Dr. Robert Epstein challenges a long tradition of Chaucer criticism in his latest publication, Chaucer’s Gifts: Exchange and Value in The Canterbury Tales, due to hit bookshelves in February.
The Canterbury Tales is a story about stories and storytelling, so it’s always appealing to people who love literature in all its varieties...
— Dr. Robert Epstein, associate English professor
With its overflow of holiday parties, office grab bags, and secret Santa exchanges, December is undoubtedly the largest gift-giving month of the year. Yet during this time of frenzied consumerism, Fairfield University Associate English Professor Robert Epstein, PhD, is focusing literary fans' attention on the much nobler notion of a gift economy, in which goods and services are given without the expectation of receiving payment or something in return.
In his latest book, Chaucer’s Gifts: Exchange and Value in The Canterbury Tales, due for release in February 2018, Dr. Epstein digs beneath Geoffrey Chaucer’s often criticized portrayal of the Middle Ages as a deeply commercial culture in The Canterbury Tales, to reveal the more subtle theme of a gift economy at work. He argues that the world of The Canterbury Tales harbors deep commitments to reciprocity and obligation "which are at odds with a purely commercial culture, and demonstrates how the market and commercial relations are not natural, eternal, or inevitable — an essential lesson if we are to understand Chaucer’s world or our own.”
The author and Chaucer aficionado recently shared some insights into his upcoming publication and how he hopes his findings will help overturn a long tradition of Canterbury Tales criticism.
What inspired you to write this book?
Dr. Epstein: This book was inspired primarily by my conversations with our own brilliant professor of anthropology, Dr. David Crawford. I had been trying to understand The Canterbury Tales in terms of money and economics. The tales reflect Chaucer’s interest in money and the commercial world, and economic criticism is an increasingly popular approach to his work. But my conversations with Dr. Crawford introduced me to economic anthropology, and specifically gift theory, which applies just as well to the exchanges in The Canterbury Tales, but provides a completely different way of calculating value.
Over the years, you have published widely on Chaucer and medieval English Literature. What is it about Chaucer’s work that resonates with you so deeply?
Dr. Epstein: There are many Chaucers to like, but I am probably most attracted to Chaucer the comic and ironic social observer. I was interested in applying contemporary social theory to The Canterbury Tales, so I wrote several articles using the theories of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who is very popular among literary critics. It was then that I discovered the more neglected social theories of economic anthropologists. These seem extremely valuable to me, because they allow me to see how Chaucer’s satire of social habits and values in his own time are equally applicable to our time.
Why do you think The Canterbury Tales is still so relevant and widely celebrated centuries after its publication?
Dr. Epstein: Well, there are many reasons to love Chaucer. He’s a brilliant poet. He’s often called “The Father of English Poetry” since he was the first to write English poetry in the sophisticated and literary style that we expect from the great poets of the past. And The Canterbury Tales is a story about stories and storytelling, so it’s always appealing to people who love literature in all its varieties, and to people who want to tell stories themselves.
What message do you hope readers will take away from your book?
Dr. Epstein: Today, more than ever, we are told that commercial relations — the market, contracts, money and economics — are the most natural and ideal forms of social relations. The gift theory that I’m applying in this book shows that this is not the case. Commercial relations are not natural, inevitable, or ideal, and there are other and often better ways to understand our connections and obligations to each other. This is true in Chaucer stories, and it’s true for us.
Dr. Epstein has published extensively on late medieval English literature throughout his professional career. He has previously written several books on Chaucer, including Chaucer Scogan and Scogan’s Chaucer, Sacred Commerce: Chaucer’s Friar and the Spirit of Money, and The Lack of Interest in the Shipman’s Tale: Chaucer and the Theory of the Gift.