On Monday, April 22, 2019, Prof. Raúl Ariza-Barile delivered the paper “Chaucer y España: historia de una reescritura” at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City. Raúl’s paper is part of a growing, valuable, and relatively recent scholarly trend investigating the Spanish influence and contexts in Chaucer’s work. Critics studying Spanish Chaucer have focused on the author’s well-known mission to Navarre and the subsequent literary response in the Monk’s Tale via the brief segment on King Pedro I. Raúl’s paper mentioned this important reference, but argues, in particular, that Chaucer’s (untold) Spanish history might have begun earlier, with the translation and dissemination of scientific texts in Toledo in the twelfth century.
After providing the audience with an historicized overview of the extant scholarship on Chaucer and/in Spain, Raúl suggested that astronomy should be a driving, central aspect when scholars try to reconstruct Chaucer’s Spanish puzzle. A number of Chaucer’s references to astronomy in The Canterbury Tales, for instance, reveal knowledge of texts translated or rewritten in Spain, such as the two versions of the Toledo tables which Chaucer calls “tables Tolletanes” (The Franklin’s Tale, V.1273). Of perhaps greatest
importance, however, is the textual history contained within A Treatise on the Astrolabe, which Chaucer could not have composed without the existence of treatises originating in Spain. Despite these possible links, Raúl’s talk reminded scholars to proceed cautiously: after all, unearthing the Spanish influence in Chaucer amounts, in many ways, to a work of literary archaeology, simply because Chaucer barely credits Spanish authors or translators in his work. (An exception is his mention of the Toledan astronomer Arzakel, “Arsechieles,” in his Astrolabe 2.45.2)
Raúl concluded his talk by saying that Spain must feature more prominently in Chaucer’s European puzzle, and although we do have excellent (and recent) scholarship that documents Chaucer’s stay in Spain (such as Marion Turner’s Chaucer: A European Life), the time has come for Spanish astronomy to emerge more prominently in this discussion.
On 7 May 2019, the Poetry Foundation announced that Marilyn Nelson had won the 2019 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, one of the most prestigious prizes for poetry in the United States. In her verse, Nelson vividly records the lived experiences and (too often) overlooked contributions of Black people in America. Repeatedly, her poetry has made us aware of the beauties and horrors of Black lives as they struggle of make this inhospitable place their home. She captures the sense of displacement and dislocation instigated by the African diaspora in her 2005 collection, The Cachoeira Tales and Other Poems. In this account of her journey to “some place sanctified by the Negro soul” (11), Nelson re-imagines the pilgrimage structure of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as a suitable vehicle for challenging the “imperialist grand narrative” (David Wallace, “Chaucer’s New Topographies” SAC 29) and, as Kathleen Forni argues in Chaucer’s Afterlife: Adaptations in Recent Popular Culture (2013), as “stylistic testament to the multivocal inclusivity afforded by the musical versatility of Chaucer’s verse and the conceptual versatility of his structural frame” (111). Worth reading in it’s own right, Nelson The Cachoeira Tales also fits well in a Canterbury Tales classroom as a way to interrogate “white” ownership of the Middle Ages.
The 2nd edition of Peter Brown’s A New Companion to Chauceris now available. Featuring 36 alphabetically arranged chapter topics–Afterlives, Auctorite, Biography, Bodies, Bohemia, Chivalry, Comedy, Emotion, Ethnicity, Flemings, France, Genre, Ideology, Italy, Language, London, Love, Narrative, Other Thought-Worlds, Pagan Survivals, Patronage, Personal Identity, Pilgrimage and Travel, Religion, Richard II, Science, The Senses, Sexuality, Sin, Social Structures, Style, Texts, Things, Translation, Visualizing, and Women–the volume is noticeably heftier than the 2002 edition.
Currently the companion’s first chapter is freely available for download. In a nice piece of irony that tickles our hearts, that chapter is the one Jonathan and I contributed. Though our chapter “Afterlives” deals those things that come last chronologically, its title comes first alphabetically, making real the injunction that “the last will be first.”
