Geoffrey Chaucer, Dream Visions (26th October 2016)

chaucer-visions

Next meeting: 26th October 2016 / Room 1.26 / 3-5pm

Alongside romance, dream visions formed one of the most popular genres of literary writing in the later Middle Ages. Chaucer wrote four dream visions before he wrote the Canterbury Tales, and his dream poetry draws on a range of classical and continental sources, especially French dream visions and love lyrics from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Chaucer’s choice to write dream poems was paralleled by the dream visions of his English contemporaries, including William Langland’s Piers Plowman and the Gawain-poet’s Pearl, and was emulated by fifteenth-century Chaucerian followers such as John Lydgate (The Complaint of the Black Knight) and James I of Scotland (The Kingis Quair). As a genre or mode, the dream vision is capacious and flexible: it can accommodate narrative, dialogue and debate, lyric, both the real and the allegorical, and both secular and spiritual concerns.

The Book of the Duchess (c.1368-72), Chaucer’s earliest dream vision and first sustained narrative poem, was likely written for Duke John of Gaunt in the years following the death of his wife Blanche, and it addresses ideas of grief and consolation following the death of a loved one. The Parliament of Fowls was perhaps composed c.1380-82, when King Richard II was negotiating for the hand of Anne of Bohemia. Yet these are much more than occasional poems. These poems deploy and interrogate theories of the origins and nature of dreams, and Boethian ideas of consolation. They explore themes of love, loss, death, and desire, and consider the interrelations of nature and culture, experience and authority, and the nature of and inspiration for poetry itself.

Questions for discussion:

  1. What do you make of the narrators? How do they compare with Chaucer’s other narrators with which you may be familiar – for instance, in The Canterbury Tales or Troilus and Criseyde?
  2. What does Chaucer suggest about the sources and nature of dreams, and their interpretation?
  3. What is the role of books in Chaucer’s dream visions?
  4. How do sleep, insomnia, and emotions feature?
  5. What do the settings contribute to the poems’ themes and questions?
  6. How do Chaucer’s dream poems portray chivalric figures? (compared to, say, Chaucer’s romances?)
  7. How do Chaucer’s dream poems represent women?
  8. To what extent do Chaucer’s dream visions demand to be read on an allegorical level?
  9. To what extent are they independent of their immediate patronage contexts?
  10. Does the Book of the Duchess offer consolation, and if so, what sort? Does the Parliament of Fowls offer any resolution to debate, and if so, what sort?
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Caxtons Prologues and Printing: The Christian Worthies

By David Mason

William Caxton’s printing is diverse, but he is perhaps best known for his prose romances. The subject of this post are three prologues to the romances of the so-called ‘Chivalric’ or ‘Worthies’ series:[1] Godfrey of Bullogne (printed 1481), Charles the Grete (1485), and Le Morte Darthur (1485), as well as the non-romance Book of the Ordre of Chyualry (1481).[2]

Caxton personally translated many of the prose romances he printed, including Godfrey of Bullogne and Charles the Grete, working meticulously and word by word.[3] Each was accompanied by short prologues and epilogues, offering insights into the motivation behind his work and the audience he intends to address. This post explores Caxton’s use of the Nine Worthies motif in the prologues of the ‘Chivalric’ or ‘Worthies’ romances, through which he groups the texts thematically, and aligns his printing with an established literary motif of the late Middle Ages.

Literature of the Nine Worthies

The Nine Worthies is a motif common to late medieval literature: nine heroic individuals from history and legend who are grouped together in a sort of pantheon of the greats. They can be divided into three groups of three, in a system popularised (though not devised) by Jacques de Longuyon in his c.1310 Les Vœx du Paon.[4] These are:

The Pagan Worthies:hans_burgkmair_d-_a-_drei_heidnische_helden

Hector, King of Troy
Alexander the Great
Julius Caesar

The Jewish Worthies:

Joshua of Israel
David, King of Israel
Judas Maccabeus

The Christian Worthies:

King Arthur
Charles the Great
Godfrey, King of Jerusalem

Each figure was the subject – collectively and individually – of a great deal of literary and artistic production in the late medieval period. Israel Gollancz’s appendices to his 1897 edition of The Parliament of the Thre Ages provide a numerous examples of medieval texts that showcase the literary popularity of this motif – two extracts from which are transcribed below:[5]

