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.


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.

Exhibition and Museum Sites

I’ve been collecting sites for teaching, and one developing genre includes websites for museum and library exhibitions. Many museums do a great job of publicizing collections and current exhibitions: some who have decent collections in medieval studies include the Walters in Baltimore, the Art Institute in Chicago, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Met (not that I get to see them as much as I’d like to!). While they have great galleries, though, most of their exhibition home pages are just on-line posters. Now, however, some are developing sites to be fully-fledged complements to a visit (or, a substitution, if you didn’t get to see it).

video about printing the KJV
This links to a video about printing the KJV.
An exhibition commemorating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, co-sponsored by the Folger, the Bodleian, and the Harry Ransom Center, has generated this wonderful site: Manifold Greatness. For academics, it’ll be a great teaching tool. There are short films about everything from its history to bookmaking (including class projects that could be adapted to university classrooms), timelines of the history of the Bible before and after the KJV, and a great set of references to later authors who’ve used it.

This winter there will be a new exhibition at the British Library entitled “Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination.” Here is a preliminary page about it, and here is a discussion on Medievalists.net. I have high hopes for the site (since I won’t be able to get over there to see it!). Here is coverage from The Guardian. A site as relatively large as Manifold Greatness might not be likely, but the BL has developed a lot of really great information for teaching and even for scholarship on its site: its English Language and Literature timeline, for instance, is dense with images and links to information elsewhere on its site; it’s one among several projects the BL has on line.

A third, perhaps unlikely, place to go is the BBC, whose history pages contain fairly deep sets of links, often connected to shows that will have video. Complementing the BL’s timeline, the BBC has a nice British History timeline that becomes a great way to access other information on the site through links on the entries.

John 1:1
John 1:1, from the Corbie Gospels
Exhibitions at the Met can be very generous in posting on-line images and discussion: here, for instance, is the home page for its exhibit Pen and Parchment: Drawing in the MIddle Ages, from a few years ago; it includes a large set of exhibition images.

Aside from museums, Special Collections departments at libraries have some wonderful sites as well: here is an exhibit from the University of Chicago library on “Book Use, Book Theory: 1500-1700,” for instance, which provides a more focused companion to some of the discussion on Manifold Greatness, as well as this recent New York Times article.

If you know of other on-line exhibitions I might have missed, please note them in comments! Remember when professors used to have to cart around sets of slides and film strips?

Touched by an Idol

[This is a longer post, more of a mini-essay. I’m interested in how medieval and early modern beliefs endure in, for instance, modern moral dramas like so-called “reality TV.”  I’d be interested to know how anyone might (dis)agree.]

In 1554, Sir Thomas Wyatt led an armed revolt against Henry VIII, and on 11 April was beheaded and then dismembered. This was only one creative way that early modern executions happened.  Heretics (and especially in the early modern period, witches) could be burnt, drowned, or pressed with stones.  Thieves were hung, which was not a quick death, since hangmen had not yet invented the “drop.”

Punishment was not the only way that Tudor (or medieval) monarchs exhibited power, though: pardon was just as important. According to Kesselring,

pardons permeated Tudor political culture. In 1485, Henry VII began his reign by offering his forgiveness to all those “disloyal subjects” who had fought for Richard III at Bosworth; in 1603, at the end of the Tudor period, James VI of Scotland freed felons from the prisons he passed on the journey to claim his new crown.1

“The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away,” said Job. In its perfect form, this power is inscrutable, speaking from the whirlwind. Favor is random, as in the chance passing of a monarch during a procession, when one might receive a touch, or a coin.  The power to pardon defined royal power as the converse of punishment. And so did generosity; when a noble was promoted, or during holiday celebrations, the monarch dispensed largess. These powers need a credible hierarchy to be legitimate. Their origin is the King–not just a mortal, but also blessed with the power to rule by divinity.

I’ve been trying to put my finger on what bothers me about a couple of popular “reality TV” shows (what an oxymoronic phrase), and I think that it’s because they envision a world governed by just this Tudor use of the pardon or gift.  Undercover Boss, for instance, provides a very moral vision of a rather creepy, and top-down, universe: the gimmick is that the boss of a successful mid-sized or large company goes undercover for a week, posing as a kind of day laborer to work at–and, basically, spy on–various low-level jobs in his company: packing boxes at a shipping company, working on a garbage truck at a garbage and recycling firm, mucking out bathroom stalls, and so on.

Continue reading “Touched by an Idol”

Happy New Year

Wyle Nw Ȝer watz so ȝep þat hit watz nwe cummen,
Þat day doubble on þe dece watz þe douth serued.
Fro þe kyng watz cummen with knyȝtes into þe halle,
Þe chauntré of þe chapel cheued to an ende,
Loude crye watz þer kest of clerkez and oþer,
Nowel nayted onewe, neuened ful ofte;
And syþen riche forth runnen to reche hondeselle,
Ȝeȝed ȝeres-ȝiftes on hiȝ, ȝelde him bi hond,
Debated busyly about þo ȝiftes;
Ladies laȝed ful loude, þoȝ þay lost haden,
And he þat wan watz not wrothe, þat may ȝe wel trawe.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
          Þerfore of face so fere
          He stiȝtlez stif in stalle,
          Ful ȝep in þat Nw Ȝere
          Much mirth he mas withalle.

That is to say,

While the New Year was new, but yesternight come,
This fair folk at feast two-fold was served,
When the king and his company were come in together,
The chanting in chapel achieved and ended.
Clerics and all the court acclaimed the glad season,
Cried Noel anew, good news to men;
Then gallants gather gaily, hand-gifts to make,
Called them out clearly, claimed them by hand,
Bickered long and busily about those gifts.
Ladies laughed aloud, though losers they were,
And he that won was not angered, as well you will know.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
          The stout king stands in state
          Till a wonder shall appear;
          He leads, with heart elate,
          High mirth in the New Year.

May you have a Happy New Year, and may no scary Green Wonder intrude upon your feasts.