Category Archives: 14th Century
Surprisingly enough, Mother Nature actually let us have class this week. Due to last week’s snowstorm, Chaucer, unfortunately, has been cheated, which causes me much pain. Nonetheless, we have forged ahead as best we can, particularly as we acknowledge with both excitement and a bit of nervousness that our travels are getting very close indeed. “Ay fleeth the tyme, it nyl no man abyde” (The Clerk’s Tale, l. 119).
Before making the trip to Canterbury, I just wanted to finish up a bit with last week’s stay in London. I mentioned in my last post that the journal activity was focused on the Nowell Codex and, in particular, Beowulf (and its digitization). For a “crash course” in paleography, as one of my students called it, I think it allowed everyone to gain exposure to some of the issues in preserving manuscripts as well as in reading/transcribing them. I was indeed happy with many of the observations and reactions. I’ll let them speak for themselves. Here are a few excerpts:
“The actual, physical manuscript can barely be touched, and yet here we are with visual access to it, in less than a minute I had it pulled up on my computer, ready for viewing. I can zoom in and see the words, written in a language I do not speak or read, but nonetheless, they are as clear as if the manuscript lay open on the table before me.”
“I enjoyed this week’s activity a lot. As someone with a deep love of history, I enjoy seeing the original source of things that are important to culture. Being able to see the original Beowulf manuscript, even online, helped me to realize just how old this work was and how important it was as well. I hope we can see the text in person when we visit the British library!”
“I can safely say that I’m glad technology has advanced enough that we don’t need to hand write things like manuscripts anymore. Though the workmanship and effort put into it are beautiful (and most definitely were before it was damaged and old), as a writer, I’ve never been more thankful for my laptop and Microsoft word than after a “crash course” in how to read medieval writing. I can’t imagine having to write (or read) manuscripts like Beowulf, and editing them must have been like a game of telephone, with all the variants in lettering.”
“The way that this website describes translating from Old English to modern English sounds a lot like copying and reading DNA. Characteristics and personality traits are broken down into lettered sequences that are coded in ways to mean different enzymes and proteins that become essential building blocks for human DNA. The only difference is that DNA coding works backwards, from final product to basic pieces, and decoding Beowulf had a harder time with using the basic pieces to create a final product.”
In particular, the British Library podcast, featuring Julian Harrison, Curator of Medieval Manuscripts, seemed to spark a lot of interest, especially among those students who have not had the opportunity to study the text itself (sadly, time does not permit us to take a look at it in this course).
On Monday, as I indicated above, we played catch-up and were at least able to encounter The Canterbury Tales through The General Prologue. We worked on the exercise I described in my London post, which included locating points on a Google Map that correspond to each of the pilgrims. I found that there was a great deal of value in this project. First, we had to read the descriptions in The General Prologue very closely and carefully. Working in pairs, students took one pilgrim at a time and examined the information Chaucer embeds into his narrative. There was much relief when a pair drew someone like the Clerk – so clearly from Oxford!
A second benefit of this exercise is that it forced us to look up those words and places that we tend to gloss over. Where exactly is Middelburgh and why would the Merchant be associated with it? Where is the Knight’s Tramissene? Where is the Stratford-at-the-Bow from which comes the Prioress’ French? Moreover, what is a Franklin? What does a Summoner do?
As a further benefit, there are those pilgrims about whom we know few details, and no locations are directly mentioned. In that case, where might the Haberdasher, the Carpenter, the Arras-maker, the Dyer, and the Weaver be located, particularly in London? If the Yeoman is a forester and he is described as wearing a hood of green, with what or whom might we connect him (though outside of author intention on this one)? While some of the student choices were a bit (or a lot!) of a stretch (it seems all of the pilgrims could either be located in a random church or a random tavern), it was interesting to watch the close reading and the further discussion, research, and thinking through of the descriptions. I would like to do some tweaking of this exercise and use it in future classes. If you are curious about the results, take a look at our Canterbury Tales Google Map:
On Wednesday, we turned to Thomas Becket, taking a look at his murder and his very real presence at Canterbury. I am fascinated by the monuments in his honor. The display (pictured below) is very powerful, particularly with its pairing to his name in red letters on the floor. Even more, however, is the single candle which now resides in the place of his original shrine, destroyed in Henry VIII’s crime against humanity called the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The candle is a simple testament and yet captures perfectly the reverence held for the saint. Add in the utterly stunning stained glass stories of his martyrdom and miracles and it is quite an experience, one I am looking forward to sharing with my students. Speaking of stained glass, in class, we took a look at some of the windows; they are sometimes so difficult to see en masse in person. A useful resource, the Medieval Stained Glass Photographic Archive, while not complete, provides a map of Canterbury and locates photographs of the stained glass in their actual locations.
One of the ideas I always return to when I consider Thomas Becket is how he is a political martyr. The Catholic Encyclopedia describes Becket’s change of habits after becoming Archbishop of Canterbury: “A great change took place in the saint’s way of life after his consecration as archbishop. Even as chancellor he had practised secret austerities, but now in view of the struggle he clearly saw before him he gave himself to fastings and disciplines, hair shirts, protracted vigils, and constant prayers. Before the end of the year 1162 he stripped himself of all signs of the lavish display which he had previously affected.” Before this moment, he is a constant companion to Henry II, often fighting beside him as well as enjoying the pomp of their positions. His disputes with the king, though related to church matters, are of a distinctly political nature, having more to do with Becket’s unwillingness to recognize Henry’s authority than any defense of the faith, Christ, or God.
