Noted Professor Talks Chaucer

Kate Preziosi

On Tuesday, the Humanities Colloquium welcomed National Endowment for the Humanities Professor of English John V. Fleming, who gave his lecture titled “Chaucer’s Scriptorium: The Profane Poets and The Sacred Page” to a packed audience in the Robert Ho Lecture Room in Lawrence Hall.

Fleming, a visiting professor at Colgate this spring, served as a professor of both English and Comparative Literature at Princeton University from 1965 to 2006. He was well known among the student body there for teaching the popular “Chaucer” course for over twenty-five years, as well as for his weekly column in The Daily Princetonian. He has published in the fields of medieval English and European literature, medieval art history and the history of Christian thought and spirituality.

In fact, during his time at Princeton, Fleming taught Lynn Staley, the Harrington and Shirley Drake Professor of the Humanities and Medieval & Renaissance Studies in the Department of English. At the Colloquium, Staley introduced him as “one of the most intellectual people I have ever known.”

“Not very many people have such a genuine, selfless belief in education,” she said. “Professor Fleming was and is a legend at Princeton University and in the broader academic community. He is in the truest sense a scholar-teacher. Fewer things have given me as much pleasure as having him here at Colgate this semester.”

Fleming took the podium, and explained how he decided upon what he would discuss in his lecture.

“I wanted a topic that related in some way to the teaching I’m doing [in ENGL 460: Studies in the Middle Ages],” he said. “I also wanted a topic that is accessible to a general audience. Now, if you know anything about medieval literature, you know Chaucer. If you know Chaucer, then you certainly know the Wife of Bath. If you don’t know either of these people, I suggest you keep quiet.”

His lecture explored the works of literature that likely resided in Chaucer’s scriptorium, a medieval desk that served as both a bookcase and a writing surface, as he conceived his famous Wife of Bath.

“She is among his most vernacular, distinctive creations,” Fleming said. “She is also one of the most traditional characters that Chaucer made brilliantly fresh and new.”

Fleming then combed through the first twenty-two lines of the prologue to her tale, judiciously considering Ovid’s Amores and Metamorphosis, passages from the Bible, Petracrch’s Cazoniere and St. Jerome’s “Treatise Against Jovinian” among others.

An important theme that he raised during his analysis was that of the “thirsty woman.” In Ovid’s Amores, the speaker listens in dismay as the duplicitous Dipsas tries to convince his lover to ditch her nobody poet boyfriend. Dipsas, in fact, is also the name for a kind of snake whose bite provokes thirst. The character, which Fleming suggests is representative of “decaying female religious life,” is also seen as the salty nurse in Romeo and Juliet, as well as in the Wife of Bath.

Fleming continued to build the evidence for the “thirsty woman” by analyzing two passages from the Gospel of John. The first details how Mary urges Jesus to fill the pitchers of wine at a wedding in Canaan before they run out, while the second considers the Samarian woman, who insists upon drinking the water that promises everlasting life.

The later passage, Fleming said, was certainly a prominent influence from the start, as both she and the Wife of Bath had five husbands.

“She’s wallowing in scripture,” Fleming said. “Few texts are crammed with more authority.”