Chaucer and Notre-Dame de Paris

by Candace Barrington

NotreDame15c
When Geoffrey Chaucer traveled to Paris in the 1370s on diplomatic missions for the English crown, he would have seen the city’s cathedral, Notre-Dame de Paris, situated on the Île de la Cité. Its Gothic renovations complete, the cathedral would have looked much as it does in this 15c miniature. https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b10509064d/f372

Paris does not loom large in Chaucer’s biography.[1] 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).[2] 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. [3] 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.

Nor would Chaucer have been surprised by the rush of wealthy individuals and global conglomerates pledging to restore the cathedral by promising $1 billion within a week of the fire. We have Erasmus’s story that when he visited Thomas á Becket’s shrine at Canterbury Cathedral in the 1510s, the prior opened, with great theatrical flourish, the box containing Becket’s remains as well as jewels, with each jewel’s monetary value and donating monarch carefully enumerated for the gathered crowd. Attaching one’s name and future to glorious religious foundations has long been the sport of the rich.

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.[4]  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).

 

[1] See, for instance, Marion Turner’s 2019 Chaucer: A European Life.

[2] Derek Pearsall, The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer, page 117, citing Laura Kendrick’s 1984 Studies in the Age of Chaucer article.

[3]Stephen G. Nichols, “Paris,” in Europe, A Literary History, edited by David Wallace, 1.22.

[4] Most poignantly, HF 151-211.

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David Wallace’s Geoffrey Chaucer: A New Introduction

Candace Barrington

Wallacebook

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.

 

Speaking Internationally: Women’s Literary Culture and the Canon in the Global Middle Ages

DidoThis summer, Bangor University (Bangor, Wales) hosts “Speaking Internationally: Women’s Literary Culture and the Canon in the Global Middle Ages” from 26 to 28 June 2019. Part of the Women’s Literary Culture and the Medieval Canon project, the conference will examine how a more global perspective might enlarge our understanding of medieval European women writers and the literary canon. The topics and proposals will interest anyone in the Global Chaucers orbit. Thanks to Liz Herbert McAvoy and Sue Niebrzydowski for putting together a fabulous slate of panels and speakers.

The conference’s keynote speakers are

  • Jonathan Hsy, The George Washington University,
  • Shazia Jagot, The University of Surrey,
  • Elaine Treharne, Stanford University.

For more about the conference (including the program and registration information), please see their conference website .

 

We hope to see you there!

Medievalists of Color

We want to make certain you know about the important interventions being made on

Maurice.Magdeburg
St. Maurice, Magdeburg Cathedral (13th century)

the behalf of medievalists everywhere by Medievalists of Color (“a professional organization of a diverse group of scholars working across the disciplines in Medieval Studies“).

 

Global Chaucers and Medievalists of Color not only share many members but also uphold the same values. Along with MoC, we acknowledge that “enduring patterns of harassment and racism make academic freedom a mere myth for some” and affirm that “positions of misogyny, ethnonationalism, xenophobia, homo- and transphobia, and other biases are not legitimate positions in any conversation because they make freedom for all within the conversation impossible.” Together, we will work toward making “our old field be the ideal home for those recognitions, one that rejuvenates their force.”

Check out their website for their invaluable Whiteness Workshops, Statements, Resources, and Public Resource blog, including the most recent post by Nahir I. Otaño Gracia, “Lost in Our Field: Racism and the International Congress on Medieval Studies .”

 

First Global Chaucers publication! (special issue of Literature Compass)

Chaucer's Global Compaignye, Literature Compass Volume 15, Issue 6 (June 2018)

We are very pleased to officially announce the publication of the first Global Chaucers essay collection!

“Chaucer’s Global Compaignye,” special issue of Literature Compass 15.6 (June 2018), marks the most recent installment of the Global Circulation Project. The entire special issue (with table of contents and bilingual abstracts for each article, as appropriate) is available on the publisher’s website.

This inaugural Global Chaucers publication features contributions by Alireza Mahdipour (Iran), José Francisco Botelho (Brazil), Raúl Ariza Barile (Mexico), Koichi Kano (Japan), Ebbe Klitgård (Denmark), Carol Robinson (US), Nazmi Ağıl (Turkey), and Patience Agbabi (UK), along with Laura Doyle’s “Foreword: Rechanneling Chaucer, Decentering Circulation” and Michelle R. Warren’s “Afterword: Chaucer and the Future of World Literature.” As you will witness, each article opens up new vistas for our understanding of Chaucer’s reception.