Men ȝernen iestes for to here,
And romaunce rede in dyuerse manere;
Of Alisaunder þe conqueroure,
Of Julius Cæsar þe emperoure, […]
Of King Arthour þat was so riche
Was noon in his tyme him liche; […]
How Kyng Charles & rouland fauȝt
With Sarazines nolde þei neuer be sauȝt…

(From the Anonymous Cursor Mundi (C11), ll.1-16)

The eldest was Alexandere, that alle the erthe lowtteded;
The tother Ector of Troye, the cheualrous gume;
The thirde Iulyus Cesare, that geant was holdene,
In iche jorne jentille, a-juggede with lords;
The ferthe was sir Iudas, a justere fulle nobille,
The maysterfulle Makabee, the myghttyeste of strenghes;
The fifth was Iosue, that joly mane of armes,
That in Ierusalem oste fulle myche joye lymppede.
The sextet was Dauid the dere, demyd with kynges…

(From Huchowne’s “Morte Arthure” (c.1380), the Interpretation of Arthur’s Dream, ll.3406-3446)

Both examples highlight some of the most typical descriptive features of late medieval depictions of the Worthies, which typically extol their martial deeds and great conquests. Alexander is the ‘conqueroure’ of all the world; Judas Maccabeus is the ‘myghttyeste of strenghes’ as a commander; Godfrey becomes King of Jerusalem after his success in the First Crusade.

Of the nine, Caxton’s ‘Worthies’ series details the lives of just three of the heroic individuals: the Christian figures of Arthur, Charles and Godfrey. Caxton’s printed translations are prose versions of the verse romances that proved popular at the Court of Burgundy during his own stay there in the mid-fifteenth century.[6] His mercantile and political connections meant that a significant portion of his working life was spent at the court of Philip the Good of Burgundy, where he had an intimate access to the libraries and social circles of the upper echelons.

Not only was the literature that Caxton selected for printing heavily influenced by Burgundian vogue, but so too was his printing style: it was the custom of the Burgundian court to write prologues and epilogues. Caxton’s influence in these prologues, which go some way to elucidate the connections between the ‘Worthies’ texts, have been recognised as being jointly-influenced by the dedications of the French texts he translated and those that appeared in Lydgate’s poetic works.[7] The particular style of Burgundian prologues emphasised the positive, didactic aspects of chivalry, and this didacticism is present in the prologues of the Worthies series;[8] Caxton prints, he repeatedly suggests, so that these great deeds might be emulated. Furthermore, we can read in the links between these prologues an intention that the texts should be read together, under the motif of the Nine Worthies.

Godfrey of Bullognecaxton

The first of these ‘Worthies’ texts is Godfrey of Bullogne, printed in 1481.[9] The prologue gives a detailed description of each of the Worthies, and focuses particularly on their deeds. The extent of this description puts Caxton’s work in line with the previous literary iterations of the motif:

Accordyng to that we fynde wreton in holy scripture of many noble historyes, which were here ouer long to reherce. But in especial of thre noble and moost worthy of alle other, that is to wytte, fyrst of duc Iosue, that noble prynce / whiche ladde and conduyted the Childeren of Israhel, the chosen people of God, oute of deserte in to the londe of promyssyon, the Londe flowynge Mylke and hony. Secondly, of Dauyd the Kynge and holy Prophete…

Caxton continues as such for each of the Worthies, eventually arriving at Godfrey himself:

Henne as for the thyrd of the Cristen prynces, taken, reputed and renommed for to be egal emong thyse worthy & best that euer were, I mene the noble Godefroy of Boloyne […] whos noble hystorye I late fonde in a booke of ffrenssh, al alonge of his noble actes, valyaunces, prowesses / and accomplysshement of his hye empryses.

