06 December 2008

Chaucer review

Well. The plumber was very late. And the problem is more severe than was thought two days ago. So now a wall is coming apart. And in the meantime, I engaged in some procrastinatory activity that may prove productive; at any rate, I'll post the results, because with all the pounding, I can't concentrate on editing. And it doesn't seem like a good time to spread closet contents around. But I can stand to look up links.

Dr. Virago has written about her plans for changing her Chaucer course, and in the comments people have expressed enthusiasm for what she’s doing and interest in Chaucer teaching more generally. So I offer here my take on the new edition of The Canterbury Tales, edited by Robert Boenig and Andrew Taylor, from Broadview.

When the Broadview rep e-mailed an offer of an exam copy, my first thought was, "It takes nerve to do another edition of the CT," quickly followed, of course, by "Yes, please—I want to see what you’ve done."

For grad classes I always use the Riverside Chaucer, but for undergraduates, I’ve tried a variety of texts. I’ve been using the Riverside CT paperback for awhile, because, after all, it is the Riverside. It has the best notes, a glossary, and uninterrupted text, glosses at the bottom of the page. But it’s big, and two-columned (like a real medieval book! I think; weird, not like a novel, think my students). Students seem to prefer marginal glosses, and it’s very hard to get them to go to the back for notes, even though I remind them to do so and suggest sticky notes as bookmarks. (Please note that in everything that follows, I’m referring to the Riverside CT paperback, not the complete Riverside Chaucer.)

I’ve also used the Norton CT edition, about which I have mixed feelings. The original edition had a very limited number of tales; I appreciate the additions of the second edition, but even then, what if you want to refer to something that isn’t there? And yet the Norton is a nice, handy size; and the marginal glosses and foot-of-page notes are easier to deal with than flipping to the back for notes. They have a lot of useful material in the back, both sources / analogues and criticism. And yet (once again) what if you want other stuff? The Norton editions often excerpt criticism from books, which on the one hand is helpful if you want to present major scholars’ arguments in parvo. On the other, though, I don’t just use criticism qua criticism; I also want scholarly essays to help me teach how to construct an argument, and my students often have valid criticisms of essay-length book excerpts: key concepts can be omitted, chunks of the argument glossed over, the structure (unsurprisingly) like a piece of a larger work rather than like a stand-alone essay. The essays I require of my students are not nearly so long as a published scholarly essay, but students find it easier to think about an article as a model for their own work than to take a chunk of a book as a model.

(That said, I’m rather excited about the Norton edition of the Dream Visions and shorter poems, which I may review separately.)

The other Chaucer text I’ve used is Baugh’s Chaucer’s Major Poetry. The advantage is that it has almost everything: T&C and dream visions as well as the CT, all in one volume. But I miss the prose, because I like to assign excerpts of the Parson’s Tale.

No, listen: parts of it are very funny! It’s a terribly undervalued text, especially for teaching undergraduates. Go look at the descriptions of clothing under Pride if you don’t believe me; read them in the voice of the clergyman in Harold and Maude, the one who says "flabby . . . b-b-buttocks."

And (hey, come back; ah, heck, everybody’s off checking You-Tube for Harold and Maude excerpts), and, I say, Baugh uses the Bradshaw shift to order the Canterbury Tales, which means I have to explain the different orderings and why the Bradshaw shift went by the wayside. That’s not all bad, because it lets me wax enthusiastic about manuscripts and why we should look at what actually existed in the Middle Ages as opposed to some possible ideal Ur-text. But again, my students find this a bit tedious and want to know why the Baugh edition is still kicking around if scholars no longer accept the Bradshaw shift. That lets me talk about publishing and book history and scholarly reputation, all of which I find wildly interesting and relevant, but my students are single-minded and think they are in class to learn about Chaucer and Middle English. So, in the end, I’m not so happy with Baugh even though it’s a not-unreasonably priced single volume of most of what I want when teaching Chaucer.

