Book Review

Cullen, Dolores L. Who’s Afraid of Middle English? A Booke of Lystes. Santa Barbara: Who's Afraid of Middle English? A Booke of Lystes (Delores L. Cullen)Fithian, 2002.
Dolores L. Cullen follows her three impressive critical studies of Geoffrey Chaucer-Chaucer’s Host: Up–So-Doun ; Pilgrim Chaucer: Center Stage ; and Chaucer’s Pilgrims : The Allegory-with a slender volume that capitalizes on our passion for lists: Who’s Afraid of Middle English? A Booke of Lystes. The concept is admirable: to render Middle English less threatening by transcribing familiar titles and expressions into Middle English spelling. Her dedication –”To Geoffrey Chaucer-for all he means to me and to the world”-seems both bold and understated. Cullen, having discovered Chaucer belatedly herself, is a woman on a mission to render Chaucer user-friendly and to encourage study of Chaucer in the original Middle English. In Chaucer’s Host: Up–So-Doun , she well illustrates the ways in which vivacity and allegory are sadly lost in translation. She also recognizes the Middle English phobia of most readers by urging them “not [to] be put off.” To facilitate reading, she uses modern English in the text while preserving her scholarly purism by offering Middle English in the notes. In Who’s Afraid of Middle English? Cullen apparently follows a new and more adventurous tack: Chaucer can be read in the original with a little practice and a little stretching. Readers can be encouraged to attempt such a reading and to practice the necessary recognition skills while having fun deciphering the “lystes.”

Cullen accurately translates from Modern to Middle English a wide variety of titles and expressions in six categories arrayed between two versions of The Lord’s Prayer, which serve to illustrate lack of standardization, and the story of the “three litel pigges,” which graces the back cover and inspires the title and (unfortunately) the cover art.

The lists are light-hearted and fun and could provide a basis for recognition games in the secondary classroom in studies of Chaucer and of language history, both sadly neglected these days. Some lists may prove frustrating to high school students: although familiar to older readers, many titles included under “Mocioun Pictoures” and “The Magik Talkinge Boxe” inspired no recognition among my seniors. These could be updated. Students did, however, amaze me with their familiarity with “Names from the Magyk Pictour Box,” thanks to the “magik” of Nickolodeon. Apparently this audience is more receptive to vintage television than to vintage film on cable. The children’s rhymes and “Newe Games with Oold Wordes” and the “Phisicienes Wordez for Anathomye and Siknesse” proved understandable and especially enjoyable for students.

More brief narratives would be useful – perhaps a “foolisshe” suggestion for a “booke of lystes,” and also a pronunciation guide. Adolescents are notoriously hesitant about pronouncing unfamiliar words so that clues to pronunciation would be helpful in utilizing the book in the classroom, especially since Cullen recommends reading them aloud in her introduction.

Who’s Afraid of Middle English? will encourage confidence and interest in reading Chaucer in the original, or, at least, in reading Chaucer in modern English translation with greater awareness of the connections between his language and our own. Mis-spellers and nonspellers will be delighted with the relatively phonetic spelling and the implied lack of importance of accurate spelling in the grand scheme of things (at least as they would like to infer!). Many expressions will promote discussion of ways in which English continues to evolve. The book is valuable in illuminating connections between past and present through fabricated linguistic connections. The effort to discover meaning makes the words come alive. Now, to transfer that heuristic delight to Chaucer’s actual words!

Cynthia Perantoni
Canfield High School, OH

Original Citation: Scientia Scholae, Volume II, Issue 2, February 2004

NOTE: Links have been corrected and/or deleted.  The original “look and feel”  of the journal has been preserved as much as possible, but the original logos have also been removed.  No editing to the actual texts has been done since their original publication.

TEAMS: Teaching Association for Medieval Studies