Let’s dispense with the minor details first: yes, it is the Terry Jones of Monty Python and the Flying Circus. Second, he introduces the book with a caveat: “This book is less of a Whodunnit? than a Wasitdunnatall?” Third, he worked with five distinguished historians in producing it, but, hey, his name is more recognizable to the lay audience, and that must have driven sales.
In 1997, Jones revived his long-time interest in the end of Geoffrey Chaucer’s life and began working with other historians to re-examine the evidence of his death. What intrigued him was the fact that Chaucer disappeared after a career that included diplomacy, civil service, and extraordinarily popular writing. (A modern analogy might be John Bolton, Dick Cheney, and James Patterson falling off the map at the same time.) With all those attributes lost in the death of one man, why wasn’t there more about it in the contemporaneous writings?
Jones posits that it was because Chaucer came down on the losing end of a cultural revolution that ended when Henry Bolingbroke usurped the throne from Richard II. (Nor was it the first time he’d been kicked off the throne, but he wouldn’t recover this time.) As a dependent of Richard, Chaucer was a high profile servant in jobs that would have made him well-known among the nobility and merchants of the day. Such a man might be troublesome as Henry IV’s regime was being established. In cleaning up the messy details of this revolution, the newly crowned Henry IV and his bellicose associates may have starved Richard to death in Pontrefact Castle; they certainly would not cavil at arranging the death of such a prominent supporter.
What was this cultural revolution? Richard worked through diplomacy to end England’s non-stop wars with France, thus jeopardizing the warrior barons’ way of life; Chaucer wrote in favor of the burgeoning ideal of princes governing with the best interests of their people at heart. Evidence shows that Richard was the first English king conversant in the language of the ordinary people; Chaucer was the first major writer in English vernacular, when the barons spoke French. Richard confronted the Church’s material wealth and suppression of religious discussion among the people and supported theologians later characterized as heretics; with the exception of The Parson, the religious in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are ignorant at best, viciously corrupt at worst. These cataclysms threatened England’s social order and flow of wealth, and the conservatives could not and would not stomach them.
For anyone whose knowledge of Richard stems from the effete portrait painted by William Shakespeare, this is an accessible account of a much more complicated man. It raises interesting points and connects dots that link literature, biography, and history in a way that more specialized works fail to do. It is also a richly detailed book, with plenty of illustrations, heavy glossy pages, and a binding that is stitched rather than glued together. Those qualities add to the feel of a substantial work meant for pleasure reading (or showing off on a coffee table, FSM forbid) rather than strictly scholarly reference. By adding an element of mystery to his story, Jones takes Chaucer’s life and times out of the classroom and puts it where Chaucer would love to see it—in the hands of a popular audience.
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