Mandeville and Materiality in the Age of the Pandemic

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Sir John Mandeville, pictured self-isolating, c. 1459 (Detail from New York Public Library, Spencer Collection; image in the public domain).

As the world continues to reel from the pandemic, like many of us, I am missing the opportunities that we would normally enjoy to meet and discuss our scholarship face-to-face, not least at this month’s understandably postponed NCS Congress. Many people have been inspired to consider the current pandemic in relation to the ‘Black Death’ of the mid-fourteenth century, but instead of dwelling on the challenges that faced humanity then and now, I find solace instead by looking for escapism.

We are not alone in having a desire to travel mentally when physical travel is not possible. The imitation of travel through a combination of scholarship and creativity is embodied by John Mandeville’s mid-fourteenth-century Book of Marvels and Travels, which takes on a new resonance in the current circumstances: it is the work of someone imagining impossible travel, while remaining safely at home.[1] As Chaucerians, we might feel that the reduction in our own physical travel returns us to something of the relative stasis experienced by many in the medieval world. Reading Mandeville allows us to “travel” to Jerusalem and beyond in an imagined post-plague medieval world, just as it did for Mandeville’s contemporary audience. The text itself is a traveller, having been adapted and translated across medieval Europe, and having moved across the centuries to us. It speaks to our current stasis by showing how we can continue to engage with the real and imagined world, even if we cannot leave our homes.

At the heart of Mandeville’s virtual exploration is a keen interest in materiality, displaying a deep concern about what should be depicted or commemorated in material iconography, using real and imagined cultures to address these practices. By engaging with the text, we become part of the wider debate about iconoclasm in the later fourteenth century, exemplified by the arguments against idolatry put forward by John Wyclif and his followers. Mandeville’s work shows us some of the ideas that were put forward in response in popular literature. These are arguments which may evoke our own concerns at a time when we are questioning what kinds of material iconography we want to be preserved in our landscape.

Throughout his narrative, Mandeville contrasts different faiths with western Christianity, often finding Christians to be lacking in virtue in comparison to their non-Christian counterparts. Attitudes to icons and idols form the heart of this discussion. The difference between the two is set out while Mandeville discusses the beliefs of the people of the island of Thane:

somme worschipe symylacris, somme ydols. But bitwene symylacris and ydols is a grete difference, for symylacris beþ ymagis made to what likenesse of a þing þat a man wole þat is not kyndelich, for somme ymage haþ þre hedis, on of a man, anoþer of an hors, and anoþer of an oxe oþer anoþer beest þat no man haþ seye. (p. 73, ll. 2-7) [2]

The “symylacris” described here are feigned objects, depicting things which do not exist in nature. These are distinct from “ydols”, which we may reasonably infer to be depictions of things which do exist in the physical world. Both “symylacris” and “ydols” are again distinct from relics, the physical remains of someone or something held to be divine or saintly.

That the people Mandeville describes here are willing to worship “symylacris” and “ydols” demonstrates how far removed they are from Christianity, but Mandeville reacts with curiosity as to the nature of their devotional practices, rather than with horror. Where he can identify underlying Christian traits, Mandeville seems forgiving of idolatry:

ȝe schal undirstonde þat þei þat worschipe symylacris, þei worschipe hem for some worþi men þat were somtyme as Hercules oþer siche ooþer, whiche dide many merveyles in here tymes. For þei say þei wote wel þei beþ not God of kynde þat made alle þing, but þei beþ riȝt wel wiþ God for merveiles þat þei dooþ and þerfor þei worschip hem. (p. 73, ll. 8-13)

Here, “symylacris” of classical figures such as Hercules become the focus of the devotion, meaning that they occupy the same position that might be taken by the saints or the Virgin Mary in Christian worship. Mandeville’s response suggests that this is comprehensible to him, and hence tolerable, because the devotional practice being enacted is correct, regardless of the subject of that devotion being pagan and legendary. The careful explanation of Mandeville’s reasoning protects him from accusations of heresy, as does the anonymity of the true author. Mandeville’s understanding of belief systems is supported by the inclusion of Hercules: a reminder that civilised societies long pre-date Christianity.

Mandeville also describes a number of purportedly genuine holy relics, which act in similar ways to the pagan idols in the text. On seeing the Crown of Thorns, Mandeville is gifted with a spine which he says “was ȝeue me for grete frendschip.” Mandeville’s pride in possessing this holiest of relics is founded on a belief in its authenticity, but it also functions as a souvenir of his travels, foreshadowing Susan Stewart’s argument that: "within the development of culture under an exchange economy, the search for authentic experience and, correlatively, the search for the authentic object become critical. "[3]

Mandeville is concerned with this search for authenticity: he is proud to possess the thorn because he believes it to be authentic, but he is critical when describing relics he believes to be fakes. He explains that the Crown exists in two different cities (Paris and Constantinople) because each has half of the original. However, he is distrustful of contradictory claims as to the location of the spear-head of the Holy Lance:

þe sperschaft haþ þe emperour of Almayn, but þe heed is at Parys. And many tymes seiþ þe emperour of Constantynople þat he haþ þe sperheed; and Y have ofte yseie þat þat he haþ, but it is grettere þan þat of Parys. (p. 10, ll. 23-6)

Mandeville applies the same critical eye to the authenticity of these relics as he does to his discussions of idolatry. He was not alone in being wary of duplicated relics: this Lance is ostensibly the same relic that appears in the Grail romances, in which seeking the original is of the utmost importance.

The relics discussed here all existed: the spearhead in Paris was a gift for the French king Louis IX, later St Louis (r. 1226-70), while the shaft in Germany was the property of the Holy Roman Emperors. The Lance was regarded as symbolic of the Emperor’s right to rule, and as such became part of their regalia, representing their invincibility. Similarly, one of the two Crowns described belonged to Louis, who had the royal chapel of Paris, the Sainte-Chappelle, constructed to house it in 1248. Louis himself received the Crown as a gift in return for military assistance to the Latin Emperor Baldwin II (r. 1228-73). It was therefore translated to France to support continued Christian rule in the Middle East, indicating the value of the relic in both symbolic and monetary terms. The ownership of these relics was highly political: possession of a relic of Christ (even one of disputed authenticity) brought the possessor closer to Christ. Mandeville’s Book enables its audience to engage with these relics without any need to travel to see them.

The Book can be divided into two halves, with the first being a guide to pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the mid-fourteenth century, based on authentic pilgrim accounts, and the second a more fantastic account of imagined travels further east. The treatment of “symylacris” and “ydols” links the two halves thematically: while materials such as the Crown and the spear-head enable the reader to emulate authentic medieval Christian pilgrimages in their imaginations, these can then be set in contrast with, for example, the Thanekars’ image of Hercules. The non-Christian materials are imagined as being treated in the same way as the Christian relics by their devotees, as a focus for worship, a practice which Mandeville shows could emulate Christianity without being explicitly Christian.

Mandeville is careful to present different arguments within the idolatry debate, and he uses the conclusion of his work to outline the imagined defence of the Chinese iconolaters:

of symylacris and mawmetis þei seiþ þat alle men haveþ mawmetis and symylacris, for þei seiþ þat cristen men haveþ ymages of oure lady and oþere. But þei woot nouȝt þat we worschipe not þese ymages of stoon noþer of tree for hemself but þe seyntes for wham þei beþ ymade. (p. 135, ll. 6-10)

“Mawmetis” are false idols; for a medieval Christian audience, it would follow that their worshippers could not be Christians by default, both because of this falsity and because any image-worship was prohibited by the Second Commandment. However, Mandeville seeks to distinguish Christian use of effigies from pagan worship, putting forward the argument that images are valuable for the instruction of those who cannot read. This view followed the teaching of the medieval Christian Church as to the use of devotional images and relics, but overlooks the inherent difficulty of reconciling image-worship with Christian doctrine. The “armchair traveller” following Mandeville is being invited to take part in this debate, and to form their own conclusions, returning from their imagined travels better informed as to the arguments in a developing cultural crisis.

In Mandeville’s work, “ydols” seek to represent, or stand in for, that which is not present, or, with “symylacris,” does not exist. To the extent that they might be regarded as true, relics occupy their own distinct category here, because they hold direct links to the saintly or the divine, rather than seeking to emulate it. However, in all cases Mandeville is concerned with objects which mediate communication with their subjects, through veneration, adoration, contemplation, and commemoration. All of these functions seek to make the absent subject present through its emulation in a material form. This brings us to the heart of why Mandeville’s treatment of materiality links to our current predicament: Mandeville’s concern is to bring that which is absent to those who are unable to reach it. Like Mandeville, we might now “visit” locations we can no longer physically travel to, through our reading, our teaching, and our scholarship.

This blog is adapted from a paper I was due to give at this year’s postponed Medieval Insular Romance Conference in Durham. My thanks go to the organiser of that conference, Venetia Bridges, and to Anthony Bale and Thomas Goodmann, for their support with this work.

[1] I follow Anthony Bale in using this title, and I refer to the author as Mandeville for ease of reference. As per The Book of Marvels and Travels, trans. Anthony Bale (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).
[2] My quotations are taken from The Defective Version of Mandeville’s Travels, ed. M.C. Seymour, Early English Text Society OS 319 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), representing the most widely circulated version of the text in English.
[3] Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 1993), p. 133.

Stones Left Unturned (Psst! More New Chaucer Life Records)

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An early fifteenth-century plea roll from the Court of Common Pleas (CP 40), accessed at

It has become increasingly clear to me that in recent years the gap between how I teach literature in the classroom and how I approach it in my own research had widened to the extent that I often assumed contradictory positions in my almost binary academic roles. My teaching has been shaped by the formative training I received at Cambridge’s English Faculty in the late 1990s, where manuscript studies peacefully coexisted with a dual devotion to, on the one hand, an institutionally sanctioned, rigorous practical criticism and its attendant exercises in close reading and, on the other, to the determined pursuit of a text’s intellectual context. In my case, the critical position that resulted from this twinning of two often antagonistic schools of reading, with manuscript studies hovering in a neutral zone, led to an excision of the writer qua author or agent altogether. A medieval text, however unstable, however much exposed to mouvance, always took centre stage—on this focal point both manuscript studies and practical criticism seemed to converge. The text, or the incarnated text in a manuscript instance, was always central and therefore its own self-sustaining subject. A text did not exist in a vacuum of course, but with its author long dead and buried by both time and Roland Barthes, the social configuration surrounding it could certainly be deployed, if studied and observed carefully enough, to extract more meaning from the text, to let it speak for itself, bypassing the author along the way. (This is why, I believe, New Historicism has been particularly appealing to those trained in practical criticism, since texts often appear to resist their contexts, of which the author was a part.) Critics of this method see in a text’s resistance to its historical context often an anachronistic projection of the modern reader’s own standpoint: we thus believe that we see our contemporary concerns foregrounded in historical texts.

This is how I found myself approaching texts in the classroom. By contrast, my research on manuscripts and archival material brought a pragmatic dilemma into sharp relief. With time, I came to the persuasion that medieval manuscripts, and therefore the texts they articulate, are essentially deictic artefacts. The further they are removed from their author and their originating context, the more fragmented and less satisfactory their meaning becomes. This holds true on a textual level as much as on a material level. Through variant textual readings each written-out text refers to those copies it is not: to understand the significance of a variant reading or scribal change, we need to see at least two divergent instances. Similarly, to understand how a text was read, or was meant to be read, we need to examine what is often referred to as the ‘manuscript context’, that is, its physical proximity to the other texts with which it has been paired or bound. This is not just a question of subsequent compilation: every medieval text, each copy of a work, was crafted by a scribe or scribal author for a particular manuscript instance or, as I prefer to call it given the author’s deictic presence, incarnation.

The upshot of this practice of reconstructing authors through manuscript study has reinvented the author not as a textual or para-textual phenomenon but as a contextual one, allowing the writer to exercise indirect intentionalism over the text from the inscrutable position of being outside the medieval manuscript. But in practice this aspect of manuscript studies often amounts to reverse-engineered authorial intentionalism: if we can recover the purpose, occasion, or reception of textual witnesses that were overseen by the author or produced in their lifetime, then we can infer their original or first meaning, particularly if a text was subsequently revised or rededicated. As medievalists we tend to get away with this intentionalism because it lies buried deep beneath our outwardly arcane practices of codicology and palaeography, and because our texts are profoundly unstable, porous, and semantically tampered with by all who handled or owned them. Even if a medieval writer could be said to be an author and intellectual proprietor of a text, then what is it exactly that he or she is an owner of? For all the difficulties we have with defining medieval authors, delineating the boundaries of a medieval text—even one that has reached us only in a single autograph copy—is intellectually frustrating. We are not afforded any textual stability; not by manuscript mouvance, not by scribal interference, and certainly not by a seemingly wilful rejection of auctoritas on the part of the writer.

Given the medieval text’s unwanted semantic instability, the paucity of corroborating information on the purpose, occasion, or reception of a text invariably led me to the sifting through records and other archival materials. Such work, certainly in my own practice, often follows a pattern of concentric circles, starting from the known biological originator of a text, its author. Gradually these circles become wider, extending to a writer’s known contacts, persons, or events mentioned in the text, and so on. My desire to pursue textual or authorial references in archival contexts is not rooted in historicism but in my formalist commitment to practical criticism and the primacy of the text as text. To my mind, the study of manuscripts and other written records is as much a part of close reading as is the attention we pay to the lineation of a poem. (I’m developing this theory further in my new book.)

As with the practice of close reading, finding archival traces of such social authors sometimes requires us simply to look again at familiar material but from an unfamiliar angle. And while there are a number of unknown life records on Gower, Lydgate, Skelton, and Hoccleve that I will be publishing in the coming months, here I would like to introduce two new life records for Chaucer that are not my discoveries, but that have escaped our notice for various reasons.

The first item is a record introduced by Helen Killick in her impressive doctoral dissertation, ‘Thomas Hoccleve as Clerk and Poet’ (York, 2010). Killick has added hundreds of new documents in Hoccleve’s hand, among them a grant made to Chaucer, dated 9 February 1400 (National Archives C 81/596/1351; the document has been transcribed and translated by Killick on pp. 30-31). Killick’s objective was not to find new Chaucer life records but to identify documents written by Hoccleve, and she correctly and persuasively shows that this record has indeed been written by him, yet without realising that the Chaucer life record she found hadn’t been spotted before. This record is not in listed in Martin Crow and Clair Olson’s Chaucer Life-Records; as such, it constitutes a new archival trace of the poet. Following the Cecily Chaumpaigne quitclaim found by Christopher Cannon and the brevia dicta baronibus record I located recently, this record, C 81/596/1351, raises the count of known Chaucer life records to 496.

But the second item, now the 497th life record for the poet, potentially holds implications for theories of what Chaucer may have been up to in the spring of 1400. Unbeknownst to literary scholars, the genealogical researcher Douglas Richardson discovered a new plea for debt against Chaucer submitted to the Court of Common Pleas in the Easter term of 1400. Richardson posted this announcement in a forum for medieval genealogy.

I am transcribing and translating this find in full for the benefit of all Chaucerians:

© The National Archives The National Archives. This record is licensed under the Open Government Licence 3.0. Image credits: Anglo-American Legal Tradition,

1. Common Pleas, CP40/557, m. 78f. Robert Shirwynd and his wife Isabel, administrator of the estate of Walter Buckholt, sue Geoffrey Chaucer for debt. Easter term 1400.

(Margin: [London]ium) Robertus Shirwynd armiger et Isabella vxor suis administratrix bonorum et catallorum que fuerunt Walteri Bukholt, Armigeri, qui obiit intestatus, vt dicitur, in propriis personis suis optulent de iiijto die versus Galfridum Chaucer, Armigerum, de placito quod reddat eis vndecim libras vndecim solidos et vndecim denarios quos eis inuste detinet etc. Et ipse non venit Et preceptum fuit vicecomiti quod caperent eum etc. Et vicecomes modo mandat quod non est inventus etc. Ideo sicut prius capiat quod sit hic a die Pasche in vnum mensem pro Iustitiae etc.

(Margin: [London]) Robert Shirwynd, Esq., and his wife Isabella, administrator of the goods and chatells of Walter Bukholt, Esq., who died intestate, so called, in their own persons offered themselves on the fourth day against Geoffrey Chaucer, Esq., in a plea that he render to them 11 pound, 11 shillings, and 11 pence that he unjustly withholds etc. And he did not come. And the sheriff was ordered to summon him etc. And the sheriff reports that he is not found etc. Therefore, as before, the sheriff is commanded that he arrests him so that he be here within one month of Easter[1] for justice etc.

The record itself deals with an outstanding debt incurred by Chaucer while he was clerk of the king’s works. The plaintiff is the widow of Walter Buckholt, acting as the administrator for her late husband’s estate. Edith Rickert believed that this matter had been settled in 1398, but the new record indicates that only £3 9s of the original debt of £14 1s 11d had been paid, provided that this plea record concerns the same dispute.

This find is intriguing because the formula used by the sheriff to report that the defendant has not responded is not the common phrase that the sheriff  ‘didn’t have the body of the defendant’, but, in this case, the formula reads non est inventus, ‘[he] is not found’. This particular turn of phrase is generally used in instances where the defendant is either in hiding or travelling. The county in the left-hand margin is illegible, except for the ending, which actually agrees with the same scribe’s wording for ‘Londonium’. During Easter term 1400, that is, 3 to 27 May, Chaucer was residing in Westminster Abbey, which was almost next door to the Court of Common Pleas: finding him should not have been a difficulty for the authorities. But since the court requires Chaucer to appear before 18 May, this document must date from the start of the law term. In other words, this record appears to suggest that at the start of May 1400 Chaucer was not in Westminster or London but was travelling somewhere.

So why do we keep finding these new records now after decades of archival silence? To my mind, the answer comes down to something as banal as shifting assumptions. Twenty years ago or so, there was talk of having exhausted the archive, of believing, perhaps with a sense of resignation, that we had found, filed, and evaluated every record there was to be found. After all, how many documents can have possibly survived from that period? One answer is, quite simply: many, many more than we, as literary scholars, have assumed. And some of the biggest archives have barely been touched. Just consider this prospect: in 1400, about 40,000 Londoners lived inside the city walls, including infants and persons of no means, yet there are about 10,000 legal pleas submitted every year in the wider London region alone. What are the chances that our social authors do not appear in these archives?


[1] 18 May. Easter fell on 18 April in 1400, and the Easter law term ran from 3 to 27 May.

White Attunement

Scholarship is the craft of recognition, the art of attunement. Recognition, Rita Felski argues, is one of the uses of literature; self-recognition in reading is marked by a sudden epiphany of aesthetic and cognitive alignment. We are practitioners of attunement, traffickers in recognition. Even techniques of “defamiliarization” or “destabilization” are strategies of recognition. John Hurt Fisher, in his 1982 NCS Presidential Address, contends that Chaucer’s prescience lies in the ability of his poetry to generate “a shock of recognition” in modern readers.

Fisher’s positivist notion of recognition as readerly identification is premised on liberalism’s claim that our capacity to base our actions on our mutual recognition of the value of one another is what defines us as human. Today, I am less interested in the truism that the Self and the Other are mutually constitutive, than in the historical contours and the political spaces of recognition, especially of recognition as a governance of difference and of its entanglement with diversity.

Though attunement and recognition may stick to and slip into each other, they are not the same. Attunement presupposes recognition, but recognition may or may not lead to attunement. If recognition is necessary for survival, then attunement is about fitting in. As Sara Ahmed reminds us, institutional language of diversity is a tuning system: you are either in or out of tune.  Should I be more likable, helpful, courageous, and kind than my colleagues? The assessment of personality traits, aestheticized through the grids of valuation and racialized through data aggregation, is a determination of how attuned someone is to a cultural habitus. The problem is: who is tuning what and for whom? Attunement promises harmony, but harmony is not equity.

The politics of recognition is a technology of the neoliberal order that began after WWII and took hold in the late 1970s and 1980s. Political theorists sketch out a general chronology: In the first phase, roughly the 1980s to the 90s and epitomized in Charles Taylor, political recognition was primarily driven by an identity politics that undergirds a paternalistic form of multiculturalism. It envisions a world where recognition of identities, couched in the language of rights and guaranteed in the law, would lead to full membership in the liberal body politics.  In the second phase, roughly the late 1990s to 2016, scholars such as Patchen Markell and K. Anthony Appiah began to challenge the assumptions of identity-based recognition politics. Some argue that identity politics frequently conflates recognition with security, sovereignty, and rights. And by privileging identity, the politics of recognition fails to account for the deep structures of inequality, thereby turning acts of recognition into spectacles that reinforce the conditions of injustice and violence. We are now, I think, in the third phase of recognition studies, exemplified by Elizabeth A. Povinelli, during the time of Brexit and Trump America: the age of precarity.[1]

The neoliberal politics of recognition has informed, sometimes belatedly, medieval studies’s engagements with matters of race. Consider the landmark publication of the 2001 special Race and Ethnicity issue of the Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies. Thomas Hahn, in his introduction, reflects on Kalamazoo 1995 when Michael Awkward, an African-American scholar specializing in black studies, spoke on race. Hyper self-conscious, Hahn recalls his worries over Awkward’s black presence in a sea of whiteness, over the audience’s reception, and over potential misrecognition and fetishization triggered by 1990s’ identity politics. Crucially, Hahn compares Awkward to Balthasar, depicted as a black magus in late medieval and early modern Epiphanies (fig. 1), whose sartorial flamboyance registers his black presence. Acknowledging the risk of tokenism, Hahn nonetheless concludes that in 1995, Awkward’s blackness was “a structurally inescapable feature of the event.” Hahn’s ambivalence signals a transitional moment between the first and second phases of the politics of recognition. Awkward is the pivot in a triple-recognition: the intellectual recognition of his affinity with Balthasar enfolds the cultural recognition of his racial identity, and both are instrumental to the professional recognition of medieval race as a legitimate area of study. But the necessity of identity also marks the limits of its politics: difference is recognizable only as a totalizing particular, an anomalous masculinity, and a queer flair.

Figure 1. Albrecht Dürer, Adoration of the Magi, 1504. Oil on panel. 38.9 inches x 44.6 inches. Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Image: Public Domain.

