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  • Chaucer’s Former Age and the Fourteenth-Century Anthropology of Craft: The Social Logic of a Premodernist Lyric
  • Andrew Galloway

The two medieval copies of The Former Age that have come down to us suggest that the work could be framed in at least two ways during the half-century after Chaucer: in an extraordinary Boethian vademecum, complete with a stately Latin text of the Consolation of Philosophy, Latin glosses, and Chaucer’s Boece, where The Former Age appears along with Chaucer’s Fortune; and as part of a smaller, elegant collection of sapiential and historical poems, suggesting a pious, courtly or civic commission and readership. This latter collection includes a translation of Cato’s distichs and a series of poems, many by Lydgate, offering specific historical complaint, such as the Duchess of Gloucester’s lament about being deprived of her dowry; an unquiet spirit from Augustine of Canterbury’s times warning against not paying tithes; and two narrators’ quandaries about choosing between various religious and secular professions. 1 The Former Age seems at home in both contexts. On the one hand, it solicits the philosophical attention and linguistic and literary expertise of a highly educated readership; on the other, it defines for a wider and more typically “courtly” and vernacular readership a set of social ideals from the primitive past in contrast to contemporary decadence and social abuses.

As Seth Lerer has recently demonstrated, Chaucer’s poetry often sets forth the elemental terms of its fifteenth-century reception, of divergent or even contradictory kinds, through which the concerns of his later redactors and communities of interpretation are articulated.2But it has not been made entirely clear what original contexts can most productively be aligned with this vivid, brief, and slightly [End Page 535] fragmentary or incomplete lyric, whose contrasts between present and past, or rather modernity and premodernity—for this past is defined predominately by what it is not yet—make insistent claims on its contemporary world. Where did its strongest contemporary social meanings lie, and in what contexts can we best appreciate its literary and ethical achievements? The work is clearly much more than a translation of Beothius’s fifth metron of book two—as the inclusion of a prose translation of that metron next to it in the Boece manuscript acknowledges; and it need not have been written at the same time as the Boece, that is, in the early 1380s, for the copy of Fortune in the same manuscript includes an allusion to a circumstance obtaining only after 1390, when Richard II could make gifts only by permission of a special council. Chaucer’s ABC is often found in copies of its source, Deguilleville’s Pelerinaige de la vie humaine; a similar fifteenth-century “locating” of The Former Age within its main source does not necessarily provide an original locus in quo—although George Pace’s and Alfred David’s argument that it does is ingenious—still less a definitive terminus ante quem. 3

Scholars have frequently praised Chaucer’s poem for its realism and detail, and for its rhetorical elaboration of the fallen, present world in comparison to its sources, which include Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Jean de Meun’s portion of the Roman de la Rose. Chaucer’s divergences from these suggest contemporary meanings at every point. Thus to John Norton-Smith, Chaucer’s closing discussion of Nimrod and other kinds of royal oppression not mentioned in Boethius, such as tyrannical taxation, alludes to the tyranny of Richard II in his final years; to L. O. Purdon, Chaucer’s reference to the late-medieval cloth-dyeing materials of “mader, welde, or wood” that were “unknown” in the former age invokes, by its contemporary specificity and along with the oblique description of modern ocean-trade, fourteenth-century abuses of dyers and of trade-struggles between English and Flemish cloth merchants—a significant context indeed in the increasingly competitive wool-trade of the period. 4

Alignments with other pertinent late-fourteenth-century social conflicts and abuses can and should be multiplied. But the goal of contextualizing narrative can, and should, also draw on wider and more pervasive issues and cultural concerns, even while continuing to...

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pp. 535-554
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