Friday, January 02, 2015

Fake Medievalist

I'm teaching Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in spring semester, as I do about every other year.  I love teaching Chaucer's CT.  It's a blast. 


I'm not a real medievalist, and it's hard to feel like I'm caught up enough on CT or Middle English stuffs to do a good job.

Last year, when I put in to teach it, and also had a course release coming, the chair said that it might be better if I taught the other 3 credit course, a lower level GE, than the Chaucer course, an upper level, mostly majors, but also GE.  And I told her that if I didn't teach Chaucer, then I probably wouldn't put in to teach it again.  (Since I'm the only one who ever puts in to teach it, it would disappear from our curriculum totally.)  And she looked at me like I was nuts, which might be so, because I don't want to cut off my own nose to spite my face, so to speak, and asked why.  And I told her that it's hard to feel caught up enough if I teach it every other year, and less than that wouldn't be worth the time to try to get caught up.  And she gave me the look that an English Ed person who thinks they can teach everything in any literature because they've taught high school gives those of us who've specialized in lit, and asked what I meant.  And I said, well, I keep up in Shakespeare and early modern, and I try to keep reasonably up on critical theory, and about composition stuffs, and Chaucer added to that was a lot.  And she gave me a look like I'm an incompetent, and said maybe, and then it turned out that I got the Chaucer, so that made me happy.

Back to the fake medievalist problem.  Every time I prep CT (and at this point, I'd have a ton more work to do to prep Troilus and Criseyde, which I've never taught), I try to read a book or two, and a few critical essays to get a feel for things.  Yesterday, I finished Paul Strohm's Chaucer's Tale, which I found very readable and a pleasure, except for two small issues; more on those in a moment.

At several points within the text, Strohm mentions The Romance of the Rose, and then points out that Chaucer translated it but that the text is lost.  And my brain went, but it's in my Riverside!  How could it be lost.  It's right there.

Except, my Riverside isn't right here, it's being rebound!  (In buckram, which is a fun word to say!)

So then I checked Wikipedia, and it talked a bit about problems of the text, and that most scholars think that there are at least three poets represented in the Middle English translation, and while one of them may be Chaucer, the others probably aren't.  This isn't something new, either, but an old controversy, dating from the late 19th century, based primarily on linguistic sorts of evidence.

And once again, I was reminded that I'm very much a fake medievalist, because I don't remember ever reading anything about it.

To be fair, I've only ever taken one class where we read the Romaunt (that's the Middle English translation), an undergraduate course I took before I was even thinking about enrolling in a PhD program, where we read Chaucer's translation of Boethius, along with a modern translation, the Romaunt, and Troilus and Criseyde, too.  (It's the course I bought my Riverside for, even, so that's old!)  So maybe the professor talked about it, or maybe I was supposed to read the introduction, but I don't remember it coming up, nor would I likely have understood the import at that stage of my studies.  (Honestly, I had a hard time with Boethius!)  (And that's the only course I've ever read T&C for, too; no wonder I wouldn't feel confident teaching it.)

So, yes, I'm a fake medievalist.  What else should I read in the next several weeks to help me do a decent job with CT in spite of my only playing a medievalist on TV?

A bit about Strohm's book.  It's so readable and fun, and really gives a sense that I might understand medieval London a bit. 

I have two critiques, though.  The first is that I wanted Strohm to be just a bit more chronological, to remind me of dates just a tad more, so that I wouldn't have to flip back and try to remember that this happened in October 1386, and that other happened in July 1386.  It seemed like 1386 is a mess, and the way he told the story didn't clarify the mess for me as much as I might wish. 

The second is that the book pretty much stops at 1386.  I think that's because scholars really don't have any idea where Chaucer was after that for a good long while.  But I don't remember Strohm telling the reader how he knows that Chaucer was in Kent.  There might be reason for him to be in Kent, but how do we know?  So I wanted more of that.  And then I wanted more on the move to Westminster, and on what Thomas Chaucer, his son, was up to in those years.  And more on the leadup to Henry IV's takeover.

Coincidentally, one of the books on CD I picked up at the local library recently (and am listening to as bedtime listening) is William Rosen's Third Horseman: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Century.  (For someone who doesn't like spy thrillers or murder mysteries, the pickings are slim in the CD section.  I could get 20 books on CD about cat murders, or abc murders, but hardly any other fiction.  So I often listen to history and biography and such, which is interesting and good stuff!) 

So I've been up to my ears (see what I did there!) in the Edwards I and II, and a bit of III, and some Richard II.


