Authors: Geoffrey Chaucer

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English poet

c. 1343

London(?), England

October 25, 1400

London, England


Geoffrey Chaucer (CHAW-sur), one of the greatest of English writers, made his living as a civil servant and composed poetry as an avocation. His career, however, contributed to his literary growth. He was born into a prosperous family and reared in London. His father, a wine importer, was able to find him a position (in 1357 or earlier) as a page boy in the household of King Edward III’s daughter-in-law, Elizabeth of Ulster. From this period on, despite the political uncertainties of the age, Chaucer enjoyed the uninterrupted favor of the members of the courts of, successively, Edward, Richard II, and Henry IV, both as a man of business and as a poet. {$I[AN]9810000590} {$I[A]Chaucer, Geoffrey} {$I[geo]ENGLAND;Chaucer, Geoffrey} {$I[tim]1343;Chaucer, Geoffrey}

Geoffrey Chaucer

(Library of Congress)

Chaucer served as a soldier in France in the campaigns of the Hundred Years’ War in 1359 to 1360. Between 1368 and 1387 he was sent abroad on diplomatic missions to France and Italy on at least seven occasions. He acquired the training necessary for business, probably at the law school known as the Inner Temple. He was a controller of customs in London from 1374 to 1385, became a justice of the peace in Kent in 1385 and a member of Parliament for the county in 1386, served in London again from 1389 to 1391 as a clerk of the works, and was thereafter awarded a less active royal appointment as subforester.

About 1366 he married Philippa Roet of Flanders, who was lady-in-waiting to Queen Philippa and later to John of Gaunt’s second wife, Constance. (Chaucer’s wife’s sister became Gaunt’s third wife.) Records suggest that he had two sons and a daughter and that his wife died in 1387. He died in 1400 in a house that he had rented on the grounds of Westminster Abbey, and he was buried in that section of the Abbey later to become known as the Poets’ Corner.

The maturation of Chaucer’s genius can be illustrated by four works. In the Book of the Duchess the narrator dreams that he shares the grief of a lonely young knight, who proves to be John of Gaunt mourning his newly lost first wife. The conception is original, and the expression of sympathy is gracefully tender, but the framework of the dream vision and the knight’s description of his love are strongly influenced by French models.

In the uncompleted Hous of Fame, another dream vision, the narrator is carried off by an eagle to learn whether those who are in the service of love are happy. The self-confident and domineering eagle was suggested to Chaucer by his reading of Dante Alighieri’s Paradise but here plays a novel comic role in a work that parodies the artificiality of medieval courtly love conventions.

Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer’s first major poem, amplifies Giovanni Boccaccio’s pseudoclassical romance, Il Filostrato, giving depth to the sorrowful Troilus, elusiveness to the timid Criseyde, robust comicality to the officious Pandarus, immediacy to the setting, and a new significance to the tragedy of the two lovers separated by the Trojan War.

In The Canterbury Tales, a masterpiece though uncompleted, Chaucer turns to the English scene, as do his contemporaries William Langland and John Gower, and focuses on the men, women, children, and animals familiar to him in life. An assorted group of pilgrims entertain themselves by telling stories on the way from London to Canterbury. Through his descriptions in the General Prologue and dramatizations in the links connecting the tales, he portrays in detail seven members of the feudal order, thirteen people associated with religious life, and fourteen townspeople—the chivalrous Knight, the aristocratic Prioress, the fraudulent Pardoner, the impoverished Canon’s Yeoman, the amorous Wife of Bath, the reticent narrator, and the rest who have gained an independent identity. The tales that Chaucer supplies match the tellers in their rich variety—the Knight’s courtly romance, the Miller’s racy fabliau, the Second Nun’s pious saint’s life, the Nun’s Priest’s mock-heroic fable, the Pardoner’s hypocritical sermon, and the Parson’s sincere one.

Like most medieval craftspeople, Chaucer, whether as young apprentice or as mature master, followed the pattern of established models. His success can therefore be partially explained by the vast extent of his reading of “old, approvèd stories.” The sources for most of his works influenced his style. His comic tone, for example, is often reminiscent of that of Ovid, his favorite Latin poet; and his philosophical ideas are usually those of Boethius. He appears to have culled materials in turn from the French—notably Guillaume de Machaut and Jean Froissart—then from the Italians—Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio—and finally, perhaps, from his fellow countryman Langland. His ultimate achievements, however, were profoundly original. Chaucer’s skill as a raconteur, his deftness of characterization and description, his perfection in metrical technique, his understanding of human religious, moral, and philosophical instincts, his knowledge of life and acceptance of its mingled tragedy and comedy, and his transcendent sense of humor are, in combination, unique.

