On Paul Strohm’s Chaucer’s Tale


Paul Strohm’s new Chaucer’s Tale: 1386 and the Road to Canterbury is a great read. It proceeds by a series of chapters about Chaucer’s marriage, the lease of the apartment in the Aldgate, his work as a customs official in the wool trade, and the 1386 Wonderful Parliament, before moving to several shorter chapters that more explicitly consider literary work, on his shorter poems and his literary circle, the “Problem of Fame,” and Kent.

Unlike, for instance, Derek Pearsall, Strohm does not attempt a comprehensive account of Chaucer’s life, even during the decade this book covers. He focuses on the issues that coalesced in the moment of “crisis” that forced Chaucer’s move to Kent at the end of 1386. Other events that must have consumed much of his interest at the time—such as the Peasants’ revolt, or the accusation of raptus by Cecily Champain—are not at stake here. Nor does Strohm discuss Chaucer abroad, but only his domestic and economic life in London, which his narrative brings to a head in a re-telling of the Wonderful Parliament during the last months of 1386.

Continue reading . . .


On The Merchant of Venice, again

I’ve posted about this before, pondering how to react to the play’s anti-Semitism. I’ve just re-read it again this week, and enjoyed a week of classes discussing it with a class of smart students who’ve been asking some very good questions that have helped to sharpen this.

When I wrote that earlier post, I was on the fence. I could still watch the play and wonder. I have to admit, though, having revisited the play several times since, that its repulsiveness has only increased. The problem is not that it doesn’t contain moments of beauty, or well-constructed drama, or subtlety. It is one of the plays in Shakespeare that contains no characters to like, but that’s not the problem either–this is also largely true of, for instance, Coriolanus, one of my favorites in the canon. The reason for my revulsion, I think, is that Shakespeare doesn’t just depict anti-Semitism or its results: he asks me to collude with him in it.

Shylock is cruel: “Who can doubt,” Harold Bloom asks, “that he would have slaughtered Antonio if only he could?” The famous passage in 3.1 when Shylock argues for his fundamental humanity against Antonio’s prejudice—”and what is his reason?—I am a Jew. Hath not at Jew eyes? . . . If you prick us, do we not bleed?”—provides a glimpse of his pain that might lead to sympathy. But Shakespeare brackets this with his ugliness: Shylock’s speech starts and ends with his desire for nothing but revenge, to cause pain, to “bait fish” with flesh. “The humanizing of Shylock,” as Bloom says, “only increases his monstrosity.” Shylock is using empathy, not desiring it. The nuances of Shylock’s vengeful fury that play out in the courtroom after a lifetime of abuse and the grief of losing his daughter are much more subtle than the demonic, miracle-play caricatures after whom early modern Jews were modeled, but the arc of his character remains thoroughly demonic: early in the play he gains an Old Testament legal power over the Christian’s life that he loses when he rejects an explicitly New Testamentary plea for mercy. Shakespeare’s Shylock is a demon, this argues, not just in the eyes of the Christians, but in the arc of the plot, of the world, itself.

And what of the Christians? They are cruel to Shylock because they are solipsistic racists who manipulate sacred institutions and values to satisfy their desires for money and sex. Really, what else are they? Terry Eagleton showed long ago that Portia farcically overturns Venice’s laws to satisfy her husband’s love for his friend–and, I’d add, her attraction to her new husband. And what court in the world would allow an imposter as a judge? When Bassanio learns of this, the fact only seems to inflame his lust: “Sweet doctor, you shall be my bedfellow.” After the agony this farce has caused, is this comedy? Only if Shylock is not human, and therefore only if Shakespeare considered his brief fantasy of Jew-as-human in 3.1 to be a dramatic illusion.

What’s more, Act 5—with its flirtations in the lovely green world of Belmont, where “soft stillness and the night / Become the touches of sweet harmony”—pretty clearly shows that tragedy wasn’t where Shakespeare was going. I see that at the start of Act 5 Lorenzo and Jessica tease each other with allusions to tragic lovers, but that’s over quickly, and would be a thin thread upon which to hang an argument that Shakespeare intends the outcome of their elopement to be anything but good. They are flirting, and any prospective tragedy is exiled to their allusions. Jessica is as disobedient an early-modern daughter as Juliet, but unlike Capulet, Shylock can, apparently, lay no valid claim to fatherly respect.

Perhaps the only avenue we might use to appreciate the play’s hatred of self and other is to argue that hate breeds hate, and that the ugly crime of prejudice evacuates the world of all beauty. I’m not sure this works (if Shylock is a devil, any measures must be warranted, and still—what of the 5th act?), but even if does, it’s as bleak a sentiment as one might express, since accepting it evacuates the world of hope, and nothing like it appears in the rest of the canon, not even in Lear.

