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Geoffrey Chaucer

Geoffrey Chaucer

The English author and courtier Geoffrey Chaucer (ca. 1345-1400) was one of the greatest poets of the late Middle Ages and has often been called the father of English poetry. His best-known works are The Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde.

The exact date and place of Geoffrey Chaucer's birth are not known. The evidence suggests, however, that he was born about 1345, or a year or two earlier, in his father's London house. This was located on Thames Street adjacent to the west bank of the Walbrook. It is probable that young Geoffrey attended school at St. Paul's Cathedral. If he did so, his early training must have been strongly influenced by men whose intellectual tastes were shaped by their association with Richard de Bury, one of the most learned Englishmen of his time and the author of a treatise on the love of books called Philobiblon. But our first record of Chaucer reveals that in 1357 he was a page in the household of the Countess of Ulster, the wife of Prince Lionel. From this time forward we find Chaucer associated in one way or another with the royal family.

During 1359-1360 King Edward III campaigned in France, hoping to better the terms of what would become the Treaty of Bretigny (1360), and even to be crowned king of France at Reims. But the campaign was a failure, and during it Chaucer, who was in the retinue of Prince Lionel, who was in the retinue of Prince Lionel, was taken prisoner. The King ransomed him for the substantial sum of £ 16 on March 1, 1360. Later in the year Chaucer was again in France on a mission for Prince Lionel. We should not be astonished that in the late 14th century a young man of about 15 should be entrusted with considerable responsibility—boys did not then experience the uneasy period of adolescence that we know today.

Chaucer's Marriage

After 1360 we lose sight of Chaucer for several years. There is an old tradition to the effect that he studied at the Inner Temple, where apprentices at law were trained. This kind of education would have been especially appropriate for a young man destined for royal service. However, he may have been engaged with Prince Lionel in Ireland. He tells us in the "Retractions" at the close of The Canterbury Tales that he had made "many a song and many a leccherous lay." It is likely that such songs and lays were the product of his youthful years, and that he acquired an early reputation for songs and jocular tales.

Recently discovered documents indicate that in 1366 Chaucer was traveling in Spain, and it is probable that soon after his return he married a lady of the queen's chamber, Philippa, the daughter of Sir Payne Roet. Philippa later entered the service of Constance of Castile, the second wife of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. Her sister, Katherine Swynford, had been in the service of John's first wife, Blanche. After the death of Blanche, Katherine became John of Gaunt's mistress, and many years later (1396) his third wife. Chaucer's ties with the Duke of Lancaster were thus very close. In 1368 Chaucer was again on the Continent, probably on a mission for the King. Chaucer was now a royal squire.

The Book of the Duchess

The year 1369 marks a turning point both in the fortunes of England and in the career of young Chaucer. Edward the Black Prince had won a singular victory at Nájera in 1367, but it was to be his last great chivalric achievement. He soon became subject to a debilitating and lingering illness. In 1369 the war with France was resumed, and the French were increasingly successful. On August 15 Queen Philippa died of the Black Death, which ravished England in that year. King Edward was becoming increasingly feeble both as an administrator and as a chivalric leader, and he soon fell under the domination of a mistress, Alice Perrers. The years between 1369 and 1400 witnessed a steady decline in English prestige abroad and in the integrity of English society at home.

On Sept. 12, 1369, Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster, also died of the plague. John of Gaunt, who was campaigning on the Continent, did not return until December. When he did so, however, he established two chantry priests in St. Paul's Cathedral to sing Masses for Blanche, ordered a tomb to be erected for her and for himself in the choir north of the altar, and established a memorial service to be held annually for her on September 12. It seems probable that he also asked Chaucer to compose a memorial poem to be recited in connection with one of these services.

Before the death of Queen Philippa, poetry in the English court had been customarily written in French. French was the natural language of both King Edward and his queen. Her secretary, Jean Froissart, was the most prominent poet associated with the court. Chaucer's memorial poem, however, was to be in English. It is possible that he had written his English devotional poem, "An A B C," which is a translation from a French source, for Blanche at some time before her death. We must not suppose that Chaucer dashed off his new poem, The Book of the Duchess, in a few days. It is a complexly structured allegory suited to the rather sophisticated court tastes of the time, and a fitting memorial to one of the highest-ranking ladies of the English royal household.

