Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Man is the Pasture of Being: Interlude on the Old Man Himself

British Library, Royal MS 15 D II, 192v, Great Feast of God
Stop flinching! This one isn't that long.

If you've been following along, even hesitatingly, you know that I've been captured by the theme of "sky burial" throughout this second half of July. The first blogfruit of my research is here, on the medieval afterlife of the Babylonian king Evilmerodach; the second is here, on classical and late antique enthnography of the Persian and Central Asian practice of exposure of the dead. Together they constitute some 5500 words of brand-new research.

I realize that's a bit much, particularly for a group blog. And I realize that asking you to read this stuff may be asking you to work for me, for free. Sorry. Since my semester's starting in about a month, I can't really see slowing down (teaching will accomplish that, neatly); but I can save you from the bulk of what I wrote today, if you like: this is about 1100 words on, apologies, Martin Heidegger, where I go after his famous "Man is the Shepherd of Being." They're far from sympathetic. If you want to read it, click HERE, to go to my own website (www.medievalkarl.com). I can promise you not only Heidegger-wrasslin' -- of interest perhaps only to a tiny group -- but also a brief consideration of Elaine Tin Nyo's laudable, lifetime project to transform herself into sausage.

Next time I post here, I can promise MANDEVILLE + TIBET.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Man is the Pasture of Being, Part 2: Sky Burial, Mostly Persian

Silos Apocalypse, British Library, Add MS 11695, 197r

Please don't miss the posts below, on the BABEL Kzoo 2016 Calls for Papers, and Jenna Mead's review of Paul Strohm's new Chaucer book.

This blog post is a preliminary sketch of what and when medieval Western Europe (hereafter, for simplicity’s sake, “medieval” or “medieval people”) would have known about funerary practices of exposing bodies to be eaten by dogs or birds (i.e., “sky burial”). I’m concentrating on classical and late antique texts, saving John Mandeville for the next post.

If you’ve been following along, this Friday continues last Friday’s treatment of the medieval legend of Evilmerodach (who, by late twelfth century, was known for having dismembered the corpse of his father, Nebuchadnezzar, and feeding it to birds). Like the Evilmerodach post, it is also a sketch for the second part of the “Creeping Things” chapter for my second book, currently titled How Not to Make a Human: Ecology, Ethics, and Vulnerable Animals in the Middle Ages (everything after the colon is up for grabs; suggestions from you are just short of obligatory). I will be aiming to explore the differences between being esca vermibus (food for worms) and esca avibus (food for birds) in medieval culture and, ultimately, in the contributions this contrast might make to contemporary ecocriticism. 

Again, I’ll stress that embryonic character of this post, despite its great length: I have a hunch where thick footnotes are needed, and slightly dimmer hunches about where I might be wrong. If you’re at all in the vicinity of offering a “well, actually,” don’t hesitate.

If they could, medieval people tended to bury their dead, flesh still on bone, ideally near some a church, a shrine, or some other holy site. This habit of fleshy inhumation has a distant analog in ancient Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean, where burial is needed to give the spirit rest, to provide continuing rites of care, especially for the sake of family or the larger community, which constituted itself by seeding the ground with its dead, suffusing a place with memory (Walton, 317, and of course Peter Brown). As in these ancient worlds, shrines, churches, and the blessed dead were the hearts of any medieval community worth a Fodor’s Guide.

That said, for a medieval Christian, practices like this could be, technically, unnecessary: Augustine of Hippo’s On the Care of the Dead (late fourth century) argues that the dead, as a rule, have no knowledge of goings-on in the mortal world, and, furthermore, that they (and their corpses) are past all harm or human benefit. Heartbreakingly, at least for those of us bereft of beloved parents, Augustine says that if the dead knew our world, then his mother would come and comfort him; but they don’t, so she doesn’t (16). For all this, Augustine allows that the dead, or at least their bodies, can be cared for: he reasons that care in burial and prayer at well-situated gravesites, though probably of no benefit to the dead themselves, still can witness to Christian belief in the bodily resurrection, encourage bodily training of piety (Althusser avant la lettre) and also comfort us, because we ourselves are also creatures of flesh. Measured and thoughtful care of the dead have some use. 

Augustine’s cautious approach to funeral rites were clearly overshot in medieval Europe. There, elaborate inhumation, memorial rites, and a whole industry of pleading for intervention from the holy dead became nearly as common as human death itself.

