Chaucer and Langland: The Antagonistic Tradition.
Although Geoffrey Chaucer and L together dominate fourteenth-century English literature, their respective masterpieces, the Canterbury Tales and PPl, could not be more different. While Chaucer’s writings suggest that he considered himself an heir, not a begetter, the notion of him as a father figure standing at the head of a patrilineal literary tradition was formulated within a generation of his death. This study, in asking how Chaucer, not L, was granted this position, is an examination of the political, social, and religious factors that contributed to the formation of a literary canon in fourteenth-century England. The earliest complete version of PPl predates Chaucer’s text; L also anticipated one of Chaucer’s major achievements, namely, challenging the dominance of Latin and French by writing a long, serious poem in English. L’s poem was immediately influential and widely disseminated; it was read, quoted, copied, and imitated throughout the last decades of the fourteenth century. In contrast, there is very little evidence that Chaucer’s works reached any sort of wide readership in his lifetime. Yet Chaucer, not L, was elevated as a cultural and literary progenitor early in the century after his death. He was a court poet, and he was fortunate enough to have a series of literary heirs, notably Thomas Hoccleve and John Lydgate, who vigorously promoted him as England’s foundational writer. Chaucer was also a kinsman of the new Lancastrian kings, who championed his Canterbury Tales, and his son Thomas Chaucer became a key supporter of the new royal dynasty. These political alliances provided the grounds for promoting Chaucer as the founder of a literary dynasty. L, on the other hand, despite his contemporary popularity, was a dissenter and social critic. The author points to L’s engagement in domestic controversies that forced him and most of his readers to remain anonymous. Linked with the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, L’s poem espoused a brand of religious reform associated with the heretical Wycliffite movements. Through extensive manuscript evidence, this book tracks the reputations of the two writers into the fifteenth century, when studies of fourteenth-century literature became more clearly configured in terms of a double, antagonistic dynamic. L remained the largely invisible presence against which the official Chaucerian tradition was constructed. Never really separate, the two literary traditions constantly interacted, with the reputation of Chaucer the court poet eclipsing that of L the dissenter and critic. By examining the historical and social contexts within which these traditions arose, this study assesses how some texts and writers become canonical and how others become marginalized. (JMB, modified)
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