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). On the first class day we will read The Physician's Tale, a short but shocking tale that arouses strong feelings in both Chaucer's imagined audience (the pilgrims of the Canterbury Tales)and in us. This establishes on of the main themes for this class: the ways in which powers of rhetoric and performance work upon human bodies (including our own).We will a good number of Canterbury Tales, a collection of poems with an extraordinary range of comic, obscene, 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 may consider contemporary adaptations of Chaucer by African-American poet Marilyn Nelson, by Chaucer rapper Baba Brinkman, and by poet and performer Caroline Bergvall. We'll likely 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). 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.
The first class assignment 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 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.
Just one text is required for this course: The Riverside Chaucer, ed. L.D. Benson.
No previous experience required. Read Middle English aloud and amaze your friends.