Chaucer, Geoffrey c. 1340–1400

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Chaucer, Geoffrey
c. 1340–1400

Widely considered the first great poet in the English tradition, Geoffrey Chaucer was the son of a wine merchant. He was attached in his youth to aristocratic and royal households, later holding several important public positions—controller of customs, justice of the peace, member of Parliament, clerk of the King's works—and traveled to France, Italy, and Spain, probably on official business (the Italian trips also contributed to his poetic development, introducing him to the work of Dante, Petrarch, and Giovanni Boccaccio). Chaucer received regular annuities and grants from the royal family; these recognized his political service but also perhaps his poetry. About Chaucer's private life, we know less: he was married to Philippa Roet, also in service to the royal family, and he had several children. Chaucer jokes in his poetry about his ineptitude as a lover, his portly physique, and the trials of marriage, but one should not read these as reliably autobiographical.

Chaucer's major works include dream visions—the Book of the Duchess (c. 1369), the House of Fame (c. 1379–1380), the Parliament of Fowls (c. 1380–1382); a long courtly romance, adapted from Boccaccio, Troilus and Criseyde (ca. 1385); a collection of mostly classical stories about "good" women and unfaithful men, The Legend of Good Women (the Prologue of which is a fourth Chaucerian dream vision, c. 1386); and a more various collection of stories, framed within the account of a pilgrimage from London to Canterbury, The Canterbury Tales (1388–1400).

Most of Chaucer's poetry touches on questions about sex, gender, and sexuality. The dream visions all interrogate romantic love, though sometimes obliquely. Susan Schibanoff argues in Chaucer's Queer Poetics (2006) that the dream poems provide a site for the development of a queer Chaucerian aesthetics. Troilus and Criseyde traces the process by which its title characters fall in love and ultimately lose each other; the poem's center includes an elaborate bedroom scene in which they consummate their love, helped by Troilus's friend (and Criseyde's uncle) Pandarus, who serves as the go-between in their affair. As Tison Pugh (in Queering Medieval Genres [2004]) and Richard Zeikowitz (2003) have emphasized, the poem explores not only courtly love but also male-male homo-social/affective bonds. The Canterbury Tales depicts men and women from various social positions thrown together on a pilgrimage during which they tell stories. Several female characters—the Wife of Bath, the Prioress, the Second Nun—narrate tales. And almost all the tales focus their attention on male-female relationships and on marriage. Those few that don't—the Friar's, Pardoner's, and Canon's Yeoman's Tales—instead thematize male-male bonds. George Lyman Kittredge, in Chaucer and His Poetry (1915), proposed that one sequence of tales—The Wife of Bath's, Clerk's, Merchant's, and Franklin's—constitutes a "Marriage Group"; this has provided an important framework for reading the Canterbury Tales.

The explicit concerns of Chaucer's poetry have thus made it impossible for criticism to ignore questions about sex, gender, and sexuality. But it was not until the rise of feminist theory in the 1970s and 1980s that critics began to look more fully at the ways in which gender shapes Chaucer's work; and it was not until the 1990s and the elaboration of queer theory that the same became true for sexuality. In both feminist and queer criticism of Chaucer, many readings have focused on individual characters whose representation seems to raise especially poignant questions about gender and sexuality. The Wife of Bath, married five times and outspoken in her comments about male-female relations, has been of particular interest to feminist readers. Similarly, the Pardoner, compared to both "a geldyng" (castrated horse) and "a mare," has been at the center of much queer inquiry. As early as 1980, Monica McAlpine proposed that the Pardoner be read as akin to a modern homosexual ("The Pardoner's Homosexuality and How It Matters," PMLA 95 [1980]: 8-22); this was followed by a series of denials and then by analyses influenced by queer theory, beginning with Glenn Burger's "Kissing the Pardoner" (PMLA 107 [1992]: 1142-56).

The most thought-provoking feminist and queer Chaucerian work has recognized that it is not only in the depiction of particular characters but also in the deeper concerns of Chaucer's poetry that gender and sexuality matter. Carolyn Dinshaw's groundbreaking Chaucer's Sexual Poetics (1989) argues that Chaucer inherited, interrogated, and reshaped a longstanding hermeneutical tradition in which the literary text was figured as a female body under male control. Elaine Tuttle Hansen's Chaucer and the Fictions of Gender (1992) argues that Chaucer represented female characters like the Wife of Bath not out of some protofeminist impulse but instead to resolidify masculine authority. Queer-inflected Chaucerian work often takes off from such feminist criticism, but it emphasizes—instead of gender—the complex ways in which Chaucer engages with sexualities (not the modern categories of homo/heterosexuality, but instead medieval ones such as sodomy, celibacy, courtly love, and conjugality).

In Getting Medieval (1999), Dinshaw considers how non-normative, dissonant sexualities are represented in the Middle Ages by authors like Chaucer, how the "touch of the queer" disturbs medieval hegemonies, and how medieval queernesses resonate with the postmodern world. Karma Lochrie, in Covert Operations: The Medieval Uses of Secrecy (1999) and Heterosyncrasies (2005), emphasizes female sexuality, arguing that the category of sodomy was applied to women as well as men; she also critiques work that unreflectively brings modern categories of analysis (even commonsensical ones like "normality" and "normativity") to bear on the premodern. The fullest queer analysis of Chaucer is Glenn Burger's Chaucer's Queer Nation (2003). Burger examines explicitly sexualized moments in the Canterbury Tales (the conclusion of the bawdy Miller's Tale; the Pardoner's queer performance), but he also reads queerly what might seem the more "normal" (and "heterosexual") relations of conjugality in the tales of the Marriage Group, the Wife of Bath's "female masculinity," and the religious/eschatological conclusion of Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrimage.

Other important work on gender and sexuality in Chaucer includes that of Alcuin Blamires, Catherine S. Cox, Susan Crane, Sheila Delany, Aranye Fradenburg, Allen J. Frantzen, Steven Kruger, Anne Laskaya, Jill Mann, and Robert S. Sturges.


Burger, Glenn. 1992. "Kissing the Pardoner." PMLA 107: 1142-56.

Burger, Glenn. 2003. Chaucer's Queer Nation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Crane, Susan. 1994. Gender and Romance in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Dinshaw, Carolyn. 1989. Chaucer's Sexual Poetics. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Dinshaw, Carolyn. 1999. Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern. Durham: Duke University Press.

Hansen, Elaine Tuttle. 1992. Chaucer and the Fictions of Gender. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Lochrie, Karma. 2005. Heterosyncrasies: Female Sexuality When Normal Wasn't. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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

Schibanoff, Susan. 2006. Chaucer's Queer Poetics: Rereading the Dream Trio. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Zeikowitz, Richard. 2003. Homoeroticism and Chivalry: Discourses of Male Same-Sex Desire in the Fourteenth Century. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

                                               Steven F. Kruger