England and Bohemia in the Age of Chaucer
Edited by Peter Brown and Jan Čermák
When was “the Age of Chaucer” and what characteristics or events made that time particularly Chaucerian?
Chaucer lived from c.1340 to 1400 but his ‘age’ extends into the fifteenth century. It was a golden age for English literature, when poets turned to their native language and away from French and Latin. Nor was Chaucer an isolated figure: his contemporaries William Langland, John Gower and the Gawain-poet all produced major works, although it was Chaucer’s output that left the deepest mark on subsequent writers such as Thomas Hoccleve and John Lydgate.
The age of Chaucer was also one of serious social upheaval, framed by the Black Death of 1348 and by the deposition of Richard II in 1399. Throughout the period England was at war with France, entailing burdensome taxation – a key cause of the revolution of 1381 when armed peasants from Kent and Essex rose in rebellion and occupied London. One of the English war heroes was Edward of Woodstock, the Black Prince and heir to the throne, but he died before he could succeed Edward III. The Black Prince’s place was taken by the next in line, his son Richard, a child of ten who became king in 1377, which left day-to-day governance in the hands of powerful and factional lords. When Richard married Anne of Bohemia in 1382 the two of them were still in their mid-teens.
What makes Bohemia a key European context for understanding Chaucer’s poetry? What about the Bohemian context differs from the perhaps more familiar contexts of France and Italy?
Our book naturally focuses on the second half of the fourteenth century: a golden age in Bohemia and Geoffrey Chaucer’s heyday in England. While the individual chapters are built around the marriage in 1382 of Anne to Richard II as the central event connecting the two countries, the book systematically distinguishes between avenues of direct influence, analogous developments determined by the focal political and cultural preoccupations of the time, and cultural transactions across Europe in which the late fourteenth century Bohemia partook as a bustling centre of political, religious and cultural communication, with French and German cultures and languages being an integral part of the Prague Luxembourgian courtʼs DNA.
Although Bohemia may appear, at first sight, to have been positioned on the far eastern rim of Englandʼs as well as Chaucerʼs horizons, the essays in our book amply demonstrate that it was naturally contained in the periodʼs vast cultural canvas encompassing Western Christendom in a rich texture of cultural and spiritual resonances and multidirectional transmissions. Applying this perspective and methodology, England and Bohemia in the Age of Chaucer hopes to have added significantly to the growing recognition of the vital roles played by European cultural and textual networks in constructing apparently ‘local’ literary cultures such as those in England and Bohemia during the later Middle Ages.
Why is the idea of analogue such an important perspective for the essays in this book?
In one sense, England and Bohemia in the Age of Chaucer is about specific processes and instances of cultural transmission and exchange in the later Middle Ages. Yet the bookʼs perspective is also broader in that it incorporates the idea of analogue, a potent cognitive principle and methodological tool based on recognizing parallel developments as products of shared needs, traditions and ambitions in a particular period in history.
Through this perspective, the essays in the book examine the congruence of two cultures some eight hundred miles apart, framed by the idea of transnational literary culture as a collective phenomenon. As the analogous developments of the time were naturally paired with processes of cultural transaction, it is through the two lenses of analogue and cultural transmission that the book strives to offer a deep perspective on two aspects in particular: first, on how England and Bohemia operated in the late fourteenth century not in sealed circles of local influence but rather across boundaries of language, culture and polity and, second, on how Chaucer’s poetic was disturbed and stimulated by the Bohemian moment in English court culture.
Griselda has an evil alter-ego Briselda who has links to Criseyde. What other narratives occur in both England and Bohemia, and does the study suggest more similarities or contrasts in the two traditions?
Readers of Chaucer know from the Clerk’s Tale of a Griselde with the patience of a saint, although the narrative comes with a coda that casts doubt on the possibility, or desirability, of any real woman submitting to the kind of suffering endured by Griselde at the hands of her husband. By contrast, the Bohemian version afflicts Briselda with leprosy and infidelity and it is left to her husband to demonstrate patience (before eventually seeking revenge). Its author turns the story into an antifeminist tract, in tendency and tenor not unlike Robert Henryson’s Testament of Cresseid, a sequel to Chaucer’s Troilus with moral commentary on the behaviour of a leprous and unfaithful heroine. Both Griselda narratives derive from Petrarch’s telling of the tale and, by means of comparison, much can be learnt about the similarities and differences within the English and Bohemian literary traditions. The same observation applies to other cases of shared narratives that feature in our book, such as the Troy legend, the motif of the tapster at the gate of hell, and stories of the passion of Christ.
How does Anne of Bohemia and her presence at court influence Chaucer’s poetry?
Unlike the Bohemian connections of such English literary figures as Wyclif and Rolle, whose works are known to have circulated in Bohemian circles, Chaucer’s links were forged principally through the presence in the English court of Richard II’s queen.
The essays in our book examine Anne’s role in her anticipated but unfulfilled dynastic mission both as an agent and as an image. They do so with regard both to the distinctive circumstances of the period’s literary activity (the role of analogues and transactions in composing narratives concerned with history, genealogy, salvation, power and gender; illumination, commissioning and collecting of manuscripts) and the specific aspects of how the Bohemian context may have influenced Chaucer’s choices and practices in creating poems such as Troilus and Criseyde and The Legend of Good Women. Jointly, the essays raise suggestive possibilities implying that the Bohemian connection, cosmopolitan as well as Czech, significantly contributed to the cultural vitality of the age and that writing for queen Anne offered Chaucer ways of positioning himself firmly in the environment of the international court culture.
Can you tell us about your cover? The image credit queries whether Chaucer catches the eye of Anne of Bohemia. What do you think is happening here?
The detail on the cover of the book was the closest we could get to a single picture that included our three main protagonists: Chaucer, Richard II and Anne of Bohemia. It is taken from what is generally called the ‘Troilus frontispiece’, a full-page illumination at the beginning of a manuscript containing Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 61, f. 1v), dated to the early fifteenth century.
The scene centres on a figure in a pulpit-like structure addressing an animated audience dressed in extravagant clothes, usually taken to represent Chaucer performing his great work to the court. As such, it reflects Chaucer’s narrative posture within the poem, where he addresses lords and ladies and refers in complimentary terms to the queen, Anne of Bohemia. Just in front of the Chaucer figure two especially attentive and prominent members of the audience stand out: a regal woman next to a man dressed in gold, who might reasonably be taken to represent Anne and Richard. Chaucer and Anne seem to be exchanging glances, as if in acknowledgement that Anne has played her part in the realisation of the narrative, and that in various ways Chaucer’s great poem is about the courtly culture of which she and Richard were the lodestars. In that sense too Chaucer is catching Anne’s eye.
PETER BROWN is Professor Emeritus in the School of English at the University of Kent.
JAN ČERMÁK is Professor of English in the Faculty of Arts at Charles University, Prague.