In this paper, I would like to focus on Chaucer’s treatment of the materiality of memory. Indeed, the poet shows that our memory is very much shaped and defined by the objects carrying it. The House of Fame illustrates the physical transformation of our memory, its re-imagining and re-shaping when it is materialized in one medium or another (sculpture, manuscript…). Such an interest is of special importance for a poet who knew that the reception of his poetry was bound to evolve as it slowly stopped to be orally transmitted and started to rely on a physical and written transmission. Chaucer thus feared that his work might be misinterpreted or misunderstood if not reproduced properly under his supervision.
In ‘The Merchant’s Tale’, the elderly and lecherous Januarie fashions his own pleasure-garden in order to experience the ‘worldly joye’ of copulation with his young and beautiful wife May. Admittance to this garden is granted by a silver key which Januarie zealously keeps in his possession in his anxiety to be the sole purveyor and beneficiary of his bride’s youthful charms. In the possession of Januarie, the key thus becomes a material artefact of monitoring and surveillance, intended to control his wife’s sexuality through a careful calibration of its mode (both spatial and temporal) of outlet. The fenced garden which metaphorically mirrors Januarie’s attempt to circumscribe the sexual activities of May is doubly protected by the key whose material status as an object that grants exclusive access to the feckless old knight makes it instrumental to the tale’s larger thematic concern with masculine, patriarchal control of feminine sexuality. However, May’s secret counterfeiting of the key and bestowal of it upon her lover Damian is a clever subversion of this trope since it is symbolic of her attempt to reclaim control over her own sexuality. Once the key has been duplicated, May can let Damian in to the garden in order to gain sexual fulfilment of the sort impossible for her aged, selfish, and impotent husband to provide. The materiality of the duplicate key thus helps to guarantee and preserve May’s sexual autonomy. My paper will explore this dual status of the key as both original and counterfeit and its simultaneous association with masculine sanction of female sexual license as well as feminine reclamation of agency (or, to put it in terms of one the Canterbury Tales‘s predominant concerns, ‘maistrie’) via the self-direction of sexuality.
In this paper, I explore the interconnected ecological and metaphorical aspects of the ‘grisly rokkes blake’ in Chaucer’s ‘Franklin’s Tale’. I begin with Dorigen’s statement that the rocks benefit neither ‘man, ne bryd, ne beest’, and consider whether 14th-century scientific literature supports viewing this as a moment of ecological consciousness. Drawing on Timothy Morton’s ‘dark ecology’, I argue that the rocks are a grisly black box, and represent the opacity of non-human nature. I conclude by proposing that the ‘Franklin’s Tale’ confronts the limitations of human craft through its depictions of natural objects eluding human understanding.