Hey Chaucer, Where Are All Those Medieval British Literary Friends and Rivals?

Let’s play a game.

  1. Name a postmedieval author. (I pick George Eliot.)
  2. Look up their biography in a quick-reference source. (I use Wikipedia.)
  3. Find the friends, chance meetings, groups, and other contacts who made that author. (For example, “The people whom the young woman met at the Brays’ house included Robert Owen, Herbert Spencer, Harriet Martineau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.”)

Successful authors usually have some contact with some other writer.

Sometimes the pairings become canonical in literary history, like Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare’s legendary rivalry (punctuated by this poem by Jonson written after Shakespeare’s death) or Sir Phillip Sidney and Edmund Spenser (Spenser called Sidney “a spotlesse friend, a matchlesse man,” and many other things in his pastoral elegy commemorating his death).

Sometimes the relations are familial: Mary Sidney Herbert and her brother Phillip Sidney; Dorothy Wordsworth and her brother William Wordsworth; collectively, the Brontes.

All of my examples are postmedieval because it’s harder to talk about medieval authors in this way. Who are Chaucer’s friends and contacts? I’ll tell you. Along the way, I’ll posit a few reasons why it’s harder to answer that question for Chaucer and other medieval authors.

Reason 1: Chaucer who? A lack of documentary evidence.

Authors over the past couple of centuries often have a wealth of papers, letters, publications, biographies, and other documents that give a pretty decent view of who they were. Living and recently deceased authors often leave their papers at libraries. (Salman Rushdie’s are at Emory, for instance.) They often produce boxes and boxes of material. The archival work to sift through these materials and make sense of authors’ lives and writings is ongoing.

Chaucer is one of the few medieval literary authors to have an archive of life-records painstakingly gathered over several decades (thanks University of Chicago Library!). Note that there isn’t that much – most of the material involves notes and secondary documents interpreting primary evidence. There’s a book with the actual life-records, prepared by Clair C. Olson and Martin M. Crow.

The life-records paint a picture of a government functionary who occasionally took trips to the continent for the crown, whose status was partly owed to his marrying Philippa, lady-in-waiting to the queen and sister-in-law to John of Gaunt (one of the most powerful men in England). Chaucer becomes a comptroller, and later organizes building projects for the crown. There’s very little reference to his literary productions, and very little by way of witty anecdotes. He receives from King Edward III a grant of a gallon of wine daily for the rest of his life in 1374, but we don’t know why.

Derek Pearsall parses the records very well in his biography of Chaucer (review snippet here), noting many places where the record says less than other biographers would want. However (and as Pearsall explains more eloquently), when the primary evidence for someone being an author is their writing, and they aren’t writing about themselves, it’s hard to connect that writer to other people, let alone other authors.

So the life-records are a good read for exploring Chaucer’s relationship to the crown, not to other authors.

2. Langland who? Gower who? Usk who? The records of others.

If Chaucer had few documents about his life, contemporary authors  had far fewer. We only have William Langland’s name and scant biographical details from manuscripts of his poem Piers Plowman. Arguments can be made putting Chaucer and Langland in the same circle (like this one by Nicole Lassahn), but arguments have also been made that the biographical elements are neither verifiable nor important (C. David Benson says as much about the “Langland myth” in the book Public Piers Plowman).

For most authors, there’s a thin veneer of primary evidence that authors were familiar with each other, at least in writing. However, this stands unsubstantiated by other documents. Thomas Usk praises Chaucer in The Testament of Love, but his life-records mainly show that he became an under-sheriff in 1387 and was executed in 1388.

We know that John Gower and Geoffrey Chaucer knew one another. According to Chaucer’s own life-records, when Chaucer went on one of his long trips to the continent in 1378, he assigned power of attorney over his English affairs to several men including John Gower. Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde mentions Gower as an influence near the beginning, and Gower’s long Confessio Amantis praises Chaucer near the end.

We know there’s a friendship. We don’t know the details though – whether they talked together much, what they talked about, or what taverns they frequented.

3. Influences and fan-circles, or keeping the biography at arm’s length

By the late sixteenth century, Geoffrey Chaucer has been moved to the head of an English literary history that authors use to defend the status of English language and culture. Chaucer becomes the father of English poetry for Edmund Spenser, Phillip Sidney, and others. This follows over a century of idealizing Chaucer by authors like Robert Henryson.

Chaucer too was working in his own networks of auctoritas, of authorial influence. His authorial persona in  Troilus and Criseyde cites Virgil, Ovid, Homer, Lucan, and Statius as poetic progenitors of his little book (5.1792). He mentions a few contemporary authors like Gower.

Listing influences is easy. It’s harder to demonstrate blood-and-flesh relations. This leads to some speculation about contact. Did Chaucer meet Boccaccio or Petrarch on one of his trips to Italy? Maybe, but the evidence is scant. How much did they influence him? I don’t know. Chaucer’s poetry has an Italian phase, most markedly when he writes Troilus and Criseyde. The form and style of his poetry demonstrates the influence. Biography is merely one way to speculate about how that influence came about. It’s not the only answer; manuscripts and word of mouth would have told Chaucer about Petrarch and Boccaccio.

Influence and auctoritas were more central to Chaucer’s writings than friendship, which pertains to a life we know very little about.

Shifting expectations, or finding friends in other places

The most prolific medieval author is anonymous. Most named authors are named by their own writing, with little or dubious connections to life-records. In most cases, it’s hard to talk about circles of friendship or influence in any fixed terms. The attempt may be historically interesting (how did people live then? how did writers sustain themselves?), but the hurdles are high for relevance or interest.

Literary scholars have a few options for approaching medieval friendships:

  1. Keep it biographical but take lots of licenses with speculation. Christina Hardyment wrote a biography about the fifteenth century author Sir Thomas Malory. It’s dazzling in its level of detail concerning life in the fifteenth century; the problem is she has to make many choices for which there is little or no evidence: she pushes Malory’s birth date back by 20 years to fit her narrative, she invents associations between Malory and various people in his life, and so on. Terry Jones did a similarly provocative book in Who Killed Geoffrey Chaucer? This is good for driving interest in these authors, but it requires lots of assumption to sustain the level of detail that readers of modern biographies expect.
  2. Focus more on the writing than the writer. This could mean paying attention to manuscript circulation, which gives clues to how writing was received. It could involve studying the writing itself, tracing allusions, meaning, and literary craft. It could be a material or cultural approach. “Friendship” then becomes one of many possible topics of study, with the key concern being the understanding of the concept in a given context and mode of writing. This can be dry or fascinating, depending on audience and pitch.
  3. Go medievalist. The first two approaches are primarily about medieval studies. A medievalist focuses on reception history, and on what motivates people to continually adapt and rethink medieval materials and ideas. How have people continually thought about medieval friendships (or literary friendships) over time? What are the stakes in Chaucer-as-father or Chaucer-as-friend or even the image I’ve represented here, of Chaucer-as-court-functionary? I’ll admit, I think it’s really cool that one of the best poets of the English language was a foreman. I delight in the contradiction it poses to people who think of construction as manual, unintellectual work.

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