Chaucer and the Trivium: The Mindsong of the Canterbury Tales

Chaucer and the Trivium: The Mindsong of the Canterbury Tales

Chaucer and the Trivium: The Mindsong of the Canterbury Tales

Chaucer and the Trivium: The Mindsong of the Canterbury Tales


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.


The study of medieval literature is in two interrelated states of crisis, one methodological and the other pedagogical. The first of these crises, a sort of paralysis within the ranks of professional scholars, is the predictable result of the impact of deconstruction and other skeptical poststructuralist ideas on the profession of medieval studies. Rather than blithely misinterpreting these skeptical notions and simply turning them into another approach to the Middle Ages, medievalists seriously considered and even took to heart notions of logocentrism, decentered structure, differance, and the abime and began asking fundamental questions about the validity of their collective enterprise.

Responses to some of these questions seem to be part of the project of the "New Historicism." Like most "schools of thought" or academic "-isms," New Historicism leads a nebulous rhetorical life. Without a strict definition--too logocentric--the tag seems to function chiefly as an evaluation rather than as a useful description: calling an article or book or scholar New Historicist almost never transfers any useful information about it or her or him. Typically, the term is either simply a compliment or a knock, depending on who is calling whom or what. At base, though, New Historicism seems to mean paying scrupulous inductive attention simultaneously to evidence about the past while acknowledging our unbridgeable distance from that past. In practice, what we might call New Historicist intentions result in cautious, self-reflexive and self-critical attempts to understand or reclaim the past from the prison cell of our own cultural milieu. Unlike "old historicism" (if there is such a thing), New Historicism eschews facts for their own sake, rightly concludes that little of the past is to be understood from when this king reigned or that Pope died, and judiciously applies analytical methods from political science and sociology. In general, New Historicist writings are simultaneously better . . .

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