I began the second day of the Congress by joining a group of Global Chaucerians for breakfast at a nearby coffee shop. Jonathan and I have found informal gatherings like this are helpful for colleagues attending the NCS Congress for the first time.
For Session 3, I attended my first lightening panel: “Chaucer and Transgender Studies” moderated by Ruth Evans. The six short papers were fascinating and provocative.
Leanne MacDonald (University of Notre Dame) “Challenging Normative Notions of Transidentity in Medieval Studies”
Wan-Chuan Kao (Washington & Lee University) “Trans*domesticity”
Michelle Sauer (University of North Dakota) “Reading the ‘Glitch’: Trans-, Technology, and Gender in Medieval Texts”
Miranda Hajduk (Seton Hall University) “’My Sturdy Hardynesse’: The Wife of Bath’s Antifeminist Satire as Trans Narrative”
Cai Henderson (Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto) “Christine de Pizan’s ‘droite condicion’: Authorial Construction and Resonant Reading in Transgender Text”
Because the presenters were limited to 5-7 minutes, the heart of the panel was the ensuing conversations among themselves and with the audience, as we explored transgender topics, including the ways Chaucer’s characters inhabited multiple, simultaneous identities; the transphobic elements of The Miller’s Tale; transmission glitches revealing resistance to hegemonic norms; and the nature of transgender ethics. The lightening format, a new format for NCS, proved an excellent structure for presenting ideas and generating conversation.
Next up, the program featured a plenary panel on Race and Inclusion: Facing Chaucer Studies, Past and Future. The five speakers were Anthony Bale (Birkbeck, University of London), Candace Barrington (Central Connecticut State University), Carolyn Dinshaw (New York University), Wan-Chuan Kao (Washington and Lee University), and Richard Sévère (Valparaiso University). The invitations to participate on the panel were issued nearly year ago, and the subsequent months proved the program committee’s wisdom in forming the plenary round-table addressing questions of race, whiteness, and inclusion in the field of Chaucer studies.
The program committee requested that our short presentations consider “more broadly the historical past of our field as well as our ethics of engagement in the present, and to look forward to what needs to happen next.” We were also asked to consider the international dimension of our society and “to offer a past-future presentation on whatever facet of Chaucer” we would like to address.
Scholarship in the field of race and Chaucer specifically, which can include Orientalism and antisemitism, etc.
Scholarship about Chaucer and medievalism as it relates to race
Strategies for pedagogy when it comes to racially inclusive classrooms, etc.
Race and mentorship in Chaucer studies
The role of NCS as public face for Chaucer studies in these contexts
Methods for decolonizing Chaucer Studies
While the five of us each approached the task differently, we all ended by focusing on our individual and institutional responsibilities to ensure that, despite our mistakes as scholars and teachers, we make the study of the literary past open to everyone. The panel generated useful conversations that should extend well beyond the limits of the Congress.
At lunchtime, many contributors to the Open Access Companion to the Canterbury Talesgathered for a picnic lunch on the lawn outside Victoria College. For the first time since Brantley Bryant broached the idea to a group of scholars in 2015, the large group assembled, with some of us meeting each other for the first time.
Because I am very interested in the sorts of texts we provide students and scholars throughout the world, I attended the two afternoon sessions organized by Elizabeth Scala: Is There a Text for This Class? Editing Chaucer Now I & II. There are many proposed solutions to our current predicament, and I’m eager to see if any address the needs of undergraduate students (like mine) who are eager to engage with early literatures but have no plans for graduate study.
After those two sessions, I met Ruen-Chuan Ma, an early-career medievalist at Utah Valley University. We were introduced through the NCS mentorship program organized by Tom Hahn (Rochester University), Shazia Jagot (University of Surrey), and Sierra Lomuto (Macalester College). As we talked, we walked leisurely to the Art Gallery of Ontario for a reception co-hosted by Medievalist of Color and featuring a display of art objects—Ethiopian religious paintings and European boxwood beads—accompanied by a beautiful, contextualizing pamphlet (written by Meseret Oldjira [Princeton University] and Seeta Chaganti [University of California, Davis]). Attendees were provided “thought questions,” and I’m going to close Day 2’s posting with them.
If you are a senior scholar, what can you do to help grad students and less-established scholars of color feel welcome in a field that has historically alienated people of color? (Note that NCS has a wonderful mentorship program that will serve this end really well.)
If you are a journal or book editor, what do you think about the diversity of the authors your publication or list represents? What can you do to improve that diversity?
For everyone: how can we create networks together that will be truly inclusive?
