Middle English Forum Sessions at MLA 2021

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    Lisa H. Cooper

    Please take note of the following sessions sponsored by the Middle English Forum at virtual MLA 2021!

    205. Medieval Abstraction, Friday, 8 January, 10:15-11:30 am

    Presider: Julie Orlemanski, U of Chicago

    Speakers: Danielle Allor, Rutgers U, New Brunswick; Clint Morrison, Ohio State U, Columbus; Matthew Boyd Goldie, Rider U; Kellie Robertson, U of Maryland, College Park; Michelle Ripplinger, U of California, Berkeley

    528. Poetic Particularity and Medieval Politics, Saturday, 9 January, 5:15-6:30 pm

    Presider: Thomas Augustine Prendergast, C of Wooster; Respondent: Susan M. Nakely, St. Joseph’s C, Brooklyn

    1. \”Chaucer, Gower, and Fourteenth-Century Politics and Aesthetics,\” Ryan Lawrence, Cornell U

    2. \”Poetic Resistance in the Canterbury Tales: Performing the Unviable,\” Ryan Smith, U at Buffalo, State U of New York

    3. \”The Occasional Verse,\” Elizaveta Strakhov, Marquette U

    660. Poetry and Pandemic: Medieval English Perspectives, Sunday, 10 January, 3:30-4:45 pm

    (jointly sponsored with GS Poetry and Poetics; see abstracts below in first reply to this post)

    Presider: Lisa H. Cooper, U of Wisconsin, Madison

    1. \”Plague and Post-trauma in Chaucer’s ‘First Fragment,\’\” David Coley, Simon Fraser U

    2. \”Be/ware of Beauty: Facing Death in Literature,\” D. Vance Smith, Princeton U

    3. \”Thomas Hoccleve and the Middle English Poetics of Pandemic,\” Amy Appleford, Boston U


    This topic was also posted in: LLC Chaucer, LLC Middle English.

    Lisa H. Cooper

    ABSTRACTS FOR: 660. Poetry and Pandemic: Medieval English Perspectives, Sunday, 10 January, 3:30-4:45 pm (jointly sponsored with GS Poetry and Poetics); Presider: Lisa H. Cooper, U of Wisconsin, Madison

    1. “Plague and Post-trauma in Chaucer’s ‘First Fragment,’” David Coley, Simon Fraser U

    Critics have long discerned what we might call post-traumatic inarticulacy in the works of Chaucer and other late-medieval English poets. Lee Patterson’s seminal analysis of the Knight’s Tale regards the Knight’s use of occupatio as emerging from “repressed knowledge of military chivalry’s darker, more malevolent valence” while Patricia Ingham has shown how Troilus and Criseyde “offers literary equivocation as a means to track the circulation of trauma in culture.” My own work on the Pearl-poet likewise considers how we might understand the four poems of MS Cotton Nero A.x as struggling to articulate the unspeakable trauma of the medieval pestilence. Such readings not only draw into focus the complicated nature of trauma, they also ask us, in the words of D. Vance Smith, to “grapple with the problem of discussing texts and events . . . that are not fit subjects for practices of deliberate memory,” to “[think] about how things get forgotten, and how they can be remembered.” Ironically, one of the events that seems to have been “forgotten,” at least in the literature of fourteenth-century England, is the Black Death itself. On the European continent, writers like Boccaccio, Petrarch, Machaut, and others evoked the pandemic in searing terms, describing a contagion so “full of rage and anger . . . / So gluttonous and so famished / That he could not be satisfied / By anything that he could consume.” In England, by contrast, the plague is barely whispered, much less made the subject of extended narrative or description. It is, of course, true that Chaucer refers to the “Deeth / That in this contree al the peple sleeth” and that Langland mentions the “pokkes and pestilences [that] muche peple shente.” Taken as a whole, however, the English poetic response to the plague is conspicuously understated, even cowed. In this paper, I consider the “first fragment” of the Canterbury Tales as an ongoing negotiation with the pandemic. Set explicitly in the context of recovery—Chaucer’s pilgrims seek “the hooly blisful martir . . . that hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke”—the tales of the first fragment are driven by repeated acts of violence and egregious violations of the social contract, each re-voicing the tale before until the fragment collapses into queasy silence. In their compulsive repetition and their studied avoidance of the traumatic scene, the tales of the first fragment stage (individually) and enact (in their plurality) the means by which the pandemic renders itself unspeakable within Middle English poetry. At the same time, they also suggest how the plague must always in some way be spoken, be it through persona, narrative technique, laughter, flatulence, tears, or even silence itself. Such an approach to the first fragment repositions The Canterbury Tales against the consuming shape of the pandemic, revealing how Chaucer discloses the Black Death not through narrative or image—the predominant modes of his Continental contemporaries—but symptomatically, through the embodied, mimetic response often demonstrated by survivors of severe trauma.

