Gower Bibliography

Who Murdered Chaucer? A Medieval Mystery

Jones, Terry and Yeager, R.F and Dolan, Terry and Fletcher, Alan and Dor, Juliette. "Who Murdered Chaucer? A Medieval Mystery." London: Methuen, 2003

Review

It wasn't Gower, readers of JGN will be relieved to know, and it is not giving too much away to reveal that the culprit is Thomas Arundel, the fiery Archbishop of Canterbury who, on being restored to his post with Henry IV's accession, relentlessly pursued not just Henry's enemies but his own as well, especially those who challenged either his authority over the church or its doctrine, as he himself defined it. (Arundel is perhaps best remembered for introducing the public burning of heretics to England.) Chaucer had placed himself in peril with the harsh anticlericalism of his depictions of the Monk, Pardoner, Friar, and Summoner and by daring, moreover, to present his criticism of the church in English, which would allow its dissemination beyond the community of the church itself. His attempts to appease Arundel—his "ABC," ParsT and the "Retraction"—proved inadequate, and so he was dispatched, in a manner that we will never be able to reconstruct in detail because of the care with which his murderers were able to cover their tracks, to the point of leaving no official record of his disappearance. Wait just a second, some will say. But the objections to this explanation of Chaucer's death are almost too obvious to list. The use of the lack of evidence of the crime as proof of the skill and high position of the perpetrators is a staple of all conspiracy theories (including those involving weapons of mass destruction), and as a method of argument it proves no less slippery here. Because of the very nature of their case, moreover, the authors are forced to rely on unanswered—and perhaps unanswerable—questions as much as on hard facts. In accounting for Chaucer's whereabouts following the Merciless Parliament, for instance, they write: "Did Chaucer pay a visit to Philippa's people in 1388? Did he meet Matilda Nemeg, or some of her relatives there? Did Philippa go along—and not come back? . . . The usual assumption is that she died. But where? If she died in England, where is she buried? And if she died in Hainault—perhaps nobody has been looking in the right places?" (311). On the other hand, they seem very confident of their ability to divine the thoughts of Thomas Arundel, especially as he read and pondered CT ("Beneath the fun and banter of Chaucer's pilgrims, the great prelate would have smelt the burning fire of dissidence;" 377). And in their treatment of such things as the Troilus frontispiece and the "ABC," some are going to feel that they have made a very selective use of the available evidence. So do the authors prove their case? Obviously not, and they admit it, repeatedly. Chaucer might have died in his bed or fallen off a ladder (see, inter alia, pp. 6 and 359). But the value of a book like this lies not in what it makes us believe but in what it makes us question, and the truth, which is much more obvious as a result of this study, is that we know astonishingly little about Chaucer's life after Henry's accession, and that fact, together with the absence of so much as a will, is in itself extremely puzzling, as writers before Who Murdered Chaucer? have already observed. The explanation that is offered here, suspicious because of its very preciseness, is actually no less plausible in its details than the imaginative descriptions of Chaucer's final days that have been offered by some of Chaucer's biographers, who want to believe only the best about everyone concerned, and that should cause us to doubt anything that we have ever read or assumed about the end of Chaucer's life. And despite its irritations, if this book makes us a little more cautious about taking an easy view of such matters as Chaucer's role in the political events of his lifetime, of his audience and the circulation of his works, of the state of his MSS when he died, of the date of his death, or of the consequences of Henry's usurpation on the intellectual life of the time—all subjects that the authors treat at length during the course of their discussion—then it will have served a very valuable purpose. John Gower appears frequently as a background figure to the drama that the authors describe. His revision and rededication of CA and VC—"in what resembles either a paroxysm of prudence, or just plain fear" (273)—and his composition of TC are cited, of course, as evidence of the constraints that were suddenly imposed upon writers with the change of regime (271-73); and the authors give very close attention to the passages in which Gower describes how his works came to be composed in order to demonstrate that the revisions did occur this late and not because of some earlier disenchantment with Richard (97-103). (The reviewer is cited several times in support of their argument in this section.) Elsewhere, Gower is cited as evidence of Chaucer's reputation (3), in support of the view that both he and Chaucer expected their works to be read by the aristocracy (26-28, 34), and as evidence of Richard's encouragement of composition in English (35-36). The survival of early MSS of his works (231, 239, 244-45), of his will (276), and of his elaborate tomb (285) are all cited in contrast to the fate that befell Chaucer. The authors also cite passages from both VC (67) and MO (216) as examples of the pervasiveness of Wycliffite ideas in late fourteenth-century writing in order to demonstrate the contrast between the intellectual openness of Richard's reign and the shutting down of debate that occurred during Henry's. In that regard, they provoke a question that is perhaps typical of the issues that ought to be raised by their argument as a whole. After 1399, Gower indeed tried hard to be "Henry IV's Ideal Poet," as the authors put it (171), rewriting the history of Richard's reign in order to justify Henry's usurpation. But the villain of the piece—the one who gets the blame for exterminating Chaucer—is not Henry but Thomas Arundel; and at the same time that Gower was kissing up to Henry, he presented the archbishop with a copy of VC with a very flattering new dedication (Works 4.1-2) but without any revision of the passage—so Wycliffite in tone—in which he criticizes the church and its officers and calls upon them to reform. True, he was writing in Latin, not English, but wouldn't Arundel thus have been more likely to see the work? And if Chaucer was in such peril for his depiction of the Pardoner, how did Gower, who was no more a member of the church than Chaucer was and whose condemnation was both more palpable and more severe, remain safe from Arundel's wrath? Or does VC, seen from this different angle, perhaps indicate that the archbishop wasn't quite as thin-skinned as the authors make him out to be? [PN. Copyright The John Gower Society. JGN 23.2]

Item Type:Book
Subjects:Sources, Analogues, and Literary Relations
Biography of Gower
Manuscripts and Textual Studies

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