In addition to my interests in Old English, I also have a great interest in Middle English language and literature. As a sessional lecturer at U of T's Department of English, I taught, among other things, a full-year course on Chaucer. I'm also particularly interested in the works of the Pearl-poet. In particular, my research in Middle English literature has explored linguistic matters, narrative, and recently I have become interested in the interplay between epic and romance genres.

July 10, 2007

Scip-gefere: Paddle your own canoe (part II)

(This is a continuation of yesterday’s post.)

But back-tracking to the middle ages for a moment, we can see a similar metaphor, only the characterisation is different in the Christian world view. For instance, in the Old English elegies “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer” harsh exile is pictured in terms of a lonely journey in a boat, and the homiletic implication of this exile/pilgrimage is that the Christian soul’s ultimate destination is back to God. God is the only course to steer towards. Similarly, in the later middle ages, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in the Man of Law’s Tale, Custance, who is set adrift at sea by her antagonists to get rid of her, puts her faith in God: “In hym triste I, and in his mooder deere, / That is to me my seyl and eek my steere”. God is her sail and her rudder, her means of propulsion and steering. Again, this is a metaphor of the relationship between the Christian soul and God, and therefore of man’s place in the world. Though as in the ancient world, man does not control his fate, it is not a capricious god to whom he is subject.

Known as great sailors in the earlier part of the middle ages, the Vikings, who really only had the square sail, cheated a bit by lowering one end of the sail to allow for greater manoeuverability. But for the most part they made do with very simple means and no sophisticated navigational equipment. Here’s a picture of a Norse knarr (click to enlarge):


They were often blown off course, and as described in the Vinland Sagas, it was often due to accident that they made discoveries such as Greenland and Vinland. Interestingly, there’s quite the mix of chance, fate, luck both good and bad, pagan, and Christian in the Vinland Sagas.

As for the advance in sailing technology, in the late middle ages or early renaissance, the triangular lateen sail began to be used in Europe. Here’s a picture of a lateen sail:


The triangular sail, of course, works like a wing — high pressure on one side and low pressure on the other — and it allows a ship to sail almost directly into a headwind. And so by tacking in a zigzag pattern ships can sail go in any direction and are no longer at the mercy of the wind, as long as there is wind, as seen here (click to enlarge):


(You can read a good explanation of all this here.) Ships also started using sternpost rudders rather than steering with an oar hanging off the right side (starboard, literally the steering side, as opposed to the left side called port which was the side towards the dock, also known as larboard or loading side). The stern mounted rudder made it possible to steer larger ships, and larger ships could carry more provisions, including most importantly fresh water. These along with the old square sail (to take efficient advantage of favourable winds), as well as improvements to navigational technology allowed for real exploration to begin at the end of the middle ages and throughout the renaissance, kicking off the European age of discovery. Here’s a picture of the complete package:


Note both the square sails and the triangular lateen sail.

These advances too are reflected in the imaginative literature of the period. This is of course the age of humanism, when the cultural focus shifted from the purely religious to the world of man. People began to define their place in the world in terms other than purely spiritual ones. The eighteenth century, for instance, is full of travel literature, perhaps most famously Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Gulliver goes out into the world ostensibly to discover things about other people and places, but in fact learns about his own country in the process. Mankind defines itself through its exploration of the outside world, through its own ability to direct its own course in the world. This is a radical shift from the medieval seagoing metaphor as demonstrated most clearly in Chaucer’s Custance, who is really only defined by her relationship to God. The humanist shift in cultural focus goes hand in hand with the seagoing technological shift.

Though Gulliver can sail anywhere in the world, sailing is still a risky business and he is frequently stranded. Both Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and the outer frame narrative of Walton’s arctic exploration in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein sound a note of danger in unbridled exploration. This is perhaps somewhat comparable to Dante’s perspective of Ulysses. While mankind is more and more able to govern his own destiny, there are some things he shouldn’t meddle with. If the sea voyage is a metaphor for man’s place in the world and man’s relationship with God, then trying to control your own destiny rather than following God’s guidance is a problem.

(Continued tomorrow)

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April 05, 2006


Somehow I managed to only blog once in March. On top of that, it’s been ages since I’ve written a real medieval post. Partly this is due to the fact that I haven’t been teaching medieval courses, so I’m often thinking about other things, but as I work on my Kalamazoo paper and other research of my own over the next little while I will no doubt have more to say.

In the meantime, may I suggest you get your medieval fix by reading Geoffrey Chaucer’s blog. It’s really quite well done. But the fun doesn’t stop there, as John Gower and Katherine Swynford also have blogs. (For my non-medieval readers, have a look at the Wikipedia entries on Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, and Katherine Swynford to see why this is all so funny.)

What I want to know is why it’s all these Middle English figures who have blogs. Why not the Anglo-Saxons like King Alfred or Ælfric or Wulfstan or Cynewulf…

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February 07, 2006


Following up on my previous post on Stephen Colbert, here are more postings on Language Log on the word ‘truthiness’:

The birth of truthiness?
Truthiness: a flash in the pan?
Truthiness in journalism

Interestingly, it appears that Colbert hasn’t been truthful (or is that truthy?) about the pronunciation of his name. I’m so disillusioned.

