As those who’ve traipsed over to the About page may already know, this year I hold a Harrison McCain Foundation Visiting Professor Fellowship at Acadia University (Wolfville, Nova Scotia). The fellowship was established by the foundation set up in honour of the late Harrison McCain—yes, of Superfries® fame!—to foster academic and pedagogical collaboration between Acadia professors and colleagues at other institutions. As an Acadia alumnus (MA ’07), I am particularly excited to return to my former home at the Department of English & Theatre Studies to work with Professor K.S. Whetter and his students.
Our project, “Teaching Boethius via Chaucer: Exploring the Chivalric Ethos through The Knight’s Tale,” focuses on Chaucer’s attitude to Boethius as well as approaches to teaching Chaucer and Boethius in an undergraduate classroom. We use the imprisonment of the two Theban knights, Palamon and Arcite, Arcite’s mortal wound, and the concluding speeches by Theseus and Egeus as sites for interrogating how Chaucer interwove Boethian philosophical themes into chivalric romance. Chaucer, who famously translated Boethius’ Latin De consolatio philosophiae into his native Middle English, introduced these weighty topics into the Knight’s Tale, producing a much more philosophical and tragic narrative than was usual for medieval romance—romance being the literary genre most commonly associated with chivalry. Chaucer, however, takes the usual action-adventure tropes of romance and significantly modifies the genre by incorporating substantial Boethian themes into the knighthood-adventure-love formula typical of romance. This Boethian framework of the Knight’s Tale is well accepted by scholars, but more needs to be done with it, especially the ways in which Chaucer—as is his wont—mixes contradictory emotions and tropes, creating a tale which is simultaneously a tragic and philosophic love story and also a story with a happy ending. What has not thus far been acknowledged is the extent to which these contradictions themselves endorse and ignore Boethian philosophy.
I spent a little under two weeks at Acadia in mid-October and joined Prof. Whetter’s English 2163: Arthurian Literature course for a series of sessions on Chrétien de Troyes’ Knight of the Cart (Lancelot). The students had already read Yvain and so were familiar with some of Chrétien’s tropes and concerns. My first day with them consisted of a lecture on Boethius and a brief overview of the Consolation of Philosophy, including its major points such as the transience of this world, the pursuit of higher truths, and, most important for our reading that week, Fortune’s Wheel. The students had received a short excerpt of the Consolation (Book I, poem 1 to prose 4)—sort of a teaser for the whole text. I was delighted with the students’ engagement with Boethius, particularly when two of them told me after class that they felt they absolutely must read the whole thing now! (We agreed that they probably shouldn’t start until after the semester was over.) In the next three sessions Prof. Whetter and I took a team-teaching approach to discussing Chrétien’s Lancelot, and the class offered many thoughtful comments about and insights into the love of Lancelot and Guinevere, the complexities of chivalric identity and codes, and the Boethian echoes in the text. I’m looking forward to incorporating much of this discussion in my “Reading the Middle Ages: the Heroic and the Chivalric” course next semester at Brock’s Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.
Visiting Nova Scotia is always a treat, but visiting during the autumn is especially lovely. Last year when I stopped by Wolfville after the excellent Atlantic Medieval Association conference, the leaves hadn’t yet started to change. This year, only a few weeks later, I was met with splendour. Wolfville is a very lovely town—great shops, cafes, restaurants, and very friendly peoples at every turn. I can’t wait until next semester when I return for another bout of teaching (Tolkien this time) and then next summer when I spend several weeks with Prof. Whetter working on the written component of our project.