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Who Murdered Chaucer? [Paperback]

Terry Jones , Robert F. Yeager , Terry Dolan , Alan Fletcher , Jeanette Dor
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

Oct. 14 2004
In this spectacular work of historical speculation Terry Jones investigates the mystery surrounding the death of Geoffrey Chaucer over 600 years ago. A diplomat and brother-in-law to John of Gaunt, one of the most powerful men in the kingdom, Chaucer was celebrated as his country's finest living poet, rhetorician and scholar: the preeminent intellectual of his time. And yet nothing is known of his death. In 1400 his name simply disappears from the record. We don't know how he died, where or when; there is no official confirmation of his death and no chronicle mentions it; no notice of his funeral or burial. He left no will and there's nothing to tell us what happened to his estate. He didn't even leave any manuscripts. How could this be? What if he was murdered?

Terry Jones' hypothesis is the introduction to a reading of Chaucer's writings as evidence that might be held against him, interwoven with a portrait of one of the most turbulent periods in English history, its politics and its personalities.
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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"A hugely important book."—Nigel Saul, author of Richard II

"More of a contextual study than a biography, it contains a great deal of valuable material and intriguing speculation."—Jonathan Bate, author of Song of the Earth

"Lighthearted, intelligent, panoramic and defiantly unbeholden to conventional interpretation, [Who Murdered Chaucer?] is based on an impressive array of primary and secondary sources."—Alexander Rose, author of Kings of the North
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Terry Jones is the author of several acclaimed works on the Middle Ages including Chaucer's Knight, Crusades, and Medieval Lives, the basis for his popular PBS series. A former member of Monty Python, he lives in London.

Terry Dolan is Professor of English at University College, Dublin, and a lexicographer and broadcaster.

Juliette Dor is Professor of Medieval English Literature at the University of Liege.

Alan Fletcher is a lecturer in Medieval English Literature at University College, Dublin.

Robert F. Yeager teaches Old and Middle English literature at the University of West Florida.
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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By microfiche TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Terry Jones and his fellow authors cannot prove who murdered Geoffrey Chaucer, if he was murdered. They admit it. The trail has been cold for 600 plus years. But he disappeared from the records in 1400, without leaving a will. That's unusual for a civil servant, diplomat, spy and courtier like Chaucer, who always put his affairs in order before leaving the country.

But Mr. Jones et.al. have their suspicions that Chaucer was done in and by whom, and they are pretty plausible.

Chaucer was writing during some very unstable times. The Black Death had killed half the population, and the old doctrines were questioned. Why did God send us the plague? How did we displease Him? John Wycliffe said the churchmen were Caesarian - getting rich and interested in worldly power instead of in teaching Christ's doctrines and helping the poor. And he was saying it in English, not in Latin, so the common people could and understand. He even started the project of translating the Gospels into English. No wonder the peasants revolted! We can't have them questioning their betters, and laughing at them. Put down this translating and writing in the vernacular!

That was what Chaucer was doing, writing satires in English. King Richard II seemed to have no problem with it. But Henry IV, with the once and again powerful Archbishop of Canterbury's help, overthrew Richard II, and suddenly it was not a good idea to be flippant about monks and pardoners cozening people out of their money.

I found this book an interesting explanation of what was going on in England between the Black Death and the usurpation of Henry IV. Not dull stuff at all. Scary too, when compared to modern totalitarian states and extreme fundamentalism. What goes around...?

Witty and well worth reading.
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Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  14 reviews
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Two different books in one lovely package Feb. 16 2009
By J. C Clark - Published on Amazon.com
The first half or so of this book, analyzing the tumultuous reign of Richard II and the usurpation of his throne, is an unqualified winner. Brisk, well-written and informative, it interprets the known facts and and offers some carefully composed hypotheses that ring quite true. It polishes Richard's unfortunate image and makes a plausible case that was fun to read. However, another half remained.

Under certain circumstances, I might be able to compose a review with a nearly comparable number of possibly hypothetical phrases that would, in some manner, approximate what the alleged authors may have quite likely intended in this book. While a slight exaggeration, the "mights" "could have" and "probablys" became tiring. Since we know nothing, it is indeed a detective story. But the authors' obvious distaste for religion turned their guilty party into a caricature of George W. Bush, where every bad thing that happened, or might have happened, was laid at his feet. It became rather silly, and I was tired by the time it finally ended.

I found the smarmy tone a bit tiring as well. The jokes mostly fell flat; I just wasn't amused. And while the illustrations were gorgeous, most were very small. So, a bit steep at the cover price, but as a bargain book, a worthy read.
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Extremely interesting Dec 9 2006
By Mkapa - Published on Amazon.com
The book takes place in the ill fated reign of King Richard II (1377-1400.) But 1400 was not only the year that Richard II was disposed by Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV). It was also the same year that England's famous poet Geoffrey Chaucer, disappeared. No funeral...no written account...nothing. Doesn't it seem a bit odd that this poet who served both with King Edward III and Richard would suddenly just disappear?

Perhaps he was murdered!

This is the theory that this book lays out. Terry Jones does a superb of informing the reader of the opportunist and controversal politics of that time. Especially the conflict between church reformers and church conservatives; the "Lollards" vs the worldy bishops. And it's in this very conflict that Chaucer may have risked his life by writing the Canterbury Tales, which exposes the corruption of the worldy priest in those days.

