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Visibility Politics in Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale

Visibility Politics in Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale

By Sarah Stanbury

Paper given at Cultural Frictions: Medieval Studies in Postmodern Contexts Conference Proceedings (1995)

Introduction: In Chaucer’s Knigtht’s Tale, a tale rich in overlays of visual narratives, one of the first accounts of the operations of the gaze effects a similar kind of inversion, one fully authorized by medieval amatory metaphysics. When Palamon sees Emelye in the garden, he becomes instant victim of the object of his eye, cast on Emelye: “He cast his eye upon Emelya,/ And therwithal he bleynte and cride, “A!”/ As though he stongen were unto the herte” (1077-1079). First Palamon and then Arcite, through the agencies of visual rays, become victims of love, victims of the object of their gaze, Emelye, who is entirely unaware of their presence. The representation of amatory trajectories in this scene are of course easy to explain away through recourse to conventions of medieval amatory metaphor, the arrows of the God of love that penetrate the eye to wound the heart; through medieval optics, that understood an embodied and multidirectional operation of visual rays; and also through transhistorical cultural metaphor, a sense of this scene as representing “how it feels” or “the way people fall in love.” Yet this scene sets in place a visual rhetoric for the narrative as a whole, I will argue, that is founded on paradoxes of apparent agency. The space occupied by Emelye in her garden and Palamon and Arcite in their tower becomes a kind of shadow box, a microcosm of invisible agency, framed by horizontal walls within which each “rometh up and doun” and transected by a gaze that seems to slice up toward its male agents from across vertical space.

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