Chaucer the forester

My article, “Chaucer the Forester: The Friar’s Tale, Forest History, and Officialdom,” appears in the Chaucer Review. This article argues that the Anglo-Norman forest bureaucracy provides a point of contact between Chaucer’s life and the social satire of the Friar’s Tale. Here are the opening and concluding paragraphs:

Some time between 1390 and his death in 1400, Chaucer served as a substitute forester in North Petherton, Somerset. Although it probably required little more than occasional desk work, and although it was the last and worst-documented of Chaucer’s many dalliances with the administrative machinery of late-fourteenth-century England, the position affirms the persistence into the reign of Richard II of the decadent Norman royal forest system. While it is uncertain whether art imitated life or vice versa in each case, a number of Chaucer’s literary works mention forestry and make use of its specialized vocabulary. In the Book of the Duchess, for example, the poet employs a slew of technical terms over the course of Octavian’s hunt (344–86). The Knight’s Yeoman and (as will be shown) the Friar’s Tale’s devil-yeoman are especially important in the present connection because they are foresters, albeit of a more practical variety than the historical Chaucer. In what follows, it is argued that the Friar’s Tale, by a series of dramatic ironies, critiques the royal forest system in which Chaucer was (or was to become) a minor official. The first section outlines fourteenth-century English forest history and its reception in poetry of the period; the second presents a reading of the Friar’s Tale, with special attention to the figure of the devil-yeoman and the tale’s satire on the royal forest and other administrative systems.


Read in the context of forest history and the rise of bureaucracy in England, the Friar’s Tale’s summoner’s morbid curiosity about demondom recapitulates a growing contemporary fascination with officialdom, making the Friar’s Tale a kind of brief speculum officiale. Within the predictable logic of the devil-and-advocate fable, the summoner’s inquisitiveness leads to his damnation, while on a metatextual view, it signals a departure from the world of good and evil. As in the tale’s sources and analogues, Chaucer’s devil does not lower or cackle; his respect for “entente” marks him as an exemplary officer. By casting the devil as a forest official, Chaucer goes one step further than his sources in suggesting an administrative rather than a theological moral for the tale. The devil’s double instantiation as demon and yeoman invites a comparison between divine and secular administrations, and if Chaucer seems to suggest, or to have his Friar suggest, that clerical administration by its nature encourages corruption, the obvious irony of selecting the despised royal forest as its well-ordered opposite reveals the outlines of a much more nuanced critique of officialdom. When the devil-yeoman forcibly invites the summoner to “knowen of oure privetee” (III 1637), Chaucer not only makes perfectly clear the Friar’s heavy-handed point that it is in the depths of the abyss that “somonours han hir heritage” (III 1641); he also raises for his audience the narrative possibility of embarking on the Dantean journey to hell and back, for a working knowledge of the divine and infernal “privetee” that takes the form of an administration, and in whose image human organization is bound to discover its form.