00.02.07, Pinti, ed., Writing After Chaucer

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John McGavin

The Medieval Review baj9928.0002.007


Pinti, Daniel J., ed.. Writing After Chaucer: Essential Readings in Chaucer and the Fifteenth Century. Basic Readings in Chaucer and His Time.. New York: Garland, 1998. Pp. xiv, 279. ISBN: 0-815-32651-3.

Reviewed by:
John McGavin
University of Southampton

A book as useful as this deserved a speedier review, but at least the vicissitudes of British academic life meant that it received two readings, albeit six months apart. Daniel J. Pinti's exploration of Writing After Chaucer bore this additional scrutiny very well, and it is an excellent inauguration of the "Basic Readings" series, which is edited by Christian K. Zacher and Paul E. Szarmach. The title of this volume may require explanation for some readers: this is not an anthology of literary texts but of critical papers, and chapters editorially adjusted to be self-contained, from the last twenty years or so (a list of the contents is given at the end of this review). Their common subject is the reception of Chaucer in the hundred years after his death: how scribes, readers, and writers made and re-made his poetry, adjusted the nature of the illumination he provided and, conversely, how they emerged from his long shadow. Although different scholars will have their own critical favourites and, from the considerable Chaucer industry of the last forty years, many articles, some other authors, and different critical approaches, could have justly been used on this theme, it is doubtful that anyone would grudge the presence of those studies or authors Pinti has actually chosen, and both expertly introduced and ordered.

A strength of the volume is its assiduous concern for the manuscript bases of Chaucer's reception and canonical development. Chaucer's words pass in manuscript form through, under, and by the gaze of scribes, glossators, near contemporary readers, political parties, fellow authors, continuators, commercial publishers, and admirers. None of Pinti's critics duck the practical challenge of interpreting the extant physical evidence for that complex passage. At the head of this thematic strand is Stephen Partridge's essay on the manuscripts and early history of Chaucer's works. This piece was commissioned for the volume, and the foresight shown in that decision evidences the care with which the editor has sought to make this an integrated, usable, and harmoniously varied book. Partridge has written with the other essays in mind but also with his own pedagogical goals. His is an excellent introduction to the forces prevailing in manuscript culture, and it should really be used as preliminary reading for any course on late medieval English literature. It also includes a thoughtful guide to further reading.

For B.A. Windeatt, Chaucer's early scribes are not obstructions to the truth, or polluters of an authorially limpid stream. Rather, their failures, or struggles, to comprehend have left variants which point up what contemporaries found distinctive in Chaucer: his concision, figuration, syntactic fluidity, and innovation in vocabulary. This article is the earliest of those included (1979) but, like the others, it still earns its place and commands attention.

Susan Schibanoff starts by contrasting two early readers' attitudes to female textuality as revealed by their glosses on the Ellesmere and Egerton 2864 manuscripts of the Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale. This would have been an interesting enough topic in itself, but she builds up to a larger argument about orality and literacy, old and new readers, receivers, redactors, recreators, controllers, and liberators of meaning. She considers how Chaucer's narrators were figured by readers but also how they seemed to figure their audience, and she looks at authorial attitudes to the empowerment of the reader. This was an exciting study to read when it first appeared (1988) and, third time round, the present reviewer would still place it among the best articles on Chaucer, quite apart from its obvious relevance to the theme of this volume.

John H. Fisher moves in a different direction, adding a valuable political dimension to the early manuscript history of Chaucer. Drawing on other countries' post-colonial experiences, Fisher is able to argue strongly that Chaucer's growing reputation among the key literary and political players of the early fifteenth century; the production of manuscripts of his poems after 1400; enhanced status, use, and patronage of the vernacular, and praise of prince Henry as a ruler are all linked by the House of Lancaster's need for national validation of its right to rule in the years following the usurpation of Richard II.

In a substantial article which also examines the transition from late fourteenth to early fifteenth century, Paul Strohm follows the careers of those friends and readers who were part of Chaucer's affinity. In the next couple of generations, the loss of the particular kind of readership on which Chaucer had been able to depend meant a loss of options for his literary successors as they served the "courtly" tastes of a broader but at the same time more culturally conservative audience.

The centrality of manuscript study to literary history is proved by Julia Boffey's subtle and scholarly examination of what happened to Chaucer's lyrics and how they influenced other writers. Boffey also edits two anonymous lyrics, one published for the first time, and discusses the kind of debt which they owe to Chaucer. Pinti places this piece sensitively in the middle of the collection where it well represents the volume's nexus of manuscript study, literary history, authorial imitation, and intertextuality.

