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Reviewed by:
  • Historians on Chaucer: The 'General Prologue' to the Canterbury Tales ed. by Stephen Rigby, Alastair Minnis
  • Roderick McDonald
Rigby, Stephen, ed., with Alastair Minnis, Historians on Chaucer: The 'General Prologue' to the Canterbury Tales, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2014; hardback; pp. 528; R.R.P. £65.00; ISBN 9780199689545.

Interdisciplinarity between literary scholars and historians nowadays comes naturally to medieval studies, and this volume is a useful example of the practicalities of using historical context as an approach to The Canterbury Tales, and vice versa.

This is a substantial book, in which is gathered a wide array of chapters by experts in economic, social, political, religious and intellectual history, mapping various historical contexts a reader can bring to the Tales. In taking this approach the work is grounding the characterizations of Chaucer's pilgrims in their contemporary social contexts, and offering a practical introduction to the subtleties of influence of the varied structures of power and authority, conflicting religious and political activities and economic tensions in medieval England.

The volume comprises twenty-six chapters in which characterizations, roles and representations of each of the Canterbury pilgrims are explored in a social context. Each character-chapter is written by a different historian, and the order of chapters runs according to the order in which the pilgrims are presented in the 'General Prologue'. Useful from the literary scholar's point of view is the ease with which many of these historians comment on the work of the literary scholars, not necessarily because the historians' views are necessarily more valid or arguable by virtue of their discipline, but because it means that this volume is not afraid to transgress the old boundaries, and such a discursive act of interdisciplinarity reinforces the shared programme, instead of adopting some kind of defensive marking-out of territories.

This is a practical compilation and a sound introduction to late medieval England that will be enjoyed by scholar and non-scholar alike, and a valuable addition to a medieval syllabus, whether in history or English literature.

Roderick McDonald
University of Nottingham


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