In this culture, exposure was a horror. We all know about the “beasts of battle” of Germanic poetry, the eagles, ravens, and wolves that eat the unburied corpses of the dead. In the Song of Roland, as the Battle of Roncesvalles sours for the Christians, Turpin begs Roland to blow the horn and summon Charlemagne; while they’re all certain to die before rescue arrives, at least the Emperor can take their bodies away and bury them in churches, where “neither wolf nor pig nor dog will eat of us” (1750; “N'en mangerunt ne lu ne porc ne chen”; trans. from Gilbert). Petrarch’s Historia Griseldis, itself an adaptation from the last tale of Boccaccio’s Decameron, allows its heroine to register a complaint when she’s certain her children are being taken away to be killed: “I ask you one thing: take care that wild beasts or birds do not mutilate this little body, unless you are commanded to the contrary” (Unum queso: cura ne corpusculum [mark the anguish of that “little body”] hoc fere lacerent aut volucres, ita tamen nisi contrarium sit preceptum; trans and text from Sources and Analogues I.121; in the medieval French, “Je te prie, toutesfoiz…que tu gardes a ton povoir que les bestes sauvaiges ne devourent ou menguent le corps de cest enfant, se le contraire ne t’est enjoin”; in the English poet, ll. 567-72). And the Apocalypse of St John, last book of the Christian scriptures, features birds invited to “the great supper of God” [cenam magnam Dei], to feast upon the soldiers and horses of the army of the Beast: this is clearly a humiliation, at least for the dead (for the birds, it is something better: more on that in a later blog post). No one would willingly allow the corpse of anyone they loved to be exposed like this.

Nonetheless, at least from Herodotus (fifth century BCE), Europeans knew about still another funerary practice, which stretched from the Caspian Sea and Caucasus through Mesopotamia and perhaps even as far as the Indus, and, as I’ll write in next time, when I finally take on Heidegger, eventually up to Tibet. 

They found this practice alternately repulsive, barbaric, antiquated, but also, in some instances, of most interest to me, another way to mourn, no less valid than fleshly inhumation. Knowledge of these practices not only connected medieval people to a wider cultural world, doing much to help themselves imagine themselves in light of another’s word; as I will argue in a later post, they also provided a way for medieval people to imagine themselves and their bodies differently, by recognizing that bodies could be given over as flesh to large carnivores, not just worms, but without abandoning mourning. Exposure need not be humiliation, and being consumed need not be done in secret, in the grave. Here, in this open consumption, was a place for medievals to recognize that our bodies could be material flesh and our bodies at the same time: as I will argue in an upcoming post, this was material recognition of the way all flesh, all bodies, belong to the world at large and ourselves at the same time. A material reduction (we are flesh) can continue to acknowledge our emotional connection to the particularity of our bodies and the bodies of our loved ones (we are beloved flesh).

This post, however, will mainly be devoted only to what the medievals could have known. Evilmerodach and Odoric of Pordenone (especially as transmitted by the Book of John Mandeville) were enormously popular in the later Middle Ages. But what about the earlier period?

The oldest potential references to “sky burial” may be those depicted in an obelisk carving at Göbekli Tepe (or Göbeklitepe) and paintings at Çatal Höyü (or Çatalhöyük), both in modern-day Turkey (thank you to Kathleen Kennedy for turning me on to these!), which each feature vultures soaring over or fluttering about headless human corpses. I make no claims that memories of these astonishingly ancient cultures reached to the Middle Ages or even to the classical world: each site was occupied for some 2000 years (itself no small time!), the former abandoned about 10,000 years ago, the latter 7,000, and therefore at the most recent more temporally distant from Herodotus (d. 425 BCE) than we are, now, from the invention of writing (c. 3500 BCE). 

Testart p 35

And what some think to be sky burial in fact may be only depictions of military victories, with the headless corpses of the vanquished left to be eaten by vultures, and the skulls taken as trophies, or so argues the, it must be said, appropriately named Alain Testart in “Des crânes et des vautours ou la guerre oubliée” (“On Skulls and Vultures, or, The Forgotten War”). We will let that rest, then, and return to what I suspect may be our most ancient, incontrovertible reference to sky burial, from Herodotus.

But there are other matters concerning the dead which are secretly and obscurely told--how the dead bodies of Persians are not buried before they have been mangled [without my knowing Greek: ἑλκυσθῇ, to drag, draw, or tear in pieces] by bird or dog. That this is the way of the Magians I know for a certainty; for they do not conceal the practice. But this is certain, that before the Persians bury the body in earth they embalm it in wax (Godley trans, Loeb, Vol 1, I.140, p 179).
This account is more than a little confused (I’m not the only one who thinks so: one expert calls this account “desperate”): either the practice is secret, or it’s not; and corpses are left out to be dragged or torn, but not so much so that they can’t be embalmed and buried. Herodotus may be reflecting (and, if we’re feeling reckless, anticipating) the variety of Zoroastrian burial methods under the Achaemenids, Parthians, and Sassanids: the famous exposure of bodies in free-standing dakhma, “towers of silence,” must be remembered alongside the cliffside and other tomb structures of ancient Iran. The towers may be but a (ninth-century?) refinement of a cultic practice of keeping the decomposing corpse free from contact with visible plant life and damp earth, which, we can observe, might be achieved just as well by swathing the corpse in wax, or letting dogs or birds consume the flesh of a corpse staked to dry, bare ground.

