Pastoral histories: Utopia, conquest, and the wife of bath's tale
Patricia Clare Ingham. Texas Studies in Literature and Language. Austin: Spring 2002.Vol. 44, Iss. 1; pg. 34, 13 pgs
Abstract (Document Summary)
Ingham reads the images of absorption embedded in Geoffrey Chaucer's Wife of Bath's pastoral medievalism to encode a particular scene of conquest and political resistance between England and Wales occurring around the time of Chaucer's writing, a scene that persistently engage middle English Arthurian romance.
Full Text (5618 words)
Copyright University of Texas at Austin (University of Texas Press) Spring 2002
The idea of the country is the idea of childhood: not only of local memories, or the ideally shared communal memory, but the feel of childhood: of delighted absorption in our own world.... Great confusion is caused if the real childhood memory is projected, unqualified as history. Yet what we have finally to say is that we live in a world in which the dominant mode of production and social relationships teaches, impresses, offers to make normal and even rigid, modes of detached, separated, external perception and action: modes of using and consuming rather than accepting and enjoying people and things.
-Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (297-98)1
In The Country and the City Raymond Williams offers a moving critique of the ideology of the pastoral mode. Reading the material history embedded in the use of images of country and city, Williams tells a powerful story of the capture of land, people, and things for capitalism, and of the alienation that results. In so doing Williams poignantly reminds us that commodification and consumption are neither the only nor the most satisfying desires and ambitions that we might have for the world.
Williams's critique has been enormously influential, with the result that today representations of an idealized pastoral space, whether in the genre of the literary pastoral or in romantic histories of past times, tend to be viewed with suspicion for the material conditions they occlude. Annabel Patterson, for example, has shown us the ideological force of the "pastoral" in the early modern period, a genre that engages with, and attempts to obscure, relations of agrarian capitalism.2 With Patterson's work in mind, medievalist Kathleen Biddick has recently read sentimentalized images of the rural medieval peasant (traditionally popular in Marxist histories of the middle ages) as historiographic "pastoral moves."3 Engaging with theories of postcolonial cultural studies, Biddick reads images of the idealized British peasant in nineteenth- and twentiethcentury histories as a disavowal of the conflicts of later British spaces, specifically the spaces and places in which the historians of British peasant studies (and the editors of the journal Past and Present) worked and wrote.
Biddick's postcolonial critique, like Patterson's materialist analysis, might be said to contribute to a critical trajectory established by Raymond Williams. Yet there is another aspect to Williams's analysis, one that can usefully extend Biddick's "postcolonial" reading for a different postcolonial engagement with the "pastoral mode" in medieval studies. Following his detailed history of pastoral ideologies, Williams turns to consider the utopian power of pastoral's emotive claim on the real. Linking fondness for a rural past now gone with an "ideally shared communal memory," "the feel of childhood," and "a delighted absorption in our own world," Williams raises the evocative fantasy of a remembered time of intimate belonging, an experience he describes in the attitude of "accepting and enjoying" rather than "consuming and using" people and things. Conjuring this imagined past, Williams himself deploys a pastoral image of our own lost days to mount a critique of the monumental and psychic losses wrought by capitalist social relations. It is the force of such intimate recollections that makes his critique of capitalist alienation so touchingly effective and emotionally powerful.
Like Raymond Williams, Geoffrey Chaucer's Wife of Bath harkens back to a time of delighted absorption in the world. Her Arthurian tale (Chaucer's only venture into the genre) famously begins by alluding to a time, now gone, and to Britain once filled with faerie pleasures:
In th'olde dayes of the Kyng Arthour
Of which that Britons speken greet honour
All was this land fulfild of fayerye.
The Elf-Queene and hir joly compaignee
Full ofte daunced in many a grene mede.
This was the olde opinioun as I rede.
