Greatest English poet of the Middle Ages; b. London, c. 1340–45; d. there, Oct. 25, 1400. From surviving official records, Chaucer would appear to have been a moderately successful public servant. He was bourgeois by birth, the descendant of a prosperous family long associated with London and the wine trade. The first records (1357) place him as a member of the household of Elizabeth, Countess of Ulster and wife of Lionel, third son of the reigning king, Edward III. Chaucer's father, John Chaucer, had already made a beginning in service to the crown, and the presence in a noble household of the son of a well–to–do bourgeois was not unusual during that period.
Life. The exact nature of Chaucer's early schooling is uncertain, but another form of his education is not. He accompanied the expedition to France in 1359, probably as a member of the company of Lionel, and was captured and ransomed. He probably rejoined the army and was present at the Peace of Brétigny (1360). The timing of Chaucer's military service is important, because the campaign
of 1359 marked the turning point in English arms for his century. After the stunning defeats of Crécy (1346) and Poitiers (1356), French military policy consisted almost solely in refusal to give battle. The result was a devastated French countryside and a devastated English army. Little in what Chaucer had seen of war inclined him toward the profession of arms.
From 1360, when Chaucer is recorded as still in the service of Ulster, to 1366, when he received a safe–conduct for travel in Navarre—a document difficult to dissociate from the Black Prince's campaign of the following year—Chaucer's life is a blank. With the Book of the Duchess, however, Chaucer emerges as an accomplished and confident poet, well read in the polite French literature of the day. Since the most persuasive evidence one has from this period is precisely this poetic ability, the rather slightly founded theory that Chaucer was a favorite of Alice Perrers is not without some probability. Patronesses were not sparing in their demands for poetic tribute, and the court of Edward would have afforded the kind of reading with which Chaucer shows himself familiar. The composition of the numerous amatory lays he dimly remembers in the Retraction could most easily be assigned to this period. In addition there is the important evidence of the annuity of 20 marks granted Chaucer in 1367, by Edward III. Since the annuity specifically connects him with the household of Edward, rather than with that of Lionel, the theory of pragmatic poetical devotion to the highly pragmatic Alice seems not impossible.
Marriage. An advantageous marriage seems to have been one of the perquisites of an esquire attached to the court, and Chaucer's career in this respect parallels that of other esquires of the court. In 1366 or before, Chaucer married Philippa Roet, daughter of Sir Payne Roet, who had come to England with her younger sister Katherine in the entourage of Philippa of Hainault at the time of the latter's marriage to Edward III. If Chaucer's marriage is to be regarded as one of love, it conformed to the adage: it was not smooth. Chaucer's bride Philippa retained her position of attendant (domicella ) upon Queen Philippa, just as her sister Katherine, who had from a very early age been attached to Blanche of Lancaster, retained her position in the Lancastrian household after her marriage to the short–lived Sir Hugh Swynford. In 1372, some three years after the death of the Queen (1369), Philippa joined her sister Katherine in the Lancastrian household, where Katherine's position was undoubtedly strengthened by the death, in the same year, of the Duchess Blanche, wife of John of Gaunt. It is certain that after the death of Blanche, Katherine Swynford was the acknowledged mistress of John of Gaunt, but at what point she became his mistress is uncertain. In any case, Philippa's attachment was to the Lancastrian household and Chaucer's to the king's. Because of this mutual and conflicting complex of loyalties and duties, it is likely that it was not until 1374, with Chaucer's appointment as Comptroller of Customs that Philippa and Geoffrey were able to set up something approaching a normal household. Even so connubial life must have been difficult, for Philippa did not abandon her connections with Lancaster, and-Chaucer's diplomatic services were becoming increasingly in demand. Hence, perhaps, a certain absence of domesticity in Chaucer's self–portraits.
Italy and Humanism. The date of outstanding importance in Chaucer's intellectual life is 1372. Although it is possible that Chaucer could have gotten to Italy as early as 1368 or 1370, it is unquestionable that in 1372 he was appointed to a commission to treat with the Genoese regarding the establishment of a commercial center in an English port. Chaucer not only reached Genoa, but spent some time in Florence, almost certainly as negotiator for a much–needed loan to England. The mission is important in showing the trust that Chaucer enjoyed, but its real significance lies in the fact that from this journey dates Chaucer's knowledge of dante, boccaccio, and petrarch, and of Italian humanism in general. A second mission in 1378 must have deepened their impression on him.
The Public Servant. With rare exceptions, the remaining records reveal the vicissitudes of a public servant who wished to be a poet. In 1372 Philippa received a life pension of £10 from John of Gaunt, and in 1374 Chaucer received a like pension, but in terms indicating that it was Philippa's services, rather than his own, for which he was being rewarded. Chaucer's financial situation further improved in 1374, when he obtained the positions of Comptroller of Customs on wool and of the Petty Customs on wine, and on other merchandise in the Port of London. The difficulty was, however, that the duties of the Comptroller involved an independent audit of the Collectors' accounts, and therefore had to be kept in Chaucer's own hand. The position was lucrative, but hardly a sinecure. In addition, Chaucer was engaged in two diplomatic missions in 1377 and 1378: the first probably concerning a projected French marriage for Richard II; the second, in regard to an attempt to gain military aid in Italy. However beneficial these activities may have been to Chaucer the man of affairs, they left little time for Chaucer the poet. In 1385 he successfully petitioned for leave to exercise his office through a permanent deputy. To what extent political factors affected his decision is uncertain. Henceforth, he resided in Kent.
One would wish that this well–timed withdrawal had led to a prolonged period of literary productivity, but absolute detachment from the world of affairs did not come easily to Chaucer. From 1385 to 1389 he was a Justice of the Peace in Kent, and in 1386, Member of Parliament for Kent. In 1387, Philippa died, with the consequent loss to Chaucer of her royal and Lancastrian annuities. The extent to which Chaucer's finances were actually affected by this event is problematical, but it is clear that during this period he was involved in numerous law suits, mostly for debt, and that in 1388 he assigned both his exchequer annuities, probably for a cash sum. Public office seems again to have become a necessity. In 1389, he was appointed Clerk of the Works, a position he held until 1391. Possibly he resigned this demanding and hazardous task in favor of a less demanding one as subforester of the King's Park in North Petherton, Somersetshire, but the date of this latter appointment is highly uncertain. Further favors were forthcoming from Richard, but the poet seems nevertheless to have remained in difficult financial circumstances. The deposition of Richard II in 1399 could have been disastrous, entailing as it would the loss of these favors, but Richard's successor was Henry IV, son of John of Gaunt, who had both family and personal reasons for assisting Chaucer. Henry's actions were generous, and in 1399 Chaucer was able to take a lease on a house in the garden of St. Mary's Chapel, Westminster Abbey. The action seems singularly appropriate: Chaucer's withdrawal from the world shows an awareness of
mortality characteristically medieval, while the length of the lease (53 years) suggests a characteristically Chaucerian optimism. Whatever kind of work he intended to write in his last years, the uninterrupted time to create, which throughout his life he had so earnestly sought, had finally come. Some 10 months later, he died.