    2. “Be/ware of Beauty: Facing Death in Literature,” D. Vance Smith, Princeton U

    “Be war” of death goes the advice of poetic versions of the facies Hippocratie. Despite the specificity of the signs of death that these poems rehearse, they fail spectacularly at telling us what it means to “be war”: to avoid it all costs; to exercise Heideggerian Sorge at our inmost, mortal, potential; to become attuned to the failing integument of the body, whether our own or another’s? I’ll argue that it is all of these things, particularly in a time of pandemic. The possibility of a death that exceeds its supposedly normative parameters in medieval literature provokes, of all things, a problem of aesthetic response: how to look at death, when there is no apparent object, and when the gaze is unsustainable, anyway. In his Proem, Boccaccio structures the entire Decameron as a retreat from plague at several levels: the flight from the city, of course, but also as the aesthetic response to the absence of enjoyment and the withdrawnness of death itself. [[The brief reference to the Plague in the Proem is expanded into one of the lengthiest accounts of the arrival of plague in the fourteenth century, perhaps the lengthiest in any century until Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year. But the reference to the “pistelenzioso tempo della passata mortalità fatta,” (Proem 13) is sandwiched between the invocation of “istorie” and “alcune canzonette,” as if excessive horror is contained by regularized literary forms.]] The Host’s aestheticized response to “The Physician’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales lies precisely on the stress line between a tolerable–that is, supposedly justifiable–death and the intolerable death of “The Pardoner’s Tale.” [The Host’s horrified enchantment with Virgina’s death and with her beauty suggests that his summary of the Tale–“her beautee was hir deeth”–really means not that Virginia’s beauty caused her death, but that her beauty is somehow related to her death.] This confusion of beauty and death sets us up for the analytic of allegory in The Pardoner’s Tale: what relation can there be between the pleasure, or the necessity, of representation and a death that threatens the limits of what we think of as finitude? Are the forms that we use to think about the death of one person different from the forms that we use to think about the deaths of multitudes?

    3. “Thomas Hoccleve and the Middle English Poetics of Pandemic,” Amy Appleford, Boston U

    On the face of it, the Middle English poetics of pandemic is a poetics of community. In the Dance of Death a civically sponsored image-text, one version of which lined the cloister walls around London’s plague cemetery at St. Paul’s cathedral, the proximity of pandemic is strangely uplifting.  As members of all the professions dance hand in hand with their own deaths and one another, affirming the propriety of social hierarchy even as they acknowledge its limits, the unindividuated corpses of Londoners in the churchyard, jumbled together in a mass grave without ritual or memorial after hasty burials, are reconfigured into an image of ideal order.  Far from destroying civic society, the presence of death and of the many diseases that might bring it about in the confined spaces of a medieval city, serves the purposes of society, compelling poor and rich, secular and religious, weak and powerful alike to live together under its admonitory shadow. Yet in late-medieval London, as in other cities, death and disease also called for more practical and specialist response. Most notable of these is the new fifteenth-century phenomenon of the specialist hospital.  While those with leprosy had long been in  enforced quarantine in houses outside the city’s walls, the fifteenth century saw new treatment of Londoners with mental illnesses, gathering them together and moving them outside the London community into the extra-mural St Mary Bethlehem (better known as the “hospitall of Bedleem” or Bedlam). In this paper, I argue that the pragmatics of pandemic has its own poetic mode, although it is a poetics nowhere near so ordered as the retrospective attempt to recuperate the human person in the face of pandemic that is the Dance of Death monument. In fifteenth-century culture, two radically different models of the relationship between illness and personhood are brought into tense conjunction. In one, signified by the dire act of excluding Londoners from civic community that was enforced quarantine, illness so thoroughly infects human personhood that the two become indistinguishable, and the only company the sick can keep, confined outside the city’s official boundaries, is with one another.  In the other, disease is imagined as an external pathogen that infects the sick person from the outside but is understood as still, in principle, separate from the person.  In the chronicle of William Gregory, fifteenth-century mayor, the Londoners confined in “Bedlam” are “men that ben fallyn owte of hyr wytte,” whose residence beyond the walls need last only until they “ben restoryde” to “helthe a-gayne,” even if some, ominously, “ben falle soo moche owte of hem selse that hyt ys uncurerabylle unto man.” As I show, this anxious double imagining of the sick also haunts Thomas Hoccleve’s Complaint, written after his fragile recovery from a period of mental illness. In his Complaint, the Thomas interprets his mental illness as a “venom” that “had enfected and wilded” his brain, given to him and “devoided” from him by God in ways that, he insists to his readers and his fellow Londoners, left his personhood intact during the period that his sickness “caste him owte” of himself.”  “Goddes sonde” (sending) was a “tribulacioun,” its merciful aim to purge and refine his soul.  Yet the Complaint narrates how the poet been unable to rid himself of the suspicion that he is still one of what fifteenth-century bequests to Bedlam call the “distract men,” who has not been truly “restoryde” and who, despite his return to the social order, remains one of the “uncurerabylle unto man.”  Fifteenth-century poetry of pandemic explores the complex relationship between self and sickness at a key historical moment, when England first saw the creation of locations and populations specifically identified with disability and contagion.

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