by Hans ten Cate (special thanks to Terry Jones, Margot Weale of Methuen Publishing, and Phil Stubbs)
Monday, 8 December 2003

Terry Jones' Who Murdered Chaucer? A Medieval Mystery (London: Methuen Publishing Ltd.), was published 23 October 2003

Terry Jones wanted to let visitors to PythOnline know that his most recent book, Who Murdered Chaucer, has been published by Methuen Publishing Ltd. in the U.K.

The book is described as “a groundbreaking historical whodunnit about the mysterious death of England's greatest medieval writer over 600 years ago.” The book is of course quintessential Terry - an historical examination of a medieval personage, whose story is turned on its head thanks to deeply researched historical contexts and literary analyses. In 1980, Terry published a similar in-depth work entitled Chaucer's Knight, which challenged the conventional view of the wholesome Christian knight depicted in the Canterbury Tales.

“The idea for Who Murdered Chaucer? had been floating around in my head for about thirty years,” writes Terry in the introduction to the book, “but I kept putting it off because I thought I'd never find the time to research and write it.”

The mystery begins following the overthrow of King Richard II by Henry IV, with Archbishop Arundel, “the Henry Kissinger of his day” according to Terry, pulling the strings as the most powerful man in England. But “just like George Bush,” said Terry recently on Loose Ends (a talk show on BBC Radio 4), “he wanted a common enemy. That's just what you do when you are not in a secure position. Just like George Bush has declared a war against terrorism, Arundel declared, in 1400, a war against heresy.” Given that the Canterbury Tales were a direct criticism and a series of tongue-in-cheek jokes about the church, there is political speculation that Chaucer may have been 'rubbed out.'

Why is so little known about the end of Chaucer's life?

Geoffrey Chaucer was celebrated in his lifetime as an important public figure, a court favourite, a diplomat, brother-in-law to the influential John of Gaunt and England's finest poet and scholar: the intellectual superstar of his age. And yet nothing is known of his death.

Here is what the critics are saying about Terry's new book, Who Murdered Chaucer?...

'This is a refreshing and engaging book… that despite its controversial conclusions manages to restore the life and spirit of the period.' Peter Ackroyd, The Times

'More of a contextual study than a biography, it contains a great deal of valuable material and intriguing speculation.' Jonathan Bate, Sunday Telegraph

'Cheerfully free of uneasy intensity, and interesting evidence is adduced to support a theory of murder… Their analysis of the nature of medieval scholarship is fascinating and erudite.' Independent on Sunday

'The pages simply fly by… This is a remarkable work, a miraculous blend of history and literary re-appraisal that is both light-hearted and entertaining.'
Good Book Guide

'impressively thorough and highly readable.' What's On in London

'Who Murdered Chaucer? is a meaty, hugely enjoyable read. … Let's hope that it will stimulate many readers to revisit Chaucer's writings, read about the background, and make up their own minds.' Independent

'That's what makes Jones's canter through medieval politics and literature all the more exciting. The authors take each orthodox view of Chaucer or Richard II or heresy and, one by one, turn them on their heads…In this light, The Canterbury Tales suddenly takes on an unsettling and tantalising new dimension: not only poetic and comic masterpiece, but political rallying cry as well.' The Guardian

In 1400 Chaucer's name simply disappears from the record. His tombstone in Westminster Abbey says that he died on October 25, 1400. In fact we don't know how he died, where or when; there is no official confirmation of his death and no chronicle mentions it, nor records his funeral or burial. He left no will and there's nothing to tell us what happened to his estate. He didn't even leave any of his own manuscripts, though those of his contemporaries survive.

How could this be? How could such a famous man simply disappear without a trace? What if he was murdered? What if Chaucer and his writings had become politically inconvenient when Richard II's liberal reign was overthrown by the oppressive regime of Henry IV? Could the dogs of suppression, unleashed by Archbishop Arundel, have pursued the author of a book as subversive as the Canterbury Tales?

This hypothesis is the starting point for Terry Jones's murder investigation in which he brings together a team of renowned Chaucer scholars to sift through the facts and comes up with some surprising answers.

The result is a remarkable re-reading of Chaucer's work - as evidence that might be held against him - interwoven with a fascinating portrait of one of the most turbulent periods in English history. Combining revelatory scholarship with narrative flair, Who Murdered Chaucer? is an absorbing synthesis of history and literary analysis which sheds new light on the life and times of England's greatest poet.

Challenging Conventions

Terry Jones' Medieval Lives will air on BBC2 this February

Terry Jones continues to challenge the conventional wisdown associated with historical figures and lifestyles. Terry's Hidden History documentaries examined the shocking and unexpected truths behind the daily lives of people of ancient Rome and Egypt. Earlier this year, he contributed a segment to Heroes and Villains on BBC Radio 4 in which he re-examined the lives of Attila the Hun and Alexander the Great, demonstrating that they were not necessarily the monster and hero, respectively, we thought they were.

This coming February, Terry Jones will be hosting an eight-part documentary for BBC television (BBC2) and the History Channel entitled Terry Jones' Medieval Lives. Once again, Terry Jones embarks on a mission to rescue the Middle Ages from moth-eaten clichés and well-worn platitudes. In the new BBC series, he takes audiences on a voyeuristic tour through the lives of eight archetypal medieval figures: a knight, a monk, a peasant, a damsel, an outlaw, a king, a philosopher and a minstrel. Using the latest research, locations across Europe and his storytelling talents, Jones reveals that, contrary to popular belief, the Middle Ages was a time of splendour and laughter - and that even dental hygiene was better than it is today. A book based on the series will be published by BBC Books in February as well.