A companion to Chaucer by Peter Brown

By Peter Brown

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1925) ‘Introduction’, in Five Hundred Years of Chaucer Criticism and Allusion, 1357–1900, 3 vols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. ix–cxliv. The three volumes of this work contain an encyclopedic record of allusions to Chaucer. The extensive introduction in volume 1 analyses and organizes the vast body of citation Spurgeon gathered. Windeatt, Barry (1979) ‘The scribes as Chaucer’s early critics’, Studies in the Age of Chaucer 1, 119–41. A study of fifteenth-century reception of Chaucer’s work by reading scribal variation and alteration as products of understanding and criticism rather than as marks of confusion and error.

The Latin word cannot manage all this; but Middle English auctoritee can mean ‘authority’ in the personal sense of auctor as well as the impersonal senses of auctoritas. Perhaps helped by this, Chaucer invariably emphasizes the historical agent behind a text (his usual meaning, in fact, for auctoritee) rather than accepting any transcendently authoritative ‘sentence’. Indeed, his sensitivity to human origins of knowledge is so great that encounters with ‘olde bokes’ usually involve some degree of crisis regarding their claims to authority, increased by his compilational tendency.

We know that he desired such fame from the end of Troilus, where he presents his book to the tradition of such great writers, claiming the story of Troy as part of England’s literary heritage, and positioning himself as a novice reverently following in the steps of the great writers of antiquity. Chaucer did attain the kind of lasting fame he attributes to these great writers. From one generation to the next Chaucer has been likened to the predecessors he so clearly admired. As early as Hoccleve’s praises, Chaucer was being constructed as an English equivalent of the great auctores: ‘for vnto Tullius / Was neuer man so lyk amonges vs / Also who was hier in philosophie / To Aristotle / in our tonge but thow / The steppes of virgile in poesie / Thow filwedist’ (Brewer 1978: i, 63).

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