‘Communing is the best assay’: Teaching Hoccleve’s Complaint Remotely

by Dr. Brendan O’Connell (oconneb2@tcd.ie)


In the short essay below, Dr. Brendan O’Connell, Assistant Professor of English at Trinity College Dublin, reflects on teaching Hoccleve’s “Complaint” during the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition to the reflections that follow, Dr. O’Connell has also shared a range of materials, including:

Click the links above to view more.

Hoccleve’s ‘Complaint’, the first poem in his Series, was one of the defining works I encountered as an undergraduate studying fifteenth-century poetry, and I’ve often tried to find ways of including it in my undergraduate teaching. Over the years, this has presented challenges, due to issues such as the availability of the text, the accessibility of the language, or my own scruples about teaching the ‘Complaint’ independently of the rest of the Series. This year, however, the closure of my university (Trinity College Dublin) due to the Coronavirus pandemic presented a different set of challenges: how to teach the ‘Complaint’ remotely, when neither I nor my students had access to the usual resources. While my experience of online teaching during the closure has been challenging, teaching this text was extremely positive and will shape the way I teach it in the future.

The module in question is a third- and fourth- year advanced option called Surviving Trauma in the Middle Ages. The module considers the ways in which medieval texts bear witness to the experience of trauma, and the strategies they propose for survival. The class usually has around 18-20 students, who meet once a week for a two-hour seminar, in which I usually talk more or less informally through a PowerPoint presentation, though I place particular emphasis on research tasks, class conversation and small-group discussion. On the module, we examine texts that speak to the effects of catastrophic experiences such as war and plague (for example reading Cleanness through the lens of David Coley’s work on the poem as a response to the trauma of the Black Death), as well as more personal experiences such as bereavement, sexual violence, and physical and mental illness. Designing and developing the course over the past two years, I have tried to pay particular attention to voices that speak of trauma in the first-person, whether fictional (as with Chaucer’s Anelida and Arcite), or rooted in an experience that might be defined more or less accurately as autobiographical, such as Julian of Norwich and Thomas Hoccleve. Hoccleve’s ‘Complaint’ was scheduled to be taught the week after Chaucer’s Anelida and Arcite, as these texts work well together, in part because both make use of the complaint genre. However, my plans were interrupted by the sudden closure of college only days before I was scheduled to teach the ‘Complaint’.

Following guidelines from my School, I committed to a simple, asynchronous model of teaching delivery, shifting my emphasis towards providing a wider range of study resources, giving clear advice to help students target their time, and creating a discussion forum in which they could share their ideas openly. I also had to limit their required reading to texts that students would be able to freely access online. For the primary text, student had access to the resources on the Hoccleve Society website and the text of the ‘Complaint’ in Roger Ellis’s edition; I also provided students with a link to Jenni Nuttall’s translation of the text from the Hoccleve Society website. Students were given a study guide which they were encouraged to consult. I provided a PDF of my usual PowerPoint presentation, somewhat hastily annotated with contextualising information and commentary. To help students begin to engage critically with the text, a link was provided to Stephanie Trigg’s TED Talk about the poem. In addition to my usual bibliography and a link to the Hoccleve Society webpage and its bibliography, I uploaded PDFs of a range of secondary sources that were both readily accessible and spoke to some of the key issues I wanted students to consider (including articles by Laurie Atkinson, Danielle Bradley, Karen Smyth and Marion Turner). To facilitate group discussion, I set up a discussion board and asked students to post one substantial commentary (300-500 words) on any aspect of the poem, drawing on as many or as few of the resources as they liked.

The comments on the Discussion Board suggested that the experience was very successful overall. The students’ replies were uniformly thoughtful and carefully prepared, and most had clearly drawn on the resources provided in preparing their thoughts. Some students had read the text in the original Middle English, with a few students quoting details and images that particularly impressed or moved them. Most students had opted to read the text in Nuttall’s translation, and I was struck that in general the group spoke with a much greater command of the details of the text than I have found in previous experiences of teaching it, when students were relying solely on the original. Students were forcefully struck by some passages in the translation, whose meaning is a little opaque in the original, for example, lines 176-82, which in Nuttall’s translation read as follows:

Since I have recovered, I have very often had cause to be angry and impatient, at times where I have born it gently and patiently, suffering wrong and offence to be done to me but not answering back and keeping quiet, in case that people would judge me and say, ‘See how this man has become afflicted once more.’

The insightful comments to this and other passages made it clear that translation can be a powerful aid to learning, empowering students who might be more tentative when engaging with Middle English to formulate their views with confidence. In one respect, reading the translation did present a disadvantage: students relying on the translation did not immediately grasp the significance of the formal aspects of the poem, and specifically Hoccleve’s decision to write in rhyme royal, a form through which he signals his affinities with Chaucer, and associates the poem with serious examples of Chaucer’s high-style, such as the Man of Law’s Tale and the Prioress’s Tale. No student commented on the significance of the formal similarities to these works, which we had studied a few weeks earlier; this was not a major problem, however, and indeed provided a useful point to raise in my concluding remarks, which encouraged students to draw parallels with other works on the module.

I was deeply impressed by the way in which students were able to make connections to other texts on our module, and indeed to contemporary works of fiction and non-fiction. At least one student spoke eloquently of the similarities to texts such as Sir Orfeo and the legend of Philomela, both of which describe acute mental distress; others were very conscious of Hoccleve’s allusions to Chaucer, specifically the contrast between the spring opening of the General Prologue and the autumnal descriptions of Hoccleve’s ‘Complaint’. While no doubt many students would have made such connections anyway, I noted that a number of them framed their references to Hoccleve’s intertextual allusions with comments on how useful they had found the studies of Laurie Atkinson and Marion Turner, which clearly encouraged them to think about issues of literary tradition and convention and how these relate to the representation of personal experience.

All things considered, there were aspects of my remote teaching that proved enormously positive and productive, particularly the Discussion Board, which I plan to use whenever I teach this module in the future. Like many teachers, I am very aware that a number of my students are affected by mental illness; this can be an issue with a teaching style that relies a lot on class discussion and small-group work; it is an even greater issue in a module like this, in which all of the texts focus on traumatic topics, of which some students may well have had first-hand experience. The Discussion Board proved to be a positive and equitable forum in which students could share their thoughts. Due to the word limits, there was broad parity in the length of student contributions (something which is rare in class discussions), and students who are usually more reserved in class contributed impressive responses with which other students engaged generously. Most importantly, the Discussion Board provided a forum in which students could speak openly and safely about their personal experience of mental health; more than one commented that the text was a challenging read, but one they were grateful to have had the chance to read and discuss. While my students tended to agree that Hoccleve’s own process of recovery continued long after the fateful All Saints’ Day on which he claims to have been cured, their responses painted a picture of a poet who was more defiantly hopeful than I had ever recognised, and paid tribute to his conviction of the importance of conversation and communication, that, as he puts it, ‘communing is the best assay’ (217).