Friday, March 24, 2017

Why the Humanities?

Thoughts about how to change the game for advocates of the humanities 
(and how to cope when you can’t)

a guest post by Owen Williams

I work in an institution that has long benefited from the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities in reaching a nationwide audience. Our primary and secondary education programs introduce some two million students to Shakespeare annually with NEH grants, while NEH Summer Institutes have extended scholars’ ability to investigate the literature and culture of Western Europe from roughly 1450 through the eighteenth century. NEH funding and guidance has helped us set the agenda for early modern digital humanities. It was the NEH that largely revived our fellowships program and launched centers dedicated to Shakespeare Studies and the History of British Political Thought in the 1980s that continue to this day. Most recently, we were able to leverage NEH support to send a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio to every state, where our partners—public libraries, museums, and universities—offered some 1,500 programs and welcomed over half a million visitors. I offer all this as context for what follows.

I have spent several weeks thinking about and advocating for the NEH in conjunction with the recent National Humanities Advocacy day. Despite a proposed budget that axes one of America’s most successful agencies, I feel I should explain why my feelings of incredulity are mixed with hope. The most recent election shows us that humanities advocates haven’t been doing all that well in one major area: encouraging others to see issues from multiple perspectives. Too often, we have ceded the field to those who vote before thinking, come to conclusions based on flimsy premises, and assume that one’s take on reality is the only reality. (We, too, may be the tiniest bit guilty of these traits. We are, after all, only human.) If we want to affect real and positive change in public engagement with the humanities, we need to transition ourselves to become active conversation partners with those with whom we disagree.

If the humanities actually are in crisis in America, that may be a good thing for all of us who advocate for them. When we see something that we value in trouble, we are much more driven to ask new questions, to search for new solutions, and to try unlikely avenues that will solve “the problem.” If we want to “save” the humanities, we need to locate the radical levers to change their place in American culture, and to meet our antagonists in genuine engagement. We should seek different leverage points through which small changes can have oversized impacts.

Social media allows for each of us to be vociferous in our opposition, to call out what we see as wrong or unjust, to advocate for those who have less political capital than we do. We need (at least I know I need) to know that we aren’t alone, and social media is an excellent way to prove this. But we shouldn’t equate our tribe’s likes and hearts with actually changing the larger culture.

How do we best communicate the value of the humanities to non-specialist, and even non-scholarly, audiences who are too often distracted by the sound bite and the tweet, who listen to “those idiots” on talk radio? It is up to each of us to reconsider how to profess the advantages that a robust approach to “the big questions” provides for our culture. It is those trained in humanities disciplines who pose these kinds of questions most productively, and it is humanities thinkers who must point out that the answers do themselves produce subsequent questions that are meaningful. Valuing this inquiry-based, iterative, and recursive process is the essence of the humanities. The content or topic is not the essence of the humanities, nor is finding an answer. It is the inquiry-based process through which a humanities-trained thinker approaches a problem that holds the humanities’ true value.

Let the Humanities be our Guide
I worry that, all too often, humanities advocates have lost sight of the lessons taught by philosophy, history, religion, and literature that we are supposed to be professing. What do I mean by that? The list below is obviously personal, but it offers my sense of how the humanities can help us reshape our process of humanities advocacy. You will have other thinkers and historical events that speak to you more powerfully. Think about what got you into this field and what sustains you in it. What ideas get you out of bed in the morning, and which thinkers have posed the big questions that continue to engage you?

Plan Ahead
Centuries ago, Sun Tzu told us that the battle is won or lost before it is joined. Planning (based on valid pre-analysis) is all. I take this to mean that we need to be engaged in our communities and support local public education directly by visiting classrooms and volunteering our knowledge in collaborative, not high-handed, ways. Get young humans in the habit of thinking about their place in the world, why it is the way it is, and what they might do about it.

Know Thy Audience
Shakespeare succeeded as a playwright by promiscuously using any and all resources that could be brought to bear in pleasing his audience. We know he borrowed heavily from others to give his audience what they wanted and that he worked with whomever he could that would give him a better play. Use the audience’s culture to communicate. When you mention T.S., if your audience thinks of Taylor Swift, use that. If a conservative writer says something you agree with, use that to build upon in advocating.

Purity is the Enemy of the Useful
The history of the Jesuits demonstrates how flexibility can make inroads in closed cultures when head-to-head challenges are repulsed. I admire them for not compromising their core beliefs while they used any possible accommodations to meet cultural expectations and received knowledge, even when those were radically at odds with their objectives. Our faith in a core belief—that studying the humanities makes us better humans—can sustain us.