It’s not just that the play becomes, as my students say of bigots and bigoted remarks, “ignorant,” but that Shakespeare asks me to walk out of the theater happy for the lovers and a world set right after witnessing their agonizing cruelty. Who could do this today, unless seduced by the fiction of “timeless” Shakespeare?

World War I and shell shock

Here is another new HEL Timeline entry.

New words that appear, words that entered common parlance, and words that gained new meanings during this war include: air raid, antiaircraft gun, ack-ack, aerobatic (used to describe pilots), ace (as in a pilot), tank, blimp, sector, bridgehead, dogfight, enlistee, fighter (as in an airplane), strafe, gadget (which existed earlier in naval slang but came into more general use now), machine-gun, mustard gas, barrage, storm-troops, dud, slacker, trench foot, Potemkin village, Soviet, u-boat, press officer, cootie (a body louse), shell shock, draftee, ROTC, war bride, and, interestingly, post-modern.

A series of films made in 1917, and preserved by the Wellcome library, show a variety of manifestations of what they meant by shell shock. You can find them here on YouTube or here on the Wellcome Library’s site with a list of what the clips include (follow either of these links to avoid stills from related videos about horrific physical injuries). The films don’t depict vivid physical injuries, though some depict physical manifestations such as spasms and frozen limbs.

Many didn’t believe the condition was real, or ascribed it to cowardice. The injury speaks to the particular and new kind of brutality that men endured in trench warfare. Several suffer from uncontrollable spasms while walking “following spinal concussion after burial”; another patient suffers from amnesia except for an uncontrollable response to the word “bombs” (see at 2:00 above). Here’s a further discussion of the injury from the BBC’s British History site.

According to the OED, the word first appears in a British medical journal in 1915. It’s in quotation marks, which would seem to indicate that while it existed verbally, no appropriate medical term was available. The book Soldier and Sailor Words and Phrases, first published in 1925, preserves a lot of language that came out of the war; its entry on shell shock says that after the war the term “psycho-neurosis” was adopted by the medical community to define the condition. This is a good example of how different communities deploy different terms even if they define identical objects or concepts, because words only make sense when they are embedded within the semantic associations provided by a community’s web of existing discourse. Later terms for the injury include combat stress disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It undoubtedly afflicted soldiers from earlier wars; according to this PBS Frontline documentary about the term’s history, after the U.S. Civil war it was called “Soldier’s Heart.”

See: Baugh & Cable 300-01; Hughes, A History of English Words 376-82; Bryson, Made in America 296-297; Lerer ch. 18 (a chapter devoted to language and war, though mostly from WW2 and after); Cable, “British History Timeline,” and this page off of it.

scriptio continua

Here is another new HEL Timeline entry for teaching this Spring. I’ll include brief discussions of the history of writing throughout the course, and this will be one of the first. I’ve put this on the year 500, about the time of the inscription on the Coliseum.

The earliest examples of western writing don’t contain breaks between words.

Imaginereadingtextthatislikethisforawholepage orevenfortheentirelengthofabookliketheBibleortheIliad itwouldgetconfusingespeciallybecauseneitherauthorsnoscribesaddedpunctuation modernscholarscallthispracticescriptiocontinuawhichmeanscontinuouswriting

Dedication to Decius Marius Venantius

The image, a dedication in the Roman Coliseum, was written in the late 5th century. Not only aren’t words separated, but upper case and lower case are not distinguished, and there is no punctuation. The transcription below shows that words are also broken up across lines. You can see more of this in the mid-fourth-century manuscript of the Bible in Greek called the Codex Siniaticus. This is called scriptio continua (or scriptura continua), “continuous writing.”

Sometimes scribes would place dots between every word, but not regularly. Sometimes scribes would leave spaces of a greater or lesser length between “sentences”–that is, units of thought–though again, not always. This is what Jerome did, though, in his translation of the Bible (see earlier on the Timeline)–and why we have “verses” in the Bible today. As Mary Carruthers has shown (see the references below), breaks were also created to aid in memory: each unit is short enough to contain an easily memorizable amount of data that could be cued to a book with chapter and verse numbers for memorial recall.