In a 2 November 2017 article in The New European (a news source decidedly on the “remain” side), Charles Connelly explains why Chaucer provides comfort to England’s twenty-first-century Europhiles.
In the last couple of years in particular I’ve found myself delving back into Chaucer more often than usual in search of solace and sanity because, strange as it may sound, reading the work of the first great writer in English is a tremendous comfort to a Europhile during these troubled Brexit times. Back at the tail end of the 14th century in England, Latin was the language of religion while French was the language of the court and the legal professions. English was seen largely as the vernacular of the lower orders, an oral form of communication not suited to usage among the corridors of power, trade and culture.
Chaucer is often described as the father of literature in English and is hence often held up as a patriotic trailblazer for the English nation, scratching away with his pen, ploughing a lonely parochial furrow against the cultural hegemony of the foreigners on the other side of the English Channel.
It’s a school of thought that took hold during the 19th century when a fresh English national narrative was required for a nation careering around the globe painting chunks of the map a bold imperial pink.
. . .
This is the same kind of shallow sense of self-regarding patriotism that helped to fire the Leave campaign and continues to dominate the bone-headed approach of the government to the Brexit negotiations today. Particularly since the referendum I’ve heard Chaucer cited as an example of British – by which they mean English – exceptionalism and separateness.
You can read the rest of Connelly article here. Although it is informed by the essayist’s recent reading of David Wallace’s Geoffrey Chaucer: A New Introduction, the article contains some errors that shouldn’t be pinned to Wallace’s book.
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.
For a long while I’ve been intrigued by the large concentration of important Chaucerians in Japan. Japanese scholars present at Anglophone medievalist conferences around the world, and their work appears regularly in monographs, collections, and journals. No other non-Anglophone country produces more first-rate Chaucerians. Where did their passionate interest in medieval European literature (in general) and Chaucer (in particular), originate? A forthcoming article by Koichi Kano traces the somewhat dispiriting publication history of the first Japanese translation of The Canterbury Tales in 1917; bringing Chaucer to a Japanese audience through prose translation was certainly an important step. I have my own ideas about the role played by Lafcadio Hearn, a Greco-American scholar, author, and translator at the end of the nineteenth-century. Perhaps, though, the best explanation for what I’ve observed during my own twenty-five-year career can be explained by the extraordinary influence of Professor Toshiyuki Takamiya.
Over a period of fifty years, Professor Takamiya became one of the preeminent private collectors of Middle English manuscripts. His passion for collecting Western books was sparked when he handled one with its thick pages and sturdy binding, creating a heft noticeably different from the Japanese books he knew growing up in post-war Japan. This son and grandson of prosperous traders had recently received two degrees (in Economics and in English) from Keio University, and he soon became a knowledgeable scholar of medieval literature. With familial resources and deep knowledge, he transmuted his bibliophilic passion into shrewd manuscript purchases.
Two historical and academic circumstances allowed him to amass his distinctive collection. First, when he began purchasing manuscripts in the 1970s, many landed British families were divesting their book and art holdings in order to pay property taxes. In this sense, the Takamiya collection’s shape (like that of any other collection) was determined by availability. Moreover, the restrictions were looser for exporting these items, items that would eventually be covered by the Garvey Clause and prohibited from leaving the U.K. Thus, not only were the manuscripts on the market, but they could be removed from the U.K., a pair of historical circumstances not likely to be repeated. This means that Takamiya’s 1970s purchases were the necessary route for a non-U.K. institution (such as Yale’s Beinecke Library) to acquire significant manuscripts in the 2010s.
Anyone with the necessary financial ability and bibiographic acumen could have taken advantage of these circumstances and purchased the manuscripts now comprising the Takamiya Collection. One reason Takamiya was able to acquire these manuscripts with little competition can be understood as the consequence of mid-twentieth-century academic fashions. At that time, institutional collections (the competitors who could match his resources) such as the Folger Library, the Huntington Library, and research university libraries were primarily attracted to illuminated deluxe manuscripts, most often Italian humanist and other Latin texts. These collectors passed on the more modest Middle English codices, rolls, and fragments with minimal ornamentation that Takamiya quietly slipped into his library and generously shared with colleagues and students around the world.
