Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Personal Politics and Thomas Gascoigne's Account of Chaucer's Death

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Personal Politics and Thomas Gascoigne's Account of Chaucer's Death

Article excerpt

The story of Chaucer's deathbed repentance for his literary sins, reported in Thomas Gascoigne's Dictionarium theologicum (or Liber de veritatibus, compiled from c.1434 to 1458), has claimed an important place in accounts of Chaucer's death for more than two centuries.1 Following an account of the failed repentance and despair of Judas Iscariot, Gascoigne concludes the third (and longest) of his five entries under the heading 'Preceptum' with the following:

sic plures penitere

se postea dicunt quando mala sua et

et [sic] mala per cos inducta destruere non

possunt sicut chawsers ante mortem suam

sepe clamauit ve michi ve michi quia reuo

care nec destruere iam potero illa que ma

le scripsi de malo et turpissimo amore

hominum ad mulieres sed iam de homine in ho

minem continuabuntur Velim nolim et sic

plangens mortuus fuit idem chawsers

pater thome chawsers armigeri qui tho

mas. qui Thomas [sic] sepelitur in nuhelm iuxta

Oxoniam.2

Like the so-called Retractions that concludes the Canterbury Tales, Gascoigne's account of Chaucer's dying lament for writing things that continue to spread around the 'wicked and truly disgraceful love of men for women' has challenged modern readers of Chaucer. They have tried in various, often incompatible ways to integrate this story into literary histories that maintain Chaucer's high reputation as an observer of the human condition whose sensitive and understanding eye views the foibles and follies of his characters, ancient or modern, without a noticeable moral squint. Some have taken Gascoigne's account as the independent historical witness of a well-placed and knowledgeable source, and have used it to confirm that his Refractions signals Chaucer's genuine conversion from worldly vanities. Others - probably the majority, from Skeat to Pearsall - have instead taken Gascoigne's story as a narrative derived from the same Retractions.3 While each of these inferences is reasonable given the paucity of evidence we have available, a third option deserves to be seriously entertained: namely, that Gascoigne's story makes eminently better sense when read as the expression of his own predilections and personal politics. His ostensible report of Chaucer's deathbed lament proves, in other words, more indicative of his own views and values than of Chaucer's and it clearly neither derives from a reading of the Retractions, nor provides any evidence of having any sober, independent, historical authority. His account of Chaucer's death stands, rather, as a virulent and politically motivated act of character assassination which derives neither from Chaucer's writings nor from his life. It belongs among an extensive list of examples found in the Dictionarium that reveal Gascoigne's anti-Lancastrian politics and his virulence against those he associates with the Lancastrian camp.

In his 1980 article 'The penitence of Geoffrey Chaucer', Douglas Wurtele properly insisted that Chaucer scholars should examine the 'full context of Thomas Gascoigne's reference ... to the poet's last words'.4 While his remains the best treatment of the passage so far, and significantly broadened the 'context', it has not provided us in fact with the 'full', or even a particularly accurate, 'context' for Gascoigne's story. Some inaccuracies in Wurtele's account require correction, and a fuller appreciation of Gascoigne's own accuracy can be derived from considering his unique account of Chaucer alongside other anecdotes in his massive two-volume Dictionarium.

Gascoigne's account of Chaucer's last days, comprising ten of the more than 100,000 lines in his Dictionarium, has been treated by virtually all who have discussed it as bearing some important relationship to his Retractions, either confirming or descending from what is rather too easily (and frequently) treated as a virtual transcription of Chaucer's 'last words'. Not all, of course, have been happy to have Geoffrey Chaucer placed in 'unkindly conjunction'5 with Judas Iscariot's late and ineffective repentance, but some have grudgingly acknowledged that biographical facts are biographical facts and concluded that lovers of Chaucer the Poet simply have to face such unwelcome human details when they appear. …

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