Lists and Literary History: From Chaucer to Ernst Robert Curtius

by Eva von Contzen

Chaucer is a great maker of lists. Lists occur everywhere in his works: think of the shorter lists of trees in The Parliament of Fowls and The Knight’s Tale, the many enumerations in the dream visions, and not least the Canterbury Tales, its enumerative Prologue, The Parson’s Tale, The Monk’s Tale, and not least the many, many lists we encounter within the tales, such as the lists of knights assembling to fight for Arcite and Palamon, the description of Alisoun in The Miller’s Tale; the Wife of Bath’s list of men, and Dorigen’s lament. But Chaucer himself has also become part of a list: the list that is more commonly known as the ‘canon’, in other words, the catalogue of writers and works that form literary history. John Lydgate, in his Prologue to The Fall of Princes, pays tribute to his “maistir Chaucer” (Prol. 246; 275) and enlists him on the rolls of literary history. He does so by enumerating his works:

And semblabli as I ha[ue] told toforn,
My maistir Chaucer dede his besynesse,
And in his daies hath so weel hym born,         276
Out off our tunge tauoiden al reudnesse,
And to refourme it with colours of suetnesse;
Wherfore lat us yiue hym laude & glory
And putte his name with poetis in memory.   280

Off whos labour to make mencioun,
Wherthoruh off riht he sholde comendid be,
In youthe he made a translacioun
Off a book which callid is Trophe                      284
In Lumbard tunge, as men may reede & see,
And in our vulgar, longe or that he deide,
Gaff it the name off Troilus & Cresseide.
Which for to reede louers hem delite,

Thei ha[ue] theryn so gret deuocioun.              288
And this poete, hymsilff also to quite,
Off Boeces book, The Consolacioun,
Maad in his tyme an hool translacioun.           292
And to his sone, that callid was Lowis,
He made a tretis, ful noble & off gret pris,

Vpon thastlabre in ful notable fourme,            296
Sette hem in ordre with ther dyuysiouns,
Mennys wittis tapplien and confourme,
To vndirstonde be ful expert resouns
Be domefieng off sundry mansiouns,
The roote out-souht at the ascendent,               300

Toforn or he gaff any iugement.
He wrot also ful many day agone,
Dante in Inglissh, hymsilff so doth expresse,
The pitous story off Ceix and Alcione,               304
And the deth eek of Blaunche the Duchesse,
And notabli dede his bisynesse,
Bi gret auys his wittis to dispose,
To translate the Romaunce off the Rose.           308

Thus in vertu he sette al his entent,
Idilnesse and vicis for to fle;
Off Foulis also he wrot the Parlement,
Theryn remembryng of roial Eglis thre,           312
How in ther chois thei felte aduersite,
Tofor Nature profred the bataile,
Ech for his parti, yiff it wolde auaile.

He dede also his dilligence & peyne                  316
In our vulgar to translate and endite
Origen vpon the Maudeleyne,
And off the Leoun a book he dede write;
Off Anneleyda and of fals Arcite
He made a compleynt, doolful & pitous,          320
And off the broche which that Vulcanus

At Thebes wrouhte, ful dyuers of nature,
Ouide writith, who theroff hadde a siht,          324
For hih desir he shulde nat endure
But he it hadde, neuer be glad nor liht;
And yiff he hadde it onys in his myht,
Lich as my maistir seith and writ in deede,     328

It to conserue he sholde ay lyue in dreede.
This poete wrot, at request off the queen,
A legende off parfit hoolynesse,
Off Goode Women to fynde out nynteen          332
That dede excelle in bounte and fairnesse;
But for his labour and [his] bisynesse
Was inportable his wittis to encoumbre,
In al this world to fynde so gret a noumbre.   336

He made the book off Cantirburi Talis,
Whan the pilgrymis rood on pilgrymage
Thoruhout Kent bi hillis and bi valis,
And alle the stories told in ther passage,          340
Enditid hem ful weel in our language:
Summe off knyhthod, summe off gentilesse,
And summe off loue & summe off parfitnesse,

And summe also off gret moralite,                    344
Summe off disport, includynge gret sentence.
In prose he wrot the Tale off Melibe,
And off his wiff, that callid was Prudence,
And off Grisildis parfit pacience,                        348
And how the Monk off stories newe & olde
Pitous tragedies be the weie tolde.

This said poete, my maistir in his daies,
Maad and compiled ful many a fressh dite,      352
Compleyntis, baladis, roundelis, virelaies
Ful delectable to heryn and to see,
For which men sholde, off riht and equite,
Sithe he off Inglissh in makyng was the beste,  356
Preie onto God to yiue his soule good reste.

Through the list, Chaucer’s oeuvre becomes a shorthand for literary authority. Lydgate solidifies Chaucer’s status as a writer. The list maximizes the referential status of the works; the items are no longer relevant in themselves, for their content and style, but for their claim of forming a canon of English literature. At the same time, Chaucer becomes part of the list of auctores. Lydgate places him next to “Bocas” (Boccaccio) and other classical authors of tragedies: Seneca, Cicero, and Petrarch (Prol. 253-59).

For the medieval period, lists of auctores were indispensable. Thus it is small wonder that Ernst Robert Curtius begins his monumental study European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages with the lists of authors in the medieval curriculum, and repeatedly returns to them. On the final pages, he discusses the question of what is a classic, and the lists of books and authors modern universities claim as their canon. In particular, he stresses the timelessness of the medieval auctores: “All the authors were authorities. They form the imposing block of tradition” (590). The lists underscore this quality of forming a ‘block’ of authors. Lydgate creates a ‘block’ of Chaucer’s works, granting him special status as a writer in English, for an English audience. Rather surprisingly given the emphasis put on lists of authors and authorities in the medieval context, Curtius vehemently rejected the idea of writing literary history: “A narrative and enumerative history never yields anything but a cataloguelike knowledge of facts” (15). But there is no way out: literary history is a history of authors and works, and every non-canonic approach likewise relies on lists. Lists can make and unmake authorities. Chaucer’s approach to the topic of literary fame, most pronouncedly articulated in The House of Fame, is clearly sceptical: fame is relative, and the power of who is on the list and who is not is ultimately at the discretion of Fama – in other words, historical accident.

Works Cited
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Riverside Chaucer. Gen. Ed. Larry D. Benson. 3rd ed. New York:
Houghton, 1987.

Curtius, Ernst Robert. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. 1953. Trans. Willard R. Trask. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990.

Lydgate, John. The Fall of Princes. Ed. Henry Bergen. EETS ES, 121, 122, 123, 124. London: Oxford University Press, 1924-27. 4 vols.

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