His three Canterbury Tales manuscripts, however, take advantage of an academic fashion peculiar to Chaucer Studies. When Takamiya purchased the Devonshire and Delamere manuscripts, codicological studies focused on a handful of essential texts. Chaucerians sought to recreate a text that matched medieval author’s intention by identifying the earliest examples. Two manuscripts, the Ellesmere and the Hengwrt, were identified as the earliest sources and thus the texts that should form the basis of Chaucer scholarship. Once scholars had noted the gaps, textual variants, and idiosyncratic ordering of the tales found in the other manuscripts, Chaucerians generally overlooked these “lesser” manuscripts. With libraries and museums not interested in them for their aesthetic beauty, and university research libraries not interested in them for their contents, these seemingly prosaic, even debased, manuscripts were available to the young Japanese bibliophile with the foresight to see what others overlooked.
For decades, Takamiya’s medieval library was a resource to scholars, whether they studied in his class at Keio University, made a pilgrimage to Tokyo, or participated in conferences from around the world. His carefully curated collection—filled with texts chosen to satisfy both the collector’s enthusiasms and the pedagogue’s and scholar’s needs—provides an epitome of the period’s extant text. The quality of the Takamiya collection resides in the collector’s drive towards completion, his financial resources, his knowledge of medieval texts, and his intuition about which manuscripts were currently undervalued.
In 2013, the collection’s residency in Tokyo came to an end but not its availability to scholars, for its transfer to Yale’s Beinecke Library ensured a safe and accessible repository.
When the crates of medieval manuscripts began arriving in New Haven from Tokyo, they held of one the most significant acquisitions by a North American library in half a century. As the 143 codices, roles, and fragments were unpacked, cataloged and made ready for their new home in New Haven, Connecticut, the staff noticed that, here and there, Professor Takamiya had inserted used envelopes and business cards, marking both his place and (it turns out) his temporary custodianship of the books. Beyond the assigned accession numbers prefixed with “Takamiya ms,” nothing else about the books seems to betray the five decades they spent in his care, both in the temperature-controlled library of his Tokyo home and his international travels when he gleefully pulled from his bag a valuable manuscript that formed the cornerstone of his talk’s analysis.
Among the 143 manuscripts in the Takamiya Collection are Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe as well as three containing TheCanterbury Tales, including the Delamere Chaucer and the Devonshire Chaucer. Before acquiring these manuscripts, the Beinecke had no manuscript copy of the Tales; now it has three as well as the Treatise ms, Takamiya ms 9, 22, 24, and 32. With their travels from England to Japan and now to the U.S., these four manuscripts add a new dimension to the term “Global Chaucers.”
The Beinecke celebrated its acquisition of this transformative collection with Making the English Book, an intimate conference featuring eminent scholars of medieval manuscripts, book collectors associated with Toshi Takamiya, and Professor Takamiya himself. In all ways, the conference reflected Takamiya’s generous spirit, his warm sense of friendship, and his passion for collecting Middle English manuscripts. I attended the conference not only as a medievalist fascinated by the manuscripts themselves but also as a Chaucerian curious about what it means that such a significant mss collection (with 4 Chaucerian mss) was amassed in Japan: what it tells us about Chaucer Studies in Japan, what it tells us about ourselves, and what it tells us about Chaucer and his works that we might otherwise overlook.
I came closer to some answers. Some Japanese medievalists at the conference see a commonality between European feudalism and Japanese feudalism, and hence Japanese scholars have a natural interest in that European period. They also credited Japanese interest in Chaucer to the three good translations now available. They explained the nature of Japanese scholarship, with its intense emphasis on phonology and textual variants, as a function of the way English is taught in Japanese schools; Middle English is part of the teaching of English, since their approach includes the language’s history. They tend toward that approach because, as one scholar wryly admitted, that approach was most likely to receive (grant) funding. Takamiya’s collection, with its wide range of Middle English texts helped to feed those interests.
Repeatedly, the conference presentations reminded us that the provenance of a manuscript is important, reminding how ownership shapes the reception and how reception shapes ownership. Ownership marks are carefully preserved and noted in all discussions of the manuscripts. That fact that Prof. Takamiya seems to have left no similar marks recording his possession of this significant collection seems out of step with the delight he and other bibliophiles take in tracing provenance. His apparent failure to leave his mark in his books reminded me of certain attitudes towards conservation I observed in Japan. At many shrines and pilgrimage routes, “conservation” did not mean “restoration.” Instead, “conservation” meant careful, respectful, and continued use of an object or place, leaving as little trace of one’s presence as possible, neither mourning when use wore away a stone step nor replacing a wooden beam deteriorated by weather. I see something akin to this in Takamiya’s habits as an academic collector who did not see himself as an owner but as a guardian: he cared for the manuscripts without turning them into museum objects. He used them as a scholar and teacher who left the faintest trace, just a stray envelope or extra business card left behind, waiting for his return. Nevertheless, his name is permanently associated with these manuscripts, if not with owner’s marks on the flyleaf or doodles in the end pages or annotations in the margins, then with their accession number.
