Fanfic, of course, originally meant something completely different: as FANCYCLOPEDIA I (1944) notes, "fan fiction" in those days wasn't characterized by its authorship or place of publication, but by its content. "Fan fiction" wasn't just written or published by fans, it was *about* fans or fandom -- in 2010 terms, a cross between RPF and crack. In terms of what the first fanfic was, you can make a lot of arguments. I've seen folks argue for THE AENEID (as ODYSSEY fanfic, which I think is a stretch) and THE DIVINE COMEDY (as a Virgil fanboy self-insertion, also a stretch), and but I don't think you really start seeing good protofanfic until about the fifteenth century. A strong case can be made (and has been) that the first identifiable work of fanfic is "The Seige of Thebes," by John Lydgate. It was written around 1420-1422, and it's CANTERBURY TALES fanfic.
THE CANTERBURY TALES was written by Geoffrey Chaucer. It's Middle English verse, and consists of a collection of stories within a framing story. Briefly, Geoffrey Chaucer goes to an inn outside London and falls in with twenty-nine people from all walks of life who are on a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Thomas a Becket in Canterbury. He decides to go along, and so does the inn's Host, and they all agree to have a storytelling contest along the way. THE CANTERBURY TALES is unfinished. Chaucer wrote and revised the poems over the period of, roughly, 1387-1400, and the reason he stopped writing in 1400 is that he died.
Enter John Lydgate. Lydgate was a monk. He was born in 1370, about thirty years after Chaucer, and he did actually know Chaucer; they probably met at Oxford in the late 1390s, and Lydgate took Chaucer as his idol. He wrote a lot of Chaucerian stuff, but "The Seige of Thebes" is the biggie, because he picks up where Chaucer left off.
Here's an early bit from it:
[ . . . ]
Word for word with every circumstaunce,
Echon ywrite and put in remembraunce
By him that was, yif I shal not feyne,
Flowre of Poetes thorghout al Breteyne,
Which sothly hadde most of excellence
In rethorike and in eloquence
(Rede his making who list the trouthe fynde)
Which never shal appallen in my mynde,
But alwey fressh ben in my memorye:
[. . .]
If that feels somehow familiar, it should; it's the early fifteenth-century version of "Joss is God." (Or, if you'd rather, "I do not own THE CANTERBURY TALES.") This, to me, is what makes Lydgate part of the fanfic tradition than the folk tradition or (for lack of a better term) the plagiarist tradition, in which stories with known authors are retold or used for seed without attribution to the original. It's not that he based his works on previous source, because lots of people did that; but Lydgate explicitly acknowledges his source text, giving credit and praise to its author. (Though he may also have had a very specific reason for doing this, as we'll see.)
But what *really* makes Lydgate evocative of modern fanfic is this bit:
And this while that the pilgrimes leye
At Canterbury wel logged on and all,
I not in soth what I may it call,
Hap or fortune, in conclusioun,
That me bifel to entren into toun,
The holy seint pleinly to visite
After siknesse my vowes to aquite, [. . .]
The same time her governour, the host,
Stonding in halle ful of winde and bost,
Lich to a man wonder sterne and fers,
Which spak to me and seide anon, "Daun Pers,
Daun Dominik, Dan Godfrey, or Clement,
Ye be welcom newly into Kent,
Thogh youre bridel have neither boos ne belle;
Besechinge you that ye wil me telle
First youre name and of what contree
With-oute more and shortely that ye be,
That loke so pale, al devoide of blood,
Upon youre hede a wonder thred-bar hood,
Wel arrayed for to ride late."
I answerde my name was Lydgate,
"Monk of Bery, nigh fifty yere of age,
Come to this towne to do my pilgrimage,
As I have hight; I have therof no shame." [Emphasis mine -- DH.]
"Daun John," quod he "wel broke ye youre name!
Thogh ye be soul, beth right glad and light!
Praying you soupe with us to-night,
And ye shal have made at youre devis,
A gret pudding or a rounde haggis,
A Franchemole a tansey or a froyse.
To ben a Monk slender is youre koyse;
Ye han be seke, I dar min hede assure,
Or late fed in a feynt pasture.
Lift up youre hed, be glad, tak no sorowe!
And ye shal hom ride with us to-morowe!
Yes, that's right: the first piece of fanfic ever written was a Mary Sue. "The Siege of Thebes" is a story told to Chaucer's pilgrims by Lydgate himself.
It's things like that that make you realize just how far we've come.
However, while the case for Lydgate as first fanfic writer is strong, I'm not convinced. Not only does Lydgate's self-insert follow Chaucer's own original, but there's some question over just how "fannish" Lydgate's intent was. As scholar John M. Bowers notes, Lydgate wrote his poetry on commission and supervised the preparation of presentation copies for his patrons. The "best text" of the "The Siege of Thebes" is British Library [BL] Arundel 119. It bears the coat-of-arms of its owner: William de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk and husband of Alice Chaucer -- the only known grandchild of the author of THE CANTERBURY TALES. It is very possible that Lydgate committed his Mary Sue to order.
Besides, "The Siege of Thebes" *sucks.* And there's another contender.
"The Canterbury Interlude and the Merchant's Tale of Beryn," also in the CANTERBURY TALES fandom, appears in a manuscript dated about 1450-1470. The manuscript is younger than the text, which was copied over from an earlier volume; internal evidence dates the text to around 1420, possibly earlier. It's at least contemporary with Lydgate's "Siege of Thebes." The author is, unfortunately, unknown; he was probably a Canterbury monk. Whoever he was, he came a lot closer to our notion of fanfic than Lydgate did.
The first half or so of "The Canterbury Interlude and the Merchant's Tale of Beryn" focuses on Chaucer's characters, their interaction, and some wacky hijinks they get into. It covers their arrival in Canterbury and their trip to the shrine; their overnight stay at an inn, and one character (the Pardoner)'s pursuit of a local barmaid. What's interesting about this is that it's honestly transformative literature. In the original, the Pardoner is a corrupt seller of indulgences: when he goes girl-chasing, "Tale of Beryn" winds up becoming not only the first piece of romantic fic, but the first piece of character bashing, wherein the character is punished for not conforming to the fan's aesthetics/romantic preference/morality. The Pardoner's selling indulgences would have been anathema to the Benedictines, including the "Canterbury Interlude's" unknown Benedictine author, so it's not surprising that the Pardoner's unsuccessful pursuit leaves him not only wounded in body and pride, but literally in the doghouse. After being repeatedly teased, then humiliated by the barmaid, the Pardoner spends the night, shivering, in the kennel:
He coude noon other help, but leyd adown his hede
In the dogges litter, and wisshed after brede
Many a tyme and offt, the dogg for to plese,
To have i-ley more nere for his own ese.
But wissh what he wold, his Fortune seyd nay.
So trewly for the Pardoner, it was a dismol day.
The dogg lay ever grownyng, redy for to snache;
Wherfor the Pardoner durst nat with hym mache,
But lay as styll as eny stone, remembryng his foly,
That he wold trust a tapster of a comon hostry,
For comenly for the most part, they been wyly echon.
Now, *that,* my friends, is fanfic.
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