As I sit in my office this morning writing this blog post, the Pope is addressing a joint session of the US Congress on the other side of town (follow the live-streaming of the speech here). After concluding this visit, the Pope will continue on a busy itinerary through Philadelphia and New York.
To mark this occasion, check out Caroline Bergvall’s Chaucerian/BBC mashup about a previous (2006) papal visit: “The Summer Tale (Deus Hic, 1).” Both the text and a voice recording can be accessed at PennSound.
(For more information on the papal visit and DC-area sites relevant for papal history and Franciscan culture, see my blog post at In The Middle.)
Other topical items of interest:
A blog posting about medievalist responses to the global refugee crisis, with a nod to Chaucer pedagogy (with a passing reference to Bergvall’s work Drift, which evocatively refracts the current refugee crisis by way of the Old English poem The Seafarer).
Global 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!
by MEGAN COOK and DAVID HADBAWNIK, with introduction by CANDACE BARRINGTON
Today’s guest posting moves Global Chaucers in new directions, for Megan and David’s work deals with neither The Canterbury Tales nor post-1945 translations, two parameters defining Global Chaucers thus far. Instead, they examine Sir Francis Kynaston’s 17th-century Latin translation of Troilus and Criseyde.
Megan Cook is an assistant professor in English at Colby College, where she teaches medieval literature, with an emphasis on Chaucer and other late medieval poets, and researches and writes about the fate of Middle English texts and books in the early modern period. Her current book project examines the scholarly reception of Chaucer’s works in sixteenth-century England, with special interest in the role of antiquarians in the production of early printed editions.
David Hadbawnik studies poetic diction in English from the medieval through early modern period. He co-edits eth press and is also co-editing a special issue of postmedieval on cross-currents in contemporary and medieval poetry. He has published an article on Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calendar, and his translation of books 1-6 of the Aeneid is forthcoming from Shearsman Books in 2015.
We are delighted they accepted our invitation to bring together their collective knowledge of Kynaston and his understudied translation. Their collaboration sheds new light on what it means (and does not mean) to translate Chaucer into Latin, the global language nonpareil.
THE EARLIEST EFFORTS to translate Chaucer out of Middle English and into a language accessible to non-Anglophone audiences are not in any vernacular language but, rather, in Latin. Latin praise of Chaucer is a minor but persistent strain in his reception: In the 1480s, William Caxton commissioned the Italian poet Stephanus Surigonis to compose a Latin epitaph for Chaucer, which he printed in his 1473 edition of the Boece, and supposedly had posted near the poet’s burial place in Westminster Abbey. In the 1530s, the antiquary John Leland provided readers of his de Viris Illustribus with a list of Chaucer’s titles translated into Latin—the Fabulae Cantianae, Amores Troili et Chrysidis, and the Chorus avium, among others. Leland was aware of the ways in which Chaucer’s preference for the vernacular constrained the reputation of his works in an international community of learning. Elsewhere in his account of Chaucer’s life and works, he writes that “I wish… at least that our language were known to the Latin poets; then they would easily—I say easily—accede to my opinion [of Chaucer’s poetry]/ But since what I want is scarcely possible, I wish at least that having been prevailed upon they would have some faith in me as a lover of Latin literature in this matter.”
While Caxton and Leland are eager to confer on Chaucer the cultural status associated with Latin literature, they are content to let his language stand unaltered (or lightly modernized). By the seventeenth century, however, changes within the English language had made Chaucer’s Middle English less accessible, and some admirers of Chaucer worried that readers would be unable to comprehend his works, much less appreciate their artistry. In 1598, Thomas Speght oversaw the production of the first edition of Chaucer’s Works to contain a glossary, and in the 1630s Jonathan Sidnam produced, in manuscript, a modernized version of the first three books of Troilus and Criseyde.
