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Megan L. Cook, The Poet and the Antiquaries: Chaucerian Scholarship and the Rise of Literary History, 1532-1635
by Holly A. Crocker

Megan L. Cook, The Poet and the Antiquaries: Chaucerian Scholarship and the Rise of Literary History, 1532-1635. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019. ix + 278 pp. ISBN 9780812250824. $59.95 hardback.


Megan L. Cook provides an indispensable account of Chaucer in early print. With a focus on antiquarian editors and readers of Chaucer, The Poet and the Antiquaries distinguishes itself from earlier considerations of early modern Chaucer. Cook provides a meticulous account of the six folio editions of Chaucer’s Works between 1532 and 1602, as well as the influence of these imprints through the seventeenth century. As she observes, these volumes were the first First-Folios of the era; with their impressive array of contents, moreover, these hefty volumes represented the largest verse anthologies printed during the period. To say that Chaucer was important for early modern audiences, then, would be a terrific understatement. Cook’s attention to this print history is crucial, though, because she also shows how early editions of Chaucer shaped his reception. Perhaps we might all agree that the editions we use influence our understanding of the literary texts we read. But Cook also traces a common set of scholarly and historical interests among those responsible for early Chaucer imprints; as she details, the first compilers of Chaucer’s Works were antiquarians, or people ‘with a professional or abiding personal interest in the details of the English past’ (5). Not only did editors from Thynne to Speght pursue Chaucer because he represented an English past they hoped to recover; they also presented Chaucer’s poetry in ways that made him into a figure for an English past they believed was worth preserving. If we remember, as Cook urges us to do, that these folio editions structured the encounter with Chaucer for nearly all post-1532 readers, then a more careful look at antiquarians’ influence over Chaucer in the early modern period is overdue. This is especially true given that, as Cook demonstrates in Chapter 4, antiquarians were deeply invested in the classicism, nationalism, and archaism pursued by Edmund Spenser’s Shepheardes Calendar.

Early chapters in the book lay out a set of common priorities that united the antiquarian production of Chaucer in print. Much of the focus of antiquarian readers, Cook establishes in Chapter 1, was on Chaucer’s language. Because language and national identity were correlated for antiquarian audiences, Chaucer’s poetry allowed Thynne, Stow, and Speght to establish an unbroken tradition of English excellence rooted in poetic achievement. Many of the interventions of these imprints, Cook details, were extra-literary. Even so, with their increasingly elaborate materials—commentary, genealogy, and biography, and eventually glossary—these editions of Chaucer’s Works seek to transmit a specific idea of ‘Englishness’ that linked a Ricardian past with the Tudor present. Cook notes Chaucer’s temporal doubleness, his connection with the past and the present, in the elaborate print apparatus of each imprint. In tracing how editions move from treating Chaucer’s language as something a common reader could tackle (Thynne) to treating Chaucer’s language as something warranted serious study (Speght), Cook notes how Chaucer’s language as distant and present demonstrated Chaucer’s exceptionalism, but also provided warrant for the folio editions’ elaborate paratextual materials.

To think through how these materials developed, Cook turns in Chapter 2 to John Leland’s influence over antiquarian communities in early modern England. Although Leland was not responsible for an edition of Chaucer’s Works during this period, his biography of Chaucer in De Viris Illustribus influenced Speght, who provided an English biography of Chaucer beginning with his 1598 edition. Because his entry contains none of Chaucer’s poetry, Leland’s Latin biography extends the extra-literary appreciation of Chaucer. By expounding upon Chaucer’s greatness using Latin, Leland elevates Chaucer to the level of classical forebears. Indeed, the past that Chaucer represents, as Cook notes, depends on linguistic affinity: Chaucer’s exceptional use of language parallels that of earlier poets, and via a series of poems praising Chaucer, Leland strongly implies Chaucer had the ability to write in Latin, even if he composed in the vernacular. By aligning Chaucer with an emphasis on antiquity and Latinity, Leland makes Chaucer into a figure who shares many of the same interests as sixteenth-century antiquarians. As Cook’s account demonstrates, Speght was heavily influenced by Leland’s biography of Chaucer. His English elaboration does not diminish Chaucer’s stature; rather, as Cook convincingly suggests, ‘it reinforces it’ (71). By linking Chaucer to the traditions and institutions central to sixteenth-century antiquarian communities, Speght affirms his own edition of Chaucer’s centrality to antiquarians’ conception of the relationship between past and present.