Equally interesting, and a testament to how fast things move these days, there’s not only an entry on Stephen Colbert in Wikipedia, there’s an entry on the word truthiness. He may not have received the recognition he thought he deserved from the American Dialect Society, but the Wiktionary entry for truthiness does mention Colbert.

More recently, Stephen Colbert appeared on the cover of Newsweek (in the top right-hand corner). Of course the article mentions the whole truthiness bruhaha.

All this talk of the word truthiness makes me reflect on my favourite medieval English word: truth. Yes, I know it’s a modern English word to, but the particularly interesting thing about the word in medieval English is the range of meanings the word had. Not only did it have the obvious meaning of veracity (that is, not being false), and the less obvious though perhaps still present moral sense of fidelity or faith, the word was also at that point undifferentiated from the word troth, meaning a promise, as in betrothal or to plight one’s troth. This range of meanings is particularly important in Middle English literature, where truth is often represented as one of the chivalric virtues (a bit like Superman’s truth, justice, and the American way, I suppose). As a chivalric virtue it implied both a moral rectitude and the keeping of one’s word. Chaucer, in addition to mentioning the quality numerous time in the Canterbury Tales, also wrote a short poem called Truth.

In a more religious context, in William Langland’s Piers Ploughman, when the question is asked what is the way to heaven, the answer is that truth is the best.

And in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the quality of truth is Sir Gawain’s most fundamental virtue. Indeed the trials Sir Gawain undergoes are a test of his truth. In the end, Sir Gawain passes with almost a perfect grade, demonstrating his truth. King Arthur, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to fully take the lesson to heart, perhaps only displaying truthiness.

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April 09, 2005

Dreamas and deaþ

I started this entry a while back in the midst of teaching Chaucer’s dream vision poems. Here’s the completed entry…

Reading all these dream vision poems by Chaucer recently has made me really want to teach a class in medieval dream visions more generally, starting with the Old English Dream of the Rood and including the Middle English Pearl, one of my all-time favourite poems, and William Langland’s Piers Ploughman. One could also include excerpts of various saintly dream visions (such as from Bede) and various background texts such as Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis, Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun’s Roman de la Rose, and Dante’s Divine Comedy. One could even get into medieval dream theory a bit, looking at Macrobius’ commentary on the Somnium Scipionis and other medieval treatises on dream theory.

Another grouping of texts that would make a good seminar class is poems dealing with death and bereavement in the Middle Ages. It would include Old English elegies like The Wanderer and The Seafarer as well as Middle English poems such as Pearl and Chaucer’s Book of the Duchess. It’s kind of a depressing idea, I suppose, but it would be very interesting. I wonder what other texts would be good for such a grouping…

NB — A cookie for the first person to point out the problem with this entry’s title.

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March 10, 2005

The lyf so short, the crafte so longe to lerne

As I posted earlier, I’m also currently teaching Chaucer this year for the first time. This has been a very rewarding, if very busy, experience. It’s been a lot of work, but I’ve now built a Chaucer course, so the dividends should continue to pay off.

As it turns out, those dividends will be paying off this summer, as I’ll be teaching Chaucer again here at U of T as a summer evening course (Tuesdays and Thursdays 6 to 9). I’m quite looking forward to this, since I’ll already have most of the hard work done and can enjoy myself and the texts more. Chaucer students seem to be really good at in-class discussion.

Of Chaucer’s literary works, The Canterbury Tales was what I had the most experience with prior to this course — actually I’ve probably worked most with Chaucer’s translation of Boethius, but one doesn’t usually teach such a text in an undergraduate course. We covered the Tales in the first term and this term we started off with Troilus and Criseyde, a poem which fascinates me greatly, both in terms of its Boethian content and its generic manipulation, as well as for many other reasons. More recently we’ve been working through the dream vision poems. We recently finished The Book of the Duchess and are now in the middle of The House of Fame.

I have to say that The House of Fame is the Chaucer poem that I feel least able to make a final pronouncement upon. Sure I have plenty to say about it, but I don’t know if I have a final statement about it. This may in part be because the poem is in fact unfinished, but it’s also a complex and slippery poem. I guess my take on it is that it is Chaucer’s anxiety attack. Welcome to the wonderful world of Chaucer’s neuroses! In addition to the more minor sources of anxiety such as the classification of dreams — which it must be admitted is likely a merely rhetorical stance on Chaucer’s part — Chaucer seems to be deeply concerned with dealing with inconsistant or potentially ureliable sources. The dreamer/narrator in the poem is taken to the House of Fame to learn “tidings” to use in his poetry, but true and false tidings are mixed up together, and how can one distinguish them? The poem exudes uncertainty and anxiety, and I think this adds to my own uncertainty about it. It’s funny but I find this poem more troubling than some of Chaucer’s longer and ostensibly more complex works such as the Tales or Troilus and Criseyde. I think I’m going to have to live with this one for a bit longer before I fully come to terms with it.

Soon we’ll be on to The Parliament of Fowls, which can be seen as almost a sequel to The House of Fame, as Chaucer continues his quest for some sort of knowledge or information about love for his poetising.

