Medieval Poetics and Social Practice: Responding to the Work of Penn R. Szittya

By Seeta Chaganti | Go to book overview

NATURE’S YERDE AND WARD:
AUTHORITY AND CHOICE IN CHAUCER’S
PARLIAMENT OF FOWLS

Nick Havely

At the end of the debate in Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls, as Nature struggles to control the increasingly raucous voices, she turns to the creature she (like some noble hawking lady) holds “on hir honde”: the female eagle (“formel”).1 Throughout all the “noble dispute,” the “noise,” and the variety of “verdicts” that have attended the three tercel eagles’ competitive pledges of love for her, the formel has remained silent, expressing her feelings only through a surreal avian blush.2 Now, however, as the still center on whom the pressures of time and desire converge, she is faced with Nature’s “conclusyon” and the burden of choice: “that she hir selfe shal have hir eleccion” (PF 621). Her own voice is thus heard for the first and last time in the poem, and her decision is not to make a decision and to reject “as yet” the act of “serving” in love that has meant so much to her male suitors (648–53).

In her refusal or postponement of the service of Venus and Cupid, the formel shows some affinity with Boccaccio’s Emilia in the Teseida and Chaucer’s Emily in the Knight’s Tale.3 She also shares some features with another female object of desire in Chaucer: the Book of the Duchess’s White, who is pursued by the aristocratic Man in Black, initially rejects him, then grants him “mercy” “another yere.”4 Her voice and position are more broadly characteristic, too, of the woman’s role within the cult and discourse of “courtly love,” defined as “an arena in which negotiations can take place, even if we almost always hear only the male side of the argument.”5

The formel’s decision or lack of it has been seen as reflecting on other “unresolved” aspects of the Parliament—on “the narrator’s own amused or troubled indecisiveness,” for example, or the poem’s response to contemporary philosophic concerns with “choice in general and the faculty of will that engages in it.”6 My main argument here is that, when addressing the problems of the formel’s response to Nature, we may find it helpful not

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