It is not surprising that as Kynaston set out to Latinize Chaucer he would turn to Troilus and Criseyde, a work set in pagan antiquity and already rife with classical allusion. Although Kynaston produced manuscript copies of the poem throughout his life (distributed as gifts to friends and patrons), his translation is best known via the printed edition of the first two books, which were published in 1635 as Amorum Troili et Creseidae libri duo (STC 5097), with copious prefatory materials in both Latin and English.
However bizarre it might seem to us that the effort to “preserve” and “make accessible” Chaucer’s verse led seventeenth-century writers to translate that verse into Latin, the front-matter of Kynaston’s 1635 Latin Troilus and Criseyde unfolds the logic behind the effort in a way that makes it seem natural, even inevitable. Latinized Chaucer is in some ways the logical conclusion of efforts to establish him as a properly “classical” poet; situating Chaucer in the company of Virgil, Ovid, and Homer was a project that arguably began with the former’s mentioning of those classical authors in Troilus and Criseyde (the famous “Go, litel bok” stanza – V.1786-92), and continued via the encomia of Hoccleve, Lydgate, Hawes, and numerous others through the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
The opening epistle of William Thynne’s 1532 print edition of Chaucer – the distant ancestor of modern collections such as the Riverside Chaucer – provides a compact summary of the cultural work the poet was supposed to have done for the English language. After the “confusion of tongues” that was punishment for, presumably, the Tower of Babel, written language slowly developed, and poets came along to “adorne the rudeness and barbarity of speech.” Latin and Greek were thus “perfected,” with other Romance languages following eventually thanks to their similarity to Latin. English had a tougher go of it, but against all odds Chaucer was able to perfect the tongue not unlike Demosthenes, Homer, or Cicero.
But there was a problem. English continued to change at an alarming rate. Indeed, Chaucer himself had foreseen this issue, also in that famous sequence from Troilus and Criseyde (“And for ther is so gret diversite / In Englissh and in writying of oure tonge… [V.1793-94]). How could Chaucer’s English be perfect if the language also continued to change, to the extent that readers of later ages had increasing difficulty with it? In part, the answer was a characterization of English as a fallen tongue post-Chaucer, expressing an anxiety about linguistic corruption (paradoxically via Latin, French, etc.) and lamenting the loss of an imaginary origin in the ever-receding past. Such anxiety was the backdrop to the so-called “inkhorn” controversy and disputes about poetic diction engaged in by Hawes, Puttenham, Sidney, and others through the late medieval to early modern period. There must, some thought, be a kind of English that gets us back to the Garden found by Chaucer and almost immediately lost due to the carelessness of his descendants – if only we could agree on what kind it is, which linguistic influences to exclude, which to embrace.
The other answer was to leap straight to one of the classical, perfected tongues, in order to avoid the troubling issue of post-lapsarian English altogether. In this light, the logic behind the Latinized Chaucer is still curious, though ultimately sound. Indeed, the Latin Troilus and Criseyde takes its place among a broader discourse of Latin poetry (original and translation) during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (see, e.g., J.W. Binns, Intellectual Culture in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, 1990, and the Brill Encyclopedia of Neo-Latin, eds. Philip Ford, Jan Bloemendal, and Charles Fantazzi, 2014). In that context, translating Chaucer into a dead language is not a bizarre feat akin to the attempt at reproducing Don Quixote undertaken by Borges’ Pierre Menard, but a project of “restaurationem & redintegrationem,” of bringing “vetusta a novis, prisca ab hodiernis” – of, in other words, “restoring” a perfect poem to a perfect tongue.
Thus one of the dedicatory poems in English scolds modern poets for their inability to parse old English and hails Kynaston’s effort
A booke, not tractable to every hand,
And such as few presum’d to understand:
Those upstart verse-wrights, that first steale his wit,
And then pronounce him Dull: or those that sit
In judgement of the Language they nere view’d,
And because they are lazie, Chaucer’s Rude…
Another perfectly captures the guilt-complex of English speakers at the “fallen” state of their own tongue, and with hyperbole worthy of a modern blurb pronounces Kynaston’s translation an instant classic:
Here is no fault, but ours: through us
True Poetry growes barbarous:
While aged Language must be thought
(Because ’twas good long since) now naught.
