Monday, December 29, 2008

Book review: Who Murdered Chaucer? A Medieval Mystery

Who Murdered Chaucer? A Medieval Mystery by Terry Jones, Robert Yeager, Terry Dolan, Alan Fletcher, and Juliette Dor. London: Methuen Publishing Ltd. 2003. 420 pages.

Geoffrey Chaucer was justice of the peace, knight of the shire, friend of the king, and "greatest living poet." Abruptly, around 1400, this "public man of affairs" was never heard from again. Who Murdered Chaucer? stems from a coroner's inquest into Chaucer's disappearance staged at the Sorbonne in 1998 for the New Chaucer Society Congress. The resulting book is a smart, often irreverent layman's probe into the fate of the man who, through The Canterbury Tales and other works, helped to establish English as a literary language.

Even at a 600-year-old crime scene, context is everything, and the authors explore the efforts that Henry IV and his allies may have made to obscure Chaucer's memory. Painstakingly sifting through the clues that remain, they develop a convincing case that Chaucer was murdered for his political loyalties, religious leanings, and advocacy of the written English language.

The authors set the stage on which Chaucer played a number of roles, describing the progressive court of his patron, Richard II, and the turmoil that conflicting values and change invariably bring. On one side were John Wyclif and his followers, trying to make the Bible and God accessible to the people and to shame the church into reforming itself. On the other were the conservative barons and church leaders who stood to lose money and power in a world in which art and discourse might take the place of conflict, and the common man might be empowered to question age-old beliefs and practices. With the usurpation by Henry IV and the return of Thomas Arundel as Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Chaucer became a prominent man who suddenly stood on the wrong side of the important questions.

Much of the initial focus here is not on Chaucer, but on the history surrounding Richard II and the nature of his court, the barons' rebellion, and the Peasants' Revolt, and Henry's usurpation. Later, the authors examine Chaucer's surviving works, including The Canterbury Tales and illustrations, as well as the writings of his contemporaries, for clues as to how he may have antagonized the new regime and how he may have met his end. For example, they speculate that Hoccleve's eulogy hints at an end that is both untimely and violent: "Death was too hasty to run at you and rob you of your life." Puzzled by the discrepancies between Chaucer's text and the Ellesmere manuscript illuminations, the authors examined the art microscopically and discovered that some of it had been clumsily altered, then speculate why.

Academics and historians may chafe at such conjectures, but generally they make sense. Occasionally, though, they do not. According to the authors, the Peasants' Revolt "presented the royal faction with a tempting opportunity to eliminate the baronial opposition," but they offer no feasible explanation for why Richard II turned on the rebels after he "signed their pardons and granted their requests." Without understanding what happened and why Richard acted so treacherously and brutally, it's hard for the authors to make a solid case, as they try to do, that Richard was not the unpopular monarch portrayed by Henry's chroniclers. Later, they mention the "persistent rumours that Richard was still alive . . . the kind of rumour that would only gather round a figure who enjoyed strong support and even affection." Yet the same type of rumours surrounded Hitler, as much from fear as from "support and even affection." The case for Richard's popularity is weaker than the one for Chaucer's murder.

Although not addressed directly, one implied issue stands out—the importance of separation of church and state. Thomas Arundel and Henry IV need each other to usurp their respective positions, and their combined power, with no checks or balances, emboldens them to repress political foes and “heretics” with terror and torture. The danger of such of a broad spectrum of power concentrated in such ruthless, self-serving hands is clear—as Chaucer must have observed.

Well researched, engaging, and passionately and wittily written, Who Murdered Chaucer? shines a spotlight at a different and revealing angle on a turbulent time in English history and a definitive one in English literature. Whatever your interest in this period, Who Murdered Chaucer? will make you look at The Canterbury Tales and Geoffrey Chaucer in a more appreciative light as part of a greater story.

Monday, 29 December 2008.
Copyright © 2008 by Diane L. Schirf.

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