A companion to Chaucer, Edition: Biography by Peter Brown

By Peter Brown

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Thus his presentation of Virgil’s Aeneid persistently rewrites it through Ovid’s Letter of Dido in the Heroides; by so turning Virgil’s grand narrative of pius Aeneas into ‘false Aneas’, Chaucer implies that every story has another side, all narrative depends on perspective, and Virgil is no more omniscient a reporter than the Geffrey who is set down before the petitioners to Fame to witness the negotiations that have left them glorified or disgraced. Chaucer’s keen sense of the limited, human origins of texts does not, however, help him define a stable ‘presence’ behind them (for this as a general issue in the period, see Gellrich 1995); instead, the ‘meaning’ of any authority, indeed of any speaker – including the present pilgrims – retreats into ever-further uncertainties of conscious and unconscious subjectivity or entente (because of Chaucer’s emphasis on its elusiveness, the scholastic category intentio auctoris is only a superficial parallel; cf.

Chief among such legislative efforts (of which Chaucer, near the centre of government, would have known) was the Statute of Labourers and Artisans (1351, and again 1388). It sought to set wages at pre-plague levels and required that all workers and artisans take an oath before king’s justices to obey the new (or ‘old’) wage and price rules (Musson and Ormrod 1999: 95–6). To impose central wage control and intervene in the traditional relationship between local landlords and their workers were stunning innovations, even on the grounds of recovering ‘traditional order’, making every labourer in effect a state-regulated worker.

Since this conflict ultimately led to Richard’s 1397 reprisals against the higher nobility, and thence to his 1399 deposition by the Lancastrian party (Strohm 1992: 75–94, Saul 1997: 366–434), it might be said that the higher orders became politicized too, in the sense of more self-consciously defining their traditional rights and identity. 3 Richard’s personal law-book suggests he studied the century’s legal challenges to kingship (Saul 1997: 237); his relation to traditional kingly rights was thus as strategic as other claims to traditional authority.

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