Archive for ‘Chaucer’


“You say, ‘ere thrice the sun done salutation to the dawn…'”

If you’re wont to ask, “Where can I see plays that have rarely been staged for 400 years?”, then hie thyself posthaste anon to Staunton, Virginia, where the American Shakespeare Center reanimates old scripts in a reconstruction of London’s Blackfriars Theater, and under truly humbling conditions: The actors perform in as many as five plays at a time, with multiple roles in each.

We popped down to Staunton this weekend to see The Two Noble Kinsmen, an adaptation of Chaucer’s “Knight’s Tale” by John Fletcher with an assist from William Shakespeare. The play is supposedly “deeply flawed,” but a dozen actors (who directed themselves) made it engaging and sharp. They earned a standing ovation—and propelled the Canterbury pilgrims through the 17th century and onto the sidewalks of a small Virginia town.

With my own ful devout corage, I did what I do in any new place: I hunted for further medievalism. After good finds in other Virginia towns—Williamsburg, Richmond, Annandale, and the imaginary Swallow Barn—I knew Staunton would come through, and it did, just up the hill from the theater.

Welcome to Thornrose Cemetery, designed by Staunton’s own Thomas Jasper Collins, who built eclectic homes and churches throughout his adoptive hometown.

Although Collins never visited Europe, he did (according to James Madison University) study Gothic Revival architecture in Baltimore, Richmond, and Norfolk. Just inside the cemetery gates is a monument to his medievalism: a stocky little keep.

When Collins went medieval by the cemetery walls, his work was striking, if too weighty to be whimsical.

Collins also designed the lovely Effinger family mausoleum, which looks like a stone drawer pulled from the facade of a Gothic cathedral.

One of the weirder corners of Thornrose leads to a monument to the Confederate dead. There’s good reason to associate faux-medieval castle ramparts with Southern chivalry, but look:

A huge neoclassical urn! A chuppah with square stone pillars and Tudor half-timbering! Civil War artillery! The committee-driven incoherence is wonderfully American.

Like Staunton itself, Thornrose grows ever more eclectic. Its wind-worn headstones aren’t lurid or sad; there’s a matter-of-factness here that harks back to The Two Noble Kinsmen:

This world’s a Citty full of straying Streets,
And Death’s the market place, where each one meetes.

A few blocks away, on a gloomy Sunday morning, you might spot the fellows who play Chaucer’s knights leaning into freezing rain and muttering lines that have only been heard from a handful of actors in 400 years. Later, on stage, they’ll offer up a fine reminder for the week before Easter: not everything that dies is gone for good.

“Winter is the glad song that you hear…”

Christmas songs are quick to commemorate the sounds and the sights of the season, but rarely do they dwell on smells. Most people, I gather, fondly recall the fragrance of spruce needles or the cloying whiff of cookies, but this year I’ll pine for a more medieval Christmas scent: the sweet, pseudo-oenomelic aroma of tiny, rotting fruit.

Meet the National Cathedral medlar! Planted in 1962 to honor Florence Bratenahl, the medievalist who refined Frederick Law Olmsted’s plan for the cathedral garden, the tree goes unnoticed by nearly everyone. There aren’t many medlars in America, and when the cathedral horticultural staff and garden guild kindly let me harvest the fruit of their medlar in December 2010 (in exchange for writing two articles for the garden guild newsletter), I soon learned why: this is one persnickety tree.


Every spring, the medlar’s large white flowers blossom with absurd brevity, at a day and hour determined by the tree’s own inscrutable whim. (Most years, the medlar stubbornly hangs onto its red-gold leaves well into December, long after other trees are as bony and cold as Dickensian waifs.) During the summer, the flowers turn into grotty little fruit with deservedly obscene medieval nicknames. The French knew the medlar as the cul de chien, and Chaucer called it the “open-arse”; his bitter Reeve likened himself to a medlar in The Canterbury Tales. More recently, Shakespeare denigrated the medlar in four different plays, and D.H. Lawrence, not one to be outdone, dubbed them “wineskins of brown morbidity” and “the distilled essence of hell.”