In 2015, Cord Whitaker deploys a similar visual and racial analogy in his reflection on the cover art of the special race issue of postmedieval, but with a twist. Whitaker compares the reactions to his presence as a black medievalist in academia to those triggered by a photo by E. F. Kitchen of Aaron Lloyd (fig. 2), an African-American software engineer in full cosplay as a black knight: both appear out of time and out of place. Rather than reaching toward any predictable identity, Whitaker asks how the convergence of the racial and the medieval unsettles categorical thinking; he thereby participates in the second phase of the politics of recognition.[2]

Figure 2. E. F. Kitchen, Aaron Palomides of Buckminster, 2005. Platinum/Palladium Print. 8 inches x 10 inches. Reproduced by permission of artist.

For both Hahn and Whitaker, the aesthetic is always the political, and recognition is a social genre whose referents are moving targets. The scene of recognition is the space of encounter that does not guarantee attunement, empathy, or change. In matters of race, white attunement is at its best well-intentioned but always delayed, and at its worst impossible or endlessly deferred.

Flat White

“Two Chaucerians walk into a Starbucks.” The scenario evokes a social genre and maps out the rhetorical contours of an encounter. I draw attention to Starbucks not only because of our caffeine addiction, the ubiquity of Starbucks on our “globalized” campuses, or the company’s middle-class niche market. Starbucks and the NCS, in fact, share a few uncanny resemblances. Both were born in the 1970s, then expanded and institutionalized in the 80s and 90s. As such, their histories are entrenched in late capitalism and coincided with developments in the neoliberal politics of recognition.

Starbucks designs its stores to be what Ray Oldenburg terms “the third place,” in between home and work. It is “a warm and welcoming environment” that embodies the corporate mission “to inspire and nurture the human spirit.” Coopting the language of safe space, Starbucks as the Third Place is attuned to the well-being of customers: you relax into a couch that promises comfort, what Ahmed describes as a “sinking” feeling that indexes your ease with the environment. Starbucks offers a faux cosmopolitanism in which difference and market are conflated (you can sample coffee from around the world), and the politics of recognition becomes the governance of corporate attunement.

In 2015, Starbucks waged a disastrous campaign that asked baristas and customers to “Race Together.” It failed because the Third Place as a technology of attunement produces corporate diversity but is unable to recognize real-world differences that cannot be contained. In April of this year, two black men were arrested inside a Philadelphia Starbucks. The incident rapidly morphed from a white manager complaining about two gentlemen refusing to make a purchase or leave, to the police labeling the incident as “a group of males causing a disturbance,” to the legal charge of trespassing. What might be the space of sinking comfort for some is “the sunken place” of violence for others. The Third Place becomes “the hold”: the state of detention, the hold of a slave ship. As Fred Moten and Stefano Harney argue, the hold is the logisticality of modernity, of capitalism as a movement of things. If neoliberalism aims to secure the flow of global capitals, then the alleged refusal to make a purchase or leave interpellates colored bodies as out of tune with the safe space of commerce.

In an effort to regain control of its image and narrative, Starbucks implemented an anti-bias training for its U.S. employees that instructed all baristas to be “color brave,” to mixed receptions. Compulsory HR drills, as we know, do not necessarily lead to change and may even backfire. As Arif Dirlik and Sara Ahmed analyze, the problem is that for corporations or universities that see business and social justice as interchangeable models, “diversity” is deployed as a managerial tool to regulate difference, to do damage control, and to prevent lawsuits. “Diversity” ends up suppressing actual diversities, maintaining the status quo, and becoming a technique of racialization. What Starbucks sells as “culture” is really “culturalism,” a “procedure by which everything melts into culture” (Shih 22), as Shu-Mei Shih explains. Difference is sublimated into a corporate social good, free to circulate, sink into, or detain.

A keen observer of human management, middle-class comforts and pretensions, and culture and commerce, Chaucer may be the first Starbucks poet. The Canterbury Tales project is at its heart concerned with the politics of recognition, especially its imbrications with identity and difference. The Prioress’s Tale is the hold of race, the crucible of anti-Semitism, in Fragment VII. The hold exerts itself in three interlocking registers of religious figuration: history, politics, and poetics. Historically, the tale conjures up medieval Jews, officially expelled from England in 1290, as a spectral, virtual presence.[3] As Sylvia Tomasch notes, the Jews were “an internally colonized people” (255), living within the hold of “a Jewerye” (VII. 489), the ghetto. Politically, the Prioress reasserts the sovereign image of post-Expulsion England—both in her pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket and in her evocation of the little St. Hugh of Lincoln—as a theocratic hold of Christian sanctity allegedly purified of Jewish pollution. And poetically, the tale’s rhyme royal stanzaic form spills into the Prologue to Sir Thopas; it holds onto the meta-narrative frame of the Canterbury Tales. Building on Claire Waters’s insight that the Thopas link foregrounds “the shaping power of rhyme royal” (39) that would later define Chaucerianness in the fifteenth century, I contend that the form’s poetic shaping power derives and is indistinguishable from the power of race-making; the rhyme royal is a racializing tool of the poetic maker. In fact, the poem itself is a hold, for it is in the rhyme royal stanzas that the Host attempts to define the body of Geoffrey the narrator.

The racial violence surrounding the Prioress’s Tale activates the logistics of recognition, as the Host quickly begins to check the bodies around him. “What man artow?” (VII. 695) he asks of Geoffrey, whose unrecognizability is one effect of racialization in the Prioress’s Tale: the squeeze. Chaucer’s fictive persona “semeth elvyssh by his contenaunce” (VII.703) and is shaped like “a popet” (VII. 701). In the absence of a Jew among the pilgrims, Geoffrey comes dangerously close to being marked as “Jewish” due to his ambiguous body and his social apartness. While critical attention has focused primarily on the distinction between the Chaucer of Sir Thopas and the Chaucer of Melibee, equally important is the contrast between the Chaucer of the Prioress’s Tale and the Chaucer of Sir Thopas. When the Host asks, “What man artow?” he interrogates not only Chaucer as Geoffrey but also Chaucer as the Prioress. Breaking the fourth wall, the Host confronts Chaucer the maker: “What kind of man are you to have just written something like the Prioress’s Tales?” The Host too exists in the hold of race, and he functions as the first reader-critic of the Prioress’s Tales. Heather Blurton and Hannah Johnson have recently examined the stymied state of the tale’s reception history, especially the critical desire to separate aesthetics from anti-Semitism, and thereby to rehabilitate Chaucer’s reputation. The Prioress’s Tale is culturalized into “high art”; Chaucer the poetic aesthete cannot be an anti-Semite. Yet the hold of categorical thinking is the scene of critical misrecognition. At the intersection of desire, interest, and language, identity is impossible.[4] Should an uncongenial Chaucer, at this conjuncture, tune himself to be more likable, helpful, courageous, and kind? The hold will not let go. Chaucer, as well as all his audience, remains in the hold.

The tale of Sir Thopas, as Chaucer’s response to the Host’s racialized surveillance, enacts a form of racialization that is different from and less obvious than those in the Squire’s Tale and in the Man of Law’s Tale. The logic of Thopas’s household, like that of the tale itself, is not dissimilar to that of Starbucks’ Third Place, what I would call the logic of “Flat White.” Elsewhere, I have argued that Sir Thopas conjures a congenial narrative space of fuzzy comforts where goods and romances are in the flow of things. J. Allan Mitchell characterizes the tale as saturated with product placements, creating “a kind of virtual emporium” deeply entrenched within the marketplace (111). And Sir Thopas is where differences are flattened into the merely material, which is repackaged as the cultural. That is, culturalization displaces racialization to the extent that, in Shih’s formulation, “the trauma of race and racism can be sidestepped” (23). Jewish presence in the tale is abstracted into “a fyn hawberk [plate armor]” (863). If the Prioress’s Tale presents a diversity problem for the Canterbury Tales project, Sir Thopas represents Chaucer’s diversity management. Whiteness flattens itself: Thopas’s face is likened to white bread (“payndemayn” [725]). Whiteness signifies as “whiteface,” a deyntee thing. Thopas’s bread-like whiteness further evokes “the wastel-breed” (I.147) that the Prioress feeds to her pet hounds. Her Epicurean performance easily outpaces that of the Franklin; the Prioress is a customer to whom a Starbucks would never be the hold. Rather, the Prioress produces the hold qua Starbucks in the apostrophe to Hugh of Lincoln, at the end of her tale.

Not simply a coda, gloss, reference, or prayer, the concluding “Hugh” stanza of the Prioress’s Tale is the hold of race. “[An] appeal to English history” (Dahood 140), the stanza effects a textual enshrinement of Hugh of Lincoln and alludes to the physical shrine of Hugh built by Edward I soon after the Edict of Expulsion in 1290.[5] As Anthony Bale reads, the Prioress here collapses both time and space; she accentuates the Jewish threat by bringing her narrative home that is England and by domesticating the fantasy of racial violence: “If the past is a foreign country (Asia) the present is home (Lincoln)” (Bale 84). However, the fantasy of a purified, properly Christian, and post-Expulsion England remains within its own hold; the Prioress’s Tale, as Geraldine Heng might characterize it, is a self-reflexive “romance of England” (96) at best. The intertwinement of romance, religion, and race, moreover, is made possible through the cultural aestheticization of a Starbucks-like domesticity. Jessica Brantley observes that the Prioress’s performance of aristocratic religiosity blurs any formal differences between religion and romance (436), and the indistinction carries over into Sir Thopas. The sign of “Hugh of Lincoln,” as a racialized shorthand, is simultaneously a devotional icon and a domesticated object made for consumption, not unlike the popular Middle English romances that Geoffrey lists frenetically in Sir Thopas.

So, too, does the critical elevation of the Prioress’s Tale to the realm of high art turn it into a cultural good; it drifts within the currents of reception history, among the detritus of devotional commodities waiting for management, waste or otherwise. The Prioress’s Tale, as Kathy Lavezzo explains, is dominated by “images of flow, contact, and containment that oppose Christian purity and Jewish danger” (365). The privy, a “pit” where the conspiratorial Jews “purgen hire entraille” (VII. 571-73) and dump the corpse of the little clergeon, spatializes negatively the mercantile traffic of the late Middle Ages. The flow of medieval capital is racialized through violence and trauma. The “wardrobe” (VII. 572) is the hold through which the movement of (filthy) things must pass. Lavezzo’s analysis of the Jewish privy resonates, for me, with Povinelli’s figuration of late liberalism’s topography of interest and desire as a tubular network of interconnected pumps (fig. 3): “Indeed, perhaps the best way of conceiving these circuits of identity, accumulation, and circulation—circuits that are simultaneously dependent on and independent of the nation-state—are tubular, or better, pneumonic. They are forms of suction in which extraction and flight are part of the same process” (“What Do White People Want?”). Note the downward sinking into precarity, into abjection, and into the pit. Does not the privy promise the relief of bodily pressures and the assurance of regulatory comforts?

Figure 3. Elizabeth A. Povinelli, Drawing 3, “What Do White People Want?: Interest, Desire, and Affect in Late Liberalism,”, 2017. Pen on graph paper. Reproduced by permission of author-artist.

The clergeon’s unstoppable singing signifies the triumph of whiteness as a guarantor of racial purity; it also sets in motion the sonic flow of faith as capital, demarcating the hold in the Prioress’s Tale. Yet the effect of his voice is utter flatness, as he is silenced by the abbot and as the Prioress turns to Hugh of Lincoln. Instead of spiritual rapture, “every man / As sobre was that wonder was to se” (VII. 691-92). The wonder is not at the supposed miracle of the tale but at the flat sobriety of its reception. And by the time of Sir Thopas, whiteness has become flat because it is out of tune with the racial reality of the hold generated by the Prioress’s Tale; the Host complains that his ears ache because of Chaucer’s “drasty speche” (923). The flat white is the misrecognition of race and the failure of attunement.

White Hold

As the NCS faces the difficult matters of race, we do not need to practice a scholarship or pedagogy of recognition, of the usual kind that replicates its blind spots. Perhaps you are already experiencing recognition fatigue, whether you are the subject or object. Though white attunement may not be flawless recognition, it need not be a misrecognition.

Fisher, in a 1972 article titled “Our Discovery of Diversity,” comments that in the aftermath of the cultural-political shifts of the late 1960s, especially the government’s subsequent “discovery” of the minorities, “We are now in the midst of the turmoil of this adjustment—trying to decide how much diversity the society can stand and how much uniformity it will insist on” (16). Fisher’s stance is paternalistic and gestures towards later conceptualizations of diversity as “tolerance” (“how much,” “how little”) and as a mode of academic management. Yet his phrase, “the turmoil of this adjustment,” more crucially characterizes the politics of recognition and attunement that we all have experienced in the last 50 years.

If we conceived of the New Chaucer Society as a movement of things, what is in our hold? What has kept its hold on us? And what are we holding out for? Heng’s theoretical intervention is the insight that “the hold” of race, what she calls “the intransigence of race” (11) works diachronically and synchronically, backward and forward: a movement in which reinventions are reified as inventions and then recirculate. That is, “race making” is inseparable from “race holding.”

The Medievalists of Color collective was formed not only out of a shared sense of frustration but also of hope. We do not need managed diversity but critical diversity beyond the logistics of the hold, a critical insistence that does not ignore the histories and structures of inequality. Diversitization is not diversity. Go to your Starbucks but do not Starbucksify Chaucer studies. We need a practice of recognition and attunement that moves us from fragility to engagement, intention to investment, and identity to action.


A version of this post was presented at the 2018 Biennial International Congress of the New Chaucer Society in Toronto, as part of the plenary roundtable “Race and Inclusion: Facing Chaucer Studies, Past and Future.” I would like to thank the generous support of Ruth Evans and Thomas Goodmann.

[1] For an overview of the history of recognition politics, see Patchen Markell (1-7) and Burgess (369-73). For Elizabeth A. Povinelli, see The Cunning of Recognition, “The Rhetorics of Recognition in Geontopower,” and especially Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism on recognition politics and precarity.

[2] See the crowd-sourced “Race and Medieval Studies: A Partial Bibliography” moderated by Jonathan Hsy and Julie Orlemanski, an iteration of which was published in postmedieval;  “Race, Racism, and the Middle Ages: Featured Lesson Resource Page,” compiled by Carol L. Robinson for TEAMS; and the Medievalists of Color.

[3] For “the spectral Jew,” see Steven F. Kruger; for “the virtual Jew,” see Sylvia Tomasch; and for a recent assessment of the language of medieval Jewish virtuatliy, see Heather Blurton and Hannah Johnson (48-54).

[4] Povinelli provocatively argues for the impossibility of identity at the intersection of desire, interest, and language in the new post-truth era of late liberalism; see her “What Do White People Want?”

[5] See David Stocker (115-16).

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Duke UP, 2012.

———.  “A Phenomenology of Whiteness.” Feminist Theory, vol. 8, no. 2, 2007, pp. 149-68.

Appiah, K. Anthony. “Identity, Authenticity, Survival: Multicultural Societies and Social Reproduction.” Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition, edited by Amy Gutmann, Princeton UP, 1994, pp. 149-63.

Bale, Anthony. The Jew in the Medieval Book: English Antisemitisms, 1350-1500. Cambridge UP, 2006.

Blurton, Heather, and Hannah Johnson. The Critic and the Prioress: Antisemitism, Criticism, and Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale. U of Michigan P, 2017.

Brantley, Jessica. “Reading the Forms of Sir Thopas.” Chaucer Review, vol. 47, no. 4, 2013, pp. 416-38.

Burgess, Sarah K. “Guest Editor’s Introduction.” Philosophy and Rhetoric, vol. 48, no. 4, 2015, pp. 369-78.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Riverside Chaucer, edited by Larry D. Benson, Houghton Mifflin, 1987.

Dahood, Roger. “English Historical Narratives of Jewish Child-Murder, Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale, and the Date of Chaucer’s Unknown Source.” Studies in the Age of Chaucer, vol. 31, 2009, pp. 125-40.

Dirlik, Arif. “Race Talk, Race, and Contemporary Racism.” PMLA, vol. 123, no. 5, 2009, pp. 1363-79.

Felski, Rita. “Response.”  PMLA, vol. 132, no. 2, 2017, pp. 384-91.

———. Uses of Literature. Blackwell, 2008.

Fisher, John H. “Chaucer’s Prescience: The Presidential Address, 1982.” Studies in the Age of Chaucer, vol. 5, 1983, pp. 3-15.

———. “Our Discovery of Diversity.” ADE Bulletin, 35, 1972, pp. 16-17.

Goldberg, David Theo. “Racisms without Racism.” PMLA, vol. 123, no. 5, 2009, pp. 1712-16.

Hahn, Thomas. “The Difference the Middle Ages Makes: Color and Race before the Modern World.” Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, vol. 31, no. 1, 2001, pp. 1-37.

Heng, Geraldine. The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages. Cambridge UP, 2018.

Kao, Wan-Chuan. “Cute Chaucer.” Exemplaria, vol. 30, no. 2, 2018, pp. 147-71.

Lavezzo, Kathy. “The Minster and the Privy: Rereading The Prioress’s Tale.” PMLA, vol. 126, no. 2, 2011, pp. 363-62.

Markell, Patchen. Bound by Recognition. Princeton UP, 2003.

Mitchell, J. Allan. Becoming Human: The Matter of the Medieval Child. U of Minnesota P, 2014.

Moten, Fred, and Stefano Harney. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study. Autonomedia, 2013.

Oldenburg, Ray. The Great Good Place. Da Capo P, 1989.

Povinelli, Elizabeth A. The Cunning of Recognition: Indigenous Alterities and the Making of Australian Multiculturalism. Duke UP, 2002.

———. Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism. Duke UP, 2016.

———. “The Rhetorics of Recognition in Geontopower.” Philosophy and Rhetoric, vol. 48, no. 4, 2015, pp. 428-42.

———. “What Do White People Want?: Interest, Desire, and Affect in Late Liberalism.” e-flux, 12 Jan 2017, Accessed 1 June 2018.

Shih, Shu-Mei. “Global Literature and the Technologies of Recognition.” PMLA, vol. 119, no. 1, 2004, pp. 16-30.

Stocker, David. “The Shrine of Little St Hugh.” Medieval Art and Architecture at Lincoln Cathedral, edited by T. A. Heslop and V. A. Sekules, British Archaeological Association, 1986, pp. 109-17.

Taylor, Charles. “The Politics of Recognition.” Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition, edited by Amy Gutmann, Princeton UP, 1994, pp. 25-73.

Tomasch, Sylvia. “Postcolonial Chaucer and the Virtual Jew.” The Postcolonial Middle Ages, edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, St. Martin’s P, 2000, pp. 243-60.

Waters, Claire M. “Makyng and Middles in Chaucer’s Poetry.” Readings in Medieval Textuality: Essays in Honour of A.C. Spearing, edited by Cristina Maria Cervone and D. Vance Smith, D.S. Brewer, 2006, pp. 31-44.

Whitaker, Cord J. “About the Cover.”  postmedieval, vol. 6, no. 1, 2015, pp. 1-2.

The Chaucer Society, Victorian Medievalism, and the Nation-State: Englishness and Empire

Image for The Chaucer Society, Victorian Medievalism, and the Nation-State: Englishness and Empire

John Tenniel. “Vae Victis!” (1871). Otto Bismarck, the newly proclaimed Emperor of Germany, in the helmet of Victory, leads his troops into the French capital over the fallen body of Paris, a reference to France's defeat in the war against Prussia (July 1870–March 1, 1871). From Punch, or the London Charivari, March 11, 1871.

John Tenniel. “The Greedy Boy” (1885). The boy John Bull (England) is horrified at the greediness of the boy Otto Bismarck. A comment on post-unification Germany’s colonization of territories in the Scramble for Africa and around the world. From Punch, or the London Charivari, January 10, 1885.

My colleague Dr R. D. Perry, the NCS Postdoctoral Fellow (2017-18) at Saint Louis University, is hosting a series of podcasts on the state of the field in Chaucerian studies. The next podcast interview, with Sylvia Tomasch and me, is on the history of the New Chaucer Society and its previous avatar, the Chaucer Society. One question that Ryan asked us is particularly interesting, because it’s highly relevant to the current dialogue in our discipline about the far-right appropriation of medieval history and about race and inclusion, namely, “what is the relationship between the members of the Chaucer Society and things like colonial government? the role some of these individuals played in the creation and maintenance of Empire? what do we know about the relationship of the Chaucer Society to the wider project of nineteenth-century Nation-State ideology-formation?”

The answers are more complex than they seem at first blush. The driving force behind the Chaucer Society (1868-1912) was the ebullient figure of Frederick James Furnivall, a trained barrister with strong egalitarian and democratic principles, an advocate of working-class education and – to some extent – of women’s rights, whose life’s work was dedicated to the publication of texts by chiefly, although not exclusively, premodern English authors. Furnivall had founded the Early English Text Society (EETS) in 1864 to publish editions of what were then called “Early English” texts: Old and Middle English texts, but excluding those of Chaucer, whose work, in David Matthews’ words, “by the nineteenth century, tended to circulate in quite different social and cultural forms and exchanges from those forced on other Middle English texts” (1999, 165). Furnivall then went on to found the Chaucer Society in 1868, in order, as the mission statement printed at the end of most of the Society’s publications states, “To do honour to CHAUCER, and to let the lovers and students of him see how far the best unprinted Manuscripts of his works differd [sic] from the printed texts.” As Derek Pearsall notes, “Chaucer was the poet he loved above all” (1998, 132), and for this reason Furnivall put a great deal of his energy into running the Society, arguably more than he put into any of the other societies that he established. Like the EETS, the Chaucer Society was a subscription society, funded by the annual dues paid by its roughly 60 members, although, with dues at 2 guineas a year, the Society struggled to appeal to a large or broad membership base from all classes (Spencer 2015, 602; Furnivall 1872, 373, 393).

Nationalism and imperialism are sometimes conflated, so it is important to distinguish between their political aims and ethos. The former is essentially patriotic: to be proud of one’s country and to promote its culture. The latter involves the extension of a nation’s authority through the forceful taking over of the territory of another nation and the hegemonic dominance of that other nation through both political and cultural means. In establishing the Chaucer Society to print the manuscripts of Chaucer’s texts, Furnivall saw himself as participating in a nationalist, not an imperialist or colonialist project, one driven by his “love for Chaucer” (Furnivall 1868a, 3), and one that aimed to make available to an English audience English texts by a quintessentially English author. This aim was quite distinct from that which motivated his founding of EETS, which was overtly imperialist: as an 1877 description averred, EETS was established ‘‘for the purpose of bringing the mass of Early English Literature within the reach of every student and boy in the British Empire’’ (Dinshaw 2001, 32; Biddick 1998, 93).