Works. At the center of any consideration of Chaucer's works is the date 1372. Previous to his first Italian journey, Chaucer's sources had been French. After his return, it is obvious that he became an avid reader of Italian literature, especially of Boccaccio. Hence, he has in the past been said to have had a French, an Italian, and curiously enough, from the point of view of sources, an English (Canterbury Tales ) period. More recently, influences have remained the basis for establishing Chaucer's periods of composition, but judgments as to maturity or lack of maturity of a poem have been allowed a greater scope. However, it is questionable whether the term "influence" is with Chaucer not more confusing
than useful. For example, Chaucer may be said to have devoured Boccaccio's romances and meditated upon the philosophy of Boethius. In the Knight's Tale, the latter is imposed upon the former. Both are influences, but hardly of the same sort. Thus it has seemed preferable to abandon the conception of "influence" as an organizing principle and to consider the various periods of Chaucer's works in terms of those activities or attitudes that were sufficiently dominant during the various periods of his life to make division meaningful.
Court Poems (1361?–80). As noted above, Chaucer's earliest works were probably court poems of a rather simple variety. Although the invariable principles of court poetry were well established, what is interesting about Chaucer is a certain artistic waywardness. It was acceptable, if not obligatory, to translate the conventionalized process of enamorment in the first part of the Roman de la Rose, but the sexual naturalism of the second part, no matter how Christian and philosophic, was not acceptable to the court for which Chaucer wrote. It is known from the "Prologue" to the Legend of Good Women that Chaucer translated the objectionable second part, but of the acceptable first part no mention is here made. So well known were the allegorical personages of the Garden of Love in the Roman de la Rose that Chaucer could not have avoided making their acquaintance; yet he could, and did, avoid taking them seriously. The most one can say is that a part of a Middle English translation may be attributed to him (cf. Roman de la Rose with Chaucer's "Romaunt of the Rose" in Works ).
When the Black Death of 1369 took from England one of its most beloved women, the Duchess Blanche of Lancaster, Chaucer seems to have been urged or commissioned to write an elegy, presumably as a consolation directed to her husband, John of Gaunt. This elegy, The Book of the Duchess, is a literary masterpiece, the finest of all his early poems. Blanche stands out as if alive in all her native beauty, goodness, and intelligence. Yet the poem bestowed upon its creator no immediate rewards—probably because its success depended upon the highly daring and unconventional device of introducing humor into an elegy. It is Chaucer's first–known use of the "persona," or mask, and in the Book of the Duchess its function is central; for it is the bemused stupidity of the persona–Chaucer that evokes from the Black Knight the lyrical praise of his departed lady, Blanche. But the stupidity of the oaf is humorous, and unconventional in an elegy. Almost as unconventional is the failure to present a vision of the subject of the elegy among the joys of heaven. In a complex way, which accepted the convention of the mistress as well as that of the wife, John of Gaunt was highly conventional, and Chaucer must have known it. Yet he refused to sacrifice his own personal vision of the earthly Blanche to a conventionally pious one.
The same is true of the incomplete House of Fame. It seems inescapable that the court poet was expected to prepare a romantic poem culminating in the announcement of a forthcoming wedding of no small consequence. But the poem prepared is pure parody—parody of Dante; parody of a second persona–Chaucer, the overfed and underrewarded servant of Venus; parody even of the set beginning of the metrical romance. Yet in the wildness and unevenness of the parody, as in the portrait of Geoffrey seeking to overcome the fatigue of the day in order to read yet another book, one senses not so much comedy, as a strongly implied appeal for relief from his customs duties, and for the opportunity to acquire the learning he considers necessary to the kind of poetry he wishes to write.
Philosophic Period (1380–85). Throughout his life Chaucer was never without an interest in ideas. In this brief period, however, one would judge that much of the reading he had been seeking to do had in fact been accomplished. The Parlement of Foules is an occasional poem (perhaps for St. Valentine's Day), cast in the familiar form of the love–debate. However, its questioning of the function of love in the universe, and its debating of the values of the various forms of love by a wide range of social classes, seem to indicate a philosophical interest both in an abstract concept and in its operation throughout society. Chaucer's most explicit philosophical venture, however, is his Herculean struggle to translate Boethius's De consolatione philosophiae. It must be kept in mind that the nonexistence of a philosophical vocabulary in English inevitably forced Chaucer into a heavily circumlocutional style, but, with the aid of a massive use of explanatory phrases, Chaucer, who left so much unfinished, indomitably struggled through. One may presume that the labor could not have been as painful as it would appear, for it is the Boethian view of the world that dominates Troilus and Criseyde, the most ambitious poem Chaucer ever completed. This story of a noble Trojan prince who finds his goddess in the beautiful and gentle Criseyde, who loves her with a love in which sheer adoration exceeds passion, yet is betrayed by her and gives his life for the loss of his love, has a magnitude and artistic perfection Chaucer never attained before or after. Yet it has a fault. It has to be read by human beings. The human being likes to believe in love, himself falls in love with the exquisite Criseyde, forgets the opening statement that flatly states Criseyde's ultimate falseness, and himself experiences the anguish of Troilus over an event he, as reader, has foreknown since the poem began. Nor can he, like Matthew Arnold in "Dover Beach," take refuge from the treacherous world in human love. It is precisely because Criseyde's love is human that it fails. Only God's love will betray no one.
At the end of the poem, Chaucer calls Troilus and Criseyde his "tragedye" (ed. Robinson, V, 1786). It is a ruthlessly logical working–out of the Boethian–Christian view of the nature of the world, and of the nature of the human soul. Chaucer has expressed the view with a completeness that leaves very little further to be said: its precision is almost too absolute. When Chaucer begs of God strength to create an undefined "comedye" (V, 1788), there is more than a suggestion that a kindlier, more complex, more expansive treatment of the phenomenon of human nature is forthcoming.