Our deepest appreciate to Carolyn Collette for suggesting we take up the topic in her stead, and our thanks to Peter Brown for incorporating us into his excellent lineup of scholars.
Durham University is hosting the New Chaucer Society’s 2020 Congress, and there’s still time to submit paper proposals. The deadline is 20 May 2019.
Global Chaucers is organizing a lightening talk session on the Histories of Chaucer’s non-Anglophone Receptions (session 2). Jonathan and I invite your proposals exploring the histories of Chaucer’s reception beyond the Anglophone reception. Possible topics include the non-Anglophone, multilingual, or cross-cultural histories of textual transmission; translations and editions; Chaucer in the curriculum; and contributions to scholarship.
While you’re at the NCS website, take a look at Jonathan Fruoco’s session on Chaucer in the Non-Anglophone World: Translations and Cultural Appropriations (session 70).
In addition to these two sessions, many of the other sessions invite papers of global interest.
Please note the two-step process for submitting your proposal: first you register online, then you send your abstract to the session organizer(s).
Many thanks to the program organizers–Elliot Kendall, Robyn Malo, Mary Flannery, Wan-Chuan Kao, Philip Knox, Myra Seaman, Ruth Evans and Tom Goodmann –for the exciting program. The 2020 Congress in Durham promises to match the international breadth of the 2018 Congress in Toronto! Please join us!
Paris does not loom large in Chaucer’s biography. From a cluster of documents (Life-Records 46-61), we know he took the month-long trip from England to Paris (as well as Flanders and Montreuil) multiple times in the 1370s. Part of the ceaseless back-and-forth of merchants, diplomats, soldiers, and pilgrims crossing the channel, Chaucer’s series of trips to France and Flanders were made on behalf of the English crown to negotiate for peace and to broker a marriage between Richard and a French princess. Modern biographies that speculate on Chaucer’s encounters on these trips tend to consider the poets and diplomats he met (or might have met), not what Parisian architecture or music he could have seen or heard.
The paucity of Parisian references in Chaucer’s verse helps contribute to why no scholar has titled an essay “Chaucer in Paris.” Among the Canterbury tales, Paris figures in only The Shipman’s Tale, which three times mentions Paris as where daun John lives and where the merchant borrows money, suggesting that Chaucer knew the city as both a religious and a financial hub, knowledge he could have acquired by its reputation without ever visiting it. More telling evidence of his visits to Paris appears in his description of the House of Fame palace; its row of poets standing on pillars might draw on the royal palace in Paris (HF 1319-1519). The only other cases are interestingly negative: Paris is the source of the sophisticated French that the Prioress does not speak (CT 1.126), and it is the place where Heloise is not the abbess in Jankyn’s Book of Wikked Wyves (CT 3.678).
While Paris is nearly absent in The Canterbury Tales, the city’s cathedral, Notre-Dame de Paris, is completely absent. That absence should not suggest Chaucer was unaware of the legendary cathedral. Though nestled among many other churches sharing the city’s vertical skyline comprising towers, belfries, and high-pitched roofs, the cathedral rose above them all. Its two towers reached over 225 feet—about 16 stories—and were the tallest structures in Paris, making the cathedral visible from throughout the city. As we learn from contemporary travel literature, the cathedral would have been immediately visible to anyone approaching the city, whether from the north or the south.  Notre-Dame would not have escaped his notice.
Inside, Chaucer would have marked Notre-Dame’s soaring interior height. Unlike Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Canterbury Cathedral—three of England’s great churches that emphasized length rather than height—Notre-Dame’s nave vaults rose 108 feet. Its three rose windows would have been in place, each still glowing with its original glass. The original thirteenth-century spire would have still been in place, not to be removed until 1786. He would not have seen, however, the 16 prophets painted on glass beneath the South Rose window; those are Eugène Viollet-le-Duc’s nineteenth-century additions. Nor could he have found there such relics as the Crown of Thorns and part of the True Cross, both in the custody of Sainte Chapelle since the mid-thirteenth century. And he could not have listened to an organ concert; none was yet installed. Nevertheless, despite some different elements, Notre-Dame de Paris would have inspired awe in a fourteenth-century visitor.