Dedication to Decius Marius Venantius - transcription

Why, in any event, would anyone write this way? The reason is because there was little perceived difference between written and spoken language. Text–somewhat like modern musical notation–existed as a promptbook for oral performance. It was perceived to be transparent, just a cue for speech. Abbreviations were also therefore used heavily, as this transcription shows, and this continues even through the early stages of print (see the transcriptions of the early Bible translations later on the Timeline for examples). Language was written to be read aloud–even when alone–and speech is actually a pretty continuous stream of sound. The concept of word separation is driven deeply into linguistic perception in a textual culture, but this is a learned perception, not a natural given. Young children, as parents know, must learn to differentiate among sounds, and then to connect these sounds to individual letters and words; see the discussion starting here in Edward Finegan’s introductory linguistics text for more about all of this. It takes more time for larger syntactic distinctions to be made, and this difficult work continues through adulthood, as teachers who work to re-punctuate “sentence boundary errors”–run-ons and fragments–know. This is the hard work of training a literate mind.

When punctuation does appear, there is little evidence that it originated with the author. It could have been scribal, but punctuation seems to be most often entered by readers preparing a text to be read. To inflect a sentence as, for instance, interrogative, or declarative, or a quotation, readers had to attend closely to grammar and meter. A text would be prepared by practicing to enunciate its parts to accurately reflect meaning, as an actor does, and readers used marks as cues to help. Over time, these marks become conventional, and standards of punctuation develop.

Scriptio continua starts to wane–that is, scribes and writers, and not just readers, start to add spacing, punctuation, capitalization, and so on–when text comes to be perceived graphically rather than orally. That is, they start to perceive that word on the page has a life of its own, separate from the spoken word, and that it can create meaning in unique ways distinct from spoken language. Think, at the other extreme, of how writers such as e.e. cummings (as in this poem, or this one) exploit punctuation, spacing, and capitalization to create meaning in ways not perceptible in speech. This perception develops slowly, starting in Europe in about the 6th century. Adding these textual features at composition or copying becomes fairly common within two or three centuries, but isn’t consistent until about the 12th.

See: Bernhard Bischoff, Latin Palaeography, trans. Dáibhí Ó Cróinín & David Ganz (Cambridge UP, 1990) esp. 169-73; Malcolm Parkes, Pause and Effect (Berkeley: U of California P, 1993) esp. 9-19; Mary Carruthers, The Book of Memory, 2nd ed. (Cambridge UP, 1990) 99-106; Crystal, CEL 95-96, 214-15.

Robert of Gloucester’s Metrical Chronicle and the French of England

Here is another new HEL Timeline entry for teaching this Spring. Let me know what you think!

Written by a few different writers, this was finished around 1300, or perhaps a bit after. It’s a history written in verse. The text keeps some aspects of Old English metrical rhythm but not others: each verse is in two half lines, but the verses are not in four beats, and they do not consistently alliterate. The text uses both thorn (þ) for “th” and yogh (ȝ) for “g,” as ME would through the fifteenth century.

Linguistically, its dialect tells us that it comes from Gloucestershire (in the west of England on the Severn, just at the foot of Wales). One dialectal characteristic is that it uses southern “h” forms (“hor” for PDE “their,: “hii” for PDE “they,” etc.) for plural pronouns, as opposed to the “th” form common to the old Danelaw regions that would spread to become more common in Later Middle English. Another southern form here that would disappear is the “o” in “nome” and in “lond” and “engelond”: these would become “name” and “land.” Even more local is the form “ido” for PDE “done”: there is no final -n. PDE “f” here is voiced and spelled “v” (as in “vor,” “vaire”).

The section about William the Conqueror comments on the language of the ruling class of England:

Willam þis noble duc • þo he adde ido al þis
Þen wey he nom to londone • he & alle his
As king & prince of londe • wiþ nobleye ynou
Aȝen him wiþ uair procession • þat folc of toune drou
& vnderueng him vaire inou • as king of þis lond
Þus com lo engelond • in to normandies hond
& þe normans ne couþe speke þo • bote hor owe speche
& speke french as hii dude atom • & hor children dude also teche
So þat heiemen of þis lond • þat of hor blod come
Holdeþ alle þulke speche • þat hii of hom nome
Vor bote a man conne frenss • me telþ of him lute
Ac lowe men holdeþ to engliss • & to hor owe speche ȝute
Ich wene þer ne beþ in al þe world • contreyes none
Þat ne holdeþ to hor owe speche • bote engelond one
Ac wel me wot uor to conne • boþe wel it is
Vor þe more þat a mon can • be more wurþe he is
Þis noble duc willam • him let crouny king
At londone amidwinter day • nobliche þoru alle þing
Of þe erchebissop of euerwik . . . . (7532-7550)

The chronicler says that “Vor bote a man conne frenss • me telþ of him lute”: “For unless a man knows French, people speak little of him.” After the Conquest, French became the language of the aristocracy and the clerical elites. The writer seems to be upset–or at least thinks it odd–that the “English” don’t speak their own language, “Þat ne holdeþ to hor owe speche,” though “þe more þat a mon can,” the more that a man knows, the better. French, the monk implies, is learned, a self-conscious, deliberately gained knowledge–not a first language. As Barber, Beal, & Shaw note, “There are signs that English became the day-to-day language of even aristocrats within a generation or two; the literary and courtly French employed in England (known as Anglo-Norman) was probably essentially a second language within a few generations” (145).

