Good Counsel, Wisdom, and Advice: Introduction


1 Whiting counts 186 proverbs and 630 sententious phrases (Chaucer's Use of Proverbs, p. 10).

2 Green, Poets and Princepleasers, p. 161.

3 Green, Poets and Princepleasers, p. 166.

4 Lerer, Chaucer and His Readers, pp. 124-25.

5 Boffey, "Proverbial Chaucer," pp. 46-47.

6 Crane, Framing Authority, p. 93.

7 Crane, Framing Authority, p. 95.

8 See Shenkl, Appendix; and Green, Works of Ausonius, pp. 674-76.

9 Wenzel, Preachers, p. 177.

10 See, for instance, Boffey, "Manuscripts of English Courtly Love Lyrics," p. 12.

11 Coote, Prophecy, p. 237.

12 Wenzel, Preachers, p. 182.

13 Strohm, England's Empty Throne, p. 175.

14 See Peck, Kingship, pp. 142-59.

15 Yeager, John Gower's Poetic, p. 241.

16 Fisher, John Gower, p. 133.

17 Grady, "Lancastrian Gower," p. 572.

18 Ferster, Fictions of Advice, p. 88.

19 Minnis, Scattergood, and Smith, eds., Oxford Guides to Chaucer, p. 485.
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Good Counsel, Wisdom, and Advice: Introduction

Many of the poems that circulated with Chaucer's poetry in manuscript and print consist of proverbial wisdom, public counsel, and princely advice. Given the preponderance of sententiae, adages, and aphorisms in Chaucer's own poetry, 1 it is not surprising that Chaucer would have some perceived reputation as a fount of worldly wisdom and courtly counsel. Indeed, Richard Firth Green suggests that in the late fourteenth century, for the ambitious courtier or poet, literature of instruction and advice was likely to "attract a more favorable reception from their masters than they were by contributing to the literary tradition of the courtly 'game of love.'"2 The ability to fashion oneself "as a practical and moral mentor" was necessary for any writer who desired recognition beyond the limited role as courtly minstrel: "if [Chaucer's] literary attainments had any effect at all upon his career as a courtier, it was probably to such works as Boethius and Melibee rather than love-allegories like the Parliament of Fowls that Chaucer would have owed his advancement."3 Seth Lerer demonstrates that in the fifteenth century, Chaucer's "socially attuned" readers, including the scribe John Shirley, continued to imagine Chaucer as a poet of "courtly politics and royal diplomacy."4 Given the number of proverbs and "sententiae of different sorts" that became attached to Chaucer's name in fifteenth-century manuscripts, Julia Boffey suggests that "[i]n addition to the association of Chaucer with Boethius, there are hints of a more general tendency to regard Chaucer as a source of wisdom."5 In the sixteenth century, Chaucer's folio print editors, particularly Thynne and Stow, continued to add poems dispensing good counsel and advice, both domestic and political. In her study of humanist commonplace books, Mary Hart Crane suggests that during the reigns of both Henry VIII and Elizabeth, the command of good counsel became of a form of cultural capital and "the central credential" for those outside aristocratic circles seeking political advancement: "[t]he skillful citation of maxims and commonplaces became a way of displaying the fruits of humanist education when seeking preferment."6 Humanist courtiers did not necessarily display their wisdom to actually advise their sovereign; rather, "[t]he giving of such advice was . . . itself a sophisticated maneuver in the game of courtly power" maintaining the illusion of social mobility and allowing the monarch to avoid the appearance of tyranny.7

