John Milton and Thomas Hobbes on the Natural State of Humanity

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Let me set the stage for you -England had been embroiled in civil war for nine years, from the opening battle at Edge Hill in 1642 to the trial/execution of King Charles I in January, 1649.

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The country was divided between those who saw authority resting with the King – Royalists – and those who believed in a consensual form of government  – Parliamentarians; between those who adhered to the Episcopal Church and those who saw Anglicanism as still needing to be purged of it similarities to Roman Catholicism, referred to as Puritans ; and between the emerging mercantile class (Roundheads ), who saw a future in free commerce and the aristocracy, whose prosperity was tied up in their inherited land, (Cavaliers ).

I have to add a caveat here – in now way can a blog post do justice to history or politics of the English Civil Wars.  What I would like to give you in this blog post is a broad-brush-stroke summary of what your textbook refers to as the crisis of authority.

In the opening to his trial, King Charles I challenges the very authority of the court: “I would know by what power I am called hither.” Charles with this question spoke to the fundamental issue that led to the civil war – does the law rest with the Crown or come from Parliament’s authority? Politically, the Civil Wars were the collision of two distinct ways the English understood their government. The first can be referred to absolute monarchy . This political philosophy assigned all legal authority to the monarch, with Parliament existing to enact the Crown’s will. Here authority was top-down in nature. So, if the King is law, how can the King be placed trial?

Conversely, those who supported Parliament ascribed to a consensual government. From this political perspective, authority rests with Parliament, which represents the will of the people. (People = men who were of the Anglican Church and property owners.) The monarch’s authority is circumscribed by law that Parliament sets forth. Here then is a bottom-up model of authority.

Not to point to fine of a point on the tension between absolute monarchy and consensual government, but the question at the heart of this conflict is whether people are rational beings or animals that most be governed. This question over human nature can be seen by putting in dialogue two key political philosophers of this period – John Milton and Thomas Hobbes.

“No man who knows aught, can be so stupid to deny that all men naturally were born free…”

Following Charles I’s beheading, John Milton took on  key role in the new government as Secretary of Foreign Tongues. Milton was responsible for defending Parliament’s execution of the King to the rest of Europe. The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649) sets out Milton’s justification in claiming that the role of kings was not to oppress their subjects with their will but to serve as deputies, maintaining justice. As he writes, “And to him that shall consider well why among free persons, one man by civil right should bear authority and jurisdiction over another, no other end or reason can be imaginable.” Milton hypothesizes that society is based on rational individuals agreeing to empower a person, the king, to ensure all are held up to the law: “It being thus manifest that the power of kings and magistrates is nothing else but what is only derivative, transferred and committed to them in trust from the people.” However, if the king attempts to place himself beyond the law, then those who gave him authority have themselves the authority to execute him. The law exists above the king. Tyranny, for Milton, comes when a king the places himself  above the law.

“And because the condition of man…is a condition of war of every one against every one”

Thomas Hobbes argues a different beginning point for society. In Leviathan (1651), Hobbes lays the foundation for his political theory on the basis that people outside of society will be in a constant state of war with each other. Here without some authority to keep everyone in check we will devolve into a war of all against all. Further, Hobbes suggests that even during those brief periods when one is not actively fighting another we live with the insecurity of being threatened by another:

Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of war, where every man is enemy to every man, the same is consequent to the time wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them withal.

In other words, peace can never exists in Hobbes’ natural state of humanity.

Now to understand how we escape such a condition, two terms are critical to know. First is what Hobbes refers to as our Right of Nature – the power given to us to do all in our power to achieve whatever ends we so desire. Within in Hobbes’ natural state, I have every right to take all my neighbor has. Conversely, my neighbor has no natural impediment to taking all I have. Even though at one moment we may not be attempting to take away from each other, the threat of either doing is always present. Without peace, agriculture, learning, architecture, art, relationships, economy – the basic building blocks of society cannot exist.

To escape this state of war, Hobbes sees only one way. The second critical term in Hobbes’ political philosophy is Liberty. Please understand he defines liberty much differently than we may. For Hobbes, Liberty is what we achieve when we forego our natural right to do all in our power to fulfill our desires. Doing so allows us all to pursue other ends and lead a more social life and reap the benefits. This agreement is Hobbes’ social contract.

Finally, and most importantly, to secure this peace all people in society must “confer all their power and strength upon one man… to submit their wills everyone to his will, and their judgment to his judgement.” The person Hobbes names the sovereign, whose word is the law.

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To return Charles I’s questioning of Parliaments’ right to try him, both Milton and Hobbes would answer this question in drastically opposing ways.


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Donne’s Unearthly Lovers

Let me start this blog off by proclaiming how much I love John Donne’s poetry.

