From Glass Case to Cyberspace: Chaucerian manuscripts across time | Day 2

The second day of the conference at The National Library of Wales dawned but due to a comedy of errors I missed the first lecture, given by Dr Roberta Magnani of Swansea University and entitled “The Queer Margins of Chaucer’s Manuscripts” – such a shame, as I was really looking forward to hearing her interpretation of Chaucer’s work. I was, however, there in time to hear Professor Helen Fulton of York University on “English Prophecy in Welsh Manuscripts: Authors and Anthologies”.

Professor Fulton took Chaucer’s use of prophecy as a jumping-off point, and looked at “examples of Middle English prophecies found in multilingual Welsh manuscripts of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries”, describing a shifting boundary (the Marcher lordships) occupied by the descendants of Norman lords and the old Welsh royalty. Many of the most important manuscripts of the medieval age came from within Marcher Wales, such as Gawain and the Green Knight. On this basis, MS Peniarth 392D’s presence in Wales isn’t an anomaly, given Wales’ importance within medieval literature. Fulton suggested that Hengwrt (MS Peniarth 392D) was in Chester by the late 16th century and with Robert Vaughan of Hengwrt in Meirionydd (1592-1667); by the 19th century it was with the Wynnes of Peniarth. Chaucer was obviously thought of as an author worth collecting, and the Marcher lords were seen as the guardians of language, with a multilingual border environment and a readership which, even in the 15th century, would have been familiar with different languages. Professor Fulton’s talk was fascinating, because it allowed us to envisage Wales as a thriving cultural hub, with Oswestry “the London of Owain Glyndwr’s land”, and prophecy used as a comment on the age.

After Professor Fulton came Holly-Jane Maddocks, a doctoral researcher at York University, discussing the illuminator of Chaucer’s Roumant of the Rose (Glasgow University, Hunter MS 409) and the context of its production. As Holly-Jane explained in her abstract, the manuscript “exists uniquely in Glasgow, Hunter MS 409)” but the manuscript “has received little attention from book historians, possibly because it is incomplete, messily-translated, and perhaps only partially by Chaucer himself”. The Roumant’s illuminator, however, can be tracked across many manuscripts, “and these indicate that this illuminator was active in London from the 1430s until at least the end of the 1450s”. Holly-Jane showed how illuminators can offer a starting-point for exploring a vast range of manuscripts, and were highly collaborative within their own communities, and suggested that Paternoster Row was the scene of work by William Abell, “a member of the London mistery of Stationers”, and an implied centre of activity for the production of many manuscripts. Abell seemed to rely on a specific group of border artists: this can be seen, said Maddocks, in specific, repeating features across manuscripts, and she gave some examples of the Roumant limner’s work.

After Holly-Jane came Professor Helen Phillips, of the School of English, Communications & Philosophy at Cardiff University with her talk entitled: “Chaucer’s unstable Wife of Bath in the manuscripts”. The Wife, said Professor Phillips, has been variously described as a Whore of Babylon, a parodic Virgin Mary, and the carnal old Eve; these representations come from the Wife’s Prologue primarily, and in fact the Hengwrt’s marginal label describes her as “The goode Wyf of bisyde Bathe”. There are, however, multiple scribal descriptions of her. Phillips suggested there were two main lexical sets: the Wife of Bath, a title destined to become popular even during Chaucer’s life and the “goode Wif”, corresponding to “goode Man”, which can mean a woman running a business, and also a female citizen of a particular town name, thus expressions like “the goode Wif of Barcapple”, etc. This rich multilayered interpretation was meant by Chaucer, Phillips claims, to have links to the Clerk of Oxenford, and the good man of religion, and whilst Chaucer might have meant there to be a socio-economic portrait of the Wife in the Prologue as a businesswoman her sexual and marital revelations have leached into our full readings of both the Tale that follows and the portrait that comes before it. The notorious, misogynistic display of a bad wife might have been ramped up for comedic effect, and the phrase Wife of Bath became a lexicological term designed to raise a giggle even during Chaucer’s time. The Wife is used, suggests Phillips as a misogynistic icon, and has come to represent a form of masculinist containment. But we should, she says, be careful how much we buy into this sort of belief. There has come to be a conceptualisation of women as wives only, despite their presence in business, and despite the fact that 80% or more of the words in the Wife’s Prologue describe her business state and the confidence her socio-economic status provides her. Chaucer’s time was “a golden age for widows”. We shouldn’t, says Phillips, substitute the notion of the good wife for a businesswoman, but we must recognise the instability in her representation.

After Professor Phillips’ fascinating lecture, and a short break for coffee and biscuits, Dr Liv Robinson of Brasenose College stepped up to define the Chaucerian manuscript through the spectrum of the Roumant of the Rose, the same work focused on by Holly-Jane Maddocks. Dr Robinson also highlighted the way in which the work has been sidelined, possibly because of it’s potential identification as being part of the “counterfeit canon of Chaucerian apocrypha”, and suggested that the way we describe something forms the way we respond to it. Therefore, if we describe something as being marginal, or fragmented, this erodes our sense of its authority. (There are parallels here, of course, to digitised manuscripts: it is so important to determine the words we use to describe our artefacts). The ubiquity of the term “fragment” when describing the Roumant, says Dr Robinson, perpetuates the negative way the work is perceived. The text is generally divided along Chaucerian or non-Chaucerian lines, with anything perceived as not Chaucer assumed to be derivative. Dr Robinson’s lecture was followed by questions and then lunch, and thereafter came Dr Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan as the afternoon session’s keynote speaker. The afternoon, chaired by Professor Lorna Hughes and included talks from Dr Barbara Bordalejo of the University of Saskatchewan and Dr Malte Urban of Queens University, Belfast. The content of their lectures can best be shown through the tweets from the second day, which are incorporated within this Storify (and includes tweets from attendees at the conference over the first two days).

What is fantastic about this sort of conference is not just the opportunity to meet new people (I spoke mostly to Malte, with whom I shared the back row of the Drwm in order to reduce the annoyance to everyone else that might have been caused by our laptops), but the possibility of allowing you to see your own work in a new way or, better yet, (for me at least) to reinforce the ways in which you’re already working. What I was most particularly struck by was the passion everyone brought to their own corners of Chaucerian research, and how interesting everyone made it seem to me. That’s as much a testament to the various speakers as it is to the work of ol’ Geoff himself, who still manages to resonate all this way down the centuries.

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