- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 8, 2005

WHO MURDERED CHAUCER?: A MEDIEVAL MYSTERY

By Terry Jones

With Robert Yeager, Terry Dolan, Alan Fletcher and Juliette Dor

Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s, $29.95, 408 pages

Terry Jones, known for his work as member of the comedy troupe “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” is also an accomplished medievalist. Fans of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” a film produced by Mr. Jones, know that the British celebrity scholar is no stranger to mixing what he knows about the Middle Ages — which is a lot — with his highly original (might one say off-the-wall) comic vision. It therefore comes as no surprise to find that in “Who Murdered Chaucer?” scholarship and wit merge to produce what is, ultimately, a very entertaining book.

Written by Mr. Jones along with Robert Yeager, Terry Dolan, Alan Fletcher and Juliette Dor — medievalists all — the focus of their wholly enterprising endeavor is the matter and manner of Geoffrey Chaucer’s death. I should note that henceforward I will be using “he” to refer to the book’s author though, as Mr. Jones writes in his introduction, this volume is the sum of individual essays written by the five collaborators and “worked into a whole” by Mr. Jones.

Allowing that it is impossible to know if a murder was committed 600 years ago (“Murderers — particularly political murderers — tend to be a reticent lot . .”), he writes that all we can know for certain is that one of the English language’s greatest poets died “but otherwise we know nothing at all about his death. Sometime in 1400 Chaucer’s name disappears from the record and that’s it. We don’t know how he died, where he died, or when he died. There is no official documentation of this death. No chronicle mentions it. There is no funeral or burial and eighty years later, his publisher clearly thought the poet’s grave was insufficient for so illustrious a man. Chaucer left no will and there is nothing to tell us what happened to his estate. Total silence. For such a famous man, isn’t that a bit odd?”

Thus the stage is set for a book that is “less of a Whodunnit? than a Wasitdunnatall?” and there is no missing the brashness of the task.

The general theory put forward in “Who Murdered Chaucer” is that the poet was a victim of his politics, holding views that might have antagonized a highly placed member of church or court. Far from being the “aloof, courtly poet whose writing deftly skates across the current issues of the day with scarcely a trace or comment,” the book aims to prove that the poet was “a very much more political animal whose work was inextricably bound into the political and social web of his age.”

With this formulation, Chaucer’s writing “transmutes from ‘Literature’ into evidence — evidence of a man in a historical moment, when life-and-death considerations were daily bread.”

In addition to examining what is known about Chaucer’s world, the book tantalizingly promises in its early pages that it will engage Chaucer’s own words in order to find how he met his end. This is a lark of revisionist history, one that even the author seems to take with a grain of salt. The very act of not only proving murder but giving the murderer’s name is the result of a far more idiosyncratic — and risky — account of Chaucer’s life than most. [See Merle Rubin’s review in these pages of Peter Ackroyd’s biography of the poet.] But the result is often breathtakingly canny.

And by the time readers reach the last chapter, aptly (and amusingly, of course) titled “J’accuse,” the indicted murderer seems the likely perpetrator. I will not name that man, because to do so would undercut the book’s ratiocinative fun.

In any case, the bulk of the book is not trained on its theory. Until readers reach that point, they are treated to very lively observations about Chaucer’s life and times, with particular emphasis on his place vis a vis the politics, religion and literature in the late-14th century.

The reigns of King Richard II and King Henry IV are given close attention in the book, and for its purposes, Richard comes across looking a little better than what 20th century historians tell us about the “mad” king. Henry, it would seem, does worse. During 1389, the year of Henry’s usurpation of the throne, Chaucer was, according to the book, somewhat caught in the crossfire. The book asserts that Chaucer’s writings including portions of “The Canterbury Tales” put him at odds with Henry.

But apart from interpreting “The Canterbury Tales, ” in a way that “reveals” seditious thinking, there is no, nor can there be, any hard evidence of Chaucer’s murder. The fact that he took out a 53-year lease on a house in 1399 cannot prove that he met “a sudden unexpected death.”That, along with speculation about where he was buried and whether the “Retractions” at the end of “The Canterbury Tales” were a “true deathbed repentance” are simply the fodder for rumination and adventurous books, such as this one.

One could conjecture that the same book could have been written with a different perpetrator named or a different “hook” employed. British critics have charged that all the fuss made over Chaucer’s “rape” offense several years ago was an academic construct created to provide a new way to read an old favorite. Though it is always a dicey affair to confuse a writer’s life with his work, that does not mean that the results are not rewarding. They are in this book. In addition to providing close readings of Chaucer’s work, detailed analyses of the Ellsmere illustrations of “The Canterbury Tales” are also provided. This is a beautifully illustrated and vigorously argued book, well worth the time to pick sides and enjoy the Chaucer as well.

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