This is a quick heads up for a post I wrote for the fantastic Women’s Literary Culture and the Medieval Canon project, over at the University of Surrey. You can read the full story there! It’s on Chaucer’s Merchant’s Tale.
To those expecting that famous writers occupy their time with lofty, noble and improving thoughts, Chaucer’s shortest surviving poem must come as something of a disappointment. In fine British tradition, it’s a moan elevated to the level of an art form:
‘Adam scriveyn, if ever it thee bifalle,
Boece or Troylus for to wryten newe,
Under thy long lokkes thou most have the scalle,
But after my makyng thow wryte more trewe;
So ofte adaye I mot thy werk renewe,
It to correcte and eke to rubbe and scrape,
And al is thorugh thy negligence and rape.’
The poem – Chaucer’s account of his working relationship with his scribe – strikes an authentic note of irritation I can relate to today, especially considering that the third line translates (approximately) as an imaginative wish for the scribe’s annoying hipster beard to be afflicted with chronic flaky dandruff.The gist of the message is that Adam, the scribe employed by Chaucer to copy out his genius literary output, is constantly introducing errors. Chaucer is forced to spend his time doing corrections which, clearly, he feels are beneath his dignity.
For us, readers accustomed to print culture and to digital culture, to copyright laws and to fairly frequent news stories of authors jealously guarding their work against the distortions of film adaptations, TV versions or, even, internet fanfic, this seems a natural attitude for an author to take. We may snigger at Philippa Gregory – who now ‘insists’ on a clause in her contract prohibiting film makers from changing what the novelist, well known for her flexible relationship with historical fact, calls ‘the history of the novels’. But we broadly understand what she means.The accumulated changes and variations of generations of scribes represent a progressive ‘corruption’ of the original text that wrongs the author. Editors of medieval texts, from Caxton to George Kane, represent themselves as diligent correctors, wading through the scribbled masses of badly-copied manuscripts to weed out scribal errors. And it’s easy to imagine that this process is a process of restoring the author’s reputation, repairing damage done to his work and his reputation. Scribes and authors are thus natural enemies: the former weakening and chipping away at the work of the latter.
But I wondered, did medieval authors really feel this protective desire to control their words? Despite his poem to his scribe, Chaucer often seems oddly keen to exploit the potential for scribes to come up with different, and variant, readings. I’ve argued before that his Legend of Good Women is a suspiciously error-prone text, almost begging for the inclusion of predictable scribal variations. I’ve shown how the name of one male protagonist – Theseus – gives way immediately to the oddly similarly-named Tereus, at exactly the point in the text at which Chaucer begins to talk about the corrosive effects of words and the slippery significance of men’s names. It seems entirely in keeping with the antifeminist cynicism of the Legend to find that, elsewhere, one scribe misread the word ‘venym’ (venom, or poison) as ‘wenym’: women. Such changes seem less like misrepresentations of the original spirit of the text, and more like deputised workings from the same source that set up the potential for error in the first place.
Enter a theory from Ben Clarke, who makes analogy – persuasively – to popular culture. He argues that we might see the inevitable splitting of the work of medieval authors such as Chaucer into multiple, different versions as akin to that great invention of J. K. Rowling, the Horcrux.
Horcruxes, as you will recall, are the splinters of the soul into separate parts, which increase the power of the individual by allowing him to send his soul out into the world, diversely embodied. Each Horcrux, or soul-fragment (or manuscript) acts both subordinately to the guiding soul, and with physical autonomy. The image is one of schism and splitting of soul (authority, self) that is not merely destructive, but paradoxically powerful – and it is powerful because it accepts this inevitable pluralising of the self and this process of reduplication. With this analogy in mind, perhaps we can stop thinking of the variant manuscripts of a text such as Chaucer’s Troilus or his Legend of Good Women as a series of erratic scribal corrosions of Chaucerian authority.
Each new manuscript isn’t so much a fragmentation that disempowers the author, as a Horcrux, a split fragment of his soul that goes out into the world to carry on his authoritative work in (or on) a multitude of new bodies.