Deed and ‘accomplysshement’ takes pride of place, and Caxton suggests that these actions should prove an example for all of his readers. The Christian Worthies are given particularly great emphasis as men of legend, potentially as indication of Caxton’s intent to print on both Arthur and Charles in the coming years. Arthur is not only ‘kyng of the brytons’, but was the ‘fyrst founder of the round table’; Charles is likewise noted to have performed ‘noble actes and conquestes’ that have inspired many ‘large volumes’, the likes of which Caxton would translate and print only four years hence

Malory’s Morte Darthur

The second of the ‘Worthies’ romances is Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, printed by Caxton in July of 1485.[10] As with his translations, Caxton accompanies his edition with a lengthy prologue that begins with reference to the Worthies:

For it is notoyrly knowen thorugh the unyversal world that there been nine worthy and the best that ever were, that is to wete, thre Paynyms, thre Jewes, and thre Crysten men.

Specifically, he mentions the repeated demands to print Malory’s text that he has received – which he says has prompted his continuation of the Worthies motif.[11] While we cannot accept his claims at face value, his discussion in the prologue indicates that he prints Le Morte Darthur because he is obliged:

 …many noble and dyvers gentylmen of thys royame of Englond camen and demaunded me many and oftymes wherefore that I have not do made and enprynte the noble hystorye of the Saynt Greal and of the moost renomed Crysten kyng, fyrst and chyef of the thre best Crysten, and worthy, Kyng Arthur, whyche ought moost to be remembred emonge us Englysshe men tofore al other Crysten kynges.

The sayd noble jentylmen instantly requyred me t’emprynte th’ystorye of the sayd noble kyng and conquerour Kyng Arthur […] affermyng that I ought rather t’enprynte his actes and noble feates than of Godefroye of Boloyne or ony of the other eyght…

The passages are in direct reference to his 1481 work, a feigned dismay that he has mis-ordered his Worthies and removed the English King Arthur from his rightful place at the top. The initial passage is followed by a clear listing of the Worthies, along with a justification that the Pagan heroes are acceptable as men of legend as they were ‘tofore the Incarnacyon of Cryst’. Presumably, he suggests, no Pagan man can be held to the same standard as Christian man after the coming of Christ. The insinuation is hardly surprising; the Morte, is the only of the three texts in this set where the Worthy in question does not spend the majority of their time on crusade against Pagan foes.

Charles the Grete

Finally, we reach Charles the Grete, which can be precisely dated from Caxton’s final lines of the epilogue, stating that it was ‘enprynted the first day of decembre’ of 1485, roughly five months after the Morte.[12] More interesting though is that Caxton ‘fynysshed in the reducyng of hit in to englysshe’ on the 17th June – the point at which he was working on printing the Morte. Once again, Caxton claims that popular demand provides the reason for his printing:

I haue been excyted of the venerable man messier henry bolomyer, chanonne of Lausanne, for to reduce for his playsyr somme hystoryes as wel in latyn & in romaunce as in other facion wryton, that is to say of the ryght puyssaunt, vertuous, and noble charles the grete…

However, shortly afterwards, the motive is twisted. Whilst still referring to the demands of his readership, Caxton makes mention of the Worthies series. Just as he has printed the works of Arthur and translated those of Godfrey:

 Thenne for as moche I late had fynysshed in enprynte the book of the noble & vyctoryous kyng Arthur, fyrst of the thre most noble & worthy of crysten kynges, and also tofore had reduced into englisshe the noble hystorye & lyf of Godfrey of boloyn kyng of Iherusalem, last of the said iij worthy, Somme persones of noble estate and degree haue desyred me to reduce thystorye and lyf of the noble and crysten prynce Charles the grete, kyng of fraunce & emperour of Rome, the second of the thre worthy…

The prologue to Charles the Grete, in this sense, is the most obscure of the three prologues; it does not follow trend Caxton has set of explaining the complete structure of the Nine Worthies, referring only to the Christian three. Perhaps, by this point, Caxton believes his readership has sufficient knowledge to make the connection. The link is not hidden, as he refers to Charles as ‘the second of the thre worthy’, but nor is it made explicitly clear in this prologue who these Worthies are. There is no mention of nine, no reference to the full pantheon, to the Pagans or the Jews, only the ‘thre most noble & worthy of crysten kynges’.

Caxton’s Worthies

Referring to these texts as a ‘Worthies’ series is a title we apply retrospectively, but not without reason. The evidence exists in Caxton’s own prologues to suggest that his intention was always that Godfrey of Bullogne, Charles the Grete, and his printing of Malory’s Morte Darthur be thematically linked and read as such. In using the motif as a linking factor, Caxton does not tread new ground. Many of the poetic works such as the Cursor Mundi treat the Worthies as a group, described and revered within a single text. Caxton prints each of his Worthies individually, but weaves throughout his own comments on the works a commonality that binds the three texts as one.