I speke of many hundrede yeres ago
But now can no man see non elves Mo.4
The Wife's pastoral history of "this land" then and now resonates with legendary images of an archaic whole and healed British space, the fantasy of the united tota insula, famously described by Geoffrey of Monmouth.5 Within these few lines the notoriously pragmatic Wife allows us to glimpse the dreamer in her, who unites the whole geography of Britain, King Arthur, and a lost magical past. She will shortly return to mercantile concerns, however, specifically by identifying the loss of these faerie spaces with economic production:
Blessynge halles, chambres, kichenes, boures
Citees, burghes, castles, hye toures,
Thropes, bernes, shipnes, dayeryes --
This maketh that ther ben no fayeries (11. 869-72).
Louise O. Fradenburg has situated the shift between "then" and "now" legible in these passages in the context of the late-medieval transition from the feudal timing of aristocratic otium to the mercantile calibrations of clock and calendar, a crucial part of the transition to wage laboring.6 Building upon her analysis, I wish to suggest that the Wife of Bath's Tale can be read to encode a dialectic like the one Williams describes, one with implications for a reading of Chaucer's use of history. Chaucer juxtaposes what Williams calls "delighted absorption in the world"-a marvelous archaic land of fairies-with modes of "using and consuming" people and things-the cities, barns, ships, and dairies of fourteenth-century life. And like Williams, Chaucer's Wife tells a history in which the materiality of those later uses supplants, even destroys, pastoral absorption, a history in this case of the mercantile present of a country once stuffed to overflowing with elves and fairies.
To be sure, and as Williams cautions, "great confusion" arises if we naturalize such archaisms as the unqualified truth about the past. Romantic scenes of early days when beautiful creatures (whether jolly elves, matriarchal Amazons, Welsh "native cultures," or noble Native Americans) lived in paradisic bliss occlude material processes and aggressions, not the least the processes by which some cultures are preserved and others, like the Wife of Bath's fairies, are made to pass away.7 Postcolonial theorists have argued that in the case of colonized groups, such romanticism proves disabling for a consideration of the agency of the conquered, an issue of increasing importance as we seek to revise the long-standing overemphasis upon the power of Europe's conquerors. Medievalists interested in the histories of Europe's linguistic minorities, in those Felipe Fernandez-Armesto has called Europe's "internal primitives," however, must face even "realist" representations of the past as sites not of cultural preservation, but of absence, loss, and mourning. Significant losses to the artifacts, manuscripts, texts, or traditions of conquered cultures separate us, perhaps irreparably, from what Benita Parry has called the "counterhegemonic" strategies of the medieval colonized, and thus from their histories of agency.8 As a strategy of response to those mournful losses, I will argue that utopian images of lost times and places can, precisely because such images were deployed by medieval conquered cultures, help us to gain a purchase on the materiality of alternative versions of the world and of its past.9 Such utopian dreams can, for one thing, register a desire to transform the world, to reorganize material relations, including the materiality of our own historicisms. As Williams teaches us, "the structure of feeling of the memoirs is significant and indispensable as a response to [a] specific social deformation" (298). Probing these social deformations as a material historical fact, we can see, again as Williams puts it, "the processes of alienation, separation, externality, abstraction" (298) produced both by colonialism and by commodification, for activities related to conquest and colonization also deploy strategies of the consumption and use of land, people, and things.
I will argue that taking the utopian dreams of the medieval colonized as a serious strategy of resistance will change how we understand, and indeed define, history. It affects, for one thing, where we might look for traces of those texts and traditions judged not worthy of preservation, and not recovered for the archives. It suggests, more precisely, that the genres of folklore and romance might offer a different kind of evidence within which we might read a fantasmatic colonial archive. Moving toward such a view of history, I will read the images of absorption embedded in the Wife of Bath's pastoral medievalism to encode a particular scene of conquest and political resistance between England and Wales occurring around the time of Chaucer's writing, a scene that persistently engaged, as I have argued elsewhere, middle English Arthurian romance.10 I will thus be departing from critical tradition and pressing upon the Arthurian setting of the Wife's tale. For despite the Wife's opening mention of King Arthur's days, the materiality of her tale's connection to a well-established tradition of legendary Arthurian history has been of little interest to scholars. I wish to consider the implications of a tradition that overlooks, and perhaps even occludes, the materiality of this "British" history and the politics of its utopian captivation.
