"Slow Chaucers" and Early Print Editions: Chaucer's "Sheet Music" and Performances of the Text

Why do it?

        The seminar will give you the opportunity to work with early printed Chaucer editions from the C16-C18.  This replaces one of the annotated bibliography entries for graded work.  You will get some instruction from the Special Collections Librarian, in how to handle and analyze old books (click here for a start).  Think about the growth of Chaucer's reputation in the centuries after his death in terms of an artist's "career" as we understand it in modern popular music.  The speed of modern communication has increased so much that we now can experience a work of literature or a song's performance via the Internet within days or even hours of its composition.  You have to slooooowwwwww dowwwwnnnn to see Chaucer's emergence as "the father of English poesy" for writers like Wyatt, Spenser, Shakespeare, and Dryden, each of whom mention him with reverence.  The last three imitate and/or translate Chaucer, as Chaucer did Boccaccio.  This is the intellectual chain T.S. Eliot called "tradition" in "Tradition and the Individual Talent." 

        Chaucer's contemporaries usually experienced his works as you experience a live concert--he recited his poetry at court and private gatherings as in the scene illustrated in the manuscript illumination of the Cambridge "Troilus" manuscript (click here), possibly using no textual script (i.e., he had memorized them--look closely at his hands in the image!).  Over time, manuscript copies of his works were produced, some under his supervision (see "Geffrey unto Adame his owen scryvene," his poem to a clumsy scribe).  But these MSS were not the only way his audience could encounter the tales, as opposed to our tendency to see Chaucer enshrined/entombed in the modern print edition, the Riverside Chaucer, with all its interpretive apparatus and notable lack of beautiful illumination.  The "live-concert Chaucer" of the C14 is gone unless we can recall him to life by reading the text out loud, based on what came down to us from the "manuscript/studio-recording Chaucer," or the posthumous "Chaucer's Greatest Hits" which we find in the later Renaissance and C17 printed editions.  The "live" Chaucer could have varied the performance to improvise and improve his works, which may account for the variants in the manuscript record. 

        Between our "modern print edition" experience of Chaucer and the "live Chaucer," stand two layers of "textual Chaucer," the manuscripts of the C15, and the print editions of the C15-18, as well as early printed interpretations, translations, and commentaries on Chaucer that sought to explain him or even make him accessible to speakers of the now-changed English dialects we call "Early Modern English" and "Modern English."  Chaucer manuscripts are available at Goucher in photographic facsimile editions, but original C15 manuscripts are far to expensive to have found their way into our collection.  (See the RC "Textual Notes" for a list of surviving MSS and their locations.)  Oxford University's libraries have made available an online digital image gallery of Corpus Christi MS 198 (Canterbury Tales), a nearly complete and quite beautiful text which starts in the midst of the GP description of the Knight's clothing and terminates near the end of "Parson's Tale," but the images are very large, ideal for studying minute details of the script but not good for reading.  They will give you some visual evidence of the reading experience of the first generation to encounter Chaucer only through text, after his death.  Goucher's collection does contain some  rare early print Chaucers and Chaucer commentaries (click here for a list) that you can hold in your own hands, and read for evidence of how the "Great Canonical Poet Chaucer" was first created for English readers by Renaissance and C17-18 poets, editors, and printers.  That will give you some perspective on the C21 "Chaucer" you are constructing in English 330. 

What to do?

        Pick your "Chaucer" from among those on the list, and contact the Special Collections Librarian (x6347) to schedule your archival methods training session, which should take about half an hour.  You can also schedule your session with the early Chaucer print edition immediately following the training session, or you can work with the edition later. 

        For the edition you choose, pick three of the questions below the description and answer each of them in a short report, roughly about the length of a good annotated bibliography or a bit longer if necessary.  Make sure you follow MLA format and consider seeking scholarly assistance in developing your answers, but the important thing about this assignment is your hands-on observation of the text.  What do you see?  What questions does it raise for you?  Those kinds of issues, even when they have nothing to do with the questions, would be an important part of the report.  Consider ending the report with those questions and a sentence or two about each, addressing how the questions might be answered and the possible significance of the answers.  You can turn in your report at any time between mid-semester and the first day of the exam period.  I would be happy to meet with you to discuss what your preparation for this encounter, or what you found.

Resources to Help Answer the Questions

An Introduction to Descriptive Bibliography: a guide to describing and analyzing early printed books: intended for online use and linked to numerous images of binding styles, paper watermarks, etc.

The Dictionary of National Biography from Earliest Times to 1900: Great Britain's authoritative biographical guide to significant persons in the British Isles, especially persons associated with science, politics, religion, literature and the other arts, invaluable for ownership and author identification.  Also see the Medieval genealogy resource in the "Provenance and ownership" section in "An Introduction to Descriptive Bibliography" (above).