Chaucer Biography Now: News and Reviews

Cover of Strohm Chaucer's Tale (Viking, 2014), reissued as The Poet's Tale (Profile, 2015)

Paul Strohm, Chaucer’s Tale: 1386 and the Road to Canterbury (New York: Viking, 2014); also published in the UK as The Poet’s Tale: Chaucer and the Year that Made The Canterbury Tales (London: Profile Books, 2014).

Chaucer biography is much in the news these days! A few recent items of note:

  • Candace Barrington has just published an attentive review of Paul Strohm’s new biography of Chaucer, Chaucer’s Tale: 1386 and the Road to Canterbury (New York: Viking, 2014). Read the review here in the open-access journal The Medieval Review.
  • Jenna Mead offered her own engaging perspective on Strohm’s book in the group medieval studies blog In the Middle earlier this summer.
  • For more on Strohm’s biography of Chaucer and “micro-history,” see Strohm’s own reflections in The Guardian (January 2015), and check out this lively review by Sam Leich in The Spectator (also from January 2015).

In the most recent issue of The London Review of Books (27 August 2015), Ardis Butterfield notes considerable recent interest in the muck and olfactory sensorium of medieval London (including Holsinger’s vivid fictional novels about John Gower), and she ponders some of the difficulties of writing in the genre of biography. How does a writer transform a historical archive into a life story?

  • Read Butterfield’s “Diary: Who Was Chaucer?” at the LRB website; if you can’t access the full essay there, try this link (provided by via Rachel Kennedy on twitter).

Global Chaucers Roundtable at NCS 2016 in London

London_2-1371043833Global Chaucers is sponsoring another roundtable at the next New Chaucer Society Congress. Titled “Translating Global Chaucers,” the roundtable will continues the Global Chaucers conversation begun at the 2014 Congress. The focus will be on translations of Chaucerian texts into languages other than standard Present Day English. Participants include translators, scholars, and teachers outside the Anglophone inner circle (UK, US, Canada, Australia, and NZ). Their presentations consider the ways translations

  • reflect the particular linguistic, cultural, or social context in which they appeared;
  • reveal understandings of Chaucer’s texts unavailable to an Anglophone reader; and
  • take advantage of verse or prose forms (or other stylistic conventions) available in the receiving literary culture but not in English.

The five participants are

  • Stephanie Downes, University of Melbourne, Australia, “Vilains mots! Nineteenth-Century French Translations of The Canterbury Tales”
  • Marcin Ciura, Independent Translator, “In the Margins of the Polish Parlement of Foules”
  • Züleyha Çetiner-Ōktem, Ege University, “Reinventing Chaucer’s Sir Thopas from a Turkish Perspective”
  • Denise Ming-yueh Wang, National Chung Cheng University, Taiwan, “When Global Chaucers Go Local: Reading Chaucer in Taiwan”
  • José Francisco Botelho, Independent Translator, “Contos da Cantuária: Chaucer in Brazil”

We’re super excited about the international panel, with its mix of translators and scholars!

Global Chaucers and Digital Humanities: new Accessus article

Mehmet Güleryüz, "The Evening Sun," 2013, from his exhibit "With One's Eyes Open” at The Empire Project (Istanbul), 7 March-27 April 2013.

Mehmet Güleryüz, “The Evening Sun,” 2013, from his exhibit “With One’s Eyes Open” at The Empire Project (Istanbul), 7 March-27 April 2013.

We’re excited to announce that our article, “Global Chaucers: Reflections on Collaboration and Digital Futures,” appears in the latest issue of Accessus.  In it, we consider what Global Chaucers can teach us about Chaucer, digital humanities, medievalism, and collaboration. A lot has happened with GlCh in less that three years, and we value getting to share what we’ve learned from the thrilling experience. Our deepest gratitude to Eve Salisbury and Georgiana Donavin, Accessus‘s editors.

The Refugee Tales Walk

DSCF2129_lonewalkerTaking a cue from Chaucer’s band of pilgrims,  participants in Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group’s Refugee Tales Walk are midway through their 9-day walk on the North Downs Way from Dover to Crawley via Canterbury. Along the way, writers, musicians and other artists will share tales inspired by the migrants and refugees: The General Prologue, The Migrant’s Tale, The Chaplain’s Tale, The Unaccompanied Minor’s Tale, The Arriver’s Tale, The Lorry Driver’s Tale, The Visitor’s Tale, The Detainee’s Tale, The Interpreter’s Tale, The Appellant’s Tale, The Counsellor’s Tale, The Dependent’s Tale, The Friend’s Tale, The Deportee’s Tale, The Lawyer’s Tale, The Refuge’s Tale, The Ex-Detainee’s Tale, and a Reprise of the Tales.

Photos and journal entries provide the rest of us an opportunity to share in the events.

Thanks to Dan Kline for alerting us to this deeply moving project.

See also, the Times Higher Education article.

Emoji Chaucer–is this the universal translation?

