Chaucerian Figures: An Overview

by James Como (November 2017)

Canterbury Tales Illustration, Victor G. Ambrus, 1995



Three impediments prevent our age from fully appreciating the achievements of Geoffrey Chaucer (1343?-1400), especially The Canterbury Tales: the apparent strangeness of the prevailing literary conventions of his day (along with the remoteness of medieval society), his Middle English, and Rhetoric. The first requires that a reader work, at annotations and other commentary: but it is do-able. The second has proven to be effectively translatable.[1]


But the last is a sticking point. Together 1/ the roots and morphology of Geoffrey’s inherited rhetorical theory, 2/ its ubiquity in the Middle Ages (and then in the Renaissance, dominating the schools, in particular Shakespeare’s), 3/ its demanding detail (and often the misrepresentation of that detail by scholars who might have known better), and, finally, 4/ the poet’s command and unrelenting use of it. Together these four items make reading Chaucer and comprehending his art a daunting task.

And for many readers, nothing from the precincts of rhetoric is more daunting than . . . repetitio, isocolon, exclamatio, apostrophe, occultatio, frequentatio, asyndeton, commoratio . . . (The Greek names, e.g. homoeoteleuton, a personal favorite, are even more fun.) In short, to know The Canterbury Tales one simply cannot get around figures of speech, nor should one want to: figures form the contours of Chaucer’s landscapes. These ‘colours‘, however, are not the only figures that matter, or even those that matter most. The great rhetoricians from Geoffrey’s distant and nearer past, along with—especially with—the twentieth century scholars who have contended with them and their influence on him and his art, are the guides who, at the end of the day, have given us a Chaucer who surely approximates the poet-in-his-time and the rhetoric-in-the-poet: its roots, ubiquity, difficulty, and Chaucer’s command of it. So, to serve my dual focus, I offer a study (albeit abbreviated) and a story, replete with conflicts and plot twists.




Here are Chaucer’s own references to rhetoric in the Tales: wry and faux self-deprecating (and thus very deceptive), revealing a double-edged vision of the handbooks that abounded in his day and a sophisticated conception of narrative voice.[2]


That whan thy worthy kyng Richard was slayn
With shot, compleynedest his deeth so soore,
Why ne hadde I now thy sentence and thy lore.
The Friday for to chide, as diden ye?
For on a Friday, soothly, slayn was he.
Thanne wolde I shewe yow how that I koude pleyne
For Chauntecleres drede and for his peyne.
(Nun’s Priest’s Tale. VII.3347-3354)


God woot that worldly Joy is soone ago;
And if a rethor koude faire endite.
He in cronycle saufly myghte it write
As for a sovereyn notabilitee.
(Ibid, 3206-3209)


Myn Englissh eek is insufficient.
It moste been a rhethor excellent.
That koude his colours longynge for that art.
If he sholde hire discryven every part.
(Squire’s Tale, V.37-40)


As techeth art of speche hem that it leere.
Al be it that I kan nat sowne his stile.
Ne kan nat clyrmben over so ehlgh a style . . .
(Ibid, 104-106)


Telle us som murie thyng of aventures.
Youre termes, youre colours, and youre figures,
Keepe hem in stoor til so be that ye endite
Heigh style, as whan that men to kynges write.
(Clerk’s Prologue, IV.15-18)


But, sires, by cause I am a burel man,
At my bigynnyng first I yow beseche,
Have me excused of my rude speche.
I lerned nevere rethorik, certeyn;
Thyng that I speke, it moot be bare and pleyn
I sleep nevere on the Mount of Pernaso,
Ne lerned Marcus Tullius Scithero.
Colours ne knowe I none, withouten drede,
But swiche coulours as growen in the mede,
Or elles swiche as men dye or peynte.
Colours of rethoryke been to me queynte. . . .
(Franklin’s Prologue, V.716-726)


“Queynte’ he says. And I say, do not believe a word of it.

Of course the cultural conversation with rhetoric and rhetoricians began long before Chaucer arrived on the scene. The classical influences, for example, were few but pervasive: Aristotle (slightly), Cicero (his De inventione, sufficiently popular to have been translated into vulgar tongues, and Oratore; dozens of manuscripts of the former found their way into medieval libraries), pseudo-Cicero’s Rhetorica ad Herennium (an enormous and enduring influence, perhaps the greatest influence on ‘grammarians’, schoolboys and poets), Priscian (De praeexercitamentis rhetoricus and Institutionum grammaticum) and Aesop’s fables, by way of Avianus (probably 5th c. The last two would have been studied in snippets and perhaps imitated by medieval schoolboys, whereas they would have gotten their Cicero and Herennium both first-hand and by way of anthologies).
The transitional period (through most of the eleventh century) shows inconsistencies. ‘Grammaticus’ became the name for a headmaster, a post held by such men as Alcuin, Bede, and Boniface (Marianus Victorianus defined grammar as “the lore of interpreting poets and story-writers and the theory of writing and speaking correctly”). But the study of ars poetica as such was neglected, which can come as no surprise when we note the following defini­tions: “a means of conveying hidden truth to the uninitiated” (St. Jer­ome), the art of telling lies skillfully” (St. Augustine), and, most enlightening of all, “the re-fashioning of old stories into something new by means of fancy and ornament” (Isidore of Seville).