Although it is often said that Furnivall was not a philologist, it is important to recognize that not only did his publishing project for the Chaucer Society make possible subsequent philological work on the manuscripts of Chaucer, but also that this work was principally underwritten by a desire to connect contemporary readers to an English past, rather than to promote the study of Chaucer within the British empire. In a revealing statement made to the Polish philologist Roman Dyboski, Furnivall claims: “I never cared a bit for philology; my chief aim has been throughout to illustrate the social condition of the English people in the past” (Dyboski in Munro 1911, 43). Pearsall comments, sarcastically: “Exactly how this project was to improve the lot of the working class was something that Furnivall never investigated too closely” (1998, 126). But Furnivall’s statement, assuming that Dyboski reports it accurately, does not say that he aimed “to improve the lot of the working class.” What it does say is that he was most interested not in reinforcing British values within the Empire but rather in making available the monuments of their past to those at home.

The Chaucer Society’s aim, then, as with the EETS, was to connect English readers with the literature and language of their “forefathers,” in this case by editing and printing Chaucer’s texts (Munro 1911, xliii; Dinshaw 2012, 27). This aim was avowedly nationalist and patriotic: as Stephanie Trigg observes, “For Furnivall, it was editing and publication that could best preserve the nation’s identity” (2002, 175). In a letter that Furnivall wrote to his friend the Chaucerian scholar Henry Bradshaw in 1870, he made the surprising claim that “it’s the nation that can print its own MSS that can fight” (Trigg 2002, 176). But this is clearly fighting talk and not a program for enhancing England’s military power. The Chaucer Society’s nationalist mission thus differs significantly from that of the EETS, which was avowedly imperialist.

From its inception, however, the Chaucer Society also imagined itself reaching out to American lovers of Chaucer. In the Temporary Preface to the first instalment of his monumental Six-Text Edition of the Canterbury Tales (1868a), Furnivall claims that he started the Society because he was begged to do so by his American friend, Francis James Child, the distinguished Harvard scholar and ballad-collector. It’s worth quoting at length what Furnivall says about Child’s importuning:

I am bound to confess that my love for Chaucer … would not by itself have made me give up the time and trouble I can so ill afford to bestow on this task; but when an American, who had done the best bit of work on Chaucer’s words [Child’s “Observations on the Language of Chaucer,” 1863], asked, and kept on asking, for texts of our great English poet, could an Englishman keep on refusing to produce them?[1] When that American had laid aside his own work to help, heart and soul, in the great struggle for freeing his land from England’s legacy to it, the curse of slavery,[2] could one who honoured him for it, who felt strongly how mean had been the feeling of England’s upper and middle classes on the War, as contrasted with the nobleness of our suffering working-men,[3] – could one such, I say, fail to desire to sacrifice something that he might help to weave again one bond between at least the Chaucer-lovers of the Old Country and the New? No. (Furnivall 1868a, 3)

In his characteristic colloquial style (“the best bit of work on Chaucer’s words”), Furnivall presents himself – not at all candidly – as someone who lacks the time and energy to make Chaucer’s manuscripts accessible, but who acknowledges, as an Englishman, his obligation to an American scholar to “produce” the texts of England’s “great English poet.” Furnivall here rehearses the modesty topos in presenting his task as both self-sacrificial and peace-weaving – creating a bond between Chaucerians in England and America – but the homage to both Child and America is sincere.[4] Furnivall dedicated his Six-Text Edition to Child, “in admiration of himself and his nation, and in the hope that he will teach many of them to love and study Chaucer, as he has done, and does” (Furnivall 1868b), and Furnivall appointed Child as the Chaucer Society’s Honorary Secretary for America. Furnivall also invited several Americans to do editorial and scholarly work for the Chaucer Society, including George Lyman Kittredge, Karl Young, Edith Rickert (a close friend) and John M. Manly, both of whom from 1935 onwards, long after Furnivall’s death, helped to assemble materials that would form the basis for Martin Crow and Clair Olson’s Chaucer Life-Records (1966). But what is striking in the above quotation from 1868 is Furnivall’s yoking of the American abolition of slavery – and British attitudes to it – to his decision to publish Chaucer’s manuscripts, in his claim that it was because of Child’s part in the US Civil War and because of the support for the Union states by England’s noble “working-men” that he was moved to found the Chaucer Society. The ploy here is purely rhetorical – the Society does not have its roots in the US abolition of slavery – but it is nevertheless an interesting link.

While the Chaucer Society’s nationalist and pro-American aims are very clear, there is nevertheless a story to tell about the Society’s relations to empire, but one that is less straightforward than that about the EETS (Dinshaw 2001, 31-7; Biddick 1998, 92-6). This story, in which are intertwined English antagonism towards Germany over its imperialist ambitions after 1871 and Furnivall’s growing wariness of (Helen Spencer’s words) “German philological hegemony” (Spencer 2015, 616), can be traced in Furnivall’s fluctuating relationships with the German philologists with whom he worked on Chaucer Society publications (Utz 2001, 2002, 2016; Spencer 2015, 615-17).

Up to 1871, those relationships were unequivocally positive. Soon after Germany defeated France in the Franco-Prussian war (1871), Furnivall dedicated his parallel-text edition of the Minor Poems for the Chaucer Society (1871-79) to the German scholar Bernhard ten Brink in highly adulatory terms, lauding him as “One of our Kin, one of the German Nation, Great in learning and Great in War” (Munro 1911, xlix). Furnivall links Britain and Germany (“One of our Kin, one of the German Nation”) by virtue of their shared Anglo-Saxon heritage. Six years later, ten Brink in turn dedicated his History of English Literature (Geschichte der englischen Literatur, 1877) to Furnivall as “the unselfish promoter of German co-operation” (Brandl 1911, 10). Throughout the history of the Chaucer Society Furnivall commissioned a number of German scholars to work on its publications, including Axel Erdmann (1911), John Koch (1890), and Julius Zupitza (1892-3). As Richard Utz notes, Furnivall “had a deep appreciation for the meticulous scientific work his mostly German collaborators brought to his publishing ventures” (2016, 126). In recognition of these collaborations, Berlin University awarded Furnivall an honorary doctorate in 1884. And Furnivall chose as the Chaucer Society’s publisher Nikolaus Trübner, the German publisher, bookseller, and linguist, who came to live and work (and publish) in London in 1843.

One of Furnivall’s German friends, the Shakespearean scholar Josef Schick, fondly remembers Furnivall declaring “England, Germany, and America must always be friends” (Schick 1911, 171). But Furnivall’s attitude towards Germany and Germans was not consistently cordial. As Helen Spencer observes, while “Furnivall was always staunchly pro-American, … his German sympathies waxed and waned in accord with his views of German foreign policy.” And as Spencer notes, “Late in life [Furnivall] lost no opportunity of telling Alois Brandl [the Austrian philologist and Shakespeare scholar] that ‘he considered the Germans as cousins only, but the Americans as brothers’” (Spencer 2015, 617).

The watershed in Anglo-German relations for Furnivall, as for many Britons at the time, was 1871, after the unification of Germany as a nation-state, when Germany’s desire to expand her empire around the globe was perceived by Britain as a threat, as John Tenniel’s Punch cartoon of 1885, above, vividly depicts. For Furnivall, this threat overlapped in complex and ambiguous ways with the threat posed by what he saw as “German philological hegemony” (Spencer 2015, 616). A striking example of this is a barbed remark he made in praise of ten Brink in 1873, in a report on recent work on Chaucer. Furnivall records that while Henry Bradshaw had, “unluckily for all English students,” neglected to publish his findings on the chronology of Chaucer’s works and on which works belonged in the Chaucer canon, ten Brink “like a true German uhlan [the German Empire’s crack Polish cavalry unit], suddenly and most unexpectedly made his appearance one morning by his ‘Chaucer: Studien zur Geschichte seiner Entwicklung und zur Chronologie seiner Schriften, erster Theil, 1870 [Chaucer: Studies in the History of His Development and on the Chronology of His Writings, Part I],’ and carried off from England the main credit of the reform or re-creation of Chaucer” (Furnivall 1872-3, 385). To Furnivall’s chagrin, though Bradshaw may have made the same discoveries as ten Brink, “to the public, the German professor was the first man to throw a real light on the distinction between genuine and spurious in Chaucer’s works, and the true order of succession in those works.” Moreover, he did this "[s]ingle-handed, … without ever having seen a Chaucer manuscript, or heard of a Chaucer Society … Alone he beat us, and beat us well, on our own ground. All honour to him for it!" (387). So the “nation that prints its own MSS” lost this particular fight to its German rival. As Susan Schibanoff observes, Furnivall’s grudging praise for ten Brink “exposes the nationalistic bent of late Victorian Chaucer studies” (Schibanoff 2006, 6). I also suggest that this “Scramble for Chaucer” is framed – especially later, in the 1880s and 1890s – by the larger context of Anglo-German hostilities in regard to empire-building. Furnivall was not alone in seeing German scholars as invading English philological territory. Richard Utz notes that the English grammarian and philologist Henry Sweet, in 1885, "speaks resignedly about abandoning all hopes to build 'an independent school of English philology' because the 'historical study of English was being rapidly annexed,' leaving only a few areas 'uninvaded' by German “dissertations and programs.” (Utz 2010, 162)

The Kruger telegram of 1896 further exacerbated tensions between Britain and Germany;[5] it upset Furnivall to such an extent that he sent a postcard to his German friend Brandl “breathing threats and slaughter,” though, as Brandl recounts, “[t]his feeling ebbed away in course of time” (Brandl 1911, 14).

I have begun to sketch out something of the complexity of the Chaucer Society’s relation to empire, chiefly in Furnivall’s sometimes conflicted relations with Germany and German scholars, because of what he perceived to be their philological preeminence. As far as I am aware, no-one is writing a detailed intellectual history of the Chaucer Society, but it would undoubtedly reveal a great deal more about the importance of nation and empire in its formation and development.


I would like to thank R.D. Perry and David Matthews.


[1] Child was general editor of a 130-volume collection of the works of the British poets, which began appearing in 1853; he planned to produce a critical edition of the works of Chaucer for this collection, but only had access to Thomas Wright's edition of the Canterbury Tales (1847-51), which was based on a single, unreliable manuscript, London, British Museum, MS Harley 7334. See also Child 1863, 448-9.

[2] Child canvassed for Lincoln during the Civil War: see Burgess 2006. By the time of the American Civil War (1861-65), Britain had long since abolished slavery, and anti-slavery attitudes were deeply and widely ingrained in the British public in 1868.

[3] Great Britain’s official position during the American Civil War was neutral. Furnivall refers to one dominant view, namely that the British elite tended to support the Confederacy, whereas English public opinion generally supported the North. But British opinions and attitudes at the time differed a great deal, depending on region and class. On British attitudes towards the Civil War, see Campbell 2003.

[4] On the wider context of how Chaucer studies came “to be such a particularly American story,” and on how American subscriptions saved the Chaucer Society, which struggled to survive on British subscriptions, see Matthews 2010, esp. 6-12.

[5] A telegram sent by Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II to the President of the Transvaal Republic on 3 January 1896, congratulating him on repelling the Jameson Raid, in which a large number of British irregular soldiers were killed, and the rest surrendered.



Biddick, Kathleen. The Shock of Medievalism, Durham, N.C.: Duke UP, 1998.

Brandl, Alois. “Memories of F. J. Furnivall: III”. In Munro, 1911, 10-15.

Burgess, John. “Francis James Child: Brief Life of a Victorian Enthusiast: 1825-1896.” Harvard Magazine (May-June 2006): Accessed 2/17/2018.

Campbell, Duncan Andrew. English Public Opinion and the American Civil War. Royal Historical Society Studies in History New Series. Woodbridge, UK, and Rochester, NY: Boydell, 2003.

Child, F. J. “Observations on the Language of Chaucer,” Memoirs of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, vol. 8, no. 2, 1863, pp. 445-502.

Crow, Martin M. and Clair C. Olson, eds. Chaucer Life-Records, from materials compiled by John M. Manly and Edith Rickert, with the assistance of Lilian J. Redstone and others by Martin Michael Crow, Geoffrey Chaucer, John Matthews Manly, Clair Colby Olson, Lilian Jane Redstone, Edith Rickert. Oxford: Clarendon, 1966.

Dinshaw, Carolyn. “Pale Faces: Race, Religion, and Affect in Chaucer’s Texts and Their Readers.” Studies in the Age of Chaucer, vol. 23, 2001: 19-41.

Dinshaw, Carolyn. How Soon is Now? Medieval Texts, Amateur Readers, and the Queerness of Time, Durham and London: Duke UP, 2012.

Dyboski, Roman. “Memories of F. J. Furnivall: IX”. In Munro, 1911, 38-43.

Erdmann, Axel, ed. Lydgate's Siege of Thebes: Edited from All the Known Manuscripts and the Two Oldest Editions. Part I: The Text. The Chaucer Society, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1911.

Furnivall, F. J. A Temporary Preface to the Six-Text Edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Part 1, The Chaucer Society, London: Trübner & Co., 1868a.

Furnivall, F. J. A Six-Text Print of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in Parallel Columns: Part 1: The Prologue and Knight’s Tale. The Chaucer Society, London: Trübner & Co., 1968b.

Furnivall, F. J. “Recent Work at Chaucer.” Macmillan's Magazine, vol. 27, 1872-3, 383-93.

Kittredge, George Lyman, The Date of Chaucer's Troilus and Other Chaucer Matters. The Chaucer Society, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1909.

Koch, John. The Chronology of Chaucer’s Writings. The Chaucer Society, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1890.

Matthews, David. The Making of Middle English, 1765-1910. Medieval Cultures 18. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1999.

Matthews, David. “Chaucer’s American Accent.” American Literary History, vol. 22, 2010: 758-772.

Munro, John. Frederick James Furnivall: A Volume of Personal Record, London: Oxford UP, 1911.

Pearsall, Derek. “Frederick James Furnivall.” Medieval Scholarship: Biographical Studies on the Formation of a Discipline, vol. 2: Literature and Philology, ed. Helen Damico, New York: Garland, 1998, pp. 125–138.

Schibanoff, Susan. Chaucer’s Queer Poetics: Rereading the Dream Trio, Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2006.

Schick, J. “Memories of F. J. Furnivall: XLI.” In Munro, 1911, 170-73.

Spencer, H. L. “F. J. Furnivall’s Six of the Best: The Six-Text Canterbury Tales and the Chaucer Society.” The Review of English Studies, vol. 66, no. 276, 2015, 601-623.

Trigg, Stephanie. “Reading Chaucer Outside the Academy: Furnivall, Woolf, and Chesterton.” Congenial Souls: Reading Chaucer from Medieval to Postmodern, 2002, pp. 157-94.

Utz, Richard. Chaucer and the Discourse of German Philology: A History of Reception and an Annotated Bibliography of Studies 1793-1948, Making the Middle Ages 3, Turnhout: Brepols, 2002, especially 73-102.

Utz, Richard. “Enthusiast or Philologist? Professional Discourse and the Medievalism of Frederick James Furnivall.” Appropriating the Middle Ages: Scholarship, Politics, Fraud, eds. Tom Shippey and Martin Arnold. Studies in Medievalism 11. Cambridge: Brewer, 2001, 189-212.

Utz, Richard. “The Colony Writes Back: F. N. Robinson’s Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer and the Translatio of Chaucer Studies to the United States.” Studies in Medievalism, vol. 19, 2010: 160–203.

Utz, Richard. “Academic Medievalism and Nationalism.” The Cambridge Companion to Medievalism, ed. Louise D’Arcens, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2016, pp. 119-34.

Young, Karl. The Origin and Development of the Story of Troilus and Criseyde. The Chaucer Society, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1908.

Zupitza, Julius, ed. Specimens of All the Accessible Unprinted Manuscripts of the Canterbury Tales. The Doctor-Pardoner Link, and Pardoner's Prologue and Tale. 3 Parts. The Chaucer Society, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1892-3.

Speaking of Chaucer’s Obscenity

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Obscene innuendo in decoration, linked to text. Cuckoo-pint (Arum maculatum) flowers and leaves border decoration, in Geoffrey Chaucer, Romaunt of the Rose (c. 1440). Glasgow, Glasgow University Library Special Collections, MS Hunter 409, fol. 57v (details).

Mary C. Flannery is a medievalist working in Switzerland. She was recently awarded a Marie Curie fellowship to investigate the reception of Chaucerian obscenity between Chaucer’s death and the present day.

I am about to begin a new project that will examine the impact of the sexual and scatological language and content of The Canterbury Tales on the transmission of the text and on Chaucer’s reputation over the past six hundred years. My interest in this topic was sparked by the way that Chaucer’s references to sex, farts, turds, pissing, and genitalia—what I call Chaucerian “obscenity”—have alternately been censored, celebrated, condemned, and excused since his death. This post is my attempt to reflect on the terminological complications that attend a project of this nature, and on my own reasons for adopting “obscenity” as my preferred critical term.

Both “obscene” and “obscenity” are words that postdate Chaucer by nearly two centuries. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the earliest use of “obscene” to the mid-sixteenth century, when it chiefly meant “grossly indecent, lewd,” or (of a publication) “tending to deprave and corrupt those who are likely to read, see, or hear the contents.”[1] By the late sixteenth century, the word could denote moral offensiveness, something more generally repulsive or loathsome. It could also be used to describe something ill-omened, although this sense has long since become obsolete.

The semantic range of obscenity has evolved considerably since the sixteenth century. In An Encyclopedia of Swearing, Geoffrey Hughes notes that the meanings of “obscenity” and “obscene” have shifted from “a basic sense of religious violation” towards an emphasis on perceived “sexual depravity or extreme vulgarity,” and the terms are now used in a very broadly “condemnatory sense.”[2] As Nicola McDonald has remarked, the study of medieval obscenity is further complicated by the fact that “the obscene remains a loose and fuzzy category”; as one moves between periods and cultures, “[t]he boundary shifts ever backwards and forwards (there is no neat evolutionary trajectory to chart), and … changing historical and cultural circumstances make it difficult to identify one person’s (or culture’s) obscenity from another’s taboo, pornographic, erotic or merely ‘talking about’ the sexual or scatological.”[3]

In the case of Chaucerian obscenity, one must contend not only with evolving and disputed definitions of the obscene, but also with the range of terms, euphemisms, and adjectives that have been used to describe the sexual and scatological content of The Canterbury Tales. In The Miller’s Prologue (line 3184), Chaucer himself refers to the content of the Miller’s and Reeve’s tales as “harlotrie” (low, trifling, or ribald talk; obscenity; a dirty story (MED s.v. harlotri(e)). Such content has been variously referred to as “bawdiness”/“bawdy,” “ribaldry,” “filth,” “dirtiness,” or “smuttiness,” among other terms. Donald C. Green lists “‘coarse,’ ‘bawdy,’ ‘off-color,’ ‘ribald,’ ‘dirty,’ ‘unrefined,’ ‘scurrilous,’ ‘low,’ and ‘unfit for modest ears’” as some of the many adjectives and phrases that have been used to describe Chaucer’s sexual and scatological material.[4] Terms such as these provide valuable evidence of the filters through which Chaucerian obscenity has been and continues to be viewed, filters shaped by issues of class, morality, propriety, and style.

Our perception of Chaucer’s greatness and/or medieval-ness also plays a key role in this history. In a 1993 essay for the London Sunday Times on the use of authors’ names as adjectives, David Mills defines “Chaucerian” as “bawdy in an acceptably Olde Englishe way.”[5] The word “bawdy” is, if not entirely obsolete, then at least relatively old-fashioned. This sense of quaint, old-fashioned style or language is reinforced by Mills’s association of Chaucer with “Olde Englishe,” a phrase which—particularly in Mills’s mock-antiquated spelling—contributes to an overall sense of harmlessness and an innocence that has been often attributed to the Middle Ages: Chaucer may be dirty, but only in a quaint, anodyne, outdated sort of way. Mills presents this particular brand of obscenity as both characteristic of Chaucer and also as acceptable by virtue of its association with him: it’s acceptable because it’s Chaucer who’s doing it (or because it calls to mind what Chaucer did). Sure, we’ll find farts and fornication in Chaucer’s work, but that can be put down to “Olde Englishe” style and tastes, or to Chaucer’s unique genius: great artists are entitled to break the rules.

As Mills’s remark suggests, one of the key issues at stake in discussions of Chaucerian obscenity is that of artistic license. Is a writer like Chaucer great in spite of his obscenity, or is his occasional obscenity—as George Shuffelton has provocatively suggested—one of the things that make him great?[6] Under what circumstances (if any) may writers depict bodily functions, use scatological language, or write about sex? Some might argue that authors can write about these kinds of topics as long as they do it well, a belief that underlies the Literary Review’s annual “Bad Sex in Fiction Award” (which aims to “draw attention to poorly written, perfunctory or redundant passages of sexual description in modern fiction”).

Even if, like Mills, we consider Chaucer’s obscenity acceptable precisely because it is “Chaucerian,” we cannot overlook those moments when it has been deemed not just amusingly (or quaintly) naughty, but downright unacceptable or even illicit. The Canterbury Tales have been subject to censorship on multiple occasions (including as recently as 1995, when an Illinois high school banned the “full version” of the text in favor of an “expurgated” version, after parents complained that some parts of Chaucer’s text were inappropriate).[7] And while I do not think of the sex and scatology of The Canterbury Tales as offensively obscene, I believe that they may be characterized as “obscenity” insofar as they constitute material that has been (and, in some contexts, continues to be) perceived as violating a variety of social prohibitions related to sex, the body and its functions, and other topics.

The aim of my project is neither to defend nor denounce Chaucer’s use of obscene language and content, but rather to reconsider the relationship between what we think of as “literature” and what readers may find shocking, distasteful, or even abhorrent. While other authors in English have been censored or celebrated for obscenity, Chaucer’s prominence in English literary history and the extent to which his reputation has varied over the past six centuries make him an ideal test case for such a study.

John Lydgate did not view Chaucer’s occasional “ribaudye” as a reason to stop describing him as the “[f]loure of poetes thorghout al Breteyne,” but many later readers felt differently, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.[8] Daniel Defoe thought The Canterbury Tales “not fit for modest persons to read.”[9] Lord Byron found Chaucer “obscene and contemptible.”[10] These kinds of responses have in turn affected the publication of Chaucer’s works: expurgated versions of The Canterbury Tales have been produced at regular intervals since 1795.

The evolving reception of Chaucerian obscenity is a topic that enables us to reflect on the literary standards and social prohibitions not only of the past, but also of the present. It intersects with many other hotly contested questions concerning Chaucer’s work (is it dirty, funny, moral, misogynist, etc.? is it great, canonical, innovative, conventional, “Olde Englishe,” etc.?). In these respects, the subject of Chaucerian obscenity might help us to reopen the question of what the perception of artistic genius or greatness renders either permissible or unconscionable, as well as the question of how we define greatness and obscenity in the first place.

