Writing Fame: Epitaph Transcriptions in Renaissance Chaucer Editions and the Construction of Chaucer's Poetic Reputation
Sanders, Arnold, The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History
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.
The transmission of the tomb-verse-annotation custom to later owners of early Chaucer editions appears to have passed through an important stage in which Chaucer's "Englishness" and his status as an originator of high English literature were consolidated, finding expression in three important print events: the front matter of Thomas Speght's late-seventeenth-century Chaucer editions (1598, 1602, 1687), the engraving of the tomb in Elias Ashmole's 1650-to-1651 alchemical anthology, and the reproduction of a similar tomb engraving on the frontispiece of Edmund Spenser's Collected Works (1679). (8) These editions represent two important groups of specialist readers in the late seventeenth century who seem to have played a role in steering the quasi-religious social practices of a generation or two earlier toward their completely secular form. The secular antiquarians and "hermetic philosophers," early students of the medieval past, helped preserve the text of the verses even as Chaucer's physical tomb apparently began to crumble in a mysterious process we may finally be able to explain. Continued popular dialogue about Chaucer's tomb and editions of his collected works also seems to have caught the attention of editors, printers, and booksellers, because they added the verses and images of the tomb to later Chaucer editions.
The tomb verses themselves, which are reproduced at the end of this article, differ from typical English funerary inscriptions of this era which have been studied by Nigel Saul in that they do not ask for intercessory prayers for the deceased. (9) They do identify the poet by name and date of death, as would be traditional, but their primary concern is Chaucer's fame, his status as "thrice-greatest English poet." They also take pains to identify the tomb's sponsor, Brigham, and the year of its construction, as if memorializing the tomb itself. The verses seem intended to remind onlookers of what Saul calls "the deceased's place in the social pecking-order," a kind of biographical inscription he finds increasingly common in tombs constructed in the 1500s. (10) Unlike those epitaphs that celebrate a knight's most famous battles, a squire's ancestry, or a married couple's tally of years lived faithfully together, Chaucer's epitaph concentrates his entire identity into his fame as an English poet. (11) In addition, the plane-relief, full-length portrait of Chaucer seems an unusual departure from tomb iconography after 1538. (12) The inscriptions and Chaucer's graven image would be ideally designed, however, to help visitors associate Chaucer's poetry with the tomb's spectacular presence, and they may help to explain the use made of those verses by readers and printers.
The earliest hand in which the tomb verses are inscribed appears to be Dane's Huntington discovery in the 1550 reprint of Thynne. (13) Both Garrett Library copies of the Stow 1561 edition that I examined appear to be in a late-sixteenth-century or early-seventeenth-century secretary hand. Gillespie's 1561 Stow discovery in the Ransom Center is described as a "mixed secretary italic" hand associated with other annotations from "[Matthew] Parker's circle," including Stow himself. (14) Wiggins's Folger discovery in a 1550 Thynne reprint is "written in an Elizabethan secretary hand by one Edward Muckelston," and her 1561 Stow discovery in the same collection "was apparently added by William Sandbrook around 1635." (15) Perhaps the most astonishing evidence of the tomb-verse tradition's survival is the annotation of Wiggins's Folger discovery in a 1532 Thynne edition, "apparently added during the eighteenth century by William Latton, a fellow of Wadham College, Oxford" by transcription from one of two printed sources. (16) By this time, the significance of both Chaucer's works and his tomb had been translated into something far different from what they were two centuries earlier, but the same reader behaviors were being elicited by them.
So far, the epitaph annotations in Chaucer's collected works from 1532 to 1561 have been studied as evidence of reader response to the text (Wiggins) and of the writers' choice of copy text from the tomb itself or from print editions by Camden and Speght (Dane and Gillespie). (17) Wiggins goes so far as to suggest that they represent "a persistent tradition of transcribing, circulating, and re-copying these lines," and traces the provenance of the three copies she discovered to households in Cheshire, Shropshire, and Lincolnshire. (18) She does not speculate upon what might have motivated that tradition, however, nor its possible influence on later print editions of the works and its apparent persistence for centuries. These annotations may be just a small sample of a more widespread pattern of interactions among readers, editors, and printers during the period when Chaucer manuscripts were being replaced by print editions. Early-modern vernacular English printers, with their significant "sunk costs" and geographically limited customer base, had to listen closely to what readers said they wanted in order to remain profitable. These manuscript annotations may have helped astute printers to make wise marketing decisions about what a proper Chaucer edition should contain. (19)
Even the earliest tomb inscriptions certainly should not be read as evidence that the English people actually began to worship Chaucer as a supernatural being. The readers who wrote the tomb inscriptions into their copies of Chaucer may well have been responding to a politically interesting vagueness affecting cultural expressions of profound respect and admiration that we also see asserted in praise of Chaucer's language as an original foundation of Englishness. (20) Christopher Cannon describes the myth-making process by which poets and critics from Lydgate to the current era have claimed that Chaucer and Chaucer's works "purified" or even "originated" English as we know it. (21) These claims of Chaucer's linguistic and national originality may also have encouraged readers' visits to his tomb and their reverent annotation of his text with its words.
Elizabethan readers' interaction with their Chaucer editions and the tomb verses may also shed light upon English governments' persistent …
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Publication information: Article title: Writing Fame: Epitaph Transcriptions in Renaissance Chaucer Editions and the Construction of Chaucer's Poetic Reputation. Contributors: Sanders, Arnold - Author. Journal title: The Journal of the Early Book Society for the Study of Manuscripts and Printing History. Volume: 14. Publication date: Annual 2011. Page number: 145+. © 2009 Pace University Dba: Pace University Press. COPYRIGHT 2011 Gale Group.
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