Strabo’s Geography (before 23 CE) is more assured that Herodotus, though perhaps no more accurate. He writes that the Persians “smear the bodies of the dead with wax before they bury them, though they do not bury the Magi but leave their bodies to be eaten by birds,” adding what became a common charge that “these Magi, by ancestral custom, consort even with their mothers” (XV.iii.20). Elsewhere (XI.xi.8, V, p. 293 in Loeb trans), Strabo explains that the Caspians starve and expose those over 70 years old, abandoning them on (or strapping them to?) desert biers, watching from a distance, and considering them blessed if – and only if – these hapless elderly are attacked by wild dogs or birds. Very Mad Max. And, citing Onesicritus, a historian who embedded with Alexander the Great, Strabo imagines that the Bactrians keep dogs expressly to kill their aged and sick, adding a description that, in essence, imagines the Bactrian cities as necropoles:
 While the land outside the walls of the metropolis of the Bactrians look clean, yet most of the land inside the walls is full of human bones (XI.xi.3, V, p. 282-83 in the Loeb).

To me at least, further examples are shockingly plentiful: in what might be chronological order, from 45 BCE to the third century CE, Persian sky burial shows up in Cicero’s stoic Tusculan Disputations (I.xlv); Plutarch’s Moralia (499, Vol VI p 371 in Loeb, where he says Hrycanians do it with dogs, Bactrians with birds); Sextus Empiricus’s skeptic Outlines of Pyrrhonism (III.227); Justin’s Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus (XLI.iii); Diogenes Laertius’s Lives of Eminent Philosophers (IX, on Pyrrho); and Porphyry’s On Abstinence from Killing Animals (IV.21). Christian examples, in a list that may be just as non-exhaustive, include the Book of the Law of the Countries, written by pupils of the Syriac gnostic Bardesanes (d. 222; in Syrian, Bar Dayṣān; one translation here: search for “In the whole of Media”); the Recognitions of pseudo-Clementine (IX.25); and Eusebius’s Preparation for the Gospel (I.iv, search for “And of the benefit which visibly proceeds”). And, finally, the source that first led me down this path, Jerome’s Against Jovinian (II.vii), where he writes:
The Tibareni crucify those whom they have loved before when they have grown old. The Hyrcani throw them out half alive to the birds and dogs: the Caspians leave them dead for the same beasts. The Scythians bury alive with the remains of the dead those who were beloved of the deceased. The Bactrians throw their old men to dogs which they rear for the very purpose, and when Stasanor, Alexander's general, wished to correct the practice, he almost lost his province (a point Jerome gets from Porphyry).

Some writers (Herodotus and Justin) – or, I might say, some genres –present themselves as simply doing ethnography, only listing customs, as they might list geographical features. Strabo is horrified, at least by the Bactrians. Porphyry is horrified too, although his conclusions may surprise: yes, some people are meat-eaters, or parent-eaters, or parent-exposers, but at least we philosophers need not behave like this. And Eusebius anticipates the colonial missionaries of modernity, when he argues that the conversion to Christianity corrects these terrible practices (the pagans no longer “expose their dead kindred to dogs and birds….For these and numberless things akin to these were what of old made havoc of human life”), so that Christian conversion is, for any culture, and not only Jews (more frequently targeted as culturally anachronistic), an emergence out of a muddled past into a neat, correct, universal civilization. 

Still, whether in philosophic or many of these religious texts, the most frequent reason for these ancient writers to cite sky burial (and its associated practice that we might call “sky euthanasia”) is to pose as cosmopolitan admirers of the great variety of human culture. Plutarch lists these and other practices (sati, for example) to argue that virtue can resist chance's worst harms: Central Asians positively love to have their bodies exposed to beasts! Bardesanes’s students and pseudo-Clementine alike use worldwide cultural heterogeneity to argue for human freedom and against the compulsion of the stars. If stars had so much power, human culture would be more easily classifiable, more homogeneous. But, says Book of the Law of the Countries, “the truth is, that in all countries, every day, and at all hours, men are born under Nativities diverse from one another, and the laws of men prevail over the decree of the stars, and they are governed by their customs.”