The relation of Arthurian texts to traditions of Welsh "native" resistance to an aggressive English sovereignty is becoming increasingly well-known, particularly through revisionary accounts of the reception of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae.11 Arthurian legendary history was the object of shared dreamings and political contestations between England and Wales, contestations that will, a decade after Chaucer writes, erupt in Owain Glyn Dwr's rebellion against English rule. Yet despite the clear links of Arthur's legendary history to the contested spaces of the realm-specifically to the relations among England and the regions of its so-called "Celtic fringe"-Chaucer's use of these traditions in the Wife of Bath's Tale has not been read in this context. Accounts of the tale's well-- documented "Celtic" connections, read in the "loathly lady" motif (a figure historically linked to both Irish and Welsh traditions of sovereignty), usually pass over Wales to emphasize the text's Irish sources. What are we to make of the ease with which the Welsh disappear from criticism of the tale?
Wales also disappears from the edited text of the Wife of Bath. The index to proper names in The Riverside Chaucer evacuates the Welsh from the group of Arthurian devotees the Wife mentions in the tale's second line. Identifying those Britons summarily with the "inhabitants of Brittany" (1313), the glosses move admirers of Arthur off the island. A second gloss for Briton, linked to the Man of Law's Tale, brings the Britons back to insular spaces, but now of an archaic time and memorialized in the singular: a lone "Celtic inhabitant of ancient Britain."
Admittedly, the Riverside glosses express a kind of historicist accuracy: according to Geoffrey of Monmouth, the term "Briton" refers both to Arthur's ancestors in Brittany and to their insular kin, the Welsh, who were, as very old inhabitants of the island and descendants of the Trojan Brutus, also called "Britons." But Monmouth's account includes the image of a surviving group of remnant Britons living in the very edges of Wales, a group in some manuscripts of the Historia said to anticipate their return to sovereignty over a British totam insulam. The image of the Britons as heirs of magnificent sovereigns such as Arthur would be variously used in Welsh nationalist discourse well into the eighteenth century.
Taken together the Riverside glosses seem determined to forget Welsh presence on the island at the time Chaucer wrote, a presence that by the late fourteenth century was once again reviving fantasies of the "Breton Hope," that is, the prophecy of Merlin predicting Welsh recovery of insular British kingship. Fantasies of a pastoral, ancient, and united Britain like the one deployed at the opening of the WBT were at play differently, at different historical moments, deployed by different groups. At stake in the wide circulation of such fantasies in the late Middle Ages, and in the question of how easy it is to see, or not to see, the Welsh or Scots versions of these as history, are contestations over the ownership of Britain's past.
In their implicit dismissal of the historicity of legendary insular traditions, the Riverside glosses avoid the materiality of an insular minority, a group linked linguistically and culturally with the name of Britain itself, a group, like the Scots and the Irish, with long-standing experiences of English annexation. Disavowing this other, more intimate, and more politically contentious possibility for the term Briton, the glosses displace Welsh existence into first a different space and then a different time, a people spatially, or temporally, elsewhere, excluded from the land and time of the Canterbury Pilgrims. These strategies make it possible to disavow important insular aggressions and ethnic imaginaries circulating at the time Chaucer wrote. Embedded in, yet occluded by, the doubleness of that gloss is a long and complicated history of cultural exchange, between indigenous cultures and invading ones.
I emphasize the details of glossing and the importance of legendary traditions so as to note the invisibilities produced by "realist" history. The tendentious accuracy of the Riverside glosses suggests that some kinds of historicist rigor, precisely through documentary or "realist" claims to precision, risk making the material histories of the marginalized-and in this case, the history of their agency-invisible. Welsh scholars, for their part, have spent enormous energy testifying to the historical complications of England's conquest of Wales. R. R. Davies, whose work in this regard resembles postcolonial critic Sara Suleri's, foregrounds the intimacies between colonized and colonizers, emphasizing a complex situation structured by "accommodation and co-existence" as much as by "conquest."12 Yet the implications of this understandable emphasis upon the intimacies of English-Welsh affairs have also often meant that Welsh oppositional claims to "British" identity fall victim to a particularly deep invisibility, one that has made postcolonial reading difficult.
