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Abstract and Keywords

In On Beauty and Being Just, Elaine Scarry argues that error is part and parcel of the human understanding of beauty. Medieval writers regarded beauty with some suspicion; in the modern era, it is typically associated with “taste” and judgement. This article examines the notion of beauty as depicted in medieval literature by focusing on Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem “Miller’s Tale” and his description of the main actor, Alisoun. It considers how a new aesthetic enters the poem and with it an attempt to redefine both poetry and beauty.

Keywords: Elaine Scarry, error, beauty, Geoffrey Chaucer, Miller’s Tale, poetry, medieval literature

The experience of ‘being in error’ so inevitably accompanies the perception of beauty that it begins to seem one of its abiding structural features.

(Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just)1

The association between beauty and error that Elaine Scarry articulates, in which error is part and parcel of the human understanding of beauty, is a particularly appropriate beginning for an essay on beauty and late medieval poetry. Not only was beauty regarded with some suspicion by medieval writers, for whom it tended to mean feminine beauty and thus to imply sexual desire, but it has also fallen dramatically out of fashion in the modern era, in which it is usually understood to mean ‘taste’ and to imply judgement—just the kinds of categories that literary critics eschew in favour of more objective standards (like history) or more abstract thinking (as in philosophy). Even though both ‘objectivity’ and ‘generalization’ have themselves been thoroughly critiqued, they remain available as standards by which to impeach other modes of apprehending the literary text. At the same time, beauty remains a working, and workable, concept largely in the introductory classroom; one begins by teaching about beauty, and progresses to teaching about history or theory. It is all the more pressing, then, to wonder about beauty and what its hold over readers and writers really is; to wonder, in an old-fashioned way, what medieval poets thought about beauty and if those thoughts had discernible effects on what and how they wrote. If they did, then we must ask ourselves why we routinely exclude beauty from our considerations of medieval writing, and what it would mean to add to our critical repertoire a working notion of the beautiful.

(p. 208) I have chosen a text to focus on that is familiar to all medievalists, Chaucer’s ‘Miller’s Tale’, and within it, his description of Alisoun, the lively main actor in the plot. Even within that passage I have narrowed my focus, in large part, to eleven lines:

  • She was ful moore blisful on to see
  • Than is the newe pere-jonette tree,
  • And softer than the wolle is of a wether.
  • And by hir girdel heeng a purs of lether,
  • Tasseled with silk and perled with latoun.
  • In al this world, to seken up and doun,
  • Ther nis no man so wys that koude thenche
  • So gay a popelote or swich a wenche.
  • Ful brighter was the shynyng of hir hewe
  • Than in the Tour the noble yforged newe.
  • But of hir song, it was as loude and yerne
  • As any swalwe sittynge on a berne.2

This portrait is traditionally seen in one of two ways, either as a brilliant synthesis of the poetic and the natural, with Alisoun representing the essence of the harmonious natural world evoked by the Miller’s sense of poetic justice, or as a subtly but profoundly lascivious leer at Alisoun’s body, particularly her midsection, or ‘queinte’. In what follows, I will suggest that though both of these readings are possible, they are deeply limited because they fail to read the text closely enough. Subjecting the portrait to severe scrutiny yields not only new insight, but also an appreciation for the degree to which it produces and then sustains an aesthetic tension between the natural and the artificial as a way of preserving its own vision of the beautiful. I have chosen the eleven lines above because they contain the exact midpoint of the thirty-eight-line-long passage, which is structured around the image at its centre: Alisoun’s purse, ‘Tasseled with silk and perled with latoun’ (l. 3251). Chaucer has taken this purse from the Romance of the Rose, where it appears in the Old Woman’s discourse on love as a crucial element of a young woman’s seductive costume: the maiden wishes ‘particularly to show off her purse, which should be right out for everyone to see’ (‘Et l’aumoniere toute voie, | Que bien est drois que l’en la voie’).3 In the Romance of the Rose, of course, the purse is a sexual metaphor pure and simple. But as I will show, Alisoun’s purse is in fact quite real, with very specific design features and a very different set of referents from that (p. 209) of Jean de Meun. In Chaucer’s rendering, the purse is further framed by a series of comparative similes, the only ones in the passage to assert Alisoun’s superiority to the world that she inhabits; she is ‘moore blisful’, ‘softer’, and ‘brighter’ than the pere-jonette tree, than wool, than a gold coin. These comparatives are themselves formally set off from the remainder of the passage with the repetition of the word ‘newe’; both pere-jonette tree and ‘noble’ are described as ‘newe’, creating a ring in which the purse is nestled, drawing our attention away from the closing couplet of the passage—‘For any lord to leggen in his bedde, | Or yet for any good yeman to wedde’ (ll. 3269–70)—which usually serves as the rubric for interpreting its function within the tale as a whole.4

Like Alisoun’s clothes, her purse is highly decorated and elaborately made, with silk ‘tassels’ (which can mean either gatherings of fringe or a kind of fastening) and little beads of ‘latoun’ embedded in the leather.5 Everything about the purse is artificial, from the worked leather, to the tassels, to the ‘perles’ made of ‘latoun’; it is not even a useful thing, as we hear nothing about its contents or even if it can be opened, given the ambiguity of ‘tassel’. Indeed, both ‘perling’ and ‘latoun’ are the end results of processes highly alienated from the natural world. To ‘perle’ is to craft little pearl-like studs of metal and embed them in leather or cloth, thus making ersatz versions of a natural object; ‘latoun’ or ‘latten’ is an alloy of copper, tin, and various metals that is then polished to shine like gold.6 It, too, is a made object, something constructed by human beings and used here for decoration, for the creation of an object with no discernible purpose in either the text or Alisoun’s life. In some senses, it represents the high point of one distinct element of the description, its anti-naturalistic aspect, in which the seeming naturalism of Alisoun’s portrait is undermined by the highly artificial and decorated quality of her appearance and her body.

