By Peter Brown
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Additional info for A companion to Chaucer
A good deal of work in the past hundred years has been devoted to establishing the canon of Chaucer’s work, and to establishing a central manuscript, the Ellesmere Manuscript, as an authoritative text. Thomas Tyrwhitt (1775) was the ﬁrst editor really to look at Chaucer as an author whose work might have characteristic traits; he determined that a canon might therefore be determined on that basis, rather than historical tradition, and excised a lot of apocryphal material. Skeat continued the winnowing process Tyrwhitt began; as Edwards says, ‘Skeat’s ﬁnal enduring achievement is a negative one.
In the earlier instance he remained a respected ﬁgure associated with learning and philosophy. In the latter he disappeared into the academy to become the subject of professional study. What now dominated was an academic interest in studying Chaucer’s works and texts systematically and according to ﬁxed principles, an interest manifest in increasing pressure to publish a deﬁnitive edition of his works which, based on the best manuscripts available and the best modern principles of editorial decision, would prove worthy of the father of English poetry.
5 Religious Professional religious authority was variously challenged throughout this period of expanding lay literacy. 6 The answering abundance of clerical claims for authority actually weakened their general credibility, possibly with general effects. The professional orders’ pressure for historical primacy, and hence their revision of history, was constant. The Friar in the Summoner’s Tale epitomizes this not just by parading his order’s ludicrous claim to antiquity, but also by concocting a professionally self-serving account of his vision when he learns the wife’s baby died: he cannot keep from revising history even on the most personal scale.
A companion to Chaucer by Peter Brown