Canterbury Tales. "Chaucer," says Dryden, "must have been a man of a most wonderful comprehensive nature, because, as it has been truly observed of him, he has taken in the compass of his Canterbury Tales … the whole English nation, in his age. Not a single character has escaped him. All his pilgrims are severally distinguished from each other" (Spurgeon, 1.278). Dryden's statement is important not only because it emphasizes the comprehensiveness of Chaucer's art, but because, by the phrase "severally distinguished," he points to Chaucer's method of imparting particularity to generality, a literary method perhaps drawn from the substance and accident of medieval philosophy. Thus the Miller and Reeve share the common acquisitive instincts of their class, but their physical and temperamental attributes are exact opposites. The comprehensiveness of class coverage was not an idea entirely new with Chaucer, but the matching of tale to teller, apparent as early as the first two tales of the Pilgrimage, was new, and remains sufficiently new to cause difficulties even for present–day readers.
The question inevitably arises: Why should a respected author like Chaucer include such "low" tales as those of the Reeve and the Miller? The answer would appear to be relatively simple. If Chaucer was to achieve the comprehensiveness for which he has been consistently praised, he had to include uncultured as well as cultured classes, and with them, the tales they might naturally be expected to tell. The Miller, drunk before the pilgrimage even begins, is not a likely narrator for a saint's legend. Furthermore, it cannot be overemphasized that in including such tales, Chaucer, dependent upon court favor, is activated by no profit motive. On the contrary, he knows the risk he is running, as is apparent from his remarks preceding these tales [I(A) 725; 3170]. For the court poet, profit lay in the forms of literature known to be in favor at court—romances, chronicles, moralities—certainly not the "vileinie" of the classes living close to the land. Characteristically, Chaucer took the chance of court disapproval, and in the high comedy of his so–called "low" tales, he demonstrates an artistic skill and, more important, an artistic conscience unequalled in his time.
Artistic Devices. Numerous devices are used in the Canterbury Tales. Two have already been mentioned—the breadth of class and attitude included, and the imposing of individual characteristics and attitudes upon those of the class. The latter technique at its best creates the illusion of immediate experience; the former—together with Chaucer's almost complete suppression of references to the events of his age—tends to remove the pilgrims from time and to make of them universal figures. A further device, related to both of the above, is that of the "persona" or mask. Behind his chosen mask—in the Canterbury Tales that of the ingenuous bourgeois—Chaucer withdraws from the stage and leaves it open for the dramatic interplay of the pilgrims. It is one of the major contributions of modern criticism to have made a sharp distinction between this Pilgrim Chaucer, as much an artistic creation as any of his characters, and Chaucer, man and poet. The most extensive opportunity for failure to observe this distinction is offered by the Prioress's Tale. Even so reputable a historian as Cecil Roth believes that anti–Semitism had penetrated the soul of "gentle Geoffrey Chaucer," apparently because the Prioress's Tale, which he considers simply an imitation of the Hugh of Lincoln legend, is included in the Canterbury Tales [History of the Jews in England (3d ed. Oxford 1964) 57,89].
However, it is not Chaucer, nor even the fictive Pilgrim Chaucer, who tells the tale. It is the Prioress. Like Browning's monk in the Soliloquy in a Spanish Cloister —with whose attitudes Browning himself seems customarily not to have been identified—the Prioress is an artistic creation, and it is her own attitudes and her own personality she is exposing. It is essential to observe that the Prioress's personality is plastic; she conveys no sense of the energy and vocation of the otherwise colorless Second Nun. It may be presumed that the Prioress was the younger daughter of a well–to–do bourgeois family, where one imitated both the manners and the customs of the nobility. One of the latter was to attempt the provision of adequate land and dower for elder children, and positions of distinction in the Church for younger. The Prioress has dutifully imitated polite manners, and this imitation she has brought with her into the cloister; but once inside the cloister, she has adopted the ideal of the cloister—the ideal of virginity, and its conception of virginity as involving participation in the Incarnation. Thus, she thinks of Christ as the infant Christ, and of Mary as mother [VII(B2) 467]. In her tale, the principal figure is a "litel clergeon" who goes to a "litel scole" where he reads a "litel boke" (453, 495, 516). Furthermore, the "cursednesse" of the Jews when finally defined is that of Herod—the attempted murderer of Christ, and the actual murderer of the Holy Innocents, with which latter the "litel clergeon" is, in the Prioress's mind, associated (574, 566). It is important to realize that the Prioress has never seen a Jew—they were expelled from England in 1290—and that the death of "yonge" Hugh of Lincoln, mentioned as a recent outrage (686), happened about a century and a half earlier.
Nevertheless, the Prioress is persuaded that the Jews are bad people and should therefore be executed like other bad people. Her description of the execution of the Jews, horrible though it is, actually contains only the rudest elemental basics—which anyone could have heard or read—of the fine and much appreciated art of execution. It is just as unlikely that the Prioress ever saw an actual execution as that she ever saw a Jew. One has no real basis for assuming that she would have felt less pain over the tearing apart of a human being than over the sufferings of a mouse. She simply loves what, in her position, it is conventional to love, and hates what it is conventional to hate—without any knowledge of either. What is really important is that her hate as well as her love are deferentially accepted by the Pilgrims. The Prioress's Tale is prophetic, in that it deals with an aspect of the problem of evil that mankind has met again and again, and is still far from solving. Chaucer, who broke his self–imposed silence on contemporary happenings to permit the Nun's Priest's satirical allusion to the mass murder of the Flemings [VII(B2) 3397], is not a likely supporter of genocide, no matter how conventional.
Philosophy of the Tales. The preceding section has dealt with some of Chaucer's literary techniques and some of the misunderstandings to which they have given rise. At least one major question concerning the Canterbury Tales remains: Did Chaucer in his "comedye" have in mind any philosophical conception such as that which informed his "tragedye," Troilus and Criseyde? Or was he content simply to present a great panorama of human personalities and attitudes? The answer to this question is made difficult by the simple fact that Chaucer, at the time of his death, left the Canterbury Tales in a very incomplete state, so incomplete that even the order of the tales has furnished material for extensive controversy. Thus it has become customary, as in the present article, to cite the order of the generally authoritative Ellesmere Manuscript as I, II, III, etc; to include parenthetically (A, B1, B2, etc.) the order long ago created by the Chaucer Society to render consistent the geographical references in the Tales; and to return to the Ellesmere MS for line references. However neither order is devoid of objections, and much recent work has been devoted to establishing a definitive order (see Manly, Dempster, Pratt).
