselves share a number of techniques and concerns. Both poets write in the first person, both choose the
Recent work on the audiences and reception of these two poets indicates that they shared much more than these techniques. In particular, the idea of the poets writing and moving in different circles seems to be mistaken. Langland and seems to have had a London audience; a circle of professional writers, scribes, and civil servants among whom his work circulated regularly.3 This group of readers would have had access to goings-on at court, often in some detail; Langland himself probably had similar concerns and information. At the same time, the idea of Chaucer as a poet at court, with royal patrons, may be as much a function of his reception in the fifteenth century, and his own poetics, as it is a reflection of his actual status.4 Often seen as poets writing in different parts of England, in wholly different genres and for completely different audiences, both Chaucer and Langland can instead be seen as London poets having access to some of the details of government and its workings and sharing similar audiences and readers. Modern critical responses perhaps exaggerate these poets' real differences in poetic style, temperament, and content. The idea of a shared audience is a potential corrective. It forces us to look for those things that may be common to the two poets, and may even provide some clues to the nature of these shared features.
If, in fact, the poets had a primary audience of civil servants and professional writers, both Chaucer and Langland may have shared a set of concerns with this audience that inevitably became part of the poets' subject matter. This group of readers and writers would have interest in and also access to political events of the day, including events at parliament and court, perhaps even quite detailed knowledge of these events. And one of the features that these two poets share is the deliberate inclusion of historical or political material in a fictional mode. This inclusion is, itself, a poetic technique of which both poets make deliberate use. The idea of historical content as deliberate poetic strategy is important; certainly all writing will reflect its context in one way or another. But this is not the accidental or incidental betrayal of information about the fourteenth century. Nor is it decorative or somehow extraneous to the main concerns and matter of the poems themselves. The history is not the setting for the events and the plot (as it would be in a romance novel involving pirates, for example); rather the subject matter of the works, their plot, is somehow history itself. History itself is what is represented, just as it is in the academic prose narrative created by the historian.
This essay will explore this feature of Chaucer's and Langland's work as a poetic strategy by considering Chaucer's Book of the Duchess and portions of Langland's Piers Plowman. I have chosen these two examples for the explicit nature of their historical content; each presents contemporary event in a way which is obvious and accessible to a modern audience. There are certainly many other possible examples of these poets' uses of history; in fact, the deliberate use of historical material is almost certainly one of the signal strategies
Chaucer's Book of the Duchess is probably his first substantial composition. The poem was written about the death of John of Gaunt's first wife, Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster, who died 12 September 1368.6 Gaunt appears in the work in the fictional analog of the Black Knight--a character who is grieving the loss of his beloved, here referred to as "White," another fictional analog, to Blanche. The narrator, who undoubtedly bears some relationship to Chaucer himself, spends the bulk of the poem in conversation with the Black Knight, who must describe his lady's death several times, using several different literary modes and conventions, before the narrator understands what has happened.7 His realization that White has died is what wakes the narrator from his dream and closes the poem. The most obvious explanation for the presence of Gaunt and of these events from his life in the narrative is that he was Chaucer's patron. Thus, whether the poem was commissioned, or whether Chaucer simply took the writing of it upon himself in the hopes of currying (further) favor, the interaction between the two fictional characters can--in these circumstances--be thought to reflect a relationship between the two historical men: Gaunt and Chaucer.
