News and Notes

Canterbury Tales animated!

There are a number of adaptations of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales out there -- especially, as you'd expect, of the more confessional stories like the "Pardoner's Tale" and the "Wife of Bath's Tale" -- but they're not always terribly compelling. (Patience Agbabi's Telling Tales is the exception that proves the rule, of course!) But a student discovered, in the depths of YouTube, a series of stop-action animations of certain Tales -- originially aired in Britain in 1998 -- that are good fun. The clay puppets lend themselves to exaggerated facial features, expressions, and gestures, giving the whole story a kind of grotesque humor that is particularly fitting for the "Pardoner's Tale." They are retellings more than adaptations, capturing plot and pilgrim interaction more than Chaucer's central thematics, but they're great examples of that kind of revivification of Chaucer's tales.

Here's the "Pardoner's Tale" for your viewing enjoyment, or you can go over to YouTube and start the series from the beginning.



The Friar's Tale a la The Toast

Bros. British Library MS Royal 19.C.I, fol. 33r.

If you have been paying any attention to The Toast's content this past year, you'll know already that Mallory Ortberg has been killing it with her medieval-themed spoofs and humorous material. One of her recent successes was The Wife of Bath's Prologue. So I handed this piece to this semester's Chaucer students and told them they'd get extra credit for spoofing a different Tale, a la The Toast. And this is what Gretchen Hauser (yes, she of "Plea to a Drakken" fame) came up with. Because (as she said, giving me permission to post this), who wouldn't want to be bros with a demon?


The Friar’s Tale


FRIAR . Now back in my country

There was this archdeacon, a classy guy,

Who punished all these sins—

Witchcraft, fornication, slander, adultery,

Robbing churches, not observing sacrements, usury, simony—

Yeah if you were a creep you definitely did not want to mess with this guy.

Anyway he had this summoner working for him

And that dude was totally sketch. I mean like

He had spies who told him where he could make the most money,

Like he would use bad guys to find more bad guys!

You guys, I really have to tell you about what this dude did

And don’t worry cuz friars don’t even answer to summoners

And they never ever will haha


SUMMONER. “For Pete’s sake, prostitutes don’t answer to us either, way to put yourself on that level—“


HOST. “Shhhhh! Proceed.”


FRIAR. Alright so this Summoner guy had spies, like I said,

So he made a lot of money under the archdeacon’s nose

And he had these girls who worked for him

Who would sleep around with Bob-Hugh-Jake-Ralph, whoever

And then snitch on them, so this guy would draw up a false summons

And he would basically rob the men and let the girls go--

“Yo, she’s not in trouble,

trust me I am your friendly neighborhood summoner”—


I mean this guy knew a sinner better than a man knows his mistress

Like in the biblical sense lol

And so what happened one day was

While he was on the prowl for some poor unsuspecting sucker

He ran into a yeoman!


So the summoner says “hey hello welcome friend”

To which the yeoman says “hi, where are you off to?”

And the summoner says “uh nowhere really. I’m uh, I’m a bailiff so you know how that goes.”

And the yeoman says “Bro no way, I am a bailiff too!”

To which the summoner replies “Bro!”

And the yeoman responds “Bro!”

So they decided to share whatever profit they make

Some kind of life-or-death agreement, the usual


Anyway later the summoner began asking some tough questions

Like where the yeoman was from and how he came to be a bailiff

And the yeoman kind of sweats a little

And gives some answers that make him sound

A little bit like Satan

But the summoner is pretty dumb so he doesn’t notice

Until finally this yeoman guy gets some kind of conscience

And comes out to the summoner as a demon. From actual hell.

“Holy moly you really got me I thought you were an actual yeoman” said the summoner.

Then the demon dude tells how demons tempt humans

But you know, withstanding temptation equals salvation

Which is exactly the opposite of what demons intend hahaha


He’s like “Bro I’m still in on this if you are”

And the summoner is like “Bro!”


So they resume their usual trickery, traveling along

And then there’s this guy with a cart of hay and horses stuck in mud

Cussing and fussing: “To hell with this shit”

Which the summoner takes as an offer--

“Dude he’s giving you all his stuff!”

But the demon shakes his devilish head and tells the summoner

“Nah he didn’t really mean it, doesn’t count.”


