Geoffrey Chaucer was born in 1343, the son of John and Agnes (de Copton) Chaucer. Chaucer was descended from two generations of wealthy vintners who had everything but a title and in 1357 Chaucer began pursuing a position at court. As a squire in the court of Elizabeth, Countess of Ulster, the wife of Lionel, Earl of Ulster (later Duke of Clarence), Chaucer would have served as a gentleman’s gentleman—essentially a butler. A young man in this position would be in service to the aristocrats of the court who required diversions as well as domestic help. The way must have opened quickly for Chaucer, who could both tell stories and compose songs. The countess was French, so French poets such as Guillaume de Machaut and Eustache Deschamps provided an early inspiration, and Chaucer’s earliest poems, The Book of the Duchess and The Parliament of Birds, rest on a heavy French base. At this time, Chaucer made the acquaintance of the man who would most deeply influence his political career: John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. Chaucer and Gaunt married the daughters of the French Knight Sir Paon de Roet—Gaunt in order to legitimize his sons by the Roet’s daughter, who had been his mistress for some time (all the English kings after Henry VI came from this line), and Chaucer to enter the world of the aristocracy. Of all the Canterbury pilgrims (and there is a “Chaucer”), the one who most closely approximates his situation is the social-climbing Franklin, a man heartily concerned with the gentility of his son. Chaucer’s own son, Thomas, became one of the richest men in London, and his great-grandson (who died on the battlefield) was named heir apparent to the throne of England. Although Chaucer was close to Gaunt, he was always on the fringes of the world of courtly political intrigue of this time, a period Shakespeare dramatized in Richard II.

Known as the first English author, Chaucer wrote in English at a time when Latin was considered the grammatica, or language which would not change, and most of the upper-class English spoke French. Chaucer himself often used French translations of Latin texts; that he chose the language of the lower-class Saxons rather than Norman nobility has perplexed readers and scholars for centuries. As Sir Walter Scott pointed out, the Saxon language can name only barnyard animals on the hoof. If one fed a domestic animal, they used its Saxon name, sheep; but if one ate it, they likely called it by its French name, mouton, which soon became mutton. This linguistic distinction was a class distinction in Chaucer’s England: if one raised a farm animal, one was a Saxon and called it by its English name; if one were rich enough to eat it, one named it in French: calf/veau (veal); chicken/poulet (pullet); pig/porc (pork). Chaucer did not try, however, to impress his relatives with his French, but began to develop English into a highly flexible literary language.

Chaucer wrote many works, some of which like The Canterbury Tales (circa 1375-1400) he never finished. He pioneered many recognizably “modern” novelistic techniques, including psychologically complex characters: many claim that Troilus and Criseyde is the first English novel because of the way its main characters are always operating at two levels of response, verbal and intellectual. All of Chaucer’s works are sophisticated meditations on language and artifice. Moving out of a medieval world view in which allegory reigned, Chaucer developed a model of language and fiction premised on concealment rather than communication or theological interpretation. Indeed, Chaucer misrepresents himself in his early works, creating self-portraits in The Book of the Duchess (circa 1368-1369) and The House of Fame (circa 1378-1381) as an innocent, overweight bookworm far from the canny businessman and social climber he actually was.

Chaucer’s first major work, The Book of the Duchess, is an elegy on the death of Blanche, John of Gaunt’s first wife. The poem, though filled with traditional French flourishes, develops its originality around the relationship between the narrator, a fictionalized version of the poet, and the mourner, the Man in Black, who represents Gaunt. Chaucer uses a naïve narrator in both The Book of the Duchess and The House of Fame, which employs a comic version of the guide-narrator relationship of Dante and Virgil in the Commedia. The talkative Eagle guides the naive “Chaucer” just as the naive Dante is guided by the gossipy Virgil. The Eagle takes “Chaucer” to the House of Fame (Rumor), which is even more the house of tales. Here Chaucer makes a case for the preeminence of story, an idea that he explored to great effect in The Canterbury Tales. The inhabitants of the House of Fame are asked whether they want to be great lovers or to be remembered as great lovers, and all choose the latter: the story is more important than the reality.

Dating Chaucer’s works is difficult but scholars generally assume that his dream-vision poem The Parliament of Birds (circa 1378-1381), which is less obviously tied to source texts or events, is his third work because it marks a shift in form: he begins to use the seven-line pentameter stanza that he would use in Troilus and Criseyde (circa 1382-1386). The Parliament of Birds is an indictment of courtly love staged as an allegory with birds corresponding to social classes: the hunting birds (eagles, hawks) represent the nobles, the worm eaters (cuckoos) represent the bourgeois, the water fowl are the merchants, and the seed eaters (turtledoves) are the landed farming interests. Each class is given a distinctive voice. In The Parliament of Birds Chaucer examined themes that will pervade his later work: the conflict between Nature and courtly love will permeate Troilus and Criseyde and the experimentation with different voices for all the characters and social classes of birds presages The Canterbury Tales.