You see, here’s the thing about medlars: The fruit is hard, acidic, and inedible until a good early-winter cold snap, after which it has to “blett,” or ripen into the semblance of rottenness, under precise conditions known only to God and the medlar itself. (Some sources even warn you not to jostle the fruit or let them touch each other. Medlars are the Happy Fun Ball of obsolete produce.)

Medieval people would have bletted their medlars in wooden crates filled with straw. As a modern-day apartment dweller, I bletted ten pounds of medlar fruit in cardboard boxes lined with shredded credit-card courtesy checks.

Bletting medlars is a lost art. Hours turn into days, days turn into weeks, acids turn into sugars, and the end result is…most inelegant.

Did I mention they sometimes sigh or whistle when squeezed?

Ah, but holy crow, the smell of a home full of bletting medlars is truly divine. They smell like they taste: a robust blend of applesauce, cinnamon, and cheap wine. Charlemagne ordered the medlar to be grown on royal estates; a barn or fruit cellar full of bletting medlars must have been heaven for the Carolingian nose.

Participating in one medlar harvest made clear to me why this fruit, well known to medieval people, is barely a novelty now. For one thing, despite my best efforts at climate control, at least two pounds of fruit took the express lane straight past “bletted” and into genuine rot. Also, once you get past the five gigantic seeds in each fruit, you’ve not much of the squishy stuff to eat. In the U.K., Tiptree sells a lovely medlar jelly, but when a dear friend and I decided to try a medlar tart recipe from an Elizabethan cookbook, we spent hours mutilating hundreds (hundreds!) of weeping squishballs to make just two of these:

That tart’s tastiness was inversely proportional to its beauty, but it was also ludicrously labor-intensive. Medieval and early modern Europeans ate the fruit straight-up or enjoyed mashed and boiled jellies; a tart was a rare luxury.

As medlars lack widespread commercial value—did I mention concerns about their “violent laxative properties”?—the wizards of modern food science haven’t bothered to demystify them. For the latest medlarology, you have to dig up a 1989 Economic Botany article that documents (with remarkable encyclopedicity) everything now known about them, from passing references in classical texts to the chemical composition of the wood. Still, even in our Internet age, no one can tell you exactly how to blett the fruit, and I’m currently preparing to answer a barrage of riddles in a crumbling, booby-trapped crypt so a thousand-year-old crusader will pass on to me the mystic secret of cultivating medlars from seeds.

I hit the wrinkly rare-fruit jackpot in 2010. Since then, the medlar tree at the National Cathedral has (the chief horticulturalist tells me) suffered from fire blight, which is common among trees in the apple family. The fruit blackens and dies before maturing; a cool, wet spring may cause the problem to recur. (Lacking the ability to do anything useful, I’ve worked several medlar references into the poems in Looking Up.)

The truth is, if the medlar sprouted elf heads or started singing madrigals, it couldn’t befuddle me more than it already has, but I’ll never forget the aroma that welcomed me home every time I returned from some tedious holiday errand. The National Cathedral medlar reminds me that the road back to the Middle Ages is not only endless, but also endlessly strange. Relieved to know I’ll never run out of things to write about, I can only wish the readers of this blog a blessedly olfactive Christmas—and a New Year as hopeful and sweet as a medlar-blessed home.

“But all the gold won’t heal your soul…”

There’s no more medieval prepared cheese product than Velveeta. That’s the message, I guess, of “Wield the Skillet, Forge the Family Dinner,” a recent ad campaign for Velveeta that stars a manly, quasi-medieval blacksmith.

Although the blacksmith chants his praise of “liquid gold,” orders soccer moms to “smite” noodles—“smite them with the liquid gold until there can be no more smiting!”—and even has his own pointlessly elaborate website, Our Book of Liquid Gold, he’s no Old Spice Guy. The campaign wasn’t funny or distinctive enough to have gone viral, and the brawny mascot’s YouTube playlist hasn’t been updated for months.

