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Chapter One of Backgrounds to Chaucer, Peter G. Beidler, Lehigh University


1. Chaucer's Life

Depending on one's point of view, we know either a lot or almost nothing about Chaucer. On the one hand we have nearly 500 "life-records"--legal documents, court references, financial statements, travel itineraries, royal dispensations, letters of appointment--relating to a civil servant named Geoffrey Chaucer who lived in London during the last half of the fourteenth century. On the other hand we have a body of some of the finest poetry ever written attributed to a poet named Geoffrey Chaucer who lived in London during the last half of the fourteenth century. There is no firm documentary evidence that these are one and the same man. That is, none of these life-records identifies the Geoffrey Chaucer of London court life as "Geoffrey Chaucer, poet" or as "Chaucer, author of the tales of Canterbury," and no references to the poet refer to him as "the author of Troilus and Criseyde, just back from a diplomatic trip to Italy." Still, though there is a remote chance that there were two men with the name of Geoffrey Chaucer who lived in London in the second half of the fourteenth century, no one seriously questions that the man we know from the life-records, if only sketchily and by indirection, is the author of the Canterbury Tales and other poetic works. After all, the London of Chaucer's time had a population of only around 50,000. If there were two Geoffrey Chaucers living there, it seems likely that chroniclers and record-keepers would have made some distinction between them. Besides, the Chaucer of the life-records is in no way incompatible with the Chaucer of poetic fame. Indeed, the life-records may help to explain some of what we find in the poetry.

Geoffrey Chaucer was born to a prosperous wine merchant named John Chaucer and his wife Agnes de Copton in the early 1340s. We do not know the exact date of Geoffrey's birth, any more than we can be sure that Chaucer died in October of 1400--the last date for which there is a life-record. John was not a nobleman, but his wealth would have given him the ability to purchase for his son a position as page in the household of a certain Earl of Ulster. Indeed, the earliest of the life-records relating to Chaucer, preserved by accident in the binding of another book, show him to have received small payments for Easter clothes from the Countess of Ulster in 1357. As a page in the Ulster household Chaucer would have performed various menial tasks--kitchen work, serving, whatever--in exchange for learning, mostly by observation, the customs in the aristocracy and the French language they spoke. Chaucer would have been perhaps fifteen at the time.

In early 1360 Chaucer accompanied Lionel, the Earl of Ulster, on a military campaign to France, where he was taken captive. He was ransomed by Edward III, king of England. By 1367 the young Chaucer, then around 25, was a valettus--a sort of squire or yeoman--in the king's court. Chaucer would have had some minor duties such as serving and running small errands, and he would have had ample opportunity to observe the doings of the court: the feasts, the hunting, the music, the visits, the flirtations, the manners, the entertainments. During this period Chaucer tried his hand at poetry, imitating the work of French poets such as Froissart, Machaut, de Meun, Granson, and Deschamps. Those who like to think of "periods" in a writer's life can think of this time--up through the early 1370s--as Chaucer's "French period." Given his French models, it was astonishing that Chaucer decided to write poetry in his mother-tongue English rather than in French. To be sure, there was some English poetry in existence, but it tended to be quite different from what Chaucer was learning about in a London court that aspired to the language and customs of France. What little poetry there was in English tended to be in a different dialect from his own and to be robustly alliterative rather than delicately end-rhymed, and there is little evidence that Chaucer knew such poetry or admired it. Although Chaucer wrote in English rather than in French, it is fair to say that Chaucer's first poetic efforts tended to be tentative and imitative rather than original. They can best be described as Englished French rather than natively English. Indeed, Chaucer's first long poem was a faithful translation of the French Roman de la rose.

Chaucer's first important poem that can be called original in any meaningful sense of the word was The Book of the Duchess, a consoling lament for the death by plague in 1368 of Blanche, duchess of Lancaster, wife of John of Gaunt. Although even this poem derived its techniques from French poetry, its subject is native--the death of the wife of a member of the English royal family. The Book of the Duchess is important in part because it shows that Chaucer had developed by then an association of some importance with John of Gaunt, son of Edward III, brother to the dashing Prince Edward (the Black Prince), and uncle to the baby who would ten years later become King Richard II. Gaunt became something like Chaucer's "patron." Gaunt probably encouraged the poet and provided him with the financial and occupational security that would free at least some of his time for the writing of poetry.

In the 1370s Chaucer made two journeys to Italy on behalf of the king. The journeys were important for Chaucer's poetic development, if not for English-Italian diplomacy. The first of those journeys took place in 1372-73, when he went to Genoa as part of a delegation to discuss the use of seaports in England for the Genoese merchant trade. Because Italy was a market for English wool exports, England was eager to encourage trade. Chaucer would have been a natural member of such a delegation because he had an unusually good command of Italian, learned mostly through his father's business associations as an importer of Italian wines.

