Disseminal Chaucer

Rereading The Nun’s Priest’s Tale

Peter W. Travis

Selected as a Choice Outstanding Academic Title

Winner of the 2009 Warren-Brooks Award for Outstanding Literary Criticism

Chaucer’s The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is one of the most popular of The Canterbury Tales. It is only 646 lines long, yet it contains elements of a beast fable, an exemplum, a satire, and other genres. There have been countless attempts to articulate the “real” meaning of the tale, but it has confounded the critics. Peter Travis contends that part of the fun and part of the frustration of trying to interpret the tale has to do with Chaucer’s use of the tale to demonstrate the resistance of all literature to traditional critical practices. But the world of The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is so creative and so quintessentially Chaucerian that critics persist in writing about it.

No one has followed the critical fortunes of Chauntecleer and his companions more closely over time than Peter Travis. One of the most important contributions of this book is his assessment of the tale’s reception. Travis also provides an admirable discussion of genre: his analysis of parody and Menippean satire clarify how to approach works such as this tale that take pleasure in resisting traditional generic classifications. Travis also demonstrates that the tale deliberately invoked its readers’ memories of specific grammar school literary assignments, and the tale thus becomes a miniaturized synopticon of western learning. Building on these analyses and insights, Travis’s final argument is that The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is Chaucer’s premier work of self-parody, an ironic apologia pro sua arte. The most profound matters foregrounded in the tale are not advertisements of the poet’s achievements. Rather, they are poetic problems that Chaucer wrestled with from the beginning of his career and, at the end of that career, wanted to address in a concentrated, experimental, and parapoetic way.

PETER W. TRAVIS is Henry Winkley Professor of Anglo-Saxon and English Language and Literature at Dartmouth College. He is the author of many influential articles and Dramatic Design in the Chester Cycle.

Disseminal Chaucer is an original work of criticism that breaks new ground in its treatment of The Nun’s Priest’s Tale in its approach to the tale and in its perspective on Chaucer’s poetry as a whole. It is very historicist based, which places it in the mainstream of current medieval practices, but its background material and authoritative reading will make it fresh and current for a very long time.” — Larry Scanlon, Rutgers University

“Peter Travis’s long-awaited study of The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is without a doubt the most comprehensive and thorough treatment of the tale that we have or are ever likely to have. It is a bravura performance, an extremely well argued study that marks it as a significant contribution to Chaucer studies, one that will be closely read and consulted by both students and scholars of Chaucer alike.” — James F. Rhodes, Southern Connecticut State University

“Peter Travis opens the Pandora’s box that is Chaucer’s The Nun’s Priest’s Tale by asking a disarmingly simple question about its genre. He proceeds to detail, brilliantly, the narrative’s status as a multiplex parody, a medieval Ulysses. By refusing to reduce the tale to a singular meaning, and by maintaining that its proliferative ardors are part of its formal structure, Travis provides a tour de force analysis not only of the work but of Chaucer’s ambitions throughout The Canterbury Tales. Lucid, engaging, and great fun to read, Dissemimal Chaucer provides a compelling model for doing theory-savvy work that is scrupulously attentive to medieval textuality.” — Jeffrey J. Cohen, George Washington University

“Travis performs the difficult feat of remaining continually aware of Chaucer’s comedy, while taking seriously the pedagogical system Chaucer is parodying. His rich book provides a genuine and valuable introduction to medieval practices of reading and writing, and at the same time takes us deep into Chaucer’s thinking about poetry.” — Winthrop Wetherbee, Cornell University


“Offering stimulating, sometimes brilliant ‘high-intensity interrogations’ of ‘The Nun’s Priest’s Tale,’ Travis looks at passages and elements of the tale in terms of rhetorical, logical, and political contexts. He links these with an overall claim for Chaucer’s ultra-self-consciousness about these elements, about producing a poetry that elicits thinking about thinking . . . a commentary on a single tale that ranks among the most searching and critically sophisticated studies to date of Chaucer.” — Choice

Disseminal Chaucer is a book that spans a generation of Chaucer scholarship. Many of the book’s arguments and insights will be familiar, but the act of bringing these materials together and fleshing out the underlying thesis they share gives them new freshness and power. The parts already were impressive, but the sum is more impressive still . . . essential reading for students of Chaucer’s meta-poetic masterpiece.” — Review of English Studies

“This is an elegantly written meditation on what is arguably Chaucer’s most intertextually challenging poem. . . . Disseminal Chaucer pulls off a difficult feat: it provides an exhilarating scholastic romp through a tale that many of us assume we know all too well. . . the book’s sensitive meditations on what it means to be both a medieval and modern reader of Chaucer should be required reading for anyone who teaches Chaucer.” — Speculum

“Peter W. Travis’s Disseminal Chaucer: Rereading the Nun’s Priest’s Tale is a 443-page reconsideration of the Nun’s Priest’s Tale that explores in depth a cluster of seemingly minor, but notoriously baffling, narrative and poetic details.” — The Year’s Work in English Studies

“The book’s fresh approach to detail and its sustained linguistic attention is newly appreciated, innovative in its return to a textual focus too often neglected for larger theorizations and narrow historical contexts. Travis shows us, yet again, the compelling power of strong, sustained close reading for one of Chaucer’s best stories.” — Journal of English and Germanic Philosophy

“Informed by modern and postmodern literary theory, Peter Travis’s ambitious and comprehensive study, Disseminal Chaucer articulates fresh insights and offers a significant new reading of Chaucer’s beast fable as a Menippean didascalic parody. . . . A learned, cogent, and often provocative analysis, Disseminal Chaucer is a substantial achievement and sure to inspire further research in Chaucerian scholarship and medieval textuality.” — Sixteenth Century Journal

“The strongest element of this book is Travis’s impressive ability to dig deeper into the story’s parody and to historicize the tale within medieval educational practice and theory.” — Parergon

“A 443-page book on a 626-line poem about a rooster must be up to something, and one can tell pretty quickly that it must be something good, for Peter Travis writes with authority, ambition, generosity, and wit.” — Modern Philology