It seems the new year is off to a slow start...
On 24 January 2014, the online version of The Guardian published Paul Strohm's "Who Was Chaucer?" In the article, Strohm offers a brief biography of the Well of English Undefiled, one tailored for public consumption, partly as a way to advertise his more comprehensive treatment of the poet's life and partly as a way to discuss the interaction of life experience and artistic performance. The biography provided in the article is a useful summary of Chaucer's life, and the commentaries embedded alongside it do well to point out not only the context in which the poet worked and in which his work has been studies, but also the enduring relevance of the poet and his work.
Seeing such commentary, and in a major public venue such as The Guardian, is a comfort, particularly when the study of the medieval is under attack. Recently, the Modern Language Association of America proposed to collapse several of the early English units into one, coalescing them into an amorphous mass stretching across at least a millennium and multiple languages in its treatment. While the proposal was rejected (at least in the short term), it bespeaks a prevailing lack either of understanding of or consideration for the complexities of the slippery and difficult thing that is the medieval. (It also touches upon other concerns noted as of particular interest to individual members of the Society, about which more in another post.) If one of the major scholarly bodies seeks to act against detailed and specific study of the medieval, it bodes ill for those of use who make that study our own--as well as for those who are scholars of the medievalist rather than the medieval, proper, since medievalist study relies on accurate understandings of the antecedent medieval.
For Strohm, then, to highlight the multiplicity of voice and genre in Chaucer, as well as the resonance his works still carry for twenty-first century readership, serves as a corrective. It functions to remind the public--from which academia all too often and all too unfortunately seeks to distance itself, as scholars noted earlier suggest--that what has been done is still being done, so that what has been written is still relevant, still applicable. It still offers readers an image of how things might be improved though its distillation of what is less than desirable--and if there are problems in its depictions, there are certainly problems not only in current depictions that seek to coalesce or elide broad swaths of peoples and histories or in the all-too-real interactions of people with people in the world now.