The students have been getting their feet wet with Middle English for the last week or so -- first a selection of lyrics, then the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales. On Friday of last week, when they'd just gotten their first taste of Middle English poetry, I invited them to write down their questions. (Not to ask questions, as I would have done back in grad school; for if I have learned nothing else, I have learned that about two-thirds of them never will raise their hands, not even if I invite them to swap papers and ask someone else's question instead of their own.)
The questions, as always, were excellent. They ranged from the very specific (What does "grislich" mean? What is meant by "hevene queene," is that Mary?), through the shrewd generalizations and observations (Why do so many of the words start with y? Why is April spelled "Aprille" in one poem and "Averil" in another?) to the very broad (How many people spoke this kind of English? Does anybody speak this language today? What made the old kind of English change into the language we speak today?) (Alas, I had no answer for this last student; all I could do was refer the whole class to my medievalist colleague's History of English course if they wanted to know more. Who knows, one or two of them might even enroll.)
And then there were the "why do we have to study this?" questions: Why is it important to know middle English? What is the relevance of Chaucer to today's society?
Like a lot of early English lit folks, I tend to cringe at the word "relevance" (and its evil twin, "relatable"); The Rebel Lettriste has an eloquent post explaining why. But at the same time, I've got to acknowledge that the question is fair play, at least when it comes from the aspiring nurses and chefs and accountants who fill the gen ed classes. And it's a question I can't answer for them. They have to find their own answers. I told them so, at the beginning of the next class period; but not before I played them this.
That blows my mind, I said. That people are still recording and performing this song, some five-hundred-odd years after it was written. That this is still living literature. For me, that's why.