on liking Chaucer

First, some background. I began reading medieval English poetry the summer after high school (a failed attempt at my parents’ copy of Chaucer). What attracted me initially was the linguistic challenge:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
. . .

I sensed that Middle English belonged to me as an English speaker, that no one else could claim an upper hand in it except by dint of the same sort of study I was putting in. This was even truer of Old English, the language of Beowulf. There are words in Old English whose meanings are simply unknown. More than dead liturgical languages like Latin or Sanskrit, Old English is a lost language. That appealed to me. At the end of college, I decided to become a medievalist.

This was my preprofessional formation. I linger over it because the issue of who the Middle Ages are for is politically fraught. There has rightly been a movement to decolonize medieval studies, still an overwhelmingly white field. It is Eurocentric by definition, since the sequence ancient-medieval-modern originated in European historiography.

In graduate school, I learned that medieval literature was related to the places in which it was made. Chaucer spoke for London and the royal court. Most other writing in English was “provincial,” a catch-all term and often pejorative. I studied this literature long before setting foot in England, so that my mental map of the country was drawn out of a reading of the literature. I was once challenged at a conference on my definition of “southern” for tenth-century England. My definition conflicted with modern UK regional nomenclature. On reflection, I was glad the issue came up. It’s an issue of different social trajectories in the academy. My own perspective made me receptive to weird, dislocational arguments like that of Nicholas Howe (a Yale PhD from the New York metro area, like me), who theorized that the capital city of early medieval England was Rome.

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I teach Chaucer every other year to undergraduates, and I have a professional obligation to like him. It’s an obligation that’s taken some years to fulfill. I dutifully published an essay on him in graduate school in the Chaucer Review, connecting the Friar’s Tale to medieval forest bureaucracy—a topic that interested me more than Chaucer, at the time. The essay was intended to prove to potential employers that I could “do” Chaucer. One reader wrote that the historical dimension of the essay was stronger than the literary one. It was probably supposed to be an insult. But it was true.

I found Chaucer’s writing smug. I could feel the author winking at the reader through his characters. His stories were too comfortable being stories. The Canterbury Tales were poetic in form, but their style reminded me of modern novels and reminded me why I did not choose to study modern novels. Chaucer was so urban (at least to this rural reader), but his urbanness was deflected, almost never present on the surface of the work itself. You had to go to grad school to learn about it.

It has taken me years to place Chaucer to my satisfaction. My first book gave him only a cameo appearance. That book was more concerned with bridging the subfields of Old English and Middle English, which parted ways in the nineteenth century. In my second book, I have a trio of chapters that plugs Chaucer back into a literary context that makes sense to me. I realized what I really disliked was the gravitational pull he exerts on late medieval English studies. Instead of seeing Chaucer as (I think) he was, an initially insignificant sliver of his literary world, the field treats him as a benchmark for other writing in English. This remains the case whether he is read as prototypically English or, more recently, as a minor French or Italian writer. The field looks back on Chaucer through fifteenth-century goggles, for it was then that he became a benchmark. I teach Chaucer as an aberration, intentionally deflating students’ expectations about studying “the Father of English Poetry.”

My book puts Chaucer back in his place through the histories of English meters. Chaucer was a great innovator in this area. He invented the iambic pentameter. But Chaucer’s invention had a minimal impact prior to c. 1450. That’s a missed connection of half a century after the poet’s death. I wanted to write scholarship that recovered the weirdness of pentameter prior to that moment of mainstreaming.

Part of my reconciliation to Chaucer involved deeper study of his pre-CanterburyTales writing, the dream visions: the Romaunt of the RoseDeath of Blanche the Duchess,* House of Fame, Parliament of Fowls, and Legend of Good Women. Less commonly taught than the Canterbury Tales, these poems are less novelistic, more ‘medieval.’ The first three are in iambic tetrameter. They show us a Chaucer who has not yet had the pentameter idea.

