Teaching with Middle English Texts
The exploration of the versions of the “Debate between the Body and the Soul” presented on this site can offer a starting point for discussing many of the complications facing the study of medieval literature. The following exercises suggest how the contents of the site might be useful in courses aimed at all levels of students.
Add a New Version
1. Translating: Middle English looks intimidating. The letters are in unfamiliar shapes and the words are spelled oddly. Try to translate the first five stanzas of the poem into modern English. Can you keep the same rhyme scheme and the same basic sentence structure? For help in reading the Middle English click here.
2. Creative Translation: Choose another ten stanza section and translate it, this time allowing yourself to take more artistic liberties. Rearrange the stanzas, choose new words, alter the rhyme scheme.
3. Evaluating your work: As you review your new
versions, evaluate their relationship to the initial draft. Do they
still tell the same story? Was it easier to write the first version
or the second, and why? Was it difficult to "revise" someone
else's work? What audience did you write for, and how did your audience
differ from the original audience that would have read this debate?
Transmission and Transformation
How often have you heard someone say that the book was better than the movie? That the movie did not do the book justice? Adapting and retelling a story in a different medium or in a different way happens all the time, as a story is changed from its original form into a video game, a movie, a book or an endless round of sequels. Tomb Raider, for example, began as a video game and then was transformed into a movie which itself has a sequel.
1. Modern "Stemmatics": Choose a recent movie and track its transmission, creating a stemma (a graph which demonstrates the relationship between different versions) that documents its evolution. Now write a few paragraphs interpreting your graph. Does each version tell the same story in the same way? Do the makers of subsequent versions have a "responsibility" to remain faithful to the original? Which version do you prefer, and why?
2. Lengthening the Stemma: As you read the three
versions (Laud, Auchinleck,
Vernon) of the "Debate between the
Body and the Soul" on this site, try to think of each story
as an independent retelling of the same narrative and then ask:
how would you retell this scene to appeal to today's audience? Compose
a new version of this scene, transforming it into whatever medium
you might choose. How does the original text relate to your new
form? Is the medieval version automatically better or more authentic?
How can you compare these two versions? How do you justify the changes
you made to the original?
This text provides a miniature model of the difficulties facing us as we study medieval literature. The following questions can be used as a starting point to a wider discussion of revision, authorship, and textuality.
• How does knowing the author of a painting, a text, or a symphony influence how we interpret that work? Do we speak differently about a text (or other work of art) that has no known author? What about works of art that are the product of collaboration? (We can think of scribes as collaborators, just as we can think of printers, illustraters, and correspondents as collaborators.)
• If scribes freely altered dialect and occasionally "revised" the material that they copied, can we still say that they are producing the same work that they started with? How do later periods judge similar "revisions" of works?
• Only seven versions of this poem have survived, and it can not be known how many versions circulated during the Middle Ages. Considering that probably only 15% of medieval manuscripts have survived, how much can we rely on them for an understanding of medieval literature and culture as a whole? Are particular kinds of manuscripts more likely than others to have survived? How skewed of a sample is 15%? If only 15% of all modern books survived, how would future generations view our literary interests?