On Thursday, April 25th, the Colby English department hosted a launch party for Assistant Professor of English Megan Cook’s new book, titled The Poet and the Antiquaries: Chaucerian Scholarship and the Rise of Literary History, 1532-1635. Professor Cook, along with Professor of History Elizabeth Leonard, was a co-sponsor of the 2018-19 Center for the Arts and Humanities theme, “The Presence of the Past.” Her suggestion of this theme was inspired by her own research into the history of the humanities.
That Thursday, Professor Cook discussed her book through the format of an interview with Assistant Professor of Spanish Anita Savo before a packed room. She explained the book’s core argument: that Chaucer’s identity was consciously constructed by the Renaissance English, with the goal of creating the ideal founder of the English literary tradition—a tradition informed by non-literary concerns such as national pride and religion.
Professor Cook came to this conclusion while reading the introductions and prefaces of hundreds of different copies of Chaucerian works. The presence of these introductions distinguished the works as intended for studying, rather than reading for enjoyment. These introductions give Chaucer’s biography, even including such details as his family tree (which claims to show how he is related to two kings), while generally ignoring his poetry. Professor Cook stated that this was the first moment in the history of English literature when people began to study the author rather than the text. Now, the study of authors is a discipline of its own.
Professor Cook argued that these introductions reveal how the English of the Renaissance idealized and recreated the English of the Middle Ages to suit their own needs and agendas. She then contended that this is true of any time—that we are always recreating the past based on what we want it to be, and that therefore history written after the fact tells us more about the people who wrote it than about the time it purports to describe. “Every time we remake the past, we put something of ourselves into it,” she stated. “I’m totally uninterested in the ‘pure, true’ version of the middle ages.” Instead, she prefers to study how histories are made and remade. “This isn’t to say that studying the past is futile,” she pointed out. “But we’re always studying several levels—and I think that’s more interesting.”
If you’re interested in Chaucerian scholarship, be sure to purchase a copy of Professor Cook’s new book online here: http://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/book/15972.html For a 20% discount, enter the code “PP20” during checkout.
Written by Ayla Fudala, Environmental Humanities Program Coordinator