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Douglas Gray et al., ed. The Oxford Companion to Chaucer

Stephen MORRISON
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Douglas GRAY et al, ed. The Oxford Companion to Chaucer. Oxford University Press, 2003, xxvii + 526 pp., 15 plates, 4 maps, €91.87, ISBN 0-19-811765-5

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1Students and other readers of English medieval literature might well be forgiven for doubting the usefulness of yet another guide to the life and works of Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340-1400), around whom a veritable publishing industry has developed in the course of the last few decades. In the case of the Oxford Companion, expertly edited by Professor Douglas Gray of Oxford University, such doubts are misplaced: students and teachers alike will derive great profit and pleasure from this compact, one-volume Galfridian vade mecum.

2Coming in the wake of the publication in 2000 of the Blackwell Chaucer Companion (edited by Peter Brown), the present volume might be construed as one intended to set itself up as a rival in what is, clearly, a lucrative corner of academic publishing. In reality, the two volumes are complementary, for while the former was planned as a series of long, discursive essays on topics of broad importance and appeal, Professor Gray’s contribution offers, as the blurb on the dust jacket announces, over 2000 “articles” on virtually all aspects of Chaucer’s life, milieu and writings. Often, the two Companions treat the same subject (Chivalry, Comedy, Italy, etc.) but the procedures and aims (leave alone the length of such contributions) are different. If I were to recommend one of these titles to an undergraduate readership, the Gray volume would be my choice (though the decision by the publishers to market the volume at £71 – the price currently given on the Oxford University Press website — virtually ensures the exclusion of the student body from the buying public). No criticism whatsoever is here implied of the Blackwell Companion, which is excellent, but which meets needs not, in general terms, addressed by the volume under review.

3As is to be expected in such a volume, the articles vary greatly in length, from a single line, for example “Virginia,” the heroine of the Physician’s Tale) (484), to six pages, on Chaucer himself, his life and his reading (83-9). By far the largest number of articles are the work of the editor himself, although he has assembled a team of no fewer than thirteen eminent medievalists to contribute on subjects of special significance, especially those which have only in recent years received new impetus. Two members of this team, in particular, have been handed heavy assignments: Professor Anne Hudson, for questions of religion and the ecclesiastical establishment (though not exclusively so), embracing the concepts of orthodoxy and heterodoxy/heresy, to name but the most prominent; and,  equally naturally, Professor J. D. North for the elucidation of matters scientific which, as Gray reminds us (xvi), occupy a very important place in Chaucer’s work. The book does not eschew polemic or controversy, but engages in neither to any significant degree, as is consonant with a Companion of this type.

4The criteria for deciding what to include and what to leave aside are evidently very wide, and the resulting volume is as a consequence comprehensive, providing a student audience with virtually all (and perhaps more) it might seek by way of information and opinion on the poet, his milieu, as well as on the major literary movements, modes of composition and attitudes towards literary production in the late Middle Ages, English or otherwise.

5All of the characters, real or fictional, mentioned in the poetic corpus are given an entry: “Helie” (Eli), the Old Testament priest,  is present because there is a reference to him in the tale told by the Parson in the Canterbury Tales; Virgil qualifies for inclusion because he is invoked by name both in the House of Fame and in The Legend of Good Women; elsewhere in the corpus, Professor Gray points to allusions to his poetry, thus providing valuable insights into Chaucer’s reading interests and the strength of the classical tradition (Ovid, though, was more important to him) on his writing. Many of Chaucer’s contemporaries and near contemporaries are also covered with factual notices that will be welcomed as valuable study aids: Dante, Boccaccio (of course), Eustache Deschamps, Guillaume de Déguilleville, Jean Froissart, and others fall into this category. One of the advantages of such an arrangement is that the reader is suitably reminded of the cultural supremacy of France and Italy at that time, and that Chaucer is dependent on foreign models in his compositions to a greater extent than he is on native ones, which in a real sense were virtually inexistent.

6For readers who have followed the fortunes of Chaucer’s poetry from the end of the Middle Ages to the modern period, articles given over to Pope, Dryden, Blake, Wordsworth and Virginia Woolf will occasion no surprise, for all wrote or commented on (in the case of Blake, drew) their own versions of bits of the Chaucerian corpus. John of Salisbury is given brief but effective treatment because Chaucer is thought to have drawn on his Policraticus on two occasions. Again, naturally enough, Innocent III (Locarius) finds his place, since one version of The Legend of Good Women reports that Chaucer had translated his De miseria humanae conditionis, a widely-disseminated text. The translation has not survived.

7Other entries, however, may raise eyebrows. For example, there is a delightful account of William Hazlitt (1778-1830) and his “relatively brief remarks” (224) about Chaucer which allows Gray to sketch the predilections of educated Englishmen at the turn of the nineteenth century on the matter of poetic characterisation. More surprising for some, perhaps, may be the inclusion of a half-page account of the place of William Godwin (1756-1836) in Chaucerian studies; husband to Mary Wollstonecraft, he published a Life of Chaucer in 1803. Like Carolyn Collette in the Blackwell Companion (author of the first chapter of that work, “Afterlife”), Gray writes approvingly of one who is not immediately associated with the poetic output of a late fourteenth-century poet.

