New resource: Open Access Companion to The Canterbury Tales

oacctlogoNow available!

For those who teach The Canterbury Tales or want to know more about the Tales, check out the new Open Access Companion to the Canterbury Tales, a free and downloadable resource.

Chapters can be downloaded individually, making it perfect for classroom use or personal edification.

Please let the editors know what you think about it (opencanterburytales AT gmail dot com).  They are especially eager to learn how it is used in classrooms outside the UK-US-Canada-Australasia matrix.

To learn about updates to the Open Access Companion to the Canterbury Tales, follow it on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/OACCT/ .

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A conversation with José Francisco Botelho

gaucho-culture-and-chaucer

 

Last February 2016, José Francisco Botelho, Chaucer’s award-winning Brazilian translator, traveled to Connecticut. He was scheduled to speak twice, at Central Connecticut State University on translating The Canterbury Tales and at Southern Connecticut State University on translating Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Though a snow storm that shut down the entire eastern seaboard caused us to cancel the SCSU presentation (and added an extra day to Chico’s Connecticut stay), we were able to squeeze in the conversation at CCSU. There, he and I held a conversation about his translation strategies and how looking at the Tales through the lens of Brazilian-Portuguese provided him insights that English readers might miss.  We arranged to have the conversation videotaped using a stationary camera, and after a delay, I’m pleased to provide a link to the video: Gaucho Culture and Chaucer: Translating The Canterbury Tales for Brazil. 

Chico’s appearance at CCSU was supported in part by the CCSU English Department.

How to Celebrate “Whan That Aprille Day” (2017)

A guest posting by COURTNEY RYDEL

Cover of the Whan That Aprille Day event program at Washington College
Cover the program for “Whan That Aprille Day” celebrations last year at Washington College. Program designed by Olivia Serio (President of the Poetry Club, Washington College, class of 2017).

“Whan that Aprille Day” (the annual celebration of old, dead, and undead tongues) is rapidly approaching! Enjoy this posting by Prof. Courtney Rydel (Washington College) on ways to celebrate this occasion. – Global Chaucers co-directors

Coming at the beginning of April, National Poetry Month in the United States, “Whan That Aprille Day” is a holiday begun by the @LeVostreGC persona behind “Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog” and “Chaucer Doth Tweet” in 2014. @LeVostreGC proposed medievalists unite in our efforts to celebrate “the beauty and great loveliness of studying the words of the past. Our mission is to bring to mind the importance of supporting the scholarship and labor that brings these words to us…and the teaching of these…languages. For without all of this, the past would have no words for us” [read the full 2017 iteration of this open call at the medieval studies blog In The Middle].

In spring 2016, I curated an event on Multilingual Chaucer, gathering students and faculty from across Washington College, the small liberal arts college in Maryland where I teach.  Since then, I’ve participated in another large-scale Chaucer project that was directed towards the larger community, #MedievalBirds with ornithologist Jennie Carr, work on which is still ongoing. Currently I am planning a major Chaucerian event for spring 2018, with guest speaker Kim Zarins, that will involve collaboration with the Education department and local high school teachers.

Based on these experiences, I would like to offer some suggestions for other medievalists looking to create exciting events to celebrate “Whan That Aprille Day” on their campus.   Although the event originated with celebrating Chaucer, that context should not be limiting. “Whan That Aprille Day” has the goal of celebrating the “beauty and great loveliness” in all languages.  Any language, literature, or poetry is welcome!  In this contemporary moment when the NEA and NEH are threatened, we need to come together as humanists and poetry lovers.  The more that medievalists connect with scholars of modern languages and across disciplines, and with our larger community, the stronger we will be.

