Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 694
Chute’s intent in Geoffrey Chaucer of England was to make Chaucer and his work more accessible to the twentieth century reader, especially because Middle English, the language in which Chaucer originally wrote, can be very intimidating. Thematically, Chute focuses upon Chaucer as a humorist and a kindly observer of human nature, a gentle satirist. She also emphasizes his role as a poetic innovator, as the individual who may have invented the iambic pentameter couplet, and certainly as the poet whose choice of English over French or Latin for his poetry was profoundly influential in the acceptance of English as a language suitable for the artistic expression of a culture.
Because Chute’s method was to flesh out the facts of Chaucer’s life with extensive forays into cultural history, the period itself evokes a theme. Chute sees the fourteenth century as strikingly like the twentieth century in many respects, “a thrusting, excitable, anxious century, racked by wars and labor disputes and high taxes and dangerous new ideas.” She emphasizes the resemblances between the Middle Ages and modern times without distorting the essential otherness of that era.
Although this book was originally intended for an adult audience and initially enjoyed its greatest success among adults, Chute is also a children’s author. Her readable style and, possibly, the familiarity of her name to children have increasingly drawn a young adult audience to this book. For generations, it has introduced many teenagers to Chaucer, his poetry, and the Middle Ages. The person who has never read anything about either Chaucer or the medieval period can enjoy this book with a specialist’s knowledge and emerge from the reading with a very good grasp of what “medieval” and “Chaucerian” really mean.
The lasting success of Geoffrey Chaucer of England owes much to Chute’s love for her subject. Her enthusiasm is contagious, and she does much to redress the wrongs done to the Middle Ages in commonly held modern beliefs. For example, many modern readers may think of the medieval people as virtually illiterate; Chute points out that the literacy level was much higher than is popularly believed and also that poverty was no barrier to receiving an education. Notions that women of all classes had no legal rights are quickly rectified: Women of the growing urban middle class in particular had virtually the same legal rights as a man and only a female serf or a female aristocrat would have been seen as commodities to be traded as part of a business transaction.
Chute’s sense of Chaucer’s character and art, however, has not survived the passage of time as well as her historical sense has. Chaucer the jolly observer of his fellows, the flippant humorist, was indeed the Chaucer commonly seen by scholars through the 1940’s. More recent scholarship, however, while recognizing Chaucer’s skillful characterizations and comic powers, also perceives a biting quality to his satire and a grimmer view of the human capacity for evil. “The Merchant’s Tale,” for example, is less purely delightful to modern sensibilities than to Chute’s. Also, although the facts of Chaucer’s life as Chute reports them are accurate as far as modern scholarship knows, the interpretation of this information has changed. For example, Chute, following Chaucer scholarship at that time, considers that the release given to Chaucer by Cecily Chaumpaigne in 1380, freeing him from any sort of legal action in the case of Cecily’s raptus (a term that could mean either abduction or rape), signifies only that Chaucer was involved in some sort of abduction suit. Modern scholarship is less dismissive of this incident, and a fair amount of debate about the nature of Chaucer’s involvement remains unresolved.
Although scholarship has moved away somewhat from the “Chaucer-poet-of-common-man” vision so strongly endorsed by Chute, no one can deny the continuing validity of the author’s estimation of his importance to English poetry. While her interpretations of the poems themselves may be at variance with some modern critical insights, her book still inspires many to read Chaucer’s poetry. Geoffrey Chaucer of England is a delightful introduction to the poet and his times.
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