APPROACHES TO TEACHING CHAUCER’S Canterbury Tales Joseph Gibaldi, ed.


Damn, you thought traveling in the back seat of your parent’s smoke-filled, windows-up Chrysler was tough. Well, back in 13-ought something or other, a motley crew of medieval characters set out on a pilgrimage to Canterbury, a cathedral town in southern England.  It’s not that it was far from London, (today, a couple of hours’ drive) it was that they had to go on horseback and on foot.  And of course, there was no M4 motorway.  On the bright side, no road rage.  It’s hard to have road rage when there’s no traffic!

To stave off boredom, they told stories to each other.  And this is where Chaucer is both narrator and storyteller in one.  He tells the stories of these characters telling * their * stories! GENIUS! Not impressed? Not my problem. You see, back in the 1300s, English was the language of serfs and servants.  Nobility and clergy, the top of the social strata spoke French and Latin.  Courtiers like Chaucer straddled both upper and lower classes because they were born common, but worked among the nobility.  So he had his French, his Latin, but he also used English. 

And this is why he’s famous: he used English, the language of the common people to create a poem of incredible depth and breadth of human characters.  AND, he stratified his stories like English society itself was stratified — The knight first, all the way down to the lowly pardoner.  A "Boethian" Cosmos — if you will.

So I think you will agree, teaching CT is also an exercise in soul-searching. According to ATTCCT, there are several possible approaches:

  • Linguistics
  • Languages
  • History
  • Political Science
  • Poetry
  • Biography
  • Psychology
  • Sociology
  • Religion
  • Sex Roles

Pick the one you like and have at it.

ATTCCT has a fantastic table of contents.  (There’s a sentence you don’t see too often in the English language.)  It’s arranged by Materials (Part 1) and Approaches (Part 2).  Part 2 then has chapters on different course configurations such as a Chaucer course for non-majors or — I love this one — "The Crooked Rib: Women in Medieval Literature" by Susan Schihanoff.

Like most texts that handle classic literature, it’s top-heavy with self-conscious, self-imposing, self-righteous prefaces and introductions, yet in a humanistic vein. This one has 2 prefaces and an introduction with an array of pompous, high-falootin’, fancy-schmancy, hoity-toity (gah! I’m starting to sound like Inspector Grim!) expression you would expect to find in a book put together for English professors BY English professors.  For instance:

  • milieu
  • cri de coeur
  • sub aspicies eternitatis (Sheesh! If I had a nickel…)
  • Boethian Unity

If you’re interested in bringing this book into your classroom, here’s what you do:  read CT first. Read it all the way through at least 3 times.  Give yourself a couple/three months for this.  Get a fix on YOUR ideas and approaches.  THEN read the ATTCCT.  Adjust accordingly.  Don’t try to bring it in the same year.  You need to plan for the following school year.  (These are just suggestions.  My advice is based on 12 years of classroom teaching and reading materials from NCTE, IRA, and NWP.)


Canterbury, England
Canterbury, England


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