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Franziska Scheitzeneder (München)

"For myn entente nys but for to pleye":
On the Playground with the Wife of Bath, the Clerk of Oxford and Jacques Derrida

"For myn entente nys but for to pleye":
On the Playground with the Wife of Bath, the Clerk of Oxford and Jacques Derrida

The paper approaches medieval literature from the point of view of contemporary, poststructuralist theory by a parallel reading of two tales of Geoffrey Chaucer's Middle English Canterbury Talesand Jaques Derrida's essay "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences" from 1967. Taking the notion of a play of meaning developed in Derrida's essay as a cue for a reading of Chaucer's tales, the paper discusses and contrasts two different attitudes toward such a play which can be found in the tale of the Wife of Bath and the tale of the Clerk of Oxford, respectively.

1 A Multiplicity of Voices

The Canterbury Tales are not only fragmented because Geoffrey Chaucer never finished them. Their very make-up does not follow a straight course: there is a frame story – the pilgrimage – in which we have a narrator who is himself involved in the action. Confusingly, this narrator bears the authors name. Then, there are the tales, each told by another narrator. Inside the tales we can hear still more voices. There is not one center that is the designated and sole origin of what we read.

It is not even possible to make Geoffrey Chaucer this center, since there are a variety of versions of the Canterbury Tales.1 The tales have made their own pilgrimage – they wandered through manifold readers and scribes hands and changed in the process. One could argue that the game of storytelling that happens within the Canterbury Tales had its effect on the reception: the variety of voices denies one universal reading and, instead, opens up the game of interpretation. It allows a play of meaning and therefore also reflects on matters of both production and reception of any text.

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By drawing on Jacques Derridas essay "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences," I want to show that especially the Wife of Bath and her tale present a deconstructive momentum and an example of the decentering (Derrida 1988: 110) of structure within the Canterbury Tales. A comparison with the Clerk and his tale, both speaking of the necessity of a fixed center, shows that there are two forces working simultaneously within the poem: the processes of the centering and the decentering of structure. Consequently, the tension that is created between the longing for a center and the dismissal of a center is one possible interpretation of the canonically assumed antagonism of the Wife of Bath and the Clerk.

2 The Decentering of Structure

"It is a curious business, this effort to read back into the past the giddiest moments of modern vertigo."
(Taylor 1993: 478)

"Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences" describes the transition from structuralist to poststructuralist thinking. Derrida reveals the tendency of western culture to assign a center to any structure and shows at the same time how paradoxical this assumption is: "it has always been thought that the center, which is by definition unique, constituted that very thing within a structure which while governing the structure, escapes structurality" (Derrida 1988: 109). Derrida's view of structure is dynamic: structure is a free play of its elements. Once there is a center, this play is limited: "as center, it is the point at which the substitution of contents, elements, or terms is no longer possible" (Derrida 1988: 109).

What Derrida shows is that this assumed center is "not a fixed locus but a function" (Derrida 1988: 110). This function is the creation of the illusion that one is able to control the "play of the structure" (Derrida 1988: 109), i.e. by implication the play of meaning. Derrida finds the reason for this obsession with centered structure in the anxiety that the game itself creates (Derrida 1988: 109). The center, one could say, works as the lifebuoy on the ocean of meaning.

The point where the center was dismissed as illusion and meaning was opened up is for Derrida the point where "everything became discourse … that is to say, a system in which the central signified, the original or transcendental signified, is never absolutely present outside a system of differences" (Derrida 1988: 110).

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In addition, Derrida points to the interdependence of the evolving discourses: in order to question an earlier system, they must accept the very premises they try to dissolve. He uses the example of Lévi-Strauss to show that, although one might not be able to evade the "circle" of interdependence, it is possible to be aware of the forces that influence a discourse (Derrida 1988: 110). Lévi-Strauss introduced the concept of "bricolage" to describe this interrelation of discourses. Bricolage names the fact of using inherited concepts "to destroy the old machinery to which they belong and of which they themselves are pieces" (Derrida 1988: 114). This involves a new differentiation between the method of a discourse (i.e. the using of old concepts) and its content (i.e. no longer the old concepts).

