Teaching the Canterbury Tales with online manuscripts/incunabula: a quick intro

This semester is my first time teaching the Canterbury Tales to doctoral students. To rise to their level, I decided manuscripts would be a big part of my teaching: after all, as digitization is much advanced since I myself was getting a PhD [mumble] years ago, manuscripts can, and probably should, now be a key focus to medievalist graduate training anywhere, even in the hinterlands of Manhattan.

Apart from the expected Ellesmere and Hengwrt manuscripts, and the useful tools at the Norman Blake Editions of several key CT manuscripts and, as well, Manly and Rickert, here’s what’s undoubtedly a partial list of fully digitized Canterbury Tales manuscripts, or, at least, the ones I’ve found easiest to navigate:

British Library, Harley ms 1758.
British Library, Harley ms. 7334.
Cambridge Trinity R.3.3.
Cambridge Trinity R.3.15.
Caxton 1476 and 1483 printings
Codex Bodmer 48.
Oxford, Bodleian, Christ Church ms. 152.
Oxford, Bodleian Douce 218 (Richard Pynson printing, 1491-92).
Oxford, Corpus Christi College ms 198.
Yale, Beinecke Library, Takamiya ms 24 (the ‘Devonshire Chaucer’).
Yale, Beinecke Library, Takamiya ms 32 (the ‘Delamare Chaucer’).

If you’re reading this, I trust you’re already familiar with manuscript variance with the Cook’s Tale or the variously omitted stanzas from the Envoy to the Clerk’s Tale (or the omission of the Envoy altogether). I trust you’ll want less famous examples, maybe to help you through this term, or to get you started on the next.

What varies most, perhaps, is the manuscript apparatus, like section headings and divisions, which give us a sense of how this work might have been read and sorted. For example:

Bodleian, Christ Church MS 152

Bodleian, Christ Church MS 152 26v

This is the Knight’s Tale. How do the pieces fit together? Where the Riverside has “Explicit secunda pars / Sequitur pars tertia,” and where Hengwrt 25v has “Explicit prima pars / Incipit pars secunda,” Christ Church 152, 26v, has “the ordinannce of lystys that thesyiis ordaynyd.” Does the Knight’s Tale comprise abstract parts of equal weight, or is it a sequence of events? If so, whose doings are worthy of “ordaining” the divisions of the plot?

Corpus Christi College ms 198, 54v

Corpus Christi College ms 198, 54v

Or here’s the Reeve’s Prologue in Corpus Christi College ms 198, 54v. Our medieval scribe has started the tale at the prologue itself (“Explicit fabula molendmain [the Miller] / here bygynneþ þe Reeues tale” — note the mixture of Latin (Explicit) and English (bygynneþ)); an early modern reader intervenes, and writes “Prologue” in the margins. Are they comparing manuscripts? Or is it a sign of an independent interpretation?

When does the Wife of Bath’s Tale start? In at least one case, her tale – or one of them anyway – begins after the Pardoner interrupts her:

Harley 7334 89r

Harley 7334 89r, with a red “Narrat” in the margin.

Here, then, the Wife’s prologue is split between a prologue, where she does scriptural interpretation, and a tale, where she finally begins to tell us something of her “experience.”

Most interesting to me, however, is what the manuscripts call what the Friar does at the end of the Wife’s Prologue, or first Tale, or whatever else it might be called. Here’s my (crowded) slide:


Is it just “words between” the Friar and Summoner? It is an “interpretation” of the Wife’s tale? An “interruption”? Or is it just a neutral ending of the Wife’s prologue, and the words of the Friar, following neatly? It depends! And a lot depends on it.

As we all know, in their capacity for nuanced forms of emphasis, manuscripts are closer than print is to speech. We on the other side of Gutenberg have generally lost rubrication, marginalia too, or underlining, manicules, and slight enlargements, like so, from the Friar’s Tale:

Codex Bodmer 48 91r

Codex Bodmer 48 91r

Should the carter be taken down to hell? “Nay q[uo]d þe deuel,” he absolutely should not.

Finally, a bit on early modern readers of Chaucer. Griselda’s story is a marriage story, after a fashion, which perhaps helped suit this blank space for an early modern family record:

Harley 1758 126v

Harley 1758 126v

The Fox children crowd in over the course of the sixteenth century, here and on the next page, before the Franklin’s Tale — not the Merchant’s — begins.

And this, a record of what one early modern reader cared most about:

Cambridge Trinity R.3.3 38r

Cambridge Trinity R.3.3 38r

Cambridge Trinity R.3.3 38r gives us an early modern reader who, like many of us, is curious about the rest of the Squire’s Tale. They’ve clearly “sought in diuers places” for the “the reaste” but found nothing except the final two lines about Apollo, just like you have in your Riverside.

