BA English Literature and American Studies

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Chaucer: Texts, Contexts, Conflicts

Course unit fact file
Unit code ENGL20231
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 2
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Available as a free choice unit? No


The course focuses on a selection from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, along with some writing by Chaucer’s contemporaries, and more recent translators and adaptors such as Patience Agbabi. We will consider such central themes as genre, gender, constructions of the self and community. The lectures will provide a context for the selected texts and will aim to raise central issues and to stimulate debate. Two-hour weekly seminars will involve workshop elements to help you to read Chaucer’s Middle English and will also engage in close reading exercises; there will also be more traditional seminar time, supporting a more detailed study and analysis of the primary texts, taking in to consideration historical and cultural contexts but focusing in particular on criticism.



  • To develop students’ exploration of the Middle English period through study, in the original language, of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales
  • To develop a further understanding of relevant historical and cultural contexts
  • To engage students with published criticism on Chaucer and to current critical debates in relation to his works
  • To study other writing of the period
  • To develop students’ research skills
  • To develop a range of skills appropriate to a second year level of understanding medieval writing: written (including electronic forms) and verbal forms of expression; reflective or critical thinking; and the ability to organize material appropriately including into a coherent literary argument.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the course unit the successful student will have demonstrated:

  • A capacity to read Chaucer in the original language and an understanding of the range and variety of his works
  • An ability to engage critically with a range of Chaucer’s writing through the detailed study of particular tales and their place in a wider context
  • An understanding of relevant cultural, historical and critical matters
  • An ability to deploy a range of skills appropriate to a level 2 unit in understanding medieval writing: to work independently towards both the examination and the essay
  • Developing the following range of skills: research, critical or reflective thinking, oral/aural (active listening), electronic retrieval; and to organize a coherent argument by paying attention to both close reading techniques and informed by an awareness of current critical debates

Teaching and learning methods

Supported by Blackboard, with links to such online resources as the Harvard Chaucer Webpages and the Metro site (support for Middle English language). Also, YouTube vides of performances by Patience Agbabi, Jean Breeze, and other modern poets.


Knowledge and understanding

  • Read Chaucer in the original language;
  • Understand the range and variety of his works;
  • Engage critically with a range of Chaucer’s writing through the detailed study of particular tales and their place in a wider context;
  • Understand relevant cultural, historical and critical matters; display an ability to deploy a range of skills appropriate to a level 2 unit in understanding medieval writing: to work independently towards both the examination and the essay;

Intellectual skills

Organize a coherent argument, paying attention to close reading techniques, with an awareness of current critical debates

Practical skills

  • Retrieve, sift, organise, synthesise and critically evaluate material from a range of different sources, including library, electronic, and online resources;
  • Deliver oral presentations in front of [[the instructor/ a seminar group]]; produce written work using appropriate language for an academic audience; produce written work that collects and integrates evidence to formulate/test a critical argument; 

Transferable skills and personal qualities

Develop an argument on the basis of different kinds of evidence.

Empathise with cultural productions of a very different era from the students’ own.


Employability skills

Analytical skills
Students taking this unit will be able to analyse and evaluate arguments and texts. Above all, committed students will emerge from this course unit with an advanced capacity to think critically, i.e. knowledgeably, rigorously, confidently and independently.
Group/team working
Students taking this unit will be able to work courteously and constructively as part of a larger group.
On this unit students are encouraged to respond imaginatively and independently to the questions and ideas raised by texts and other media.
Students on this unit must take responsibility for their learning and are encouraged not only to participate in group discussions but to do so actively and even to lead those discussions.
Project management
Students taking this unit will be able to work towards deadlines and to manage their time effectively.
Oral communication
Students taking this unit will be able to show fluency, clarity and persuasiveness in spoken communication.
Students on this unit will be required to digest, summarise and present large amounts of information. They are encouraged to enrich their responses and arguments with a wide range of further reading.
Written communication
Students on this unit will develop their ability to write in a way that is lucid, precise and compelling.

Assessment methods

Text exercise: translation, commentary and short essay 40%
Essay 60%


Feedback methods

Written and face-to-face (upon arrangement)

Recommended reading

The set text is V.A. Kolve and Glending Olson, eds. The Canterbury Tales: Seventeen Tales and the General Prologue, 3rd ed. (New York: Norton, 2018).

Students should also purchase Patience Agbabi, Telling Tales (Canongate, 2014)

Note that the edition of the Canterbury Tales  has been selected to give you the maximum assistance in reading Chaucer’s Middle English, so please don’t be tempted to buy any other. Online editions (while they have their uses) are not acceptable for this course.

You should begin by reading the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. Although the precise details of the reading changes slightly each year, in 2022-23 we will certainly be looking at the prologues and tales of the Miller, Reeve, and, Wife of Bath. Note that we don’t study the Knight’s Tale in class – but it certainly doesn’t hurt if you read it.

If you want to get ahead on critical reading and general context, you could begin with David Wallace, Geoffrey Chaucer: A New Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). For Chaucer’s immediate context and life, see Paul Strohm, The Poet’s Tale (Profile, 2015).


Study hours

Independent study hours
Independent study 165

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
David Matthews Unit coordinator

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