“Chaucer” to most people means the Canterbury Tales. But should it? Over the years, I think I’ve taught every Chaucerian work in the canon, except for “A Treatise on the Astrolabe” and “Anelida and Arcite,” at least once, and yes, I do include the Melibee in that list. For graduate classes, the syllabus has varied more widely than for the undergrads—even though many grads have not had any undergrad Chaucer, or even any undergrad medieval lit, so there is an argument for giving them a “standard” Chaucer, too.

If there is such a thing as a “typical” undergraduate Chaucer course in my repertory, it tends to include several of the Canterbury Tales plus one of the less famous texts, usually either Troilus and Criseyde or the Book of the Duchess. Lately I’ve just been doing Canterbury Tales and short lyrics.

My recent trawl through other people’s syllabi suggests a fairly even division between CT-only courses and CT-plus-Troilus courses. It has been a few years since I last taught Troilus, and I want to bring it back. In fact, I want to make it the main focus of the class, because I think then I could structure the course in a way similar to the way I structure my Arthurian class, which usually goes much more smoothly than the Chaucer classes: begin with a modern translation of an early source (Latin or OF), and only deal with Middle English after the broad outlines of the plot have been digested. This also allows me to introduce close reading through analyzing different translations of a single Latin sentence, along with a representation of that sentence accompanied with a super-literal translation plus parsing; after that, the whole idea of the close reading goes a little better.

But since people seem to think “Chaucer = Canterbury Tales,” I suppose I had better include some of them. Let’s put it this way: what tales would you be absolutely shocked to learn that an English major didn’t know? Channel your inner old fart, and comment.

Or, if you’re not amused by fart jokes (some Chaucerian you are, in that case), which tales “go” best with TC? (Your litel tragedie, does it go? Bet it does, bet it does!)


6 thoughts on “What we teach when we teach Chaucer

  1. I've changed my Chaucer course description to say that it will alternate between the CTales and short poetry (call that Chaucer-A) and the dream visions and T&C (call that Chaucer B). I've done Chaucer A before, and I've taught a combined AB course, but never the true B course — not yet, anyway. But when I do, I plan to have them read Boccaccio first and Henryson after, and maybe even Shakespeare, too! Yeah, that's perhaps weird, but I've done it before and students are kind of fascinated to see Criseyde treated so differently.Anyway, I don't worry much about content — that is, about *what* Chaucer they *should* read — so my choice of Tales when I do them revolves around what I like and feel like doing with them! (Although I do try to get a variety of tones and genres so they don't think the CTales are all fabliaux all the time.) As long as they're reading *any* Chaucer, I'm happy! 🙂

  2. "If there is such a thing as a "typical" undergraduate Chaucer course in my repertory, it tends to include several of the Canterbury Tales plus one of the less famous texts, usually either Troilus and Criseyde or the Book of the Duchess." This is kind of what I think of.On another note: how GORGEOUS is the Kelmscott Chaucer? If everything in my house could have a William Morris pattern, I would (probably dizzy from the clash of colors but) happy.

  3. I'm an early modernist these days, not a medievalist, but a couple of the jobs I'm interviewing for are calling a lot of medieval mixed with my early modern, so I've been wrestling with this question too. I'm personally very partial to Troilus and Criseyde–it was the text where Chaucer "clicked" for me as an undergrad, and I enjoyed it even more as a grad student. So I'm actually making it the center piece of my medieval literature course. I think it will make a good segue into The Miller's Tale, since the Norton Anthology of English Lit doesn't have the Knight's Tale last I checked…

  4. And Dr Virago, thank you: I'm just going to pick up the line "As long as they're reading *any* Chaucer, I'm happy!" to adopt as my motto and use if anyone does question my choices (which I doubt will happen, actually; my dept. really doesn't interfere with people's courses). I'm going to do what I want because if Momma ain't happy, ain't nobody happy. So the T&C complex, then the GP, and then maybe let students pick a tale or set of linked tales, depending on abilities and interests.

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