Naturally, Grim and other biographers write him in terms of his sanctity. Grim states, “Behold the simplicity of the dove, behold the wisdom of the serpent in this martyr who presented his body to the killers so that he might keep his head, in other words his soul and the church, safe; nor would he devise a trick or a snare against the slayers of the flesh so that he might preserve himself because it was better that he be free from this nature!” Yet he also describes the accusations the four knights use against Becket. They call, “Where is Thomas Becket, traitor of the king and kingdom?” Becket replies, “Here I am, not a traitor of the king but a priest; why do you seek me?” Later, right before attacking him, one of the knights cries, “I don’t owe faith or obedience to you that is in opposition to the fealty I owe my lord king.” In a letter archived in Roger of Hovedon’s chronicle and sent from William, Archbishop of Sens, to the Pope describing the murder, the Archbishop states, “they immediately, on the king’s behalf, denounced him [Becket] as a traitor.” Becket’s murder is indeed shaped as a matter of treason; he chooses his role as archbishop – or, as he is given dialogue by Grim, as a priest – over his duty to obey Henry. You throw in then the machinations among Henry, Becket, the Pope, and others in the years before that day in Canterbury, and the political nature of this murder become even more apparent. The differences between such a framework for martyrdom and the way other types of saints’ lives are constructed creates a great deal of potential, as do the differences between the historical reality (with embellishments and gaps in factual knowledge) of an archbishop’s death and the hagiographies which are more literary constructions.
To take a brief look at this concept, we focused on analyzing the structure of Chaucer’s The Second Nun’s Tale as an example of hagiography. In class, we considered the elements of Cecilia’s life and what was necessary to create her story. Then, we turned to what we had read of Edward Grim and Roger Hovedon’s accounts of Becket’s life and death. There are a fair amount of similarities, as we might expect in the construction of a saint’s life. However, where they diverge often exists in this space between literary construction and historical figure.
As I was doing my reading for this week, a fascinating personal connection developed. It has been years since I have done any reading about Becket and his murder, and, at the time, I remember finding one particular fact interesting. For some reason, however, it did not sink in. One of the knights who murdered Becket, indeed is given credit for striking the first blow, was William de Tracy. For those who haven’t made note of my surname, do so now and you will see why my interest was again piqued. For the record, I do not claim to be related in any way, but the name is enough to fire up my imagination and curiosity.
This time around, I stopped to do a little digging. William de Tracy took his name from his mother, Grace, whose father is believed to be the illegitimate son of Henry I (Barlow 235-6). Now I ask myself – he is of Norman descent, yes? Thus, I turn to France. I am finding conflicting stories about the exact location from whence the family came, but one of these stories includes a little hamlet in Normandy near Bayeux called Tracy-sur-Mer. The fun part? My family and I stayed in Tracy-sur-Mer (chosen simply because of the name) last summer. Oh, how everything is connected and circles around.
In looking further into William de Tracy and focusing on his role in the murder and the aftermath, it is fairly well accepted that de Tracy was present at the court in Bayeux at which the relations between Henry II and Becket completely disintegrated: “Tracy was certainly at Henry II’s court at Bur-le-Roi, near Bayeux, at Christmas 1170, where Becket’s conduct, and above all his excommunication of the bishops who had crowned Henry, the Young King, earlier that year, was angrily discussed” (Franklin). At the Cathedral, the knights tried it seems to wrestle Becket on to de Tracy’s back, as he was not wearing armor, in order to carry him out of the church. As I mentioned, he is credited with the first blow, the one that also injured Becket’s biographer Edward Grim. Grim writes:
He had barely finished speaking when the impious knight, fearing that [Thomas] would be saved by the people and escape alive, suddenly set upon him and, shaving off the summit of his crown which the sacred chrism consecrated to God, he wounded the sacrificial lamb of God in the head; the lower arm of the writer was cut by the same blow.
Grim’s descriptions go from gruesome to worse as he describes the vicious murder.
The aftermath of Becket’s death is where the story gets more mysterious. Most accounts castigate the four knights, demonstrating God’s vengeance, or their hopes for such, on them. William, Archbishop of Sens, in the same letter as above, hopes that “their memories may be visited with everlasting maledictions.” There are some more charitable: “Tracy seems to have been the first to come to his senses: in a confession to Bartholomew, bishop of Exeter, apparently made in Devon shortly after the murder, he said that his heart sank and he feared that the earth might open up and swallow him” (Franklin). This image of remorse is a poignant one (not that I am trying to redeem my name!). One of my personal favorite legends is the report that, as de Tracy traveled to the Holy Land to serve as a Templar, part of his penance from the Pope for his deed, God would not allow him to reach his destination as winds prevented him from making the journey. Eventually, there were rumors he died of leprosy in Italy. Another asserted that he and his fellow conspirators were buried at the door of The Temple Church in Jerusalem. It seems more likely that he did indeed make it and return, establishing leper hospitals and chapels in attempts to redeem himself. All in all, quite the stories.
Next week: we take a side trip to read about Robin Hood.
Barlow, Frank. Thomas Becket. Berkeley: U of California P, 1986.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Librarius, 1997. Web. 10 Feb. 2014.
Franklin, R.M. “Tracy, William de (d. in or before 1174), one of the murderers of Thomas Becket.” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford UP, May 2006. Web. 11 Feb. 2014.
Grim, Edward. “The Murder of Thomas Becket.” Trans. Dawn Marie Hays. Medieval Sourcebook. Fordham U, May 1997. Web. 12 Feb. 2014.