  • Celebrate the gifts and skills of your students and faculty, and show them how they connect to Chaucer. At Washington College we hosted a reading of “Multilingual Chaucer,” which included students and faculty reading poetry in languages including Korean, Mandarin Chinese, Latin, Spanish, French, Russian, German, Hindi, Old English, and Middle English.  Some readers read their favorite poems in other languages, and some read Chaucer or Chaucer translations.  The mixture of languages and diverse poems brought alive how “The Father of English Poetry” inhabited a multilingual space, and allowed us to hear the many languages of our polyglot, increasingly international campus.
  • If you’re going global, check out the fantastic Global Chaucers online archive, created by Jonathan Hsy and Candace Barrington. This resource for post-1945 global non-Anglophone translations of Chaucer offers sample texts, blog posts and scholarship on Chaucer in modern contexts, and reflections on his impact in the contemporary landscape.
  • Look to interdisciplinary and collaborative research. My biologist colleague Jennie Carr and I undertook a project on #MedievalBirds in fall 2016, in which we combined her expertise on ornithology with my research to create an interactive downtown gallery exhibit on Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls.  We involved students in creating a physical tree that branched onto the ceiling, showing how Chaucer’s categories of birds overlapped with evolutionary development, and in creating videos of students reciting passages from the Parliament of Fowls with present-day English translations in closed captioning.
  • Think about going beyond your college into the community. For Spring 2018, Washington College is planning an event that brings together high school teachers with our community to think about Chaucer in relation to the brilliant YA lit retelling of the Canterbury Tales by Kim Zarins, Sometimes We Tell the Truth. This event will give us an opportunity to bring together our LGBTQIA student groups as well as our secondary ed community with lovers of poetry and medieval studies.  Kim has graciously agreed to come and do a reading and craft talk, and the Education department is collaborating with us on a workshop with high school teachers to help them craft more in-depth lesson plans and relate Chaucer to contemporary issues.
  • Include other medievalists, faculty, and even emeritus faculty with a love of Chaucer! Our beloved emeritus faculty Bennett Lamond, who taught Chaucer for decades at Washington College starting back in 1965, read at our Multilingual Chaucer event.  He gave a hilarious, spirited reading of “To Rosamunde,” likening it to the Rolling Stones song “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
  • Get students involved in their own retellings and rewritings of Chaucer. David Wallace’s undergraduate Chaucer course at the University of Pennsylvania in spring 2014 held an event in which students debuted both their own readings of Chaucer in the original Middle English as well as inspired, irreverent translations into present-day English.
  • Direct your event to increase opportunities for outreach on your campus. Are there other departments or programs with which you want to collaborate?  How can Chaucer connect to other time periods and topics?  Maybe you want to celebrate Chaucer’s influence on later art and media with your Media Studies or Art History departments.  Perhaps you want to work with your Gender Studies department on an event that looks at gender roles in Chaucer, or with Comparative Literature or Modern Languages scholars on an event that highlights translation.
  • Advertise! We had co-sponsors who also helped to publicize the event, including the Global Education Office, Department of English, Department of Modern Languages, Rose O’Neill Literary House, Poetry Club, and Sigma Tau Delta (English Honor Society).  Their efforts, along with our posters, tweets, and announcements, ensured a good turnout for the event.
  • Use social media for collaboration, connections and archiving. This international holiday was created and promoted through social media, so it’s important to create records, post pictures and videos, and tweet, blog or Facebook with the hashtag #WhanThatAprilleDay17 (please note the spelling).

Of course, all of these reflections come from the perspective of a medievalist working in English, who teaches Chaucer. Although “Whan That Aprille Day” started from a Chaucer parody account and remains Middle English heavy, its goal is wide and universal, and it offers possibilities for global and multilingual exchange, just as Chaucer himself makes in his poetry.  In the words of @LeVostreGC, “we hope that the connections, affinities, and joys of this made-up linguistic holiday will widely overflow their initial medieval English context.”

WATD Washington College event group photo
Readers pose for a group photo after the “Whan That Aprille Day” event at the Rose O’Neill Literary House, Washington College (2016).

Global Chaucer and Digital Humanities: Whither and Why?

On 2 and 3 February 2017, Global Chaucers’ ambassadors, Jonathan Hsy and Candace Barrington, traveled to the University of Virginia in order to speak to the Scholars’ Lab and the Medieval/Renaissance Colloquium about “Digital Hospitality” on Thursday afternoon, and to lead a roundtable on “Linguistic and Cultural Hospitality” with the Medieval/Renaissance Colloquium on Friday morning. In addition to the two events’ lively Q&As, we enjoyed ample opportunities to enjoy rich conversations with UVa faculty and graduate students before and after the scheduled sessions. Their probing questions and thoughtful suggestions helped us think about some of the next steps available to Global Chaucers.  All in all, the two days became less about what we shared with our UVa colleagues and more about the unusual luxury of measuring Global Chaucers’ development thus far and assessing the directions it could take in the future.

