Penn Arts & Sciences Logo

Chaucer: Poetics, Performance, and Gothic Returns

ENGL 525.301
instructor(s):
M 12-3

In July 2006 hundreds of scholars and teachers from all over the world will 
gather at Lincoln Center, NYC, to contemplate an English medieval poet: 
Geoffrey Chaucer. Medievalists have long reminded us that their epoch gave us 
universities and table manners, jury trials and urban space: foundationalist 
claims that seem increasingly irrelevant today. In the imaginings of modern 
urban cultures, however, the Gothic does not wait its turn for historical 
recuperation: it erupts through the floorboards, seizing the present moment. 
New York City has the Cloisters and St Patrick's Cathedral: but it may be 
Gotham City that resonates most interestingly with a medieval poet in its 
midst.

    Such eruptive power, that we will seek to help realize in this class, has 
long been contained or repressed by later periods that would keep the Middle 
Ages at bay, assering its cultural and religious foreignness and historical 
distance. Yet no such disavowal can be complete: not all medieval fragments 
(still lurking in our language and culture) can be fully digested or 
incorporated into the Renaissance and Protestant NEW. The uncanny strangeness/ 
familiarity of the medieval-- perhaps first fully appreciated in the Romantic 
period-- inheres in its sound: voicings like our own, yet not; foreign tongues 
close to home. Medieval texts were written to be heard, and heard by a group; 
in this class we will recover something of this collective modality. We'll pay 
considerable attention to quite how and why we voice the text, mindful that 
every reading is an act of interpretation.

    Another element of Chaucerian strangeness is generic heterogeneity: the 
Canterbury Tales is the most generically diverse (least generically stabilized) 
poem in English literary history. Such formal and hermeneutic lability was, 
again, not appreciated in Renaissance England (which opted for homogenized, 
Italianate forms). We will see how Chaucer exploits the unmateched plasticity 
of his Engl;ish to explore an extraordinary range of forms: classical romance, 
fabliau, saint's life, Ovidian metamorphosis, anti-feminist fable, feminist 
fairytale, Saracen romance, anti-semitic defamation, manual for female 
advocates and treatise on the Seven Deadly Sins. Students will be free to 
explore later outworkings of such forms in their own literary periods. Each 
class member will give one report to the class; examination will be by a single 
long essay.