Middle English at the Kitchen Table

Middle English at the Kitchen Table

Note: We are delighted to welcome Jessica Isaac, our new Curriculum and Program Director, to the Notebook as well as to the Books@Work team!  Jessica joined us as of June 1st, bringing a range of experience in academia – including literature, literacy, pedagogy, composition and culture – and a real energy for sharing literature and the arts with others. Her addition to the team strengthens our ability to deliver against our mission and to reach more readers! Please help us to welcome Jessica!

At the small branch of the University of Nebraska system I attended as an undergraduate, we had only one specialist in English’s Anglo-Saxon roots. As luck would have it, when I took “History of the English Language” for my English major, he was on leave. Filling in for him was Chuck Peek, a specialist in Faulkner and early twentieth-century modernism. Dr. Peek’s presence as a teacher split the difference between that of a garrulous, earthy, chuckling cowboy and the gravitas and transcendence of an Episcopalian minister (he was, in fact, ordained and sometimes practiced). The cigars he smoked outside Thomas Hall lent a gravelly quality to his sonorous vocal delivery. In short, as a first-generation college student already enraptured by my English studies, Dr. Peek taught the history of the language with the mixture of mysticism and humor about the impolite parts of life that I had come to love about the discipline.

As a rite of passage, Dr. Peek insisted that we all memorize the first sixteen lines of Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales, one of the masterworks of Middle English literature, in the original Middle English. (Find an audio recording here and the original text here.) He walked us through the difficulties of pronunciation: the “h-wa” sound beginning words like “whan” which has been mostly lost in modern American English except for some Southern dialects; the necessity of pronouncing all end vowels, many of which have become silent in modern English. He then instituted a daily ritual. Every time he entered the classroom at the beginning of the period, he would intone “Whan that Aprill” (the first half of the first line of the “Prologue,” meaning “When April”), and wave his arm, and we would join in with “with his shoures sote” (the second half of the first line, meaning “with his sweet showers”). And then, as a class, we would chant the full sixteen lines together. It was a brilliant way to ingrain those lines into our memory and to give us a chance to practice aloud without being singled out for mistakes. But it had all the physical trappings of collective prayer.

I had grown up in Kearney, literally blocks from UNK and across the street from a married pair of English professors, one of whom would invite me to tea during my freshman year to tell me that I would make a great English major (she eventually became my advisor). Geographically, I was very close to this kind of learning, but socially and culturally I had always felt isolated from it. I craved literature and the arts, discussions about meaning, experiences of awe and delight, but these were foreign experiences for my family members. They did so very much to help me find those experiences outside the home (enrolling me in lessons and summer classes; driving me to those activities week in and week out, often in neighboring towns; giving me time and space at home to practice and study), but in our conversations about them I was always aware of their sense of exclusion. They weren’t certain how to value my arts experiences for themselves, and how could they be? They had never been powerfully invited to participate in them, to own them or to join in the world that the liberal arts open up.

So I became something of a professional mediator. I tried to invite them as best I could, to help them share in my learning. This is why, at a dinner with extended family at my parents’ house sometime near the end of my “History of the English Language” course, I found myself reciting Chaucer’s “Prologue” in Middle English to my mother, grandmother and an aunt or two. I remember the mixture of surprise, confusion and curiosity on their faces as I wended my way through the full sixteen lines. “That’s English?” someone exclaimed incredulously after I finished. “Yes!” I replied with excitement, and proceeded to translate a few lines, emphasizing the words that sound close to our modern English variants. I felt so much satisfaction in that moment knowing that I had brought home a powerful piece of knowledge about the world and expanded my family members’ worldview in the process.

I have never lost that sense of fulfillment. Pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees in English satisfied my hunger for greater understanding about language and texts and their relationship to culture, but I am happiest when I am sharing that knowledge with others. I am most profoundly satisfied when I am sharing that knowledge with people who have felt excluded from the conversation, who haven’t had the time or money or invitation to have discussions about meaning and experiences of awe and delight. And what always happens when I have those conversations is that I see what I have learned completely differently. I learn as much from those conversations as (I hope) others do.

I am absolutely thrilled to be joining the Books@Work team because the program speaks so strongly to my desire to have these conversations. I am humbled by what the team has built and achieved so far, in the service of something I value so highly. We are all going to miss my predecessor, Rachel Burstein, who has done tremendous work creating and sustaining our network of professor partners, thinking carefully about our curriculum, and contributing to our understanding of the Books@Work mission. Though I am mindful that I have very big shoes to fill, I couldn’t be more excited to be starting such important and fulfilling work.

At the end of the term, Dr. Peek sat with each of us one-on-one in his office, listening to us recite Chaucer’s “Prologue.” As we left, he gave each of us a little laminated card with the “Prologue” printed on it, just the size to fit in a wallet. I carried mine for years, and still have it, though I don’t look at it very often. I still carry the “Prologue” perfectly in my memory, however, and though my trilled “r”s are a bit rusty, I break it out from time to time (this is a great way to silence a room). I can’t recite it without the rhythmic, prayerful delivery Dr. Peek gave us. I think he would be glad to know how much teaching his teaching has begotten.

Image: Ivan Semenovich Kulikov, Kulikov Family at the Table, 1938, [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Jessica Isaac

Jessica Isaac

Jessica Isaac is a former member of the Books@Work team.