When we started this blog in September 2012, we didn’t really know what direction our fledgling project would take.  We were uncertain about what sort of global Chaucers were out there—and we certainly didn’t know how we could respond to what we did find. And though we had a website with a list of the translations and appropriations we had tracked down, it wasn’t entirely clear to us that we had a Digital Humanities project.

While we still aren’t certain the directions Global Chaucers will take, we now realize we have a viable DH project. Beyond the ongoing blog reports and the initial catalog of print texts, our website takes advantage of its ability to provide links to graphic novels, poetic performances, translators’ readings, spoken word and standup, and non-spoken languages (such as ASL). Our principles of digital hospitality and openness require, however, that along with embracing the inherent advantages of a digital archive we must also acknowledge and address the unanticipated challenges figured by two curious examples we’ve encountered.

In April 2015, we were pleased to discover a tweet by Sarah Bickley with her exciting, playful, and brilliant emoji translation of the first 20 lines of the General Prologue. We reached out to her, asking her permission to post on the site and added this screenshot with the link. This act of emoji translation—which went viral on twitter over the next week or so—invites such fascinating questions as “are these lines legible to anyone who isn’t already familiar with the GP?” In any case, our archiving of this tweet through a blog post demonstrates one downside to digital communication: its transience. Since the posting of this link, Sarah has since closed her twitter account, and the snapshot that now remains on the blog is a ghost of its former viral life.

On the first Whan That Aprille Day in 2014 (encouraged by the Chaucer Tweeter, LeVostreC), we posted the opening lines in twelve different languages. Some of the non-Roman scripts did not display well, so we took screenshots and posted them online. What we have discovered, though, is that the pleasure of encountering the text in an array of unfamiliar scripts and tongues is not accessible to all. One of our collaborators is blind, and she uses a screen reader to access online material; that device cannot read non-English texts or scripts. Moreover, image files without alt-text are completely inaccessible (there might as well be nothing there). The screen-grabbed emoji poem is likewise completely inaccessible for her at present. Likewise, any audiovisual materials hosted on our site are currently inaccessible to Deaf or hard of hearing visitors unless we embed captions. What might seem like digital openness to many can end up excluding some.

Just as the principle of digital hospitality requires us to rethink our digital presence, the principles of linguistic and cultural hospitality also require us to reconsider how we imagine Global Chaucers and its collaborators.  We began thinking that we would be creating an archive of data and texts that we would then analyze and disseminate.  Although we remain the project’s primary ambassadors, the active interest and participation of other scholars, translators, and enthusiasts means that we shouldn’t resist participants ready to take Global Chaucers in new directions. Not only does information want to be free, so do the voices and data assembled under the Global Chaucers rubric. We hope that the project becomes multi-faceted, with some of its aspect thriving without our direct involvement.

So what are some of the new directions that our UVa conversations helped reveal?

  • It’s time to rethink our initial parameters of “post-1945 translations and appropriations of The Canterbury Tales.” Our catalog now includes translations of and engagements with Troilus and Criseyde, The Parlement of Fowles, and Chaucerian lyrics; and the catalog spans works from as early as the sixteenth century.
  • Our catalog is diverse enough to justify bringing in colleagues with coding expertise, so that we can creating a database coding our collected information about the various translations—languages, translators, tales, dates, and source texts, for instance. That database will then be used to do more outwardly visible work, such as classroom-friendly mapping projects.
  • We need to determine the best way to archive the various forms of graphic, visual, and audiovisual media, including the possibility of a new infrastructure for such material. If Global Chaucers is to encourage an inclusive dialogue about Chaucer as well as more to provide more routes of access that allow us to discuss problematic aspects of his verse, then we need better ways to archive and present information.
  • We need to consider if its desirable to switch the Global Chaucers site into a maker space rather than a user space. If we decide to move in that direction, then we will need help to make the change.

