The Poet and the Antiquaries: Chaucerian Scholarship and the Rise of Literary History, 1532-1635

December 10, 2020
The Poet and the Antiquaries: Chaucerian Scholarship and the Rise of Literary History, 1532-1635

Between 1532 and 1602, the works of Geoffrey Chaucer werepublished in no less than six folio editions. These were, in fact,the largest books of poetry produced in sixteenth-century England,and they significantly shaped the perceptions of Chaucer that wouldhold sway for centuries to come. But it is the stories behind theseeditions that are the focus of Megan L. Cook's interest in ThePoet and the Antiquaries. She explores howantiquarians—historians, lexicographers, religious polemicists, andother readers with a professional, but not necessarily literary,interest in the English past—played an indispensable role in makingChaucer a figure of lasting literary and cultural importance.After establishing the antiquarian involvement in thepublication of the folio editions, Cook offers a series of casestudies that discuss Chaucer and his works in relation to specificsixteenth-century discourses about the past. She turns to earlyaccounts of Chaucer's biography to show how important they were inconstructing the poet as a figure whose life and works could beknown, understood, and valued by later readers. She considers theclaims made about Chaucer's religious views, especially theassertions that he was a proto-Protestant, and the effects they hadon shaping his canon. Looking at early modern views on Chaucerianlanguage, she illustrates how complicated the relations betweenpast and present forms of English were thought to be. Finally, shedemonstrates the ways in which antiquarian readers appliedknowledge from other areas of scholarship to their reading ofMiddle English texts.Linking Chaucer's exceptional standing in the poetic canon withhis role as a symbol of linguistic and national identity, ThePoet and the Antiquaries demonstrates how and why Chaucerbecame not only the first English author to become a subject ofhistorical inquiry but also a crucial figure for conceptualizingthe medieval in early modern England.