Chaucer and the Trivium: The Mindsong of the Canterbury Tales

Synopsis

J. Stephen Russell examines the impact that Chaucer's education had on his greatest work, the Canterbury Tales, and demonstrates that understanding the nature of education in the Middle Ages, especially linguistic education, provides important insights into Chaucer's poem.

Specifically, he shows that the medieval trivium (a curriculum of logic, grammar, and rhetoric) conveyed attitudes about expression, communication, and personality subtly but powerfully different from modern attitudes and that a recognition of these differences completely changes the nature of poems such as the general prologue and the tales of the knight, man of law, and clerk.

Russell begins with a concise, lucid account of the medieval trivium, synthesizing a variety of sources in an engaging explanation of such potentially dry subjects as grammar and conceptual hierarchies. He then examines four parts of the Canterbury Tales, providing insight into Chaucer's method of presenting information about the pilgrims in the "General Prologue", the role of language in the "Man of Law's Tale", the definition of man in the "Knight's Tale", and the Artes in the "Clerk's Tale". Finally, he extends his discussion to the "Tale of Melibee" and the tales of the wife of Bath, franklin, and nun's priest and suggests avenues for further research based on the trivium.

For the modern reader, this work re-creates the mental parameters of a medieval education and provides a view of Chaucer's conception of the way the world is organized, the foundation of his intellectual and artistic development.