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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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In 1401-2, a young Frenchman who had been a squire in the retinue of Richard II, and therefore well placed to observe matters of the court, recorded his opinion about Richard's downfall in 1399: 'In truth,' wrote Jean Creton, 'the only reason why he was deposed and betrayed, was because he loyally loved his father-in-law the king of France with a love as true and sincere as any man alive. Read the first page
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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: 4.4 out of 5 stars  31 reviews
62 of 64 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A superb history Feb. 25 2005
By Robert Busko - Published on Amazon.com
Up front, let me say that I am not a literature scholar. My only familiarity with Chaucer is that I read the Canterbury Tales when I was in the Marines, and again in College (I enjoyed my earlier introduction to Chaucer much more than the latter). My eye got caught by the title of the book. Having been drawn in on a potential "murder" of a poet, I was hooked as soon as I started reading.

I realized pretty quickly after starting the book that it was more an examination of the period of Richard II than it was a murder mystery. I wasn't disappointed. In fact, I now know there is not any evidence that Chaucer met with an evil end for political or other reasons. The fact that Chaucer just disappears from the public record is intriguing and it is this fact that Jones builds his story around.

Jones is a terrific author of history. I found Who Murdered Chaucer to be easy to read and engaging. I was reminded just a bit of Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror in how the the book moved through its subject. Jones' writing style also reminds me of the french historian Fernand Braudel.

Terry Jones is obviously highly versed in his subject. The love of his topic becomes apparent on the lines of each page.

I highly recommend Who Murdered Chaucer by Terry Jones.
38 of 39 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Was He Murdered ? -- Chaucer Imaged Jan. 23 2005
By C. Hutton - Published on Amazon.com
Like the recent "Will In The World" by Stephen Greenblatt, another scholar has written another brilliant research book searching for answers on the life of another English writer where no answers exists. Whereas Mr. Greenblatt was creating a life of William Shakespeare based on very meager documention, Terry Jones and his co-authors are speculating on the death of Geoffrey Chaucer where NO documentation exists at all of his death. Chaucer just disappears from the public record in 1400.

This book benefits from both Mr. Jones days as a Monty Python member and his prior research books on the Middle Ages. It is extremely readable and entertaining, regardless of the unprovable supposition that Chaucer was possibly murdered for political reasons.

This book should be called "Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World" but Donald Howard had already claimed that title for his fine 1987 biography of Chaucer. Mr. Jones went for a more marketable title, suggesting a murder mystery where no proof exists even of the year of Chaucer's death. At 416 pages, it is 200+ pages shorter than Mr. Howard's work (who focused more attention upon an analysis "The Canterbury Tales").

Regardless of the alleged murder, this book is worth reading for its solid research, beautiful illustrations and readable writing style (the reader should see the Amazon excerpt via the Search Inside feature to see if they agree). It is a fun book to read.
26 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful and intriguing Jan. 30 2006
By Jack E. Holt, III - Published on Amazon.com
Normally, when I read a history book, I am most interested in the factual content and the bibliography and footnotes.

If I were to review this book based solely on academic content, I've got to be honest and say that the authors never really answer the question in the title or prove the thesis of the book. Instead they lay out the evidence for how and why Richard II was deposed and suggest what impact that may have had on Richard's servants and ministers like Geoffrey Chaucer. The footnotes and bilbiography are fairly thorough and add much to their description. I particularly liked how the original text is provided for all quotes along with modern English renderings of the Middle English and Late Latin citations. Moreover the sheer scope of materials consulted is impressive ranging from contemporary English and French chronicles to modern statistical studies and linguistic analysis.

However, the central thesis still eludes this painstaking effort. In fact, the book may do much to show that the central thesis can never be proved. For one thing, the tremendous breadth of the evidence consulted suggests that every stone has been turned over and that we may never be able to answer the question of how Chaucer died at all if we must rely on the sources we now have.

But the authors also admit as much.

They acknowledge that it is not even clear if Chaucer was murdered at all. Instead, they use the conceit that they are laying out a coroner's case.

As a lawyer, I find that description a little too generous. The prima facie case is still missing. But what they do lay out is a plausible motive and some evidence of opportunity. They describe the milieu Chaucer lived in near the time of his death and then suggest some areas where we might continue looking for clues to what happened to him in the end.

That's enough to make a good book. . . and a book I would read for its content alone.

But this book goes one better. The publisher has made an eye-catching package that I couldn't pass up. When I say the book is "beautiful" I'm not exaggerating. The entire book is illustrated like the finest manuscripts of the Middle Ages, --because the illustrations are from those manuscripts themselves. It is printed on sturdy white, glossy paper like a fine art book. Never have the late middle ages come so alive for me.

It is as if we are reading an alternative account of the end of Richard II written almost contemporaneously with our received histories of that era somehow miraculously . If there had been op-ed features in medieval manuscripts this would be the counterpoint to our received Lancastrian opinion of history.

It's more than just a deconstruction of history. It's a re-illumination of it.

I think it may be the best book of its kind I have ever read.
22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A daring piece of speculative scholarship Feb. 18 2005
By Russell A. Potter - Published on Amazon.com
As a trained Chaucerian and devoted Python fan, I of course opened this book with high expectations for both historical accuracy and enjoyable, irreverent reading. Jones provides both in ample measure, but what really stands out about this book is how much more readable and engaging it is than anything written about Chaucer since the heyday of Furnivall and Skeat (that is, a century and a half ago).

Jones & Co. (I'm not sure exactly what the precise balance of authorial array is here) adroitly blend readable historical anecdotes, weaving a compelling account of the extraordinary tensions between church and state, and within the state itself, in the last decade of Chaucer's life. The struggle over the meaning and value of texts written in the vernacular is at the center of this drama, and Chaucer -- as we should have known -- was not above politics, but right in the middle of them.

I note that another reviewer has said that here we have *no* documentation -- that's true of Chaucer's death, but in fact we know ten times more about the details of Chaucer's life than Shakespeare's, and we may reasonably extrapolate a good deal more. In the past, such extrapolatin was done by people devoted to the idea of an ironic yet oddly toothless Chaucer who ultimately voted for the status quo -- here is an equally plausible but far more radical portrait, one that outshines all the others.

For those who doubt that Chaucer's writings could in fact be seen as subversive, I myself know an account of a certain man by the name of John Baron, who was arrested in 1471 for the crime of owning vernacular books; among the titles he confessed to possessing was 'a boke of the tales of Caunterbury.' So there.

Read this book and learn why.
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.
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