Getting a Life: Biographical Constructions of Chaucer the Man

  • Geoffrey W. Gust
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


It has been thirty years since Roland Barthes announced the supposed “death of the author,” but even today there is evident resistance to the author’s hypothetical critical murder. One need only look in book reviews, newspaper articles, or in many scholarly studies to get a sure sense that the idea of the author remains very much alive and well in the twenty-first century. The reason for the concept’s endurance may be nothing more than the seemingly obvious fact that, as the novelist Malcolm Bradbury puts it, “in the common-sense world… writers have common-sense existences.”3 Although the call for the author’s demise has promoted much helpful discussion, it is apparent that the pronouncement was premature. The author lives, and thus literary biography, the focus of this chapter, remains a valid, useful tool for scholars.4


Eighteenth Century Narrative Persona Documentary Evidence Revere Author Documentary Record 
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  1. 1.
    Derek Brewer, “Images of Chaucer 1386–1900,” in Chaucer and Chaucerians: Critical Studies in Middle English Literature, ed. D. S. Brewer (London: Nelson’s University Paperbacks, 1970), p. 240 [240–270].Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    F. R. H. Du Boulay, “The Historical Chaucer,” in Writers and Their Background: Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. Derek Brewer (London: G. Bell, 1974), p. 55 [33–57]. 3. Malcolm Bradbury, “The Telling Life: Some Thoughts on Literary Biography,” in The Troubled Face of Biography, ed. Eric Homberger and John Charmley (London: Macmillan Press, 1988), p. 135 [131–140].Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    Stanley Fish, “Biography and Intention,” in Contesting the Subject: Essays in the Postmodern Theory and Practice of Biography and Biographical Criticism, ed. William H. Epstein (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 1991), p. 11 [9–16]. 6. Fish, “Biography and Intention,” pp. 12, 13. Of course, the “author function” was a theoretical notion of Michel Foucault’s. Fish, “Biography and Intention,” p. 13. “Transcendental anonymity” is a term Fish borrows from Foucault, which the latter uses in his discussion of “What Is an Author?”Google Scholar
  4. 11.
    Polhemus and Henkle have argued this point about fiction in particular, calling the relationship between fiction and life the “news of the novel.” See Robert Polhemus and Roger Henkle, eds. Critical Reconstructions: The Relationship of Fiction and Life (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), p. 19.Google Scholar
  5. 12.
    Donald Howard, Chaucer and the Medieval World (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987), p. xv.Google Scholar
  6. 13.
    See Richard Holmes, “Biography: Inventing the Truth,” in The Art of Literary Biography, ed. John Batchelor (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), p. 19. 14. John Worthen, “The Necessary Ignorance of the Biographer,” in The Art Google Scholar
  7. of Literary Biography, Batchelor, p. 237 [227–244]. Humphrey Carpenter adds that it would be possible for a biographer to write several different “lives” of the same person, variously using the extant material to “tell a very different story.” See Carpenter, “Learning About Ourselves: Biography as Autobiography,” in The Art of Literary Biography, Batchelor, p. 274 [267–279].Google Scholar
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  9. 17.
    See Paul Murray Kendall, The Art of Biography (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1965), p. 6.Google Scholar
  10. 19.
    David Carlson is one scholar who has been very frank about the possibility that Chaucer was less important in his time than many have presumed, given that his famous ransom shows that he was “worth less than a horse,” for instance, and also the fact that in the early documentary records “Chaucer’s name always appears buried deep in long lists of other names, routinely well down such lists whenever there is a discernible prioritizing of them” so that “Chaucer’s significance is that he had no significance here.” See Chaucer’s Jobs (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), pp. 2–4.Google Scholar
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    Nevill Coghill, The Poet Chaucer (London: Oxford University Press, 1949), p. ix.Google Scholar
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    Seth Lerer, Chaucer and His Readers: Imagining the Author in Late-Medieval England (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), p. 5. 30. Paul Strohm, England’s Empty Throne: Usurpation and the Language of Legitimation, 1399–1422 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), p. 153.Google Scholar
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    Jacques Le Goff, “The Whys and Ways of Writing a Biography: The Case of Saint Louis,” Exemplaria 1.1 (1989): 215, 217 [207–225]. Le Goff does not, of course, specifically discuss Chaucer, but his ideas concerning the “lives” of noted medieval figures are appropriate for the poet. 32. For a brief discussion of Leland’s life, see Eleanor Hammond, Chaucer: A Google Scholar