[1] OED, s.v. obscene, obscenity.

[2] Geoffrey Hughes, An Encyclopedia of Swearing: The Social History of Oaths, Profanity, Foul Language, and Ethnic Slurs in the English-Speaking World, M. E. Sharpe, 2006, s.v. obscenity, pp. 331-34 (pp. 331-32).

[3] Nicola McDonald, “Introduction,” Medieval Obscenities, edited by Nicola McDonald, York Medieval P, 2006, pp. 1-16 (p. 12).

[4] Donald C. Green, “Chaucer as Nuditarian: The Erotic as a Critical Problem,” Pacific Coast Philology, vol. 18, 1983, pp. 59-69 (p. 59).

[5] David Mills, “What is Pinteresque?,” The Sunday Times, 5 September, 1993, Features section. Cited in George G. Shuffelton, “Chaucerian Obscenity in the Court of Public Opinion,” The Chaucer Review, vol. 47, no. 1, 2012, pp. 1-24 (p. 1).

[6] Shuffelton has suggested that “Chaucer’s reputation may be changing: long viewed as canonical despite his obscenity, Chaucer may now be canonical because of his obscenity” (“Chaucerian Obscenity,” p. 2).

[7] See Dawn B. Sova, Banned Books: Literature Suppressed on Social Grounds, rev. edn, Facts on File, Inc., 2006, p. 78.

[8] John Lydgate, The Siege of Thebes, TEAMS, edited by Robert R. Edwards, The Medieval Institute, 2001, Prologue, lines 25, 40.

[9] Daniel Defoe, “Not fit for modest persons to read, 1718,” in Chaucer: The Critical Heritage Volume 1: 1385-1837, edited by Derek Brewer, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978, p. 174.

[10] Lord Byron, “List of the different Poets, dramatic or otherwise, who have distinguished their respective languages by their productions” (1807), in The Complete Miscellaneous Prose, edited by Andrew Nicholson, Oxford UP, 1991, p. 3.

An Interim Report on the Standard Edition(s) of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer

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Ruth Evans is Executive Director of the New Chaucer Society and Dorothy McBride Orthwein Professor of English in the Department of English at Saint Louis University, MO. This post is about the current state of scholarly editions of the complete works of Chaucer.

This is a strange moment for scholars and teachers of Chaucer in North America. There is no good option for an up-to-date, standard, scholarly edition of Chaucer’s complete works. The Riverside Chaucer (gen. ed. Larry Benson, 3rd edition, Houghton Mifflin, 1986), the edition that has long been considered the standard – for some scholars, the “gold standard,” is now over 30 years old, and does not reflect the past 30 years of textual scholarship and literary criticism on Chaucer. It is also, because the rights to it were acquired by a trade publisher, prohibitively expensive for US buyers.

The Riverside Chaucer first appeared in the US in hardback from Houghton Mifflin in 1986 (according to WorldCat). Its text was based on F.N. Robinson’s highly esteemed second edition of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (1957). Houghton Mifflin did not produce a paperback edition of the Riverside Chaucer. It was first issued as a paperback by Oxford University Press in 1988, with distribution rights in the US. The UK paperback had an arresting bright blue cover – a sharp contrast to the somewhat staid and unenticing maroon cover of Houghton Mifflin’s hardback – and a statement on the front by the contemporary British novelist Anthony Burgess (“This is the best edition of Chaucer in existence”), a statement that was authoritative and which – by virtue of the association with Burgess – made Chaucer seem edgy and of the moment.[1] OUP subsequently issued several reprints of this paperback (1989, 1991). It was cheap; it was convenient, because all the works were together in one volume; its text was reliable. Its monumental size impressed those around you if you pulled it out to read in public spaces. OUP reissued their paperback Riverside Chaucer with a new foreword by Christopher Cannon in 2008, at the very moment that Houghton Mifflin was bought up by the publishing giant Cengage Learning. It was the same 1986 text; the only new thing was the foreword. The Riverside Chaucer is now unacceptably outdated: not so much its text, which is sound, but its introductory notes, glosses, textual notes, and commentary – to say nothing of its presentation of the texts, such as the parceling of the Canterbury Tales into ten “fragments” (for some time a matter of considerable scholarly debate[2]) – do not reflect post-1986 criticism on Chaucer, which now includes (inter alia) feminist Chaucer, Chaucer and critical theory, queer Chaucer, postcolonial Chaucer, and global Chaucer. Nor does the Riverside represent the vast amount of scholarly work that has been done since 1986 on the manuscripts, or the lively debates about scribal attribution.

The vagaries of the publishing industry account in part – but only in part – for why the field does not have a reputable standard edition of Chaucer. Cengage Learning, formerly Thomson Learning, acquired the assets of the Houghton Mifflin College Division in 2008, and thus acquired the rights to the US Houghton Mifflin edition of The Riverside Chaucer. Cengage Leaning markets it today as the Wadsworth Chaucer (because Thomson Learning, the previous incarnation of Cengage Learning, owned an imprint known as Wadsworth Publishing). It is a poor quality, photographic reprint of the original 1986 edition. It is unavailable in digital format: their Learning Customer Technical Support department informs me that “due to the age of the textbook, [Cengage] do not have plans to create an ebook for it at this time.” This print-on-demand edition currently costs $99.95; its wholesale price is $75. Students can also rent a copy. OUP tried to agree terms with Cengage to extend their licence to distribute the paperback edition in the US, but were unfortunately not successful. OUP’s UK paperback edition, both the 1988 and the reissued 2008 one, are no longer in print, but limited quantities of past stock are available direct from OUP in the UK, and (still) at good prices on Amazon and other sites.

For teaching purposes, there are very good editions of individual works: for The Canterbury Tales, Jill Mann’s edition for Penguin Classics (2005), the Broadview Canterbury Tales, 2nd edn., ed. Robert Boenig and Andrew Taylor (2012) – both of which nevertheless preserve the “fragments,” and the Norton Dream Visions and Other Poems, ed. Kathryn L. Lynch (2006). There is also the Canterbury Tales Project, which does not aim to produce a text for teaching but rather an electronic transcription of all the manuscript and early printed versions of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

The good news is that at least two new editions of the complete works of Chaucer are about to appear, or are at a relatively advanced stage. The most imminent is David Lawton’s eagerly-awaited Norton Chaucer: The Complete Works, which will be out next spring (2018), in both hard copy and a digital edition. It uses a slightly revised version of E. Talbot Donaldson’s regularized spelling, used in his Chaucer’s Poetry: An Anthology for the Modern Reader (1958). One might note, though, that the decision to use regularized spelling may render this edition less useful for scholars. A new edition of Chaucer’s complete works is also in preparation for OUP’s Oxford Scholarly Editions Online, edited by Christopher Cannon and James Simpson. This text of this edition will be based on W. W. Skeat’s 1894 edition, with line by line editorial revisions, to correct errors in transcription and to look afresh at matters such as final -e.[3] This edition is not due to appear in the immediately foreseeable future, but it is considerably advanced. Penguin is also planning an edition. There may be other proposed editions of the complete works that I do not know about.

It does not matter how many editions of Chaucer’s complete works there are on the market, as long as there is a standard edition or editions for graduate students and scholars that provides a reconsidered version of the text and its variants (with imaginative ways of representing those variants), of the on-page glosses (if used) and of the entries in the glossary, of the textual notes, of the critical commentary, and of the headnotes, and that gives attention to new textual discoveries and new arguments about the manuscript evidence, as well as to the ordering of the works: why, for example, should the Canterbury Tales come first, as in the Riverside? It is striking that there has been very little public discussion about what is entailed in editing Chaucer’s large oeuvre, given that there are so many manuscripts and that notions of editing have moved on considerably from the late 1980s. The editing of Piers Plowman, by contrast, has occasioned a good deal of reflection on precisely these issues.[4] The Manly-Rickert eight-volume edition of The Text of the Canterbury Tales (1940), despite its flaws, nevertheless contains a wealth of information, but has generated no real discussion today about editing Chaucer.

An online, open access edition, with the text considered completely afresh (as opposed to a reliance on Skeat or Robinson), with all the glosses and notes linked, with the most up-to-the-minute yet durable critical interpretations, and with the possibility of periodic updating, is probably the desideratum: an edition for the twenty-first century.

[1] See David Matthews, The Making of Middle English, 1765-1910, U of Minnesota P, 1999, p. 187.

[2] Robert Meyer-Lee, “Abandon the Fragments,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 35 (2013): 47-83; Arthur Bahr, Fragments and Assemblages: Forming Compilations of Medieval London, U of Chicago P, 2013. See also Arthur Bahr’s blogpost “Celebrate Fragments” on the NCS website, and Ruth Evans’s post “Literary Criticism with Book History: A Response to Arthur Bahr’s ‘Celebrate Fragments’,” also on the NCS website. Elizabeth Scala’s Absent Narratives: Manuscript Textuality and Literary Structure in Late Medieval England, Palgrave, 2002, argues for the importance of “fragmentariness,” fragments and their attendant absences, as a means of understanding medieval texts in their codicological context.

[3] See Christopher Cannon, “Some of Chaucer is Missing,” Oxford Scholarly Editions Online (February 9, 2015).

[4] For example, Charlotte Brewer, Editing Piers Plowman: The Evolution of the Text, Cambridge UP, 1996; Angela R. Bennett Segler’s Digital Piers; the Piers Plowman Electronic Archive.


I'd like to thank R.D. Perry and Elizabeth Scala for help with writing this post.

Chaucer in Russia: Some Aspects of the History of Chaucer Studies in the Russian Tradition

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Cover of Inna Yurievna Starostina’s monograph, Gendernye Predstavleniya Dzh. Chosera [Geoffrey Chaucer’s Representations of Gender] (Saratov, 2016).

Inna Starostina graduated in 2012 with a PhD in History from Saratov State University, about 450 miles south-east of Moscow, Russia, on the Volga River. She is a high-school history teacher in Saratov. She is the author of a monograph on Chaucer, in Russian, and four articles on Chaucer, in English.

Research into Chaucer in Russia really took off in the late twentieth century. Both the historicist and literary traditions are well represented.

An important preliminary consideration is the availability of Russian translations of Chaucer. Interest in Chaucer’s poetry was first sparked by the translation of some fragments of The Canterbury Tales by D. Minaev in 1875 [15, 494]. I. Kashkin and O. Rumer had translated the greater part of the Tales into Russian by the middle of the twentieth century, and T. Popova completed a full translation in 2007. It is important to note that, in addition to The Canterbury Tales, modern Russian scholars now also have access to a Russian translation of the whole of Troilus and Criseyde by M. Boroditskaya, and to translations of The Parliament of Fowls and The Book of the Duchess by S. Alexandrovskiy. These translations were produced at the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first.

The representation of social processes and interrelations between social classes in Chaucer’s major poem The Canterbury Tales have proved extra-attractive for a soviet scholarly audience. The soviet historian N. Bogodarova analyzes Chaucer’s attitude to social hierarchy in the tales, emphasizing the poet’s interest in his characters as realistic, everyday persons. According to Bogodarova, Chaucer looks down on his characters, but his work is nevertheless tinged with respect for every pilgrim, most of all for the third category of the urban hierarchy, namely the merchant class, and also the peasantry. Bogodarova concludes that Chaucer’s own view of social hierarchy is hard to identify because of the author’s overriding intention to describe the quotidian and overt concerns of all human beings [3, 204–219]. Bogodarova also offers a brief biography of Chaucer, but without going into detail about the questionable aspects of Chaucer’s life, such as his children. He discusses Chaucer’s intellectual interests and business acumen [4, 213–225].

Another soviet historian, Y. Saprykin, refers to Chaucer in his analysis of the problem of the bourgeois-aristocratic direction of English social thought during the period of the appearance and domination of absolutism [12]. In his discussion of Chaucer’s major life-events and political ideas, Saprykin argues that Chaucer is a pioneer of English humanism, and that Francis Bacon and William Shakespeare took forward and developed Chaucer’s ideas in the early modern period. In his view, The Canterbury Tales lets the reader draw their own conclusions about any tension Chaucer may have felt between a religious and a secular perception of human life. For Chaucer, human desires and behaviors are the most significant categories of analysis. Saprykin also examines Chaucer’s attitude to human dignity and “true” nobility outside its social origin.

Russian literary critics and cultural theorists have also made significant contributions to Chaucer studies. M. Alekseev’s synoptic history of English literature, albeit brief (more an essay than a book) attends in detail to Chaucer’s poetry [1]. Alekseev alludes to the different stages of Chaucer’s creative production, and he understands Chaucer’s oeuvre as leaving a large legacy for the English literary tradition that comes after him. The philologist A. Anixt [2] notes a specific feature of Chaucer’s writing: its combining of the medieval traditions of religious and chivalrous ideals with individual human desires. Like Saprykin, he also represents Chaucer as a precursor of English humanism.

Describing the different plots of The Canterbury Tales, M. Popova is principally interested in Chaucer’s borrowing from his contemporaries’ writings, among them Guillaume de Lorris, Jeun de Meun, and Jean Froissart [10]. She also compares Chaucer’s oeuvre with other medieval texts, including anonymous chivalric romances and French fabliaux, drawing out the links between plots and themes, that is, between formal structure and ideas. I. Medeleva’s dissertation is dedicated to the narratalogical study of Chaucer’s compositional technique [9], elaborating the evolution of the poet’s painstaking literary method. He considers The Canterbury Tales to be Chaucer’s crowning achievement.

The cultural critic A. Schtulberg, in a comparison of Boccaccio’s Decameron with The Canterbury Tales, considers Boccaccio’s early-humanistic influence on Chaucer’s mentality [16]. E. Libba, on the other hand, studies medieval categories of space and verb tense usage in relation to The Canterbury Tales, arguing that Chaucer imagines the world of the poem as a combination of old and new ideological traditions. The Canterbury Tales reflects old (pagan) and new (Christian) mentalities [7].

2010 was a very significant year for Russian Chaucerians. A. Gorbunov published a major, single-author study of Chaucer, in which he provides a biography and an extended literary analysis of the most famous poems [5]. Gorbunov, who is the author of Through Each Other’s Eyes: Religion and Literature (1999), is especially interested in the religious aspects of Chaucer’s poetry.

The Canterbury Tales has been a central text for modern Russia medieval gender studies. E. Kogut’s article, which provides an overview of the last 30 years of Russian medieval gender studies, notes the especial popularity and topicality of The Canterbury Tales for medievalists [6]. The modern historian A. Prasdnikov discusses gender issues in Chaucer in the context of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century English urban history, concentrating on women’s position in the urban social system and women’s attitudes to public power and family. For Prasdnikov, the period’s ideal woman is the good townswoman and wife, as a mean between the noble and peasant woman [11]. But the Wife of Bath strongly resists the stereotype of the respectful and submissive townswoman, which may reflect many contemporary laywomen’s desires. As Prasdnikov argues, women in Chaucer’s poetry play a significant role within the urban economy, establishing their own system of values and demanding high attention to their person.

S. Matchenya examines another aspect of gender in The Canterbury Tales, namely the struggle between secular/lay and religious values. For Chaucer, the relationship between men and women seems to be one of permanent gender struggle [8]. K. Tebenev analyzes Chaucer’s representation of marriage. The institution of marriage seems to be “an economic benefit” because of intensive trade and money circulation in England during Chaucer’s epoch. Chaucer’s time was a transition period when many traditional medieval values were in flux, including those of marriage and domesticity [14, 80–86].

The historian I. Starostina studies in depth the major poems of Chaucer, identifying a number of different gender issues in Chaucer’s main works, and focusing on historical source analysis for the study of gender. She proposes that the “gender possibilities” in Chaucer’s oeuvre are numerous. As she argues, Chaucer tries to explain a woman’s identity by reference to her past. Most of his women are ready to do heroic deeds. Starostina is also interested in the question of Chaucer’s characters’ education and upbringing as reflections of the poet’s own literary possibilities. Her monograph concerns noble and urban bourgeois male and female characters in the best-known poems. She concludes that Chaucer is a true intellectual due to his education, practical skills, and literary heritage. She also argues that Chaucer’s interest in Fame’s essence admits that fame is only temporary, but he believes that in the end only a man who works dutifully and does not dream of any fame deserves and obtains it. Her main point is that Chaucer’s attitude to all of his characters is one of respect and tolerance. He prefers to focus on private rather than public space. His work is representative of a transition period in English history, and he is an outstanding thinker/creator of what Starostina calls the English ProtoRenaissance [13].

Chaucer studies in Russia today thus represents both literary and historicist traditions, and focuses on Chaucer’s lively creativity. Gender is also an important category of analysis. The Canterbury Tales is Chaucer’s most “popular” text, yet his other writings deserve a great deal more attention.



1. Алексеев М. П. [M. Alekseev]. История английской литературы. М., 1943. Т. 1.
2. Аникст А. А. [A. Anixt]. История английской литературы. М., 1956.
3. Богодарова Н. А. [N. Bogodarova]. Социально-политические воззрения Дж. Чосера // Из истории социальных движений и общественной мысли. М., 1981. С. 204–219.
4. Богодарова Н. А. [N. Bogodarova]. Джеффри Чосер: Штрихи к портрету // Средние века. М., 1985. Вып. 53. С. 213–225.
5. Горбунов А. Н. [A. Gorbunov]. Чосер средневековый. М., 2010.
6. Когут Е. В. [E. Kogut]. Последние исследования в англоязычной медиевистике: гендерный подход (2012 г.). URL:
7. Либба Е. А. [E. Libba]. Средневековые представления о пространстве и времени на примере “Кентерберийских рассказов” Джеффри Чосера. Автореф. дис. канд. культурологии. Саранск, 2009. URL:
8. Матченя С. Р. [S. Matchenya]. Чосеровские мотивы «войны полов» в «Кентерберийских Рассказах». URL:
9. Меделева И. Н. [I. Medeleva]. Своеобразие нарративной поэтики Джеффри Чосера: автореф. дис. …канд. филол. наук. М., 2005. URL:
10. Попова М. К. [M. Popova]. Философские и литературные истоки «Кентерберийских рассказов» Дж. Чосера. Воронеж, 2003.
11. Праздников А. Г. [A. Prasdnikov]. Английский город XIV–XV веков: социальная структура и менталитет. Киров, 2007.
12. Сапрыкин Ю. М. [Y. Saprykin]. От Чосера до Шекспира: этические и политические идеи в Англии. М., 1985.
13. Старостина И. Ю. [I. Starostina]. Гендерные представления Дж. Чосера. Саратов, 2016.
14. Тебенев К. Г. [K. Tebenev]. Особенности брачных отношений в средневековой Англии на примере «Кентерберийских Рассказов» Джеффри Чосера // Вестник Томского Государственного Педагогического Университета. 2014. Вып. 3 (144). С. 80–86.
15. Чосер Дж. [Geoffrey Chaucer]. Кентерберийские рассказы [Kenterberiyskiye rasskazy/The Canterbury Tales] / Пер. с англ. И. Кашкина, О. Румера. М., 1973; М., 2007.
16. Штульберг А. М. [A. M. Schtulberg]. Культурологическая специфика английского гуманизма (сравнительная характеристика «Кентерберийских рассказов» Джеффри Чосера и «Декамерона» Джованни Боккаччо): автореф. дис. …канд. культурологии. М., 2008.

The Man of Law and the Muslim Ban: A Strategy for Resistance

Image for The Man of Law and the Muslim Ban: A Strategy for Resistance

The Man of Law. San Marino, CA, Huntington Library, EL 26.C.9, Ellesmere MS, fol. 50v.

Professor Cord Whitaker is Assistant Professor of English at Wellesley, where he works on medieval literature and the history of race. He blogs at He will soon launch, with the Madeleine Korbel Albright Institute, The Spoke, a blog for smart approaches to public affairs. Keep an eye out for it at

In the Man of Law’s Tale the Sultaness of Syria worries over her son’s impending marriage to the Christian daughter of the emperor of Rome. At the prospect of converting to Christianity, the Sultaness exclaims to her council of conspirators:

“But oon avow to grete God I heete,
The lyf shal rather out of my body sterte
Or Makometes lawe out of myn herte!” (334-336) [1]

To her proclamation of resistance, she adds her prediction about what would happen if Syrians were to follow her son’s plan to convert:

“What sholde us tyden of this newe lawe
But thraldom to oure bodies and penance,
And afterward in helle to be drawe,
For we reneyed Mahoun oure creance?” (337-340)

Christianity will come to no good end for Syrian Muslims; the Sultaness foresees slavery and continual penance.

The Sultaness might as well have been witnessing, as if in the mind’s eye of a soothsayer, scenes playing out in airports across the United States on the night of January 27, 2017 and in the days that followed. On January 28, Iranian-American author and activist Trita Parsi tweeted that “Green card holders were handcuffed, their social media was reviewed, and they were asked their views on Trump.” In another case, documented by the New York Times, a 65-year-old Iraqi woman named Hamdiyah Al Saeedi landed at JFK on her way to reunite with her son Ali Alsaeedy, an American citizen and U.S. Army sergeant based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Before finally being allowed into the U.S., she was held for more than 33 hours and denied the wheelchair she needs. And yes, she too was handcuffed for some of it. Despite the Trump administration’s protestations that the executive order prohibiting immigration from seven majority-Muslim nations is not a “Muslim Ban,” that is precisely the name that has stuck. The application of handcuffs, commonly used in the U.S. as a spectacle connoting the wearer’s depravity and disempowerment, to travelers for the sole reason that they have come from a majority-Muslim part of the world smacks of slavery and a forced form of penance. [2] This looks a lot like what the Sultaness of Syria feared.

Courtesy of Philly Blooms Photography (


Her proclamation and its bloody outcome—the Sultaness directs the massacre of the Sultan, his retinue, and the princess’s Roman Christian entourage—certainly indicates that the threat of slavery and forced penance is dire enough to avoid at all costs. As a Chaucerian who studies race, I would like to think that one of my favorite texts to teach and study—and one that has revealed much to me about the nature of medieval race-thinking—goes beyond the mere recognition that identity-based slavery is threatening to its victims. This text in fact offers a strategy for defanging the very notion of identity-based slavery and perhaps for dismantling it altogether.

