³...I think some of Chaucer belongs to his time and that much of that
time is dead, extinct, and never to be made alive again. What was
alive in it, lives through him...²
Geoffrey Chaucer¹s world was the Europe of the fourteenth century.
It was neither rich or poor, happy nor sad. Rather, it was the
intermingling of these, a mixture of splendor and poverty, displaying
both worldly desire and spiritual purity. Chaucer¹s travels through
it, mostly on ³the King¹s business,² or civil service, shaped his
writing, offering the readers of today a brief glimpse into the world
in which he lived.
Chaucer lived from approximately AD 1340 to 1400. The world in which
he lived was not one of peace or stability. Born the son of a London
vintner, he remained a Londoner for most of the rest of his life,
leaving the city only on ³the King¹s business².
The city of London was thus Chaucer¹s environment for most of his
life. Aside from brief visits into other countries or areas of
England, he remained in the city, and it¹s affects on his writing was
London of that time was not the London of today. It was a walled
city, guarded against invasion, but long enough time had passed since
such a threat had approached that the defenses had loosened. Houses
perched upon the walls, and Chaucer in fact, lived for a time in a
house built over Aldgate, (one of the gates of the city).
London was a city less than three-quarters of a square mile in size:
It ran east and west along the Thames less than one and a half miles,
and extended northwards less than half a mile. Over 20,000 people
were packed into this small area; the diversity of the inhabitants was
overwhelming. Londoners ranged from wealthy to impoverished, from
small to large, from shoemaker to blacksmith to minstrel to priest.
The city was thus fairly close. Stone building mingled with tile,
wood, and thatch. While the major streets were fairly wide, small
shops and stands often spread out into the road, effectively narrowing
it by up to half it¹s width. London Bridge (the only bridge in the
city) was home to a multitude of homes and shops, perched on top of
the span to conserve space.
Waste was disposed of simply. It was emptied out the windows into
the alley or street and slaughtering was done in he streets as well,
with scraps being tossed underfoot. Hogs were often used to keep the
streets clean, but were assisted by wild dogs and scavenger birds.
Open sewers ran through the streets and into the Thames.
Most of the rest of Chaucer¹s life was open at the courts of the king
of England. Here a startling change was apparent. The filth of the
streets disappeared, to be replaced by the splendor so often
associated with royalty.
The royal court of England was home to many in Chaucer¹s time.
Courtiers, pages, knights, nobles, princes, and of course the King and
Queen. Chaucer rose through the ranks of the king¹s men, experiencing
all aspects of court life. He was a page, squire, court-bard,
counselor and finally courtier to various monarchs.
Many kings rose an fell in his lifetime. Chaucer began his life in
the king¹s service in the reign of Edward III, and performed his
service a long while. He was important enough to Edward that he was
personally ransomed after being captured by the French in the war
between Edward and Charles, an honor usually reserved for nobles.
By 1378 Edward III had died, and Chaucer was the man of Richard II.
The country was caught up in a political battle between the nobles of
Gloucester and Lancaster. The actions of these two nobles sent
Chaucer reeling , his world constantly changing about him.
The only stable item in Chaucer¹s world was religion. The
institution of religion, the church, was quite prominent and visible.
Cathedrals dotted the cities of the world, and even the smallest town
had a church.
The glory of the Church may even have outshone that of the royal
court. Cathedrals were brilliant with magnificent carvings, statues
of precious metals murals, holy artifacts, and many other gleaming
treasures. Even the smallest church was home to some splendor. The
glory of the church, and the power it put forth over the population
made it a major political power of the time.
Chaucer was born in the early 1340¹s. Very little is known about the
first stage of his life. However, two items are fairly certain. It
appears that Chaucer was the son of a London vintner and relatively
strong evidence supports that he attended one of three
grammar-schools: either St.Paul¹s, St. Mary-le-Bow¹s or St.
Aside from this slim bit of information details of Chaucer¹s early
life are few. The next reliable bit of information places him at
around the age of fourteen, a page in the household of the wife of
Prince Lionel, the second son of Edward III. He held this position
for some time.
Chaucer¹s first appearance into the king¹s business appeared in
October of 1360, when he carried letters from Calais to England during
peace negotiations there. For this service he held the official title
of clerk of the king attached to the person of Prince Lionel.