The next person they run into is a hag lady

Who the summoner decides to completely screw over

So he tells her about a summons that he made up in order to get her to pay up

What a dick am I right

So the hag lady is like

“I’m pretty sure you just made that up. Damn you

And this frying pan I’m holding to hell you liar”

And the demon steps in and says “excuse me, did you mean that, or--? Asking for a friend”

And the hag lady says “Hell yeah, unless this guy repents”

But the summoner is an idiot so he refuses.

So the devil becomes the proud owner of a summoner

And a frying pan


The point I’m trying to make is

Don’t be tempted by demons okay

Also summoners suck

So pray for them

So maybe some of them will realize how much they suck

And decide not to go to hell one day.


How to Talk To Your Dragon ... in Middle English

Initial of St Margaret, British Library Burney 345 fol. 86v.

My department is a great place to work. For example, yesterday I got to play a dragon for a colleague. Simon Gatrell is teaching a course on Harry Potter, and he needed faculty "dragons" to guard dragon eggs (a scene you might remember from The Goblet of Fire). Students could win the eggs from us "dragons" if they answered our questions correctly and petitioned us with sufficient aplomb and abasement.

The students who came to my lair were very well prepared for my medieval tests, bravely reading the first 14 lines of the Canterbury Tales aloud (and with proper pronunciation) upon command. But one of my actual Chaucer students from this semester who is also taking Dr Gatrell's course was very disappointed that her team did not get me for their dragon. (It's hard to be a Hufflepuff.) She had prepared a beautiful Middle English begging-poem for the second half of the "test," and it seemed a shame to let her efforts go to waste.

So, if you ever need to petition a Middle English dragon, I highly recommend following Gretchen Hauser's lead by trying something like this.

Plea to a Drakken


O drakke, that swich furour hadde noon,
And verray canstow brenne us to goon,
Er that he fyr been breathed, I axe yow bold:
For sight of oon bright egg lyk Midas gold
And eek that grete tresour ye kan yeve
To Hufflepuff, who soothly stand hir leve.
We humblee beg succour from you y-wis
A gentil drake that oure freende ys.



I'm no Julian of Norwich, but...

The Toast often does a good job with medieval memes, and with this one, they've knocked the proverbial ball out of the park. I link partially in anticipation of teaching ENGL 3300 (Women in Literature: Medieval Women's Literary Culture) shortly, where we'll read Julian and learn exactly why all things shall be well.

If Julian of Norwich Were Your Professor ...

... you would ask her what would be on the final, and she would reply, “All manner of things shall be on the exam.”


... she would always have a mug of tea nearby. When the two of you had meetings, she would offer you a cup of tea. It would always be builder’s tea, and you would always accept. Your papers would be returned to you with tea-rings on them, and sometimes a scribbled note of apology beside the stains.


... she would calmly and efficiently dispatch any offensive comments made by the bro in the back row. He would feel instant contrition, and start reading progressive feminist sites as soon as he got home. By the following semester, he would bring brownies to Gay-Straight Alliance meetings at which he would never, ever speak, only listen.


Sharps an Flats (UGA Remix)

Chaucer has inspired a myriad of retellings, remixes, mashups, and other literary responses, and one of the most recent -- and most sophisticated -- homages is Patience Agbabi's Telling Tales (2014). Agbabi's poetry collection reimagines Chaucer's pilgrims in twenty-first century England and retells all his tales, via the diverse idioms of contemporary Brits and in equally diverse poetic styles. In my Fall 2014 Chaucer course, Agbabi's collection took center stage, and we considered how Agbabi responds to Chaucer's canonical status just as Chaucer himself had responsed to the literary authority of Virgil, Ovid, and Petrarch.

Three hearty students decided that, in lieu of a final paper, they were going to make a video of one of Agbabi's poems, "Sharps an Flats." This rap-inspired poem is her rendition of "The Prioress's Tale" told, this time, in the voice of the now-dead boy and set (the students decided) in the London projects. And, keeping of the spirit of the course, the students wanted to remix Agbabi's remix -- not just by matching Sydney Miles's beats to Ime Atakpa's stellar performance of the poem, but by "Athensifizing" the storyline (thanks in large part to Claire Morgan's contributions). Locals will recognize iconic places in the video, and you'll undoubtedly hear some UGA-specific lyrical changes.


