The Za-Ji Chinese acrobats have been in Oxford recently; their most spectacular feat is "Ladies and their Chairs". A dining-chair stands on a round table. One after another, a trimly tutu-ed lady climbs a ladder to add a further chair, and herself balanced in a one-handed handstand, to the pile. In the end, 10 chairs rise in a curving stack. One tremor, one relaxation of tensed arms, and it would topple into chaos.
Terry Jones's stimulating, improbable book has a good deal of Za-Ji about it. It produces an amazing number of fascinating, well-attested facts about Geoffrey Chaucer's life and times - and then vaults high in wild surmise.
Jones is the first to admit that "all this is supposition heaped on supposition". But, like the Chinese ladies, he doesn't let up for a moment, piling up his mountain of ingenious maybes, adding two and two to make five with zest and enthusiasm.
After 600 years, Jones has exposed a dastardly crime: the murder, c.1402, of England's greatest medieval poet by Thomas Arundel, then Archbishop of Canterbury. Never mind that Chaucer was in his sixties, had lived an eminent life in the court of Richard II, and was given an increased annuity and a cask of wine a year from his usurping successor, Henry IV. Or that his two sons were also in Lancastrian service - Thomas even became Speaker of the House of Commons. No, what probably happened is that Chaucer was a secret supporter of Richard II and a closet Lollard, whose Canterbury Tales were found deeply subversive by Arundel. The reason he left no will and no record of his death is that he was probably starved to death in Arundel's dungeon at Silkwood Castle, or mugged in a dark Westminster alley.
Jones knows and loves his Chaucer. In this book and his earlier The Knight's Tale, he brings alive both the times and Chaucer's robustly satirical, arguably Pythonesque, take on them. He is also good on the court of Richard II, revealed as rich in cultural interests. The book, a collaboration hatched between Jones and four academics, is enlightening on how scholars use obscure evidence to build theories. Its colour illustrations are exquisite windows into medieval life.
But the case is not remotely convincing. Arundel and Henry IV had far more threatening fish than Chaucer to fry, and Henry was an old friend. The first Lancastrian king was concentrating on appeasement, trying to unite his realm against triple-pronged attack: invading Scots, the rebellious Welsh, and threats of French landings.
It is not particularly odd for a medieval will or funeral details not to survive, nor is sudden death necessarily murder. And if Arundel had wanted to get rid of Chaucer as a closet Lollard or Ricardian, he would have murdered him with full judicial honours: burnt as a heretic, or executed as a traitor.
Who Murdered Chaucer? is a meaty, hugely enjoyable read. It will infuriate some experts, but will make many more chuckle appreciatively. Let's hope that it will stimulate many readers to revisit Chaucer's writings, read about the background, and make up their own minds.
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