Medieval authors are a bit intimidating for the modern reader; personally, I remember a time when I couldn’t even imagine studying medieval literature—I think I even remember thinking how one would study a period of literature so far removed from our present notions of literature. Back then, I was ignorant of the basics of the period and so formed misconceptions on the very foundation of Middle English texts. Now, however, that I have had the pleasure of educating myself more on the fundamentals, and now that I have completed another Great Course lecture series, I can safely say that for me, I no longer approach medieval authors with a grain of salt.
But what about you? If you want to follow in my footsteps, and teach yourself a bit about the forefather of English literature, then I could not recommend enough of Professor Seth Lerer’s The Life and Writings of Geoffrey Chaucer.
Just under six hours long and covering a total of twelve lectures, Lerer covers Chaucer’s major works in addition to providing a brief overview of Chaucer’s life. One lecture is dedicated to Middle English and Chaucer’s revision of it, two are pushed toward Troilus and Criseyde, one to Chaucer’s reception, and many others to his masterwork The Canterbury Tales. Each lecture is around thirty-minutes in length and easily digestible. Dense yet accessible, Lerer disseminates the nuance of Chaucer’s literary corpus without sacrificing the connections to the every day which will stimulate new readers.
Going into this course I had no idea of Chaucer’s life or writings. By the end of this course, however, I knew a little of his life, a decent sum of his writings and their deeper meaning, along with some literary and language history which I had no clue existed before going through these lectures; I gained valuable insights from this course and would advise anyone who wishes to begin a study of Chaucer, to begin with this course and study it alongside other introductions and critical editions of Chaucer’s works and language. This way you are guaranteed to get the most bang for your buck and truly appreciate not only how much the English language has changed, but why it changed and the social-history of that change.
My thoughts on the course do tread some water, though; namely, through the course teases that the listener will learn about Chaucer’s life in the course, very little is said about Chaucer’s life outside of a single lecture and some snippets in following lectures. I know that Chaucer had numerous positions and occupations in life, that he traveled often, and was a highly educated man… beyond that, however, I know little and the course remains tight lipped. My other issue is of a lesser nature; it deals with the lecturer—Seth Lerer—who, despite being knowledgeable and authoritative, retains a bit of an overly demanding, aggressive, tone when lecturing. Lerer comes off as a tad too full of himself when he talks. Now, I fully understand the need to prop one’s self up as authoritative, but there is just something about his tone which irked me the wrong way. Admittedly, this is a minor affair and does not affect my overall view of the course, but it was something I felt the need to mention since I felt this way at several instances while listening to the course.
At the end, though, Lerer’s series of lectures provides the perfect brief introduction to Chaucer’s world. It provides just enough to get you going, to augment your own study and enhance your findings while reading. He will bring you to new horizons and make you appreciate Chaucer all the more whether you are a newcomer—like myself—or someone with a passing familiarity with Chaucer already. As an educational tool you could do far worse and with the course’s relative affordability, I give this product my green light.
The Life and Writings of Geoffrey Chaucer
Narrated by Seth Lerer