This essay examines the role of parrhesia (i.e., free, frank, or fearless speech) in three Canterbury Tales – The Second Nun’s Tale, The Tale of Melibee, and The Manciple’s Tale – in which Chaucer explores how the desire to play the parrhesiastes and anxieties about parrhesia’s dangerousness can serve as catalysts in the production of literary worlds. By way of conclusion, it argues that Chaucer’s short poem ‘Lak of Stedfastnesse’ might archive a quasi-parrhesiastic utterance directed at the despotic King Richard II, and that a modern conception of Chaucer as a non-polemical ironist has prevented many critics from reading it as such.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
For a secondary discussion of Foucault on parrhesia, see Flynn (1988), 102–118.
Since Chaucer was not aware of the ancient Greek discourse on parrhesia out of which Foucault constructs his five qualifications, this essay will not devote much energy to analyzing which of his literary utterances fulfill all five. Instead, I use parrhesia rather loosely to mean something like ‘speaking truth to power.’
All citations of Chaucer refer to Chaucer (1987) and give abbreviated titles of individual works and line numbers.
Admittedly, neither Cecilia nor Prudence speaks ‘truth’ in the sense of an objective representation of reality. Instead, they speak ‘truth’ in the sense of morally virtuous conviction. Their utterances qualify as parrhesia, I think, insofar as they both clearly believe in the validity of the policy advocate.
Aers, D. 2000. Chaucer’s Tale of Melibee: Whose Virtues? In Medieval Literature and Historical Enquiry: Essays in Honour of Derek Pearsall, ed. D. Aers. Cambridge, UK: D.S. Brewer.
Albertano of Brescia. 2000. The Art of Speech and the Art of Silence, trans. W.R. Askins. http://home.arcor.de/mcsquirrel/en/texts/albert1.htm.
Braddy, H. 1937. The Date of Chaucer’s ‘Lak of Stedfastnesse.’ The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 36(4): 481–490.
Brusendorff, A. 1925. The Chaucer Tradition. London: University of Oxford Press.
Cross, J.E. 1965. The Old Swedish Trohetsvisan and Chaucer’s Lak of Stedfastnesse: A Study in Medieval Genre. Saga-Book of the Viking Society 16: 283–314.
Chaucer, G. 1987. The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd ed, ed. L.D. Benson. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
Dinshaw, C. 1989. Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.
Dobbs, E. 2013. The Canaanite Woman, the Second Nun, and St. Cecilia. Christianity and Literature 62(2): 203–223.
Flynn, T. 1988. Foucault as Parrhēsiast: His Last Course at the Collège de France (1984). In The Final Foucault, ed. J. Bernauer and D. Rasmussen, 102–118. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Foucault, M. 2001. Fearless Speech, ed. and trans. J. Pearson. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e).
Foucault, M. 2010. The Government of Self and Others: Lectures at the Collège de France 1982–1983, trans. G. Burchell. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.
Gower, J. 1901. Vox Clamantis. In The Complete Works of John Gower, vol. 4, ed. G.C. Macaulay, 3–313. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.
Gust, G.W. 2009. Constructing Chaucer: Author and Autofiction in the Critical Tradition. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Mum and the Sothsegger, edited from the manuscripts, Camb. univ. Ll. IV. 14 and Brit. mus. Add. 41666. 1971. Ed. M. Day and R. Steele. EETS o.s. 199. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Patterson, L. 1989. ‘What Man Artow?’: Authorial Self-Definition in The Tale of Sir Thopas and The Tale of Melibee. Studies in the Age of Chaucer 11: 117–175.
Pearsall, D. 1992. The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer: A Critical Biography. Oxford, UK: Blackwell.
Sanok, C. 2007. Her Life Historical: Exemplarity and Female Saints’ Lives in Late Medieval England. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Schieberle, M. 2014. Feminized Counsel and the Literature of Advice in England. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols.
Staley Johnson, L. 1992. Chaucer’s Tale of the Second Nun and the Strategies of Dissent. Studies in Philology 89(3): 314–333.
Strohm, P. 1992. Hochon’s Arrow: The Social Imagination of Fourteenth-Century Texts. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd ed. 2001. Ed. M. D. Coogan. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Turner, M. 2007. Chaucerian Conflict: Languages of Antagonism in Late Fourteenth-Century London. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.
Wallace, D. 1997. Chaucerian Polity: Absolutist Lineage and Associational Forms in England and Italy. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
This research was conducted by the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (Project Number CE110001011). The author would like to thank Eileen A. Joy for her sage advice getting this essay off the ground, as well as Leila K. Norako, Lara Farina, and the anonymous readers at postmedieval for their insightful comments during the editorial process.
About this article
Cite this article
Megna, P. Chaucerian Parrhesia: World-building and truth-telling in The Canterbury Tales and ‘Lak of Stedfastnesse’. Postmedieval 9, 30–43 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41280-017-0066-y