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Beyond the beauty of his verse, his poems are just brilliantly intricate. He is able to take love poetry and turn it into an intellectual exercise. This quality of Donne’s poetry, his ability to explore an idea through multiple similes, has been referred to as his wit. One of the best examples of his wit comes through in his poem “Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”

The situation framing the poem is the speaker needing to depart from his beloved for a long period of time. The poem opens with a tableaux of a death bed, and the speaker pointing out how softly death comes:

As virtuous men pass mildly away,
   And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say
   The breath goes now, and some say, No:
So let us melt, and make no noise,
   No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
‘Twere profanation of our joys
   To tell the laity our love. (lns.1-8)


As softly as breathe leaves the dying body, the speaker tells his beloved so they must part. The speaker admonishes that if they were to grieve at their parting, they would then show their love to be of a lesser type, one that is carnal or predicated on their bodies:

Dull sublunary lovers’ love
   (Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
   Those things which elemented it.
But we by a love so much refined,
   That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
   Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss. (lns. 13-20)

The reference to “dull sublunary lovers’ love” whose soul is all sense are those lovers who are preoccupied with each other’s physical presence. (“Sublunary” here means those existing beneath the moon or earthly.) The type of love that the speaker and his beloved possess exists within their souls. Even going further, the speaker claims he and his beloved share the same soul. Donne’s concept of love here is grounded in the Neoplatonic theory of love.  Neoplatonists saw there being a hierarchy of love, with the love divorced from the body and existing in the mind as being highest form of love we could attain.

Then in the seventh stanza, the lovers become a compass.

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Each lover acts as a leg, with one circling the other, forming this image.

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The genius of this poem lies in how Donne connects all of the different conceits for the lovers. First, the lovers become the heavenly spheres encircling the earth. (Donne ascribed to a Ptolemaic, or Geocentric, cosmology.)

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Then the lovers are transformed into a compass, the one traveling around the other, creating the image above. But what about the image of the lovers as gold beaten into an airy thinness? Well, Donne does connect this metaphor of the lovers to the other two metaphors. Here’s the symbol of gold in alchemy:

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The important takeaway here regarding Donne’s poetry is that love is an intellectual experience, not one defined by the body.





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A Priest, a Maypole, and Paganism!


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If you are looking for a poet who celebrates sexuality, none can really top Robert Herrick (1591-1674).

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Despite being an Anglican priest, he wrote about giving up drinking and then falling back off the wagon (“His Farewell to Sack,” “The Welcome to Sack”), gawking at a woman from behind (“Upon Julia’s Clothes”), and wet dreams (“The Vine”). However, his poem that is most on my mind right now is “Corinna’s Gone A-Maying.” What Herrick describes is not as innocent as a group of children dancing around the Maypole.

The poem centers on the rites surrounding the first day of May, opening with the call to Corinna to come out a join the festivities. The poem calls on Corinna to dress and take no care for putting on jewelry for the May will deck her in signs of spring.

Get up, get up for shame, the Blooming Morne
Upon her wings presents the god unshorne.
                     See how Aurora throwes her faire
                     Fresh-quilted colours through the aire:
                     Get up, sweet-Slug-a-bed, and see
                     The Dew-bespangling Herbe and Tree. (1-6)

The poem goes on to describe how Corinna’s village has been transformed by spring into a verdant forest. Nature almost seems to reclaim the town with “each street a park/Made green and trimmed with trees; see how/ Devotion gives each house a bough/ Or branch” (lns. 30-33) What is fascinating is how the poem is how glorifies this pagan festival spring and pushes aside Christianity. Corinna is actually told to “be brief in praying” (ln. 27). (Again, this is an Anglican priest writing this poem!)

The fourth stanza presents the sexuality associate with going a-Maying. Young lovers have already become engaged Corinna has gotten out of bed.

And some have wept, and woo’d, and plighted Troth,
And chose their Priest, ere we can cast off sloth (lns. 49-50)

As you textbook glosses, the “green gown” has become so after rolling in the grass in amorous embrace. the final two lines of the stanza glimpses young lovers sneaking into each other’s rooms late at night.

Many a jest told of the Keyes betraying
This night, and Locks pickt, yet w’are not a Maying. (lns. 55-56)

Think the spring festivities Herrick describes as the modern-day equivalent to Burning Man.

Don’t think that the poem was simply just about a priest getting a young girl out for a quickie to celebrate May. You have to understand that Herrick was living through an incredibly turbulent period in English history, a time of the English Civil Wars.

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He was a cavalier , a person who drank, had random sex, led a hedonistic life, and wrote poetry celebrating all of it.

However, being a cavalier was a political choice in a way. In the first few decades of the 16th Century, the Puritans were gaining more power. Now, as I mentioned in an earlier post, the Puritans wanted to purify the English Church, hence get rid of anything that was not strictly mentioned in the Bible. While they had their sights mostly on the institution of bishops, there were other parts of English culture they wanted to get rid of, particularly the May festivals. (The May Festivals had been a significant aspect of English village culture. In 1617, James I’s government issued the Declaration of Sports, that listed May games as the activities that were permitted on Holy Days. His son Charles I reissued it in 1633. Some saw it as a way for Charles to gain control over those Puritan preachers, who resisted his attempts to stress uniformity within the Anglican Church.)Parliament, mainly controlled by the Puritan factions, actually banned May festivals and Christmas in 1644. Yes, the Puritans cancelled Christmas!

