Congenial Souls: Reading Chaucer from Medieval to Postmodern

Congenial Souls: Reading Chaucer from Medieval to Postmodern

Congenial Souls: Reading Chaucer from Medieval to Postmodern

Congenial Souls: Reading Chaucer from Medieval to Postmodern

Excerpt

The cover of the Riverside paperback edition of Chaucer’s works features a famous fifteenth-century image of pilgrims on horseback. The group rides out beyond the city walls; the bright reds and blues of their clothes and the elaborate detail of their horses’ trappings gleam against the background of soft green grass. The top third of the picture is divided into three receding and overlapping planes: a building in warm ochre, then the walls of the cathedral town in the soft gray of distance, and finally, a range of blue hills and smaller villages against a horizon breaking into dawn. Our eye returns to the pilgrims. We can see four of them completely, and only the torsos of two other men whose horses are barely visible: it is clear that this frame shows us only part of a much longer string of riders. They spread across the page, gesturing at one another in attitudes of public or confidential appeal.

The picture is a perfect choice for the cover of Chaucer’s Works. It combines the gorgeous detail of the medieval illuminated manuscript with a flattering confirmation of all that is most recognizable and appealing of what we remember about the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s most famous work. The sober figure in the middle of the painting who seems to be listening attentively to a man of impressive demeanor might well be Chaucer himself.

That, at least, is how the reader is invited to read the illustration, an image that often adorns the covers of books on Chaucer and that comes from a manuscript of John Lydgate’s The Siege of Thebes (BL, MS Royal 18 DII, f. 148). In his prologue to The Siege, Lydgate explains how he chanced to meet up with Chaucer’s pilgrims as they lodged at Canterbury, though Chaucer himself is dead and buried. He agrees to accompany them as they return to London and tells “The Siege of Thebes” as the first tale of the homeward journey, reactivating the narrative contract drawn up by the host in Chaucer’s General Prologue, whereby each pilgrim will tell two tales on both legs of the journey. In this prologue, Lydgate praises Chaucer’s poetic skills but simultaneously inscribes . . .

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