O/T Chaucer

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O/T Chaucer

1English-bookseller
Ene 22, 4:51am

I thought this excellent article from The Telegraph might be of interest:

Chaucer has been dropped by the English department at the University of Leicester in favour of a decolonised curriculum, with modules on race and sexuality. As a biographer of Chaucer, I am naturally saddened by the news - but more than anything, because I feel students are missing out. Chaucer is being misunderstood as some sort of fusty, old figure, when actually, he could teach students a lot about the world today – including about issues connected to gender, race, and marginalised voices.

Chaucer, a multilingual man and the son of a wine-merchant, lived in a globally-connected world that faced problems rather similar to those that we face today. He wrote his poetry in the wake of a catastrophic pandemic that killed around a third of the population - the Black Death.

His first poem, The Book of the Duchess, was about the death of a young mother from the plague, and asked the question of how survivors can move on from impenetrable grief. Later, he opened The Canterbury Tales with a paean to the cycles of fertility and decay, uniting the seasonal rhythms of change with the Christian cycle of Lent and Easter, death and resurrection. The Canterbury pilgrims represented a new post-plague world; they are a mixed, generally urban set of people, a group of chancers making their way in society. After the Black Death decimated the population, those who survived had new opportunities as wages surged, especially for those who left home and tried their luck in cities. Chaucer wrote in the aftermath of unprecedented disaster but it was also a time of social mobility and radical change.

Indeed, when students read Chaucer, they are often struck by his modernity. The Wife of Bath, for instance, points out in her ‘Prologue,’ that all the stories have been written by men and women have lacked the opportunity to tell their own story. As a result, she argues, the canon is profoundly biased. Her own tale is about rape, and explores the possibility of educative punishment, of trying to teach a criminal to understand what they have done wrong rather than simply executing them.

Of course, we read literature not merely for the content but for the form. But here, too, Chaucer’s poetic innovations changed what English poetry could do. He invented the iambic pentameter – the ten-syllable, five-stress line that became the building block of English poetry. Chaucer, indeed, was so newfangled that he even invented the word ‘newfangled.’ It is impossible to understand later writers in English without a deep knowledge of Chaucer. A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, Troilus and Cressida, and The Two Noble Kinsmen demonstrate Shakespeare’s most obvious debts to Chaucer.

Chaucer has influenced many of the modern writers young people value. This year, Zadie Smith’s play, The Wife of Willesden, based on the ‘Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale,’ is due to be published. Black American poet Marilyn Nelson’s Chaucer-inspired The Cachoeira Tales, for instance, positions itself as a ‘reverse diaspora,’ a ‘pilgrimage’ to somewhere ‘sanctified by the Negro soul.’ The Nigerian writer Karen King-Aribisala’s Kicking Tongues turns Chaucer’s pilgrimage into a journey from Lagos to Abuja.

Chaucer is not the only medieval writer worth reading. Margery Kempe dictated the first autobiography in English in the 1430s, detailing her extensive travels, failed business ventures, marital rape, and intimate encounters with Christ. Mandeville’s Travels tells us about the antipodes, the Assassins, and the narrator’s experiences living at the court of the Muslim Sultan of Babylon.

There is no doubt that medieval literature is relevant to us today. But its radical strangeness also matters. To read about a time where ideas of the private and the public were quite different to our own, a time in which the rhythms of life were not controlled by clocks, a time in which confession had just begun to redraw the contours of the inner self, involves making an imaginative leap, forcing ourselves out of the comfort zone of simply reading texts that mirror our own experiences and ideas. This is one of the cornerstones of education, to think oneself into different mindsets, to be challenged to understand alien ways of living, thinking, and writing.

Chaucer himself exhorts us not to remain stuck in a reassuring echo chamber of our own opinions. In The Canterbury Tales, he was pioneering in his idea that people of different social backgrounds should tell stories. After the initial hierarchical beginning – the Knight tells the first tale – the low-class, drunk Miller interrupts, pushes his way in, and tells his own, brilliant tale that parodies the Knight’s. After that, hierarchy is never resumed. In the Book of the Duchess Chaucer tells us that you have to see with someone else’s eyes to understand how they feel.

Never quick to judgement, deeply suspicious of authority, Chaucer was a poet who truly understood that there is more than one way of telling a story. We need that message more than ever today.

2LesMiserables
Ene 22, 5:01am

They won't be happy until they reset the clock to 1960.

Chaucer has more brains in his left toe than a college of these neverbeens.

And Chaucers experience of the struggle of life and the ebb and flow of fortune, casts derision upon these post-modernists.

For a man to do service in France in the 100 years war - at the front - then come back and live the life that he did, is remarkable.

Of course not as remarkable as being dropped and replaced by literary cat food.