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(Their primary reasoning was two-fold: Christmas has the word “mass” in it [hence, Catholic – a religion the Puritans rejected] and is pagan at its roots, which it is.) Okay, back to Herrick. Well, in writing a poem celebrating a pagan fertility rite, especially what was endorsed by the Episcopal Church, Herrick was participating in a larger social, political, religious fight. Who knew that drinking and living a lascivious life could be so meaningful?


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Shakespeare’s Henry V – Creation of a National Hero

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Let’s start by pointing out that Henry V is the last play in Shakespeare’s second Henriad, the tetralogy of plays dealing with four monarch – Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, and Richard III.  The second Henriad, which includes Richard II, Henry IV part 1 and 2, and Henry V, begins with the King Richard II’s being deposed by Henry Bolingbroke, who will become Henry IV, and is Henry V’s father. Now, Henry IV’s reign is marked by civil war. (Dethroning a sitting monarch does tend to have consequences.)

Hal, as Henry V is called before becoming king, first appears in the plays as a careless, reckless miscreant. He spends his time in taverns, befriending criminals and drunkards, the most famous of which is Sir John Falstaff. Known for his being enormously fat and quick-witted, Falstaff is the comic relief of the plays, always tempting Hal. Because of his adventures with Falstaff, Hal had gained a poor reputation. His misspent youth Henry V mentions in his response to the French ambassador:

And we understand him well,
How he comes o’er us with our wilder days,
Not measuring what use we made of them. (I.ii.416-18)

Eventually, Hal reconciles with his father, apologizing for days neglecting his duties as prince, and helps him to quell the rebellions throughout England. On April 9th, 1413, Hal ascends the throne as King Henry V. Much of the second Henriad, covering 1397-1422, has to deal with national unity. All of this is the history that leads up to the opening of Henry V.

“Turning th’ accomplishment of many years/Into an hourglass”

Shakespeare’s play takes as its subject matter Henry V’s campaign in north France in 1415, ending in 1420 with his marriage and the Treaty of Troyes and foreshadowing his death in 1422 at the age of 35 .

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The play opens with  the Chorus explaining what Shakespeare and his fellow actors are attempting to do – retelling this history through a play. However, the Chorus points out how unfit the theater is for such a monumental task

But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: (Prologue, 9-12)

To help them bring Henry V back to life on their stage, the Chorus asks the audience to cloth them with their imaginations:

O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide on man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth; (Prologue, 16-28)

You have to understand that the Renaissance stage was bare-bones – not much in the way of scenery. Shakespeare’s language had to paint the scene in his audience’s mind.

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”

What audiences almost always remember about Henry V are his two monologues urging his troops on into battle. The first of these happens at the beginning of Act III at the besiege of Harfleur. His troops, having been beaten back, Henry rallies to charge again:

On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders, 1
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call’d fathers did beget you.(III.i.17-23)

And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;(III.i.25-28)

Notice how he seeks to inspire his troops, by appealing to their sense of national identity, their English-ness.

Again, Henry takes a similar tactic in his monologue in Act IV, famously known as his St. Crispin’s Day speech (IV.iii.18-67), on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt. To set the context for this speech, the English vastly outnumbered by the French, starving, sickness-ridden, and in despair. Even Henry’s commanders see no hope and wishing for those men in England who did not come on the campaign.

In response to his troops loss of heart is to argue that the fewer here will be even more remember for this battle. That all of these men, nobles and commons from all throughout the English kingdom (England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland) , will be united by their part in this battle. That through their shared experience, they will become brothers with each other

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.()

So, Shakespeare’s distinguishes Henry V’s leadership/ bond with his troops in two ways – through his appeal to their shared identity as Englishmen and through their experience as soldiers, which overcomes all divides.  (Take note to how Shakespeare introduces characters who are ruffians, who are Welsh, Scottish, and Irish.)

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that Shakespeare’s portrayal of Henry V is one-dimensional, or unequivocal. Throughout the play, Henry threatens or commits acts that are morally questionable at best. Consider his deceiving the traitors (Scroop, Cambridge and Grey) into their death; the hanging of Bardolph, a friend from his youth; his threats to the mayor of Harfleur; his speech absolving himself of his soldiers’ death in battle; and his having his soldiers slay their prisoners. Shakespeare’s nuanced depiction of Henry V is what elevates the play beyond jingoism.


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Marie de France

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Marie de France was a 12th Century author who wrote between roughly 1160 and 1215 and is consider the pinnacle of Anglo-Norman literature. We know so little about her life that scholars aren’t quite sure which Marie she is. We know she was French, as her most famous works were written in a dialect of French spoken in Paris at the time. As her works have been found most commonly scattered throughout England, we can assume she most likely lived there as an adult. She attained a high level of education, being both literate and multilingual; based on those facts we can presume she was a fairly prominent figure, potentially an abbess or Henry II’s half-sister. Her works were widely popular throughout England and well known at the court of Henry II.

