Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics & Chaucer’s Women: An Introduction

Chaucer’s poem to Adam Scriveyn makes a direct correlation to the gendered nature of textual activity that Carolyn Dinshaw will later argue in regards to Chaucer’s writing. The name of the scribe Adam is akin to that of the biblical first man on earth; this name could be seen as a “filler name” that encompasses the general male form, but it has also been said that “some commentators saw Adam as the inventor not only of proper names, but of letters”(Dinshaw, 5). In the mention of a mere name within this poem, there is an understanding that language is a male created thing. The scribe continues this tradition in transcribing Chaucer’s text. However, by doing a poor job of it, Adam “is definitely fallen”(Dinshaw, 5). Just as Eve, “woman conquered”, contributes to the fall of man by her susceptibility to evil and temptation, Adam as a man is “overcome” and “beguiled” by Original Sin(Dinshaw, 190). His interpretation of Chaucer’s work is so bad that Chaucer’s himself claims that Adam has raped his original text with his negligence(Dinshaw, 1). The pen can be viewed as a phallic symbol, or writing a male- gendered action, whereas what is done unto the text(transcribing, copying, interpreting…) could be seen as female- gendered action, such as being raped. In choosing this poem, Dinshaw presents to readers how an individual does not clearly identify with either gender, as Chaucer claims the traditionally “female” rape of his writing and Adam the scribe has taken on the “female” task of interpreting the text and does so poorly due to the fall of man that resulted in the disruption of language(Dinshaw, 5, 12). As Dinshaw states, Chaucer’s texts need not be interpreted from an exclusively male or female point of view, but are gendered, as Chaucer understood the implications of his word choice and writing style as they related to his texts.

Dinshaw discusses the corporality of writing in order to defend her claim and suggests that “writing as a masculine act, an act performed on a body construed as feminine”(Dinshaw, 9). This point is particularly persuasive when we think about surfaces used for writing- parchment, animal skin and the like. These things are like the body of a woman unto which the act of writing is done. The female body is always up for discussion, desire and use by men, just as writing was viewed as a luxury and privilege exclusive to men. Another passage that convinces the reader of this parallel is “of the text as woman’s body, inscribed, read and interpreted by men”(Dinshaw, 18). This language, although addressing written texts, echoes how women have felt or feel about their free access to their bodies by the male gender. They feel ravaged, raped, by men who take their beings for granted. In that same way, Chaucer feels as if Adam has taken his writing for granted and raped it. In viewing the production of literature and the treatment of it as the bodies responsible for creating it, we can see the gendered textual activity.

In using a popular Latin lyric on page 6, it is understood that women are to blame for the fall and imperfection of not only the human race, but also man himself. “Woman easily trusted the serpent… Woman made deceived fools out of wise men… Woman did the same job” to men, essentially, as the serpent did to her in causing her to sin(Dinshaw, 190). It is as if woman is the serpent. This makes her an untruthful person, the catalyst of the downfall of language, and therefore responsible for Chaucer’s ruined text. “Her” does not necessarily mean one particular woman, but perhaps all women, just as Adam could be considered a symbol for all men in how men and women relate to text. This textual evidence substantiates Dinshaw’s arguments well as it helps us to understand why it is that Chaucer’s writing might have specific opinions/ attitudes in regards to gender.

Works Cited:

Dinshaw, Carolyn. Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics. Madison, WI: U of Wisconsin, 1989.

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