Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales not only revolutionized English poetry—they're also extremely funny and moving. Oxford Professor Marion Turner, who has written the first full-length biography of Chaucer in a generation, tells us about the extraordinary man who wrote them and why we should all read the Canterbury Tales.
Today we’re going to discuss the Canterbury Tales. You’ve just written a biography of Geoffrey Chaucer. What would someone learn from your biography about Chaucer that they might not have known before?
People who know a bit about Chaucer tend to think of him as the father of English literature—there’s a famous picture of him as an old patriarch, pointing with a rosary—or they think of him as a genial, middle-aged man telling slightly risqué stories in a pub. That’s the popular image of Chaucer. But really, that image came about after his death. In his lifetime, no one thought of him in that way. He wasn’t staid; he wasn’t patriarchal. He had an extraordinary life. That life involved, for instance, being a prisoner of war in France; it involved traveling multiple times to Italy; it involved going to Spain. He was multilingual, and he lived in all kinds of different environments. Chaucer was a great internationalist and a cosmopolitan poet.
“He wasn’t staid; he wasn’t patriarchal. He had an extraordinary life”
In my biography, I was interested in trying to think about the complete Chaucer, in thinking right across his life: thinking about what happened to him when he was a teenager working in his first jobs in the great household, what happened to him when he was a parent. But one thing that kept on recurring as a foundational aspect of everything that he did, which I think people don’t know much about, is a sense of how international Chaucer was. When he was born, he was living in Vintry Ward in London on the river. You could look into the city or out to the Thames, which was the place where all the ships came in, bringing products from all over the world. At this time, you could buy spices in London that had come from an island in Indonesia, for instance.
His father was a wine merchant. So, right from his early childhood, he was in a very international world. And the poetry that he wrote was international, too. His sources were mainly not English, but in many other languages. He was outward-facing, and he was involved in all kinds of broad international European, and also global, cultural currents.
Let’s set the scene. The Canterbury Tales is Chaucer’s magnum opus, and comes at the end of his career. How does Chaucer get here? What changes take place in society throughout his writing career?
The really seismic, major event is that the plague hits in the 1340s. When Chaucer is about six or seven years old, the plague comes to England and completely changes European and Asian society. The toll that it took on society was unprecedented. There’s been nothing like it before or since. Perhaps a third of the population died, from all different levels.
There’s a lot of interesting speculation about what kinds of psychological effects that might have had but, practically, it had enormous social effects. Essentially, for the people who survived, things got better—not psychologically, but financially. Especially for the poor, because the same amount of land still needed to be worked on, but there were many fewer people to do the jobs. So, they could demand higher wages. And if their local lord wouldn’t give them those wages, then the next-door lord would. There was more literal movement and more social mobility. Many laws were passed to try to freeze wages at pre-plague levels, or to try to stop people who were born at a certain level in society from wearing smarter clothes (sumptuary laws).
What general shifts take place in society throughout Chaucer’s writing career?
Major social changes happen across the fourteenth century. There were changes in architecture, as people got more money; then, in the cities, people started to add to their houses and build more private rooms. People began to live in slightly different ways.
Chaucer was born in the early 1340s—about 1342 or 1343—and he died in 1400. He was born in the reign of Edward III. He then lived through the whole of the reign of Richard II, and died shortly after Henry IV had usurped the throne and become king. During this time, the Hundred Years War— the war with France which was on and off across the latter part of the 14th century and into the 15th century, which Chaucer fought in—was going on.
It’s a time where there’s a lot of development of mercantile life. Chaucer’s father was a merchant; the merchants of London were getting more and more power during this time, and Chaucer was very much within that mercantile society. Many of his jobs involved mercantile work. His main job was as a customs officer for the wool trade in the city of London, for example.
There was also a big growth in bureaucracy—a big growth in the production of texts—in the 13th century. Now, in the 14th century, increasingly, there was more writing in English. And Chaucer was one of the poets that started writing major poems in English. There had been people writing in English before, but now there was a flood of poets writing in English: around the same time as Chaucer, there was also Langland, writing Piers Plowman; Gower writing Confessio Amantis; the anonymous Gawain-poet writing Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl, to name two of his poems. We also get our first named female authors writing in English around this time: Julian of Norwich, and then into the fifteenth century, Margery Kempe. So, there’s lots of new writing.