Having a French author writing in French while living in England would have been a commonplace occurrence in 12th Century England. In 1066, a leader named William the Conqueror (the Duke of Normandy in what is now Northern France) led an army to England and conquered the realm. The invaders installed themselves as the new nobility, with William as King of England, and made the English their servants. French became the language of the nobility in England for centuries after. 

Marie’s most famous work is a series of poems known as the “Lais of Marie de France.” Lais were a form of poetry often used by travelling Breton minstrels. Marie took the form and made it her own, being the first to use the lai for narrative poetry. Her stories are one of the best examples we have of the courtly love tradition, filled with love triangles, adultery, loss, adventure – even, at times, fairies. Marie skirts reality, with strong elements of Celtic folklore woven throughout. Her settings are fully realistic, but her characters are sometimes more supernatural. One lai, Bisclavret, even features a werewolf as a protagonist.

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Courtly love is one of the biggest traditions in medieval European literature. The typical structure of a courtly love story involves a knight seeing a lady at court and then pursuing ever greater feats in an attempt to win her affections. In general, the love the knight feels is ennobling: it causes him to go on adventures, risk life and limb, and generally do what he can to improve his reputation, his position at court, and (usually) the kingdom. The lady typically acts as catalyst for the knight’s actions but has little else to do. The relationships themselves are typically unconsummated.

In Marie’s lais, however, courtly love is a bit more active. Women have a much stronger role. Women in some of her tales are adulterous, usually seeking to get some space from a forced marriage to an abuser or a much older man. Even in the best cases, however, love causes the lovers to suffer. There are very rarely any happy relationships in the way we would think of them today. In Marie’s world, lovers can be loyal to each other, but they will suffer, sometimes die, for that love.



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Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales

Frame Story:

Chaucer sets up his collection of stories as his chance meeting in tavern Southwark, where in he encounters 29 pilgrims on their way to Canterbury and the shrine to St. Thomas a Beckett, the Archbishop Canterbury (1163-1170) murdered on the orders of King Henry II.

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The catalyst that starts the tales is the barkeep, Barry Bailey, proposing that to occupy their time on they way to Canterbury that each pilgrim tell four tales, two on the way to and two on the way back, and he will choose the best tale. In total, The Canterbury Tales by design should contain 120 tales. However, since Chaucer never finished his master piece, the text that we have is fragmentary and incomplete.

Chaucer was not the first to write such a collection of stories. The literary tradition of an author setting up a bunch of stories by having a series of characters have a story-telling contest started with Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron ( pub. 1353), which may very well have inspired Chaucer to write The Canterbury Tales.

Now, the structure of The Canterbury Tales has each pilgrim introduced with prologue, where she or he comments on the prior tale told, and a tale reflective of themselves. For example, The Canterbury Tales opens with the Knight, the highest in social ranking among the pilgrims, telling of Palamon and Arcites, two imprison knights and cousins, who have fallen in love with the same woman, Emelye. The Knight’s Tale is a romance in the courtly love tradition.

What’s important to understand is that the pilgrims’ tales are all different types of stories. The Canterbury Tales contains fabliaux, parables, fables, and romances. The Canterbury Tales does have consistent order or unifying theme to it. Rather, it is chaotic with each tale being determined by the teller.

The Miller’s Tale

Image result for canterbury tales characters millerChaucer sets up the Miller’s Tale in an interesting way – by actually apologizing for having to retell it. In the prologue to his tale, the Miller drunkenly claims that he must “requite” the knight for his tale and claims that he will tell a ribald tale of cuckoldry involving a carpenter, his wife, and their lodger Nicholas, a lustful clerk. Already, Chaucer is setting up how different of a tale the Miller will tell. The Knight, characteristically, offers a tale of courtly romance. On the other hand, the Miller is going to give to us a fabliau, a story that centers on the common folk and the hijinks of illicit sex.

One of the best ways I have ever heard to define a fabliau was as a long extended dirty joke. The genre, originating in France in the 12th-century, deals with a wife cheating on her husband or a young man tricking an unsuspecting young woman into having sex. In many fabliaux, the husband or father-figure will come off as naive and fall prey to a more cunning wife or her lover. A fabliau will contain references to bodily humor and crude language. To that end, the fabliau is more authentic in its depiction of everyday life, which may explain why it was so popular. One could make the argument that fabliaux through humor undercut or defuse the male anxiety of being cuckolded.

One question that readers of The Canterbury Tales have to contend with is why would Chaucer have the Knight’s Tales followed by that of the Miller.

The Wife of Bath

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From her introduction in the General Prologue (lns. 447-478), the Wife of Bath, or Allison, stands out among the pilgrims. First, she is the only one not identified through a profession or clerical position. She is more traveled than most of the other pilgrims, for she has been to Jerusalem three times, Rome, Bologna and Cologne. (Also, take note to how she is journeying alone.) She is described much through much of her sexual life – her having five husbands and “Withouten other compaignye in youthe.” While modern readers may understand may see the Wife of Bath as anticipating the modern empowered woman, Chaucer is responding to a contemporary debate on the spiritual merit of marriage.

