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by Bamber Gascoigne

Geoffrey Chaucer (1342/43-1400)


Writer, official and bureaucrat, the outstanding English poet before William Shakespeare. Geoffrey Chaucer is remembered as the author of Canterbury Tales, which ranks as one of the greatest epic works of world literature. Chaucer made a crucial contribution to English literature in writing in English at a time when much court poetry was still composed in Anglo-Norman or Latin. Although he spent one of two brief periods of disfavor, Chaucer lived the whole of his life close the centers of English power.

'My lige lady, generally,' quod he,
'Wommen desiren to have sovereynetee
As wel over hir housbond as hir love.'

(in Canterbury Tales)

Geoffrey Chaucer was born in London into a middle class family. He was the son of a prosperous wine merchant and deputy to the kings's butler, and his wife Agnes, daughter of one John Copton. The name Chaucer, from the French, meant shoemaker, but so far as is know, none of his ancestors were shoemakers. The family lived in a large house on Thames Street.

Little is known of Chaucer's early education, but his works show that he could read French, Latin, and Italian. By the age of 14, his school days were over. The exists no memoirs of Chaucer, but Canterbury Tales perhaps gives a sight of the writer:

"Thou lookest as thou woulds find an hare,
For ever upon the ground I see thee stare.
Approache near, and looke merrily.
Now ware you, sire, and let this man have space.
He in the waist is shapen as well as I;
This were a puppet in an arm, to embrace
For any woman, small, and fair of face.
He seemeth elvish by his countenance,
For unto no wight doth he dalliance."

Chaucer’s career in the royal service began in 1357, when he was appointed to the household of Elizabeth, Countess of Ulster, and her husband Prince Lionel. In 1359-1360 Chaucer went to France with Edward III's army during the Hundred Years' War. He was captured in the Ardennes and returned to England after the treaty of Brétigny in 1360. It it said that during this period he translated from the French the allegory Romaunt of the Rose, which was his first literary work. Chaucer was so valued as a skilled professional soldier that his ransom, £16, then a tidy sum, was paid by his friends and King Edward. There is no certain information of his life from 1361 until c.1366, when he perhaps married Philippa Roet, the sister of John Gaunt's future wife, and one of Queen Philippa's ladies. For most of their marrriage, Chaucer and his wife lived apart. Philippa apparently gave him two sons, 'little Lewis', to whom Chaucer addressed A Treatise on the Astrolabe (1391), and Thomas, who was later highly successful in public service. Philippa died in 1387 and Chaucer enjoyed Gaunt's patronage throughout his life. He was in the King's service, held a number of positions at court, and spent some time in Spain.

Between 1367 and 1378 Chaucer made several journeys abroad on diplomatic and commercial missions. It is possible that he met Giovanni Boccaccio or Petrarch in pre-Renaissance Italy in 1372-73. And it is said that the example of Dante gave him the idea of writing in the vulgar English rather than in the court French of the day. In 1374 he became a government official at the port of London, holding the post of Comptroller of the Customs and Subside of Wools, Skins, and Tanned Hides.

A major question in Chaucer's biography has been whether he raped or abducted a woman called Cecily Chaumpaigne, the daughter of a baker. The charge of "de raptu meo" brought against the poet was dropped in 1380. His guilt or innocence has never been determined; the  Latin term "raptus" could mean either rape, a serious crime in fourteenth-century London, or abduction. It has been claimed that to avoid legal action Chaucer paid her £10 through an intermediary: This was a vast a sum of money, equal to over half his yearly salary as Controller. ('Introduction: Chaucer's Life and Times,' in The Canterbury Tales: A Selection, edited by Robert Boening and Andrew Taylor, 2013, p. xv)

Chaucer lived over Aldgate, the busiest of London's seven gates. The only natural light to his single bare room came from arrow slits.In 1385 Chaucer lost his employment and his rent-free home. He then moved to Kent where he was appointed as justice of the peace. Chaucer was also elected to Parliament. This was a period of great creativity for him, during which he produced most of his best poetry, among others Troilus and Cressida (c. 1385), based on a love story by Boccaccio.