So maybe medievalism doesn’t send Velveeta flying off the shelves. The first commercial in a new campaign, rolled out yesterday, features a slackerish broheim who works at the mall. The setting is as current as can be—but the slogan is still gruesomely medieval.

Medieval people associated the consumption of liquid metal with horrific punishments and unbearable pain. In the 12th-century Anglo-Norman Voyage of St. Brendan, the saint discovers Judas on an island, where his unceasing torments include being forced to drink molten lead and copper, which he can’t vomit when subjected to a hellish stench.

Medieval writers also believed that the Roman general Crassus had been executed by being forced to drink molten gold. In canto 20 of Purgatorio, Dante hears talk of “the wretchedness of avaricious Midas, resulting from his ravenous request, the consequence that always makes men laugh,” clarifying a few lines later:

and finally, what we cry here is: “Crassus,
tell us, because you know: “How does gold taste?”

In Book III of Troilus and Criseyde, when Chaucer rants about the inability of the greedy to experience true love, he assumes we’ll understand references to the “hoot and stronge” drinks of Crassus and Midas:

As wolde God tho wrecches that dispise
Servise of love hadde erys also longe
As hadde Mida, ful of coveytise,
And therto dronken hadde as hoot and stronge
As Crassus did for his afectis wronge,
To techen hem that they ben in the vice,
And loveres nought, although they holde hem nyce.

Likewise, one anonymous 15th-century English nun associated this same horrible punishment with Purgatory:

and one broʒt myche gold and syluer, and þat was molten and casten in hyr þrote, and þat ran out of hyr stomake. And he seide, “Take þe þis for þ[i] cursed and wikked coueitise…”

The horror of gold-drinking as punishment survived the Middle Ages. It worked its way into Jewish folklore, 16th-century natives reportedly executed a Spaniard in colonial Ecuador with a drink of molten gold, and in John Ford’s early 17th-century play ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore (recently staged in Virginia!), Friar Bonaventura warns of the eternal fate that awaits usurers:

There is a place,
List, daughter! in a black and hollow vault,
Where day is never seen; there shines no sun,
But flaming horror of consuming fires,
A lightless sulphur, choak’d with smoky fogs
Of an infected darkness: in this place
Dwell many thousand thousand sundry sorts
Of never-dying deaths: there damned souls
Roar without pity; there are gluttons fed
With toads and adders; there is burning oil
Pour’d down the drunkard’s throat; the usurer
Is forced to sup whole draughts of molten gold…

Amazingly, there’s at least one positive medieval reference to drinking gold. After suffering her husband’s abuse, a 15th-century Spanish visionary named Tecla Servent is whisked away to Heaven, where she marries Jesus Christ and samples a remarkable beverage:

He then brought her up to heaven, where he ordered the angels to dress her as his wife ought to be clothed. The angels arrayed Tecla like the spouse of a great lord in gold and scarlet brocade. Christ thereupon ordered the angels to bring food and drink for her, and they served her precious stones on golden plates to eat and molten gold and pulverized jewels to drink.

The folks at Kraft can’t be expected to know medieval molten-metal drinking lore, but I’m still surprised that a modern focus group thought that consuming gold sounded desirable—and I say this as someone who enjoys a warm bowl of Ro-Tel/Velveeta dip every now and then. When your target demographic inadvertently becomes Judas, usurers, and brides of Christ, it may be time to rethink a creepy metaphor—and find out what a medieval blacksmith really would have known.

“There’s a picture-view postcard to say that I called…”

[This post originally appeared in January 2005 on the now-defunct blog that preceded “Quid Plura?” It seemed fitting for this week.]

Journeying to Canterbury is no longer quaint. Medieval pilgrims ended the trip tired and footsore and damp, but fields and villages now fly past train windows at speeds that test the imagination of the wide-eyed medievalist. Go ahead: Count the spires. Pretend you’re a motley-clad traveler rambling past hedgerows while a whistling minstrel spurs you on with his idiot’s rendition of “Greensleeves.” The vision fades. In moments, a smokestack or minaret shakes you from your Pre-Raphaelite reverie, as well it should.

