Sunday, October 30, 2016

Chaucerian Investigation (Day 5: Lines 20-27)

Welcome back to another installment of “Me muddling my way through Chaucerian Middle English!” Always a fun show. Anyways, to re-cap—previously, I had finished the first movement on the first page of the poem (I felt so proud of myself!). Now I take aim at finishing said page and getting along a tad on the next page. Will I complete my goal, will I master my lines? Only one way for you to find out!

                So, the text reads
Bifel that in that sesoun on a day,
In Southwerk at the tabard as I lay,
Redy to wenden on my pilgrimage
To Caunterbury with ful devout corage,
At night was come into that hostelrye
Wel nine and twenty in a compaignye
Of sondry folk, by aventure yfalle
In felaweshipe, and pilgrims were they alle,
That toward Caunterbury wolden ride (3-4)

                A literal translations would read

To leave that in that season on a day,
In Southwark at the Tabard where I stay,
Ready to depart on my pilgrimage
To Canterbury with full devout courage,
At night was come into that inn
Well nine and twenty in a company
Of separate folk, by chance befall
In fellowship, and pilgrims were they all,
That toward Canterbury would ride.

                So, David Wright translates this passage as follows

It happened at this season, that one day
In Southwark at the Tabard where I stayed
Ready to set out on my pilgrimage
To Canterbury, and pay devout homage,
There came at nightfall to the hostelry
Some nine and twenty in a company,
Folks of all kinds, met in accidental
Companionship, for they were pilgrims all;
It was to Canterbury that they rode (3)

                Well, first off, I am happy that my own translation wasn’t actually too far off from Wright’s own; it means that my efforts, though confused and winding, were actually on the right track (I wasn’t off in space). Regardless, it is interesting that Wright chose to keep the word ‘hostelry’ unchanged; my dictionary defines it as an “inn,” so I wonder why he choose to keep it as is? I assume because of some rhyming potential he saw (“nightfall”?). Likewise, my dictionary lists ‘bifel’ as something along the lines of “to leave” or “to depart,” so it is also odd that Wright decided to translate it as “It happened.” Line 23, meanwhile, I simply fudged in my literal translation, though I should have seen it coming and perhaps would have gotten it to a more accurate linguistic locale had I spent a tad more effort on my word look-up. Other than that, Wright’s translation proves excellent, as always.
                This is the part in my investigation where I would go on and comment on other translators. But, I have to be honest. I am cutting this post short; I can’t keep doing these investigations.

                Presently, I have many different ongoing projects and just can’t find the time to learn Middle English, not with all of the other efforts which are gobbling up my energies. Though I do enjoy writing these investigations, once I bypass the initial bout of lethargy, I need to prioritize my efforts for the time being; when I think of the undertakings which are most prevalent, these investigations ranks fairly low on my list.

                So, when it comes to the Geoffrey Chaucer: Life and Works notes, I am simply going to start posting them up as single posts, no more copulation with these investigations. Today will be the last copulation of ‘Notes’ and ‘Investigation’ content. 

I am sorry to anyone who sincerely enjoyed these investigations.

                The good news is, however, that I have no by any means abandoned my struggle to learn Middle English—not by a long shot. It is just that right now is a hectic time with all of the different projects I have going, so I am putting these investigations on the backburner while I finish some other projects.

                In the future, I definitely plan on resuming these investigations. Presently, I find there being little to no point in forcing myself to do the occasional investigation in-between bouts of inactivity on anything related to Middle English. In the future, when I am able to dedicate large swathes of time to learning, I will come back with gusto. Until then, however, please enjoy some of my other content, such as my ‘Let’s Reads,’ Gonzo military posts, or one of my reviews.

The Canterbury Tales: The General Prologue (Notes:40)

Seth Lerer remarks that The Canterbury Tales may be the most wide-winging of any of not only any Chaucer’s work but of all medieval literature. He feels strongly about this and has declared that the remaining lectures on this course will be focused on this work; this lecture, of course, is focused on the General Prologue.

The poem begins in the immortal sky and gradual descends to the plane of mortals as it touches on the season, rain, trees, soil, and finally the pilgrims. Lerer suggests that this is like a funneling of a point of view—from the cosmic to the earthly. This is what the first eighteen lines purpose constitutes: a wide inheritance in which Chaucer utilizes the many tools at his disposal from many dialects and languages to unfold a grand tale.

