Biography (Dictionary of World Biography: Middle Ages)
Article abstract: A great innovator and a great master of English poetry, Chaucer used his descriptive and narrative skill to express a comic vision of humanity undimmed by the passage of six centuries.
In 1386, Geoffrey Chaucer testified to being more than forty years old and to having served in a military campaign of 1359, so it is likely that he was born between 1340 and 1345, the most probable year being 1343. His parents, John and Agnes Chaucer, were London property owners; John and other members of the family were vintners, wine wholesalers, and holders of offices in the customs service. Records such as deeds, wills, and inventories suggest that fourteenth century residents of Vintry Ward near the Thames River in London lived prosperously and comfortably. Although no record of Chaucer’s schooling has been found, he would most likely have been educated, like other merchants’ sons, at a school such as the one attached to St. Paul’s Cathedral, which had in its library—and doubtless in its curriculum—works of Latin grammar and classical poetry of Vergil, Ovid, and other favorites of the mature Chaucer.
In 1357, Chaucer served in the household of Elizabeth de Burgh, Countess of Ulster, perhaps as a page. The English nobility traveled often, and the young Chaucer likely experienced trips to the country estates of other aristocrats; certainly he often expressed his fondness for the country and the beauties of nature. In 1359, the young man took part in one of the military operations of the Hundred Years’ War between England and France. Captured by the enemy near Reims, Chaucer may have seen Reims Cathedral and nearby Chartres. He was ransomed in March of 1360; later that year there is a record of his having carried documents from Calais to England for Prince Lionel, the Countess of Ulster’s husband. Undoubtedly the expedition marked his first direct contact with a culture that influenced his poetry heavily from the start.
Nothing is known for certain of Chaucer’s activities between 1360 and 1366. In the latter year, his father died. Also, Chaucer was granted a safeconduct to Navarre, perhaps as part of a diplomatic mission, perhaps for a pilgrimage (Navarre being on the direct route to the shrine of St. James of Compostela in Spain). A final event of that year was his marriage to Philippa, probably the daughter of Sir Gilles de Roet, another of whose daughters, Katherine, would marry John of Gaunt, a later patron of the poet. In 1367, Chaucer was in the household of King Edward III and may also have been studying law at the Inner Temple. Chaucer’s poetry shows familiarity with the Inns of Court, and though evidence connecting him with the Inner Temple is hearsay, the kinds of skills it taught prospective lawyers would have been useful at court and in his later official positions. Possibly Chaucer began to write poetry at this time, for anyone who could imitate the popular French courtly verse would find encouragement. The poet depicts himself as sedentary and bookish; his portrait, which was executed some years after his death, shows a grave man with wide-set eyes, a long, straight nose, and a mustache and forked beard. He looks like a man who might be trusted with a diplomatic mission, not necessarily like the possessor of the priceless sense of humor that his literary works reveal him to be.
The earliest Chaucerian poem that can be dated even approximately is The Book of the Duchess, written after the death of Blanche of Lancaster in 1368 and offering consolation, though in a whimsical way, to her widower, John of Gaunt. This 1,334-line poem exemplifies Chaucer’s characteristic interest in love as a subject and in the rhymed couplets popular in French poetry of the time. He continued to serve King Edward, and his 1372 diplomatic journey to Genoa and Florence may well have contributed significantly to his development as a poet, for the three greatest Italian writers of the century, all of great interest to Chaucer, had Florentine connections. Dante had died some fifty years earlier, but both Petrarch and Giovanni Boccaccio were living. If Chaucer, remaining in Italy several months, did not meet them, he could hardly have avoided extending his knowledge of their work. Returning early in 1373, Chaucer was again sent to Genoa later that year.
