Medieval Domesticity: Home, Housing and Household
25th Annual Medieval Studies Conference
Saturday March 12-Sunday March 13, 2005

Privy Spaces, Peering Eyes: The Carpenter Poems of Late Medieval England

Lisa H. Cooper, Stanford University

Reading Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale as the locus classicus for what he calls the “motif of urban betrayal” in the Canterbury Tales, David Wallace concludes that John the Carpenter is a kind of urban everyman, his domestic tragedy an example of Chaucer’s more general skepticism regarding the possibilities for civic harmony (Chaucerian Polity 127). Where Wallace takes the artisan as a figure for a broader social condition, in this paper I suggest that the survival of two other late-medieval poems about carpenters – “The Debate of the Carpenter’s Tools” and “The Wright’s Chaste Wife” – indicates that we ought to pay closer attention to the more specifically artisanal circumstance of Chaucer’s famous fabliau. While the mocking of an artisan’s domestic fortunes has a long literary history, stretching back to the cuckolding of Hephaestus, I argue that these three poems are not just late-medieval variations on an ancient and clearly still-popular theme, but also historically contingent considerations of the craft household as a particularly threatened and threatening space. Rather than constructing the walls of an imagined community, the carpenter poems all imagine subversions within and invasions of the artisanal home, and they make what happens within that home a matter of intense public scrutiny; each attends, moreover, not only to the vulnerability of its hero’s communal and marital relationships, but also to the vulnerability of his domestic space qua space. (Ironically, while carpenters were the artisans who erected the increasingly valued private space of the secular home, only in the latest of the poems I examine, “The Wright’s Chaste Wife,” is a fictional carpenter ultimately permitted to enjoy the kind of domestic security that those of his craft provided for others.) Together, the three poems make anxious entertainment out of very real contemporary concerns; they thus wedge a fictional middle ground between craft ordinances celebrating the ties binding artisans in brotherhood, and the increasingly shrill government statutes condemning guilds, especially those of masons and carpenters, as illicit households.

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