At first rhetoric fared no better, reverting to mere declamation, with students writing as elaborately as possible on old themes: not much of a conversation. Prose works were put into verse and tropes and figures became part of a system of grammar. To be sure, in the eighth century Alcuin had instituted Ciceronian concepts in schools as well as at Charlemagne’s court, but Martianus Capella personified Rhetoric as a pompous, decorated woman, carrying weapons with which to wound her enemies. How not? Though Isidore of Seville dealt briefly with arguments and proofs (mostly neglected by others), he devoted most of his effort to schemes, tropes and meter under the heading of “grammar.

Then, in the twelfth century, John of Salisbury arrived. In his Metalogicon, a product of the influence of Hugh of St. Victor, John regarded rhetoric as the “beautiful and fruitful union between reason and expression” and defined ‘eloquence as “skill in uttering appropriately what the mind wishes to express.” He wrote, “hither grammatica will continue to include poetica, or poetica will be lost to the liberal studies.”[3]


Thereafter on the continent (though, as we shall see, probably not yet in England: but let us not forget Chaucer-the-traveler) there arrive contemporary handbooks. The Poetria nova (1220), heavily dependent on the Herennium, and Matthew of Vendome’s Ars versificatoria, coming a half generation earlier than Geoffrey’s work, would have done the heavy lifting. Other writers from the transitional period (see especially Miller’s introduction to his chapter on Medieval Literary Theory in his Chaucer: Sources and Backgrounds) would have influenced some of the medieval “grammarians” but not have been directly studied by schoolboys.

These books were not simply lists of tropes and figures to be formulaically applied by unimaginative versifiers. Certainly these theorists knew their Cicero, and especially their ad Herennium, but they also knew narrative and dramatic art, structure and tone, voice and its varying distances from subject-matter, and they knew too the play of their work within social norms and literary conventions. In short, these writers of what we refer to as ‘handbooks’ (not entirely without reason: having one at hand would be helpful, then and now) were not naïve. Rather they were learned, having gone to school themselves on the classical authors and the transitional giants, some of whom encompassed most of the learning there was both to teach and to know.


Contemporary attention begins in 1926, when John Matthews Manly delivered a Warton Lecture on English Literature entitled “Chaucer and the Rhetoricians.” He proposed a number of hypotheses concerning Chaucer’s background and practice and implied what he believed to be certain very definite attitudes held by Chaucer towards the rhetoricians. We may be sure that Manly’s title presents an appealing image. One could easily see the schoolboy Geoffrey busily marking off rhetorical colors in Geoffrey of Vinsauf’s Poetria nova, even though that was likely not possible then. As a young poet he would seek to apply the doctrine he had worked so hard to assimilate; then as a mature creative artist, he would rebel against, and even laugh at, the practice he had taken so seriously during the early part of his career. In short, “Chaucer and the Rhetoricians” presents the picture of a life-long and deliberate battle against a doctrine which would probably bind and asphyxiate, rather than nourish, creative genius.

A good deal of significant scholarship thereafter taught us much about Chaucer’s preparation and art and about medieval ‘poetic’ theory. Questions about his attitude towards his own art had been settled, we thought, until along came dissenters: Marie P. Hamilton (1932), Richard McKeon (1942), Dorothy Everett (1950) Ernest Curtius (1953), and Ralph Baldwin (1955). These scholars, without directly attacking Manly’s bookkeeping but departing from the anti-rhetoric hostility of Manly (who had enlisted Chaucer on his team by citing examples of Chaucer’s mockery of Geoffrey of Vinsauf) and of Charles Sears Baldwin, provided a bigger picture of rhetorical theory and its influence than one at ground level.