Stop Talking for a Minute
Don’t assume you know what someone is thinking, or why they have come to that conclusion. Hesse’s Siddhartha taught us that listening—really listening—is the key to understanding. We can combine rigorous humanistic inquiry with the goal of broader cultural dissemination if we are quiet, listen, and admit that we sometimes don’t know all the answers. Don’t assert answers; embrace not knowing the question. And seek with respect.

Don’t Fear a Radical Idea
When Wollstonecraft advocated for a national education system that included women, she proposed perhaps the most original idea that Western Culture had yet heard. While it would take centuries for this profound concept to come to pass, a time will come when we must be as brave as she was in declaring what is right and just.

Model the Human … and the Humanities Method
And if all this fail, remember that Boethius took solace in the recognition that sometimes, no matter how well we’ve planned, how flexible or brave we’ve been, or how well we’ve listened, the only thing we truly control is our response to a situation. But that was Boethius. We will be frustrated, angry, and depressed, but if the core ideas of the humanities are worth professing, then we should be able to rely on them to sustain us.

Call to Action
Collectively, humanities scholars need to find ways to make the sometimes admittedly esoteric work humanities thinkers do more accessible to the public upon whom we rely, no matter how indirectly, for our support. This has the advantage of exposing other to the recursive, inquiry-based method that defines the humanities.

As humanities thinkers, our goal should be to challenge received ways of thinking—including our own—through productive and generative discussion. In short, seek out ways to meet those who you don’t already know (or cannot fathom why they think the way they do), and strive to understand why they believe what they believe. Seek out opportunities to partner in thinking with non-scholarly constituencies. Here are a few ideas:
  • Visit the website of your state-based humanities council and explore how they meet the needs of underserved communities. Volunteer for what looks interesting, or propose what isn’t there.
  • If you are a faculty member, ask your dean or chair how to go about initiating a partnership with your local public library, with outdoor- or environmentally focused clubs, and with public schools. Help budding thinkers of all ages pose questions for collaborative exploration.
  • Propose a “humanities listening series” to your local librarian, and enlist her help in lining up those who will be good at moderating discussion on whatever topics emerge.
  • Explore innovative and emerging media channels. When you’ve found one that works for you, ask three questions for every answer, solution, or declaration you offer.
We will never convince everyone that studying the humanities (or even thinking like a humanist) has intrinsic worth until we make it personal for each of them. Reaching out to those who don’t already agree with us is a radically extensible idea when we agree to let non-specialists set the topic and lead the approach. We need to move beyond valorizing only what we have mastered and meet the public where their interests are by formulating the questions and seeking the answers along with them. We just might learn something important.


I would welcome learning more about what you have heard or read lately that gives you hope for reaching out to those who think differently from you.



Owen Williams welcomes over 200 scholars to the Folger Institute’s programs at the Folger Shakespeare Library each year as the Assistant Director for Scholarly Programs. He has an A.B. in Classics, Greek, from Stanford, an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Tulsa (and wrote his thesis on Troilus and Criseyde), and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Pennsylvania, where he worked on late-Elizabethan religious resistance and law. Editor of Foliomania! Stories Behind Shakespeare’s Most Important Book (2011, reissued 2015), he is currently co-editing Periodization and “Early Modern” English Temporalities: Reimagining Chronology through 16th- and 17th-century Habits of Thought, with Kristen Poole for the University of Pennsylvania Press. 

How to Celebrate "Whan That Aprille Day" (2017)

guest posting by COURTNEY RYDEL

[cross-posted at Global Chaucers]


Cover the program for “Whan That Aprille Day” celebrations last year at Washington College. Program designed by Olivia Serio (President of the Poetry Club, Washington College, class of 2017).