3wcarter
Editado: Ene 22, 5:15am

>1 English-bookseller:
The Folio Society has covered Chaucer here and here, and Margery Kempe here, but not Mandeville.

There were also 1956, 1966 & 1986 editions of Canterbury Tales.

4Joshbooks1
Ene 22, 7:28am

>1 English-bookseller: Couldn't agree more - wonderful little piece on Chaucer. It's sad to hear that certain places are doing this all over the world. Even sadder to me is how the arts and humanities are now considered wasteful and useless when it comes to college degrees when it is what we need the most to have rich fulfilling lives. So it goes.

5Jayked
Ene 22, 7:38am

Dumb and dumber. We did the prologue and selected tales in Middle English in fifth year High School, as well as a setting for choir, again in ME.

6terebinth
Ene 22, 8:02am

The past is another country, as someone or other said. Seems the progressive idea is to confine us all in the same country in perpetuity, there to ruminate upon the particular roles our various genetic inheritances prescribe.

7Betelgeuse
Editado: Ene 22, 8:18am

>3 wcarter: Enabled on Margery Kempe, which I just found on ebay! I've had the FS Eric Gill (Gold Cockerel facsimilie) Canterbury Tales in my library for some time now. It's a beautiful edition, probably the largest book I own. I remember first reading Chaucer in the original Middle English back in college, nearly forty years ago. A shame that some universities feel he is no longer relevant, but I'm not surprised, given that many are deleting even Jane Austen from their curriculum.

8podaniel
Ene 22, 8:56am

>3 wcarter:

I was about to search for the FS edition of Mandeville. Sorry to learn FS has never done one. An FS edition of Mandeville would be an instant purchase for me--oh, but wait, FS needs to publish the next Jack Reacher novel.

9Jayked
Ene 22, 11:15am

>1 English-bookseller:
Dropping Chaucer entirely is just one more step in the dumbing down of curricula to accommodate students who would never have made it into a traditional university. As far back as the 1990s the Canadian university where I laboured stopped making History of the English Language compulsory for all English Honours students, mainly because some of them didn't have a hope in hell of passing it, and made it an option. You must take either HEL, or Old English, or Middle English. The schedule was set up so that it would have been very difficult to take 2 of the 3. So you could "complete" your education without Beowulf and Chaucer, or a knowledge of basic grammar, and go on to teach the young. That was at one of the more prestigious universities. A few Unis where the hopelessly underprivileged intellectually went to party were known colloquially as Last Chance U. Is Leicester an English one of those?

10English-bookseller
Ene 22, 11:43am

Lots about Leicester University on the websites. One website which might be to the left of Donald Trump says:

Founded in 1921, in the aftermath of World War I, the University of Leicester was built with the purpose of establishing a living memorial to those who had lost their lives during the conflict. Its motto Ut Vitam Habeant ('so that they may have life') reflects its belief that through research and education, the university would act as a beacon of hope for the future.

Granted its Royal Charter in 1957, Leicester is now one of the UK's leading research universities and prides itself on making contributions that have hade a positive impact on public health, culture, society and the environment.

The university offers over 350 degree programmes across three academic colleges: medicine, biological sciences and psychology, science and engineering, and arts and humanities. Its ethos emphasises a cross-disciplinary approach, innovation and collaboration.

Based in the city of the same name, Leicester has a youthful feel and boasts the largest number of people aged 19 and under in the East Midlands region.

Although it’s the tenth largest city in the UK, it has an abundance of green spaces making it easy to escape the hustle and bustle of urban life. Its main campus, which backs onto 69 acres of park land, is often referred to as the university’s ‘back garden'.

Leicester is one of the most ethnically diverse areas of the UK and its university lays claim to (Nobel prizes? Winning University Challenge? Sadly not...) a long-standing record on social inclusiveness.

The city is also among the most economical places to live in the country. In 2015 it was ranked top by HSBC for the second year in a row for being the UK’s most affordable university.

Among the university’s claims to fame are the invention of genetic fingerprinting in 1984 by Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys and the more recent discovery of King Richard III’s mortal remains in a Leicester council car park.

For myself, I wouldn't send my cat to study there. She is far too smart to waste her time on 'a decolonised curriculum, with modules on race and sexuality'.

11ranbarnes
Ene 22, 12:50pm

>10 English-bookseller: Ouch. I was born in Leicestershire, but didn't go there. But could your cat actually get a place? 😁

12Willoyd
Editado: Ene 22, 2:53pm

Leicester has always had a pretty good reputation. Having read some of their reasons as to why they're changing, I've a feeling that reputation is about to get trashed, at least in one department.

13Willoyd
Ene 22, 2:54pm

>8 podaniel:

Nailed it.

14PeterFitzGerald
Ene 22, 4:30pm

>10 English-bookseller: "Based in the city of the same name..."

