Watching a Thesis Evolve about England's "National Treasure"
The Primary Source Research: I found three Renaissance print editions of Chaucer's collected works that had been annotated by early readers with the verses from Chaucer's Westminster Abbey tomb (in what is now known as "Poet's Corner") . This seemed odd because no other form of annotation occurs so often. These are multi-line Latin poems and copying them took time.
The Secondary Source Research: Three other scholars, on several different earlier occasions, already had discovered other hand-written copies of the verses in Renaissance editions of Chaucer's collected works. One of my three copies (at the Folger Shakespeare Library) had already been discovered and published about, but adding my two to theirs, I now realized that the tomb verses were written out by readers in seven out of 56 copies of Chaucer's Collected Works printed between 1532 and 1561. That is the single most common kind of hand-written note found in these books, and it is found in one eighth of the sample. Because I found three of them within a single month, at the Garrett Library (JHU) and the Folger Shakespeare Library, I saw them differently from the other three scholars, who found them in different circumstances. One knew of the discoveries of the other two, but only I know about the discoveries of all three of them and my own. This led me to believe that I can explain the evidence we all found. The tomb-verse writers all were moved by the same or similar causes. To the extent that we can identify the persons who wrote the verses in their copies of Chaucer, they appear to have been from the late 1500s (5), the early 1600s (1) and the 1700s (1). The inscriptions are not found in the earliest printed editions of Chaucer's individual works. You can see my evidence, and theirs, as it was first presented at a medieval literature conference by clicking here.
First Thesis, November 2009-December 2010: Sixteenth-century English Chaucer readers inscribed their books with his tomb verses as an act of quasi-religious reverence for the author of The Canterbury Tales, his most famous work and a narrative about a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. They did this around the time of Henry VIII and Edward VI's destruction of the monasteries and prohibition of pilgrimages to saints' shrines when they established the Protestant Church of England. Subjects who remained faithful to Roman Catholicism would have claimed "Saint Geoffrey" as one of them, loyal to the old faith even though critical of corrupt church officials. Protestants increasingly believed that Chaucer was so critical of the Roman Church that he believed in the Reformation as they did. Both embraced Chaucer as a representative of "linguistic Englishness" and called him "the Father of English" as a language, providing a solidarity in national identity that had been threatened by the religious division.
Revised Thesis I, December 2010-May 2010: In addition to writing the tomb verses in their Chaucer editions, at least some of the readers went to Westminster Abbey to copy them directly from the tomb. They could do this because, before about 1800, keepers of the Abbey monuments routinely allowed or even encouraged visitors to touch them. As the tomb-verse copier touched the marble inscriptions, they helped wear them away, until by the late 1500s, some were described as "clean worn out," and by the 1700s, almost all of the inscriptions were illegible and had to be recovered from books. Because the marble was inside the Abbey, sheltered from acid rain or any other source of erosion, the cause must have been acidic human sweat and gentle but frequently repeated rubbing by hand, which would have increased as the letters slowly were eroded.
A Peer-reviewer's Key Objection, November 2010: To treat a secular man as a saint would have been sacrilegious behavior for either Protestants or Catholics. You can't call it actual saint's worship.
Author's independent realization, December 2010: If readers began writing the tomb verses with some kind of quasi-religious motive in the 1550s-1560s, near the time when pilgrimages were abolished and saints' shrines destroyed, what kept readers doing it as late as the 1630s and the 1700s when most English people were Protestant and cared nothing for the practices of the "old religion"?
Revised thesis, December 2010: The first readers to adopt the tomb-verse inscription practice may have been unconsciously following religious motives they had been taught when they were children, much as modern adult agnostics or atheists will utter prayers in times of great physical or emotional crisis, and swear profane oaths, in the name of deities they did not ever or no longer believe in. Touching and tracing inscriptions and memorial statues is still a common source of damage to modern public monuments, which people still visit and reverently observe without knowing they are repeating social behaviors their ancestors learned as religious practice. The rise of "antiquarianism" in the same period (ca. 1550-1700) added a secular group of readers who also would visit the tomb, trace the inscriptions, and copy them into their Chaucer editions. They also would tend to promote construction of monuments to English writers as part of their attempt to reconstruct the English past and to understand what it means to be English (vs. a royal subject or a soul indebted to God). That helps account for the odd clustering of secular authors' graves and inscriptions in "Poet's Corner" of Westminster Abbey. It also explains tourists' continued visits to that particular part of the Abbey, even if those buried there are not saints, but famous English authors. The influence of "linguistic Englishness" outlasted religion but produced much the same results. Early Chaucer editions had become collectors' items by the 1600s and 1700s, also a product of "antiquarianism" as a nostalgia for England's lost history and the earliest great English authors. These later readers, influenced by what they saw in others' Chaucer editions, wrote the tomb verses into their copies because that is what they thought an authentic old Chaucer edition should contain.