Writing Fame: Epitaph Transcriptions in Renaissance Chaucer Editions and the Construction of Chaucer's Poetic Reputation

Article excerpt

While examining two copies of Stow's 1561 Chaucer edition (1) at the Garrett Library Collection of the Sheridan Libraries at Johns Hopkins University, I discovered that each of them contained a manuscript transcription of the verses on Chaucer's tomb, the marble structure Nicholas Brigham paid to erect at Westminster in 1556. Though one transcription is far more complete than the other, both appear to have been written in early-modern hands and both are located in places suggesting that their writers considered the epitaphs the "termini" of Chaucer's works. In the first one, a single quatrain from the epitaph is traced in now-faint brownish ink with red capitals on the verso of folio 378, the colophon leaf, just below its sarcophagus-like printer's ornament. (2) The other, copied in black ink, stands just below the printer's title announcing "Thus endeth the workes of Geffray Chaucer" and before the beginning of Lydgate's works (fol. 355v). (3)

The occurrence of the same kind of annotation in two different hands in two copies of the same Chaucer edition seemed astonishing and suggestive. In 1999, Joseph Dane and Alexandra Gillespie reported finding two more tomb-verse transcriptions at the Huntington Library and at the Harry Ransom Center. (4) Dane's Huntington discovery was a complete version of the tomb verses on the title page of a 1550 reprint of the Thynne edition, located be neath another sarcophagus-like printer's ornament. Gillespie's Ransom Center discovery in a copy of the 1561 Stow Chaucer has a similarly complete version on the colophon leaf below the printer's device, exactly where I found the first copy in the Garrett collection. Because the texts of all four inscriptions differ from each other and from surviving printed transcriptions, they do not seem to have been copied from the same source or to be the work of even modestly skilled scribes. (5)

Nor are these four the only annotations of their type in early Chaucer editions. A few months after finding the Garrett Library transcriptions, I found another in a 1532 Thynne edition at the Folger Shakespeare Library. That annotation had already been reported the previous year by Alison Wiggins, who also found two additional epitaphs inscribed in other Folger copies of the 1532 and 1561 editions. (6) Based on the Wiggins survey of fifty-two Renaissance copies of Chaucer's collected works in England and America and on copies examined by Dane, by Gillespie, and by me, these seven epitaph transcriptions appear to be the only kind of extended annotation that occurs so frequently.

If the manuscript epitaphs have been found in an eighth of these fifty-six Renaissance Chaucers, it seems likely that we would find more now that we know what we are looking for. This article advances a hypothetical explanation for the social behaviors which may have produced these annotations and reexamines the publishing history of Chaucer's collected works in light of that hypothesis. This leads to new potential explanations for the destruction of the carved verses on the tomb itself and to another possible connection between the tomb and the collected works of Edmund Spenser, whose interest in associating himself with Chaucer is well established. I also request readers' assistance in seeking further examples of the tomb-verse transcriptions in Chaucer editions published between 1532 and 1598.

In brief, I believe these annotations may represent early-modern English readers' participation in the construction of Chaucer's poetic fame by means of behaviors that resemble the social practices of cult worship of the saints. Those behaviors included pilgrimage, profound meditation upon relics of the dead, taking away representative artifacts from ceremonial sites, especially tombs, and study of the saints' words and deeds, both those authorized by the Church and apocrypha circulated in collections such as Jacobus de Voraigne's Legenda aurea. (7) By the eighteenth century, all four of those cult-like behaviors had become a commonly accepted part of English secular literary culture, with the Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey as its focal point. …