It appears that on that trip to Genoa, with a side trip to Florence, Chaucer became acquainted with the work of Dante. The House of Fame, written shortly after his return from Italy, is a Dantesque dream-vision about a dreamer seized by an eagle and transported to the house where reputations are made and lost. This poem, though by no means Chaucer's best, initiated a kind of pre-renaissance in England--an early hint of the discoveries that would breathe so much life into English art and literature a couple of centuries later.

Chaucer's second trip to Italy, in 1378, was apparently brought about in part by one of the more bizarre events in Christian history: the Great Schism. Most popes had been Italian and lived in Rome, but for much of the fourteenth century the papacy was based in Avignon, France, and most of the popes were French. In part to make peace with Italians, Pope Gregory XI moved the papacy back to Rome in 1376. At his death two years later an Italian pope, Urban VI, was elected. French Cardinals, angered by Urban's apparent neglect of the interests of France, promptly elected another pope, Clement VII, from Geneva. Suddenly--and then for the next four decades--there were two popes in Europe, each claiming to be the one true head of Christianity. During this Great Schism the reputation of the Christian church became tarnished. What, after all, did it say about Christianity if those who claimed to speak for God could not themselves agree on who really spoke for God? Official Protestantism was more than a century away, but the Great Schism helped to pave the way for it by showing, for those inclined to notice it, that Christianity was at least as much a religion of men as a religion of God. If there could be two popes, why could there not be two varieties of Christianity?

Furthermore, Christianity became politicized in a way it had not been before: the Christian nations of Europe had to decide which pope to support. The Great Schism itself was to end in 1417 with the cardinals agreeing to support a single pope, but meanwhile the Christian nations had to make a choice. France early and strongly supported Clement VII in Avignon. England, having little reason to side with their French antagonists, seemed inclined to honor the Italian pope. It is likely that Chaucer's visit to Italy, as part of a small delegation in the summer of 1378, was designed at least in part to indicate that England, if only quietly and cautiously, was behind Urban VI.

The influence of that second trip on Chaucer as a poet was profound. If on the first trip to Italy he discovered the work of Dante, by then long dead, on the second trip he discovered the work of Petrarch and Boccaccio, both still living. Chaucer mentions both Dante and Petrarch by name, but never mentions Boccaccio, the writer to whom he was most indebted. Boccaccio's prose vernacular narratives particularly inspired Chaucer, whose writing for the next decade or so shows the influence of this fine writer. Chaucer almost surely carried back with him to England Boccaccio's Teseida and Filostrato. The Teseida inspired several minor works as well as a narrative about two Theban princes who fall in love with Emily--a narrative that Chaucer eventually adapted to its place in the Canterbury collection as the Knight's Tale. The Filostrato was the undisputed source of Chaucer's great love story--sometimes called the first English novel--Troilus and Criseyde. With these two poems Chaucer's "Italian period" entered full swing. But whereas the French influence had tended to rein Chaucer's natural talent in, the Italian influence tended more to liberate it. Chaucer never did much more than translate French poems into English, but no one can call the Knight's Tale or Troilus and Criseyde translations. Chaucer followed the general outlines of Boccaccio's plots, but he quickly moved outside them and beyond them. Boccaccio can be seen less as a writer who gave Chaucer some stories to translate, more as a writer who inspired what was most original in Chaucer.

In any case, Chaucer was soon off and running as a poet. It might be said that Chaucer entered his "English" phase by combining what he learned from others into something quite distinctively his own. Just as his English is a liberating combination of the harsh robustness of Old English with the lilting smoothness of French, so his poetry is a liberating combination of the narrative vividness of Italian story with the gentle grace of French poetic forms. Above all, though, just as Chaucer did honor to the literature of the Continent by importing it into England, he also improved it and made it distinctively English and distinctively Chaucerian. Chaucer had "sources" in Continental literature for almost everything he wrote, yet almost everything he wrote is uniquely his own.

Much of what we know about Chaucer's personal life, even during his later years, is not very exciting. We know that he was appointed to be a customs official, a member of Parliament from Kent, clerk of the King's works, and subforester. We know that he formed friendships with many important courtiers and with other English poets--most notably John Gower, his older contemporary. We know that he was married to a woman named Philippa and that he fathered two sons, Lewis and Thomas. We know that he translated Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy from the Latin, and that he worked at a series of stories called, appropriately, The Legend of Good Women. We know that he wrote an extended prose scientific document known as his Treatise on the Astrolabe--still referred to by scientists who want to know how astronomical reckonings were made in the Middle Ages. We know that he periodically read his works aloud to a circle of friends in court and possibly at other occasions away from the court.

