Friday, 22 February 2008

The Clerk

Because I'm a medievalist, and a graduate student at Oxford, I have a postcard on my wall of the portrait of the Clerk from the Ellesmere manuscript of the Canterbury Tales. Under a picture of the Clerk sitting uncomfortably on his skinny horse, book in hand and eyes heaven-ward, it quotes the last line of his description in the General Prologue: "And gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche". That's a nice and pithy line for a postcard; it's the kind of thing most people would like to believe about themselves, especially people who can half-legitimately identify themselves as "a clerk of Oxenford". The rest of the little pen-portrait of the clerk is more difficult to sell to tourists:

For hym was levere have at his beddes heed
Twenty bookes, clad in blak or reed,
Of aristotle and his philosophie,
Than robes riche, or fithele, or gay sautrie.
But al be that he was a philosophre,
Yet hadde he but litel gold in cofre;
But al that he myghte of his freendes hente,
On bookes and on lernynge he it spente,
And bisily gan for the soules preye
Of hem that yaf hym wherwith to scoleye.
Of studie took he moost cure and moost heede,
Noght o word spak he moore than was neede,
And that was seyd in forme and reverence,
And short and quyk and ful of hy sentence;
Sownynge in moral vertu was his speche,
And gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche.

['He would rather have at his bed's head twenty books, covered in black or red, of Aristotle and his philosophy, than rich robes, or fiddles, or gay psalteries. But even though he was a philosopher, he had but little gold in his coffers: all that he could obtain from his patrons he spent on books and learning, and diligently prayed for the souls of those who gave the money he needed for his education. Of study he took the greatest care and heed; he did not speak one word more than was needful, and that was spoken properly and with reverence, briefly, swiftly, and full of deep meaning. His speech was full of moral virtue, and gladly would he learn, and gladly teach.']

Does this describe me? To be honest, I rather like spending money on clothes, I have no objection to music, and I don't buy many books (that's what libraries are for). Speaking only as needful? I would hope so, although students of English literature aren't known for being taciturn. At a guess, I don't think most Oxford 'clerks' would identify with much of that description. But I like it very much, all the same; and I do learn and teach very gladly indeed.

I don't think the Clerk would have written a blog; he'd have had better things to do with his time, like telling faintly unpleasant stories about patient women. However, he might have thought it worth keeping a record of his activities as a scholar for future benefit - but he'd keep it 'short and quick'.