“Chaucers Wordes unto Adam, His Owne Scriveyn:” Review of Interpretations Concerning the Poem

In “Wordes unto Adam, his own Scriveyn,” Chaucer critiques his scribe’s copying abilities. Several different interpretations of the poem exist; these include a superficial interpretation concerning only what is apparent from the text, an allegorical interpretation of Original Sin and Redemption, a quest to relate the poem to a real-life scribe working under Chaucer, and a philosophical interpretation concerning the mutability of texts. While many modern scholars promote one of the three later views, or treat with the poem only superficially, I propose that it is actually a fusion of two interpretations; that the poem is both a humorous chastisement of Chaucer’s scribe and a glimpse of Chaucer’s concern with the future of his works. The poem is actually about Adam Pinkhurst, while Chaucer also gives the poem a deeper meaning concerning the mutability of texts, especially medieval texts.

Compared to Chaucer’s other works, “Wordes unto Adam” was largely ignored by scholars, and only recently, within the last 30 years, has it received any serious attention. Before then, the poem was rarely discussed, perhaps receiving a quick read and a chuckle before scholars moved on to seemingly more interesting works by Chaucer (Mize 3). Thus, much of the early work that does tackle the poem does so only at a superficial level. However, the poem has come under closer scrutiny lately, as more has been found about Adam Pinkhurst and his connections to Chaucer. This new information helps put to rest certain doubts that “Wordes unto Adam” was not even written by Chaucer.

It would be difficult to continue with an analysis of the poem without discussing Adam Pinkhurst, a scribe living contemporarily with Chaucer. Adam Pinkhurst was the scribe of the Hengwrt and Ellesmere manuscripts, two of the earliest copies of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (Mooney 98-99). He also copied several of Chaucer’s works after Chaucer’s death (Mooney 98). While the question of whether Adam Pinkhurst was the scribe that Chaucer is admonishing or not is questioned by some scholars, Pinkhurst seems the likeliest candidate (O’Connell 1). Mooney puts forth that the fact that Pinkhurst and Adam in the poem share the same name is unlikely coincidental; she goes on to say that the mode of address for Adam is common in that time. She also points out the likelihood that Adam Pinkhurst was a freelance scrivener. This theory works well chronologically, as the poem is believed to have been written in the mid-1380s, after Chaucer wrote Boece and Troilus and Criseyde. He first appears to have worked with Chaucer in the mid 1380’s, around the time of the writing of “Wordes unto Adam.” Considering all of these pieces of evidence, it seems quite likely that Chaucer did indeed write the poem about this specific scribe concerning his transcribing abilities (Mooney 98-100).

Hengwyrt ManuscriptOpening leaf of the Hengwrt manuscript (Norman)

At least one scholar, however, has disagreed with the view that the poem was written by Chaucer. Edwards points out there is some reason to doubt the attribution of the poem to Chaucer, making the question of whether Adam Pinkhurst is the subject of the poem mute. Edwards uses the fact that there are specific words and meanings of words not found in any other text of Chaucer’s, as well as the rhyming scheme of “Wordes unto Adam,” to repudiate the attribution of the poem to Chaucer. Edwards does address his critics, however, by noting that these are internal factors of the poem and thus cannot be used to fully denounce the poem’s attribution to Chaucer, but merely cast doubt upon such. However, I do not think that the evidence provided by Edwards is substantive enough to merit removal of the poem from Chaucer’s literary canon. For one, the words used in the poem are unlikely to occur in other works of Chaucer’s because they are specific to the nature of “Wordes unto Adam,” namely that those words deal specifically with transcription (Edwards 1-3).

“Wordes unto Adam” brings up a deeper point about the longevity of an author’s works. As pointed out by Mize, medieval authors were quite concerned with the correctness of later editions of their works. Mize includes some examples from Chaucer’s time, including one poem which has specific and ample punctuation that would render the poem meaningless if mistakes were made in the copying process (Mize 4). Thus it seems reasonable to conclude that Chaucer would also be concerned about the ability of other people to accurately reproduce his works. This is noticeable in the sixth line of the poem, when Chaucer complains about how he must “correcte and eke to rub and scrape” his scribe’s mistakes. This line helps support the conclusion that Chaucer cared about his works remaining exactly as he had written them. Other parts of the poem also support this conclusion, including line 4, “But after my makyng thow wryte more trewe.” While modern forms of communication have made reproduction errors almost nonexistent and the survivability of works near infinite, it is still easy to see why Chaucer would be concerned with the longevity of his life’s work.

Of note when analyzing “Wordes unto Adam” is the interpretation proposed by such authors as Jane Chance. Chance writes, “…implicit within this rime royal stanza is a highly compressed, humorous account of Original Sin and Redemption witnessed through the relationship between auctor and his word and the scrivener who copies or tries to copy his word.” Chance supports this view by using the poems’ rhyming scheme, the specific words used in the rhyme, and certain similarities between the poem and Christian concepts as evidence. However, I disagree with this analysis of the poem on the grounds that Chance seems to be reaching too far on the interpretation of certain aspects of the poem, while few other aspects of the poem would suggest such an interpretation. For one thing, she points out that the “rhyme scheme (ababacc) alternates the ideas of mistake and correction,” along with the specific words that are rhymed at the end of each line; she suggests that these words and rhyme scheme are actually part of the story of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace and man’s redemption through God’s grace. However, I think that the rhyming scheme and words used in the rhyme do not “alternate the ideas of mistake and correction;” instead, they are merely used to convey meaning within the poem. Chance also supports her conclusion by looking at specific words in the poem, such as “rape” and “scalle”, and then connecting the individual words with aspects of the Original Sin and Redemption. In this regard, she seems to be stripping the words of their context within the poem and then attributing a much larger meaning to them. This comparison is highly ambiguous; however, as doing such could also allow us to conclude that the poem contains an allegory to the story of Job, or perhaps “The Knight’s Tale” from the Canterbury Tales, simply by taking words from the poem and using them to describe events in those stories. She also offers the fact that the poem has seven lines, like the seven deadly sins; however, this both seems highly unlikely and does little to support her argument. I am willing to admit, however, that the overall story could be used as a metaphor for the sins that man commits and God’s ongoing work to “correcte and eke” mankind, but it seems unlikely that Chaucer meant for the poem to be interpreted this way. In conclusion, it seems highly unlikely that Chaucer would choose to hide the story of Adam’s downfall and return to grace so deeply and ambiguously in a very short poem about his scribe’s mistakes (Chance 1-5).

In summation, “Wordes unto Adam” communicates effectively and humorously the difficulties of medieval textual transcription and the relationship between scribe and author, while also hinting at the greater philosophical question of the ability of an author’s works to be accurately propagated. With regards to the interpretation of the poem as a biblical allegory, I do not think there is sufficient evidence within the poem to support such a claim.

















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‘Lenvoy a Bukton’.“Papers on Language and Literature 21 (1985): 115-129. 6 Sept. 2012. <http://web.ebscohost.com.prx.library.gatech.edu/ehost/detail?vid=4&hid=123&sid=ed585524-971a-485b-9020-102f46a1a374%40sessionmgr113&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=a9h&AN=7730735>

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