In Canterbury, you’ll seek in vain for the pregnant hope that called to medieval pilgrims, but you will encounter the humanity, the “God’s plenty” Dryden saw in Chaucer: throngs of foul-mouthed schoolgirls, market-stall merchants hawking grape leaves and portraits of Elvis in frames. In the holy gloom of the cathedral, docents outnumber clergy; tourists outnumber docents. Beyond the quire, Becket’s shrine once stood exposed to devotional groping; in its place sits a lone candle, roped off for its own protection. In a more fervent and tactile age, parsons and plowmen might have found it disappointing—or maybe they’d distinguish, as we often do not, between things that are transient and things that are lasting and real.

At Canterbury Cathedral, that flame lights the murk where distinctions blur. Stand where Becket was murdered, by arches carved with jagged Romanesque fangs, and the pained reaction Eliot ascribed to the masses is sudden and true: “But this,” he wrote, “this is out of life, this is out of time, / An instant eternity of evil and wrong.” But then you look away from Thomas’s name gouged in red across the floor and those magnificent walls and windows draw your eye up, and up, and up. You’re happy; you’re lost in heavenly complexity.

Thirteen years ago, I found Canterbury with my best friend, almost by accident. Last week, while he hunched over law books in a Cambridge suburb, I went there with his wife, a dear friend in her own right but in 1992 someone I didn’t know existed. Part of my return was a vain attempt to confirm small, cherished myths—Did they move the bus station? Where’s that place we ate breakfast?—but after several cold, quiet hours with fellows like Anselm and Becket I cared less for 1992, 1399, or 1170 than I did for the future. Who will join me next time? Will it be their eight-month-old son, destined to inherit his dad’s sword-and-sorcery gene and his mom’s eye for architecture? Will I pause in those chapels with someone I’ll meet tomorrow, or ten years hence? Will it be someone who’s yet to be born?

I don’t know; it’s good not to know. Now that I’m home I imagine two things: One day I’ll wander back through Canterbury, and when I do, I won’t be alone. I may have no need for saintly intercession and miraculous cures, nor boundless faith in either, but to anticipate that next visit is to plan out a new sort of pilgrimage. If that turns out to be one more thing I was wrong about, so be it—but waiting to see who walks beside you is, even for the most aimless of pilgrims, a fine premonition of hope.

“Champagne corks are firing at the sun, again….”

Chaucer’s second and third Canterbury Tales are so full of sex that it’s easy to forget they’re specifically tales of college towns. The Miller spins a fabliau about an old Oxford carpenter and the guys who chase his hot young wife. The Reeve, a carpenter, snaps back with the story of a crooked miller from just outside Cambridge. Their bawdy back-and-forth is, I think, one of the earliest literary traces of the Oxford-Cambridge rivalry, a medieval squabble that landed yesterday, with it own Chaucerian flourish, on the banks of the Potomac.

When I shambled into D.C. many years ago, I crashed on the couch of a great friend who’s now the president of the Cambridge Society of Washington, D.C. Inspired by the annual Boat Race on the Thames, he and the Society convinced local Oxford alumni to adapt an Oxbridge tradition and revive a Washington one. According to local lore, the first Cambridge-Oxford boat race on the Potomac arose in 1985 as a challenge between Secretary of the Navy John F. Lehman, Jr. (who holds a B.A. and an M.A. from Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge) and Senator Larry Pressler (who attended St. Edmund Hall, Oxford, as a Rhodes Scholar). In the 1990s, the race grew into a multi-university regatta with 35,000 spectators, corporate sponsorship, and charitable causes. By 2000, the event was kaput.

Ah, but the past was merely General Prologue—because yesterday, latter-day proxies of the Miller and the Reeve schlepped to the Georgetown waterfront, the hooly blisful boatrace for to seke. Putting boats in the water, they battled not merely for glory but also for the Cambridge-Oxford Potomac Boat Race Trophy, a blindingly sumptuous goblet that will be forever hailed in story and song as “the Cup of Destiny.”

