When The Great War ended 98 years ago, James Norman Hall (who would eventually co-write with Mutiny on the Bounty) walked out of a German prisoner of war camp with a copy of The Canterbury Tales in hand. As we mark this anniversary, it seems fitting to consider how the war shaped Chaucer’s global reception.
The years before the war mark the move from antiquarian appreciation of Chaucer to philological and historicist scholarship written by men affiliated with universities in England and the US.
Because the war confirmed England’s role on the global stage, the war and its pro-English colonization aftermath propelled Chaucer’s worldwide dissemination. Notably, Chaucer was beginning to be transmitted via non-Anglophone translations, a phenomenon propelled by the Treat of Versailles and its creation of international consortia that promoted and recorded translations, as evidenced in the the Translation Index begun within a decade after the end of the war.
In the States, we find evidence in the early 1920s that Chaucer’s readership was expanding through such institutional innovations as Chautauqua Institutes, Women’s Colleges, and Women’s Clubs. And though Chaucer remained primarily within institutions of higher education, adaptations for younger readers began to appear frequently, a sign parents and teachers were preparing the groundwork for the children’s later college education.