Category Archives: Chaucer

The Story of the “Chaucer Pilgrimage Site”

It all started with this:
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I and a couple of students were presenting at the New England Association of the Teachers of English Fall 2014 Conference. As I checked in, the woman at the table told me about the mini-grants. Apparently, to apply all you had to do was write out a proposal on the back of the form and turn it in by the end of the conference. Never one to turn down an opportunity, I mulled ideas as I listened to the keynote speaker. As I considered my courses, I naturally focused on my upcoming Chaucer class in Spring 2015. I had not taught a course just on Chaucer yet, and I was still considering ways to make his texts and Middle English accessible to my students.
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My thoughts wandered, considered a variety of options and dismissed them. Then, I came up with the “Pilgrimage Site.” I would create a physical location in our English Studies Department that students would have to visit. Pilgrimage can be complex for students to apply to their modern experiences, especially the difficulty with traveling in the Middle Ages.
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What would they do when they got to the Site? Pilgrimage badges! I decided that I would have students “journey” to the Site, pick up a badge specific to our readings of the week, and then leave their own offerings at the Site to represent their understanding of some aspect of the texts.  Students would take photos, provide analysis of their badges and objects, and discuss other students’ objects in a public Facebook group.
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I wrote it up, turned it in, and received quite a surprise when I got the email that I had been awarded the mini-grant – its first ever university awardee.
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Now came the planning. I have never had more fun planning a course than I did in selecting badges that matched our readings. Students would be visiting the Site every other week, which ended up being seven weeks. I wanted students to have choices, so I provided at least two badges per week.
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Before the semester started, I created our Site with the generous support of the department giving me a corner of one of our study rooms. I also decided that the Site would not be complete without Chaucer himself.
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It soon became the “thing” to do to take a selfie with Chaucer. Several of my colleagues in the department (and around the university) took their photo with our author. I received the generous permission from some to post them on the project’s Facebook page, which generated more interest among my own students who were delighted at this development. And, of course, I couldn’t resist the opportunity myself.
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Having set up the Facebook page (click here to see!), with the beginning of the semester, we began our pilgrimage project.
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The Badges
Week 1 – The Book of the Duchess – Black Knights and Tiny Books
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Week 2 – Troilus and Criseyde – Wheel of Fortune Magnets and an Arrow
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Week 3 – General Prologue – Pilgrim Pins and Becket Prayer Cards
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Week 4 – The Friar’s and Summoner’s Tales – Bags of Flour and Frying Pans
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Week 5 – The Pardoner’s Tale – Treasure Chests and Bells
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Week 6 – The Clerk’s Tale – Brooms and Wedding Rings
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Week 7 – The Franklin’s Tale – Star Chart

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Student Objects
As the semester progressed, our Site became more and more populated with objects students left to represent their readings.
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So What Did I Learn?
For me, this”Pilgrimage Site” became a deliberate study of pedagogical physical and digital spaces. In thinking about ways to negotiate the technology-filled learning environments, we may already have discovered one method that we are not utilizing to its fullest extent – the concept of hybridity. Integrating both physical and digital spaces in more dynamic ways than simply using face-to-face class time as the “physical” aspect allows each to enhance the other. The “paper” and “digital” worlds and teaching practices do not need to be in conflict with each other or be mutually exclusive; they can work together in highly productive ways. The students participated and were immersed in the cultural practice of medieval pilgrimage as well as had a different, creative, active experience with the works of Chaucer. It encouraged interaction with the texts outside of class through cooperative physical and digital interaction. I highly recommend this type of activity!
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What About You?
  • Do you have a similar idea? Post it in the comments!
  • How would you analyze each of the badges above? What badges would you have chosen? Comment!