Behold, spectators and supporters began to gather within sight of the Watergate and the KenCen…

…as the “Quid Plura?” kobolds, half-stunned by the blazing sun, scrambled to take photos.

The women raced first, with Cambridge squeaking out a win over Oxford. Then the men raced, with Oxford…

…roundly out-rowing Cambridge, a defeat witnessed by bemused recreational boaters.

Alumni of both universities and their family and friends then adjourned to the Ritz-Carlton to convert each minute of boat racing into an hour of alcohol consumption.

“Quid Plura?” thanks the Cambridge Society for the invitation to hang out with a fun crowd and stretch a weak premise for a blog entry about medievalism into an excuse to drink on a hot afternoon, even if no one was overheard speaking Middle English.

“Somewhere, they’re meeting on a pinhead…”

Just when I start to feel bad for viewing legislative “emergencies” with skepticism, disinterest, and disdain, along comes a pearl like the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, which was hastily passed last year after the brouhaha about lead paint on toys. As it turns out, the breadth of this law and its interpretation by the Consumer Products Safety Commission have potentially disastrous implications for EBayers, antiques dealers, clothing makers, small business owners, and other industrious folks. Tim Gebhart at Blogcritics explains how the new law also governs the sale of used children’s books:

Under the CPSIA, a children’s product is one designed or intended primarily for children 12 years of age or younger and the guide specifically includes books in its list of such products. The guide does say, though, that the products that can be sold include “Children’s books printed after 1985 that are conventionally printed and intended to be read, as opposed to used for play.” Plainly, the CPSC believes the law applies to children’s books printed before 1985.

What, then, is a used book store to do if it has such a book? Here are the “practical” options, according to the CPSC:

— Test the book;
— Refuse to sell it, which means disposing of it if already in inventory;
— Using “your best judgment” based on knowledge of the product; or,
— Contact the manufacturer.

I can summarize it more easily: test or toss.

Thrift stores owners, librarians, and book dealers have scrambled to understand what this nonsense means for them. Delightfully, the American Library Association has declared that the law doesn’t apply to them unless Congress tells them otherwise. Meanwhile, Gebhart notes an exception in the CPSC’s voluminous guidelines:

Of course, there is one other option not in the CPSC’s list. According to the CPSC guide, used “vintage children’s books … sold as collector’s items” are exempt because they are primarily intended for children. I’m guessing, though, that renaming the children’s book section “Collectibles” probably won’t cut it.

It’s a clever notion, but let me offer something even better. Years ago, while researching a now-dated piece for Salon, I learned that even though the sale of first-class relics—i.e., actual bits of saints’ bodies—is prohibited by canon law, it’s fine to sell a reliquary and then throw in the relic as a “gift.”

The charming dishonesty of this loophole notwithstanding, rare book dealers can learn a few tricks from latter-day simoniacs. If, for example, I were selling a $4,800 signed, first-edition set of The Chronicles of Prydain, I’d update my listing to reflect post-CPSIA reality: that the lucky buyer who agrees to pay $4,800 for a lovely (if slightly used) cardstock Amazon.com bookmark will also receive a rare set of autographed novels—an elaborate bookmark-holder offered purely as a gift.

As a medievalist, I’m committed to the prospect that Jesuitical hair-splitting can shield book dealers from official attention and delay their persecution by sputtering bureaucrats. Much of the CPSIA is probably unenforceable, but I love the image of a hapless prosecutor forced to argue from first principles against centuries-old casuistry. Having responded with all due dignity, the rest of us can take up worthier pursuits: gnawing on lead-lined books and arguing over how many angels can dance on our legislators’ tiny, tiny heads.

“…but on the way, you know that I will abide.”

Living through history is unnerving. As an unknown number of visitors descend upon the city—a million strong? Five million? A few hundred thousand?—the urban core becomes an armed camp, the river becomes a defensive wall, and mobs cross the bridges on foot. After clambering over monuments, some folks shack up with locals who’ve turned into hostelers, a few of them are bound to be scammed, and the authorities scramble to react to an influx of tourists whose movements are decentralized and largely spontaneous.

