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Life and Writings of Geoffrey Chaucer

Life and Writings of Geoffrey Chaucer

Professor Seth Lerer Ph.D.
University of California, San Diego
Course No.  304
Course No.  304
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Course Overview

About This Course

12 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

Imagine a writer who is equally at home with romantic adventure and devotional meditation, or who brings the fullest measure of brilliance to ribald comedy and grave tragedy alike. Add a talent for creating unforgettable characters and keenly painting social relationships. Top it all off with$1#$ a gift for expression so pure and scintillating that no less an authority than Edmund Spenser was moved to laud this writer's works as a "well of English pure and undefiled."$2#$

Now you have Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340-1400), one of our grandest and most enduring poets; an architect of our vocabulary and our literary style.

By examining texts from his short love lyrics to the copious profusion of character and incident that is

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Imagine a writer who is equally at home with romantic adventure and devotional meditation, or who brings the fullest measure of brilliance to ribald comedy and grave tragedy alike. Add a talent for creating unforgettable characters and keenly painting social relationships. Top it all off with$1#$ a gift for expression so pure and scintillating that no less an authority than Edmund Spenser was moved to laud this writer's works as a "well of English pure and undefiled."$2#$

Now you have Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340-1400), one of our grandest and most enduring poets; an architect of our vocabulary and our literary style.

By examining texts from his short love lyrics to the copious profusion of character and incident that is The Canterbury Tales, this course prepares you for the challenges of Chaucer's oeuvre, and provides an understanding of what makes him the "father" of English poetry.

With Stanford University's award-winning Professor Seth Lerer, you plumb the richness and depth of Chaucer's poetry and explore his life, the range of his work, and his impact on English language and literature.

You examine Chaucer in virtually all the varieties of literature available to him:

  • classical epic
  • domestic farce
  • ribald comedy
  • saint's life
  • beast fable
  • romance adventure
  • personal lyric
  • devotional prayer
  • philosophical and religious prose.

Discover the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer: The Father of English Poetry

Over the course of these 12 half-hour lectures, Dr. Lerer explains Chaucer's life, and the world and language in which he wrote.

You'll learn how Chaucer uses relationships between men and women, humans and God, social "insiders" and "outsiders," and high and low desires to explore our "ticklish" world, and the way life takes shape from literary forms, be they marriage vows, the verses of Scripture, or stories told by plain folk.

Chaucer illuminates the tensions between the realms of our existence—the public and the private, the political and the literary, the imaginary and the experiential, the spiritual and the corporeal—and shows how these tensions reveal character.

Chaucer's poems are fascinating social documents in their own right, equally concerned with everyday human interaction and once-in-a-lifetime moments. In these lectures, you'll meet some of the most vibrant characters in all of literature:

  • the bawdy Wife of Bath
  • the manipulative Pandarus (whose very name gave rise to the term "pandering")
  • the upright Knight
  • the ambiguous Pardoner
  • the Miller, all agog at the sheer surprising "ticklishness" of God's plenteous creation.

A Master Teacher as Your Guide

A master of dialect and accent, Professor Lerer also teaches the Great Course, The History of the English Language. Dr. Lerer has received many awards for his scholarship, writing, and teaching, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Guggenheim Foundation, the Beatrice White Prize of the English Association of Great Britain (for Chaucer and His Readers), and the Hoagland Prize for undergraduate teaching at Stanford.

Customers agree, writing: "Seth Lerer presents his lectures with much enthusiasm and pizzazz. His content and delivery are excellent. He is the best speaker I've ever heard." "Professor Lerer is articulate, enthralling and enthusiastic."

Professor Lerer's goal in this course is that you'll learn to enjoy more fully a poet whose works mark a watershed in the history of our language.

"Chaucer is a great poet of human expression and social relationships, and the theme of this course is how Chaucer understands the social function of poetry: that is, how poetry brings people together into communities of readers and listeners," says Dr. Lerer.

He leads you deeply into the texts, so that you learn about their sources and syntax, and the rich repertoire of poetic techniques they display. Professor Lerer makes it clear that these texts remain eminently worth reading today.

