Chaucer & the Art of the Grift

Over at Empty Mirror magazine I’m featured with my essay on Chaucer’s Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale and David Maurer’s The Big Con, which (among other things) inspired The Sting. Check it out and take a look around: they feature a lot of smart, offbeat and interesting pieces that include fiction, non-fiction and art.

Interdisciplinarity #FTW!


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I shared my Inspirations Song List today as I’d updated it (Songs that Inspired Stories), then joked that I should make a list of stories that started from collisions. Not literally — although I do have one or two of those — but collisions of ideas.

Example: later this month Empty Mirror will publish my essay ‘Chaucer and the Art of the Grift’ which came from a collision in my head between The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale and David Maurer’s The Big Con. It makes perfect sense to me but maybe this is why I have a hard time getting people to follow my thoughts. Possibly they seem random and incoherent!

But they seem reasonable to me. Here’s a random selection of things what I have written and the collisions from which they sprang:

The Mangrove Legacy: Peter Cook & Jane Austen

White RabbitBlue Sunshine & Seance on a Wet Afternoon & certain London pubs

How to Be Dull: academia & Jerome K. Jerome

Airships & Alchemy:  <— exactly that

Owl Stretching: The Descent of Inanna & Spike Milligan

‘Elf Prefix’: The Maltese Falcon & The Fairy Melusine

‘Headless in Bury’: The Big Sleep & vikings

‘Wordgeryne’: Lovecraft and medieval charms

‘Losing My Religion’: REM, Tony Hancock & social media debates

“Domus inferna Sancti Guthlaci: A Rediscovery of the Twelfth-Century Narrative of The Saint and the Money Pit”: my Pseudo-Society talk that sprang from rearranging the Harley Roll illustrations of the life of the saint so they became a sort of DIY disaster

…and of course there’s a whole random Fall song + whatever random obsession has fired in my brain this week which covers most of my crime writing that isn’t currently inspired by Robyn Hitchcock.

It’s not just me, right?

[Image from the Cosmagraphia Scoti MS. Canon. Misc. 378 via Bodleian Library]

#WhanThatAprille16: Riddle 20

Jumping into spring: it’s the time when folk long to go on pilgrimages and in addition to seeking the blissful holy martyr, medievalists like to share their love of language with the world. Thanks to Chaucer Doth Tweet, the event this year is called #WhanThatAprille16 so check out the hashtag for more audio delights.

Here’s the original and then the modern translation of Riddle 20 from the Exeter Book (Krapp&Dobie 9): can you guess what it is?

Mec on þissum dagū     deadne ofgeafum
fæder modor     ne wæs me feorh þa gen
ealdor in innan     þa mec ongon
welhold me     gewedum weccan
heold freoþode     hleosceorpe wrah
snearlice     swa hire agen bearn
oþþæt ic under sceate ·     swa min gesceapu wæron
ungesibbum wearð     eacen gæste
mec seo friþemæg     fedde siþþan
oþþæt ic aweox     widdor meahte
siþas asettan     heo hæfde swæsra þy læs
suna dohtra     þy heo swa dyde
 In those first days     my father and mother

left me for dead:     there was no life yet,
no life within me.     Then a kindly kinswoman
faithfully covered me     with her own clothing,
held me and cherished,     kept me warmly,
even as gently     as her own children—
until beneath her,     as my destiny willed,
I waxed into life     with my alien fellows.
My friend and protector     nourished me then
till I grew and grew able     to go forth by myself.
Because of this now     her own dear children,
sons and daughters,     were fewer, alas.

When Worlds Collide


Our brains like to label things and categorise them neatly. We can ‘unsee’ things we’ve seen if they don’t fit our categories. But we vary in how much we do this: at one end of the spectrum is the rigid labeling that leads to racism and xenophobia, at the other end lies an inability to learn because everything is seen as unique.

I’m not sure where that leaves me: I do categorise and label things but I seem nigh on incapable of making categories that others can see but make perfect sense to me. Things collide in my head in odd ways. It took me some years to understand that. And it’s okay, it works for me. Well, apart from the tendency for other people to look at me with arched eyebrows and narrowed eyes.

