Biography of Geoffrey Chaucer (1343 – 1400)
The outstanding English poet before William Shakespeare. 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 using English at a time when much court poetry was still written 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,
‘Wommen desiren to have sovereynetee
As wel over hir housbond as hir love.’
(from Canterbury Tales)
Ceoffrey Chaucer was born in London. His name was of French origin and meant shoemaker in French. He was the son of a prosperous wine merchant and deputy to the kings’s butler, and his wife Agnes. Little is known of his early education, but his works show that he could read French, Latin, and Italian.
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. 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. 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 Italy in 1372-73. 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 Hides. During that time he was charged with rape, but his guilt or innocence has never been determined. In 1380 he paid Cecile Champaigne for withdrawing the suit. In 1385 he lost his employment and rent-free home, and moved to Kent where he was appointed as justice of the peace. He was also elected to Parliament. This was a period of great creativity for Chaucer, 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 friend 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. Later 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.
According to tradition, Chaucer died in London on October 25, 1400. He was buried in Westminster Abbey, in the part of the church which afterwards came to be called Poet’s Corner. A monument was erected to him in 1555.
Chaucer took his narrative inspiration for his works from several sources, including 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.
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.
“This world nys but a thurghfare ful of wo,
And we been pilgrymes, passing to and fro.
Deet is an ende of every worldly soore.”
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, 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. When Dante’s journey in The Divine Comedy ended in spiritual purification, Chaucer’s pilgrims learned about the weakness of human nature, women’s mastery over men, and how a canon cheated a priest. Among the band of pilgrims are a knight, a monk, a prioress, a plowman, a miller, a merchant, a clerk, and an oft-widowed wife from Bath. Chaucer’s innovation was to use such a diverse assembly of narrators, whose stories are interlinked with interludes in which the characters talk with each other, revealing much about themselves. Among Chaucer’s sources were Boccaccio’s Teseida, The Wedding of Sir Gawen and Dame Ragnell, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The rhyming verse was written in what is called Middle English, an old form of the language that differs from the English used today. Chaucer’s style and techniques have been imitated through centuries. Shakespeare borrowed his plot for the drama Troilus and Cressida, John Dryen and Alexander Pope modernized some of his tales.
Biography By: Petri Liukkonen