15.11.10, Davis and Nall, eds., Chaucer and Fame

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David Raybin

The Medieval Review 15.11.10

Davis, Isabel, and Catherine Nall, eds. Chaucer and Fame: Reputation and Reception. Chaucer Studies, 43. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2015. pp. xi, 249. ISBN: 978-1-84384-407-5 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
David Raybin
Eastern Illinois University

Chaucer and Fame developed out of the 2011 London Chaucer Conference on Chaucer and Celebrity. As a conference-born collection, the volume shows marks of its origin: chapters of varying lengths, overlap among chapters, variant definitions of its key term, fame. At the same time, the book has a strong internal coherence that is specified in its subtitle: Reception and Audience. After four chapters that examine how Chaucer situated the notion of literary fame in relation to the ideas of various predecessors--that is, how Chaucer received and restructured the ideas of his poetic antecedents--the remaining seven chapters look at Chaucer's reception in the later medieval and early modern eras, beginning with the remarks of a few people who knew him, continuing with the evidence of manuscripts and early printed books, and closing with his appearance in often polemical texts toward the end of the early modern period. Beyond the contributors' collective interest in the enduring reputations of poets, kings and queens, and other famous people, the volume pays little attention to the minutiae of reputation, to how Chaucer's many characters of every social status and condition worry about what others will think of them.

The chapters by William T. Rossiter, Nick Havely, and Elizaveta Strakhov look backwards to Chaucer's complicated relationships with Italian and Latin antecedents. Rossiter's "Chaucer Joins the Schiera: The House of Fame, Italy, and the Determination of Posterity," takes a broad view, examining Chaucer's conception of poetic fame as it is articulated in The House of Fame, the close of Troilus and Criseyde, and the Clerk's Prologue. In each instance, fama is associated with images of claritas and public laureation derived from Virgil and reiterated by Dante and Petrarch. Chaucer presents himself as laureate, aligning himself with great poets of the classical and more recent Italian past. This self-conception as one of the schiera or "band" of laureate poets was endorsed by Lydgate and Hoccleve, and is reflected in subsequent assessments of Chaucer as "a man of grete auctorite" (HF, 2158).

The foci of the next two chapters are narrower. Havely's brief "'I wolde...han hadde a fame': Chaucer, Fame and Infamy in Chaucer's House of Fame" argues that Chaucer's treatment of fame in The House of Fame offers frequent tacit acknowledgment of his indebtedness to Purgatorio and Inferno, even as he distances himself from the earlier poet. The chapter confirms Chaucer's deep authorial interest in not only fame and but also infamy, the alternative frequently chosen by those who lack the virtue necessary for admirable fame. Strakhov's introduction of Statius to the discussion of fama, "'And kis the steppes where as thow seest pace': Reconstructing the Spectral Canon in Statius and Chaucer," is more surprising, as it addresses the rarely discussed implications of Chaucer's reading of Statius's Thebaid. Strakhov posits that Chaucer's self-presentation as author at the close of Troilus and Criseyde, coupled with his elision of dependence on the unnamed Boccaccio, is influenced heavily by the example of Statius, who carefully avoided announcing his own scrounging from Ovid. The chapter highlights Chaucer's many borrowings from Statius, his inclusion of Statius in place of Lucan in his Dante-derived list of five classical models, and especially his insertion in Troilus of Cassandre's extensive retelling of the story of the Calydonian Boar Hunt, an incident that is alluded to only briefly in Boccaccio's Filostrato but is crucial in Statius's and Ovid's accounts of Theban history.

Alcuin Blamires's "'I nolde sette at al that noys a grote': Repudiating Infamy in Troilus and Criseyde and The House of Fame" examines what he calls "breakaway moments" (85) in The House of Fame and Troilus and Criseyde, latent but unfulfilled cruxes in which Chaucer advances the radical possibility that reputation is unimportant. As she sits in the Greek camp, Criseyde, who has often worried about her reputation, resolves to return to Troilus regardless of what people may say. Given how variable and insubstantial is public opinion, what matters is simply her happiness: "Felicite clepe I my suffisaunce" (V, 763). Geffrey says something similar in The House of Fame: "I wot myself best how y stonde" (line 1878). Blamires's conclusion is that for all their philosophical interest, these moments are isolated: Chaucer may play with skepticism about infamy, and the ideas he expresses may be "thinkable," but the "proposition that infamy does not matter" was "too avant-garde" to be endorsed by a medieval poet (86).

The chapter by Julia Boffey and A. S. G. Edwards, "The Early Reception of Chaucer's The House of Fame," initiates the volume's treatment of reception. The authors provide a comprehensive survey of the many references to The House of Fame from the 1380s (Thomas Usk's Testament of Love) to the 1660s (Henry Foulis, The Historie of the Wicked Plots, and Conspiracies of our Pretended Saints), with a closing discussion of the conclusion to Alexander Pope's The Temple of Fame (circa 1710). As the sole contribution that largely eschews literary criticism, the chapter is a model for how one may present technical bibliographical information in engaging fashion.

