Yesterday’s post included a picture of Chaucer’s Monk from The Canterbury Tales. The portrait seems to be smudged and what the hell’s that on his head? A porkpie hat? He’s a rather goulish-looking figure, all told, and nothing like the “manly man” Chaucer describes in The General Prologue:
His heed was balled, that shoon as any glas,
And eek his face, as it hadde been enoynt.
He was a lord ful fat and in good poynt,
I had forgotten the story behind that picture until I sat down at the computer last night. My eye fell on Terry Jones’ fascinating book, Who Murdered Chaucer? A Medieval Mystery. Yes, Terry Jones of Monty Python fame. He is also an acclaimed medievalist and author, though he had lots of help on this semi-scholarly work.
I found the book compelling, though I have no idea how it stands up to the scrutiny of Chaucer scholarship. Compelling in that it creates a mind-bending picture of what we think happened to Chaucer in his last days in the late 14th century. He was celebrated, even in his day, as England’s finest living poet and scholar, and yet nothing is known of his actual death. His name simply disappears from the record. No state funeral, no notices in the city records or mention by chroniclers of the time. How could this be?
As the title of the book suggests, Jones and his cohorts think he was murdered under orders from King Henry IV (who had earlier usurped the throne from Richard II) and his bloodthirsty accomplice, Thomas Arundel, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Jones et al suggest that Arundel considered The Canterbury Tales heresy, as it depicts the Catholic Church as a corrupt, decaying institution through the unflattering portrayals of the Monk, Friar, Priest and so on. These characters are far from the model of sanctity and purity that the Church would have the people to believe. The book suggests that Chaucer was more or less a wanted man for this heresy in the year 1400 and he took up sanctuary in Westminster Abbey, where the crown would be reluctant to march in and seize him.
Then he disappears!
The authors of Who Murdered Chaucer? have much to say about what they think happened, all very mysterious and all speculation by their own admission.
But in the years following Chaucer’s disappearance, Henry and Arundel behave like a pair of paranoid fascists and conduct a witch hunt of other so-called enemies of the state and a campaign of censorship that involved the seizure of books, chronicles and works of art considered to be heretical. People were arrested, tortured and books burned. And it’s plausible that they would have wanted to suppress the news of Chaucer’s death (or his murder) in the records.
The Ellesmere Manuscript, one of only a handful of surviving manuscripts of the The Canterbury Tales, is celebrated for its illuminations — particularly for the miniature portraits of the Canterbury pilgrims at the beginnings of their tales. The Monk’s portrait is clearly unlike his description in the text. The Prologue describes an extrovert, good-living prelate, with a bald head and a twinkle in his eye. He is dressed in the best clothes money could buy, with a gold brooch under his chin.
The Ellesmere portrait, by contrast, shows a figure who looks more like a hermit than a worldly priest. He is shrouded in black and seems to have a veil covering his face.
However, a microscopic analysis of the manuscript, carried out in 2001, reveals that the whole portrait has been over-painted with a thick black pigment. But underneath this pigment are all the characteristics we would expect to see of the manly monk, as Chaucer described. A picture in the Jones book shows that behind the pigment, there is the faint image of the monk’s bright, shining eyes, his red nose and cheeks and possibly a grin on his face. The monk’s brooch is also visible under the pigment. It is clear the original portrait of the monk has been defaced. Other portraits of pilgrims in the Ellesmere were similarly defaced, including the Knight and the Friar.
The portrait of the monk, with jewellery and the all-too-apparent signs of good living would have been a dangerous image to have owned in the years when Archbishop Arundel was on the warpath against any criticism of the church. If you were the owner of the Ellesmere manuscript, you might have taken the precaution of altering the image a little. And if you were Arundel, well, you probably would have burned the whole damned book, and thank God that didn’t happen!
I am sure if I questioned the monks of my novel about Archbishop Arundel, they would have not much to say about him one way or t’other. They would have appreciated a defender of the church, but then again, no one likes a bully … and Arundel was a classic!