With NCS Postdoctoral Fellow producer and host R.D. Perry, Ruth Evans (Saint Louis University) and Sylvia Tomasch (Hunter College, CUNY) discuss the history of the New Chaucer Society (including the founding of the original Chaucer Society under Frederick James Furnivall).
News & Events
January 22, 2018
CLICK HERE to listen to a talk by NCS/SLU Postdoctoral Fellow Dr R.D. (Ryan) Perry. Given at Saint Louis University as part of the Department of English Textual Revolutions speakers series, October 25, 2017.
January 9, 2018
John Burrow, who died at the age of 85 on 22 October, 2017, brought new grace and sensitivity to the understanding of medieval English literature, and was one of the most influential scholars of his generation. The earliest of his many classic studies, published in 1965, provided an interpretation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that remains standard today. His other books illuminated all the great poets of the period, in particular Chaucer, Gower, Langland, the Gawain-poet, and Hoccleve. He wrote with clarity and wit, and had no time for the narrow professionalism that characterises so much academic writing. Always judicious and perceptive, he was attentive to small detail, for example opening our eyes, as one might say, to the significance of winking in medieval texts.
John began his academic career in 1955 as an assistant lecturer at King’s College, London. As a fellow of Jesus College, Oxford, from 1961, he collaborated with his friends John Carey and Christopher Ricks to breathe fresh life into the stuffy English syllabus. His teaching, which I was privileged to enjoy for three years, combined academic rigour with humour and insight, and not least, extraordinary patience. His writings of the period represent a new invigorating critical approach. The first of his many studies of Piers Plowman, ‘The Action of Langland’s Second Vision’ (1965), which had begun life as part of an uncompleted postgraduate thesis, reveals brilliantly how the poet shaped this part of his narrative. It has recently been described as ‘one of the most influential essays ever written on the poem’. Ricardian Poetry (1971) still underpins our understanding of Middle English literature, with its penetrating analysis of the features that define the late fourteenth century as a literary period.
He spent a year as Visiting Professor at Yale University (1968-9), but Yale could not persuade him to leave England, and in 1976 he took up the Winterstoke Chair at Bristol University, where he served for many years as Head of Department and subsequently Dean of the Faculty, always acting with a humanity and generosity that did not necessarily chime with the priorities of university management. During this period, his publications, including
Medieval Writers and their Work (1982, 2008), The Ages of Man (1986), and Langland’s Fictions (1993), continued unabated, despite his time-consuming duties. From 1983 to 2006 he served as Honorary Director of the Early English Text Society, and in 1986 he was elected Fellow of the British Academy.
Chaucerians will remember with particular affection a little essay as perfect as the poem it so brilliantly analyses, ‘An Agony in Three Fits’, reprinted with other pieces on Sir Thopas in Essays on Medieval Literature (1984). John’s second collection, English Poetry in the Late Middle Ages (2012), includes the fine ‘Vituperations in Chaucer’s Poetry’, as well as several essays on Gower and Hoccleve. Not yet published is a charming essay ‘What was Chaucer Like?’, comparing the self-portraits with those by Hoccleve and Lydgate.
He was an accomplished editor, beginning with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for Penguin (1972), followed by the anthology English Verse 1300-1500 (1977). When we edited A Book of Middle English (1992, 1996, 2005) together, I learnt that he had a remarkable ear for Middle English idiom, always avoiding the traps that the rest of us fall into, always coming up with exactly the right equivalent in modern English. His edition of Thomas Hoccleve’s Complaint and Dialogue for the Early English Text Society (1999) boldly restored the text based on the forms established in the poet’s holographs. We worked together on an electronic text of Piers Plowman in which we attempted to recover the B-Version archetype (2014), depending heavily on the team at the Piers Plowman Electronic Archive, in particular Hoyt Duggan. Sadly, John never saw this edition since he never got around to mastering the internet.
He regretted having to retire in 1998, missing the teaching he so much enjoyed, as well as the collegiality of the department. He kept himself active by writing non-stop. To this period belong the monographs Gestures and Looks in Medieval Narrative (2002), and The Poetry of Praise (2008), and a stream of essays, particular on Langland. In addition, he always responded with thoughtfulness and care to the many requests for assistance from young scholars, though he steadfastly refused to use email.