The General Prologue, however, is highly finished and might be expected to give some indication of the presence or absence of some unifying conception. At first glance, the pilgrims of the Prologue appear to be a highly world–oriented group—prosperous, concerned with the pleasures and profits of life. Furthermore, the company is dominated by the Host of the Tabard, Harry Bailly, whose plan, accepted by the pilgrims, would place the emphasis of the pilgrimage on the pleasure of exchanging stories and would make the climactic event not the arrival at Canterbury, but the return to London and the festive dinner at the Tabard. Yet among the worldly pilgrims there is a distinctly different group: the Knight, the Plowman, and the Parson. Rather interestingly, they represent the old feudal economy—the Knight, who protects Church and people; the Plowman, who provides material food; the Parson, who provides spiritual food. These three are old also in a deeper sense. None of them is materially motivated; each performs his feudal duty as a duty owed in a universe of which God is the author. It is evident that Chaucer intends to give this group positions of the highest dignity in the order of Tales. Although the Plowman's Tale is never told, the first of the tales is the Knight's, and the last, which is explicitly stated as knitting up the whole matter of the pilgrimage, is the Parson's.
Paradoxically, it is equally evident that the old are presented as pale and shadowy, while the new are burgeoning with color and energy. It is here that the extraordinary aptness of the pilgrimage fiction becomes evident. In its origin, the pilgrimage had been an act of piety carried out under great hardship and danger; by Chaucer's day, it had become generally, though not necessarily, more pleasurable than devotional. These two attitudes toward the pilgrimage correspond very closely with the attitudes of the worldly and unworldly pilgrims toward life. The central problem posed by Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales may possibly be stated thus: Is life in fact the traditional Christian pilgrimage through trial and temptation toward a future eternal city (Heb 11.13; 13.14); or is it a forward movement toward a new and better earthly city, a simple historical change in which an old set of values inevitably yields to a new? Or finally—an idea dear to the 14th–century humanist—are the temporal and eternal worlds not really antithetical, but in fact complementary, the logical movement from a lesser good to a greater good?
The "Marriage Group." If this problem is ever argued out, it is in the so–called "Marriage Group," comprising fragments III(D), IV(E), and V(F). The device of argumentation used in the Group is, of course, not new. It is a dramatic device used constantly; but only in the Marriage Group is the argument so carefully structured and the subject so consistently adhered to. The first speaker is Alice of Bath, Chaucer's greatest, because most lovingly wrought, personality. As she reveals herself, the Alice of the General Prologue, with her well–rewarded profession of wool weaving in a prosperous wool country, disappears: Alice is first and foremost a professional wife, the respectability of whose profession has been called into question. Alice's career has embraced five husbands, and she is seeking to continue that career with a sixth. However, someone has recently intimated to her that, according to authoritative scriptural (Jn 2.1) interpretation, her profession of multiple wifehood could be construed as a considerably less respectable one—and a sixth husband (Jn 4.18) as particularly compromising (Sources and Analogues 209).
Alice's counterarguments are revealing. To "auctorite," or "gloss," as she prefers to call it [III(D) 26, 119], Alice opposes the "express word" of Scripture (27, 61). Alice finds the gentle text "increase and multiply" (Gn1.28) literally comprehensible, and she intimates that a careful literal reading of Christ's remarks about the Samaritan woman's five husbands would remove any opprobrium from her own career (19–20). Alice thus purports to discard the ancient allegorical in favor of the modern literal. However, she is more than slightly self–contradictory. She not only comically misreads on the literal level—as, for instance, that St. Paul (1 Cor 7.4) explicitly confers upon her the power to govern her husbands—but her completely perverted interpretation of 1 Cor 7.7 indicates that she not only does not reject the old allegorical and authoritarian, but seeks to place it on her own side in a fashion so ruthless as again to be comic. In accord with her position as practicing wife of Bath, her Prologue is a tale of the practical values of dominating husbands; but the tale itself is not one of experience. It is Arthurian, drawn, one is led to suppose, from the Arthurian lore surrounding Bath, where Arthur won perhaps his most famous victory.
The tale Alice tells is strikingly different from the Prologue in several respects. For one, although the tale accords superficially with Alice's customary theme of practicality and female dominance, there is none of the preoccupation with sex made so explicit in the Prologue, and the Hag, whose transformation into youth and beauty is the central event of Alice's story, lives happily ever after with a single husband. Finally, the Hag's discourse shows an awareness of the conflict of grace and sin (1173–76) that is quite surprising—until one recalls that, in her Prologue, Alice's lyrical praise of past sexual delight is accompanied by her outcry: "Alas! Alas! that evere love was sinne!" (614). Alice, like Bath, is an uneasy compound of new and old, and perhaps this is why Chaucer becomes progressively more deeply interested in her.
Though Alice has, almost unconsciously, revealed a sort of indefeasible Christian heritage, every pronouncement she has made concerning the inevitability of female dominance is heresy. The reader expects these pronouncements to be answered, but instead is carried away by two masterpieces of invective, the tales of the Friar and Summoner, in which each reveals the corrupt practices of the other. By the time the Clerk of Oxford has been called upon, the reader has rather forgotten Alice, but it is clear that the Clerk of Oxford has not. What the story of the Clerk does is to set up against the husband–crushing Alice the portrait of the humble, patient, loving Griselda, the medieval ideal of womanhood, whose perfection is reflected in her horror at remaining anything but a "widwe clene" (836). Before Alice can retort, the tale of the Merchant and the incomplete tale of the Squire intervene, widening the subject of the debate from marriage to love—the first questioning whether love is not in fact simply lust, and the second questioning (though fragmentarily presented) whether the ideal relationship is not courtly love. The Franklin's Tale, which concludes the Group, seems at first glance a model of balance among the positions presented. It is old in that it insists on the basic rightness of the marriage relationship. It is new in that love, which marital constraint can never drive from Griselda, the Clerk's medieval ideal, is presented as something that vanishes at constraint—a "thing as any spirit free." Love within marriage is indeed dependent upon the virtue of patience, as the Clerk has maintained, but it is neither the patience demanded by Alice of her husbands, nor that demanded by the Clerk of the ideal wife—it is a mutual patience demanded as much of the husband as of the wife. The husband is to retain his realm of sovereignty in the world of affairs, but to the woman is accorded sovereignty in the realm of love.
