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||Geoffrey Chaucer (1342/43-1400)|
Writer, official and bureaucrat, the outstanding English poet before William Shakespeare. Geoffrey Chaucer is remembered as the author of Canterbury Tales, which ranks as one of the greatest epic works of world literature. Chaucer made a crucial contribution to English literature in writing in English at a time when much court poetry was still composed in Anglo-Norman or Latin. Although he spent one of two brief periods of disfavor, Chaucer lived the whole of his life close the centers of English power.
'My lige lady, generally,' quod he,
Geoffrey Chaucer was born in London into a middle class family. He
was the son of a prosperous wine merchant
and deputy to the kings's butler, and his wife Agnes, daughter of one
John Copton. The name Chaucer, from the French, meant shoemaker, but so
far as is know, none of his ancestors were shoemakers. The family lived
in a large house on Thames Street.
Little is known of Chaucer's early education, but his works show that he could read French, Latin, and Italian. By the age of 14, his school days were over. The exists no memoirs of Chaucer, but Canterbury Tales perhaps gives a sight of the writer:
"Thou lookest as thou woulds find an hare,
Chaucer’s career in the royal service began in 1357, when he was appointed to the household of Elizabeth, Countess of Ulster, and her husband Prince Lionel. In 1359-1360 Chaucer went to France with Edward III's army during the Hundred Years' War. He was captured in the Ardennes and returned to England after the treaty of Brétigny in 1360. It it said that during this period he translated from the French the allegory Romaunt of the Rose, which was his first literary work. Chaucer was so valued as a skilled professional soldier that his ransom, £16, then a tidy sum, was paid by his friends and King Edward. There is no certain information of his life from 1361 until c.1366, when he perhaps married Philippa Roet, the sister of John Gaunt's future wife, and one of Queen Philippa's ladies. For most of their marrriage, Chaucer and his wife lived apart. Philippa apparently gave him two sons, 'little Lewis', to whom Chaucer addressed A Treatise on the Astrolabe (1391), and Thomas, who was later highly successful in public service. Philippa died in 1387 and Chaucer enjoyed Gaunt's patronage throughout his life. He was in the King's service, held a number of positions at court, and spent some time in Spain.
Between 1367 and 1378 Chaucer made several journeys abroad on
diplomatic and commercial missions. It is possible that he met Giovanni
Boccaccio or Petrarch in pre-Renaissance Italy in 1372-73. And it is
said that the example of Dante gave him the idea of writing in the
vulgar English rather than in the court French of the day. In 1374 he
became a government official at the port of London, holding the post of
Comptroller of the Customs and Subside of Wools, Skins, and Tanned
A major question in Chaucer's biography has been whether
he raped or abducted a woman called Cecily Chaumpaigne, the daughter of
a baker. The charge of "de raptu meo" brought against the poet was
dropped in 1380. His guilt or
innocence has never been determined; the Latin term "raptus"
could mean either rape, a serious crime in fourteenth-century London,
or abduction. It has been claimed that to avoid legal action Chaucer
paid her £10 through an intermediary: This was a vast a sum of money,
equal to over half his yearly salary as Controller. ('Introduction: Chaucer's Life and Times,' in The Canterbury Tales: A Selection, edited by Robert Boening and Andrew Taylor, 2013, p. xv)
Chaucer lived over Aldgate, the busiest of London's seven gates. The only natural light to his single bare room came from arrow slits.In 1385 Chaucer lost his employment and his rent-free home. He then moved to Kent where he was appointed as justice of the peace. Chaucer was also elected to Parliament. This was a period of great creativity for him, during which he produced most of his best poetry, among others Troilus and Cressida (c. 1385), based on a love story by Boccaccio.
When his wife died, according to records, Chaucer was sued for debt. Several of his friends were executed by the Merciless Parliament. In 1389 Richard II regained control and Chaucer reentered the service of the crown as Clerk of the King's Works, to upkeep and repair governmental buildings in and out of London. Highwaymen robbed him three times in September 1390. Later in the 1390s he received royal gifts and pensions. Chaucer seems to have been in attendance (1395-96) on Henry Bolingbroke, John of Gaunt's son, who deposed Richard II in 1399 and who, as Henry IV, increased Chaucer's annuity.
The last years of his life Chaucer lived at Greenwich, "an Inne of Shrews," as the Host calls it in the Canterbury Tales,
referring perhaps to the occasion when he was held up or mugged there,
not once but twice in the same day. According to tradition, Chaucer
died in London on October 25, 1400. He did not leave a will and it has
been speculated that he was murdered. The regime of Thomas Arundel,
Archbishop of Canterbury, did not accept attacks on the clergy and the
ideas of the Lollards, who wanted to return to the apostolic poverty.
Chaucer himself had friends who supported the reformist movement.
