Researching medieval books in early summer

I’m a little behind with this for the month of April, but I’m going to blame prepping for exam season.

Because I am in the process or re-starting a project due in conference paper form by early July, I am going to review the general research process, and consider where to proceed from here. The project involves early printed editions of Chaucer’s collected works, tracing the inclusion of or references to a poem now viewed as not by Chaucer.

One of the things that comes with the end of the semester, especially in the spring, is the approach of about 2 weeks without teaching or other university duties; in other words, time for scholarship and preparing for summer conferences. But in my case there are 2 related complications: 1) my institution is shutting down their more efficient ILL system for a software change-over, 2) right when I need to be regathering my materials. There’s this rule that for material borrowed from another institution can only be renewed twice, and I’d reached that limit right at a point when I knew I was going to be too busy with essay grading and exams to do much of my own work (and so did not immediately re-request my key secondary sources). I take no issue with the library rules or the software update, but the timing is terrible. I understand it’s for the convenience of students, who will not be in classes during that interval, but it’s terrible for the instructors because that gap between terms is prime research and writing time.

Nevertheless, I persist. I have learned from past experiences to keep records of the titles and authors I know I will need to get back. But, I have also found that by looking up these titles again in the catalogues, I can also get a sense of what other similar titles might be out there. The digital equivalent of shelf-browsing is useful because I think it might be useful to work it into teaching research, but also because I have limited direct physical access to the kinds of texts I might find useful in my own research. This is in addition of course to the usual scouting of works cited and footnote citations of texts I already need or have on hand.

All of the above is useful for general research in any area, but given my particular specialty of medieval literature and manuscript studies, I also need to consider how to get to primary original sources. Thankfully, increasing digitization of medieval books in print and manuscript helps, but especially with more obscure texts or manuscripts, this is not always an option. Secondary sources have been highly useful in providing editors and edition titles, but tracking the locations of everything necessary does require some work. Thankfully, nearly everything I want to check is available at the research university libraries in Atlanta, which is only about an hour and a half drive away.

The only catch is I haven’t used Emory or Georgia Tech’s special collections before, so I also need to look up the rules and regulation for viewing. This is standard practice for visiting any library special collections, but each institution is a little different. The British Library (big public research library) is different than the Newberry (small public research library in Chicago) is different than a university library in terms of gaining general access and access to specific items in the collection. Rules might cover making an appointment, as well as what is or is not allowed in the reading rooms. Particularly with manuscripts, some places have rules concerning photography, and all have rules concerning the use of ink or handling or personal possessions while using the materials.

Once I get to the original early print editions I need to find the following: do they include the text I’m looking for, is it attributed, and/or is it mentioned. This information will help me construct a stemma for the text, which is already done for the manuscript tradition (all of 3 codices). Looking into the provenance of the particular editions will likely become necessary as well, particularly if a specific book has any marginalia or other details specific to that copy of the book.

Once all this is done, it will be back to the secondary literature to locate the rationale behind the editorial decisions, including why the new edition was felt necessary, and what reviewers had to say about the new version.

Putting everything together will, I hope, result in fairly comprehensive textual history for a now rather neglected poem. From there, who knows…….

London: The Conference Part

Some things about academic conferences never change, including:

The age old conference problem: the struggle and irritation that comes with trying to choose which sessions to attend when several that run at the same time look equally interesting/valuable.

The eternal temptation: the discounted books at the publisher displays, many of which are fairly new publications.

The not-totally professorial one-liners: “Showing the contents of your flash-drive {on the big lecture hall screen} is like showing your underwear”, “sexy pictures of text pages”, “The Aeneid is equivalent to flatulence”, and “he’s either a bad poet or the Stephen Hawking of meter”.

Most importantly, the one thing that doesn’t change is coming home with all kinds of new ideas to research-write about-work into current projects, things to look up, and teaching possibilities. I had never thought of using gender and queer theory to analyze manuscript layouts before, had never heard or seen the term ‘mise en page’ before, and never thought of marginal manuscript illustrations as “click-bait” (image of women with mirror = selfie, monkey riding goat = Youtube hits, cats = cats, etc.). I also got some useful information about a manuscript I’m working on and some good ideas about how the written manuscripts might relate to some early printed editions. And as usual, I also have a long list of books that might be useful to try to find which may or may not be useful.

