God’s Patients approaches some of Chaucer’s most challenging poems with two philosophical questions in mind: How does action relate to passion, to being-acted-on? And what does it mean to submit one’s will to a law? Responding to critics (Jill Mann, Mark Miller) who have pointed out the subtlety of Chaucer’s approach to such fundamentals of ethics, John Bugbee seeks the source of the subtlety and argues that much of it is ready to hand in a tradition of religious (and what we would today call “mystical”) writing that shaped the poet’s thought. Bugbee considers the Clerk’s, Man of Law’s, Knight’s, Franklin’s, Physician’s, and Second Nun’s Tales in juxtaposition with an excellent informant on a major stream of medieval religious culture, Bernard of Clairvaux, whose works lay out ethical ideas closely matching those detectable beneath the surface of the poems. While some of the positions that emerge—most spectacularly the notion that the highest states of human being are ones in which activity and passivity cannot be disentangled—are anathema to much modern ethical thought, God’s Patients provides evidence that they were relatively common in the Middle Ages. The book offers striking new readings of Chaucer’s poems; it proposes a nuanced hermeneutical approach that should prove fruitful in reading a number of other high- and late-medieval works; and, by showing how assumptions about its two fundamental questions have shifted since Chaucer’s time, it provides a powerful new way of thinking about the transition between the Middle Ages and modernity.
Preface – A Foretaste of Two Philosophical Themes
Introduction – Passion as Theme and Method
Part 1. Action and Passion
1. Concerned with Constancy: The Clerk’s and Man of Law’s Tales
2. Hermeneutical Interlude: Chaucer, Gadamer, Boethius
3. Bernard and Chaucer on Action and Passion
Appendix – Bernard, C. W. Bynum, and the Deep Roots of Paradox
4. Holy Anomaly: The Second Nun’s Tale and Active Sanctity
Part 2. Will and Law
5. Law Gone Wrong: The Franklin’s and Physician’s Tales
6. Bernard, Chaucer, and Life with the Law
7. Conclusion: The Union of the Themes and Its Implications
"The study is engagingly written and insightful in its readings of the individual tales. Perhaps more importantly, it suggests a new approach to the Christianity of Chaucer’s work and of medieval literature more generally: in introducing both a new figure, St. Bernard, who is not typically brought to bear on Chaucer, and a new set of definitions for the Christian ideas in the Canterbury Tales, particularly suffering/passivity.” —Katherine C. Little, University of Colorado Boulder
"A highly original contribution to Chaucer scholarship. . . . Though the arguments are underpinned by and informed by sophisticated philosophical investigation, the author manages complicated ideas in ways that readers who might have less philosophical training will find both illuminating and easy to negotiate.” —Nancy Warren, Texas A&M University
"John Bugbee’s book, based on impressive theological and philosophical learning and argued with energetic lucidity, conducts a scrupulous analysis of the ethical implications of six Canterbury tales to which medieval thought about action and passion, will and law, is particularly relevant. In raising fundamental questions about what kind of poet Chaucer is, it offers a challenge that Chaucerians cannot afford to disregard." —A. C. Spearing, Fellow of Queens' College, Cambridge
"John Bugbee thinks like a philosopher, writes like a master teacher, and reads like the most acute and subtle of critics. In this stunning first book, he explores the medieval ideal of 'conjoint agency,' interrogating once familiar but now largely forgotten ideas about the wellsprings of human action with respect to will, law, and divine agency. God’s Patients sheds an uncommonly revealing light on Chaucer, showing for example why Custance and her apparent lookalike Griselda are in fact moral opposites. Yet Bugbee’s ambitions are much larger. In the words of its preface, this book 'could change not only how we think about medieval literature, but to some extent also simply how we think.'" —Barbara Newman, Northwestern University
"God’s Patients is a book anyone interested in premodern models of gendered agency, devotion, or ethics will return to repeatedly. Deeply learned, it demonstrates real theological depth and close reading acuity, offering much for a wide range of scholars of the Middle Ages." —Modern Philology
“The book offers striking new readings of Chaucer’s poems; it proposes a nuanced hermeneutical approach that should prove fruitful in reading a number of other high- and late-medieval works; and, by showing how assumptions about its two fundamental questions have shifted since Chaucer’s time, it provides a powerful new way of thinking about the transition between the Middle Ages and modernity.” —Law and Religion Forum
“Bugbee reads Chaucer’s tales with fine attention to detail and writes with fluency and sensitivity about their effects. . . . [T]he author is a careful guide, and the clarity of his exposition makes for an absorbing read.” —The Times Literary Supplement
This is a book about a lost ideal. It is about a group of people who believed not only that a simultaneously passive-and-active state is possible, but that it is necessary. Not always in the sense of logical or factual necessity, of being unavoidable – though arguments for that claim will appear also, especially in the last two chapters below. Even more clearly, though, the group held a passive-and-active state to be what we might call morally necessary: required, that is, if a human is to be (and do) the best she or he possibly can. So far from finding the passive-and-active state an inferior one or a compromise tainted by its passive elements, they understood it as the pinnacle of human existence.
