Chaucer's Gifts: Exchange and Value in the Canterbury Tales

Chaucer's Gifts: Exchange and Value in the Canterbury Tales

by Robert Epstein

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Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the most celebrated literary work of medieval England, portrays the culture of the late Middle Ages as a deeply commercial environment, replete with commodities and dominated by market relationships. However, the market is not the only mode of exchange in Chaucer’s world or in his poem. Chaucer’s Gifts reveals the gift economy at work in the tales. Applying important recent advances in anthropological gift theory, it illuminates and explains this network of exchanges and obligations. Chaucer’s Gifts argues that the world of the Canterbury Tales harbours deep commitments to reciprocity and obligation which are at odds with a purely commercial culture, and demonstrates how the market and commercial relations are not natural, eternal, or inevitable – an essential lesson if we are to understand Chaucer’s world or our own.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781786831712
Publisher: University of Wales Press
Publication date: 02/01/2018
Series: New Century Chaucer
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 684 KB

About the Author

Robert Epstein is Professor of English at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Connecticut. He has published widely on Chaucer and late medieval English literature.

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The Gift in the General Prologue

Among the first things that a reader of the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales is likely to observe is that it depicts a cross-section of fourteenth-century English society. This is the spirit of the most famous observation on the poem, John Dryden's praise of its diversity and verisimilitude: ''Tis sufficient to say, according to the proverb, that here is God's plenty. We have our forefathers and great-granddames all before us, as they were in Chaucer's days.'

Most readers will soon make the additional observation, however, that it is not a representative cross-section. It may comprehend, as Dryden maintains, all of immutable human character, and it may as well portray the variety and range of social stations, but the distribution of class and caste positions among the pilgrims is hardly proportional to their contemporary numbers. Only two of the pilgrims introduced in the General Prologue – the Knight and his Squire – can properly be said to belong to the First Estate; they travel with the Knight's Yeoman 'and servantz namo' (I.101). And yet two out of twenty-eight is more than 7 per cent – a statistical over-representation for fourteenth-century England. The Second Estate, meanwhile, is represented by the Prioress, Second Nun, Monk, Friar, Clerk and Parson, and perhaps the Pardoner and the Summoner – a much greater over-representation. All the remaining pilgrims can be said to belong to the Commons, but in relation to the Third Estate's percentage of the populace it is nonetheless under-represented on this pilgrimage. Yet only one of the Canterbury pilgrims, the Plowman, is described as engaging regularly in the kind of agricultural labour that would have been the lot for the vast majority of the population. (The Reeve has a trade – carpentry – and has risen to become an estate manager and an overseer of peasant labourers.) Most over-represented of all are a minority of the Third Estate – artisans, tradespeople, property owners, professionals and managers, mostly from cities and towns: the Merchant and the Shipman, the Man of Law and the Physician, the Five Guildsmen and their Cook, the Franklin, the Wife of Bath (a successful cloth-manufacturer), the Miller, the Reeve, and the Manciple. Most of these portraits focus on the pilgrims' professional activities. Add to this the very worldly activities of most of the clerical figures and you have what Patricia Eberle has called 'a lively interest in the world of getting and spending, the world of commerce'. Eberle questions a conventional assumption about Chaucer's poetry as intended primarily for a 'courtly' audience; she concludes instead that in the General Prologue 'Chaucer creates a new kind of implied audience, by implying that his audience will bring a commercial outlook to bear on his text, for the first time in any of his works, and perhaps also for the first time in any work of English literature.'

The General Prologue is set in a tavern, and the tale-telling project that defines the Canterbury Tales is introduced by its ostler. The thoroughgoing commercialism of Harry Bailey and the narrative world over which he presides make all the more significant the examples of non-commercial exchange that are rarer but undeniably present. For all the commodities in the General Prologue, there are also gifts. If the General Prologue, which sets the stage for the tale-telling that follows and introduces the social world of the work as a whole, is so profoundly commercial, then the instances of gift-giving must either be another form of market exchange – commodities in disguise – or they must be evidence, however exceptional, of an alternative logic of exchange.

I. The Franklin's potlatch

It snows food in the Franklin's house:

An housholdere, and that a greet, was he;
His home is stocked at all times with the finest wine, ale, bread. The ovens are constantly baking fresh pies of fish and meat. The wide selection of delicacies available changes constantly with the seasons. He has pens full of partridges and ponds stocked with fish. He expects his chef to serve these foods with finely spiced sauces, and to make sure he keeps the kitchen supplied with luxury cooking utensils. The side tables in his halls stand ready at all times to be lined with newly baked dishes. The home is in a state of perpetual feast.