The King did not allow Chaucer to remain idle. He was sent abroad on diplomatic missions in 1370 and again in 1372-1373. The latter mission took him to Italy, where he visited Genoa and Florence. He may have deepened his acquaintance with the poetic traditions established by Dante and Petrarch.

John of Gaunt was able to attend a memorial service for Blanche for the first time in 1374. It may be that Chaucer's Book of the Duchess was read at this service. In any event, the duke granted Chaucer an annuity of £ 10, the normal income for a squire in an aristocratic household. The King granted Chaucer a daily pitcher of wine and appointed him controller of customs of wools, skins, and hides in the port of London. This position brought £ 10 annually and a bonus of 10 marks. The City of London granted Chaucer a residence above Aldgate; moreover, some wardships obtained in 1375 brought Chaucer a little over £ 175. He and Philippa were thus economically secure.

During the early years of his residence at Aldgate, where he remained until 1386, Chaucer went abroad several times on diplomatic missions for King Edward, who died in 1377, and for King Richard II. In 1380 Chaucer's name appears in some court records. He and three distinguished knights and two prominent merchants took one Cecily of Champaign before the chancellor, Archbishop Simon Sudbury, to swear that she had no charge of rape or other action to bring against Chaucer. This fact has given rise to a great deal of unwarranted speculation, but there is no evidence to show that Chaucer's relations with Philippa were not satisfactory. In the following year Chaucer probably witnessed the outrages of the Peasants' Revolt in London, during which Archbishop Sudbury was cruelly beheaded by a mob. In 1382 Chaucer was made controller of petty customs on wine and other goods with the right to employ a deputy. He obtained in 1385 a permanent deputy for the wool customs, which must have entailed many hours of onerous labor.

Troilus and Criseyde

The diplomatic business of the king and the regular affairs of the custom house must have kept Chaucer busy. Nevertheless, while he was living above Aldgate he completed his translation of Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, a book whose phrases, figurative devices, and philosophical ideas echo throughout his poetry. It is almost impossible to understand Chaucer's original works without first obtaining a thorough understanding of this book. He probably composed some of his short poems during this period and almost certainly his "tragedy," as he calls it, Troilus and Criseyde. This long poem, set against the background of the Trojan War, is based on an earlier poem by the Italian Giovanni Boccaccio. But Chaucer uses the narrative for his own purposes. The story involves a young prince of Troy who, neglecting his obligations during the Greek siege of the city, falls in love with a widow named Criseyde, loses her, and dies in despair on the battlefield. The fate of the young prince serves as a warning to the chivalry of England.

Probably because of the influence of Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, Chaucer lost his controllerships at the custom house in 1386. He probably took up residence in Kent in that year. He served as a member of Parliament from Kent. It is probable that Philippa died in 1387. Certain evidence indicates that Chaucer was in straitened circumstances in 1388, but in 1389 he received his highest position, the clerkship of the royal works. Although the clerk of the works had an office in the palace grounds at Westminster, Chaucer must have traveled a great deal in overseeing the maintenance, repair, and construction of royal buildings.

Chaucer supervised the construction of lists for an important tournament at Smithfield, where matches were held in return for the jousts at St. Ingelvert. There Henry of Derby, John of Gaunt's son and the future Henry IV, distinguished himself before departing on a Crusade. The clerkship, which required a great deal of work organizing workmen, collecting and transporting materials, and consulting with masons and carpenters, was seldom held for a long term in the 14th century, and Chaucer resigned in 1391. For a time thereafter he served as deputy forester for the royal forest at North Petherton. The King granted him a pension of £ 20 in 1394, and in 1397 an annual butt of wine was added to this grant. These grants were renewed and increased by Henry IV in 1399.

