Thursday, January 22, 2015

Chaucer continues to challenge

Let's review the reason for the title of this blog. When I went to college and saw things differently in Chaucer than the reasons presented in the texts, or scholarly articles, I wondered if it would be proper to doubt an age-old authority. Then I came upon The Art of Literary Research by Richard D. Altick. Such fascinating reading about perpetuated misprints, anachronistic "evidence," and "facts" that had been presented exactly the opposite from what was true. When Altick referred to:

      . . . an assumption of critics or literary historians which has gone unchallenged so long that it now seems as impregnable as an old-fashioned Gospel truth . . .

I felt justified in questioning age-old authorities. Actually, I felt encouraged to do so.

We'll look at just two instances where declarations made by worthy scholars, more than a century ago, are treated like Gospel. It's time to show some serious disregard for what amounts to old "opinions."
     The first one deals with the term "The Marriage Group." In the sequence of the Tales, four of them referred to as this "Group" begin with the Wife of Bath's Prologue and end with the Franklin's Tale. The term was elaborately discussed by George Lyman Kittredge, a "celebrated" Harvard scholar. He is often credited with introducing the term in 1912. But when I heard a young doctoral candidate refer to the "Group" as if it had been Chaucer's own idea, I was shocked. So convinced of its validity, she had never questioned its origin.

A second perpetual opinion comes from Bernhard ten Brink (d. 1892). It is true that much honor is owed the man; his research stimulated the revival of the study of Geoffrey Chaucer's works. And again, when such an eminent scholar makes a statement, how can we deny its value? Yet one statement I do deny--and forcefully.
     Here's the background: The Cook's unfinished tale follows the ever-popular Miller's Tale and the equally risqué Reeve's Tale. Ten Brink speculated that the Cook's plot was headed in a bawdy direction and, therefore, Chaucer broke off writing the story because the poet realized "three stories of the same [vulgar] stamp following each other" would be "too much for the reader." The Pilgrim Cook, however, in the introduction to his story, says he'll simply tell a little joke (litel jape). Ten Brink saw the main character as a "licentious . . . apprentice"--but it is only a façade!
     Chaucer uses tactics similar to old riddles in adapting details of human form and activity. Where an old riddle speaks of a bee as a "short little gentleman," Chaucer tells of a "proper short fellow." And where a riddle pictures a swarm of bees as "a heap of people on London Bridge," Chaucer uses a similar image, but a different structure. He describes a group of revelers who "sometimes led to Newegate." Editors explain this "Newegate" as the name of a prison--but we can just as easily visualize a swarm clumped on a new gate! That is part of the charm and challenge of allegory.
     It is also significant to notice that the Cook speaks not of an apprentice cook but of a victualler, a gatherer of foodstuffs! The food gatherer is brown as a berry, a proper short fellow who is like a hive full of honey. The disguised identity of this little character is the prevalent English brown bee. But he's not just any bee--he's a good-for-nothing drone. Cooks were well acquainted with honey as a coveted cooking ingredient. Industrious worker bees, worthless drones, and the movements of swarms were all common knowledge in Chaucer's day. Therein lies the point of the Tale.

So, don't be afraid to contradict old opinions when your view is contrary to what you've read. Do your research. Be careful. Be thorough. You might discover something darned exciting! Remember, what's been said before ain't Gospel!

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Chaucer murdered ?

This blog is dedicated to questioning the usual opinions regarding things Chaucerian. Mr. Terry Jones' questions and opinions belong here. You may recognize his name as part of the comic genius of Monty Python, but his attitude turns deadly serious when it comes to dealing with the death of Geoffrey Chaucer.
     Are  you aware that, in addition to comedy, Jones has a reputation as a presenter of history in both books and TV documentaries? He provides a "challenge [to] popular views of history." Terry Jones' Medieval Lives (2004) received an Emmy nomination for "Outstanding Writing for Nonfiction Programming." When he proposes the possibility that Chaucer was murdered, we should be attentive! Yes, his questions and opinions belong here.

He had the idea about Chaucer's death for thirty years, without finding the time to research and write it. But serendipity stepped in when he was invited to create an entertainment for the closing session of The Chaucer Society, an international literary group. With a twist of genius, the piece was staged as an inquest into the death of Chaucer! It was well received.
     So much time, energy and enthusiasm had already been invested that these friends were eager to help turn the project into a book. Each would contribute an essay in the area of their expertise or their area of interest.

The book (Who Murdered Chaucer?) boldly questions currently held historical details and interpretations. For example, how had Chaucer survived the political upheaval during the reign of King Richard, though many friends had not?

In 1400--the year of Chaucer's death--the poet leased a house for 53 years. Does that sound like the action of a man who expected to die soon? But Henry had usurped the throne; Richard was confined to the Tower and died (perhaps by starvation) in February. The rented house was on the grounds of Westminster Abbey. Could there be thoughts of "sanctuary"?
     Why do we know so little about the death of Chaucer who was revered by his contemporaries? Why does no one allude to illness, or details of a funeral? What happened to his estate? If renting his house is officially recorded, why is there no mention of his demise in an official document? How could he just vanish without a word?
     And what became of his manuscripts? None are listed in wills or inventories of the day. Jones wonders whether they could have been deliberately destroyed for political reasons.
     Terry Jones and his cohorts (and I) hope Who Murdered Chaucer? will stimulate further investigation into overlooked possibilities.