Coming back to structure in general, Derrida argues that the characteristic of any structure is that it is a site of play ('site' is not to be understood in a spatial sense here since structure is to be seen as dynamic). Structure does not allow totalization, because it is "a field of infinite substitutions" (Derrida 1988: 118). This field misses a center and the lack is compensated for through endless substitutions through a sign (Derrida 1988: 118f.). The view of such a decentered structure entails two emotional reactions (that Derrida sees simultaneously at work in Lévi-Strauss', the structuralist's, texts): the one a nostalgic longing for the lost origin, the other an admittance of a play that includes the human being but passes human control:

There are thus two interpretations of interpretation, of structure, of sign, of play. The one seeks to decipher, dreams of deciphering a truth or an origin which escapes play and the order of the sign, and which lives the necessity of interpretation as exile. The other, which is no longer turned toward the origin, affirms play and tries to pass beyond man … that being who, … throughout his entire history – has dreamed of full presence, the reassuring foundation, the origin and the end of play. (Derrida 1988: 121f.)

These two views of structure are inherent in the Canterbury Tales and especially in the characters of the Wife of Bath and the Clerk and their approaches toward the game of storytelling.

2.1 Deconstruction and Promiscuity

Before I can start to read Chaucer with Derrida in my mind, I have to address the discussion that has arisen about applying deconstruction to medieval literature. Andrew Taylor offers a very suspicious view of this method in his article "Chaucer Our Derridean Contemporary?". He argues that it has often been employed too light-headedly.

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He cites a letter by Derrida that challenges deconstructive criticism (Taylor 1993: 472ff.). Incorporating deconstruction as a method is in his eyes an action that runs counter to the thoughts behind it. This is the first problem. Deconstruction which talks of the impossibility of fixed definitions has itself been defined and has become a fashionable must.

The second problem that Taylor elaborates on is the phenomenon that this fashion has created in medieval studies: the instability of the sign has nevertheless been rooted to a center, either the poet or medieval culture (Taylor 1993: 476).

Furthermore he notes the impossibility of understanding Derrida: "for Derrida the reading of Derrida is a lifetime's work" (Taylor 1993: 483). Misunderstanding is the reason Taylor sees for the general handling of deconstruction: its application as a method and its simplification. Taylor's main concern is not the misunderstanding as such, but the fact that it is so common and obvious that it can too easily become "the justification for not bothering to try, for cannibalizing the vocabulary while avoiding the challenge of the thought" (Taylor 1993: 485). This may result in "interpretive promiscuity in which a text may mean anything you like" (Taylor 1993: 482).

I see Taylor's point and admit that it is very appealing to indulge in the freedom of interpretation that can be drawn from deconstructive criticism. But I am aware that deconstruction as a method can become a dead end. What is to come after it?

As I understand deconstruction it is not about digging out any hidden truths and displaying them as solid monuments. I rather take the political thread of it (i.e. of merely one essay by Derrida): the questioning of authorial powers that define what is good and what is evil. I pull at this thread, stretch it, maybe straining it a bit in order to bring it together with these medieval characters and texts - to weave my own little tapestry of interpretation.

If the outcome of the experiment appears to be 'interpretive promiscuity', I won't be alone with this diagnosis. The Wife of Bath is charged with the same crime. Her promiscuous glossing is her political action against male authorities. Therefore I think it is doubly justified to borrow Derrida's ideas in this case – even the accusation to have gotten it all wrong. As we will see the discourse on deconstruction as a method has brought up similar problems as the discourse on the Wife of Bath.

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2.2 The Clerk's Demand for Constancy: Incompatibility with the Game

Like all the other pilgrims, the Clerk is taking part in a game of storytelling. This game has its own rules that are constantly being reinforced from the outside of the players' circle. The Host, simultaneously inside the group of pilgrims, yet an outsider in his position as judge and arbiter, personifies the rules that bind them.

The feeling of being at the mercy of the rules is very strong with the Clerk. The game seems to run contrary to his character. It aims at entertainment "to shorte with oure weye" (I. 791), while the General Prologue characterizes him as a serious thinker: "[n]oght o word spak he moore than was neede,/ And that was seyd in forme and reverence,/ And short and quyk and ful of hy sentence" (I. 304-306).

The Clerk's prologue to his tale illustrates his basic incompatibility with the game. The Host, as embodiment of the game and its rules, positively has to pull him into the storytelling: " 'For Goddes sake, as beth of bettre cheere!/ It is no tyme for to studien heere./ Telle us som myrie tale, by youre fey!" (IV. 7-9).

