In this class we will come to speak as people spoke in England some six centuries ago: in medieval or ‘Middle’ English. We’ll 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 will spend plenty of time performing and declaiming. And since Middle English takes some getting used to, class assignments will not be heavy: we’ll usually read about 800 lines per class.
We’ll begin by looking at a few of the easier passages in the Canterbury Tales. Then we’ll read the greatest poem of love in the English language: Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. This will take nine or ten classes; we’ll include 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). We’ll then return to the Canterbury Tales, paying due attention 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 Italian filmmaker Pasolini (and perhaps by Chaucer scholar Terry Jones). We’ll consider what it might have been like to live secure in 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. We’ll visit and handle medieval manuscripts. Above all, we’ll enjoy the poetry.
The first test will be a multiple-choice vocabulary test, based on some 200 lines of Chaucer’s text (to be assigned). The second will be a translation and commentary exercise; the third a short essay. Assignment 4 invites 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 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.