John’s wife was the celebrated children’s fantasy writer Diana Wynne Jones. Their house in Clifton was always lively and full of visitors. He was left bereft by Diana’s death in 2011. Sadly, for a man who loved walking, the polio from which he had suffered as a boy caught up with him in later life, and he became increasingly disabled. Though he could no longer leave the house, he accepted his confinement with remarkable stoicism, and continued writing and publishing prolifically, leaving his last essay, almost completed, on his desk at his death.
He is survived by his sons Richard, Michael and Colin, and by five grandchildren.
John Anthony Burrow, born 3 August, 1932, died 22 October, 2017.
September 27, 2017
The New Chaucer Society is now accepting applications for spots in the Graduate Student Workshop at the 2018 Congress in Toronto.
The Graduate Workshop is a day-long session for graduate students and recent PhDs attending the 2018 Congress. Current students and PhDs who earned their degrees on or after July 1, 2016 are welcome to apply. The Workshop is open to students with no formal training and limited experience with manuscripts. It will take place on Tuesday, July 10, 2018, to be followed by a reception Toronto’s Fisher Rare Books Library on the evening of Friday, July 13.
If you would like to attend the Workshop, please send an email to Kara Gaston (firstname.lastname@example.org) along with a brief outline of your PhD topic and a short CV. Places will be given in preference to those who have NOT attended a Workshop before; please state in your email if you have attended a Workshop in the past. Those who have been offered a place on the Workshop are also eligible to apply for the Donald Howard Travel Scholarship. Please submit separate applications to both the Howard Scholarship and the Graduate Workshop.
The deadline for applications for both the Workshop and the Donald Howard Travel Scholarships is December 15, 2017. Applicants for the Workshop will be chosen and notified before the decisions about the Howard Scholarships are made.
September 25, 2017
The New Chaucer Society supports the participation of graduate students and recent PhDs who do not have a tenure-track or equivalently secure position through its Donald Howard Travel Scholarship Fund. The Society aims to ensure that all eligible members receive financial assistance that will help them attend the biennial Congress, though actual awards will be dependent on the funds available in any given cycle and funding cannot be guaranteed for all applicants.
Active members of the New Chaucer Society are eligible to apply if they have had a presentation accepted for the official program, are organizing a session that has been accepted for the program, or have been admitted to the Graduate Workshop; and if they are: a) graduate students enrolled in an MA or PhD program; or b) recent graduates of a PhD program whose defense took place not more than two years before the date of the Congress, who do not have a tenure-track academic job.
The awards committee will assess applicants according to:
- individual financial need: applicants and their supervisor or a referee will be asked to describe the funding available to them from other sources for participation at the Congress.
- level of involvement at the Congress: the extra costs faced by those attending the Graduate Student Workshop will be taken into account. Constraints on the Howard Fund may make it impossible to support students who are only attending the Graduate Student Workshop; it may be an advantage to such students to have had a presentation accepted.
- previous support from the Howard Fund: applicants who have not received funding in the past will have priority. However, students or recent PhDs who have received support in the past are still eligible for funding.
The merit of an applicant’s proposed presentation will not be a factor in allocating funds; the committee will assume that any paper or presentation accepted by the program committee has merit.
NCS is now accepting applications. Applicants should indicate their academic affiliation and place within their degree program (second year MA, ABD, etc.) In a short statement (about 300 words), they should
- Describe the nature of their project, its relation to their ongoing research, and their likely date for completing their degree;
- Indicate whether or not they have received previous funding through the Howard Fund from NCS; and
- Indicate what other funding is available to them for attendance at the biennial Congress.
Please send the above information as a single document to Ruth Evans at email@example.com.
Applicants should arrange for their advisor (if they are enrolled in a graduate program) or a referee (in the case of recent PhDs) to submit a letter to Ruth Evans at firstname.lastname@example.org endorsing their work, and, where appropriate, affirming their good standing within their own programs. This letter should also address the availability to the applicant of funding for travel and lodging from sources other than NCS.