Thanks to Hamilton, Manly’s method of naïvely counting tropes and figures to demonstrate the extent of rhetoric in a passage( no matter their context or application) was done. Then came James J. Murphy, with “A New Look at Chaucer and the Rhetoricians” (1964). That a major rhetorical influence occupied for the duration a part of Chaucer’s consciousness was not then in dispute. Rather Murphy substituted Evrard de Bethune’s Graecismus (1212) for the Poetria nova as the dominant influence on Chaucer; and he did—presciently, as we shall see—question both the availability of rhetorical handbooks in Chaucer’s day and the sort of schooling (as described in Faral’s foundational commentary and collection from 1924) that young Geoffrey might have had. In the event, the game was afoot.



And Chaucer knew it. His mind, like his soul, seems to have been as big as the world and all its learning, or at least as much of it as he had encountered. Did he fail to notice anything? Or forget anything? Or fail to use anything he knew? (Probably, but only because he didn’t live long enough: like Leonardo, though less so, he had an aversion to closure.) And all of this attention-paying, retention, and application included the rhetoricians, not formulaically but knowingly and with pinpoint purpose.

So the Tales should offer ample justification both for the judgment of Chaucer made in the fifteenth century as “the fader of modern eloquence” and the first to enlumine our language with flowres of Rhethoryke (Lydgate) and for the opinion that, not at all naively but quite deliberately, he very well knew his rhetoric and how to deploy it.

Since even the most excitable reader can grow weary of figure-hunting here is a simple list of tropes and figures within one very limited passage, lines 669-714 of the General Prologue, wherein we are introduced to the Pardoner. (I assign to the reader the task of looking them up: perhaps online in the ad Herennium, 4.19-69): pronominatio (669), interpretatio (670), and within 16 lines (675-690) we have an effictio, 5 imagos, 2 continuatios, a repetitio, another interpretatio, a correctio, an abusio, 3 significatios, and another one each of descriptio, circuitio, and notatiocontinuatio, a conclusio, a subjectio, a definitio, and a translatio (a rather busy line). With these in mind, together the preceding 15 lines become a frencuentatio, transitio, and significatio. We then are treated to sermocinatio (same set of lines), superlatio (692-693), again frecuentatio (691-700), repetitio, asyndeton, and contentio (all within the seven lines); then again contentio (700), imago (701), denominatio (706), translatio (706 again), notatio (691-706), permissio (707), frecuentatio (711-713), conclusio (714), contentio (712) and finally translatio (712 again). Together they total 44, excluding exigencies of verse or poetic convention.

What does this list tell us (once our heads stop spinning)? Well, if we take the trouble to scour the lines and match them to their proper figures, we discover on how many levels Chaucer is operating and very much about the Pardoner. Throughout Chaucer uses rhetorical units satirically, dramatically, narratively, descriptively, and tonally. (Note, too, that the entire Canterbury Tales, taken on one level, is a figure of speech and the pilgrimage itself a trope).

In Some Reflections on Chaucer’s ‘Art Poetical’” (1950) Dorothy Everett points out that, although Chaucer mocks rhetorical elements in the “The Nuns Priest’s Tale” that we know he took seriously, still, “if we laugh at Vinsauf too hard, Chaucer laughs at us”—as well as at the rooster. Throughout the “The Nun’ s Priests Tale” (that is, not only in Chaucer’s handful of ref­erences to Vinsauf) figures are abundant, and others (e.g. Hamilton) have thoroughly identified both references and figures. That wonderful couple Chauntecleer and Pertelote use tropes and figures relentlessly: clearly Chaucer little regarded the prohibition on colors in comic tales And the rhetoric is functional. Is not the high style suited for such a one as Chauntecleer? This self-conscious rhetoric serves to establish a dramatic irony. We know, even if Chauntecleer does not, how bombastic that cock is, and somehow we suspect he will pay.[4]

As for that other Geoffrey, of Vinsauf (from“vino salvo,” taken from a treatise he wrote on caring for vines): he may have been born in Normandy, in the last quarter of the twelfth century, and educated at St. Frideswide in Oxford. During much continental travel he became close to Pope Innocent III, to whom he dedicated his Poetria nova (‘new’, because it would sort of update, even supplant, Horace). The work, consisting of 2121 Latin hexameters, was to some degree influenced by Matthew of Vendome’s Ars versificatoria from some thirty years earlier, influenced John of Garland’s Poetria about thirty years later and is organized around the five canons of rhetoric (invention, disposition, style, memory and delivery).[5] It lays special emphasis on amplification and abbreviation, and, especially, on the figures of speech and thought. It has a number of set pieces that circulated separately (e.g. his lament on the death of Richard I) and more than a hundred years after Chaucer Erasmus himself would praise it.

