Monday, October 1, 2012

Terry Jones on Chaucer's Death, part two

     I have almost finished the book and I want to make a few more points before I review it.

pg. 171 "It is possible to argue that Gower was not exactly a 'court poet'" No, he was not. He had independent means and owned his books. He commissioned his own copies and gave them as gifts. No need to argue. Jones uses this as a point to say that Gower changed allegiance to Henry IV because he was trying to keep his position. He does say that Gower's approval of Henry does not prove that he disapproved of Richard. There was turbulence during Richard II's reign but it did not go away with Henry's rule. He was plagued with rebellion and war too. The crown did not sit easily on his head, plus he had to live with the guilt of having disposed of the anointed king and being responsible for the death of his own kin and his later 'leprosy' was seen as a punishment of his sin in this world.

On page 230, he makes much that Richard's library has disappeared and that many books are lost from this time. Since things were copied by hand, there were few of them and fires destroyed many without censorship. Even some of Gower's books were lost for a time and he had 'official approval' according to Jones.

On page 256, Jones wrote about how Arundel's Constitutions stifled criticism of the Church and set a maximum lay people were permitted to know about scripture as well as setting out penalties. However the Constitutions in its entirety is available in English in The Book of Margery Kempe. Margery was dragged before Arundel several times and examined for orthodoxy. She lived during this time that is described and she had contact with Julian of Norwich. As well, her priest had been William Sawtre, who was burned at Smithfield in 1401 for being a relapsed heretic. You were generally not burned for being a heretic. It was being a relapsed heretic that would give you the death penalty. Margery often pushed the envelope in what she was permitted to do as a lay person and a woman but she survived. Jones did not even mention her in his book although she is a witness to the times and met Arundel. Nicholas Watson, in one of of the essays at the end of her autobiography, wrote "there is no mention of vernacular writing (as distinct from oral instruction)". The entire thrust of the article is to repress translations of the Bible and to guard the Church's monopoly on the purses of their parishioners. Arundel did not declare war on secular works with this article.

On page 264, Jones wrote about one of the first mentions of Chaucer in print which he states was a poem by Henry Scogan, supposedly read at the home of a Welshman and possibly attended by Chaucer's son Thomas, a subversive act. Too many maybes and might haves here. Plus there is the problem that Henry IV liked Chaucer's son Thomas and made him his butler and Thomas Chaucer was the Speaker of the Common's House, as well as being his cousin. Henry supported Thomas and Jones admits that this is often cited as a reason why Chaucer could not have fallen victim to the new regime. It is a very good point. When people are killed as heretics or bear the disapproval of the government, the stain usually tars their families who then also become pariahs and usually lose their rights to inherit property from the deceased. Thomas never made a move against Henry or Arundel and he even married into the royal family, his great grandson was John de la Pole, who was the designated heir to another star crossed Richard (III). The De La Poles fell afoul of Henry VIII in an ironic twist since they supported the papacy against Henry.

On page 303, he wrote about accounts of Chaucer's death especiallyJohn Bale and John Pits but, since so many histories are rife with inaccuracies, is the lack of agreement about the facts any argument? I think the fact that Thomas Chaucer co-operated with and prospered under the new government speaks louder.

Jones also made much of the fact that Chaucer took up residence at Westminster Abbey, citing its role as a legal sanctuary as part of the attraction of the place but then on page 309 he cites one Robert Tresilian, a former associate of Chaucer, who was dragged out of sanctuary to be tried and executed. I think Chaucer knew the futility of seeking sanctuary and did not take up residence there for that reason. More likely it was because he was old and would be cared for by the monks if he took ill. His wife seems to have passed away long before this.

Chapter 17 is about the Retraction and if Chaucer wrote it and really repented. It is a commonplace thing. Many writers wrote them, even Boccaccio who influenced Chaucer, wrote one that was sincere. It often happens to people when they are old or face a catastrophic illness that they become worried about the afterlife. On page 354, Jones admits that literary recantations "can be seen as following a tradition of medieval Latin, French and German writing in which and author, embarking on a religious topic, regret the follies of his youth and his writing of worldly vanity. As such the Retractions can be read as entirely conventional" But of course, Jones goes on to say that this Retraction was evidence of something else.

I have but a few pages left to go and then I will give a final review of the book. 

1 comment:

Anachronist said...

Not having read the book I can't really comment but I am waiting for your final review - there will be will be fun!