DEADLINE: 15 DECEMBER 2017
September 18, 2017
The New Chaucer Society joins with other medievalist societies in recognizing and defending the right of medieval scholars to publish their views without being subject to cyberbullying, misrepresentation, ad hominem comments, racial smears, or ethnic slurs. At the same time, we cannot condone the uncivil practice of attacking with ridicule or profanity the work or intellectual positions of scholars with opposing views. We also deplore the posting of details of scholars’ private lives (photographs, contact details) – so-called “doxxing” – that expose them to the possibility of third-party individuals targeting and harassing them in private or public. Such conduct is deeply unprofessional, and should not be tolerated. Scholarly ethics demands that tenured colleagues respect the vulnerability of untenured colleagues, and that we all show civility to each other and practice integrity in public discourse.
Our field has a long history of scholarly engagement with issues of race, colonialism and ethnicity, one that has a long heritage and includes the work of many active and committed members of the New Chaucer Society, who have challenged our assumptions by insisting that these issues are unignorable, if often unacknowledged, aspects of our discipline. Along with many faculty and staff in higher education, we uphold the ideals of inclusivity, collegiality, and civility. Our Society is an international organization, not an exclusively US one, with members on every continent. In common with many US medievalists, our members around the world have striven to make their classrooms welcoming for a diverse body of students and, to that end, have engaged critically with popular misrepresentations of the Middle Ages, which include the appropriation of medieval iconography and history by Neo-Nazis, the alt-right, and other openly racist groups in the US and elsewhere. Together we are working to build a scholarly community founded on the civil exchange of views, critical enquiry, and good scholarship.
The Board of Trustees, 9/18/2017
August 22, 2017
Lawrence L. Besserman, Professor of English emeritus at Hebrew University died peacefully on 17 July, 2017 in Jerusalem. A summa cum laude graduate of Columbia University and elected to Phi Beta Kappa in his junior year, Besserman received his Ph.D. from Harvard University. His dissertation, “The Story of Job: A Survey of Its Literary History, with Special Reference to Medieval English” was written under the direction of Morton W. Bloomfield and Larry D. Benson. It became his first book, published in 1979 by Harvard University Press, and defined the area of his life-long work. Other books followed from his hand: Chaucer and the Bible: A Critical Review of Research, Indexes, and Bibliography (Garland, 1988); Chaucer’s Biblical Poetics (University of Oklahoma, 1998); Biblical Paradigms in Medieval English Literature: From Caedmon to Malory (Routledge, 2011). In addition to 35 articles and chapters, many reviews and lectures, he edited The Challenge of Periodization: Old Paradigms and New Perspectives (Garland, 1996) and Sacred and Secular in Medieval and Early-Modern Cultures: New Essays (Palgrave, 2006).
A scholar’s scholar, fluently at home in Old and Middle English, Old French, Latin, Hebrew, able to find his way as well through Old Norse prose and Koiné Greek, Larry epitomized the learned life well lived, of a kind and to a degree grown increasingly rare in later times. Always a gentleman, he epitomized that too, in the best sense: ever thoughtful of others’ needs, generous with his time and his knowledge, committed to women’s equality both in his scholarship and teaching and in the Jewish congregation to which he was devoted, forbearant when forbearance was called for, he would nonetheless rise in a flash to oppose injustice wherever he found it. His students at Hebrew University, where he taught from 1977 until his retirement in 2010, and at Columbia, where he taught in the summers, knew him to set a high bar, but—ever willing to help—he would invariably find ways to see the slow-if-serious scramble over it. If his erudition, lightly borne but ever-present, earned their respect, no less than that of his colleagues, it was yet his kindness that won their hearts.
Or else it was his legendary sense of humor: few have been fonder of a good laugh than Larry Besserman, and even fewer, especially now, when the sidewise one-liner seems the hallmark of high humor, could unspool a joke or a shaggy dog tale with his flawless timing and exquisite choice of detail. His stock of funny stories and razor-keen witticisms was vast, seemingly collected over many years and in many places, and carefully collated according to some arcane mental system to facilitate instant recall. When he encountered a kindred spirit, little delighted him more than to “trade licks,” swapping story-for-story, first in one vein, then in another. If good food and a good bottle were present to share, so much the better.
Above all, Larry was a man who loved deeply. He loved his subject, the multi-lingual literatures of the Middle Ages; his many friends, to whom, once given, his commitment was absolute; his two countries—the United States, the place of his birth, and Israel, in defense of whose cause he could be fierce; and Judith foremost, his wife of many years. By all who knew him, learned from him, laughed with him, he will be greatly missed.