By 1374 Chaucer was firmly involved in domestic politics and was granted the important post of controller of customs taxes on hides, skins, and wool. Chaucer had to keep the records himself as well as oversee the collectors. These were prosperous times for Chaucer; his wife had gotten a large annuity, and they were living rent free in a house above the city gate at Aldgate. After visits to Genoa and Florence in 1372-1373 and to Lombardy in 1378, Chaucer developed an interest in Italian language and literature, which influenced his poem Troilus and Criseyde. Chaucer retold the medieval romance of doomed lovers, setting his epic poem against the backdrop of the siege of Troy. The poem takes its story line from Giovanni Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato (1335-1340), but its inspiration from Dante’s love for Beatrice as told in the Convito (1307) and from Petrarch’s love for Laura as manifested in the sonnets.

In the poem, Chaucer is presenting a case for ennobling passion which fits with the French romances he had read in his youth; only in Troilus and Criseyde this romance takes a particularly Italian turn. The poem analyzes the artifices of love as well as the complex motivations of lovers. Both Dante and Petrarch begin by seeing love as artifice and then show how love breaks free of that artifice. Petrarch’s rime (poems) to Laura are in two groups divided by a simple fact, her death. The sonnets in “Vita di ma donna Laura” are artificial, conventional poems filled with such tropes as oxymoron, antithesis, hyperbole, and conceit. The style was so conventional that the French poets had a verb, Petrarquizer, to write like Petrarch. The sonnets change radically after Laura’s death, as the artifices fall away in his attempt to re-create the true Laura. The same change occurs in Troilus after the absence of Criseyde. Through his trials Troilus learns, as have Dante and Petrarch before him, that loving a real woman is the only real love.

Chaucer most famous work, The Canterbury Tales, also has similarities with Italian literature: the unfinished poem draws on the technique of the frame tale as practiced by Boccaccio in The Decameron (1349-1351), though it’s not clear that Chaucer knew The Decameron in its entirety. The pretext for storytelling in Boccaccio is a plague in Florence which sends a group of ten nobles to the country to escape the Black Death. For each of ten days, they each tell a tale. Each day’s tales are grouped around a common topic or narrative subject. The tales, all one hundred of them, are completed; the plague ends in Florence; and the nobles return to the city.

The Canterbury Tales innovates on this model in significant ways. Far from being noble, Chaucer’s tale-tellers run the spectrum of the middle class, from the Knight to the Pardoner and the Summoner. And the tales are not told in the order that might be expected—from highest-ranking pilgrim to lowest. Instead, each character uses his tale as a weapon or tool to get back at or even with the previous tale-teller. Once the Miller has established the principle of “quiting,” each tale generates the next. The Reeve, who takes offense because “The Miller’s Tale” is about a cuckolded carpenter (the Reeve had been a carpenter in his youth), tells a tale about a cuckolded miller, who also gets beaten up after his daughter is deflowered. As in many of the tales, subtle distinctions of class become the focal point of the story.

Chaucer’s refusal to let his tale end conventionally is typical of the way he handles familiar stories. He wants to have it both ways, and he reminds the reader of this constantly. In “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” for example, he argues both against an allegorical reading of the tale, “My tale is of a cok,” and for it, “Taketh the fruyt, and lat the chaf be stille.” At work in many of these tales is an important Chaucerian device: a false syllogism based on the movement from the specific to the general back to the specific again, although the specific now occupies a new moral ground. Almost every time Chaucer offers a list of examples, he is playing with this disparity between the general and the specific. As Chaucer worked against the impossibility of finishing The Canterbury Tales according to the original plan—120 tales, four told by each of thirty pilgrims (in the Middle Ages, which had many systems based on twelve, 120 was as round a number as the 100 of The Decameron)—he began to consider the nature of finishing an act of storytelling. In The Canterbury Tales, in addition to several unfinished tales (the Cook’s, the Squire’s), there are two tales that are interrupted by other pilgrims: Chaucer’s own “Tale of Sir Thopas” and “The Monk’s Tale.” In handling these tales, Chaucer moves into issues, particularly that of closure, that are now important to narratology and literary theory. Put another way, Chaucer worries both about what a story can mean and what a story can be. In considering the ramifications of an invented teller telling about other invented tellers telling stories whose main purpose is to get back (“quite”) at other tellers, Chaucer finds himself with a new conception of fiction, one that is recognizably modern and even postmodern.

