“More to please than to instruct”: Eighteenth-century Responses to Chaucerian Obscenity

Flannery, Mary; Brown, Amy; Curtis, Kristen (10 May 2021). “More to please than to instruct”: Eighteenth-century Responses to Chaucerian Obscenity (Unpublished). In: Medieval Round Table. University of Melbourne. 10.05.21.

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By the time that John Dryden published selected Canterbury Tales in Fables Ancient & Modern (1700), Chaucer’s most famous work had, for all intents and purposes, lain dormant for nearly a century. While a flurry of editions of Chaucer’s collected works had been produced between 1532 and the close of the sixteenth century, no new editions had been published since then. Alongside translations from Homer, Ovid, and Boccaccio, Fables Ancient & Modern included both Middle English and — for the first time — modern English versions of The Knight’s Tale, The Nun’s Priest’s Tale and The Wife of Bath’s Tale. In his preface, Dryden explained his choice of Chaucerian tales as follows: ‘I have confin’d my Choice to such Tales of Chaucer, as savour nothing of Immodesty’, though he also noted that, if he ‘had desir’d more to please than to instruct’, he would have included the more ribald tales of the Reeve, Miller, Shipman, Merchant, and Summoner, ‘and above all, the Wife of Bathe, in the Prologue to her Tale’.
The same publication that ushered Chaucer back into the literary limelight was also a turning point in the reception of Chaucerian obscenity (the sexual and scatological language and content that feature in those tales that Dryden deliberately excludes). This joint presentation takes a closer look at this and other eighteenth-century responses to Chaucer’s ribaldry and literary legacy, the starting point for the ongoing research project on ‘Canonicity, Obscenity, and the Making of Modern Chaucer (1700-2020)’ (COMMode) at the University of Bern.

Item Type:

Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)


06 Faculty of Humanities > Department of Linguistics and Literary Studies > Institute of English Languages and Literatures

UniBE Contributor:

Flannery, Mary Colleen, Brown, Amy, Curtis, Kristen Haas


800 Literature, rhetoric & criticism > 820 English & Old English literatures
400 Language > 420 English & Old English languages


[4] Swiss National Science Foundation


[UNSPECIFIED] Canonicity, Obscenity, and the Making of Modern Chaucer, 1700-2020 (COMMode)




Mary Colleen Flannery

Date Deposited:

10 Dec 2021 07:46

Last Modified:

05 Dec 2022 15:56



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