Its breakdown is into eight parts (note the disproportionate number of lines given to the fourth part, which includes Geoffrey’s own original examples): 1. introduction (1-86); 2. arrangement, with natural and artificial openings (87-202); 3. amplification and abbreviation (203-741; 4. stylistic ornaments (742-1592); 5. Conversion (1593-1765); 6. Determinations 1766-1846); 7. miscellaneous advice (humor, faults: 1847-1973);8. memory and delivery (1794-2017), with the remaining lines a conclusion and farewell. His prescriptions are detailed. Along the way he defines and illustrates over sixty figures and tropes (that fourth part) but always allows that style should be subordinate to materia. He leaves almost nothing unsaid. (Very many contemporary speeches and novels would be better understood with Geoffrey’s system than without.)

A sampling from “The Monk’s Tale” enhances the point that Chaucer was master of the other Geoffrey’s devices. Manly called this tale 100% rhetorical (with 40% in “The Nun’s Priest Tale”!), but I find it flat, with only seven striking examples of rhet­oric. Here are two, the first an example of repetitio (the same words or phrases at beginnings) and isocolon (similarly structured successive elements of the same length), with the second an example of exclamatio (more commonly apostrophe, direct address to another):

He slow, and rafte the skyn of the leoun;

He of Centauros leyde the boost adoun;

He Arpies slow, the crueel bryddes felle;

He golden apples rafte of the dragoun;

He drow out Cerberus, the hound of helle;


. . . . . . . .

0 noble, 0 worthy Petro, glorie of Spayne,

Whom Fortune heeld so hye in magestee,

Wei oghten men thy pitous deeth compleyne!


We might conclude that the Monk, a man who should have known how to preach, was inept. Could we expect anything else? Rhetorically, this Monk is exactly as he should be.


And our Geoffrey was no ordinary schoolboy. According to Pearsall’s Life, the young Geoffrey would have gone to a grammar school, probably not at the Inner Temple but at St. Paul’s (since he was a Londoner), where he would have learned his Latin, but, instead of enduring a long stay there, he became a page in a great house, and not any great house but that of Edward III. There his education, including from French sources translating the Latin (including classical sources and contemporary Latin handbooks) would have been readily available. A page in such a house who wanted to receive an education equal to that of any university student could have gotten one.

Moreover, the many opportunities for travel that came his way prepared him for a career that would make him a continental cosmopolite and the friend of many people of considerable importance, for example Petrarch. [6]The point is worth driving home: as his career progressed from schoolboy to page to civil servant to diplomat so did his exposure to books of all sorts (e.g. the French version of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, which he would translate into English). It is highly unlikely that he would not have encountered the “rhetoricians.” By 1387, the likeliest year for the planning of the Tales, the forty-something Chaucer, now famous within his circle and admired by peers such as Langland and Gower, would have been among the best-read poets of his generation.

He would revise his monumental achievement during the last decade of his life but never finish it, and it was never exactly published, as we understand publishing. In fact, although several dozen manuscripts of the Tales exist from the sixteenth century, none exists from Chaucer’s own. His innovationsnarrative, dramatic, stylistic, tonalwould be apparent to any reader who cared to read with care. His disguises, ironies, jokes, irreverences, as well as his devotions, continue to come to light. In short, in his verbal sophistication, embedded complexity, variegated stances and voices, intellectual command, bold experimentation, and richness of characters (who are manifestly not mere types, as evidenced, for example, by their interactions with each other) he iscontemporary.

Pearsall reminds us that Chaucer knew the world was changing, with “London merchants rising to the rank of knighthood or even higher, and members of the nobility cultivating their rich friends in the city and joining their guilds and confraternities.” Pearsall reminds us too that “the Parson had spoken of the pilgrimage to Canterbury as the symbol of man’s spiritual journey to a celestial Canterbury, but proceeded to turn that symbol into a reality, the only ultimate reality. What was allegory has become plain fact.”


Again, that is Pearsall, whose critical commentary is as insightful as any, I think. More to the particular rhetorical point, though, is Rita Copeland’s “Chaucer and Rhetoric” in the Yale Companion to Chaucer (2006). Copeland knows rhetoric (and Chaucer) from the inside, including its theories, history (from Aristotle to Cicero, Martianus Capella to Geoffrey of Vinsauf), and those (e.g. Manly, McKeon, and Payne) who have examined it. She appreciates that the art goes far beyond rhetorical figures, understands Chaucer’s reliance on it, and does her own heavy lifting with those rhetoricians (e.g. Geoffrey of Vinsauf) who most influenced him. Her treatment spreads over many works and, within the Tales, over a surprising number of tales, some of which (e.g. “The Tale of Sir Thopas” and “The Tale of Melibee”) are rarely examined. She includes well-known touchstones (“If a man has a house to build” from the first Geoffrey whom our Geoffrey quotes verbatim in Troilus and Criseydeouevre with a rhetorically critical adroitness that may leave no doubt of Chaucer’s own use of the art.

