Explores how Geoffrey Chaucer’s blunders in the classic Canterbury Tales make it far from a perfect masterpiece

Table of contents

Introduction: On Chaucer’s Badness
1. The Catalog of Trees and Epic Digressions of the Knight’s Tale
2. The Broken Arm and Sympathetic Cuckold of the Miller’s Tale
3. The Stoic Dawn Song and Comic Rapes of the Reeve’s Tale
4. The Fornicating Wife and Incomplete Completion of the Cook’s Tale
5. The Bounteous Boat and Prosperity Theology of the Man of Law’s Tale
6. The Forgotten Maiden and Phallic Renaissance of the Wife of Bath’s Tale
7. The Damned Pan and Exemplary Inconsistencies of the Friar’s Tale
8. The Dead Children and Anti-Carnivalesque Humor of the Summoner’s Tale
9. The Wretched Smock and Gendered Theodicy of the Clerk’s Tale
10. The Apologetic Narrator and Fragmented Perspectives of the Merchant’s Tale
11. The Nurse of Digestion and Camp Pleasures of the Squire’s Tale
12. The Stony Lady and Lovely Contradictions of the Franklin’s Tale
13. The Executed Governess and Errant Themes of the Physician’s Tale
14. The Dead Man Walking and Pseudo Crux of the Pardoner’s Tale
15. The Groanworthy Puns and Semantic Enigmas of the Shipman’s Tale
16. The Forgiving Readers and Mitigated Antisemitism of the Prioress’s Tale
17. The Singsong Meter and Aural Agonies of the Tale of Sir Thopas
18. The Immoral Allegory and Boring Maxims of the Tale of Melibee
19. The Hundred Endless Threats and Tragic Genres of the Monk’s Tale
20. The Cock’s Words and Chaucerian Tripletalk of the Nun’s Priest’s Tale
21. The Invisible Nun and Chaste Orgasms of the Second Nun’s Tale
22. The Textbook Rhetoric and Pedantic Poetics of the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale
23. The Empty Birdcage and Paradoxical Punishment of the Manciple’s Tale
24. The Meek Heretic and Narrativeless Narrative of the Parson’s Tale
Conclusion: The Better Badness of Chaucer’s Retraction


Acclaimed for centuries as the “Father of English Literature,” Geoffrey Chaucer enjoys widespread and effusive praise for his classic Canterbury Tales—and rightfully so. Still, even the greatest of authors cannot claim perfection, and so Bad Chaucer: The Great Poet’s Greatest Mistakes in the Canterbury Tales analyzes his various missteps, missed opportunities, and other blunders in this peerless masterpiece. From a vexing catalog of trees in the Knight’s Tale to the flirtations with blasphemy in the Parson’s Tale, this volume progresses through the Canterbury Tales story by story, tale by tale, pondering the most egregious failing of each in turn. Viewed collectively, Chaucer’s troubles stem from clashing genres that disrupt interpretive clarity, themeless themes that undermine any message a tale might convey, mischaracterized characters who act without clear motivation, purposeful and otherwise pleasureful badness that show Chaucer’s appreciation for the humor of bad literature, and outmoded perspectives that threaten to alienate modern readers. Badness is not always to be lamented but often celebrated, even cherished, for badness infuses artistic creations with the vitality that springs from varied responses, spirited engagements, and the inherent volatility of enjoying literature. On the whole, Bad Chaucer: The Great Poet’s Greatest Mistakes in the Canterbury Tales swerves literary criticism in a new direction by examining the provocative question, for too long overlooked, of what this great author got wrong. 

Tison Pugh is Pegasus Professor of English at the University of Central Florida. He is the author or editor of over two dozen books, including On the Queerness of Early English Drama: Sex in the Subjunctive and Chaucer’s (Anti-) Eroticisms and the Queer Middle Ages

Bad Chaucer’s best features are its provocative starting point and its comprehensive commitment to identifying ‘a wider range of lapses and blunders in such topics as thematic consistency, narrative coherency, and character development’ in each of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, even the ones that are frequently overlooked by critics. The author has an impressively broad and comprehensive knowledge of Chaucerian texts and criticism. The writing is lucid, lively, and graceful.”

- Carissa Harris, Temple University

“Pugh’s para-fanfiction is a savvy and erudite response to those moments in the Canterbury Tales that disturb the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief by making them stumble: continuity errors, clichés, contradictions, narrative irresolutions, the genre trouble of the Knight’s Tale, the purposeful, so-bad-it’s-good infelicities of Sir Thopas, or the troubling antisemitism of the Prioress’s Tale. Pugh does not develop a theory of antiaesthetics but rather anatomizes the reader’s disquieting sense that in Chaucer things sometimes don’t add up.”

- Ruth Evans, Saint Louis University

“Reading from the contemporary perspective of most students, this ‘bad book’ on Chaucer uses the very frustrations of modern audiences as well as Chaucer’s own falterings in genre and characterization to reveal what is both insightful and enjoyable in the Canterbury Tales. With its original way of organizing and cross-referencing its sections both chronologically and thematically, the book gives its own readers different pathways into Chaucer’s otherwise frustrating or confusing stories.”

- Elizabeth Scala, University of Texas at Austin

"Pugh’s willingness to kick Chaucer off his pedestal is a refreshing departure from staid scholarship on the poet, but it’s clear that Pugh’s criticisms stem from a deep love for his subject, warts and all. The result is an unusually lively take on the medieval classic."

- Publishers Weekly

Read: Reviewed by Publisher's Weekly | 11/3/2023
Read: Author Q&A | 01/16/2024