Thus time can silence Chaucers tongue,
But not his witte, which now among
The Latines hath a lowder sound;
And what we lost, the World hath found.
Thus the Translation will become
Th’ Originall, while that growes dumbe:
And this will crowne these labours: None
Sees Chaucer but in Kynaston.
Another dedicatory poem reinforces the imaginary displacement of the original by the translation, expressing the (ironic) reality that it is easier to read Chaucer in the new-old language than the old-new one:
’Tis to your Happy cares wee owe, that wee
Read Chaucer now without a Dictionary;
Whose faithfull Quill such constant light affords,
That we now read his thoughts, who read his words,
And though we know’t done in our age by you,
May doubt which is the Coppy of the two.
Perhaps most strangely, one dedication voices the desire to read all of Chaucer in Latin, as if the entire oeuvre of the poet could only be fully appreciated in that tongue:
Thanks Noble Kynaston, to whose Learn’d Arte
We owe a limbe of Chaucer, th’other part
Expects thy happy hand, Me thinks I see
It pant, and heave for a recovery:
First let the Trojan Boy arise, and then
True Trojans all, they are his Countrymen.
The Sumner, Franklin, oh that I might heare
The Manciple, and early Chaunticleare
Crowe latin, next might see the Reve, and Logge,
The Miller and learne Latine for a Cogge,
The Merchant, and Sir Thopas height, the wife
Of Bathe, in vulgar Latine scold for life.
Finally, Kynaston is praised for (paradoxically) making Chaucer more English by taking him out of English:
Chaucer, thou wert not dead; nor can we feare
Thy death, that hast out liv’d three hundred yeare.
Thou wert but out of fashion; then admit
This courtly habit, which may best befit
Thee and the times. Thou hast a friend, that while
He studies to translate, his Latine stile
Hath Englisht thee, and cunningly in one
Fram’d both a comment and Translation.
In the 1635 printed edition, the Latin and Middle English text are presented alongside one another, with Chaucer’s Middle English coming from Speght’s 1602 edition. The mis-en-page advances an implicit claim that Chaucer’s English is equal to Kynaston’s neo-Latin; by demonstrating that Troilus can be successfully translated from Middle English into Latin, Kynaston offers seventeenth-century readers proof of the late medieval writer’s ability to ascend the heights of neo-classical propriety (Troilus and Criseyde’s own status as a translation from Italian hovers somewhere in the background). The two versions of the poem also gloss each other: the Latin seems likely to serve as a crib for the Middle English, but the Middle English, too, could offer some readers a point of entry into some complex Latin phrasing. In the material presented here (first two books), Kynaston’s translation is stanza-by-stanza, suggesting that his Latin provides a full equivalent to the Middle English verse. Bolstered by claims in the prefatory material for the robust representativeness of his translation, and its efficacy in restoring Chaucer from neglect and oblivion, Kynaston’s Latin threatens to eclipse Chaucer’s own verse, superseded both by the Latin translation and by the English poets that built upon his innovations.
Kynaston’s translation varies in its fidelity to Chaucer’s English verses. His translation of the famous opening stanza (Book 1, stanza 1) is particularly rigorous:
Dolorem Troili duplicem narrare, The double sorwe of Troilus to tellen,
Qui Priami regis Troiae fuit That was the kyng Priamus sone
gnatus, of Troye,
Ut primum illi contigit amare, In lovynge, how his aventures fellen
Ut miser, felix, et infortunatus Fro wo to wele, and after out of joie,
Erat, decessum ante sum conatus. My purpos is, er that I parte fro ye.
