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Gender and Romance in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales
By Susan Crane
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1994 Princeton University Press
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Masculinity in Romance
Masculinity is a persistent concern in Chaucer's tales deriving from romance, although it often seems a subtext to more evidently political and social issues. The Knight's Tale, for example, begins with a briefly sketched contrast between Theseus's conquest of the Amazons and his pity on the widows of the siege of Thebes. Why does he subdue one group of women and aid the next? A plausible reading of the difference in terms of social issues might center on the wise Athenian's concern to redress disorders, in the first case the unnatural rule of women and in the second case the desecration of bodies and the reversals of Fortune suffered by the widows. Amazonia and Thebes have perpetrated disorder; there is a significant parallel between Theseus's responses to the two foreign encounters. From the perspective of gender it could be added that there is as well a significant contrast between his responses to the two encounters with women. Conquering and marrying the Amazon queen is a sexual as well as a political action, one that eroticizes masculine dominance and feminine submission. In contrast, taking pity on the widows of Thebes reveals in Theseus a compassion that may seem feminine, complicating his masculinity. Similarly, Palamon and Arcite are most evidently political adversaries to Theseus. Their Theban blood carries the destructive rivalry of Polynices and Eteocles from Thebes into Athens, and their desire for Emelye challenges Theseus's authority. Yet the Thebans' rivalries have implications as well for their masculinity, as the young men measure their desire for Emelye against Theseus's ability to constrain it and as their desire becomes both a component of their chivalric relation with one another and a constitutive feature of their sexual identities. This chapter's three divisions look for the gendered subtext to such interactions.
My first concern is to suggest how romances use gender difference to establish masculine identity. Not only does heterosexual courtship become an important arena for self-definition, romances elaborate a range of distinctions between men's and women's social comportment, duties, and rights that gender the concept of identity so important to the early development of the genre. Masculine and feminine identity differ in that the centrality and complexity assigned to masculinity in romance makes it more than simply the reverse of femininity. Difference from woman does not, paradoxically, exile from man all traits associated with the feminine.
After a brief look at the function of difference in elaborating masculinity, this chapter turns to two complications in that paradigm. The tendency to identify masculine with universal experience meets a countertendency in romance in the constraints the community places on heroic autonomy. These are not merely external; the hero of romance is constituted so fundamentally by his culture that he resembles the postmodern subject more closely than the Lockean individual. Self-definition involves recognizing and accepting the social composition of personal identity.
Courtship in romance expands masculine interactions in that it is secondary to them and reproduces them in crossgendered and eroticized form. Courtship clarifies the ambivalently adversarial and desiring relations between men in the genre's version of chivalric culture. Where courtship and chivalry intersect, they may appear to be in competition; but finally courtship extends masculine identity by providing a new arena of interaction for men.
As the leading form for long fictions in the later Middle Ages, romance was so pervasive an influence that Chaucer's awareness of the genre can hardly be in question. The place of romance in Chaucer's conceptions of gender alone is so prominent and nuanced that I cannot touch on many of its aspects. Those I have chosen are so normative in the genre that they might be illustrated from numerous texts. In this first chapter I treat a few illustrations in some detail; in later chapters the references are usually briefer. Throughout, my aim is not to imply Chaucer's knowledge of particular texts but to assume his awareness of the genre's shape and history, rather as we might assume a twentieth-century writer's awareness of the novel, and to choose illustrations that are reasonably familiar to twentieth-century readers or particularly apposite to the Chaucerian tales under discussion.
MASCULINITY AS A FUNCTION OF DIFFERENCE
From the perspective of gender difference, masculinity is a composite of traits that contrast to feminine ones, such as bravery in contrast to timidity, and traits that are identified as feminine but are absorbed into masculinity, such as pity. This first aspect of masculine identity is not specific to romance. Examples can be drawn from numerous genres and historical behaviors to illustrate the double definition of masculinity by opposition and by relation to femininity, but the two episodes that open the Knight's Tale, in which Theseus defeats the Amazons and takes pity on the women bereaved by the siege of Thebes, illustrate the process in miniature.
A salient feature of romance is its figuring of women as the desired opposites of men. In a study of Eneas in relation to its precedents, Stephen Nichols argues that the representation of courtship crucially distinguishes romance, marking the point at which the isolation of love lyric and the univocality of earlier narrative writing yield to a dialogue between the lover and the resisting, unknowable woman who "subjects love to interpretations other than those flattering constructions placed on it by the bemused lover in his solitary lyric reverie.... The voice of the beloved may be the first intimation of alterity intruding into the monologism of the lover" (49–50). Feminine difference is also the focus of Jean-Charles Huchet's account of Eneas: Lavine "incarne l'alterite dont le heros et le roman ont besoin, qui pour voyager, qui pour s'ecrire" (incarnates the alterity needed by the hero and the romance, the former in order to journey, the latter in order to be written) (Roman médiéval, 218). For both critics the assertion of woman's difference from man informs the genre's poetics as well as its configurations of gender.
