Chaucer and his Literary Background Core Course: ENGL2001

Course Convenor: Dr Marilyn Corrie

Chaucer is the first authorial celebrity to have been working in, and with, the English language; indeed, the concept of an author writing in English can be said to have emerged with Chaucer. Chaucer’s status – to some extent contrived and political – as the originator of a literary tradition in English, and, initially, of rhetorical and philosophical traditions as well, developed almost immediately after his death. His writings have remained influential through virtually all subsequent periods of English literature, and have fascinated many of the greatest English writers in these periods (and some of the greatest filmmakers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries too). For all of these reasons, Chaucer is the subject of a core course in the UCL English Department.

To some extent, Chaucer instigated the myth that quickly came to surround him, through his awareness of the celebrity that other authors, ancient and much more recent, had already acquired. Chaucer was steeped in the works of classical writers, especially Ovid, as well as of medieval French poets such as Guillaume de Lorris and Jeun de Meun, the joint authors of the seminal thirteenth-century text Le Roman de la rose, and Guillaume de Machaut, a prolific author of the fourteenth century. Chaucer also knew the writings of Dante, Petrarch and (especially) Giovanni Boccaccio, whose works were the springboard for some of Chaucer’s greatest literary compositions. In the first term of the course, lectures consider what many of these writers, and others, gave Chaucer, and what use he made of their works. This is best seen in his early and later dream vision poems, The Book of the Duchess, The House of Fame, The Parliament of Fowls and The Legend of Good Women, and in what is in many ways Chaucer’s masterpiece, the philosophically grounded love story Troilus and Criseyde.

Writing in the Middle Ages took many different forms, and in his best-known work, The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer puts its variety on display. Chaucer’s tales include romances and fabliaux, saints’ lives and tragedies (in the medieval understanding of the term); the tales are told using a range of different poetic media, as well as, in some cases, prose. In composing examples of almost every genre of narrative known to the Middle Ages, in a medley of forms, Chaucer showcases his own virtuosity as a writer. The second term of the course is devoted to The Canterbury Tales, which opens up the richness of medieval literature, together with the new possibilities for writing in English that Chaucer introduced.

Teaching is through weekly lectures plus four two-hour seminars in each of the autumn and spring Terms. By the end of the course, students will have acquired a comprehensive knowledge of Chaucer’s œuvre, an awareness of the dimensions of Chaucer’s reading, and familiarity with the generic and formal variety of medieval writing, as mediated through the English language. Students will also have gained fluency in reading Middle English.

The Final examination is an open-book paper lasting six hours. A plain text of Robinson’s second edition of the complete works of Chaucer is provided for each candidate. In the examination, students are expected to spend much of their time preparing their answers, and are not required to write more than they would for a three-hour paper.