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Reviewed by:
  • Sources of the Boece
  • Gregory Heyworth (bio)
Machan, Tim, with the assistance of A[lastair] J. Minnis, eds. 2005. Sources of the Boece. Athens: University of Georgia. ISBN: 13 978-0-8203-2760-0. Pp. 311. $85.00.

There can be little doubt that Chaucerians have long needed a study entitled “Sources of the Boece”. While good editions of the Boece exist, they fall short of providing the intellectual context and intertext necessary to appreciate the unique character of Chaucer’s Boethianism whose looming presence is too often treated as if it were unmediated by traditions of commentary, manuscript history, and translation. Tim Machan’s Sources of the Boece answers this need by providing reliable and conscientious editions of two of the work’s most important sources: Jean de Meun’s Li livres de confort de philosophie and the vulgate Latin Consolatio. For literary scholars, these new editions represent an important scholarly tool, building on and improving the older edition of Li livres de confort by Dedeck-Hery (1952), and publishing for the first time Edgar Silk’s manuscript edition of the vulgate Consolatio (1930) with corrections and augmented collation. For some, however, the title’s unqualified promise of “sources” may provoke expectations that the present volume either cannot or chooses not to meet.

The Foreword from Chaucer Library general editor Robert Lewis announces that “with the Latin text, the French text, and extracts from Nicholas Trevet’s Latin commentary (as well as interlinear glosses from the Remigian tradition)”, and that this book “will bring us about as close as we can come to what Chaucer actually had on his desk”. The first objection readers may have is that Machan really treats only two of these main sources of the Boece, neglecting the Latin commentary on the Consolatio, which, to my mind, is the richest of the three. To be fair, Alistair Minnis, whose assistance is noted on the title page, has duly provided selections from Nicholas Trevet and Remigius of Auxerre in thirty pages of “Notes” to Machan’s Consolatio. But while they give some useful linguistic clarifications, they omit much and fall far short of conveying the full intellectual force and significance of the commentaries. Book 3 metrum 12 (“Felix qui potuit boni/ Fontem visere lucidum,/ Felix qui potuit gravis/ Terre solvere vincula”), for example, exerted immense philosophical and poetic influence in the Middle Ages, provoking an important neo-Platonic interpretation of the Orpheus myth in Remigian commentary which Chaucer would undoubtedly have known. And yet, none of these lines nor the commentary that informs them appears in the notes.

Of course, there are many good reasons not to include a full-fledged commentary, not the least of which is the diabolical complexity of the tradition. [End Page 170] Machan can certainly be forgiven for foregoing the labor of establishing a reliable edition. However, by offering only glosses clarifying textual or manuscript difficulties he risks misleading those who have heeded the Foreword and are unfamiliar with the commentaries into underestimating their range and value. Perhaps if the notes on particularly important passages referred us to an edition of the commentary such as Haijo Westra and Lodi Nauta’s (1999), they would suffice as a companion to the text, but they do not. What Chaucer “had on his desk”, at least as concerns the commentaries, was substantially more.

Another implication of a work entitled Sources of the Boece is that it furnishes a source study locating Chaucer’s Boece intellectually amidst the welter of medieval Boethianism. The Introduction, however, devotes itself primarily to the editorial history and defense of the manuscripts Machan has chosen to produce his two editions. Concise and up-to-date, it judiciously leaves the issues of medieval translation or commentary tradition and influence to studies such as Minnis’s Chaucer’s Boece and the Medieval Tradition (1993) to which Machan is a contributor. Indeed, Sources of the Boece seems purpose-built as a companion to the latter and scholars looking for a source study would do well to consult the two in tandem.

The confusions of the title, however, in no way overshadow the strengths of the editions Machan presents. Their greatest attraction...


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