The Canterbury Tales

Between 1387 and 1400 Chaucer must have devoted considerable attention to the composition of his most famous work, The Canterbury Tales. Some of the tales were probably modified versions of earlier works adapted for the new collection, while others were written especially for it. The original plan demanded two tales each for over 20 pilgrims making a journey from Southwark to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury and back. (The shrine was a favorite site for penitential observances on the part of English royalty.) The plan was later modified to require only one tale from each pilgrim on the road to Canterbury, but even this scheme was never completed. The tales survive in groups connected by prologues and epilogues, but the proper arrangement of these groups is not altogether clear. It is clear that in his final plan Chaucer intended the collection to begin with the "Knight's Tale," a short epic, and to close with a sermon on penance delivered by the Parson. The series is introduced in a "General Prologue" that describes the pilgrimage and the pilgrims taking part in it.

Pilgrimages were regarded as penitential acts reflecting the pilgrimage of the Christian spirit toward its Creator. The spiritual pilgrimage was said to be motivated by love and characterized by self-denial and contrition. Hence the Parson's closing sermon is appropriate. Chaucer gives his pilgrimage peculiarly national overtones by directing it toward the shrine of St. Thomas, a citizen of London and a national hero. Among the fictional pilgrims the Knight, whose campaigns reflect the glories of England before 1369; the Clerk, who is an ideal scholar; and the Parson, who clearly reflects the apostolic life, serve as reminders of the ideals associated with St. Thomas. Most of the other pilgrims exemplify in amusing ways the weaknesses of the groups they represent. Chaucer's chief weapon in criticizing these weaknesses is humor. The humor is sometimes very subtle, but it is also often broad and outspoken. We shall understand the pilgrims much better if we regard them as exemplifications rather than as realistic individuals or as personalities. Moreover, we should not be misled by the poet's laughter so that we miss the seriousness of his criticism. Chaucer's vigor and sanity have won him wide acclaim ever since his own time, when he was admired for his philosophy as well as for his poetic talent.

Chaucer must be ranked among the most learned and accomplished of English poets. Besides the translation and major works already mentioned, he wrote a number of shorter poems and translated at least part of the most successful late medieval French poem, the Roman de la rose by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun. Chaucer's interests also included the science of his time. He prepared a translation of a Latin treatise on the use of the astrolabe. He may also be the translator of a work concerning the use of an equatorium, an instrument for calculating the positions of the planets.

In December 1399 Chaucer leased a house for a long term in the garden of Westminster Abbey. He had known many of the prominent men of his day—knights, merchants, scholars, and members of the royal family. He undoubtedly looked forward to a quiet retirement in the London area he knew so well, but he died in October of the following year. He was survived by his son Thomas, who had served both John of Gaunt and King Richard and who was to enjoy a distinguished career in the 15th century.

Further Reading

The most convenient edition of Chaucer's works is by F. N. Robinson (1933; 2d ed. 1957). The earlier edition by Walter W. Skeat, in 6 volumes with a supplement (1894-1897), is still useful. Since so little is known about Chaucer's life, most studies focus on his work. Biographies tend to be speculative. See Marchette G. Chute, Geoffrey Chaucer of England (1946), and Edward Wagenknecht, The Personality of Chaucer (1968). Others combine a study of his thought with his literary development: John L. Lowes, Geoffrey Chaucer and the Development of His Genius (1934), and J. S. P. Tatlock, The Mind and Art of Chaucer (1966). Useful introductions and general views of Chaucer, his work, and his times are Paul G. Ruggiers, The Art of the Canterbury Tales (1965); D. S. Brewer, Chaucer and Chaucerians: Critical Studies in Middle English Literature (1966); and Beryl Rowland, ed., Companion to Chaucer Studies (1968).

Relevant documents concerning Chaucer's life are collected in Martin M. Crow and Clair C. Olson, eds., Chaucer Life-Records (1966). Other documents illustrating 14th-century life in general are collected in Edith Rickert, Chaucer's World, revised by Martin M. Crow and Clair C. Olson (1948). For Chaucer's London background see Durant W. Robertson, Jr., Chaucer's London (1968). Fairly full bibliographies of Chaucer are available to 1963: Eleanor P. Hammond, Chaucer: A Bibliographical Manual (1908); Dudley D. Griffith, Bibliography of Chaucer, 1908-1953 (1955); and William R. Crawford, Bibliography of Chaucer, 1954-1963 (1967). □

