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 a` 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 Years
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.
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.
William Langland (c. 1332–c. 1386): probable author of Piers Plowman, an allegorical narrative poem.
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 II’s men, and the rebellion was put down.
John Gower (c. 1330–1408): English poet; wrote in French, Latin, and English.
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.
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.
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.’’