Furthermore, he stresses that the rules of the game control the Clerk, once he has agreed to them: "For what man that is entred in a pley,/ He nedes moot unto the pley assente" (IV. 10-11).

The Clerk knows his place and admits the Host's, i.e. the game's, "governance" (IV. 23), but he also establishes a world in opposition to the game's merriment. He tries to distance himself within the bounds of "resoun" (IV. 25) and a distinctly scholarly tradition. To stress his seriousness and his perception of fixed limits, he then introduces the issue of death. Not only is it important to the Clerk that Petrarch, the father of the tale he is about to tell, is dead (IV. 31-38), but he also adds the disconcerting information that "alle shul we dye" (IV. 38).

Death gives him the authority and strength to speak. It represents his reassurance that there is an end to the game and that its control is limited. Until this end is reached the Clerk chooses a straight path. He dismisses Petrarch's introductory landscape description, for example, since he thinks it "a thyng impertinent" (IV. 54). But at least for a moment he slips from his path and loses his focus, when he himself recounts this description in detail, before he abandons it from his speech. There are some more digressive elements in his speech that show the artificial effort it takes to be focused on a center.2

Joseph Grossi sees the Clerk in a troubling position that makes him insecure: "the Clerk is subject to forces beyond his control or comprehension: the conventions of the pilgrimage and of dialogic" (Grossi 1995: 153).3

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Or to speak again with Derrida: the Clerk's "anxiety is invariably the result of a certain mode of being implicated in the game, of being caught by the game, of being as it were at stake in the game from the outset" (Derrida 1988: 109). And once we take the Wife of Bath's speech into consideration, he and his centered structure are indeed at stake. Not only because of what she has to say about clerks, but even more because of her mode of discourse that rattles the posts of the Clerk's perception. So the condition for the Clerk's tale-telling is insecurity created by the instable nature of the game. And the issue of stability invariably is part and parcel of his tale.

2.2.1 The Clerk's Tale

In the Clerk's tale there is the marquis Walter, young and lively and with one big flaw: he is a hedonist obsessed with the present. His unconcern with the future makes him the Clerk's direct opposite and therefore Walter earns his disapproval. Consequently, the Clerk becomes the ally of Walter's people who take over all the anxiety about the future that their marquis refuses. The like-mindedness becomes strikingly obvious when they echo the Clerk's words about death:

"Ay fleeth the tyme; it nyl no man abyde":

"And thogh youre grene youthe floure as yit,
In crepeth age alwey, as stille as stoon,
And deeth manaceth every age, and smyt
In ech estaat, for ther escapeth noon;
And al so certein as we knowe echoon
That we shul deye, as uncerteyn we alle
Been of that day whan deeth shal on us falle.
(IV. 119-126, emphasis added)

Certainty is the essential concern. The marquis is the particular center for his people and they want to ensure the stability of this center by persuading him to continue his lineage through marriage.

As the tale proceeds it becomes clear that Walter is obsessed with constancy as well. After he has chosen the most virtuous Griselda for his wife, "[t]his markys in his herte longeth so/ To tempte his wyf, hir sadnesse for to knowe,/ That he ne myghte out of his herte throwe/ This merveillous desir his wyf t'assaye" (IV. 451-454). Again and again he must repeat his tests to gain certainty. But one can also adopt quite a different view and say that the repetition of his tests expresses a perverse desire,4 in the sense that with every test he conducts, there is once again the possibility of finding out that his Griselda is not constant.

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Underneath his obsession with her constancy thus lies another obsession with situations of uncertainty.

If Walter's desire is defined as the desire for uncertainty, the narrator's interruptions on the needlessness of his tests also take on another hue.5 At least in the mouth of the Clerk they show the disbelief in Walter's want for situations in which anything can happen. The cruelty he assigns to the tests may after all be the cruelty the Clerk finds in exposing oneself to uncontrollable forces.

