chapter  2
Translating Chaucer: Denial and Resistance
Pages 23

In her recent analysis of political corpses, Katherine Verdery has suggested that “bones, and corpses” are symbolically effective because “they are indisputably there…. Bodies have the advantage of concreteness that nonetheless transcends time, making past immediately present.”3 In the medieval period the “thereness” of a saint’s body could (as is well known) provide proof that a particular monastic or civic institution had special status.4 Chaucer was, of course, no saint. But his body was nonetheless the material residue of what might be called a transcendent poetic standard, as poets who followed him insistently attempted to measure up to this Father.5 Hence the body was infused with a kind of auratic presence normally reserved for the bodies of kings or saints. Yet if such bodies demonstrated that “hic locus est” in the Middle Ages (as Peter Brown suggests), the early modern period in England had a more troublesome relationship with such relics.6 The Reformation coded such preoccupations with the body as idolatrous-something that distracted from contemplation of the transcendent. What Eamon Duffy characterizes as the “disappearance of the corpse” occasioned a crisis of sorts for those who valued England’s literary corpus. For even as the decades following 1538 saw a turn away from the body, Nicholas Brigham, Exchequer official and antiquarian, apparently translated Chaucer’s body from his original grave to the familiar purbeck altar tomb in Westminster Abbey in 1556. This very act of translation, which established that Chaucer’s

body was worthy of translation, imbued the body with value at a moment when the category “body” was being emptied of significance. Even more alarming to Protestant sensibilities, Chaucer’s movement from the floor in front of St. Benedict’s Chapel to the altar tomb against the east wall may have actually been an act of religious re-appropriation during the short reign of Queen Mary, which attempted to “fix” the resting place of Chaucer as that of a “Catholic” poet. Protestant attempts to deal with this second inhumation of Chaucer were, predictably, mixed. On the one hand, the reburial was judged improper and even dangerous because the body was indecently appropriated by those who were not Chaucer’s true “heirs.” On the other hand, anxieties about the capaciousness of the uses of Chaucer despite the reburial seemed to suggest that the reburial was at the very least imperfect, if it was carried out at all. This double burial, then, becomes a hermeneutical stumbling block for Protestant commentators-for even as it is denied or resisted, the very resistance of the burial infuses the material body with the same sort of auratic significance that a Catholic relic might possess. The Protestant reception of the burial makes clear that the real issue was not whether one localized body would have significance. Rather it shows how the value of the Father of poetry came to hover between the material and the transcendent, the bodily and the spiritual.