Penn Arts & Sciences Logo

Getting Medieval: Chaucer's Canterbury Tales

ENGL 101.001
TR 9-10:30 am

In this course you will learn to read, and then speak, Middle English, the language spoken in England over 600 years ago. This has all the fun and challenge of learning a foreign language, but goes faster: for this language is already, deep down, your own. In learning Middle English you come to appreciate a huge amount about where your own English comes from. Every time we open our mouths we get medieval, because medieval words pop out.

Our guide into speaking Middle English will be Geoffrey Chaucer, who lived from c. 1343 to 1400. Chaucer is England's greatest poet. But then, his was the greatest opportunity: only once in a nation's history does a writer get to invent a new expressive medium, in Chaucer's case poetic English. Before 1066 the Germanic tongue of Anglo-Saxon, tinged with Celtic influences, had dominated England. After the Norman invasion French became the prestigious language. But during Chaucer's lifetime a new language of everyday life emerged, a complex mix of influences. Chaucer tried out this new "English" in an amazing range of stories, covering everythingfrom knightly epic to lowlife farce; from noble gestures to poking bums [asses] from windows; from saint’s life to barnyard romp; from orientalist fantasy to animal fable. He addressed crucial issues of the day, such as representations of Islam and Judaism, and of sex and commerce, and he pondered scientific problems: how to turn base metal into gold; how to measure and model the acoustic properties of a fart. Can pagans be saved? Can a woman defy her husband or father and live? Can chickens talk? All such questions are addressed by Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, a collection of stories told by thirty people who gather in a hotel before heading out on pilgrimage. Their collective journey is that of life itself, from this world to the next, from tavern to cathedral. 

Studying Chaucer is different from reading the thick brick of a Victorian novel. Reading assignments average little more than 500 lines per class; students with good study habits, not necessarily liberal arts majors, do well in this class. We move slowly, using Jill Mann's excellent (and cheap) Penguin paperback edition that gives excellent help with unfamiliar vocabulary. And we solve many problems in learning to read Chaucer aloud, as he intended: for Chaucer’s poetry is highly performative and persuasive, aiming to shape the thoughts and feelings of a readership that includes you.

First assessments in this class will be simple language tests and translation exercises, accompanying our deepening feel for the language. After that you can work more independently in writing essays, perhaps taking inspiration from the many modern poets, dramatists, and film-makers who have made Chaucerian language and idioms their own. You will leave class as an accomplished performer of medieval English, and, as said,  with a deeper understanding of the language you use every day.

Form of Assessment: Assignment 1, in-class language test (10% of grade); assignment 2, translation and commentary, 20%; assignment 3, short essay, 20%; assignment 4, longer essay with research component, or creative project with production notes, 40% of grade; preparation and participation, 10%. There will be no midterm or final, and all assignments except the first will be submitted as .doc by e-mail, and will be graded via Track Changes. This will allow folks who need to travel for religious holidays to submit early, if necessary.

fulfills requirements
Sector 1: Theory and Poetics of the Standard Major
Sector 2: Difference and Diaspora of the Standard Major
Sector 3: Early Literature to 1660 of the Standard Major
Sector III: Arts & Letters of the College's General Education Curriculum