Geoffrey Chaucer Biography

Biography (History of the World: The Middle Ages)

ph_0111201529-Chaucer.jpgGeoffrey Chaucer Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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.

Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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 thought to refer to the negotiations involving Anne of Bohemia and her suitors, one of whom, Richard II, had succeeded Edward III upon the latter’s death in 1377. Regardless of whether a political meaning is intended in Chaucer’s poem, wherein three male eagles argue their cases for marriage to a young female before a court of birds presided over by Dame Nature, it remains a charming poem. Another major endeavor was Boece (1380), a prose translation of one the most widely influential of all medieval philosophical works, Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy (c. 523). Chaucer’s knowledge of Boethius’ thought also permeates Troilus and Criseyde (1382), which some critics consider his masterpiece. Based on a story of two lovers frequently told in the Middle Ages, Chaucer’s poem owes most to Boccaccio’s Il Filostrato (1335-1336?), but the English poet exhibits great originality in his depictions of its three main characters: a Trojan prince, the widowed daughter of a Trojan priest, and the latter’s uncle, Pandarus. The narrative, told in five books comprising 8,239 lines, or 1,177 rime royal stanzas, has elements of romance, comedy, tragedy, and what the modern world would call the psychological novel.

Chaucer’s last important poem before The Canterbury Tales is called The Legend of Good Women, and it probably dates from around 1386, by which time he had moved to Kent and was in fact representing the shire in Parliament as that body was beginning to assert itself against the young King Richard II. The Legend of Good Women purports to have been written at the request of “Queen Alceste” (possibly a representation of Richard’s Queen Anne) to atone for Chaucer’s negative portrayal of Criseyde by recounting the stories of “good women.” (Whether that was Chaucer’s true intention, however, is called into question by the work’s satirical overtones.) Chaucer left the work unfinished, but the prologue, which exists in two versions, contains a much-admired description of Chaucer’s favorite season, spring.

Indications are that Chaucer wrote the “General Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales in the late 1380’s, a period of change in his life. He was replaced at the customhouse, he made his last trip to the Continent (to Calais in 1387), and his wife, Philippa, died, presumably also in 1387. Twice in 1388 he was sued for debt. In the midst of these troubles, however, he was planning and beginning to carry out his most ambitious poem, the fruit of a lifetime of shrewd observation of human nature and a carefully honed narrative gift. In 1389, King Richard II appointed him to another responsible position. As clerk of the king’s works, Chaucer oversaw the construction and maintenance of royal residences, hunting lodges and preserves, and such facilities as the Tower of London, which was not only a residence but also a fortress, armory, prison, mint, and storehouse for records. Although he had assistants, his duties were now more extensive than they had been in the customhouse. Two years later, he relinquished this task for another as deputy forester of the royal forest in Somerset, which may have allowed him more time to work on The Canterbury Tales.

Chaucer’s last years were marked by a power struggle at court, with Henry of Lancaster triumphing over Richard and forcing his abdication in 1399. Sometime after Henry’s coronation in October of 1399, Chaucer addressed to the new king a short poem, “The Complaint of Chaucer to His Purse,” the last work known to have come from his pen. Chaucer is often ironic, and it is difficult to determine how seriously to take his lack of funds, but clearly he depended on the royal goodwill for his livelihood throughout his career. He may well have continued to work on The Canterbury Tales, which he left incomplete at his death, but what he left stands as one of the most substantial and brilliant literary works in English.

Late in 1399, Chaucer took a long-term lease on a house near Westminster Abbey, but on October 25, 1400, he died, and as a tenant and parishioner of the Abbey was permitted burial there. Although no one realized it at the time, his entombment marked the beginning of Poets’ Corner at the Abbey.


