Chaucer Writes Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Chaucer developed English vernacular narrative in The Canterbury Tales, creating a unique English literary language and bringing to life the experiences of a broad variety of fourteenth century English types.

Summary of Event

Geoffrey Chaucer’s father was a well-to-do wine merchant, whose connections to the court of King Edward III undoubtedly enabled him to place his son in a royal household as a page. In such a position, Chaucer would have imbibed the values of the aristocracy and would have made valuable connections with powerful people. Those connections, along with his native intelligence and talents, led to a long career as a public servant, which included stints as a soldier, diplomat, controller of wool customs for the port of London, justice of the peace, member of Parliament, and clerk of the king’s works. It was while on diplomatic missions to Italy that Chaucer came in contact with and was deeply influenced by the literary works of Dante, Petrarch, and Giovanni Boccaccio. In 1399, Chaucer leased a house near Westminster Abbey; when he died the following year, he was buried in the Abbey in a location that would later become known as Poets’s Corner. [kw]Chaucer Writes The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400) [kw]Canterbury Tales, Chaucer Writes The (1387-1400) Chaucer, Geoffrey Canterbury Tales, The (Chaucer) England;1387-1400: Chaucer Writes The Canterbury Tales[3000] Literature;1387-1400: Chaucer Writes The Canterbury Tales[3000] Cultural and intellectual history;1387-1400: Chaucer Writes The Canterbury Tales[3000] Chaucer, Geoffrey

Although Chaucer’s life as an active public servant is relatively well documented, the official records never mention his poetry Poetry;England . Clearly, however, he seems to have written a variety of literary works throughout his adult life. The once-traditional division of his literary career into three successive periods is considered simplistic by modern scholars. If these divisions are not rigidly imposed, however, they do help readers grasp a general movement in the poet’s reading interests, which are reflected in his own writing: the French period, when he was influenced by French courtly poetry; the Italian period, when he later discovered and was influenced by Italian literature; and, finally, the English period, in which he synthesized the earlier influences and produced his own unique poetry, specifically representing the English scene in The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400).

Chaucer’s decision to write poetry in English (later known as Middle English) was by no means inevitable in fourteenth century England. From the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066 right up to Chaucer’s lifetime, the prestige language in England was French, the spoken language of royalty and the aristocratic ruling class. Meanwhile, the written language of learning (in the universities), of the church, and of government was Latin. By contrast, English was the unassuming language of the common people. By Chaucer’s time, however, the common spoken language, or vernacular, had reasserted itself to the point that, in 1362, Parliament decreed that legal proceedings should be conducted in English instead of French. Thus, Chaucer lived in a period of linguistic transition. He probably would have heard English spoken in his home but would have studied Latin and French at school.

Chaucer’s decision to write in English should also be seen in the context of the emerging vernacular literatures in Western Europe. Well before Chaucer’s time, sophisticated literature began to be written in the vernacular in France, Italy, and Spain. As noted earlier, Chaucer was especially influenced by artful and complex literary works written in French (for example, Le Roman de la rose, thirteenth century; The Romance of the Rose, partial translation c. 1370, complete translation 1900) and Italian. Although there were certainly literary works written in English before Chaucer’s time, including lyrics and romances, these did not provide him with major literary models, as did continental and Latin writing. One of Chaucer’s main contributions was to fashion a literature in English that was capable of the complexities and sophistication of some of his continental and Latin models.

Given the prestige of French language and literature during Chaucer’s formative years, it is not unlikely that some of his earliest writing would have been poetry in French imitating French literary styles. In any event, it is clear that Chaucer from early in his writing career successfully adapted into English the styles and subject matters of the French courtly tradition. For Chaucer, it is important to note, such adaptations were not servile renderings of the originals. For example, the French courtly Courtly love or chivalric love (the idealistic code of romantic love in which the man is a humble supplicant and the lady an impossibly high ideal) is treated by Chaucer in a lighter, often ironic way, which undercuts the courtly sentiment.

