NEH Summer Seminar 2010
Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Medieval Culture
Thank you for your interest in the seminar I will be directing this summer at Yale University on “Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Medieval Culture.” The seminar will meet for six weeks from June 28th through August 6th.
As its title suggests, the purpose of the seminar is to provide participants with the opportunity to study Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in detail, and through this study to become familiar with medieval culture as a whole. Each of the individual tales is a marvelous literary work of art; together, they provide an astonishing variety of literary experiences. They include a chivalric epic; a number of bawdy tales that celebrate bodily functions, especially sex; saints' lives; romances; autobiographical monologues on the relationship between the sexes, on religion, and on science; parodies; animal fables; miracles; and tales that fit no clear genre but serve as thought experiments to challenge the reader's values. As Dryden said, “Here is God's plenty!” And the joy of it is that each of these tales provides a way into a topic central to medieval culture: the nature of the chivalric life; the relationship between the classes and the sexes; the relation of Christianity to the other medieval religions, especially Judaism; the new problems that arise in a society that is rapidly becoming commercialized and urbanized; the role of the Church in the quest for salvation; the nature of selfhood in a society that placed an overwhelming emphasis upon social rather than personal or subjective identity; and so forth and so forth. There is hardly a medieval topic that Chaucer does not explore with his usual genial disinterest (he is a generous analyst of human behavior, not a stern moralist). And as the reader soon discovers, these are also issues – in different but still recognizable forms – that continue to concern us today.
For many teachers at all educational levels, the Middle Ages is too often a terra incognita, a strange period of “middleness” that stands between the glories of Greece and Rome and the excitement of the Renaissance. The usual way of dealing with this strangeness is simply to ignore the period: many school literature courses skip medieval texts -- or treat them in a cursory fashion -- in favor of more familiar material. When medieval culture is taught at all it tends to be distorted by an outmoded set of stereotypes. Perhaps the most common is the old idea that the period was “an Age of Faith,” when people not only believed in a uniform creed (Catholic Christianity) but were controlled by an all-powerful Church that foreclosed all dissent and enforced its prescriptions by draconian measures (burning at the stake, the Inquisition, etc.). Similarly, it is often assumed that the Middle Ages was a time of unrelieved physical misery and intellectual benightedness -- “a thousand years without a bath,” as the nineteenth-century French historian Jules Michelet put it, and ones, moreover, when strange languages (especially Latin) held sway. It is fair to say, I think, that the Middle Ages is the least well known of all the periods that make up Western cultural history, and that school teachers -- and students -- tend to be fascinated yet intimidated by the very idea of “the medieval.”
The ultimate goal of the seminar, then, is to make Chaucer – and through Chaucer the Middle Ages as a whole – accessible to contemporary teachers and students. To begin with, learning Chaucer's Middle English, so that his beautiful and witty poetry can be read in the original, is not difficult, especially with the proper edition, supporting materials and individual coaching. As the outline of the seminar explains in detail, the first week of the Seminar will be devoted to reading the General Prologue, in part to master both the comprehension and pronunciation of Middle English and in part because an exploration of the various pilgrims provides an excellent introduction to medieval social history.
We shall read virtually all the Canterbury Tales, although the rather dull prose tales – the Tale of Melibee and the Parson's Tale – will only be sampled. The reason for this is that while Chaucer did not put the finishing touches on the work as a whole, the evidence makes it clear that he intended it to be a whole work, and that the twenty-four tales he included comprise a complete work. To read only some of the tales is like reading only some of the books of the Odyssey, or some of the chapters of Middlemarch. Fully to understand and to appreciate the Canterbury Tales means attending to the whole work. In addition to the Tales, we shall also read six essays and book chapters on medieval social, political, and economic history (listed in the Appendix to this letter). These essays have been chosen partly for their excellence, partly because they provide an essential context for the Tales, and partly for their intrinsic value in understanding medieval culture.
The Seminar will not in any way slight the Tales themselves. Our focus will always be on this great masterwork, and participants will be provided with a bibliography of reliable Chaucer criticism, all of it available in the library. We will not, however, concern ourselves with the intricacies of current academic controversies and trends, although I will of course provide guidance to those who want to explore this area. Our goal is a clear grasp of the meaning of the texts and a sense of the world from which they derive and upon which much of their meaning depends.