Roger of Hovedon. “The Chronicle: On the Disputes between Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury and King Henry II of England.” Trans. Henry T. Riley. Medieval Sourcebook. Fordham U, Oct. 1998. Web. 12 Feb. 2014.
Thurston, Herbert. “St. Thomas Becket.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. New Advent, 2009. Web. 12 Feb. 2014.
London, thou art of townes A per se. Soveraign of cities, semeliest in sight, Of high renoun, riches and royaltie; Of lordis, barons, and many [a] goodly knyght; Of most delectable lusty ladies bright; Of famous prelatis, in habitis clericall; Of merchauntis full of substaunce and [of] myght: London, thou art the flour of Cities all. – “In Honour of the City of London,” William Dunbar
As I discussed with my students this week, London creates some interesting difficulties, at least in terms of finding the physical remnants of the medieval city. That annoying Great Fire of 1666 has a lot to answer for! In some ways, however, the destruction is an opportunity for a little literary archaeology.
As background, we read the chapter “Images of London in medieval English literature” in Ralph Hanna’s Cambridge Companion to the Literature of London. He begins his discussion with Dunbar’s poem as well. He notes that Dunbar is a “tourist . . . not only from outwith the City but outside the realm itself” (22). Dunbar’s poem demonstrates a respect, not for the royalty, but the merchant class. He lauds, “Upon thy lusty Brigge of pylers white/Been merchauntis full royall to behold” (ll. 33-4). As Hanna asserts, this focus “reveals that it had become possible, on the edge of the early modern period, to appreciate openly what in the Middle Ages may have been too problematic for discussion. A great many medieval literati, both authors and readers, will have found . . . mercantile culture a problematic concept, if not an outright oxymoron” (21). To illustrate this point, Hanna turns to older accounts and descriptions of the city.
In class, we took a look at one of these: William FitzStephen’s 12th- century “Description of London,” which often appears as a prologue to his life of Thomas Becket. Hanna comments that FitzStephen “scarcely see[s London’s] commerce” (23). He may have a point; however, he does overlook some key lines. FitzStephen touts, “Every morning you can find those carrying on their various trades, those selling specific types of goods, and those who hire themselves out as labourers, each in their particular locations engaged in their tasks. Nor should I forget to mention that there is in London, on the river bank amidst the ships, the wine for sale, and the storerooms for wine, a public cookshop.” Later, we see even more direct mention of the middle class: “Middlemen from every nation under heaven are pleased to bring to the city ships full of merchandize.” This description is followed by a poem extolling the goods brought into the city. These lines may not comprise as high of a percentage as that in Dunbar’s poem; however, they are significant. Further, in another of Hanna’s examples, Richard Maidstone’s late 14th-century Concordia (The Reconciliation of Richard II with London), there is a distinct grandeur granted to the middle class as they gather for the processional of the king:
Then after this a decked-out troop from every guild.
Their suit proclaims that each one is quite separate:
A goldsmith, a fishmonger, and after him
A mercer bent on trade, a seller of fine wine,
A grocer, baker, painter, and a stonemason,
A knife-maker, a barber, and an armorer,
A carpenter, a shearer, tailor, shoemaker,
A skinner, dyer, shopmonger, a smith as well,
And here the bowmen, butchers, and the thatchers too,
The lorimers and drapers too, they came along;
A sheather, girdler, were here, a weaver there,
A chandler and a waxmaker were there as well;
A brewer and a stirruper, a joiner too,
As well there was a fruiterer and poulterer.
Among these guilds a welcome “A” stands on an “R”
[ . . . . . . ]
A glover, pursemaker, a taverner, a cook:
From each one’s suit of clothes, his craft was clear to see. (ll. 79-95)
Hanna addresses these lines as a “dressed up” London, and perhaps we can also chalk it up to the fact that this particular work is “only” a hundred years prior to Dunbar’s. Nonetheless, it indicates that the mercantile activity of London was not as absent from the literature of the city as Hanna makes it seem.
We did not take a look at Maidstone’s Concordia as a class; however, it is a rich text. In particular, it is a vivid description of traditional processional routes throughout the city. The two stops made by the king particularly relevant to our travels are St. Paul’s and Westminster Abbey. Hanna offers his thoughts concerning the significance of these locations: “[T]he king enters St Paul’s to make his offering to the City’s patron, St Erkenwáld, a famous Anglo-Saxon’bishop of London. But near the procession’s conclusion, the king effectively atones for any possible dereliction from or dilution of proper royal religious sympathies by a stop at Westminster Abbey” (25). The king’s stop at St. Paul’s is to honor the city and his stop at Westminster, traditional coronation site, honors the kingdom, demonstrating that the two are not always one and the same; indeed, they find themselves in conflict frequently.
The reference to St. Erkenwald leads us to another very “London” poem. It has been a while since I have taken a look at the late 14th-century Saint Erkenwald, but, if I may be forgiven for quoting myself in an article I published a few years ago, “Defining the Medieval City through Death,” it is clear that the poem and the saint are distinctly London: “This work has long been acknowledged as a text intimately tied to the city [London] in which it is set. The poem’s opening prologue sets the text firmly within the English city, describing it as the ‘metropol’ and the ‘mayster-toun,’ ‘the chief city’ . . . [T]he pseudo-history of London is recounted throughout the course of the text – how Brutus founded the city and so forth – all of which is situated in chronological relationship with the life of Christ, the effect of which is to create a parallel timeline for the city . . . The Saint Erkenwald poem represents a nexus of these images – historical and contemporary London, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and a saint with strong urban ties” (200-2). St. Erkenwald is a local saint, London’s patron, his story resonating with the inhabitants of the city even as his body is physically present in St. Paul’s.
