Professor Marion Turner - Chaucer
Tutorial Fellowship at Oxford
Trustee of the New Chaucer Society
Focus: late medieval secular literature and history
A Handbook of Middle English Studies (2013).
Chaucerian Conflict: Languages of Antagonism in Late Fourteenth-Century London (2007).
Chaucer: A European Life (2019).
Q: What drew you to Chaucer?
A: What really drew me to Chaucer when I first studied Chaucer as a late teenager, I just found it very surprising. I expected certain things from medieval literature and Chaucer was doing quite different things. The more that I studied him the more I was drawn in because there is so much variety in his work. Unlike most authors he wrote in a huge range of genres and voices. So many different kinds of texts. He also lived in a time of enormous change.
Q: What was the impact of the Black Plague?
A: Chaucer was born in the middle of the 14th century. Everything that happened to him was effected by this dramatic seismic change that happened in Europe, North Africa and Asia when Chaucer was six years old. This was the plague. After the black death all kinds of things changed within society. So Chaucer grew up in a changing social world. Now there were fewer laborers but the same amount of land to farm. It’s actually better economically for the survivors. Chaucer was born in London, the son of a vinter, a wine merchant. So he was brought up in a well off, very comfortable home.
Q: Was England a world power?
A: In some ways England is a peripheral power in the world. It’s on the edges of maps at this time. In Europe it has aspirations to be more important. But Latin and French are the important languages. France is a more important power. The Holy Roman Empire is a still a very important power. The Papacy and the different states in Italy were important as well. England is a player but by no means dominating Europe. At this point it is fighting wars with France.
Q: In what language did Chaucer write?
A: Chaucer wrote in English. All the poems that we know of were in English. His choice to write in English is really, really interesting. This is kind of a trend at this time. He wrote English poems in particular forms that before had only existed in French. Chaucer was hugely influenced by Tuscan, Italian poets.
Q: What is so special about Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales?
A: When Chaucer writes his tale collection he gathers together a really motley crew of people. The high class one is the knight; on the low end there is a plowman. In between there is a mixed group of people. The group takes on its own energy; different people tell tales. This is really an important moment in literature.
Q: Why is Chaucer the “Father of English Literature” if he wrote poetry?
A: The way that we think about poetry is quite different to the way someone in the 14th or 15th century thought about poems and poetry. In classical times and medieval times long narratives, long stories, these were told in poetry. In terms of how he gets to be thought of as the “Father of English literature”; this is in part because he is an extremely good writer and wrote a huge amount.
Q: What is important about Chaucer’s travel in Navarre?
A: Chaucer went to Navarre in 1366 on some kind of a mission for the king. What is fascinating, Chaucer at this time encountered a multi-cultural society. He met actual Jews and Muslims and experienced society where people of different religions and cultures were working together to make society work.
Q: Chaucer’s Anti-Semitic writing: Just a narrative or real?
A: There isn’t a definitive answer to that. It is a narrator who gives these anti-Semitic views. A figure called the Prioress; she tells a monstrously anti-Semitic tale. Her story is one of the blood libels. What we see in the Prioress Tale is one person’s point of view.