Yet he also does full justice to their medieval context, whether the question is how Chaucer's sense of history differs from our own, how people of the Middle Ages viewed the social order, or how those same people understood the role of stories and literature in life.

Hear Chaucer's Canterbury Tales Quoted in the Original Language

To hear the name "Chaucer" is to think, naturally, of The Canterbury Tales, and Dr. Lerer devotes six lectures to this most famous of Chaucer's works.

There are about 80 surviving manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales, which is a mark of the importance of Chaucer's poetry, since making a manuscript copy was a laborious process.

In his recitations of Chaucer's Middle English, Dr. Lerer's talent for reading aloud is fully on display to add to your sense of detail and comprehension.

You'll range from an account of the medieval literary tradition of "quitting" (telling one story in response to another) to a close reading of the first 18 lines of the "Prologue," surely among the most famed passages ever written in English.

The course is also a lesson in the English language itself. You'll hear Professor Lerer's examinations of crucial Chaucerian themes such as "sentence" (serious instruction) and its counterpart "solaas" (humorous entertainment), or "earnest" (gravity) and "game" (levity).

You learn how Chaucer sets characters—and whole tales—of widely differing types alongside one another; his larger purpose as an artist being to examine as many sides of human nature as possible, to take the full measure of the crooked but wondrous timber of our common humanity.

Chaucer's Life and Work: A Brief Overview

Chaucer was probably born in about the year 1340; he died in 1400. During his life, he was first and foremost a public servant, holding various positions in the English royal court.

But there are absolutely no records of Chaucer as a poet: that is, we have no external historical evidence for Chaucer's work as a poet.

What we do have are a collection of manuscripts (but not signatures), all of which appeared roughly between 1415-1420, after Chaucer's death, which identify him as the author of a body of literary works.

Thus, more than simply seeing Chaucer's life as marginal to his work, or more than simply understanding Chaucer as a public servant who wrote poetry in his spare time, we need to understand some important things about his work:

  • The relationship between public service and the private imagination is not just a problem for Chaucer's own life, but a theme of his writings.
  • Throughout Chaucer's poetry, the tensions between the public and the private, the political and the literary, the experiential and the imaginary, are the key problems for the characters who tell his tales and the characters who act within them.
  • In charting Chaucer's life, too, we need to see him as a European, as well as an English poet.

Professor Lerer lays bare these themes through well-organized lectures that leave you with a lasting sense of Chaucer, both as a writer of his time and a poet for the ages.

This course is, he says, "an invitation to the modern reader to find ways of enjoying, valuing, and responding to a poetry as vivid now as it was six centuries ago."