The new views of Chaucer's primary audience described above complicate the usual explanation for Gaunt's appearance in the poem, for if the work were not destined for Gaunt as patron or potential patron, the question of the historical content emerges anew. Without Gaunt as audience, the most obvious reason for including events from his life disappears, and there is seemingly no explanation for their prominent presence in the poem. Moreover, the poet-patron relationship itself seems to be depicted within the work, again without an analogous non-fictional situation; the appearance of this relationship is particularly puzzling. This situation is compounded by the evidence for dating the poem after 1371, and hence after Gaunt's second marriage.8 Indeed, the poem could have
Thinking of the representation of contemporary event as a literary strategy provides one answer to this problem. Seen as literary technique, the strategy itself is a kind of allusion: something borrowed from Chaucer's French sources. Moreover, Chaucer himself recognizes the practice as a technique and includes it deliberately in his writing. This is true both for the general case of historical content in the Book of the Duchess, and also specifically for those details that construct the narrator's relationship to the Black Knight as a poet-patron relationship. This set of details, then, does not so much reflect actual historical happening for Chaucer as it constitutes a literary discussion: a reworking of the ways in which this representation has been used before. Specifically, this poem makes extensive use of the work of Jean Froissart (a contemporary writer from Hainaut) and Guillaume de Machaut (a French writer from about a generation before Chaucer). He uses larger structures and stories--notably the Ovidian Seys and Alcione material--and also specific passages and lines, to the point of translating almost word for word from this French material.10 Considerable work on the details of the relationship between these poets has been done, but the larger ideas of poet-patron relationship and historical representation sometimes disappear in a wealth of detail.11 Specifically, a look at the relationship between the Book of the Duchess and Machaut's Dit de la fonteinne amoureuse can begin to account for the historical content in general and the poet-patron relationship in particular.
The poet-patron relationship forms the heart of much of Machaut's poetry, particularly the Dit de la fonteinne amoureuse, which is the source for the Seys and Alcione material: a central structuring feature of the Book of the Duchess. In both poems, this material is presented as an analogy for the patron's love dilemma; in the Machaut it also works as a part of the picture of his political situation. Jean de Berry, who was the purchaser of one of Machaut's de luxe manuscripts of complete works, is represented within the Fonteinne amoureuse in much the same way that John of Gaunt is represented in the Book of the Duchess. Both narrators stumble across the patron figure as he speaks a complaint about the loss of his lady. Thus, just as the patron figure and the historical content are introduced, Chaucer also provides an explicit citation of one of his sources. This most obviously historical passage is also one of the most obviously allusive passages in the poem. The foregrounding of Machaut as source has two effects. First, it creates a mis-match between internal and external audience, a mis-match which is an important and deliberate part of the way that the Book of the Duchess works. It is one of the means by which the poem includes literary theory as part of its agenda. The way
If Chaucer's French models for the occasional poem write about historical events that concern their patrons, their final effect is not the same as Chaucer's. When these characters from the French material become the internal audience in the poem, their analogs are also the primary or intended extra-textual audience for the poem. Since Chaucer is not writing for a patron, this relationship between internal and external audience has changed.12 The lack of an official patron who corresponds to a fictional audience internal to the text changes the character of the poem's model of historical representation. For Chaucer's French contemporaries, the external audience certainly included persons other than the patron only, such as other poets, or amateurs of literature, and almost certainly intentionally so. But so long as an additional primary audience is also the patron--a person who is concerned in the very historical and political events depicted-- that depiction must have a non-literary, explicitly political, engaged aspect. Chaucer, when he removes the patron--the historically and politically concerned party--from the poem's primary audience, also removes the necessity for that engaged aspect. The model for historical representation becomes purely literary and purely speculative. Representation becomes the sole key element; history itself is no longer an equal concern. If the occasional poem--combined with the dream frame--allows for a self-reflexivity about the problems of representing reality, in Chaucer this concern takes on a theoretical aspect which becomes so central to a poem like the Book of the Duchess that the occasion itself becomes secondary.
The secondary character of the event itself is the second difference between Chaucer and his source material. The event depicted in the Book of the Duchess is not really political, though it touches the life of a man who is important politically. Machaut's work, by contrast, implies a political alliance in the act of consolation; since he's imprisoned, comforting Jean de Berry implies solidarity with him and, and this is crucial, against his captors. The writing of the poem is a political act.13 Chaucer's consolation for John of Gaunt, even if Gaunt had seen it, or been a primary audience, has no such implications. The event that causes the grief is the death of a wife, caused by the plague rather than a political enemy. The writing of this poem is not a political act, or, rather, it presents itself as an apolitical work; and I suspect that this is Chaucer's deliberate choice. Moreover, Chaucer accomplishes this removal of art from its historical
In short, Chaucer has made a tool for expressing the particular into an exploration of the general case. Historical event makes its way into this poem not because the event itself is somehow important, but in service of other questions. The poet-patron relationship is represented not as a fictional analog to an extant situation in Chaucer's own life, but as a literary convention, and imitable image. By stripping the technique of historical representation of its political content, he uses the representation of a particular event to construct a model for representation itself. This only works when the particular--and hence the political situation and the historical persons represented--is no longer the central concern. This privileging of representation as the thing about which theories are made is not what Langland does, though he, too, uses the same techniques. This representational model, it is worth noting, is not imported from an extant theory or theories; rather, Chaucer has begun to build his own theoretical level. Here, too, this is not what Langland does; Piers Plowman imports extant political models, placing them against each other and in relation to the particular case.
