Glossing as a Mode of Literary Production: Post-Modernism in the Middle Ages

Glossing as a Mode of Literary Production: Post-Modernism in the Middle Ages

Watts, William

Essays in Medeival Studies, vol. 8 (1991)


If, as the friar in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale suggests, “Glosynge is a glorious thyng” (III.1793), then part of the glory of glossing lies in the very complexity of the concept. The word “gloss” in Chaucer’s Middle English encompasses the same extremes of meaning that are still present in modern English; it can either mean to explain something or it can mean to resort to circumlocution, as in “to gloss over.” In the former sense, Chaucer sometimes distinguishes between a text and an interpretive account of the text, as in the God of Love’s accusation of Geoffrey: “Thou maist yt nat denye, / For in pleyn text, withouten nede of glose, / Thou has translated the Romaunce of the Rose” (LGW F. 227-9). More often than not, however, Chaucer’s use of the word “gloss” carries the second meaning of “to gloss over.” Thus, Chaucer’s Merchant claims that he is unable to supply a polite euphemism to describe the tryst of May and Damyan, saying, “I kan nat glose, I am a rude man” (IV. 235 1).

In addition to these two contradictory meanings, Middle English “glosen” carries several denotations and connotations that have been lost to Modern English, including “to flatter,” “to deceive” and “to cajole”; one or more of these meanings is present in Troilus’s warning to Criseyde on her way out of Troy that “Ye shal ek sen, youre fader shal yow glose / To ben a wif” (IV. 1471-2). But one of the most intriguing resonances in Chaucer’s treatment of glossing–and one which has received little attention–lies in his association of glossing with poetry itself. It is this association between glossing and literature and the implications of this association for Chaucer’s attitudes toward the nature and authority of the text that I wish to take up in this paper.

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