Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: Four Tips for Approaching a Medieval Masterpiece
Without a doubt, Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales endures as a masterpiece of English literature. At the same time, its archaic language makes it one of the most feared classics among students.
In a presentation at the Barney Charter School Initiative’s summer teacher training sessions, Hillsdale College Professor of English Justin Jackson offered ideas for approaching the teaching and reading of The Canterbury Tales, so that students can, at the very least, develop an appreciation for this important work.
- Read the work in its original Middle English. There’s a musicality in reading Middle English, according to Jackson. While reading the original text may seem daunting, readers can easily get the hang of it within two weeks. Jackson recommended using The Riverside Chaucer, which contains all of the poet’s works as well as pronunciation guides and scholarly notes, and the Penguin edition of The Canterbury Tales, edited by Jill Mann.
- Develop an understanding of 14th-century English language and culture. In Chaucer’s time, language was very playful, and words had double meanings. Jackson used one sentence from the prologue as an example: “So priketh him nature in hir corages.” In one sense, the onset of spring has awakened in the pilgrims’ hearts a longing for spiritual edification. In another sense, the rebirth and renewal of spring has awakened the carnal desires of some pilgrims; they are looking for sensual edification on their journeys. Such masterful uses of language pepper Chaucer’s entire work. Furthermore, to understand some of the cultural references in The Canterbury Tales, such as physiognomy—the practice of interpreting a person’s character from their face—as well as to understand what the various estates (occupations, such as the Miller, the Reeve, etc.) represented in this work did, Jackson recommended several resources: The Oxford Guide to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and Historians on Chaucer.
- Understand the place of source texts and analogs. In 14th-century England, authors didn’t create their own stories, according to Jackson. Rather, to demonstrate their literary prowess, they took existing stories and crafted something new by adding to them, abridging them, or arranging them in unique ways. They did this through the use of source texts—texts the author would have with him—and analog texts—stories the author knew from memory. For example, in “The Clerk’s Tale,” Chaucer takes the story of Griselda from Petrarch, who had taken the story from Boccaccio and rewritten it. Chaucer combines both versions into his own story. “If you don’t know this background, you’re missing out on Chaucer’s artistry and genius,” Jackson said. Just as Chaucer mixes stories from other authors, he mixes genres within The Canterbury Tales—romance, fabliau, beast fable, and Boethian elements—further proof of his literary genius.
- Develop a strategy for reading the Tales—Jackson offered some other ideas for approaching the work:
- Read it cover to cover. Many tales serve as a response to the previous tale. The first tale, “The Knight’s Tale,” is a romance. All seems lovely and well, and then the Miller speaks next, telling a filthy fabliau. In reading each tale consecutively, the reader can see how each character tries to outdo the previous one and get a sense of how everything often becomes completely out of the host’s control.
- Look for tales that share a common theme. For example, “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” “The Clerk’s Tale,” and “The Franklin’s Tale” all wrestle with the marriage debate. Chaucer was keenly interested in the role of women and what it meant for a woman to have sovereignty in marriage or in the culture at large.
- Read the introduction and conclusion of the General Prologue, but skip over the “snippets” about each character. Before reading each individual tale, read the corresponding snippet in the Prologue. Then after reading the tale, go back and read the character description again. Chaucer sets up inside jokes on the characters in the Prologue that aren’t readily apparent until one has fully read the Tales.
Above all, Jackson encouraged teachers to read and re-read The Canterbury Tales. “You keep coming back to a great book,” he said. “There is always something new to discover.”
Written by Monica VanDerWeide, ’95