Though known for its depiction of medieval warfare and the political context of the 100 Years War, Froissart's Chronicles offers a wealth of incidentaThough known for its depiction of medieval warfare and the political context of the 100 Years War, Froissart's Chronicles offers a wealth of incidental period detail as well. As a Flemish fellow who spent lots of time in England and all over continental Europe in the 13th century, Froissart was in a good position to observe the manners of varying people in a number of courts, attitudes toward class and gender difference, toward religion and the complexity of medieval politics. He was an outsider to some extent nearly everywhere he went, which gave him an interesting vantage point. He also seems to have been an inquisitive guy and one pictures him floating around a royal banquet (quill in hand?) flattering the egos of the high and mighty so they would tell him all their best stories. His work, though he perhaps did not intend it for this purpose, on several occasions also demonstrates the entrenched bigotry of the English toward the Irish and the aristocracy toward the poor. It is not comforting that racism and classism endure so heartily, though the Chronicles give us a hint whence our own troubles in part derive. The overall, again unintended, impression I was left with is what a pox on society is an upper class whose wealth relies on the constant waging of war and the equally constant growth of their wealth. Although, it might be argued, at least medieval lords had some theoretical duty to protect the poor when they were not exploiting them. All in all, an interesting piece of work and Geoffrey Brereton's translation is remarkably readable....more
Snorri Sturluson wrote his Edda, also known as the "Prose Edda", around 1220. Sturluson's work contains his versions of numerous Norse/Icelandic mythsSnorri Sturluson wrote his Edda, also known as the "Prose Edda", around 1220. Sturluson's work contains his versions of numerous Norse/Icelandic myths as well as a fair catalogue of tropes, motifs and "kennings" of skaldic poetry. This work derives from a really fascinating liminal period in European history between pagan and Christian culture and oral and written culture. It is a written work that seeks to preserve an oral tradition. Additionally, it was written by a Christian author about the not-so-distant pagan past of his people. These tensions between the written and the oral and the Christian and the pagan wind their way throughout the book. I find particularly interesting Sturluson's relatively sympathetic treatment of the pagan beliefs of his own culture. Medieval Christianity has scarcely been noted for its patient toleration of diverse beliefs, but Sturluson strikes an expository tone that is without condescension. In fact, he practically offers an apology and asks indulgence for the Norse people's pagan past by portraying these beliefs as rather misinterpreted versions of true Christian (and latinized) beliefs. For instance, he equates the Aesir (the stock of the Norse pantheon) with the inhabitants of ancient Troy and hypothesizes that these migrating kings from Asia simply, if mistakenly, came to be revered as gods by the Norse people. Sturluson's entire work ranges from interesting to extremely entertaining, but the sleight of hand he continually exercises in blending Norse pagan myth with latinized Christian tradition is what really stood out to me about this book. Having read a good many primary sources from the Middle Ages, I found Sturluson's Edda particularly sensitive and clever. The latter portions of the book, which focus so exclusively on skaldic poetry and its language are, perhaps, of greatest interest to specialists who wouldn't be reading the Edda in translation anyway. However, I still found delightful kernels of myth and story interlaced into these more didactic chapters. The entire thing is really worth a read and especially for those, like myself, who delight in the historian's sensibility wherever it is found. Sturlson may have been explicating poetry, but he did so with the attention and perspective of an historian. And, of course, only fairly recently have these two disciplines been separated from each other as though unrelated. Sturluson's Edda provides a beautiful example of poetry as history and history as poetry. ...more
Entire literary journals are dedicated to the works of Chaucer, so it's hard to know how to say anything worthwhile about his most famous book. I'll sEntire literary journals are dedicated to the works of Chaucer, so it's hard to know how to say anything worthwhile about his most famous book. I'll settle for making some simple observations about a couple of the facets of the work I personally enjoyed: its form and authorial voice.
The Tales' format, famously modeled on Boccaccio's Decameron, has a frame narrative into which the discrete tales fit. Instead of plague-fleers, Chaucer's storytellers are a motley crew of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury Cathedral. With no authoritative original manuscript, The Tales have been transmitted down to us through various sources and compiled in various ways. Certain individual tales are unfinished, and the work as a whole seems incomplete as tales for a return journey back from Canterbury are intimated, but never told. But the benefit of the disjointed nature of these diverse stories, and the loose, basic construction of the frame means one doesn't feel too keenly the undone-ness.
