Pity our poor Finalists! Our third-year English Literature and Language students, sitting their Finals in a few weeks, have a two-hour Middle English commentary exam. They write one commentary on a short extract from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and another commentary on their choice of the remaining five set texts (extracts from Ancrene Wisse, Piers Plowman and Malory’s Morte Darthur, the whole of Pearl, or the whole of Henryson’s Moral Fables). It’s a lot of material to prepare, alongside four period papers and a Shakespeare paper. (Next year’s new syllabus is somewhat less daunting, with a single paper combining two essays on English Literature from 1350 to 1550 with a commentary on a Troilus and Criseyde extract).
I like teaching commentary writing, especially the sustained focus on one text and (of course) the practical exploration of Middle English poetics and prose stylistics. The exam rewards those students who put the effort in to engage with Middle English as a literary language. Our Finalists are often worried about how writing a commentary differs from essay writing. To comment is first to describe accurately and sensitively what is contained in the extract, and then to explain or interpret some of that content (by means of various kinds of explanation and interpretation, whether that be plot, character, theme, style, rhetoric, poetics, etc etc).
When I was writing my reader’s guide to Troilus and Criseyde, going through the text line by line, I was often all too conscious that there were plenty of elements of the narrative to which I couldn’t immediately put a name – making me all the more conscious of what a hard task we ask of our Finalists. One of Chaucer’s great tricks is to make much of Troilus’s narrative out of talk rather than action. Many of the different parts of the characters’ dialogue and monologue are isolable speech acts, actions performed in words by the utterance of the speaker. Knowing the name of some of these speech types won’t necessarily get you bonus points in Finals, but it does allow you to describe (and perhaps then explain) with precision. So here, for all those Oxford English Finalists, busily revising as I write (and for anyone else exploring Troilus or thinking about speech in Middle English narrative), is a mini spotter’s guide:
asseveration: ‘the action of asseverating; solemn affirmation, emphatic assertion, positive declaration, avouchment’ (OED)
benediction: ‘the utterance of a blessing; solemn invocation of blessedness upon a person; devout expression of a wish for the happiness, prosperity, or success of a person or enterprise’ (OED)
complaint: an expression of grief; a plaintive poem or plaint (MED)
exclamatio (rhetorical figure; pl. exclamationes): ‘an emotional outcry, an expression of grief, anger, or other feeling by means of an inserted speech that is usually directed to a specific person or object’ (This definition from Allen C Koretsky’s very useful “Chaucer’s Use of the Apostrophe in Troilus and Criseyde”, Chaucer Review, 4 (1970), 242–66.)
hortatory: ‘characterized by, exhortation or encouragement; hortative, exhortatory’ (OED)
impossibilia (Grk adynaton): a form of extreme hyperbole which suggests the utter impossibility of some event by saying that it will occur only after various miraculous and hence extremely unlikely phenomena have been seen
imprecation: ‘the action of invoking evil, calamity, or divine vengeance upon another, or upon oneself’ (OED)
interjection: an exclamation expressive of emotion; these can be stylised (i.e. ‘allas’, ‘fy’), or instances of pragmatic noise (‘ha’, ‘ah’, ‘oh’ etc).
invocation: ‘the action or an act of invoking or calling upon (God, a deity, etc.) in prayer’ (OED)
‘pleinte’: an expression of grief; also a request, a petition, a plea or entreaty
protestation: an avowal, a declaration
‘putten cas’ or ‘setten cas’: ‘to take something as an example, to assume for the sake of argument (that something happens or is true), to suppose’ (MED)
‘unthrift’: ‘a worthless utterance, nonsense, drivel’ (MED)