Geoffrey Chaucer is universally accepted as the major English poet of the Middle Ages, author ofThe Canterbury Tales (1387-1400), the long and ambitious romance Troilus and Criseyde (1382), and a string of other surviving works in verse and prose. His importance was recognized soon after his death, as is shown by the careful preservation of his works and the large number of manuscripts in which they survive. His collected works were first printed in 1539 and have remained available to readers ever since. For centuries he has been one of the most influential authors ever to have written in English.
Since the start of professional study of historical records in the nineteenth century, moreover, it has become clear that Chaucer is one of the best-documented of early writers. No less than 493 documentary records of Chaucer’s life survive, a number far in excess of those relating to any of Chaucer’s English poetic contemporaries (of whom frequently nothing at all is known), and considerably more than those surviving for many authors working centuries later in the age of print. These records show us Chaucer captured by the French and ransomed for sixteen pounds by King Edward III on March 1, 1360; Chaucer giving evidence to a court of heraldry on the issue of who had best right to a coat of arms; Chaucer acting as member of Parliament for his county; Chaucer robbed by highwaymen or accused of rape; and above all Chaucer acting in several relatively prominent roles as a king’s servant, for example as a Controller of the Customs, and later in life as Clerk of the King’s Works, charged with the building and upkeep of royal castles and dwellings.
It would be possible even so to present a picture of Chaucer as simply a middle-ranking bureaucrat with a spare-time taste for poetry. Yet it has also been noticed that Chaucer had at the very least connections with the great, and perhaps a role to play in the bitter faction fighting of fourteenth century England, fighting which ended with the deposition (and almost certainly murder) of King Richard II (1367-1400) just before the end of Chaucer’s own life, and which took in the execution of several people connected with Chaucer, such as his direct superior in the customs business, Nicholas Brembre, Mayor of London (hanged in 1388), and one of Chaucer’s immediate poetic disciples Thomas Usk (executed by torture the same year).
Chaucer was married to Philippa de Roet, whose sister was Katherine Swynford, at first the acknowledged mistress of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster (1340-1399)—King Richard’s uncle and for long periods the most powerful magnate in the country—but toward the end of his life his third wife. One of Chaucer’s earliest poems is The Book of the Duchess (c. 1370), a lament on the death of Gaunt’s first wife, but a lament which also seems gently to urge Gaunt not to mourn forever—as clearly he did not. Among the historical quirks which this throws up is the fact that the man most strongly suspected of the murder in captivity of Richard II was Sir Thomas Swynford, the son of Gaunt and Chaucer’s sister-in-law, Katherine, and so Chaucer’s nephew. Henry IV (1366-1413), who overthrew and succeeded Richard, was the son of Gaunt and the lady about whom Chaucer wrote The Book of the Duchess. Quite how much Chaucer’s connections through his wife brought him in touch with major figures and affairs of state is unknown. It is fair to say, though, that Chaucer was closer to centers of power than any other major English poet.
Chaucer was moreover clearly a useful servant in his own right. Repeatedly he was sent abroad on the secret business of the king. The business is described as secret in the surviving records, but since the records consist mostly of Chaucer’s expense payments it is naturally impossible to say what he was doing. Chaucer was an accomplished linguist, fluent in French (like many upper-class English people at the time), but also able to read Latin better than most laymen, and with the relatively rare ability to speak Italian. It seems likely that Chaucer’s trips to Italy in 1372-1373 and 1378 were connected with trade negotiations and attempts at diplomatic alliance, while in 1366 he was also sent to Spain (a country whose crown was claimed by Gaunt through the rights of his second wife). In 1377 Chaucer was one of the three principal delegates on the English side at the Anglo-French peace negotiations at Montreuil-sur-Mer. After these rather prominent appearances on the international stage, it has seemed to many that Chaucer was “stepping down” when he accepted such posts as a Controllership of Customs (held 1374-1386). There also remains the intriguing question of what (if anything) Chaucer’s poetic activity had to do with his public service career and his familiarity with the great.
Derek Pearsall’s biography seeks on the whole to “deglamorize” Chaucer and to play down the suggestiveness of facts such as those cited above. There is little question about the facts or about the documentary records, but naturally they can be interpreted in different ways. Pearsall sees Chaucer above all as a man disinclined to take risks and anxious rather to remove himself from the center of power than to approach it. One of Chaucer’s minor poems, for instance, Lak of Stedfastnesse, appears to be written to urge the king to take stern action against malefactors. It has accordingly often been ascribed to one date or another in the 1380’s, when Richard was locked in an increasingly bitter struggle against a group of opposing lords. In this view, Chaucer by writing the poem was taking a side and giving the teenage king good advice, which (if he had taken it) might have prevented his later deposition and death. Pearsall, however, sees the poem as largely composed of generalities, and remarks that in his view “the more point [the poem] might have, the less likely Chaucer is to make...
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