The Canterbury Tales

The Canterbury Tales Literature in the Middle Ages

Chaucer was famous in his own times not for being an author, but for being a civil servant, and it is important to realize that the medieval conception of an “author” was very different from the modern one. An “auctour”, to a Middle English reader, was not someone living now, but (usually) a dead classical writer, whose works had already had massive influence on the literary landscape of the day. Very often medieval poems come down to us anonymous – and not simply because of lost information or incomplete manuscripts. Some medieval authors felt that their name was unimportant, because they were only re-telling an “auctour’s” work.

Chaucer, like Shakespeare, draws heavily on existing texts, on his favorite authors (usually Boccaccio or Boethius) and on well-known stories to make up the fabric of the Canterbury Tales: unlike our modern idea of writing a novel, there was no sense that originality mattered. Text was something interpretable, flexible, changeable – and which was passed on in new ways from generation to generation.

Alan de Lille famously commented that “auctorite” (authority – being an author) had a wax nose: a brilliant metaphor for the way a text could be interpreted one way and then the other – led, in short, in entirely contrasting directions. Moreover, the “glossing” tradition, by which commentary was applied directly to a text, was rife at the time Chaucer was writing, and the idea that a text could be shaped heavily by the gloss put onto it (see, for example, the Wife of Bath’s railing against clerics) was very current.

Text and cloth (via the Latin “textere” – “to weave”) were considered images of each other: representing not only the way that a cloth can be used to obscure reality, present a “version” of it, but also the way that cloth, like text, can be manipulated into entirely different shapes. “Cast up the curtyn”, says the lothly lady at the end of the Wife of Bath’s tale, but – as that tale demonstrates – it is impossible in Chaucer to know precisely when you have got all of the text/cloth out of the way, and you are looking at the real thing.

One very famous drawing of Chaucer (pictured) shows him reading to an assembled crowd, and it is certainly possible that the transmission of his works would partly be through being read aloud, whether at court or otherwise in public. Works of literature, before the printing press had been invented, had to be copied out by hand by a scribe, and Chaucer’s famous poem addressing his scribe, Adam Scriveyn, is an interesting indicator of the way this method could lead to the spread of inaccuracies:

"So ofte a daye I mot thy werke renewe

It to corecte and eke to rubbe and scrape;

And al is thorugh thy neglygence and rape."

which translates as follows

“So many days I have to re-do your work

To correct it, and to rub and scratch mistakes out

And all because of your negligence and rashness”.

The oral tradition of literature represented within the pilgrimage, then, could also be considered a crucial part of the life of the text itself: the tale-telling game, in fact, a representation of the way the work itself would gain purchase on an audience.

It is worth knowing about authority, about glossing, and about the joint oral-written nature of a text in Chaucer’s day: all three themes are brought to bear on the interpretation of the tales in this ClassicNote, and all of them are explored in some details by Chaucer within the Tales themselves.