Perhaps, though, he had a bit more in common with many of the books’ previous owners because, after confessing that he never inserted the bookplates he had had specially designed for his collection, he whispered that there might be some very small TTs penciled in the gutters. With this tantalizing clue, we should all keep a watchful eye open for these hidden monograms whenever we open a Takamiya manuscript.
Patience Agbabi will be making one of her few U.S. appearances on 25 November 2017, 7pm, at Boston College. Her readings and performances are unparalleled, as those of us at NCS 2016 in London witnessed. If you’re in the area, don’t miss this opportunity.
In the small Sonoran city of Magdalena de Kino, 126 miles due south of Tucson, Arizona, the Church of Santa María Magdalena houses an recumbent image of St. Francis Xavier (co-founder of the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits). Pilgrims who seek help from the saint can ascertain whether their prayers have been deemed worthy of intercession by trying to lift the statue’s head. If it moves, their prayers have been acknowledged; if it doesn’t, the saint himself has remained unmoved, their devotion insufficient to merit his help.
In a convenient cross-over between saints’ days, 4 October (feast day for St. Francis of Assisi) seems to be a favorite time for making this pilgrimage into the Sonoran desert. Former head of the University of Arizona’s Southwest Folklore Center, Jim Griffith, has compared these autumnal pilgrimages to the springtime pilgrimage in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. He provides this instructive paraphrase:
When October with its relatively cool winds has taken the real edge off the fierce desert heat. When it’s cool enough that you can stand to walk around outdoors. When the summer rains have stopped and the roads aren’t a sea of mud and it’s pretty easy to move. Then folks want to move.
And, as he adds, “they want to move on a spiritually sanctioned trip.” To hear Griffith recite these lines from his General Prologue-redux, listen to Pulse of the Planet’s recent rebroadcast of a 1997 show about autumn’s migrations and pilgrimages.
Thanks to our intrepid contact for all things regarding Chaucer in Mexico, Raúl Ariza-Barile (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México), for this Borderlands 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.
A century ago, the United States declared war against Germany and its allies. The same week, Chaucer was making his first (and perhaps) only appearance on the stage of New York’s Metropolitan Opera in Reginald deKoven and Percy MacKaye’s English-language opera, The Canterbury Pilgrims. To mark this double centennial, we’re reproducing Candace’s account in her American Chaucers (2007) of the fifth performance when the evening was interrupted by news that the United States would be entering the Great War in Europe.
During the spring of 1917, New York’s Metropolitan Opera lavishly mounted the premiere performances of Reginald deKoven and Percy MacKaye’s The Canterbury Pilgrims. One of the first full-length American grand operas to appear on the Metropolitan’s stage, the opera received primarily lukewarm reviews: it seemed neither very grand nor very American. Sung in English by a largely German cast, the opera was frequently critiqued for being no more intelligible to the audience than an opera in German or Italian. The only English words universally recognized by the audience were in Act Two, when the German-accented “Vife of Bat” cried “Shud upp-phh!” On the evening of the fifth performance, however, the audience was probably less concerned than before about discerning the fine points of the pilgrims’ journey to Canterbury, preoccupied instead with the news due from the White House at any minute.
For months, the captains of American commerce and industry, many of whom were at the Metropolitan on that evening of April 2, were eager for President Wilson to declare the nation at war against Germany and its allies. At the end of the third act, word arrived that President Wilson had advised Congress to accept “the status of belligerent” that the behavior of the Imperial German Government had thrust upon the American people. As the New York Herald reported, the news spread as “the blackface typed extras” were passed from the lobby “to the orchestra seats and then to the boxes.” Within five minutes, patrons had abandoned all decorum and newspapers were spread out over the box railings. The American audience was jubilant at the news. Whereas the librettist had once hoped the Chaucerian opera would “[restore] old merry England to the imaginations of men” and turn their minds to the woos of England under assault, this night the war in Europe captured American imaginations and turned their minds away from The Canterbury Pilgrims. When it came time to begin the fourth and final act, Maestro Bodanzky soberly entered the orchestra pit and conducted the musicians in the national anthem, while the audience stood up and sang. James W. Gerard, the United States ambassador recalled from Germany, marshaled three cheers for President Wilson, and the house of 3,500 roared with approval for the President’s war message. After the cheering died down, Bodanzky led the orchestra in “The Star-Spangled Banner” for a second time before finally starting Act Four.