The medieval Romans may not have draped patriotic bunting across the facades of their buildings, but 710 years ago, they braced for unprecedented crowds. In late 1299, apparently with no official prompting, pilgrims began streaming into Rome, driven by the widespread belief that the year ahead offered special blessings to those who visited the graves of St. Peter and St. Paul.

Here’s Paul Hetherington on what became the Church’s first Jubilee Year:

The word spread like wildfire through Europe, and even by New Year’s Eve of 1299 a great crowd had assembled at St. Peter’s to greet the opening of the Jubilee Year at midnight. From then on, the crowds flocked to Rome from all over the known world. No one had ever experienced anything like it before. The crowds were so massive that the papal police had to institute a keep-right system for all the crowds crossing the bridge on foot that led over the Tiber to St. Peter’s . . .

The spontaneity and scale of the Jubilee took everyone by surprise. Even the pope, Boniface VIII, seems to have been nonplussed by it, and only issued the decree authorizing it late in February 1300. The various estimates made by contemporaries of the numbers that visited Rome vary so wildly that none can be regarded as trustworthy, but it was probably somewhere between one and two million.

Hetherington translates an eyewitness account by chronicler William Ventura, who visited Rome at the end of 1300:

It was a marvellous thing how many went to Rome in that year, for I was there and stayed for 15 days. Of bread, wine, meat, fish, and fodder for horses there was, but all at special prices…Leaving Rome on Christmas Eve I saw a great crowd that I was not able to number; there was a report among the Romans that there were then more than two million men and women in the city. Several times I saw men and women trampled under the feet of others, and even I was in the same danger, only just escaping on several occasions. The Pope received an untold amount of money from them, as day and night two priests stood at the altar of St. Paul’s holding rakes in their hands, raking in infinite money…And I, William, was there and earned fifty years and more of indulgence. Each hundred years it will be the same.

Like all pilgrimages, Tuesday’s inauguration and its attendant brouhaha will be a pageant of honor, corruption, villainy, and holiness, so if you’re in town, and if your peregrinations take you to Connecticut Avenue, look for me. Adapting the experience of William Ventura to Washington tradition, I’ll be pacing the sidewalk with ful devout corage and wielding my new favorite medieval-themed religious implement, the money rake. Commit yourself to change—or simply fling cash. I promise it will go someplace deserving. Weary pilgrim, have faith in me: I wol yow nat deceyve.

“Then I went off to fight some battle…”

On Saturday, I’ll be sitting on a panel at “Going Freelance,” a workshop sponsored by AIW and the Johns Hopkins writing program. Tilt your head and you can see the medievalist traces in this event if, like me, you were told in grade school that “freelance” was a term to describe medieval soldiers of fortune. Of course, medieval mercenaries did exist, but “freelance” isn’t a medieval word at all. The term was coined by Sir Walter Scott, the 19th-century author who almost singlehandedly inspired quasi-medieval fandom in the English-speaking world.

From The Knight and the Umbrella, here’s Ian Anstruther explaining how Scott lit the fire under the Victorians who romanticized and reinvented the Middle Ages:

It is hardly possible to realize today the immense influence of this author on contemporary drama, literature and art. His early poems like the Lay of the Last Minstrel and Marmion, which were first published in 1805 and 1808 respectively, and his great series of tales in prose which began with Waverley in 1814 and reached its peak, according to many critics, with Ivanhoe in 1819 . . . truly hypnotised all who read them.

The proof of this may be seen at a glance in the catalogues of the major exhibitions throughout the country. In the twenty-five years between the first appearance of the Waverley Novels in 1814 and the Eglinton Tournament in 1839, two hundred and sixty-six different pictures inspired by the pen of the “Wizard of the North” appeared in public galleries; every summer without a break, a scene from Ivanhoe was the subject of two of them.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first use of some version of “freelance” appears in 1820, in chapter 34 of Ivanhoe: “I offered Richard the service of my Free Lances.” The OED cites subsequent uses of “free-lance” or “freelance” as a negative term to describe politicians and journalists with minds of their own. By the early 20th century, “freelance” was a verb; soon, it came to refer to the self-employed.

