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Geoffrey Chaucer
(ca. 1340-1400)

by Renate Bauer

We commonly assume that medieval poets did not see themselves as authors in the modern sense, and we apply the term auctores to them. The author is the originator, the inventor, and the owner of his work, whereas the auctor re-phrases what literary, philosophical and other authorities have said before him, and gives meaning to the world by words which possess authority and are regarded as common property.i

Of course, Chaucer can be seen in this light: he was indebted to his literary antecedents, he cited them, and he mentioned them (see below). However, Chaucer gave the 14th century an English voice when the language of learning was still Latin: with his portrayal of different characters such as the Wife of Bath and her husbands, Troilus, who is more medieval than Troyan, and Dido, who is more desperate than her ancient predecessor. What is more, from at least one of his poems we gain the impression that he also saw himself as possessor and originator of his own words, and minded their being changed and 'wryten newe':

Adam scriveyn, if ever it thee bifalle Boece or Troilus for to wryten newe, Under thy long lokkes thou most have the scalle [eruption, rash] But [unless] after my makyng thow wryte more trewe; So ofte adaye I mot [must] thy werk renewe, It to correcte and eke [also] to rubbe and scrape, And al is thorugh thy negligence and rape [haste].

(Chaucer's Wordes unto Adam, his Owne Scriveyn)

Something else is exceptional about Chaucer in comparison to other medieval authors, most of whom remain anonymous to us: We possess a lot of information about his life, which is due to the fact that he was an important civil servant under the Kings Edward III and Richard II. They granted a daily gallon pitcher of wine to him, which in itself might be regarded as unusual.

The name 'Chaucer' means 'shoemaker', yet, Geoffrey was born to a vintner's family in or near London at about 1340-45. As a merchant's son, he probably received a good education, though we do not know which school he attended. We can deduce from his works that he had some knowledge of the Latin classics, some of which he might have read at school for the first time. Sometimes, Chaucer even provides us with a reference to his sources; in The House of Fame (1368-1372), v. 378f we read: "Rede Virgile in Eneydos / Or the Epistle of Ovyde." [Virgil's Aeneid, Ovid's Heroides.] In Troilus and Criseyde (1382-86), v. 1789ff we can glimpse at his literary idols, Virgil, Ovid, Homer, Lucan and Statius: "But litel book, no making thow n'envie, / But subgit be to alle poesye; / And kiss the steppes where as thow seest pace / Virgile, Ovide, Omer, Lucan, and Stace." From Latin he translated Boethius' De Consolatione Philosophiae (before 1388). Dedicated to great women of the antiquity is The Legend of Good Women.ii

In the late 1350s, Chaucer belonged to the household of the Countess of Ulster where he might have met John of Gaunt for the first time, who later became one of the most influential men in England and on the death of whose first wife, Blanche, Duchess of Lancaster, Chaucer later wrote The Book of the Duchess. During the next decade, Chaucer served in the king's army, was a captive in France and he might have travelled to Compostela as a pilgrim passing Navarre in 1366. He married Philippa, damoiselle of the queen, in the same year. Her sister Katherine Swynford married John of Gaunt 30 years later.

Chaucer is first mentioned in 1372 as a member of the royal household; he apparently had to travel for the king through England and overseas. At the same time he may have studied at the Inns of Court, where he gained knowledge which his later career as controller of the taxes on wool and leather (1374) and clerk of the king's buildings (1389) demanded. In 1372-73 Chaucer had to travel to Italy for the king. We do not know whether he met Petrarch and/or Boccaccio in Florence, but we can certainly assume that he heard of these poets and Dante there, and that he became acquainted with their literature. At least, the clerk's friend in the Canterbury Tales (1388-1400) knew "Fraunceys Petrak, the lauriat poete" (Clerk's Prologue, v. 31). In 1378 Chaucer travelled to Italy again and met Barnabo Visconti, lord of Milan, who had been patron of Petrarch once.iii

In his late 40s, shortly before or shortly after his wife had died, Chaucer left London and moved to Kent; he was elected to Parliament in 1386 to represent the county. He seems to have been a quiet observer when in 1381 the peasents invaded London, and again, when Parliament forced King Richard to dismiss his chancellor and his treasurer. His reaction to these stirrings is recorded nowhere. The late 1380s were a depressing time for Chaucer - his wife dead, political peace disturbed - but English literary history profits from these years, as he began to write the prologue and some of The Canterbury Tales, his most famous work.

The wheel of fortune did not turn however: in September 1390, he was travelling to one of the king's manors when he was attacked and robbed by highwaymen. Chaucer was wounded, and this is one reason why some scholars assume that he gave up his clerkship in 1391 and became royal forester in Somerset. When in 1399 John of Gaunt's son, Henry, became King of England, Chaucer's life was hardly affected, apart from the fact that the king's grants were not paid on time: "O conquerour of Brutes Albyon, / Which that by lyne and free eleccion / Been verray kyng, this song to yow I sende, / And ye, that mowen alle oure harmes amende, / Have mynde upon my supplicacion." (The Complaint of Chaucer to His Purse, v. 23ff).

Geoffrey Chaucer died in 1400 and was the first poet to be buried in what is now known as the Poets' Corner. Today, he is appreciated as the English poet before Shakespeare, and his works are not only translated into Modern English but into other languages as well. As a poet, Chaucer was already famous during his lifetime: John Gower praises him in the Confessio Amantis (1390), Eustache Deschamps, the leading French poet of the 14th century, sent a ballad to Chaucer, lauding the Englishman's translation of the Roman de la Rose (before 1372) into the English vernacular. After his death, the Scottish Chaucerians, among them Henryson and Dunbar, emulated his style.iv

i); Cf. Donald E. Pease, "Author" in Critical Terms for Literary Study, ed. Frank Lentricchia, Thomas McLaughlin (Chicago, 1990), p. 105-17. See also the discussion of medieval authorship in Modernes Mittelalter. Neue Bilder einer populären Epoche, ed. Joachim Heinzle (Frankfurt, 1994).

ii); For Chaucer's sources see Sources and Analogues of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, ed. W.F. Bryan, Germaine Dempster (London, 1958); John M. Fyler, Chaucer and Ovid, (New Haven, 1979); Bruce Harbert, "Chaucer and the Latin Classics" in Geoffrey Chaucer, ed. Derek Brewer (London, 1974); Edgar Finley Shannon, Chaucer and the Roman Poets (New York, 1964).

iii); For more information about the relationship between Geoffrey Chaucer and the Trecento authors see David Wallace, Chaucerian Polity. Absolutist Lineages and Associational Forms in England and Italy, Figurae: Reading Medieval Culture (Stanford, 1997).

iv); The facts of this biography are mainly taken from Larry D. Benson's, Martin M. Crow's and Virginia E. Leland's accounts in The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson, third ed. [Oxford, 1992], p. xi-xxv; all the quotations are cited from the same edition, which seems to be the best edition of Chaucer's works currently available.

© Renate Bauer 2000

Copyright © 2005, Eva Fitz