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Chaucer and the Oxford Renaissance of Anglo-Latin Rhetoric

From: Studies in the Age of Chaucer
Volume 34, 2012
pp. 173-207 | 10.1353/sac.2012.0037

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Writing over eighty years ago, John M. Manly posed the questions that have shaped scholarly debate over the nature and extent of Chaucer’s debt to medieval rhetoric ever since: “What ...was medieval rhetoric? Who were its principal authorities in Chaucer’s time? And what use did Chaucer make of methods and doctrines unmistakably due to the rhetoricians?”1 In his answer to the first question, Manly restricted medieval rhetoric to a set of formal precepts that fell into three categories: “(1) arrangement or organization; (2) amplification and abbreviation; (3) style and its ornaments.”2 Especially among the generation immediately following the 1926 publication of Manly’s landmark essay, that definition prevailed and shaped many subsequent studies devoted to identifying the various rhetorical figures employed in Chaucer’s poetry.

Those who wrote such studies also accepted Manly’s answer to his second basic question: the principal sources of rhetorical doctrine for Chaucer and his contemporaries were the Latin textbooks composed in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries by Matthew of Vendôme, Geoffrey of Vinsauf, and others, several of which were made available in modern printed editions by Edmond Faral only two years before Manly explored their influence on Chaucer.3 Often referred to as artes poetriae, these are treatises on general composition, a genre that Douglas Kelly has designated more precisely as “arts of poetry and prose.”4 The most popular among the arts of poetry and prose, Geoffrey of Vinsauf’s Poetria nova (1200–1202, revised up to c. 1215), survives in more than two hundred manuscript copies and is cited twice by Chaucer.5

Manly’s answer to his third question was that Chaucer made extensive use of the formal techniques he had learned from Geoffrey of Vinsauf and his fellow rhetoricians but distanced himself from this kind of artifice as he matured as a poet: “To any student of his technique, Chaucer’s development reveals itself unmistakably, not as progress from crude, untrained native power to a style and method polished by fuller acquaintance with rhetorical precepts and more sophisticated models, but rather as a process of gradual release from the astonishingly artificial and sophisticated art with which he began and the gradual replacement of formal rhetorical devices by methods of comparison based upon close observation of life and the exercise of the creative imagination.”6 Since the 1960s, scholars have taken issue with the “unmistakably” in Manly’s formulation in order to document the ways in which Chaucer’s artistic success came not despite but by means of his “rhetorical” poetics. Leading the way was Robert O. Payne, whose 1963 book The Key of Remembrance remains the most comprehensive and nuanced appreciation of Chaucer’s creative experimentation with the rhetorical conception of poetry anatomized in the arts of poetry and prose and embodied in previous literary works, both Latin and vernacular, that belong to the tradition they epitomized.7 More recent scholarship has expanded the scope of inquiry beyond the formalistic elements of structure and style to include, for example, the construction of rhetorical ethos,8 argument from the attributes of persons,9 and persuasion through careful attention to audience and occasion (kairos) in Chaucer’s works.10 Rita Copeland’s studies of Chaucerian rhetoric as both a metadiscourse and a conceptual scheme for textual production have been especially important in this ongoing effort to broaden and deepen our understanding of rhetoric as it shapes and informs Chaucer’s work.11

Also in the 1960s, James J. Murphy assailed another of Manly’s confident claims, namely, that the rhetorical “methods and doctrines” employed by Chaucer were “unmistakably due to the rhetoricians” and, therefore, what Manly had defined as “medieval rhetoric” could have reached Chaucer only through the arts of poetry and prose by Matthew of Vendôme and Geoffrey of Vinsauf. In his 1964 essay “A New Look at Chaucer and the Rhetoricians,” Murphy argued that “there is very little evidence of an active rhetorical tradition in fourteenth-century England” and that the evidence cited to support the influence of the arts of poetry and prose on Chaucer’s works could just as easily be used to demonstrate influence by any number of...

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