Why Chaucer Now?


Image: Blue Plaque commemorating the site in Talbot Yard where The Tabard Inn was situated, to the east of Borough High Street, in the Borough of Southwark, London. The plaque was installed in 2003 on the wall of Copyprints Ltd, the oldest building in Talbot Yard. It was unveiled by former Python and medieval enthusiast Terry Jones. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tabard.

A little over a year ago the MLA Leadership raised the desirability of consolidating the MLA Division on Chaucer with two other MLA Divisions, those on Old and Middle English. Facebook was abuzz. Most of us considered this to be among the worst of recent institutional ideas, which, given the ongoing assaults on the humanities at Universities across the country, is really saying something. Much eloquence was deployed in strong objections penned by Martin Foys for the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists, by Larry Scanlon and David Wallace in a letter with 400+ signatories, by Ruth Evans and Alastair Minnis on behalf of the New Chaucer Society, and by the brilliant and hardworking members of the executive committees for the divisions of Old English, Middle English, and Chaucer. As Larry pointed out on the Middle English Facebook page, the MLA leadership got the message, and replied that questions were merely meant to ascertain “whether historical period and national language should be the determining categories for the majority of intellectual affiliations in the MLA.”

The question itself was more than a bit disheartening since medievalists have been arguing for a long time now that the literature we study, however “old,” is pursued (or for that matter enjoyed) on many different grounds, aesthetic, theoretical, or political; this literature is not valued primarily on the basis of its age, nor its place in a “national” linguistic history. And while there is a lot to say here about the power of the past, Chaucer’s appeal is not adequately figured through an affiliation with “historical period.” (See Mark Miller’s post on the NCS blog —and Lynn Arner’s recent blog post on “Why we care more about Chaucer than about Gower.”) What seemed to me most disconcerting about the question posed by the MLA leadership was the way it demonstrated the problems of the scholarly organization for scholars of literature and language. Perhaps the leadership entirely missed the point of decades of writing on the continuing insight and power of “early” literature. Or, maybe, to be fair, they got the point only too well, and had an entirely utopian aim in mind. As more than one person opined in the FB thread on the topic, divisions organized along conceptual lines (e.g. on “Race and Ethnicity” or on “Gender and Sexuality,” on “Affect and Literature,” or “Literature, Language and the Post-human” etc.) with a medievalist in the mix might be read as a sign of the success of the last thirty years of scholarly inquiry. But would Chaucer really signify prominently in these terms? And could a defense of the “old” Divisions be justified nonetheless? My colleagues today have rightly continued such full-throated defenses, offering smart and moving accounts of the power of the poet as precisely un-timely (that is, not time-bound), and of early literature as echoing across diverse times and places, and regularly eloquent on matters of difference and diversity. (Though as both Mark Miller and Lynn Arner point out, Chaucer’s relation to “diversity” is itself an institutional matter.)

I want to think more along this institutional path. Because the question isn’t, I think, mainly a scholarly one, but, instead, a bureaucratic one. The category of greatest pertinence to “Why Chaucer now” may involve neither linguistic history, nor periodization so much as the history of scholarly organizations. On a hunch that the question might be illuminated by way of this kind of history, I did some admittedly hasty research into the MLA’s Chaucer division (formerly “Chaucer Group”). It may or may not surprise you to know that this was not the first time such a consolidation was suggested. It was raised before, and by medievalists themselves.

So, once upon a time the Middle English Group of the Modern Language Association invited the Chaucer Group to join together with them. The year was 1926, a mere 22 years after the Association itself was founded. The report of the 1926 meeting, offers minimal details, but notes that the 37 members of the Middle English Language Group in attendance voted unanimously to proffer the invitation. Its unclear what prompted the offer, and it occurred just six years after John Matthews Manly (founding editor of Modern Philology, President of the MLA, and Edith Rickert’s collaborator in the Chaucer Laboratory at the University of Chicago) made an impassioned plea for “a reorganization of the [MLA meeting] with a view to greater specialization and greater stimulation of research.” Members of the Chaucer Group (not all of whom, it seemed, were strictly-speaking what we would call “Chaucerians”) declined. Here is the terse description: “A motion favoring the amalgamation of the Chaucer group and the Middle English language Group was defeated by a majority of one. There were 40 members in attendance.” We get no information about the debate, (a close vote, so one presumes an interesting conversation, the rationale, the particular parties involved (how did Manly vote?), the politics at stake, or the reaction from their erstwhile Middle English hosts. I can dream up all kinds of drama, and my favorite imaginative reconstruction involves a scene in which Middle English scholars, in a moment of pique, mount a retraction, adopting what would become the Division on Middle English Literature’s most annoying sobriquet: hereafter, “Middle English Literature, excluding Chaucer.”