The sort of command Copeland is referring to is exemplified by “The Canon’s Yeomans Tale,” not highly rhetorical but significantly so. The tale is an attack, and the Yeoman treats it as such. But he wants the game without any blame.


Ther is also ful many another thyng

That is unto oure craft apertenyng.

Though I by ordre hem nat reherce kan.

By cause that I am a lewed man.

Yet wol I telle hem as they come to raynde,

Thogh I ne kan nat sette hem in hir kynde:


Following this occultatio is frequentatio (accumulation) in the form of asyndeton (a lack of conjunctions to give a hurried effect). Later he again uses occultatio and then a sententia (“But al thyng which that shineth as the gold/ His nat gold” ). Then one of the most striking colors, occurring after he has apparently finished listing the materials of alchemy. We get a brief digression of ten lines, then:

Yet forgat I to maken rehersaille

Of watres corosif, and of lymaille,

And of bodies millificacion,

An also of hire induracioun;

Oilles, ablucions, and metal fusible –

To tellen al wolde passen any bible

That owher is . . . .


This is commoratio (dwelling on the point) and dramatically reveals much more of the Yeoman’s insecure and obsessive emotional state than any extended description could hope to accomplish.

Yet Copeland’s understanding is undercut, or so it seems to me, with characterizations such as this, when discussing the notorious Pardoner: “The history of rhetoric is inextricable from the representation of sexuality: these discourses give the theoretical problem of [sexual?] representation its very vocabulary in Western thought.” But, finally, Copeland reminds us of this: “Rhetoric is not a secondary addition to a text: rather, it is through rhetoric that one thinks about language, truth, form, embodiment, time, history, intention, authority, the social construction of meaning, and the very human problem of being in the world.” In short, she expresses a view of rhetoric as architectonic. (Though she does not use the word, she is surely influenced by McKeon’s grand application of the concept to rhetoric, a paradigm deriving from his study of the twelfth-century figures who founded what he called the “rhetorical renaissance.”) And she reminds us that “for all its comedy, the Nun’s Priest’s Tale is a distillation of Chaucerian and medieval thought about rhetoric.”

Alas, of an ilk different from Copeand’s is Peter W. Travis, who would follow within four years and seems to be searching for novelty by abandoning the path of Manly-Hamilton-Murphy-Copeland (as well as of others into the eighties) along which the development of rhetoric and its influence on Chaucer was traced. (Travers certainly does not apprehend McKeon’s dispositive argument of rhetoric as an all-encompassing art).

In his Disseminal Chaucer: Re-reading ‘The Nun’s Priest’s Tale (2010), Travis seems (to me) to break a fly upon a wheel, the former being his thesis, the latter Chaucer’s great tale. Travis ‘decodes’, ‘interrogates’, examines ‘intertextuals’, tells us that “the lack of surplus can never be stabilized in the plenitude of form” (or is that Derrida?), compares the capronized Chaunticleer to the Nun’s Priest, and discusses “non-origins, the remarkably empty locus of a hundred blanks.” He does usefully adduce Cato’s Distichs, John of Salisbury, and Priscian; but he unintentionally parodies Manly, Baldwin and Atkins and misrepresents Derek Brewer as thinking Chaucer a poor poet. Chaunticleer, it seems, anticipates both Quixote and Tristram in his “concatenated mixture of textual appropriations, scholarly allusions, and protean voices . . . through an authorial persona so chamelionesque that he burlesques the religious and unreligious narratives at the very same moment.”

Therein lies value as an answer to the question, What sort of tale is “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale”? It is, Travis tells us, Menippean satire, chaotic, with no clear single target. Prominent examples are found in Rabelais and Petronius and the form is generally unpacked by Mikhail Bakhtin. Yet Travis’s starting point and finish line are very close, and to get from one to the other he has taken the yellow line on the road map, traveling hither and yon as though sightseeing, which in itself might not be so bad but for the fact that he neglects so many worthy sights that have been in this very same landscape long before he began his trip.


A foreshadowing of the bedrock reality of rhetoric-in-Chaucer comes in Robert O. Payne’s Key of Remembrance (1963: “And if that olde bokes were aweye/ Yloren were of remembrance the keye,” General Prologue, 25-26). Payne instructs us dispositively that Chaucer’s project was to “locate himself with respect to three cardinal points”: the past as a whole, certain artists in that past, and his own particular work. Moreover, he convincingly argues that, although Chaucer was fully engaged by the relationship of language to truth, his interest shifted, especially in the Tales, to the relationship between the subject, the poet, and the audiencethan which there can be no more essentially rhetorical interest.

