Donald R. Howard remarks at the beginning of Chaucer: His Life, His Works, His World that one could almost believe there were “two Geoffrey Chaucers” in late fourteenth century England. One was the famous poet, author of well-known and now much-studied works such as The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400), Troilus and Criseyde (1382), The Parliament of Fowls (1380) and half a dozen more. The other was the courtier and civil servant, who is known, for example, to have been captured by the French in 1359, to have been employed in later life on a variety of missions in Spain and Italy, often important and sometimes secret, and to have been if not involved, at any rate very much present during such critical events as the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 or the long faction struggles which led to the deposition and murder of Richard II at the century’s end. Scores of surviving documents refer to civil-servant Chaucer, telling about his career, income, and connections. None of them, however, says a word about his poetry, which to the royal bureaucrats who made appointments and paid expenses was clearly of no significance. Nor does Chaucer, in his poetry, say anything about his work as a “secret agent,” whatever stimulus it may have given him. Except for a very few tantalizing references in the poetry to daily life and daily duties—vital because they confirm that the two Chaucers really were the same man—the gap between poet and courtier appears total. What Howard’s book tries to do is to bridge the gap, reconstructing Chaucer’s life and suggesting how political and personal crises did in fact affect his writing.
There is certainly an amplitude of provocative and dramatic material in Chaucer’s life. Of all English poets, he was the one who was closest, for the longest, to the political center stage. Although he was the son of a London merchant, he could in the end even claim to be related to the English king, though in a typically strained and uncertain fashion. In 1366, Chaucer married Philippa de Roet, daughter of one of the queen’s retainers. Only a few years later, his wife’s sister Katherine became the mistress of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, the son of Edward III, uncle of Richard II, and father of Henry IV. For many years, this liaison was well-known to the entire English court, and after the death of his second wife, Gaunt even went so far as to marry his long-term mistress, the mother of several of his acknowledged children.
Near the end of his life, then, Chaucer could claim to be the king’s uncle’s brother-in-law. This relationship must have been at once useful and embarrassing. In the affecting elegy known as The Book of the Duchess, written to commemorate the death of Gaunt’s first wife in 1368, Chaucer appears to be urging Gaunt to cease mourning and recover from grief. Can he have meant Gaunt to do this by seducing Katherine? Many years later, Chaucer received many marks of favor from Richard II, yet the man who deposed Richard was Gaunt’s son Henry Bolingbroke, whom Chaucer must have known from birth; in addition, the man who, in some accounts, actually murdered the deposed king in 1400 was Henry’s half brother, Sir Thomas Swynford, Gaunt’s illegitimate son by Katherine and Chaucer’s nephew.
Other aspects of Chaucer’s “official” life are as thought-provoking. When the mob stormed London during the Peasants’ Revolt, they entered by the gate over which Chaucer was actually living. They would almost certainly have killed the poet-courtier if they had caught him—he was by then a senior customs officer, almost as bad as a tax collector to the mob—but in some unknown manner he escaped. Earlier Chaucer seems to have been given tasks as varied, difficult, and responsible as persuading English mercenaries not to act against English interests in European wars and negotiating a vital loan from Florentine bankers to pay for royal campaigns. This last assignment must have been especially difficult as the Crown had ruined bankers a generation before by inventing the device of “debt repudiation.”
Closer to home, Chaucer can be seen in other documents giving evidence to a heralds’ court, being robbed by highwaymen twice in one week, and being accused of rape. That accusation is of particular curiosity and danger in that the lady complaining was the stepdaughter of Edward III’s mistress (the notoriously corrupt and influential Alice Perrers). Howard finds this last fact especially hard to square with Chaucer’s poetry, which he sees as the work of a man always sympathetic to the plight of women in a man’s world. The accusation could have been spurious, and Chaucer was never convicted, but rape is a charge on which it is...
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