Coming at the beginning of April, National Poetry Month in the United States, “Whan That Aprille Day” is a holiday begun by the @LeVostreGC persona behind “Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog” and “Chaucer Doth Tweet” in 2014. @LeVostreGC proposed medievalists unite in our efforts to celebrate “the beauty and great loveliness of studying the words of the past. Our mission is to bring to mind the importance of supporting the scholarship and labor that brings these words to us…and the teaching of these…languages. For without all of this, the past would have no words for us” [read the full 2017 iteration of this open call in this earlier post at In The Middle].
In spring 2016, I curated an event on Multilingual Chaucer, gathering students and faculty from across Washington College, the small liberal arts college in Maryland where I teach.  Since then, I’ve participated in another large-scale Chaucer project that was directed towards the larger community, #MedievalBirds with ornithologist Jennie Carr, work on which is still ongoing. Currently I am planning a major Chaucerian event for spring 2018, with guest speaker Kim Zarins, that will involve collaboration with the Education department and local high school teachers.
Based on these experiences, I would like to offer some suggestions for other medievalists looking to create exciting events to celebrate “Whan That Aprille Day” on their campus. Although the event originated with celebrating Chaucer, that context should not be limiting. “Whan That Aprille Day” has the goal of celebrating the “beauty and great loveliness” in all languages.  Any language, literature, or poetry is welcome!  In this contemporary moment when the NEA and NEH are threatened, we need to come together as humanists and poetry lovers.  The more that medievalists connect with scholars of modern languages and across disciplines, and with our larger community, the stronger we will be.
  • Celebrate the gifts and skills of your students and faculty, and show them how they connect to Chaucer. At Washington College we hosted a reading of “Multilingual Chaucer,” which included students and faculty reading poetry in languages including Korean, Mandarin Chinese, Latin, Spanish, French, Russian, German, Hindi, Old English, and Middle English.  Some readers read their favorite poems in other languages, and some read Chaucer or Chaucer translations.  The mixture of languages and diverse poems brought alive how “The Father of English Poetry” inhabited a multilingual space, and allowed us to hear the many languages of our polyglot, increasingly international campus.
  • If you’re going global, check out the fantastic Global Chaucers online archive, created by Jonathan Hsy and Candace Barrington. This resource for post-1945 global non-Anglophone translations of Chaucer offers sample texts, blog posts and scholarship on Chaucer in modern contexts, and reflections on his impact in the contemporary landscape.
  • Look to interdisciplinary and collaborative research. My biologist colleague Jennie Carr and I undertook a project on #MedievalBirds in fall 2016, in which we combined her expertise on ornithology with my research to create an interactive downtown gallery exhibit on Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls.  We involved students in creating a physical tree that branched onto the ceiling, showing how Chaucer’s categories of birds overlapped with evolutionary development, and in creating videos of students reciting passages from the Parliament of Fowls with present-day English translations in closed captioning.
  • Think about going beyond your college into the community. For Spring 2018, Washington College is planning an event that brings together high school teachers with our community to think about Chaucer in relation to the brilliant YA lit retelling of the Canterbury Tales by Kim Zarins, Sometimes We Tell the Truth. This event will give us an opportunity to bring together our LGBTQIA student groups as well as our secondary ed community with lovers of poetry and medieval studies.  Kim has graciously agreed to come and do a reading and craft talk, and the Education department is collaborating with us on a workshop with high school teachers to help them craft more in-depth lesson plans and relate Chaucer to contemporary issues.
  • Include other medievalists, faculty, and even emeritus faculty with a love of Chaucer! Our beloved emeritus faculty Bennett Lamond, who taught Chaucer for decades at Washington College starting back in 1965, read at our Multilingual Chaucer event.  He gave a hilarious, spirited reading of “To Rosamunde,” likening it to the Rolling Stones song “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
  • Get students involved in their own retellings and rewritings of Chaucer. David Wallace’s undergraduate Chaucer course at the University of Pennsylvania in spring 2014 held an event in which students debuted both their own readings of Chaucer in the original Middle English as well as inspired, irreverent translations into present-day English.
  • Direct your event to increase opportunities for outreach on your campus. Are there other departments or programs with which you want to collaborate?  How can Chaucer connect to other time periods and topics?  Maybe you want to celebrate Chaucer’s influence on later art and media with your Media Studies or Art History departments.  Perhaps you want to work with your Gender Studies department on an event that looks at gender roles in Chaucer, or with Comparative Literature or Modern Languages scholars on an event that highlights translation.
  • Advertise! We had co-sponsors who also helped to publicize the event, including the Global Education Office, Department of English, Department of Modern Languages, Rose O’Neill Literary House, Poetry Club, and Sigma Tau Delta (English Honor Society).  Their efforts, along with our posters, tweets, and announcements, ensured a good turnout for the event.
  • Use social media for collaboration, connections and archiving. This international holiday was created and promoted through social media, so it’s important to create records, post pictures and videos, and tweet, blog or Facebook with the hashtag #WhanThatAprilleDay17 (please note the spelling).
Of course, all of these reflections come from the perspective of a medievalist working in English, who teaches Chaucer. Although “Whan That Aprille Day” started from a Chaucer parody account and remains Middle English heavy, its goal is wide and universal, and it offers possibilities for global and multilingual exchange, just as Chaucer himself makes in his poetry.  In the words of @LeVostreGC, “we hope that the connections, affinities, and joys of this made-up linguistic holiday will widely overflow their initial medieval English context.”

Readers pose for a group photo after the “Whan That Aprille Day” event at the Rose O’Neill Literary House, Washington College (2016).

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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

EARTH has launched!

squint and you'll glimpse Pangaea
by J J Cohen

Where does the time go? Oh yes, to my daughter's bat mitzvah, which was wonderful -- and achieved what we wanted when I blogged about it way back when. Take that, white supremacists! We danced the hora where you did your obscene salutes. And it was a great day.

