Chaucer's Gifts

Exchange and Value in the Canterbury Tales

Author(s) Robert Epstein

Language: English

Genre(s): Literary Criticism

Series: New Century Chaucer

  • February 2018 · 256 pages ·216x138mm

  • · Hardback - 9781786831682
  • · Paperback - 9781786831699
  • · eBook - pdf - 9781786831705
  • · eBook - epub - 9781786831712

About The Book

Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the most celebrated literary work of medieval England, portrays the culture of the late Middle Ages as a deeply commercial environment, replete with commodities and dominated by market relationships. However, the market is not the only mode of exchange in Chaucer’s world or in his poem. Chaucer’s Gifts reveals the gift economy at work in the tales. Applying important recent advances in anthropological gift theory, it illuminates and explains this network of exchanges and obligations. Chaucer’s Gifts argues that the world of the Canterbury Tales harbours 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.


‘In this major study, Robert Epstein expertly and nimbly draws on (and intervenes in) gift theory to overturn a long tradition of Canterbury Tales criticism, demonstrating that, for Chaucer, social relations were not inevitably structured by the market – and neither are they for us. In this way, Epstein not only provides a more profound appreciation for the imaginative scope of the Tales, but also a more expansive grasp of social possibilities for the present.’
-Robert Meyer-Lee, Agnes Scott College

‘Deploying a wide range of anthropological theory rarely put before literary critics and students, Chaucer’s Gifts unravels the critical assumption that The Canterbury Tales is dominated by the values of emerging Western commercialization. As an alternative, Epstein demonstrates how a more complex understanding of gift-exchange and social obligation is necessary to appreciate Chaucer’s many-sided perspective. This book is an important contribution to the growing number of studies reassessing late-medieval literature’s place in its economic settings, and an eloquent argument for using premodern literature to see in new ways the origins, paradoxes, and blindness of modern neo-liberal assumptions.’
–Professor Andrew Galloway, Cornell University


Introduction: Chaucer’s Commodities, Chaucer’s Gifts
1 The Franklin’s Potlatch and the Plowman’s Creed: The Gift
in the General Prologue
2 The Lack of Interest in the Shipman’s Tale: Chaucer and
the Social Theory of the Gift
3 Giving Evil: Excess and Equivalence in the Fabliau
4 The Exchange of Women and the Gender of the Gift
5 Sacred Commerce: Clerics, Money and the Economy of
6 ‘Fy on a thousand pound!’ Debt and the Possibility
of Generosity in the Franklin’s Tale

About the Author(s)

Author(s): Robert Epstein

Robert Epstein is Professor of English at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Connecticut. He has published widely on Chaucer and late medieval English literature.

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