Home About LIT@MIT People Program Research Resources Spotlight FAQ Contact Donate

Class of 2014 student blogs about "special" Lit. professor and course

Anna Ho, Class of 2014, blogs for MIT Admissions, and features Literature Professor Arthur Bahr's "21L.460 Medieval Literature: Chaucer" course.

21L.460 Medieval Literature: Chaucer

Arthur Bahr. What a man. First of all, his last name is an anagram of h-bar. Second of all, he is officially a "Medievalist"; he is versed in Old English, Latin, Old French, Old Norse, Middle Welsh*, and Greek.

*Did NOT know that that was A Thing.

This semester, he's teaching a class on Chaucer, as well as a class on C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. I didn't know he was teaching the former, and signed up for the latter along with half of MIT, because how could anyone resist a syllabus that includes Beowulf, The Hobbit, The Magician's Nephew, and The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe?

Before the first class, I went to a Burchard Scholars reception, where I identified Prof. Bahr by his nametag and introduced myself. He told me about his plans for CS Lewis/Tolkien, then about his plans for the Chaucer class.

I was sold. This goes back to what I was saying about taking classes that are "special": this is a chance to read Medieval texts - significant, milestone-in-western-culture Medieval texts - with a Medievalist. In the original Middle English. If I picked up Troilus and Criseyde without Arthur Bahr to guide me, I wouldn't get anything out of it. On the other hand, The Hobbit is pretty accessible.

Also, it turns out that Arthur Bahr carries around course materials with him everywhere he goes. "Wait here!" he said, and disappeared to the back of the room. When he returned, he piled a Middle English glossary, a poem by Chaucer in the original Middle English, a translation of the first few hundred lines of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, and a syllabus (written, to my surprise and great relief, in modern English) into my arms.


There are six of us in this class, and it is not for the faint-hearted. For each session, we read hundreds of lines of Troilus and Criseyde in the original Middle English. Each class begins with a short quiz, to test our grasp of the language (Middle English grammatical structure is more flexible than modern English grammatical structure, which means that the sentence subject can acquire a lot of distance from the verb. Connecting verbs to subjects can get VERY confusing.) After Troilus and Criseyde, we're reading the Canterbury Tales, also in Middle English (AHHHHHH SO EXCITING)

My favorite passage from Troilus and Criseyde so far:
"Ye knowe ek that in forme of speche is chaunge
Withinne a thousand yeer, and wordes tho
That hadden pris, now wonder nyce and straunge
Us thinketh hem, and yet thei spake hem so"