Romance plots often extend the strangeness of woman's sexual difference into an ethnic, religious, or political identity that opposes that of the hero. Eneas's Trojan lineage, Bevis of Hampton's Christianity, and Theseus's Athenian wisdom gain clarity in oppositional (and then accommodating) relationships to the Latin Lavine, pagan Josian, and Amazonian Hippolyta. Eneas's self-definition takes place through his adversarial yet desiring relation to the woman whose land he is seeking to colonize. The initial opposition to Eneas's desire is strongly feminine: Lavine's mother stands against her husband's wish and the gods' decree in resisting Eneas's suit, asserting that Trojans are sodomitical and treacherous. Eneas refutes the maternal accusation in his heterosexual devotion to Lavine, fusing the proof of his masculinity with a demonstration of Trojan trustworthiness.
Before the specifics of plot, a recurring set of differences between men and women in romance constructs masculine identity by alienating from it the traits assigned to femininity. The tower chamber from which Lavine watches and reacts to events is the center of a feminine sphere that marks the fields and the fighting below as a masculine space. Womanly timidity, passivity, and pity confirm the masculinity of bravery, initiative, and severity. Amazons reverse the process by rejecting feminine traits for their masculine counterparts,- the defeat of the Amazons dramatizes masculinity establishing its claim to difference and ascendancy over the feminine. The briefly told episode that begins the Knight's Tale barely recalls this significance, developed at length in Boccaccio's Teseida and the romans antiques. The following chapter traces the disappearance of Amazonian prowess from romance as the Amazons regain their beauty and enter into courtship. In the Knight's Tale the two qualities assigned to Hippolyta, that she is "faire" and "hardy" (1882), refer as briefly as possible to the contradictory feminine attractiveness native to her and the masculine courage she adopts; and the notation that Theseus conquered Scythia "with his wysdom and his chivalrie" (1865) chooses traits specific to masculinity in the binary paradigm that exiles irrationality and timidity to an idea of the feminine. Although brief, the Knight's Tale's first episode invokes a familiar instance of defining gender by differentiation.
The assertion of difference between man and woman is fundamental to romance not only as a means of defining the masculine self by contrast with the feminine other but as a precondition for expanding identity beyond the limitations difference imposes. Conceiving genders by binary opposition has a diminishing as well as a defining effect, restricting masculinity in the process of clarifying it. A counterprocess recuperates for masculinity some traits associated with women. The womanly intercessions that inspire Theseus's pity in the Knight's Tale illustrate this expansive process. The widows of the siege of Thebes introduce a conventional role for women as inspirers of masculine pity or mercy, a role more fully evoked when Theseus comes upon Palamon and Arcite in combat, condemns them to death, but instead shows mercy on them when the queen and all her women intercede for the lovers. In the earlier scene, Theseus's anger turns to pity less evidently as a man's response to the pleas of women than as a ruler's response to injustice, or a thoughtful person's response to the vagaries of Fortune. He inquires "What folk been ye," apparently without regard to their sex, yet they identify themselves in gendered terms as "us wrecched wommen" and as widows of the siege of Thebes (1905, 921, 936). Their closingplea to "Have on us wrecched wommen som mercy, / And lat oure sorwe synken in thyn herte" (1950–51) and the causal connection between Theseus's perception of "hem so pitous and so maat" and his own "herte pitous" (1953, 955) begin to make the association between femininity and masculine pity that the scene in the grove works out more fully.
Both scenes partake of a cultural topos reaching beyond romance to the biblical model of Esther and the historical interventions ascribed to Queen Philippa on behalf of the burghers of Calais and to Queen Anne on behalf of various malefactors including Simon Burley and participants in the Rising of 1381. The topos tempers a ruler's severity by inspiring pity in him through the pleas of women who are moved specifically by their gendered identity: the ladies weep over Palamon and Arcite "for verray wommanhede," and Theseus's response begins in "compassioun / Of wommen" rather than of the young men (I 1748, 1770–71).
