Each generation finds in Chaucer’s works the concerns and themes of its own era. But what of Chaucer’s contemporaries? For whom was he writing? With what expectations would his original audience have approached his works? In what terms did he and his audience understand their society, and how does his poetry embody a view of society?
These are some of the questions Paul Strohm addresses in this innovative look at the historical Chaucer. Fourteenth-century English society was, he reminds us, in a state of accelerating transition: feudalism was yielding to capitalism, and traditional ways of understanding one’s place in society were contending with new social paradigms. Those like Chaucer who lived on the fringe of gentility were particularly sensitive to these changes. Their social position opened the way to attractive possibilities, even as it exposed them to special perils.
Strohm draws on seldom-considered documents to describe Chaucer’s social circle and its experiences, and he relates this circle to implied and fictional audiences in the texts. Moving between major works like the Canterbury Tales and less frequently discussed works like Complaint of Mars, he suggests that Chaucer’s poetry not only reproduces social tensions of the time but also proposes conciliatory alternatives. His analysis yields a fuller understanding of Chaucer’s world and new insight into the social implications of literary forms and styles.
Admirably detailed, lucid, original and always lively… By far the best history of Chaucer’s life and social relations I have ever read, a delightfully intelligent explication of the social meaning of Chaucer’s art, and the consistently sensitive deployment of a rich understanding of ideological conflicts and changes in late fourteenth-century England… Moving and compelling… A wonderful book.
[A] sensitive exploration of historical detail… The question of [Chaucer’s] audience is a complex one, and Strohm charts the known, the unknown, the plausible guess, and the fictional constructs well and suggestively.
One of the most important books on Middle English in many years.
An ambitious book and one that stands at the very center of contemporary Chaucer criticism—and is central to the current demand for a new kind of historicism. It is extremely knowledgeable on the social and historical background and at the same time sensitive in an unusual way to the poetry; and it contains some of the best writing on Chaucer’s life I have read.
- 236 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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