Of the remaining six, Caxton is remarkably quiet. He makes little mention of either the Pagan or Jewish worthies, save for his comments in the prologue to Malory’s Morte Darthur that they ‘were ‘tofore the Incarnacyon of Cryst’. Caxton’s judgements echo through the prologues, of these three texts and of many of his other prose romances. Many of these prologues show a considerably greater enthusiasm for religious war than can be reasonably explored in this post. Caxton’s allots a significant space in his prologue to Godfrey of Bullogne for direct comparison between the Saracen threat of the Godfrey’s crusade and the Ottoman threat that is ‘moche more nowe than were in his dayes’.

The prologues provide the clearest indication we could hope for of the intentions behind Caxton’s choice of texts to translate and print, even if we cannot discern the truth in his claims of patronage. Caxton adopts the motif of the Nine Worthies in his printing, but redirects focus from the entire pantheon onto the Christian three most relevant to his readership and printing interests.

Editions:

  • William Caxton, Godeffroy of Boloyne, ed. Mary Noyes Colvin, EETS ES 64 (London: Trübner, 1893)
  • William Caxton, The Lyf of the Noble and Crysten Prynce Charles the Grete, ed. Sidney J. H. Herrtage, EETS ES 36 & 37 (London: Oxford University, [1880] 1967)
  • William Caxton, The Book of the Ordre of Chyualry, ed. Alfred T. P. Byles, EETS SS 2 (London: Oxford University, 1971)
  • Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur, ed. P. J. C. Field (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2013)

 For further reference:

  • Blake, N. F., Caxton and His World (London: Andre Deutsch, 1969)
  • Blake, N. F., Caxton’s Own Prose (London: Andre Deutsch, 1973)
  • Bornstein, D., ‘William Caxton’s Chivalric Romances and the Burgundian Renaissance in England’, English Studies, 57 (1976), 1-10.
  • Cooper, H., The English Romance in Time (Oxford: University Press, 2004).
  • Dickson, D., ‘The Nine Unworthies’, in Medieval Literature and Civilization, ed. D. A. Pearsall and R. A. Waldron (London: Athlone, 1969), pp.228-32.
  • Goodman, J. R., ‘Malory and Caxton’s Chivalric Series, 1481-85’, in Studies in Malory, ed. James W. Spisak (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1985), pp.257-71.

caxton3

 

[1] William Kuskin, ‘Caxton’s Worthies Series’, ELH, 66:3 (1999), 511-551; J. R. Goodman, ‘Malory and Caxton’s Chivalric Series, 1481-85’, in Studies in Malory, ed. James W. Spisak (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1985), pp.257-71.

[2] The Book of the Ordre of Chyualry is regarded as part of the ‘Chivalric’ series, but it is not a ‘Worthies’ text like the romances. Still one of Caxton’s own translations, from the work of thirteenth-century French writer, Ramon Llull, it is addressed not as popular fiction but as specifically for those noble gentlemen who intend to enter the Order of Chivalry. See Caxton’s Epilogue to The Book of the Ordre of Chyualry, ed. Alfred T. P. Byles, EETS SS 2 (London: Oxford University, 1971).

[3] See ‘Introduction’ by Sidney J. H. Herrtage, in Charles the Grete, ed. Sidney J. H. Herrtage, EETS ES 36 & 37 (London: Oxford University Press, [1880] 1967), p. vii.

[4] Bruce Dickins, ‘The Nine Unworthies’, in Medieval Literature and Civilization, ed. Pearsall and Waldron (London: Athlone, 1969), 228-32.

[5] The following examples are transcribed from: The Parlement of the Thre Ages, ed. Israel Gollancz (London: Oxford University, 1897). The text is available on archive.org at < www.archive.org/details/cu31924013116219 > and the relevant appendix begins on p.119. A number of later texts considering the Nine Worthies, largely from C15-C18, are also freely available online on the Early English Books Online database.

