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Chaucer, Bruegel, and Bosch

ENGL 225.301
instructor(s):
TR 1:30-3

This advanced course will explore ways in which the writings of Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343-1400), chiefly the "Canterbury Tales," might be read in conjunction with the paintings and drawings of Hieronymous Bosch (c. 1450-1516) and Pieter Bruegel (c. 1525/30-1569). Bosch is remembered chiefly for the fantastic or apocalyptic scenes of his "Garden of Earthly Delights" and "Last Judgment"; Bruegel is celebrated for his representations of peasant life (but also for his subtle response to the experience of living under foreign-based, imperial conquest). Previous attempts to match the texts of Chaucer with visual images have been embarrassed by the paucity of arresting images in fourteenth-century England. While Chaucer's England does offer worthy and neglected forms of art (such as pilgrim signs, or badges), these two great Flemish painters offer more compelling counterparts to Chaucerian narrative. Chaucerian grotesque-- which we can articulate with the aid of Bakhtin-- is brilliantly matched by Bruegel (as in "The Fight between Carnival and Lent"); class-based physiognomies (the hairy wart on the nose of Chaucer's Miller) are splendidly matched by Bruegel's depictions of peasantry. Both Bruegel and Chaucer appropriate proverbs, the inherited wisdom of country people: what are the political effects of such appropriation? How do Chaucer and Bosch differ and converge in their representation of the Seven Deadly Sins? How do the metaphysics of certain Chaucerian tales, such as those of the Friar and Summoner, match up with Bosch's more extravagant scenes? Chaucer does, in fact, take a persistent interest in Flanders; the hero of the tale he tells as pilgrim (Sir Thopas) was born there, the "Pardoner's Tale" takes place there, and the "Shipman's Tale" features Flanders as part of an international commercial nexus. It was in Flanders that European cities first achieved the kind of population density that (in certain psychoanalytic accounts) inaugurates "the ego's era." To what extent, then, are representations of Flanders, and the works of Bruegel and Bosch, prescient of us?