Author Works Poetry: Book of the Duchess, c. 1370 Romaunt of the Rose, c. 1370 (translation, possibly not by Chaucer) Hous of Fame, 1372–1380 The Legend of St. Cecilia, 1372–1380 (later used as “The Second Nun’s Tale”) Tragedies of Fortune, 1372–1380 (later used as “The Monk’s Tale”) Anelida and Arcite, c. 1380 Parlement of Foules, 1380 Palamon and Ersyte, 1380–1386 (later used as “The Knight’s Tale”) The Legend of Good Women, 1380–1386 Troilus and Criseyde, 1382 The Canterbury Tales, 1387–1400 Nonfiction: Boece, c. 1380 (translation of Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy) A Treatise on the Astrolabe, 1387–1392 Miscellaneous: Works, 1957 (second edition; F. N. Robinson, editor) Bibliography Blamires, Alcuin. Chaucer, Ethics, and Gender. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. This volume examines not only Chaucer’s treatment of women, but how gender affects the moral tone of his works. Blamires offers a new perspective on Chaucer’s writing as he uses philosophical questions of ethics and morality to view the traditionally fixed notions of gender in Chaucer’s works. With his lucid writing style, Blamires makes the difficult subject matter easy to fathom and puts a new spin on issues of gender in Chaucerian studies. Borroff, Marie. Traditions and Renewals: Chaucer the Gawain-poet, and Beyond. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2003. A collection of essays that provide a fresh and different analysis of Chaucer’s work. Bowden, Muriel. A Commentary on the General Prologue to “The Canterbury Tales.” 2d ed. New York: Macmillan, 1967. Restricted in scope to the general prologue, the most widely read (and taught) of Chaucer’s writings. Provides a detailed explication that explores the prologue virtually line by line, collecting and arranging all significant discussions of the text. A valuable reference for the specialist, while remaining clear enough to be accessible to the general reader. Brewer, Derek. Chaucer. 3d ed. London: Longmans, 1977. This relatively short biography for the general reader by a respected Chaucerian scholar judiciously interprets the somewhat sparse and sometimes puzzling facts of the poet’ life. Brewer, Derek. The World of Chaucer. Rochester, N.Y.: D. S. Brewer, 2000. An illustrated look at Chaucer’ work and the intellectual life of his time. Includes bibliography and index. Brewer, Derek, ed. Chaucer: The Critical Heritage. 2 vols. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978. A two-volume selection of essays on Chaucer. Volume 1 (1385-1837) contains contributions ranging from Émile Deschamps to Samuel Taylor Coleridge; volume 2 (1837-1933) includes criticism by Virginia Woolf, among others. In the vast resources on Chaucer, this volume edited by an eminent Chaucerian stands as an excellent source for reviewing Chaucer’s scholarship and criticism. Brown, Peter, ed. A Companion to Chaucer. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2000. Part of the Blackwell Companions to Literature and Culture series, offers broad and detailed essays by scholars of Chaucer and his era. Chute, Marchette Gaylord. Geoffrey Chaucer of England. Rev. ed. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1962. This general reader’ life of Chaucer, first issued in 1946, remains the best of its type. The style is clear and unpretentious, and the facts are set forth in the context of needed background information. The author discusses the poet’ literary achievement but is more successful at conveying the flow of his life. Coghill, Nevill. The Poet Chaucer. 1949. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967. Interweaves three biographical chapters with discussions of Chaucer’ poetry, emphasizing matters that influenced his writing and omitting details of his official life. Condren, Edward I. Chaucer and the Energy of Creation: The Design and the Organization of “The Canterbury Tales.” Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1999. Examines the motives behind Chaucer’s layout of the stories. Crow, Martin M., and Virginia E. Leland. “Chaucer’ Life.” In The Riverside Chaucer, edited by Larry D. Benson. 3d ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987. This biographical essay briefly but authoritatively presents the principal known facts of Chaucer’ life. Crow, Martin M., and Clair C. Olson, eds. Chaucer Life-Records. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1966. A compilation of known records pertaining directly to the poet. Gardner, John. The Life and Times of Chaucer. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977. Written by a popular novelist who was also a medievalist, this lively and handsomely produced book nevertheless has drawn sharp criticism from medieval scholars for its lapses in taste and judgment, its careless appropriation of sources, and its failure to fuse its often interesting parts into a coherent whole. Gittes, Katherine S. Framing the Canterbury Tales: Chaucer and the Medieval Frame Narrative Tradition. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1991. Analyzes the influence of the Asian frame narrative tradition on The Canterbury Tales; argues that what was once taken for incompleteness is the result of the influence of Eastern modes of narrative structure. Harding, Wendy. “The Function of Pity in Three Canterbury Tales.” The Chaucer Review 32 (1997): 162-174. Discusses the variability of pity in “The Knight’s Tale,” “The Clerk’s Tale,” and “The Parson’s Tale.” Argues that in different ways, all three deal with the role of pity in hierarchical relations. Hirsh, John C. Chaucer and the Canterbury Tales: A Short Introduction. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2003. An introduction to The Canterbury Tales for the general reader. 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’ time. Howard, Donald R. Chaucer. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1987. A most comprehensive and authoritative biography, by a renowned critic, valuable for both the novice and the advanced student. Combines biographical and historical material with insightful commentary on the poetry. A thorough yet readable introduction to Chaucer, his work, and his world. Howard, Donald R. The Idea of “The Canterbury Tales.