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Title: Chaucer and Langland: The Antagonistic Tradition
Author: Bowers, John M
Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press; Publication Date: 2007
Paperback; ISBN: 9780268022020
Volumes: 1; Pages: 424
List Price in Paper: $45.00 Our price: $45.00
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Although Geoffrey Chaucer and William Langland together dominate fourteenth-century English literature, their respective masterpieces, The Canterbury Tales and Piers Plowman, could not be more different. While Chaucer's writings suggest that he considered himself an heir, not a begetter, the notion of him as a father-figure standing at the head of a patrilineal literary tradition was formulated within a generation of his death. John Bowers asks how Chaucer, not Langland, was granted this position. His study becomes an examination of the political, social, and religious factors that contributed to the formation of a literary canon in fourteenth-century England.The earliest complete version of Piers Plowman predates Chaucer's text; Langland also anticipated one of Chaucer's major achievements, namely, challenging the dominance of Latin and French by writing a long, serious poem in English. Langland's poem was immediately influential and widely disseminated; it was read, quoted, copied, and imitated throughout the last decades of the fourteenth century. In contrast, there is very little evidence that Chaucer's works reached any sort of wide readership in his lifetime.Yet is was Chaucer, not Langland, who was elevated as a cultural and literary progenitor early in the century after his death. He was a court poet, and he was fortunate enough to have a series of literary heirs, notably Thomas Hoccleve and John Lydgate, who vigorously promoted him as England's foundational writer. Chaucer was also a kinsman of the new Lancastrian kings, who championed his Canterbury Tales, and his son Thomas Chaucer became a key supporter of the new royal dynasty. These political alliances provided the grounds for promoting Chaucer as the founder of a literary dynasty.Langland, on the other hand, despite his contemporary popularity, was a dissenter and social critic. Bowers points to Langland's engagement in domestic controversies that forced him and most of his readers to remain anonymous. Linked with the Peasants' Revolt in 1381, Langland's poem espoused a brand of religious reform associated with the heretical Lollard movements.Through extensive manuscript evidence, Bowers tracks the reputations of the two writers into the fifteenth century, when studies of fourteenth-century literature became more clearly configured in terms of a double, antagonistic dynamic. Langland remained the largely invisible presence against which the official Chaucerian tradition was constructed. Never really separate, the two literary traditions constantly interacted, with the reputation of Chaucer the court poet eclipsing that of Langland the dissenter and critic. By examining the historical and social contexts within which these traditions arose, Bowers helps us to understand how some texts and writers become canonical and how others become marginalized.