Orality, literacy, and Chaucer: A study of performance, textual authority, and proverbs in the major poetry

Steven R McKenna, University of Rhode Island


This study examines Chaucer's major poetry from the perspectives of recent work done on the psychological and cultural aspects of Orality and Literacy. Chaucer's ideas about and use of authority, oral and writtern, are explored as both thematic and philosophical issues in regard to the literate mind's perception of fictions and the oral mind's perception of proverbial wisdom. The idea of textual authority is something alien to the oral mind, whose perceptions of authority are bound up in the collective wisdom of traditional oral sayings, such as proverbs, which function in an interactive context. Written authority, because of the reification of words as books, exists independent of interaction situations. The lack of an existential context for written language forces the audience to supply one for purposes of interpretation.^ The tensions created in Chaucer's poetry by this socio-psychological shift--tensions between the oral mind and the literate mind--show that Chaucer was aware of particular philosophical and epistemological implications of Orality and Literacy. The House of Fame shows the narrator's confused inability to interpret the meaning of his experience and authority. Thus, neither the narrator not the author can be considered a source of authoritative meaning. In Troilus, the narrator's act of translation usurps the textual authority of his source at the same time that the narrator disclaims any authority over the story's contents. In The Canterbury Tales, we see a pattern of subjective interpretations of experiences on the part of the characters and the narrator. Yet through deceit and/or blind faith, experiences are, from the audience's perspective, misinterpreted by characters, thereby showing the indeterminacy of experience as authority. Similarily, the heavy use of proverbial wisdom by Pandarus and Criseyde shows that oral wisdom carries with it authority by which people govern and interpret action. However, this view of authority leads to different conclusions about love as opposed to Troilus' more literate-based analysis of his situation. The interplay of these varied views of the conflict between experience and "auctorite" in Chaucer's poetry plus the analysis of proverbial wisdom in the Troilus show that both modes of authority deauthorize themselves, thereby requiring the necessary intervention of characters within poems and readers of the poems as interpreters, hence the location of the real authority. ^

Subject Area

Speech Communication|Literature, English

Recommended Citation

Steven R McKenna, "Orality, literacy, and Chaucer: A study of performance, textual authority, and proverbs in the major poetry" (1988). Dissertations and Master's Theses (Campus Access). Paper AAI8901714.