This format allowed Chaucer to include tales that vary broadly as to source material, convention and style. He includes bawdy, hilarious stories (e.g., of course, The Wife of Bath's Tale), preachy and ponderous prose selections (e.g., The Parson's Tale), satiric cautionary tales (e.g., The Summoner's Tale), adventurous romances (e.g., The Knight's Tale), and so forth. The variety alone is highly entertaining and, for those interested in 14th-century daily life, social structures, et al., incidentally informative.
But for this reader the most interesting thing about the book is the slippery frame narrator, the ultimate teller of all the tales: a fictive Chaucer who is on the pilgrimage and relaying the journey as well as all of the stories. He even tells his own tales - first in poetry, Sir Thopas, which is humorously cut short for its terribleness, and then The Tale of Melibee, a dour moralizing tale in prose that reads more as a collection of aphorisms, quotes and bons mots than an actual story.
Fictively reproducing himself in his own pages, in addition to the multiplicity of in-frame narrative voices, destabilizes the narration and disallows any easy reading of what it is the real Chaucer may have believed, which attitudes on display he may have supported or decried. It's charming and so unexpectedly "meta" to hear a character of real Chaucer's tell fictive Chaucer:
"By God...to put it in a word, Your awful rhyming isn't worth a turd!"
I've been struck of late how "post-modern" so much pre-modern literature can seem. When you aren't busy worrying about what is fiction and non-fiction - as we moderns tend to - the implications of authorial voice and narrativity perhaps seem obvious, and you don't have to create entire modes of linguistic and historical criticism (Hayden White, Jacques Derrida, I'm looking at you) to arrive at conclusions a writer 700 years ago arrived at quite naturally.
Having a slippery narrator, not being able to peg what is "true" and "untrue" with regards to what your author is thinking/feeling v. saying, is an incredibly fertile creative ground to tread upon. Introducing a series of stories, many with external sources, mimicking well-established literary conventions, placed in the mouths of fictional characters who represent a multiplicity of class, gender and social critiques and who include a novelistic version of yourself...it's simply a great way to explore tensions, irresolutions and contradictions, to convey complex commentary and, if the need should arise, to disavow it.
People who study this stuff for a living will be able to tell me how off base this observation is. I have only a well-informed amateur's knowledge of medieval literary tropes, habits of authorship and post-modern criticism. And it seems to me some scholar somewhere has surely written a dissertation upon Chaucer's authorial voice and post-modern thought.
Hopefully this person could also tell me where I can find the following: A modern English translation of The Canterbury Tales as good as Raffel's, with facing-page Middle English text, and relatively extensive footnotes/annotation. That I would like to read....more
This is classic and foundational. It's a compendium of late Roman knowledge - accurate, erroneous, mythological, naturalistic...there's little that PlThis is classic and foundational. It's a compendium of late Roman knowledge - accurate, erroneous, mythological, naturalistic...there's little that Pliny omits. All things under the sun, as they say. I especially enjoy his descriptions of animals and peoples of the known (or often just heard-of) world. ...more
This book absolutely blew my mind. It is a didactic manual written for medieval scholars by a monk on the topic of memory. Medieval scholars lived inThis book absolutely blew my mind. It is a didactic manual written for medieval scholars by a monk on the topic of memory. Medieval scholars lived in a still heavily oral culture that placed more rigorous demands on the human memory than does our written culture. They created elaborate pneumonic devices, structures really, in order to access vast amounts of material that they would read, but which they could not write down and take with them (writing materials were costly, and just because a monk could read did not necessarily mean he could write). With the help of manuals like this, monks were trained to transform their memories into, for lack of a better metaphor, rolodexes, catalogued and organized for prompt and thorough recall. The author describes one pneumonic structure where the scholar should commit to memory a room in which every item in the room is associated with a specific passage from a specific book. As the scholar reads more passages and commits them to memory, he creates more objects to place in this room with which the given passages are associated. The dilligent scholar could recall not just an entire book from beginning to end (like we might recite a poem or even the alphabet), but would be able to access any single passage from a book, regardless of its order in the book, by mentally "picking up" the appropriate object he as associated with the desired passage. For less spatially-, more mathematically-minded scholars, the author suggests imagining a grid, indexed with numbers, where the numbers coincide with specific passages. Either way, the result is the same - a whole culture of scholars who's memories put ours, with our heavy reliance on the written word, to shame. Entire libraries existed in the minds of these men and I have trouble remembering my mother's phone number. Astounding. ...more