A Companion to Chaucer by Peter Brown

By Peter Brown

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As early as Hoccleve’s praises, Chaucer was being constructed as an English equivalent of the great auctores: ‘for vnto Tullius / Was neuer man so lyk amonges vs / Also who was hier in philosophie / To Aristotle / in our tonge but thow / The steppes of virgile in poesie / Thow filwedist’ (Brewer 1978: i, 63). In the sixteenth century, Roger Ascham terms him the ‘Englishe Homer’, and Francis Beaumont asserts that Chaucer is a philosophical writer of the highest order, as Troilus shows, imitating Virgil and Homer in the ‘pith and sinewes of eloquence’ (Brewer 1978: i, 100, 138).

While he so applied himself at Oxford, he also pursued his studies elsewhere, and by long devotion to learning added many things to the knowledge he had there accumulated. (Brewer 1978: i, 91) Chaucer’s reputation for learning made him an attractive figure to Reformation propagandists. For Protestants, Chaucer’s reputation for wisdom indicated that he could see beyond the prejudices of his own age to anticipate a time when England would be free of the excesses of Romish superstition. John Foxe, anxious to appropriate Chaucer’s reputation for wisdom to his own purposes, praised him in his 1570 Ecclesiasticall history contaynyng the Actes and Monumentes of thynges passed in euery Kynges tyme in this Realme as author of the Jack Upland (a Lollard attack on corrupt friars), and therefore a protoProtestant sympathizer.

To hym that al may gye’. The implied need, then, is for a human authority that the speech never mentions (apart from a narrow sense of the word when Theseus says there is no need for any textual ‘auctoritee’ to support his point), but which distinctly emerges by contrast to rebellion and grucchying. Theseus (and presumably the Knight) is taking charge in the human realm on the grounds of a transcendent order with which his own words show him to be less concerned than with how human beings control themselves or one another.

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