Chaucer and Relational Reading


Frontispiece to edition of Troilus and Criseyde (MS 61, fol 1v, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge) picturing Chaucer reading to court of Richard II


Last Friday, we looked a bit at Paul Strohm’s fascinating new presentation of Chaucer. Now let’s dive a little more into his take on the relational nature of literature:

I agree with those who believe that a written or spoken communication is held in common by its writer or speaker and its audience. Sitting at one end of what might be thought a communicative bridge or chain, the audience has a tacit but constant influence on the form of the final work. Always a factor, the audience’s influence on the work is all the more pronounced in the medieval period, owing to the normal circumstances of literary performance.

The medieval writer, and certainly Chaucer before 1386, imagines reading aloud to an audience gathered for the occasion.

To lose “audience”–the attention of a circle of hearers, within the circuit of one’s own voice–was a wrenching, even disastrous experience…Concern with the rights of the tale-teller to speak, and the obligations of the listening audience, leave no doubt that Chaucer was intensively concerned with what might be called the dynamics of presence in the literary situation.

Writing is, after all, a social medium, and communication between writer and audience is a two-way street. In the heightened conditions of live contact, within which Chaucer normally presented his poems, this collaborative aspect of the poetic springs even more vividly to view. Some of his apparent asides to a live audience may be invented–simulated rather than real–but their abundance leaves no doubt about the interactive aspects of his poetry. Chaucer’s audience, as portrayed and implied within his poetry, must compel our admiration. It may be granted a share of credit as virtual co-creator of his works.

Chaucer’s Tale: 1386 and the Road to Canterbury by Paul Strohm

If you’d like to know more about this book, Candace Barrington has a recent review over at The Medieval Review

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