The other missing piece fell into place when I read William Langland’s Piers Plowman. Langland provides vital context for reading Chaucer. You would almost think the two men belonged to different worlds. Their poems belong to different orders of reality.** Chaucer is a ubiquitous London bureaucrat, Langland a shadowy western cleric. But Langland lived in London, as well. His poem has a doubleness of place that corresponds to a certain flatness I detect in parts of Chaucer. Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrimage is a pretext for stories; for Langland, being in transit is the main thing. The House of Fame, my favorite of Chaucer’s poems, is not coincidentally the work of Chaucer that shows most clearly (we think) the influence of Piers Plowman. Langland, the “provincial” author, provincializes Chaucer. Piers Plowman thematizes that which Chaucer can’t or won’t say about himself.

I’m writing this blog post to record the chain of events that, over time and through many discussions with my students, has generated my take on Chaucer. My book simply unspools this take as achieved knowledge, but perhaps there’s value or interest in the personal backstory.

It’s OK not to like the texts you study or teach. Sometimes there’s something to be learned, about the text or about yourself, from sitting with dislike.

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*Known today under the title The Book of the Duchess. But see Ellis.
**Bourdieu’s field theory has been helping me sort out the relationship between social placement and literary style in my research into early English poetry. The term “social trajectory” is Bourdieu’s.

further reading

Bourdieu, Pierre, and Randal Johnson, ed. The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

Ellis, Steve. “The Death of the Book of the Duchess.” Chaucer Review 29 (1995): 249-58.

Grady, Frank. “Chaucer Reading Langland: The House of Fame.” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 18 (1996): 3–23.

multispectral imaging and manuscripts

My essay, “Multispectral Imaging and Medieval Manuscripts,” appears in a volume devoted to digital humanities and medieval literature and culture, edited by Jennifer E. Boyle and Helen J. Burgess. My essay introduces a new digital approach to medieval manuscripts by summarizing a Mellon-funded project in the digital humanities at Yale University. Here’s the opening section:

Debates in the field of manuscript studies often take the form of disputes over material details that are at least theoretically quantifiable: the curve of an ascender, the shape of a damaged leaf, the color of a paraph mark. Until recently, such debates were adjudicated entirely on the basis of comparison by human eyes. Paleographical and codicological research along these lines has been transformative: it remains the edifice on which rest all other forms of knowledge about medieval texts. Yet human eyes have scientifically well-understood limitations, especially as regards the perception of color. Recently, it has become possible to supplement the human eye with a digital one.

Human eyes see in three colors, whose various proportions the brain interprets as the range of colors we perceive in the world. There are finer ways of slicing up the color spectrum, however. The eyes of some species have developed to see in more than three colors, enhancing discrimination between closely similar wavelengths of light. Computers, too, can ‘see’ in many more than three colors. Digital capture of spectral information in more than three colors is known as multispectral imaging. (Hyperspectral imaging, marginally more accurate but substantially more costly and time-consuming, refers to digital capture of spectral information continuously across the color spectrum.) A non-invasive procedure involving a professional camera and a computer, multispectral imaging reveals differences in reflected light that remain invisible to human eyes. Multispectral imaging also captures data across the infrared and ultraviolet ranges, which lie, respectively, beneath and above our visible light spectrum. In other words, computers can be programmed to ‘see’ more and more finely than human eyes.

Progress in computer science thus enables the creation of new kinds of data about medieval manuscripts (among other objects of interest). These new data promise to confirm, enrich, problematize, or even invalidate the conclusions of traditional manuscript study. This essay outlines the scope and goals of interdisciplinary research at the intersection of computer science, manuscript studies, and cultural heritage preservation. It does so through an overview of a case study: a research project in the digital humanities carried out by computer scientists, medievalists, and digital preservation experts at Yale University from 2012-2015 under the auspices of an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Scholarly Communications and Information Technology grant. Entitled Digitally Enabled Scholarship with Medieval Manuscripts, this project had three arms, of which I will discuss one, “Creating English Literature, c. 1385-1425: Inks, Pigments, and the Textual Canon.” While at Yale I served as graduate assistant for “Creating English Literature” to Principal Investigators (PIs) Alastair Minnis and Barbara A. Shailor, who were later joined by PI Ardis Butterfield. The other two arms of Digitally Enabled Scholarship with Medieval Manuscripts are “Editions of the First and Second Recensions of Gratian’s Decretum” (PI: Anders Winroth) and “A Literary History of the English Book of Hours” (PI: Jessica Brantley).

Multispectral Imaging Technical Setup
the Yale team’s technical setup for multispectral imaging of medieval manuscripts