A companion to Chaucer by Peter Brown

By Peter Brown

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Chaucer, says Foxe, ‘saw in Religion as much almost, as euen we do now, and vttereth in hys works no lesse, and semeth to bee a right Wicleuian, or els was neuer any, and that all his workes almost, if they be throughly aduised, will testifie (albeit it bee done in myrth, and couertly)’. Chaucer was able ‘vnder shadowes couertly, as vnder a visoure’ to convey truth ‘and yet not be espyed of the craftye aduersarie’ (Spurgeon 1925: i, 106). The idea of Chaucer’s learning in this period seems at odds with the prevailing sense of his language as rough and rude.

His superiority in substance is given by his large, free, simple, clear yet kindly view of human life’ (Brewer 1978: ii, 216–17). The production of multiple popular editions of Chaucer’s works, designed for the expanding and increasingly educated reading public, made Chaucer’s name a 14 Carolyn Collette familiar one among the educated classes in the nineteenth century. Chaucer became the father of English literature, the poet of the fresh green youth of England’s greatness, and the poet of a time whose values and whose spirit held wisdom the modern world needed.

Higden (again he is notable) constantly assesses his heaped-up auctores in terms of their Authority 29 historical accuracy and sometimes their historical contexts, using the symbol ‘R’ (Ranulphus) to identify his own comments. 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’.

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