If Chaucer had traveled as extensively as his fictional Wife of Bath, he might have heard about the stained-glass windows and “gothic” arches at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, an eleventh-century mosque that was also damaged by fire on 15 April 2019. Elsewhere in the Levant, he would have witnessed other Muslim and Middle Eastern innovations, such as the twin towers, the ribbed vaulting, and spires—all of which had been incorporated into Notre-Dame de Paris (as well as Europe’s other grand church buildings).
If he could had peered 650 years into the future, Chaucer would not have been surprised by the Holy Week 2019 fire that destroyed the roof of Notre-Dame de Paris. In England, the Canterbury Cathedral received its Gothic look after a 1174 fire required the choir to be rebuilt. In Chaucer’s lifetime, it had been damaged in 1382 by an earthquake. Even today, Canterbury Cathedral’s lead roof is held up by an intricate latticework of wooden beams similar to those that held up Notre-Dame’s roof. These extravagant buildings that took centuries to build have always been and remain vulnerable to destruction, whether by forces natural or those man-made.
Chaucer probably would have been surprised, however, by calls to restore the cathedral to its “original condition.” In the fourteenth century, fires and other calamities were opportunities to upgrade and modernize. In his frequent trips through Canterbury on his continental travels, he would have witnessed how that cathedral was being rebuilt to conform to the more au courant Gothic style, with large portions of the original Romanesque elements removed and replaced. Most likely, his visits to French Gothic cathedrals such as Notre-Dame de Paris would have given him a sense how Canterbury Cathedral would look and feel after its renovations were completed in 1400. Recreating what had already failed might have seemed a curious enterprise to him.
At the same time, Chaucer would have understood our collective grief. He repeatedly returns to images of the walled city of Troy, burned and forever lost, as inciting great sorrow and mourning. As he well knew, powerful kingdoms, even empires, might be built by those who escape the ashes, yet remembrance of the loss always provokes “tendre wepyng for pitee” (CT 2.292).
 See, for instance, Marion Turner’s 2019 Chaucer: A European Life.
 Derek Pearsall, The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer, page 117, citing Laura Kendrick’s 1984 Studies in the Age of Chaucer article.
Stephen G. Nichols, “Paris,” in Europe, A Literary History, edited by David Wallace, 1.22.
The April 2019 issue of Speculum includes my review of David Wallace’s Geoffrey Chaucer: A New Introduction (Oxford UP, 2017), a lucid, witty presentation of Chaucer’s life, works, and influence.
Part of an ongoing promotion of Chaucer’s “promiscuous topographies,” A New Introduction continues Wallace’s twofold scholarly enterprise: to show not only that Chaucer’s verse embraces all the world known to educated fourteenth-century Europeans, but also that Chaucer’s subsequent influence has extended beyond the poets of Britain to make an impact on every hemisphere.
Wallace advertises this paradigm shift with his first sentence: “Geoffrey Chaucer is a medieval poet enjoying a global renaissance” (1). And it punctuates my review’s final sentence: the New Introduction‘s major contribution “has been to normalize Chaucer’s status as a global poet” (600).
For those already in the Global Chaucers vortex, David Wallace’s introduction confirms why we find this field of research so rich and exciting. For those who are Global Chaucers curious, Wallace provides the roadmap for following Chaucer’s off-island journeys.
In keeping with the conference’s theme, Chaucer and Europe, we’ve assembled a roundtable that explores Chaucer’s influences on the literary and artistic cultures of Europe, an area that we’ve just begun to explore. For instance, we know about Czech author Josef Škvorecký’s 1948 Nové canterburské povídky [The New Canterbury Tales], the Dutch comic books of Lük Bey, and French-Norwegian poet Caroline Bergvall’s Meddle English (2010). We have a core group for the roundtable, but we’d like to add a few more scholars sharing what they know about these and other continental European adaptations of Chaucer’s works.
If you plan to be in London at the end of June, please consider joining the Global Chaucers roundtable! Email Candace at BarringtonC (at) ccsu.edu for more information.