Tisiphone, fer opem recenscere Thesiphone, thow help me for t’endite
Hos versus, qui, dum scribo, visi Thise woful vers, that wepen as I
As Dana Sutton notes in his introduction to the Latin text of the poem, Kynaston uses accentual meter here, rather than the more classical quantitative meter, in a pattern that most closely resembles iambic pentameter with a feminine ending. As a result, Kynaston is able to capture something of the rhythm of Chaucer’s rhyme royals verses. In this stanza, Kynaston is also able to retain some syntactic parallels with Chaucer, beginning with the “dolorem Troili duplicem,” although the stanza as a whole is somewhat less confident than the English original. While the English narrator has a clear “purpos” “to tellen,” the Latin narrator can only attempt to tell (“narare…sum conatus”). Similarly, while in the English, “thise woful vers” do, in fact, “wepen as I write,” in the Latin, they only seem to weep (“visi flere”).
Kynaston takes more liberties with a famous stanza in Book II:
Loquendi forma, scio, quod I know that in forme of speech is
Sit intra seculum; & verbamire Within a thousand yere, and words tho
Tunc temporis in precio, & That hadden prise, now wonder nice
laudata, and strange
Nunc vel in desuetudinem Thinketh hem, and yet they spake
abire: hem so,
Amabant etiam tunc (oportet And spedde as well in love, as men
scire) now do.
Diversis item saecis conciliare Eke for to winnen love, in sondry ages,
Amorem; Artes variae sunt & rara. In sondry londs, sondry ben viages.
Immediately clear even from a visual standpoint is Kynaston’s altering of the stanza’s rhythm. While he may have arranged his syntax, as noted above, to maintain an approximation of Chaucer’s iambic line, the effect of the punctuation in line one creates a full stop to either side of “scio” (“I know”), squarely at odds with the smooth utterance of Chaucer’s narrator. Line three begins by strongly following Chaucer’s sense, with “precio” for “prise,” but what are we to make of “laudata” (“praiseworthy”) which merely seems to echo “precio,” rather than veer into Chaucer’s succinct expression that people now think old words “nice and strange”? It seems ironic that in this particular stanza Kynaston seems to have lost, or set aside, the negative connotations of these two words. “Nice” of course was often used by Chaucer to mean “foolish” or “silly,” while “strange” figures as a keyword in the poem as a whole, one that registers the movement of Criseyde through the course of the poem (see, e.g., Criseyde’s final letter to Troilus from the Greek camp, excusing herself for leaving Troy, wherein the same “strange”/“change” rhyme is employed: “this lettre he thoughte al straunge … / Hym thoughte it lik a kalendes of chaunge” [5.1632, 34]). Likewise, Kynaston cannot maintain Chaucer’s repetitive rhythm “sondry…”) in the closing couplet, and resorts to “rara” to end line seven, though Chaucer merely notes that men used “different routes” (“viages”) in different times and places. Caught in a classic translational crux, Kynaston falls victim to hunting for rhyme words that fit rather than following his text’s sense. In both lines three and seven (“laudata” and “rara”), Kynaston essentially chooses to add a related descriptor rather than maintain Chaucer’s more complex dance with meaning.
A manuscript of Kynaston’s full translation, dated 1639 and now held at the Bodleian Library (MS Add. C 287), tells a slightly different story than the printed text. This version includes all five books of Troilus and Criseyde as well as the Testament of Cressid, written by Robert Henryson but published as Chaucer’s in the folio editions (Kynaston recognizes it as Henryson’s work). Unlike the printed edition, which presents the Latin and Middle English unadorned by any interpretive commentary, the manuscript includes frequent intercalations in English as well as “annotationes” in Latin at the end of each book, having to do with the particulars of the translation.
