On Paul Strohm’s Chaucer’s Tale

1386Paul 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.

Here I want to talk about two points. First, Strohm brings to Chaucer’s London to life politically, socially, geographically, and materially that help medievalists, and their students, to understand the London in which Chaucer lived. Second, the book does not offer just description, but an argument about this moment in Chaucer’s life.

The book is not about Canterbury, nor about the Canterbury Tales (or, it is only briefly, in Chapter 7, on “Kent and Canterbury,” the shortest of the book’s chapters). Instead, the book’s great strength appears in the earlier chapters about London. These chapters are thick with details, about London street life, the cycles of local religious practice, social connections to Hainault, Philippa’s social class and role, how the crown obtained loans, the duties of the sergeants-at-arms in the first floor of the Aldgate tower, Chaucer’s position relative to the rest of the Kent delegation in Parliament, and how (some things don’t seem to change) members of Parliament voted themselves their pay.

His discussion of Chaucer’s wife Philippa and her relations is the most lucid and convincing discussion of their marriage and apparent estrangement I’ve ever read. Strohm describes the local culture in and around the Aldgate to the point that one can (unfortunately) smell it. His chapter on “The Wool Men” describes the politics and practicalities of the crucial wool trade: “the English crown was utterly dependent upon the wool trade as its most significant source of bullion,” and men were made and broken working in it (106). He describes how Nicholas Brembre and others enriched themselves off of wool, and how the “bribery culture” of the customs officials physically worked. (This may have involved Chaucer; Strohm published a more argumentative version of this point in the Huffington Post.) The narrative description of the October 1386 Parliament and the concurrent rise of the “anti-Brembre” coalition that propelled him into Kent provide the crescendo of his argument for the “crisis” that Chaucer at this point found himself a victim of.

And this indicates my second point: for Strohm, from the start, Chaucer’s “1386 crisis” is the key; at the end of this year Chaucer found himself “without a patron, without a faction, without a dwelling, without a job, and—perhaps most seriously—without a city” (6, 5). That this moment was a crisis, and that he was “without” any of these, is the book’s key argument. Neither Donald Howard’s nor Derek Pearsall’s biographies of Chaucer contend that 1386 provided a “crisis.” Howard’s 1987 biography comes close when he names the latter half of the 1380s (not just this year) as “the worst of times” and “the darkest period of his life” (401). Pearsall, however, at one point outright avers that Chaucer’s life was not thrown into a sudden crisis by the events of 1386, saying that “there is no evidence that there was any witch-hunt of customs officials in the aftermath of the October Parliament” (205).

Concerning some of Strohm’s “withouts,” Pearsall cites the fact that his appointment “as a member of the commission of the peace for Kent” was first made on 12 Oct. 1385, and that it was renewed through 1389 (205). Not only was he with a job, but the appointment was, Pearsall argues, “a definite advance up the social and political ladder” and not, as Strohm argues, a demotion resulting from his Ricardian sympathies. And Pearsall’s discussion of Chaucer’s audience—he mentions, for instance, that Simon Burley, “one of the most influential men around Richard II” (206), also served on the commissions—implies that Chaucer’s audience and connections to London did not change all that much.

The issue of the Aldgate lease captures the difference here between Strohm and Pearsall. After Chaucer had lived in the apartment for twelve years, it was leased to Richard Forster on 5 October 1386. Pearsall argues that Chaucer was probably already living in Kent by October since many of the witnesses were from Kent when Chaucer appeared to give manprize for the appearance of Simon Manning in November at the Court of Common Pleas (204). Strohm, however, argues that it would have been a shock, pointing to an event on just the previous day, 4 October, when the mayor and aldermen of London agreed “that no future grants would be made of dwellings over the gates of the city.” He continues: “In short, Chaucer appears to have been the sole object of the initiative. The whole situation would be comprehensible if a change of city administration had brought about a new political party” (179).

Now, Pearsall is almost always a very circumspect scholar. It must be noted that he hedges his “it’s not a crisis” argument at a slightly later point, arguing that “It is clear that the years 1386-89 saw a radical change in Chaucer’s life, a change that accelerated as the political crisis deepened and as Chaucer realized what the situation might require” (208-09), spreading what Strohm sees as a critical moment over a number of years, as Howard did. And (I don’t think I missed it) Pearsall never even refers to the 4 October agreement.