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12 Lectures
  • 1
    Introduction to Chaucer's Life and World
    This introductory lecture places Chaucer's work and life in the contexts of medieval English literature and social history. We look forward to the approach of the course, focusing largely on The Canterbury Tales and on the poet's later impact on English literature and literary history. This course of lectures seeks to understand how and why we think of Chaucer in these ways, and why we still continue to read and value his poetry today. x
  • 2
    The Scope of Chaucer's Work
    This lecture surveys the range of Chaucer's literary production. It identifies and describes the five kinds of modes in which Chaucer wrote, and summarizes the content of his major poems other than The Canterbury Tales. x
  • 3
    Chaucer's Language
    This lecture introduces the student to Middle English. It identifies key features of Chaucer's language: historical contexts in the development of the English language, and local contexts in the particulars of Chaucer's regional dialect, level of education, and blend of literary and intellectual discourses. The lecture concludes with a close reading of the first sentence of "The General Prologue of the Canterbury Tales" to illustrate his language at work. x
  • 4
    Chaucerian Themes and Terms
    In this lecture, we explore some vocabulary and narrative stances Chaucer uses by examining closely two short poems. "Truth" was the most popular of his short poems in the centuries after his death, and "Adam Scriveyn" has long been taken to exemplify the problems of the author in an age before print, in a manuscript culture. These poems help us understand the conditions of that manuscript culture: what it meant to be an author in a time of handmade manuscripts, when language and texts were more variable than they are now. x
  • 5
    Troilus and Criseyde—Love and Philosophy
    This is the first of two lectures on Chaucer's long, classically inspired, deeply humanist poem Troilus and Criseyde. This lecture shows how Chaucer explores the problem of love from a philosophical perspective. It illustrates how Chaucer appropriates material from mythology and from near-contemporary Italian poets to create a rich synthesis of the inheritance of European literature. x
  • 6
    Troilus and Criseyde—History and Fiction
    This lecture looks more closely at Troilus and Criseyde to understand Chaucer's controlling interests in the way history works. It attends to Chaucer's narrative reflections in the poem on how the passage of time changes language and social habits. In this lecture, the poem will be framed by discussions from medieval intellectual texts, which inform his discussions and help us place Chaucer's project in his time. x
  • 7
    The Canterbury Tales—The General Prologue
    This lecture introduces the student to The Canterbury Tales. It begins with the "General Prologue" introduction and the portraits of the 29 pilgrims who will make up the tale-telling structure of the pilgrimage. Central to this poem, and to its opening, is a sense of order. We will look at three representative portraits. x
  • 8
    The Canterbury Tales—The First Fragment
    This lecture describes the major features of the first section of The Canterbury Tales: the Tales of the Knight, Miller, Reeve, and Cook. The theme of this so-called First Fragment is language and control: how language comes to degenerate in the course of the sequence of tales, and how all hope of controlling human social and linguistic behavior ultimately fails in the face of individual desire, aggression, anger, and wit. Finally, this lecture explores how Chaucer is funny: where the humor goes right and where it goes wrong. x
  • 9
    The Wife of Bath
    This lecture presents Chaucer's Wife of Bath as a central character in The Canterbury Tales. Her General Prologue portrait, her own long Prologue to her tale, and her tale itself, come together to describe a lusty, willful woman. But these elements also illustrate what Chaucer sees as central problems of relationships among men and women. She has been taken by some modern critics as a proto-feminist; by others as Chaucer in drag. Whatever or whoever she is, she is one of the most memorable characters in all of literature. x
  • 10
    The Pardoner
    In this lecture, we meet the Pardoner in full, who is, along with the Wife of Bath, another of Chaucer's memorable, infamous, challenging, and perhaps disturbing creations. Is he a "gelding" or a "mare" (a eunuch or a homosexual)? Is he a drunkard, too, and is his story of the revelers at the tavern also a story about the link between inebriation and inspiration? And just why does his final address to the Host bring forth such a wild, angry, and obscene response? We will confront the very essence of Chaucer's literary art itself, and its power to move, anger, and productively disturb us. x
  • 11
    “God’s Plenty”—The Variety of The Canterbury Tales
    This lecture surveys the range of The Canterbury Tales to illustrate the richness and variety of Chaucer's literary imagination. It also points the student to some particular problems and perspectives in Chaucer's work to provoke him or her to read more in Chaucer and appreciate the power of his verse and the compelling quality of the worlds he has created. x
  • 12
    Chaucer's Living Influence
    Chaucer's importance in the 15th century was so great that, at introduction of printing into England, he was one of the very first writers printed. Spenser and Shakespeare. This course of lectures closes with both an invitation and an injunction for the student to return to Chaucer as the founder of English vernacular literary culture itself. x

Lecture Titles

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Seth Lerer
Ph.D. Seth Lerer
University of California, San Diego

Dr. Seth Lerer is the Dean of Arts and Humanities at the University of California, San Diego. Before taking this position, he was the Avalon Foundation Professor in Humanities and Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Stanford University. He also taught at Princeton University, Cambridge University, and Washington University in St. Louis. Professor Lerer earned his B.A. from Wesleyan University, a second B.A. from Oxford University, and his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Professor Lerer's research interests include medieval and Renaissance studies, early Tudor literary culture, textual criticism, Old and Middle English literature, and children's literature. He has published 10 books, including Chaucer and His Readers and Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language. Professor Lerer won the 2010 Truman Capote Award for Literary Criticism in Memory of Newton Arvin for his book Children's Literature: A Reader's History from Aesop to Harry Potter. The book also won the 2009 National Book Critics Circle Award. He is also the author of more than 100 scholarly articles and reviews. Professor Lerer received many awards for his scholarship and teaching, including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Guggenheim Foundation, the Beatrice White Prize of the English Association of Great Britain (for Chaucer and His Readers), and the Hoagland Prize for Undergraduate Teaching at Stanford.