The seminar will meet three times a week for two to three hours, in addition to regular individual consultation between the director and the participants. For the first five weeks class time will be spent primarily in discussing the assigned reading and the historical context. Throughout our discussions – and these will be discussions, not lectures – continual attention will be paid to pedagogical questions: could this tale be taught in high school? what would be the best way to approach it? what kinds of projects does it give rise to?
In the last week each participant will be asked to present to the class a brief account of a topic they have been pursuing throughout our time together. These projects can deal with a pedagogical issue or a topic that the participant has explored for his or her own interest. In the past participants have explored a wide range of interests, from specific lesson plans to explorations of various medieval topics: the nature of a manuscript, how to build a cathedral, the mystery of Robin Hood, medieval medicine, an original artistic response to one or more of the Tales, a theatrical production, a video, and an electronic program. The rationale here is to explore the richness of response that Chaucer elicits and to explore ways of incorporating those responses both in the classroom and in one’s own intellectual life. Many of these projects will draw upon reading done outside that assigned in the class: the holdings of Yale's Sterling Library will provide the participants with all the bibliographical support they will need. And of course the participants will have the opportunity to discuss their projects with the director as often as they like.
Many participants ask to receive credit for this seminar to satisfy the requirements of their local school districts or schools. My policy in the past has been to provide a letter for participants who wish one designating that the Seminar is equivalent to the amount of credit hours that each participant needs to meet whatever requirement is in force in their institution. I intend to continue this policy in 2010.
Week 1: We will work together and individually on mastering Middle English. The Yale Language Lab has an extensive range of electronic materials that provide the novice with models to imitate; there are also good Internet sites that provide examples of Chaucer read aloud. In addition, each participant will meet with the director to work on his/her pronunciation and understanding. My experience is that by the end of two weeks at the most all of the participants will be reading and pronouncing Middle English with considerable fluency.
This week we will read the General Prologue with special care; participants will also be encouraged to read the essays in the Course Pack by Myers and Dyer. (see Appendix 1). A tour of the library facilities will be arranged, with an emphasis on the electronic resources relevant to Chaucer and the Middle Ages that are available. The Yale Library has taken special care to keep up-to-date with the burgeoning field of electronic resources.
At some point in the summer a tour of the Beinecke rare book library will also be conducted, and participants will be introduced to medieval manuscripts and specifically to the splendid facsimile of the Ellesmere manuscript of the Canterbury Tales that the library possesses, as well as other Chaucer facsimiles.
Week 2: The discussion will focus on the Knight's, Miller's, Reeve's, and Cook's Tales. Outside reading will consist of the essays by Given-Wilson, Bolton and Hilton. Understanding the Chaucerian texts will occupy most of our attention, while the historical emphasis during this week will be on the class structure of medieval English society and the way it is expressed in these four contiguous tales.
Week 3: We will turn now to the Tales of the Man of Law, Wife of Bath, Friar and Summoner. The themes of the week will be three: first, the relation of these four contiguous tales to the four read in the second week; second, the nature of medieval marriage and medieval (and Chaucerian) attitudes toward women; and third, the rivalries both between the Church and lay society and within the Church itself.
Week 4: Four more tales will concern us this week: those of the Clerk, the Merchant, the Squire and the Franklin; readings will include the essay by Thrupp. Given the complexity of three of these tales (those of the Clerk, Merchant and Franklin), the emphasis this week will be almost entirely on the literary texts themselves. Questions we shall consider will be the uneasy relation of the religious to the secular in the Clerk's Tale, the use of literary parody and the instability of tone in the Merchant's Tale, and the ethical dilemmas staged in the Franklin's Tale -- and why these literary qualities might be appropriate for these kinds of people. These tales are especially challenging to the reader, and they show the full range of Chaucer's ethical imagination.
