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9 - Auchinleck and Chaucer

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  21 May 2021

Susanna Fein
Affiliation:
Professor of English, Kent State University.
A. S. G. Edwards
Affiliation:
Professor of Medieval Manuscripts, School of English, University of Kent
Helen Phillips
Affiliation:
Professor of English, Cardiff University
Derek Pearsall
Affiliation:
Professor Emeritus of English, Harvard University, Honorary Member, Centre for Medieval Studies, University of York
Cathy Hume
Affiliation:
Visiting Scholar at Northwestern University, Illinois.
Ralph Hanna
Affiliation:
Emeritus Professor of Palaeography, University of Oxford
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Summary

THIS paper is not about whether Chaucer knew the Auchinleck manuscript. It asks what looking from Auchinleck to Chaucer might reveal about Chaucer, and perhaps about Auchinleck.

Compilation analogies

Chaucer's Canterbury Tales is among other things a manuscript anthology. For both its frame story, with exchanges between pilgrim narrators and listeners, and its sequencing of items, his inspirations surely included manuscript compilation as much as real-life pilgrims’ storytelling and chatting or literary tale-collections. The Auchinleck manuscript (Edinburgh, NLS, MS Advocates 19. 2. 1), and also London, British Library, MS Harley 2253, prefigure Chaucer's Tales in several aspects of their compilation. Two such aspects become in Chaucer's hands highly creative. One is their use of narrator/listener passages on the borders of items: headlinks and endlinks containing formulaic appeals, ‘Listeth lordes … And I wol telle’ (VII 712–13), with variants, including (in Auchinleck) copious prayers. In Auchinleck, these formulae appear fairly regularly between items (where openings or endings survive), contributing a sense, albeit limited, of unity of tone to junctures between texts. The ‘I’ who speaks and the ‘ye’ who are asked to listen are never individualized, contributing further regularity to these passages. Between his own anthology's items, Chaucer creates a dramatized framework of individualized narrators and listeners. Consequently, the narrator/listener relationship becomes two-way and introduces responses from the listeners. When combative, such responses can intensify contrastive sequencing of tales.

A second compilatorial element Chaucer's Tales shares with Auchinleck and Harley is subtle juxtapositioning, which offers readers the option of perceiving parallels and contrasts between items. This differs from the obvious thematic or generic grouping basic to the Vernon manuscript's design and frequent in Auchinleck: for example, two saints’ lives or three Guy of Warwick romances together; On þe Seuen Dedly Sinnes with The Pater Noster Vndo on Englissch; or eschatological subjects in items ‘xi’ and ‘xii’. Carter Revard shows ‘oppositional thematics and metanarratives’ informing subtle sequencing in Harley; Susanna Fein finds its compiler offering audiences diptych-like or longer combinations, whose effect is ‘a progressive entertainment’, actual or imagined. The ‘act of compilation builds meaning without making an authoritative comment’, a description that captures exactly a technique central to Chaucer's distinctive management of structures and his self-presentation as author.

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Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2016

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