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WHO IS BURIED IN CHAUCER'S TOMB?
The following chapter is a preliminary statement of the problems in Chaucer studies and their traditions; it attempts to expose the difficulties attendant on the transmission of and even the expression of seemingly simple textual information. The tradition I investigate here is full of secondary works claiming to be primary works, simple errors, and in one case the invention of a non-existent witness. The chapter itself is paradigmatic of my approach, but those readers who find their patience tried are invited to skip to its concluding paragraphs and then to move to some of the more "storial matter" in later chapters. To pose as a preliminary question a seeming tautology is irritating, as is the tangle of detail that surrounds it; for both the question and the detail get in the way of the felicitous speculation one can indulge in if one assumes that Chaucer, after all, might just as well be in Chaucer's tomb as anyone else. As long as we don't get embroiled in such questions as who is in that tomb or, as here, what is on that tomb, we can speculate on the relation of Chaucer to the Church, to London politics, then follow that with the same series of heady questions focused on his texts (assuming of course, as no self-respecting twentieth-century or nineteenth-century Chaucerian would, that Chaucer wrote Chaucer's Workes). And if anyone were to raise questions about that much-restored tomb, and if scholars cared much about it (they don't), it would be time simply to "roll up one's sleeves" (or someone else's sleeves), go to the source, read it, perhaps move a few stones around to unearth whatever might be needed, and get back to the basic activities of literary scholarship.
I don't know whether Chaucer is in Chaucer's Tomb, nor am I conversant with the techniques that could be used to find out. What interests me are questions that stand in the way. And I begin with a literary question: what does the tomb say? Prior to posing such ambitious questions as "Who is Buried in Chaucer's Tomb?" or the more speculative "Why is Chaucer Buried in Chaucer's Tomb?" we ought at least to be able to read the inscriptions that claim he is there. And if we can't, then what business do we have going to the tomb with our bone-measuring instruments?
There are three texts inscribed on or directly related to the tomb. A version of all three texts was incorporated into the "Life of Chaucer" included in Speght's 1602 edition (clv; see fig. 1):
1. a four-line inscription (a version is now in Westminster Abbey) ("Qui fuit Anglorum vates ...");
2. the last two lines of a poem by Surigone, often found printed in early Chaucer editions ("Galfridus Chaucer vates ...");
3. references to verses "about the ledge" of the tomb ("Si rogites ..."); interestingly enough, all sources that quote these last verses claim they are either illegible or completely worn out.
The first printed reference to any of these texts is to the "old verses" by Stephano Surigone. It occurs in Caxton's epilogue to Chaucer's translation of Boethius in 1478. Caxton claims that the English language "shal endure perpetuelly," as will the memory of Chaucer:
of whom the body and corps lieth buried in thabbay of Westmestre beside london to fore the chapele of seynte benet. by whos sepulture is wreton on a table hongyng on a pylere his Epitaphye maad by a poete laureat wherof the copye foloweth.
Caxton then prints a thirty-line poem by this "poete laureat" Surigone, and ends with the following often-quoted distich:
Galfridus Chaucer vates . et fama poesis Materne . hac sacra sum tum(u)latus humo.
As for the pillar or tablet, no physical traces of it remain. The four-line inscription—the text most often meant in references to the inscription on the tomb—was written ca. 1556, when Nicholas Brigham erected the present monument (conventionally called a "tomb") on the east wall of the south transept. The two lines "about the ledge" exist only in verbal accounts of the tomb's history.
Simple as this story is, most of the specific details are subject to dispute. An earlier floor-slab (no one has ever described what may have been on it) was sawn up to make room for Dryden and a new floor-slab with a modern inscription (not at issue here) placed there after 1714. And some of the more self-assured witnesses have not been disinterested. Caxton's account is an advertising blurb; no one has explained why he and an obscure Italian poet should have known more about Chaucer's burial place than an early eulogist such as Hoccleve, who says nothing about Chaucer's resting place although much lamenting his death. Later authenticating claims are combined with overt pleas for funds: one scheme to restore Brigham's monument bases its appeal in 1850 on researches by unspecified "competent authorities" proving that the monument is indeed "the original tomb of the Poet." Other claims combine minute detail with striking vagueness: Chaucer's bones were presumably "exposed" in 1889 to make room for Browning, and the Westminster coroner's account of the measurement of Chaucer's "principall long bones" is given in a one-paragraph letter of 1897 (the actual examination having occurred "some years back"). But how he knew the bones were Chaucer's rather than those of some other pious poet piled on top of him is unexplained.
The "Old Verses": Caxton's "Table Honging On a Pyler" and Leland's "Nivea Tabella"
One of the first problems to be encountered in dealing with these traditions concerns the "ii old verses." Although the text itself is relatively stable, the words of Caxton documenting their existence have undergone some odd transformations. And it is here that we will first confront John Leland's Commentarii de sciiptotibus Britannicis (ca. 1540)—a work that, although buried quietly in bibliographical discussion of Chaucer, is one of the most deviously influential works in the entire history of Chaucer studies. My chapters below will be referring often to it. The interpretation of a passage from Leland controls recent discussion of the epitaph and of the relations between Caxton and Surigone. Leland has been credited by Chaucerians with a number of misleading statements; his remarks concerning Surigone's epitaph in Westminster Abbey and his own "nivea tabella" should now be included among these.