The text’s strategy resides in the fact that the Sultaness and Custance are not as different as they seem. When the Sultaness voices her fear of “thraldom to oure bodies and penance,” she echoes Custance. Upon accepting that she must go to Syria in order to marry the Sultan, Custance laments:

“I, wrecche woman, no fors though I spille!
Wommen are born to thraldom and penance,
And to been under mannes governance.” (285-287, my emphasis)

The Sultaness’s fear of subjection drives her villainy, yet she gets the words to express it from the very woman who would seem to be the instrument of that subjection. Echoes are extraordinary things: they may reverse roles in that the speaker becomes the hearer, but they also destabilize identity; an entity that is an exact copy of another can be set into motion in the opposite direction of its forebear. An echo shows an entity to be mobile, to be capable of bearing itself in multiple directions, to exhibit multiple comportments toward an object. Carolyn Dinshaw takes the position in Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics that Custance is characterized by nothingness, “an essential blankness that will be inscribed by men,” while Elizabeth Robertson argues that Custance “generates power” and, along with her violent mothers-in-law, stands in for “apostolic Christianity as it is embedded in the feminine” and as a “strong challenge” to the conventions of the “institutionalized form of Roman Christianity operating in the fourteenth-century English Church.” [3] It may be that the debate between these two positions need be no debate at all. What if Custance represents both?

What if Custance is at once the suffering, passive hagiographic figure who does God’s will even unto the death and the raging mother bear who will protect her culture and religion (as the Sultaness does) or her child (as Custance’s other mother-in-law arguably believes herself to do) at all costs? The Custance who fails to reveal her identity when she arrives in Northumbria (524-527), who converts her Northumbrian host and then actively encourages her to do miracle work (566-567), who conceals her identity for some years after she returns to her Roman homeland and only reveals it when the opportunity to reunite with her husband presents itself (974-1022)—this is not an entirely passive Custance.

The text’s strategy for fighting injustice becomes clearest when the text is at its most unclear. Though some events make Custance appear the hapless victim and others make her appear an active agent, there is a single moment when it becomes most difficult to judge whether she is passive or active: Custance washes ashore near the Gibraltar Strait and is threatened with rape by an apostate knight. Whether she escapes injury by her own might or by that of God is nearly impossible to judge. In one of the tale’s sources, Nicholas Trevet’s Les Cronicles, she convinces the knight to stand at the edge of her boat to look out for land. If he finds a suitable place, where he can rape her out of the sight of her two-year old, she will submit to him. When he is standing on the edge of the deck, she deliberately pushes him overboard (383-394). In another possible source, Gower’s Confessio Amantis, she prays to God and the would-be attacker is “oute throwe / and dreynt.” The text is clear that “the myhti Goddes hond / Hire hath conveied and defended” (1120-1125). Chaucer’s tale, however, finds a middle way: “Blisful Marie” helps Custance right away, even as Custance was “struglyng wel and myghtily.” The attacker “fil over bord al sodeynly,” and “Crist unwemmed kept Custance” (920-924). Custance is both passive and active, helped by the Virgin Mary and Christ, yet putting up a good fight herself. The attacker’s downfall is unattributed; it is unclear exactly whose power pushes him overboard.

Therein lies the Man of Law’s rhetorical strategy: Custance is more powerful than in either Trevet’s or Gower’s versions because her power cannot be pinned down. Is she the learned and active agent Trevet presents or is she the beloved daughter of God defended by Him at every turn that Gower offers? Moreover, is she the hapless victim of the militaristic and violent power exhibited by her mothers-in-law or does she share in the capability of such violence herself? Did it matter that she was on the sea alone and that her exile may have signaled to others that something was wrong with her—that she was a criminal or otherwise damaged? Was Custance’s exile like the handcuffing of a 65-year-old female traveler on her way to be reunited with her son? Does the power of her apparent innocence pale in comparison to the sign of depravity now placed upon her? That these are valid questions intimates that the conflict between innocence and the appearance of guilt makes Custance a more powerful sign: she cannot be easily interpreted.

It might behoove those of us who would resist the Muslim ban, and similar isolationist and prejudiced efforts, to heed the Man of Law’s strategy: passively turn the other cheek sometimes, until that is what the attackers expect, and then at other times struggle well and mightily, even unto the death. When struggling well and mightily, let it be a bit unclear whose power prevails—that of the public voice, especially that of women and people of color; that of the courts; that of respect for the U.S. Constitution; even that of the free press, however beleaguered it may be. When successful resistance springs from multiple sources that change positions and work in and out of concert, resistance takes on a divine aspect. Issuing from multiple directions and seeming to inhabit every space at once, resistance becomes unassailable—until the attacker is “oute throwe.”

Sgt. Ali Alsaeedy had a sense of the Man of Law’s strategy. He did not wait passively in North Carolina. He immediately flew to New York to find his mother. Once he figured out what was going on, as crowds of protestors swelled outside JFK, he filed a habeas petition for her release. Nonetheless, it seemed that he would not get to see his mother when a federal agent called to tell him that she would be sent on to Germany that night. But in the end, as protests grew and grew outside, and as legal challenges were launched around the country, Sgt. Alsaeedy’s mother was released. After her 33 hour-long ordeal, she was finally reunited with her son.

The Alsaeedy family’s story is like Custance’s. The innocent are made to appear guilty, their bodies are threatened with “thraldom” and forced “penance” for nothing other than who they are, where they come from, what they profess to believe—their very identities. They find relief through a whirling mix of direct action and passive resistance—emergent travel, prayer, legal action, strategically revealing one’s identity as a member of the U.S. Armed Forces or as a Roman princess. To resist an authoritarian’s edicts requires such a whirling approach. Even as I write this, it has just been reported that the Trump administration’s Muslim ban, stayed by a court order since February 3, one week after its issue, may indeed be thwarted . An official stated that the administration would not appeal the ban to the Supreme Court. Mere minutes later, however, another official appeared to reverse that position, saying that the White House will be “reviewing all of our options in the court system.” But, for the moment at least, it appears that a dizzying array of modes of resistance—of which the Man of Law would no doubt approve—has left the would-be authoritarian attacker of American freedoms oute throwe.


[1] All Chaucer quotations are taken from the Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, 3rd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987).

[2] Bill Wringe, “Perp Walks as Punishment,” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 18.3 (June 2015), 615-629.

[3] Carolyn Dinshaw, Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics (Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1989), 65–87. Elizabeth Robertson, “The Elvyssh Power of Constance: Christian Feminism in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Man of Law’s Tale,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 23 (2001): 143-80, at 163, 144.

Chaucer the Stranger

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A wodewose from the Luttrell Psalter: Additional MS 42130, f. 70r.

Mary C. Flannery is maître assistante in medieval English at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland.

As I finish writing this post, America stands on the brink of a new era, one that appears poised to revive a monolithic concept of what America and Americans should look and sound like. The implications of this have not been lost on the medieval studies community. In December, Sierra Lomuto wrote an entry for the In the Middle blog urging medievalists to resist efforts to reappropriate aspects of medieval culture in aid of white nationalist and nativist agendas. And Candace Barrington recently posted an entry on the Global Chaucers website about the impact that “English-only politics” may have on US classrooms, which can either reshape or be shaped by perspectives of linguistic and cultural inheritance and ownership that presume that “American English is the undefiled descendant of a language that sprang forth from the British Isles before dominating the world with its linguistic flexibility and semantic dexterity, absorbing bits of other languages without being tainted by the process.”

As an American scholar teaching medieval English literature in a non-Anglophone country, I have occasionally entertained the rather self-congratulatory fantasy that I am now about as far from this perspective as one can get. Yet teaching Chaucer in Switzerland has made clear that I have brought part of this American Anglophone bubble with me. After all, Chaucer has never seemed like a complete stranger to me. His name and the title of The Canterbury Tales have always seemed to be embedded in my linguistic and cultural unconscious. I first encountered Chaucer’s writing in the second year of my undergraduate studies at a small liberal arts college, in which he was an obligatory feature of the “British Writers” survey course. But long before I studied him, I could at least claim a vague second- or third-hand familiarity with his identity as a canonical English author. Consequently, my internal reaction to seeing Chaucer’s name on the course syllabus was more “Aha” than it was “Who’s that?”

This post is my attempt to reflect briefly on the significance of Chaucer’s strangeness in the non-Anglophone classroom, and to start a conversation about the impact of geographical, cultural, and linguistic context on the teaching of Chaucer. The Modern English word stranger (which derives from the Old French estrangier, Anglo-Norman estrangere) is typically used to describe a foreigner or alien, an unknown or unfamiliar person, an outsider. It can be also used to describe unfamiliarity with someone or something (e.g. “I am no stranger to this subject”). Middle English straungere shares the primary definitions of the modern English term. Judging from the online Chaucer Concordance, Chaucer uses the noun straunger only four times in his work (three times in Boece [Book I, Prosa 3, line 56; Book I, Prosa 4, line 65; and Book II, Metrum 5, line 19], and once in the Legend of Good Women [line 1075] to describe Aeneas upon his arrival at Dido’s court). He uses the adjective straunge more frequently, usually to indicate foreignness, alienness, unfamiliarity, or distance, as in the case of the “straunge strondes” (General Prologue 13) sought out by pilgrims in the springtime.

In my research, much of whatever initial strangeness Chaucer held for me has subsided as I have become gradually more familiar with his life and works. By contrast, my teaching experience—most particularly the five years I have spent teaching in the French-speaking region of Switzerland—has brought home to me the variety of ways in which I take both a certain familiarity and certain kinds of unfamiliarity with Chaucer for granted in the classroom. While I often assume that my students will be reading Chaucer (or at least his original Middle English) for the first time with me, I also assume—perhaps too often—that Chaucer looms large enough in the global literary/cultural landscape that most of my students will at least have heard of him. But over the past five years, both I and my field’s flagship author have been strangers in a strange land, and this has led me to review Chaucer and his works in light of that strangeness, most particularly in my teaching.

Because I live and work in two of Switzerland’s French-speaking cantons, I am made aware of my own strangeness here on a daily basis. As a way of encouraging patience with my stumbling French phrases, I have learned to preface every verbal transaction with, “Je m’excuse, je ne parle pas très bien le français” (‘Please excuse me, I do not speak French very well’). (If I am lucky, this is met with the response, “Mais pas de tout, vous parlez très bien” [‘Not at all, you speak very well’].) But French is only one of Switzerland’s four national languages, which also include German, Italian, and Romansh (although the latter is spoken by less than 1% of the Swiss population). Switzerland’s relatively large immigrant population and the variety of languages spoken within the country’s borders have led to English occasionally playing the role of lingua franca in everyday transactions. While some of Switzerland’s cantons or member states are linked to only one Swiss national language, others are bilingual, and the canton of Graubünden is trilingual (German, Italian, Romansh).

Education varies from canton to canton. Each canton has its own school requirements, particularly when it comes to language-focused curricula. Moreoever, several cantons are home not only to Swiss schools, but also to other schools that adhere to international baccalaureate curriculum requirements. Consequently, the nature of one’s education in English language and literature tends to depend on whether one is enrolled in a “Swiss” or in an “international” school. Taking Vaud (the canton in which UNIL is situated) as one example, whereas Swiss schools may specify in their plans d’études that students studying French will be introduced to literature originating in periods from the Middle Ages to the present day, they tend to leave the specifics of their English courses to the discretion of individual teachers, who may be more or less inclined to introduce their students to medieval English literature. If they happen to offer any teaching on Chaucer, it is always via modern English abridged versions of his works. (When my colleague Camille Marshall recently asked the only specialist English bookstore in Lausanne about which abridged Chaucer editions were favored by local schools, the owner informed her that the most recent version used for teaching high school students at the Gymnase de la Cité in Lausanne a few years ago was Penguin’s simplified edition.) As a consequence, it is nearly always the case that a Swiss student intending to major in English at university will encounter Chaucer’s work or even name for the first time in his or her undergraduate studies. This theory was certainly borne out when I asked my forty-three second-year students whether they had ever heard of or read Chaucer before coming to UNIL: only four students raised their hands.(1) The first had come across Chaucer’s name during a one-month stay in Canterbury; the second had come across a reference to Chaucer in a local newspaper. The third and fourth had heard either Chaucer’s name or The Canterbury Tales mentioned in passing during a high school class, but that was the extent of their acquaintance with the author.

All of this brings me to the English undergraduate curriculum at UNIL, which requires first-year students to take a semester-long survey course of medieval English literature. The course consists of a weekly lecture (attended by all first-year students in English) and a series of focused weekly workshops in which smaller groups of first-year students discuss assigned texts with one of the members of staff teaching the course. Students are introduced to Chaucer and read one of the Canterbury Tales (with some extracts from the General Prologue) during one week towards the end of the semester. Quite often, this week constitutes a UNIL English student’s first—and possibly last—encounter with Chaucer.

As a teacher of Chaucer in Switzerland, I have had to reorient my assumptions about the ways in which Chaucer is likely to be a stranger to my students. When I taught in the UK, Chaucer’s strangeness lay in his chronological distance from our own time, and in his use of an antiquated form of (most of) my students’ native tongue. By contrast, all forms of English are entirely foreign to nearly all of my Swiss students, and Chaucer cannot be said to share their national or cultural roots. While I still introduce Chaucer as a canonical, game-changing writer, my Swiss students are less likely to view themselves as directly affected by his linguistic and literary choices. Chaucer does not stand at the head of their nation’s or languages’ literary canons, nor is he as commonly cited as a recognizable figure in their culture. Instead, my Swiss students make other connections with this literary stranger. For example, they are particularly well placed to grasp the cultural significance of Chaucer’s decision to write so many ambitious works of literature in English, rather than in French or Latin. As citizens of a country with four competing national languages, they understand the impact such a decision might have. I occasionally ask them to imagine what their lives would be like if one of Switzerland’s four languages—say, Italian—were suddenly made the sole national language and the primary language in which literature was composed. The idea that their own language(s) might suddenly be rendered useless or culturally irrelevant in their own country always provokes a strong and immediate response.

In a similar vein, many more of my Swiss students are likely to be familiar with Chaucer’s French and Italian source material than my UK students were. This gives them a significant advantage in terms of situating Chaucer’s work in the broader landscape of medieval European literary culture. This is an advantage they occasionally enjoy even over me, since some of them are in the process of closely studying texts such as the Roman de la rose or Boccaccio’s Decameron in their other undergraduate courses at the same time that they are attending mine.

As well as encouraging me to reframe the way I teach Chaucer, my experiences in Swiss classrooms have impressed upon me the continuing importance of ongoing scholarly projects that aim to draw attention to the multilingualism of medieval England (such as The French of England project and its affiliated translation series) or to resist the Anglophone bias of Chaucer scholarship. Barrington has been particularly active on behalf of the latter cause, not only working with Jonathan Hsy on the Global Chaucers project, but also insistently urging us to move beyond what she describes as the “Anglophone inner circle of Chaucer studies.” This call to action was the focal point of her presentation at the 2016 New Chaucer Society congress, now posted in full on the In the Middle blog. In her paper, Barrington urges us to “recognize that ‘our’ ownership of Chaucer is a cultural and political construction, not a natural inheritance.” It was only after reading this piece in preparation for writing my own post that I realized the extent to which I have been teaching from—and to—a perspective of cultural and linguistic ownership. That I am now becoming able to realize this is entirely due to the non-Anglophone context in which I am teaching. As Barrington notes, “scholars from outside the Anglophone alignment provide perspectives that help reshape our sense of the past.” So, too, I have found, do non-Anglophone students.

Teaching Chaucer in a context to which he initially might seem a national, linguistic, cultural, and chronological stranger has led me to find new ways of making a case for his inclusion here. It has also served to remind me of the importance of remaining aware of the questions of linguistic and/or cultural heritage and ownership that are not only at play in our research and teaching, but which are also shaping the new era in which we find ourselves. These questions are more urgent than ever before, and as scholars in the humanities, we have a duty to bear them in mind in our work. Less than twenty-four hours ago, news broke that soon-to-be-President Trump plans to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Despite whatever setbacks such a move might impose on our field, we must continue to use our work to reconsider the criteria by which we argue that languages, cultures, and individuals deserve a place in our world. If I were to return to the undergraduate classroom in which I first read Chaucer, the question I would now want to ask is, ‘Where (and to whom) does Chaucer belong?’ By seeing Chaucer as a stranger through the eyes of my students, I hope to discover new ways in which he can belong, even on “straunge strondes.”

I would be very interested to learn what experiences colleagues have had in teaching Chaucer in non-Anglophone or multilingual contexts, whether via the comments section below or via email or Twitter (@15thcgossipgirl).


(1) This thoroughly unscientific data is drawn from my two mandatory second-year Chaucer courses, which are offered as two choices among several courses covering medieval English literature (all second-year students must take at least one of these courses in order to fulfill the requirements of the English degree).

Flipping the Archive: Tulane’s Archives and Outreach Program

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Professor Michael Kuczynski is the current chair of the department of English at Tulane University. He specializes in Middle English literature (especially Chaucer), intersections between religion and literature in medieval and early modern England, and the relationship between poetry and the visual arts. He has published widely on medieval manuscripts, early modern books, and nineteenth-century antiquarianism.

Medievalists who use rare books and manuscripts in their research will remember the first time they stepped into a magnificent reading room—the Wren Library at Trinity College, Cambridge, say, or, before the opening of the Weston Library, Bodley’s Duke Humfrey’s Library. The romance of working in such environments, combined with the intellectual pleasures of handling materials that connect us, physically, with the distant past is a powerful stimulus to learning—an appreciation for the value of archives that we wish to cultivate, as well, in our graduate research students.

In the School of Liberal Arts at Tulane University in New Orleans, in a very successful three-year program called Archives and Outreach, we have also been translating appreciation for the tangible remains of the past into the undergraduate and secondary school classrooms. Second- and third-year Tulane undergraduates, after studying the elements of book history and its application to literary study on campus, become mentors to younger scholars at our community partner, Lake Area New Tech Early College High School. They introduce these students to topics as diverse as the history of handwriting, parchment and papermaking, and the relationship between image and text in some of Tulane’s medieval and early modern books. Moreover, they relate these items in their presentations to others in more contemporary archives at Tulane—for instance, autograph documents connected with the Harlem Renaissance, which are available on campus at the Amistad Research Center (a Tulane affiliate); and engravings of Shakespeare’s heroines from nineteenth-century editions of the plays produced for young women that are held in the Newcomb Archives and Vorhoff Library Special Collections. High school students studying Chaucer have the opportunity to examine, by way of digital photographs provided by Tulane, an antiphoner leaf from a medieval service book, gifted to the library with other single manuscript leaves in the 1930s, or a page from Caxton’s printing of The Canterbury Tales, acquired by Tulane in 1905 from Chicago’s Caxton Club, as part of the publication of E. Gordon Duff’s study, William Caxton. After some time spent working with their undergraduate mentors on these reproductions, the high school students and their teachers make field trips to Tulane, where they learn how to appreciate the originals first hand and begin to imagine, inspired by them, their own archive-based projects.

The development of the program was fortuitous. I first envisioned it while doing research at the Newberry Library, Chicago, where I got to attend a talk by Michael Meredith, formerly librarian at Eton College in the UK, about a successful outreach initiative he undertook there. Tulane had been recovering, slowly but surely, from the devastations of Hurricane Katrina. Our own Special Collections suffered (the library was, for a time, declared a biohazard) and the daily newspapers were filled with images of people’s intimate personal memorabilia—family bibles, photographs, and personal letters—which had been inundated and rescued from the floodwaters that submerged much of our city. Everyone has an archive—a tangible past worth preserving and studying. Indeed, New Orleans itself, which has grown up around one of America’s liveliest ports, is an elaborate archive, a palimpsest of cultural influences—African, French, Spanish, and English—that have enriched the art, music, and literature of the region for centuries as well as the long documentary history of the diverse people and traditions of New Orleans.

The key idea behind Archives and Outreach, then, is that the archive is not simply a private preserve, accessible only to the professional scholar, but an endlessly valuable and useful public record that ought to be more available to local students—those who come to New Orleans from all around the United States and the world to study as undergraduates, and especially those who have grown up here.

The key component to the program’s success is focus. I and the enthusiastic undergraduates I teach have learned to conceive of lesson plans for the high school classroom that have very particular goals, usually connected with one or two images and two or three keywords per session. (Our community partner liaison, an English teacher at Lake Area, provides invaluable help to us in conceiving and revising our lesson plans.) One of our lessons, for example, pairs a page from a fifteenth-century Book of Hours that shows a close relationship between text and image with a digital image from one of Blake’s Songs of Innocence, which shows a similar—but also of course different—coordination of picture and text. Another demonstrates the wide variety in scribal hands and early typefaces by abstracting different styles of letterforms from the page and arranging them as an alphabet. A third encourages students to understand the nature of manuscript culture by comparing the work of a medieval scribe with the signed draft of a Langston Hughes poem and the verbally different published text of that poem in an anthology. In advance of the arrival of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s traveling First Folio! exhibition this past May, we organized an Archives and Outreach classroom experience around the word “folio” itself, demonstrating by way of a large-format incunable bible, a quarto-sized medieval manuscript, and an octavo-sized page from what was once a fourteenth-century Franciscan theological compendium the kind of literary status—and lack of portability—that folio-sized publication conferred on various authors and texts.

At a time when the material book and book history are being dismissed in certain quarters as outmoded, Tulane’s Archives and Outreach program has been demonstrating how vitally important—and fascinating—they are to students at all levels: graduate, undergraduate, and secondary.

Development of the Archives and Outreach program was facilitated by a generous grant from Tulane’s Center for Public Service, an organization that since Katrina has devoted itself to promoting deeper engagements between the university and the wider New Orleans and Louisiana communities of which we are a part. More recently, Tulane’s Center for Engaged Learning and Teaching (CELT) has assisted in advocating for the program across campus, as a template for introducing students to archival materials in other Tulane departments, such as Anthropology, Art History, and Classics. Tulane undergraduates who take part in the program receive not only academic credit for their work but also service learning credits that, since the hurricane, are a mandatory requirement for graduation.

Members of the society interested in contacting me about the past, present, and future of the Archives and Outreach initiative at Tulane can do so by email at

Mike Kuczynski
Professor and Chair
Department of English
Tulane University

Desiring Chaucer

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Detail of a miniature of Amour (Love) kissing the Lover. Roman de la Rose. Southern Netherlands (Bruges), c. 1490 – c. 1500. London, British Library Harley 4425, fol. 24.

Elizabeth Scala is Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Texas at Austin. Her most recent book is Desire in the Canterbury Tales (Ohio State University Press, 2015).