I’ve somehow never written this post about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – the poem that is many people’s first encounter with the gorgeous poetic language and spellbinding storytelling of medieval England – though I’ve been wondering about a minor detail I’ve noticed in the poem, for a while. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was written in the late fourteenth century, somewhere in the West Midlands to judge by the dialect, and it survives in a single manuscript along with three other works by the same writer: two religious poems and a long, very beautiful and very evocative dream-vision about mourning and loss. All of these poems – but especially Gawain and Pearl – show a fascination with symmetry and number-patterns, and there are any number of complicated interlocking sequences of pairs and triplets and fivefold symmetries, as well as concentric circular structures of narrative and verse form.
I’ve noticed when teaching Gawain that this is an aspect of the poem that invites a remarkable degree of visual concentration – and a kind of visual, mathematical concentration that always seems remarkably medieval (think about the complicated numerical structures of a cathedral, or even of a fan-vault roof). Foremost amongst the visual symbols of that poem is the pentangle – the five-pointed symbol Gawain wears on his shield as he rides out from Camelot, and which symbolises his linked, fivefold virtues bound together forever into a locked, endless knot.
Gawain’s shield device is – patently – not a heraldic display of identity, like the medieval shields we more commonly see on old buildings and in church windows, where quartered symbols might show parentage, ties of marriage, position in the family birth order, and more. Rather, it is his personal device, and a somewhat inscrutable design. Almost as important, as the narrative wears on, is another object: a lady’s girdle, which promises Gawain sure protection against his deadly enemy, but which also (female-wise) entangles him in a complicated web of competing obligations and broken promises. This slender green circle becomes the badge of Gawain’s shame, the symbol he takes on to show his later, compromised identity as a sadder and wiser knight.
Conventional readings of this poem interpret the two objects – the shield device and the girdle – as representative of a conflict between two sides, or two orders of morality. The pentangle speaks of chivalric virtue with a hefty dose of Christian piety, for it aligns the five points of the pentangle with the wounds of Christ and the joys of the Virgin Mary. The girdle, meanwhile, smacks of feminine, perhaps even superstitious, reliance on amulets, and is indelibly associated with Gawain’s creeping fear for his own physical safety. It is easy to read the pentangle as an ideal view of chivalry – a view of chivalry that knots virtue to virtue in an unbroken, regular shape – and the girdle as its insinuating undoing. In reality, my feeling is that the pentangle, and the brand of chivalry it advertises, is nothing remotely so unambiguous or perfect. Nor, indeed, is the girdle so easily interpreted as the polar opposite of virtue: as scholars have more recently noted, its protective qualities have their real-world parallels in the religious prayer-girdles (tightly written with invocations to the Virgin) that pregnant women would use as they prepared for the terrors of childbirth.
This superficial, binary opposition of pentangle and girdle, of five-point star and circle, is, in any case, elegantly and suggestively resolved by the poet. In the final lines of Sir Gawain, he departs from the world of romance and – in the final allusion to encircling narratives arching over and around the tiny matter of Gawain’s own temptation – he evokes the wider frame of Christian history, praying:
‘Now þat bere þe croun of þorne,
He bryng vus to his blysse!’
Now, He who bears the crown of thorns,
Let him bring us to his bliss!
The circle; the girdle. The pentangle; the points. The two images, superimposed, underlie these final lines, bound together in this last image: the crown of thorns.
I really don’t know if this is something other people have noticed. A not-quite-cursory but not-entirely-focussed look at the scholarship doesn’t throw up any other scholars mentioning it, but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility. But, every year, I always find students who are as delighted with its neatness as I was, and I do believe that – in a poem full of numerical and structural richness and subtlety – it is significant and meaningful.
New academic year, new spate of newspaper articles on ‘trigger warnings’. This time, it’s the Guardian‘s piece by Frank Furedi, blazing with the news Too Many Academics Are Now Censoring Themselves. Now, with the revelation that the government is discounting the voices of non-British academics, and with the knowledge that we’re in the middle of a process that will, quite likely, make it impossible for many of us to continue meaningful research reaching outside Britain at all, you might expect that this article would express some sense of genuine concerns.
