Seminar in Re-reading Chaucer: Unfinished Business: Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and the Politics of English

ENG730C (01), Re-Reading Chaucer

Dr. Derrick Higginbotham

Fall 2021

Day/Time: Fridays, 3.15pm – 5.45pm

Location: Sakamaki B301


This is an in-person (synchronous) class.



‘Unfinished Business’:

Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and the Politics of the English Language


Course Description


Chaucer never finished composing “The Canterbury Tales,” which he worked on over the last two decades of his life until his death in 1400. Unbeknownst to him, this text would shape the English language and the English literary tradition in deep and complicated ways. In the first part of this class, students will read much of this book, and we will explore the ways that Chaucer adapted and transformed different literary sources and poetic modes, fashioning a powerful meditation on the act of storytelling and its meanings for the pilgrims wending their way from Southwark to Canterbury. As we read the tales, we will also consider the variety of methodological approaches that scholars have used to interpret them, including formalism, feminism, queer theory, postcolonialism, and different modes of historicism. Moreover, students will learn how to read Middle English and appreciate its complex status as a colonial language–that is, as the outcome of English cultural life after the Norman conquest of 1066, when the French, for a period, ruled England, and then as a colonial language once the English established their empire. As I teach students to read Middle English (both silently and aloud), we will critically reflect on the politics of language, especially the politics of so-called ‘standard’ English.


The latter part of the course will then consider the ways that contemporary filmmakers, writers, and activists have adapted Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales.” How does Pier Paolo Pasolini represent and engage with the obscene and the erotic in his 1972 filmic version of “The Canterbury Tales”? What are the socio-linguistic investments of Patience Agbabi when she rewrites “The Canterbury Tales” in her book, “Telling Tales” (we will also watch some of her spoken word performances from this book)? Finally, we will read the first volume of “The Refugee Tales” (as well as selections from the second volume), and examine the ways that the activist/artist group behind this large-scale project employs Chaucer as a representational resource to engage with the presence and politics of refugees in Europe and England specifically, a project that will resonate with the current conflicts at the US-Mexico border and debates on citizenship, nationhood, and identity that those conflicts generate. My goal is to have students appreciate the ways that premodern texts, cultures, and politics continue to animate modern texts, cultures, and politics.


This course fufills the pre-1700 requirement.



Required Texts/Films:


Geoffrey Chaucer. The Canterbury Tales. Jill Mann, ed. New York: Penguin, 2005.

Pier Paolo Passolini. The Canterbury Tales (1972)

Patience Agbabi. Telling Tales. London: Canongate Press, 2014.

David Herd and Anna Pincus, eds. The Refugee Tales. London: Comma Press, 2016.


I will have some selected sources from texts like Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which are Chaucer’s sources or analogues.



Participation  10%

Middle English Quizzes  20% (5 quizzes at 2% and then one oral reading for 10%)

Book Review 15%

Presentation 15%

Response Paper 10%

Final Project: Argumentative Paper or Creative Option 30%


Student Learning Outcomes:


In this course, students will:


Gain a rich understanding of late medieval English culture via a focus on Chaucer’s landmark text, The Canterbury Tales


Grasp the ways that creatives and activists have adapt Chaucer’s works and develop theoretical insights into adaptation as part of the creative process


Improve their knowledge of different methods for interpreting texts and film, such as feminist theory, queer theory, postcolonial approaches, and formalism


Strengthen their skills in historicizing texts and objects


Acquire a working knowledge of Middle English and its relationship to different expressions of English both in the past and the present


Better their capacity in crafting a paper, especially in handling an array of primary and secondary sources to make an argument


Practice crafting an adaptation, if doing the creative option of final assignment

Conduct oral presentations that effectively convey arguments to your audience.

Improve their skills in using genres common to the academy and journalism like response papers and book reviews.