Paul Strohm - Social Chaucer. PDF

PDF Very well written, insightful, and interesting. His broad argument simplified is that during the late 14th century the face of social relations was changing: oaths of fealty and sacral bonds were being replaced with written contracts, lifelong, ordained loyalties (representative of vertical hierarchy) with temporary, voluntary arrangements based on services rendered (representative of horizontal/lateral ties among people). A ‘middle strata’ of society was emerging and rising in the ranks because their skill sets were valuable. Chaucer was a member of the community of people who had gained gentle status through service and not birth. Chaucer’s social position in the ‘middle strata’ meant that he was caught in the middle between the old vertical hierarchy (since he was ‘gentle’) and the lateral (since he wasn’t born ‘gentle) and thereby existed outside of them both, liberated from having to view things from the lens of one ideology or another. His position in society and his relationship with it influenced the way he wrote and what he wrote. His inclusion of many pilgrims with different attitudes, different ways of reading society and their place in it, and different voices (or forms of competing discourse) reflected by their literary styles (genres like fabliaux, exemplum, beast fable, etc. which are associated with certain social classes) is not only aesthetic in purpose, but actually reveals a middle class perspective, one comfortable with ‘mixed’ attitudes,a middle class way of writing and experiencing the world in late 14th century England which tells us more about Chaucer and his intended audience for the Canterbury Tales.

There are potential problems with Strohm's argument. He claims that the pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales form a political commonwealth that mirrors Chaucer’s ‘postfeudal’ mindset/social experience. But, • is it actually possible to derive Chaucer’s attitude/final say by using his social biography to interpret his text and his text to interpret his social biography? How do we know, for instance, that the stylistic diversity in the Nun’s Priest Tale encapsulates Chaucer’s own mixed attitude? was Chaucer really socially and intellectually liberated as a member of the ‘middle strata’? Modern day conceptions of how an author should situate himself in relation to his subject and his community (aesthetic detachment) seem to be retrospectively imposed on Chaucer. There also seems to be a problem in the way Strohm links social status to the type of writing someone produces, i.e. just because Chaucer associates certain styles with certain social classes doesn't make the mimetic relationship he represents any less fictive.

This is by and far though an excellent read, very illuminating and groundbreaking. It's amazing how much ground Strohm covers.

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