A bit earlier in March Lindy and I hosted twenty five celebrants at my house to swill Prosecco and devour jelly beans and cheer the publication of our book Earth in the Object Lesson series. You will have to read the work to find out why we paired that bubbly drink with that tasty candy, but I will let you know that among the flavors of jelly beans we sampled were "champagne" "beer" "popcorn" and "rotten fish." We had so much fun celebrating the publication -- and so much fun writing it together. A collaboration between a professor of English and the director of a school of earth and space exploration is not the most obvious of convergences, I think, but somehow it worked out. Earth is a happy volume, even as its subjects are serious, impossible, dire.

Well, you will let us know if it worked. (Weirdly, the book has its first review already). Please consider picking up a copy for yourself and supporting the Object Lessons series. There is no other place we could have published this book and been so fully, so ardently supported. Thank you Chris Schaberg, Ian Bogost and Haaris Naqvi!

Monday, March 20, 2017

Trolling Right Along:

The Canterbury Pilgrims in Trump’s America


a guest post by Matthew Irvin


Don’t feed the trolls,” they say. It is common advice for our current politics, whether it is on social media or in person. To some extent, this advice makes sense: a troll specifically refuses rhetorical stasis in order to make rational debate impossible. To paraphrase Chaucer’s Harry Bailly, the tavern-keeper who “governs” the tale-telling contest on the road to Canterbury, why play a game with an angry man?



However, in Trump’s America, the troll feeds you. By this I mean that our current political culture lives on trolling, not just in its margins, whether the frog-inhabited swamps of right-wing reddit or the semi-public Facebook pages of our unwoke uncles: for liberal, educated, “rational” America, trolling feeds powerful affects of moral superiority, and those affects help ground what I see as a dangerous dedication to the value of stasis, of peace both rhetorical and political, that is in fact a tool of repression.

Peace is usually one of those political values that provoke little public opposition. We are encouraged to “give it a chance” because the alternative to peace is war, either organized military warfare or social conflict. However, as an academic medievalist, I’m suspicious of peace. Giorgio Agamben’s analysis of medieval political economy places Augustine’s notion of the “peace of God” in the City of God at the center of his explanation of domination. He turns to the “the meaning of the intimacy between glory and sabbatism”: what is at the center of divine kingship is that inoperativity “so essential for the machine that it must at all costs be adopted and maintained at its center in the form of glory.”[1] In the poetry I study, this association between the glorification of power and peace plays out in works like John Gower’s In Praise of Peace. Gower’s work is written to Henry IV, who had just seized power in a coup d’état. Peace is often an enforced good in medieval discourse.

For much modern understanding of the Middle Ages, peace appears natural. While academics have challenged it over and over again, D.W. Robertson’s description of the medieval political order as “quiet hierarchies” has a particular fantasy appeal for moderns. In the midst of capitalism that thrives on competition and class conflict, the bourgeoisie can nostalgically imagine a hierarchy in which domination was peacefully accepted, the very domination that they took from medieval nobles and ecclesiastics. At the same time, they can look back upon the Middle Ages as a time that was both unfree and unwoke. The fantasy finds it a time before racism, where a homogenously white Europe could be either castigated for its external conflicts with Islam, or imagined as the perfect liberal society, in which outsiders can be graciously integrated, as long they are few, and Morgan Freeman.

This fantasy of a peaceful yet still hierarchical world continues to dominate, perniciously, liberal politics. Where I’ve seen it most is in the distaste for protest that has developed not simply on the now ascendant right (who seemed to find protest, even armed protest, remarkably American not so long ago), but on the liberal left, where the “violent attack” on Charles Murray at Middlebury produced the condescendingly gentle counterpoint to trolling, the “think piece” (though with some notable exceptions). What of these youths, the tender snowflakes that just can’t emotionally bear opposing viewpoints? Why can’t they be peaceful? Why can’t they just be quiet and listen to the man who thinks that black people are genetically inferior? I mean, he wasn’t even talking about that specific point! The same thing happens every time there is a protest: protest is fine, as long as it is respectful. If there is violence, whether against the police, a CVS, or a university window, the protest is delegitimized. Violence is never the answer. As Charles Blow states in the piece linked, “Once violence springs forth, moral authority dries up.”

Now it would be fairly easy to point out a place where Charles Blow uses someone like Abraham Lincoln, who authorized and appreciated extensive violence and suspended habeas corpus for political prisoners, as the moral authority to argue for peaceable social discourse, but my point here is neither to troll Mr. Blow nor to advocate for violence. Instead, I argue that our notion of peace is ideological, because we (falsely) oppose it to violence. This makes it impossible for us to properly understand either peace or violence, or to assert a moral value beyond stasis, whether rhetorical or political.