“What’s striking about Chaucer is his extraordinary range”
The kinds of poems Chaucer writes had never been written before in English. In terms of setting the scene for the production of the Canterbury Tales, in literary terms, the earliest poem Chaucer wrote that we know about is called The Book of the Duchess. That poem was very much in a French style, and for a courtly audience. That audience would only have been used to hearing those kinds of poems in French. No one had written that kind of poem before in English. It’s called a dit amoureux, a love narrative.
Chaucer then wrote a series of other poems—and prose, and translations. What’s striking about Chaucer is his extraordinary range. Most authors across time are thought of as mainly writing one kind of text—drama, or poetry, or short stories, for instance. (We might think of someone like Hardy, who wrote novels and poems, but usually we think of someone as associated with one genre.) Chaucer wrote romance, tragedy, saint’s life, fabliaux (which are kind of bawdy stories); he translated scientific tracts; he translated penitential treatises; he wrote short lyric poems; he translated a great love poem, The Romance of the Rose; he even translated philosophy—Boethius. He just did so much.
And he was very experimental in what he did. It was Chaucer who developed iambic pentameter, the ten-syllable, five-stress line that become the building block for English poetry for centuries, Shakespeare’s poetic line. As we think in retrospect about how he became the poet of the Canterbury Tales, we can see him experimenting, trying to find the best mode, the way he wanted to express himself. In literary terms, we see him trying paths he decided not to go down: for instance, the path of the court poet, where he writes verse that seems to be more about the poet-patron relationship. Instead, he decides to write a poem that we might think of as more proto-democratic in many ways.
While some of the earlier texts that he’d written become incorporated into the Canterbury Tales, once he gets going on it, he doesn’t do much else. He really finds his mature voice in the Canterbury Tales.
Can you talk a bit about the Canterbury Tales as a whole?
So, the Canterbury Tales. We have a group of people who meet at an inn, or a pub. They’re all going on a pilgrimage to Canterbury, and they decide they’re going to travel together and tell stories on the way to pass the time. This is going to be a competition, so at the end, the person who’s told the best story will get a free meal paid for by the rest. The scene is set precisely for variety: for lots of people to be able to tell different kinds of stories. The idea of the tale collection—a group of stories—is a brilliant genre, because it allows you to do many different things.
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It starts in a seemingly conservative way, where there’s a pretend drawing of lots, but in fact, the person of the highest social status gets to tell the first tale, the Knight. But then, after that, Harry Bailly (the innkeeper) wants to keep on a hierarchical order of tale-telling. He says, in effect, ‘Okay, the person of highest secular status, the knight, told the first tale; now the monk, the person of highest religious status, will tell the next tale.’ And the drunken miller just says, ‘Absolutely not, I’m going to tell the next tale. I can tell a great tale, I won’t be stopped!’ So, he’s allowed to tell the next tale. And he tells a brilliant tale.
After that, we never return to the principle of hierarchy. The tales take on an organic form where one follows another. Sometimes someone suggests something; sometimes there’s an argument in between tales and someone jumps in. All kinds of different things happen.
I think one thing people underestimate about Chaucer is just how funny he is. As you say, these tales subvert the hierarchical order of things, but they’re also just extraordinarily entertaining.
Absolutely. Some of the tales are deliberately extremely comic; some are very ribald in all kinds of ways. Others are very serious. In different centuries, people have liked different ones the best. In the 15th century—so, in the hundred years after Chaucer’s death—people liked best tales that in the 20th century people thought were quite boring: the tales with a serious moral message. So, the saint’s life, ‘The Second Nun’s Tale’, for instance, and ‘The Tale of Melibee’, an allegory about prudence, which is one of only two prose tales.
In the 20th century, the ones that people liked best were the ones that were outrageously funny and often very rude. For many, if they know anything about specific Canterbury tales, they’ll know about ‘The Miller’s Tale’, which involves someone farting out of a window. It involves adultery, and this very complicated story where one suitor thinks that he is kissing the face of his loved one, but he’s in fact kissing the bottom of her lover. There’re all these farcical things going on.