After discussing every major work, Payne concludes, “Chaucer started from (and never grew away from) the primary definitions of purpose and method in art as laid down by the orthodox tradition in medieval aesthetics: poetry is a process of manipulating language so that the wisdom evolved in the past will become available, applicable, and operative in the present.” When approaching the end of his discussion of the Tales, Payne himself identifies, and in superb detail, some figures and tropes that mark certain tales, distinguishing among types (romances, saint’s legends, miracles, sermons, and fables) along the way. He concludes: “the Prioress’s tale is the summation of an effort, running through five of the twenty-three tales, to write a purely affective narrative in which irony, characterization, and complexity of action all give way to a very rigidly controlled stylistic artifice” (the very element that Manly, C. S. Baldwin and C. S. Lewis could not abide).

Near the beginning of The Key of Remembrance, Payne offer this piece of wisdom:

stylistic elaboration becomes the effort whereby the poet actually accomplishes what he sets out to do his poem. Hence the heavy weighting, in all the treatises, of the categories of figures, colors, tropes, etc. . . . The conclusion seems to me inescapable that the . . . Poetriae represents a kind of aesthetic formulation . . . . [W]e must recognize [their authors] if we are to avoid the arrogance of dismissing a group of serous scholars as a generation of shallow muddleheads.

Fifteen years later, in “Chaucer’s Realization of Himself as Rhetor,” Payne tells us: “I think some combination of Chaucer’s self-consciousness as a poet and his study of the rhetorical treatises produced in him a rather different mode of awareness . . . When he looked at the old books, he not only saw (or tried to see) the decorous verbal projection of an archetype which Geoffrey of Vinsauf had instructed him to look for; he also heard a voice, the voice of a man like and unlike himself.”

Finally we know this, thanks to Martin Camargo’s groundbreaking revelation in his “Chaucer and the Oxford Renaissance of Anglo-Latin Rhetoric”: although the arts, including Geoffrey’s, were hardly known during most of Chaucer’s life, yet during the last half of the fourteenth centuryand especially during its last twenty yearsthe circulation of the arts (owing in part to an earlier edict from Pope Benedict XII and several obedient monasteries) proliferated. It is in the 1380s that Chaucer shows familiarity with the Poetria nova. “The relative indifference to rhetoric in the earliest poems,” Camargo writes, “stands in sharp contrast to the explicit engagement with rhetoric in Troilus and Criseyde and many of the works that followed,” concluding, “I would argue that this is due in no small part to the freshness of Chaucer’s encounter with newly available . . . rhetorical texts and the richer conception of rhetoric that they offered.”


Figure-analysis, identifying those “pockets of energy,” as Paul Vickers puts it (in his Classical Rhetoric in English Poetry, 1970), is not dispositive but is certainly suggestive. They are, as he has it, “keys to emotional and psychological expression.” Matthew, Geoffrey, Evrard and John of Garland together could not have given us the Pardoner, but without them? Imagining that is impossible. For Chaucer, applying the rhetorical theory he knew so well was more than recreational, and so it should be for us. Vickers concludes, “rhetoric has always fought off generalities and come back to specifics. And . . . only if we start from the details of language can we reclaim rhetoric as a central discipline.”

At the end of the day, Geoffrey seems most contemporary in his “refusal of social and moral commitment,” which, as Pearsall puts it, “remains profound. This . . . can be seen as a considerable achievement, in the face of a medieval orthodoxy that required either . . . ‘ernest’ or’ grave’ but could not tolerate the two together.” Yet even here we have a guise, if not a disguise. Chaucer apologizes more than once – or his characters do – for their vulgarity, even their scurrility. Another guise? Not if we look to the end, of the Tales and, thereby, the end of Chaucer’s life. The Parson, the final teller, is devout with neither smirk nor sneer. And the poet himself takes his leave with genuinely faithful gravitas:

‘Al that is written is writen for oure doctrine,’ and that is myn entente. . . . thanke I oure Lord Jhesu Crist and his blisful Mooder . . . and graunte me grace of verray penitence . . . thrugh the benigne grace of him that is kyng of kynges . . . that . . . so that I may been oon of hem at the day of doom that shulle be saved. Qui cumpatre et Spiritu Sancto vivit et regnat Deaus per omnia scuela. Amen.