The change in the relationship between the narrator and Walter's people shows a similar disdain for uncontrollability. The people appear to be very opportunistic in their opinion about Walter. First they accuse him of murder,6 then, seeing his assumed new bride, they are bewitched by her beauty and think Walter's choice a wise one. The narrator's reaction is anger:

'O stormy peple! Unsad and evere untrewe!
Ay undiscreet and chaungynge as a fane!
Delitynge evere in rumbul that is newe
For lyk the moone ay wexe ye and wane!
Ay fil of clappyng, deere ynogh a jane!
Youre doom is fals, youre constance yvele preeveth;
A ful greet fool is he that on yow leeveth.
(IV. 995-1001, emphasis added)

We get the feeling that the narrator himself was betrayed through their wavering. Grossi suggests that "the people represent Bakhtinian polyglossia, the multiplicity of voices; in attacking the mob, the Clerk also attacks the random polyglossia of the Wife" (Grossi 1995: 175). The Wife of Bath can indeed be seen as the embodiment of multiplicity as we will shortly see, but Grossi notices this multiplicity also in regard to the whole poem: "the Canterbury Tales is a poem told in many voices by the same 'stormy peple' the Clerk derides" (Grossi 1995: 174). Even though this is once more an argument for the Clerk's uneasiness with the whole game it is also possible to see the Clerk's tale in itself as multivoiced in its structure (see McClellan's title). McClellan's Bachtinian reading of the tale points out that it is at least told by Petrarch, the Clerk and Chaucer. Still I would not go so far as Engle who concludes that "[t]he Clerk's Tale celebrates the survival of dialogic under unreal conditions of discursive conformity" (Engle 1989: 454).7

Finally, after all the trouble and excruciating tests, the Clerk's tale ends in relative certainty. Walter is assured of Griselda's constancy and obviously has overcome his desire for testing and the people get the security of an heir. The center seems restored.

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And in order to avoid an ambiguity of meaning and a further play of interpretation, the Clerk also explicitly states the message of the story: "every wight, in his degree,/ Sholde be constant in adversitee" (IV. 1145-1146).8 Again he portrays constancy as the sine qua non in life, as the very basis of his perception.

2.3 The Wife of Bath's Propagation of Multiplicity: A playful Approach

Alison, the Wife of Bath, has a completely reversed attitude toward the game. The General Prologue informs us that she is an experienced pilgrim (I. 463-466) and there are already hints that these earlier pilgrimages were not only for spiritual purposes. The statement that she had crossed "many a straunge strem" (I. 464) must have a metaphorical meaning. In combination with the mention of her "wandrynge by the weye" (I. 467) it becomes clearer that she is not one who stays within fixed limits like the Clerk tries to. What is an unintentional slipping with the Clerk, is a pleasurable entertainment with the Wife: her aim is transgression or at least a discourse that is playful and not straight as the Clerk's.9 From the General Prologue onwards, her disposition is the complete opposite of the Clerk's.

Their different approaches to the world contrast even more, when we turn to the Wife's prologue. With her very first statement she makes clear that hers is a discourse that grounds in "[e]xperience" (III. 1) in contrast to the Clerk's that roots in learned authority. Of course, her discourse thus has a center as well. But when we look at the actual experience the Wife recounts, we see that this center is in itself fragmented.

The fragmentation begins with her multiple husbands and her insight that "[d]iverse scoles maken parfyt clerkes,/ And diverse practyk in many sondry werkes/ Maketh the werkman parfyt sekirly" (III. 44c-e). Even those versions of the Canterbury Tales that don't include this passage,10 portray the Wife of Bath's experience as multileveled. I want to cite Lee Patterson's perception of the Wife's prologue in order to show this multiplicity. He sees her prologue as the interpretation of a text on three different levels on the basis of her miscellaneous experiences (Patterson 1983: 679). Her text being St Paul's mention of tribulatio carnis, she interprets this expression first as "sexual temptation", then as "domestic tyranny" and finally as "the suffering of the unloved spouse" (679). All of these interpretations follow her experience in diverse marriages. Thus, her prologue also has an inbuilt reflection on the reception of texts. It suggests an openness of meaning that is mirrored by and can be mastered with the multiplicity of personal experience. As Peggy Knapp puts it: the Wife "prefigures a historical shift to a less 'centered', more open, style of exegesis" (Knapp 1987: 145).