“For many, if they know anything about specific Canterbury tales, they’ll know about ‘The Miller’s Tale’, which involves someone farting out of a window”
Or they know about ‘The Merchant’s Tale’, which involves two people having adulterous sex in a tree. These kinds of outrageous stories were the ones people liked best in the 20th century. There’s a Chaucer for everybody because he did so many different things. And each individual tale can be interpreted in so many ways—he really opens up possibilities of multiple interpretations. Even when he seems to give you a clear moral, that moral is never effective or convincing. He’s always saying: ‘Find your own moral; find your own meaning.’ And he’s always telling you to look further and to think for yourself—not to let anyone else tell you what things really mean. One of my own favourites is ‘The Nun’s Priest’s Tale’, a tale that ends by telling the reader to find the moral for themselves—it has spliced together many genres and stories-within-stories, and seeming digressions, and avoids giving a clear moral message.
That reminds me—in your second choice, Chaucer’s poem the House of Fame, the bearers of tidings in the House of Rumour are “shipmen and pilgrimes . . . pardoners, / Currours and eek messangeres.” These seem a lot like the characters of the Canterbury Tales to me. Is that right?
Exactly. I chose the House of Fame because I think it’s a really important precursor to the Canterbury Tales. The House of Fame is in fact my favourite Chaucerian text. It’s a crazy text. It’s unfinished—or seemingly unfinished. It’s a dream vision. It’s also the poem of Chaucer’s that seems to be the most autobiographical—though ‘seems’ is an important word there. The main character is called Geoffrey: he’s a writer, works as an accountant (as Chaucer did in the Customs Office), and then goes home at night to read books and try to write.
The story is that he has writer’s block. He doesn’t know what to write about. He falls asleep and he has this very complicated and interesting dream where he passes through various different locations. He has a guide, an eagle figure, who kind of shouts at him in all kinds of ways. He takes him up to the Milky Way. He looks down on the world. He goes through a Temple of Glas and then, later on, he reaches the House of Fame, and then the House of Rumour.
These different locations are really important. When he’s in the temple early on, the story of Aeneas and Dido is painted on the walls. This is one of the foundational stories of Western culture: the story of the Aeneid by Virgil. It then morphs into another version of that story: the Heroides by Ovid. Chaucer is showing us that even when you’re reading the most authoritative texts, they’re not reliable, because these two great authorities tell us different things about these characters. Can they both be right? Can we trust even the greatest of authorities?
“Can we trust even the greatest of authorities?”
Then we get to the House of Fame. We talk a lot these days about the ‘canon,’ but Chaucer was really interested in that idea, too. In the House of Fame, he shows us that the names of the famous are etched in ice. On one side, the names are in the sun, so they melt. On the other, they happen to be in the shade, so they survive. It’s completely random: some good things survive; some don’t. We don’t know all the stuff that didn’t survive, or that’s hidden and hasn’t come out into the open.
He shows us these great authors standing on pillars, all fighting with each other. One says that Homer is a liar, for instance. That’s a really radical thing for Chaucer to say—that maybe these great authorities didn’t really know what they were talking about. The Chaucer figure goes through this vision of the canon, and someone asks him who he is, and if he’s there for fame. He says, ‘No, I’m not, I’m just looking for new tidings, but I haven’t found anything here; I’m not getting inspired.’ He wants ‘Somme new tydynges for to lere / Somme newe thinges, y not what.’
Then he goes to the House of Rumour. The House of Rumour is a refracted depiction of what seems to be the contemporary city—contemporary London. It’s a crazy place: it’s very dynamic; everything is moving; it’s very loud; things are flying everywhere; it’s open; there are no porters at the doors guarding it, no gatekeepers of the profession. Things go in, Things go out. Truth and lies are fixed together: “fals and soth compouned”, just as they are earlier. It’s not an idealised place, but it’s a dynamic place: it’s a place of life, where there are lots and lots of stories.
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You mentioned the very end of the poem, where all these seemingly ordinary people arrive with these bags full of stories. The stories are from all over the place. Some of them are lies, some of them are true—we just don’t know. But they’re interesting. The poem breaks off on the word ‘authority’, which is a perfect ending. The figures in the poem see someone who “semed for to be / A man of gret auctorite”, but of course that person can’t arrive, because the whole poem has been about the notion that authority doesn’t exist—that we should tear down authority.
