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Geoffrey Chaucer (1343 – October 25, 1400)

In The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer uses homosexual relations and desires as a means to cast moral judgments on characters and to satirize them.

Born into a family of wealthy London wine merchants in the early 1340s, Chaucer devoted his life to public service and to the writing of poetry. Despite his nonliterary commitments, Chaucer generated a substantial amount of poetry, not to mention scientific and religious treatises.

By the end of his career, he had revised the French and Italian models on which much Middle English literature, including his early work, heavily depended and had succeeded in using them to develop a native English tradition. It is for this reason that he was known to his followers as the father of English poetry. According to Chaucer's tombstone in Westminster Abbey, he died October 25, 1400.

To understand the relationship between Chaucer's writings and gay and lesbian literary history, it is necessary to know something about the late Middle Ages. In this period, though homosocial bonding (intense emotional friendships among people of the same sex) was considered a positive phenomenon, homosexual activity or sodomy (also known as the "crime against nature" or the "unnatural vice") and same-sex erotic desire were severely proscribed.

In England, such homophobic attitudes, promulgated in particular by the Catholic Church, informed not only popular sentiment but also legislative attitudes: Although no secular law against sodomy was instituted there until the sixteenth century, two unofficial English legal treatises from the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries recommended that sodomites be put to death because of their nefarious deeds.

This information does not mean that since sodomy was officially condemned there was no homosexual activity (there was, even among people we would today consider heterosexual) nor that homosexual desire was understood only in terms of sexual acts--some people evidently experienced it as meaning much more, though the idea of something like a modern "gay" culture and sense of self had not yet fully developed. What it does mean, however, is that when sodomy and sodomites are represented in the period's literature, which generally reflects official moral and social doctrine on this issue, they are placed in a negative light.

In this respect, Chaucer's work differs little from that of other medieval English writers. Though most of his extant writings do not mention sodomy at all, his final but incomplete text, The Canterbury Tales, does.

Written as a collection of stories told by late fourteenth-century English pilgrims en route to Canterbury Cathedral, The Canterbury Tales uses male homosexual relations and desire as a means to cast moral judgments on and to satirize characters in the text. (As in much medieval literature, homosexual issues concerning women are conspicuously absent.)

"The General Prologue," the Tales' opening narrative, makes certain that its two most scurrilous male characters, the Summoner (who falsely summons people to ecclesiastical court and extorts them) and the Pardoner (who sells questionable indulgences and false relics), will be understood disapprovingly by portraying them as engaged in a homosexual relationship.

Besides describing the Pardoner as a castrated, or even a female, horse--slang references probably indicating the passive recipient in anal intercourse and thus a male who disrupts medieval gender categories--the text notes that the Summoner sings the bass vocal part of a love song with the Pardoner.

Though singing with another male friend could simply be a homosocial act, the words for the bass part are also a double entendre meaning erect penis and strongly imply a sexual relationship in which, as medieval discussions of sodomy would have described it, the Summoner plays the active "male" role to the Pardoner's passive "female" one.

Since descriptions of only the most evil characters are constructed through homosexual allusions, these negative representations cut two ways: Just as sodomy undermines these two unsavory pilgrims, the association of sodomy with them reinforces the proscription against the "unnatural vice."

Three of the tales following "The General Prologue" employ sodomy as a satirical means to disparage one's rivals and to gain advantage or control over others. In each story, the efficacy of this satire depends on--and strengthens--the medieval conception of homosexual activity as defamatory, immoral, and dishonorable.

In the prologue to his tale, the Miller warns the Reeve, who has objected to the story, against prying into the private affairs of one's wife or of God. Since the term for private affairs is also a pun meaning genitalia, the Miller implies that improper spiritual inquiry is a metaphorical type of sodomy (prying into God's "privates") and thus successfully silences the Reeve.

And in the tale proper, which is a parody of that told by the Knight, the Miller mocks his social better by transforming the homosocial bonds and rivalry between two of the Knight's noble characters, Palamon and Arcite, into the symbolic anal rape of the student Nicholas by the parish clerk Absolon.

"The Summoner's Prologue and Tale" employs a similar type of parody, for the Summoner insinuates that it is his rival the Friar who is a sodomite, thus disparaging both the mendicant and his religious organization. The prologue transforms the traditional idea of friars residing under the Virgin's heavenly cloak in the afterlife and places them instead in the devil's infernal anus; moreover, the many phallic puns found in the tale and its description of the greedy friar groping around a sick man's anus in search of a reward uses sodomitical allusions to deflate further the Friar's social and spiritual standing.