How are we to judge this artifice? A modern understanding of beauty—by which I mean, very loosely, post-Kantian beauty—favours the natural, the unadorned, the pure contingency of beauty, a quality given sparingly to some persons and landscapes and not at all to others. From paintings to advertisements we see this understanding of beauty at work in our own culture, deeply embedded in modern consciousnesses; for a medieval version, we have only to look as far as Criseyde and her joined but unplucked brows. Chaucer’s aristocratic heroine has a flaw in (p. 210) her beauty but does not rectify it; plucking appears to be associated firmly with the loveliness of ‘wenches’ rather than the ‘deignous’ attractiveness of a Criseyde or Emelye, as Alisoun’s eyebrows are ‘ful smale ypulled’ (l. 3245).7 Think, too, of the antifeminist discourse that inveighs against women’s use of artificial beauty enhancements, in such texts as the Romance of the Rose.8 Alisoun’s purse links her to a world in which artifice supersedes nature and enhances what the contingencies of natural reproduction have wrought. Indeed, all of her actions are apparently for pleasure, an excessive and expressive aesthetic of artifice for its own sake. Here she distinctly differs from that other Alisoun, the Wife of Bath, whose artifice—both sartorial and rhetorical—is all designed for a purpose, gaining ‘maistrye’, a new suitor, clerkly approbation.

What of nature can be salvaged from this vision of beauty? Or perhaps not nature at all, but beauty itself requires salvage. After all, it would be entirely Chaucerian to expose underneath the seeming loveliness of a ‘wenche’ her artificiality and thus undermine her claim to beauty. That would perhaps be the Ovidian reading of the passage, one in which the secrets of femininity are revealed in order to expose its fundamental ugliness, the ‘thyng al rough and long yherd’ (l. 3738) Artificial Alisoun is soft, ‘softer than the wolle is of a wether’ | (l. 3249); Alisoun stripped of her artifice is rough and frightening, repulsive, distasteful. Is beauty then only a surface designed to conceal and seduce, form overlaying horrible content? While this may be Absolon’s conclusion, his is not the only perspective in the tale, nor is it at all privileged. Chaucer clearly performs this reading precisely in order to reject it. It is the clerical reading par excellence, the vision of beauty as seduction and concealment that figures like Jerome (and indeed Jankyn) persistently promote. Over and against this dark vision of beauty Chaucer constructs an aesthetic in which both nature and artifice have roles to play.

When Chaucer’s Miller interrupts the progression of tales from Knight to Monk, a new aesthetic enters the poem and with it an attempt to redefine both poetry and beauty. Even the simple gesture of cataloguing a wench rather than a lady, and doing so in affirmative and not parodic terms (we see an example of the latter in the ‘Reeve’s Tale’ and its description of poor Malin), represents an attempt to recalibrate the reader’s aesthetic sensibility and to introduce new terms of judgement and evaluation.9 Chaucer asks us to look anew (at a wench), (p. 211) to touch, listen, taste, and smell again (at, to, and of nature), and finally to think hard about the relationships among standards of beauty, class-based discourse, and vernacular poetry. The formal structures at work in the poem thus bear a strong resemblance to Alisoun’s ornamented vision of beauty, in which she decks herself out in elaborate garments from head to toe, each of which is embroidered, beaded, gored, laced, barred and girdled on every available surface (‘bifore … bihynde … aboute … withinne … withoute’ (ll. 3238–40) ).10 Emelye’s simple garlands look dignified and austere by contrast. Chaucer articulates multiple aesthetics in his portrait of Alisoun, linked to rank, gender, and poetic stature, and these aesthetics mingle in such a way that traditional understandings of ‘medieval beauty’ are rewritten and radically reshaped.

First, Alisoun herself must be credited with a notion of beauty, expressed through her clothing and her alterations to her body. Chaucer conceals this aspect of the portrait by consistently using the passive voice in his descriptions of her dress and face (‘broyden’, ‘ypulled’, and so on). But who else would have chosen her clothing or plucked her brows? Alisoun has presented herself for viewing, and clearly has a very particular notion of beauty, one in which artifice and decoration play central roles. Beauty is here gendered feminine and is modified by the word ‘wenche’ (‘swiche a wenche’ (l. 3254)), which tells us both her sex and her place in the social order. Perhaps today it might be described as ‘busy’ or ‘ornamental’ and, then as now, it is linked to her non-aristocratic status; Alisoun has imitated great ladies, but has done so with an excess and verve that lead to her wearing a brooch ‘as brood … as a bokeler’ (l. 3266) A second aesthetic at work defines beauty as pleasure for the senses, a kind of Epicureanism of the feminine, in which every human sensory capacity is sated with delightful sensations: she can be seen (she shines), she can be touched (she is softer than ram’s wool), tasted (sweet as bragot or meath), smelled (sweet as apples), and heard (lively as a swallow). In this vision, which is surely masculine (as the final lines of the passage suggest), Alisoun is an object for use and delight, a kind of sensorium of pleasures. We see a distinction between estates; lords simply enjoy her while yeomen wed her, and, presumably, beget children with her. Beauty, in this vision, is a means to a sexual end for both men and women; Alisoun’s ornamentation becomes her means of achieving a goal it is assumed that both men and women desire, sexual intercourse and marriage.