Kynaston’s opening comment, after the first stanza, lays out the problems that prompted his translation: “diverse words in this our most excellent Authors worke do seeme obsolete, and therefore by many are held absurd, as namely tellen & fellen, and such like under favoure of there better judgements such words ought rather to be esteemed as elegances.” In this, Kynaston echoes the comments made by Thynne in his preface to Chaucer’s Works, and EK’s commentary in Spenser’s Shepheardes Calendar. Like these earlier writers, Kynaston argues that a better understanding of Chaucer’s words will enable a more robust appreciation of his poetry. The implication here does not seem to be that Chaucer’s writings have become wholly unintelligible, but rather that grammatical and orthographic changes have obscured his “elegances”. While Speght and EK focus on Chaucer’s lexicon, Kynaston at least theoretically privileges grammar in his commentary, and recognizes the vestiges of inflection and gender in Middle English. He continues, “it appears by a moast antient Grammer written in the Saxon tounge & character, which I once saw in the handes of my most learned and celebrated frend Mr. Ben: Johnson, & which (out of doubt) Lilly our Grammarian made his Accedence the English tong in Chaucers time, being in substance Saxton, had in nounes distinctions of cases & numbers, & in Verbes of numbers & Tenses.”
Whatever Kynaston’s intentions may have been in setting out to write his commentary, this strain of analysis pops up only intermittently in the first book, and even less so in those that follow. Instead, Kynaston uses the story of Troilus and Criseyde as an occasion to recount a wide variety of gossipy anecdotes, bits of folklore, and somewhat ribald jokes. When he ventures beyond straightforward identification of characters and place names, his notes on the English text digress as often as they illuminate, and many have only a tangential relation to the material they accompany. They bring us away from a serious appraisal of Chaucer as a highbrow writer, and toward Chaucer’s later-seventeenth and eighteenth-century reputation as a “merry” writer, whose works were more likely to inspire popular pastiche and comedic reinterpretations than highbrow re-workings. At the same time, however, amidst the scurrilous jokes and entendre, there is also a serious interest in both Chaucer’s lexicon and grammar that never disappears entirely, and Kynaston remains interested in the connections between Middle English and Anglo-Saxon, as well as Scots.
Kynaston’s commentary is of interest not only because it shows the ongoing evolution of what might be called a historical reading of Chaucer’s text, but because as a translator he himself is involved in a poetic assessment of the text. Thus, for example, Kynaston notes that “Tesiphone being an infernall power, & fained to be the worker of all Sorrowfull perturbations in mens minde[s] (what excellent discription may be found in the first booke of Statius Pampinius)…Chaucer hath not done amiss in going herein out of ye com[m]on path & inuoking the fury as a fitt Muse to his matter.” As with the project as a whole, the implication of comments like these seems to be the more that Chaucer can be shown to conform to the models of poetry that will be familiar to his latter-day readers (whether in terms of scansion, grammar, or decorum), the more his work will receive its due admiration.
In TheRenaissance Chaucer, Alice S. Miskimin writes
Insofar as Chaucer used the language of his own day for poetry, he could only be awkwardly imitated by those born later, and the tone and meanings of his language blurred in a single generation. Insofar as he used elevated, Latinate, and continental poetic diction, his meaning and tone remained ‘polished’ and clear, and he could be copied with relative ease.
Following this “aureate” thread through the subsequent ages of poetic responses to Chaucer, critical estimations of his contributions to English, and textual editing and presentation of his works helps explain the persistent urge to “repackage” Chaucer in the linguistic image of his descendants. Thus certain poems appeared in manuscript and eventually print anthologies, according to not only religious or moralistic tastes, but also linguistic preferences. Needless to say, Chaucer’s poems were also often altered by scribes and editors for similar reasons; and poets like Lydgate rose to prominence by association, enhancing Chaucer’s legacy even as their reputations were burnished. And as noted above, it is perhaps a huge but ultimately logical step from “Latinate” to actual Latin in “preserving” Chaucer for all time. But does Kynaston’s Latin Troilus constitute a truly “global” Chaucer?
