Every single day this week Geoffrey Chaucer came up in discussion, and only once in class! So it seemed like no coincidence when an old textbook I was consulting for something else entirely reported that on this very day in 1397 he first read the Canterbury Tales at Richard II’s court. I’m not sure this is true, but as Chaucer was already on my mind I indulged myself a bit more. I use many of the Tales in my courses to illustrate various aspects of late medieval culture and society, but I read them for pleasure as well–and a few translated lines from The Knight’s Tale even made their way into my wedding ceremony. This is the tale that my students favor–even as I push the Pardoner and the Franklin on them, but of course their “veray parfit gentil knight” is Heath Ledger! I can’t blame them: I like that movie too, as its egalitarian spirit seems vaguely late medieval (and I prefer blatant anachronism to what passes for “accurate” historical dramas). But The Knight’s Tale and its companion stories were not rediscovered only in the 21st century: every generation seems to have their Chaucer, from the 80+ manuscript versions produced shortly after his death, to William Caxton’s printed versions, seventeenth-century theatrical productions, or the beautiful texts and images of William Blake and William Morris, for as Blake noted in 1809, Chaucer’s characters live age after age. Every age is a Canterbury Pilgrimage; we all pass on, each sustaining one of the characters; nor can a child be born who is not one or other of these characters of Chaucer.”
Cropped leaf from the “Ellesmere Chaucer” MS., c. 1400-1405, Huntington Library; page from William Caxton’s 1483 edition, British Library; 1561 edition printed by John Kingston for John Wight; a 1634 theatrical adaptation of the Knight’s Tale by John Fletcher and William Shakespeare; “Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims”, engraved and published by William Blake, 1810; Illustration by Edward Burne-Jones for the “Kelmscott Chaucer”: The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, now newly imprinted. Kelmscott Press, 1896; Illustration by William Clark Appleton from Percy Mackaye’s The Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer. A Modern Rendering in Prose, of the Prologue and Ten Tales, New York, 1904; Poster for the “bawdy” musical, 1968, Victoria & Albert Museum; Penguin Clothbound Classic cover by Coralie Bickford-Smith, 2013.
April 17th, 2015 at 7:06 am
Do your students read them in the original or in one of those modern versions? I much prefer the original. I found that if you just read it aloud, it all starts to make sense even though the spellings are so unfamiliar. We had to read the Merchant’s Tale for A-level (aged 17/18) in the UK and I loved it. That January was a bad, bad boy …
April 17th, 2015 at 8:09 am
I agree, Alastair–I had the Middle English at my wedding, but I generally give my students side by side versions. If I was teaching literature rather than history, I would definitely have them read them in the original language.
April 17th, 2015 at 3:27 pm
“A “veray parfit gentil knight”
A rather different view can be found in Terry Jones’s Chaucer’s Knight: The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary.
April 17th, 2015 at 5:05 pm
For sure and thanks for the reminder, Roger: I haven’t thought about that book for ages and it would be great for one of my classes….