Geoffrey Chaucer: A New Introduction by David Wallace – Review
By Sandra Callard
David Wallace is a Professor of English who has served as President of the New Chaucer Society, and is presently First Vice President of the Medieval Academy of America. He is one of the greatest authorities on Geoffrey Chaucer, and his latest book, Geoffrey Chaucer: A New Introduction, is a book to be welcomed by the serious student of the subject.
This is not a book for the beginner. It is a knowledgeable and learned book containing an incredibly detailed analysis of Chaucer’s writings, but concentrating essentially on his Canterbury Tales. Most of us are familiar with Chaucer from school or college, but this book is aimed at the serious student who already has considerable knowledge of The Canterbury Tales, and also of Boccachio’s Decameron, and the writings of Petrarch, both of whom had considerable influence on Chaucer’s writing.
Wallace’s erudite book is fascinating in its complexities regarding the reasons for, and the meaning of, The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer certainly upends the status quo of the early medieval period, in that an assorted group of pilgrims from all walks of life, are travelling and talking together as equals.
The high-class Knight, full of chivalry and pride, and the rumbustious Wife of Bath with her sexually explicit talk, each tell their tales with the same authority, and this begs the question of who exactly this book was meant to be read by?
Chaucer wrote in Middle English, which has a recognisable link with the modern, but still needs a helping hand for the uninitiated. This, Wallace does considerately and carefully, and suddenly the medieval world opens up as one reads.
Chaucer was a well-travelled courtier and ambassador at the court of Edward III, and the major international languages of the day were French and Latin. Chaucer’s aim was to make the written word in English as acceptable as any other.
Wallace uses abbreviations profusely, such as SGGK meaning Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or LGW meaning The Legend of Good Women, which again are only recognisable by students and experts of Chaucer and early English literature. However, a list of the abbreviations used are there if needed, and for which I was grateful.
“A champion of the English language”
This book takes some concentration, but has its rewards in the myriad gems of information about Chaucer, many written with great humour and affection. He sees women as inferior intellectually but who ‘can talk themselves out of any situation’ and informs us that mothers passed these talents on to their daughters.
In The Summoner’s Tale, he discusses the conundrum of how to divide a fart into twelve equal pieces. We surely need the answer to that one!
The book has some delightful original illustrations, as well as some modern photography, all of which add to the atmosphere and understanding of the subject. There is also a wonderfully clear ‘Timeline of Chaucer’ which shows very clearly the many roles he played. He was a courtier, a diplomat, a soldier, Controller of Customs, an MP, Clerk of Works for the King, and finally, thank goodness, a poet and writer, and a champion of the English language.
This is a book which shows up everything you thought you knew about Chaucer, but didn’t, and has a knack of making you want to find out even more.
‘Geoffrey Chaucer: A New Introduction’ by David Wallace is published by Oxford University Press, £10.99