For Langland, if not for Chaucer, writing is a political act. And, when writing is a political act, then interpretation and representation are, or can also be, political acts. This difference between the two poets is obvious. But the implication of what they share--an explicit and deliberate concern with literary matters like writing, fictional representation, and interpretation--shows that this political character has specifically literary repercussions. And this is where Chaucer provides an informative context for Langland, just as much as Langland does for Chaucer: in both cases, the depiction of a historical event also includes a model for the representation itself. The historical event represented in the relevant section of Piers Plowman is related to the Good Parliament of 1376. One of the most often-narrated events of the fourteenth century,15 this Parliament seems to have struck the imaginations of more authors than Langland. A move from Chaucer to Langland, then, also entails a move from writing that is mostly depoliticized to writing that is about one of the best known and most often retold events of the time. At the same time, however, Langland too makes significant claims about the relationship between the general and the specific. First, the general itself is problematized: Langland
The B-text conflict between Conscience and Lady Meed provides, among other things, a fictional analog to Alice Perrers and her impeachment by the Good Parliament of 1376.16 This figure is set into a larger representation of the Good Parliament, notably in the B-text Prologue, including some explicit discussion of the question of absolute versus limited kingship. Though an examination of the whole of this material is well beyond the scope of this essay, it's important to know that the Lady Meed material is part of a larger narrative about the Good Parliament. The Prologue's Rat Parliament is related as fictional analog to the Good Parliament of 1376, Lady Meed is a fictional analog, sometimes, to Alice Perrers, and Conscience's examination of her is a second allusion to the Good Parliament, namely to her impeachment.
Reading Lady Meed works if we understand that she is represented simultaneously using two separate literary techniques: allegory and personification fiction.17 The explicit historical allusion works only for the former of these two poetic strategies, allegory. Within Meed's presentation as personification, and before the issue of her as allegory even arises, there are internal inconsistencies in the way that she is portrayed. These inconsistencies come in her interactions with the other characters. The marriage images for Meed (and everyone else) don't match each other. First, it seems that she is to marry one and only one man, who will either be Fals or Conscience. But at the same time, any number of men can opt to marry her if they so choose. It seems to matter very much whom Lady Meed marries when it comes down to Fals versus Conscience. It matters, too, to the individual men who also might join themselves to her whether they marry her or not. Thus Meed has an ambiguous value, and an equally ambiguous status as a potential corrupter of her mate(s).
On the one hand (the individual-men-are-free-to-marry-or-avoid-her hand), Meed seems to cause the false witness, usury, lying, and other bad behavior that go on in her entourage and general vicinity. On the other hand (the important-choice-of-a-single-spouse hand), it seems that she could be managed somehow by a rational mate, like Conscience. Finally, Conscience seems to associate himself with that set of all men who may choose to marry her or not, since he claims to be totally disgusted by and hence unwilling to marry Lady Meed. This whole situation is confusing from a
Part of the difficulty comes from the word itself, which can take on either a positive or a negative meaning. The Oxford English Dictionary defines Meed three separate ways; one has positive connotation, the other negative, and the third is value neutral: 1. That which is bestowed in requital of labour or service, or in consideration of (good or ill) desert; wages, hire; recompense, reward. 2. Reward dishonestly offered or accepted; corrupt gain; bribery. 3. Merit, excellence, worth.
