Life and Writings of Geoffrey Chaucer

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

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 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.

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
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 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

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Your professor

Seth Lerer

About Your Professor

Seth Lerer, Ph.D.
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....
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Life and Writings of Geoffrey Chaucer is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 37.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from The Canterbury Tales and Beyond Most of us had at least an intro to Chaucer and his Canterbury Tales in high school, and if you were like me, you sneaked off to the library to find the tales not included in your class anthology. But that’s about it as far as old Geoffrey goes. Professor Seth Lerer will expand your knowledge with an overview of Chaucer’s language and times, a look at his other major writings, and a summary of his influence on English literature. Of course, there could be a huge TGC set on the Tales alone. In this series, they are dealt with in 5 of the 12 lectures, but the Prof points out facets of the collection that I wasn’t aware of and dwells on major themes and ideas. This is an older, audio-only course like many of my TGC favorites: short, concise, well-focused. I wish TGC would continue producing these mini-courses, which are a welcome break from longer, video-oriented sets. The Prof’s delivery tends to fall into predictable patterns, and the long quotes in Middle English get a little wearisome after a while, but the nuggets of knowledge in each lecture maintained my interest. Recommended for those wishing to learn more about an author we should know better.
Date published: 2017-02-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Highly entertaining for us geeks! Professor Leher's readings of Chaucer's poetry, in true Middle English, are wonderful! Has the flavor of a medieval, scottish pirate, my english major daughter says. Professor Leher's deep insight into Chaucer's poetry enhance the meaning greatly. I am very much enjoying these lectures!
Date published: 2017-02-25
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Excellent Review or Great Beginning audio download version About all I could remember of Chaucer was some some recollection of the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales and vague memories of one or two of the stories contained therein. I took this course in order to try to catchup with my wife who can still recite that famous first sentence, something was not required in my high school English. The lecturer, Dr. Lerer however puts her to shame with his elegant readings, rolling his Rs sonorously. I loved listening to his readings in Middle English and by the end of the course, I was not nearly so dependent on his modern translations. My understanding was further helped by his explanations of Middle English, how to pronounce it, its derivation and difference from Old English. Of course the meat of the course is the writings of Chaucer, especially "Troilus and Criseyde" and "The Canterbury Tales". Professor Lerer also includes a good deal about Chaucer and his life. I had no idea how extensively he was involved with affairs of State and that his writing was only a part of his full life. Professor Lerer also does a good job of putting Chaucer's writing into the context of the day, especially regarding women and religion. Recommended if you don't remember that much of his writings, or if you have never read Chaucer. Probably not a course for an English Lit major.
Date published: 2016-08-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Harry Bailey...we hardly knew ye! This is a great survey course and reintroduction to the works of a man considered the father of (modern) English poetry. Professor Lerer's spirited delivery and recitations from the lyrical middle English poetry are simply delightful...the course is highly recommended to all those folks who had only a glimpse of Chaucer in high school, and hadn't thought much about it ever since. I'm currently listening my way through a modern translation by Neville Coghill...since I found that I really don't have the 'coillons' to read it. Professor Lerer's readings and analyses from "The Canterbury Tales", Chaucer's most famous work, are fascinating both in their simplicity and complexity...these are much more than the ribald tales of a bunch of strangers passing the time in an inn, but rather relationships among groups of people and excluded or non-normative groups. The Pardoner, Prioress and His Squire, The Wife of Bath and The Nun's Priest all have different stories to tell that reveal different aspects of how we all get along (or at least 'should' get along). Again, highly recommended, if for no other reason that it was fun to listen to Dr Lerer read Chaucer the way it was meant to be heard. This course is often on sale for less than $1 a lecture (when you have the oft-offered coupon.