Some things are unique to a given conference and venue, like the lecture hall right on top of a Tube line, so you could hear the periodic rumble-rush of trains throughout the panel. I can only imagine having to teach in that hall. Others have to do with the nature of the conference itself. Only at a focused gathering like the New Chaucer Society might the following be funny: you are out for a walking tour of Chaucer’s London with a group of experts, mostly PhDs, and run into a basic question like “who was St Botolf”? That’s relevant because there was a parish church in London, St Botolf’s Without Aldgate, that Chaucer may have attended. This church still exists, although not exactly in the same form as the original. None of the dozen or so medieval specialists knew the answer (including the walk leaders, eminent historian and literary scholar though they were), so Professor Google was consulted by one of the younger scholars present (me). It turns out St Botolf was a 7th century English abbot and saint (not martyr) who watches over travelers and some elements of farming. His feat day differs depending on whether you’re English or Scottish (it’s in June either way- 17th or 25th).

There will always be technology problems. We were on a campus that used PCs and it seems like most of the scholars were used to Macs. I personally am a PC person, so it didn’t bother me as much, but I was a little surprised at the degree of struggle some people were having. The more standard problem was when one scholar had to give her paper via Skype, and there were issues getting that set up, and once she was up onscreen, someone from the next room came over to see if we could turn the volume down.

Technology also factored into the conference in ways that are becoming the norm. I allowed myself to get a little distracted at one panel watching the graduate student in front of me Tweet the whole panel. The closing keynote also included a few references to contemporary digital culture, including a Youtube video “Chaucerian Pubbe Joke” (I looked it up; it’s funny for about a minute then gets irritating) and the original LOL Cat “I can haz cheeseburger?”. The talk itself was actually a textual analysis of Chaucer’s use of “the speaking face” trope, particularly in Troilus and Criseyde and Book of the Duchess. On a side note, I found it interesting that people who were taking notes during this final lecture were almost exclusively younger, probably students.

Lastly, there is the blessing/curse of GoogleMaps. We were in a part of London not included on a lot of published maps, so I (and a lot of others) needed a way to figure out getting around. It makes sense on the level that QMUL is not in a touristy part of the city’s East End. Even in more tourist parts of the city, I ended up relying on my phone which can be really frustrating when it doesn’t want to work. I spent a good half hour around Tower Bridge panicking over my phone telling me it had no GPS signal while trying to find a specific pub meeting point. Because of a lot of construction on one end of the bridge and some not well posted signs, I had gotten lost, and the area was not mapped in the level of detail I needed on the map I had with me. After 2 restarts and almost running out of battery, I eventually did get the app working and find the place I needed. The route was not very straightforward, but I got where I needed to be just about on time.

An Inspiring Thing Happened on the Way to the Panel

Conferences are always a good time for a lot of reasons, but one of my favorites is getting inspiration, both academic and personal. Two weekends ago, I attended the Medieval Academy of America’s annual conference held this year at the University of Notre Dame. This is a story of how some inspiration led to more work (in a good way).

On the personal side, I got to see and hear in person a scholar with whose work, my dissertation would never have happened, Professor James J. Murphy. He was presenting a team talk with another scholar (Alex Novikoff) who was born in the year the article Professor Murphy was referencing was published. Professor Murphy’s point was that his 1978 article on The Owl and the Nightingale as modeled on medieval disputation practices was met with silence from contemporary scholars. Professor Novikoff recently published a book (2013) on the subject of how medieval disputation affected social and cultural elements outside of the academy. My second dissertation chapter deals with many of the same ideas these two scholars covered, so it was nice to see that I was not the only one who thought the connection was worth looking into. There was some internal fan-girl geeking out at that panel.

On the academic side, I admit I was guilty of a little thing that lots of scholars seem to do: getting ready to present a paper to which I did not yet have a thesis. The abstract I submitted was taken out of my dissertation work concerning marginalia in the manuscripts preserving Middle English debate poems. Taking it out of that context meant that I had to reframe the research into a self-contained argument. I managed to do it the night before my presentation was scheduled when I had a realization that I could actually connect this older research with my current Gower project.