According to Thomas Speght, whose edition of Chaucer came out in 1597,
he had been "fined two shillings for beatinge a Franciscane fryer in
Chaucer was buried in Westminster Abbey, in the part of the
which afterwards came to be called Poet's Corner. He had taken a lease
on a small house in the garden of the lady chapel at Westminster to
escape his creditors. On his death the tenement was taken over by his
son Thomas. Virtually all the
surviving manuscripts of his work date from the fifteenth century. A
monument was erected to him in 1555. Chaucer's supposed remains were
exposed and measured in 1889; they belonged to a man about five feet
six inches high.
Chaucer took his narrative inspiration for his works from several sources, such as the Romance of the Rose by Guillaume de Loris, Ovid's poems, and such Italian authors as Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. Their works he may have read during his travels in Italy. Chaucer remained still entirely individual poet, gradually developing his personal style and techniques. He must have heard a number of tales in his life time, it was the most common entertainment in the period of Black Death, popular unrest, serfdom, peasant revolts, foreign and local wars.
His first narrative poem, The Book of the Duchess, was
probably written shortly after the death of Blanche, Duchess of
Lancaster, first wife of John Gaunt, in September 1369. It was based
largely on French sources, particularly the Toman de la Rose and
several works of Guillaume de Machaut. His next important work, The House of Fame, was written between 1374 and 1385, and draw on the works of Ovid, Vergil, and Dante. Soon afterward Chaucer translated the Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, and wrote the poem Parliament of Birds. No copies have survived of the Book of the Leoun.
Chaucer's writing developed from a period of French influence in the
late 1360s, through his 'middle period' of both French and Italian
Influences, to the last period. Chaucer did not begin working on the Canterbury Tales
until he was in his early 40s. The book, which was left unfinished when
the author died, has a framing narrative like much medieval literature.
It depicts a pilgrimage by some 30 people, who are going on a spring
day in April to the shrine of the martyr, St. Thomas à Becket. En route
to and from Canterbury they amuse themselves by telling stories.
Chaucer himself knew well the road and its inns. Harry Bailly, the
innkeeper, promises a free meal for the best storyteller. Chaucer's own
narration, called 'The Tale of Sir Thopas', is interrupted by Bailly,
who thunders "Namoore of this, for Goddes dignitee,' claiming that the
"rymyng is nat worth a toord!"
When Dante's journey in The Divine Comedy ended in spiritual purification, Chaucer's pilgrims learn about the weakness of human nature, women's mastery over men, and how a canon cheated a priest. In the so-called 'Retraction', which comes after the Parson's Tale has been concluded, Chaucer regrets having written "many a song and many a leccherous lay". However, Chaucer do not deny that "the period of pilgrimage" could not end with blessedness. The rather democratic band of pilgrims consists of unprivileded and aristocrats - there is a knight, a monk, a prioress, a plowman, a miller, a merchant, a clerk, and an oft-widowed wife from Bath. It must be remembered, that Chaucer himself did not belong even the minor nobility, but from his youth he was used to associate with highly influential people.
Chaucer's innovation was to use such a diverse assembly of narrators, whose stories are interrupted and interlinked with interludes in which the characters talk with each other, revealing much about themselves. His sources included Boccaccio's Teseida, on which he based 'The Knight’s Tale,' The Wedding of Sir Gawen and Dame Ragnell, and Ovid's Metamorphoses. He never mentions Decamerone, which he perhaps never read thoroughly. The rhyming verse was written in what is called Middle English, an old form of the language that differs from the English used today, but Chaucer's style and techniques were imitated through centuries. Shakespeare borrowed his plot for the drama Troilus and Cressida, John Dryen and Alexander Pope modernized some of his tales. - "He must have been a man of a most wonderful comprehensive nature, because, as it has been truly observed of him, he has taken into the compass of his Canterbury Tales the various manners and humour (as we now call them) of the whole English nation in his age." (John Dryden in Preface to the Fables, 1700)
For further reading: Chaucer and the French Tradition by C. Muscatine (1957); Chaucer Life Records by M.C. Crow and C.C. Olson (1966); Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. by D.S. Brewer (1974, see also the selection of bibliography on Chaucer); A Companion to Chaucer Studies by B. Rowland (rev. edn. 1979); Canterbury Tales, edited from the Hengwrt Manuscript by N.F. Blake (1980); The Structure of the Canterbury Tales by H. Cooper (1983); The Cambridge Chaucer Companion, ed. Piero Boitani (1986); Gender and Language in Chaucer by Catherine S. Cox (1997); Chaucer, ed. by Valerie Allen (1997); Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales by Gail Ashton (1998); Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales, ed. by Steve Ellis (1998); Chaucer's Legendary Good Women by Florence Percival (1999); Chaucer A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Works by Rosalyn Rossignol (1999); Chaucer: The Life and Times of the First English Poet by Richard West (2000); Who Murdered Chaucer? by Terry Jones, Juliette Dor, Allan Fletcher and Robert Yeager (2003); Chaucer and the City, edited by Ardis Butterfield (2006); Geoffrey Chaucer by Peter Brown (2011); The Poet’s Tale: Chaucer and The Year that Made the Canterbury Tales by Paul Strohm (2015); Chaucer: A European Life by Marion Turner (2019)