Geoffrey Chaucer.

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set up their own dogmas in place of the old. Wycliffe pub-
lished his own translation of the Bible, and spread through
the country a group of lay preachers to disseminate his
views. For a time he was supported by John of Gaunt, who,
however, did little more than afford him protection, and
could not follow him in his subversive opinions.

In many aspects of the period one can detect, as we have


said, the attempt to overturn the older scheme of life and to
substitute a strongly individualistic philosophy. One mani-
festation of this change is to be found in the growing sympa-
thy for the lower classes. Chaucer, it will be seen, introduces
the middle classes to literature because by the latter part of
the century they were inescapable. In the past they had
figured in hardly more than the fabliau or the exemplum.
Lollardry shows not merely a desire to correct the religious
abuses of the times, but to establish what was really a totally
different conception of the Church. The clamor of the
peasant uprisings could not be stilled by temporary measures,
but the cry of anarchy was intermingled. And yet the
English people in general do not appear to have abandoned
their old loyalties. In this respect Chaucer seems to be
representative: he goes as far as the Lollards in religious
sincerity (but this quality is characteristic of Dante as well)
and nothing that he says can be construed as heretical;
characters from the lower classes take part in the Caunterbury
Tales, but there is no apparent desire to ignore differences in
social station. On the whole, Chaucer and the fourteenth
century were still Medieval.


Among all the known facts with regard to Chaucer's career
the most salient is that his good fortune furnished him with
an environment which was supremely well suited to develop
his particular kind of genius. He described the life and
manners of all ranks of society, and he was able to do it so
concretely partly because he had the opportunity of knowing
them all well. He himself sprang from the middle classes.
His grandfather, Robert, was a collector of the customs on
wines; his father, John, was a vintner who early won a posi-
tion as attendant to the king. Like many another family
Chaucer's was gradually making its way upward. He was
born about 1340, and by 1357 he was in the service of the
Countess Elizabeth, wife of Lionel Duke of Clarence, as the
Household Accounts show, referring to an expenditure for his


clothes. From then on he was in almost constant touch with
royalty: in 1359-60 he traveled with an expedition to France
under Edward III, and was taken prisoner near Rheims,
where the king ransomed him. He earned enough confidence
to be later entrusted to carry certain letters from Calais to
England. In 1367 he was a " valet of the king's household,"
and as "dtiectus valettus noster" was granted an annual salary
of twenty marks (a little over 13 in the money of that time).
By 1369 he was again in military service in France. The
year 1372 found him one of the king's esquires, and other
royal favors came to him from time to tune, such as the
daily pitcher of wine granted in 1374 (later changed to an
annuity of twenty marks). Through his entire life, in fact, he
seems to have had opportunity to know the world at court,
and yet his military service, his travels, his duties in London,
brought him into contact with all social classes.

How really intimate he was with any of the royal per-
sonages it is hard to say. The question is somewhat com-
plicated by the fact that Chaucer was subject in part to the
system of literary patronage: for example, the Book of the
Duchesse was written in memory of Blanche, John of Gaunt's
first wife, in 1369 or 1370, though the poem itself suggests
genuinely friendly feelings for the man in black. He wrote
a late addition to the Monk's Tale in order to include
an account of "worthy Petro, glorie of Spayne," the father
of John of Gaunt's second wife, Constance. To this gentle
lady the saintly Constance of the Man of Lawe's Tale may
be a further allusion. Certain words of advice in the Phisi-
cien's Tale to "maistresses" "that lordes doghtres han in
governaunce" have been taken to be directed toward Kathe-
rine Swynford, who was a governess in the Duke's household
and who became his third wife. Very possibly she was
Chaucer's sister-in-law; but at any rate the passage implies
considerable familiarity. As to what personal allusions
should be read into such poems as the Compleynte of Mars,
the Hous of Fame, and the Parlement of Foides, we remain
practically in ignorance as yet. Various suggestions and
interpretations have been made, but none seems to be wholly


satisfactory. Possibly here are to be found the results of
royal patronage, as also in the Legende of Good Women. And
Chaucer had some return, not only from the king but also
from John of Gaunt, who gave him a pension of ten pounds in
1374, and in 1377 an annuity of twenty marks more. It is
a strange fact that John of Gaunt neglected to mention
Chaucer in his will, but its importance may be overestimated.
We may be sure that the poet was on terms of intimacy with
several figures at court; his personality, however reserved,
was calculated to win him affectionate regard from high as
well as low.