This collection has been a true labor of love by the co-editors Candace Barrington and Jonathan Hsy. We appreciate the efforts by many people (including the contributors, journal editors, and production staff) to bring this convivial community of writers to press.

Although Literature Compass is available through subscription, the editors’ introduction (by Barrington and Hsy) entitled “Chaucer’s Global Orbits and Global Communities” is available as an open access download.

P.S. For two recent publications which appeared after the content for this special issue was completed but very much in the spirit of this project, see Sierra Lomuto’s “Chaucer and Humanitarian Activism” (Public Books) and Pamela Troyer’s “Canterbury Trails” (Once and Future Classroom: Resources for Teaching the Middle Ages).

Following Dante and Chaucer into Hell

DSC_2463
The Cathedral of St. John the Divine before Stripping of the Altars.

Thow oon and two and thre, eterne on lyve,

That regnest ay in thre and two and oon,

Uncircumscript, and al maist circumscrive,

Us from visible and invisible foon

Defende, and to thy mercye everichon,

So make us Jhesus, for thi mercy digne,

For love of mayde and moder thyn benigne. Amen.

(Troilus and Criseyde V.1863-1869)

For the twenty-fifth year, New York City’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine followed Maundy Thursday’s washing of feet and stripping of the altar with a host of poets reading from Dante’s Inferno as well as his Paradiso’s final, hopeful canto. The 2018 gathering, overseen by the cathedral’s current poet-in-residence, Marilyn Nelson (known to Chaucerians for The Cachoeira Tales [2005]), featured 29 poets (including my CCSU colleague, Leslie McGrath), translators, and other Danteazzi successively reading half cantos in the darkened, spare cathedral as Maundy Thursday night turned to Good Friday morning.

The fabulously unfinished cathedral, “chartered as a house of prayer for all people and a unifying center of intellectual light and leadership,” provided the perfect atmospherics. Overwhelmingly large yet gratifyingly peaceful and welcoming, the cathedral transformed everyone there, reducing everyone there to tiny specks and essential parts a larger communion.  The vaulted, elongated space meant each reader’s voice reacted differently to the sanctuary’s acoustics, some distorted and muffled by the reverberations, others ringing crystal clear. In these conditions, I found that the readings allowed—maybe forced—me to turn away from Dante’s underlying theology and politics, to surrender to the verse’s imagery.

Three or four half cantos were read in Italians.  The rest came from wide range of translators, including Dorothy Sayers, Mark Musa, Steve Ellis, Robert Pinsky, Michael Palma, and Mary Jo Bang. A few read their own translators. Others did not announce their source. I would love to compile an accurate list because hearing the lines made me think differently about some of the translations and some of the cantos than reading the lines.

The cantos chosen from the reading include some of the most poignant in the Inferno, where we watch Dante losing his way, encounter Virgil, approach the gates of Hell (a canto read in Italian, so I missed hearing “Abandon All Hope”), witness Francesca and Paolo blowing in the whirlwinds of desire, listen to the forest of suicides, stumble onto his former teacher, interrogate Ugolino, and absorb the horror of treachery.  After the deep darkness ending the Inferno, it was an inspired decision to counter it with the bright light overwhelming Dante at the end of Paradiso.

The event concluded with an organ “meditation” that was anything but quiet and inward. Its sound was massive, insisting on being heard and cancelling out all other thoughts. By this time, early morning had overtaken the night, and I faced a three-hour trip home. I was simultaneously overwhelmed and drained.

The evening made me think about the conditions under which Chaucer first encountered Dante’s Commedia.  Did he read it privately? Or did he hear it read aloud? Was it in a small gathering? Or was a situation akin to the public lectures Boccaccio delivered to Dante’s Florentine admirers, communal, learned, and rapturous? If the latter, then those gathered at St. John the Divine on Maundy Thursday drank from the same cup 650 years later.

 

More Patience….

Agbabi.Vassar

Patience Agbabi’s East Coast speaking tour has an additional date and locale: Monday, 13 November 2017, at Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York. If you’re in the vicinity, we highly recommend you make the effort to attend–and bring your students.

Patience never disappoints.