By Peter Brown
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Additional info for A Companion to Chaucer
By the end of the twentieth century he no longer seemed to possess secret knowledge, or to show the way to a deeper understanding of what English is capable of. Rather, he seemed all too caught up in the pettinesses and intrigues of a dangerous, unstable court, itself a part of a destabilizing world founded on and yet anxious about the codes of chivalry, love and duty it expressed in its literature. Chaucer’s Retraction (ParsT 1081–92) In his own work Chaucer seems to have demonstrated a remarkable prescience about many of the issues that would arise in response to his writing.
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). In the sixteenth century, Roger Ascham terms him the ‘Englishe Homer’, and Francis Beaumont asserts that Chaucer is a philosophical writer of the highest order, as Troilus shows, imitating Virgil and Homer in the ‘pith and sinewes of eloquence’ (Brewer 1978: i, 100, 138).
Religious guidance could pass entirely from the professionals’ hands: just as London provided a reservoir of Lollard books, and teachers or poets like Langland debated theology, so at court lay rather than clerically mediated forms of religious worship were cultivated: for example, the work of Chaucer’s friend John Clanvowe, The Two Ways, while not distinctly Lollard, makes no reference to clerical guidance (but then, the reference to a ‘preest’ to hear the confession solicited by the Parson [ParsT 318] is a quite forgettable occasion for this do-it-yourself guide to penance and reform).