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Chaucer in Russia: Some Aspects of the History of Chaucer Studies in the Russian Tradition

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Cover of Inna Yurievna Starostina’s monograph, Gendernye Predstavleniya Dzh. Chosera [Geoffrey Chaucer’s Representations of Gender] (Saratov, 2016).

Inna Starostina graduated in 2012 with a PhD in History from Saratov State University, about 450 miles south-east of Moscow, Russia, on the Volga River. She is a high-school history teacher in Saratov. She is the author of a monograph on Chaucer, in Russian, and four articles on Chaucer, in English.

Research into Chaucer in Russia really took off in the late twentieth century. Both the historicist and literary traditions are well represented.

An important preliminary consideration is the availability of Russian translations of Chaucer. Interest in Chaucer’s poetry was first sparked by the translation of some fragments of The Canterbury Tales by D. Minaev in 1875 [15, 494]. I. Kashkin and O. Rumer had translated the greater part of the Tales into Russian by the middle of the twentieth century, and T. Popova completed a full translation in 2007. It is important to note that, in addition to The Canterbury Tales, modern Russian scholars now also have access to a Russian translation of the whole of Troilus and Criseyde by M. Boroditskaya, and to translations of The Parliament of Fowls and The Book of the Duchess by S. Alexandrovskiy. These translations were produced at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first.

The representation of social processes and interrelations between social classes in Chaucer’s major poem The Canterbury Tales have proved extra-attractive for a soviet scholarly audience. The soviet historian N. Bogodarova analyzes Chaucer’s attitude to social hierarchy in the tales, emphasizing the poet’s interest in his characters as realistic, everyday persons. According to Bogodarova, Chaucer looks down on his characters, but his work is nevertheless tinged with respect for every pilgrim, most of all for the third category of the urban hierarchy, namely the merchant class, and also the peasantry. Bogodarova concludes that Chaucer’s own view of social hierarchy is hard to identify because of the author’s overriding intention to describe the quotidian and overt concerns of all human beings [3, 204–219]. Bogodarova also offers a brief biography of Chaucer, but without going into detail about the questionable aspects of Chaucer’s life, such as his children. He discusses Chaucer’s intellectual interests and business acumen [4, 213–225].

Another soviet historian, Y. Saprykin, refers to Chaucer in his analysis of the problem of the bourgeois-aristocratic direction of English social thought during the period of the appearance and domination of absolutism [12]. In his discussion of Chaucer’s major life-events and political ideas, Saprykin argues that Chaucer is a pioneer of English humanism, and that Francis Bacon and William Shakespeare took forward and developed Chaucer’s ideas in the early modern period. In his view, The Canterbury Tales lets the reader draw their own conclusions about any tension Chaucer may have felt between a religious and a secular perception of human life. For Chaucer, human desires and behaviors are the most significant categories of analysis. Saprykin also examines Chaucer’s attitude to human dignity and “true” nobility outside its social origin.

Russian literary critics and cultural theorists have also made significant contributions to Chaucer studies. M. Alekseev’s synoptic history of English literature, albeit brief (more an essay than a book) attends in detail to Chaucer’s poetry [1]. Alekseev alludes to the different stages of Chaucer’s creative production, and he understands Chaucer’s oeuvre as leaving a large legacy for the English literary tradition that comes after him. The philologist A. Anixt [2] notes a specific feature of Chaucer’s writing: its combining of the medieval traditions of religious and chivalrous ideals with individual human desires. Like Saprykin, he also represents Chaucer as a precursor of English humanism.

Describing the different plots of The Canterbury Tales, M. Popova is principally interested in Chaucer’s borrowing from his contemporaries’ writings, among them Guillaume de Lorris, Jeun de Meun, and Jean Froissart [10]. She also compares Chaucer’s oeuvre with other medieval texts, including anonymous chivalric romances and French fabliaux, drawing out the links between plots and themes, that is, between formal structure and ideas. I. Medeleva’s dissertation is dedicated to the narratalogical study of Chaucer’s compositional technique [9], elaborating the evolution of the poet’s painstaking literary method. He considers The Canterbury Tales to be Chaucer’s crowning achievement.

The cultural critic A. Schtulberg, in a comparison of Boccaccio’s Decameron with The Canterbury Tales, considers Boccaccio’s early-humanistic influence on Chaucer’s mentality [16]. E. Libba, on the other hand, studies medieval categories of space and verb tense usage in relation to The Canterbury Tales, arguing that Chaucer imagines the world of the poem as a combination of old and new ideological traditions. The Canterbury Tales reflects old (pagan) and new (Christian) mentalities [7].

2010 was a very significant year for Russian Chaucerians. A. Gorbunov published a major, single-author study of Chaucer, in which he provides a biography and an extended literary analysis of the most famous poems [5]. Gorbunov, who is the author of Through Each Other’s Eyes: Religion and Literature (1999), is especially interested in the religious aspects of Chaucer’s poetry.

The Canterbury Tales has been a central text for modern Russia medieval gender studies. E. Kogut’s article, which provides an overview of the last 30 years of Russian medieval gender studies, notes the especial popularity and topicality of The Canterbury Tales for medievalists [6]. The modern historian A. Prasdnikov discusses gender issues in Chaucer in the context of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century English urban history, concentrating on women’s position in the urban social system and women’s attitudes to public power and family. For Prasdnikov, the period’s ideal woman is the good townswoman and wife, as a mean between the noble and peasant woman [11]. But the Wife of Bath strongly resists the stereotype of the respectful and submissive townswoman, which may reflect many contemporary laywomen’s desires. As Prasdnikov argues, women in Chaucer’s poetry play a significant role within the urban economy, establishing their own system of values and demanding high attention to their person.