Your textbook (pg. 282) refers to St. Jerome’s treatise on marriage (circa 393 CE), in which he condemns marriage as lower spiritual life than virginity. He writes: “My reply is, just because we have such organs below our waist and have the desire to use them in intercourse, that does not mean we are required to use them all the time, or that we cannot choose a higher way of life than engaging in the activities that join us to the animals.” Jerome goes on to argue that wives are needy both sexually and materialistically and trick their husbands into marriage by appearing to be someone they are not.  In her Prologue, the Wife of Bath responds to in general this condemnation of marriage and women. Her argument is that while whose who rail against marriage do so on just bookish authority, she has her own experience to support her claim we were made to “engendure.”

The tale Alisoun tells takes the form of an Arthurian quest. Her story is of knight who having committed rape has a year to find the answer to the question of what all women most desire. Failing this quest would mean the knight’s life. As the time to find an answer draws near, he meets an old, poor woman who claims to know the answer to his quest. Upon returning to the court, the knight gives his answer that what all women most desire is to have sovereignty over their husbands. In recompense for her helping the knight, she demands that he marries her, which he is forced to do. The tale resolves on the knight deciding what type of wife he wants.

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The Fall and Rise of English in England

The Norman Invasion

Last week we explored the earliest form of our language, that of the Anglo-Saxons. Now we are moving ahead to the next period in the development of our language, known as Middle English, and this period starts in 1066 with William the Conqueror.

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The Anglo-Saxons were not a unified people but were rather a bunch of tribes constantly fighting among themselves. Not until William, the Conqueror did what we know as England today have a ruling monarch. William’s conquest of the Anglo-Saxons culminated in the Battle of Hasting in 1066. Through his reign, William brought stability to England, albeit through subjugation of the Anglo-Saxons.

Connecting this back to the history the English language, it is important to remember that William was from Normandy and would have spoken an older form of French.

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English becomes the peasant language

With William’s conquest, French became the language spoken by the ruling class. For the next two centuries, the monarchs and French would have been the language of the nobility.  English, on the other hand, was the language spoken by the peasantry, the majority of the population. You can see this class distinction in English today. Consider the words chicken vs. poultry, cow vs. beef, or pig vs. pork. Notice how the word for the food from the animal is French, while the name of the animal is derived from Old English.

While the monarchs for the next three centuries would identify as French, the Anglo-Normans gradually became culturally distinct and intermarried with the Anglo-Saxon population. In 1204, King John of England, brother to King Richard the Lionheart and the one depicted as the villain in the Robin hood tales, lost the English monarchy’s hold on Normandy. Eventually from 1337 to 1453, England participated in an intermittent war with France to regain their control of Normandy, known as the Hundred Years War. (We are actually going to read about part of the Hundred-Year War in Shakespeare’s Henry V.) By this point, the monarchs of England saw themselves as uniquely English.

It is as this point, roughly the 14th Century, English again becomes the predominant language spoken, although by this point it had changed quite a  lot. In how the language is spoken (phonology), how words are spelled (orthography), and what words exist in the language (lexicology),  English starts to resemble more what we speak today. Here’s sample from the opening lines of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffery Chaucer:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,

And bathed every veyne in swich licour

Of which vertu engendred is the flour,

Though the spelling may be slightly different, most modern-speakers of English can recognize many of the words. (“shoures”=”showers,” “droghte”=”draught,” “perced”=”pierced,” “swich”=”such,” and “licour”=”liquour.”) Also, take note to how these lines of poetry contain words that derive from both Old English (“droghte,” “swich,” “Whan,” and “soote”) and Old French (“engendered,” “veyne,” “licour,” and “perced”).  At this point, English took in many loan words from French.

Here’s how these lines of verse sound:


Three points I want to make about how Middle English was spoken. First, Middle English had many different dialects – the English of London was not pronounced the same as that in the Midlands. (Chaucer writers in a London dialect.) Also, the way vowels sounded is different than the way we say them today. For example, the “y” in “every” today has a long “e” sound, whereas in Middle English it had a long “a” sound.  Another example is in the pronunciation of “shoures,” Middle English for “showers.” Today we say the vowel in this word with the same sound as in “bow.” In Middle English, this word would have a vowel sound similar to the long “o” in “boot.” Historian of the English language refer to this change in how vowels sound as the Great Vowel Shift.

These opening lines to Geoffrey Chaucer’s General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales embody the English language’s evolution at this point.

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Meet the Anglo-Saxons


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First, you must understand that England is a land that has been conquered many times over. The earliest culture to inhabit that island were the Celts, who first came to the British Isle during the Bronze Age. The Romans colonized the island and some of the Celtic tribes, with their rule lasting from 43 ca. to roughly the fifth century. The literature we begin the course with comes from the peoples who would push the Celts into the western parts of Britain, the Anglo-Saxons.

Christianizing of Pagan Warriors

The Anglo-Saxons were a Germanic peoples, coming from Saxony and Anglia, or modern-day Germany and Denmark.

