Works of Geoffrey Chaucer from the Online Classical & Medieval Library
Geoffrey Chaucer (cir 1343-1400) was the first great writer of English letters whose works still survive today. He was a court entertainer whose literary fame continued after his death, with the production of luxurious copies like the famous Ellesmere manuscript and Chaucerian imitations by John Lydgate and other also-rans. Shakespeare and others were still studying the great figure several hundred years later, when Middle English had been forgotten and modern English had emerged. Indeed, by the seventeenth century, when the first histories of English literature were being written, Chaucer had became known as "the father of English literature," an icon for royalty, democracy, protestant reform, even (in his satiric and humorous vein) the Enlightenment. The culture fathered by Chaucer was not a general culture of British or English people, however. It was a specialized culture of story-tellers.
The astounding variety of The Canterbury Tales includes almost every known medieval literary genre from sermon and allegory to romance and lay to beast fable and comic fabliau, among others. Moreover, Chaucer engineered these forms so that they inter-relate and echo one another as tales told in a story-telling competition among a diverse party of narrators. For instance, the Miller parodies the Knight's romance of courtly love, but so does the pilgrim Chaucer's own tale of Sir Thopas, in a naive vein (note 7 below).
The Canterbury Tales should be seen in the context of the foundation myths discussed earlier in this course: Sin-liqe-unninni's myth of Uruk, Ezra's myth of the Jerusalem temple, Plato's myth of the Academy, Plutarch's myth of Alexandria, Virgil's myth of Rome, Muhammad's myth of Mecca and the rest. As opposed to these institutional works, Chaucer's narrative frame story of the pilgrimage to the martyr's shrine at Canterbury Cathedral presents an image of English society not as a unified culture dominated by the Canterbury shrine but as a secular culture of entertainers in which there are diverse tales and authors, and none is predominant. What Chaucer's pilgrims share in common is not so much the pilgrimage as a desire to win host Harry Bailey's story-telling competition by presenting “tales of most sentence and best solas.” (That is tales that are most quotable and that create the most pleasure.) The competition is numerous, varied and formidable.
Left: portrait of the Canterbury pilgrim Chaucer, from the Ellesmere manuscript.
Chaucer's commoners are often presented as apes of courtly fashions, characters who imitate the airs of their "betters." Example: at line 179 Nicholas has just grabbed Alison by the crotch and she, for the moment, is having none of it: “Do way youre handes, for your curteisye!” This is a comic high point in the tale’s extended parody of the verbal conventions of courtly love. How do we read it? Is it simply a funny inversion of romance (courtesy=courtly manners), or is it part of the Miller’s broader attack on the values of the aristocratic class who were the cultural consumers of courtly love? Chaucer's personal opinions are well disguised, as he chooses to present himself as a teller of other people's stories and as the most simple-minded of the pilgrims on the road to Canterbury.
The Miller’s tale is a
its typical plot of sexual competition and cuckoldry (and what genteel
critics used to call “the nether kiss”), and its punning on terms like “queinte,”
“hende,” and “privee.” He thus uses a genre of the bourgeois—and
answers the class and worldview of the knight. If however the genre is
seen as an aristocratic property, the audience can react with
condescension toward the churls therein depicted. The narrator’s
ambivalence about even repeating the tale (turn the page if you don't
want to hear this) reflects some of this potential instability of
reception before a broad all-inclusive audience.
tale criticizing the church? the Bible? Christianity? or is it just a
funny story? Chaucer's own opinion seems very well hidden. He uses the
drunken miller to speak with license, when a direct criticism of the
nobles or the church would have earned him a whipping or worse. As
all-around court entertainer, he at times played the fool.
Left: portrait of the Canterbury pilgrim Miller, from the Ellesmere manuscript. The knight tells the opening tale, a lengthy romance of courtly love.
Left: in a medieval illumination Chaucer recites from his works at the court of Richard II. We can imagine him reading in the pretended voice of the miller, and the amusement that this little act would have caused among the aristocrats. Compare this image to that of the Anglo-Saxon scop reciting Beowulf or to Charles Dickens on a reading tour of Victorian cities.
The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale
It might be argued that western feminism, women’s rights movements and the like are carry-overs of the ancient European tradition of female power that just will not go away, no matter how strongly or how long it is attacked. In any case, medieval literature is filled with Guineveres, Morgan le Fays, Lady of the Lakes and other controlling witches, queens and mothers who appear to be descendants of the Mother Earth goddesses of stone age Europe. This literature extends to its strongest premodern expression in the Elizabethan period, with its “courtly love” centered on the queen and her numerous male worshippers.