What seems especially notable about the amalgamated road-not-taken is that each group would go on to make crucial scholarly initiatives possible. The MLA’s “Middle English Language Group” would produce Bibliographies of work done in Middle English, and become the organizational vanguard for the Middle English Dictionary; in 1968 it would (under the auspices of then-chair, Burke Severs) launch The Manual of Writings in Middle English. The “Chaucer Group” boasts equal accomplishments: as early as 1932, its members would push the MLA to co-sponsor a volume of Sources and Analogues to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, funded in part through a grant from the ACLS and published in 1941 by the University of Chicago Press. In 1945, members of the Chaucer group established the first editorial committee for what would become the Chaucer Library; by 1966, the Chaucer group had joined in the creation of scholarly bibliographies, and by 1968 (just before the MLA Groups were to become “Divisions”) they would (in conjunction with Penn State University Press) help to launch The Chaucer Review. There is some evidence to suggest that the embers of the New Chaucer Society were also fanned by MLA meetings of this group.

Nor did the differences between the two groups prevent important collaborations. Together both would help push the MLA to encourage U. S. Libraries to purchase volumes published under the auspices of the Early English Text Society. And they would join in a host of other initiatives during the early decades of the society, from “procuring rotographic reproductions of manuscripts and rare printed books in European Libraries” for “the use of American scholars and graduate students,” to arguing for a market in academic publishing and sponsoring a series of scholarly monographs as well as the series of teaching volumes well known to us today. (Oh, and by the way, the MLA would have a huge influence, by the 1920s and after, on the selection of texts of British and American literature to be taught in High School classrooms across the U.S.)

My point here is twofold: that scholarly groups and divisions have a long history of making things; and that divisional differences can be, themselves, an engine for a wide array of institutional initiatives for our mutual benefit. This, it seems to me, is one clear argument for collaborating across divisions rather than collapsing or amalgamating them. Finally, my brief perusal of the organizational history available via the PMLA archive shows that the MLA has, virtually from its inception, had to balance differences (of specializations or geographic location—this last used to be quite a huge problem) with what early members of association called the “value of union”—the shared interests and conversations that cross distances of language, time, or place. So in answer to the implicit question, “Why a Chaucer division now?” I would reply that divisions and groups have crucial, and quite material, institutional legacies—they have helped make tools and texts available, prompted procedures or policies that outlast the particular politics of any given moment. We don’t know what caused the Chaucer Group to spurn the invitation of their Middle English colleagues. What we do know is that each of these divisions made stuff that we still need and use today; separately and together they prompted crucial aspects of the field in which we work and play. That’s one reason we still need them. Finally, then, how might we reimagine the work of Divisions (and even the MLA itself) if we think about this history: as a vehicle for promoting scholarly resources precisely at a time when such resources seem to be shrinking. (A new edition of the Riverside Chaucer?) And, at a time when (as Carolyn Heilbrun eloquently put it in an essay written on the occasion of the MLA’s centenary) “the enemies of intellect make thunder,” our “early” divisions can also help the profession keep faith with another one of its legacies, seeking to (Heilbrun again) “maintain commerce between a lively present and an eloquent past.”

Patricia Clare Ingham is Professor of English in the Department of English at Indiana University and one of the editors-in-chief of Exemplaria: A Journal of Theory in Medieval and Renaissance Studies. She is the author of The Medieval New: Ambivalence in an Age of Innovation (U of Pennsylvania P, 2015).