Who Murdered Chaucer? by Terry Jones, Juliette Dor, Alan Fletcher and Robert Yeager

Whodunnit? Wasitdunnatall?
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Geoffrey Chaucer, "the father of English literature", disappears from the records after 1400. There is no fanfare, no public acknowledgement of the nation's debt to him; the great poet-courtier, adornment of his age, does not even leave a will. This is all undoubtedly odd. But for some - and I admire them very much - "odd" isn't enough. Nor, for that matter, is "mysterious". Eyes narrow, brows furrow, and the dread word "suspicious" tolls out. Perhaps he did not, after all, slip quietly into an honoured dotage, but was given his quietus by forces which, rightly or wrongly, suspected him of subversion.

In fairness to the authors, led by the medievalist and Monty Python stalwart Terry Jones ("This book is less of a Whodunnit? Than a Wasitdunnatall?" they confess), this book is cheerfully free of uneasy intensity and interesting evidence is adduced to support a theory of murder, but one nagging parallel presents itself. You can't help thinking of another author whose death provoked no public demonstrations of grief, who likewise left no will: the man from Stratford. And, as with those who doubt Shakespeare's authorship, these investigators put you inevitably in mind of Bertrand Russell's claim that given a false premise he could prove anything. Here, the evidence is lackey to the theory.

The authors spend a lot of time setting the record straight about the reign of Richard II, the monarch under whose auspices Chaucer spent the bulk of his working life. We are reminded that it was very much in the interests of the early Lancastrian chroniclers to present Henry IV's usurpation as an act of deliverance, and that Richard had to be correspondingly maligned and/or belittled. Chaucer was suspect insofar as he had been a keen adherent of Richard II and a writer whose scurrilous attacks on the clergy were no longer acceptable under the grim regime of Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry's chief ally in his usurpation. Arundel began a crackdown on the "Lollard" heresy, a reformist movement pushed beyond the pale of the church for its suggestion that the church return to the ideal of apostolic poverty. Chaucer had friends who were Lollards; Chaucer even used an occasionally Lollard language; Chaucer wrote a strangely worded "recantation" just before his death. And his verse, now considered politically anodyne if socially provocative, might even have bound those opposed to Henry IV in a kind of literary freemasonry. So at least runs the argument.

The problems start with the very notion of the "Lancastrian myth" of Richard II. For a start, it's not quite up there with, say, the Tudor Myth of Richard III. The cultured, even tolerant, sophisticate of these pages does not jar with the familiar figure of petulant boy-king in the same way as Shakespeare's bloody hunchback does with the earnest uncle from the chronicles. While rightly stressing that Richard and the peasants were on the same side within the bounds of contemporary thinking, we get no comment on his vocal, and active, betrayal of them. What's more, Terry Jones et al use the term "propaganda" with a kind of eerie innocence: when chroniclers are hostile to Richard, that - naturally - is propaganda. The authors' attempts at impartiality are nods not bows.

Attempts to prove that Chaucer's poem "Complaint against his Purse" is a veiled frown at Henry IV are risibly flimsy, but a powerful case is made for the potential subversiveness within The Canterbury Tales. The virtuous Parson is accused of being a "Lollere", and makes no attempt to deny the charge. The summoner should be arresting the pardoner, not riding beside him. Chaucer is attacking not merely the abuses, but often the system itself.

As we are almost obsessively reminded, Arundel would not have been best pleased by these apparent tokens of lollardy. And Chaucer's choice of the Westminster sanctuary as his home in 1399 is certainly telling. It is also true that Chaucer's contemporaries mourned his loss in strangely urgent terms, as if he had indeed been cropped untimely. Arundel, moreover, would have been perfectly capable of murdering Chaucer had he deemed it necessary. But there the evidence stops.

And there are too many straw versions of the opposing position; too many unnecessary questions which are dropped once the authors realise they're unnecessary; too many secondary sources (some of which contain illiteracies; what does "to legitimate" mean?) and, above all, far too many repetitions, recapitulations, reworkings. The style careers from academic insouciance (cui bono? We are asked in the epilogue) to a kind of BBC 2 naffness: ("Of course in those days [leisure time] didn't mean surf-boarding and D-I-Y"). The result, too often, is that the reader feels alternately baffled and patronised.

In general, the authors cut most convincingly when they aim away from Chaucer himself. Their analysis of the nature of medieval censorship is fascinating and erudite. Books were not banned for the fun of it, but because they were read out loud: there was nothing secret to them. Thomas Arundel took rules which were intended to assist the education of the laity and ensured that instead they hindered it. An interesting contrast is made between royal patronage in England and on the continent. There, the poet was a hired performer; here he was more like a favourite: nods, smiles, preferment, these were the currency. But even here, the authors' penchant for excessive extrapolation is evident. They suggest that Chaucer's references to the king and queen in themselves constitute proof of patronage, as if Chaucer thought with the mad logic of a stalker: I love you ergo you love me.

The authors admit that they don't know the answer. Still, they had sufficient faith in the question to compose this tome. As to whether Chaucer was indeed put quietly out of the way, I respond "maybe". And that's with a shrug; for the seemingly heartless question, "why should we care?" is sadly pertinent. The question of Shakespeare's authorship, for example, has a pack of implications baying at its heels: implications for how we perceive writers and the very role of the imagination. When this tale has wider cultural repercussions, we'll take more notice. So far, it's only a curiosity... so far.