Alas, it feels odd, after more than two millennia of its history, to have to argue for rhetoric as a creative paradigm as well as a penetrating interpretive tool. In the event, I have attempted something considerably more modest, claiming that medieval rhetorical theory was the resonant context in which Chaucer wrote, that scholarly tradition has (though inconsistently) shown as much, and that the use of rhetoric in examining The Canterbury Tales, even as briefly as I have, reveals an intricate double helix: the richness of the art in its timeits roots, ubiquity, and difficultywound with Chaucer’s commanding and capacious imagination. He may not have written for “the people” (as we understand that phrase), but he certainly wrote of them, of the “multiplicity of human life” (to paraphrase C. S. Lewis’s praise of Spenser). As much as any transcendent artistas much as Shakespearehe not only defines his age but is of all time.


[1] Most helpful here is Simon Horobin’s Chaucer’s Language (2nd. Ed.), Plagrave Macmillan, 2013, not a translation but a primer, and quite an enjoyable one. Nevill Coghill’s rendering of The Canterbury Tales into contemporary English is the gold standard. Return to text.


[2] My quotations are from The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (second edition), ed F. N. Robinson: Cambridge, 1957. Other references in situ can be found in the bibliography. The first quotation refers to the rhetorician Georfrey of Vinsauf (on whom much more later) and his set piece on the death of Richard III.Return to text.


[3] See McKeon, “Poetry and Philosophy in the Twelfth Century: The Renaissance of Rhetoric,” in his Rhetoric: Essay in Invention & Discovery (ed. Backman), pp. 167-193, for a rich dicussion of the period generally and of John of Salisbury in particular.Return to text.


[4] Even C. S. Lewis, no friend to figure-hunting or to medieval-renaissance rhetorical theory generally, allows (in The Discarded Image, C.U.P., p. 194) that Geoffrey of Vinsauf may have a point in giving “a remarkable piece of advice: ‘Do not always let a word remain in its natural position’.” Lewis reminds his reader that though such advice to a Latin writer is unnecessary (Latin being so highly inflected that almost any word-placement is idiomatic), “yet Chaucer can go a long way in English, and so skilfully that we may not always be aware of it” (and proves his point by quoting Troilus, I,1, et seq.).Return to text.


[5] Here is a sample from Geoffrey: “If you wish to inveigh fully against foolish people . . . praise, but facetiously; accuse but bear yourself good humoredly and in all ways becomingly; let your gesture more than your words nip the ones mocked. Lo, what was concealed under shadows will suffer under the light.” Trans. Jane Baltzell Kopp, in Murphy, Three Medieval Arts.Return to text.


[6] Here is a rhetorically symptomatic idea (hardly naïve) from Chaucer’s friend: “The first thought of a letter writer must be the person he is writing to; then he will know what to say, how to say it, and all the rest. We should write one way to a strong man, another to a sluggard; one way to a green youth, another to an elder who has fulfilled his life. . . . there is no more similitude of minds than of faces . . . [and even] one mind is not to be fed on the same literary style. So the writer has a double task: to envision the person he is writing to, and then the state of mind in which the recipient will read what he proposes to write . . . I have been forced into many contradictions with myself.”Return to text.


Selected Bibliography


Atkins, J. W. H. English Literary Criticism: The Medieval Phase. London, 1952.


Baldwin, Charles S. Medieval Rhetoric and Poetic. New York, 1928.


Baldwin, Ralph. The Unity of the Canterbury Tales. Copenhagen, 1955.


Beck, Richard J. “Educational Expectations and Rhetorical Results in The Canterbury Tales,” English Studies, XLIV (February, 1963):241-253.


Bloomfield, Morton W. “The Wisdom of the Nun’s Priest’s Tale.” Chaucerian Problems and Perspectives: Essays Presented to Paul E. Beichner, C.S.C. Edd. Edward Vasta and Zacharias P. Thundy. Notre Dame, 1979, pp. 70-82.


Boyd, Heather. “Fragment A of the Canterbury Tales: Character, Figure and Trope.” English Studies in Africa 26 (1983):77-97.


Brewer, Derek S. “Introduction,” Geoffrey Chaucer: ‘The Parlement of Foulys.’ Old and Middle English Texts. Manchester, 1972.


Bryant, Donald C. “The Uses of Rhetoric.” Rhetoric and Poetic, ed. Donald C. Bryant. Iowa City, 1965, pp. 1-10.


Camargo, Martin. “Chaucer and the Oxford Renaissance of Anglo-Latin Rhetoric,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer, ed. David Matthews. St. Louis, 2012, pp. 173-207.


Copeland, Rita. “Chaucer and Rhetoric,” The Yale Companion to Chaucer, ed. Seth Lerer. New Haven, 2006, pp. 122-42.


