Geoffrey Chaucer


 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

--John Masefield
 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.


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