The poet Thomas Hoccleve, who may have met Chaucer and considered him his role model, hailed Chaucer as "the firste fyndere of our fair langage." John Lydgate referred to Chaucer within his own text The Fall of Princes as the "lodesterre ... off our language". Around two centuries later, Sir Philip Sidney greatly praised Troilus and Criseyde in his own Defence of Poesie.
Manuscripts and audience
The large number of surviving manuscripts of Chaucer's works is testimony to the enduring interest in his poetry prior to the arrival of the printing press. There are 83 surviving manuscripts of the Canterbury Tales (in whole or part) alone, along with sixteen of Troilus and Criseyde, including the personal copy of Henry IV. Given the ravages of time, it is likely that these surviving manuscripts represent hundreds since lost. Chaucer's original audience was a courtly one, and would have included women as well as men of the upper social classes. Yet even before his death in 1400, Chaucer's audience had begun to include members of the rising literate, middle and merchant classes, which included many Lollard sympathisers who may well have been inclined to read Chaucer as one of their own, particularly in his satirical writings about friars, priests, and other church officials. In 1464, John Baron, a tenant farmer in Agmondesham, was brought before John Chadworth, the Bishop of Lincoln, on charges he was a Lollard heretic; he confessed to owning a "boke of the Tales of Caunterburie" among other suspect volumes.
William Caxton, the first English printer, was responsible for the first two folio editions of The Canterbury Tales which were published in 1478 and 1483. Caxton's second printing, by his own account, came about because a customer complained that the printed text differed from a manuscript he knew; Caxton obligingly used the man's manuscript as his source. Both Caxton editions carry the equivalent of manuscript authority. Caxton's edition was reprinted by his successor, Wynkyn de Worde, but this edition has no independent authority.
Richard Pynson, the King's Printer under Henry VIII for about twenty years, was the first to collect and sell something that resembled an edition of the collected works of Chaucer, introducing in the process five previously printed texts that we now know are not Chaucer's. (The collection is actually three separately printed texts, or collections of texts, bound together as one volume.) There is a likely connection between Pynson's product and William Thynne's a mere six years later. Thynne had a successful career from the 1520s until his death in 1546, when he was one of the masters of the royal household. His editions of Chaucers Works in 1532 and 1542 were the first major contributions to the existence of a widely recognised Chaucerian canon. Thynne represents his edition as a book sponsored by and supportive of the king who is praised in the preface by Sir Brian Tuke. Thynne's canon brought the number of apocryphal works associated with Chaucer to a total of 28, even if that was not his intention. As with Pynson, once included in the Works, pseudepigraphic texts stayed within it, regardless of their first editor's intentions.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Chaucer was printed more than any other English author, and he was the first author to have his works collected in comprehensive single-volume editions in which a Chaucer canon began to cohere. Some scholars contend that 16th-century editions of Chaucer's Works set the precedent for all other English authors in terms of presentation, prestige and success in print. These editions certainly established Chaucer's reputation, but they also began the complicated process of reconstructing and frequently inventing Chaucer's biography and the canonical list of works which were attributed to him.
Probably the most significant aspect of the growing apocrypha is that, beginning with Thynne's editions, it began to include medieval texts that made Chaucer appear as a proto-Protestant Lollard, primarily the Testament of Love and The Plowman's Tale. As "Chaucerian" works that were not considered apocryphal until the late 19th century, these medieval texts enjoyed a new life, with English Protestants carrying on the earlier Lollard project of appropriating existing texts and authors who seemed sympathetic—or malleable enough to be construed as sympathetic—to their cause. The official Chaucer of the early printed volumes of his Works was construed as a proto-Protestant as the same was done, concurrently, with William Langland and Piers Plowman. The famous Plowman's Tale did not enter Thynne's Works until the second, 1542, edition. Its entry was surely facilitated by Thynne's inclusion of Thomas Usk's Testament of Love in the first edition. The Testament of Love imitates, borrows from, and thus resembles Usk's contemporary, Chaucer. (Testament of Love also appears to borrow from Piers Plowman.) Since the Testament of Love mentions its author's part in a failed plot (book 1, chapter 6), his imprisonment, and (perhaps) a recantation of (possibly Lollard) heresy, all this was associated with Chaucer. (Usk himself was executed as a traitor in 1388.) Interestingly, John Foxe took this recantation of heresy as a defence of the true faith, calling Chaucer a "right Wiclevian" and (erroneously) identifying him as a schoolmate and close friend of John Wycliffe at Merton College, Oxford. (Thomas Speght is careful to highlight these facts in his editions and his "Life of Chaucer.") No other sources for the Testament of Love exist—there is only Thynne's construction of whatever manuscript sources he had.