In order to prepare for our visit – and perhaps lessen the element of shock in being there – we spent some time in groups in class researching the medieval histories of four of the “must see” sites we will get a chance to experience: St. Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, Tower of London, and Temple Church. General discussion focused on the rebuilding or, at the least, the building on to of these landmarks as well as how William the Conqueror keeps showing up in these histories. Beyond that, we took wild turns: learning about Templars, considering the separation between London and Westminster, wondering about the “oldest surviving door in England” in Westminster Abbey, thinking about how churches keep being rebuilt on the same locations, and reflecting on the crown jewels.
From London’s history and literary representation, we will be turning to London author Chaucer, starting our journey to Canterbury in Southwark with his pilgrims. I say “will be” because we have been delayed by Mother Nature’s strange preoccupation with snow. However, I’ll speak to our good intentions for playing catch-up.
The starting point is as always the famous lines from The General Prologue (in translation as we are encountering the text in class):
It happened that, in that season, on a day In Southwark, at the Tabard, as I lay Ready to go on pilgrimage and start To Canterbury, full devout at heart, There came at nightfall to that hostelry Some nine and twenty in a company Of sundry persons who had chanced to fall In fellowship, and pilgrims were they all That toward Canterbury town would ride. (ll. 19-27)
As I was rereading, I decided I wanted to think about our pilgrims in a different way than I have taught them previously. Given our focus on physical locations and locating literature within its geographical context, I thought it would be interesting to decide as a group upon locations that correspond to each of the pilgrims. To that end, I created a separate Google Map from our class project just for The Canterbury Tales, and, through discussion and some digging into the text, we will fix these locations. Some provide no difficulties – the Wife of Bath being the most obvious. However, others will require some close reading, research, and/or further extrapolation (based upon professions or other clues in the text). For those pilgrims whose tales we are also reading – these include the Cook, the Merchant, the Man of Law, the Pardoner, and the Second Nun – we can, if need be and is possible, use their prologues to help us. I have already posted locations based on their journey, including quotations from various prologues that allow us insight into where the travelers are. Snow willing, I will post again when we have completed this activity. I think it should be intriguing to see the results.
As a side note: I am always amused by the Cook’s Tale. It’s just such a romp (and, for our purposes, a London romp), and, though it provides little in substance, it leaves us with Perkyn’s friend’s prostitute wife. It’s almost unfair that it stops there.
The journal activity of the week is focused on the Nowell Codex. As we intend to visit the British Library to see the Beowulf manuscript (fingers crossed it is not pulled from display for some reason), I wanted students to have some background so they would be more knowledgeable about what they will see. To that end, we are reading through and examining a series of sites:
- British Library page on the Beowulf manuscript (both the video and the podcast, located at the end)
- British Library Sir John Ritblat Gallery page
The activity includes responding in journals about the information learned in these sites as well as reflecting on the experience of looking digitally at this manuscript. Part of the intention is to take a whirlwind tour of medieval manuscripts by looking at the Beowulf in particular. I am curious what the students will pull out for this exercise.
Next week: we will continue our journey to Canterbury.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Librarius, 1997. Web. 3 Feb. 2014.
Dunbar, William. The Poems of William Dunbar. Ed. Bellyse Baildon. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1907. Print.
FitzStephen, William. “Description of London.” Florilegium Urbanum, 10 Dec. 2013. Web. 3 Feb. 2014.
Hanna, Ralph. “Images of London in medieval English literature.” The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of London. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011. 19-33. Print.
Maidstone, Richard. Concordia (The Reconciliation of Richard II with London). Ed. David R. Carlson. Trans. A.G. Rigg. TEAMS Middle English Text Series. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2003. Web. 3 Feb. 2014.
Tracy, Kisha G. “Defining the Medieval City through Death: A Case Study.” Urban Space in the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Age. Ed. Albrecht Classen. Fundamentals of Medieval and Early Modern Culture 4. New York/Berlin: de Gruyter, 2009. 183-204. Print.
Day 3: Medieval Drama and Marie de France
Today began with me playing moderator to a session sponsored by the Medieval and Renaissance Drama Society, “Post Death/After Life on the Medieval and Early Modern Stage. Two of the presenters are friends and colleagues of mine, and I was pleased to moderate for them. The three papers were really thought-provoking. For instance, the N-Town Lazarus and the Chester Antichrist plays have a great deal of conditional language in them – “if…then.” The Antichrist in the Chester states (paraphrasing), “If I can indeed bring these people back from the dead, then you shall believe in me.” The consolers in the N-Town make conditional statements concerning what Lazarus should do on his death bed. It made me think about the nature of such statements and how they would work very well in drama. For one, it encourages anticipation – will this indeed happen? Or will such and such character really “fall for it”? It also encourages the audience to consider the conditions on offer. Do they believe it? Would they react differently? Is a character presenting “truth” or is he offering “false truth”? The conditional statements work well in developing engagement.
Another thought this panel raised concerns the Ars Moriendi. I have studied the Ars Memoria quite a bit, and it occurred to me while listening to the paper on N-Town by my friend that I should look in to the Ars Moriendi as well. Its discussion of what to do at the end of life, how to meet death, might have some great implications for memory.