If, in the spirit of medievalism (or at least dorkiness), freelance writers wanted to liken themselves to an authentic figure who represents the reality of late-medieval English contract law, they might see a kindred spirit in the Franklin from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. In the late 14th century, franklins were a newly prominent class of independent landholder. Not bound by hereditary feudal obligations, a franklin could sell his produce to the highest bidder while negotiating or even canceling deals. Like any successful freelancer, a franklin was blessedly exempt from the 14th-century equivalent of corporate team-building exercises, i.e., clearing woodlands, draining swamps, or taking an arrow in the sternum for a leek-breathed feudal lord.

But can you imagine telling your friends you’re a franklin? Can you imagine writing “franklin” under “occupation” on your tax return? It’s a legacy of the romanticized Middle Ages bequeathed to us by Sir Walter Scott and other writers, artists, and poets that we overlook the agricultural drudgery that defined most medieval lives, so that even we who sit and type all day can dream of jousts and banners bright, and tell ourselves we’re charging into battle.

“In the house of the gods, where no mongrels preach…”

Are conditions in Thai shrimp factories “medieval”? Matt Gabriele considers the use of the m-word in a report quoted by CNN:

Maybe it’s just an adjective that means “other,” an uncritical, enlightenment perception of a darker past that we, generally, have moved beyond. And generally, I might like to agree. The problem, then, is that this kind of thinking asserts that such behavior—torture, kidnapping, etc.—are aberrant in our society, when in fact they’re really not. Certainly, all that stuff was there in the Middle Ages too. The thing is though, it never left.

Matt’s conclusion—that misery and human cruelty aren’t consigned to the past—is sensible, and worth reiterating; people do have a tough time getting beyond the pejorative implications of “medieval.” My Chaucer students, for example, know that Chaucer himself was well connected, and they understand that the Powers That Be had neither the resources nor the inclination—nor, for that matter, any real reason—to persecute him for his poetry. And yet my students wonder: Feisty women, farting, harshing on friars—how did Chaucer get away with so much?

The misperception that Chaucer “got away with” something isn’t surprising; his humanity, sensibility, and wit run counter to stereotypes about those oppressive Middle Ages. It takes gentle persuasion to convince students to see Chaucer as a poet who can illuminate his era for modern readers, allowing them to put aside preconceptions and behold his world anew—and then, if they’re lucky, rediscover their own.

But sometime it’s fruitful to try the reverse: to ponder a modern subject that puts the medieval world in context. That’s why I couldn’t help but consider Chaucer recently while reading a new biography of a decidedly un-medieval figure: pioneering black filmmaker Oscar Micheaux.

Born in 1884 to former slaves, Micheaux worked as a Pullman porter before becoming a homesteader in South Dakota. He self-published and promoted three autobiographical novels; then, between 1919 and 1948, he wrote, directed, and produced more than 40 movies for black audiences. Motivated by his near-worship of Booker T. Washington and inspired by stories of self-made men, Micheaux was an entrepreneur, an auteur, a fascinating American figure.

He was also a wonderfully Chaucerian guy. Attentive to the quirks of human nature, Micheaux made films that featured, but didn’t glamorize, the black underworld, where a motley pageant of lowlifes and gamblers spouted racial epithets; he even offered the occasional hint of nudity. Micheaux dabbled in multiple genres, sometimes recombining beloved story elements in bizarre and amusing ways: a musical comedy about a haunted house, for example, or a morality play about racial segregation that also featured Alaskan frontiersmen, wild dream visions, and an assortment of scoundrels and saints. Micheaux was something of a scoundrel himself, a raconteur who traveled the country and who would happily lie, cheat, and even plagiarize to promote the few prints of his films he was able to afford. Cheerful, beguiling, optimistic, and perceptive, Oscar Micheaux was was a grand character: Chaucer’s plowman, pardoner, squire, and alchemist all rolled into one.