That is, I’m not necessarily arguing for Pearsall over Strohm here. Which scenario presents the historically “correct” version is not entirely recoverable—we are not trying to read historical events here as much as Chaucer’s reactions to them—and to an extent, I’d argue that the difference comes down to differing writing styles. Pearsall’s careful prose, in which he proposes, and hedges the proposals with alternatives, only constructs claims as necessary. But lives can have crises, and (absent a diary in which Chaucer mulls over his anxieties, which we obviously lack) this style can make it difficult to claim one, since it shies away from using any more connective tissue than absolutely necessary among available data. (This, as an aside, seems be the anxiety about autobiography that Ardis Butterfield articulated during the NCS panel on “Writing Biography” this past summer in Reykjavik; she also is writing a biography of Chaucer.) This is not at all to say that Strohm’s style is not also careful: he is, rather, interested in the world in which these facts existed as much as to explain them, and his book is rewarding in great part because it provides much in the way of contemporary, local social and political history to thicken the tissues that support his argument. Which is to say, I may even assign some of it to my students.



Well, I haven’t posted here for the last couple of weeks: it will be a spotty summer–I leave in early July for vacation and then Siena. But, I’ve finished posts elsewhere. Several new posts on the Lollard Society page are the surface of many corrections and updates to the bibliographies. This is very satisfying. Bibliography is a great indulgence–not so sinful, but it allows you to obsess after a goal which you could potentially complete. It’s a bit like what I imagine collecting would be like (I don’t hanker after anything else but books, references to them, and how to use them). It’s helpful, for my knowledge and others’. I learn about subjects I would not otherwise know of. It’s also frustrating–not as creative as I’d like it to be: it enables me and others to generate knowledge, but it’s not itself new knowledge, writing, thought.

Blogging (so far, anyway) seems to be partway between writing new content and bibliography: I can make thoughts concrete, wrap words around the inchoate that are then owned, publicly. The best blogs I’ve read (some in the right column) present ideas that are full, but not finished. To say that a good blog wants interaction might be part of it, but a blog doesn’t insist on interaction like Facebook does. The readiness is all.

And so here, then, is a great new page to indulge in someone else’s bibliographical work.

On the Pilgrims

Having heard so much about the pilgrims, as virtually all American children did and do, they are a pretty overdetermined category for me. I have a hard time separating their myth from their history, even still. And I never really made the connection between their religious culture and that which committed the Salem Witch trials until much later in my life, and I didn’t understand anything of King Philip’s War until even later than that.

Making Haste from Babylon and another book called Mayflower, however, might make a difference. The advantage to the former, it seems, is that it discusses their place within English culture at the time, before they left home; this aspect of their history has never been made clear to me. Were they a little band of nobodies, or did their leaving actually have some political importance? More, it might seem, the latter–though I haven’t read the books yet to know! Does anyone have any more suggestions?

Harold Bloom on Shylock

Among a series of articles on “the Jewish Question” in the NYTimes Sunday Book Review for this week, this review by Harold Bloom of Anthony Julius’ Trials of the Diaspora reaches back to medieval and early modern europe. Along the way, Bloom makes this point about The Merchant of Venice:

a ‘perplexed unhappiness’ is the sensitive response of Julius, but I would urge him to go further. Shakespeare, still competing with the ghost of Christopher Marlowe, implicitly contrasts Shylock with Barabas, the Jew of Malta in Marlowe’s tragic farce. I enjoy telling my students: let us contaminate the two plays with one another. Imagine Shylock declaiming: ‘Sometimes I go about and poison wells’ while Barabas intones: ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?’ It is Shakespeare’s continuing triumph over Marlowe that such an exchange will not work. Shylock is darker and deeper forever.
For Julius, The Merchant of Venice is both an anti-Semitic play and a representation of anti-Semitism. I dispute the latter: the humanizing of Shylock only increases his monstrosity. Who can doubt that he would have slaughtered Antonio if only he could?

This is interesting: the play is anti-Semitic, but one always wonders whether this moment on the street, just after finding out that his daughter Jessica has eloped with a Christian, lets us comprehend his murderous rage. I’ve always thought that this moment dovetails with a reading by (if I remember correctly?) Terry Eagleton, who wonders whether, at the point in the trial when Portia halts the impending extraction of the pound of flesh–“Tarry a little . . .”—Shylock should dart a knowing challenge at the audience that says “See? Christians will always find a way to persecute a Jew.” Shylock does want to murder, but his evil is at least matched by the Christians’.

Yet if I read Bloom’s point here correctly, his point here is that the moment signifies just the opposite. My reading becomes too sympathetic: Shylock remains more cunningly evil than Barabas–he would never be so blunt as to poison wells. He wants to tempt the Christian’s souls to evil by generating sympathy for his anger. His righteous fury becomes a rhetorical ploy: if “the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose,” Shylock parodies Christian concern only as a ploy to justify his impending suit against Antonio. This is more than an Invention of the Human–it is evil that is underworldly.

I’m doubtful, however: what, for instance, of Shylock’s asides during the trial, about his daughter, back to whom his mind always seems to revolve? Is Shylock using his daughter “to play upon” the audience, as Hamlet would say, as he was playing upon Salerio and Solanio on the street? Am I being too generous of Shakespeare, or is there no possibility of reading a Jew as anything other than a figure for the devil in Europe before the Holocaust (or, as Bloom points out, at times after as well)?