Week 5: This week we will read six more tales, and sample one other. The tales to be read in full are those by the Physician, the Pardoner, the Shipman, the Prioress, Chaucer's own Tale of Sir Thopas, and the Nun's Priest Tale; we will sample the Tale of Melibee. The emphasis of the discussion will fall on the tales of the Pardoner, the Prioress, and the Nun's Priest; themes to be treated include the dilemma of a religious personality unable to commit himself to an institutionalized religion (the Pardoner), antisemitism (the Prioress), and the animal fable (the Nun's Priest). To supplement the tales we will read contemporary discussions of the religious turbulence of Chaucer's time, passages from medieval Hebrew chronicles of the anti-Jewish massacres that accompanied the Crusades, and a selection from the Tale of Reynard the Fox. The goal this week is to explore the complexity of medieval culture: its growing disaffection with the Church, its intolerance of religious difference, and its often surprising embrace of a kind of amoral animality.
Week 6: Our reading will conclude this week with the Tales of the Second Nun, the Canon's Yeoman, and the Manciple, a few selections from the Parson's Tale, and the so-called Retraction. Most of our class time this week will be occupied with accounts by the participants of their projects. I hope that these projects will not only enrich the participants' teaching but will serve us all as ways of looking back over the six-weeks and to draw it together into a total experience. This week we will probably need to meet more often than previously.
Throughout the six weeks we will have a voluntary film night each week, when we will watch a film about the Middle Ages. These are enjoyable affairs, enlivened with pizza and other food, and of course a wide range of tasty and relaxing beverages.
Before coming to Yale in 1994, I taught at the University of Toronto, Johns Hopkins, and Duke, and have had visiting appointments at Cornell, Berkeley and the University of Cambridge. I have written four books and some 14 articles on Chaucer and have taught his poetry to undergraduates and graduate students for about 30 years now, and to school teachers for ten summers (five at the Breadloaf School of English, and five times in NEH Summer Seminars such as this one). My approach to literature is best described as “historicist”: I am interested in the relation of a literary work to the time and place in which it was produced. My goal as a literary critic is to try to understand what the author meant to communicate by his poetry. This means I am less interested in what twenty-first century readers can make of it than in what Chaucer, as a fourteenth-century writer, meant to convey. The only way to reach this goal is to read his work as carefully as possible while learning as much as possible about the world in which he lived. We are fortunate in knowing a good deal about both Chaucer's own life and the general conditions of life in general in the fourteenth century, and this knowledge can lead us toward plausible and persuasive interpretations of his work.
Participants will receive a stipend of $4,500 for the six weeks. The first half of the stipend will be waiting for participants when they arrive at Yale; the second half will be distributed after three weeks.
Housing and Meals:
Participants will have the option of living in one of the air-conditioned living suites in Yale’s newest residence hall, which was built in 1997. This residence contains kitchen facilities, an exercise room, and a computer cluster, all within a block of the library. Each suite has two bedrooms, a living room, kitchenette and bath. The charge per week for a single participant sharing a suite will be approximately $400 (the exact figure for the summer of 2010 has not yet been determined). The residence experience has in the past been extremely fruitful for participants, as they interact with and learn from each other; many long-lasting friendships are formed here as well. I hope all participants will, if it is at all possible, seriously consider staying in this residence during their time in New Haven. On the other hand, those who need or wish to live off-campus will find plentiful housing in and around New Haven during the summer. Yale makes available a service listing off campus housing, and both I and the staff at the Office of Summer Programs can provide participants with information and advice about appropriate housing. The Yale Dining Services offers two meal-plans at a special rate for NEH participants: a ten-meal per week plan (breakfast and lunch) at one of the Yale dining halls will cost approximately $85 per week, the 15-meal rate (breakfast, lunch and dinner) approximately $160. Meals can also be purchased separately. The food provided by the Dining Services is both plentiful and (for an institution) surprisingly good. Those living both on and off campus will find that there are a variety of inexpensive and moderately priced restaurants in the area, as well as several first-class establishments with first-class prices.
Research and Recreational Facilities:
All participants will be full members of the Yale community with full access to all of the university’s resources and facilities. The research and library facilities at Yale are among the best in the world: the library holdings total 12.1 million books, and there are a wide range of internet resources available to members of the Yale community (the budget for electronic information has increased five-fold in the last four years alone). The library collection is divided into an “undergraduate” library, which contains most of the books we will need, and the main stacks in the Sterling Library, which have everything else. The campus is compact (the undergraduate library is in fact attached to Sterling), easily navigated, and meets the federal standards for handicapped access. The seminar will meet in the newly renovated Linsly-Chittenden Hall, which is air conditioned. There are numerous computer clusters throughout the campus for public use, and the main reading room in the library has free internet access for laptops.
