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.
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.
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.
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.