Who Murdered Chaucer? Paperback – Oct 14 2004
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"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
About the Author
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.
Top Customer Reviews
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
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.
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.
Geoffrey Chaucer, born circa 1343 A.D., is a remarkable figure on several accounts. First and foremost, he created an oeuvre of poetry that was very popular in his lifetime and has remained so across six centuries. He advanced the use of the English language as an expression of culture. He represented the rise of the commercial class to courtier status, as the crown increasingly relied on independent sources of council and money to fund warfare and courtly acquisitions. Famous in his own time, his life can be traced through contemporary chronicles and court records. But suddenly, the trail goes cold in 1400. There's nothing to say he died of natural causes but there is nothing to say he wasn't murdered. Nonetheless, Terry Jones and fellow scholars have titled their book, WHO MURDERED CHAUCER? They say at the outset that their chase back through the remains of the 14th century is more about the question than the answer because their evidence is circumstantial. It is, however, a very persuasive, thoroughly examined catalogue of evidence that suggests that one way or another, Chaucer was not in a good place come 1400 A.D.
Chaucer rose to eminence because of the cultural values held by the boy king, Richard II. Though Richard has been portrayed as weak and weird, Jones et al find him to be a man who wanted peace, emphasized culture and internationalism, and allowed critical and creative thinking to flourish under his watch. He was done in by his cousin, the conservative, hawkish Henry IV who allowed the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, to institute a reign of terror in the name of orthodoxy. And there stood Chaucer having just satirized several church figures in "The Canterbury Tales." And having the nerve to dun the crown for his annuity. Oh dear.
Jones et al are serious historians who sift through primary documents and interpret a considerable body of scholarship on their subject. They pull it all together in a well-documented, provocative text that is never dry. It is as much about Richard, Henry, Arundel and the world they inhabited as much as it is about Chaucer and his work. It tells us a lot about how the human race advances itself through literature and culture.