After this session, I attended the International Marie de France Society business meeting. I have decided to join, which means I need to return my membership form (note to self). Afterwards I stayed for the Teaching Marie de France roundtable I mentioned here yesterday. Some interesting points of discussion were raised. The first was a link to the site Performing Medieval Narrative Today, which I think is going to be an excellent resource for teaching. In addition, an historian was on the panel, who talked about using Marie de France – Bisclavret, in particular – in his history courses. This is a topic near and dear to my heart, as I feel history and literature are almost inseparable, and I enjoy hearing about teachers who make the connections between them. I am going to consider using his primary source suggestions in my own teaching of Marie: Fulbert of Chartres, “On Feudal Obligations” and Ranulf de Glanvill, “Treatise on the Laws and Customs of the Kingdom of England”. Juxtaposing these next to Bisclavret could promote some productive discussions about lord/vassal relationships, as demonstrated by Bisclavret and the King.
All for now – I am off to a business meeting of the Society for the Study of Disability in the Middle Ages!
A few years ago, I started building in a final-day debate in my Chaucer class about the argument mounted by Terry Jones et al. in Who Murdered Chaucer? Our discussion involves looking over the evidence (or, at least, the compelling quirks and lacunae in the historical and literary record which Jones’ crew marshals as evidence) concerning the end of Chaucer’s life. This year, for the first time, I suspect we may decide he was murdered.
I originally began doing this because a student stumbled onto Jones’ book while researching his paper on Richard II’s patronage of Chaucer, and suddenly he (and, quickly, the rest of the class) became obsessed with the thrilling possibility that there might be secret murder waiting for them at the tail end of the course. To save our remaining weeks from devolving into a morass of speculation (mostly from students who hadn’t read Jones’ book and were merely using the “well, sure, that makes sense” form of reasoning that makes logicians cry into their pillows at night), I promised that we’d take the time on the last day of class to lay out everything we knew about Chaucer’s fate.
Three things happened in that first investigation. First, the class, with two holdouts, rejected Jones’ argument as lacking in evidence, though most also said that Who Murdered Chaucer? did effectively undermine their confidence in the traditional non-story of Chaucer’s final months (if you haven’t read the book, by the way, I encourage you to do so at your earliest opportunity–it’s a glaring example of partisan scholarship, but it makes for a fine read–and if its answers aren’t entirely satisfying, its questions are well-put and at least suggest that something’s not quite right with the official explanations). Second, the class was more excited and rigorous than I’d seen them all semester–digging through our textbook, comparing manuscript and historical evidence (I’d put together a handful of “evidence” slides, including the BL MS addl. 5141 portrait of Chaucer, close-ups of Chaucer’s tomb, and a couple of genealogies), proposing hypotheticals, and (bestill my heart) using the indices and textual notes in no fewer than three editions of Chaucer’s works. Third, and perhaps obviously, I decided on the spot that I’d be adding this investigative piece to the end of the course from then on.
I now seed in a few teasers about the final “investigation” meeting over the course of the semester. Every year, students are intrigued, but at the final meeting their conclusions have ranged from “maybe he escaped from England, but we can’t prove it” to “he probably died in the sanctuary at Westminster, but the ‘Complaint to his Purse’ is kind of disturbing.” This year my students are really looking for evidence that Chaucer’s poems and involvement at court was putting him in a potentially dangerous position if ever he lost Richard’s protection, and a couple of students considered papers about whether the ‘Wife of Bath’s Tale’ was specifically written to irritate religious conservatives–and especially Thomas Arundel. Jones’ book, of course, eventually accuses Arundel of Chaucer’s murder…but my students, unless they’ve tracked down the book, don’t yet know that. There’s something of a Da Vinci Code-style close reading going on, which results in some questionable conclusions–but which is also evidence of real thinking and brain-stretching going on, which I’m a fan of.
Over the last couple of meetings, however, things have taken a definite the-truth-is-out-there turn, culminating in a student suggesting that the ‘Nun’s Priest’s Tale’ might be a specula principum in which the fox represents the Lords Appellant, Chanticleer stands in for Richard, Pertelote takes the part of those who counsel reconciliation with the Lords, and the barnyard mob which outshouts Jack Straw’s murderous rebels are somehow representative of Richard’s loyal friends and subjects. Sharp-eyed readers of Chaucer, of course, may note that a lot of this reading ends up treating the ‘Nun’s Priest’s Tale’ as a kind of echo of the advice-to-Princes reading of the ‘Tale of Melibee’). It’s a new reading of the text, I admit (I tend to think of the chase scene as a moment of Chaucerian exuberance, myself, and have a hard time not humming “Yakety Sax” while reading it), but it’s indicative of an undercurrent in the room. I think this group, for whatever reason, might be the one that buys Jones’ conclusions fully–and if they do, I’m looking forward to hearing what sort of an argument they stitch together to make it work.
It’ll make for an interesting final discussion, in any case…
As I mentioned on a previous post, I took a trip to England this summer, both as (primarily!) a vacation and as a bit of a test run for a future study abroad course I will be leading in 2014 (that date just looks impossible and yet it is incredibly near). Here, as promised, are a few notes…
Bodiam Castle, East Sussex, built 1385. I actually chose this particular site somewhat at random. Travelling with my six-year-old nephew, I wanted to make sure he saw a little of everything, and this castle has…wait for it…a moat! As it turns out, it was a good decision. In a remote area, Bodiam is rather an idyllic setting , which explains, as I learned later, why it was such a popular destination in the 18th century – a perfect opportunity to discuss medievalism and the varying interest in the period up to present times.
