Translating poetry from one language to another is tricky and often unsuccessful, as some things rarely convert correctly from one set of colloquialisms to the next. Translating Chaucer from Middle English, for example, is no easy task because English has changed considerably in the last 600 years or so, to the point that Middle English is nearly impossible to read.
The Canterbury Tales, written at the end of the 14th century by Geoffrey Chaucer, is a collection of stories presented as part of a story-telling contest by a group of pilgrims as they travel from Southwark to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral; the prize being a free meal at the Tabard Inn at Southwark upon their return.
What makes this collection so interesting- aside from being a 700-year old text- is that it is one of the most banned and controversial books in history. The Canterbury Tales was, and still is, a subject of great debate as it has been censored, challenged, and banned for centuries. Immediate reactions in England were over its criticisms against the Church and for its sexual innuendos.
It is no mere collection of racy stories and characters though; it is an illustration of society during Chaucer’s life and still very much relevant to society today, evidenced by its regular reference in media today; movies such as A Knight’s Tale, starring Heath Ledger, paid homage to this literary classic. It’s use of humor and satire as commentary for pop culture and social issues is also very much the standard that we’ve come to expect in comedic sketches such as those seen on Saturday Night Live.
Chaucer uses the tales, and the descriptions of the characters, as observations on English society, particularly the Church. This was not taken lightly by Church officials, to say the least. Part of what he was drawing attention to was that the Catholic Church was in the middle of the Western Schism and, although it was the only Christian influence in Europe, was highly controversial.
Some of the passages cited by religious institutions over the centuries include lines 351-352 in which two college students sleep with either the wife or the daughter of the miller; and in 463-467- “He saugh (saw)a mayde (virgin) walkynge hym biforn”; and lines 891-893 in which a knight rapes a maiden.
Chaucer used the “Wife of Bathe” to dispute views on gender roles and sexual stereotypes, and I find it highly ironic that the Church would attack Chaucer for discussing rape when the Bible itself is full of tales involving the heinous act:
If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found; Then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her, he may not put her away all his days. – Deuteronomy 22:28-29
And even contains passages depicting women as prisoners of war:
And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive? … Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves. — Numbers 31:15-18
While Canterbury Tales may have been largely censored across Europe upon its publication, the vast majority of challenges today take place in the United States.
It was heavily censored by many Colonial authorities when copies first started appearing along with the first waves of settlers, and continues to be subject to challenges in many school systems throughout the country.
It was once banned in Lake City, Florida; and it was removed from a senior college prep course at the Eureka, Illinois High School in 1995 for its sexual content, having been labeled by some parents as “inappropriate for students.”
The book was banned from being mailed for years by the U.S. Postal Service as yet another victim of the anti-obscenity Comstock Law of 1873. As a result it has been subjected to revisions over the years to sterilize it. Most modern translations and editions still have a tendency to avoid any profanity.
I am reminded of the words of John Marshall Harlan, a Supreme Court justice, who said in 1971, “One man’s vulgarity is another man’s lyric.”
What makes The Canterbury Tales so timeless and important is that it presents a true-life image of a period in history that can’t be understood or appreciated through the filter of the typical intellectually-marred school books found in the classroom. This, along with its close relevance to society today, is the strongest reason why it should be taught in more literature classes instead of less. While I can appreciate the concern over some of the subject matter, the indisputable fact is that today’s teens, especially high school students, have already been predisposed to far worse in popular media.
You’d think that somewhere in the last 700 years we as an intellectual society would grow beyond our own egocentric arrogance and puritanical self-righteousness.
For a body of work to last some 700 years and still be as popular today as it was when originally published, and for still being culturally relevant after so many years of social, political, and cultural changes worldwide, stands as the strongest testament to its brilliance. It is a cornerstone of literary history that, like so many others, should be praised, not banned.
For a complete list of titles covered and more information about the Banned Books Awareness and Reading for Knowledge project, please visit www.deepforestproductions.com
Sources: Wikipedia, Amazon, American Library Association, Cumbria County Council (UK), Abe Books, Harvard, University of Deleware
© 2011 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions