In this class we come to speak as people spoke in England some six centuries ago: in medieval or ‘Middle’ English. We do this by reading the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer, a great poet who has influenced everyone from William Shakespeare to Sylvia Plath. Since medieval folks did not commonly read silently—all poetry was written to be shared and read aloud—we spend plenty of time performing and declaiming. And since Middle English takes some getting used to, class assignments are not heavy (usually about 800 lines per class). A typical course (each one varies somewhat, according to season and instructor) might begin by looking at a few lyrics and by reading one of the easier and shorter (but still very eventful) Canterbury Tales. The class might then read the greatest poem of love in the English language, Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, plus the nasty coda written to this poem by Scotsman Robert Henryson-- in medieval Scots-- the Testament of Crisseid (a text that set the tone of Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida). Returning to the Canterbury Tales, due attention would be paid to its extraordinary variety of comic, scatological, religious, allegorical, and beast epical genres. Representations of medieval Christianity, Judaism, and Islam will be compared; and we may occasionally consider aspects of film adaptation by Pier Paolo Pasolini (and by other filmmakers). We’ll also consider the contemporary adaptations of Chaucer by African-American poet Marilyn Nelson (poet laureate of Connecticut) and of Chaucer rapper Baba Brinkman. We’ll consider what it might have been like to live secure in an age of faith; or to live insecure, as a dizzying new profusion of trades and occupations sprang up in unprecedented ‘divisions of labor.’ We’ll imagine being a medieval woman. Above all, we’ll enjoy the poetry.
An early class assignment would likely be a multiple-choice vocabulary test, based on some 200 lines of Chaucer’s text (to be assigned). The second would be a translation and commentary exercise; the third a short essay. Assignment 4 might invite you to investigate any topic that is not Chaucer: medieval medicine, astrology, cookery, gynecology, trade, travel, warfare, sexuality, love sickness, etc. In assignment 5, you would revisit this essay and reshape it to enlighten moments in Chaucer’s text; you should thus end up with a strong piece of writing of about twelve pages.
No previous experience required. Read Middle English aloud and amaze your friends.