This moment around 1300 was the high point for the French of England. How would the language wane? Crystal notes “conscious change in American and British English is usually in the direct of those linguistic forms which are widely and openly recognized as prestigious. . . . This kind of change is often initiated by people from the lower middle class or upper working class–especially women. . . . By contrast, subconscious change is usually in the opposite direction, away from overt prestige. It is often initiated by working-class men” (CEL 343). A similar dynamic seems to be at work during the century around 1300: while social and literary customs consciously preserved and taught the French of England, they would be whittled away by the traumas of the coming half-century–the famine, the weak rule of Edward II, the Hundred Years War, and especially the Black Death–that allowed the language of the lower classes, the men and women who tilled, milled, smithed, and worked wood–to gain in linguistic and political authority.

See: Cambridge History to English and American Literature 1.16, §1; Barber, Beal, & Shaw 145-46 (with a translation of this passage); Bennett & Smithers text XI. On the power of French on English see Barber, Beal, & Shaw 150-60; Crystal, CEEL 30,41, 46-7; Millward & Hayes 145-47, 192-97; and later in the timeline under Trevisa.

On the Chancery Standard

And here is a second new entry for the HEL Timeline. Both of these have been exercises in wandering down some new byways: if you have any comments, please append them!

The Chancery (the office of the chancellor) had existed for at least a century and a half before this, but in 1377 a house was officially deeded to the Keeper of the Rolls to house the rolls and the business of keeping these official records. It stayed there until the PRO was built on the site between 1845 and 1895. The “Chancery English” that the office used–though it was variable–can be used as a bellwether for the later medieval development of English. What was the Chancery, and what does its use of English show us?

As deadening as it can be to read, the language of bureaucracy is the language of state (and, today, corporate) power. The growth of the Chancery signifies how English rises from being the third-rate language of the hoi-polloi to attain this status. As Fisher explains, “until the end of the fifteenth century, Chancery comprises virtually all of the national bureaucracy in England except the closely allied Exchequer [that managed the treasury]” (39). Its language came to define the parameters of royal power, including all judiciary functions and those later defined by various offices that answered to the King:

As custodian of the Great Seal, it was the central agency for the administration both of justice and of national affairs. . . . A mass of written petitions to the King and Council for letters of remedy and grants of land and money passed through the Chancery annually [along with] the ensealed writs and charters issued in response to these petitions. . . . The clerks . . . issued the summonses that brought parliaments together and the writs of expenses that sent knights and burgesses home with proof of their claims for wages. Chancery clerks both wrote and received petitions to Parliament and classified and presented them to the magnates who were the “triers” of petitions. They kept the rolls which recorded the proceedings of Parliament and drafted and enrolled the statutes that emerged from these proceedings. Chancery was likewise responsible for the administration of customs, taxes, and subsidies (since these derived from Parliament). All of the most important administrative officials looked to the Chancellor for their commissions of appointment and for authorizations for the most important actions. (42)

In 1400, there were about 120 clerks who worked in the Chancery (43). Documents issued by the Office of the Privy Seal were also copied by the Chancery–which is interesting because that is where Thomas Hoccleve, literary disciple of Chaucer, worked from 1387 until 1425. Hoccleve, after he retired, wrote a Formulary, a book of templates that clerks might use to construct documents.

Since it assumes such importance, its worth noting when and where English appears in it, and the Rolls of Parliament (the Rotuli Parliamentorum), scribed by the Chancery, “may be taken as a yardstick against which to measure the evolution of Chancery Standard” (46). They tell us that Parliament was first addressed in English in 1362, and that it was opened in English in 1363, 1364, and 1381. The first entry written in English was in 1388 for a petition by the Mercer’s Guild; after that, English entries appear in 1397, 1399, 1403, 1404, 1405, 1411, 1414 (twice), and 1421 (twice). After 1422, the accession of Henry VI, English entries become more frequent, and are the rule by 1450 (45-46).