When his wife died, according to records, Chaucer was sued for debt. Several of his friends were executed by the Merciless Parliament. In 1389 Richard II regained control and Chaucer reentered the service of the crown as Clerk of the King's Works, to upkeep and repair governmental buildings in and out of London. Highwaymen robbed him three times in September 1390. Later in the 1390s he received royal gifts and pensions. Chaucer seems to have been in attendance (1395-96) on Henry Bolingbroke, John of Gaunt's son, who deposed Richard II in 1399 and who, as Henry IV, increased Chaucer's annuity.

The last years of his life Chaucer lived at Greenwich, "an Inne of Shrews," as the Host calls it in the Canterbury Tales, referring perhaps to the occasion when he was held up or mugged there, not once but twice in the same day. According to tradition, Chaucer died in London on October 25, 1400. He did not leave a will and it has been speculated that he was murdered. The regime of Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury, did not accept attacks on the clergy and the ideas of the Lollards, who wanted to return to the apostolic poverty. Chaucer himself had friends who supported the reformist movement. According to Thomas Speght, whose edition of Chaucer came out in 1597, he had been "fined two shillings for beatinge a Franciscane fryer in fletestreate."

Chaucer was buried in Westminster Abbey, in the part of the church which afterwards came to be called Poet's Corner. He had taken a lease on a small house in the garden of the lady chapel at Westminster to escape his creditors. On his death the tenement was taken over by his son Thomas. Virtually all the surviving manuscripts of his work date from the fifteenth century. A monument was erected to him in 1555. Chaucer's supposed remains were exposed and measured in 1889; they belonged to a man about five feet six inches high.

Chaucer took his narrative inspiration for his works from several sources, such as the Romance of the Rose by Guillaume de Loris, Ovid's poems, and such Italian authors as Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. Their works he may have read during his travels in Italy. Chaucer remained still entirely individual poet, gradually developing his personal style and techniques. He must have heard a number of tales in his life time, it was the most common entertainment in the period of Black Death, popular unrest, serfdom, peasant revolts, foreign and local wars.

His first narrative poem, The Book of the Duchess, was probably written shortly after the death of Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster, first wife of John Gaunt, in September 1369. It was based largely on French sources, particularly the Toman de la Rose and several works of Guillaume de Machaut. His next important work, The House of Fame, was written between 1374 and 1385, and draw on the works of Ovid, Vergil, and Dante. Soon afterward Chaucer translated the Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, and wrote the poem Parliament of Birds. No copies have survived of the Book of the Leoun.

"This world nys but a thurghfare ful of wo,
And we been pilgrymes, passing to and fro.
Deet is an ende of every worldly soore."

Chaucer's writing developed from a period of French influence in the late 1360s, through his 'middle period' of both French and Italian Influences, to the last period. Chaucer did not begin working on the Canterbury Tales until he was in his early 40s. The book, which was left unfinished when the author died, has a framing narrative like much medieval literature. It depicts a pilgrimage by some 30 people, who are going on a spring day in April to the shrine of the martyr, St. Thomas à Becket. En route to and from Canterbury they amuse themselves by telling stories. Chaucer himself knew well the road and its inns. Harry Bailly, the innkeeper, promises a free meal for the best storyteller. Chaucer's own narration, called 'The Tale of Sir Thopas', is interrupted by Bailly, who thunders "Namoore of this, for Goddes dignitee,' claiming that the "rymyng is nat worth a toord!"

When Dante's journey in The Divine Comedy ended in spiritual purification, Chaucer's pilgrims learn about the weakness of human nature, women's mastery over men, and how a canon cheated a priest. In the so-called 'Retraction', which comes after the Parson's Tale has been concluded, Chaucer regrets having written "many a song and many a leccherous lay". However, Chaucer do not deny that "the period of pilgrimage" could not end with blessedness. The rather democratic band of pilgrims consists of unprivileded and aristocrats - there is a knight, a monk, a prioress, a plowman, a miller, a merchant, a clerk, and an oft-widowed wife from Bath. It must be remembered, that Chaucer himself did not belong even the minor nobility, but from his youth he was used to associate with highly influential people.