If stasis, if peace is our supreme moral value, it is because we take pleasure in its effect, and the primary effect is maintenance of the status quo, which includes our moral superiority. We are rational actors, and they are not. We have the facts. I have found these arguments in the strangest places: the same people who teach Foucault and Althusser are arguing politics like rational choice theorists and empiricists. We are betraying our politics in order to appear superior, and we are enforcing peace and stasis exactly where conflict is needed.

And here I want to return to Harry Bailly, the host and “governor” of the Canterbury pilgrimage, and his conflict with the Pardoner. The Pardoner is Chaucer’s troll: he undermines the entire rhetorical structure of the Canterbury contest, delivering what many consider the best tale but threatening the moral mission that justifies the fellowship of their pilgrim society with his revelation of its fiction. The Pardoner particularly trolls Harry, suggesting that his very rule over the contest is invalid, and lewdly offering Harry his false relics to kiss, in order to make up for his sin. Harry replies with a threat of violence:

I wolde I hadde thy coillons in myn hond 
In stide of relikes or of seintuarie.
Lat kutte hem of, I wol thee helpe hem carie;
They shul be shryned in an hogges toord!

I would rather have your balls in my hand
Than relics or a reliquary.
Let’s cut them off – I‘ll help you carry them;
They shall be enshrined in hog shit! (VI. 952-56)

This potential fight is stopped by the Knight, who insists that they give one another the kiss of peace. Numerous critics have pointed to the sexual violence present in Harry’s reply, especially against a character that is often, and I think rightly, interpreted as queer. I am not arguing that Harry should have followed through on his threat. But Harry’s response takes the Pardoner’s threat seriously (he will not “pleye”; 958), and, in my reading, the Knight’s enforced kiss of peace exposes the real power: the male, heteronormative, and noble monopoly on violence. The Pardoner is, in a sense, right: the penitential economy that grounds the pilgrimage is corrupt, as is Harry’s own contest. Of course, the Pardoner is also the agent of that corruption, and his ironic performance of hypocrisy (like the ironic performance of racism in modern trolling) only further exploits the social injustice to which he points. However, the Knight’s peace keeps the Canterbury fellowship from reckoning with the seriousness of the problem. Instead, the Knight reinforces a stasis that prevents debate, where nothing is serious: “as we diden, lat us laughe and pleye” (as we did before, let us laugh and play; 967). Immediate violence is avoided, but the social world remains exploitative, and hierarchies force others to be quiet.

I argue that solidarity against exploitation and for collaboration are greater social/rhetorical values than peace. While stasis allows for “rational” rhetorical conflict, that conflict often appears to me like the clash of medieval knights—and Erich Auerbach and Frederic Jameson are right to point out that in medieval romance, such conflict erases any form of resistance (gendered, religious, racial, or class-based) to the dominant male aristocracy.[2] It does so by limiting conflict to competition, whose end is victory, and whose social value is always secondary to that end. In Trumpian capitalism, where the only value is victory, dedication to the “free” and “peaceful” competition of ideas opens the space for trolls, who desire victory rather than social good or the nobility of dialogue. We should not extend peace or grant our respect to trolls (especially those, who like the Pardoner, profit from exploitation), and we cannot ignore them either. Our mission, especially as academics and teachers of literature, is to model the pleasures of collaboration, to work against the affective structure of moral superiority, and to revolt against the notion that competition is a necessary or natural state of human social existence.

So perhaps we can rethink “feeding the trolls.” The troll, after all, is traditionally lonely and hungry. While it may be that the best response to a troll is a swift kick (or punch), we might first try to advance a way of life that feeds all those hungry for social pleasure. But stasis is not the answer.



Matthew Irvin is an Associate Professor of English and Chair of Medieval Studies at the University of the South, in Sewanee, TN, where he also serves as the Director of the Sewanee Medieval Colloquium. He researches late medieval English and Latin poetry, and is currently working on a book about pity. He also is proud to be the adviser to the Sewanee Young Democratic Socialists. 





[1] Giorgio Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government, trans. Lorenzo Chiesa and Matteo Mandarini (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 242.
[2]  Erich Auerbach, "The Knight Sets Forth," in Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1953); Frederic Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981), 118-119.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The Tale of Januarie: Translingualism and Anxiety, Sexuality and Time

a guest post by DAVID WALLACE
(published simultaneously at Global Chaucers)

The Tale of Januarie
Music by Julian Philips, libretto by Stephen Plaice, directed by Martin Lloyd-Evans, Guildhall School of Music & Drama, 27 February to 6 March 2017


