Geoffrey Chaucer Chaucer, Geoffrey (Literary Criticism (1400-1800)) - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Geoffrey Chaucer 1340?-1400

English poet, prose writer, and translator.

The following entry presents discussions of gender issues and female sexuality in Chaucer's works. See also Geoffrey Chaucer Poetry Criticism and The Wife of Bath's Prologue and Tale Criticism.

Chaucer is commonly hailed as “the father of English poetry,” who in such works as his masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales, significantly contributed to the development of English as a literary language. The “General Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales has often been praised as “the most perfect poem in the English language.” The Canterbury Tales and his other notable works—including The Book of the Duchess, The Parlement of Foules, The House of Fame, and Troilus and Criseyde—reflect Chaucer's familiarity with French, English, Italian, and Latin literature, and demonstrate his consummate mastery of a variety of literary genres, styles, and techniques. His poems continue to draw the interest and praise of readers centuries after his death and are among the most acclaimed works of the English-speaking world. The originality of his language and style, the vivacity of his humor, and the depth of his understanding are continually cited as reasons for the permanence of his works.

Biographical Information

Chaucer was born sometime in the 1340s into a family of London-based vintners. He spent most of his adult life as a civil servant, serving under three successive kings—Edward III, Richard II, and Henry IV—and much of what is known of his life is derived from various household records. In 1357 he served as a page to Elizabeth, the Countess of Ulster and wife of Prince Lionel, the third son of Edward III. By 1359 he was serving in Edward's army in France and was captured during the unsuccessful siege of Rheims. The king contributed to his ransom, and he shortly thereafter entered the king's service. By 1366 he had married Philippa Pan, who had also been in the employment of the Countess of Ulster. Around this time Chaucer appears to have established a connection with John of Gaunt, Edward III's fourth son, who may have become Chaucer's patron; the fortunes of the two traced parallel courses over the next three decades, rising and falling in tandem. Chaucer traveled to Spain in 1366, on the first of a series of diplomatic missions throughout Europe. After a 1373 visit to Italy he returned to England and was appointed a customs official for the Port of London; he was given additional customs responsibilities in 1382. By 1385 he was living in Kent, where he was appointed a justice of the peace. Although he became a member of Parliament in 1386, that year marked the beginning of a difficult period for Chaucer. He either resigned or was removed from his post as a customs official. His wife died by 1387; additionally, he was not returned to Parliament. Chaucer's fortunes rose again when John of Gaunt returned from the continent in 1389 and the young King Richard II regained control of the government from the aristocracy, which had for a time been the dominant political force in England. Chaucer was appointed a clerk of the king's works but was removed from this office in 1391. Records suggest that by 1396 Chaucer had established a close relationship with John of Gaunt's son, the Earl of Derby, who as King Henry IV later confirmed Chaucer's grants from Richard and added an additional annuity in 1399. Chaucer then leased a house in the garden of Westminster Abbey where he lived for the rest of his life. He died on October 25, 1400, and was buried in Westminster Abbey, an honor traditionally reserved for royalty. His tomb became the center of what is now known as Poet's Corner.

Major Works

Chaucer's first major work, The Book of the Duchess, depicts the author's attempt to soothe the grief of John of Gaunt, whose wife, Blanch, died in 1368. The work has parallels in French courtly poetry but transforms the conventions of the genre, converting the contrived sentimentality of the French models' imagery of dying for love into a poignant depiction of the death of a beautiful woman and the grief of the Knight who mourns her. Although the chronology of Chaucer's works is uncertain, he likely next composed two “dream-vision” poems: The Parlement of Foules and The House of Fame. Both works are thought to comment on the efforts to arrange a suitable marriage for Richard II. The Parlement of Foules, believed to have been prompted by the unsuccessful attempt to betroth Richard to the daughter of Charles V of France, is an allegorical debate about the nature of love. The House of Fame celebrates the betrothal of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia in 1380 and examines the function of poets, the nature of poetry, and the unreliability of fame. Many critics long considered Chaucer's next major work, Troilus and Criseyde, Chaucer's finest poetic effort. An adaptation of Boccaccio's II Filostrato, this work, set against the backdrop of the Trojan War, is characterized by a symmetry, decorum, and metaphorical quality lacking Boccaccio's version.

The Canterbury Tales, the work now generally regarded as Chaucer's masterpiece, was probably begun around 1386. The work is organized as a collection of stories told by a group of pilgrims on their way to the shrine of Thomas à Beckett in Canterbury. Within this overall framework are ten parts, which appear in different order in different manuscripts. Many critics therefore believe that Chaucer never realized his final plan for the work. The work opens with a General Prologue, introducing the pilgrims with short, vivid sketches. Twenty-four tales follow, interspersed with short dramatic “links” presenting lively exchanges among the pilgrims. The tales are highly diverse in style, subject matter, and theme; they include courtly romance, allegory, sermon, fable, and sometimes a mixture of genres. Each story generally reflects the social class and personality of the teller, leading many to consider The Canterbury Tales as a whole a realistic representation of the vitality and the multifaceted nature of Chaucer's world.