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Multiplicity finds its material expression in the Wife's creation of speech. In contrast to the Clerk, digressive elements are not forcefully controlled by her. Patterson, who assumes contrary to other critics that the Wife does have a rhetorical strategy, notes that her digressions are not a rhetorical flaw but the very basis of her storytelling (Patterson 1983: 678f.).11

The Wife's approach to her storytelling is condensed in her reaction to the Pardoner's encouragement that she should go on and tell her tale:

sith it may yow like;
But yet I praye to al this compaignye,
If that I speke after my fantasye,
As taketh not agrief of that I seye,
For myn entente nys but for to pleye.
(III. 188-192)

I would accept Barrie Ruth Straus' point that her words are a "guise of knowing her place" (Straus 1988: 529). The Wife echoes male stereotypes about women's preoccupation with play and fantasy, but goes further by offensively turning the assumed female flaws into virtues that Derrida would probably recognize.12

Straus' view of the issue of the dichotomy truth/fiction in the Wife's prologue contains similar insights as Derrida's essay. She is concerned with the Wife's overturning of phallocentric discourse, i.e. another discourse that rests on the assumption of a fixed center. Her conclusion on the Wife's storytelling is that its aim "is not masculine truth, but play and telling" (Straus 1988: 543). The Wife's prologue shows that she is not concerned with any universal truth like the Clerk, but only with a personal truth that is not irreversible but may vary from one experience to the other.

Thus, I want to call the Wife, in her production and her reception of texts, an anachronistic allegory of Derrida's play of structure, whose only truth is that there is not a single truth. Knapp also arrives at this bizarre similarity of modern theory and medieval character, when she says that "[the Wife of Bath] has an affinity with these more recent commentators on discourse [i.e. Derrida and Bachtin] – that is just what is wrong with her. She has set herself against her own intellectual world" (Knapp 1987: 146).

2.3.1 The Wife of Bath's Tale

The Wife's tale can be viewed under the same hypothesis. It juggles with the desire of patriarchy for one true meaning and the Wife's implicit proposal of multiplicity.

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She situates her tale in distinctly fantastic surroundings, when she talks about "th'olde dayes of the Kyng Arthour" (III. 857) and a "land fulfild of fayerye" (III. 859). She uses this setting not only to introduce her tale, but also to make a statement about the illusionary character of patriarchal truth. This statement is expressed in the contrast between the land of the imagination that she alludes to and the reality she experiences. The "elf-queene" (III. 860) is replaced by "lymytours and othere hooly freres" (III. 866). Then the bitterly sarcastic passage "[w]ommen may go saufly up and doun./ In every bussh or under every tree/ Ther is noon oother incubus but he,/ And he ne wol doon hem but dishonour"(III. 878-881) uncovers the helplessness of women. But it also uncovers the fictitious quality of truths spoken by people of authority. She says that the danger lies not in the play of the imagination as the male authority might think, but in male fictions that are presented as truths. The authority that "maketh that ther ben no fayeryes" (III. 872) is the same male authority that hides behind hypocritical claims like the one that a vicious incubus seduces women while the factual seducer is very human in appearance. This is the disconcerting introduction to a tale that declares to be about what "wommen moost desiren" (III. 905).

The protagonist of the tale, a young knight who raped a girl, seemingly is under the control of women. They decide whether he should live or die because of his deed and then send him on a quest to find out the truth about female desire. The tale pretends to be about a lesson that should be learned by the knight. But what it tells besides – its troublesome subtext – is that female desire is completely erased by the knight's quest for truth. He thinks that he found it when the old woman tells him "[w]ommen desiren to have sovereynetee" (III. 1038). And he is also saved by this information, since "[i]n al the court ne was ther wyf, ne mayde,/ Ne wydwe that contraried that he sayde" (III. 1043-1044). Interestingly enough, he thinks to have found out the truth about women, but the women who are present at the court are only mentioned in their respective relation to men: 'wyf', 'mayde', 'wydwe'.13 We can take that already as a hint that he has not found out anything that has to do with female desire.

Again I want to follow Straus' argumentation. She concentrates on the conclusion of the tale that intimately confronts the knight with the old woman. Straus elucidates how the transformation of the old woman into a young beauty is not an award for the knight's lesson learning. Instead it merely discloses that, although on the surface he has fulfilled a woman's desire for sovereignty, he merely caters his own desire (Straus 1988: 544ff.). Straus also points to the choices that the old woman gives to the knight between a young, maybe unfaithful, or an old and faithful wife and says that they reveal and play with a phallocentric masculine desire for a wife who is beautiful and young, and whose fidelity, or truth, is not wandering, uncertain, fictionalized and undecidable, but rather the single, decidable, absolutely anchored truth and knowledge of phallocentric discourse (Straus 1988: 545).