In the hands of other writers – Diogenes Laertius, Sextus Empiricus, and even Jerome – we have something similar to Pomponius Mela’s first-century Chorographia (II.9-12), namely – a curious, if often disgusted, appreciation of human difference in what we might call (and no doubt has been called) the “cultural variation topos.” Diogenes does it with admirable force:
The same thing is regard by some as just and by others as unjust, or as good by some and bad by others. Persians think it not unnatural for a man to marry his daughter; to Greeks it is unlawful. The Massagetae…have their wives in common; the Greeks have not. The Cilicians used to delight in piracy; not so the Greeks. Different people believe in different gods; some in providence, others not. In burying their dead, the Egyptians embalm them; the Romans burn them; the Paeonians throw them into lakes. 
Cicero Tusculan Disputations also merits citation at length:
But why should I notice the beliefs of individuals, since we may observe the varied deceptions under which the races of mankind labour? The Egyptians embalm their dead and keep them in the house; the Persians even smear them with wax before burial, that the bodies may last for as long a time as possible; it is the custom of the Magi not to bury the bodies of their dead unless they have been first mangled by wild beasts [nisi a feris sint ante laniata]; in Hyrcania [no surprise] the populace support dogs for the benefit of the community, while the nobles keep them for family use: it is as we know a famous breed [nobile...genus] of dogs, but in spite of the cost, each householder procures them [translation modified] in proportion to his means, to mangle him [lanietur], and that they consider the best mode of burial (Loeb, King translation, p. 291, I.XLV).
I’m as yet uncertain about the medieval afterlife of these points. To take two examples: Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies accuses Persians only of being fire-worshippers (XIV.iii.10), led to this error by “the giant Nebroth,” and its several references to the ferocious Hyrcanians and neighboring Scythians says nothing about the exposure of the elderly or the dead to possible animal mangling or excarnation. Gregory of Tours, writing a generation before Isidore, likewise calls the Persians only fire-worshippers (History of the Franks, I.v), blaming this, more correctly, on “Zoroastra.” Note also his annoyance (X.26) at the appointment of a Syrian merchant, Eusebius, as bishop of Paris in 591, who stuffed the household with other Syrians: some of them, I expect, might have had more than passing knowledge of the customs of the Sassanids: and yet no word from Gregory. Nor am I entirely sure, yet, about the survival of many of my texts into the Middle Ages. Chaucerians know the afterlife of the more misogynist passages of Jerome’s Against Jovinian, and I know the text as a whole survived, as we see from this twelfth-century copy. 

BNF lat. 1801, 57r, Jerome on exposing bodies
But quick searches of the Patrologia Latina and the Monumenta Germaniae Historica suggest that Jerome’s ethnographic musings may not have been much talked about.

More research is needed! The next post – here perhaps before next Friday – will be on Mandeville, and, if there’s room, against Heidegger and on the ecocritical and affective implications of all this. Hang out, hang on!

Where Else? Far Out! (BABEL CFPs for Kzoo 2016)

when your search WHERE ELSE FAR OUT on Google Images

Please submit your abstracts for these two great sessions for Kzoo 2016!

Where Else? [Roundtable]
Session Sponsors: BABEL Working Group
Session Organizer: Suzanne Conklin Akbari (University of Toronto)

During ICMS 2015, a number of different events (such as the Richard Utz plenary, “Ye Next Generacioun” roundtable featuring younger scholars, and the Material Collective’s meta-session) culminated in calls for attendees to acknowledge the current Anglo-European (and Anglophone) center of gravity of medieval studies and to engage more proactively with perspectives from outside the Latin West and a predominantly Anglo-European academy. Academic medieval studies (especially scholarship on literature, arts, and culture) has been increasingly mindful of the linguistic, cultural, and religious heterogeneity of the Western Middle Ages. Suzanne Akbari, Karla Mallette, Jeffrey Cohen, and Geraldine Heng (to name a few) have advanced important cross-cultural, polyglot, and multi-faith approaches to the historical past. David Wallace’s forthcoming literary history of Europe (which includes contributors from many countries) rethinks the very contours our conceptions of medieval “Europe” by attending to interconnected urban trajectories spilling over into Africa, Central Asia, and the North Atlantic rather than reifying emergent European nation-states. What remains less explored at this point is how the (Western) medieval past reads differently for modern scholars who are not of Anglo-European ancestry or who work in areas outside of Europe or Anglophone contexts. Cord Whitaker and Helen Young have recently argued that professional medieval studies and non-professional forms of medievalism can perpetuate a myth of a “monochrome” medieval past that denies the coeval status of people of non-European backgrounds (especially people of African or Asian ancestry). Michelle Warren, Kathleen Davis and Nadia Altschul have focused not so much on race but on expanding the cultural geographies of modern medievalism, exploring how notions of “the Middle Ages” have been deployed in historical contexts outside of Europe. The “Middle Ages in the Modern World” conference series, the Studies in Medievalism monograph series, and the Global Chaucers project are further examples of scholarly communities that have begun to take seriously how Europe’s medieval past is mediated, adapted, or transformed across contemporary non-Anglophone settings.

This roundtable solicits a range of voices to explore “where else” medieval studies might move—in rethinking the past, and reshaping a medievalist community in the present. How might academic medieval studies more effectively expand beyond the Latin (Christian) West to encompass other cultural perspectives? What forms of knowledge and expertise—academic or non-professional—can restructure implicitly Anglo-European frames of reference? What other paradigms for engaging with a “medieval” (or classical) past emerge outside of European cultures? How do departmental boundaries limit the projection of modern national or linguistic taxonomies into different orders of the Middle Ages? How might, for example, the presumptive parochialism and canonicity of an “English” department be understood in relation to the (perhaps equally) presumptive expansive boundaries of “Art” and “History” departments? Ultimately, this conversation hopes to entertain new approaches to the heterogeneity (racial, ethnic, cultural, and religious) of the historical past as well as broader range of perspectives (linguistic, national, and geographical) in our present.