Chaucer's marriage, probably as early as 1366, further
connected him with court life. From the position of domi-
cella to the Queen, Philippa Chaucer went into the service of
the Lancaster household, and received from that source an
annual pension of ten pounds in 1372, and in 1373 six silver-
gilt buttons and a "botoner" (button-hook). Further gifts
are recorded up until 1382. Practically nothing is known of
Chaucer's wedded life; and although his allusions to his
fortunes in love and his experience in wedlock do not suggest
felicity, these are often conventional jokes and need not be
taken too seriously. After all, the bitterness in the Envoy to
Bukton and in the remarks of the Merchant in the Caunter-
bury Tales, even if it is read literally, is offset by the optimism
of the Franklin discoursing on the theme of marriage. Phil-
ippa died about 1387; and Chaucer was left, perhaps with
two sons: Lewis and Thomas. Much of Chaucer's love-
poetry is, of course, based merely on the conventional themes
of his time, drawn often from French literature, which may
have been brought more vividly to his attention by his
interest in the affairs of court, where French influence was
still strong even after the days of Edward III, and by his

His standing at court undoubtedly gave him the oppor-
tunities to go abroad, which meant so much for the develop-
ment of his art. His early training was fostered under
French influence; but later, diplomatic missions took him
also to Italy, where he went just possibly as early as 1368 and


certainly in 1372 or 1373. The chance of meeting Petrarch on
one of these journeys he may actually have enjoyed, but at
any rate he certainly made an extensive acquaintance with
Italian literature, bringing back with him, no doubt, plenty of
manuscripts of which he later made good use. His traveling
reveals a practical ability; for in 1372 he was commissioned
with one James Provan and John de Mari to treat with the
duke, citizens, and merchants of Genoa for the purpose of
choosing an English port which the Genoese might use as a
commercial base. In 1377 he went to Flanders on secret
negotiations; and in 1378, with various other men, he went
abroad to arrange a marriage between Richard II and a
daughter of the king of France. In 1378, also, business took
him again to Italy, where he visited Barnabo Visconti, Lord
of Milan, and became sufficiently interested in that vivid
gentleman to give his story later in the Monk's Tale.

Because of this practical ability he had the chance to asso-
ciate with other classes of his time. In 1374, when he was
living in a house over Aldgate (one of the city gates), he was
appointed Comptroller of the Customs and Subsidy of wools,
'skins, and tanned hides in the Port of London. In 1376 he
received from the king a grant of over 71, which was the
fine imposed on a certain man who shipped wool without
paying the duty for it. In 1382 he was also made Comp-
troller of the Petty Customs in the Port of London, and was
allowed to turn over the duties of that office to a deputy. In
1385, when apparently he was living in Greenwich, he was
made Justice of the Peace for Kent, and in the next year he
sat in Parliament as a Knight of the Shire for the county.
Although through a change in the political situation Chaucer
lost his Comptrollership of the Customs in 1386, he was
again favored in 1389 when he was made Clerk of the King's
Works to supervise the royal properties at Westminster, the
Tower of London, and various manors, with a salary of two
shillings a day or about thirty-six pounds a year. For these
tasks he was again allowed a deputy. In 1390 he was se-
lected to be on a commission to repair the banks of the
Thames between Woolwich and Greenwich; he managed the


erection of the scaffolding for the jousts in Smithfield; he
was appointed a forester of North Petherton Park, Somer-
setshire; and he was ordered to get workmen and materials
for the repair of St. George's Chapel, Windsor. Altogether
his income from these duties must have been very substantial,
and the variety of his work testifies to his efficiency in public