What I had to explain was why, when most Middle English debate poems have little to no marginalia in their manuscripts (a feature shared with most lyric poetry), did John Lydgate’sDebate of the Horse, Goose, and Sheep”  (HGS) has consistent speaker notations in the margins? Two obvious potential reasons, that the poem had a famous author and that the poem is more narrative both in length and content, don’t work out. Chaucer also wrote some debate poetry (“Fortune”, “The Parliament of Fowls”) and was the attributed author for centuries of another debate poem (“The Cuckoo and the Nightingale”). None of the Chaucerian poems have anything near the consistent manuscript marginal notation of Lydgate’s work. In terms of length, Lydgate’s other debate poem, “The Churl and the Bird”, is similar in terms of narrative content, although it is 20 stanzas shorter than HGS. This second debate has nothing of the consistent marginal speaker guides like HGS.

My brilliant (if I do say so myself) hypothesis is the possibility that Lydgate was following in the path of John Gower’s Confessio Amantis (which I also think has debate poem connections, but that’s another story). Gower oversaw some of the early manuscript production himself, and himself was the author of a lot of the marginalia that is consistently present. Gower manuscripts certainly were added to in terms of commentary and marginal notations, but Gower’s own use of the convention of marginal commentary seems to have ensured some degree of preservation throughout the following centuries. Lydgate knew of both Chaucer and Gower’s works, so the possibility that he had seen an early copy of the Confessio is not a stretch.

Proving this of course means doing a study of equal depth of Confessio Amantis manuscripts. Thanks to the digitization of manuscripts, this will be an easier task than it would have been even a decade ago. This is one great advantage to digital scholarship. Manuscript catalogues are not consistent in terms of describing marginalia, which is why the manuscripts themselves are going to be critical evidence. Even scholarship on Gower manuscripts (of which there is plenty) is not consistent in terms of contemplation of Gower’s influence over the marginalia as a manuscript feature, preferring often to focus on the interpretive suggestions of the notes.

This issue brings up one problem with the digital humanities. Although there is a lot more access than there used to be to manuscripts, scholars no longer have to practice taking notes of manuscript descriptions as they can easily go back to the images. The problem here is that without practice in describing the particular paleographical or codicological features of a text, the actual descriptions of the unique features of interest becomes a struggle when it comes to presenting an argument based on physical evidence.

So, now what? I am planning to finish working on and drafting the original Gower paper, then switching over to the pastoral project while starting the manuscript work on the Lydgate-Gower connection with aid from facsimiles both digital and print. I am hoping by the time I get to the manuscripts that I will have to see ‘in person’ I’ll have some time and resources to actually make the trip to the UK where many of them are kept.

A Realization, Excitement, and Vadamus!

A new writing project is always an exciting thing. I admit that for me personally it feels especially good because I was not as productive as I would have liked in the fall. The change in habits required pre- and post- PhD was a bit more difficult of a transition than I was imagining. That said, here’s the plan: I am still reading for my Gower project, which given the scale of the project, is not unexpected. I am in a position  to start writing for my pastoral in medieval English poetry paper. I recently read an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education that made some relevant points. I had been using my heavy teaching load as an excuse to not spend as much time as I would have liked on my own work. While my new schedule (5 classes (3 courses) at 2 schools; 2 of the courses were new to me), I was emotionally and almost physically stretched. But Jenkin’s article resonated with me, especially the points that you can and should use previous ideas that can be expanded (from blogs etc), and that even with a hard teaching schedule, scholarship is possible though it requires detailed planning and some sacrifice.

Now, onwards to pastoral features in English literature during the medieval period. I have already done the writing that illustrates how the Latin pastoral traditions carry on into the medieval period (dissertation work that can be easily adapted), and it turns out that much of the reading will not be new to me based on that and previous graduate school papers/presentations. I will be writing about how the pastoral tradition is clearly present as a part of the gradual evolution and adaptation that happened between the Latin Classical period (Virgil) and the English Renaissance (Milton, Shakespeare, Spenser,etc). Chaucer, Gower, Henryson, and several anonymous poets will provide the texts using pastoral methods and tropes both in their frames and their central messages. This is going to be fun. Stay tuned…

Chaucer In Perpetuam

At one point in my academic career, I swore that I would not be using Chaucer in my dissertation. I also suggested that Chaucer was over-studied. This was before my DQE (qualifying exam), and before ENG 8830, a course/independent study that is designed to prepare the student for the DQE and beyond. I have since completed 8330, the DQE, and the dissertation itself. I still stand by my assertion that certain things about/by Chaucer have been over-studied. However, I did end up including Chaucer’s “Parliament of Fowls” in my final chapter.  I will not be putting forth major scholarly analysis of any Chaucerian text here. Rather, I intend to comment on the relevance of Chaucer’s poetry today.

