Chaucer the Stranger

As I finish writing this post, America stands on the brink of a new era, one that appears poised to revive a monolithic concept of what America and Americans should look and sound like. The implications of this have not been lost on the medieval studies community. In December, Sierra Lomuto wrote an entry for the In the Middle blog urging medievalists to resist efforts to reappropriate aspects of medieval culture in aid of white nationalist and nativist agendas. And Candace Barrington recently posted an entry on the Global Chaucers website about the impact that “English-only politics” may have on US classrooms, which can either reshape or be shaped by perspectives of linguistic and cultural inheritance and ownership that presume that “American English is the undefiled descendant of a language that sprang forth from the British Isles before dominating the world with its linguistic flexibility and semantic dexterity, absorbing bits of other languages without being tainted by the process.”

As an American scholar teaching medieval English literature in a non-Anglophone country, I have occasionally entertained the rather self-congratulatory fantasy that I am now about as far from this perspective as one can get. Yet teaching Chaucer in Switzerland has made clear that I have brought part of this American Anglophone bubble with me. After all, Chaucer has never seemed like a complete stranger to me. His name and the title of The Canterbury Tales have always seemed to be embedded in my linguistic and cultural unconscious. I first encountered Chaucer’s writing in the second year of my undergraduate studies at a small liberal arts college, in which he was an obligatory feature of the “British Writers” survey course. But long before I studied him, I could at least claim a vague second- or third-hand familiarity with his identity as a canonical English author. Consequently, my internal reaction to seeing Chaucer’s name on the course syllabus was more “Aha” than it was “Who’s that?”

This post is my attempt to reflect briefly on the significance of Chaucer’s strangeness in the non-Anglophone classroom, and to start a conversation about the impact of geographical, cultural, and linguistic context on the teaching of Chaucer. The Modern English word stranger (which derives from the Old French estrangier, Anglo-Norman estrangere) is typically used to describe a foreigner or alien, an unknown or unfamiliar person, an outsider. It can be also used to describe unfamiliarity with someone or something (e.g. “I am no stranger to this subject”). Middle English straungere shares the primary definitions of the modern English term. Judging from the online Chaucer Concordance, Chaucer uses the noun straunger only four times in his work (three times in Boece [Book I, Prosa 3, line 56; Book I, Prosa 4, line 65; and Book II, Metrum 5, line 19], and once in the Legend of Good Women [line 1075] to describe Aeneas upon his arrival at Dido’s court). He uses the adjective straunge more frequently, usually to indicate foreignness, alienness, unfamiliarity, or distance, as in the case of the “straunge strondes” (General Prologue 13) sought out by pilgrims in the springtime.

In my research, much of whatever initial strangeness Chaucer held for me has subsided as I have become gradually more familiar with his life and works. By contrast, my teaching experience—most particularly the five years I have spent teaching in the French-speaking region of Switzerland—has brought home to me the variety of ways in which I take both a certain familiarity and certain kinds of unfamiliarity with Chaucer for granted in the classroom. While I often assume that my students will be reading Chaucer (or at least his original Middle English) for the first time with me, I also assume—perhaps too often—that Chaucer looms large enough in the global literary/cultural landscape that most of my students will at least have heard of him. But over the past five years, both I and my field’s flagship author have been strangers in a strange land, and this has led me to review Chaucer and his works in light of that strangeness, most particularly in my teaching.

Because I live and work in two of Switzerland’s French-speaking cantons, I am made aware of my own strangeness here on a daily basis. As a way of encouraging patience with my stumbling French phrases, I have learned to preface every verbal transaction with, “Je m’excuse, je ne parle pas très bien le français” (‘Please excuse me, I do not speak French very well’). (If I am lucky, this is met with the response, “Mais pas de tout, vous parlez très bien” [‘Not at all, you speak very well’].) But French is only one of Switzerland’s four national languages, which also include German, Italian, and Romansh (although the latter is spoken by less than 1% of the Swiss population). Switzerland’s relatively large immigrant population and the variety of languages spoken within the country’s borders have led to English occasionally playing the role of lingua franca in everyday transactions. While some of Switzerland’s cantons or member states are linked to only one Swiss national language, others are bilingual, and the canton of Graubünden is trilingual (German, Italian, Romansh).

Education varies from canton to canton. Each canton has its own school requirements, particularly when it comes to language-focused curricula. Moreoever, several cantons are home not only to Swiss schools, but also to other schools that adhere to international baccalaureate curriculum requirements. Consequently, the nature of one’s education in English language and literature tends to depend on whether one is enrolled in a “Swiss” or in an “international” school. Taking Vaud (the canton in which UNIL is situated) as one example, whereas Swiss schools may specify in their plans d’études that students studying French will be introduced to literature originating in periods from the Middle Ages to the present day, they tend to leave the specifics of their English courses to the discretion of individual teachers, who may be more or less inclined to introduce their students to medieval English literature. If they happen to offer any teaching on Chaucer, it is always via modern English abridged versions of his works. (When my colleague Camille Marshall recently asked the only specialist English bookstore in Lausanne about which abridged Chaucer editions were favored by local schools, the owner informed her that the most recent version used for teaching high school students at the Gymnase de la Cité in Lausanne a few years ago was Penguin’s simplified edition.) As a consequence, it is nearly always the case that a Swiss student intending to major in English at university will encounter Chaucer’s work or even name for the first time in his or her undergraduate studies. This theory was certainly borne out when I asked my forty-three second-year students whether they had ever heard of or read Chaucer before coming to UNIL: only four students raised their hands.(1) The first had come across Chaucer’s name during a one-month stay in Canterbury; the second had come across a reference to Chaucer in a local newspaper. The third and fourth had heard either Chaucer’s name or The Canterbury Tales mentioned in passing during a high school class, but that was the extent of their acquaintance with the author.

