The Complete Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer
Ed. John H. Fisher and Mark Allen
Thomson Wadsworth, 2006. vii + 452 pp.
This edition preserves the text, with a few corrections, of the Canterbury Tales contained in Fisher’s fine 1977 Complete Poetry and Prose of Geoffrey Chaucer. Several other pieces, such as “Chaucer in His Time,” “Chaucer’s Language and Versification,” “The Pronunciation of Chaucer’s English,” and “A Chaucer Chronology” have been retained, some with a few slight changes and updating. The Bibliography has been substantially revised to include recent critical trends and scholarship; it is structured as before by category with cross-references to an author index, while some rearrangement and additions have been made to the classifications, such as electronic resources. Regrettably, the glossary has been eliminated, although glosses are repeated throughout the text. The volume is reader friendly, with glosses and explanatory notes at the bottom of the page (separated rather than combined as before). It is also handsome, with a full-color illustrated cover, four color plates inside and, as in Fisher, black and white reproductions of the Ellesmere pilgrims at the head of the tales. Although a convenient size for portable use, one could wish that the paper were of a slightly heavier weight.
As Allen explains in his Preface, Fisher’s original glosses and explanatory notes have been thoroughly revised. Though Fisher and Allen guide the reader in the same general direction, they differ in style, the former being more imagistic and interpretive and the latter more analytical and informational. This and a subtle difference in orientation sets the two editions somewhat apart. Obviously, only a brief comparison can be made here and is intended for illustrative rather than consistently representational purposes.
In treating the portrait of the Prioress in the General Prologue, both emphasize her worldliness and association with romance heroines. Allen informs the reader of her status and infractions of the Benedictine rule assumed for St. Leonard’s convent, her presumed home: swearing an oath, owning a lapdog and feeding it meat and good bread, and exposing her forehead, though his value judgements tend to be neutral, whereas Fisher can be rather biting, tapping into a satirical reading of the portrait and capturing its irony and social commentary.
Progressing to the description of her table manners, Allen follows Fisher in citing the Roman de la Rose lines 13,374ff as the model but adds that the advice is offered to “attract men.” While this is true of the overall context of the lengthy section of the Roman, which includes counsel on many other feminine behaviours, it is perhaps misapplied here to Chaucer’s use of one short passage and is a questionable insinuation regarding the Prioress. As to her physical description, both editors note that the Prioress’s forehead should not be exposed; Allen gives the dimension of a “spanne brood” and simply explains that a wide forehead was considered beautiful. Fisher notes that her “fair” or high forehead was admirable, but he finds that coupled with its size and the heft of her body as described in the following lines, “fleshiness” is suggested (12). Allen is silent on the Prioress’s “nat undergrowe” size, while Fisher notes that fatness connoted wealth since food was scarce. Both mention the black bread eaten by peasants in comparison to the dog’s “wastel breed” treat, but where Allen explains that meat was supposedly reserved for the ill in a Benedictine convent, Fisher brings in the scarcity of meat in the peasant diet.
Fisher’s association of the Prioress’s pity for a dead or bleeding trapped mouse with the “hardship for poor human beings” that led to the Peasants’ Revolt is eliminated by Allen. A similar divergence occurs in the related Nun’s Priest’s Tale regarding the widow’s home. Fisher states that “dignifying the main room where the animals slept and the lean-to where the widow and her daughter slept as ‘hall’ and ‘bower’ may be part of the Nun’s Priest’s ironic contrast between this simple dwelling and rich St. Leonard’s convent.” Allen sees Chaucer using “dignified terms for a humble dwelling perhaps implying that such extravagances are unnecessary,” and connects the Prioress with the widow by cross-reference to their diet without comment. These isolated examples suggest a dilution of Fisher’s social commentary, which seems at odds with Allen’s stress on recent criticism concerned with sociopolitical issues and ideologies that he adds to Fisher’s original Introduction.
Allen’s concentration on critical trends and methodologies is apparent in his reworking of the Introductions that preface the volume and each section. Again, a brief, selected comparison, using the Introduction to Part I. Allen immediately situates the General Prologue within Jill Mann’s model of estate satire through reference to “various professions or occupations” and “stereotypes” that are central to her work on the portraits of the pilgrims. Though Fisher cites her book (at the end of his Introduction rather than at the beginning as does Allen), he refers briefly to “estates” but avoids methodological terminology and focuses on their place within the broad view of the social and ultimately cosmic hierarchy of being, and he alerts the reader that Chaucer’s departure from the traditional order “establishes an initial tension with the spirituality of the pilgrimage frame.” Allen sees a variety of social relations represented by the organization and interplay of descriptions and analyzes them through linguistics and discourse.
Allen’s commentary on the Knight’s Tale begins by following Fisher closely, but where Fisher concentrates on the theme of love as potentially personally and socially disruptive but ultimately ennobling and maturing, Allen focuses on the orderly restraint of social chaos through law and reasoned pity over impulse and passion. Both discuss the influence of Boethius on the Knight’s Tale; according to Fisher, the element of chance, rather than control through virtue or desert, determines the outcome of events, and misfortunate is an “exercise through which a noble spirit can achieve serenity.” For Allen, Boethian philosophy counsels acceptance of fate that limits human freedom to “embracing the inevitable,” though that freedom, which is “tinged with regret,” is elevated by the “opportunity to participate willingly in providential order.” He then adds references to scrutiny of this outlook through class- and, particularly, gender-based studies. In summing up Part I, Allen and Fisher are fairly closely aligned, with a subtle but telling change that again reflects a difference in their viewpoints: Fisher’s “Chaucer in his first four tales has managed to establish clear-cut hierarchies of classes, values and styles” becomes “In his first four tales, [Chaucer] establishes a range of values, classes and styles.”
This limited comparison brings the awareness of the development of theoretical tools and strategies during the nearly thirty years since Fisher’s original edition, as well as the variety of ways in which individuals, whether editor, critic, reader (or reviewer) experience and interpret text. Those familiar with Fisher’s previous edition will miss his unique perceptiveness and voice (the 1989 second edition is still available), but they will be glad that his work is being kept alive and current amidst the many editions now available.
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