In a very level-headed article of 1967, N. F. Blake gives the following version of events:
While in England, [Surigone] either spontaneously or more probably by request composed an epitaph on Chaucer. This was then placed by some admirer or by Surigone himself on a pillar by Chaucer's tomb.... When Caxton came to Westminster, he saw and copied the inscription. This he subsequently printed in his edition of Boethius together with four of his own verses. ("Caxton and Chaucer," 160)
Blake was reacting against a speculative version of the story, based on Leland, first offered by R. Weiss in 1937, according to which Caxton met Surigone in 1471 in Cologne and may later have collaborated with him on the edition of Chaucer's Boece (1484). According to Blake's rejoinder, Surigone need not have been in England in the 1470s; Caxton need not have even met Surigone. But Leland's account has a way of reasserting its airythin authority. Blake's critique of Weiss continues:
Leland says that Surigone composed the Latin epitaph on Chaucer at Caxton's request and that the last two lines from that epitaph were engraved on the tomb also at Caxton's request.... But Weiss neglected the fact that Leland goes on to say that all the verses were inscribed on a tablet (tabella) which Surigone had caused to be fixed to a pillar near Chaucer's tomb: "... elegos in nivea tabella depictos, quos Surigonus Visimonasterii columnae, Chauceri sepulchro vicinae, adfixit." Leland's account of the epitaph is therefore as follows. Caxton asked Surigone to make an epitaph for Chaucer. This epitaph Surigone had inscribed on a tablet which he affixed to a pillar by Chaucer's tomb. (160)
Is Blake right about what Leland claims was affixed to the column? Here are Leland's closing lines in full, from the 1709 edition used by all modern scholars:
Habes nunc, humanissime lector, elegos in nivea tabella depictos, quos Surigonus Visimonasterii columnae, Chauceri sepulchro vicinae, adfixit. Tu saepe eosdem in nostri vatis gratiam legas. Sic tibi, quisquis eris, faveat suadela, leposque.
Lounsbury's translation of these lines, well-known to Chaucerians, is as follows (note the ambiguity, not in the Latin, in the antecedent of "which"):
You have now, 0 most courteous reader, the elegiac lines inscribed on a snow-white tablet which Surigon affixed to the Westminster column adjoining the tomb of Chaucer. May my persuasion and their attractiveness dispose you, whoever you are, to read them often for the sake of our poet. (italics added)
According to Blake's interpretation of these lines (Leland's or Lounsbury's), Leland says that a tablet, apparently a "nivea tabella," was caused by Surigone to be fixed to a pillar—apparently the very table mentioned by Caxton. But what Leland says is that Surigone had the elegiacs, not a snowy tablet, affixed to a column near Chaucer's tomb ("elegos ... quos" and not "tabella ... quam"). You, reader, now have these same elegiacs "painted in a snowy tablet." The word tabella is a common classical word for a writing tablet; in the plural, the word is a metaphor for writing itself. And the snowy-white nature of paper was a cliche used even in Chaucer: "Upon a thikke palfrey, paper white" (Legend of Good Women, line 1198). Leland has transformed what Caxton calls the table in Westminster Abbey into the nivea tabella which the reader is now reading—the page of his own book; and future readers will be able to enjoy Surigone's verses over and over. Although Lounsbury a hundred years ago complained about Leland's propensity to soar into verse, no one to my knowledge as pointed out that he does so here. Leland's last line is a hexameter and a clear warning that something in this account is afoot.
The Inscription: Recent Witnesses
The texts of the main inscription and the attendant "verses about the ledge" are transmitted in several overlapping traditions: in Chaucer editions and biographies, in written surveys of physical antiquities, and in engravings found in these and other works. Before examining these early witnesses, let us consider the information about Chaucer's burial and tomb in the most recent biography of Chaucer: Pearsall's excellent Life of Geoffrey Chaucer. The tomb is not central to Pearsall's project, and in his discussion, various traditions surrounding it collide. On the matter of Chaucer's burial, Pearsall relies on the main Chaucerian tradition represented by Crow and Olson's Life Records of 1966:
[Chaucer's] remains were moved in 1556 to a new tomb set against the east wall of the south transept, a part of the abbey which has since become known as "Poets' Corner" (plate 1). It is the inscription on this tomb, reported in 1606 but now illegible, that provides the date of his death (plate 14).