[6] See: Diane Bornstein, ‘William Caxton’s Chivalric Romances and the Burgundian Renaissance in England’, English Studies, 57 (1976), 1-10.

[7] N. F. Blake, Caxton and His World (London: Andre Deutsch, 1969), pp.152-63.

[8] Bornstein, ‘Caxton’s Chivalric Romances’, p.6.

[9] Quotations from Godfrey are taken from Caxton’s prologue, transcribed in the EETS edition: William Caxton, Godeffroy of Boloyne, ed. Mary Noyes Colvin, EETS ES 64 (London: Trübner, 1893), pp.1-5.

[10] Quotations from the Morte are taken from P. J. C. Field’s 2013 edition of the text and paratexts: William Caxton, ‘Prologue to Le Morte Darthur’, in: Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur, ed. P. J. C. Field (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2013), vol. II, pp.854-7.

[11] Kuskin, ‘Caxton’s Worthies Series’, p.512.

[12] Quotations from Charles are taken Caxton’s prologue in the EETS edition: William Caxton, The Lyf of the Noble and Crysten Prynce Charles the Grete, ed. Sidney J. H. Herrtage, EETS ES 36 & 37 (London: Oxford University, [1880] 1967).

David Mason is a doctoral candidate in medieval English literature, based at the School of English, Communication and Philosophy, Cardiff University. His work is funded by the South West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership (SWW-DTP). David’s thesis examines the English prose romances printed between 1473 and 1534 and the means by which these texts represent crusade, conversion, and the Eastern ‘other’. He can be found on twitter @d_s_mason

William Caxton, Prologues and paratexts (21st September 2016)

File:The Caxton Celebration - William Caxton showing specimens of his printing to King Edward IV and his Queen.jpg

The Caxton Celebration (1877)

Next meeting: 21st September 2016 / Room 0.43 / 3-5pm

Very little of William Caxton’s early life is known, though biographers have made an effort to speculate based on the family name of Caxton (and ‘Causton’), which has connections to the Kent area. There is reference to his early life and education the prologue to Charles the Grete, where he states he is ‘bounden to praye for my fader and moders soules that in my youthe sette me to scole’, but the earliest archival evidence we have is not until after his schooling.

This first evidence we have is an entry in the 1438 annual accounts of the Mercer’s Company, who traded cloths and silks on routes between England and north-west Europe. The Company provided the means for Caxton to live and work across Europe for a considerable portion of his life, though biographers and historians (naturally) disagree on the precise dates. Caxton’s prologue to the History of Troy provides the best evidence we have for his approximate date of departure from England. It was finished in 1471 and printed c.1473, and states that he had been in ‘Braband, Flandres, Holand and Zeland’ for the best part of thirty years.

During this thirty-year gap, Caxton became a Merchant Adventurer and a relatively wealthy businessman with connections across Europe. As his wealth and renown grew, so did his involvement in international politics. Around 1462, he became Governor of the English Nation at Bruges. As a result of this role, he spent several years in Flanders, at the court of Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy, and was present at many of the trade negotiations between England and Burgundy. Caxton eventually resigned from his governorship to devote time to translating and printing. The source of his interest in this area is still speculated upon, but some of those contacts Caxton established across his mercantile career will have included printers in Cologne.

The first of his publications, the History of Troy was printed at Bruges, shortly after the translation was finished c.1471. Following this, he returned to England in the early 1470s, to begin printing in Westminster. Caxton is recorded as having paid for a year’s rent for a shop near Westminster Abbey on 30 September, 1476 – at the price of ten shillings. He continued to rent this shop each year until his death in 1491. His successor, Wynkyn de Worde, also remained in this location until he moved premises in 1500. The shopfront Caxton selected was expertly placed. The city was one of great mercantile connection, and the shop was directly between the King’s Palace of Westminster (now the Houses of Parliament) and the Abbey Church. It was a location that attracted an audience of royalty and nobility, of the Church, of the Law, and of the middle and mercantile classes alike.

The texts Caxton chooses to translate include a wide range of materials: indulgences, books of chivalry and courtesy, historical texts, and romances, the prologues to which we are examining in this session. The romances Caxton selected for translation were undoubtedly influenced by his time in the Burgundian court, and the emphasis placed by the court and Duke Philip upon the chivalric code. Many of the romances represent the fashionable views and preferred tastes of the late-fifteenth-century Burgundian court. To each of these, again following the fashion of the Burgundian court, Caxton added his own words as prologue and epilogue.

