Middle-English Is Awesome Even Though I Can’t Understand It
For those who might not know it, I study English Literature! As you can imagine, it involves a lot of reading. I had no idea what this course was going to be like before coming to UEA, and we didn’t even get a reading list beforehand. During Fresher’s Week I finally got my timetable and it turns out I only have five hours of class per week – which makes my entire life feel like a reading week. I can’t complain about it, I’d rather work independently than spend my days in classrooms.
Basically, for straight literature in first year, we do the Literature in History, which (unsurprisingly) focuses on the link between history and literature, and how history is present through the words. It is probably my favourite module, it is so interesting and the choice of text is really clever! I felt like I’d learnt so much after the first week, it’s crazy. And the lecturers are amazing… I’ve rarely seen someone speak with so much enthusiasm! It’s almost overwhelming how much they know compared to me. I’d be quite worried if knew more than the professors though.
However, the first piece we studied didn’t make me feel very enthusiastic : Chaucer. I now shiver upon hearing this name. For those we don’t know him, he wrote The Canterbury Tales in the 14th century, so as you can imagine, English was different at the time :
In Flaundres whylom was a companye
Of yonge folk, that haunteden folye,
As ryot, hasard, stewes, and tavernes,
Wher-as, with harpes, lutes, and giternes,
They daunce and pleye at dees bothe day and night.
When I opened the first page, I thought “Is it English? Is it the right book?” . Yes, it was. Fortunately we only had to read one of the tales from the book, but it was tough. To be fair, I gave up after the second sentence and just looked up for modern English translations. It turns out I really enjoyed reading The Pardoner’s Tale (in modern English) and it was so funny! Later, I went back to the original text to compare the sentences and try to understand how Middle-English (Renaissance English) worked, which was really interested because it’s linked French (my mother tongue) and German.
To support this reading and make a link with history, we extracts from history books and also further reader (essays written by academics about The Canterbury Tales) . They mentioned the area form a historical point of view, which made me see Chaucer compeletley differently! I didn’t get at all that the story was written during the plague and that many elements in the tale refer to it. The lecture was amazing, even fascinating, and the lecturer (Will — yep professors want to be called by their first names which is so cool) even read some of the excerpt with a proper Middle-English accent. I couldn’t stop laughing! On top of this one hour lecture, we have a two hour seminar in small groups where we do close reading. Everything is so much more interesting after studying it properly. At first I hated Chaucer and now I chose to write my essay – I’ll talk about it soon – on The Pardoner’s Tale!
See, that’s why I adore literature and decided to study it. I can’t count how many times I’ve read a piece and felt disappointed about it. Then I studied it in class or looked for analyses online and suddenly everything made sense and was incredibly clever! If that’s why UEA is going to be like for my entire degree, then I want to stay there forever!
Oh by the way, Will is the best professor ever. He literaly did the lecture with… a rat puppet to illustrate the plague, and how it was transmitted by rats and fleas across Europe. Isn’t it pure genius?