Political Spaces: Medieval Marginalia and Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale
By Danielle Magnusson
Paper given at Visual Literacies, 2nd Global Conference (2008)
Abstract: Scholars acknowledge that the Nun’s Priest’s Tale could not have been written before 1381. They know this because the Tale includes an allusion to Jakke Straw—a leader in the Peasants’ Revolt of the aforementioned year. As the only overt mention of events taking place in the 14th century to appear in the Canterbury Tales, the reference forces scholars to question authorial intent. In placing such a serious detail in such a playful text, did Chaucer anticipate having the comment feel as misplaced as it does?
I would argue that, because of the medieval relationship to forms of visual literacy, this reference would not have felt misplaced for Chaucer’s contemporaries. I believe that the mention of Jack Straw appears in a Tale which is fundamentally tied to forms of contemporary visual art and, more importantly, that this detail reflects a growing impulse for art to showcase realism in predictably unpredictable presentations.
The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is an unmistakably deliberate visual construction. Chaucer, for example, devotes considerable language to the description of specific colors, the position of the sun, vegetation growing in the yard, and of course, animal imagery. The text constructs a world in which colors and light threaten a politicized narrative. Likewise, medieval marginalia was absolutely concerned with problematizing (but never threatening) textual authority. As a form of visual literacy, and as a unique commentary on the more authoritative textual center of the medieval page, marginalia was highly politicized space. Marginalia permitted representations of marginalized individuals, as well as derisive commentary on courtly, urban, and religious life. Importantly, marginalia was created (as Michael Camille argues in Image on the Edge: The Margins of Medieval Art) “by virtue of the absolute hegemony of the system it sought to subvert” (160).
In order to fully understand Chaucer’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale, I believe that we must examine both visual elements found within the text, as well as the influence of marginalia—a form of visual literacy—on both the work of Chaucer and on late medieval society as a whole.