The opportunity of meeting and dealing with all sorts and
conditions of men would be appreciated to the full by a man
of Chaucer's temperament. Fortunately the names of a few
of those who were his friends have come down to us. One
with whom in particular he seems to have had a considerable
intimacy is Sir Lewis Clifford, a distinguished soldier and a
really eminent man of that time. Sir Lewis's daughter Eliza-
beth was married to Sir Philip la Vache, to whom is dedicated
Trouthe. And when the French poet Eustache Deschamps
sent his verses asking Chaucer to cull some of the flowers of
French rhetoric, Clifford himself brought the poem to Eng-
land. To this poem, beginning "O Socrates plains de philos-
ophic " and terming Chaucer a " grant translateur," Chaucer
perhaps responded by borrowing heavily from Deschamps for
the Legende of Good Women. There are other names linked
with the English poet's in various ways for which we cannot
pause: Sir John Clanvowe and Richard Morel. To Ralph
Strode, Fellow of Merton College, Oxford, and to John Gower
the poet, Chaucer dedicated his Troilus in a manner half
flippant, half serious. In 1378, when Chaucer was in Italy,
Gower acted for him in the capacity of attorney; and perhaps,
when he came back, Chaucer brought a fresh manuscript of
the Filostrato, w r hich aroused many a discussion between the
poets as to literary technique, and as to what Criseyde was
in Benoit and Boccaccio and what she ought to be. A quarrel
between Chaucer and Gower has been read into the supposed
disparaging allusion to the Confessio Amantis in the introduc-
tion to the Man of Lawe's prologue and into the fact that in
later versions of the Confessio a passage praising Chaucer
does not appear. But, at most, this exchange of courtesies
reveals in the two poets a difference in sense of humor.


Other items concerning Chaucer's circle of acquaintances we
must infer from his activities: In 1375 he received the respon-
sibility of being ward to Edmond Staplegate of Kent (and for
his trouble received 104); in 1380 he was somehow con-
cerned with what appears to have been a case of abduction,
in which one Cecilia Chaumpaigne released to him all rights
of action against him; in 1386 he testified in the Scrope-
Grosvenor suit as to the right of Sir Richard Scrope to bear
a certain coat of arms.

In the miscellaneous information of this kind that presents
itself in relation to Chaucer, one fact is especially clear. The
events of his life are hardly more than those of the average
man, to-day we should say, the average business man.
Although he had fair financial success, he went through
difficulties that forced him to make appeals for money, as in
the hint at the end of the Parlement, and, again, in the Envoy
to Scogan and the Compleinte to his Purs. He was thrice
robbed, in Kent, at Westminster, and at Hatcham, in 1390.
How far the shifting favor of the men in power in the nineties
could affect his fortunes is not entirely clear. Before that time
in choosing his guildsmen for the Prologe of the Caunterbury
Tales he was careful not to offend Mayor Brembre by taking
any who were out of political favor. The protection of John
of Gaunt does not stay by him apparently. In 1393 he was
without public employment; in 1394 the king bestowed on
him a grant of twenty pounds a year for life; in 1395 he was
for some reason forced to make various loans; in 1398 he was
sued. The Compleinte to Ms Purs of 1399 seems to have been
responsible for the gift of a yearly sum of forty marks, and
he was thus enabled to leave Greenwich and its "shrewes" to
take a house in the garden of the Chapel of St. Mary, West-
minster, near the Abbey. Here on the twenty-fifth of October,
1400, the poet died, and he was buried in the Abbey, where in
1556 a tomb of gray marble was erected in his memory.

All the details of his life show that Chaucer was in many
respects a typical figure, occupied with the normal cares and
duties of his time. Perhaps many of the official posts came
his way as a kind of royal patronage, from the burdens of


which he might occasionally be relieved by a deputy. But
that he was versatile is evident from the manifold tasks that
were imposed on him from which he was not relieved. Doubt-
less many people knew him simply as an unusually able man
of affairs who happened to have a delightful and endearing
nature. And all the while, as a spectator, Chaucer had a
remarkable opportunity to observe the whole of what con-
stituted the world of his time, giving the subjects of his
attention no impression that they were specimens under the
glass of an analyst, but nevertheless going about with an
active step and an inquiring eye, whether on diplomatic mis-
sions or in the bustle of London. The pageant of life that
moved about him was necessarily as inclusive as his own
pilgrimage: knights and squires, monks and nuns, pardoners
and clerks, franklins and merchants, craftsmen and ec-
clesiasts, men and women of all types, he could know them
all, and he w y as undoubtedly a good " mixer." His "com-
panye" was the company of all mankind.

