Two Communities of Interpretation in Medieval Literature During the Twentieth Century
For much of the Twentieth Century, analysis of medieval literature, and especially Chaucer, tended to divide critics into two major communities of interpretation, the "Robertsonians," who believed that medieval authors were invariably governed by Christian values even when they appeared to be writing completely secular works, and those who followed more eclectic readings that allowed Chaucer to be ironic or ambiguous about religious faith, sinful or criminal behavior, and other flash-points for interpretations of the poet's works. Major examples of both groups were C. S. Lewis's The Allegory of Love (1937, 809.02 L67) and The Discarded Image (1964, 809.02 L67d), D. W. Robertson Jr.'s A Preface to Chaucer (1962, 826.2 C49Srob), and two essays by E. Talbot Donaldson, "Designing a Camel, or Generalizing the Middle Ages" (Tennessee Studies in Literature, 1977) and "Chaucer the Pilgrim" (PMLA, 1954). [Discarded Image is still in print in paperback, and the other two books are available in affordable used paperback editions.] In the decades following the most fierce controversies during the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, many medievalists have moved on to other concerns, but all must first thread their way through the interpretive minefield created by this debate. What follows is a brief suggestion about how to read these works as a group to benefit from their strengths and avoid succumbing to their weaknesses.
Lewis was trying to package "medieval culture" in a way that would highlight its differences from and relations to the modern world, which he fairly well loathed. It's a dangerous way to think, but I do it too in 240 and 330, so I can not blame him. The main problem with The Allegory of Love was its thesis that if poets wrote about adulterous erotic love as if it were the highest psychological and spiritual achievement of their culture, those poets were in some sense telling the truth about their cultures as historians, sociologists, anthropologists, or even newspaper reporters might. Many a C20-21 film has been made about human contact with intergalactic aliens, but so far, no wars have been fought or romances consummated with them in any reliable public forum. Robertson's reaction to this in A Preface to Chaucer was to deny any possibility that these erotic flirtations might have occurred in fact, and to insist that they all were meant to be read through the lens of strict biblical exegesis as coded warnings about the perils of the behavior they appeared to praise. In a revised edition of Allegory, Lewis retreated from some of the more extreme claims of the first edition, and Lewis' Discarded Image, something of a corrective response to Robertson's argument, puts Christian belief squarely in the center of his imagination of Medieval consciousness, while still allowing that a secular world went about its business at the same time. The problem with all three of these books is that they can lead the reader to over-generalization, i.e., the assumption that there was no social or psychological or spiritual diversity in Medieval cultures, which leads to statements about "the medieval reader" or "the medieval author," as if they were all the same. Worse still, those statements seem to assume that there was no significant difference between French C14 medieval culture and English C14 medieval culture, or between London's court literary scene (say) in 1385 and that same geographical region's cultural mechanism for producing literature in the next year. We know American culture is different from year to year, from region to region, from person to person, but Lewis's and Robertson's projects, even while they are snapping us out of our complaisant ignorance about "the dark ages," created an implied homogeneity in that "Image" or that "Chaucer" which one has to work hard to resist. I don't think they intended it, or all of its effects, but the more they persuade, the more that flattening of differences takes effect.
The shortest antidote or counterbalance to Lewis and Robertson might be Donaldson's "Designing a Camel, or Generalizing the Middle Ages," which is something you can get in photocopy from an interlibrary loan service: Tennessee Studies in Literature, 22, (1977) pp. 1-16. His other major essay about too-easy assumptions, 'Chaucer the Pilgrim," is available online: http://www.courses.fas.harvard.edu/~chaucer/canttales/gp/pilgrim.html.. The first essay cautions against what assumptions of historical uniformity of belief and behavior which the "glacial erosion" of data and familiarity encourages by making difficult our access to first-hand acquaintance with the evidence of lived experience in the era. The second reacts against C19-20 critics who read Chaucer as a literary "realist" who somehow anticipated nineteenth-century fictional realism five hundred years before the fact. "Chaucer the Pilgrim" is Donaldson's name for the persona who introduces the other pilgrims in the "General Prologue" of the Canterbury Tales, and who tells the comic satire "Sir Thopas" and the moral allegory "Melibee" when called upon for a tale by the Host. Donaldson reasonably points out that we need not believe a masterful poet is telling the truth when the poet's persona says he's too fat to succeed in love, too simple-minded to invent facts, and such a bad poet that the only rhyming narrative he can think of is halted by the Host's scatological exclamation that "Thy drasty rhyming is not worth a turd!" In both cases, Donaldson's corrective responses to the over-generalizations and simplifications have been generally accepted by all scholars and his reasoning will help us take what is most valuable in Lewis and Robertson and the earlier historical-realist critics without falling victim to their errors in "practicing history."
For the rest of my response to this "how to become an interpreter of medieval literature" issue, click here.