You Had To Be There: The Word Before It Becomes TextBy Barbara Jaquish
Frontispiece from Troilus and Criseyde: While Chaucer was thought to have once recited some form of Troilus and Criseyde at court, the frontispiece is a highly stylized image that has sparked debate on whether it depicts Chaucer and whether it establishes him as a court performer.
Image courtesy of The Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, www.corpus.cam.ac.uk/parker/index.php.
When medieval literature professor William Quinn hears slam poetry or rap music, he hears something old and familiar, “a revival of aesthetics that have been dismissed since Skelton,” a Tudor court poet from the time between Chaucer and Shakespeare. Looking at the relationship between literature and how it is produced over the centuries leads Quinn to wonder whether living in a post-print period “puts us in sympathy with the pre-print world.”
As a Chaucer scholar, Quinn has focused on how a work of literature intended for oral performance changes when it is recorded in manuscript form. With a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Quinn participated in “The Handwritten Worlds of Early Modern England,” a summer institute at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. There he joined a diverse group, including some of the foremost scholars worldwide, to discuss research and analyze manuscripts, many coming from the Folger’s extensive holdings.
“The institute gathered people from solitary cloisters. It was therapeutic: people doing narrowly focused work could share and achieve a broader textual and theoretical understanding of their own research,” Quinn said. “I came away from the institute with better-informed questions.”
He also benefited from the critical perspective of two of the world’s leading manuscript authorities, Julia Boffey and A. S. G. Edwards. Since no existing manuscript of Chaucer’s work was directly corrected by Chaucer himself, Quinn speculates from the evidence on the page about the author’s intention and the oral performance that may – or may not –have preceded the written manuscript. Quinn is well aware that his speculations “need the skeptical admonitions of a
Oral performance produces words without the permanence of text. It has an element of improvisation, Quinn says, “like a trapeze artist without a net,” that is lost when the words are written down. The process of producing a manuscript can shape the reader’s understanding of a work, and the direction of a poem can be changed by how it is presented.
When The Legend of Good Women is presented as a free-standing work, it could be read as sentimental. The sense of the poem is quite different if it is read as a palinode, a poem that recants or retracts something from a previous work. Quinn has examined the Legend as a palinode to Troilus and Criseyde, originally performed by Chaucer for Queen Anne and her courtiers. In that context, it can be seen as a comic work, rich with the irony and double entendres that can be conveyed by tone or gesture during an oral performance.
As the presentation of literature changed from oral to manuscript to print, standards also changed. Punctuation had to be developed, beginning with quotation marks to indicate who is speaking and exclamation points to suggest intensity. Without a phrase like “he said sarcastically,” there were no sign posts to indicate ironic or sarcastic tones, so the text becomes more difficult to interpret.
Revision can be another area of sympathy between pre-print and post-print eras. While manuscripts can show revision notes in the margins and can be corrected using wax or gesso and lacquer, we lose access to clues about the author’s thinking when writers create and revise on computers. An oral work, whether an entertainment by Chaucer for the royal household or a slam poem performed for a raucous crowd at a campus bar, can be revised with each performance. And in that case, as Quinn noted in his study of The Legend of Good Women, to fully understand what the writer/performer intended, “you just had to be there.”