Assorted reflections on chaucer and medieval life

Hello friends. Obviously, I’m procrastinating by writing to you. I finished reading the Tah-lehs of Cahn-ta-buh-rie a few days ago (that’s how I hear it in my head, and I sometimes say the words “Here beginneth the tales of Canterbury” to myself for no reason whatsoever). It was excellent. Highly recommend. Beautiful writing–very earthy, connected to the language of ordinary people–only intermittently ornate–with a large variety of tales and characters. Some boring stuff in there, but that’s to be expected. Very difficult to read initially, but by the end I rarely resorted to the on-page glosses in the (IMHO) excellent and readable Penguin Classics original-spelling edition. If you’re looking to spend two months reading one book, I highly recommend this over Ulysses. If you want to spend two months reading one book (for a very loose definition of one) here are my recommendations, in order:

  1. Remembrance of Things Past (I’ve read both major translations, the Enright / Monckrieff and the new ones, and they’re both fine).
  2. The Canterbury Tales
  3. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
  4. The Story of the Stone / Dream of the Red Chamber (I read this translation)
  5. Ulysses
  6. The Tale of Genji (I read this translation, which is also just a beautifully bound volume)
  7. Romance of the Three Kingdoms (I read this translation)

Obviously you should read War and Peace, David Copperfield, Middlemarch, and Anna Karenina before reading any of these, but those books aren’t difficult–they’re just long, and if you don’t find them compulsively readable, then it’s probably not the right time for them yet. But the five above are always, imho, gonna be difficult, both because they’re very long and none of them are traditional narratives, at least as we understood narrative to function in contemporary America. The closest thing in there to a novel is probably Ulysses, but it’s just really difficult to read, and there are large sections, particularly the Oxen of the Sun chapter, that are simply unintelligible even to a well-read and highly-educated reader.

The point is I read it, the book is read. Not sure what I’m going to do next. I’ve been trying to learn to speak French. I downloaded this online flash-card system that will quiz me on the five thousand most commonly used words in French (with twenty new ones every day), and I’ve been testing my comprehension by reading two books:

  • This bilingual edition of the maxims of Rochuefoucauld. I cover the English and try to mentally translate the French. Kind of great because they’re so pithy that if there’s even one word you don’t get, you lose the whole meaning.
  • A book that shall remain nameless, because it’s highly unpopular amongst most of my friends, but which I know extremely well due to repeated childhood (and adult) re-readings. I have the French audiobook and I listen to it while reading along with the French translation.

It’s really, really, really unsystematic. Or, rather, it’s a system, but it’s not a very efficient one. And I am fine with that. It’s a hobby.

I have maybe five or six things that I’m part-way through. I’m halfway through a podcast about neolithic humans. It’s only okay, but there’s shockingly little out there about this, especially in audio, so it’s good to have. I’ve been reading Ben Johnson’s play from the Elizabeth era, Volpone, about a dude who pretends to be wealthy and on the brink of death and profits from all the gifts people give him to convince him to adopt them as his heir.

During his life, Ben Johnson was more famous than Shakespeare. Unlike Shakespeare, he was widely hailed for his learning–he was a playwright who was also an intellectual. He composed the first English-language dictionary. Can you imagine how well-read a person must have to be to write the first dictionary a language has ever had? And he’s not a bad writer either! But very few people read him nowadays, which has served for me as a kind of memento mori. This is a guy who was more famous than Shakespeare. People could go see Hamlet performed for the first time, and then they could sit around in the tavern and be like, but you know what? That Shakespeare is no Ben Johnson.

And now he’s on the verge of being written out of the canon. Which is fine. But it makes you think! Nothing lasts. It’s all written on water. Insert other Stoic cliches here. I’ve also been reading so much about Central Asia, and there are entire cities–entire civilizations–that were the greatest on Earth: Merv, in Turkmenistan, the seat of the Great Seljuk Empire, was the largest city on the planet for a while there. And now I doubt a lot of people know about it. Even if people know the names of some of the figures who lived there–Omar Khayyam is the most known in the west–they think of him as having lived in what’s now Iran. And they mostly know him as a poet, not a mathematician (an area where he was even more accomplished). That was more than 900 years ago.

The people of Merv thought they were at the center of the world. Theirs was the height of civilization at the time. Now it’s all gone. Just makes you think! We are not, right now, at this moment, living at the end of history. There will probably be human beings living on this planet in a hundred, two hundred, five hundred, a thousand, or even ten thousand years. But they probably won’t be speaking English. They may not be Christian or Muslim or any current religion (Zoroastrianism and animism were still major religions in Merv at the time I’m speaking of!) They might be more technologically advanced than us, but they also might not. Our modern era is dramatically different from any era that came before, but so was the Seljuk Empire–for the first time in history, influences from China, India, and the West were mingling in one place. They were living in a place that had been at the center of world affairs for two millennia. They may have had good reason to think the future would be a straight line upwards. Who knows?

I’m afraid of global warming. It seems undeniable that it will, all else equal, result in a substantial degradation of standard of living for every person on the planet. I don’t think it’ll render the Earth uninhabitable, though I know some people do think that, and not without reason. When I was younger, I believed strongly in progress–the idea that a hundred years in the future, life would be unimaginably different. I don’t know if I believe in that anymore. And when I think of what in our current culture that would feel unimaginably different to people from Merv, I don’t think of TV or the internet or cars–all of that would be understandable. I mean people come off the steppes, like the Mongols, and they’ve never seen a stone building, and within a generation they’ve fully adapted to urban life–it’s not that hard to understand.

Honestly, the thing they’d find most difficult to understand would probably be the legal equality of women and all the familial changes that are a result (low birth-rates, unmarried sex, high divorce rates, etc). But even that is an idea with a very long provenance. Chaucer is full of arguments about the abilities of women. Medieval schollars called it the “querelle du femme”–the debate over whether women had abilities equal to those of men. People came down on both sides of the debate (Chaucer was clearly pro-woman), so if someone from the middle ages came to modern times, they’d probably be like, oh, okay, so that’s how it all panned out. They might be disgusted, as visitors often are when they see the familial workings of different peoples, but I don’t know if they’d be confused.

Hard to say! But I don’t know, as I read more and more about history, and as I read older works, from more diverse cultures, I just see more continuity than discontinuity with the past. Sometime in the 20th century, scholars got really into the idea that consciousness is somehow radically different today than it used to be. They’re like, “Love is a modern invention”. “The self is a modern invention”. “Adolescence is a modern invention”. But are they really? I mean if love is a modern invention, why was Chariton writing in the first century about people falling in love and being separated? If the self is modern, then what was St. Augustine doing writing an autobiography? If adolescence is uniquely modern, then what was an apprenticeship period in medieval times? When apprentices get described, they sure sound a lot like teenagers to me! We’re not unique. Having air conditioners and computers doesn’t make us unique. It makes us comfortable, but not unique.

But let’s not overstate the case. Obviously being alive now is radically different from being alive even three hundred years ago, much less in 12th century Uzbekistan. Just trying to say that there’s continuity, and that history is going to continue. There will be people, in a thousand years, who will probably spend absolutely zero time thinking about us and our civilization.