Andrew Galloway's "Fame's Penitent: Deconstructive Chaucer Among the Lancastrians" presents the Retraction, and most especially Thomas Gascoigne's mid-fifteenth-century account of Chaucer's deathbed repentance, in the context of Lancastrian desire to paint Ricardian thought and practice--religious, political, literary--as morally failed and thus in need of revitalization. In this context, Scogan's representation of Chaucer as aged and penitent, Gower's self-presentation as blind but now seeing, Hoccleve's memorialization of Chaucer, and the famous Bedford Hours literary portraits (of Chaucer, Gower, Lydgate, and Hoccleve, along with Richard II) constitute a Lancastrian "image of vernacular literary authority achieving full presence and disclosing philosophical maturity, social sophistication and moral complexity" (126).

The volume turns to Chaucer's French reception in Stephanie Downes's "After Deschamps: Chaucer's French Fame." Downes discusses Deschamps' Balade 285 (1390s), with its famous envoy praising "Grant translateur, noble Geffroy Chaucier"; a copy of selected Canterbury Tales made for Jean d'Angoulême and imported to France in the mid-fifteenth century (BnF MS Anglais 39) that contains Latin glosses by a knowledgeable post-1602 reader (the only extant Chaucer manuscript known to have been in France in the fifteenth century); and two sixteenth-century witnesses: Gentian Hervet's 1565 comic story about Chaucer's suave response when he overheard his wife flirting with a young man; and André Thevet's 1584 comments about Chaucer's translation of Jean de Meun. Downes proposes that these scattered texts reflect "multi-lingual cross-Channel conversations" (142) that extended from the Hundred Years' War well into the sixteenth century.

The move from fifteenth-century readers' appreciation of Chaucer's aureate, French style to early modern readers' praise of his plain English speech, untinged by French, is explored by Joanna Bellis in "'Fresch anamalit termes': The Contradictory Celebrity of Chaucer's Aureation." Bellis attributes the difference in response to historical circumstance. Hoccleve, Lydgate, George Ashby, and James I--along with other panegyrists to Chaucer's aureate language--lived in a culture where the boundary line between French and English was blurred, and Chaucer could be praised for accomplishing in English a high style comparable to those found in French and Latin poetry. When, however, the Hundred Years' War had receded into memory, and the French were seen as both enemy and ancestor, the line dividing French and English language came to be seen as fixed and desirable. The linguistic changes resultant from the Conquest could now be deplored safely, and sixteenth-century admirers like E. K., Richard Sherry, and Richard Stanihurst could join in Peter Betham's 1544 praise of a Chaucer who endeavored "to brynge agayne to his own clennes our Englysshe tounge, & playnelye to speake wyth our owne termes, as our others dyd before us" (150).

The chapters by Mike Rodman Jones and Thomas A. Prendergast advance the volume's focus to the late-sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Jones's "Chaucer the Puritan" reiterates that Chaucer was frequently cited in polemical religious discourse of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but not always in the ways one would expect. While Milton annotates the sections on divorce in the Wife of Bath's Prologue and the Merchant's Tale, and Presbyterians such as Job Throkmorton often reference the Plowman's Tale (alongside Piers Plowman) to illustrate Chaucer's support of their views, Anglicans and others cite a more moderate Chaucer. In 1593, for example, Richard Bancroft (a future bishop of London) quotes aptly from the Summoner's Tale and Wife of Bath's Tale on friars as hypocrites, and in 1603 Samuel Harsnett makes masterful use of the Miller's Tale. Both men were careful readers who could laugh with Chaucer. In a similar vein, Prendergast's "Revenant Chaucer: Early Modern Celebrity" displays how early modern conjurations of Chaucer reflect Chaucer's long-enduring celebrity status. This is true whether writers are asserting their particular affinity to Chaucer, justifying "the posthumous adaptation or continuation of his works" (192), or enlisting him as spokesman for a cause. Prendergast ends with an entertaining discussion of Richard Brathwait's 1617 poem, Chaucer's Incensed Ghost, a fiercely anti-tobacco intervention in the then-current debate over the evils and virtues of the plant.

The volume closes with Jamie C. Fumo's excellent "Ancient Chaucer: Temporalities of Fame," which rounds out the book by exploring "Chaucer's engagement with the poetic past--'olde tyme'--and his own assimilation into a "new poetic past after his lifetime" (201). Chaucer's fame, Fumo contends, has rested on his being both "antique" and forever young, an atemporal location that ties him to Ovid and that was initiated by his own self-presentation in places like the list of his works in the Introduction to the Man of Law's Tale. We see Chaucer's Ovidian temporal framing of fame in places as diverse as Criseyde's reflection on time past, present, and future in Troilus and Criseyde 5, 744-49; the authorial interjection in Ceys and Alcione story in The Book of the Duchess 95-100; the poet's notation of his age in his Scrope-Grovesnor testimony; and the Retraction, where Chaucer curiously presents himself as not remembering all his compositions. By his own making, Fumo concludes, "Chaucer, finally, is not timeless but timely--a poet of the future" (220).

Isabel Davis and Catherine Nall are to be commended for gathering together a schiera of fine scholars and producing--along with a coherent, intelligent collection--a clean text without noticeable errors. The volume includes a full Bibliography and a short Index of proper names. Davis's introductory essay is less a summary of the book's contents--though that is included--than it is her own reflection on Chaucer's attitude toward reputation and celebrity. Scholars interested in such issues will find Chaucer and Fame a welcome addition to the field.

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