Medievalists increasingly remind us that ideologically suspect assumptions about the medieval past emphasize ascriptions of medieval difference so as to mark the limits of modernity. It is in this light that Kathleen Biddick suggests that the "medieval" has remained a recalcitrant site for engaging postcolonial cultural studies insofar as the early period does cultural work for twentieth-century scholars. Reading the "fantasy of the medieval English peasant" in the legendary figure of Robin Hood, Biddick argues that the historians writing in the journal Past and Present engaged in "pastoral moves," imagining an insular rural British past that might help them psychically to "repair the imagined but nevertheless lost past [of rural colonial India] by disavowing it and putting Robin Hood in its place ... as the father of a new rural history" (67). Pastoral images of Britain's past, Biddick thus argues, work to compensate for, indeed to disavow, the troubling, and antagonistic, visibility of a twentieth-century multicultural Britain. I suggest that the traditional unimportance of medieval insular linguistic minorities like the Welsh to larger questions of Middle English history and culture constitutes another move in a British pastoral of disavowal. Welsh claims on the category of Britain gesture toward an equally devastating shattering of identity, one that involves taking seriously not only English enchantment with and dependence upon "wild Wales," but the material and cultural power of popular legends, legends scholars have long insisted we distinguish from "realist" history proper.
I share with Biddick, in other words, the desire to note the ideological difficulties of the pastoral turn. Yet Biddick's analysis can produce its own invisibilities: pastoral images of a lost British wholeness were also deployed by the Welsh and Scots against English colonial aggression. Inspired by Raymond Williams's analysis, I thus wish to note that even romantic, pastoral images of a lost past can sometimes show us the poignant alternatives that subordinated peoples have dreamt. And this, I would argue, is one of the things that the Wife of Bath's deployment of "pastoral" images can gesture toward: to a time before the commodification of land, people, and things, important both to capitalism and to the subsequent link of capitalism with colonialism.
Admittedly, and from the vantage of psychoanalytic theories of subjectivity, Raymond Williams's resonant view of childhood as a time of "absorption" and "enjoyment" might be read as an avoidance of the complexities, even cruelties, of desire in childhood.13 Yet with the work of psychoanalytic revisionists Melanie Klein, and Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in mind we reconsider the possibility that such romantic images might be reread as an aggressive and anti-colonialist "group fantasy."14 Klein reminds us of the aggressions and envies of desire in infancy, while Deleuze and Guattari emphasize, through their notion of "desiring-- production," the productive power of drives and energies to make the world, to make the world be different than it is. According to Deleuze and Guattari, "group fantasy" can activate desire to imagine a different social order, a different kind of world. We might, I would argue, capture the desire embedded in medieval images of lost pastoral spaces for an aggressive energy that, once directed toward changing the world, might now be capable of changing our histories.
Aggressive Deleuzian "group fantasies" have been important to both feminist theory and to feminist revisionary accounts of history. Pastoral histories can be revolutionary insofar as they help us see alternatives to the institutions we have been taught to think of as necessary, as unavoidably "real." I turn, then, to offer a reading of how the pastoral images deployed by Chaucer's Wife of Bath encode aggressions useful to both feminist and postcolonial praxis. How might this vibrant fourteenthcentury female reader offer a creative model for crafting a pastoral history, not as a disavowal of aggressions and envies, but as an aggressive narrative, a "group fantasy" with different hopes for the world in mind?
The Wife of Bath's Desiring Production
Chaucer's Wife of Bath is arguably among the most ingenious readers in the history of literature. Critical reception of the Wife's prologue stresses the agency of her aggressive re-reading of scripture as a means for displaying and resisting the medieval anti-feminist tradition. In a marked departure from a woefully long scholarly tradition castigating the Wife's "carnal reading," scholars now consistently celebrate her misreadings for their political point, construing her deliberate misreadings of texts as a mark of her political and cultural acuity.15 "Bad" readings of texts, or so the Wife shows us, can produce "useful" readings of culture. Or, to put this another way, the Wife of Bath's putatively flawed knowledge of the scriptural tradition offers us important insight into medieval gender relations, and important knowledge about a reader's agency in the face of cultural constraint.