There is much speculation as to why Chaucer left The Canterbury Tales unfinished. One theory is that he left off writing them in the mid 1390s, some five or six years before his death. It is possible that the enormousness of the task overwhelmed him. He had been working on The Canterbury Tales for ten years or more, and he was not one quarter through his original plan. He may have felt he could not divide his time successfully between his writing and his business interests. Chaucer himself offers an explanation in the “Retraction” which follows “The Parson’s Tale,” the last of The Canterbury Tales. In it Chaucer disclaims apologetically all of his impious works, especially “the tales of Caunterbury, thilke that sowen into synne.” There has been some speculation about the “Retraction”: some believe that Chaucer in ill health confessed his impieties and others that the “Retraction” is merely conventional, Chaucer taking on the persona of the humble author, a stance favored in the Middle Ages. If the reader is to take Chaucer at his word, he seems to suggest that his works were being misread, that people were mistaking the sinful behavior in The Canterbury Tales for its message.

The last thirteen years of Chaucer’s life correspond almost exactly to the span of years covered by Shakespeare’s Richard II, that is, the period marked by Richard’s claiming his majority (he had become king at age nine) and his assumption of the power of the throne in 1389 until his deposition and death in 1399. The realm was marred by the power struggles of the Lancastrian (Gaunt and his son, the eventual Henry IV) and Court (Richard) parties but Chaucer had connections in both camps, and over the dozen years of Richard’s reign it was possible to be of the court without being Gaunt’s enemy. That Chaucer was able to do this is indicated by the fact that Henry renewed annuities granted to Chaucer when Richard was king.

Nonetheless, these appear to have been financially trying times for Chaucer. His wife received the last payment of her annuity in 1387, which suggests she died in the following year. Although Chaucer lost his post as controller of customs in 1386, he had been appointed justice of peace for the County of Kent in 1385, and in 1389, following the coming to power of Richard, Chaucer was named clerk of public works. This post, which amounted to being a kind of general contractor for the repair of public buildings, was more lucrative than the controller’s job that he had lost, but it caused him no end of headaches. One of the duties of this position required him to carry large sums of money, and in 1390 he was robbed of both his and the king’s money three times in the space of four days. Though there was no direct punishment, he was appointed subforester of North Pemberton in Somerset. It appears that in 1390 or 1391 he was eased out of his clerk’s job; he eventually got into financial trouble. In 1398 he borrowed against his annuity and was sued for debt.

His last poem, “The Complaint to his Purse,” is a letter asking King Henry for money. It is quite likely that in the last years of his life, he was constantly asking the king, whoever he was, for money. The poem, or his connections to the Lancastrians, must have worked because Chaucer was granted a sizable annuity by Henry. Nonetheless, Chaucer moved to a house in the Westminster Abbey Close because a house on church grounds granted him sanctuary from creditors. And so, from the fact of Chaucer’s debts comes the tradition of burying poets, or erecting memorials to them, in Westminster Abbey. Chaucer died in 1400, the year after the accession of Henry to the throne and also the year after the death of John of Gaunt, the king’s father. That Chaucer was buried in Westminster Abbey was due primarily to the fact that 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.