Now, Chaucer thought that people such as Virgil and Ovid were fantastic poets. He isn’t saying that we should throw them away or ignore them. He read them; he was inspired by them. Many of the tales, which are allegedly told by ordinary people, are in fact tales from literary sources. But I think he’s really interested in getting material from everywhere. So, read the classics, but also listen to what ordinary people are saying. There’s a part in the House of Fame where the eagle guide says to him, ‘Your problem is you just sit on your own in your room reading books. You need to go to the doorway, and talk to your neighbors as well – “thy verray neyghbores’ that live ‘at thy dores.’ He tells the ‘Geffrey’ narrator figure to go and listen to them. So, the message of the House of Fame is about opening out a sense of where you can find material, listening to everyone’s stories.
And that segues perfectly into the idea of the Canterbury Tales, where the fundamental point is that everyone has a story to tell. We should listen to all kinds of different stories, different versions of events, and decide for ourselves where we think any truths might lie. But you have to understand that every version of the story is one perspective. No one has an objective perspective; we’re always hearing versions and biased perspectives.
Your third choice is Boccaccio’s Decameron. It’s also a tale collection and was one of Chaucer’s inspirations. Can you tell us about it?
Chaucer isn’t the first or the only person in the 14th century to be writing a tale collection, but what he does with the form is radically different. It’s really important to know about Boccaccio when you’re thinking about Chaucer.
Boccaccio was an Italian poet, also from a mercantile background like Chaucer, so they’re both very much products of the later Middle Ages where these kinds of people can become poets. He wrote in Tuscan, wrote many poems which were very influential on Chaucer such as the Teseida (which is the basis of ‘The Knight’s Tale’), the Filostrato (which is the basis of Troilus and Criseyde), and the Decameron (which is a collection of tales).
Boccaccio was also writing in his vernacular, Tuscan, a dialect of Italian. So, in some ways, when Chaucer chose to write in English, he was following an international trend: writing in the vernacular. Doing this, you could write texts that were accessible to a greater range of classes, and more accessible to women as well as men, and so on. Rather than writing in Latin or French—which were the more natural languages of education, and which he certainly could have written in—Chaucer chooses to write in English.
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He went at least twice to Italy. He probably knew Italian because of his mercantile upbringing, but then when he got court appointments, he was in a position to be chosen to go on these Italian missions, which were to negotiate trade and marriages, things like that. So, he’s not going there for any literary reason. But while he was there, that’s almost certainly where he picked up lots of Italian manuscripts. He was reading Dante (which is hugely influential on the House of Fame in particular), Petrarch (he’s the first person to translate a Petrarchan sonnet into English, in Book One of Troilus and Criseyde), and he’s probably the only person in England who’s reading Boccaccio at this time. He reads Boccaccio both in the Italian and in French translation.
Chaucer’s reading of Boccaccio completely transforms English poetry. It transforms choice of subject matter in all kinds of ways, but also, formally, you can see that the kind of poetic forms that he developed are in some ways influenced by reading Boccaccio. The development of the ten-syllable line was influenced by the Italian poetic line called the endecasillabo, an 11-syllable line which also has stresses in it. It’s a different kind of line, but it was influential, and we can see Chaucer developing his ten-syllable line from Boccaccio. So, reading Boccaccio is formally transformative as well as being very influential on the subject matter.
“Chaucer’s reading of Boccaccio completely transforms English poetry”
Boccaccio is Chaucer’s main source. He uses Boccaccio more than anyone else in his works, although he never names him or mentions him. There’s a lot of debate about in how much detail Chaucer uses the Decameron. He certainly knew something about it, but I don’t think he sat and read it in the kind of detail that he sat and read Il Filostrato or the Teseida. The Decameron specifically is a story about ten people who meet in Santa Maria Novella, a real church in Florence, in the time of the plague. They decide to escape the plague by going to a lovely country house with their servants, and when they go there, they then tell stories. There’s ten of them for ten days; they tell ten stories a day, so there are 100 stories. The stories tend to be very, very funny. A lot of them are very rude.
The key thing which I want to get across is that the tellers are all of the same social class and background. When they meet in Santa Maria Novella, we’re told they’re all beautiful, young. Many of them are related to each other. They’re all of gentle status, so essentially they’re all noble, aristocratic people. There are seven women and three men, which is very interesting—it’s female-dominated. The form is also very carefully structured: ten stories a day.
