I know I say this often, but what a fascinating read, but what’s most exciting is that this is a work of nonfiction. I don’t generally read a lot of nonfiction, but after reading about this on a site ages ago (at least a year ago) and having just finished A Burnable Book, I knew this was a great time to read it. Needless to say I absolutely plan on finding a full biography of Chaucer.
Who Murdered Chaucer? focuses on the last 20(ish) years of Chaucer’s life, but more so on the political climate, which is vital to interpreting Chaucer’s writings and why so few survived, I found. And come on, the man lived 150 years before and is considered the father of English poetry, why does Shakespeare get all the credit? I mean sure Shakespeare wrote A LOT, but just this next paragraph should make you want to learn more about Geoffrey Chaucer.
Looking back on reading The Canterbury Tales in high school and even last year’s re-read, knowing HALF of what Who Murdered Chaucer? covers AP Literature (or Language) grade would vastly have improved. Seriously, it wasn’t ONCE mentioned that Chaucer’s death/fate was completely unknown or that while he worked on the tales all hell broke loose in England! Murders, usurpers, censorship, missing people/bodies and miss-marked/unmarked tombs? What more could you want? No seriously, that really bad picture above is a picture I took of Chaucer’s tomb (surreptitiously, I wasn’t sure I was allowed) in 2006. That’s his coat of arms on the right and if you want to learn more about his tomb and his life, this is what Westminster Abbey says.
I think what I appreciated most about this book is that the authors were very open about the fact there isn’t a clear answer and probably never would be to the title, Who Murdered Chaucer?: A Medieval Mystery. At the same time, I certainly wanted an answer, but this type of unsolved historical mysteries is one of the reasons I studied history in undergrad! 600 years later and we still don’t really know what happened to Chaucer and a lot of what we know about his death is conjecture and assumption.
The biggest example and one the author’s hit home over and over was whether he actually died in 1400 or later in 1402 or later than that. Everywhere, including his tomb in Westminster, think it’s 1400, even Harvard University files this manuscript under Chaucer (d.1400). But that date comes from a tombstone added to Westminster over 150 years after his death by someone with questionable intentions (according to this book). There was evidence for both dates, but nothing conclusive for either, but the October 25 date was a pretty good guess based on not picking up a stipend from the treasury.
I three minor complaints about the book, one the authors remedied most of the way through, one was basic and the third a choice I’m assuming by the publisher. At the start of the book you could tell there were multiple authors (I didn’t realize at first), but their strikingly different voices made it difficult to transition from one section of a chapter to another. They ironed this out by the end of the book, but it distracted from the first few chapters. The second thing which bothered me was the poor copy-editing, in general the book was well copy-edited, but towards the end of the book I found more and more mistakes where it looked like the authors rewrote a sentence, but some portions were left in! I can’t blame them as I write like this all the time, but it’s a published book!
The third thing that bothered me was the physical book and the publisher may have dictated this. The book was just over 400 pages long but it felt significantly heavier, which had to do with the type of paper used. Every page was printed in a high glossy finish which was great for the hundreds of pictures littered throughout the book, but these pages are definitely two-to-three times thicker than standard book paper.
Recommendation: I would recommend this if you’re interested in medieval history, Geoffrey Chaucer, King Richard II, Henry IV or Henry V. There were so many interesting facts in here that I couldn’t help but want to read more about the time period! Who needs Westeros (I clearly do) when you can go back into history and read stories that are full of as much scandal and drama?
Opening Line: “This book is less of a Whodunnit? than a Wasitdunnatall?”
“Mordre wol out; that se we day by day
Thoough it abyde a yeer, or two, or thre.
Or Six hundred years.” (Not whited out as this is a work of nonfiction.)