The texts we’re reading are as follows:

(1) Caxton’s prologue to Malory’s Le Morte Darthur. We are all doubtless familiar with Malory’s work. Caxton’s printing of it in July 1485 was accompanied by this prologue, emphasising Arthur’s place among the Nine Worthies. The prologue is from is P. J. C. Field’s 2013 edition.

(2) Prologue and epilogue to Charles the Grete. One of Caxton’s own translations, Charles was printed December 1485, with this prologue and epilogue. The text is in three parts, and the largest and central of these tells the story of Charlemagne’s successful crusade into Saracen Iberia.

(3) Prologue and epilogue to Godeffroy of Bologne. Also Caxton’s own translation, from French, of the history of the First Crusade as written by William, Archbishop of Tyre. The text follows Godfrey, the final of the three Christian worthies, on crusade. The Godeffroy prologue and epilogue are some of Caxton’s most explicit and enthusiastic about crusade.

(4) Prologue to Eneydos. Another of Caxton’s own translations, from a French version of the Aeneid. This prologue is not directly related to the previous three sets of texts. However, the prologue is an enjoyable read, and contains Caxton’s discussions of the English language, translation, and eggs.

(5) An article by J. R. Goodman, entitled ‘Malory and Caxton’s Chivalric Series, 1481-5’. Goodman’s article is an excellent introduction to the texts from which most of these prologues are taken. She begins with a discussion of Caxton’s life before moving on to discussion of the series of ‘Worthies’ texts (Le Morte Darthur, Charles the Grete, and Godeffroy of Bologne) and their prologues.

There is also a separate blog post on Caxton’s ‘Worthies’ series, available on the MEMORI website.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Can we analyse these prologues/epilogues alone as part of the cultural context, or must they be attached to their respective texts?
  2. How are the prologues made relevant to their individual texts, and to what extent do they follow a set pattern of topoi?
  3. Caxton uses these spaces to directly address what he suggests are the relevant portions of his readership. How do these audiences differ between texts, and to what extent are they relevant?
  4. The texts Caxton printed 1481-5 – Godeffroy of Bologne, Le Morte Darthur, Charles the Grete – are often referred to as his ‘Chivalric’ or ‘Worthies’ series, based on his comments in the prologues and epilogues. How does this structure influence a reading of both the prologues/epilogues and the literary works?
  5. Do you believe the concerns over crusade and chivalry in these prologues/epilogues, or are they a mercantile attempt to utilise the printing press technology and boost book sales?
  6. Caxton translated many of the prose romances he printed himself, often literally and with a high degree of accuracy. What do you make of his discussion of the English language in the prologue to Eneydos? Can the prologues/epilogues tell us anything about the act of translation?
  7. What do you think of the continued relevance of Malory’s Morte Darthur, and of Caxton’s reasoning behind selecting this text for print? What links exist between the tales or thematic elements of the Morte Darthur and the elements we see discussed in any of these prologues/epilogues?
  8. Jane Goodman notes that Caxton’s time in the Low Countries would have allowed him to attend a variety of fifteenth-century chivalric spectacles, the records of which show that the ‘conviction of the participants … conveys their belief in what they were performing’ (p.259). To what extent do these prologues convey nostalgia for a chivalric past, or an attempt to usher in a new golden age of chivalry?

 

For further biographical discussion of Caxton, see:

N. F. Blake, Caxton and His World (London: Andre Deutsch, 1969)

N. F. Blake, Caxton’s Own Prose (London: Andre Deutsch, 1973)

George D. Painter, William Caxton (London: Chatto & Windus, 1976)

Diane Bornstein, ‘William Caxton’s Chivalric Romances and the Burgundian Renaissance in England’, English Studies, 57 (1976), 1-10.

