Spotlight on Students: Shelley Williams

shelley williams

On nights when comet Hale-Bopp was visible in the 1990s, my father trundled all of us in the car to caravan across Oahu, seeking the best view of it. Beaches and mountainsides that were usually crowded with tourists were empty in the small hours of the morning, and it only took a fraction of the time to cross the island than it would in the light of day. On one memorable night we traveled high up on a mountain, found a quiet place to stargaze, when suddenly a ground-shaking explosive went off only a few miles away. A man in military fatigues rushed to us – what were we doing there? The remote site was not only ideal for spying Hale-Bopp, but also for testing military explosives, apparently. On another memorable comet-seeking adventure, we met a sculptor who carved driftwood into knobbly, breaching Humpback whales, solely by the light of the moon.

As an adult I have embarked on something of a similar adventure, albeit on an entirely different island and with notably fewer explosives. My doctoral thesis investigates the astral imagery in Geoffrey Chaucer’s works. What is surprising about Chaucer’s astrology and astronomy is just how present it is, with at least seventy-nine distinct instances. Usually these are arcane allusions or images whose meanings have dissolved over time. Decipherment and recontextualization is a worthwhile endeavor however, because it not only enriches our understanding of Chaucer’s poetry, but better illuminates the times in which he lived.

To the naked eye the night sky presents an unfathomable array of dots of light, which cultures have plotted, figured and ascribed aetiological myths. Six-hundred years ago the visible stars and planets were not much different from what we see now, but Chaucer’s universe was an alien intellectual landscape. It is one with the earth at the center, where human souls traverse celestial spheres on their journey to ensoul a body, soaking up zodiacal and planetary influences like fabrics passing through dyes. It is a universe drenched in classical mythology, medicinal quackery, and peculiar local folklore. In short, Chaucer’s is a captivating cosmos with all the craftsmanship, artistry and limitless possibilities of an astrolabe.

The University of Oxford is an ideal place for such a study. The Bodleian’s manuscript collection is a treasure-trove of fourteenth-century astronomical treatises and astrological miscellanies, with intriguing notae, rotating planispheres, and astral marginalia. The Science Museum has a fantastic collection of paper, bronze and golden astrolabes. I am also immeasurably lucky to work under the supervision of Marion Turner, the recently elected J.R.R. Tolkien Professor of English Literature and Language. She is a veritable pioneer in Chaucer studies, blazing new trails with her biographies and literary publications.

My favorite of Chaucer’s astral passages is in ‘The Franklin’s Tale,’ part of The Canterbury Tales, lines 1245-1255. It is a lyrical passage describing the quality of sunlight in late December. Where the sun glowed as bright as gold in June’s sign of Cancer, it now shone with tinny silver hues in Capricorn, accompanied by freezing sleet and rain. The lines then revolve to a scene of Janus feasting at a well-laden Christmas table, drinking wine from a bugle horn and a cheerful shout of ‘Nowel!’. It was this passage that started me on the path to my doctoral thesis. When I first encountered it, I saw in my mind’s eye an identical scene from the sculpted north porch at the cathedral of Chartres. Capricorn is sculpted in a niche above a feasting, double-headed Janus. It is a peculiar picture that rarely occurs in medieval Labors of the Month motifs. Could there be a connection, and how did zodiacal imagery in the visual, material world, manifest in Chaucer’s poetry?

Like chasing Hale-Bopp around Oahu, this curiosity about the cosmos, and the artwork encountered along the way, are an excellent recipe for adventure.

Shelley Williams is in her second year of her DPhil focused in medieval English studies. She has published articles analysing zodiacal imagery on 12-13th century church portals and manuscripts. Before coming to Oxford, she taught a survey course of the History of Art as an adjunct professor at Brigham Young University. She is married and mother to daughters aged 13, 11 and 9, bravely endeavoring to help them survive the slings and arrows of growing up.