Middle English is the surprise star turn of this opera. Librettist Stephen Plaice, shortly before the final public performance, spoke of the liberating effect of writing in a medium with greater flexibility and plasticity than modern English can muster. Variation of stress, word order, and spelling multiply expressive options, and final -e proves more singable, with sicknesse working better than blunt sickness. Having feared that Middle English would be academic and dry, Plaice found it quite the opposite: "a treat!" Having now moved on to write a libretto based on a Conrad novel, he misses the fizz, so he says, of medieval language. Working with Middle English, Plaice says, makes modern English seem "deadening": an interesting word choice, bumping Middle English from the "dead language" column. Composer Julian Philips agrees: Middle proves simply more singable than modern English. Consonants are hard to vocalize; sicknesse or herte move us closer to Italian, the chief language of opera and of opera training. Also, says our composer, Middle English renders "familiar" English strange-yet-familiar; each word must be newly weighed, for expressive possibilities, with no "default" position. And clearly different rhythmic-linguistic strains flow close to the surface of Middle English: Frenchified elements, suggesting courtliness and "triplety feel," pitch themselves against Germanic bluntness ("bulles ballokes by yow").
            The work that became The Tale of Januarie began as part of a taught MA at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London, developing from chamber piece to full-blown, fully-produced opera (with excellent staging and lighting, and phenomenally energetic playing from the pit). It was supported by the "Cross-Language Dynamics" project, led by the University of Manchester and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.   Setting Middle English in this "translingual strand" provoked much discussion, leading to gradual realization of its aptness for opera.  Lovers of this medium are well attuned to hearing languages they do not speak; opera puts meaning over by relying not just upon words sung, but also by combining sonic, scenic, visual, and bodily elements. One audience member compared experiencing The Tale of Januarie to "listening to something in a foreign language that you know quite well."  
            Composer and librettist, and later director and designers, had nine months to research and develop the project, from first inklings to opening night.  Much of what followed depended upon the varied talents available locally, at Guildhall. Both Philips and Plaice had studied Chaucer at school, and fortunately both had been "set" the Merchant's Tale. Composer Philips followed the melodic lines of Middle English while borrowing, he says, from Machaut's Ballades, and from secular songs. He also experimented with Pythagorean tuning, a mode especially associated with Pluto's on stage entourage of courtly musicians, one of whom, Elisabeth Flett, proved doubly adroit at bagpipes and medieval fiddle. Librettist Plaice remembers being long ago enchanted by the sound of Chaucerian Middle English as committed to vinyl by Oxford don, and theatrical impresario, Nevill Coghill.  But on turning to Coghill's Penguin translation, first published in 1951 and still going strong, he was disappointed: "the music," he said, "has gone out of it."  In attempting to put music back in, Plaice was led not only to borrow, bend, and adapt Chaucerian lines but also to essay Middle English, Middle English-ish, composition.  In what follows I consider first this liberation of the librettist, and then his difficulties-- which are not so much his difficulties, but those of Everyman, in anxious times.
            Both composer and librettist became increasingly aware, in developing The Tale of Januarie, of their work resonating strangely with, but often against, an ever more alienating present. Philips, in working through the time of "Brexit horror," found solace in celebrating multilingual English, "as if writing an opera in two or three languages at the same time." Plaice found uncanny historical resonance in the folly of January's vanity building project: "we're going to build A WALL!" The huge wall on stage, erected to create a private space for Januarie and May, fails (like every wall since Hadrian's, or China's, or the Great Hedge of India) to exclude, building only the illusion of an isolated, self-sufficient place. Januarie's final stage direction is "the TOWNSFOLK are demolishing the wall again."
            Plaice's jouissance in composing Middle English expresses itself chiefly through street cries, wassailing songs, and in ditties sung by Proserpina and her attendant nymphs. His lines are generally shorter than standard Chaucerian, and his chief source of inspiration or encouragement here, Plaice says, are those songs sung in Shakespearean comedies.  The apotheosis of such writing comes "In the Privy" (Act 2 scene 3), where May seeks to enjoy

                                    Sweet pees of the privee
                                    the onlie place I kan sit alone.

The Middle English-like alliterating of the first line works nicely here, and place in the second begs for a second syllable, just before the caesura. It is upon this eminence, her privy-throne, that May reads her letter from Damyan, ignoring Januarie's off-stage cries, and then sings "an aria of revenge on her former employer" (stage direction), Maistresse Wellow:

                                    Well, now I am wed
                                    With a lover in store,
                                    I'm richer than yow,
                                    Far richer mor.

                                    So Maistresse Wellow
                                    bulles ballokes by yow,
                                    go boyle, go frie,
                                    you're not werth a cow.

At this point of the opera, seated beneath the canopy of her outhouse "privee," May dominates the stage and directs events. The very next scene, however, brings her down-- and this is perhaps where the librettist's difficulties begin, too. The scene, called "Back in the Bedroom," sees aged Januarie demanding sexual compliance from youthful May, his new wife:

                        Stonde and strepe on the bedde!
                        In the preestes bok the rubriche seye --
                        a wyf shul shewe her buxomness alwey . . .  