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CHAUCER, Geoffrey

CHAUCER, Geoffrey [1343?–1400] Poet of MIDDLE ENGLISH and one of the foremost figures in ENGLISH LITERATURE. No record remains of the education that gave Chaucer lifelong familiarity with Latin and several vernacular languages and literatures. However, as the son of a well-off London vintner, he had educational and social advantages that must have helped form his views. He may have attended the Inner Temple; by 1357, he was in the household of Edward III's daughter-in-law; in 1360, the king paid Chaucer's ransom after his capture by the French; by 1367, he had become a member of the king's household, and later he undertook many royal commissions to France, Spain, and Italy, some of them secret. In 1374, the king appointed him controller of the custom on wool, sheepskins, and leather in the Port of LONDON, the first of several increasingly important offices he held by royal appointment. From 1374 onwards, he also received various grants and annuities from the Crown. He was elected Member of Parliament for Kent in 1386.

Works

Chaucer's first important poem appears to have been the Book of the Duchess, a memorial to John of Gaunt's first wife, who died in 1368 (though the poem may be several years later). Other major works were The House of Fame (1378–80), The Parliament of Fowls (1380–2), Troilus and Criseyde (1382–6), and The Canterbury Tales, some of them written earlier but assembled with others written c.1388–1400. In addition to these, Chaucer produced a great many translations, including a fragment of the Romance of the Rose (a version of the French Roman de la Rose), and a translation of Boethius's De Consolatione Philosophiae (On the Consolation of Philosophy). As a result, a French contemporary saluted him as a ‘good translator’, the earliest explicit literary response to him. Though his official duties left many records, in his lifetime only Thomas Usk mentioned Chaucer's ‘manly speech’ (1385), and John Gower his ‘glad songs’, remarks that do not account for his later reputation as the founder of literary English.

Language

The East Midland dialect of late 14c English, as Chaucer's works record it, differed from Modern English in structure, vocabulary, and especially spelling and pronunciation:‘So faren we, If I shal seye the sothe.’
‘Now,’ quod oure Hoost, ‘yit lat me talke to the:
Why artow so discoloured of thy face?’
‘Peter!’ quod he, ‘God yeve it harde grace,
I am so used in the fyr to blowe. …’
(Canon's Yeoman's Prologue)
Spelling poses the chief obstacles for a modern reader, for whom the second line would end ‘yet let me talk to thee’. Aloud the passage is likely to be more difficult still. Because of the GREAT VOWEL SHIFT, which began c.1400, the second line included words that sounded like noo now, may me, toe to, and they thee, the third line words that sounded like whee why, saw so, and fahce face. Chaucer's English also pronounced almost all the consonants, including the l in talke and the r in harde. His yeve is akin to modern give, which however descends from a different variety of Middle English: see CHANCERY STANDARD. The quotation contains other clues to Chaucer's pronunciation: he must have said sothe like SAWthuh, so when it rhymes with to the, we have evidence that the second line had eleven syllables, stressing Now, Hoost, lat, the first syllable of talke, and to. The same evidence also shows that the in the second line was a form of thee with a spelling to reflect the unstressed pronunciation thuh. Modern personal pronouns also have unstressed forms, but conventional spelling does not represent the y'see or have ʾem sent of more informal writing. The grammatical forms of Chaucer's English in these four lines are familiar, except for the thee, artow art thou, and thy, which are no longer part of English outside of special, usually religious, contexts. Chaucer had some verb endings that no longer remain, such as the -en in faren we. Nowadays, the subjunctive construction God yeve it would be May God give it, to indicate a wish for the action. Cast in modern spelling and grammatical forms, Chaucer's vocabulary is rarely strange. Here, only fare get along, sothe truth, and quod said, are obsolete, though all were current in Chaucer's time and continued to appear in much more recent works than his. Discoloured is familiar, but was probably not so to Chaucer's first readers: it came into English only in the decade when he wrote this passage, as did much of his poetic vocabulary.