1) Chaucer provides proof that human nature hasn’t changed much in 650 years. For example, Chaucer proves that even as early as the fourteenth century, fart jokes were funny. Read The Miller’s Tale if you are skeptical.  For another example, Chaucer  insinuates in more than one poem that writers are under-appreciated, and that the job of a writer/scholar can be very difficult . The biggest example of Chaucer speaking out as a writer is in The Complaint of Chaucer to His Purse, and he also hints at the difficulties a writer can face in The Parliament of Fowls when the dreamer-poet-scholar  first prays to  Venus for help with poetry (112-119) and Scipio later tells him that he (Scipio) will help the dreamer with his writing (162-168). The Parliament begins with a scholar struggling with an academic book (22-35, 92-98), although it does end with the scholar hopeful that he can find the answer he is looking for (693-699). For a more modern reference, Chaucer inspired what may be the first ever fan-fics in English. Robert Henryson, in the fifteenth century, wrote The Testament of Criseyde which presents what happened to her after the conclusion of Chaucer’s story. John Lydgate framed his Siege of Thebes as a Canterbury Tale about twenty years after Chaucer died.

2) Reading Chaucer is a gateway to lots of medieval stuff including history, literature, culture, and education. The historical and cultural allusions and direct references illustrate examples of how people in Chaucer’s time may have viewed figures and events that would turn out to be of enduring historical interest. The possible references to a royal courtship or engagement in Parliament of Fowls and the dedication of Book of the Duchess to John of Gaunt, and a reference to John Gower in Troilus and Criseyde (5, 1856) are only  three of many such references. Chaucer wrote some teaching texts, including An ABC and Treatise on the Astrolabe, and in many of his poems, he presents people who are or are trying to study.

3) Chaucer is known as “The Father of English Poetry/Literature” for a reason. While this title may be disputed and questioned, the fact remains that Chaucer was a gifted and intelligent poet. Two hundred years before Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, Chaucer wrote Troilus and Criseyde (scroll down to find T&C). Both stories are about a pair of doomed lovers, but Chaucer’s gives much more insight into the psychology and motivations of his characters. Yes, Troilus and Criseyde are probably older than Romeo and Juliet,  and Chaucer was not writing for the stage. However, the individuality and struggles of the individual characters are far more detailed in Chaucer’s work, and level of detail regarding character or motivation is not restricted by genre or age of the characters. The same can be said of The Canterbury Tales, especially the General Prologue, and in some of the inter-tale dialogue among the characters.

Back to the personal for a final notion. Here’s the fan-fic that I think needs to happen. I would do it, but I am a terrible creative writer. Dr Who ends up in medieval London, and meets Chaucer.  Chaucer would be in the early stages of his literary career, and assists the Doctor through some court intrigue in return for the Doctor promising to come back with some stories to help fill in plans for The Canterbury Tales. NB – Since, as of this writing, Doctor 12 is mostly unknown, I will cast the one Doctor who is still available, and that is the regeneration clone of Doctor 10.

The Doctor would leave for a while,  and he would come back only to find out that Chaucer has died very recently under mysterious circumstances, and he and companions decide to solve the mystery of Chaucer’s death. This would allow for some exploration of the real historical possibilities of what might have happened to Chaucer when he died, and also allow for the requisite Whovian monster to make its appearance. Said creature would be some kind of demon that feasts on words and ideas, and it got to liking Chaucer a little too much. The Doctor would defeat whatever it is, but while he and the companion(s) were looking through Chaucer’s papers for clues to solving the murder, the Doctor would start doodling in the margins of one of the books which would eventually turn out to be the Hengwert manuscript.  Click here for the digital facsimile.

To the reader: If you have ideas on how to expand my above scenario, please share! This is one of the great advantages of the digital humanities, that people can collaborate so easily on ideas.

General Literature

TEAMS Middle English Texts

This invaluable series of texts includes scholarly editions of the texts, notes, and commentary.


The medieval section of this site includes texts from major authors, biographical details (as known), and bibliographies of (and some links to) articles and other scholarship.


This site includes Chaucer’s texts, as well as other tools for study. Tools include a concordance, some ‘translations’, and a glossary of Chaucer’s Middle English.

Although this site is no longer active, it contains an annotated bibliography of resources, many of which are now standard in the study of Chaucer and his contemporaries. The link goes directly to the editions-of-text page.