Date published: 2016-06-15
Rated 2 out of 5 by from There are better courses on Chaucer I think the course on Chaucer offered through the Modern Scholar program is better-Peter Drout This is one of those professor who sounds very learned, and obviously he is, but I am not coming away with much from his lectures. Certain professors can sound very erudite but you don't really learn that much. But if you into Chaucer this would give you some information.
Date published: 2016-06-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the Best Courses AUDIO DOWNLOAD This is an excellent course brimming with wonderful and always pertinent details. It is structured in such a way that one is led inexorably to a greater understanding of not only Geoffrey Chaucer, but also to an appreciation of his considerable impact on our language and on later writers. Based on the high praise of Chaucer by John Bowers in his TC course ‘The Western Literary Canon in Context’, and references to Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ by Louis Markos in his TC course ‘From Plato to Post-Modernism’ about Chaucer’s providing a unique window through which to view medieval life, I decided to revisit the Tales. I did not get very far before I decided that I needed a better grounding in the 14th century and in Chaucer, so I naturally turned to the Teaching Company and found this little gem. This twelve lecture course fully met my expectations. This is my first course with Professor Lerer. His lectures are top-notch, delivered in a very easy to follow manner. They are a perfect blend of life, times, and works. It is quite interesting to learn how contemporary and later readers reacted to the Tales, how favorites changed over time, and even how the copying process was carried out before the printing press. Best of all, Professor Lerer laces the lectures with extended quotations from Chaucer’s works (composed of not only Middle English, but also Old English, French and Latin words) along with translations. Important for me was finding how important Chaucer’s other works, even his translations of European writers (especially, Boethius’ 6th century Latin ‘On the Consolations of Philosophy’ and an old erotic French poem, ‘The Romance of the Rose’) are to an understanding of Chaucer and appreciation of his Tales. Indeed, Professor Lerer notes that “…many of Chaucer’s works are, in some sense, translations, as they are based on literary texts drawn from other languages” (Course Guidebook, Page 9). He makes an excellent case for Chaucer as a European writer. Professor Lerer is at his best in bringing Chaucer’s work to life, especially in reclaiming his erotic epic poem ‘Troilus and Criseyde’ for modern readers, and showing how many of the Tales themselves speak to modern concerns, e.g., feminism in the Wife of Bath’s Tale and gender identity in the Pardoner’s Tale. As Professor Lerer notes, ‘Chaucer is a great poet of human expression and social relationships…[and] we need to see him as a writer of many forms and genres…He is a writer of spirit and flesh… He is a writer of intellect and desire. ..He is a writer of elevation and obscenity. Chaucer can be one of the most obscene writers who ever wrote…But most broadly, in his own words, he is a writer of “earnest” and of “game” or play. The question is always: what is serious, what is humorous; what is straight, what is ironic; what is the heart of the argument and what is simple entertainment?” (Pages 9 & 10). There is a lot more that could be said about this course and how well Professor Lerer paves the way to Chaucer. It is a wonderful introduction that will likely inspire you to actually read the ‘Canterbury Tales’. Professor Lerer recommends a “vertical” approach, one that he thinks consistent with Chaucer’s intent, that one picks and chooses the tales to read, as “there is something for everyone” (Page 43). Highly recommended!
Date published: 2015-04-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Worth it just for the Middle English The professors Middle English is awesome. It worth it just hearing him read in middle english
Date published: 2014-12-24
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great introduction to the work of Chaucer This course is an introduction to Geoffrey Chaucer, with focus on two of his most important works: Troilus and Criseyde and Canterbury tales. Professor Lehrer walks through many of the subtle points in Chaucer’s writing, while demonstrating many of the techniques discusses in Chaucer’s work. One is left with an impression of a brilliant, sophisticated, highly educated poet definitely speaking from the upper class. His enormous scope to deal with highly hysterical, common (even highly vulgar) humor and touch tragedy and high sophistication all within one work (in the Canterbury tales for example) is absolutely phenomenal. Professor Lehrer did a great job in pointing out how one should understand his writings in context in a clear and interesting fashion. I deeply enjoyed this course, and I feel that it provided me with a very fine introduction to this great poet of whom I knew next to nothing prior to the course.
Date published: 2014-12-10
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