R. F. Yeager, University of West Florida
August 22, 2017
July 17, 2017
I report with deep sadness the death yesterday of Professor Lawrence Besserman, a distinguished Chaucerian and a friend of many of us in NCS. He was 72. Since 1977, he taught at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Larry Besserman was the author of numerous articles and books on Chaucer and medieval subjects, including The Legend of Job in the Middle Ages (Harvard, 1979), Chaucer and the Bible (Garland, 1988), Chaucer's Biblical Poetics (Univ. of Oklahoma, 1998), and Biblical Paradigms in Medieval English Literature: From Cædmon to Malory (Routledge, 2012). He has edited several collections of essays, including The Challenge of Periodization: Old Paradigms and New Perspectives (Garland, 1996) and Sacred and Secular in Medieval and Early Modern Cultures: New Essays (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2006).
The funeral will be held on Wednesday, July 19, at 15:00, at Har HaMenuchot Cemetery, Givat Shaul, Jerusalem, starting with the service at Beit Hahesped of Kehilat Yerushalayim. The shiva will be held at Larry and Judy's apartment, 4/1 Hanahal, The French Hill, Jerusalem, in the hours 10-13:00 and 16:00-21:00.
April 13, 2017
Very belatedly, I would like to report with sadness the death of former NCS member Professor Barrie Ruth Straus on September 17, 2014. Notice of this has only recently come to my attention. Professor Straus was a member of NCS and attended NCS congresses (she presented at the 2000 Congress in London). Some members will be familiar with her pioneering work on Chaucer. Her essay "The Subversive Discourse of the Wife of Bath: Phallocentric Discourse and the Imprisonment of Criticism appeared in ELH, vol. 55, no. 3 (1988), pp. 527-554, and was reprinted in Chaucer: Contemporary Critical Essays, edited by Valerie Allen and Ares Axiotis, Palgrave, 1997. Another essay, "Reframing the Violence of the Father: Reverse Oedipal Fantasies in Chaucer's Clerk's, Man of Law's, and Prioress's Tales," appeared in Domestic Violence in Medieval Texts, edited by Eve Salisbury, Georgiana Donavin, and Merrall Llewelyn Price, UP of Florida, 2002, pp. 122-138.
Below is the notice of her death by her colleague Suzanne Matheson at the University of Windsor, Canada.
A note from Suzanne Matheson on former colleague Barrie Ruth Straus
(Originally published on: Tue, 10/07/2014)
Barrie Ruth Straus, who taught Medieval literature and Women’s Studies at the University of Windsor from 1990 to 2006, was known for her pioneering work on Chaucer, feminism and psychoanalysis. She was born in Winnipeg in 1943 and took her BA at the University of Oregon and PhD at the University of Iowa. She taught for many years in the English department at the University of Florida before relocating to Windsor and Detroit. She was involved in building Women’s Studies programs at both institutions, and parlayed her interest in critical theory and gender into important articles on the feminine voice in Middle English literature. Barrie Ruth’s work on the Canterbury Tales and Margery Kempe helped shape feminist analysis of the period and continues to be much cited, discussed and anthologized. She was a rigorous, intelligent critic with the best kind of skepticism: a wariness concerning entrenched ideas and established forms of power, tempered by compassion for the complexities of real people. As my friend she was intensely loyal, kind and generous—a strong, supportive colleague, a mentor, an honorary aunt to my children, a confidante. She bore years of serious ill-health with resolution and optimism, passing away peacefully in hospital on Sept.17th. She had told me with characteristic bravery she was ready.
“Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimmages,
And palmeres for to seeken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes, couthe in sundry londes”
C. Suzanne Matheson
February 12, 2017
Anne L. Middleton, Florence Green Bixby Professor Emerita of English at the University of California, Berkeley, died in her sleep on November 23, 2016, one month after receiving a diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia.