Bibliography

MAJOR WORKS

  • Guillaume de Lorris, The Romance of the Rose, translated by Chaucer (early 1360s) Manuscript: The only Middle English manuscript is Romaunt of the Rose, MS. V.3.7, in the Hunterian Museum, Glasgow. First publication: In The Workes of Geffray Chaucer Newly Printed, with dyuers Workes neuer in print before, edited by W. Thynne (London: Printed by T. Godfray, 1532).
  • The Book of the Duchess (circa 1368-1369) Manuscripts: There are three extant transcriptions, included in three manuscripts in the Bodleian Library, Oxford: Fairfax 16 (circa 1450), Tanner 346 (circa 1450), and Bodley 638 (circa 1430-1440). First publication: In The Workes of Geffray Chaucer Newly Printed, with dyuers Workes neuer in print before, edited by W. Thynne (London: Printed by T. Godfray, 1532).
  • The Canterbury Tales (circa 1375-1400) Manuscripts: Of the more than eighty whole or partial transcriptions of The Canterbury Tales, the bases for most editions are two of the earliest: the Hengwrt Manuscript at the National Library of Wales and the Ellesmere Manuscript at the Henry E. Huntington Library, both dating from 1400 to 1410 and thought to be the work of the same copyist, working under different editors. While some recent scholars consider the Hengwrt Manuscript to be the more accurate of the two, the Ellesmere Manuscript is the more complete, and its ordering of the tales is widely accepted. John M. Manly and Edith Rickert, editors of the comparative edition based on all known manuscripts of The Canterbury Tales, see the Hengwrt Manuscript as the earliest attempt--after the death of Chaucer--to arrange the unordered tales, and so closest to Chaucer's intentions. N. F. Blake, in The Textual Tradition of the Canterbury Tales (1985), has presented the strongest case for the primacy of the Hengwrt Manuscript. The Ellesmere Manuscript, more regular in spelling and dialect--as well as more complete--remains the choice of most modern editors. First publication:wHan that Apprill with his shouris sote (Westminster: Printed by William Caxton, 1477).
  • The House of Fame (circa 1378-1381) Manuscripts: There are two texts. Two manuscripts at the Bodleian Library, Bodley 638 (circa 1430-1440) and Fairfax 16 (circa 1450), both include transcriptions in the hand of the "A" copyist, while Pepys 2006 (circa 1450-1500) at Magdalene College, Cambridge, includes a copy in the hand of scribe "B." Most modern editions are based on the "A" text. First publication:The Book of Fame Made by G. Chaucer, edited by William Caxton (Westminster: Printed by William Caxton, 1483).
  • The Parliament of Birds (circa 1378-1381) Manuscripts: All of the fourteen extant manuscripts seem deficient. Modern editions are largely based on the texts in Cambridge University Library Gg 4.27 (circa 1420-1440) and in Fairfax 16 (circa 1450), in the Bodleian Library. First publication: In The lyf so short the craft so loge to lerne (Westminster: Printed by William Caxton, 1477?).
  • Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy (Boece), translated by Chaucer (circa 1380s) Manuscripts: There are ten extant manuscripts, including two at Cambridge University Library--Ii.i. 38 and Ii.iii. 21--on which modern editions are largely based. First publication:Boecius de consolacione (Westminster: Printed by William Caxton, 1478?).
  • Troilus and Criseyde (circa 1382-1386) Manuscripts: There are twenty extant manuscripts of which four represent fragments. Most modern editions are based on Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, MS. 61 (circa 1400) or Pierpont Morgan Library MS. 817 (formerly the Campsall Manuscript), a transcription made for Henry V when he was Prince of Wales (1399-1413). First publication:tThe [sic] double sorrow of Troylus to telle (Winchester: Printed by William Caxton, 1483).
  • The Legend of Good Women (circa 1386) Manuscripts: Modern editions are usually based on the transcriptions in Fairfax 16 (circa 1450) at the Bodleian Library and Gg 4.27 (circa 1420-1440) at Cambridge. First publication: In The Workes of Geffray Chaucer Newly Printed, with dyuers Workes neuer in print before, edited by W. Thynne (London: Printed by T. Godfray, 1532).

COLLECTED EDITIONS

  • The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, edited by F. N. Robinson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1933); revised as The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, Second Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957); revised as The Riverside Chaucer, Third Edition, edited by Larry D. Benson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987).
  • The Text of The Canterbury Tales, Studied on the Basis of All Known Manuscripts, 8 volumes, edited by John M. Manly and Edith Rickert (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1940).
  • The Complete Poetry and Prose of Geoffrey Chaucer, edited by John H. Fisher (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1977; second edition, 1989).
  • A Variorum Edition of the Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, 12 volumes to date, Paul G. Ruggiers, found and director emirtus, current editor Lynne Hunt Levy (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979-  ).

Further Readings

FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bibliographies:

  • Eleanor P. Hammond, Chaucer: A Bibliographical Manual (New York: Macmillan, 1908).
  • Dudley David Griffith, Bibliography of Chaucer, 1908-1953 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1955).
  • William R. Crawford, Bibliography of Chaucer, 1954-63 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1967).
  • Lorrayne Y. Baird, A Bibliography of Chaucer, 1964-1973 (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1977).
  • Lorrayne Baird-Lange, A Bibliography of Chaucer, 1974-1985 (Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1988).

Biographies:

  • Marchette Chute, Geoffrey Chaucer of England (New York: Dutton, 1946).
  • Martin M. Crow and Clair C. Olson, eds., Chaucer Life-Records (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966; Austin: University of Texas Press, 1966).
  • John C. Gardner, The Life and Times of Chaucer (New York: Knopf, 1976).
  • Derek Brewer, Chaucer and His World (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1977).
  • Donald R. Howard, Chaucer: His Life, His Work, His World (New York: Dutton, 1987).

