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.”


Atavism: Teaching notes on Beloved

I like to give me students something to beat up on, so I started class today with this sentence from Cliffs Notes:

In Cincinnati, far from the misshapen Mrs. Garner, the atavistic savagery of the “mossy teeth,” and schoolteacher’s sadism, Sethe sinks into the masochism of a fruitless emotional duel with her dead child’s ghost.

The question: what’s wrong with the word “atavistic”? How is this evidence of a fundamental misunderstanding of how TIME works in Beloved?

25 minutes later, one saucy student demanded: “where are you going with this ‘atavistic’ stuff?”

“Hold on. Just hold on.”

I’m at that stage in my career where I’m pretty sure I could have kept it going for another 30 minutes.

But if you’re looking for a lesson plan on Beloved from someone who read it for the first time last month — in other words, if you’re kind of a fool or a bit of an ambulance chaser — then by all means read on and click you on.

I discovered, first, that although this is an advanced literature course (“History and Lit”) very few — like maybe one — of my 16 students knew what “atavistic” even meant. So I gave them some evolutionary biology, first, and explained this is “atavistic” in its technical sense, while also reminding them that it’s just plain wrong to think that “atavistic” traits are more primitive. Evolution, I insisted, does not improve things in some abstract sense; it doesn’t make things better (“for what?”): it adapts, and adaptations can sometimes be simplifications (like blind cave fish, classically).

Then I showed them some 19th-century criminology:


I gave them some modern atavism in a racist context. And I finally asked why “atavistic” was a particularly lousy word to use to denigrate someone — even white people — in a novel written by an African American about the African American experience?

The students rightly observed that the story of Schoolteacher’s nephews assaulting Sethe did NOT take place in some primitive past but in the present of 1855, where cruel white behavior against black slaves was condoned and encouraged: there’s a whole modern system set in place to make these kinds of actions possible. Given that her assailants are literally stealing her milk from her breasts, we witness here, helplessly (like Halle in the hayloft), a violent assertion of the fact that, to the slaveowners, Sethe and other slave mothers were nothing but breeding stock.

I added, what else about “atavistic”? What about the charge that certain people are more primitive than others, more likely to be evolutionary throwbacks? What about the phrase “you black apes” (here, here, here, and here).

We got it. No surprise. I didn’t belabor the point. Atavistic is a pretty lousy, stupid word to use as an insult for describing characters in at least this book.

And what about the way time functions in Beloved anyhow?

Remember, I read it for the first time last month, and am, naturally, teaching it for the first time now. I’m sure this has been covered in the criticism.

Sethe’s relationship to the past is not one of a present day person trying to grow out of something primitive. For her, the past is at once too present and too lost: too present in that she’s pummeled with it whenever she remembers (quite literally when the ghost shows up), and too lost when we see what happens between her and her mother, her connection to Africa, to the antelope dance, and to the freedom stolen from them.

I have my past easily at hand, I told the students: on my mother’s side, I can trace my ancestry  back to the seventeenth century in this country (and farther back still if I extend it to Europe). Over here, in Virginia, we owned slaves; a great great (or so) uncle — James O. B. Racer — died from wounds received at Gettysburg, fighting, I pointed out, for the wrong side. My students — many of them immigrants or second-generation Americans, many of them descended from people fleeing pogroms or the Holocaust, many of them descended from slaves — don’t have this. “Atavism” isn’t their problem: it’s that their past is either too awful and too lost.

This is one of the problems Morrison explores in Beloved, where 1855 and 1873 shift into each other, without a sign or a break, where the past might slide into the present or vice versa, where Sethe and Paul D and so on scramble and dodge to try to re/member a usable past and to try to get past the past that haunts them. The past is not backwards, here, but rather a ghost, a danger, and an absence, and the impossible desired thing.

I stopped only because we had to talk about Lucy Delaney, who, you know, teaches like a dream.

Chaucer, Twice: the Prioress and Criseyde

I’ve just commented, with some befuddlement, on two classes of short papers on the Prioress’s Tale. I had introduced the Tale with, yes, a Trigger Warning that went something like this: “As this is a class on race and racism focused on medieval texts, many of the readings will, or at least should, horrify you. Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale is one of them. It’s antisemitic. For the last 50 years or so, the main debate has been whether Chaucer or the Prioress is to blame for its antisemitism. But there’s no way around it: it’s awful.”

Despite all that, about half the papers said something like “I think this story is antisemitic,” “it seems unfair to Jews,” “it seems to be trying to say Christians are good and Jews are evil,” “it tells us that antisemitism is really old,” or, the variant, “the antisemitism in the Prioress’s Tale is still around today.”

I warned them, but they’re still shocked. I’m befuddled but I’m also delighted, because the tale really is that horrible.

