Book Reviews Conference Papers
The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, Ed. David Crystal The Unspeakable Act in the Miller's Tale
The Matter of Scotland, James Goldstein Medieval Child Marriage
Hamlet on the Holodeck, Janet Murray Fiddling in the Poconos: Survival or Revival
The Age of Spiritual Machines..., Ray Kurzweil  
The Religion of Technology.... David F. Noble  
Images of Salvation, CD-ROM, Gen. Ed. Dr. Dee Dyas
The Position of Magic in Selected Medieval Spanish Texts. Francis Robienne, Jr.
Michael Murphy’s Reader-Friendly Editions of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: and Michael Murphy, with James Clawson, Companion to Medieval Literature.

John McLaughlin, PhD

English Department, East Stroudsburg University, Emeritus

Michael Murphy’s Reader-Friendly Editions of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: and Michael Murphy, with James Clawson, Companion to Medieval Literature.


Ever since Ronald Press curiously permitted E Talbot Donaldson’s lovely edition of Chaucer’s major poetry to go out of print, around1975, teachers around the world have been looking for a replacement. It still doesn’t exist; I don’t think there’s anyone who can replace the clarity and wit of Donaldson’s edition, with its critical commentary on “Chaucer- Pilgrim-Poet-Persona” and the rest of his foundational discussion of how Chaucer achieved his effects and won our hearts.

Until now, in fact, there hasn’t been a really satisfactory edition of Chaucer in modern spelling, to assist non-medievalist students – and teachers – across the forbidding barrier of Middle English spelling, which was one of the walls thrown down by Donaldson’s regularized edition.

However, Michael Murphy (Professor Emeritus of CUNY) has come to the rescue, with his new “Reader-Friendly Edition, “ first of The General Prologue, together with the tales of the Miller, the Wife of Bath, the Pardoner and the Nun’s Priest, in a softcover, $14.95 regularized-spelling volume, and now with its companion volume, of “Canterbury Marriage Tales” – I know, you could get an argument! – The Tales of The Wife of Bath, The Clerk, The Merchant, and The Franklin,” thus putting within reach of an entirely new audience-market a large part of Chaucer’s poetic works. Both of these works, together wit h the book to which above reference has been made (Companion to Medieval English Literature) are available from the publishers, Conat & Gavin, 64 East 24 Street, Brooklyn, NY 11210 (Tel: 718-859-6552).

It’s not Donaldson – but then, who could be? It’s something more than simply regularized spelling, however, with its own brief Life of Chaucer, and its Introductions to each of the works in turn, setting them in a clear context for these hypothetical newbies to the field. He has also given as extensive footnotes, explaining the sometimes-difficult syntax of Chaucer, which has otherwise left intact in the verse at the upper part of each page. The result, then, is a handy guide, where guide might be needed, but otherwise an attempt to leave the student – and generalist, non-medieval teacher – alone together with Chaucer. Who could wish for better company?

Some readers may also recall the valiant effort by Constance and Kent Hieatt to respond to this potential audience/ market with their “Dual Language” edition of some of Chaucer, for Bantam Books, an edition which is still in print, and could usefully be compared to this. Personally, I had considerable success with an older –retired government – audience, a few years ago. However, although Hieatt and Hieatt managed to get in print the tragic romance, “The Knight’s Tale,” arguably a fitting companion to the works included in Prof. Murphy’s two volumes, space exigencies did not permit them to cover a much ground as Prof Murphy does here, and on reflection I would say that, much as I was happy to use Hieatt and Hieatt for my own purposes – I love reading Chaucer aloud, in my Scottish brogue! – on reflection, I think Murphy’s two volumes together will provide a much broader introduction, at an easier level, for the specific audience-market these books are designed for.

A somewhat different audience is clearly envisioned for the “Companion to Medieval Literature,” edited and compiled by the same author, and a fellow-scholar, James Clawson (who teaches in New York City. This Companion is a brief (229 pages, including 15-page Bibliography) encyclopedia, in paperback, of about 100 of the most important “forms and conventions of Old and Middle English literature,” put together by invited scholars, under their joint direction. Here there’s a discussion of Alliteration, as it is found in Middle English poetry; separate discussions of Aristotle, Alexander, and Virgil, as they were understood and received in the medieval period; What is a “Demande D’Amour”? If a fading memory or a rapid lecturer have driven the knowledge of what the term meant, in transition from French to English romance, here’s your quick answer. What’s an “Exemplum”? What is “Flyting”? “Rhyme Royal”? The Trivium? Wyrd?
Answers varying from one to two pages, to each of these questions, can quickly be located in this handy little book, which could work as well for the lecturer assigned to teach Brit Lit I as for the student working his or her way thro their first extended immersion in Old or Middle English – or, of course, Middle Scots, ahem.

One might have hoped for more prominent position given to the scholarly contributors to this volume, since it is, in the end, their work which Profs. Murphy and Clawson have relied upon in the assembly of this very handy little encyclopedia. Whether this is a minor quibble or a cause for bitter recrimination, I leave to he parties involved. For myself, I think I’ll make this available next time I get the chance to teach Beowulf or Sir Gawain and the Grene Knight to my retirement-home seniors, who read anything and everything their teacher suggested to them. To the books, then!


John McLaughlin, PhD

July 7, 2010