Friday 26 December 2008


You didn't think I was going to finish this one, did you? Well, I can't blame you - it HAS been sitting in the "What Colleen is reading now" section for what may seem like forever to you.

I, however, have been enjoying the prolonged and laid back relationship I've had with Late Medieval English Lyrics and Carols, 1400-1530 and so "forever" doesn't hold for me any negative connotations.

I started reading this collection several months ago in anticipation of finishing my PhD; specifically, I wanted to brush up on my middle English reading skills with the goal in mind of reading some medieval romances when I was free and clear.

Of course, I'm too tired right now to read much but kiddy lit, so I'm not sure when that might happen. But this collection has helped me keep my brain working in that direction because while I can read middle English, I wouldn't say I do so anymore without some difficulty - I'm way out of practice and so there's usually at least one word per poem that I don't know (thank goodness for the editor and his handy marginal notes).

You may think that middle English poetry is as boring as this post is turning out to be. No sir. I knew you'd think that and so here's a naughty poem for you:

There was a ladie leaned her backe to a wall;
He tokke uppe petticote, smocke and all;
He laid her legges uppon his knee;
It was as white as white might bee;
He took a thing that stiffe did stand,
And hunched her and punched her and made great game.
'O Godes bodie,' says she, 'fie, for shame!'
Yet he would not leave her so
But he did ease her and please her befor he would goo. (p. 147)

There are two things about this poem that blow my mind a little: 1) This is apparently a riddle, the answer to which is "A shoe"; 2) Who wrote, transcribed, and then preserved this poem so well that it ended up in a 20th-century anthology?

Thomas Duncan, the editor, doesn't answer these questions for me (likely because he can't) and so I can only assume that some pervy nobleman thought it would be a lark to keep a nice copy of this riddle. Also, I clearly don't know enough about cobbling (even though I apparently had an ancestor in Holland who was a cobbler circa 1400) to know how precisely this is about shoes and not, you know...swiving.

Speaking of swiving, I took an undergraduate honours seminar in Middle English Literature and one of the minor assignments was to consult the Middle English Dictionary and inform the class about the meaning of some word assigned by the prof. I was assigned "swive" which means either to screw or to fuck!! I was worried. I read that MED entry about a hundred times, assuming I was COMPLETELY misunderstanding and about to make ass of myself in class.

But I couldn't understand it any other way and so I went to class and I said "This word means 'to fuck'". My fellow students gasped, were shocked, thought I was crazy but the prof, who looks about as stern and conservative as you can imagine, said "Yes, that's correct. So, in 'The Miller's Tale'..." HA. But still, I count that as one of the most STRESSFUL school experiences of my life.

You may still be skeptical about my reading medieval poetry for fun. Don't be. I got hooked on the stuff in that same undergraduate class, and I can pinpoint my addiction to a particular reading moment. The first part of the course was super difficult because I was basically teaching myself this earlier version of modern English that sometimes seemed entirely unrelated to the English I spoke.

I was slogging through Sir Gawain and the Green Knight when I did a double take. My mental conversation went something like this: "Wait, what? Did I just...? Did he just...? Did the Green Knight's head just roll into Guinevere's feet? Did the Green Knight's body just go and pick up the head and did the head start talking? Oh my god, yes. THAT'S WHAT JUST HAPPENED. This is the best thing I've ever read!!!"

It was magical: not only was I breaking through comprehension-wise but I was also realizing that this was truly kick-ass early fantasy literature. That particular poem is much more than fantasy but the talking head was all that was required for me to become a middle English lit devotee - and soon I will have the energy to read more of it!

In the meantime, I think there's either some more kiddy lit or some 17th-century Chinese porn for me to read.

In anticipation of the coming new year, I will give you one more sampler from Duncan's kick-ass anthology:

Now ys comen a messyngere
Of yore Lorde, Ser Nu Yere,
Byddes us all be mery here
And make as mery as we way.
Hay, ay, hay, ay,
Make we mery as we may. (p. 154)

I'll see you in 2009 if not before! (I may manage to sneak in one last post.)


Anonymous said...

that is the most amazing and impossible "riddle" i have ever read.

Anonymous said...

I need someone to explain that riddle to me! I've not really read any Medieval English lit except Chaucer, maybe I should change that!

Yuri... said...

hmmm. Apparently the origin of my surname is tied to an ancestor in Holland who was also a shoemaker. However, the fact that cobbling runs in my blood apparently gives me no advantage with this riddle either...

Hey, maybe our cobbler ancestors had little shoe shops across the street from each other in a sleepy little low-country hamlet...

Have a great New Year :)

Bookphilia said...

Fathima: agreed!

Sarah: Yes, read more middle English lit! It's so kick ass. Except maybe Piers Plowman.

Yuri: Craziness. My family in Holland were surnamed Stryker/Struker/Striker - not much like your last name. Maybe they were fighting ninja cobblers protecting the world from rapacious noblemen...

Anonymous said...

Wanted to stop in and welcome you to the Support Your Local Library Challenge. If you haven't already, feel free to join us at the Yahoo Groups where others are participating in this challenge as well as others.