Chaucer’s Proverbs

In 1965, an article written by scholar George B. Pace for the journal Studies in Bibliography made one point clear about Chaucer’s Proverbs: no matter how we try, currently it is impossible for us to conclude whether Proverbs was indeed written by Chaucer. While Pace himself believes these eight brief lines to have been written by Chaucer, he maintains nonetheless that nothing is yet set in stone. The importance of this is simple: when left with all questions and no answers, every possibility in the universe is ours to explore. If Proverbs was indeed falsely attributed to Chaucer, then we must ask ourselves, why might that be? If we assume that the attribution was false, and that Proverbs was from some other author, then the fact that it was attributed to Chaucer at all may allow us some insight as to his contemporaries’ view of him. With this in mind, our first goal is to understand Pace’s reasoning behind his claim.

With hopes of tracing the verse to Chaucer, Pace, in his article, examines four different source texts which include copies of the eight lines that comprise Proverbs (42). He then goes on to compare the contents of each text line-by-line, highlighting the differences between them and drawing the reader to his same conclusion: of the four source manuscripts, which he identifies in his article as A, F, S, and H, the first three likely descend from a common archetype, while the fourth is descended from the second (45). The fact that the attribution of the verse to Chaucer only appears in the F and H versions of the text, which are of common lineage, and not in the other two is enough to suggest that perhaps Chaucer did not write the verse at all, but rather it was falsely associated with him. In order to understand why somebody may have falsely associated this verse with Chaucer, whether knowingly or not, however, requires the examination of a similar text which has also been falsely attributed to him.

Pace’s diagram showing the relationships between the four sources, A, F, S, and H

Julia Boffey, in writing about the Chaucer canon, refers to another eight-line verse which has been attributed to Chaucer in certain manuscripts. The verse, which was found on a small piece of paper bound into a copy of John of Fordun’s fourteenth-century Chronica Gentis Scotorum, is a short proverb which serves to warn of the corruption and vice that can easily be bred by riches and prosperity(39). This passage, as Boffey says, however, comes from the prologue to John Walton’s translation of Boethius’ De Consolatione Philosophiae(39). While Boffey does not single out any one explanation as to why this passage has been attributed to Chaucer, and instead examines a host of possibilities, she does reveal an interesting bit of information in the midst of her argument. In the same manuscript which attributed this stanza to Chaucer, there also existed full works by Lydgate and Hoccleve that were copied and attributed to Chaucer(43). While Boffey attempts to explain reasons why these pieces might have purposely been misattributed, we cannot currently determine for certain if any of these explanations are true; however, whether this was done with intention or not, the result is that the text effectively paints Chaucer as a sagacious figure, a man of wisdom and proverbs.

Within her article, Boffey refers to the Chaucer of this text as being portrayed as “a fount of proverbial wisdom rather than as the source of eloquence,” stating that the latter is the “more familiar portrayal.”(44) Neither portrayal of Chaucer, however, is any bit less accurate than the other. As a court poet for the king of England, Chaucer’s role in the court was two-sided: on the one hand, he was a poet that was meant to entertain and intrigue the courtiers, while on the other, his writing was meant to provide wisdom and council to the king. The latter of these two responsibilities, which is a clear example of the “mirror for princes” genre, is what separates Chaucer and his contemporaries from the court minstrels of earlier times. Rather than simply entertaining the court, as a minstrel would be expected to do, Chaucer’s full responsibility also included giving advice and good counsel to his lord(Forni,“Wisdom”). This was a great responsibility that lay across his shoulders, as this advice was not only for the benefit of his master, but for the benefit of the entire kingdom as well. If the king were to consider a decision or course of action which might be regarded as unwise, one of Chaucer’s main civic duties was to, if not steer him from it permanently, at least cause the king to weigh the consequences and benefits of his actions and govern his kingdom with prudence and wisdom, rather than rash decision-making. Thus, because of his station in life, Chaucer’s role in history was not only as the “source of eloquence” for the English language, but also as the sage advisor to the king of England, drawing his vast knowledge from sources both classical and contemporary. It is this dual role, both as the well-known father of English poetry and as the sage advisor to Richard II, that gave Chaucer such legendary credentials in his time.