A word may be added as to his later reputation. Full
appreciation of his powers from the general public naturally
did not come in his own day, but it followed soon after with
the testimonials of Lydgate, Hoccleve, the "Scottish Chau-
cerians," and others. To these writers Chaucer was a "mais-
ter." The early printers brought out editions of his works
together with certain spurious productions which were for a
long time attributed to him. With the changes in the de-
velopment of the English language the proper method of
pronouncing Middle English was forgotten; small wonder,
then, that Dryden found in Chaucer's verse merely the
rude sweetness of a Scotch tune! Urry, in his edition (1721),
suggested that many of the printed final e's should be pro-
nounced; and this idea was carried further by the scholar
Tyrwhitt, whose edition appeared in 1775 with a mass of
useful information together with remarkably careful editing.
Anything like complete understanding of Chaucer's language,
however, did not come until the study of Professor Francis J.
Child in 1862, " Observations upon the Language of Chaucer,"
extended and amplified by many other scholars of to-day.



The dates assigned to Chaucer's works are only approxi-
mate. In most cases the evidence for the date is based on
style, source, or assumed allusions to historical events. The
following list includes only the more important works:

1369-70. Book of the Duchesse.

Many of the shorter minor poems, such as the A. B. C., the
Compleynte unto Pite, part of the Romaunt of the Rose, and
the Compleynte of Mars, belong to the early period.
1377-83. The translation of Boethius.

Fortune, Former Age, etc.
1378. Or possibly 1383-84. Hous of Fame.
1381. Parlement of Foules.
Anellda and Arcite.
Palamon and Arcite.
1381-84. Troilus and Criseyde.

Wordes unto Adam.

1386. Beginning of the Legcnde of Good Women.
1386-90. Trouthe.

.1387-1400. The Caunterbury Tales. Several of the tales were earlier
pieces of work: e. g. the Knight's Tale (as Palamon and
Arcite), parts of the Monk's Tale, possibly the Clerk's Tale,
and the Second Nun's Tale.
1391-92. Treatise on the Astrolabe.
1394. Reworking of the Legende of Good Women.

Lenvoy a Scogan.
1396. Lenvoy a Bukton.
1399. Compleinte to his Purs.

Other works of Chaucer now lost are the Book of the Leoun,
the Wrecked Engendering of Mankinde, and Qrigines upon the
Maudeleyne, of which we know, in part, from the prologue of
the Legende of Good Women and, in part, from the "retrac-


From Chaucer's poetry and prose it is clear that he was not
only a close observer of life but an omnivorous reader. The
choice of his reading was exceedingly catholic, ranging from


the lighter poetry (virelays, roundels, complaints, and bal-
lades) and romance and fabliau to long allegories and philo-
sophical and moral treatises. He himself tells how he con-
tinually pored over a book; and his time was not idly spent.
That his interest was sincere can be discovered in the pains-
taking translations like the Tale of Melibeus, a disquisition
as ponderous as it is long, and the De Consolaiione Philos-
ophiae of Boethius, and in his ready use of what he read, as in
the mosaic of borrowed lines in the portrait of the Duchess
(The Book of the Duchesse) and again in the prologue of the
Second Nun's Tale. It is because he laid up such a store of
wisdom, from which he was always able to draw, and which
shows how deep an impression the books made on his mind,
that he may be fairly called learned.

The work which had the most profound influence upon him
was undoubtedly the Consolation of Philosophy written by
Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (c. 480-524 A. D.), who
was a Christian consul under Theodoric the Ostrogoth, and
who under the accusation of treason was put to death. De-
scribing a dialogue between Dame Philosophy and the con-
demned author waiting in prison for his death, the book
presents Aristotelian and Platonic philosophy in order to
justify the ways of God to man. It achieved an almost con-
tinuous popularity down to the Renaissance; allusions to it
and adaptations of it appear everywhere. The problems in-
volved in the discussion aroused Chaucer's keenest interest,
and to them he recurs again and again. Verbal echoes appear
with remarkable frequency in his w r orks, and sometimes he
lifts entire sections of the argument for his purposes. A sim-
ilarly deep, if not at all so pervasive, influence was that of the
Divine Comedy of Dante, to which Chaucer was indebted in
many superficial ways, but which reached furthest for him
in his solution of the problem of fate. The Hous of Fame and
the Parlement show that Chaucer enjoyed reading Dante;
lines in the Troilus, in the prologue of the Prioress's Tale, and
elsewhere, show that the appeal was something more than
simply to the imagination.