We find ourselves in a world of art ‘for profit or delight’ (to use the Horatian formulation beloved of medieval poets), in which uses and endings supersede pure beauty, natural or artificial, and replace the pleasure of the moment (‘solaas’) with the goal-directed drive of ‘sentence’—in this case, marriage.11 Or so things stand (p. 212) for yeomen. Lords, in contrast, are allowed to enjoy the pleasures of beauty with none of the pains of labour or the ‘wo in mariage’ that the lower orders must endure. That is why, for a noble, a ‘wenche’ like Alisoun represents an aesthetic of useless pleasure, far more so than an Emelye, for whom deeds must be done and enterprises undertaken. Even knowing, however, that lords and yeomen, ladies and wenches have different standards of beauty and different responses to beautiful objects, cannot blind readers to the universalizing drive of the portrait, to the ways in which it solicits consensus by embedding the artificial in the natural. This claim rests on the assertion that ‘the natural’ represents some kind of universal human experience, some notion of shared sensory perception such that apples always taste and smell sweet, skipping calves are always appealing and joyous, ‘softness’ is always delightful, and so on. One might not like Alisoun’s dress sense, finding it too gaudy or too revealing (that ‘lowe coler’ (l. 3265)), but the portrait seems to assume that when she is compared to, or supersedes, nature, all readers will agree that she must be, in fact, beautiful.

I have been describing the mixture of aesthetic perspectives that Chaucer establishes throughout his portrait of Alisoun, and suggesting that in each of them we find a different emphasis on the natural and the artificial, with some particularly interested in artifice and others captured by the pleasing images from nature embedded in the text. By ‘artifice’ I mean those elements in the description that derive from the hand of a human being, which betray their human origin in one way or another—from a ‘barred ceynt’ (l. 3235) to a ‘brood brooch’ (l. 3265–6) to ‘bragot’ or ‘meeth’ (l. 3261) ‘Nature’ becomes, by process of elimination, everything else. Or so it would seem. Where do Alisoun’s eyebrows fit into this model? Or indeed, the ‘wolle of a wether’, which can be in its natural state, on the sheep, or sheared and processed by human beings? The apples Chaucer mentions have been harvested; even the swallow sits on a ‘berne’, symbol of cultivation and agriculture—the human control over the natural environment. The more closely we examine the natural imagery in the passage, the more artificial it seems to become, the more we realize that human hands have left their imprints upon almost every element of the natural world, every seemingly untouched and innocent created thing. But in general the effect of Chaucer’s description is to blur the distinction between nature and artifice with which I began, to break down the seeming opposition between natural beauty and women’s artifice, and to call into question thereby the value judgements associated with the two poles of the binary.

To address such questions, we have to move backward to two moments of oddity in the description itself, one that is formally privileged (that ubiquitous purse) and one that is strikingly out of step with the vision of nature and sensation that I have been articulating above (Alisoun’s ‘loud’ voice). These odd moments are linked, I will argue, by their connection to poetry itself, by the way in which they bring together the artifice of Alisoun’s dress with the art of ‘making’, linking the human tendency to shape and reshape the natural (shearing sheep or brewing bragot) (p. 213) with Chaucer’s vision of what poetry fundamentally does and whence it ultimately derives. To begin with the purse:

  • And softer than the wolle is of a wether;
  • And by hir girdel heeng a purs of lether
  • Tasseled with silk and perled with latoun.
  • In al this world, to seken up and doun.

What, we might usefully ask at this juncture, is Chaucer making, or what has been made? It could be a woman, or a purse, or a purse as a metaphor for a ‘queinte’ which is a synecdoche of a woman, or ‘woman-ness’. Certainly this purse could be said to be ‘queinte’ in the neutral sense of the term, meaning only ‘ingeniously made, skilfully wrought; elaborate, intricate’.12 But a close analysis of the purse yields two crucial observations: first, Chaucer describes it in such a way as to emphasize its ersatz quality, the sense in which it has been decorated (‘perled’) as if with gems, and as if in gold. No real pearls are in sight, and ‘latoun’ is merely an alloy, a made substance, something that represents the real thing (gold) but is not itself that thing. Second, the thing itself, the purse, is not the only the leather object fastened with a tassel and decorated with latoun that Chaucer would have known. The other such object would be a book. Medieval books were bound with leather-covered boards, which were often decorated with metal—gold, silver, brass—and they sometimes featured clasps with tassels.13 In an entry in Edward IV’s Wardrobe accounts, we see a suggestive payment ‘to Alice Claver for the makyng of xvj laces and xvj tasshels for the garnysshing of divers of the Kinges bookes, ij s. viij d’.14 Though this entry is dated almost a century after Chaucer composed the ‘Miller’s Tale’, other evidence confirms that fasteners and clasps were often decorated with tassels, and that book covers were adorned with metalwork from a very early date.15 They thus functioned as tangible symbols of their (p. 214) owners’ wealth and prestige, communicating visually a message that the text inside the covers could not be relied on to produce, depending on its purpose and frame. Like ‘perling’ and ‘latoun’, books are not things-in-themselves so much as they are representations of things—and people, places, actions, objects, events. They are, as Francesca famously reminds us, go-betweens, and sexualized go-betweens at that.