We have long acknowledged the formative role of desire when reading literary texts. Readers never come to texts without their desires—what appear more neutrally in the form of “expectations”—some of which may be completely unrelated to the actual text at hand. But it’s not as if these excessive desires can be done without. For texts themselves can hardly say anything without them. It’s what causes someone to open the pages and start asking questions in the first place. The desires a text answers may not be its own. Its responses to the desires of others may always miss their mark. Desire thus names both a lack and an excess in readers and their texts, and it is difficult to know which comes first as they appear to arise together, or at least become visible, in the process of reading. It’s what makes our intuitive understanding of desire, as something we experience every day, a much more complex formation than we typically credit it. One of the many reasons for our attraction to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales may be its manner of articulating desire, for these issues arise out of the structure of the Tales as a competitive collection.

It is not hard to talk about the ways the tales are about desire. Some tales even use that word explicitly—“what thyng is it that wommen moost desiren?” (3.905). Still others are about desire even when they don’t explicitly say so—what else generates the antics of the fabliaux or the torments of the saint-like? But that is not exactly all I mean to imply here in saying the tales are about desire and that desire is all about them. The substitutive logic of desire, whereby we continually replace objects we think we want with newer ones, organizes the tale-telling game. That logic also drives the productive metonymy of tales—relations of contiguity that result in new and different pathways—as well as the language through which desire is mutually constituted. Such a metonymy relieves us of merely understanding the tales as pairs, and from trying to figure out why the Friar – Summoner pair follows the Wife’s just as easily as the Clerk’s Tale appears to, and which properly belongs after hers. We can thus track the productive misreading of the Wife’s stories—those told in her Prologue and the one that is her tale—in the Clerk’s idealized Petrarchan response and the comic exposures of variously fictionalized friars and summoners. That the thematic and textual connections pull us in different directions, yet equally emerge from her story, shows us that the way desire circulates in the Canterbury Tales is anything but linear. Sometimes things double back as well as go forward.

Calling attention to the propulsion of desire in this way, its transactional and transformative nature is more clearly exposed, as well as the way it works—like the language to which it is so intimately related—in and through substitution and the kinds of interpretive misrecognition desire entails. Such transactions appear early, not only in the obvious places (the Miller’s Prologue) and where desire is the very subject of the argument (at various levels of the Miller’s story: Isn’t Alison a better object of desire than the Knight’s Emily?). It also occurs in those tales that seem to neglect desire or abjure it, whether for vengeance (the Reeve’s) or something transcendent (the Second Nun’s). The Miller’s desires on the Knight’s story are all too familiar. Not so for the Reeve, a figure whose aged, moralizing resistance is antithetical to everything that comes before his tale. But desire no less drives the Reeve, which we see most clearly in his misrecognition that the Miller’s story had anything to do with him.

Desire appears, then, beyond the content of the tales. Is it in the relationality of the tales, by which I mean a moving and unstable set of relations that prioritizes motion and change, rather than shape. When looking for analogies to the design of the Canterbury Tales, readers in the past have looked to historical objects: interlaced tapestry designs or cathedral architecture as a means of finding unity in diversity or opposition. These have offered historical grounding and New Critical coherence to what might seem the confusion of Chaucer’s poem, helping to secure its status as an elite literary object. But we may now (in an age when elite literary objects have lost their sheen for other pressing political priorities) also find them colder forms of engagement, which have held the poem still and at arm’s length. Desire helps us capture the movement of the story collection, the changes that it wreaks forward and back on the unstable sequence of tales. It names an utterance that utterly transforms both what comes before as well as what follows. A paradoxical recognition of an only just discovered lack, desire articulates and is articulated by the individual Canterbury tales, no matter what they are putatively about. All of them are fundamentally “about” desire.

Harley MS 1758 is a late 14th Century text that has been in the possession of The British Library (initially as part of a library that would become The British Library) since 1741 and is now available for all to browse on their website:

The manuscript is unique and sadly can no longer be handled by the public without special permission. Viewing the document electronically is now the most viable approach for those interested in it, and The British Library has made it available to all via their website.

Why Chaucer Now?

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Image: Blue Plaque commemorating the site in Talbot Yard where The Tabard Inn was situated, to the east of Borough High Street, in the Borough of Southwark, London. The plaque was installed in 2003 on the wall of Copyprints Ltd, the oldest building in Talbot Yard. It was unveiled by former Python and medieval enthusiast Terry Jones.


Patricia Clare Ingham is Professor of English in the Department of English at Indiana University and one of the editors-in-chief of Exemplaria: A Journal of Theory in Medieval and Renaissance Studies. She is the author of The Medieval New: Ambivalence in an Age of Innovation (U of Pennsylvania P, 2015).

A little over a year ago the MLA Leadership raised the desirability of consolidating the MLA Division on Chaucer with two other MLA Divisions, those on Old and Middle English. Facebook was abuzz. Most of us considered this to be among the worst of recent institutional ideas, which, given the ongoing assaults on the humanities at Universities across the country, is really saying something. Much eloquence was deployed in strong objections penned by Martin Foys for the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists, by Larry Scanlon and David Wallace in a letter with 400+ signatories, by Ruth Evans and Alastair Minnis on behalf of the New Chaucer Society, and by the brilliant and hardworking members of the executive committees for the divisions of Old English, Middle English, and Chaucer. As Larry pointed out on the Middle English Facebook page, the MLA leadership got the message, and replied that questions were merely meant to ascertain “whether historical period and national language should be the determining categories for the majority of intellectual affiliations in the MLA.”

The question itself was more than a bit disheartening since medievalists have been arguing for a long time now that the literature we study, however “old,” is pursued (or for that matter enjoyed) on many different grounds, aesthetic, theoretical, or political; this literature is not valued primarily on the basis of its age, nor its place in a “national” linguistic history. And while there is a lot to say here about the power of the past, Chaucer’s appeal is not adequately figured through an affiliation with “historical period.” (See Mark Miller’s post on the NCS blog —and Lynn Arner’s recent blog post on “Why we care more about Chaucer than about Gower.”) What seemed to me most disconcerting about the question posed by the MLA leadership was the way it demonstrated the problems of the scholarly organization for scholars of literature and language. Perhaps the leadership entirely missed the point of decades of writing on the continuing insight and power of “early” literature. Or, maybe, to be fair, they got the point only too well, and had an entirely utopian aim in mind. As more than one person opined in the FB thread on the topic, divisions organized along conceptual lines (e.g. on “Race and Ethnicity” or on “Gender and Sexuality,” on “Affect and Literature,” or “Literature, Language and the Post-human” etc.) with a medievalist in the mix might be read as a sign of the success of the last thirty years of scholarly inquiry. But would Chaucer really signify prominently in these terms? And could a defense of the “old” Divisions be justified nonetheless? My colleagues today have rightly continued such full-throated defenses, offering smart and moving accounts of the power of the poet as precisely un-timely (that is, not time-bound), and of early literature as echoing across diverse times and places, and regularly eloquent on matters of difference and diversity. (Though as both Mark Miller and Lynn Arner point out, Chaucer’s relation to “diversity” is itself an institutional matter.)

I want to think more along this institutional path. Because the question isn’t, I think, mainly a scholarly one, but, instead, a bureaucratic one. The category of greatest pertinence to “Why Chaucer now” may involve neither linguistic history, nor periodization so much as the history of scholarly organizations. On a hunch that the question might be illuminated by way of this kind of history, I did some admittedly hasty research into the MLA’s Chaucer division (formerly “Chaucer Group”). It may or may not surprise you to know that this was not the first time such a consolidation was suggested. It was raised before, and by medievalists themselves.

So, once upon a time the Middle English Group of the Modern Language Association invited the Chaucer Group to join together with them. The year was 1926, a mere 22 years after the Association itself was founded. The report of the 1926 meeting, offers minimal details, but notes that the 37 members of the Middle English Language Group in attendance voted unanimously to proffer the invitation. Its unclear what prompted the offer, and it occurred just six years after John Matthews Manly (founding editor of Modern Philology, President of the MLA, and Edith Rickert’s collaborator in the Chaucer Laboratory at the University of Chicago) made an impassioned plea for “a reorganization of the [MLA meeting] with a view to greater specialization and greater stimulation of research.” Members of the Chaucer Group (not all of whom, it seemed, were strictly-speaking what we would call “Chaucerians”) declined. Here is the terse description: “A motion favoring the amalgamation of the Chaucer group and the Middle English language Group was defeated by a majority of one. There were 40 members in attendance.” We get no information about the debate, (a close vote, so one presumes an interesting conversation, the rationale, the particular parties involved (how did Manly vote?), the politics at stake, or the reaction from their erstwhile Middle English hosts. I can dream up all kinds of drama, and my favorite imaginative reconstruction involves a scene in which Middle English scholars, in a moment of pique, mount a retraction, adopting what would become the Division on Middle English Literature’s most annoying sobriquet: hereafter, “Middle English Literature, excluding Chaucer.”

What seems especially notable about the amalgamated road-not-taken is that each group would go on to make crucial scholarly initiatives possible. The MLA’s “Middle English Language Group” would produce Bibliographies of work done in Middle English, and become the organizational vanguard for the Middle English Dictionary; in 1968 it would (under the auspices of then-chair, Burke Severs) launch The Manual of Writings in Middle English. The “Chaucer Group” boasts equal accomplishments: as early as 1932, its members would push the MLA to co-sponsor a volume of Sources and Analogues to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, funded in part through a grant from the ACLS and published in 1941 by the University of Chicago Press. In 1945, members of the Chaucer group established the first editorial committee for what would become the Chaucer Library; by 1966, the Chaucer group had joined in the creation of scholarly bibliographies, and by 1968 (just before the MLA Groups were to become “Divisions”) they would (in conjunction with Penn State University Press) help to launch The Chaucer Review. There is some evidence to suggest that the embers of the New Chaucer Society were also fanned by MLA meetings of this group.

Nor did the differences between the two groups prevent important collaborations. Together both would help push the MLA to encourage U. S. Libraries to purchase volumes published under the auspices of the Early English Text Society. And they would join in a host of other initiatives during the early decades of the society, from “procuring rotographic reproductions of manuscripts and rare printed books in European Libraries” for “the use of American scholars and graduate students,” to arguing for a market in academic publishing and sponsoring a series of scholarly monographs as well as the series of teaching volumes well known to us today. (Oh, and by the way, the MLA would have a huge influence, by the 1920s and after, on the selection of texts of British and American literature to be taught in High School classrooms across the U.S.)

My point here is twofold: that scholarly groups and divisions have a long history of making things; and that divisional differences can be, themselves, an engine for a wide array of institutional initiatives for our mutual benefit. This, it seems to me, is one clear argument for collaborating across divisions rather than collapsing or amalgamating them. Finally, my brief perusal of the organizational history available via the PMLA archive shows that the MLA has, virtually from its inception, had to balance differences (of specializations or geographic location—this last used to be quite a huge problem) with what early members of association called the “value of union”—the shared interests and conversations that cross distances of language, time, or place. So in answer to the implicit question, “Why a Chaucer division now?” I would reply that divisions and groups have crucial, and quite material, institutional legacies—they have helped make tools and texts available, prompted procedures or policies that outlast the particular politics of any given moment. We don’t know what caused the Chaucer Group to spurn the invitation of their Middle English colleagues. What we do know is that each of these divisions made stuff that we still need and use today; separately and together they prompted crucial aspects of the field in which we work and play. That’s one reason we still need them. Finally, then, how might we reimagine the work of Divisions (and even the MLA itself) if we think about this history: as a vehicle for promoting scholarly resources precisely at a time when such resources seem to be shrinking. (A new edition of the Riverside Chaucer?) And, at a time when (as Carolyn Heilbrun eloquently put it in an essay written on the occasion of the MLA’s centenary) “the enemies of intellect make thunder,” our “early” divisions can also help the profession keep faith with another one of its legacies, seeking to (Heilbrun again) “maintain commerce between a lively present and an eloquent past.”

Exhuming the Giant

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David Matthews is Senior Lecturer in Middle English Literature and Culture in the School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at the University of Manchester, and currently Head of the Division of English, American Studies, and Creative Writing.

Not long ago, in the context of a book on medievalism, I confidently pronounced that in Anglophone culture the novel in its highbrow canonical guise just didn’t work with medieval settings. I was looking back to the 1840s, when Edward Bulwer Lytton seemed the obvious heir to the Walter Scott of Ivanhoe (1819) and Quentin Durward (1823), perhaps with a nod to Victor Hugo whose Notre Dame de Paris appeared in English in 1833. But with Eliot, Dickens, Disraeli, Collins and the Brontës coming to prominence thereafter, it was the recent industrialised past which took over in the novelistic appropriation of historical reality. The novel’s medievalist moment was fleeting.

Even when respected novelists turn to the Middle Ages the results are often viewed equivocally: so William Golding's 1964 novel The Spire sits awkwardly in his oeuvre somewhere between the acclaimed Lord of the Flies and the late sea trilogy. Furthermore, and somewhat gallingly for us medievalists, there seems in this regard to be a clear line drawn between medieval and early modern, as the striking success of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies (2009, 2012) suggests. A wildly acclaimed television adaptation has just ended here in the UK and is currently being shown on PBS in the US. These novels are not just set in early modernity but meditate on the coming to being of that modernity, in the process explicitly founding themselves on a rejection of the Middle Ages. In them Thomas Cromwell, the archetypal Renaissance man, defeats the lingering Middle Ages in the shape of Thomas More. Cromwell was (according to the novels) born on the day of the battle of Bosworth Field, and hence symbolically the last day of the Middle Ages.

There is any amount of pulp fiction based on the medieval period (from Arthur Conan Doyle through to Ken Follett and Bernard Cornwell), but where is the medieval Mantel? The problem is in part one of the narrative discourse to adopt. When medieval characters speak, we know at some level that they are being translated. When Thomas Cromwell speaks, there seems to be a working assumption that he spoke proper English, needing little alteration to be comprehensible to us moderns. With the medievalist novel, there is always the suspicion that sooner or later someone will say “forsooth, sirrah” or, even worse, “sire, the peasants are revolting.”

That, anyway, was my working hypothesis. Then along came Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake (Unbound Books, 2014), a challenging and uncompromising historical novel set at the time of the Conquest; Bruce Holsinger’s A Burnable Book (HarperCollins, 2014)¹ and, most recently, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant (Faber, 2015). Of these novels, only Holsinger’s sets itself in a world relatively familiar to medievalists and, I imagine, a general public. Thanks to Chaucer, the late fourteenth century has become perhaps the most recognisable period in the English Middle Ages – which Holsinger then sets out to defamiliarize. In Kingsnorth’s novel the voice is that of a disgruntled and dispossessed Saxon speaking in a language part invented, a kind of imitation of Anglo-Saxon which is at once interpretable by the persistent reader yet deeply strange and unfamiliar. Kingsnorth gets round what we might call the “forsooth” problem by exploding language and starting again, creating something like a high-modernist experiment which reminds us that it was among Pound, Eliot, and Beckett that literary medievalism had its most profound literary outcomes.

Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant is the most easily approachable of the three. Here is a respected novelist who is routinely seen among the prize shortlists in the UK, now not just turning novelistically to the Middle Ages but doing so with perhaps the most challenging part of the whole period, the liminal times between the end of Roman Britain and the Anglo-Saxon kingdom. This is told with a flatness of affect in the writing and particularly in the characters’ dialogue, which I think partly arises from the avoidance of forsooth-speak while creating something believable for the period. To those of us who have fallen for the book, it's that very flatness that appeals. Because this is not really a historical novel at all but, as critics have already observed, is straining in the direction of fantasy without quite ever wanting to go there. It's that, I think, which has left the critics puzzled: why is this author, by common consent a literary heavyweight, not just going back to the Middle Ages but doing so with Tolkien’s or William Morris’s spectacles on rather than Bulwer Lytton’s or Victor Hugo’s?

The question itself, or the attitude behind it, points to the problem. If Scott ushered in the novel of the historical past, Ishiguro's turn to the Middle Ages is not really in that lineage at all. It would be easy enough to read an allegory in The Buried Giant, a novel about a Britain divided between Britons and Saxons, races which nevertheless manage to live alongside one another without much conflict at some unspecified point soon after Arthur’s days. But it is also a Britain in which the racial harmony seems to rely on a fog of forgetfulness. Is it better to live in the relative peace of historical ignorance, the novel seems to ask, or, with an honesty which will be devastating, to raise the buried giant of racial conflict? The dragon at the heart of Ishiguro’s narrative is named Querig, a name which perhaps suggests a query or questioning which it is in fact this dragon's role to suppress. Dragons, from Beowulf, to The Hobbit to Game of Thrones, are figures for history. They make it happen, by dispossessing peoples, destroying lineages and laying waste to agriculture and industry. But then, prefiguring late capitalism, they lie engorged on what they have accumulated and refuse to give it up. Ishiguro’s Querig is quite the opposite, a mechanism for holding up history, in a “historical” novel which is actually about whether there are times when history is better held in suspension.

There is just something awkward about the relationship between the novel in English and the Middle Ages. It's a relationship perhaps best negotiated in postmodern fashion, as Holsinger to an extent does, or through the convolutions of modernism, as Kingsnorth does (which is why it’s in poetry rather than the novel that medievalism has its most lively contemporary afterlife). Yet by appearing so completely artless, Ishiguro has in fact issued a major challenge to the reader (and particularly the medievalist reader), which might be characterised as follows: Can you bear to read about the early Middle Ages without significant postmodern props, or without the twists, tweaks and re-engineering that turn it into a game of thrones? So far, critics seem to have been deeply puzzled by the novel, which is consistent with the general attitude provoked by the Middle Ages whenever the period appears on the pages of Anglophone novels. General readers don’t seem to have been put off, however, as Ishiguro holds his place with Harlan Coben, Jo Nesbo and Anne Tyler on the bestseller lists.

What critics have missed about The Buried Giant is that we are now far beyond the comforting nostalgia in which so much medievalist narrative was characteristically invested. We are certainly in a very productive moment for medievalism right now: the buried giant is, finally, the potential of medievalist narrative itself.


¹ And now (although I’ve not yet read it), Bruce Holsinger’s The Invention of Fire: A Novel (William Morrow, 2015), set in London in 1386.

Curious Times

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Anke Bernau is Senior Lecturer in Medieval Literature and Culture in the School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at the University of Manchester.

In his blog post of August 7, 2012 on In the Middle, entitled “Curiosity, Mars/Venus, and Chaucer,” Jonathan Hsy discusses how a medieval understanding of curiosity helps us to think about the art of translation, as well as the role of curiosity and wonder in scholarship and the classroom more generally. I want to return to this issue here because of some thoughts I’ve been having about curiosity in the past year or two – thoughts which began initially because of conversations I was having with students and with colleagues about the role of curiosity in academia at this moment in time.

Curiosity is frequently invoked by educational institutions and by scholars themselves as a desirable trait – one that cannot be done without. In this, they echo the ideas of the “Positive Psychology” branch of psychology, one of whose practitioners, Todd Kashdan, wrote a book dedicated to curiosity in 2009, whose title, Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life, indicates the crucial place awarded to curiosity.

In historical studies of curiosity, the Middle Ages are often represented as utterly opposed to such a positive assessment, as a time during which curiosity was on “trial” rather than triumphant (to borrow from Hans Blumenberg). Yet, as scholars such as Richard Newhauser and Edward Peters have shown, such an assessment involves a lack of awareness of the nuances attendant on the term: “curiositas” in the Middle Ages could be good, bad or neutral, depending very much on context, approach, and discipline.

It is also the case that a suspicion of curiosity – understood as a powerful human desire for novelty, including different kinds of new knowledge – is evident in most times, even if it exists alongside other, more positive, understandings. Thus, for instance, in Kashdan’s book, Chapter 8 is concerned with “The Dark Side of Curiosity: Obsessions, Sensational Thrills, Sex, Death, and Detrimental Gossip” (what better way of ensuring the reader’s curiosity will lead her straight there?). Not all curiosity is to be encouraged; curiosity still has its negative sides – referred to as “diversive curiosity” in some studies, or “morbid” curiosity if the objects that arouse it are perceived to be particularly dangerous (to the individual or others), transgressive or destructive. (Thomas Aquinas distinguished between “studiositas” – what one could think of as “good” curiosity – and “curiositas” for similar reasons.)

One of the central concerns that is evident in medieval religious discussions of “curiositas” – alongside a refusal to accept limits on one’s desire to know – is how the curious individual uses her time: the fear that a pursuit of “vain” objects of interest distract from the truly important concerns that should be occupying her instead. In such examples, it is often associated with wasted time (idleness), with the “this-worldly” (the temporal rather than the eternal), or with regression. The Latin term bears within itself a sign of this troubled temporality: “cura”, with its sense of duty, of attentive care, designates a “good” or “proper” use of time, while excessive “cura” indicates its waste.

For some thinkers, such as Thomas of Aquinas and St Bonaventure, curiosity was akin to acedia, in that it suggested a kind of mental wandering, focused not on the important things (such as the necessary requirements for salvation) but tracking hither and yonder in pursuit of pointless knowledge. In this understanding, curiosity designated an intellectual superficiality – an inability to distinguish between the truly important and the merely incidental. Martin Seel concludes that what is being described in such assessments is someone who, interested in everything, is interested, finally, in nothing. Edward Peters notes that Alexander Nequam “summed up a century of criticism” in his expostulation: “O inutilis curiositas.” Whether work, intellectual or otherwise, was considered “curious” in a positive or negative sense relied to a great extent, then, on its perceived utility, which in turn was defined with reference to the individual’s social and religious relations, as well as to his temporal understanding and orientation. Curiosity could provoke the suspicion that the individual exhibiting it was resisting, or withdrawing from, authoritative understandings of how he or she should be intellectually and temporally disposed.

From my conversations with colleagues, many of whom feel pressed for time and pressured to guarantee the “outcomes” of their research, it seems to me that curiosity – precisely because of its fraught relationship to temporality, which often also translates into a particular relationship with authority – has actually never stopped being troublesome. The ambivalence surrounding the term, and debates about its role and value, reveal it to be at the heart of an ethics not just of thought but also, far more fundamentally, of the question of cognitive engagement with the world. The issue that arises time and again is how individual engagement with the world relates, or fails to relate, to the requirements – be they social, political, religious, moral or economic – posed by the larger structures within which the individual exists and acts out this engagement.