Bodiam Castle, chapel ruins
I was particularly intrigued by the chapel ruins at Bodiam. With no roof and the only remnants the empty window frames, it invokes a sense of the passage of time. It’s easy enough to imagine what it originally looked like, and yet there is the bittersweet melancholy of decay. Bodiam was the first site we visited, and I think it is an effective starting point – low-key, yet interesting, and definitely beautiful.
Westminster Abbey, Chapter House
Westminster Abbey, London (well, really, Westminster). Westminster needs no justification as a place to visit. The amount of connections that can be made at the Abbey are limitless. Chaucer and Poet’s Corner. Edward the Confessor. Coronations. Architecture. The place is packed full (quite literally) of history and culture. Constructed in the mid-13th century, the Chapter House, however, deserves a great deal of attention. From the oldest door in England (1050!) to its paintings and stone benches, it is by far my favorite spot in Westminster.
Tower of London
Tower of London. Like Westminster, the Tower really needs no justification. Its historical striations are complex and compact, building on each other and creating a spider web of English culture. Here is the moment to connect medieval and Early Modern history together, demonstrating how it develops rather than abruptly shifts. For myself, I am always intrigued by the Norman presence within the White Tower, particularly the chapel.
Tower of London, inside St. Thomas’s Tower
Canterbury Cathedral, Kent. For a medievalist, every trip to Canterbury Cathedral is a pilgrimage. It is easily one of the most prominent literary sites, of course. This was my first time at Canterbury, and it didn’t disappoint. Winding through streets, looking for the cathedral, then finding it at the end of an alley. The gateway obscuring it until you get close enough to peer through, and then your breath is taken away. I was fortunate in that it was a beautiful day – all blue skies and cotton clouds. When we first arrived, there was a graduation ceremony taking place inside, and, as luck would have it, the choir was singing. A perfect moment. Like any medieval visitor, I stared straight up in awe. It’s difficult not to. The sheer scope of the cathedral is unbelievable.
The crypt is the place to go first. We were found by a lady working there who told wonderful stories about Becket. I found it easier to conceptualize the inside of the cathedral after having seen the crypt.
Canterbury Cathedral, shrine of Thomas Becket
The shrine to Thomas Becket is also a powerful aspect of the cathedral (and well-represented with the above sculpture and the single candle marking where his tomb rested) – and again the opportunities for teaching are endless.
Dover Castle, Kent. I have already posted about Dover, so I won’t say much here. Still, I wanted to include a photo.
Glastonbury Abbey, site of alleged tombs of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere
Glastonbury Abbey, Somerset. If I absolutely must choose my favorite site from this trip, I will have to go with Glastonbury Abbey (the birds of prey exhibit and being able to hold a falcon definitely added to the experience). Given one of my interests is Arthurian literature, being able to visit the ruins was a special treat. It helps that it lived up to expectations as a peaceful place, worthy of all the stories of its sacredness and import. There are two signs (one of which is above) marking the Arthurian significance of the site. I think it would be quite a revelation to students after reading any version of the death of Arthur. Hic jacet sepultus inclitus rex Arthurus in insula Avalonia .
Lindisfarne, Holy Island, Northumberland. Lindisfarne is a long drive up north, but well worth it. There’s an inescapable excitement in crossing over the causeway – after consulting the tidal charts just to make sure you don’t get stranded there! The little village, surrounding the Priory ruins, and the castle looming in the distance make for quite the atmosphere. I don’t think students can appreciate the vulnerability of Lindisfarne to the Viking attack in 793 until seeing it. There is an exhibition concerning the Gospel – the manuscript itself is travelling to the island, I believe, next year. I was concerned that the Island was too far out of the way, but I really wouldn’t want the students to miss it.
Lindisfarne Priory, view from the sea side of the island
Chesters Roman Fort, Hadrian’s Wall
Chesters Roman Fort, Hexham, Northumberland. Chesters was built to guard the part of Hadrian’s Wall that crossed over the bridge on the River North Tyne. The ruins are very well-preserved, particularly the rather intricate bathhouse. It’s an excellent example of life in Roman Britain, with the museum providing all kinds of artifacts from Chesters and other parts of the Wall. There are two sections of the Wall itself still intact, demonstrating how the fort and the Wall connected. I chose Chesters for the sake of ease of travel; however, Corbridge Roman Town is another site I will consider in the future as a companion to it.
Sherwood Forest, Major Oak
Sherwood Forest, Nottinghamshire. I said above that Glastonbury was my favorite site. This is only because I put Sherwood in a class of its own. There are many things I could say about the forest, but I will limit myself to its pedagogical assets. First on that list is, of course, its literary connections. Seeing Sherwood makes the stories real. However, beyond that, I think the sheer age of the forest is its value. It is difficult, even for New Englanders, to grasp the weight of time in England as compared to the United States. In Sherwood, it is inescapable.
I think the key to a study abroad trip of this nature is variety – expressing ideas, history, and culture from the perspective of different types of people, different architecture, different ways to connect what they have read to what they are seeing. With all of these sites, we have cathedrals, abbeys, castles, rural areas, cities, islands, forests, etc. We have Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Norman, Middle English, Early Modern. In case you haven’t picked up on it, the word “connection” is very important to me – as an individual, as a researcher, and as a teacher. I have some tweaking to do as well as some adding (I want to include some libraries into the mix), but I’m calling the test run a success.