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The Wife's tale thus is not a tale about women's desire but about patriarchy's desire for stability. That this stability is a construction rather than a given is shown on the example of the truth that is created around women. The universal answer that the knight finds, this universal truth, is already mocked from the beginning of his quest, when he experiences the multiplicity of female desire(s): "But he ne koude arryven in no coost/ Wher as he myghte fynde in his mateere/ Two creatures accordynge in-feere" (III. 922-924). The Wife offers a subtle critique of a society that clings to pseudo-truths and thus tries to limit a natural play of meaning. McClellan calls her a "powerful oppositional voice in the social discourse of late fourteenth-century England" (McClellan 1998: 485).

2.4 Lenvoy de Chaucer

There is still a significant change to come in the Clerk's speech that I do not want to ignore. When he steps out of his tale, he talks about the actual instability of the world that he experiences. In the end his speech gets subjective like the Wife's. He warns his male fellow pilgrims of women's unfaithfulness:

For if that they were put to swiche assayes,
The gold of hem hath now so badde alayes
With bras, that thogh the coyne be fair at ye,
It wolde rather breste a-two than plye.
(IV. 1166-1169)

When he apostrophises the Wife of Bath in the next stanza, his tone changes from scholarly gravity to irony. I am well aware of the misogyny of his talk about women and particularly about the Wife, but I would argue that this misogyny roots in his inability to control the structure that includes him. He associates the sort of discourse that allows for play with the Wife and therefore his reaction is hatred against women.

What the Clerk is not conscious of is that the song that follows is his very own transgression. He decidedly leaves his bounds of reason and arrives at a lively and entertaining discourse. Since his whole praise of the Wife of Bath must be taken as a farce, he himself becomes an actor. He chooses a rhetoric device that makes its point not in a straight way and thus involuntarily mimics the very discourse he tries to scorn.

The fact that the Clerk's Tale also has a multivoiced component to my mind becomes most obvious in the envoy. G.L. Kittredge thinks the envoy totally compatible with the Clerk's character and calls it a "masterpiece of rhetoric" (Kittredge 1912: 449).

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But I would rather agree with John Alford's whose essay "The Wife of Bath versus the Clerk of Oxford: What their Rivalry Means" sees the Clerk and the Wife as "their creator's own attempt to reconcile two historically opposed modes of discourse" (Alford 1988: 108). He identifies the Clerk as an allegory of the philosophical and the Wife as allegory of the rhetorical discourse (Alford 1988: 109ff.). When we then assume that the envoy is more rhetorical than philosophical, we must conclude that the Clerk has inadvertently changed sides for a moment.14

This instability on the Clerk's side (who, ironically, is concerned with stability) can be taken as a mirror for Chaucer's whole project. Ruth Barrie Straus characterizes "the authorial voice and the authority of the text" as an authority that is constantly slipping away. For while the truth of patriarchy rests on its claim to absolute authority, the narrative structure of the Tales, especially the way the univocal authority and truth of Chaucer as author-pilgrim-narrator is deflected through the multivoiced narrators that represent his author-ity and that he represents, creates a process which constantly undermines the idea of an absolute authority and univocal truth. (Straus 1988: 539)

The Clerk and the Wife then are two crucial instances of negotiating the problems of an author who still belongs to a "medieval manuscript culture [that] does not typically support an ideal of fixed, self-contained, or autonomous texts" (Tinkle 2001: 57) but yet foreshadows a modern culture that celebrates individual authors and fixed texts . But it may be a bit too much to call Chaucer "an active deconstructionist" as Marshall Leicester does when he talks about Chaucer's environment as one in which culture is already a textual heritage (Leicester 1987 22).

3 Conclusion

By taking Derrida's assumptions and implications about decentered structure as my filter for a reading of the Wife of Bath and the Clerk, I tried to show how both the anxieties and the affirmation in regard to a dismissal of the illusion of stability are inherent in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

Through this interpretive filter, the Wife of Bath proved to be the embodiment and the advocate of a letting go of fixed meaning.