In his 1939 article, “On the Usefulness of Useless Knowledge,” Abraham Flexner, the founding Director for the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton University, draws a picture of intellectual curiosity which many academics might still subscribe to today, but would not perhaps feel was high on the agenda in educational policy, with its emphasis on measurable and quantifiable “outcomes”: “[T]hroughout the whole history of science most of the really great discoveries which had ultimately proved to be beneficial to mankind had been made by men and women who were driven not by the desire to be useful but merely the desire to satisfy their curiosity.” Flexner argues that it is precisely the unpredictability of curiosity that must be maintained and which “[i]nstitutions of learning should be devoted to.”

This kind of approach, however, requires time – both in teaching and in research. In her recent study of the modern university, Ruth Barcan has argued that it is a chimeric institution, consisting of a “palimpsestic overlay of three types of institutions, each with its own exigencies, temporalities, and forms of expertise.” Barcan argues that the auditing mechanisms with which universities “try to capture sign of productivity … tak[e] no account of the temporality of thought…, research…, writing, or publication.” The “slow time” required by “teaching, reading and writing” does not fit easily within this understanding and cannot easily be rendered quantifiable. The latter in particular is “antithetical to the ethos of open-ended curiosity-driven investigation, with its historical recognition of the importance of false starts, wrong turns, serendipity, accidents and slow progress to the development of new, original or complex ideas.” The problem is not even one of utility. As Helen Small has argued, the Humanities can easily be shown to have a practice value, and their value can even usefully be discussed in terms of utility; the problem is not utility but instrumentality, specifically economic instrumentalism.

Looking at the long (and unbroken) tradition of suspicion of curiosity helps us to approach the complexities of the situation today. Despite the repeated valorisation of curiosity, there is an often-unacknowledged suspicion of its unpredictability. On the one hand we have a valorisation of curiosity by educational institutions; on the other, it is precisely curiosity that can be inimical to the way such institutions function.

In 1994, George Loewenstein noted in his survey of psychological studies on curiosity, that it is both potentially superficial (“in the sense that it can arise, change, focus, or end abruptly”) and “can exert a powerful motivational force.” Curiosity is “approach” rather than “goal” oriented: “When we are curious, we are doing things for their own sake, and we are not being controlled by internal or external pressures concerning what we should or should not do.” He warns that “[d]espite the appeal of simplistic models of the benefits of curiosity,” it is a complex issue that demands more nuanced investigation – something that medieval thinkers were well aware of.

Are you ready for the Apocalypse?

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One evening the model Kate Moss appeared on my television, looked directly at me, and asked if I was “ready for the Apocalips [sic]?”. This appeal turned out to be an advert for a lipstick, a lipstick so chromatically superlative, its strapline claims, that it portends “the end of lip colour as you know it.” Rather than being chastened by my failure properly to contemplate and prepare for the End Times, I burst into laughter at the prospect that a lipstick might ready me, indeed that Kate Moss herself might be readied by it, for the final and terrifying Revelation prophesied by St John.

Once my laughter had subsided, I began to think about the ways that the ad speaks to the difficulties of teaching the religious aspects of medieval literature to modern students. In my multi-ethnic classroom there are students of many faiths and others of none; some do, but more don’t, have a working knowledge of terms and ideas like “apocalypse,” or a habit of reading allegorically. The names of the Apocalips-tick shades – “stellar,” “nova,” “galaxy,” “luna,” “big bang” – suggest that the word “apocalypse” in this advert, and perhaps for some of my students, is just a shorthand for something big, something of cosmological or astronomical significance, but it has shed its theological valences. However, whilst the advert aims to draw on this rather hazy popular understanding of the “apocalypse,” for those more familiar with religious ideas, it creates a wonderfully bathetic juxtaposition: on the one hand Kate Moss clutching her lipstick (possibly) with misplaced confidence and, on the other, the Apocalypse.

Recently, I was answering an editor’s queries on an article in which I discussed this advert; “isn’t it supposed to be funny?” he asked (forthcoming 2014). Now, that I look at it again, I’m not sure. My first impression was that Kate Moss’s pout looks all too earnest for the ad to be knowing, part of the po-face of Blairite Brit-pop (which, incidentally, is the name of a mid-blue nail polish, also sold by Rimmel and one of ten colors specially “created” by Kate, her roundy-written signature slanting across the bottle). But the brand promises to be “witty, edgy and street-wise”; maybe we are supposed to laugh. See what you think. The more I consider the disproportion between Kate or her lipstick and the Apocalypse, the more medieval, even the more Chaucerian, it begins to look. Contrasts of scale are what the gothic aesthetic did so well, presenting the human subject, with her many worldly preoccupations, as a total object, dwarfed by and carried along in the grand sweep of time.

Memorably, the medievalist C. S. Lewis excluded his character Susan Pevensie from his fictionalized holy land at the end of his Chronicles of Narnia books; newly and exclusively interested in “nylons and lipstick and invitations,” she is no longer a “friend of Narnia” (The Last Battle, chapter 12). Whatever he intended in this episode – and the debate goes on – he at least disapproves of lipstick, if not adult female sexuality. Medieval women did, of course, use make-up, although I’m not sure that they wore lipstick as such. There is evidence, at least, of skin whitening and cheek reddening (Woolgar, The Senses in Late Medieval England). Whitening the skin would have had the effect of making the lips appear redder, and it is not a huge leap in a beauty regime to apply rouge to the lips; I think I’d try it. In medieval literature there are, of course, those voices which rejected female cosmetic fakery, as Lewis did (see Cowell, Exemplaria, 1999); but there were also others which more fully and less prejudicially pondered the question of whether salvation was possible for the ethically “mediocre” (Watson, Religion and Literature, 2005) or “fallible” (Minnis, Fallible Authors) – a category into which “lipstick”-wearing women like Susan Pevensie or Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, for example, might fit. Of all The Canterbury Tales narrators, Alisoun seems the least qualified to ask the Canterbury pilgrims and, by extension, Chaucer’s readers about their readiness for the Apocalypse and yet her Prologue is a thorough-going engagement with Pauline eschatology. She shares a fragment with the Summoner and, more pertinently, the Friar and yet neither of them is so scripturally preoccupied. The eschatological rhetoric of calling in her Prologue (which I have discussed in more detail elsewhere; SAC 34 [2012]), and the spiritual message at the heart of her Tale – about the gentillesse imparted by the example of Christ, isn’t picked up again until the more evidently earnest, but nonetheless still ambiguous Parson’s Tale, a text which also provokes us to ask whether it is supposed to be funny.

Chaucer and his contemporaries were writing in the context of a high-end fashion for apocalypse sequences (Nolan, The Gothic Visionary Perspective). This fashion was driven by the color and the wild visionary power of the Johannine book as much as anything more theoretical or interpretive. The apocalypse tapestries at the Castle of Angers ((Maine-et-Loire, north-western France), for example, commissioned by Louis I, duke of Anjou at the end of the fourteenth century, borrowed and trumpeted a devastating confidence from John’s visions of destruction and renewal.

Detail from the third panel, scene 40 (38); The Beast of the Sea. The Apocalypse tapestries, Château d’Angers, c. 1377-80

The front of the tapestry is faded but the back retains the vibrancy of its initial colors: the end of color as the Middle Ages knew it. Whilst some of the panels are expected to depict desolation and privation, like the panel ostensibly illustrating famine, the artist, choosing luxury over realism, is unable to resist making the vegetal background verdant and lush.

First panel, scene 11 (9); The Third Seal: The Black Horse and Famine.

Despite the military and political authority and extraordinary wealth that a piece of work like this articulated, worldly patrons like Louis, nonetheless, took a risk: they might try to borrow the power and definitiveness of Revelation but they might accidentally come off looking small, puny, overly-attached to the colors and fashions of this world, indeed even comic in comparison. Presumably, a piece of this size and scale was not wholly a private one and there might have been people who were able to contrast Louis’ indifferent military and political achievements with the great narratives of a Babylonian civilization brought low and the making of a bright, new and perfect city, and who were able to contrast the claims of a temporal lord, albeit one with a fantastic tapestry, with the great and final shattering of time itself.

Perhaps there were people, in Chaucer’s own time, as perhaps there are today, who believed that some – the duke of Anjou, perhaps – were saved just by virtue of their high estate. No-one would make that mistake in an assessment of Alisoun of Bath. Chaucer brings eschatological comedy down the social scale when he gives it to his Wife: not a lord, not someone from the clergy, but a woman and one who is self-confessedly imperfect: attached to the world, its brightest colors, and most beautiful fripperies. When Kate Moss asks us about our readiness for the End, she might be the female protagonist imagined in The Wife of Bath’s Tale, speaking as in the pillow-sermon but looking as she does after her faery transformation. The Rimmel advert might have been dreamed up by the Wife of Bath: it fits with her fantasies and articulates her concerns. Although Alisoun’s ethical practice is obviously in error, it seems to me that her Pauline eschatological theory is correct, and particularly in the way that she turns it against the argument she found in Jerome’s Adversus Jovinianum, that only those who lived in ethical perfection would be saved. In fact, she reminds her audiences, “God clepeth folk to hym in sondry wyse” (102) and, as Paul himself had urged, she commits herself to remaining in that calling to which, and in which she has been called: “In swich estaat as God hath cleped us / I wol persevere” (147-8) she says, paraphrasing 1 Corinthians 7.20.

There were others, in her own time, who would have agreed with her. Richard Rolle, for example, wondered what would happen to the “inperfite” – by which he means those not governed by religious regulae who “erre noghte disposed to contemplacyoune of Godd”. Like those perfecti whose lives were governed by religious rule, the “inperfite” are also called, he concludes, although they may expect a “lawere mede” [lesser/lower reward], being the “frendis” rather than the “derlynges” of Christ (English Prose Treatises, ed. Perry, p. 45). Of course Rolle did not perhaps envisage this “lawere mede” being extended to such obvious and self-confessed miscreants as Chaucer’s Wife. Indeed, her acknowledged adultery and lustfulness might make her authority on eschatology (or anything else) seemingly easy to dismiss, except that she might be read another way, too.

If one were called by God, how might that call come? I don’t mean how might that call come to the Wife of Bath, who says that, despite her deafness, she has heard her calling; I mean to others, the Canterbury pilgrims or Chaucer’s readers, perhaps. They might be called, as St Paul was on the roadside, by God himself, in an unmistakeable, direct address: “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” (Douay New Testament, Acts 9.4). Equally, though, God’s call might be received in more unlikely locations, interrupting some humdrum chore or worldly recreation. The Parson says he won’t fall into that trap, hearing his call continually and while he conducts all his quotidian activities: “whan I ete or drynke, or what so that I do, evere semeth me that the trompe sowneth in myn ere: / ‘Riseth up, ye that been dede, and cometh to the juggement’” (159-60). The parenthetical “or what so that I do” is typical of Chaucer’s use of euphemism, having already evoked the alimentary process, he encourages his readers to imagine the Parson at the other end of it: on the loo. Church bells or a sermon might be expected sources of a divine call, the pilgrimage route to Canterbury a likely location, but equally one might be called whilst out shopping, watching TV, or on the toilet, by an “imperfect” person, perhaps by a woman wearing lipstick or scarlet “hosen” (GP, 455), out of an earthy comic fiction or the evanescent world of advertising, in ways that don’t look serious and which are difficult to credit. If God were to use such improbable channels – and he could – his calls might be underestimated or mistaken for temporal sounds, the fragmented claims of the world pulling on easily diverted attentions.

Our students will be pleased to know that for people in the Middle Ages, one response to the impending Apocalypse was to laugh. Whilst the Apocalips ad looks like the antithesis of Gothic religious art and culture, popularly assumed to be forbidding and chastening, actually it unwittingly discloses its ludic spirit, evoking the End as so big and ultimate that it makes everything else – me, you, the duke of Anjou, Kate Moss, everything – look funny. We live modernity as it was imagined in the Middle Ages. In the playful modes of late-medieval art the funny, bright, cosmetically-enhanced world could all along (but equally might not) be the medium of the divine message. Chaucer could invent an outrageous character, make her a party “girl” enamored of the latest beauty products, give her a conspectus of outrageous opinions, and yet, at the same time, never rule out the chance that she, and/or her human author (made disreputable by association), might be God’s colorful, lipsticked mouthpiece for that most serious of questions: “are you ready for the Apocalypse?”

Cowell, Andrew. “The Dye of Desire: The Colors of Rhetoric in The Middle Ages.” Exemplaria 11 (1999): 115-39.
Davis, Isabel. “Calling: Langland, Gower and Chaucer on St Paul.” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 34 (2012): 53-97. [See for a fuller bibliography]
Davis, Isabel. “Histoire et poésie: la Femme de Bath de Geoffrey Chaucer et la comédie de l’allégorie eschatologique.” Cahiers électroniques d’histoire textuelle du LAMOP (forthcoming; 2014).
Minnis, Alastair. Fallible Authors: Chaucer’s Pardoner and Wife of Bath. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2007.
Nolan, Barbara. The Gothic Visionary Perspective. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1977.
Richard Rolle. The English Prose Treatises of Richard Rolle de Hampole, ed. George G. Perry, EETS 20. London: Trübner, 1866, revised 1921.
Watson, Nicholas. “Chaucer’s Public Christianity.” Religion and Literature 37 (2005): 99-114.
Woolgar, Christopher M. The Senses in Late Medieval England. New Haven: Yale UP, 2006.


Isabel Davis is Senior Lecturer in Medieval and Renaissance Literature in the Department of English and Humanities at Birkbeck College, University of London.

Gower’s Rising Star: A Pivotal Moment?

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I’d like to pick up on the keyword used by Jonathan Hsy in his retrospective blog on the Third International Congress of the John Gower Society, posted on “In the Middle” (July 9, 2014), and apply it to the experience of moving from the Gower conference in Rochester, N.Y., which ended on July 3, 2014, to the Chaucer gathering in Reykjavík, Iceland, which began on July 15. Turning from one conference to the other or “pivot(ing)” as Hsy might say, marked an important moment of transition as many of us moved from here to there, from the U.S. to Iceland, shifting gears and repositioning ourselves in time and space. The pivot, for me, was (and is) like a dance move, a pirouette, a revolving, circulating, gyrating, spinning, twirling, being caught up in a whirligig of movement, sights, and sounds. Like those scholars who felt overwhelmed by the experience of traveling from one forum to the other in such a short amount of time, I felt the pressure of performance hanging over my head, as Georgiana Donavin and I prepared our presentation on an obscure Gower manuscript in the days between events. The irony of talking about Gower at a Chaucer conference did not escape us, but rather made us much more aware of the interplay between the two poets. Like a dance, this thing we do for a living encourages synchronicity, interaction, and synergy. Collaboration, whether like ours, or among conferees gathered together in Rochester or Reykjavík, generates a deeper understanding of the topic at hand, whatever that topic may be. Kara McShane put her dual-conference experience this way: “moving right from one to the other really reinforced the ongoing and collaborative nature of scholarly work.”

Of course, Gower and Chaucer have been engaged in a dance for centuries, one leading, one following, one pivoting, the other guiding the turn. The critical reception of each poet influenced the development of a complicated literary history that began with both poets on an equal footing, until a shift in the political environment and in critical tastes in literature (a preference for satire) encouraged a turning away from Gower in favor of Chaucer.[1] By the nineteenth century Gower’s reputation had diminished while Chaucer’s grew. Their friendship and collegial relation, a perception encouraged by mutual acknowledgments---Chaucer’s naming of “moral Gower” in the palinode of Troilus and Criseyde and Gower’s citation of Chaucer as “mi disciple and poet,” in the Confessio Amantis---had devolved into a narrative of acrimonious separation.[2] When the passage citing Chaucer was erased in a later version of the Confessio Amantis, critics inferred that some serious disagreement must have taken place. Perhaps it is because these two poets were perceived to be so close and collegial that a falling out became such a compelling narrative, one that grew over time into something more akin to bitter rivalry than a quarrel between friends.[3] One might say that this hyped-up and unsubstantiated recounting stands to reason, since what’s at stake for a male poet, as Carolyn Dinshaw has persuasively argued, is “the articulation or assertion of a strong, coherent character, an identity.”[4] A presumed contentiousness between poets is provocative to be sure, but in the absence of direct testimony (a letter, a witness) the reason(s) for the split may have more to do with politics than personalities. What seems to have bothered early critics appears to have had less to do with the Gower-Chaucer friendship-quarrel than with Gower’s changing of political allegiance from Richard II to Henry IV, a switch considered to be motivated by political opportunism and to represent ingratitude.[5] Add to this early ad hominem critique of Gower’s change of heart a firmly entrenched negative response to Book 1 (the Visio) of the Vox Clamantis, and it’s fair to say that the poet’s public image has suffered over the years. Now, however, I wonder whether we’re in the midst of another pivotal moment. Is this long and complex “rivalry” beginning to change? Is the shoe now on the other foot?

As the post-Gower-conference write-up in the Rochester Review suggests, Gower’s star appears to be in the ascendant. At least that’s what the illustration accompanying the description and the comparative chart below it (in the image above) indicate. Admittedly, the rivalry between the two, whether fact or fiction, or something of both, is biased (it’s the sponsoring university’s publication, after all), but what the Rochester Review captures is the tension between poets and their respective positions in literary history. One of the most famous illustrations of Gower (found in MS Cotton Tiberius A.iv), showing the poet about to shoot an arrow at an image of the world turned upside down, is depicted here not with its original target (the world), but rather with an image of Chaucer gazing downward, pointing to himself with one hand while holding rosary beads in the other. Does “the father of English poetry” fear for his life as he faces the man known to have erased his name, rubbed him out, if only in a manuscript? If this illustration were not enough to indicate a rivalry between the two, the chart below invites further comparison, as point by point it marks each poet’s major accomplishments and landmark moments. The top-to-bottom list ends with a statement citing what Gower scholars wish to be said about their poet: that he was the “only English poet to provide a detailed personal account of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 as well as an allegory on the overthrow of Richard II. His works are a window into the trilingual culture of 14th century England.” On the opposite side of the chart is what Gower scholars wish were said about Chaucer: that he “as well as Shakespeare and Ben Jonson admired and drew on Gower’s work.” The wishful thinking being expressed here is for Gower to be recognized as having provided an eyewitness account of an unprecedented rebellion that had spread to London by June of 1381. Also being expressed here is the desire that Gower be recognized as having influenced the work of these notable men of letters. In Jonson’s English Grammar, for instance, Gower is quoted more often than Chaucer and praised for his plain speech while as the one-man chorus in Pericles he provides commentary and direction for Shakespeare’s adaptation of the Tale of Apollonius of Tyre.[6]

Rivalry generates interest, I think we can say, and perhaps that’s one of the motives driving the makers of this image. But that Gower has been welcomed into the NCS Conference puts another spin on things, replacing competition and exclusivity with inclusiveness and collaboration. Much of Gower’s oeuvre was represented in Reykjavík in a number of thematic threads---“Handling Sins,” “How to do Things with Texts,” “In Search of Things Past,” “Re-orienting Disability,” “How to Do Things with Books”---with presentations addressing Gower’s Jews (R. F. Yeager), animals (Haylie Swenson), manuscripts (Donavin and Salisbury), business transactions [with Chaucer] (Brian Gastle), and the poet’s writings in French and Latin (Stephanie L. Batkie). In an academic world that has taken a turn toward the body (both human and non-human) and all things material, Gower’s work has much to offer. His insights on (dis)abilities (especially blindness), the senses, emotions, cognition, medicine, science, language, community, and the etiology of violence contribute to what we know about the past, teaching us how we might access it usefully to understand the precariousness of our own lives.

The poet’s image as “moral Gower,” is changing, becoming more inclusive of other aspects of his life, his philosophies, and his perspective on the pivotal historical moment he shared with Chaucer. The perception even by Gower scholars that he is too critical of the rebels in the Visio of the Vox Clamantis is accruing greater nuance with the translation, re-translation, and comprehensive study of the Vox in conjunction with the other Latin and French works.[7] Will newly translated materials and a broader contextualization of the poet’s oeuvre change his public persona from moralizing social critic to auctor of extraordinary insight and courage? His inclusion in a conference dedicated to Chaucer and the willingness to engage in an open dialogue will certainly have an effect, as will works of fiction such as Bruce Holsinger’s A Burnable Book in which Gower is depicted as a man with a family, a professional life, and a taste for behind-the-scenes intrigue. With continued revisionist readings and a novel that spins the story of Gower’s relation to Chaucer in a different way, the poet is acquiring another voice and another set of dance moves.

No doubt the old rivalry between Gower and Chaucer will continue, perpetuated by the kinds of desires identified by Dinshaw, but the relation between the two poets has taken a more positive turn, at least if these two conferences are any indication. Gatherings such as the NCS Conference in Reykjavík and the Third International Congress of the John Gower Society in Rochester suggest that there is plenty of room for partnering and crossing over, for turning together, if not in perfect synchrony, then with an eye toward expanding the circle, taking pleasure in the pivot and the collaboration it encourages.


[1] John H. Fisher, John Gower: Moral Philosopher and Friend of Chaucer (New York: New York UP, 1964). Fisher devotes Chapter One to a survey of Gower’s critical reputation in relation to Chaucer’s.

[2] Fisher traces a tradition “that Gower was Chaucer’s senior and mentor: their allusions to one another and the evolving pattern of parallels in their works suggest that Gower was a sort of conscience to his brilliant but volatile friend, encouraging him by both precept and example to turn from visions of courtly love to social criticism” (207). The many parallels to Gower’s poems found in the Canterbury Tales (the Man of Law’s Tale/Tale of Constance and the Wife of Bath’s Tale/Tale of Florent, for instance) are thought to have been written first by Gower.

[3] Carolyn Dinshaw, “Rivalry, Rape and Manhood: Gower and Chaucer,” in Chaucer and Gower: Difference, Mutuality, Exchange, ed. R. F. Yeager, ELS Monograph Series 51 (Victoria, BC: English Literary Studies, 1991): 130-52. See also, “Quarrels, Rivals and Rape: Gower and Chaucer,” in ‘A Wyf Ther Was’: Essays in Honor of Paule Mertens-Fonck, ed. Juliette Dor (Liège: Département d’anglais, Université de Liège, 1992), 112-22.

[4] Dinshaw, 132.

[5] Fisher, 25.

[6] R. F. Yeager, “Ben Jonson’s English Grammar and John Gower’s Reception in the Seventeenth Century,” in The Endless Knot: Essays on Old and Middle English in Honor of Marie Boroff, ed. M. Teresa Tavormina and R. F. Yeager (Cambridge: Brewer, 1995), 227-39.