The Yale Information Technology Services will arrange for participants to obtain a Yale Internet Account, either through ethernet or dial-up (dialing the Yale server is a local call). Participants bringing their own computers will receive a CD and instructions to configure them to the Yale system. There will be computer assistants available to explain this configuration and to get participants up and running, either with their own computers or at university workstations.
New Haven has made great strides in renovating itself, with very significant financial support from the university, especially around the campus. Public safety is now excellent, both on and off the campus. The campus police are very visible and efficient, and the downtown area as a whole is regularly patrolled by both policemen on foot and by tourist guides. During the time of the seminar, New Haven will be hosting a two-week-long Arts and Ideas Festival, which brings well-known performers and lecturers to the city for a week of exciting events. There is constant theatre in the city through the Yale Drama School and Repertory Theater, the Long Wharf Theater, and the Schubert Theatre. And New York, with all its attractions, is only 90 minutes away.
Recreational facilities are excellent. The newly renovated Payne Whitney Gymnasium provides air-conditioned, state-of-the-art exercise facilities, squash courts, and pools. There are as well tennis courts and located just two miles away is the Yale Golf Course, one of the best in New England. (The director happens to play golf, and is always looking for a game.) And there is as well the glorious Connecticut countryside, with the Litchfield hills and their colonial towns less than an hour away and the beaches of Long Island Sound even closer.
Finally, medievalists teaching in colleges and universities have a keen interest in ways to extend the study of the Middle Ages, and Chaucer in particular, into the schools. The New Chaucer Society B the professional association for university teachers specializing in the English Middle Ages B is very interested in working with secondary school teachers in a mutually informative way. The Biennial Conference of the Society will meet in July, 2012, at a site to be determined. At that Conference there will be opportunities for members of the seminar to participate, as they have in past Conferences.
The application guidelines and forms can be found at the site of the Yale Program in Medieval Studies (www.yale.edu/medieval/neh.html). If you have problems downloading or printing them out, please let me know and I will mail them to you. I have also placed on the website a copy of this letter and the participants’ evaluations of the 2005 and 2007 seminars (unedited!) to help guide you in your decision. Applications must be postmarked by March 2, 2010 and should be sent to Ms. Roberta Hudson, Yale Conference and Event Services, P. O. Box 208355, Yale University, New Haven, CT 06520-8355. The receipt of all applications will be promptly acknowledged.
Perhaps the most important part of the application is the essay. This essay should include your reasons for applying to this seminar; your relevant personal and academic information; your qualifications to do the work of the seminar and make a contribution to it; what you hope to accomplish; and the relation of the study to your teaching. This does not mean, however, that applicants who do not yet have experience with Chaucer, medieval literature, or the Middle Ages in general should feel in any way hesitant about applying. The purpose of the seminar is less to perfect the knowledge of the cognoscenti than to provide everyone, including the novice, with an experience that will enhance not only their teaching but their intellectual life in general. One participant in a previous seminar began his essay with the disarming sentence “I know nothing about Chaucer” – and he proved to be one of the most helpful members of the group, and one of those who got the most out of the experience. As all teachers know, the best questions are the fundamental, even elementary ones – the ones that seem to have an obvious answer but that in fact open up large areas of exploration. No applicant should feel that previous knowledge of Chaucer or of medieval culture is a requirement for admission to the seminar, just as no applicant should feel that extensive knowledge is in any way a disqualification for admission. The goal of the selection committee in choosing participants is to find the best mix: diversity of all sorts has proven to be crucial to the success of the seminar.
I hope this letter has answered your questions about the seminar. If you would like further information, please e-mail me at email@example.com or write to the Department of English, P. O. Box 208302, Yale University, New Haven, CT 06520-8302. You can also call me at 203-287-9109 if you have further questions. If you would like to contact colleagues who have taken this seminar in the past, please let me know and I will forward their e-mail addresses.
F. W. Hilles Professor of English