Old and new seem neatly balanced in the Prologue, but what upsets the balance is the view of the nature of man expressed in the Tale. Medieval theology regarded human nature as corrupted by the Fall, and the manifestation of its flawed state as a certain likeness to him whose lies caused the Fall (Jn 7.44). Truth is an attribute of God; lying, a characteristic of man (Rom 3.4). In grace lay the only means to truth. Yet in the Franklin's Tale every man keeps to truth, and woman also—though the scene is pagan Brittany to which grace has yet to come. As in traditional Christian symbolism, woman (Emotion) needs the control of man (Reason), but in the Tale both man and woman are essentially good. If mankind is essentially good, then the ideal of the Knight and the raw energy of Alice of Bath have something in common. They are not really antithetical, but complementary. As humanity and its ideals progress, a progressively better world becomes possible. This is the highest point of Chaucer's humanism.
Religious Contrition (1399–1400). Chaucer's last works, the Parson's Prologue and Tale and the Retraction, are probably best understood in terms of the medieval attitude toward the activities proper to the ages of men. Traditionally, as the early years of one's life were devoted to action, the later and final were devoted to meditation and prayer. This was not only a theory but a practice. For those whose life had been letters itself, declining years posed a particular problem. Why had they not applied their talent to glorifying God, rather than to attracting the praises of men? Both Boccaccio and Petrarch had religious experiences that profoundly affected the nature of their last works. In England, the strictures of St. Paul on any form of writing not conducive to moral instruction had great currency, especially as stated in the opening of Rom 15.4: "All that is written is written for our instruction." One may find this passage cited in any number of explicitly devotional works, or even attached to works of doubtful moral content, such as Caxton's pious prologue to the Morte Darthur. The prevalence of Rom 15.4 is apparent also in the Canterbury Tales. When the Nun's Priest suddenly senses that pure comedy does not befit his calling and urges his listeners to seize the miniscule morality of his great satire, it is this same admonition of St. Paul that he quotes [VII(B2) 3441].
Chaucer too knew the passage and its meaning. In his Retraction, he states that his intention is in accord with St. Paul: "Al that is writen is writen for our doctrine" [X(I) 1083]. The grand comedy of his life is past, and he is eager to have his readers note his moral works but is unable to enumerate as many as he would wish. He therefore strives to add to the list of devotional works he has already composed or translated a relatively new type of religious work that was becoming very popular at the end of the 14th century. This was a kind of handbook containing an exposition at greater or lesser length of various matters of doctrine. Originally, these manuscripts had been written in Latin and were designed for use by the parish priest. Later they began to be written in English or translated into English, in part to aid the parish priest's Latin, but principally to meet the demand for works of piety and meditation that was rising within a society that was becoming increasingly literate.
Although Chaucer's Parson's Tale was almost certainly translated from Latin tractates designed for use within the Church, there can be little doubt that Chaucer intended it for the same audience as that of the rest of the Tales. He earnestly wished it to circulate with the other Canterbury Tales and to offset the effects he feared of some tales, as Boccaccio feared the effects of the Decameron. The Parson's Tale itself represents an apparently hasty and awkward attempt to incorporate an extensive treatise on the Seven Deadly Sins into a rather small one on penitence. However artistically inept it may be, the Parson's Tale does communicate, and what it communicates is Chaucer's uncompromising acceptance of medieval Christian doctrine. Heaven is worth striving for, as Chaucer is striving to complete the number of works he believes his calling as poet demands of him. Human nature is worth very little striving for. It is "roten and corrupt" (461). Salvation is not to be found in faith in humanity, any more than in poetic excellence. Art in and for itself has no standing. It is a talent in the scriptural sense (Mt 25.14), and Chaucer at the end of his life is much concerned with the use he has made of it.
Character and Accomplishment. Chaucer has traversed the whole span of human experience, and he ends as human as he began. One meets him first in the Book of the Duchess as a rebel against conventional religiosity; next as the philosopher–artist, inquiring in the Parlement, positive in Troilus, tentative again in the great debate of the Canterbury Tales, but strongly inclined toward a humanistic view of man and his relation to eternity; finally, like Petrarch and Boccaccio, ending his life very unsure of man and the world he inhabits, and very sure of the traditional religious beliefs of his age and the ages before him. Chaucer's powers of observation have never failed to be observed, nor the artistic mastery that transformed observation into character, and character into drama. However, it is perhaps not simply the great art he strove for and attained, but the passion for ideas—the ceaseless striving for a comprehension of the relationship of man to man and man to God—that enabled him to endow his characters and particularly the Canterbury pilgrims with so great a range of attitude that they seem humanity itself. It is true that humanity never changes, but neither does the search for ideas. Perhaps it is in this sense that one may understand Blake's marvelously simple statement: "Every age is a Canterbury Pilgrimage."
Bibliography: Editions. Complete Works, ed. w. w. skeat, 6v. and suppl. (Oxford 1894–1900); ed. f. n. robinson (2d ed. Boston 1957); Poetry, ed. e. t. donaldson (New York 1957); Major Poetry, ed. a. c. baugh (New York 1963); Text of the Canterbury Tales, ed. j. m. manly and e. rickert, 8 v. (Chicago 1940); Canterbury Tales, ed. r. d. french (New York 1948); Book of Troilus and Criseyde, ed. r. k. root (Princeton 1926). Criticism. g. l. kittredge, Chaucer and His Poetry (Cambridge, Mass. 1915). n. coghill, The Poet Chaucer (New York 1949). j. s. tatlock, Mind and Art of Chaucer (Syracuse 1950). d. bethurum, ed., Critical Approaches to Medieval Literature (New York 1960). r. schoeck and j. taylor, eds., Chaucer Criticism, 2 v. (Notre Dame 1960–61). w. w. lawrence, Chaucer and the Canterbury Tales (New York 1950). e. t. donaldson, essays in d. bethurum and r. schoeck, op. cit. w. f. bryan and g. dempster, eds., Sources and Analogues of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (Chicago 1941). g. dempster, "Manly's Conception of the Early History of the Canterbury Tales," Publications of the Modern Language Association 61 (Baltimore 1946) 379–415. r. a. pratt, "Order of the Canterbury Tales," Publications of the Modern Language Association 66 (Baltimore 1951) 1147–67. r. k. gordon, Story of Troilus (London 1934). a. denomy, "Two Moralities of Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde," Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, ser. 3,v.44.2 (1950) 35–46. r. a. pratt, "Note on Chaucer's Lollius," Modern Language Notes 65 (1950) 183–187. Literary and other relationships. c. s. lewis, The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition (Oxford 1936). w. a. pantin, The English Church in the Fourteenth Century (Cambridge, Eng. 1955). w. farnham, Medieval Heritage of Elizabethan Tragedy (Berkeley 1936; repr. Oxford 1956). c. f. spurgeon, Five Hundred Years of Criticism and Allusion, 3 v. (Cambridge, Eng. 1925). c. muscatine, Chaucer and the French Tradition (Berkeley 1957). r. d. french, Chaucer Handbook (2d ed. New York 1947). r. s. loomis, A Mirror of Chaucer's World (Princeton 1965). m. m. crow and c. c. olson, Chaucer: Life–Records (Oxford 1966).
