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:
Click to see 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.
British Library MS, Harley 5102, f. 32: Detail of a miniature of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket: he kneels before the altar, and one of the four knights, perhaps William de Tracy, delivers the first blow, which cuts into the arm of Edward Grim, the cross-bearer; Reginald FitzUrse (identified by the muzzled bear on his shield) strikes the top of Becket’s head. (Description from British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts)
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.
Click to enlarge
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.