Figuring the Dangers of the 'Greet Forneys': Chaucer and Gower's Timely (Mis)Reporting of the Peasant Voice.

Marshall, Camille.

Figuring the Dangers of the 'Greet Forneys': Chaucer and Gower's Timely (Mis)Reporting of the Peasant Voice.

Marshall, Camille. "Figuring the Dangers of the 'Greet Forneys': Chaucer and Gower's Timely (Mis)Reporting of the Peasant Voice." Comitatus: A Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 46 (2015): 75-97.

Marshall argues that Chaucer's Miller is linked to the rebels of the 1381 Rising by his large, furnace-like mouth. Before analyzing Chaucer's imagery, she establishes the common currency in which the rebels' linguistic apparatus was coined, investigating four contemporary chroniclers (Thomas Walsingham, Henry Knighton, Jean Froissart, and the Anonimalle author) and John Gower's Visio Anglie in Book I of the Vox Clamantis. Marshall sees the chronicles presenting the ruling classes as the victims of the Rising; they depict the unfree peasantry attempting to "silence the ruling speech through the destruction of legal and official documents, most often with fire as their weapon of choice" (77). The chroniclers, she argues, paint the rebels intending to rewrite the documentary record to give themselves, as the "commons," the same rights under the king that other social groups enjoyed. Following the arguments of Steven Justice and Paul Strohm, Marshall shows that the chronicles censor and discredit the rebels' voice by reducing it to animal noises and an incoherent clamor, a strategy replicated by Gower in the "Beast Vision" of the Visio. Here the commoners are further demeaned by Gower's use of curtailed forms of their English names and a simplified syntax in which to represent their bestial behavior. Especially notable, in her view, is that, as their disturbance reaches its destructive zenith, the noise issuing from the peasants' mouths becomes sulfurous flames that consume everything. Chaucer's Miller, while not explicitly connected to the rebels of 1381, likewise violates the conventions of order, cries out in a loud voice, and, in parodying the Knight's philosophical romance with a bawdy fabliau, suppresses the ruling elite's elegance with a peasant's coarseness. That the Miller's vision is destructive of conventional values is "emphasized by the presence of his furnace-like mouth" (94). Nevertheless, Chaucer, unlike Gower, makes no effort to suppress or censor his character's voice, instead advising any troubled reader to simply choose a different story, for "the peasant word is only as destructive as the author, firstly, and the reader, secondly, allow it to be" (97). In the end, the narrator "provides the necessary guidance so that the Miller's 'forneys' may safely remain closer to the cold black color of his nostrils than the fiery red of his beard and effectively shows us how we may, indeed, play with fire" (97). [RJM. Copyright. The John Gower Society. eJGN 36.1]


Gower Subjects
Vox Clamantis
Sources, Analogues, and Literary Relations