Sunday, October 26, 2014

Donald R. Howard's "Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World": Book Review

This provides one of the liveliest narratives on medieval times that I can recall; the added bonus that a leading Chaucerian wrote this just before his death in 1987 adds poignancy, given the final line of the text proper contemplates eternity. Donald R. Howard navigates the difficult path between speaking to his fellow scholars and welcoming a wider audience into the author's works, life, and times. He does this with verve; he shows what Chaucer would have seen and what he did read and where he did travel. He reminds us of how far Chaucer roamed, even if he was a bookworm who preferred staying in London.

The challenge, as Howard admits, is that facts for the Middle Ages are few, and liable to change. For much of this, Howard has to reason on probabilities. For instance, I consulted this wanting more on Dante and Boccaccio, given as a grad school prof (himself a medievalist) asserted Chaucer was likely the first person in England to read the Commedia, as he knew Italian so as to make his diplomatic visit there. Howard supplements this fact with supposition--Chaucer may have met Boccaccio, may have had a quarrel with him, may have therefore not cited him by name in his later literary works, may have rubbed a man twice his age the wrong way. This is all intriguing, but as Howard might have admitted, he has had to fill out much of the bare bones of Chaucer's record with such insights, and so the book turns more a depiction of Chaucer's world and works than his life, and this does fill the book. It is more readable, but it does have to make tangents.

It does, however, with insight. As Howard presented the pilgrim's perspective well in earlier studies, so here. He shows how the mental map of a traveler inverted, so a vague Earthly Paradise atop the half of the sphere named Asia beckoned, whereas Jerusalem was at the center, and bisecting the other half are Europe on the left, and then near the Devil's sinister hand, and Africa on the other quarter. He adds that the Southern Hemisphere was debated as possible back then, and that Columbus did not think any more than many then that the earth was flat. So, in a few pages, Howard corrects crucial ideas many have about medieval lore. He aligns his pitch at both scholars and everyday readers.

This tone sustains the interest that keeps the pace moving along. Howard has to compress a lot about the Canterbury Tales into the latter parts, the sections many may want expanded. Howard's previous The Idea of the Canterbury Tales book may be recommended as is his shorter one on pilgrimage as more in-depth on crucial topics. What provides this book's verve and infuses its pages is Howard's fascination with Chaucer and his time and influences, and now, as fewer turn to this author and his works for pleasure or even for coursework, this biography merits your time and your immersion.
(Amazon US 10-14-14)

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