The Canterbury Tales, then, is really interesting in its differences from that model. Because in the Canterbury Tales, we have pilgrims of radically different social class. Instead of having people who are all knightly, we have one knight. We have a merchant, a man of law, a shipman, a sailor, a plowman (though he doesn’t actually get to tell his tale). There are lots and lots of different kinds of clerics, for instance a pardoner, a parson—not all high-status clerics. We have people like the miller; we have ribald people, drunk people. It’s extraordinary that Chaucer puts these very ordinary people into this text and says they’re all going to tell stories.
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In Boccaccio’s text, they all meet in a church, a central symbol of Florence. Chaucer’s group meet in an inn just south of the river in Southwark. They don’t meet in St. Paul’s Cathedral. They don’t meet in the centre of London. They meet on the margins, on the threshold. They also meet in a place of commerce, a place of buying and selling—often a place of sexual escapades, of drinking. I mean, it’s a reputable hostel, but it’s not St. Paul’s Cathedral. Looking at the differences between those two texts helps us to see how radical Chaucer is in his focus on hearing everyone’s voice.
Is there a one tale in the Canterbury Tales that provides a striking juxtaposition with the Decameron? We’ve been talking quite broadly about it.
One example would be ‘The Clerk’s Tale’, which Boccaccio tells and then Petrarch translates, and then Chaucer writes a version of it too We have Boccaccio’s Italian version, Petrarch’s Latin version, and Chaucer’s English version of the Griselda story. He’s actually not getting that directly from the Decameron, so it’s quite an interesting example of the multi-lingual nature of culture at this time.
At this time, people were very happy to recycle stories and put a different spin on them. Today, we think a lot about originality. Of course, there are a lot of problems with the very idea of originality. Can we really think up new stories? But people didn’t think about originality in that way in the Middle Ages. No one thought you had to invent your own plot—it was really what you did with it that counted.
“In the Middle Ages, no one thought you had to invent your own plot”
Let’s take the story of Griselda. The rich ruler of the country, Walter, marries her, and tells her she must obey him in every possible way and never go against him in anything. She promises that she’ll do that, and he proceeds to torture her. Essentially, what he does is that each time she has a child, he tells her he’s going to kill that child. He doesn’t actually kill the child, but she thinks that he has. He removes the children; she thinks they’re both dead over the years, and has to go on pretending everything’s fine. Eventually, he says that he’s going to marry someone else and casts her off. But when his new wife arrives, it’s not his new wife—it’s the children come back. Everything’s supposed to be resolved . . . Griselda collapses, and he tells her he’s been testing her all these years.
Boccaccio, Petrarch and Chaucer each tell the story, and essentially, Boccaccio and Chaucer both show a lot of sympathy for the oppressed woman. Petrarch’s take is that this isn’t really about domestic abuse and the abuse of women: this is about God and the soul. The soul should be obedient to God whatever. The problem with that allegory is that it makes God a sadist, tempting you for fun. It’s really problematic and bleak.
In Boccaccio, the teller Dioneo says that he wishes she (Griselda) had gone off and had an affair with someone else. He’s speaking against Walter. And Chaucer’s clerk gives us Petrarch’s moral but says it’s not really adequate. He refers to the Wife of Bath, a very strong woman. He gives us a lot of different ways of thinking about this tale, and throughout the tale, the clerk keeps saying that he shouldn’t be testing her. He explicitly says that there is ‘no nede’ to put her in ‘angwyssh and in drede’.
Chaucer also makes an innovation in that tale in that he sets it in Lombardy, an area known at the time for its tyranny. Petrarch was sponsored by the Lombard tyrants. So, Chaucer is making a very specific point that this is a tale about tyranny; this is a tale about not only political tyranny but also domestic tyranny. And Chaucer certainly thought that tyranny was a bad thing.
That’s fascinating. Next, you picked a collection called Refugee Tales. Published in 2016, this is the most recent selection on your list. Tell us about this book. How is it in conversation with the Canterbury Tales?
I really wanted to choose a book that demonstrated how alive Chaucer’s texts still are. Chaucer is not only for the 14th century—he is for the 21st century as well. Right across time, so many authors have been influenced by Chaucer.