Partly to have fun, partly to ask a serious question about universal translation, we are passing along Sara Bickley’s emoji translation of the opening lines of Chaucer’s General Prologue. [Screenshot of the tweet is below; link to original tweet: http://bit.ly/1DZno7t]

emoji.GP

Briefly noted: Interesting CFPs

Boccaccio Adaptations Mosaic[Mosaic of Boccaccio adaptations; original flyer here]

We are happy to help spread the word about a few CFPs (Calls for Proposals) of interest to the Global Chaucers community!

Call for Sessions (extended to February 15): Meeting of the BABEL Working Group (Off the Books: Making, Breaking, Binding, Burning, Leaving, Gathering), University of Toronto, October 9-11, 2015 [full CFP here]. Organizers welcome session proposals that creatively interpret the theme “Off the Books.” This might include moving beyond texts to other kinds of visual/digital media — or more broadly, what does it mean for Chaucer to be re-made, unbound, re/collected, etc.

Call for Papers (extended to February 15): The Many Forms of the Decameron: Interpretations, Translations, and Adaptations (Italian Graduate Conference), Johns Hopkins University, April 24-26, 2015 [website here]. Boccaccio in translation/adaptation, from medieval to modern (yes, that could even include Chaucer).

Call for Papers (due April 15): Intentional Congress of the New Chaucer Society, London, July 10-15, 2016 [full list of sessions here]. In addition to Session 65 on “Translating Global Chaucers” (organized by Candace Barrington), there are many other panels of interest to the Global Chaucers community: sessions on pedagogy, translation, history of the English language, and digital cultures.

Teaching the Wife of Bath through Adaptation

by JONATHAN HSY

Reading Agbabi and Breeze

Reading Agbabi and Watching Breeze

Here on the Global Chaucers blog we’ve addressed how Chaucerian material moves across time and space, and the variety of voices featured in this venue have explored academic research methods, translation studies, artistic creation, and online community. In this posting, I offer some thoughts on how the Global Chaucers project can shape undergraduate teaching.

A few weeks ago (in my introductory survey of literature of the early British Isles), we spent our class session discussing modern-day adaptations of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Prologue (WBP) and Wife of Bath’s Tale (WBT). Here was the assignment posted on the course blog:

This week we discussed the description of the Wife of Bath in the General Prologue as well as her entire performance. Before our next class, please view these short online videos (modern-day adaptations of the Wife of Bath’s performance). As you watch these adaptations, consider these questions: 1. How does each performance invite you to re-consider aspects of Chaucer’s original? 2. Which adaptation is your favorite?

The Wife of Bath’s Tale (1998): animation by Joanna Quinn. Modern English rendition with intriguing visuals.

The Loathly Lady (2009): words by Prof. Wendy Steiner, music by Paul Richards. Very loose comic opera (musical) adaptation of the WBT.

The Wife of Bath in Brixton Market” (2009): poem by Jean “Binta” Breeze. Modernization of the WBP heavily influenced by Jamaican varieties of English, filmed by the poet herself on site in London (more info on this poet here).

The Wife of Bafa” (2013): spoken word adaptation of WBP by Patience Agbabi (London poet of Nigerian ancestry); note also the text of the poem and the poet’s reflections on her composition process. Note: This performance closely follows the text published in Ababi’s Transformatrix (2000); a new version of this work interspersing the WBT itself appears in Agbabi’s Telling Tales (2014).

[OPTIONAL] The Lover’s Confession: Three Tales by John Gower (2014): Machinima adaptations of three of Gower’s Confessio tales. Producer/director Prof. Sarah Higley recorded these cyber-performances live using avatar-actors in Second Life. If you wish, you can go directly to The Tale of Florent (2014), which is Gower’s analogue to the WBT (you can also read the original Middle English text of Gower’s version).

We read and discussed both WBT and WBP (in that order) before moving on to these adaptations. The questions I posed before class were deliberately open-ended, and we opened our discussion by considering the animated version of the WBT by Joanna Quinn. Since the basic elements of the plot remain unchanged, our conversation quickly started to consider what the new visual medium adds to the story. Students immediately noted that the axe- and sword-wielding Queen (and silent reaction shots from the women assembled at court, including the unnamed maiden whose rape launches the story) all work to foreground the importance of female agency throughout this story. The toggling from stop-action animation (for the pilgrimage frame narrative) to a fluid style of drawing (for the tale itself) suggest the Chaucerian work’s concurrent layers of fictionality.

Our conversation about these adaptations became especially lively when we started to compare the reinventions of WBP by Jean “Binta” Breeze and Patience Agbabi. While these interpretations are quite distinct, approaching these two videos as a pair helped us to think more creatively about the performance context of Chaucer’s WBP itself. In Agbabi’s work, students picked up on the comic delivery of this piece as well as its new cultural context: this Nigerian immigrant, named Mrs. Alice Ebi Bafa, reveals much about her life just as she seeks to sell her wares. Equal parts autobiography and sales pitch, this dramatic conceit draws out the economic discourses used throughout the Wife of Bath’s portrait and prologue. At the same time, the audible laughter in response to Agbabi’s performance speak back to the Wife of Bath’s claim that her “entente nys but for to pleye.”

