Penn Arts & Sciences Logo

Topics in Chaucer

ENGL 725.401
M 12-3


 The exact shape and content assumed by this course will depend on the interests brought to the table by folks at our first meeting, or before (see last paragraph). But here are a few thoughts:

The course will concentrate mostly on the Canterbury Tales (since Troilus was covered in a graduate class last year), but we might read Henryson's Testament of Cresseid (and consider its mediation of the tale to Shakespeare via Thynne's 1532 edition); we might also read The Legend of Good Women.

I would like to match up The Canterbury Tales with the framed narrative from which it derived, borrowed or stole one sixth of its narratives: Boccaccio's Decameron (much translated and imitated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and an important influence on drama). Boccaccio's text both celebrates a precocious city-state and generates European- and Mediterranean-wide perspectives, including close encounters with the east and Barbary. Tunisia is only two hundred miles from Sicily; England is in every sense more remote. And yet Chaucer does, of course, attempt to imagine England-his native, eccentric, and marginal country- within and as part of these greater European spaces.

Topics to explore might include:

Divisions of Labor. As the "General Prologue" to CT suggests, Chaucer is fascinated (energized, alarmed) by new and highly specialized divisions of labor: these seem both to threaten traditional organicist conceptualizings of society and religious 'wholeness' and to suggest new and undreamed of imaginings, social and sexual (witness the Pardoner). It was in the great cities of Italy and Flanders that such divisions of labor were most intensively developed: Florence, Milan, Ghent, and Bruges. In addition to Decameron tales, then, we might explore representations by Flemish artists, especially Bruegel and Bosch.

Female eloquence. Perhaps the most singular aspect of Chaucer's oeuvre is his consistent concern for, investment, in female speaking. He mythologizes the ability of women to be "suddenly avyse," that is, to speak unscripted in pressured situations; he also affects to marvel at (while actively fashioning) the unbidden flow of female wordage (witness the Wife of Bath), a movement associated with the awakening and exercise of sexual power.

Voicing and bodying forth. In setting such store by female eloquence-his surest protection against masculine rage-Chaucer also focuses attention upon the bodies that give voice and the role of bodies in generating eloquence and sustaining civilized life. And part of this extends, of course, to his own presence in the text: his self-representations as pilgrim, narrator, or failed lover; his own implied presence as first public reader of his fictions. Which brings us to:

Poetics and performance. Chaucer's poetry presents and imagines itself as written for oral performance: that is, to be read aloud and bodied forth by one speaker to the hearing and visual appreciation of many. This aspect of Chaucer has as yet been little considered; Chaucer is generally studied as finished (posthumously edited) text. We might begin exploration of performative Chaucer by paying some attention to our own ways of reading and "bodying for" (often neglected in graduate classes). How does it differ, for example, to read Chaucer aloud as a woman/ man/ Englishman/ American, etc?

After Chaucer. We might read the fifteenth-century Tale of Beryn, which continues the pilgrimage forward to arrival in Canterbury. We might consider how Chaucer plays in the Reformation. We might consider Chauceriana of the 1590s: The Cobbler of Canterbury, which imagines tales told in a boat going down the Thames; Spenser's riffs on Sir Thopas and the Squire's Tale; dramas deriving from Chaucer, including Patient Grissil; and then there is Dekker and company, Fair Constance of Rome (1600). Folks interested in later adaptations, literary and filmic, might add to our list: the Powell-Pressburger A Canterbury Tale (1944); Pasolini's Racconti di Canterbury; Ted Hughes; David Dabydeen. Not all of this can be addressed in class, of course, but folks might find points of departure from the class into more distant and exotic areas of research.

I would be interested to get feedback before the class: anything we are leaving out that could add to commune profit? Any suggestions for must-read secondary, critical, and theoretical sources? Best, David

Fulfills 1 & 5 requirements.