Approaches to Teaching Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales
Edited by Peter W. Travis & Frank Grady
Approaches to Teaching World Literature Series, vol. 131
New York: The Modern Language Association of America, (Second Edition) 2014
Paperback. xi+ 243 pages. ISBN 978-1603291415. $24.00
Reviewed by Martine Yvernault
Université de Limoges
The volume edited by Peter Travis and Frank Grady is expectedly a very useful state of the art with criticism and bibliography spanning over a century of research devoted to Chaucer’s texts. But, beyond this comprehensive scientific state of the art, both editors essentially intend to explore the contemporary methods of teaching Chaucer which are described by teachers in a survey the results of which feed the second part of this volume.
Approaches to Teaching Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is a sequel to a first edition, bearing the same title, edited by Joseph Gibaldi in 1980 (Approaches to Teaching Masterpieces of World Literature, vol. 1). As a second edition and a sequel to the 1980 edition which originally comprised 15 contributions, the volume edited by Travis and Grady shifts the objective and focuses on the contemporary strategies resorted to in order to teach medieval literature, especially Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The aim of the 36 contributions is therefore not theoretical but primarily practical. The approaches are intended to be « useful in the classroom » [preface : ix] at both university and high school level. Spurred by praxis as the sole preoccupation, the 36 contributions offer a challenging reflection on the pedagogical strategies that have been used since 1980 to teach Chaucer, as well as on the ground-breaking material advances and new technologies that inevitably influence the transmission of medieval literature (such as audio-visual and electronic aids, digitization or the use of blogs [a dialogic form which, according to Alex Mueller, echoes Chaucer’s pilgrims’ exchanges on the road to Canterbury and transposes the pilgrimage narrative experience to cyberspace]).
Approaches to Teaching Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales consists of two parts of unequal length. The first part [2-25], entitled « Materials » is based on a thorough conventional state of the art : manuscripts, editions, translations, anthologies, primary and secondary sources, critical works, context. This part, however, goes beyond the conventional critical approach and surveys the technological aids and contemporary praxis used and implemented by teachers and researchers teaching Chaucer.
The second part, « Approaches », contains 5 sections comprising 36 contributions: « Chaucer’s Language », « Individual Tales and Fragments », « Strategies for Teaching », « Theory in the Classroom », and « The Canterbury Tales in the Digital Age ». The 36 cutting-edge contributions reflect the amazing diversity of contemporary pedagogical tools ranging from reference editions (The Riverside Chaucer edited by Larry D. Benson in 1987 or Robert Boening & Andrew Taylor’s 2012 edition, for instance), translations of the Canterbury Tales (by David Wright in 2011, or Burton Raffel’s translation published in 2008, also available on CD-ROM), anthologies, to thecountless web sites such as https://library.northwestu.edu/chaucer/
The first part is, no doubt, relevant as an essential, conventional state of the art. The second part, however, is specifically useful because, while preserving medieval disciplines and research areas such as philology, context, prosody, it endeavours to go through a multiplicity of approaches meant to rouse the curiosity of students often reluctant to read medieval texts which they deem difficult. The teachers contributing in the second part rightly contend that reading Chaucer is a useful polysemous, heuristic and analytical training which provides students with close reading strategies they can reinvest in another literary corpus while encouraging them to learn how to use reference tools such as online dictionaries or the Chaucer concordance.
Other approaches target medieval themes the students are familiar with in contemporary society: work, social classes, marriage, marginal issues or forms of expression such as obscenity. While showing them the permanence of specific issues in the course of time, a study of context establishes the connections between the issues. Thus an exploration of marriage or homosexuality in the Middle Ages (Tison Pugh) both reflects the scope of social and religious power (an approach vindicated by George Lyman Kittredge and upheld by David Wallace in Chaucerian Polity), and is instrumental in persuading students that, after all, contemporary concerns and debates are not all that new.
The second part is also interesting because ample space is devoted to very concrete uses of medieval culture. Some teachers launch into producing and illuminating a manuscript and teach students how to copy a passage from The Canterbury Tales (Bethany Blankenship). Thus placed in the position of contemporary scribes, students are first taught the material manuscript tradition, the layout of the text on the page, and are initiated into the life and work of a medieval scriptorium. Such a physical approach to the medieval text differs from increasing online learning (Lorraine Kochanske Stock) which may, in the case of a medieval corpus, be problematic: can an online course and distance learning, in general, be expected to convey the notions of orality and aurality?
Some contributions are still tempted by a strictly scientific approach (for instance Larry Scanlon’s discussion of anti-semitism entitled « The Prioress’s Tale : Violence, Scholarly Debate and the Classroom Encounter », or Kathryn Lynch’s exploration of the role of food in the narrative construction). Yet the objective of the volume is primarily concerned with sharing pedagogical experiences.
Reading and teaching Chaucer is a daunting challenge. However, through the experience shared by the survey respondents and contributors, this volume proves that the challenge is worth the effort in pedagogical terms and it emphasizes the open quality of Chaucer’s texts (see Robert Epstein  : « It is to the reader that Chaucer says, ‘ Now telleth me, er that ye ferther wende [go]. / I kan namoore [no more] ; my tale is at an ende ’ (FranT 1623-24). This is the essence of his generosity as an author »).
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