Who Murdered Chaucer?
May 21, 2019 10:13 PM - by Terry Jones - Subscribe

In this spectacular work of historical speculation Terry Jones investigates the mystery surrounding the death of Geoffrey Chaucer over 600 years ago. A diplomat and brother-in-law to John of Gaunt, one of the most powerful men in the kingdom, Chaucer was celebrated as his country's finest living poet, rhetorician and scholar: the preeminent intellectual of his time. And yet nothing is known of his death. In 1400 his name simply disappears from the record. We don't know how he died, where or when; there is no official confirmation of his death and no chronicle mentions it; no notice of his funeral or burial. He left no will and there's nothing to tell us what happened to his estate. He didn't even leave any manuscripts. How could this be? What if he was murdered?
posted by Chrysostom (3 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Nothing's impossible, but it seems a little overwrought. The (relatively) systematic life-event records that we naturally think of were introduced in England more than a hundred years later, meaning that the availability of such information earlier would hinge on the survival of all-too-perishable family relics recording the information. (We're not even sure what year Thomas Cromwell--who, incidentally, was basically responsible for the initial steps towards the parish record-keeping system--was born in, for instance.) There weren't any domestic newspapers until nearly 250 years later, so I'm not sure what notice of burial or funeral would be being looked for; descriptions of such for commoners are either, again, from family records or, if the associated solemnities were lavish enough, surviving chroniclers. Not having a will was not exactly uncommon then (and I don't even think we have anything like complete church-court records [where a will would have been proved] for this time period, though I don't have time to verify this). If anything, a murder would be more likely to generate records than to eliminate them.

I assume the book has other support for its argument, but this "mystery" as framed isn't much of a mystery. Basically, the sources on which we rely for, e.g., Shakespeare's biographical data mostly didn't yet exist or had poor survival rates from this period.

But, hey, we don't have a record of Chaucer's birth, either, so maybe he never existed in the first place!
posted by praemunire at 10:44 AM on May 23, 2019

Yes, I think it's fair to say the book supports the argument more robustly than a blurb can indicate (this review lays it out a bit more in detail). I'd say it makes a good case for Archbishop Arundel being behind Chaucer's sudden apparent disappearance.
posted by Chrysostom at 11:09 AM on May 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

I really don't think that there's really anything mysterious about a guy who was around 60 "disappearing from the record" in medieval times, though. And his children seem to have inherited wealth and taken prominent positions, which doesn't exactly parse with Dad having gotten done for heresy. From a first pass of the Guardian article, it looks exactly like the usual Shakespearian authorship guff, where a quite usual lack of evidence is spun into a fantasy.
posted by tavella at 8:39 PM on May 23, 2019

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