Curating ‘Chaucer Here and Now’

by Professor Marion Turner (English).
All images by Ian Wallman. 

Chaucer Here and Now, a major exhibition at the Bodleian Library, was opened on December 7th by Sir Ben Okri, and it runs until April 28th. I’ve curated this exhibition about Chaucer across time; about inspiration, creativity, and readers. It brings extraordinary medieval manuscripts and early printed books together with modern film, animation, cartoons, and contemporary poetry. Across time, Chaucer has been re-imagined in many different ‘heres and nows,’ made to fit changing expectations and tastes. The show is accompanied by a lavishly-illustrated book of essays about the ideas and themes of the exhibition.

The exhibition includes the oldest Canterbury Tales manuscript, the Hengwrt Chaucer, on loan from the National Library of Wales. It also showcases some of the most beautiful illuminated Chaucer manuscripts, alongside particularly gorgeous manuscripts of Dante and Boccaccio’s work. The first and second editions of the Canterbury Tales, printed by William Caxton in 1476 and 1483 are some of the most important early printed books in existence. William Morris’s Kelmscott Chaucer, perhaps the loveliest of all Victorian books, is another jewel, and there are also collections of Victorian children’s Chaucers, eighteenth-century Chaucerian ballads, and a cluster of translations into languages such as Ukrainian, Japanese, Farsi, Esperanto, German, Brazilian Portuguese, Russian, Hebrew, French, and Korean.

The exhibition reveals that readers have always been actively responding to Chaucer’s texts. In the first case, three manuscripts are open at the same tale, Chaucer’s unfinished Cook’s Tale. While one scribe simply says that Chaucer did not finish the tale, another finishes it off for him, while a third adds a completely different tale (not by Chaucer) calling it a second Cook’s Tale. Early scribes and editors did not treat the text with reverence – indeed they had to make decisions about what to do with the unfinished texts that Chaucer had left behind.

In later centuries, translators and adaptors became concerned about Chaucer’s discussions of sex and the body, and censored his texts heavily. Pope’s translation of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue cuts out all the references to sex, the genitals, desire, and the body, leaving a short and fairly unrecognisable text. In the nineteenth century, the popular tales included the Clerk’s (about female submissiveness), the Knight’s (about chivalry and courtly love), the Nun’s Priest’s (an animal fable), and the Man of Law’s (female suffering again). The tales about farting, adultery, and sex in trees, were less popular. In contrast, in the twentieth-century, many readers focused exclusively on those fabliaux tales – the prime example being Pasolini’s film.

While in the nineteenth-century, Chaucer was seen as a poet of empire, whose texts should be sent out around the world to promote a certain kind of Englishness, in more recent decades, Chaucer has been reimagined as a poet of diaspora and refugees. The exhibition brings together the Refugee Tales volumes (from 2016 onwards), the records of a project whereby refugees and writers walk the pilgrimage route and tell their stories. Other texts that link Chaucer’s focus on travel and giving voice to diverse storytellers to modern diasporas include Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze’s translation of part of the Wife of Bath’s Prologue into Jamaican English, Marilyn Nelson’s Cachoeira Tales, which uses the Canterbury Tales as an inspiration for writing about the forced migration of enslaved people, and Zadie Smith’s Wife of Willesden which transposes the Wife of Bath’s Tale from Arthurian Britain to a community of Maroons (the descendants of formerly enslaved people) in eighteenth-century Jamaica.

This exhibition shows how the idea of Chaucer as the Father of English Literature developed, and became firmly established in sixteenth century printed editions, which featured dominating portraits of father Chaucer, positioned in such a way as to construct him as the Father of the Nation. This authoritative idea of Englishness elides the multilingual background of Chaucer’s own texts and life: the exhibition showcases Chaucer’s multilingual sources, his own translations, and his use of different languages in his texts. The global author of today – translated into many languages, and inspiring many writers from diverse backgrounds – is not so far away from the fourteenth-century traveller and diplomat.

The exhibition offers various ways to engage with Chaucer’s texts. You can put on headphones and watch some of the BBC animated Canterbury Tales. On the back wall, the opening couplet of the Tales is projected in multiple languages. Every seven minutes, a one-minute monologue is projected onto one wall: the Knight, Miller, or Wife of Bath, talks about themselves in modern English. And just outside the main exhibition, in the transept, there is a pilgrimage wall, with graphics of the pilgrimage route, onto which visitors are encouraged to stick their own pilgrim creations. Craft materials are provided, along with video tutorials by artists about how to draw Chaucer cartoons or make Chaucer puppets.