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Her prologue portrays her as a fragmented character, enjoying the play of words and meaning. Her tale offers a critique of a dominant group's ability to fix meaning and reveals the illusionary nature of such a single meaning.

The Clerk, on the other hand, appears to emerge from a scholarly tradition that belongs to the dominant group that tries to define truth. His uneasiness with the game of storytelling illustrates his need to control meaning. His tale elaborates this disposition further, but includes digressions and ambiguities that undermine his project. Ultimately the Clerk involuntarily slips into a subjective mode of discourse in the envoy that shows that the assumption of fixed meaning is deceptive.

In my discussion, I chose a 'playful' approach to interpretation in order to bring these medieval characters and especially their strategies of discourse together with my interpretation of Jacques Derrida. These texts, put next to each other after centuries between them, did not stay sterile but worked on each other.

Furthermore, by choosing a master text for the reading of the Canterbury Tales that could not have been a master text chronologically, the activity of glossing (or for that matter: interpretation), of forcing a meaning on a text, is subverted. A reading so much delayed from the writing process bears unexpected interpretations. It illustrates how we as modern readers approach a medieval text from our own background and influence the text accordingly. And ultimately, it acknowledges that in the end, interpretation is itself simply a play of infinite substitutions while we are on the quest for a center of the text.


Alford, John A (1986): "The Wife of Bath versus the Clerk of Oxford: What their Rivalry Means", in: The Chaucer Review 21:1, 108–132.

Chaucer, Geoffrey (1988): The Riverside Chaucer. Benson, Larry D. (Hg.). 3rd Ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cooper, Helen (1996): Oxford Guides to Chaucer. The Canterbury Tales. 2nd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Derrida, Jacques (1988): "Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences", in: Lodge, David (Hg.): Modern Criticism and Theory. New York: Longman, 108–123.

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Engle, Lars (1989): "Chaucer, Bakhtin, and Griselda", in: Exemplaria 1:1. 429–459.

Grossi, Joseph (1995): "The Clerk vs. the Wife of Bath: Nominalism, Carnival, and Chaucer's Last Laugh", in: Utz, Richard J. (Hg.): Literary Nominalism and the Theory of Rereading Late Medieval Texts. Medieval Studies 5. Lewiston: Mellen, 147–178.

Kittredge, G. L. (1912): "Chaucer's Discussion of Marriage", in: Modern Philology 9:4, 435–467.

Knapp, Peggy A. (1987): "Wandrynge by the Weye: On Alisoun and Augustine", in: Medieval Texts & Contemporary Readers. New York: Cornell University Press, 142–157.

Laplanche, Jean /Pontalis, Jean-Bertrand (1972): Das Vokabular der Psychoanalyse. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp, 1972. 627–631.

Leicester, Marshall H., Jr. (1987): "Oure Tonges Différance: Textuality and Deconstruction in Chaucer", in: Medieval Texts & Contemporary Readers. New York: Cornell University Press, 15–26.

McClellan, William (1989): "Bakhtin's Theory of Dialogic Discourse, Medieval Rhetorical Theory, and the Multi-Voiced Structure of the Clerk's Tale", in: Exemplaria 1:1, 461–488.

McClellan, William (1989a): "Lars Engle – 'Chaucer, Bakhtin, and Griselda': a Response", in: Exemplaria 1:1, 499–506.

Moore, Jeanie Grant (2003): "(Re)Creations of a Single Woman: Discursive Realms of the Wife of Bath", in: Amtower, Laurel / Kehler, Dorothea (Hg.): The Single Woman in Medieval and Early Modern England. Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies 263. Tempe: MRTS, 133–146.

Patterson, Lee (1983): " 'For the Wyves love of Bathe': Feminine Rhetoric and Poetic Resolution in the Roman de la Rose and the Canterbury Tales", in: Speculum 58:3, 656–695.

Shoaf, R. A. (1989) "Medieval Studies after Derrida after Heidegger", in: Sign, Sentence, Discourse. Language in Medieval Thought and Literature. New York: Syracuse UP, 9–30.

Straus, Barrie Ruth (1988): "The Subversive Discourse of the Wife of Bath: Phallocentric Discourse and the Imprisonment of Criticism", in: A Journal of English Literary History 55:3, 527–554.

