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The Chaucerian Apocrypha: General Introduction


1 Robbins, "Chaucerian Apocrypha," p. 1061.

2 Lerer, "Medieval English Literature," p. 1253.

3 Carlson, "Chaucer, Humanism, and Printing," p. 279.

4 Fisher, Importance of Chaucer, p. 144.

5 Watkins, "'Wrastling for this world,'" p. 23.

6 See Mooney, "Scribes and Booklets," pp. 241-66.

7 Boffey, "Manuscripts of Courtly Love Lyrics," p. 11.

8 Strohm, "Chaucer's Fifteenth-Century Audience," p. 20.

9 Wall, Imprint of Gender, p. 97.

10 Marotti, Manuscript, Print, and the English Renaissance, p. 30.

11 Marotti, Manuscript, Print, and the English Renaissance, p. 218.

12 Lerer, "Medieval English Literature," p. 1255.

13 Yeager, John Gower's Poetic, p. 46.

14 See Foucault, "What Is an Author?"

15 McGann, Critique of Modern Textual Criticism, p. 100.
The poems in this volume were prized and preserved because of their association with Chaucer's name and have been, paradoxically, almost entirely ignored by modern readers for the same reason. The so-called Chaucerian apocrypha -- suggesting works that are uncanonical, inauthentic, forged, and false -- has come to refer to a somewhat ill-defined, diffuse, and amorphous body of poetry and prose. Bibliographers and editors have most often referred to the apocrypha as those presumably spurious works (approximately fifty in number) that were printed with or as Chaucer's authoritative work in the large folio editions by William Thynne (1532, 1545, 1550), John Stow (1561), Thomas Speght (1598, 1602, 1687), and John Urry (1721). These works were ostensibly mistaken as Chaucer's own productions, influencing the poet's reception history until the nineteenth century. The Chaucerian apocrypha is not, however, necessarily limited to those texts that circulated under the rubric "The Workes of Geffrey Chaucer." Eleanor Hammond, for instance, in addition to the spurious works in the printed folio editions, also includes those (now rejected) works that nineteenth-century editors and scholars introduced to the canon as well as verses that the fifteenth-century scribe John Shirley ascribed to Chaucer. Aage Brusendorff includes only those poems erroneously ascribed to Chaucer in fifteenth-century manuscripts. And perhaps most influentially, in his bibliographical essay "The Chaucerian Apocrypha," Rossell Hope Robbins defines the apocrypha as "[s]ome one hundred miscellaneous poems [that] have been either ascribed to Chaucer in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century manuscripts, or printed with or as Chaucer's in the black-letter editions of the sixteenth century, or linked to Chaucer by later scholars in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries."1 Robbins includes works that accompanied Chaucer's poetry in fifteenth-century manuscripts, Chaucerian imitations, works that were presumably inspired by Chaucer or that contain allusions to Chaucer or his poetry, as well as several works associated with or indebted to Chaucer's literary successor, John Lydgate.

The vague and inclusive term apocrypha, therefore, seems to encompass texts that were not only mistaken for Chaucer's or falsely attributed to Chaucer in both manuscript and print, but also works that were inspired by or associated with Chaucer's poetry. The term is worth considering because since the early fifteenth century the apocrypha has been a defining feature of the Chaucer canon. Rather than collecting Chaucer's minor poems into single authoritative editions, scribal editors habitually contextualized Chaucer's poetry in manuscript anthologies and miscellanies (distinguished by the perceived presence or absence of an editorial intelligence or thematic coherence) of courtly verse. Seth Lerer calls this "anthologistic impulse" a defining feature of English medieval literary culture.2 The Chaucerian contents of these manuscript collections were often anonymous as were the contributions of authors such as Lydgate, Hoccleve, and Clanvowe. Chaucer's sixteenth-century print editors drew their materials from these manuscript collections and continued the century-old practice of supplementing and complementing Chaucer's poetry with what they advertised on their title pages as "dyvers workes." Although Chaucer's print editors appear to have been intent upon preserving a canon of his genuine poetry, at the same time the appearance of new "diverse" works -- especially those "never in print before" -- seems to have been an equally compelling editorial and commercial incentive. Indeed, David Carlson suggests that the printed folio editions were marketed as authorial collections ("The Workes of Geffrey Chaucer") because in so-called print culture, Chaucer appears to have had value as a "brand name": "Chaucer's name, even attached to things he did not write, made books saleable, for it was his name, not the work, that moved the stock."3