  1. Heh, I decided about three years ago, on a whim, that I was going to write an ESSAY about Chaucer for an edited collection. The bloody thing has been through about eight rounds of revisions, most of which left me feeling like I'd been raked over the coals. I have never in my life felt like such an impostor. (It probably didn't help that all of my published early modern scholarship is about either Thomas Heywood or The Mirror for Magistrates, and it was all accepted with minimal revisions because, well, almost nobody else is writing about those works. Apparently when I decide to do the fake-medievalist thing, I tilt at the BIG windmills.)

    Recent Chaucer book rec (possibly more relevant to the particular essay-project I've been working on than your class, but I can see a lot of themes and ideas that might be really fun to play with in an undergrad class): Playing the Canterbury Tales by Andrew Higl.

    1. That sounds interesting, Fretful, thanks!

  2. Neither of these is really recent anymore, and for all I know I suggested them to you years ago (sorry, aging brain here), but I think they are both excellent: David Wallace's Chaucerian Polity, especially if you're interested in medieval London, and John Bowers's Chaucer and Langland: the Antagonistic Tradition. I also liked the 2010 essay collection Chaucer and Religion, ed. Helen Phillips. For facts involving Chaucer's life and whereabouts, Strohm relies on the Chaucer Life-Records, ed. Crow & Olson. There's a Q&A with him about Chaucer's Tale, here:

    Higl's grasp of ME grammar is sometimes shaky, so beware of close readings; but it's certainly useful to consider the ways in which later readers approached, built on, re-wrote, and otherwise interacted with Chaucer.

    If you ever feel like tackling the Troilus, I've taught it a lot and can recommend some approaches (long ago I published an article in SMART about teaching it, and some of those techniques are still applicable, though I now blush for my youthful naivete). It's crucial (I have found) to stress Troilus's youth; otherwise, students find him completely unsympathetic, but if they realize he's in his mid-teens, they cut him some slack. [There was a well-known legend/prophecy that if Troilus survived to 20, Troy would not fall. Since Troy did fall, Troilus must have died by the age of 19, and the rest you can fill in from the chronology of Chaucer's T&C.]

    1. Oh, I might take you up on that for Troilus! If I teach the Chaucer era course only every other year, it's hard to imagine doing it, though, to be honest.)

      And thanks for the link.

  3. I have the Strohm book from the library, but I'm only about a quarter of the way through it, and I'm having trouble keeping everyone straight. Maybe it's not just me!

    So here is a thought from the world of high school English. I still struggle with the problem of teaching texts in which I know I am nowhere near an expert, or even a competent, really. However: in high school English, we are always aware that almost none of our students will go on to try to achieve expertise of their own in these particular texts, so we get to focus on how we hope this particular text will contribute to their growth as readers, or writers, or questioners, or otherwise generally educated people. The expertise we bring, then, is less text-, author-, or period-based expertise (although we are always trying to improve on these fronts) than expertise in, for example, helping students understand how a text might both reflect and challenge the attitudes of its time, or another focus that might carry over to their studies more generally. It's my hope that if students do go on to the next level--if they do, for example, take a Chaucer course in college--that I won't have given them false or hopelessly out-of-touch ideas, but I also know that college Chaucer classes in the US can't assume any background at all. And I'm afraid there is a bit of what you experienced from your chair--that kind of "okay, good enough" attitude toward the actual specialization.

    So here you are, a level up, and while I understand the impulse to worry because you aren't a Chaucer expert like some of the people with whom you studied medieval lit, I would also ask: what do these students most need from you? Are they English ed majors who might end up teaching some Chaucer (or deciding whether to teach him, or needing to argue why he should (or shouldn't) be taught in high school)? For those who need more, what kind of more do they most need--philological, historical, prosodical? What I'm saying is that you are enough of an expert to give them what they need. That's, I think, the positive side of that "good enough" HS perspective. (Although I get that it's frustrating to hear that your chair doesn't quite get why you think more immersion would be better--I mean, duh.)

    1. Thanks, Meansomething, I appreciate the help. Yes, that's a good way to approach it!

      My own first experience with Chaucer was with someone who taught pretty out-dated stuff, so I may be wary because of that experience? On the other hand, he certainly taught me to love Chaucer :)

  4. I'm a fake medievalist, too, and a fake in all of the other eras as well, simply because I teach a survey class (450 C.E. to present day). I try to learn a little more each year, but it's not like we can specialize in everything.