All of this brings me to the English undergraduate curriculum at UNIL, which requires first-year students to take a semester-long survey course of medieval English literature. The course consists of a weekly lecture (attended by all first-year students in English) and a series of focused weekly workshops in which smaller groups of first-year students discuss assigned texts with one of the members of staff teaching the course. Students are introduced to Chaucer and read one of the Canterbury Tales (with some extracts from the General Prologue) during one week towards the end of the semester. Quite often, this week constitutes a UNIL English student’s first—and possibly last—encounter with Chaucer.

As a teacher of Chaucer in Switzerland, I have had to reorient my assumptions about the ways in which Chaucer is likely to be a stranger to my students. When I taught in the UK, Chaucer’s strangeness lay in his chronological distance from our own time, and in his use of an antiquated form of (most of) my students’ native tongue. By contrast, all forms of English are entirely foreign to nearly all of my Swiss students, and Chaucer cannot be said to share their national or cultural roots. While I still introduce Chaucer as a canonical, game-changing writer, my Swiss students are less likely to view themselves as directly affected by his linguistic and literary choices. Chaucer does not stand at the head of their nation’s or languages’ literary canons, nor is he as commonly cited as a recognizable figure in their culture. Instead, my Swiss students make other connections with this literary stranger. For example, they are particularly well placed to grasp the cultural significance of Chaucer’s decision to write so many ambitious works of literature in English, rather than in French or Latin. As citizens of a country with four competing national languages, they understand the impact such a decision might have. I occasionally ask them to imagine what their lives would be like if one of Switzerland’s four languages—say, Italian—were suddenly made the sole national language and the primary language in which literature was composed. The idea that their own language(s) might suddenly be rendered useless or culturally irrelevant in their own country always provokes a strong and immediate response.

In a similar vein, many more of my Swiss students are likely to be familiar with Chaucer’s French and Italian source material than my UK students were. This gives them a significant advantage in terms of situating Chaucer’s work in the broader landscape of medieval European literary culture. This is an advantage they occasionally enjoy even over me, since some of them are in the process of closely studying texts such as the Roman de la rose or Boccaccio’s Decameron in their other undergraduate courses at the same time that they are attending mine.

As well as encouraging me to reframe the way I teach Chaucer, my experiences in Swiss classrooms have impressed upon me the continuing importance of ongoing scholarly projects that aim to draw attention to the multilingualism of medieval England (such as The French of England project and its affiliated translation series) or to resist the Anglophone bias of Chaucer scholarship. Barrington has been particularly active on behalf of the latter cause, not only working with Jonathan Hsy on the Global Chaucers project, but also insistently urging us to move beyond what she describes as the “Anglophone inner circle of Chaucer studies.” This call to action was the focal point of her presentation at the 2016 New Chaucer Society congress, now posted in full on the In the Middle blog. In her paper, Barrington urges us to “recognize that ‘our’ ownership of Chaucer is a cultural and political construction, not a natural inheritance.” It was only after reading this piece in preparation for writing my own post that I realized the extent to which I have been teaching from—and to—a perspective of cultural and linguistic ownership. That I am now becoming able to realize this is entirely due to the non-Anglophone context in which I am teaching. As Barrington notes, “scholars from outside the Anglophone alignment provide perspectives that help reshape our sense of the past.” So, too, I have found, do non-Anglophone students.

Teaching Chaucer in a context to which he initially might seem a national, linguistic, cultural, and chronological stranger has led me to find new ways of making a case for his inclusion here. It has also served to remind me of the importance of remaining aware of the questions of linguistic and/or cultural heritage and ownership that are not only at play in our research and teaching, but which are also shaping the new era in which we find ourselves. These questions are more urgent than ever before, and as scholars in the humanities, we have a duty to bear them in mind in our work. Less than twenty-four hours ago, news broke that soon-to-be-President Trump plans to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Despite whatever setbacks such a move might impose on our field, we must continue to use our work to reconsider the criteria by which we argue that languages, cultures, and individuals deserve a place in our world. If I were to return to the undergraduate classroom in which I first read Chaucer, the question I would now want to ask is, ‘Where (and to whom) does Chaucer belong?’ By seeing Chaucer as a stranger through the eyes of my students, I hope to discover new ways in which he can belong, even on “straunge strondes.”

I would be very interested to learn what experiences colleagues have had in teaching Chaucer in non-Anglophone or multilingual contexts, whether via the comments section below or via email or Twitter (@15thcgossipgirl).

(1) This thoroughly unscientific data is drawn from my two mandatory second-year Chaucer courses, which are offered as two choices among several courses covering medieval English literature (all second-year students must take at least one of these courses in order to fulfill the requirements of the English degree).

Mary C. Flannery is maître assistante in medieval English at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland.