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The literature and history of Chaucer

To read Chaucer today is, in some measure, to read him historically. For instance, when the poet tells us in the ‘General Prologue’ to the Canterbury Tales that the Knight’s crusading experiences include service with the Teutonic Order in ‘Lettow’ (i.e. Lithuania), comprehension of the literal sense or denotation of the text requires some knowledge of fourteenth-century institutions, ideas and events. More generally, discussions of whether the Knight’s crusading activities are being held up for approval or disapproval in the ‘General Prologue’ (i.e., of the text’s connotations), are likely to cite the various, and sometimes conflicting, ways in which the morality of crusading, and in particular of campaigns mounted by the Teutonic Order against the Lithuanians, were regarded in Chaucer’s own day.

Certainly modern literary critics, influenced by Marxism, feminism, post-structuralism, new historicism, post-colonialism and cultural materialism, have adopted historical and sociological approaches to literary works from the past and have insisted on the need to read medieval literature in its historical context. Whereas the works of canonical authors such as Chaucer were once admired because they were seen to speak to ‘us’ across the centuries about some timeless ‘human condition’, their works are now likely to be seen as interventions in the social, political and ideological conflicts of their day. Medieval literary texts have thus come to be understood as instances of, in Helen Barr’s words, ‘social language practice’, being to some extent determined by contemporary social structures, institutions, conventions and behaviour but also, in turn, participating in them and even influencing them.

This historical approach to literature has been particularly evident in the field of Chaucer studies. As a result of the influence of scholars such as David Aers, Stephen Knight, Paul Strohm, Lee Patterson, Peggy Knapp, and David Wallace, Chaucer’s work has come to be read ‘socio-historically’, as an engagement with the social and political problems and ideological conflicts of the late fourteenth century. For those who proceed in this way, the context needed for understanding the Canterbury Tales is not only other literary texts of this period, such as Langland’s Piers Plowman or Gower’s Confessio Amantis, but also documentary sources of the day, such as Richard II’s 1387 proclamation against slander or the 1382 letters in which aldermen of the city of London were accused of treason at the time of the Peasants’ Revolt.

Image credit: Portrait of Chaucer, 16th century by the British Library. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Nonetheless, the popularity of historicist approaches to Chaucer’s work has by no means led to agreement about the poet’s social or moral outlook. On the contrary, as Helen Cooper said, there is ‘probably less of a critical consensus’ about Chaucer’s meaning and purpose ‘than for any other English writer’. Three main approaches to Chaucer’s social meaning can be identified, even though any one of them may be adopted by scholars writing from a wide range of theoretical perspectives and deploying many different critical vocabularies. Firstly, are those critics who regard Chaucer’s views as being essentially in accord with conventional medieval defences of social inequality. Here Chaucer’s crusading Knight would be seen as an ideal representative of the estate of ‘those who fight’ and, along with the Parson and Ploughman, as providing a yardstick by which to measure the other pilgrims and the extent to which they perform their proper social functions, put the common good before their own immediate pleasure or profit, and live in harmony with their fellows. Secondly, there are those who adopt the opposite view, discerning a more radical Chaucer, one who highlights the inadequacies of traditional social morality and who offers a challenge to ‘official’ conceptions of the prevailing order. Here Chaucer’s description of the Knight would be seen as challenging traditional chivalric ideals or as questioning the validity of the crusades. Thirdly, there are those who consider Chaucer’s work to be in some way open-ended and so as allowing the members of its audience to make up their own minds about the moral questions – for instance, about the Knight’s willingness to kill in the name of religion – which it raises.

Yet, despite this well-established ‘historical turn’ in literary studies, medieval historians have generally been loath to turn their hands to interpretation of works of imaginative literature from the Middle Ages. Perhaps it is now time for historians to respond to the interdisciplinary approaches which literary critics have pioneered? If we need an historical approach to make sense of Chaucer’s meaning, perhaps historians themselves have something to contribute to the debates about the social meaning of the Canterbury Tales which have so engaged literary critics? In the past, medieval historians have often taken a rather naive approach to works of imaginative literature, asking to what extent Chaucer’s pilgrims constitute accurate ‘reflections’ of the social reality of the time or seeking ‘real-life models’ for the pilgrims amongst the people with whom Chaucer was (or may have been) acquainted. If they are to contribute anything of value to current debates about Chaucer’s social meaning, they will need a need a sensitivity to the specifically literary nature of his texts, including his medieval conceptions of satire and irony and the ways in which his work adapted traditional literary stereotypes and generic conventions. Literary critics have offered us the possibility of a dialogue between the disciplines; it is now up to historians to respond to this invitation, to familiarise themselves with the scholarship in the field and to offer their own assessment of Chaucer’s engagement with the ideology of his time.

Headline image credit: The Canterbury Pilgrims Copper engraving printed on paper. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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