Celebrate Fragments

How do we represent the state of the manuscripts of the Canterbury Tales? Arthur Bahr, Associate Professor in Literature at MIT, responds to Robert J. Meyer-Lee’s recent essay, “Abandon the Fragments.”[1]

The title of this post is intended to evoke that of Robert Meyer-Lee’s recent essay “Abandon the Fragments.” Bobby’s position and my own are in fact closer than our apparently dueling titles would suggest, however, for he has convinced me that The Riverside Chaucer’s characterization of the Canterbury Tales as “surviv[ing] in ten fragments” (5, cited by Bobby on 48) misrepresents the codicological evidence. He also convinces me that, as originally conceived, this editorial characterization assumes without justification that Chaucer had a definite, implicitly singular plan for the shape of the Tales that he failed for some reason to enact. I do not, however, believe that the term “fragments” need be interpretively restrictive in this way. I will propose here that the word’s suggestion of physicality and incompleteness, both of which I regard as integral to the distinctiveness of the Tales as a literary project, makes “fragments” a useful term for critical practice, albeit one in need of considerable refinement along many of the lines that Bobby’s essay astutely suggests.

In calling “incompleteness” a salient feature of the Tales, I do not mean to endorse the belief that Chaucer not only “‘left’ the work ‘incomplete’ but also failed to execute a ‘final revision’ and hence in some way presumably intended such finality” (57, with inset quotation of the third edition of The Riverside Chaucer, 5). As Bobby demonstrates, this scenario implicitly regards the fragments as imperfect pieces of what was intended to be a seamlessly constructed edifice. In fact there are many other, more interesting, and (to me, Bobby, and others) more persuasive ways of reading both the Tales itself and how it came to assume the various manuscript forms it now has. Bobby argues, and I agree, that Chaucer appears to have “sought for the Tales a much more dynamic, unpredictable, open-ended structure” than that which the lexicon of fragments, as originally coined by editors, imagines (71). But words whose original uses may have been misguided or offensive can be affirmatively reclaimed (notes this queer reader). We could do something similar with the vocabulary of the fragments, and regard them not as so many half-empty glasses but rather as productive reminders of how little is securely knowable—and thus how much is productively interpretable—about the conceptual and material disposition of the Tales. So long as we remember that fragments need not add up to a single coherent whole (nor indeed ever have been intended to add up to such a whole), the word admirably conveys this sense of incompleteness not as loss but as interpretive invitation.

And we do, in any event, need some word or other for the various tale-groupings of the Tales project. One reason Bobby gives for preferring “blocks” to “fragments” for this purpose is that the former lacks the latter’s connotation of physicality (49; he calls “blocks” his “preferred term” at 51). I think that the suggestion of physicality is worth holding onto, however, not because it reflects the as-it-really-was of Chaucer production practice (Bobby nicely worries the widespread assumption that Chaucer’s own physical exemplars and today’s editorial fragments correspond), but because it recalls the Tales’ famous invitation that we “turne over the leef and chese another tale” than the Miller’s if we so desire (I.3177). As I and others have argued, this is a funny-but-serious (and seriously funny) joke, in that it uses the Tales’ very first inter-tale stitching to suggest that the entire project’s structure is subject to the reader’s imaginative intervention. I would contend (again, with others) that we should not lightly dismiss the fact that Chaucer figures this invitation as physical activity.

Nor is it clear to me that Bobby’s preferred term “blocks” in fact avoids the suggestion of physicality as he claims; I immediately thought of building blocks, for example, that can be assembled into a variety of structures. That even a critic who resists imputing physicality to Chaucer’s work has chosen a term that can in fact be so interpreted may further suggest how central physicality actually is to the Tales. One final point in favor of “fragments” over “blocks” is that it reinforces how many other Chaucerian texts appear to be fragmentary (Legend of Good Women, House of Fame, Anelida and Arcite), helping us to see both the Tales generally, and in particular incomplete and/or fragmentary tales like those of the Cook, Squire, and Sir Thopas, as part of this broader Chaucerian motif. (It also foregrounds the difficult and important question of intentionality that the “and/or” of my last sentence attempted none too subtly to finesse.)

I called this post “Celebrate Fragments” instead of “Celebrate the Fragments” by way of embracing the possibility of different, differently represented, and differently valenced fragments than those canonized by the Riverside, for I agree that, “even if one finds the idea of fragments desirable, its current application is rather sloppy. … As a kind of one-size-fits-all editorial labeling, it is too crude an instrument for its purposes” (76). This post is therefore intended as an enthusiastic taking-up of Bobby’s exhortation that we engage in a thorough and collective rethink of how we use the term fragments in reference to the Tales, as both codicological designation and literary-critical concept. I hope that the observations I have laid out here offer grounds for engaging more fully in that collective rethink—here, in the comments, and in the many other venues that the New Chaucer Society affords us—before abandoning the fragments altogether.

I would like to thank Bobby Meyer-Lee for graciously agreeing to be “responded to” in public.

[1] Studies in the Age of Chaucer 35 (2013): 47-83.


Arthur Bahr holds the Alfred Henry and Jean Morrison Hayes Career Development Chair at MIT. His book, Fragments and Assemblages: Forming Compilations of Medieval London, has recently been published by University of Chicago Press (2013).