Geoffrey Chaucer lived between 1343-1400 and thus qualifies as medieval. The Middle Ages, as first defined in the Renaissance, has long been understood as a period of backwardness and superstition. But there was no judicial torture in Chaucer’s England (as there was in Renaissance England, and under US jurisdiction today); no witches were burned; nobody put to death for their religious beliefs. Chaucer’s England showed immense resilience in recovering from the bubonic plague that wiped out one third of Europe’s population (perhaps one half) in 1348-9; the period c. 1370-1400 is one of the three greatest in English literary history, along with c. 1580-1610, 1790-1820. And Chaucer himself is more of a Renaissance man than any subsequent writer. He studied and translated scientific treatises and works of astrology; of theology; of alchemy, plus works of philosophical dialogue and theories of dreams. He was fascinated by the lives and fate of those who lived in pagan antiquity; by what happens after death; by farts (and the Aristotelian theories interpreting them as eloquent forms of speech). His earlier writings explore dream vision formats and the lives and loves of those trapped in the doomed city of Troy. His Canterbury Tales is the most generically diverse creative work in the English language, exploring everything from bedroom farce to animal fable and from romances of chivalry to lives of saints. Chaucer is a brilliant creator of first-person speakers: characters such as the Pardoner and the Wife of Bath who live by their wits and who deliver virtuoso verbal performances. Chaucer explores various views of Judaism and Islam is fascinated by the Orient, the far east, as a place of fantasy and magic.
Chaucer wrote his poetry to be read aloud, so much emphasis in this class will be placed upon verbal performance. And since each performance is an act of interpretation, much attention will be paid to the ways in which we read. This will be done gradually and collectively, so nobody will be put on the spot. But by the end of the semester the whole class should be fluent readers of Chaucer.
This class will be more demanding than most and is best suited for seniors and juniors. Examination will be by just two pieces of work: a short essay, plus a longer research paper.