In his adaptations from the French, and from Italian and Latin as well, Chaucer also enriched English literature by integrating into his writing a range of classical allusions, references to philosophical and theological topics, and a host of other subjects—dream-lore, astrology, literary genres. In this way, Chaucer pioneered (created, really) English literature capable of sophistication and intellectual complexity equal to that of his continental models. Again, however, Chaucer did not in this enterprise simply translate literally from one culture to another. He had to create an English idiom that expressed these complexities, and in so doing he succeeded in creating a unique English literary language. Literature;England England;literature

Chaucer also adapted, primarily from the French literary tradition, metrical patterns that have been hugely influential in English literature since his day. In place of the native alliterative verse form (for example, in William Langland’s The Vision of William, Concerning Piers the Plowman, c. 1362, c. 1377, and c. 1393), Chaucer characteristically looked to and adapted the metrical verse form employed by French poets. Metrical verse provided a set number of syllables and a regular pattern of alternating stressed and unstressed syllables. Some Middle English poetry had been written in metrical verse before Chaucer’s time, but it had followed the French octosyllabic model of employing eight syllables per line. Chaucer adapted the greater flexibility of the ten-syllable (decasyllabic) line for English poetry. This resulted in Chaucer’s characteristic iambic pentameter line, in which there is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (an iambic foot) in a regular pattern in a ten-syllable line: “A Knyght ther was, and that a worthy man.”

Chaucer’s additional important innovation was to employ these iambic pentameter lines in rhyming couplets, the form seen in the general prologue to The Canterbury Tales and the well-known tales from that work. In Chaucer’s hands, the pentameter couplets became a remarkably supple form, capable of narrative momentum as well as conversational tone and exchange. The pentameter line became a staple verse form in the English literary tradition, making possible the blank verse later used by William Shakespeare and John Milton, among others.

Another important contribution of Chaucer to English literature is the reflection in his writing of lifelike experience, of credible characters in ordinary circumstances, if not credible actions. Again, Chaucer in this development of verisimilitude is heir to many continental influences, notably the comic realism of the bawdy French fabliaux, which he exploited fully in “The Miller’s Tale.” Yet when, in the general prologue to The Canterbury Tales, he gathered an assorted company of “nine and twenty” pilgrims, representing a wide cross section of fourteenth century English society, in Southwark at the Tabard Inn (which actually existed on the south bank of the Thames in London and would have been a natural starting point for pilgrimages to Canterbury), he succeeded in bringing this distinctly English scene to life using the subtle illusions of his art.

Furthermore, in describing the pilgrims, Chaucer made them both representatives of their vocation or “estate” and individuals, who are possessed of unique characteristics and intentions. Through an apparently haphazard description of details about each pilgrim, Chaucer’s narrator allowed readers to glimpse the character’s internal world of values, although the Chaucerian narrator himself is remarkably free from value judgments about the pilgrims, except for comments of general approval about everyone, including the obvious scoundrels. The result is a complexity of “characterization” and motivation that is central to the English literary tradition.

Significance

Chaucer’s decision to write poetry in English was a watershed event in the English linguistic and literary traditions. His use of English helped to bring prestige to that language, and it demonstrated the fluency and stylistic variety of which the language was capable. In The Canterbury Tales in particular, Chaucer contributes important stylistic innovations as well as humanistic values to the development of English literature.

Arguably, Chaucer’s most important contribution to the development of vernacular narrative is the way he matched the unique personalities of his pilgrims to the tales they tell on the way to Canterbury. Thus, the knight tells a courtly romance, the miller a bawdy fabliau, the prioress a miracle of the virgin, and so forth. This stylistic enhancement has long been recognized as one of Chaucer’s greatest innovations in the vastly influential Canterbury Tales.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cooper, Helen. Oxford Guides to Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Provides detailed introductions to each of the tales. Comprehensive, reliable, and extremely useful as a reference tool.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Donaldson, E. Talbot. Speaking of Chaucer. New York: W. W. Norton, 1970. A collection of essays notable for their learning and wit. Many are classics concerning The Canterbury Tales.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Finley, William K., and Joseph Rosenblum, eds. Chaucer Illustrated: Five Hundred Years of the Canterbury Tales in Pictures. New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Press, 2003. An illustrated survey of The Canterbury Tales and its reception in the world of art.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fisher, John H. The Importance of Chaucer. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992. A judicious overview of Chaucer’s accomplishments and innovations, especially with respect to linguistic matters.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hirsh, John C. Chaucer and the Canterbury Tales: A Short Introduction. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2003. An introduction to Chaucer’s tales for the general reader.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Horobin, Simon. The Language of the Chaucer Tradition. Rochester, N.Y.: D. S. Brewer, 2003. A discussion of the development of Middle English during Chaucer’s time.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Muscatine, Charles. Chaucer and the French Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957. A landmark critical work that remains useful for its scholarly insights.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pearsall, Derek. The Canterbury Tales. London: Allen & Unwin, 1985. Insightful critical account of the work, along with some helpful reviews of scholarship.

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