CHAUCER by Richard West (Book Review)

This biography of Chaucer is as much a portrait of the period as of the man. Perhaps more so, but I will come back to that.

In the first three chapters we have a brief background history, always illustrated by quotations from the Canterbury Tales. By the end of the third chapter, we know who Chaucer was, and the setting in life that produced the Canterbury Tales.

But it does not stop there. In Chapter 4, West confronts us with Chaucer’s attitude to Jews in the context of fourteenth-century anti-semitism. There is no beating about the bush. We are shown, by contrast, Boccaccio’s fairness towards Jews and Saracens, as in the Decameron stories of Abraham and of Melchizedek. “Boccaccio’s even-handed attitude to the three religions was as rare in fourteenth-century Europe as it is in the Middle East today ”

By contrast, Chaucer’s attitude to Jews is “more open to debate.” “For hundreds of years after its publication, the Prioress’s Tale was not regarded as shocking by lovers of Chaucer,” though there were exceptions: Wordsworth, for instance, spoke of its ‘fierce bigotry’. Some Chaucer defenders would claim that he intended us to take the story and the attitude as typical of the speaker. Certainly he put it into the mouth of a woman who was “more whore than nun,” and certainly he knew that the Popes had repeatedly condemned “the blood libel”. Still, whores are no more likely to be anti-semitic than nuns and this white-washing does not really help. West gives us Chaucer as he was, warts and all.

Chapter 5 is a very good account of the Black Death, including a discussion of why Chaucer does not seem more concerned about the plague and all the other horrors of life in the “calamitous fourteenth century”. Describing the period during which the plague was rampant in England, it includes details quite new to me, such as men wearing fashions so effeminate as to constitute transvestitism, but West points out that “Chaucer does not condemn men who dress like women but those who dress to show off their masculinity.” His Poor Parson also “denounces the wearing of very long gowns which trailed in the mire, when the extra material could have been used to clothe the poor.” (In a note, West mentions that “similar criticisms greeted the Paris ‘New Look’ for women’s skirts after the Second World War, when clothes were still rationed in England and France.” I don’t remember that when Mary Quant introduced the mini-skirt, the other half was used to make a free mini-skirt for a poor girl. The absurd comments of the self-righteous never cease to amaze me.)

We see Chaucer in battle, in 1359, at Rheims, under Edward III. He spoke French, of course, and knew France well. There is a chapter on The Romance of the Rose, “the biggest single influence on Chaucer’s style, imagery and plots ” which was translated into English by Chaucer and others for an eager English public who, then as now, had the idea that sex was more exciting in France. West quotes a story he “heard in Lancashire about a coal miner who one year went for his holiday to Paris rather than Blackpool. To the questions of his inquisitive friends, he merely answered: ‘I’ll tell you one thing about Paris: fooking’s only in its infancy in Wigan.'” Nothing changes.

We see Chaucer in Florence in 1372-3, and then in Lombardy, home of the infamous Visconti brothers. He was presumably at the wedding feast of Violante, thirteen-year-old daughter of Bernabo Visconti, and Lionel, Duke of Clarence, brother of the Black Prince and John o’Gaunt. Lionel died (probably as a result of the feast) and Violante “was married off to a new husband, the Marquis of Montferrat, who supposedly got his sexual excitement from strangling young male servants.” (This chapter is full of gory details.) Chaucer was also part of the mission to Lombardy when Bernabo tried again a few years later, this time betrothing another daughter, Caterina, to Richard, son of the Black Prince; fortunately for Richard, soon to succeed to the throne as Richard II, this fell through.

This book is not, then, a biography pure and simple, as other reviewers have also pointed out. In fact there is much missing from it that one might expect to find in a biography. But it does what it sets out to do, namely give us an account of “the life and times” of its subject. By the time you finish reading it you know much more not only about about Chaucer and but about the whole astonishing fourteenth century. Wyclif, the Peasants’ Revolt, John o’ Gaunt, the minority of Richard II: Chaucer saw it all.

He also plays quite a large part in Mariana’s life in my novels –
starting Mariana de la Mar 2,


Vania Zouravliov

This fantastic drawing by Vania Zouravliov conveys perfectly the atmosphere I have tried to create in my third Mariana novel, The Undeparted Dead. (And this, I have to say, is exactly how I see Mariana herself!)

You can find more of his stunning drawings here, for example, and here.

