Chaucer and Bawdy

G. R. Simes


The reputation of a medieval poet is such that a successful dramatist of the 1960s could rely on the mere mention of his name to convey to the audience of the play the ideas of naughtiness and bawdy. Presumably the expansion of senior-secondary and tertiary education after World War II, the gradual relaxation of sexual mores, and the ready availability of a lively translation of the Canterbury Tales had all been factors that contributed to a popular dissemination of Chaucer's reputation for bawdiness. If that is so, it occurred in the absence of scholarly activity and interest in the topic. It is true that Chaucer shares with Shakespeare the singular honour of having a book devoted to his bawdy; yet that book was published as recently as 1972 and, modelling itself on Partridge's pioneering work on Shakespeare, takes the form of discursive glosses, apart from a brief, conceptually uncritical introduction. In general, before the later 1960s, while many medievalists privately took pleasure in Chaucer's treatment of sexual and excretory matters, they did not write upon this aspect of his work with the same unembarrassed candour that the poet himself had shown. Among general readers this aspect of Chaucer, and to an extent Chaucer's very name, was very often an occasion for sniggering.

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