While the Latin theoretically could have made Troilus and Criseyde newly accessible to non-Anglophone readers, Kynaston never sought to publish his work abroad: the printed edition was published in Oxford (where, indeed, it might have caught the eye of some foreign academics) and the manuscript copies were all destined for readers to whom he had some personal connection. Amorum Troili et Cresidae might best be understood as a global Chaucer for a local audience. By translating the poem into Latin, Kynaston seeks to make it accessible to readers who are distanced from Chaucer’s original audience not by place or language, but by time. By leveraging the cultural prestige of Latin, Kynaston—like Caxton and Leland a century earlier—makes a pointed claim for the continued significance of Chaucer’s vernacular poem. Paradoxically, or at least surprisingly, as Kynaston moves from changeable English to a purportedly fixed Latin, he engages with many of the same concerns about translation, language change, and poetic expression that underlie Chaucer’s original. Thus, Kynaston’s translation is less concerned than it might first appear with presenting Chaucer to what would have, in the seventeenth century, been an increasingly connected and global community of Latinate readers. Instead, by demonstrating that Troilus and Criseyde can be successfully rendered into Latin, Kynaston uses Latin’s cultural standing among his fellow seventeenth-century academics to assert that Chaucer—despite his archaic language– deserves a place in the “brave new world” of early modern books and readers.
Good news. Contos da Cantuária is among the finalists for the Prêmio Jabuti, the biggest literary prize in Brazil, in the category “Literary Translation – English to Portuguese”. This year has seen a huge number of works enrolled (over 2000 in all categories), so it is really, really good to be among the finalists; that alone is a considerable prize, even if the Contos don’t get to the final three winning places (final results come out in October). I also hope this will help to make Chaucer better known in Brazil; already I have been contacted by Brazilian medievalists who have read the Contos and are thrilled that Chaucer is finally in verse form amongst us. Some months after the first edition of the Contos arrived to the bookshops, a new edition of Paulo Vizioli’s prose translation has been issued (it had been out of print for over a decade). So it seems the merry company is on the road.
Congratulations from Global Chaucers!
We will post the final results when they appear in October.
From the beginning of the Global Chaucers project, our various collaborators, Jonathan Hsy, and I have faced the issue of how to theorize our methodological practice. I had the opportunity to think non-stop about that issue last summer when I attended an NEH Institute, “The Centrality of Translation to the Humanities: New Interdisciplinary Scholarship,” at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. At the invitation of one of the institute leaders, Chris Higgins, a group of us wrote essays for a special issue of Educational Theory, “Translation and Cosmopolitan Humanism.”
Equally important, this article effectively demonstrates the highly collaborative nature of the Global Chaucers project. In addition to the usual panoply of readers and auditors providing advice and reactions that writing any article entails, “Traveling Chaucer” depended upon extensive help from Nazmi Ağil (Chaucer’s Turkish translator) and Leyla Zidani-Eroglu (a colleague fluent in Turkish). Without their good will and expertise, the article would have been impossible. Furthermore, without similar good will and expertise from other translators and readers, the entire project would flounder. Thank you for all who have supported this project!
You can read the article here. Please remember that this is an electronic version of an article published in Educational Theory. Complete citation information for the final version of the paper, as published in the print edition of Educational Theory, is available on the Blackwell Synergy online delivery service, accessible via the journal’s website at http://www.blackwellpublishing.com/edth or http://www.blackwell-synergy.com.
by JOSEPH STADOLNIK, with introduction by CANDACE BARRINGTON
Today’s guest blogger is Joe Stadolknik, a graduate student at Yale University. In his first Global Chaucers post, Joe continue his investigation of Chaucer’s presence in Argentine culture and education. We first learned about his intriguing work in this area when Joe presented in the Global Chaucers Roundtable at the New Chaucer Society Congress in Reykjavik. There, he looked at the unexpected intersection of Jorge Luis Borges, Chaucer, and women’s magazines. Here, he continues by sharing with us how Chaucer was used to introduce students at the University of Buenos Aires to medieval social history.