Medieval European romances typically present a Christian patriarchy overlaid over the top of an underlying pre-Christian matriarchal base, as in the case of Chretien, but Chaucer inverts the expected arrangement. To the Wife he assigns the Christian sources: gospel stories of the wedding at Cana (and the reproof of the Samaritan widow), Paul’s reluctant acceptance of marriage, the Genesis command to multiply, Jesus’ multiplication of loaves, and the old testament polygamists. To the Wife’s abusive husband Jankyn, Chaucer assigns anti-feminist non-Biblical sources against marriage. The marital strife of Alison and Jankyn thereby becomes a literary contest in which the male has the inferior authority. Like Mother Earth, Alison destroys her husband’s texts and moves on.
Like an earth goddess too, the Wife argues from design that we are given sex organs, so they are to be used, but she also has elements of the black widow, embracing marriage as the means by which she exerts her power over men. Like the lady of the lake, she takes men’s treasures and like the land she buries their bodies, only to turn to a new mate she has lined up each time before the funeral. Her husbands naturally are jealous and seek to keep what they regard as their property from her, and she makes all of them pay their “debt.” They have nothing that is not hers.
The Wife’s Tale is set many hundreds of years back in the time of the
elf queen who danced to make the earth fertile. In those happier days
before the friars, if a knight
committed rape, he was given over to the queen’s judgment and forced to
recognize the will of women to control their lives. The knight who would
acknowledge this power would be transformed by love.
Left: The Wife of Bath with whip and spurs from the Ellesmere manuscript. She has aged better than other pilgrims in the manuscript.
Left: Chaucer's Friar from the Ellesmere manuscript. Friars are the only incubi (i.e., fornicating devils) left in England now, says Alison.
Although courtly, Chaucer wrote for the remarkable Richard II, who ran the first meritocracy on record in English kingship. His promotion of commoners to positions traditionally held by aristocrats (such as his promotion of Chaucer, a commoner, to ambassador) would be his undoing, as he was deposed by a baronial faction in 1399, but that is another story.
The Lady of the Lake from Aubrey Beardsley's Victorian illustrations of Thomas Malory's Mort D'Arthur
1. Miller's Tale: How is the Miller's tale a takeoff or spoof on aristocratic romance? Is Chaucer satirizing common people or aristocrats?
How does the story echo the Bible? How does its use of the Genesis story compare or contrast to the use of Biblical story in Beowulf? In Dante? Is the story sacrilegious or offensive to believers? Do you think that Chaucer or his audience have any fear of a flood or major catastrophe?
2. Romance: compare and contrast two or more of the romances and anti-romances we have read: Genji, The Knight of the Cart, Dante's Paolo and Franchesca (Inf 5:70), and the tales of the Miller and the Wife of Bath.
3. The wife : As you might expect, the Wife’s Prologue and Tale have been the object of study by feminist scholars. For two major statements, see Carolyn Dinshaw, Chaucer’s Sexual Politics, (1989), chapter 4, and Elaine Tuttle Hansen, Chaucer and the Fictions of Gender, (1992), chapter 2. Assessments vary. Is Alison to be approached as a positive model of economic independence and self-determination? Or is she a kind of unhappy warning of the unavoidable costs of rebellion against social stereotypes? Responses seem to depend on the critic’s estimate of Chaucer himself, and the degree of independence from the more conservative values of the era that is attributed to him.
4. Images of mother earth: compare and contrast images of mother earth or earth goddesses. What are these images saying about the world as a whole?
5. Other web resources.
Chaucer Metapage at UNC. Jane Zatta's Chaucer
Canterbury Tales in
Middle English and Modern English
Geoffrey Chaucer Website
Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales from Oxford University
Works of Geoffrey Chaucer from the Online Classical & Medieval Library
6. Death of Chaucer: the poet did not long survive his famous patron Richard II, who was deposed in 1399 and never seen again. There is speculation that both may have been murdered. For interesting reading material introducing Chaucer and his turbulent time, see Terry Jones, Who Murdered Chaucer: A Medieval Mystery (New York: Thomas Dunne, 2003).
7. Parody and satire of romance: In later literature, romance became an easy mark for ridicule. The standard formula was simple. Place a romance hero or heroine in a realistic setting to exploit the delusion in acting out the romantic fantasy. Examples include Beaumont and Fletcher's dramatic farce The Knight of the Burning Pestle (a grocer tries to become a knight) and Miguel de Cervantes' comic Don Quixote [lesson 28]. Another tactic is simply to parody romance by stringing together all of its worst cliches into a send-up, as in Geoffrey Chaucer's "Tale of Sir Thopas" from The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer's tale (in modern translation) is as follows:
The Merry Words of the Host to Chaucer
When told was
all this miracle, every man
"O holy Mary,
drew aback full fast;
And now he
swore, by ale and bread,
Medieval comedy works primarily through inversion. The hero is an animal made into man (such as Beowulf the bear); so the comic anti-hero is the man made into animal, as here in "the Romance of Reynard the Fox."