[a. l. kellogg]
BORN: c. 1343, London, England
DIED: 1400, London, England
NATIONALITY: British, English
The Book of the Duchess (c. 1368–1372)
The Parliament of Fowles (c. 1378–1381)
Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1382–1386)
The Canterbury Tales (c. 1386–1400)
Widely regarded as the “father of English poetry,” Geoffrey Chaucer is considered the foremost representative of Middle English literature. The originality of his language and style, the liveliness of his humor, the civility of his poetic demeanor, and the depth of his knowledge are continually cited as reasons for the permanence of his works. Due to his familiarity with French, English, Italian, and Latin literature, Chaucer was able to combine characteristics of each into a unique body of work that affirmed the rise of English as a literary language.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
The son of John and Agnes (de Copton) Chaucer, Geoffrey Chaucer was born into a family of London-based wine merchants sometime in the early 1340s. He would serve three successive kings—Edward III, Richard II, and Henry IV.
Chaucer first appears in household records in 1357 as a page in the service of Elizabeth, the Countess of Ulster and wife of Prince Lionel, the third son of Edward III. By 1359 he served in King Edward's army in France during the early part of the Hundred Years’ War, a protracted territorial struggle between England and France that persisted throughout the fourteenth century, but was captured during the unsuccessful siege of Rheims. The king contributed to his ransom the following year, freeing him from the French, and Chaucer must have entered the king's service shortly thereafter.
In the Company of John of Gaunt By 1366, Chaucer married Philippa Pan, another courtier who attended the Countess of Ulster. She was the sister of Katharine Swynford, who became mistress and subsequently wife to John of Gaunt, Edward III's fourth son and the primary power behind the throne. John of Gaunt appears to have become Chaucer's patron, because the pair's fortunes rose and fell together for the next three decades. Chaucer traveled to Spain in 1366 on what would be the first of a series of diplomatic missions to the continent over the next decade. In 1368, the death of John of Gaunt's first wife, Blanche, the Duchess of Lancaster, occasioned Chaucer's composition of the Book of the Duchess, which was circulating by the time he went to France in 1370. Blanche had most likely died of the bubonic plague, a pandemic that started in central Asia and spread to Europe beginning in the 1340s, killing twenty to sixty percent of the population by the end of the century.
In this, his first major work, Chaucer attempts to soothe John of Gaunt's grief. Although most of the lines have parallels in other French court poetry, the Book of the Duchess never reads like “translation English,” since it converts the insincere language and sentimental courtly romance imagery of the French models into a poignant reality—a beautiful woman is dead, and the Knight mourns her.
Italian Influences Chaucer traveled in Italy in 1372–1373, stopping in Genoa to negotiate a trade agreement and visiting Florence concerning loans for Edward III. He then returned to England and was appointed a customs official for the Port of London, a post he would hold until 1386. Chaucer's career as a civil servant continued to flourish; he visited France and Calais in 1376 and 1378, and Italy again in 1378, and he gained additional customs responsibilities in 1382.
Critics believe that Chaucer next wrote the House of Fame and the Parlement of Foules (c. 1378–1381). Although the exact sequence of these works is indeterminate, both are thought to comment upon the efforts to arrange a suitable marriage for the young Richard II, John of Gaunt's nephew: the Parlement on the unsuccessful efforts to gain the daughter of Charles V of France, and Fame on the actual betrothal of Richard with Anne of Bohemia in 1380.
Chaucer's love affair with the Italian language, nurtured by his visits in 1372–1373 to Genoa and Florence and in 1378 to Lombardy, flowered in the following decade with his composition of Troilus and Criseyde. By 1385, Chaucer was living in Kent, where he was appointed a justice of the peace. The following year he became a member of Parliament.
A Critique of Church Corruption The Canterbury Tales, started sometime around 1386, is considered Chaucer's masterpiece. Organized as a collection of stories told by a group of travelers on pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas à Becket in Canterbury, The Canterbury Tales reflects the diversity of fourteenth-century English life. Notable in the work are thinly veiled, and sometimes not-so-thinly veiled, criticisms of the representatives of the Roman Catholic Church. The Friar, for example, is a greedy man more concerned with profit than saving souls. The Summoner and the Pardoner are both villainous characters who prey on the genuine religious devotion of common people. Such characters are reflections of the growing concern over the corruption of the church—concerns that would ultimately lead to the Protestant Reformation in the early sixteenth century. The work also reflects the intellectual curiosity that characterized medieval Christianity. The character the Clerk, an impoverished young student from Oxford University, for example, is presented as highly sympathetic.
Bawdy Humor The Canterbury Tales is also filled with humor that can be considered bawdy, if not crude, even by modern standards. Some historians have speculated that the seemingly endless war between France and England and the terrible devastation of the bubonic plague prompted many people to seek simple physical enjoyment in life in any way they could, including in drinking, eating, and sex. Discussions of those types of pleasures, and jokes about them, are peppered throughout Chaucer's text. Chaucer originally planned to write more than one hundred stories for his Tales, but he died without finishing.