Finally, as a penitential tract, "The Parson's Tale" provides the concluding word on the subject of same-sex sexual relations. By characterizing sodomy as an unmentionably evil sin, it supplies theological justification to the proscriptive social, moral, and spiritual attitudes underwriting the uses of homosexual imagery and themes in the Tales as a whole.

Although the Canterbury Tales is periodically radical and frequently quite wonderful, the attitudes displayed toward homosexual activity and desire are in keeping with the homophobic traditional mores and values of its time. As such, however, Chaucer's poetry provides important literary evidence of the late medieval roots of what would become modern homosexual oppression.

Citation Information
Author: Boyd, David Lorenzo
Entry Title: Chaucer, Geoffrey
General Editor: Claude J. Summers
Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture
Publication Date: 2002
Date Last Updated October 30, 2002
Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/chaucer_g.html
Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL 60607
Today's Date October 25, 2012
Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.
Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates

Further Readings:

Chaucer's Queer Nation (Medieval Cultures) by Glenn Burger
Paperback: 296 pages
Publisher: Univ Of Minnesota Press; 1 edition (January 29, 2003)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0816638063
ISBN-13: 978-0816638062
Amazon: Chaucer's Queer Nation

Bringing the concerns of queer theory and postcolonial studies to bear on Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, this ambitious book compels a rethinking not only of this most canonical of works, but also of questions of sexuality and gender in pre- and postmodern contexts, of issues of modernity and nation in historiography, and even of the enterprise of historiography itself. Glenn Burger shows us Chaucer uneasily situated between the medieval and the modern, his work representing new forms of sexual and communal identity but also enacting the anxieties provoked by such departures from the past.
Burger argues that, under the pressure of producing a poetic vision for a new vernacular English audience in the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer reimagines late medieval relations between the body and the community. In close readings that are at once original, provocative, and convincing, Chaucer's Queer Nation helps readers to see the author and audience constructed with and by the Tales as subjects-in-process caught up in a conflicted moment of "becoming." In turn, this historicization unsettles present-day assumptions about identity with the realization that social organizations of the body can be done differently.

Glenn Burger is associate professor of English at Queens College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

Chaucer's Queer Poetics: Rereading the Dream Trio by Susan Schibanoff
Hardcover: 460 pages
Publisher: University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division; 1 edition (October 7, 2006)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0802090354
ISBN-13: 978-0802090355
Amazon: Chaucer's Queer Poetics: Rereading the Dream Trio

Geoffrey Chaucer was arguably fourteenth-century England's greatest poet. In the nineteenth century, readers of Chaucer's early dream poems - the Book of the Duchess, House of Fame, and Parliament of Fowles - began to detect a tripartite model of his artistic development from a French to an Italian, and finally to an English phase. They fleshed out this model with the liberation narrative, the inspiring story of how Chaucer escaped the emasculating French house of bondage to become the generative father of English poetry. Although this division has now largely been dismissed, both the tripartite model and the accompanying liberation narrative persist in Chaucer criticism.

In Chaucer's Queer Poetics, Susan Schibanoff interrogates why the tripartite model remains so tenacious even when literary history does not support it. Revealing deeply rooted Francophobic, homophobic, and nationalistic biases, Schibanoff examines the development paradigm and demonstrates that 'liberated Chaucer' depends on antiquated readings of key source texts for the dream trilogy. This study challenges the long held view the Chaucer fled the prison of effete French court verse to become the 'natural' English father poet and charts a new model of Chaucerian poetic development that discovers the emergence of a queer aesthetic in his work.

Chaucer's Pardoner and Gender Theory: Bodies of Discourse (New Middle Ages) by Robert S. Sturges
Hardcover: 256 pages
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan; 1st edition (March 2, 2000)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0312213662
ISBN-13: 978-0312213664
Amazon: Chaucer's Pardoner and Gender Theory: Bodies of Discourse

Chaucer’s Pardoner and Gender Theory, the first book-length treatment of the character, examines the Pardoner in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales from the perspective of both medieval and twentieth-century theories of sex, gender, and erotic practice. Sturges argues for a discontinuous, fragmentary reading of this character and his tale that is genuinely both premodern and postmodern. Drawing on theorists ranging from St. Augustine and Alain de Lille to Judith Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Sturges approaches the Pardoner as a representative of the construction of historical--and sexual--identities in a variety of historically specific discourses, and argues that medieval understandings of gender remain sedimented in postmodern discourse.

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Tags: author: geoffrey chaucer, gay classics, literary heritage
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