Jones looks past the propaganda of that time and paints a more accurate picture of what was going on in England in that time. Who was really the bad guys of those times? The defeated or the conqueror? And to what great lengths would powerful individuals go to to stomp out unpopular opinion?

The book is far from just a boring romp through history. Their is a bit of humor added in and the book never tries to be too confusing for the reader.

Highly recommend!
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining speculation for the Chaucer lover Dec 29 2008
By Diane Schirf - Published on Amazon.com
Geoffrey Chaucer was justice of the peace, knight of the shire, friend of the king, and "greatest living poet." Abruptly, around 1400, this "public man of affairs" was never heard from again. Who Murdered Chaucer? stems from a coroner's inquest into Chaucer's disappearance staged at the Sorbonne in 1998 for the New Chaucer Society Congress. The resulting book is a smart, often irreverent layman's probe into the fate of the man who, through The Canterbury Tales and other works, helped to establish English as a literary language.

Even at a 600-year-old crime scene, context is everything, and the authors explore the efforts that Henry IV and his allies may have made to obscure Chaucer's memory. Painstakingly sifting through the clues that remain, they develop a convincing case that Chaucer was murdered for his political loyalties, religious leanings, and advocacy of the written English language.

The authors set the stage on which Chaucer played a number of roles, describing the progressive court of his patron, Richard II, and the turmoil that conflicting values and change invariably bring. On one side were John Wyclif and his followers, trying to make the Bible and God accessible to the people and to shame the church into reforming itself. On the other were the conservative barons and church leaders who stood to lose money and power in a world in which art and discourse might take the place of conflict, and the common man might be empowered to question age-old beliefs and practices. With the usurpation by Henry IV and the return of Thomas Arundel as Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Chaucer became a prominent man who suddenly stood on the wrong side of the important questions.

Much of the initial focus here is not on Chaucer, but on the history surrounding Richard II and the nature of his court, the barons' rebellion, and the Peasants' Revolt, and Henry's usurpation. Later, the authors examine Chaucer's surviving works, including The Canterbury Tales and illustrations, as well as the writings of his contemporaries, for clues as to how he may have antagonized the new regime and how he may have met his end. For example, they speculate that Hoccleve's eulogy hints at an end that is both untimely and violent: "Death was too hasty to run at you and rob you of your life." Puzzled by the discrepancies between Chaucer's text and the Ellesmere manuscript illuminations, the authors examined the art microscopically and discovered that some of it had been clumsily altered, then speculate why.

Academics and historians may chafe at such conjectures, but generally they make sense. Occasionally, though, they do not. According to the authors, the Peasants' Revolt "presented the royal faction with a tempting opportunity to eliminate the baronial opposition," but they offer no feasible explanation for why Richard II turned on the rebels after he "signed their pardons and granted their requests." Without understanding what happened and why Richard acted so treacherously and brutally, it's hard for the authors to make a solid case, as they try to do, that Richard was not the unpopular monarch portrayed by Henry's chroniclers. Later, they mention the "persistent rumours that Richard was still alive . . . the kind of rumour that would only gather round a figure who enjoyed strong support and even affection." Yet the same type of rumours surrounded Hitler, as much from fear as from "support and even affection." The case for Richard's popularity is weaker than the one for Chaucer's murder.

Although not addressed directly, one implied issue stands out--the importance of separation of church and state. Thomas Arundel and Henry IV need each other to usurp their respective positions, and their combined power, with no checks or balances, emboldens them to repress political foes and "heretics" with terror and torture, including burning alive. The danger of such of a broad spectrum of power concentrated in such ruthless, self-serving hands is clear--as Chaucer must have observed.

Well researched, engaging, and passionately and wittily written, Who Murdered Chaucer? shines a spotlight at a different and revealing angle on a turbulent time in English history and a definitive one in English literature. Whatever your interest in this period, Who Murdered Chaucer? will make you look at The Canterbury Tales and Geoffrey Chaucer in a more appreciative light as part of a greater story.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars changed my reading of chaucer Nov. 5 2009
By sonmei46 - Published on Amazon.com
I've been teaching Chaucer courses for years, always passing along the standard schtick: Chaucer must have been a great diplomat, because he survived three tumultous reigns when plenty of his friends and cohorts didn't. For some reason it never struck me as odd that Chaucer suddenly keeled over only months after the passing of Richard II. This book may or may not be correct in its theory as to Chaucer's demise, but it certainly made me rethink a few old assumptions--and that's always a good thing. And it's a lively piece of history writing, too. I like this one a lot; I've even ordered it for my classes to give them a little taste of the times.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Far above the grade level! Dec 24 2013
By Amazon Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I imagine this book would be interesting to those who are very highly educated and intellectual, but my measly bachelor's degree did not equip me well enough to read this book with much ease. My daughter was going to read this book for extra credit in her British Literature class in high school, but she couldn't comprehend the first few chapters. So I decided to read it aloud to her, but I was in the same position as she. I think the author assumes the reader has a thorough and comprehensive understanding of the British (world) history leading up to Chaucer's life, as well as all the players of the kingdoms and church, and writers of the time, not to mention a clear understanding of certain terms in other languages. We felt completely out of our league.
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