Plate 1 in Pearsall's Life should show the tomb with an illegible inscription; plate 14 should show a 1606 report of the date of Chaucer's death. But this is not what the plates show. In plate 1 illustrating Chaucer's tomb (on the page facing the quotation above), labelled "by courtesy of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster," the inscription is clearly readable (although Pearsall's text claims it is not) (the text is in small capitals; I transcribe u and v according to modern conventions):
Qui fuit Anglorum vates ter maximus olim
Galfridus Chaucer conditur hoc tumulo
Annum si quaeras Domini si tempora mortis
Ecce notae subsunt quae tibi cuncta notant
25 Octobris 1400
Ærumnarum requies mors
N. Brighham hos fecit musarum nomine sumptus
The photograph in Pearsall's plate 1 must have been retouched. Pearsall is right that the tomb is not this legible (at least, not according to absolutely reliable reports from 1993); nor is the text as legible in any of the black-and-white or color photos I have seen from the Abbey. The word sumptus is not readable, nor are the first two digits of Chaucer's death date. In other words, the tomb itself and photos that accurately portray what is now on the tomb are consistent with what Pearsall says in his text about its illegibility. Furthermore, and more important, Pearsall's statements are also consistent with a venerable Chaucerian tradition: that the tomb is now illegible (whenever that may be). Chaucerians have made this claim at least since the early nineteenth century, despite the efforts of various restorers to prove them wrong. The engraving by Todd, dated 1809, follows a convention whereby inscriptions are represented by a wavy line. Nonetheless, a break in the line clearly indicates that part of the inscription is illegible. The engraving also shows one of the shields as no longer visible (see fig. 5 below).
Plate 14 in Pearsall's biography should depict something "reported in 1606." Instead, it depicts a 1652 engraving from Ashmole's Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum (see fig. 2), in fact the first pictorial representation of the tomb. The date 1606 is one often assigned in Chaucer studies to Camden's report of the inscription, although the report was first published in 1600. Camden is the first to quote the inscription roughly as we find it in the Westminster Abbey photo, quoted above (compare the variant tempora vitae in the Ashmole plate, fig. 2). My point here is not to criticize Pearsall, whose discussion is excellent, nor his plates, which are helpful and very traditional. I only wish to point out the confusion and conflation of sources here—something perfectly in accord with the tradition in which they are transmitted.
The Editorial Tradition
The first Chaucer editions to contain substantial prefatory material are the 1598 and 1602 editions of Thomas Speght. Each contains a "Life of Chaucer" in which the tomb inscription is quoted. The Life is generally attributed to Speght, although Stow claimed to have collected the material and passed it on to Speght. This is of some importance, for if the text of the inscription is part of that material, it is secondhand at best. The 1598 edition contains a text of the "old verses" and one of the earliest published version of Brigham's inscription. Speght's English text is in Roman type, his vernacular quotations in blackletter, and the Latin quotation in italics (sig.clv). In the 1602 edition, Speght adds a citation to the verses "about the ledge," thus becoming the first published source to contain all three of the texts (see fig. 1 above).
In the text of the old verses, the 1602 edition changes Maternae haec (1598) to Maternae hac —readings that alternate in later works. The text of the verses "about the ledge" is subject to more variation (see Table of Variants below). The statement that these verses are "clean worne out" is curious. The only earlier published witness to these lines I know of is Camden (1600), who says nothing about their legibility or his source.
The most significant features of what Speght gives as the inscription itself are the absence of the heading M.S. (i.e., Manibus sacrum), the absence of the attribution to Brigham, the reading tempora vitae, and the form in which the date is given: Anno Domini 1400. die mensis Octob. 25. No other texts I have seen follow Speght in providing the date in this form. But Speght's variant tempora vitae survives into modern discussions through the 1652 plate in Ashmole, the biographies included in the edition by Urry (1721) and the various Aldine editions (1845 et seq.), the introduction in Skeat's edition, and even in the text printed in small capitals as Brigham's very own in Spurgeon'sChaucer Criticism, 1:94. In other particulars (Ashmole's nota is unique), these texts are identical to the restored text shown in the Westminster Abbey photo in Pearsall's biography. Skeat's discussion, for Chaucerians one of the more obvious sources for such information, is taken verbatim from the biography of Chaucer by Nicolas Harris Nicolas included in the many issues of the 1845 Aldine edition of Chaucer. Nicolas derived the inscription he gives there from the versions in Urry's edition—following the editorial tradition even when citing the antiquarian one.
If there is for Chaucerians a "vulgate text" of the epitaph, this is it: either the text of Speght with the heading M.S. and the form of the date altered to read 25 Octobris 1400, or, if one prefers, the Westminster Abbey restored text (as depicted in Pearsall's biography), with the variant tempora vitae. None of these editors claims to give a first-hand account of the tomb. They do not note variant readings and contradictions in their own sources; they do not clearly and accurately give the source of their own readings; and, with the exception of the repeated phrase concerning the verses "clean worne out," they do not refer to the deteriorating state of the tomb itself. What I might regard as unsporting—"examination ... of the tomb itself' (the words of the 1850 "Weekly Gossip" quoted in n. 5 above)—these editors might quite rightly have considered unnecessary and useless. Even in the reports of my colleagues, reports which I have characterized as absolutely reliable, I corrected (silently) a transcription error.
Excerpted from Who is Buried in Chaucer's Tomb? by Joseph A. Dane. Copyright © 1998 Joseph A. Dane. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press.
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