up to WSU Chaucer Page
Lee Patterson,Chaucer and the Subject of History.
by Eric Miraglia
Web posted at 12:21 AM on 3/7/96 from xtsd0218.it.wsu.edu.
Lee. Chaucer and the Subject of History. Madison: University of Wisconsin
below covers Patterson's Introduction, pages 1-46. In this section, he lays
out the elements of subjectivity which he considers to be crucial to his
argument, and presages the direction he intends to take his argument as
he proceeds into textual analysis of the Canterbury Tales.
I. Modernity is constituted by the fading of the social and the historical
from view in favor of the ahistorical autonomous individual.
A. The Medieval has long been posited as the alternative to the Modern
B. The Modern self is thought to emerge during the Renaissance
C. But actually Modern selfhood is explored throughout the Middle Ages
II. Competing views about Chaucer
A. Dryden: Father of English poetry; a classic; transhistorical; always
B. Scogan: Transformer of 14th century conventions; not transhistorical.
C. Chaucer: Entertained both possibilities of selfhood: autonomous and historical.
III. Chaucer's early work attempts to work out these tensions in predictable
IV. Canterbury Tales and modern subjectivity:
A. Example of the parson
B. Chaucer shows us that character is the product of dialectic (see illustration)
V. Chaucer's own selfhood
A. Low servant to the king; friends with the Knights of the Chamber
B. Civil servant/royal servant
ADDITIONAL NOTES (disorganized):
Modern selfhood dilemma:
"If the category of the social has faded from view, so too has the
category of the historical. Instead of understanding themselves as products
of determinative historical processes, modern individuals tend to see themselves
as autonomous and self-made. insofar as it exists at all, the past is either
a burden to be cast off--within our therapeutic culture a common goal is
to "take responsibility for yourself" by dispensing with outgrown
cultural and parental precepts -- or an array of items and practices available
for nostalgic reminiscence."
"Also not coincidentally, for recent sociologists, the drake secret
at the heart of modern individualism is its failure as a mode of life."
"Radically empty", isolated from the social...vulnerable, unable
to effect resistance.
Social critiques of the modern self conclude with "the paradoxical
notion that the very freedom that individualism takes as its central premise,
the ability of individuals to separate themselves from the social totality
in order to choose or to change the conditions of their lives is being subverted
by the ideology of individualism itself."
Started in the Renaissance
Alternative found in Medieval
Patterson argues the latter isn't true; points to Dante's Commedia and other
places where the exploration of an interior self read against the social
and historical contexts is taking place.
Chaucer was fascinated with what literary criticism has traditionally called
'character,' and he defined it as one term in an oppositional dialectic
constituted on the other side by history--by which I mean both the persistent
presence of the past and the pressure of social realities. Such a definition
is by no means unmedieval. What is striking and important, however, is the
fact that this interest in the constitution of the self feels--to us, probably
also to his contemporary readers, and perhaps even to the poet himself--
Dryden assumes the modernist model of Ren. humanism: the Ren present posits
a definitive break with the past (the Middle Ages) in order to ally itself
with a transhistorical realm of self presence (antiquity). Scogan assumes
instead a model of continuity , in which both improvement and decline are
possible but a transhistorical step out of the process as a whole is not.
In trying to understand Ch.'s relation to the subject of history--to history
as a topic for poetry, as a material and social world for representation,
and as the individual person forged in the dialectic between the subjective
and the social-- we must realize that he entertained both of these possibilities.
Early work; conventional, no one else could have written it, but doesn't
make great strides toward exploring a modern selfhood.
Example of the Parson, who in the GP is "in a realistic spatial and
temporal existence, and as not merely acting out a role, but expressing
his consciousness of doing so." (Mann).
This fine example to his flock he gave,
Chaucer shows us that the Parson's estate is not the sum total of his selfhood
but a social identity that he deliberately adopts, a self-definition he
labors to achieve. He shows us, in other words, that character is not an
object to be described but the product of a dialectical movement between
a socially undefined subjectivity (content, for the moment, unspecified)
and a historically determined role. Character is what emerges from the transactions
between the given world outside(history) and the unspecified world within
That first he wrought and afterwards he taught;
Out of the gospel then that text he caught,
And this figure he added thereunto-
That, if gold rust, what shall poor iron do?
For if the priest be foul, in whom we trust,
What wonder if a layman yield to lust?
And shame it is, if priest take thought for keep,
A shitty shepherd, shepherding clean sheep.
Well ought a priest example good to give,
By his own cleanness, how his flock should live.
V. Chaucer's life
Chaucer as the man caught between the Knights of the Chamber, with whom
he arguably was friends, and the King's squires, of which he was one --
very different roles. Also, his role as a King's servant and as a civil
servant blurred the boundaries of his own social roles, perhaps feeding
his inquiry into the articulation of selfhood.
Return to WSU Chaucer Page.