Instead, it reminded me of the sorts of stream-of-consciousness speeches you sometimes hear at conferences, where someone – cradling a half-empty glass of warmish Echo Falls – demonstrates why he (or possibly she) is in the wrong business for working with students. Furedi describes how – apparently – a colleague’s lecture on the Holocaust was interrupted by a student yelling out a self-righteous rant: “Stop showing this, I did not come here to be traumatised!” Strong stuff, eh? Notice how it’s always a friend or a colleague this sort of thing happens to – not the author himself. Sort of like those anecdotes that begin ‘well, my mate was actually at Woodstock when …’.
It’s perhaps unfair of me to cast doubts on the complete and utter veracity of this section of the article. Of course, some students are ruder than others about the content of lectures, but my brittle sense of self-esteem is not generally crushed beyond repair by the odd negative comment, especially when I can use my special powers of mature reflection to determine that it probably says more about the student than it does about me. On the other hand, when I get comments that suggest, hmm, maybe I didn’t introduce that particular element (the graphic rape, say, or the really anti-semitic bit) as well as I might have done, I am also capable of thinking about why that was, and how I might do it better. Not, how I might self-censor. But how I might, you know, learn something new from my students.
The problem with this article is that, for all it claims ‘too many’ academics are ‘censoring themselves’ (what would be the correct number of self-censoring academics, Prof Furedi?), it seems to be describing a remarkable lack of … censorship. Furedi describes courses that continued in their tracks, and lectures that were given, and classes that continued despite student complaints, and exam questions that made it onto the paper. So, I was left wondering, is this really a bit of a storm in a teacup?
I’ve written, and thought, about the trigger warnings controversy before. I do worry about it. I do dislike the implication that, if a student finds something upsetting, shocking, or offensive, he or she should feel entitled to have it stricken from the course. I have read the stories of universities where academics feel they can’t teach texts like Titus Andronicus, because it’s got rape in it. I have seen student petitions to ban certain speakers, and I’ve worried about the way these petitions often do seem to demonise second-wave feminism. I do think there is a worrying link between the research and teaching interests of women – and especially lesbian women – and the topics that regularly seem to require ‘trigger warnings’. There is, surely, something deeply, unfortunately ironic in the fact that we, as a society, need to be having conversations about rape, and yet, conversations about rape frequently fall into the category of ‘things too painful to talk about here’.
And yet, despite all of those concerns, I really do find Furedi’s view on trigger warnings and censorship almost impossible to take seriously. I do not find that my students regularly request more warnings. I certainly don’t find them queuing up to tell me they can’t read this text or that text because it’s violent or offensive. I regularly teach texts that depict graphic rapes. I regularly teach texts that are outrageously, phenomenally racist in their portrayals of the Middle East, of Jewish people, of people of colour. There is an entire lecture series (not by me!) in our medieval literature paper, titled simply ‘Violence’. And the thing is, these topics are extremely popular with students. Students see content warnings on my lectures – so they know that lectures on ‘romance’ (which they might expect to be about love and kittens) are actually going to be quite nasty. And they don’t seem to object to that. They come, they debate, they want to have a space to talk about these things. Last week, the first question after the first lecture was ‘can I write a feminist essay on to these texts, please?’
Students need spaces to discuss difficult subjects. Obviously, my students are a specific group, in a specific place – but I just do not recognise them in the popular portrayals of students that crop up in article’s like Furedi’s. And I don’t see myself in his portrayal of ‘us’ academics – as someone carefully picking my words and ruefully deciding to limit my searing intelligence to the narrow confines of a more boring lecture. This may be because my intelligence is just, well, rather run-of-the-mill compared to the academics he quotes in his article. But, it’s much easier to claim you would have written a brilliant lecture – if only you’d felt you were allowed to do it – than to actually write that brilliant lecture, isn’t it? So, I feel a weird sense of disconnection when I read Furedi’s piece (and other pieces like it). Yes, these students who yell out polemics in lectures, who force their lecturers to self-censor, sound like a worry. But … where are they, and why have I not met them yet?