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Filed under Chaucer, Teaching, Technology, Uncategorized

Kalamazoo 2014: Saturday (BABELing Punctuation)

Yesterday, I spent time at the exhibition hall and early dinner, so I only made one session. As it happened, it was a rich session and one in which I got to play a small role. This panel was the BABEL working group’s discussion of our ever favorite and often frustrating punctuation marks. Each member of the panel addressed a different type of punctuation: the space, the apostrophe, the comma, the interrobang, the asterisk, and the ampersand. The talks ranged from the outrageous to the poignant, which perhaps illustrates an idea that came up in more than one of the talks: punctuation both incites emotion and drives it. How it incites varies. For instance, who has not seen or experienced the frustration elicited upon encountering a missing apostrophe (as David Hadbawnik pointed out in countless memes devoted to the subject)? This (and I proudly admit I’m one of the most rabid) despite that many punctuation marks are in relative infancy of their so-called modern codification (ex. earlier in its history, the apostrophe was indeed used to form the plural: tomato’s).

Yet, the emotion of punctuation is not limited to that created by its misuse. Its significance, for instance, in literature and poetry can be the difference in whether the writing speaks or is mute. My friend Josh Eyler presented on the comma, and a few weeks back he asked if I and another friend, Cameron Hunt McNabb, would be up for helping him with a rather unorthodox plan. How could we not? His idea was indeed unorthodox, but a perfect fit for the concept of his talk and the concept of the panel. After a brief introduction, Josh began to discuss the Margaret Edson play Wit of which there is also a film version starring the incomparable Emma Thompson. The play is about Vivian Bearing, an English professor and a Donne scholar, who is diagnosed with cancer, and the story is a series of flashbacks that follow the path of her treatment. At a pre-arranged cue, Cameron and I stood up out of the audience and, entering from both sides of the stage, began a dramatic reading of a scene from the play that Josh had described. If I hadn’t been a bit preoccupied, I would have liked to have seen what I am sure was surprise from the audience! Unorthodox indeed.

To speak to the scene, however, it is a moving moment that revolves around, of all things, the comma. In the flashback, Vivian remembers a discussion with her professor, Dr. E.M. Ashford (my role in our amateur production), in which she is told to rewrite a paper because she has used the wrong edition of Donne’s “Holy Sonnet Six” in favor of one that is “inauthentically punctuated.” What begins as humorous turns to the poignant as Ashford verbally removes all the unnecessary punctuation from a line of the poem, returning it to the “authentic edition’s” simple comma.

“And death shall be no more, comma, Death thou shalt die.”

“Nothing but a breath – a comma – separates life from everlasting life.”

A breath. After our scene, Josh expanded upon this concept as he considered thinking of time periods as commas, thus reminding us that we are only separated from the Middle Ages by a breath. He drew even more from this as he indicated that we also are only separated from our students by a breath, a comma, a pause, rather than the “insuperable barriers” that all too often get built.

The scene in the film:

To move on to the rest of the panel, my thoughts are rather a jumble. I will attempt to sort them with one of my own favorite punctuation: the bullet mark.

  • The first talk, “Seeing Spaces” by Chris Piuma, brought up one idea in particular that I want to mull further. He commented that spaces are inserted into editions and all text for the purpose of making reading easier. When it does, what happens then when we (or students) are asked to read something with non-traditional spacing (insert medieval MSS)? He acknowledged that poetry often does complicate spacing, but not everyone reads poetry and gains this experience.
  • Meg Worley, in “The Divorce of Punctuation and Diacritics,” indicated how, in literary history, some authors wanted control of punctuation, and yet others ceded it to the publisher, having little interest in it. How do these choices affect or even control the reader? We should consider our own interaction with punctuation and not be afraid to “push back” and question how works are punctuated. What kind of speculation and analysis would present itself if we consider passages with commas (re)moved or statements becoming questions?
  • As an example, in a way, of the idea of reconsidering punctuation as printed, Corey Sparks (remotely through the miracle of YouTube – see full presentation below) reimagined a few Chaucerian passages by replacing certain punctuation added in by editors and adding the interrobang (‽). This mark can indicate querying surprise and can often complicate narrative with its presence. In particular, Sparks considers passages from the Book of the Duchess, one into which editors often assert an assortment of punctuation.

