The Importance of Chaucer

The Importance of Chaucer

The Importance of Chaucer

The Importance of Chaucer


In this fresh and innovative approach, John H. Fisher eloquently explains Chaucer's importance to Western culture.

English literature begins with Chaucer. The first writer to demonstrate that English was as effective a medium for literature as Latin or French, Chaucer introduced realism, satire, and humor into English writing. In examining Chaucer's cultural importance, however, Fisher ventures beyond literary excellence, basing his cultural interpretation on inferences about Chaucer's domestic life, about his possible experience in the inns of chancery and inns of court, and about the possibility that Henry V and the Lancastrian government sought deliberately to promote Chaucer's poems as models of what could be accomplished in the vernacular.

Fisher's willingness to boldly infer from the scant evidence available allows him to place Chaucer in the poet's, and our, culture in a way he has not been placed before. By attributing to Chaucer innovations to which other writers have only alluded, and by reaching conclusions which others have been hesitant to approach, Fisher presents an interpretation at once controversial, engaging, and informative.


There are very few people who read and write English who have not heard of Geoffrey Chaucer, and most of them have read--perhaps even in Middle English--the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales and a tale or two like the Miller's bawdy fabliau or the Nun's Priest's beast fable about Chauntecleer and Pertelote. Most college students who go further in the humanities take a course in Chaucer, and learn about him, along with Shakespeare and Milton, as one of the "fathers of English literature." Behind the study of this triumvirate lurks an awareness of their "importance." But importance in what sense? Nearly all discussion is of their art and their oeuvre. Their importance is assumed but seldom defined.

In this book I explore Chaucer's importance as a cultural cynosure. As the first important secular writer in England, as the first influential writer in the English language, as the first English writer to broaden the subject matter of literature beyond the court and the cloister, he was germinal not only to the development of the English language but to the development of our view of the subjects that literature can treat, and to our view of authorship. His influence cannot be understood simply through explication of his poetry. As the "new historicism" is reiterating (after two generations of "new criticism" which denied it), an artist's achievement grows out of domestic, political, and intellectual ambiance . . .

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