No longer a person …

In this short extract from The Undeparted Dead, Mariana, who has just had all her hair cut off and her head shaved (scraped!) by the local hangman, and spent the last few hours locked in the pillory (like the girl in the picture above, only as I say Mariana had had her head shaved first) reflects that people in a cage-coffin or on a scaffold or even in her position, in the pillory, become invisible once the excitement is over.

A pillory such as the one Mariana was locked into.

More time passed. Another hour? I had no idea.
Lady Helen and Barbara and the two men came out. They mounted their horses, Barbara deep in conversation with Lionel, and rode off the way they had come.
Not even a glance in my direction.
Without my hair, I was no longer a person, just a thing, like part of the pillory. When a person was in the process of being hanged or caged, that was interesting. But when you passed by a silent scaffold or cage on the roadside, did you notice whether it was bare and empty or bore a shrivelled, blackened thing that once had been a person?
At least I hadn’t been shut in a cage high up in the air and left to die. Though I could easily have been hanged for stealing that gold anklet. I was lucky there, and had Barbara to thank. How many times now had she saved my life? And how would I ever repay her?
Ah! Here came Blanche!
But she walked straight past just like the others had. And her men followed her.

The kind of coffin-cage Mariana had in mind

What such a cage looked like after a few weeks


“Many-towered Camelot” Tennyson called it:

All in the blue unclouded weather
Thick jewell’d shone the saddle-leather,
The helmet and the helmet-feather
Burn’d like one burning flame together,
As he rode down to Camelot.

Who was “he”? Lancelot, of course, darling of the ladies – in this case the unfortunate Lady of Shalott. And what or where was “Camelot”?

I am, at least by birth, a West Country man (I was born in Bournemouth, which was at that time in Hampshire) but I have to say at once (and risk offending an awful lot of people) that the claims of South Cadbury “Castle” on Cadbury hill to be the site of the City of Camelot are the least well-founded of all. Excavations there have revealed Iron Age earthworks and superimposed on them a substantial fifth or sixth-century fortress or redout with walls composed of wooden stakes. Inside was a small village of wattle-and-daub huts. There are the remains of some stone walls and the foundation trenches of what seems to be a small cruciform church that was never actually built, but these belong to the time of the “abortive burh” of Ethelred the Unready, who set up a fortified mint there at the beginning of the eleventh century and then abandoned it; maybe it was abandoned when Canute succeeded Ethelred as King.

Camelot? I don’t think so.

On the dust jacket of Alistair Moffat’s Arthur and the Lost Kingdoms, I found the following remark, which is very much to the point: “Historians have failed to show convincingly that King Arthur existed, for a good reason: they have been looking in the wrong place, in Wales or the West of England.”

We must look elsewhere.

Carlisle is the choice of Norma Lorre Goodrich, author of two very original books, namely Guinevere and King Arthur. While I suspect that Modred (and maybe even Arthur himself) was half-Pictish, I cannot go along with her location of the whole saga in northern Scotland. Alistair Moffat (quoted above) is another supporter of the Scottish claims; however, he places Arthur and company in southern Scotland among the P-Celtic (i.e. Welsh)-speaking Gododdin and locates Camelot at Roxburgh, with its great castle, outside Kelso in the Border Country. “In a brilliant campaign, fought mostly in Scotland, Arthur defeated the Picts to the north and the Angles to the south. He halted the tide of invasion for a generation and gave Celtic Britain a breathing space to regroup and for parts of it to survive.”

Now the problem here is that Arthur was not fighting the Picts and the Northern Angles, who were anyway at war with each other. His enemies were the Saxons and Southern Angles who were spreading like a pest over south-eastern England.

I agree that Wales and the west of England is the wrong place to look. I suspect that Scotland is also the wrong place.

We need to look in the east, where the invaders were to be found in strength. Only there would defeating them have had any real purpose or effect; anywhere else would have been mere skirmishes. At the Battle of Badon, fought in 516 or 518, Arthur defeated a great army of Saxons. They were driven back, and as a result large areas were cleared of Saxon settlers for at least as long as Arthur was Guledig (War Lord and de facto High King). But what large areas exactly?

Only one historian has really addressed this question: John Morris, in his magisterial three-volume work The Age Of Arthur.

