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In the case of the texts, we have a series of manuscripts, each of which acts like a unique set of binoculars, adjusted to somebody else’s eyesight. Each set is focused differently in the fine detail of its account of the text. For the editor the medieval poem is accordingly something of an aspiration, a hardest idea, somewhere between, behind, or above the network of available scribal variations in any given line. Chaucer’s poems survive for each line somewhere mid-way in a band of possible scribal variation on either side.

The Latin word cannot manage all this; but Middle English auctoritee can mean ‘authority’ in the personal sense of auctor as well as the impersonal senses of auctoritas. Perhaps helped by this, Chaucer invariably emphasizes the historical agent behind a text (his usual meaning, in fact, for auctoritee) rather than accepting any transcendently authoritative ‘sentence’. Indeed, his sensitivity to human origins of knowledge is so great that encounters with ‘olde bokes’ usually involve some degree of crisis regarding their claims to authority, increased by his compilational tendency.

Ther nedeth noght noon auctoritee t’allegge, For it is preeved by experience . ’ (2987–3001) The speech claims the self-evident authority of authority, as a natural, political and philosophical necessity; but such authority emerges as unpleasant, paradoxical and increasingly strained, under pressure alike from the energies of the confined elements and from the emotions and complaints of human beings, implicitly including the speaker’s. The speech’s dark features are obvious; life is ‘this wrecched world’, the only escape suicide (‘Al mowe they yet tho dayes wel abregge’).

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