Chaucer’s Book Launch…and Gower’s Shame

The Troilus Frontispiece, from Cambridge, CCC MS 61

So today is Launch Day, with a party in downtown Charlottesville to celebrate the publication of A Burnable Book. Given the occasion and the setting of A Burnable Book—London 1385—I thought I’d share some recent archival discoveries concerning one of the most famous book launch parties in history. I refer, of course, to Chaucer’s book launch for Troilus and Criseyde, which took place on March 6, 1386—a Shrove Tuesday, when the annual cycle of revelry was at its height before the Lenten season of self-denial. The cream of the English aristocracy and artistic avant-garde assembled that afternoon in the yard before Westminster Palace to hear the renowned poet read from what was already being described as his greatest work

There’s a wonderful contemporaneous illustration of Chaucer’s reading at the launch party (the so-called Troilus Frontispiece) that shows the poet standing in a rostrum, holding forth to an audience of lords and ladies assembled for the great occasion. Chaucer read a number of stanzas from the poem, concluding with the famous apostrophe that sent his “litel boke” out into the world to find its illustrious way:

Go, litel book, go, litel myn tragedye,
Ther God thi makere yet, er that he dye,
So sende myght to make in som comedye!
But litel book, no makyng thou n’envye,
But subgit be to alle poesye;
And kis the steppes, whereas thou seest pace
Virgile, Ovide, Omer, Lucan, and Stace.

While basic information about the Troilus launch (date, location, reading selection, etc.) has been known to scholars for a long time, there are two new pieces of evidence I’m delighted to announce. First, I’ve uncovered an eyewitness account of the festivities that for the first time reveals the extravagance of the launch party while giving us a glimpse at the audience–which, mirabile dictu, included King Richard II. The account comes from an unpublished continuation of the Anonimalle Chronicle that survives as a bit of marginalia in one of the early manuscripts of the Troilus (previously unrecognized, the notes occur on the verso of fol. 124, and are visible only with the assistance of ultraviolet light). I won’t quote the description in full, just enough to convey a sense of the wonder and excess inspired by the occasion:

And lo! When Father Chaucer closed his book,
Our blessed King did all the feast commence.
Kids carved down the back, quartered swans,
Tarts ten inches across; it gladdened my heart
To see the board overspread with splendid dishes,
Like a cross richly adorned with rings and stones.
As for the third course, that would quite amaze you!
For it was all of salted beef, laid down at Martinmas,
Scented herbs with the meat, with good wild-fowl
And twenty hens for the head of the household.
And there were birds prepared on silver skewers,
Barnacle-geese and bitterns, and snipe with their bills,
Skylarks and linnets, dusted with sugar,
Woodcock and woodpeckers, piping hot,
Teals and titmice, to take what he wants;
Stews made of rabbit, and sweet custards,
Pastries and pies that cost a high price,
Diced meat, called ‘mawmene’ because it fills your maw,
Every dish for two costing a full mark or more,
A sum to make your stomach sing with happiness.

And the account goes on. There are some other pertinent details I’ll be sharing at a later date. For now let’s just say that the launch party got a little wild as the evening progressed, and Ash Wednesday didn’t dawn sober for this particular crowd!

The other piece of evidence I have uncovered is rather more sobering. As I’ve noted on this blog before, Chaucer was a longtime friend and literary rival of sorts with John Gower, the protagonist of A Burnable Book and the author of a number of important if (to the general public) little-read works in French, Latin, and English. As is well known, Gower completed his Vox Clamantis, a long Latin elegy, during the same week in which Chaucer completed Troilus and Criseyde. No evidence has been uncovered suggesting how Gower might have celebrated the occasion–nor would we expect it to, given the comparatively thin documentary record attesting to the details and circumstances of Gower’s life.

Well, as it turns out, Gower did host a launch party, which was to take place in the herb garden of the Augustinian Priory of St. Mary Overey in Southwark, where the poet let a house for a number of years. We can now speak with some authority about this event, as it’s mentioned explicitly in one of the priory’s account books, on a missing quire two of whose folios were recently rescued from the bindings of an eighteenth-century printed prayer book (again, details forthcoming). Here is the portion of the account book in question:

For marking thi occasioun of the publicacioun of Vox Clamantis, or Voise of One Man Cryinge, In Lattine, written by oure blessid auctor Ioahan Gouwer, thise sixte daye of Marche, in the yere of oure Lorde one thousande three hundride eighty and sixe, as followeth:

Two hammes wel seasoned: 2s.
Salte-fishe, four and twenty: 1s. 4d.
Ale, from Wm Bustons ales on the highe strete: 2s. 5d.
Chese: 4d.
Brede, iv loves: 3d.

And the list goes on…though not for long. It wasn’t to be an extravagant feast. Just a small gathering of friends and supporters–including Chaucer, of course, and the prior of St. Mary’s. But note the date at the top of the account entry for Gower’s launch party. Yes, you guessed it: March 6, 1386–the precise date of Chaucer’s launch party for Troilus and Criseyde. The conclusion is unavoidable: Geoffrey Chaucer planned his book launch quite deliberately to conflict with John Gower’s!

It was the ultimate literary insult, and apparently Gower never recovered. There’s a scribbled note in the account book entry at this point that tells us what Gower read on the occasion. Too overcome with disappointment and jealous fury to read from the Vox Clamantis, the long Latin work he had hoped to celebrate that day, Gower pulled out the sole manuscript of his earlier French poem, the Mirour de l’omme, and recited perhaps the bleakest passage in his entire corpus:

I want to tell you a little about nothing. When one imagines he has a handful of it, he must go away completely empty. All was nothing, however much man now has, and all this nothing returns to nothing through nothing, which causes everything to be annihilated: it is nothing that in itself contains all evils. Whenever I recall nothing, I have to heave many a sigh, because I see so many evils come forth from nothing, for all have their desire in the nothing that belongs to this world. That nothing makes them desert their God for a nothing that must revert to nothing and become more vile than dung.

It’s an appropriately dark sentiment for the great disappointment that was the launch party for the Vox Clamantis. Imagine it: your best and most famous friend, plotting his book launch for the very day and time you’ve planned yours! Adding insult to injury, Chaucer even winkingly dedicated his book to Gower on that day, reading aloud a stanza that drew nothing but peals of laughter from the assembled aristocrats–all of them in on the joke and imagining poor John Gower cowering in the priory across the river, prattling into the Southwark breeze. I’ll close the post with that stanza, and I’d ask you to think today about poor Moral Gower, and the difficult friendship that defined so much of his writing life.

O moral Gower, this book I directe
To thee, and to the philosophical Strode,
To vouchen sauf, ther nede is, to corecte,
Of your benignitees and zeles gode.
And to that sothfast Crist, that starf on rode,
With al myn herte of mercy ever I preye;
And to the lord right thus I speke and seye…

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