Sharps an Flats (UGA Remix) from Cynthia Camp on Vimeo.


This is a beautiful rendition of Agbabi's poem, both aurally and visually - these students have some serious talent - that's starting to realize the possibilities of transforming Agbabi and Chaucer both. The move from a young boy to a college student as the victim allows the video to address town-gown tensions -- issues that are racialized in Athens more than in many college towns -- while the portrayal of white-on-black violence could speak to contemporary racial problems from Michael Brown on down the line. The video doesn't quite yet accomplish these things, but it points the way. Most vitally for those of us who teach Chaucer, the Agbabi poem and student video together suggest ways of moving our discussions of the Prioress's Tale beyond issues of antisemitism (important as that is) to even broader questions of violence and the freedom of expression. I'm writing this on the day the French authorities took out the extremists who killed the Charlie Hebdo journalists, and the potential of the Chaucer-Agbabi-video trio to speak to these issues is especially potent today.

The students (and myself) have been highly flattered by Agbabi's generous response to their performance and re-envisioning of her work -- you can read her reactions to the video on her blog.



Directed, filmed, and edited by Sydney Miles

Props and costuming by Claire Morgan

Screenplay by Ime Atakpa, Sydney Miles, and Claire Morgan

"J" : Ime Atakpa

Mother-figure : Claire Morgan

Assailants : Jordan Strunk and Edgar Lopez


Did Shakespeare drink at Chaucer's Tabard Inn?

Image of the Tabard Inn in the 19th c.

You probably know the Tabard Inn as the Southwark drinking establishment from whence Chaucer's pilgrims started their imaginary pilgrimage. The Tabard was a real place -- just off London Bridge on the south bank of the Thames, on the route from London to Kent and Canterbury, and it persisted (in one form or another) until the mid-19th century. And you probably know Southwark as the London suburb, on the south bank across the Thames from the City of London proper, that was home to Elizabethan London's riff-raff: prostitutes, bear-baiting, and commercial theatre. What you did not know -- nor did anyone else -- is that the luminaries of the Elizabethan stage drank at the Tabard.

Recently, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor Martha Carlin came across a reference to bardic carousing in Jacobean London. In the miscellanous 1643 papers of an anonymous antiquary, she reports in a recent Times Literary Supplement article, the antiquary describes Southwark in its decaying medieval splendour. Those "ancient places" included the Tabard Inn, about which he reports,

Ye Tabard I find to have been ye resort Mastere Will Shakspear Sir Sander Duncombe Lawrence Fletcher Richard Burbage Ben Jonson and ye rest of their roystering associates in King Jameses time as in ye lange room they have cut their names on ye Pannels.

Wall graffiti as the early modern equivalent of the restaurant's wall of photos showing Famous People Who Ate Here? Could be. It's certainly entertaining to imagine Will and Ben, in their cups, scratching their names into the walls. Or perhaps we should be imagining the names being engraved by the inkeeper: Harry Bailey's 17th c. counterpart, a hosteler who knew the power of words to attract custom and that the names of such players, contemporary purveyors of "sentence and solaas," might keep other customers at the bar for a second round.

Did the Tabard become the early modern equivalent of Oxford's Eagle and Child? That pub, where the Inklings -- C.S. Lewis, J R R Tolkien, Owen Barfield, and others gathered to drink and share their fiction -- has become a literary pilgrimage site for lovers of Narnia and Middle Earth, for whom no trip to Oxford would be complete without a pint in the "Bird and Baby." It's lovely to imagine theatre buffs drinking in the Tabard after plays, hoping for a glimpse of Richard Burbage, or to envision Kentish country-folk staying at the Tabard so they could lord their "brush with fame" over their rural neighbors.

However, keep in mind that the 1643 antiquarian who recorded this tidbit was preserving descriptions of

many ancient places yet to be seen and fast falling in ruine and not noticed by others.

That is, the antiquarian may have seen fit to list the names of players on the Tabard walls precisely because it was not a site of continued interest.

These antiquarian records preserve a tantalizing glimpse into early Jacobean London and into continuities between late fourteenth- and early seventeenth-century Southwark, but they leave more unsaid than they reveal. Or, more properly, their revelation opens up questions about the Southwark literary scene that we didn't even know we should be asking.


Painting the Walls in Medieval Churches

St Christopher from Slapton, Northants

We Americans often earlier church interiors to have been bare, unadorned wood or stone. That's part of our Puritain heritage, and also partly fed by the fact that medieval cathedrals today are usually bare stone. But the medieval church would have been brightly colored - polychromed - and the walls were often decorated with elaborate paintings of religious scenes. The Painted Church website (an older site full of useful material) collects, by topic, images of most of the extant wall paintings in medieval England. There aren't that many, and they are often in rough shape, thanks to the Reformation and the ministrations of time.
Recently, one such series of beautiful wall paintings was uncovered in a small parish church in Wales. Because it had been covered with plaster for 500 years, the paintings are remarkably bright and well preserved. You can read about the discovery and watch a video of the recovery process and uncovered paintings, thanks to the BBC.


Anglo-Saxon Bling

Staffordshire Hoard Seahorse

The most famous Anglo-Saxon bling may be the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial treasures, but the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon goldwork is the Staffordshire Hoard. Discovered in 2009 in western England, the Staffordshire Hoard is a jaw-dropping, eye-dazzling collection of intricately crafted works of armorial art. The official website (linked above) will let you view the hoard's major treasures and give some insight into the culture that created -- and buried -- them.


Recuperating Medieval Science

Portrait of Robert Grosseteste from BL Royal MS 6.E.v, fol. 1r

It's easy to pidgeonhole medieval "science" as a mishmash of superstition and ignorance. (Alchemy? Astrology? Ptolematic cosmos?) But a team of physicists, Latinists, and philosophers at the University of Durham are suggesting otherwise. They've taken the scientific writings of Robert Grosseteste -- thirteenth-century English bishop and mathematical luminary -- and analyzed them through both medieval and contemporary understandings of science, and found that Grossetesete's methods and conclusions aren't that different from contemporary science's understanding of the universe. You can read the team's synopsis of their work in a 2014 edition of Nature or (if you're so inclined) the full scientific article.
Want more? Check out the team's Ordered Universe website.


What would John Donne's London have sounded like?

Following on my earlier note on the video fly-through of 17th c. London, here's a similar project centered on Old St Paul's -- the magestic cathedral that dominated London's skyline before the Great Fire of 1666 -- and St Paul's Cross, an outdoor raised pulpit from which sermons were preached and announcements were made. Graduate students in various departments at North Carolina State University worked together to craft a visual and audio recreation of one of John Donne's sermons, the "Gunpowder Day Sermon" of 1622, to replicate what it would have been like to have stood in St Paul's Churchyard and hear, through the ambient noise, Dr. Donne's preaching. That project, the Virtual Paul's Cross Website, has all sorts of nifty information, both technical info on the methods used to create the videos and historical info on the sermon and accompanying order of service. The videos below (which I found via the Londonist's article on the project) give you, first, a silent fly-through of the St Paul's churchyard, and second, a 30-second clip of the sermon itself.





Alice's Adventures in Middle English

What if Lewis Carroll had lived in Chaucer's London? What if his Alice had been an "Alys"? What if he had written in verse instead of prose, if his Alys had known what a fourteenth-century girl would have known, and his dream-vision (for so it is, really) had been populated by medieval rather than Victorian references? Well, it might have looked something like The Aventures of Alys in Wondyr Lond, a new translation of Carroll's story into Middle English. You can check out the blurb by translator Brian S. Lee or buy it for yourself from Amazon.


Maps and Gazetters of Early Modern London

As a follow-up to the fly-through of early seventeenth-century London, I suggest the Map of Early Modern London, hosted by the University of Victoria and based on the 1560 woodcut map known as the Agas Map. You can view the map image by image, click on designated links to learn more about the different London locales, use the Encyclopedia to locate specific places, read early modern texts that describe or talk about London, and more!


What would John Donne's London have looked like?

What would the streets of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century London looked like? What would you have seen as you walked through town? Shopfronts, vistas, church squares? How did vendors display their wares? What were the street surfaces like? Buildings? Wharves down on the river?

A student team from De Montfort University (England) has created a fly-through of London as it would have looked in the seventeenth century, before the Great Fire of 1666 decimated almost all the wooden (and many of the stone) buildings that made up early modern London. You can read the Wired blurb about their award-wining animation, and watch the video itself below.