May resists, Januarie becomes more peremptory ("Strepe naked!"), and Proserpina is outraged:

                        A wyf is not a pepe and se!

May finally begins to comply, removing her clothes, Pluto arrives and does nothing, Proserpina strikes Januarie blind: end of Act 2.
            Theatrical tension towards the end of Act 2 stems from the fact that in standing and stripping on the bed, at Januarie's command, May would expose herself to the entire theatre. Act 1 had concluded with the wedding night, in which Januarie performs his "trespace" upon May in private:

            stage direction: He closes the curtains on the four-poster bed. Noises from      within.

            Such "noises" are comically augmented by the pit, with much use of squeaky toys.  And this, as May boasts to Maistresse Wellow, is a union to which she, May, has consented. Januarie is at fault in the second scene because May does not consent again-- and here a gulf opens between medieval and modern understandings of the marriage contract. Or, we might rather say, differences between legal assumptions extending from the Middle Ages to the 1970s (with marital rape not recognized as a crime in all fifty states of the USA until 1993) and the present. In the Middle Ages, au contraire, consent is effectively given once only, at the wedding, as each party contracts "the marriage debt." After that, says Chaucer's most famous exponent of this concept, the wife no longer possesses control of her own body, nor the husband:

                                    I have the power durynge al my lyf
                                    Upon his propre body, and noght he.
                                                                                    (Wife of Bath's Tale, 3.158-9)





            For the librettist of The Tale of Januarie issues of consent loom, topically and understandably, large.  The final day of performance, the day of public discussion, saw England's only significant liberal newspaper, The Guardian, lead with the headline "'Epidemic of sex harassment in universities" (with the further headline "Resistance is female: The new wave of protest" top left, a feature in the G2 section). Campus sexual harassment, as The Guardian detailed throughout the week, and as most everybody knows, mostly involves older men forcing themselves upon younger women, Januarie coercing May. In 2017, then, Januarie must be stopped in his tracks, called out, and punished through imposition of a disability: blindness.
            Campus rape, consent, and sexual harassment are still issues that campus authorities struggle to see as individual stories to be heard; when the librettist or indeed academics of my generation were at college, as undergraduates, this was much more so. The enhanced isolation and punishment of Januarie is thus understandable, albeit (I would suggest) somewhat panicked. Panic perhaps stems from the fact that all six core members of this production team (director, designer, lighting designer, conductor, composer, and librettist) are men. And it must be said that presentation of sexuality in this production is notably, egregiously, penis-driven. When the curtain first rises Priapus is seen on stage, pushing a heavy wooden wheelbarrow. This barrow, it turns out, transports his own gigantic phallus-- at first, and generally thereafter, covered with sacking, but eventually unveiled by Proserpina's nymphs. Said nymphs have much fun at the beginning of Act 3 in provoking Priapus.  He wheels hopelessly after them, but their joint chorus of disapprobation is

                                    Somme seyen ye, we seyen ne,
                                    That has nought to do with love! 
                                                                        (emphasis added in the singing)

Priapus is referenced in the Merchant's Tale, but only as a descriptor of gardens (4.2034-7). His only other appearance in Chaucer comes in The Parliament of Fowls (a text from which the librettist sources some textual material):

                                    The god Priapus saw I, as I wente,
                                    Withinne the temple in sovereyn place stonde,
                                    In swich aray as whan the asse hym shente
                                    With cri by nighte, and with his sceptre in honde.
                                                                                                                        (253-6)

Priapus does momentarily enjoy the spotlight here, "in sovereyn place," albeit disabled by his giant stiffie. But it is worth noting that "the temple" housing him is that of Venus; later in the poem, Chaucer walks out into a pleasant, grassy domain to find another female deity, Nature, governing matters of sexual attraction and reproduction. In The Tale of Januarie, however, anxiety about the penis couples with rule and narration by the penis (and I'll stick with penis, rather than phallus, since it is palpably and pinkly there, on stage, in the wheelbarrow). For strangely, Priapus (who more often speaks than sings) is the tale's narrator, from the start:

            stage direction:  PRIAPUS wheels his barrow into the foreground and addresses the audience.

                                    PRIAPUS spoken  
                        Whilom ther was dwellinge in Lumbardye
                        A worthy knyght . . .

