Reviewed by Nicola F. McDonald, St. John's College, Oxford
If you don't know what the "Envoy to Alison", John Shirley's headnote to "Adam Scriveyn", Stephen Surigonus's epitaph on Chaucer and the 'cento' of the Staffordshire lawyer Humphrey Wellys have in common then Seth Lerer's Chaucer and his Readers should be the next book you read. John Dryden, famously, asserted that "mighty things from small beginnings grow" (Annus Mirabilis, l.618) and Lerer, working on the assumption that the canon can be defined as the product of a reader's response, sets out to demonstrate how the now mighty Chaucer canon grew out of a series of small but significant moments in the early history of the poet's readership. Shirley, Surigonus, Wellys, and the anonymous author of the "Alison" envoy (as well as a myriad of other fifteenth- and early-sixteenth-century Chaucer readers) are, Lerer argues, the shadowy but pivotal figures in the foundation of the Chaucer tradition. If Lerer is right, the editors of the Riverside Chaucer should give credit where it is due and include the appropriate acknowledgements.
In this broad and ambitious study, Seth Lerer does not, however, simply seek to apply the familiar argument about canon construction (here outlined by John Guillory: "canonicity is not a property of the work itself but of its transmission" [p.7]) to the diffuse evidence of Chaucer's early readership; he adds a twist and, in so doing, returns at least a modicum of constructive control to the poet himself. According to Lerer's analysis, the way in which fifteenth-century readers and writers respond to Chaucer is, ultimately, determined by Chaucer's own models of reading and writing. The voices of Lydgate, Hoccleve, and Shirley, the authors of courtesy books and didactic treatises, and all the rest who sanction Chaucer as the aureate poet laureate, who urge us to "redeth his bookes alle" (p.91), are but echoes of the vast panoply of speaking subjects inscribed by Chaucer: the abused Clerk, the boyish Squire, Father Geoffrey, and the berated scribe Adam, to name but a few. If literary history is all about genealogies (p.11), then Father Chaucer is, paradoxically, the spawn of his fifteenth-century children.
In Chaucer and his Readers, Lerer challenges contemporary scholarship's readiness to dismiss the fifteenth-century as simply a dull and derivative era. While he acknowledges that "all fifteenth-century poetry remained 'with the field of discourse' Chaucer had initiated" (p.11), he asserts that the "social and collaborative nature of literary production" (p.13) gave fifteenth-century readers and writers immense scope to determine what Chaucer meant both for themselves and for us. His first four chapters trace four traditions in the development and transmission of the Chaucer canon and reveal the very different ways in which the poet's immediate successors imagined their place in the originary moments of English literary history.
The first chapter ("Reading like the Clerk") investigates Lydgate's appropriation of the Clerk's voice and narrative techniques. The Bury monk elevates Chaucer to the status of a poet laureate (an invigorated version of the Clerk's Petrarch) and then goes on to create a myth of literary patronage (derived ultimately from the Clerk's attempts to satisfy the demands of the patronizing Host) in which aureate and laureate are tellingly collapsed in the search for cold, hard currency. Chapter Two ("Reading like the Squire") proposes that the self-effacement of the Squire provided Chaucer's imitators with a model for articulating their relationship to their literary father, while the Squire's own 'gallant' taste set the trend for the polite readers who commissioned popular manuscript anthologues such as Tanner 346. Chapter Three ("Reading like a Child") considers the influence of Chaucer's paternalistic words to "Lyte Lowys my sone" in the Prologue to the Astrolabe. The fifteenth century embraced this fatherly narrator and, as the evidence of courtesy books and idiosyncratically rewritten Chaucer poems (found, for example, in the Helmingham MS of the Canterbury Tales and Huntington Library MS 140) reveals, created a tamed and domesticated Chaucer, a poet of manners and a writer of children's literature. Chapter Four ("The Complaints of Adam Scriveyn") examines how bibliophile John Shirley adopts the role of the labouring scribe Adam in his quest to preserve, and to create, the canon of Chaucer's shorter poems and, in so doing, invents 'social Chaucer', the coterie poet of occasion and request.
In addition to interrogating manuscript evidence, Lerer extends his study into the era of the printed book. In his final two chapters, he assesses Caxton's role in inaugurating the printed canon and in initiating the noticeably detached and impersonal reading of an "antique" (p.151) Chaucer which was to influence early Tudor writers as divergent as Stephen Hawes and John Skelton. Chapter Five ("At Chaucer's Tomb") charts Caxton's entombment of Chaucer in the prologues and epilogues to Boece, the Canterbury Tales, and the Eneydos, his monumentalizing of England's literary father as a dead 'auctor'. For Caxton the term 'laureate' is more appropriately applied to his living contemporaries and Chapter Six ("Impressions of Identity") surveys how the "late created poete laureate" (p.171), John Skelton, and the less favoured Stephen Hawes position themselves in relation to Chaucer. Hawes, unable to find a place in the court of Henry VIII, seeks for himself a permanent monumental status, like that invisaged for Chaucer by Caxton, in the fixed impression of the printer's type. Skelton, by contrast, envisages no Chaucer-like afterlife, but rather celebrates his own glittering fame at the centre of immediate public attention and acclamation. Skelton denies the 'auctores' the privilege of laureation, and simply invokes their image to confirm the uniqueness of his own status. Although the Tudors are Chaucer's inheritors, as writers they are no longer constrained, like their fifteenth-century counterparts, to speak as clerks, squires, children, submissive scribes, or any other of Chaucer's fictional subjects.
This summary of the broad contours of Chaucer and his Readers (there is also a lengthy introduction, an envoy and a short appendix which edits material from the Huntington and Helmingham manuscripts discussed in chapter three) cannot do justice to the challenging task which Lerer undertakes. This is a study which builds its argument around the cumulative detail gleaned from manuscript and textual minutiae. Lerer's evidence and the twists and turns of his argument are fascinating and provocative, but they are not readily condensed into a few synthesizing paragraphs. Readers will certainly question some of Lerer's foundational premises. Is Chaucer, for instance, really so relentlessly at the centre of fifteenth- and early-sixteenth-century poetic traditions, so irrevocably pivotal, that Skelton's encomium of Phyllyp Sparrowe is not just a critique of "the traditons of the genre, but ... [of] the whole project of Chaucerian reception" (p.197) that Lerer chronicles? Isn't it the sixteenth, rather than the fifteenth, century that C.S. Lewis characterizes as the "Drab Age"? But the strength of Chaucer and his Readers lies not, paradoxically, in the perfect plausibility of its each and every conjecture. Rather, it is its bold challenge to received tradition (its insistence, for instance, that so-called 'bad' texts offer evidence of coherent aesthetic agendas) and the proliferation of detailed evidence which accompanies its argument, that makes it such an important and exciting book.