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Censoring Chaucer: Canonicity and Obscenity in Manuscripts and Print Editions of the Canterbury Tales (c. 1400 - 1831)

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - Censoring Chaucer (Censoring Chaucer: Canonicity and Obscenity in Manuscripts and Print Editions of the Canterbury Tales (c. 1400 - 1831))

Berichtszeitraum: 2018-09-01 bis 2020-08-31

The primary objective of this project was to investigate the relationship between Geoffrey Chaucer’s canonical status in English literary history and his obscenity (i.e. his use of sexual and scatological language and content), both of which are most closely associated with The Canterbury Tales. This investigation took a two-pronged approach, examining (1) different versions of The Canterbury Tales produced during the period considered by this project and (2) references and allusions to Chaucer and his work recorded during the same chronological period.

My interest in literary obscenity’s capacity to cause offense arose directly from present-day debates regarding how—or whether—to regulate offensive language and literature. Both within and beyond Europe, we continue to grapple with the question of how best to gauge and forestall the offense that language and literature can cause, whether in relation to ‘hate speech’, racism, and sexism, or in relation to recent debates concerning ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘microaggressions’ within academia. My project constitutes an opportunity to reassess these questions from a new perspective.
My hypothesis was that I would be able to detect a correlation between the state of Chaucer’s text and the state of his reputation across the period under consideration (c. 1400 – 1831).
The results of my research supported this hypothesis. During my fellowship, I was able to examine 75% of all known surviving manuscript copies of The Canterbury Tales produced before 1500. The evidence contained in these copies (in the form of textual variants, marginal annotations, erasures, etc.) indicated that readers, scribes, and book-owners in the medieval period had mixed reactions to Chaucer’s obscenity in The Canterbury Tales. Likewise, the rare allusions made to Chaucer’s obscene language and content during this period (e.g. by writers such as John Lydgate) indicated that, while this material was clearly recognised as comprising ‘ribaudye’ (obscenity or bawdry; see MED, s. v. ribaudi(e), it was neither universally condemned nor universally celebrated.

Despite the fact that I was compelled to reduce my initially 24-month fellowship to a 16-month fellowship, I managed to stay relatively on track in terms of my plans for the dissemination of my project’s results. I had planned to write 2 articles on my research for submission to scholarly journals. By month 16 of my fellowship I had had 3 articles built on my research results accepted for publication, 1 of them in one of the top journals in my field. All publications acknowledge the support of the European Commission in the form of my Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship. I also presented my research results at major conferences in the UK and abroad, and engaged with the public by means of an interview regarding medieval manners for the NOVA program 'The Violence Paradox', a short essay published in the Times Literary Supplement, and an informal guided workshop on manuscripts connected with my project for the Oxford Bibliophiles' Society (which is open to the public) at the Bodleian Library.
One of the articles that I published argues that an abbreviation for ‘et cetera’ that is present in two of the earliest manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales has been mistakenly omitted from every printed edition of the text ever produced since the fifteenth century, and argues that it is a textual joke that should be reinstated in contemporary editions of Chaucer’s text. Given that multiple editions of The Canterbury Tales are currently in progress at such major presses as Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press, my essay has the potential to change the way that Chaucer’s text is edited in these and other versions. It has already been cited by Steven Rozenski in the notes for the editions of The Manciple’s Tale he is preparing for Cambridge University Press (scholarly edition forthcoming 2021; student edition forthcoming 2022). My research will thus have direct, immediate, and material impact in my field, and will change the way that Chaucer’s text will be read in the years to come. This could in turn have broader implications for the way that we use figures such as Chaucer to license or censor other literary and artistic works, and for our sense of what is (and is not) acceptable in published material.
Portrait of Mary C. Flannery