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Taylor, Andrew (1993): "Chaucer Our Derridean Contemporary?", in: Exemplaria 5:2, 471–486.

Tinkle, Theresa (2001): "The Wife of Bath's Textual/Sexual Lives", in: Bornstein, George / Tinkle, Theresa (Hg.): The Iconic Page in Manuscript, Print, and Digital Culture. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 55–88.


1 See Theresa Tinkle's essay "The Wife of Bath's Textual/Sexual Lives". She points to the impossibility of assigning one single meaning to the Canterbury Tales since their very production and reception exclude closure. Concerning the attempts to organize the structure of the poem she says for example: "the work's historical form is multiplicity, and that form will not be brought neatly into a hierarchized or genealogical set of relations" (Tinkle 2001: 63). According to the textual notes from The Riverside Chaucer there are 83 manuscripts of the Canterbury Tales (1118).

2 These digressions are followed by brevitas-formulae like "But shortly forth this matere for to chace" (IV. 341), "Of hire array what sholde I make a tale?" (IV. 383) or the repetitious "And shortly forth this tale for to chace" (IV. 393).

3 Since Grossi takes into account Bachtin's theory of carnival later on in his discussion of the Clerk's Tale, I also assume that he is talking about Bachtin's concept of dialogic discourse as opposed to monologic discourse, although this is not explicitly stated. For a summary of Bachtin's concepts and their relevance for medieval studies see Lars Engle's article "Chaucer, Bakhtin, and Griselda".

4 Freud's notion of the compulsion to repeat [Wiederholungszwang] comes to mind in this context and might serve for a psychoanalytical interpretation of the Clerk's Tale (see Laplanche/Pontalis 1972: 627-631)

5 "what neded it / Hire for to tempte, and alwey moore and moore, … ? / But as for me, I seye that yvele it sit/ To assaye a wyf whan that it is no nede" (IV. 457-461). "O nedelees was she tempted in assay!" (IV. 621). "wolde I axen fayn/ If thise assayes myghte nat suffise?" (IV. 696-697).

6 "To been a mordrere is an hateful name" (IV. 732).

7 For a well-meaning but critical evaluation of Engle see McClellan (1989a).

8 There is clearly a question of intertextuality here (as in many other places of the Canterbury Tales). Do we attribute the tale to the Clerk or do we stick with the original like Engle: "Petrarch's gloss on the story as parable of obedience is an attempt to tame the possibility that the tale is dialogical, articulating several incompatible viewpoints" (Engle 1989: 438)?

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9 See Barrie Ruth Straus's definition of the Wife's conditions of discourse: "[h]aving undertaken to speak of serious matters, as if a man speaking to men, the Wife speaks as if to women, but still addresses men" (Straus 1988: 532). Thus, the Wife does not speak from a cohesive position but from a highly transgressive and fragmented one.

10 Helen Cooper states that there are only three versions of the Canterbury Tales that contain lines III. 44a-f, Dd.4.24 being the most important reference (Cooper 1996: 139). The Riverside Chaucer confusingly speaks of the Christ Church, Egerton and New College manuscripts as the only sources, but then also cites Dd.4.24 (1126).

11 Although there is an emphasis on digression as a necessary condition for human experience in R.A. Shoaf's statement that "we humans come to the truth only by wandering. For Derrida such wandering consists in detours" (Shoaf 1989: 23), I would challenge it in that truth is still portrayed as the goal of that wandering. Digression is rather to be seen as an end in itself.

12 See Knapp's similar summary of the Wife's activity:

"Contemporary theorists might even see Alisoun's protest against her era's accepted way of reading as movement away from 'logocentrism', as Jacques Derrida calls the West's unhealthy fascination with the authoritative word, and toward a heady delight in textual play." (Knapp 1987: 145)

13 Even when we consider wyf to mean 'woman in general' as Jeanie Grant Moore notes in relation to the naming of the Wife of Bath (Moore 2003: 133), one must ask why the queen's mission said 'wommen' rather than 'wyves'. The glossary of The Riverside Chaucer comments on the ambiguity of the word (1306).

14 I also disagree with Kittredge who states that the readers should not be misled by the title "Lenvoy de Chaucer" (Kittredge 1912: 449). I think it is a significantly deconstructive element to introduce another voice here. Be it a scribe's title or not, it is emblematic of the new mode of discourse that is introduced here.