Initiates into the history of scholarship on the Book of the Duchess (BD) may recognize in this introduction's title a nod to Bertrand H. Bronson's 1952 PMLA article ‘The Book of the Duchess Re-Opened’. Bronson's bibliophilic conceit heralded an enlarged perspective on Chaucer's earliest narrative poem, one that eschewed the biographical and philological approaches that dominated early twentieth-century criticism in favor of psychological readings that would transform scholarship on the poem. The present volume argues that the time is ripe for the Book of the Duchess to be reopened afresh, this time toward an end that is less singular than multitudinous, progressive, gerundial: a reopening. The core verb here is conceived in the spirit of Umberto Eco's definition of the ‘open work’: one that ‘gains its aesthetic validity precisely in proportion to the number of different perspectives from which it can be viewed and understood’. Although Eco largely brackets medieval texts as products of a monolithic world view in his discussion of the pleasurably frenetic ‘movement’ of more recent literary works, the essays in this volume resoundingly illustrate the labile and variously textured potential of BD, in its own time and in ours.
Despite the fact that BD has over the years seen a robust harvest of criticism in the form of articles and book chapters, as well as an excellent critical edition (Helen Phillips’ 1982 Durham and St Andrews Medieval Texts edition, rev. 1997), the only book-length treatment of the poem before very recently was James Wimsatt's important, but selectively focused, Chaucer and the French Love Poets, published in 1968. My own attempt to remedy this gap resulted in the 2015 Making Chaucer's Book of the Duchess: Textuality and Reception (New Century Chaucer series, University of Wales Press), which establishes the groundwork of the poem's material transmission, history of interpretation, and creative reception while emphasizing its susceptibility, prefigured by its own contemplation of textual processes, to (re)making. Several of the questions raised in my book regarding the field of writing in which BD participates, the work's problematic journey from manuscript into print, and the cross-cultural matrix it inhabits as a French poem paradoxically and transformatively written in English, are points of departure for the original critical contributions brought together in the present volume.