Political Turmoil in England and Later Tears The end of the fourteenth century was full of political turmoil in England. Young King Richard II assumed full control of the government in 1381, but his uncle John of Gaunt remained highly influential. Richard proved an inept ruler. He was eventually deposed in 1399, and John of Gaunt's son, Henry Bolingbroke, became King Henry IV. Meanwhile Chaucer, buffeted by the constantly changing political winds, held and lost a variety of government posts. In December of 1396, he leased a house in the garden of Westminster Abbey because a house on church grounds granted him sanctuary from his creditors, and lived there for the remainder of his life. Geoffrey Chaucer died on October 25, 1400. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, primarily because his last residence was on the abbey grounds. So important was he deemed as a poet that the space around his tomb was later dubbed the Poets' Corner, and luminaries of English letters were laid to rest around him.
Works in Literary Context
Chaucer is renowned as a pioneer in English language literature primarily because he was one of the first writers of literature in English. Latin had long been the standard language for writing in Europe, although Chaucer had read and appreciated the works of such Italian-language writers as Boccaccio and Petrach, both of whom influenced his work.
Vernacular Literature: Writing in English In the fourteenth century, England had little literary reputation and English was not considered a “literary” language. English was considered a rough tongue, strictly a spoken language for the common people. Critic Jeffrey Helterman explains, “It would have been surprising in the fourteenth century for anyone to think of writing in his native tongue, and this was particularly true for Chaucer's role models. The first impulse for a medieval writer who was writing something he wanted remembered was to write it in Latin.” Chaucer, however, chose to write his major works in English, perhaps striking a blow for the common man. If Chaucer himself had not erased all doubt as to the power and beauty of the English language, fellow Englishman William Shakespeare would, two hundred years later, with brilliant plays written in blank verse English. Shakespeare followed consciously in the footsteps of Chaucer, and his debt to the earlier writer is widely noted by critics.
The Frame Tale The Canterbury Tales, although unfinished, is a brilliant advance on the frame tale as practiced by Boccaccio in The Decameron. A framed story is one which one or more stories are set within a situation that is laid out at the beginning: for example, in The Canterbury Tales, the narrative frame is the pilgrimage being made by all the characters. The stories told about and by the characters are set within this narrative frame. It should be noted that there is no certainty that Chaucer knew of The Decameron's, existence. In the days before printing presses, fragments of a manuscript were gathered with no concern for a whole work or even an individual author; Chaucer may have known a tale from The Decameron without being aware of the whole book.
In The Decameron, the tales of the day hang statically on the pegs of a topic; not even the black plague impacts much on Boccaccio's tale-telling. His tales, clever as they are, remain isolated in the narrative. Not so in Chaucer— each character uses his tale as a weapon or tool to get back at or even with the previous tale teller.
Boccaccio and Chaucer were not the earliest or the only writers to use the frame tale. Plato's Symposium (written around 385 b.c.e.) uses an elaborate frame, but it is doubtful Chaucer was familiar with Plato's work (he mentions Plato in some of his writing, but his knowledge of Plato appears to come from secondary sources). Using a narrative frame has remained a popular literary technique by writers as diverse as Mary Shelley (see Frankenstein, 1818), Mark Twain (see “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” 1865), and Joseph Conrad (see Heart of Darkness, 1899).
Works in Critical Context
Chaucer is generally considered the father of English poetry, and The Canterbury Tales has been required reading for countless students over the generations. The influence of his work on generations of English-language writers is undisputed.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Chaucer's famous contemporaries include:
Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375): Italian writer and poet, best known for The Decameron and for writing in the Italian vernacular.
Petrarch (1304–1374): Italian scholar and poet, famous for his love sonnets.
Wat Tyler (1341–1381): leader of the Peasants' Revolt in 1381 in England, a protest against high taxes and poor conditions for serfs; Tyler was killed by King Richard ll's men, and the rebellion was put down.
John Gower (c. 1330–1408): English poet; wrote in French, Latin, and English.
The Canterbury Tales Some critics have worried that such wide and shallow exposure of the reading public to Chaucer's work has diluted full appreciation for his complex contribution to literature. Critic Derek Traversi
says, “The appreciation of Geoffrey Chaucer has suffered a good deal in the past from his reputation as the ‘Father of English poetry.’ It has been easy to think of him as a ‘naif,’ the possessor of a charming simplicity of outlook which tends to convey itself, for a modern reader, through language considered ‘picturesque’ or simply childish, alternately ‘quaint’ or redolent of innocence for readers who think of themselves as more sophisticated and more psychologically complex.” However, this view is not correct, Traversi argues: “His early poems show him engaged in exploring the possibilities of the English language as an instrument for sophisticated literary creation.”
Chaucer's carefully, economically drawn characters have won praise from multiple readers and critics. As poet William Blake put it, over four hundred years after the book's first publication: “Of Chaucer's characters, as described in his Canterbury Tales, some of the names are altered by Time, but the Characters themselves for ever remain unaltered and consequently they are the Physiognomies or lineaments of Universal Human Life beyond which Nature never steps.” Phyllis Hodgson agrees: “The confessions of the Reeve, the Wife of Bath, the Pardoner complete a portraiture as elaborate and subtle as could be expected of later fiction.”
Responses to Literature
- Read World Without End, by Ken Follett, a novel that takes place in England during the Black Death. Is that a world you wish you could live in? Why or why not? What is the starkest difference between that world and this one? How different are the values?
- Around 1595, William Shakespeare wrote Richard II, which is about the same king who was Chaucer's patron. In a group, read the play, or parts of it, aloud. Alternatively, watch the BBC's production of Richard II starring Derek Jacobi, with an eye looking out for the politicking of the time. How does the medieval politics portrayed in it compare to today's political battles? What is essentially the same, and what is the most dramatic difference?
- Chaucer chose to write in English at a time when educated people wrote in Latin or French. Write a one- or two-paragraph story using either text message abbreviations or the slang of your choice. Do you think writing like that will catch on throughout society? Is there a hierarchical perspective on language usage today? Does any one particular language get more respect than another? Why might that be so?
- Using the Internet and your library's resources, research pilgrimages in the Middle Ages and today. Write an essay comparing the ideology behind them, the actual method and style of the pilgrimages, and their purpose. How have pilgrimages changed? How have they stayed the same? In a brief paragraph, imagine you are writing as an anchor person of a major news program and describing the “typical” pilgrimage that you are watching as it proceeds down the streets where you live.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
The setting for The Canterbury Tales is a pilgrimage, a trip to visit a holy place. Here are some other texts that deal with various pilgrimages.
On Pilgrimage (1998), a nonfiction work by Jennifer Lash. A lapsed Catholic travels to pilgrimage sites in Europe after a battle with cancer. One Thousand Roads to Mecca (1997), a nonfiction work by Michael Wolfe. A compilation of one thousand years' worth of pilgrimages to Mecca, told by two dozen Muslims.
Sacred Koyasan (2007), a nonfiction work by Philip L. Nicoloff. The author details a Buddhist's pilgrimage to an important Japanese religious center.
Travels with My Donkey (2004), a nonfiction work by Tim Moore. Humorous nonfiction account of the author's attempt to follow the five hundred-mile pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, with a donkey.
Brewer, Derek. Chaucer in His Time. London: Nelson, 1964.
Chute, Marchette G. Geoffrey Chaucer of England. New York: Dutton, 1946.
David, Alfred. The Strumpet Muse: Art and Morals in Chaucer's Poetry. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976.
Helterman, Jeffrey. “Geoffrey Chaucer.” In Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography,VoL 1: Writers of the Middle Ages and Renaissance before 1660. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale Research Inc., 1992.
Hodgson, Phyllis. “Introduction.” In General Prologue: The Canterbury Tales. London: Athlone Press, 1969.
Traversi, Derek A. “Geoffrey Chaucer.” In Reference Guide to English Literature, 2nd ed. London: St. James Press, 1991.
Delasanta, Rodney. “The Theme of Judgment in The Canterbury Tales.” Modern Language Quarterly 31 (September 1970): 298–307.
Kellogg, Robert. “Oral Narrative, Written Books.” Genre 10 (Winter 1977): 655–665.
Pratt, Robert A. “Chaucer and the Hand that Fed Him.” Speculum 41(October 1966): 619–642.
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.
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.
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). □
Born: c. 1345
Died: October 1400
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 (70–19 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 1359–1360 Chaucer was in France with Prince Lionel (1338–1368). This was during the period of the Hundred Years' War (1137–1453) between England and France. Chaucer was taken prisoner. The English King Edward III (1312–1377) 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 (1340–1399), 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 1372–1373. The latter mission took him to Florence and Genoa, Italy. There he may have deepened his acquaintance with the poetic traditions established by Dante (1265–1321) and Petrarch (1304–1374).
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 (1367–1400). 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. 480–524), 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 (1313–1375), 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 (1553–1610) 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. 1118–1170), 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.
WorksChaucer'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.
LanguageThe 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.
StyleIn 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
A Life at Court.
Geoffrey Chaucer, arguably the greatest English writer before Shakespeare, was born in London in the early 1340s to a merchant family; the family name suggests the shoe trade, though there is some record of their having been wine merchants. He quickly made his way in the world, apparently acquiring some legal training at the Inns of Court, and by 1357 was in royal service. His wife, Philippa, was an attendant to the queen, and her sister, Katherine Swynford, was the mistress and later wife of John of Gaunt, one of the king's sons. Both through family connections and, most importantly, through his own abilities as an administrator, Chaucer quickly made his way in the royal household and traveled abroad on the king's business several times, holding the posts of controller of the customs and clerk of the king's works. It is chiefly through these positions and various grants and gifts in payment for his services that Chaucer's life is documented; there is no independent record of his activities as a poet. It is clear, however, that during his early years in royal service, Chaucer was reading deeply in French courtly poetry by such poets as Guillaume de Machaut and Jean Froissart (about 1368–1375), on whom he relied heavily in composing his own early works in dream narrative form. He also read Italian literature by Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, the last of whom he resembles in using a framing narrative of tales told by a group of travelers.
The Canterbury Tales.
Judging from some of the story lines he sketched out in the 1370s and 1380s, Chaucer was already meditating the Canterbury Tales, his best known work, in which a variety of different stories, exemplifying a wide range of literary genres, are told by pilgrim travelers on their way to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Thomas Becket. Each pilgrim—including Chaucer, who pretends to be a pilgrim also—is supposed to tell two tales going to the cathedral and two coming back again, though this plan is interrupted. While Boccaccio had introduced the idea of using non-aristocratic characters in the tales told by his wealthy young Florentines, Chaucer goes a step further by including people from all walks of life among the pilgrim story-tellers themselves, ranging from a knight and his son to a physician, a lawyer, several nuns, a monk, a lower-middle-class widow, a miller, a sailor, and even a plowman. The work as a whole seems to have been put together about 1385 to 1395, but it was never actually finished. The different manuscripts reflect differing arrangements of the parts.
Range and Influence.
Chaucer's other greatest work was Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1380), a poem of some 8,000 lines in an elevated style, which relies on Boccaccio's Filostrato for its classical plot. Chaucer tells the story of how Criseyde, a widow in the besieged city of Troy, is loved by and then loves Troilus, but then gives him up to try to save herself through another man, Diomede. In a wonderful mix of comic and tragic, aristocratic and bourgeois, this poem, though set in ancient Troy, reflects the changing world of late fourteenth-century England. In addition to other poems of his own, Chaucer did many translations of classic medieval works such as the Romance of the Rose and Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy, as well as a group of lyric poems. His use of English, rather than French, for courtly poetry is sometimes credited with helping to bring the dialect of London into prominence as the standard for all speakers of English.
Piero Boitani and Jill Mann, eds., The Cambridge Chaucer Companion (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1986).
Vittore Branca, Boccaccio: The Man and His Works. Trans.
Jill Mann, Chaucer and Medieval Estates Satire: The Literature of Social Class and the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1973).
Charles Muscatine, Chaucer and the French Tradition: A Study in Style and Meaning (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1957; reprint, 1966).
Derek Pearsall, The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer (Oxford: Blackwells, 1992).
Barry A. Windeatt, Troilus and Criseyde (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992).
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
English poet and civil servant who wrote the literary classic The Canterbury Tales, among other works, and held numerous government posts during the reigns of Edward III, Richard II, and Henry IV. Fluent in French (the language of the wine trade), Chaucer held royal appointments as customs controller, forester, and clerk of the king's works. He also went on (sometimes secret) diplomatic missions to France and Italy, where he discovered and assimilated the works of Boccaccio, Dante, and Petrarch. This experience, combined with his acute powers of observation, humor, and discernment, allowed Chaucer to capture the complexity, vitality, variety, and contradictions of the medieval world in his writings, which are still vivid after six centuries.