Chaucer's "Auctoritee," "Maystrye," and "Soveraynetee": Rhetorical control as unifying element in "The Canterbury Tales"




Bay, Marjorie Caddell

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This paper evaluates the rhetorical stance of Geoffrey Chaucer in his mature masterpiece The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer attained a unity not only through characterizations but also through a patterned use of various rhetorical devices; this unity results from the poet's ability to create freely within a prescribed form.

In "The General Prologue" of The Canterbury Tales Chaucer prefigures his intention for the remainder of his masterpiece. To arrive at this premise, I researched sources which indicate the probability of Chaucer's knowledge of rhetoric. I charted a detailed study of Chaucer's dispositio: prologue, body, and epilogue. I traced Chaucer's use of and intent for Herry Bailly, the Host of the pilgrims, as a unifying rhetorical vehicle. I considered three characteristics of the Middle Ages: "auctoritee," "maystrye," and "soveraynetee," especially in relation to rhetoric. The topic of authority in the Marriage Group and the genre of romance are two significant elements of "The General Prologue" prefiguring these elements throughout The Canterbury Tales. To support my theory, I cited significant data concerning my stance that the rhetorically-minded Chaucer encompassed in his "General Prologue": his intent for the entire masterpiece.

My conclusions, then, are that Chaucer recognized the importance of genre; that his excellence emerged and remained constant because he exercised freedom within a defined framework; that in "The General Prologue" Chaucer prefigured his intent for the remainder of his masterpiece; that he developed Herry Bailly as an authoritative figure capable of imposing a measure of control on The Tales; that between "The General Prologue" and "Chaucer's Retraction," for continuity, the author interspersed individual romances through the pilgrimage and highlighted them with specific rhetorical elements; and that he placed significant statements on "auctoritee," "maystrye," and "soveraynetee" in repeated frame structures, each of which contains a prologue, a body, and an epilogue. Such arrangement and organization are indeed indicators of Chaucer's mastery of rhetoric. Therefore, Chaucer applied his knowledge of ancient and medieval rhetoric. He remained original and creative in his composition despite the restrictions that his milieu imposed upon him. He united his masterpiece with various rhetorical devices that he applied intentionally and skillfully in The Canterbury Tales.



Linguistics, Literature, Language