The Oxford Companion to Chaucer

The Oxford Companion to Chaucer

R.F. Yeager

The Oxford Companion to Chaucer, ed. Douglas Gray (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). xxviii + 526 pp.; 4 maps and 15 black-and-white plates, 0-19-811765-5. 65.00 [pounds sterling].

‘The Oxford Companion to Chauce’, Douglas Gray remarks by way of introduction, ‘aims to present in attractive form a range of information which will help readers and students in the understanding of England’s greatest medieval poet’ (p. xv). There is something about the variegated tone of this stated goal-perhaps it is the humilitas inherent in ‘aims’ alongside the sweep of ‘range’-that accurately captures what the editor and his co-contributors (some thirteen, alongside Gray himself) have achieved in this modestly sized (6 1/4 x 9 1/2 in.) but replete volume. Between its covers are all the topics expected in a work of this kind, and a great many others discovered with surprise and pleasure, followed in rapid order by a recognition of their actual indispensability, and a rising admiration at the editor’s superior wisdom in thinking to include them in the first place. For there is little purpose in withholding praise from this Companion, nor especially from Gray himself, to whose thoughtful planning and a lifetime’s Skeat-like erudition the project’s vision and the great majority of its entries is owed: this is a book every academic library, whether institutional or personal, should acquire without delay. Much care has been devoted to fostering accessibility. Alphabetically arranged, topical entries unused by Chaucer are spelled contemporaneously (e.g. ‘Arnold, Matthew’), while headwords found in Chaucer’s works (‘Amphioun’, ‘Arionis harpe’, etc.) conveniently appear in the normalized spelling of The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson (Boston, Mass., 1987), now universally accepted as the scholarly standard. (A valuable note in bold face reminds readers that ‘in Middle English words the lettery when it represents a vowel is treated as k thus fyssh and Fysshestrete come before “Fitzralph”‘, p. xv.) The maps, of a mappa mundi, London’s streets, ‘Europe at the end of Chaucer’s life’, and ‘England and Northern Europe’, list locations–again–as Chaucer spelled them, thus pinpointing with immediate clarity the whereabouts of such now-puzzling places as ‘Poperyng’, ‘Belmayre’, or ‘Ermonye’. Three-plus pages of chronology perform a similar function: like the maps, they help to locate Chaucer’s life in the midst of the world he knew–a world made the more vivid and graphic by the plates, most of them excerpts from manuscripts. And at volume’s end, there are twenty-four pages of references, which in themselves constitute a valuable resource for the study of Chaucer at every level.

Such dividends aside, however, what distinguishes The Oxford Companion to Chaucer from a coffee-table book is and must be the quality and quantity of the individual entries. On both counts, Gray & Co. have earned nothing but praise of the highest kind. Or practically nothing: one wonders how certain space allocations were made–at the decision (to pick but three examples) to treat Arme of Bohemia, Hugh of Lincoln, or ‘Lollar, Lollard’ at the same brief length when surely they each mattered quite differently to Chaucer and his circle–or why their treatment is a bit more cursory than that afforded the eighteenth-century editor Thomas Morell of Turnham Green, ‘musician and friend of Handel’ though he be. Or one could object to the failure to mention in a list of Gower’s works his two sequences of balades in French, or that Pedro the Cruel was King of Castile as well as Leon (p. 261). And the omission of an entry devoted to manuscripts, surely an area of sufficient importance to deserve several careful pages, rings oddly.

But (with the exception, perhaps, of the last) such stuff is cavilling at best, and when noticed merely serves by way of contrast to burnish the more the lustre of the whole. Every work of Chaucer’s hand receives an entry, as does every tale, place, event, and character he names. Citations for the least of these are uniformly clear, succinct, cross-referenced to other entries, and (wherever possible or needed) suggest a resource text for further study. For the more important topics–The Canterbury Tales, say, or ‘Chaucer, Geoffrey: life’–the entries amount to significant assessments, even-handed scholarly achievements in parvo. One such is the explanation of ‘versification’ by Eric Stanley; another is Piero Boitani’s ‘Boccaccio’–although it is difficult to single out a few from among the number.

There are so many items here that will make this Companion valuable, for which, again, editorial foresight deserves laudation. Rather than retreat into the safety of a comfortable old format, this Companion seeks currency through direct engagement with issues of contemporary concern. Nowhere is this better seen, perhaps, than in the carefully balanced inclusivity that characterizes Gray’s two-part entry on ‘Criticism of Chaucer’ which in less thoughtful hands could–easily–have degenerated into partisan obscurantism. It is a pleasure to report the opposite, and to note as well such headwords as ‘men’, ‘women’ (an excellent mini-essay by Helen Cooper), ‘auctor and auctoritee’, ‘audience’, ‘money’, ‘editing and editions’–all of which reflect recent concerns with issues related to gender, literary provenance and direction, the economics of writing, and the nature and makings of the texts we read. Important, even courageously presented as these entries are, however, what in the end will make this volume indispensable are less the items one ‘ought’ to find in a work like this than those that surprise–initially–before they seem altogether natural, to the degree that, were they not there, the volume would be wanting. Entries on ‘ale’, ‘clothes’, ‘drunkenness’, ‘food’, ‘joy’, ‘oaths’, and ‘ugliness’ are notably of this kind; others devoted to ‘beauty’, ‘eye’, ‘forest’, ‘gestures’, ‘recognition scenes’, and ‘visual qualities’ open windows through which to ‘see’ as Chaucer did, just as studies of ‘ejaculations and interjections’, ‘proverbs’, ‘puns’, ‘quotation’, and ‘lyrics’ each help us appreciate his exacting ear. (The star performance of the lot may be the entry ‘birds’, evidently a pleasure to write, and certainly one to read. And it is encouraging to see the number of entries related to Chaucer and Spain, a territory less familiar to Chaucerians than to Chaucer himself.)

Finally, it is worth noting that Gray, in his introductory statement, expresses the hope that ‘the mingling of longer discursive entries with the more factual notes will encourage the reader to browse as well as to search for information, and find in the combination of “sentence” and “solaas” something of the special delight that the reading of Chaucer brings’. In the opinion of this reviewer, in this he and his contributors have succeeded admirably.


Pensacola, Florida

COPYRIGHT 2005 Society for the Study of Mediaeval Languages and Literature

COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning