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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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BARRY WINDEATTPlea and Petition in Chaucer 189

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Barry Windeatt Plea and Petition in Chaucer The claim of this essay is that Chaucer’s works ref lect, and ref lect upon, their context in a petitionary culture and more specifically a culture of prayerful petition. In such a culture, writing is often necessarily a petition- ary process, with Chaucer the ‘maker’ and courtly poet casting himself as a petitioner. By extension, in the focus of many poems exploring courtly themes and experience, courtship defines itself as a petitionary process and writing is a form of courtship. In a pattern that develops across his works Chaucer makes petitionary scenes key to the structure and themes of his poems, sometimes modifying or adding to his sources so that moments involving acts of petition and the experiences of supplicants are enhanced or more substantially recast. This pattern includes both scenes of public supplicating by the subjected and powerless to the lordly and powerful as well as more private instances of supplication within the family and within relationships. The recourse to petition and the petitionary stance comes to symbolise the dilemmas of absent or qualified power, together with all the circumscription and subjection suf fered by the protagonists of Chaucer’s narratives. It is variations and reversals of acts of petitioning that may serve to bring thematic implications more sharply into focus, so that petition becomes integral to the narrative process and imaginative texture of Chaucer’s poems and hence to their meaning. As both an author and also a government employee with links to...

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