It is precisely this connection that Chaucer exploits and indeed, reaches beyond in the next few lines, when he compares Alisoun’s ‘hewe’ to a coin:

  • Ful brighter was the shynyng of hir hewe
  • Than in the Tour the noble yforged newe.


These lines set in place an unsettling link between the image of the purse-as-book—which encourages a kind of metapoetic, self-referential reading—and the image of a gold coin, an object that combines image and text, abstraction and particularity, in a succinct and disturbing way. A coin is a mimetic object. It is a thing that functions in the abstract. It links the ‘real’ world of Alisoun’s costume, in which she wears a purse, to the ‘poetic’ world of comparison, in which she is like a coin: the purse becomes metaphorical, and the coin becomes ‘real’, as something that might be inserted in the ‘real’ purse. This coin has a specific identity and a specific point of origin: it is a ‘noble yforged newe’ in the ‘Tour’, the London Mint. Historically, the noble bore the image of the king, and was an unusual and very popular English coin; first struck in 1344, on the back it depicted Edward III sitting in a ship, with a large sword and shield, and probably commemorated the battle of Sluys in 1340. As Donald Baker showed long ago, the ship itself was unusually realistic, and represented a one-masted, square-rigged cog; the coin also bore a legend from the Gospel of Luke, 4: 30, ‘Ihc avtem transiens per medivm illorvm ibat’ (‘But Jesus Christ, passing through the midst of them, went his way’).16 Like a book, or the image of the king on a coin, Alisoun’s description is a substitute for Alisoun, and along the way, a substitute for a good many other ideas—like nature and beauty—as well. The comparison of Alisoun to a coin helps to make sense of the motivation at work behind the description itself, for when we examine the particularity of the coin, its specificity, we find not only the king, but also images that Chaucer picks up again further on. Alisoun is ‘Long as a mast and upright as a bolt. | A brooch she bar upon hir lowe coler, | As brood as is the boos of a bokeler’ (ll. 3264-6). These martial images fit oddly with the natural world (p. 215) evoked by most of the similes that sit between the image of the coin and that of the ‘brood brooch’. But in the context of the noble, they become clearer; Edward III sits beside a mast, carrying a large shield and sword. By rendering Alisoun in terms of the noble, Chaucer enables us to see her as parallel to, and literally made of, imagery from a facsimile—a near-sacred facsimile, but a form of imitation or mediation nonetheless. She commemorates a commemoration, and it thus lends to her some of its own qualities of stability and thingness. Coins, that is, are forms of representation that both imitate an absent thing or event or person, and have a particular identity and value of their own. At the same time, they are concrete forms of abstraction, things that act like ideas. Alisoun’s description acts as a memorial to a person. It acts as a concrete textual object that stands in for an idea—about ‘wenches’, about nature, about beauty. Inserting an Alisoun made up of the elements of a ‘noble’ allows us to see the text itself, the thirty-eight lines, as a thing, an artistic object in its own right.

At this point we must heed the words on the coin. They are drawn from Luke 4, which recounts Jesus’ temptation in the desert and his preaching in Galilee, where he so offended the Galileans that they cast him out of the city, intending to hurl him down the hill upon which it sat; instead, ‘Ihc avtem transiens per medivm illorvm ibat’ (‘But Jesus Christ, passing through the midst of them, went his way’). Baker suggests that the quotation functions as a kind of amulet against coin-clipping, and indeed, the link that it establishes between Christ and the king does sacralize the coin, making clipping equivalent to an attack on the body of the king; as we know from the Statute of Treasons, enacted only eight years after the coin was first struck, this equivalence was not only noted but actively promoted by both king and parliament.17 The statute asserted that both counterfeiting and coin-clipping constituted treason, just as did attacks on the king’s body and those of his immediate family; as Hoccleve would insist sixty years later, physical damage to a coin was equivalent to damage to the body of the king, and deserved the same punishment.18 When Alisoun is compared to a noble, then, she is being linked very appropriately to an object designed for circulation and use, but not for damage or penetration; as critics have often remarked, even though she is sexually handled by three men over the course of the story (two willing, one unwitting), she is not punished at tale’s end, nor does her honour or reputation seem to suffer the same drastic consequences as those Virginius fears for Virginia, or Lucrece experiences so painfully in the Legend of Good Women. Neither she nor her ‘purse’ is ever described as less than intact or as injured in any way; her beauty remains fresh and shining throughout time and despite use. Here we see, perhaps, the optimism of the description and the fear that lurks beneath it.

(p. 216) To return once more to the problem of nature and artifice, it is the ephemerality of the natural that lends to the passage its emotional force, its capacity to engage the reader in more than a sexual way by arousing his anxiety about the passage of time and the inevitable decay of beauty. The provisional solution that Chaucer proffers is itself time honoured, but no less effective or meaningful for that: the representation of an object or a person can outlast its beauty, capturing it both through the meaning of the words on the page (‘Alisoun is beautiful’) and with their very form (the poetry itself is beautiful). Reading the passage becomes itself an experience of, an engagement with, the beautiful. This process appears in miniature in the section of the passage framed by the repetition of ‘newe’, which begins with the ‘pere-jonette tree’ and ends with a coin, the noble. The tree, as Langland knew, was an emblem of ephemerality; in a passage added to the C-text of Piers Plowman, Rechelesnesse tells ‘lordes … and ladyes’: ‘Hit lasteth nat longe that is lycour-swete, | As pesecoddes, pere ionettes, plommes and cheries; | That lihtlich launseth vp litel while dureth, | And that rathest rypeth rotieth most sonnest’ (C. XII. 220–3).19 Alisoun’s ripe young beauty, which evokes proleptic sorrow for its loss in the image of the pere-jonette, is transformed over the course of eight lines into the shining light of a new coin. The natural becomes artificial; the organic thing becomes an inorganic image, the tree is transformed into a text. What was once ephemeral has been reified and thus commodified; a ‘wenche’ transformed into a ‘wenche’, a maid into a prostitute. That this is not merely a cynically described instance of the pere-jonette’s quick decay is indicated by the specificity with which the coin is identified: it is not any gold coin, but a noble, made in a particular mint, with a particular inscription—and as I have shown, lest we fail to get the point, Alisoun is reinscribed as the image on the coin a few lines later.