Eight Goodly Questions with Their Aunswers, Duodecim Abusiones, Prophecy, and Four Things That Make a Man a Fool each dispense conservative, proverbial advice that seems concerned with dissuading dissimulation and duplicity and reinforcing the social and cultural hierarchy. For instance, although some versions of Four Things That Make a Man a Fool and Yit of the Same, which weigh the relative dangers of women, honor, age, and wine, conclude with a misogynist sting, in this case the remedy for folly is "With thyne estate have humylytee" (line 14). Eight Goodly Questions with Their Aunswers, distinguished as the first item to appear in all the folio editions until the eighteenth century, consists of a series of pithy questions and answers about ideal social types ostensibly handed down by sage Greek philosophers. Skeat describes the poem as an expansion upon the first lines of Ausonius' Septem Sapientum Senteniae Septenis Versibus Explicatae: "Quis dives? Qui nil cupiet. quis pauper? Avarus" ("Who is a rich man? He who has no desires. Who is a pauper? The avaricious man"). This Latin poem (ostensibly a simplistic summary of Ausonius' Ludus Septem Sapientum), extant in numerous medieval manuscripts, is now considered spurious.8 Similarly, Duodecem Abusiones, which some scholars attribute to Lydgate and which is known by several different titles (Go Forth King, Advice to the Several Estates, Instructions to the Estates) is derived from a popular Latin treatise used by medieval preachers called "On the Twelve Abuses" (De duodecim abusiuis) which "teaches morality" by discussing twelve social types "whose essential moral characteristics are concentrated in a single virtue that is expressed by its opposite."9 Wenzel describes this genre (which he classifies as a "Type A" complaint) as a type of versified lament "at the decay or disappearance or perversion of virtues." In this case, the primary complaint is the apparent widespread transgression of traditional estate-specific social expectations. Similarly, Prophecy, a snapshot of social chaos, was first printed by Caxton at the end of his 1478 edition of Anelida and Arcite - probably as what Boffey calls a "makeweight" or "programme filler" to utilize extra page space.10 Lesley A. Coote categorizes this type of poem, which lists four moral and social evils followed by a prophetic final couplet, as an example of the "world-upside-down formula" of the Thomas Erceldoune variety, noting that such simple prognostics share characteristics with moralizing discourse and acted as a "means of expressing fundamental beliefs about the relationship of king, people, and nation."11 Although England's imminent ruin is predicted, because the poem chronicles how vices have become virtues, Wenzel classifies Prophecy as a type of complaint lyric ("Type B") that witnesses the evils of the age: "the old virtues have passed away, vices are now triumphant, what used to be prized highly is nowadays scorned, and the like."12

John Gower's In Praise of Peace and Scogan's Morale Balade, both in the tradition of advice to princes and both formally addressed to royalty, provide good examples of "the generous qualities of flattery, programmatic conciliation, wary evasion, and self-protective equivocation" that Paul Strohm finds "common to most advice-giving to medieval kings."13 Gower's In Praise of Peace, variously dated between the years 1399 and 1404, is addressed to Henry IV following his usurpation of Richard II in the fall of 1399. Gower begins by reiterating some of the official Lancastrian claims to the crown (divine election, hereditary right, popular sanction), heavily emphasizing the role of divine providence - rather than Lancastrian malfeasance - in Richard's deposition. The body of the poem - which contrasts the political benefits of peace with the social instability occasioned by wars of conquest - is a distillation or pastiche of themes explored more fully elsewhere in Gower's poetry, especially Book VII of the Confessio Amantis.14 Against the background of the Hundred Years' War with France and continuing hostilites with Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, Gower asserts that in the Christian era, rulers should be constrained to follow the law of charity, even in the absence of ecclesiastical example. Belligerent action is permissible in only two cases: to defend one's "rightful heritage" (lines 50-70) and against the Saracens, in the defense of the Church (lines 244-52): in the first case alluding obviously to Henry's usurpation of Richard II, and the second perhaps to his participation in the Lithuanian crusade. Given the lack of Church leadership and internecine warfare as a result of the Great Schism, it falls to secular rulers to follow natural law and reason in establishing and maintaining peaceful community. Gower closes with an encomium to Henry's pity, patience, and "pris" ("excellence" - line 3721) which he enjoins all men to commend.

R. F. Yeager suggests that In Praise of Peace represents the logical conclusion of a "pacifistic" trend that Gower adopted toward the end of his life, "in the doctrinal mode of Augustine, with its strong position against all but the most limited wars of defense."15 On the other hand, John Fisher reads the poem as a propagandistic justification for Henry's administration, reflecting Gower's role as "an apologist for the Lancastrian usurpation of Richard."16 In either case, Gower faced, as Frank Grady contends in a sophisticated reading of the numerous conventional exempla used to put forth his case, some "manifest contradictions" in addressing Henry IV on the theme of peace. Describing In Praise of Peace as "a poem of exasperation and a valediction to the mirror-for-princes genre" Grady argues that both the exempla (Solomon, Constantine, Alexander) and current events, including the numerous uprisings and rebellions at the beginning of Henry's reign, serve to undermine Gower's sanguine panegyric; Gower provides no "topical allusions" because "there simply wasn't much peace or pity to describe."17 As such, Gower's mirror for princes provides a good example of what Judith Ferster calls the "dance of deference and delicate challenge" that marks the literature of counsel in the late Middle Ages.18

