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Thoughtful People: Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales
Carolina Meadows

The most popular “road trip” story was not written by Jack Kerouac or Paul Theroux, but by the 14th-century poet Geoffrey Chaucer. A full attendance in the Fairways Auditorium recently attested to the poet’s enduring appeal over the centuries. Carolina Meadows resident Judith Ferster added to the pleasure with her scholarly explication of Chaucer’s familiar Prologue to “The Canterbury Tales,” arguably among the most read, memorized, and recited work in literature.

Ferster, schooled in Medieval English literature, comes well-prepared for her subject with an undergraduate degree from Smith College and a Ph.D. from Brown University. She taught medieval English lit and writing at Colby College, Brandeis University, and N.C. State University before coming to Carolina Meadows in 2003. She is known for her literary “chops” as well as for her lively participation in local and world politics and environmental issues.

Among her surprising remarks, Ferster observed that while Chaucer held numerous jobs as soldier, king’s valet, diplomat, member of Parliament, Justice of Peace and Controller of Customs supervising the lucrative wool trade, he is never listed as a professional writer nor was he ever rewarded for his writing.

While Ferster read aloud passages from the Prologue in the thick, sweet tones of Anglo-Saxon English, the audience followed along with the English translation. The plot-line follows the gathering of 29 diverse pilgrims and their host at the Tabard Inn in Southwark. Before leaving for their journey to Canterbury, to visit the shrine of St. Thomas, the host takes charge and announces that to amuse and pass the time each pilgrim will tell two tales both going to and returning from the shrine. He also sets the rules that “Whoever rebels at my decision” will pay everyone’s expenses.

Ferster points out the beginnings of government in this scheme and the challenge to authority when the drunken miller character refuses to agree to the story-telling sequence. The parallel to actual history, the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, is never specified but is understood in the language. From the Magna Carta to the Parliament, the expansion of the franchise, the deposition of kings (Edward II and Richard II), a “power to the people” movement defied authoritarian rule.

A “guild” in the 14th century was a voluntary association of people with the same goals, bound by oath. Such groups included crafts, hobbies, and even pilgrimages. The 1388 Parliament required information of all guilds regarding their membership, goals, and organization. Ferster sees the same issues emerging today, in a national security state, “protecting” our privacy (HIPAA rules), using surveillance, reading our emails (alas, Petraeus).The dynamics between the rulers and the ruled are familiar, she says. We create hierarchies today just as in Chaucer’s time, and that’s why we can understand Chaucer today.

By Dorothy Mahan

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