The specificity of the noble is significant, because it allows us to begin to see what might be the broader implications of Chaucer’s lavish description of Alisoun, his clear investment in the portrait and its complexity, his refusal to reduce her to raw sexuality or to deny that she is sexual. Despite many attempts to link Chaucer to one or another medieval scholasticism—to nominalism, or Aristotelianism, or Neoplatonism—such readings have never fully captured the literary critical imagination in the way that (for example) Charles Muscatine’s exposition of Chaucer’s debt to the French tradition continues to do.20 This failure has nothing to do with the skill of the critic, or the objective relevance of the research; after all, it would be hard to say in the present day that various (p. 217) poststructuralist theoretical models were irrelevant to the work of contemporary poets. But Chaucer so resolutely vernacularizes everything he touches—including even Boethius, the one philosopher he translates and quotes in depth—that such turns to philosophy never quite explain the motivation, function, or effect of his poetry on readers. It is as if ideas about philosophy were floating in the House of Rumor and occasionally made their way into his work, becoming transformed in the process from abstractions into concrete particulars, into characters, events, plots, ecphrases, images, and the like. These particulars, taken together, come closest to constituting what we might call an ‘aesthetic’ in Chaucer’s poetry, something for which neither history (as in the ‘contexts’ of historicism’) nor philosophy (whether Ockham, Aquinas, or Derrida) can account in any specific way. Chaucerian verse demands close reading; close reading disrupts abstraction. In the case of Alisoun’s description, what we find when we look closely at a noble is the same structuring tension with which I began this consideration of beauty, that between the abstract and particular, and it is a tension that must be sustained in order for Alisoun’s beauty to become meaningful. Sustained, that is, in order that Alisoun does not become an idealization (like Emelye) or an assemblage of particular body parts (her ‘queinte’). Only if she is both of these and neither of these at once can beauty be said to be authentically present.

Beauty, for Chaucer, must be considered an entity whose essential characteristic is its tendency to mediate, to stitch together part and whole. Without falling into the well-worn trap of considering Chaucer to be a singularly modern figure, or singularly innovative, we may nevertheless note that he seems strongly conscious, in his description of Alisoun, that he is doing something new. To take some pages from Umberto Eco’s lucid exposition of beauty in the Middle Ages, he is combining notions of beauty available to him ‘in the air’ and vernacularizing them in such a way that he forges a text both particularized in its beauty, and paradigmatic in its definitions of the beautiful and of art. We see in Alisoun’s ‘shining hewe’, for example, what Eco describes as the central value in medieval aesthetics, crossing boundary after boundary between schools of thought and philosophies of beauty: claritas, or light.21 That it is instantly reified as a gold coin—instantly particularized—brings us immediately to the ‘haeccitas’ of Duns Scotus, the nominalism of Ockham, to the ‘universe of particulars’ in which ‘beauty had to be sought in that uniqueness of the image which is generated by felicity or genius’.22 In other words, Chaucer enacts what Eco sees as the fundamental transformation at work in medieval aesthetics, in which ‘beauty changed from being a property of the ideal order to being a property of concrete particulars’.23

(p. 218) Lest this seem like mere rewriting of the oldest Chaucerian story in the book—the story of how Chaucer conquered the Middle Ages and induced the Renaissance—let us remember how thickly he renders the tension between idealization and particularity, and in what register. For Chaucer to ask us to see a ‘wenche’ as an illustration of ‘beauty’ is an act that turns the Emelyes and Criseydes of the world on their well-coiffed heads. But of course, only a wench could be flexible enough to cross the boundary between the ideal and the real, the light and the shining coin. Nor should nature be forgotten here. The pere-jonette tree becomes both more and less than a figure for decay over the course of the passage; less, because it is particularized in Alisoun and stripped of its moralizing character, and more, because it becomes beautiful in itself, as a metaphor. This final move allows us to see Chaucer’s motivation at work. What he loses in the move from abstract idealism to particularized description is authority, the capacity to moralize and to instruct. What he gains is a form of cultural capital, in that the verses suddenly acquire a market value, a beauty that lends them a market share. Nobles are not the only objects upon which the beautiful can be etched and engraved; we have Alisoun’s purse, a closed book waiting to be opened—perhaps waiting for a coin before disgorging its secrets.