The final act began in front of Canterbury Cathedral’s impressive west entrance, with the Canterbury Girls chorus hawking their wares. Then entered the Wife of Bath (German alto Margrete Ober), dressed “gorgeously as a bride,” ready to claim husband number six, and gloating about her newly-won “pot of honey.” In the middle of a phrase, unable any longer to control her anxiety about the United State’s impending entry into hostilities against her native land, Mme. Ober fell back in a dead faint. “In that condition, she was lifted and dragged off with some difficulty, not to reappear, while the other stars made the best they could of the closing act without her.” Offstage, Robert Leonhardt, the German baritone singing the role of the Knight, also fainted but was revived in time to join the final chorus.
Despite the episode of the fainting Wife of Bath, ticket receipts for the Metropolitan’s seven productions of The Canterbury Pilgrims merited extending the opera company’s contract with deKoven for another season. But before the next season began, not only the fainting Germans but all German nationals were sent home, forcing the cancellation of The Canterbury Pilgrims’ second season and allowing its chances to join the Metropolitan’s repertory to slip away. The opera, however, had faced a Sisyphean task: it sought to bring a vernacular libretto and music to an audience that distinguished itself from the rabble precisely by dismissing the American vernacular in favor of European standards of verse and music. As much as the opera was undermined by the repatriated Germans, ultimately the opera was undermined by the production conditions, in particular the decision to use German soloists to sing the principle parts in English, a decision neither the composer nor the librettist could control.
. The opera had its world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera on March 8, 1917.
. Irving Kolodin, The Metropolitan Opera, 1883–1966: A Candid History (New York: Knopf, 1966), 309–13.
. Scrapbook Clipping, New York Evening Journal, March 9, 1917, MacKaye Family Archives, “Percy MacKaye Papers,” Collection housed at Dartmouth College Library, Hanover, New Hampshire, ML 5.
. Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present (New York: Harper Collins, 1995), 352–54. Though the war was a boon to commercial interests, the majority of Americans did not support entering the war (T. J. Jackson Lears, “The Concept of Cultural Hegemony: Problems and Possibilities,” The American Historical Review 90, no. 3 [June 1985]: 586, fn 46).
. Scrapbook clipping, New York Herald, April 8, 1917, “Percy MacKaye Papers.”
. Correspondence, PM to RdK, July 19, 1915, “Percy MacKaye Papers”.
. Quaintance Eaton, The Miracle of the Met: An Informal History of the Metropolitan Opera, 1883–1967 (New York: Meredith Press, 1968), 194–95.
. Percy MacKaye, lyricist, and Reginald deKoven, composer, The Canterbury Pilgrims, An Opera in Four Acts (Cincinnati and New York: John Church Company, 1916), 54.
. Percy MacKaye, The Canterbury Pilgrims: An Opera (Libretto) (New York: Macmillan, 1916), 54; and, Scrapbook clipping, unknown source, April 3, 1917, “Percy MacKaye Papers”. Compare this with Metropolitan manager, Giulio Gatti-Casazza’s version: “There was an immense stir in the house. Backstage, in the wings, Mme. Margarete Ober, who was a patriotic German, was so affected by the news that she fainted away, and we had to go through the last act without her” (Memories of the Opera [New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1941], 179–80). According to all sources, Mme. Ober did sing the season’s remaining two performances.
Already, the opera was associated with entering the war: the second performance had been attended by Ambassador James Gerard (had he nothing better to do?), and the New York City Times duly noted that he “listened with evident interest to a language which he and his official staff had been hissed for using when attending theatres in Berlin” (Scrapbook clipping, March 17, 1917, “Percy MacKaye Papers”).
We are delighted to co-publish with In the Middle David Wallace’s witty and perceptive analysis of The Tale of Januarie, an opera in Middle English recently premiered at Guildhall School of Music and Drama. –Jonathan and Candace
by David Wallace
The Tale of Januarie
Music by Julian Philips, libretto by Stephen Plaice, directed by Martin Lloyd-Evans, Guildhall School of Music & Drama, 27 February to 6 March 2017
Middle English is the surprise star turn of this opera. Librettist Stephen Plaice, shortly before the final public performance, spoke of the liberating effect of writing in a medium with greater flexibility and plasticity than modern English can muster. Variation of stress, word order, and spelling multiply expressive options, and final -e proves more singable, with sicknesse working better than blunt sickness. Having feared that Middle English would be academic and dry, Plaice found it quite the opposite: “a treat!” Having now moved on to write a libretto based on a Conrad novel, he misses the fizz, so he says, of medieval language. Working with Middle English, Plaice says, makes modern English seem “deadening”: an interesting word choice, bumping Middle English from the “dead language” column. Composer Julian Philips agrees: Middle proves simply more singable than modern English. Consonants are hard to vocalize; sicknesse or herte move us closer to Italian, the chief language of opera and of opera training. Also, says our composer, Middle English renders “familiar” English strange-yet-familiar; each word must be newly weighed, for expressive possibilities, with no “default” position. And clearly different rhythmic-linguistic strains flow close to the surface of Middle English: Frenchified elements, suggesting courtliness and “triplety feel,” pitch themselves against Germanic bluntness (“bulles ballokes by yow”).