BABEL invites speakers from any field or theoretical approach and on any subject relating to where else medieval studies might like to go. Please send abstracts of 300 words, a brief bio, and the ICMS PIF (http://wmich.edu/medieval/congress/submissions/index.html#PIF) to Suzanne Conklin Akbari (s.akbari@utoronto.ca) by Sept. 15, 2015.

Far Out! [Roundtable]
Session Sponsors: BABEL Working Group
Session Organizer: Suzanne Conklin Akbari (University of Toronto)

The second of the BABEL Working Group’s linked panels will discuss methods, affiliations, and inquiries that come close to--or even cross--the limits of “serious scholarship” and “acceptable work” in medieval studies. We seek examples of eccentric researchers, inconvenient amateurs, crazy ideas, and questionable medievalisms as material for thinking about what our disciplines and institutions will tolerate, what they will not, and why. Have we, as a field, abandoned interesting ideas and approaches because they are too far from the mainstream? Scholars such as Candace Barrington, Brantley Bryant, Louise D’Arcens, Carolyn Dinshaw, Stephanie Trigg, Richard Utz, Lawrence Warner, and Anna Wilson  have productively raised the issue, and the Material Collective hosted a rich session at the ICMS in 2014 on “Faking It.” As a favorite phrase of the North American counterculture, “far out” expresses enthusiasm as well as surprise at the unexpected; in this spirit, we seek to locate the points at which medieval scholarship or medievalist creations hover provocatively between genius and junk.

Presenters may discuss, among other topics: hippie/New Age medievalisms, wishful thinking, terrible reconstructions, tattoo Celticism, Beowulf for capitalists, discredited research, fanfic and cosplay, argumentative wrong turns, poetics and performance art, conspiracy theorists, ciphers and cryptology, gaming communities and online collectives, and academic distaste. Alternately, they may propose projects, pedagogies, and perspectives that are utterly and unabashedly “out there.”

BABEL invites speakers from any field or theoretical approach and on any “far out” subject. Please send abstracts of 300 words, a brief bio, and the ICMS PIF (http://wmich.edu/medieval/congress/submissions/index.html#PIF) to Suzanne Conklin Akbari (s.akbari@utoronto.ca) by Sept. 15, 2015.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Strohm's Boy and Translatio Studii: A Review of Paul Strohm's "Chaucer's Tale"


*from EILEEN: Can you imagine sitting down and willfully deciding to write a book review just because you felt compelled to do so, even though no one had actually requested it? Yes, I know it happens, but it is RARE, people ... RARE. There's something compelling about a book that, in its own inimitable way, calls forth a commentary, or a writing-beside (minus the usual compulsory, or professional, obligation to do so, and we've featured many such reviews here at ITM over the years). So we were delighted when Jenna Mead contacted us and told us that she had unwittingly written an entire review of Paul Strohm's recent book and micro-history Chaucer's Tale: 1386 and the Road to Canterbury (Viking, 2014), just because she felt like it, and what should she do with it? Publish it here, that's what. So, without further ado --

Strohm’s boy & translatio studii

Paul Strohm, Chaucer’s Tale. 1386 and the Road to Canterbury. New York: Viking, 2014. i-xv, 1-284; 1 map; 12 coloured plates.

by Jenna Mead

About halfway through his scintillating account of the wool trade, Paul Strohm’s expository third person narrator serves up one of his coolest wisecracks. Describing—of all things—the export commodity market, he says

Records indicate occasional shipments of lead, tin, leather, cheese, butter, feathers and featherbeds, resin, frippery (whether rags or sewn clothing ornament, linen, wheat, woad (a source of blue dye), wax, and fat—exports, that is, of a miscellaneous character and decidedly modest profitability . . .but wool was the ball game. Excepting the odd peasant in a remote village or a hermit in a cell, nobody in fourteenth-century England was more than one degree of separation from the wool trade. (107)