“Chaucer is not only for the 14th century—he is for the 21st century as well”
When you’re looking at the sweep of texts written in English, it’s hard really to grasp how deep the debt is to Chaucer. There are various examples, of course: in T S Eliot’s line “April is the cruelest month”, he’s directly inverting the first line of the Canterbury Tales. You need to know the Chaucerian source to understand what Eliot is doing there. And in recent years, there’s so much wonderful work that’s being done that’s directly inspired by the Canterbury Tales. I’m thinking for instance of Patience Agbabi, a Nigerian British author who has written Telling Tales, which is a modern version of the Canterbury Tales.
Refugee Tales is particularly interesting because it combines literature and activism. It shows a really idiosyncratic take on the Canterbury Tales. This group of people have recreated the Canterbury pilgrimage, and walked through the land as a group of refugees and writers. (They’ve done it annually since then.) Recent refugees told their stories, and for each refugee, a writer then wrote up a version of that story. This became Refugee Tales.
“You need to know the Chaucerian source to understand what Eliot is doing”
Just as the Canterbury Tales is ‘The Knight’s Tale’, ‘The Miller’s Tale’ and so on, these are ‘The Migrant’s Tale’, ‘The Detainee’s Tale’, ‘The Interpreter’s Tale’. They vary in how closely they respond to the Canterbury Tales: some quote directly from, say, the ‘General Prologue’, and in particular ‘The Man of Law’s Tale’, which is a story about a migrant who goes to Islamic Syria and then to pagan Northumberland and then eventually back to Rome. That of course is a tale that’s especially relevant when so many refugees have come to the UK from Syria in the last few years. So, some of the tales are using the Canterbury Tales very directly; some are more conceptually related to the idea of the Canterbury Tales.
Overall, they’re interested in thinking about translation across time, across cultures, across languages. What we gain, what we lose. The idea of translatio: what do we carry across from one country to another? What do we carry across from one language to another? What do we carry across from one historical period to another? Or from one version of English to another, as words somewhat change their meaning? And of course, our contexts change in all kinds of ways.
As I really try to get across in Chaucer: A European Life, Chaucer lived in a very outward-facing way. He crossed all kinds of borders, all the time. He took influences from many, many cultures, and he was multilingual. I’ve talked a lot about Italian, but he also for instance read Latin texts that had been translated from Arabic. He was interested in people from many different places, and in learning from other languages. He was not closed off; he was not interested in the idea of a fortress country, or in promoting a nationalist literature. He was interested in internationalism. He himself travelled to Navarre, now part of Spain, where Jewish and Muslim populations coexisted with Christians. His wife’s family were not English—they were from a country called Hainault, which doesn’t exist today (it is split between France and Belgium).
I think in many ways, the Refugee Tales project is a fascinating response to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Of course, the tales do different things, quite appropriately. But the overall idea of it—responding to a text that is itself international, outward-facing, and surprising—is wonderfully apt. The Refugee Tales is a surprising text in the tales that it tells and the insights it gives us, and that also reminds us that the Canterbury Tales isn’t what we would expect.
And also that Chaucer often isn’t what we expect, either. From everything you’ve said it sounds like he’s much more radical than we give him credit for.
Absolutely. While Chaucer is very careful in what he says about politics, there’s no doubt how radical he was in how he thought about voice, and poetry, and speaking, and whom we should listen to. He didn’t at all think that we should have authoritative voices, or should ever believe what we’re told without thinking about it for ourselves.
As an educator, in any subject what you’re trying to get across to people is critical thinking: how to think for yourself. Education is not primarily about the transfer of information—it’s about trying to help people to learn to think for themselves. That’s something that Chaucer is himself always focused on. He’s always saying, ‘Don’t just take this meaning. Look at it, pick it up, play with it. Do you really think this is the meaning? Argue about it! Disagree!’
He’s an absolute dream to teach, because he’s saying everything you also want to say about the very nature of learning—and many people think these things were not being said until quite recently. The ‘death of the author’ and many other theoretical ideas were actually things Chaucer was really invested in.
Your last choice is Social Chaucer by Paul Strohm. Before we met you said that its insights about temporality and genre were field-changing. What were those insights?
I wanted one of my five choices to be a book of literary criticism. It was quite hard to choose which one, because there are so many great ones. This is one I first read when I was an undergraduate. Back then, when it was a very new book, it really radically changed how I thought not only about Chaucer but about what’s possible in modes of historical literary criticism.
