Monday, September 24, 2012

Some Thoughts on Terry Jones' Book About Chaucer

I set The Name of the Rose aside for a bit while I read Terry Jones' (of Monty Python fame) book Who Murdered Chaucer? A Medieval Mystery.

     This is not my full review but I had a few thoughts while I was reading this and some 'facts' seemed incorrect to me.

The first issue I had was on page 23, when Jones wrote that the Latin verb legere meant 'to read' but also could be taken as a synonym to dicere 'to say'. No it cannot. Legere means to read but its only other meanings are 'to chose or select'. The past participle is lectus and when you add an 'e' for 'ex' meaning 'out of', you get 'elect'. He was trying to make a point about court poets and public readings but if the Latin is wrong, then your point is too. I checked with the Oxford Latin Dictionary to make sure there was no obscure implication that 'to read' was also identical to 'reading aloud' and there is not.

On page 26, he makes a point that Chaucer and John Gower (Chaucer's friend and equally famous as a writer at the time) did not appear to receive money in patronage for their writing. He writes quite a bit about Gower since Gower wrote about the politics and history of the time, living at St. Mary Overie in Southwark, right next to London Bridge and almost right across the river from the White Tower, as well as being down the road from the Tabard Inn. This places him near the beating pulse of the goings on, as it were. Gower seemed to have independent means as he owned his literary works and commissioned his own copies for admirers so of course he received no dollars from the crown. We do not know quite how Gower got his money because his name was too common and there were many John Gowers at the time. So this is another flawed premise which Jones is using to discuss the court of King Richard II and how much the arts flourished under his rule.

He also wrote on page 65 that there had always been critics of the church and 'the church could be cheerfully tolerant of them - indeed it may well have welcomed them".  To that I have to say  "Really? In what universe?" The church never welcomed criticism although it was not until the 19th century that the Pope finally had himself formally declared infallible.

On page 84, he wrote that the church took issue with literature in the vernacular languages. I don't believe this is the case. "As long as the scripture remained in Latin, the church remained the interpreter and controller of Holy Writ" he writes but, in those days, anyone who was educated could read Latin. Keeping the scriptures in Latin was no barrier to a layman reading and interpreting the Bible. Non-clerics owning the Bible was a problem because people were not allowed to interpret scripture for themselves. The position of the Church was that it had the right to tell people what they may think. People had prayer books but no layman, except perhaps the King, was allowed to own a Bible so this argument that the Church was hostile people to using English to write with is flawed.

On page 110, he makes the argument that, because there were counter strikes to Henry Bolingbroke usurping the throne, this proves Richard II had been a popular king. However there are always those who will see an opportunity in keeping or putting a grateful tyrant on the throne. It proves nothing. Also, Richard was the anointed king and the eldest son of the very popular Black Prince. If his rule was sanctioned by the Pope, it was sanctioned by God and it was a sin to usurp his throne so some people would have rallied to his cause anyway. So long as Richard lived, there was always a threat that he could recover his throne so murdering him was a necessary precaution. However Henry IV could not openly execute him because he was his cousin and rightful king and therefore there is a mystery about how Richard died in his custody. 

I am not saying that Jones' idea that Chaucer was murdered by someone in Henry I's regime is wrong. After all, Christopher Marlowe was assassinated by Elizabeth I's Robert Cecil due to his work for spymaster Walsingham and his celebrity as a playwright did not protect him. Like Chaucer, he was up to his eyeballs in royal diplomacy and espionage and playing a dangerous game. The political turmoil that ended Marlowe's life became a threat to Shakespeare's life as well.

This is not my review of the work because I haven't finished it yet. I just took issue with some of the 'facts' and I think he is taking huge liberties with Gower's work.


Kristin said...

Was Chaucer a spy?

Anachronist said...

Oh I really wish you wrote a historical novel, my friend. You are quite a pundit right now. I loved your arguments! ;)

"Was Chaucer a spy?"

It is impossible to present any proof now but I've read many times that it was definitely a possibility.

The Red Witch said...

Chaucer went on several missions to the continent. We don't know what the nature of each visit was and it was to hostile courts so espionage was likely a part of his job. After all Chaucer's first patron was John of Gaunt and Chaucer was personally ransomed by Richard II after he had been captured by the French during the course of the Hundred Years War.

@Oh I really wish you wrote a historical novel, my friend.
Thank you. I really wish I had a quiet space to work on such a thing.

Kristin said...

I'd buy that book. :))

Anachronist said...

@ Kristin "I'd buy that book. :))"

I would preorder it ;D even !!!

The Red Witch said...

LO, no need. It has been published for years. You might even be able to find a good cheap second hand copy somewhere although I suspect, even with Terry Jones's name rather prominently as the author, that it was not a best seller. He co-wrote it with Robert Yeager, Terry Dolan, Alan Fletcher and Juliette Dor. Their names appear on the cover but you would have to squint to see them. Considering these four are professors, you would think the book would be 'scholarly' but far from it. I would not use it in an essay.