Students have been involved in various aspects of the exhibition: the review in the Times opened with discussing the area of the exhibition which features photos of current Oxford students and quotations about what Chaucer means to them. The journalist singled out the student who has a Chaucer tattoo on her forearm.

In his opening speech, Sir Ben Okri talked about the fundamental importance of Chaucer, saying that his work and ideas were like a river running underneath world literary culture. He walked on to the podium to the song ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale,’ which faded after the line ‘as the Miller told his tale.’ It was a great example of how Chaucer seeps into people’s consciousness, and continues to inspire poets, playwrights, artists, students, and all kinds of other people, from all over the world, in many different heres and nows. I hope people have fun in the exhibition, and that it surprises them.

The exhibition runs from 8 December 2023 to 28 April 2024 at the St Lee Gallery, Weston Library (Bodleian Libraries). Admission is free. Find out more on the Bodleian Libraries website.

There are two upcoming FREE special events:

  • Friday 2 February 2024: Chaucer Now: an event to celebrate recent rewritings of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. (click here to find out more)
  • Saturday 27 April 2024: Creating Chaucer: join us to explore Chaucer’s world through creative activities, talks and discussion. (click here to find out more)

Special Event. Library Lates: Sensational Books

When: 7 – 9.30pm on Friday, 21 October 2022

Where: Blackwell Hall, Weston Library

The event is free but booking is required. When you have booked your place, the ticketing system will send you an automated confirmation.

About the event

Join us in October at the Weston Library for a Library Late celebrating our exhibition Sensational Books.

From ‘living books’ and historic scents to conductive ink and tactile pages, enjoy taster talks, discussions, hands-on activities and live music to engage the five senses of sight, sound, taste, smell, touch and beyond.

Drop-in activities7 – 9.30pm, Blackwell Hall

Meet the Guide Dogs team of handlers and guide dogs and try simulation activities to explore the impact of sight loss.

Write beautiful calligraphy with a sensory twist.

Try embossing natural patterns and your initials in Gothic font.

Make a mini concertina book full of colour to explore the senses.

Print a ‘sensational’ keepsake to take away.

Senses in Conservation: discover tools and techniques using the senses with Bodleian Conservation.

Go on a scent journey with Dr Alexy Karenowska (Department of Physics, University of Oxford)

Meet artist Sam Skinner and discover how touch can make text speak

Discover Lit Hits and get a literary prescription with a sensory flavour.

Borrow a ‘living book’ from the Living Library to explore topics including:

  • Making Sense of Sound with Professor Andrew King (Neurophysiology, University of Oxford) and Dr Kerry Walker (Neuroscience, University of Oxford)
  • Books and Usa 2000 year relationship with Professor Emma Smith (Professor of Shakespeare Studies, University of Oxford)
  • Your Brain is not a Black Box with Professor Randy Bruno (Professor of Neuroscience, University of Oxford)
  • Learning to Read the Whole Book with Professor Michael Suarez (Professor and Director of Rare Book School, University of Virginia)
  • Touching the Alphabet with Dr Vaibhav Singh (Visiting Research Fellow in Typography & Graphic Communication, University of Reading)
  • Multisensory books: on the enduring appeal of analog with Professor Charles Spence (Professor in Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford)

Taster talks 

7.30 – 7.50pm: Multisensory books – on the enduring appeal of analog
Charles Spence, Professor in Experimental Psychology and author of Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating

The predicted emergence of ebooks has not happened. And that is not just because the younger generations like an academic-looking backdrop to their social media posts. Books engage the senses in a way that is closely linked to nostalgia and memories. While the smell of books can be hugely evocative, the weight and feel of books, and even the sound of the pages turning have been shown to influence people’s perception of the contents. Books, then, are multisensory objects capable of stimulating the senses in ways that are both universal but also culturally-determined.

8.00 – 8.20pm: Senses and Sensibilities – approaches to bookbinding in recent accessions to the Bodleian Library
Andrew Honey, Book Conservator at the Bodleian Library

This taster talk will explore recent accessions to the Bodleian and the often-playful ways that book artists have approached concepts of both books and book bindings. It will also consider the challenges that these may pose for research libraries and conservators.

9.00 – 9.20pm: Sensory books – coming back to our senses to transform children’s digital reading
Natalia Kucirkova, Professor of Early Childhood Education and Development at the University of Stavanger, Norway

This taster talk will explore a cutting-edge project researching the power of smells and scents to transform children’s reading.  The project includes a scented adventure trail which engaged children’s sense of smell in their exploration of the story ‘The Three Little Pigs’.