Example: somehow Chaucer’s Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale and Maurer’s The Big Con collided in my head and so I’ll be giving a paper at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds next summer on alchemy called ‘Chaucer and the Art of the Grift’ which should be fun.

Here’s the precis:

‘Of all the grifters, the confidence man is the aristocrat’, David Maurer wrote in his linguistic study _The Big Con_. Chaucer’s _Canon’s Yeoman’s  Tale_ offers a narrative of crime. As in his fabliaux there’s a delight in the spinning of the yarn even  while he deplores the deception. Nonetheless, I will argue that Chaucer reveals a grifter’s appreciation for the aristocratic con because he recognises it shares the same engine as his poetry: the power of a good story.

Am I having fun researching into the world of grifters and con artists? Yes, I am. I’ve always had a fascination with that art, probably at least since my brothers and I saw Harry in Your Pocket and spent the next few weeks perfecting our technique (only on each other, I should clarify). Of course there’s also the glory of The Sting, which sprang from Maurer’s study directly. Just something in the air in 1973, eh? It was the year that Watergate broke (though it took much longer to unravel…)

Disreputable Magic

21canons_yeoman1bMy thoughts have turned perhaps inexorably to the intersection of crime and magic in the Middle Ages, as my interests seem to intensify where they overlap. Or it just amuses me as I turn my mind to other topics to exercise different muscles in my head (so to speak). Missing Strange & Norrell (the series; I have begun the book and am pleased to find a good deal of humour in it) of course and still thinking about this notion (fictional though it may be) of making magic respectable.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, this has led me to the Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale — so much so that I may come up with a paper proposal for Leeds next year. It may seem a long way from Chaucer to Strange & Norrell, but not in my head.

CYT features one of the belated arrivals to pilgrimage in The Canterbury Tales. The canon and his yeoman catch up to the pilgrims and the yeoman launches into a recital of the canon’s alchemical life that soon makes his boss leave in a huff. The yeoman takes this opportunity to show that the canon is a scoundrel in this ‘elvysshe craft’ known as alchemy

Read the rest at Witches & Pagans.

VexMosaic & Medieval Masculinities

Today I’ve got an essay up at a new site, VexMosaic, along with folks like the esteemed Alasdair Stuart. What is VexMosaic, you ask?

Good Speculative Fiction transforms “what is” into “what could be”.

It vexes, disturbs, and inspires us, becoming a catalyst for new ways of thinking
that expand our awareness and subvert the status quo.

We want to amplify that discussion.

Read the brief here and take a look around. In short if you like spec fic narratives and discussions, you’ll like the Vex.

My first essay for the site has to do with how medieval films appropriate the era to talk about very modern anxieties about the roles of men. I’m not so much concerned about how accurate they are or aren’t, but how their choices illuminate the ways we see the past — and how we manipulate it for our own purposes.

Check it out and see what else you might enjoy: this is a promising new venture. Help get the word out!

It’s Valentine’s Day


If you hate the holiday, blame Chaucer. If you enjoy it, here’s a lovely poem. As I often find myself far from my beloved, it comes to mind when ever I travel.

A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning

By John Donne

As virtuous men pass mildly away,
   And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say
   The breath goes now, and some say, No:


So let us melt, and make no noise,
   No tear-floods, nor sigh-tempests move;
‘Twere profanation of our joys
   To tell the laity our love.


Moving of th’ earth brings harms and fears,
   Men reckon what it did, and meant;
But trepidation of the spheres,
   Though greater far, is innocent.


Dull sublunary lovers’ love
   (Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
   Those things which elemented it.


But we by a love so much refined,
   That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
   Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.


Our two souls therefore, which are one,
   Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
   Like gold to airy thinness beat.


If they be two, they are two so
   As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
   To move, but doth, if the other do.


And though it in the center sit,
   Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans and hearkens after it,
   And grows erect, as that comes home.


Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
   Like th’ other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
   And makes me end where I begun.