Curtius, Ernest R. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. New York, 1953.


Everett, Dorothy. “Some Reflections on Chaucer’s ‘Art Poetical’,” Proceedings of the British Academy. XXXVI (1950):131-154.


Faral, Edmond. Les Arts poétiques du XIIe et du XIIIe siècle. E. Champion, 1924.


Fisher, John H.. “The Three Styles of Fragment I of the Canterbury Tales.” Chaucer Review 8 (1973):119-27.


Gallo, Ernest. “The Poetria Nova of Geoffrey of Vinsauf,” Medieval Eloquence: Studies in the Theory and Practice of Medieval Rhetoric, ed. James J. Murphy. Berkley, 1978, pp. 68-84.


Haller, Robert S. “Chaucer’s Squire’s Tale and the Uses of Rhetoric.” Modern Philology 62 (1965):285-95.


Hamilton, Marie P. “Notes on Chaucer and the Rhetoricians,” PMLA, XLVII (June, 1932):403-409.


Joseph, Sister Miriam. Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language. New York, 1966.


Kelly, Douglas. “The Scope and Treatment of Composition in 12th and 13th Century ‘Arts of Poetry’,” Speculum, XLI (April, 1966):261-279.


Koretsky, Allen C. “Chaucer’s Use of the Apostrophe in Troilus and Criseyde.” Chaucer Review 4 (1970):242-66.


Knight, Stephen. The Poetry of the ‘Canterbury Tales’. Sydney, 1973.


Manly, John M. “Chaucer and the Rhetoricians,” Chaucer Criticism, V.1, edd, Richard Schoeck and Jerome Taylor, Notre Dame, 1965, pp. 268-290.


McKeon, Richard. “Rhetoric in the Middle Ages,” Speculum. XVII (January, 1942):1-32.


______. “The Uses of Rhetoric in a Technological Age: Architectonic Productive Arts,” Rhetoric: Essays in Invention and Discovery, ed. Mark Backman. Woodbridge, 1987, pp.1-24.


______. “Poetry and Philosophy in the Twelfth Century: the Renaissance of Rhetoric,” Rhetoric: Essays in Invention and Discovery, ed. Mark Backman. Woodbridge, 1987, pp. 167-193.

Miller, Robert P, “Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: A Radio Course.” New York, 1967.


______. Chaucer: Sources and Backgrounds. New York, 1977.

Murphy, James J. “The Arts of Discourse: 1050-14.00.” Medieval Studies, XXIII (March, 1961):194.-205.


______. “Cicero’s Rhetoric in the Middle Ages,” Quarterly Journal of Speech, LIII (December, 1967):334-341.


______. “The Medieval Arts of Discourse: An Introductory Bibliography,” Speech Monographs, XXIX (June, 1962):71-78.


_______. “’Modern Elements’ in Medieval Rhetoric,” Western Speech. XXVII (fall, 1964): 206-211.


_______. “A New Look at Chaucer and the Rhetoricians, The Review of English Studies. XV (October, 1963):1-20.


_______. “Rhetoric in Fourteenth-century Oxford,” Medium Aevum, XXXIV (August, 1965):1-20.


______, ed. Three Medieval Arts. Berkley, 1971. Parr, Roger P. “Chaucer’s Art of Portraiture.” Studies in Medieval Culture 4 (1974):428-36.


Payne, Robert O. “Chaucer and the Art of Rhetoric,” Companion to Chaucer Studies, ed. Beryl Rowland, Oxford, 1968, pp. 39-57.


______. “Chaucer’s Realization of Himself as Rhetor, Medieval Eloquence: Studies in the Theory and Practice of Medieval Rhetoric, ed. James J. Murphy. Berkley, 1978.


______. The Key of Remembrance. New Haven, 1963.


Pearsall, Derek. The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer. Oxford, 1992.


Richardson, Janette. “‘Blameth Nat Me’: A Study of Imagery in Chaucer’s Fabliaux.” Studies in English Literature, no. 58. The Hague: Mouton, 1970.


Travis, Peter W. Disseminal Chaucer: Rereading ‘The Nun’s Priest Tale’. Notre Dame, 2010.


Vickers, Brian. Classical Rhetoric in English Poetry. London, 1970.


Young, Karl. “Chaucer and Geoffrey of Vinsauf,” Modem Philology, XLI (February, 1943): 172-182.


James Como is the author, most recently, of The Tongue is Also a Fire: Essays on Conversation, Rhetoric and the Transmission of Culture . . . and on C. S. Lewis (New English Review Press, 2015).


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