While one would be naive, I think, to dismiss the commercial incentive of Chaucer's early editors, these manuscript and print collections obviously did not develop in a political vacuum. Several scholars have suggested that Chaucer's (and his imitators') poetic use of the vernacular was valued by both the Lancastrians and the Tudors as a form of linguistic capital, a crucial foundation for English nationalism. In John Fisher's view, for instance, Henry IV and V encouraged the dissemination of Chaucer's poetry in order to promote English as a national language and to acquire popular acceptance for their "usurpation and taxes": "If the Lancastrian administration was in any way consciously seeking popular support by strengthening the use of the vernacular, it needed socially accepted models of English . . . the royal establishment appears to have undertaken a program to elevate the prestige of English."4 Similarly, John Watkins surmises that the sixteenth-century Chaucerian anthologies played an important role in the larger dynastic, political, and ideological context of Tudor centralization and reform, "casting Chaucer as a champion of the King against the conflicting claims of Church and nobility."5 Although the thematic idiom of the manuscript and print anthologies is fundamentally courtly, invoking a feudal past in which ritualized and hierarchical social relations provided a cultural and ideological cement, the early Chaucer canon is peppered with anti-ecclesiastical works, such as the Plowman's Tale and Jack Upland, which not only complemented the anti-clerical satires in The Canterbury Tales, but also perhaps contributed to the ideology of imperial kingship and the prerogative rights of monarchs (Chaucer's Retraction, which softens the blow of his invective, was not printed for over two hundred years). Similarly, a poem like Gower's In Praise of Peace affirms the legitimacy of sacral monarchy, and the various short poems of wisdom and advice reinforce a conservative, authoritarian social and cosmic hierarchy. The Chaucer that emerges from these early collections is sometimes a very different authorial and ideological product from the poet valued today, but it is important to remember that his early canonization was, in part, dependent upon these royalist, reformist, and sententious accretions.

It was not until the late eighteenth century, which saw the renewed valuation of the English literary past and the emergence of a national literary canon, that Thomas Tyrwhitt, in the interest of compiling a glossary of Chaucer's language for his 1775 edition of The Canterbury Tales, became the first critic to compile a list of what he considered Chaucer's "genuine productions." It would take another one hundred years, however, before the apocrypha was first omitted from Chaucer editions. Walter Skeat's Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer (1894-97) can be considered the first manifestation of the modern Chaucer canon. Skeat included, as a seventh volume, Chaucerian and Other Pieces, the only modern edition of the apocrypha. Skeat includes thirty-one of these texts, relying heavily on the first printed folio of Chaucer's works (edited by William Thynne in 1532) and on works by known authors (Lydgate, Hoccleve, Gower, Clanvowe). He seems to have eschewed those poems that he did not consider "worthy" of association with Chaucer's name or consonant with Chaucer's status as a laureate poet, omitting for instance, most of the scabrous antifeminist works printed by John Stow in 1561, four of which are included here.

Although several spurious works, including Henryson's Testament of Cresseid, Usk's Testament of Love, the Prologue to the Tale of Beryn, and The Floure and the Leafe, are known to modern readers, most works of the Chaucerian apocrypha have received relatively little critical attention since their exclusion from the Chaucer canon. Yet many of these pieces are worthy of study, not only in the context of Chaucerian reception, but also as specimens of the kinds of vernacular poetry that circulated in late-medieval manuscripts and that remained in print, largely by the accidental virtue of their association with Chaucer, throughout the Renaissance and well into the nineteenth century. The various genres represented in this sampler -- the dream vision, good counsel, female panegyric, mass parody, proverbial wisdom, lovers' dialogue, prophecy, advice to princes, elegiac complaint, courtly parody, and anti-feminist satire -- attest to the diversity of late-medieval literary tastes and to the flexibility of the courtly idiom. These poems derive from a variety of manuscript sources, largely anthologies and miscellanies of secular, vernacular verse (what Robbins calls "aureate collections"), usually professionally prepared and presumably purchased by the affluent: members of the landed gentry, prosperous bourgeois businessmen, and prominent clergy. Although such collections are often labeled "courtly," that is, produced for those with some courtly connections or pretensions, and concerned with amorous courtship, social courtesy, and political courtiership, the contents sometimes can exercise our assumptions about this broad and inclusive category. For instance, several apocryphal poems appearing in this sampler (The Craft of Lovers, Of Theyre Nature, In February, O Merciful, I Have a Lady, O Mosy Quince, Beware, The Court of Love) are extant in Cambridge, Trinity College MS R.3.19, a secular miscellany consisting of forty-six poems and one prose work dating from the third quarter of the fifteenth century, after the advent of print in England. Although lacking the illuminations and decorated capitals often found in deluxe or so-called bespoke manuscripts (such as Bodleian Library, Fairfax 16), the manuscript appears to have been professionally prepared, probably from a number of unbound fascicles (short booklets) from which either the scriptorium (on speculation) or a customer could compile a collection of verse to suit their tastes.6 Bradford Fletcher quite accurately describes the contents as "eclectic" (p. xv): a few of Chaucer's works appear -- The Parliament of Fowls, The Legend of Good Women, The Complaint to Pity, and extracts from The Monk's Tale copied from Caxton's first edition of The Canterbury Tales -- in addition to several works by Lydgate, folk traditions, satires on women, an explanation of the four humors, courtly complaints, proverbs, a pedigree of English royalty, and a meditation on bad habits. For modern readers who may find little courtliness or rational coherence in such variety, Julia Boffey reminds us that such collections were not solely literary but fulfilled a variety of functions: "social, musical . . . biographical and purely practical."7