I’ve tried to push them towards more direct, more specific engagement, not only with the tale’s antisemitism, but also with the anxieties, concerns, and assumptions that antisemitism requires to have any force at all. When a student says “this shows that medieval Christians were antisemitic,” I, of course, say “the earliest written account of this kind of tale is the 1170s; they’re confined to northern Europe; so we have to get more specific”; but when a student just condemns the tale’s antisemitism in the broadest possible terms and walks away, then I have to lean on their good conscience. At the least, I have to teach them to close read. My main questions:

  • What’s the relationship between ignorance and holiness? In other versions of the tale, the boy’s 10 years old; here he’s 7, just before the age of responsibility, killed before he learns how to read. The nun herself wants to become like a child of 12 months old, unable to speak even. The Prioress herself snarks at the monk, and even the ‘holy abbot’ in the tale is, in a way, the one to kill the boy. And what does this suggest about the way that ‘simplicity’ and ‘goodness’ tend to be equated? Is there something sinister about this?
  • Similarly, why do you assume that the Prioress’s intense feeling for the Virgin has to be faked? Why do you assume that simplicity and simple expression are more authentic than fancy talk?
  • The central myth of Christianity is a martyred god who resurrects. This is the story Christianity needs to tell. While the tale blames the Jews, sort of, for killing the boy, Christianity, especially medieval Christianity, needs martyrs. The tale itself, I’ll remind you, is an antisemitic fiction. So, who killed the boy? Not the Jews. The tale did. And why was the tale told? Christianity. Or to get a free dinner. One or both of these, I’d argue, is what actually killed the little boy. Think of the way that detective shows chase after killers, but need to kill women, especially women, to start the story…
  • The tale blames Satan for inspiring the Jews to murder; or it thinks Satan makes his nest in Jews’ hearts. Are the Jews responsible or not? Unlike other versions of the tale, the Jews don’t murder the child out of a sense of religious duty. The Prioress’s Tale isn’t a Ritual Murder case, but rather a random, unthinking act of violence. Also: the tale has a pure little boy who — as a sign of his pureness — sings a song he barely understands and who tends towards intellectual neoteny. The Jews do what they do because they have to; the boy does what he does without understanding. They’re both machines, objects not agents, the one evil, the other good. Why does Chaucer strip agency from both Jews and boy?

In the next class, I’m also going to talk about this painting:

This painting, by or based on Edward Burne-Jones, appears regularly in my students’ presentations on the Prioress’s Tale. Probably yours too. No wonder: it illustrates the Wikipedia page on the Tale, and dominates the Google image search results. Though I’ve recommended ArtStor for images, the students go with what’s most readily at hand (probably yours too). I imagine, though, that even if they’d gone to ArtStor, they’d find much the same stuff (but as the Brooklyn College library website is shockingly down….).

I’m going to tell them this: the image, featuring a standard pre-Raphaelite pose for Virgin and clergeon, is itself antisemitic, and just a little more subtle than the images, just as popular in presentations, of hooked-nose Jews (there, usually, to show the continuing force of antisemitic stereotypes). I thank the St Louis Museum of Art (warning AUTOPLAY) for making some of this clear to me: the image invites us in, opening the gate to let us join the virgin and boy. The Jews and the murder are in the background, cut off absolutely from the virgin by the garden wall, barred from this innocent paradise. Now, the St Louis Museum seems perfectly fine with this, and perhaps my students too, though far more innocently. As I’ll argue next week, the painting is as antisemitic as the tale itself to the degree that it reproduces without condemning both the tale’s hatred of Jews and its saccharine logic of sanctity.

I’ll say the painting, in fact, aims to become like the Litel Clergeon. It pretends not to understand the tale. It just presents the encounter between boy and (virgin) mother — the virgin mother who can belong to the boy entirely precisely because she remains a virgin1 — as the tale’s actual content, while forgetting, as much as it can, how the tale proves the boy’s innocence by hating Jews and by murdering the boy. The painting pretends to be a holy fool and is all the worse for it.

For more on the painting, see Eileen A. Joy in 2007, who saw it in St Louis, and writes well about:

all the ways in which various anti-semitic discourses and even meta-anti-semitic discourses [whether in the form of apocryphal stories, reductively stereotypical tropes, satire, etc.] are made to kind of “disappear” in or move into the background of our “readings” of various texts.


Here’s another bit of recent Chaucer grumbling:

I’m thinking of a recent conversation with a very senior colleague, someone who’s been at my institution for a lifetime, mine, specifically. He was on his way out of the class; I was on my way in. As best I remember, here’s how it went:

“What are you teaching?”


“Matthew Arnold said that Chaucer lacked ‘high seriousness.'”

“Certainly not true for Troilus & Criseyde.”

“”Slydynge of corage’. I like that. Always on her way to the next man.”

“What choice did she have?”

He repeats: “‘Slydynge of corage.'”

“What else could she have done?”

A nasty nutshell. It’s a prefeminist, prepolitical way to teach the poem, preserved in amber, and no doubt preserved even in some of our younger teachers.

  1. The psychoanalytic readings come automatically, don’t they? The Jews, Satan, and even the Abbot are all men who want to interpose themselves between the boy and his mother, cutting him off. The boy, refusing to learn to read, doesn’t want to enter the Symbolic or doesn’t want to give up on the good object of his virgin mother. The Prioress wants to be a like a child of twelve months old or less. It’s basically fill in the blanks by this point, yeah?