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Was Chaucer really a “writer”?

We know more about Geoffrey Chaucer’s life than we do about most medieval writers. Despite this, it’s a truism of Chaucer biography that the records that survive never once describe him as a poet. Less often noticed, however, are the two radically different views of Chaucer as an author we find in roughly contemporaneous portraiture, although the portraits in which we find them are themselves well known.

We have, first, the portrait of Chaucer in the margin of the Ellesmere manuscript, one of the oldest surviving copies of the Canterbury Tales. Next to the beginning of the narrator’s Tale of Melibee, we have an image that derives directly from a tradition of drawings begun by someone who seems to have known what Chaucer looked like. The image insists on what those of us who teach Chaucer regularly try to tell our students is not truethat the narrator of the Tales is Chaucer himself. More importantly however, although Chaucer is depicted as a pilgrim on horseback, like the other images of the pilgrims in the margins of Ellesmere, Chaucer is portrayed with some of the tools of his craft. As the self-appointed recorder of the stories comprising the Tales, Chaucer is portrayed, above all, as a writer.

Chaucer, Huntington Library
“MS Ellesmere 26 C 9, fol. 153v.” Public Domain via the Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

As can be seen more clearly in this detail, what Chaucer has hanging around his neck is a writing instrument a “penner” or pen case.

Chaucer, Huntington Library - 2
“MS Ellesmere 26 C 9, fol. 153v., detail”

A second view of Chaucer as author comes from the frontispiece of one of the best manuscripts of Troilus and Criseyde, now held in the library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Here, Chaucer is standing, and in court rather than on a pilgrimage, although this depiction of Chaucer seems to borrow from the same tradition of portraiture as the Ellesmere image (this Chaucer also has a beard, a similarly high forehead, and a head bowed slightly and purposefully). What this Chaucer does not have, however, is a penner or pen.

The caption traditionally given to this image’s reproduction in the many books it has graced is “Chaucer reading from a book”. But, as Derek Pearsall put it gently, with characteristic astringency, in a landmark article on this image, “the book from which ‘the Poet’ is supposed to be ‘reading’ is not at all obvious in the picture since it is in fact, not there”. This Chaucer is not a writer but a declaimer or reciter and, given the location of the picture, as the frontispiece to this deluxe copy of Troilus and Criseyde, what he is almost certainly meant to be reciting is Troilus.

"MS 61, fol. 1v" Image reproduced with kind permission of the Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.
“MS 61, fol. 1v” Image reproduced with permission of the Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

The two images differ in the claims they make about how Chaucer disseminated his work, but they agree more subtly about the importance of orality to the making of Chaucer’s texts. Although the prologue to the Tale of Melibee represents the Tale as something Chaucer writes, it also represents the tale as something to be listened to (“therefore herkneth” [VII.965] the narrator says). The slippage is conventional as any scholar of Middle English would be quick to say and probably derives directly from the Middle English romances in which Chaucer’s style was schooled. But the convention derived from practice that regularly mixed declaiming with writing since, even if these romances were written as if they were being recited, they were also often recited to the kind of audiences the Troilus frontispiece depicts.

The image of Chaucer in the Troilus frontispiece relies on a pictorial tradition depicting the oral delivery of sermons, as Derek Pearsall also noted, but this raises the interesting possibility that Chaucer could perform the poem in this way because he could hold the whole of it in his head, and therefore “wrote” it in the first place by dictating it. This is a possibility almost never considered for the performance or production of Chaucer’s works, yet we know it was quite common from antiquity through the Middle Ages. One might say that the image of Chaucer in the Corpus Christi frontispiece is traditional, but it relies on a tradition in which the author of a text does not write it out so that it can be read, but, rather, recites it so that it can be written.

Since, by definition, every trace of such dictation would have vanished, it’s hard to find evidence for it. But it would solve some problems. There are a number of key passages in Troilus and Criseyde itself that come and go in ways that cannot be easily accounted for as errors of copying: it is as if Chaucer recited the poem with some passages on one occasion but not on another. And we do know that dictation was common in England among men and women of Chaucer’s class in the fifteenth century.

While our own habits of writing incline us to think that an image of Chaucer reciting the whole of Troilus and Criseyde is fancy rather than fact, it’s significant that we have this second view at all. Chaucer must have set penner to parchment frequently. However, the portraits of Chaucer also suggest that it was equally likely Chaucer also often wrote by reciting to a secretary. That is, without actually “writing” at all.

Featured image credit: “Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims” by William Blake. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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