J. R. Goodman, ‘Malory and Caxton’s Chivalric Series, 1481-5’, in Studies in Malory, ed. James W. Spisak (Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, 1985), pp.257-71. [INCLUDED IN READING MATERIAL]

William Kuskin, Symbolic Caxton (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008)

The Awntyrs off Arthure (20th April 2016)

awntyrs3

Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 324

Next meeting: 20th April 2016 / Room 2.47 / 3-5pm

The Awntyrs off Arthure is a Middle English Alliterative poem thought to have been composed between the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. The text tells two stories, each of which feature Gawain as the protagonist. The Awntyrs is preserved in four manuscripts: Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Douce 324, Lambeth Palace Library, MS 491.B, Thornton MS, Lincoln Cathedral Library, MS 91, and Ireland Blackburn MS, Robert H. Taylor Collection, Princeton, New Jersey. The text contains distinctive features and variations in each of these manuscripts, suggesting that none of the texts can be perceived as the ‘original’. The complexity of the poem’s composition suggests that it was purposefully created as a literary piece, rather than descending from an oral tradition.

Previous generations of criticism on the themes of structure and unity in the Awntyrs have traditionally suggested that the poem represents a poorly joined bipartite narrative with little to indicate a relationship between the two sides. Ralph Hanna builds upon on Herman Lubke’s theory that the Awntyrs constitutes two separate poems joined together by a third party, in his 1974 edition of the text, splitting the two ‘halves’ completely and giving them the subheadings ‘The Awntyrs A’ and ‘The Awntyrs B.’ At best, it was conceded that the poem ‘remains a remarkable fragment of the same kind of poetic art as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but a fragment only’. However, A. C. Spearing’s seminal comparison of the structure of the Awntyrs with the diptych marks the beginning of a new wave of criticism, more interested in arguing for some kind of unity than against it.

  • Should the Awntyrs be read as two distinct and separate poems joined together by a later hand, or a single and coherent poetic structure?
  • If you think that the poem is formed of two separate halves, how and why might the two parts have been joined to create the poem that we have now?
  • If the poem should be read as a single and coherent text, how do the two storylines interact with one another?
  • Do theories of structure effect the way in which the text should be read?
  • How might images of mirroring and reflection be important to the text?

 

The warnings that the ghost of Guinevere’s mother address two of the central elements of romance narratives: love and war.

  • What do you make of the presentation of Guinevere’s mother?
  • Is there any significance in the fact that these warnings are given to Gawain and Guinevere?
  • Is national identity an important theme within the poem?

 

The Lincoln Thornton Manuscript also contains the only surviving copy of the Alliterative Morte Arthur. This text comes similarly close to a criticism of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table in its discussion of fortune and King Arthur’s dream:

“Freke,” says the philosopher, “thy fortune is passed
For thou shall find her thy fo; fraist when thee likes!
Thou art at the highest, I hete thee forsooth;
Challenge now when thou will, thou cheves no more!
Thou hast shed much blood and shalkes destroyed,
Sakeles, in surquidrie, in sere kinges landes…” (AMA 3394-3399)

  • Are there any parallels between these lines, and the questions Gawain asks of Guinevere’s mother?
  • What does the Awntyrs suggest about fortune?
  • Does Arthur’s solution to the combat between Gawain and Galeron answer the problems of conquest raised by Gawain himself in the first part of the poem?

French and English fabliaux (17th February 2016)

The Summoner from the Ellesmere Manuscript of The Canterbury Tales

Next meeting: 17th January 2016 / Room 2.47 / 3-5pm

The Fabliaux genre was popular in twelfth and thirteenth century France, and around 150 French fabliaux are now extant. The genre was briefly revived in England the fourteenth century, and Geoffrey Chaucer included several fabliaux in The Canterbury Tales.

Fabliaux are traditionally set in real, familiar places, and the characters are ordinary sorts – tradesmen, peasants, priests, students, restless wives; the plots are realistically motivated tricks and ruses. The genre presents a lively image of everyday life among the middle and lower classes, but the class politics and function of these tales are often complex: some scholars suggest that they were subversive tales which were consumed by the lower classes, while others argue that they were a product of aristocratic society that were designed to reinforce social hierarchy.