Similarly, in the sixteenth century both Chaucer's poetry and the diverse works with which it circulated appear to have continued to have been valued for their perceived courtly qualities. Paul Strohm is not alone in lamenting what he sees as a "narrowing" of critical appreciation for Chaucer's "incomparably rich" poetic legacy and an inordinate "affection or nostalgia for the courtly style."8 However, it appears that the printed Chaucer folio editions of the sixteenth century were not valued simply as collections of Chaucer's poetry but also may have had a more utilitarian function, acting, in part, as courtesy books. Wendy Wall argues that similar printed courtly anthologies (such as Tottel's Miscellany) served as "conduct books" and were intended to market "exclusivity" by demonstrating "to more common audiences the poetic practices entertained by graceful courtly readers and writers."9 Most of the apocryphal poems either concern the theory and practice of fin amours (including sophisticated parodies of courtly genres and conventions) or offer both public and domestic codes of behavior in the form of princely advice, moral instruction, and proverbial wisdom. Arthur Marotti suggests that the audience for similar collections included "the universities, the Inns of Court, the court, and the household or the family . . . both aristocratic and middle-class individuals."10 These readers purchased printed poetry collections partly to gain access to what what was perceived as the "socially restricted communications" of a privileged elite, but also for intellectual and moral self-improvement, or to participate in the "traditional fictional world of love experience."11 In other words, such works presumably provide both rhetorical and practical models of courtship, courtiership, and courtesy and represent, in Pierre Bourdieu's formulation, forms of cultural knowledge or competence readers may have deemed necessary for social advancement and distinction.

For modern readers, perhaps the most striking characteristic of some of these poems, second only to their anonymity, is the frequency of unacknowledged quotation. Patchworks, poems which are composed of extracts borrowed from other poems, seem to be examples of unimaginative plagiarism and have been treated as such by many literary critics. But Walter Benjamin once said that the literature of the future would not be original works, but assemblies of multiple texts; and readers may be familiar with the eclectic approach of artists such as Robert Rauschenberg whose paintings are composed of found objects, or hip-hop lyrics which are based on sampling. Indeed, Seth Lerer observes: "What seems to many distinctive of the postmodern textual condition -- the fascination with pastiche, with the quoted quality of any utterance . . . seems also to some distinctive of the medieval textual condition."12 The practice of extrapolating memorable or pithy lines from longer works was quite common in the late Middle Ages and both Chaucer and Lydgate's poetry were especially susceptible to these peculiar acts of homage. Addressing the charge of plagiarism in Gower's work, R. F. Yeager warns: "Plagiarism is a hard charge; but it is also a rather anachronistic -- and hence inappropriate -- one to level against most medieval poets. . . . The term presupposes distinct ideas of artistic originality and literary property unfamiliar to most medieval writers."13 A full appreciation of such poems comes with a broad knowledge of medieval literature, and, perhaps, the aesthetic pleasure is (and was) derived less from the quality of the poetry than from the recognition of the original context of the extracted lyric.

None of the poems in this collection will be reclaimed as Chaucer's any time soon and readers steeped in Chaucer's poetics may find it puzzling that any of these pieces once circulated under his name. Indeed, some critics once worried that the apocrypha harmed Chaucer's early literary reputation, tainting the correct evaluation of his aesthetic achievement. Although the title of this book suggests that Foucault's notion of the "author-function" is still operative, giving these texts some degree of coherence and cultural status,14 these poems were also, in turn, operative in establishing Chaucer's own historical literary reputation. While a different authorial product (courtly, monarchical, anticlerical, misogynist) from the one valued today may emerge from the early manuscript and print collections, the spurious works found in these books would not have been canonized if they did not have some perceived cultural, political, ideological, or commercial value. Today Chaucer is valued for what he presumably wrote (enshrined in The Riverside Chaucer) but Chaucer's early scribal and print editors also appear to have prized his sphere of influence (attested to by imitation, continuation, and emendation) and his adaptability to contemporary social and political needs. The ostensibly rigorous distinction we make today between the genuine and the spurious appears to have had less conceptual validity before the early eighteenth century and the formation of Chaucer's canon confirms Jerome McGann's consensus that literary production is fundamentally "a social and an institutional event."15 The renewed critical attention to the Chaucerian apocrypha is, I believe, in response to both an interest in the material, institutional and cultural forces that shape canonicity as well as the related recognition of this socialized concept of literary production.

Commonly Used Abbreviations

CA Gower, Confessio Amantis
Chaucer, Canterbury Tales
Brown and Robbins, Index of Middle English Verse
MED Middle English Dictionary
OED Oxford English Dictionary
RR Roman de la Rose
Robbins and Cutler, Supplement to the Index of Middle English Verse

Go to The Court of Love, Introduction
Go To The Court of Love