A similar question appears in the next review in this section, of Emanuel Faye’s Heidegger: The Introduction of Nazism Into Philosophy. Faye apparently argues that Heidegger is so thoroughly polluted by his Nazism that his books should simply be avoided. Yet, “if this judgment were to become generally accepted, it would have serious consequences for the reputation of Hannah Arendt, whose name is so intimately linked with Heidegger’s.” And do we read Shakespeare as Faye implies we should Arendt? The Nazi delusion, culminating in the apex of a millennium of anti-semitic pogroms, was made possible by thoroughly imagining Jews as anything but human, as all that opposes what western culture has imagined as Human since Christ if not Socrates. This is true. Is a corollary of this that anti-Semitism a hermeneutic maelstrom which no European non-Jewish writer can escape?

I have an argumentative, but very honest, question: was Shakespeare’s imagination similarly so utterly deluded? Was his only feat to body forth the repulsive ingenuity of demonic evil, rather than to envision it as something astonishingly, horrifyingly, the product this world, in which we learn that the last act’s dreams of sweet moonlight and music, and the happiness of Portia, Bassanio, and Antonio, are only made possible by Portia’s ruin of Shylock–for how else but by such an awful (and, surely, illegal) authentication of her disguise could she have recovered her ring? Bloom makes an excellent argument that yes, bardolatry does delude us, and it took the Holocaust to tell us so.

An on-line mappa mundi

The BBC website has a lot of resources buried in it. Here’s a neat one–a project on the beauty of maps with a very zoomable image of the mappa mundi from fol. 9 of the Map Psalter. This’ll be great for teaching. Here’s the page on the manuscript (Add. 28681) from the BL.

I’m listing some good web resources for teaching the middle ages under the “Nicely Done” category on the right–please add a comment if you know of any.

The 7th MLA Handbook is out

Yay! I just got mine in the mail.

What’s great: media designation in every citation: “Print” or “Web” or “Radio” or whatever. No more required http:// etc. addresses. A great section on how to cite web publications, including Google Books. Lots of examples from online databases.

What’s even better: when you get a copy you get free access to mlahandbook.org. This is new. Log on, see the entire handbook, and more.

Questions: I see that “many writers, influenced by the look of typeset publications, now leave only one space after a concluding punctuation mark” (3.2.12), but student papers don’t look like typeset publications: two spaces really can help legibility. This doesn’t drop to error, but it would rise to a help.

But, meh. My issues here actually pertain to how most of us deploy the guide, in Microsoft Word. First, note that Times New Roman 12pt is the MLA’s suggested font (see 4.2). This is the standard font for business documents and for all government documents (since February of 2004) from memos to legal briefs to congressional bills.

Now, the Handbook‘s examples are all in what seems to be in some kind of sans serif font, I suppose because it is easy to distinguish from the text font. This is a bit confusing, but I can understand the reason for making a distinction.

The real problem here is in Microsoft Word, however, since Microsoft’s new default is now is Calibri. This difference is frustrating. Yes, yes, TNR can be set as a default style option. But university computers purge user-set defaults every time a user logs out. While students can learn how to adjust such things–every single time–why lay traps? You know, it’s not just MLA style here, Microsoft: Chicago 15 says, for typescripts, “Avoid sans serif fonts, since these do not clearly distinguish between 1, l, and I.” (See why?) I can understand that sans serif fonts are more legible on screens. Fine. But Word is primarily a means to create print documents. So, why create a problem where one didn’t exist?

Or, back to the MLA Handbook, note this: “set your word processor to double-space the entire research paper, including quotations, notes, and the list of works cited” (4.2). I really wish the ubiquitous Microsoft Word would listen to this. This is what format > paragraphs needs to look like to work:

See that little box? By default it’s unchecked, so it has to be checked to conform to MLA Style. “Spacing > After” needs to be “0 pt.”

No, I’m not going to compromise on a well-thought out style to conform to what very much seems to be a ploy to trademark a corporate style, especially when it ignores paper length by adding in gratuitous spaces and it conflicts with clear standards of print legibility and all standard style manuals. (At least, now, the default is back to 1″ margins). Again, it’s not just MLA that asks for this. I quote from Chicago 15: “Paper Manuscripts, or typescripts. . . . All copy must be vertically double-spaced” (2.6).

Why don’t you work with us here, Microsoft? Do you want to make us angry at you? Your arbitrary corporate mandate–against well-considered practices that dominate in schools, universities, government, and publishing–means that thousands of teachers and hundreds of thousands of students have to fight one more little irritation every single day. Thanks for that. You were criticized years ago for being difficult, and then again not so many years ago. Why is this so hard?