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Rhetoric, romance and the structure of authority in the "Canterbury Tales"

Kurtis Boyd Haas, University of Nebraska - Lincoln

Abstract

This study examines Chaucer's manipulations of medieval rhetorical theory in the chivalric narratives of the Canterbury Tales. Unlike other writers of romance--itself a contested term--Chaucer exploits the epistemic potential of discourse systems to suggest means by which those who hold power in fourteenth-century society are shaped and implicated by their uses of language. The Wife of Bath makes the most obvious connection between rhetoric and authority, first by inhibiting the glossing hermeneutics of her own sermon, then by applying this disruptive strategy to the flawed characters of her Arthurian quest romance. The Knight's Tale in many ways explores the consequences of similar disruptions to the aristocracy, balancing Emelye's and Theseus' orderly use of medieval rhetorics against the dangerous threats to the nation state posed by Palamon and Arcite's inability to match circumstances with appropriate styles. The Squire, in turn, further articulates the instability of the English hierarchy, albeit unintentionally, through the discoveries he makes about himself and his kind while telling his tale. Dorigen and Arveragus of the Franklin's Tale find their authority undermined by the squire Aurelius and his hired clerk when they fail to use the skills of the trivium to think through the problems put before them. The rhetorical vacuum created by the nobles is ultimately filled, for Chaucer, by the corrupted mercantile rhetoric of the Tale of Sir Thopas, which describes a bourgeois knight making a mockery of chivalric conventions. Ultimately in the Tales, eloquence is important to the stability and continuation of the social order. However, it is also fragile. On the one hand it is threatened by the epistemic nature of rhetoric, which constantly creates new possibilities for understanding and interpretation, for "reading" and possibly reconfiguring the nature of authority. On the other hand, the failure of those in power to recognize their own responsibility to be eloquent and thoughtful makes them culpable for a volatile set of social structures.

Subject Area

Literature|Middle Ages|Rhetoric|Composition|British and Irish literature

Recommended Citation

Haas, Kurtis Boyd, "Rhetoric, romance and the structure of authority in the "Canterbury Tales"" (1998). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI9902959.
https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/dissertations/AAI9902959

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