Sunday, September 27, 2009

Chaucer and Sidney: A Thumb's Up to Our First Amendment

So far, my classmates have mentioned some very interesting ideas about our selections from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. To be quite honest, reading these “tales”, along with Sidney’s Defense of Poesie got me thinking more about the historical context of these pieces rather than their content, which is usually the focus of a Literature class such as ours. Since this is a seminar about banned books, the reason “why” is always looming over my head as we read for this class. As interesting as our readings are, it’s impossible to forget the societies that these pieces arose from.

Chaucer’s Tales came at a time when the Clergy had much power and the regular working class didn’t. Chaucer himself was a bit higher up in society than the average guy (he was a messenger for VIPs and got to travel around Western Europe, which probably helped him write a pilgrimage narrative successfully). However, his tales parody almost every kind of person, from every class. Of course some people are clearly presented better than others, and some are obviously targeted (THE CLERGY…ahem).

I recognize the fact that Chaucer had something to say about his society, and he did so by having his pilgrims share “tales” that are more like parables, or even allegories. The Nun’s Priest’s tale has a clear “lesson” at the end, and though some others don’t say it, other tales have clear underlying “lessons” as well. So far my other classmates have mentioned these in detail, and given possible ideas about Chaucer’s intentions and ultimate meaning. However, I think that Chaucer’s ultimate goal wasn’t something literary. Though he may be considered the father of modern English literature, I feel his Canterbury Tales were mainly influenced by his society and its limitations.

I only remembered one thing about Chaucer’s Tales from when I studied them in high school—that the Nun was absolutely repulsive. She truly was to me; all I could think about was how similar she was to my mean old crusty nuns who were currently teaching me writing, theology and social studies. Looking back on it now, I realize that Chaucer was making a connection between the ideal and reality: that nuns, as hard as they tried, sometimes had vices that even God couldn’t get rid of. Chaucer was commenting on a class in society that was basically untouchable (after all, no one could EVER say anything bad about the religious!) because they were representative of a religion that was not separate from the state. Chaucer used his brilliance in writing to comment critically on society by disguising his true intentions and making fun of all classes, and not just one.

I’m assuming this book was banned because though Chaucer poked fun at everyone, the Clergy isn’t stupid. Also, some of Chaucer’s tales are a little slapstick and use some religious references loosely (Using the story of The Great Flood to get a guy to sit on his roof in a barrel? Really?). And this is where Sidney comes in. He quite aptly titled his Defense of Poesie. Though it was written almost 100 years after Chaucer died, he defends a writer’s right (ha-ha) to produce fiction. And, yeah, it’s obvious to almost anyone that Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are a little more than fiction. But without the ability to write about society, and people, and general discrepancies with common ideas, there would be very little chance for change. I think Chaucer’s Tales is a great example of a writer taking a chance and critiquing commonalities that others might be afraid to.

Like Mary said, society always tends to favor the beautiful. Chaucer uses the Nun’s Priest’s tale to highlight this. The Miller’s and Franklin’s tales are geared more toward societal norms rather than natural, biological preferences (after all, preferring beauty is a part of the natural process of procreation), but they still show the ridiculousness of some aspects of society people take for granted. Sidney realized the importance of fiction and satire, and his Defense is something that even our U.S. Constitution specifically recognizes. Sadly, these works probably offended some people, so it made the cut for our banned books class. But someone somewhere thought they were important enough, otherwise they wouldn’t be being studied today.

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