By Chet Yarbrough
The Modern Scholar: Bard of the Middle Ages: The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer
By: Michael Drout
Lectures by Michael Drout
Michael Drout (Professor of English and Director of the Center for the Study of the Medieval at Wheaton College).
Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400, author, poet, philosopher, bureaucrat, diplomat).
Geoffrey Chaucer is a master of ambiguity. Michael Drout, in the Modern Scholar series, offers an informative and laudatory appreciation of Chaucer as the Bard of the Middle Ages. Drout notes that Chaucer’s view of life is best revealed in The Canterbury Tales.
Drout offers high praise for Chaucer, suggesting The Canterbury Tales seeds centuries of fictional narratives; in part because of Chaucer’s prescient understanding of human nature but also because of life’s ambiguous truths. Drout considers Chaucer equal to William Shakespeare, widely believed the greatest poet and playwright of all time.
Drout gives a brief narrative about what is known of Chaucer’s life. Chaucer mingles with all classes of society. From an upper middle-class upbringing as the son of a wine merchant, Chaucer bridges lower and upper-class English life.
Chaucer went to war for England in France. He was captured but freed with the payment of ransom because of his family’s royal connections. Through marriage and familiarity, Chaucer begins a career in the English court.
Hundred Years War between England and France (1336-1453).
Clockwise, from top left: The Battle of La Rochelle,
The Battle of Agincourt,
The Battle of Patay,
Joan of Arc at the Siege of Orléans
Though Drout touches on other Chaucer works, particularly Troilus and Cressida, Drout’s primary focus is on The Canterbury Tales.
Drout explains that Chaucer’s wide social experience, and ability to charm the upper class appeals to the general public. It affords him income as an appointed representative of the government. He works as a diplomat, and later Justice of the Peace. His positions allow him time to observe and write about English life. The culmination of Chaucer’s observations about life is in The Canterbury Tales.
In reviewing The Canterbury Tales, Drout notes how Chaucer cleverly conceals his opinions by distancing himself from the characters he creates. One can look at the tales and see an underlying criticism of the church, support for women’s rights, seeds of class conflict, and nascent relativism.
Chaucer was ahead of his time.
One clearly sees how Chaucer must have been an extraordinary diplomat. All of these tales suggest seditious acts; each in opposition to the culture of Chaucer’s time. If not presented in the entertaining and ambiguous guise of The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer may have been ridiculed rather than lauded.
Take heart Dave Chappelle.
Poets Corner in Westminster Abby.
Geoffrey Chaucer is buried in the south transept (or south cross) of Westminster Abbey, now known as Poets’ Corner.
Though Drout does not suggest Chaucer endorses cultural’ transgressions, it appears Chaucer is ambiguous about his character’s opinions. Drout suggests Chaucer may have been repentant in The Parson’s Tale (the last of the Canterbury Tales that endorses the religion of Chaucer’s era) because he is nearing the end of his life. In any case, it is clear that Chaucer is ahead of his time; earned his place in West Minster Abbey (the first poet to be buried there), and deserved his reputation as the Father of English Literature.
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