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The Angle-Saxons brought with them an entirely different culture the native Celts, referred to by the Romans as the Britons. The Britons had readily adopted Roman civilization and, most importantly, Christianity. The Anglo-Saxons were pagans, which meant they did not have a conception of an afterlife. However, Christianity does make its way into Anglo-Saxon literature, which is mainly due to Anglo-Saxon being an oral culture. In 597, St. Augustine came to Kent as a missionary to Christianize the Anglo-Saxons.

Image result for st. augustine of canterbury

With the Christianizing of the Anglo-Saxons, much of their oral poems are written down by Benedictine monks. A fascinating aspect of Anglo-Saxon poetry is the integrating of Christian beliefs and Anglo-Saxon warrior ethic. (When defining the Anglo-Saxon Warrior ethic, the idea primarily focused on the pledge made by a lord’s retainer to defend and, if necessary, die in battle for his lord. This ethic valued violence, strength, and worldly exploits over passivity and spirituality.) The dream poem, “The Dream of the Rood,” shows this integration as the Rood, or the Cross, recounts Christ’s Crucifixion.

Further, with Anglo-Saxons came the first origins of the English Language, known as Old English. Here’s a sample of what Old English looks like:

Oft him anhaga           are gebideð

metudes miltse,           þeah þe he modcearig

geond lagulade            longe sceolde

hreran mid hondum    hrimcealde sæ

wadan wræclastas.      Wyrd bið ful aræd!

These are the opening lines to “The Wanderer,” which translates to “Often the solitary man finds grace for himself the mercy of the lord, although he, sorry-hearted, must for a long time row along the waterways, along the ice-cold sea, tread the paths of exile.” Also, here’s a Youtube clip of what this version of English may have sounded like:

If this language looks and sounds foreign appears, that is because the English Language has evolved so much over nearly 1400 years.

“longing for a hall    and a lord of rings” – The Comitatus

In surveying Anglo-Saxon culture, the social structure of the comitatus, the pledge of allegiance between the a thegn, or thane, and his warlord. The Anglo-Saxons were not united under one king but were really a bunch of competing tribes. These tribes were based on the loyalty between the thegn  and the warlord. John M. Hill outlines the tenets of this loyalty

between retainer and warlord, as especially enacted by the exchange of gifts for services and services for gifts; revenge obligation regarding injury or death, on behalf of kinsmen as well as for one’s lord; and fame-assuring battle courage, especially in a successful outcome – battlefield victory – seems impossible.

This symbol of loyalty between the thegn and the warlord appears as the warlord bestowing a ring to his thegn. (In the prologue to Beowulf, Hrothgar is noted for giving out rings to his warriors.) Now one of the worst acts a thegn could do was to betray his pledge, or be an oath-breaker. Doing so would make one an outcast with no home. (This sorrow of being without a lord comes through in “The Wanderer.” Here the speaker describes his “longing for a hall and a lord of rings” (ln. 25).) As you read “The Wanderer” and the excerpt from Beowulf, keep an eye out for how the importance of oaths being kept comes across. You could be nothing worse in the Anglo-Saxon culture than an “oath-breaker.”

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Wikipedia as a scene of writing,pt. 4 (final)

The semester is finishing up, and I am finalizing my students’ grades. This is the second term that I have had students work through the Wikipedia project, adopting and becoming an editor of an article of their choosing. As with any project that we do with our students, I know that the Wikipedia project will continue to evolve. What I want to share in this final blog post is an outline of the final part of the Wikipedia project, some students’ responses to the project, and some thoughts on how I will revise the project.

Wikipedia Wrap-Up

The question I have my students focus on in the final writing for the project is whether the premise of Wikipedia, i.e. that a decentralized, self-policing community can produced an accurate online encyclopedia, that edits should be judged on merit not on credentials of the editor, and that by allowing universal edits a Wikipedia article will represent all major views on a topic, works. While editing their chosen article, students gain the real-life experience of working on an online published documents collaboratively with editors outside of the classroom; however,when it comes to the wrap-up for the project, I ask my students to reflect on their own experience to make an overall statement about the legitimacy of Wikipedia. Students come to our classes with preconceived ideas about Wikipedia, most, honestly, not based on personal experience but rather on teacher admonishments. I hope that some of these ideas are problematized for my students through actually attempting to edit their articles.

Not all students find that Wikipedia works. A really fascinating aspect of this project for me is the diversity of my students’ experiences. Some students find an active community built around their chosen article and other Wikipedians challenging their edits, while others receive little to no feedback or response. I ask students to consider how important was the interaction or lack of to the quality of the article. That is, Wikipedia counts on an active community of volunteer editors to ensure the neutrality and accuracy of its content. Is this faith misplaced? In addition to reflecting on their own experience, students also relate evaluation of Wikipedia to two other texts, dealing with the merit of the website, that we had read throughout the term. Here’s the list of texts that guide our conversation about Wikipedia:

Katherine Mangu-Ward’s “Wikipedia and Beyond: Jimmy Wales’ Sprawling Vision”

Clay Shirky’s “Wikipedia – An Unplanned Miracle”

Jon Brodkin’s “The 10 biggest hoaxes in Wikipedia’s first 10 years”

The clips from The Colbert Report on “Wikiality” and “Wikilobbying”

Will Oremus’s “Wikipedia’s ‘Sockpuppet’ Problem”

Timothy Messer-Kruse’s “The ‘Undue Weight’ of Truth on Wikipedia”

(All of these texts can be found online with a quick Google search.)