Style

In pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary, Chaucer was largely at one with his time and place, but in his use of these resources he was entirely singular. It was for his style that later centuries most admired him: William Dunbar called him ‘rose of rethoris all’ (the rose of all rhetoricians) and ‘the noble Chaucer, of makaris flour’ (flower of poets), William CAXTON praised his ‘crafty and sugred eloquence’, and Edmund Spenser deemed him ‘the well of English undefiled’. Certainly his style varied, from the monosyllabism of the passage above to Criseyde's noble protest:What, is this al the joye and al the feste?
Is this youre reed? Is this my blisful cas?
Is this the verray mede of youre byheeste?
Is al this paynted proces seyd—allas!—
Right for this fyn? O lady myn
(Troilus and Criseyde, Book 2)
Like the earlier passage, these lines purport to be direct quotation of spontaneous speech, but here the poetry is marked with rhetorical figures: a repeated rhetorical question (‘Is this …?’), the anaphora varied at last with ‘Is al this …?’, sarcasm (‘my blisful cas’), alliteration (‘paynted proces’), apostrophe (‘O lady myn’), and more, just within these few lines. Chaucer's age respected and studied the ‘arts of language’: such rhetorical poetry was praiseworthy and often poetically effective. So Chaucer drew not only on traditional rhetoric but on traditional views of language itself: ‘Eke Plato seith, whoso kan hym rede, / The words moote ben cosyn to the dede’. Elsewhere, he conveyed his own observations of language, that it varied in time (‘Ye knowe ek that in forme of speche is chaunge / Within a thousand yeer’: Troilus and Criseyde, Book 2, cf. Horace, Ars poetica) and that it varied in space, for in The Reeve's Tale he used dialect to portray two students from the North of England, including features of their grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary, such as gas for southern goeth. The evidence of his ear for language variety is consistent with everything else we know about Chaucer, whom John Dryden called ‘the father of English poetry’. See COCKNEY, DICKENS, NORMAN FRENCH, PLAIN ENGLISH, PROSE, SATIRE, SLANG, STANDARD ENGLISH.

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"CHAUCER, Geoffrey." Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. . Encyclopedia.com. 23 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Chaucer, Geoffrey

Geoffrey Chaucer

Born: c. 1345
London, England

Died: October 1400
London, England

English poet, author, and courtier

Called the father of English poetry, Geoffrey Chaucer is ranked as one of the greatest poets of the late Middle Ages (C. E. 476 c.1500). He was admired for his philosophy as well as for his poetic talents. His best-known works are The Canterbury Tales and Troilus and Criseyde.

Early years and marriage

The exact date and place of Geoffrey Chaucer's birth are not known. The evidence suggests, however, that he was born about 1345, or a year or two earlier, in his father's house located on Thames Street, London, England. It is likely that young Geoffrey attended school at St. Paul's Cathedral, and that he was introduced to great writing and the poetry of Virgil (7019 b.c.e.) and Ovid (43 b.c.e.? C. E.).

The first historical record of Chaucer reveals that in 1357 he was a page (a young boy in the service of a knight) in the household of the Countess of Ulster, the wife of Prince Lionel. During 13591360 Chaucer was in France with Prince Lionel (13381368). This was during the period of the Hundred Years' War (11371453) between England and France. Chaucer was taken prisoner. The English King Edward III (13121377) paid a ransom for his release.

Little is known of Chaucer for the next six years. Documents indicate that in 1366 he was traveling in Spain on a diplomatic mission. Soon after his return he married Philippa, the daughter of Sir Payne Roet. Philippa was a lady of the queen's chamber. Chaucer developed close ties with John of Gaunt (13401399), the Duke of Lancaster, and other nobility (people of high status). In 1368 Chaucer was promoted from page to squire (a position of status above a page and below a knight).

Early poetry and continued diplomatic missions

The year 1369 marked a turning point both in the fortunes of England and in the career of young Chaucer. John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, asked Chaucer to compose a memorial poem, written in English, to be recited at the Mass for his deceased wife. Prior to 1369 poetry in the English court had been written in French. French was the natural language of both the king and his queen. It is possible that he had written his English devotional poem, "An A B C," which is a translation from a French source, for the queen at some time before her death. The theme of his poem, The Book of the Duchess, which was written for intellectual and sophisticated people, was a fitting memorial to one of the highest-ranking ladies of the English royal household.