I, naturally, have all kinds of texts in mind to assign for this course, but I would be interested in hearing ideas about what you would assign as companions to these sites.
PS For more photos, see my Flickr set.
The new semester is well underway, and my teaching load this semester (one section of History of the English Language, one section of Chaucer’s Works, and two sections of a Second-Year Seminar on the Oxford Inklings) means that I’m busy with reading–prep work for classes and piles of student work. As usual, I’ve also got several books around the house in various states of being read–Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death, Frederick Hackwood’s Old English Sports, Timothy Jones’ Outlawry in Medieval Literature, and Armin Brott’s The Expectant Father (this will, of course, require a separate entry soon).
I’ve also got a book that caught my eye in a used bookstore a while back–an 1876 edition of Reverend T. F. Thiselton Dyer’s British Popular Customs Present and Past. It’s an quirky bit of armchair sleuthing in which the Reverend Dyer collects accounts of the various festivals, customs, and local oddments from around the British Isles and from texts drawn from a millennium’s worth of writers and historians.
As a bit of personal entertainment, I’ve started reading the appropriate day’s events and celebrations whenever the calendar dictates it, and today’s entry on St. Scholastica’s Day caught my eye as a useful cautionary tale about the long-standing tension between town and gown. The story is drawn from William Huddesford’s 1772 The Lives of Those Eminent Antiquaries John Leland, Thomas Hearne, and Anthony Wood:
“The Burghers or Citizens of Oxford appeared in their full number on St. Scholastica’s Day at St. Mary’s. Alderman Wright, their oracle, told them that if they did not appear there might be some hole picked in their charter […] he told them moreover that, though it was a popish matter, yet policy ought to take place at this juncture in time. The origin of this custom was a furious contest between the citizens of Oxford and the students. Some of the latter being at a tavern, on the 10th of February, 1354, broke the landlord’s head with a vessel in which he had served them some bad wine. The man immediately collected together a number of his neighbors and fellow-citizens, who, having for a long time waited for such an opportunity, fell upon the students, and in spite of the mandates of the Chancellor, and even the King himself (who was then at Woodstock), continued their outrages for several days, not only killing or wounding the scholars, but, in contempt of the sacerdotal order, destroying all the religious crosses of the town. For this offense the King deprived the city of many valuable privileges, and bestowed them on the University, and the Bishop of Lincoln forbade the administration of the sacraments to the citizens of the town.”
The story then goes on to explain how, after three years of petitioning, the town of Oxford was able to win a commutation of the sentence, but only so long as, on St. Scholastica’s Day each year, the citizens came to St. Mary’s and swore “observance of the customary rights of the University, under penalty of 100 marks in case of omission of this ceremony […] The traditional story that the mayor was obliged to attend with a halter around his neck […] has no real foundation.”
Can anyone else think of any good stories (real or fictional) of medieval students and townsfolk at odds? I’ll spot you The Reeve’s Tale as a freebie…
I’ve just spent a few minutes stocking up my Netflix account with a set of films and documentaries with a vaguely medieval theme, ranging in quality from “looks like a pleasant enough way to kill a couple of hours” to “how bad could it possibly be?” This is one of the ways I like to entertain myself during breaks from teaching, and sometimes it pays off with a new short scene to use or reference in a lecture, or at least with greater (if sometimes painful) knowledge of what my students may have seen or heard recently. One of the documentaries that popped up during my search is a hideous misfire by the History Channel called The Dark Ages (A&E Home Video, Dir. C. Cassel, 2007), which I actually watched during a break this past year. The Dark Ages was merely bad—poor production elements, questionable research, and people who looked as if they wished they were elsewhere. I watched it and forgot it.
The Dark Ages DVD, however, harbored a dark secret—a second documentary, The Plague (A&E Home Video, Dir. R. Gardner, 2005), which was presumably deemed so terrible that it was never given an independent release and instead was hitched onto The Dark Ages‘ bonus features rather like a surprise yersinia pestis-carrying flea on a rat. I watched this second excremental documentary in a state of disbelief—and, caught somewhere between horror and grudging wonder, I offer the following comments. In the interest of getting on with my day, I’ll limit myself here to just five moments in The Plague that made me want to scream out my pain and agony and then track down the writer and director to make them suffer as I have suffered.
FIVE MOMENTS IN THE PLAGUE THAT SAPPED MY FAITH IN HUMANITY
1. The narration
The story this documentary and its guest experts (who acquit themselves reasonably well and, I assume, had no idea what was going to be done to their efforts) are trying to tell is already quite dramatic enough–the Great Mortality (the actual name used in the 14th century for the plague; “Black Death” wasn’t coined until the 19th century) wiped out something close to half the population of Eurasia in the space of a few years, and left a fundamentally different geopolitical and socioeconomic world behind. Apparently this wasn’t thought to be enough to sustain the interest of the target audience of this documentary (children? Intelligent border collies? Steven Seagal fans? Steven Seagal?), so the producers tracked down a voice-over actor who contributed a passable impression of the movie-trailer guy (“In a world where…”) and gave him a script that also sounds like a bad movie trailer, so that the narration provides us with grimly-intoned but oddly silly lines like “they had no idea that within the ships were cargoes of food, textiles…and death.” One assumes that, in fact, the crew of the average 14th century merchant ship did know that at least two of those things were down there, unless sailors were routinely shocked when they’d peer down into the ship’s hold: “Say, Guiseppe, where did all these carefully-stowed containers of cinnamon, pepper, and assorted foodstuffs of the East come from? And is that a waterproof-wrapped selection of costly silks brocaded with silver thread down there, or am I nuts?”
