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.


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?

The Witch of Edmonton on stage

The Witch of Edmonton, the 1621 play by Dekker, Ford, and Rowley, is on stage (off-Broadway) in New York City; it’s run has been extended through February 20th. Here’s a review today from The New York Times:

The play follows two main stories, which are only tangentially linked: that of Frank Thorney (Justin Blanchard), an irresolute young man who finds himself inconveniently married to two women, and that of Elizabeth Sawyer (Charlayne Woodard), the title character, a ragged and desolate woman who is scorned as a witch by the people of Edmonton well before she becomes one. . . . Mr. Berger elucidates the play’s suggestion that hearts are often divided, and that a devil’s easiest mark is an ambivalent soul.

Unfortunately, term will keep me out of the viewing area. But, if you’ve seen it, how was it?

The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel

Here’s an argument (actually, this review is a critique of an argument) that technology can remove the need for language learning while saving endangered languages from extinction:

Ostler has faith in a virtual system, which he claims will revolutionize global communications, and make foreign language learning a thing of the past. . . . Google Translate, Babel Fish, and Microsoft’s Bing Translator all offer instant, automatic translation across a range of languages, and are constantly expanding their services. The results are often riddled with mistakes, sometimes amusingly. But Ostler believes that improvements in the technology will eventually “remove the requirement for a human intermediary to interpret or translate.” Printed texts and recorded speeches will be accessible to anyone with the right software as “virtual media.”

The First Alphabets

A new exhibit at the Oriental Institute in Chicago is called “Visible Language: Inventions of Writing in the Ancient Middle East and Beyond”; here is a discussion by The New York Times. According to the review,

The show demonstrates that, contrary to the long-held belief that writing spread from east to west, Sumerian cuneiform and its derivatives and Egyptian hieroglyphics evolved separately from each another. And those writing systems were but two of the ancient forms of writing that evolved independently. Over a span of two millenniums, two other powerful civilizations — the Chinese and Mayans — also identified and met a need for written communication. Writing came to China as early as around 1200 B.C. and to the Maya in Mesoamerica long before A.D. 500.


An opera by Alice Shields:

Criseyde is a new opera by Alice Shields, based on a libretto by Nancy Dean, and is a new Middle English resetting of Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Troilus and Criseyde.” Known since Medieval times as a treacherous whore, the tragic beauty Criseyde is used by her family as a sexual trophy for political gain. In this intoxicating world of adulterous courtly love, a man secretly devotes himself to the will of his beloved. In Alice Shields’ new opera, Criseyde now emerges as a romantic heroine, in this dramatic retelling — from a woman’s perspective — of Chaucer’s famous tale.

Here is a discussion from the New York Times.

Lost at Sea

There is a new exhibition at the Folger to visit: “Lost at Sea.” The New York Times published a review about it which makes me want to take the trip:

At the beginning of the 17th century, the ocean was scarcely understood and riskily charted. It was also the medium for the exercise of international power, the site of exploratory fantasy and the terrain over which Divine Providence exacted mysterious judgments. All strands of human knowledge and experience were associated with the ocean. “Technological know-how and cartographic knowledge were essential,” the exhibition tells us, “but so also were narrative understanding and religious faith.”