Not because of his poetry but because of the commercial prominence and social connections of the Chaucer family, Geoffrey Chaucer is the first English poet for whom something like a full biography can be pieced together. Because he wrote in the dialect of London, eventually the standard dialect of English, Renaissance critics could, with some difficulty, read his poetry and recognize his genius, whereas excellent poets such as William Langland (c. 1330-c. 1386) and the anonymous author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (second half of the fourteenth century), whose dialects proved more troublesome, fell into neglect. Although literary historians now recognize the excellence of these contemporaries of Chaucer, he continues to be the great favorite, indeed the only English poet to be read and enjoyed continuously for six hundred years.

Chaucer’s practice established accentual syllabic meter as the norm of English verse for five centuries thereafter. Beginning with the four-stress lines of The Book of the Duchess and The House of Fame, which imitated the French poets of his time, Chaucer developed the five-stress line which became the backbone of the major poetry of William Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, William Wordsworth, and many others. He appears to be the deviser of the rhymed pentameter couplet and of the seven-line stanza, which became known as rime royal. He filled those verse forms with a wide variety of narrative types from the rough-and-tumble of the fabliau in “The Miller’s Tale” to the serious romance as exemplified by “The Knight’s Tale.” His descriptions of the assembled Canterbury pilgrims bring alive a variety of late medieval types, from gentlefolk to artisans. The modern reader readily identifies Chaucer’s fourteenth century men and women with their modern counterparts. Everyone has known someone like the hearty and assertive but parsimonious proprietor of the Tabard Inn, Harry Bailey; or like that brazen confidence man, the Pardoner; or like the fastidious, self-indulgent Prioress. In the Wife of Bath, Chaucer created one of the great comic characters in literature, larger than life, an imperious feminist, outrageous, but fiercely and somehow admirably resolute.

From his earliest work, Chaucer radiated good humor, boundless love of nature, and keen interest in people, but he worked away from the dream visions favored by poets of his time to the sharp daylight world of the Canterbury pilgrimage. Incorporating social criticism into his work, Chaucer nevertheless accepted society with all of its defects; as a dutiful Christian who saw this life as a pilgrimage to a greater and eternal life, he still cherished this world and its denizens, including its moral wanderers. John Dryden’s reaction in 1700 still applies: “Here is God’s plenty.”


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.

Brewer, Derek. Chaucer. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1973. Intended “for people with literary taste but not necessarily with any specialized knowledge,” this relatively short biography judiciously interprets the somewhat sparse and sometimes puzzling facts of the poet’s life. Though undocumented, this book is the work of a respected Chaucerian scholar who writes with grace and sensitivity.

Brewer, Derek. Chaucer in His Time. London: Nelson, 1973. This volume may profitably be read as a companion to the biography above. The focus is on the way life must have seemed to Chaucer, not on his life and works as such, although the most important facts and accomplishments are recapitulated. Revealingly illustrated.

Chute, Marchette Gaylord. Geoffrey Chaucer of England. New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1946, rev. ed. 1962. This general reader’s 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 background information such a reader will invariably need. The author discusses the poet’s literary achievement but is more successful at conveying the flow of his life.

Coghill, Nevill. The Poet Chaucer. New York: Oxford University Press, 1949, 2d ed. 1967. Coghill’s book interweaves three biographical chapters with discussions of Chaucer’s poetry, emphasizing matters which influenced his writing and omitting details of his official life.

Crow, Martin M., and Virginia E. Leland. “Chaucer’s Life.” In The Riverside Chaucer. Edited by Larry D. Benson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 3d ed. 1987. Part of the front material in this impressive new edition, this biographical essay briefly but authoritatively presents the principal known facts of Chaucer’s life. It will serve the purposes of the reader for whom accuracy and conciseness are more important than atmosphere.

Crow, Martin M., and Clair C. Olson, eds. Chaucer Life-Records. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1966. Not a biography but a compiliation of all known records pertaining directly to the poet, this basic reference work will give the student of Chaucer an opportunity to experience directly the materials on which any responsible life must be based.

Gardner, John Champlin. 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.

