Libraries & Culture 38.4 (2003) 407-408
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Rewriting Chaucer: Culture, Authority, and the Idea of the Authentic Text, 1400-1602. Edited by Thomas A. Prendergast and Barbara Kline. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1999. vii, 301 pp. $55.00. ISBN 0-8142-0811-8.
Once rejected as deflecting interest from the critical process, historicist approaches to literary artifact production in recent years have proved their validity. But such efforts, negotiating the difference between unquestioning acceptance of authenticity and subordination of the text to cultural studies, both illuminate and make problematical recovery of the Chaucerian canon. The essays in this collection maintain this difficult balance as they strive to identify the boundaries between the "original" Chaucer and early revisions to his canon by scribes, editors, and audiences.
Prendergast and Kline have constructed their collection with conceptual care. Dealing first with the issue of origins, Rewriting Chaucer takes on two familiar controversies: the Tales' apparent truncation, which John M. Bowers claims results from self-censorship in politically sensitive times, and that old bugaboo, the Parson's Tale, which Míceál Vaughan, analyzing manuscript rubrics, rejects as an appended appropriation to the Tales from an independent penitential treatise. A second concern of the book is for evolution of the Tales into their surviving forms by examining discrete moments of reception by their early readers. To this end, Mary F. Godfrey, drawing on late medieval devotional manuals, qualifies their anti-Semitism; Barbara Kline maintains that irregularities occurring in a text tailored for a fifteenth-century ecclesiastical community are invaluable to recent studies of scribal practices and early reader response; Edgar Laird reveals Chaucer's authority as popular astrological compiler; Julia Boffey and A. S. G. Edwards examine the scribal conflict in the Bodleian Selden manuscript between reshaping a linguistically Scottish Chaucer and maintaining a distinctive Middle English flavor; Carolyn Ives and David Parkinson point to later [End Page 407] inventive Scottish construction of a misogynist Chaucer induced by hatred of Mary Tudor; Beverly Kennedy identifies moments of early scribal interference by antifeminist clerics.
The collection's third section focuses on the effect of the arrival of print, which transformed Chaucer from a remembered presence guiding literary making to a "dead auctor valued for his exemplarity" (6). Robert Costomiris, considering William Thynne's 1532 edition of the Tales, concludes that early editors seem not so much concerned with questions of intent and of spurious interpolations as with making seamless work of a complex, often incongruous assemblage, with strong effect on subsequent printers' order. Thomas A. Prendergast examines how the spurious ascription to Chaucer of Usk's Testament of Love has engendered an editorial conflation of his poetry and career, suggesting a critical and historical blindness that led to a problematic text. Stephanie Trigg sees a distinct shift from medieval authorship theory and taxonomic commentary to editing as "a double act of veneration and alienation" by sixteenth-century humanists attempting to mediate authoritatively between medieval text and modern reader.
Rewriting Chaucer will appeal primarily to scholars concerned with the juncture between manuscript and print and with the effect of culture on reproduction of authoritative texts. It is up to date in late medieval manuscript transmission theory, encompassing the paleographical concerns of Hanna and Pearsall, New Historicist opinion on the influence of nineteenth-century political events on the modern perception of Chaucer, and methods of social textual critics like Greetham and McGann. The collection, aided by helpful manuscript and general indices, should lead scholarly readers, both Chaucerians and students of the history of text, especially those concerned with the formation and interpretation of the canon primarily from a cultural perspective, in productive directions. While it is true that "by examining the historical assumptions governing the recovery of the Chaucerian corpus we can begin to examine our own pursuit of the authentic Chaucer" (8), by imbalanced attention to a poetics that gives weight to the possibility of authorial intention and practice, this will inevitably be an unfinished task.
University of Texas at Austin