Undergraduate research project finds famed poet Chaucer connected to early-century astronomers

Senior English Literature major, Michael Walecke, is mapping collocations of one of Chaucer’s only prose works

Undergraduate, English Literature Major, Michael Walecke, shows how Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe is referenced with other manuscripts and the frequency of those connections.

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2/23/2018 | By: Lisa McDonald |

One undergraduate English Literature major is learning how to do data mapping of medieval texts. Michael Walecke said he still has a lot of work to do before his project is complete, but he believes he has found a connection between Chaucer's Treatise on the Astrolabe and medieval century astronomers Masha'Allah and Sacrobosco.

Walecke is a senior at the University of Nevada, Reno and participating in an undergraduate research assistantship under mentor Angela Bennett, assistant professor of English. Walecke's work on Treatise on the Astrolabe is part of Bennett's larger project, "Mapping Systems of Manuscripts: Medieval English Vernacular Manuscript Networks," that uses data visualization and network graphing to track patterns of text dissemination in Late Medieval England. Walecke said before the assistantship began, he knew nothing about medieval text and scholarship. He had a keen interest in the topic after taking a medieval literature course, so he wanted to pursue this interest.

Walecke is primarily focused on the work of poet Geoffrey Chaucer, most notable for The Canterbury Tales. What few realize is that Chaucer also wrote two prose works: his translations of Boethius and Treatise on the Astrolabe. Walecke is focusing on the latter. "The important part about that is that this is a prose work and one of only two major prose works Chaucer did," said Walecke. "It's the second most recorded of his writings - which is odd because of it's nature we wouldn't expect it to be."

What Walecke found so far is that Chaucer mainly translated from eighth-century astrologer, Masha'Allah. His work shows up in at least four of the manuscripts where Chaucer's Treatise is in. Walecke believes he can show how Masha'Allah is attached to Chaucer's Treatise. But Chaucer also used a second source - although not as frequently cited - 12th century astronomer Sacrobosco. What's interesting is that Walecke hasn't come across a manuscript that includes both Masha'Allah and Sacrobosco together. He believes there is a connection to be made between all three scholars, but he said he doesn't have enough research yet to make a positive claim. His work this semester is devoted to defining this relationship.

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During his research assistantship, Walecke is attempting to identify all the other works that show up in a manuscript and find connections between those works. Since all the manuscripts of Chaucer's work appeared after his death, and many of his works unfinished, there can be as many as 60 different works in one manuscript. Out of the 33 manuscripts on Chaucer's Treatise, only seven include the Treatise as the only work in that manuscript. Walecke spends all of his time picking apart the 26 manuscripts, trying to identify the different scribes and works in each one.

Walecke has sifted through library catalogs from the late 1800s to early 1900s and is now going back to double-check his work. He is also trying to find modern data that talk about the manuscripts. Once he is confident in his claims, Walecke will put together a detailed report of his findings. "It shows a connection between the culture and the text that does not necessarily consider the author as authoritative," said Walecke.

"Part of it is the fact of how we look at Chaucer as an English author - this (project) potentially will show he is not the epitome of an English author," said Walecke.

Learning about research and how to collect data are the two most beneficial pieces of this research assistantship for Walecke. He said he has learned more in the last two semesters under the direction of Bennett than he has during all of his time completing his undergraduate studies.

"The significance of Michael's portion of this project is that he has uncovered an entirely different and separate literary culture in which the Treatise circulates," Bennett said. "(He) has made several publishable discoveries that even leading scholars in the field did not know."

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