Critical Reception

Chaucer's depiction in his works of a variety of female figures in varying lights and contexts has led to much modern criticism focused on issues of sexuality and gender. In his study of Chaucer's narrative technique, E. Talbot Donaldson focuses on the stories of several female characters. Donaldson argues that while each of Chaucer's (male) narrators seems to provide a unified point of view, each actually describes things “simultaneously from several distinct points of view,” permitting the reader to see potentials in the women that the narrator appears not to see, “preoccupied as he is with the ladies' outward beauty.” R. Howard Bloch approaches the gender relationships in Chaucer's work by emphasizing medieval assumptions regarding female sexuality. Exploring the apparent disparities in “The Physician's Tale” between the characters' actions and motivations, particularly in respect to Virginia, Bloch explains that the religious conception of virginity at the time was such that a virgin ceased to be considered pure if she were even looked at with desire. The primary motivating moment in “The Physician's Tale,” is, therefore, the moment Appius first sees and desires Virginia. S. H. Rigby similarly grounds his investigation of Chaucer's representation of women in medieval attitudes concerning women. Rigby points out that many medieval writers either placed women on a “pedestal” of virginity or condemned them to the “pit” as sexual predators or temptresses. In examining how Chaucer's heroines fit into these contemporary views, Rigby contends that while “The Wife of Bath's Tale” may seem to challenge such misogynist notions, the tale should in fact be read ironically. However, Rigby maintains, Chaucer does offer a balanced view of women in such works as “The Tale of Melibee” and “The Parson's Tale,” where he presents women as “rational creatures with the potential to offer moral guidance to their husbands and who [have] a worthy respected part to play in society.”

The Legend of Good Women has been the subject of a pair of recent studies on gender issues. Rather than a work about women, Elaine Tuttle Hansen argues, the Legend is actually more about men and how they are “feminized.” The legends Chaucer discusses, Hansen shows, includes those with literary heroes (Pyramus and Antony) who suggest the difficulty in attaining and maintaining manhood. Hansen states that the remaining heroes are trapped, “like women, in the plots of other men.” David Wallace centers his study of The Legend of Good Women on the political context of Chaucer's world. Highlighting the parallels between Chaucer's work and that of Boccaccio and Petrarch, who similarly depicted the lives of ancient and classical figures, Wallace contends that Chaucer was trapped between his duties as a poet and a as political subject. Whereas Petrarch dealt with this conflict by speaking from a number of “feminized” positions, Wallace argues, Chaucer chose to position an “eloquent wife” between himself and the dominating masculine ruler of his world.

Other critics have focused on the relationship between language and gender issues in Chaucer's poetry. Carolyn Dinshaw argues that for Chaucer literary activity was always a gendered activity. She explores the relationship between the control of language and masculine power in the patriarchal society depicted in Chaucer's poetry. Similarly, Priscilla Martin examines the way silence and spoken language relate to gender and power in Chaucer's work. Martin demonstrates how, in Chaucer's time, feminine speech was connected to original sin and was often equated with “improper” female behavior. Chaucer's understanding of such issues, Martin argues, allowed him to “transcend” the boundaries of gender.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Romaunt of the Rose [translation of Guillaume de Lorris's Roman de la Rose] (poetry) circa 1360s

The Book of the Duchess (poetry) circa 1368-69

The House of Fame (poetry) circa 1378-81

The Parlement of Foules (poetry) circa 1378-81

Boecius de consolacione philosophies [translation of Boethius's De consolatione philosophiae] (prose) circa 1380s

Troylus and Criseyde [adaptation of Boccaccio's Il Filostrato] (poetry) circa 1382-86

The Legend of Good Women (poetry) circa 1386

The Canterbury Tales (poetry) circa 1386-1400...

(The entire section is 539 words.)

E. Talbot Donaldson (essay date 1970)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “The Masculine Narrator and Four Women of Style,” in Speaking of Chaucer, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1970, pp. 46-64.

[In the following essay, Donaldson examines the way in which Chaucer “simultaneously” describes events from a number of different viewpoints while apparently seeing them from a singular point of view. In particular, Donaldson focuses on four of the women who become the object of the narrator's discussion: Emily (“The Knight's Tale”), May (“The Merchant's Tale”), Criseyde (Troilus and Criseyde), and the Prioress (“The Prioress's Tale”).]

Not long ago an American Chaucerian harshly reprimanded those modern critics...

(The entire section is 6989 words.)

R. Howard Bloch (essay date 1989)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Chaucer's Maiden's Head: ‘The Physician's Tale’ and the Poetics of Virginity,” in Representations, No. 28, Fall, 1989, pp. 113-28.