Paul Strohm talks about the idea of “a mixed commonwealth of style.” He argues that that Chaucer, instead of talking directly about class conflict, displaces it onto the level of genre. He shows us this, for instance, in the romance-fabliaux conflict between the knight and the miller. Strohm makes the point that the poly-vocality, the multiple voices of the Canterbury Tales is itself a political statement. By having this mixed commonwealth—by simply allowing this heterogeneity—that is itself political. You don’t have to be saying as an author what you think about that; simply having those voices is political. That’s really important.
“Feudal time is church time: in it, time is endless, and your relationships in time are always the same”
He has another chapter called ‘Time and the social implications of narrative form’ in which he juxtaposes the idea of feudal time and merchant’s time. Feudal time is church time: in it, time is endless, and your relationships in time are always the same. You have the same relationship with your lord as your father had with your lord’s father, and that your grandfather had with your lord’s grandfather. These things will never change.
It’s the idea that that we are all put into a place, and that time moves on in this unchanging way—as opposed to merchant’s time, or mercantile time, where we make transactions. We make our own opportunities. Things change all the time; everything can be bought or sold. There are all kinds of problems with living in that way, but we don’t have to live in the same way as our ancestors lived. We can live in a world of happenstance and chance where we take advantage of opportunities, and we can rush through time. We can do different things.
He shows how different genres are appealing to those different kinds of ideas of time, and how narrative is implicated within that. That’s not just relevant for thinking about Chaucer: it’s relevant for thinking about social change across the Long Middle Ages, and much later; those different kinds of models of existence have an ongoing relevance.
For me, I think if people were thinking about reading books of literary criticism, I would say that’s a really excellent one to start with. If I could just mention a few more, Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics by Carolyn Dinshaw was another one that really changed how I thought about Chaucer. It came out at the same kind of time as Social Chaucer—now about 30 years ago, but it is still very influential and field-changing. Dinshaw talks in particular about models of reading as gendered across time: the idea that men are expected to be readers and interpreters and women are used as metaphors for the text. They are things to be interpreted. And Dinshaw shows how even many 20th century critics were still using that kind of language and imagery.
Chaucerian Polity by David Wallace, which very much focuses on the Italian political and literary context as well as on Chaucer’s texts, is also a very important book in thinking about the different kinds of literary and political social models that Chaucer would have experienced when he went to Italy and saw both a tyrannical state and oligarchic city-states. And he engaged with different kinds of Italian literature, which are implicated in those different social and political constructs as well. Wallace focuses on Italian contexts in the round—literary, political, artistic—and his work was also field-changing for Chaucer studies, and deeply influential on me personally.
How did all of these insights come to bear upon your Chaucer biography, if they did? It seems that your biography is also highly concerned with place and space.
In terms of thinking about my own biography of Chaucer, when you write an enormous book like that, so many major critical works help and inform what you do. Those are just some of the critics—Strohm, Dinshaw, Wallace—that have really helped me over the decades to approach Chaucer. But of course I could name hundreds more.
“There hasn’t been a full biography of Chaucer for a generation”
It’s notable that there hasn’t been a full biography of Chaucer for a generation. Whereas there are so many biographies of Shakespeare, for example—many of which are great and take different approaches, of course—there hasn’t been a full biography of Chaucer for a long time. What I’ve done is focused on spaces and places, so that each chapter is a location or institution – ranging from Vintry Ward in London, to Genoa and Florence, to the Great Household, to Thresholds, or Peripheries.
For me the focus on spaces and places has really helped me to focus on Chaucer’s imagination, and to think about what he saw and how he lived. I’ve tried to find a new way of cutting across his life, and to explore different ways of thinking about the relationship between life and texts. It was fascinating to have the scope to explore places ranging from his daughter’s London nunnery, to Olite and Roncesvalles in Navarre, to places that he thought about philosophically, such as the Milky Way.
I hope that I’ve opened up new aspects of his life and thought. But I don’t feel like this should be the last biography of Chaucer—there’s actually lots of interesting opportunities for biography. People are thinking about all kinds of innovative ways of writing biographically. I don’t think there should ever be the definitive life—the authorised life—of anyone, and certainly not Chaucer, who was deeply suspicious of anything authoritative.
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