The main title of this book indicates the kind of passivity that they had primarily in mind: passivity, or receptivity, before a divine will. Thus the philosophical question of action and passion appeared for them as the more particular, and more theological, question of the relations between an active human will and a divine will that was most readily understood as issuing from beyond the human; and the possibility of combining action with passion in the aforesaid “ideal” meant acting with an agency or a power that was simultaneously one’s own and also, somehow, God’s. Part One of this book is an attempt to encounter that ideal in situ. First of all in Chaucer’s poems: especially in the Man of Law’s Tale, which seems to me a powerful embodiment of the ideal; in the Clerk’s, where the treatment of human and divine agency at first looks similar but emerges, on closer reading, as sharply opposed; and in the Second Nun’s, where the ideal is conspicuous by what is, given the hagiographical context, its nearly inexplicable absence. Situated among those efforts, also in Part One, are detailed expositions of the same ideal of conduct as it appears in theological ideas with which Chaucer certainly had contact, drawn primarily though not exclusively from the writing of Bernard of Clairvaux. The second part of the book then takes up what is, on the face of it, a second question, connected to a different dyad: the question of the relationship between a human will and any law (in the broad sense described in the Preface) that lays claim to govern it. Here too the investigation turns up a possibility that is surprising or impossible at first look, but that, it will emerge, was once asserted as an ideal of human conduct; and once again it is a kind of concidentia oppositorum, the possibility of a law that acts rather like a will, and of a will that loves, and in some way becomes one with, a law. Here the main Tales considered, the Franklin’s and Physician’s, put the ideal on display almost entirely by negation, showing wills in fierce competition with (and misunderstanding of) the relevant laws; but they do so, chapter five will argue, in ways that prod the reader into thinking about the better relationships with law that should have been. The following chapter goes on to propose that better relationships should involve not only the ability to break bad laws (as Chaucer’s characters fail to do) but to affirm, love, and ultimately merge with good ones – again drawing on theological writers to show that such an ideal was concretely recommended in the “real world” and is not just a figment of a fevered reader’s brain. Once again Bernard of Clairvaux serves, for reasons considered later in this chapter, as the leading source.
That brief sketch has not yet explained why it is possible to speak of one ideal rather than two. The most adequate explanation I can offer does not appear here, but arises across the course of the seven chapters that follow – where it becomes steadily more clear that the two themes are linked by bonds difficult to dissolve, so that the answers a given author formulates for one set of questions will virtually dictate his or her responses to the other set, and so that what first appears as two separate ideals increasingly seems a unified stance. Because that stance is best understood by beginning with the two ostensibly separate questions – and because those questions are best encountered as they are concretely embodied in medieval literature and theology – the chapters to follow are written in a bottom-up style, plunging into the poetry in one chapter and the theology in the next, and usually advancing general claims only as they emerge from those close readings. Thus it is entirely possible to begin reading where the author began writing, with chapter one; and readers eager to get their hands into the literary and theological soil that makes up the bulk of the book are heartily encouraged to do just that, saving the rest of this Introduction for later. Its chief remaining task is to offer a sort of warrant for the book’s overarching method: for the usefulness and validity of having a look at the Canterbury Tales through the lenses of these two philosophical themes, and alongside these medieval theological writers. For some readers it will be enough to think of the method as hypothetico-deductive, of its warrant as a simple matter of consequent justification: accept provisionally the possibility that using these lenses and reading these fellow-travelers will be a fruitful thing to do, and dive in; the ensuing journey should, I hope, both repay and justify the initial trust. But readers who would like a longer look under the hood, with more advance explanation, can find it by reading on here, where three sections of explicit methodological reflection (and one taking note of related studies) will follow a slightly more expansive attempt to introduce the contemplative ideal and its “lostness.”
(excerpted from introduction)