[7] David R. Carlson and A. G. Rigg, Poems on Contemporary Events: The Visio Anglie (1381) and Cronica tripertita (1400). (Toronto and Oxford: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies and Bodleian Library, 2011). See also the recent re-translation of Book 6 by Robert Meindl, “Semper Venalis: Gower’s Avaricious Lawyers,” Accessus: A Journal of Premodern Literature and New Media 1.2 (2013), ed. Georgiana Donavin and Eve Salisbury. See also, R. F. Yeager, ed, and trans. John Gower: The French Balades (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 2011).

Why Do We Care About Chaucer?

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Arthur Szyk. Illustration from the 1946 edition of The Canterbury Tales in modern English verse by Frank Ernest Hill, with miniatures by the Polish illustrator and caricaturist (and later US citizen) Arthur Szyk. ©Jerry Fieldsted. Source:

The entries in this blog so far have been exemplary in asking fundamental questions about Chaucer, concerning the fragmentary structure of the Canterbury Tales and how, if at all, we can locate Chaucer’s voice in that polycephalic text. I want to ask another fundamental question, one so basic I’m worried I don’t have anything interesting to say about it, but one to which we must have an answer, since we enact answers to it all the time whether we think about it or not: why do we care about Chaucer at all? The two answers that come to my mind are both embarrassingly retro: 1) Chaucer’s a genius; 2) Chaucer’s poetry, particularly the Canterbury Tales, is exceptionally well-suited to the material and ideological conditions of higher education. I think both are right. But what do they mean? And what do they mean together?

Let’s start with the second answer. Unlike the equally brilliant Piers Plowman, the Canterbury Tales lends itself wonderfully to the extraction of a short stretch of text for sustained examination. We all know how easy it is to pull out 15 lines from any of the Tales and set a class to work on it, how many nuances can be found there, how readily those nuances radiate out into the rest of the text. We also know how hard it is to do the same thing when teaching Langland, with the possible exception of the Prologue. It’s as though there’s no way to read Piers for the first time. This is a formal feature of the text, not a historical one. It’s not that Langland is somehow “more medieval” than Chaucer; the fact that students feel that way can be as much a hindrance to their reading of Chaucer as a help. But the dialectical work of Piers Plowman unfolds over the course of the entire poem in a way that radically changes what it is to read any moment in that text, and the difficulties of the poem don’t often chunk themselves into bite-sized morsels. That formal feature is central to Langland’s genius.

With the Tales, though, it’s different: while of course reading any moment depends on one’s reading of the whole, there’s a lot one can do with, say, the Miller’s portrait of Alisoun, or the crazy conclusion to the Physician’s Tale, just by working with the ways the details of those passages signify, and tug against each other, and radiate out into their immediate contexts. And that formal feature of the poetry works very well both within the pedagogical structures that shaped the emergence of English as a discipline and continue to shape our interactions with our students, and within the professional structures of conference papers, lectures, articles, and book chapters that shape that side of careers in the profession. So one reason we care so much about Chaucer is that each of us is part of a number of “we’s” whose relation to Chaucer is mediated by the sheer historical accident that Chaucer, unlike Langland, wrote in a way that the institutional structures of 20th-century higher education ended up finding convenient.

Still, we shouldn’t hold that against Chaucer. If it’s a sign of genius to have produced a poem, as Langland did, that so persistently interrogates its own grounds that it leaves its best readers in a state of suspension, it’s equally a sign of genius to have produced so many 10-20 line chunks of poetry, not to mention entire poems of various scales, that reward continual re-examination, that always seem capable of producing fresh insights, that always seem to be there ahead of us as we learn to think in new and different ways. That’s why so many students (and critics) are tempted to say that Chaucer somehow anticipated the insights of feminism, or psychoanalysis, or Marxism, or whatever combination of discourses we happen to have learned from. Of course that can’t be right. But then neither can it be the case that we are merely projecting our concerns onto the text. Gower, for instance (whose work also lends itself to isolating 10-20 line chunks for examination, who also wrote a big poem in the London dialect, who also was fascinated by politics and gender and sexuality and other motivating concerns of modern criticism), has not proven nearly as receptive.

The best way I can think to put it would be to say that Chaucer has an uncanny ear for the play of signification. Over and over again, as I teach the Canterbury Tales, my students pick up on a trope that I never quite recognized as a trope before, or they notice multiple meanings in a term I had previously read straight; and as they do this, it turns out that the trope or the multiple meanings link up with other figures and terms, and suddenly they have opened up a new way of thinking about something I had thought I understood. There is an incredible density of such moments in Chaucer’s poetry; and such moments themselves are incredibly dense, criss-crossed with the play of the signifier.

Condensation is all over the place in Chaucer’s poetry, and, well, it’s very condensed condensation. I want to make an intentionalist claim about this, but I don’t quite know how. Chaucer didn’t just get lucky; this is what he was aiming at. But while I might want to say that Chaucer was on the track of what Freud and Lacan were on the track of (which is not quite the same thing as saying that Freud or Lacan gives us the best terms for accounting for it), others who recognize the thing I’m pointing to will have different ways of putting it; and if there is still such a thing as literary criticism in another fifty years, students and teachers will continue to recognize that thing, while all of our ways of accounting for it will sound like curious historical artifacts of turn-of-the-century intellectual culture.

I’ll conclude by raising one further aspect of the question for consideration. If you’ll grant me that something like what I’m pointing to above is right (whether or not you agree with my way of articulating it), why do we care about that? Our critical and pedagogical practices point in two directions here. One is a kind of Arnoldian humanism, newly revitalized, among other places, in the return to formalism, the recent critical emphasis on ethical self-cultivation, and some of the directions taken in affect theory. The other is the cultivation of something very different: not the self, but critical habits of mind that interrupt the circuits of identification that make for Arnoldian horticulture. As we think not only about the value and purpose of our attention to Chaucer, but about the value and purpose of higher education, we might try again to think through the questions raised by these directions in our practice.

Mark Miller
University of Chicago

Chaucer’s Voices

Image for Chaucer’s Voices

Hadieh Shafie, 10450 Pages (2011). Photo: Sothebys.

Candace Barrington is a Professor in the Department of English at Central Connecticut State University. She has established, with Jonathan Hsy, an online digital archive of post-1945, non-Anglophone Chauceriana, Global Chaucers:

There are several passages in his canon where Chaucer’s voice seems clearest to me, where I can imagine sitting in the same room with him, where I hear him read his lines aloud. In The Canterbury Tales, these passages are not all associated exclusively with either the narrating voice or any particular pilgrim. Truth be told, my selection shifts with experience and age. These days my ears seem to be attuned to the Wife of Bath’s lament at the passing of her youth (III.469-78), the pilgrim’s sly “And I seyde his opinion was good” (I.183), and Harry Bailey’s repeated efforts to “turne rancour and disese / T’acord and love” (IX.97-98). In these moments, I hear the voice of an urbane and humane man with many talents and varied experiences, able to keep his judgments in check and his sympathies close by. That voice, I realize, is my own creation, the consequence of my engaging a text that speaks differently to me year to year, day to day, even hour to hour.

Lately, my pre-Barthesian sense that I can hear Chaucer’s voice speaking in the texts has been enlarged by hearing its most recent manifestations, those of his translators into languages other than Present-Day English. Since the mid-twentieth century, translators have reconceived part or all of The Canterbury Tales in more than fifty languages from every corner of the globe. Just over a year ago, Jonathan Hsy (George Washington University) and I set out to locate and study these translations (and other appropriations). (You can find an up-to-date catalogue, as well as blog postings about some of our finds, at Unlike most Chaucerians, we find ourselves in contact with our authors, for many of these translators and adaptors are currently working, eager to share what they have learned. The translators especially have much to teach us, for who would better know the Chaucerian text than someone who has struggled to account for every word? To varying degrees, these translators share with all modern readers the question of how to interpret six-hundred-year-old poetic expression. Then they must deal with how to embody (without calcifying or betraying) that poetry. Many of their receiving (or target) languages are vastly different from Chaucer’s Middle English, with no ties to Indo-European and using semantic and syntactic rules far from those in English. Compounding the difficulty is the problem of cultural difference. How does a translator configure in Chinese a notion of sin requiring divine forgiveness when that culture does not carry such a concept? Footnotes and glosses are possible resources, but they do not eliminate the need to express in literary language an approximate concept. Through extensive written interviews with these translators, I have come to hear not one Chaucerian voice but many voices, each with a different perspective on what it means to collaborate with Chaucer in a new language.

In some cases, Chaucer’s is the voice of dissent. When John Boje translates The Canterbury Tales into Afrikaans, Chaucer’s voice in ‘n Keur uit die Pelgrimsverhale van Geoffrey Chaucer gains a certain edge inherent in any skeptical observer of Afrikaans culture during the apartheid period. Terms, locutions, and values associated with the very conservative culture of the Reformed Dutch Church (with which 90% of Afrikaners affiliated and which re-inforced the South African government’s apartheid policies during the years Boje translated most of the Tales) provide a useful linguistic cluster around which Boje develops the less favorable characters, either among the pilgrims or within their tales, thereby using the Afrikaans language and cultural values to critique those values.  A similar dissenting voice speaks when Iranian Alireza Mahdipour translates the Tales into Farsi. By appropriating the stance of the Chaucerian pilgrim who abrogates responsibility for the tales’ message—طبع من کُند است و قاصر این زبان منقبت—Mahdipour acerbically appraises the conservative government’s mismanagement and misunderstanding of the values it claims to control and interpret.

In other cases, the Chaucerian voice embodies the old ways. Nazmi Agil’s Turkish Canterbury Hikâyeleri domesticates Chaucer’s text with Turkish oral folktales and idioms he heard from his grandfather and on the radio. By reimagining Chaucer’s Christian voice as an old-fashioned Islamic one, he creates a text sympathetic to contemporary Turks. Similarly, José Francisco Botelho’s Chaucerian voice speaks a Brazilian Portuguese associated with the south of his country, far from the urban modernity of São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro, and where the old cavalheiro of the pampas still sits around telling tales and dispensing wisdom. Contos da Cantuaria combines well-known proverbs, decassílabo (a traditional Portuguese verse form), rima toante (a low-status rhyme scheme), and pajada (oral poetry from southern Brazil) to create a new language for conveying Brazil’s fictional Middle Ages.

These and other translators provide intriguing test cases for such theories of translation as those of Walter Benjamin and Hans-Georg Gadamer, urging us to see translation as revealing what is not fully apparent in the source language or as providing access to embedded meanings otherwise unavailable in the original text. Their voices allow us to hear Chaucers—apartheid-opposed, Khamnei-weary, Islamic-clever, pampas-wise—that Geoffrey Chaucer could not imagine. Because these voices would have been unimaginable to him, they might seem either wrong or unworthy of serious consideration to those of us within Chaucer Studies. If, however, we grant that these voices are latent within the Middle English verses, then we can see that the translations provide enormous potential for our study of the Tales. They direct us towards forgotten etymologies and meanings excluded in the original but embraced or exposed in the receiving language, and they let us hear more distinctly the range of diverse voices making up The Canterbury Tales’ chorus. In short, they provide a way to hear anew the inherent polyvocality and multi-layered semantics in Chaucer’s Middle English lines.

And what do these twenty-first-century Chaucers sound like? CLICK HERE to listen to Lauri Pilter, Chaucer’s Estonian translator, reading the Wife of Bath’s lament from her prologue (III.469-478).
For more examples, see

Literary Criticism with Book History: A Response to Arthur Bahr’s “Celebrate Fragments”

Image for Literary Criticism with Book History: A Response to Arthur Bahr’s “Celebrate Fragments”

The Man of Law. Ellesmere Manuscript. San Marino, Huntington Library, MS EL 26.C.9, fol. 50v. 

I love it that Arthur presents his post as an “enthusiastic taking-up of Bobby [Meyer-Lee]’s exhortation that we engage in a thorough and collective rethink of how we use the term fragments in reference to the Tales, as both codicological designation and literary-critical concept.” I strongly agree that there needs to be such a rethink. The Riverside edition, as Meyer-Lee observes, enshrines an editorial decision about the Tales that has remained unchanged since 1868. So habitual is this way of thinking that even Robert Boenig and Andrew Taylor’s excellent 2008 Broadview Press edition of the Tales (now in its 2nd edition, 2012), which uses Ellesmere as its base text and follows its ordering of the Tales – exactly what Meyer-Lee advocates (SAC 35, 82) – groups the tales according to their traditional arrangement in ten blocks called “Fragments.” But they are not fragments in Ellesmere: they form part of a single, large textual object.

However, leaving aside the codicological fitness of the term, I want to take up Arthur’s invitation to rethink “fragments” as a literary-critical concept. This seems pressing in several ways. Chaucerians, for example should be protesting that Camelia Elias’s monograph The Fragment: Towards a History and Poetics of a Performative Genre (2004) does not once mention Chaucer. Fragment, though, is not an innocent word. Fragmentation is a critical term that is particularly associated with modernism: think of the fragmentary structure and sentences of Joyce’s Ulysses, or T.S. Eliot’s reference in The Wasteland to a “heap of broken images ... These fragments I have shored against my ruins.” Eliot’s words mourn the iconoclastic destruction of a civilization (“broken images”), reclaiming its shattered pieces as hacked-off quotations and blocks of verse that can be ironically used to prop up a self that is threatened with imminent collapse. Eliot’s implied oppositions – heap/form, broken/whole, ruins/structure – suggest a yearning for a lost unity and coherence, to say nothing of a yearning for a lost past.

This is what Jean-François Lyotard is getting at when, in The Postmodern Condition, he declares that “modern aesthetics is an aesthetic of the sublime, though a nostalgic one,” because it “allows the unpresentable to be alleged only as an absent content,” whereas the postmodern “alleges the unpresentable in presentation itself,” and refuses “the consolation of good forms.” Thus, Lyotard continues, “It seems to me that the essay (Montaigne) is postmodern, and the fragment (the Atheneum) modern” (81). An essay – an essai – is a testing out of ideas that is necessarily incomplete but which does not figure that incompleteness as a gesture towards “absent content” but rather as the condition of signification itself: a radical unsayability. The essay doesn’t ever regret that incompleteness and it doesn’t yearn for – or yearn to be – a decorous whole.

I know that we’re all now so past (or post) the postmodern, and I don’t in any way mean to suggest that we think of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as a postmodern enterprise, but in many ways the figure of the essay seems closer to the spirit of the Talesthan that of the (modernist) fragment: as Chaucer’s narrator impishly advises, “turne over the leef and chese another tale.” Arthur wants us to think of this as drawing attention to the physicality of the Tales (and it does), but it also embodies an attitude towards the project: you don’t like this one? then choose another. It enlists the reader as active participant in meaning-making: as Arthur says, “the entire project’s structure is subject to the reader’s imaginative intervention.” In fact, this is not at all like the project of the essay. However, it’s also very different from a “heap of broken images.” Much as I like the idea of Arthur’s queer, affirmative reclaiming of a “misguided or offensive” term and much as I like his claim that fragment “admirably conveys [a] sense of incompleteness not as loss but as interpretive invitation,” I find it hard to shake off the modernist implications of fragment and its associations both with loss and with a very traditional historicity. I see how one might be able to claim for fragment some of the senses that Heather Love claims for a queer history of loss in her Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (2007), yet Arthur is not arguing that we see the Tales in terms of loss. But in any case “essay” embodies an aesthetic; it does not answer to the Tales’ codicological situation.

The nature of the Tales as we find them in their various manuscript matrices is not essay-like. Incompleteness of the project is not the same thing as aesthetic unpresentability. And – as far as we know – Chaucer is not responsible for the way the Tales appear in most of their manuscripts (Ellesmere may be an exception). Nor are the Tales postmodern. Despite Derek Pearsall’s playful call for a “loose-leaf binder edition of the Tales containing the Riverside fragments as a collection of moveable pamphlets” (Meyer-Lee, SAC 35, 63), the presentation of the Tales is not like that of B.S. Johnson’s novel The Unfortunates (1969), which contains 27 sections, presented unbound in a box, with a first and last chapter specified, but with the remaining 25 sections, which range from a single paragraph to 12 pages, designed to be read in any order. Despite the advice to turn over the leaf, and despite my concurring with Meyer-Lee’s judgment that the Tales exhibit a “dynamic, unpredictable, open-ended structure” (SAC 35, 61), they are not meant to be read in any order. Variations in their order, as he points out, are minimal. And Johnson’s work, which is about death and memory, draws its impact from the fact that printed books are bound, and that the concepts of “the author” and the “work” are in part an effect of this binding and can thus be productively flouted. None of this corresponds to the moment of production of the Tales. And while the Tales demand “the reader’s imaginative intervention,” they are not akin to the phenomenon of the Choose Your Own Adventure books. The reader may be advised to turn the leaf, but the Tales do not offer, in any of their manuscript versions, an aleatory, random experience. They confront us with variance, but how to do justice to that variance? One of Meyer-Lee’s solutions – to go for a best-text ordering, namely, the Ellesmere order – does not adequately represent the relative incongruence between individual exemplars.

Arthur is right: even if we abandon the fragments, “we do, in any event, need some word or other for the various tale-groupings of the Tales project.” Patchwork? Collage? One thing I have discovered in the course of writing this post is that codicological categories do not adequately represent aesthetic ones. The problem of naming the nature of the Tales turns out to be also the problem of the vexed relationship between literary criticism and book history. Finding a term that will cover the codicological situation and that will also embody the aesthetic endeavor is a challenge.

Celebrate Fragments

How do we represent the state of the manuscripts of the Canterbury Tales? Arthur Bahr, Associate Professor in Literature at MIT, responds to Robert J. Meyer-Lee’s recent essay, “Abandon the Fragments.”[1]

Cornelia Parker Anti-Mass 2005 Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, de Young Museum.
© iglooo101. No changes made.

The title of this post is intended to evoke that of Robert Meyer-Lee’s recent essay “Abandon the Fragments.” Bobby’s position and my own are in fact closer than our apparently dueling titles would suggest, however, for he has convinced me that The Riverside Chaucer’s characterization of the Canterbury Tales as “surviv[ing] in ten fragments” (5, cited by Bobby on 48) misrepresents the codicological evidence. He also convinces me that, as originally conceived, this editorial characterization assumes without justification that Chaucer had a definite, implicitly singular plan for the shape of the Tales that he failed for some reason to enact. I do not, however, believe that the term “fragments” need be interpretively restrictive in this way. I will propose here that the word’s suggestion of physicality and incompleteness, both of which I regard as integral to the distinctiveness of the Tales as a literary project, makes “fragments” a useful term for critical practice, albeit one in need of considerable refinement along many of the lines that Bobby’s essay astutely suggests.

In calling “incompleteness” a salient feature of the Tales, I do not mean to endorse the belief that Chaucer not only “‘left’ the work ‘incomplete’ but also failed to execute a ‘final revision’ and hence in some way presumably intended such finality” (57, with inset quotation of the third edition of The Riverside Chaucer, 5). As Bobby demonstrates, this scenario implicitly regards the fragments as imperfect pieces of what was intended to be a seamlessly constructed edifice. In fact there are many other, more interesting, and (to me, Bobby, and others) more persuasive ways of reading both the Tales itself and how it came to assume the various manuscript forms it now has. Bobby argues, and I agree, that Chaucer appears to have “sought for the Tales a much more dynamic, unpredictable, open-ended structure” than that which the lexicon of fragments, as originally coined by editors, imagines (71). But words whose original uses may have been misguided or offensive can be affirmatively reclaimed (notes this queer reader). We could do something similar with the vocabulary of the fragments, and regard them not as so many half-empty glasses but rather as productive reminders of how little is securely knowable—and thus how much is productively interpretable—about the conceptual and material disposition of the Tales. So long as we remember that fragments need not add up to a single coherent whole (nor indeed ever have been intended to add up to such a whole), the word admirably conveys this sense of incompleteness not as loss but as interpretive invitation.

And we do, in any event, need some word or other for the various tale-groupings of the Tales project. One reason Bobby gives for preferring “blocks” to “fragments” for this purpose is that the former lacks the latter’s connotation of physicality (49; he calls “blocks” his “preferred term” at 51). I think that the suggestion of physicality is worth holding onto, however, not because it reflects the as-it-really-was of Chaucer production practice (Bobby nicely worries the widespread assumption that Chaucer’s own physical exemplars and today’s editorial fragments correspond), but because it recalls the Tales’ famous invitation that we “turne over the leef and chese another tale” than the Miller’s if we so desire (I.3177). As I and others have argued, this is a funny-but-serious (and seriously funny) joke, in that it uses the Tales’ very first inter-tale stitching to suggest that the entire project’s structure is subject to the reader’s imaginative intervention. I would contend (again, with others) that we should not lightly dismiss the fact that Chaucer figures this invitation as physical activity.

Nor is it clear to me that Bobby’s preferred term “blocks” in fact avoids the suggestion of physicality as he claims; I immediately thought of building blocks, for example, that can be assembled into a variety of structures. That even a critic who resists imputing physicality to Chaucer’s work has chosen a term that can in fact be so interpreted may further suggest how central physicality actually is to the Tales. One final point in favor of “fragments” over “blocks” is that it reinforces how many other Chaucerian texts appear to be fragmentary (Legend of Good Women, House of Fame, Anelida and Arcite), helping us to see both the Tales generally, and in particular incomplete and/or fragmentary tales like those of the Cook, Squire, and Sir Thopas, as part of this broader Chaucerian motif. (It also foregrounds the difficult and important question of intentionality that the “and/or” of my last sentence attempted none too subtly to finesse.)

I called this post “Celebrate Fragments” instead of “Celebrate the Fragments” by way of embracing the possibility of different, differently represented, and differently valenced fragments than those canonized by the Riverside, for I agree that, “even if one finds the idea of fragments desirable, its current application is rather sloppy. … As a kind of one-size-fits-all editorial labeling, it is too crude an instrument for its purposes” (76). This post is therefore intended as an enthusiastic taking-up of Bobby’s exhortation that we engage in a thorough and collective rethink of how we use the term fragments in reference to the Tales, as both codicological designation and literary-critical concept. I hope that the observations I have laid out here offer grounds for engaging more fully in that collective rethink—here, in the comments, and in the many other venues that the New Chaucer Society affords us—before abandoning the fragments altogether.

I would like to thank Bobby Meyer-Lee for graciously agreeing to be “responded to” in public.


Arthur Bahr holds the Alfred Henry and Jean Morrison Hayes Career Development Chair at MIT. His book, Fragments and Assemblages: Forming Compilations of Medieval London, has recently been published by University of Chicago Press (2013).

[1] Studies in the Age of Chaucer 35 (2013): 47-83.