What are we to make of this ostentatious feasting? Whatever its motivations, they would seem to lie outside the usual vectors of market exchange. In his country, the Franklin is considered the embodiment of Julian, patron saint of hospitality, and he is called the very son of Epicurus. The feasting is therefore associated with generosity and pleasure, neither of which precisely aligns with the profit-motive of commercial transaction. Indeed, for Craig Bertolet, the differences between descriptions of the Cook (a hired servant of the Five Guildsmen) and the financially and socially independent Franklin 'illustrate the difference between the pleasure and the business of food. The Franklin enjoys both the preparation and the presentation of food while the sore-ridden Cook regards food merely as a commodity.'

But because of the public nature of the Franklin's feasting, many have always seen it as performing 'social work' beyond the satisfaction of individual pleasure or even simple generosity. There have always been readers who have found the Franklin to be nouveau riche, shallow, materialistic and even vulgar. (R. K. Root compared him to a 'Toledo oil-magnate'.) His ostentatious generosity has been seen as his effort to compensate for insecurities about his status as a free but untitled landholder. He has been taken as an object of satire of the Third Estate, but not all critics have seen the portrait as satirical: Jill Mann notes that the description of the Franklin's feast shares many of the details of conventional satires of gluttony, but none of their condemnatory tone.

For D. W. Robertson, who saw the Franklin as embodying 'the entirely superficial nobility of a wealthy man of the middle class who is ... blind to anything beneath surface appearances', the Franklin's feast is conspicuous for being a bourgeois duplication of an aristocratic indulgence. The extravagance of the late medieval feast is rather notorious: it is one of the social phenomena that Johan Huizinga is most interested in exploring in The Autumn of the Middle Ages. A number of modern observers, noting the records of remarkable consumption at such feasts, have drawn analogies to one of the traditional customs most studied and debated in the field of anthropology. Stephen Mennell, for instance, has claimed that the grand aristocratic banquets that dot the historical records as well as smaller-scale events of households of many sizes 'were a means of asserting social rank and power': 'In this respect, there are possibly parallels in social function between the late medieval banquets and the famous institution of potlatching among the Kwakiutl Indians of British Columbia.'

'Potlatch' refers to elaborate rituals of feasting and gift-giving practised by the native tribes of the northern Pacific coast of North America. These feasts are generally occasioned by significant events – births, deaths, weddings, coming-of-ages observances, sometimes to save face in the aftermath of an embarrassing incident. They were and are practised by a wide variety of peoples in this region, but potlatch became most elaborate, and garnered the greatest interest of anthropologists, as it was practised among the Kwakiutl people of the northern portion of Vancouver Island, especially during the 'Fort Rupert Period' of 1849 to 1925.

The medieval banquet is parallel to the potlatch, Mennell suggests, in that 'it is probable that sheer volume and indeed waste of food was inherent in and necessary to the social function of such events'. Volume and waste do seem central to the Franklin's feasting. Despite the references to Epicurus and St Julian, Chaucer's description says little about the Franklin's subjective enjoyment of the food, and no mention is made of who benefited from the Franklin's hospitality. Instead, the overflowing details of the passage give an overall impression of daunting superfluity.

This is hardly to claim that the Franklin's feasts, or medieval banquets generally, were socially identical to the practice of potlatch. But potlatch has always been central to the anthropological theory of the gift, and the different ways in which the practice has been received and analysed reveal competing models for understanding the social power and meaning of the Franklin's generosity and other acts of giving in the Canterbury Tales.

Foundational anthropologists like Franz Boas and Bronislaw Malinowski were drawn to the study of potlatch because the practice seemed to offer a clear example of a social practice that could not be explained by conventional economic models. Boas and Malinowski saw particular significance in potlatch practices because they seemed to be driven by a symbolic logic that was fundamentally non-economic: whatever inspired the waste and self-destructiveness commonly observed in potlatch, it could not be the individual material profit assumed as the basis for classical economics, because the participants seemed to pursue actions that were clearly against their own material self-interest. Potlatches could be extraordinarily extravagant. They could go on for days, serving tremendous amounts of food, and offering many expensive gifts. The ethnological museums of North America brim with astonishingly accomplished potlatch artefacts: the sculptures and totems used as welcoming signals; the enormous bowls and spoons used to serve the copious food; the elaborately crafted gifts; the intricately carved chests in which gifts were stored or presented. Potlatch was, furthermore, as Mauss emphasized, part of an economic system based on redistribution of wealth. This gift-giving was part of a system of exchange that made sense only within a symbolic matrix, in which symbols and status were inextricably linked with, and as important as, material goods. Most of all, Kwakiutl potlatch was intensely competitive. The host of the potlatch would seek to make symbolic gains in the act of giving gifts, by demonstrating his wealth and his status, and by translating material wealth into symbolic authority. Hosts of potlatches were often competing to lay claim to titles, or to control narratives or the right to tell them, and thereby to control the authority that the narratives could bestow. The gift-giving was also agonistic in that it imposed an obligation of repayment on the recipient. Giving a gift too rich to be returned would be an act of extreme humiliation to the recipient; he would be permanently in the debt of the donor, and therefore subordinated. Potlatch hosts strove for such acts of domination, while also demonstrating their power through their capacity to donate, to consume, to expend, even to destroy tremendous amounts of wealth, sometimes wilfully bankrupting themselves in the process. At the height of the Fort Rupert Period, Kwakiutl families were observed burning valuable items, blankets for instance, both as demonstration of the family's resources and in order to remove the items from the gift exchange economy, so that competing families or leaders would not have access to them. This is the Kwakiutl equivalent of lighting a cigar with a hundred dollar bill. It is more than just the ultimate display of conspicuous consumption: it is gift-giving that preserves the symbolic profit of the donor while eliminating the material profit of the recipient.

