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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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WILLIAM MARX An Absent King: Perceptions of the Politics of Power in the Reign of Richard II and the Middle English Prose Brut 135


William Marx An Absent King: Perceptions of the Politics of Power in the Reign of Richard II and the Middle English Prose Brut1 Addressing issues of ‘Chaucer in Context’ opens up the opportunity to examine aspects of historical writing of the fourteenth and fifteenth cen- tury and the perspectives that this of fers on the political context and the power struggles of the period in which Chaucer was active. Chaucer is notable because he wrote in English and so gave voice to and ref lected a strong vernacular culture. The type of historical writing examined here is also in English, in some cases composed in English, in others translated into English. It is an important strain in vernacular literature.2 The prin- cipal text for this essay is the Middle English Prose Brut, which only since the 1980s has been the subject of any significant interest to literary schol- ars and historians.3 Before we examine the Middle English Prose Brut as a point of access to historical contexts for Chaucer, it will be helpful to characterise the text. The Middle English prose Brut takes its name from the legend of the foundation of Britain by Brutus, one of the refugees from the fall of Troy. This is the legendary history of Britain that is best known through Geof frey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae and, for many, the opening lines of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.4 The narrative of the Middle English prose Brut begins with events leading up to...

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