The Parlement of Conspiracy Theorists

A few years ago, I started building in a final-day debate in my Chaucer class about the argument mounted by Terry Jones et al. in Who Murdered Chaucer? Our discussion involves looking over the evidence (or, at least, the compelling quirks and lacunae in the historical and literary record which Jones’ crew marshals as evidence) concerning the end of Chaucer’s life. This year, for the first time, I suspect we may decide he was murdered.

I originally began doing this because a student stumbled onto Jones’ book while researching his paper on Richard II’s patronage of Chaucer, and suddenly he (and, quickly, the rest of the class) became obsessed with the thrilling possibility that there might be secret murder waiting for them at the tail end of the course. To save our remaining weeks from devolving into a morass of speculation (mostly from students who hadn’t read Jones’ book and were merely using the “well, sure, that makes sense” form of reasoning that makes logicians cry into their pillows at night), I promised that we’d take the time on the last day of class to lay out everything we knew about Chaucer’s fate.

Three things happened in that first investigation. First, the class, with two holdouts, rejected Jones’ argument as lacking in evidence, though most also said that Who Murdered Chaucer? did effectively undermine their confidence in the traditional non-story of Chaucer’s final months (if you haven’t read the book, by the way, I encourage you to do so at your earliest opportunity–it’s a glaring example of partisan scholarship, but it makes for a fine read–and if its answers aren’t entirely satisfying, its questions are well-put and at least suggest that something’s not quite right with the official explanations). Second, the class was more excited and rigorous than I’d seen them all semester–digging through our textbook, comparing manuscript and historical evidence (I’d put together a handful of “evidence” slides, including the BL MS addl. 5141 portrait of Chaucer, close-ups of Chaucer’s tomb, and a couple of genealogies), proposing hypotheticals, and (bestill my heart) using the indices and textual notes in no fewer than three editions of Chaucer’s works. Third, and perhaps obviously, I decided on the spot that I’d be adding this investigative piece to the end of the course from then on.

I now seed in a few teasers about the final “investigation” meeting over the course of the semester. Every year, students are intrigued, but at the final meeting their conclusions have ranged from “maybe he escaped from England, but we can’t prove it” to “he probably died in the sanctuary at Westminster, but the ‘Complaint to his Purse’ is kind of disturbing.” This year my students are really looking for evidence that Chaucer’s poems and involvement at court was putting him in a potentially dangerous position if ever he lost Richard’s protection, and a couple of students considered papers about whether the ‘Wife of Bath’s Tale’ was specifically written to irritate religious conservatives–and especially Thomas Arundel. Jones’ book, of course, eventually accuses Arundel of Chaucer’s murder…but my students, unless they’ve tracked down the book, don’t yet know that. There’s something of a Da Vinci Code-style close reading going on, which results in some questionable conclusions–but which is also evidence of real thinking and brain-stretching going on, which I’m a fan of.

Over the last couple of meetings, however, things have taken a definite the-truth-is-out-there turn, culminating in a student suggesting that the ‘Nun’s Priest’s Tale’ might be a specula principum in which the fox represents the Lords Appellant, Chanticleer stands in for Richard, Pertelote takes the part of those who counsel reconciliation with the Lords, and the barnyard mob which outshouts Jack Straw’s murderous rebels are somehow representative of Richard’s loyal friends and subjects. Sharp-eyed readers of Chaucer, of course, may note that a lot of this reading ends up treating the ‘Nun’s Priest’s Tale’ as a kind of echo of the advice-to-Princes reading of the ‘Tale of Melibee’). It’s a new reading of the text, I admit (I tend to think of the chase scene as a moment of Chaucerian exuberance, myself, and have a hard time not humming “Yakety Sax” while reading it), but it’s indicative of an undercurrent in the room. I think this group, for whatever reason, might be the one that buys Jones’ conclusions fully–and if they do, I’m looking forward to hearing what sort of an argument they stitch together to make it work.

It’ll make for an interesting final discussion, in any case…

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Filed under 14th Century, Chaucer, Teaching

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