Chaucer was sent abroad on diplomatic missions in 1370 and again in 13721373. The latter mission took him to Florence and Genoa, Italy. There he may have deepened his acquaintance with the poetic traditions established by Dante (12651321) and Petrarch (13041374).

Times were good for Chaucer and Philippa because they were economically secure. John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, gave Chaucer a yearly salary of ten pounds, the normal income for a squire in an aristocratic or distinguished household. The king appointed Chaucer a position as controller (chief accounting officer) of taxes on wools, skins, and hides in the port of London. This position brought ten pounds annually and a bonus of ten marks. The City of London granted Chaucer a free residence above Aldgate. He remained at Aldgate until 1386, though he went abroad several times on diplomatic missions for King Edward, who died in 1377, and for King Richard II (13671400). In 1382 Chaucer was made controller of taxes on wine and other goods with the right to employ a deputy.

Troilus and Criseyde

While he was living above Aldgate, Chaucer completed his translation of Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius (c. 480524), a Roman philosopher, whose phrases and ideas repeat throughout Chaucer's poetry. He also probably composed some short poems and Troilus and Criseyde, a tragedy. This long poem is set against the background of the Trojan War and is based on an earlier poem by Giovanni Boccaccio (13131375), an Italian poet.

Chaucer lost his positions at the custom house in 1386 and moved to a residence in Kent, England. He served as a Member of Parliament from Kent. It is likely that Philippa died in 1387. Chaucer received his highest position, the clerkship of the royal works, in 1389. He served as clerk until he resigned in 1391. For a time thereafter he served as deputy forester for the royal forest at North Petherton, England. The king granted him a pension of twenty pounds in 1394, and in 1397 an annual cask of wine was added to this grant. King Henry IV (15531610) renewed and increased these grants in 1399.

The Canterbury Tales

Between 1387 and 1400 Chaucer must have devoted much time to the writing of his most famous work, The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer gives his tale of pilgrimage, or journey to a sacred site, national suggestions by directing it toward the shrine of St. Thomas Becket (c. 11181170), a citizen of London and a national hero. The humor is sometimes very subtle, but it is also often broad and out-spoken.

His original plan for The Canterbury Tales called for two tales each from over twenty pilgrims (people who travel to a holy site) making a journey from Southwark, England, to the shrine of St. Thomas Becket at Canterbury, England, and back. He later modified the plan to write only one tale from each pilgrim on the road to Canterbury, but even this plan was never completed. The tales survive in groups connected by prologues (introductions) and epilogues (conclusions), but the proper arrangement of these groups is not altogether clear. The series is introduced in a "General Prologue" that describes the pilgrimage and the pilgrims taking part in it.

Life after Canterbury Tales

In addition to the translation and major works mentioned, Chaucer wrote a number of shorter poems and translated at least part of Roman de la rose, a late medieval French poem by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun. Chaucer's interests also included science. He prepared a translation of a Latin article on the use of the astrolabe, an instrument for finding the latitude of the sun and planets. He may also have been the translator of a work concerning the use of an equatorium, an instrument for calculating the positions of the planets.

In December 1399 Chaucer retired and leased a house in the garden of Westminster Abbey, London. In October 1400 Chaucer died.

For More Information

Bloom, Harold, ed. Geoffrey Chaucer. New York: Chelsea House, 1999.

Childress, Diana. Chaucer's England. North Haven, CT: Linnet Books, 2000.

Chute, Marchette G. Geoffrey Chaucer of England. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1946.

Wagenknecht, Edward. The Personality of Chaucer. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968.

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Chaucer, Geoffrey

Geoffrey Chaucer (jĕf´rē chô´sər), c.1340–1400, English poet, one of the most important figures in English literature.

Life and Career

The known facts of Chaucer's life are fragmentary and are based almost entirely on official records. He was born in London between 1340 and 1344, the son of John Chaucer, a vintner. In 1357 he was a page in the household of Prince Lionel, later duke of Clarence, whom he served for many years. In 1359–60 he was with the army of Edward III in France, where he was captured by the French but ransomed.