We are reading a selection of French and English fabliaux, including:

Le Prestre Crucefié / The Crucified Priest (Old French / early thirteenth century / France)

In this tale, a cuckolded husband, who is also a wood carver, castrates a priest who has an affair with his wife. There are two later versions of this fabliau, including De Connebert and Du Prestre Teint (The Dyed Priest)

Li Dis de la vescie à Prestre / The Tale of the Priest’s Bladder (Old French / early fourteenth century / Antwerp

In this tale, two friars beg a dying priest to leave them his property. The Priest consents on the grounds that the friars bring their Prior with them the next day. Five friars arrive without their Prior, but the Priest insists he will only reveal his secret in the presence of the Sheriffs and the Mayor. The Priest berates the friars for their importunity, and bequeaths his bladder to them. This text is an analogue for The Summoner’s Tale in The Canterbury Tales.

Chaucer’s Summoner’s Prologue and Tale (Middle English / late fourteenth century / England)

In The Canterbury Tales, The Summoner takes offense at The Friar’s Tale, which focuses on a corrupt summoner and his interaction with a demon. In response, The Summoner tells the tale of a dishonest friar, who wanders from house to house begging for alms.

The friar arrives at the house of Thomas and his wife: Thomas is ill, and their child has just died. The friar reassures Thomas’ wife that their child has entered heaven, but he insists that Thomas is ill because he has not donated money to the church. The friar continues to lecture Thomas, and finally asks him for money to build a cloister. Thomas tells the friar he has a gift for him, and that he can have if he divides it between his twelve brothers. The friar attempts to retrieve the gift, which Thomas is sitting on, but it is, in fact, no more than a fart.

The friar is chased from the house, and complains to the lord of the village about how he is supposed to divide a fart into twelve. The lord suggests that a cartwheel could be used to distribute the fart equally.

 

 Some possible topics for discussion

  • The body / fetishization?
  • C12th / C13th contexts?
  • Conservative (Norris Lacy) or subversive (Benson)? Reflective or corrective?
  • ‘Fabliaux are the essence of Bakhtin’s carnivalesque and violence is often a part of that humour which was directed at mixed audiences of peasantry, bourgeoisie, and nobility.’
  • The meanings generated by torture and (judicial / non-judicial punishment)?
  • ‘The episodes interrogate the “Other within” – those who function within a society and a shared cultural identity, but who transgress societal norms and act in ways beyond social or literary sanction’.
  • What are the advantages and limitations of reading the Summoner’s Tale as a response to the Friar’s?
  • Despite the scholarly emphasis placed on Chaucer’s comic tales, the English fabliau is relatively rare. Why use a form that was, to all intents and purposes, dead?
  • And how does Chaucer use the form? What are the characteristics of Chaucerian fabliaux?
  • (and if you want more, you could look at one version of Boccaccio’s handling of the fabliau form from II.iv of the Decameron: http://www.brown.edu/Departments/Italian_Studies/dweb/texts/DecShowText.php?lang=eng&myID=nov0402&expand=day04 )

 

 

 

 

 

Lanval and Sir Launfal (27th January 2016)

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Text of Lanval from British Library Harley MS 978, f. 134r

Next meeting: 27th January / Room 2.47 / 3-5pm

Lanval is an Anglo-Norman Breton lai, which was written by Marie de France in the twelfth century. It focuses on a knight in the Arthurian court, who is pursued by Queen Guinevere. Lanval, however, refuses the queen’s advances as he already has a lover – the fairy mistress. Guinevere subsequently insists that Lanval is a homosexual, and she tells Arthur that Lanval has shamed her by spurning her love. Lanval is then ordered to appear in court where he is judged by the king and his barons.

Sir Launfal an indirect adaptation of Lanval in Middle English, which was produced in the late fourteenth century. It survives in a single fifteenth-century manuscript, British Library MS Cotton Caligula A. ii. Sir Launfal is draws on two particular texts: the Middle English Sir Landevale (a translation of Marie’s lai), and the Old French lay of Graelent.

Questions for discussion

  1. How is the relationship between Lanval and Guinevere portrayed in the two texts? Why is Lanval so suspicious of the queen in the Middle English version?
  2. How is the court represented? How does law and order operate in the two texts?
  3. What is the significance of the Fairy Mistress? How does she bring about resolution in the two texts?
  4. Why is there a greater emphasis on generosity, finance, and economics in the Middle English version?
  5. How are the values of shame and honour employed in the two texts?
  6. How has the original Celtic material been reused in the two texts?