According to the scribe John Shirley, Scogan's Moral Balade is an occasional piece, reportedly written for the entertainment and edification of Henry IV's four sons, to be read at a supper at the house of a prominent citizen, Lewis John, and critics have imagined similar privileged and convivial circumstances for Chaucer's own minor poems. Henry Scogan (1361?-1407) served in Richard II's household and later as tutor to the sons of Henry IV. He is perhaps best known to Chaucerians as the well-placed friend addressed in the Envoy to Scogan, and as part of the group of successful civil servants and courtiers who comprised the "inner circle" of Chaucer's original audience. Scogan's poem, chiefly valued by modern editors for its testimony to Chaucer's authorship of Gentilesse, which is quoted in full (lines 105-25), is marked by its modest and self-deprecating tone and by the thoroughly conventional and conservative nature of its advice. Expanding upon Chaucer's theme in Gentilesse - that the exercise of virtue is ennobling and that true nobility is derived from character, not birth - Scogan begins with a short prayer regretting his own misspent youth, then proceeds to urge the princes to cultivate virtue at an early age for both earthly honor and heavenly reward. Although Scogan does assert that even "#folkes of poure degree" (line 89) have been set "in gret honnour" (line 90) through the exercise of virtue, the idea of "generositas virtus, non sanguis" ("nobility is virtue, not blood") is not necessarily democratic. The point is that those of high estate should, through the practice of a somewhat ill-defined "virtue," honor that station that God has conferred upon them. The consequence of sloth, which in this case seems to be set in opposition to vertuous "besynesse," is not simply a bad reputation but either divine retribution or, closer to home, loss of earthly prosperity: "Thenkthe also howe many a governour / Calde to estate hath offt be sette ful lowe / Thorughe misusing of right, and for errour" (lines 93-95). Scogan provides only legendary and exemplary figures culled from Chaucer's Monk's Tale to support his case, but given the turbulence of their father's early reign, many contemporary examples would, no doubt, be close at hand. Indeed, A. J. Minnis wryly comments: "the sons of Henry IV would not have needed much reminding of what had happened to Richard II a few years earlier."19

The Texts

In two cases there are no extant manuscripts so I have used the earliest print editions: Eight Goodly Questions with Their Aunswers (IMEV 3183) is from Thynne's 1532 edition, and Duodecim Abusiones (IMEV 920) is from Wynken de Worde's edition of Lydgate's Temple of Glass (London, 1498). Various versions of Prophecy (IMEV 3943) are extant in manuscript (see Robbins, "Chaucerian Apocrypha," 4.1292); I have used the text from Caxton's Anelida and Arcite (London, 1478), the text which was reprinted by later editors. Four Things That Make a Man a Fool and Yit of the Same (IMEV 3523 and 3521), which first appeared in Stow's 1561 edition, are based on Trinity College Cambridge R.3.20 (pp. 8-9) from which Stow derived his texts.

The text of Gower's In Praise of Peace (IMEV 2587) is a diplomatic transcription of British Library, MS Additional 59495, commonly called the Trentham Manuscript, fols. 5r-10v; I have supplied the variants found in Thynne's (Th)1532 text of the poem which is based on a different manuscript that is no longer extant. For a description of the contents of the Trentham Manuscript, see Macaulay (Mac), Complete Works of John Gower, 1.lxxix-lxxxiii.

Scogan's Moral Balade (IMEV 2264) is extant in two manuscripts, A (Bodleian Library, MS Ashmole 59, fols. 25r-28r) and H (British Library, MS Harley 2251, fols. 153v-156r), and two prints, by Caxton (Temple of Bras, c. 1477) and Thynne (Workes, 1532). A disordered fragment (10 discontinuous stanzas) is also found in Ff (Cambridge University Library Ff.4.9, fols. 85r-86r); and Stow's copy of several lines from A is found in British Library, Harley 367, fol. 86b. I have based my text on A, correcting some of its obvious errors with readings from H. A transcription of A is available in Furnivall, ed., Parallel-Text Edition of Chaucer's Minor Poems, Part 3 (pp. 427-30). For a collation of Caxton's text and A, see Boyd, ed., Chaucer according to William Caxton.

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