More highlights

The Smell Archive
Dr Cecilia Bembibre Jacobo, UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage and Sarah McCartney, Perfumer
Space for Reading, 20-minute sessions at 7.15pm, 8.00pm and 8.45pm – sign up on arrival

After decades of engaging with history in museums and archives primarily through our eyes, we are rediscovering the value of a multi-sensory approach to cultural heritage. Smells, for example, are linked to aspects of heritage like traditions and tourism; they stand as symbols of a shared past and enhance visitors’ museum experience. In this session, we will share a framework to document scents and their meaning as personal or collective heritage. Sarah McCartney will provide creative context for the smell archival framework. Please join us for a nose-on evening, where we will develop an archive for a particular scent and explore its collective meanings and significance.

When Air Becomes Breath and Breath Becomes Spirit
Áine O’Dwyer and Hannah White, artist-performers
Blackwell Hall, 8.30pm – 8.45pm

Coupling the corporeal and ritual elements of mediaeval manuscript culture, and drawing from the agency of matter artist-performers, Áine O’Dwyer and Hannah White interpret the visual score element of Helen Frosi‘s installation, When Air Becomes Breath and Breath Becomes Spirit. Here, the body magics air into creative potential (inspiration), and the breath becomes a potent symbol of life itself.

B42 (Surrogate)
David Gauthier and Sam Skinner
Blackwell Hall, 7 – 9.30pm (drop-in)

Meet the artist Sam Skinner (Oxford Brookes University) and explore the leporello style book he produced in collaboration with David Gauthier (Utrecht University) which reproduces a section of the Gutenberg Bible using conductive ink, transforming the page into a capacitive sensor and enabling the reader’s touch to trigger recorded readings of the text.

Singing from the St Edmund Consort
Blackwell Hall, 7.30pm and 9pm

Conference and Exhibition on Medieval to Early Modern Anglo-Dutch Relations

CONFERENCE: The Literature and History of Anglo-Dutch Relations, Medieval to Early Modern

 6 January 2022, 1.00 PM – 8 January 2022, 6.00 PM
 Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

Contacts between English and Dutch speakers had a profound impact on the literary landscape and book culture of England and the Low Countries. This conference crosses conventional chronological, linguistic, geographical and disciplinary boundaries to explore the cultural history of relations between English and Dutch speakers, from the Norman Conquest through to the Reformation. Bringing together literary scholars and historians, it aims to join up evidence of literary exchange with new insights into the experiences of migration, conflict, political alliances, and trade that made this literary exchange possible. The conference will reinvigorate traditional approaches to literary influence by contextualising it in the historical conditions that brought speakers of Dutch and English into contact with each other and by taking into account the range of languages (Dutch, English, French, and Latin) in which their communications and literary production in manuscript and early print took shape over this period.

In-person attendance: £35.00

Online attendance: £0.00

Registration required

Full event information

EXHIBITION: North Sea Crossings: Anglo-Dutch Books and the Adventures of Reynard the Fox

3 December 2021–18 April 2022
The Weston Library, Bodleian Libraries, Oxford

North Sea Crossings, a new exhibition at the Bodleian Libraries, will trace the long history of Anglo-Dutch relations. Focusing on the period from the Norman Conquest in 1066 to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, items from the Bodleian Libraries’ collections will illustrate the ways in which these exchanges have shaped literature, book production and institutions such as the Bodleian itself, on either side of the North Sea, inviting visitors to reflect on the way this cultural exchange still impacts British and Dutch societies today.

Free admission, no booking required.

The book accompanying the exhibition, by Sjoerd Levelt and Ad Putter, is now available.

A modern retelling of Reynard the Foxby Anne Louise Avery, based on William Caxton’s 1481 English translation of the Middle Dutch, is also available.

EXHIBITION OPENING EVENT: North Sea Crossings virtual panel

2 December 2021, 5-6.30PM

Join us for a livestream panel discussion to mark the opening of our winter exhibition ​North Sea Crossings: Anglo-Dutch Books and the Adventures of Reynard the Fox. The exhibition tells the story of Anglo-Dutch exchanges through beautiful medieval manuscripts, early prints, maps, animal stories and other treasures from the Bodleian’s collections.

Join our panel discussion which celebrates a special relationship which has lasted over 900 years. Watch our expert panel explore the historical as well as the broader context of Anglo-Dutch relations in politics, art, literature, and modern life.

The discussion will be streamed on this page and on our YouTube channel.