NoeNothing, Inmemoryofbabyluna, Sunshinebird28, and Philip121

Above are some of the usernames that my students took as Wikipedians. (I was very glad that my lecture to them about protecting their identity when online took!) I would like to highlight some of my students’ experiences as Wikipedians. Now there some common themes among my students’ final thoughts on their semester-long projects. For those students whose chosen articles were not very active, there was a general sense of frustration. One such student wrote: “[The] only reliable feedback that I got were minor tweaks to my edits made by other editors. I would like to [have received] some kind of feedback because writing something that no one gives criticism to is pointless.” While this student’s time editing may have seemed wasted to him, I would argue that he came learn the importance of receiving response to his writing.

Another common theme fThank you, Danny Troopor my students was their being forced to more in-depth their topics. Many students remarked that for a typical research essay they would perform some cursory research, gather the required number of sources and cite them throughout the paper. However, when editing Wikipedia, students noted that they had to go beyond what a Google search would turn up to discover new, vital information to contribute. I want to quote in length a passage from a students’ progress report on their edits, mainly because I think speaks to a struggle that many composition instructors encounter:

I felt as if every time I found something new on my topic, I just read further into the article that i was working on and found that it was just in a different subtopic than I had expected…I know that we had discussed different ways of doing research and how you can find great sources. But 80% of the time I just look at the first couple of articles that pop up on Google when I type in my preferred topic I’m researching…After this discussion we went to the library and found books on our topic. This really helped me out. I found books on my topic with way more information on my article than what was popping up on top of the Google search.

In my composition course, we have frequent conversations about how to research, gather material, using search engines other than Google. What this student’s comment helped me to realize was that no matter the amount of directing our students away from just relying on Google, most research essay assignments don’t challenge our students to do so. Or, if we require our students to use library databases, such as ProQuest or LexisNexis, it becomes just an imposed obstacle for our students. However, in having them edit a Wikipedia article, students come to appreciate the value of going beyond a Google search. Doing so becomes a meaningful part of the project!

A surprise for me that came out of my students’ experience was how many would continue to edit their articles even after the course was over. Out of my three composition courses this term, three students were asked to invite to become a part of select groups of editors on a topic. A student, who spent the term editing the article “Cannabis in the United States,” wrote, “Continuing, I have not had any monumental interactions with fellow editors, but through helping my… Wikipedia article, I have been invited to be a part of the WikiProject Cannabis, a WikiProject dedicated to improving articles related to Cannabis.” As a writing professor, my goal is to help my students see the value of their voice for conversation defining their social, political, cultural moment. The benefit of Wikipedia is that it allows students to participate in these conversations beyond the artificial community of our classrooms.

Final Thought

I want to finish this series of blog posts on the Wikipedia project by considering a question that Caitlin Martin poses in her blog post on Kuhne and Creel’s TETYC article on having students edit Wikipedia. Martin raise insightful questions about the merits of this project, many of which had me reconsidering what I was doing in the classroom. While I don’t wish to take on all of the questions that she poses, I would like to address her concern regarding the writing strategies that students develop through such editing Wikipedia. Martin writes,”What will happen when a student is asked to write a research paper in his or her history class, and he or she simply does not have the writing strategies necessary to complete the assignment effectively?” A very legitimate question! Part of how I address this concern is by having student also write what may be seen as more traditional essays, such response essays and argumentative synthesis essays, practices process writing; however, these writing projects do tie back to their work on Wikipedia. (For example, the topic for their argumentative synthesis comes out of the research for their editing of Wikipedia.)

Pertaining to the actual writing that students do on Wikipedia, it goes beyond simply summarizing and paraphrasing sources.  I require students to justify every edit they will make by posting in the Talk section. Here students argue for why their proposed edit is significant and must engage other editors. This part of the project is dependent on their being an active community around the article, something that I am going to check from now before recommending articles to students. Overall, student here argue for the merit of their research, a skill that is absolutely transferable to other writing situations. 

My intent in having written this series of posts on the Wikipedia project has been both selfish and altruistic. Selfish in that I want to take the chance to reflect on what I am doing with composition courses; altruistic in that I want to share what I think may be working to encourage student writing to other teachers. For this latter part, I have included all my handouts for the project. (Below are the assignment sheets for the progress reports and the Wikipedia wrap-up.) If you have the chance, please leave me your thoughts.

First Progress Report

Second Progress Report

Wikipedia Wrap-up




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Wikipedia as a Scene of Writing, pt. 3

This week’s post is devoted to laying out the semester-long Wikipedia project. As with all facets of our courses, this project has  and is very much evolving from its earliest version. Actually my Wikipedia project itself stems from a writing assignment that my then dean, Andy Anderson, recommended, which still holds a central place in the project.

