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Game of Scribes: Chaucer and the Invention of the Maximalist Narrative

Paul Strohm
Chaucer’s Tale: 1386 and the Road to Canterbury
(Viking, 2014)

Who was Adam Pinkhurst? Not a question you hear everyday. For one thing, he is the subject of an old poem, or at least that old poem’s addressee. 
 “Adam the scribe, if you are ever asked / To copy out Beothius or Troilus anew,/ I wish you maddening itch under your curls, / Unless you reproduce my verse more true”

Truth is, the original reads, “Adam scriveyn, if ever it thee bifalle / Boece or Troylus for to written newe” Those strange-looking words issued from Geoffrey Chaucer, and so happens it was Adam Pinkhurst who laced together The Canterbury Tales from some 50 plus fragments left to his caretaking. Without Pinkhurst, reckons Professor Paul Strohm, author of Chaucer’s Tale: 1386 and the Road to Canterbury, we would not talk about the poet in the same way we do today. While a painting exists of Chaucer reading before a regal audience, Pinkhurst’s legacy rests entirely in handwriting on the margins of the Great Poet’s original pages—The Great Poet who, without Pinkhurst, might not have achieved such greatness after all.

Regardless, in Strohm’s opinion, the painting of Chaucer before the king contains an invented scene, a folk fantasy imagined retroactively some time after the poet’s death. And the king? Well, that’s Richard II. At least it was the king until somebody got it in mind to scratch his resemblance out, so that what reached us over the course of the centuries is Chaucer reading his work to a royal audience, at the center of which sits a faceless head wearing a crown.

This anecdote, among many others, abides in Professor Strohm’s book, which is lean and compellingly told, as a biographical primer translating the time of Chaucer to the time of our own. Turns out there is some overlap, and not just Game of Thrones echoes (questions of what’s best for “the realm,” hotly contested coats of arms, the prospect of living with or without “Lancastrian favor,” not to mention the responsibility vested in “cocket seals”). 

Londoners of the 1380s, for example, were prone to eating on the run. They stopped at “food stalls, bakeshops, or communal ovens” before heading on to, if the Londoner happened to be Chaucer, quarters in an Aldgate tower overlooking “the King’s Highway.” Every inch a writer’s garret, Chaucer’s rent-free housing, granted him as recompense for his official duties as wool controller, featured arrow slits for windows, a urine-soaked trench twenty feet below, and the strong likelihood of traitors’ heads displayed on pikes high above the walls.  Meanwhile:

literally under [Chaucer’s] feet, passed royal and religious processions, spectacles of public humiliation, expelled convicts and sanctuary seekers, provisioners and trash haulers with iron-wheeled carts and vans, drovers, water and wood sellers, traders with Baltic and northern European luxuries, runaway serfs, Essex rebels flowing in on their way to burn [John of] Gaunt’s Savoy Palace in 1381, and all the rest of a busy city’s shifting populace.

Processions were big back then, kind of the end-all, be-all of public discourse.  A reader derives a sense of what might well be social networking’s medieval quality as Strohm explicates the London of that epoch in terms some of us will recognize:

A place where people mingle together in crowded thoroughfares, where they post and publish their inner thoughts and broadcast them aloud, where different forms of street theater flourish, and where the public presentation of the self far overwhelms any gestures toward privacy or inwardness.

And Chaucer’s private self? He did a public term as an MP at Westminster, appointed by the powers that were to the representative body beneath the king, which was then made up of individuals “in the temper of the day, violent, with records of trespass, home invasion, rape and forcible detention, judicial combat, and occasional murder.”

The father of English literature kept mostly to his garret. He did so frequently enough, we can be sure, to accomplish a good deal of writing and a good deal of reading ahead of the year 1368, when political circumstances—substantial upheaval under King Richard II—resulted in Chaucer’s removal to Kent. Gone, surmises Strohm, was the circle of literary intimates he had cultivated in London and from that absence, the poet conjured an audience of his own, his very own many headed caravan, The Canterbury Tales. Writers and readers who believe in big, richly layered narratives—advocates of Tolstoy, Eliot, Dos Passos, Pynchon, Wallace and, most recently, Marlon James—take heed: G.C. was patient zero.

Throughout his rendering of the birth of a classic, Strohm cautions against conflating Chaucer’s life with his art, insisting that the poet likely drew much of his subject matter from other literary works (while harboring distaste for the fame-mongering of a near contemporary like Dante). Except in certain instances: separated the majority of his adult life from his wife, Philippa de Roet, and their children, Chaucer well may have looked out keenly from the roof of his Aldgate garret, studying the masses flowing beneath him for some sign of recognition. Not so differently, after all, than does his Troilus, watching in vain for the return of Creseide.

Contributor

J.T. Price

J.T. Price's fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming from The New England Review, Post Road Magazine, Joyland, Construction Magazine, Opium Magazine, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. More at www.jt-price.com.

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