In these accounts the Wife's re-readings of scripture are implicitly re-read as a utopian "group fantasy," directed against the "anti-feminist" tradition, a social institution that was neither unavoidably necessary, nor the only "real" truth about the Middle Ages. As the Wife blasts clerkly writers for their biased perspectives, she activates the textual tradition for a different set of social uses. The Wife's assessment of the politics of writing eventually converges on her representation of the politics of reading, registering together a desire for a different kind of textual production, one that has been so productive for the feminist classroom.
It is this exciting desire for a different kind of textual production that offers a way to approach the Wife of Bath's Tale as kind of revolutionary "pastoral thinking." Yet although critics increasingly celebrate the Wife's prologue for the edginess of its critique of anti-feminism, concern over the romantically utopian aspects of her tale persist.16 This is a tale about a time long ago when a rapist knight can be magically transformed into a dutiful husband; in these "old days" an aged, loathly lady becomes a sweet young thing once more; we hear of "many hundred years ago" when an old middle-class woman, "comen of so lough a kynde" (1. 1101), gains status and gains rule from her aristocrat husband. Persistently, though not exclusively, these aspects of the Wife's tale have been read as a particular, sometimes even pathetic, woman's "wish fulfillment," a naive "romance" fancy so excessively fanciful that it deserves the condescension of the sober-minded, sophisticated critic, whether that critic is the modern anti-feminist who judges the Wife's ambitions to be utterly trivial, or the feminist who finds her desire for renewed youth and beauty as an internalization of the ideology of "the beauty myth."17
Situated within its Arthurian context, itself a scene of interpretive contestation between England and Wales, the Wife's utopian rereading of British legendary history suggests that affairs of love are the intimate sites wherein social institutions are destroyed or changed. I have already noted that stories of Arthur offer a medium for alternative versions of "British" history, and for the ambitious (if ultimately failed) sovereign programs of Wales and Scotland. These were literally aggressive fantasies of changing, if not entirely reforming, the social institution of English rule. The threats that these fantasies posed to English rule are registered in the harsh anti-- vaticination laws of the post-Glyn Dwr years, laws which, among other things, made Welsh prophecies of the Breton Hope illegal.18 When the Wife's tale gestures to Celtic sovereignty through its Arthurian context (absent in the tale's major analogue, John Gower's The Tale of Florent) and through the loathly lady motif, she suggests a link between the intimacies of romantic attachments and contested sovereign traditions.
Most scholars have read the Wife's interest in sovereignty of wife over husband in opposition to the term's more expansive ("Celtic") definition of rule over a nation.19 Yet there is plenty of evidence in the tale to suggest that "sovereignty" extends beyond the confines of the bourgeois household. For one thing, the recalcitrant knight objects to his marriage to the loathly lady in collective terms: "Alas," he opines, "that any of my nacion / sholde evere so foule disparaged be!" (11. 1067-68). For another, the lady's reply identifies the knight's resistance to her with "Arthures hous," when she wonders aloud if the knight's rejection of her comes from his submission to the laws of court: "Is this the lawe of Arthures hous?/ Is every knyght of his so dangerous?" (11. 1089-90). Early on the tale emphasizes the sociopolitical questions of law, noting with some specificity the legal details of the victimized maiden's request for legal redress. Chaucer uses specific legal terminology ("pursute" and "statut") to foreground the juridical aspects of Arthur's rule by which "cours of lawe" the Knight should have been put to death (11. 890; 893; 892). This scene, furthermore, focuses our attention on the recuperative potential of female sovereignty. When the rapist knight is brought before Arthur, Arthur's wife, a figure of female sovereignty, comes to the rescue of our dishonorable chevalier in distress, thereby reversing the standard Arthurian romance trope.
Finally, at the moment of the loathly lady's transformation from hag into stunning beauty, she promises her beauty will be that of the matchless lady sovereign:
"Kys me," quod she, "we be no longer wrothe;
For, by my trouthe, I wol be to yow bothe,
This is to seyn, ye, bothe fair and good.
