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  • Chapter 5:Printing Power: Selling Lydgate, Gower, and Chaucer
  • Andrew Higl

Early modern editors dubbed Chaucer the premier author in the English tradition, a master of love verse, and a proto-reformist. Caroline Spurgeon's magisterial three volume overview of Chaucerian criticism and allusions traces the appropriation of Chaucer to fit the above mentioned roles. One laudation describes Chaucer as "a sharpe Logician, a sweete Rhetorician, a pure Poett, a graue Philosopher, and a sacred Theologian, He surpassed the Mathemattickes in his time in ther art or cemeinge."1 However, Chaucer is not alone in these early modern references. Lydgate and Gower stand by his side forming a hackneyed triumvirate often cited as the great fathers of English. In texts dated between 1500 and 1600, Spurgeon includes 14 instances where Lydgate and Chaucer are mentioned together, 16 where Gower and Chaucer are mentioned together, and 18 where Lydgate, Chaucer, and Gower are mentioned together.2 Some praise Lydgate, Gower, and Chaucer equally. Others, especially later examples, set Chaucer above the others as the "Prince" or "God" of English poetry. Henry IV had already initiated Chaucer's canonization in the fifteenth century when he installed a dead Chaucer as the court poet. This move was nationalistic, but, perhaps because Chaucer had already proved useful after death, his prolific place in early modern England seems to point to his economic viability in light of his religious and nationalistic functionality. Chaucer is easily appropriated, and the early moderns do not initiate anything new, but the advent of print and increase in literacy magnify the comodification of Chaucer that had been initiated in the wake of his death.3 Not only does Chaucer become a marketable commodity, but his name and oeuvre establishes an English vernacular tradition necessary for the sale of the English language and, subsequently, literature written in the English language.

If Chaucer is such a viable commodity, then why are Gower or Lydgate not? Defenders of Chaucer's prominence and the others' obscurity describe Lydgate [End Page 57] and Gower as simply too uninteresting and have dismissed their rhetorical connection with Chaucer when tracing the English literary tradition in early modern commentaries. H. S. Bennett dismisses Lydgate and chalks up his early popularity in print to the lack of discretion on the part of early modern readers:

The fact is that [printers'] potential clients were not able to discern clearly the superiority of Chaucer over all other English poets, so that it was the works of Lydgate, not Chaucer, to be found freely on book stalls. While (fortunately) there was no collected edition of Lydgate's 145,000 lines of verse, no less than fifteen works of his were put into print , many of them in three or four editions.4

However, I would argue, matters of taste today can hardly explain the forces at work during the sixteenth century. Rather than some tremendous objective quality within Chaucer's work, his personal character, or the precedent set by Henry IV, I suggest that it is the malleability of Chaucer's work and the precedent of fifteenth-century continuations of the Chaucerian texts that marked Chaucer's work as open and flexible.

Many will suggest that the openness of medieval literature is the rule rather than the exception. Texts in vernacular and Latin traditions were frequently continued and changed in the Middle Ages. However, the medieval notion of authorship locates authority in classical writers such as Virgil and Ovid and not those who made additions and changes. Chaucer, according to the textual evidence which links him to the classical past and his visual prominence on title pages, takes on a role analogous to the classical auctor. However, his Englishness and structure of his canon make his work the subject of change and continuation in the early years of print in England. We can trace Chaucer's flexibility in fifteenth century manuscripts and also in early modern printed editions.

After Seth Lerer's foundational study of early Chaucerian readership, there have been a number of important explorations of Chaucer's reception in the years after Chaucer's death.5 However, little critical attention has been paid to the role of the other members...


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