The Riverside Chaucer is a book that tends to hang around. First published in 1987 and immediately established as required reading for students and scholars, this complete works of the ‘father of English literature’ Geoffrey Chaucer is the canon incarnate. The book does not shy away from such associations. It checks in at 1,327 pages (a full 40% are notes, glossary, and index) and weighs 5.5lbs in hardback. Its rich maroon cover contains only the title (in gold, of course, harking back to illuminated manuscripts) and an image of a priest, a knight, and a laborer—the three estates of the medieval social imaginary. The illustration has no relation to Chaucer but serves as a metonym for the Middle Ages. Tacitly, it represents the book’s argument: the complete works of the English poet contain the entirety of the medieval world. In its scale and its gestures to universality, the Riverside evokes that most medieval of genres: the summa, the singular codex that contains all that needs to be known.
For medievalists and students of medieval literature, the Riverside is a meaningful object that combines personal, professional, and disciplinary history. There is now a full generation of scholars raised on the Riverside; for some, the edition bought as a first-year student is the same used to teach their own students today, even as their scholarship renders the text’s explanatory notes obsolete. As the standard edition for both teaching and research, the Riverside occupies a central role in late-medieval literary studies perhaps unique among other fields and periods. But if you no longer engage with Chaucer, perhaps now, grasping for a laptop stand to avoid the vertiginous view of chin that dominates your screen as you enter a Zoom meeting, you’re glad you held onto it. Window prop, yoga block, door stop: the Riverside Chaucer is a useful object to have around the house.
Creating a reliable and working edition of Chaucer’s works has been the white whale of Chaucer studies since at least the sixteenth century. The academic labor needed to corral a broad, contradictory, unfinished textual record into a unified, singular text is such that it is rarely attempted. The Riverside, produced by a team of scholars under the general editorship of Harvard’s Larry D. Benson, achieved this mammoth task by updating the earlier editions of F.N. Robinson (hence the somewhat mysterious ‘Third Edition’ that appears on the book’s spine). The book was first published in its infamous hardback edition by Houghton Mifflin in the U.S. and Oxford University Press in the U.K. OUP released a workable paperback edition with distribution rights in the U.S., but in 2008 Houghton Mifflin was acquired by Cengage Learning and OUP’s distribution rights weren’t extended. Remarketed as the Wadsworth Chaucer and now print-on-demand, the Riverside was sent to the textbook graveyard; similarly, the OUP edition of the Riverside, after reissues in 1989, 1991, and a new design in 2008, also went out of print.
Books are more than tools and objects; they tell stories about us and are entwined in our lives. My own paperback Riverside purchased as an undergraduate studying abroad in Berlin has accompanied me across countries and continents. It is the first book I pack and remains within arm’s reach of my desk. The table of contents is marked up with dates keyed to the first Chaucer seminar I took; my annotations record years of response to the text and the inherited comments of teachers. I open the pages and see myself at 21 fascinated by the House of Fame, observing in an excited note how the Middle English ‘unkyndely’ relates to both English kin (as in ‘less than kin, more than kind’) and German Kind; grappling with the abjection of Palamon and Arcite in the Knight’s Tale for my undergraduate thesis at 22; astonished at 24 to discover in a graduate seminar that the textual headings of Anelida and Arcite were a nineteenth-century invention and so scribbling them all out in outrage; cross-referencing Troilus and Criseyde for my first academic article, and turning to the Knight’s Tale once again to finish my dissertation.
Pages are starting to come loose, post-it notes have lost their relevance, and the margins are cluttered with remarkable inanities (such as ‘bad man’ next to the Pardoner’s name). The innumerable WTFs strewn across the pages are taciturn but turning the pages I hear snatches of lost conversations and see research paths not taken, such as a questioning reference to object-oriented ontology in the Knight’s Tale. I’d like to say I see a clear development, a maturation, but in all honesty, those WTFs could have been from yesterday or a decade ago. As Chaucer writes at the start of the Parliament of Fowls, ‘The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.’
When I invited responses from others, I heard similar accounts that embraced the studium and punctum of scholarly life. The uncanny experience of encountering your previous selves; the ad hoc history of literary theory revealed by the changing focus of annotations; an investment in a hoped-for professional future. The ever-presence of the Riverside in college curricula, its prohibitive cost, and its curious publishing history means there is a vibrant, seemingly infinite, secondhand market in the book. Chancing upon a copy of the Riverside has led more than one reader to take this as a sign they are destined to be a medievalist (though perhaps it is the fact they were willing to take an encounter with a book as an omen for their professional future that truly marks them out as medievalists).
Purchasing a preowned copy creates moments of touch as students inherit the annotations, questions, and complaints of strangers. It reminds us that by reading Chaucer we are joining a conversation, a conversation shaped by the contingencies of history, but that brings us together in these six-hundred-year-old words and strangely waxy pages.
Classroom teaching is a full-contact sport for books. This is particularly true for the Riverside. Semester after semester, the binding starts to fray, and the different gatherings start to come loose. The destroyed Riverside starts to resemble a late-medieval manuscript: a collection of discrete fascicles bound together between boards. But such portability has its benefits: instead of lugging the book you can slip a fascicle into your backpack and be on your way. The detritus of a note reminding you to go over the next assignment becomes fossilized, part of the historical record that is the sum of your life as a teacher.
The era of the Riverside is ending. W.W. Norton recently published a single-edition volume of Chaucer’s complete works, while Oxford and Cambridge both have new editions in the pipeline. The Riverside no longer has a lock on the classroom. This is a good thing. The book is badly out of date, and even when its research was current, the book’s size and layout made it inaccessible for many kinds of readers. Yet as both material object and node in the lives of readers, the Riverside captures the stories of academic life in a way few other objects do. When I look at my own copy of the OUP Riverside, I see all this. The Riverside is a personal record of reading and response; it tracks a life’s work.
Daniel Davies collects stories about how we relate to books and wants to hear about your Riverside Chaucer