Guide to Week 1:
The "General Prologue" (critics name for it to distinguish it from tale prologues) is an example of the genre known as "estates satire." Like "doctor jokes" or "lawyer jokes" today, poems of estates satire made fun of stereotypical behaviors and appearances of well-known types of medieval people. It's a tough genre to read because, like most "in-group" humor, it depends upon insider knowledge about what these social types were like. It also moves quickly from pilgrim to pilgrim, using between a line and fifty lines to capture each one's character. Before you read, you might begin by noticing what "estate" each pilgrim belongs to, which would have had as much social significance in the C14 as "race" and "class" have in the C21.
To help you focus on Chaucer's style by close reading, you need to become something of an expert on one of the Canterbury pilgrims, starting with the pilgrim' s description in the General Prologue. I'll randomly assign you "pilgrim identities" before the first class, and in the first half of the first seminar meeting, you will be responsible for presenting a few minutes of background on your pilgrim as s/he is described in the General Prologue. Use the RC Explanatory Notes and whatever other research sources you think are reliable and appropriate to learn more about these characters as representative Fourteenth-Century English people. I will ask each of you to read your pilgrim's description to us and to present briefly what you have learned about your pilgrim, and as a group we will look carefully at the poetry in which Chaucer has described some of them to see what we can discover. Notice what Chaucer-the-Pilgrim notices about them--follow his eye and ear, and pay attention to what he implies as well as what he says. Since E. Talbot Donaldson's essay taught the New Critics to see this narrator as a fictional construct rather than the historical voice of Chaucer-the-poet, the speaker's ironies and occasional intentional self-mockery have become easier to hear. Let the Explanatory Notes do their job to educate you about the material and social culture of Chaucer's England. What occupations existed, how did they relate to each other, and how were they generally viewed in terms of their social status and typical characteristics? What kinds of clothing and other artifacts might pilgrims wear, and how did their neighbors "read" those sartorial choices, much as we read hairstyles and clothing today for cues about the personalities of people we see. If you have time, consult some other useful resources from the library's print collection.
Consider this exercise the beginning of your apprenticeship in the study of Chaucer as a Medieval English poet. For most Chaucer students, Medieval English culture has more to do with modern movies or fantasy fiction than with historical fact. Do not worry too much about it, but do begin to distrust almost everything you think you know about "the Middle Ages," starting with the notion that Fourteenth-Century English people saw themselves as occupying some kind of "Middle" era between the fall of Classical Rome and the much ballyhooed arrival of the Renaissance in another hundred years. The term originated in monks' term, medium aevum, a "middle age" between the Incarnation of Christ and the Return of Christ (called the eschaton by students of Religion). Although ordinary non-monastic English folk did refer to days of the year in terms of religious Feast Days or Saints' Days, they referred to the years in which they lived either in terms of the year after the incarnation or in terms of the current sovereign's reign (e.g., "the tenth year of the reign of king Richard II"). Some careful souls used both dating conventions.
Also, before our first class, please take some time to think about the difference between "works of literature" as we now know them and poems as Chaucer and his audience would have encountered them. We see pre-bound commodities like The Riverside Chaucer, which we purchase in authoritative editions printed by commercial publishers. Most of Chaucer's audience probably knew his poetry only by hearing it performed orally by him. Imagine what English 330 would be like if your only access to Chaucer were through his live performances. Only a few of Chaucer's contemporaries would have been able to acquire (or afford) the unique, hand-made manuscripts in which the poems circulated before moveable type printing made books and literature into commodities. Chaucer's contemporaries never "went to the bookstore." They would have sought out a scribe to copy a manuscript that they had borrowed from a friend. Chaucer seems to have paid scribes to make additional copies to circulate in a limited form of what scholars call "manuscript publication." He even wrote a poem to his own scribe, chastising him for miscopying his exemplars and ruining his poems. Some scribes also speculatively produced certain kinds of religious manuscript books in hopes of being able to sell them, but these texts, usually "Books of Hours" or "Breviaries," were not the big, rare, specialized books that a scholar like Chaucer would have sought (e.g., Boccaccio's Decameron, Il Filostrato [basis for the Troilus], and Teseida [basis for Knight's Tale]; the Roman de la Rose [basis for the Wife of Bath's character], and Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy [source of significant passages in "KT" and the "Troilus"]. Cruise the links on this page for some assistance.
You might want to think about the puzzle of our author's identity. Chaucer, like many pre-print authors, is a cipher. Only one man on earth ever addressed Chaucer as if he were a writer of great power and fame, rather than as a secret emissary for the king, a customs inspector, a supervisor for a major construction project, or a forester. That was the French composer and poet, Eustache Deschampes, in the "Balade (a Geffroy Chaucier." Read it and see if you can predict what kind of writer "Jeff Shoe" might be.