Postscript: Choosing Chaucers

  • Candace Barrington
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Chaucer’s cultural capital outside the academy remains high. I make this statement based on the astonishing number of people who begin reciting the first eighteen lines of the General Prologue when I tell them I teach Chaucer. My reciters come from all walks of life—doctors and engineers, sales reps and farmers, students and cashiers; and I encounter them in all sorts of ways—as neighbors, as the parents of my children’s friends, as the woman in front of me in line, or as the man next to me on the plane. Some of my new acquaintances memorized these lines for a high school English class less than five years ago, and others still remember those vernal lines after forty years. Their impromptu (and unprompted, I might add) renditions, with varying degrees of textual accuracy and a wide range of pronunciations, inevitably exhibit a certain glee, though the recitations are seldom backed with a clear understanding of what the lines mean. All sorts of people in all sorts of places remain proud of this accomplishment. Despite a relative uncertainty about Chaucer and his poetry, they believe that reciting those lines entitles them a bit of high-priced cultural real estate.


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  1. 3.
    Marvin Mudrick, “Chaucer and What We Make of Him,” Hudson Review 6 (1953–54): 130.Google Scholar
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    Paul Giles, Transatlantic Insurrections: British Culture and the Formation of American Literature, 1730–1860 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), 4Google Scholar
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    A spelling anticipated by the 1687 edition based on Speght’s 1602 edition (Derek Pearsall, “Thomas Speght [Ca.1550–?],” in Editing Chaucer: The Great Tradition, ed. Paul Ruggiers [Norman, OK: Pilgrim Books, 1984], 91). 7. In this way, then, popular Chaucer is not much different from academic Chaucer. As has been well documented, academics have always re-created Chaucer in their own image. The earliest American scholars made “Chaucer an honorary American” by emphasizing that the poet “got where he did by hard work and not be receiving special favours from king or aristocracy” (Derek Pearsall, The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer [Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1992], 7). More recently, we have been shown the ways current scholarship often presents a “bourgeois Chaucer [who] functions to reproduce dominant American ideology” (Britton J. Harwood, “The Political Use of Chaucer in Twentieth-Century America,” in Medievalism in the Modern World: Essays in Honour of Leslie J. Workman, ed. Richard Utz and Tom Shippey [Turnhout: Brepols, 1998], 390).Google Scholar
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    David Cowart, Literary Symbiosis: The Reconfigured Text in Twentieth-Century Writing (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1993), 16.Google Scholar

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© Candace Barrington 2007

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  • Candace Barrington

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