I enjoyed this bit. Perhaps the author could similarly enlighten us on the locations of other universities.

15boldface
Ene 22, 7:38pm

>11 ranbarnes:

It might get in by a whisker.

16boldface
Ene 22, 8:31pm

I've just looked up the kind of English course you can expect at my alma mater, Durham University, in the north of England - one of the Russell Group (https://russellgroup.ac.uk/) of British universities. The following is a representative selection of what to expect (although they won't all be available in any given year):

Year 1 Modules:
Compulsory modules:
Introduction to Drama
Introduction to the Novel
Introduction to Poetry.

Optional modules:
Up to three of the following selected from a range which has previously included (or up to two open modules offered by other departments):


Romance and the Literature of Chivalry
Myth and Epic of the North
Classical and Biblical Backgrounds to English Literature
English: Language, Use, Theory.

Year 2 Modules:
Compulsory modules:
Shakespeare
Theory and Practice of Literary Criticism

Optional lecture modules (taught by weekly lectures and four one-hour tutorials) have previously included:
Chaucer
Old English
Old Norse
Old French
Renaissance Literature
Victorian Literature
Literature of the Modern Period
American Poetry.

Optional seminar modules (taught by fortnightly two-hour seminars) have previously included:
Jane Austen
Arthurian Literature
Germanic Myth and Legend
The Australian Legend
Toni Morrison: Texts and Contexts
The Brontës
Evelyn Waugh
Shakespeare’s History Plays
Romantic Plays and Players.

Year 3 Modules:
Compulsory modules:
Dissertation (40 credits).

Optional lecture modules (taught by weekly lectures and four one-hour tutorials) have previously included:
Old English
Old Norse
Old French
Restoration and 18th Century Literature
Literature of the Romantic Period
Post-War Fiction and Poetry
American Fiction
Medieval Literature.
Optional Special Topics (taught by fortnightly two-hour seminars) have previously included:
Literature, Cinema and Neuroscience
Shakespeare on Film
Resistance in South Asian Postcolonial Literature
Writing Prose Fiction
Reading Joyce’s Ulysses
W. B. Yeats
Keats and Shelley
Elizabeth Bishop and Twentieth Century Verse
Nonsense Literature
Creative Writing Poetry
Writing Mountains in the Early Twentieth Century
Seamus Heaney
Jewish American Fiction
Science and the Literary Imagination
Mind and Narrative

Source: UCAS (https://digital.ucas.com/coursedisplay/courses/6ffaaa09-d117-3ee5-1266-9f3951c14...)

17English-bookseller
Editado: Ene 23, 2:13pm

>14 PeterFitzGerald: I have always assumed - perhaps incorrectly - that the great majority of the members of this Group were not UK citizens nor residents, so I was trying to be helpful!

Just add that it might be interesting to know roughly where our fellow members live.

18DMulvee
Ene 23, 2:43pm

>14 PeterFitzGerald: In fairness, people who aren’t from the U.K. might well think that Warwick Uni was based in Warwick and not halfway between Coventry and Kenilworth!

On a completely OT comment, Kenilworth Castle is worthy of a visit for any tourists visiting that part of the world

19SF-72
Ene 23, 3:29pm

>1 English-bookseller:

A very good article, and what a shame that what should be an attempt to be more open-minded basically results in more closed-mindedness instead. You can learn so much by seeing not just the differences between the cultures of different countries, but also different times within one culture.

20folio_books
Editado: Ene 23, 3:42pm

>17 English-bookseller: Just add that it might be interesting to know roughly where our fellow members live.

FSD Geographical Distribution thread:

http://www.librarything.com/topic/98079#6175291.

Edited to add: From the FSD Wiki : https://wiki.librarything.com/index.php/Groups:Folio_Society_Devotees

21Cat_of_Ulthar
Editado: Ene 23, 5:45pm

Interesting article with some sound points although I note that it starts by stating that Leicester are removing Chaucer as part of a 'a decolonised curriculum' without defining what that is or why we should be worried about it and then going on to talk about other unrelated things.

22Willoyd
Ene 24, 2:48am

>21 Cat_of_Ulthar: although I note that it starts by stating that Leicester are removing Chaucer as part of a 'a decolonised curriculum' without defining what that

It appears to be the latest issue.
What I find odd, is that Chaucer was pre-colonisation. Of all the writers that could be removed to enable rebalancing, he strikes me as one of the last. What bothers me, reading Leicester University's own output, is that they're wanting to promote those writers 'students are interested in'. Surely, it's up to them to set the standards? On that basis, if a students are interested in Mills and Boon or 50 Shades of Grey, that's what they'd study? Personally, I can't see how you can get a decent grasp on the history of English lit without including Chaucer.