That’s it right there. Strohm’s narrator is everything you want your guide through Chaucer’s life to be: intimately knowledgeable about the material; generous but perspicacious in his judgments; technically accomplished in managing the kind of story he’s sifted out of putting the archive next to historical fiction next to micro-history and downright funny. Above all, this narrator is confident about the narrative he wants to tell and the reader whose attention he’s caught up and wants to keep. A tried and true way to seduce readers and keep them is to place those readers in the story and Strohm’s narrator does that here by pulling off a wicked piece of translatio studii. Literally “the transfer of knowledge from one geographical place and time to another,” this wonk-puncturing wisecrack and its witty amplification summoning up the stereotypes of comic medievalism—the yokel peasant and the walled-in hermit—shift a snapshot of balance of payments to less than one degree of separation from the reader at the ballpark. The effect is achieved through drop-dead timing: just when you thought you didn’t understand medieval economics, Strohm’s narrator brings it right into your twenty-first century ear and you’re there on the fourteenth-century dock watching the bales going out and the money rolling in. You’re connected to the narrative. As long as you know how to play ball that is; but more on that later.   
            Chaucer’s Tale. 1386 and the Road to Canterbury is, of course, not Chaucer’s tale at all but Strohm’s tale and it sets the bar high in what’s emerging as a renewed confidence in the genre of biography and Chaucer as its subject. This year’s MLA Convention, for example, included a session titled “Chaucer and Microhistory” at which Marion E Turner and Ardis Butterfield considered “After Biography” and "Writing Chaucer's Life: A Surrogate Narrative" while Daniel Birkholz considered "Micro-Literary History in a Pre-Chaucerian Register.” The session anchored “microhistory” to the canonical Chaucer either as subject or temporal marker. Strohm’s publisher, Viking, refines the connection by calling the book “[a] lively microbiography of Chaucer that tells the story of the tumultuous year that led to the creation of The Canterbury Tales:” thereby shifting the genre from academic discursive formation, with a history arcing back to E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class and Carlo Ginzburg, I benandanti. Ricerche sulla stregoneria e sui culti agria tra Cinquecento e Seicento in 1963, to a commercial category that has the feel of something trending up. It’s a smart move: “micro” is small enough to read easily (no footnotes) and who doesn’t like “biography,” especially if it reads like fiction? The data on Goodreads.com are certainly pointing that way; Amazon reviews are generally in agreement with one discerning reviewer identifying the book as a “crossover” from “history” to “a wider audience.”
            Chaucer’s Tale is more ambitious than that, though, and under the rubric of “a little life story” Strohm’s narrative is about a single year (1386) and the writing of a masterwork (The Canterbury Tales). So it’s a story about history and literature. It has a roll call of major characters—the dangerously skilful John of Gaunt, the dangerously perverse Richard II and all the others—whose histories dramatize a grand narrative of late fourteen-century London with deft economy, supplemented by lesser-known figures who are given their moment in the sun—egregious Nicholas Brembre and his cronies, clever, sexy Katherine Swynford and her loyal sister Philippa, Sir Arnold Savage and the folks down in Kent, taking the political temperature in London and often getting it right. But it also has an argument and here is where the fault line, as Strohm perceives it, lies between history and biography, regardless of dimensions. In an interview with Candace Robb, Strohm says, with disarming candour:

In Social Chaucer and in books like Hochon’s Arrow I let myself linger over the uncertainties of my evidence, over its recesses, its obtuseness, its silences and evasions. But when you’re writing a biography–even a “microbiography” as my publisher calls it–you have to commit to narrative. You can’t endlessly wobble about, was it this way or that way. You have to go ahead and make your best choice and get the story told. And I don’t mind that. It’s a different way of knowing. Narrative–the arrangement of details into a coherent account–is itself a powerful tool of discovery. When you narrate incidents, configure them or string them together, you learn things.

What’s at stake here is negotiating between the archive—for the most part, the Chaucer Life-Records—and the demands of “commit[ting] to narrative” and this is where Strohm’s intelligence and skills as a writer push his narrative toward historical fiction. “In the pivotal year 1386, at the mature age of forty-two or forty-three, Chaucer was a man of literary accomplishment, standing on the brink of his decision to write the Canterbury Tales” (184). Really? Chaucer stood on the brink right then? Really? There is nothing in the Chaucer Life-Records to support this claim: Strohm knows this because he observes that “[o]ne can immerse oneself in the extensive Life-Records without learning that Chaucer was a writer at all” (184). But this is the critical point in the argument. Chaucer’s annus horribilis deprives him of all that he has known and relied upon as a writer and the move to Kent demands and occasions one of the most daring innovations of his entire poetic: he invents an audience “that will live within the borders of his own work, perennially available as a resource for the telling and hearing of tales” (227). To narrativize this moment, demands a trope from historical fiction that imagines a conversation, a moment, a thought, that an historical personage might have had and uses that writerly invention to “get the story told.”  
            This expository narrator—thinly veiled as the impersonal “one”—has been managing the argumentative thread of the narrative from the beginning and this is the Strohm of Theory and the Premodern Text (2000). The “Introduction” is called “Chaucer’s Crisis” and after setting out historical ground his microbiography will investigate, Strohm unpacks his own crisis.

This book proposes a connection between an author’s immersion in ordinary, everyday activities and the separately imagined world of his literary work. Every literary biographer faces the problem of bridging this practical and conceptual divide. But the problem is stretched to breaking point in the case of a premodern writer who kept no personal diaries and maintained no regular written correspondence or other firsthand account of his motives and thoughts. (7)