Our discussion concluded with Breeze’s performance of her own version of the WBP in a variety of English influenced by Jamaican oral traditions; the nonstandard spelling in the printed text suggest an oral quality and the performance captures rhythms and cadences of speech that evoke a broader Jamaican diaspora. The site of this performance–Brixton Market, which has been for generations the center of a diverse Afro-Caribbean immigrant community (the so-called “soul of Black Britain“)–provides a new cultural setting for a monologue about sex and marriage. The narrator delivers her performance as she moves through the physical space of the market, passing by produce stands and busy shoppers. Serendipitous reaction shots (note the passing woman’s disapproving and/or amused glance at the speaker at 1:01) suggest the disruptive qualities of the Wife of Bath character. She performs in a way that conspicuously thwarts the rhythms of everyday life and perceived norms of social behavior. The conspicuous headdress she wears resonates with the garments worn by the Chaucerian Wife of Bath but here the clothing also serves as a clear marker of ethnic difference (or, to put it another way, ethnic belonging).

Screenshot from Breeze performance

A passerby reacts to Breeze’s interpretation of the Wife of Bath.

One issue that came up in our discussion was whether Breeze’s revision of the Wife of Bath replaces the problematic medieval Alisoun with new kind of modern cultural stereotype (one of the students remarked that this kind of performance is not too far from the “sassy black woman” archetype described in this encyclopedia of popular media tropes). Another student in class who happens to come from a family of Jamaican ancestry chimed in to observe that the dress and style of speech in Breeze’s performance seemed culturally appropriate (insofar as features of her pronunciation, grammar, and intonation were concerned). Through these student reactions to Breeze’s performance, a new overarching question had emerged. Does such an adaptation risk substituting one set of (medieval misogynist) tropes with a contemporary (sexualized) ethnic stereotype?

Brixton Market panorama

Thinking about space: Brixton Market [photo taken March 2014].

Discussing the unintended consequences of Breeze’s performance in Brixton Market also gave our class an opportunity to consider some of this work’s possible connections to the broader context of life in Washington, D.C. (where my institution is located). Brixton Market, known as the “soul of Black Britain,” has recently been rebranded as “Brixton Village” with shops that once sold African and Caribbean groceries or textiles increasingly replaced by trendy hip(ster) bars and restaurants. The panoramic photo above (which I took during a visit to Brixton Market earlier this year) offers some indication of how this market has changed since the time Breeze filmed her video. In the photo above, a traditional produce shop with colorful awning (center) stands next door to a stylish new artisanal cheese shop/bar (left). In a conversation with some students after class, we ended up talking about a similar process of “gentrification” occurring in historically black and Afro-Caribbean neighborhoods within in D.C., and local blogs are increasingly voicing concern over whether the historical character of these neighborhoods can be preserved as they continues to change. By “updating” the medieval Wife of Bath by transplanting her to Brixton Market, Breeze’s recorded performance had posited yet another unanticipated question. What does it mean for an ethnically marked voice to embody the authentic character or spirit of a given place? How does the word “gentrification” take us back to the discussions of gentillesse and urban identity explored in the Wife of Bath’s performance?

In the end, no clear “favorite” emerged from the discussion of these videos (indeed, students recognized that these works had disparate audiences and motivations). What emerges most strongly from conversations like this how adaptations can reacquaint us with well-known works of the past. In addition to showcasing features of texts that we have forgotten, ignored, or dismissed (as Candace notes so well in her earlier posting on translations), adaptations can challenge our received readings of texts we think we know well.

I encourage members of the Global Chaucers community (or anyone who happens to come by this site!) to consider integrating postmedieval adaptations when you teach Chaucer. Thinking across time and media does more than show how historically-distant texts might be “relevant” to contemporary audiences. Such a process has the capacity to make us more mindful of how profoundly our readings of medieval texts are actively shaped by the social environment of our own time and place. Bridging the gap between the present and the past isn’t just about making the medieval seem familiar (or, as undergrads in the US are wont to say, “relatable”); a cross-temporal approach also requires the capacity to disrupt our thinking about the present, to move us outside of our own comfort zones and customary frames of reference.

Further Reading:

Candace Barrington and Jonathan Hsy, “Global Chaucer,” in Medieval Afterlives in Contemporary Culture, ed. Gail Ashton (Bloomsbury, forthcoming 2015).

Kathleen Forni, Chaucer’s Afterlife: Adaptations in Recent Popular Culture (Palgrave, 2013), Ch. 4, “The Canterbury Pilgrimage and African Diaspora” (with particular interest in diasporic and postcolonial renditions).

David Wallace, “New Chaucer Topographies,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 29 (2007): 3-19.

Michelle R. Warren, “‘The Last Syllable of Modernity’: Chaucer in the Caribbean,” postmedieval 6.1 (2015), forthcoming.

Michelle R. Warren, “Book Review Essay: Classicism, Medievalism, and the Postcolonial,” Exemplaria 24, 3 (Fall 2012): 282-92.