William Matthews Memorial Lecture: ‘European Journeys, Medieval and Modern’

Dr Marion Turner’s lecture on Chaucer’s writings and journeys reframed the quintessentially English writer as a great European poet and source of inspiration beyond the continent.

Dr Marion Turner took an audience of Chaucer enthusiasts on a journey through the poet’s works for the 2019 William Matthews Memorial Lecture. Following on from her own travels around Europe, where she contrasted the medieval with the contemporary, she demonstrated how Chaucer weaved his journeys through Europe into his works of poetry. Geoffrey Chaucer was an English poet and author, whose most famous works include The Canterbury Tales. He is often thought of as ‘the Father of English Literature.’

During her research, Dr Turner endeavoured to go on a physical journey through contemporary Europe in order to retrace Chaucer’s journey through Medieval Europe, to understand his interests, works and what gives the writer appeal beyond the borders of England.

Early on in the lecture, Dr Turner shared the impetus of her travels; being approached to write a biography of Chaucer’s life. She lamented that, upon sitting down to write the book, the plan she sketched was not very different from any other biography written about Chaucer. Frustrated, she set out on a walk to help her find ways of approaching the structure of the book, when she came to her ‘road to Damascus moment’; the idea to approach Chaucer’s work through his travels through Europe in the fourteenth century as a way of understanding the writer in the reader’s imagination.

Dr Turner reflected on numerous characterisations of Chaucer as an English poet firmly rooted in the English imagination and identity. She used the example of UKIP aligning Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Alisoun with the party during the 2013 election, thus painting her as an English archetype. But this trope is challenged by the numerous writers of colour, particularly women, who have taken Chaucer’s work and adapted it to create stories in their own contexts.

What’s more, through her travels she found that Chaucer’s stories came from distant places made up of diverse demographics. Particularly Navarre, located in the northern region of Spain, where Chaucer visited and saw members of the three main religions living harmoniously. She highlights that in the medieval period the most educated of the population were multilingual and that Chaucer himself would have been influenced by French, Italian and Latin poetry, which he enjoyed.

Chaucer’s travels through Europe also highlighted to Dr Turner the importance he places on perspective in his work, and it is this transition of perspective that characterises much of his poetry. She gives the example of the prominence of birds and someone who can only see from the ground as a way of demonstrating these different perspectives, which will inform an individual’s thinking on any given situation.

The lecture concluded with a reflection on Chaucer’s views of time and crossings, the place of crossing being “a place of magic, darkness and possibility” – an ongoing action in which the past infiltrates the present, much like the persistent influence of Chaucer’s works on writers across place and space within the literary canon.

The William Mathews memorial lecture is an annual lecture on either the English language or medieval English literature.

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The Birkbeck Medieval and Renaissance Studies Summer School: On the River

This post was contributed by Jackie Watson, a third year PhD student in English at Birkbeck.

A rare opportunity to relish learning…

I’m convinced there is nothing so quirky, and at the same time so profoundly intellectual, as the Birkbeck Medieval and Renaissance Summer School (BMRSS).  It is a showcase of academic expertise – with papers, this year on The River, from leading academics.  But what makes it special is how it encourages people from a range of backgrounds, different ages and academic levels, to meet and share their excitement in medieval and early modern literature, history and art. This year’s group is ‘typical’, people doing courses at BA, MA and PhD level, in different disciplines, from lots of different places in the UK and beyond: all talking animatedly about ideas raised by the conference, but also about their academic aspirations, and possibilities for future learning and research. It’s an encouraging environment, and highly unusual in today’s short-sighted, outcome-driven HE system…

Nothing, perhaps, shows how unusual it is more than the programme.  Such is the ambition of the summer school to provide different learning experiences to a wide variety of students, that it’s incredibly difficult to organise…  Most conferences take place in one building – with, at most, the need to move from one room to another: nothing so lacking in ambition for the BMRSS! Sessions on maps at the British Library, a group going to Shakespeare’s Globe, and another touring the city to find evidence of its lost rivers…  Greenwich Maritime Museum, Renaissance Print-making and modern river poetry…  With options at every turn, no-one’s summer school is like anyone else’s!  It’s ambitious, unusual, and very quirky…

Take the search for lost rivers…

For a variety of reasons, some of us turned down the opportunity to see Macbeth.  Seen it already, perhaps, or just about to… but all of us were very excited to ramble around London finding evidence of all those rivers whose names we’d heard so often – now, usually, underground and unseen.

Beginning in Islington with the creation of the New River and a statue of the man responsible (Hugh Myddelton) we wound our way, water-like, downhill to the Thames…  For three hours…  And at every turn we were nearly so distracted and fascinated by what we found that we risked not reaching the Globe to meet the others.

Consider the fascination of a hole in the road…

In his morning paper on Spenser and Jonson’s contributions to river poetry, Adam Smyth had (just in passing, you understand) mentioned the fact that you can, if you lie in the middle of a particular London street and listen at a grate, hear the rushing waters of the Fleet beneath.  A mildly interesting, and quite an innocent remark to make, if slightly tangential to Jonson’s account of the river’s detritus…  However, to such a group as this, such an inconsequential comment is a challenge; find the road, practically lie in it, and listen to the watery voice of the past.

Lea, Fleet, Walbrook, Quaggy, Tyburn etc. were soundly commemorated by the walk.

On to Clerkenwell (only one of the wells we passed), and St John’s Priory museum – the joyous ShaLT project app (from recent research into Shakespeare’s London Theatres involving an interactive map showing early modern sites in London), allowed us to find the site of the Elizabethan Revels Office.  We had to tear ourselves away, and on to Smithfield (past the site of the inn/brothel owned by George Wilkins, co-writer of Pericles) and St Bart’s museum (Hogarth paintings), diverting slightly to George Frederick Watts’ memorial to heroic self-sacrifice at Postman’s Park (many of whom seemedto be victims of the waterways we were interested in)…

And that was only one afternoon of the three days… Such an opportunity for learning is unforgettable, and, unfortunately, rare in today’s educational climate. Long may the quirky BMRSS continue to buck the trend!

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