Dismissing the “precarious ground when [literary biographers] go prospecting in an artist’s body of written work seeking nuggets of buried life experience” (9), Strohm writes “I have pursued a third option.” “Intermediary between a writer’s public life on the one hand and fictional and literary creations on the other are those activities comprising what might be called the ‘writing scene;’ all those matters of situation and circumstance that permit writing in the first place” (11). Not the “writing scene” of Jacques Derrida’s “Freud and the Scene of Writing,” and here Strohm swerves away from his earlier engagement with psychoanalysis, but a scene of writing revealed by “an evidence-based account that respects the past as past, but that simultaneously seeks out linkages between the past and our present” (13).
            This scene is the rich and engaging narrative that comprises the larger part of Strohm’s tale. There is the delicate account of the web of social nuance in the first chapter, “A Married Man,” that pulls Chaucer’s mercantile background and aspirational career prospects into the glamorous orbit of “Hainault Chic” in which the de Roet girls (Katherine and Philippa) moved with the poised ambition of insiders. The net effects for Chaucer are what Strohm calls “collateral benefits” (38) and “derivative favour” (40): patronage at one degree of separation; sometimes being in the room with real power; observable frisson. Strohm is too tactful to draw a comparison that hovers over this part of his narrative. He’s not going to diss his boy. Katherine de Roet becomes Katherine Swynford. It was perhaps convenient: Sir Hugh Swynford is one of Gaunt’s retainers thus locating Katherine in Gaunt’s court with appropriate status. Katherine is also a married woman, with children of her own, while she is governess to Gaunt’s daughters. When Sir Hugh dies (c. 1372) his wife inherits property in Kettlethorp that will become a power base as she builds and husbands her own court—with her sister perhaps to mind her back. Meanwhile, Philippa de Roet becomes Philippa Chaucer and she will thrive in the dense complexities of court life. Her husband, meanwhile, isn’t singled out but neither is he forgotten as he patches together a career on the fringes of public life, without either the spectacular financial success or deadly political risks of others from the same mercantile class.
            Another element in the writing scene is the rent-free accommodation over Aldgate (Chapter 2): “cramped, cold, rudimentary in its sanitary arrangements, and (perhaps most seriously in the case of a writer) ill lit, even at midday” (52). There is much evidence of the physical conditions of this scene in which it’s hard to imagine writing taking place at all but Strohm makes two points, almost inter alia, that will resonate in coming events. He notes Aldgate’s “rough-cut stone walls, its narrow arrow slits, its smelly ditch, and its generally defensive and civic character” as “ill-suited to the tastes of a classy and upwardly mobile lady, or, for that matter to the emerging tastes of [Chaucer’s] socially ambitious son Thomas” (61). Yes, exactly. Chaucer’s day job is entangled with the Ricardian faction; Philippa and Thomas operate deep in Lancastrian territory. And while Philippa astutely garners her successes and Thomas learns what he needs to know, Strohm rates Chaucer as a man of “private learning” (65), living “in London for a dozen years without the guarantees and emotional comforts of citizenship, in a city in which distinctions of citizen/noncitizen, freeman/nonfreeman, denizen/alien were attentively observed” (66). Whereas “[t]o be a citizen of London in the later fourteenth century was a splendid thing” (65). Strohm sees the materiality of Chaucer’s life as shorn off from all those forms of association—of ward or parish, for example—that structured lives in the city to which he was born and through which he might have risen to be somebody.
            The day job as controller of customs and later the wool custom—his big break after (very) modest success as an esquire in the king’s household—is a complete nightmare. In an earlier, and formal, biography, Derek Pearsall characterized the role at the customs quay in 1374 as “no sinecure: it was not the kind of position that would be granted to a favoured poet to give him the leisure to write more poetry . . .[the job] usually went to professional civil servants” (99).[1] Strohm’s corresponding third chapter, “The Wool Men,” is a triumph of drama and suspense: detailing the shakers and movers in that dangerous set of plays between the volatilities of the market interlocking with the machinations of political power, historical forces that resist just being historical, ambition-driven brinkmanship and sheer unadulterated greed. The key word in this chapter shimmers into view in the first paragraph — “compromised” (90). The point of the narrative here is “to form a judgment of Chaucer’s own culpability or, to put it differently, just how many compromises this new post would require him to make” (98). Given the culture of bribery Strohm describes, another way of putting it might be, “did Chaucer ever have a chance?”—especially since “[c]ollectors of customs were expected to be men of substance” (115). That would be a no, then. But this isn’t just a story about ethics for it also shows Chaucer’s surviving from 1374 to 1386. Twelve years is a long time to be “looking the other way; working to rule; keeping his head down; knowing when to keep his mouth shut; and allowing his superiors a free hand” (136).  
            Being the king’s man may have become a career-limiting move down there at the Wool Quay but 1386 opened up new possibilities for being compromised and, as Shire Knight representing Kent in the Parliament, it’s not long before it all goes to hell in a handcart. The narrative is especially good on counterpointing the macro-level—the headlong rush toward political disaster as Richard II faced down a Parliament flexing its reformist muscle in an alliance with Thomas, Duke of Gloucester—with the micro-level of Chaucer as “the least qualified shire knight to be there” (141). The smart move in the narrative here is to situate Chaucer within the culture of Parliament where he doesn’t own land and neither has he inherited it and has virtually no capital resources, having been a minor public servant with modest (finite) annuities. He is an esquire but of meindre or lower degree rather than being a sworn knight; he’s not a Kentish man, he’s a Londoner, and his people are the King’s faction, which is in all kinds of trouble. We’ve come to anticipate the next move: the expense account of four London representatives to a slightly later Parliament “is an eye-opener” (147). “A look inside Georgetown bars, and Pimlico equivalents, when the US Congress or the British Parliament are in session still gives a hint of the goings-on that might be expected when so many well-funded, short-term out-of-towners arrive on such a basis” (147). Just how out of his depth was Chaucer? “As to what an evening on the town would have looked like for Chaucer, we’ll never know” (149) but nothing in the archive leads us to expect he could cut it. And so Chaucer makes a “constrained choice:” he “resigned his positions and left town . . .without any send-off or any kind of golden parachute” (183).        
            The last 70-odd pages of Strohm’s narrative has Chaucer “on the skids in Kent in the winter of 1387-87” (254): the 493 Life-Records and the archive Strohm has assiduously mined for evidence evaporate as the writing scene and its literary masterwork are focalized through a character called “The Other Chaucer,” the one who is the writer (184). This character bears an uncanny resemblance to the one summarily dismissed in the Introduction “before it opens the door to the host of crackpot theories . . .from which Chaucer has been blessedly spared” (8); the one produced by when the literary biographer goes “prospecting in an artist’s body of written work seeking nuggets of buried life experience” (9). This other Chaucer, though, is an essential strategy for the narrative because he owns the writing scene: without him, there’s simply no point. My problem — and I’m happy to own it — isn’t actually that Strohm finds “Chaucer had a typically medieval attitude toward completion” (189) or that the author of Troilus and Criseyde is standing “behind” its narrator (189); that the House of Fame is Chaucer’s riposte to “his illustrious predecessor Dante as a fame-seeking windbag” (206); that the Troilus is regarded as “evidence” (213) or even lines like Chaucer is “too great an artist to rest complacently” (234). My problem is that “in biography . . .you have to commit to narrative;” there’s no “linger[ing] over the uncertainties of [one’s] evidence, over its recesses, its obtuseness, its silences and evasions.” Microbiography, in other words, relies upon a theory of textuality that literary criticism does not.
            But back to the ball park—because I’m a fan of this book—and its wise-cracking narrator. Making the connection between Chaucer’s observations of parliamentary procedure and both the cacophony of the Parliament of Fowls and the shouting down of Ector that sees Criseyde exchanged for Antenor (166), the narrator comments

