Chaucer, Geoffrey (c.1340–1400)

English Literature – as we know it – starts with Geoffrey Chaucer, seven hundred years ago. 

So who was he? He was born Geoffroy de Chaucer (c 1342 / 43—1400). His family name is derived from the French chausseur, or ‘shoemaker’. The family had risen well above the cobbler level and their Norman-French origins. In Geoffrey’s time they had connections with, and received favours from, the court. Luckily, under Edward III, the country was more or less at peace – although occasional forays made into France: now a foe. Geoffrey’s father was in the import/export wine trade. This line of work meant intimate contact with continental Europe whose literatures (well ahead of England’s at the time) would be extensively drawn on by Geoffrey.

Chaucer may have attended one of the great universities or he may have received his impressive education from house tutors – quite usual for the son of a wealthy London businessman. What is clear is that he came into manhood well read and fluent in several languages. There is some evidence he served as a page in some noble household – a scenario often drawn on in his narrative tales. Certainly he had as many books as bottles around him growing up.

As a young man he craved adventure and, in 1359, embarked on a military career in the armed forces of the Black Prince (one of his two great poems, Troilus and Criseyde, is set in the background of the greatest war in literature – that between the Greeks and Trojans). In France the young English officer was taken prisoner and ransomed (in later life his favourite thinker was Boethius, whose great treatise On the Consolations of Philosophy was written in prison. Chaucer translated it, authoritatively, from the original Latin into English).

On his return from the wars he married and settled down. His wife, Philippa, was nobly born and brought him money as well as status. His sex life is a matter of perennial debate. A charge of rape was brought against him in later life – he may, or may not, have been guilty. From his erotic and bawdy writings, however, we can assume he was, by nature, no celibate.

Chaucer’s career was assisted by friends at court. The king in 1367 settled a life pension of 20 marks on him for his service as ‘our beloved Valet’ (courtier). Today we would call Chaucer a civil servant. In the early 1370s he was employed in the king’s service abroad. He may well have met the elderly Italian writers, Petrarch and Boccaccio, in Italy – then the literary capital of the modern world. Both would be major influences on his later writing. He was, probably, among the most travelled men of his time and certainly the most travelled literary man.

In the mid 1370s he was appointed Controller of Customs in the port of London. This was the highpoint of his professional life. Had he continued to rise in the world it is unlikely that we would have The Canterbury Tales. But in the 1380s, his fortunes declined. Now a widower, and out of favour at court, he retired to Kent, where he wrote his great Kentish poem. He still received commissions from the court and a generous tun of wine (252 gallons) annually. But he was no longer the important figure he had once been. Of his domestic life, at this stage or earlier, virtually nothing is known. There were, it seems, two sons to the marriage – but the evidence is not firm.

The Canterbury Tales is one of the two supremely great poems he is famous for having written in later life. The other is Troilus and Criseyde. Both are hugely innovative. Troilus takes the great Homeric epic, The Iliad, and turns Homer’s war story into a love story – a romance. While the great battle rages outside the walls of Troy, one of the Trojan princes falls madly in love with a widow, Criseyde. Their relationship – as the code of ‘courtly love’ requires – must be kept secret from the world, to preserve its purity. She, however, betrays him. It destroys Troilus. Affairs of the heart, the poem intimates, can even overshadow great wars. It would be a rich theme for writers who followed him.

Chaucer was buried in Westminster Abbey and his remains later removed to Poet’s Corner. Inspection of the bones suggested he was a man five feet six inches tall. The most reliable portrait of him (that in the Ellesmere manuscript of The Canterbury Tales) pictures a portly, handsome, bearded man.

© John Sutherland 2012