In Vol I, Roman Britain and the Empire of Arthur, he tells us that after the Battle of Badon, the population of certain areas such as Essex, “was either removed or subjected to such great restraints that it was unable to bury its dead with normal grave goods or in normal cemetaries.”  The evidence for this is that while in Kent, for instance, and Suffolk and Norfolk, burials continued from the fifth century into the sixth century without interruption, in Essex there were fifth-century and later-sixth-centrury burials but no evidence of burials during the early sixth century. Norma Lorre Goodrich is quite wrong when she says, in King Arthur, that “Arthur could not have won his battles in England, because [historians] know from the several manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that the Saxons conquered England in King Arthur’s lifetime and that it has been English territory ever since” as though they never lost a battle, never suffered any setbacks. In fact, as Geoffrey Ashe points out in The Quest For Arthur’s Britain, “The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, while it ignores the Anglo-Saxons’ defeats, sheds a little light by the petering out of their victories. […] Archaeology is consistent with a major Saxon retreat early in the sixth century …

On the subject of the site of Camelot, John Morris points out in The Age Of Arthur that many places “preserve in recognisable form the names they bore in Roman times” (e.g. Londinium – London, Lindum – Lincoln, Glevum – Gloucester), and continues: “A similar origin must be sought for Camelot, represented as among the most important of several cities where Arthur held court. Nearly all the others were large towns of Roman Britain, Chester, York, Gloucester and others, set down in their medieval spelling. Camalot, the more usual early form of the name, is therefore plainly a medieval spelling of the Latin name of a large Roman town in Britain. The only town with such a name is Camulodunum, Colchester. [In Essex.]

“Colchester had obvious advantages as a political centre in reconquered Britain. It was well sited to observe and to intimidate the two most formidable English territories, East Anglia and Kent. Easy roads linked it with the British north and west; and shipping from its harbours might reach Europe without approaching too closely the coast of English Kent …”

And so it is Colchester/Camulodunum that I take to be Camelot in my novels The Undeparted Dead and (the forthcoming) Colum’s Day. This is Blanche (in The Undeparted Dead) speaking of Merlin:

This is the very area in which Arthur and Merlin flourished. Forget all that nonsense about Camelot being somewhere on the Scottish border or in Scotland, or over in the west of England, near Avalon. Camulodunum, the city of Camulos, a Celtic god, which Arthur knew as Camelot, lay in the heart of the territory occupied by the invaders, the Angles of East Anglia and the Saxons of Essex and Middlesex and Sussex. This, the Deben, the Orwell, the Stour, the Colne, the Blackwater, the Crouch, the Thames itself, was where they were flocking in and had already settled in their tens of thousands during the misrule of Vortigern and Ambrosius Aurelianus. And it was from his fortress, his city, of Camelot, with its great Roman Walls – the walls we still see there today – that Arthur fought and overcame them and sent them fleeing back across the North Sea whence they came, not from the top of some bare hill hundreds of miles away. The forests and marshes around here were home to Merlin for many years, and the Island of Canvey, on the Thames estuary was his place of seclusion, his retreat …

This map of medieval Colchester clearly shows the Roman Wall all round the city, as it would have been in Arthur’s time. And the photo below shows a section of that same wall, much of which is still standing today.


Mariana de la Mar 2 is out today on Kindle!

Mariana de la Mar,  Book 2

Mariana continues her bawdy and frequently catastrophic career as a solver of mysteries, this time in England, where, having been recruited to a network of secret agents specialising in the occult, she takes on two of the Undead which infested the country, especially Essex, not only in the early Middle Ages but again in the 14th Century, in the wake of the Black Death.

It would not be easy to believe that the corpses of the dead should sally (I know not by what agency) from their graves, and should wander about to the terror or destruction of the living, and again return to the tomb, which of its own accord spontaneously opened to receive them, did not frequent examples, occurring in our own times, suffice to establish this fact, to the truth of which there is abundant testimony.” He wrote this “as a warning to posterity” and added “were I to write down all the instances of this kind which I have ascertained to have befallen in our times, the undertaking would be beyond measure laborious and troublesome“. (William of Newburgh, a 12th-century English historian and Augustinian Canon of Anglo-Saxon descent from Bridlington, Yorkshire.)

It turns out that the mission involves going undercover as a prostitute (not difficult for her, given her experiences since she was sold as a sex-slave at the age of fourteen) but will she ever again be able to convince people that Mad Mariana the Spanish Whore and Lady Marian MacElpin are one and the same person?