Chaucer's innovation was to use such a diverse assembly of narrators, whose stories are interrupted and interlinked with interludes in which the characters talk with each other, revealing much about themselves. His sources included Boccaccio's Teseida, on which he based 'The Knight’s Tale,' The Wedding of Sir Gawen and Dame Ragnell, and Ovid's Metamorphoses. He never mentions Decamerone, which he perhaps never read thoroughly. The rhyming verse was written in what is called Middle English, an old form of the language that differs from the English used today, but Chaucer's style and techniques were imitated through centuries. Shakespeare borrowed his plot for the drama Troilus and Cressida, John Dryen and Alexander Pope modernized some of his tales. - "He must have been a man of a most wonderful comprehensive nature, because, as it has been truly observed of him, he has taken into the compass of his Canterbury Tales the various manners and humour (as we now call them) of the whole English nation in his age." (John Dryden in Preface to the Fables, 1700)

For further reading: Chaucer and the French Tradition by C. Muscatine (1957); Chaucer Life Records by M.C. Crow and C.C. Olson (1966); Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. by D.S. Brewer (1974, see also the selection of bibliography on Chaucer); A Companion to Chaucer Studies by B. Rowland (rev. edn. 1979); Canterbury Tales, edited from the Hengwrt Manuscript by N.F. Blake (1980); The Structure of the Canterbury Tales by H. Cooper (1983); The Cambridge Chaucer Companion, ed.  Piero Boitani (1986); Gender and Language in Chaucer by Catherine S. Cox (1997); Chaucer, ed. by Valerie Allen (1997); Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales by Gail Ashton (1998); Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales, ed. by Steve Ellis (1998); Chaucer's Legendary Good Women by Florence Percival (1999); Chaucer A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Works by Rosalyn Rossignol (1999); Chaucer: The Life and Times of the First English Poet by Richard West (2000); Who Murdered Chaucer? by Terry Jones, Juliette Dor, Allan Fletcher and Robert Yeager (2003); Chaucer and the City, edited by Ardis Butterfield (2006); Geoffrey Chaucer by Peter Brown (2011); The Poet’s Tale: Chaucer and The Year that Made the Canterbury Tales by Paul Strohm (2015); Chaucer: A European Life by Marion Turner (2019)

Selected works:

  • Book of the Duchess, c.1370
  • Monk's Tale, c.1374
  • Canterbury Tales, 1378-1400 - Canterburyn tarinoita (suom. Toivo Lyy, 1962) / Canterburyn kertomuksia (Eeva-Liisa Manner, 1966) - Films: A Canterbury Tale, 1944, dir.  Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger (note: the plot has little to do with Chaucer); TV series 1969, prod. BBC, dir. John Glenister; Canterbrury Tales, 1971, prod. Les Productions Artistes Associés, Produzioni Europee Associati (PEA), written and directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini; Trinity Tales, TV series 1975, prod. BBC, dir. Alan Plater; The Ribald Tales of Canterbury, 1985, prod. Caballero Control Corporation (CCC), dir. Bud Lee; The Canterbury Tales, TV series 1998-2000, prod. Christmas Films, Pizazz Pictures; Canterbury Tales, TV mini-series, 2003, prod. Ziji Productions, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)
  • The Parlement of Foules, 1382
  • The House of Fame, 1374-82
  • Legende of Goode Wimmen, 1368, 1395
  • Troilus and Criseyde, 1385
  • Complete Works, 1894-97 (7 vols., edited by Walter W. Skeat)
  • Complete Works, 1933 (2nd edn. 1957, ed.  F.N. Robinson)
  • The Riverside Chaucer, 1987 (general editor Larry D. Benson, third edition, with a new foreword by Christopher Cannon, based on The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, edited by F.N. Robinson)
  • The Canterbury Tales: A Selection, 2013 (edited by Robert Boening and Andrew Taylor)

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