Chapter 3, which considers the claim that Chaucer was a proto-Protestant, suggests this conception was religiously inflected. John Foxe’s reprinting of the prose Lollard tract, Jack Upland, and his attribution of it to Chaucer in his Acts and Monuments, paved the way for the Works to adapt Chaucer’s identity to suit changing cultural conditions. On the one hand, Foxe’s association of Chaucer with any form of Protestantism should have had no effect on later editions of the Works, in so far as a polemical prose tract identified by a committed religious reformer has nothing to do with the poetic production of later folio editions. Yet Speght’s willingness to take up this aspect of Chaucer’s developing biography, Cook affirms, is also the result of the Plowmans Tale, an apocryphal, allegorical narrative included after the Parsons Tale in the 1542 and 1550 editions of Chaucer’s Works. Foxe asserts a link between the Plowmans Tale and Jack Upland, but Speght canonises this association with his inclusion of both texts. The belief in Chaucer as a proto-Protestant updates the idea of Englishness he was meant to represent, and shows how Chaucer’s identity might shift to maintain his centrality as cultural beliefs shifted and re-settled across the sixteenth century. The newly-included A.B.C., a Marian poem of praise still regarded as authentic, aligns Chaucer with traditional forms of religion; yet, it is said to be a ‘commission’ and a ‘translation’, as a way of diminishing its relevance to Chaucer’s personal religious beliefs. As Cook concludes, the way that Speght positions Chaucer on religion ‘shows how commentary and publication decisions related to Chaucer’s religion reshaped the medieval poet and his works, once again remaking literary history in ways that reflected the desires of his early modern readership’ (99).

The production and reproduction of Chaucer’s religious affiliation demonstrates how antiquarians across the sixteenth century deployed Chaucer to forward their own exceptionalism. This is nowhere more true, of course, than with Spenser’s creative endeavours. Across Spenser’s poetry, Chaucer represents an idealised past, an unsullied era of English letters, that might fruitfully be revived for a renewed present. In the Shepheardes Calendar, as Cook details, Spenser uses Chaucer’s language ‘to draw attention to the skill of the ‘newe poete’: by marking Chaucerian words as archaic and by linking Chaucer with poetic figures from antiquity, E.K.’s commentary uses Chaucer to show how Spenser carries on both Latin and vernacular poetic traditions’ (102). In doing so, interestingly, Cook reveals how Spenser influenced Chaucer via his presentation in print: Speght’s 1598 and 1602 editions of the Works were informed by Spenser’s presentation of Chaucer’s relationship to the classical past. Speght also maintained and extended Spenser’s creative habit of treating Chaucer’s archaic language as a subject for scholarly comment. E.K’s annotations of Chaucer’s language links Chaucer to the classical allusions that are also marked; this habit of association is one that Speght also uses in his editions of Chaucer. Speght’s Chaucer is noted as a canonical figure, as well as an heir to a classical inheritance. Because Speght derives this method from the Shepheardes Calendar, Cook argues the 1598 and 1602 editions of the Works are ultimately Spenserian texts.