Geoffrey Chaucer Biography (British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

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 of his early poetry. It is certain that he wrote the Book of the Duchess to commemorate the death of Blanche, the wife of John of Gaunt. He probably also composed The Legend of Good Women for a courtly patron (the queen, according to John Lydgate) and read Troilus and Criseyde to a courtly audience, as he is portrayed doing in a manuscript illustration. In more general terms, his early poetry reflects the French literary taste of the English court.

Chaucer’s public career, furthermore, reveals that he was far from being the withdrawn versifier of artificial courtly tastes. His duties at the port of London and as chief supervisor of royal building projects suggest that he was a practical man of the world. Certainly these responsibilities brought him into contact with a wide variety of individuals whose manners and outlooks must have contrasted sharply with those of members of the court. In the past, such scholars as J. M. Manly searched historical records to identify specific individuals with whom Chaucer dealt in an attempt to locate models for the portraits of the pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales. Like any artist, Chaucer was no doubt influenced by those with whom he worked, but such research gives a false impression of Chaucer’s characters. Even his most “realistic” creations are often composites of traditional portraits. Nevertheless, the studies of J. A. W. Bennett (Chaucer at Oxford and at Cambridge, 1974) show that careful attention to the records of fourteenth century England can enlighten modern understanding of the social, intellectual, and cultural trends of Chaucer’s time and thus provide a setting for his life and work.

One aspect of Chaucer’s public career must certainly have influenced his poetry. Repeatedly from 1360 to 1387, Chaucer undertook royal missions on the Continent. During these journeys, he visited Flanders, Paris, and perhaps even Spain. More important, in 1373 and again in 1378, he visited Italy. These trips to what in the fourteenth century was the center of European art brought him into contact with a sophisticated culture. They may have also introduced him to the work of the great Florentine poets, for Chaucer’s poetry after these visits to Italy reflects the influence of Dante, Petrarch, and particularly Giovanni Boccaccio. Finally, the diplomatic missions suggest certain features of Chaucer’s personality that lie behind his poetry, although these features seem deliberately masked by his self-portraits in the poetry. Of middle-class origin, expert in languages, and trusted at court, Chaucer as a diplomat sent on at least seven missions to the Continent must have been not only convivial and personable—the usual view of the poet—but also self-assured, intelligent, and a keen judge of character.

Geoffrey Chaucer Biography (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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. He married Philippa de Roet, probably in 1367, and he may have had two daughters and two sons, although there is speculation concerning the paternity of some of those children believed to have been Chaucer’s. Since Chaucer’s career was his service to the monarchy, his poetry was evidently an avocation which did not afford him a living.

Geoffrey Chaucer Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical 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 may be a more accurate guess. He was probably born in London, where his parents, John and Agnes, held property. His father was a prosperous wine merchant with business ties to the court of King Edward III.

Despite his middle-class origins, he was to have a distinguished public career as a courtier, soldier, diplomat, and civil servant. No records of his early childhood or schooling have survived, but in 1357 Chaucer received an appointment to serve as a page in the household of Elizabeth de Burgh, countess of Ulster and wife of Edward III’s son Lionel, duke of Clarence. Chaucer apparently went along with Prince Lionel’s forces when England invaded France in 1359, was captured by the French, and then ransomed in 1360.

No direct evidence survives concerning Chaucer’s activities between 1360 and 1366, but Thomas Speght, who edited Chaucer’s works in 1598, claimed to have seen records establishing that Chaucer was studying among the lawyers of the Inner Temple, one of the four great Inns of Court. As expensive academies for the sons of rich or noble families, the inns were more convenient than the universities for a grounding in common law because of their proximity to the law courts in Westminster and also because common law was studied in three languages, English, French, and Latin, at a time when only Latin was used at the universities. A period of study at one of the inns would account for the training in record keeping and legal procedures that would have been considered prerequisite for many of the posts that Chaucer later held.