There are fourteenth-century examples listed for each of these uses; thus it seems that the ambiguity is a contemporary one, and not a result of meaning changing over time. It would not be out-of-character for Langland to exploit this ambiguity. In fact, it is my contention that exploiting this ambiguity is exactly what Langland is doing. If the debate between Meed and Conscience is read without this ambiguity, the tendency is for the interpreter to agree with Conscience, to take his side against Lady Meed, and to assume that Langland has done likewise. Conscience becomes somehow the voice of the poet or the poem as a whole in this sense. The idea is that, since Conscience is what he's named, which is a good thing, while Meed is what she's named, which is a bad thing, Conscience is the spokesperson for the poet within the debate or dialogue between the two. Interpreters wishing to read the text this way find plenty of reinforcing evidence in Lady Meed's thoroughly detestable behavior at court. Moreover, this kind of reading is typical of how personification works on its simplest level. However, I think that Langland recognizes and foregrounds both the limits and the larger possibilities of personification as a literary technique. The recognition of its limits is, in fact, one of the ways that the poem finds the larger possibilities of the technique.20
The biggest problem with personification is precisely that things are named what they are. When, for example, Holi Church tells Will that the tower is Truth's, and that it's the place to go, this information does not really get us, or Will, anywhere. That is, we are no closer to knowing how to get to Truth, or what Truth might mean for us in the world of
A key reason why the limits of personification are crucial to this poem is that they are also the limits of the general case; that is of the theoretical level. For Langland, here in contrast to Chaucer, the theoretical level is not concerned only or primarily with literary and representative theory, but also with political and historical theory.21 The limits of personification as a form of representation thus prove useful in defining the limits of these other theoretical, general cases for thought. All that is accomplished in his work relating the particular to the general case applies both to literary technique and theory, like personification, and also to the limits of political and historical theory as well. This has ramifications for his act of representation itself. If Langland's needs concern working out the relationships between the theoretical case and the practical one, between the general case and the particular, personification is, alone, an inadequate literary strategy. The presence of more than one mode of representation solves this problem for him. At least, it provides him with a uselul tool for thinking about it. His solution to his historical problem, then, is a thoroughly literary one: allegory.
Once Lady Meed is also Alice Perrers, two things happen. First, Langland adds a second poetic technique--allegory--by adding this second sense. Second, he moves from a general or speculative case to a particular one. This actually solves some (though not all) of the narrative difficulties created by Lady Meed which are described above. When Lady Meed is functioning as a general, personified case, she can be married by any number of men, including Conscience. While she is functioning as a particular, allegorical case, she is accused and examined by whoever Conscience is. Of course, there is still some slippage--in fact Langland relies on its presence--but this idea of two on-going techniques used for the same character and episode helps to straighten things out on a strictly narrative level. More to the point, the presence of two techniques also helps us to construct a model for historical representation in Langland, and for why it's there. The move from one technique to another also
Langland's model for historical representation is therefore, also a literary model. But his model is not, like Chaucer's, divorced from context. Speculative and theoretical mean something different for these two authors, though both have created poems that contain a speculative and theoretical level. Chaucer uses the literary techniques described, including historical representation, to explore issues that are purely literary and to separate the literary from the political sphere. It is probably no accident that Chaucer does not use personification as a literary technique. He creates a general, theoretical level in his poem without this technique and hence without engaging the specifically political or religious systems of abstract thought with which they were so often associated in his literary context. Langland uses the speculative and the theoretical, including those same systems of abstract political and religious thought, to explore extra-literary matters. It is no wonder that these two poems have been received differently, despite what the authors share.
Finally, this sheds some light on the different possible uses of a shared literary technique: the first-person narrator, who is also a poet, and related to the author in some way. The two different models of historical representation and its uses and value can be read onto this semi-fictionalized author figure. For Will, and probably also for Langland, the end goal of poetry, whether we are reading it or writing it, is right living, right religion, and right governance; particularly where right governance and right religion intersect--in matters of Meed, for example. For Chaucer, the end goal is right making. In the Book of the Duchess, we see that the idea that something can be theoretical and engaged does not preclude the possibility that something can look engaged and yet still be wholly theoretical. Langland, by contrast, cannot and does not consider right making as a separate issue unto itself, because right making must involve some of the other rights above; it's not separable as a discipline and exists only in conjunction with these others. This does not make him any less a poet or less concerned with poetry. It does, however, show us both a link between narrative mode and political content, and more than one model for exploiting this link in the vernacular literature of fourteenth century England.