Cook’s final two chapters track readers’ responses to and influence over sixteenth-century editions. Francis Thynne’s approach to Chaucer, not unlike Spenser’s E.K., is scholarly. And, as Cook maintains, Thynne’s antiquarian commentary—akin to Spenser’s treatment— situated Chaucer as a ‘subject of history’, which in turn secured Chaucer’s canonical stature in literary history (131). While the Animadversions has frequently been dismissed as petty, pointed, and pedantic, Cook sets aside the personal animus driving Thynne—his apparent feeling that his father’s Works had been degraded by subsequent editions—to position his commentary as a scholarly study of the Works. His detailed catalogue of errors contained in Speght’s 1598 edition affirmed Chaucer’s status as a poet whose presentation was worthy of debate, correction, and perhaps improvement. Speght incorporated Thynne’s corrections and comments in the 1602 edition, and included two of Thynne’s poems in the Works prefatory praise. Chaucer becomes the lauded poet who transcends his own period, once again, but he is also an antique poet who becomes the subject of a scholarly discourse informed by antiquarian subjects including history, alchemy, and heraldry. If Thynne’s goal was ‘scholarly self-promotion’, as Cook maintains, his display of knowledge was equally part of a growing tradition of Chaucerian scholarship that continues to inform editing and commentary even now.

Later seventeenth-century readers, the focus of Chapter 6, expand this tradition of scholarly commentary and editorial adjustment. Learned readers John Holland, Elias Ashmole, and Franciscus Junius the Younger demonstrate antiquarian engagement with Chaucer throughout the seventeenth century, a period, notably, when new editions of Chaucer were not being produced. Despite an 85-year gap after Speght’s 1602 edition, these later antiquarian readers affirm that the scholarly practices begun in the sixteenth century were just getting started. All three produce their own material versions of Chaucer, as Cook explains: ‘Holland used Speght’s Works to repair and expand an important 15th c. Manuscript. Ashmole added the apocryphal Tale of Gamelyn to the Canterbury Tales and recorded both classical allusions and astrological observations in his copy of the 1532 edition of the Works. Junius, the most accomplished scholar of the trio, applied his formidable philological and lexicographical skills to the production of a substantial glossary of Chaucerian language’ (163-4). The practice of admiring Chaucer, these readers affirm, had grown to include scholarly improvement. Chaucer’s Works were something one might study, adjust, and expand—all with the goal of securing Chaucer’s centrality within a literary history that learned readers could work to set right. If these readers show Chaucer’s historical distance—to the extent that his texts were now those that had to be painstakingly edited and studied—they also affirmed a continued connection. Each reader made Chaucer his own in ways that demonstrate the importance of the past to early modern ideas of English identity.

The Poet and the Antiquaries is a masterful study of how antiquarian readers made Chaucer in the early modern period. The exhaustive detail with which Cook treats each edition is simply dazzling. From dedications, to woodcuts, to annotations, Cook provides an essential account of sixteenth-century editions and readers’ responses to Chaucer’s printed Works. Chaucer’s centrality to literary history, and to the evolving sense of early modern poetics, is easier to grasp on account of Cook’s careful, detailed analysis of a vast archive of extra-literary evidence. Yet this book is not going to catapult Chaucer to a place of critical centrality in early modern studies. That’s because, frustratingly, Chaucer is allowed to remain an antiquarian relic in Cook’s treatment. The reasons why antiquarian readers pursued Chaucer with such avid energy remain surprisingly under explored. Cultural canonicity, national identity, linguistic superiority—these now-familiar truisms about the period are maintained yet unexamined. In her ‘Coda’, Cook evinces awareness about the antiquarian habits that both focus and forward this study, asking why Chaucer mattered in an evocative demonstration of her ability to confront what might have been this book’s most important critical contribution to our understanding of early modern literary sensibilities. The answer to that question— ‘writers felt no need to articulate why Chaucer was famous, simply a need to remind their readers that he was’ (199)—makes an otherwise invaluable book into yet another monument to Chaucer’s canonicity.


Holly A. Crocker

University of South Carolina


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Holly A. Crocker, "Megan L. Cook, The Poet and the Antiquaries: Chaucerian Scholarship and the Rise of Literary History, 1532-1635," Spenser Review (Fall 2020). Accessed July 18th, 2024.
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