The work that became The Tale of Januarie began as part of a taught MA at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London, developing from chamber piece to full-blown, fully-produced opera (with excellent staging and lighting, and phenomenally energetic playing from the pit). It was supported by the “Cross-Language Dynamics” project, led by the University of Manchester and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Setting Middle English in this “translingual strand” provoked much discussion, leading to gradual realization of its aptness for opera. Lovers of this medium are well attuned to hearing languages they do not speak; opera puts meaning over by relying not just upon words sung, but also by combining sonic, scenic, visual, and bodily elements. One audience member compared experiencing The Tale of Januarie to “listening to something in a foreign language that you know quite well.”
Composer and librettist, and later director and designers, had nine months to research and develop the project, from first inklings to opening night. Much of what followed depended upon the varied talents available locally, at Guildhall. Both Philips and Plaice had studied Chaucer at school, and fortunately both had been “set” the Merchant’s Tale. Composer Philips followed the melodic lines of Middle English while borrowing, he says, from Machaut’s Ballades, and from secular songs. He also experimented with Pythagorean tuning, a mode especially associated with Pluto’s on stage entourage of courtly musicians, one of whom, Elisabeth Flett, proved doubly adroit at bagpipes and medieval fiddle. Librettist Plaice remembers being long ago enchanted by the sound of Chaucerian Middle English as committed to vinyl by Oxford don, and theatrical impresario, Nevill Coghill. But on turning to Coghill’s Penguin translation, first published in 1951 and still going strong, he was disappointed: “the music,” he said, “has gone out of it.” In attempting to put music back in, Plaice was led not only to borrow, bend, and adapt Chaucerian lines but also to essay Middle English, Middle English-ish, composition. In what follows I consider first this liberation of the librettist, and then his difficulties– which are not so much his difficulties, but those of Everyman, in anxious times.
Both composer and librettist became increasingly aware, in developing The Tale of Januarie, of their work resonating strangely with, but often against, an ever more alienating present. Philips, in working through the time of “Brexit horror,” found solace in celebrating multilingual English, “as if writing an opera in two or three languages at the same time.” Plaice found uncanny historical resonance in the folly of January’s vanity building project: “we’re going to build A WALL!” The huge wall on stage, erected to create a private space for Januarie and May, fails (like every wall since Hadrian’s, or China’s, or the Great Hedge of India) to exclude, building only the illusion of an isolated, self-sufficient place. Januarie‘s final stage direction is “the TOWNSFOLK are demolishing the wall again.”
Plaice’s jouissance in composing Middle English expresses itself chiefly through street cries, wassailing songs, and in ditties sung by Proserpina and her attendant nymphs. His lines are generally shorter than standard Chaucerian, and his chief source of inspiration or encouragement here, Plaice says, are those songs sung in Shakespearean comedies. The apotheosis of such writing comes “In the Privy” (Act 2 scene 3), where May seeks to enjoy
Sweet pees of the privee
the onlie place I kan sit alone.
The Middle English-like alliterating of the first line works nicely here, and place in the second begs for a second syllable, just before the caesura. It is upon this eminence, her privy-throne, that May reads her letter from Damyan, ignoring Januarie’s off-stage cries, and then sings “an aria of revenge on her former employer” (stage direction), Maistresse Wellow:
Well, now I am wed
With a lover in store,
I’m richer than yow,
Far richer mor.
So Maistresse Wellow
bulles ballokes by yow,
go boyle, go frie,
you’re not werth a cow.
At this point of the opera, seated beneath the canopy of her outhouse “privee,” May dominates the stage and directs events. The very next scene, however, brings her down– and this is perhaps where the librettist’s difficulties begin, too. The scene, called “Back in the Bedroom,” sees aged Januarie demanding sexual compliance from youthful May, his new wife:
Stonde and strepe on the bedde!
In the preestes bok the rubriche seye –
a wyf shul shewe her buxomness alwey . . .