Oh, and while we’re on the voice work…
2. The silly, silly accents
Admittedly, this is a pet peeve of mine–movies and documentaries that want us to understand that the person speaking is NBOA (Not British Or American), but that don’t trust us to read subtitles. The solution, and it’s apparently so obvious that even the director of The Plague figured it out, is to bring in actors to put on fake and hilarious accents so we know they’re playing foreigners. In this documentary, there are “Mongols,” “French,” and “Italian” speakers in addition to English speakers (and, of course, the Movie Trailer guy). Leaving aside for the moment the problem of sticking modern versions of these accents on the characters, and the fact that they’re all speaking modern English anyway, it’s hard to take the whole thing seriously when half the speakers sound like Peter Sellers. The whole thing reaches the height of inanity when a voice-over, purportedly that of Italian chronicler Gabriel di Mussis, speaks on the horror of the plague: “Alla-mighty a-God, son ava de entire-a human-a race, we are-a wallowing in-a the mire av manifold-a wickedness…” I assume the voice actor was wearing a bushy black mustache, holding a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, and recording his lines on break from helping his brother Luigi to fight Donkey Kong. Later, the same actor reads an account by Agnolo di Tuola of the early mass graves dug in the Italian countryside, presumably not realizing that his I’m-a-da-pizza-guy delivery somewhat undermines the gravity of the lines: “In-a many-a places, great-a peets were dug and-a piled-a deep with-a da multitude of-a da dead…”
3. The presentation of various popular legends as fact
There are a few really egregious examples here–my favorite is the recounting of a well-known (and, quite possibly, true) story about the Mongol army using “crude catapults” to toss plague victims into the city of Kaffa. The narrative seems a little confused about whether or not this happened:
“While the story might be more legend than fact, the Mongol pestilence spreads to the townspeople of Kaffa. But while these facts seem clear, a mystery remains…”
I should say so. For starters, what facts are we talking about here? Why bother including the disclaimer immediately before asserting that the catapult-a-plague strategy was real? How, exactly, do apocryphal stories spread disease? And while we’re at it, is it worth mentioning that plague could also be spread quite easily between two clashing armies, with or without what the narrator (in another of his Movie Trailer moments) calls “the first example of germ warfare”?
4. A World Gone To Hell
I lost count of the number of variations on this particular theme–it’s almost the theme of the entire film. I counted at least half-a-dozen actual references to “hell on earth” or “a world gone to hell.” It’s not a question of whether things were really very bad in the late 1340s–they absolutely were. The problem is that these lines, almost invariably, are accompanied either by pictures of actual fire (even if that means just showing a torch on a wall) or by totally incongruous images (such as a bored-looking Jewish merchant named “Agamnet” or something similar, whose performer was apparently chosen specifically for his ability to make Jewish merchants look shifty and untrustworthy, but who here seems to be wondering whether he left the oven on). Apparently the idea of people actually dying of a disease they couldn’t explain and couldn’t stop isn’t horrifying enough, but a picture of a large candle is meant to make us widdle ourselves in horror.
5. Joan of England
The documentary builds its narrative around a number of key figures (among them Pope Clement VI, the physician Guy de Chauliac, and Agamnet). One of the major plotlines revolves around Joan of England, the teenage daughter of the English king Edward III. Since essentially the only significant thing anyone knows about Joan is that she died in 1348 on her way to Castile to meet her fiancé, the documentary has to work extra-hard to build some kind of suspense around her story. It fails utterly to do this, opting instead for a series of tooth-achingly-ironic ruminations on the elaborate security precautions and vast personal guard her father expended on getting her safely to Castile: “Along with many distinguished clergymen and diplomats, 100 bowmen will make the journey will make the journey to protect this…precious cargo. But their precautions will come to nothing. Within a year, almost all of them will be dead...” Later, in case we’d forgotten, we are reminded, “Joan is perhaps the most well-guarded woman in Europe right now…but archers and castle walls cannot shield her from an unseen enemy. The phantom, the plague, strikes randomly.”
By the time Joan finally grows ill, we are fully expecting an over-the-top moment, and even here the documentary goes beyond our wildest hopes and fears. As we watch the actress playing Joan laugh and toss her hair fetchingly with her attendants, the narrator intones, “Joan, princess of England, favorite daughter of the king of England, does not survive. Like almost half the population of Europe, she falls victim…” [dramatic pause, while church bells begin to chime] “…to the Black Death. Her father, Edward III, is powerless to do anything but mourn.” And the scene fades out, but not before we are treated to a fade-in of magnified green-tinted yersina pestis bacteria and a brief image of a skull over Joan’s face.
There’s plenty more that was equally ridiculous–the hammy overacting of the Flagellants; the constant re-use of a limited amount of re-enactment footage (so that peasant burials in Italy, France, Germany, and England all involve suspiciously familiar-looking peasants); the shots of Joan of England playing “Ring Around the Rosey” with her friends, seemingly without the connect-the-dots irony which limns the rest of her story; the depiction of prostitutes in plague-era Germany as, apparently, bawdy Italians; and on and on.
If you have the opportunity and are of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 temperament, I recommend hunting down the full documentary and treating yourself to an unparalleled viewing experience. If you take the rather narrow view that something calling itself a “documentary” ought to resist forced melodrama or, indeed, be in any way based on documentary evidence, then you can probably afford to skip it.
In the meantime, does anyone have any recommendations for me to add to my Winter Recess viewing list?