Summer Reading Reviews: Part the Last
The Orient in Chaucer and Medieval Romance
Carol Heffernan. The Orient in Chaucer and Medieval Romance. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2003. Pp. x, 160, two illustrations. $70.00.
The title of Carole Heffernan's work implies a large and perhaps ambitious project, surveying not only Chaucer but all of "Medieval Romance" for traces of "the Orient." Alas, in its scant 160 pages, it does not live up to that promise. Focusing instead on a few of the Canterbury Tales (The Man of Law's Tale and the Squire's Tale), two episodes from the Legend of Good Women (Dido and Cleopatra) and two Middle English romances (Floris and Blauncheflur and Le Bone Florence of Rome), Heffernan seeks to uncover the "remarkable oriental influence" in these selections, and "to call for a reconsideration of the textual exchanges as well as other cultural interactions linking English (and European) romance literature of the Middle Ages and the Orient" (2). Even in this last paring, one can discern problems with this study: a chronological marker—even one that, as Norman Daniel pointed out years ago, is patently Eurocentric—is not equivalent to a spatial marker. For Heffernan, it seems, either the Middle Ages is a place or "the Orient" is timeless.
Heffernan's study is largely balanced in its scholarly approach, though proving that Christians and Muslims exchanged stories where they met seems rather straightforward. Each of the sections discusses a different exchanged story type: the Man of Law's Tale depends on an understanding of the trade networks in the Mediterranean; the LGW selections view the Muslim Female Other; the Squire's Tale is a moment when 1001 Nights-style interlacing comes into European narratives; and the romances deal, in their own way, with the working out of courtly love paradigms. Each argument is on the whole valid; each has its flaws. For example, the discussion of the interlacing of the Squire's Tale is technically right: the interlacing exists and is better done than its analogs and precursors. Yet the context around Heffernan's reading—the "how and why" the technique derives from Oriental sources—isn't well argued: instead, Heffernan spends time talking about the 1001 Nights, Spenser's Faerie Queene, and a number of modern, secondary works without ever driving all the points home.
This is the pattern throughout The Orient: a strong, sometimes faultless reading is combined with a less-than-satisfactory critical apparatus. Indeed, at times the critical work reads more like a literature review than an argumentative synthesis. This, combined with some issues of diction (the repeatedly-used "Mohammedan" is so 19th-century) and a lack of clear linkage between each of the readings leaves this work lacking. Perhaps there is something to be made of the connections between "the Orient," "Chaucer," and middle English romances, but it's not made here.
 Of course, as Catherine Brown points out in "In the Middle" (JMEMS 30.3 [Fall 2000]: 547-574), sometimes it is useful to consider the past as a place rather than a time. Heffernan doesn't seem to do that in The Orient, though.
 Though both Dido and Cleopatra lived before rise of Islam, this hardly matters to Chaucer; time is static in the Middle Ages, and the past is just a better version of what we have now.