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literature

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Chaucer, Geoffrey (134?-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.

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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 bonding (intense emotional friendships among people of the same sex) was considered a positive phenomenon, homosexual activity or (also known as the "crime against nature" or the "unnatural vice") and same-sex erotic desire were severely proscribed.

In England, such 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.

David Lorenzo Boyd

     

 
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literature >> Overview:  English Literature: Medieval

Although it occasionally celebrates homosocial bonding, surviving medieval English literature is condemnatory of homosexual behavior.


    Bibliography
   

Boswell, John. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Bowden, Muriel. A Commentary on the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales. 2nd. ed. London: Souvenir Press, 1973.

Burger, Glenn. "Kissing the Pardoner." PMLA 107 (1992): 1143-1156.

Dinshaw, Carolyn. Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Post-Modern. Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 1999.

Goodich, Michael. The Unmentionable Vice. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Ross-Erickson, 1979.

Greenberg, David. R. The Construction of Homosexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Hansen, Elaine. Chaucer and the Fictions of Gender. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.

Mann, Jill. Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

McAlpine, Monica. "The Pardoner's Homosexuality and How it Matters." PMLA 95 (1980): 8-22.

 

    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  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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