Speaking of Chaucer’s Obscenity

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Obscene innuendo in decoration, linked to text. Cuckoo-pint (Arum maculatum) flowers and leaves border decoration, in Geoffrey Chaucer, Romaunt of the Rose (c. 1440). Glasgow, Glasgow University Library Special Collections, MS Hunter 409, fol. 57v (details).

Mary C. Flannery is a medievalist working in Switzerland. She was recently awarded a Marie Curie fellowship to investigate the reception of Chaucerian obscenity between Chaucer’s death and the present day.

I am about to begin a new project that will examine the impact of the sexual and scatological language and content of The Canterbury Tales on the transmission of the text and on Chaucer’s reputation over the past six hundred years. My interest in this topic was sparked by the way that Chaucer’s references to sex, farts, turds, pissing, and genitalia—what I call Chaucerian “obscenity”—have alternately been censored, celebrated, condemned, and excused since his death. This post is my attempt to reflect on the terminological complications that attend a project of this nature, and on my own reasons for adopting “obscenity” as my preferred critical term.

Both “obscene” and “obscenity” are words that postdate Chaucer by nearly two centuries. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the earliest use of “obscene” to the mid-sixteenth century, when it chiefly meant “grossly indecent, lewd,” or (of a publication) “tending to deprave and corrupt those who are likely to read, see, or hear the contents.”[1] By the late sixteenth century, the word could denote moral offensiveness, something more generally repulsive or loathsome. It could also be used to describe something ill-omened, although this sense has long since become obsolete.

The semantic range of obscenity has evolved considerably since the sixteenth century. In An Encyclopedia of Swearing, Geoffrey Hughes notes that the meanings of “obscenity” and “obscene” have shifted from “a basic sense of religious violation” towards an emphasis on perceived “sexual depravity or extreme vulgarity,” and the terms are now used in a very broadly “condemnatory sense.”[2] As Nicola McDonald has remarked, the study of medieval obscenity is further complicated by the fact that “the obscene remains a loose and fuzzy category”; as one moves between periods and cultures, “[t]he boundary shifts ever backwards and forwards (there is no neat evolutionary trajectory to chart), and … changing historical and cultural circumstances make it difficult to identify one person’s (or culture’s) obscenity from another’s taboo, pornographic, erotic or merely ‘talking about’ the sexual or scatological.”[3]

In the case of Chaucerian obscenity, one must contend not only with evolving and disputed definitions of the obscene, but also with the range of terms, euphemisms, and adjectives that have been used to describe the sexual and scatological content of The Canterbury Tales. In The Miller’s Prologue (line 3184), Chaucer himself refers to the content of the Miller’s and Reeve’s tales as “harlotrie” (low, trifling, or ribald talk; obscenity; a dirty story (MED s.v. harlotri(e)). Such content has been variously referred to as “bawdiness”/“bawdy,” “ribaldry,” “filth,” “dirtiness,” or “smuttiness,” among other terms. Donald C. Green lists “‘coarse,’ ‘bawdy,’ ‘off-color,’ ‘ribald,’ ‘dirty,’ ‘unrefined,’ ‘scurrilous,’ ‘low,’ and ‘unfit for modest ears’” as some of the many adjectives and phrases that have been used to describe Chaucer’s sexual and scatological material.[4] Terms such as these provide valuable evidence of the filters through which Chaucerian obscenity has been and continues to be viewed, filters shaped by issues of class, morality, propriety, and style.

Our perception of Chaucer’s greatness and/or medieval-ness also plays a key role in this history. In a 1993 essay for the London Sunday Times on the use of authors’ names as adjectives, David Mills defines “Chaucerian” as “bawdy in an acceptably Olde Englishe way.”[5] The word “bawdy” is, if not entirely obsolete, then at least relatively old-fashioned. This sense of quaint, old-fashioned style or language is reinforced by Mills’s association of Chaucer with “Olde Englishe,” a phrase which—particularly in Mills’s mock-antiquated spelling—contributes to an overall sense of harmlessness and an innocence that has been often attributed to the Middle Ages: Chaucer may be dirty, but only in a quaint, anodyne, outdated sort of way. Mills presents this particular brand of obscenity as both characteristic of Chaucer and also as acceptable by virtue of its association with him: it’s acceptable because it’s Chaucer who’s doing it (or because it calls to mind what Chaucer did). Sure, we’ll find farts and fornication in Chaucer’s work, but that can be put down to “Olde Englishe” style and tastes, or to Chaucer’s unique genius: great artists are entitled to break the rules.

