SNSF Eccellenza: COMMode

This SNSF Eccellenza project investigates the dissemination and reception history of The Canterbury Tales in order to uncover the origins of Chaucer’s modern fame as both canonical English author and a writer of obscene stories (i.e. stories that feature bawdy references to sex, bodily functions, or scatological language and content). Its point of departure is John Dryden’s Fables Ancient & Modern (1700), the first text to ‘modernize’ selections from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales by deliberately leaving out obscene content and translating the selected tales into contemporary English. It was also the first text to refer to Chaucer as the ‘father of English poetry’. Dryden’s alterations to Chaucer’s text and his reference to Chaucer’s status helped to launch two key literary traditions: (1) one that aimed to recover Chaucer’s ‘pure, original’ text in modern editions, and (2) one that adapted Chaucer’s work for modern readers. By examining textual censorship and adaptation in versions of The Canterbury Tales published between 1700 and 2020 alongside references to Chaucer’s reputation during this period, this project will show how Dryden’s text helped to create two popular modern conceptions of Chaucer: (1) Chaucer the canonical ‘father of English poetry’, whose works are worthy of veneration and preservation, and (2) Chaucer the master of dirty medieval humour, whose obscenity must be either omitted or translated to ensure that modern readers can better avoid or enjoy it. In so doing, this project aims to reveal how Chaucerian obscenity has both complicated and reinforced the shape of the English literary canon both in the past and in the present.