At a Glance
Geoffrey Chaucer, now considered English literary royalty, did not have such lofty beginnings. He was born into a family of winemakers and merchants sometime in the 1340s. 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, and a justice of the peace—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.
Facts and Trivia
- 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) recently suggested that he was. 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, soldier, esquire, diplomat, 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 buried in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey (not even Shakespeare could claim that—he has a monument there but was buried elsewhere).
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...
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