Although we are not certain about the shape Global Chaucers will take, we are confident it will adhere to its initial values of digital, linguistic, and cultural hospitality despite the challenges those values might pose.  For these reasons, we were gratified to learn that our UVa colleagues shared not only our enthusiasm for Chaucer’s global reception but also our commitment to creating a global community.

Thank you Justin Greenlee, DeVan Ard, Zach Stone, Bruce Holsinger, Elizabeth Fowler, Anna Brickhouse, and the Scholars’ Lab staff for your gracious hospitality and for the opportunities to share our work and to learn from you.

 

 

Botelho, Chaucer’s Brazilian Translator, in Connecticut 8 & 9 February 2017

gaucho-culture-and-chaucer

I’m pleased to announce that my Canterbury Tales students and I will be hosting Francisco José Botelho, Brazil’s award-winning poet and translator in a conversation about his Contos da Cantuária.  Botelho is in the United States as a guest of the Global Chaucers Project, CCSU English Department, SCSU English Department, and the George Washington University Digital Humanities Institute.

Date: Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Time: 4:30pm to 6:00pm

Place: Marcus White Living Room, CCSU

We welcome anyone interested in Brazilian culture, medieval literature, translation studies, or fascinating conversation.

Campus Chaucer: The Resurgence of English-only Politics

At the 2017 Modern Language Conference, I was part of a “Campus Chaucer” round table sponsored by the Chaucer forum. Thinking in terms of how current political debates are echoed in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales or erupt in our classrooms, Lisa Cooper (University of Wisconsin, Madison) spoke on the value of labor, Liz Scala (University of Texas, Austin) spoke on expressing diverse opinions on a campus with guns, and Nicole Sidhu (East Carolina University) spoke on sexual assault and trigger warnings.

Below is the text of my talk on English-only politics.  It includes links to my referenced sources as well as to the assignments I discuss. 

During the Republican presidential primaries, the eventual nominee and president-elect announced, “This is a country where we speak English, not Spanish.” Based on that statement and the subsequent rhetoric of the 2016 presidential campaign, I anticipate that right-wing champions will add to their arsenal a familiar shibboleth, English-only policies. Used to support nativist causes in the United States, English-only statements are already a standard part of anti-immigrant stances.  For instance, this past Wednesday evening, NPR’s story about efforts to resettle Syrian refuges in Toledo, Ohio, included this impromptu statement from John Johnstone, a Navy veteran:

“If you want to come here and turn the United States into Syria, I’m against that.

“If you want to come here and speak English, you want to assimilate, you want to have a pizza, you want to have a beer, you want to eat a chicken wing, I’m all for it.”

For Johnstone, Americanness is marked by a constellation of recognizable behaviors—what one eats, what one wears, what one drinks—and at the center, holding these behaviors together is what one speaks:  English. In this line of thinking, speaking English marks a newcomer’s willingness to leave old habits behind and to adopt new ways, even ways antithetical to religious beliefs protected by the first amendment.  Unless English is spoken, a newcomer has not made the necessary sacrifices to be an American.  According to English-only logic, what separates those worthy of being in the United States from those who are not worthy is the willingness to speak English, a willingness from which the ability to speak English is assumed to flow naturally.

The state of Connecticut where I teach, has demonstrated little previous support for English-only policies.  From what I can tell, a lone proponent’s legislative efforts resulted in only one hearing at the Connecticut Assembly, and that was back in the 1990s. While the much of the country turned red in the past two decades, Connecticut has largely stuck to its progressive values. Conservative voices have been largely muted, and right-wing values have been kept under wraps. With the prospect of a new administration in Washington and a more closely divided state legislature, however, I’m seeing a shift in tone. Conservative voices have grown bolder, and more brazen right-wing bumper stickers (my primary index for comparative levels of discontent among the general populace driving up and down I91) have appeared on the backsides of vehicles in the seven weeks ccdl_logosince the election. Now that I’m seeing increased numbers of “Connecticut Citizens Defense League” decals in rear windows—a more aggressive statement than it might initially appear when you remember the 2012 mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut—and the more overtly come-and-take-itmenacing “Come and Take It!”  bumper stickers on the back of pickups, I wonder if I’ll start to see more “If you live in America SPEAK ENGLISH” on my daily commute.  081114_englishonly

Although English-only policies in Connecticut might have seemed far-fetched the last time I taught Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, those policies and the politics informing them warrant my courses’ attention this spring. And if this is true in Connecticut, it’s probably true in your state, too.