By 1366 he had married Philippa Roet, who was probably the sister of John of Gaunt's third wife; she was a lady-in-waiting to Edward III's queen. During the years 1370 to 1378, Chaucer was frequently employed on diplomatic missions to the Continent, visiting Italy in 1372–73 and in 1378. From 1374 on he held a number of official positions, among them comptroller of customs on furs, skins, and hides for the port of London (1374–86) and clerk of the king's works (1389–91). The official date of Chaucer's death is Oct. 25, 1400. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Early Works

Chaucer's literary activity is often divided into three periods. The first period includes his early work (to 1370), which is based largely on French models, especially the Roman de la Rose and the poems of Guillaume de Machaut. Chaucer's chief works during this time are the Book of the Duchess, an allegorical lament written in 1369 on the death of Blanche, wife of John of Gaunt, and a partial translation of the Roman de la Rose.

Italian Period

Chaucer's second period (up to c.1387) is called his Italian period because during this time his works were modeled primarily on Dante and Boccaccio. Major works of the second period include The House of Fame, recounting the adventures of Aeneas after the fall of Troy; The Parliament of Fowls, which tells of the mating of fowls on St. Valentine's Day and is thought to celebrate the betrothal of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia; and a prose translation of Boethius' De consolatione philosophiae.

Also among the works of this period are the unfinished Legend of Good Women, a poem telling of nine classical heroines, which introduced the heroic couplet (two rhyming lines of iambic pentameter) into English verse; the prose fragment The Treatise on the Astrolabe, written for his son Lewis; and Troilus and Criseyde, based on Boccaccio's Filostrato, one of the great love poems in the English language (see Troilus and Cressida). In Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer perfected the seven-line stanza later called rhyme royal.

The Canterbury Tales

To Chaucer's final period, in which he achieved his fullest artistic power, belongs his masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales (written mostly after 1387). This unfinished poem, about 17,000 lines, is one of the most brilliant works in all literature. The poem introduces a group of pilgrims journeying from London to the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket at Canterbury. To help pass the time they decide to tell stories. Together, the pilgrims represent a wide cross section of 14th-century English life.

The pilgrims' tales include a variety of medieval genres from the humorous fabliau to the serious homily, and they vividly indicate medieval attitudes and customs in such areas as love, marriage, and religion. Through Chaucer's superb powers of characterization the pilgrims—such as the earthy wife of Bath, the gentle knight, the worldly prioress, the evil summoner—come intensely alive. Chaucer was a master storyteller and craftsman, but because of a change in the language after 1400, his metrical technique was not fully appreciated until the 18th cent. Only in Scotland in the 15th and 16th cent. did his imitators understand his versification.

Bibliography

The best editions of Chaucer's works are those of F. N. Robinson (1933) and W. W. Skeat (7 vol., 1894–97); of The Canterbury Tales, that of J. M. Manly and E. Rickert (8 vol., 1940); of Troilus and Criseyde, that of R. K. Root (1926).

See C. Muscatine, Chaucer and the French Tradition (1960); G. G. Coulton, Chaucer and His England (1950, repr. 1963); M. A. Bowden, A Reader's Guide to Geoffrey Chaucer (1964); G. G. Williams, A New View of Chaucer (1965); M. Hussey et al., Introduction to Chaucer (1965); D. W. Robertson, Jr., Chaucer's London (1968); G. L. Kittredge, Chaucer and His Poetry (1915, repr. 1970); I. Robinson, Chaucer's Prosody (1971) and Chaucer and the English Tradition (1972); P. M. Kean, Chaucer and the Making of English Poetry (2 vol., 1972); D. Brewer, ed., Chaucer: The Critical Heritage (2 vol., 1978); B. Rowland, ed., Companion to Chaucer Studies (1979); D. R. Howard, Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World (1989). Bibliographies for 1908 to 1953 by D. D. Griffith (rev. ed. 1954) and for 1954 to 1963 by W. R. Crawford (1967).

