EPIC Canterbury Tales

Canterbury Tales:  Chaucer:  Model of Epic Collaboration, Social Commentary, and Pre-Renaissance Educational Enhancement.

“The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories written in Middle English by Geoffrey Chaucer at the end of the 14th century. The tales (mostly in verse, although some are in prose) are told as part of a story-telling contest by a group of pilgrims as they travel together on a journey from Southwark to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. The prize for this contest is a free meal at the Tabard Inn at Southwark on their return.” (Wikipedia)

Many scholars, including Peter Michelson, have noted that Renaissance literature often follows closely on the heels of plague.  First the wiping clean (think here of rote memorization and other tired educational techniques) and then renewal, renovation, and innovation.  Out of this physical and spiritual environment, The Canterbury Tales were born. “Chaucer’s father, originally a property-owning wine merchant, became tremendously wealthy when he inherited the property of relatives who had died in the Black Death of 1349.”  (http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/canterbury/context.html)

Rethinking education, including focusing on immersive experiences is reminiscent of Chaucer, who “around 1378, … began to develop his vision of an English poetry that would be linguistically accessible to all” (Spark Notes). This recognition of accessibility is the hallmark of Renaissance thought in major areas of educational/societal concern.

Chaucer might have done well were he dropped in post modern times and World of Warcraft to practice cost accounting, as he was not only poet/writer, but “Controller of the Customs of Hides, Skins and Wools in the port of London.”  (Spark Notes).  Or, perhaps students could travel back in time via Second Life or World of Warcraft to experience the accounting world of a middle ages controller of animal hides and products.

Many educators, such as X, note that epic poems (and modern novels) are a covert means to satirize society and the dysfunctional players in high places.  “Chaucer lived through a time of incredible tension in the English social sphere. The Black Death, which ravaged England during Chaucer’s childhood and remained widespread afterward, wiped out an estimated thirty to fifty percent of the population. Consequently, the labor force gained increased leverage and was able to bargain for better wages, which led to resentment from the nobles and propertied classes. These classes received another blow in 1381, when the peasantry, helped by the artisan class, revolted against them. The merchants were also wielding increasing power over the legal establishment, as the Hundred Years War created profit for England and, consequently, appetite for luxury was growing.” (Spark Notes).   The Canterbury Tales evoke a societal journey, with players both collaborating and competing for resources, even as modern educators must journey along paths either evoking traditional educational arrangements/patterns, or being brave enough to forge new ones.  Educators who adopt a more epic style, in the traditional sense, are met with like-minded educators in growing numbers who embrace virtual worlds and other cutting edge techniques.  Against a backdrop of tradition, and the “way it’s always been” some educators are choosing to forge another path through the Black Death of standardized testing and rote memorization:  they, like the X, are bound for a place where a feast of better student outcomes lies along the path of their explorations.  These educators, like Chaucer’s fellow writers, recognize “masterful and highly original work” that is being created in our midst. As Chaucer is known as “father of the English literary canon” so too modern educators gathering at VWBPE may find themselves one day similarly regarded.

“The narrator gives a descriptive account of twenty-seven of these pilgrims, including a Knight, Squire, Yeoman, Prioress, Monk, Friar, Merchant, Clerk, Man of Law, Franklin, Haberdasher, Carpenter, Weaver, Dyer, Tapestry-Weaver, Cook, Shipman, Physician, Wife, Parson, Plowman, Miller, Manciple, Reeve, Summoner, Pardoner, and Host. (He does not describe the Second Nun or the Nun’s Priest, although both characters appear later in the book.) The Host, whose name, we find out in the Prologue to the Cook’s Tale, is Harry Bailey, suggests that the group ride together and entertain one another with stories. He decides that each pilgrim will tell two stories on the way to Canterbury and two on the way back. Whomever he judges to be the best storyteller will receive a meal at Bailey’s tavern, courtesy of the other pilgrims. The pilgrims draw lots and determine that the Knight will tell the first tale.”

The tales have common themes of two men vying for one woman’s affections, adultery, and prostitution.  Women are also portrayed as shrews.  The woman’s tale is particularly telling.

“The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale

The Wife of Bath gives a lengthy account of her feelings about marriage. Quoting from the Bible, the Wife argues against those who believe it is wrong to marry more than once, and she explains how she dominated and controlled each of her five husbands. She married her fifth husband, Jankyn, for love instead of money. After the Wife has rambled on for a while, the Friar butts in to complain that she is taking too long, and the Summoner retorts that friars are like flies, always meddling. The Friar promises to tell a tale about a summoner, and the Summoner promises to tell a tale about a friar. The Host cries for everyone to quiet down and allow the Wife to commence her tale.

In her tale, a young knight of King Arthur’s court rapes a maiden; to atone for his crime, Arthur’s queen sends him on a quest to discover what women want most. An ugly old woman promises the knight that she will tell him the secret if he promises to do whatever she wants for saving his life. He agrees, and she tells him women want control of their husbands and their own lives. They go together to Arthur’s queen, and the old woman’s answer turns out to be correct. The old woman then tells the knight that he must marry her. When the knight confesses later that he is repulsed by her appearance, she gives him a choice: she can either be ugly and faithful, or beautiful and unfaithful. The knight tells her to make the choice herself, and she rewards him for giving her control of the marriage by rendering herself both beautiful and faithful.” (SparkNotes).

Throughout the tales, although they are all entertaining, the pilgrims disagree about the themes and roles played by the characters. For example, the carpenter objects to a story about a stupid carpenter.  Ironic?  Maybe?

Why do some educators, especially in the humanities, object to digital humanities on principle?  Can one be both digital and human?

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One response to “EPIC Canterbury Tales

  • gridjumper

    The Pardoner Tale sim on Second Life http://slurl.com/secondlife/Sunray/7/121/21 provides artistic interpretation and fun as an avatar walks the terrain of old style text, along the trail left by the Canterbury pilgrims and among the unmistakable landmarks of the story. The sim provides an open-ended way to interact with the virtual environment as parts of the story are revealed. Surprises, created by scripts that are activated upon avatar contact, reveal elements of the dark story that contribute to making connections and understanding of Chaucer’s work.

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