[t]his kind of upsurge, especially in its orally demonstrate character, appears to have been endemic to the English Parliament. After all, even today, in what appears to be a continuing tradition, the British Parliament surprises strangers who, expecting a high level of decorum in debate, are taken aback with the verbally rowdy character the prime minister’s questions and other unruly aspects of parliamentary demeanour. (164)
Actually, only if those strangers are Americans. This is the narrator who brings George W Bush into view with Knighton’s Chronicle (171); whose “loose analogy” for visiting parliamentarians on the tear down King Street is the Las Vegas strip and a run of taverns and ale-houses down to the limits of Westminster where “things got really rowdy” (148); who sees ideas that “would have been a stretch at best” (254) and a whole raft of other sparkling, funny, seductive idioms that will drive some readers crazy and delight others—if only for the truly impressive skill that weaves this demotic rhetoric together with acute archival analysis and unfailing erudition into compelling historical narrative that really swings along.
            But to say this narrator’s speech is demotic isn't quite right: it’s colloquial, it’s everyday language, it’s globalized but it’s also indelibly US—and that’s not a put-down. This narrator delivers another chapter in the long-running “negotiation” in the Anglo-American academy over who owns “Chaucer.” There is a gripping, genre-trashing story to be told about the trans-Atlantic moves behind the discursive structures of Chaucer culture in the US. Including, but by no means limited to, MS EL 26 C 9 (the Ellesmere Manuscript)’s moving west; the roll-call of American editors, John M Manly, Edith Rickert, Fred Robinson, Albert Baugh, Larry Benson; the Variorum Chaucer project, Houghton Mifflin and the Riverside Chaucer; the associations like the New Chaucer Society, the forums of the Modern Language Association; the breaking up of MS Bute 13; Professor Toshiyuki Takamiya’s collection of ME manuscripts, that includes three copies of The Canterbury Tales in its treasures, now on long-term loan to the Beinecke Library at Yale. The traffic isn’t only one-way, of course, and distinguished scholars—like Paul Strohm himself—have moved in both directions. It’s a complicated story of ambition, agonistics and exceptionalism; a story of translatio studii; a story that shows, above all, how “Chaucer” thrives. Strohm’s achievements in Chaucer’s Tale. 1386 and the Road to Canterbury are significant and will shape the (micro)biographies of Chaucer currently underway: his book has changed the shape of the space and I’m hanging out to read what happens next.

[1] Derek Pearsall, The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer: a Critical Biography (Oxford: 1992)