  • Robert Rouse tackled the asterisk. The idea that struck me the most from his talk was his consideration of the Middle English dictionary and the asterisk as search tool (adding an asterisk to a truncated word being searched allows the dictionary to search for more forms). Rouse described this as smoothing over the edges of what we don’t know, offering us options and possibilities. He likened this way of looking at the search tool to our entire field, suggesting we should think in terms of Medieva*.
  • Jonathan Hsy brought us the ampersand (&). He sifted through a great deal of information and history, but I was drawn to his last point. He showed the image of the Tristan + Isolde film poster (posted below), which has the tag line: “Before Romeo & Juliet, there was Tristan + Isolde.” I still do not have a conclusion about the parallel use of the two marks (unlike my views on the film itself), although I am intrigued by the medieval vs. Early Modern reading.

I believe I will stop there, although there were many fascinating ideas presented that I did not discuss. I will end with the same question someone else raised at the end of the panel: what has happened in scholarly history that we can now be this playful with punctuation?

Hopefully, tomorrow, I will finish the last of the Kalamazoo posts.

–Kisha

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Filed under Chaucer, Conferences, Kalamazoo

English Studies Abroad: “To Caunterbury they wende”

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:

CanterburyMap

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.

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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.

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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.

Class links:

Next week: we take a side trip to read about Robin Hood.

–Kisha

Click to enlarge

References:

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.

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Filed under 14th Century, Chaucer, History, Teaching, Travels

English Studies Abroad: “London, thou art the flour of Cities all”

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.

St. Paul's Cathedral

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 AbbeyTower 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.

London - Tower of London, White Tower

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.

Canterbury Map

Click to enlarge

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:

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.

Class links:

Next week: we will continue our journey to Canterbury.

–Kisha

References:

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.

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English Studies Abroad: Bath

This week, in English Studies Abroad (see previous post), we are “visiting” Bath. By “visiting,” we are focusing our study and readings on the city, as we will do with different locations (or figures) each week. For Bath, my goal is to focus on the striations of history, important not only for this particular place, but also to set the tone for the rest of class as well as provide a basic overview of British history. It’s been intriguing preparing for this week because, not being an expert in the nitty-gritty details of each city, there are aspects I am learning along with my students. I love it as it increases my enthusiasm with the material.

We started our “visit” with the city’s Roman-British history, which, of course, centers on the public baths, the hot springs being the reason people settled around it in the first place. Originally a shrine to the deity Sulis, the Romans named the area Aquae Sulis, co-opting the deity and aligning it with their Minerva. The Roman preoccupation with public baths is well-known, even to the point that they found it necessary to build them into the frontier forts along Hadrian’s Wall. I visited Chesters Fort a couple of years ago; the baths there take up about a third of the settlement (the following is a photo of the remains of the baths).

Chesters Roman Fort (Hadrian's Wall)

I have been having a particularly entertaining time reading about the curse tablets people would throw into the waters, hoping to get revenge on those who have wronged them. The tablets, some on display at the Roman Baths, which we will visit, are quite explicit – asking for the blood of the cursed or something a bit more or less gruesome (interesting images and background on the tablets).

When the Romans pulled out of England, we can imagine what places like Bath must have looked like, particularly a few centuries later, with the remains and ruins of their baths and stone walls. I ruminated in class about the idea that the images we see in the Exeter elegy The Ruin, if we step back from metaphorical readings, might be a glimpse of the experience of the Anglo-Saxon living with the physical Roman past.

Wondrous is this foundation – the fates have broken
and shattered this city; the work of giants crumbles.
The roofs are ruined, the towers toppled,
frost in the mortar has broken the gate,
torn and worn and shorn by the storm,
eaten through with age. (ll 1-5)

I like to think about the connection to our own journey as we explore the ruins of generations that came after this poem’s composition. Of course, it is widely speculated, and often debunked that The Ruin is written about Bath, but it is still an idea I find poetic.

The hot springs appear to have been widely known, if their appearance in the histories is any indication. Nennius, for instance, included them as one of his “Wonders of Britain,” a list often attached to the end of manuscripts of his Historia Brittonum. The pools at Bath were described as having magical properties – cooling and warming upon the desire of the bather. The reputation no doubt was increased by the perceived medicinal or miraculous, depending on your point of view, healing qualities. By the time we reach Geoffrey of Monmouth, Bath is associated with the great Battle of Badon Hill, thereby incorporating it into the Arthurian tradition to which Geoffrey’s work greatly contributes.  In his Prophecies of Merlin, it is foreseen that Bath/Badon’s waters “shall grow cold, and their salubrious waters engender death” (VII.3).

