English literature has sometimes been stigmatized as insular. It can be argued that no single English novel attains the universality of the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace or the French writer Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Yet in the Middle Ages the Old English literature of the subjugated Saxons was leavened by the Latin and Anglo-Norman writings, eminently foreign in origin, in which the churchmen and the Norman conquerors expressed themselves. From this combination emerged a flexible and subtle linguistic instrument exploited by Geoffrey Chaucer and brought to supreme application by William Shakespeare. Chaucer was described by his immediate successors as the ‘Father of English poetry’ and as a touchstone for defining both what was ‘English’ and what ‘literature’ was. How does that make sense to us now, six hundred years later in literary history? Through close readings of a wide selection of Chaucer’s writings we will not only celebrate the power and complexity of his use of language, but also investigate some of the questions posed by these early claims. How do we understand literary origins and what is at stake in our attempts to do so? How far does Chaucer contribute to a national (or nationalist) sense of English literature? How does the literature of the medieval past shape our current critical reading practices?

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