The New Chaucer Society conference, in London in July 2000, would be the extent of the British celebration of Chaucer's 600th anniversary. Recalling Dr. Barnes' concern about the cooling trend toward the age of Chaucer, I found the whole thing alarming. If the rest of the world seemed ready to bypass the red-letter day, those of us in Claremont would need to manage our own celebration. But what to do? Where to begin?
My friend Barbara remarked that Chaucer's last sentiment was a request for prayer. It's true. The closing of the Canterbury Tales says: "All who hear or read this, I beseech you to pray for me." Among Catholics, it is customary to have a Mass said on the anniversary of a death. That would also have been true when Chaucer lived. A small, private Mass at my home seemed appropriate, with eight or ten Chaucer-lovers attending. So, early in September 2000, I spoke with the secretary at our parish office to arrange for a home Mass on the evening of October 25. When the pastor, Father (now Monsignor) Tom Welbers, got word that a Mass would commemorate the date of Chaucer's death, the event suddenly went public. With unexpected, but gratifying enthusiasm, Father Tom urged, "It's a celebration that needs to be publicized." The Mass would be celebrated in church; invitations would go out to all the English Departments in our area; local newspapers would be notified. Now, to picture many people attending a Mass in church required a whole new plan. Where do we begin? Publicity, music, and food were starters.
A special Mass needed special music. Shirley Robbins directed medieval instrumental ensembles, and trained vocalists in the techniques of "early music." When I asked her to help, I got a warm reception, "I'd be delighted to take part," she said.
With the music arranged for, food came next because such a Mass would have to be followed by a reception. And the menu had to be medieval. The book Pleyn Delit by Constance Hieatt had medieval recipes adjusted for modern cooks, with modern substitutes for 14th-century ingredients. We planned a sit-down dinner of selected recipes the likes of which folks may never have tasted before.
Dinner would begin with a salad of greens. (Tomatoes were unknown to Chaucer.) Vinegar and oil added to a combination of minced fresh parsley, sage, mint, fennel, dill and savory can create a palate-pleasing dressing. The greens would be creative--borage, spinach, and whatever else was available, along with thinly sliced small leeks and scallions. Hieatt's one caution for authenticity: avoid iceberg lettuce. Besides the salad, we would make cheese-mushroom pasties, and pork tarts flavored with nutmeg, ginger, cardamom, pepper, and saffron. Dessert would be apple-almond pudding.
What to drink? Mead for the toast to Chaucer must be found, but what to serve as a dinner beverage? The fourteenth century had no coffee, tea, or chocolate. An email to Professor Hieatt brought a ready answer--apple cider.
Cider, in October, could be found at any grocery store. Mead, on the other hand, presented a challenge--with a happy ending. While buying 10 pounds of mushrooms at a local store, I talked with the cashier about the dinner. A woman standing behind me interjected, "You'll have mead, of course." I said we hadn't been able to find any. Smiling like a fairy godmother, she offered, "Just give me your phone number. I'll call you when I get home and tell you the number for my regular supplier." Good at her word, I called the number and ordered a case of, wouldn't you know, Chaucer's Mead!
I had been scheduled to give a talk about Chaucer at the city library a week before our medieval extravaganza. (That's a story of its own.) At the very end of my presentation, I invited everyone to the Chaucer Mass and reception the following week. Perfect timing.
The week was dominated by preparation for the event. I told the writers' group I would not be attending during that week because of all the baking. Someone offered sympathy saying, "What a lot of work for you!" I smiled and said I didn't consider it "work." It was a celebration I'd been hoping for for 30 years!
Judy Wenrick and her husband Jon had often provided a helping Chaucer hand; they agreed to oversee the dining activities in the hall. Judy had the last word about serving the food, and the seating arrangements. Jon would open and pour the mead--and propose the toast to Chaucer.
With the Mass about to begin, I welcomed the guests seated in the church with Chaucer's prayer request read in Middle English--followed by the same words in today's English. That signaled the recorder players and the percussionist, with his little drum, to lead the altar servers and Father Tom down the aisle. From the first thump on the drum, a medieval atmosphere filled the church. Shirley had assembled a small consort of instruments and a vocalist. When the Mass ended, many of those in attendance lingered to hear the musicians' final offering.
Then the crowd headed for the long tables set up in the parish hall. Close to 100 attended. The food was unusual but delicious. The salad was superb. The mead was exquisite. When a guest asked if we would be doing this again next year, the answer was "Yes!" What a great way to give life to Chaucer's name. We had started something.