This thought—that perhaps art, in the form of the beautiful book or the beautiful description, itself participates in the commodity logic that Chaucer has elucidated in relation to Alisoun—directs us to the biggest point of ambiguity in the passage, her ‘loude and yerne’ song, or voice. In turning to this point, I will be broadening my scope a bit to suggest some ways in which the poetic conception of beauty might be brought into play in medieval literary criticism, in part by simply acknowledging that the category had meaning for Chaucer and for other late medieval poets as a contested and strained concept that nevertheless offered a way to achieve a certain freedom from didacticism and exemplarity. Immediately after comparing Alisoun to a ‘noble’, Chaucer deploys one of his famous adversative conjunctions, telling us, ‘But of hir song, it was as loude and yerne | As any swalwe sittynge on a berne’ (ll. 3257–8).24 Almost everything in the description, up until this point, has been unabashedly positive, a celebration of Alisoun’s highly individualized beauty and her skill at manipulating and enhancing it. The passage builds to a climax (the ‘noble yforged newe’ (l. 3256)) and we find ourselves stopped short by a ‘But’ and a seemingly negative comparison between Alisoun and a loudly twittering swallow—a bird traditionally associated with lust.25 That world of sensuality I (p. 219) described earlier, the natural world filled with universally appealing delights, comes suddenly to an end. ‘But’ introduces a new series of similes focused on Alisoun as an active figure, who ‘skippes’, who ‘wynses’ and ‘makes game’, perhaps with the idea that this frenetic activity compensates for the loudness of her voice and emphasizes the sheer sexual energy of her being; as Chaucer says, ‘Thereto she koude skippe and make game’ (l. 3259), with ‘thereto’ implying a structure of purposiveness.26 But looking closely at the image of the bird, we find that the easy association between the swallow and lust is undone by Chaucer’s own use of the image in Troilus and Criseyde, where he associates it with the sorrowful ‘Proigne’, who ‘cheter[s] … How Tereus gan for hire suster take’ so loudly that Pandarus is awakened ‘with the noyse of hire (II. 68–70).27 By embedding this association with Philomela—both in his own poetry and in Ovid’s Metamorphoses—within the description of Alisoun, Chaucer creates a simile of tremendous complexity, in which the horrifying story of a woman whose silencing produces art, the woven image of her own rape and mutilation, flickers at odd intervals through the consciousness of the reader, never explicitly declaring itself but never quite absent, either. Alisoun’s ‘song’ functions as an embedded figure for poetry itself, and for the uneasy relationships encoded in the passage among beauty, sexual desire, and the making of art.

I have argued throughout this essay that Chaucer uses his description of Alisoun to stage an investigation or exploration of the relationship of beauty to individual perspectives (dictated by such categories as rank and gender), and the idea of a universal aesthetic based on nature. He further, and obsessively, returns to the problem of use and uselessness; what seems like the mere crudeness of a crude man, the Miller, is in fact a fairly roundabout way of addressing the usefulness of beauty in a world of sexuality and commercial exchange. Alisoun is the proximate cause of such meditation, but Chaucer is not really interested in Alisoun per se. He is interested in what happens to poetry—to making—once it has been written. Does it circulate like a coin? Does it ‘cheter’? Does it delight, and, if so, is it consumed for pleasure or reproduction? He chooses Alisoun (and her purse, and her ‘song’) as his figure because, like him, she lives in a world where others make the rules and create the endings—where lords bed and yeomen wed the objects of their desire. Only if some vision of beauty can be constructed that embraces the tension between (p. 220) the particularity of human making and using (artifice and construction), and the universality of pleasure and pain in the natural world will art have done its job. That is the task Chaucer sets himself, and it is a task left largely unfinished, a Pandora’s box that has yet to be closed.

Poets like the Gawain-poet, Langland, and Lydgate all understood beauty in similarly troubled terms, though not always with Chaucer’s clarity. The ecphrasis of the alliterative tradition is one link we might establish between Chaucer’s attempt to rethink the beautiful and other Middle English texts and traditions. It is clear that the Gawain-poet similarly engaged with the relationship between the natural and the artificial, between the created and the made, in such passages as the dissection of the deer, where the full impact of alliterative ornamentation and artifice is put to use in the service of unmaking a created thing and making it into something that serves human needs, i.e. meat. In the same way, Langland constructs a vision of nature and the beauty of nature in Passus XI (B-text), only to severely reprove both Will and (by implication) readers for being attracted to it in the very next passus. In this case, the emblematic figure is the peacock, ‘merveilled’ at by Will in Kynde’s vision, and ‘unmade’ by Ymaginatif shortly afterward: ‘For pursue a pecok or a pehen to cacche, | They may noght flee fer ne ful heighe neither; | For the trailynge of his tail ouertaken is he soone. | And his flessh is foul flessh and his feet bothe, | And vnlouelich of ledene and looth for to here.’28 For Langland, the natural world must be read properly, that is, with human reason, before it can be safely engaged; its beauty is the index of its dangerousness for human beings, who are seduced by it because they lack the proper aesthetic. It is the humble lark, with her ‘louelich ledene’ (XII. 264), that Will must learn to embrace, rather than the showy peacock, or indeed, the ravishing Mede and Fortune, both women extravagantly and artificially decorated. As in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, some form of readerly ‘unmaking’ must take place before the hero or the reader can safely encounter the beautiful. This distinction between genuine and false beauty is one that Chaucer considers, but rejects; like Langland’s bird, his ‘peacock’ Alisoun has an ‘unlovelich’ voice, a ‘song … loude and yerne’. But while Langland imagines the humble voice of the lark as the appropriate voice for both poetry and nature, Chaucer wants to embrace the loudness of the vernacular, its aggressivity, as part of an aesthetic mode with which he is experimenting and in which he is thoroughly invested. That loudness resonates with the flashy alliteration of the Gawain-poet, and later, with the extravagant aureation of Lydgate and his followers, for whom excessiveness in poetry—sweetness, shininess, and the like—becomes an end in itself. In all of these cases, the fault lines I have articulated here between human making and divine creation, particularity and abstraction, troubled the poets and remain to trouble us. Beauty became for them one locus of (p. 221) tectonic stress, one hotspot in which these varied pressures came together in contradictory fashion, with Kynde’s vision of love competing with Ymaginatif’s exposure of the peacock’s dirty tail, with Alisoun’s soft and shiny self crying out like a lustful sparrow, or the doe leaping in the air and falling to the ground as mumbles and guts.