The pilgrim portraits do much the same sort of funneling for the social and economic (estate) reality of Chaucer’s England. ‘ordiansetio,’ or an ordering if how the medieval intellectual would have conceived of Chaucer’s work. But what is the order of Chaucer’s pilgrims? It is: The knight, followed by his son the squire and their servant the yeoman (these represent the nobility, the first estate); they are then followed by a group of clergy, a pyress (the head of an abbey), her nun, her assistant and three priests, a monk, and a frier, who are then followed by a group of individuals who represent the professions of the cities and the towns, who are somehow representative of the commercial and mercantile life of Chaucer’s time: a merchant, a clerk, a franklin (a wealthy land owner), the guildsman, haberdasher, carpenter, weaver, dyer and rug-weaver, a cook, a shipman, and a doctor. We then see figures who fall into another more general category that of how Chaucer’s contemporary would have experienced life on a day-to-day basis: the widow, the wife of Bath, two spiritual brothers, a parson and his brother the plowman, three people who are concerned with the production and distribution of agricultural wealth—who grinds the grain, supervises the grinding of the grain, and he who controls/oversees the workers who labor in the fields—the miller, the mantipole, and the reeve. Then, at the end, we have the people who Lerer calls the ‘grotesque’ or the ‘carnal’ brothers—the summoner, who is charged with summoning people to an ecclesiastical court, and the pardoner (who sells indulgences or pardons). Then we have the controllers, the narrator who tells the tale, and the host, the keeper of the Tabard inn whom all the pilgrims assemble. In total: 29 pilgrims, the host, and the narrator. 

In each of these pilgrim portraits, there are aspects which direct our point of view to a focus. Each works at the local level in the same way that the general prologue works at the global level: by directing the eye and focusing attention; one could focus attention by two ways in medieval writing; one could describe internal qualities (moral, loyalty, patience, and essences) or external descriptions (physical qualities/attributes). Central to the medieval poet is the relationship between the internal and external descriptions. Chaucer’s descriptions play off of internal and external descriptions; often, this tension leads to social satire. The portraits, accordingly, are lenses by which we read the tales.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction (Review)

 As someone who reads my fair share of Oxford’s Very Short Introduction series, I believe I am able to tell the good from the bad. Since I just finished Malcolm Gaskill’s own contribution to the series, I knew that it was that time of the year where I review it. Since at this point I am growing mildly weary of reviewing these books, since they are so difficult to quantify, before I even picked up Gaskill’s text, I was already unsure on how I would go about in reviewing it. Thankfully, by the time I finished the book, this concern had vanished.

                Why it vanished is simple—because Gaskill’s little introduction was superb.

                In under one-hundred-thirty pages, Gaskill throws the reader into what the basic of idea of witchcraft, its historical situation (how it manifested and evolved), and how it both appealed to the common peasant as well as the lordly, all while navigating the elaborate social-web which witchcraft fond itself enamored. Gaskill skillfully delineates between cultural sensitivity while fleshing out the varying, and often conflicting stances which the legal system held on witches and witchcraft during the ancient, medieval, early modern, and contemporary period, often switching between example periods in order to highlight her main focus without unnecessarily complex prose.

                Of course, it being a Very Short Introduction, with the emphasis on ‘very,’ he cannot hope to encapsulate anything other than the most fundamental premise of the study of the history of witchcraft. Even so, Gaskill manages and his chapters, though short, manage to convey the fear which witchcraft held within predominately Christian society (Ch.1), how heresy operated to enforce strict pious codes of conduct, and how those codes mutated over time, such as the abolishment of the ‘ordeals’ as a presumptuous test of God (Ch.2), and why people turned to witchcraft in the first place along with the rationale for witches persecutions (Ch.3). In the second half of his book, Gaskill then moves on to the debates which attempted to locate witchcraft within the spiritual spectrum and whether it was at all compatible with Christly teachings (Ch.4), while swiftly moving on to how the condemnation of such witches was legally conducted (Ch.5). Finally, he elucidates the economic and social factors which exacerbated witch-hunts and why the hunts started in the first place (Ch.6), before detailing the progression of how witch-craft was gradually de-criminalized (Ch.7); the final chapter, meanwhile, is a sobering take on witch-craft in popular culture accompanied by a passionate plea for pluralism and multi-cultural understanding.

                I will not pretend that I have no problems with Gaskill’s text. For instance, his reliance on Wittgenstein’s analytical philosophy is a strike in my book, as I am steeped in the continental tradition and not prone to entertain the ideas of philosophically heretical idealists (to take an overly harsh, mildly sarcastic tone). Additionally, his lackluster form of progressivism at the end of the book—where he gives a caution against racist reductionism at ‘Third-World’ witch-hunters while extolling understanding as a bulwark against the repetition of history—comes off as an overly metaphysical solution to something, religion, which has a fairly simple solution (atheism, non-organized religion). He does not brand himself as a materialist, and that is good, because as excellent as his introduction is, it is indelibly marked by rampant idealism.

                Regardless, Gaskill’s text, politics and philosophy aside, should be the starting point for anyone intrigued by the study of witches or witchcraft. It provides an accessible entry point into what has become a pool of discord in the popular imagination; cutting through the pulp and trash of the witch-y world—both academic and non-academic—Gaskill presents a dizzying subject in a non-dizzying manner. With the many texts out there which purport to explain the history of witches, why settle for something inferior and wordy when you can buy Gaskill’s book on the cheap and still have one of the best (short) introductions there is to the topic?

Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction
Malcolm Gaskill
146 pages. Published by Oxford U.P. $8.38 (Paperback), $6.15 (Kindle), $12.25 (Audible audiobook)[1]. 2010.

[1] Prices taken from and were accurate at the time of writing.