A portion of our discussion has focused on Bath’s position throughout its Roman and Anglo-Saxon history as a border or frontier town. As we can see from this map of Roman Britannia (c. 150AD), Bath, not located on the map but which lies to the south and a bit to the west of Gloucester, is situated on the outer western borders of Roman-occupied territory.

By the time of King Alfred the Great, Bath was a contested area between Mercia and Wessex (and even more so as the Danes pressed in from the north, before and after the Danelaw was created).

When Alfred began building up his series of fortifications throughout the kingdom, Bath was one of these burhs, listed in the Burghal Hidage, a document containing an account of these fortifications and their taxes (always an important piece of information for kings). At Bath, he had masons use the existing Roman stone as part of their reconstruction and strengthening of the city walls.

The borderland space that Bath occupied created unique opportunities, including its development as an influential market town. That particular characteristic carried over for quite some time, particularly as it became known for its wool trade. The merchant guild was formally recognized in the 12th century. Eventually, Catherine of Alexandria became the patron saint of the city – her wheel of torture perceived in the requisite spinning wheels. How well known Bath became for its wool and textiles can be seen in Chaucer’s “General Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales. We find the Wife of Bath naturally associated with her clothing and her cloth-making skills: “Of clooth-makyng she hadde swich an haunt/She passed hem of Ypres and of Gaunt” (ll. 449-50). Readers would have more than likely been very aware of Bath’s foremost industry.

We found it of particular note that Bath, after the Norman Conquest, was purchased by John of Tours following the Rebellion of 1088 between William the Conqueror’s sons. The winner William Rufus – quite a guy. He liked to sell or grant lands and bishoprics to his personal favorites. The note-worthy part of this exchange is the fact that John of Tours was a doctor (he was at the Conqueror’s deathbed). Given the persistent belief about the healing qualities of the springs, we can perhaps speculate that his occupation led to the rise in the next century of several hospitals, St. John’s, for instance. In the 13th century, leper houses developed, segregated baths built to ease their suffering. The hospitals, as was the wont of their medieval incarnations, served as hospices for the elderly, who were often soothed by the hot baths.

There is so much more to think about, particularly the history of another of our destinations, Bath Abbey, which has fascinating historical striations on its own and is connected on every level to the city’s various pasts, from the Anglo-Saxon when it was first built to the later hospitals to its present incarnation. We can stop at medieval Bath or continue on with Queen Elizabeth I’s favor and the revival of its spas, which are extremely popular by the time we get to Jane Austen and Bath’s appearance in several of her works, including Persuasion (my favorite of the novels) and Northanger Abbey.

An exercise I found enlightening as we prepare to visit Bath is a site put together for those interested in walking tours of southern England. In its description of the walk, it overlays the outlines of medieval Bath with the present-day city. Comparing these descriptions to Google Maps (in satellite mode) is a useful way to visualize landmarks and timelines.

Our Google Map project is getting off the ground, which you can see here (unfortunately, WordPress has not caught up with the new GM embed code). Also, here is the link to a collection of some of our online readings in Readlists (including background, news articles, texts, maps, etc.).

Next week, King Arthur!

–Kisha

Resources:

Chaucer, Geoffrey. “From The Canterbury Tales: General Prologue, lines 447-478: The Wife of Bath.” Librarius, 1997. Web. 18 Jan. 2014.

Davis, Graham, and Penny Bonsall. A History of Bath: Image and Reality. Lancaster, UK: Carnegie, 2012. Print.

Geoffrey of Monmouth. “Arthurian Passages from The History of the Kings of Britain.” The Camelot Project. University of Rochester, n.d. Web. 18 Jan. 2014.

Manco, Jean. Bath Past. Building History, 15 Oct. 2007. Web. 18 Jan. 2014.

“Two Old English Elegies from the Exeter Book: The Wanderer and The Ruin.” Trans. R.M. Liuzza. English 401: Introduction to Medieval Literature. University of Tennessee-Knoxville, n.d. Web. 18 Jan. 2014.

