Obscene Chaucer and ‘Decent’ German

Guest post by Dr Mary Boyle, University of Oxford

What’s more surprising: that there was enough German interest in Chaucer during the nineteenth century to fill hundreds of pages of annotated bibliography, or that, amongst all these works, you could count the number of German Canterbury Tales translations on the fingers of one hand? There were four men who took on the task of bringing substantial portions of Chaucer’s magnum opus to the German masses – not counting those who offered concise summaries or translated short extracts. In this post we’ll take a look at the three translations published before 1872, when Chaucer Studies became institutionalised in the German-speaking world, with the establishment of the first chair in English at Strasbourg. Each translator wrestled with the question at the heart of the COMMode project: what does it mean for a great poet to be obscene?

Chaucer’s status as a great poet mattered to our German translators on an ideological level because they tended to stake their own complex claims to him, laid out in pages of densely printed paratext. But Chaucer’s greatness also mattered for another, far more practical reason: it was a defence against the charge of obscenity. And ‘charge’ is precisely the word: in what would become Germany, the categorization of material as ‘unsittlich’ [indecent, immoral] or ‘unzüchtig’ [obscene] had legal implications which were formed and reformed across the nineteenth century (for more, see Sarah L. Leonard’s Fragile Minds and Vulnerable Souls: The Matter of Obscenity in Nineteenth-Century Germany). The Canterbury Tales might have been different from most works targeted as obscene, which tended to be pamphlets and novels, but changing understandings of obscenity meant that it sailed close to the wind: by 1851, obscenity was a specifically sexual offence, and as the century wore on, it became clear that a historical setting or characters did not automatically excuse a text from prosecution. Ultimately, works were considered immoral if they were deemed likely to encourage immorality in their audience.

Our translators knew that they had to address the obscenity question head on. Chaucer evidently already had a smutty reputation in Germany before any translations appeared, so they couldn’t just ignore it. His canonicity mattered, because it was the best defence against charges of obscenity. But equally, that obscenity ran the risk of undermining his canonicity. So the translators went about proving that, not only was the Canterbury Tales not just a dirty old book, but it wasn’t really even that dirty anyway. At least, not in a way that couldn’t be handled. But this actually functioned as a series of tacit admissions that the Canterbury Tales was, by the standards of the day, recognisably obscene. Handling it required, essentially, censorship.

By and large, our translators didn’t want to give the impression that they were altering a Great Poet’s work. Chaucer’s first translator, K.L. Kannegießer (Gottfried Chaucer’s Canterburysche Erzählungen, 1827, vols 1, 2), it’s true, was less bothered about iconoclasm – but then again, the golden age of German Chaucer criticism was years in the future when he wrote that ‘one can … only with difficulty name him a great, or even a national English poet, but amongst the ranks of second-tier poets, he can take an honourable place’. He felt free to leave all of the ‘salacious tales’ out of his translated selection, even if ‘many of the salacious ones are the wittiest’. Kannegießer was following in the footsteps of Dryden, who, in leaving out the tales containing ‘Immodesty’, also noted if he had ‘desired more to please than to instruct’, precisely those tales would have been candidates  for inclusion.

By the time our next translator, Eduard Fiedler, came along in 1844 (Chaucers Canterbury-Erzählungen), leaving out the salacious tales was no longer an option – but leaving them in still required an explanation for ‘rational readers’. This appears at the start of the paratext, meaning that the first thing readers encountered was a nineteenth-century content warning, a ‘Parental Advisory’ sticker: an acknowledgement that the Canterbury Tales contained material liable to cause offence. Clearly Chaucer’s bawdiness was such common knowledge that readers – and, presumably, censors – would want to know how it was to be dealt with. Fiedler’s argument for including the obscene tales is, in summary, that a literary work worth translating shouldn’t be mutilated, not least because that might give an unduly favourable impression of its author; that Chaucer’s sensibilities are simply in tune with his era; and that his most obscene tales are also his most entertaining – not that Kannegießer saw this as a defence. Fiedler, unlike his predecessor, believes in Chaucer’s national significance, and is loath to exclude what he views as the poet’s best work. But because – to cut a long story short – his best work is also his bawdiest, Chaucer’s canonicity is intrinsically connected with his obscenity. Perhaps for this reason, Fiedler directly challenges the censors, stating bluntly that he doesn’t believe that educated adults can be corrupted by reading coarse material – though he also covers his back by suggesting that those ‘who are afraid of being unpleasantly affected’ (‘female readers’, specifically), should skip the Miller’s Tale and the Reeve’s Tale. In the translation itself, Fiedler puts up further defences against the allegation of obscenity: wherever possible, explicit vocabulary is rendered with mild euphemisms: farts become wind; arses (and holes) become behinds; seduction, rather than swyving, is the order of the day.

We can debate how far proceedings are changed by Fiedler’s preference for gentle language. But linguistic arguments really come to the fore for his successor, Wilhelm Hertzberg (Chaucer’s Canterbury-Geschichten, 1866). His introduction hits the standard notes of canonicity (‘by far the most significant work of older English poetry’) and bawdiness. The latter results in various omissions and deviations, despite Hertzberg’s stated belief that an expurgated version of the Canterbury Taleswould be ‘mutilation’ and ‘murder’. But if Hertzberg is to be believed, he’s not personally to blame for these changes. They are just linguistically necessary: ‘High German emerged as a written language, and has therefore been decent since its beginning’. It simply wouldn’t be possible for him to translate Chaucer without making revisions because the only terminology available to him belongs either to ‘the pedantic earnestness of medical compendiums or legal deeds’ or to ‘the very lowest vernacular idioms’, neither of which would fit into ‘our decent High German’. His solution is to paraphrase what is ‘essential’ and to omit what is not. Suspiciously enough, this – he says openly – is an issue ‘only where sexual relationships come into play’.

Hertzberg’s paraphrases tend, in practice, towards obfuscation (see Lucy Fleming’s recent post). In his hands, Alisoun the Miller’s wife doesn’t stick ‘hire hole’ out of the window, but ‘looked out of the window –– and not from the front’, while the blunt statement that Absolon ‘had kist hire ers’ becomes an ‘evilly directed kiss’. Hertzberg doesn’t change events, and the attentive reader will know exactly what’s happened, but he certainly makes things harder to understand.

So how do obscenity and canonicity fit alongside one another in these translations? For Kannegießer, the solution is easy: Chaucer isn’t that important, so there’s no need to worry about the fact that his best work is also his dirtiest – just leave it out. For Fiedler and Kannegießer, the concern isn’t that Chaucer’s obscenity actually invalidates his literary significance, but that, for their contemporaries, it might be perceived to do so. If obscenity can’t be removed, editorially or by argument, they can try to cover it up a little – make it decent.


Mary Boyle is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow and Junior Research Fellow at Linacre College, Oxford and the author of Writing the Jerusalem Pilgrimage in the Late Middle Ages (D.S. Brewer, 2021). You can follow her on Twitter here.

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