Indecent Exposure: Gender, Politics, and Obscene Comedy in Middle English Literature

Indecent Exposure: Gender, Politics, and Obscene Comedy in Middle English Literature

Indecent Exposure: Gender, Politics, and Obscene Comedy in Middle English Literature

Indecent Exposure: Gender, Politics, and Obscene Comedy in Middle English Literature


Men and women struggling for control of marriage and sexuality; narratives that focus on trickery, theft, and adultery; descriptions of sexual activities and body parts, the mention of which is prohibited in polite society: such are the elements that constitute what Nicole Nolan Sidhu calls a medieval discourse of obscene comedy, in which a particular way of thinking about men, women, and household organization crosses genres, forms, and languages. Inviting its audiences to laugh at violations of what is good, decent, and seemly, obscene comedy manifests a semiotic instability that at once supports established hierarchies and delights in overturning them.

In Indecent Exposure, Sidhu explores the varied functions of obscene comedy in the literary and visual culture of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England. In chapters that examine Chaucer's Reeve's Tale and Legend of Good Women; Langland's Piers Plowman; Lydgate's Mumming at Hertford, Troy Book, and Fall of Princes; the Book of Margery Kempe, the Wakefield "Second Shepherds' Play"; the Towneley "Noah"; and other works of drama, Sidhu proposes that Middle English writers use obscene comedy in predictable and unpredictable contexts to grapple with the disturbances that English society experienced in the century and a half following the Black Death. For Sidhu, obscene comedy emerges as a discourse through which writers could address not only issues of gender, sexuality, and marriage but also concerns as varied as the conflicts between Christian doctrine and lived experience, the exercise of free will, the social consequences of violence, and the nature of good government.


Blameth nat me if that ye chese amis.
The Millere is a cherl; ye knowe wel this.
So was the Reve eek and othere mo,
And harlotrie they tolden bothe two.
Avyseth yow and putte me out of blame;
And eek men shal nat maken ernest of game.

(Miller’s Prologue, 3181–86)

In the final words of the Miller’s Prologue, Chaucer-the-narrator issues an extended defense of the two tales that will follow. They are “harlotrie,” he admits, a word that in Middle English denotes ribald talk, foul jesting, scurrility, or obscenity. Readers should not blame Chaucer for the offensive content of a “cherles tale,” however, for he only transcribes it out of a duty to truth (3169). These are the stories the miller and the reeve told, so the narrator must repeat them, “Or elles falsen som of my mateere” (3175).

The narrator’s self-defense is as false as it is emphatic. It is, in fact, highly unlikely that anyone in Chaucer’s original audience would have associated the tales of the miller and the reeve with the lower orders. Both entries derive from the Old French fabliau, a genre whose ruling-class affiliations in England are attested by the fact that all English fabliaux before Chaucer are written in Old French or Anglo-Norman. Nor (of course) is the tales’ appearance in the first fragment the result of anything other than the artistic choice of Chaucer the author.

If the narrator’s self-defense does little to explain Chaucer’s interest in these tales, it is effective in drawing our attention to the question itself. Why does Chaucer see fit to begin his master work with not one but two (three, if we . . .

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