More interesting is what doesn’t get changed: in red, “The Prologue to the Merchaunt.” Turn the page, and we have the words of the Franklin to the Squire, but here assigned to the Merchant, and then the Merchant’s Tale (“Whilom there was dwelling in Lombardy / A worthy knight”). No correction. No correction. No indication of difference, despite our reader likely having encountered the Franklin and his tale in these passages as they hunted in diverse places. Here at least is one reader who wasn’t bothered by variance in Tale order. If you’re having your students read Arthur Bahr, this is as good illustration as any of ways to think the Canterbury Tales as other than “fragments.”


White Fascism in America, or, a Modern Day Madame Eglentine




She was so charitable and so pitous
She wolde wepe, if that she saugh a mous
Kaught in a trappe, if it were deed or bledde.
Of smale houndes hadde she that she fedde
With rosted flessh, or milk and wastel-breed.
But soore wepte she if oon of hem were deed,
Or if men smoot it with a yerde smerte;
And al was conscience and tendre herte.

With torment and with shameful deeth echon,
This provost dooth thise Jewes for to sterve
That of this mordre wiste, and that anon.
He nolde no swich cursednesse observe.
” Yvele shal have that yvele wol deserve ” ;
Therfore with wilde hors he dide hem drawe,
And after that he heng hem by the lawe.

Further context here.

You know, the one with the Rocks – Trinity Colllege R.3.3

CaptureIn last night’s Chaucer class, while trying to illustrate a point about the Manciple’s Tale. I found myself in Cambridge, Trinity College R.3.3, a Canterbury Tales manuscript of c. 1450-1475. This is what grabbed me, above: at 108r, you’ll see the ending of the Prioress’s Tale (here reading “for the reverence of his moder Marie. Amen”), followed not by Thopas, but by the FRANKLIN.

Dividing the Prioress from the Franklin, we have: “Hic incipit prologus de Frankeleyun cum fabula sua de Rokkes de Brytaine” (here begins the Franklin’s prologue with his tale of the Rocks of Briton [or Bretagne]”)

Forgive me if I’m repeating something someone already said: I’m not a manuscripts scholar, my paleography is weak, and various quick, morning searches in various databases for Trinity R.3.3 commentary haven’t been successful, even though I know some of you have written about it: but I love this incipit. I would suspect our students, and most of us too, think of the Franklin’s Tale as mostly about honor, truth, the problem of sovereignty, class conflict in narrative and rhetoric, and the indifference or nonexistence of the gods. But here’s someone who, like Jeffrey (eg here and here), thinks it’s a tale mostly about ROCKS.

(by the way, Jeffrey’s Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman is available here!)

(quick check suggests there are no other such incipit summaries in the mss (the others are just tags like “here begins the Cook’s Tale,” etc, but we do have this this rather self-satisfied, nonmedieval manicule at 38r)Capture2

(I don’t suppose anyone knows off hand if any of the other fifteenth-century copies of the Franklin’s Tales are marked this way?)

Three Bits in the Canterbury Tales that Will Always Make Me Laugh

London, 1375-1424

Phallus in Purse: London, 1375-1424

  1. “and forth he gooth — no lenger wolde he lette — / unto the west gate of the toun, and fond / a dong carte, as it were to donge lond” (VII.3034-36, Nun’s Priest’s Tale)
  2. “and whan he hadde pouped in this horn” (IX.90, Manciple’s Prologue)
  3. “whereas the Poo out of a welle smal” (IV.48, Clerk’s Prologue)

(object 14902 from the Kunera Database of Medieval Badges)

Divine Women: Respectability Politics and the Nun’s Priest’s Tale

Besser Chart

Chart from Besserman

If you teach Chaucer, you’re likely more than familiar with this bit from the Nun’s Priest’s Tale:

Wommennes conseils been ful ofte colde;
Wommannes counseil broghte us first to wo
And made Adam fro Paradys to go,
There as he was ful myrie and wel at ese.
But for I noot to whom it myght displese,
If I conseil of wommen wolde blame,
Passe over, for I seyde it in my game.
Rede auctours, where they trete of swich mateere,
And what they seyn of wommen ye may heere.
Thise been the cokkes words, and nat myne;
I kan noon harm of no womman divyne. (VII.2356-66; Riverside ed)

You may also know the double meaning of the last line, which depends on whether we read “divine” as a verb or as an adjective: “I am not able to guess any sin about woman” (divine as verb) or “I know no sin about divine women [i.e., women devoted to theology, i.e., a nun, like the Prioress]” (divine as adjective). In 1977, Lawrence L. Besserman charted the line’s various possibilities;[1] then in his Variorum edition, Derek Pearsall complained that Besserman, “overreliant on mechanical aids” (in this case, the Middle English Dictionary), generated an ambiguity entirely of his own making; then finally (?), Peter Travis’s Disseminal Chaucer demonstrated, quite keenly, that “Besserman’s systematic taxonomizing is absolutely consonant with a dominant methodology of a typical medieval liberal arts classroom” (63).