That was a long preamble to consideration of the Broadview edition. It’s slightly larger than the Riverside CT, significantly larger than the Norton; it’s in two columns (like a real medieval book!) with marginal glosses (glossed words are marked in the text with a raised open circle, as in Norton) and foot of page notes. The print is uncomfortably small, at least to my middle-aged eyes. There are some "Background Documents" at the back, including, to my delight, bits of the Tale of Beryn. All of these, including Beryn, are translated into modern English. There is no glossary. The edition is based on the Ellesmere MS, corrected from Hengwrt only, say the editors, where Ellesmere is "clearly defective" (37). They repeatedly characterize their goals as "more modest" than those of other editors: they wish to "mak[e] sense of a specific manuscript" (37). There are several black-and-white reproductions of pages from Ellesmere, and on the cover is a color picture of Ellesmere’s first page.

The introduction is, I think, considerably more accessible to undergraduates than the Riverside introduction. In the first place, page numbers are Arabic, not Roman, numerals. The Riverside begins with a discussion of the extant Chaucer life-records; the Broadview editors begin by saying, "Chaucer’s biographers reckon the approximate date of his birth by testimony Chaucer himself gave" in the Scrope-Grosvenor dispute. They give specific examples of how we know various information about Chaucer, and frame his life in a way that I think my students will find more engaging than the Riverside’s presentation of the same information. For example: "Chaucer came from a well-to-do merchant family" (Riverside, xiii); "Chaucer was born to a family that eventually rose from the peasantry to the nobility" (Broadview 9). The movement of the second formulation will appeal, I think, and show that social structure was not so rigid in the Middle Ages as some people are inclined to think. (Or maybe A Knight’s Tale already made that point.) Broadview includes assorted snippets of information that help individuate people in Chaucer’s background, such as "John le Chaucer was killed in a brawl," and explain cultural practices , such as "It was normal for married couples in the upper nobility to maintain separate households" (9). After the opening section on Chaucer’s life comes a section on "The Construction of the Canterbury Tales," brief discussions of "Chaucer’s English" and "Chaucer’s Versification," and a lengthy study of reception history, divided into two parts, one up to the twentieth century and another devoted to twentieth-century criticism.

The section on language is much briefer than that in the Riverside, with no tables for pronunciation or paradigms for pronouns and verbs. While I will miss having those at hand to point out to students, I always have to spend considerable time in class on the language anyway, and my students usually have seemed more willing to study paradigms I put on the board in class than those neatly printed in the book they paid good money for. (I don’t understand it; I merely report. Perhaps it’s the act of copying out the pronouns, etc., from the board that helps them to learn.) I object to the characterization of Chaucer’s verse as "iambic pentameter" (18); sometimes his lines come out to iambic pentameter, but sometimes they’re four-stress lines, with a looser rhythm, more like older English poetry. But again, the finer points of medieval prosody don’t usually get a huge amount of attention in my classes anyway.

I will also miss the timeline included in the Riverside, but again, I’ve had difficulty getting most students to pay attention to timelines (I love them, and the few stray history majors I’ve had seem to like them, too, but I don’t get enough of those: English is an oversubscribed major at LRU, so I teach mainly majors). If you’re trying to teach a significant amount of medieval English literature in the original language, there’s quite a lot to do in a semester without teaching the history of the fourteenth century as well. Some historical context is crucial, but like the language, it may be better delivered in class.

All in all, I like the book for its accessible introduction, including the introduction to twentieth-century schools of Chaucer criticism, its simplified notes, and its focus on a single manuscript. I’m going to try Broadview next year and see how it goes. If it doesn’t go "faire and weel," as Nicholas says, then I’ll return to the Riverside. I'll try to remember to report back to you next fall.

So. That was another 1500 words. But it's not research.


meg said...

Is Baugh really still knocking around?

Have you ever looked at (or taught with) the Fisher & Allen edition?

Thanks for the review of the Broadview. I was trying to decide between that and Norton (which I used last time), and I think you've tipped me over the edge. And yes, I should have ordered next term's textbooks months ago.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Baugh really is still available, and if you get used copies (which may be all that's left; I haven't used him recently), they're very cheap. And I do try to take prices into consideration when choosing books.

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

P.S. I haven't used Fisher & Allen.

Bardiac said...

My school has book rentals, so we have Baughs that have been in use since 1962, at least. (That was the oldest date on the books my students had in class the other day.)

I'm at a loss for next time; I like the rental cost savings, but I'd like students to get to write in their OWN books.

I think I'll order up a review copy; thanks :)