Chaucerian Translations: Postcolonial Approaches to The Canterbury Tales

Patricia Clare Ingham


The notion of a “postcolonial Middle Ages” no longer seems oxymoronic in the way that it did in 1995, when I first began taking an implicitly “postcolonial” approach to teaching Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Over the past fifteen years, medievalists have shown the mutual relevance of medieval and postcolonial studies in any number of ways: by engaging pre-modern scenes of conquest and annexation with “postcolonial” theories of culture; by considering medieval traditions of translatio studii and translatio imperii; by analyzing the periodizing divide of “Medieval” to ”Modern” as covert justification for the colonial civilizing mission; by querying the status of the “medieval” in the rhetoric of global empire; and most recently by investigating whether medieval cosmopolitanism might contribute to a desire for more inclusive accounts of global citizenship. . . The pertinence of some such work to the undergraduate Chaucer course may seem obvious enough, and for more than a decade now “postcolonial” readings of some Canterbury Tales have been very much on the table.

Prompts to a “postcolonial” consideration of Chaucer have also been provided by non-medievalists. Accounts of contemporary postcolonial poetics have turned to questions of vernacularism with the Middle Ages in mind: in a 1995 essay, Irish-language poet Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill objects to biased assumptions of the irrelevance of “old,” “archaic,” “pre-modern,” and “pre-colonial” vernaculars (in her case, Irish), situating her own work amidst the complexities of diasporic history, Ireland’s colonial status, and the Irish-language politics of the Gaeltacht. Even more directly on point for Chaucerians, David Chioni Moore has compared contemporary Nigerian writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s decision to write in his vernacular (rather than in the global literary language of English) to Chaucer’s vernacularism.  If these two critics share a provocative, surprising (and exceedingly useful) mixing of temporalities, they do so to different effect: where Dhomhnaill emphasizes the problems with an account of history that dismisses older languages as “other,” and hence, “irrelevant” to the contemporary age, Moore stresses the relevance of literary history to current scenes of writing by borrowing Chaucer’s canonical status to advance both the language politics and the literary power of a Nigerian novelist.


See also: Creole Medievalism