John M. Bowers questions the authority which has been given to the Ellesmere manuscript with its implied restriction of the Canterbury pilgrimage to an outward journey. Two fifteenth- century continuations by the Beryn-Poet and Lydgate, despite their authors' respective personal emphases on psychological drama and ethics, reveal an early preference for Chaucer's originally intended return trip. Critics should acknowledge this rather than promote the teleology implicit in an arrival at Canterbury. Bowers's article shares with several other essays in this volume the merit of forcing the reader to re- examine modern tastes. The volume as a whole benefits from being transparent about its historicist modelling of the period.

By the end of the book "To be a writer after Chaucer is no longer to be a rewriter of the poet." (270) Seth Lerer's seminal work in this field appropriately concludes the volume, showing how distance, new modes of literary production and dissemination, new models of cultural "fatherhood", new exemplary functions for the past (this point arguable in my view), the accession of new humanist laureates, and a commodification of Chaucer for a particular elite readership eventually permitted the third and fourth generations of his successors to use him still but depend on him less. In making this move, Scottish writers had the additional advantage of their own nationalist cultural agendas, and their distinctiveness is brought out in a series of closely engaged analyses and comparisons with English writing, which forms an necessary inflection of the book's main subject.

The theme is adumbrated in a theoretical way by A. C. Spearing. Starting with the bleak or absent images of fatherhood in the poems, Spearing moves on to find that Chaucer's immediate successors were frustrated by their literary "father's" failure to provide them with texts (in the Barthesian sense) which they could deconstruct in order to fashion their own literary independence. Silent about his own debt to Boccaccio, problematic in his citation of authority, and resistant towards offering a readily usable model of an authoritative literary work, Chaucer forced others into the less radical project of selecting from him what best fitted their own culture's existing predilections. Spearing's powerful trajectory from close reading to historicist and metapoetic enlargement is the modern hermeneutic equivalent of medieval scholars shifting through the gears of allegory and, as here, it has been productive of excellent work.

With her eye more specifically on the Scots writers, Louise O. Fradenburg argues that they use Chaucer in historicist and revisionist ways which validate their own distinctive tradition, in part through new forms of literary closure. It was perhaps easier for the later Scots writers to make sense, as Tim William Machan suggests, of Chaucer's textual self- reflexivity, and to develop the authoritativeness of the vernacular text which he had made possible. Hoccleve and Lydgate, on the other hand, were limited in the goals which they served when they imitated their master's explicit references to textuality. C. David Benson, however, fails to find the anxiety of influence in either Lydgate's or Henryson's response to Troilus and Criseyde; rather they have different characters as writers. Lydgate is mischievously placed at his ease as a critic in the Modern Language Association, where he is assertively explanatory and rhetorically expansive, though his unsophisticated and misogynist attitude to refined love would lead to trouble. Henryson, on the other hand, responds as a poet rather than a critic, and matches Chaucer's historical selectivity, stylistic concision, and exploratory attitude to love, in which the woman's experience and feeling has its own integrity. The phrase "Scottish Chaucerians", which was always tendentious, should really not survive in polite conversation after Pinti's volume, not least because it implicitly reverses the contrasting conditions of writing at the start and the end of the fifteenth century, ignoring the difficulties of the English writers and the advantages of the Scots ones, and blurring the achievements of both.

This is a well-conceived collection of fine essays. Daniel J. Pinti has done a service not just to students of the fifteenth century but to those who will only ever read Chaucer. It is fair to say that they will understand much better what it is they are reading if they also consider Writing After Chaucer.


Daniel Pinti, "Introduction," ix-xiv

Stephen Partridge, "Questions of Evidence: Manuscripts and the Early History of Chaucer's Works," 1-26.

B.A. Windeatt, "The Scribes as Chaucer's Early Critics," 27-44.

Susan Schibanoff, "The New Reader and Female Textuality in Two Early Commentaries on Chaucer," 45-80.

John H. Fisher, "A Language Policy for Lancastrian England," 81-99.

Paul Strohm, "Chaucer's Fifteenth-Century Audience and the Narrowing of the Chaucer Tradition'," 101-26.

Julia Boffey, "The Reputation and Circulation of Chaucer's Lyrics," 127-44. A. C. Spearing, "Father Chaucer," 145-66.

Louise O. Fradenburg, "The Scottish Chaucer," 167-76.

Tim William Machan, "Textual Authority and the Works of Hoccleve, Lydgate, and Henryson," 177-99.

John M. Bowers, "The Tale of Beryn and The Siege of Thebes: Alternative Ideas of The Canterbury Tales," 201-25.

C. David Benson, "Critic and Poet: What Lydgate and Henryson Did to Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde," 227-41.

Seth Lerer, "At Chaucer's Tomb: Laureation and Paternity in Caxton's Criticism," 243-79.

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Author Biography

John McGavin

University of Southampton