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Reviews

Rated 4.8 out of 5 by 27 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Interesting and fun Professor Lerer teaches an interesting and entertaining course. His delivery style sometimes seems more like acting than lecturing...a little over the top, but it held my interest and livened things up. I liked his technique of reading passages in middle English and then translating them. Middle English has a very different sound and rhythm from our contemporary language, hearing spoken middle English was one of the most interesting parts of the course. I re-read the Canterbury Tales just prior to listening to this course. I think if I had not done that, I would have lacked sufficient knowledge to get the most out of the lectures, there's not a lot of Cliffs Notes style summarizing, your familiarity with the literature is assumed. This is true more of the Canterbury Tales portion of the course than the Troilus and Criseyde portion. I recommend reading Chaucer before listening. June 24, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by An Excellent Primer to Chaucer Having read only a few of the individual Canterbury Tales during my high school and college days I was eager to learn more and determine whether it was worthwhile to read more Chaucer. Professor Seth Lerer convinced me it would be well worth my time and effort. Professor Lerer provides an overview of Chaucer’s life and important writings, with a primary emphasis on the Canterbury Tales. As an expert in the Middle English of Chaucer’s time Professor Lerer provided great context for the language and the historical era. I particularly enjoyed the Middle English snippets provided (he almost always “translates” to modern English directly after the quotation). By the necessity of a short twelve-lecture format this course only covers selected aspects of selected tales of the pilgrims heading to Canterbury. But what is learned is useful and applicable to a reading of the entire work. The idea of how one tale “quits” another was a new concept to me and will be a helpful way to look at the many different tales as a single work. In addition, the ribald and bawdy nature of some of the characters and content encountered was an impetus to read more and consider the nature of the everyday lives of these fictional narrators. Professor Lerer also touches on several others of Chaucer’s works during the course, with an emphasis on “Truth” and “Troilus and Criseyde”. I think I am now ready to tackle the whole of the Canterbury Tales. As an added plus, the professor’s introduction of the development of English as a language has also awakened an interest in learning more about linguistics. I look forward to soon tackling Professor Lerer's course on the English language. May 28, 2014
Rated 4 out of 5 by Excellent, with caveat I agree with the other reviewers that this is an excellent course on many levels. If you like English Literature, you won't be disappointed. But there is something you should expect when listening to the course. I found it hard to truly relax and enjoy the course. There are *many* Middle English quotes, followed by modern English translations. The Prof uses a lilting, fast, higher volume voice for these quotes. For ease of listening, I would have preferred the Middle English quote when it was easily understood and modern English when it wasn't. That said, this would be a great buy if you are deeply into poetry, language, or English Literature.... February 14, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by Excellent Survey Prof. Lerer does an excellent job of this brief survey of Chaucer and his times. As might be imagined, since the course is only 12 lectures long, he can only scratch the surface of the topic. While I wish he had more time to cover further details of this topic, I am grateful for this introduction. Prof. Lerer chose his topics well. He provided a nice course guide and bibliography. As indicated below, I would also recommend his course: History of the English Language. I particularly enjoyed that he covered a broad range of topics in this course. His discussions of the literature covered both plot and literary analysis. He covered a bit of Chaucer's historical setting. He read a good bit of middle English. While all of these topics would need a longer course to be covered in detail, it was nice that this introductory course was able to give the student a taste of all of these topics. I would highly recommend this course to those who wish to know more about Chaucer or western literature in general. January 26, 2013
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