In this guest post, Sheri Smith, postgraduate researcher at Cardiff University, explains the surprising references to Chaucer’s Griselda and Custance in a late fifteenth-century poem.
Reading Jenni’s post on the fifteenth-century poem ‘Alas quid eligam ignoro’, I was struck by the poet’s invocation of Susannah, Griselda and Custance in a prayer asking for guidance. This seemed an unusual combination of biblical and literary figures which just so happened to bring together two strands of my own research into thirteenth- and fourteenth-century petitionary prayers and Chaucer’s use of prayer in his poetry.
In the poem, the narrator and his friend find themselves at a loss after dismissing the various career options open to them. The poet calls to mind the example of Susannah, who, when forced to choose between consenting to sin and being put to death, was rescued from death by God. With Susannah’s difficult choice to inspire him, the poet then beseeches God for guidance in his own decision-making, invoking his intervention in the lives of St Paul, Griselda and Custance.
Tomorrow I’m off to London to attend the Biennial London Chaucer Conference. I’m speaking on Saturday morning in a session on ‘Literary Technologies’. The title of my short paper is ‘The Techne of Verse-Making: Poetry’s Termes in Middle English’. It discusses verse-technology and verse-terminology in fourteenth and fifteenth century English poetry, looking especially at balades and lenvoys. I look at the ‘Lenvoy de Chaucer’ at the end of the Clerk‘s Tale, at Lydgate’s Fall of Princes, and at The Kingis Quair.
As I’ve had to press the pause-button on my research in the last couple of weeks (blame gift shopping, school holidays, and the in-laws for Christmas), I’ve been reading Lavinia Greenlaw’s A Double Sorrow in fits and starts. I’m writing a short article on this poem and its inspiration, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, for TheEnglish Review, a magazine for sixth-formers published by Philip Allan. This is a commission, and I am delighted to have been asked – it’s an excuse to write on something I would never have been brave enough to choose myself. Reading Greenlaw’s poem has been very moving in its own right (sending me right back, in unexpected ways, to strong memories of my earlier love-struck and lovelorn self) and returning me to Chaucer yet once more.
This morning lots of us will be waking up with Christmas party hangovers (not me, our Christmas Dinner at St Edmund Hall isn’t till next weekend…). To help distract those so afflicted from their throbbing headache, this post translates the beginning of a little-known fifteenth-century poem called Colyn Blowbol’s Testament. The poem is a piece of mock-Chaucerian entertainment, featuring a character called Colin Belch-bowl who has drunk so much that he is really really suffering. His confessor tells him to make his last will and testament, and so the main part of the poem is Colin’s will. He leaves his body to the temple of Bacchus and bequeaths money for the setting up of a Drunks’ Institute. The first section (and a Modern English translation) can be found if you scroll down the page, and the whole poem can be read here (starting on p. 22).
A little while ago (before my blogging got derailed by the marking of a great number of Finals scripts), I read this talk by Laura Saetveit Miles, and before that this article by Diane Watt. Reading them, I was ruefully aware that my current research on poetic experimentation in Middle English would fail an academic ‘Bechdel test’. It’s not that women didn’t write in Britain in the Middle Ages: see Alexandra Barratt’s anthology of Women’s Writing in Middle English and the collection of essays edited by Carol Meale as just a starting point. But it does seem to be the case that only a very few women are named as composers of Middle English verse.
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).
Setting about a guide to poetics throws up some simple, central and yet terrifyingly big questions. When, for example, does enjambment (re-)start in English verse? Enjambed lines of verse are frequent in Old English, but much less common in pre-1350 poetry. Donka Minkova’s excellent introduction to ‘The Forms of Verse’ in Peter Brown’s A Companion to Medieval English Literature and Culture c. 1350-c.1500 (Wiley-Blackwell, 2007) asserts that before Chaucer ‘Middle English verse was end-stopped, meaning that each line-ending coincided with a major syntactic break – the end of a clause or phrase’ (p. 187). Chaucer is claimed as the re-originator of a ‘new and unexpected’ (p. 188) verse innovation, namely enjambed or run-on lines ‘in which a syntactic […] unit straddles two lines’. She gives as examples House of Fame349–50 and 582–83.