Posted by Mark at 05:10 PM | Comments (1)

February 14, 2005

Sanctus Valentinus

As today is Valentine’s Day, for your reading pleasure I give you a stanza of Chaucer’s The Parliament of Fowls:

For this was on Seynt Valentynes day,
Whan every foul cometh there to chese his make,
Of every kynde that men thynke may,
And that so huge a noyse gan they make
That erthe, and eyr, and tre, and every lake
So ful was that unethe was there space
For me to stonde, so ful was al the place.
(PF 309-15)

If you’d like a translation, I’ll include one below in the extended entry. The tradition is that on Valentine’s Day, birds choose their mates for the coming year.

For an account of how my wife Aven and I are spending our Valentine’s Day, read her entry here.

As promised, here’s a translation of the stanza from Chaucer’s The Parliament of Fowls:

For this was on Saint Valentine’s day,
When every fowl comes there to choose his mate,
Of every kind that men may think of,
And so huge a noise they began to make
That the earth, and air, and trees, and every lake
Were so full that scarcely was there space
For me to stand, so full was all the place.
Posted by Mark at 04:58 PM | Comments (0)

August 14, 2004


Well, it’s getting to that time of year when I have to prepare for the new academic term. At the beginning of the summer term, after over a month of not actually being in front of a class, I was quite excited at the prospect of teaching again. I guess it’s the performer in me. I have the same feeling again, though somewhat tempered by the thought of all the things I have yet to do.

This year I’m teaching Old English again, as well as, for the first time, Chaucer — and not Effective Writing again, which is a very time-consuming course. It will be great to teach Old English again because I’ve already built the course, and I’ll be able to fine tune it. All the fun but not too much work. I’m both excited and a little nervous about teaching Chaucer for the first time. Since my main area of research is Old English, not Middle English, I don’t have the same comfort level yet in Middle English as I do in Old English, but I’m having a great time reading up on Chaucer and preparing the class. And it will certainly be a great addition to my resumé.

I’ve ordered my textbooks now, with a few changes from last year. In the past, for Old English I’ve used Mitchell & Robinson’s A Guide to Old English, as most Old English teachers do. The biggest problem with this text is that it is very difficult for those who don’t have much of a background in language and grammar to use. If the students already had somewhat of a background in, for instance, Latin, it would be no problem, but the reality is that most students today have little formal training in Modern English grammar, let alone an inflected language like Latin. So instead, this year I’ve decided to try out Peter Baker’s Introduction to Old English, which has an accompanying website. This text is more geared to students who have no prior linguistic knowledge, but unlike Bruce Mitchell’s An Invitation to Old English & Anglo-Saxon England, it has a structured approach to learning the language. To supplement the anthology of texts contained in Baker’s text, I’m also using Pope & Fulk’s Eight Old English Poems, mainly because I also like teaching The Battle of Brunanburh and Deor, which aren’t included in Introduction to Old English. As supplements, like last year I’m also using The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature, as well as translations of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Beowulf, specifically Michael Swanton’s and Roy Liuzza’s translations respectively.

As for the Chaucer class, the main text is The Riverside Chaucer, really the only choice. Apparently there is a soft-cover version, but it’s only available in the UK. I would love to have used it, to protect both the students’ wallets and backs from this weighty tome. Ah well. I spent a lot of time considering what supplementary text(s) to use and finally settled on Robert P. Miller’s Chaucer: Sources and Backgrounds, which contains excerpts from parallels and sources to a variety of Chaucer’s works. I also wanted to use some kind of commentary volume, but given the expense of the two other texts, I only added a recommended text, The Cambridge Companion to Chaucer. I’d be curious to know what others think of these textbooks.

Now I have to put together the syllabus for each of my classes, so there’s still a lot of planning to do. It’s funny, I’m almost as excited as I used to be when I was a student about to start new classes. I enjoy teaching — being in front of a class is so much fun — and I love the material I’ll be teaching this year. Now if only all my other work would fall into place…

Posted by Mark at 03:27 PM | Comments (0)

April 22, 2004


There’s an interesting post on Language Log about phrasal verbs and which verbs are permitted to take these so-called “prepositions”. I think Mark Liberman is dead on here. This does represent an older linguistic pattern which has survived to the modern English.

This interesting discussion has inspired me to write on a topic which perscriptive grammarians often make erroneous statements about: ending a sentence with a “preposition”. What perscriptivists don’t seem to realise is that up in sentences like “He cleaned up” or “She finished up” is not a preposition at all. It is more accurately thought of as akin to the separable prefix of separable prefix verbs in German, and due to the Germanic principle of embraciation, the normal word order for such separable prefixes is often the end of a sentence. Ending sentences with such separable prefixes was perfectly normal word order in Old English and in Middle English, and is still normal and acceptable in Modern English. So don’t let anyone tell you that you shouldn’t end a sentence in a “preposition”.

As an interesting aside, I should point out that in Old English prepositions sometimes come after the noun they govern (as in him biforan ‘before him’).

Posted by Mark at 11:46 PM | Comments (0)