Chaucer Sleeping

(‘Chaucer Sleeping’. From stained glass panel series of The Legend of Good Women. Made by Morris & Co. 1963, designed by E.C. Burne-Jones, Victoria & Albert Museum London)


The pages on this website were written by Christopher Cannon and Lucy Mookerjee relying on materials prepared by Larry Benson (1929-2015), one of the most prominent Chaucerians of the 20th century. The more modest of these are recordings of Benson reading Chaucer’s English. They preserve an extraordinary voice, but, also, the deep understanding of the history of English that Benson brought to all he wrote about Chaucer, and to the Riverside Chaucer, his magisterial edition of all of Chaucer’s works. These recordings are also preserved on Harvard’s Geoffrey Chaucer Website, which — although much-revised since — Benson set up some decades ago. 

It has seemed right to bring these recordings together with the Glossarial Concordance to the Works of Chaucer, since this, both as a book (though long out of print) and as an online resource, was Benson’s masterwork — a project over 20 years in the making. It began with the digital form of the Riverside Chaucer (in 1987, when the Riverside was published, this was an unexpected and wholly new resource), but Benson’s monumental labor was twofold. He ‘lemmatized’ every word in Chaucer, so, where all earlier concordances had gathered Chaucer’s vocabulary together by spelling, the Glossarial Concordance gathered them together by headword in the Middle English Dictionary. This means that, in the online version of the concordance, a reader can type in any word in Chaucer and get the range of its definitions instantly. The list of occurrences of that word is also an exceptional resource for research into keywords (always a rich topic, since, in many ways, Chaucer thought through the vocabulary he favored and often invented) and, from there, to key ideas.  

Since it is now a rare resource of particular use for readers new to Chaucer, these pages also include an online version of Derek Pearsall’s The Canterbury Tales. Pearsall was an equally prominent Chaucerian of the 20th century, and this book (published in 1985, just before the Riverside Chaucer), distills decades of thought into a neatly modular literary analysis of Chaucer’s most ambitious work. Its first two chapters provide a very readable account of issues that Chaucer scholars usually talk about only among themselves (in what form and how did Chaucer’s great poem survive, and what does this physical evidence tell us about Chaucer’s intentions). In the accounts of individual tales, Pearsall’s wit distills key principles of each of the Tales into memorable observations. A literary critic above all things, Pearsall does not let Chaucer off easily when he seems to nod yet also teases out just what makes the best of his writing so very good.