In 1366 he married Philippa de Roet, a woman well above his own social class, the daughter of a knight and sister of Katherine Swynford. (Swynford was to become the mistress and eventually the third wife of Edward III’s son, John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, who would become one of the most powerful men in England.) About 1367, Chaucer began working as a member of the household of Edward III and was soon advanced from the status of yeoman to that of esquire (just below a knight). He apparently had no specific duties and may have been valuable to the household in part for his storytelling abilities. He was engaged in four diplomatic missions to France between 1366 and 1370, and an extended mission to Italy in 1372 and 1373. In 1374, having been made financially independent with a yearly grant and a rent-free house, he left the royal household and became controller of customs for the port of London. It was the first of a series of responsible administrative positions that he would hold through the reigns of three monarchs—a tribute both to his competence and to his ability to remain on good terms with the members of opposing factions.

Chaucer’s busy life in public affairs was apparently never a serious obstacle to his creative work. Indeed, most of his poetry seems to have been written during the years of his most active public service, and relatively little after his retirement. Since Chaucer’s works were all written before the introduction of the printing press into England and existed only in his manuscripts and copies made of them by scribes, there are no exact dates of “publication” of any of his works. Dating the works is further complicated by evidence that he left several of them unfinished and worked on others over long periods of time. Still, various kinds of evidence suggest that, by this stage of his career, he had translated much of the French Roman de la rose (eleventh century) into English as the Romaunt of the Rose (c. 1370), had written several short poems, and also had written the first of his “major minor poems,” Book of the Duchess (c. 1370), an elegy almost certainly written to commemorate the death of Blanche of Lancaster, the first wife of John of Gaunt. The date of her death, probably in 1368 or 1369, has allowed literary historians to assign a fairly secure date to this particular work, although even in this case it may be that the poem was written well after the event.

Chaucer was sent again to France to conduct peace negotiations several times in 1376 and 1377. One of the goals of these talks may have been to arrange a marriage between ten-year-old Richard, heir to the English throne, and eleven-year-old Marie, daughter of the king of France. It has been suggested that the second of Chaucer’s major minor poems, Parlement of Foules (1380), satirizes these discussions and was written during this period, but the date and occasion of the poem have been much disputed. He continued to hold positions of influence when Richard II came to the throne in 1377, traveling to Italy again in 1378 to negotiate with the ruler of Milan.

In or around 1380, Chaucer completed his translation of De consolatione philosophiae (c. 523; The Consolation of Philosophy, late ninth century), by the Roman philosopher Boethius, from Latin into English. This translation, known usually by the title Boece (c. 1380), would have provided access to a work of great literary, as well as philosophical, value for those who could not read Latin, and it is also seen as having had a strong influence on Chaucer’s own ideas. In 1382, he published Troilus and Criseyde, a poem that includes discussions of Boethian ideas about free will and determinism. In 1385, Chaucer was allowed to appoint a permanent deputy to handle his duties in the customs office, and in 1386 he was elected to Parliament, resigning the office of controller of customs shortly thereafter. The period between 1386 and 1389 seems to have been relatively quiet, and it is thought that during these years he wrote the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400), as well as several of the individual tales themselves. He was appointed to the important post of clerk of the king’s works in 1389, in charge of the maintenance and supervision of several royal forests, parks, and public buildings, including Westminster Palace and the Tower of London, until 1391, when he was appointed deputy forester of one of the royal forests, still a responsible position, but far less demanding than his clerkship had been. About this time, he must have written the fourth of his major minor poems, The Legend of Good Women (1380-1386), and A Treatise on the Astrolabe (1387-1392), a technical manual on the use of the astrolabe, a scientific instrument used for astronomical observations, which Chaucer says he wrote for his ten-year-old son, Lewis. When Henry IV came to the throne in 1399, he doubled Chaucer’s annuity, a sign of his continued favor with the court. Chaucer’s tomb in London’s Westminster Abbey, which marks the first burial in what has come to be called Poets’ Corner, gives the date of his death as October 25, 1400.

Geoffrey Chaucer Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical 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 readers.

Geoffrey Chaucer Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical 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.

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.

Geoffrey Chaucer Biography (Poetry for Students)

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...

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