In all of these examples—and more could be given, including the frightening cyborg that is Hector in Lydgate’s Troy Book—we see that dialectic between natural and artificial that so deeply structures Alisoun’s description. The term that stitches them together, and that marks their distinctive character as literary works in a thriving and self-aware tradition, is beauty. I don’t mean beauty as a Kantian universal, or as a Platonic form, but beauty as a medieval category that allowed poets to explore critical aspects of their own practice and its meaning in a broader frame. As readers of medieval poetry, we could perhaps do no better than to think through and with the idea of beauty as a way of grasping what is at stake in the literary tradition itself and its relation to those histories and philosophies that would seem to reject beauty in favour of either specificity or generality. Like light—the preferred medieval metaphor for beauty—the beautiful is both wave and particle, both abstract and particular, and cannot be grasped as one or the other. That is what Chaucer knew, and that is why Alisoun, purse and all, will always mean more than she seems to mean: she too, with her embellished purse and her plucked brows, insists on the beautiful as a category worth thinking about.

Further Reading

The place to start is Umberto Eco’s Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages (n. 21 above); the interested reader can follow any one of many different paths leading through the labyrinth of medieval philosophical texts that engaged with aesthetics and the beautiful, including St Thomas Aquinas, Robert Grosseteste, William of Auvergne, Roger Bacon, William of Conches, Thierry of Chartres, Bernard of Tours, Alain de Lille, Duns Scotus, William Ockham, and many others. For a deeper examination of Aquinas, see Eco’s The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, trans. Hugh Bredin (Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1988). Immanuel Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment, trans. Eric Matthews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001) includes his paradigmatic consideration of the aesthetic and of the place of beauty in it. Two works that have influenced my thinking are Theodor Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), which explores the question of beauty in chapters on ‘natural beauty’ and ‘art beauty’, and Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just (n. 1 above). The latter is a lyrical exploration of the parameters of beauty as a concept, as well as an argument for reintroducing beauty as a category for analysis and consideration in the study of art.


Many thanks to Andrew Cole, Anne Middleton, Geoffrey O’Brien, and Paul Strohm for advice and commentary, and to Dan Blanton and Jill Mann for straight talk about metre.

(1) Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 28.

(2) The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry Benson (Cambridge, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1987), ll. 3247–58. All subsequent references to Chaucer will be in the text by title and line number.

(3) See Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, Le Roman de la Rose, ed. Daniel Poiron (Paris: Garnier-Flammarion, 1974), ll. 13563–4, and The Romance of the Rose, trans. Charles Dahlberg (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), 233. For a discussion, with illustrations, of aumonières and their sexual implications in medieval texts, see Michael Camille, The Medieval Art of Love: Objects and Subjects of Desire (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998), 63–5.

(4) For example, Kevin Kiernan has argued that the entire description is characterized by the Miller’s leering optics. See ‘The Art of the Descending Catalogue, and a Fresh Look at Alisoun’, Chaucer Review, 10 (1975), 1–16, 14, 15. E. T. Donaldson more subtly suggests that Chaucer makes conventional romance heroines into the ‘targets of a lewd whistle’. See Speaking of Chaucer (London: Athlone Press, 1970), 25. An exception to this tendency can be found in Jill Mann’s ‘Speaking Images in Chaucer’s “Miller’s Tale”‘, in Speaking Images: Essays in Honor of V. A. Kolve (Asheville, NC: Pegasus Press, 2001), 237–56, in which she suggests that the sheer excessiveness of the details in the portrait suggest a kind of sexual excess coming from Alisoun herself, an ‘overspilling energy’ that asks ‘to be realised in narrative action’ (p. 241).

(5) See MED, s.v. ‘tassel’ and ‘tasselen’.

(6) See MED, s.v. ‘perled’, a, and ‘latoun’, a.

(7) Though, we should recall, Emelye is plucking flowers to make a garland for her head when first seen by Palamon (‘Knight’s Tale’, l. 1053), a scene that Mark Miller has recently analysed in relation to questions of agency, self-fashioning, and freedom; see Philosophical Chaucer: Love, Sex and Agency in the Canterbury Tales (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 84–91, esp. 86; for Miller’s reading of the ‘Miller’s Tale’, see pp. 36–81.

(8) For the Old Woman’s discussion of feminine artifice, see Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun, Le Roman de la Rose, ll. 13265–600, and The Romance of the Rose, trans. Charles Dahlberg, 229–34.

(9) The ‘Weddyng of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnell’, as Kevin Kiernan has noted, is a good example of the ‘inverted’ blazon, with each characteristic of the beautiful lady parodied and turned upside down. Alisoun’s description is strikingly different. See ‘Art of the Descending Catalogue’, 12.

(11) Horace, Satires, Epistles and Ars Poetica, trans. H. Rushton Fairclough (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1936), 478–9, l. 333, ‘aut prodesse volunt aut delectare poetae’ (Poets aim either to benefit or to amuse).