How Chaucer Told Time


How did medieval individuals tell time before the atomic clock, Greenwich Mean, or even dependable mechanical clocks? There were lots of ways, but one of the most scientifically sophisticated was the astrolabe, a hand-held adjustable device for determining time and meteorological details based on the positions of the stars. It was an important tool in the astrologer's kit (remember that astrology was a branch of science in medieval Europe), and Geoffrey Chaucer translated the first English treatise on how to use an astrolabe for his young son, Lewis.


Tom Wujec, in a short TED talk, walks you through not just how to use an astrolabe, but also what it can do that your wristwatch or iPhone can't. It's an amazing phenomenon that anyone even vaguely interested in the medieval past, history of science, or history of time should know about.



Scribes and Xeroxing Monks

A little medieval scribal humor (and pain), embedded in a classic Xerox commercial. And you thought the printing press was a major technological innovation...


(with thanks to my 2310W students, who dredged out this wonderful gem!)


"Choose Your Own Chaucer" Film Group (Chaucer, Spring 2010)

In the spring of 2010, a group of my Chaucer students convinced me that they could make a film of Chaucer's "Legend of Dido" from his Legends of Good Women that would be an interpretively sophisticated engagement with Chaucer's poetry, his encounter with his classical sources, and his narrative techniques. Against all odds, they succeeded admirably; below, you can not only view the film's two tracks, but you can also click through to a Viewer's Guide to the films (for those of you not familiar with the LGW) and read a professorial apologia I wrote as a kind of "comments" to the students themselves as well as a justification for this kind of creative academic work.

A Viewer's Guide

"Choose Your Own Chaucer" film tracks

In the original DVD, the viewer was prompted at the end of each scene to choose either the Dido perspective or the Aeneas perspective. Because YouTube can't support that kind of choice, you'll have to watch both and imagine the effect of switching between narrative threads. You'll want to view the Dido track first, as that's where the prefatory material is housed.

Dido Track


Aeneas Track


A Professorial Apologia

This is a legacy post from my earlier faculty website


Old English Goes To The Movies

Imagine. Lines from classic movies, in Old English. That's what these students from the University of Sheffield have done -- you'll never look at Grease the same way again.



Haute couture gets medieval...

A recent article in History Today remarks upon a somewhat unexpected fashion trend: Parisian designers creating collections inspired by medieval texts, images, and writers -- as well as medieval clothing styles themselves. As Benjamin Wild writes of Vivienne Westwood,

The septuagenarian’s Parisian show in March was especially striking because it was based on a book of illuminated medieval manuscripts. Voluminous fabrics of deep purple, crimson and ultramarine were enlivened with gold embroidery and printed patterns, replete with birds, flowers and berries. Gowns were long, shoulders were angular and sleeves were puffed.

And Westwood isn't the only designer turning to the distant past for contemporary inspiration; the late designer Lee Alexander McQueen's final collection is even more strongly influenced by late medieval/early modern fashion and art, as Medievally Speaking's review of that show suggests. Moreover, for any of you interested in medieval concepts of "fashion," Wild also provides a quick introduction to medieval concepts of fashion (which really got off the ground in the 15th century, as clothing technologies developed).

Who knows? Maybe the pointed headdress (fashionable for about 20 years in the later fifteenth century) will come back. Certainly Westwood's ornately embroidered gowns (featured in the article) and enveloping capes (on her website) would still be a little recognizable to a fifteenth-century fashion-conscious woman.


Yes, football caused riots in medieval England, too.

Scholars of sport have long known that football -- or soccer, for you Americans -- was played in the fifteenth century. However, local historians in easetern England recently discovered an account of a 1320 football game (known as "campyng" or "campball") that may have ended rather nastily. The court document reported

. . .  four pairs of men involved in bloody assaults (‘traxit sanguinem’) during ‘campyng’. . . . “the men had been involved in one or more ‘Camping’ match(es) and the Leet [Court] had considered it appropriate to penalise them by a fine equivalent to one day’s pay for a labourer.”

Interestingly, the court records also revealed that campyng was a working-man's game: aristocrats didn't play, but laborers did. You can read the full account from that fine purveyor of medieval news and trivia,