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Chaucer in Context

A Golden Age of English Poetry

Edited By Gerald Morgan

The study of the work of Geoffrey Chaucer – still regarded as a literary genius more than 600 years after his death – centres on the problems of detailed readings of his poetry (including in some cases the textual authority for these readings) and the historical context that gives them meaning. In some ways, the modern understanding of the shaping historical context was undermined in the second half of the twentieth century by the dogmatism of Robertsonian Augustinianism, as a basis for the interpretation of medieval literature in general and of Chaucer’s poetry in particular, and at the same time by the reactions of determined opposition provoked by this approach. Undeniably, medieval views often fail to coincide with modern ones and they are frequently uncomfortable for modern readers. Nevertheless, Chaucer’s brilliance as an observer of the human scene coexists with and irradiates these unfamiliar medieval ideas. The essays in this volume explore in detail the historical context of Chaucer’s poetry, in which orthodox Catholic ideas rather than revolutionary Wycliffite ones occupy the central position. At the same time, they offer detailed readings of his poetry and that of his famous contemporaries in an attempt to do justice to the independent and original work of these poetic masters, writing in the great royal households of England in the period 1360-1400.


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ANNE J. DUGGAN‘The Hooly Blisful Martir for to Seke’ 15


Anne J. Duggan ‘The Hooly Blisful Martir for to Seke’ Virtually everyone who knows even the name of Chaucer remembers him as the author of the Canterbury Tales, one of the monuments of Middle English poetry, with its collection of stories told by an assortment of pil- grims with whom he (or perhaps rather his fictional surrogate) claimed to have travelled to Canterbury from London in the 1380s.1 Its opening lines are almost as familiar (GP, A 1–2, 12–13 and 15–18): Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote The droghte of March hath perced to the roote, … Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages, And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes, … And specially from every shires ende Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende, The hooly blisful martir for to seke, That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke. Yet, somewhat paradoxically, the focus of the poem was on the pilgrims who represented a range of recognizable fourteenth-century types and on their exemplary tales. Of the goal of their journey very little was said. For whatever reason, Chaucer did not provide even a brief description of the city, its cathedral or the great shrine that had drawn him and his com- panions to undertake the journey.2 Fortunately, his anonymous fifteenth- century continuator was not so reticent. The rearranged and expanded version of the Canterbury Tales, which survives in one manuscript only,3 supplies what a modern editor has called the ‘Canterbury Interlude’. This described the pilgrims’ arrival...

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