In his essay on the gift, Mauss focused on three main instances of gift economies: that of the New Zealand Maori; that of Melanesia; and the Kwakiutl potlatch. Mauss noted that the first two of these are relatively benign forms of exchange. They are based on constant give-and-take, on gifts and obligatory compensations, but they are less, or less obviously, agonistic. For Mauss, it is the agonistic element of potlatch that is its defining feature, and that is the hallmark of its significance to the theory of the gift. All gift exchange is rooted in a culture-wide network of obligation that Mauss terms 'prestations totales', usually translated as 'total services'. But potlatch takes this to extremes:

[W]hat is noteworthy about these tribes is the principle of rivalry and hostility that prevails in all these practices. They go as far as to fight and kill chiefs and nobles. Moreover, they even go as far as the purely sumptuary destruction of wealth that has been accumulated in order to outdo the rival chief as well as his associate (normally a grandfather, father-in-law, or son-in-law). There is total service in the sense that it is indeed the whole clan that contracts on behalf of all, for all that it possesses and for all that it does, through the person of its chief. But this act of 'service' on the part of the chief takes on an extremely marked agonistic character. It is essentially usurious and sumptuary. It is a struggle between nobles to establish a hierarchy amongst themselves from which their clan will benefit at a later date.

Mauss therefore grants a special title to the kind of 'institution' embodied in potlatch: 'total services of an agonistic type'.

The interpretation of Mauss's essay has itself been intensely contested over the decades. Much depends on how Mauss understands potlatch in relation to the elementary gift economies, and on what he means when he calls it an 'exaggerated' form of exchange. To some, it has come to mean that potlatch manifests the gift economy in extremis, and therefore that its idiosyncrasies, including its extremely agonistic qualities, represent the essential and definitive elements of exchange. This would mean that potlatch is the fullest, most essential and most natural instantiation of exchange – the gift laid bare.

This interpretive tendency was augmented by postmodern approaches to gift theory, which sought to deconstruct some of Mauss's more benign views of gift exchange. Derrida, in 'The Gift of Time', critiques Mauss's claims about the voluntarism of donation in Maori or Melanesian culture, arguing that there is no original gift, every gift being in fact an obligatory repayment of an earlier gift: 'These conditions of possibility of the gift (that some "one" gives some "thing" to some "one other") designate simultaneously the conditions of the impossibility of the gift.' For Derrida, the word 'gift' has no meaning if it is connected in any way to expectations of exchange or reciprocity. (As I will argue in chapter 6, this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding on Derrida's part of how Mauss and neo-Maussian anthropologists conceive of the meaning and function of the gift.) Derrida is therefore especially critical of Mauss's analysis of potlatch. Mauss, he remarks, 'speaks of it [potlatch] blithely as "gifts exchanged." But he never asks the question as to whether gifts can remain gifts once they are exchanged.' Derrida notes that Mauss at one point characterizes the competitive practices of potlatch as 'madly extravagant'. Derrida in turn characterizes this portion of Mauss's text as a 'passage of madness'. Its rationality is torn asunder, he claims, as Mauss persists in trying to treat potlatch as a species of gift while simultaneously acknowledging that it is part of a system of exchange.

Pierre Bourdieu argues that potlatch is not exceptional at all, since every gift in every culture is an act of symbolic violence, a transaction in which the donor seeks to dominate and subordinate the recipient:

Generous conduct, of which the potlatch (a curio for anthropologists) is simply the extreme case, might seem to suspend the universal law of interest and 'fair exchange', whereby nothing is ever given for nothing, and to set up instead relationships which are their own end ... But in reality such denials of interest are never more than practical disclaimers.


Excerpted from "Chaucer's Gifts"
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Copyright © 2018 Robert Epstein.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements Introduction: Chaucer’s Commodities, Chaucer’s Gifts 1 The Franklin’s Potlatch and the Plowman’s Creed: The Gift in the General Prologue 2 The Lack of Interest in the Shipman’s Tale: Chaucer and the Social Theory of the Gift 3 Giving Evil: Excess and Equivalence in the Fabliau 4 The Exchange of Women and the Gender of the Gift 5 Sacred Commerce: Clerics, Money and the Economy of Salvation 6 ‘Fy on a thousand pound!’ Debt and the Possibility of Generosity in the Franklin’s Tale Conclusion Notes Bibliography Index

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