God's patients : suffering and the divine in the Canterbury tales

Bugbee, John Stephen, Department of English Language and Literature, University of Virginia
Spearing, A.C., Department of English, University of Virginia
Fowler, Elizabeth, Department of English, University of Virginia
Nohrnberg, James, Department of English, University of Virginia
Ochs, Peter, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia

God's Patients considers two philosophical questions in some of Chaucer's more troubling tales. One is the question of passion and action: what does it mean to act, what does it mean to be acted on, and can the two states mix? The other concerns will and law: how does and how should a human will relate to various laws that claim to govern it?

Each question governs two chapters: one investigating the question by close attention to the Canterbury Tales and its sources is followed by one searching the most widely known theology of Chaucer's day for illumination of his religious assumptions. The passion and action question appears in the Clerk's, the Man of Law's, and (to some extent) the Knight's Tales; will and law are considered in the Franklin's and Physician's Tales. The theological chapters rely primarily on the writings of Bernard of Clairvaux.

A methodological introduction proposes the dissertation's brand of "iconic reading" (a term paraphrased from Charles Peirce) as an experiment, distinguishing it from earlier attempts to connect theology and literature. The immediate results — rich new readings of all four tales — suggest broader methodological conclusions. A "Hermeneutical Interlude" shows why critics cannot interpret Chaucer adequately without closer attention to his religious background; the Man of Law's Custance, for example, has been badly misread by critics who miss her status as exemplar of a religious state simultaneously-active and passive. A concluding chapter suggests that the two central themes are so closely linked as to form a single question, answered by a religious ideal ofdivine-human cooperation; it closes with historical observations on the change by which this ideal has fallen from favor, rendering Chaucer and many other medieval writers difficult to understand on religious questions.

Two appendices extend the argument about action and passion. One clarifies Bernard's presuppositions by a comparison with those of Immanuel Kant — as an epitome of modem ethical thinking, one that some recent criticism takes as the appropriate background for interpreting Chaucer. A second appendix reads the Second Nun's Tale, showing how its religious ideal differs from that in the other tales considered.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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