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Chaucer, Geoffrey

Chaucer, Geoffrey (c.1343–1400). Chaucer's enduring fame reflects the range and quality of his poetry and prose, but also the accessibility of his midlands-based London English compared with that of works such as the north-western Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. His impact on the English language and its poetics through the absorption of French words, ideas, and forms is considerable, as is his influence on writers from Hoccleve, Lydgate, and the ‘Scottish Chaucerians’ onwards.

Born into a family of prosperous vintners, Chaucer served as page then esquire to various aristocratic households, including that of Richard II (1377–99). His wife Philippa Roet, with whom he probably had two sons, Lewis and Thomas, was also in royal service. Chaucer's specific assignments included fighting in the Hundred Years War c.1359, undertaking trade and diplomatic missions to Italy and France, and acting as customs controller at the port of London and clerk of works at Westminster and elsewhere.

Chaucer's life experience doubtless contributed to his ‘most wonderful, comprehensive nature’ ( Dryden), while his situation on the periphery of aristocratic circles perhaps underlies his self-presentation as ‘an elvyssh man’, a bystander at life's games of power and love. How closely the professional and artistic lives interlocked is unclear. A courtly audience seems implied, for instance, by The Book of the Duchess, probably a consolation for John of Gaunt at the death of his duchess Blanche c.1369, while the ballade ‘Lack of Steadfastness’ offers advice to the king; yet no records exist of commissions or payments for poetry. Fellow poets and intellectuals such as ‘moral Gower’ and ‘philosophical Strode’, saluted at the close of Troilus and Criseyde, must have been a valued part of Chaucer's readership.

Like other gifted contemporaries, Chaucer made an art of breathing new life into established conventions, and despite an increasing independence from sources, many of his late, masterly Canterbury Tales are modified translations of existing works. His sources and models include the allegorical love-vision Le Roman de la Rose, and works by Machaut, Froissart, Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, Ovid, Virgil, and Boethius.

Apart from the brilliant five-part tragedy Troilus and Criseyde, the poems are mainly small to medium scale, while in the broken ending of The House of Fame we perhaps see Chaucer losing his direction in an ambitious experimental project. Solemnity rarely goes unpunctured, yet Chaucer is also ‘the noble philosophical poet of love’ (Usk), preoccupied with questions about love, true nobility, and the Boethian opposition between false (worldly) felicity and true (spiritual) felicity. Notable, especially compared with the stiff rhetoric and unambiguous didacticism of much medieval literature, is Chaucer's ability not only to impersonate other voices (from the coy hen falcon in The Parliament of Fowls to the blustering Host in the Canterbury Tales), but also to articulate different world-views with apparent impartiality. This permits a fascinating range of interpretation for many individual poems (reflected in the abundant secondary literature), and occasions ongoing debates about the advancedness or otherwise of Chaucer's views on such issues as love, marriage, war, and the church. The only direct mention of 14th-cent. events is the jocular reference in the Nun's Priest's Tale to Jakke Straw, a leader of the 1381 Peasants' Revolt, but the contemporary problems of religious charlatanry and the misuse of money and power are treated in the Canterbury Tales with pervasive irony.

D. C. Whaley

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Chaucer, Geoffrey

Chaucer, Geoffrey (1346–1400) English medieval poet. His writings are remarkable for their range, narrative sense, power of characterization, and humour. They include The Book of the Duchess (1369), The House of Fame (c.1375), The Parliament of Fowls, and Troilus and Criseyde (both c.1385). His most famous and popular work is The Canterbury Tales (c.1387–1400), an extraordinarily varied collection of narrative poems, each told by one of a group of pilgrims while travelling to the shrine of Thomas à Becket. Ranging from the courtly “Knight's Tale” to the bawdy “Miller's Tale”, they provide a panoramic view of 14th-century English society and are a landmark in medieval fiction. Influenced by both French and Italian literary traditions, Chaucer's writings exercised a powerful influence on the future direction of English literature, not least in confirming se English as its principal language.

http://www.luminarium.org/medlit/chaucer.htm

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Chaucer, Geoffrey

Chaucer, Geoffrey (c.1342–1400), English poet. His most famous work, the Canterbury Tales (c.1387–1400), is a cycle of linked tales told by a group of pilgrims. His skills of characterization, humour, and versatility established him as the first great English poet.

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