Date of this Version
The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, Vol. 93, No.2 (Apr., 1994), pp. 251-254.
Chaucer and the Subject of History, updating Caroline Spurgeon, tells us how to read Chaucer in a modern way. Ms. Spurgeon's half-century-old introduction to 500 Years of Chaucer Criticism and Allusion notes that the real Chaucer, the "literary craftsman," was discovered in the nineteenth century since previous times had seen him only as a moralist and rhetorician. This richer Chaucer was, in her view, made possible by the nineteenth-century growth and development of the individual personality. Now Lee Patterson offers us a twentieth-century Chaucer whose interest in the "constitution of the self" is "quintessential modern" (p. 11). Much of this book contains arguments with which I agree (specifically many of the arguments concerning the Legend of Good Women, the Miller's and Reeve's tales, and the commercial locus of the Shipman's and Merchant's tales). I wish to focus here, however, on its conception of Chaucer's view of history and the "subject" in the Theban-Trojan matter. Patterson's reading of the Theban dimension of the Troilus makes it represent "Boethian" escapism reflecting Chaucer's late 1380s incapacity to engage history in a positive way.