A 2002 essay by Michael Benskin indicates problems with Fisher’s argument, showing that Chancery English in fact varied quite a bit, and that the line between Chancery English and PDE is not as clear as Fisher depicts; the models that fifteenth-century writers looked to did vary (there were regional models, for instance). But it remains true that the Chancery’s use of English provides a measure of the later medieval move away from French and Latin, and the corresponding recognition of the textual (and oral) ability of English to articulate and sustain the mechanisms of power.

See: Fisher, ch. 2, “A Language Policy for England”; Knowles 53-54; Crystal, CEEL 41, 54; Lerer, Inventing English ch. 8; Marilyn Corrie, “Middle English-Dialects and Diversity,” esp. 111-114, in Mugglestone (who cites Benskin’s essay). For copies of the texts, see John Fisher, Malcolm Richardson, and Jane L. Fisher, An Anthology of Chancery English (Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1984), though its introduction is superseded by his chapter cited above. On Hoccleve, see Fisher 33-34, and Ethan Knapp, The Bureaucratic Muse (University Park: Penn State UP, 2001), esp. 29-36 on the Formulary.

Wilson’s Arte of Rhetorique

I will be teaching the History of the English Language this spring (o frabjous day!), and have been updating the timelines (one for Indo-European and archaic languages, a second for English) that I’ve written to use in the classroom. Here, and in the next post, are two new entries.

Thomas Wilson’s 1553 text has become a classic argument against the 16th-century trend of amplifying the English lexicon with Englished versions of Latin and Greek words–so called “inkhorn terms.” The relevant section of his book begins here. As with the slightly later trend to regularize English spelling (see the entries under Mulcaster and Bullokar), the key reason for this is anxiety about the influence of the ancient, elite models of Greek and Latin. Writers wanted to transform English–now, after the reformation, the official language of the state and church–into a language worthy enough to rival the literacy that they represented.

Scholars who argued for borrowing (including Thomas Elyot and George Pettie) and those who argued against it (also including John Cheke) all desired to elevate the literary status of English. The differences lie in method. Those who argued for borrowing saw Latin and Greek as models that might help English to advance. Those against inkhorn terms argued that “our tung should be written clene and pure, vnmixt and vnmangeled with borowing of other tunges,” as Cheke said (qtd. on Crystal 61). One side venerated the classics; the other the “purity” of their own vernacular. Both arguments beg for modern analyses of their respective educational ideologies.

Shakespeare used many inkhorn terms unselfconsciously, including many that don’t survive: note “exsufflicate” (Othello 3.3.186), or two words in the line this my hand will rather / the multitudinous seas incarnadine (Macbeth 2.2.59-60). He also mocked pretension in characters such as Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing who try and fail to speak in elevated terms: “Marry, sir, I would have some confidence [conference] with you that decerns [concerns] you nearly” (3.5.2-3); “Comparisons are odorous” (3.5.14); “Is our whole dissembly appeared?” (4.2.1). Other examples of this mockery include his Holofernes in Love’s Labours Lost, Ben Jonson’s character Crispinus in his 1601 Poetaster (in 5.3, he vomits up a number of words into a basin), and the famous Mrs. Malaprop in Sheridan’s 1775 play The Rivals.

While many of these coinages are easy to laugh at (splendidious? adnichilate? temulent?–look up that one), many of these terms survive, indicating that they filled some kind of lexical void. Crystal gives good list on CEEL 60 that includes adapt, immaturity, and transcribe, all from Latin roots. The word vernacular itself, that first appears around 1600, is an inkhorn term. Taken from the Latin verna, meaning a “home-born” (as opposed to an imported) slave, its first use refers to the dialect of a specific place. A contemporary word that did not survive is vernile, similar to servile, that did endure. The word crystallizes well the elitism of trans-European Latin learning as opposed to local mother tongues.

On inkhorn terms and borrowing in general, as well as Wilson, see: Bailey 59, 271-74; Barber, Beal, & Shaw 187-90; Baugh & Cable 214-22 (including long selections from texts); Paula Blank, “The Babel of Renaissance English,” esp. 222-30, in Mugglestone; Millward & Hayes 225-27; Crystal, CEEL 60-61 (with brief quotations); Dieter Katovsky, “Vocabulary,” esp. 256-65, in Hogg & Denison; Lerer ch. 10; Susan Doran and Jonathan Woolfson, “Wilson, Thomas (1523/4–1581),” DNB.

For a full edition of the key part of Wilson’s text–including his full quotation from an exemplarily exsufflicate letter–see David Burnley, A History of the English Language: A Sourcebook, 2nd ed. (London: Pearson Longman, 2000): 216-21 (text 25). Text 31 (252-59) presents an edition of Love’s Labours Lost 5.1, featuring Holofernes.