Chesterton on Chaucer: The testimony of two biographers

One of the modern figures I think I will be using in Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants as guides into the Middle Ages for today’s readers is the early 20th century author and apologist G. K. Chesterton. Among Chesterton’s works are biographies on St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis of Assisi and a work of literary criticism on Chaucer.

I will post, below, the assessments by two of Chesterton’s biographers of his Chaucer work. But first I can’t resist repeating the famous story about how the brilliant academic medievalist Etienne Gilson responded to Chesterton’s biography of Aquinas. Remember that Chesterton himself had no academic degree in medieval philosophy or any other related topic. Here’s how biographer Maisie Ward reports Gilson’s response:

Maisie Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1943)

“Etienne Gilson . . . [w]hen St. Thomas appeared . . . said to a friend of mine ‘Chesterton makes one despair. I have been studying St. Thomas all my life and I could never have written such a book.’ After Gilbert’s death, asked to give an appreciation, he returned to the same topic—‘I consider it as being without possible comparison the best book ever written on St. Thomas. Nothing short of genius can account for such an achievement. Everybody will no doubt admit that it is a “clever” book, but the few readers who have spent twenty or thirty years in studying St. Thomas Aquinas, and who, perhaps, have themselves published two or three volumes on the subject, cannot fail to perceive that the so-called “wit” of Chesterton has put their scholarship to shame. He has guessed all that which they had tried to demonstrate, and he has said all that which they were more or less clumsily attempting to express in academic formulas. Chesterton was one of the deepest thinkers who ever existed; he was deep because he was right; and he could not help being right; but he could not either help being modest and charitable, so he left it to those who could understand him to know that he was right, and deep; to the others, he apologized for being right, and he made up for being deep by being witty. That is all they can see of him.’” (619 – 20)

Now for the assessments two biographers made of Chesterton’s book on Chaucer–and of his appropriation of medieval themes in general:

Alzina Stone Dale, The Outline of Sanity: A Life of G. K. Chesterton (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982)

“That April Chesterton’s biographical study of Chaucer came out, a book for which he received the largest advance he ever got—one thousand pounds. This book has not helped his reputation: it is used to label him as a writer lost in the past, caught up in mindless medievalism. Chesterton’s thesis was that he liked and admired Chaucer immensely because he was ‘closer [than Shakespeare] to the meaning of Merrie England . . . festive and full of fun . . . the last full and free manifestation [of the spirit] which is Pickwick’; he called Chaucer ‘a novelist when there were no novels.’ [NOTE: G. K. Chesterton, A Handful of Authors, ed. Dorothy Collins (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1953), p. 214]” (286)

“Chesterton’s basic approach to Chaucer was to recognize that his world was not like the modern one; it was a world in which the intellectuals and the ordinary people still related to one another. Therefore, Chaucer’s profoundly comic irony had not only a popular simplicity, but also a depth of ‘clerkly’ [clerical, priestly] sophistication. [note omitted] In other words, Chaucer wrote to be read by everybody, which was also Chesterton’s goal. This was the medieval, Christian world, which had its own version of ‘spiritual democracy,’ even though it also had a very structured society. It was this facet of Chaucer’s time that had led Chesterton to feel that democracy—his own brand of Liberal democracy—had arisen from the world of medieval Christianity, and, in the end, from Christianity itself. [note omitted]” (286)

Christopher Hollis, The Mind of Chesterton (Coral Gables, FL, University of Miami Press, 1970)

“His Chaucer, almost the last of his books of importance to be published in his lifetime, appeared only in 1932 a few years before his death. It is in many ways one of the most attractive of his books, brimful of his enormous love for Chaucer.” (233)

“Chesterton was not fanatical in his admiration of the Middle Ages, frequently though an accusation of such a sort was leveled against him. On the contrary, as he interpreted it—and surely correctly—Chaucer did not live in the high noon of the Middle Ages as he would had he lived in the thirteenth century, or, in the case of England, in the reign of Edward I. He lived in the reigns of Edward III and of Richard II and it was Richard II’s reign which saw the beginnings of the decline which was a century and a half later to lead to the plutocracy and the Reformation.” (234)

“It is customary to say—and indeed I have very often said it myself—that Chaucer was one of the most delightful men who ever lived. This was certainly Chesterton’s own opinion. We cannot, for sure, be quite certain of the truth of the verdict. For the very few anecdotes that we possess about Chaucer’s life are not sufficient to enable us to form any certain picture of his character. We can only judge him from his writings . . .” (235)

“. . . Chaucer’s attitude towards his pilgrims. The pilgrims are no company of saintns. Some of them, both secular and ecclesiastical—the Miller, the Pardoner—are thorough-paced rascals. Chaucer makes no attempt to disguise or excuse their rascality. He passes judgement from an unflinching moral code that has no hesitation in saying what is right and what is wrong, and yet at the same time there is a kindliness even in his censure. . . . [examples omitted]” (238)

“Men were not very good, but there was usually some good and kindness to be found mixed in with their badness. It was the censor’s business to condemn sin, but was it his business to weigh good against evil and to pronounce a verdict on the sinner? After all, ‘these are they for whom their omnipotent Creator did not disdain to die.’ Chesterton shows ups—truly enough—how Chaucer gives evidence in several passages of high and delicate understanding of the nature of romantic love. Had he turned to The Paston Letters he would have seen how marriages in the fourteenth century were very frequently no more than a brutal matter of buying and [239] selling-how Chaucer in his treatment of the relations of the sexes almost always writes above the common level of his age.” (238-9)

“Chesterton makes a very just point when he shows that Chaucer was not, like the modern reformer, a man obsessed with a plan for rebuilding society. It was not his concern when he passed judgement or propounded moral principles to say something that no one had ever said before. He was a man born in original sin, the companion of men who were also born in original sin. He was a sane man living in a sane world. Chesterton justly points out that in all Chaucer’s work there is no mention of a character who is in the least touched by insanity—in which he is in great contrast to the Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists, to say nothing of most modern writers. Compare him with the other great pilgrim of English literature. Chaucer travels in company with other men and women who share his faith, travelling with them to join them in giving thanks. Bunyan travels alone, concerned only to save his own soul and indeed, if we may judge from the total absence of any indication in Bunyan what heaven was like, salvation to him meant little more than the escape from damnation.” (238-9)

“Chaucer’s task was to make his small contribution to keeping society in existence. He had no expectation that he would be able to rebuild it and to create a new society. So, too, in his theorising he did not look on himself as an original thinker with a duty to say to his readers something that had never been said before. He looked on himself as the inheritor of a tradition, and his duty to apply to the circumstances of his day the principles which he had inherited.” (239)

“Men’s minds resembled one another and if something had never been said before it was unlikely to be true. There have been some critics who, seeing that Chaucer did not hesitate to point his satire against unworthy ecclesiastics—the Monk, the Friar, the Summoner, the Pardoner—have thought to see in him a forerunner of Protestantism. Chesterton is unsparing and just in his exposure of this misunderstanding. It was precisely because his Christian principles were so unassailable that he did not hesitate to criticise those who had shown themselves unworthy of it. . . . (239)

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