Chaucerian Themes and Terms (Notes:37)

“Truth” and “Adam Scrivin” were some of Chaucer’s most popular poems during his lifetime. Since its publication, writers and philosophers have continuously found meaning in Chaucer’s poems as the times changed. In them, he is concerned with the nature of truth and what it means; indeed, as Seth Lerer suggests, the poems seem to concentrate the Chaucerian project into tiny form or open up a world of manuscript production, literary response, and personal responsibility for the late Middle Ages.

“Truth” is a short poem consisting of four stanzas of seven lines each. This stanzic pattern is called Rhyme Royal—the royal stanza. Chaucer borrowed it from the French and uses it when he wishes to describe morality or ethics or to describe a condition of spiritual life. In The Canterbury Tales, for instance, Chaucer uses this rhyming pattern to describe stories about idealizing women, to uphold the purity of the holy virgin, or to venerate Saint. Cecilia, among other instances. All of this is to frame truth as a philosophical-moral tale with a political edge.

An alternative title for this poem is “The Ballard of Good Council,” and this title is usually written in French; as a text it survives in over twenty manuscripts. As a poem, the text upholds upright living through self-control; it is a platonic stance that advises its audience to not battle against which they cannot win and instead of win their interiority in order to maintain your public and private self without contradiction to godly living and finding the truth of everyday life.

“Adam Scrivin” by contrast only survives in one manuscript. Dating from the mid-fifteenth century, the poem is dictated from Chaucer to his scribe. The text is situated in a long tradition of poets ruminating on what it means to be immersed in a print culture and what it means to have people transcribe your work and copy it into new formats and how originality and scribal error interact.
What does it mean to be a poet in a manuscript culture? Chaucer recollects that some pitfalls of such a culture is the mis-appropriation of dialects by scribes which hamper the work by making it not scan. Among other things, the text may also act as a meditation upon violence against women and gendered literary contexts. But, as we lack much information about Chaucer, this text could mean anything and remains a hotly debated text among critics.