I prey to God that I moote sterven wood,
But I to yow be also good and trewe
As evere was wyf, syn that the world was newe.
And but I be to-mom as fair to seene
As any lady, emperice, or queene
That is bitwixe the est and eke the west." (11. 1239-47)
The passage emphasizes the doubleness of the lady's transformation, the extensive reach of her newly incomparable body. The language replaces the tale's earlier contrasts and oppositions with a repetitive list of inclusions. No longer either gracious or faithful, she will be both gracious sovereign and true good wife, prototypical well-ruled woman and female ruler spanning the breadth of the land. In her beautiful transformation, the loathly lady combines the loyal wife with the powerful attractions of empress or queen.
Such sovereign comparisons, especially in the representation of the territorial scope of the lady's matchless beauty, need not be read to denude sovereignty from its geopolitical expansiveness. Indeed the tale seems to collapse, rather than oppose, the geopolitical with the intimate and domestic. Here, as in the earlier allusion to Arthur's Queen, (traditionally Guinevere) the Wife of Bath's Tale may gesture precisely to Welsh sovereign traditions, especially in light of Glenys Goetinck's work.20 "Gwenhwyfar," Goetinck writes, "may have been a Welsh version of the personification of sovereignty, as was Queen Medb in Irish literature" (134). Not herself concerned with the Wife's tale, Goetinck argues that Guinevere is often identified with the opposition between graciousness and fidelity, precisely the opposition that Chaucer's loathly lady presents to her soon to be rehabilitated lover.
Thus the Wife of Bath's Tale offers a view of the convergence of, and not an opposition between, the body of the beloved and the territories of the world. Of course, colonial intimacy also marks such a convergence. In the intimacy of the colonial setting, love and rule combine. We now know much more, thanks to postcolonial theories, of the erotics of conquest, the fantasmatic structures of desire that circulate among the rulers and the ruled. The Wife of Bath longs to remind us of those structures. To be sure, at times, her tale raises those structures at their most oppressive, their least utopic. Insofar as this tale does not allow us to rethink oppressive structures, the Wife of Bath's Tale can remind us that "the intimacies of the colonial setting" have often colluded with the hierarchies of colonial rule. Anxieties of miscegenation and the laws that prohibit intercultural unions (laws that would increase in the years just after Chaucer wrote) gesture to the threats that certain kinds of loving can pose to the state.
Yet it would be a mistake, I think, to ignore the powerful pleasures of the Wife's tale. We can instead re-read the utopian aspects of the tale as a "revolutionary passion," one that raises the possibility that intimate relations of oppression, read in the knight's crime of "rape" but also in the Wife's parting curse, might be transformed into alternative loves, just as the recalcitrant knight is transformed from unwilling prisoner to willing lover. The fact that this transformation requires the (albeit temporary) submission of the knight to the wishes of the lady (the fact that he gains his desire by granting hers) might suggest that certain kinds of knightly desires, produced by "Arthures laws" must be reworked before such utopian hopes are even possible.
This essay has not endeavored to argue that the Wife of Bath's Tale is a "Welsh" Arthurian story. It has, however, been suggested that in the Wife of Bath's Tale Chaucer uses traditions of pastoral history important to Welsh fantasies of rule, traditions that offer us trace evidence of an alternative insular past. When he displaces the ambitious sovereign programs of Wales, Scotland, and Ireland into a "Celtic" archaic time of long ago, Chaucer may well collude with imperial desires to lose such sovereign ambitions in that archaic past, implying their irrelevance to contemporary social realities or politics. A "realist" account of the history of Arthurian traditions in Britain would similarly imply the irrelevance of such failed sovereign dreams in favor of the tyranny of what happened, a method that uses history's claim to the "real" as one more tool of the colonizer. And this is precisely the logic of those glosses for Britain offered by The Riverside Chaucer, a fact that reminds us how deeply our assumptions about the medieval past are mediated not only by editorial precision but also by an inherited sense of what counts as real. We must, thus, finally ask to what extent the demand for "accurate" accounts of the past mean that the utopian fantasies of the subordinated, perhaps precisely because they failed, will never, indeed can never, count as real.