Do you remember the big deal about the Millennium, the year 2000? Chaucer lovers made very special memories in London that year. It was the 600th anniversary of the death of Geoffrey Chaucer. The date October 25th is inscribed on his tomb in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey. (I discovered the Internet that year; that’s why my screen name is Chaucer600.)
The New Chaucer Society, a worldwide organization, had a competition. The question, to be answered in 500 words or less, was: “Why, after 600 years, are we still studying the works of Chaucer?” Scholars as well as students were encouraged to compete for a prize—appropriately enough—of $600. A Yale graduate student was the winner. (If you’d like a copy of his winning essay, click here.)
The prize was awarded at the Society’s Congress in London the summer of 2000. The closing ceremony took place at the poet’s tomb in Westminster Abbey and was a Choral Evensong in celebration of his life.
Our local celebration took place on the actual anniversary date, Wednesday, October 25th. In the ages-old Catholic tradition, we had a Mass said on the anniversary of Chaucer’s death. That’s all there was to the plan when we started—an evening Mass at the local church. But good ideas kept coming, and the pastor, who is a Chaucer fan, encouraged us.
Wouldn’t it be great to have medieval music at the Mass? An Early Music group here in town was delighted to join in. Next we thought about food. Where could we get 14th century food? That’s easy, if you like to cook. We borrowed a book of medieval recipes from the nearby college library and chose several recipes that looked doable. We would have a green salad, mushroom and cheese pasties, pork tarts, and a choice of two desserts—either cheese custard or apple almond pudding.
What kind of beverage should we serve? I e-mailed the author of the cookbook and she suggested apple cider. We also had a limited supply of mead so that all those attending had a taste of the medieval libation as we drank a toast to Chaucer.
Invitations were sent to the English Departments of the colleges in the area. The Mass was introduced with a brief reading (in Middle English and then Modern English) from Chaucer’s Retraction, where he asks his readers to pray for him. The music lent a proper ambiance. The homily was filled with recollections and considerations of Chaucer’s life. All those who had time joined us to partake of the foods we’d prepared. It was a splendid evening.
Someone suggested—I guess it was to be expected—that we do this every year! Well, it wouldn’t seem right to go through that amount of effort for year 601 or 602. We’ll save that for the big 700. It became a yearly event from 2000. In 2005, when the website was created, we finally made a photographic record.
What if YOU wanted to have a special Chaucer commemoration? It doesn’t have to be in October. You might plan for “Aprill” with its sweet showers, or any other time of year that lends itself to festivities.
Food might be the place to start. But when you’re planning, keep in mind there was NO CHOCOLATE, COFFEE, TOMATOES, POTATOES, VANILLA or ICEBERG LETTUCE. The book we used is Pleyn Delit: Medieval Cookery for Modern Cooks by Constance Hieatt and Sharon Butler. It contains a great variety of recipes that will please modern palates.
Mead called “Chaucer’s Mead” is available, but it may take a bit of looking to locate a shop that carries it.
Medieval music could be provided with cassettes or CDs. If you want to be independent, try looking for Medieval Music.
If you look for
For artists, try:
I found all of the above on Amazon.com. If you aren’t familiar with this music—Welcome to a new and wonderful world!
Costumes might interest you. Nancy Bradfield’s Historical Costumes of England: from the 11th to the 20th Century has many illustrations of 14th century garb that could be adapted by an enterprising seamstress.
One last thought is Steve Ellis’ new book Chaucer at Large: The Poet in the Modern Imagination. Steve tells of the many ways people through the centuries have looked at, and used, Chaucer and his writings. The book might inspire you with even more ideas for Celebrating Chaucer.
On Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2005 we celebrated Chaucer's anniversary 605 at Our Lady of the Assumption Church. It began at 5:30 Mass featuring medieval music and was followed by a reception with medieval delights of various kinds including the reading of a comic scene from one of his tales. Here are some pictures. Some years we have movies of the events but fewer pictures. Here are the links to our ongoing celebrations: 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006 and 2005 pages.
Since 2012 we have continued to celebrate with the Mass and medieval music, although the grand reception is just a treasured memory now, due to the fact that the energy of your hostess has depleted. The music at the Mass is truly lovely and transports the congregation to an earlier time and place. Come join us this year. It's 5:30 Mass, October 25, 2014 at Our Lady of the Assumption Church at Bonita and Berkeley in Claremont, CA.
E-mail at Chaucer600@aol.com.