So whereas we might say that a poem such as the Parliament is structured by successive and diverse visions of all-encompassing female sexuality, Januarie seems rather driven by anxieties arising from the penis, the phallus, Priapus (the last of the characters to leave the stage, "with his empty wheelbarrow").
            As in The Merchant's Tale, Januarie has his sight restored by Pluto just in time to see May's "struggle" with Damyan upon the pear tree; as in Chaucer, some new form of understanding is then negotiated between husband and wife.  But for The Tale of Januarie, this is not the end, and a "Finale" is appended to Act IV. Librettist and composer thought Chaucer's tale, so they said, to be somehow "unfinished." The logic governing their additive ending might be compared with that of Robert Henryson, in his Testament of Cresseid: the protagonist found guilty of sexual crimes should not get off so lightly. The final scene, described as "Autumn," begins with townfolk and rustics celebrating the fruitful season. Pluto, borrowing a scythe from a grass-cutter, suddenly becomes Death (with exact visual modelling upon Death in Bergman's Seventh Seal). Januarie negotiates with Pluto-Death for extra time: "An half-yeere?" Pluto refuses all bids for extended life: not even a day's leave will be granted:

            JANUARIE:      Oon deye.
           
            PLUTO:           Noon deye.

            JANUARIE:      Noone deye!

            PLUTO:           Noone deye.

            JANUARIE:      Then I must leet heer for alweye?

Januarie then attempts to approach May, who is heavily pregnant. Pluto and Proserpina debate (yea and nay) whether Januarie should retain the comforting illusion of  human legacy, fruit of his sexual labor. Having exclaimed "An blood heir. An fader I am!" as his parting words, Januarie descends to the underworld with Pluto and Proserpina (herself, of course, subjected to perennial raptus). This last scene gathers up some of the theatrical memory of Henry IV, Part II, where the new monarch, in the presence of his rehabilitated Lord Chief Justice, casts off Falstaff. Sir John, however, retains some hope of social rehabilitation; Januarie has none.
            In Chaucer's Merchant's Tale, judgements passed by the tutelary deities pertain to all men and women.  Or at least, all women: Pluto merely capitulates ("I yeve it up!" 4.2312) when faced down by Proserpina's feminist decree:

                        Now by my moodres sires soule I swere
                        That I shal yeven hire suffisant answere,
                        And alle wommen after, for hir sake.
                                                                                                (4.2265-7)

The Pluto of The Tale of Januarie, unlike his Chaucerian counterpart, overrides the will of his wife, evolving into one of those lurking ducal or despotic figures familiar from Shakespeare: Vincentio in Measure for Measure, for example. While Proserpina and her nymphs frolic at the beginning of Act 3, Pluto "is some distance off, watching, but uninvolved" (stage direction). The judgement delivered upon Januarie at the end of his contemporary Tale, his repudiation and isolation, seems especially harsh when compared to the inclusive Chaucerian ethos of "alle wommen," and all men under women. Centuries of post-Shakespearean theatre helped shape this end, riding the deep current of a non-negotiable, post-Reformation divide between the society of the elect and those condemned to darkness.  But Januarie's final isolating of Januarie as a man who fails to seek a woman's sexual consent also symptomatizes the anxieties of a male-authored, male-produced text of our own time.  Issues of consent concern all men, not just a few individual, isolable malefactors, and "alle women" also.

            The Tale of Januarie achieves something always to be hoped for in this kind of contact experiment: that the earlier text, erupting into the present, should expose contemporary anxieties and blindspots.  Additionally, while necessarily working through certain intermediary Shakespearean conventions, The Tale of Januarie effects conjunctures between past and present that speak to remarkable continuities over time: what is funny then can be funny now; a privy is still a place for private reading. The most obvious sign of such continuity is the prop that dominates the stage, from first to last: the giant tree. For the Middle Ages, of course, the tree is the most fraught and fruitful of symbols, connecting the garden of Eden, and its apples, to the tree of the cross.  And for the most iconic of modernist productions, Beckett's Waiting for Godot, the tree (first without, and then later with leaves) is the one indispensable feature of stage design. The tree of Januarie is first seen bare, as the play opens; by play's end it is full of fruit. It thus marks the duration of drama, but also queer continuity with the time and language of Middle English, dialoguing with this Tale. Priapus has the play's last word:

                        The pere hath ripen on its tree.
                        Thus endeth heere the Tale of Januarie.

This ending is especially poignant since, so far as I can find out, no video trace remains of this extraordinary, sometimes ferocious, collaboration of musicians, actors, singers, and designers.  Women did not script or direct The Tale of Januarie, but made their mark on stage through full-blooded portrayals of May and Proserpina, of market women Friuli, Ravizza, and Signore Farina, as maidservants Rosina, Julietta, and Laura, and as nymphs Nightshade, Flycap, and Mandrake.
            All this, while lingering in the mind, is gone like smoke.  






with thanks for quick and crucial responses from Crystal Bartolovich, Carissa Harris, Robin Kirkpatrick, Clare Lees, and Elaine Nixon; and with further thanks to Candace Barrington and J.J. Cohen.