In this way, Chaucer began his life of service to his king. In 1368,
Chaucer was awarded a royal reward for a long and valued service to
his job. His actual duties during this period were apparently fairly
hazy. He served as a sort of jack of all trades. The only thing we
know about Chaucer¹s life between 1358 and 1367 is that he was
imprisoned in France, during the hundred years war, and was ransomed
in March of 1360, for a rather large sum.
In this time Chaucer also married Philippa Roet, lady in waiting to
the Queen. She bore at least two children, Thomas and ³Lyte Lowys,² a
child who was delighted in arithmetic.
Between 1368 and 1387, Chaucer undertook nearly a dozen diplomatic
missions to Flanders, France, and Italy. Most were important, many
were so secret that they were not mentioned in the histories of the
time at all. In 1381, Chaucer was sent to deal with marriage
negotiations between Richard II and the daughter of the French King.
While Chaucer was not on diplomatic missions, he was performing his
duties in the position for which he is best known, the Kings Custom
Service. From 1374 to 1386, he was the comptroller of London. When
he was removed from the post in 1386 he was instead granted the title
³Knight of the Shire², an important Parliament post, and later was
placed as the Clerk of the King¹s works at Westminster, the Tower, and
other royal property in South England.
Chaucer¹s final post in the King¹s service was that of the keeper of
the small royal forest of North Pertherton. He held this post twice,
from 1390 to 1391, and from 1397 to 1398.
In 1399, he settled in Westminster. On Christmas Eve he leased, for
fifty-three years, the garden of the monks of Westminster, to live in.
However, he did not live long to enjoy his retirement. Geoffrey
Chaucer died in October 25, 1400.
In a time when literacy was a luxury affordable only by the very
wealthy and powerful, Chaucer¹s writings stand out as unique. The
main language of literature of the time was Latin. Literacy and
fluency in Latin were taught as early as literacy in English. In
fact, many people could read Latin yet had treat difficulty figuring
out the simplest English sentences.
What little literature was not written in Latin was written in
French. Latin and French poetry was widely recognized as being the
only real literature of any worth. This of course, makes Chaucer¹s
works even more unusual. Unlike most of the other writers of the
time, Chaucer wrote his works in English. It was read in English to
the Royal Court upon completion.
Chaucer¹s writing career was not completely original nor free of
influences. His first works borrowed heavily form French and Latin
poems, and it was only later that some of his works became more
original. For example, Chaucer¹s first recorded poem (the Book of the
Duchess) the opening lines are simply translations of the openings of
Froissart¹s Paradys d¹Amour. While this is the most obvious use of
the French poem, other instances reminiscent of the work appear
throughout Chaucer¹s poem. In the first part of Chaucer¹s career as a
writer, it can be seen that his writing is restricted by a style made
popular at the time by French poetry.
As in the prominent French poetry of the time, the Book demonstrates
a love for detail and description. Chaucer never quite escapes the
French influences in his writing but escapes some areas of French
It was not until Chaucer began writing his most well-known work The
Canterbury Tales, that he did this. Until this work, his writings
were simply translations of old myths, or barely original poems
written to fit the standards of French style. Chaucer wished to write
something more ambitious, original, and memorable. The Canterbury
Tales was the result. Chaucer¹s style of writing in The Canterbury
Tales is quite different from his earlier works. Hidden within the
stories of the Pilgrims are sermons and scoldings about the world he
knew, and the evils he saw within it. The Canterbury Tales have no
single style throughout, to which each shorter story is fit. Rather,
Chaucer gives each section of the poem it¹s own style. In fact, the
over-ruling style of Chaucer¹s last work seems to be no style at all,
each work is written to fit the subject.
Chaucer worked throughout his life to break away from the molds which
society had set about poetry in general, and his work in specific.
Instead of forging beautifully crafted lies and tales about society,
his poetry held up a mirror to reflect reality as he saw it.
Chaucer¹s growth out of the mold imposed by tradition is illustrated
by the steady departure of it in his writings. And his final works,
escaping at last form the accepted style, set the stage for the
beginnings of English literature.
Chute, Marchette. Geoffrey Chaucer of England. New York: E.P. Dutton
& Co, 1946.