I think we can safely keep teaching the line as a pun.

Now, while Besserman took the line as a “veiled critique of the Prioress and her tale” (70; no pun intended?), I think we can take his reading further by understanding it as an instance of medieval respectability politics.

Here’s a succinct paragraph on the theme from Michelle Smith’s “Affect and Respectability Politics,” her contribution to the (sadly still) essential special issue of Theory and Event on Ferguson and “disposable lives”:

The signature of respectability politics is its disavowal of the legitimacy of black rage. By respectability politics, I refer to the first resort of marginalized classes. On the one hand, like all democratic politics, respectability politics seeks to realize collective aspirations whether grand (justice, equality, full participation) or pedestrian (balanced budget, community policing, bike paths). On the other, respectability politics evince a distinct worldview: marginalized classes will receive their share of political influence and social standing not because democratic values and law require it but because they demonstrate their compatibility with the “mainstream” or non-marginalized class. So, have you been discriminated against on the job market? Take off that hoodie and pull up your sagging pants! Rejected by the magnet school? “Nigga” is not a friendly greeting! Have the police thrown you against a wall againto search your pockets? Don’t stand on the street looking like you’re up to no good! Propriety breeds respect. Did your unarmed son/daughter/husband/wife/best friend/cousin die after the police applied the chokehold too vigorously? Cooler heads will prevail!

Respectability politics burdens the marginalized with the obligation to make themselves right; they shift the blame from deadly systems to individuals and their habits; they absolve the status quo of its own guilt; the call for respectability erases the many marginalized who themselves are respectable, who are marching peacefully, who are responding to violence with as much calm as they can muster, and still being battered and killed for all that; and finally the call to respectability erases the illegitimacy of the system people are being required to live up to, and the real possibilities for justice that “disrespectable” behavior might manifest. Respectability politics is mostly bullshit.


For the Nun’s Priest to say, among other things, “I know no sin about divine women” is to divide women into two categories (at least): divine women or even godlike women; and all the others, the less respectable women, who fall somewhat short of the low mark of divinity itself. This line, heard in its second sense, allows the Nun’s Priest to maintain his clerical misogyny—“wommenes conseils been ful ofte colde”—while propping up the whole system that clerical misogyny justifies, and that sustains his own privilege. It allows him to gaslight us by denying that he himself holds, acts on, and benefits from the beliefs that are actually his own and those of the patriarchy that owns him.

After all, some of his best friends are women.

For trusteth wel, it is an impossible
That any clerk wol speke good of wyves,
But if it be of hooly seintes lyves (Wife of Bath’s Prologue, III.689-91)

We can imagine, now, some of the respectable women of the Canterbury Tales and what happens to them: Emelye, Custance, Griselda, Virginia. You might have your own list. And we can mark, quite neatly, just how far respectability gets these adherents to appropriate behavior.

And we can see, then, that respectability politics demands – to choose an example not at all at random – that black people be divine: to be better than white people; to be better than people; to be saints; to be gods. Respectability politics loves the crucified respectable saint; and it loves just as much to crucify those who can’t or won’t be saints. Respectability politics is bullshit.

[thanks to Alison Kinney for talking this through with me. Any errors, in politics or anything else, are probably my own]

[1] Lawrence L. Besserman, “Chaucerian Wordplay: The Nun’s Priest and His ‘Womman Divyne.'”  The Chaucer Review 12.1 (1977): 68-73

Fractal Prioress


It’s a disappointment if any given semester of teaching the Canterbury Tales again doesn’t help me develop what feels like a new interpretation. Some samples from past years: Walter talks like a philosopher, but Griselda acts like one, and suffers like one too (borrowed from its development by one of my former students, Rachel Merenda); Dorigen weaponizes the concept of honor to effect her own salvation, thus avoiding the fate of the less imaginative Virginia (note how she humiliates Aurelius in the busiest street!); the horse in the Friar’s Tale is the very image of the irresolvability of the problem of intention, responsibility, and agency; and so on (?).
Here’s today’s idea.

