The Canterbury Tales

Storytelling: Chaucer and the Epistemology of Genre and Story

Geoffrey Chaucer’s <i>The Canterbury Tales</i> contain his trademark challenges to and reimaginings of the popular literary genres of his time. With each tale, Chaucer takes a common genre and follows its general conventions in order to tell a perfectly genre-appropriate tale -- until he makes an alteration that stands out against the otherwise well-constructed style. But is Chaucer doing more than merely toying with his readers’ expectations? Beyond providing a joke or shock value to his tales, Chaucer may be commenting on the genre in which he is only partially partaking. Perhaps he is commenting on the topic of writing in general, or perhaps on life as he and his readers knew it. It is fair to say that Chaucer never wrote a story for frivolous purposes -- rather, behind every challenge made to genre tradition was the intent to draw the reader’s attention to a particular issue or irony.

One framework through which Chaucer’s literary intent can be approached is the issue of epistemology -- that is, the study of knowledge, or how “one knows what one knows.” Chaucer’s method of genre alteration serves to deconstruct traditional genres by drawing attention to their typical features. In doing so, Chaucer questions the...

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