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STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER Terry Jones, Robert Yeager, Terry Dolan, Alan Fletcher, and Juliette Dor. Who Murdered Chaucer? A Medieval Mystery. London : Methuen, 2003. Pp. x, 408. $29.95. Chaucerians everywhere will welcome a new book by Terry Jones, in this case a book organized by him for publication with unspecified contributions from four fellow conspirators. He is a gleeful renegade, an upsetter of applecarts, who relishes controversy, and is a breath of fresh air, or perhaps a dose of salts, to our discipline. His book on Chaucer’s Knight, when it came out in 1980, provoked both delight (from students ) and irritation (from some established scholars). The former took great pleasure in seeing the sinister secrets of the mercenary Knight exposed; the latter were annoyed by the lack of attention to the normal rules of historical evidence. It was an episode in the history of criticism with a happy ending for Chaucer studies. Serious scholars were obliged to reexamine and restate more thoroughly and carefully the arguments on which their views of the Knight and his Tale were based, and, as a result, in some respects there were indeed modifications to established critical opinion. Terry Jones is a great lover of conspiracy. His books, like his informational programs about the Middle Ages on television, are based on the idea that the academic authorities are in a plot to keep the real facts of history from us. These facts, once revealed, tend always to the discredit of established figures of authority. It is a recipe for readability, and not far from the position taken by many recent Chaucer scholars. The new book follows in this iconoclastic tradition. The argument begins with the mysterious circumstances surrounding Chaucer’s death: the lack of contemporary record of the event, the lack of attention to the death of such an important public figure, the omission of any mention of a funeral ceremony, the absence of a will. It develops the idea that Chaucer during his life showed sympathy for Lollardy, as well as being closely identified with Richard II, and, when Thomas Arundel resumed office as archbishop of Canterbury after the deposition, came increasingly under suspicion. He hastened to take up quarters in the Westminster Abbey precinct where he might find sanctuary, his works were suppressed, and in the end he was done away with at Arundel’s instigation. The accumulation of evidence, so enthusiastically marshaled by Jones and his cohort, is often wildly compelling. Yet the argument often employs deductions based on the absence of PAGE 326 326 ................. 11491$ CH13 11-01-10 14:02:37 PS REVIEWS kinds of evidence that we are only occasionally and accidentally likely to have. It would be nice to have Chaucer’s will, but it is no surprise that it does not survive, and its absence (though Nigel Saul, in conciliatory mood, calls it ‘‘a bit puzzling,’’ p. 277) no base on which to build speculation. The lack of report of a funeral, ‘‘another odd thing’’ (p. 305), is actually much less odd than the presence of such a report would be. Chaucer’s contemporary reputation is throughout vastly exaggerated —‘‘one of the most prominent members of his society . . . the intellectual superstar of his time’’ (p. 3), ‘‘the literary spokesman of Richard’s court’’ (p. 291). The use of evidence throughout is highly selective: one familiar method is to give the maximum prominence to any piece of evidence that supports or does not actually contradict the argument while ignoring evidence to the contrary. More often, the authors cite the opinions of scholars who have put forward views opposed to those being promulgated, and then, instead of answering them or refuting them or negotiating a position that takes them into account, take no further notice of them at all, but simply leave the opinions lying intact as inert witnesses to a kind of fair-mindedness while the main argument goes blithely forward as if its suppositions had been supported: ‘‘this playful allusion—if it is indeed that—demonstrates . . .’’ (p. 52); ‘‘We may not know the precise extent—if any—of Burley’s involvement in the revolt of 1381, but one thing seems certain . . .’’ (p. 74...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1949-0755
Print ISSN
0190-2407
Pages
pp. 326-328
Launched on MUSE
2016-10-05
Open Access
No
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