May resists, Januarie becomes more peremptory (“Strepe naked!”), and Proserpina is outraged:
A wyf is not a pepe and se!
May finally begins to comply, removing her clothes, Pluto arrives and does nothing, Proserpina strikes Januarie blind: end of Act 2.
Theatrical tension towards the end of Act 2 stems from the fact that in standing and stripping on the bed, at Januarie’s command, May would expose herself to the entire theatre. Act 1 had concluded with the wedding night, in which Januarie performs his “trespace” upon May in private:
stage direction: He closes the curtains on the four-poster bed. Noises from within.
Such “noises” are comically augmented by the pit, with much use of squeaky toys. And this, as May boasts to Maistresse Wellow, is a union to which she, May, has consented. Januarie is at fault in the second scene because May does not consent again— and here a gulf opens between medieval and modern understandings of the marriage contract. Or, we might rather say, differences between legal assumptions extending from the Middle Ages to the 1970s (with marital rape not recognized as a crime in all fifty states of the USA until 1993) and the present. In the Middle Ages, au contraire, consent is effectively given once only, at the wedding, as each party contracts “the marriage debt.” After that, says Chaucer’s most famous exponent of this concept, the wife no longer possesses control of her own body, nor the husband:
I have the power durynge al my lyf!
Upon his propre body, and noght he.
(Wife of Bath’s Tale, 3.158-9)
For the librettist of The Tale of Januarie issues of consent loom, topically and understandably, large. The final day of performance, the day of public discussion, saw England’s only significant liberal newspaper, The Guardian, lead with the headline “‘Epidemic of sex harassment in universities” (with the further headline “Resistance is female: The new wave of protest” top left, a feature in the G2 section). Campus sexual harassment, as The Guardian detailed throughout the week, and as most everybody knows, mostly involves older men forcing themselves upon younger women, Januarie coercing May. In 2017, then, Januarie must be stopped in his tracks, called out, and punished through imposition of a disability: blindness.
Campus rape, consent, and sexual harassment are still issues that campus authorities struggle to see as individual stories to be heard; when the librettist or indeed academics of my generation were at college, as undergraduates, this was much more so. The enhanced isolation and punishment of Januarie is thus understandable, albeit (I would suggest) somewhat panicked. Panic perhaps stems from the fact that all six core members of this production team (director, designer, lighting designer, conductor, composer, and librettist) are men. And it must be said that presentation of sexuality in this production is notably, egregiously, penis-driven. When the curtain first rises Priapus is seen on stage, pushing a heavy wooden wheelbarrow. This barrow, it turns out, transports his own gigantic phallus– at first, and generally thereafter, covered with sacking, but eventually unveiled by Proserpina’s nymphs. Said nymphs have much fun at the beginning of Act 3 in provoking Priapus. He wheels hopelessly after them, but their joint chorus of disapprobation is
Somme seyen ye, we seyen ne,
That has nought to do with love!
(emphasis added in the singing)
Priapus is referenced in the Merchant’s Tale, but only as a descriptor of gardens (4.2034-7). His only other appearance in Chaucer comes in The Parliament of Fowls (a text from which the librettist sources some textual material):
The god Priapus saw I, as I wente,
Withinne the temple in sovereyn place stonde,
In swich aray as whan the asse hym shente
With cri by nighte, and with his sceptre in honed. (253-6)
Priapus does momentarily enjoy the spotlight here, “in sovereyn place,” albeit disabled by his giant stiffie. But it is worth noting that “the temple” housing him is that of Venus; later in the poem, Chaucer walks out into a pleasant, grassy domain to find another female deity, Nature, governing matters of sexual attraction and reproduction. In The Tale of Januarie, however, anxiety about the penis couples with rule and narration by the penis (and I’ll stick with penis, rather than phallus, since it is palpably and pinkly there, on stage, in the wheelbarrow). For strangely, Priapus (who more often speaks than sings) is the tale’s narrator, from the start:
stage direction: PRIAPUS wheels his barrow into the foreground and addresses the audience.
PRIAPUS spoken: Whilom ther was dwellinge in Lumbardye
A worthy knyght . . .
So whereas we might say that a poem such as the Parliament is structured by successive and diverse visions of all-encompassing female sexuality, Januarie seems rather driven by anxieties arising from the penis, the phallus, Priapus (the last of the characters to leave the stage, “with his empty wheelbarrow”).
