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Reviewed by:
  • A Companion to Chaucer
  • Lawrence Besserman
Peter Brown , ed. A Companion to Chaucer. Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture 6. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000 (pb. 2002). 515 pp.

This hefty volume will be of use to all those who wish to have a cutting-edge introduction to Chaucer scholarship at the beginning of the new millennium. However, in addition to serving this primary, and relatively small audience, the volume's twenty-nine chapters provide a fine introduction to contemporary Anglo-American medieval literary and cultural studies in general. The twenty-nine different authors (all are listed below) whom editor Peter Brown has commissioned comprise a "Who's Who" in the field of Chaucer and Middle English studies. To be sure, there are more systematic and concise introductions to Chaucer on the market —other "Companions" that proceed work by work, treat general topics such as manuscripts, editions, and critical approaches, and are strictly focused on Chaucer.1 But no other introduction to Chaucer is so completely up-to-date with respect to contemporary theoretical concerns.2 [End Page 200]

Broadly speaking, the volume reflects the dominance in contemporary Chaucer studies of gender theory, New Historicism, and various forms of Foucauldian post-Marxist approaches. More specifically, among the innovative approaches brought to bear on Chaucer in the various essays are Stanbury on theory of the gaze; Machan on palaeography and codicology (as aspects of the study of the materiality of Chaucer's works); Staley on identity theory; Watson on ideology; various adaptations of New Historicism by Blamires, Galloway, and Wallace; and Hallett on gender theory. These and other postmodern approaches to Chaucer are rarely mentioned in earlier omnibus collections, and they are put to use in Brown's volume in an illuminating and timely fashion —bringing Chaucer into the twenty-first century, and enabling Chaucerians and other medievalists to join a critical conversation from which they risked being excluded (or excluding themselves).

The Chaucer one meets in these pages —in Carolyn Collette's chapter on Chaucer's "Afterlife," for example —is a far cry from "the Father of English Poetry," the master portrayer of character and brilliant satirist —now-gentle, now-savage —whose send-up of ecclesiastical corruption has been so congenial to English and American Protestant readers since the Renaissance. To be sure, Chaucer remains a great writer, one of the brightest stars in the canonical firmament, but now he is somewhat decentered, and with the wattage of his star reduced by the historicization and reinterpretation of his poetry in light of current theoretical concerns. Looking again at manuscripts and scribal variants, current scholars have demonstrated that the modern edited versions of Chaucer's poetry that most readers meet (whether in Middle English or in modernized versions) are misleadingly polished and definitive (see the essay on "Texts," by Tim William Machan). When Chaucer died in 1400, his manuscripts of the fragmentary Canterbury Tales (and of other works) underwent a process of scribal-editorial tinkering that produced a sense of completion that the works as Chaucer left them were lacking. There are differences of opinion as to how far this process went. In the case of the Canterbury Tales, some scholars believe that whole tales —e.g., the Canon's Yeoman's Tale, and the Parson's Tale —were fabricated to complete a work that Chaucer had [End Page 201] not finished and that was finding a growing and eager audience, ready to accept the apocryphal additions without complaint.

Scholarly suspicion of the distorting effects of scribal editorial interventions that began to intrude themselves into Chaucer's texts in the early fifteenth century and continued into the age of printing, and continue until the present day, has been bolstered by the fact that Chaucer himself, at the end of the Canterbury Tales, defines his role as that of a humble compilator ("compiler" [of stories]) rather than that of an auctor ("author") —the latter term being reserved for writers such as Virgil, Dante, and Petrarch. Recognizing that the title compilator was also applied to other medieval writers, postmodern scholars have been encouraged to rethink the anachronistic evaluation of Chaucer in terms of nineteenth-century ideas about the genius and individuality of authorship...


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