Indeed, in the preface to William Thynne’s collection of Chaucer’s works, printed in 1532, Sir Brian Tuke refers to Chaucer as, “that noble and famous clerke Geffray Chaucer… suche an excellent poete in our tonge.”(Boffey, 47) While praising Chaucer as one of the preeminent poets of his day, this collection serves another purpose as well. Thynne, in compiling this collection, included a diverse set of poems and works which were not written by Chaucer, but simply dispensed their own good advice and council(Forni,”Wisdom”). Thus, in this sense, Thynne did not just compile a collection of the works of Chaucer, but rather he created a collection of contemporary wisdom and truths. Whether or not his title, The workes of Geffray Chaucer newly printed, with dyuers workes whiche were never in print before”, was intended to attribute these works absolutely to Chaucer may never be known; however, while Boffey briefly explores the possibility of works mistakenly being attributed to Chaucer, it is just as likely that Thynne, and others like him, purposely claimed these works for Chaucer’s name. The most reasonable explanation as to why one would do this is relatively simple. If an author, or even an editor like in the case of Thynne, had a certain point or argument that he wished to be understood by his audience, then he needed to first convince his audience that the argument was worth hearing, then subsequently convince his audience as to the truth of his argument. One of the few exceptions to this is in the case of Chaucer, where, by virtue of his legendary status as both a poet and a sage, the audience has already been convinced as to the authority by which the text presents its ideas. Therefore, by masquerading a work as having been written by the great Geoffrey Chaucer, the text within it gains an equally respected status. With this, the true author’s job is no longer to convince his audience of the merit of his ideas, but instead he must simply expound upon them.

In an age when access to information was highly limited, especially when compared to the present day, if someone were to falsely attribute a work to Chaucer and did not fix it before printing the falsehood, then in a sense the change was irreversible simply because of the slow speed at which information disseminated in that day. Given, also, that Chaucer was not still alive at the time of many of these printings, there would have been no conceivable method by which to absolutely verify or deny the veracity of any printed attributions. This presents a perfect scenario by which the cunning and power-hungry might spread their influence, considering that works by Chaucer were both read and revered by all of the elite and powerful in England in that day. After all, it is not such a farfetched idea that one would purposefully lend the name of Chaucer to his own work; even in the modern day, people still do the same thing. Quotes are often mistakenly attributed to famous people such as Einstein and Martin Luther King Jr. (Sullivan), and even Gandhi’s famous quote, “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” was never actually spoken by him in those words(Morton). Therefore, given what we know about Chaucer’s legacy as a poet, it would not be surprising to find that a short, eight-line verse such as Proverbs was falsely attributed to him. While it is entirely possible that a scribe had only mistakenly attributed this verse to Chaucer because it sounded like something he might have written, given the assumptions made above, it makes sense as well that someone could just as likely have purposefully attributed this work to Chaucer, knowing full well that it was not written by him. If this is the case, then we can imagine through our own modern eyes what Chaucer’s reputation must have been like in his day: the intellectual and literary paragon of his society, with renown to rival the genius of the greatest of our modern heroes.

 

Bibliography:

Boffey, J. “Proverbial Chaucer and the Chaucer Canon.” Huntington Library Quarterly 58.1 (1995): 37–47. Print.
Forni, Kathleen. “Good Counsel, Wisdom, and Advice: Introduction.” Web. 16 Sept. 2012.
Morton, Brian. “Falser Words Were Never Spoken – NYTimes.com.” Web. 16 Sept. 2012.
Pace, George. Sb18461.jpg (JPEG Image, 751 × 1149 Pixels) – Scaled (55%). Web. 29 Sept. 2012.
—. “Studies in Bibliography.” Web. 7 Sept. 2012.
Sullivan, James. “Misquotes: Searching for Authenticity Online.” Web. 16 Sept. 2012.
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