8The longer entries in the Oxford Companion — always cross-referenced — listed at the outset (xi-xiii), are invariably informative (whether on conveying fact, or on how difficult it is to establish fact), and elegantly written. Professor Gray has an eye for telling detail. For example, on the narrator’s presentation of the monk in the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, he observes (on the provocative question “how shal the world be served?” 1 (A) 187), that “The way that the “description” slides into the Monk’s own speech… gives a dramatic sense of an individual” (339). Comment is always pertinent and incisive, occasionally reaching out to unexpected areas: while topics such as “dream vision,” “marriage” and “romance” are of central concern to readers of Chaucer, “alliterative verse,” for example, may not strike such readers as at all relevant. Gray’s article on this subject (12-13) is not content to cite the few places in the corpus where Chaucer either pokes fun at it (as in the Prologue to the Parson’s Tale) or imitates its use in contemporary romance (as in the Knight’s Tale); it addresses the problem of the so-called “Alliterative Revival” (reaching back to compositional practice in Old English), to which students need to be alerted. Again, the treatment of the entry “Eye”, for example, is superb in its range both within the Chaucerian corpus and in relation to treatments in the medieval encyclopædias and other sources. Professor Gray is a careful and subtle reader of Chaucer, one who will inspire users of this Companion to pursue research in the various domains it covers.

9In areas where undergraduates especially will inevitably be breaking new ground, Gray is also a sure guide. For example, for balance and discernment, it would be hard to better the short notice given over to the editorial method known as recension — though this term is not employed — (154), a traditional approach to texts existing in multiple copies, and one that is viewed with increasing scepticism. Again, the treatment of “Allegory” (11-12), a compositional technique which finds little, if any, sympathy among readers of poetry today, is presented, albeit briefly, in a broad sweep that embraces notions such as the standard procedures of biblical exegesis, central to the understanding of medieval modes of thought, the influence of which goes well beyond the commentaries of the Scriptures.

10The alphabetical arrangement of the articles is on the whole self-evident, requiring no particular comment. Where comment is required, for example on the treatment of vocalic and semi-vocalic /i/ affecting such an arrangement (necessitated by the fact that <i> and <y> are interchangeable in Middle English orthography), it is given ( xv). A small number of inconsistencies, however, appear to have slipped through the editorial net: thus, “Guillaume de Machaut” is listed under G, as is “Oton de Graunson”, where one might have thought good to look under O for the latter, as I first did. In a different vein, the reader seeking a discussion of Chaucerian manuscripts surviving today, their content and relationships, will have to dig around since there is no specific entry given over to this important topic, although notable contributions to the subject, such as Norman Blake’s The Textual Tradition of the Canterbury Tales (1985), are given in the Bibliography, and the two most celebrated manuscripts of Chaucer’s best-known work (The Canterbury Tales), the Hengwrt and the Ellesmere manuscripts, are both given individual notices.

11Some, but not all, of the entries, are appended with bibliographical references. It is not hard to see why such information is given to entries on “Dante,” “Law” and, say, “Visual Qualities and Visual Arts,” but it is perplexing to discover that the same policy has not been extended to “Editing and Editions,” “Money” (“of great importance in Chaucer’s narratives,” 337) or “Versification,” topics which are crying out for enlightenment.

12The Bibliography itself, occupying the last twenty-five pages of this volume, naturally represents only a fraction of the editions and studies devoted to the poet, his works and milieu. Nevertheless, it is difficult to put one’s finger on an important recent edition or monograph that has not caught Gray’s eye, and students may proceed with confidence, allowing themselves to be guided by his selection. Translations of secondary sources are sometimes accompanied by their original titles (Curtius), sometimes not (Delehaye). Bibliographical information is for the most part up to date, but students will need to know that Beryl Smalley’s influential The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages is now available, not in its second edition as listed (without specification, however) but in its third.

13The book has been carefully prepared and produced, and printed on paper of high quality. Moreover, the care obviously taken in the proof-reading must also be mentioned, since typing error is of the rarest. I have located only two such errors: on 508, the title of the Oxford periodical Medium Aevum is given as Medium Evum; on 516, the date of publication of Maggioni’s new edition of the Legenda Aurea of Jacobus da Voragine is said to be 1988. It was, in fact, published in 1998, a date correctly given at the end of the article dealing with Jacobus (254).

14By way of conclusion, I can only say that readers of Chaucer’s œuvre, of whatever age or experience, will turn to Professor Gray’s Oxford Companion with gratitude, since it offers a wealth of pertinent information and critical opinion on a major European medieval poet. Naturally, all libraries should acquire a copy.

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Stephen MORRISON, « Douglas Gray et al., ed. The Oxford Companion to Chaucer », E-rea [En ligne], 4.1 | 2006, document 3, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2006, consulté le 26 mai 2017. URL : http://erea.revues.org/312

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