As in The Merchant’s Tale, Januarie has his sight restored by Pluto just in time to see May’s “struggle” with Damyan upon the pear tree; as in Chaucer, some new form of understanding is then negotiated between husband and wife. But for The Tale of Januarie, this is not the end, and a “Finale” is appended to Act IV. Librettist and composer thought Chaucer’s tale, so they said, to be somehow “unfinished.” The logic governing their additive ending might be compared with that of Robert Henryson, in his Testament of Cresseid: the protagonist found guilty of sexual crimes should not get off so lightly. The final scene, described as “Autumn,” begins with townfolk and rustics celebrating the fruitful season. Pluto, borrowing a scythe from a grass-cutter, suddenly becomes Death (with exact visual modelling upon Death in Bergman’s Seventh Seal). Januarie negotiates with Pluto-Death for extra time: “An half-yeere?” Pluto refuses all bids for extended life: not even a day’s leave will be granted:
JANUARIE: Oon deye.
PLUTO: Noon deye.
JANUARIE: Noone deye!
PLUTO: Noone deye.
JANUARIE: Then I must leet heer for alweye?
Januarie then attempts to approach May, who is heavily pregnant. Pluto and Proserpina debate (yea and nay) whether Januarie should retain the comforting illusion of human legacy, fruit of his sexual labor. Having exclaimed “An blood heir. An fader I am!” as his parting words, Januarie descends to the underworld with Pluto and Proserpina (herself, of course, subjected to perennial raptus). This last scene gathers up some of the theatrical memory of Henry IV, Part II, where the new monarch, in the presence of his rehabilitated Lord Chief Justice, casts off Falstaff. Sir John, however, retains some hope of social rehabilitation; Januarie has none.
In Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale, judgements passed by the tutelary deities pertain to all men and women. Or at least, all women: Pluto merely capitulates (“I yeve it up!” 4.2312) when faced down by Proserpina’s feminist decree:
Now by my moodres sires soule I swere
That I shal yeven hire suffisant answere,
And alle wommen after, for hir sake. (4.2265-7)
The Pluto of The Tale of Januarie, unlike his Chaucerian counterpart, overrides the will of his wife, evolving into one of those lurking ducal or despotic figures familiar from Shakespeare: Vincentio in Measure for Measure, for example. While Proserpina and her nymphs frolic at the beginning of Act 3, Pluto “is some distance off, watching, but uninvolved” (stage direction). The judgement delivered upon Januarie at the end of his contemporary Tale, his repudiation and isolation, seems especially harsh when compared to the inclusive Chaucerian ethos of “alle wommen,” and all men under women. Centuries of post-Shakespearean theatre helped shape this end, riding the deep current of a non-negotiable, post-Reformation divide between the society of the elect and those condemned to darkness. But Januarie’s final isolating of Januarie as a man who fails to seek a woman’s sexual consent also symptomatizes the anxieties of a male-authored, male-produced text of our own time. Issues of consent concern all men, not just a few individual, isolable malefactors, and “alle women” also.
The Tale of Januarie achieves something always to be hoped for in this kind of contact experiment: that the earlier text, erupting into the present, should expose contemporary anxieties and blindspots. Additionally, while necessarily working through certain intermediary Shakespearean conventions, The Tale of Januarie effects conjunctures between past and present that speak to remarkable continuities over time: what is funny then can be funny now; a privy is still a place for private reading. The most obvious sign of such continuity is the prop that dominates the stage, from first to last: the giant tree. For the Middle Ages, of course, the tree is the most fraught and fruitful of symbols, connecting the garden of Eden, and its apples, to the tree of the cross. And for the most iconic of modernist productions, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the tree (first without, and then later with leaves) is the one indispensable feature of stage design. The tree of Januarie is first seen bare, as the play opens; by play’s end it is full of fruit. It thus marks the duration of drama, but also queer continuity with the time and language of Middle English, dialoguing with this Tale. Priapus has the play’s last word:
The pere hath ripen on its tree.
Thus endeth heere the Tale of Januarie.
This ending is especially poignant since, so far as I can find out, no video trace remains of this extraordinary, sometimes ferocious, collaboration of musicians, actors, singers, and designers. Women did not script or direct The Tale of Januarie, but made their mark on stage through full-blooded portrayals of May and Proserpina, of market women Friuli, Ravizza, and Signore Farina, as maidservants Rosina, Julietta, and Laura, and as nymphs Nightshade, Flycap, and Mandrake.
All this, while lingering in the mind, is gone like smoke.
with thanks for quick and crucial responses from Crystal Bartolovich, Carissa Harris, Robin Kirkpatrick, Clare Lees, and Elaine Nixon; and with further thanks to Candace Barrington and J.J. Cohen.