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Ethics and Exemplary Narrative in Chaucer and Gower

Ethics and Exemplary Narrative in Chaucer and Gower

J. ALLAN MITCHELL
Series: Chaucer Studies
Volume: 33
Copyright Date: 2004
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 166
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7722/j.ctt81rhw
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  • Book Info
    Ethics and Exemplary Narrative in Chaucer and Gower
    Book Description:

    Why do medieval writers routinely make use of exemplary rhetoric? How does it work, and what are its ethical and poetical values? And if Chaucer and Gower must be seen as vigorously subverting it, then why do they persist in using it? Borrowing from recent developments in ethical criticism and theory, this book addresses such questions by reconstructing a late medieval rationale for the ethics of exemplary narrative. The author argues that Chaucer's ‘Canterbury Tales’ and Gower's ‘Confessio Amantis’ attest to the vitality of a narrative - rather than strictly normative - ethics that has roots in premodern traditions of practical reason and rhetoric. Chaucer and Gower are shown to be inheritors and respecters of an early and unexpected form of ethical pragmatism - which has profound implications for the orthodox history of ethics in the West. Recipient of the 2008 John H. Fisher Award for significant contribution to the field of Gower Studies. Dr J ALLAN MITCHELL is Lecturer in Medieval Literature, University of Kent, Canterbury.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-267-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vii-vii)
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. viii-viii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-7)

    What is the good of examples in late medieval literature? That deceptively simple question first animated my study of two Middle English poets, Chaucer and Gower, and I think it serves as a useful point of entry into the larger topic of what I call the ethics of exemplarity. Ethics and exemplary narrative somehow interrelate. But before getting anywhere near answering the initial question, I want to begin with some remarks that serve to make my working assumptions and methodology explicit.

    A main premise of this book is that the pragmatic orientation of medieval rhetoric forestalls generalities of the order...

  6. 1 Reading for the Moral: Controversies and Trajectories
    (pp. 8-21)

    My characterization of the ethical potentialities of exemplary rhetoric admittedly flies in the face of a commonplace critical presumption about the teleology of morals and the authoritarian nature of didactic literature. A composite sketch of the teleological account might take the following form: morality took an unfortunate turn in the Middle Ages when it assimilated itself to Church-dominated dogmatism, until moral rationalism found its feet again in the autonomous ethics of Enlightenment reason and Reformist spirituality. The assumption is that modern philosophy forever made ethics personal and appealingly complex again; and so in the vicissitudes of history, medieval morality stands...

  7. 2 Rhetorical Reason: Cases, Conscience, and Circumstances
    (pp. 22-35)

    In its ethical capacity exemplary rhetoric has been maligned at least since the time of Kant’s fatal pronouncement, “worse service cannot be rendered morality than that an attempt be made to derive it from examples.”¹ The eighteenth-century rationalist could not accept that moral philosophy might legitimately be based upon the rhetoric of example, or rather, as it was known, reasoning from cases a posteriori.² When it came to the metaphysical grounding of morals Kant famously rejected cases and everything circumstantial for that matter, preferring “categorical imperatives” over all things “hypothetical.” Such a tectonic shift away from rhetoric towards pure a...

  8. 3 Gower For Example: Confessio Amantis and the Measure of the Case
    (pp. 36-60)

    Gower’s Confessio Amantis is a veritable anthology of literary kinds, a miscellany of discourse both pragmatic and speculative, entertaining and edifying, as though its maker had aspired to join together all of the genres current in the later Middle Ages. In this respect it hardly differs from many other voluminous medieval works that combine so much “lust” and “lore.” But Gower’s massive poem of more than 30,000 lines and about 110 exempla, spread liberally over eight books and a prologue, with accompanying Latin verse headings and marginal glosses, appears to spare nothing. The work puts itself forward as at once...

  9. 4 All That Is Written For Our Doctrine: Proof, Remembrance, Conscience
    (pp. 61-78)

    Gower would seem to couch the Confessio Amantis in the academic terms of compilatio, a word which has taken on great weight in recent critical discussion of the poem and its exemplary import.¹ In a marginal gloss the author says that despite poor health he diligently compiled (studiosissime compliauit) the poem, set tanquam fauum ex floribus recollectum, . . . ex variis cronicis, histories, poetarum philosophorumque dictis [like a honeycomb gathered from various flowers, . . . from various chronicles, histories, and sayings of the poets and philosophers] (Prol., at 34*).² Gower’s long poem is thus an expressly inclusive collection,...

  10. 5 Moral Chaucer: Ethics of Exemplarity in the Canterbury Tales
    (pp. 79-93)

    Some may still find it customary or convenient to distinguish Chaucer on the basis of his good humor from the sententiousness of Gower, but the distinction overestimates the difference between their respective accomplishments. As Derek Brewer reminds us, Chaucer’s early reception was as a poet who wrote “serious and nourishing subject-matter.”¹ During Chaucer’s own lifetime Eustache Deschamps eulogized him as Seneque en meurs, and observed that drinking from Chaucer’s font had quenched ma soif ethique.² Thomas Usk extolled Chaucer as “the noble philosophical poete / in Englissh,”³ and Henry Scogan took Chaucer to be a moral philosopher of “vertuous noblesse.”⁴...

  11. 6 Pointing the Moral: The Friar, Summoner, and Pardoner’s Satire
    (pp. 94-115)

    In his monumental study of preaching in the later Middle Ages, G. R. Owst argued that vernacular literary tradition effectively contracted the “germs” of literary realism, satire, and social consciousness from the pulpit. In a later chapter of his Literature and Pulpit in Medieval England, entitled “Fiction and Instruction in the Sermon Exempla,” Owst was able to show that English poetry and drama were profoundly shaped by the pulpit rhetoric: travelogue, classical pagan tales, animal fables, ribald and satirical matter (anticlerical, antimatrimonial, antifeminist) all have precedents in sermon exempla.¹ Historians since have gone on to corroborate and refine his thesis,...

  12. 7 Griselda and the Question of Ethical Monstrosity
    (pp. 116-140)

    From the standpoint of exemplary morality the Clerk’s Tale can easily offend ordinary “prudence.”¹ The tale is emphatically a problem exemplum in which the most pressing practical question – for medievalists and medievals – is what to do with Griselda’s voluntary submission to the inhuman demands of Walter. What is it good to do with her example? Does Griselda epitomize wifely perfection in acting as she does; does she represent a spiritual ideal to which readers should aspire without acting as she does; or is she morally repugnant for doing what she does? At what level of generality or specificity, ultimately, are...

  13. Conclusion
    (pp. 141-142)

    If evil is a failure of the imagination, then from a practical point of view it becomes all-important that sufficient conditions for creative expression and reflection be established in and by culture. Imaginative literature in particular becomes indispensable for testing and expanding our moral intuitions; for showing what is entailed by living with timeless values in the contingencies of time and space; and for inspiring individuals to celebrate and seek after the right and the good. Ethical criticism and theory has in the last two decades been preoccupied with the nuances of literary expression in just this regard, urging that...

  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 143-154)
  15. Index
    (pp. 155-157)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 158-158)