Other Chaucers

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By Isabella Lewis

This summer, I had the great pleasure of being the Undergraduate Research Scholar assisting in the Medieval English Department. My project, ‘Other Chaucers’, aimed to enhance the delivery of the second year histories module The Canterbury Tales by investigating the ways in which some key Tales were reimagined and recreated, both during Chaucer’s own lifetime and in the present day.

The first part of my scholarship focused principally on analysing some of Chaucer’s contemporaries. I was tasked with investigating some comparable contemporary retellings of Chaucer’s the Canterbury Tales – namely the Wife of Bath’s Tale and the Man of Law’s Tale. Because I hadn’t had the chance to read much medieval literature beyond the Canterbury Tales before, I found studying the contemporary tales really rewarding. Having the chance to do comparative extract analysis allowed me to really interrogate the reasons behind Chaucer’s narrative and stylistic decisions, whereas identifying the similarities across tales developed my understanding of medieval narrative conventions more broadly. I especially enjoyed the challenge of deciphering the Middle English language, although this did prove a real challenge at times!

For the second part of my scholarship, the focus of my research shifted from contemporary analogues to modern adaptations. This shift from medieval manuscripts to modern melodrama was an interesting transition, but I really do believe it was one which gave me a new perspective. My focus was specifically on the 2003 adaptations produced by the BBC. This short collection of a few select tales reimagines Chaucer’s narratives in a way that reflects the identity of British life today. If I’m being honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect from these modern retellings – seeing as I love the originals so much! – but I was really surprised to find the BBC tales were such insightful, challenging, and creative adaptations. Of course, these tales very much reflect the tone and values of the BBC, and although I was initially sceptical of the impact this would have on the tales, I now believe that it is this generic expectation that makes the BBC dramas so accessible and successful. The Tales themselves are truly creative retellings that pose challenging questions about the purpose, message, and legacy of Chaucer’s original works, and I greatly enjoyed analysing them.

Having considered the tales on the page and on the screen, it was time for me to consider them on the stage. Accordingly, the third part of my research brought me to Stratford-upon-Avon, the beautiful home of the RSC, the recreation ground, and innumerable swans. Here, I spent four informative (if not very hot and sunny) days working through the archives at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. My aim was to investigate as much material as I could lay my hands on relating to the 2005 RSC production of the Canterbury Tales. The script itself, adapted by Mike Poulton, is absolutely genius in its reimagining of the Tales and the tellers – the liveliness of the pilgrims is exaggerated yet further as they scrap, interrupt, and fight within and without the confines of their masterfully staged tales. I had been especially looking forward to this week of work because I am a keen archivist and have enjoyed my previous sessions at the Cadbury Research Library on campus. Of the 28 materials listed in the RSC archives relating to this production, I managed to access everything. Pouring over production records, prompt books, contract prints, costume bibles, and music manuscripts proved to be some really interesting reading. I was also given the chance to do my UGRS ‘Instagram takeover’ this week, which proved to be great fun, especially since I was in beautiful Stratford-upon-Avon for some of the sunniest days of the summer!

The final phase of my scholarship had me working very closely with my academic lead, Dr Olivia Robinson. Over a week and a half, we collated all the data I had collected in the previous weeks and used it to create some teaching resources to support the second year Canterbury Tales module. My final (and most challenging!) task was to write and record a podcast about the role of animals in the RSC’s Nun’s Priest’s Tale. I had to pool all of the knowledge I had learnt over the previous weeks and think really critically about the message of both the adaptation and the original tale. Despite the fact I had to constantly listen to my own voice on the recording (a truly traumatic experience), I really enjoyed this task and I am very proud with the final product. I really hope that my work proves helpful for student’s next year.

As I get ready to leave campus and officially begin my summer break, I can’t help but feel a bit sad that my work is drawing to a close. The Undergraduate Research Scholarship has been the most incredible and rewarding experience, and I feel that my skills have developed so much in just a short few weeks. I honestly can’t recommend the programme enough, and I couldn’t be more grateful to have had such a unique and important opportunity, one which I am sure will shape my future path for the better.

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