Wrestling for the Ram: Competition and Feedback in Sir Thopas and The Canterbury Tales

ChaucerWrestling for the Ram: Competition and Feedback in Sir Thopas and The Canterbury Tales

Baba Brinkman (Independent Artist/Scholar),

LATCH 3 (2010): 107-133.


In The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer uses his storytelling competition not only as a framing device to tie together a collection of tales, but also as a means to explore the increasingly dynamic relationship between literary prowess and social status in 14th century England. Through the active feedback offered within the text by the Host and by his pilgrim compaygne, Chaucer reveals the relationship between poet and audience as analogous in many ways to that between courtiers and their patrons, whose good graces must be won in order to prosper. Chaucer had a number of exemplars for his storytelling competition available to him, including the informal literary games of court, the competition among English poets for recognition as men of letters, and the recent resurrection/invention of the notion of a “poet laureate” by Petrarch. Situating Chaucer within this historical context, and within the current of cultural change that saw the court “maker” inherit the storytelling role once enjoyed exclusively by minstrels, will help us to understand Chaucer’s most striking moment of authorial self-awareness in the Thopas/Melibee link.

The Canterbury Tales is a series of diverse narratives framed within the context of two organizing principles: a pilgrimage and a competition. The competition is established in the General Prologue, and each of the twenty-four tales that make up the bulk of the text is in effect an entry. The competition is most conspicuous in the frame narrative, consisting of the introductions, prologues, and epilogues to the tales, as the pilgrims offer comments in the form of criticism or support for each speaker’s entry. The guidelines that determine one’s standing in the competition, however, are never clearly explained; they emerge instead from the feedback offered by the pilgrim audience.

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