Step 1: Evaluating Wikipedia

So in the conversations about Wikipedia, I ask my students to visit the Wikipedia page on the 5 Pillars.  Essentially what these are core principles by which the Wikipedian community works. I usually devote an entire class discussing and unpacking each of these pillars, understanding how each relates to the underlying belief that a self-policing community of volunteer editors would be able to maintain such a powerful source of knowledge. The pillar that I spend the most time on pertains to Wikipedia’s neutrality policy:

We strive for articles that document and explain the major points of view, giving due weight with respect to their prominence in an impartial tone. We avoid advocacy and we characterize information and issues rather than debate them. In some areas there may be just one well-recognized point of view; in others, we describe multiple points of view, presenting each accurately and in context rather than as “the truth” or “the best view”. All articles must strive for verifiable accuracy, citing reliable, authoritative sources, especially when the topic is controversial or is on living persons. Editors’ personal experiences, interpretations, or opinions do not belong.

Here I encourage my students to consider the difference that Wikipedia implies between neutrality and objectivity – that a Wikipedia article will acknowledge the controversy on a topic and will look to present and give due weight to recognized points of view. (Here I usual ask students how we might be able to determine major and minor points of view on a topic.)

The discussion of neutrality on Wikipedia leads into the first writing assignment. I ask students to select a Wikipedia article from a list I give them, emphasizing they should choose a topic they can imagine spending the term researching. After reading through the article and “Talk” page, I ask students to find 3-4 sources that were not cited in the Wikipedia article. From these sources, students identify key pieces of information that were omitted from the Wikipedia article. Based on their research, students evaluate the Wikipedia article to see whether it adheres to the neutrality pillar. (To help students wrap their minds around the assignment, I suggest a hypothetical: what if your only source of information about President George W. Bush was the Wikipedia article on him? Further, what if the article did not mention at all the Afghanistan or Iraq Wars? Would you then have an accurate view of his presidency? The idea here is that bias can be created through omission.)

Wikipedia Essay

The pitfall that some students encounter is that they understand the assignment as a typical informative research paper, one which the Wikipedia article simply becomes just one of the sources they cite. The best way I have come up with for anticipating this problem is by emphasizing for students that this is not an essay about the topic of the Wikipedia article but rather about the article itself . In other words, the essay is not meant to inform the reader about, say, school bullying in the United States, but the purpose is to evaluate the Wikipedia article on this topic. I remind my students that their essay should support their conclusion on how the article needs to change. (Given the complexity of the assignment, I am very generous in allowing my students to revise their submissions.)

Step 2: Wikipedia, What’s it Good For?

Once students have completed this part of the project, we have a class devoted to beginning editing their chosen Wikipedia article. Now there is quite a lot of content that I cover with my students in this class meeting, but the three major topics we deal with are 1) the parameters of the editing part of the project (I have image of the assignment sheet below), 2) the need to stay safe online, and 3) the user-interface for making edits on Wikipedia.

Here’s an image of the Wikipedia project assignment sheet:

Wikipedia Project

At this point, students will have done some cursory research on their topic. Based on the research, they have a starting point to make some edits. Students can be resistant to this part of the project. A common complaint that students have voiced to me is that the article is “perfect” and does not need to be edited. When I encounter this response, I ask students to visit the “talk” section of the article to see what other editors have to say about the article. Sometimes doing so gives my students  springboards for their edits. Another concern students have is that they are not experts in the topic and so have no right to edit the article. To this I like remind my students that Wikipedia is not for professionals or experts in the field – it is for those who care about the topic and want to ensure that the most accurate and neutral information is available. Further, I try to encourage them by pointing out that they do have a right to voice what they have learned through their research.

Here’s are some more tips that I have learned so far in introducing the overall Wikipedia project to my students:

1) Make sure that you are also an active Wikipedian. (During this class I introduce students to the Wikipedia article, “Works by Francis Bacon,” that I have been editing over the past three years under the username Atownnative. I will make an edit in class as a model for my students.)

2) Although a bit dated, show students this Youtube video on how to edit a Wikipedia article. (When students create their Wikipedia accounts, they will have to do so outside of the classroom. Wikipedia allows only one account to be created at a time on the same IP address.)

3) Discuss with students how to stay safe online. (I advise my students not to create usernames that in any way relate to their real life identities. Also, I warn them from giving out any personal information to other Wikipedia users – all communication should be done via website and not from personal emails.)

4) Finally, set some class time aside throughout the term so that students can work on their edits. You may have to reserve a computer lab for this part. (Even the most web savvy students will need some help making their edits through Wikipedia’s interface. You should become very familiar with how to do operate the edit feature on Wikipedia.)

My next post on the Wikipedia project will cover the progress reports and overall where I see the project being successful and where I would like to improve it.

Here are the above assignment sheet in WordDoc format:

Wikipedia Essay Assignment Sheet

Editing Wikipedia Semester Project

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