Terry Jones, as most of my readers probably realize, is best known as a former member of Monty Python. But he also likes to think of himself as a (fairly) serious historian and has written a book called Who Murdered Chaucer? Today's Independent describes a recent presentation by Jones at a book festival:
The former Monty Python member is convinced that Chaucer was murdered by person or persons unknown, and set about persuading his audience with the most energetic performance of the week so far. It had pictures, it had detective work, it had silly voices and it had Jones leaping about the stage pretending to be a trampolining 14th-century violinist. If Jones had told us that Chaucer was a nun who had been spirited away by aliens, we would have been inclined to believe him.
"For years I've been harbouring these dark suppositions about Chaucer's demise," he confessed. "He just disappeared from the record in about 1400, which is odd because he wasn't a nobody. He was the clerk of the king's works, a friend of John of Gaunt and an inspector of drains and ditches." He was also supported by the "artsy fartsy" Richard II, who was allegedly done away with by Henry IV - an argument that formed the basis of Jones's presentation.
Which leads to an obvious question: does Jones know what he's talking about? A year ago, on my old blog, I quoted from a Times Literary Supplement article (no longer available online) which discusses Jones's Chaucer book. It sounds like a mixed bag:
Stylistically, Jones's enthusiasm can at times be less infectious than wearying. Exclamation marks cap too many sentences, and in the course of three pages, John Wyclif is called the "Demon Doctor of Divinity", "The Evil Rector of Lutterworth" and "the Dreadful Doctor". In places, Jones lapses into Pythonism: "One can almost hear Philippa Chaucer scolding her husband: 'You come back from work! You sit down in front of yet another book! Dumb as any stone! What do I get? Eh? Geoffrey! Are you listening?'". And does any reader really need to be informed that "leisure time" in medieval England "didn't mean surf-boarding and D-I-Y"?
Light-hearted, intelligent, panoramic and defiantly unbeholden to conventional interpretations, the new book is based on an impressive array of primary and secondary sources, though this time Jones has been aided by four scholars who "produced individual essays, which I then worked into a whole". There is a particularly interesting chapter on how the Ellesmere's illustrations were "censored" for political reasons. Although his claim that the figure of the Knight is based on the original Agnolo Gaddi–Juliano Arrighi memorial to Sir John Hawkwood (a portrayal later reproduced in the Duomo in Florence by Uccello) is not altogether convincing, Jones's dissection of the Monk and the Friar is more persuasive.
Update: The Telegraph published a review of Who Murdered Chaucer? last November. Its reviewer, a medieval lit specialist, writes that it's full of "valuable matierial and intriguing speculation," but calls several of its conclusions into question.Posted by Ed at October 16, 2004 09:14 PM