What is a Chaucerian to do?

First, no matter where we teach, we need to be aware of the ways Chaucer and other medieval English authors can be co-opted by nativist politics, a point Sierra Lomuto makes in her December posting, “White Nationalism and the Ethics of Medieval Studies” for the “In the Middle” blog.  Rooted in nineteenth-century nationalism and nationalist medievalism, white nationalism easily slides into unfounded notions of a pure English tongue worthy of its eventual global domination. According to this narrative, American English is the undefiled descendant of a language that sprang forth from the British Isles before dominating the world with its linguistic flexibility and semantic dexterity, absorbing bits of other languages without being tainted by the process. As we saw in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, Chaucer and his work can be brought into the narrative when he is identified as the well-spring of a pure English language and the “father” of English letters.

Of course, with few exceptions, students enter our classes on The Canterbury Tales with minimal knowledge of Chaucer or the history of English. And most likely they are not burdened with false information co-opted by nativist politics about the ways medieval languages and literature embody a pure Anglo-Saxon ethos.  Nevertheless, most have an opinion about English-only policies, an opinion often informed by their own relation to other languages.  Although many of my students are within a generation or two of their families’ having immigrated to the United States, it has never occurred to me to discuss English-only policies or their opinions on the subject. In these changed circumstances, however, I plan to initiate a discussion early in the term and to approach the topic of English-only politics in two ways, each using the lens of translation.

The first approach works against the notion that there is or ever has been a stable English linguistic tradition, untouched by other languages, by emphasizing Chaucer as a translator whose works appropriate and embed multiple literary and linguistic practices. Using etymological exercises, we will also explore the essential plurilinguistic nature of English and disabuse ourselves of any sense of linguistic purity and homogeneity even in earlier, pre-global forms of English. Inspired by an assignment shared by Melissa Ridley-Elmes, I also plan to ask students to track particular French terms—such as curteisie, sovereynetee, vileynye, subtil, aventure, gentillesse, entente, and sondry—for their shifting semantic properties not only across the Tales but also through the centuries from medieval French to present-day English.  These two exercises will help students grasp the benefits other languages have brought to English as well as the ways English speakers reshape those stolen terms.

My second approach takes an entirely different tack.  Developed in collaboration with other faculty teaching Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales at universities with multilingual students, this approach centers on an exercise highlighting the bi-lingual / bi-literate expertise of students by using non-Anglophone translations of the Tales. Rather than seeing these translations as cribs for unsteady readers of Middle English, the exercise highlights the ways translations can reveal less apparent aspects of the Middle English text.  Moreover, bringing translations into my classroom allows students to explore (for example) the difference between a Christian pilgrimage and a Muslim haj in the Arabic text, the discomfort with sexuality in the Korean translation, the celebration of sexuality in the Brazilian translation, and the avoidance of religion in the Chinese translations.

Even monolingual students are fascinated by the ways the translations help them see the Middle English text from a new perspective.  This fascination is especially pertinent when translated words embody ideas that seem timeless and unchanging to the students.  Although they may have never taken a pilgrimage, they assume all pilgrimages have basically the same purposes and make similar demands. When a Turkish translation embeds sexual attitudes similar to the students’ own, they are more open to hearing what it says about Muslim dietary practices.  Most significantly, the translations help students see where the tale’s perspectives do not align their own: that the anti-Semitism in The Prioress’s Tale might be deeply engrained, that the misogyny in The Merchant’s Tale might not be an eccentricity, or that the piety in The Second Nun’s Tale might not be a medieval aberration.

Bringing The Canterbury Tales into contact with other languages—either through the etymology exercises or the non-Anglophone translations—provides students with the necessary knowledge to question the premises underlying English-only politics.  Although I’ll probably reveal my thoughts on those ill-begotten policies, the class’s careful attention to Chaucer’s language and its engagement with languages past and present, I suspect, will do the work for me.

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.