We think you will find Joe’s introduction to José Luis Romero’s post-Peronist appropriation of Chaucer another fascinating example of what Global Chaucers have to offer. Please share your thoughts with us. –CB
Chaucer’s General Prologue was required reading for students at the University of Buenos Aires in the sixties, but not as prologue to reading the Canterbury Tales. Rather, students of social history read a Spanish prose translation as an entrée into the study of medieval life. The Prologue was printed as the first installment in a series of texts that wended its way circuitously from Chaucer (#1) through printings of Matthew of Paris (#30), the Play of St. Nicholas (39), Trotsky (51), and an account of the 1378 revolt of Florentine wool carders (54). The course in social history at the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters appears to have nominated Geoffrey the pilgrim, speaking in Spanish, to introduce Argentine university students to the structure and substance of medieval society.
The booklet’s construction and design was thoroughly practical. The paper is thin, and the text rendered in a plain typewriter typeface. A title page credits the prodigious postwar Spanish translator Juan G. de Luaces for the rendering out of Middle English. Beyond that, this ad hoc printing provides little in the way of context for the Prologue. There is no description of the Canterbury Tales themselves, and no biographical information about their author. Its readers were left to make what sense they could of certain details Geoffrey provides about the pilgrims (the Prioress’s Stratford-atte-Bowe accent in French, or the pardoner’s affiliation with St. Mary Roncesvalles) without the aid of explanatory notes.
The pictured copy was printed in 1966, but it appears that printing began as early as 1961. This is the earliest date I could find for any booklets in the series “Textos Para La Enseñaza de la Historia: Historia Social” [Texts for Teaching History: Social History]. Presiding over the facultad throughout that period was the prolific and wide-ranging Argentine historian José Luis Romero. His appointment, first as rector of UBA from 1955-6 and then as dean of the Facultad de Filosofía y Letras from 1963-65, coincided with the depoliticization of the university after the fall of Juan Perón in 1955. This process of desperonización replaced Peronist favorites with a more qualified professoriate (though not an apolitical one, as Romero was a committed Socialist). Romero had trained as a classical historian but wrote extensively on medieval economic history, borrowing methods from the Annales school. At UBA he would found the “cátedra de Historia Social General” in 1957 [the Seminar for General Social History]. By 1959, the department was requiring all of its students to take a course in social history.
Chaucer’s place in Romero’s telling of Western history, then, might explain what exactly the Prologue was doing on the history syllabus at UBA. In two surveys of the medieval period, La Edad Media (1949) and La cultura occidental (1953), Romero marks Chaucer out as a man of his historical moment, keeping company with Boccaccio and Juan Ruiz. Chaucer can’t help but adopt a “new attitude” toward nature, sensuality, and the pleasure of life, in spite of the Church’s best efforts (La cultura occidental, p. 35). He laughs at the imperfections of the clergy with his readers; he speaks for a protohumanistic ‘radical optimism’ that contended with the ‘anguished pathos’ of the danse macabre and Flemish mystics (La Edad Media, 183 and 189). Chaucer figures in Romero’s history as one more witness to, and proof of, the cultural transformations of the late Middle Ages, set in motion by a crisis of socioeconomic order as feudalism made way for commodity capitalism (Edad Media, 72-76; Romero would write two later books on the late-medieval crisis of feudalism). The course reached for the Spanish translation of Chaucer’s Prologue first as a social-historical document, but Dean Romero had also seen in Chaucer a modern bent of mind. Chaucer’s pilgrims seem to have made their way into the classroom at the University of Buenos Aires as diverse glimpses into life during the long autumn of the Middle Ages, realized by a man of that season.
Buchinder, Pablo. Historia de la Facultad de Filosofía y Letras, Universidad de Buenos Aires. Buenos Aires: Eudeba, 1997.
Peter Burke. “Romero, Historiador de Mentalidades.” In JoséLuis Romero: Vida historica, ciudad y cultura. Eds. José Emilio Burucúa, Fernando Devoto, and Adrián Gorelik. San Martín: UNSAM Edita, 2013: 97-108.
Fernando Devoto and Nora Pagano. Historia de la historiografía argentina. Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 2009. See especially pp. 339-77.
José Luis Romero. La Edad Media. Mexico City: Fonde de Cultura Económica, 1949.
—. La cultura occidental. Buenos Aires: Editorial Columba, 1953.