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5 - Damaged Goods: Merchandise, Stories and Gender in Chaucer's Man of Law's Tale

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 May 2017

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Summary

Readings of the Man of Law's Tale frequently impugn its narrator for his mercantile attitude. In the tale's prologue, the Man of Law indulges both in an enthusiastic encomium dedicated to merchants and their wealth, and in a lengthy rant against poverty. Such speeches seem wildly inappropriate for a tale that is, ostensibly, about a woman's patient tolerance of penury. Scholars argue that, due to his preoccupation with wealth and commerce, the Man of Law fails to grasp the deeper spiritual significance of the story that he tells. Instead, he ends up converting everyone and everything in the world of the story into commodities, from Custance to Christ's providence. Even stories become commodities for the Man of Law, commodities that are in limited supply and that possess a range of values. Those stories that are new (or at least appear new to a particular audience) have the most value in the literary marketplace. The Man of Law worries that these valuable stories are in short supply because Chaucer, albeit ‘lewedly’, has told them all. The idea of storytelling as a zero-sum game, in which valuable stories are instantly devalued because they are alreadytold stories, runs counter to most of our working assumptions about the production of medieval narrative, in which ‘the important thing is not the originality of the basic story, but rather the artist's execution of it’.

In contrast to his narrator, Chaucer often is viewed as a more sophisticated storyteller, one who understands the roles of intertextuality and influence in narrative production. For such a reading to succeed, a certain philosophical distance between Chaucer and the Man of Law is required. One of the most effective ways to create such a distance, as A. C. Spearing has argued, is by reading the Canterbury Tales dramatically, through the lens of their narrators. The long tradition of dramatic reading produces much of the irony that scholars locate in the Tales. It also makes possible the ‘discarding [of] anything found disagreeable by a modern reader as the responsibility not of Chaucer but of the fictional teller’. But in the case of the Man of Law's approach to storytelling, what is so ‘disagreeable’ that it necessitates protecting Chaucer from his narrator's associative voice?

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2017

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