So yes, Micheaux was interesting—but why strain to see a connection between him and Chaucer? Because Micheaux, a modern artist, suffered “medieval” repercussions that Chaucer never experienced. Beyond having to deal with blatant racism, Micheaux faced the wrath of both church and state when his films were literally snipped to shreds. Sometimes, censors banned his films outright, denying black audiences the opportunity to see his take on black people who “passed” as white, or depictions of lynching, or—Heaven forbid—black and white people dancing together. State and local censors were often clergy who objected, naturally, to one of Micheaux’s recurring character types: the corrupt, hypocritical preacher.

Treated as a fourth-class citizen, denied the ability by clergy and government officials to show his films as he envisioned them, Micheaux was often broke, even bankrupt, and was completely ignored by the mainstream white press. Although film historians recently rediscovered him and restored a few of his movies, his persecutors can’t be said to have failed. They succeeded at suppressing him; his obscurity was their victory. Today, we have a greater percentage of Chaucer’s 14th-century corpus than we have surviving films by Oscar Micheaux, who faced the sort of institutional censorship my students expect from the medieval world, even though Micheaux died only in 1951.

“Maybe,” Matt Gabriele writes in his post about “medieval” shrimp factories, “we all should acknowledge that good stuff and bad stuff happens to all people, at all times, in all places.” That’s one of many lessons to take from the life of Micheaux. Unlike Chaucer, who had little to fear, Micheaux “got away with” much, but he suffered much as well.

If the poetry of Geoffrey Chaucer reminds us not to judge all medieval people by the worst aspects of the Middle Ages, then the career of Oscar Micheaux warns us not to judge our own era only by its best. The life story of an ambitious black filmmaker reminds us that the modern world is hardly bereft of “medieval” indignities. We live in more comfortable, prosperous times, but we ought to think twice before assuming we’ve nothing in common, really, with medieval people.

“Keeping versed and on my feet…”

As Today in Literature reminds us, yesterday, April 18, was the day Chaucer’s pilgrims set out for Canterbury. Appropriately, my block was packed with pilgrims passing to and fro, some of them heading to the zoo, the hooly blisful pandas for to seke, others hiking up the hill to our friendly neighborhood Gothic cathedral.

The cathedral grounds were in full bloom today: camera-toting tourists, elderly couples asleep in the grass, wedding parties, flirting lovers, romping puppies, children fleeing bees, even bagpipers, as if to lead us grandly out of town. Beauty intermingled with chaos; Chaucer no doubt would approve.

But not every medieval poet took the path of the pilgrim for granted. Writing six centuries before Chaucer, that old wit Theodulf, bishop of Orleans during the reign of Charlemagne, rolled his eyes at peregrinatory pretensions:

Qui Romam Roma, Turonum Turonove catervas
Ire, redire cupis cernere scande, vide.
Hinc sata spectabis, vites et claustra ferarum;
Flumina, prata, vias, pomiferumque nemus.
Haec dum conspicies, dum plurima grata videbis,
Auctoris horum sis memor ipse dei.

Here, inspired by an afternoon on the green alongside the Bishop’s Garden, is a shamefully loose translation:

You clamor for the crowd, for something more;
So take your tour of Rome, and roam to Tours.
The tender crops are all we gather here,
By berries, brooks, and barns, and byways clear.
So go—for if you stay, you’ll just recall
In simple sights the one who made it all.

I know! Spring fever is my only defense. The tulips made me do it.

In denying the pilgrimage instinct, Theodulf fought, with snide futility, the tide of human nature. Geoffrey Chaucer better understood his fellow man—in fact, I think Geoffrey better understood a great many other truths as well—but Theodulf was right about one thing: Some days, whatever it is you’re looking for, that unnamed source of fulfillment and beauty which seems like it ought to be elsewhere, may turn up outside your own door.