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Response to Review no. 1057

I am extremely grateful to Christine Carpenter for her generous and thorough review of my Wisdom and Chivalry: Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale and Medieval Political Theory. I would like to reply to three issues raised in the review although only the first of these is of any major significance for the question of how we should go about understanding Chaucer’s ‘Knight’s Tale’ in relation to its historical context.

My only real disagreement with the views expressed by Dr Carpenter results from a belief that she has not followed her own desire for an ‘historicized’ Chaucer through to its logical conclusion. Dr Carpenter rightly emphasises the need for us to appreciate the ‘irony’ involved in Chaucer’s poetry. She thus presents us with a Chaucer who was playing games with literary convention, one who refused to endorse one specific way of seeing but preferred instead to put forward a variety of alternative views so that his meaning becomes elusive and polyvalent. In support of this view, Dr Carpenter cites the work of Jill Mann, which shows how Chaucer ‘does his own, often rather cheeky, thing’ with literary tradition. She also refers to the work of V. J. Scattergood in which Chaucer is regarded not as a ‘court poet’, since the court of the time enjoyed Latin and old-fashioned French works, but as the member of a circle of career diplomats, civil servants, officials and government administrators, who ‘fed, perhaps outrageously at times, off each other’s wit’, with Chaucer being the ‘wittiest and most outrageous of them all’. However, while Mann’s work has certainly alerted us to the literary conventions with which Chaucer was engaging, the reading of Chaucer’s text as being open-ended that results from her work, is rather more controversial. Since Mann’s work is about the ‘General Prologue’ to the Canterbury Tales, whereas my Wisdom and Chivalry focuses on the ‘Knight’s Tale’, I did not feel that this was the place to engage with her work, particularly as I had previously discussed this approach to Chaucer at length in my Chaucer in Context.(1) Nor, given Chaucer and Gower’s connections with Richard II, John of Gaunt and Henry Bolingbroke, do I see a view of Chaucer as the member of a group of intellectuals who were civil servants and administrators as necessarily being at odds with a view of him as a ‘court’ poet. On the contrary, as Green’s Poets and Princepleasers shows, late medieval princes and nobles seem to have had a marked appetite for the moralistic works, often with a Boethian-emphasis, produced by authors such as Chaucer, Gower and Hoccleve.(2) Certainly, as the example of Gower shows, adopting the ‘avant garde’ choice of writing in English, being influenced by the latest literary trends from France and being the member of an intellectual circle that which also included Chaucer and Ralph Strode, did not necessarily result in texts that were ironic, elusive and polyvalent.

The problem here is that, as Dr Carpenter points out, modern readers tend to associate irony with scepticism and subversion, or at least with texts which are ‘elusive and polyvalent’. The danger of adopting this view is that we then lapse into a timeless or ahistorical view of literature – and of irony – of the kind which Dr Carpenter herself wishes to criticise. An alternative view would be that the nature of irony – and the purposes to which it is put – is itself historically specific. Thus, in the context of the literary culture of the Middle Ages, irony was often used for ‘conservative’ social purposes. For instance, when, in the ‘General Prologue’ to the Canterbury Tales, the Monk says that he regards the saying that ‘a monk out of the cloister is like a fish out of water’ as being ‘not worth an oyster’ – and Chaucer the Pilgrim, the character who appears in the Tales, agrees with him, saying that ‘his opinion was good’ – an appreciation of the humour of this passage comes from our assumed understanding that monks should not wander outside the cloister and go out hunting as Chaucer’s Monk does. Without this assumed background belief, all we would have in this case is a literary character expressing an opinion and another one agreeing with him. Here Chaucer does indeed play with literary convention and, unlike Gower, does not simply offer an indignant denunciation of monks who fail to carry out their estate functions. Yet, he still manages, through his use of irony and satire, to remind us of how monks should behave and of the failure of the Monk to live up to this ideal. In other words, the attribution of ironic intent raises the issue of who the target of the irony is and at whose expense it is employed. In this case, the target is the Monk, along with Chaucer the Pilgrim, a fictional character wittily created by Chaucer the Poet, who fails to appreciate the Monk’s failure to fulfil his social duty. As Hayden White says, ‘The aim of the ironic statement is to affirm tacitly the negative of what is on the literal level affirmed positively’. It thus presupposes that the reader ‘already knows’ the absurdity of what is being explicitly affirmed and, as a result, can just as readily be used for conservative purposes as it can for more radical ones.(3) It is just this process which, I would maintain, was at work in Chaucer’s text. Thus, whilst his work does undoubtedly take the form of a witty and playful engagement with literary convention, this playfulness is not merely an intellectual game or an end in itself but is rather the means of conveying a specific social meaning.  