John Stow (1525–1605) was an antiquarian and also a chronicler. His edition of Chaucer's Works in 1561 brought the apocrypha to more than 50 titles. More were added in the 17th century, and they remained as late as 1810, well after Thomas Tyrwhitt pared the canon down in his 1775 edition. The compilation and printing of Chaucer's works was, from its beginning, a political enterprise, since it was intended to establish an English national identity and history that grounded and authorised the Tudor monarchy and church. What was added to Chaucer often helped represent him favourably to Protestant England.
In his 1598 edition of the Works, Speght (probably taking cues from Foxe) made good use of Usk's account of his political intrigue and imprisonment in the Testament of Love to assemble a largely fictional "Life of Our Learned English Poet, Geffrey Chaucer." Speght's "Life" presents readers with an erstwhile radical in troubled times much like their own, a proto-Protestant who eventually came around the king's views on religion. Speght states that "In the second year of Richard the second, the King tooke Geffrey Chaucer and his lands into his protection. The occasion wherof no doubt was some daunger and trouble whereinto he was fallen by favouring some rash attempt of the common people." Under the discussion of Chaucer's friends, namely John of Gaunt, Speght further explains:
- Yet it seemeth that [Chaucer] was in some trouble in the daies of King Richard the second, as it may appeare in the Testament of Loue: where hee doth greatly complaine of his owne rashnesse in following the multitude, and of their hatred of him for bewraying their purpose. And in that complaint which he maketh to his empty purse, I do find a written copy, which I had of Iohn Stow (whose library hath helped many writers) wherein ten times more is adjoined, then is in print. Where he maketh great lamentation for his wrongfull imprisonment, wishing death to end his daies: which in my iudgement doth greatly accord with that in the Testament of Love. Moreover we find it thus in Record.
Later, in "The Argument" to the Testament of Love, Speght adds:
- Chaucer did compile this booke as a comfort to himselfe after great griefs conceiued for some rash attempts of the commons, with whome he had ioyned, and thereby was in feare to loose the fauour of his best friends.
Speght is also the source of the famous tale of Chaucer being fined for beating a Franciscan friar in Fleet Street, as well as a fictitious coat of arms and family tree. Ironically—and perhaps consciously so—an introductory, apologetic letter in Speght's edition from Francis Beaumont defends the unseemly, "low", and bawdy bits in Chaucer from an elite, classicist position. Francis Thynne noted some of these inconsistencies in his Animadversions, insisting that Chaucer was not a commoner, and he objected to the friar-beating story. Yet Thynne himself underscores Chaucer's support for popular religious reform, associating Chaucer's views with his father William Thynne's attempts to include The Plowman's Tale and The Pilgrim's Tale in the 1532 and 1542 Works.
The myth of the Protestant Chaucer continues to have a lasting impact on a large body of Chaucerian scholarship. Though it is extremely rare for a modern scholar to suggest Chaucer supported a religious movement that didn't exist until more than a century after his death, the predominance of this thinking for so many centuries left it for granted that Chaucer was at least hostile toward Catholicism. This assumption forms a large part of many critical approaches to Chaucer's works, including neo-Marxism.
