De consolatione philosophiae

Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy was one of the most widely read texts of the Middle Ages, and after Gutenberg, about ninety separate printed editions, mostly in Latin, appeared before 1500. Its great influence on medieval and Renaissance thinking in England is apparent from a list of its highly notable translators into the vernacular: Alfred the Great, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Queen Elizabeth.

Boethius (ca. 480–524), a statesman and philosopher, was born into an important family in Rome, was well educated, and entered into the service of Theodoric the Great, the Ostorgoth king of Italy. By 520, Boethius had risen to be the head of civil and court services for the King. Three years later, he was imprisoned for treason and wrote Consolation while awaiting execution for charges that Boethius himself attributed to slander by rivals. In the form of a dialogue with Philosophy, a majestic woman, Consolation deals with profound questions: why, if God is good, is there evil in the universe; why is vice so often seemingly rewarded and virtue punished; and with an all-knowing God, does man have free will? The work reflects a deep belief in the goodness of God, but it is uncertain whether the author’s belief is Christian or pagan.

Chaucer translated Consolation probably in the 1380s. The work is indicative of Chaucer’s serious interests and reflects his orthodox attitude toward life. Boethius’s influence is evident throughout the Canterbury Tales. “The Knight’s Tale” deals with free will and destiny; “Melibeus” is a serious treatise on social and personal justice and the need to love God and obey the law; and “The Parson’s Tale” is a long sermon on penitence.

Like many other great works of medieval England, Chaucer’s Consolation was first printed by Caxton (in 1478). The second edition was part of William Thynne’s The Workes of Geffray Chaucer, which was the earliest “critical” attempt to collect and edit Chaucer’s complete works. The present copy of Consolation consists of separately bound pages extracted from Thomas Godfray’s first printing (1532) of the Thynne edition of Chaucer.

Chrzanowski 1532b *

STC 3278

Title List

1479–1550 | 1551–1580 | 1583–1608 | 1609–1675