My other two disagreements with Dr Carpenter are much less significant. Firstly, she criticises my use of the ‘now rather outmoded’ characterisation of medieval theories of government into those which see political authority in ‘descending’ terms (in which authority flows downwards, from God to the ruler and, in turn, from the ruler to the political community, with the ruler being unconstrained by the political community, from which he is set apart) and those which adopt a more ‘ascending’ conception (in which power arises from the political community, with the ruler being in some sense responsible to that community of which he himself is a member). This approach to medieval political theory was, of course, taken from the work of Walter Ullmann.(4) Ullmann’s work can be criticised in a number of ways but, nevertheless, his terminology does seem to capture the contrast between what Giles of Rome called the ‘regal’ or ‘royal’ and the ‘political’ or ‘civil’ modes of rule. In the former, the ruler is like a father who has a complete power over his children, even though (unlike the tyrant) he exercises his rule for the good of those subject to him, and his word is law; in the latter, by contrast, the relationship of ruler and ruled is more like that of husband and wife. Here, while the husband is the wife’s superior, he does not enjoy an absolute rule over her but is rather like a ruler whose power is restrained by chartered agreement and by laws which the community itself has made.(5) In other words, the political theory of Giles of Rome, which I used to structure my discussion of the ‘Knight’s Tale’, itself distinguishes between rulers whose will is, in effect, law and those who are constrained by laws which the political community has endorsed, a distinction which seem rather similar to that expressed by Ullmann’s notions of ‘ascending’ and ‘descending’ forms of government. As a result, I am not entirely clear why we should abandon Ullmann’s terms, even if, in practice, many medieval theorists advocated a ‘mixed’ form of government which combined aspects of both the ‘regal’ (or descending) and the ‘political’ (or ascending) modes.(6)

Secondly, Dr Carpenter ascribes to me a view that Richard II’s deposition in 1399 was the result of his failure to consult with his magnates, against which she proposes an alternative interpretation in which Richard’s downfall is seen as the result of ‘the king’s overriding of law’ which, along with his ‘complete contempt for the property rights protected by that law’, led to him being regarded as a tyrant. Dr Carpenter sees this aspect of tyranny as being neglected in my Wisdom and Chivalry even though it was central to the ‘Articles’ which justified the deposition of Richard II. However, my Wisdom and Chivalry is not a study of the actual historical reasons for Richard II’s deposition but is rather an exploration of those medieval political discourses (including those used to justify Richard’s deposition) which are useful and relevant for an understanding of Chaucer’s ‘Knight’s Tale’. Here, Richard II’s refusal to take or to heed ‘wise’ counsel certainly was an issue with the Articles of Deposition explicitly accusing the king of subverting the authority of parliament, of ruling by his own arbitrary will and foolish desires and of ‘sharply and violently’ rebuking those lords and justices who sought to speak truthfully to him.(7) Thus, while I myself have elsewhere focussed on the medieval definition of tyranny in terms of the ruler’s wilful over-riding of law and his subjects’ consequent lack of secure property rights (8), the latter was not a major issue in the context of the ‘Knight’s Tale’ where Duke Theseus does not threaten the security of property of his subjects. However, my discussion of whether or not the ‘Knight’s Tale’ portrays Duke Theseus as a tyrant did include a lengthy discussion of the legality of the duke’s refusal to allow Palamon and Arcite to be ransomed after he has imprisoned them and of the causes and conduct of his war against Thebes.(9) Finally, since Richard II’s deposition was, like all historical events, the product of multiple interacting causes, there is no reason why, in explaining the king’s downfall, an emphasis on Richard’s wilful over-riding of the law and his assault on his subjects’ property rights should necessarily be regarded as being incompatible with a stress on the issue of counsel. Indeed, one of the issues on which the king could have listened to ‘wise’ counsel was precisely whether or not he had the right to over-ride the law and to treat his subjects’ property as his own, matters about which many contemporaries, including the leading men of the realm who expected that the king would listen to their advice, seem to have had rather strong opinions of their own!

Writing a response to Dr Carpenter’s review of my work almost inevitably results in a focus on our differences when, in fact , as Marx and Engels were fond of saying, ‘we proceed in agreement’ on most of the major issues. Thus we are in harmony on the need for an historically-informed reading of Chaucer’s work, on the anachronistic nature of some of the historicist interpretations of Chaucer which have been offered to us, on the importance of an appreciation of irony for an understanding of Chaucer’s meaning, on the nature of the intellectual circle of which Chaucer was a member, on the relevance of medieval political theory for an understanding both of Chaucer’s poetry and of medieval European imaginative literature in general, on the centrality of Giles of Rome’s work in the political theory of the day, on the medieval definition of tyranny and on the reasons for the deposition of Richard II. I would like to conclude by thanking Dr Carpenter once more for her thought-provoking review and only hope that literary critics are as positive in their reception of my work as she herself has been.


  1. S. H. Rigby, Chaucer in Context: Society, Allegory and Gender (Manchester, 1996), especially chapters 1 and 2.Back to (1)
  2. R. F. Green, Poets and Princepleasers: Literature and the English Court in the Late Middle Ages (Toronto, 1980), passim.Back to (2)
  3. H. White, Metahistory: the Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore, 1973), pp. 37-8.Back to (3)
  4. W. Ullmann, A History of Political Thought: the Middle Ages (Harmondsworth, 1965), pp. 12–3, 31, 54, 57, 148, 154, 159–60, 203, 208–9, 212, 214.Back to (4)
  5. S. H. Rigby, Wisdom and Chivalry: Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale and Medieval Political Theory (Leiden, 2009), pp.  145, 146, 178.Back to (5)
  6. J. M. Blythe, Ideal Government and the Mixed Constitution in the Middle Ages (Princeton, 1992), passim.Back to (6)
  7. Rigby, Wisdom and Chivalry, pp. 194–5.Back to (7)
  8. S. H. Rigby, ‘Society and politics’, in S. Ellis, ed., Chaucer: an Oxford Guide (Oxford, 2005), p. 46.Back to (87)
  9. Rigby, Wisdom and Chivalry, pp. 207–19.Back to (9)