I seye, that in a wardrobe they him threwe,
Wheras thise Jewes purgen hir entraille.
O cursed folk of Herodes al newe,
What youre ivel entente yow availle?
Mordre wol out, certein, it wol nat faille,
And namely ther th’onour of God shal sprede;
The blood out cryeth on youre cursed dede. (Prioress’s Tale VII.571-78, Mann ed.)

I was struck today by the al newe: here’s the past event, done again, so that it’s never past. The Jews do what they do because they have to, and they always have; the Christians, likewise ever young or old in their youth, also do what they do because they have to, as they always have; this is always the first murder (“the voice of thy brother’ s blood crieth to me from the earth”), which never stops being committed. As my student presenter observed today, and as you have no doubt observed too, the widow is an analog of the Virgin Mary, the boy an analog of Christ, and the Jews, well, the Jews: the crucifixion is happening all over again.
But there’s a couple other repetitions. There’s the final stanza of course, which begins like so:

O yonge Hugh of Lincoln, slain also
With cursed Jewes, as it is notable,
For it is but a litel while ago (VII.684-86).

As we know, Little Hugh of Lincoln died in 1255, some 130-140 years prior to Chaucer writing this tale. It’s not a “litel while ago,” unless, that is, everything is always new, always fresh, always circling around with no point of escape.
There’s yet another repetition, however, one that I think may have escaped notice by the poem’s commentators to date. Maybe not! Here’s what I’m noticing:
  • Boy sings or refers to the Alma Redemptoris, 641 and 655
  • Boy is killed, again, when the grain is taken out of his mouth
  • Abbot and community falls on the ground “and still he lay, as he had been ybounde” (676), which we all know recalls the earlier binding of the Jews (“and after that the Jewes leet he binde” (620) [edit: see Adrienne W. Boyarin here for more!]
  • And then there’s a procession (“and after that they rise, and forth been went, / And toke awey this martyr from his beere” (679-80), which might recall the earlier procession on the hunt for the singing corpseboy (“The Cristen folk that thurgh the strete wente / In coomen for to wondre upon this thing” (614-15).
 Singing, killing, binding, procession, and at the heart of it a “sely” boy wise beyond his years but young as well. Somewhere in this, we might even put the boy’s double burial, in a latrine, and then “in a tombe of marbilstones cleere” (680).

Now, in a Christian exegetical context, these echoes might just be understood as anagogic repetition: the supersession of the cursed Jews by the blessed Christians. But in the context of a circle of violence, suffering, and ongoing newness, we can understand VII.641-680 as a miniaturized version of the tale as a whole, a miniature that’s repeated again in shorter former in the final stanza on Hugh of Lincoln. This fractal repetition recalls the Mass itself, which repeats everywhere and always the incarnation and crucifixion; and it also anticipates the structure of Thopas, whose structure of diminishing returns (18 stanzas, 9 stanzas, 4 ½ stanzas) might itself be understood as a kind of fractal repetition.

In the Prioress’s Tale, ever young, but also ever old, stuck in the same loop, we have a picture of the liturgy and the liturgical year (maybe?), and also, especially, a picture of a cycle of violence that can’t end until the Prioress and her community give up on the memory of sacrifice, suffering, and redemption.

How’s that? Who else has done this?

(for earlier Chaucer blog posts by me: here (Prioress), here (Physician), here (Nun’s Priest), here (Friar), here (Man of Law), here (Wife of Bath’s Tale), here (manuscripts), and here (Prioress))

Be Realistic, Ask for the Usual – against the “realism” of the Miller’s Tale

West Fjords, Days 3, Látrabjarg

This Látrabjarg puffin doesn’t approve of your tastes.

Students — and probably not only students — often praise Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale for being “more realistic” than the “Knight’s Tale.” With its love of the so-called lower functions, of “mere lust,” and cynical deception, the Miller’s Tale isn’t loaded down with all the high seriousness and sublimation of the Knight’s: this is what they say, anyway.

But why should bawdy cynicism be more “realistic” than a commitment to duty and honor and a willingness to die for one’s beliefs and desires? Why should selfishness, and the belief that you’re the free agent in a world of silly fools who just don’t know how things really are, man be the truth? This self is just as much as ideological carapace as duty and honor.

In general, the preference for realism strikes me as a lack of empathy, an unwillingness to believe that other people have beliefs (or that you too have your own stupid prejudices). It’s a preference that gives us the Reeve’s Tale, which is, if anything, a “more realistic” version of the Miller’s Tale, and that gives us, ultimately, that godforsaken genre, the “Gritty Reboot,” which, as we all know, is ideology critique, consciousness-raising, and desublimination, all at once, but for total jerks.