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A NEW 624-PAGE biography of Geoffrey Chaucer aroused my interest. Not quite enough, I admit, to read all 624 pages yet, but sufficient to enjoy reading a review of this biography in the London Review of Books, November 21, 2019. Barbara Newman’s review is titled “Kek kek! kokkow! quek quek!,” the sense of which I share in one of several Chaucer tidbits following here.

Chaucer: A European Life, Marion Turner, Princeton University Press, 2019.

Barbara Newman notes that Marion Turner’s Chaucer bio is “the first since Derek Pearsall’s in 1992 and the first ever by a woman—Chaucer is Bakhtinian and plural, a man of many voices. Much like his Canterbury pilgrims, he is always en route but never arriving.”

I looked up “Bakhtinian.” Mikhail Bakhtin, 1895–1975, was a Russian philosopher and literary critic. His theory of Dialogism, only rediscovered in the 1960s, “involves the distribution of utterly incompatible elements within different perspectives of equal value.”

Heady stuff, this. But Newman describes how Chaucer was able to write about misogynists and feminists; courtly love and low passions; and the House of Commons and The Parliament of Fowls. What’s more, he brought to his tales experiences that are both 14th-century English and European.

A Worldly 14th-Century Man. Newman cites a brief Chaucer resumé: “diplomat, controller of the wool custom, clerk of the king’s works, deputy forester, justice of the peace for Kent, and Member of Parliament.” And, of course, poet.

Geoffrey Chaucer, c. 1343–1400, the greatest English poet of the Middle Ages. A 19th-century painting.

“Chaucer and his England,” Newman writes, “were thoroughly European. Not only did he travel widely and often, but his imagination was profoundly shaped by the places he visited, from the war-torn landscape of France to the multicultural Navarre, from the slave markets of Genoa to the oppressive splendour of Milan.”

Chaucer was the son of an affluent London vintner. Newman observes, “Many educated Englishmen knew Latin and French, but Chaucer also spoke Italian, having grown up in the wine trade.” Chaucer borrowed plots from contemporary Italian poet Giovanni Boccaccio, of Decameron fame, for both his epic poem Troylus and Criseyde and “The Knight’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales.

”Whan that Averyll wt his shoures soote…”The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, the Hengwrt edition.

Misogyny, Feminism, and Outright Romps. “The Clerk’s Tale,” The Canterbury Tales, is “more than a narrative about gender or a religious allegory; it is an object lesson in tyranny,” Newman writes.

By contrast, “The Miller’s Tale” is an X-rated romp involving two young scholars, an older man, his occasionally adventurous young wife, and a hot poker.

Image of Chaucer addressing a courtly audience, a details from the frontispiece of the Corpus Troilus, c. 1415-1420.

House of Commons, The Parliament of Fowls. Newman writes, “The first Speaker of the Commons had been elected in 1376, shortly before Chaucer’s poem was written. This was a radical and lasting innovation, the Commons itself being a unique institution with fiscal powers unparalleled on the Continent.”

Describing Chaucer’s The Parliament of Fowls, Newman observes, “When the birds choose their representatives ‘by pleyn eleccioun,’ ‘by oon assent,’ ‘for comune spede’ (common profit), they are using current, highly charged political diction.”

Continues Newman: “They may be saying only ‘Kek kek! kokkow! quek quek!,’ but these ‘assertive voices are explicitly placed in a political setting’ that lets ‘impatient and vulgar’ lower-class speakers disrupt the charade of aristocratic lovemaking.”

I believe I now understand Chaucer’s Bakhtinian nature. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2019

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