by Candace Barrington
The 2019 Biennial London Chaucer Conference was held 28-29 June at St Bride’s Foundation, not far from where Wynken de Worde established his Fleet Street press (soon after printing his 1498 The Canterbury Tales in Westminster). The conference’s announced theme, Chaucer and Europe, only hints at the deeply international nature of the presentations, as I think the following summaries of select papers suggest.
David Wallace opened the proceedings with his plenary “Italy Made Me: Chaucer and Europe,” reminding us that the essential anti-Mediterranism at the foundation of Chaucer Studies (see for example Lewis’s “What Chaucer Really Did to Il Filostrato”), with its hard line dividing northern “Germanic” Europe from southern “Latin” Europe, was a useful fiction that does not correlate with the fourteenth-century Europe Chaucer knew.
In the “Chaucer and Boccaccio” panel, Leah Schwabel’s “‘Oon seyde that Omer made lyes’: Chaucer’s Intertexual Poetics” noted that Chaucer’s failure to identify Boccaccio as his source complied with classical translation practices that obscured and distorted sources; therefore, we should reconsider how we identify intertexual resources and look beyond echoes to modes of borrowing. During the Q&A, Kenneth Clarke reminded us that there is only one extant fourteenth-century manuscript of the Teseide, and that one is Boccaccio’s autograph; no one at the time seems to have read more Boccaccio than Chaucer [correction 7/13/2019*]. Clarke’s own presentation, “Medieval Humanism and Vernacular Poetics: Chaucer, Ovid, And Ceffi,” established that the gamma iteration of Fillipo Ceffi’s Italian translation of Ovid’s Heroides was one of the sources for the Legend of a Good Women, further complicating the network of European texts and books that Chaucer responded to.
In the Chaucer and Machaut panel, Juliette Vuille’s “French Kissing and Ménage à Trois: Machaudian influences in Chaucer’s metapoetic Pandarus” considered what Chaucer learned from Machaut regarding poetic voice and the process of invention. David Levinsky’s “European Peripheries: Machaut and the Monk’s Tale” looks to the tale’s four “modern instances” to consider the limits of exemplary and historical writing.
The Global Chaucers round table began with Ana Sáez-Hildago’s presentation on the earliest Spanish translation of Chaucer: a 1914 children’s book based on the British Tales from Chaucer. Preceding by seven years a full translation of The Canterbury Tales into Spanish, the small volume went through five printings across five regimes (1914-1956). Candace Barrington introduced some less-obvious Chaucerian influences in Tomáš Zmeškal’s 2008 Milostny dopis klínovym písmem (Love Letter in Cuneiform, translated by Alex Zucker in 2016), whose narrator was shaped by Chaucerian “misdirection.” Lydia Zeldenrust introduced us to an in-process Frisian translation of
the Tales. Because Frisian is a marginal language seldom written and with a small written literary tradition, Klaas Bruinsma’s project is to create a foundation of translated works on which to elevate a Frisian literary tradition. (Sounds very Chaucerian!) David Wallace kicked off the room discussion with an insightful response that asked us to consider what this reception history reveals about our own readings of the Tales.
The first day wrapped up with Laura Kendrick’s “Chaucer and Deschamps.”
The conference’s second day opened with a fascinating round table discussing the recently published Middle English Travel: A Critical Anthology, edited by Anthony Bale and Sebastian Sobecki. Designed for undergraduate use, the volume includes essays on travel-related topics, an anthology of medieval travel texts, and contextualizing material (such as maps and charts). Together, the entries help reveal the hitherto underestimated capabilities of these travel writers.
In the following session entitled “Senses and Emotions,” Eleanor Myerson’s “Mamlūk Spices and Medieval Digestion” stood out for its identification of connections between Chaucer’s family and the spice trade, connections which help elucidate his textual references to the remedial properties of spices.
After lunch, Patience Agbabi framed her readings from Telling Tales and The Refugee
Tales with a discussion of the importance of both celebrating verse as well as acknowledging storytelling’s therapeutic effect as a validator of traumatic experiences.
In one of the two final concurrent sessions, “European Afterlives,” Lotte Reinbold’s “A Diluted Drink: Dreaming Troilus and Criseyde” examined how Kynaston’s 1635 Latin translation removes ambiguity in Troilus’ dream of the eagle removing his heart, thereby rendering the text more tragic and suitable to his audience’s tastes. On the same panel, Sarah Salih returned to The Refugee Tales, which indirectly argue that we should be more like our medieval predecessors, making the collection an outlier in the work that the medieval does in the present day. The Refugee Tales is able to make this argument by reimagining the medieval past as a tolerant, multicultural one we’d like to emulate. As Salih makes clear, this sort of recreation doesn’t need to be condemned, but it does need to be correctly contextualized.
Marion Turner closed the conference with “Chaucer’s European Life.” Chaucer’s diplomatic journeys would have given him a close-up view of more tolerant, multicultural societies such as Naverre. And his bureaucratic jobs in London would have shown him how tightly connected English politics and economics were tied to those on the continent.
Many thanks to Alastair Bennett and Hetta Howes for putting together an engaging conference that examined Chaucer from a more European perspective. It was a fabulous conference!
[These summaries are from my jet-lagged notetaking at the conference. If I have misrepresented anything, please contact me. I will make the necessary corrections or clarifications.–CB
* Thanks to David Wallace for this correction.]