As Mills’s remark suggests, one of the key issues at stake in discussions of Chaucerian obscenity is that of artistic license. Is a writer like Chaucer great in spite of his obscenity, or is his occasional obscenity—as George Shuffelton has provocatively suggested—one of the things that make him great?[6] Under what circumstances (if any) may writers depict bodily functions, use scatological language, or write about sex? Some might argue that authors can write about these kinds of topics as long as they do it well, a belief that underlies the Literary Review’s annual “Bad Sex in Fiction Award” (which aims to “draw attention to poorly written, perfunctory or redundant passages of sexual description in modern fiction”).

Even if, like Mills, we consider Chaucer’s obscenity acceptable precisely because it is “Chaucerian,” we cannot overlook those moments when it has been deemed not just amusingly (or quaintly) naughty, but downright unacceptable or even illicit. The Canterbury Tales have been subject to censorship on multiple occasions (including as recently as 1995, when an Illinois high school banned the “full version” of the text in favor of an “expurgated” version, after parents complained that some parts of Chaucer’s text were inappropriate).[7] And while I do not think of the sex and scatology of The Canterbury Tales as offensively obscene, I believe that they may be characterized as “obscenity” insofar as they constitute material that has been (and, in some contexts, continues to be) perceived as violating a variety of social prohibitions related to sex, the body and its functions, and other topics.

The aim of my project is neither to defend nor denounce Chaucer’s use of obscene language and content, but rather to reconsider the relationship between what we think of as “literature” and what readers may find shocking, distasteful, or even abhorrent. While other authors in English have been censored or celebrated for obscenity, Chaucer’s prominence in English literary history and the extent to which his reputation has varied over the past six centuries make him an ideal test case for such a study.

John Lydgate did not view Chaucer’s occasional “ribaudye” as a reason to stop describing him as the “[f]loure of poetes thorghout al Breteyne,” but many later readers felt differently, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.[8] Daniel Defoe thought The Canterbury Tales “not fit for modest persons to read.”[9] Lord Byron found Chaucer “obscene and contemptible.”[10] These kinds of responses have in turn affected the publication of Chaucer’s works: expurgated versions of The Canterbury Tales have been produced at regular intervals since 1795.

The evolving reception of Chaucerian obscenity is a topic that enables us to reflect on the literary standards and social prohibitions not only of the past, but also of the present. It intersects with many other hotly contested questions concerning Chaucer’s work (is it dirty, funny, moral, misogynist, etc.? is it great, canonical, innovative, conventional, “Olde Englishe,” etc.?). In these respects, the subject of Chaucerian obscenity might help us to reopen the question of what the perception of artistic genius or greatness renders either permissible or unconscionable, as well as the question of how we define greatness and obscenity in the first place.

[1] OED, s.v. obscene, obscenity.

[2] Geoffrey Hughes, An Encyclopedia of Swearing: The Social History of Oaths, Profanity, Foul Language, and Ethnic Slurs in the English-Speaking World, M. E. Sharpe, 2006, s.v. obscenity, pp. 331-34 (pp. 331-32).

[3] Nicola McDonald, “Introduction,” Medieval Obscenities, edited by Nicola McDonald, York Medieval P, 2006, pp. 1-16 (p. 12).

[4] Donald C. Green, “Chaucer as Nuditarian: The Erotic as a Critical Problem,” Pacific Coast Philology, vol. 18, 1983, pp. 59-69 (p. 59).

[5] David Mills, “What is Pinteresque?,” The Sunday Times, 5 September, 1993, Features section. Cited in George G. Shuffelton, “Chaucerian Obscenity in the Court of Public Opinion,” The Chaucer Review, vol. 47, no. 1, 2012, pp. 1-24 (p. 1).

[6] Shuffelton has suggested that “Chaucer’s reputation may be changing: long viewed as canonical despite his obscenity, Chaucer may now be canonical because of his obscenity” (“Chaucerian Obscenity,” p. 2).

[7] See Dawn B. Sova, Banned Books: Literature Suppressed on Social Grounds, rev. edn, Facts on File, Inc., 2006, p. 78.

[8] John Lydgate, The Siege of Thebes, TEAMS, edited by Robert R. Edwards, The Medieval Institute, 2001, Prologue, lines 25, 40.

[9] Daniel Defoe, “Not fit for modest persons to read, 1718,” in Chaucer: The Critical Heritage Volume 1: 1385-1837, edited by Derek Brewer, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978, p. 174.

[10] Lord Byron, “List of the different Poets, dramatic or otherwise, who have distinguished their respective languages by their productions” (1807), in The Complete Miscellaneous Prose, edited by Andrew Nicholson, Oxford UP, 1991, p. 3.

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