Weissman, Hope Phyllis. “Why Chaucer’s Wife Is from Bath.” Chaucer Review 15.1 (1980): 11.36. JSTOR. Web. 18 Jan. 2014.

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Guest Post – Jenny Adams: Humor, Guilt, and Ethical Choice: The Trials and Tribulations of Teaching the Miller’s Tale

We are fortunate to have another friend of MassMedieval as a guest. Please read and enjoy her thoughts about teaching the Miller’s Tale. Thank you, Jenny!

Jenny Adams is Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of MassachusettsShe has articles in Studies in the Age of Chaucer, the Journal of English Germanic Philology, Essays in Medieval Studies, The Chaucer Review, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Teaching, and the Journal of Popular Culture. Her book, Power Play: The Literature and Politics of Chess in the Late Middle Ages (University of Pennsylvania Press) was published in 2006, and her edition of William Caxton’s The Game and Playe of the Chesse (TEAMS Middle English Texts series) appeared in 2009.

By any measure, the Miller’s Tale contains the funniest lines of Chaucer’s oeuvre.  It all starts when Alison puts her ambiguously identified “hole” out the window for Absolon to kiss, which he does “ful savourly.”  On the heels of this comes Nicholas’s attempt to “amenden al the jape” [improve the joke] and flaunt his own naked “ers.”  His ensuing fart helps Absolon brand him with the red hot coulter, an act that delivers the story’s coup-de-grace.  As Nicholas cries out “Water!” John, who sleeps in the barn and awaits the second flood, cuts down the tub he has so carefully hung from the barn roof, thereby injuring his own body and exposing himself as a fool.   I’ve taught this story for fifteen years, and it still makes me smile.   But the Miller’s Tale no longer makes me laugh. 

It was not always thus.  When I first came to the Miller’s Tale, I was like Alison.  No, I was not weasel-like in body, nor were my eyebrows “ful smale ypulled.”  Rather I had the innocence with which the Miller imbues her.   At age 18 (Alison’s own age, incidentally), I shared her “Tee Hee” at her silly antic, one that subsequently puts in play a chain reaction of jokes.  Minutes later, my “Tee Hee” soon morphed into a full belly laugh, one that upset the woman next to me at the UCLA library.  It made me love Chaucer.  It turned me into a medievalist.

Today, though, I gaze on the Miller’s Tale with a more Reeve-like eye, suspicious of the story and his motives for telling it.  Unlike Oswald, I’m not so foolish as to read myself into it. Nevertheless, I cannot help but read the tale’s riotous ending in context that, while not excluding the story’s humor, doesn’t account for it.   As I try to impress on my students, these lines necessarily provoke a more complicated reaction than a simple “Tee Hee.”  John’s injury ultimately leaves us frustrated by his ignorance and also angry at the clerical failure on display.  We can definitely blame John for willful insistence on ignorance, but the parish officials must share some of the blame for his duping.  Similarly, Nicholas, whose lines echo those of Arcite, forces us to read the Miller through the lens of the Knight’s Tale as we wondered about the ways the tension between free will and fate in turn shape our capacity for ethical choice.  And finally, the weirdly prescient mind-reading of Nicholas—“A berd!  A berd!” he cries in response to Absolon’s thinking of the same word—raises questions about the relationships between men, both here and in the other tales around it.

All of this is well-trodden ground in Millereque interpretation.  Today, when I taught it, I posed no radical readings, my goal being simply to open up the text to my students so that they could 1) understand the complications embedded in it, and then 2) come to their own conclusions about it.

Yet this act itself represents an ethical choice on my part and a bit of guilt.  For opening up these lines in academic ways necessarily forecloses them in others.  Once one starts reading closely, it’s hard to go back to the “Tee Hee.”  Which in turn makes me realize that while my first reading makes me Alison, my subsequent readings make me John.  While his willful repression of some knowledge might literally cripple him, there is a way I, too, yearn to overlook Chaucer’s “privitee,” to ignore the preaching of the academic glossers, and to recapture my “Tee hee.”

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The Parlement of Conspiracy Theorists

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…

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