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Literary Theory at the Close ofthe Middle Ages: William Caxton and William Thynne R. F. Yeager Warren Wilson College As an independent form ofinquiry, literary theory seems a modern phenomenon, hardly a medieval one. For all their influ­ ence and productivity, even the poets themselves stand mute on the issue of criticism. We have no direct utterance from Chaucer, Gower, Lydgate, or Hoccleve or any of the Scots which could be called literary theory in the modern sense. Yet the fact remains that medieval writers and readers must have thought a good deal about what today gets called literary theory. Writing in certain styles and not others, choosing certain ideas to cast into verse, selecting partic­ ular kinds ofliterature to read-all are "practical" forms of literary criticism and require at some level a theoretical base for judgment. Clearly, recovering theory from such oblique sources as we have would be a rewarding, ifhighly speculative, enterprise. Ifwe are to do so, however, in what direction ought we to look to discover the seam which opens the near rocklike silence ofour records? One potentially rich area is the Chaucerian apocrypha, and in particular the appearance and treatment of those poems in the publications of William Caxton and William Thynne. The prob­ lems inherent in approaching the subject of late-medieval literary theory through Caxton and Thynne are many, of course. Scholarly disagreement surrounds even the basic question of whether either man can be said to have given any critical thought at all to what he printed. Norman F. Blake, for example, has argued strongly on several occasions that Caxton cared to publish books of certain classes but had no feeling whatsoever for specific titles within those 135 STUDIES IN THE AGE OF CHAUCER classes; he chose haphazardly, according to Blake, from what was lying about in his shop. 1 With Thynne we are on different ground: instead of Norman Blake, it is Walter W. Skeat whose words we must struggle with if we are to permit Thynne an act or two of critical selection. Our investigation, therefore, must begin with the elementary question: Is there in fact evidence suggesting that Cax­ ton and Thynne had literary ideas which governed their activities in the manner ofa critical theory? The answer to this question would appear to be a cautious yes, at least if we define criticism as the act of making deliberate choices. Focus on the Chaucerian material, real and apocryphal, printed by Caxton and Thynne helps to anchor this conclusion. Chaucer's reputation as a great poet would have forced each of them to give some consideration to poems they published under his name, if only to avoid the censure of watchful contemporaries like the "one gentylman" Caxton himself described who insisted on a second edition of The Canterbury Tales because Caxton's first "was not accordyng in many places unto the book that Gefferey Chaucer had made."2 Thynne's announced intention, to gather all the true works of Chaucer into one volume for the first time, and the remarks of Francis Thynne that his father worked from a great collection of manuscripts and books containing poetry by Chaucer and others imply that he, too, strove to get Chaucer's work "right."3 Thynne's book collection suggests another line ofapproach to his 1 For Blake's statements ofthese views see, for example, "Caxton and Chaucer," LeedsSE, n.s., 1(1967):19-36; Caxton and Hzs World (London: Andre Deutsch, 1969), pp. 73-78; (ed.) Selectionsfrom William Caxton (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), pp. viii-ix. 2 W.J. B. Crotch, ed., The Prologues and Ept!ogues o/Wt!liam Caxton, EETS, o.s., no. 176 (London: Oxford University Press, 1928; reprint, 1956), p. 91. 3 William Thynne's views-or at least those expressed in the Preface to his editions, written for him by Sir Bryan Tuke-may be found in Francis Thynne, Animadversions uppon theAnnotacions and Corrections ofsome imperfections of impressions of Chaucer's workes (sett down before tyme, and nowe) repn·nted in the yere ofoure lorde 1598, ed. F.J. Furnivall, Chaucer Society, 2d ser. no. 13 (London: Trubner, 1875), pp. xxiv-xxvi. This Preface may be found...


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