Middleton was a titanic figure in Middle English literary studies—indeed a large figure in every way. Her physical frame was commanding, and she piloted it with an energy that seemed inexhaustible and effortlessly disciplined. She spoke off the cuff in intricate and subordinated but relentlessly (sometimes coarsely) lucid sentences. These terrified colleagues in department meetings. Her essays, too, could overawe. Beginning with “Two Infinites” (1972), they tore into the insoluble with cool confidence in the power of learning and thought. (“Busted another crux,” she said as she handed me the typescript of one.) During her great period of production, through “Acts of Vagrancy” (1997) and “Thomas Usk’s Perdurable Letters” (1998), they grew denser, more ambitious, and very much longer. Drafts could reach a hundred pages. (“Another ‘Fidel Castro Memorial Lecture,’” she said, handing me another. Castro was, of course, not dead at that point.) The Penn Commentary on Piers Plowman, for which she spent the last twenty-five years preparing the volume on the third vision, became the fit form for her style of criticism, which could move from the minutely philological to the trenchantly theoretical and back again without breaking a sweat. This volume, her “life work”—to adapt her dense joke about Piers Plowman—was finally nearing completion when she died.
Her contributions to Chaucer criticism came from her refusal to be a Chaucerian. It seemed to some that she was out to diminish him. “The Idea of Public Poetry in the Age of Richard II” began with the poker-faced assertion that one could best capture the literary history and the literary greatness of Chaucer’s age by leaving Chaucer out; so captured, it proved to be a thing of intellectual and moral beauty, but it also helped set off what Chaucer had in fact done. In essays both early and late (e.g., “Chaucer’s ‘New Men’ and the Good of Literature in the Canterbury Tales, 1980; “Commentary on an Unacknowledged Text,” tardily published in 2012), she traced how Chaucer constructed a poetic identity on the fly and then treated it as something that had waited for him to occupy. The upshot of these arguments was indeed that Chaucer did not hold his position in literary history by right of nature; but the upshot of that was that he held it by right of invention.
Middleton received her PhD in 1966 under Morton Bloomfield, who recognized her promise and cultivated her career. He forbade a dissertation on Piers Plowman: too many careers plunged into that poem and never emerged again. That is how she came to write a remarkable dissertation on the prose style of Ælfric’s lives of St. Martin. But it was Reuben Brower who supplied the shape and vocabulary for her critical instincts. Later, in the 1980s and 1990s, her close attention to the imaginative and intellectual shape of laws and institutions made her look like a new historicist; later still, her attention to the foundation of distinctly literary effects made her seem to some the first new formalist. But these two interests emerged from a single conviction, that both poems and institutions are significant because they are things composed, works of the speculative and practical reason realized in different media but on the basis of principles that guide all intentional actions perforce. Ralph Hanna recalled to me recently her revelatory capacity to find conceptual "legs" in the driest of empirical scholarship "and move it into an implementing context." In this she was deploying and radically extending the style of interpretation (the formalist style, if you like, and if your standards of precision are not high) that she learned from Brower.
In that one important way, her time at Harvard was defining. In every other way it was an exception. The rest of her life was spent in public education—the Detroit school system, the University of Michigan, and Berkeley, where she taught until she retired in 2006. She spoke with cheerful contempt of the private schools and their ways; recruiting me to Berkeley and explaining that it worked to make every hire tenurable and to tenure every hire, she called the alternative “the east-coast system.” She believed in public universities as public goods. As teacher, department chair, and very active member of the Academic Senate, she worked with fierce energy to ensure that Berkeley would oustrip all competitors in intellectual distinction and would make it broadly available to the citizens of the state.
Her intelligence was never gentle, but it was generous. She threw her whole mind into every conversation; Lee Patterson once mused that, merely talking to Anne, one found that one grew smarter. She threw it into action when colleagues needed help: she would drop everything to work through an argument if someone was facing a deadline, or to hound the administration if she felt an injustice had been done. She threw it into the social life of a colleague and teacher. The house she and her husband Gene Rochlin shared on Derby Street was the most unostentatiously hospitable place I’ve ever known; when she was at the height of her powers, a late-afternoon visit would often land you among other of Anne’s and Gene’s colleagues and students and the clamor of their conversation. Most of all she threw it into her graduate students, who now number many distinguished figures in the field. I will not list them, but she proudly did, twice in my hearing, the second time with the comment: “No one has produced students like mine.”
Steven Justice, UC Berkeley