One way of understanding Theseus's response in terms of gender is to posit a limitation in masculinity that contact with the feminine redresses. Jill Mann has recently analyzed pity and patience in the Canterbury Tales, particularly the Knight's and Franklin's tales, in these terms. Her model of the "feminised hero" takes passive qualities such as pity to be so firmly linked to womanliness that they remain gender-marked even when adopted into male behavior: "The 'compassioun' Theseus feels for women is itself a womanly quality implanted in him. It feminises him without rendering him effeminate," she argues (Geoffrey Chaucer, 174; see also 87–127, 165–85). An attractive implication of this analysis, Mann points out, is the escape it offers from reading genders as implicit hierarchies in which tenderer emotions are inferior because exclusively feminine. Indeed, Mann claims for Chaucer an escape from gender divisions themselves: "A feminist reading of Chaucer needs, not to perpetuate the sterile antitheses between active and passive, to stigmatise female passivity only to find that the obverse of this is approval of male activity, but rather to recuperate Chaucer's careful integration of activity and passivity into a fully human ideal that erases male/female role-divisions" (185). Mann's approach is a welcome departure from the critical simplification and consequent impasse to which she refers, but the handling of gender-marked traits in romance suggests to me that the "fully human ideal" is finally masculine. Traits marked feminine can indeed be integrated into masculine behavior, but the current does not run in reverse from masculine into feminine identity; and the complications of masculine behavior that femininity figures contribute to enlarging and universalizing rather than feminizing the masculine experience.
When Theseus sees the Theban widows "so pitous and so maat" and leaps off his horse "with herte pitous" (1953, 955), it does indeed appear that the pitiful position of women has generated Theseus's pity, has invited in the ruler a tender behavior that masculinity prohibits. The cultural convention of interceding queens and the longer scene of intercession for Palamon and Arcite clarify, however, that a ruler may use intercession as the occasion for showing pity while considering it nonetheless part of his own repertoire of adjudicating impulses. Indeed, the very conventionality of femmme intercession suggests a scripted role assigned to queens within the larger scene of rulers' justice Queen Anne had not even arrived in England when Richard II began pardoning rebels in her name (Peasants' Revolt, 313–14, 332,). Whether or not the historical Richard tended to severity and the historical Anne to mercy, a standing cultural pattern made it appropriate for rulers to attribute pardon and leniency to women's inspiration.
The intercession of Hippolyta and her ladies connects their plea for mercy to their "verray wommanhede" through their submissive gestures of kneeling and striving to kiss Theseus's feet and their attempt to divert his attention from the young men to themselves, transforming anger into pity: "Have mercy, lord, upon us wommen alle!" (I 1748, 1757) As women they express pity and they are fit occasions for pity. However, in the dynamic of the scene (as in historical instances) their gender is not mercy's ultimate repository. The interceding women come to resemble not agents of mercy but allegorical figures in a psychomachy of the ruler's decision making. Rather than expressing an exclusively femmme impulse, the scene locates pity in women as a way of describing the subordinate place it holds in the all-encompassing masculine deliberation. Theseus does not designate mercy a feminine but rather a lordly response.
And softe unto hymself he seyde, "Fy
Upon a lord that wol have no mercy,
But been a leon, bothe in word and dede,
To hem that been in repentaunce and drede,
As wel as to a proud despitous man
That wol mayntene that he first began
That lord hath litel of discrecioun,
That in swich cas kan no divisioun
But weyeth pride and humblesse after oon." (I 1773–81)
Theseus's version of the unmerciful man is the lion, the less than human; the lord is rightly merciful although he is first of all just. His identification of mercy with masculinity despite the kneeling women before him reinforces the narration of the tale, signaling the narrator's masculine perspective whether we identify him as the Knight or Chaucer or a less embodied voice. Before Theseus speaks, the narrator has first degendered pity in the aphorism for Theseus's change of mood, "pitee renneth soone in gentil herte," and then glossed pity as a function of reason: "althogh that his ire hir gilt accused, / Yet in his resoun he hem bothe excused" (I 1761, 1765–66). Already pity is associated not with women but with the masculine faculty of reason. The progression from anger to mercy through women's intercession indicates that the ruler's impulse to mercy is subordinate to his impulse to justice, but both are masculine—that is, "fully human" in the traditional gendering that conflates maleness and humanity as the universal experience. The women's plea dramatizes an opposition not from but within man, a facet of his lordship. Identifying pity, patience, and tenderness with women, even as it defines masculinity by opposition, prepares for an idea of masculinity that itself encompasses oppositional traits in subordinate relation to severity and decisiveness.
Excerpted from Gender and Romance in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales by Susan Crane. Copyright © 1994 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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