Of a more secular type was the influence of the Roman de la


Rose, which he translated, at least in part, and which fur-
nished him with a great deal of material that he put to
practical use. This thirteenth century work, originally an
allegory of the Court of Love by Guillaume de Lorris, and
developed by Jean de Meun as a small compendium of knowl-
edge, served, perhaps, to lead Chaucer's attention to some of
the authors whose writings later engrossed him. Here he
found story, allegory, and philosophy, and borrowings from
Alanus de Insulis, Ovid, and others. Stories of love were
especially accessible to him in his "owne book," Ovid's
Metamorphoses; and he also knew and made use of Ovid's

These works gave Chaucer most of his material, but there
are others to which he owes much. In his early work he re-
veals that he has gained a thorough knowledge of French
writers. Guillaume de Machaut, of the generation before
Chaucer's, and Froissart and Eustache Deschamps of his
own time, wrote poetry of the Court of Love vision, which
served as the model of several of his poems. So immersed was
he in the literature of this type thcit this time of his appren-
ticeship is often called his "French period." With the
Hous of Fame and the Parlement of Foules, however, the
results of his Italian journeys begin to appear. The senti-
mentalism of Boccaccio in the Teseide and the Filostrato was
transmuted into the fine quality of the much reduced romance
of the Knight's Tale and the greatly extended psychological
"tragedie" of the Troilus. The Latin De Casibus Virorum
Illustrium of Boccaccio inspired the Monk's Tale; De Claris
Mulieribus of the same author contributed probably to the
Legende of Good Women. From Petrarch came the Latin
rendering of Boccaccio's story of Griselda which was the
basis of the Clerk's Tale; and a sonnet of Petrarch's appears
translated in the Troilus.

It is difficult to estimate with any accuracy Chaucer's
knowledge of Latin. Presumably a man of his time might
have had much. But he often employs a French translation
of Latin works, as, in the case of Boethius, he leaned on the
version attributed to Jean de Meun. He appears to have


had an extensive acquaintance with Virgil's dLneid, as well as
with Ovid, and with the twelfth century allegorist, Alanus de
Insulis, of whose Anticlaudianus and De Planctu Natures he
makes considerable use, and with the Somnium Scipionis
of Cicero in the edition of Macrobius (fl. 400 A. D.) The
story of Troy Chaucer knew chiefly from the ALneid and the
accounts in the twelfth century French of Benoit de Sainte-
More and in the thirteenth century Latinization of this by
Guido delle Colonne. Apparently he did not know Greek.

In a writer like Chaucer, who has so many undeniable
sources for his material, a modern reader will wonder whether
any originality is left. It is true that the range of the books
with w r hich he had some familiarity was astonishingly wide,
and that he not only read but borrowed freely. But plagiar-
ism, in a sense, was the literary fashion of his time; Des-
champs sincerely hoped that Chaucer would dignify him by a
few borrowings from his verse. The ancients in general were
not passionate for novelty; they had some good stories, and
loved to have them retold, with perhaps new color, new char-
acterization, or new subtlety. And do we need to be re-
minded that originality does not consist simply in the matter
of plot? If that were the case Shakspere would suffer
much at the hands of criticism. The Knight's Tale in plot
and in many of the verses is Boccaccio's; but in its form as
we have it in the Caunterbury Tales, in its changes in char-
acterization, notably in the case of Arcite, and in its new
language, it is Chaucer's alone.

Many writers in French and Latin, whom we have not
listed, contributed to Chaucer's knowledge. The culture of
his time, from the wealth of the patristic writings to the
lyrics and folk-tales, was well digested in his reading. Cur-
rent romances and lays from the popular as well as from
literary sources appear in his stories; and information of a
scientific or pseudo-scientific character came not only from
books, but probably from the common stock of lore of his
day. Perhaps the most striking fact in regard to Chaucer's
material is that it represents so many of the different literary
types of the Middle Ages. In his works the varying forms all


appear, such as the Court of Love vision, the shorter lyric
forms, the moral exemplum, the lay, the romance (parodied
and also several times honestly attempted), the fabliau, the
mock-heroic animal epic, the allegory, the sermon, the
treatise (moral as well as philosophical), and the tales within
a framework. The result shows not only the scope of his
reading, but also how thoroughly he was a man of his time.

Online LibraryGeoffrey ChaucerSelections from Chaucer → online text (page 2 of 38)