Sex, Love, and Flatulence: Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

Open—Fall

Geoffrey Chaucer has been revered as “the Father of English Poetry” for the last six centuries; and in this course, we will read his major work, the Canterbury Tales, in its entirety. Dryden famously praised Chaucer’s cast of pilgrim tale-tellers as encompassing all possible human personalities, and other critics have celebrated Chaucer’s panoramic view of human life and experience: “Here is God’s plenty.” But despite this praise for Chaucer’s universality, the time in which he lived was very different from our own. This course will begin to acquaint you with the alien world that is the late Middle Ages, and you will gain a strong command of both the Middle English language and the intricacies of literary production in a manuscript culture predating the printing press. Selected supplementary readings will help situate Chaucer in the various historical and literary contexts that (supposedly) birthed English poetry. Reading Chaucer will also help us address some of the most pressing questions in literary studies today. For example, did English poetry really begin with a fart joke? On the one hand, Chaucer’s poems take up the highest of high themes like love and war, fate and predestination, human justice and God's providence. At the same time, Chaucer also demonstrates a penchant for humor involving flatulence and exposed hindquarters; more sinisterly, his Tales include multiple examples of a genre that we might today call the “rape joke.” Thus, Dryden’s claim that all human life is represented in The Canterbury Tales will frame our discussions of various issues related to gender, race, class, and sexual orientation. As we journey towards Canterbury with Chaucer’s pilgrims, we will nevertheless have to ask what realms of human experience might even this timeless cornucopia of “God's plenty” leave out, and what the implications of those omissions might be.