Chaucer, the Crusades, St. Edmund of East Anglia…and The 13th Warrior!

I was almost side-tracked just now…It’s been a fun few days here at home.  Good food, good company (though occasionally trying, as one’s siblings are apt to be when one hasn’t seen them for a while!), and good relaxation after another tough semester (though, as I have to point out to said sibling, one is never really on break.  And yes, that sounds condescending, but while it isn’t meant to be, I have yet to discover how exactly to make that point without sounding arrogant and condescending…).    Anyway, it’s been fun, but trying to stay on track with work and exercise is a continuing challenge.

Yes…sidetracked.  Oh, right.  I was about to write up an entry or two on things medieval, when I came across all this great stuff about the Civil War commemorations, specifically the South Carolina Secession Ball.  Very tempting, but I think I’ll do that tomorrow.  For the moment, Chaucer and St. Edmund it is.

Medievalists.net has been posting a veritable flood of good articles and news bits of late, of which a few in particular have caught my attention.  First, there’s an article from the grandly titled journal Revista Alicantina de Estudios Ingleses, titled “The Representation of Chivalry in The Knight’s Tale.” Interesting.  I’ve read a fair amount on the subject, and it always intrigues me that people still find things to say regarding Chaucer and Chivalry, especially in what is, let’s be honest, a rather dry and over-long story.  It’s not like its Gawain and the Green Knight, after all, heh heh (if you’ve read my earlier post on Malory, you’ll get the tongue-in-cheek reference here. Wow, I just referenced myself!).  And seriously, given the longevity and vitality of Chaucer studies, you’d think that the subject had been mined out.  But it hasn’t, not by a long shot (and hopefully, if the NCS approves my session proposal, we’ll see some such papers in 2012); to take but one example, my friend Anne Romine, from St. Louis University, keeps turning up fascinating stuff on Philippe de Mézières that no one to date has really bothered to piece together.  To me, that’s one of the beauties of humanities–there’s always more good stuff to find and write.

As for the article, Martí argues, among other things, that Chaucer condemns the Hundred Years War and promotes crusade as the more worthy martial endeavor, and the proper focus of chivalry.  Not sure what my take on this is.  I’m still working through crusade, chivalry, and literature for both my dissertation and a lengthy article I’ll be finishing this coming year, and Ricardian-era material is devilishly difficult to work through.  We know a fair amount concerning Chaucer’s social circle and literary influences, but I have a sneaking suspicion that we attempt too much when we assay to pin down very specific, historically contextualized settings for his work.  The quantity of sophisticated literary devices that he employs should by itself alert us to this difficulty–for example, the double (or even triple) layer of narrative device in The Book of the Duchess, if I’m remembering my friend Kristi’s paper correctly, could be said to dominate the story in a way that the occasional “historical” detail does not.  Similarly, with “The Knight’s Tale,” I think that Dr. Russell Peck’s description of it, in one of our conversations, as a tale of interruptions (and these dominate the story), is probably very close to the mark, and I think this brings up a question that we really aren’t in a position to answer: what would folk who heard or read the story really fasten upon–the crusading details, or the story with its interruptions and seemingly separate trajectory?  I’m not so sure that it wouldn’t have been the latter, which in turn makes me think that the crusading question could more profitably be, “how would ‘the audience’ have understood Chaucer’s crusading references, so as to ‘stream’ the references, so to speak, without them dominating the audience’s reception of the work?  In other words, if this and “The Squire’s Tale” function, as Elst persuasively argues, as a critique of and contribution to crusading discourse, the critique could not have been so subtle as to pass by unnoticed (which would have defeated the purpose); but if the critique was not that understated, shouldn’t it dominate the tales, and more forcefully claim the audience’s attention?  Because I’m not sure that it does; we may be reading too much social critique into these works.

Wow, never thought I’d be suggesting a separation of literature from historical context…Well, not really, at least I hope not.  I just get uncomfortable when large cultural structures are built from rather slender foundations, as I suspect a lot of this context for the knight and squire to be–after all, their tales are long, and handle many themes, most of which aren’t about crusade–and, you Chaucer experts out there, don’t skewer me for saying that!  At the moment, I find Stefan Elst’s arguments rather persuasive (and, so Adrian Bell told me last year, most senior scholars at the Philippe de Mézières conference on Cyprus were impressed with his work, too).  [Elst’s article on Chaucer and de Mézières last year in Studies in Philology, which was the subject of his talk on Cyprus, has garnered some acclaim, as I have heard.]

O-kay, moving on, as I need to get to bed…there’s an interesting post on the story of St. Edmund of East Anglia; apparently a few years ago there was a drive to replace St. George with St. Edmund.  Some kind of pre-Conquest, we-need-to-get-back-to-our-roots nonsense.  The drive failed, and rightly so–Edward III couldn’t possibly have made a mistake, after all!!   Finally, there’s a great article on the Muslim ambassador to the Bulghars in the 10th century, Ibn Fadlan (also known to some as Antonio Banderas, heh heh).  Michael Crichton must have read this account, methinks, though someone said recently that he was more interested in narrative strategies for retelling Beowulf than in focusing on this fascinating encounter between different cultures (though it is a theme that runs through, well, the film at any rate…).  The narrative is controversial in good part because it features a people called the Russiyah, and many are the arguments that have ensued over what this means for Russian cultural and ethnic identity.  Sigh…where’s Patrick Geary when you need him?

So, there it is.  Good night (or good morning, depending on when you read this), and stay well!