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Disseminal Chaucer

Rereading The Nun's Priest's Tale

Peter W. Travis

Publication Year: 2010

Chaucer’s The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is one of the most popular of The Canterbury Tales. It is only 646 lines long, yet it contains elements of a beast fable, an exemplum, a satire, and other genres. There have been countless attempts to articulate the “real” meaning of the tale, but it has confounded the critics. Peter W. Travis contends that part of the fun and part of the frustration of trying to interpret the tale has to do with Chaucer’s use of the tale to demonstrate the resistance of all literature to traditional critical practices. But the world of The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is so creative and so quintessentially Chaucerian that critics persist in writing about it. No one has followed the critical fortunes of Chauntecleer and his companions more closely over time than Peter Travis. One of the most important contributions of this book is his assessment of the tale’s reception. Travis also provides an admirable discussion of genre: his analysis of parody and Menippean satire clarify how to approach works such as this tale that take pleasure in resisting traditional generic classifications. Travis also demonstrates that the tale deliberately invoked its readers’ memories of specific grammar school literary assignments, and the tale thus becomes a miniaturized synopticon of western learning. Building on these analyses and insights, Travis’s final argument is that The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is Chaucer’s premier work of self-parody, an ironic apologia pro sua arte. The most profound matters foregrounded in the tale are not advertisements of the poet’s achievements. Rather, they are poetic problems that Chaucer wrestled with from the beginning of his career and, at the end of that career, wanted to address in a concentrated, experimental, and parapoetic way.

Published by: University of Notre Dame Press

Contents

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pp. vii-viii

Acknowledgments

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pp. ix-xi

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Introduction

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pp. 1-27

Most readers agree that The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is one of Chaucer’s finest poetic achievements. Critics have judged it to be a “virtuoso performance,”1 “the most consciously aesthetic of Chaucer’s productions,”2 “a summa of Chaucerian artistry,”3 illustrating “in parvo the achievement of The Canterbury Tales as a whole.”4 Donald Howard finds it one of the “few places in The Canterbury Tales . . . where we hear a neutral voice...

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The Nun's Priest's Body, or Chaucer's Sexual Genius

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pp. 29-49

Fragment VII of The Canterbury Tales, a linked sequence of six quite radically different narratives, has for a long time been appreciated as a sustained metapoetic interrogation of the aesthetic ramifications and the linguistic dimensions of Chaucer’s own literary art. In 1967, Alan Gaylord argued that Fragment VII was Chaucer’s “literary fragment,” whose...

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The Nun's Priest's Tale as Grammar School Primer, Menippean Parody, and Ars Poetica

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pp. 51-117

Two of Chaucer’s cockiest protagonists, Nicholas and Chauntecleer, are committed to rendering the liberal arts useful in their everyday lives. In The Miller’s Tale, “hende Nicholas” keeps at “his beddes heed” books and instruments pertaining to three of the quadrivial arts: for astronomy his “Almageste” and his “astrelabie,” for arithmetic his “augrym stones,” and...

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Close Reading: Beginnings and Endings

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pp. 119-167

How to begin? Indeed, how does one know what a proper beginning is? The nearly universal anxiety given voice in these and related questions carries a special set of burdens for the creators of fiction in a traditional Christian culture. Living inside the grand narrative of salvation history at a point far removed from the Alpha and Omega, how can one settle...

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Chaucer's Heliotropes and the Poetics of Metaphor

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pp. 169-200

Here the Franklin pretends to be an ignoramus when it comes to understanding the figurae—the colors, or flowers, of poetry—taught in the rhetorical handbooks. The Franklin’s antipoetic sentiments are of course problematic, for his four-line demurral concerning the proper understanding of “colours” contains a subtle illustration not only of the word...

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The Noise of History

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pp. 201-266

When we listen to the poetry of Chaucer’s words, we listen to meaningful sounds as well as to sounds that are culturally coded to carry little or no meaning. As medieval grammarians explained it, when we attend to vox articulata literata, to transcribable and humanly understandable speech, ...

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Chaucerian Horologics and the Confounded Reader

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pp. 267-301

Just a few hours out of London on the pilgrimage to Canterbury, Harry Bailly, the pilgrims’ leader, suddenly decides to determine precisely what time of the day it is. He does this not by reading a portable mechanical clock, since these lightweight coiled-spring instruments were not invented until the fifteenth-century.1 Nor does he determine that it was the hour...

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The Parodistic Episteme: Learning to Behold the Fox

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pp. 303-334

Among the hundreds of scholarly books Rabelais lists as belonging to the mock-magnificent Parisian library of St. Victor is one Quaestio subtilissima, whose full title (in translation) is A Most Subtle Question: whether the Chimera buzzing about in a vacuum can consume second intentions, it having been battered about for ten weeks at the Council of Constance.1 Rabelais’ satire...

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Moralitas

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pp. 335-349

Who, then, is Chaucer? In my introduction, I noted the common practice in Chaucer studies of characterizing Chaucer’s authorial voice by prizing it cleanly apart from the voice of a tale’s pilgrim-speaker. Typically, critics discussing individual Canterbury tales use “Chaucer” as a placeholder for the poem’s genius—omnicompetent, wise, ethical, and...

Notes

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pp. 351-391

Works Cited

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pp. 392-415

Index

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pp. 416-443


E-ISBN-13: 9780268093723
E-ISBN-10: 0268093725
Print-ISBN-13: 9780268042356
Print-ISBN-10: 0268042357

Page Count: 432
Publication Year: 2010