S. Matchenya examines another aspect of gender in The Canterbury Tales, namely the struggle between secular/lay and religious values. For Chaucer, the relationship between men and women seems to be one of permanent gender struggle [8]. K. Tebenev analyzes Chaucer’s representation of marriage. The institution of marriage seems to be “an economic benefit” because of intensive trade and money circulation in England during Chaucer’s epoch. Chaucer’s time was a transition period when many traditional medieval values were in flux, including those of marriage and domesticity [14, 80–86].

The historian I. Starostina studies in depth the major poems of Chaucer, identifying a number of different gender issues in Chaucer’s main works, and focusing on historical source analysis for the study of gender. She proposes that the “gender possibilities” in Chaucer’s oeuvre are numerous. As she argues, Chaucer tries to explain a woman’s identity by reference to her past. Most of his women are ready to do heroic deeds. Starostina is also interested in the question of Chaucer’s characters’ education and upbringing as reflections of the poet’s own literary possibilities. Her monograph concerns noble and urban bourgeois male and female characters in the best-known poems. She concludes that Chaucer is a true intellectual due to his education, practical skills, and literary heritage. She also argues that Chaucer’s interest in Fame’s essence admits that fame is only temporary, but he believes that in the end only a man who works dutifully and does not dream of any fame deserves and obtains it. Her main point is that Chaucer’s attitude to all of his characters is one of respect and tolerance. He prefers to focus on private rather than public space. His work is representative of a transition period in English history, and he is an outstanding thinker/creator of what Starostina calls the English ProtoRenaissance [13].

Chaucer studies in Russia today thus represents both literary and historicist traditions, and focuses on Chaucer’s lively creativity. Gender is also an important category of analysis. The Canterbury Tales is Chaucer’s most “popular” text, yet his other writings deserve a great deal more attention.

 

References

1. Алексеев М. П. [M. Alekseev]. История английской литературы. М., 1943. Т. 1.
2. Аникст А. А. [A. Anixt]. История английской литературы. М., 1956.
3. Богодарова Н. А. [N. Bogodarova]. Социально-политические воззрения Дж. Чосера // Из истории социальных движений и общественной мысли. М., 1981. С. 204–219.
4. Богодарова Н. А. [N. Bogodarova]. Джеффри Чосер: Штрихи к портрету // Средние века. М., 1985. Вып. 53. С. 213–225.
5. Горбунов А. Н. [A. Gorbunov]. Чосер средневековый. М., 2010.
6. Когут Е. В. [E. Kogut]. Последние исследования в англоязычной медиевистике: гендерный подход (2012 г.). URL:http://cyberleninka.ru/article/n/poslednie-issledovaniya-v-angloyazychnoy-medievistike-gendernyy-podhod.
7. Либба Е. А. [E. Libba]. Средневековые представления о пространстве и времени на примере “Кентерберийских рассказов” Джеффри Чосера. Автореф. дис. канд. культурологии. Саранск, 2009. URL: http://www.dissercat.com/content/srednevekovye-predstavleniya-o-prostranstve-i-vremeni-na-primere-kenterberiiskikh-rasskazov-.
8. Матченя С. Р. [S. Matchenya]. Чосеровские мотивы «войны полов» в «Кентерберийских Рассказах». URL: http://pskgu.ru/projects/pgu/storage/wg6110/wgpgpu05/wgpgpu_05_09.pdf.
9. Меделева И. Н. [I. Medeleva]. Своеобразие нарративной поэтики Джеффри Чосера: автореф. дис. …канд. филол. наук. М., 2005. URL: http://www.dissercat.com/content/svoeobrazie-narrativnoi-poetiki-dzheffri-chosera
10. Попова М. К. [M. Popova]. Философские и литературные истоки «Кентерберийских рассказов» Дж. Чосера. Воронеж, 2003.
11. Праздников А. Г. [A. Prasdnikov]. Английский город XIV–XV веков: социальная структура и менталитет. Киров, 2007.
12. Сапрыкин Ю. М. [Y. Saprykin]. От Чосера до Шекспира: этические и политические идеи в Англии. М., 1985.
13. Старостина И. Ю. [I. Starostina]. Гендерные представления Дж. Чосера. Саратов, 2016.
14. Тебенев К. Г. [K. Tebenev]. Особенности брачных отношений в средневековой Англии на примере «Кентерберийских Рассказов» Джеффри Чосера // Вестник Томского Государственного Педагогического Университета. 2014. Вып. 3 (144). С. 80–86.
15. Чосер Дж. [Geoffrey Chaucer]. Кентерберийские рассказы [Kenterberiyskiye rasskazy/The Canterbury Tales] / Пер. с англ. И. Кашкина, О. Румера. М., 1973; М., 2007.
16. Штульберг А. М. [A. M. Schtulberg]. Культурологическая специфика английского гуманизма (сравнительная характеристика «Кентерберийских рассказов» Джеффри Чосера и «Декамерона» Джованни Боккаччо): автореф. дис. …канд. культурологии. М., 2008.

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