Since arriving at Eastern Illinois University 30 years ago, David Raybin has spent his professional career molding himself into a leading authority on the writings of Geoffrey Chaucer.
"We've had many marvelous English writers — so many great writers — but the poets who stand out are Shakespeare, Milton and Chaucer," says Dr. Raybin, a professor of English and co-editor of The Chaucer Review, a quarterly periodical focusing on the works of the famed 14th-Century English poet. "Of the non-dramatic poets in our language, Chaucer is the best. He is enthralling, and you can see that in the students' responses when you teach him."
Those strong sentiments notwithstanding, Chaucer didn't enter Raybin's life until relatively late in the game. His first foray into comparative medieval literature came in a senior seminar at Columbia College; following graduation, a year in Paris, and graduate school at Columbia University, Raybin landed at EIU and came to a realization.
"At Eastern, there was no place for someone to teach comparative literature," says Raybin. "We did English literature. As a medievalist teaching literature, I felt I had to know Chaucer, so I decided to teach myself Chaucer and read every book I could find."
Raybin's dedication was cemented in 1987, when he attended a summer institute on The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer's most recognizable work. Attendance required letters of support from his department chair and an agreement to teach the material upon his return to EIU. While at the seminar, Raybin also decided to begin editing the first of three books he has co-edited on Chaucer: Rebels and Rivals: The Contestive Spirit in The Canterbury Tales.
"That was the first time I studied Chaucer in any sustained way," says Raybin. "It was just obvious this was where I belonged. I could get burned out on many things, but I've never felt bored with Chaucer."
That first book, along with his latest 2010 release — Chaucer: Contemporary Approaches — was co-edited with Raybin's wife, Susanna Fein. Fein is an English professor at Kent State University and has co-edited The Chaucer Review with her husband since they took over the journal's editorship in 2002.
"That's a lot of my life, working on Chaucer and editing this journal," says Raybin, who has written numerous articles, book chapters, and book reviews on the subject in addition to directing seminars, giving talks and organizing conferences. "When we took it over, the journal had been around a long time — since 1966. Part of what we did was to use the journal to help build a stronger Chaucer community."
While Chaucer has been and always will be the major focus of Raybin's research, he has also become involved in his wife's ambitious goal of editing and translating the entire contents of one of the most important manuscripts of the Middle Ages, British Library MS Harley 2253.
"We know very little about secular poetry in England in the early 14th Century, that is, before the time of Chaucer," explains Raybin. "This manuscript is the best collection of English lyrical poetry on secular subjects before Chaucer. If we didn't have this manuscript, we wouldn't know this large body of secular poetry existed."
A facsimile of this manuscript was published years ago, but a little-known fact is that the manuscript's famous English lyrics represent only a tiny portion of the entire collection, which includes poetry and prose in Middle English, Anglo-Norman French, and Latin. Fein set out to produce a complete translation of the full version in an easier-to-read format; she has transcribed and edited the text and deciphers the difficult early Middle English writings, while her husband, whose dissertation was on 12th-Century French literature, translates the French portions.
Raybin, who plans to write his own book on Chaucer before retiring, says Eastern has played a large role in his ability to engage in such activities.
"I'm part of a superb department and a university filled with great scholars," says Raybin. "There are lots of people doing really fine, internationally recognized work. When I've asked for support from the university, I've received it. They give me time to work on these projects, which is the most precious commodity.
"Eastern's goal is not to be just another ordinary school. For that to happen, we have to have scholars. Plenty of people can teach very well, but if you're not a scholar, there's a limit to how much you know and can teach. Eastern benefits enormously from the fact that its faculty is so active."