Alongside Chaucer's Works, the most impressive literary monument of the period is John Foxe's Acts and Monuments.... As with the Chaucer editions, it was critically significant to English Protestant identity and included Chaucer in its project. Foxe's Chaucer both derived from and contributed to the printed editions of Chaucer's Works, particularly the pseudepigrapha. Jack Upland was first printed in Foxe's Acts and Monuments, and then it appeared in Speght's edition of Chaucer's Works. Speght's "Life of Chaucer" echoes Foxe's own account, which is itself dependent upon the earlier editions that added the Testament of Love and The Plowman's Tale to their pages. Like Speght's Chaucer, Foxe's Chaucer was also a shrewd (or lucky) political survivor. In his 1563 edition, Foxe "thought it not out of season ... to couple ... some mention of Geoffrey Chaucer" with a discussion of John Colet, a possible source for John Skelton's character Colin Clout.
Probably referring to the 1542 Act for the Advancement of True Religion, Foxe said that he "marvel[s] to consider ... how the bishops, condemning and abolishing all manner of English books and treatises which might bring the people to any light of knowledge, did yet authorise the works of Chaucer to remain still and to be occupied; who, no doubt, saw into religion as much almost as even we do now, and uttereth in his works no less, and seemeth to be a right Wicklevian, or else there never was any. And that, all his works almost, if they be thoroughly advised, will testify (albeit done in mirth, and covertly); and especially the latter end of his third book of the Testament of Love ... Wherein, except a man be altogether blind, he may espy him at the full: although in the same book (as in all others he useth to do), under shadows covertly, as under a visor, he suborneth truth in such sort, as both privily she may profit the godly-minded, and yet not be espied of the crafty adversary. And therefore the bishops, belike, taking his works but for jests and toys, in condemning other books, yet permitted his books to be read."
It is significant, too, that Foxe's discussion of Chaucer leads into his history of "The Reformation of the Church of Christ in the Time of Martin Luther" when "Printing, being opened, incontinently ministered unto the church the instruments and tools of learning and knowledge; which were good books and authors, which before lay hid and unknown. The science of printing being found, immediately followed the grace of God; which stirred up good wits aptly to conceive the light of knowledge and judgment: by which light darkness began to be espied, and ignorance to be detected; truth from error, religion from superstition, to be discerned."
Foxe downplays Chaucer's bawdy and amorous writing, insisting that it all testifies to his piety. Material that is troubling is deemed metaphoric, while the more forthright satire (which Foxe prefers) is taken literally.
John Urry produced the first edition of the complete works of Chaucer in a Latin font, published posthumously in 1721. Included were several tales, according to the editors, for the first time printed, a biography of Chaucer, a glossary of old English words, and testimonials of author writers concerning Chaucer dating back to the 16th century. According to A. S. G Edwards, "This was the first collected edition of Chaucer to be printed in roman type. The life of Chaucer prefixed to the volume was the work of the Reverend John Dart, corrected and revised by Timothy Thomas. The glossary appended was also mainly compiled by Thomas. The text of Urry's edition has often been criticised by subsequent editors for its frequent conjectural emendations, mainly to make it conform to his sense of Chaucer's metre. The justice of such criticisms should not obscure his achievement. His is the first edition of Chaucer for nearly a hundred and fifty years to consult any manuscripts and is the first since that of William Thynne in 1534 to seek systematically to assemble a substantial number of manuscripts to establish his text. It is also the first edition to offer descriptions of the manuscripts of Chaucer's works, and the first to print texts of 'Gamelyn' and 'The Tale of Beryn', works ascribed to, but not by, Chaucer."
Although Chaucer's works were admired for many years, serious scholarly work on his legacy did not begin until the late 18th century, when Thomas Tyrwhitt edited The Canterbury Tales, and did not become an established academic discipline until the 19th century. Scholars such as Frederick James Furnivall, who founded the Chaucer Society in 1868, pioneered the establishment of diplomatic editions of Chaucer's major texts, along with careful accounts of Chaucer's language and prosody. Walter William Skeat, who like Furnivall was closely associated with the Oxford English Dictionary, established the base text of all of Chaucer's works with his edition, published by Oxford University Press. Later editions by John H. Fisher and Larry D. Benson have offered further refinements, along with critical commentary and bibliographies.
With the textual issues largely addressed, if not solved, the questions of Chaucer's themes, structure, and audience were addressed. In 1966, the Chaucer Review was founded, and has maintained its position as the preeminent journal of Chaucer studies.