References:

  • Ruth Ames, God's Plenty: Chaucer's Christian Humanism (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1984).
  • C. David Benson, Chaucer's Drama of Style: Poetic Variety and Contrast in The Canterbury Tales (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986).
  • N. F. Blake, The Textual Tradition of the Canterbury Tales (London: Arnold, 1985).
  • Muriel Bowden, A Commentary On the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales (New York: Macmillan, 1948).
  • Derek Brewer, Chaucer in his Time (London: Nelson, 1964).
  • W. F. Bryan and Germaine Dempster, eds., Sources and Analogues of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1941).
  • Nevill Coghill, The Poet Chaucer (London & New York: Oxford University Press, 1949).
  • Walter Clyde Curry, Chaucer and the Mediæval Sciences (New York & London: Oxford University Press, 1926).
  • Alfred David, The Strumpet Muse: Art and Morals in Chaucer's Poetry (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976).
  • Rodney Delasanta, "The Theme of Judgment in The Canterbury Tales," Modern Language Quarterly, 31 (September 1970): 298-307.
  • Bert Dillon, A Chaucer Dictionary (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1974).
  • Carolyn Dinshaw, Chaucer's Sexual Poetics (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989).
  • John Ganim, Chaucerian Theatricality (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990).
  • John Gardner, The Poetry of Chaucer (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1977).
  • Jeffrey Helterman, "The Dehumanizing Metamorphoses of the Knight's Tale," ELH, 38 (December 1971): 493-511.
  • Richard L. Hoffman, Ovid and the Canterbury Tales (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1966).
  • Donald Howard, The Idea of the Canterbury Tales (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976).
  • Bernard Huppé and D. W. Robertson, Jr., Fruyt and Chaf: Studies in Chaucer's Allegories (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963).
  • Robert M. Jordan, Chaucer and the Shape of Creation: The Aesthetic Possibilities of Inorganic Structure (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967).
  • Stanley J. Kahrl, "Chaucer's Squire's Tale and the Decline of Chivalry," Chaucer Review, 7 (Winter 1973): 194-209.
  • R. E. Kaske, "The Knight's Interruption of the Monk's Tale," ELH, 24 (December 1957): 249-268.
  • Robert Kellogg, "Oral Narrative, Written Books," Genre, 10 (Winter 1977): 655-665.
  • George Lyman Kittredge, Chaucer and His Poetry (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1915).
  • V. A. Kolve, Chaucer and the Imagery of Narrative: The First Five Canterbury Tales (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1984).
  • W. W. Lawrence, Chaucer and the Canterbury Tales (New York: Columbia University Press, 1950).
  • C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1936).
  • R. M. Lumiansky, Of Sondry Folk: the Dramatic Principle of The Canterbury Tales (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1955).
  • Francis P. Magoun, Jr., A Chaucer Gazetteer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961).
  • John Matthews Manly, Some New Light on Chaucer (New York: Holt, 1926).
  • J. Mitchell Morse, "The Philosophy of the Clerk of Oxenford," Modern Language Quarterly, 19 (March 1958): 3-20.
  • Charles Muscatine, Chaucer and the French Tradition: A Study in Style and Meaning (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957).
  • Charles A. Owen, Jr., "The Problem of Free Will in Chaucer's Narratives," Philological Quarterly, 46 (October 1967): 433-456.
  • Russell A. Peck, "Chaucer and the Nominalist Questions," Speculum, 53 (October 1978): 745-760.
  • Robert A. Pratt, "Chaucer and the Hand that Fed Him," Speculum, 41 (October 1966): 619-642.
  • Edmund Reiss, "Medieval Irony," Journal of the History of Ideas, 42 (1981): 209-226.
  • D. W. Robertson, Jr., A Preface to Chaucer: Studies in Medieval Perspectives (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1962).
  • Beryl Rowland, Blind Beasts: Chaucer's Animal World (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1971).
  • Paul Ruggiers, The Art of the Canterbury Tales (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1965).
  • James Sledd, "The Clerk's Tale; The Monsters and the Critics," Modern Philology, 51 (1954): 73-82.
  • Paul Strohm, Social Chaucer (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989).
  • Joseph Westlund, "The Knight's Tale as Impetus for Pilgrimage," Philological Quarterly, 43 (October 1964): 526-537.
  • Trevor Whittock, A Reading of the Canterbury Tales (London & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1968).
  • Arnold Williams, "Chaucer and the Friars," Speculum, 28 (July 1953): 499-513.
  • Chauncey Wood, Chaucer and the Country of the Stars: Poetic Uses of Astrological Imagery (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1970).