With Brexit, UK Betrayed Spirit of Chaucer

Canterbury Tales

Monday

 By voting to pull out of the European Union on Thursday, the United Kingdom violated the spirit of Geoffrey Chaucer. Allow me to explain.

In my opinion, no author captures what is best about the British as well as Chaucer, especially in The Canterbury Tales. One of the great works in the English language is about characters from every walk of life coming together in a common endeavor and sharing stories. This is all the more remarkable in that many are far from exemplary. While the Knight, the Parson, and the Plowman are models to be emulated, the Summoner, the Pardoner, the Reeve, the Merchant, the Miller, the Friar, and a number of others are real scoundrels.

Nor do they all get along. The Miller and the Reeve have an argument, as do the Summoner and the Friar. Each tells a tale denigrating his rival’s profession. And then there’s the Pardoner, who insults the Wife of Bath, while the Innkeeper tells the pilgrim-named-Chaucer that his “drasty rhyming is nat worth a toord!”

And yet they all manage to coexist. They are operating under a set of rules, set up by the Innkeeper, in which each gets to freely tell his or her tale while everyone else listens. The pilgrim who tells the best tale receives a free dinner at the end. Some of the tales are uplifting, some bawdy, some boring. The Wife, pleased to have center stage, delivers a prologue to her tale that goes on and on.

As my son Toby pointed out to me, they don’t live within information silos but gain insight into each others’ experiences. It’s as though (this again from Toby), they have “friended” on Facebook people with a wide variety of views. No one gets excluded.

And then there’s the author, who takes each character seriously. Chaucer knows how to listen, which is the ultimate form of respect. His listening explains the greatness of the work, how he is able to create such compelling and such detailed characters.

And since this is a post about Brexit, let’s note how much Chaucer owed to the continent, especially France and Italy. He traveled many times to France and Italy, became friends with Petrarch and Bocaccio, and borrowed heavily from Dante and The Romance of the Rose. He was thoroughly cosmopolitan and, as a result, changed the face of the English language. He made Shakespeare possible.

In short, Chaucer was generous, open-minded, and interested in everyone and everything. If the UK retreats into a very un-Chaucerian insularity, it will dwindle into a second rate country.

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