[In the following essay, Bloch points out that apparent discrepancies exist between the motivation and actions of the characters in Chaucer's “The Physician's Tale.” The key to making sense of such disparity, Bloch maintains, is understanding how the character Virginia's virginity would have been understood by medieval readers. Bloch explains how the Church Fathers of the time would have viewed the story, noting that once Virginia is looked upon with desire by Appius, she ceases to be a virgin.]

It is hard not to be...

(The entire section is 11038 words.)

Carolyn Dinshaw (essay date 1989)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Introduction to Chaucer's Sexual Poetics, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1989, pp. 3-27.

[In the following essay, Dinshaw maintains that in his works Chaucer figuratively associates literary activity with the human body. This association, argues Dinshaw, may be seen in the poem “Adam Scriveyn,” as well as in a number of Chaucer's other works. Dinshaw further contends that for Chaucer all literary activity is gendered, and that the characters in his works who control language are associated with masculine power in patriarchal society.]

Adam scriveyn, if ever it thee bifalle
Boece or Troylus for to wryten newe,
Under thy long lokkes thou most have the...

(The entire section is 17640 words.)

Priscilla Martin (essay date 1990)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Sex, Discourse and Silence,” in Chaucer's Women: Nuns, Wives and Amazons, Macmillan, 1990, pp. 218-30.

[In the following essay, Martin assesses the way in which Chaucer's heroines use both speech and silence to their advantage. Additionally, Martin demonstrates the correlation between the biblical archetypes of Eve and Mary—as representatives of “improper” and “proper” female behavior—and Chaucer's heroines, such as the Wife of Bath and the Prioress.]

In felaweshipe wel koude she laughe and carpe

CT [Canterbury Tales] I 474

In the “General Prologue” we are told that the Wife of Bath laughs and...

(The entire section is 5918 words.)

Elaine Tuttle Hansen (essay date 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: Introduction to Chaucer and the Fictions of Gender, University of California Press, 1992, pp. 1-25.

[In the following essay, Hansen analyzes the “feminization” of men in Chaucer's Legend of Good Women. Hansen contends that Legend is more about men than it is about women, and that in it Chaucer emphasizes a sense of “feminine absence and masculine anxiety.”]


A decade or so ago, my emerging interest in what it might mean to approach Chaucer from a feminist perspective took me to a poem that seemed to focus most exclusively on images of the female: the Legend of Good Women....

(The entire section is 10565 words.)

S. H. Rigby (essay date 1996)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Misogynist versus Feminist Chaucer,” in Chaucer in Context: Society, Allegory and Gender, Manchester University Press, 1996, pp. 116-63.

[In the following essay, Rigby offers a study of Chaucer's attitude toward women in the Canterbury Tales. Rigby first reviews medieval views regarding sexual difference, demonstrating how many medieval writers presented polarized views of women. Rigby then discusses how Chaucer's presentation of women in “The Wife of Bath's Tale,” The Tale of Melibee,” and “The Parson's Tale” corresponds to or rejects the contemporary conception of women. In conclusion, Rigby states that Chaucer's view of women, while failing to emphasize...

(The entire section is 25993 words.)

David Wallace (essay date 1997)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “‘If That Thou Live’: Legends and Lives of Good Women,” in Chaucerian Polity: Absolutist Lineages and Associational Forms in England and Italy, Stanford University Press, 1997, pp. 337-78.

[In the following essay, Wallace investigates the parallels between Chaucer's Legend of Good Women, and the works of his Italian humanist predecessors, Boccaccio and Petrarch, who similarly presented ancient and classical lives. In particular, Wallace examines the way in which Chaucer, like his predecessors, operated as both a poet and a political subject, maintaining that, unlike Petrarch, who spoke from several “feminized” positions within his work when dealing with masculine...

(The entire section is 24670 words.)

Jessica Cooke (essay date 1997)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: “Januarie and May in Chaucer's Merchant's Tale, in English Studies, Vol. 78, No. 5, September 1997, pp. 407-16.

[In the following essay, Cooke argues that in “The Merchant's Tale” the naming of the characters Januarie and May is more obscure than many critics have previously allowed. Cooke demonstrates the error many have made in calculating the ages of the characters, and discusses the significance of this miscalculation.]

In his article of 1973, Norman E. Eliason expressed a commonly held view concerning the naming of Januarie and May in Chaucer's “Merchant's Tale”:

… the metaphor involved in...

(The entire section is 5394 words.)

Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Pearsall, Derek. The Life of Geoffrey Chaucer: A Critical Biography. Oxford: Blackwell, 1992, 365 p.

Detailed biography discussing what is known about Chaucer's birth, parentage and childhood; his early career and writings; his achievement of fame and his public life; and his later career.


Allen, Valerie and Ares Axiotis, eds. Chaucer. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996, 268 p.

Collection of critical essays dealing largely with the Canterbury Tales. Several essays focus on gender issues.

Besserman, Lawrence. Chaucer's Biblical Poetics....

(The entire section is 450 words.)