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976. This study endeavors to understand the idea of the poem in a historical perspective. It looks at language, customs, institutions, values, and myths, as well as the use of visual models like rose windows and pavement labyrinths to understand the sprawling form. Special attention is paid to the darker side of Chaucer, the concept of pilgrimage and medieval aesthetics. Howard elucidates the implied meanings behind the juxtapositions of some of the tales. Excellent bibliographical references appear in the footnotes. Kittredge, G. L. Chaucer and His Poetry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1915. This classic of Chaucerian scholarship includes a critical appraisal of the chief works based on lectures given by the author in 1914. The first chapter is a short discussion of the man and his times, but the meat of the criticism develops around the poems with two chapters devoted to The Canterbury Tales. A reading knowledge of the poems is recommended. Muscatine, Charles. Chaucer and the French Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1957. A history of literary style in the medieval period, this study proposes that Chaucer adapted his personal style from the courtly and bourgeois styles of French literature. It presents Chaucer as fusing the traditions of the idealized court romances and the “fabliaux,” beast epics, and fables. Narkiss, Doron. “The Fox, the Cock, and the Priest: Chaucer’s Escape from Fable.” The Chaucer Review 32 (1997): 46-63. Examines Chaucer’s reworking of Aesop’s fable in “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale.” Argues that Chaucer moves the fable away from the realm of learning and wisdom to mockery and a way of reading that in “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” fable is extended by characterization and action. Claims that Chaucer’s use of the fable suggests doubling, repetition, and substitutions. Payne, Robert O. Geoffrey Chaucer. 2d ed. Boston: Twayne, 1986. A concise introduction to Chaucer and his period for the beginning student by one of the leading scholars in the field. Addressed to readers who have no previous background in medieval literature or cultural studies. Pearsall, Derek. The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer: A Critical Biography. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1992. Percival, Florence. Chaucer’s Legendary Good Women. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Suitable for introductory students yet containing challenging insights for scholars. Percival attempts to provide a comprehensive interpretation of the puzzling Legend of Good Women without ignoring any of the contradictory views that it contains about women. Robertson, D. W., Jr. Preface to Chaucer: Studies in Medieval Perspectives. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1962. This is the classic of Chaucerian new historicism developed by Robertson partly in reaction to G. L. Kittredge and the New Criticism which downplay the religious and cultural influences on Chaucer. Robertson clearly presents the principles of medieval aesthetics through which Chaucer can be processed and given richer meaning. He focuses on the prevalent ideas of Chaucer’s time, the importance of allegory in medieval theories of literature and religion in medieval life. Amplified with more than one hundred illustrations. Rossignol, Rosalyn. Chaucer A to Z: The Essential Reference to His Life and Works. New York: Facts on File, 1999. An indispensable guide for the student of Chaucer. Rowland, Beryl, ed. Companion to Chaucer Studies. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. Especially valuable for the student or teacher with little ready access to a research library. Contains twenty-two essays, each followed by an extensive bibliography, by major authorities in the field. Surveys the history of Chaucer criticism in a wide range of topics, beginning with Chaucer’s biography and influences, to his style. Contains six chapters on The Canterbury Tales and individual chapters on the more important minor poems. Schoeck, Richard, and Jerome Taylor, eds. Chaucer Criticism. 2 vols. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1960-1961. Volume 1, The Canterbury Tales, assembles some of the most important early studies of Chaucer’s masterpiece, including John Matthews Manly’s “Chaucer and the Rhetoricians” and George Lyman Kittredge’s seminal “Chaucer’s Discussion of Marriage.” A valuable introduction to major critics and approaches. Volume 2, “Troilus and Criseyde” and the Minor Poems, contains an introduction to “The System of Courtly Love” by William George Dodd, followed by twelve essays on Troilus and Criseyde. Also includes essays on individual shorter poems. Storm, Mel. “Speech, Circumspection, and Orthodontics in the Manciple’s Prologue and Tale and the Wife of Bath’s Portrait.” Studies in Philology 96 (Spring, 1999): 109-126. Asserts that Chaucer’s “The Manciple’s Tale” is his apologia for his life as a poet. Suggests that “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” is balanced both thematically and dramatically in “The Manciple’s Tale.” Taavitsainen, Irma. “Narrative Patterns of Affect in Four Genres of the Canterbury Tales.” The Chaucer Review 30 (1995): 191-210. Discusses four genres: sermons, saints’ lives, courtly romances, and fabliaux. Argues that an assessment of inherent linguistic patterns of genres reveals new ways of seeing how the audience is manipulated, how their emotions are provoked, and how narrative suspense is sustained. West, Richard. Chaucer 1340-1400: The Life and Times of the First English Poet. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2000. A discussion of the history surrounding Chaucer’s achievements and the events of his life. Chapters take up such matters as the Black Death’s impact on the anti-Semitism evident in “The Prioress’s Tale” and the impact of the great English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 on Chaucer’s worldview.

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