In 1374, the mayor and aldermen of London leased to Chaucer a dwelling over Aldersgate rent-free, and the king appointed him as controller of the export taxes levied on wool, sheepskins, and leather in the nearby customhouse, a post which made him responsible for receipts averaging nearly twenty-five thousand pounds per year. A line in Chaucer’s poem The House of Fame referring to his “reckonings” suggests that the work dates from this period, though whether in the middle or late 1370’s cannot be determined. Although it is in the form of a dream vision, as had been The Book of the Duchess, The House of Fame displays greater technical mastery. The narrator falls asleep and dreams of being in a temple of the goddess Venus, on the walls of which he sees representations of famous legendary events, particularly those dealing with love, such as Aeneas’ encounter with Dido in Vergil’s Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.). Emerging from the temple, the narrator meets an eagle with golden feathers that seizes him in its claws and soars high into the air. The eagle proves to be friendly, however, and very talkative, promising to take his prisoner to the House of Fame, where he can learn more about love than he has ever learned from his books. Upon arrival, he discovers the House of Fame to be a large, chaotic, puzzling place. He is about to meet a “man of great authority” who will presumably interpret the confusion; then the poem breaks off, after 2,158 lines.
In the later 1370’s, Chaucer made several trips to the European continent, including another to Italy in 1378, after which he seems not to have gone abroad until after his customs duties ended in 1386. During the interim he almost surely wrote several other major works. The Parliament of Fowls (1380), another dream vision, in honor of Valentine’s Day, has been...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry: British, Irish, & Commonwealth Poets)
For a medieval poet, much is known about Geoffrey Chaucer’s life, his association with the English court, his diplomatic activity on the Continent, and his public appointments. He was born in the early 1340’s, the son of John Chaucer, a London wine merchant. He spent time in the military, serving with the English forces in France, where he was captured in 1359; he was ransomed in 1360. Around 1366, he married Philippa Roet and probably fathered two sons. He served the crown most of his life. Originally (c. 1357), he was connected to the household of Princess Elizabeth, who was married to Prince Lionel, the son of King Edward III. He also served another son of the king, John of Gaunt, the duke of Lancaster, who later married Chaucer’s sister-in-law, Katherine Swynford. Chaucer’s public service survived the death of Edward III and the tumultuous reign and deposition of Richard II. It included numerous diplomatic missions to the Continent, his appointment as controller of customs and subsidy for the port of London (1374-1386), his service as a justice of the peace and member of Parliament for Kent (1386), his demanding duties as clerk of the King’s Works (1389-1391), and, finally, his appointment after 1391 as deputy forester of North Petherton royal forest in Somerset. Chaucer lived in London, Greenwich, and Calais, the French port then controlled by the English. In 1399, he leased a house in the garden of Westminster Abbey. He probably died on October 25, 1400, and was buried in the nearby abbey, the first of a long line of English authors to rest in the Poets’ Corner.
These biographical details provide little evidence of Chaucer’s position as a poet, although in a general way they do cast light on his poetry. Chaucer’s association with courtly circles must have provided both the inspiration for and the occasion...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Short Fiction, Second Revised Edition)
Household records seem to indicate that as a boy, Geoffrey Chaucer served as a page for the Countess of Ulster, wife of Edward III’s son Lionel, Duke of Clarence. Chaucer undoubtedly learned French and Latin as a youth, to which languages he later added Italian. Well versed in both science and pseudoscience, Chaucer was familiar with physics, medicine, astronomy, and alchemy. Spending most of his life in government service, he made many trips abroad on diplomatic missions and served at home in such important capacities as Comptroller of Customs for the Port of London, Justice of the Peace for the County of Kent, and Clerk of the King’s Works, a position that made him responsible for the maintenance of certain public structures....
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Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
While historians have been able to reconstruct much about the life of Geoffrey Chaucer (CHAW-sur) from the 493 documents, mostly office records, that mention him, these documents cast light only on the public life of a prominent civil servant; not one refers to him as an author. That is not to say that he was not recognized or appreciated as a poet by his contemporaries: In Chaucer’s day, poetry was considered to be a leisure pastime of talented men, a valuable skill, but not in itself a career. Chaucer, too, probably thought of himself primarily in terms of his public duties rather than his poetry.
The exact date and even year of Chaucer’s birth are unknown; the year 1340 has become traditionally accepted, but 1343...
