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Who Murdered Chaucer? A Medieval Mystery Hardcover – December 9, 2004

4.6 out of 5 stars 19 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


"A hugely important book."--Nigel Saul, author of Richard II

"More of a contextual study than a biography, it contains a great deal of valuable material and intriguing speculation."--Jonathan Bate, author of Song of the Earth

"Lighthearted, intelligent, panoramic and defiantly unbeholden to conventional interpretation, [Who Murdered Chaucer?] is based on an impressive array of primary and secondary sources."--Alexander Rose, author of Kings of the North

About the Author

Terry Jones is the author of several acclaimed works on the Middle Ages including Chaucer's Knight, Crusades, and Medieval Lives, the basis for his popular PBS series. A former member of Monty Python, he lives in London.

Terry Dolan is Professor of English at University College, Dublin, and a lexicographer and broadcaster.

Juliette Dor is Professor of Medieval English Literature at the University of Liege.

Alan Fletcher is a lecturer in Medieval English Literature at University College, Dublin.

Robert F. Yeager teaches Old and Middle English literature at the University of West Florida.

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Product Details

  • Series: Medieval Mysteries (St. Martins Hardcover)
  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books; 1st edition (January 5, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312335873
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312335878
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.5 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #840,356 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Up front, let me say that I am not a literature scholar. My only familiarity with Chaucer is that I read the Canterbury Tales when I was in the Marines, and again in College (I enjoyed my earlier introduction to Chaucer much more than the latter). My eye got caught by the title of the book. Having been drawn in on a potential "murder" of a poet, I was hooked as soon as I started reading.

I realized pretty quickly after starting the book that it was more an examination of the period of Richard II than it was a murder mystery. I wasn't disappointed. In fact, I now know there is not any evidence that Chaucer met with an evil end for political or other reasons. The fact that Chaucer just disappears from the public record is intriguing and it is this fact that Jones builds his story around.

Jones is a terrific author of history. I found Who Murdered Chaucer to be easy to read and engaging. I was reminded just a bit of Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror in how the the book moved through its subject. Jones' writing style also reminds me of the french historian Fernand Braudel.

Terry Jones is obviously highly versed in his subject. The love of his topic becomes apparent on the lines of each page.

I highly recommend Who Murdered Chaucer by Terry Jones.
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Format: Hardcover
Like the recent "Will In The World" by Stephen Greenblatt, another scholar has written another brilliant research book searching for answers on the life of another English writer where no answers exists. Whereas Mr. Greenblatt was creating a life of William Shakespeare based on very meager documention, Terry Jones and his co-authors are speculating on the death of Geoffrey Chaucer where NO documentation exists at all of his death. Chaucer just disappears from the public record in 1400.

This book benefits from both Mr. Jones days as a Monty Python member and his prior research books on the Middle Ages. It is extremely readable and entertaining, regardless of the unprovable supposition that Chaucer was possibly murdered for political reasons.

This book should be called "Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World" but Donald Howard had already claimed that title for his fine 1987 biography of Chaucer. Mr. Jones went for a more marketable title, suggesting a murder mystery where no proof exists even of the year of Chaucer's death. At 416 pages, it is 200+ pages shorter than Mr. Howard's work (who focused more attention upon an analysis "The Canterbury Tales").

Regardless of the alleged murder, this book is worth reading for its solid research, beautiful illustrations and readable writing style (the reader should see the Amazon excerpt via the Search Inside feature to see if they agree). It is a fun book to read.
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Format: Hardcover
Normally, when I read a history book, I am most interested in the factual content and the bibliography and footnotes.

If I were to review this book based solely on academic content, I've got to be honest and say that the authors never really answer the question in the title or prove the thesis of the book. Instead they lay out the evidence for how and why Richard II was deposed and suggest what impact that may have had on Richard's servants and ministers like Geoffrey Chaucer. The footnotes and bilbiography are fairly thorough and add much to their description. I particularly liked how the original text is provided for all quotes along with modern English renderings of the Middle English and Late Latin citations. Moreover the sheer scope of materials consulted is impressive ranging from contemporary English and French chronicles to modern statistical studies and linguistic analysis.

However, the central thesis still eludes this painstaking effort. In fact, the book may do much to show that the central thesis can never be proved. For one thing, the tremendous breadth of the evidence consulted suggests that every stone has been turned over and that we may never be able to answer the question of how Chaucer died at all if we must rely on the sources we now have.

But the authors also admit as much.

They acknowledge that it is not even clear if Chaucer was murdered at all. Instead, they use the conceit that they are laying out a coroner's case.

As a lawyer, I find that description a little too generous. The prima facie case is still missing. But what they do lay out is a plausible motive and some evidence of opportunity.
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Format: Hardcover
As a trained Chaucerian and devoted Python fan, I of course opened this book with high expectations for both historical accuracy and enjoyable, irreverent reading. Jones provides both in ample measure, but what really stands out about this book is how much more readable and engaging it is than anything written about Chaucer since the heyday of Furnivall and Skeat (that is, a century and a half ago).

Jones & Co. (I'm not sure exactly what the precise balance of authorial array is here) adroitly blend readable historical anecdotes, weaving a compelling account of the extraordinary tensions between church and state, and within the state itself, in the last decade of Chaucer's life. The struggle over the meaning and value of texts written in the vernacular is at the center of this drama, and Chaucer -- as we should have known -- was not above politics, but right in the middle of them.

I note that another reviewer has said that here we have *no* documentation -- that's true of Chaucer's death, but in fact we know ten times more about the details of Chaucer's life than Shakespeare's, and we may reasonably extrapolate a good deal more. In the past, such extrapolatin was done by people devoted to the idea of an ironic yet oddly toothless Chaucer who ultimately voted for the status quo -- here is an equally plausible but far more radical portrait, one that outshines all the others.

For those who doubt that Chaucer's writings could in fact be seen as subversive, I myself know an account of a certain man by the name of John Baron, who was arrested in 1471 for the crime of owning vernacular books; among the titles he confessed to possessing was 'a boke of the tales of Caunterbury.' So there.

Read this book and learn why.
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