Canterbury Tales Down the Centuries: How Each Era Has Reinvented Chaucer
Marion Turner on the Dramatically Different Ways We Have Read The Canterbury Tales
Geoffrey Chaucer was “plucky and slippy at football, hockey, and other games” according to the nineteenth-century editor and ardent medievalist F. J. Furnivall, who saw Chaucer as a jolly Victorian schoolboy. In the sixteenth century, in contrast, John Foxe hailed Chaucer as an early Protestant, a committed religious reformer. Early in the twentieth century, G.K. Chesterton claimed that Chaucer was the “Father of his Country, rather in the style of George Washington,” while in the 1970s, John Gardner imagined him as sexually successful and coercive.
Across time, Chaucer has frequently been reinvented: he has been seen as a feminist and as a misogynist, as a conservative and as a radical, as a fervent Catholic and a proto-Protestant, as a serious, didactic poet, and as a comic, bawdy writer.
His texts too (especially the Canterbury Tales) have been adapted, translated, and changed, from the moment they were first circulated. Writers and editors have done many different things with his texts, including embellishing them, censoring them, and creating new works of art based on Chaucer’s writings. The exhibition that I have curated at The Bodleian Libraries in Oxford, England, and its accompanying book, both called Chaucer Here and Now, trace Chaucer across time, from anonymous scribes to Zadie Smith, Caxton to cartoons, folios to film.
In fifteenth-century manuscript culture, scribes routinely altered texts, adding commentary and finishing off unfinished works. For instance, Chaucer did not complete his “Cook’s Tale” and it tapers off after the couplet: “And hadde a wyf that heeld for contenance / A shoppe, and swyved for hir sustenance” (“And had a wife that kept a shop for the sake of appearance, and had sex for a living”). The scribe of the early Hengwrt manuscript has conscientiously added a note here saying “Of this cokes tale maked Chaucer na moore” (“Chaucer wrote no more of this Cook’s Tale”).
But other scribes took a different approach. In one manuscript, Christ Church 152, the scribe continues the story and provides it with an ending. In a third manuscript, Bodley 686, after the unfinished “Cook’s Tale,” the scribe launches into a completely new tale that he brands as a second “Cook’s Tale.” This story is known as the Tale of Gamelyn—and is certainly not by Chaucer. There are many other examples of poems by other poets being “packaged” with Chaucer’s name alongside his own works, as people were far more likely to read texts by Chaucer than texts by anyone else.
The author of the continuation in Bodley 686 also censors Chaucer’s “Cook’s Tale,” replacing the word “swyved” (“had sex with”) with “pleyed” (played). Chaucer has often been censored across time. In the eighteenth century, John Dryden and Alexander Pope were both anxious about translating the Wife of Bath’s Prologue. Dryden ultimately refused to do it, lamenting that it was too “licentious” for him to attempt. He translated the tale alone, leaving the Prologue out.
Pope took a different approach: his translation is about half the length of the original, which has been heavily censored. Amongst other cuts, he has removed the section about what genitals are for, the comment that if there were no sex, no virginity could be grown, the Wife of Bath’s declaration that she has the “best quoniam” (“genitals”), and her comment that she has the mark of Mars in a “privee place.” No longer do we hear that she has sex morning and night with her husband, and she now loses her virginity at the more respectable fifteen rather than the disturbingly young age of twelve.
Censorship remained prevalent in the nineteenth century, when children’s versions proliferated. Charles Cowden Clarke, who published his children’s version in 1833, said that his goal in adapting the tales was that children “might become wise and good, by the example of the sweet and kind creatures you will find described in them.” Clarke established a pattern that many other children’s adaptors followed. He omitted all the “fabliau” tales—such as the Merchant’s, Miller’s, Reeve’s, and Shipman’s.
These tales feature adultery, the humiliation of patriarchs, and explicit sexual detail. In the “Merchant’s Tale,” a young wife has sex in a tree with her lover. Women are out of the control of their husbands in a world in which morality is sidelined and good behavior is not rewarded. There was no place for such tales in Clarke’s adaptations.
Instead, he focused on more serious, religious tales, including stories about patient female suffering (the Clerk’s, the Man of Law’s), and stories which seem to have clear morals (the Pardoner’s). Similarly, Mary Haweis, who also wrote versions of Chaucer for children, asserted that Chaucer was “a thoroughly religious poet.”
More recent versions of Chaucer, in contrast, sometimes focus exclusively on “bawdy Chaucer,” and this presents an equally skewed way of reading Chaucer’s diverse works. Pasolini’s film, I Racconti di Canterbury (1972), for example, focuses only on sex and the body. He has no interest in stories that are not about sex, and adds extra scenes of a graphic and often disturbing nature to his reinvention of the Canterbury Tales.
Chaucer’s writing has inspired many new works of art: plays, films, poems, TV adaptations, animations, ballads, and novels. In the seventeenth century, a ballad, The Wanton Wife of Bath—about what happens to the Wife after her death—was wildly popular. It was frequently rewritten and republished: in particular, a Scottish version made the Wife of Bath much more obviously “Protestant,” by focusing on grace and faith rather than repentance and forgiveness.
In the twenty-first century, Chaucer has been reinvented in new ways. One of the most interesting recent developments is that Chaucer has been read by many as a poet whose work is relevant to diaspora, refugees, and all forms of migration and travel. The Canterbury Tales is structured by a journey, and by the idea that everyone should have the right to tell their own story. These two concepts are crucial to the Refugee Tales project, in which refugees and writers walk together and tell the refugees’ stories, using Chaucer’s writings as a jumping-off point.
In Marilyn Nelson’s Cachoeira Tales, she inverts Chaucer’s pilgrimage, reworking his opening lines to write about a “reverse diaspora” to “someplace sanctified by the Negro soul.” The BBC version of the “Man of Law’s Tale” turns the tale into a story about a Nigerian refugee who arrives in England on a small boat. Zadie Smith’s Wife of Willesden sets the Wife of Bath’s Tale in eighteenth-century Jamaica, amongst a community of maroons, descendants of former slaves.A key phrase in the Tales is: “Diverse folk, diversely they said.” In other words, everyone has a different interpretation.
Victorians hailed Chaucer as a poet of empire, whose texts should be sent off across both hemispheres to promote British values. Today, his works are inspirational for refugees and those experiencing forced migration. The sheer variety of his work, and the openness of his texts makes his poems profoundly generative.
A key phrase in the Tales is: “Diverse folk, diversely they said.” In other words, everyone has a different interpretation. The exuberant diversity of Chaucerian reinvention fits beautifully with the aesthetic principles of his work. He would surely have loved the puppets, films, pop-up art, translations into multiple languages, plays, novels, and poems that bear witness to how inspirational readers still find him in 2023.