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Biography (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Geoffrey Chaucer was recognized even in his own time as one of the greatest of English poets and is now regarded as the foremost writer in English literature before the time of William Shakespeare. The outstanding characterisics of Chaucer’s work include its diversity—covering a spectrum of genres extending from pious saints’ lives to bawdy fabliaux, from romance to tragedy—and its consistently humorous quality, allowing Chaucer to combine the serious treatment of moral and philosophical questions with a pervasively comic and entertaining style. His masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales, has proven to be one of the truly inexhaustible classics of world literature, appealing in new ways to each new generation of...
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Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
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.
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IntroductionNow considered English Literature royalty, Geoffrey Chaucer did not have such lofty beginnings. He was born into a family of wine makers and merchants sometime in the 1340s, and although he spent most of his life in and around the court, he had to work a succession of jobs—as a page, a soldier, a diplomat, a justice of the peace, and others—to support himself. Prior to Chaucer’s writings, however, most texts in England were composed in Latin (the language of the church) or French (the language of the nobility). Chaucer decided to write in the language of the people—medieval English—and thus changed the history of literature. He was a prolific author, penning many stories and poems over the course of his lifetime, but he is best known for The Canterbury Tales, a collection of wise, ironic, funny, and bawdy stories that still connect with readers today.
- In 1357, Chaucer was sent by his family to live in the house of a countess. He stayed in and around the court until he died some thirty-three years later, between the ages of 55 and 60.
- Was Chaucer murdered? Terry Jones (medieval scholar and former Monty Python member) has recently suggested that he had been. It’s an interesting theory (and perhaps even a probable one), but at this point most scholars seem to consider it just a rumor.
- Think you’ve held a lot of jobs? Chaucer worked as a page, a soldier, an esquire, a diplomat, a customs controller, justice of the peace, member of Parliament, Clerk of the Works of Westminster, Commissioner of Walls and Ditches, and Deputy Forester of the Royal Forest.
- Besides The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer is also known for “The Book of the Duchess,” “Troilus and Criseyde,” “The Legend of Good Women,” and numerous other short and long poems.
- His death sparked a tradition: Chaucer was the first poet to be buried in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey (not even Shakespeare could claim that—he has a monument there but was buried elsewhere).
Geoffrey Chaucer came from a financially secure family that owned ample wine vineyards but held no title, and so from birth he was limited in his capacity for social growth. His date of birth is uncertain but is assumed to be around 1340–1345. While he was still a child in London, it became clear that Chaucer was a brilliant scholar, and he was sent to the prestigious St. Paul’s Almonry for his education. In 1357, he rose in society by taking a position in the royal court of Elizabeth, Countess of Ulster. His duties as a squire in court would have included those that are usually associated with domestic help: making beds, carrying candles, helping the gentleman of the house dress. Chaucer was given an education in his association with the household, and he met some of England’s exalted royalty.
He left in 1359 to join the army to fight the French in the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453). Captured near Rheims, he was ransomed the following year and returned to being a squire. Being intelligent and witty, he became increasingly valuable at court for the entertainment of his poetry. By 1367, he was the valet for the King himself, and that same year, he married a woman whose rank added to his social standing: Philippa de Roet, the sister to Catherine of Swynford, the third wife of John of Gaunt. John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, was later to take over the responsibility for ruling England when his father, Edward III, became too senile to rule before a successor was crowned.
As a valued and trusted member of the court, Chaucer was sent on several diplomatic missions, giving him a rare opportunity to see Italy and France. The influences of these languages can be traced in his poetry, and the worldliness of travel affected his storytelling ability. His political influence grew with a series of appointments: to Comptroller of taxes on wools, skins, and hides at the Port of London in 1374; Comptroller of petty customs in 1382; Justice of the Peace for the County of Kent in 1385; and Knight of the Shire in 1386.
In December of 1386, he was deprived of all of this political influence when his patron, John of Gaunt, left the country on a military expedition for Spain and the Duke of Gloucester replaced him. It is assumed that it was during this period of unemployment that Chaucer planned out and started writing The Canterbury Tales. When John of Gaunt returned to England in 1389, he was given a new government post, and Chaucer lived a prosperous life from then on.
There is no record of his progress on The Canterbury Tales. The plan that he laid out in the Prologue was left unfinished when he died on October 25, 1400. He was buried in Westminster Abbey and was the first of the writers to be entombed there in the area known as the Poets’ Corner.