Thursday, April 17, 2014

Public Reading

When April, with her showers sweet,
The drought of March has pierced to the roots...
A poster for sale of Chaucer reading
On this day in 1397, Geoffrey Chaucer gave a public reading of his Tales of Canterbury at the court of Richard II. We don't know exactly what he read—it isn't likely that they sat through the hours it would take to read everything, even though the Canterbury Tales are far from complete. The wager the pilgrims make is that each one would tell two tales going to Canterbury and two on the return journey; their host would pick the best one and treat them all to a feast. Given this plan, and the number of pilgrims (which changes along the way), we would expect at least 120 tales.* We only have about 30, with no evidence that there are "lost manuscripts" anywhere containing more work. (Chaucer was a busy public servant, and probably didn't have much time for writing.)

King Richard was a great supporter of poetry, and public readings were not uncommon. In a world without television, radio, movie theaters, or even plays, public entertainment came from song, dance, or the written word. Readings at court of new poetry were a popular affair.

Monasteries favored public reading as well. The Rule of St. Benedict mandated readings during meals, both to discourage idle chatter and to educate monks. Hearing a text read was supposed to be as educational as reading it yourself: the listener was "reading" with his ears and experiencing the same words, and therefore "knew" what was read as well as the person whose eyes were actually on the page. At universities like Oxford and Cambridge, students attended lectures that could last for hours, but they were not supposed to take notes. Listening and thinking was supposed to be sufficient for learning. When books became inexpensive to print and "everyone" could have a copy of the text to study and read, I think this "active listening" skill gradually lost importance.

*I think Chaucer wanted to "beat" Boccaccio's Decameron, with its ten people each telling a new tale each day for ten days.

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