Joining the Canterbury Tales: The Interactivity of Its Reception and Transmission

By Higl, Andrew | The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History, Annual 2009 | Go to article overview

Joining the Canterbury Tales: The Interactivity of Its Reception and Transmission


Higl, Andrew, The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History


The frame narrative of the Canterbury Tales is ostensibly about a pilgrimage, and though one may say that pilgrimages are just as much about the journey as they are about the destination, one cannot help but notice that Chaucer's pilgrims fail to return to dinner at the Tabard Inn, the purported goal set up by the frame. What actually serves as the occasion of the tales as stated in the "General Prologue" is not (directly) a pilgrimage but a game--specifically the storytelling game used to pass the time on the road to Canterbury. Because Chaucer himself constructs an interactive storytelling space in the world of the Tales, we ought to consider the additions and changes to Chaucer's open and fragmented work in the years after his death as discernable, valuable, and meaning-changing acts rather than corruptions of or obstructions to the authentic words of Chaucer.

Though the post-Chaucerian acts attached to the Tales are all very different in their own right, I hope to shed some light on how we might imagine the corpus of these acts of creation, reception, and textual transmission as a collection of meaningful interactions with a work open to continuation, addition, and new meanings. The range of apocryphal continuations and additions to the story canon of the Canterbury Tales over the course of the first two hundred years of the work's transmission ought to be accounted for in a systematic way that explores their meaningful social-textual history. (1)

Each continuation and addition has received some attention in its own right. As a whole, though, we ought to ask if there is something about the Tales that prompted such involved reception. While some may discount the "apocryphal" additions as merely scribal estimations of what Chaucer might have said had he had the chance, and others may argue that these additions make up only a minimal percentage of the work as a whole, we must not underestimate the new potential meanings of the continuations and additions even if they are minimal. In many ways, this is an exploration of the reception of the Canterbury Tales. However, it is not just about how readers received and responded to the Tales imaginatively. Also, this is not just about the writing of new works of literature in the tradition of or alluding to the Tales. It is, in contrast, about the way that readers participated interactively in the ongoing creation and production of the work of the Tales through meaningful additions, continuations, and rearrangements. It is about the continuation of the storytelling game through textual transmission. Like the pilgrims themselves in the frame narrative, who, through the telling of tales and responding to previous tellers, add new text, so too did interactive readers add new text, rearrange existing text, and introduce new social and literary meanings to the dynamic and mobile work.

The discernable meaning-changing acts are many and deserve a careful case-by-case examination not possible here. For instance, the two very different "spurious links" preceding the "Wife of Bath's Tale" in the British Library manuscripts Lansdowne MS 851 and Royal 18.C.ii present two very different versions of the Wife. (2) In the Royal manuscript, the Wife begins with a humility topos, suggesting she cannot "reherse as these clerkes kune." (3) In the Lansdowne text, she makes no apologies: "Be Goddes bones, I wil tel next! / I will nouht glose, bot saye the text." (4) Certainly, these are two very different versions of the Wife that stem from two different interactions with the text. In another case, in John Lydgate's Prologue to the Siege of Thebes, Lydgate projects himself into the frame narrative and imaginary world of the Tales, forms a carefully calculated monastic identity, and narrates what Chaucer failed to narrate--the arrival of the pilgrims at Canterbury. Moreover, the scribes and illuminators of several of the manuscripts of the Siege reinforce Lydgate's effort to enter into the imaginary world of the Tales and extend the Canterbury story canon through scribal paratext and images of Lydgate as a pilgrim in an historiated initial found in British Library, Arundel 119 and the miniature of Lydgate among Chaucer's company in British Library, Royal 18. …

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