Books

For Anybody Who Wondered Where Chaucer Hid His Jokes, Read 'Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog'

"Hotness. My friare-confessour is sooo hotte. Lyk, he beth so hotte that thou nedest to put fowere of the letter t in 'hotttte.' Thank God spellinge is nat standardised yet, for we may neede moore than four of the letter t."


Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog: Medieval Studies and New Media

Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Price: $25
Author: Brantley L. Bryant
Pages: 197 pages
Format: Paperback
Publication Date: 2010-05
Amazon

It started on Friendster as a fakester, a grad student's "pop culture parody written in cod-Middle English by a Chaucerian persona." It morphed into a blog followed by thousands of medievalists, "nice smart people," witty pranksters, and professorial jesters. Brantley L. Bryant unmasks himself as "LeVostreGC", or "your GC", and my having to explain that reference exemplifies the fun, and the erudition, of his creation.

The blog and book's title itself combines "hath" in the archaic usage with "blog" as our current use. This chronologically unbound "central conceit" revives Chaucer as participant in this variation on "fan fiction". This project draws in villainous rival poet John Gower, whiningly pious Margery Kempe, and proto-stoner Thomas Usk.

Political intrigues from the late 13th century begin to parallel, in this distorted universe, real 1386 with what Bryant conjured up online in 2006. He started this GC character as a diversion from his dissertation. Certainly the mash-up results -- clever, learned, and engagingly arcane -- merit their own surprising study in this installment of The New Middle Ages series from a scholarly press. This anthology recounts the impact of this and related websites by medievalists over the past 15 years in popular culture, academic circles, and via social networking.

Senior scholars Bonnie Wheeler and Jeffery Jerome Cohen add their own chapters on such educated, insipid, and inspired entertainment. Cohen, however, adds a cautionary note. Given that most of us click on Friendster as often as we consult microfiche, the expectation that such archived resources will always be ready and waiting for us may be foolish. The "inherently gregarious" blog community, where comments can be appended and threads taken up years after they first extend, may be as short lived as Friendster's fame.

Moving more materials onto the Web where you and I read this review could justify more reductions in a faculty often -- unlike Bryant who landed a tenure-track job after finishing his dissertation -- relegated to the wandering scholar status of their medieval predecessors. Online shifts, Cohen suggests, might hasten humanities downsizing at corporatizing universities. Limited access by databased research only a large university can afford to subscribe shuts off less-privileged inquirers in ways library books do not.

Transferring to a friends-only, short-lived access Facebook or Twitter the conversations once preserved on blogs may mean that even a blog may find a short shelf life. Ironically, this book allows us all affordable and permanent consultation of this Chaucer blog, even if Bryant (or Google's Blogger) shuts it down.

The contrasts between Wheeler's cheer, Bryant's enthusiasm, and Cohen's caution typify reactions to the cultural contexts for this technology. The other 80 percent of these pages share actual contents. Robert W. Hanning (Bryant's professor) teases and torments us with 15 pages crammed with outrageously recondite puns, limericks, parodies, songs, smut, and bumper sticker slogans. This "comic diary", he tells us, is 50 years in the making. Hanning's section's titled "Chaucerians Do It with Pronounced E's." If that sparks a smile, read on. It's that kind of book. If you lack intimacy with Middle English, Chaucer, and medieval Europe, perhaps these delights may seduce you into fluency.

This humor, overly clever if often challenging (I confess a Ph.D. in the period, yet there's one allusion that baffles me), immortalizes what Chaucer had in common with his followers today. A bawdy, intellectual, humbling, holy, and clerically-tinged relish for the absurd, the lofty, and the ensuing, frequent collisions between our aspirations and our asses. Bryant and his conspirators remind us of the joy of scholarship, too often crushed by publish-or-perish pressures. The success of this blog beyond ivory towers, or flourescent-lit classrooms and dim cubicles, conveys the passion devoted by fans to a time they love.

Examples from the blog may confound those accustomed only to Modern English. So, I will nudge you towards a couple of passages that you may chuckle at readily. One of the early successes for Bryant's blog came when GC marveled at the spam he received, "wondrous messages from the Internet", "Heere are a fewe ensaumples", drawn from their subject lines. The texts themselves reward your own discovery.

"A fayre ladye of a far londe offreth me hir loue!" (Sexy female from an exotic realm seeks release.) "An churlish proposicioun of anatomical alchemie", for whatever aphrodisiac augmentation a canon might concoct. "A mightie prince of power asketh myn succour yn matirs financiale! (Armenia fills in via "hottemail.com" for Nigeria.) "An appeale to the lustes of the bodi!" (Via "Brokers of Onlyne Erotica.") "And last but nat least, fortune doth smile vpon me!" (A chain letter.) Satire proves how our foibles endure.

More episodes ensue. I am taking one nearly at random to illustrate how far this conceit carried Bryant. A Paris Hilton ancestress, Reims Launcechrona, sashays in for an interview. Playing word-association with our abashed interlocutor, to "Confessioun," she replies: "Hotness. My friare-confessour is sooo hotte. Lyk, he beth so hotte that thou nedest to put fowere of the letter t in 'hotttte.' Thank God spellinge is nat standardised yet, for we may neede moore than four of the letter t."

That sort of sly charm permeates this tribute to Chaucer's appeal and the spell his century casts on those who pursue it today, amidst the same distractions and discussions you and I engage in at our keyboards. It, as with many inspired colloquies in this medium, does cut off suddenly. Perhaps due to the need to rush this into print, or the weariness of the author, or the inherent nature of a blog that whirls as rapidly as its URL taking its title from Chaucer's own dream vision, The House of Fame, its entries halt, as GC muses over the werewolf craze: "Thys is a bandwagon upon which Ich wolde lyke to leap."

The most ambitious entry in an already advanced anthology of allusion? For me, it's King Richard and GC escaping the Appellants to Las Vegas. They meet figures incorporated from literary and historical late medieval Europe. For example, the pair are beset by Bertilak Marx, the wily host of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, who assumes an Allen Ginsberg guise. Bertilak insists they listen to his poem "Vowel", on the Great Vowel Shift -- which in turn relies on your comprehension of the Professor Hanning's "Pronounced E's" slogan. Margery Kempe intervenes -- now a cardiganed professor at an American university after a harrowing interview at the MLA where her own autobiography puts words in her decidedly pre-postmodern mouth -- to save the king from his burning at the stake for minutiae including a deadpan inquistorial recital of the four evils of airplane peanuts and their packaging.

Well, if this all raises a grin, or cocks an eyebrow, check out this one volume from a scholarly press on Chaucer and his era which will spark more risibility than the usual monograph. Combining the commentary on this electronic medium for medievalists to spread both learning and wit with generous excerpts (updated and revised by Bryant for print) from the blog, this volume reminded me how much I enjoyed reading about these lost centuries.

This study, in its learned laughter, should be snapped up by anybody who wondered, back in class, where all the devout or dirty jokes in Chaucer were buried. After this excavation, you'll wind up not only reviving them, but inventing your own, perhaps in orthographically-challenged cod-Myddle Englyshe, parchaunce.

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