(12) MED, s.v. ‘queinte’, 2c.

(13) For a history of early bookbinding, from the Nag Hammadi codices to the end of the Middle Ages, see J. A. Szirmai, The Archaeology of Medieval Book Binding (Brookfield, VT: Ashgate Press, 1999).

(14) Nicholas Harris Nicolas (ed.), Privy Purse Expenses of Elizabeth of York: Wardrobe Accounts of Edward IV (London: William Pickering, 1830), 125 (for 1480). For a much later (1572), but still interesting, image of a bound Spanish charter with gold tooling, and silk ties and a tassel, see fig. 65 in P. J. M. Marks, The British Library Guide to Bookbinding: History and Techniques (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998), 74. In the Beinecke Library there is also a manuscript with tassels; see Marston MS 268, a twelfth-century French manuscript that has ‘two strap-and-pin fastenings, the pins on the lower board and the kermes pink, tawed skin strap ending in a catch with a twisted, tawed skin cord and tassel attached, later additions [?]’. In Barbara Shailor, Catalogue of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, 4 vol. (Binghamton, NY: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1984–2000), iii. 528. It is also possible that manuscripts had bookmarkers with tassels; Graham Pollard describes the tabs on the upper spines of some books, sometimes with holes in the centre stitched round with coloured silk, to which bookmarkers were tied with knots; see his ‘Describing Medieval Bookbindings’, in Medieval Learning and Literature: Essays Presented to Richard William Hunt (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), 50–65, at 62.

(15) For discussions of metal decorations and furnishings on Gothic manuscripts, including illustrations of metal stamping and punching, see Szirmai, Archaeology, 263–71. For illustrations of fasteners with tassels, see the discussions of Late Coptic and Byzantine bindings on 42–3 (fig. 3.10) and 81–2 (fig. 6.15). For a description of ‘treasure bindings’, with metal and jewels, see p. 81. Evidence for the fastening and furnishing of decorated English manuscripts before 1450 is very thin, as is evidence for fourteenth- and fifteenth-century ‘treasure bindings’, because the majority were destroyed during the Reformation or have suffered the ‘ravages of time and moths’; see Mirjam Foot, ‘English Decorated Bookbindings’, in Jeremy Griffiths and Derek Pearsall (eds.), Book Production and Publishing in Britain, 1375–1475 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 65–86, at 65.

(16) Donald Baker, ‘Gold Coins in Mediaeval English Literature’, Speculum, 36 (1961), 282–7, at 285. For an illustration of a noble, front and back, see plate I, number 3.

(17) Ibid. 285; see also John Evans, ‘The First English Gold Coins’, Numismatic Chronicle, 3rd ser. 20 (1900), 27–31. For the Statute of Treasons, see J. G. Bellamy, The Law of Treason in England in the Later Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 85–6.

(18) See Hoccleve’s ‘Dialogue’, ll. 99–196, in My Compleinte’ and Other Poems, ed. Roger Ellis (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2001), 134–6.

(19) William Langland, Piers Plowman: The C Version, ed. George Russell and George Kane (London: Athlone Press, 1997), 449.

(20) Charles Muscatine, Chaucer and the French Tradition: A Study in Style and Meaning (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1957). Muscatine’s reading of Alisoun’s portrait focuses on the relationship of convention to naturalism, suggesting that ‘the literary effect is as if to present Alisoun as the one precious illusion in the poem’ but that, at the same time, ‘the animalism and the ideality must be intertwined’ (pp. 229–30).

(21) Umberto Eco, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, trans. Hugh Bredin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), 43–51; see also his discussion of Aquinas and the ‘expressive capacity of organisms’, pp. 74–83.

(22) Ibid. 86, 89.

(23) Ibid. 116.

(24) For Chaucer’s adversative conjunctions, see E. Talbot Donaldson, ‘Adventures with the Adversative Conjunction in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales; or, What’s Before the But?’, in Michael Benskin and M. L. Samuels (eds.), So meny people longages and tonges: Philological Essays in Scots and Mediaeval English presented to Angus McIntosh (Edinburgh: M. Benskin and M. L. Samuels, 1981), 355–66.

(25) For this association, see Beryl Rowland, Blind Beasts: Chaucer’s Animal World (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1971), 24; her reading focuses on the sexuality of the portrait, as revealed in the simile of the weasel and in the Miller’s focus on Alisoun’s clothing and her ‘likerous ye’ (see pp. 24–30).

(26) See MED, s.v. ‘thereto’, 8c, ‘with ref. to a desired end or event, goal, etc …. (d) with verbs expressing notions of making, devising, designating, etc.: for that purpose, for that, to that end, to realize that plan’. One example given is from Chaucer’s ‘Knight’s Tale’, ‘For every wight that lovede chivalrye … Hath preyed that he myghte been of that game; | And wel was hym that therto chosen was’ (ll. 2106, 2108–9).

(27) Some manuscripts record ‘chitering’ instead of ‘sittynge’ in the description of the swallow in the ‘Miller’s Tale’, thus strengthening the association between these passages. See J. M. Manly and E. Rickert, The Text of the Canterbury Tales (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1940), iii., 135, notes to l. 3258.

(28) William Langland, Piers Plowman: The B-Version, ed. George Kane and E. Talbot Donaldson (London: Athlone Press, 1988), XII. 242–6. Subsequent references will be in the text by passus and line number.