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    Glyn P. Norton, ed., The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism, Volume 3: The Renaissance, ed. Glyn P. Norton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 3. 45. See J. A. Burrow’s comments on the poet’s reception during the period, inGoogle Scholar
  15. 58.
    A thorough discussion of the various manifestations of this perspective has been offered by Linda Georgianna in “The Protestant Chaucer,” in Chaucer’s Religious Tales, ed. C. David Benson and Elizabeth Robertson (Cambridge, UK: D. S. Brewer, 1990), pp. 55–69. More generally, this period is marked by a series of modernizations of the poet’s “archaic” Middle English, a sort of poetic refurbishment that would become a mainstay of Chaucerian reception. The reason seventeenth-century writers felt the need to rewrite Chaucer’s texts is quite simple: his language, even more so than we have seen in the preceding era, was perceived as obscure and difficult to understand, so that critics felt the need to respond by “revitalizing” the archaic English literary past and refining it for future consumption.Google Scholar
  16. 63.
    An engaging discussion of the creation of “Father Chaucer” by his early readers is offered by Christopher Cannon, The Making of Chaucer’s English: A Study of Words (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 179, 211.Google Scholar
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  18. literature in the eighteenth century, which “was a way to teach conduct, not... as a measure of ‘polite learning’ designated for the sons of the aristocracy, but as a way to transcend class-based distinctions of refinement and to promote English citizenship.” See Court, Institutionalizing English Literature: The Culture and Politics of Literary Study, 1750–1900 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992), p. 20.Google Scholar
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    The full title of Urry’s edition is The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer Compared With Former Editions, and Many Valuable MSS. Out of Which, Three Tales Are Added, Which Were Never before Printed (London, 1721). 83. Pask, Emergence of the English Author, pp. 51, 52.Google Scholar
  20. 124.
    See Lee Patterson, Negotiating the Past: The Historical Understanding of Medieval Literature (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987), p. 14.Google Scholar
  21. 127.
    The following volumes contain Morley’s various biographical accounts of Chaucer: English Writers, Volume 1, Part 2, From the Conquest to Chaucer (London, 1866); English Writers, Volume 2, Part 1, From Chaucer to Dunbar (1867); and English Writers: An Attempt towards a History of English Literature, Volume 5, The Fourteenth Century (London, 1890).Google Scholar
  22. 130.
    Hertzberg discounted that the Testament of Love was part of Chaucer’s canon in the extensive introduction to his German translation of Chaucer’s major works, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Geschichten (Hildberghausen, 1866).Google Scholar
  23. 136.
    Adolphus William Ward, Chaucer (London, 1879), p. 46. As David Amigoni has observed, nineteenth-century life-writing—including, or especially, the famous “English Men of Letters” series of biographies— can be conceived broadly as a type of rhetoric that responds to, and hopes to patriotically shape attitudes toward, the language and ideals of culture. Cf. Victorian Biography: Intellectuals and the Ordering of Discourse (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993), p. 24.Google Scholar
  24. 141.
    Thomas R. Lounsbury, Studies in Chaucer: His Life and Writings, 3 vols. (1892; repr. New York: Russell & Russell, 1962). Lounsbury presents his own biography in the first chapter, entitled “The Life of Chaucer.” Volume I contains the chapters in question, Chapter I spanning pages 3–126, and Chapter II (on the “Legend”) pages 129–224.Google Scholar
  25. 142.
    Elsewhere, I have discussed Lounsbury as being a prominent example of an American critic who consciously sought to break from the traditions of British literary scholarship. See my discussion in “Worlds Apart? Chaucerian (Re)Constructions in Britain and America,” in Translaio, or the Transmission of Culture in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, ed. Laura H. Hollengreen (Turnhout: Brepols, 2008), pp. 229–253.Google Scholar
  26. 154.
    John Matthews Manly, Some New Light on Chaucer (London: G. Bell, 1926), p. ix.Google Scholar
  27. 158.
    Manly, Some New Light, p. 295. Derek Brewer is one contemporary scholar who agrees with Manly’s conception of Chaucerian “realism,” stating that several of the characters “indisputably” refer to living people and arguing that “we will never get closer to ordinary fourteenth-century life” than in the verse of Chaucer, whose Tales provide “a remarkable panorama of England in the fourteenth century as reflected in the many facets of Chaucer’s mind.” See Brewer, Chaucer and His World (London: Eyre Methuen, 1978), pp. 197, 199, 200.Google Scholar
  28. 169.
    Paul Strohm recently has made a similar observation with specific regard to applications of critical theory, saying that “the right use of theory is not to ‘settle things.’ ” See Theory and the Premodern Text (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), p. 213.Google Scholar

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© Geoffrey W. Gust 2009

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