Chaucer is universally recognized as the ‘father of English literature,’ the first great writer in English who we still read, and an indisputable influence on later writers such as Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, and many others. As such, he is one of three writers (along with Shakespeare and Milton) who have their own standing ‘single author’ course in our curriculum. But parents are also children, and Chaucer is also important as the first writer in English to respond to the explosion of creative energy in Italy that led to the Renaissance. He was fluent in Italian, travelled to Italy, and may even have met the great Italian writers of his time, Petrarch and Boccaccio.
This course will focus on Chaucer’s masterwork, The Canterbury Tales, one of the great collections of stories in any language, and on Boccaccio’s masterwork, The Decameron, another masterful story collection set (appropriately for this moment, alas) during the Black Death pandemic of 1348. These stories are alternatively bawdy, funny, fantastic, serious, and religious–the full panorama of the human comedy is found in these two works.
We will read Boccaccio in English translation but we will read The Canterbury Tales in its original Middle English. Although this takes a little getting used to, you will quickly become quite comfortable in Middle English and in the process will learn a good deal about the history of English as well as a vivid picture of England and Italy in the surprisingly contemporary seeming world of the 14th century.
There will be no exams in the course. The written work will consist of two short papers due across the semester and a longer one due exam week. The class will be run as a seminar discussion: my role is to ask questions, not answer them; your role is also to ask questions and to see what answers we can develop to the questions that these fascinating texts pose.
This course is an E focus course so will satisfy an important general education requirement. Given the continuation of the pandemic, this course will be a synchronous course taught on-line.