And we know that he distributed copies of his works in manuscript--though none of these in his own hand or copied during his own lifetime seems to have survived. The surviving Chaucer manuscripts all were copied after his death, most of them in professional workshops employing several scribes. The printed book was not to become a reality until a century later, but when it did, Chaucer was the first English poet to have his works collected and printed in book form. We must be careful, incidentally, about what we mean when we refer to "Chaucer's poems." Presumably he wrote several drafts of his poems, but the poems we read as "his" may be something different from what he wrote: they were copied, perhaps not accurately, by scribes, edited by workshop hacks, and again by modern editors.

It is difficult to make from the scanty documentary materials 600 years old anything like an exciting novel about Chaucer--though some of those materials suggest that his life was not without excitement. We know that at several times in his life Chaucer was short of money and was sued for debts. We know that in one unfortunate week in September, 1390, he was robbed at least twice, possibly three times. We know of a report of a legal record, now lost, that Chaucer was fined two shillings for beating a Franciscan friar in London's Fleet Street. We would love to know more about the incident, but the record is gone and we are left to speculate on whether there is any connection between that event and Chaucer's negative depiction of friars in the Canterbury Tales.

More interesting, and more substantial, is a legal record in of 1380, when Chaucer would have been approaching 40. In this Latin record a certain Cecelia Chaumpaigne agrees to release a certain Geoffrey Chaucer from all further legal actions concerning "de raptu meo." There has been much speculation about whether this was, indeed, sexual rape. Might it have been some sort of "abduction"? Was Chaucer merely standing in for one of his high-born friends in the royal family? Was Cecilia Chaumpaigne a credible accuser? Anything is possible, but in fact we simply don't know more than the sparse record shows, and it shows that Chaucer acknowledges, and eventually pays, a debt of ten pounds--a sum equal to approximately half his yearly wage as a customs official. Until we get some evidence to the contrary, it seems best not to make excuses for Chaucer. Given the few records that do relate to this incident, it seems best to assume that Chaucer was probably accused of sexual rape. The fact that he was willing to pay a substantial sum to settle out of court suggests that he may have acknowledged some guilt. We can probably never know for sure about Chaucer's famous rape case, however, and we are left to speculate about who Cecelia Chaumpaigne was and what sort of relationship Chaucer had with her. So little is known about Chaucer's personal life that we can be sure of almost nothing about his relationship with his wife, let alone with a woman about whose parentage and situation in life we know nothing.

Indeed, we know, finally, little about Chaucer himself. We cannot even be sure what he looked like. Someone who measured a bone thought to be his when it was dug up from the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey, London, in 1889, estimated that he may have been around five-and-a-half feet tall, and a crude drawing in the Ellesmere Manuscript of the Canterbury Tales, made after his death, shows him to be vaguely distinguished-looking. In the end, however, we have no better record of his looks than the words that Chaucer himself puts into the mouth of the raucous--and presumably portly--innkeeper Harry Bailey in the Canterbury Tales:

"He in the waast is shape as wel as I.
This were a popet in an arm t'enbrace
For any womman, smal and fair of face.
He seemeth elvyssh by his contenaunce.
(VII, 700-03)

We must, of course, make allowances for the fact that Chaucer was here putting into the mouth of another a probably-satiric portrait of himself. What matters most, of course, about this small, round-bellied, fair-faced, elfish doll of a man is his poetry. We would care nothing about his life or looks if he had not written great poetry, and that poetry tells us all that we really need to know about him.

One of Chaucer's most original early poems was the Parliament of Fowls, a dream vision in which the speaker visits the Garden of Love on Valentine's Day and observes the various species of birds attempting to select their mates for the coming year. Although the Parliament gets off to a slow start and is not Chaucer's finest work, the second half gives early example of what was to be his own, distinctively English, stride. The dramatic interplay of voices from all classes of society prefigures the work that virtually all scholars recognize as Chaucer's masterpiece, the Canterbury Tales. Although Boccaccio's wonderful Decameron probably suggested to Chaucer the idea of a group of travelers entertaining and enlightening each other while on a journey, the scheme of the Canterbury Tales is distinctively his own. Chaucer gives us not ten noblemen and women traveling away from a horrible death by bubonic plague, but rather 29 men and women from virtually all English classes traveling toward a chance to position themselves for a better kind of death. And the links between the tales are made up not of the author describing, as Boccaccio does, what the ten travelers do, but of the 29 pilgrims themselves showing through dialogue and interaction who they are.

And if the tales themselves, that wonderful double handful of stories, almost all derive from Continental sources, every one of them gives evidence of the only indisputably important fact about Chaucer's life: that he was England's first important poet and, before Shakespeare, its most influential one. If, about Chaucer, the rest is silence, that is no real matter.

  • Primary source: Derek Pearsall, The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer (Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell, 1992).

Chapter One of Backgrounds to Chaucer, Peter G. Beidler, Lehigh University

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The contents of this page are copyright 2001 Peter G. Beidler.